Jen Silverman’s debut novel, We Play Ourselves, reads like the work of a more established novelist. Silverman is no novice though. She has a body of work as a playwright and staff writer for TV shows and her sense of pacing shows clearly in the book’s plot. The reader learns from the first two pages they’re in the assured hands of a writer who knows how to immediately captivate. The protagonist, a playwright named Cass, has fled the theatre world in New York, where she has become infamous, to hide out in relative anonymity in LA. She did something horrible in New York, this act is not initially disclosed, but it’s bad enough to destroy her professional life. And that’s just the first few pages. The richness doesn’t stop there.
Part of the engrossing tension of the book is waiting to find out what it is Cass did, but plenty happens before that startling reveal. The plot weaves between two time periods, one delves into Cass’s life as an up-and-coming playwright in New York City, and the other focuses on her post-NYC life in LA, where she seeks to escape from her past foibles. But of course, as the cliché goes, everywhere you go there you are.… Cass is forced to confront her demons in LA despite her desire to escape them. Silverman does a masterful job of creating a protagonist who does unlikeable things and has unlikeable thoughts but whom the reader still roots for her. Silverman imbues Cass with a fully-realized personality; she is funny, vulnerable, sardonic, and soft-hearted beneath the carapace she hides behind. To Cass, success equals happiness. She desperately wants to be famous, the star playwright, the woman of the moment. Despite her flaws, or maybe because of them, we want her to do well.
When we see her in NYC, Cass, the winner of a prestigious playwriting award, is having her first major play produced. It’s a high-profile production with a big-name director and a TV star in the lead. Cass falls in love with the director, Helene, and starts an affair with the TV star. Helene rejects Cass’s advances and offers sage advice about her career and putting her art first. The director tells Cass to never sabotage herself in order to punish someone else. The idea that Cass may wish others ill is central to this character exploration. When her play receives a spectacularly bad review, her worst fears are realized; her actions following this fallout force her to flee New York.
When she lands in LA, Cass is at an emotional low point. While seeking anonymity, Cass meets Caroline, her charismatic next-door neighbor who is directing a film about a group of teenage girls in a fight club. She becomes the director’s number two and grows increasingly appalled at the uber-manipulative way the girls in the film are treated. Cass grows to care for one of the girls, BB, and wants the best for her. Her compassion toward BB is in stark contrast to the wholly self-centered existence she’s been living. As Cass slowly realizes the extent of the artifice of the film and the exploitation of the girls, she becomes engaged in a furious campaign to free the young women from mistreatment.
Through these various plotlines, philosophical questions arise. Where does happiness come from? Is it the heady feeling that comes with great success or the peace of mind that comes with some humility? Cass’s story is about how our worst thoughts and impulses can diminish our world. How do we work our way back? Is success the only route to happiness?
Along with Cass’s personal journey to redeem herself is a narrative rich with details on both the Hollywood system and the New York theatre scene, details that don’t put either in a particularly good light. Silverman has inside knowledge of both, and she seamlessly guides the reader through these well-drawn worlds.
We Play Ourselves contains a page-turning plot, with a truly complex character at its core. Silverman is a talented writer and knows exactly how to pace the story so the reader remains suspended in the intense world of the novel. I had a hard time putting the book down, which is always one of the best compliments a writer can receive. Silverman deserves it.
We Play Ourselves
by Jen Silverman
Penguin Random House
Hardcover, 9780399591525, February 2021
Since the events of January 6th, I have been struggling with how to respond. What should engaged citizens and residents do when democracy is under attack, particularly amid a global pandemic? Perhaps I have been struggling since quarantine began in March and April of 2020. Maybe I have been struggling since the election in November of 2016. Perhaps even longer. It is hard to pinpoint when the struggle began. Maybe you, too, have been feeling similarly? Through these struggles, I have been reading, particularly poetry. Recent books remind of one powerful aspect of poetry by queer and lesbian women: the call to community. These are some reflections.
Ellen Bass’s newest poetry collection, Indigo, arrived nearly a year ago. I have been savoring it. Bass’s work continues to deepen in its power. She expresses complex experiences in the world with beauty and joy. In Indigo, ample poems are quintessentially Bass; her poems demonstrate the power of lesbian sexuality and exuberantly celebrate life in the body, richly observed, deeply felt, joyful even—or especially—as the body ages.
Bass’s poems accumulate power because she is as willing to explore emotions with more negative valences with the same wonder and appreciation as positive. Poems in Indigo explore failure, loss, and despair with vivid clarity. For example, Bass describes her “first / entrance into the land of failure” as a “country / I would visit so often / it would begin to feel like home.” In a litany of regrets in the poem, “Pearls,” Bass beings “I’m sorry I didn’t buy my father the cashmere sweater with suede trim the summer / I went to Europe. And I’m sorry I didn’t stay longer with my mother when he died.” Each regret invites readers to understand how the speaker has disappointed people, causes, the beloved one; each regret a reminder of the vital web of shared life, finally concluding, “Forgive me, the sun will burn out. / I can’t hear your heart beating in the silence between us.” One remedy: listen more closely, more intensely, to the sound of a beating heart. Bass calls readers to the intimate and vital pulse of life. I understand it as a call to community.
The gesture is not only in Indigo; it marks Bass’s entire career. It can be easy to forget the scope of Ellen Bass’s work and linger only on the four collections of published poetry: Mules of Love, The Human Line, Like a Beggar, and now Indigo. There is so much pleasure to experience in these books, but they are only a part of her public poetic work. In 1973, with Florence Howe, the founder and publisher of The Feminist Press, Bass edited No More Masks an anthology of poetry by women; it galvanized poetry as an art form of the women’s liberation movement. In the 1980s, with Laura Davis, Bass published The Courage to Heal, another transformative book about recovery from sexual abuse. It is not too bold to assert that the #MeToo movement could not exist without Ellen Bass and Laura Davis’s work—along with the work of many thousands of feminists naming sexual violence. In The Courage to Heal, Bass and Davis named the problem and, just as importantly, provided a path for recovery. I posit that The Courage to Heal—the book itself and public engagements with it—is a poem. It is a language that transforms readers’ understanding and lives in the world. Considering these two books, The Courage to Heal and No More Masks, in combination with her own poems, Bass is one of the most influential public poets today. The break-through of inaugural poet Amanda Gorman reminds us of the power of poetry in public life. Public poets occupy spaces such as inaugural poets or city and state poet laureateships; some public poets like Mary Oliver and Rupi Kaur are best-seller authors. All of these public roles are vital. Ellen Bass is another type of public poet: a poet who is a transformative thinker and writer in the world, a poet who brings new formations into being, a poet who convenes and conjures vibrant communities.
Bass’s work extends five decades, fifty years of community-making. Kelly Rose Pflug-Back’s work is just beginning. Her impressive debut collection, The Hammer of Witches, uses magic and mythology as central metaphors to conjure the communal. Pflug-Back draws on an eclectic array of mythology—in one poem alone alluding to the Vedas and the Edda—as well as the practice of witchcraft to highlight the magical and mysterious of contemporary life.
“We were witches once, you and I,” Pflug-Back asserts in the opening poem, “Malleus Maleficarum.” This artful poem blends the history of woman/witch hating with contemporary lesbian life, confiding “your love is a heathen ritual” then concluding, “the two of us lost together / still / / in this forest / of tall buildings.” Rich history combined with current imaginative practices is a defining characteristic of this collection.
In “After the Fall,” Pflug-Back writes,
every vast and ancient magic that this world of men has killed and pined for
alive somewhere just out of site
The conclusion is an ars poetica:
Outside the realm of clumsy words there are no such things as endings only new things made from the old.
Like many religions, witchcraft is communal, practiced in covens. Part of its spiritual and material work is providing human explanations for the inexplicable, magical as well as painful. Pflug-Back’s poems evoke magic as in “Grimoire” or the delightful “Hepatomancy,” a practice of divination from entrails. They also recognize communal gatherings as a vital part of magic. In “Hepatomancy,” Pflug-Back writes,
I am sewn together from the flesh of many and we ache.
Human life is both constituted by others and sharing in the pain of others. Elsewhere, Pflug-Back mines magic in human relationships. “For Dave” begins:
The day after you died my son asked me to draw a picture of you holding a blue balloon.
This lamentation concludes,
And now here I am wishing I could have found and afternoon somehow
to take that trip across town
and show up at your door
with a big blue balloon while you were still alive.
Perhaps unknown to the Pflug-Back, “For Dave” echoes Maureen Seaton’s stunning poem “White Balloon” demonstrating a generational shift but the endurance of lesbian lyrical poetry. United by the image of a balloon, white for Seaton, blue for Pflug-Back, these poems also document the material changes of queer lives. Seaton’s poem emerges from a communal memorial for people who died from AIDS; Pflug-Back’s is a domestic scene with a child. Both poems call readers into a community for mourning. Seaton laments “the ease with which we love”; Pflug-Back wishes for more time with beloved friends. Both poems call us to community.
torrin a. greathouse’s new collection Wound from the Mouth of a Wound, selected by Aimee Nezhukumatathil for the Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry, is in a dynamic conversation with Pflug-Back’s collection. greathouse’s opening poem, “Medusa with the Head of Perseus” introduces many of the themes of this collection: disability, body dysmorphia, rape. It also artfully demonstrates greathouse’s proficiency with language and her energetic ability to transform images in service to her story.
Many will read Wound from the Mouth of a Wound with admiration for the way that it brings language and visibility to trans experiences and the realities of living with disabilities. greathouse and this collection join vibrant conversations in contemporary poetry communities on trans identities and living with disabilities. I appreciate both of these elements and particularly the way greathouse calls readers into a community that values trans people and people with disabilities.
“Weeds” demonstrates greathouse’s extraordinary poetic power. With short lines and stanzas between four and six lines, greathouse establishes the “shower stall” as the “body’s confessional” where she admits, “I love / most what can be / removed from me.” She builds an extended metaphor between unwanted parts of the body and weeds with a moving meditation on weed removal as “women’s work.” She writes, “Nothing’s more / femme than empty / / field, a place to bury / seed.” The poem concludes with the voice of the weeds:
We were your first teachers. Even in the harshest season, we survive. We bloom forever where we are told we don’t belong.
This poem reworks communal formations in meaningful ways, echoing feminist insights from the 1970s with contemporary trans sensibilities, making vibrant connections between human bodies and nature, and calling readers into the collective first-person plural with weeds. We were your first teachers. We survive. We bloom. This vision of community is one that leaves me awed.
Theorem, Elizabeth Bradfield’s newest collaboration, is a departure from her earlier work. Created with artist Antonia Contro, Theoremcounterpoints the words of Bradfield with the art of Contro. While Bradfield’s previous books establish her as a naturalist concerned with human-created conditions on the natural world, Theorem looks to mathematics, particularly geometry, as a tool to refract her childhood experiences. Bradfield writes:
There were five of us. And a dog. Only one dog at a time.
No one else.
The results are fractal The trajectories radiate.
The combination of Bradfield’s words with Contro’s art demonstrates the energy of collaborative enterprises; each element opens meanings for the other. In the afterword, they describe their collaboration as “words and image influencing, pushing, urging, questioning each other. Artist and writer finding new ways to articulate what is embedded in what they create.” In addition to inspiring more collaborations between artists, Theorem is a physical manifestation of community, a community of a singular poet and artist, but, by extension, in an invitation into communities of poets and artists.
Amid this reading of new work by lesbian and queer women poets, I returned to the work of Chrystos and spent weeks marveling at the corpus of her work. If I had more time and could really stretch out to tell you everything, I would write a detailed, sustained meditation on the poetry of Chrystos. Maybe it will come. Right now, I want to note that echoes of Chrystos’s work are in all of these collections. Chrystos’s work is filled with gorgeous, vexing, challenging, inspiring images of bodies and nature. She breaks conventions of contemporary poetry just because she can, because she has so much control over language, images, and the line, that she wants to flaunt her power. It is heady. It is exciting. It is worth your consideration as a reader, as a human, longing, hungering for some meaning, for connections in our troubled world. Chrystos knows about community and connection, and she wants them. She wants us to have them.
Funeral Diva, the new collection by Pamela Sneed, joins this gathering of new poetry that powerfully calls readers into community. While Sneed fashions herself as a diva in the title, in fact, these poems demonstrate rich community engagements that belie the temperament diva implies. The work in this collection—a hybrid of poetry and prose—calls a range of people, living and dead, into a community invoking a history of queer Black writers and insisting on a powerful present and future for Black queer writing.
Like the hybrid work that characterized lesbian-feminist writing in the 1980s and 1990s, Funeral Diva is a mix of poetry and essay braided together to illuminate how the two genres intersect, co-exist, merge, hybridize. Reading Funeral Diva amid COVID-19 as it harkens back to another, different epidemic, AIDS, is a powerful reminder of the responses of queer communities during the 1980s and 1990s. Sneed writes,
when I saw the poster silence equals death in the windows of the Leslie Lohman Museum That pink triangle on black paper from blocks away It called to me like a beacon Amidst societal madness/personal struggles and the Trump presidency to never give up It reminded me too of a generation of gay and lesbian warriors who are no longer here with us felled to AIDS and cancer But on their deathbeds used the mantra to inspire Silence=Death I think about when Black gay and Latinx poets Essex Hemphill Donald Woods Don Reid Roy Gonsalves Rory Buchanan David Frechette Craig Harris Alan Williams and Assotto Saint and so many more were still here How their black hair began to sprout twists and knots go wild and kinky to signify early Black gay consciousness I think about when I first met Donald Woods outside of a bookstore in the West Village called A Different Light and we fell in love We were all so young Black awkward and gangly but fierce and determined.
Funeral Diva fueled my desire to return not only to the poems of Chrystos, but also the poems of Dorothy Allison, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and many other writers that I read thirty, thirty-five years ago when I was coming out. Sneed is an inheritor to the vibrant poetic traditions of lesbian-feminism and the Black gay and lesbian renaissance of the 1980s. Funeral Diva is her love letter to the people and work who created her. Sneed, like the other poets here, calls us into community with all of its challenges, its foibles its uncertainties. As she tells us in her conclusion to Funeral Diva,
And then I understand what it all means If we can survive have equipment means money support conditions There are also other possibilities We can heal.
by Ellen Bass
Copper Canyon Press
Paperback, 9781556595752, 64 pp.
The Hammer of Witches
by Kelly Rose Pflug-Back
Paperback, 9781773860299, 72 pp.
Wound From the Mouth of a Wound
by torrin a. greathouse
Paperback, 9781571315274, 88 pp.
by Elizabeth Bradfield
Potry Northwest Editions
Paperback, 9781949166026, 96 pp.
Press Gang Publishers
Paperback, 9780889740471, 131 pp.
by Pamela Sneed
City Lights Books
Paperback, 9780872868113, 160 pp.
With The Sense of Brown, José Esteban Muñoz left a love-letter to brownness that acts as a dream for its desire. Extending to the minerals of the soil, to the animals, and to the people who bare its shade, it is an ode to a brown of rapturous multiplicity. A testament to those things that thrive under duress and thirst for excessive contact, the book fosters a Marxist militancy that he translates into Latina/o radical study. It acknowledges the incommensurability of brown itself, as a plural, dynamic site, wielding many names, and provokes a range of feelings. The text tells the story of an “identity-in-difference”, a phrase borrowed from Norma Alarcón, that sketches the details of an iridescent brown and cracks open standard definitions of brownness to include a myriad of “ethnic” backdrops.
The book begins with the notion of the brown commons, which is wild insofar as it describes a boundlessness that is not situated in individual identity, but something more expansive. Illustrative of an interconnectedness with all beings who suffer the strange fate of coming into the world as “brown”, it tells the story of a sacred solidarity between them. The theory practices a politics that is rooted in a Platonic proto-communism that tends towards alternative notions of kinship, imagined through a thriving undercommons. The work engages in a materialism that is influenced by the politics of race, resources, and the commonalities between them. The dominance of the template of the normative Human fades away, and the brown thing comes forth out of the shadows as something emotive, raw, and finally, at last, written.
Muñoz’s readings span a homosexual/social continuum that ties ethnicity to emotion, as it is an affectivity brought on by a shared sense of alterity. Queerness is felt as being in excess, a belonging and a failure to belong, which carves a space for those who are both brown and out at the same time. Consisting of equal parts ecstasy and melancholia, the brown outlaw is spoken and lived through artists like Nao Bustamante, Wu Tsang, Isaac Julien, Carmelita Tropicana, Tania Bruguera, Ana Mendieta, and José Feliciano, just to name a few. He colors them into the world of theory, and grants access to signatures and structures of feeling specific to being minoritarian within a complex web of interdependency.
The chapter “Chico, What Does It Feel Like to Be a Problem?” stands out as an urgent message for our current political landscape. It works to coalition build between the “black radical tradition” and brown liberation movements. With grace, Muñoz acknowledges these movements are not the same but have a shared sense of political aspiration. Invoking Brown Power’s modeling after Black Power, he braids the two together through shared dissident sentiments. These notions are essential for today’s movement concerning Black lives, as they model a continued practice of these groups supporting each other. Thinking through W.E.B. Du Bois, with agility and tact he addresses the communality of racial recognition and belonging in difference. For Du Bois, this feeling like a problem is in itself a mode of belonging, and for Muñoz, this feeling procures an opening, another way of relating in the alt-space of minoritarian becoming, with a built-in quasi-militant utopianism that lives and breathes otherwise.
This book enters the contemporary discourse of latinidad not without its complications. As of late, the area of study has never been more divided–between dark and light, brown and white, with a sharp focus on colorism and individual identity, which is a line of thinking that seems to move in opposition to what Muñoz seeks to drive forward with this book. As someone who is not the whitest brown person and not the brownest either, questions about these divisions continue to ruin my sleep. Not to invalidate contemporary discussions around the topic, I find Muñoz’s approach to be the more generative discourse regarding collective movement-building for achieving equity across race relations. Utilizing the work of theoreticians like Vijay Prashad and Wilfred Bion, Muñoz engages a global brownness that encompasses latinidad, but also reaches beyond it. I will admit, some of the language does have a dated tinge to it but keep in mind this posthumously published text has been in the works for the past decade and without his contemporary editorial eye for revision. There are so many questions I wish I could ask Muñoz, like about language choice when using the terms “African American” and “black” interchangeably throughout the text, especially when theories around these terms have been differentiated to mean different things and have also fused with latinidad by way of Afro-Latin scholarship. There is also the tense difference between the terms “Latina/o”, and the more recent (and also contentious) “Latinx” which he doesn’t employ in the text. Perhaps we can attribute this to the failure of the written to keep up with the spoken? Predictive of this problem, Muñoz addresses the issue of the unsatisfactory group identificatory term, saying that these terms themselves contribute to feeling brown, which he marks as inseparable from naming it. Given his mentioning of this, the text performs a discomfort with its own language, disidentifying with itself, as it strives to make known these difficulties and how they manifest in brown performance, how the words we have are still not enough. Despite the text’s time being somewhat out of joint, this book and Muñoz’s thoughts remain an arsenal full for any minoritarian subject who desires to understand and even love themselves, and their sense of being, more–a radical proposition.
The Sense of Brown
by José Esteban Muñoz
Duke University Press
Paperback, 978147801103, 185 pp.
Today (4 March) marks the World Book Day 2021 celebration.
The day aims to promote reading to children across the globe as well as offering every young person the opportunity to have a book of their own.ADVERTISING
Both World Book Day and schools will be promoting and recommending different books for children to read in celebration of the day.
So with this in mind we’ve decided to join in and recommend a handful of LGBT+ inclusive books that can be enjoyed by kids and young adults.
From picture books, to fairy tales and titles that aim to educate both adults and children about gender identity, there’s loads of great ones out there.
Below you can find 14 LGBT+ books that every child deserves to read and how to get them.
1. And Tango Makes Three
And Tango Makes Three is based on a heartwarming true story which follows two penguins named Roy and Silo. They live in the penguin house at Central Park Zoo, and although they’re a little different from the others their desire for a family is the same. With the help of a kindly zookeeper they get the chance to welcome a baby penguin of their very own.
After its release in 2005 it became one of the first LGBT+ inclusive books in the mainstream market and has since become a classic read.
Don’t even talk to me until I’ve had my coffee! When I first heard about the Keurig…
It might be a while before the likes of Disney ever decide to do an alternate version to the dragon-slaying, princess-saving knight story so until then you can get books like The Bravest Knight Who Ever Lived.
The story follows Cedric on his journey from a humble pumpkin farm to the adventures that lead him to become a fully fledged knight. Using his cleverness and courage to vanquish a fire-breathing dragon he rescues a beautiful prince and princess only to discover his most difficult challenge yet. Will Cedric follow his heart and prove that sometimes the bravest thing a person can do is choose for yourself how your fairy tale ends…
The LGBT+ fairy tale is available on hardback or Kindle edition from Amazon here.
3. Prince & Knight
Another modern fairy tale for all ages is Prince & Knight. The story is the usual setting: Once upon a time, in a kingdom far far away there’s a prince in line for the throne who needs to find a bride. However when the prince and his parents travel to find a princess, he doesn’t quite find what he’s looking for.
When their kingdom is under threat from a dragon and the prince returns to save the land from the beast he’s met by a brave knight in a suit of shining armour. Together they slay the dragon and the prince discovers that special something he had been looking for all this time. OK we’re going to need the animated adaption of this…
Clothing is an important aspect for many LGBT+ people as a way to express themselves in ways that words sometimes don’t work. This story, Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress highlights that as it follows Morris, a little boy who enjoys bright orange dress to school until he is bullied for it.
The book is inspired by a four-year-old boy the author, Christine Baldacchino, knew while she was working as a nursery teacher. After the boy’s mother saw him wearing a dress and complained to the school, she decided to write this book which is a triumphant tale about non-conformity and acceptance alongside bright and colourful illustrations for children to enjoy.
Another story that focuses on clothing is Annie’s Plaid Shirt. It focuses on Annie who loves her plaid shirt and wears it everywhere. But one day her mother tells her that she has to wear a dress to her uncle’s wedding, and despite Annie’s protests her mother insists on buying her a fancy new dress. After feeling miserable and weird in dresses Annie has an idea that she hopes her mother will understand and agree to in a story of being true to yourself, gender norms and identity as well as tolerance and self-esteem.
Julián Is A Mermaid is the celebratory story of Julián who, after noticing three women dressed up spectacularly on the subway, wants to emulate their fabulousness. The women’s hair billow in brilliant hues, their dresses end in fishtails and their joy fills the train carriage.
Julián can’t stop daydreaming about the magic he saw on the subway and wants to make his own fabulous mermaid costume, but while he does he’s also worrying about what his Nana might make of his outfit…
The feel-good book is available on paperback, hardback and Kindle from Amazon here.
7. It Feels Good to Be Yourself
It Feels Good to Be Yourself: A Book About Gender Identity is less of a story book and more informational. The book aims to teach children about all forms of gender in a straightforward way, helping them with a fuller understanding of themselves and others. It provides young readers and parents alike with the vocabulary to discuss important topics with sensitivity and it’s been by the mother of a transgender child and illustrated beautifully by a non-binarytransgender artist.
My Footprints follows Thuy who feels ‘doubly different’ to everyone else. She’s Vietnamese-American and has two mums and has to regularly deal with school bullies. Fed up during a walk home in winter a bird catches Thuy’s attention and sets her on an imaginary adventure. She images she could fly like a bird, sprint like a deer and roar like a bear as she continues her walk home which eventually leads her into the arms of her mums who help Thuy find the courage she’s been seeking.
Stella Brings the Family follows the story of a class who’s getting ready to have a Mother’s Day celebration, but Stella has two dads so she isn’t sure what to do. Her Papa and Daddy help her with her with everything from homework to tucking her in at night along with a whole group of other loved ones who make her feel special and supported every day. Although she doesn’t have a mum to invite to the part she finds a unique solution to her problem. The story explores the true meaning of family as well as love and acceptance.
Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow is a book ideal for more confident young readers. The story follows Archie Albright, who’s life isn’t going great. All he wants is for everything to go back to normal, because three months before his parents were happy and still lived together.
When he sees a colourful, crumpled flyer fall out of his dad’s pocket he thinks he’s found his answer that might lie at the end of the rainbow. He teams up with his best friends Bell and Seb to set off on a journey to try and fix his family, even if he has to break a few rules to do it.
This cute story follows Emma who’s going to be flower girl for her cousin Hannah’s wedding, and she is very excited. Emma is asked to wear a celery-coloured dress and walk alongside the ring bearer, but she assumes that means she has to wear actual celery and walk alongside a real life bear! On the wedding day nothing turns out to be quite what she was expecting including the fact that her cousin Hannah is marrying a woman.
This picture book tells the story of a young unicorn who was born under the sea to a family of narwhals. After growing up in the ocean, Kelp has always assumed that he was a narwhal like the rest of his family. One night an extra strong current sweeps Kelp to the surface and he spots a mysterious creature that looks exactly like him, discovering that he and the create are actually unicorns.
This revelation leaves him stuck: is he a land narwhal or a sea unicorn? Or perhaps Kelp can find the best of both worlds. Although its not explicitly an LGBT+ storyline the heartwarming story explores identity, standing out and the love of family.
Not Quite Narwhal is available on hardback, paperback and Kindle from Amazon here.
13. Pink Is For Boys
Pink Is For Boys rethinks and reframes the stereotypical blue/pink gender binary that many LGBT+ are familiar with, and empowers both kids and grownups to express themselves in every colour of the rainbow. It features a diverse group of characters and invites everyone to enjoy what they love from racing cars to baseball and unicorns to dressing up. It’s accompanied with vibrant illustrations to help younger readers learn and identify the myriad of colours that surround them every day.
Another book exploring the stereotypes of colour is My Shadow is Pink. It’s inspired by the author, Scott Stuart’s own son and touches on gender identity, equality and diversity. It follows the journey of a young boy who has been born into a family with a long history of blue shadows. The boy wants to be like his father who is big and strong, with a defined blue shadow. However he loves ponies, princesses, fairies and other things ‘not for boys’, so he has an irrepressible pink shadow. With the love and acceptance of his father, he learns that everyone at times, has a shadow they wish was different and he must embrace his shadow just the way it is.
I suppose it makes sense that when I sat at my desk to write about Pretend It’s a City, Martin Scorsese’s hugely entertaining series on Fran Lebowitz, I stared at the screen most of the afternoon without pressing a key. After all, Lebowitz has made an entire career out of having writer’s block. After her highly successful Metropolitan Life and Social Studies, she went on to write only one book, a children’s book called Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue Meet the Pandas, over the next three decades. Her celebrity has been marked as much by what she hasn’t been able to do as much as what she has.
This is just one of the contradictions that surfaces in Scorsese’s series, which was dedicated to Lebowitz’s dear friend, Toni Morrison. (Lebowitz eulogized Morrison at her memorial service.) Or maybe it isn’t that Lebowitz contradicts herself, but that she defies labels. Her sold-out appearances have the feel of a stand-up comedy act, but she often performs in a chair, being interviewed or soliciting questions from the audience. She might be the world’s first sit-down comedian. She’s also a critic, public speaker, social commentator, and (sometimes) writer.
The New York Times once described Lebowitz as a present-day Dorothy Parker, but even this attempt at categorizing her feels off. Can you imagine Parker writing a children’s book that you’d actually let your children read? Sure, they are both New York City satirists. Parker, who produced many short story and poetry collections as well as eight screenplays, is known as a member of the famous Algonquin Round Table, meeting for lunch almost daily with writers, journalists, and actors. Lebowitz would most likely prefer to spend that time reading. (She ended up spending three times her limit on an apartment because it needed to house her 10,000 books.) You don’t have to wait until in the sixth episode when she proclaims, “I hate my fellow man,” to understand that she agrees with Sartre when he said, “Hell is other people.” In each episode, Scorsese makes sure we see her grumpily walking the streets of New York, giving the finger to a cyclist who cuts her off in a crosswalk or sneering at a pedestrian who brushes up against her on the subway stairs. But even this presents us with another contradiction: for someone who hates to be with people, her personal anecdotes are peppered with a Who’s Who of often queer glitterati: John Waters, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol. While she may boast that Ayatollah Khomeini has hosted more parties than she has, Lebowitz certainly has gone to a great many of them herself. “I love parties,” she says, adding that many people find that hard to believe. Who can blame them?
Her misanthropy is undeniable, though. When she tells Scorsese that there’s no room on her shelves because throwing out a book is like throwing out a human being, I wondered why that didn’t make it easier for her to do so. Sometimes her disconnect with people – be it real or an exaggerated aspect of her persona – feels like a disconnect with the cultural life of one of the world’s great cities. She describes the night she went to see Phantom of the Opera (which she pans as “unbelievably horrible”) and hadn’t heard about the falling chandelier. She screamed, disrupting the performance, thinking a real chandelier was about to land in the audience. When she is bewildered at why the Tenement Museum exists (“What’s there? TB?”) it’s clear she’s never visited it, else she would have known that actors performing as real-life tenants are part of the immersive experience. It’s actually theater as much as it’s a museum. Lebowitz suggests that kids just read a book on immigration instead.
Scorsese’s role here is one of congenial host rather than a probing documentarian. No less congenial but far more interesting is Spike Lee, who asks follow-up questions that get beneath the surface of Lebowitz’s comic façade. The two have an especially interesting exchange about athletes as artists. When Lee argues that some of the greats have the talents of Michelangelo, Lebowitz insists that athletics are in a category by itself because once you find out how a game ends, there’s little incentive to watch it again. It’s over. Fair enough, but can’t you say the same about re-watching a movie or rereading a book?
Scorsese’s amiable style does allow for Lebowitz’s frequent and often fascinating anecdotes about New York, especially in the ‘70s. She doesn’t feel the need to be consistently witty when she tells these stories, some of which are a reminder not just of how far we’ve come but also how far we have to go regarding issues of equity and justice. It’s haunting when she talks about how it was nearly impossible to get a waitressing job without sleeping with the restaurant manager, knowing now that the Me Too movement would take forty years to materialize. (Lebowitz never waited tables, instead opting to be one of New York City’s lone female taxi drivers at the time.) She also acknowledges that she wasn’t part of the movement for women’s rights, nor the movement for gay rights, because she simply didn’t think things could change.
In some ways Pretend It’s a City is about the complicated, unnerving, and sometimes mystifying marriage between Lebowitz and New York where there are, in her words, “a billion awful people on the street.” It’s no wonder she seems more at ease answering Scorcese’s questions while walking around Robert Moses’ giant unpeopled model of the city. Yet despite all her complaints, it’s hard to see Lebowitz anywhere else. When an audience member asks her why she still lives in New York, she answers, “Okay. Where would you suggest?” Fran Lebowitz is a professional New Yorker. Now into her seventies, there’s little reason for her to change careers.
The Book of Anna, by Joy Ladin, explores the emotional landscape of life after the Holocaust through the eyes of fictional protagonist Anna Asher. This month, EOAGH books will release a revised & expanded edition.
We meet Holocaust survivor Anna first through detailed diary entries. These day-to-day accounts of work, home, & doctor visits deepen our connection to Anna as an individual we could easily meet next door, save for the letter-headers that remind us that we meet her in Prague in the 1950s. These diary sections ground us in Anna’s interior & double as allegory. Coupled with sections of poetry, we shift genre & scope throughout the collection.
Originally published by Sheep Meadow Press in 2007, EOAGH’s updated The Book of Anna explores grief in the aftermath of the Holocaust in a way that breaks the heart open—Ladin opens the collection with a letter from Anna after receiving a poetry rejection claiming “My muse is rage, not beauty./Was. There are no muses for me now…It is time for me to write, if I write at all, the true story of my life.” We soon meet Anna’s neighbor, Suzanne Wischnauer, in the second letter. A fellow survivor of the camps, she first appears because she “smells gas.” Anna explains “I know what she smells. It’s seeping from the story I’ve started to tell.” So often we see stories of the Holocaust through textbooks, facts, museums, in a way that creates distance from the gravity & trauma of this collective wound. Ladin breaks the objectivity of history; Ladin makes the historical personal—the impossible grief of tragedy, of surviving the unspeakable. Through Anna Asher’s eyes, we are given insight into a survivor’s psyche in a way that only poetry can create. The reader is allowed to witness the irreconcilable faith of the narrator paired with their irreconcilable grief.
From linear narrative to nonlinear poetry, Ladin reconciles the irreconcilable by cultivating our presence in the collection’s world, where the unspeakable is spoken. Through sectional arrangement & timeless lines, The Book of Anna decentralizes the common fallacy that history is to be “consumed” as a separate, distant past. Here, as the epigraph reminds us, “Nothing is harder to predict than the past.” We are never looking back, but rather looking on & looking in.
While the journal texts create a linear narrative, the fragmented lyric poems center snapshots of Anna’s day to day comings and goings. We are allowed to witness Anna’s subconscious processing—a channel from trauma to healing—a momentary look into the larger connections, both triggered & opened, by the world. There are ants in the kitchen. When Anna kills them, she immediately thinks of Hitler and Stalin. When the ants reappear, they remind her of “her girlhood.” Time becomes seamless—limitless—an act of impermanence in a senseless world. Where the journal collects, the poems scavenge. We are the digger and the dirt, the earth and what the earth can and cannot hold.
At times numb, at times overtaken, Anna Asher is constantly searching for the truth—through doctor visits, theological consultations, relationships, sex, anything and everything she can get her hands on to reckon with the living, with the present moment, with continuing. As Ladin’s poem “Golem” reminds us, “Emet or Met, Truth or Death—” speaking a theme that threads The Book of Anna, reflecting the narrator’s refusal of death & search of truth in the perpetual present.
While Anna cannot escape the past, she still chooses to write through death. And with this book, Joy Ladin has chosen to write towards truth. Powerful, unsettling, and breathtaking, The Book of Anna is a must-read for 2021.
Twenty-six years ago, a little girl disappeared from the summer camp at Forestlands Lake in Upstate New York. A year later, Willa Dunn and Lee Chandler were summering with their families at the lake. Just as they were in the middle of realizing there might be more to their friendship, a tragedy strikes Willa’s family, tearing them apart.
Today, Willa is a popular young adult novelist whose ghost stories have captivated the hearts and minds of kids and adults alike. She hasn’t been back to Forestlands Lake in 25 years, but her family’s old cabin feels like the perfect place for a writing retreat. Willa also brings her teenage sister, Nicole, with her. Nicole’s been acting out and their mom can’t get through to her, so Willa’s hoping they’ll be able to reconnect so Nicole can return to the happy, loving kid she used to be.
Willa’s surprised to learn that Lee still lives at Forestlands Lake and she runs a summer camp for LGBTQ youth. Lee’s also a single mom, raising an amazing teenager of her own. And that spark between them? It never went away.
Willa couldn’t have picked a better spot for ghost story inspiration, since people have been whispering for decades that Forestlands Lake has a ghost or two of its own. There’s certainly weird stuff going on, like a mysterious girl running around, and footsteps in the water when no one else is around. Can Lee and Willa grasp their second chance at love while getting to the bottom of the strange occurrences?
The Other Side of Forestlands Lake has a little bit of everything: romance, family drama, ghosts, and intrigue. These elements are balanced well and keep things interesting, whether the reader is following Willa and Lee’s relationship, Willa and Nicole’s reconciliation, or all the spooky things around the lake. That said, while the bulk of the story takes place in the present day, it’s important to know that almost a quarter of the story takes place when Willa and Lee are teenagers, first falling in love.
Because there are so many plates balancing in the proverbial air of this story, there isn’t a lot of character development for Willa or Lee. This also makes sense because they’re both around 40, have established careers, and are emotionally stable. Instead, personal growth is demonstrated in a couple of other areas. Namely, Nicole grows from a young woman with a massive chip on her shoulder into someone who genuinely wants a relationship with her family. Also, Willa and Lee’s relationship has its own development hurdles as the women have to reconcile their feelings now with the scars of not being able to be together twenty-five years ago.
The ghost story and suspense elements are strong, making The Other Side of Forestlands Lake a fun, compelling reading. Its only weakness is the last fifteen percent of the story because it feels a little like the characters are dropped into a different story. While the ending successfully wraps up all the threads that had been laid out, the tone doesn’t match the rest of the book, which may be a little jarring for some readers.
Overall, The Other Side of Forestlands Lake is worth checking out, even taking into account the tone shift at the end. The characters are compelling, the relationship growth is heartwarming, and the supernatural elements are intriguing without ever veering into true horror territory. Given what we’ve been collectively living through in the last year, it’s a great choice for anyone who wants to read something immersive, so they can ignore the troubles of the world.
As a broad who has taken shelter in Virginie Despentes’ writing during her own perennial gender malaise, I initially mistook the title of Torrey Peters’ debut novel for a cheeky nod to Apocalypse, Baby, the 51 year-old dyke author’s hard-boiled novel wherein two female private investigators are tasked with finding a missing teenage girl. Yet as anyone who bothered with the book jacket copy can report (and as I soon learned mere pages in), the ‘baby’ in Detransition, Baby’s title is a literal one, nodding to a fetus conceived by transwomen at the expense of cisgender misfortune. A trans woman herself, Peters is a knowing mistress of the endless quotidian foils of the cis circumstance.
Still, in true Despentes fashion, Peters tosses the reader a helmet and instructs her to climb on for a bitchseat ride into the big city. For the reviewer, Detransition’s contemporary Brooklyn is a familiar one, full of friction and stickiness. There are heated conversations between exes in Prospect Park, recollections of Hey Queen!, and an amiable sex worker joke or two that left me radiant (and hoping all the more that someone passes this book onto Despentes). There is ample queer drama; all traversed with an adult grace that Detransition’s seem grateful to experience. It’s here that we meet Reese, a Venus of Willendorf of a trans girl gifted with a maternal streak despite never permitting herself to be topped as such; Ames, formerly Amy, formerly Ames, a clever detransitioned transwoman in tech who once dated Reese but has now, despite the scientific odds, produced an unplanned, viable embryo with the cishet Katrina, his biracial divorcée boss.
It’s all deliciously femme, though not without self-critique. Some of the novels’ bitterest pills, literal and figurative, are thrust at the ganglions of Peters’ hard-headed sisters; call it Estradiol and Come to Jesus. Yet any true ire or embitteredness is directed at the cismen with whom trans women often engage out of necessity, nevermind their insistence on demanding a femininity that quickly becomes asphyxiating. “Life as a woman was difficult, so people gave up,” Peters writes of Amy’s detransition. Though a more thorough explanation comes with time, this alone should suffice. After reading one of the novel’s jabbing diatribes against cismen, I texted a friend to say, “Surprise, surprise. My Andrea Dworkin is a transfemme.”
Much of Detransition is spent turning between Ames’ pasts as Amy and Ames: Amy’s ungainly experience of being a trans teen already grappling with the impossibility of living up to a gold standard dictated by cis people, then a trans young adult Reese’s dedicated tutelage; the equally ungainly experience of Ames becoming a father when, despite conventional appearances to the contrary, he so isn’t a guy and Katrina so isn’t a housewife. Given that everyone here seems to be a dyke in everything but name, I won’t fuss over pronouns (Peters uses them interchangeably depending upon who Amy/Ames is in the moment) but instead recklessly borrow from Monique Wittig. Ames devises a lifehack for the sake of everyone’s needs: the three should co-parent.
Before Reese and Katrina accept the proposal, they are quick to laugh it off as the plot of an old black comedy starring Carey Grant. However, with the news of the baby, imagination’s seed is planted. Lovers—former and current, cis and trans—humbly seek out ways to obtain the love and care they deserve.
Needless to say, there’s a whole lotta grey in Detransition, and it is not a pollutant, but a breath of fresh air; melancholic but liberating, the novel is further enhanced by Peters’ willingness to engage with the most undeclared of internal and external trans conflicts. While reading a chapter that, through rigorous flashback, details the agony of Amy’s teen years in the Midwest and the impossible binary foisted upon him, I was reminded of a conversation Peters had with a fellow writer, Harron Walker, three years ago in Condé Nast them. “Trans women are fucked up and flawed, and I’m very interested in the ways in which trans women are fucked up and flawed,” she told Walker.
And thus, we see “fucked up and flawed” here at critical mass. When teenaged Amy, still presenting as the conventional ideal, shows up at high school dress-up day in a large brassiere in the likeness of a busty female classmate, she receives congratulatory high fives from a male peer while her female classmate looks on in abject humiliation:
Amy arrived to school on Switch Day with the bra stuffed under Amy’s otherwise everyday clothes. Mary Anne’s face fell the second she saw Amy; it was a look of pure hurt, crestfallen with disappointment in what Amy found to imitate in her existence and body. “Why are you so mean?’ she asked Amy. And suddenly Amy saw what she had done: a pair of tits. She was saying that’s all Mary Anne was. And at that moment, when she might have apologized, might have found the courage to ask Mary Anne for help, to tell her she wanted to understand her better, that she wanted to be like her, if only for a day. Jon McNelly came by, pointed at Amy’s stuffed bra and said, ‘Nailed it!’ Mary Anne managed a smile with her mouth, but her eyes went wet, and she nodded and said, ‘I hope you have a good day being me.‘
Amy considered taking off the bra, abating her cruelty for Mary Anne’s sake. But she didn’t. She wore it all day. She liked wearing a bra. She liked people commenting on her boobs. That night, she wore the bra again when she jerked off to the fantasy of Mary Anne forcing her to dress up in her clothes, then tossed it in a dumpster on her way to school the next morning.
The transdyke tragedy of it all—Amy desperately yearning for the companionship of other girls and their naive affirmations in lieu of all this bro back-patting; Amy settling for the secret of the brassiere that contains a beating heart that wishes it could’ve truly dressed the part—is so damn good because, yes, Ames is “fucked up and flawed” and, in this moment, a misogynist; as are all women for at least a solid day in our lives.
The gut wrench of this scene was further compounded when I recalled the late writer Bryn Kelly. A Lambda fellow and an incisive thinker, Kelly’s musings can be found on Twitter. One smoke-curling sentence of many, pinned at the top of her profile, resonated: “also reminder that this is late capitalism, we all buy our genders, some are just more expensive than others.”
Peters has a line early on in Detransition, voiced through Ames, that does not solve this dilemma of gender’s exorbitant cost. But it does provide a salient motive for why one would put their bodies through such a maddening wringer—day after day, year after year—for as long as they can bear it: “Basic comprehension of capitalism’s arbitrary mechanics doesn’t satisfy—the heart demands a human explanation.”
What will propel readers along isn’t simply Peters’ confident literary throttle, but their hope in the unorthodox, too: Can love, as Reese, Amy, and Katrina have come to define it at thirty-four, twenty-nine, and thirty-nine, respectively, exist? Is there possibility for, not the compromise that Eartha Kitt famously scorned, but identification of and nurturing of existing common ground? If Amy, Reese, and Katrina pull it off, the success would be greater than anything: satisfying sex void of dissossociation, internal and external identities that seamlessly align, a dress that is both comforting and flattering. Peters religiously casts out the silks that bind cis and trans experiences, imagining and then crafting a neo-nuclear family. At the end of the day, a web is still a home.
The political merits of a tale centering transgender and cisgender harmony are great, and so my primary critique of Detransition, Baby is an oblique one, pointed squarely in the direction of reviews that extoll Peters’ “remarkable” aptitude for knowing where she and women like her stand in relation to the sanctified cisgender majority. Inevitably, these reviews have less to do with Peters’ literary prowess than assumptions made about her experiences of trauma.
Likewise, singling out Peters’ take on cis/trans kinship too heavily in critical responses risks eclipsing the cis and trans women who’ve testified to the very tangible powers of a cis-trans utopia for decades. The New York Chapter of Daughters and Bilitis regularly had Marsha P. Johnson over for dinner; Tourmaline made a film on Marsha P. Johnson with Sasha Wortzel; Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice funds transwomen’s grassroots organizations; Imogen Binnie’s 2013 roadtrip novel Nevadais all but a love letter to the dyke punk. While Peters’ book is groundbreaking in its ability to go deeper than we’ve ever been, this connection is old news.
Furthermore, it feels safe to assume that Peters, who self-published two novellas prior to Detransition to circumvent the publishing machine’s secondary glass ceiling, would much prefer to not be the only transgirl entering 2021 with a major publisher’s blessing of her fiction (which is to say, an endorsement of the glowing and grimy corners of the trans imagination). All this ache of loneliness on the page, only to be the only one tokenized or placed on a pedestal? Never.
While I was measurably off in my impression of the tone and shapes that Peters’ new writing would take, I am inclined to cling to my Virginie Despentes error. Despentes, a dyke and a former hooker, refused to suffocate beneath the wool blanket of social stigma and simplistic artistic renderings that only served to stifle her further. Rather, she drew a sword—one that only she could possess—and sliced through the inanity of whorephobia, misogyny, and fear to present readers with the captivating (but hardly singular) idea-riddled woman whom publishing had rendered mute for generations too long.
A decade later, Peters has drawn a sister weapon. Her labrys cuts through the clutter just as sweetly.
by Torrey Peters
Hardcover, 9780593133378, 352 pp.
It’s the silent stories — those too dangerous to tell — that characterize much of queer history. That fear-induced secrecy has left large swaths of our archives absent of queer narratives, especially queer Black narratives.
The writer, Robert Jones Jr., has answered that silence with “The Prophets,” an expansive and lyrical novel celebrating the love story of Samuel and Isaiah, two enslaved Black teenagers in the antebellum South. Jones said he wrote the novel because he had to.
“I was honestly terrified to write this book,” he said, and quoted the novelist Toni Morrison, who famously stated, “If you find a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
Jones, 50, speaking from his home in Brooklyn, New York, said his mission was to write a story with characters he’d never seen but knew existed.
“How could it possibly be that Black queer people did not exist prior to the Harlem Renaissance?” he asked. “Maybe we did not have the word ‘queer’… maybe we didn’t have the language, but people don’t appear because of the language. They’re here, and then we find the language to describe their experiences later on.”
Samuel and Isaiah love each other, and that love represents a beacon of hope to others enslaved on the sprawling Mississippi plantation, also known as Empty. The others find that “simply bearing witness was a treasure,” even as they all endure together, living under the atrocities committed against them by the white family who enslaves them.
“It was essential for me in writing this novel about such a brutal part of history that I infuse it with as much love and hope as I possibly could, because so many novels that deal with this period focus on slavery as the character,” Jones said. “I wanted to make sure that these characters were the character, and that I provided them with a whole, dimensional, full-bodied humanity.”
That humanity does bring with it a betrayal, and it isn’t long until Amos, another enslaved man, begins to turn the others against Samuel and Isaiah, using his newfound enthusiasm for Christianity, as well as his own fears, to influence the others and chastise them for their acceptance of the two young men. The decision to shun Samuel and Isaiah quickly spreads through the community, jumping “from one face to the next, like lanterns being lit in quick succession.”
Christianity, and the way it has both harmed Black Americans and been used as a tool of white supremacy, is a throughline of the novel. Jones used Biblical names and concepts throughout the story as a way to subvert and challenge the teachings of Christianity.
Raised Nation of Islam on his mother’s side and Southern Baptist on his father’s, Jones said he gravitated toward Christianity as a child because he loved the music. However, he knew from a young age he was queer and said any homophobia he felt growing up was directly related to religion.
“When I was writing this book,” he said, “I wanted to make the case that the origin of anti-queerness, at least as it’s practiced in many Black communities, is Christianity in particular.”
It’s why part of the novel stretches back to the history of a pre-colonial African community with a female “king,” who oversees the joyful marriage of two men, Kosii and Elewa, whose love is described in parallel to Samuel and Isaiah’s. The wedding is a reminder that same-sex Black love is something that has existed — and has been celebrated — across centuries.
“When you look at the history, particularly the oral history of people who are continental Africans … you find that queerness was always a part of the landscape, always a part of the community,” Jones said. “They just never felt a need to give it a separate name or to single it out, because to them it was just love or sex or lust — and it was whether that was between two women, two men, or a man and a woman, or people who defied gender binaries.”
In the crowd at Kosii and Elewa’s wedding is a group of Portuguese intruders. They do not understand what they are seeing at first (“Are these two being initiated into manhood?”). The king, frustrated by their ignorance, tells the outsiders that this is a marriage. After an uncomfortable silence, one of the Portuguese men, Brother Gabriel, says, “I think your people would benefit from our religion.”
It is not long after that the woman-led, queer-inclusive tribe is captured and forced onto a ship to America.
“When Christianity is introduced [on the plantation], it’s so seductive, because it gives people who are already being harmed, who are already oppressed, someone else to blame, over whom they have power, or could have power, and that’s incredibly seductive,” Jones said.
Power and its many forms infuse the novel, and Jones said he thought about power every time he wrote a sentence. That translates to a book that is layered with dynamics of privilege, perilousness, fear and courage.
“Why aren’t they afraid?” one character, Maggie, asks herself of the relationship between Samuel and Isaiah. She can’t imagine why they continue to love each other knowing their own fates aren’t up to themselves, and that they could be separated or killed at any moment.
In an interview, Jones slipped into character as Isaiah, and spoke in his voice, describing how Isaiah would speak to Samuel when asked about the danger of being together: “I want to love you as hard as I possibly can while I have you, and I’m not going to let what anyone else thinks about that deter me. And they’re going to have to drag me away from you, kicking and screaming. And even then, after we’re separated, I’ll know I loved you and I will carry that for the rest of my days.”
After reading “The Prophets,” you’ll carry that, too.
‘Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy’ By Leslie Brody c2020, Seal Press $30/335 pages
I love reading biographies – especially, of queer artists and writers. But some bios put you to sleep.
Happily, “Sometimes You Have to Lie” by Leslie Brody, the new, intriguing biography of queer artist and writer Louise Fitzhugh, author and illustrator of the beloved children’s book “Harriet the Spy,” won’t give you any shut-eye.
“Harriet the Spy,” since its publication in 1964, has been enjoyed by generations of kids and adults. It’s been made into a movie. Brody was hired in 1988 to write an adaptation of “Harriet the Spy” for the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre Company.
I discovered “Harriet the Spy” only recently as I read “Sometimes You Have to Lie.” What a great find!
Harriet, a sassy New York City kid, is a writer. Her nanny, Ole Golly, tells her that writers take notes on people. Harriet, notebook in hand, soon begins to “spy” on everyone – from her neighbors to her schoolmates.
As Fitzhugh, who was queer, wrote to her friend, gay poet James Merrill, Harriet is a “nasty little girl who keeps a notebook on all her friends.”
Harriet is fabulously “nasty!” She wears jeans, carries a tool belt on her waist and says “I’ll be damned if I’ll go to dancing school!”
Harriet is the queer love-child of Jo March and Holden Caulfield. She’s inspired thousands of hetero and queer readers to become spies and rebels (writers).
As it so often is with LGBTQ artists and writers (even creators of classics), I had no idea that Louise Fitzhugh, who lived from 1928 to 1974, was queer. Fitzhugh wasn’t just a lesbian. She was fabulously queer!
Fitzhugh was born in Memphis, Tenn. Her family was wealthy. Her parents, who met and wed quickly in a “jazz age marriage,” divorced when she was a baby. She was raised by her father Millsaps Fitzhugh and her eccentric, but loving grandmother.. For years, she was told that her mother had died. Later, Fitzhugh learned that her mother, who was denied custody and visitation rights, was alive. She was devastated to read in news accounts of her parents’ acrimonious divorce proceedings that during their quarrels her folks had thrown her (a baby) on to a couch.
As a teen, Fitzhugh had a boyfriend who thought of her as “beautiful” but “a little different from the other girls, a little bit more serious and very smart.”
He was right on all counts. Early on, Fitzhugh knew that she liked girls. As a teenager, she fell in love with photojournalist Amelia Brent. At the same time, she eloped with Ed Thompson, because he, like her, wanted to leave the Jim Crow South. Fitzhugh soon had a change of heart, the unconsumated marriage was annulled and she returned to Memphis.
She didn’t remain back home for long. Soon, Fitzhugh, 19, left to attend Bard to study poetry and painting. For the rest of her life, she lived in Greenwich Village in New York and later in Connecticut (while traveling to Rome and other locales). Over the decades, she had several loving, long-term, same-sex relationships. Fitzhugh was quite close to a male friend, but rebuffed his wish for sex, because she couldn’t “abide” a man “in her bed.”
Fitzhugh’s circle of vital, creative queer friends ranged from children’s book writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak to playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Jane Wagner, Lily Tomlin’s spouse, was among those who knew her.
I so wish I could have been part of this glittering 1950s queer life — until I realize how closeted queers had to be.
“As an adult, Fitzhugh was unapologetically out of the closet,” Brody writes. Fitzhugh also was aware, Brody adds, that a “little lie to preserve your identity and self-respect can be a soul-saving measure.”
But, Fitzhugh knew that, as Ole Golly tells Harriet, “to yourself you must always tell the truth.”
“Sometimes You Have to Lie” is the fascinating story of the long-hidden truth about the life of the queer author of an iconic children’s book. Harriet wouldn’t be able to put it down.