Carolina reviews The Celluloid Closet by Vito Russo

The Celluloid Closet by Vito Russo

I’ve always felt drawn to queer history; there is a certain comfort in seeing parts of you echoed throughout history, reminders that we have always existed. I’ve always felt attracted to these historical ghosts, found in the coded language of long-gone poets and in unearthed love letters written in candlelit secrecy. Vito Russo’s classic The Celluloid Closet examines the portrayal of LGBT people in cinema from the medium’s inception, tracking the patterns that characterized the media and public’s perception of gay people, and labeling cinematic stereotypes that are still echoed today.

This book serves as a great introduction to queer theory and queer history. However, readers should be aware that this is truly a product of this time; The Celluloid Closet was written in 1981, before the AIDS crisis and the modern gay liberation movement, so some of the language (the use of reclaimed slurs and antiquated terminology) may seem insensitive and outdated if not taken into context. For example, the author glowingly cites Woody Allen as a trailblazing, philanthropic director….

Before Russo’s death, he planned an updated documentary version of the book, eventually released posthumously, in order to include classics from the emergent New Queer Cinema movement, including my favorite film, My Own Private Idaho. I suggest watching the movie to have a visual reference for the more obscure films that are cited. After watching The Celluloid Closet, I would recommend checking out Disclosure, Laverne Cox’s Netflix film about transgender representation in film; it fills in the gaps left by Russo, as The Celluloid Closet primarily focuses on cisgender individuals.

The book is tightly structured in a list format, leading to monotony if not read critically. I suggest reading it in chunks in order to truly digest Russo’s ideas. First, he gives a brief background of the period or archetype that he is dissecting, and then lists queer films and their impact on the era’s media. Russo adds a signature humor throughout his dissertations, imbuing each of the films with character and intrigue. Russo has a dry and infectious wit, best exemplified with his tongue-in-cheek ‘Necrology’ of the various ways gay characters were killed on screen, an early precursor to the ‘Bury-Your-Gays’ trope.

The author takes the reader back in time through the history of cinema, outlining the varied inclusion of queer people. In the early part of the century, gay ‘pansies’ became comedic gags in Laurel and Hardy skits, eventually leading way to hardened butch criminals and lecherous gay killers in noir films. The killer genre eventually transformed to the monster craze of the 1930’s; lesbian vampires have always been a hallmark of the vampire genre since the 1872 novella Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu. In the 1960’s, the Hays Code, a Hollywood gag order on the inclusion of explicitly gay characters, was repealed, transforming LGBT characters from invisible phantoms to social pariahs. 1961’s The Children’s Hour has Shirley MacLaine’s character take her own life immediately following a confession of love to Audrey Hepburn. In the 1970’s and early 80’s, gay people were either violent murderers and oddballs, or Oscar-bait-y sanitization of queer individuals, the latter of which is still a prevalent motif in modern cinema (Bohemian Rhapsody). Russo mentions the accolades the film Thank God It’s Friday (1978) received for including ‘gay representation’ in the film of a male-male couple dancing in the background of a ballroom, echoing the introduction of ‘Disney’s first gay character” Lefou in the live action Beauty and the Beast adaptation (2017).

Russo’s The Celluloid Closet reminds us that we still have a lot of work left in terms of queer representation. Russo recently received the honor of having the Vito Russo Test named after him, a measure of how many prominent on-screen characters appear in each media cycle. In 2019, 22 of the 118 highest grossing film of the year featured queer characters, a historic high. However, we are not as far from Buffalo Bill and Norman Bates as we may think we are; cisgender actor Eddie Redmayne was cast as transgender artist Lilli Elbe in The Danish Girl in 2015, Valkyrie’s bisexuality was written out of Taika Waititi’s script at Disney’s bequest in Thor: Ragnarok (2017), and J.K. Rowling has recently transfigured her media empire into a simmering cauldron of transphobic bigotry on Twitter. However, the future’s still bright, as recent shining stars in the cinema canon, including Moonlight, Rafiki, and A Portrait of a Lady on Fire, light our way to proper recognition and representation.

Marieke reviews This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Time War reminded me a lot of Good Omens in the sense that two agents–on opposing sides of a high stakes global war that is being fought out across time (yes, time travel) and space and universes, while also only forming a backdrop to the lives of regular unwitting humans–are not as invested in the outcome of that war as they maybe are expected to be by the leaders of those forces. And then they meet, and find they are not indifferent to each other.

Red and Blue maintain communications throughout this story, and their communications are central to the development of both the plot and the characters. These communications are presented in letter form in the book, so it reads like a semi-epistolary novel (in case that is your thing, this is a good book to pick up, as every chapter ends with a letter). Even so, these letters are really steganographical messages (a term pulled directly from the dialogue, that I actually had to go and look up – good thing too, because it was then used again shortly after in another book I’m reading!), i.e. the message was concealed within another form. What shape that form actually took (hah) differed wildly, and includes a few notable instances, but I would prefer for the reader to be surprised by them as each new letter is received.

Both characters self-identify as female, but there is at the same time little indication that sex or gender is a defining factor within their society, especially as agents on both forces are capable of easily altering their own physical forms. Sexual orientation is never mentioned and appears to be pretty much a non-issue in this environment.

The relationship between the two characters grows with each letter they send and receive, and both the letters and the relationship they create, form, and reflect are at the heart of this story. Initially the dynamic between the two characters feels a bit like a microcosm of the war that is being fought out at a macro scale (as the characters themselves observe as well), but they quickly grow beyond and above that. They do not meet physically for most of the narrative, which creates a sense of their relationship structure feeling similar to any modern long distance relationship, where different time zones and few meetings can still be the basis of a strong bond.

The development of their relationship was extremely well written and completely believable. The questions about loyalty to each other versus loyalty to the force they serve were handled quite well, and become major plot points near the end of the tale. The end is also where the story flounders a bit. Without spoiling anything, there are a few time-travel related shenanigans going on and some of it–while presented as a major reveal–can be quite expected if you’re familiar with the time travel genre in general. In that sense the story doesn’t really break any new territory, even though it tries to present the plot twists as unexpected.

Content warning: some battle violence

Marieke (she / her) has a weakness for fairy tale retellings and contemporary rom coms, especially when combined with a nice cup of tea. She also shares diverse reading resources on her blog letsreadwomen.tumblr.com.

Landice reviews Architects of Memory by Karen Osborne

Architects of Memory by Karen Osborne

I’m not quite sure how to describe my experience of reading Architects of Memory. I started to say it was “a delight” to read, but that’s not even close to accurate, because this is an incredibly heavy book. And when I say heavy, I’m talking “what if corporations really were able to colonize space and then make everyone do incredibly dangerous labor to earn their place off-world, complete with sometimes mandatory medical procedures that incur massive debt against your citizenship account” heavy. That being said, it was well written and engaging, so much so that I marathoned most of it in one day, which I generally avoid doing with books that are heavy or likely to leave me emotionally exhausted.

Architects of Memory’s pacing is relentless from the very start, and if you’re anything like me, you will likely not want to put it down for anything. I was initially disappointed in how abrupt the ending felt, but then I realized this is the first in a series, so knowing there will be additional novels negated those issues.

I won’t go into much detail about the plot so as to avoid spoilers, but I did want to note that both of our POV characters are sapphic women! Ash is canonically bisexual with relationships with both men and women referenced in the story, and our second POV character, Kate, is also into women (though her actual sexuality is never confirmed). The two of them are–surprise–in love with each other, but feel as though they cannot or should not act on their impulses for the time being. This conflict added an extra layer of tension onto an already stressful plot, but in the best way! I’m not usually a fan of extended mutual pining, which is something Architects of Memory has in spades, but I think because the romance and pining took a back seat to the story, rather than driving it, I didn’t mind (further proof that I prefer genre fiction with f/f romantic subplots to romance novels, no matter how hard I try, which… Okay, fair. I can’t deny it anymore).

TL;DR: Y’all know I love a good sapphic sci-fi novel (and if you didn’t, now you do), and Architects of Memory really knocks it out of the park! I can’t wait to read Engines of Oblivion (Book 2), and if the Goodreads release date of Feb 2021 is accurate, we thankfully won’t have to wait too long to find out what’s next for Kate, Ash, and the rest of the galaxy. (Also, if you’re itching for a more analytical review that focuses more on the plot than the f/f relationship, my wonderful friend Dom has an excellent one that you can check out on Goodreads).

Architects of Memory Description:

Millions died after the first contact. An alien weapon holds the key to redemption—or annihilation. Experience Karen Osborne’s unforgettable science fiction debut, Architects of Memory.

Terminally ill salvage pilot Ash Jackson lost everything in the war with the alien Vai, but she’ll be damned if she loses her future. Her plan: to buy, beg, or lie her way out of corporate indenture and find a cure.

When her crew salvages a genocidal weapon from a ravaged starship above a dead colony, Ash uncovers a conspiracy of corporate intrigue and betrayal that threatens to turn her into a living weapon.

Content Warnings: Graphic violence, death of a loved one, nonconsensual medical procedures, gore/body horror type stuff. I’m probably forgetting a lot of things, to be perfectly honest. Read with care!

ARC Note: Thank you to Tor Books for granting me an advance ebook copy to review via Netgalley. This in no way impacted my thoughts (especially since I plan to buy a finished copy for my shelf). All opinions are my own.

Landice is an autistic lesbian graphic design student who lives on a tiny farm outside of a tiny town in rural Texas. Her favorite genres are sci-fi, fantasy & speculative fiction, and her favorite tropes are enemies-to-lovers, thawing the ice queen, & age gap romances. Landice drinks way too much caffeine, buys more books than she’ll ever be able to read, and dreams of starting her own queer book cover design studio one day.

You can find her as manicfemme on Bookstagram & Goodreads, and as manic_femme on Twitter. Her personal book blog is Manic Femme Reviews.

Casey A reviews Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee

Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee

C. B. Lee may have taken the most interesting spin ever on “write what you know” as her protagonist, Jessica Tran, is a first generation Asian American bisexual, just like she is, but the world of her story is certainly not Lee’s lived experience. Jess lives in the North American Collective, a super state formed after WW3, and her Nevada town of Andover is home to two superhero metahumans as well as their dastardly rival villains. Trying to describe this book without it sounding like a mid 1990s cartoon is a little difficult, but that’s because Lee uses comic superhero genre tropes as a backdrop to the narrative’s main concerns. Jess has to deal with several social and societal issues, as well as a little teenage drama thrown into the mix, as she juggles disappointing her parents, figuring out her friends, and a new internship with a mysterious employer.

Lee skirts around the usual race metaphor that people use when dealing with super humans, and instead grabs the subject of race head on, acknowledging the difficulties of the migrant experience. Occasionally Lee pops a word or two of Chinese into the dialogue, which is a welcome reminder that having a non-white character can invite more cultural complexity than simply stating a skin colour. In some ways it was a little disappointing to find that slurs which are currently used were still prevalent in the book’s setting, but I can understand that it is true to the experience that Lee was trying to get across.

Overall this book is great fun. It’s got a whole host of queer characters across the LGBTQ spectrum, and I found it was really good at moving focus between friends, family, and the wider world something which other YA books often struggle with. Despite a couple of heavy handed moments, Lee is great at introducing character’s queerness, including the subtle hints at one of the characters being trans before it’s explicitly mentioned.

When it comes to setting this story in the future, I don’t feel it was totally necessary. In many ways, it feels like Lee chose the future because old superhero comics would often set things in the future, or simply because authors often use time as a distancing tool. It could easily be an alternative version of now, rather than over a century from where we are, and I sometimes felt I was reading two different books, one a future sci fi and another a deeply felt modern high school drama. This feeling did ebb somewhat as the plot came together and certain discordant aspects fell into place. If you’re looking for speculative sci-fi you won’t find it here, but I think Lee does effectively use the setting she has created.

The pacing was good, and even with my misgivings about the setting, I found the plot and characters very engaging. I’m glad it’s part of a series, as a large amount of the narrative was a set up to something much larger, and I would certainly recommend this to readers who want something which isn’t too challenging on its own, but might lead to something more.

Casey is a non-binary bookseller and writer, a sometime poet and an all-the-time queer. Their favourite genre is usually sci-fi / fantasy, but they can be found reading kids books and angsty YA whenever the mood strikes. Most of their reads are for audiobooks because they have ADHD and printed text is not their friend. They recently attempted to start a bookstagram which you can find here @know.thy.shelf

Sash S reviews Spellbound by Jean Copeland and Jackie D.

“Hazel Abbot spent her whole life unaware she was a witch. When a spell thrusts her great-aunt Sarah Hutchinson forward from the Salem witch trials of 1692 and lands her in Hazel’s bookstore, everything Hazel thought she knew about herself changes…”

If you want a read that’s fast-paced, fun, and filled with well-rounded and likeable characters, look no further than Spellbound, a perfect blend of paranormal action and lesbian romance.

We start directly in the middle of the action, with protagonist Raven Dare—sexy, solemn and mysterious in equal measure—doing what she does best: hunting demons. Armed with gold knives and a wit that’s just as sharp, Raven kicks butt whilst quipping about American Idol, and it’s all in a day’s work for this demon hunter with a tortured past.

In a story about time-travel, supernatural monsters and women-fearing cults, it is the characters in Spellbound that are the true heart of the novel. There are a great many interesting dynamics at play between the central cast, and as a reader, you’re immediately drawn to them. The four main women are strong in their own ways, and their interactions are alternately warm, fierce and sizzling with tension. It’s great to see them clashing with the main villains of the novel, but just as fun to see them in their downtime, and there’s plenty of both due to the novel’s excellent pacing.

Sarah is great fun; immediately likeable and not one to take her strange circumstances sitting down, she takes agency and adapts to the world she’s living in, though finding it bizarre at times. Hazel, too, takes up her new mission with an admirable courage, spurred by the attraction she feels towards Raven. Morgan is aloof, sarcastic, but caring underneath. There are two main love stories in Spellbound, and though different in tone, both are equally compelling.

My favourite thing about this book is how down to earth it is, whilst dealing with the supernatural. Vivid descriptions of car rides, plane journeys and cities build up the real world, juxtaposed with fights against demons and monsters; the authors do a great job of nailing magical realism.

To that end, too, the villains of the story are rooted in very real prejudice despite their paranormal nature: whilst the protagonists clash with banshees and hellhounds, the writers don’t shy away from the fact that the real evils of this tale are prejudice, a fear of women and their strength, and a need to subjugate others for one’s own gain. The supernatural elements of Spellbound are a great vehicle for a story that’s ultimately about overcoming these things, celebrating the strength of women and doing what’s right.

This is such a fun read, with excellent pacing, engaging romance and a realistic, compelling cast of characters.

Rating: *****

Meagan Kimberly reviews Always Human by Ari North

Always Human by Ari North

Ari North’s Always Human first appeared as a serial on WebToon, running from 2015-2017. Yellow Jacket published it as a collection in May 2020 as part of a sponsorship with GLAAD.

This comic series follows two young women, Sunati and Austen, as they navigate a new, romantic relationship. Set in a future world where almost everyone wears body mods, a technology used to enhance appearance or capabilities, the sci-fi scenery is lush and intriguing. But not everyone can wear body mods. Some, like Austen, have Egan’s syndrome, a condition that compromises the immune system, making body mods impossible to wear.

The story is filled with sweetness and angst as Sunati and Austen learn to understand one another, making mistakes, pulling apart and coming back together. Sunati first finds Austen attractive because she thinks she’s so brave for not using body mods. When she finds out it’s because of her Egan’s syndrome, Sunati puts Austen up on a pedestal, making it seem like her life with a chronic illness is an inspiration.

It really speaks to the attitude that exists in the real world about able-bodied language and perspectives. Those with different abilities are often held up to these impossible standards to serve as inspiration and awe for able-bodied people. Austen also frequently deals with others tiptoeing around her, because they think if they use body mods around her she will get upset. She doesn’t want special treatment and she doesn’t want others to look at her as some kind of saint. She just wants to be human.

Throughout the series Sunati and Austen get to know each other in the sweetest scenarios, creating that warm, fuzzy feeling that readers love about romance. The characters are honestly two huge dorks in their own ways, but that’s what makes them so loveable and perfect for each other. But perhaps the best aspect of their relationship is the open and honest communication. They don’t always get things right, but they talk through their problems and come to see the world through one another’s eyes, gaining a better understanding each time. It’s a wonderful example of a healthy, happy relationship.

Maggie reviews Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

I was very excited to get ahold of this ebook, because I’ve been listening to a lot of YA audiobooks lately while doing other things, and so I’ve gotten on a fantasy YA kick. It’s great to read some exciting new releases and promote new books during a time when we all desperately need good distractions. Cinderella is Dead is not a re-telling of Cinderella, which is a trope that I do love but that I’m getting a tad bit weary of. Rather, it’s something I found even more exciting: imagining the consequences of a fairy tale after the tale, not just for the characters themselves, but generations down the line. Cinderella is Dead is perfect for those who want something more from the original Cinderella story.

The legend of Cinderella isn’t just a tale to the citizens of Lille. Rather, Cinderella was a real woman, and her legacy has grown and has been codified into the very law of the land. Every girl in the city must not only know the story by heart, but they are all commanded to dress up and attend a ball at the palace, just like Cinderella did. But rather than a romantic tradition, the events have been corrupted and used to control the citizenry by the corrupt monarchy. People pray to the spirit of Cinderella, not to wish for happiness, but to hope their daughters won’t be disappeared by the palace guard. Girls hope to find a suitor at the ball–but only because if they don’t they risk disappearing or being forced into menial labor. And they don’t get a choice about what man chooses them, or how he treats them after they get married. It’s truly a grim but intriguing imagining of how a beloved fairy tale could play out and be corrupted. CONTENT WARNINGS: this story deals with domestic violence, abuse, homophobia, human trafficking, and mentions of rape. The culture of Lille is dark, and its citizens who are not straight men go through a lot, which may seem like a lot in a book aimed at young adults, but what I find important is that our protagonists stand up to it, and meet and encourage other people to not accept these things as normal.

Enter Sophia, who harbors a forbidden love for her friend Erin, and a deep terror at being forced into a marriage where she will have no rights or say in her own life. Sophia refuses to accept the reality of Lille and wants to try to run away with Erin before the night of their own Ball when they’ll be trapped, but Erin can’t imagine taking such a risk and wants to do what is necessary to remain safe. The night of the Ball, Sophia is forced to flee by herself, and then she meets Constance, the last descendant of Cinderella’s Stepsisters. Confronted with new information about the true story of the Cinderella legend, and growing new feelings for a girl who is willing to fight by her side, Sophia has to decide how far she’s willing to go to create a better life for everyone in Lille.

It was really interesting to see not just the long-term effects of a fairy tale, but characters interacting with true events vs fictionalized versions. Over and over Sophia has to confront how the history she took as true but corrupted was actually propaganda from the start. And this book really took all the instantly recognizable elements of Cinderella–a blonde and beautiful Cinderella, glass slippers, the fairy godmother–and flipped them around while remaining firmly rooted in the original fairy tale.  The cover proclaims that Cinderella is Dead while Sophia stares out at us, Black, curly-haired, wearing the iconic blue Cinderella gown, but unabashedly, from page one, not interested in marrying a prince, and the story promptly drags us away from magicked pumpkins and mice and into witches, necromancy, and anti-royalist rebellion. In Lille, Cinderella was real, and her history was complicated, but her legacy is now Black, queer, and invested in taking down a tainted, misogynist monarchy.

I really enjoyed this book. It was a fun read, and the world-building and action picked up quickly. I really liked the slow peel-back of the Cinderella story, combined with how straightforward and brave Sophia and Constance were. [spoiler, highlight to read] I also really loved that Sophia had a first love, but then slowly realized she was more compatible with Constance. [end spoilers] The twists and turns managed to surprise me and keep me involved. It’s just a really good read, and we need more like it on the shelves, especially for young readers today.

Carmella reviews LOTE by Shola von Reinhold

LOTE by Shola von Reinhold cover

I first discovered the Bright Young Things at an exhibition of Cecile Beaton’s photography. His pictures capture the dazzling, decadent world of these young British socialites of the interwar period–their fabulous costume parties, heavy drinking, artistic flair, and taste for excess. After tearing through a number of biographies, my favourite figure became Stephen Tennant. He was–in the words of writer Lady Caroline Blackwood – “just an eccentric gay who didn’t really do anything”. What a magnificent way to be remembered!

The narrator of LOTE, Mathilda Adamarola, is also fascinated by Tennant and his friends. She experiences what she calls ‘Transfixions’–intense emotional and sensory connections to historical figures that can be strong enough to leave her in a giddy daze. Like Mathilda, most of these figures are queer and many are Black. In order to emulate her Transfixions, she has constantly reinvented her identity over the years in a series of ‘Escapes’, transforming into an ever-more dramatic version of herself. This isn’t without its problems–Mathilda explains that “People rarely allow for Blackness and caprice (be it in dress or deportment) to coexist without the designation of Madness”–and she’s certainly capricious. As a narrator, she’s wonderfully fun to spend time with.

While volunteering in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery, Mathilda is delighted to discover a new photograph of Stephen Tennant. But what is even more exciting is the young Black woman posing with him, dressed as an angel: a forgotten Scottish modernist poet called Hermia Drumm. Mathilda is immediately Transfixed and becomes determined to learn all about her.

After discovering that Hermia spent some time in a small European town, Mathilda applies to an artists’ residency there–winging the application and phone interview without knowing anything about the programme–and is soon travelling overseas to continue her detective work.

Mathilda’s fellow residents turn out to be fanatical adherents to Thought Art–an obscure strand of theory centered around minimalism, discipline and self-effacement. They are an almost unbearable contrast to the luxury-loving Mathilda. The residency is a brilliant satire of academic bullshit, with Mathilda forced to sit through mind-bogglingly dull, jargon-filled conversations about ‘Markation’ and ‘Dotage levels’. Von Reinhold’s send-up of predominantly posh, White institutions is one of the best features of the book.

While Mathilda assumes at first that there can be no connection between the residency’s austere academia and the vibrant Hermia, she soon finds something that did link them together: an enigmatic group known as LOTE. But what was LOTE? What happened to Hermia? How does it all link together? The questions become ever more tangled the more Mathilda learns.

Mysterious, decadent, and unapologetically flamboyant, LOTE is a dazzlingly good read. Behind all the champagne and cults, it’s also an intelligent interrogation of the politics of aesthetics, eurocentrism, and the presence/absence of Black figures in the artistic canon. It asks us: in a world that remembers Stephen Tennant, how many Hermia Drumms have disappeared into the archives?

Shana reviews The Deep by Rivers Solomon 

The Deep by Rivers Solomon

The Deep is the most beautiful book that I’ve read this year. It’s a lyrical novella based on a Hugo Award-nominated science-fiction song by clipping, a hip-hop group. The Deep is a reimagined mermaid story about an underwater society descended from African women tossed overboard during the transatlantic slave trade. We learn about the culture and history of these people, the wajinru, through the eyes of Yetu, their newest Historian.

Historians are responsible for holding the memories of every wanjinru who has lived, allowing individuals to live unburdened by the trauma of their collective past, only regaining temporary knowledge of their history through a yearly magic ritual. Yetu didn’t have a choice in taking on this calling, and she is overwhelmed by the weight of so many memories. In desperation, she tries to escape her role and carve a different path, one that brings her adventure, love with a surface dwelling “two-legged” woman, and a new respect for the power of memory.

Solomon packs a lot of eloquence into this small package and makes daring choices, like having the wanjinru appear fearsome to humans, rather than seductive sirens. The Deep feels longer than its 166 pages, in a good way. I enjoyed the wanjinru’s creative perspective on gender and relationships, and the way Solomon slowly explains the mystery of how their society came to be.

The story smoothly segues between Yetu’s present and the memories she carries. I sometimes dislike time jumps, but the inventive structure of the book made them feel seamless. However, I love complex worldbuilding and I found myself wishing for more explanation of the wanjinru’s fraught interactions with surface dwellers, alluded to through mentions of shipwrecks and oil rigs. The book’s atmospheric tone is gorgeous, but it also leaves some details to the reader’s imagination. For example, we never know exactly where in human geography Yetu is living.

The book imaginatively explores the nature and purpose of memories, generational trauma, and collective healing. It is so insightful that several times I gasped out loud while reading it. I appreciated the balance between the joy and ingenuity of the wajinru, and their painful history. I love books that use alternate history as social commentary and The Deep incorporates this with a light touch. It’s a powerful book, but also an engaging story with a sympathetic heroine. The Deep is a compelling and absorbing read that would appeal to lovers of feminist science fiction, underwater fantasy epics, or stories from the African diaspora.

Danika reviews Kimiko Does Cancer: A Graphic Memoir by Kimiko Tobimatsu, illustrated by Keet Geniza

Kimiko Does Cancer: A Graphic Memoir by Kimiko Tobimatsu, illustrated by Keet GenizaKimiko Does Cancer is about about a queer, mixed-race woman getting breast cancer. This is a short book, only 106 pages, and it moves quickly: the first page is about Kimiko finding a lump above her breast, and then it moves through her diagnosis, treatment, and the aftermath. Tobimatsu explains in interviews/articles that she wanted to write this book because the mainstream narrative around cancer didn’t include her experience. She wanted other queer people with cancer to have a reference that better reflects their lives.

For one thing, she comes into this experience already skeptical of doctors, especially around sexual health. One panel shows a doctor saying, “Only women who sleep with men need Paps,” (labelled on page as “Bad medical advice”). This is something that I was also told by a doctor, after she blushed and seemed flustered when I told her my sexual experience was with AFAB people. Although she’s grateful for her medical team, she also finds it overwhelming, especially when they give different advice. She also continues to face similar microagressions: a doctor who assumes she’ll immediately want reconstructive surgery on her breast before asking her–Kimiko had been interested in exploring what a mastectomy would mean for her exploration of gender. Later, another doctor asks if she’d like both breasts enhanced as long as they’re “plumping” one.

In her article on Rethink Cancer, she explains,

I didn’t want to talk about how to recover my sense of femininity despite breast scars and menopause; I wanted to explore how losing my breasts might allow me to lean into my masculinity. I didn’t want to talk about how changing femininity could affect a hetero relationship; I wanted to talk about the implications of breast cancer on queer relationships between women.”

This genderizing of breast cancer extends outside assumptions around patients’ relationships to their breasts. In “Straight Cancer in a Queer Body” at The Polyphony, Tobimatsu explains,

Whether we know it or not, ideas around gender are frequently at the forefront of conversations about breast cancer. Little is as connected to notions of femininity as breasts, hair and fertility – all things that can be lost following a breast cancer diagnosis. Perhaps for this reason, society’s response to the disease is to throw pink ribbons, make-up tutorials and a peppy outlook at the problem. For many queers and gender non-conforming folks, this feminization of the disease is stifling…

A page from Kimiko Does Cancer showing Kimiko meeting three women in a cancer support group. They introduce themselves and then transform magic girl style into feminine fighters. "I'm Macy, Stacy, Lacy! We're survivors, fighters, warriors! We kick cancer's butt! And look good while doing it~"

Page from Kimiko Does Cancer

Not only is Kimiko uncomfortable with the whiteness and heteronormativity/gender norms, she also is alienated by how apolitical these spaces are. Kimiko considers the ethics and greater implications of each of the choices she’s making in this journey, and the structure around them. She recognizes the privilege she has to be in Canada and have the medical support she does, and the special treatment she gets as a young cancer patient. She contemplates the ethics of freezing her eggs for $7,000 when she’s not sure whether she even wants kids–or whether it’s ethical to bring kids into a climate crisis. On top of that, she feels pressure to have had some great epiphany as a cancer survivor: to have a whole new outlook on life, and no longer care about the “little things.”

Kimiko Does Cancer follows the aftereffects of her treatment as well. She has menopause induced to (hopefully) prevent cancer from recurring. This leaves her with hot flashes, which play a major role in her life. I had no idea what having hot flashes really entailed:

Page from Kimiko Does Cancer shows stages of a hot flash, including anger, raging heat, hunger, and more.

I highly recommend this book, and I hope that it finds its way into the right hands. I’ll leave off with one last quotation from the author, who explains the importance of changing this narrative. She explains that vague cancer fundraisers often get more attention than specific actions needed to improve marginalized peoples’ lives. (And of course, it’s all connected: racial justice and ending poverty are inextricably linked to health.)

When we centre certain bodies and not others, it has dire consequences – black women with breast cancer get diagnosed at later stages than white women and have lower survival rates… By depoliticizing cancer, it becomes an easy cause to support. Pink ribbon campaigns offer a way to give money to an easy-to-sympathize-with-cause that doesn’t force engagement with more difficult issues like poverty or racial justice.

“Straight Cancer in a Queer Body,” The Polyphony