askthepassengers

All across America, millions of teenage girls are asking themselves “Am I gay?” and “Is it wrong to be a lesbian?” They also ask “How will I tell anybody; what will they think of me?” YA author A.S. King has written Ask The Passengers, a novel where one lesbian girl asks herself these questions and more.

Astrid Jones lives in Unity Valley with her uptight mother, her father who is on drugs, and a younger sister. She is in love with Dee, and wants to be in a relationship with her, but nobody knows Astrid is gay. She is afraid to tell her family and friends, as Unity Valley is a town riddled with gossip and backstabbing. To make herself feel better, Astrid sends mental love up to the planes flying overhead, as the passengers won’t judge her.

But the pressure is mounting. Dee, who is out and proud, is pushing Astrid to come out too, something Astrid is not ready for. But when she is accidentally outed, the whole town, including her family, learns the truth. Astrid faces betrayal by her friends, nasty rumors by her narrow-minded school, and the horror of her family. She ponders deeply on her life, and how she wants to live it.

Ask The Passengers is a neat new edition to YA lesbian fiction. Astrid Jones is highly relatable, and readers will feel for her as she questions her sexuality and deals with homophobia. Many people in her life are hypocrites, such as her mother, Claire. She claims to be okay about homosexuality, but reacts the most negatively when she learns about her oldest daughter being gay. Astrid’s school pretends to be tolerant, but really is like the rest of not-so-united Unity Valley. Even Ellis, Astrid’s sister, is afraid to be around Astrid. King really brought the homophobia to life that lesbians face every day, and that made the story more real.

Another really cool aspect of Ask The Passengers was the supernatural karma. Every time Astrid sent a plane her love, the point of view of the story would briefly switch to a passenger on the plane who was going through some issue in his or her life. They would feel Astrid’s love and suddenly know how to fix their situation. I’ve never seen a lesbian story do that, so it was refreshing to see a new take on it.

King also adds real philosophical questions. Astrid is studying Socrates (who she likes to call Frank), and is learning his theories on many aspects of life. My favorite was his cave theory, which was about seeing a narrow view of the world, and how it affects people’s outlook on reality. I thought it tied in perfectly with our society and the gay rights issues we have today.

For any lesbian, this book is an interesting read. Astrid voices many closeted, just coming out lesbians, or lesbians who were unexpectedly outed. She is funny, to the point, and direct with her feelings. A gripping read, Ask The Passengers will resonate with readers even long after they finish it.

cagethedarlings

I love fairytales, especially those with a queer twist so I had to pick this book up! The story is about Envy, a thief working as a servant for a scheme she came up with and Merle, the blackbird princess who visits Envy once she gets locked up in Bran Tower. It is a romantic story but with a lot of personal changes and adventures. It is 104 pages in which Bishop weaves mysteries and magic.

The blurb of the book, which I did not read before reading the book, gives most of the story away. However, there are still a lot of elements and story building to be discovered.

In the beginning as we see the story from Envy’s point of view, you really get the impression that it is told from a classic, boastful and slightly evil voice. It is quite fun. Envy and Belinda both come from a family of thieves who grew up in Vice Quarters and both have good instincts which are useful for their adventures.

Envy starts out with having really good luck, in fact, she brags about it to her ever loyal friend Belinda who followed her in the castle working as a servant. As the story unfolds however, her fortunes change. We get the impression as she later realized that her bad fortune was her greatest fortune after all. Envy’s greatest fault is probably pride since she is always trying to prove herself, which lends her in some trouble towards the middle of the story where she gets banished to Bran Tower. In the time at the tower, it feels both like time is moving fast thanks to the jump cuts and inactivity but it also feels lethargic.

Interestingly I found the theme of freedom vs. time in a moment in the tower very realistic. Sometimes we are willing to do nearly everything to have a moment of ‘total freedom’ but when we are presented with the opportunity, it almost feels like we are not ready, that we want more time with non-freedom.

Bishop has this intricate way of weaving things in threes either through ideas, mentioning of the number three or thrice or by repeating conjunctions three times. Three here is really a magic number; after all, Envy found love in the third woman that we see her get close to, although it is much gentler and with more feelings than the previous two. Bishop also has a way with adjectives; she uses the seemingly perfect words to describe things.

There are short stories within the main story; stories of childhood and past and fairytales which Envy had heard or read. No story however, is said without purpose.

Envy changes as the story moves forward. She faces regrets, guilt and insecurity, she misses her friends and she falls in love. The romance is quite sweet and although there are some trust issues, both Merle and Envy eventually work through that.

There were sweet characters who we and the protagonist thought would be evil, there were funny characters, average characters and evil characters.

Overall, I found this fairytale quite interesting, however, I think I would enjoy some other writings by Elora Bishop more. Although a towards the end there was a twist, most of the things were predictable but it still is a sweet and light read.

justgirls

Just Girls is one of the new releases that I was most excited about reading, because I found the premise very interesting. It tells the story of two women in college: Tucker, an out cis lesbian, and Ella, a bisexual trans woman. The book cycles between their perspectives. When Tucker finds out that people are speculating about who the trans woman is in the dorms and being generally hateful, she angrily defends the anonymous student and spontaneously “outs” herself as trans in order to take the brunt of the hate herself. The idea of a cis person pretending to be trans for any reason could go very badly, no matter how noble the intentions (not to mention that the author is also cis), but I still wanted to see where the story would go–not to mention that lesbian fiction is severely lacking in trans women characters.

Surprisingly, though the premise should have been much more of a minefield than Gold’s previous book, Being Emily, I ended up really loving this one. Emily and Claire (her girlfriend) do make appearances in this one, but they are minor characters, and you don’t have to read the two together or in order. The two things that really struck me in this narrative were the realism and the scope of the novel. While Being Emily is narrowly focused on the experience of being trans, its successor weaves this in with other issues of sexism and being queer. It also shows a different reality than the previous book: while Emily experienced a lot of push back from her coming out, Ella had a supportive family and community. She was able to access the hormones and surgery that she needed, and she had a strong support system. That isn’t to say that it was easy for her, but it was definitely different from Emily’s experience, and I appreciated the acknowledgment that there isn’t just one trans experience.

Again, I can’t speak to how accurate the portrayal of being a trans woman is, but the depiction of the LGBTQ crowd on campus definitely rang true. The drama, the friendship, and [spoiler, highlight to read] yes, even the abuse [end spoiler] seemed to mirror the community that I participated in during university. I had to laugh at the paragraph

Tucker pulled a piece of paper out of her notebook and scrawled on it: Are Vivien and Summer still together? Yes. No. Cal was sitting next to her and she put it in front of him. He looked at it for a minute, then picked up his pen and circled both Yes and No.

Ella also has to deal with sexism on a daily basis, especially as a woman in science. She has several great moments where she reacts against these microaggressions, including when she’s questioned on her gaming prowess and says

“All my high scores are in Pretty Princess Magical Rescue Adventure,” I deadpanned back.

“Me, too,” Shen said in mock surprise.

“I bet my unicorn would own yours,” I told him.

There is also quite an array of diversity in Just Girls; I was especially glad to see that Ella is bisexual (although she doesn’t necessarily identify as such yet, the word “bisexual” is actually used in text, which shouldn’t be worth nothing but still is), and there are PoC characters, though both Ella and Tucker are white. Nico, Ella’s friend/ex is genderqueer and Ella describes per/yo (Nico changes pronouns fairly regularly) as looking, in one outfit, like an “Afro-Asian god/dess”. One of Ella love interests is Shen, who is Chinese, and his cousin Johnny, who is Chinese-American, also a significant side character. Shen is quiet and subtle, and may have come off as stereotypical if he was the only Asian character in the novel, but Johnny’s boisterous personality balances them out.

As for my original concerns with the premise, like If You Could Be Mine, I thought that it managed to navigate that minefield pretty well, but I recognize that other people might disagree. (Hang on, why do this book, If You Could Be Mine, and Adam all feature cis characters pretending to be trans? And written by cis women? That’s an alarming trend. Though this book also features a trans woman main character, of course.) I was worried about it: there is a moment where Tucker attempts to look more masculine to fit the trans persona, and at some point Ella looks at her with tears in her eyes and says she’s “so heroic”, which screams “cis saviour” to me (like “white saviour“). Another character also says that Tucker is being brave for pretending to be trans, and Tucker says that more people should do so.

At the same time, it made me think about the various protests where straight people have “played gay” as protest to anti-gay demonstrations, and this generally viewed positively. Is “playing trans” to protest anti-trans sentiment a similar action? What really changed my mind, though, is that Tucker faces consequences for this action. (More on this in the spoiler section.) And Ella acknowledges the difference between Tucker saying she’s trans and the reality for trans people, when she thinks that sure, if a cis woman tried to use the men’s room as protest they’d just be told to stop, “but what if she’d been a trans student?” As a cis person, Tucker can step away from this, at least to some degree, if she chooses to.

I really think this book has so much packed into it. As I started to write this review, I realized how much I want to say about it. If you’re curious about Just Girls and wanted to remain unspoiled, I definitely recommend giving it a try. The characters are complex, the story is compelling, and it’s packed with things to think about. Highly recommended, though I would definitely put some trigger warnings on that recommendation (transphobia, violence, rape).

Lots of the things I want to discuss happen in the latter half of the book, so spoilers below.

One of the things that I really loved about this book was how the idea of community was handled. There is an LGBTQ community, but that community isn’t necessarily safe. Ella (and Tucker, when she is “playing” trans)  is rejected by both feminist and queer community members (though they are accepted by others in that community). Nico has yos gender interrogated by LGBTQ community members. The TA in Tucker’s Gender Studies class is openly transphobic. In contrast, when she outs herself to Shen, he is completely supportive. That isn’t to say that there isn’t positive queer communities, only that Ella is able to find community in a range of places: through select queer people, cis/straight people, and even supportive strangers.

Shortly after Tucker “comes out” as trans, she is attacked because of it. It’s an odd mix, because Tucker faces the physical effects of this, but Ella deals with the personal effects of knowing that she was the person who that attack was meant for. Later, Tucker is raped by her ex-girlfriend, a woman well-respected in the Gender Studies field and part of the school’s LGBTQ community. Ella tells Tucker that since she protected Ella earlier in the semester, she would protect Tucker now.  When she goes to the administration, she doesn’t get a lot of support. Ella realizes “So she could end up having to walk to class every day on the same campus as her rapist”–which instantly reminded me of the Columbus student who is protesting her rapist’s continued presence on campus by carrying her mattress as a visual sign of the weight of her trauma.

Ella rallies support around Tucker, partly by rallying a crowd through Johnny and Shen’s gamification of a protest, and partly by coming out to said crowd and indicating that Tucker had put herself on the line in order to protect Ella. This protest as game is ingenious as a strategy, and it also is heartwarming. I found myself tearing up as I read about this group of people willing to protect victims and protest the school board’s lukewarm attention to this. Again, I was reminded of the follow-up protests in Columbia, in which other students helped to carry the mattress in solidarity. In this community, Tucker is able to feel safe as she is escorted to classes. When she finds out that Lindy’s previous girlfriend was also abused, she is able to access that rage and act on it, not to protect herself, but to protect others. Both Tucker and Ella grow a lot throughout the book, and are able to support each other to get through it. I think that is what saves it from being a “cis saviour” narrative: first, Ella is just as big a part (if not bigger) of this story than Tucker is, and second because the support is mutual, and they end up on even ground.

I do have some complaints. There are some remarks through the book that I disagree with, but I acknowledge that Ella and Tucker are not perfect, and that doesn’t mean the book supports their views. (For example, Tucker pities the plight of women in far off countries who are being oppressed, and wishes she could take them to the US to be saved. Ella, when being concerned about having sex, thinks that some people fetishize the “hermaphrodite” look.) One point that I couldn’t dismiss, though, was the ableism: Lindy’s abusive actions are chalked up to some indeterminate mental illness, as if neurotypical people cannot be abusive, or people with mental illness are more dangerous (instead of the reality, which that they’re more likely to be victims of violence and abuse). Also, when Ella meets Lindy she muses that maybe she has “high-functioning, undiagnosed Asperger’s” (which doesn’t even make any sense: how would you know whether she’d been diagnosed?) Also, as a small complaint, I’d rather that Lindy hadn’t been a plagiarist. The truth is that there are people who are well-respected in their field and who are also abusive. It seems too simple to say “Well, she was a terrible person, therefore that paper than was so acclaimed must not have actually been written by her”.

Another minor point, but I also thought the depiction of the Gender Studies class was pretty unrealistic. In one, the teacher asks how many people think sexism is over and feminism is no longer needed, and half the class raises their hands? Maybe it was the hippie left coast university I went to, but in my experience, almost no one takes Women’s Studies or Gender Studies who isn’t already feminist-leaning. People who disagree with feminism tend to have very little interest in those classes. Also, the teacher (who is supposedly trans positive) takes on an openly transphobic TA, and then doesn’t correct her while she is spouting off transphobic, ridiculous arguments to a student? And then says “I want you to learn to stand up to an opposing viewpoint on your own,” though she acknowledges that she wouldn’t expect that if it was anti-feminist criticism? Again, maybe it was just my hippie university, but I have never seen a Women’s Studies teacher do that, at least not one who’s well respected.

I do have some complaints, and I definitely think that other people could get completely different things out this book (I would love to read some reviews by trans women in comparison), but I would definitely recommend this book, if just for the sheer amount of discussions it raises. As a beginner to trans issues, I’d recommend this over Being Emily, and I think it would be a less triggering read for trans readers as well (though it does deal with transphobia, violence, and rape), because the main characters begin the novel already trans positive. I’m really glad this book is out there, and I hope it gets a lot more attention.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

nepantlacover.150   lumberjanes_005_covera   tippingthevelvet

Autostraddle posted Drawn to Comics: Lumberjanes #5 May Be the Best One Yet! and Lez Liberty Lit #54: Libraries, Libraries Everywhere.

Bisexual Books posted Lambda Literary Submissions.

Karin Kallmaker posted Keeping it “Real” and Buying into the Big Lie (on the Big Queer Tent and “Real” Lesbians).

Sarah Waters was interviewed at Strait Times.

justgirls   payingguests   someofusdidnotdie

Keepsake Self Storage by Marianne Banks was reviewed at Lambda Literary.

The Island of Excess Love by Francesca Lia Block was reviewed at Bisexual Books.

Just Girls by Rachel Gold was reviewed at Frivolous Views.

Some of Us Did NOT Die: New and Selected Essays by June Jordan was reviewed at Bisexual Books.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters was reviewed at Slate, Estella’s Revenge, The Sidney Morning Herald, and Lambda Literary, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

This post, and all posts at the Lesbrary, have the covers linked to their Amazon pages. If you click through and buy something, I might get a small referral fee. For even more links, check out the Lesbrary’s twitter pageWe’re also on FacebookGoodreadsYoutube and tumblr.

emlynandthegremlin

I love quality children’s literature. Books for children, in my opinion, require all of the elements necessary in producing a good book for any other age group (a plotline! characters!), but also: whimsical rhymes, eye-catching illustrations, and maybe maybe maybe a gentle nudge in some moral direction.

Steff F. Kneff’s Emlyn and the Gremlin has 2.5/3 of these things, making for a pretty quality read. Emlyn is a little girl with two mothers – but, as the title shows, her parents’ relationship isn’t central to the plot. A very tiny gremlin is. The story begins with Emlyn convinced that a nasty gremlin is stealing and breaking all her shiny things – but she’ll find out, in a gentle way, that maybe she shouldn’t have judged the gremlin before meeting her.

I liked the rhyming, the storyline, and the addition of Emlyn’s dog Moose (cute!). I loved that Emlyn’s two moms weren’t scrutinized or “explained”. Emlyn’s prejudgments about the gremlin could obviously be linked to Emlyn’s parents, of course, but Kneff thankfully took a more nuanced route.

The illustrations could perhaps be improved upon. The characters look vaguely reminiscent of manga characters, and I’m not sure the style quite fits with most current children’s literature. Still, children may very well take to the brightly-colored pictures regardless, and the story is good enough that it shouldn’t be passed up.

betteroffred

Ginger’s goal as a college freshman is to maintain her 4.0 GPA without being driven batty by her roommate Amy’s obsession with Greek life. But when she agrees to look at them to get Amy off her back, she can’t take her mind off the gorgeous girls of Alpha Beta Omega. Somehow, she finds herself invited to their secret initiation ritual, and that’s when things get weird. Everyone expects odd mystic rituals from a fraternity or sorority, but ABO is hiding blood-bonds and vampire queens. What’s Ginger to do when her secret crush turns out to be the top vamp?

I really wanted to love this book going in: with sororities, secret vampires, lesbian erotica, how could it go wrong? But while it had some great moments, I think the book suffers from a major lack of conflict past about the first third. Ginger drives herself mad over Camila, insisting to herself that there’s no way vamp-queen Camila could have feelings for her. Normally, I wouldn’t blink at that – mysterious motives of a love interest are a tried-and-true story element. The problem is, as the reader, it was pretty damn clear after about the second round of sex that Camila is deeply, unreservedly into Ginger, so Ginger’s cluelessness didn’t reflect terribly well on her. However, minus the emotional whirlwind, Ginger is relatable and funny, and gets in some good mental quips.

Between the current sorority sisters, the vampire-queens, and the new pledges, the book establishes a fairly diverse cast of ladies. But because we meet them through Ginger’s first-person perspective, there’s a lot of objectifying language used to describe their introduction. I was a little uncomfortable with the focus on their exotic beauty, and I don’t feel like we ever get great character development for the other sister-queens (as the book calls them). But thankfully, after the first introductions, the other sorority sisters are fleshed out enough that their backgrounds aren’t their only signifier.

Overall, if I was giving a grade, I’d give Better Off Red a C+. It’s light on plot and I wish that the vampire mythology had been fleshed out further, but the erotica was well-written, and I don’t regret reading it. Pick this up if the concept grabs you and you don’t mind a focus on sex.

october

In many ways, October feel like a snippet from someone’s real life. It’s as if you sat someone down and said “So, what’s your story?” or “How did you two meet?” and they decided to tell you the whole story. It’s a short book, but it keeps a slow pace for the most part, focusing on the tentative development of a relationship between two wounded people.

Jo, the main character, is a photographer in Johannesburg, and she bounces between parties that she shoots at mindlessly, and coming home to spend time with her family. Her life revolves around her mom, her brother, and her niece and nephew. Her brother, Brian, is disabled, and unfortunately seems to largely serve as a tragic backstory for Jo. Especially in the beginning of the book, there’s a lot of focus on how Brian has impacted Jo’s life, but not a lot of development for him as a character in his own right.

Jo’s life is quickly thrown into upheaval when, in quick succession: her parents have a messy divorce, her father has a stroke and loses most of his memory, and her sister forbids Jo from seeing her niece and nephew because apparently being gay is contagious. These events happen so quickly in the narrative that I thought at first that they were flashbacks. After this is established, however, the rest of October is concerned with the fallout of these events on Jo’s life. I couldn’t help sympathizing with Jo’s mourning of her niece and nephew, because my role as an aunt is a hugely important part of my life, and I couldn’t imagine not being allowed to see my nieces. This is unfortunately still a reality for way too many queer people, and I respected that October really allows room for Jo’s grief.

For the most part, though, this is a love story. Jo meets Leigh, a former pop singer dealing with her own trauma. They are drawn together, but are hesitant of hurting themselves and each other. They negotiate their emotional boundaries, and the majority of the narrative is spent on their careful courtship, allowing each other to be in their lives.

The photos include add another layer to the novel. I didn’t really get a lot out of the small black-and-white photos that preceded each chapter, but once I got to the full colour prints in the middle of the book, I realized how they related to the story. They are sparse, with a lot of empty space, and it’s fitting for a novel dealing so much with loss.

There were some typos throughout the book, and I did have some problems with it, but if you’re looking for a romance that feels realistic and unhurried, you should give this one a try, especially for a different setting than is usually written.

hardlove

I first read Hard Love in 8th grade, about ten years before I figured out I was a lesbian. Later, I decided my fascination with this novel should have been a clue that I was gay—the bashful curiosity that caused me to shut myself in my bedroom and tear through this book in just a few hours was probably a result of my literary crush on one of Ellen Wittlinger’s main characters, Marisol.

John (or Gio, as he dubs himself) is a bit of a loner, navigating his parents’ divorce through his newly founded zine, Bananafish. As Gio explores more of the indie zine culture, he discovers Marisol’s zine, Escape Velocity. Impressed with both her writing and her openness about her identity, Gio vows to seek out Marisol, hoping to gain some inspiration. Marisol agrees to teach him the ways of zine-making, and soon their relationship evolves into a true friendship, for which neither character is totally prepared.

I’ve always been fascinated by the ambiguous line between friendship and romance. This book takes that ambiguity and brings it into focus, as Gio and Marisol try to figure out how to be friends when there are some questionably more-than-friendly feelings involved.

Marisol is an amazing character. She is witty, sarcastic, super intelligent and incredibly confident. She knows more about herself than most adults do, and is constantly trying to understand her identity better. Her introspective side manifests itself in Escape Velocity, in which she validates her identity by naming it in a very Audre Lorde-like manner (“Marisol Guzman, Puerto Rican Cuban Yankee Cambridge, Massachusetts, rich spoiled lesbian private-school-gifted-and-talented writer virgin looking for love”).

But even Marisol doesn’t have it all figured out. As she advises Gio on his writing and his life, her attitude suggests that she sees the world in black and white—she honestly believes there is one right way to approach a situation. For this reason, she is caught off-guard when her friendship with Gio gets more complicated than expected.

I have much less patience for Gio than for Marisol. I always want him to grow more courageous as the story progresses, but when he decides to do something drastic, it is often without any consideration for the consequences. However, I do prefer Gio as a narrator: in Wittlinger’s companion book, Love and Lies: Marisol’s Story, I found that having insight into her point of view took away from her allure.

The primary flaw of Hard Love is its narrow-mindedness; it excludes any identity other than gay or straight. (For example, asexuality is deemed “a defect.”) Similarly, the novel relies on stereotypes of lesbians that made me a bit uncomfortable during my latest reading. I hate to think that the depictions of lesbians I saw in Hard Love defined what the term meant for me as a supposedly straight teenager.

At the same time, readers should remember that Hard Love was published in 1999, many years before the Malinda Lo and David Levithan age of LGBTQ YA. Only recently has the genre expanded to include such varied stories of queer youth. As such, Wittlinger was certainly a frontrunner in creating space for lesbian characters in mainstream YA literature—in fact, Hard Love won the Lambda Literary Award for YA fiction in 2000.

Though it is arguably less progressive than more recently published books, I still highly recommend Hard Love. Marisol and Gio’s struggle to define friendship will always be relevant, whether you are a teenager just trying to make it through high school or a twenty-something who wishes she had recognized the feelings this book conjured so many years ago.

loveinthetimeofglobalwarming   Silhouette of a Sparrow   fingersmith-bookcover

AfterEllen posted The AfterEllen.com Book Club for September: “The Paying Guests” and Sarah Waters’ “Fingersmith” gets a big screen adaptation with a twist.

Autostraddle posted Lez Liberty Lit #54: Libraries, Libraries Everywhere.

Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian posted The Best Historical Queer Women’s Fiction: A List of Personal Favourites.

Gay YA posted We Are Not Just a Diversity Checkbox Part 3 and Interview With Francesca Lia Block.

Lambda Literary posted Read Now! The Inaugural Issue of ‘Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color’ and New in September: Sarah Waters, Cookie Mueller, Christos Tsiolkas, Jericho Brown, Saeed Jones, Daisy Hernandez, and Douglas Ray.

queerlybeloved   giraffepeople   PayingGuests

Queerly Beloved by Diane and Jacob Anderson-Minshall was reviewed at Bi Magazine.

Like Jazz by Heather Blackmore was reviewed at C-Spot Reviews.

Giraffe People by Jill Malone was reviewed at Piercing Fiction.

Destination Alara by S.Y Thompson was reviewed at Terry’s Lesfic Reviews.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters was reviewed at The Globe and Mail, The New Zealand Herald, National Post, The Independent, The Guardian.

This post, and all posts at the Lesbrary, have the covers linked to their Amazon pages. If you click through and buy something, I might get a small referral fee. For even more links, check out the Lesbrary’s twitter pageWe’re also on FacebookGoodreadsYoutube and tumblr.

mapofhome

Like many a classic coming-of-age or fictional autobiography, A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar begins with the birth of the heroine.  What you don’t usually see, though, is a screaming match in an American hospital in Arabic between the mother and father after a disagreement about the baby’s name.  If you don’t know any Arabic words, this is an interesting introduction by the main character Nidali’s mother: “Kussy?  Kussy ya ibn ilsharmoota?” “My pussy, you son of a whore?  Don’t concern yourself with my pussy, you hear?  No more of this pussy for you, you … ass!”  When Nidali’s father tries to stop his wife from swearing at the top of her lungs in public, she protests that no one in the States understands them anyway and to prove her point tells a white woman her baby looks like a monkey. The woman nods and smiles.

This beginning sets the irreverent, raw, no-holds-barred tone of Jarrar’s first novel.  Hers is the kind of infectious narrative voice that’s easy to fall in love with; you want to find out what happens to Nidali even before you know much about her.  Actually, just reading the initial description of her on the book jacket should be enough to pique your interest: “the rebellious daughter of an Egyptian-Greek mother and a Palestinian father narrates the story of her childhood in Kuwait, her teenage years in Egypt … and her family’s last flight to Texas.”  The novel is a great mix of what’s now considered history—like Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990—and personal experience; it’s not that Nidali’s story is interesting because of the significant world events she’s living through but that her individual perspective can teach us about these historical events and this history sheds light on who she is.

In addition to the combination of history and the personal, the novel is a fascinating mix between serious material and a comic outlook.  I suppose it’s that mentality of ‘if you don’t laugh, you might cry.’  Nidali’s father, for example, is both verbally and physically abusive but the tone that the narrator recalls this in is not what you might expect: it’s the same wry attitude she paints everything with.  Recounting the humiliating experience of going through an Israeli checkpoint to visit family in Palestine, Nidali ends the scene by describing a woman whose shoes mysteriously disappear after the intensive search.  After convincing the soldier to return her stolen shoes, the woman says: “First my land, now my Guccis!  Goddamn it.”  It’s hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time—pretty exemplary of this whole book, actually.

The idea of home is, of course, central to A Map of Home.  It’s a feeling Nidali is looking for throughout the story, not quite sure about her father’s proclamation that Palestinians can carry a sense of home around with them.  She just wants to feel like she belongs to a place, and that it belongs to her, and whenever she starts to feel a connection with somewhere, it is ripped from her grasp.  Later on in the book she seems to make peace with this feeling of placelessness while looking at a map:

I stared at the whiteness of the paper’s edges for a long, long time. The whiteness of the page blended with the whiteness of my sheets. ‘You are here,’ I thought as I looked at the page and all around me. And oddly, I felt free.

Jarrar is a talented writer, as you can see in that quotation, crafting unusual and striking similes like “guilt descended like a fat mosquito and sucked out all our blood” and “the onus of renaming a son after my grandfather was [one] [Nidali’s father] brushed off his then-solid shoulders unceremoniously, like a piece of lint or a flake of dandruff.”  I’m really interested to see what she writes next, in particular to see if she focuses on queerness a bit more.  If you’re looking for a book with a lot of queer content, A Map of Home certainly isn’t it; the character is definitely bisexual and talks in passing about her feelings and narrates one brief same-sex experience, but the different gender relationships take up a lot more narrative space.  I certainly wouldn’t fault the novel for this, especially as it ends when Nidali is only in her late teens, but I would be interested to know how Nidali explores her sexuality more in her future.  It would be especially interesting to see how Nidali’s multi-cultural and racial background play out with a non-monosexual identity.  You know, if she was a real person and stuff and not a work of fiction.

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