Carmella reviews We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir by Samra Habib

We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib

Samra Habib is many things: photographer, journalist, activist, writer, queer woman, Muslim, refugee, and now – with the publication of her memoir – the author of a book. The saying may be ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’, but I think she has done a pretty masterful job here!

I was already familiar with Habib (as you may also be) from her existing body of work. She runs ‘Just Me and Allah: A Queer Muslim Project’ on Tumblr, where she shares the photo portraits and stories of other queer Muslims, and writes for various media outlets such as the New York Times, Guardian, and Vice. She has a strong voice and is always interesting, thought-provoking, and creative with it – so I was naturally excited to read her memoir and learn more about what experiences have shaped her perspective.

We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir follows Habib’s life, starting with a childhood in Pakistan where her family faced persecution as Ahmadiyya Muslims, followed by immigration to Canada, an unwanted arranged marriage at the age of sixteen, and then finding both her identity as a queer woman and her calling as a documenter of queer Muslim experiences.

As I already said, one of Habib’s writing strengths is her voice. I always enjoy reading her articles, so I was curious to see how much a full-length book would differ from her journalism. The answer is “not much”!

She continues to write with a conversational, confessional style. Reading the memoir is like reading a really long feature article (think the Guardian’s ‘long reads’). Luckily, this is a good thing: it’s what Habib is good at. I was engaged the whole way through, enjoying both the personal aspects and the more factual bits focusing on history and culture.

That said, I did feel like there could have been a little more of the personal, as sometimes the narrative felt like it had gaps. For example, Habib’s siblings fade in and out and barely feature as characters, which feels strange in a work that talks so much about family life. But this is a memoir rather than an autobiography, so it could just be a quirk of the genre.

For me, the memoir gets to be most interesting when Habib starts to talk about her photo project. It’s compelling to hear about how it got started. Habib explains that she wanted to see Muslims represented in queer spaces, and in an accessible way that doesn’t block people with a language barrier or academic jargon.

I was also fascinated to hear more about how people like Habib and her subjects reconcile faith with their queer identities. I have read a fair deal about LGBT followers of Christianity and Judaism, but I haven’t come across much about Islam. One of the stand-out sections is Habib’s description of attending prayers at Unity Mosque, an LGBT-friendly mosque run by a gay imam. After spending so much of the memoir seeking belonging, it’s delightful to read about Habib finally feeling part of a community.

The title We Have Always Been Here is actually taken from a quote from one of Habib’s subjects, Zainab. It’s a powerful statement about asserting the right to a shared community, history, and voice for queer Muslims. But I don’t know if it’s the right title for this memoir. Going into it, I was expecting more on the history of queer Muslims, whereas the memoir is focused entirely on contemporary experience. I don’t dislike this focus, but it wasn’t what I was expecting from the title.

Still, I see why Habib wanted to use a quote taken from her photo project. This memoir is a natural extension of her existing body of work: yet another way in which she asserts that queer Muslims exist – indeed, have always existed – and deserve to have their stories heard.

Trigger warnings: CSA, abuse, arranged child marriage, attempted suicide

Susan reviews My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 2 by Nagata Kabi

My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 2

My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 2 is another set of autobiographical essays about Nagata Kabi’s life and depression. Where Volume 1 followed her attempts at independence and romantic intimacy while unpicking her relationship with her family, whereas volume 2 finds Nagata Kabi enjoying friendship and emotional intimacy, while her mental health takes a nosedive.

Just like with the first volume, My Solo Exchange Diary can be a rough read. Nagata Kabi is frank about her mental health and the setbacks she suffered – being equally unable to cope with living alone and living with her family, drinking, and voluntary hospitalisation – and that is often harrowing! Sometimes funny, but definitely hard sometimes. Her cartoony style still doesn’t soften any of the blows, and sometimes make it worse, but her art is clean and striking, so it works! (And just on a purely over-analysing level: I love that the cover is finally her reaching out to herself and talking, because I feel like that drawing alone represents so much growth in her attitude to herself and her own pain.)

I think what really struck me for the first time as I read this is that because of the format – a collected edition of visual essays that were originally serialised monthly – it’s actually really tense to read, because you don’t have the same reassurance that the creator must have been fine because they finished the book as you would in a more standard autobiography. It accounts for the significant shifts in tone and subject between the chapters, and the way that she is much more enthusiastic and loving about her family than she was in the first volume, even as she talks about the pain they have caused and still cause her. It makes sense, because My Solo Exchange Diary is very much about the ways that Nagata Kabi’s family hurt her, but still rallied around when she needed them, but it was a little surprising to read.

The depiction of her struggle with independence and her stay in hospital felt very relatable to me, especially in her reactions to being stuck in the hospital without being able to articulate her fear and despair at the idea of having to stay there for months on end. It doesn’t feel advisory or demonstrative, it’s not a “here is what staying in hospital for mental health reasons is like,” it’s just what it was like for her, and the ways in which it helped her and scared her.

Unsurprisingly, My Solo Exchange Diary is still hard and harrowing to read, but it feels more hopeful than the previous volume. Nagata Kabi specifically talks about her support network that cares for her, and there is an epilogue where she recognises that packaging her life in neat little chunks for an audience is maybe not the best choice for her right now, which I’m honestly in favour of because I’d rather she focus on her recovery. Seeing her asking how her future self was doing at the end of some of the chapters broke my heart a little, but gave me hope that she was going to be okay. … Especially because she FINALLY got the hug that she’s been waiting for, and I nearly cried for her.

[Caution warning: alcoholism, depression, hospitalisation, self-harm, suicide attempt]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 1 by Nagata Kabi

My Solo Exchange Diary cover

Nagata Kabi’s My Solo Exchange Diary Volume One is a follow-up to her hit autobiographical manga My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness (which I reviewed in June!). It is an autobiographical essay collection talking about her depression, her attempts to leave home and gain her independence, and her relationship with her family; and it is harrowing. Compulsive, excellent reading, but it left me feeling like I’d been hit by a truck afterwards.

It’s a very introspective series of graphic essays, where she talks about her realisations in the past month and the work that she has done on her own well-being. Sometimes this means that the essays meander a little, and sometimes it means that they’re laser-focused on one issue, like having to be confident in her own identity before she can let herself be influenced by others. The art style is still the same as in My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, so it’s still cute and cartoony, but the contrast between that art style and the subject matter alternates wildly between making things more bearable and making things harrowing.

If anything, My Solo Exchange Diary is even more clearly and explicitly about Nagata Kabi’s loneliness, despite it being about her search for connection and friendships! It analyses her support network (which… Isn’t really a network), and how unsupportive her family is, not just of her as a creator, but of her as a human being, and that is rough. (If you remember in My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, how she said that she had the classic traits of someone who was abused as a child despite not being abused? Yeah, about that.) She’s also frank to the point of cruelty about her own self-harm and suicide attempts (which she mentions not necessarily casually, but almost as a background detail for what’s going on) and readiness for relationships, which means that the end of the book is really hard to bear! To the point where I just had to put the book down and stare into space for five minutes to process how it was making me feel.

The first volume of My Solo Exchange Diary is a beautiful, gutting read. If you liked My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness then it is definitely worth picking up, but it is a lot rougher emotionally!

[Caution warnings: depression, self-harm, emotional neglect/abuse, mentions of eating disorders]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Mars Reviews “My Mother Says Drums Are For Boys: True Stories for Gender Rebels” by Rae Theodore

In this short autobiographical essay and poetry collection, Rae Theodore offers a frank and panoramic perspective on growing up butch. The titular term “gender rebel” is entirely accurate here as Theodore recalls a childhood and young adulthood where classic femininity chafed. All the outer accoutrements of fashion and stature were as complicated to her as the mental tightrope that so many butches walk, between a female-bodied experience and an intimate mental relationship with the masculine self. In the author’s case, performativity, or ‘walking the walk’ of socially-acceptable womanhood, was never enough, and was made extra complicated by the realization of her own homosexuality after having already married and built a life with a man.

Reading through this piece was a real pleasure. I haven’t read much LGBTQ+ work that centers the butch experience, and I can’t quite express how powerful and charming it felt to read simple anecdotes packing a reflective punch on the heavy burden that gender can be. I don’t know that I expected to identify so much with it either, but I suppose that’s the power of sharing diverse stories. The weaponization of clothing, jealously observing the freedom of boys, childish yearning for a father’s approval of a son, the immediate and intangible connection that a queer gender rebel feels when encountering one’s elders: Theodore recounts this and more in an honest and straightforward manner that keeps readers glued to the page.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has ever been made to feel ashamed for their tomboyishness, or gender expression in general; to anyone who has ever needed to contain multitudes of softness and hardness towards the world and towards themselves; or to anyone who in any number of ways has ever felt like a late bloomer.

Disclaimer that there are mentions of violence in certain stories, and a lot of working through deep shame and internalized homophobia, especially earlier on. I will also add that while this is a serious (and sometimes very fun) recounting, the book summits with comforting self-actualization, and this butch seems to have attained a really lovely life. In a book like this, the nice thing about a happy ending is that it makes you believe you can have one too.

Mars reviews Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel cover

It’s hard to boil this one down. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a complex portrait of a complex family. Let no one tell you that graphic novels cannot be intense reckonings of literature, especially not when they have become staples of the modern lesbian literary canon and have been reproduced as a very successful Tony-award winning Broadway production.

In a very basic sense, Fun Home is an autobiography of the author’s life, from a young tomboy to an out-and-proud lesbian, in the context of her father’s life right up until his maybe suicide, maybe accidental death only a few short months after she came out to her parents and in turn came to learn of her father’s own troubled sexuality. Bechdel paints a portrait of her father as a stern, intellectual figure who was clearly devoted to his family but struggled to reconcile his role within it with his apparent homosexuality. The backdrop of this story is the 1970s (the author recalls passing New York City’s Stonewall Inn as a girl shortly after the infamous riots), a time during which sexual or gender queerness was criminal. We must wonder that if Bechdel’s collegiate sexual awakening was radical, how can we understand her father’s own lifetime of repressed sexuality? This is among the key tensions that Bechdel is trying to work out here.

In Fun Home, her father Bruce is remembered as a high school English teacher and sometimes small-town mortician obsessed with classic literature and 19th century historical preservation. He is defined by his obsessions because, as the author notes, they are the clearest lenses through which she could understand him. Indeed, Bechdel uses an apt metaphor comparing her father to the Greek figure Daedalus and herself to his son Icarus, and wonders: “Was Daedalus really stricken with grief when Icarus fell into the sea? Or just disappointed by the design failure?”

As children become adults, there is a well-known phenomenon of disillusionment which occurs, whereby magical parental authority is stripped away and parents can be understood as the flawed, struggling humans who they actually are. That Bechdel didn’t have the opportunity to reach this stage with her father, who died while she was in college at the age of 44, is an explanation for his almost mythological status here. It’s also evident in the conflicting feelings of resentment and affection that Bechdel’s self-stylized character struggles with throughout the book.

As affectionately as Bechdel illustrates nights playing piano with her father, strutting around in his old suits, and borrowing books from his personal library upon recommendation, readers begin this story by seeing a violent, abusive, and overall terrifying father figure. Family secrets, comic and shameful, feature as important narrative points in this book. Although it is tucked away in the acknowledgements, I think the best summary of this story is this note from Bechdel to her remaining family: “Thanks to Helen, Christian, and John Bechdel for not trying to stop me from writing this book.”

This is not lighthearted reading. The author’s ambivalent narration of events as they are recalled from her often vague childhood journals are riddled with obsessive-compulsive inaccuracies can be jarring. On the scale of tragic versus comic, this life story does seem to lean more one way than another. As stated from the outset though, this is a complex portrait of a complex family. It is full of rich literary references, scenes of a childhood innocence preserved through childish ignorance, and the longing for a familial connection that never achieved its full potential.

For more info on Alison Bechdel and Fun Home, check out this interview she did with The Guardian.

Susan reviews My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness by Nagata Kabi

Nagata Kabi’s My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness is an autobiographical manga about the creator’s life as a young queer Japanese woman with depression, who decides that the best way to resolve her difficulties connecting with people and her understanding of her own sexuality is to hire an escort.

My Lesbian Experience With Loneless is a a really fascinating look at the creator’s life, especially because the way she talks about her depression is extremely relatable. Some of the mental loops she describes and her resolutions (She talks about how she always treated herself and her accomplishments like crap because she couldn’t love herself, but once she started actually looking after herself the people around her started treating her better! And there is a panel of her yelling “If this is how it is, I’ve got nothing to lose! I’ll claw my way out of bed with my last dying breath!” which is how I feel about my mental health too!) are extremely familiar, but presented in a way that softens the blow. She makes me laugh even as I’m nodding along. She doesn’t shy away from talking about the problems she’s had, or how awkward she is, and it’s impressive.

(I found the sections where she spoke about her mother to be very strange, but in much the same way that I found the way Alison Bechdel spoke about hers in Are You My Mother? to be strange, so I don’t think that part of the book was ever going to work for me. Your mileage may vary!)

The art style is very minimal and sketchy, which works for the narrative of the book. It does so much of the heavy lifting to keep things on this side of funny and bearable, even when she’s talking about serious matters like her eating disorder. I found it especially effective for the scenes at the love hotel, because it’s not presented in a titillating way! I’m a fan of story about sex workers than manages to not centre the male gaze, and the fact that this story focuses on how awkward Nagata Kabi felt herself to be really works. I especially loved the follow-up comic where she talks to another escort from the agency, and the authorial comment that it’s much easier to speak to people who know her from her manga, because “it was like I’d submitted material about my personality in advance.”

Basically, this was an entertaining manga that speaks frankly about Nagata Kabi’s depression and recovery, and the way that hiring a sex worker changed how she thought about herself. It was really cool, and I enjoyed it a lot!

(The follow-up manga, My Solo Exchange Diary, has also been licensed and should be out this month!)

[Caution warning: depression, eating disorders]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Kalyanii reviews Cooking as Fast as I Can: A Chef’s Story of Family, Food, and Forgiveness by Cat Cora

 

cooking as fast as i can cat cora

For years, I’ve admired Cat Cora for her ability to take on the most notable male chefs of the day, all the while prepared with a quip in her Southern twang and sporting a smile that invariably brings me to my knees. Self-assured and deservedly so, Ms. Cora’s star had risen in the midst of Food Network’s extended heyday. Her commanding presence and newfound celebrity status offered an image of infallibility as well as culinary brilliance. Watching her throw down in Iron Chef’s Kitchen Stadium, there appeared not a chink in her armor.

When I opened to the first page of Cooking as Fast as I Can: A Chef’s Story of Family, Food, and Forgiveness, I expected a tidy yet endearing memoir, one that might recount a few challenges along the journey toward hard-earned culinary stardom. A work that would enhance her accessibility while painting a portrait of a woman who has let nothing get in her way. Yet, I was unprepared for the uncompromising honesty and no-holds-barred self-reflection that I encountered within its pages.

Born to an unwed teenage mother on April 3rd of 1967, Cat, initially named Melanie, landed in the Mississippi Children’s Home, where she was adopted by a loving couple one week later. Virginia Lee and Spiro Cora of Jackson, Mississippi provided her with a rather idyllic childhood, complete with strong familial bonds, Greek and Southern culinary histories and frequent family outings.

For the young Cat, however, some of the family’s travels were tainted by the sexual abuse perpetuated by AH, the son of a family friend, nine years older than herself, who had made a habit of molesting her from the time she was six years old, warning her not to tell her parents or they would hate her, stop loving her and think she’s “cheap trash.” Fortunately, or not so much, when Cat was ten or perhaps eleven years old, her father walked into the bathroom where AH had cornered and proceeded to have his way with her. Initially relieved that the secret was out, Cat grew heartbroken upon witnessing the disgust on her father’s face. Rather than having AH’s hide, Spiro Cora turned and walked out, leaving her alone with her perpetrator.

There is very little of the polite or demure within Ms. Cora’s narrative. She tells things as they were (and currently are) without sugar-coating or diminishing the gravity of any given situation. Her tone is intensely conversational throughout the book, bare-bones honest without a hint of the melodramatic. She even throws in an f-bomb or two, which I appreciated to no end. Within her memoir, there is no denying it, Cat Cora gets real.

Not once does Ms. Cora shy away from her appreciation for the ladies, the strength and vitality of her apparently impressive libido or an admission of the trysts enjoyed while in a steady relationship. Seemingly unconcerned with the potential of judgements passed, Ms. Cora tells it as she sees and, yes, lived it.

When it comes to present-day dynamics, Ms. Cora remains forthcoming in her remembrances regarding events that pertain to her life with her wife, Jennifer, and their four young boys. She tackles head-on the challenges of motherhood, the residue created by several jet-set years as a celebrity chef as well as the fallout from her excessive alcohol consumption, which is truly where the rubber meets the road and I found myself most astounded by her willingness to self-disclose.

Even in conclusion, Ms. Cora chooses not to flaunt her involvement in twelve-step meetings as resolution in her relationship with alcohol nor as a happy ending to her marriage nor, for that matter, any other aspect of her life. She simply invites us to meet her where she stands, preparing dinner for friends while her wife is away, practicing yoga, and the boys play underfoot.

Danika reviews Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

dirty-river

I feel completely unqualified to talk about this book. After reading (and falling in love with) Piepzna-Samarasinha’s book of poetry Bodymap, I knew I had to read her memoir. The things I loved about Bodymap are present in Dirty River as well: Piepzna-Samarasinha’s strong voice, her sharp and precise words, and the deep dive into disability, queerness, poverty, abuse, and survival. Although this is prose, it’s clearly written by a poet: the imagery and language are evocative and precise.

This is a story that lays it all out on the table. It’s vulnerable and resilient. She explores what it means to survive. What constitutes healing or “getting out”. Dirty River tackles a lot, but it’s accessible and engrossing. I don’t have the words to contain Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s writing. Pick it up. These are the stories that nourish.

Danika reviews The Family Tooth by Ellis Avery

familytooth

As soon as I finished The Last Nude by Ellis Avery, I immediately added her to my mental list of favourite authors, despite the fact that it was the only thing I’d ever read by her. Some stories are like that. The Family Tooth is a very different book, but it definitely has helped secure her place on that list.

The Family Tooth is a memoir composed of linked essays. Some of these are available as Kindle singles, or the whole book is available zine-style in the author’s Etsy shop. At first glance, it can seem disconnected. The essays cover Avery’s grief over the death of her mother, as well as her journey through dealing with severe arthritis and later cancer, partly through radically restricting her diet. Because they do concentrate on different subjects, the essays can stand on their own, but I think they’re much more powerful when read in sequence.

In the introduction to this collection, Avery warns that part of this purpose of these essays is to detail her discoveries about treatment of her illness so that other people with similar symptoms can use her research to help in their own lives. She encourages the average reader to skip these dry medical passages. It’s a testament to Ellis Avery’s writing that I realized at the end of the book that I had totally forgotten this warning, and despite the detail given, I had never noticed any “dry” segments.

The book begins by discussing her mother’s death, and the complex relationship Ellis Avery had with her mother–an alcoholic and emotionally distant figure in her life. Later essays that are primarily concerned with Avery’s illness still bring in this processing, including thought-provoking parallels between her mother’s life and her own that recontextualize and complicate the initial impression we have of her.

It’s Avery’s writing that really makes these essays stand out. She knows just how to give a detail or mental image that elevates the whole narrative. She weaves in lines that link these disparate subjects together effortlessly. I found myself reading lines out loud to my roommate, and at one point we both paused after I read out a sentence and then said simultaneously “That’s such good writing.”

Grief memoirs and illness memoirs are not usually genres that I gravitate towards, but I will continue to read anything this author decides to write, and I would recommend you join me.

Danika reviews Kicking the Habit: A Lesbian Nun Story by Jeanne Cordova

kicking

I will admit, I find the idea of lesbian nuns fascinating. I love that there are multiple books on the subject. It actually makes total sense: historically, at least in the Western world, one of the few avenues that women had available to them if they didn’t want to get married to men and have children was to become a nun. Is it surprising that lesbians are over-represented in that number? In addition to this being a lesbian nun book, it’s also by an author I already enjoy. Cordova wrote a memoir about her activism titled When We Were Outlaws which I reviewed at the Lesbrary previously, so I knew that her writing style agree with me. It also ended up being an interesting prologue to When We Were Outlaws: I wouldn’t have guessed that passionate lesbian activist spent her childhood yearning to be a nun.

This isn’t as scandalous as the subtitle “A Lesbian Nun Story” would have you believe. In fact, it’s almost the opposite of that. Cordova as a postulant is hopelessly naive. The reader knows better, but young Jeanne wanders through training confused about why the church is so strict about “particular friendships” and what all the blushing and hand-holding is about between nuns she knows. More than a story about being a lesbian nun, Breaking the Habit is about Cordova’s disillusionment about convent life and about the plans she had been dreaming about since childhood. She describes wanting to be a nun as being in love with God, and primarily this is a story about falling out of love and about finding the world to be wider, darker, and also full of more possibility than she was aware of.

Overall, it’s a sweet story about coming out to yourself in an unusual setting. I think this works better as a prologue to When We Were Outlaws than as a standalone story, because it is fairly simple as a narrative. The writing is strong, though, and if you are intrigued by the premise, I don’t think it will disappoint.