Mars Reviews Stray: Memoir of a Runaway by Tanya Marquardt

Stray: Memoir of a Runaway by Tanya Marquardt

Content warning for child abuse, alcoholism, incest, domestic violence, dissociation. 

This review does contain spoilers.

Tanya Marquardt was sixteen years old when she ran away from the home she shared with her mother, stepfather, and assorted siblings in the small Canadian town of Port Alberni. Her flight was strategic, timed right for when Tanya became of age and would no longer be legally bound to her parents’ whims. Her departure began an alcohol-fueled odyssey to manage high school, homelessness, and attempts to process the trauma of a childhood riddled with emotionally manipulative parents and domestic abuse. As young Tanya spirals out, crashing on couches and beds by cashing in on the sympathy of friends, the one constant in her life is a deep love of Shakespeare, and it is that thread that leads her out of the fray and on to calmer waters in her life.

This book is chiefly the honest account of the author’s life detailing a young girl’s family dysfunction and subsequent spiraling out. By fifteen, Tanya was already an alcoholic, and readers will be hard-pressed to find a scene in which she is not chain-smoking. Her unresolved trauma and rebellion against the authoritarian antagonist figure in her life, her mother, eventually leads her to just outside Vancouver, where she says she is living with her formerly abusive alcoholic father but is actually with friends exploring the big city and its underground goth and kink scenes. In these places, she finally finds a home and a tribe to call her own, and through the act of performing and belonging, she finally finds a way back to herself.

I admit that I had a hard time reading this memoir in a number of ways. As an adult, it was hard reading about the struggles young Tanya faced and the many moments where the adults in her life let her down. It was additionally challenging because as a reader, it was hard to know how to feel about the adult figures in Tanya’s life. With young Tanya, in one breath readers experience the psychological warfare her parents commit using her and her siblings as pawns for their own selfish campaigns, and in the other, adult author Tanya chimes in with a throwaway comment about how she loves her family. The result is just one out of a few cases of whiplash, as this story reads more like a history (which, to be fair, this is a memoir) rather than a clearly delineated narrative. It makes for a confusing and sometimes meandering read.

Of particular note for our readers is that while the author self-identifies as a queer performer and playwright today, aside from a passing interest in a female friend at a high school party and mentions of bisexual friends engaging in a few same-sex relationships, all romantic interests and sexual identities explored in this book are presented as heterosexual and cisgender.

Megan G reviews Sodom Road Exit by Amber Dawn

Sodom Road Exit by Amber Dawn cover

Buried under a mountain of debt, Starla Martin is forced to say goodbye to her life in Toronto and return to her hometown of Crystal Beach. To help her with her debt, her mother offers to find her a job with her at the local library, but Starla knows that just living with her mother will already be challenging enough. Instead, she finds a job at a local campsite, “The Point”, working the overnight shift. There, she finds herself involved not only in the lives of its residents, but also in a supernatural phenomenon unlike any she’s experienced before. And yet, Starla is not afraid. In fact, she is the exact opposite.

I was instantly drawn to this book because of its setting. It’s hard enough finding Canadian stories that aren’t set in the plains, but a queer ghost story set in Eastern Ontario? Colour me intrigued. In this aspect, the story did not disappoint. Everything about this story screamed Ontario, from the crappy local bus service, to the celebration of May two-four. Even though I’ve never been to Crystal Beach, or even Fort Erie, after reading this book I feel like I have.

The protagonist, Starla, took a bit of time to get used to. This is partially because for the first few chapters of the book, all we really seem to know about her is that she lives in Toronto, dropped out of college, and has a lot of sex. Her sexual partners are described as both male and female, which led me to assume that Starla is bisexual, and having the only personal characteristic of a bisexual character be that she has many sexual partners was not a very promising start. However, as the story unfolds you learn more about Starla, who she is, why she acts the way she does, what led her to the choices she made. She goes from a two-dimensional sex-addict to a three-dimensional traumatised woman, simply trying to live her life.

As for her sexual orientation, despite seemingly being attracted to men and women, Starla is often labelled a lesbian, though never by herself or her girlfriend. This can most likely be chalked up to the story being set in the 1990’s, when knowledge of all things queer was still pretty minimal. It is made very clear that Starla feels more attracted to women than she does to men, so it is also possible that she is a lesbian who is struggling with compulsive heterosexuality based on her past, though this isn’t delved into too deeply.

This is an incredibly heavy story, with characters suffering from such things as spousal abuse, alcoholism, suicide ideation, and past physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. The latter is described explicitly, as both Starla and her friend, Bobby, have experienced abuse in their past. Bobby’s past abuse is specifically relating to her identity as an Aboriginal woman, something I am happy that Dawn included and delved into. [minor spoiler] Starla’s abuse happened when she was a child, and it is implied that her mother was aware of it but did nothing [end spoiler]. As well, there is an incident near the beginning of the novel between Starla and a cab driver that does not read as consensual in the least. If any of these things trigger you, you may want to give this book a pass.

The supernatural element of the book was incredible. The ghost, Etta, is both a sympathetic and villainous entity. You feel for her, the way she was in life, and the horrible way she died, but at the same time you hate her for what she is doing to Starla and everybody around her. I adore characters who can be loved and loathed, as I find it such a tough line to walk. Dawn manages it flawlessly here.

I won’t delve too far into the love story of this book, because it’s something you need to experience by reading it to fully understand. Just know that it is perfectly crafted, and unlike any romantic plot I’ve read before.

Overall, Amber Dawn has crafted a wonderful supernatural drama, full of characters who feel so human, you’ll think they’re your friend by the end. She draws you, not only into their lives, but into their environment. By the end of the story, you will be dying to book yourself a ticket to Crystal Beach, hoping to experience even a hint of what the novel describes.

Casey reviewed Main Brides by Gail Scott

Gail Scott’s 1993 book Main Brides is less a novel than a series of snapshots, taken with the camera of the protagonist Lydia’s eyes.  She sits in a café-bar on St. Laurent in Montreal—also known as the Main, which the title refers to—observing the women who come and go.  These “women travellers, like sleepwalkers, move unerringly” and are “always packing up, and going here and there”; they are contemporary women in all their diversity, who “exert[…] great control on their existence.”  Lydia imagines these women’s life stories and histories while watching them, gathering what she can from their appearances and interactions.  She in fact creates their realities, wishing for a “history where anyone can enter”; the narrative actually often moves away from Lydia entirely and enters the reality of the watched women.  One of these women is a lesbian who has recently returned home from a vacation to Cuba with her sister, where they unsuccessfully attempted to move past—or perhaps run from and forget—the sexual assault her sister recently faced in their shared apartment.  Lydia also watches a lesbian couple, one a cowgirl from Alberta and the other a Montrealer, who is attracted to the cowgirl’s difference yet embarrassed to introduce her to her snobbish Francophone lesbian-feminist friends.  The Montrealer is especially embarrassed because, despite her efforts to assimilate into her intellectual lesbian-feminist circle, her cowgirl girlfriend can hear a twist of Albertan in her voice: a reminder that the Montrealer’s mother is actually from Edmonton.  Lydia herself also reads as queer: describing Z., a performance artist from Ottawa, her infatuation with this theatrical, “emaciated drag queen” of a woman is clear.

After we hear these fascinating, surreal stories—fragments, really, of these women’s lives—the narrative constantly returns to Lydia, who sits waiting in the bar, drinking coffee and then, as the day progresses, wine.  What exactly she is waiting for is uncertain.  Is there something in these women’s lives that she needs to discover before she can go home?  We also begin to feel uncertain about the veracity of Lydia’s stories: are they accurate?  Do we believe her histories of these women’s lives to be true, or not?  Is this woman’s life really how Lydia describes, or is Lydia just imagining it that way?  Does she have any reason to imagine their lives as one way or another?  Scott in fact leaves these questions unanswered; or, perhaps, they are not useful as questions.  If we are working with a sense that “anyone can enter,” and therefore change, history, then we have to let go of the safety of fixed identities and histories.  Lydia enters, explores, and creates the stories of the women she encounters, presenting the readers with a “smooth and gently moving” history, one that is nuanced, broad, and accessible, rather than mean and categorical.  It is this kind of attitude towards history and storytelling that is open to those identities and histories that have been often neglected—like those of lesbian and queer women, but also women more broadly.  Lydia’s imagined realities for these women are no less real than their own imagined realities, or her perception of her own life.  If you are in a kind of melancholy or meditative mood, and feel like exploding open your own sense of self, I’d recommend sitting down in a bar or café—preferably a dark and dingy place like the one Lydia has chosen—with a glass of wine or a mug of coffee and immersing yourself in the lives of the brides—queer and non-queer alike—of the Main.

Casey reviews Ana Historic by Daphne Marlatt

For a viscerally experimental and gorgeously postmodern glimpse at queer Canadian women’s herstory, there is no better place to look than Daphne Marlatt’s 1988 novel Ana Historic.  I say postmodern and experimental because the novel undoubtedly is, but this is not so much a warning as an invitation to watch Marlatt deftly and beautifully use words to carve out a space for queer women not only in Canadian history, but also in contemporary Canadian society.  This carving needs to take the form of Marlatt’s disarming poetics and rhizomatic, circular style in order to do the difficult and necessary work of counteracting the overwhelmingly masculinist history that the protagonist Annie—ironically or perhaps appropriately a failed history graduate student—begins to understand as only “a certain voice” (111).

The anchor in the novel, Annie Torrent, is a contemporary Vancouverite disappointed with the ways in which her life has followed a conventional woman’s heterosexual plotline.  She becomes obsessed with a little-known historical figure, Mrs. Richards, a widowed British woman who emigrated to Vancouver in the late 1800s and determines to tell her story.  This telling is mostly directed at Annie’s mother Ina, at whom Annie is angry, perhaps most of all for the ways in which she begins to see their lives overlapping; like Ina, Annie is “in the midst of freedom yet not free” (54).  She realizes the life she is living, married with children to her former history professor Richard—whose name of course echoes Mrs. Richards’s name, which is the rem(a)inder of her deceased husband—is unfulfilling but she struggles to build a path that might lead out of it.  Luckily, Annie meets Zoe, an artist, in the archives while doing research for her project and Zoe becomes her first reader, challenging Annie both about her feminist politics as well as sexually. When near the end of the novel Zoe provocatively asks Annie what she wants, Annie boldly answers: “you. i want you. and me. together” (157).  The end of Annie’s story in the novel, then, is only her lesbian beginning.

Telling the life stories of Annie, her mother Ina, and Mrs. Richards, Marlatt creates an alternative queer feminist discourse that refuses to be tied down into either a linear narrative or conclusive characterization.  Indeed, although there are distinctions made between the three main characters, their identities are also necessarily blurred, in the same way that the novel refuses to draw boundaries between prose and poetry and between fiction and history.  At one point, Ina accuses her daughter: “the trouble with you, Annie, is that you want to tell a story, no matter how much history you keep throwing at me” (27).  This profoundly poetic novel insists, however, that history is nothing but men’s stories made fact and that women need to dismantle the fiction/fact dichotomy and “mak[e] fresh tracks” with their own stories in the snowy landscape of the past (98).  Women writing their stories, as Annie does for Mrs. Richards and Marlatt does for Annie (and perhaps herself?), is the “body insisting itself in the words” (46).  If you can look at the words of this novel as a woman’s body—that delightful and frightening unruly femaleness—then the sometimes bewildering experience of sifting through Ana Historic can become a delightfully ecstatic one.  There is an enormous amount of life in this novel; Marlatt presents us with the vivid image that books are “breath bated between two plastic covers” (16) and I’d encourage any reader to challenge herself to mingle her breath with Marlatt’s and her characters’ by picking up Ana Historic.

Casey reviews In Another Place, Not Here by Dionne Brand

For readers unaccustomed to the Black Caribbean vernacular that begins Dionne Brand’s 1996 novel In Another Place, Not Herelike me—there’s a bid of an initial hurdle to leap over to sink into this book. But trust me, it’s worth it; and sink in you truly do. Brand is an exhilarating poet and although this is a novel, it’s definitely a poet’s novel. There is something deliciously seductive about the language, which rolls, rises, falls, and flows its way throughout the narrative. The rhythm and feel of the words are seductive to the point that their meaning at times seems secondary and, in fact, purposely elusive—a quality that might be frustrating for some readers. If you can give yourself over to the novel, though, make yourself vulnerable in a way that one of the main characters Verlia struggles to throughout the text, In Another Place, Not Here is a really rewarding read. Devoting each half of the novel to the story of one of the two women around whom the novel centres, Elizete and Verlia, Brand weaves an emotionally charged narrative that at times hits as hard as a physical assault, at others as softly as a warm wind. You read not so much to ‘find out what happens’ but rather to ride the tumultuous wave of both women’s intertwined emotionally and spiritually fraught journeys.

Elizete, whose story begins the novel, is an exploited sugar cane field labourer living in Trinidad—Brand’s mother country, though she is now a long-time Torontonian—who meets the revolutionary Verlia, also a native of Trinidad but recently returned after an emigration to and residence in Canada. There is an immediate attraction between the two women and a following relationship; Elizete describes her feelings for Verlia breathtakingly: “I sink into Verlia and let she flesh swallow me up. I devour she. She open me up like any morning. Limp, limp and rain light, soft to the marrow” (5). Erotic passages such as this are stunning, almost as if you had stumbled upon a scene truly not meant for anyone except the lovers’ eyes. Their intensity of feeling, however, collides with the seemingly insurmountable obstacles before them: racism, the legacy of slavery, misogyny, homophobia, and capitalist exploitation. Verlia has committed herself to political activism, having been part of the 1970s Black power movement in Toronto, but even her increasing radicalism cannot sustain her in the face of the placelessness and lack of belonging that plague her. Elizete too, feels this diasporic suffering: in search of meaning behind her loss of Verlia she journeys to Toronto from Trinidad but is told there by Verlia’s ex-lover Abena to “Go home, this is not a place for us” (230). There are no answers, let alone easy ones, to both Verlia and Elizete’s search for another place, not here, but their stumblings along the path looking for such a place are gorgeous, both in their sensuous highs and their devastating lows. Such a stumbling, difficult journey makes, in the end, a more worthwhile, truthful novel than a straightforward, but simplified, one would. Highly recommended!

Laura Mandanas reviews Forbidden Passages

Forbidden Passages: Writings Banned in Canada is a book of essays, short stories, and excerpts of texts that have been seized and censored in Canada. The collection features a broad range of perspectives and does not shy away from any subject. (Due, unfortunately, to the fact that Canadian censors shy away from just about everything.) Readers who are weak of heart or stomach, consider yourself duly warned: on topics of transgressive sexuality, many of these works are unflinchingly graphic.

So do I recommend this book to you? Honestly, I’m not sure. If you read cover to cover, you will almost certainly encounter things that are not to your taste. When I got to “Spiral” by David Wojnarowicz (excerpted from Memories That Smell Like Gasoline), I started gagging and had to put the book down. It was, like… graphic, rape-y scenes between men and boys who weren’t even old enough to legally consent. Not my cup of tea.

On the other hand, there were also some real gems. I totally loved the excerpt “Mama” by Dorothy Allison, from her 1988 classic, Trash. In particular, I really appreciated the casual treatment of sexual orientation here; the main character’s lesbian identity wasn’t the be-all and end-all. Instead, the focus was on the main character’s relationship with her mother, whose wrinkled hands and gravy-thick accent practically leapt off the page — so skillfully did Allison bring them to life. It was sublime.

Another fine piece of writing: Kathy Acker’s “Dead: Carved Into Roses”, from Empire of the Senseless. Wow. The raw power of her imagery completely blew me away. Also: “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance” by bell hooks, from Black Looks, Race and Representation. Fantastic. Though at times dry and academic, the otherwise frank and intelligent discussion of interracial attraction was spot on. Ooh, and can we talk about Pat Califia’s descriptive detail in “The Surprise Party” from Macho Slutsfor a minute? Excruciating. Whether that’s your scene or not… That, my friends, is how you write pornography. Oof.

For all the good bits, I’ve got to say, this still isn’t a book I’d casually suggest to friends. And if my little sister asked to borrow it, I’d probably conveniently misplace my copy for the entirety of the next decade. Really and truly, this is a book for mature readers who know what they’re getting into. But if that’s you? By all means, go for it. You may be surprised by what you end up liking.

– Laura

[Danika: I read this book recently as well, so I thought I’d chime in. There’s definitely a wide variety of writing in this collection. I had to put down the book at the same spot. I felt physically ill. And I have to admit, some of the academic writing went right over my head. I think the value in this collection is the context: these are all writings banned for similar reasons, as if they are all equivalent. Seeing the erotica, the violence, and the academic writings all side-by-side shows how ridiculous it is to treat them all as the same.]

Lesbrary Sneak Peek

I’ve been collecting lots of new les/etc books I haven’t been updating you on, so here’s the beginning of me catching up! So, here are some of the books I haven’t read yet and why I’m looking forward to reading them.

Sarah Schulman is one of the names that’s been filed away in my brain as an Important Lesbian Author. I don’t know how people end up on that list, but it always makes me more eager to read their works. The version I have of Empathy is part of the Little Sister’s Classics collection, Little Sister’s being the lesbian bookstore in Vancouver famous for fighting censorship.

I have an interest in les/etc teen books because I think that’s when a lot of queer people start looking for queer lit. Pretty much everyone is insecure as a teenager, but being queer can make it even worse. Being able to read about other people, especially other teens, going through the same things can be really reassuring. Good Girls Don’t is a bisexual teen book, so it’s obviously on my very long list of books to read.

Dancing In the Dark edited by Barbara Grier and Christine Cassidy is a book from one of the old lesbian publishers, Naiad Press. It’s a collection of short stories, so it will probably be hit and miss, but it includes some authors I’ve heard very good things about, like Karin Kallmaker and Penny Hayes.

A Stone Gone Mad by Jacquelyn Park looks delightfully dramatic! It’s another les/etc teen book, and check out this back blurb:


Drama! Boarding school! Lesbians! That’s enough to entice me, at least.

Travels With Diana Hunter looks like it will be a nice, short, sexy romp. All three of the Amazon reviews mention it’s “not PC”, though… What does that mean? I guess I’ll find out.

Did I mention that I liked Patience & Sarah by Isabel Miller? Well, I did. It was sweet, and surprisingly not depressing. Actually, it’s one of the very books I recommended on this blog. So of course as soon as I saw that she had another lesbian novel, The Love of Good Women, I was more than happy to snap it up.

I don’t think I need to explain why I want to read In A Queer Country. Queer Canada! I’m Canadian! It looks fantastic, plus the back cover mention the Lesbian Rangers. I think my view of the world improved after learning the Lesbian Rangers once existed.

I thought Making Out seemed like it would be an awesome, sexy book, but now I have to say I’ll probably be reading it more for the hilarity factor. This is a book that did not age well. Check out a NSFW sample after the cut.

Continue Reading →

Lesbrary Sneak Peek: Jane Rule

I’m definitely behind in showing off my new les/etc books! Oh well, here are the stack of Jane Rule books I’ve acquired. I think I’ll address these all at once, because I’m excited for them as a whole more than as individual books.

Jane Rule is legendary in lesbian fiction. She wrote Desert of the Heart (still on my TBR shelves!), the classic lesbian book that was made into a movie. She was also Canadian–from BC, in particular–so that’s extra awesome in my opinion. She was an activist for free speech and gay rights. I think of her work as something I need to read as part of being a well-read lesbian.

Have you read any of Jane Rule’s books? What did you think of them?