Sheila Laroque reviews Nîtisânak by Lindsay Nixon

nîtisânak by Lindsay Nixon

Nîtisânak is the Cree word for family; and Linday’s non-fiction account of growing up punk, queer and Indigenous in smaller cities of the Canadian prairies will resonate with many folks from many walks of life. After all, the concept of a ‘chosen family’ has been discussed widely in queer writings before, but nîtisânak brings new perspectives and ways of writing that will appeal to a broader audience. The text is peppered with shorthand, acronyms, and other shorthand ways of writing that makes the text feel less formal. The way that Lindsay writes feels very organic to Internet message boards and a Twitter-savvy audience; without feeling forced. This makes sense, because part of their story discusses the importance of Internet messaging boards in the punk scene on the prairies to find the next shows and a sense of community.

Lindsay’s story takes place in many of the same cities as my own. Reading this book at times feels like it could have been written by myself, or any other of my friends from when I was younger. Their story takes place largely in Regina, Saskatchewan which is a rival city to where I grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. They then move to Edmonton, Alberta and have a tumultuous and in many aspects an abusive relationship with a girlfriend that is referred to as B2B. This acronym stands for ‘back to black’, in reference to the Amy Winehouse album of the same name. Nixon’s description of this relationship of being both something beautiful and something that was the source of a great deal of pain for them resonated a great deal for me. Romantic relationships blend into familial relationships; and Nixon highlights with great care some of the foundational ways that young queer friendships can also create the same family bond and structure in our lives.

Peppered throughout this work are different prayers that are numbered. Setting aside the text like this gives the sense that these parts are special and need to be paid attention to. They are different than prayers that many people would have likely encountered in other contexts. For example, prayer 3 states: “Thank you to all the trees who breathe in poison on the daily, who gift us the air that we breath and the wind that propels everything forward”. These moments stand out in the text, while other Cree words are used seamlessly, without definition or italics. In a way that makes the Cree language just as another part of the text, and another part of their story. Cree is spoken widely enough that the curious reader could easily look up the words in any online Cree dictionary to the definitions of a new word. By just leaving it as it is, Lindsay is inviting the reader into their reality and the worldview that they and their family hold. This choice of writing style also signals that the work is for an Indigenous audience; to whom might not have seen themselves reflected in other coming of age stories. Being queer, Indigenous and punk in a particular local prairie context is an important story that can reflect back pieces of our own realities to us; even if we ourselves are not necessarily those things.

This is an important piece of writing that will appeal to people from many different backgrounds and families. I would give this a 4 out of 5 stars.

Sheila is a queer Métis woman, living in her home territory of Edmonton, AB, Canada. She has worked in a number of libraries across Canada, but being back in the public library has given her the space to rekindle some love with books and reading. She also co-hosts a podcast about Indigenous publishing called masinahikan iskwêwak (which is Cree for Book Women) with two other Métis librarians. The podcast can be found at https://bookwomenpodcast.ca/; and Sheila tweets at @SheilaDianeL.

Danika reviews We Still Demand!: Redefining Resistance in Sex and Gender Struggles edited by Patrizia Gentile, Gary Kinsman, and L. Pauline Rankin

We Still Demand edited by Patrizia Gentile

A weird thing about living in Canada is that you tend to know US history, laws, politics, etc more than you know your own. Reading We Still Demand! was a wake-up call that I actually know very little about Canadian queer history and activism, and that’s something I want to fix. Unfortunately, I had some issues with this particular text on the subject. For one thing, it is a very academic text, and it becomes dense to the point of being unreadable at several points. They do give a rough timeline of Canadian queer activism, but the focus is mostly on talking about radical vs neoliberal/homonormative/transnormative/homonationalist/human rights activism, and they seem to immediately dismiss out of hand anything that could be included in the latter category.

I will say, this is first time I’ve read anything and thought “I wish this was less radical.” Generally I am completely for radical activism. In this collection, though, it looks backwards at activism of the 70s and 80s and seems to neatly divide any work being done then as being either radical (worthwhile) or neoliberal (counterproductive). At times, this seems to require some odd mental gymnastics, such as defining 70s same-sex marriage activism as purely radical, but the same-sex marriage activism that followed as purely homonormative.

The essay that really got under my skin was about the beginning of trans activism in Canada (as an aside, this collection uses “trans*” “transman” and “transwoman,” even though it was published in 2017. Not sure why.) Instead of celebrating Raj and the work he did for trans representation, while also acknowledging the problems/limitations, this seems to drag him through the mud for not being radical enough, despite him publicly changing his stance on gay trans men (he originally posits trans men as being in opposition to butch women, so he paints all trans men as straight, but after backlash he became quite active in including gay trans men in his magazine, helping them to make connections with each other). It leaves a bad taste in my mouth to say that fighting for trans rights is homonormative or transnormative–that fighting for human rights isn’t worthwhile, because it doesn’t singlehandedly fix every problem.

Another essay acknowledges that Doug Wilson, who was fired as a teacher for being gay, lost his court case because sexual orientation wasn’t covered under the human Rights commission, but the text seems to congratulate him for walking away from teaching and entirely into activism, instead of acknowledging that fighting for rights has a place in queer activism. It also mentions a quotation from a queer rights activist that change happened because lobbying for rights laid the groundwork, but militancy of gays in streets brought results. Instead of recognizing this as two sides to the same fight, the author seems to conclude that the lobbying was pointless, or at least not very important.

There also seems to be some nostalgia about 70s and 80s activism as being back when All Queer Activism Was Radical. I would argue that the reason for that is because at the time, being out at all was radical. The liberal queers were still in the closet. Now, more people are able to participate in the discussion, because there is less danger in coming out, especially for cis white wealthy privileged gay men, so it’s not surprising that the conversation has changed. I also disagree with this strict division between radical and neoliberal activism because there is so much grey area: is fighting to repeal anti-queer laws radical, but not fighting for human rights that would prevent those laws?

Homonormativity/transnormativity also assumes that queer people can be easily absorbed by the system–that same-sex marriage did not change the institution of marriage at all. Can’t there be some space between revolution and assimilation? Isn’t it possible that same-sex marriage complicates the institution of marriage even as it reinforces other aspects? I agree that we should be fighting for big, radical change, for dismantling the system, but I also think there is merit to people trying to change it from within in the meantime. This collection seems to suggests that anything less that revolution is misguided. It made me think of the Trevor Project, which seems calls skyrocket after things like trans people being barred from the military–policy changes have real immediate effects for some people. Same-sex marriage may not have ended queer oppression, but it did change people’s lives: for the people able to see their partner in the hospital, for people able to bring their partner into the country, for kids who saw the world as a little less hostile to their existence.

All of this is not to say that I disagree with centring the most marginalized members of our community. One of the later essays describes how gay activism dropped issues of class and poverty after gay community was labelled as the “pink market” (white, middle class, cis, etc), and I do see how this plays out in ignoring the most vulnerable people in our community. I do believe that we should be prioritizing the most pressing, life-threatening issues the queer community faces, even if it’s not politically expedient (such as acknowledging that the issues of safety in sex work and the rate of murders of trans women are intertwined). I think we should be fighting on all fronts, though, and not promoting further fracturing inside the community by sorting people into Good Queer Activists and Bad Normative Activists.

I feel a little silly going into such depth in my issues with a book that very few people have even heard of, but it got me thinking! And honestly, that’s a good thing in itself. I do like exploring academic texts every once in a while as a way to stretch and test my own thinking on a topic. A few other notes that I have on this one: the introduction acknowledges that there is no indigenous perspective offered in the collection, and says that it’s a huge gap, but… I don’t feel like that’s good enough. It seems strange to me to say that an indigenous viewpoint is crucial, and then go ahead and publish your collection without one. Isn’t that your job to find that contributor?

I liked the later chapters much more than the first section. The “passing” chapter introduces the difficulty of “reading” people in the past as either trans men or butch women, and the problems that these categories suggest, as well as the ones present in the language of “passing.” I was also really interested in the chapter about dyke s/m in Canada, and how the “lesbian sex wars” debate on BDSM didn’t really exist in Canada (unlike the US), possibly because Canadian censorship of lesbian SM material could have allowed for solidarity in lesbian communities in fighting censorship. The later section also seems to be less concerned with the division between neoliberal and radical activism–for instance, the sex work chapter has a very different attitude towards police coalition than earlier chapters did.

I definitely want to explore this topic further. I want to know more about both the past and present queer activism in my own country, without just swapping in the US queer history that I know and assuming that it’s the same. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be seeking out these particular editors in the next books on the topic I pick up, because I didn’t think that their lens added to the topic.

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!

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?