Danika reviews Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan Coyote

“I was not ladylike, nor was I manly. I was something else altogether. There were so many different ways to be beautiful.”

– Michael Cunningham, A Home at the Edge of the World, epigraph to Tomboy Survival Guide

I am in love with this book, as I am in love with Ivan Coyote’s writing in general.

First of all, this is a beautiful book just as an object. I love the cover, and there are lots of small details that really add to the design, including the back cover edge being usable as a ruler. Throughout the book, between essays, are diagrams, including a disassembled stand mixer, knot-tying, and pastry-making.

I love Ivan Coyote’s writing because it’s both easy to read and deeply moving. Most of their stories come out of a rural setting, often up north, and they combine that often harsh environment with a kindness and generosity that underlies all their words. In one story, they talk about being one of only two people in a trades class that wasn’t a cis guy, and the harassment they faced. One day, they came in to find that someone had pissed in their toolbox. They cleaned it before class so no one would see them flinch at this.

In this same class, the same day, a guy asks them for relationship advice. They proceed to give possibly the best relationship advice I’ve ever heard, including detailed instructions on both dinner preparation and cunnilingus. The guy came back the next day and gave them the only hug they’d ever seen him participate in. He was beaming. Coyote absorbs this environment’s cruelty and still offers kindness–kindness that pays off, that is multiplied.

This conviction to remain kind even in a cruel world is inspiring to read. It’s not laid out as a philosophy; it’s just apparent behind every story. In one essay, they talk about forgiving their mother for “squeezing” them into things, recognizing that what they read as shame for all those years was actually fear–and wishing that their mother had named it then.

Once I came out, I stayed out. I got a regrettable pink triangle tattoo on my shoulder and plastered Queer Nation stickers on my leather jacket and went to kiss-in protests at the old coffee shop on Commercial Drive. I wanted to fight homophobia everywhere, in everyone. I wanted to Act Up, to act out, to have sit-ins, and not stand for it anymore.

I wish now I has been kinder to my mother about it all.

Ellen moved into a big house in East Vancouver and started to date a guy who played trombone in her jazz quintet. I told her I couldn’t spend too much time with her and all her straight friends anymore lest I by homogenized by their infectious heterosexuality. My politics didn’t leave anyone, including me, a lot of room for nuance, or grey areas.

I wish I had been kinder to a lot of people about it all, come to think of it.

Queer and trans people are often depicted in media as being perpetually teenagers or twenty-somethings. That’s another reason that I appreciate Ivan Coyote’s place in queer lit. They are in their 40s, which means both that they offer a look into a possible queer future for ourselves (it’s hard to imagine your future when none are depicted in media) and that they offer a more nuanced view of queer politics.

One essay that really stood out to me talked about the response they got from their Slate piece about gender neutral bathrooms, and about the harassment they face in public bathrooms. Their piece got shared at the same time on two sites: one, a pray-away-the-gay site, and the other, a “radical feminist” anti-trans site. The odd thing, they said, was how difficult it was to tell from the hateful emails which site the person was from. These are supposed to extreme opposite ends of the political spectrum, and yet the “radical feminists” and ultra right-wing camp sound almost identical. There is an unfortunate amount of TERFs (trans-exclusionary/trans-exterminatory “radical feminists”) on tumblr, and I’m constantly stumbling on their posts and remarking at how conservative their stances are, with minor vocabulary changes.

Of course, as the title would suggest, most of this collection has to do with gender.

But my day-to-day struggles are not so much between me and my body. I am not trapped in the wrong body; I am trapped in a world that makes very little space for bodies like mine. I live in a world where public washrooms are a battle ground, where politicians can stand up and be applauded for putting forth an amendment barring me from choosing which gendered bathroom I belong in. I live in a world where my trans sisters are routinely murdered without consequence or justice. I like in a world where trans youth get kicked out onto the street by their parents who think their God is standing behind them as they close their front doors on their own children. Going to the beach is an act of bravery for me. None of this is a battle between me and my own flesh. For me to be free, it is the world that has to change, not trans people.

I think this would be an excellent book to give both trans/butch/gender-nonconforming people, especially teenagers, but also to give to someone who wants to learn about trans politics and lives, but doesn’t know where to start. Coyote is generous and forgiving in their writing, and despite the almost endless opportunities to respond to a situation with rage, there is very little anger in this book.

Basically, I can’t recommend Ivan Coyote’s writing highly enough, and Tomboy Survival Guide is a superb example of it.

Julie Thompson reviews A Queer Love Story: The Letters of Jane Rule and Rick Bébout

“I expect our letters to be someday public property, and, though I write with little self-consciousness about being overheard at some future date, talking intermittently to you and to myself, it seems to me what has concerned us is richly human and significantly focused on the concerns of our time and our tribe.” – Jane Rule to Rick Bébout, August 2, 1989 (Intro, xiii)

Some of the most powerful love stories occur between friends. I have always longed for a bosom buddy, someone who would stand by my side fending off the zombie apocalypse and navigating ethical dilemmas. A Queer Love Story: The Letters of Jane Rule and Rick Bébout edited by Marilyn R. Schuster, presents fourteen years (1981-1995) of correspondence between Jane Rule to Rick Bébout, two such friends. Margaret Atwood, a longtime friend of Jane and her partner, Helen Sonthoff, penned the foreword and is mentioned with affection in the letters.

Jane Rule (1931-2007) was an author and social commentator, a tidy summation of the innumerable roles and contributions she made to the Arts and LGBT+ community. Among her novels, she is perhaps best known for her 1964 romance, The Desert of the Heart (later produced as the 1985 film, Desert Hearts). Rule emigrated with Sonthoff from the United States in the 1950s and made their home in Galiano, British Columbia.

Rick Bébout (1950-2009) wrote prolifically for The Body Politic (TBP) (a Toronto-based publication written for LGBT+ readers, on social issues and culture) and contributed to other publications, as well; tirelessly advocated for the rights and respect of queer folks. He assembled through AIDS education materials for the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) and the Hassle Free Clinic, among others. A fellow American expatriate, Bébout moved to Canada during the Vietnam War and later gained Canadian citizenship.

Rule’s and Bébout’s relationship began as that of writer and editor, when she submitted articles and pieces for her column, “So’s Your Grandmother”, to TBP. As managing editor, Bébout lived and breathed the magazine; the ebb and flow of his life was dictated by the publication cycle. He juggled multiple hats and personalities at TBP. Over the years, a deep friendship developed. Topics they discussed run the gamut, including racism, same-sex marriage, violence against women, freedom of expression, and the effect of fantasy on behavior.

Rule and Bébout weathered the heartbreaks of losing friends to AIDS, the frustration in fighting for equal dissemination of health information and access to health care, career changes, and more. They offered strength, solace, and safe space. More than once, Rule and Sonthoff bought Bébout round-trip plane tickets to Galiano Island, where he could relax at their home and elsewhere on the West Coast of Canada. Subtle clues about the evolution of their relationship manifests in subtle ways, such as how they sign-off their letters. The transition of Rick’s sign-offs from the semi-formal “sincerely” (1981) to the more companionable “love” (1985), for example, shows a shift of sentiment.

It’s not only the sweeping scope of events and issues, but the more mundane, everyday pleasures of life, that draw me into their story: Helen and Jane reading aloud to each other at night; swimming at a community pool; and Rick meeting and making friends at gay bars in Toronto. Between the two writers, they show the joys and challenges of rural and city lives.

“We die bravely and well, so many of us, giving all the way to the end – and those of us left mourning hold to that and cherish it and grow from it. But dammit, the end is too soon, and children born today will never know things they might have known if the end were not so soon for so many of us. That’s my rage, that’s what my grief is for: what’s lost.” —Rick Bébout, 1988 (Introduction, xxv).

Rule and Bébout were cognizant of the potential posterity of their letters, given their high visibility within the Arts and LGBT+ community. When Schuster approached them with her idea of publishing the letters, they not only approved, but facilitated access to materials in various formats. Headnotes and endnotes for each chapter (how I refer to sections encompassing a calendar year) enrich the two friends’ discussions. A “Dramatis Personae” section details persons of note found in the letters. It is also worth noting the immensity of Schuster’s project. Her skilled editing chiseled 2,700 pages of correspondence into a coherent and engaging volume representing twenty-five percent of the original total.

It is a pleasure and a privilege to “watch” their friendship grow. I highly recommend A Queer Love Story for folks interested in LGBT+ history and fans of Jane rule, in particular. If you want to learn more about Jane Rule and view her through the autobiographical lens, check out her posthumously published memoir, Taking My Life  (2011), reviewed last year by Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian. You can learn more about Rick Bébout via his website, http://www.rbebout.com/. A Queer Love Story: The Letters of Jane Rule and Rick Bébout is available for purchase on May 1, 2017.

Page numbers refer to the uncorrected proof received from the University of British Columbia Press and are subject to change at time of publication.

You can read more of Julie’s reviews on her blog, Omnivore Bibliosaur (jthompsonian.wordpress.com)

Elinor reviews The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

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The Argonauts is an amazing book. It is a memoir but not a neatly narrative one. It’s been called “genre-bending,” which it certainly is. I’d describe it as a meditation of family, queerness, gender, love, bodies, connection, and a whole lot more. Nelson quotes academic theorists as readily as she shares visceral, personal details from her life. The book primarily focuses on Nelson’s relationship with and marriage to genderfluid artist Harry Dodge, being a stepmother to Dodge’s son from a previous relationship, and being pregnant with, giving birth to and parenting the couple’s younger son. Each of these topics is examined thoughtfully through multiple lenses, giving the reader plenty of food for thought.

This book offers up many intriguing questions without giving easy answers. Everything from assumptions about pregnant women, reified identity, personal expression, death, and the act of giving birth get a turn. I find it hard to summarize such an eclectic and fascinating book while truly doing it justice. It’s creative nonfiction at its best.

I’m also grateful that I read it exactly when I did, just after I finished graduate school and nearly at the middle of my pregnancy. It was the only book I’ve found that spoke about the personal experience of pregnancy, let alone queer pregnancy, in a way that rang true for me. The questions about parenthood and marriage that it raises were extremely relevant to me and I found myself jotting down references for further reading.

It can be fairly academic in places. I appreciated this, but others might not. It’s short but dense with ideas, and I’m glad I took my time reading it. Going slowly with it allowed me to absorb the subject matter and I doubt I would have enjoyed it as much if I’d read it in a rush.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in queer family and partnership, or just a truly unique memoir.

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

 

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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.

Elinor reviews Saving Delaney by Keston and Andrea Ott-Dahl

saving delaney from surrogacy to unexpected family ott-dahl cover

Saving Delaney: From Surrogacy to Unexpected Family is an interesting memoir and an unusual story. Written by Keston and Andrea Ott-Dahl, it’s told from Keston’s perspective as she and her partner, Andrea, become parents to a daughter with Down syndrome. Their daughter, Delaney, was longed for–but not by them. Andrea had been a surrogate for a lesbian couple who’d tried unsuccessfully to become parents other ways. The couple, Liz and Erica, were thrilled when Andrea became pregnant through insemination. Then prenatal testing revealed that the fetus had Down syndrome and the doctor predicted the fetus also had other serious disabilities and the pregnancy would likely end in miscarriage or stillbirth. Liz and Erica made the heart-wrenching decision to terminate the pregnancy. But Andrea wouldn’t. Her research suggested that the doctor was wrong in his most dire predictions and he was using standards of typical prenatal development when he should have compared the baby using the standards of prenatal development of babies with Down syndrome. Andrea decided to keep the baby and raise it herself if Liz and Erica wouldn’t, Keston got on board, and that’s exactly what they did.

Andrea and Keston’s backgrounds make the story even more complicated. Keston is sixteen years older than Andrea and has one adult child slightly older than Andrea, and a teenage son who has all but left the house when the couple meet. Andrea has two young children and is recently out of an abusive marriage to a man. Like Andrea, Keston’s children were both conceived in relationships with men and without difficulty. They aren’t prepared for the challenges of non-intercourse conception when Andrea excitedly volunteers to be a surrogate for a couple in their extended social circle. Andrea wants to be a surrogate to help the couple, and for the money it would bring in. Secretly she’s also hoping that carrying a child for another couple would help her ease the guilt she feels over an abortion she had years earlier, when she was preparing to leave her violent husband. Keston’s struggling with the recent death of her mother and the choices she had to make at the end of her mother’s life. This takes an important role in the book, as Keston’s imagined conversations with her late mother guide her and reveal her inner feelings. Some of those feelings include hate and fear of people with disabilities.

The story is largely framed around Keston’s journey away from prejudice and toward advocacy for her daughter. It’s moving, but it’s also not the most useful or nuanced frame. Plus in her pre-Delaney days, Keston says and thinks horrible things about people with disabilities. If you pick this up, be prepared for slurs and worse. If you don’t want to slog through that, don’t force yourself. I appreciated that Keston was ultimately educated, thanks to Andrea, and that she did bring some compassion when others initially weren’t accepting. It didn’t make her early beliefs or comments easier, though.

Keston tried to tell this complex story fairly, mostly avoiding easy villains, but there are some slip ups. For one thing, some of the drama of the situation could have been avoided with a little caution, planning, and communication. Keston and Andrea don’t read the contract carefully before agreeing to surrogacy, and Keston, Andrea, Liz and Erica don’t have the tough conversations they ought to before deciding to go forward with surrogacy. Tension starts before the pregnancy too, as it takes over half a year to get pregnant, they all decide to add known sperm donors into the mix without a clear legal agreement in place, and the doctor they work with isn’t a great fit for Andrea and Keston. When Keston and Andrea decide to keep the baby and raise her without Liz and Erica, they aren’t as sensitive as they could be to Liz and Erica’s devastation, or the shock Andrea’s already leery family is experiencing. It’s occasionally tiresome to read about somewhat unnecessary complication, but the many, many bumps in the road do add intrigue to the story and keep it moving along.

I felt for Liz and Erica a lot and wished I knew more of what happened after they and the Ott-Dahls stopped speaking to each other. The doctor had painted a pretty bleak picture aside from Down syndrome, and I couldn’t imagine paying thousands of dollars for a surrogate to carry on with a pregnancy that a doctor said likely wasn’t viable. The couple had already gone through fertility treatments, cycles of hope and disappointment, and had at least one adoption fall through. It made sense to me that they weren’t as optimistic as Andrea and Keston and that they wanted to have some control over the process. Trying to add a child to your family, however you go about it, can be scary and leave you feeling powerless. From their perspective, this is not a heartwarming tale.

One thing I hated in this book–and another reason that I’m a bit hesitant to recommend it–was the way Keston wrote about Liz and Erica’s infertility. More than once Keston, Keston’s imagined mother, or Andrea says something like, “Some people aren’t meant to be parents,” or implies that the couple’s struggles to have a child means that they shouldn’t have one. It was interesting to me the way this attitude connected to Keston’s self-proclaimed prejudice around ability. The idea that some experiences aren’t “meant” for a person because that person needs assistance or their body works differently is a common theme in justifying ableism. Also, the ability to get pregnant is in no way correlated with the ability to parent and I think we all sort of know that. Still, if you’re trying to conceive or have experienced infertility, reading those comments in the memoir will be horrifying, depressing and/or rage-inducing, and you might want to steer clear.

If you aren’t dealing with that and you can roll with some harsh language and inaccurate ideas about folks with disabilities in the earlier chapters, you might like this book. It’s a unique situation and it makes you think. It is an easy read, it’s fast paced, and parts of the story are pretty moving. But think carefully before picking it up, because this book is not for everyone.

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

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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.

Casey reviews Red Azalea by Anchee Min

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This year I’ve been doing a reading project of only authors of colour, pretty much all LGBTQ.  I’ve read a ton of great stuff, and one of the best things this challenge has made me do is discover some authors that I never would have encountered otherwise.  One such writer is Anchee Min, whose memoir Red Azalea I read a few weeks ago.  I was totally and utterly blown-away by the gorgeous, unique writing and the page-turning, I-can’t-believe-this-is-true plot.  I can’t believe I might not have found this book if I hadn’t made an effort to research books by queer people of colour.  Shame on me for not reading this earlier.

Red Azalea follows Anchee (note: I decided to refer to her by her first name since it feels weird to call the character in the book by a last name!)  growing up in the last days of Mao’s China, during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s.  It was a movement to “purge” remaining capitalist and traditionalist elements in what was now a communist country.  As a child, Anchee was part of the Red Guards, a youth military group dedicated to enforcing Maoism and the Cultural Revolution.  In her late teens, she was later forcibly sent from the city to work at a communal farm—as were millions of other urban youth to work brutal days from 5am to 9pm.  After a few years, Anchee was miraculously plucked from obscurity to partake in the Chinese propaganda film industry in Shanghai, where she encountered a whole other host of problems.  She eventually left China for the US in the 80s.

Okay, that’s the story, but that’s not really the story, you know.  This is such an emotionally and lyrically rich memoir, evocative but never showy, and intensely erotic without ever being cheesy or cheap.  In a scene in part one, Anchee is manipulated into publicly humiliating a beloved teacher for being an enemy spy in front of her entire school.  Ten years later, she finds the teacher, and goes to her, intending to apologize.  She receives this chilling response:

I am very sorry, I don’t remember you. I don’t think I ever had you as my student.

It’s in the second part of the book that Anchee is forced at age 17 to part with her parents, who “stood there like frosted aubergines—with heads hanging weakly in front of their chests” as the truck drives off, their daughter riding in the back.  It’s at the communal farm that Anchee meets Yan, a legend, a heroine renowned for her brute strength on the farm and dedication as Comrade Party Secretary.  This is Anchee’s first glimpse of the woman she later falls in love with:

She had a pair of fiery intense eyes, in which I saw the energy of a lion.  She had weather-beaten skin, thick eyebrows, a bony nose, high cheekbones, a full mouth in the shape of a water chestnut.  She had the shoulders of an ancient warlord, extravagantly broad. She was barefoot.  Her sleeves and trousers were rolled halfway up.  Her hands rested on her waist.   When her eyes focused on mine, I trembled for no reason.  She burned me with the sun in her eyes.  I felt bare.

As the two women’s relationship develops, Anchee begins to realize just how sexually repressive the regime is, in addition to the isolation, alienation, and general mass psychosis.  I’m not talking just about queer sexuality: the system does not allow the young women at the farm any sexuality at all.  A friend of Anchee’s is mentally broken and eventually commits suicide after being interrogated and humiliated after being found with a male lover.  What’s fascinating and disturbing is that the party officials present this type of action as feminist, and declare they saved Anchee’s friend from being raped.

When I say this book is beautifully, uniquely written I especially mean the way Anchee Min writes about her growing love for Yan.  It’s Yan who makes her feel write this: “I stood in the sunshine, feeling, feeling, the rising of a hope.”   A hope like this:

She asked me to feel her heart.  I wished I was the blood in that chamber.  In the hammering of her hearbeat, the rising and falling of her chest.  I saw a city of chaos.  A mythical force drew me to her.  I felt the blazing of a fire inside me.

When Yan and Anchee finally kiss, it’s beautiful, and sexy, and just everything you’ve been wanting in a love scene.  Trust me.  Okay, don’t trust me: read this quotation:

She said, I want you to obey me.  You always did well when you obeyed me. She licked my tears and said this was how she was going to remember us.

I moved my hands slowly through her shirt. She pulled my fingers to unbutton her bra.  The buttons were tight, five of them. Finally, the last one came off. The moment I touched her breasts, I felt a sweet shock. My heart beat disorderedly. A wild horse broke off its reins. She whispered something I could not hear. She was melting snow….The horse kept running wild.  I went where the sun rose.  Her lips were the colour of a tomato.  There was a gale mixed with thunder inside me.  I was spellbound by desire.  I wanted to be touched.  Her hands skimmed my breasts.  My mind maddened. My senses cheered frantically in a raging fire.

There’s something about the phrases and metaphors that Anchee Min creates that are strikingly different from any other writing I’ve read in English.  If my calculations are correct, she was about 30, maybe a bit younger when she moved to the US, with only a minimal knowledge of English; this means she was relatively old (in terms of language learning) when she started writing and speaking in English.  The lovely, strange way she writes made me think about what kind of effect speaking more than one language has on your writing.  As an ESL teacher, it made me wonder if teaching English students to write and speak like native speakers might be detrimental to their creativity, that minimizing the different ways in which they speak English might actually be a bad thing.  I can’t imagine a native speaker of English coming up with some of the images Anchee Min does, and that’s what makes it such a beautifully written memoir.

I feel like to discuss part three of the memoir would spoil some things that must not be spoiled—in my opinion, anyway—so I won’t get into too much detail.  Once I got about half way through this book, I couldn’t put it down, while I wanted to savour the language at the same time.  You’re in for stunning, sensual writing right until the end, even or perhaps especially in Anchee’s despair and heartbreak: “I could hear the sound of my dream’s spine breaking.”

You should move Red Azalea to the top of your reading pile.  I promise, you won’t regret it.

Casey reviews A Cup of Water Under My Bed by Daisy Hernandez

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2014: what a year for bisexual memoirs by people of colour!  Among the fabulous Lambda award nominees fitting this category—including Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles M. Blow, which I also highly recommend—is A Cup of Water Under My Bed by Daisy Hernández.  Don’t both of those have amazing, intriguing titles?  I simply loved Hernández’s book, on so many levels, for both its form and content.

It’s a memoir, but, interestingly, not structured linearly.  Instead, Hernández arranges the material of her life in three thematic sections, divided into chapters that are self-contained essays.  This structure allows you to see different facets of her life as they exist at different stages of her life, making links between events in childhood and adulthood that you might not otherwise.  Although it feels a bit jarring to move ahead and back again at first, after a while I really enjoyed the way she organized the memoir; it felt tangential in the same way that a conversation does.  One result of the organization, interestingly, is that you don’t actually hear anything about Hernández’s queerness until the second section, although the jacket refreshingly makes her bisexuality explicit.  That shouldn’t be notable, but unfortunately it is, and I was super pumped to see the ‘b’ word right there on the inside flap of the cover.

One other thing that is unique about this book’s format is that the entire thing is peppered with Spanish, always in italics, now and then whole sentences, often just a single word.  Like, there isn’t a page of the book that doesn’t have at least one Spanish word on it.  Sometimes you can guess the meaning of the word from the context, or a translation or paraphrase is fitted seamlessly into the text.  Other times, though, Hernández just lets the Spanish word sit in the English sentence, sin explanation.  Given that she devotes a lot of the memoir to discussing the role of language in her family and her sense of self, I found her decision to include a fair amount of Spanish in a predominantly English book fascinating.  This insistence on her mother tongue seemed to me a distinctly feminist Latina strategy, and a really cool way to illustrate the powerful and sometimes alienating effect language can have.  Anglophones aren’t used to having their easy understanding thwarted, and I thought the Spanish in A Cup of Water was a thoughtful way to draw attention to that privilege.  Also, if you’re learning español like I am, it’s really cool and helpful.

So what does Hernández write about?  In a nutshell: everything.  The first section is devoted to her family and cultural/spiritual background.  Growing up in New Jersey with a working class Colombian mother and Cuban father and a smattering of aunties constantly coming and going certainly gives her a lot to discuss.  Some of my favourite parts were about the intrusion of English in her life as her parents send her to English Catholic elementary school, despite her growing up speaking Spanish at home.  Having only ever heard English in cartoons on TV, she describes her first day of school like this:

Sitting in my classroom, I wait for Mrs. Reynolds to start talking like my mother.  In Spanish.  Surely it won’t be long now.  An hour passes.  Two hours.  An entire day it feels, and still it is all Mighty Mouse… It’s like being forced to watch the same cartoon all day long.  

Later she realizes devastating effect of this linguistic erasure:

I am not to go the way of the two people I long for in the thick terror of the night.  The first man I love and the first woman I adore, my father and my mother with their Spanish words, are not in these cards.  The road before me is English and the next part is too awful to ask aloud or even silently: What is so wrong with my parents that I am not to mimic their hands, their needs, not even their words?

There’s a stark honesty in Hernández’s writing, which is especially striking when she’s talking about the complicated stuff of life, like discovering and naming her bisexuality in the second section:

There isn’t a good verb for what begins happening to me in college.  Yes, I am meeting lesbians, but I am not one of them.  I still find men attractive; it is that I am thinking of women in a new way.  It is as if I am learning that I can shift my weight from one leg to the other, that I have a second leg.  Kissing women is like discovering a new limb.

Hernández also addresses racism in all its ugly complexity: for example, her Latin American family’s use of the word india (meaning an Indigenous person) as a threat when she’s misbehaving as a child, their fixation on light skin, prejudice against Black Americans, and the slipperiness of racial categories.  Like how her aunt’s dark-skinned Peruvian husband isn’t “indio” because he drives a nice car and has a good job.  How the white Southern editor at the New York Times where Hernández is working admits to  giving a young African American journalist who turned out to be plagiarizing one chance too many.  How her aunt said she was so dark as a child, “as if the colour of [her] skin had been an illness.”

One unexpected thing Hernández writes about in a startlingly candid way in the last section is money, as well as the related topic of class.  An especially poignant story called “Only Ricos Have Credit” (ricos means rich people) examines her relationship with credit cards, chasing the kind of white middle class lifestyle she dreams of but can’t actually afford.  In “My Father’s Hands,” she writes powerfully about the economic impact of NAFTA, her father beginning a job as a janitor at age 63 after doing factory work his entire life and her mother continuing to work, but sometimes without a paycheque at all, at her factory.

I’m pretty sure I’d have a hard time wrapping up such a gorgeous, far-reaching book, but Hernández does it eloquently in a short, final story in which a new chapter of her life on the west coast is beginning.  No mistaking it, she is a talented queer writer whose first book is, I think, only the dawn of the rosy career to come.  Don’t miss A Cup of Water Under My Bed.

Elinor reviews How to Grow Up by Michelle Tea

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My wife and I are currently trying to buy a house, which is surreal, and it’s made me wonder about what it means to be–or feel like–an adult. Like magic, I found a copy of Michelle Tea’s latest memoir on that very topic. Since I’m a fan of Tea’s other writing, I picked it up. I figured that Michelle Tea is always fun and this book would likely present an interesting take on being a grown up.
How to Grow Up primarily covers Tea’s late thirties and early forties as she stumbles into adulthood. In her late thirties, Tea is sober after years of addiction, re-entering the dating world after spending 8 years in a dysfunctional relationship, sharing filthy housing with twenty-somethings in San Francisco, and dealing with the psychological, emotional, and spiritual issues. Eventually she moves to her own grown-up apartment, starts trying to get pregnant as a single person, forms a healthy relationship with a great woman, and gets married. Though she doesn’t delve much into how she made it happen, Tea has an amazing career in the literary world, something she managed to start even before she got sober. I was surprised she didn’t spend more time on this topic, since I think that having a career is a huge measure of adulthood–and something Tea has a handle on.
How to Grow Up was fun to read, but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. This memoir is not linear, broken up into 15 themed essays that aren’t strictly chronological. Tea isn’t the most linear person, so this fits her personality. The downside is that she sometimes tosses out references to events or issues the reader doesn’t know about yet, or retreads the same experiences in multiple chapters.
The other odd thing about How to Grow Up is that periodically the book veers away from Tea’s interesting life and into advice dispensing. A lot of these life lessons struck me as obvious (such as “Don’t date people who sell pills in bus stations”), particularly after you read Tea’s stories. While I liked reading about Tea’s adventure in Paris after her long-term relationship ended, I didn’t need the rules about “how to break up” that preceded it. Tea is a great storyteller, but she’d make a terrible advice columnist, and her attempts to be one drag down her book.
The book didn’t explore issues as deeply as I would have liked. Though Tea looks at class, privilege, and her own background as a working class person, she also name-drops designer brands and insists that her higher power wants her to have these expensive, unethically made items. Her analysis of the contradictions that she holds boils down to, essentially, that all people have contradictory values and impulses. I don’t entirely disagree, but I also wanted more of her thoughts about these issues and less ink about Fendi bags. At times her contradictions are baffling, something that could have been intriguing if looked at more closely.
This book is reassuring, though, and I did feel better after reading How to Grow Up. Everything worked out for Michelle Tea in the end, despite all the detours and the weird choices she made. I’d recommend this book to fans of the author and to people who feel like they’re failing at being grown-ups, with the acknowledgement that the book has limitations. I’d recommend skimming or skipping the advice and lingering instead in the stories.

Danika reviews Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume, Ages 0 to 22 by MariNaomi

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Right off the bat I have to let you know that this isn’t a lesbian book. MariNaomi seems to be attracted to more than one gender, but the vast majority of this book deal with her relationships with boys and men, with the occasional experiment with girls, though there are hints throughout the book that she accepts a queer identity later in her life.

Kiss & Tell is a graphic memoir that spans MariNaomi’s life from childhood to 22, with brief (usually only a page or two, sometimes a handful of pages) stories about each of her romantic interests, whether they lasted a day or years. The art style is similar to Marjane Satrapi’s in Persepolis, and the style and storytelling really grabbed me, even though each story is so brief. By following these romantic interests through the years, we get a sketchy look as her life in general, and it’s one that’s intriguing and occasionally melancholic. Although the art style is usually fairly basic, there are sequences that receive a lot of detail and are even more affecting for the contrast.

Although I’ll admit that I was expecting a little bit more queer content from this collection, I still ended up really enjoying it. This was a really quick read and totally engrossed me; I read it in two sittings. Despite the book chronicling dozens of characters, each was drawn distinctly enough that I never mixed them up, and the stories never felt repetitive. I’ll definitely be picking up more of her books in the future.