Susan reviews My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 2 by Nagata Kabi

My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danika reviews Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha cover

This is a book that I will be processing for a long time. It is beyond almost anything I’ve read before. I’m not proud to say that I have very little knowledge around ableism and disability activism, which is part of why I picked up Care Work (The other being that Bodymap, Piepzna-Samarasinha’s book of poetry, is one of the best books I’ve ever read.) This work is about disability justice: disability activism that centres queer and trans black, indigenous, and people of colour. It encourages leadership by the most impacted, people who are experts in ableism and the other interlocking oppressions that they live with every day, and who have spent years fighting a system that works against them. Disability justice sees ableism as intertwined with colonialism, capitalism, heteropatriarchy and all of the others ways that bodies are policed and evaluated.

I am having trouble writing this review, because there is so much here to think about. I will muddle through and share some highlights, but I definitely recommend picking this up for yourself.

Care Work is a collection of essays, and it’s packed full of ideas, ranging from theory, history, memoir, advice and tips, and more–that I have to stop frequently to digest it. Here are just a few ideas that really stopped me in my tracks and made me think:

  • Piepzna-Samarasinha refers often to her “bodymind,” which seem to relate the mind as part of the body, an integrated whole–it reminded me of The Body Is Not an Apology, which discusses how policing of the body is a commonality of many types of oppression, including ableism against neurodivergent people.
  • The concept of “crip doulas” to guide disabled people into the community and share resources and tips for navigating the system. This is such a powerful idea, and I see the echo of it in queer communities, where many people would have loved to have a queer elder to provide wisdom in navigating their new identities. This is a beautiful vision of a future where interdependence is celebrated, and community is guaranteed.
  • Care Work talks about Octavia Butler’s books as disability justice narrative, which really made me think about that story in a new light.
  • I love the idea of “prefigurative politics:” acting as if the revolution has already happened. . Spending more time building than attacking, and focusing on power and not powerlessness. I think this is a powerful idea in activism, to not spend all of our time and energy criticizing a terrible system, and instead using some of those resources to build our own networks.
  • I was intrigued by the way that parents are talked about in this text, as not being directly targeted by ableism, but being restricted by much of the same system. Disability justice includes accessibility not just for neurodivergent and disabled people, but also for parents (by making sure that child care is provided).
  • A quotation by Qwo-Li Driskill, which says that one way ableism works is that disabled people “are not even present within the imaginations of a supposedly radical future,” really stuck with me.
  • Care Work does not present a monolith of ideas or opinions. Although these are all essays by Piepzna-Samarasinha, she pulls in works and ideas from other disability justice activists, and details differences in opinions. For instance, she advocates for strong personal networks of care while also recognizing the difficulties in maintaining them, and mentions a friend of hers who explains not wanting to rely on a personal network because she doesn’t want to have to be well-liked in order to use the washroom.

Reading Care Work required me to sit with some discomfort, because it helped me to face my own ableism and try to confront that. It reminded me in how many careless, thoughtless ways I prioritize abled people and fail to consider people whose bodyminds differ from my own. When I came across a mention of the “ugly laws” and looked into them, I was appalled that I had never heard of them, which from the mid-1700s to the 1970s across the United States and other cities and countries around the world made illegal “any person, who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or deformed in any way, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, to expose himself to public view.” This such an obvious and horrific injustice–to dictate which bodies are allowed to be seen in public life–that it is a profound statement to me of how much I have to learn when I didn’t know this basic, crucial piece of history. I am angry at myself for not learning this, but I am also angry that this was never taught to me in my education.

Another takeaway I have from this book is how much disability justice is fighting a world that would be better for every single person. Piepzna-Samarasinha’s love letter to femmes made me think about how everyone should live in a world where we can feel safe and valued no matter what. It made me think of Elana Dykewomon’s quotation:

Almost every womon I have ever met has a secret belief that she is just on the edge of madness, that there is some deep, crazy part within her, that she must be on guard constantly against ‘losing control’ — of her temper, of her appetite, of her sexuality, of her feelings, of her ambition, of her secret fantasies, of her mind.

It made me think of how that fear is driven by the way we treat the “mad” or “crazy.” About how Piepzna-Samarasinha refers to the “not(yet)-disabled.” I think about all the disabled and neurodivergent people who are being prevented from living their lives, through denial to care and inaccessibility and stigma. And also those people who don’t have a label for who they are, or who hide that idea even from themselves. And the people who are constantly afraid that they are “crazy” or not enough or too much, and that if they are found out they won’t be loved or valued or supported. Disability justice doesn’t have to benefit abled people to be worth supporting, of course, but I am inspired by this movement that is fighting tooth and nail to try to inch towards the future we all should be aspiring to, and am infuriated by the system that counters them at every turn.

In case it isn’t already obvious, this is a powerful, brilliant book. I can imagine it would be life-changing for so many people, and even if it isn’t directly applicable to your own experience, I highly recommend giving it a try and absorbing what you can. I’m grateful that Care Work exists, and I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.

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.

Gail Marlene Schwartz reviews Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair by Sarah Schulman

Conflict Is Not Abuse by Sarah Schulman

“The fact that something could go wrong does not mean that we are in danger. It means that we are alive.”

– Conflict is Not Abuse by Sarah Schulman

Just days after the American midterm election, it’s impossible to avoid the ever-growing polarization in the U.S. Author, playwright, and professor Sarah Schulman takes a new look at similar dynamics in her 2016 book, Conflict is Not Abuse, and posits that improving social ills requires differentiating conflict from abuse and responding differently. The ideas in the book are unique, persuasive, and practical, a great contribution to the peace movement. Everyone in a leadership position should read this book and strongly consider how they can implement its ideas to avoid escalation and crisis in conflict situations; it could literally help save lives and at the same time enable human beings to evolve and live with far less anxiety and fear and far more joy and peace.

Schulman draws on many sources for the book, including the theories and practices of psychologists, sociologists, novelists and poets. She is transparent about speaking from a queer and feminist perspective, and her methodology is more conversational and interactive than academic, making the ideas very accessible. She includes conversations with experts, quotes, tweets, Facebook posts, and concrete examples, including the Israeli occupation of Palestine, women in dangerous relationships, Canadian criminalization of people with HIV, and the killing of black men in the US by police. She does a great job of bringing many different thinkers and their ideas to the table, strengthening her argument and making the book all the more engaging.

The phenomenon of “overstating harm” is central to Schulman’s thesis. She says there is a very real difference between a woman who is afraid to go home because her boyfriend may kill her, based on past serious physical abuse, and a woman who is afraid to go home because she doesn’t want to face her boyfriend’s anger. People who have been in the victim role can overstate harm but so can people or institutions who actually have power. One example is the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians. Actions like a Palestinian protest over land being seized has resulted in ongoing killing of thousands of Palestinian civilians. Because of the Holocaust, the Israeli government overstates the harm of Palestinian actions; the overstatement of harm justifies the escalation and the ongoing oppression and killing of people whose actions were reasonable to their situation and in a far less powerful position.

Overstating harm happens from distorted thinking, Schulman explains, which has two very different root causes. Somebody with supremacist ideology can easily overstate harm. A supremacist is somebody who bullies, who doesn’t self-reflect or apologize, who believes he or she is simply better than others. These are the people who rape, abuse, cover up, lie, and cause scandals. But somebody who’s been traumatized by that person can have the same distorted thinking, by projecting the traumatizing event onto a current situation.

This was a powerful thought, that some of those who feel unsafe, threatened, or victimized are suffering from exaggerated thinking which contributes to escalation. It’s certainly not part of the politics of oppression. Many on the left in North America would label this “blaming the victim.” But a huge strength of this book is Schulman’s willingness to take risks like this to point out unpopular truths and perspectives to her audience, people on the political left.

Overstating harm also means that authentic danger becomes invisible. If a police department gets repeated calls about domestic violence when the perceived danger is exaggerated, the officers are far less likely to believe there is a serious problem when it happens. Those most affected, says Schulman, are the most vulnerable among us, like refugees, people of color, and disabled people. This is an important point as it shows how a personal habit or behavior can have a high and unwanted social cost.

Schulman also argues that the technological age has made this problem substantially worse. Electronic communication lacks the tools necessary to understand and connect with another person. Most of us have experienced offending someone with a Facebook post, a Tweet, an email, or a text message. Many people on Facebook have blocked somebody or have been de-friended because of a conflict that Schulman says could have been resolved had the people been in the same room. She advocates for picking up the phone and speaking voice-to-voice instead of texting or emailing, both to simplify and humanize communication and also to avoid the real dangers of miscommunication and escalation.

Another key element of the theory is that of the “bad group” or bad family that encourages the person or group to take escalating actions, like shunning, cruelty, and unilateral control. This is similar to peer pressure, something most of us have experienced. Schulman again is speaking not from a progressive or marginalized perspective but something more distanced, seeing the way the dynamic involves everyone and how escalation leads to crises nobody wants. The left often employs those tactics, and it’s valuable to question them when people around us “support” us by suggesting we use them.

Schulman gives a great example from her own life: a favorite male writing student posted a blog about having a crush on her in the early days of blogging. Her friends, most of whom are queer feminists, encouraged her to kick the student out of her class, report the incident to the police, and file for a restraining order. She resisted the pressure and instead took different steps. She asked the university to move the student to another writing class. She called and asked him if they could meet to talk. They got together several times and both learned more about the other’s position. Schulman ends the story saying she and the student have remained friends and fans of one another’s work; both emerged from the conflict feeling complete and understanding more about one another, themselves, and how to talk through a conflict.

Schulman suggests that “good” families and communities get involved in conflicts to help avoid overstatement of harm and distorted thinking. This was, perhaps, one of the most radical ideas if the book, in an age where most people consider conflicts personal and “nobody’s business.” We’re encouraged to involve either the state (certainly people of color know this will rarely have a good ending, but Schulman helps us see that it doesn’t help any of us in the end) or a private therapist if we’re wealthy enough to afford one. But our friends and sometimes our family members are with us in our everyday life. They know us better than anyone; if they can point out distorted thinking and help us prevent escalation, this could be a very easy and efficient way to avoid crises.

One particularly powerful chapter in the book is a series of tweets posted by Schulman and her friends, many of them Palestinian human rights activists, during the summer of 2014 when the Israeli army killed more than 2,000 Palestinian civilians. The realities of the situation as it unfolded were horrific to read about, particularly since no mainstream media outlet in the West reported what was happening. When contextualized, it becomes clear that the distorted thinking Schulman talks about can so easily lead to atrocities in which losses are enormous and nobody wins.

Human conflict exists because of difference. But we are far more capable of resolving it than we think. We must start by abandoning the roles of “perpetrator” and “victim” in circumstances that don’t warrant those labels. When we recognize that we are simply “conflicted,” we see the “other” as a human being, and it’s more likely we can find a satisfactory conclusion and often learn and grow. This new way of approaching conflict can result in paradigm shifts, which means social and cultural change, something most would agree is massively needed across the globe at this precarious moment in history.

Gail Marlene Schwartz is an Abba fan, a Planet Earth activist, and the first in her family to heal anxiety through diet, exercise, and Facebook rants. Favorite lit mag credits: Lilith Magazine, The New Quarterly, Room Magazine. Favorite anthologies she’s been published in: Swelling with Pride (Caitlyn Press), Nature’s Healing Spirit (Sowing Creek Press), and How To Expect What You’re Not Expecting (TouchWood Editions). Gail lives in southern Quebec where she and her wife homeschool their son. She is currently working on her first novel. www.gailmarleneschwartz.com.

Susan reviews My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness by Nagata Kabi

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Caution warning: depression, eating disorders]

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

Danika reviews 50 Queers Who Changed the World by Dan Jones, illustrated by Michele Rosenthal

50 Queers Who Changed the World by Dan Jones and Michelle Rosenthal cover

When I originally saw this small, colorful book, I briefly wondered if it was a children’s book. The format is about the same as Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: one beautiful illustration, plus a one page bio. I quickly realized my mistake when I read the biographies, which includes describing someone as jumping crotch-first into the queer scene. This is a “Gift” book, or a small coffee table book. Something to flip through, not necessarily to read cover-to-cover.

I have mixed feelings about this book. The portraits are gorgeous–and in fact, they predate the book. Michele Rosenthal’s Queer Portraits in History project inspired this book (in that they are the book, with bios to pad it out). Generally I did like the style of writing, which was playful.  There seemed to be a good mix of people included. I didn’t count them, but it wasn’t obviously mostly white men, though there are definitely more white people and more gay & lesbian people represented than people of color or bi and trans people, but I think that’s expected when talking about the history of the queer community. There were inclusions of people I hadn’t heard about before, but I appreciated learning about. Like Ron Woodroof, who was diagnosed with HIV in the 80s, and in response to the FDA dragging their feet about addressing the HIV/AIDS crisis, started a smuggling ring of HIV/AIDS drugs proven effective in other countries. He crossed the Mexico border hundreds of times in disguises to bring life-saving drugs into the US.

Unfortunately, there are some downsides. Despite being named “50 Queers Who Changed the World” (a controversial title, I know, but one I love), the intro says that you don’t have to be queer to be a queer hero. Sure, but you do have to be queer to be part of the group “50 Queers,” right? Luckily, there aren’t a lot of allies included (mostly just Madonna). There are, however, queer figures that are controversial in other ways. Like Dan Savage, who has been called out in the past for saying anti-bi, anti-trans, fat-shaming, and other hurtful things. Some of the people included are (or were) hateful towards other LGBTQ groups, or even their own. Some of the time this is mentioned, sometimes not. I can understand including those people if they have had a big impact, but I do think it’s worth disclosing. They also use the term “Aids” instead of “AIDS,” which was an odd choice.

Worse than those, though, is the constant misgendering of trans people. Any time that the book is talking about a person before they came out, it uses the wrong pronouns. Deadnames are used copiously, sometimes even seeming shoehorned in when completely irrelevant to the sentence.

I definitely recommend checking out the original Queer Portraits in History project and googling any person you’re not familiar with, but I don’t think I can recommend this book. With some slight changes, this would be a delightful little gift book to have in some queer waiting room, but not with the misgendering and other issues that are present.

Greetings From Janeland: Women Write More About Leaving Men for Women edited by Candace Walsh and Barbara Straus Lodge

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 6 years since I wrote my review of Dear John: I Love Jane. The Lesbrary was still a baby! In that review, I talk about how fascinated I was with it, namely because of it addressing sexual fluidity. In fact, the author of Sexual Fluidity wrote the foreword, and that inspired me to add it to my TBR. I wouldn’t read for 5 more years–not until I was experiencing my own sexual fluidity. Perhaps it’s a good thing that I waited that long: it was extremely helpful to read at that point in my life (review here).

Needless to say, I had some expectations starting the sequel to that pivotal book. And perhaps those expectations were a little too high. As I sad in my original review, I have a personal interest in those essays where authors address sexual fluidity: having their attractions shift over time. The majority of stories in the first book were not about that. They were about realizing that they were gay later in life, or at least coming to terms with it after having serious relationships with men. That’s even more true in Greetings From Janeland. The focus seems to have shifted to really be representing women who come out later in life. (Later than teenager, I mean.)

These are still interesting stories! They’re about how compulsory heterosexuality can cause people to live decades without owning up to their own desires and pleasure. They show the many different paths that people take to find their truths. They show the ways that their relationships with the men in their lives change: some are still close to them, and some have completely gone separate ways. Some follow up stories from the first book. For the most part, though, they follow a pattern: I was always a lesbian, but I didn’t come out until later. There are a few bisexual writers, but not a lot, and even fewer that address fluidity.

So this collection didn’t cater to my interested quite so closely, but I still think this is a great resource. The editors reference how women have written to them to say how life-changing the first book was for them. We do still have a very rigid idea of what a lesbian looks like, what a queer woman looks like, what coming out looks like. It’s good to have stories that stretch that, and show that it’s never too late to live your truth.

Elinor Zimmerman reviews Staying Power: Long Term Lesbian Couples by Susan E. Johnson

Published in 1990, this book draws from Johnson’s study of over 100 couples who have been together a decade or more. Her research included questionnaires, in depth interviews, and opportunities for those in her study to write in detail about their relationships. I picked it up because I’m interested in long-term partnership and especially because I love reading lesbian nonfiction from previous decades. I found this book more relevant than I anticipated and I recommend it not only to those interested in lesbian history but anyone who wants to be in a long term partnership.

Johnson includes extended transcripts from conversations with eight couples as well as study findings around major themes that emerged such as commitment, sexuality, and problems. Quotes pepper every section and the women’s stories are amazing. There were a lot of different attitudes and approaches to relationships and a broad range of ages. One of the couples in this book had been together for more than 50 years and reading about their life together was worth picking up the book even if you take nothing else from it.

There is practical advice in this book but more than that there are interesting stories. Some of the couples had relationships I would never want and some had relationships I thought sounded incredible. Some couples were monogamous, some were poly, and some had become celibate. Some had formalized and celebrated their relationships to the extent they were able to at the time and some were largely closeted. A handful were raising children. I found some new ways of envisioning a long term relationship and gained some insights that apply to my own marriage.

The one major shortcoming of this book is that nearly everyone in the study was white. Only 6 out of 216 women in the study were women of color and all of them were partnered with white women. Johnson admits this huge flaw in the study early on but it didn’t appear to me that she did much to try to correct it once she became aware that her outreach efforts were dramatically underrepresenting people of color. She suggests that other researchers, especially women of color, do their own studies to correct this, but I would have liked more attempts to remedy this huge imbalance in her research. Subjects in the study were also more educated and skewed wealthier than the average population. Probably due to the era it was written, trans people aren’t mentioned at all. My only note of caution for interested readers is that you’re getting a book almost exclusively about white cis women and most have a fair amount of class privilege, so the perspective is limited in this way.

Still, I found this book useful. I would recommend it to those interested in recent queer history or in long term partnerships. Whether or not you can apply the ideas in Staying Power to your own life, it’s fascinating to see how marriage equality and increasing ability to be out have shifted intimate relationships over the last few decades. Keeping in mind its limitations, it’s interesting book worth checking out.

Elinor Zimmerman is the author of Certain Requirements, which will be released by Bold Strokes Books in Spring 2018 and is a contributor to the anthology Unspeakably Erotic, edited by D.L. King, and out now. Her website is ElinorZimmerman.com


Susan reviews Spinning by Tillie Walden

Spinning is a graphic memoir by Tillie Walden about the ten years she spent as a competitive figure skater. It’s beautiful and compelling, but in some ways it’s a hard read.

Everything I know about skating I picked up from Yuri!!! On Ice fandom, so I couldn’t speak to how accurate it is, but her explanations of how figure skating, jumps, and synchronised skating works are fascinating. Especially because she does touch on the explicit feminine coding and potential toxicity of enforcing that on kids! But learning how different moves are structured and how much work goes in is fascinating! Especially because while it structures and shapes Tillie Walden’s life throughout Spinning, it’s not the only thing going on.

The narrative is very narrow in its focus – it’s very deeply into Tillie Walden’s experiences and feelings in a way that works well with the structure of the narrative. The afterword specifically says that it was deliberate; it was about “sharing a feeling” rather than the specific events, and it is definitely successful at that. It frees her from doing a linear chronology, and lets her group events by feeling or what makes sense, which means that it’s more of a coherent story despite being a memoir.

The specific events swing between hopeful and exciting to bleak within the space of pages – the demands of skating and Tillie Walden’s coping strategies to deal with exhaustion and despair are really well depicted. The bleakness and monotony of her feelings towards skating are really well contrasted with her feelings for art and music as her interests change and move; the fun she has with her friends and the validation she gets from winning contrast with her feelings of fear. Her relationship and and coming out also come under this, but neither of which go well so brace yourselves for on-page homophobia. The way that Tillie Walden talks about her first relationship bringing her fear as well as everything else young love is supposed to bring is heartbreaking.

Tillie Walden’s regrets – that her bully left the school before she found the courage to stand up for herself; that she wasn’t a better friend, that quitting skating was so anticlimactic – were all completely understandable and relatable, and the way the art conveyed them made me feel for her. The art is great, and it has a lot of the things that I loved about “i love this part” – it has a limited pallet of dark blue, grey, and yellow, which was used to great effect to convey the mood without words. I especially love the way that she’ll give a quiet moment an entire page to itself to let its emotional weight rest, especially because most of the book has a very regular page structure.

Spinning is a really interesting, emotional, and compelling memoir that works really well with the art to tell its story. It also left me completely emotionally drained by the time I was done with it, which is a recommendation if that’s what you’re in the mood for!

Caution warning: sexual assault, homophobia, bullying.

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


Rebecca reviews of Love on the Road 2013 edited by Sam Tranum and Lois Kapila

Love on The Road 2013 edited by Sam Tranum and Lois Kapila is an anthology of twelve stories depicting love and travel in diverse locations like India, Alaska, and New York. I really wanted to enjoy this collection because it seemed like a promising and fun concept. However, I just couldn’t get into several of the stories at all. I loved Doreen E. Massey’s “The Upside Down Trees” and Kimberly Cawthon’s “Cindy in Manhattan” which are really well-written with fascinating and layered characters. However, a few of the other pieces suffer from dull or stereotypical characters and pointlessly meandering plots. There are a few LGBTQ characters featured in the stories but they are side characters. However, there are two stories where women’s romantic relationships with women are featured.

Mohita Nagpal’s “The Girl with the Egg-Shaped Face” is well-written and interesting. The author labels her piece as “seventy percent non-fiction.” The female protagonist is instantly attracted to the titular girl with the egg-shaped face, Shilpi, when they meet on a bus while travelling to the Jaipur Literature Festival. The main character is well-crafted and her pining for the object of her affection is relatable. The brief interactions between Shilpi and the narrator are poignant and painfully realistic. However, the narrator’s crush soon takes an invasive turn. She goes from entertaining harmless fantasies in her head to Facebook stalking and she even obtains personal information about Shilpi and follows her to another city. Her intrusive actions are disturbing but you cannot help but feel empathy for the narrator who has been unlucky in love and is entranced by her fantasies. Although the melancholy ending may disappoint some readers, I believe that it is a satisfying and organic conclusion.

Naima Lynch’s fictional work “All That You Forgot to See” takes readers from New York City to Egypt with Althea, a lonely middle-aged woman who is sleepwalking her way through life. Although she displays racist and xenophobic behaviour, the story’s gently optimistic ending indicates that there may be some hope for Althea. However, her repression and her inability to connect with people as well as her sad and stagnant life are achingly realistic. Lynch makes a seemingly unrelatable character all too human. Althea’s best friend, Lorraine, is the heart of this story and the nuances of their relationship are poignant and well-developed. Lynch does not assign labels to the women and, without giving too much away, the characters and the nature of their relationship are surprising but still seem true to life.

If you’re looking for a lot of LGBTQ characters and stories, this isn’t the book for you. However, if you like travel anthologies, it is a decent one time read with several well-crafted gems sprinkled throughout. I would definitely reread Mohita Nagpal’s “The Girl with the Egg-Shaped Face” and Naima Lynch’s “All That You Forgot to See.”

Rebecca Cave is a Creative Writing student and freelance proofreader. She is an avid but sadly not very prolific reader and writer.