Mallory Lass reviews America by Gabby Rivera, Illustrated by Joe Quinones and Annie Wu

I only recently (in the last 18 months) got into reading comic books. Honestly, I never understood the appeal, and no one I knew read them when I was younger. But, I am so glad I started. They are a little intimidating to figure out (I still couldn’t tell you their naming/numbering system, it makes no logical sense), so when you first get going, I suggest starting with a solo series, collected issues devoted to single characters.

This review will focus on the recently completed origin story of America Chavez aka “Miss America”, written by Gabby Rivera. America is Marvel’s first Latin American LGBTQ character to have her own ongoing series. Rivera is also a queer woman of color, and their shared identity really makes America’s story shine. America previously appeared in Young Avengers and the Ultimates, among others, before landing her own story. There are 12 issues in this solo run, which have been compiled into two trade paperbacks, so I’ll discuss the series overall and then briefly both volumes in turn. Hot tip: a lot of public libraries have tons of trade paperback comics in their Teen collection, which is were I get 95% of the comics I read.

This comic doesn’t shy away from establishing America’s queer and Latinx identity. This comic is written partly in Spanish, which I found really authentic to her character, and having “Spanglish” in the book is something Rivera pushed for. I wanted to look up translations, and had fun doing it, but the plot is totally understandable even if you don’t want to spend time translating. Found family is a major theme in America’s origin story. America doesn’t have a relationship with her family, for a variety of reasons, which are revealed a little bit in Vol 1 and more in depth through Vol 2. America puts in the emotional energy required to create and maintain friendships and mentorships that serve as her found family. Getting to witness America and her friends showing up for each other again and again is where this series shines. My minor complaint is that I don’t find the villains, the Midas Corporation and La Legion, all that compelling. Though, I often find the villains in superhero stories to be boring, so maybe it’s a me thing. Exterminatrix, the main villainess is an over the top fun and sexy character, so while some of the “evil” plot lagged, it was always visually appealing. Speaking of the art, diversity is front and center. America is drawn very curvy and muscular. There are characters of all body types, races, orientations and planetary origins. In fact, America’s bff Kate Bishop, a white woman, is often the odd one out.

America Vol 1

America Vol 1: The Life and Times of America Chavez

America’s series opens with her relationship falling apart just as she is getting ready to head off to college at Sotomayor University. The first six issues feature two ex-girlfriends, one with questionable motives, and a few amazing best friends. One thing that shines through in this series is how in touch with pop culture Rivera is, and how culturally relevant she wanted this series to be. It’s America’s story, but it is also an every woman story. Struggling to adapt and adjust to young adult life is relatable and America’s superhero duties create compelling complications in her life. Based on the story arc and Rivera’s letters to readers, I think Rivera wanted young women to see America succeed and conquer obstacles in her own life and for that success to provide inspiration and hope to her readers. To know we are all fighting the bigger battles together.

America Volume 2

America Vol 2: Fast and Fuertona

This second half of her series is a beautiful origin story. Turns out, not only was America born to two queer women, her home planet was created by two goddesses. The space art in this series is a feast for your eyes. Watching America come into her own and deal with her family trauma and baggage is where this story shines. At one point we get her thoughts and she thinks “I have the right to be joyful. Despite all the sad, hard bits…” and it really resonated with me both from a queer experience mindset, but also in navigating the world we live in.

Ultimately, America will need to use all her life skills she’s been building over the series and enroll all of her friends to help her defeat the Midas Corporation. The world and character building Rivera does in the first half of the arc pays off and cements America’s place in the Marvel-verse as one of the most powerful female superheroes around.

While America’s solo run ended in April 2018, if you need more, she just joined the West Coast Avengers team in August. My only hesitancy in diving into that series is the difference between how Gabby Rivera writes America Chavez & Kate Bishop in her solo run and how Kelly Thompson who is at the helm of WCA writes them in Kate Bishop’s solo series Hawkeye. Rivera writes America with her queerness in the forefront. I feel like Thompson writes queer characters as if their queerness is the least relevant thing about them, rather than central to the way they move in the world. For me there is an experienced difference as a queer reader and it’s why #ownvoices really does matter. I still enjoy Thompson’s work (it’s very feminist), but not nearly the same way I love Rivera’s.

15 year old Mallarie Chaves wrote to Gabby Rivera about the impact the character America has had on her (her letter is reproduced at the end of Vol 2) and she specifically calls out that they look alike. Representation matters, a lot. While I think the run is clearly aimed at younger women, America’s message, never stop fighting for what you believe in, resonated with me, and I hope you are inspired to pick this comic up.

Danika reviews Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann

 

Let's Talk About Love by Claire Kann cover

I have a lot of mixed feelings about this one. Initially, I was really excited to pick it up! A black, biromantic, asexual main character in a YA romance? That is definitely not an intersection often explored. I was looking forward to something fun and fairly light, and initially, I thought that was what I was getting. Alice is an adorable main character. She’s still mostly closeted as asexual, but she’s done a lot of thinking about it. She’s developed a Cutie Scale, which basically measures her aesthetic attraction–not just to people, but to all kind of cute things. (Alice is obsessed with cute.)

I loved Feenie–the grouch–immediately. She hates everyone but her boyfriend (Ryan) and Alice. The three of them live together, and form a tight-knit family. Feenie has always been fiercely protective of Alice, including punching a girl in the face in high school who made fun of Alice for being asexual. She’s rough around the edges, but I was invested in their little family. And–initially–I really liked Takumi as well. He almost seemed too perfect (which they flat-out say in text). It was a promising beginning! But… little irritations started to add up.

They didn’t seem major at first. For example, Alice works at the library, but doesn’t seem to care about it or enjoy it that much. She’s constantly off in a corner with Takumi, not working. Her boss also doesn’t like being a librarian. This is a very minor point, but it was puzzling to me: librarianship is a highly competitive field that doesn’t pay well. How would people who are indifferent to it get in and keep these jobs? And then there were some weird class moments, but that’s eventually addressed (Alice keeps saying that she’s poor and her parents are rich, but that’s not really what being poor is. Alice has a safety net, even if it comes with restrictions she doesn’t want. She equates the idea of being cut off from their money as being disowned.)

Her family is also… Well, they seem realistically complicated, but I can see how Alice was constantly stressing about it. She’s the youngest sibling by decades, and everyone seems to be determined to make her decisions for her. Her mother, especially, insists that she has to go to law school or she’s throwing away her future. Every time she does anything that her mother doesn’t approve of, all of her older siblings call and text constantly to criticize her. There is love there, but it had me stressed out just reading about it.

Soon, even the aspects I was enjoying started to fizzle out (or explode). Feenie went from gruff-but-lovable to downright shitty. Feenie and Ryan are engaged, and although the three of them are theoretically a unit, Alice is often the third wheel. Which is fine, until Alice starts going off with Takumi and Feenie goes into a rage over it. Both Feenie and Ryan seem to expect Alice to constantly be available to them, though that’s not equally true of them.

Spoilers follow for the rest of this review, because I have Thoughts.

When Feenie and Alice finally discuss what’s come between them, it turns into Alice calling herself an asshole and saying she’s been selfish, which is… not what I had been seeing. Although they form a shaky truth, it didn’t feel resolved for me. Feenie stopped being a favourite and instead felt like a toxic, possessive relationship.

And speaking of relationships! I was into Takumi at first because, as stated, he seemed pretty much perfect. Which meant the ending gave me whiplash. On reflection, I realized that I felt like there was no middle to the book. Alice and Takumi get closer and closer, without any real conflict between them until the end. They basically seem to already be dating. So it was a shock to me that when Alice finally (finally) actually asks him out, he spouts off the same ignorant things that we’ve already heard from her previous ex. Takumi–who knew Alice was asexual, who had seemed supportive–says that if she really loved him, she would let him have sex with her. Which is appalling to me. Why would you ever want to have sex with someone who didn’t want to be there? I can understand him saying “I don’t think I could give up sex.” But that was terrible to read. I actually found my eyes skimming over his whole speech, because I couldn’t understand why Alice was going through this again, when it had already happened in the beginning of the book. He did later sort of take it back, but to me, the damage was done. I no longer saw it as a happily ever after, because I didn’t like Takumi anymore.

I did read a review of an earlier draft of this book that clarified some things for me. Apparently in earlier drafts, Takumi was not a saint. In fact, he was downright skeezy at points. And that explains why I felt like there was no middle to the book: originally, it was a push and pull between Takumi and Alice, with Takumi pressuring Alice into things she wasn’t comfortable with. Understandably, that was criticized, and most of that was removed, but that puts the ending in context, as well as their lack of conflict in the middle of the book.

I’m disappointed, because I was really enjoying the read for the first 3/4 of the book, even with the minor issues I had with it, but the ending left my unsatisfied. Takumi went from eerily perfect to (in my eyes) irredeemable on a dime. Alice’s relationships with her family–both by birth and chosen–were still strained. It was far from the fluffy, uplifting ending I was expecting, though I know it was supposed to be a HEA.

I know other people really enjoyed this book, and I can see why. But it left me stressed and sad, which I don’t think was the intention.

Alexa reviews Tone of Voice by Kaia Sønderby

“Things on the inside get easy to see,” Xandri murmured, snuggling contentedly between us, “when you’re always on the outside.”

Back in March, I finally read Failure to Communicate, a book that was recommended to me as #ownvoices autistic representation by an indie author. I wasn’t aware before reading the book that other than being autistic, the main character, Xandri, is also bisexual and possibly polyamorous, with one male (Diver) and one female (Kiri) potential LI in the first book. The series also deals with some heavy issues, such as ableism in society, and parental abuse in the main character’s backstory.

I adored the characters and the worldbuilding of Failure to Communicate so much that I immediately rushed to pick up its prequel, Testing Pandora, which takes place a few years earlier. So, obviously, when the second book in the series, Tone of Voice, came out earlier this month, I had to pick it up immediately.

A quick, mostly spoiler-free recap of the first book for those who are not familiar with the series: Xandri is a member of a xeno-liasons team on a spaceship called Carpathia, a ship responsible for several successful first contacts with many alien species. Since Xandri is autistic, she had to learn many social clues that came naturally to allistic people, and this constant attention to body language and such actually makes her the best at reading and contacting with new alien species. In the first book, Xandri negotiated an alliance with a notoriously xenophobic species, the Anmerilli, but due to some circumstances she was (frankly, unfairly) forced to leave the Carpathia. The second book picks up a few months later.

Tone of Voice starts with a quick guide to the various alien species present in the books, which was a pretty useful refresher. The species we get to know closely in this book are the Hands and Voices–a symbiotic species where one whale-like alien (a Voice) lives together with several octopus-like creatures (the Hands), which is, of course, a huge oversimplification. I absolutely love the way Kaia handles alien species in these books. While they are usually compared to some Earth animal or concept so that people can more easily imagine them, the alien species are all distinct. What’s more, even within the species there is diversity, different sub-species, and different groups or cultures.

It was great to return to Xandri’s mind and narration. She remains a complex and wonderful protagonist, with quirks and flaws and impulsive decisions, but many more lovable qualities. Xandri is a pacifist at heart: despite not always understanding them, she loves people and she loves all alien species, and she doesn’t want to kill anyone. She feels sorry for those who die, even if it happens in self-defense. And yet, I loved how it was addressed that violence is sometimes necessary, and that violence from oppressors and violence from the oppressed groups defending themselves will never be equally bad: “For once, the voice at the back of my mind had all the sense. If their worst nightmare is the people they want to oppress and kill fighting back against them, then they are the ones with the problem.”

A big change this book brought was the multiple POVs. While the first book was entirely from Xandri’s point of view, in Tone of Voice, the narration kept switching between Xandri and her best friend and love interest, Diver. This was great for several reasons, one of them being that it allowed the reader to see the events happening in two places at once – which was pretty useful when there was a lot happening. I felt like the stakes were raised much higher in this book: as we can already see in the blurb, Tone of Voice has two armies with clashing with each other instead in the second half instead of small groups fighting like last time. That also means several deaths in the side cast that sometimes caught me off guard, but it also meant many, many tense moments where I was eager to keep on reading and see what happens.

There is little time for romance when you are trying to first negotiate with an unknown alien species, and later fighting a war to protect their planet from anti-alien racists, which means that Xandri’s romantic relationships progress pretty slowly, but they’re still there. In the first book, Xandri had a clear interest in both Diver and Kiri, and it was stated that Kiri was polyamorous and preferred triads. In this second book, I still believe that a triad between the three of them is where the series is heading, but while there is still a significant focus on Xandri’s relationship with Diver, I often found myself wishing we’d see much more of Kiri.

This book also introduced a nonbinary side character with vi/vir/virself pronouns. I am always happy to see more nonbinary characters, especially once that use “unusual” pronouns, so Jae was a nice surprise.

There is no info about the third book yet, but there’s a lot to look forward to. The ending of Tone of Voice gives the reader some clues on what the main plot is going to be, and I’m also curious if we find out more about Xandri’s past.

Rating: 4 stars

Alexa is a bi ace reviewer who loves books with queer protagonists, especially young adult and fantasy books. E also has a fascination with solarpunk, found families and hopeful futures, and plans to incorporate these in eir own writing. You can find more of eir reviews and bookish talk on WordPress and Twitter @greywardenblue. 

Tierney reviews The Necessary Hunger by Nina Revoyr

The Necessary Hunger by Nina Revoyr cover

Published in 1997, The Necessary Hunger is one of those novels that should be on the required reading list for queer women: it so perfectly depicts its protagonist’s emotional journey, impeccably capturing the essence of adolescent passion, basketball, unrequited love, and this particular moment in time in 1980s Los Angeles.

The novel is told from Nancy’s point of view, as she looks back on her adolescence many years later: she tells the story of her coming of age in the mid-1980s as a Japanese-American star basketball player, as she navigates her feelings for Raina, an African-American star player from another school, who actually ends up as her step-sister of sorts when Nancy’s dad and Raina’s mom get together, and they all move in together.

This plot point that could take a turn for the comedic is instead conveyed beautifully and movingly: it adds such an achingly sharp edge to Nancy’s unreciprocated feelings for Raina, her longing for a person so near and yet so far from her. Raina herself is queer, and has a good-for-nothing girlfriend who she nevertheless can’t seem to quit – adding another torturous dimension to Nancy’s feelings (and putting the novel a cut above the tired “pining for a straight girl” trope). Through this specific, awkward, beautiful lens, Revoyr deftly portrays such ubiquitous teenage feelings: yearning, discomfort, infatuation, listlessness – the roller coaster of unrequited love.

Nancy, and the novel, are both so much more than just her love for Raina (though that love is certainly the source of her most intense emotions, and is the novel’s  main thread): while negotiating these feelings, she is simultaneously navigating classes, playing high school basketball as a star player on a highly-ranked team, and trying to figure out college plans, while parrying the impassioned advances of the college coaches who are courting her. The Necessary Hunger is infused with so much love that it’s contagious – the characters’ very emotions and passions become infectious, thanks to Revoyr’s skill at hitting all the right emotional notes through Nancy’s enticing and conversational first-person narrative. I know almost nothing about basketball, and don’t particularly care much for sports, but was riveted throughout the entire novel, basketball and all, because of Nancy’s passion and tone.

And Nancy’s love for her friends is just as appealing as her love for the game: her friends round out the novel as an engrossing and effervescent cast of characters, many of whom are queer themselves. Though the story is told from Nancy’s point of view, she sometimes gives brief, poignant insights into what the future holds for certain characters, since the entire novel is a look back on her adolescence from adulthood. This story is Nancy’s, but it also feels much wider than that – The Necessary Hungerarrestingly captures a specific place in time.

Through it all, there is the backdrop of the city of Los Angeles in the mid-1980s and its own particular social climate. Nancy’s experience as a Japanese-American girl (and then a member of a multiracial blended family) in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, her experience as a young queer woman of color, her experience navigating race and class with basketball teams from white, well-off school districts, her experience facing the privilege afforded by a basketball scholarship that is all but certain are all confronted head-on. The Necessary Hunger showcases Nancy’s life and identity, and those of her friends and family, in a way that feels straightforward and fully realized. 

The Necessary Hunger is a queer classic. If you haven’t yet read it, I recommend going out and finding a copy as soon as you can: Nancy’s story and journey and heartache are simultaneously so specifically hers, and so beautifully universal. 

Kelly reviews Inferno by Eileen Myles

Inferno: A Poet’s Novel, Eileen Myles

If the flight from Minneapolis to Vancouver had been just a little longer, I would have finished this book in one sit. Not because of the plot—basically nonexistent—but because of the feeling, thought, feeling. Plus, the hot and sometimes hilarious sex, of course.

Though subtitled “A Poet’s Novel,” this piece is only vaguely fictional, referring to real figures from Myles’ life and incorporating previously published poems. Myles brings a poet’s precision to this semi-fiction, semi-memoir. Take these opening lines:

My English professor’s ass was so beautiful. It was perfect and full as she stood at the board writing some important word. Reality or perhaps illusion. She opened the door. With each movement of her arms and her hand delicately but forcefully inscribing the letters intended for our eyes her ass shook ever so slightly. I had never learned from a woman with a body before. Something slow, horrible and glowing was happening inside me. I stood on the foothills to heaven. She opened the door.

After introducing Dante to the class, this English professor asks students to write their own infernos. The class groans. Eileen writes hers alone at the kitchen table at home. Her professor’s public response to Eileen’s poem makes her wonder, could this poetry gig be a job? There is little plot in the book, but that is not the point. When I heard Myles speak in Vancouver, she said she wrote this book to explain being a poet. It is a thorough and provoking explanation.

In many ways, this book has nothing to do with the original Divine Comedy. Dante’s judicial nature and firm vengeance are absent; Myles is not teaching us how to be good; and other than a dose of guilt, there’s nothing Catholic about this piece. However, like Dante, Myles is a poet on a journey, through a spectacular and sometimes grotesque universe; and though there is no single Beatrice, it is women who bring Myles through. Her discovery of her sexuality is written in glorious detail: the awkwardness and the joy resonate equally.

Joint review: Beebo Brinker by Ann Bannon

If you haven’t read one of my joint review posts, this is how it goes: me and another blogger both read pick a lesbian book to read at the same time, then we discuss it, either through instant messages or by email. Anna from the feminist librarian read Beebo Brinker by Ann Bannon with me, though I’m very late in posting our conversation. I mark for spoilers, so highlight if you’d like to read them, or head over to the feminist librarian for the uncensored version.

Anna: As a starter question, I’d be interested to know what you thought about the way Bannon portrays her character’s discovery of her same-sex desires (especially the way it is mediated to some extent by her mentor/roommate). It was an interesting contrast to the way the girls in our YA novels came to terms with their sexual orientation — primarily through their interaction with other girls and their own internal self-reflections.

Danika: You’re right, Beebo Brinker does explore a different way of coming to terms with her sexuality. It reminds me of the Well of Loneliness-style inversion theory of lesbianism, because she seems to really see her own (masculine) body as almost dictating her sexuality, and femme lesbians in this book, too, seem to be at least a little bit doubted, or seen as less queer. Beebo seems to discover her sexuality because of her appearance, not so much in relation to other people, which is interesting from a modern perspective, because we’ve really been trying to separate sexuality from gender identity. These earlier novels don’t do that, and it’s hard to separate a character’s gender identity from their sexuality, especially since they don’t even have the vocabulary for it.

The roommate is interesting, too, because it offers another instance of queer community, which has had different portrayals in the joint reviews I’ve done. Beebo Brinker has a primarily positive portrayal of community, with Beebo’s roommate as a mentor and guide, but it may also be because her roommate was a gay man, and therefore wasn’t directly competition…?

Anna: I think you’re right about Beebo (the character) being written in a way that signals her sexual orientation through her gender identity. That is, she’s a tomboy therefore she’s going to be gay and like girls sexually. There’s a fancy term for that concept of gender and sexual identity that I’m completely blanking on right now, but basically it’s a way of mapping sexual orientation onto the binary system of gender so that lesbian women = masculine (male-identified) and gay men = feminine (female-identified). This even turns up in science — like actual scientific theories — about brain chemistry. The assumption is that the brains of lesbian women will be organized more like the brains of straight men than they will straight women. That was an assumption that was pretty popular in the mid-twentieth century (and still is today). I imagine Anne Bannon didn’t even notice she was making those assumptions when she wrote the character. Whereas to us they’re glaringly obviously and seem clunky and stereotypical.

The other thing that’s stirred into the mix, although Bannon doesn’t come out and use these terms (at least not that I remember) is the butch/femme subculture of the pre-Stonewall era. We still have butch/femme as a subculture today, but it’s only part of the much larger queer community. From what I understand, the lesbian subculture of mid-century America was pretty saturated with butch/femme identities and role-playing. Even if you didn’t necessarily feel comfortable with either of those roles, you sort of had to pick one in order to situate yourself within the lesbian subculture. I’m probably overgeneralizing … but as I was reading Beebo I did think of that, and about the way in which Beebo is set up from the beginning as a masculine-identified lesbian, whereas her lovers are all female-identified.

And at least two of them (as you point out) are bi- or fluid (in today’s terminology) … the femme fatale whose name I’m temporarily forgetting and Venus, the film actress. Paula, from what I remember, is pretty confirmed in her interest exclusively in women, and seems interested in both femme women and butch women. So there aren’t necessarily any hard and fast rules in Bannon’s literary world about butch women only dating femme women, or vice versa. But there does seem to be a fairly firm … shall we call it a “typology” of lesbians being outlined in the novel? It sort of reads as an identification guide in places. For young lesbians in New York: here are your options!

Placing so much emphasis on Beebo’s appearance and on other people reading her as a dyke even before she herself is consciously aware of her same-sex desires is in some ways distinctly at odds with our present-day understanding of sexual orientation — that it is something which we know from within ourselves, and that we each have the right to self-identify our orientation and gender. On the other hand, the willingness of outsiders to identify Beebo as queer is certainly a phenomenon that’s alive and well in our culture — both among the queer subculture and within the mainstream population. We still very much read gender as a mark of sexual orientation even if we distance ourselves from that sort of conflation of sex and gender. As much as we like to say we’re beyond assuming that queer people fit certain stereotypes, we still enjoy (as a culture) crowing “we knew it all along!” when someone who’s gender-nonconforming turns out to be queer, and, conversely, expressing our disbelief when someone who is very gender-conforming comes out as a person with same-sex inclinations.

While gay men didn’t figure so heavily in the novel, what did you think of the way Jack and his boyfriends were portrayed? Do you see similarities and/or differences between the portrayal of lesbian identity and gay male identity in the novel?

Danika: Yes, it’s funny how that theory seems to carry through that seriously flawed theory from the ’20s to the ’60s. And you’re right, we’re still seeing traces of that. Gender identity and sexuality continue to be tangled together, and that’s with our attempts to separate the two. Beebo Brinker was also still in the early days of lesbian literature/pulp, when you couldn’t really have cliches, because there wasn’t enough to compare to. In those days, that assumption didn’t need to be explained: it seemed like common sense. It definitely doesn’t look that way from 2011, though.

I definitely saw some underlying butch/femme dynamics in Beebo Brinker. Again, it just seemed like common sense at that point, I think. Beebo was really aligned more with straight men, so of course she’d want a feminine woman. That was the standard for lesbian pulp, from what I remember. They tended to put two very feminine women on the covers, but the stories inside would be strictly butch/femme. It sort of suggests that they found it difficult to really wrap their heads around same-gender relationships, and would therefore try to slot it into heterosexual frameworks. Of course, butch/femme relationships in reality are rarely mere imitation of heterosexual relationships (they have great potential to challenge and subvert heterosexual norms), but the fact that they didn’t seem to be able to imagine a same-sex relationship that wasn’t butch/femme seems to suggest that lesbian pulp tried to imitate.

Hmmm, you’re right that there were some bi/fluid/pansexual/who-can-really-assign-a-sexuality-to-a-fictional-character characters, but weren’t those characters portrayed fairly badly? The femme fatale (I’m blanking, too) is clearly a villain and Venus [spoiler-ish] seems to be trying to get the best of both worlds: to hold onto a husband for security but still go out looking for women [end spoiler]. It doesn’t seem to be a very positive portrayal of bisexuality.

I think femme/femme relationships are touched on, but I don’t think we saw any butch/butch ones. I think in that era butches were more common, but femmes were more desirable in the bar world? So a femme dating a femme would be fine, but according to that ranking system, a butch wouldn’t want to be with a butch? Maybe I’m reading in terrible messages that aren’t really there at this point.

There’s definitely a “The Lesbian Guide to Lesbians in NY” aspect to it. In fact, apparently lesbian pulp pushed that a lot: Greenwich Village was painted as this almost mythical, utopian place for queer people, where you could find your community and a partner and be accepted. It supposedly encouraged a lot of women (like Beebo) to leave their hometown and go on this pilgrimage to Greenwich.

I think it’s the that order is reversed in our current conception of gender/sexual identity versus appearance. For Beebo, her appearance determined and shaped her gender and sexual identity, whereas now we think of people are expressing their gender/sexual identity through their appearance. I say gender and sexual identity because there are many ways to be read as lesbian (or gay or queer) through appearance: shaving one side of your head, or having short hair, or wearing rainbow accessories, etc. Gender expression through appearance is pretty obvious.

“As much as we like to say we’re beyond assuming that queer people fit certain stereotypes, we still enjoy (as a culture) crowing ‘we knew it all along!’ when someone who’s gender-nonconforming turns out to be queer, and, conversely, expressing our disbelief when someone who is very gender-conforming comes out as a person with same-sex inclinations.”

I agree completely. I’m not particularly femme (more a T-shirt/hoodie and jeans sort of person), but I’m far from butch, so I get a lot of disbelief when I come out, even to fellow queers. It gets old fast.

Jack as a character is positive: he’s sympathetic and seems real. As a representation of gay men, though, I’m not sure. He likes younger men, he takes in vulnerable people (which is kind, but also puts that person in a difficult spot, if he’s attracted to them), and [spoiler-ish] he doesn’t seem to be able to have a long-term relationship [end spoiler]. It’s odd, because he’s neither the stereotype of the white picket fence gay guy who’s been in a relationship for decades and had a kid, etc, or the stereotype of the complete sleeping around gay guy. He falls in love and he takes his relationships seriously, but they’re short. And they’re usually with younger, vulnerable men. I’m really not sure how I feel about it. What did you think?

Anna: Whew! Lots of good thoughts. I’ll try to take them in order.

On the subject of the prevelence of butch/femme dynamics in lesbian pulp specfically, I was thinking as I read about the tension between writing sexually-explicit lesbian stories for a lesbian audience, and writing novels that would get passed the censors … and which might possibly have a cross-over audience? I have no idea if lesbian-themed novels had any non-lesbian readers (i.e. straight men), the way girl-on-girl porn has today. But that might be one reason why constructing lesbian sex in a basically hetero fashion might be a selling point. And the same thing for the covers which show feminine women, regardless of the narratives inside them.

Reading Beebo has definitely made me interested in learning more about the history of lesbian pulps and the role they had in both queer and straight culture during the mid-twentieth century.

I agree with you that the bisexual (or similar; the labels were different back then) characters were depicted pretty shabbily in the narrative. This seems to me like an ongoing tension within lesbian subculture … that is, who “counts” as lesbian or whose sexual desires for women are legitimate (and why). We saw this to a lesser extent in the two previous books we’ve reviewed — both of which were coming out / coming-of-age narratives dealing with adolescents. Although Beebo is (I think?) a teenager, age eighteen or nineteen, she’s on her own with a job and everything — not a highschoolers, the way the girls in Annie on My Mind and Hello, Groin! are.

I felt like the character of Jack was even more of a charicature than the women in the story — he’s there as Beebo’s guide/mentor but his personality sort of melds with Greenwich Village. He’s a stereotype: “Gay Man of the 1950s” rather than a fleshed out character, I thought. Almost a metaphor for gay life in New York as it’s portrayed in popular culture? Less of a person than a literary trope.

I’m curious what you thought of the sex scenes in Beebo? I was particularly charmed by the first scene between Beebo and [spoiler] Paula [end spoiler], which actually read like it was written by someone who has had and enjoys lesbian sex! It was one of the scenes in which the butch/femme dynamic seems the least present, actually. Thoughts?

Danika: Yes, lesbian pulp was definitely aimed at a straight male audience in much the same way as girl-on-girl porn is now. Most lesbian pulp was written by straight men. And as for censors, lesbian pulp fiction (and gay pulp fiction and other queer pulp fiction) had to, by the end of the book, be read as condemning this behaviour in order to slip past the censors. Hence the usual story of one or both of the lesbian dying or going crazy or straight. [spoiler-ish] I guess Beebo Brinker was a later pulp, and that’s how it got away with a fairly happy ending? [end spoiler] [spoiler for Price of Salt] The Price of Salt was the first pulp with a happy ending (though I didn’t find it particularly happy, since I wasn’t a big fan of the relationship), and it was written in 1952, so I guess by the time Beebo Brinker was written it was more acceptable. [end spoiler] I do find pulp fascinating, not to mention entertaining in a totally over-the-top ridiculous way. I guess I can laugh at it now because I personally never had to deal with it being the main portrayal of lesbians, which would make it less funny.

That’s true, there does seem to be a sort of policing of the boundary around the label “lesbian” and who counts as a real lesbian. It reminds me of the inversion theory view of lesbians in Well of Loneliness and others, which looked down on feminine lesbians as not being as legitimate as butch lesbians in a similar way that bisexual/fluid characters don’t seem to be seen as legitimate in Beebo Brinker. I wonder if this has shifted in a different way in modern times, with the greater acknowledgement of trans* identities. I wonder if this policing takes place in the opposite way now, in which masculine lesbians may be seen as trans*, and therefore not “real” “legitimate” lesbians? I really am just wondering, because I have no idea if that is true, or if the same standards of femmes = not lesbian enough hold today. Or if maybe the label has gotten even narrower. I’m not sure. I think it probably depends on the community. Well, that was a bit of a tangent.

Beebo is supposed to be a teenager/young adult, yes, but I think we see a very different view of youth in Beebo Brinker than in Annie On My Mind or Hello, Groin. These more recent teen lesbian books seem to view being a young adult as a continuation of childhood. AOMM, especially, seemed to conceptualize the characters as being quite young and childish. In Beebo Brinker, and I think it’s probably a reflection of the time period, Beebo is really a young adult. She is an independent adult, though she is new to the situation. Of course, that might also be because she has struck out on her own and is not living with her parent. I’m not sure which direction causation is there.

That does make sense. I can definitely see how Jack is a personification of Greenwich Village.

I would hypothesize that the sex scenes in pulp are probably the easiest way to see whether the book was written by a Real Live Lesbian who has actually had sex with another women rather than a straight man who’s just imagining it. The sex scenes did seem quite sweet and without any troublesome power dynamics, from what I can remember. They just seemed to explore each other, which is refreshing. I also found it interesting that they contrasted each other’s bodies (I can’t remember which part of the book this was, though). Often in scenes of lesbian sex, there are descriptions of how similar the partners are, but in Beebo Brinker, Beebo’s body is seen as… not exactly male, but definitely masculine. So their bodies are seen as complementary, not identical. I’m still not sure how I feel about that (inversion theory peeking through again?), but it was sort of refreshing in that scene.

I think I’ll leave it to you to wrap it up, if that’s okay? I think we’ve given it a pretty good look. I really like doing these joint reviews with you; they always make me see new things in the books. Thanks again for the great discussion!

Anna: “I would hypothesize that the sex scenes in pulp are probably the easiest way to see whether the book was written by a Real Live Lesbian who has actually had sex with another women rather than a straight man who’s just imagining it.”

I like the way you put this, and couldn’t agree more! Even in non-pulp fiction, I’ve read “lesbian” sex scenes in fiction written by people who clearly have no idea how women make love. It’s embarrassing to read! And indicative of how little folks in general seen to understand about women’s sexuality and women’s bodies. I often wonder if gay men have the same frustration when reading about sex between men written by non-queer authors?

Yes, I think we have plenty for a post! Thanks to you, as well, for taking the time during your midwinter break to have this conversation, even though we were both a bit rusty on the details of the book.

If you’d like to do a joint review, even if you’re not a book blogger, feel free to email me and set one up!

Danika reviews Two or Three Things I Know for Sure by Dorothy Allison

I love this book. Love, love, love. If you’re a lesbian book fan, and I’d be pretty surprised if you’re reading this and aren’t, you’ve probably heard of Dorothy Allison’s lesbian classic Bastard Out of Carolina. I haven’t read that one yet, but I’ve been wanting to for a long time, so when Two or Three Things I Know for Sure was one of the few books left unpacked, I thought I’d give it a try.

Two or Three Things is a memoir of Dorothy Allison’s, and it even has real photographs of her and her family interspersed throughout. It is a very quick read: less than 100 pages. In fact, I enjoyed it so much and finished it so quickly that I ended up re-reading it shortly after. There are two themes that crop up over and over again throughout Two or Three Things: Allison as story-teller and the phrase “two or three things I know for sure”. I found myself wanting to quote almost every variation on “two or three things I know for sure”. In fact, I probably will gather up a bunch of quotes and post them on tumblr at some point.

Two or Three Things is partly about growing up poor in the rural South. It’s partly about family, especially the women in her family, and how life wore them and her down. It’s partly about her rape. Allison isn’t ambiguous about being a lesbian, but it never seems to be a big issue for her. She weaves all of the different themes together extremely well. Unsurprisingly, it’s not a totally chipper book, but it’s honest and very well done.

Dorothy Allison is clearly a master, and I can’t wait to read some of her other books. I highly recommend this one.

Danika reviews Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey

Love as thou wilt.

Such is the precept of Elua, the most important deity of Terre d’Ange, where Kushiel’s Dart takes place. If that sounds like the perfect commandment for a queer novel, it pretty much is.

Kushiel’s Dart is the first of a trio of trilogies based in the same world, though only the first trilogy feature Kushiel’s Dart‘s protagonist, Phèdre. If I could describe Kushiel’s Dart in only two words, it would be sex and politics, but religion would be a close third.

This is a 900 page book, which makes it pretty much impossible to discuss without some spoilers, but I’ll keep them to the first 100 pages or so. This is the story of Phèdre, sold as a young child to a… well, it’s tempting to say brothel, but in this world being a sex worker is being a Servant of Naamah, a semi-spiritual, respectable life. After all, love as thou wilt. Anyway, Phèdre goes on to become a pupil of an intellectual, taught to listen and spy while exercising her unique talents as (minor spoiler) an anguissette: the rare trait of experiencing pleasure in pain. As such, Kushiel’s Dart has graphic, but tasteful, I think, descriptions of sex, including sadomasochism.

The first half of the novel builds slowly, with Phèdre reporting to Delauney, her tutor, the things she learns through being an anguissette. Personally, I found it difficult to follow all the names and politics, but I have a terrible head for that. It didn’t stop me from enjoying it, though. The second half is more fast-paced, with greater stakes. It includes conspiracy, love stories, and quite a bit of travel.

Phèdre may have the most involved relationships with men during the course of the novel, but she takes both male and female clients, like most Servants of Naamah, and perhaps the most erotic relationship Phèdre has is with a woman.

I’m sorry this review seems little jumbled. I liked Kushiel’s Dart, but it was definitely a thorough world-building, one that lost me few times, since I couldn’t always keep track of the names or politics. I won’t be picking up the next one, but I definitely enjoyed Kushiel’s Dart and I’m hoping to eventually re-read it.

 

Have you read Kushiel’s Dart or another lesbian/bi women/women-loving-women Fantasy novel? What did you think of it?