Shira Glassman reviews Bliss by Fiona Zedde

Bliss by Fiona Zedde is a finding-your-place story as much as it is a love story; or you could say it’s a love story between a woman and the self she’s supposed to be or the type of life she’s supposed to be living. It’s also highly erotic, reveling in the sensuality of its characters’ bodies, but in a respectful and almost reverential way that elevates ordinary body parts to a sort of glowing, visceral divinity.

Bliss Sinclair, a Jamaican-American woman who goes by Sinclair in honor of her dead mother’s surname, has been living a fairly tropey “money can’t buy you happiness” existence as a high-powered accountant on the gazillionth floor of a fancy building. She doesn’t really have friends who mean anything to her and she tolerates her boyfriend’s affection because it’s what you do. Lesbian identity is sitting on her emotional front porch stoop playing on its phone but she hasn’t quite had the courage to open the door yet.
When she finally does get a chance to figure out that she’s really only attracted to women, she gets taken advantage of by a woman who is pushy and misleading. The inevitable happens, at which point she heads back to Jamaica for an extended vacation to see her father and meet his new wife and kid.
She quickly winds up introduced to the local lesbian community and has to learn everybody’s old drama as she’s also getting used to being around her family again. I found most of the supporting characters and the relational world Zedde sets up for this story really appealing–there’s an immense sense of interconnectedness that includes the dead characters we never get to meet in person as well. Zedde also gives us a rich, vivid, and easy to picture world of tropical plants, Jamaican food, what kinds of things there are to do in Jamaica if you’re there on vacation, and what kinds of jobs the locals do. Whiteness hovers in the background as a clueless, absent employer but is never really present on-screen.
There is a lot of sex in this book, but there are also a lot of scenes of the main character playing tourist on beaches and historic buildings, going to parties or restaurants, enjoying time with her family, etc. I just feel like if I had been counting the sex scenes I would have run out of fingers (and yes, I phrased it that way on purpose 😛 )
This is not a book that ignores the violent reality that anyone visibly queer in Jamaica may encounter, but because Zedde is writing from the inside and not from the point of view of some privileged white non queer writer, both the book’s scenes of attempted sexual violence from the hands of multiple strange men are:
1. foiled, completely and utterly
2. take up a very brief space in the narrative; they occur over the course of a page or two, are fended off, are processed emotionally with tears or a day of quiet or whatever else is necessary, and then we move on
3. they are not intended as a rejection of Jamaica. This is important. Over at WritingWithColor, we all get questions from people outside various marginalized groups trying to write about the ways that group mistreats vulnerable folks within its own LGBT community. I prefer to leave this narrative to people in the overlap of both groups, because comparing what Zedde writes to what some of these privileged writers write you can see the difference — at one point, one of the Jamaican lesbians even says “you have to love Jamaica anyway.” This is home; the food, the culture, the scenery, the history, the music. The problem is recognized but it’s not enough to drive them out and away into other places that may very well be just as physically dangerous.
I found the main character herself more appealing as a person than any of her love interests, honestly — obviously the first one was pushy beyond belief, but one on the island came on really strong as well and I had to just believe in Sinclair’s immense attraction to her being what wore down her initial “I have a broken heart and you come on super strong, meep” feelings.
Another topic about which Zedde writes much better than a privileged person trying to write about a marginalized community further marginalizing its LGBT members, is Sinclair’s father’s reaction to her lesbianism. I was stunned at how well this was pulled off because I’d never seen a character come around so realistically and so quickly. He’s upset, but a few pages later he dials it back and says that a lot of his upset is probably unfair. Can white, non-queer people trying to write about “oppressive” non-white or non-American parents please take a lesson from this book?
Anyway, aside from that issue I thought it was a great and realistic and familiar depiction of what happens when a parent who loves their child has discomfort with their choice of partner or sexuality but is trying to work around it. We don’t see too much of that in LGBT fiction; I’ve seen a lot of either ultra-acceptance (realistic for some of us, and even those who aren’t need some wish fulfillment) or ultra-disgustingness (cathartic and important to write from the inside; tragedy porn and sometimes not even written in a way that rings true, when writing from the outside.) A family that invites a girlfriend over for dinner and no horrible “I knew you’d ruin the evening!” argument happens even though one of the members feels negatively about the idea of a gay daughter is another way to be realistic, and belongs on the page. And it’s not like you as a reader are constantly made aware of his negativity, either.
Some choice quotes, so you can get a feel for the book’s snappy dialogue and evocative descriptors:
Sinclair: “Do you come downtown often?”
First girlfriend: “If you’ll let me, I’ll come at least two times today.”
Waitress: “Can I get you two anything to drink today?”
One of the main characters, about the other main character: “Some manners for her.”
Island love interest about the first girlfriend: “If she was worth half your sighs she would have been here with you on her knees apologizing for hurting you.”
Description of main character’s young stepmom: “short reddish hair that stood up around her head like a tamed flame”
Overall, the story tells itself; it flows really well and makes you want to keep reading. This isn’t the kind of book where you read a paragraph and then have to read it again because you didn’t catch what happens. In other words, Also, kudos to Zedde for using the phrase “maggot-white penis” to refer to a naked white guy in a BDSM club, because it reminded me of those posts pointing out how nobody talks about whiteness with the kind of evocative overscrutinizing detail usually afforded to darker skin in fiction.
Trigger warnings: two foiled attempts at sexual assault by multiple men in the Jamaica half of the book. The second time the women beat up the men pretty badly; it’s over quickly and you can skip the second time if you nope out for a couple of pages when they get to a place in the woods with tons of pretty tropical flowers.
Also, the first girlfriend’s behavior is borderline abusive in the sense that she puts Sinclair in situations she doesn’t want to be in and basically demands a veto as negative consent instead of asking if things are okay beforehand, and I’m talking big deal things like surprising her with orgies or kink clubs. Sometimes they are okay and sometimes they are not and Sinclair takes steps accordingly each time. Plus, she’s the kind of person who says “You’re an incredible fuck. Yet you’re so naïve. You’re like my lost childhood. My virginity.” which I know someone who had that said to them in real life and I’ve always found it super creepy (so does Sinclair.)

Casey reviews Give It to Me by Ana Castillo

giveittome

Doesn’t it always seem that the books that you have the highest expectations for are the ones that let you down?  That was my experience reading Give It to Me by Ana Castillo, this year’s winner in the bisexual fiction category at the Lambda Literary awards.  This novel left me with a lot of mixed feelings, ones even two months or so after reading I haven’t managed to sort out.

Give It to Me is one of those hard to describe books.  The tone is all over the place.  On the one hand, it’s kind of a romp, with the main character Palma Piedras’s bisexual sexcapades featured throughout the story and lots of random antics, like being an extra in a Tommy Lee Jones movie and randomly meeting a Dalai Lama-like Buddhist guru who gives you life advice.  So at first the novel feels like it’s going to be light-hearted and escapist.  It is definitely not.  On the other hand, this novel is aching with (be)longing, and Palma is so desperate at times beneath her façade it’s heartbreaking.  There is also some serious shit that goes down in this book, some of which shows Palma in quite an unflattering light.

This is a book by a Latina author about a Latina woman, and the tone got me thinking about Latin American music, which I hear a far amount of because both my partner and a good friend are Latino.  Sometimes what feels really foreign to me about that music is the combination of melodies that sound happy, and lyrics that are sad.  Often sad Latin American music doesn’t sound sad to me.  I felt similarly confused about this book.  I think it’s quite likely this is an entirely cultural issue, and that my mixed feelings are a result of my white cultural and racial background.  I’d be interested to hear what Latin@ readers think about the tone!

At times, Give It to Me is laugh-out-loud funny: Castillo has a dark, biting sense of humour that straddles the border between comedy and tragedy, much like the tone of the book.  This was definitely one aspect of the book that I liked.  Only a few pages in, I was chuckling to myself while reading.

This book also had a lot of smart, real things to say about gender, race, (bi)sexuality, and class.  One of the more interesting parts was when Palma was thinking especially about being mestizo, a “Native red-brown” in comparison to a black friend/lover:

She’d have given anything to be that color. Or white as his porcelain toilet. Either black or white. The in-between thing hadn’t worked out in her most recent incarnation. The brown woman was taken for the chambermaid in hotels or the housekeeper .. . . Did she speak English? Spanish? Would she nanny for them? Did she clean windows? Maybe it was the look of the future owners of the world but not yet.

Despite gems like that, about halfway through the book I began to get tired of the meandering / lack of plot.  I thought maybe in the second half the novel would pick up and would start going somewhere plot-wise, but I figured out three quarters through that what I was waiting for wasn’t going to happen, and then that felt too late to re-evaluate and change my expectations.  It isn’t much of a spoiler to say that Palma ends up pretty much where she started at the end of the book, but it is a disheartening end when you’ve followed a character make bad decision after bad decision, fuck someone new every time as a coping mechanism, and then never learn anything.  It’s not even that Palma has “lost her way”; it’s that at forty-something she has never found it.  If that’s not a depressing thought, I don’t know what is.

One last note: there are two instances of sexual assault in this book (one with a man, another with a woman), both of which were dealt with (in my opinion) in a relatively dismissive way.  The scene with the man especially was fairly graphic, and then there was little mention of it afterwards, which disturbed me.  Palma does enact revenge on the woman, although this is after continuing to date her (mostly for her money) for months.  I was pretty uncomfortable with how the book dealt with this.

Elinor reviews Bodymap by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

bodymap

I loved poetry as a teenager, but post-college I’ve hardly read any. As an adult, I read novels largely for escape and relaxation, and nonfiction for information and/or work and grad school. Poetry is a different animal, grounded in emotional truths, ideals, and sensations. It’s not something I make time for much anymore, but I jumped at the chance to review Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha‘s new book of poetry, Bodymap. I picked it up not because it’s poetry, but because it’s Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. I first read her work in Colonize This! as a college student. Her essays have popped up in many anthologies I’ve liked over the years, and I’ve admired Piepzna-Samarasinha for more than a decade now. Once I saw her at Femme Conference and it felt like seeing a celebrity. After you read this book, I think you’ll feel the same way.

Like her other writing, Bodymap is deeply personal and political. The poems are mostly short, rooted in her life as a Tamil/Burgher Sri Lankan and Irish/Roma disabled queer femme. Her life, love, activism, sexuality, identity, body, and family all tangle through pages. As in previous writing, she explores the difficulties and joys of chosen family and community, and brings generosity and maturity to the subject. In many ways, this was the book I wanted How to Grow Up to be. Piepzna-Samarasinha wrestles with real, difficult topics with emotion and intelligence. By the end of this book of poems, she is a parent with an impressive career, meaningful relationships, and more than a little insight into how to care for herself and those she loves. This book is wise without being preachy or self-aggrandizing, and loving without being cliche or saccharine. The writing itself is straight-up gorgeous.

The first night I read it, I intended to skim this book but got sucked in right away. Piepzna-Samarasinha’s descriptions are evocative, and at times made me cry. It also made me wonder if I should call my ex-best friend and try to talk things out. It made me want to read tarot cards and cook vegan food and whip up homemade beauty treatments. Reading this slim book was a wonderfully emotional experience that connected me to my values and priorities.

Normally in my reviews I suggest who might and might not be interested in a particular book, but I think just about everyone should read Bodymap. If you read poetry, this book is a reminder why you love it. If you don’t read poetry, you should read Bodymap because it’s accessible and beautiful, written with deep maturity and open-hearted honesty. If you’re a long-time fan, you won’t be disappointed as she covers familiar topics with precise and vivid language. If you haven’t read Piepzna-Samarasinha’s work before, Bodymap is an excellent place to start.

Elinor Zimmerman is sometimes on tumblr at http://elinorradicalzimmerman.tumblr.com/

Danika reviews M+O 4EVR by Tonya Cherie Hegamin

mando4evr   This book was not what I thought it was going to be. It’s a young adult novel, and it’s only 165 pages long, but it’s not a light read. Because this is such a short book, I feel like it’s easy to spoil, so I’ll keep the description short. This is about O (Opal), who’s just finishing up high school and is madly in love with her best friend M (Marianne), but M is more interested in being a cheerleader than in her. O has plans to save M from this small town after graduation, but what happens when those careful plans fall apart? This book reminded me strongly of two others: [spoiler, highlight to read] Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson [end spoiler] and another short YA book I read recently, The House You Pass On the Way by Jacqueline Woodson. The writing is fairly simple, but I found it to be evocative:

Marianne looked over at me and flashed her pearly whites, her hair wildly whipping about her face like so many snakes. I told myself not to fall into the pit of her, but she reached over and squeezed my thigh, making me scream inside. I wanted to throw myself out the car. I wanted to throw myself into her. I bit my nails instead.

Throughout this story there is another narrative, a folk tale about a runaway slave named Hannah. The two stories interact with each other, and the resulting whole is thoughtful, subtle, and heart wrenching. It has a lot to say about racism (and its progression from Hannah’s time to today), homophobia, and family. All the characters seem fully formed, all with their own pasts and motivation. I especially loved how O’s family informally adopted M, treating M and O as a pair, and M’s grandmother’s understated defense of O’s identity. There is a lot going on in this novel, including O’s struggle to find her own identity and motivation. It wasn’t the light, YA lesbian love story I thought it was going to be, but it was really well done, and I think it’s one that would benefit from rereading.

Danika reviews Black Girl Love by Anondra Williams

blackgirllove

 

Black Girl Love is a collection of short stories and poems about, unsurprisingly, love between black women. Each story is very short, usually just a tiny snippet of a relationship. Sometimes they are love stories, sometimes they are erotica, sometimes break-up stories, and sometimes quite dark explorations of interactions between women. I liked the variety and the themes introduced, but personally I felt like there wasn’t enough time to get invested in each story, so there were few stories that I felt really invested in. I did enjoy one series of stories in which we got three different perspectives on the same story, partly because it allowed for more depth in that narrative.

There were a couple of moments that tripped me up, including the only mention of trans people being a narrator saying “transgender my ass” about her ex, as well as the only story that addresses mental health [spoiler, highlight to read] ending with the mentally ill person killing her ex[end spoiler]. There were also quite a few typos scattered throughout. Overall there were a lot of parts that intrigued me about this collection, but I didn’t feel like I could really dig into it. At the same time, I have to acknowledge as a white reader that this isn’t a book that was written for me, and I expect that other readers will get something different from it.

Danika reviews Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan

tellmeagain

I have to start out by saying that I love this title (and the cover is nice as well). Every time I would glance over at the title I’d think Right? What a great encapsulation of the lesbian high school experience. (I also had a Facebook friend comment on my Goodreads post that I had finished this book by saying that she thought this was a link to an advice column and was disappointed that she was not actually going to read advice for how a crush should feel. Someone get on that.)

This is a lesbian young adult book about Leila, and Iranian-American girl who goes to a prestigious academy, and she is already fully aware of her own gayness, no one else knows it yet. She isn’t ready to come out to her traditional Iranian parents, but at least her closeted life is made easier by the fact that she’s grown up around most of her classmates and has no romantic interest in any of them. That is, until the new girl show up.

Most of this book I really enjoyed. Leila is a great main character, and because she’s already self-aware of being a lesbian, we great these great mental jokes about being the unknown queer in the group. Typical for YA, this is a really quick read, and even most of the side characters seem developed and interesting. Overall, it didn’t totally blow me away, but it got me to thinking that maybe I’m starting to have more difficulty getting into YA books as I’ve gotten older. I think most teenagers would enjoy this, and I am glad to see YA with a lesbian of colour main character.

Unfortunately, I did have one issue with this book, and it’s a spoiler. Highlight below to read.

It’s funny that one of the minor characters in this book aspires to be a vampire, because Saskia, the initial love interest, seems act like one. I saw the twist coming, but even still, she becomes an almost cartoonish villain. And that’s not entirely unrealistic–I don’t want to say that people like her don’t exist–but it seemed out of place when the rest of the story is more about subtle changes, from Lisa dealing with her grief to Leila finding the strength to slowly come out to a selection of trustworthy people. 

I also wondered if Saskia fit into the villainous bisexual trope. Part of Leila’s anger is because, at least in her view, Saskia cheated on her with a guy. (Her best friend, to be precise.) Saskia may identify as straight, but she certaintly plays the role of this villainous bisexual seductress (see the vampire analogy?) This might have been compensated for by Lisa identifying as bi, at least evening out the representation, but although the word “bi” is mentioned in the book, Lisa rejects it, saying she doesn’t want a label. (Which is fine for an individual to say, but bi representation in media has notoriously shied away from actually using the word “bisexual”.)

So I found that part disappointing, and it overshadowed the book for me.