Let’s Talk About Racism in Lesbian Publishing

Racism in Lesbian Publishing

As we continue to have an international conversation about anti-blackness and systemic racism, it becomes more and more obvious how racism exists in every industry, and needs to be rooted out and addressed. Recently, KD Williamson, a Black f/f romance author, brought this discussion to the forefront in lesfic.

[Edited to add: of course, Black authors have been speaking out about this for years:]

First of all, what exactly is “lesfic”? It’s an abbreviation for “lesbian fiction,” but it’s usually used to mean a certain kind of lesbian fiction. It’s almost always f/f romance, and it’s usually published by a lesbian publisher (like Bold Strokes Books, Bella Books, or Ylva Publishing). Although I obviously read a lot of queer women lit, I’ve never been very involved in the “lesfic” world, so take these opinions with a grain of salt, but this is what I’ve observed. Lesfic seems to be a pretty insular environment. Authors are almost entirely white, middle-aged women–at least, the ones who get the most press are. It’s also specifically lesbian. Although there is the occasional bi woman character, that’s only when they’re in a f/f relationship, and even that is pretty rare.

GCLS is the Golden Crown Literary Society, an organization that promotes lesbian literature. It began in 2004, and began giving out awards and holding annual conferences in 2005. It’s this annual conference that began the conversation on twitter. KD Williamson pointed out that the conference’s invited authors are overwhelmingly white. This is not new, but it’s particularly troubling because this year’s event–due to COVID-19–was held entirely online. Because no one had to travel to participate, it offered an opportunity to reach out to a more diverse selection of authors. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.

https://twitter.com/DataLover916/status/1274473759676588032

KD Williamson also pointed out that her complaints are about the homogeneity of lesfic as a whole: not just the lack of Black authors, editors, etc represented, but of people of colour in general, of bisexual people, of trans people.

Other authors began to join in that they, too, have experienced feeling unwelcome at GCLS. Amanda Radley wrote about how last year she had asked GCLS to change its naming conventions to be more accepting of bisexual and other non-lesbian queer authors. In response, GCLS changed the language to “lesbian-themed” instead of lesbian (??), but rejected the motion to include “bisexual” or any other labels.

One Black author mentioned feeling unsafe at lesfic conferences because she found that some white authors there wouldn’t even speak to Black authors. Stephanie Andrea Allen spoke about trying to reform the GCLS awards process from the inside, and realizing that it was going nowhere, and wasn’t worth the energy:

Many authors talked about how they had quietly walked away from GCLS and not bothered to even submit their books for awards, because they knew they wouldn’t be chosen. Rebekah Weatherspoon spoke about how being used as a token women of colour made for painful lesfic conference experiences:

This isn’t isolated to GCLS, however. It’s a systemic problem–in publishing in general, but also in lesfic in particular. Publishers and event organizers to drastically change to address this. Here’s what I suggest they do to get started:

1) You can’t fix a problem until you’ve identified it. Do you have data on your organization?

  • What percentage of the people at your organization/business are white?
  • What about the authors you publish?
  • If you don’t know, start from there. Do an internal audit.

2) Do those numbers reflect the greater population?

  • But also keep in mind that you are speaking to a global audience.

3) What are your internal policies around antiracism?

  • What concrete policies do you have to make a safe working environment for people of color?
  • Kay Acker added: “If anti-racism policies are in place, what are the concrete plans for enforcement? Are the expectations and steps in the process clear? Who has to report issues, and how are the reporters protected?”
  • Do you require antiracism training for your employees?
  • For editors and employees who work closely with authors, what policies do you have around their interactions with authors, especially authors of color?

4) If your organization is disproportionately white, what strategies will you use to fix that?

  • What goals do you have, and what’s your plan to get there?
  • How can you reach out to potential employees of color?
  • Do you have an internship program? Is it paid?
  • Where do you advertise job openings?
  • Do you have a mentorship program?
  • If you don’t know how to find employees of color–do the research. Hire someone to figure it out.
  • Tara Scott added: “what will you do to bring Black women and other WOC into editing and acquiring books? When your white authors are writing BIPOC characters, will you pay sensitivity readers to ensure the books aren’t full of microaggressions?”

5) For publishers:

  • What percentage of the books you publish each year are by authors of color?
  • What is your goal? What’s your plan to get there?
  • What does your contract look like?
  • Do you rely on agents to find new authors?
  • How might these be barriers to acquiring authors of color?
  • Are your rates competitive?
  • How can you make your company more welcoming and safe for authors of color?
  • Are the people that the authors work closely with people of color?
  • Heather Rose Jones added: “When an author is looking for potential publishers for their work, they look to see who and what that publisher is already publishing. Publishers can’t just passively say, “why don’t POC submit to us?” if they don’t look interested.”
    • This is something LGBTQ publishers should be aware of! Perceived hostility by general publishers is probably how you got started!

6) For event organizers:

  • What percentage of the authors at your events are people of color?
  • What is your goal? What’s your plan to get there?
  • Do you pay authors?
  • Do you pay for their transportation costs and accommodations?
  • What barriers might exist for authors of color?
  • How will you fix them?

7) While you are doing this work, consider other intersectionalities: most of these same questions should be asked for disabled people and trans people as well.

To be clear: I can only speak from my own perspective, and I’m white, so I will have oversights. Please add anything I’ve missed! The Lesbrary has a long way to go, too. I only recently added a max percentage of white authors to cover as a reviewer, and I need to diversify my own reading more, and reach out to more reviewers of colour. I commit to keep doing this work.

After I posted this on twitter, Bywater Books reached out to me to discuss their new imprint, Amble Press, which is run by an author of colour and was started to acquire more authors of colour (while continuing to add authors of colour to Bywater Books as well).

[Edited to add: The imprint was also started for male and non-binary authors, however, and it looks like so far only one of the three authors they have signed on is a person of colour, though the imprint is new and still revolving. KD Williamson also points out that separate imprints for authors of color is not what they’re asking for:]

This isn’t a particularly organized post, because the situation is still evolving, but I wanted to put it out there as an introduction into the conversation, especially if you’re not on twitter.

Finally, if you’re looking for Black f/f authors, here are some of the names that came up during this conversation!

As well as the organizations Black Lesbian Literary Collective and Sistahs on the Shelf.

At the Lesbrary, you can also check out:

While you’re here, check out the Black Lives Matter carrd for petitions to sign, places to donate, resources to educate yourself, and more. Also, support Black LGBTQ authors and Black-owned bookstores.

Black Bi & Lesbian Book Recommendations for Black History Month and F/F February

February is Black History Month, and I thought I’d use this time to promote some black lesbian books! (And black bisexual books, black sapphic books, black queer books, etc.) Black lesbian fiction is one of the keywords that leads a lot of people to the Lesbrary, and I can see why. A quick Google search doesn’t bring up a lot of helpful posts. The Black Lesbian Literary Collective is a fantastic resource, though, and I highly recommend checking it out.

To help add to your Black History Month TBR, here are 15 black bi and lesbian books that I love. Most are by black authors and feature black characters, but there might be a few that are just one or the other. Let me know in the comments what your favourite black lesbian fiction is, or any other black queer books you recommend!

I’m going to start out with 15 black sapphic books that I have read and loved, and then I’ll share some of the top ones on my TBR. I talked about them in my latest Book Riot video, or you can scroll down if you’d rather read my thoughts on each!

Fiction:

The Color Purple by Alice WalkerThe Color Purple by Alice Walker

This is a classic for a reason. It does have brutal subject matter, including rape and racism, but it somehow manages to have an overall message of hope and resilience. My favourite part about this book was the huge cast of diverse, complex female characters that all form a network of support with each other, finding connections across difference.

Speaking of relationships between women, the description of this book often downplays the queer content. Celie is proudly gay. She has romantic and sexual relationships with women in this book. It’s not subtext: it’s a major part of the plot.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

The Summer We Got Free by Mia MckenzieThe Summer We Got Free by Mia Mckenzie

The overwhelming image I get when trying to describe The Summer We Got Free is the moments just before a summer thunderstorm: the charged anticipation, the humid heat, the claustrophobia of it. This is about a family and a house haunted by its past. In an alternating structure, we learn about Ava as a vibrant, unrestrainable child, and the closed-off and dulled person she is now. Slowly, we build up to the event that caused this shift. This is a brilliant and affecting book that should be recognized as a classic of black lesbian fiction and of literary fiction in general.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

YA and Middle Grade:

This Is What It Feels Like by Rebecca BarrowThis is What it Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow

Who can resist a literal getting the band back together book? Dia, Jules, and Hanna used to be inseparable. But the band and friendship fell apart when a) Dia’s boyfriend died b) Dia discovered soon after that she was pregnant and c) Hanna’s alcoholism landed her in the hospital. Dia cuts ties with Hanna, and Jules sides with her. Now, Hanna is sober, Dia is a mom of a toddler, and there’s a Battle of the Bands that could change all of their lives, if they can mend their friendship. These are multifaceted people with complex relationships with each other. There’s also a cute F/F romance (with Jules)!

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

Little and Lion by Brandy ColbertLittle & Lion by Brandy Colbert

A quiet, thoughtful book that deftly handles subjects like race, sexuality, and mental health. Suzette is black, bisexual, and Jewish, and those aspects of her identity all interact and affect her everyday life. I liked how it addressed the challenges of coming out even in a fairly positive environment: the embarrassment in having to announce this intimate part of yourself, the tension in seeing what people’s reactions will be, the irritation of having it involuntarily become your defining feature, the general awkwardness. But this story isn’t about Suzette’s sexual identity. It’s about her relationship with her brother, and how they’ve recently grown apart, to her dismay. Lionel has recently been diagnosed as bipolar, and shortly after that, Suzette was sent away to boarding school. They haven’t seen each other a lot, and they aren’t sure how to go back to the closeness they once shared. It’s painful. This is a beautiful book with a lot of depth.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda PetrusThe Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus

It’s the classic story: girl meets granddaughter of pastor, girls falls in love, girls get caught and sent away to separate countries. That is only the beginning, though.

This is a book with a strong voice and focus. I appreciate that this isn’t written to pander to a white American audience–it trusts that readers will ether understand or accept being a little lost. It makes for an immersive, powerful read.

I really appreciated the skill at work here. Audre and Mabel are well-rounded characters, and I loved their relationship. Mabel pushes away the people in her life when she becomes seriously ill, and they also don’t know how to be around her. Audre is determined to keep their friendship, and she continues to show up for Mabel. They develop a stronger relationship through this. Audre is also still dealing with the rejection from her mother, and slowly becoming closer to the father that she has spent very little time with in her life.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

The House You Pass On the Way by Jacqueline WoodsonThe House You Pass on the Way by Jacqueline Woodson

This is a tiny (99 pages) book with a lot of layers. It’s the story of the summer when Staggerlee was fourteen, and when she felt confused and alone. It’s also the summer when she met her (estranged, adopted) cousin Trout. It’s atmospheric and emotional. Staggerlee is struggling with being small-town famous for her grandparents dying in an anti-civil rights bombing. She feels set apart for being mixed race, and is also questioning her sexuality. She is able to process a lot of this with Trout, finding ease in not yet having the answer. “Staggerlee and Trout were here today. Maybe they will and maybe they won’t be gay.” This is a slow, thoughtful read.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

Hurricane Child by Kacen Callender coverHurricane Child by Kacen Callender

A middle grade novel with a lot of complexity. It’s set on the US Virgin Islands, and Caroline is struggling with a lot: she is ostracized at school, her mother has gone missing, and as she begins to develop feelings for a new girl at school, she is met with waves of homophobia. This is a difficult and sometimes surreal book–Caroline sees spirits. This is a messy story, not in writing skill, but because it realistically depicts this overwhelming and confusing point in Caroline’s life.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

Goldie Vance Volume 1Goldie Vance series by Hope Larson (Author) and Brittney Williams (illustrator)

This is an all-ages comic with a black teenage girl detective! The plot is a little more serious/political than I’d expect with something like Lumberjanes, but this is still a lot of fun.

Of course, what really made me love this is the queer content. Goldie meets Diane and is immediately enamored with this girl rocking the James Dean look. Their romance is adorable, and I look forward to seeing more of them.

(Note: Brittney Williams is the co-creator, and she does the illustrations in this first volume, but isn’t involved in the subsequent volumes.)

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

Science Fiction & Fantasy:

The Salt Roads by Nalo HopkinsonThe Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson

This is historical fiction following three black women in different places and times (18th century Haiti, 19th century Paris, and 4th century Egypt). All three are sometimes possessed by Elizi, a spirit.

The Salt Roads is a hugely ambitious book exploring racism throughout time, and how these women survive and fight back. It is also incredibly queer. I was assigned this in a university class, and I was pleasantly surprised to find 2 lesbian sex scenes within the first 15 pages.

This is a stunning book that made me a lifelong Nalo Hopkinson fan.

Skip my review and check out Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian’s.

Falling in Love With Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson coverFalling in Love with Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson

Did I mention being a lifelong Hopkinson fan? I’ll admit that this collection only has one sapphic story, but it is the longest story in the collection, and there are other queer stories. I was hooked  from the first sentence: I didn’t used to like people much.

“Ours Is the Prettiest” is part of the Borderlands series, which is a series of books and stories where authors share the same characters and settings. I thought this worked really well as a stand-alone. I can’t say how well it fits into the established world–in the introduction Hopkinson mentions getting complaints that her more diverse take was criticized by some readers–but I am definitely inclined to side with this story, which felt like it had more world-building informing it than even made it into the text.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

Everfair by Nisi ShawlEverfair by Nisi Shawl

This is a steampunk alternate history of the Belgian Congo. It is a brilliant, dense, thought-provoking story about colonialism told from a huge variety of perspectives. This means that you get to see the story from so many angles: the well-meaning white supporters of Everfair, the existing king and queen of the region trying to regain control, the Chinese workers brought in by the Belgium king, mixed-race European Everfair inhabitants, etc.

The story spans decades, tackling politics, war, espionage, grief, love and betrayal. There are three queer women point of view characters, and the complicated, deeply flawed, compelling relationship between two of them is at the heart of this story.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

The Gilda Stories by Jewelle GomezThe Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

This follows a vampire from just before her change, when she is escaping from slavery, to two centuries afterwards (yes, to 2050). It is almost like a collection of short stories, each set a decade or two after the previous one. It really imagines the scope of being immortal. It also is just as much a history of racism and slavery in the United States.

I also loved how Gomez incorporated vampire mythology (about running water and connection to the earth) as well as developing a vampire moral code: Vampires are able to manipulate people’s thoughts, reading what a person needs (comfort, decisiveness, hope, etc), and leaving that with them. They also heal the wounds they cause, making it, in their opinion, an even exchange.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

Better Off Red by Rebekah WeatherspoonBetter Off Red by Rebekah Weatherspoon

Another lesbian vampire book, but with a very different tone. This is an erotica (vampire sorority sisters!) I did have some issues with the plot, but overall this is a really fun, sexy story that manages to convincingly have vampires with consensual relationships.

Despite the vampire orgies, this ends up having compelling characters. I look forward to reading the next books in the series, especially because focuses on my favourite supporting character, Cleo.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

Nonfiction:

Hunger by Roxane GayHunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

Hunger follows Roxane Gay’s journey with her body, from when she was a kid to her present day, and how the trauma in her life has played out over her body. It talks frankly about her rape as a child and how she has lived with that experience for the rest of her life. It talks about the way our society views fat bodies, how that fatphobia affects her in so many ways. It talks about her disordered eating, the unhealthy relationships she’s had (as well as the healthy ones).

Despite the subject matter, Gay writes in approachable style that feels like she’s having a conversation with you, making this easier to read than I was expecting. She also discussed coming out as bi, and some of her relationships with women. This is dark, sometimes brutal book, but it’s also a masterful one.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

Of course, this only scratches the surface! Here are a few more on my TBR pile:

In Another Place, Not Here by Dionne Brand  The Heart Does Not Bend by Makeda Silvera  Jam on the Vine by LaShonda Barnett  Coffee Will Make You Black by April Sinclair  Don't Explain by Jewelle Gomez

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole  Treasure by Rebekah Weatherspoon    Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron  You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson

The Other Side of Paradise by Staceyann Chin  Homegirls: A Black Feminist Anthology edited by Barbara Smith    The Complete Works of Pat Parker    Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney

If you like what we do here at the Lesbrary, consider supporting the Lesbrary on Patreon! At $2 or more a month, you’re entered to win a queer women book every month! You can also check out the Lesbrary Amazon page for lists of all the sapphic books I recommend.

Genevra Littlejohn reviews Cinder Ella by S.T Lynn

Cinder Ella by ST Lynn

Fairy tales are comforting because we know how they’re going to go. These days, with the advent of modern fantasy, there might be a lot of changes to the incidentals. Maybe the Prince is a marine biologist. Maybe the Evil Stepmother is a media mogul in NYC. Maybe it’s set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and Snow White is aided by some helpful zombies; maybe it’s set off planet and Rumpelstiltskin owns a space station. But we know, unless it’s produced by a horror publisher or written by an author lauded for her edginess, that we’re probably going to get a happy ending.

I came across S.T Lynn’s Cinder Ella by accident, looking for something else. But the official copy caught my attention:

Ella is transgender. She’s known since she was young; being a woman just fit better. She was happier in skirts than trousers, but that was before her stepmother moved in. Eleanor can’t stand her, and after Ella’s father passes she’s forced to revert to Cole, a lump of a son. She cooks, she cleans, and she tolerates being called the wrong name for the sake of a roof over her head. Where else can she go?

I grabbed an ebook copy off of Amazon, and I read it on my phone, which was actually not something that I’ve done before. I was immediately charmed. The story is brief at 62 digital pages, making it perfect for a bus read or to pull out while you’re waiting at the doctor’s office. And while I expected total fluff (that being one of the provinces of many retellings of fairy tales) I got a little something more. Ella is, from the first page, a delightful heroine. She takes what pleasure she can in the little kindnesses of the day (a happy dog, a rose cutting beginning at last to shoot) but doesn’t balk at dreaming bigger. Even when she’s downtrodden and abused, she doesn’t lose the ability to look for joy in and improve her situation. But for all of that she is not saccharine or sickly sweet. She grows angry. Her pain is raw. And so much of her determined happiness is simply her best coping mechanism for dealing with cruel, abusive family.

The story is absolutely a piece of wish-fulfillment, and frankly I think that’s a good thing. There’s just not a whole lot of fantastical representation of black trans WLW, and what we do see is rarely so sympathetic or so loving as this. Ella gets to eat delicious food, she gets to wear a designer dress, she is pursued by the heiress to the kingdom. When’s the last time we saw such blatant gift-giving to trans readers of color? Every bit of abuse heaped on Ella by her stepfamily is contradicted by the other people that she meets, and while even this brief narrative doesn’t suggest that everything is just going to be mended as though the hurts were never real,

Due in part to how short it is, there’s a lot in this story that doesn’t get told. We know who the Fairy Godmother-stand in is, but we don’t know anything about her, or how Ella came to her attention, or how magic works in this world and why people are fairly careless in witnessing it. We know Ella’s backstory so well through sheer cultural saturation that it goes almost entirely unmentioned. We know all the roles–the Princess where the Prince would be in most tellings, the nasty stepsisters and evil stepmother, the animal companion–but we aren’t given any details about their internal lives or motivations. This is a quick, bouncy story with a very direct energy, and it doesn’t need to be more than that.

The single criticism that I honestly have, viewing this for what it is, is that I wish Ella’s mother had been present in the text. In the oldest versions of Cinderella, it is actually her mother who performs the acts that the Fairy Godmother takes over in more recent versions. Sometimes the mother is a fish, or fish bones, as in the fifteen-hundred-year-old Chinese story of Ye Xian, sometimes as in Aschenputtel she is the tree that grows over her own grave, and the birds that sing in the tree, and the bones in the grave below. But regardless of her form, in most versions of the story the dead mother’s influence is a tangible thing, in both the jealousy and hatred of the stepfamily, and in the deep strength and self-assurance that Cinderella is able to find for herself. She doesn’t appear in this tale, which I thought was a wasted opportunity for depth.

Unusually, Ella’s father’s influence does make an appearance, in a song that she hums to herself in the beginning. Given that most of the characters with names or speaking lines in the story are female, I thought it was meaningful that one of the only representations of masculinity was loving and gentle. Frequently in WLW fiction the male characters are boorish or cruel. It was kind of an interesting turnaround to see only the kinder side of fatherhood, while women were given as much to unkindness and manipulation as they were to sweetness.

All in all, this one’s an enjoyable afternoon read. 3.5 of 5 stars.

CONTENT WARNINGS: Transphobia and anti-trans abuse, body shaming, fat shaming, some race-specific insults and attacks (“ashy elbows” and braid pulling), kidnapping, homelessness. No sexual assault.

Alexa reviews Soft on Soft by Em Ali

Soft On Soft by Em Ali

Last month, I reviewed a fluffy, romantic, low-conflict sapphic story with at least one protagonist who was fat, non-white, pan and/or ace-spec (Learning Curves by Ceillie Simkiss). This month, I’m reviewing a fluffy, romantic, low-conflict sapphic story with at least one protagonist who is fat, non-white, pan and/or ace-spec (Soft on Soft, a.k.a #FatGirlsInLove by Em Ali). Honestly, I love this trend, and I hope we’ll all have the chance to read many more diverse and positive sapphic stories like these.

Despite my comparison at the beginning, Soft on Soft by Em Ali (which I received as an ARC with a different title, #FatGirlsInLove, that appears to be a working title) is an entirely unique story. It’s a romance between two fat sapphic women: Selena, a Black demisexual model, and June, the Arab-Persian, anxious make-up artist. Thanks to the profession of the two protagonists, Soft on Soft is full of diverse bodies being celebrated, colourful descriptions, flowers, and altogether vivid mental images.

The book’s plot can mostly be summarised as Selena and June flirting, hanging out with friends, going on dates, making geeky references or working together. It is a character driven novel that is perfect for people who just want to read a cute romance and don’t mind the minimal plot – and really, the characters are worth staying for. The supporting cast has multiple nonbinary characters (with different pronouns), one of whom has depression and some really relatable remarks about mental health and therapy. Also, one parent of the main couple is bisexual, which is awesome – I very rarely see older queer characters, especially parents with adult children.

One strange thing was that the characters in this book talked in real life the way I’m used to people talking on Tumblr, and it was just a strange dissonance to see that kind of language being used in offline conversation. For this reason, some sentences seemed like they weren’t really lifelike, but I’m sure people actually talk like this and I’m just not used to it. (Also, “I’m green with enby” is a great pun I must use.)

In short, this was an adorable novel with diverse characters and colourful settings (and also, cats!). I admit I generally prefer books with a more exciting plot, but people who just want a cozy sapphic romance with fat characters will love Soft on Soft.

tw: panic attack described by POV character (chapter 8)

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.

Shira Glassman reviews That Could Be Enough by Alyssa Cole

                       Alyssa Cole’s drawing of her characters

That Could Be Enough, the lesbian offering in the early American romance collection Hamilton’s Battalion, is everything a gentle historical f/f romance should be. Both characters, Mercy the servant/secretary and Andromeda the dressmaker, are fully fleshed out even within the novella’s small scope — it feels fully complete and I truly felt like I watched their courtship unfold even though it’s less than a hundred pages (in my Kindle app, anyway.)

The skeleton is your basic “woman has been hurt Really Badly and finally opens up to love again despite all her fears” trope, but the prose is so approachable and the characters so vividly painted that it felt completely fresh to me. When Mercy first sees Andromeda in the doorway of the house where she works, she’s affected in a soul-claiming way that I don’t often see represented in the romances I read but have definitely experienced in the presence of a gorgeous and captivating lady.

Mercy’s a poet, but she shut all of that down because of the way a previous girlfriend treated her poetry as part of a cruel, fatalistic breakup. “There’d been a time,” Cole writes, “when she’d felt beautiful things acutely.” This is someone who’s natural personality wants to appreciate and worship all the glories the world has to offer, but can we blame her for being terrified and walled-in after such treatment, and with nobody else in her life – before Andromeda – contradicting her ex’s pronunciations about the fate of queer lives? However, when she starts emerging from her shell again, the poem Cole gave her to write is truly beautiful. I’d put it in the review, but I want you to discover it for itself 😉

In this respect Cole herself is a bit like Mercy, inasmuch as she did some truly stunning things with language. For example, close to the story’s opening, Mercy accidentally wrote “Yearned” in her diary when she was too tired to stop herself. The next morning, she scratches it out, in progressive horizontal lines compared to a wall, and replaces it with “Slept.” That’s some powerful imagery right there. We feel her sense of perpetual retreat.

I also really liked the scene where Andromeda whisks Mercy away to something truly cool that the local Black community is working on, something that feels so in tune with Mercy’s own interests that there’s narration about how “seen” she feels, by Andromeda’s choice. I can relate to that a lot; being truly seen is high on my list of things that I’m hoping will get me out of my current, Mercylike frame of mind, romantically.

It does contain That Old Standard Trope where someone believes the worst and doesn’t ask for clarification, but from misunderstanding to pain to happy resolution there really aren’t that many pages and honestly I can’t say I’d have behaved any better in her place because when you’re scared of rejection, asking frankly is… difficult.

Andromeda is clever and enterprising and devoted to her community, especially to her fellow Black women, and Mercy is sweet and deserves lots of pampering and reassurance and validation after the kind of self-denial in which she’s been wallowing.

Author Alyssa Cole did her research and shows us a dainty, yet earnest portrait of what life might have been like for two relatively fortunate queer Black women in the early days of America. We queer women deserve a part in the costume drama world that dazzles many of our imaginations. So do Black women, not that I can speak for them, obviously. Cole’s plot solution/resolution is completely realistic, which makes it far more enjoyable for me because it’s easier for me, personally, to enthusiastically embrace a happy ending if it’s set up to be a plausible one.

That Could Be Enough fulfills its mission. The setup and resolution affirm that yes, while the road has never been a guaranteed red carpet, it has always been possible for WoC and those of us who are queer to have a far more decent life than the hungry eyes of non-queer white literature with its appetite for exploitative tragedy would have us believe.

Incidentally, the story does contain some bits here and there that will probably make more sense to people more familiar with the story of Alexander Hamilton’s life, but I was mostly able to piece together from context what Mercy’s inner voice was thinking about and don’t worry if they lose you anyway; they’re not key to enjoying the story itself. (He’s not even alive anymore when the story takes place.)

I don’t remember this having any of the most common triggers I usually warn for. It does have a sex scene, so if that’s your preference, enjoy!

Shira Glassman writes affirming fantasy and contemporary fiction centering mostly on queer Jewish women. Come join Queen Shulamit as she saves her country’s farms with the assistance of a dragon and a witch in The Olive Conspiracy, or hang out with Clara Ziegler as she dyes yarn to match a cute girl’s wildlife paintings in Knit One Girl Twowhoops, she just accidentally dyed the cat pink, too!


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.)

Stephanie reviews Don't Explain by Jewelle Gomez

 

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Don’t Explain is a collection of short stories by Black lesbian author, activist, and philanthropist Jewelle Gomez. Most widely known for her Black lesbian vampire novel The Gilda Stories, Gomez’s Don’t Explain is a collection of nine stories that employ rich, sensual, language to introduce readers to several carefully constructed characters whose stories set our minds and bodies afire. Although the collection was written in 1998, the stories are as poignant and relatable as they were when the book was published nearly twenty years ago.

For example, my favorite story in the collection, “Water With the Wine” is a new take on an old trope, the May-December romance. Gomez carefully deconstructs the most commonly held notions about romance between older and younger lesbians, and posits another reality for the women in her story. Alberta and Emma meet and become involved at an academic conference; however, differences in age, class and race threaten to destroy their budding relationship. Gomez deals sensitively and honestly with these issues and deepens our understanding of what it means to fall in love after the blossom of youth.

“White Flower” is a chronicle of desire, not quite erotica, but pretty close. Luisa and Naomi “can’t have a relationship, it’s too consuming too everything,” so their meetings are infrequent but filled with all of the lust and passion that two women can share. This story will leave you panting, it will also leave you wondering at what point the unbridled desire turns to obsession and manipulation.

In “Lynx and Strand,” the longest story in the collection, Gomez forays into the genre where I believe she does her best writing, speculative fiction. To put it simply, speculative fiction is not quite science fiction, not quite fantasy, but an imaginative blend of the two genres, and in this story, explores what it means to live in a future where same-sex relationships are still policed by the state. Here, Gomez tackles issues of futuristic state governments, homophobia, body art, and what it means to truly become one with your partner.  The story is timely, some might say prophetic, because even though it was written nearly two decades ago, LGBTQ persons’ right to bodily autonomy is still being challenged, even threatened, in 2016.

For those familiar with Gomez’s The Gilda Stories, “Houston” offers a new chapter into the life of her Black lesbian vampire and offers a provocative look at what it means to be humane when you actually aren’t human at all.

All of the stories in this collection are sensitive, sensual, and offer a pleasant alternative to “mainstream” lesbian fiction.  The collection also focuses on Black women’s experiences, and this is what truly sets it apart from most of the lesbian fiction on the market today. The collection is short, only 168 pages long, but each of the stories offers entrée into the life of Black women, mostly lesbian, that illuminates the complexity of our lives and the power of our loving. If you have not had an opportunity to read any of Jewelle Gomez’s work, start with this collection and I am certain that you will want to read more!

Stephanie reviews The Dawn of Nia 

the-dawn-of-nia-lauren-cherelle

I’m always hesitant to read books by people that I know personally, because I know at some point they’ll ask me what I thought, and I know that if I don’t love it, I’ll have to figure out how to say that without ruining the relationship. In this case, I can say without reservation that I did indeed love The Dawn of Nia. Let me count the ways:

I liked that fact that The Dawn of Nia is focused on family relationships and the ways in which secrets can devastate families or force them to reckon with their past misdeeds. Nurse Nia Ellis is a single, attractive, Black lesbian who has recently lost her friend and mentor Pat to cancer. What Nia doesn’t know is that Pat had a secret, and that Pat’s secret is going to change her life. This first secret is revealed right after Pat’s funeral, which Nia attends with her best friend Jacoby, and the novel just explodes with drama from there. It’s a bit of a challenge to write about this novel without giving too much away, but just know that secrets, lies, betrayal, and a $350,000 estate are at the crux of the story.

I was also really impressed with the character development. All of the characters in this novel are deeply flawed. The protagonist Nia is the poster child for bad decision-making. At one point while reading I nearly threw the novel across the room. I found myself yelling at Nia: “Girl what the heck are you doing? You know that Kayla is going to start some mess!” But I couldn’t stop reading. Jacoby, Nia’s best friend, is the epitome of male privilege. To put it nicely, he’s an ass, and there were times when I just couldn’t figure out why Nia remained friends with him.  Tasha, another close friend, is always hooking up with Ms. Right now, instead of waiting on Ms. Right.  Even Nia’s parents have issues that span their 30-year marriage. The other women in Nia’s life, her ex-girlfriend Kayla, and new love interest Deidra, are connected in ways that are impossible to untangle, even though Nia tries her best to keep the women apart. It is a testament to Cherelle’s skill as a writer that not only was I able to keep up with all of these characters, but I found myself rooting for some to succeed, and hoping that karma would catch up with others.

The novel has excellent pacing. It never felt rushed or to seemed to drag. I was always anxious to get to the next chapter to see what was going to happen next.  However, my only critique of the novel is that it probably could have been just a few pages shorter. A couple of scenes at the end just didn’t seem necessary.

Finally, at its core, The Dawn of Nia is a story about love: what do you do when your heart has been broken but you want, sorely need, to give love another chance?  How do you keep your past mistakes from ruining your future? Can any relationship survive lies and deceit? Why do lesbians move in with each other so quickly? I’m generally not one for reading romance, but I loved every minute of this story, even as it was driving me crazy.  If you like your romance spiked with a bit of family drama, this is definitely the novel for you.  Cherelle is a masterful storyteller and this novel is a welcome addition to the growing canon of contemporary Black lesbian literature.

Trigger warnings: Mild violence, brief mention of sexual abuse

Shira Glassman reviews Date with Destiny by Mason Dixon

date with destiny mason dixon

Date with Destiny is a Black lesbian thriller–written by a Black woman, prolific author Yolanda Wallace writing under the name Mason Dixon–set in the banking industry of Savannah, Georgia. Rashida, the lead, is a driven, frugal Black bank executive who has risen to the top of the bank her grandmother once cleaned as a janitor. Her work-oriented but lonely life is headed for a collision course with the unemployed, blue-collar Destiny, who she meets at a coffeeshop one morning. Is finding Destiny a job at her bank a worthy act of kindness or a dangerous temptation? After all, the bank has strict policies against workplace dating–but Destiny’s sexuality is practically a force of nature.

There’s a lot more going on here than I can even describe without spoiling the plot, so this is a good bet for you if you like twists, suspense, and intrigue. I’d even say it’s reminiscent of movies like Memento and The Usual Suspects, including the way Dixon employs the device of showing the same scene through different character’s eyes. (Some readers may find some of the repetition tedious, so feel free to skim through it looking for the new information.)

As a beautiful old city, Savannah makes a wonderful backdrop for the story’s dramatics. This obviously won’t apply to readers outside the coastal South but it’s fun getting to read an adventure and recognize all the places from real life instead of from other works of fiction–Richmond Hill? I can picture the highway exit. I know what I-16 is.

I found the prose well-paced and easy to breeze through; I read the book pretty rapidly over a weekend and never got bogged down or bored. There’s some negative messaging about closeted vs. non-closeted queer people that I didn’t agree with — we still live in a world that sometimes necessitates closets, sadly — but it wasn’t a loud enough message to significantly tarnish my reading experience. There’s representation of lesbians who have endured family rejection and moved on, recognizing the event without wallowing in it as tragedy porn.

I’m not sure how I feel about the ultimate ending of the book; I do want the ending the author gave us, but I would have preferred being more convinced about it. That scene in particular I think would have been more effective on film. However, I do like the fact that Rashida was finally enjoying herself after a lifetime of workworkwork and having to overachieve to overcome misogynoir. She deserves it after working so hard and what the plot put her through.

Date with Destiny is full of sensuality between women and eventually love but it’s not entirely a romance; it’s a thriller that will be more fun for the reader if they go in expecting a wild ride.

Stephanie Recommends Five Classic Black Lesbian Books You’ve Probably Never Heard of But Need to Read

I recently attended a literary conference focused on lesbian literature and was shocked at how many attendees didn’t know anything about Black lesbian literature outside of two or three authors. Most were familiar with Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, and Audre Lorde, the consummate Black lesbian poet, but that was about it. Full disclosure: I wrote an entire dissertation on the marginalization of Black lesbian literature, so I might know more about Black lesbian books than the average lesbian literature lover. Still, here are a few titles that you’ve probably never heard of, but that you should definitely read. This month I’ll discuss five titles, and I’ll finish up the list later this year.

loving her1. Loving Her (1974). Ann Allen Shockley is generally hailed as the first Black lesbian novel published in the United States, i.e., the first novel written by a Black lesbian with a Black lesbian protagonist. Loving Her, while at times overly didactic, is the novel upon which the Black lesbian literary canon is built. The novel’s themes are overtly political, mostly in relation to the Black Nationalist and feminist rhetoric of the time, but these topics are still relevant today, and particularly given our current political climate. The novel centers on Renay, a working class Black musician married to the abusive, failed football star, Jerome Lee; and Terry, the rich white woman writer who falls in love with her. Loving Her goes back and forth in time, as it relates the story of how Renay and Terry met, as well as the challenges they faced as a couple. There is a bit of drama, but you’ll have to read the novel to find out what that is! As mentioned earlier, the writing can be a bit heavy at times, but this book is an excellent look at how one writer represents an interracial lesbian relationship.

25 years of malcontent byrd2. 25 Years of Malcontent (1976) and A Distant Footstep on the Plain (1983). Stephania (Stephanie) Byrd’s poetry centers the experiences of Black lesbians in the early years of the feminist movement. She writes of communes, the danger of being an out lesbian, as well as the joy she finds in communities of women who love women. You’ve probably never heard of her, but her poetry is not to be missed. The imagery is at times a bit stark and gritty, but that speaks to the veracity of her perspectives on Black lesbian life. [Available to download for free here.]

black lesbian in white america3. Black Lesbian in White America (1983). Anita Cornwell was calling out patriarchy, homophobia, and racism before most of us were born. She was a lesbian separatist, which may have made her unpopular in Black as well as some lesbian and feminist communities. This collection of essays is important, though, because she was clearly invested in writing about the experiences of women and creating a world where all women could be free. She was also one of the only Black lesbian writers to publish essays in Negro Digest and The Ladder. Check her out!

for night like this one birtha4. For Nights Like this One (1983). Becky Birtha’s collection of stories explores issues of loss, family, motherhood, and acceptance in lesbian communities, and like Ann Allen Shockley, she also wrote stories that included interracial relationships, mainly between Black and white women. One of my favorites is “Babies” which is about a woman who longs to have a child, but gives up that dream to be with the woman she loves. It may seem ridiculous now, but at the time, many lesbians considered having children complicity in patriarchal system, and they wanted no part of it. Don’t believe me? Visit your local library and check out a few books on lesbian separatism. More than anything, this collection of short stories reveals the myriad ways in which Black lesbians experienced life and love, and although not all of the stories have happy endings, one gets the sense that Birtha’s lesbians are unafraid to face life on their own terms.

black and white of it ann allen shockley5. The Black and White of It (1980). Ann Allen Shockley’s collection of short stories offers up snippets of lesbian life in the late 1970s. The stories examine issues of loneliness, internalized homophobia, and racism, and more often than not, lesbians living in the closet. A white college professor falls in love with her out graduate student, but can’t free herself from the closet to make the relationship work. A Black politician rejects her lover because she refuses to disavow her lesbian identity. While several of Shockley’s lesbians lead droll, closeted lives, they provide a window through which readers can experience what it might have been like to be lesbian in the latter part of the 20th century.

Black lesbian literature as a genre has grown since these titles were first published, and there are literally hundreds of titles now available that readers can choose from. However, I think it’s important for readers to know that Black lesbians have a literary history too. All of these authors are still alive, and some are still writing. Shockley published her last book, Celebrating Hotchclaw, in 2005; and Birtha is the author of several children’s books. The next time you’re in the mood for a little classic lesbian literature, check out one of these titles. And the next time you’re at a conference or book festival and someone says they don’t know anything about Black lesbian literature, tell them about these amazing writers!

S. (Stephanie) Andrea Allen
sandreaallen.com
Twitter: @S_Andrea_Allen
Lez Talk: A Collection of Black Lesbian Short Fiction