Maggie reviews Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

I was very excited to get ahold of this ebook, because I’ve been listening to a lot of YA audiobooks lately while doing other things, and so I’ve gotten on a fantasy YA kick. It’s great to read some exciting new releases and promote new books during a time when we all desperately need good distractions. Cinderella is Dead is not a re-telling of Cinderella, which is a trope that I do love but that I’m getting a tad bit weary of. Rather, it’s something I found even more exciting: imagining the consequences of a fairy tale after the tale, not just for the characters themselves, but generations down the line. Cinderella is Dead is perfect for those who want something more from the original Cinderella story.

The legend of Cinderella isn’t just a tale to the citizens of Lille. Rather, Cinderella was a real woman, and her legacy has grown and has been codified into the very law of the land. Every girl in the city must not only know the story by heart, but they are all commanded to dress up and attend a ball at the palace, just like Cinderella did. But rather than a romantic tradition, the events have been corrupted and used to control the citizenry by the corrupt monarchy. People pray to the spirit of Cinderella, not to wish for happiness, but to hope their daughters won’t be disappeared by the palace guard. Girls hope to find a suitor at the ball–but only because if they don’t they risk disappearing or being forced into menial labor. And they don’t get a choice about what man chooses them, or how he treats them after they get married. It’s truly a grim but intriguing imagining of how a beloved fairy tale could play out and be corrupted. CONTENT WARNINGS: this story deals with domestic violence, abuse, homophobia, human trafficking, and mentions of rape. The culture of Lille is dark, and its citizens who are not straight men go through a lot, which may seem like a lot in a book aimed at young adults, but what I find important is that our protagonists stand up to it, and meet and encourage other people to not accept these things as normal.

Enter Sophia, who harbors a forbidden love for her friend Erin, and a deep terror at being forced into a marriage where she will have no rights or say in her own life. Sophia refuses to accept the reality of Lille and wants to try to run away with Erin before the night of their own Ball when they’ll be trapped, but Erin can’t imagine taking such a risk and wants to do what is necessary to remain safe. The night of the Ball, Sophia is forced to flee by herself, and then she meets Constance, the last descendant of Cinderella’s Stepsisters. Confronted with new information about the true story of the Cinderella legend, and growing new feelings for a girl who is willing to fight by her side, Sophia has to decide how far she’s willing to go to create a better life for everyone in Lille.

It was really interesting to see not just the long-term effects of a fairy tale, but characters interacting with true events vs fictionalized versions. Over and over Sophia has to confront how the history she took as true but corrupted was actually propaganda from the start. And this book really took all the instantly recognizable elements of Cinderella–a blonde and beautiful Cinderella, glass slippers, the fairy godmother–and flipped them around while remaining firmly rooted in the original fairy tale.  The cover proclaims that Cinderella is Dead while Sophia stares out at us, Black, curly-haired, wearing the iconic blue Cinderella gown, but unabashedly, from page one, not interested in marrying a prince, and the story promptly drags us away from magicked pumpkins and mice and into witches, necromancy, and anti-royalist rebellion. In Lille, Cinderella was real, and her history was complicated, but her legacy is now Black, queer, and invested in taking down a tainted, misogynist monarchy.

I really enjoyed this book. It was a fun read, and the world-building and action picked up quickly. I really liked the slow peel-back of the Cinderella story, combined with how straightforward and brave Sophia and Constance were. [spoiler, highlight to read] I also really loved that Sophia had a first love, but then slowly realized she was more compatible with Constance. [end spoilers] The twists and turns managed to surprise me and keep me involved. It’s just a really good read, and we need more like it on the shelves, especially for young readers today.

Carmella reviews LOTE by Shola von Reinhold

LOTE by Shola von Reinhold cover

I first discovered the Bright Young Things at an exhibition of Cecile Beaton’s photography. His pictures capture the dazzling, decadent world of these young British socialites of the interwar period–their fabulous costume parties, heavy drinking, artistic flair, and taste for excess. After tearing through a number of biographies, my favourite figure became Stephen Tennant. He was–in the words of writer Lady Caroline Blackwood – “just an eccentric gay who didn’t really do anything”. What a magnificent way to be remembered!

The narrator of LOTE, Mathilda Adamarola, is also fascinated by Tennant and his friends. She experiences what she calls ‘Transfixions’–intense emotional and sensory connections to historical figures that can be strong enough to leave her in a giddy daze. Like Mathilda, most of these figures are queer and many are Black. In order to emulate her Transfixions, she has constantly reinvented her identity over the years in a series of ‘Escapes’, transforming into an ever-more dramatic version of herself. This isn’t without its problems–Mathilda explains that “People rarely allow for Blackness and caprice (be it in dress or deportment) to coexist without the designation of Madness”–and she’s certainly capricious. As a narrator, she’s wonderfully fun to spend time with.

While volunteering in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery, Mathilda is delighted to discover a new photograph of Stephen Tennant. But what is even more exciting is the young Black woman posing with him, dressed as an angel: a forgotten Scottish modernist poet called Hermia Drumm. Mathilda is immediately Transfixed and becomes determined to learn all about her.

After discovering that Hermia spent some time in a small European town, Mathilda applies to an artists’ residency there–winging the application and phone interview without knowing anything about the programme–and is soon travelling overseas to continue her detective work.

Mathilda’s fellow residents turn out to be fanatical adherents to Thought Art–an obscure strand of theory centered around minimalism, discipline and self-effacement. They are an almost unbearable contrast to the luxury-loving Mathilda. The residency is a brilliant satire of academic bullshit, with Mathilda forced to sit through mind-bogglingly dull, jargon-filled conversations about ‘Markation’ and ‘Dotage levels’. Von Reinhold’s send-up of predominantly posh, White institutions is one of the best features of the book.

While Mathilda assumes at first that there can be no connection between the residency’s austere academia and the vibrant Hermia, she soon finds something that did link them together: an enigmatic group known as LOTE. But what was LOTE? What happened to Hermia? How does it all link together? The questions become ever more tangled the more Mathilda learns.

Mysterious, decadent, and unapologetically flamboyant, LOTE is a dazzlingly good read. Behind all the champagne and cults, it’s also an intelligent interrogation of the politics of aesthetics, eurocentrism, and the presence/absence of Black figures in the artistic canon. It asks us: in a world that remembers Stephen Tennant, how many Hermia Drumms have disappeared into the archives?

Danika reviews Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert

Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia HibbertThis is an F/M romance with a bisexual main character.

Unsurprisingly, I don’t read a lot of M/F romance. Truthfully, I don’t even read a lot of F/F romance–which is often surprising to people who think queer books are all romance novels. I am, however, much more likely to read an M/F romance with a bi woman main character, and when I saw that this audiobook was available through my library, I though I’d give it a shot. And I’m very glad I did, because this ended up being one of my favourite romance novels of all time. (With a male love interest! I know! It’s shocking! That’s just how good it is.)

Part of what I loved about this book was the main character. Dani Brown knows what she’s about: she is devoted to her job (teaching and researching lit), to the point that she may forget to do things like sleep or eat. She has no time for romance, and doesn’t think she’s the kind of person who does well in relationships. She doesn’t remember anniversaries. She is embarrassed by romantic gestures. What she does enjoy is sex, and she’s determined to find a fun, casual, purely sexual relationship.

Zafir is the (grouchy) security guard in the building she works at, and they chat every day. When Dani injures herself in a safety drill, Zafir sweeps her up and carries her outside. The moment goes viral, and Zafir asks Dani if they can fake date to promote his rugby charity for children. (Where he teaches about toxic masculinity and expressing your emotions and dealing with mental health issues!) Dani agrees, hoping that this can turn into a no-strings-attached arrangement–but it turns out that Zafir is a romantic, which makes things more complicated.

Here’s the thing about Dani: her full name is Danika. Which is my name. Have you ever listened to a romance audiobook with a main character who shares your name? I’m not ashamed to say I was blushing, but it is a bit of ego soothing to hear a narrator extol the brilliance and beauty of Danika. Dani is a fascinating main character, though. She and her sisters are witches, which isn’t something I’ve seen a lot in books. She’s also a compelling mix of self-confident and insecure. She thinks highly of herself, but she doesn’t believe that others would approve of her, especially in a romantic relationship. I also loved that she’s unapologetically sexual, especially as a fat woman. I was surprised how affecting it was to hear a round stomach described positively.

I didn’t plan to review this on the Lesbrary when I first started listening, but I ended up loving it so much that I had to share. I even liked Zafir! I appreciated that he’s a grouch, but also sensitive, romantic, and committed. They’re both complicated, with their own backstories–Zafir had a family tragedy and mental health crisis in his past, and has had to rebuild since. Dani has her own reasons for being insecure in relationships. They both feel like real, complex people, which makes their relationship all the more interesting.

[Spoiler, highlight to read:] I also loved that Danika doesn’t have to change to be in a relationship. She just needs someone who loves her for who she is. [end spoiler]

As for queer content, Dani states her bisexuality several times, and we do see her female ex, but it’s not a huge part of the plot. If you’re willing to take a risk on an M/F romance, though, make it this one.

Mo Springer reviews You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson

You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson

Liz Lighty has a lot to deal with. Her mother is dead, dad left long ago, and her brother has sickle cell. She doesn’t have wealth like the other rich kids she goes to school with and her town, and the school’s history is primarily white. When she doesn’t get the scholarship into the school of dreams, meaning she might not be able to go at all, she decides to shock everyone by running for Prom Queen to get a chance at winning the scholarship prize.

Prom is a big deal in this town, and the story really makes it clear how important it is to everyone, as well as how important it is that someone like Lighty is running. I can still picture the hall of past Prom King and Queens, all white kids in framed photos looming over the students. With that, there are characters who are very against her running, some because they are competing with her, but another because they are racist. The book doesn’t shy away from the realities of modern-day prejudice and discrimination.

The characters really shined. I love Lighty’s friends, but I especially loved her friendship with Jordan. He starts out as kind of your stock character jock who used to be friends with the nerd but then abandoned them for the cool crowd. I won’t give anything away, but Jordan’s character has the biggest surprises.

Then, of course, we have to talk about that romance. Mack is a really fun character who could have easily become a manic-pixie-dream-girl, but honestly she reminded me of some of the girls I knew as a kid (and of course had crushes on). The author does a good job of making it clear Mack is more than just the bubbly, talkative, creative girl she presents as, but has a complex story and life.

Lighty and Mack’s relationship is both cute and interesting. They are of course teenagers and going to make the mistakes and bad decisions that teenagers will make. The two of them have a lot of ups and downs that were fitting of their characters and made you want to root for them more and more with each chapter.

I did have a bit of a hard time being sold on the stakes of having to get into an elite college. I went to community college for the first two years of getting my BA, so whenever a teen story is all about how the main character has to get into the super expensive, elite college, I end up wanting to jump into the story and shake them and say, “It’ll be okay! You’ll be just fine without it!”

The stakes surrounding the prom itself and the school’s hierarchy are much more believable. I really got the sense of how unrepresented Lighty felt and the book shows how much she has to fight against, with racism and then also homophobia. On top of that, to mention she is also dealing with her brother’s sickle cell and feels like she must take care of him. Her decisions might not always have been likable, but they were believable and added to the complexity of her character.

Overall, this was a really fun and interesting read. I highly recommend you pick it up!

Shana reviews Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy is a novella about a second chance romance between Likotsi, an African woman visiting New York City, and Fabiola, the Haitian-American femme from Brooklyn who she can’t stop thinking about.

The story is part of Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals series, which primarily features straight couples. Likotsi was my favorite character from the first book, and I was thrilled when she got her own story. The cover is amazeballs! I would love to have it as a poster for my wall. I often get annoyed by singular queer stories in a straight-ish series because they feel like throwaways, but this book delighted me.

Likotsi is the assistant to Prince Thabiso, the protagonist in A Princess in Theory, the Coming to America + Black Panther mashup in which she features heavily. Likotsi lives in a fictional African country that feels vaguely like Lesotho, but even more like Wakanda. She lives a fairly luxurious life, thanks to her proximity to royalty. Likotsi frequently travels for work and loves her all-consuming job, but she struggles to take breaks from running the Prince’s life and getting his UN policy priorities passed. The book opens with Likotsi enjoying a rare weekend off in New York, doing touristy things. She’s trying to distract herself from brooding about the woman she met in NYC eight months ago. Unfortunately for her, on her very first morning of vacation she runs into the girl on the subway.

Fabiola is an aspiring jewelry artist, and an accountant who loves math. She spends a lot of time worrying about her extended family, some of whom are undocumented immigrants. Fabiola has a fantastic sense of style, and I found myself drooling over her femmy outfit descriptions. When Likotsi and Fabiola meet up in the subway car, they’re both wary of one another. Likotsi is still smarting about Fabiola dumping her without an explanation. Fabiola isn’t sure if Likotsi can handle her complicated family situation. They end up exploring Fabiola’s favorite parts of the City together, while we’re treated to flashbacks of their initial whirlwind romance. Likotsi and Fabiola first met through a dating app, but the casual connection they were both planning on, quickly turned more serious. So why did Fabiola end it so abruptly, and can a relationship work when they live on different continents?

This was a fast and lighthearted read. I loved the evocative New York City setting, and enjoyed vicariously tagging along on the heroines’ adventures. I sympathized with Fabiola even though she was a breaker-of-hearts, because her family’s situation is tough. However, because this is a fluffy romance, all problems are solved, with hot sex scenes along the way. The book has some royalty trope flavor, because one character has more social power than the other, but there weren’t any celebrity dynamics to get in the way.

I think Once Ghosted, Twice Shy works well as a standalone. There are passing references to characters from the previous book, and this story glosses over some of the cultural context of Likotsi’s country, but none of that would prevent a reader from following along with the story. The plot is pretty straightforward—women date, they fall in love, the end—which I found relaxing, but could be frustrating for readers looking for more twists and turns. I’m generally not a huge fan of flashbacks, and they sometimes disrupted the flow of the story here. But the flashbacks also added balance to their relationship dynamics, because Likotski drives their romance initially, and with Fabiola taking the lead the second time around.

I would love to read more characters like Likotsi in f/f romances. She’s a dandy who loves clothes; and an unapologetically romantic and squishy cinnamon roll. Likotsi has access to a great deal of power through her work, and I enjoyed seeing an African character in that role especially since Africans are underrepresented in American queer romance. I also adored watching the two women flirt by talking about math and art. The heroines in this slow burn story had excellent chemistry, and I was dying for them to get together. My main critique is that the book felt short. It’s only 106 pages, so we mostly see the characters on only a few epic dates. I was left wanting more of these two. Overall, a quick and pleasurable read.

Rachel Friars reviews Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Kalynn Bayron’s Cinderella is Dead is the queer fairy-tale retelling we needed in 2020.

Bayron’s novel is doing amazing things for queer fiction, fantasy, and YA. If there’s anything we need more of, it’s books like this, and more from Bayron herself. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a Cinderella with queer girls. I can only recall Malinda Lo’s Ash (2009), which I read as a very confused teen, and still have on my shelf to this day. Bayron’s innovative and sparkling retelling is such a joy to read.

Cinderella is Dead takes place 200 years after the death of Cinderella. Based on the palace-approved version of the fairy tale that sixteen-year-old Sophia and her friends know by heart, Cinderella married her prince and lived happily ever after—for a time. Now, as a homage to Cinderella and her story, teenage girls are forced to appear at an Annual Ball, presided over by the current king, where all eligible men in the kingdom are free to select their wives. If a girl remains unselected…they are forfeit.

The novel opens with our main character, Sophia, preparing for the ball. However, Sophia would rather not go to any ball to be paraded in front of men who would have the authority to use her as they saw fit. Instead, she would rather marry her best friend, Erin. But things are complicated—the ball is not optional, and neither is conformity. After fleeing the palace the night of the ball—much like Cinderella herself, although under very different circumstances—Sophia finds herself in Cinderella’s tomb surrounded by the story she’s always known. However, when she meets Constance, the last descendant of Cinderella and her stepsisters, she learns that Cinderella’s story may not be so idyllic after all. What happened to the fairy godmother? Were the stepsisters actually ugly and monstrous? Sophia is determined to find the truth.

The novel is miraculous not only for its representation of queer and Black characters, but for its world, which seems to draw on both the conventions of the Cinderella story and history itself. Sophia is living in a world where queerness isn’t unheard of, but exists underground, subtly, or silently. She lives in a world where being different is unsafe, and the world around her struggles to catch up to her own bravery. In a world that demands absolute conformity, dissent comes at a steep price, and Bayron, through her characters, allows us to see the way queer people avoid that price in order to be who they are. This isn’t unheard of in centuries—or even decades—past, and is still relevant in some parts of the world today. So, even though the world of Cinderella is Dead has those elements of magic and fantasy that make the story so thrilling, there are also pieces of history that make it a important piece of queer literature.

The characters are vivid and thoughtfully presented, and each person close to Sophia presents us with a different view of queerness in a post-Cinderella world. Luke, the son of a family friend, is our window into the avenues through which people can explore their queerness, and the consequences of being discovered. Erin, by contrast, is one of the many portraits of the painful position of women—especially queer women—in this society. The fact that this story, with all of its intricacies, is structured around the story of Cinderella, makes it doubly fascinating.

One last word about the romance: Constance and Sophia are such a great pair! After a fraught dynamic with Erin, who struggles with her sexuality and society’s expectations, it’s clear that the relationship between Constance and Sophia is meant to be a vibrant alternative. Although I felt that their relationship could have used more detail in terms of the natural progression of their feelings for one another, that could just be me wanting more.

Overall, I loved this book and it was so much fun to read Bayron’s novel and to discover a world where queer girls can, quite literally, do anything. Although queer fairy-tale retellings have become more popular in recent years, we always need more, and we especially need more written by people of colour, and this one is particularly beautiful and unique.

Please visit Kalynn Bayron on her website, or on Twitter @KalynnBayron.

Content Warnings: abuse, domestic violence, homophobia.

Rachel Friars is a creative writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every queer novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Danika reviews Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Papi was a man split in two,
playing a game against himself.

But the problem with that
is that in order to win, you also always lose.

Yahaira and Camino are half-sisters, but they don’t know it. Yahaira lives in New York City with her mother and father, though he goes to the Dominican Republic every summer. She has recently discovered the reason he makes this journey every year and is furious, refusing to speak to him (or let him know what’s wrong). Camino lives in the Dominican Republic and looks forward to her father’s yearly visits, especially since her mother passed away. They are both heartbroken when their father’s plane crashes and he passes away, unaware of their shared grief.

I was immediately interested in the premise of Clap When You Land. I have a big, messy family–we even discovered a long-lost aunt at one point–so I wanted to be able to read about these two characters discovering that they’re family, and figuring out how to assimilate that into their understanding of themselves.

This is my first Acevado book, and I’ve heard amazing things about them. I knew that some of her books are written in verse, but I wasn’t sure if this one was: I ended up listening to it as an audiobook, and I still wasn’t sure when the novel began. I realized that it is written in verse, but it works in spoken format, and sounds natural most of the time. There are also two narrators for the point of view characters, which I appreciated.

I loved the characters: they felt well-rounded and real, and I felt for them. Yahaira is trying to understand her life now that she knows her father has been lying to her. She had turned away from him and the values that he instilled, freezing him out before he got on the plane. She has stopped playing chess, which used to be a big part of their shared lives. She is lost afterwards, struggling to deal with the messy aftermath of death: her mother making funeral arrangements (in the Dominican Republic? In New York?), distant family members showing up at the door when the settlement money is brought up, and her teachers and classmates not knowing how to speak to her. She also has a girlfriend, who lives next door, and they have a very sweet relationship. It’s nice to see an f/f relationship that is already established and comfortable. It has flaws, but is fundamentally a source of comfort and happiness for both of them.

Camino’s everyday life is very different. She wants to be a doctor, and already has experience caring for the sick and dying as an apprentice. She is used to friends her age having children and possibly dying from it, because there isn’t adequate medical supplies and treatment. She goes to a private school paid for by her father, in the hopes of eventually going to the U.S. for university. After he passes, not only is she left orphaned, but she is incredibly vulnerable. Her school asks for tuition she doesn’t have, and she is being recruited into sex work by a man who was once paid by her father to leave her alone. Her options are running out, and she is willing to take a desperate risk to save herself.

Even the side characters are complex and interesting, even if we don’t see a lot of them. Yahaira’s mother and Camino’s aunt are mostly background characters, but we can see how their grief affects them, and the strength that it takes to continue onward and to take care of them as much as they can. This is primarily a story about grief, so it isn’t fast-moving. Instead, we stay with Yahaira and Camino as they try to process, and we sit with that discomfort.

From the premise, I knew that eventually the two half-sisters would have to meet, or at least become aware of each other, and that was the moment I was waiting for. Unfortunately, it came a lot later in than I was hoping for. They aren’t even aware of the other’s existence until the latter half of the book. I was excited to get to that point, but it felt a little bit rushed. I wanted to see the two of them establish a relationship and then see it change and mature. I wanted to see how their lives changed with each other in them.

This is a thoughtful, poignant story about grief, and I can see why Acevado is celebrated as a writer. I didn’t get the resolution I was hoping for from Yahaira and Camino’s relationship, but that’s a personal reaction, and it’s still one I would recommend.

Mo Springer reviews The Dawn of Nia by L. Cherelle

Dawn of Nia by Lauren Cherelle

This review contains minor spoilers.

Nia’s life and self have been shaped by her friendship with her mentor Pat and is grief stricken when she dies. At the funeral, she meets a mysterious woman who turns out to be none other than Pat’s estranged daughter, Deidra. Nia is left feeling confused and betrayed–why did Pat keep this secret from her, when Nia had shared everything? Her life and feelings about Pat are further complicated when she enters a relationship with Deidra. Can they weather this storm of complicated feelings surrounding a woman who was so complicated herself, and let go of past trauma?

Both Nia and Deidra are characters who have been through a lot of trauma and a lot of demons in their pasts. It was interesting to see how they deal with the challenges and obstacles that rose from this baggage. Both of them make good and bad decisions, which helped make the story and their characters more realistic and believable. Sometimes the best people make the worst decisions, and they have to deal with the consequences of that.

You didn’t get to meet Pat, Nia’s dead mentor who was so very close to her, and Deidra’s dead mother, who she was so very distant from. But you get an intimate picture of her character from both women’s perspectives and through them see what a complex person she was. Sometimes people are bad parents, but very good in other roles of life, and you get to see how Deidra and Nia both have to grapple with how each other see someone who has had such a tremendous impact on both their lives.

In L. Cherelle’s Goodreads author page, she describes this book as being about “transformative love”, which is the best way to put it (she would know, being the author). A lot of romance stories focus on the lead up, the rising tension, the hot scenes, and the will-they won’t-they. And there is a lot of that here (with some wonderfully hot scenes), but it doesn’t detract from that transformative love theme. You don’t just get to see two characters grow and develop in separate narratives. Nia and Deidra’s character arcs are tightly wound together.

Another thing I loved about this book was how realistic all the characters were, not just Nia and Deidra. There’s a large ensemble cast of characters and they each get a moment to shine and show their true colors–for better or worse. A lot of the dialogue felt very real and lifelike, as if I was a fly on the wall in the characters’ homes.

With these characters there was also an interesting exploration of sexuality and how labels function for different people. Nia describes herself as 99% of a lesbian, having a very slight attraction to men but not the desire to pursue relationships with them. Deidra describes herself as bisexual, but also later on calls herself a lesbian to indicate her monogamous, long-term relationship with Nia.

Adding more to the realistic theme of the book is how it ends. I won’t give anything away, but the way different story threads are wrapped up felt true to life while still being a satisfactory fiction element. Chapters of your life don’t always end with a bang, but sometimes with just a whisper. You don’t always get a big scene of drama: sometimes you just have a conversation in your living room and leave it at that. Having said that, this book does have some great scenes of big drama, and where it does, it always feels like it fits the characters involved and the tension that has led to that moment.

Overall, this was both an incredibly fun and fulfilling read that I highly recommend.

Danika reviews Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde

Zami by Audre Lorde

Images of women flaming like torches adorn and define the borders of my journey, stand like dykes between me and the chaos. It is the images of women, kind and cruel, that lead me home.

Audre Lorde is a name that looms large in lesbian literature, in Black history, and in her legacy in poetry. I have read some of her essays and poems, but I hadn’t before read a long-form work by her. Zami is her autobiography, starting from early childhood and covering up to about her mid-20s. It was interesting to read about this period of her life, because I think some part of me imagined Lorde as appearing fully formed as the imposing figure she became. I’m also used to memoirs, which focus on one aspect of the author’s life, where this explores many subjects, from relationship to her mother, her education, her various jobs and relationships, and growing up as a Black gay woman in the United States in the 40s and 50s. I didn’t realize how early she wrote this: we don’t get to see her as the established poet she became, or as a lesbian activist or leader–instead, this is her journey to get there.

Lorde’s foundation in poetry is definitely visible here. While some passages are matter of fact, others are phrased poetically or even have whole excerpts of poems. I’ll admit that I was a little bit intimidated to pick this one up because of her reputation as both a poet and a theorist. This isn’t a book to speed through: like a poem, it’s packed with so much to pause and consider. Some lines I couldn’t understand, but that’s just the nature of reading poetry.

Lorde’s observations are often timeless or depressingly still timely commentary, while other aspects are firmly rooted in the time period she was coming of age. At some points she seems to have a wild and enviable youth: moving to Mexico on her own just for the love it, entertaining a rotating cast of down-on-their-luck friends piled in a room together, experimenting with drugs and relationships–while the next page will bring something truly horrific. Having to work a bad job as a young person is relateable, but having that job expose you to harmful levels of radiation (Lorde would develop cancer later in life) is not. Trying out polyamory, having endless lesbian processing, relationship miscommunication, that could all have been written yesterday. But having your partner go through shock therapy for her mental illness is very different. It was surreal to see historical events occur casually in her life, such as McCarthyism resulting in the FBI showing up at her door multiple times.

Her crispy hair twinkles in the summer sun as her big proud stomach moved her on down the block while I watched, not caring whether or not she was a poem… I loved her, because she moved like she felt she was somebody special, like she was somebody I’d like to know someday. She moved like how I thought god’s mother must have moved, and my mother, once upon a time, and someday maybe me.

The structure of Zami is a tour through the women that shaped Lorde’s life, from her mother to long-term relationships to brief friendships or conflicts. From the perspective of reviewing for the Lesbrary, it was interesting to see how Lorde’s sexual orientation comes up. This isn’t a “coming out” story–there’s no tearful reveal to her mother, no angst-ridden turmoil over choosing a label–it’s just a gradual exploration of her feelings for women. Her observation about lesbians I found to often be applicable still:

Meeting other lesbians was very difficult, except for the bars which I did not go to because I did not drink. One read The Ladder and the Daughters of Bilitis newsletter and wondered where all the other gay-girls were. Often, just finding out another woman was gay was enough of a reason to attempt a relationship, to attempt some connection in the name of love without first regard to how ill-matched the two of you might really be. Such were the results of loneliness…

That loneliness and confusion about coming out or just beginning relationships with women is, sadly, I think something lesbians and queer women still deal with.

In wonder, but without surprise, I lay finally quiet with my arms around Ginger. So this was what I had been so afraid of not doing properly. How ridiculous and far away those fears seemed now, as if loving were some task outside of myself, rather than simply reaching out and letting my own desire guide me. It was all so simple. I felt so good I smiled into the darkness. Ginger cuddled closer.

Reading about Lorde’s first relationships–intoxicating, all-encompassing, and burning at both ends–was painfully nostalgic. I wanted to reach through the pages and try to reason with her, but only because I want to do the same thing with my own past.

Each one of us had been starved for love for so long that we wanted to believe that love, once found, was all-powerful. We wanted to believe that it could give word to my inchoate pain and rages; that it could enable Muriel to face the world and get a job; that it could free our writings, cure racism, end homophobia and adolescent acne. We were like starving women who come to believe that food will cure all present pains, as well as heal all the deficiency sores of long standing.

Her romantic relationships are not the only women showcased in Zami, though. One person I found interested was a roommate who was dedicated to the feminist cause. Unfortunately, the feminist movement at the time was anti-gay, seeing at as somehow bougie–something only frivolous capitalists did. (Interestingly, since the government at the time seemed to associate with communism.) This roommate had a string of disastrous relationships with men, and Lorde speculates about how she must have felt seeing Lorde’s happy “incorrect” relationship, when she couldn’t make it work in a “correct” relationship. The schisms within “the movement” also strike a chord today:

Every one of the women in our group took for granted, and would have said if asked, that we were all on the side of right. But the nature of that right everyone was presumed to be on the side of was always unnamed.

Of course, the woman that played the biggest role in her early life was her mother. Lorde’s mother is almost a mythic figure in these early chapters–fitting, for how a young child perceives their parents. She commands attention and respect. She is strong, unrelenting, and Lorde would grow up to clash with her–then we see very little of her after Lorde’s teenage years. This makes sense from a real life perspective, but from a story view, I wanted to see more of her. Unsurprisingly, racism plays a major role in this narrative, and we see how Lorde’s parents try to shield her from it. When white people in the street spit on 4-year-old Audre’s jacket, her mother wipes it off (keeping a handkerchief for this purpose) and chides people for carelessly spitting on the street and missing. When Audre asks to eat in the dining car, her parents say it’s too expensive–never mentioning that it was illegal for them as a Black family to each there. Of course, they can’t protect Lorde from the everyday racism of growing up Black in the 40s and 50s, but it did confuse her about the source of these common indignities. As a child, she internalized her ill treatment by others as something wrong with her personally, having no words for racism.

Once we talked about how Black women had been committed without choice to waging our campaigns in the enemies’ strongholds, too much and too often, and how our psychic landscapes had been plundered and wearied by those repeated battles and campaigns.

It wasn’t until Lorde grew up, as a teenager and young adult, that she began to really understand how she was treated differently as a Black woman. She dreams of going to Mexico, working grueling, mind-numbing jobs to save up the money. Once there, she revels in being able to look around and be surrounded by Brown faces, by people who were friendly and curious about her instead of hostile.

Lorde faces the intersecting oppressions of being Black, gay, and a woman, finding very few people who can relate: she explains that most Black lesbians were closeted. Being a Black woman was a difficult enough hand to play, and most say being Black, gay, female, and out as suicidal. In lesbian circles, her Blackness is erased. Her white girlfriend is confident that being gay is the same as being Black: they’re both outsiders. Lorde can’t find the words or strength to fight her on this. The book ends with a sexual encounter with another out Black lesbian, and although it is a brief relationship, it’s a sigh of relief to see her find a connection where she doesn’t have to explain or hide any aspect of herself.

I remember how being young and Black and gay and lonely felt. A lot of it was fine, feeling I had the truth and the light and the key, but a lot of it was purely hell.

There were no mothers, no sisters, no heroes. We had to do it alone, like our sister Amazons, the riders on the loneliest outposts of the kingdom of Dahomey. We, young and Black and fine and gay, sweated out our first heartbreaks with no school nor office chums to share that confidence over lunch hour. Just as there were no rings to make tangible the reason for our happy secret smiles, there were no names nor reason given or shared for the tears that messed up the lab reports or the library bills.

We were good listeners, and never asked for double dates, but didn’t we know the rules? Why did we always seems to think friendships between women were important enough to care about? Always we moved in a necessary remoteness that made “What did you do this weekend?” seem like an impertinent question. We discovered and explored our attention to women alone, sometimes in secret, sometimes in defiance, sometimes in little pockets that almost touched (“Why are those little Black girls always either whispering together or fighting?”) but always alone, against a greater aloneness. We did it cold turkey, and although it resulted in some pretty imaginative tough women when we survived, too many of us did not survive at all.

Zami is not an easy read. Lorde goes through some horrific things, including an unsafe illegal abortion. Trigger warnings for pedophilia, an incest fantasy, self-mutilation, racism, and homophobia.

It’s also a book that asks to be read slowly and thoughtfully. I feel like I’ve just skimmed the surface of it. Don’t expect this to be Audre Lorde’s full story–it’s more like the prologue to the woman we remember her as today.

I also wanted to shout out Autostraddle’s 2020 feature, the Year of Our (Audre) Lorde, where every month, Jehan examines one of Lorde’s essays or poems and discussed how it is relevant today for queer and trans people of colour. I highly recommend it.

I look forward to reading more of Lorde’s work, especially her poetry, though I now know to be prepared for some slow reading, leaving lots of time for contemplation. Have you read any of Audre Lorde’s books? What did you think of them?

Maggie reviews Treasure by Rebekah Weatherspoon

Treasure by Rebekah Weatherspoon

In these trying times, the romance stories I am drawn to most right now involve two characters taking one look at each other and going “Oh.” Enemies to lovers or any variation thereof has its place, and is a trope I do enjoy, but right now what I want is two characters just being into each other. Treasure by Rebekah Weatherspoon fulfills that need. It’s a cute rich girl/working girl novella featuring two black characters, one of whom is a stripper and the other of whom is still trying to get a feel for her own sexuality and style.

Alexis Chambers is a freshmen in college who is trying to figure out her identity amongst family expectations and the pressures of going off to college. Trisha “Treasure” Hamilton strips nights to make money and is going to school so she has a good career after she’s done with dancing. They first notice each other during Alexis’s sister’s bachelorette party at the club where Trisha works, and then later they find out they have a class together. The connection between them is almost instantaneous, although Alexis is shy, leaving Trisha to make the first moves. Although they come from different backgrounds, and each has their own family issues, their instant attraction is undeniable. CONTENT WARNING: There is talk of a suicide attempt in Alexis’s past. It is talked about, but there’s no graphic flashbacks or descriptions.

What I liked most about this book is how sweet they both are towards each other. Alexis is head over heels about Trisha but suffering from low self-confidence. Trisha is besotted with Alexis but dealing with her own baggage. But their sheer attraction to each other makes every milestone–from holding hands to having sex–both supercharged and incredibly sweet. It’s adorable and every page made me so happy. I also love that they are both aware of their own and each other’s issues but are determined not to push or make the other feel uncomfortable. I also love how chill Alexis is about Trisha’s stripping. It’s refreshing because it feels so natural to Alexis and Trisha is so charmed by it. It’s just good to read about characters who are unambiguously into each other.

My only complaint is that the climax felt a little contrived. It’s the most obvious roadblock to introduce to their relationship, but to introduce it, there’s a very contrived appearance by a minor character. It all felt very “well they need to have at least one (1) problem.” But honestly that’s not a terrible problem for a romance to have, and, obviously, they make up very quickly.