Casey reviews Give It to Me by Ana Castillo


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Casey reviews Red Azalea by Anchee Min


This year I’ve been doing a reading project of only authors of colour, pretty much all LGBTQ.  I’ve read a ton of great stuff, and one of the best things this challenge has made me do is discover some authors that I never would have encountered otherwise.  One such writer is Anchee Min, whose memoir Red Azalea I read a few weeks ago.  I was totally and utterly blown-away by the gorgeous, unique writing and the page-turning, I-can’t-believe-this-is-true plot.  I can’t believe I might not have found this book if I hadn’t made an effort to research books by queer people of colour.  Shame on me for not reading this earlier.

Red Azalea follows Anchee (note: I decided to refer to her by her first name since it feels weird to call the character in the book by a last name!)  growing up in the last days of Mao’s China, during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s.  It was a movement to “purge” remaining capitalist and traditionalist elements in what was now a communist country.  As a child, Anchee was part of the Red Guards, a youth military group dedicated to enforcing Maoism and the Cultural Revolution.  In her late teens, she was later forcibly sent from the city to work at a communal farm—as were millions of other urban youth to work brutal days from 5am to 9pm.  After a few years, Anchee was miraculously plucked from obscurity to partake in the Chinese propaganda film industry in Shanghai, where she encountered a whole other host of problems.  She eventually left China for the US in the 80s.

Okay, that’s the story, but that’s not really the story, you know.  This is such an emotionally and lyrically rich memoir, evocative but never showy, and intensely erotic without ever being cheesy or cheap.  In a scene in part one, Anchee is manipulated into publicly humiliating a beloved teacher for being an enemy spy in front of her entire school.  Ten years later, she finds the teacher, and goes to her, intending to apologize.  She receives this chilling response:

I am very sorry, I don’t remember you. I don’t think I ever had you as my student.

It’s in the second part of the book that Anchee is forced at age 17 to part with her parents, who “stood there like frosted aubergines—with heads hanging weakly in front of their chests” as the truck drives off, their daughter riding in the back.  It’s at the communal farm that Anchee meets Yan, a legend, a heroine renowned for her brute strength on the farm and dedication as Comrade Party Secretary.  This is Anchee’s first glimpse of the woman she later falls in love with:

She had a pair of fiery intense eyes, in which I saw the energy of a lion.  She had weather-beaten skin, thick eyebrows, a bony nose, high cheekbones, a full mouth in the shape of a water chestnut.  She had the shoulders of an ancient warlord, extravagantly broad. She was barefoot.  Her sleeves and trousers were rolled halfway up.  Her hands rested on her waist.   When her eyes focused on mine, I trembled for no reason.  She burned me with the sun in her eyes.  I felt bare.

As the two women’s relationship develops, Anchee begins to realize just how sexually repressive the regime is, in addition to the isolation, alienation, and general mass psychosis.  I’m not talking just about queer sexuality: the system does not allow the young women at the farm any sexuality at all.  A friend of Anchee’s is mentally broken and eventually commits suicide after being interrogated and humiliated after being found with a male lover.  What’s fascinating and disturbing is that the party officials present this type of action as feminist, and declare they saved Anchee’s friend from being raped.

When I say this book is beautifully, uniquely written I especially mean the way Anchee Min writes about her growing love for Yan.  It’s Yan who makes her feel write this: “I stood in the sunshine, feeling, feeling, the rising of a hope.”   A hope like this:

She asked me to feel her heart.  I wished I was the blood in that chamber.  In the hammering of her hearbeat, the rising and falling of her chest.  I saw a city of chaos.  A mythical force drew me to her.  I felt the blazing of a fire inside me.

When Yan and Anchee finally kiss, it’s beautiful, and sexy, and just everything you’ve been wanting in a love scene.  Trust me.  Okay, don’t trust me: read this quotation:

She said, I want you to obey me.  You always did well when you obeyed me. She licked my tears and said this was how she was going to remember us.

I moved my hands slowly through her shirt. She pulled my fingers to unbutton her bra.  The buttons were tight, five of them. Finally, the last one came off. The moment I touched her breasts, I felt a sweet shock. My heart beat disorderedly. A wild horse broke off its reins. She whispered something I could not hear. She was melting snow….The horse kept running wild.  I went where the sun rose.  Her lips were the colour of a tomato.  There was a gale mixed with thunder inside me.  I was spellbound by desire.  I wanted to be touched.  Her hands skimmed my breasts.  My mind maddened. My senses cheered frantically in a raging fire.

There’s something about the phrases and metaphors that Anchee Min creates that are strikingly different from any other writing I’ve read in English.  If my calculations are correct, she was about 30, maybe a bit younger when she moved to the US, with only a minimal knowledge of English; this means she was relatively old (in terms of language learning) when she started writing and speaking in English.  The lovely, strange way she writes made me think about what kind of effect speaking more than one language has on your writing.  As an ESL teacher, it made me wonder if teaching English students to write and speak like native speakers might be detrimental to their creativity, that minimizing the different ways in which they speak English might actually be a bad thing.  I can’t imagine a native speaker of English coming up with some of the images Anchee Min does, and that’s what makes it such a beautifully written memoir.

I feel like to discuss part three of the memoir would spoil some things that must not be spoiled—in my opinion, anyway—so I won’t get into too much detail.  Once I got about half way through this book, I couldn’t put it down, while I wanted to savour the language at the same time.  You’re in for stunning, sensual writing right until the end, even or perhaps especially in Anchee’s despair and heartbreak: “I could hear the sound of my dream’s spine breaking.”

You should move Red Azalea to the top of your reading pile.  I promise, you won’t regret it.

Casey reviews A Cup of Water Under My Bed by Daisy Hernandez


2014: what a year for bisexual memoirs by people of colour!  Among the fabulous Lambda award nominees fitting this category—including Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles M. Blow, which I also highly recommend—is A Cup of Water Under My Bed by Daisy Hernández.  Don’t both of those have amazing, intriguing titles?  I simply loved Hernández’s book, on so many levels, for both its form and content.

It’s a memoir, but, interestingly, not structured linearly.  Instead, Hernández arranges the material of her life in three thematic sections, divided into chapters that are self-contained essays.  This structure allows you to see different facets of her life as they exist at different stages of her life, making links between events in childhood and adulthood that you might not otherwise.  Although it feels a bit jarring to move ahead and back again at first, after a while I really enjoyed the way she organized the memoir; it felt tangential in the same way that a conversation does.  One result of the organization, interestingly, is that you don’t actually hear anything about Hernández’s queerness until the second section, although the jacket refreshingly makes her bisexuality explicit.  That shouldn’t be notable, but unfortunately it is, and I was super pumped to see the ‘b’ word right there on the inside flap of the cover.

One other thing that is unique about this book’s format is that the entire thing is peppered with Spanish, always in italics, now and then whole sentences, often just a single word.  Like, there isn’t a page of the book that doesn’t have at least one Spanish word on it.  Sometimes you can guess the meaning of the word from the context, or a translation or paraphrase is fitted seamlessly into the text.  Other times, though, Hernández just lets the Spanish word sit in the English sentence, sin explanation.  Given that she devotes a lot of the memoir to discussing the role of language in her family and her sense of self, I found her decision to include a fair amount of Spanish in a predominantly English book fascinating.  This insistence on her mother tongue seemed to me a distinctly feminist Latina strategy, and a really cool way to illustrate the powerful and sometimes alienating effect language can have.  Anglophones aren’t used to having their easy understanding thwarted, and I thought the Spanish in A Cup of Water was a thoughtful way to draw attention to that privilege.  Also, if you’re learning español like I am, it’s really cool and helpful.

So what does Hernández write about?  In a nutshell: everything.  The first section is devoted to her family and cultural/spiritual background.  Growing up in New Jersey with a working class Colombian mother and Cuban father and a smattering of aunties constantly coming and going certainly gives her a lot to discuss.  Some of my favourite parts were about the intrusion of English in her life as her parents send her to English Catholic elementary school, despite her growing up speaking Spanish at home.  Having only ever heard English in cartoons on TV, she describes her first day of school like this:

Sitting in my classroom, I wait for Mrs. Reynolds to start talking like my mother.  In Spanish.  Surely it won’t be long now.  An hour passes.  Two hours.  An entire day it feels, and still it is all Mighty Mouse… It’s like being forced to watch the same cartoon all day long.  

Later she realizes devastating effect of this linguistic erasure:

I am not to go the way of the two people I long for in the thick terror of the night.  The first man I love and the first woman I adore, my father and my mother with their Spanish words, are not in these cards.  The road before me is English and the next part is too awful to ask aloud or even silently: What is so wrong with my parents that I am not to mimic their hands, their needs, not even their words?

There’s a stark honesty in Hernández’s writing, which is especially striking when she’s talking about the complicated stuff of life, like discovering and naming her bisexuality in the second section:

There isn’t a good verb for what begins happening to me in college.  Yes, I am meeting lesbians, but I am not one of them.  I still find men attractive; it is that I am thinking of women in a new way.  It is as if I am learning that I can shift my weight from one leg to the other, that I have a second leg.  Kissing women is like discovering a new limb.

Hernández also addresses racism in all its ugly complexity: for example, her Latin American family’s use of the word india (meaning an Indigenous person) as a threat when she’s misbehaving as a child, their fixation on light skin, prejudice against Black Americans, and the slipperiness of racial categories.  Like how her aunt’s dark-skinned Peruvian husband isn’t “indio” because he drives a nice car and has a good job.  How the white Southern editor at the New York Times where Hernández is working admits to  giving a young African American journalist who turned out to be plagiarizing one chance too many.  How her aunt said she was so dark as a child, “as if the colour of [her] skin had been an illness.”

One unexpected thing Hernández writes about in a startlingly candid way in the last section is money, as well as the related topic of class.  An especially poignant story called “Only Ricos Have Credit” (ricos means rich people) examines her relationship with credit cards, chasing the kind of white middle class lifestyle she dreams of but can’t actually afford.  In “My Father’s Hands,” she writes powerfully about the economic impact of NAFTA, her father beginning a job as a janitor at age 63 after doing factory work his entire life and her mother continuing to work, but sometimes without a paycheque at all, at her factory.

I’m pretty sure I’d have a hard time wrapping up such a gorgeous, far-reaching book, but Hernández does it eloquently in a short, final story in which a new chapter of her life on the west coast is beginning.  No mistaking it, she is a talented queer writer whose first book is, I think, only the dawn of the rosy career to come.  Don’t miss A Cup of Water Under My Bed.

Casey reviews Miss Timmins’ School for Girls by Nayana Currimbhoy


Miss Timmins’ School for Girls, by Nayana Currimbhoy, might be described as a mystery, a classic whodunit murder story.  But it can also equally be called a romance, a coming of age story, and an historical novel set in 1970s India.  It’s perhaps because this book is all those things and more that makes it such a successful, entertaining read.

Don’t start Miss Timmins’ School for Girls right before you go to bed, because this is a book that sucks you in immediately with a flash forward to the death that is central to the plot.  Of course, you remember that this death is going to happen as you keep reading, but because you hadn’t met any of the characters at that point, it starts to feel fuzzier and fuzzier until mid-book, when it actually happens and it’s shocking, and you can’t believe you’re only half way through the story.  What could possibly happen next?

The first part is a lot of fun to read: you follow Charu, a 21-year-old middle class “good Brahmin girl” whose parents are tentatively letting her out into the world, to work as a teaching at a British boarding school tucked away in a monsoon-ridden mountainous corner of India.  It’s the 70s, right, so there’s all that talk of free love, mind-expanding drugs, and new freedoms, and Charu has never heard of any of it until she’s introduced through her new friends, including a white girl raised in India who also happens to be a lesbian.  You can probably guess the romance that buds between the two women, and it’s pretty cute, and exciting, and realistic.  Currimbhoy does a great job with characterisation, making both women likable, flawed, and just complex enough to frustrate the reader sometimes.

But it’s only the first half of the book that focuses on the romance: just when I wondered how Currimbhoy was going to continue telling the story, she switches narrative perspective, and we suddenly start hearing it from the point of view of one of the girls at the school.  This was disorienting at first, but plot-wise very effective, allowing Currimbhoy to describe the action from a less emotionally involved and knowing angle.  In some ways I don’t want to say much about the second half, because it somehow feels like a spoiler, even though you actually find out who dies in the first few pages of the book.  But I think you’re meant to kind of forget, or at least this was my experience, so I don’t want to ruin it for you.

One thing I will tell you, is that we discover Charu isn’t exclusively attracted to women, which was a nice surprise for me, always on the lookout for dynamic bisexual characters.  Also, the teenage girls were really great to read about too: there’s something about the trope of all these girls pent up in a boarding school—especially this one, where the monsoons keep them stuck inside—that creates an atmosphere ripe for all sorts of mischief.  Also, I think I’m just attracted in some perverse way to the routine and orderliness of a boarding school—I’ve always kind of wished I could have gone to one (and got to wear the uniform).

Aside from the boarding school teen girl antics, there is of course a murder to be solved. I am notoriously terrible at this kind of investigation, so those readers who are schooled in figuring out whodunit would likely fare better than I did.  I was totally stunned by every twist, but, again, mystery is not my literary forte.  The thing is, the mystery is really only part of the novel, even in the second half, so if you’re either a mystery buff or someone who normally doesn’t read mystery, I think there’s a little something for everyone from this really standout first novel from Nayana Currimbhoy.

Casey reviews The Haunting on Hill House by Shirley Jackson


Reviewing Shirley Jackson’s classic haunted house story The Haunting on Hill House seems a little seasonally inappropriate for the beginning of the New Year, but I’m going to go ahead and talk about it anyway, especially since it’s often not talked about as a queer / lesbian book, which is a shame, I think.

I read this book, or rather, listened to the audiobook version in late October.  Even if you’re a bit wimpy like I am, I suggest both this format and season, because they’re just such a great fit.  Bernadette Dunne, the voice actress who reads the novel, is just brilliant and chilling and does a great job embodying the different characters and voices.  And of course, around Halloween is always the best time to read scary stories.

Published in 1959, The Haunting on Hill House is considered by many to be the perfect haunted house story, as Shirley Jackson is considered a master of the gothic genre.  I couldn’t agree more.  Jackson employs perfect restraint, allowing the horror to remain psychological and mysterious and just out of reach.  Like in the masterful near-perfect Turn of the Screw by Henry James, you never quite know what it exactly happening, if it’s in the minds of the characters or an evil actually residing in the house.  Jackson’s writing is similarly restrained and lean, but incredibly muscular.

The story itself is simple enough: four strangers gather at a house with a haunted reputation, one of them an academic of the paranormal, with the intent of discovering if the house is indeed haunted and of capturing some evidence of this.  It’s a self-consciously contrived situation, full of ironically witter banter between the characters who have been thrust into this unnatural relationship, living together in some kind of odd instant family.

Wait, what’s the lesbian part, you’re probably wondering?  Remember, this book was written in the fifties era of censorship, where any explicit queerness was a sure-fire way to not have your book published or heavily edited (you know, the lesbian has to die / be left by her treacherous bisexual partner for a man, etc., in order to make sure they’re not condoning the ‘homosexual lifestyle’).  So the lesbian part of this book definitely falls into the category of subtext.

But even to the 21st century eye, this subtext is quite obviously not accidental.  In fact, I think it’s quite clearly coded.  Theodora, one of the investigators at the house, agrees to come stay at the house in the middle of nowhere because of a fight with her ‘roommate’ that sounds an awful lot like a lover’s quarrel.  The other woman at the house, Eleanor, forms a quick and emotionally charged bond with Theodora that is not unlike a crush.  The former owner of the house is an old spinster who had a woman from the village staying with her as a ‘companion.’  In other words, the house is pretty gay.  I’d wager to say, actually, that one theory for what’s so scary in the house for Eleanor in particular is the possibilities of (queer) sexuality.

Although by today’s standards this book isn’t really that scary, I would caution you about reading (or listening to) this alone at night in a big old house.  Like I did.  Also, I will freely admit Jackson’s novel made me hesitant to venture into my dingy basement to do laundry.  Just sayin’.

Casey, aka the Canadian lesbrarian, is a bisexual writer with an MA in English who lives in Vancouver.  When not reading queer Canadian lit or reviewing it, she’s teaching ESL, running, or drinking tea.  But not at the same time.  Find her on twitter.

Casey reviews Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta


It’s perhaps best to begin with the fact that happiness you won’t find much in Chinelo Okparanta’s short story collection Happiness, Like Water.  After all, as one character points out, happiness is like water if “we’re always trying to grab onto it, but it’s always slipping through our fingers.”  What you will find, however, are some tenderly written stories about Nigerian women, sometimes in the US or in Nigeria, grappling with the demands made of them in a racist, sexist, and homophobic world.

If that sounds depressing, well, maybe it is; it’s important work that Okparanta is doing, investigating the myriad of ways in which her characters are bound by a limited set of choices in a world that often doesn’t value them; however, she does have this to say in an interview with Saraba magazine: “in some ways I write about what is positive. I write about brave and ambitious men and women. I write about intelligent people. I write about kindness, about love. I write about people who, like me, are trying their best to make sense of their lives within the societies in which they find themselves.”  In this way, I didn’t find Happiness a sad book, despite the often bleak subject matter.

Okparanta writes simply but beautifully, something which also helps break the sometimes gloomy circumstances in which her characters find themselves.  It is also not a collection without hope.  For example:

And I think perhaps all this will do. The waterfowls are still quacking, and the sun

is high in the sky.  The river is still glowing in shades of silver and gold.  Grace

is sitting next to me, and I can’t help thinking that perhaps the verge of joy is its

own form of happiness.

This is an unrepentantly feminist book, dealing with issues such as shadism, beauty standards, domestic violence, gender roles, class, and queer [and straight] sexuality.  Happiness doesn’t feel like an ‘issue’ book, though, I think because the voices of the women play such a big part in the stories.  My two favourites, “Grace” and “Story, Story!” in particular, featured palpable, unique voices.  “Grace” is narrated by a middle-aged divorced woman who’s a (English?) professor teaching a course on the Old Testament.  It’s not clear exactly what her beliefs are, but it seems like she’s some kind of Christian, or maybe has a Christian background.  The story centers around her relationship with a Nigerian student, definitely a Christian and grappling with her sexuality and what the Bible (supposedly) says about queerness.  I thought Okparanta nailed the world-weariness of this older woman’s voice, as well as the youthful one of the younger woman.

“Story, Story!” is, I think, the strongest in the collection, and probably features the voice that is the most different from the rest of the narrators.  I don’t want to spoil this climatic, powerful story by giving away important details, but it is a chilling narrative about the lengths of insanity to which women can by driven by the white heteropatriarchy.  If there were one part from this book I would want everyone to read, it’s the brilliantly titled “Story, Story!”

Despite the innovation of those two I just discussed, several of the other stories featured women whose voices began to run together a bit for me by the end of the collection.  There were a lot of middle-class women who were teachers, which isn’t in itself a problem, if the voices are differentiated; however, I didn’t find that to be the case.  This is a fault I’ve found many a time in first books by new writers: drawing from their own experiences, sometimes they fail to fully turn that inspiration into wide-ranging fiction.  There wasn’t a problem with the voice itself, just that it was shared by characters in different stories in different places and situations, which makes them seem less like, well, real humans.  Okparanta is at her best when trying on distinct voices, such as in “Story, Story!” and “Grace” as well as “Shelter” (whose narrator is a child).

Interestingly, if you look at Happiness as a whole, it seems to be suggesting that heterosexual relationships are doomed, but ones between women have hope.  It’s not that the queer relationships are painted idyllically, but there is a distinct sense of optimism in the stories that feature romantic relationships between women that is lacking in the ones featuring men and women. Relationships with men and /or heterosexual marriage seem to be too steeped in patriarchal power dynamics to offer women any real options.  While I see the appeal of this argument, it also puzzles me; my first thought is, okay but what are heterosexual women supposed to do?  Also, it feels defeatist, like confirming men will and can never be feminist allies and never have respectful relationships with women.  Is that actually how we want to look at the world?

It’s the system, paired with and run by individual men, that creates and upholds the values Okparanta is writing against and many of her stories actually make a point of focusing on the fact that it is the women’s mothers who are the agents of the patriarchal trap of marriage, as well as enforcing racist and sexist beliefs about women’s roles.  In other words, women enforce patriarchy too, and we won’t get rid of it even if we secluded ourselves away and never had any contact with men ever again.  So, Okparanta’s argument there seems to contrast the one that relationships with men are ultimately hopeless.

Anyway, there’s lot of food for thought in this book, as you can see!  If you want to see more from Okparanta, like I did when I finished the book, check out this more recent story published in The New Yorker as well as this interview with Okparanta about the story.

Casey reviews Bi: Notes for A Bisexual Revolution by Shiri Eisner


Are you looking for a smart, accessible introduction to bisexual academic theory, history, and activism?  Are you a bisexual/pansexual/omnisexual person who needs an anti-assimilationist kick in the pants?  Are you a monosexual (gay or straight) person who wants to learn more about the bisexual people in your life?  Look no further than Shiri Eisner’s Bi: Notes for A Bisexual Revolution.  Although my feelings about this book are complicated, for the most part I am happy that it is out there and that bisexuals younger than myself have it as a resource!  In particular, I think it’s a fantastic introduction to not only bisexuality but queer and feminist studies more generally.  Eisner is great at defining key terms in no-nonsense language and succinctly summarizing complicated queer/feminist theories.  You don’t need a background in queer or feminist studies or academia to understand this book, which I think is great for making it a manageable read for all sorts of people who wouldn’t ordinarily pick up something like this.

What I really loved about Bi was how Eisner put a lots of things about bisexuality and biphobia that I had experienced as both a lesbian and bi-identified woman into words.  I had never taken the time to analyze some of this stuff, and some I had just never realized were manifestations of biphobia.  Eisner dives right in in the early chapters and tackles such tricky topics as bisexual stereotypes, accusations that bisexuality ‘reinforces the gender binary’ and otherwise contributes to the dominant social order, myths that bisexuality doesn’t really exist, the fact that bi men are deemed gay whereas bi women are deemed straight, and bi people being accused of having access to heterosexual privilege.  One of my favourite points that she made was that the sometimes positively-viewed assertion that ‘everyone is really bi’ is really the other side of the ‘bisexuality doesn’t exist’ coin.  Both statements are trying to deny the validity of a bisexual orientation and the uniqueness of bisexual people.

I also really liked how she dealt with the issue of heterosexual privilege and the idea of passing as straight or gay.  She writes, for example,

“The presumption that bisexuals experience oppression not as bisexual people but as ‘quasi gays and lesbians’ … divides bisexual identity into ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ parts [and] presumes that bisexuals are only oppressed by heterosexism inasmuch as they live a ‘gay’ life and that they gain privileges inasmuch as they live a ‘straight’ life.”

Eisner also brings up a really important point about the gay / straight-washing that happens so often to bi people.  Since I’ve been paying attention, I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen bi celebrities as well as regular people referred to as either gay or straight.  Like, I had no idea Alan Cumming was actually bi and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen him referred to as gay a million times.  Recently, when bisexual activist Robyn Ochs (whose wonderful definition of bisexuality I’ll include farther down) was mentioned in a mainstream newspaper celebrating her marriage with a same-sex partner, she was called a lesbian—this is a woman whose career is built on fighting that exact kind of erasure.  So this book was eye-opening for me in a lot of ways, and in particular about the monosexist assumptions that led me to feel like I had to pick lesbian or straight.  A lot of what I read feels empowering and revolutionary, just like the title promised!

One of the things I didn’t love about this book was Eisner’s radical political stance.  I mean, I agreed theoretically with a lot of the points that she made, but often anarchist/radical politics feel naïve and limiting for me.  I want to say, okay, yes, dismantling the entire structure and ways of thinking that our societies are founded on is great in theory, but what can we actually practically do to make things better for people who are getting a shit deal right now?  I heard some echoes in Eisner’s writing of other things I’ve heard in radical queer circles, like the ‘subverting gender binaries’ shtick .  I’m sick and tired of reading about whether this or that identity subverts gender binaries or not. It’s getting old. I’m suspicious of this especially because it’s often evoked (not in Eisner’s case) in an anti-feminine context.

Eisner’s section on men and bisexuality is definitely the weakest section.  Honestly, a bi man should probably have written this chapter—I would have been really interested to hear that perspective, but Eisner’s anti-science tirade about the research that’s been done on bi men wasn’t interesting or illuminating to me.  In fact, in her book Excluded, Julia Serano points out that a lot of feminism’s knee-jerk anti-science is detrimental and misguided.  The section on bisexuality and racialization could have used a lot more variety too.  I get that Eisner is relying on her own experiences, but some references to other racialized people, at least for further reading, would have been nice.

All of that said, I still really recommend this book.  It taught me a lot and made me think a lot about bisexuality and biphobia in many ways that I hadn’t before.  It’s a great starting point for discussion—it will get you thinking and talking and thinking some more!  I want to end with Robyn Ochs’s definition of bisexuality, which Eisner introduced me to:

“I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted-romantically and/or sexually-to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”

Eisner praises Ochs for the inclusiveness and reassuring quality of this definition.  I think Eisner’s insistence on the messiness and complication of bisexuality is similarly reassuring: she writes that these qualities are not something to apologize for but rather something to value.

Casey reviews A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar


Like many a classic coming-of-age or fictional autobiography, A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar begins with the birth of the heroine.  What you don’t usually see, though, is a screaming match in an American hospital in Arabic between the mother and father after a disagreement about the baby’s name.  If you don’t know any Arabic words, this is an interesting introduction by the main character Nidali’s mother: “Kussy?  Kussy ya ibn ilsharmoota?” “My pussy, you son of a whore?  Don’t concern yourself with my pussy, you hear?  No more of this pussy for you, you … ass!”  When Nidali’s father tries to stop his wife from swearing at the top of her lungs in public, she protests that no one in the States understands them anyway and to prove her point tells a white woman her baby looks like a monkey. The woman nods and smiles.

This beginning sets the irreverent, raw, no-holds-barred tone of Jarrar’s first novel.  Hers is the kind of infectious narrative voice that’s easy to fall in love with; you want to find out what happens to Nidali even before you know much about her.  Actually, just reading the initial description of her on the book jacket should be enough to pique your interest: “the rebellious daughter of an Egyptian-Greek mother and a Palestinian father narrates the story of her childhood in Kuwait, her teenage years in Egypt … and her family’s last flight to Texas.”  The novel is a great mix of what’s now considered history—like Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990—and personal experience; it’s not that Nidali’s story is interesting because of the significant world events she’s living through but that her individual perspective can teach us about these historical events and this history sheds light on who she is.

In addition to the combination of history and the personal, the novel is a fascinating mix between serious material and a comic outlook.  I suppose it’s that mentality of ‘if you don’t laugh, you might cry.’  Nidali’s father, for example, is both verbally and physically abusive but the tone that the narrator recalls this in is not what you might expect: it’s the same wry attitude she paints everything with.  Recounting the humiliating experience of going through an Israeli checkpoint to visit family in Palestine, Nidali ends the scene by describing a woman whose shoes mysteriously disappear after the intensive search.  After convincing the soldier to return her stolen shoes, the woman says: “First my land, now my Guccis!  Goddamn it.”  It’s hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time—pretty exemplary of this whole book, actually.

The idea of home is, of course, central to A Map of Home.  It’s a feeling Nidali is looking for throughout the story, not quite sure about her father’s proclamation that Palestinians can carry a sense of home around with them.  She just wants to feel like she belongs to a place, and that it belongs to her, and whenever she starts to feel a connection with somewhere, it is ripped from her grasp.  Later on in the book she seems to make peace with this feeling of placelessness while looking at a map:

I stared at the whiteness of the paper’s edges for a long, long time. The whiteness of the page blended with the whiteness of my sheets. ‘You are here,’ I thought as I looked at the page and all around me. And oddly, I felt free.

Jarrar is a talented writer, as you can see in that quotation, crafting unusual and striking similes like “guilt descended like a fat mosquito and sucked out all our blood” and “the onus of renaming a son after my grandfather was [one] [Nidali’s father] brushed off his then-solid shoulders unceremoniously, like a piece of lint or a flake of dandruff.”  I’m really interested to see what she writes next, in particular to see if she focuses on queerness a bit more.  If you’re looking for a book with a lot of queer content, A Map of Home certainly isn’t it; the character is definitely bisexual and talks in passing about her feelings and narrates one brief same-sex experience, but the different gender relationships take up a lot more narrative space.  I certainly wouldn’t fault the novel for this, especially as it ends when Nidali is only in her late teens, but I would be interested to know how Nidali explores her sexuality more in her future.  It would be especially interesting to see how Nidali’s multi-cultural and racial background play out with a non-monosexual identity.  You know, if she was a real person and stuff and not a work of fiction.

Casey reviews My Education by Susan Choi [with spoilers]


I’ve been on a bit of a bisexual book binge lately, so after the Lambda Literary awards were announced and Susan Choi’s third novel My Education was declared the winner in the category of bisexual fiction, I thought I should pick it up.  I have a healthy amount of skepticism about the decision making at the lammies but I decided this book was probably a good place to start.  I’m glad, actually, that I didn’t have high expectations because this book ended up blowing me away.  I loved it. I really loved it.

First of all, I loved the writing.  I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I found the juicy, exquisite wordiness just so fun.  It was like reading a Victorian novel, but about a biracial, bisexual American woman in the 90s and 2000s.  I totally see how other people find Choi’s style pretentious and excessive, but to me it was self-consciously so, if that makes any sense.  Her sentences are so interesting and versatile.  I particularly enjoyed the discrepancy between the more formal grammar (Choi never ends a sentence with a preposition, but always uses “to/for/in which”, for example) and the emotionally immature and sexy material.  Choi pays really close attention to what her characters are doing and saying and a lot of the descriptions of both mundane and profound events are strikingly beautiful.  Like here:

“My youth was the most stubborn, peremptory part of myself. In my most relaxed moments, it governed my being. It pricked up its ears at the banter of eighteen-year-olds on the street. It frankly examined their bodies. It did not know its place: that my youth governed me with such ease didn’t mean I was young. It meant I was divided as if housing a stowaway soul, rife with itches and yens which demanded a stern vigilance. I didn’t live thoughtlessly in my flesh anymore. My body had not, in its flesh, fundamentally changed quite so much as it now could intuit the change that would only be dodged by an untimely death, and to know both those bodies at once, the youthful, and the old, was to me the quintessence of being middle-aged. Now I saw all my selves, even those that did not yet exist, and the task was remembering which I presented to others.”

When I say some of the material is emotionally immature, it’s because the main character Regina is a twenty-one year old English literature graduate student: she’s fallen head over heels in love for the first time and thinks it’s going to last forever and she’s naïve and passionate and, of course, never going to be the same again.  What I really loved about how the book started is that it sets you up to think that Regina is going to have an affair with an older male professor, when it’s in fact his wife that she ends up falling in love with.  I enjoy the idea of straight people picking up this book and being shocked at the turn of event a few chapters into the book.  It’s a whirlwind affair that you know is not going to end well, but the ride is really fun.

Another thing I really enjoyed about this book was the academic setting: Choi has kind of the perfect balance of understanding but scrutiny of academia.  Having left academia, I found it kind of fun to have a little fictional sojourn back in its clutches.  These grad students have lots of time for sex and drinking and aren’t all stressed out and competing about who has more work, like the ones in my real-life grad school experience.

My Education doesn’t end when the relationship between Regina and Martha does.  It doesn’t even end when, in their grief, Regina and Nicholas (Martha’s ex-husband) have an affair of their own.  Interestingly, the book skips fifteen years ahead and we get a glimpse of a middle-aged Regina, married to a man and the mother of a young kid.  There’s a focus on catching up on what all the other characters have been doing all these years, and we get to see not only where Regina ended up, but also Nicholas, Martha, their son, and Regina’s old roommate / friend Dutra (who was perhaps my favourite character, although I’m not exactly sure why).  I liked all of the characters a lot more after seeing them in these respective later life stages, actually.  It made me able to forgive them for some of the shitty things they did in the past.  This section just had a fun “what are they doing now?” feel to it.

But it was also necessary to conclude Regina’s emotional journey, which, as she says, is this, essentially: “I didn’t grasp that desire and duty could rival each other, least of all that they most often did.”  The lesson that Regina learns, however, is conservative: despite seeing Martha again and briefly renewing their passionate relationship, Regina returns to her husband and child (pregnant with another one).  In other words, she chooses duty over desire.  But can’t they go together?  Unfortunately for the husband, you never really get why Regina loves him, although you’re supposed to know.  She loves her son—that much is obvious.

And this is where the book kind of loses me.  I mean, it didn’t really lose me but I guess I felt like a bit of something was off, or missing.  What I mean is I would have liked Choi to be a bit more explicit about bisexuality in this book, if only to point out to all the dumbasses calling this a book about two straight women having an affair that they’re both obviously bisexual (the book is even clear that Martha has had more than one relationship with a woman).  There are so few good books about bi women!  Why can’t you use the b word, Susan Choi, just once??

I like the naturalness that flows in the earlier part of the book because nothing outside of the relationship matters.  It would have felt unnatural to get bogged down with identity politics in that section.  But later on in Regina’s life, why doesn’t her husband know about this affair? How could you be married to someone and never have told them about the first time you fell in love?  This feels like (internalized) biphobia to me and I wish the book would have addressed it. How can the relationship with Martha have had no effect on Regina’s sexual identity or later sexual experiences?

Similarly, Regina’s background being both white and Asian is mentioned once and never brought up again.  It’s not like I want the focus of the book to be on her racial and sexual identity, but those things are relevant in real life, they’re a part of real life.  Ignoring them just felt kind of weird at best, and apolitical at worst.  Like, what are you trying to avoid?

Despite (or maybe because of?) my ramblings about the book’s relationship with bisexual politics, I highly recommend My Education.  On top of everything else, I loved, loved, loved the ending.  That is a rare thing indeed for me.


Casey reviews If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous


Maybe my expectations were too high for Malena Watrous’s first novel If You Follow Me.  I was pretty psyched about it from the get-go because it was about a bisexual English as a second language teacher who goes to Japan (just like me! well, except for the Japan part).  But overall I felt like this novel really didn’t make it off the ground, despite some of the things it had going for it.

So the main character Marina (read: slightly fictionalized version of the author—the physical description of her in the book even matches the author photo) goes to Japan because she doesn’t know what else to do with herself after she graduates from college; she basically follows her girlfriend there (uh, hence the name of the book).  She’s also just lost her dad to suicide, so she’s running from that as well.  The novel’s blurb describes the story as a “fish-out-of-water tale, a dark comedy of manners, and a strange kind of love story.” Honestly, I don’t feel like this book is any of those things.

I mean, it’s not funny, like, at all.  I don’t mean that necessarily as a bad thing, but it was weird to expect dark comedy and comedy of manners and get neither.  The love story (spoiler alert) with Marina’s supervisor Hiroshi could have been really cute, but it picks up too early in the book and then is mostly dropped again until the very end.  It was interesting to get a peek into Marina and her girlfriend Carolyn’s relationship at the period where this early twenties romance is losing its incentive but I wanted to be excited about the next romantic prospect and/or care about the disintegration of the first relationship.  Unfortunately neither happened for me.  You sort of got glimpses of what kind of person Hiroshi was, but not enough to really get on board with the romance.  This is too bad, because I think the book missed an opportunity to counteract that terrible “Asian men aren’t sexy” stereotype and give life to an interracial romance.  (Sidenote: if you’re looking for books that do a relationship between a white bi woman and an Asian man really well, check out Malinda Lo’s Adaptation and Inheritance).

As for the fish-out-of-water thing, If You Follow Me is basically a story about an American traveller whose antics are supposed to be endearing and funny but are just culturally insensitive, ignorant, and annoying.  I felt this way and I’ve never been to Japan and hardly know anything about it, so I can’t imagine how irritating it would be to someone who has or does.  I mean, how hard can it be to do some research and figure out how to sort your fucking garbage?  But anyway, I’ve dealt with idiotic American travellers, and their self-centredness is not cute, it’s gross and rude.  I just really couldn’t sympathize with Marina in this regard.

I don’t know: I guess I understand why this novel and the main character are so self-indulgent.  I mean, Marina is 22 and If You Follow Me is a first novel and so clearly about the author.  But understanding those things didn’t make me like it any more.  I’ll probably check out the next thing Watrous writes, because well-written fiction about bi characters is hard to come by, but with trepidation rather than enthusiasm.