The Complexity of Being a Queer Refugee: From Here by Luma Mufleh

the cover of From Here

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Trigger warnings for this book: suicide attempts and ideation, homophobia, violence

Like a lot of Westerners, when I hear about countries with laws against homosexuality, I respond with instinctual aversion: “What a terrible place! I hope any queer people there can leave!” I imagine impediments like the law and its enforcers, economic hardship, language barriers, internalized homophobia.

Luma Mufleh’s memoir, From Here, was humbling. It showed how correct some of my assumptions were, but also how shallow and unempathetic.

Mufleh doesn’t shy away from depicting the homophobia she experienced growing up in Jordan. She shows how it could be terrifying, violent, and isolating. She shows how it made her vulnerable in so many ways. In one anecdote, she recounts learning as a teenager that there were words for people like her.

She refuses to allow that to define either her or her country. Instead, Jordan is her home, defined by her big, loud, loving family. A recurring love for her grandmother’s kibbeh struck me right in the heart. I’m sure many readers will recognize the heart and home of cooking with an older relative. For me, it also brought up memories of my first bite of kibbeh, eaten in the open-air market in Tel Aviv from a stall I identified by picking out letters I had memorized off a postcard.

Maybe some comparable experiences predisposed me to connect with this book, but I believe it can appeal to just about anyone. Who doesn’t understand having a hopeless crush, annoying sibling, or piercing teenage dream? The intimacy of the book humanizes Jordan and Mufleh, and her choice to leave never seems easy. Instead, it’s a wrench, tragically necessary decision that severs her from her sense of safety and immeasurable love.

The book is also a portrait of a woman seeking belonging. It can be and often is heartbreaking, how lost she felt, and how much she shut herself down just to survive. It touches briefly on how little the United States is culturally sensitive to, even aware of people from the Middle East. It can also be hilarious, like her attempt to bribe a cop and mild bewilderment at heavy Boston accents.

One thing surprised me: Mufleh makes little mention of her married life. This is her own tale of identity. Though she mentions her wife and children, though she clearly adores them, they are not centered: this is Mufleh’s story of identity. Often, media portrayals of queerness seem outwardly focused—if you don’t have a girlfriend or a wife or at least a one-night stand, are you even queer? (Yes. Yes you are.) It’s a simplistic, deeply heteronormative idea that queerness exists only as action. Instead, Muflleh’s personal story of her internal queer identity depicts yearning, isolation, and belonging in a way that feel so close it must be universal.

Danika reviews How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures by Sabrina Imbler

the cover of How Far the Light Reaches

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This may be my favourite book I’ve read this year, and there’s been some stiff competition.

How Far the Light Reaches is exactly what the subtitle promises: a life in ten sea creatures. It weaves together facts about aquatic animals with related stories from the author’s own life. For example, the beginning essay is about feral goldfish: how these goldfish released into the wild—which we think of as short-lived, delicate animals—are actually extremely hardy, taking over ecosystems and growing to huge sizes. In the same essay, Imbler describes queer communities: “Imagine having the power to become resilient to all that is hostile to us.”

This is an immersive, gorgeous book that reminded me of Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller, which I also loved. Clearly, I need to pick up more memoirs infused with writing about nature and animals. I would be interested in either of these versions of How Far the Light Reaches, if the two had been separated: the memoir or the science. Imbler’s writing on marine biology is accessible and fascinating, so while it’s not my usual genre, I was completely pulled in. By braiding these two threads together, though, it’s more than the sum of its parts.

Essays structured like this could be gimmicky, but this book doesn’t use easy metaphors or simplify the biology side to lend itself better to the accompanying social commentary. Imbler, a science writer/reporter, shows their deep appreciation for these animals in their own right, and the two approaches complement each other without being reductive.

Their writing is in turns beautiful, funny, and striking, with so much packed into spare sentences. Like this passage: “Before the class, M knew how to draw whales and I did not. After the class, I was in love with M and they were not in love with me.” Even without any other context, it’s still so affective. And I had to laugh at their description of returning home to visit and checking dating apps: “I told myself I was there to see my old classmates, to see who was newly hot, newly gay, or both.”

While the queer content in Why Fish Don’t Exist was a bonus I wasn’t expecting later in the book, in How Far the Light Reaches, it’s at the heart of the book. It’s a gloriously queer narrative, exploring Imbler’s relationships, gender, and queer community more generally. They also discuss their mixed race identity, both personally and in relation to their mixed race partner. In one essay, they write about how to give a necropsy report of dead whales, and then they reiterate different versions of the necropsy report of a previous relationship (M, mentioned above), giving a different proposed cause of death each time.

I savored reading this book, looking forward to ending each day with an essay. It’s philosophical, curious, thought-provoking, and kind. It explores queer people as shapeshifters, as swarms, as immortal. I never wanted it to end. Even if you aren’t usually a reader of science writing—I usually am not—I highly recommend picking this one up, and I can’t wait to see what Imbler writes next.

Content warnings: discussion of weight and weight loss, fatphobia, war

Maggie reviews Another Appalachia by Neema Avashia

the cover of Another Appalachia

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Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place by Neema Avashia is part memoir, part collection of essays as Neema Avashia recollects growing up as part of a tiny Indian community in a majority white community in a corporate town in West Virginia and her subsequent relocation for college and then for a career in Boston. Through a series of anecdotes, she remembers the kindness of neighbors and coaches as she grew up and whenever she visits, her family’s experiences in creating their own small Indian community and what that meant for their kids, and how she reconciled those experiences with her adult life away from West Virginia. Avashia’s queer realization happened later in life, once she’d already left West Virginia, but she spends plenty of page time talking about her efforts to integrate being queer, being Indian, and being from West Virginia, while being a Boston Public School teacher.

I always love a narrative about being from a rural area and being queer. Indiana is a little different flavor of rural than West Viriginia, but the underlying themes still resonate strongly. I especially resonated with her continual meditations on being happily settled in an urban area on one hand, but missing the sense of community or some traditions on the other, and on yet a third hand being unable to fit back in when driven to re-visit.  It’s a theme that I think will be familiar with many readers from rural areas who left, as are her continual efforts to decide who is safe to introduce her wife to, and to integrate her family and friends’ expectations for how a relationship progresses into her lived reality as a queer woman. Avashia handles these topics deftly, balancing good memories with bad and childhood nostalgia with a more nuanced adult perspective in a way I appreciated.

Avashia also spends a lot of time on her roots versus her moving on with her adult life, which I deeply felt reading this on a bus in Pittsburgh while reflecting on my own roots. Her meditations on her father’s expansive and caring definition of community, how her neighbors growing up took care of each other, and her efforts to apply those values to her urban life in Boston, where she didn’t even know her neighbors, is impactful and emotional. She struggles with her identity as an Appalachian writer who lives in Boston, as an Indian woman who connects to her heritage and culture differently than her parents and extended family because of where she grew up, and as a queer woman who had no context for that growing up. Avashia’s blunt, honest writing attempts to bridge the gap between past and present and is extremely easy to fall into, covering a wide range of topics in one, conveniently travel-sized book.

In conclusion, if you are looking for an impactful memoir to read this summer, Another Appalachia is an excellent book to check out. It’s not a long read, but it’s emotional. You could make an afternoon of it, or it’s perfect for small moments like a commute.  If you resonate with the material, you will appreciate the nuance, empathy, and compassion she brings to the rural experience. And if you’re new to the experience, this collection will be full of depth and understanding. I can’t recommend it enough for people looking for a queer memoir.

7 Sapphic YA Graphic Novels I Read at Work

Alright, I didn’t really read these while at my job. Contrary to what many seem to believe, library workers don’t actually get to read on the clock (much to our chagrin). But I do see a lot while I am shelving, sorting, shipping, and receiving books, and graphic novels are especially eye-catching. Sometimes I’ll see a book go by and think, “Hey, that looks like it might be gay.” Sometimes I’m able to check it out and see, and sometimes I have to remember to look it up later. The following graphic novels I spotted while working at the library, and actually managed to get around to reading—on my own time, of course. Mostly.

Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker

Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu is a cute little story about professional witch-in-training Nova Huang and her childhood crush, runaway werewolf Tam Lang, reuniting when an unruly forest demon starts haunting their hometown. It’s all very surface depth—the romance is straightforward and without drama, the characters are likable in very obvious ways, and the story is a basic set-up and knock-down affair that practically advertises its happy ending. That said, the graphic novel is executed clearly and effectively, and it ends with a complete tale all told. A lot of people will be happy with the variety of representation on display here, and for what I think started off as a serial webcomic, Mooncakes isn’t half bad.

I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up by Naoko Kodama (Amazon Affiliate Link)

I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up by Kodama Naoko is a short, stand-alone manga, punctuated with what seems to be the first chapter of a completely different manga over halfway through the book. It’s exactly what the title says—serious businesswoman Morimoto Machi enters into a domestic partnership with her lesbian friend Agaya Hana to get her parents to stop pestering her about finding a man. It’s certainly a bit contrived, although the manga does have some rudimentary exploration into the personal and societal forces that might push two people into the titular situation. Overall, though, I found the pacing awkward (it also ends rather abruptly), and the humor a little immature for my tastes. But while I can’t bring myself to call the writing good, it’s at least written with heart. I can see this being someone’s favorite manga, but I personally wouldn’t keep space on my bookshelf for it.

the cover of Kiss Number 8

Kiss Number 8 by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw is a story about a teenage girl at a Catholic high school grappling with a crush on her best friend, conflicting pressures from her parents and peers, and a long-buried queer history in her own family. I’ll be frank, I did not like this book—largely for personal reasons, though I feel I ought to give a warning in case others might feel the same. A lot in Kiss Number 8 (especially the hook of seven poor kisses with boys, followed by the titular eighth with a girl) lead me to believe that the protagonist’s primary struggle would be that of a lesbian wrestling with compulsory heterosexuality. This is not the case; she is solidly bisexual, and in fact has sex with the brother of the girl she shared her eighth kiss with. This is not a problem in and of itself, but the surprise of it did sour my experience with the graphic novel.

the cover of What If We Were… by Axelle Lenoir

What If We Were… by Axelle Lenoir feels like a cross between a classic graphic novel and a collection of Sunday newspaper comic spreads, a la Calvin and Hobbes. It introduces us to teenage best friends Nathalie and Marie, who pass time imagining themselves as wildly different people in a variety of hilarious situations. This isn’t a metaphor or a rhetorical tool—many pages are just spent on the visual spectacle and humor of this (granted, quite cute and imaginative) game. It was the humor that I found fell somewhat flat; it relies heavily on absurdism and overreaction in a way that just didn’t click for me. The anxious teenage romance between Nathalie and her crush Jane Doe carried the rest of the story, but without it I don’t think I’d have much to say about the writing.

Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash

Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash is a graphic memoir recounting the author’s first lesbian crush at an all-girls summer camp in the American South. Honor Girl was the first of these graphic novels that I felt really had something to say, where the pieces all came together to form something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s also just good memoir writing. Autobiography can be hard to nail, but Maggie Thrash has an excellent sense on which details to include and what moments to linger on, and they manage to weave a bittersweet and melancholy story without the sense of contrivance that a too-neat memoir can impart. Some graphic novel aficionados might pass Honor Girl by on account of the rough and raw art style, but if so, they’re missing out.

the cover of Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell is a wonderfully drawn and well-written graphic novel about a bad relationship. Freddy Riley loves Laura Dean, but Laura Dean neglects, isolates, takes for granted, and yes, keeps breaking up with Freddy. Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me feels layered in a way that the other graphic novels here so far haven’t, and I really liked how the authors would just let certain moments or transitions breathe. That said, this book is never going to be a favorite of mine—and not just because it isn’t a happy romance. The characterization of Laura Dean clearly evokes the imagery of butch lesbians; it’s what makes her so “cool,” so desirable, but it’s also inextricably tied to what makes her a bad girlfriend. This isn’t to say that the story is invalid because I didn’t like how a character was coded; butches can, of course, be bad partners. But considering how poorly masculine women are still treated today, it honestly hurt a little to read Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me and see such an obvious elevation of queer femininity at their expense.

The Girl From the Sea cover

The Girl From the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag takes the cake, hands down, as my favorite graphic novel of the bunch. It’s about a closeted teenage lesbian living in a small island town, whose teetering life balance is completely upended with she falls in love with a selkie. Everything I saw the other graphic novels in this list reach for, The Girl From the Sea pulls off. The romance is adorable and sweet, but the characters have their own nuances that keeps it from feeling flat or predictable. The story is tight and well-paced, but there’s enough complexity going on that I don’t feel like a second read-through would be merely perfunctory. The art is great, the humor lands well, and I finished the book wanting more but feeling satisfied with what I had.

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Susan reviews My Alcoholic Escape From Reality by Nagata Kabi

My Alcoholic Escape From Reality cover

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Nagata Kabi is back with My Alcoholic Escape From Reality! The mangaka behind My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness and My Solo Exchange Diary returns with another memoir, this time about being hospitalised for acute pacreatis resulting from her alcoholism.

My Alcoholic Escape From Reality feels a lot more like a diary comic than any of her previous works. The art style hasn’t changed, although the monochrome colour scheme has shifted to orange now, but the manga as a whole feels tonally lighter and more consistent. I assume that this is a side-effect of it being written as one piece rather than a collection, but I’m willing to be convinced otherwise. Despite the lighter tone, the frankness that she has in her previous books continues here. She is very open about her alcoholism and her depression, neither of which is resolved by the end of the book. She’s not a perfect patient by her own admission – she relapses, she gets angry about the restrictions on her life, she lies to her doctors – and she’s very explicit about her understanding of what would make a satisfying narrative about her experience and how it compares to what she’s living. They way Nagata Kabi personifies and visualises her conditions is more emotive than medical, which works great and stops the entire manga being medical professionals explaining things. There is still a lot of medical details involved – if you, like me, have no idea what pancreatis is, look forward to being educated! But the explanations aren’t overwhelming, which I appreciated.

One of the threads of My Alcoholic Escape From Reality is creating while dealing with not only serious medical conditions but also guilt about her work. She feels guilt for creating memoir at all, and for enjoying it when she knows how negatively her family feels about her work. (Her compromise seems to have been only involving them in the most surface-level scenes, rather than delving back into her feelings about them.) The realisations she goes through about her work and what it means to her to do that work is lovely to read.

My general recommendation for Nagata Kabi’s memoirs are that they’re good in the same way that Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette is good. They are both queer creators using their most raw edges and pain as entertainment, and cast an uncomfortable reflection back on the audience consuming that entertainment (… and the reviewer rating how well they depicted that pain, yes, please enjoy the mental knots I tie myself into). They are both funny and insightful, and that humour only makes their more serious points hit like a train. This ties into the point Nagata Kabi makes about narrative satisfaction – as a story, the most satisfying endings are the ones where she either relapses or recovers, and life isn’t that tidy; instead, it’s a narrative in progress, where she’s trying to be well and at least writing herself a smidge of hope for the future, and I respect that a lot.

If you want an untidy memoir told with Nagata Kabi’s usual bluntness and humour, I’d definitely recommend picking this up.

Content warnings: alcoholism, depression, hospitalisation and medical treatment

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Sheila reviews Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel cover

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“I suppose that a lifetime spent hiding one’s erotic truth could have a cumulative renunciatory effect. Sexual shame is in itself a kind of death.”

Trigger warnings: death, suicide, parental death, divorce, sexual assault, war/military

As a queer woman, I have spent a large portion of my life knowing the name of Alison Bechdel (and the appropriately named “Bechdel Test”) without actually knowing anything about her. Fun Home details her childhood and early adulthood as the lesbian daughter of a closeted father; Bechdel is an incredibly talented writer, and the connections she draws between things are astoundingly complex. I spent the entire read of this graphic novel in awe of how she managed to connect each moment in later chapters to some of the earliest memories mentioned in the first.

This is a book for literature enthusiasts—especially lovers of classic literature. Each page references authors like Proust and Joyce, delving deeply into analysis of their works in order to make sense of Bechdel’s and her father’s life. At times, her parents are Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, off in Europe before life gets in the way of their way of life. Utilizing these famous (and fictitious at times) people to discern and understand her family is something I was able to relate to; at times, our parents seem more like collections of stories and past events, people just out of reach but never truly willing to be completely comprehended.

This is a heavy work, as one Bechdel’s father dies when she is in college—an event which she labels as suicide. Her inability to put herself past this event is further explored when she discusses that sometimes the lines of parent/child warped, making the child the parent, and vice versa. The Bechdel family’s running a funeral home is also ever present, something which Bechdel uses to align her family with The Addams Family. Death and bodies are constant throughout this work, both physically making an appearance in Bechdel’s life but also again in reference to authors and their literary works. 

Fun Home portrays an interesting comparison between the lives of lesbians and gay men. While there are more differences between Bechdel and her father than just those—such as military experience, age, and setting—Bechdel spends most of the book trying to find similarities between their experiences. Since her father died when she was 20, Bechdel has the rest of her life to ponder and overthink every experience she had with her father, every story she heard from or about him, to try to paint some sort of impossible, complete picture. More than anything, Bechdel is struck by the unknowns of her father. Even his darkest secrets (which include pursuing and assaulting teenage boys) are only viewed from an outside, limited perspective.

I had expected this graphic novel to feature Bechdel’s childhood, but more than anything it is a literary relationship between father and daughter. Now that I am in my 20s, I find my relationship with my parents changing (which I assume is a common occurrence). Somehow, they remain a glitching mix between person and caricature, real and unreal, known and unknown. Bechdel captures this confusion and mystery perfectly in every page of this graphic novel. While it is intense and dark at times, with difficult literary analyses at others, I cannot recommend this work enough.

Danika reviews The One You Want to Marry (And Other Identities I’ve Had) by Sophie Santos

The One You Want To Marry cover

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I have to admit, I almost stopped reading this in the first chapter because of the secondhand embarrassment factor. That same impulse that nearly made me put down the book for good also kept me completely enthralled, peeking through my fingers (metaphorically) to read the next page, unable to look away.

The One You Want to Marry is Santos’s memoir about being a self-proclaimed “late bloomer.” Not physically, but in the sense that she, for example, fully believed in Santa and fiercely defended his existence until she was told at 13. More importantly, though, she didn’t come out until her 20s despite having some… pretty big clues early on. When she told her father, he said, “you always had good female friendships.” The book is then divided up into these intense female friendships of her early life, starting with her preschool best friend she would whisper to all nap time and wail when separated from.

It’s written in a casual, intensely readable style that reminds me of reading someone’s diary–complete with an uncensored look into every aspect of their life. In fact, I felt a little voyeuristic at times, like this person probably shouldn’t be telling me about their early adventures in masturbation (in painful detail). Santos does not shy away from sharing everything from her starting a strip limbo game at a childhood sleepover to her early 20s denial of being a lesbian even in the most… compromising situations.

It’s been a while since I read a straight up (if you’ll excuse the pun) coming out memoir, as opposed to a more general memoir with a queer author. This is a equally a coming of age story, but those are intertwined. This is a story about running from yourself, chasing mirages of who you are, and what happens when you’re finally forced to stand still and face yourself. Santos’s coming of age is centred around running away from her lesbianism–beginning with ignorance that later became denial–and then finding her identity as an out lesbian.

Santos grew up in the 90s, as I did, and this provides some nostalgia and also embarrassment looking back at that time period. It seems to be aimed at young queer people, who presumably need things like same sex marriage being illegal explained. The entire framing feels a little bit 90s to me–while we still need queer representation, a lot has changed since then, which isn’t really acknowledged. (Also, all her mom’s closest friends were lesbians. She went to a lesbian commitment ceremony as a kid. She wasn’t without lesbian role models.)

She was an army brat, moving a lot and reinventing herself–always finding new, intense female friendships, of course. She also struggled with undiagnosed, untreated OCD and anxiety. We follow her through many of these reinventions, from a kid who dressed like a Backstreet Boy and kissed her best friend (as often as possible) “just for fun” to a pageant hopeful to sorority sister looking for an “MRS” to an in denial lesbian who paused mid-cunnilingus to say “I’m not gay” to the host of a show called The Lesbian Agenda.

I expected that once the book was through the awkward adolescent stage, we were out of the woods in terms of intense second hand cringiness, but I was wrong. She’s a mess even (or especially) in adulthood, especially when her untreated OCD and anxiety collide with PTSD. I appreciate her honesty, particularly when it comes to mental health as well as coming out. It’s a messy process, and this book embraces that.

I hope that young readers who feel like they’re doing it wrong, who are embarrassed about how long it took them to come out, or who are struggling to find stability in their adult identities find this book. It reassures readers that even when the road is bumpy getting there, you can still find happiness and fulfillment, including a partner who will go to great lengths to assuage your obsessive fears. (I will not spoil this scene, but it’s well worth reading this book just for the #RelationshipGoals moment.)

So if you can relate to being a “late bloomer,” or if you just want to be a voyeur into someone’s life, check this one out.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

Hunger by Roxane Gay

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I posted a previous version of this review here. Trigger warnings for sexual assault and eating disorders.

Roxane Gay is an author known for her sharp and insightful thoughts on feminism and pop culture, as well as an established novelist and short fiction creator. This memoir added to her repertoire is no different.

With a book of essays dedicated to her personal body struggles, how she came to the relationship she has today with her body and herself, and a critical look at fatphobia, Hunger is brutal yet vulnerable. She makes a point early on to say that this isn’t a before and after story. This isn’t a story of triumph, of becoming overweight and fighting to lose it, and you won’t see a picture of her on the cover suddenly thin and glamorous. But this is a true story, and as I read it, I felt like it is many people’s story.

Since the first book of essays I read by her, Bad Feminist, Gay has been open about the sexual assault she endured as a child. She doesn’t shy away from it now, and in fact, goes into even more heartbreaking detail in this memoir than in Bad Feminist.

She starts her essays in this book with a look at her happy childhood and healthy family relationships, painting a picture of why she should have been a confident and strong girl, self-possessed. At least, that’s how I interpreted it, because I believe so many of us have been there. Like Gay, many of us look back on our lives and think, “Nothing happened that should have derailed my confidence or self-esteem, so why did I think so little of myself?” With simple sentence structures and plain language, Gay puts into words with such frightening honesty what it’s like in someone’s head. She doesn’t have the answers to our questions, nor to her own, but that’s not what she set out to do with Hunger.

As you read, you see her journey influenced by the terrible incidents of her past and how they shaped her relationship with food and her body. In an attempt to control what happened to her body, Gay details how she had to lose control of it in order to feel safe. She continuously explains in various chapters of the book that she ate because if she ate, she’d gain size, and if she gained size, she wouldn’t be so small and weak and easily taken over. Then again, she eats to fill the void, to satisfy the hollow left inside from the hands of callous boys who probably grew up to be abhorrent men, but no matter what she eats, it does not satisfy. It does not satiate. It just keeps leaving her hungry.

What this memoir is about goes beyond hunger of the body, though the body is the vessel we take to journey through her various desires. She hungers for food. She hungers for comfort. She hungers for safety. She hungers for warmth. She hungers to be understood. She hungers for love. In short, she is a person, like all of us. All too often the world forgets that about fat people and acts like we don’t want the same things everyone else does; like we don’t deserve those same things. Hunger is a reminder to Gay herself and to others like her, that shaping the mind is just as important as shaping the body. More importantly, it is a necessity to be kind to ourselves as much as we are kind to others. It’s alright to hunger, but don’t let it consume you.

Danika reviews The Secret To Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel

The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel

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Fun Home is one of my favourite books, which will come as a surprise to absolutely no one. It’s a deeply introspective graphic memoir about books, coming out, and lesbian books. What’s not to like? While Fun Home is suffused with literature references, though, Are You My Mother? is equally concerned with psychoanalysis, which was a lot harder for me to relate to. In Bechdel’s newest graphic novel, she examines her life-long love affair with various exercise phases with references to transcendentalists and Buddhism.

There’s something comforting and familiar to me about reading an Alison Bechdel book. Her thoughtful introspection and constant ruminating about how best to live in this world feels like a mind I can relate to. While her previous graphic memoirs focused on her father and her mother, this one takes a long range look at exercise as a coping mechanism through her whole life, separated into decades. As a child, she saw an ad in a comic book that promised the “secret to superhuman strength.” It turned out to only be an inaccessible Jiu Jitsu pamphlet, but she continues to look for this secret her whole life: through running, karate, skiing, cycling, yoga, and more–always in the hopes of escaping the inevitable conclusion that she is interdependent and mortal.

Alongside this journey of physical transformation–always looking for more strength and inexhaustible endurance–Bechdel also goes on a spiritual exploration of the self. She tries to grapple with this question by looking at artists and writers through history, including Jack Kerouac, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Perhaps the appeal of these exercise regiments, though, is that she can track notable changes, while the psychological and spiritual journey feels more like one step forward and two steps back. In one striking panel, Bechdel realizes she only though she’d been dealing well with her father’s death because she hadn’t dealt with it at all; she hadn’t allowed herself to feel anything. She approaches fitness and her work with the same intensity, damaging her body and her relationships in the process.

Aside from following the fitness fads Bechdel has participated in over the years, this is primarily a story about yearning, a striving for transcendence, for finding the secret to living well. It’s about not just physical strength, but also the emotional endurance necessary to be human. It’s about looking for the secret of how to best live–so there’s no real neat conclusion possible. This is a story still in progress.

I didn’t feel the same way about The Secret To Superhuman Strength as Fun Home, but that’s an impossible hurdle to clear. I did connect more to this than Are You My Mother?, despite being as far from a fitness fan as possible. I also appreciated being to able to get a wider scope of Bechdel’s life, including how the publication of her graphic memoirs (especially Fun Home) changed her everyday reality. It’s at times painful to read, because I feel so much sympathy for her, but that just shows how effective it is.

Danika reviews I’m a Wild Seed: My Graphic Memoir on Queerness and Decolonizing the World by Sharon Lee De La Cruz

I'm a Wild Seed by Sharon Lee De La Cruz cover

I’m a Wild Seed is a short graphic memoir exploring the author’s exploration of her identity. It’s about how her “coming into queerness,” but it’s also about her relationship to her racial identity and decolonizing gender and sexuality.

Because this is so short, it often reminded me more of an in-depth essay than a graphic memoir–that’s not a complaint! It’s packed full of memes, diagrams, and other visuals that I’m familiar with on the internet than I am in books.

De La Cruz shares not only her personal story, but also the history and context she’s learned along the way. It’s through this background that she can better understand her own identity, and she’s clearly eager to share these with the reader. She also discussed how her freedom is tied to Black trans women’s: that no one is free until the most vulnerable of us are.

She comes out at 29 because she spends her early years trying to understand her racial and cultural identity: how can she be Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Black? What does that mean for her? Where does she fit in? She explains that because it was so difficult to understand and come to terms with that, she had no time or space to question her sexual identity or gender.

This is a quick read, but it’s insightful and thought-provoking. My only complaint is that I would have gladly read a version of this book twice or three times as long!