Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words by Boel Westin, translated by Silvester Mazzarella

Tove Jansson by Boel Westin cover

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A queer, iconoclast, anti-fascist, anti-war comic artist, and joyfully adventurous woman, the Tove Jansson brought to life by Boel Westin’s considered pen is a complicated, innovative creative in resolute pursuit of independence—in both her art and romances.

Meticulously researched but rarely dry, this is a book for Moomin fans and art history lovers alike. It provides a deep look into both the personal life and recorded experiences of Tove Jansson, as well as the historical circumstances that gave rise to her singular artistic vision—which was, it turns out, far more oriented towards painting than illustration.*

While the book focuses more on literary-minded analysis of Jansson’s illustrations (including examining the events that inspired them, namely her formative experiences in the wake of the first world war and under the shadow of the second) than the technical aspects (past a chapter dedicated to her years at art school), its cross-sectional look at the cultures of the particular artistic milieus she inhabited during her life helps provide further insight into her inspirations.

There’s a sincere affection for her subject in Westin’s writing, but it never reads as overly fawning or glamorizing. Readers will feel like they’re walking through a gallery, looking through windows at an artist as she grows through painstaking practice and experience.

One of the loveliest things about biographies is that they remind us how we’re not alone.** Sometimes what becomes globally iconic starts off humble, and critically panned. Westin doesn’t shy away from Jansson’s early struggles, and it’s that grounding that makes what could easily become a fairytale-style homily to creative perseverance—she lived and worked in a literal tower for most of her life—into something much more real.

As a kid, I was obsessed with the Moomin books. The soft, rounded shapes were so tactile in my mind’s eye, and the stories had this sense of being about something bigger and just a teensy smidge darker than they immediately let on. Returning to that world decades later, I’ve found myself bookmarking some of the pages to revisit when I need a bit of a pick-me-up regarding my own aspirations. Westin’s elaboration of Jansson’s ambitions and struggles will likely hold meaning for modern creatives, illustrators in particular. The book does not shy from going into frank detail on Jansson’s need for financial independence to pursue her singular vision, and her later efforts to maintain control of how her art was presented, particularly once the popularity of the Moomin books brought an avalanche of possible licensing deals down on her doorstep. The descriptions of her fierce dedication to preserving her integrity as a creator are inspiring. Even as Jansson’s whimsy is celebrated here, so too is her ambition in equal measure.

In summary, this biography shines a light on the human behind the characters, and her love of compassionate, thoughtful, boundary-pushing stories on the page and in her own life. While it clocks in at nearly 500 pages, it’s well worth checking out if you want to read about:

  • Biographies of sapphic artists
  • Biographies of sapphic comic artists/illustrators
  • Biographies that humanize their subjects through detailed study
  • The history behind the Moomin books
  • The way art is both deeply individual and a reflection of the world the artist inhabits
  • Post-war European art outside of the more well-trodden English-French perspective: Next time someone asks me if I’m familiar with Francis Bacon, I’m asking them if they’re familiar with Tove Jansson.

You can now order the book from the University of Minnesota Press!

Footnotes:

*Reading this book gave me new appreciation for the 2020 biopic Tove, which focuses on her life and career just before the first Moomin books really took off. It’s a delightful homage to her passion for painting, too, as well as earlier romantic partnerships that this websites’ readers might not know as well as the one with Tuulikki Pietilä. It’s streaming now on Kanopy, for anyone interested.

**As Jansson’s diary entries reveal, it appears that queer horror-loving women are not a recent phenomenon!

A New Classic of Queer Memoir: Hijab Butch Blues by Lamya H

the cover of Hijab Butch Blues

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I have had Hijab Butch Blues by Lamya H on my list since it came out, and I am so glad my library hold on it finally came in. Lamya narrates a series of essays tying together her queer coming of age and her reconciliation of that with being a devout Muslim woman in a very satisfying way, providing deep insight into her personal journey and growth in both her faith and herself. Whether you are looking for a queer memoir to dive into, or a new perspective, or simply to hear the thoughts of someone who boldly references Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, this book will take you on a journey and leave you thinking by the end. 

Lamya starts off with recollections of her childhood, when she started questioning what the Quran was saying, or not saying, about gender and how it lined up with her own feelings. When the adults in her life were unwilling to entertain her lines of questioning, Lamya started a habit of deep inner reflection and questioning that is apparent in every section. Arrayed in mostly linear fashion, the essays cover her realization that she was queer, her move to America in college, and her struggle to find either queer or Muslim community where she didn’t feel like the other half of her was being excluded. They link to specific sections of the Quran as she meditates on what they mean to her on a personal level. Lamya is painfully ready to dig into her own inner thought processes and reflections, including her own internalized biases and homophobia she had to recognize and overcome before she could move forward. Her struggles and her sincerity shine from every page, drawing you in and inviting you along with her through the process. 

I love reading queer memoirs because a queer coming of age is a journey that can be so personal and yet so relatable to anyone else that has done it themselves. On paper, I do not have much oin common with Lamya beyond us both being queer. And yet, when she spoke of her friend questioning why she didn’t transition if she was going to keep becoming more butch—and her sound rejection of the idea—I felt such empathy and connection, because that was a thought process I had also gone through. The idea that we could be so different and yet so similar is heartwarming to me. Simultaneously, I gained new perspective and appreciation for Lamya’s circumstances and choices. This is a memoir that invites both learning and empathy. It also rewards personal reflection, since it is more than just a recounting of her life events. If you don’t normally read memoirs, Hijab Butch Blues is a book that will make you appreciate the genre more. 

I believe that Hijab Butch Blues is going to go down as seminal work in queer narrative canon, and certainly as an eminently readable, unflinching memoir about reconciling faith, life circumstances, and an “authentically queer experience.” I cannot recommend it highly enough. 

Making The Future Gay: The Five Things I Checked out From the Queer Liberation Library

Recently, a nonprofit in Massachusetts put out an exclusively queer book collection on Libby called the Queer Liberation Library (also known as QLL). Their mission is simple: by providing queer people with diversity-focused literature and resources, QLL is building a future that is undeniably queer. This collection of e-materials is available to anyone with an email address, and sign-up is very easy. I signed up and had received confirmation and account information within twelve (12) hours. There are so many titles and collections available, with the focus of their homepage collections being on Black queerness right now in celebration of Black History Month. I would highly recommend signing up for a card if you want exclusively queer literature available at your fingertips. 

Of course, I went a little wild and immediately began downloading so many sapphic titles on the QLL. Here are five things that I checked out from the Queer Liberation Library that I think you should too:

Those Who Wait by Haley Cass

the cover of Those Who Wait

Sutton had a simple plan for her life: finish graduate school and fall in love. But life is never that simple, and it doesn’t help that she is useless around other women. On the other hand, Charlotte has every bit of her life planned out and is not willing to compromise it for love. When the two meet through a dating app, Sutton and Charlotte know they aren’t meant to be—or are they? I picked up this audiobook because of the cute cover and stayed for the slow-burn, friends-with-benefits romance. Don’t let the length of the book (21ish hours) intimidate you: Those Who Wait is a fast-paced epic romance sure to make your top ten books of 2024.

Sing Anyways by Anita Kelly

the cover of Sing Anyway

Nonbinary history professor Sam Bell is committed to a new (non)romantic strategy after numerous failed relationships: Thirst Only. However, having no emotional ties to relationships can be hard, especially when they are left by themselves at The Moonlight Café, otherwise known as Moonie’s to its largely queer regulars, and on karaoke night of all nights. But then Sam’s karaoke crush, Lily Fischer, steps up with a mic, and the two work together to weather the outside world and to keep singing through it all. I read this back during the summer and I remember being actively disappointed that there was no audiobook that I could listen to through my library—never again!

Mimosa by Archie Bongiovanni

the cover of Mimosa

Best friends and chosen family Chris, Elise, Jo, and Alex work hard to keep themselves afloat. In an effort to avoid being the oldest gays at the party, the crew decides to put on a new queer event called Grind—specifically for homos in their dirty 30s. Grind is a welcome distraction from their real lives while navigating exes at work, physical and mental exhaustion, and drinking way, way too much on weekdays. This chosen family proves that being messy doesn’t always go away with age. I love Bongiovanni’s art style and can’t wait to sink my teeth into this story about older queer people (which I am swiftly approaching with mild disbelief).

Mouths of Rain: An Anthology of Black Lesbian Thought edited by Briona Simone Jones

the cover of Mouths of Rain

Mouths of Rain traces the long history of intellectual thought produced by Black Lesbian writers, spanning the nineteenth century through the twenty-first century.

This anthology features a mix of literature (nonfiction, poetry, and fiction) about a variety of topics from a variety of Black sapphic authors like Audre Lorde and Alice Dunbar-Nelson. 

Mouths of Rain first caught my attention because of the gorgeous cover, but kept me enthralled by the sheer intersectionality of the work. 

Lesbian Love Story by Amelia Possanza

the cover of Lesbian Love Story

This is the story of Possanza’s journey into the archives to recover the stories of lesbians in the 20th Century: who they were, how they loved, why their stories were destroyed, and where their memories echo and live on. Centered around seven love stories for the ages, Possanza’s hunt takes readers from a Drag King show in Bushwick to the home of activists in Harlem and then across the ocean to Hadrian’s Library, where she searches for traces of Sappho in the ruins. Along the way, she discovers her own love—for swimming, for community, for New York City—and adds her own record to the archive. I am not the biggest fan of nonfiction (regardless of how many nonfiction titles are on this list), but loved how Possanza would switch genres and use the histories to discuss questions of gender, love, and self. 

Bonus: Hijab Butch Blues by Lamya H

the cover of Hijab Butch Blues

Bonus pick because I got very attached to all of these choices: Hijab Butch Blues by Lamya H! When fourteen-year-old Lamya H realizes she has a crush on her teacher—her female teacher—she covers up her attraction, an attraction she can’t yet name, by playing up her roles as overachiever and class clown. However, Lamya eventually begins to make sense of her own life by comparing her experiences to the stories of the Quran, and expands on those thoughts in this searing memoir in essays. This is a title that so many of my friends have been reading lately and I am excited to join them once my audiobook hold comes in!

Happy reading!

Chloe (they/he) is a public librarian in Baltimore, who identifies as Indigenous, autistic, and panromantic demisexual. They enjoy reading queer literature for any age group, as well as fantasy, contemporary, and romance. In his spare time, he acts in his local community theaters and plays role-playing games. You can find them on GoodreadsTwitter, or Instagram.

The Song the World Needs: Thunder Song by Sasha taqwšəblu LaPointe

the cover of Thunder Song

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This was one of my five star predictions for the year, and I’m happy to say it lived up to that expectation.

Thunder Song is a collection of essays about being a queer Indigenous women in the U.S. today. It begins with LaPointe talking about her 83-year-old great-grandmother calling the Seattle symphony to commission a symphony. They politely turned her down, and she called back every week to ask how her symphony was going until they finally agreed. The making of this orchestral work also became a documentary, The Healing Heart of Lushootseed.

From this first essay, I was hooked. LaPointe weaved together the past and present, drawing on the stories of her family and community as well as the political movements of the moment, like Black Lives Matter. She discusses both traditional stories and pop culture. As the title suggests, music plays a big role in the collection, including her days as one of the only Indigenous people in the punk scene of Seattle: “Eventually this idea that I was a punk first and a Native person second became unbearable.”

I took so many notes while reading this that I don’t know where to start, because I want to tell you about all the essays. LaPointe talks about growing up being treated differently by white people than her siblings were, because she has lighter skin, despite the fact that they all grew up together. She talks about her struggles as a teenager, running away at thirteen, ending up in the psych ward, and then being emancipated at fifteen, living with six friends in an apartment together.

She also addresses the many ways colonization impacts Indigenous people today, from generational trauma to the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls: “[when] one of us goes missing, we don’t get the front page or the five o’clock news. We get red dresses… I want my niece to know she’s worth more than a dress waving in the breeze. I never want her to question that the whole world would stop if she ever went missing.”

One image that really stuck with me was LaPointe describing the tulip festival that takes place on her culture’s land, and how it is a “petal-made flag of settler colonial triumph, a reminder that we have lost something.” Once marsh, this land was changed by settlers to be more “productive,” making it unrecognizable for the people who have lived off of it for thousands of years. Once a year, tourists make the roads impassible, celebrating this display of non-native flowers.

Of course, this is the Lesbrary, so Thunder Song also touches on the author’s queer identity. LaPointe says, “The first time I ever heard the term Two Spirit I felt a sense of relief wash over me.” She discusses how Two Spirit people were often sacred in many Indigenous cultures, and how the “shame [she] learned to carry is the work of generations of colonization.” She also mentions being in a throuple at some point:

“My partner wanted to know, Are you polyamorous? Meaning, Do you require multiple partners at once? The answer is no. But I do need the freedom to embrace my queer heart, to accept and celebrate it and let it run wild through the relationship.”

There is so much more that I want to talk about, like LaPointe’s journey to decolonizing her diet, or her complicated relationship with her mother, or the story about The Little Mermaid jacket, or her feelings about questioning motherhood, or the experience of going through Covid-19 as a culture where disease was part of an attempted genocide against them.

These essays are compelling and thought-provoking. All I can say is you should read them yourself! While they touch on heavy, difficult topics, this is fundamentally a story about healing and survivance: “There is something to learn from indigenous ways of thinking that has to do with courage and resilience, because even in the face of attempted genocide, of erasure, we descendants are still here.”

This is LaPointe’s second book, and I’ll definitely be reading her memoir Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk next.

“All over the world, indigenous communities are fighting for their survival, the survival of their sacred lands, their languages, and stories. Communities are fighting for their land back, for the salmon to return, for a stop to the desecration of sacred sites. They are protecting tribal lands in South Africa. They are protecting Mauna Kea. They are water protectors and knowledge keepers, storytellers and healers. They are the song the world needs right now.”

Content warnings for missing and murdered Indigenous women, miscarriage, racism, rape, addiction, generational trauma, and abusive relationships.

A Pressure Cooker of a Childhood: Hiding Out by Tina Alexis Allen

the cover of Hiding Out by Tina Alexis Allen

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Usually, I review novels for this blog, ideally young adult or middle grade speculative, and that’s representative of my reading choices. This adult memoir is outside the norm for me. I can’t very well review it as an expert. So take my dabbler’s opinion with a grain of salt when I tell you I found the experience intriguing but somewhat unsatisfying. (I might say the same of life!)

Allen grew up in a Catholic family with twelve siblings, a loving but dependent mother, and a domineering, abusive father. She grew up around secrets and an almost reflexive homophobia. The environment left her vulnerable: to her brothers’ wandering hands and grooming from one of her teachers. It should have been a relief to learn that her father shared her secret and was also gay. Instead, this led to Allen being drawn even deeper into a life of drinks, drugs, and secrets.

In many ways, this is a tough read. Allen endured so much from such a young age, and as a narrator, she doesn’t always acknowledge it. That’s part of reading for an adult audience: no easy answers. I so wanted consequences for the teacher and later the basketball coach who took sexual advantage of this child. None came. It’s a strength of the book not to shy away from the uglier aspects of Allen’s experiences. Life wasn’t easy for her, and this stands as a testament to the pressure cooker of her childhood. If you hesitate over such stories, please know that Tina Alexis Allen is sober now and, by her own account, happy. These are struggles with safe endings.

The mystery of her father’s other life is a fascinating one. He runs a Catholic travel agency. So why does he have multiple secret passports? Why does he stash briefcases filled with cash? Why do foreign customs agents just wave him through?

As a reader, this is where I became frustrated. I read as an alternative to reality. I like dragons and magic and stories where the heroes win even if they had to fight and struggle and bleed for those victories, even if (especially if) they’re flawed, too. So Hiding Out was a weird choice for me. I wanted a more satisfying explanation than I got, but that lack of satisfaction—it’s the truth. Life is messy. This book reflects that.

I don’t mean to be overly critical or suggest this is a bad book. It wasn’t the right book for me. Equally valid? It might be the right book for you.

Content warnings: incest, child sexual abuse, spousal abuse, emotional abuse, drug use, grooming

A Memoir of Medical Bias—Bless the Blood: A Cancer Memoir by Walela Nehanda

the cover of Bless the Blood

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Bless The Blood: A Cancer Memoir is a striking book that gets under your skin and stays there for days afterward. Though billed as a YA book, the writing and story hold a depth of feeling and insight that will engage far older readers, too. Hospitals, homes, intimate relationships and even one’s own skin are explored as sites playing host to complex histories. Framed by references to Cynthia Parker Ohene and Audre Lorde, Walela Nehanda threads a poetics of class, race and gender that shows how those constructs tangibly mediate who has access to certain spaces and their attendant expectations of care.

There is wisdom in Nehanda’s depiction of the ways relationships function as spaces for the people in them. And inversely, how spaces are shaped by the connections people make there. Some books really get to the heart of that old saying “a house is not a home”—this is one of the few that goes further by suggesting that a body isn’t always a home, either.

Teeming with generational trauma and an aching love-hunger that breaks through in paragraphs and poems about sickness, recovery, affection, intimacy, and history, this is a book that refuses to be reducible to inspiration porn. There is a lot of unvarnished pain here: it beats and seeps and leaps out of the page, sinking into the sorest parts of anyone who has ever found themselves at odds with their body, anyone who has ever felt the acute violence of having their bodies treated as alienable. 

But these recollections are accompanied by memories of healing and true connection that remind me of one of my favorite aspects of queer media: the defiance of portraying communal moments of revelry and unapologetic joy. These moments offer a small antidote to the seemingly incessant indignities Nehanda encounters in trying to access care through institutions that diminish compassion into a sort of charity contingent on the seeker’s performance of acceptable respectable acquiescence to unjust norms. It is a keenly relevant story, and only becoming more so as the conversation and activism around medical bias gains momentum.

The book’s archetypal figures and icons are also from a media moment that younger readers (I’m including twenty-somethings in this), will find timely. Close readers might be left wondering why there is more “prestige” in the exploits of long-dead hellenics than Captain American or Black Panther—and how our insistence on pretending that the former are more universal than the latter only goes to show how deeply those stories have been decontextualized in service of modern myths about what is “natural” or just.

I will admit fully that I am very partial to this sort of mythic deconstruction. I appreciate authors who staunchly refuse the opiate of presumed objectivity and instead fiercely reckon with the implicit messages and specificity of our shared stories. There is a passion in these pages that I found refreshing, and which I hope this review does justice to.

Who Will Enjoy This: People who thought The Remedy was poignant, timely and want to read more deeply personal stories about the struggles of accessing care (both medical and otherwise) as a gender-expansive person of color (here, a Black person in America). People who enjoy memoirs in verse, or poetry about the poet’s relationship with their body and others. People who think “formalism” is another word for “limitation”. People who enjoy science fiction metaphors for biomedical ideas.

(Seriously, Nehanda’s description of leukemia and their body as a besieged planet is all I’ve been talking about to anyone who will listen for the past week)

Who Might Think Twice: If you’re currently dealing with healthcare bias and difficulties of your own, this book will either reassure you that you are not alone or leave you emotionally exhausted. Your miles may vary. Nehanda pulls no punches in either their remembrances of or their viscerally unflinching depiction of their pain.

A Dazzling Debut: How Far the Light Reaches by Sabrina Imbler

the cover of How Far the Light Reaches

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I first learned about Sabrina Imbler (they/them) last year when my girlfriend and I traveled to Seattle to watch the UConn Women’s Basketball team compete in the Sweet 16. Whenever I travel, I like to visit a local bookstore, which is how we ended up in the gorgeous Elliott Bay Book Company, a woman and queer owned business located in the heart of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. When I asked one of the booksellers what LGBT books she recommended, she enthusiastically suggested Imbler’s gay volcano chapbook Dyke (geology) and a signed copy (Imbler’s name flanked by two cute goldfish) of How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures. Two gorgeous books by a queer person of color? I was elated.

Imbler is a writer and science journalist with a gift for storytelling. How Far the Light Reaches is organized into ten essays wherein Imbler masterfully weaves facts about sea creatures and phenomena with meditations on survival, identity, body image, family, relationships, and community. While the essays stand alone and can theoretically be read out of order, they have a clear throughline. As a reader who began How Far the Light Reaches with limited knowledge of marine biology, I was shocked by how many facts I retained from each essay. Imbler’s essays are crafted with care and intentionality. They don’t just state facts about each sea creature, they reflect on their essence, treating each with reverence.

In “My Mother and the Starving Octopus,” Imbler introduced readers to Graneledone boreopacifica and highlighted one of the most renowned of these purple octopuses: a mother who starved herself for 53 months (four and a half years) while she focused on the task of brooding her eggs. Imbler interspersed reflections on their mother’s sacrifices and on how Imbler learned to find their own body desirable through reveling in queer bodies.

In “Pure Life,” Imbler marveled at deep sea dwellers—vent bacteria, tube worms, and yeti crabs—which survive by using chemosynthesis for energy in the absence of sunlight.  Imbler likened hydrothermal vents in the ocean to queer spaces and communities—both representing oases providing rest, nourishment, and safety: “Life always finds a place to begin anew, and communities in need will always find one another and invent new ways to glitter, together, in the dark.”

In “Hybrids,” Imbler juxtaposed their biracial identity (half Chinese, half White) with a hybrid butterflyfish, the offspring of two different species. Imbler examined how The Question: “What are you?” is itself an act of taxonomy. They also reflected on the irony of their frustration with The Question, but also their endless curiosity about other mixed people.

In a word, How Far the Light Reaches is spectacular. The more I reflect upon it, the more I love it. I read it over the course of a few days, but Imbler’s writing is so thought-provoking, you may want to savor the book over time. I really hope Imbler will write another book, but in the meantime, you can check them out at Defector, an employee-owned sports and culture website, where they cover creatures.

Trigger warnings for sexual assault, lack of consent, rape, body mutilation, racism, body image, disordered eating, and animal death/harm.

Raquel R. Rivera (she/her/ella) is a Latina lawyer and lady lover from New Jersey.  She is in a lifelong love affair with books and earned countless free personal pan pizzas from the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program as a kid to prove it.

A Kind Voice from the Unkind Days of Early 2020: Care of by Ivan Coyote

the cover of Care of by Ivan Coyote

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Ivan Coyote is one of my all-time favourite authors; I love their short stories and their essay collections. I’ve gotten to see them perform several times, and it’s always an amazing experience. Which is why I was thrown when I listened to the audiobook of Rebent Sinner when it came out and… didn’t love it? I didn’t know what to think. Was it me? Or had their writing changed? So, while I went out and bought a new, still-in-hardcover copy of Care of—something I very rarely do—it sat unread on my shelves for months, because I was nervous that I wouldn’t like it, either. Luckily, I was completely wrong.

I ended up listening to the audiobook of this one, too, and as soon as I hit play, I wanted to be listening to it all the time. Ivan Coyote has such a comforting, kitchen table storyteller way of speaking. It’s soothing to listen to, while the subject matter addresses issues like transphobia.

This is a collection of letters. During the early months of the pandemic, their shows had to come to a halt, and they used that newfound time to answer emails and letters that they had been saving until they had the time to give them the attention they deserved—some had been waiting years for that response. I’ve realized lately that I love these sort of collections in audiobook: Dear Sugar and Dear Prudence are two other audiobooks I couldn’t stop listening to.

As always, Coyote is a compassionate, thoughtful voice no matter whose letter they are answering. I actually feel like I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to listen to it even when I was too distracted to pay as much attention as it deserves, so I plan on rereading/relistening to this again very soon.

Even though it’s written during the early days of the pandemic, it doesn’t feel dated. The topics being addressed are just as relevant now as they were then, and I think having a little bit of distance from 2020 helped me appreciate that aspect more; I’m not sure I could have listened to/read it during 2020, if it had been released then.

Despite my comparisons to Dear Sugar and Dear Prudence, these aren’t really letters with advice. They’re more responses with commiserations, with stories that the original letter reminded them of, and sometimes with questions or pleas for the letter writer. They’re personal, considered, and empathetic responses to all kinds of different people who have reached out to them.

If you haven’t read Ivan Coyote’s books before, this is a good place to start. And if you have, you won’t be disappointed by picking this one up, especially as an audiobook.

Moby Dyke: An Obsessive Quest To Track Down The Last Remaining Lesbian Bars In America by Krista Burton

the cover of Moby Dyke

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This book really just had to live up to the title for me to love it, and it did.

Krista Burton used to run a blog called Effing Dykes that I followed and enjoyed, so I knew I was already a fan of her writing. In Moby Dyke, she weaves together a travelogue of lesbian bars, personal writing about her own life, and discussions about why lesbian bars keep closing.

In the introduction, Krista paints a picture of her journey to writing this book. She’s married to a trans man named Davin, and they’re about both middle-aged, living in rural Minnesota. When COVID hit and they were sheltering in place, Krista found that what she missed most was the “feeling of being in a packed, sweaty dyke bar, surrounded on all sides by queers so close they’re touching me, and then to feel someone with a drink in one hand try to inch past me.” But those kinds of bars kept closing. Where there was about 200 in the 1980s, it was down to 20 across the whole country. Pandemic or not, when was she going to experience that again?

And that’s how Moby Dyke was born. Krista made a plan to visit all 20 of the remaining lesbian bars in the United States. Each would be visited twice. She’d talk to at least two people at each bar. (Approaching strangers! In a lesbian bar!) And half of the time, she’d come with her husband, while half of the time, she’d go alone.

This is, of course, an exploration and celebration of these lesbian bars, each lovingly described, but that ended up not being the main draw for me. It was interesting to get a glimpse into these bars, but I’m unlikely to go to any of them, being neither a bar/club person nor from the U.S. Instead, I was pulled in by Krista’s personal writing as well as the discussion around lesbian bars.

This book has a charming, personal voice—it feels like a friend telling you a story. There are brief detours into the rest of Krista’s exploration of a city, and some glimpses into her personal life. It makes for a very readable book that somehow didn’t feel repetitive, even though each chapter is essentially the same thing: describing a new bar and recounting how patrons/owners answered her questions.

It’s interesting to get a broad look at how lesbian bars operate and how they describe themselves. Krista quickly found out that while these bars were usually owned by lesbians and were in some way lesbian bars, each of them said they “welcome everyone.” She discusses this push and pull between wanting be inclusive and wanting to have a space for queer people:

“Queers want dedicated spaces where they can go and have everyone around them be queer. That’s because that shit is fun. And it’s such a relief, not to mention so much safer, for us all to be able to be together. But most of us also want each and every version of queerness to be welcomed in those spaces, and who gets to decide who’s queer and who’s not?”

As one bar owner put it, “Sometimes [lesbian patrons] will look around and want to know why there’s ‘”so many men here,” and—she threw up her hands—’I don’t know what to tell you! How am I supposed to have a woman-centric space that’s a lesbian bar but also be fully inclusive? How?’”

I also found it interesting the many reasons people had, especially bar owners, for why lesbian bars keep closing: because queer women are more accepted into greater society now. Because lesbians have less money to spend than gay men. Because of infighting. Gentrification and rent price. Trump. The instability of time investment of running a bar. Lesbians don’t go out.

These discussions about queer spaces were fascinating to me, and I also liked seeing the many different ways that these spaces are designed. Each has its own feel, its own events, its own kind of community. I’m not about to go out and start a lesbian bar now, but I did find it inspirational. Queer groups and communities, especially between queer women, have a reputation of breaking down and dissolving in conflict. These many different bars, whether it’s a Black-owned queer cocktail bar or a rural lesbian bar covered in novelty signs, show that it’s worth trying to build something, and that they can survive—and even thrive.

I wasn’t sure if this would end up being a eulogy for lesbian bars, a document to preserve them before they all disappear forever, or whether it would be a celebration. Thankfully, it’s much more of the latter—spoiler alert: the number of lesbian bars has grown since she started writing the book!

If the title piqued your interest, definitely pick up Moby Dyke. It’s part travelogue, part memoir, and 100% queer.

A Genre-Defying Queer Black Memoir: The Black Period by Hafizah Augustus Geter

the cover of The Black Period

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In 2023, I was a judge for the Nonfiction category of the Lambda Literary Awards. One of the books I read—the one that ended up winning for the category—was The Black Period: On Personhood, Race, and Origin. This is a brilliant, expansive book that I don’t feel qualified to really speak about, because there are so many layers going on in this narrative.

Geter is a poet, and you absolutely tell in this memoir. There are so many shining lines—”Safer to be accepted than loved, I thought.”—even when describing seemingly inconsequential details, like, “Even though she laughed constantly, it was like every laugh took her by surprise.”

This book is an embodiment of the idea that the personal is political. While this is in some senses a memoir, it’s also much broader than that. Geter traces back how her life is connected to all that came before it: her disability is connected to her parents’ health problems, which are connected to the racism at the foundation of the United States.

This is why The Black Period doesn’t fit neatly into the memoir category: it’s also a history book, and a collection of essays about art criticism and Afrofuturist thought, and it’s also about the connected struggles of Indigenous and Black people in the United States. Oh, and it includes original artwork from her father, a well-respected artist in his own right.

I can’t believe this book, which has won multiple awards and made several “best of” lists, is still so underread, even now that it’s available in paperback. This would be a fascinating book to read in a group, or to study in a class. I need you all to go out and read it so we can talk about it together. It’s one I can’t stop thinking about.