Kayla Bell reviews Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar 

Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar

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Love is an Ex-Country is part memoir, part essay collection. It touches on a variety of topics, from racism to queerness to fatphobia to Arab identity, while always keeping an engaging, almost playful tone. There are many reasons why it worked for me so well. Before I get into the review, I want to say that as a white, Christian, American that has no interest in kink I am definitely not the reviewer to understand the intricacies of this memoir. I encourage you to seek out reviewers from different backgrounds than me to get a fuller picture of this book.

The memoir is in the form of various chapters examining the author’s travels. It takes place in the summer of 2016, when Randa Jarrar decided to take a solo cross-country road trip through the United States. However, most of the book has nothing to do with the road trip, and is a series of her reflecting on past memories. This book examines the reality of living as a fat woman of color in the United States. Jarrar has experienced a lot, including being doxxed by a mob of alt-right trolls after calling out white feminism in regards to Barbara Bush’s death. I truly respect how open and honest they were about this traumatic experience, even offering examples of the vile, racist hate mail she received. This authenticity carries throughout the narrative.

The first thing that stood out to me is that Jarrar never fails to examine her positionality in the situations that they describe. They are quick to own where they lack and have privilege, and never fail to call out bigotry in the situations they describes. One example that particularly stood out to me was when they were faced with the racism and xenophobia of a white woman at a rest stop. The woman assumed Jarrar was white and spouted off stereotypes about Black people and Syrian refugees. Jarrar did not entertain the woman’s bigotry and swiftly called her out. This book was a great example of how to think about intersectionality.

Another thing I loved about this book was Randa Jarrar’s matter-of-fact writing style. It is so refreshing to read a voice that is so unapologetic in the face of so many people that want her to hate herself, as well as tumultuous world events. Reading this book inspired me to start having more of that self-acceptance in my own life. While the things she did are not always likable, she does make the reader understand her thinking. This attitude makes the writing engaging throughout. At the same time, the unflinching look at Jarrar’s life events makes the parts of the book where they describe being abused and mistreated harrowing. I do not think this is a negative, I think this actually is a strength of the memoir. However, it could be a lot for some readers to handle.

Readers should know before they pick up this book that this memoir describes instances of racism, prejudice against Arabs, misogyny, violence, fatphobia, abuse from a parent and significant other (including child sexual abuse and domestic violence), forced dieting, and eating disorder behavior. It also includes graphic descriptions of sex and BDSM and instances of interactions with the police.

Overall, this book is a great examination of one woman’s experience of the world, made up of small, seemingly disjointed narratives that piece together beautifully. If you can handle it, you might enjoy it.

Danika reviews Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar

I can’t resist a book with a Carmen Maria Machado blurb, so I picked this up knowing very little about it. In theory, this is about Randa Jarrar’s road trip across the U.S., inspired by Tahia Carioca’s cross-country road trip. It took place in 2016 as a way to re-engage with her country, trying to find some connection with it after the alienation of Trump’s election. I say “in theory” because this book actually has very little to do with that trip. It’s an exploration of being a fat queer Arab woman in America through vignettes of her life.

Jarrar discusses what it’s like to be a white-passing Arab woman in the U.S., including having white people expect her to agree with their racist comments. She describes being pulled over by a police officer who is sympathetic, and even trying to convince him to give her a warning–she knows she is safe, being read as white. When she goes home, she discovers that Philando Castile was pulled over that same day. She also traces the history of tropes and stereotypes about Arabs in the U.S., and how that racism has transformed over time, often enforcing contradictory ideas.

While this is a memoir, it reminded me of an essay collection meets poetry: Jarrar often writes in short paragraphs juxtaposing different topics. In the space of one page, she examines dolls from half a dozen perspectives: as playthings, as childhood punching bags, as used in therapy, as gifts, as sexualized muse by certain artists, and being treated as one. It feels like there are spaces between these ideas for the reader to fill in, to actively make those connections.

This is a book that requires a lot of trigger warnings. She includes harrowing details of her abuse, including physical abuse by her father, domestic abuse, and reproductive coercion. She was briefly infamous for a tweet that was critical of Barbara Bush after her death, reacting to her feed praising her, saying, “Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal. Fuck outta here with your nice words.” In response, she received a barrage of hate mail, including vitriolic death threat emails that are included in this collection. She was doxed, and her critics attempted to get her fired–unsuccessfully, because she had tenure, but the university put out a statement denouncing her comments.

Jarrar is Palestinian, which informs her politics. She describes trying to visit Palestine, and the terrifying hoops she had to jump through. She spent the weeks before travel studying on exactly what to say to the Israeli border guards, whose names to use, which reasons were acceptable for visiting. She is detained by teenage Israel boys, who seem bored. They are kept for hours for seemingly no reason. Their passports are taken away. After facing a long line of bureaucratic hurdles, they can still be sent back to the U.S. for no apparent reason, unable to step foot in their home, kept out by another country.

Sexuality is fraught in Jarrar’s story, often accompanied by abuse. When she finds BDSM, it opens up new doors for her: “Until BDSM, a lot of sex felt like assault.” In this community, boundaries are respected. Everything is negotiated in advance, and nothing is taken for granted. Kink meant consent and safety, knowing exactly what to expect. Through it, she is able to reclaim sexuality, and finds empowerment both in taking control and being able to safely relinquish it.

This memoir left me with a lot to think about. Jarrar describes suffering through so much abuse in her life, and feeling trapped and powerless. She discusses racism and misogyny and how they underpin so much of American society. At the same time, there is hope here. She is also a proud fat queer Arab woman, unafraid to speak her mind. If you want a thoughtful, challenging memoir that will leave you thinking, definitely pick this one up.

My second husband did not want me to be on top. He made sounds, squirming and uncomfortable, when I was on top. He told me a year after we’d gotten together than my body crushed his. His body was smaller than my body. One afternoon, in bed, he nonchalantly told me that I needed to lose a hundred pounds. To shrink myself for him. (Conceivably) to be his equal. I would marry him, cry for years, and leave him, before I realized he did this because he could never make himself big enough–intellectually, financially, sexually–to be my equal.

11 Sapphic Chefs for Your Cookbook Collection

Graphic reading 11 Cookbooks by Sapphic Chefs

Is it your New Years’ resolution to cook more in 2021? Is lockdown forcing you to spend more time in the kitchen? Are you just tired of eating the same dishes over and over again? From solo feasts to fantasy dinner parties, here are eleven brilliant cookbooks by sapphic chefs to make your meals as queer as possible.

Flavour by Ruby TandohFlavour by Ruby Tandoh

If you’re a fan of The Great British Bake Off, Flavour from Season 4 runner-up Ruby Tandoh is the perfect match for you. Organised by ingredient, the cookbook is a great way to follow what you have in the fridge to a brand new recipe – some sweet, some savoury. Tandoh also writes delightful anecdotes about the inspirations behind her meals, including a spaghetti dish dedicated to Adèle in Blue is the Warmest Colour, and the Dutch Baby dessert which is (allegedly) a favourite of Harry Styles.

Now and Again by Julia Turshen

Fed up with food waste? I know I am, but working out how to use up that half-a-shallot sitting at the back of my fridge is a source of constant stress. Thankfully, Julia Turshen’s Now and Again will inspire you to stop worrying and embrace your leftovers. The accessible, affordable recipes are accompanied by notes on how to prep in advance and handy tips on what you can do to repurpose any remaining food. For cooks of all skill levels, these are staple recipes that you’ll find yourself returning to again and again.

A Simple Feast by Diana Yen and The Jewels of New YorkA Simple Feast by Diana Yen and The Jewels of New York

As beautifully designed as it is informative, A Simple Feast features gorgeous photography from Diana Yen and her creative studio The Jewels of New York – who unsurprisingly specialise in food styling. Split into four seasons, the recipes are arranged by situational themes such as ‘Brown Bag Lunch’, ‘Snow Day’ and ‘Rooftop Barbecue’. It’s a charming way to navigate a cookbook, and to bring a little New York fantasy and glitz to your kitchen.

Vegan(ish) by Jack MonroeVegan(ish) by Jack Monroe

Are you trying to eat fewer animal products this year? Known for their shoe-string budget recipes, food writer and anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe has the answer in Vegan(ish). Not only are these plant-based recipes a great way to cook on a budget, they also help to reduce your environmental impact, whether you’re taking the vegan plunge or just bored of eating steak for every meal (er, you probably shouldn’t be doing that anyway!). Another bonus are the deliciously punny recipe titles, such as Beet Wellington and Chilli Non Carne.

Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen by Zoe AdjonyohZoe’s Ghana Kitchen by Zoe Adjonyoh

Based on the pop-up restaurant of the same name, Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen celebrates – you guessed it! – Ghanian cuisine. Part memoir, part cookbook, the recipes trace Adjonyoh’s heritage through food, from traditional dishes to ways to incorporate flavours into contemporary dishes. The book also includes a guide to sourcing ingredients – another passion of Adjonyoh’s, who has spent the past year focusing on how to decolonise the supply chains, farming and agriculture systems that export spices and produce from the African continent.

My Drunk Kitchen Holidays by Hannah HartMy Drunk Kitchen Holidays by Hannah Hart

Not confident in the kitchen? With helpful instructions such as ‘take a drink!’ and ‘post it to Instagram’, the recipes in My Drunk Kitchen Holidays are well-suited to even the most amateur of cooks. If you’ve ever watched YouTuber Hannah Hart’s My Drunk Kitchen series, then you’ll know what to expect from her cookbooks: chaotic hilarity. This one covers a year of holidays and observances, from New Year’s to Middle Child’s Day (apparently that’s a thing!); ideal for a time when finding anything to look forwards to is a blessing.

Kristen Kish Cooking by Kristen Kish and Meredith EricksonKristen Kish Cooking by Kristen Kish and Meredith Erickson

When you want to cook something a little more ambitious, Season 10 Top Chef winner Kristen Kish is a great person to turn to. Her mouth-watering recipes are accompanied by personal anecdotes and notes, and preceded by a soul-bearing introduction that delves into Kish’s childhood and later experience on Top Chef. While some of the ingredients may be tricky to come by, the dishes have a ‘wow factor’ for when you really want to show off your skills.

Repertoire by Jessica BattilanaRepertoire by Jessica Battilana

Although it’s exciting to cook new dishes, it’s also useful to have some tried-and-tested meals that you can create while running on auto-pilot. In Repertoire, Jessica Battilana shares the 75 recipes that she relies on most. From Garlic-Butter Roast Chicken to a dependable Chocolate Cake, these are simple, accessible dishes that don’t require years of practise to master.

Atelier Crenn by Dominique CrennAtelier Crenn by Dominique Crenn

At the opposite end of the scale, Atelier Crenn is the daunting cookbook from three-Michelin-starred chef Dominique Crenn. Crenn’s dishes are ambitious, inventive and beautifully artistic. While I’m not brave enough to attempt such lofty recipes as Sea Urchin with Licorice or Beef Carpaccio, I’m happy for colleagues to think that I am when they spot it on my bookshelf during a Zoom.

Solo by Anita LoSolo by Anita Lo

Now more than ever, living alone can be tough, and it’s often hard to find motivation to cook if it’s just for yourself. Luckily, Anito Lo is here to help with Solo, a recipe book bursting with meals for one. The book is structured like a restaurant menu, with sections on vegetarian meals, noodles and rice, fish, poultry, meat, sides and sweets – there’s truly something for every taste. Practise a little self-care this year and treat yourself to some delicious solo meals!

The Little Library Cookbook by Kate YoungThe Little Library Cookbook by Kate Young

If you’re reading this article, you’re probably a book-lover as well as a foodie. Featuring 100 recipes inspired by literature, The Little Library Cookbook is a perfect combination of these two passions. Sample Paddington’s marmalade, bake cookies with Merricat, or – for something extra sapphic – dine with Virginia Woolf in a room of one’s own.

Shannon reviews Half Broke by Ginger Gaffney

Half Broke by Ginger Gaffney

I’m not much of a nonfiction reader, but the synopsis of Half Broke, a memoir written by Ginger Gaffney, peeked my interest. It’s not a story about being a lesbian. Rather, it’s a heart-warming story about a woman who loves horses and how she uses that love to change the lives of a group of convicted felons. Ginger is a lesbian, and although her sexuality doesn’t play a huge part in the overall story arc, it’s an important part of who the author is, and I’m so glad she didn’t choose to shy away from discussing it.

The story starts with a call for help. Ginger, a well-respected horse trainer, is asked to assist a group of prison inmates serving out their sentences on an alternative prison ranch in New Mexico. It seems the horses on the ranch have been exhibiting some strange and dangerous behaviors, and since no one on the ranch has much practical experiences with horses, they’re in need of professional help. Ginger, who is somewhat of an introvert, reluctantly agrees to assess the troubled horses and help out if she is able. She’s not sure what to expect when she arrives on the ranch, but it soon becomes clear she’ll be able to make a difference in the lives of both the animals and the prisoners.

The ranch is run almost exclusively by the prisoners themselves. There are numerous rules and policies that keep things running smoothly, and it takes Ginger some time to truly become comfortable in this new environment. Fortunately, her strong desire to promote healing for the horses serves as a sort of in-road for her, and she eventually comes to care deeply for a number of the prisoners and all of the horses.

This could have been a really sappy book, but Gaffney’s approach is wonderfully down-to-earth. She doesn’t paint herself as the white knight, sweeping in to save the day. Instead, she reflects on the numerous ways people and animals were able to work together, creating a better world for all involved. Her strong sense of personal responsibility toward those she works with shines through, as do her personal vulnerabilities. Her life hasn’t always been easy, and she’s quite candid about the mistakes she’s made along the way.

At its core, Half Broke is a love letter to horses and those who work tirelessly to partner with them. It’s an unflinching look at the American justice system and how it both helps and harms those who get caught up in it. Certain chapters proved painful to read, but I’m so glad I stuck with it. It was exactly the book I needed this fall.

Sinclair reviews Untamed by Glennon Doyle

Untamed by Glennon Doyle Amazon Affiliate link

I was skeptical about this book. Remember back in May 2020 when nearly the entire bestseller list was taken up by anti-racist titles such as How To Be An Anti-Racist, Me & White Supremacy, and My Grandmother’s HandsUntamed was also on there, and I felt skeptical about a white woman’s voice being amplified so loudly during such a critical time. I knew it was a memoir, but someone told me it also addressed her personal journey with her own whiteness and coming to an anti-racist identity.

Hmm, I thought.

I was disappointed to see so little of that in the book, but that’s not Glennon’s fault — I had bad information. It does have a little bit about it, but it’s just one medium-length essay among dozens of others — not even a major theme, really.

I was skeptical because I knew who Glennon Doyle was: a white, feminine woman with a conservative Christian background who fell in love with a (famous, queer) woman (soccer player Abby Wombach — who also wrote a book, Wolfpack) and left her husband. I knew she had quite the social media following, and my impression was that she was in that category of inspirational speakers and motivational self-help that is usually geared toward white wealthy mainstream women, and of which I tend to be very critical for the ways it reinforces capitalism, hegemony, beauty standards, and even patriarchy.

I struggled to relate to a lot of her work because she is so mainstream. I have been out as butch and queer since 1999 — more than half my life now — and my entire adult understanding of myself comes from counter culture, activism, being critical of the overculture, and and being very actively against indoctrination. I not only came out into counter culture, I grew up in it, outside of the contiguous US, and have never had a mainstream US world view. So when she describes her process of expanding and transforming outside of her mainstream world view, I applaud her — but parts of it are not all that radical or even all that interesting to me. Those things seem kind of like a baseline, not a revelation.

What was really interesting — fascinating, moving, and even inspiring — was the ways she describes that transformative process.

I am so impressed and have much respect for her process in general, and how much she had to trust herself in order to re-build her life, going against almost everything she’d known. So many of the short essays that make up this book are about how she trusts herself, the personal process of naming her inner Knowing, the consequences, the social expectations of placing trust somewhere outside of one’s self in order to know what’s right.

The major takeaway for me was about the cost and construction of abandoning one’s self. I know from early childhood development theory that our attachment styles, and sometimes relational trauma, are wrapped up in how we abandon ourselves to seek outside approval. For some of us, we have a pattern of others overriding what we know to be true and right for ourselves, and that often, for me personally, when resentment brews and gets directed at others, it is a clue that I have not been being true to myself at some deep level.

I am surprised to be so moved by this book. If you like personal transformative reflections, parenting, spiritual seekers, truth seekers, you may enjoy this book. I found it very easy to read and digest, with many profound moments.

Carolina reviews The Celluloid Closet by Vito Russo

The Celluloid Closet by Vito Russo

I’ve always felt drawn to queer history; there is a certain comfort in seeing parts of you echoed throughout history, reminders that we have always existed. I’ve always felt attracted to these historical ghosts, found in the coded language of long-gone poets and in unearthed love letters written in candlelit secrecy. Vito Russo’s classic The Celluloid Closet examines the portrayal of LGBT people in cinema from the medium’s inception, tracking the patterns that characterized the media and public’s perception of gay people, and labeling cinematic stereotypes that are still echoed today.

This book serves as a great introduction to queer theory and queer history. However, readers should be aware that this is truly a product of this time; The Celluloid Closet was written in 1981, before the AIDS crisis and the modern gay liberation movement, so some of the language (the use of reclaimed slurs and antiquated terminology) may seem insensitive and outdated if not taken into context. For example, the author glowingly cites Woody Allen as a trailblazing, philanthropic director….

Before Russo’s death, he planned an updated documentary version of the book, eventually released posthumously, in order to include classics from the emergent New Queer Cinema movement, including my favorite film, My Own Private Idaho. I suggest watching the movie to have a visual reference for the more obscure films that are cited. After watching The Celluloid Closet, I would recommend checking out Disclosure, Laverne Cox’s Netflix film about transgender representation in film; it fills in the gaps left by Russo, as The Celluloid Closet primarily focuses on cisgender individuals.

The book is tightly structured in a list format, leading to monotony if not read critically. I suggest reading it in chunks in order to truly digest Russo’s ideas. First, he gives a brief background of the period or archetype that he is dissecting, and then lists queer films and their impact on the era’s media. Russo adds a signature humor throughout his dissertations, imbuing each of the films with character and intrigue. Russo has a dry and infectious wit, best exemplified with his tongue-in-cheek ‘Necrology’ of the various ways gay characters were killed on screen, an early precursor to the ‘Bury-Your-Gays’ trope.

The author takes the reader back in time through the history of cinema, outlining the varied inclusion of queer people. In the early part of the century, gay ‘pansies’ became comedic gags in Laurel and Hardy skits, eventually leading way to hardened butch criminals and lecherous gay killers in noir films. The killer genre eventually transformed to the monster craze of the 1930’s; lesbian vampires have always been a hallmark of the vampire genre since the 1872 novella Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu. In the 1960’s, the Hays Code, a Hollywood gag order on the inclusion of explicitly gay characters, was repealed, transforming LGBT characters from invisible phantoms to social pariahs. 1961’s The Children’s Hour has Shirley MacLaine’s character take her own life immediately following a confession of love to Audrey Hepburn. In the 1970’s and early 80’s, gay people were either violent murderers and oddballs, or Oscar-bait-y sanitization of queer individuals, the latter of which is still a prevalent motif in modern cinema (Bohemian Rhapsody). Russo mentions the accolades the film Thank God It’s Friday (1978) received for including ‘gay representation’ in the film of a male-male couple dancing in the background of a ballroom, echoing the introduction of ‘Disney’s first gay character” Lefou in the live action Beauty and the Beast adaptation (2017).

Russo’s The Celluloid Closet reminds us that we still have a lot of work left in terms of queer representation. Russo recently received the honor of having the Vito Russo Test named after him, a measure of how many prominent on-screen characters appear in each media cycle. In 2019, 22 of the 118 highest grossing film of the year featured queer characters, a historic high. However, we are not as far from Buffalo Bill and Norman Bates as we may think we are; cisgender actor Eddie Redmayne was cast as transgender artist Lilli Elbe in The Danish Girl in 2015, Valkyrie’s bisexuality was written out of Taika Waititi’s script at Disney’s bequest in Thor: Ragnarok (2017), and J.K. Rowling has recently transfigured her media empire into a simmering cauldron of transphobic bigotry on Twitter. However, the future’s still bright, as recent shining stars in the cinema canon, including Moonlight, Rafiki, and A Portrait of a Lady on Fire, light our way to proper recognition and representation.

Danika reviews Kimiko Does Cancer: A Graphic Memoir by Kimiko Tobimatsu, illustrated by Keet Geniza

Kimiko Does Cancer: A Graphic Memoir by Kimiko Tobimatsu, illustrated by Keet GenizaKimiko Does Cancer is about about a queer, mixed-race woman getting breast cancer. This is a short book, only 106 pages, and it moves quickly: the first page is about Kimiko finding a lump above her breast, and then it moves through her diagnosis, treatment, and the aftermath. Tobimatsu explains in interviews/articles that she wanted to write this book because the mainstream narrative around cancer didn’t include her experience. She wanted other queer people with cancer to have a reference that better reflects their lives.

For one thing, she comes into this experience already skeptical of doctors, especially around sexual health. One panel shows a doctor saying, “Only women who sleep with men need Paps,” (labelled on page as “Bad medical advice”). This is something that I was also told by a doctor, after she blushed and seemed flustered when I told her my sexual experience was with AFAB people. Although she’s grateful for her medical team, she also finds it overwhelming, especially when they give different advice. She also continues to face similar microagressions: a doctor who assumes she’ll immediately want reconstructive surgery on her breast before asking her–Kimiko had been interested in exploring what a mastectomy would mean for her exploration of gender. Later, another doctor asks if she’d like both breasts enhanced as long as they’re “plumping” one.

In her article on Rethink Cancer, she explains,

I didn’t want to talk about how to recover my sense of femininity despite breast scars and menopause; I wanted to explore how losing my breasts might allow me to lean into my masculinity. I didn’t want to talk about how changing femininity could affect a hetero relationship; I wanted to talk about the implications of breast cancer on queer relationships between women.”

This genderizing of breast cancer extends outside assumptions around patients’ relationships to their breasts. In “Straight Cancer in a Queer Body” at The Polyphony, Tobimatsu explains,

Whether we know it or not, ideas around gender are frequently at the forefront of conversations about breast cancer. Little is as connected to notions of femininity as breasts, hair and fertility – all things that can be lost following a breast cancer diagnosis. Perhaps for this reason, society’s response to the disease is to throw pink ribbons, make-up tutorials and a peppy outlook at the problem. For many queers and gender non-conforming folks, this feminization of the disease is stifling…

A page from Kimiko Does Cancer showing Kimiko meeting three women in a cancer support group. They introduce themselves and then transform magic girl style into feminine fighters. "I'm Macy, Stacy, Lacy! We're survivors, fighters, warriors! We kick cancer's butt! And look good while doing it~"

Page from Kimiko Does Cancer

Not only is Kimiko uncomfortable with the whiteness and heteronormativity/gender norms, she also is alienated by how apolitical these spaces are. Kimiko considers the ethics and greater implications of each of the choices she’s making in this journey, and the structure around them. She recognizes the privilege she has to be in Canada and have the medical support she does, and the special treatment she gets as a young cancer patient. She contemplates the ethics of freezing her eggs for $7,000 when she’s not sure whether she even wants kids–or whether it’s ethical to bring kids into a climate crisis. On top of that, she feels pressure to have had some great epiphany as a cancer survivor: to have a whole new outlook on life, and no longer care about the “little things.”

Kimiko Does Cancer follows the aftereffects of her treatment as well. She has menopause induced to (hopefully) prevent cancer from recurring. This leaves her with hot flashes, which play a major role in her life. I had no idea what having hot flashes really entailed:

Page from Kimiko Does Cancer shows stages of a hot flash, including anger, raging heat, hunger, and more.

I highly recommend this book, and I hope that it finds its way into the right hands. I’ll leave off with one last quotation from the author, who explains the importance of changing this narrative. She explains that vague cancer fundraisers often get more attention than specific actions needed to improve marginalized peoples’ lives. (And of course, it’s all connected: racial justice and ending poverty are inextricably linked to health.)

When we centre certain bodies and not others, it has dire consequences – black women with breast cancer get diagnosed at later stages than white women and have lower survival rates… By depoliticizing cancer, it becomes an easy cause to support. Pink ribbon campaigns offer a way to give money to an easy-to-sympathize-with-cause that doesn’t force engagement with more difficult issues like poverty or racial justice.

“Straight Cancer in a Queer Body,” The Polyphony

The Life and Times of Butch Dykes by Eloisa Aquino

The Life and Times of Butch Dykes by Eloisa Aquino

The Life and Times of Butch Dykes was originally a series of zines, now collected in a highly illustrated hardcover. I was on board from the title page, where the publisher says, “If you bought this on Amazon, I’m so sorry because you could have gotten it cheaper and supported a small, independent publisher at www.Microcosm.Pub” That turns out to be true: Microcosm Publishing has a sliding scale price!

The day that I read this book, twitter was having an argument about the use of the word “dyke,” so it was fascinating to read the intro and see how the author and publisher had considered this term. They explain that gender is fluid, that some of the people featured in the zine now identify as men (and were left out of the collection on request). Some presented their gender differently later in life. Some are non-binary and use they/them pronouns. Others we have no idea how they would identify if they had access to the vocabulary we have today. They all, however, are queer, love women, and defy gender expectations, which is the thread that holds this together.

Each zine (some have been digitally reconstructed) has a different subject. Most are biographies of individuals, but others are broad categories, like butch filmmakers, or Brazilian fern-haired singers. Every other page is an illustration, and the text is hand-lettered. There are many quotations from the people featured. This is a beautiful book to flip through.

Some of the people included are well-known figures like Audre Lorde, while others were people I’ve never heard of, like a 5’7 tattooed Japanese butch lesbian who became a hugely successful fashion model in the 90s. Even if I was familiar with the people being described, I loved seeing all the portraits. For the people I didn’t know, this acted as a great teaser, providing just enough tantalizing information that I wanted to seek out more.

I loved how diverse this collection is–not only in terms of gender and sexuality, but also race and nationality. Eloisa Aquino is Brazilian-Canadian, and she features butches from all over the world (and across time). Each gets a short biography, which often has very little to do with gender or sexuality. Instead of acting as a 101 on who and what a butch dyke is, this collection offers beacons of people throughout history and around the world who have lived their authentic lives, which inherently encourages the readers to live their own.

This is a great little coffee table book, and I think it would make a perfect gift for fans of butch dykes, gender nonconforming, queer history, or zines! I did have some minor issues: the digital reconstruction means that some illustrations have noticeable pixelation, and one line (pg 52) seemed to imply that coming out as bisexual didn’t count as really coming out, but overall I thought this was a great, one-sitting read.

This was the book voted on by my Patrons to vlog about in August! Here is my vlog, which also discusses some other sapphic books, and features my bookshelf reorganization and my dogs!

If you’d like to pick what I read next, you can support me on Patreon, and you’ll also get queer women books in the mail throughout the year!

Meagan Kimberly reviews Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby

Wow, No Thank You audiobook by Samantha Irby

I listened to this collection of essays on audio, in which Samantha Irby herself reads, which is how I highly recommend you consume this book. Irby brings her biting wit and raw honesty to each essay, making them feel more like confessions. But they create a lifeline to so many who feel the way she does, making readers feel more connected and less alone. And she does it all with great humor, never taking herself, or anything, too seriously.

She covers various topics, from critiquing personas and performances on social media in “Into the Gross” to how over she is of the criticism of people being addicted to their phones in “Hung-Up!” Irby has no problem calling out others who act like they’re better than the rest of the world. She understands that at the end of the day, everyone is a mess pretending to have their ish together.

“Girls Gone Mild” is by far the most relatable and funniest essay in the collection, in my opinion. She gives a hysterical rundown of a typical girls’ night out for women 30+ who can no longer handle spontaneous outings and drinking too much. Her elaborate, minute-by-minute detail of how she plans her nights out now that she’s older sounded all too familiar and had me laughing so hard I cried.

In “Late 1900s Time Capsule,” she breaks down a typical mixtape from her youth track by track, annotating how each song captivated her teen angst, pretentious thoughts and intense emotions. As she talks about including the Indigo Girls on her mixtape she declares, “What do you mean you’re surprised I ended up with a lady?” proving there is a way to joke about queerness without being offensive. She even talks about those bygone days when you really had to be sure you wanted to invest in buying a whole album, because you couldn’t just purchase a single track.

Irby doesn’t shy away from topics often considered taboo, especially for women. She freely discusses sexuality alongside romance and relationships. She even tackles the horrors of getting your period in “Hysterical!” While hilarious in its unabashed humor, it’s also a critique on how any talk that does happen around the menstrual cycle centers on white women’s bodies and experiences, thus neglecting BIPOC bodies.

In essays like “Body Negativity” and “Hollywood Summer,” she tackles issues with body image and lack of representation of fat people. Or rather, the dismal representation of fat people. Although she takes on the topic with her signature humor, it’s clear it’s a subject that cuts to the core, and anyone who’s ever lived as a fat person in this world can relate.

Overall, this essay collection will make you laugh, but also make you think. It’s smart, witty, sarcastic, and filled with tales of horror about living as an anxious individual. You can’t help but laugh alongside Irby’s commentary on everything from making a living as a writer to moving to the country from the big city.

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

Zami by Audre Lorde

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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