May 2021: Something That May Shock and Discredit You by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

Something That May Shock and Discredit You, Daniel Mallory Ortberg

The magic of the human experience can be found in so many places, but one that I am constantly reminded of is how we can connect with and relate to each other through our stories and experiences.

Whilst we all live wildly different lives in our own worlds compared to either your next-door neighbour or someone in a country halfway across the world from us, we have the ability to relate to each other, even if at first it does not seem so. We all found at least one thing each of us could connect with in this collection of essays during May.

Life is hard, that’s a certainty, and Daniel Mallory Ortberg gives us a small slice of his life’s hardships (albeit it served up on a humorous platter of laughter and flippancy) in Something That May Shock and Discredit You. His essays range from diary excerpts about various gender crises to a series of retellings-cum-Cliffs Notes on the Bible and other famous works of literature throughout time.

The Chaotic energy of this work is something few of us had previously encountered. The whole book channels a literary trans-boi-trash-meme current throughout, and it works immensely well. Ortberg’s in-your-face discussions on the shittiness and brilliance of transition seem – at first – quite unusual; until one realises that not every transgender memoir needs to be a proud Bildungsroman with an inspirational “Being/Finding/Redefining/Becoming Me” title. As well as these, we can also have punchy essays on why Gomez and Morticia Addams are Trans4Trans and why William Shatner’s Captain Kirk is a beautiful lesbian, followed by a description of the soul-crushing weight of dysphoria and how to avoid doing the washing up because of it.

It’s okay, we’re all trashbois here. And if you can’t relate to that, you haven’t read the book.

April 2021: Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Last Night at the Telegraph Club, Malinda Lo

“Lily had played the part of a shepherd once in the Christmas tableau, when she was about nine or ten. She had been the only girl to play a shepherd, and in fact, she argued her way into the role, because Shirley had been cast as Mary and that was the only role for a girl. She remembered saying to the Sunday school teacher: “It’s not fair if Shirley’s the only girl in the play!” The teacher relented and told her that she could be a shepherdess, but Lily insisted that she was a shepherd, just like the boys. She had been so proud.

Now she wondered, a bit tensely, if it had meant something. Had Kath also played a shepherd in her church’s pageant?”

And there we have it. The 1950s version of does she listen to girl in red?

Different forms of queer code have existed for as long as queer people have. Of course, there are forms far better known, such as Polari, the secret “gay language” used to communicate in public, the coded messages of handkerchiefs in pockets and their various meanings, but these are better known gay male languages. With lesbians throughout history, things have always been much more difficult to find hard evidence for. From a heteronormative viewpoint, there are no obvious markers… and it’s a stretch to assume such a thing about historical figures. “Queen Anne? a homosexual? Good heavens, no, she was a Christian!” and yet the lesbians and Sapphics learning of these stories see the clues quite clearly.

“Everything she and Kath had done could be erased so easily. It could be erased by family pretending it had never happened. It could be erased by her parents uprooting her from her home and sending her away so that Kath would not know where she was. It could be erased because they were her parents and she was their daughter, and they loved her, and she could not disobey them even if it broke her heart.”

Sarah Waters (who is quoted on the cover of this book, waxing lyrical) has said that the erasure of queer history often makes it easier to write a queer story. With an absence of any fact, the freedom follows soon after to write whatever you want within the surviving parameters of understood history. The knowledge that queer people were present simply lays the foundations for stories of countless ways those people existed. This historical-absence-into-narrative-essence is evident in most of Sarah Waters’ work, and it is easy to see why she loved Lo’s novel so much. Lo has used the same potential, and she has done it for a young Asian American named Lily.

In the Author’s Note at the end of the book, Lo provides historical context for the novel, including her research into San Francisco, the 1950s, Chinese Americans, and lesbians during that time. She points out that “Finding any history of queer Asian American women has been even more difficult, but tantalizing clues* have surfaced in many sources.” These clues… like a private investigator, Lo traisped through history books and found glimpses, but not much more. This opened up space for a whole narrative, from which we now have ‘Last Night at the Teleprah Club’.

In an interview with Gay’s the Word Bookshop, Lo shares even more of her historical digging, with an enjoyable set of slides with images she found that inspired her with the background of this novel, the raw potential she saw in these images. The clues all add up.

Beyond the historical, Lo also characterizes the “experienced” lesbians in the novel very well. With some obvious experience in the femme/butch world, Lo’s writing of Lily’s realisation around her own identity was very touching. “Those strange women at the party seemed to see her more clearly than she saw herself, and it was disorienting – as if her body were not her own, but capable of acting without the conscious direction of her mind.” I particularly enjoyed the ‘butch’ lesbians having small, humanising moments woven into the story. Jean, a friend of Kath’s who was infamous at Galileo for being found with another woman, is built up before we meet her as a prodigy; a role model for “baby butch” Kath. And yet, when we meet her, she has a limp handshake, “as if her handshake hadn’t yet caught up to the clothes she was wearing”,” and “attempt[s] a wink”, small suggestions that Jean is, herself, very new to this world of baravdo and confidence.

Tommy’s character is a mystical beauty, the whole way through the story. Tommy’s mystique crumbles ever so slightly the closer we get; in the bedroom with Lily, the tension is palpable – and the fear that she would be written as a villain sent fear shooting through every vein in my body – and yet she retained her humanity, even with her identity of Tommy stripped away, being ‘outed’ as a whole different person under the name of Teresa.

The reality of this novel reaches far beyond 1950s San Francisco, and I am certain that any lesbian/Sapphic/queer identifying woman will see an element of themselves somewhere within the covers of this memorable story.

This novel is Malinda Lo’s sixth, and it is by far her best work yet – and whilst we all agreed that there were some narrative questions (why did we see snippets into the family’s internal monologues but not into Kath’s? Why did we jump a year later? How did Lily’s family deal with the aftermath of her coming out? And many more) the consensus remained that this novel was highly enjoyable, easy to read, and endearing.

For further reading, Lo suggests the books that inspired this one: ‘Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965’ and ‘Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelles Us, From Missiles to the Moon to Mars’.

Whilst reading, I found many parallels to Leslie Feinberg’s ‘Stone Butch Blues’ which shows the other side of the femme/butch spectrum/dichotomy, with the main character’s experiences as a butch in 1950s New York. This may fill in some of the gaps that Lo missed out in her work, although it deals with topics that are very difficult to read.

If you are interested in reading this book, check out our Online Library to get your own copy. To join in the conversation, we meet up on the last Wednesday of each month, currently online.

*my italicisation

March 2021: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

Grasshopper Jungle, Andrew Smith

“Andrew Smith must’ve been on one special kind of high when writing this book because holy sh*t,” says Adam Silvera (author of They Both Die at the End) and in all honesty, you can’t fault his comment.

Not only is this book about giant praying mantises, the end of the world, secret government science experiments, and dissolving testicles… add into this already head-spinning mix the confusion of a teenage boy who loves his girlfriend, Shann, but is also in love with his best friend, Robbie. The resulting product is this unusual novel that feels undoubtedly as if Andrew Smith was on a different plane to the rest of us when writing it.

Austin is a teenage boy who is not shy about telling us all how horny he is, and how horny everything makes him. Our book club discussion enabled us to vent to each other about how repetitive this got, but we were able to share our love of other things that the book did well.

In the acknowledgements, Smith detailed how this book was never supposed to be published. It was a passion project, of sorts, and only recently (if 2014 can still be called recently) did it hit the shelves. This makes a lot of sense, and in the kindest way possible, it certainly felt as if it was not written to be read by someone unfamiliar with it. Just as our brains work for us personally, the repetitive strains worked well for the brain of Austin, but less so for external readers. Smith certainly did a good job of setting up callbacks that could have been quite funny if they had been used less, to greater effect. Although, some in the group did say that they ended up laughing every time Austin got horny in an entirely inappropriate moment, so it did have its audience.

On a positive note, we loved the food metaphors that gave the book its texture. The comparisons of characters’ appearances to types of food typical to Iowa were actually quite endearing (particularly those centred around corn).

We also appreciated the pride he felt about his Polish heritage, that he taught us all throughout the novel, ultimately reclaiming the Polish spelling of Szczerba (which had been changed because it was “too complicated” for Americans to say) and finding more of his identity through that reclamation.

For those of us in the group who consider ourselves sci-fi savants, the doomsday element raised the stakes and added to the enjoyment. For the more contemporary, literary-fiction minded of our numbers, it was a distraction from the most important dialogue of the book: Austin’s bisexuality. Understandably, for the nature of this book club, it took up much of our discussion time.

One big argument that often comes up with queer fiction is the statement: “I want a book that has an exciting plot, in which the main character is queer and that doesn’t matter to the plot. It is just a fact.” But we discussed how we wanted bisexuality in this book to have a bigger role in the plot. Why was that? After some thought, I think it comes down to the fact that people want queer characters who aren’t constantly questioning their identity. They’ve done the work, they’re queer and comfortable, and now they’re off to fight the Big Bad Evil Guy. I think those novels have their place, but Grasshopper Jungle had a queer dialogue of its own. “Giant grasshoppers are killing my friends (and enemies) but I love my best friend and I don’t want to hurt him or my girlfriend, and that’s what I care about right now.” I can relate, Austin. Sometimes, there are bigger things than fighting for everyone else’s survival, and you have to focus on your own stuff. Indeed, one member suggested that for Austin to have attempted to save the residents of the town would have been a bigger distraction to the plot, and it worked better this way.

Whatever your thoughts are on this book, it cannot be denied that it is a bloody weird book, and that’s what makes it so great.

If you enjoyed this book, check out Wetlands by Charlotte Roche. It follows a similar plot of discovering sexuality in a young teen, this time from the perspective of a woman.

February 2021: Dancer From the Dance by Andrew Holleran

Dancer From the Dance, Andrew Holleran

Some years ago, a friend blurted out her opinion to me of what made us so different as queer people.

“It’s obvious when you think about it. You’re a Rainbow Gay and I am a Strap-on Gay.”

I choked on my drink, ungracefully spilling it all over my shirt.

“Ummm… what is the difference?” I asked, almost nervous to hear the answer.

“Well, look at you. You’re all into gay rights and activism shit, so you’re a Rainbow Gay. I just want to have good sex, so I’m a Strap-on Gay.”

I was a little incredulous. I didn’t have the guts to say “But I like having good sex too, I just want to feel safe and human when I have it!” but at the time, I wasn’t having much sex at all, so I’m sure that would have rendered my argument moot. This was at a time before I had learnt how to wear clothes that reflected my own identity. I was young, nervous, and reading a lot of classic queer fiction to learn more about myself (I have always been bookish). Why reading books made me an activist to her, I’ll never know. I wasn’t doing anything else at the time unless I was advocating for gay rights in my sleep. I didn’t even know I was non-binary at the time.

In retrospect, what her point boils down to is perception and image. It’s a hard thing to fight against. I was the vest-and-plaid-wearing baby queer who read books, thought a lot about my identity (having fought so much with my mother over it) and didn’t have an undercut like cool old M who had a hot girlfriend and didn’t think much about being gay.

Image and perception feed so much into our expectations of people. In our February discussion, we spoke about our incredulity that not a single character in this book was revolutionary in any shape or form. With Stonewall just ten years prior and the AIDS crisis around the corner, it was hard to reconcile their laissez-faire, sex-obsessed community with our understanding of gay culture and the need for advocacy at the time.

For a book fit to burst with the sweet nectar of hedonism, the main topic of discussion for us focussed on something far more altruistic: activism. We spoke about it for over an hour, perhaps longer. In reality, the closest the characters came to activism was the charitable act of having sex with someone with a small penis (“the leprosy of gay men” according to the novel).

With the book club circling around this topic for some time, we eventually acceded that activism is a burden at the best of times, especially if you have “skin in the game”. We also accepted that the queer people we know today who subscribe to the heteronormative ideology of finding someone, settling down, and not “speaking up for the community” are not bad representatives of the queer community, they are simply attempting to live the life that straight cis-gendered people have a right to.

After we decided we could not hold this against the characters, we moved on to discussing the emptiness the characters felt, constantly searching for something forever out of reach. Malone, desperate for love, walked into the sunset at the end of the novel without what he dreamed of. And yet, at the beginning of the novel, he had what he wanted with Frankie, only to find that that was not enough for him. He needed to see the scene before he fully settled down. And once he was a part of the scene, he wanted to settle down. The ultimate conclusion we drew was that it’s harder to get what you want and realise that it’s not enough, as opposed to constantly searching for it and never finding one that fits.

‘Dancer From the Dance’ was an absorbing read, but within the novel, the core of a broken heart seeped through to the very glue of the binding. Fighting for the right to be gay was far from the minds of these gay men, who were already battling the constant loneliness of being in love with themselves.

April 2020: Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

Pet, Akwaeke Emezi

April was a trying month for us all in 2020. The first full month of lockdown had knocked us for six and we were adjusting to online meetings.

Pet is a deceptively complex novel for younger readers. Jam is a black selectively verbal trans girl who lives in a supposed “utopia” where monsters have been eradicated (monsters being a metaphor for “bad people”) until one day, Jam comes face to face with Pet, a being conceived from her mother’s artwork, who insists that he has come to Lucille (the Utopian world) to hunt a monster. ‘How can this be’ Jam thinks, ‘when all of the monsters were defeated by the angels?’

The answer, dear reader, is that “Angels can look like many things. So can monsters.”

Even more distressing to the endearing Jam is that Pet believed the monster resides in the house of her best friend, Redemption.

This book was steeped in metaphor and imagery, and also full of fantastic representation with an entirely black ‘cast’ and a polyamorous relationship. Added to that, Emezi is nonbinary.

We all loved this book, and Akwaeke Emezi has become a book club favourite. Check out Freshwater (which landed them a place on the long list of the ‘Women’s’ Prize for Fiction) and their newest release The Death of Vivek Oji for some more excellent works.

January 2021: On Connection by Kae Tempest

On Connection, Kae Tempest

The beginning of 2021 has come with some surprises and other vastly unsurprising events. Meeting up at the end of the month to talk about connection had a particular feel of both irony and special importance.

In a time when we are more disconnected than ever, Tempest’s book has had to fight against a lot of indignation. “The frothing crowds of woke vs unwoke, snowflake vs gammon, deep state conspiracy theorist vs mainstream news consumer” presents itself almost as an attack on those who use each term, forcing us to question how we can claim to be any different from each other. When both extremes are on high alert, we are also quick to defend (sometimes to the death).

I found myself falling afoul of this when I started reading the book. Tempest spoke of connection and understanding of all humans, and I found myself thinking “why would you ever get me to attempt to understand someone who has vastly different views to me? I don’t want to talk to transphobes, let alone connect,” which instantly set off alarm bells in my brain. Why was my first thought attack anyone who might have a differing viewpoint to me? This is what Tempest is trying to say; we have gone too far, zooming in far too close on our differences, so much so that we are unable to see the humanity that inherently connects us all.

After reading the first section of the book, I felt disappointed, upset, and perhaps further in my own head than I was when I started it. I put it down and did not pick it back up for some time. This was an error; it is best consumed in its entirety, in one go. I mentioned to the group that, just like a course of antibiotics, I had to finish the whole book in order to get the best results. Upon finishing the book, I found myself much more hopeful. I even had a small sense of optimism. Perhaps I can accept that every human is the main character in their own story, with motivations and reasoning I cannot hope to fully comprehend. And perhaps that is okay. Perhaps, learning to listen and empathise is the most I can hope for.

In our discussion, we mused on a number of topics. The most recurring sentiment was that Tempest had not revealed anything new to us in this book. It wasn’t groundbreaking, but it did reframe ancient arguments in a new way, highlighting the importance of the messages that made them feel fresh. The arguments they put forward are always relevant, no matter what course history is taking us on, it is simply that we are too busy “project[ing’] ourselves into the collective conscious as being entirely one thing or another, righteous and correct in our polarities” to spare a thought for nuance.

We also spoke about pretentiousness, both in this book and in the creative world. Tempest writes, “culture, in the main, is a bourgeois pursuit, a reaffirmation of a mannered existence that cements prejudice and justifies ignorance” which certainly reminds us of our privilege to be able to both read and discuss the book – particularly during a global pandemic when many people are struggling to make ends meet.

The Oxford Blue’s review of ‘On Connection’ extolls Tempest’s virtues, and mentions that a specific line* “alone is worth the book’s £9.99 price tag, though viewing ‘On Connection’ as a product to be purchased and consumed is evidently a paradoxical and futile mindset.”

This is by far the most pretentious way to see what is essentially a long essay, but as a piece of work, it is undoubtedly crucial in reframing, challenging, and adjusting our strongly held convictions. We certainly won’t be doing that when stuck in our own echo chambers. For a queer book club, reading something by a member of our community that holds us to account and forces us to rethink our moral standpoint was a refreshing change.

I now compare my experience of reading this book to getting my glasses prescription updated after too long seeing the world blurred. It’s what I should have been seeing all along, but the slight adjustment feels radically different – and will keep my brain hurting with the change for some time to come – until I get complacent once more, necessitating another reality check.

*“Connection,” they write, “is the feeling of landing in the present tense.”

Would you like to join the discussion? Check out our Online Library here.

Further reading as suggested by our members:

May 2020: Girl, Woman, Other, Bernardine Evaristo

The most prominent memory of this meetup was how hot it was that day. It was too hot for me to be inside the house, the afternoon sun streaming into the west-facing windows and cooking my housemates and me. I hung a bed sheet with string from the top window of the first floor and the cherry tree in the garden, and sat outside for the whole meeting. This prompted a few funny looks from passersby as I chatted with people on the other end of the internet about our thoughts on Evaristo’s newest novel.

Evaristo’s ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ was the joint winner of the Man Booker Prize 2019 along with Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Testaments’ and it was a hot take in our book club that Evaristo deserved to win it in her own right. Some even said that ‘The Testaments’ was nowhere near good enough to win the prize at all.

“‘Girl, Woman, Other’ follows the lives and struggles of twelve very different characters. Mostly women, black and British, they tell the stories of their families, friends and lovers, across the country and through the years.”

Having read Evaristo’s ‘Mr Loverman’ earlier on in the year, we drew many comparisons between the two works. They are very different in scope and narrative, but we enjoyed them both. I think we all appreciated the representation of queer women and nonbinary people from the newest title.

Evaristo’s website can be found here, along with her backlist.

December 2020: Trans, Juliet Jacques

Trans, Juliet Jacques

This month we held our meetup a little earlier than usual, to accommodate for the stressful weeks ahead. Due to the new restrictions, however, we will need to lean on each other more than ever. Seeing everyone onscreen, welcoming new faces to the group and catching up with the regulars, the pandemic felt a little further away, if only for an hour and a half.

For those who were unable to join, I took a few notes of the topics we discussed – so that if you read the book, you can have these points as guidance for your own critical thinking, or if you haven’t read it yet, this might inspire you to!

This list is not exhaustive, I’ve simply noted down a few things we mentioned.

  • We all appreciated the historical context Juliet Jacques gave us. Some thought there was a little too much info for the LGBTQ+ people who were likely to read the book, but an excellent guide for people who had no prior knowledge of any transgender history.

  • “Born in the wrong body” is a damaging and unhelpful analogy that Jacques mentions from ‘Conundrum’ by Jan Morris. When attempting to educate a vast range of people who have no experience, we can rely on simplified and reductive analogies, but “born in the wrong body” is particularly bad at setting back arguments against gender roles assigned by anatomy.

  • The discussion around how self-centred transition can be resonated with a lot of people in the group, and started a discussion around our own transitions, be they based on understandings of “binary” gender, or sexuality.

  • Jacques’ continual references to music began to feel like name-dropping to some and exclusive to others. The strongest point, however, was that music has an ability to conjure up emotions far more effectively when we feel we don’t have the words, and her quoting the Smiths felt like she was attempting to transport us through words she couldn’t quite find herself.

  • We spoke about the focus on “before-after” in many trans journeys and what that means for trans people. The pressure to post pictures of post-op chests, the pressure to have any operations at all, and the idea of ‘professional trans’ people all add up to make a formidable wall of expectation when a trans person comes out.

  • We made special note of how much this book stresses the importance of community – something we all latched onto when reading it.

  • The outrageous gender expectations made us laugh, particularly with Juliet’s mother behowling “but who will talk to me about football?” and Juliet having to remind her mother that she is a woman and she talks to Juliet about football already! This cemented some discussions we had about how much store we set on people’s personalities based on their assigned genders, and the ideas people have that people who transition will become “completely different people”.

  • We discussed how, even more so than with names, people seems to find it hardest adjusting to pronouns.

  • Emma mentioned genderless parenting and the effect that that can have on perceived genders. She recommended this video if you want to learn more about that.

  • We shared stories about being misgendered; a little therapy for those of us that needed it, and sharing gender euphoria that we felt. One story mentioned someone being gendered by strangers differently depending on the context they were in: as a “butch” woman when with a woman, and an “effeminate” man when with a man. It was interesting to note that people’s instant reactions were to misgender the person into “homosexual” relationships. Perhaps this has something to do with queer relationships being accepted more into the mainstream now.

  • Patti mentioned a trend of parents naming their daughters gender neutral names such as Ellis, Cameron, or Sydney in attempts to give their child the best foot forward in life; for example, their CVs not getting turned away simply for having a feminine name.

  • We gave a shout-out to LGBT TikTok and what an affirming place it is when one is just looking for a little bit of comfort.

  • The conversation ended on a positive note, as we rejoiced at the speed with which Netflix changed Elliot Page’s name on the credits of his works that they carry and how this has happened elsewhere, like with Kae Tempest on book-handling sites.

Would you like to join the discussion? Check out our Online Library here.

If you have any points you would like to share, post them down below!

November 2020: The Fire Never Goes Out, Noelle Stevenson

The Fire Never Goes Out, Noelle Stevenson

This was a particularly heavy month of 2020. The election was happening in the US (which undoubtedly affects the whole world), and international tensions were high. As usual, we read an emotion-heavy memoir by Noelle Stevenson, who is the creator of Nimona (an award-winning graphic novel) and has contributed to the graphic novel series Lumberjanes, and the show She-Ra.

For many in the group, reading a graphic memoir was a new experience. If you are eager to read more in that style, check out Alison Bechdel’s ‘Fun Home’ which is a seminal queer graphic memoir and well worth a read. It inspired the musical of the same name.

In an unusual turn of events, Noelle came out as nonbinary midway through our reading of this graphic memoir. We haven’t had an author come out during our reading. If you want to read the mini-comic that Noelle wrote during the pandemic about top surgery, find it here.

For more information about ‘The Fire Never Goes Out’ visit Goodreads. To learn more about Noelle, visit their Twitter page. For their backlist, click here.

October 2020: Dark Matter, Michelle Paver

Dark Matter, Michelle Paver

Despite the year being relatively rubbish for everyone, we tried to get into the spooky spirit by reading a ghost story. This novel was particularly relevant to our time due to its main themes being isolation, dark nights, and fear. That being said, we got dressed up for a Zoom fancy dress competition, which raised the tone of the evening a little.

For a few, they found the spooky element a little hard to relax into, not being in the correct headspace for it. They instead distanced themselves from the novel more than they might have at another time, and they felt that this detracted from their experience of what Paver was trying to achieve because they were not receptive to it. It certainly was a chilling read with those who were engrossed in it; so much so we were left looking over our shoulders, just in case…

Paver has an excellent backlist which you can find here. For younger readers, the ‘Wolf Brother’ series is marvellous, but not all of her work is anywhere near as queer as ‘Dark Matter’. To learn more about her as an author, visit her website.