Queer Summer Reads
Growing up adjacent to a great lake, it was inevitable that I would, at some point, find myself on a boat. One friend frequently invited me to go sailing with her family, and it was always a pretty good time. I would eat some snacks, lay out in the sun, cool off in the freshwater and return to land slightly sea drunk, jelly-legged, and strawberry. One afternoon, I arrived at the marina to meet them, expecting the usual day out on the Midwestern Sea. It was not that. As they untethered the boat from the dock, I was informed we were competing in a race. All I got was a “welcome to Team Gordon.” I’ve since blocked out or forgotten most of the details: how many miles, what place we finished, or how many hours we were out there, etc. etc. But upon returning to land, my body ached from pulling ropes and ducking and shifting and running across the deck. I was exhilarated and exhausted from the thrill.
Similarly, I like reading fiction with a dash of uncertainty and adventure—books that take me by surprise and teach me something or rock my foundation. I want to be left windswept and sunburned, questioning whether I’m ok to stand by the time I finish, to emerge from the book as if from water, heavier after floating.. All of these books have a bit of that: invigoration, bewilderment, and pleasure. Many of them left me aching with a sense of renewal, and summer is its own kind of baptism.
The Magic Fish
By Trung Le Nguyen
Random House Graphics;
Stories orient us to our past and present, and this beautiful graphic novel orients us to our connection to stories, their flexibility, and language. Tien and his mother, Helen, read fairy tales to each other as a way for his mother to practice her English. Moving between red panels of the present to yellow panels of Helen’s past in Vietnam, are the deep purple fairy tales. Tien is trying to find the words to come out to his parents in Vietnamese and finds the language through these stories. Both him and his parents, discovering how to navigate two worlds—the American Midwest in the 90s and the memories and culture of post-war Vietnam. There’s power in changing the narrative, altering a story’s ending, and this book does just that. This is a heartwarming read, not to mention an exquisitely illustrated book by a local author.
Notes of a Crocodile
By Qiu Miaojin
New York Review Books
I love depressing novels. If they aren’t for you, then feel free to skip this one. I love to read these kinds of books even more in summer, when the sunshine and heat provide a kind of counterpoint to the existential dread. Notes of a Crocodile is a queer coming-of-age tale set in late-1980s Taipei, where homosexuality is illegal. The narrator, known by Lazi, is a college-aged lesbian student who is overwhelmed by the desperation of desire. She falls in love with a woman who ruins her. She finds some company with her friends, an interesting cast of queer characters, and writes letters to lovers in search of an answer: is love destructive or just existence? Interspersed throughout the novel are irreverent vignettes of a crocodile living in secret among the humans, trying to find value in itself despite its demonization and trying to find belonging beyond the microscope of antropologic fascination. Qiu Miaojin is something of a queer icon in her home country and a literary marvel—her ability to lay bare the questioning of existence and the desire for liberation is exhilarating, if not depressing. I recommend reading this one in the sunshine for balance.
By Brontez Purnell
I don’t think this book has gotten nearly the praise it deserves, but “this is not the only cliche in the room.” This genre-elusive collection of stories is full of sex and wisdom and vulnerability from the streets of Oakland to the expansive fields of Alabama. Brontez Purnell exquisitely, hilariously, and painfully describes relationships—one night stands, interoffice relationships, internet hookups—with the urgency of someone who understands the importance of longing and the imperfections of loving and being loved. It isn’t a static state, mostly, it’s temporary. This book pulls at the mechanics of desire with a desperate truth. Purnell is wise and cutting and poetic, continuously blurring the lines of reality and fiction as only the best autofiction does. This book is punk and thirsty as hell.
By Jean Kyong Frazier
Frazier has crafted a beautiful and heartbreaking coming-of-age novel that’s filled with moments of levity and humor from our sarcastic, skeptical narrator, known only as Pizza Girl. Pizza Girl is a pregnant 18-year-old working at a pizza shop who becomes obsessed with a married mother to whom she frequently delivers pizzas. She’s one of those narrators that’s so endearing and wholly unlikeable. We all know people like this; they’re confusing. As she gets further along in her pregnancy, she becomes more unhinged, more like the person she’s tried hard not to become, and also, maybe she’s gay. Pizza Girl is a book with so much heart and humility. I laughed, I cried, I read it in one sitting. For the pizza lovers with attachment issues.
The Adventures of China Iron
By Gabriela Cabezón Cámara
A queer reimagining of a classic Argentinian gaucho tale, this book was all that I’d hoped it would be. China Iron, the abandoned wife of Martin Fierro, sets off on a journey with her new Scottish friend and soon-to-be lover Liz. The two embark on a journey to find Liz’s future estancia, land she’s purchased to start a brand new life on the plains, but the true journey belongs to China Iron. A young, naive orphan at the start, she discovers the beauty of her country and herself. Dressed as a young gaucho (a South American cowboy), she finds her strength, learns new languages, and discovers a life of freedom after the one that has been forced upon her. She discovers that her husband too had been living a lie.
The story is good, the sex scenes are better, and the big gay ending brought me so much joy. While I love South American literature and am quite familiar with gaucho stories, I don’t think it’s a prerequisite for enjoying this book. It’s good, queer, cowboy fun.
All of these books are available at your local independent bookstores, your local library, or online at bookshop.org.