It’s already November, for some the year has flown by and for others it’s ran at a snails pace and we’re all in lockdown again. For a lot of people, this time feels harder. With less sunshine to warm us, curling up with a good book is a cosy option. As a life-long bookworm, I will always recommend reading as a cure for what ails you.
Bibliotherapy, the practice of prescribing reading lists to help people face life’s challenges, has been used in both psychoanalysis and post-traumatic stress treatment. But avid readers have always recommended books that might offer recognition or solace to their friends.
Admittedly, not everyone is thrilled at the prospect of a reading list. Some studies suggest that 1 in 5 adults suffer from some form of dyslexia, often undiagnosed. Another sad reality is; growing up you may not have been offered literature that resonated with you. People say the reason we read is to step into another’s shoes, but I don’t believe that’s entirely true. I think often, we read to see ourselves.
Never before has there been as much representation of the queer and gender non-conforming experience in literature and on our screens. There still isn’t enough, but some beautiful stories do exist. Some of them exquisite and nuanced, some of them mediocre and some of them utterly lazy and stereotypical. (Let’s not mention a certain Irish author’s take on the trans experience aimed at young readers.)
From prose, poetry and young adult to some non-fiction titles, I’ve put together a list of some of my favourite contemporary, queer books to lose yourself in during lockdown. Whether you live and breathe the literary world or you’re a reluctant reader who’d like to develop a reading habit, these titles have you covered.
My experience of poetry when I was younger was studying it for school, and we all know how many writers that ruined it for us. As I got older and encountered contemporary poets, I learned to love its strangeness. Adjectives and nouns normally alien to each other combine to move our minds into surreal territory. The layers of meaning to uncover and its refusal to submit to form make it the ideal artform for protest. Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Frank O’Hara, Alan Ginsberg, and I could keep going into the queer canon. But I’m going to pick two contemporary queer poets that I love.
The searing images of Scott’s poetry speak of the shame and trauma to live as othered in by patriarchy. Although these poems often illustrate a threatening and violent world; they also explore hedonism, humour, love and the redemptive power of self-acceptance.
Love, Hope and High Heels—Clare Campbell
Liverpool poet Clare Campbell was nominated for the Polari first book prize. The skill of an accomplished poet is forging connections between disparate elements to meditate on and celebrate the universal. This collection is full of the little stars that burn in our lives should we choose to notice them.
If you’re not a big reader of novels, here is why I think you should take it up. I think you can compare reading a well-written novel that moves you, to taking a multi-vitamin for your soul and your brain. Reading makes you cleverer, more empathetic and I’ve heard some people say, better in bed. That last one has yet to be proven but I promise you, testing the theory will be pleasurable.
Graham Norton—Home Stretch
The devastating impacts of a fatal car crash on a close-knit community are intertwined with the evolving attitudes of Irish society in Norton’s most personal novel to date. Always warm, readable and observant of the darker dynamics that exist in small Irish communities; this story charts the transformation of the Irish queer experience in the last thirty years. Home Stretch is tender, sensitive and cements Norton’s status as the polymath we’d most like to share a drink with.
Virginie Despentes—Apocalypse Baby
The classic noir novel is given in a contemporary spin by French punk author Virgine Despentes. Most of Despentes polyphonic novels, like the Vernon Subutex trilogy, contain a rich cast of characters of all genders, sexualities and political leanings; but this is the first one with a (sort of) happy love story at its core. Apocalypse Baby is dark, grotesque, fun and the romance at the centre is a respite from the grim extremities of French society depicted by the author. As a former sex worker, her feminist manifesto King Kong Theory is also a must-read.
Ocean Vuong—On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
The prose in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is as arresting as its title. It’s no surprise that Vuong was an award-winning poet before he released his first work of prose. Inherited trauma, immigration and Vuong’s sexuality are traced throughout this artist’s coming-of-age story. This is not the book for you if you enjoy plot-driven narratives but the images conjured in this book will haunt you for days.
Jeanette Winterson—Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
As a vaguely spiritual creature who is also fascinated by the weight of oppressive ideology and religiosity on the human condition, I had to throw Oranges on the list. The innocent, matter of fact narration is punctuated with the dry statements of a precocious child who knows they’re being entertaining but can’t fully grasp why. It’s this undercurrent of dead-pan, English humour that has made this book a classic.
Of the many reasons I wish I was younger, the proliferation of queer literature aimed at young adults is the most heartening. There are so many titles to choose from, but these are two of my favourites.
Dean Atta—The Black Flamingo
Another novel from a powerful poet, Dean Atta’s coming-of-age story also intersects, race, sexuality and the power and artistry at the heart of drag culture. This novel in verse is big-hearted and bold and more narratively immersive than you would expect from prose poetry.
Kacen Callender—Felix Ever After
Writers take note; this is a trans teen story with a complex and nuanced protagonist. Not a trans character who exists as a ‘cypher’, as a ‘victim’ or as an ‘issue’ but as a flawed and beautiful human being moving through the world. There is just so much in this story—class, race, identity, growing up—that you can tell Callender is a writer only beginning to flex their talent.
Mae Martin—Can Everyone Please Calm Down?
Leave it to a professional funny person to kindly ask us to put our collective anxiety over gender, sexuality and identity into perspective. Martin doesn’t reject the importance of “labelling in terms of community, fighting discrimination, communicating ideas and proudly self-identifying.” She does however hope that society moves in a direction that neither needs or rejects categorising us based on who we love, and how we identify. Her stand up performances and Channel 4 dramedy are also well worth a watch.