As a 24-year-old who wasn't even aware that Queer lit was a category until college, these books have brought me immense joy and healing in the short time I've been tracking them down. In the past half-decade or so, there's been an explosion of new Queer books. Many are by written by queer people of color and incorporate conversations happening on Twitter and in communities across the country; what it means to not only be queer, but also to be disabled, first generation, poor, or a person of color, navigating a very white and mainstream queer scene.
- If you're craving a good cry, reach for Speak No Evil (Uzodinma Iweala): Iweala's sophomore novel chronicles Neru, a high schooler living in D.C. who accidentally comes out to his Nigerian parents. The revelation unravels Neru's relationship with his family when his father brings him back to Nigeria in search of a special church that claims to cure homosexuality. Iweala's novel is a timely dissection of our presumptions of West as queer-accepting and all other cultures as queer-hating and shows that healthy "outness" can take many forms.
Through Iweala's nakedly emotional writing, we witness Neru's experience of both acceptance and rejection from his Nigerian community and his predominantly white, rich high school peers. Nothing in Neru's world is sugarcoated: his observations of his classmates' privileged antics and his father's strict standards of masculinity are touchingly perceptive. From tinder dates to all night prayer vigils, Speak No Evil navigates the intense contradictions that weave together our identities, our desires, and our closest relationships.
- For a fresh critique of Portland, check out Juliet Takes a Breath (Gabby Rivera): I rarely use the descriptors "a lyrical and earnest narration of a queer, Latina's woman search for her space in two communities that each only want to see one side of her" and "fun beach read" for the same book, but Gabby Rivera's novel is nuanced like that. Headstrong baby lesbian Juliet Milagros Palante comes out to her family the night she leaves the Bronx for Portland, where she's got a dream internship with her favorite feminist, woman-inclined writer. Juliet's dynamic with the queer people she meets in Portland and her boss, Harlowe Brisbane, brings to life the complicated ways in which white feminists can be both allies and oppressors to women of color.
Bitch Media writer Latonya Pennington compared their relationship to the interview between Black feminist writer Audre Lorde and white feminist writer Adrienne Rich in Lorde's canonical 1984 collection, Sister Outsider. Written by Autostraddle contributor and author of "America" (Marvel's new Queer Latina comic book) Juliet Takes a Breath is a beautiful story that reminds us that, no matter the communities and identities we must navigate on a daily basis, we're all deserving of space to breathe and to become ourselves on our own terms.
- For the middle school (or just young at heart) reader, snag Hurricane Child (Kheryn Callender): Callender's new mystery novel follows two Afro-Caribbean girls in an adventure story of first love in a magical realism-style world, where they face everything from school bullies to encounters with the spirit world. Lonely twelve-year-old Caroline is cursed to a lifetime of bad luck after being born in a hurricane. She's a target of the mean clique at her Catholic school, where she's "the littlest girl with the darkest skin and the thickest hair."
Her luck takes a turn when she meets Kalinda, a new student from the Barbados who she grows to like as more than a friend. When the two girls discover that they share the power of magical sight, they team up on a quest to find Caroline's missing mom and learn more about their shared gift. Callendar's description of the loneliness, colorism, and isolation Caroline endures sets this book on a higher emotional level than most tween books I've read, but I imagine tweens will find her writing refreshingly relatable.
- For the fantasy lover/person who studied abroad in Copenhagen, pick up Six of Crowes and its sequel, Crooked Kingdom (Leigh Bardugo): These books are chicken soup for the queer fantasy lover's soul. Bardugo crafts a magical realm centered on the corrupt city of Ketterdamn, loosely inspired by the Dutch Republic of the 17th century. Six adolescents form a heist team on an impossible mission to retrieve a prisoner from a northern military fortress, led by mastermind anti-hero Kaz Brekker. The gay romance subplot is a sweet, slow burn, but there are a million other reasons this duology will steal your heart. Rarely do popular books show traumatized teenagers who actually act like traumatized teenagers or graceful replications of real-world oppressive systems in an author's fantasy realm. Bardugo describes that her world-building process begins with understanding how power flows in a universe; government power, personal power, and natural power, and that attention to structural detail comes across in her writing.
- For the Long Form Journalism Inclined: The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives (Dashka Slater): It’s impossible to summarize how much our national conversations on both race and being transgender have evolved since 2013, when a black teenager named Richard set a white genderqueer teenager named Sasha’s skirt on fire while they both rode the 57 bus through Oakland. On its surface, a story of a violent hate crime, the story expands to include a snapshot of the American prison system, and the way children of color are often stripped of their juvenile protections in the court system. Award-winning journalist Dashka Slater immerses the reader in Richard’s backstory of the violence and loss he experienced in the years before meeting Sasha that day on the bus. The book also follows Sasha’s burn recovery and the sudden thrust of agender/genderqueer identity into the mainstream media.
Slater’s account demands that we question simple assumptions about people who commit violent crimes, and what kind of “justice” we’ve engineered our criminal system up to produce. For a crash course on the event and its aftermath, Slater published a short form account in the New York Times in 2015.
LGBTQ+ characters have been around since humans started telling stories, even if most English class curriculums insist that Ruth and Naomi from the Old Testament, Jane Eyre, Jo March, and Dorian Gray were just independent and eclectic, but definitely hetero. Whether you're a huge fan of Queer lit or new to the category, any of the books above are worth reading, sharing, and celebrating.
Alta Viscomi is a law student and lit nerd living in Richmond, Virginia. They are drawn to work addressing mental health, criminal justice reform, queer identity, and artistic fantasy. As a child, they could usually be found reading a library book on the trampoline in their backyard.
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