Tag Archives: Liyana

The Curious Intimacy of Sharing Books by Liyana

I read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse because Suzan-Lori Parks—the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright—told me to.

Okay, I exaggerate. Suzan-Lori Parks didn’t tell me, specifically, to read To the Lighthouse (although she did shake my hand, sign my copy of her novel, and offer some encouraging words when I told her I was studying acting, and believe me, I was walking on air for the rest of the night after that, because I am a shameless Suzan-Lori Parks fangirl). But when she lectured at my university, she mentioned that even though she had always wanted to be a writer, she had been so discouraged by her high school English teacher that she entered college as a biology major, which lasted until she read To the Lighthouse and was so incredibly blown away by it that she walked straight over to the English department and changed her major.

When she told that story, I immediately thought, “That’s it. If To the Lighthouse convinced someone as brilliant as Suzan-Lori Parks that she had to be a writer, then I need to read it.” So, the following summer, I found myself a copy at a used bookstore, and I fell in love with this strange, lush, modernist piece of literary glory. I loved To the Lighthouse on its own merits. But I also loved the experience of reading it while knowing how deeply it had affected a writer I admired, imagining which parts had spoken to her and influenced her. In reading To the Lighthouse, I got to have two reading experiences at once: my own and (my imagined version of) Suzan-Lori Parks’s.

Which is precisely why, even though I love reading books that friends recommend specifically for me, I also harbor a deep and abiding love for reading books that have been important to other people, regardless of whether or not they are books I would have chosen for myself. I love seeing a book through someone else’s eyes and understanding what it meant to them…and then comparing that to what it means to me.

And it’s taken me to some fascinating literary places.

I read Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent last summer because a good friend pressed it into my hands and said, “You haven’t read it? You need to read it. I had to stop reading it during my commute, because it would just make me sob on the bus. It made me feel so connected to other women, like I was part of this incredible sisterhood.” I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Red Tent, but while I enjoyed the story and the writing, the thing I enjoyed most of all was noticing the places that evoked womanhood-as-sisterhood and how connected that made me feel to my friend.

Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist is probably not a book I ever would have read if left to my own devices. But a close college friend handed me her copy and told me that it had helped her through a rough patch while she was dealing with depression and recovery from addiction. Ordinarily, I would have found Paulo Coelho’s particular brand of self-help-thinly-disguised-as-literature simplistic and grating, but when I filtered The Alchemist through my experience of my lovely, thoughtful friend and the knowledge that she found it inspiring, it became a sweet, gentle fairy-tale about one way out of the dark woods of the soul. (I do still like the Rumi poem it was based on better, though.)

I’ve had Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison on my to-read list for years, ever since one of my most brilliant acting teachers brought it to class with him one morning. He explained that several years before, he had taken it to the gym with him to read on the treadmill and ran across a passage that discussed using speech to communicate something deeper than just the words that perfectly expressed his feelings about acting. He read us the passage and then said simply, “I read that…and I fell off the treadmill.” And I knew that someday I would have to read the book that affected someone I respect that much so deeply.

There’s a difference in intimacy between sharing a favorite book with a friend because the two of you have a shared love of action-packed science fiction or lyrical prose or swashbuckling, badass queer ladies and in saying, “This book was important to me. It changed my life/shaped my thinking/perfectly captured my feelings.” Sharing the books that inspired us to make changes in our lives or that made us lose control of our feelings or our bodies is a profoundly intimate act. It’s like saying, “Here’s a piece of my soul. Please look at it.” When our listeners read that book, they reaffirm that intimacy with us, effectively saying, “You matter to me. I see you, and I want to know you better.” This shared intimacy can transform a mediocre reading experience into a good one, and a good read into a sublime one.

Have you ever loved a book because of the person you knew who loved it? Come tell me about it.

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Liyana is a queer actor, aerialist, bookworm, and tea enthusiast. She lives in the Pacific Northwest and is confused by the concept of “free time.”

 

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Very Specific Book Recs: Historical Queer Ladies

When I was about 5 years old, my father read Watership Down out loud to me. I was way into the characters, the epic adventures they had, and even the stories they told each other about Ancient Rabbit Heroes With Unpronounceable Names, but I was less enamored of the long descriptive passages. According to my dad, I’d sit patiently for a paragraph or two of description, but if Richard Adams’s depiction of the countryside went on any longer than that, I’d interrupt with a plaintive, “But Daddy, where are the rabbits?”

Much as I love the genre, that’s generally how I feel when I read historical fiction as an adult, only replace “rabbits” with “queer ladies.” At least 1/10 of the ladies in history must have been queer, so where the hell are they? And why doesn’t the author of the book I’m reading seem to care? And if the author doesn’t care about what was happening to people like me during the time period they’re writing about, how much do I care about what happens to any of their straight characters? (Spoiler alert: probably not that much, unless they are a Naguib Mahfouz level literary genius, because I am a cranky queer feminist, and that’s how I roll.)

Fortunately for me (and for you), there are some brilliant historical fiction writers who have not only considered my “But where are the queer ladies?” question, but have answered it with, “Right here, being awesome!” Here are some of my all-time favorite books starring historical queer ladies:

1. Hild by Nicola Griffith

9780374280871_custom-dba405fdd210ea13df71aefd93403eaf3d8501dc-s6-c30What it’s about: The first book in a planned trilogy about the life of Britain’s St. Hilda of Whitby, Hild traces the title character’s life from age 3 to age 19 as she and her family navigate war, court politics, and religious shifts in 6th century Britain.

Read this if: You want a gorgeously written, immersive experience that will make you feel like you’re navigating serious sociopolitical issues and intense emotional journeys right along with Hild, and/or you’re intrigued by the idea of a writer combining historical research with science-fiction-honed world-building skills to breathe the 6th century into life.

No, really, read this even if: You’re intimidated by trying to navigate Anglo-Saxon and Old Irish names and places on this large a scale, because never fear! Nicola Griffith has created a wealth of supplemental materials to help you through.

Steer clear if: You will find discussion of rape and consent issues triggering, or you’re not feeling up to reading about the realities of war.

2. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

ColorPurpleWhat it’s about: Through a series of letters spanning several decades, Celie chronicles her life in early 20th century Georgia, from her girlhood with an abusive father to her arranged, exploitative marriage to her coming into her own, finding her voice, and creating a community for herself.

Read this if: You want a breathtakingly beautiful and compulsively readable novel about passion, love, unconventional families of choice, the discovery of self, and the survival of terrible things, and/or you are tired of white ladies hogging the historical fiction spotlight.

Steer clear if: You will find depictions of physical abuse, rape, and virulent Jim-Crow-era racism triggering.

3. The Last Nude by Ellis Avery

10836810 What it’s about: Rafaela Fano, a young Italian-American fleeing an arranged marriage, accepts a job modeling for Neoclassical Cubist painter Tamara de Lempicka in 1920s Paris. Great art, love, and betrayal ensue until World War II ruins everything.

Read this if: You want a passionate story of intense love and loss that might remind you of your own first love, and/or you find the idea of running into Gertrude Stein (and the rest of the era’s famous ex-pats, including an alternate-universe Hemingway) in a social context thrilling.

Steer clear if: You find unreliable narrators irritating or will find depiction of prostitution, rape (both statutory and otherwise), and anti-Semitism triggering.

4. Life Mask by Emma Donoghue

9781443406956What it’s about: Celebrated actress Eliza Farren, convention-defying sculptor Anne Damer, and peer of the realm Edward Smith-Stanley navigate high society and weather scandal (including accusations of lesbianism against the ladies) in 18th century London.

Read this if: You want a slow-paced, slice-of-life exploration of high society social interactions and artistic pursuits written in such a pitch-perfect historical voice that excerpts from the characters’ real-life letters are woven in seamlessly.

Steer clear if: You will be annoyed that you have to wait more than 400 pages for it to be confirmed whether any of the ladies are actually queer, let alone for any queer ladies to make out with each other.

5. Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller

f23860What it’s about: Two young women fall in love in early 19th century New England and overcome class differences, societal expectations, and homophobia in order to build a life together.

Read this if: You want a sweet, well-written love story with plenty of hot lesbian sex scenes, and/or are intrigued by the idea of 19th century non-binary gender expression.

Steer clear if: You will find depiction of sexual assault and violently homophobic families triggering.

6. Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

9781860495243What it’s about: When she falls in love with a professional male impersonator, Nancy King leaves her life as an oystergirl in small town, Victorian-era England and begins an odyssey of self-discovery that includes drag show performance, cross-dressing prostitution, forays into the high society lesbian kink scene, and socialist organizing.

Read this if: You want characters who are beautifully, infuriatingly real and unpredictable, compelling plots.

Steer clear if: You are not in the mood for a potentially-disturbing detour into the seamy underbelly of the Victorian kink scene.

7. Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg

9781555838539_custom-5c027f71c8b1d234dfc81f043c01bb8afc5dc50b-s6-c30 What it’s about: After growing up working class in a small town in the 1950s, labor organizer Jess Goldberg navigates life in the violently transphobic and homophobic mid-century United States first as a butch lesbian, then as a trans person.

Read this if: You want a front row seat for the development of the LGBT rights movement, both pre- and post-Stonewall, brought to life through such vivid description of individual experience you’ll feel like you’re living it along with Jess.

Steer clear if: You don’t think you can handle being hit with the emotional equivalent of a sledgehammer right now. ALL OF THE TRIGGER WARNINGS APPLY. NO, REALLY. ALL OF THEM.

~~~~~~~~~

Liyana is a queer actor, aerialist, bookworm, and tea enthusiast. She lives in the Pacific Northwest and is confused by the concept of “free time.”

 

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