Your guide to LGBTQ literature to read this Pride Month

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Baldwin, Brown, Feinberg, Forster, Holleran, Hollinghurst, Lorde, Stein, Walker… These are just a few of the legendary writers who created, nurtured and expanded the queer literary canon over decades. Granted, they are titans of the West, but their books are classics that have seen many people identify with their subjects as they grew up reading them under the sheets by torchlight so as not to be caught with a ‘funny book’. These visionaries (and many, many others) bravely paved the way for increased queer exposure in pop culture. They are the reason that so much of what we have today exists by way of LGBTQ+ representation across mediums.

If you were to map the trajectory of queer literature from as recently as the 1980s till the present day, you’d see just how much it has changed. Early practitioners wrote at a time when same-sex love was still largely taboo, with any literary expression of it lurking chiefly in the shadows. Today’s queer literature, by comparison, is unapologetic, truthful, inclusive, even stereotype-bashingly exuberant. But that’s not to say that there aren’t any more shadows, just that there is more light filtering through.

If you have already devoured the works of the aforementioned authors and their peers, consider the titles below. After all, there aren't many better ways to spend the last few days of Pride Month social distancing than with a stack of books for company (and a reading list to power through the lockdown).

How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones

There’s never been a better time to pick up Jones’s book as the world, with the US in particular, battles heightened racial inequality. The winner of the 2019 Kirkus Prize in non-fiction and the 2020 Stonewall Book Award, Jones’s moving (and haunting) memoir tells the story of a young black man from the South trying to make it in a polarised country that often cannot see beyond the colour of one’s skin. The result? An unputdownable work of art.

Marriage Of A Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu

The premise of this book is a ‘marriage of convenience’, something that is all too common a topic amongst LGBTQ+ South Asians, both in their native countries and around the world. Lucky, a lesbian, and her husband Krishna, a gay man, portray the image of conjugal bliss in order to appease their Sri Lankan-American families while dating on the side. Everything seems to be going smoothly till Lucky returns home to care for her grandmother, who has had a fall. Here, she bumps into her first lover, Nisha, who is getting ready to marry a man she’s never met. As Lucky and Nisha navigate the years spent apart, things come to the fore as they attempt to steer themselves through the lives they are living as they ponder the one they could live.

Swimming In The Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski

The year’s best debut so far, Jedrowski’s book is set in 1980s Poland, amid the decline of communism; a world of many divides, where some eat cabbage while others feast on caviar. The prose is beautiful, as measured in its tenor as it is evocative in its emotion. And then there’s the beauty of the text at its very centre: James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, from which the novel’s protagonists, Ludwik and Janusz, who meet at a summer agricultural camp, draw strength and courage in a society that otherwise demonises them. But fate is not always kind, and the lovers soon find themselves on opposite sides of the political divide in a rapidly crumbling system that begins to slowly pull them apart.

A People's History Of Heaven by Mathangi Subramanian

A finalist at this year’s Lambda Literary Awards, Subramanian’s book takes us into the lives of five girls—a graffiti artist, a transgender Christian convert, a blind girl who loves to dance, and the queer daughter of a hijabi union leader—who live in a slum squashed between the glittering high-rises of Bengaluru. Here, women and their lived experiences are front and centre, with men making mere appearances. When the government attempts to level the slum, the girls and their mothers rally to battle the bulldozers, determined that they will not be defeated nor displaced.

The Carpet Weaver by Nemat Sadat

The first gay novel to come out of Afghanistan, Sadat’s book, set in 1977, is a perfectly paced read that takes the reader deep into the heart of one of the most shrouded and conservative places on the planet, where being kuni (a derogatory term for ‘gay’) carries the death penalty. When Kanishka Nurzada, the son of a carpet seller, falls in love with his friend, the fear of being caught is quickly supplanted by the brutality of war, which sees Nurzada and his family turned into POW at an internment camp in Pakistan, before escaping to the US where he starts a new life.

Exciting Times: A Novel by Naoise Dolan

A debut novel that’s been likened by many to Sally Rooney’s work wins Dolan’s book praise and a foot in the door. The story centres on idealistic Irish expat Ava, who has moved to Hong Kong to get away from life in Dublin, but gets lumped with teaching English to rich kids, shattering whatever notions she came with of leading an independent life far from home. Relief comes in the form of banker Julian, who treats her well; so well, in fact, that she’s willing to let her feminist ideology take a back seat and gets carried away with the high life he offers, which of course quickly turns into a sexual relationship. But the real trouble only starts when Julian departs on a business trip, leaving the door open for ambitious lawyer Edith to make an entrance (and quite a mark). Ava finds herself not only attracted to Eva, but somewhat envious—she wants her life, but she wants her too. But when Julian announces he is returning to the city, Ava must decide which path she wishes to tread.

The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar

High school can be tough, and not just academically or hormonally. It can also be harder if you’re a Bangladeshi girl in an all-girl Catholic institution coming to terms with the fact that you’re a lesbian. That’s Nishat, whose brave decision to come out to her folks after attending a community wedding doesn’t quite go the way she had hoped, because “Muslim girls are not lesbians”. Thankfully, she’s got her sister Priti on her side, and the bond between the two is serious sisterhood inspiration. But of course, there are many bumps in the road ahead, and the next one is Nishat’s childhood friend Flávia, who returns to town and is more striking than Nishat recalls. When a school competition invites students to create their own business as part of a project, Nishat decides to set up a henna business, but, complicatedly, so does Flávia because she likes the designs. Heated conversations on cultural appropriation aside, prejudice, racism, homophobia and much more butt heads in this wonderfully woven tale.

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

This book is the closest you’ll get to a modern-day gay fairy tale (yes, it even has a prince!). It also scores on representation. The protagonist, Alex Claremont-Diaz, is the swooningly handsome First Son (his mother is the US’s first Latina president) whose dating life is splashed across tabloids, much like that of his nemesis’ across the pond, the more reticent Prince Henry of the UK. They’ve always had a bit of a rough-and-tumble relationship, but when their latest social meeting ends in a fisticuffs-fuelled fiasco that makes headlines, the two young men are forced to concoct a fake friendship to keep US-UK ties from sinking. What follows is a gleeful page-turner as the two former foes discover they actually have more in common than they thought (their sexuality, being the centre of attention, pressing family demands, and the need to keep up appearances). It’s impossible not to lose yourself in the roller-coaster ride and laugh and scream along.

The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya

This book from multidisciplinary artist Shraya, an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Calgary and a six-time Lambda Literary Award finalist, whose previous works I’m Afraid Of Men and The Boy & The Bindi received much praise, explores the Canadian indie music space through the POC lens. It’s the story of Neela and Rukmini (the former, a musician; the latter, a trans* internet celebrity). Neela has achieved moderate, small-scale success, that is until Rukmini covers one of her songs on YouTube. The two suddenly find themselves pushed together, catering to fans who want to see more of their lives, until a singular subtweet threatens to destroy everything they’ve built as rivalries arise in a system created to cater largely to advancing the careers of white folk.

Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar

Too often we forget that India too has a wealth of queer literature. This book delves into the lives of a traditional Maharashtrian family, in which the brother and sister both fall in love with the same man. It shocked many people when it was first published (Kundalkar wrote it when he was only 22). Many years later, it was translated into English by Jerry Pinto and became an instant icon.

Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) by Hazel Jane Plante

A queer transwoman’s letter to a friend who died, the book’s highly experimental style (it is composed as a draft of a fictional TV show) and its employment of worlds within worlds and its meta fiction approach has people talking, as does its sensitive treatment of the exploration of trans* identities and longing. The book won the Transgender Fiction award at the 2020 Lambda Literary Awards and is a testament to the power of pop culture when it strives for accurate representation—for those folx who otherwise rarely get to see or live and experience authentic trans* lives.

Under The Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

Ijeoma is only 11 years old when her father dies and her country, Nigeria, plunges into civil war. She and her mother find themselves rudderless, bereft not only of a father and husband, but also separated from a lifestyle they had become accustomed to. Ijeoma’s mother sends her away in order to plan their next steps as a mother-daughter duo in a deeply patriarchal society. Ijeoma eventually meets an orphan named Amina and they fall in love, but their relationship is soon discovered. In a country that still criminalises and brutally punishes expressions of queer love, Okparanta’s book is a heartwrenching tale that serves as a reminder of the costs people have to pay to be themselves and live authentic lives.

Mohanaswamy by Vasudhendra

Few know of this book, fewer still of its importance—it shook the Kannada literary scene when it was published, thanks to its unapologetic, truthful and gritty narrative, and acted as a catalyst for its author’s coming out. Vasudhendra is a regional juggernaut; he has written 13 books in Kannada and won numerous awards, including the Kannada Sahitya Akademi Book Prize. The English translation, by Rashmi Terdal, means you have no excuse to not add this to your bookshelf. It might even open your eyes to other regional gems of queer Indian literature.

You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

Culture, religion and sexuality collide in Arafat’s debut novel that is told in snapshots that hurtle between the US and the Middle East as it follows the protagonist-narrator’s journey from her teenage years to adulthood. Having grown up in a conservative society means there’s plenty bottled up and left unexplored, so when she moves into a flat in Brooklyn with her first serious girlfriend, things don’t go quite as smoothly as they’d hoped.

Also read:

Queerantine: How India’s LGBTQ+ community is surviving the lockdown

LGBTQ+ lives in lockdown: The issues facing queer youth

5 queer Indian influencers you should be following on Instagram

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