The Way We Were

The new queer memoirs go far beyond the traditional coming-out narratives.

BY Diane Anderson-Minshall

July 12 2013 4:00 AM ET

When B. Ruby Rich coined the term “New Queer Cinema” in 1992, she was defining a new movement of LGBT indie films where sexuality was fluid and subversive and the storylines anything but heteronormative. It was the film movement needed in the ’90s, but a similar ethos could describe a vein in literature today.

The last decade has brought forth an onslaught of heretofore absent memoirs about LGBT lives. Most focus on coming out, finding oneself, identity politics, or family, and many were written by white, middle-class, educated gays, in a style that is familiar to readers of the memoir genre. Now, a New Queer Memoir has emerged in force, and these books either buck the literary conventions in style, structure, and format, or offer entirely new queer and trans narratives.

There will always be a place for conventional memoirs; several new ones, including Ross Mathews’s lighthearted Man Up! (Hachette, $25), Rupert Everett’s charming Vanished Years (Little, Brown and Co., $19.95), Annie Rachele Lanzillotto’s disheartening L is for Lion (SUNY Press, $24.95), and Melanie Hoffert’s moving rural opus Prairie Silence (Beacon Press, $24.95) are all worthy reads. But the books that are really changing the landscape take a deeper look at individual lives in ways a narrator wouldn’t dare 20 or 30 years ago, when being queer or trans was such a big issue it had to be the story itself.

Just as last year’s releases (both new to paperback this year) Through the Door of Life, by Joy Ladin (University of Wisconsin Press, $19.95), and A Queer and Pleasant Danger, by Kate Bornstein (Beacon Press, $16), started from similar points (both authors are Jewish, transgender women) and went in wildly different directions, we see the same with the new memoirs, which often have overlapping themes.

Caroline Paul’s Lost Cat (Bloomsbury, $20) and Dr. Nancy Davidson’s The Secrets of Lost Cats (St. Martin’s Press, $24.99), which Publishers Weekly named one of the top 10 memoirs of 2013, explore the authors’ complicated relationships with their animal companions after real or perceived abandonment. Both revolve around the same issues, as well: depression and loss, the definition of family, cat stalking, and general wonderment, creating life-affirming memoirs about love and family in the guise of simple cat books.

Harley Loco (Viking/Penguin, $27.95) is Syrian-American lesbian Rayya Elias’s memoir of “hard living, hair, and post-punk from the Middle East to the Lower East Side.” From being a bullied immigrant kid in Detroit to her ongoing drug addiction in New York, Elias's memoir details her life on the streets, addiction, jail, and failed relationships. And lots of lots of drugs. It’s a contrast to but shares cultural terrain with Kamal Al-Solaylee’s story of growing up gay in Yemen during a political upheaval that saw his family go from one of the wealthiest in the area to being forced to flee. Intolerable (HarperCollins, $15.99) is complex and engaging, especially as the coming out narrative gives way to a cultural analysis of the irreconcilable differences that come from Al-Solaylee’s life in the Middle East and his call to the West.

Looking at landscapes — political or geographic, literal or figurative — from the outside is a theme that recurs in several recent LGBT memoirs, notably in Barrie Jean Borich’s Body Geographic (University of Nebraska Press, $17.95), which does an excellent job of showing how dislocation sometimes means finding oneself, and Damian Barr’s vivid and engaging Maggie & Me (Bloomsbury, $16.99), which traces his life as a boy in Scotland as Margaret Thatcher comes to power, surviving the 1980s as a gay kid in a working-class town ravaged by Thatcherism. It’s Barr's youthful anxiety that is the most engaging; in one chapter he recounts how he is convinced he has AIDS and stays awake to practice lying still for his coffin — he is 11.

Two provocative reads, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s The End of San Francisco (City Lights, $15.95) and Amber Dawn’s How Poetry Saved My Life (Arsenal Pulp Press, $15.95) could be read as companion pieces; each is messy and defies easy classification. Dawn’s memoir follows the interloping narratives of sex work, queer identity, and the transformation that comes from creation, but it’s at its most raw when she describes life hustling on the streets of Vancouver, alternately tackling the fear, violence, and danger and the solidarity and “ghetto feminism” forged between sex workers. Sycamore’s work, on the other hand, is structurally challenging, and reads like it was driven more by free association — Freud’s psychoanalytic technique that employs spontaneous and unconstrained collecting of emotions and ideas — than by any style taught in an English literature classroom. The result is brilliant, a collection of unstructured vignettes about sex abuse, dying parents, feminism and veganism, Tracy Chapman and Le Tigre, dyke bars and gay tricks, AIDS and ACT UP that all weave together a life of hope in ’90s San Francisco and the disappointment that follows. Sycamore and Dawn are both brazen truth-tellers in a format where happy, pat endings are usually needed to tidy up queer lives.

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