The Way We Were
BY Diane Anderson-Minshall
July 12 2013 3:00 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.
The most enlightening of the memoirs, though, revolve around family — having one, making one, losing one. Suzy Becker, who wrote I Had Brain Surgery, What’s Your Excuse? returns with another poignant and hilariously illustrated memoir that details her quest, at 39, to become a mother. One Good Egg (Bloomsbury, $25) follows Becker’s quest to become a mom with old eggs, a defective tube, and a post-brain surgery body, with but her Aussie friend Steve and her new partner Lorena there by her side. It’s both modern and timeless and funny as heck.
Jennifer Finney Boylan (pictured right), perhaps one of the best-known trans writers of our generation, is back with Stuck in the Middle With You (Crown, $24), her story of living as a father for 10 years, a mother for eight, and some time in between as both (she calls it “the parental version of the schnoodle or the cockapoo”). What makes the book remarkable are the conversations Boylan has with other LGBT notables — many of whom are parents — including gay authors Edward Albee and Augusten Burroughs, New Yorker scribe Ann Beattie, and Dr. Christine McGinn, the backup flight surgeon for the space shuttle and a trans woman. In the final chapter, Anna Quindlen interviews Boylan and Deedie, her wife of 25 years. The variety of opinions and voices makes this the least self-congratulatory memoir of all time and lends an “it takes a village” feel to a fantastic book about parenting in three genders.
Another book that tackles gender and parenting is Lori Duron’s smart and witty Raising My Rainbow: Adventures in Raising a Fabulous, Gender Creative Son (Crown, $15), which is out in September. Duron is the popular blogger behind RaisingMyRainbow.com, which has fans far and wide; Neil Patrick Harris and his husband wrote the book’s introduction. The memoir expounds on the blog’s topic in this first-of-its kind volume, a frank, funny, feminist book about raising two kids, both assigned male at birth, but one who likes to sing Lady Gaga, dance ballet, and wear a sparkly pink tutu. C.J.’s gender variance is not just tolerated by the family; they’re working with schools and other institutions to make the world a better place for their child, whom Duron calls her “slightly effeminate, possibly gay, totally fabulous son” while also making the admission that C.J. could be transgender — and that’s fine by her. Duron and her husband consider themselves part of the LGBT community, an expansive view that seems to make for a whole new subgenre of the LGBT memoir. And two of the best new books fall within that canon.
Amy Hollingsworth’s new memoir, Letters from the Closet (Howard Books, $19.99), follows her sort-of platonic contemporary love affair with her gay high school English teacher, whom she credits with having saved her life. Hollingsworth weaves together a decade of letters between them, a raw and unvarnished look at an intimate relationship between a brilliant but vulnerable student and her mentor, John, a closeted gay man, as they each reach beyond the confines of their lives. Hollingsworth is anorexic, coping with a broken home and an alcoholic father; John is a closeted man dies of AIDS at 40. It’s a tale of beautiful self-discovery and harsh truths, and at one point John writes to the author, “I hope our relationship survives your growing up and my growing down.” It clearly did. The book serves as a tribute to a man who, warts and all, impacted the life of a young girl.
A pair of books are exquisite and personal tales of love and community, resilience and family, and life as the daughter of queer man in the 1970s. The first is Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father (W.W. Norton, $25.95), by Alysia Abbott; the second is Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter: Growing Up with a Gay Dad (Knopf, $24), by Alison Wearing. When Wearing’s father came out when she was 12, she “went in” and began not just to hide her father’s sexual orientation but to concoct creative stories about the “straight” things he did. Fast-forward decades, and her memoir weaves together the story of this time from three perspectives: her own, her mother’s, and her father’s, the latter of which includes reams of journal entries and newspaper clippings he collected before and after coming out.
The more compelling of the two is Abbott’s, whose father was poet and activist Steve Abbott. After his wife’s death in 1973, Abbott comes out and moves his 3-year-old daughter to San Francisco, a city bustling with performers and poets, queers and intellectuals, freaks and gay men indulging in the height of sexual liberation. The two struggle to make a home in a world of bad boyfriends and wonderful intellectuals, finding an equal balance between his need to express himself and her need to be parented by someone who understands girlhood. Just as they reach a happy place and as Steve gains recognition for his work, San Francisco is hit with the first wave of AIDS, which kills many of the duo’s friends, and eventually Steve. Abbott writes eloquently of the cultural amnesia around AIDS today, the “heavy, warlike losses of the AIDS years” that are now relegated to queer studies classes, and how it stuns her still. She incorporates her father’s work, his poems and letters, into her own book, and contacts his old friends, each time hearing the words she so longs to hear: “I remember you.” She seeks out her dad’s obituary in the Bay Area Reporter, the most exhaustive collection of AIDS obits from the early years, finding her father and their old friends, long gone, obits of young men with their ’80s haircuts, frozen in time in a way that makes the author sob today. She lived queer history, she shared the grief of those years, and she carries with her the disruption of that fairyland as they knew it even today. “Though I am straight and haven’t had a living gay parent for almost 20 years,” she writes, “I still feel a part of this queer community. This queer history is my queer history. This queer history is our queer history.”
That’s what the best of these memoirs proves: this isn’t just LGBT history; this is American history, as told by the next generation of voices brave enough to tell it like it is — or was.