15 Books By Queer Writers You Should Read

From experimental memoir to compelling fiction.

The Year of Blue Water, Yanyi (Yale University Press)

This debut collection from poet Yanyi is a delicate, potent meditation on loneliness and connection. Immigration, queerness, transness, solitude, and community are explored as a way of understanding oneself in the world. It’s also about locating oneself in the body, writing and art as communal pursuits, and searching for and locating queerness through tarot, TV, and reading. The Year of Blue Water is a beautiful, honest constellation of prose poems that will resonate with readers of all identities.

Real Queer America: LGBT Stories From Red States, Samantha Allen (Little, Brown and Company)

Samantha Allen is an award-winning journalist with some pretty impressive bylines. Her first book is a travelogue, a work of reporting, and even an anthology of sorts: of stories from LGBTQ people living in what the coastal elite call “flyover country.” What could have been a dry list of statistics and anecdotes is crafted into an engrossing journey full of humor, vulnerability, insightfulness, and joy. Allen’s utterly engaging voice is joined by the voices of her road brother Billy and everyone they meet along the way. She does an excellent job of blending interviews and research with her personal experience to paint an eye-opening picture of what it’s really like to be queer in red states. She makes a compelling case for the idea that America is incredibly queer. What results is a beautiful tapestry of, well, the real queer America.

Soft Science, Franny Choi (Alice James Books)

One of the best things about so many of the writers who are working today is that they’ve inadvertently created a Weird Gay Aunts club on Twitter. Franny Choi is an integral part of our collective Gay Aunts, alongside Carmen Maria Machado, T Kira Madden, Melissa Febos, Kristen Arnett, Danez Smith, Mira Jacob, Nicole Dennis-Benn, and Alexander Chee, among others. (Click through to create a wonderful Weird Gay Aunt party in your tabs. You’re welcome.) Choi’s latest full-length poetry collection, Soft Science, walks that blurry line between technology and humanity, organic and inorganic, futuristic tech and literal dirt. Themes of bodily autonomy (or lack thereof), chaos and order, fear and resilience, and outsiderness around gender and race are deftly conveyed in punchy yet operatic lines. It’s definitely atmospheric, and will leave you wondering at, or about, the world — and what it means to be human.

Crossfire: A Litany for Survival, Staceyann Chin (Haymarket Books)

Chin is perhaps best known for being a spoken word poet; she was a popular part of Def Poetry Jam (as was Bassey Ikpi, whose memoir I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying also came out this year). The poems in Crossfire span decades of Chin's life and work as a Jamaican girl who was abandoned by her parents, a lesbian, an immigrant, an outspoken social justice activist, and a single mother by choice (her daughter was conceived via IVF at a time when Chin wasn't partnered). To say Chin is dynamic both on the page and stage is an understatement. Many of the poems in this collection express rage at the patriarchy and everything it has created, and they don't hold back, which makes them incredibly liberating to read. Some are more introspective, particularly toward the end of the book, where they become more focused on interpersonal relationships (including with the self) and parenthood. Corporeal and ethereal at once, Chin’s poems are electric, and this collection shouldn’t be missed.

Bodies Built for Game: The Prairie Schooner Anthology of Contemporary Sports Writing, edited by Natalie Díaz and Hannah Ensor (University of Nebraska Press)

What stands out most about this anthology edited by former pro basketball player and poet Natalie Díaz and Lambda Literary Award–winning poet Hannah Ensor, is how broadly it defines “sportswriting.” It does this both in form — poetry rarely, if ever, makes it into sportswriting, and here it is dominant — and in content. Many of the pieces explore fandom and community around sport, sometimes describing it as religion; some use sport purely as an analogy or metaphor; some have sport as a catalyst for a story and some as the entire narrative. Whether addressing a wounded sense of identity that comes with injury or illness, exploring the ways in which sport can create family, or reckoning with the violence and oppression that is built into athletics, Bodies Built for Game poses the question: What is sport, and is it really so benign?

Willa & Hesper, Amy Feltman (Grand Central Publishing)

This debut novel from Feltman starts out with a couple of young women in a writing MFA program falling in love (meta!), but this is far from a straightforward romance. Instead, the short, intense relationship at the beginning peters out and the women are forced to pick up the pieces as they live thousands of miles apart. From New York City to Tbilisi to Berlin, with an ensemble of complex supporting characters, this book also includes meditations on faith, fear, sexual assault, modern queer identity, and how fraught it can be. Willa & Hesper is an engrossing, fast-paced read.

Time Is the Thing the Body Moves Through, T Fleischmann (Coffee House Press)

Fleischmann is an author, editor, essayist and critic, and this book-length essay is perfect for intellectual creative types who love to analyze art. In it, Fleischmann considers the work of artist Félix González-Torres, who was an openly gay Cuban American visual artist. They use his art as a jumping-off point to examine identity, grief, love, and violence. There’s a memoirlike tone to much of the writing here, as Fleischmann brings personal stories into the essay. This little book is dense and will be perfect for fans of Cyrus Grace Dunham, or anyone who loves art, queer storytelling, and surprisingly moving essays.

Gender Queer: A Memoir, Maia Kobabe (Lion Forge)

In this honest, visually stunning, and ultimately life-affirming graphic novel, writer and illustrator Kobabe has truly given the world — but especially gender-nonconforming, gender-questioning, and asexual folks — a gift. In not only writing, but gorgeously illustrating their journey of learning about gender and sexuality, Kobabe is contributing to a much-needed canon of stories that have long been actively erased. It’s a fast and uplifting read that is accessible to most readers, but is especially wonderful for queer readers who question gender. Its warmth and whimsy are a welcome reprieve from the all-too-clinical mainstream conversation about gender and sexuality.

The Summer of Dead Birds, Ali Liebegott (Feminist Press’s Amethyst Editions imprint)

Liebegott, a poet, has long been a pillar of the lesbian poetry scene, all the way back to the Sister Spit days, in addition to being a visual artist and TV writer. Her latest collection is a potent meditation on grief. Whether losing a person, pet, or relationship, the graceful and the ugly dovetail in these poems. Birds are delicate, majestic, elegant, and reckless — easily broken by this world and yet soar high above it. They serve as effective symbols and metaphor for losses small and large.

Flannelwood, Raymond Luczak (Red Hen Press)

Luczak is a prolific writer, editor, and playwright. He is also deaf and gay. His latest novel, Flannelwood, is a poetic and layered story: It’s an homage to Djuna Barnes’ 1936 novel Nightwood, a classic of queer literature; it’s an erotic portrayal of two men who meet at an OctoBear dance (I mean, what more do you want); it’s a winter story, a love story, and ultimately, an incredibly lyrical “own voices” story about a couple of gay men, one of whom has a disability, who burn with desire for each other and then disappear from each other’s lives. Short and engrossing, Flannelwood is well worth the read for poets, book nerds, queer folks, and anyone who rejects the notion that a disability needs to be a problem.

Brown White Black: An American Family at the Intersection of Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Religion, Nishta J. Mehra (Picador)

This fantastic memoir is such a welcome change from the glut of motherhood narratives that have been overwhelming bookshelves lately, which are mostly narratives by white women having existential crises about whether they want to have children. This is not that book. Brown White Black is the story of someone who has never questioned their desire to be a parent — though her wife has, in addition to how she and her family navigate the world. The author is of Indian descent, her wife is white, and the son they adopted is black (and, at the time of this story, 5 years old). The honesty and clarity with which Mehra lays out how the family traverses and makes decisions around race, gender, and social structures is so refreshing to read, even if you have no interest in parenthood yourself. Mehra and her wife are somehow able to be both pragmatic and idealistic about raising their gender-nonconforming black child as a mixed-race lesbian couple in America.

Native Country of the Heart, Cherríe Moraga (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

This moving memoir tells the story of Elvira Moraga, the mother of the author, a famous queer Chicana writer and activist probably best known for her role as coeditor of the seminal anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1983). The story is a biography that's adjacent to an autobiography. Cherríe's own life is secondary to, yet inextricably entwined with, that of Elvira — the mother with whom she had, like all mothers and daughters, a fraught but vital relationship. As Elvira slides into the slow disappearing of Alzheimer's, the reader is taken along a painful, extremely moving journey through personal and cultural histories of indigenous, mestiza, Mexican American women.

Burn the Place: A Memoir, Iliana Regan (Agate Midway)

Regan, a chef, is known for her Chicago restaurants, the Michelin-starred restaurant Elizabeth and Japanese-inspired pub Kitsune, as well as her farm bed-and-breakfast in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula called Milkweed Inn. This memoir tells a deeper story: Regan grew up on a rural Indiana farm with her parents and siblings, and despite her abusive father, in some ways it was idyllic. It was in her mother’s kitchen and in the fields, orchards, and barns of her childhood that she developed her sensory, instinct-based relationship to food and cooking. The book makes no attempt to hide how hard the restaurant and hospitality industry is, maybe especially for a self-taught chef, and a queer one at that. The prologue outlines a fantasy in which Regan burns her restaurant to the ground. She describes with honesty learning about her gender identity and sexuality at a young age, and writes some truly mouthwatering passages about food. The life Regan recounts in these pages is dramatic and complicated, told with an unapologetic voice you won’t soon forget.

Eye Bottle Dark With a Mouthful of Flowers, Jake Skeets (Milkweed Editions)

The cover of this debut poetry collection from Skeets, a Diné poet, is striking: a photograph of an indigenous man against a stark white background, shirt half untucked, a few dollar bills folded into his hand, staring into the camera with eyes that are “bottle dark.” The photograph is called “Drifter.” Skeets wrote about this photograph, which is of his uncle who died shortly after it was taken, and about how it informed not only the title poem but the entire collection. This context isn’t necessary to fall into and be swept away by Skeets’s crackling poems, but it does add more depth to them. The poems here are as visually gripping as they are stunning to read. They are a challenge to colonialist language and linguistic white supremacy; they are full of joy and fear, with overwhelming layers and gaping omissions that say just as much. Full of landscape imagery, queer love intimacy, violence, and flowers, this is an arresting collection from a poet worth watching.

A People’s History of Heaven, Mathangi Subramanian (Algonquin)

This sophomore novel from Subramanian, an author and educator, does something queer people do in real life all the time, but we rarely see on the page: It brings to life a community. The characters in A People’s History of Heaven form a tight-knit family, both biological and created, who band together even more strongly when the Bangalore slum they live in, called Heaven, is threatened by developers who want to build a mall. The characters bring this story to life. They are of varying ages, religions, abilities, genders, and sexualities, and in this way mirror many real-life queer communities in how their differences bring them together rather than dividing them. While the family experiences hardships and tensions, this is a story about the multitude of ways in which people can love and care for each other. ●

Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer based in Seattle. She can be found on Instagram @readrunsea, Twitter @sarahmariewrote, and on her website, sarahneilsonwriter.com.

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