My Bookish Journey to the Wizard of Out

19 June 2014 by 19 Comments

dorothy

Happy Pride y’all!!

So today I put on my rainbow suspenders and sat down to write a post about all the important queer* books that influenced me growing up and prepared me to become the fabulous lesbian that now sits before you.

Except …

… I couldn’t think of any.

I grew up in boring, depressing Kansas (Iowa actually, but I’m trying to be metaphorical) where everything was in black and white and queer books were confiscated like cute little dogs because they might be dangerous.

kidnapping toto

Just click your heels three times and say “There’s no such thing as queer people, there’s no such thing as queer people, there’s no such thing as queer people” and everything will be fine.

There were, certainly, other books that impacted me strongly. Books that set the stage for realizations that would follow after the Coming Out Tornado whisked me away to a land full of color and magic.

Books like Anne of Green Gables, because, FOR REALZ can we all agree to ship Anne/Diana please? Seriously—I don’t doubt that Anne loves Gilbert, but girl has a serious bisexual lady crush on Di and her raven locks of hair. When I read it as a child, I related to Anne with an intensity that I didn’t quite understand. Now I see that a big part of that was Anne’s feelings for her “best friend,” something that I felt several times growing up and never understood why these feelings weren’t returned in kind.

Another was The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, which tells the Arthurian legend from the POV of his half-sister Morgaine/Morgan Le Fay. Morgaine’s community is matriarchal and female centric. They worship the Goddess and hold sacred the power that women posses to give life. But in come the Christians with their one – male — God, and men who take over the country, driving the old ways into the Mist. This book was the first that made me feel like a complete and powerful person. I’ll never forget the realization that only once I had found this feeling, I knew I had been lacking it my entire life. It was the first step to owning my own identity. To knowing that I wasn’t just a future wife and future mother as I had been raised to think of myself. I was a complete person.

I’m led to wonder whether it would have changed anything if it had been my teenage years, rather than college and my early twenties that I read the queer books that would impact me so greatly. If I’d stumbled across Annie on My Mind in my high school library instead of a feminist bookstore, would I have picked it up? Would I have recognized myself in its pages? Would I have kept going past the horror of the first 50 pages in Stone Butch Blues if it hadn’t been the selection for a Lesbian Book Club? Would I have been interested in Emma Donoghue’s retelling of fairy tales in Kissing the Witch if I weren’t looking for mythology that I could relate to?

If I’d read these a decade earlier, before I went searching for this part of myself in books, I wonder– would I have found myself there?

I don’t really know.

Maybe, for me, the Rainbow Brick Road that led to the Wizard of Out had to begin in Feminist Land. Maybe I first had to develop an identity that was not dependent on my relationship to men before I could even think of asking myself whether I wanted a relationship with them at all.

But maybe if I’d read The Miseducation of Cameron Post in high school instead of grad school I would have realized both those things at once. Maybe if I’d been handed Fun Home along with Pride and Prejudice by my high school librarian, I’d have saved myself years of heartache.

Because once I got carried Over the Rainbow, it turned out it was all there waiting for me.

In general my response to any problem is to go to the library

wizard-of-oz

Please sir, can you tell me where to find books on dismantling the patriarchy?

so my first order of business arriving in the Lez-mereld City was to do just that. Never much for self-help things before, I read all sorts of “How to Lesbian” type books, looking for any set of instructions to tell me how to be who I was. Who was supposed to call after a date? Who paid for dinner? Did I have to like quinoa now and grow organic vegetables? There was this whole new set of rules to my life and I wanted to learn them yesterday.

But I found that ultimately it was fiction that was the most helpful in forging this new version of me. I made it my quest to READ ALL THE QUEER BOOKS! I devoured Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters. I inhaled everything Jeanette Winterson ever wrote in her life. I read David Levithan, and Alison Bechdel. I watched every Andrea Gibson YouTube video that had ever been made.

I found a new kind of story, and it dramatically changed the way I read everything. Now, I have significantly less patience for the “plight of the middle class cis/het white man” narrative. I get frustrated at the “woman has midlife crisis and discovers her inner beauty actually comes from putting three meals on the table and driving kids to soccer practice” narrative. I become a giant squid of anger at the “manic pixie dream girl” narrative in which women are only ever accessories and devices to further the angsty man pain plot points.

It’s one of the things I love about small press–the willingness to tell new stories and tell them in a new way. Because there are other stories out there that need to be told more often. There are people still living in black and white without ever knowing that Technicolor exists. There are stories that people of all ages and all colors don’t even know yet that they’re missing.

Stories that could change their lives, if only they could find them.

It’s why I’m a teen librarian, why I love book blogs and small press publishing companies and why I’m always yapping about diversity on twitter. Because the more available all these stories are, hopefully fewer people will look back and wonder how different their lives could have been if they’d stumbled across that Rainbow Brick Road a few or a lot of years earlier.

wicked for good

Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? But because I read you, I have been changed for good.

What books have you found that helped you shape your identity? What books changed your life?

**Note**

*When I use the word “queer” I mean it as an umbrella term to encompass all gender and sexual identities that fall outside heterosexual and cis/gender normative. I mean it as an affirming, celebratory word that is a whole lot easier to say and type than LGBTQQUIAAP.

Alex

Alex is a teen librarian in Chicago. Also a super short red-headed Ravenclaw, a loudmouth feminist, a social justice advocate and general all around nerd. (Read more ramblings at Lezbrarian)

19 thoughts on “My Bookish Journey to the Wizard of Out

  1. I love this post. Love it.

    I just typed a long response about my own awakening as a cis woman who never wanted to have kids…and lost the whole thing before I could post it. Sigh. Maybe I’ll re-type it on the computer later.

    For now, though, [high five]. You’ve given me a great list of books to read.

    • Thanks! I’m glad you liked it. I have tons more recommendations if you ever want them :) And I’d love to hear what you had to say before technology was dumb to you if you have time later.

  2. Great post, Sarah. Like many readers, I am very familiar with that “Oh man, I wish I’d found this book X number of years ago” feeling, and I think it’s amazing that you’re in a position to help teens connect with books that they can relate to and that can help them figure out who they are (and most importantly, feel good about who they are).

    • Yeah I’m incredibly lucky to have my dream job. And get to play around with books and cool technology all day long.
      Looking back is always an interesting exercise for me. I read a quote once that was something to the extent of “never regret choices because at one time it was exactly what you wanted” and I tend to think that even if I went back in time and told my younger self any number of things I still wouldn’t have listened to me. But the whole “comes into your life at a certain time for a reason” gets into ideas of destiny and fate and I’m not really about all that, so I dunno. I do enjoy a good existential musing though!

  3. Sandra Scoppettone was available in my middle school library. We were supposed to have parental permission to read her stuff, but if you knew people who had permission, they’d check them out and lend them to you. She covered all kinds of issues considered taboo, and I appreciated her for it.

  4. So, this is all a little late for you now, but I think the kids you work with might benefit from Francesca Lia Block.

    Also, David Colby’s Debris Dreams is YA sf with a queer protagonist. Totally no big, it’s just that she’s got a girlfriend.

  5. That’s a really interesting question for me — what if I’d read something like Annie On My Mind, or In Sea-Salt Tears, or if Sherlock & its subsequent slash fanfics had existed when I was in high school or earlier?

    For one thing, I don’t think I’d have felt as comfortable reading them…I’d have felt like I was doing something I shouldn’t. It’s not that homosexuality ever came up in my house before then, and I really don’t remember it coming up in school, either in a supportive or non-supportive sense. I just remember having the sense that it was something really hard to be. And I remember seeing part of an Ellen show where she was telling her friends about a girl she used to have a huge crush on, and I remember feeling like, “Wait, what? That’s…different.” Because I’d only ever seen cis/hetero relationships on TV and in movies.

    And the thing is, I’ve had less than a handful of crushes on girls/women, amid the scores of crushes I had on guys, so I didn’t fully identify as bi until I met someone two years ago who triggered that serious heart-pounding OMG-I-want-you feeling that, after several months trying to pretend it wasn’t happening, became way too obvious to ignore. It was like I had my own Disney’s Hercules muses in my head saying, “Just admit it already — you know exactly what you’re feeling (and it’s ok).” I never really did anything about it, though, because this person was/is already in a committed relationship with a guy. Sigh.

    Tl;dr – like a few others have said, I think the stories I love now just wouldn’t have meant as much to me if I’d read them earlier. Including, ironically, one story w/ a hetero couple, because in my head the woman looked like my crush. It’s Arthur and Fenchurch from the H2G2 series (though I refuse to accept the events of Book 5. Re. Fuse. They lived happily ever after riding scooters and exploring the universe together forever The End).

      • That’s kind of funny because I actually hate Wicked. *ducks* I KNOW!! But here are my reasons: 1) Stephen Schwartz basically said that he didn’t care about being faithful to the book and just wanted to make a popular musical that would sell. Which he did but like…. I don’t even think he’s READ the book. And they changed all the things I liked in the book. And that makes me cranky. 2) As a trained singer I have to tell you that Idina Menzel is kind if the worst. She just uses terrible technique which I wouldn’t care about but when I’ve had students literally ruin their voices to the point of needing surgery bc they’re copying her I’m just like STOP. And 3) Kristin Chenoweth bugs the mother living shit out of me. If I have to read one more interview with her talking about how she’s 98 lbs I’m gonna throw up.
        But the quote just worked so well.
        (Don’t hate me lol!!!)

  6. I mean, the books I identified with most in my teens were Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, which probably says more about the kind of teenager I was than I should really cop to on the internet, but I would never have come across either of them if my dad hadn’t given them to me (along with most of the other great books in my early life). Without them, recognition of my own cheerful deviance would have taken many more years and much more angst.

    Thinking about that, though, it’s curious that the two books that really opened the doors to certain parts of myself were decidedly, emphatically masculine, and I really can’t think of a female equivalent to either Miller or Portnoy. I guess the gender disconnect never occurred to me because I just really needed their stories of exploration, and those were already far enough outside the tame norms of the books considered “suitable” for 15-year-olds.

    • I didnt ever think about gender in authors as I was growing up either, but when it was pointed out I was like whoa! In general I gravitated to female authors. But maybe that was also just what was suggested to me. There’s no way to know!

  7. I love this post! I think the struggle to find one’s identity is something everyone can relate too. I look back on my own life and how my friends and family tried so hard to influence who I would become, but I was never truly happy or comfortable with myself until I discovered what it was I wanted to be on my own and began to realize it. I’m sure we’re all still works in progress, but as we are able to self-actualize more and more, our own skin seems to fit better.

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