My Bookish Journey to the Wizard of Out
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.
… 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.
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
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.
What books have you found that helped you shape your identity? What books changed your life?
*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.