When I decided to write what would become my hybrid memoir, The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic!, I knew the project would pay homage to my queer ancestors—those who helped shape me as an artist and activist. The process began with me writing ekphrastic poetry based on the work of visual artists: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Mickalene Thomas, Keith Haring, Chris Ofili, Robert Mapplethorpe, Renée Cox, Meredith Monk. I then transposed these exercises into essay, which was my plan all along. However, something was missing when I considered the final product; the essays didn’t feel connected.
Frustrated with this creative impasse and hours away from leaving for a residency at Ragdale, I impulsively repacked my suitcase. I tossed out most of my fabulous thrift-store outfits and replaced them with books I felt intuitively were in conversation with my own work. I quickly realized they were all books by queer writers. I thought, let these writers speak to me and tell me what to do. For the first week of the residency, all I did was read, stare out my window, and walk through the woods (okay, I also drank wine). Sure enough, as I summoned the voices of my queer mentors, they provided clear guidance. I completed the memoir three weeks later. It was a furious and satisfying process.
And now, as we shelter in place, I feel once again the need to surround myself with my queer literary family. I’m not yet sure why I feel this particular need; time will tell. But I have learned to listen. Some of the texts listed below I have already reread since beginning quarantine, and some are part of my summer queue. Others sit on my nightstand simply for the comfort I take in knowing they’re close. Perhaps they will speak to me soon.
Let the Dead Bury Their Dead by Randall Kenan
If you want to teach a class on the short story, have your students read this book. If you are a reader who loves narratives that reveal place, here you go. Tim’s Creek is as realized as any human character in the book. And, the human characters throughout these stories are vivid, flawed, and uniquely beautiful; Henrietta Williams is one of the most memorable characters in contemporary fiction. The shifts in point-of-view, the language that reflects place and atmosphere… I’m gushing here. There is nothing I can say about Kenan’s investigation of religion, race, myth, the hauntings of history, and the uncertainty of futures that will issue anything but awe. Let the Dead Bury Their Dead is one of the best Southern queer short story collections. It’s one of the best queer short story collections. It’s one of the best short story collections, period.
Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz
I was a gayby in the South when I first read Close to the Knives, a freshman in 90s Atlanta. I tiptoed in the shadow of shame/America, I apologized all the time, and I toned myself down. I was certain I would become a bathroom-stall drug addict, a hustler, a witty technicolor stereotype, or just plain dead—these were the images I had to work with as an AIDS-era queer kid. Then I read Wojnarowicz’s book, which, ironically, included himself as all these things… and did so without apology. This is the first book where I understood what Virginia Woolf meant by “to look life in the face.” The delirium of this memoir, the whirl of language and images and David’s own body—the subject of American prodding and colonization—inspired in me an anger that became necessary for me to persist. The first essay in my own memoir is an homage to David. He taught me that being angry can keep us alive.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanahigara
I examine often the boundaries of romantic love and friendship in my work. It has always been a fascination of mine as a queer person who lives in a hetero-normed society. We queers always had to respond to the expectations around these boundaries differently—in our friendships with men, in our friendships with women, and with the knowledge that 1) there is more than that binary, and 2) the rules could be different, because they largely didn’t work for us anyway. I could not put A Little Life down. The story of four friends and the blur of their lives struggling and loving in New York, it is ruthless, dark, heavy, at times even masochistic—but always human. Yanahigara made me empathize with betrayal, made me compassionate for the monstrous. This is human novel.
A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham
Another book about the boundaries of friendship, that slippery soup of sex and romance and familial love, and what happens when queerness enters and complicates the whole of it. I love all of Cunningham’s books—their elegiac and reflective prose, their tenderness—but this is the one that I kept returning to, because I never wanted it to end. If you were a vapid ding-dong, you could describe Home at the End of the World as a French sex farce: gay boy meets straight boy, gay boy falls for straight boy, straight boy falls for gay boy’s best friend who was going to have a baby with gay boy, straight boy and gay boy’s best friend have a baby and move to the country with gay boy. But it isn’t that, not at all. It is about chosen family—something that most queers have to seek out, how the rules aren’t as clearly defined, and how that can be both difficult and incredibly liberating. The best queer books subvert the hegemony of America’s psychosocial norms. This novel does it with heart, humanity, and feeling.
Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez by Richard Rodriguez
This memoir isn’t just about the immigrant experience. It’s not just about growing up. It’s not just about the struggles of a young man who, in his quest for the American dream, becomes alienated from everyone and everything—his classmates, his family, even the life he seeks to live. It’s also about his love for language—the most delicious thing, even for a kid who had to learn English after arriving in the US. I don’t know what it feels like to be a brown, queer immigrant, but what I felt from reading this book was frustration and changeability for its triple-consciousness. Rodriguez explores how forging one’s own path can be incredibly lonely, especially when everyone you love expects something different.
Freshwater by Awaeke Emezi
Emezi’s debut novel feels like you’re swimming in an ocean of ink, rich and murky and where the body makes the language. Ada is a Nigerian woman who eventually travels to America to attend college, but is subsumed by alternate selves that are as much myth as identities. The rupturing of these selves in instances of trauma feel as dangerous to read on the page as they must feel to Ada. We queers think a lot about identity, and many of us have constructed multiple selves to survive, in fear of some kind of violence. This book peers us inside this kind of survival. The writing, like the protagonist, bares a ferocity—as if daring us to let it live.
The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer
I love Greer’s novels because they are all so beautifully written. I can float on the cadence of the language like a raft in a river. But this novel is his queerest one, even more so than his Pultizer Prize-winning Less. “Be who they think you are,” is the mantra told to the title character, who suffers from a Benjamin Button-like disease. Though Max is not queer, and in fact obsessively pines after Alice for the entirety of the novel, his unusual circumstance functions as an allegory to so many queers who’ve had to pass for someone they’re not, outside of and within their communities. And Max’s best friend, Hughie, is one of the most heartbreaking secondary characters in fiction.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
I tend to adore poets who write prose because they bring the lyric into scene and eschew the classic tropes of narrative. Conceived as a letter to his mother, the sections of this book read like poems—contained, imagistic, not concerned with what comes next. Every scene is intimate. Vuong offers readers a unique vantage of the Vietnam War, with three generations of the protagonist’s family living together as refugees in Hartford. The relationship of Little Dog to the women in his family is unique, too—somewhat abusive yet always enduring—and so too is Little Dog’s relationship with Trevor. There is one scene in particular, a sex scene that illustrates every young bottom’s worse fear, that Vuong renders so tender that my heart became tiny explosions.
How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones
This is another story about a single mother and written by a poet—I can’t help that I gravitate toward shared experiences. Yet Jones utilizes a very straightforward writing style in his debut memoir, albeit in such an evocative way. The narrative is arranged in a sequence of pivotal moments from the writer’s life, from a young boy discovering the dangers of being a gay, black body in the South (the fates of Matthew Shepherd and James Byrd, Jr. become recurring images) to a young man who figures a way to be gay and black in America, and to be so on his own terms. I kept touching the pages of the book as if I could console young Saeed while he was on his journey. If the end of this book doesn’t leave you sobbing with gratitude, you aren’t human.
Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg
This novel is about decolonizing everything: sex, gender, race, historical documentation, even the hegemonic ivory towers of academia. And, it does so with one of the sexiest, most thrilling protagonists in recent fiction, Jack Shepphard. This book is so smart, with a found document serving as the heart of its story, and it’s also hella funny! It’s a caper, and it’s a commentary on modern social construction. It’s a satire on institutional management. It’s fucking queer as hell. I was gleeful while reading. Brilliant!
Winter Birds by Jim Grimsley
This novel is about a childhood amidst severe domestic violence. I read this in my first year of college, and the second-person PoV—we are all young Danny for two-hundred-plus pages—was piercing. It played into the well of my own melodrama while also forcing me to face memories that I had no catalog for in my database. I remember throwing the book across my dorm room at least twice while reading. I felt for that boy. I felt for myself. I felt Grimsley wrote this story for me.
patient. by Bettina Judd
This poetry collection collapses so many elements of what it means to colonize, and in particular to colonize the black female body, in the name of science. Judd summons various figures from history—notably Henrietta Lacks, P. T. Barnum, Lucy Zimmerman, and J. Marion Sims—and assembles them in a way that urges us to understand how our systems remain racist—even the ones that appear to be for the public good, like medicine. In fact, Judd suggests that is precisely why medical science is so dangerous. This book inspired in me a deep empathy for the body and for what it means to recover, to heal. It also made me realize yet another way a society can enslave.
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
When I read this novel, I was both disgusted by and empathized with Tom Ripley. Here is a character that uses deceit as a way to keep close the people he loves. He manufactures a fantasy of what life is, and thusly his ideas of love are equally misguided. But throughout, we catch glimpses of a hurt young man who’s too broken to fully access his true self. I think many queers have had similar experiences. Society was not designed for us, and without role models, we can fumble in our loneliness. This book makes me think of James Bidgood’s Pink Narcissus—in wake of the loneliness that many queers feel, they fabricate their own fantasies, and sometimes those fantasies lead to a tunnel of darkness.
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
I could put any book by Baldwin on this list. I am particularly fond of his nonfiction. No Name in the Street. The Fire Next Time. The Evidence of Things Not Seen. Baldwin, along with my own observations growing up in Baltimore City, shaped the way I saw racism in America, and, along with bell hooks, informed my teaching more than any other writer. But Giovanni’s Room was the first. My local library had it on the recommendation shelf. I read the back cover, and almost immediately hid the book under my shirt. Then I sheepishly checked it out and devoured it in one afternoon. It was my introduction to a new world. For years I wanted to live in Paris. I wanted to discover the world from a local café or bar. Often, I will reread this book and remember how it felt to be introduced to my queer ancestors, my queer family, without knowing what that meant yet. I will forever be grateful.
And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Miah’s new book, The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic!, out now from Sibling Rivalry Press! – Ed.
The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic! by Miah Jeffra
“A river’s edge, if approached too close, can sweep a body beyond itself.” In The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic!, Miah Jeffra perfects apostrophe as canticle, a host of heroes beckoning the reader deeper into the waters of selfhood, Madonna, Mary Shelley, Felix Gonzalez Torres, Plato, and Jeffra’s mother among them. Jeffra explores the nature of gender, sexuality, aesthetics, and love, taking a tiny hammer to the stability of the limits of perception, troubling the tether between perception and memory. At once memoir and cultural criticism, this collection discovers itself as a book about forgiveness, family, and the truths we find in “the lightness of a door,” “the probability of a radio,” the long line between one story and another.