Skip to content

Tag: Queer Experience

My Top Five Favorite Books of the Year

For the holiday season, the bookstore I work at is making a display of all the employees’ favorite books of 2020. Each of us had to pick 5 favorite to put on there. My own list was pretty extensive, so choices had to be made. In the process of deciding what to choose, I left out sequels such as Harrow the Ninth, or massive cultural successes that obviously didn’t need my help to sell, such as Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste.

With that in mind, I am very happy with the end result. It unintentionally ends up promoting small press, debut authors, and queer identities, and this feels like the little bit that I can do to help this year suck a tiny bit less.

To clarify, this is not a ranked list. I love each of those five titles for different reasons, and I am not looking to pit them against one another. Feel free to click on each title to read my review.

Anyway, without further ado…

Simeon’s Top 5 Books of 2020:

Docile, by K.M. Szpara

Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones

The First Sister, by Linden A. Lewis

Surrender Your Sons, by Adam Sass

Review: Surrender Your Sons

As a gay man, I didn’t grow up suffering. Sure, I was in denial, I repressed a lot of shit, and I missed on my entire teenagehood. That sucked. But I didn’t get disowned. I was never bullied. I have rarely been discriminated against.

I was never sent to conversion therapy…

A part of me feels the need for vicarious trauma. For personal outrage, despite the lack of personal experience. It is a profoundly disturbing mixture of perverted FOMO and guilt. As a Queer person, do I really own myself if I didn’t suffer? Do I have a right to my identity? The answer is, naturally, yes, of course I do. But the feeling is still there, and it makes books like Adam Sass’ Surrender Your Sons a near-cathartic experience.

At the age of 17, Connor Major is a skinny 5’6 gay kid in rural Illinois, who just came out to his church-zombie single mom. His life is, as a result, not awesome. His phone has been confiscated, so he is isolated from his few friends. His two-towns-over boyfriend is unable to fully comprehend what he is dealing with at home. And his mom and the town preacher insist that he admit to the paternity of his ex-girlfriend’s newborn (he didn’t do it!).

The best, however, is yet to come, as Connor finds himself literally kidnapped and carted off to a remote island off the coast of Costa Rica (no dinosaurs though). There, at Nightlight Ministries, boys and girls like him are sent by overzealous parents to get “fixed”. Except, everything is off, even by conversion therapy standards. And Connor was warned about this place back home.

By someone who is now dead.

When I first read the blurb for this YA thriller, I was both immediately on board, and a bit skeptical. Conversion therapy? In 2020? In this economy? But Sass navigates the anachronistic core of his premise with elegance. By hanging a lantern on the absurdity of such a place in present day, he gets to place it in an exotic location. What’s more, he gets to have his characters have a near-meta understanding of their surroundings, as they navigate not only the camp itself, but its cultural context as well.

Surrender Your Sons is a brilliantly written debut. The book exudes the kind of easy sass (pun forever intended) and colloquial flexibility that always make me ugly-jealous. Connor himself is beautifully portrayed as a neurotic kid who has the capacity for both courage, and complete emotional collapse. The rest of the cast are just as well depicted, if in less detail. There is raw vulnerability and innocence coming out of the intimate first person narrative, even when the circumstances around Connor are anything but innocent.

As I said before, this is a thriller. The back cover suggests more of a mystery than the story actually ends up being. But to me, the mismatch between my expectations and the reality were in favor of the book. Surrender Your Sons is a story about tragedy, both past and present. About violence and the desolation that bigotry and self-loathing can heap upon the world. One sentence in particular stuck with me long after the end:

‘That’s what a hate crime does: it reaches out, through space and time, and touches you with a greasy hand.’

The book begins with a content warning. There are themes in there. Suicide, abuse, and surprisingly hot depictions of sex that must have barely passed the YA standard. Despite the effortless prose, Surrender Your Sons is certainly not an easy read on an emotional level.

Sass ends up weaving a story both more mundane, and more personal than the blurb implies. And far stronger for it. I read the last 50 pages with perma-lump in my throat, as one of the best denouements I have ever seen in a book meticulously takes us through the lives harmed or ruined by Nightlight. In the end, Surrender Your Sons was an exciting adventure with a powerful emotional charge. Dealing with serious darkness, but ultimately hopeful. And I thoroughly loved it.

How Dead is the Dead Author?

We live in tumultuous times. COVID-19 is here to stay, with incompetent governments mistaking wishful thinking for policy, exposing us to it on purpose. Massive global protests have finally forced us to face point blank the reality of police brutality against people of color. The economy is working for no one but the richest few.

Pandemic, economic collapse, MURDER HORNETS!

But nothing in this apocalyptic year so far is nearly as bad – nearly as horrifying – as… *checks notes*… uh, people who menstruate, according to J.K. Rowling.

In his original essay, La morte d’auteur, French literary critic Roland Barthes argues that the text is an independent entity from its author. His claim can be boiled down to ‘there are too many dimensions to any work of literature, for interpretation to be limited by the context of authorial intent’.

We live in an era of social reckoning. Trying to come to terms with how – frankly – awful many revered writers actually were (or still are). ‘The death of the author’ has acquired a new meaning. It is now used as a reason to continue enjoying works by shitty people. ‘The work is not the author, so why should I forsake both?’ There is merit to this position, but there are legitimate counter-arguments as well.

For one thing, it is easy to not care about the author when the author is no longer around. Sure, Wagner was a scamming homewrecker and a virulent anti-Semite. But Wagner is also incredibly dead, and his works are free domain. Ditto good old Howie Lovecraft, who may have been so shockingly racist, that even fellow racists of his time were like ‘Dude, come on…’, but plenty of wonderful people have since used his work to create diverse art that absolutely rejects his personal worldviews.

But what do we do when the author is very much alive? When they actively profit from our consumption of their work? Yes, I am very obviously referring to the newest TERF-y bullshit of J.K. Rowling. Who is apparently living through, and I quote, ‘the most misogynistic period I’ve ever experienced’. And seems to think it’s trans people’s fault. A horribly tone-deaf position from a person who has had every possible opportunity and privilege to learn better. She is not unique, of course. Plenty of artists have revealed themselves to hold one bigotry or another, be it because they were exposed, or because they wear it proudly on their sleeve for all to see.

There is no point in naming names. If you are part of ANY kind of minority, you know a bunch of living creators who think you are not entitled to the rights and dignity they have. Or that by you gaining anything, they will lose something.

So, do you want to give them your money? I know I don’t. But does their awfulness surgically remove all the experiences you’ve had with their works before you knew who they were? I do not believe that it does. Or at least not automatically.

I learned about Orson Scott Card’s rampant homophobia at a very intense period of my life. I was still adjusting to my own coming out as gay and my place in the world. The shock was too big. I’d had a lot of love for his books, but I could no longer read them without feeling grossed out. It affected me personally.

But Harry Potter has had a far bigger place in my growing up than Ender’s Game ever could. And I am not trans. I try to be as good an ally as I know how, but ultimately Rowling’s awfulness is not personal for me the way it is for my trans friends. And even to some of them, the messages, joy, warmth, and feelings of safety they’ve derived from these books are still there.

Are they wrong? Should they hate the books, now that the author has shown herself time and again to be garbage? Should I?

No. In the end, there is no ‘should’ here. Liking things is subjective. Supporting things has many levels. Nobody should be forced to reject something they love if they haven’t lost that love on their own. Having to separate the creator from the creation is already trauma enough.

I love Harry Potter. It is a flawed work from a flawed author, but it’s been with me for a very long time. I have too many good memories associated with it, and rejecting it would mean rejecting them as well.Will I give Rowling more money in the future, be it for books, or the movies based on them? Honestly, I don’t think I will. But this is a separate issue from appreciating a series I already own.

Art is subjective on every level. From its creator, through the work itself, to the one it’s meant for. It has to be considered on a case by case basis, or it stops being art. If J.K. Rowling is your Orson Scott Card, and your feelings of her works are too tainted to maintain any positive emotion for them, that’s ok. If you are disgusted by her, but you still love Harry Potter, that’s ok too. If her behavior has inspired you to find and read fantasy and science fiction from trans and non-binary authors – that’s AWESOME!

There is no rule for how to deal with disappointment, and anyone that tells you there is, doesn’t understand what art is.

Simon vs. the Tragedy Porn Agenda

This is something I’ve wanted to write about for well over a year, and I might be the only human in the world who is interested in the subject at this point. But as this is my blog, I get to go for it, and perhaps someone out there will care. Plus, it might give you an indication as to why my blog is named as it is.

I came out at 25. Late, by modern standards, and yet it felt like I had wasted half a life by then. I was never really technically “in the closet” to begin with. My mind is capable of phenomenal feats of compartmentalization, and so the “gay thing” had been stuffed so deep in my consciousness that I was in a permanent state of absolute repression. And so, I “came out” to the world about the same time I came out to myself. Moving to the United States, seeing life not as I had expected it would be, but as it could become, began a process of buildup in me that had only one possible healthy outcome.

The word just popped into my mind one day, unexpected and unasked for. GAY. It wasn’t any different from the million times I’d said or thought it before, and yet it was also profoundly, relentlessly new. Because it was about me. The moment was shocking, to be sure. I don’t think I did much else that night.

But it felt like a prelude, not the main event.

Two days later, I managed to type those three letters in a Skype chat with a friend back home. My fingers moving on the keyboard, the pinkie hovering over the Enter key. Then — almost despite myself — pressing down. It was the hardest physical feat I’ve ever accomplished. The sheer fever of the moment, the diamond-sharp awareness that your life is about to be split into a “before” and “after”. The condensed, immovable now of my first coming out to someone else was beyond the intensity of anything I have experienced, before or since.

The fever didn’t subside through the next few weeks of telling people face to face and embracing what it meant to me that they knew. That I knew. At first, the fear and underlying excitement would flare up every time — what if this is the one person who will reject me? Who will make a disgusted face, close up, turn around, curse at me?

It never happened. Despite the out-of-body aspect of it all, the self-defense mechanisms I had developed in the past two decades had picked the territory well. I was in a college town, surrounded by young, progressive people, many of them queer themselves. I was safe, or close enough. I was met with nothing but love and support.

Which is, of course, almost perversely disappointing in a way, when the climax of all those years of fear and trepidation is nothing nearly as dramatic as you had built up in your head. Because you being gay doesn’t matter to anyone else even remotely as much as it does to you…

Love, Simon (directed by Greg Berlanti and based on Becky Albertalli’s breakout YA hit Simon vs. the Homo-Sapiens Agenda) was a quiet success. A mid-budget romantic comedy is already something of an outlier in this era of massive block-busters and indie sleeper hits. But the movie’s John Hughesque atmosphere and the disarming charm of its characters added to its status as the first teen movie by a major studio with a gay protagonist, to make it an event in a year marked by shattering cinematic experiences.

However, it was a much more personal revelation to me. Not because of any groundbreaking social message, or a profound, heretofore unseen approach to the queer experience. But because it captured the feelings I brought up earlier. The moment when you are not sure if your throat might close and refuse to form the word. The strange disappointment that your coming out isn’t nearly as shocking to the other person as you thought it would be. The overpowering emotion of being loved for who you are, not despite.

I saw this movie in theaters 9 times. I rewatch it every year on National Coming Out Day. It is not the greatest cinematic expression of our times, and even compared to some other contemporary queer movies, it may lack artistic and — to some — social depth. But that is a surface read. For all its gorgeous visuals and universal themes of desire and longing, Call Me By Your Name for example left me at a distance. There was little for me to resonate with. I rarely lounge for an entire summer in my family’s south Italian mansion. I have never had fiery romances with precocious hyper-intellectual teenagers. Peach is not my sex fruit of choice.

Which is not to diss what is truly an incredible movie. But Love, Simon did something else, and did it better. It showed a gay boy dealing with coming out in a relatable setting, and it showed the outpour of kindness and love that he received. It spoke with the language of personal experience, and it used small gestures, unspoken words, and that same fever that I myself lived through. And that message clearly worked, because the movie quadrupled its budget and survived heavy hitters like Ready Player One and Avengers: Infinity War in theaters.

We are trained by art to perceive suffering as the greatest form of storytelling. Doubly so for minority narratives. But just as with every other marginalized group, the queer experience is not always — not even predominantly — dramatic. It is not exclusively a tragedy to sympathize with. Sometimes it is just tender and simple, and full of small stakes that can matter more than anything else in the world. Sometimes it is just saying a word when silence feels like death.

And in this regard, Love, Simon was one of the most subversive and groundbreaking LGBTQ-themed movies of this past decade.