Queer books by women have saved my life. They’ve given me language with which to articulate a self, enabled me both to understand history in a way that makes sense to me, and to find the queer community with whom I am always rearticulating the world.
They are books that reconfigure gender with wit and camp and play, they are books that feature obsessive queer love and hot queer sex, they are books that get slutty with genre. Without these books, my own first book, the newly released linked story collection “Sarahland,” would not be remotely possible.
“Salt Fish Girl,” by Larissa Lai
An 18th-century mermaid from China transforms into a durian seed and is then reborn in a futuristic corporate dystopia where she’s still a little fishy. The corporate dystopia makes part-carp girl clones as factory workers, and one of these clones tears out her tracking device and escapes to the forest with our former mermaid. It’s part sci dystopia, part fairy tale, part historical fiction. And a completely incredible story about the ways two girls together can find a way out of capitalist horror.
“Zami: A New Spelling of My Name — A Biomythography,” Audre Lorde
An instance of needing to tell your queer story to yourself, but no suitable genre existing. This book is 20th century New York dyke history; it’s the story of being raised by Black Caribbean immigrants, it’s the story of someone who needs to discover and name social structures in order to grow into a self, and who needs to create a myth of a magical Caribbean homeland in order to be who she wants to be. Also, Audre Lorde never gets enough credit, I think, for being funny. She’s sharp and detailed and no-holds-barred in her observations, which makes her really fun to read. Oh, and this one also has hot sex.
“Passion of New Eve,” Angela Carter
This novel from the ’80s features a many-breasted disabled goddess of color living in a desert compound who swallows up men during sex and leads a feminist cult, a trans Hollywood starlet living stealth in a wax museum and more. Gender and sex are reconfigured, time speeds up and slips and loops.
“The Sophie Horowitz Story,” Sarah Schulman
I had only read Sarah Schulman’s incisive criticism (on gentrification, Palestine, the mainstreaming of queer culture and more) when I picked up her first novel and was delighted to find myself in an ’80s Lower East Side culture of experimental theater artists, feminist magazines and pickled herring as a young dyke investigates a story about feminist bank robbers. Turns out Schulman writes some of the best sex scenes, too, including one that takes place in the women’s balcony of an Orthodox shul.
“Vicious Red Relic, Love: A Fabulist Memoir,” Anna Joy Springer
Stealing from Gina Abelkop’s review because it is too intimidating to try to say anything about this book in a few sentences: “Categorized as a fabulist memoir, the book unfolds by way of diary entries, scrawled school lecture notes, shit-smeared dollhouse worlds called ‘metaforests,’ cult literature, collaged drawings and a tiny tinfoil elephant named Blinky.” It’s also an obsessive dyke love story and a retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Just, like, read it. Expands what is possible for literature to do.
“On Hell,” Johanna Hedva
When you want to break free of capitalism and its violent structures so much you’re thinking about hacking your body so that it can literally fly away, read this book. Fabulist, anti-carceral, voicey, extremely contemporary, and takes seriously how social structures are made and can be unmade at the level of the body.
“Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl,” Andrea Lawlor
Lawlor offers queer people what all of us actually want — a character who can change gender presentations and bodies at will, by magic, and thereby fuck all kinds of people in all kinds of ways and also fit into all kinds of queer cultures from Michfest and lezzie Provincetown to the gay leather bars of San Francisco. It’s the 90s from a contemporary perspective, it’s infused with music criticism and fairy tale retellings, it lets us be “like everyone else only more so.”
“Borderlands,” Gloria Anzaldúa
Anzaldúa was also an early maker of auto theory and wild genre-mixer. This ’80s book is an incredible mix of poetry, autobiography, history, linguistics, spiritual writing, of both Spanish and English writing, and more. A Chicana lesbian insisting on the power of her voice, which has been shut down by white culture, by Latino culture, by straight people, by the patriarchy and using every one of these modes in order to assert her ways of knowing, of being, of loving as valid. I’ve read this book so many times and it always changes my life.
“Woman on the Edge of Time,” Marge Piercy
I am constantly thinking about this 1976 book about a future utopia where babies are grown in external chambers and mothered by three people including men who breastfeed, where the gender neutral pronoun “per” is the only one in use, and where formalwear comes from the library or is made of compostable algae.
“Our Lady of the Flowers,” Jean Genet
The 1944 French precursor to John Waters, where shit first became floral, where depravity first became gorgeous, and where the first drag queen murderer named Divine is at the center of the narrative. (I am pretty sure that John Waters gave Divine her name at least in part after “Our Lady of the Flowers” Divine). Deep queer colonial critique semi-masked in a campy stage set dripping with gorgeous imagery, a world of gay sex, white tulle tutus and fake jewels meet ghosts and murder, pansies meet hearts dripping blood, and “the world is turned inside out like a glove.”