Working with high school students this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the books we keep out of our K-12 classrooms (both intentionally and unintentionally) and queer books are pretty consistently missing. This isn’t new. They were missing when I was in high school. They were missing when my parents and grandparents and great grandparents were in high school too. But that they’re still missing, in a time of marriage equality and increasing mainstream awareness of the importance of transgender rights and growing respect of LGBTQ families– these vast cultural shifts that feel, at times, miraculous, to someone like me who came of age in the conservative retrenchment of the late 90’s and early 00’s–but that, even now, our kids are not getting these books- There’s damage in that, damage that those of us who grew up loving books but not seeing ourselves in our literature know only too well.
Sometimes I wish I could visit my teenage self and give her a book list. I might give her this one created by BookUp and some of today’s beloved LGBTQ authors. I love the books on this list. I wish my fairy tale loving younger self had been able to read Malinda Lo’s Ash. That book would have meant so much to me then. It means so much to me now. I did read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando in high school and I’m so grateful I found that beat up old paperback on my family’s book shelf. I loved that book anyway, the fantastical romp of it, the way it’s main character traveled through genders and time as if such travels were hardly unusual. That book meant a lot to me then and it means even more to me now.
But one book I haven’t seen mentioned is Emma Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch. I didn’t discover this book until this year. That it’s been around since I was in elementary school but that I never found it as a teenager is one of the great literary tragedies of my life. This is one of the books I most wish I’d had growing up. If I could go back in time and speak to my budding bisexual awkwardly closeted teenage fairy tale loving self, I would whisper the name of this book in her ear and send her on a quest to find it. Simply described, this early work of Emma Donoghue’s (now the critically acclaimed author of Room) is a collection of queer feminist fairy tales. But fairy tales in which the magic occurs in a stylistic, rather than a literal way. And a book full of women narrating their stories to each other, a book in which Beauty’s beast is a woman hiding in furs and a witch is transformed by the kiss of a girl who could become her, exists in its own kind of magic.
This is one of the most expertly crafted short story collections I’ve ever seen. Each tale weaves itself into the next with what seems like the simplest of tricks–a character from the previous story picks up the narrative thread to tell us her own–but a strategy that builds over time so that, by the end of the book, you have an impression of voices that are all very different and all very much the same. There is a sense of connectedness here: across stories, across women, across time. I wanted to teach one of these stories in my fiction writing class this term but I found it impossible to separate one from the others. These stories belong together, interwoven, multi-taled and multi-voiced, in a way that most short stories in collections, however thematically related, do not.
This book is all about women and our relationships to each other, ourselves, and our world. It’s a story that spins itself outward, passed from mouth to mouth and mind to mind. It’s last words are a summoning, a spell, an invitation to continue the telling.
Reading and writing are how I’ve always engaged most with the world. For a bookworm like me, not having access to or awareness of queer literature meant that it took me longer to understand that I could write about such things. I’d hardly ever, before college, seen them written down. We need to do better in our K-12 schools. We need to tell these stories. We need to pass them along so our next generation of readers can know they are seen and the next generation of writers can see what their voices might be.