The history of queer literature is a long one. From Greek poet Sappho to Irish playwright Oscar Wilde, many writers have approached the challenges and pleasures of the LGBTQ+ experience with great depth and imagination. This hasn’t always been an easy endeavour; often, it’s been a history read in gaps and implied meaning, with obstructions for those depicting the nuances of sexuality and gender identity without censure. Thankfully, this has slowly changed, and the queer literary landscape is now both vibrant and expansive.
In fact, this list of 13 queer classics offers just a handful of the books that could have been chosen. For every inclusion, there is another notable absence. E.M. Forster, Ali Smith, Audre Lorde, Christopher Isherwood and numerous other novelists aren’t listed here, but have all written fantastic fiction that has helped both shape and pluralise the stories that now make up a queer canon. Think of these suggestions as a starting point — a handful of bold and brilliant books perfect for picking up at any time, with lots more to discover when all is read and done.
1. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956)
Giovanni’s Room condenses an incredible sweep of emotion into its scant length. Detailing the fraught relationship between American David and Italian bartender Giovanni, the former narrates the tale of their time together over a night leading “to the most terrible morning of my life”. This terrible morning, we soon discover, marks the day of Giovanni’s execution. With this looming, David recounts the trials and tumult of their love affair, and, in doing so, sketches a complex portrait of masculinity at war with itself. It is an astonishingly vivid novel, grappling not only with the heady contours of desire, but also the disturbing consequences of shame and self-loathing.
© Courtesy Penguin Modern Classics
2. The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (2004)
Nick Guest has left university and summer is in full swing. Living in the Notting Hill house of an affluent school friend whose father is a Conservative politician, the book opens with Margaret Thatcher’s second election victory in 1983 and skillfully interlaces questions of politics, class, and sex. At first, Nick’s sexuality is largely hidden from the upper-class world he drifts into — with trysts in gated gardens and behind closed doors. But as time passes and the AIDS crisis develops, this no longer becomes possible. Taking aim at the hollow allure of wealth and the moral vacuum of Thatcher’s rule, Hollinghurst’s novel is sumptuous and increasingly sombre.
3. Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (1985)
“People like to separate storytelling which is not fact from history which is fact. They do this so they know what to believe and what not to believe.” Jeanette Winterson’s debut, rooted in her own experiences of growing up as a lesbian in a Pentecostal adopted family, is structured around the religious texts that permeate protagonist Jeanette’s upbringing. Delving into what happens when the expected narratives — both theological and personal — are rejected, Winterson’s voice is fresh, startling, and funny. It’s a brilliant novel, illuminating the consequences of a devout and claustrophobic mother, and an institution that punishes nascent love with cruelty. For a follow-up, try Winterson’s 2011 memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?.
4. Orlando by Virginia Woolf (1928)
Some novels are dialogues with difficult questions. Others aim to capture a particular history: cultural, collective, individual. A few are love letters. Orlando is all of the above. Inspired by and written for the magnetic, imposing Vita Sackville-West, with whom Virginia Woolf had a long affair, it follows the titular protagonist through three centuries of history, several romantic liaisons, one gender switch, and a very lengthy poetic project. It is a giddy read, full of humour and warmth as well as searching examinations of gender, sexuality, power and artistic process.
5. Paul Takes The Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor (2017)
What would happen if you transplanted Orlando to 1993 and added dozens more explicit sex scenes? The result would possibly look something like Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes The Form of a Mortal Girl. This raucous novel follows the adventures of Paul — also known as Polly — whose body is malleable, metamorphic, and endlessly hungry for pleasure. Able to physically transform at will, Paul revels in the sexual and romantic possibilities offered by numerous adjustments in face, height, torso, genitals, and more. Slipping between guises and identities, the polymorphous Paul offers a lucid look at trans identity — as playful as it is serious.
6. Dancer From The Dance by Andrew Holleran (1978)
Holleran’s book — dubbed ‘The Gay Great Gatsby’ — takes its title from a Yeats poem. It reads: “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance / How can we know the dancer from the dance?” It’s an apt reference, given the book’s preoccupation with observation, as well as the physical intimacies and distances found in a social whirl. Set in New York in a pre-AIDS era, Holleran brilliantly captures a generation of men for whom hedonism is never-ending, while desire, loneliness, and a restless wish for love continually jostle.
7. The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982)
A devastating, but ultimately hopeful narrative told in a series of letters from protagonist Celie to God and her sister Nettie, Alice Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for The Color Purple in 1983. Detailing the stark realities of abuse, misogyny, and racism in rural Georgia, Walker’s novel offers both a damning indictment of institutionalised and culturally encoded oppression, and the tremendous potential found in reclaiming one’s life for oneself. With the introduction of blues singer Shug Avery, it also becomes a love story — one in which pleasure and passion is reciprocated, and female solidarity provides great solace.
8. Carol by Patricia Highsmith (1952)
Published under the pseudonym “Claire Morgan”, the formerly titled The Price of Salt swiftly became a runaway hit. Inspired by a “blondish” woman in a mink coat who had made her feel “odd and swimmy in the head” while working at Macy’s (and influenced too by her relationship with heiress Virginia Kent Catherwood), Highsmith conjured a love story full of erotic charge. Documenting the unfolding relationship between 19-year-old Therese and thirtysomething Carol, it is a crisply observed story in which desire simmers and the constrictions of nuclear family life are stifling. At the time, it was praised for its open-ended suggestion of a happy future. In recent years, it’s enjoyed a renaissance thanks to Todd Haynes’ stylish film.
9. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (2019)
Language, lust, addiction and inherited trauma coalesce in Ocean Vuong’s debut. Written in the form of a letter from a son to a mother who can’t read it, Vuong combines the precision and lyricism of his poetry with the varied forms of intimacy that exist between lovers, between parent and child, and between the ill and well. Growing up with a Vietnamese mother and grandmother for whom war and violence have left deep imprints, the novel’s speaker Little Dog approaches the question of survival with searching intensity. Combining fragmented memories of childhood with an account of his first troubled love — Trevor, the 16-year-old son of a tobacco farmer — Vuong’s narrative of growing up gay and escaping is tender and heartbreaking.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
© Courtesy Random House
10. America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo (2018)
Hero goes by several names. Named Geronima De Vera, in the Philippines she is known as Nimang. But on arrival in Milpitas, near San Francisco, her seven-year-old niece dubs her Hero. It’s a nickname both uneasy and fitting for a woman whose life has taken several distinct turns, from a wealthy upbringing, to a decade as a doctor in the New People’s Army, to two years of torture, to a new beginning in the US. Arriving with broken thumbs and a brittle exterior, Hero’s affections unravel slowly. Castillo’s book is sprawling and energetic: sharp in its interrogations of language, immigration, and class, and bold-hearted in its depiction of Hero’s frank, unsentimental approach to sex and love — with things complicated and transformed by local beautician Rosalyn.
America is Not the Heart
© Courtesy Atlantic Books
11. Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg (1993)
“The law said we needed to be wearing three pieces of women’s clothing. We never switched clothing. Neither did our drag queen sisters. We knew, and so did you, what was coming. We needed our sleeves rolled up, our hair slicked back, in order to live through it.” Leslie Feinberg’s novel is a blistering and incisive depiction of lesbian and trans experience. Exploring the life of Jess Goldberg, a working-class gender-queer butch lesbian growing up in 1950s Buffalo before moving to New York, Feinberg sheds light on horrific police brutality and queer networks of community and care, and asks what it means (and what it takes) to resist.
12. Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta (2015)
In 2014, Nigeria’s then-President Goodluck Jonathan signed the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act with incredibly serious sanctions ranging from imprisonment to death. This sobering fact forms the author’s endnote in Chinelo Okparanta’s moving, sparingly written novel. A coming-of-age tale taking place against the backdrop of the Nigerian civil war, it focuses on a young Igbo woman named Ijeoma who struggles to reconcile faith, family, and her sexuality. Coming to terms with being a lesbian in a culture hostile to homosexuality, Okparanta skilfully weaves between resignation and revelation — unstinting in her focus on the horrors of both war and deep prejudice, while offering a fragile note of hope.
Sous les branches de l’udala
© Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
13. After The Parade by Lori Ostlund (2015)
As Aaron Englund leaves his older partner after 20 years, his life packed up in the back of a truck, the past constantly infiltrates his chosen future. Relocating to San Francisco, disturbing recollections from childhood mingle with examinations of his time with Walter — a quiet, ordered man who wished “to serve as benefactor to Aaron’s wishes and ambitions, and so bind Aaron to him.” In breaking free of all that has tethered him, Aaron finds room to unravel a complex web of trauma and loss. After The Parade is a stunningly written book, deft in its understanding of love and alienation.
This article was originally found here, on Vogue UK
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