Malinda Lo's Blog
June 12, 2016
The first gay club I went to was a small, dark bar on the plains of Colorado, the summer after my first year in college. I went with my childhood best friend, because we’d both spent the last year discovering that our sexual orientations weren’t as straight as we’d thought.
I don’t remember the name of the club. I do remember feeling like I was stepping into a new world, one that was both terrifying and exhilarating. I didn’t know anyone there except for my friend. I’m pretty sure I was the only Asian American there. I’m sure that I stuck out like a sore thumb. But that was also the first time I realized there is a place for people like me. However naive and inexperienced I might have been, I also felt welcomed.
I went to other gay clubs. There was ManRay in Cambridge, Massachusetts, another dark box of a club between Harvard and MIT, where I went with my college friends. They had a special queer night every Thanksgiving, and after college in our early twenties, we’d load up on turkey and stuffing, and then dance it off at ManRay, which happened to be literally next door to my friend’s apartment.
There were bigger clubs, too. In San Francisco in the late ’90s and early 2000s, there was Club Q, a gigantic warehouse of a club somewhere in SoMa where queer go-go dancers twisted on platforms above the heaving dance floor. Hundreds of women shimmied beneath the colored lights, and when I pushed through the sweaty crowd I felt totally insignificant and yet completely seen: terrified of being overlooked, hopeful of being looked over.
I’ve been to Girl Bar in Los Angeles, Candy Bar in London, El Rio and the Cat Club in San Francisco. I’ve been to Pride parties in New York City where I felt like a smalltown loser but wouldn’t have missed those parties for the world. I’ve been to Dinah Shore and MichFest and women’s weekends in sleepy Guerneville, California. All these clubs — all these dance parties for queer women — they showed me that there are thousands of us out there, and we are all searching for connection with each other, always seeking love and hoping for acceptance.
When I was a kid and we went on family vacations, no matter what city we went to, my parents always wanted to go to Chinatown. I remember, when I was a frustrated teen, thinking that this was the stupidest thing ever. Every Chinatown was the same: crowded, stinking of strange herbs and fish guts, the sidewalks thronged with cheap imports, the restaurants loud with Chinese speakers all seeming to yell over each other. I didn’t understand, when my parents took me to all these Chinatowns — in San Francisco, in Boston, in New York, in Toronto — that they were seeking a place where they felt at home. In Chinatown, we were like everyone around us. In Chinatown, my parents spoke the language.
As a lesbian adult, that’s what going to queer bars and clubs meant to me. They were spaces where I spoke the language. I was accepted as family. They were places of joy; they were places of freedom. They were crucibles of emotion — pulsing, music-filled rooms where we were encouraged to feel everything. They were spaces full of drama, rooms ripe with possibility. For many people in the gay community, gay clubs are our living rooms and our sanctuaries; they are the places we meet the people we love, and the spaces where we find ourselves.
The terrorist attack at the Pulse club in Orlando today has left me heartbroken for so many reasons. I hurt for the victims and their families. I hurt for my LGBTQ family, which has had one of our most precious places invaded by hatred. The fact that this attack took place during Pride month is not an accident. It is a direct attack on our freedom to be ourselves.
I don’t go to many gay clubs anymore. Like many people, after I got married, I moved on from those electric spaces; I created a more private living room with my wife and our families. But I still remember those clubs for the joy they brought me, and the freedom they taught me. These spaces are crucial for our LGBTQ community. It’s no accident that one of the foundational events in the gay rights movement took place at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar. And I know that despite the horrific nature of today’s attack, it will not stop us from being proud of who we are. My heart goes out to all LGBTQ people today. I am with you. I am you.
June 7, 2016
In 2013 I wrote a post about my favorite YA novels about lesbian and bisexual girls. That was three years ago, so I think it’s high time for an update. I’ve added several books that I’ve read since 2013 below, plus two that don’t come out till this fall (so you can pre-order them!).
Just like in my previous list, these books range widely in style and genre, but I’ve read every and loved each one. The books are listed in alphabetical order by author’s last name, and the book descriptions come from the publishers. Happy Pride month!
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Betrothed since childhood to the prince of Mynaria, Princess Dennaleia has always known what her future holds. Her marriage will seal the alliance between Mynaria and her homeland, protecting her people from other hostile kingdoms. But Denna has a secret. She possesses an Affinity for fire—a dangerous gift for the future queen of a land where magic is forbidden.
Now Denna has to learn the ways of her new kingdom while trying to hide her growing magic. To make matters worse, she must learn to ride Mynaria’s formidable warhorses before her coronation—and her teacher is the person who intimidates her most, the prickly and unconventional Princess Amaranthine, sister of her betrothed.
When a shocking assassination leaves the kingdom reeling, Mare and Denna reluctantly join forces to search for the culprit. As the two work together, they discover there is more to one another than they thought—and soon their friendship is threatening to blossom into something more.
But with dangerous conflict brewing that makes the alliance more important than ever, acting on their feelings could be deadly. Forced to choose between their duty and their hearts, Mare and Denna must find a way to save their kingdoms—and each other.
Why I Recommend It: A fantasy novel about two princesses falling in love with each other amid horseback riding lessons, magic, and political machinations! Soooo romantic.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth (Balzer + Bray)
When Cameron Post’s parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief they’ll never know that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl.
But that relief doesn’t last, and Cam is soon forced to live with her conservative aunt Ruth and her well-intentioned but hopelessly old-fashioned grandmother. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different. Survival in Miles City, Montana, means blending in and leaving well enough alone (as her Grandmother might say), and Cam becomes an expert at both.
Then Coley Taylor moves to town. Beautiful pickup-driving Coley is a perfect cowgirl with the perfect boyfriend to match. She and Cam forge an unexpected and intense friendship–one that seems to leave room for something more to emerge. But just as that starts to seem like a real possibility, ultrareligious Aunt Ruth takes drastic action to “fix” her niece, bringing Cam face-to-face with the cost of denying her true self–even if she’s not quite sure just who that is.
Why I Recommend It: It’s set in early 1990s Montana, and while this book was nothing like my own coming-out experience, it still felt like it was a story written just for me. Plus: beautiful writing, incredible details.
Thirteen tales are unspun from the deeply familiar, and woven anew into a collection of fairy tales that wind back through time. Acclaimed Irish author Emma Donoghue reveals heroines young and old in unexpected alliances–sometimes treacherous, sometimes erotic, but always courageous. Told with luminous voices that shimmer with sensuality and truth, these age-old characters shed their antiquated cloaks to travel a seductive new landscape, radiantly transformed. Cinderella forsakes the handsome prince and runs off with the fairy godmother; Beauty discovers the Beast behind the mask is not so very different from the face she sees in the mirror; Snow White is awakened from slumber by the bittersweet fruit of an unnamed desire. Acclaimed writer Emma Donoghue spins new tales out of old in a magical web of thirteen interconnected stories about power and transformation and choosing one’s own path in the world. In these fairy tales, women young and old tell their own stories of love and hate, honor and revenge, passion and deception. Using the intricate patterns and oral rhythms of traditional fairy tales, Emma Donoghue wraps age-old characters in a dazzling new skin.
Why I Recommend It: Fairy tales, flipped, often with a queer perspective.
Wildthorn by Jane Eagland (Graphia)
Seventeen-year-old Louisa Cosgrove has never enjoyed the life of the pampered, protected life girls of wealth were expected to follow in nineteenth century England. It was too confining. She would have much rather been like her older brother, allowed to play marbles, go to school, become a doctor. But little does she know how far her family would go to kill her dreams and desires. Until one day she finds herself locked away in an insane asylum and everyone–the doctors and nurses–insist on calling her Lucy Childs, not Louisa Cosgrove.
Surely this is a mistake. Surely her family will rescue her from this horrible, disgusting place. But as she unravels the mystery, she discovers those are the very people she can’t trust. So who can she? There’s one person–Eliza. As their love grows, Louisa realizes treachery locked her away. Love is the key to freedom.
Why I Recommend It: A rare historical novel in which being gay doesn’t kill you, this book also evokes Sarah Waters’ Victorian novels in many ways.
High-school junior Leila has made it most of the way through Armstead Academy without having a crush on anyone, which is something of a relief. Her Persian heritage already makes her different from her classmates; if word got out that she liked girls, life would be twice as hard. But when a sophisticated, beautiful new girl, Saskia, shows up, Leila starts to take risks she never thought she would, especially when it looks as if the attraction between them is mutual. Struggling to sort out her growing feelings and Saskia’s confusing signals, Leila confides in her old friend, Lisa, and grows closer to her fellow drama tech-crew members, especially Tomas, whose comments about his own sexuality are frank, funny, wise, and sometimes painful. Gradually, Leila begins to see that almost all her classmates are more complicated than they first appear to be, and many are keeping fascinating secrets of their own.
Why I Recommend It: A light-hearted and funny tale of first love (and crushes) that definitely made me laugh out loud.
Jesse cuts her own hair with a Swiss Army knife. She wears big green fisherman’s boots. She’s the founding (and only) member of NOLAW, the National Organization to Liberate All Weirdos. Emily wears sweaters with faux pearl buttons. She’s vice president of the student council. She has a boyfriend.
These two girls have nothing in common, except the passionate “private time” they share every Tuesday afternoon. Jesse wishes their relationship could be out in the open, but Emily feels she has too much to lose. When they find themselves on opposite sides of a heated school conflict, they each have to decide what’s more important: what you believe in, or the one you love?
Why I Recommend It: Jesse. This book actually has two other point-of-view narrators, but for me, this book is about Jesse and all her anti-establishment weird cool. Plus, some of the best kissing in YA ever, I promise.
Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard (HarperTeen) — Coming Sept. 6, 2016
All Pen wants is to be the kind of girl she’s always been. So why does everyone have a problem with it? They think the way she looks and acts means she’s trying to be a boy—that she should quit trying to be something she’s not. If she dresses like a girl, and does what her folks want, it will show respect. If she takes orders and does what her friend Colby wants, it will show her loyalty.
But respect and loyalty, Pen discovers, are empty words. Old-world parents, disintegrating friendships, and strong feelings for other girls drive Pen to see the truth—that in order to be who she truly wants to be, she’ll have to man up.
Why I Recommend It: Pen has such a fabulous voice; it’s funny and tender and so relatable. I guarantee you, you’re going to fall in love with her by the time you finish the book!
Sister Mischief by Laura Goode (Candlewick)
Listen up: You’re about to get rocked by the fiercest, baddest all-girl hip-hop crew in the Twin Cities – or at least in the wealthy, white, Bible-thumping suburb of Holyhill, Minnesota. Our heroine, Esme Rockett (aka MC Ferocious) is a Jewish lesbian lyricist. In her crew, Esme’s got her BFFs Marcy (aka DJ SheStorm, the butchest straight girl in town) and Tess (aka The ConTessa, the pretty, popular powerhouse of a vocalist). But Esme’s feelings for her co-MC, Rowie (MC Rohini), a beautiful, brilliant, beguiling desi chick, are bound to get complicated. And before they know it, the queer hip-hop revolution Esme and her girls have exploded in Holyhill is on the line. Exciting new talent Laura Goode lays down a snappy, provocative, and heartfelt novel about discovering the rhythm of your own truth.
Why I Recommend It: This book was hilarious and heartbreaking; Esme is a great narrator. First love and hip-hop, politics and activism all at once.
Radiant Days by Elizabeth Hand (Viking)
She is a painter. He is a poet. Their art bridges time.
It is 1978. Merle is in her first year at the Corcoran School of Art, catapulted from her impoverished Appalachian upbringing into a sophisticated, dissipated art scene. It is also 1870. The teenage poet Arthur Rimbaud is on the verge of breaking through to the images and voice that will make his name. The meshed power of words and art thins the boundaries between the present and the past—and allows these two troubled, brilliant artists to enter each other’s worlds. Radiant Days is a peerless follow-up to Elizabeth Hand’s unforgettable, multiple-starred Illyria.
Why I Recommend It: Flawless sentences about making art, with characters who happen to be gay.
Ask the Passengers by A.S. King (Little, Brown)
Astrid Jones desperately wants to confide in someone, but her mother’s pushiness and her father’s lack of interest tell her they’re the last people she can trust. Instead, Astrid spends hours lying on the backyard picnic table watching airplanes fly overhead. She doesn’t know the passengers inside, but they’re the only people who won’t judge her when she asks them her most personal questions … like what it means that she’s falling in love with a girl.
As her secret relationship becomes more intense and her friends demand answers, Astrid has nowhere left to turn. She can’t share the truth with anyone except the people at thirty thousand feet, and they don’t even know she’s there. But little does Astrid know just how much even the tiniest connection will affect these strangers’ lives–and her own–for the better.
Why I Recommend It: Astrid is a smart girl, and the thing I loved best about her and this book was her engagement with philosophy. Yes, it’s about love too, but this book made me think, and that’s why it resonated with me.
Pretend You Love Me by Julie Anne Peters (Little, Brown)
In this fresh, poignant novel (originally published under the title Far From Xanadu), Mike is struggling to come to terms with her father’s suicide and her mother’s detachment from the family. Mike (real name: Mary Elizabeth) is gay and likes to pump iron, play softball, and fix plumbing. When a glamorous new girl, Xanadu, arrives in Mike’s small Kansas town, Mike falls in love at first sight. Xanadu is everything Mike is not — cool, confident, feminine, sexy…. straight.
Why I Recommend It: This is one of the very few books I’ve found about a butch teen girl — a girl who doesn’t present herself as traditionally feminine. Some people dismiss this look as a stereotype, but Mike isn’t a stereotype. Mike is real, sympathetic, and goes through an experience that virtually lesbian I know has gone through: falling for someone who isn’t gay.
Tripping to Somewhere by Kristopher Reisz (Simon Pulse)
Life is going nowhere fast…until the night some freak wanders into the convenience store where Sam and Gilly are hanging out. He lets them in on a secret: The Witches’ Carnival is nearby. If they travel fast, they might catch it. It’s everyone’s glittery fantasy turned real: to follow the Carnival’s mystic band of beautiful people as they defy every limit and dance through history – all in search of a good time. Sam wants to go for it, to cut ties with home and reach for the dream. But on the road, it’s Gilly who becomes enchanted. The girls leave everything behind. So in pursuit, they’ll have nothing left to lose…except each other.
Why I Recommend It: This is urban fantasy à la Holly Black’s Modern Faerie Tales — with two girls in love. It’s fast-paced, gritty, and I wish there were more books like this!
Nicola Lancaster is spending her summer at the Siegel Institute, a hothouse of smart, intense teenagers. She soon falls in with Katrina (Manic Computer Chick), Isaac (Nice-Guy-Despite-Himself), Kevin (Inarticulate Composer) . . . and Battle, a beautiful blond dancer. The two become friends—and then, startlingly, more than friends. What do you do when you think you’re attracted to guys, and then you meet a girl who steals your heart? A trailblazing debut, reissued with an introduction by acclaimed author David Levithan, and copious back matter, including three graphic novel stories by Sara Ryan (and artists Steve Leiber, Dylan Meconis, and Natalie Nourigat) about the characters.
Why I Recommend It: Talented teens at summer school falling in love! Basically I wanted to live in this book.
Sophie Winters nearly died. Twice.
The first time, she’s fourteen, and escapes a near-fatal car accident with scars, a bum leg, and an addiction to Oxy that’ll take years to kick.
The second time, she’s seventeen, and it’s no accident. Sophie and her best friend Mina are confronted by a masked man in the woods. Sophie survives, but Mina is not so lucky. When the cops deem Mina’s murder a drug deal gone wrong, casting partial blame on Sophie, no one will believe the truth: Sophie has been clean for months, and it was Mina who led her into the woods that night for a meeting shrouded in mystery.
After a forced stint in rehab, Sophie returns home to a chilly new reality. Mina’s brother won’t speak to her, her parents fear she’ll relapse, old friends have become enemies, and Sophie has to learn how to live without her other half. To make matters worse, no one is looking in the right places and Sophie must search for Mina’s murderer on her own. But with every step, Sophie comes closer to revealing all: about herself, about Mina and about the secret they shared.
Why I Recommend It: An atmospheric murder mystery with a bisexual and disabled protagonist — such a great read.
Maggie Thrash has spent basically every summer of her fifteen-year-old life at the one-hundred-year-old Camp Bellflower for Girls, set deep in the heart of Appalachia. She’s from Atlanta, she’s never kissed a guy, she’s into Backstreet Boys in a really deep way, and her long summer days are full of a pleasant, peaceful nothing . . . until one confounding moment. A split-second of innocent physical contact pulls Maggie into a gut-twisting love for an older, wiser, and most surprising of all (at least to Maggie), female counselor named Erin. But Camp Bellflower is an impossible place for a girl to fall in love with another girl, and Maggie’s savant-like proficiency at the camp’s rifle range is the only thing keeping her heart from exploding. When it seems as if Erin maybe feels the same way about Maggie, it’s too much for both Maggie and Camp Bellflower to handle, let alone to understand.
All-girl camp. First love. First heartbreak. At once romantic and devastating, brutally honest and full of humor, this graphic-novel memoir is a debut of the rarest sort.
Why I Recommend It: This is a YA graphic memoir about a girl at a Christian summer camp falling for a camp counselor, an older girl, with just the right combination of humor, honesty, and the rush of first love.
May 20, 2016
i loved ash, and it’s one of the best books i’ve ever read. when i read it i interpreted ash as bi. but (as i learned today) your website says it’s a lesbian retelling of cinderella, which would imply that ash and kaisa are…lesbians. are they? did i misread something? thanks for your time i hope you have a lovely day
Thank you so much! I’m so glad you enjoyed Ash. I’ve gotten this question before in recent years, so I’m going to answer it in a bit more detail so I can point others to this if they ask me in the future.
First, I want to emphasize that what I say about my books is only my opinion. This may sound weird because I’m the author of my books, but I truly believe that the author’s opinion about their book is largely irrelevant to readers once the book is published. My intentions are on the pages of the book. If I didn’t put it in the book, I don’t believe it’s important to your understanding of the story.
Second, since Ash was first published back in 2009, I’ve learned that when I say things about my books, people tend to believe that’s The Truth. But it’s not. The only Truth is that interpretations of books vary according to the person who is reading them. There is no one correct interpretation. Every reader approaches a book with their own experiences, and they engage with that book using those experiences. Their reading of the book is correct — for them.
Third, you’re asking about something on my website, not in the pages of Ash. These are two very different things. The stuff on my website about Ash is all in the service of describing Ash to potential readers. In order to describe the book, I use social and cultural shorthands to connect with potential readers. For example, I describe Ash as a retelling of Cinderella because many people already know what Cinderella is, and that gives them a general idea of what the book is about.
I have described Ash to potential readers as a lesbian Cinderella because lesbian Cinderella is a high concept type of description. This simply means the story can be described in a very succinct and easy-to-understand premise. Lesbian Cinderella immediately evokes a clear meaning for many people: It implies that the Cinderella character falls in love with a woman, rather than with Prince Charming. This is true in the case of Ash. If I call it a lesbian Cinderella, people get it. It’s a useful shorthand. It’s not the actual book itself; it’s a marketing tool.
If I were to call the book a “bisexual Cinderella,” I’m fairly sure that I’d get many confused reactions. This is not because I personally believe bisexuality is confusing, but it’s because I know that the general public (especially people who are not bi, or who don’t know bi people) still often has a really hard time grasping the concept of bisexuality. Among the many stereotypes associated with bisexuality are the beliefs that bisexuals can’t make up their minds, or that they’re constantly attracted to all sexes at the same time. These are obviously wrong and offensive. If I used the phrase bisexual Cinderella to describe Ash, I’m pretty sure I’d get people asking me things like, “So who does she pick?” Or “Does she date both a man and a woman?” Or “Does she wind up with the prince in the end?” Etc.
When I’m introducing Ash to new potential readers, I don’t want them to be confused. I want them to get it. Instantly. Lesbian Cinderella, in my opinion, helps them get it. No, it doesn’t explain all the complexities of the book, but that’s not what it’s meant to do. It’s meant to clearly pitch the book to potential readers.
Additionally, when Ash was first published, it was 2009. That’s seven years ago (and only receding further into the past). I started describing it as a “lesbian Cinderella” even before 2009. The cultural status of lesbian, bisexual, and queer women in the mainstream media has changed a ton since then. These days, people talk about sexual fluidity or being label-free; these concepts were much less widespread back in 2009. If the concept of label-free sexual fluidity ever becomes mainstream, that is how I would describe Ash. Because that’s what’s on the page.
In the novel, you’ll notice that nobody ever uses the word lesbian. They don’t use the word bisexual either, and that’s because the world of Ash is not like ours. There is no stigma against same-sex relationships in the world of Ash. Nobody has to come out or declare a sexual orientation because it’s OK to fall in love with whoever you fall in love with, regardless of their gender. In Ash, label-free sexual fluidity is the norm. Really, that’s what Ash is: It’s a label-free, sexually fluid retelling of Cinderella.
Lastly, I do understand that some readers are disappointed that I’ve described Ash as a lesbian Cinderella rather than a bisexual Cinderella. Honestly, sometimes I worry that pitching it as a bisexual Cinderella would be misleading because it doesn’t engage with bisexuality very much. (And I have written books that do purposely engage with bisexuality. In Adaptation and Inheritance, the main character is bisexual. She chooses to identify that way herself; she says it out loud. It’s on the page, deliberately.) So I wouldn’t want to mislead a bi reader who goes into Ash hoping for something more than what’s there.
But also — and to get a little personal — another reason I’ve described Ash as a lesbian Cinderella is because I identify as a lesbian, and I wrote this book for myself. It was the story I needed to tell myself when I needed the courage to be myself. This will always be the way I see this book in my heart and mind, but it does not need to be the way you see it. Your interpretation is equally valid.
Ultimately, Ash is a fantasy novel. It is deliberately unrealistic about some things. One of those things is sexual orientation. We are often pushed to label ourselves in the real world, and that’s why I wanted to write a world where that wasn’t the case. Ash herself sees no need to pick a label. She loves who she loves — just like the rest of us, no matter how we identify.
May 12, 2016
Greetings! Things have been quiet on the blog here but behind the scenes in real life, the writing continues daily. I’m happy to share some evidence today that I am really still writing things, because I’ve received the glorious cover for a nonfiction anthology I’m part of called Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin. It comes out December 6, 2016, from Simon & Schuster, and look at this cover:
A collection of essays from today’s most acclaimed authors—from Cheryl Strayed to Roxane Gay to Jennifer Weiner, Alexander Chee, Nick Hornby, and Jonathan Franzen—on the realities of making a living in the writing world.
In the literary world, the debate around writing and commerce often begs us to take sides: either writers should be paid for everything they do or writers should just pay their dues and count themselves lucky to be published. You should never quit your day job, but your ultimate goal should be to quit your day job. It’s an endless, confusing, and often controversial conversation that, despite our bare-it-all culture, still remains taboo. In Scratch, Manjula Martin has gathered interviews and essays from established and rising authors to confront the age-old question: how do creative people make money?
As contributors including Jonathan Franzen, Cheryl Strayed, Roxane Gay, Nick Hornby, Susan Orlean, Alexander Chee, Daniel Jose Older, Jennifer Weiner, and Yiyun Li candidly and emotionally discuss money, MFA programs, teaching fellowships, finally getting published, and what success really means to them, Scratch honestly addresses the tensions between writing and money, work and life, literature and commerce. The result is an entertaining and inspiring book that helps readers and writers understand what it’s really like to make art in a world that runs on money—and why it matters. Essential reading for aspiring and experienced writers, and for anyone interested in the future of literature, Scratch is the perfect bookshelf companion to On Writing, Never Can Say Goodbye, and MFA vs. NYC.
My name isn’t on the cover (I mean, I wouldn’t put my name on the cover either given the ones they did put on the cover) but I promise I’m in this anthology! My essay is about some uncomfortable truths I’ve faced over the years about writing, money, and art. I can’t wait to read the other essays in this collection, because I think talking about money is one of the most difficult and necessary things that we writers need to do. If you are a writer of any kind (aspiring, struggling, professional, bestselling!) I think this anthology will be perfect for you.
Which is why now is a great time to pre-order it (since you’re a writer, you understand pre-orders are super important these days) at any of these fine retailers:
Meanwhile, the next six months will be full of more attempting to make a living from writing for me, as I finish my novel-in-progress and continue working on various other things. I hope to be able to rejoin the internet on a more regular basis later this summer.
Hope you’re enjoying the spring sunshine wherever you are.
March 25, 2016
For the past few months I’ve been hunkered down writing my next novel. I can’t say I love first drafting, but I can say I’ve made progress. Part of that progress was made on a writing retreat I went on in Hawaii (yes!) with my wonderful friends Cindy Pon and Kate Elliott (who hosted us). Here we are, along with Cindy’s giant hat:
Meanwhile, things continued to happen, so I have things to tell you.
Firstly: Tremontaine Season 1 will be published by Saga Press in a print omnibus edition in spring 2017. This means you’ll get all of season 1, which wrapped back in January, collected in a paper edition. I am a fan of both ebooks and paper books, so this is really exciting!
Secondly: In honor of the National Book Foundation and Lambda Literary’s new reading program, BookUp LGBTQ, I (and several other authors) shared the Books I Wish I’d Read as an LGBTQ Teenager with LitHub. If you know me you probably won’t be surprised by the books I picked, but I’m sure you’ll find some great recommendations from the other authors, many of which (and whom) are new to me as well.
Thirdly: I am thrilled to share the news that I will be a guest at GeekyCon this July in Orlando, Florida, along with a whole bunch of awesome and awesomely diverse authors! I loved my experience at GeekyCon (then LeakyCon) in 2014, and I can’t wait to go back.
Finally: Much of the progress I made on my novel is due to the fact that I took a social media break for over a month. Wow, there’s a lot more time in the day when I’m not on twitter! And because of that, I’ve decided to continue to not be on twitter until I finish this book. I am on instagram though, and I also just answered some long-overdue asks on tumblr. So if you want to see random pics of my life and/or ask me something, feel free to check me out in those corners of the internet.
February 5, 2016
Recently I read Ashley Hope Pérez’s gut-wrenching historical novel, Out of Darkness, which was one of the most critically acclaimed YA novels to be released last year. It garnered several starred reviews, praise in the The New York Times Book Review, and was awarded a Printz Honor. Sometimes I read critically acclaimed books and wind up wondering if I missed something because I don’t understand why they were so highly praised. This was not the case with Out of Darkness. The more I read, the deeper I fell into the story that Pérez was telling, and the more certain I was that this novel deserves every accolade it has received.
Out of Darkness reveals itself, page by page, to be deeply committed to exposing the reality of life in East Texas in 1937. It is by turns hopeful, horrifying, passionate, tragic, and unflinching. The last section of the novel is a downhill skid into a nightmare that is inescapable, heartbreaking, and powerful. It has stayed with me, as it should.
The novel is about a Mexican American girl named Naomi, who has been forced to move to New London, Texas, to live with her white stepfather, Henry. He is the father of Naomi’s half-siblings, the young twins Beto and Cari. Naomi, Beto, and Cari all have the same mother (also Mexican American), who died after giving birth to the twins. Naomi, as a brown girl in a community segregated between black and white, doesn’t fit in. Henry has abused her and continues to be disturbing, at best. At school, she is sexualized by the white boys and ostracized by the white girls, although she does befriend a few more open-minded people.
The one person she truly connects with is Wash Fuller, a black teen who does odd jobs in the community, saving money so he can go to college. An interracial romance between Wash and Naomi is forbidden, so as the two fall in love with each other, they keep their relationship a secret, meeting in the woods nearby. Both Naomi and Wash know their romance is doomed, but they are two teens in love. They could be almost anyone in that situation, and that’s part of the tragedy. They are every one of us who has experienced the sweetness and joy of first love.
But the racism of 1937 East Texas is impossible to escape. It seeps into every corner of Naomi’s life, in all of its blunt and contradictory ways. It is obvious from the beginning of the novel that racism — as well as sexism — is going to play a brutal role in Naomi’s story. I could feel it coming as I approached the end, and at one point I found myself hoping: This book is called Out of Darkness, so they’re going to emerge from this hellish place, right? But Out of Darkness pulls no punches, and that’s why it succeeds.
In the Author’s Note at the end of the novel, Pérez writes:
“An understandable protective impulse sometimes inspires efforts to conceal, diminish, or disavow such painful histories. The work of this book, however, was to bring to light experiences and narratives that might otherwise go unacknowledged. I have tried to balance the heartbreak, cruelty, and ignorance of my characters’ world with a profound attention to the forms of kindness and connection that are also possible in it.”
This “understandable protective impulse,” especially in books for young people, is one of the most insidious ways that racism continues to be institutionalized in our literature.
It is natural to want to protect young people from horrible truths, but all too often we forget to question who exactly are these young people we want to protect? Typically, they’re white. Young people of color have already experienced racism; they are beyond this kind of protection. Hopefully, today’s young people of color have not experienced racism in the way that Naomi and Wash experienced it in 1937, but believe me: You can’t be a person of color in the United States today and never experience racism. It is still here, every day, ranging from microaggressions like the kind Naomi experiences when her classmates make ignorant comments about dirty Mexicans, to much more macro aggressions like police shootings of black teens.
Not every novel about minorities needs to grapple with racism, but when racism is one of the subjects of a novel, it should be faced directly. It does a disservice to those who have been hurt by racism to do otherwise.
Yes, racism is devastating to feel. It bristles with unfairness. I have never felt the horrors that Naomi and Wash feel in Out of Darkness, but I know what it feels like to be taunted for your race. I know what it feels like to stand in the same room with so-called allies who toss out ignorant assumptions about people like me. I know what it feels like to be muzzled because I don’t want to upset the white people. At the same time, I know that I am extremely fortunate. I am an Asian American lesbian, but I am also privileged by my education and financial status.
Partly because of novels like Out of Darkness, I can imagine what it must be like for people who don’t have my privileges. Can you?
The last line of Out of Darkness is an exhortation to all of us to climb out of the dark world that racism has built. In order to do that, first you have to look around and see it for what it is. It hurts. It’s meant to hurt.
January 24, 2016
I finally saw Carol. I’ve been hearing about this film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt forever, but a variety of scheduling conflicts prevented me from seeing it until yesterday. Also, to be honest, I wasn’t sure that I would connect with an arty film about two upper-classy white femmes fallings in love in a time of repression.
I didn’t need to worry. I thought it was brilliant. I connected.
Lately, the internet (especially the queer women I read and follow) has been abuzz over the Oscars’ snubbing of Carol for Best Picture and Best Director. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, who play Carol Aird and Therese Belivet, respectively, both got nominations for their acting, which they richly deserve. But with a 95% positive score on Metacritic showing that almost all critics adored this movie, it is a bit head-scratchy that it did not get an Oscar nomination.
Of course, plenty of people have theories why. I really like Autostraddle’s take on it (“The ‘Carol’ Oscars Snub: The Problem Isn’t Lesbians, It’s Misandry”), as well as this post at The Atlantic (“Why Carol Is Misunderstood”), and this one at The A.V. Club (“By mostly snubbing Carol, the Oscars continue to exclude queer cinema”). I’ve heard the criticism that Carol is too distant and too chilly, and I can see why some people would come out of the movie thinking that, but I think that criticism is based on a lack of experience in how to see — to really truly see — two women falling in love with each other.
Our world today, the world of 2016, is much more open to same-sex love than the world of the 1950s where Carol is set. However, our world shares something with the 1950s, something that has never changed. Stories of same-sex love, particularly of lesbian love, are so rare that it is still shocking to see it portrayed realistically on the big screen. I’ve been watching and writing about lesbian popular culture since 2002 and have endured countless terrible films and TV shows about lesbians, but even I was shocked by the way lesbians were shown in Carol: With grace. With respect. And with love — genuine, open-hearted, hope-filled love.
I believe that director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy understood how challenging Carol would be for viewers steeped in The L Word at best and so-called lesbian porn at worst. Carol actually teaches viewers how to see two women together as lesbians through the repeated use of one scene. As the movie opens, we see Carol and Therese having tea together in a hotel lobby. It looks like nothing at first, even though we suspect it must be something because the movie is about them. But their attitude and words and posture are blank to us — they appear to be casual acquaintances, just friends.
Then the entire movie happens, and their romance is told with all the luxurious flair of Top Shelf Hollywood. These women are beautiful together; their midcentury world is beautiful around them; and all this beauty gives their story a coat of glamorous gloss that could be mistaken for a lack of depth. But no. That gloss is the lacquer that coats these women’s secret lives. It is makeup, with all its symbolic meaning: mainstream respect, traditional femininity, women’s armor. Therese and Carol can see through the lipstick and the furs to the truth of their hearts. Hopefully, as their story progresses, the viewer also learns how to see through it.
As the movie draws to a close, we return to that scene of Carol and Therese having tea, and after everything we’ve experienced, this scene now takes on a much deeper, more urgent meaning. This repeated scene teaches the viewer how to see the two women in a different light. It shows the viewer that what might appear to be casual and distant on the surface is actually about something that a random passer-by could never understand. Two people’s interactions are never as simple as they seem.
This is how lesbians have lived their lives in public for centuries.
The part of Carol that affected me most deeply — well, other than the last scene, which was incredible — was the love scene. All too often, lesbians getting in bed together are depicted these days in sex scenes, not love scenes, but Carol had a love scene. It was made all the more clear to me because later in the same day I watched the season three premiere of The 100, a TV show that I absolutely love and that is basically the complete opposite of Carol. However, this episode also had an intimate scene between two women, and it was absolutely a sex scene.
This is the difference: In Carol, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara made me feel as if these two characters cared for each other deeply. It was intimate in a way that the vast majority of sex scenes between women are not. It was shot from Carol’s perspective at first as she gazes at Therese, and that framing of the scene — from Carol’s perspective, not an unknown (male) viewer’s — was so important. Sex scenes are so often shot from the male gaze. We watch (or leer) as the women do it. But not in Carol. It quickly closed in, moved from Carol to Therese’s perspective, and then zoomed in closer and closer until the scene faded into the narrowing space between the two women. It was about Carol and Therese together, loving each other. It was so tender and warm, so charged with the characters’ feelings of amazement that this was finally happening. It was about love rather than titillation, and I had never seen that play out between two women on the big screen before. It was extraordinary.
The scene in The 100, in contrast, started with a distant shot. The male gaze was still there at first, and it was clearly supposed to be sexy. That made the scene ordinary. Don’t get me wrong: the ordinariness of The 100’s same-sex sex scene was revolutionary in its own way because it is a television show aimed at young adults (!) in which the main female character doesn’t have anxiety about her bisexuality (!) and clearly is only interested in distracting herself for a moment with sex (!). I mean, I am OK with the fact that The 100’s sex scene was ordinary; it put queer women on the same level as men, and that’s something to be happy about too.
But it drove home, for me, how extraordinary the Carol scene was.
Two other scenes in Carol show how the young and inexperienced Therese develops her ability to see beyond the obvious. In the first half of the movie, she goes into a record store to buy a gift for Carol. At this point in their relationship, things are very new, and Therese is still becoming aware of the fact that she is unusually drawn to this older woman. At the record store she sees two butch women together, and they eye her as she eyes them. She recognizes them as lesbians because they appear to fit the stereotypes that most people know about lesbians.
Toward the end of the movie, Therese is at a party where she meets a woman played by Carrie Brownstein. This woman is not outwardly butch; she passes as straight, just like Carol. But this woman (I can’t remember her name but Carrie Brownstein!) deliberately approaches Therese, and it seems quite clear that she is hitting on Therese. Therese recognizes this, because she has learned how to see queerness beyond the obvious. She has learned to see beyond facades.
The question is: By the end of the movie, has the viewer learned this as well? Obviously, no movie can work for every viewer, but this is a very difficult lesson to learn. It has to undo decades of visual art that depicts lesbians quite differently: as ugly, as unnaturally mannish, as oversexed, as vampires. It has to cross the gulf between straight and gay that is as wide as the Pacific for some people. And it has to do this through directorial choices and acting.
I think there are aspects about Todd Haynes’s direction that may not suit some people. It is a bit slow to start; it is deliberate in its pacing; and it asks that the viewer be patient. It has a veneer of taste and respectability, a veneer that some people simply may dislike. It is also, however, truly revolutionary that a lesbian love story has been given this tasteful and respectful treatment. The problem is, respectfulness can feel dry and distant. If the viewer only sees the surface beauty, they never feel the emotion that lies beneath.
I think that novels have it a little easier than movies, because in a novel the writer can explain how a character feels through words. A film relies on the actors (and other elements like the art direction and the music — oh, the music!) to relay emotions. Though I feel that Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara were revelatory in their emotions, I have the advantage of being sympathetic to their feelings because I have experienced some of them myself. That initial fuzzy shock of inexplicable attraction. That complicated, gut-churning confusion about what is real and what is not. That moment of pure unadulterated awe when you realize that the truth is exactly what you hoped it was. Beneath all that is the devastating knowledge that much of the world thinks what you’re feeling is wrong.
I can recognize parts of my life in their story. I’m sure that some straight viewers can also do this, but frankly, I think it does take quite a leap. I’ve read and seen enough representations of lesbians created by straight people to know that plenty of straight people, well meaning though they are, can’t quite make that leap, though they may get close. It’s not even their fault, really. They may believe they’ve created a deeply felt story of lesbian love, but to a lesbian audience, it may feel like a superficial imagining of our interior lives. (This is not always the case of course; sometimes straight creators can tell a queer story very well.)
But. There is a gulf. It is unbridgable for some. This is the challenge that media about queer women faces in the mainstream. It’s something I think about all the time as I write my novels: Will straight readers get this? You can never tell. (I don’t always care if straight readers will get it. But if you’re working in the mainstream, it has to cross your mind.)
I wish Carol had been recognized by the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. I loved it. I’m so glad that I saw it and that it exists in the world. It has definitely moved representations of lesbians forward, and I hope that the next time a movie like this is made, more viewers will be better able to feel it.
P. S. I am on a social media hiatus as I write this, so I won’t be able to respond on social media. Apparently being on a social media hiatus, though, makes me really want to write blog posts, so there’s a chance I will write more blog posts.
January 20, 2016
Today marks the release of Episode 12 of Tremontaine, titled “A Tale of Two Ladies.” It is the last of the three Tremontaine episodes I’ve written, and definitely my favorite of the three. It’s available to buy at Serial Box (where it comes with the audiobook version) or at Kindle.
At by Kathleen Jennings
If you haven’t given Tremontaine a try yet and you need further convincing, let me point you to this amazing review by Heather Hogan at Autostraddle, titled “‘Tremontaine’ is a Paradise of Queerness and Chocolate.” And here are some quotes from that review:
“Tremontaine is an adventure, and at least two love stories, too — but it’s also a savvy commentary on the economics and ethics of cultural exchange. … It’s not just an entertaining series; it’s an incisive cultural critique.”
(Me: Yes! Exactly!)
“… every love story is between men who love men, or women who love women, or men and women who love both men and women. The sex is good fun, but the romance is deliriously well-written. Such aching and longing and pining and promises (amid cups and cups of chocolate!).”
In case you missed it, here’s my behind-the-scenes post about what went into writing Episode 8, in which I reveal my dread secret: I don’t like chocolate. But don’t worry: you won’t be able to tell in my episodes.
And anyway, Episode 12! Is out today! I hope you enjoy it, because I certainly did.
December 31, 2015
Here we are again at the end of another year. Every year I like to look back on what I did and look forward to what comes next; these posts are tagged taking stock if you want to go back in time.
This past year has been a major one for me, both personally and professionally, and while I can’t say I loved 2015, I believe it will become (in hindsight) a valuable one.
Things Published in 2015
This year was my first year of being published in adult fiction. First, in June, my short story “The Cure” (a horror/historical/fantasy mashup) was published at Interfictions, and you can still read it for free.
Then, starting in late October, Tremontaine launched. Tremontaine is a serialized ebook that releases weekly, like a TV show (but for your kindle or iphone), and is written by a team of writers including me. Based on Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint and related novels, it’s an adventurous tale of swordplay and drawing room intrigue, and it was my first experience collaborating with a group of writers to write fiction.
When 2015 began I hadn’t yet begun working on Tremontaine, but by now the first season has already been completed behind the scenes. Episodes will continue to release through January. I’m more than a little stunned that we managed to pull together thirteen episodes, each around 14,000 words, in such a short amount of time! I’ve discovered that it is genuinely amazing to be able to bounce ideas off a group of writers who are all working toward the same goal and developing the same characters. The serialized format is also a lot of fun for me because I love plot, and serializing a story means you’re constructing a series of cliffhangers and plot twists. That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of challenges inherent in it (there are), but I enjoyed the challenges and feel that it has made me a stronger writer.
In the nonfiction realm, I had a nonfiction essay published in a major venue this year: a book review in the New York Times. This was a dream of mine and I’m really proud of it.
I had an essay published in The Horn Book as well, titled “Reimagining the World,” in which I share my thoughts on my artistic goals. It’s online here if you want to read it.
On my own for Diversity in YA, I wrote a series of posts on Perceptions of Diversity in Book Reviews. I’m very proud of this piece too, as I’ve heard from people throughout publishing who have read it and thought about it.
The State of My Writing
The majority of what I wrote in 2015 was also published in 2015, due to the incredibly fast turnaround time on Tremontaine. This is unusual, because mainstream, print publishing is so much slower. But I did write a few other things that have not been released yet, including two nonfiction essays. Nonfiction, in fact, kind of came back to me in 2015, knocked on the door of my brain, and said, “Hey, remember me? You used to write my stuff a lot more.” I’m not talking about blogging, but about longform or more structured, essay-type nonfiction. I really enjoy writing this stuff, and one of my goals for the future is to figure out how to do it more.
I’ve also been working on the novel that I recently sold, A Line in the Dark. (Hey, I sold a new novel in 2015! Woohoo!) It’s not coming out until 2018, which may seem really far away to you but to me, who has to write the thing, seems quite soon. This novel is a mystery, and since I’m a lifelong mystery reader, I want to get it right. Not that I ever don’t want to get things I write right, but since I’m such a fan of mysteries, I guess I feel a particular kind of responsibility about this.
It may come as a surprise to you that I don’t actually read much fantasy or science fiction. I have read more of it in the past, particularly when I was a teen, but for the majority of my life I’ve read crime fiction. Recently, I’ve been reading more literary fiction, too, something I used to dislike vehemently, but am now more interested in. I don’t know what changed, but something has. I anticipate that this novel is going to reflect some of the change in my personal reading tastes, and I expect that means it will feel different than my previous novels. Of course, I think every one of my books feels different from the previous ones, so take that with a grain of salt.
Writing this book also feels significant for me because, well, remember last year when I said I finished writing a contemporary realistic novel? Unfortunately, I have been unable to find a home for it — yet. The process of submitting that novel to publishers has been a difficult experience. It has shown me that many publishers expect me and my books to fit into particular boxes, and the size and scope of those boxes is limited by the degree of my commercial success. There are boxes for what “YA” is. There are boxes for what they think “a Malinda Lo novel” is. And yes, there are boxes for “diversity” that even I was shocked to learn exist. The problem is, I don’t seem to be able to fit into those boxes very well, probably because they’re not boxes of my design. (The other problem is: The System that designs those boxes.) But I’ve learned that in order to be able to define my own box (or to explode it entirely), I need to change certain things. I need to sell more books, and I need to level up in my craft.
This marks a distinct change in the way I think about my career. I mean, I’m thinking of it as a career now, as opposed to a dream. At the same time, I’m learning how to balance that career stuff with my artistic goals. This is something I do not know how to do very well. I suspect it is always going to be a challenge, but plenty of things get easier the longer you do them. Hopefully this will, too. I know that self-publishing is always an option for me, and someday I may go that route, but right now I’m focused on maintaining and growing a career in traditional, mainstream publishing, while staying true to my ideals.
So: sell more books and level up. That’s what I’m trying to do with A Line in the Dark. No pressure, right? I am very glad that I’ve found an editor and publisher who I believe is going to help me do that.
I’m laying all this out there to tell those of you who are aspiring writers or who are struggling in your own careers: I’ve been there. This last year has often felt like an uphill battle for me, but writing is what I’ve wanted to do my entire life, so I’m going to keep doing it. Since 2009 when my first novel debuted, I’ve had four novels published, half a dozen short stories, and contributed to a serialized fiction startup. I’m only now starting to get an idea of what the long game is. There’s a lot more strategy involved than I thought, and I thought I was pretty well-informed. At the same time, you have to keep your finger on the pulse of your artistic ambition, and not let it be pushed aside entirely in favor of profit. I think it’s a constant negotiation, and in a way, I’m grateful that this year forced me to face it.
Related to the career stress, and also due to major transitions in my personal life (I moved from California to Massachusetts, for example), this last year was also the year I finally faced the fact that I have a serious problem with anxiety. Technically, I have generalized anxiety disorder. I’ve been clinically depressed several times in my life, but my depression has come and gone. My anxiety is always with me. In fact, I’m particularly anxious about the possibility of becoming depressed again. (My anxiety does not make sense. It just is. Aggressively.)
In order to learn how to manage my anxiety, I’ve gone back to therapy; specifically, cognitive behavioral therapy. I’ve never done this type of treatment before, and it’s markedly different than the psychotherapy I’ve had in the past. I know that medication is also an option, but because I’ve been on medication in the past and it hasn’t worked well for me, I’m focusing on CBT right now. I know that it’s working. I feel much better than I did three months ago, and I’m learning all sorts of skills to manage my anxiety. It’s not exactly fun, but I’m optimistic that I’m going to be able to have a life in which I live with anxiety but it does not control everything I do.
For those of you who deal with anxiety and depression: I’ve been there, too. I’m still there. I also want to note that I’m 41 years old, and it’s taken me all 41 of those years to get to this point where I am consciously facing my anxieties. I’ve never done this before. I’ve tried many different methods of dealing with it in my life, but never this one. I think I was not prepared until now to do this. If you’re struggling with it too, don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s a very hard thing to deal with, and you have to take the steps you’re able to take when you’re ready to take them.
Coming up in 2016
I am, honestly, really excited about 2016. I won’t have much new fiction published in 2016, but the last of my three Tremontaine episodes is episode 12, and that will be out in a few weeks.
Later in 2016, I will have a nonfiction essay published in an anthology about writing. I don’t have all the details on when that will be released yet, but I’ll post here when I know more. I’m also hopeful that I will have additional nonfiction published somewhere on the internets.
Mostly, 2016 is going to be about writing new things. I have two projects ongoing, and one on the back burner. First, of course there’s A Line in the Dark, which will take up the majority of my year. Second, I’m working on a collaborative nonfiction project that I am so excited about! It’s very meaningful to me and my fingers are crossed that everything goes right for it. Third, I have an adult fiction project that I’ve been thinking about and researching forever. I have no idea if I’ll have time to get to that in 2016, but I hope so.
Last but not least, one of the things I’ve realized I want to do more of is mentor and coach young writers, particularly those who are minorities. I’m committed to supporting the movement in diversity, which is really a movement toward equality for those of us who have never been given seats at the big table. In 2016 I’m going to do this two ways. First I’m going to be mentoring a really talented young writer for We Need Diverse Books; that announcement will be going up soon.
Second, I’m going to be teaching at the Alpha Workshop, which is a 10-day-long science fiction, fantasy, and horror workshop for young writers (ages 14–19). It will be held July 21–31, 2016. I would have killed to go to something like Alpha when I was in high school, and I especially encourage writers who are of color, queer and/or disabled to apply. There are scholarships! Apply for those too, and please don’t self-reject. I can’t wait to meet you, Alpha 2016ers!
Happy new year, everyone, and I hope that 2016 will bring you lots of joy and fulfillment.
December 23, 2015
Tremontaine is in full swing now, and after a week off, it’s back with the second of my three episodes, “A City Without Chocolate.” It’s available to buy at Serial Box (where it comes with the wonderful audiobook too) or at Kindle or iBooks.
Art by Kathleen Jennings
Last week during our mini break, Serial Box released two extras that you might be interested in: a free, original short story set in Riverside, “Willie Be Nimble” by Jaida Jones & Danielle Bennett; and a free podcast in which I join Ellen Kushner and Joel Derfner to talk about the characters of Tremontaine.
I hope you’re following along and enjoying all the drama! Things are only going to get a lot more dramatic in the second half of the season, I promise.