Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Judy's Guide for New Lesbians: The Book List

You know, when I was coming out in college, I would really have loved to get some good lesbian fiction recommendations.

Sure, I thrilled at the occasional lesbian scene in school books such as Communist-China set "Red Azaleas" and I had high hopes for "Lesbian Pulp Fiction: The Sexually Intrepid World of Lesbian Paperback Novels from 1950-1965," but these and other literature I had encountered with lesbian scenes or undertones was extremely depressing. Women desperately, deeply in love with each other, but then punished, repressed, abused for it. What a terrible message to send to young lesbians!

So people, let's create the Guide for New Lesbians Book List. Slash, these are just fantastic books that everyone should read, the common theme being that they (thankfully) celebrate women loving women instead of forbidding it. Here are my top picks (in no particular order):
  • Any anthology of Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel. Bechdel started creating semi-autobiographical comic strips of  novels in the 80s and only recently took a hiatus. Her lesbian characters and their friends are hilarious, complex and expressive. With so many lesbian characters, you're bound to find yourself in her pages.
  • After Delores by Sarah Schulman. A fast-moving short novel about a bad-ass lesbian in the 80s who has been cruelly broken up with by her dear sweet girlfriend Delores. She alternates between scheming ways to get her back and scheming ways to kill her with a pearly-handled hand gun.
  • Valencia by Michelle Tea. Tea's knowingly self-centered narration is addictive and you'll find yourself wanting to live in her half-beautiful half-disturbing lesbian San Francisco.
  • Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Bechdel's autobiographical graphic novel about coming out and her relationship with her family, focused mostly on her father who she suspects is also gay.
  • Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lourde. An intense and poetic memoir/myth.
  • Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. A young hermaphrodite struggles with her identity. I don't remember all the details, but remember really liking it; well written and gripping.
  • That's Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation by Mattilda a.k.a. Matt Bernstein. A collection of essays that amount to a romp around the spectrum of radical queer politics, majorly queer positive and at many points, hilarious. See "Dr. Laura, Sit on My Face". 
  • Passing by Nella Larsen. Okay, I know I said we were going with lesbian-positive here, but this book is simply amazing. Overtly it's the story of black women who pass as white in the 1920s. Covertly, it's the story of lesbians who pass as straight. Seriously, incredible book.
  • Tipping the Velvet by Sara Waters. Sexy period novel. Doesn't really come off as true in any way, but a good beach book for sure.
  • Rent Girl by Michelle Tea. Love the full-page illustrations that go with Tea's novel about longing, sex and prostitution. Some of the content made me feel uneasy, but still interesting nonetheless.
Would love to hear what other books you would add to the list!


  1. Ash and Huntress by Malinda Lo are great YA books - super fast reads, positive messages. One thing I really like about these is that the main characters' being gay is treated as a non-issue - there is no huge focus on struggling to come out to family, etc.

  2. Sounds great, thanks Virb! I will check them out.

  3. ooh good list! ive been wanting to check out valencia! glad to see more than just the usual rubyfruit jungle / oranges arent the only fruit (though classics, they are). have you read fingersmith? i liked it better than tipping the velvet and MUCH more than the creepy and disappointing Affinity. would love to hear your take on the old pulp novels like beebo brinker and then the new stuff from Bold Strokes Books. ive tried reading some of the romances by Radclyffe, etc. and despite the fact that im a sucker for beach reads (nora roberts is my guilty pleasure), i just cant get into them. i do think the pulp novels are really interesting, though - especially considering how much gender roles have evolved since then.

  4. OH!! and there's this dude, Nick, in my yoga class, and he just published his first book, Nina Here Nor There. i havent gotten my hands on a copy yet, but it's about his transition and he's a fantastic writer (check out his travel stuff and his weekly posts for original plumbing at NickKrieger.com). plus, he's a NY/NJ transplant to sf and penn alum! anyway i really dont know that much about trans issues but am sort of super fascinated with educating myself about it (i always remember that gender / queer conf you did a few yrs back), and his book is supposed to be pretty awesome. i think youd really like his stuff.

  5. hey alex!
    i definitely agree that the pulp novels, old and new, are interesting but i find them more like historical texts, a product of their time and on the whole, so depressing! someone is always getting killed or torn away or punished somehow...in my lesbian fiction i want the conflict/drama to be between the women, not between society and women (or not as much, at least). havent read fingersmith though, will add it to the list! and always will check out nick's website, sounds awesome!

  6. true - all the guilt and secrecy in the pulp novels are torturous! im sure there were hundreds of housewives who secretly thrived on those books, but i wonder if they also perpetuated the repression / internalization of their sexuality bc the characters were never free to be completely happy and at ease with themselves.