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THE SONG IN THE BOOK

WHY WE NEED TO HEAR THE QUEER VOICE OF LITERATURE

TEXT BY
JOHN BARKER

07.12.21

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From stereos and headsets across the globe, Adele pleads for respite. ‘Go Easy On Me’ she implores and instantly we connect. “Back off life and give me a break”, I echo the sentiment, my hands clutching a recycled brown paper bag filled with bath salts, potted plants and a bottle of Malbec, as the generation of self-care takes hold of its moment of rule. And then I hit repeat, and start the song again. The lyrics finding words for a feeling I never knew existed, or even fathomed could be pinpointed, but there it is, my heartache exposed and I am connected. Repeat.

The ease and accessibility of music means that at any given time we can transport ourselves to a moment, to that feeling; is it any wonder that Spotify now supplies a playlist for every mood and situation possible? Like if you just need a ‘Lizzie McGuire in Roma type beat’, or a soundtrack for ‘doing poppers at the cheesecake factory’ or if circumstances have left you requiring ’Songs for the mountain man who’s seen some shit in his years and now lives as a drifter in the woods’ (we’ve all been there), then Spotify has got you covered.

Less instantaneously accessible perhaps are the words on the pages of a book. A three-hundred-and-something page commitment that journeys deeper than any song and takes you on a course of equal part discovery, equal part connection; and that is where the importance of the queer voice in literature lies.

How many times have you overthought something? Tossed an idea or an emotion back and forth in your mind until all you can feel is exhaustion? Never sharing it with anyone because nobody would get it; it is your story, your experience and you are all alone! Queer literature contends that; through a display of confidence and bravery in the words of it’s writers. These writers whom batter down ancient, deep-rooted walls of shame and fear for the purpose of sharing their stories and relaying the messages that the community long to hear.

As it takes on many forms: a commentary on our place in society, a look back into our past or a graphic autobiography: each challenges its reader. Did you really think you were the first gay boy to send nudes to the wrong SnapChat account, or the first lesbian to have oral sex in the pool? Had you believed for the longest time that you were the only intersex person in the world, safe-guarding your personal secret, or that you were confined by the gender binary? Then you were gladly mistaken. Our stories don’t become less unique, but as truths are shared, a community is created, and it is gloriously and liberatingly queer AF.

Initially the simple act of reading can offer a deeply personal holistic experience in its leisurely departure to another world. A recent Sunday spent almost ritualistically on the sofa took me across Europe and through India and Thailand. In his book ‘Eat, Gay, Love’, a whimsical take on the Elizabeth Gilbert novel ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ aimed at the inspired straight woman, Calum McSwiggan illuminates the life of a solo backpacker. A story heard a thousand times but told now from a fresh gay perspective, and the queer friendships and relationships we encounter through Calum only echo the richness of what life can be to an open heart and an open mind, a ‘live laugh love’ sentiment from the queer vision.

As I personally devour the content of Calum’s travel memoir with the same fervour and eagerness as the tigers we meet in the sanctuary in Thailand, I am suitably inspired. I book my plane tickets and take flight on my own solo adventure (a story for another day). The moment had been right, the message of the book had been right, everything felt right. It was not just another account of a larger- than-life drag queen or the tale of homophobic woe that awaits across the world. Calum’s tales simply remind me that there are experiences out there to be lived; and it is messages like these that the queer community need to hear. The pages connected to that same place as Adele, and the book leaving the same cathartic impression, impacting greatly as I became a little more empowered, understood and visible and ‘the world is my oyster’ was no longer a phrase just for the cis- gendered straight people of our planet.

However, there are many levels to literature and todays queer literature understands the assignment. Writers recognise their role not only in the community, but their purpose in the wider audience too. Their words take a stance as a carefully curated piece of political art, an insight into our queer community and a voice for a minority. Bestselling authors like Shon Faye are paving the way for a new era of awareness, understanding and respect for the trans community, whilst Alok Vaid-Menon and drag queen Bimini Bon Boulash are amongst those to educate the greater cohort on identifying as non-binary.

Content of modern day queer literature can indeed carry that shock value. Like a 90’s Goosebumps novel: read if you dare. It can challenge years of beliefs and dismantles the core of societal construct, whilst often openly addressing topics of a long-silenced sexual nature. Queer does not conform. However the raw honesty is a necessary tone for the growing genre; it is time to make the mainstream squirm, and to feel discomfort for the past, whilst offering an olive branch of information and insight by means of enriching patriarchal-ingrained mindsets as the closed doors begin to creak open, all too slowly. Human-to- human, there is much to learn from each other.

With all the edge and grit of queer art, the pages of queer literature spill adrenaline-charged accounts of dark rooms and underground clubs, of fetish nights and hook-up apps. From the trendsetting New York, to the stifled Bahrain, before returning to home ground, the author openly invites the reader to join them on their journey and to share with them every-nervous step; every bigoted comment and hardship endured and every climactical joy their queer journey has indulged in thus far.

This representation via the medium of text is lasting; in print it is permanent and stories of this life need to be told and engaged with, to be considered, to be empathised with and learnt from, to laugh to and share commonality, and to envy their boldness, as they claw their way to the attention of the masses. Navigating their way through what queer life can be, and through various lenses, the books creep out of the dark, forgotten corners of gloomy bookstores. From here, they offer companionship to the everyday queer on their own personal journey by a means much less fleeting than a Top 40 song. A private conversation with a book, can be the first step towards the more open and honest conversations which we need to hear and to have.

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And then the robe hits the floor, a flowing mass of silk, as I slip into the bath, my nostrils penetrated by the scent of chamomile and tickled by the mountainous sea of delicate bubbles. Damp fingertips fumble with the edges of the page, the candle flickering as the bookmark frustratingly slips into the water: and for a moment, this is my own private Idaho, my ticket to anywhere, a queer connection and there is no pressing repeat.

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