Tag Archives: gay

When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History by Hugh Ryan

When Brooklyn Was Queer Title: When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History
Author: Hugh Ryan
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
ISBN: 978-1250169914
Genre: LGBT Nonfiction, Social and Cultural History
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I had never read something like this before – yes cities and the queer culture did merge in books and I have read parts of it, but nothing like this book. I honestly also believe that every city’s culture needs to be talked about through the people who live on its margins, and maybe that’s why this book hit a nerve the way it did. When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History by Hugh Ryan is the kind of book we all need to read, irrespective of orientation and labels.

The story begins in 1855 with the publication of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman and ends in the 1960s when Brooklyn’s queer identity declined, due to several factors. You have to read this book only because the way Ryan unearths how there was a systematic erasure of the queer history of Brooklyn. What must one remember then? Who decides that? What is at the core of people’s histories and more than anything else of places?

Not only this, this book is fantastic if you want to get to know people’s voices and lives – queer lives – right from the famous drag kings and queens of the 1800s, of a black lesbian named Mabel Hampton and how she worked as a dancer, of a WWII gay spy scandal and so much more between its pages.

Ryan’s writing is never just a dry documentation of facts. There is so much more to it. There is tenderness and empathy and above all it is a voice that strives to let people know more. Also, the nuances of gender identity, orientation, and sometimes even race are handled with such a sense of larger understanding of issues, that it makes you want to read more.

More than anything else it is about resistance and no matter what governments do or stand for, people will always continue to live the way they want to, which should be at the core of every identity battle. Ryan’s research is spot-on, so much so that you instantly feel that you are in that world, the minute you start reading the book. He shares letters, diary entries, and publication excerpts to support and validate his arguments of what was erased and how it was found.

What I loved the most was the beautiful prologue – a short one at that but so effective – a glimpse into the lives of Gypsy Rose Lee and Carson McCullers, and from thereon begins what it means to be “queer”.

When Brooklyn Was Queer is one of those rare books that makes you want to sit up and take notice of what’s going on in the world. The past, present, and future merge seamlessly in this account of what history allows us and what it doesn’t. The small joys, sorrows, the sacrifices made, the lives that carry on regardless, and most of all what it means to be queer is what this remarkable book is about. Do not miss out on this read.

 

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The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara

The House of Impossible Beauties Title: The House of Impossible Beauties
Author: Joseph Cassara
Publisher: Ecco, HarperCollins
ISBN: 978-0062676979
Genre: Literary Fiction, LGBT Fiction,
Pages: 416
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Authors need to write more in the LGBT space. I know a lot is being written, but, I also think that a lot is still not enough. Books such as “The House of Impossible Beauties” make you see, realize and understand that. I had been wanting to read this one for a while now and I am so happy that the wait paid off because I absolutely loved this gem of a book. There are some books that stick with you, no matter what and this will for sure be one of them.

“The House of Impossible Beauties” is literally that – a house of people living on the edge in the ’80s of New York – a time riddled with confusion, mayhem, and change. From all that I have read and understand, I know it isn’t easy to write an AIDS novel, but this one is so much more than just that. In so many places in the book, I had to put it down and breathe a little, because I could see myself in its pages and not just when it came down to one character or one incident. It was an amalgamation of it all. And yes, I did weep, if not cry while reading it.

At the center of this gregarious, big-hearted novel is Angel – barely seventeen, new to the drag world and ball culture, with a big heart to care for those who need it the most – people who are like her and those without love. She falls in love with Hector, who shares the dream of forming the House of Xtravaganza, the first-ever all-Latino house in the Harlem ball circuit. When Hector dies to AIDS, Angel decides to build the house all by herself and she does.

And this is where it all begins in the book. Part One is about introducing these characters who inhabit the house – Angel, Venus – the trans girl who just wants someone rich to look after her, Daniel who in a way saves Venus and himself and Juanito – the quiet one who is in love with fabrics. The marginality of these characters – of not just being gay or trans but also Latino in the ’80s (and even today it isn’t easy, being either or both of these) shines – almost jumping out of the pages. Cassara opens you to a new world (if new to you that is) and merges it beautifully with characters who sear through your heart.

The writing is not only taut but also funny in so many places. The book is not without humour and perhaps we need more of it to get through the day. The novel is, of course, raw and you wish certain things didn’t happen to them, but they do and through all of it, the House of Xtravaganza stands tall, sheltering them, and how the shifting views of people regarding LGBT population, gives it a totally different form and shape. What I loved is the history of LGBT interspersed far and few in-between the pages, quite cleverly by the author.

“The House of Impossible Beauties” should be read by one and all and not only the LGBT population. It is a novel about empathy, kindness, forgiveness and above all just being who you are, without fear or inhibitions. I only wish I had a house like this to go to when I was growing-up and needed a friend, a mother, or even a lover.

 

 

 

Hide by Matthew Griffin

hide-by-matthew-griffin Title: Hide
Author: Matthew Griffin
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1408867082
Genre:Literary Fiction
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

LGBT fiction has come into its own. A lot of young adult novels are also exploring queer love as constant themes – also coming out. “Hide” by Matthew Griffin is a book that is full of wisdom, tenderness and a love that cannot be spoken of. It is a story of two men and their love – togetherness, companionship and above all hiding the truth, which is where the title comes from. Actually, to me the title is a lot more than just that and I will talk about it in a bit.

“Hide” by Matthew Griffin is a love story of two men. I can call it that – a love story or I could just say that it traces the lives of two men – but that is not what it is. Frank Clifton has returned from WWII. He meets Wendell Wilson and their lives are forever changed. Given the time and place, their love cannot be shouted out loud. They then decide to live together. Years pass. Some more years pass and then something happens which will again change the course of their lives. Frank has a stroke and begins losing his memory and Wendell is left taking care of him through it all. What happens next is for you to read and find out.

This novel is delicate and takes its time. It isn’t rushed and there is no need for it to be that as well. “Hide” is love in the shadows – a bittersweet story of restraint and to want it all. Homophobia is all around you, even today, more so in the Indian society where I come from and yet when you read books such as these, it just makes you feel that everything is possible – even queer or same-sex love, because love is love and should not be judged.

Griffin’s writing soars in most places – the piece about the fear instilled in Frank and Wendell about being homosexual is heartbreaking – not because of the phobia or prejudice but because they just don’t want to live without each other. How can you then not choke up while reading such a book? I am a gay man, so maybe I am an easy reader for this book, but I think this book speaks to everyone, irrespective of sexual orientation.

“Hide” is about love between two men – the companionship, the marriage, the need to be with and want each other. It is as simple as that. Griffin tells a tale that will resonate, that will break your heart and make you hope and pray that it is all okay at the end.

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell Title: What Belongs to You
Author: Garth Greenwell
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-1447280514
Genre: Literary fiction, LGBTQ Fiction
Pages: 204
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Love is a mystery. I have still not been able to figure it out and more so, know what role I play in its larger plan for me, if it does have any plan laid out for me that is. I had been putting off reading “What Belongs to You” by Garth Greenwell for the longest time. I know why. Let me share it with you. It is because in my head it was about unrequited love (which it is) and about disease (again it is about that), but above all it was about selfish love mostly and I had been through it. I thought I would read it and it will all come back to me, haunting me all over again, but it did not. I read the book and all I can say with utmost confidence is that you must read it – everyone must. Though it is about gay love, but love is love after all and hence this book will make that impact felt deeply with readers who have loved or aspire to fall in love.

“What Belongs to You” is about a nameless narrator – an American male, whose name and age is not mentioned, teaching at an institute in Sofia – the capital city of Bulgaria and his encounter with a local rent boy, Mitko. The book is about the narrator’s love and desire for Mitko. I wish I could say the book is just about that and leave it at that – but I can’t do that, because it wouldn’t do justice to the book. “What Belongs to You” is a landscape of desire, which is undone for its characters. Their loves are undone. Their desires do not see the light of day and how emotional and monetary exchanges build or rather feed on people’s weaknesses.

The book reads like a confession – the narrator speaks of his encounter with Mitko one fine day at the National Palace of Culture in Sofia and this is how the book begins. Lust is on the fore of this highly emotional roller-coaster of a ride novel. Greenwell somehow eases the reader into the first encounter between the narrator and rent boy. They are obviously to meet on more than one occasion – money will exchange hands in place of sexual favors and this is how the world is – there is really no awkwardness from Mitko’s side as this is what he does for a living, but one can sense the narrator’s discomfort and how he is pulled apart by his love for Mitko (possessive, envious, the kind of love we have all been through) and his past – his relationship with his father as he came out, the boy he loved (K) and how all he wanted was his father to accept and love him for who he was. Greenwell manages this with great tenderness and tact and this was the part of the novel, where I actually cried. I could relate to the dynamics as it would have played out with my father, which it never did and this continues to be one of my biggest regrets.

The narrator leaves Mitko many times in the course of the book. He realizes that perhaps Mitko at some point is toxic and he needs to find his own, because Mitko all said and done will never love him.

“As I had cause to think before, of how helpless desire is outside its little theatre of heat, how ridiculous it becomes the moment it isn’t welcomed, even if the welcome is contrived”

The third and final part of the book is about Mitko’s return – and the part which is most gut-wrenching as it is about disease and how the two cope with it in their own way. The narrator by now has a boyfriend R and the relationship dynamics there I thought were rushed a little. Having said that, what struck me at this point was the xenophobia which was subtly displayed as the narrator goes from clinic to clinic getting tests done. At the same time, the concept of fear was delicately probed time and again and yet amidst all of this is the unrequited love and desire that hangs in the balance. Greenwell never lets you forget for once that the book is about people who love, lose, falter, make terrible decisions, try and become better people in all probability and have no one to go to but themselves.

“What Belongs to You” to me was one of the highlight novels I’ve read this year. It definitely features in my Top 10 reads of the year so far and all I can say is that you have to go and pick up this novel – read it at leisure, soak in the emotions and pray and hope that you aren’t caught weeping uncontrollably.

Book Review: The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai

The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai Title: The Hungry Ghosts
Author: Shyam Selvadurai
Publisher: Penguin Viking
ISBN: 9780670085750
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 384
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

It was through a dear friend that I got introduced to Shyam Selvadurai’s works. We were younger than and wanted to read everything queer and take it all in. At such a time, I was introduced to “Funny Boy” by my friend, written by Shyam Selvadurai. The book was about a boy’s coming to terms with his sexual orientation and that too in an almost conservative Sri Lankan society. I fell in love with Selvadurai’s writing. There was no looking back since. I have read almost every single book of his (well including the latest one, there have been only four books to say the least) and loved them all, some a little less than the others and some a little more.

“The Hungry Ghosts” falls in the latter category. The title comes from Buddhist mythology, where the dead may be reborn as “hungry ghosts” – as spirits with stomachs so large that they can never be full. It is but left to the living relatives of the ghosts to free them of this desire by doing good deeds and creating good karma. Why am I telling you this? Because this is at the heart of this story, centered on a matriarch, becoming a living ghost and the relationship she shares with her grandson – who but after all must free her.

The book moves between Canada and Sri Lanka and Selvadurai does a brilliant job of describing the essence of both places with ease and panache. “The Hungry Ghosts” is centered on Shivan Rassiah, who is of mixed Tamil and Sinhalese lineage, and is a beloved grandson to his grandmother, who is extremely orthodox and at the same time, Shivan happens to be gay. As the novel opens, Shivan is living in Canada and preparing to go back to Colombo to meet his ailing maternal grandmother and get her to live with him and his mother in Canada, till her final days. This is the crux of the novel.

For me what struck a chord in the entire book is the fact that you can never let go of the past. It will keep hounding you or keeping up with you wherever you go, till it is at peace. The law of karma holds strongly throughout the book and sometimes most ironically so. Each character is stuck with his or her karma and that runs beautifully throughout the novel. There were times when I thought it was getting a bit much, but I could overlook it, primarily because of the writing.

Characterization is another strong point of Shyam Selvadurai. He gives all his characters their due and their voices are distinct. No one is either good or bad. Everyone has their own drawbacks, which makes them connect more with the readers. The fact of Shivan coming to terms with his sexual orientation and at the same time trying to make sense of Sri Lanka’s disruptive political scenario blends and fit together to perfection. This to me is great writing. The grandmother is overbearing and strong and yet has her own share of sadness which isn’t revealed till later in the book. The idea of the book is clear: Forgiveness and Karma.

This book worked with me on many levels as I was able to relate my life to what was taking place in the novel. I loved the Buddhist myths and fables that run throughout the book. It is almost as though they were much needed to propel the story ahead. I highly recommend this book to almost everyone who want to know more about Sri Lankan customs and traditions and also above all who want to read a good story.


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