Tag Archives: LGBT

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel - Essays by Alexander Chee Title: How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays
Author: Alexander Chee
Publisher: Mariner Books, HMH
ISBN: 978-1328764522
Genre: Non-Fiction, Essays
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

It isn’t easy to write a book of essays that charts life. And when you come across a work that is so lucid, questions the world and has so many identities rolled into itself, that you just have to sit up, take notice and devour it cover to cover. “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays” by Alexander Chee is one such collection of finest essays of our times and that is mainly because it is as honest as it can get. There is something about books that come from the heart – they manage to get through to you breaking all pretense and that’s what this collection of essays does to you. It gets through.

Alexander Chee’s writing was only known to me through his earlier literary fiction works, “Edinburgh” and “The Queen of the Night” which I loved immensely. This is his foray into non-fiction and I just hope that he continues writing many such essays. What I found a notch above the essay collections I have read in the past couple of months in this one was just the candid and heartwarming way in which they are written.

Chee doesn’t shy from talking about his life, his struggles and his perception of the world at large. When you write non-fiction, you become more susceptible to judgment than when you write fiction. Everyone may not have an opinion about the storyline or characters but one sure does have an opinion (maybe more) on the world and its issues.

Chee’s essays range from growing-up in America and how different identities take over his life – a son, a Korean American, a gay man, a student, a teacher and a novelist amongst others. I loved the way he connected his life to his country and its issues and everything just seemed one. For instance, the section on AIDS and then again on 9/11 were most hard-hitting to me. When he speaks of literature (there are so many references throughout the book), you just want to sit up and listen. I for one, remember re-reading so many passages about writing and what it takes to be a writer.

Alexander Chee’s essays are wry, real, political (everything is political in today’s time and age), and above all makes us ask questions of art and life and what happens to it all, when they come under attack. “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays” is hands down one of the best essay collections of 2018 and I am not speaking too soon.

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Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin. Translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie

Notes of a Crocodile Title: Notes of a Crocodile
Author: Qiu Miaojin
Translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie
Publisher: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1681370767
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

“Notes of a Crocodile” according to me is a lovely title for a book. I say this to establish it right at the beginning and get it out of the way. This was the third book I read in the women in translation month project and I think by far this has been one of the best (I’ve read six in all so far). There is something very reassuring and yet heartbreaking about this book that makes you fall in love with the prose. You realize it is a translation but it doesn’t matter. The effect is as much. It moved me in just the right places.

“Notes of a Crocodile” is about teenagers who are queer misfits and only discovering love, friendship and artistic affiliations in post-martial-law era of Taiwan. They study at one of Taiwan’s prestigious university and come to realize what happens when you love too hard and too strong. The narrator is an anonymous lesbian, nicknamed Lazi who falls in love way too strong with an older woman named Shui Ling and how she turns to her friends for support as she doesn’t see this happening. Her friends are another kettle of fish: a rich kid who has turned criminal, his self-destructive gay lover (is there any other way to be or to love?), an overachiever who is just bored and her girlfriend who is an artist. See what I mean, when I say the book covers the entire spectrum of LGBTQ?

I was fascinated by this read. “Notes of a Crocodile” at one point in the book (major breakthrough by the way) moves from sexual identity to self-realization about love, loss and how the heart breaks. The translation is just right. I think all the nuances of Chinese expressions and words are in place. Bonnie Huie does a wonderful job on this cult classic. What I loved the most while reading this book is the pop culture references thrown in by Qiu. I wish she were around to write some more books. I also remember reading Last Words from Montmartre with such fervor as well. I couldn’t stop reading it and the same happened with “Notes of a Crocodile”. Also, should you want to know more about title, then I am not giving that away. Read the book for that.

Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me by Bill Hayes

insomniac-city-by-bill-hayes Title: Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me
Author: Bill Hayes
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1620404935
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I remember a friend sending me excerpts of this book. I read it while I was at Doolally – a taproom in Bombay. I was waiting for friends to show up for the Wednesday night quiz and then something happened which I hadn’t expected to – I wept by the time I had finished reading the long excerpt. I cried. I think I even bawled. I strongly also believe that when an art form does that to you – when it creeps up on you like that and almost shatters your world – you’re in for a rollercoaster ride. That happened to me as I was reading “Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me” by Bill Hayes, from which the excerpt was.

Relationships are fragile, they are also very strong. At the same time, what do you do when it ends all of a sudden? When it ends not because you want it to, but because death comes suddenly knocking on your partner’s door and there is nothing you can do about it. Then what? Hayes’s partner died after sixteen years of togetherness. He then moved to New York from San Francisco in search of a new start (as most of us do). He found himself in a city that was surprising, random, and at the same time made him see the humanity that exists. Slowly and steadily, he fell in love with New York and found love in the form of the late, great neurologist and writer, Dr. Oliver Sacks.

This book “Insomniac City” as the title suggests is about New York, Oliver Sacks and Bill Hayes. It is also about life – majorly so, and how it changes constantly whether we would like it or not. It is about New York – of how brutal and gentle she can be at the same time, of how to surrender to the city is to love her completely and without any prejudice. The book ultimately is about great love that transcends all barriers, challenges, doubts and the throes of darkness. There are also the author’s stunning photographs – capturing his love for the city and Oliver.

Let me not forget the portrait of Oliver Sacks that Bill Hayes paints so vividly and beautifully – a genius who did not own a computer – who always preferred to communicate via letters and longhand, who didn’t know how a champagne bottle was opened and used goggles when he first opened them for the fear of the cork hitting his eye, who called pot “cannabis” and who believed in living life as it came – day by day. Hayes met Oliver after Oliver wrote him a letter praising his book “The Anatomist” and this is how they met and love blossomed. The book is about that love, about how Oliver met Hayes after three decades of being alone and celibate. “Insomniac City” will surprise you in ways more than one.

“Insomniac City” is about the love between Oliver and Hayes and what they shared in Oliver’s final years. The writing is so personal and out there that you cannot help but be overwhelmed. Their love for things common, their roads to discovering something they did not know, and what it is to live daily – for the bond to strengthen and one fine day to see that love slip away. The book teaches you about grief, about people coming together quite randomly on a bus or a train and makes you more aware and conscious of what it is to be human. I cannot recommend this book enough. Do yourself a favour: Order it, read it and weep. You need a good cry, now and then.

Guapa by Saleem Haddad

guapa-by-saleem-haddad Title: Guapa
Author: Saleem Haddad
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609454135
Genre: Literary Fiction, LGBTQ fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

The minute I had known of “Guapa” by Saleem Haddad, I knew I wanted to read it. I also strangely (well not so) enough knew that I would love it. Is it because I am gay? Is it because there is this sense of alienation I feel sometimes, as most minorities do? I don’t know. I don’t think that’s one of the major reasons why I thought I would love the book, but it was definitely playing at the back of my mind. “Guapa” extends itself from being just “another gay novel” and that’s what I love about it.

The novel opens strangely enough with a scene that I can most associate myself with. The protagonist, Rasa’s grandmother catches him in bed with his lover Taymour. That’s how the book opens. That’s exactly what happened to me many years ago – my mother caught me with a man (random and not my lover at all) in bed and I was mortified. I was ashamed (Eib as Rasa calls it in the book and you will know the context and the way the word is used). I was not scared. I was just helpless as it happened. Anyway, that is how the book begins.

It is a book set in an unnamed country (and yet we know it is Iraq) and takes place over 24-hours and what happens to Rasa, a disillusioned gay man – caught between two worlds, between his grandmother and the love he has for his lover, between tradition and modernity and always looking within to find means of escape. The book is about Guapa, the underground night club where the city’s clandestine LGBT community meets and lives their lives, day by day, with no hope in sight. The same day, Rasa’s best friend and drag queen Majid has been arrested. That’s another aspect of the book. Let me also add another very interesting part of the book here: Taymour is about to get married. For the rest, I beseech you to read “Guapa”.

There are some authors who debut and you know it is their debut novel. There are some who are brilliant with the written word and their first novel doesn’t seem like the first novel and this is the case with Saleem Haddad’s book. The writing is mostly in the first person, but doesn’t ever fall in the territory of stereotypes or its creation. It if anything, breaks and rips them apart with each sentence and thought. It is not a coming of age novel, though one would be so tempted to fit it in that genre. Honestly, for convenience I have categorized it under literary fiction and LGBTQ fiction but I think the book is broader in scope than that. “Guapa” is about what goes on behind headlines, it is about lives who want to be free and live the way they must, it is about issues that are seething and often ignored; marginalized lives and hopes and dreams and above all empathy toward one and all.

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.