LITERATURE AS EMPOWERMENT

For a long time, I didn’t read.  When I was younger, I didn’t know “who” I was, but I certainly knew that I wasn’t on the cover of any of the YA novels my friends would read on the bus.  While the lack of diversity in books affects all of us, it especially affects young people trying to understand their own identities.  Young people learn by example, but when there is no one to serve as an example, what does that do to a growing mind?  It stops it from exploring possibilities.  Literature is a form of empowerment, for better or for worse.  Seeing a character who looks like you, thinks like you, or loves like you, can mean the world.  On the other hand, not seeing any characters like you can send the message that people like you don’t exist or can only exist in one role (the best friend, the villain). There is so much everyone can learn from reading about new perspectives, but those of us who rarely see ourselves reflected in our culture’s heroes are the ones who need diverse books the most.

I started taking books seriously when I was in high school, and believed myself to be a straight ally to the LGBTQ community (ah, the dark days).  However, I wasn’t just a straight ally, I was an incredibly passionate (read: annoying) straight ally.  By the 11th grade, I had read every book by or about the lives of Oscar Wilde, E.M. Forster, and Christopher Isherwood.  Name a historical figure and I could have told you a theory about how that person was actually gay.  I would carry books around like accessories, advertising my identification with these authors to the world. I daydreamed of some mythical queer-history-expert high schooler who would stop me in the hallway to ask about the book in my hand or who would recognize the green carnation I made my prom date buy me for prom.  This mythical high schooler and I would strike up a coded conversation about these queer authors, all the while knowing the true subtext behind our words.

Unfortunately for my high school self, that hero never came along and instead of waiting for them, I began experimenting with dating.  At that time, I dated a few people of various genders, but there was a common thread among them all: we exchanged books.  We exchanged queer books.  In courting each other, our hands would exchange David Levithan and Stephen Chbosky, and much like the subtlety of Oscar Wilde’s green carnation or Forster’s references to the Symposium, our sexualities went unsaid.  We let the books, the symbols of our identity, do the speaking for us.  With those books and handwritten post-its that said, ‘Tell me what you think of this one!’, we were saying, ‘See the way these two characters care about each other?  Is that how you feel about me?’

Why did we do this?  Why books and why not music, movies, or TV? Like most teenagers, we were deathly afraid of our parents having any window into our personal lives, especially our sex lives (or lack thereof).  Much like the history of queer identities, we needed to be subtle, and books were exactly that.  I remember getting in trouble for watching the Ellen DeGeneres show after school, but what parent could say no to their child reading Plato?

As I read through those books, I still never found a character who lined up with my own gender or sexual identity, but for a high schooler, I got close enough.  I got close enough to lift my eyes outside the scope of my hometown and see that people like me existed.  Somewhere.  After describing my sexual identity to my closest friends and being laughed at or after describing my gender identity to my teacher and having him tell me, “all teenagers hate their body; one day you’ll get better at accepting the one you’re born in”, these books were telling me something that no one else in my life could at that time: hang in there.  And since they were subtle, they could be ubiquitous.  They could reassure me on family vacations at the beach, in a lonely study hall period, or on a train ride to visit my grandparents.  I could take them anywhere.  And I did.

Books have an inherent ability to empower others, but for those of us whose identities fall within the margins, we have to work for access to that empowerment.  It took a lot of research to find queer books as a kid, and I can imagine I wouldn’t have read most of them if I didn’t live near a city library.  As I got older, I would purchase books just to highlight one paragraph that proved a famous Greek hero, Hercules, had a male lover.  Even the smallest reference, the briefest sub-plot, still makes me feel glad to be included in a book’s narrative, but some days I am not satisfied with being confined to the backdrop.  We need diverse books because they provide us with examples and possibilities, allowing us to create our identities in the face of stereotypes.  We need diverse authors to represent these characters accurately, to speak to those who are most hungry to see themselves in literature, to those who might cling to good books and good representations a little more closely than we’d like to admit.


In my next post, I plan to talk about the lack of cultural diversity in literature especially in regards to translation and representation of writers outside of the English-speaking world.  For now, here’s my list of queer stories I grew up reading, and note that I do recognize they are nearly all white men, which is something I will address in my next update.

A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood

Maurice – E.M. Forster

Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin

The Symposium – Plato

The Argonautica – Apollonius of Rhodes

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

Orlando – Virginia Woolf

Death in Venice – Thomas Mann

Queer – William Burroughs

Our Lady of the Flowers – Jean Genet

The Perks of Being A Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky

M or F? – Lisa Papademetriou and Chris Tebbetts

The Realm of Possibility – David Levithan

Maledicte – Lane Robbins

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