For queer writers, the discovery of this literary lineage is essential to our very existence, to our very expression of self. We can’t find the words without them.
I’ll never remember exactly how I got the book. My mom must have given it to me. Or I stumbled over it on one of her shelves. It is an old copy, paperback, with some of the pages falling out. The small volume has that odd musty scent, slightly sweet, that worn books with yellowing pages always seem to have. It is an immediately mysterious book. It whispers to me in a language I don’t yet understand. It murmurs hidden histories that I have yet to uncover.
It’s easy to hide in the writing, to tuck oneself snug between the pale blue of college-ruled lines and two cardboard covers. There’s a me that lives caught in the ink of it, guarded by cold metal spirals, contained. It’s easier to give everyone else the surface they expect, keep the rest of it safe in these notebooks. On the surface I am everything right: good girl, nice girl, straight A. So when I wear my black eyeliner, they tell me I’m pretty (not disturbingly witchy). When I cut my hair short, they tell me I’m cute (not confusingly handsome). I learned this trick from the books that they gave me: it’s only the surface they’ll read. I am hidden so well, I often lose sight of myself.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Everyone in this room knows I’m queer but I still feel that sharp hidden thrill as I listen to queer books at work, like I’m holding a secret between my ears. As my coworkers listen to true crime podcasts or music or NPR, I hear the voices of our queer future while I data-enter. Every part of myself hears them differently: the woman-self, the man-self, the guilty-self, the proud-self, the lonely-self, the hopeful-self, the adult-self, the teenage-self, the child-self, and the part where all these selves merge in the middle, crossing all these self-divisions, coming together into a new language that can hold them all at once.
There’s really no way to describe it, this medical witchery we’ve managed. I can write . I can write . I can write . But none of those terms really contain the experience. They don’t describe the way the potions made my body become not my body or the procedures that dropped visions of trees overburdened with fruit inside me. They don’t describe the divisions of self, the way carrying this fantastical fetus puts so many mes back to sleep, a whole hidden castle of dreamers, hormonally ensorcelled, waiting for birth the wake up. I don’t know the words yet to write it. But I’m certain that someday I will.
Her Body and Other Parties
Queer experience doesn’t follow straight lines. Sometimes we need strangeness to express it. We need to turn the old stories new. We need to find what was hidden inside them and pull it to surface. This is one reason I think we so often tend toward hybridity: mixing genres, mixing forms. We write prose poetically. We fragment things. We make our fairy tales realistic, turn our realism fantastical. We turn tales inside out, stitch them sideways. Sometimes all we can write are the hints of it. Sometimes all we can do is gesture toward it. Because we don’t have the language yet. We don’t yet have all the stories we need to tell what we know. What we know is another reality.
At the AWP conference this year, I went to a panel where Lidia Yuknavitch, Carmen Maria Machado, Alexander Chee, and Garth Greenwell—all beloved LGBTQ authors—talked about sex. This wasn’t a niche panel. The audience for it was huge, the authors all literary heavyweights both inside and outside of queer reading communities. There I was, sitting with writer friends, trying not to be embarrassed as I teared up at an AWP panel. And I wished, as I watched them, that I could go back in time and tell my teenage self about this future we would live in, that I could let my early writing self, the one that scribbled away queerness to hide it, know: soon we’d all be reading and writing in a time when overtly queer authors shaped the realities of mainstream literature.
At this panel, Garth Greenwell talked about language, about the importance of having the words to describe one’s experience, one’s existence, about how today’s LGBTQ writers are making a new language of queerness—one that isn’t born of the pathologizing of queerness we were taught in the past but of something else, something different. And I wonder what this language will be, how this language, how these stories, will shape us. And these queer youth of the future—the ones who will be shaped by the queer literary lineage we are, all of us, building right now in the present—Who will they be? How will they be? What homes, what stories, what worlds will they be able to create?
In this room there are so many voices, a chorus of ghosts trailing memories made word. I hear Woolf here and Wilde. I hear James Baldwin and Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldua and W.H. Auden and Countee Cullen and Elizabeth Bishop and so many more. Our queer past flowing into queer present. Often I hear these voices echoing out of readings, out of panels, out of new queer books. There are moments when I hear them while writing and they sound like the rushing of waves. In these moments I feel myself as a tiny drop in a wide stream of queer literature, moved along by the work that surrounds me, here making my own tiny ripple, a single moment coming out of our past, disappearing back into our future.
Miranda Schmidt is a writer, editor, and teacher whose work has appeared in TriQuarterly, The Collagist, Electric Literature, Orion, Phoebe, and other journals. Read more at mirandaschmidt.com and @mirandarschmidt