| Don’t Write Alone
Notes From Class What, Exactly, Is Queer Literature?
Once I gave queer authors the keys and stopped worrying about what, exactly, queer literature meant, my students’ work taught me something about what queer literature actually is: a lens on the world.
I am a huge nerd. Which is why, if you’ll indulge me, before talking about the stellar novels written by the students who took part in Catapult’s first ever queer and trans novel generator, I’m going to talk about The Magnus Archives .
The Magnus Archives is a scripted fiction horror podcast that Tumblr really fucking loves. I also love it, even though my Tumblr experience largely consists of my best friend sending me everything she thinks I would like. The Magnus Archives is responsible for several images living rent-free in my mind, such as “sentient garden made of people parts” and “very narrow cave that digests a human being” and “woman made of worms.” In the world of the Archive, all the world’s horrors can be classified into a set number of categories. Some are more obvious: The Flesh, for example, is where all the body horror lives. The Buried, a fear of small spaces (though Death is it’s own category). The Filth, fear of pestilence and rot. There are fourteen of these categories.
The one I think about most is The Vast. Heights, outer space, deep water. Massive and open and unknown and (according to the fan-run Magnus Archives wiki , at least), it’s really about “the human fear of insignificance and meaninglessness, of losing oneself in too much space.” Basically—any fear about being swallowed by the giant universe. One of the Vast episodes is about sky diving, another is about falling off buildings, yet another about the ocean, and another about being adrift in a spaceship disconnected completely from community on earth.
To my knowledge (and I’ve listened to all of them), none of the Vast episodes are about God. But I think a healthy fear of the divine is the same kind of thing.
As a genre, I love horror and am repulsed by it. I feel the same about limitless existence. I love the idea of a giant multiverse: of endless exploration; of being only a small part of it; of there being beings larger and a touch omniscient; of our world being too big to parse, too complicated to categorize in our tiny human brains. Too vast.
When people imagine queer literature, sometimes, I think, that no matter who is doing the thinking, the category is reductive. Even if we’re talking about the queer imagination of queer literature, the imagined bracket begins and ends with representation. How gay a novel is comes down to the queer characters doing the coming out or the getting hate crimed. How sufficiently do they represent the queer monolith (of which there is none)? How do they give voice to the discourse of the moment (of which there is always too much)? And I understand! I understand there’s been a dearth of novels about queer people, that it is still radical to put a gay person at the center of a story. But I also think we have the right to stretch our wings a bit on that definition, to talk about queer literature in a more vast way, one that allows for a gargantuan category full of contradiction.
This is one of the many affordances of an affinity space—a workshop that is by and for queer people and only queer people. If everyone is gay, no one has to represent The Queers, no one need feel responsible to bring gay content of a certain kind to class. The kind of gay content that hopes those outside the marginalized community can be inspired to empathize, something author Namwali Serpell argues is not possible, not really, in “ The Banality of Empathy .” And to quote her again, “representation is a trap,” a sentence I heard her say during Tin House’s winter workshop in 2019. I do not remember exactly the way she meant it, but here’s how I mean it: If authors are always stuck representing themselves, this kills the fictive impulse, the integral part of any novel where the author throws their voice far away from themself as a matter of storytelling craft. Put a different way: It would be fucking boring if every character was a carbon copy of their creator.
So how to think of queer literature, then, if not as queer characters, as queer content, and nothing further? I could go on and on about my complicated feelings, or I could simply tell you how I did think about it this one time so I could select the first cohort of the queer and trans novel generator. Which was: I did not put any pressure on anyone to be gay representation Jesus. Instead, I put the focus not on the individual, but on the collective. That is and has always been what queerness means to me—a variable set of people with a vast array of experiences voluntarily webbing together to be in community with one another, to both multiply the giant world into something even larger, and to divide it down to something that holds us, particularly. What ideas were this group of novelists wrestling with? And how could they help one another think through large concepts?
The work these eight writers have in common feature individuals wrestling with forces much larger than themselves—to rail against those forces, to ride the waves of them, to figure out a way to commune with them. Sometimes those individuals are queer or trans, sometimes they aren’t; sometimes we don’t ever really know.
Errol Ray Anderson, executive director of Charis Circle, the non-profit programming arm of Georgia’s feminist bookstore, Charis Books, writes about individuals trying to find their place in a complex family feud and with God, all set against the backdrop of a Catholic theme park, wooden roller coaster and all. And Let God Sort Them Out is a delicious doorstopper of a novel about every vast topic one could imagine: love, race, betrayal and forgiveness.
TV writer and award-winning playwright MJ Kaufman takes a different look at individuals wrestling with God—their novel, Exile in Brooklyn , follows Jonah, who is part of a small queer community of observant Jewish folks in Brooklyn, New York, as he is accused of emotional abuse. And we hear it all from the acerbic point of view of Jonah himself. Throughout his community-initiated restorative justice process, Jonah grapples with questions of religion, climate, and community, asking himself and asking us: what is the relationship between compassion, grace, and accountability? How should we conceptualize justice as participants in an unjust world?
Iowa Workshop graduate Eliana Ramage’s protagonist tries to make sense of and integrate what feel like dueling allegiances: One to her indigenous family and community on Earth and another to her dreams of exploring the vast endless void as an astronaut. Here Men from the Planet Earth asks us to consider what space travel might look like without space colonization: Who gets to imagine a future untethered from Earth? Ramage’s lyric prose channels both air and earth; a sense of looking at the stars with one’s feet firmly on the ground.
That isn’t to say Earth does not have its own vastness. Emily Dziuban’s quartet of protagonists in Always the Gulf Always form a chosen family where two break ups result in a “partner swap.” Together they try desperately to remain intact through myriad hurts (and a protagonist’s estranged parents coming down with early-pandemic Covid-19) while their struggles are contextualized in a countdown of geologic time as the Gulf of Mexico is formed.
Formerly of April Literary Festival in Seattle, Washington, with strong ties to the city, Frances James Dinger deals in a different vast earthly countdown in their novel, A Beautiful House . After the Big One (the giant earthquake that will likely ravage the Pacific Northwest in our lifetime), Seattle is reformed as a five-hundred-year city: guaranteed five centuries before having an earthquake of that magnitude again. Capitalism and climate change run roughshod over the city’s poor and queer, and we follow one couple as they try to figure out how to commune with their commune, an unintentional spare-parts group in a disaster-provoked living situation.
Human beings, with all our individual internal universes, can create a vast space as well. Cartoonist Archie Bongiovanni’s graphic novel, Unhinged , rides the gargantuan wave of social media as a lesbian influencer, Laura, discovers she likes spending time cruising on gay men’s dating apps as Leo—and then she lies about it to herself and others a whole lot. This story asks us to consider what constitutes reality: something private, or something shared? When “humanity” is a force with which we might connect, what does that do to our individual sense of self? And here’s the catch—Laura isn’t just Laura; Leo isn’t just Leo. They’re the same person who contains both, and what do we do with that?
Brendan Williams-Childs’s vast is one of these people-vasts: the convoluted labyrinth of the State. His novel, Dacha , features a set of protagonists contending with the inevitable sweep of political events in a fictional post-Soviet Nation. It features kidnappings, coups, medical experimentation, and also love, community, duty, and whether or not to leave home for a place that’s as bad as yours is, just in different ways. Wlliams-Childs’s love for translation shines through his characters, who have wildly conflicting cultural contexts and interior lives; they exist in a perpetual state of translation with each other.
Leia Ostroff’s idea of the vast extends beyond humanity to our own creations: artificial intelligence. When Rust on Seafom ’s protagonist, Lita, is diagnosed with a terminal illness at a very young age, all she wants to do is see the ocean. Usually, this is impossible; Lita lives in a protected bubble because the world is inhospitable to human life. When she breaks out, she discovers a world of robots trying to make the world not just fit for human habitation again, but perfect for it—and that world is far from what it seems.
Through all these texts exists a queer sensibility rather than queer “representation.” A way of seeing the world as multitudinous, as resistant to categorization. Once I gave queer authors the keys and stopped worrying about what, exactly, queer literature meant, my students’ work taught me something about what queer literature actually is: a lens on the world. These eight books are part of the communal future of queer literature, one that insists upon an uncharted vastness, even when it’s scary. Especially when it’s scary.
In celebration of our 12-Month Novel Generator students’ graduation, check out excerpts from their novels below:
• Errol Ray Anderson, excerpt from And Let God Sort Them Out
• Frances James Dinger, excerpt from A Beautiful House
• Emily Dziuban, excerpt from Always the Gulf Always
• MJ Kaufman, excerpt from Exile in Brooklyn
• Leia Ostroff, excerpt from Rust on Seafoam
• Eliana Ramage, excerpt from Here Men from the Planet Earth
• Brendan Williams-Childs, excerpt from Dacha