RL Goldberg’s 2018 essay “Toward Creating a Trans Literary Canon” offers up a list of phenomenal trans writing: Eli Clare’s Exile and Pride, a truly life-changing book; Leslie Feinberg’s utterly devastating Stone Butch Blues; and one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing, Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl. But it is Goldberg’s explanation of the ethos behind the list to which I keep returning: “It’s not a canon exactly, but a corpus. It’s something more like a body: mutable, evolving, flexible, open, exposed, exposing. It’s the opposite of erasure; it’s an inscription.” To celebrate Pride in my capacity as intern here at The Paris Review, I’ve been reading works by the queer authors in the latest issues of the magazine. The archive contains a myriad of fantastic queer writers, but I wanted to recognize some of our contemporary contributors, folks whose work has appeared in our most recent pages. As I read, I thought a lot about Goldberg’s notion of inscription and the list as body: mutable, evolving, flexible. What resulted is a corpus nowhere near complete, final, or comprehensive—and I don’t want it to be. Rather, it’s meant to pay tribute to the diversity of art created by our queer contributors, each of them offering something distinct to readers of the Review. Some of the work is about sexuality, some of it is about sex, and some of it is about war, about gender, about eggs in a hot pan.
Many of these writers hold identity at the center of their work; the particularities of each piece demonstrate the various (and incredibly individual) meanings of “identity” itself. Lydia Conklin’s “Rainbow Rainbow,” a coming-of-age story published in the Summer 2021 issue, depicts two queer suburban teenage girls, one out and one coming to terms with her burgeoning sexuality, as they venture to Boston to meet an internet crush. In “Token,” Jericho Brown ruminates on the privilege inherent in invisibility:
… I want the scandal
In my bedroom but not in the mouths of convenience-
Store customers off the nearest highway. Let me be
Used and forgotten and left
To whatever narrow miseries I make for myself
Without anybody asking,
What’s wrong. …
Similar to “Rainbow Rainbow,” Brown’s poem sees the city as a haven. For the girls in Conklin’s story, Boston offers the possibility of a different life; in “Token,” the city offers the space for community. The narrator of the late Anthony Veasna So’s “Maly, Maly, Maly” is ready to flee G Block, the “asshole of California,” for the promise of a four-year college in Los Angeles. “An hour ago we became outcasts,” So writes:
One of us—not me—would not shut the fuck up. And since the grandmas are prepping for the monks and need to focus, we’ve been banished outside to choke on traces of manure blown in from the asparagus farms surrounding us, our hometown, this shitty place of boring dudes always pissing green stink.
And according to the Mas, everything about us appears at once too masculine and too feminine: our posture—backs arching like the models in the magazines we steal; our clothes—the rips, studs, and jagged edges—none of it makes sense to them. The two of us are wrong in every direction. Though Maly, the girl cousin, strikes them as less wrong than the boy cousin, me.
So’s story deals deeply with family, its restrictions and its promise. Ocean Vuong’s “Rise & Shine,” a seriously sensual and cinematic poem, takes up the identity of being someone’s son, and what is passed from parent to child.
Melissa Febos and Danez Smith both hold a single word at the center of their pieces in the Review. In “The Mirror Test,” Febos delves into the linguistic history of the word slut along with her own adolescent experience of sexuality and gender. I think you can guess the focal point of Smith’s “my bitch!”:
o bitch. my good bitch. bitch my heart.
dream bitch. bitch my salve. bitch my order.
bitch my willowed stream. bitch my legend.
bitch like a door. your name means open
in the language of my getting by. bitch sesame.
In Garth Greenwell’s “Gospodar,” the Bulgarian word for “bitch,” kuchko, gets at the core of the narrator’s pleasure in his BDSM encounter with another man. Greenwell’s story is truly one of the best explorations of pleasure and consent in kink I have ever read.
Alex Dimitrov’s “Impermanence” wants, wants, and then wants some more. “Amid Tensions on the Korean Peninsula,” Franny Choi’s poem about war, survival, and collective memory, is nothing short of a formal marvel. Eileen Myles is having the time of their life in “To Love.” Eloghosa Osunde’s “Good Boy,” for which she received the 2021 Plimpton Prize, completely altered my understanding of what fiction can do. Take the opening as case in point:
I’ve always had a problem with introductions. To me, they don’t matter. It’s either you know me or you don’t—you get? If you don’t, the main thing you need to know is that I am a hustler through and through. I’m that guy that gets shit done. Simple. Kick me out of the house at fifteen—a barged-in-on secret behind me, a heartbreak falling into my shin as I walk—and watch me grow some real useful muscles. Watch me learn how to play all the necessary games, good and ungood; watch me learn how to notice red eyes, how to figure out when to squat and bite the road’s shoulder with all my might. Watch me learn why a good knife (and not just any type of good, but the moral-less kind, the fatherlike kind) is necessary when you’re sleeping under a bridge. Just a week after that, watch me swear on my own destiny and insist to the God who made me that I’m bigger than that lesson now; then watch my ori align. Watch me walk from that cursed bridge a free man and learn how to really make money between age damaged and age twenty-two; watch me pay the streets what I owe in blood and notes (up front, no installments); watch me never lack where to sleep again.
The story blows my mind each and every time I return to it.
Over on the Daily, Bryan Washington writes about his experience at New Orleans Pride and other events across the South in “Proud, Prouder, Proudest.” Yelena Moskovich discusses her search for a lesbian canon, and Matthew H. Birkhold examines The Third Sex, a little-known German publication that was most likely the first magazine to focus on trans issues.
This many-limbed corpus is strikingly diverse—in fact, “queer writers” proves to be a relatively loose unifying factor when the work itself is held up side by side. Although I wrote this for Pride, I truly believe that it’s vital to read queer literature not just during June, but every month of the year. This weekend, in celebration of New York City Pride, check out the above works in the Review, along with Lou Sullivan’s diaries, Sarah Schulman’s new book on the political history of ACT UP New York, and Fred W. McDarrah’s reissued Pride: Photographs after Stonewall. Go from there. Happy Pride.
Mira Braneck is a writer from New Jersey.