I can still remember the first time I saw myself reflected in a story. I had just turned nineteen years old and was nearly through my chaotic first year of university. Although I desperately needed to study for my final exams, I had opened a second-hand book I had picked up from somewhere instead.
I was still recovering from a very messy breakup with my first girlfriend. In the late 2000s, the world was a very different place—I wasn’t out to anybody except a few close friends. I had nobody to talk to about it. Needing something to take my mind somewhere else for a bit, I decided this book would do the trick, although I didn’t know anything about it or the author.
The book was Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson. She was queer, like me. Like me, she was also adopted. The story is creative nonfiction, and she weaves her experiences growing up between the fairy tales she told herself to survive her childhood. In those pages, I saw more of myself reflected back at me than I ever had before. For a few hours, I was spellbound—and hopeful. There were other people out there like me.
Somebody understood me.
I had always wanted to be a writer, but it wasn’t until I saw myself in that story that I decided writing was something I wanted to do seriously. I wanted other queer adults and youth like me to see themselves reflected somewhere, too.
I had always loved suspense and gothic fiction when I was growing up. When I was twelve, I discovered an anthology of Edgar Allan Poe’s works abandoned in the back of a classroom and spent my next several recesses equally enthralled and chilled by his short stories. During my summer breaks, I read Agatha Christie’s mysteries.
All of these stories contained strangeness, ambiguity, complex relationships and troubled characters. They fascinated me.All of these stories contained strangeness, ambiguity, complex relationships and troubled characters. They fascinated me.
When I first started writing seriously, I looked first to the few openly queer authors I knew about for inspiration. I devoured the entire bibliography of Jeanette Winterson and read through the works of other queer authors like Caitlín R. Kiernan and Dionne Brand.
I also looked for queer characters in books or TV, but there were very few of them in the early 2010s—and the queer relationships I did see often ended tragically, so frequently that it became known as the “Bury Your Gays” trope.
I wanted to tell a different story with my own writing. One that held space for queer characters to not only experience tragedy, but joy and all of the complex spaces in between as well. As I worked on honing my own writing skills, I found myself gravitating back towards the stories that captivated me when I was younger—like Edgar Allan Poe’s The Telltale Heart and Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.
I was still fascinated by the way that suspense and gothic fiction allowed space for the unknown, the complicated and the uncomfortable. Queer can also be defined as strange, uncanny or other—and these genres seemed like the perfect place to explore those themes in my own writing.
So I kept writing and I kept reading—searching for spaces where I could feel unsettled, but also see my own experiences reflected back at me.
Years after, I decided I wanted to become an author; the landscape of queer fiction has changed so much that my younger self probably wouldn’t recognize it. There are more stories about people like me out there now than I ever could have imagined. Stories that don’t end in tragedy—that reflect queerness in all of its complexity and humanity.
I have also gone places and been given opportunities that nineteen-year-old me could never dream of. I found a community of queer authors and received more support than I ever would have dared to hope for. On July 19, 2022, my debut novel VICIOUS CREATURES will be released and join so many other wonderful queer books coming out this year.
I am hopeful for the future of queer fiction. We have many incredible authors who have added their voices and their stories to the conversation, including Carmen Maria Machado, Micah Nemerever, P.J. Vernon, Kelly J. Ford and Ocean Vuong. There are more opportunities for queer youth and adults to see themselves reflected openly in the pages of these stories than ever before.
But although the future looks bright, we have also seen a push recently to ban stories like these from schools and libraries—to take them away from the queer youth who need them the most. Who might be searching for reassurance that there are other people out there like them—that someone understands them.
My younger self would be overjoyed by the abundance of queer fiction that is out there right now—for there to be more opportunities for queer adults and youth to see their experiences reflected in these stories than ever before. But we still have so much further to go.