Friday, August 17, 2012

Anthology Review: OMGQueer: Short Stories by Queer Youth

OMGQueer, edited by Katherine E. Lynch & Radclyffe, is an anthology of GLBTQI short stories written by young(ish) queer authors.

So, I hate this book. It's the worst kind of anthology with the worst kind of short stories. The kind that are short. The kind that end after deceiving you into identifying with the characters and relaxing and getting really into the story. Oh, sure, some wrap up neatly and are perfectly paced, but others? Others cut you off just as you forget this was meant to be short story.

So I repeat, I hate this book. You should read it.

It's not perfect. Some things about it are downright disappointing. A few stories don't appeal to me (though they may to others), only two of them are genderqueer/transgender (and one of them has a lesbian main character), and some of them would have fitted in much better in an adult anthology (about a third of the stories feature older teens or adults in their early twenties).

The majority are actually lesbian stories - which is great, in a genre still dominated by gay male stories, but sad, because this book was touted as an all inclusive anthology dealing with the entire spectrum. I suspect that the number of lesbian and 'adult' stories might be attributed to the editors' taste or author connections (Radclyffe writes adult lesbian romance - and is well known for it).

Most are written in first person and a lot of them have nameless narrators, I'm guessing many are actually autobiographical, fictionalised a little for privacy or the sake of a story (the author bios often match their stories pretty closely, I didn't even have to check who wrote what most of the time).

Generally the stories are extremely well written and edited, barring the odd one I didn't click with. They did cover a range of personalities and situations, from dating, love, heartbreak, sex, first kiss, first crush, bullying, acceptance, coming out and family issues separate from their sexualities. The ordering of the stories worked well, with the excellent and mediocre spaced out well among the good, and the slower paced stories leading up to harsher or more dramatic ones.

Overall, it's a darn good anthology and slots nicely into the 15-20 year old reading range (and above). It does contain a few sex scenes, but they tend not to be too explicit - though they usually appear in the 'older' stories. A couple of stories lean towards swearing and crudities, but even those are minor by 'adult' novel standards. Only two stories features teen drinking (ignoring the over twenties in the bar stories) and only one story features violence. Generally, it's a pretty safe anthology.

I did end up a bit annoyed with it, mostly due to the prevalence of lesbian erotic romance, and the lack of diversity that it was advertised so heavily as having, but when read without the expectation of it all being YA, it's a good collection of stories.


Ethnicity-wise there is some variation, but not as much as I would have liked; the default setting was America, the default narrator was 'ordinary white person' and the most common lesbian love interest was 'gorgeous blonde girl'. There was an Indian girl, and a half Russian, half Black girl among the love interests, and on the narrator side there was a lesbian Mexican and an Israeli gay boy. One boy had a Muslim father, but only the father.

Twelve of the stories feature lesbian narrators, and of these one might be bisexual and one has a main transgender character. One story - Jelson - features a truly intersex person and an apparently truly androgynous girl. The remaining five follow gay male characters. Quite a few stories feature multiple queer characters, although they generally conform to the 'gay and lesbian teens are each other's friends' trope, and unless they're the love interest, they're usually just background characters.

Age-wise, the characters are evenly spread from high school to college age - twelve right up to about twenty five, and the style and audience of the stories reflect that.  

The Stories

1. Jelson by Brenna Harvey (Intersex, genderqueer)
Swop is an absolutely fantastic opener and one of the ones that leaves you hanging the most, after introducing you to a school and a whole range of people, from the gay and flamboyant drama teacher, the token out gay boy, the offscreen butch lesbian teacher, the cool or boring or nasty straight kids, the longing to be stereotypical ex-cheerleader, the token black possibly bisexual guy; in the course of this book every single one of the following words is mentioned: "gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex". And that barely touches on our two main characters. Allie and Jenson are best friends and an enormous study in contrasts.
The narrator, Allie, is a girl, but she's (in her opinion) a chubby, shapeless, too ugly to be a girl, too soft to be a boy, androgynous person. And oh, that was marvellous, to have androgyny not mean 'elfin and pretty'. She's cynical and lonely and Jenson thinks she's asexual; she knows that she's not, she's just not attracted to male or female bodied people. Jelson is utterly gorgeous, slim and dark and mysterious and born with a medical condition allowing her/him to physically change sex at will. She's very popular with the boys and he's very popular with the girls, and zie treats it much like a clothing choice.
When Jelson slips into intersexed mode during a rehearsal the school play (the drama teacher was delighted with Jelson's gender swapping and intended to put on as many of Shakespeare's cross dressing plays as possible; yes, utterly typecasting them), Allie discovers herself incredibly attracted. Unfortunately, this comes with a vast helping of awkwardness, with the already insecure Jelson interprets as disgust. Luckily our two crazy kids figure out that they're madly attracted to each other and get it together.
Oh, and a minor but awesome interaction; when Allie's wandering around at a party she meets a drunk guy pressuring the would-be slutty cheerleader into sex and helps her out of it automatically, without any assumption that she was asking for it or deserved to be in that situation.

2. The Tea Bowl by Justin F. Lane (lesbian)
This one was a bit confusing at first; a much slower and more introspective story, it made for a nice change of pace. But it wasn't easy to 'get' straight away; for one thing, our narrator is in her early twenties and the woman who catches her attention is eighteen or nineteen and about to graduate. For another, we never get names, and it's more of a retelling of 'the times I met and knew this girl I fell in love with' than a straightforward story. It's a thoughtful sort of story but feels as if it is aimed at adults rather than teens.
Our nameless narrator is working temporarily in Japan, where her and her partner are living for a while. She retells a series of brief encounters with a young woman who overwhelms her with love and lust, but she's never sure if it is reciprocated. Her mysterious crush works in pottery, and makes a tea bowl for her - a gift of significant time and meaning. Our lovelorn narrator ends up struggling with this overwhelming desire, despite her stable and happy relationship, and starting to think about polygamy and adultery in a new light, but never really gets any answers.

3. The Piano Player by Thomas Graziano (gay male)
This was a lovely story about two boys in college falling in love and sharing their first kiss. Will sees beautiful, blonde Wesley playing piano at Will's grandmother's funeral and later meets him on campus. They bond over Wesley's music and become friends, with Will to shy to ask if Wesley is gay and desperate to find a boyfriend. Luckily he's got his best friend Tiffany (non-straight, implied to be lesbian) to nag him into making the first move - not that he really does. It's a sweet story, and I quite liked the way that, coming after two female narrators, I couldn't tell which sex Will identified as until he introduced himself.

4. Crystal Crisis by A. J. Slater (lesbian)
This one may be rather triggering as there is homophobic (or just plain bullying, in my opinion) violence. The narrative jumps between high school and adulthood.
Ryan and Crystal are friends in high school, but Ryan's the reviled dyke and Crystal's the perfect and popular princess. It's one of those schools with a very rigid pecking order, and they hardly dare admit to being friends. But when Ryan is bullied for 'bothering' Crystal, she stands up to them, publically dump her boyfriend - and brings down violent retribution on them both. Years later, Ryan and her current love of her life have returned to the area for family reasons, Ryan now an incredibly successful film director, and meets Crystal again - and Crystal's girlfriend, bringing closure and new friendship.

5. A Tale of Modern Magic by Olivia Dziwak (lesbian)
A slightly longwinded introduction that turns into short and sweet story of a mutual crush and first girlfriend. Our unnamed female narrator (who hates labels, but we'll have to guess lesbian) goes with a groups of fellow teenagers in the Gay Straight Alliance to help cater for World AIDS Day, and bonds with the gorgeous Jane, the prettiest girl in the GSA. Turns out that Jane has had her eye on the narrator as well, and there is giggling, blushing and hand holding. Oh, and it's set in Canada.

6. Indulge Me by Ashley Barnett (lesbian)
Another of those unexpectedly old stories, this one is suddenly jarring, taking us right away from school and into a world of sex and occasional swear words. Our main characters are nameless again; one hot young bartender (twenty two) and an older woman (thirty five or so). The bartender, our narrator, recounts her gradual shift from seeing the older woman as 'ew, old' to 'sexy' to 'overwhelming crush'.
Told with an older and wiser air, we hear about how young and brashly she pursued or ignored the older woman, who indulged her attempts to be butch and gently turned her down, then starting increasing the level of friendship to theatre, burgers and finally a one night stand. It's unclear if she truly was leading the narrator on, as they obviously saw it completely differently. An interesting story of age differences and maturity.

7. Ignite The Sky by Julie R. Sanchez (lesbian)
A gloriously poetical, but slightly confusing and frustratingly incomplete story, it is told in random diary entries, starting with the last day, jumping to the first, and then jumping all over the place and ending with their first kiss somewhere in the middle. It opens with a Thelma and Louise style scene, with the girls driving fast and free (and scaring Grace!).
Grace has just moved into town for a summer internship (Yale, pre-law) and meets the stunningly lovely pin-up picture perfect California. They become close friends, and Grace learns that Callie's mother is extremely OCD and paranoid and hits her, she makes a nice gay friend called Rory, and the two girls fall in love, until ultimately, Callie can't take it anymore and they drive off into the sunset.
I don't know where they went or how long they drove, and while the story worked, with fragments unfolding and lovely writing, this is one of those stories that cut off too soon and leave me wanting to know more.

8. Round Trip by Warren Smith III (gay male)
One of the better written ones that works as a short story, leaves you in no doubt that the couple is likely to work out, without making them unrealistically perfect, but still leaves you wanting to read more.
Ethan meets honey-eyed Zack randomly on the train and the two have an instant connection. Finding each other again, Zack leads him spontaneously off on a day trip around the city, shopping and dining and dancing, ending it with the two boys wrapped around each other for warmth at the train station.

9. Butch Fatale by Kirsty Logan (lesbian)
Similar to Indulge Me, this story spends a lot of time in a bar trying to pick up chicks. Unlike most of the previous stories, it brings in the old butch-femme stereotypes and also looks at the importance friendships, separately from love and dating. It didn't feel entirely complete, the pacing was a bit off to keep the focus on the two butch friends, and the occasional cruder language is a bit of a shock after the other stories - not particular explicit, just cruder than previous stories.
Bex and our narrator are a couple of butch girls in their early twenties who spend too much time hanging out and lusting after the perfect and glamourous flocks of femmes, while Bez carves vengeful graffiti about her ex into the tables. One day one of the femmes hits on our narrator and the two become an instant couple. One day she meets Bex again and realises that she misses hanging out with her mate as well and that dating isn't the only thing in life (her girlfriend is quite understanding about this).

10. Pool of Sorrow by Sam Sommer (gay male)
This story is about two boys becoming friends and exploring each other's bodies, but it's also about grief and losing a father, and growing up and having difficult things to deal with.
Our narrator is twelve in a hot 1962 summer and left kicking his heels while all his friends are away. Fourteen year old Teddy ends up being the only other kid around and the two are forced to socialise, despite being 'the wrong ages'. They become close friends, with the boy's crush on Teddy increasing steadily, and he becomes a confidant for Teddy's grief at losing his father. They end up in the backyard swimming pool masturbating each other, and finally in bed (it doesn't go any further, they're still kids). But it ends with Teddy grieving over his father, and our narrator comforting him, and in a way, that's the real story.

11. My Lips by Joseph Aviv (gay male)
Written in sort of diary format, a snapshot from each year, the narrator retells moments in his life. Starting as a toddler, we get to watch him grow from cute and typically selfish child, his world revolving around his mother, moving from New York to Israel and refusing to speak Hebrew, and back again because of the bombs and figuring out that he's gay. A very family orientated story, this is more a diary of his growing up, his mother, his distant and then closer father, and his two very different but beloved sisters than a coming out story. Although his coming out is part of the story, and then it's over and the family has absorbed it and moved on.

12. Fighting For Lies by (lesbian/bisexual?)
This one was a bit of a mess and I didn't really like the characters or the setting or the ending, and the POV switches were confusing. Essentially, there's a group of girls and they all have boyfriends and they keep trying to set the new girl Alaina up with a boyfriend - but this is backstory, we just get thrown into the secret attraction between Alaina and Billie, the main narrator. Unfortunately, it turns into one of those 'homosexuality is unnatural' things with both girls hiding it, but Billie throws out a few jabs about Alaina being unable to please her parents forever and only hurting herself. But Billie seems quite happy with her boyfriend and never addresses whether she'd leave him or not, and is quite happy to lie and invent a disagreement on Alaina's part to cover their kiss.
Eh, well the teens seemed real (I think they were teens - they all lived with their parents), the story itself was confusing and annoying. The actual story order goes "Billie and Alaina are talking, Billie is attracted to Alaina. The girls are all getting drunk and their boyfriends turn up. Billie and Alaina kiss. Angst. Billie makes up stories about Alaina not being happy with the boys they keep setting her up with. Alaina goes into Good Christian mode. They argue and the story ends."

13. There Was A Knocking On The Door by Andrew Arslan (gay male)
Argh. This one could have been good, but - well, first it's a coming out story, and that has been done and done and done. Secondly, it was a very brief part of that story, focusing on the actual coming out, and it was dragged out and out needlessly to meet the page count or to artificially increase the drama level. It felt halting and forced, and there was actually a real, all too identifiable story hiding in there.
Our narrator is eighteen, and lives with his parents. His father is Muslim, but his mother isn't. His father has always espoused equality and understanding, but the story starts out with him saying it generically and 'not excepting gay people from that' and moves onto the narrator claiming he had always been willing to accept gay people. We get angry, misunderstood teen at his best in this story, and the annoying part is that it's difficult to figure out who is right and where people are coming from - which may be the point, but there isn't enough story.
Our gay kid comes out to his father in the car, and his father doesn't react well. Not violently, but he appears to be in confused shock and is obviously operating under the deepest ignorance about what being gay means. Unfortunately, every reaction is interspersed with foreshadowing that seems to imply that he had just misunderstood his father's reaction, but we get dragged along as the hole digs slowly deeper all the way to 'disgusting'. And then he gets in trouble with his mother, for telling his father because "he's Muslim and he can't cope with this things", and we get a page or so of angry teen railing about the unfairness and injustice of it all. Which is mostly true, but we get so little context and some of the reasoning seems specious. And it all gets turned on its head in an object lesson of 'your father is actually suicidal'. Again, not explained, our teen simply assumes and goes off on more internal monologues, ending with the cliffhanger of father knocking on the door to come talk to him (a good sign).

14. My Aahana by Ariana Montoya (lesbian)
A light and lovely story of unreqited love and teen heartbreak, this one leaves you going 'damn it? That's the end?' with a tacked on conclusion to confirm that it is. Jo is seventeen, and a boarder at an academy of sorts, with her twin brother and her best friend and his girlfriend, Marlena. She isn't at all happy about getting an unexpected room mate, until she meets said room mate - dark skinned and utterly stunning Aahana from India. They become close friends, though Jo remains closeted (often mentally referring to a previous girl who was obviously outed with unpleasant repercussions), and finally, Aahana has to leave again for an arranged marriage, leaving behind a secret broken heart.
A sad and frustrating story, but the whole crush on a probably straight and definitely unavailable girl seems to be a common experience in most lesbian lives, so it's definitely worth including.

15. First Time by Archer Drake (lesbian)
Another slightly older one, the 'first time' aspect and the absent (and lesbian!) parents of one of the girls tips this back into more familiar YA territory. It's a straightforward and sexy story, with Hayden being sent a tuxedo by her girlfriend, Grace, and invited over for a candlelit junk food dinner and then sexy first times in bed. It's a fun read, only spoiled (slightly) by the complete lack of amateurism shown by the girls. There was some uncertainty, but that could as easily be attributed to them just being new to each other - actually, that may have been the whole point. It was never mentioned if either had any experience, or how old they were.
So, a lovely romance short story, but not really a 'youth' one. Also probably the most explicit (though not enough to stop anyone reading it).

16. Hella Nervous by Rebekah Weatherspoon (lesbian)
Yeah, this was another one straight out of the adult romance section, featuring a porn star style school girl whose main personality is a) hot and exotic and b) shy and unobtainable. Non explicit, but full of very adult overtones. Irritatingly, the high school bits were decently done, so it half fits into the anthology. 
Tracy (we don't learn her name til the end and it really doesn't fit her) is a sporty butch lesbian who has had her eye on the gorgeous and unbelievably shy Oksana all the way through school. Oksana is half Russian, half Black, unbearably shy, models, and has basically just walked out of every 'hot school girl' porn story you ever read. Anyway, Tracy goes after Oksana, invites her over, Oksana accepts and - this is the part that had me shaking my head - turns up to school dressed literally like the porn story school girl (blonde hair and short, short skirt), goes home with her, and then Tracy strips off the instant they're alone, and only checks if Oksana knew what they were meant to be doing after her clothes were off.
It's okay though, because Oksana is totally up for it (and very inexperienced). It does get better after that, with both of them finally talking, after a couple of weeks of casual sex, and realising that they like each other, and Oksana claiming Tracy as her actual girlfriend. But still, it was all backward and I don't care if some people did it that way in high school, if Oksana hadn't been written into being sexy dream girl, it would not have worked out half as well.

17. Chili Powder by Anna Meadows (lesbian/ FtM transgender)
This one was interesting, though I found it a little difficult to get into because of the slang. Our narrator is a Mexican lesbian, I think (disclaimer: not being in the US, I have only a distant familiarity with Hispanic culture. I'm assuming that she's Mexican based on her moving from a poorer, Spanish speaking area and her frequent references to Spanish terms and religious family culture). Anyway, she's been moved to a gringo town full of well dressed and politically correct white people. She doesn't fit in, in her hair bleached by her mother and her cheap looking (by comparison) outfits, and her pre-emptive defense of jokes about gay people, a coping strategy learnt in a different place. I didn't particularly like her, but we barely got to know her and she was prickly and lost, and out of place.
A lipstick lesbian, she's a little unusual in the line up of mostly undefined or plain butch narrators. Anyway, she's joined at her solitary lunch by an FtM transgender boy of whom she is completely accepting and they become friends, and it ends on a kiss - though she seems the sort of person to kiss just because, and not because she wants to date. Lots of character, and a nice touch of diversity, both culturally and identity-wise (this is the only other genderqueer story after Jelson).

18. Graduation by Brighton Bennett (lesbian)
A nice story to end on, this again edges into adult romance territory, featuring two graduating college girls who meet at a party, narrated by Rachel, as she's pulled back towards Emmerson. Lots of life lessons and maturity and looking back over college as they look back on their wonderful eighteen year old romance that crashed and burnt out years before, and reignite each other for a bit of closure in one last night together.

You can buy OMGQueer on Amazon in paperback format.

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