Last year may have been dubbed 20gayteen, but 2019 is shaping up to provide us even more nuanced queer narratives—at least in the literary world. Two new, debut novels, Kristen Arnett's Mostly Dead Things and Amy Feltman's Willa and Hesper, centralize lesbian love stories, while Bryan Washington's much-anticipated short story collection, Lot, intertwines coming out with coming-of-age. Others, like Sally Rooney's millennial-focused Normal People and adrienne marie brown's Pleasure Activism are sexy in that irresistibly smart way that we deserve. Here's more on those and other fantastic books we can't wait for you to read this year.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
April 16, Hogarth
Hallelujah, Sally Rooney is back with a new novel. If you haven’t read Conversations with Friends, the 2017 book that earned her the title “the First Great Millennial Writer,” then skip the rest of this list and go straight to your nearest bookstore to pick up a copy. Normal People advances the cocktail of millennial themes that made Conversations with Friends so enticing: Rooney’s impeccably accurate mixture of intimacy, sex, desire, power, progressive politics, and (a lack of) communication. Both novels are devourable narratives that present characters who are so relatable that they’ll make you grimace.
Rooney particularly excels in narrating the moments when words fail us; when we attempt to navigate physical and emotional intimacy without fully understanding, or naming, our own needs, or those of our lover’s. Normal People follows a relationship that begins in high school between an unlikely pair: the handsome, popular academic Connell and the aloof, asocial bookworm, Marianne. When their social roles reverse in university and Connell is left on the fringes of the scene while Marian moves to its center, their romance stymies. Rooney advances us through years of their entangled intimacy via monthly increments. You’ll find yourself begging for the two lovers to say what they actually need to say; you may become devastated when they cannot, and, perhaps, after reading, even grow more vocal about your needs in your own intimacies.
Pleasure Activism by adrienne marie brown
February 24, AK Press
Adrienne marie brown is back, again dropping wisdom about alternative ways to live at this deeply fucked-up moment. Co-host of the podcast How to Survive the End of the World and author of Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, brown is a self-proclaimed “pleasure activist.” She believes everyone needs and deserves pleasure, and is deeply concerned about how our world prevents us from accessing it. The book asks: “How can we make justice and liberation the most pleasurable experiences on this planet?”
Divided between two sections, Politics of Radical Sex and Pleasure as Political Practice, the worldview brown presents is deeply devoted to the trifecta of Audre Lorde, Octavia Butler, and Beyonce. In these pages, brown gives us “hot and heavy homework” assignments (the first of which prompts you to explore your personal history of desire) interviews with other activists, spells, descriptions of personal erotic pleasures, poetry, confessions, and a political framework for moving from #metoo to #weconsent. Let this book be the best Valentine’s Day gift you’ve ever given yourself.
Lot by Bryan Washington
March 19, Riverhead Books
Bryan Washington’s coming-of-age stories depict a Houston hot and heavy with loss, it’s neighborhoods echoing with ghosts of past lives and selves, trapped between tenuous borders. Though coming-of-age stories are traditionally conceived of as solo journeys, Washington reshapes the bildungsroman into a collective narrative, often employing the third person we. In Lot, the neighbors and neighborhood age, weathering conflict, abuse, and gentrification, alongside the unnamed male protagonist, who weathers his own trauma—an absent father, displaced siblings, poverty so constant it keeps him working, sweating, and cussing in the city’s back kitchens.
Washington crafts quintessential coming-of-age moments with such nuance that he sheds them of any potential for cliche. Take his explanation of adolescent anguish: when an adult asks what is wrong, the narrator “told her nothing, nothing at all, but in a way that implied that everything was, in fact, very wrong, that the most wrong thing had occurred, that wrong had become my reality.” Or when the narrator tries weed for the first time and “spent the evening lost inside of myself, marveling at all of the space in my head no one had taken the time to tell me about.” Washington gives us vignettes into an early adulthood that is, much like the Houston he presents, sweltering, ceaseless, unbearable and exposing.
Willa and Hesper by Amy Feltman
February 5, Grand Central Publishing
This contemporary queer love story begins with an accelerated romance between two adrift young women, Willa and Hesper, both students in Columbia's MFA program. Their romance is intense, then ends abruptly. But the book is really about what we do in the aftermath of a love affair—how we cope. In the wake of their break-up, both women search for a deeper sense of identity. For Willa, this means going to Germany and Poland, on a Birthright-esque trip for the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. While there, she is confronted by questions of trauma and privilege. For Hesper, this means a family vacation to Tbilisi, Georgia, where she unlocks a surprising family past, smattered with secrets. Amy Feltman's debut is lyrical and evocative; an important book not just for the lesbian love story, but for anyone who has ever experienced a break-up. It's a book for people with marginalized identities that sometimes compete. Feltman asks us to consider what it means, in Trump's America, to be queer, Jewish, and targeted for either (or both) identities.
Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett
June 4, Tin House Books
Mostly Dead Things lands you in a family of alcoholics and taxidermists whose patriarch commits suicide, leaving the eldest daughter, Jessa-Lynn Morton, reeling with grief as she tries to keep the family business afloat. That’s not all the protagonist is grappling with; she’s grieving for her best friend and brother’s wife, Brynn, who left him, but who was secretly sleeping with Jessa-Lynn, starting in high school. Despite these bizarre soap-opera-style family secrets, Mostly Dead Things is strikingly realistic. Set in the Florida that is less a place where rich people vacation than a state where poor people never leave, the book follows Jessa-Lynn Morton as she struggles to deal with her family’s grief, tension, and unhealthy coping mechanisms. To deal with her broken heart, Jessa-Lynn has casual sex, learning the ways that intimacy can actually move her farther away from herself. Arnett excels in these descriptions of queer sex; in one encounter, the narrator brings her hand up a lover’s legs, and finds “the warm, snarling heart of her.”
By the end of Mostly Dead Things, I loved Jessa-Lynn Morton; I felt as if I knew her. You will too. Though she seems to be constantly on the cusp of going under, she somehow remains steadfast, bobbing at life’s surface.
Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin
January 8, Riverhead Books
In the titular story of this collection, parents are distressed by their daughter’s eating habits, as she refuses to ingest anything except for live birds, plucked from their cages and swallowed whole. When the horrified father asks her to justify her actions, she points out that he, too, eats birds—just dead ones. In simple, uncluttered prose, these stories manage to dismantle society’s accepted norms then prompt you wonder how to navigate morality without them and question why we ever accepted them in the first place. After reading “Mouthful of Birds,” I’ve considered vegetarianism more seriously than ever before.
In “Headlights,” men abandon their wives at a rest stop off the highway on their wedding nights. The women gather in the adjacent field, for years, jilted and angry. Such beautiful allegory entwines this twisted, surreal collection, giving us haunting stories that may cause you to question your daily habits and routines—even your eating patterns. Schweblin narrates easily imaginable worlds, pulsing with a dark psychic energy.
Permission by Saskia Vogel
April 10, Couch House Books
This book may be the love child of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (auto theory on queer family making) and E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey (needs no parenthetical description). It pairs familial love and loss with erotic desire, creating a tempting, quick-paced, emotionally charged novel. Echo, an actress with a declining career, is coping with the death of her father. She abandons star-studded LA to mourn alongside her mother, who lives on the quiet, rocky edge of California’s ocean cliffs. Vogel describes LA impeccably, where, “The sun and sky are narcotic. Seventy-five degrees and clear afternoon skies by the beaches day after day after day.” Echo, for whom “the ability to participate in pleasure seemed to me to be the greatest good,” finds herself attracted to a dominatrix, who, fortuitously, happens to be her mother’s neighbor. The descriptions of sex and desire that follow are also impeccable. With this woman and her male clients, Echo finds that “nothing was itself alone, everything was a trigger for a fantasy, those of clients we had seen and my own.” Permission layers kink into the human, everyday feelings of desire and loss, normalizing and personifying it.
Dear Scarlet, The Story of My Postpartum Depression by Teresa Wong
April 1, Arsenal Pulp Press
Teresa Wong’s Dear Scarlet: The Story of My Postpartum Depression is not for the faint of heart. Wong makes that abundantly clear, subtitling many of the panels of her striking graphic novel: “My Pregnancy: not for the faint of heart, My Postpartum Body: not for the faint of heart, A Diagram of Mom Guilt: not for the faint of heart.” Indeed, my stomach turned as I read the unbearable, ceaseless care-taking that Wong (and most mothers) accepts, the brutal, inner thoughts she has immediately after giving birth, and the immense guilt she feels for never being enough. Written as a letter to her first child, the graphic novel expresses the pain and hardship of postpartum depression, pairing an honest, compelling voice with a measured, unaffected tone. There is nothing precious here—not even the drawings, which are rendered in simple yet emotive pen and ink line drawings. This graphic novel is a quick, plummeting read. The year 2018 gave us so many books about motherhood, but it was Angela Garbes who pointed out that most of the ones celebrated were written by white women. Hopefully 2019 shifts our understanding of whose voice is deemed worthy of authoring motherhood, beginning with Teresa Wong.
Magical Negro by Morgan Parker
February 9, Tin House
“Magical negro,” describing that Black character imbued with mystical powers who plays a supporting role to a white protagonist, was a term popularized by Spike Lee to define this problematic trope in American fiction. Morgan Parker’s latest poetry collection makes reference to this trope, demands that we interrogate it, and, ultimately, reimagines it. To Parker, the Magical Negro is actually the Black woman: she who goes unheard, who works to her bones, who takes the white boys home. In her poem, “A Brief History of the Present,” alluding to the death of Sandra Bland, she writes, “There’s no way a black woman / killed herself, because everyone knows we can withstand / inhuman amounts of pain … Immortal. Magical. Not like angels, but like drinking water, like roads.” In these expansive accounts of Black womanhood, there is mourning, celebrating, fucking, joking, historicizing, recalibrating, and an urgent question throughout: what are the fictional tropes we are bewitched by and what realities do they eclipse?