Chelsea Rooney is the author of Pedal, which Steven W. Beattie recommended as a dazzling debut that "delves into situations and characters that many people will find uncomfortable... but does so in a manner that is intelligent and in no way exploitative." Beattie called Pedal "a brave book", and that same brave spirit (as well as Rooney's excellent prose) is on display in this list of books about sexuality and gender.
My novel, Pedal, looks at some uncomfortable areas: pedophilia, rape and child sexuality. (It’s also a funny book, I swear.) I took an inventory of works that deal with sexuality and that have stayed with me over the years. Revisiting them to remind myself of why they are important was a fascinating and uplifting experience: a good story lasts forever. It’s always there to hold you when you need it.
Dead Girls, by Nancy Lee
This was my first read when I moved from rural Nova Scotia to Vancouver at the age of eighteen. I read the second story, “Sally, in Parts,” on one of my very first bus rides—when I still thought you had to sit beside the only other passenger in order to be polite. “Sally, in Parts” thrilled and perturbed me. It interprets Sally’s various emotions and experiences through their physical manifestations in parts of her body—eyes, teeth, vagina, etc. When a young child Sally suckles her father’s finger in an attempt to ease a dental ailment, she discovers “a thickness around her thighs. A prickliness between her legs.” In her father’s lap, Sally becomes aroused. Good lord!, I thought, shivering next to my weirded-out seatmate. We can write about this stuff? Magnificent!
Morgantown, by Keith Maillard
I didn’t think comprehensively about the concept of gender until the latter half of my twenties, coinciding with the advent of my research for my novel, Pedal. Morgantown not only broke the rules for me on many fronts in terms of what a novel written by a Canadian could do, but it also, through its characters’ engagement with some ancient Chinese wisdom, reformulated some latent ideas I’d had about gender and sexuality: we are not always one thing. Our sexual state, like everything else, obeys the law of impermanence. Wanting something to be other than it is is the root of suffering. Oh, and the book is also chock full of brilliant women poised on the edge of the Sexual Revolution. We can wear wild eyeliner and men’s pants at the same time, if we want.
Bluebeard’s Egg, by Margaret Atwood
I read Bluebeard’s Egg a few months after ending a five-year relationship. I was just beginning to realize I was in the middle of my first real live depression. I found the book in the gym of my aunt’s lakeside condo complex, where I stayed because I was too depressed to take care of myself. I read it while running on the treadmill, trying to lose my depression weight. (Do you see how much depression features at this time?) The stories burrowed in my core and radiated out. Fuel to my nascent concept of feminism’s fire. In “Loulou; or, The Domestic Life of the Language,” the female protagonist reads herself through the journals of “the poets”—a group of men she lives with who talk about her in the third person and correct her word choice. But Loulou has secrets, and this is her power. I stole the book from the gym and took it with me to my own apartment. It was published the year I was born.
Sub Rosa, by Amber Dawn
Aside from everything else this novel does around sex, gender and feminism, it features and scrutinizes the workings and trappings of the corporeal body. It was an important book for me to stumble upon when I had just begun mindfulness meditation—a practice wherein we rest our attention on the physical sensations of emotion. Chest-tightening fear and hollow-bellied grief. For this reason, Sub Rosa is intrinsically connected to my mother. I started meditating when we started losing her to early-onset Alzheimer’s. Sub Rosa, the book and the place it's named after, questions the legitimacy—and basic function—of memory, a phenomena that occurs in the mind but is inexorably tied to the body. Inexorable, of course, until disease exorcises it. The protagonist, Little, does not lead us confidently; no one can, because Sub Rosa is a place that shifts and transmutes. Still, we trust her because she feels, wholly and everything, and makes us suddenly aware of our own physical reactions to danger, violence, and love.
The Favourite Game, by Leonard Cohen
Although as an adult I pick up on some generational sexism and idiosyncratic misogyny that my teenage self did not, The Favourite Game’s impact for me lay in its portrayal of childhood sexuality. That stumbling toward pleasure and excitement, like a tetrapod out of water onto land. There was something incestuous about Breavman and Lisa. Something very brother-sister in their solidarity against the adults in their lives, the “unapproachable knowledge which grownups guard to guarantee their authority.” The unapproachable knowledge is sex. It always is.
Chelsea Rooney is a graduate of the University of British Columbia’s MFA program in creative writing. She is a host of The Storytelling Show on Vancouver Co-op Radio, and has been a regular contributor to Project Space’s artist-publishing web series (projectspace.ca) since spring 2013. Her work has been published and performed across Canada.
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