Five Queer Memoirs to Keep You Going

On Rachel Matlow's memoir Dead Mom Walking, we have the following comment from Carolyn Taylor of the Baroness Von Sketch Show: "How am I laughing at someone's mother's cancer? How? We think we can't laugh about death, about cancer, about our mothers and their suffering . . . and we can't, but we can. And there's so much relief in that. I laughed, I cried, I laughed and laughed and laughed."

Books matter so much. Here, Rachel Matlow recommends five more to keep you going.

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Books have the power to calm and uplift us—exactly what we need right now in the midst of the anxiety attack that’s become life. So when you’re done watching Tiger King and taking a break from playing Animal Crossing, here are five queer memoirs to keep you going:

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High School, by Tegan Quin and Sara Quin

All-night raves, facial piercings, Smashing Pumpkins—I was transported back to the late ‘90s in this visceral memoir from Tegan and Sara. Written from the perspectives of both sisters, the story chronicles their unglamorous teenage years in Calgary and start in music. Though a slam-dunk for fans, the book stands up on its own as a riveting coming-of-age tale about being a twin, wrestling with your sexual identity, and finding your passion in life.

About the book: First loves, first songs, and the drugs and reckless high school exploits that fueled them—meet music icons Tegan and Sara as you’ve never known them before in this intimate and raw account of their formative years.

High School is the revelatory and unique coming-of-age story of Sara and Tegan Quin, identical twins from Calgary, Alberta, growing up in the height of grunge and rave culture in the 90s, well before they became the celebrated musicians and global LGBTQ icons we know today. While grappling with their identity and sexuality, often alone, they also faced academic meltdown, their parents’ divorce, and the looming pressure of what might come after high school. Written in alternating chapters from both Tegan’s point of view and Sara’s, the book is a raw account of the drugs, alcohol, love, music, and friendships they explored in their formative years. A transcendent story of first loves and first songs, it captures the tangle of discordant and parallel memories of two sisters who grew up in distinct ways even as they lived just down the hall from one another. This is the origin story of Tegan and Sara.

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We Have Always Been Here, by Samra Habib

Samra is the photographer behind the LGBTQ Muslim portrait series Just Me and Allah. But in this powerful memoir, she turns the lens on her own life. The story follows her journey from growing up as part of a threatened religious sect in Pakistan and arriving in Canada as a refugee to discovering her queerness and finding a sense of belonging within Islam. As a child, Samra wished she had access to queer Muslim writers and artists. Now, she offers a blueprint to others for what living an authentic life can look like. 

About the book: Samra Habib has spent most of her life searching for the safety to be herself. As an Ahmadi Muslim growing up in Pakistan, she faced regular threats from Islamic extremists who believed the small, dynamic sect to be blasphemous. From her parents, she internalized the lesson that revealing her identity could put her in grave danger.

When her family came to Canada as refugees, Samra encountered a whole new host of challenges: bullies, racism, the threat of poverty, and an arranged marriage. Backed into a corner, her need for a safe space--in which to grow and nurture her creative, feminist spirit--became dire. The men in her life wanted to police her, the women in her life had only shown her the example of pious obedience, and her body was a problem to be solved.

So begins an exploration of faith, art, love, and queer sexuality, a journey that takes her to the far reaches of the globe to uncover a truth that was within her all along. A triumphant memoir of forgiveness and family, both chosen and not, We Have Always Been Here is a rallying cry for anyone who has ever felt out of place and a testament to the power of fearlessly inhabiting one's truest self.

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A History of My Brief Body, by Billy-Ray Belcourt (Coming in August)

I’m excited to read Billy-Ray's memoir-in-essays when it comes out in later this year. His debut collection of poetry This Wound is a World won the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize, and I’m sure his new book—about love, loss, and the act of writing as a survival instinct—will be another great achievement. According to its description, “A History of My Brief Body demonstrates over and over again the power of words to both devastate and console us.” Sounds perfect for these times. 

About the book: Billy-Ray Belcourt's debut memoir opens with a tender letter to his kokum and memories of his early life in the hamlet of Joussard, Alberta, and on the Driftpile First Nation. From there, it expands to encompass the big and broken world around him, in all its complexity and contradictions: a legacy of colonial violence and the joy that flourishes in spite of it, first loves and first loves lost, sexual exploration and intimacy, and the act of writing as a survival instinct and a way to grieve. What emerges is not only a profound meditation on memory, gender, anger, shame, and ecstasy, but also the outline of a way forward. With startling honesty, and in a voice distinctly and assuredly his own, Belcourt situates his life experiences within a constellation of seminal queer texts, among which this book is sure to earn its place. Eye-opening, intensely emotional, and excessively quotable, A History of My Brief Body demonstrates over and over again the power of words to both devastate and console us.

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nîtisânak, by Lindsay Nixon 

Nîtisânak is the Cree word for “my siblings,” but Lindsay notes that it can also be used as a gender-neutral way of saying “my relations.” Their memoir about growing up Indigenous and queer in the prairies is a meditation on queer kinship and chosen family—from punk rock dance floors to the death of their mother. Using a mix of prose, poetry and text lingo, Lindsay offers a unique and refreshing perspective on the bonds between Indigenous, queer and trans communities. 

About the book: Lindsay Nixon's nîtisânak honours blood and chosen kin with equal care. A groundbreaking memoir spanning nations, prairie punk scenes, and queer love stories, it is woven around grief over the loss of their mother. It also explores despair and healing through community and family, and being torn apart by the same. Using cyclical narrative techniques and drawing on their Cree, Saulteaux, and Métis ancestral teachings, this work offers a compelling perspective on the connections that must be broken and the ones that heal.

Winner of the 2019 Quebec Writers' Federation Concordia University First Book Prize

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Tomboy Survival Guide, by Ivan E. Coyote

This memoir-in-stories offers much-needed hope and reassurance for young non-binary people grappling with their gender identity, or to anyone struggling to belong. With their trademark conversational style, Ivan shares intimate and funny stories—from their childhood adventures in the Yukon to navigating life as a gender non-conforming adult. They offer a lot of good advice, including how to catch a unicorn. We could all use a survival guide right now.

About the book:  Ivan Coyote is a celebrated storyteller and the author of ten previous books, including Gender Failure (with Rae Spoon) and One in Every Crowd, a collection for LGBT youth. Tomboy Survival Guide is a funny and moving memoir told in stories, about how they learned to embrace their tomboy past while carving out a space for those of us who don't fit neatly into boxes or identities or labels.

Ivan writes about their years as a young butch, dealing with new infatuations and old baggage, and life as a gender-box-defying adult, in which they offer advice to young people while seeking guidance from others. (And for tomboys in training, there are even directions on building your very own unicorn trap.)

Tomboy Survival Guide warmly recounts Ivan's past as a diffident yet free-spirited tomboy, and maps their journey through treacherous gender landscapes and a maze of labels that don't quite stick, to a place of self-acceptance and an authentic and personal strength.

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Book Cover Dead Man Walking

About Dead Mom Walking:

When her mother is diagnosed with cancer, Rachel Matlow is concerned but hopeful. It's Stage 1, so her mom will get surgery and everything will go back to normal. But growing up in Rachel's family, there was no normal. Elaine, an alternative school teacher and self-help junkie, was never a capital M "Mommy"—she spent more time meditating than packing lunches—and Rachel, who played hockey with the boys and refused to ever wear a dress, was no ordinary daughter.

When Elaine decides to forgo conventional treatment and heal herself naturally, Rachel is forced to ponder whether the very things that made her mom so special—her independent spirit, her belief in being the author of her own story—are what will ultimately kill her. As the cancer progresses, so does Elaine's conviction in doing things her way. She assembles a dream team of alternative healers, gulps down herbal tinctures with every meal, and talks (with respect) to her cancer cells. Anxious and confused, Rachel is torn between indulging her pie-in-the-sky pursuits (ayahuasca and all) and pleading with the person who's taking her mother away.

With irreverence and honesty—and a little help from Elaine's journals and self-published dating guide, plus hours of conversations recorded in her dying days—Matlow brings her inimitable mother to life on the page. Dead Mom Walking is the hilarious and heartfelt story of what happens when two people who've always written their own script go head to head with each other, and with life's least forgiving plot device.

March 30, 2020
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