Happy Pride from Deep Vellum! To cap off Pride Month, Deep Vellum’s summer marketing interns decided to take a look at the LGBTQ+ books that have stuck with them. Whether through new releases or enduring classics (or, like our own Sphinx, books we hope will grow to be modern classics), the queer canon is a gorgeous, diverse, international, and constantly-growing list that deserves to be explored. Interested in purchasing these books? Head over to our sister bookstore, Deep Vellum Books to order these any many more, so your LGBTQ+ reading list extends just beyond June and into the rest of the year.
Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima (New Directions, 1958)
Taking place in imperial Japan during World War II, this novel follows Kochan, a man who struggles from birth with his homosexuality. Vivid examinations and plenty of overthinking take place in his mind as he has his first crush, goes to war, and pursues an unfruitful relationship. Mishima’s prose is unsettling and all too real for me at times, reflecting the pervasive struggle in the queer community that we have to “make up” for our differences. Kochan’s self-scrutiny on the conflicting forces of attraction and cultural identity in his life reveal several “masks,” all compelling to explore in order to get closer to an ultimate truth about the self.
Trans: A Memoir by Juliet Jacques (Verso Books, 2016)
This candid memoir details a British trans woman’s journey leading up to her gender confirmation surgery in 2012. Starting from Jacques’ days in university, readers follow her growth as she gradually transitions while still continuing other everyday affairs. The resulting experiences shed light on the ambiguity that comes with a burgeoning identity, in the workplace, the college, or even among her circle of friends. Particularly interesting to me were the several commentaries woven throughout the memories—on tragic trans representation in film, on the hostile editorials & politics regarding trans women in the ‘90s and ‘00s, and so on. Jacques’ blend of non-fiction provides a more complete picture on the intimacies of self-discovery.
This Way to the Sugar by Hieu Minh Nguyen (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014)
In this debut poetry collection, there’s a lingering sense of regret or shame as Nguyen ties in dreary, even gruesome, experiences growing up queer with a disconnect from the family (and with that, a culture). From risky, detrimental sexual encounters to eerie reminders of the constant rotting around us—mold and blowflies and shit—Nguyen uncovers several traumas over the course of his collection, and sometimes it seems, like in “Halloween, 14” or “The Story,” everything at once. This collection surely doesn’t bring the upbeat or liberating connotation that Pride Month takes on, but maybe therein lies the significance, a reminder of the extraordinarily raw and provoking experiences that can shape queerness, or vice versa.
Angels in America by Tony Kushner (Theatre Communications Group, 1992)
Kushner’s play follows several intersecting plots in New York City during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s—a gay couple whose relationship is strained by the syndrome, a closeted married man and his distressed wife, and the infamous, powerful (and also closeted) lawyer Roy Cohn. Witty and devastating at the same time, the drama that ensues even takes on a mystical element as ghosts and other miraculous events push the characters forward, to realize something or demand more in life. Composed of equal parts corruption & betrayal, resilience & growth, this play goes beyond just HIV/AIDS to show the relationship strains that the queer community as a whole face, and the dynamics between its individual members as we look out for each other.
Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones (Coffee House Press, 2014)
Another poetry collection, Jones consistently backdrops violence against a striking, natural brilliance. Some examples: blows the color of garnet and tasting like ruby, sparrows strangled wishfully for better songs, “a roof [that] has been ripped off and the stars [refusing] / to peel their stares from…bruises.” Addressing the disappointment and pain caused by parents, lovers, and the men who never show up, these poems even feel a little dreamy as rustic visions and rich mythologies carry a distraught elegance through the lines. It’s so alluring and so sad, but among all of this, there’s a growth in the background, culminating in a defiant stance at the conclusion. A great read for Pride Month.
Sphinx by Anne Garréta (Deep Vellum, 2016)
I hope you don’t think I’m including Garréta’s novel on this list simply because the translation has been published by Deep Vellum, for it deserves so much respect. I found this book by chance when researching possible topics for my undergraduate senior thesis, which I knew would focus on stylistically-interesting, queer literature. Boy, is this spot! On! Garréta’s genderless love story is able to resonate with so many people because of the possibilities it brings up relating to relationships. Its themes are all-encompassing and can resonate with any reader, which is the mark of truly great literature, no? Plus, it’s fun!
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (Vintage International, 1956)
If you’ve gotten this far in life without reading James Baldwin, I IMPLORE you to stop what you’re doing and pick up a copy of this novel. I can’t judge, though, because Baldwin was on my “To be read” list for years, which is really just my way of procrastinating recommendations. Then, my professor gave me her copy to borrow, and I knew it was time to give Baldwin the attention he deserves. This book did not disappoint! It’s moving and relatable and, frankly, should be required reading at this point.
Nightwood by Djuna Barnes (New Directions, 1936)
Nightwood is one of the first lesbian-themed novels I read and immediately surprised me with its content, considering it was published in 1936. I love it because of this fact, and because it’s so interesting stylistically.
Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule (Talon Books, 1964)
Some may recommend The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (the inspiration for the movie Carol) over Jane Rule’s novel, but I will go the alternate route and encourage you to pick up Desert of the Heart to dip your toe into lesbian fiction. I’ll admit I saw the film adaptation first, but the plot was unique enough to pique my interest and investigate whether books will always be better than their movies. Now that I’m on the other side, my hypothesis remains unchallenged.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (Penguin Press, 2019)
Ocean Vuong is one of those writers who has made me love poetry. I first read him in an introductory creative writing class where I treated poems as something to get through instead of something to enjoy. Then we read Vuong’s poem, “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong,” and I realized I’d been experiencing words wrong for most of my life. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is his first novel, written as a letter from the main character to his mom. He touches on sexuality, identity, and love through such vivid and heartbreaking experiences, and it feels so relatable. Every phrase is to be savored. You’ll want to finish the book in one night, but I encourage you to restrain yourself so you can meditate on Vuong’s word choice and images.