Andrea Gibson – “You Better Be Lighting”

I am writing this at midnight because someone reminded me I love to write about books and I decided to do it now because there is no better way of loving something than dedicating your present to it. And the book I am writing about is about love, or maybe less about love and more love itself.

I decided to buy You Better be Lightning after I watched Andrea’s amazing performance of Homesick: A Plea for our Planet, having never heard of Andrea Gibson before or even expecting to have my heart shaken in the most brutally beautiful way, it was mostly an impulse buy, but I’ve never regretted an impulse buy in my entire life. It’s mostly books, soft toys and all sorts of frog-shaped objects. What’s there to regret?

After just some poems and just as many crying sessions, I knew this book would be with me forever. And I mean physically, I used to carry my favourite poetry book everywhere, now it’s two of them. And it’s not just a symbolic thing I do or even just a comfort thing. No, it’s pure necessity. Sometimes I might need to remember what love is and how it can make you a bad activist or just a flawed human being. Sometimes I might need to remember what I’m fighting for by reading how queer youth are five times more likely to commit suicide or reminding myself how the earth is holding us with so much kindness and needs us to hold it back with at least a tiny fraction of that kindness. Sometimes a friend might need to sign a contract with themselves to stop being their own worst enemy and sometimes I need to remind myself I signed the same contract. Sometimes I might need to understand that I will never feel anger as long as I can feel love and that love can be so many things. Love can be in so many ways. Love can be the voice I hear when I read out loud the poem about Prince which teaches me once again that love can be so much more than we learn. So much more than romance or even friendship. Love can come from so many places I just stopped questioning love. It’s not love that needs questioning, but the lack of it. I started writing a review about the most beautiful poetry I’ve ever read and I ended up writing a long text about love. And this is perfect – because the most beautiful poetry out there will always speak about love and the most beautiful love in here will always be poetry.

And yes, this is a book about queerness and social justice and feminism and veganism and all the right things and it was great in all the right ways. But I don’t think that’s why I loved it.

Here’s a poem I loved that is short enough for me to type it:

Note to the stranger six feet away:

There was never not a bridge from your chest to mine. My heartbeat was always the sound of your feet walking towards me. I can’t believe how many years I lived without knowing the air you were breathing out was the air I was breathing in. Forgive me for not saying thank you before our lungs had reason to hide. Do you pray mor enow than you used to? I pray all the time. I pray to the Big Bang and the Tini Bang and to the bangs we’ll all have to cut ourselves so we can see what beauty can only be seen from six feet away. A giraffe’s neck is six feet long. A decade from now, will I remember the week I spent wondering if I could hug a giraffe’s torso and not get sick if the giraffe coughed? I don’t want to forget anything about this. Especially not how it feels to worry about everyone I love at the same time – so much of the world had been doing that already.

If every heart-worthy novelist weeps for days before killing off a beloved character, god must have spent centuries sobbing before pressing a pen to the page of this year.

Mia Couto – “Confession of the Lioness”

Despite the fact that I read quite a lot of poetry books in the past month, Confession of the Lioness might be the most poetic (and the most beautiful) text I have read recently.

Once I started reading more literature written in Portuguese, I realised that the most fascinating books are not those written by Portuguese authors, but those that come from the Portuguese (ex-)colonies, in which this language is not just a means of communication, but a continuous reminder of a violent history that has not necessarily stopped. This was very obvious when I read and reviewed A General Theory of Oblivion, and it is just as obvious in Mia Couto’s book.

Mia Couto is a Mozambican writer and Confession of the Lioness is set in Mozambique. We are told that the plot is inspired from real events that happened in 2008 in Cabo Delgado, where 28 people were killed by lions, but further investigations discovered the social and historical issues underlying the events. In particular, the lions came into the village for reasons that were the humans’ fault, after intruding their habitats and making them come closer to the village for food, but the solution decided upon was to kill the lions – are humans even able to take responsibility for their mistakes and give reparations?

The book alternates between Miamar’s perspective, a woman living with her parents in Kulumani, whose sister was a victim of the lions attacks, and Archangel Bullseye’s perspective, who is a hunter called from the city to kill the lions – the officials that make this call are not interested in the welfare of the people of Kulumani, but in the political damage brought by the situation. But the people living in the village are more than mere voters, other societal mechanisms are at play.

Both Miamar and Archangel have to fight their past, present, and are wondering about their future; complex familial patterns are being explored and they have to disobey what is expected of them: Miamar is a woman that does not act like a Kulumani woman should act, Archangel Bullseye is supposed to be the only real hunter left, but is hunting what he wants to do?

One of the characters says:

I don’t know what they’re looking for in the bush, the lion is right here in the village.

It is so easy to blame someone we do not understand or want to understand. Non-human animals end up being blamed and punished so often for effects that are obviously man-made. In this book, the lion becomes a symbol (which I do not particularly like), of disobedience, of freedom. The use of the lioness is linked to Couto’s analysis of the condition of women in the village of Kulumani. Multiple women are given a voice in this book, and all of them are victims of patriarchy, which is a criminal system in general, and Couto does not shy away from denouncing these crimes.

Sally Rooney – “Beautiful World, Where Are You”

I just finished reading Beautiful World, Where Are You and I am suggesting maybe changing the title into Good LGBTQIAP+ Representation, Where Are You.

Before going into my main critique of this book, I want to say that I actually enjoyed reading it (and it took me under two days to finish it) and that I loved Rooney’s writing style.

The book is about Alice and Eileen, two adult women that are best friends. Alice is a successful published author – she has published two books, just like Sally Rooney before writing this one and it feels at times that the character is the writer’s way of expressing her own views, experiences and struggles as a writer. Eileen works at a literary magazine and is nowhere near as successful as Alice, but that doesn’t stop them from being very close. The book starts when Alice moves to a new house in the countryside for a while and it alternates chapters in which we can read the emails the two friends send to each other regularly – in which they express their worries about society (touching concepts such as class, capitalism in decay, socialism), about art, beauty, and their more intimate experiences and questions – and narrative chapters in which we see the two navigate their almost-relationships with Felix, a man Alice meets on Tinder, and Simon, Eileen’s childhood friend and crush. And that’s it. That’s the plot. Nothing really happens and I loved that. Even the ending is boring as hell and that didn’t really bother me. The book is very character-driven and Rooney is amazing at creating the atmosphere for those characters to be themselves, to show themselves, to be vulnerable at times, foolish and to make you like them and hate them at the same time. I don’t know if the purpose was to get us to like the characters, but I definitely didn’t. Even when I found myself feeling very close to some of Alice’s experiences, I didn’t like her, I just wanted to keep digging into her mind, her thoughts, her structure.

So, given that I loved almost everything about this book, what exactly is the issue? Both Alice and Felix express that they are not heterosexual – as far as I remember, we know that Alice is bisexual, but we don’t really know the label Felix uses, except for the fact that he is both into men and women. And that’s great, isn’t it? We love some LGBTQIAP+ representation, don’t we? Yes, we do, but this book is a prime example of how you’re not supposed to do it. The characters’ queerness has absolutely no relevance to anything in the book: Alice used to be in love with a woman, Felix texts a guy on Tinder and tries hitting on Simon, but that’s the extent of queer representation in this book. While I’m all for having people’s sexualities and gender identities just being a part of them and not the central aspect of their character, I cannot help myself from thinking this representation is performative at best and disingenuous at worst. Especially when the two relationships depicted in the book are very heteronormative and have very obvious gender roles: the men are a bit emotionally illiterate, not that in touch with their feelings; the women are maybe too emotional, even unstable; Alice falls in love first, Felix is much slower to express such feelings; Eileen is the damsel in distress, the princess, Simon is the masculine man, the protector, the saviour.

In the case of Eileen and Simon, there is an attempt at deconstructing the dynamics they have, but it’s quite shallow and it doesn’t even begin to understand how gender roles play an important role in it – it’s discussed as if these are just individual features of the characters and not a systemic way in which AFAB and AMAB people are being brainwashed to think that’s how they need to act.

Alice and Felix are a different thing. This is not bi-erasure – bi people dating people at the other end of the gender spectrum does not make them straight and this is not something anyone is allowed to say (like for real, this is ban-worthy behaviour). However, exactly because bi people stay bi in all their relationships, there is always some queerness there. As a pan person myself, I can never really shed this identity, all my relationships are queer and I see that in the way I approach gender norms and other social constructs in all areas of a relationship. That doesn’t happen for Alice and Felix. And that disappointed me, because it would have been the kind of representation bi/pan/polysexual people rarely get and I was really excited for it. I am not sure whether Sally Rooney had the situated knowledge to write that relationship in a different way, as I know nothing about her sexuality and, while she is married to a man, I’m not going to assume anything. However, if she really wanted to include queerness in her book, there’s a lot of ways of getting the information needed to make it right, but there’s really no effort put into that.

And I think this speaks to a wider problem. Representation of LGBTQIAP+ people in media is very important, indeed. However, it’s not enough to just have characters that are queer if we do not deconstruct the cisheteronormative way in which our world and therefore the media functions. Representation is more than labels: it’s understanding, it’s authenticity, it’s depth. And we deserve to get that.