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Book Review, Books, Writing

Queer Life, Queer Love: an anthology

Lucy PicThis week’s unashamedly subjective post is all about a fantastic queer book which includes my first published poem as one tiny part (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write). It’s a project that means a lot to me and I know that’s a common feeling among those involved.

Queer Life, Queer Love is an anthology published by independent Muswell Press* comprising poetry, short fiction and essays by 43 writers. The book is dedicated to publisher Sarah Beal’s trans-daughter Lucy who died in March 2020 at the age of 20. Less than two years after this tragedy the book not only honours Lucy’s life but was an idea that she and Sarah had discussed, as a way of celebrating queer life experience and encouraging new writers. Lucy was also involved in the design of the rainbow logo for the Muswell Press LGBT+ list, echoed in the eye-catching cover by Jamie Keenan.

The pieces were selelcted from open submissions – there were hundreds – by a four-strong editorial team: publishers Sarah and Kate Beal, editor-at-large Matt Bates, formerly of W H Smith Travel where he championed queer writing, and poet, author and lecturer Golnoosh Noor. It was free to enter for writers all over the world and the resulting global feel adds many different perspectives to a project with representation beyond the mainstream at its heart. Some of the contributors are relative newcomers; all will benefit from the profits.

When I was sent the PDF to check my pages a few weeks ago, I couldn’t resist reading the whole manuscript. I was expecting the standard to be high but for every piece to pack this kind of punch is astonishing. There’s some stunning writing but what struck me even more was the confidence, frankness and emotional intelligence with which the authors reveal and interrogate numerous manifestations of LGBT+ experience and identity. Clearly a great deal of thought and sensitivity went into piecing it together this well.

Singling out a handful to mention is really hard so these are a few – not even all – of my favourites. I’m going to start with the passionate introduction by Golnoosh Noor and Matt Bates. ‘While identifying as anything other than cis-heterosexual is automatically disruptive to the cis-heteronormative world that we have to live in, queerness is also about an attitude, and a courage that lets one express their own deviancy from the norm […] articulating our fears and desires is a form of resistance.’

A History of Sheds was a standout from Jon Ransom, whose debut novel The Whale Tattoo is out in February 2022. A story of the different ways two men connect, I enjoyed the skilful interplay between explicit bluntness and lyrical delicacy. ‘After a while, light from the window hitting my hard-on hypnotised me, casting a clever shadow angled towards my hip, trying to tell me the time. There is a wonder to sunlight.’ In under four pages The Imaginaut by Tanaka Mhishi reveals the complexity of a queer journey through life – some of it not yet lived – in the language of desire and trauma. ‘I imagine my life at thirty and fifty and seventy-five. The heartbreak and joy, the love and the pain and all the people I might someday be. I pretend I know now, who I am.’ 

511qekfiSALThere’s a lovely Irish inflection to Rosanna McGlone’s Just Coming Home, the uplifting story of a transwoman looking back on her early years and forward to the next chapter as she returns to her roots after a long absence on the death of her father: ‘I’ve been waiting my whole life for this. This is who I am, right enough.’ In her poem about falling in love with a children’s TV presenter Victoria Richards’ CBeebies Has a Lot to Answer For provides delicious flashes of humour and an excellent parting shot.

Debra Lavery’s historical poem This Whole Heart Treasure is a gorgeously sensual, erotic portrait of the daily routine of a rich lady and her maid, with a similar vibe to the smoking hot French film Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I was moved by the visceral and wrenching Bed by Aoife Hanna, in which a couple grieve the departure of one particular woman among the many lovers they’ve taken into their bed. ‘On the last day when she was adamant she wasn’t to return to us, there was a frightening, blood-red sunset hanging low in the sky.’

For me, what unifies this anthology is how real, how alive the voices are, whether the author’s directly or through a character – often it’s not entirely clear which it is. Many of the pieces have a subtlety which leaves them open to interpretation, bringing the reader into the mix.

In writing my poem Fluid I was acknowledging something latent in myself that rose to the surface during the years I was working on my novel Scent, which is about a queer woman. I’d never even submitted a poem before the call for entries but it almost didn’t matter if it got published (though I am obviously delighted!). Unleashing this has made me feel like a different person but actually it’s not that: it’s enabled me to get comfortable with who I already am.  As this anthology proves from start to finish, there’s something very powerful and validating about getting life experiences outside the ‘norm’ down in words. Thank you to the editors and the other writers for making this such an incredible book to belong in. Sarah says Lucy would be thrilled with it.

* Disclosure: My novels are published by Muswell Press. They did not ask me to write this piece.

*POSTSCRIPT*

Sticking with the anthology theme, I’m delighted to say that in response to my invitation to pitch for a guest slot, I’ll be joined next week by Hannah Persaud and Andrew Leach of Seventy2One/Massive Overheads, the people behind climate change anthology Sunburnt Saints which will be released on 30 November.

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.

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