Reading Lives: How Queer Lit Helped Me Read Again by Josephine Swaney
I am a serial book-starter. The numbers of books I’ve picked up and put down in the past few years pains me. Books that I wanted to read and started up but never found the motivation to continue. Books I’ve had on my reading list for years that I never committed to reading. I’m a high school student, so I could give you a million excuses for this phenomena- but I’ll spare you. Instead, I’ll tell you about the books that I have read so far this school year.
It started when two of my goals met. In my AP Literature class, my teacher doesn’t assign us specific books to read, we are given a loose instruction and are allowed to choose our own books. While walking around the room looking for books for an author study our very first week, I was drawn to Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson. I pretended that what I had immediately noticed was the gorgeous cover art, not the small lettering: “Good Men Project’s Best LGBT Books of All Time.”
Recently I started feeling a certain responsibility to be more involved and informed in LGBTQ+ culture. I’d started reading articles about the Stonewall Riots, had watched a informational dramatization on the AIDS crisis, and I listened to Nancy and The Love Bomb, two podcasts that revolved around queer narratives. So I figured I might as well kill two birds with one stone and read a piece of queer literature. Even though it was at times a tough read I worked through it, as well as The Passion, another of Winterson’s novels. I continued with the new theme, reading a Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, a graphic novel that had been on my reading list ever since I fell in love with the Broadway musical adaptation.
When my English teacher introduced a project reading a young adult novel about a trending topic in our lives, I choose I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, a story about a pair of twins navigating the confusing world of growing up. I’ll Give You the Sun follows Noah through the twins’ early teen years and Jude through their mid-teens after the death of their mother. I devoured the book at a speed that I hadn’t matched in years. It was wonderful. I was completely invested in Noah’s love story with Brian, the boy across the street who “carries pieces of the galaxy around in a bag.”
We walk through life assuming everyone straight until proven otherwise, and that is reflected in literature. All the characters seem to be straight unless there is a specific reason why they have to be otherwise, in order to advance the plot. For LGBTQ+ youth, this can be especially harmful. It’s important for these young people to have access to positive representation, and providing that in the classroom can fuel growth both in students’ self image and reading.
In I’ll Give You the Sun presents love in a universal way showing that the stigma against loving someone of the same gender is just an added layer to the challenges brought by love. Reading affirming books with characters I can identify with has helped me get back into reading. I become invested in characters and stories that help expand my understanding of a culture that, especially living in a smaller city, I can feel far from. It isn’t a far reach for me to understand why African American youth may want to read black literature. People seek out stories that they can relate to.
Josephine Swaney is a senior at Mount Pleasant High School. After high school she plans on taking a gap year to study in Taiwan for ten months. Josephine will attend college after her return.