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Sapphic Digest: A Reading List of Romance & Exploration

The young people love to be in love, don’t they? The myriad forms that takes are the subject of our newest lil’ booklist: a dip into the girl + girl, boy + boy, & all the other combinations possible within the vast ecology of modern gender exploration. It’s charming, it’s challenging, it’s literature, y’all. Our newest writer, Carson Milstead, reviews her latest sapphic reading — pick your favorite & maybe you’ll feel a little romance, yourself, why don’t you?

—Cowboy Books

Big Swiss 

Jen Beagin

Big Swiss is a recently released dark comedy revolving around the story of Greta, a 45-year-old woman who works as a transcriber for a sex therapist named Om. While listening to the elicit details of people’s sex lives seems like an exciting affair, for the most part Greta just sees it as a chore. That is until one day, she hears the voice of a mysterious & alluring woman who she refers to as “Big Swiss”. All clients are given initials rather than actual names — you know, anonymity & all — so Big Swiss’ true identity is a mystery to Greta. But armed with the sound of her voice & the knowledge that all of Om’s clients live in the same city as her, Greta hopes to find whose voice she has been listening to for the last few months.   

Eventually, through freak chance, Greta runs into Big Swiss at a dog park — she would recognize that voice anywhere. The mysterious lady is revealed to be a tall, beautiful Swiss woman named Flavia with a little dog & a long-term husband. Beset with the secret knowledge of Flavia’s deepest secrets & desires, Greta starts building a friendship with her in hopes of things developing into something more. Here’s where the trouble begins — Om can’t know that Greta is pursuing one of his clients, & Flavia can’t know that Greta has access to recordings of all of her therapy sessions. So, instead of cutting her losses &  moving on, Greta fakes an identity & curates her entire personality to appeal to everything she has learned about Flavia through her sessions. She knows what Flavia wants, she knows her marriage is weak, & she is able to hear what Flavia says (or doesn’t say) about their dynamic to her therapist.   

This book was exceptionally interesting to me, because many queer books are written to celebrate queer relationships and their nuances. This book goes beyond that, & shows how manipulation & obsession are present in all kinds of relationships. Greta manipulates Flavia into a sexual relationship by taking advantage of the unknown power dynamic she holds over her.  She creates a false utopia between them completely built on lies and secrecy. Overall, this book is a compelling story of love, lies, and chaos. While some parts are intense, Beagin does a good job of interrupting tension with moments of lighthearted comedy. One page I’m sweating, & the next I'm laughing out loud. Fans of current lit-fic authors such as Ottessa Moshfegh or Sally Rooney would definitely enjoy the writing style & overall feel of this novel. 

Annie John 

Jamaica Kincaid

This coming-of-age story is a classic modern novel by one of my all-time favorite authors, Jamaica Kincaid. It centers around a young girl undergoing a journey of self discovery set in colonial Antigua. She lives with her family in a city with more traditional expectations in regards to marriage & family, so her yearning for independence & sexual exploration isn’t exactly accepted by her peers.

One of the major topics of this book is Annie John’s friendship with her best friend, Gwen. The two prepubescent girls have a fierce loyalty to one another that borders obsession — their relationship seems to transcend friendship, bordering on romance. Annie John often finds herself wishing that she could just live with Gwen forever rather than ever having to find a husband or live with a man. Their dynamic is kept pure by their youth; they are still innocent enough that they haven’t developed any sense of shame over their closeness or confused romantic feelings, which lends the story a certain sweetness — they aren’t old enough to be aware of the nuances & implications of their dynamic quite yet. 

Rebellion looms large in all aspects of Annie John’s life. As a rambunctious young woman, she doesn’t fit the standards of what is expected of a young lady of her age. Both in school and with her mother, two other main focuses of this novel, she finds herself in a position where she must balance how she expresses herself & how others pressure her to be. The end of the book culminates in Annie John leaving behind her current life in search of self-exploration, change, & higher education. She finds herself in a new world where there are others more like her, & she is finally able to flourish & celebrate her inherent desire for adventure and independence. While her home will always be a part of her, she is hopeful to finally be in a position to live out her life in a way that more aligns with her personal hopes & desires. Anybody would enjoy giving this a read, Kincaid has a way of describing things you always think about in a new way.  Plus, who doesn’t enjoy a good coming-of-age story?

I Who Have Never Known Men 

Jacqueline Harpman

I Who Have Never Known Men is a post-apocalyptic novel about a group of 40 women, ages ranging from late teens to early 70s, who are held together in an enclosure completely separate from all other people, aside from silent guards. Each woman was abducted from her regular life & woke up in this twisted experiment with no real recollection of how they got there. Our unnamed narrator is the youngest of the group & is the only one who has never had a personal relationship with a man. While others were abducted in their adulthood, Jen was taken before she had the chance to build memories of a life before.  

Not only are they separated from the men of the world, but from each other — while they’re allowed to speak amongst each other & coexist in the same space, touching is forbidden, & they have no real privacy. Even the showers & toilet are in plain view — the women must be in view of the guards at every moment. All facets of privacy have been completely stripped away by their mysterious captors. Even their emotions are regulated, loud arguments or intense bouts of crying are silenced by an expertly aimed crack of a whip.

Eventually, the monotony of their regulated life devoid of any notion of change or spontaneity is interrupted by a sudden & unexplained siren that prompts all the guards to immediately vacate the premises, never to be heard of again. This unexplained event occurred right as they were being delivered ingredients for dinner — the only time their door to the outside is ever opened. After time passes & courage is gathered, the women leave their cage to investigate why they have been captured & what the outside holds. As the months & years pass & after many exploration expeditions, the women learn that they have been kept in an empty desert with countless other underground facilities just like theirs holding groups of forty women or groups of forty men. These women live lives of travel in the desert for many years & work together to decode the mystery of what purpose their captivity served & why they were abandoned.  

Naturally, as this large group of women coexist together in isolation, romantic relationships form. The relationships between women, both platonic & romantic, become one of the major focuses of the book. What makes things even more interesting: these relationships are explored without any interference or influence by men. Therefore, their experiences are completely unfiltered & unaffected by any sort of male gaze. Because of this, the queer women are able to maintain their relationships in an environment completely devoid of any societal expectations or heteronormative alternative.   

Something I like about this novel is that it’s not necessarily a queer book, it’s more your typical fiction novel that happens to have queer characters. It very casually weaves in themes of queerness without advertising itself as a queer book — I doubt you would find it in any LGBT+ sections of the bookstore. I appreciate this, because it does a great job of normalizing queer relationships within the context of approachable literature. Anybody can glean insight from this story, regardless of gender or sexual identification.

Cool for You 

Eileen Myles

Eileen Myles is one of the ultimate “cool girl” lesbian authors of our generation, & Cool for You is her appropriately-titled debut novel: an auto-fictional narrative that chronicles pieces of her life from adolescence up to the time of writing in her 40s. Her refreshingly blunt descriptions of herself & the characters that surround her give the work the texture of lived reality. She wants you to know she’s not shitting around — this tell-it-like-it-is, take-it-or-leave-it kind of attitude is is the driving force of her book. Every character, even those seemingly trivial with only a brief appearance, is introduced with an honest recollection of features & characteristics. Opening to a random page holds this description — 

“Sherry had piles of dark hair, was really smart, had large breasts a great body, was such a good dancer (in kind of a rat way; but she was so powerful that it enhanced her aura) & was the scariest fiercest girl on the basketball team.” She builds imagery in a way that you cannot help but trust. After reading you think to yourself, “Of course Sherry had a great body, how could I have imagined it any other way?”

Throughout the novel, she circles around the topic of her sexuality & her attempts to decipher what exactly she is looking for, both in romance and her career. Despite homoerotic childhood relationships & clear lesbian fantasies, she struggles to decode what she actually wants in terms of a love life. Even her male lovers would interrogate her: Are you sure you’re not a lesbian, Eileen? It’s a compelling labyrinth of self-reflection that taps into a strong current in our culture right now — everyone seems to be asking this question, and this book is one woman’s honest take on a long, hard look in the mirror, a look, the book seems to urge, that we should all take the time to engage in.

Myles is a Must Read for anyone queer (or otherwise) interested in introspective literature, but I think ultimately the book’s audience is the younger lesbian & bisexual women who are in the midst of exploring their own sexuality. Myles’ worry-free lifestyle told from the sage vantage point of older years makes the book a kind of guidebook for those who are set on a similar path of self-discovery (& if you’re not on that path yet, this book may just send you down it). If only we could all be as matter-of-fact in our daily dealings as Myles — perhaps her certitude in life is the gift this book has to offer.

The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions

Larry Mitchell & Ned Asta

It’s a fairytale! No, a manifesto! No, both!

The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions is a mystical book that combines fables, poetry, &, for a little visual delight, some fabulously psychedelic illustrations. Originally, it was intended to be an illustrated children’s book, but once Mitchell started this dark, whimsical ride, there was, he clearly realized, potential for so much more. Thank goodness he veered off of his original course: the light-hearted imagery contrasted with the insatiable sexual appetites of the Faggots, or the ruthless violence and indifference of the Men, works together to create a genre-defying icon of a book.

I’ve heard this book described as a story your mother might read to you before bedtime, & I couldn't agree more. The characters fall into fantasy-informed categories — the Men, the Faggots, the Queens, and the Women Who Love Women. These groupings carry with them the mystical aura comparable to fairies, ogres, and leprechauns, all with their own unique abilities & characteristics. They live in an empire ruled by Men, with their ultimate leader being Warren-and-His-Fuck-Pole. Together, the Faggots & their friends must fight against the societal implications the Men try to impose over all others in the kingdom. It’s basically a gay retelling of the Brothers Grimm, a childlike reflection of society & its gender problems concentrated into the tropes of a fun, freaky fable.

Collective care, sexual freedom, & revolution against oppression are the ultimate goals of our fairytale heroes. They work together in their fabulous outfits & with their exciting names — my favorite being Loose Tomato — to create a vision of a future where queerness is expressed openly and loudly. All readers exploring the classics of queer literature should give this book a go. Not only is it a quick read, but it’s visually beautiful, an iconic mainstay of queer literature, & manages to summon a vision of a future utopia where all can be who they want to be.

—Carson Milstead


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