Spread the Word is marking this year’s LGBTQ+ History Month with a special celebration of LGBTQ+ books chosen by authors from Spread the Word’s community. Writers and artists Adam Zmith, Remi Graves and Shannon Yee select five LGBTQ+ books they are excited and moved by to help you choose your next LGBTQ+ read. Most of the recommended titles are available to buy on Spread the Word’s Bookshop.org profile, and by buying a book that you like the look of there you’ll also be supporting Spread the Word.
Five hot gay books chosen by Adam Zmith
I don’t believe in favourites, but here are five books that have helped me to understand myself as a gay man, and as a writer.
The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
Usually I skip books about posh people. I’ve read enough of them already. But this one stands out as being ‘about’ class, and the intersections of that with homosexuality. In the 1980s. In London, mostly. It’s gorgeously written, because it’s by Alan. Plus there are some really hot parts, and who doesn’t love a hot part.
Diary of a Film by Niven Govinden
This is a novel about creativity. So it’s good for a writer. The protagonist is also a writer — he writes films that he also directs. He’s full of desire for the two actors in his recent film, and he wants to spend time in their orbits, and that’s how Niven gives his reader one of the many joyful experiences of this book. The other is in wandering the streets of a small Italian town, finding lost artworks, and having a deep conversation with a woman with a story. The novel wears its gayness lightly, in that this isn’t a theme of the book. But the subtle art of the gay gaze suffuses this novel, and I love it for that.
What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell
Even more of the gay gaze in this one! Garth is the master of desire. Steaming sentences and heart-wrenching peeks into the human condition make this novel an absolute dream. It makes me try to figure out how to raise the bar of my own writing, so that it is both thoughtful and intensely erotic at the same time. Ooof, thanks Garth.
The Trouble With Normal by Michael Warner
I hadn’t been declaring myself as a gay man for very long before I read this book. And when I did, I felt at home, politically, because Michael helped me to realise that I am that kind of gay man. The kind who wants marriage in the bin. Family is nonsense. Assimilation is for those who’ve given up. This book is pretty specifically focused on the USA at a particular moment in time, and as such it’s a useful read during LGBTQ+ History Month. But the principles of Michael’s passionate argument are very relevant everywhere, and through time.
Queer City by Peter Ackroyd
Londoners, watch your step! You’re walking on streets that are as gay as a Roman centurion in a bathhouse. Peter wrote a very fun book that is full of research and amazing characters. But he also managed to explain how and why our identities have changed across the centuries. From the joy of the molly house to the dark, police-patrolled park cottages, this book tells the history of queer London – and it’s every bit as messy as you might think.
Five LGBT+ Books chosen by Remi Graves
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
I read this book in a kind of calm fever, devouring this small gem in a few sittings. This razor sharp novel tells the story of Melody’s coming of age party in Brooklyn. A lens through which to explore familial history, sexuality and the weight of memory on our lives. The writing is crystal clear, Woodson’s sentences are exact, short, yet bursting with history and feeling. I was most stunned by the depth of the storytelling, how we learn about Melody, her parents Iris and Aubrey, her grandparents, ancestors further afield and the events that shaped their lives. I keep coming back to this book in the hopes of discovering how to write such searing and evocative prose, poetic without feeling indulgent, evocative without being sentimental. With each chapter from the perspective of a different character, you’re left wondering how so much life, emotion and history could be captured in just 196 pages. Woodson is a black queer writer that I’m deeply inspired by. I recommend this book to everyone.
Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt
This debut collection of poems has a music and spirituality that moves through it and me with every reading. I come back to this book often to read poems that I’m moved by without knowing exactly why.
Many of the poems are rooted in nature, parks at the edges of the city, Swedish lakes, forests. There’s something refreshing and revitalising about Hewitt’s work. His lines stick with me for weeks; for each tree is an altar to time. I most love this collection for its stunning intimacy with and within nature, plants, buds, flowers feel part of the speaker’s ecosystem – not just reduced to metaphor but imbricated with the poem’s sense world. I’m still not sure what constitutes a queer poem, yet the intimacy and vulnerability woven into these poems that speak of relationships, love, grief and memory feel laced with a queerness that keeps me returning like the deer left to walk / their shadows amongst the trees.
My debut pamphlet: with your chest.
I felt cheeky including this in my list, but many of these poems I’ve spent so long cutting up, redacting, re-reading that they were a huge part of my LGBTQ+ reading experience in the last few years. Many of the poems were written after lockdown lifting and explore a renewed encounter with the violence of walking around in public as a black queer trans and gender non conforming person. Reading poets like Stacey Waite, Cameron Awkward Rich and Richard Scott helped me buoy up my confidence in the kinds of poems I wanted to write. In some poems I unpick the power of varying gazes, and what it can mean to shift the angle of your gaze on your own body. Others explore the way life moves outside my window, the intimacy of the weigh in before boxing matches and the re-memory of a queer childhood with all its boxed away desires and feelings. Writing these poems was challenging, fun and full of discovery for me. I hope others find some connection, enjoyment and resonance with the poems in with your chest too.
Then The War by Carl Phillips
If there was a Spotify Unwrapped for books, this would no doubt be my number one. It stays on my bedside table for dipping into, reading before bed, after waking or whenever I need inspiration. This collection contains poems spanning from 2007 – 2020, a treat to have the breadth of his work in one place. I read Carl Phillips over and over for craft, to try and understand how a poetics of searching and un-brevity can create such original, dazzling poems. I love how much is still mysterious to me in Philips’ work, there are sentences that need to be read over and over, where it’s hard to know where one clause ends and another begins. Many of the poems engage playfully with reason and logic, a kind of philosophising voice prevails and yet is undermined by a meandering thought or the sheer uncertainty of most things. Love, the body and doubt feel like foundational explorations in this collection, and I’m most interested in how Philips wields syntax to draw us into intimate moments and emotions, places we didn’t know we’d end up at the start of his poems. This collection keeps me striving to be playful, and daring in my work, to move away from the need to always ‘make sense’.
The first person and other stories by Ali Smith
The most memorable line in this collection of short stories, is the opening sentence of the third person; ‘all short stories long’. It took me way longer than I’d like to admit to understand that sentence, and sums up Smith’s playful and profound approach to language and the way she bends form for her own use. These funny (laugh at loud on the bus funny) stories remind me that humour is also a route into a reader’s heart. Reading Smith makes me want to look out for the laughs in my own life, as well as explore the overlaps and tensions between fiction and reality. Her stories revel in coincidence, absurdity, word play and elements of the surreal. There’s something for everyone, a bigoted baby with a big mouth, a teenager talking to her adult self, and exes who can’t stop calling each other in the middle of the night. I also appreciate how the queerness in some of these stories is coincidental, irrelevant and part of the tapestry of the tales on offer. This collection still feels original and refreshing, ten years after I first read it. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about skilful and seemingly effortless storytelling whilst laughing their socks off.
Five LGBT+ Books chosen by Shannon Yee
My essential LGBTQ+ reading list includes:
The Good Son by Paul McVeigh
This coming-of-age story set in working-class Ardoyne during the Troubles in Northern Ireland centres on young Micky Donnelly. Writer Paul McVeigh’s deft use of voice, humour and perspective has earned The Good Son a rake of accolades, including the Polari Prize, an award for writers whose first novel explores ‘the LGBTQ experience’, and the McRea Literary Award, as well as being shortlisted for a slew of others. McVeigh co-founded the London Short Story Festival and is Associate Director at Word Factory, the UK’s premier short story salon.
Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love
There’s a reason that the best children’s books are still treasured by adults. Julian is a Mermaid (Candlewick Press, 2018) is one of the best. Julian is a young boy who shares a short subway ride with three women dressed as mermaids. It is a story about unconditional acceptance, unapologetic self-expression, and love, all told with sparse words and beautiful sketches against the backdrop of a hot Brooklyn summer’s famous annual Mermaid Parade on Coney Island—the largest art parade in the United States, which happens the weekend before NYC Pride. Julian is a Mermaid has won numerous awards, including the Stonewall Book Award (2019) and Klaus Flugge Prize.
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
Machado is known for exploding form and genre and most her recent memoir, In the Dream House (Graywolf Press, 2019) is a masterclass in how this is done. She tackles the taboo subject of domestic violence in LGBTQ+ relationships through her own harrowing experiences presented in different literary tropes. It was awarded the 2021 Folio Prize and the 2020 Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Nonfiction.
Queering the Green: Post-2000 Queer Irish Poetry edited by Paul Maddern
There’s great value in reading outside your genre, not only for a break as you grapple with the challenges of revising your latest draft, but to tune in to a different musicality of language and imagery. Maddern, a gay poet himself and proprietor of the bijou River Mill Writing Retreat in Northern Ireland (www.the-river-mill.co.uk), has done a huge service to queer poetry with this significant (both physically and artistically) compilation of post-2000 queer Irish poetry.
Queer Love: An Anthology of Irish Fiction edited by Paul McVeigh
With its 2020 publication, Queer Love… seeks to address the lack of LGBTQ+ writers in Irish literary anthologies. The anthology has contributions from Colm Tóibín, Emma Donoghue, Mary Dorsey, Neil Hegarty and John Boyne alongside commissions from less well-known queer writers from the island of Ireland. The collection also aims to increase visibility of LGBTQ+ stories in published fiction, as all the authors cited not growing up feeling themselves reflected in stories they read and there is still an underrepresentation in LGBTQ published voices today.
About the contributors
Adam Zmith (he/ him) is the author of Deep Sniff: A History of Poppers and Queer Futures (Repeater Books, 2021). He is also the writer and producer of the BBC podcast series The Film We Can’t See, a co-producer of The Log Books podcast, and co-director of the podcast production company Aunt Nell. He’s always working on a novel, and right now is also writing more non-fiction books including one about foot fetishes. Adam is an alum of Spread the Word’s London Writers Awards and won the Polari First Book Prize in 2022.
Remi Graves is a London based poet and drummer. A former Barbican Young Poet, Remi’s work has been commissioned by St Paul’s Cathedral, Barbican and BBC Radio 4. Remi has taught at The Poetry School and performed at Cheltenham Literature Festival, Tate Modern and more. Remi’s debut pamphlet with your chest was published by Fourteen Poems in September 2022. Remi is currently a lead poet on Spread the Word’s Uprising and Resistance project, and is part of Deptford Literature Festival on Saturday 18 March 2023, co-headlining Queer Poetry Night on Saturday 18 March.
Shannon Yee (Sickels) is an award-winning writer and producer. Her perspectives as an immigrant, ethnic minority, queer artist-parent with a disability living in NI are deeply embedded in her work. Shannon has received a number of awards and grants, including the ACNI Major Individual Artist Award (2017). Her Reassembled, Slightly Askew sonically immerses audiences in her autobiographical experience of nearly dying and subsequent acquired brain injury (www.reassembled.co.uk) , touring locally, nationally and internationally in arts festivals and medical training settings since 2015. Shannon’s published short stories are ‘The Brightening Up Side’ (Belfast Stories; Doire Press, 2019), and ‘Thumbnails’ (Queer Love: An Irish Anthology; Southward, 2020). www.s-yee.co.uk. Shannon is a part of the CRIPtic x Spread the Word Writers Salon community.
You might also like:
Published 8 February 2023