Our team at the Community Sector Council of Nova Scotia (CSCNS) is constantly sharing interesting and thought-provoking podcasts, articles, and books with each other. Working remotely for the past few months, this gives us a way to connect virtually over new ideas and content. This informal way of knowledge-sharing and reflecting allows us to continue fostering a learning culture within the organization, and ourselves personally.
As self-proclaimed book nerds (It’s true – most of the team’s most used apps are “Goodreads” and the public library’s “Libby”!), it was only natural that my colleague Lydia and I dove into a conversation about what was on our reading list for Pride Month. This led into a deeper conversation about representation in literature, and as people who learn from reading, we figured that sharing some of our thoughts might lead to more conversation!
When Lydia and I started talking, I was immediately reminded of this article I read last year- Your Bookshelf May Be Part of the Problem, Juan Vidal (NPR) – right around the time we were halfway through the first series of the Decolonization Learning Journey webinars. As an avid reader, I loved the challenge of taking a hard look at my bookshelves to see what kind of authors and stories I was reading and whether most of the stories were written by or about straight white people. That night my partner laughed as I carefully reviewed each book in my library (if you saw it, you’d know this is an hours-long process) to note the diversity of the authors. I was not shocked to see that of my 530 books (not including my ebooks and audiobooks), the percentage of titles written by non-white authors was less than 20% for nonfiction and less than 5% for fiction.
As a fan of fantasy and romantic fiction, this exercise confirmed that most of the stories I consume for entertainment often focus on straight white characters and the main challenges these characters will face are not going to be related to their race or sexuality. As a straight, white cisgender woman, these stories don’t challenge my worldview and I’m not reading about or being exposed to experiences that I can’t relate to in some way. I don’t struggle to see myself in the books that I read. This realization led me to question my reading choices, and to begin furiously seeking out titles written by Indigenous, Black, Asian, and 2SLGBTQIA+ authors to add to my collection.
My next thought was on determining what books I should be reading. How do I find “good” books – the books that are written by a credible author or that tell authentic stories? I asked myself, who was authoring the narrative and are they members of that community? For example, there have been critiques about the large number of Gay romance novels written by straight white women – while some of these stories are great, isn’t it better to read stories written by members of the community? Short answer: Yes. Thankfully, I was coming to this realization during Pride month and at a time last year where anti-racist booklists were everywhere!
For my Pride List, I sought out reading lists from organizations and changemakers who serve or are members of the community (my favourite lists came from Venus Envy, Halifax Pride, and The Youth Project). Similarly, I took my recommendations for anti-Black racism texts from Black organizations and activists, Indigenous books from Indigenous folks. Now, this isn’t to say that straight, white people can’t put together a good resource and reading list – I certainly hope I’ve included some interesting ones below – but personally, I feel that if you’re looking to expand your knowledge about a topic, you should seek recommendations from experts or written by folks who have the lived experiences.
Below are some questions that Lydia and I informally discussed, but wanted to include as I found them thought-provoking, and they helped us develop and narrow down our reading list and recommendations! They also might be helpful questions to ask yourself when evaluating your own bookshelf or when choosing your next read – our book lists are below.
Does your favourite genre often depict 2SLGBTQIA+ characters or authors from the community?
I LOVE reading fantasy and romantic fiction which doesn’t typically centre 2SLGBTQIA+ characters or stories. But I have found that in the past few years these stories are becoming more popular, and as I have continued my own reading and learning I’ve found more great authors and publishers who produce stories in these genres.
When learning, do you seek out fiction recommendations or nonfiction?
Since I read as an escape and a form of stress relief, fiction is typically my go-to. I find that the stories resonate with me more than nonfiction does. I don’t know if it’s because in fiction the author puts you in the shoes of their main character(s), so you feel more connected to their story and their experience (if the story is well-written). Or if it’s simply because fiction can highlight the same issues and realities that nonfiction focuses can, but in an imaginary format – I’m able to learn while also reading my favourite genre.
How can first-voice 2SLGBTQIA+ stories help you learn about the community? How can this representation impact society?
In nonfiction, I find this representation highlights the realities that members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community face here at home and across the world. In fiction, it helps “normalize” the experiences and voices of these characters in ways that can challenge or change your perception if you don’t have the same experiences or haven’t had the opportunity to learn about those experiences firsthand.
In fantasy fiction, I love reading books where the characters’ gender identity and sexuality is an accepted and celebrated part of the society or fictional world the author has created. For example, in Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell, the author created a world in which various societies had their own ways of visually expressing their gender identity (i.e., specific types of jewelry, ways of styling their hair) and nonbinary and trans characters were commonplace. Their identity was not the focus of their story.
To me, stories like that are so exciting because they show the possibilities of a world without discrimination against people because of their gender or sexuality. A refreshing utopia, that makes me want to work harder to see a world like that in my lifetime.
Why is reading about 2SLGBTQIA+ narratives important to you?
This is going to sound trite, but I have friends and family who are members of the community and reading about issues that impact their daily lives helps me to better understand the challenges they face or the context that they deal with which are not a part of my every day. I feel this is important for me so that I can better empathize, support, and stand up for the people I care about when they need me. I feel like this understanding helps me to be part of the solution, not the problem.
How can books shape your allyship? Have these stories changed the way you think about / respond to 2SLGBTQIA+ issues?
I am a firm believer that as an ally, it is my job to do the work to educate myself on issues facing marginalized communities. Books – both fiction and nonfiction – are a great way to do this especially if you’re reading content from members of that community. At CSCNS we often quote “Nothing about us without us” when referencing our JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion) work, the same is true for our personal allyship.
All the books that I’ve read in the list below have opened my eyes to experiences which I was not exposed to or even aware of prior to reading the story. Many of these books have helped me understand concepts which I’ve struggled to comprehend from nonfiction or advocacy articles – including the wide range of identities on the gender spectrum. This increased understanding has helped me feel more confident when discussing 2SLGBTQIA+ issues with family members, friends, and colleagues who are learning about the topics.
What are some actions that you can take if you want to read more diverse topics or social issues?
Do your research: read reviews, comments, or do some “internet sleuthing” to ensure that the information you’re reading is an accurate / fair depiction of the issues.
Ask members of the community (individuals or organizations): not for the information but for their recommendations on what to read.
As with all activities involving books, this exercise of thinking about and pulling together a reading list for Pride Month books led to so many more interesting, expansive discussions about privilege, representation, personal learning, and allyship. The act of just talking about these books has made myself and Lydia excited to think about the additional possibilities of how to share and host more conversations about decolonizing our bookshelves and other media.
Books and reading have always been my favourite way to learn and challenge myself. I hope that this list of recommendations and my insights on how I choose what to read will help you move forward in your own learning journey. I’d love to hear about ways that have helped you learn about Pride or things that you have found impactful. Feel free to reach out to me in the comments or send me a direct email (firstname.lastname@example.org) with your thoughts / book recommendations!
And now for the good stuff!
Our Team was excited to pull together a list of books that we loved and books that we’re looking forward to reading this month and in future! Personally, I’ve chosen books that are on my nightstand right now and ones that have significantly impacted the way that I think and talk about 2SLGBTQIA+ issues, gender identity or sexuality in general. These books helped me see the world differently and I hope that they have a similar impact on you.
If you have books that you’re reading or want to share please post them in the comments!
Books We Love
Her Body and Other Parties
Carmen Maria Machado
Noelle Stevenson, Shannon Watters, & Carolyn Nowak
The Prince and The Dressmaker
Natalie Zina Walschots
Books We’re Excited About
Cicely Belle Blain
Adrienne Maree Brown
Felix Ever After
All Boys Aren’t Blue
George M. Johnson
Robert Jones Jr.
Before the Parade
Exiled for Love
Spaces Between Us
Scott Lauria Morgensen
Butter Honey Pig Bread
My Brother’s Husband
Beyond the Gender Binary
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Love Beyond Body, Space and Time: An Indigenous LGBT Sci-Fi Anthology
We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir
A Two-Spirit Journey: The Autobiography of a Lesbian Ojibwa-Cree Elder
Becoming Two-Spirit: Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country
Brian Joseph Gilley
Community Sector Council of Nova Scotia
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