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from the June 2016 issue

In Praise of Nonconformity: The Queer Issue

Welcome to our annual salute to international queer literature. This issue, our seventh, comes at a less than celebratory time in the US. The current presidential campaign has propelled public discourse to new lows of coarseness and blunt prejudice, and the euphoria following last June’s repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act has petered out in the face of continuing anti-gay sentiment, most recently expressed in the rancorous debate over transgender bathroom access. Behind the bigotry and hyperbole lurk the fear of the unknown, the threat to the status quo—all represented in the word “queer,” the umbrella word that defines and informs the socially and sexually nonconforming work in this issue. At a time when any deviations from a narrowly defined norm are subject to ridicule, dismissal, or persecution, an issue devoted to international queer writing not only allows us to counter this small-mindedness, but to demonstrate how questions of universal social importance are resolved in countries other than our own.

This year’s issue features several young protagonists negotiating relationships as they search for their places in the adult world. In Jeon Sam-hye’s “Genesis,” a teenage girl pines for her overachieving roommate; a male classmate accuses the roommate of having earned her high marks by sleeping with the director; the narrator defends her roommate’s honor and is disciplined. A typical high school story—except the setting is not a school but a corporation that recruits and trains orphans for space travel, and the roommate is sent not to detention, but to a maintenance job on the moon. From her lunar exile, a literal world away from her beloved, the narrator finds the perfect medium to express her feelings. It’s an elegant segue from our May issue of Cuban speculative fiction, and further confirmation of this dynamic genre’s capacity to illuminate contemporary truths in the guise of exploring the future.

Another tale of adolescence comes from Ronald Schernikau’s celebrated German coming-out novel, Small-town Novella, published when the author was only nineteen. An effeminate twelfth-grade boy finds himself on a school trip with his crush, a jock embedded in a swaggering clique. Their cultural tour of Berlin turns drunken binge, and the drinks he accepts to ease his discomfort loosen his tongue and lead to a charged confrontation.  

Chinese avant-garde poet and writer Mu Cao makes his English-language debut with a chapter of his novel Outcast, translated by Scott E. Myers. In the Hunan Province, a teenager growing up in a violent, loveless household falls into a romantic relationship with the father of a neighborhood friend. The affair is not only a sexual initiation, but an introduction to the love and tenderness the boy has never known at home. When the man’s wife catches them together and tells the boy’s parents, they kick him out of the house; crazed with grief, he resorts to an act of desperation. Mu Cao tells this story in the second person, making the boy’s unexpected contentment and subsequent devastation all the more immediate.

In Khadi Hane’s “Tomorrow, God Willing,” a broken ex-convict recalls his love for his cellmate, Ching, and the sustaining power of their relationship in the homophobic miasma of prison. Ching was released first, surviving imprisonment only to commit suicide. The bereaved narrator has no desire to break out of the past or to live in the present; no longer behind bars, he is still far from free.

Alexandre Vidal Porto’s married Brazilian confesses his double life in the course of a cab ride. On Friday night, after his wife goes to sleep, he trolls for men online (“my screen name is DowntownDad”); in the afternoons he consorts with them in hotels. If exposed, his secret would be the end of his marriage. He clearly wants to unburden himself of his guilt; but his choice of confessor suggests he expects neither penance nor absolution.

Readers will recall Gabriela Wiener’s September report on trekking into the Peruvian jungle on the trail of a shaman and the notorious hallucinogen ayahuasca. She returns with a clear-eyed tale of an incorrigible cheat laid low by love. After years of voracious infidelity, the narrator leaves her current partner to settle down with her lover, Jaime, in unprecedented monogamy. When the itch returns, she proposes a way to keep the marriage both intact and sufficiently transgressive.

Lawrence Schimel, a frequent contributor of translations from Spanish, makes his WWB debut as an author with three snapshots of gay male interaction. Men take the subway to shared fantasy, improvise etiquette on the fly at a nude beach, and proselytize for polyamory in glimpses suggesting the expanse and plurality of urban erotic life.

Lebanon’s Elham Mansour broke ground with her pioneering She, You, and I, the first Arabic-language lesbian novel. Here, in an excerpt translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, the charismatic Siham articulates her philosophy of lesbian desire, delineating the social and sexual politics underlying heterosexual relationships and the superiority of same-sex love: “with women it’s better, more pure and profound.” Her listener, the young Layal, listens in a silence born of not intimidation or discomfort, but recognition. When Siham concludes, “In the end, love is a place where manifold emotions burst out of old images and desires like time bombs,” we sense an explosion is imminent.   

As we head into this month traditionally given to celebrating the progress of gay communities everywhere, we hope you’ll find this issue unfamiliar, enlightening, provocative, and boundary-breaking not only in its themes but in the power of their expression. In other words, in the terms of this current political and social environment, queer—that slur reclaimed as proud self-identification of nonconforming people, and literature, throughout the world.    

© 2016 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.

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