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from the June 2017 issue

And What If Love Is Stronger? The Queer Issue

Our eighth annual queer issue launches in the wake of several notable international LGBT literary successes. Garth Greenwell's What Belongs to You, a smash in the US last year, was awarded the British Book Award for a Debut Novel and will be translated into a dozen languages. Édouard Louis’s autobiographical End of Eddy promises to be only the beginning of a major career, selling a remarkable 300,000 copies in the original French and arriving to acclaim in English. And Qiu Miaojin's Notes of a Crocodile was praised for its depiction of teenage alienation in mid-1990s Taiwan. Yet these welcome literary occasions occur in the shadows cast not only by events in areas associated with oppression, but also by regression and erosion of rights in the US. In Europe, Chechnya arrests, imprisons, and tortures gay men while denying they even exist; in Indonesia, police cane two gay men in front of a cheering crowd, then announce the formation of anti-gay task forces. Meanwhile, recent advances in the US are reversed, as new regulations restrict transgender bathroom access, religious liberty initiatives militate against LGBT rights, and authorities refuse to classify homophobic attacks as hate crimes.

In this troubling context, the need for portrayals of queer lives around the world becomes even more urgent.  The work in this issue highlights the plurality of queer experience in light of both advances and setbacks. Whether struggling with established prejudice or claiming new rights, protagonists—real and imagined—assert a place for themselves in the world.

Families, as always, provide both comfort and conflict, offering havens to some and springboards to others.  Our issue opens with fiction from Equatorial Guinea's Trifonia Melibea Obono, who reveals a secret society within a narrow-minded West African village. On her way to collect firewood, a teenage girl runs into a trio her grandmother has darkly referred to as "indecent and mysterious." The three girls gently tell her that her effeminate uncle has been run out of the village. While she struggles with this news, the girls lead her to a clearing and induct her into their “indecency club." Her uncle may have been banished from their community, but she has been welcomed into one that feels far more like home.

In a chapter from her Kapuściński Prize finalist I Won't Apologize for Giving Birth: Stories of IVF Families, Polish journalist Karolina Domagalska travels to Tel Aviv to meet with a self-made family: two same-sex couples who collaborate to produce two children. The four adults navigate the logistics of multiple households, the definition of parenthood, and the unexpected complications of the male couple's breakup in establishing their very modern family. As the older daughter turns seven, one of the women declares, "I can say with a clear conscience that our arrangement works.”

By contrast, very little functions as it should in the troubled multigenerational household of the Serbian intellectual and political activist Biljana Jovanović's "Lida, Danilo, and the Others." Lida's fractured family struggles with internal violence and the social changes of Tito's Yugoslavia. Breathless, angry, fragmented, Lida jumps through time and memory, from her uncle's cruelty to her first stirrings of same-sex desire, to create a portrait of emotional and physical pain.

Another sort of danger informs the transgender world of "Miss Eddy," Mexican writer Milena Solot's English-language debut. The title character and her friend Úrsula fall in with the seductive sex trafficker Tommy. As they work their way toward the border, Eddy's initial infatuation turns to suspicion and then fear; when Tommy announces a change of itinerary, she stays behind in Tijuana, but cannot persuade the lovestruck Úrsula to do the same. The result is no less tragic for its inevitability.  

David Albahari's Brother portrays a novelist famed for his depictions of his idyllic childhood whose orderly existence is rocked by the appearance of a brother he never knew he had. At their rendezvous in a Belgrade restaurant, this new sibling upends everything the writer thought he knew about his family, and everything he thought he knew about himself.  Reeling, he has no idea that his brother has even more shocking news in store.

In another restaurant scene, Caio Fernando Abreu's talky obsessive struggles to reconcile romantic ideals with harsh physical reality. After their dinner is interrupted by an aggressive young actor, the morose theater critic Pérsio launches into a gritty, earthy monologue with his bemused friend. Focused on the carnal elements of male sex, he works himself into a funk. His friend challenges his reductive viewpoint:  "What if everything that you find disgusting was precisely what we call love?" And, moreover, "What if love is stronger?"

Turkish artist and writer Beldan Sezen, now living in New York, returns to her native Istanbul in the "fearful, despondent" early months of 2016. On top of the threat of war and increased suicide bombings, her friends worry about the Erdogan government's association of the queer community with the opposition party and the loss of their majority, and the resulting escalation of anti-gay police action. They meet the cancellation of the annual pride parade with defiance and ingenuity to remain visible both in Istanbul and around the world.

The invisibility of queer identities, of course, takes on many forms. The University of East Anglia's B.J. Epstein, coeditor of the new collection Queer in Translation, takes up a related battle against the double erasure of queer translators. Epstein discusses both the content and source of queer translation, and creates the portmanteau word "eradicalization"—the eradication of the radical element of queer translation—to assail the normalization of queerness in translated texts. 

If Epstein laments the use of words to put a damper on the representation of queer sexuality, Uruguayan poet Raquel Lubartowski's "Triptych" rues their futility in the face of desire. "Poetry is no longer enough," she declares, then undercuts her argument with powerful imagery and compelling emotion. Love is a mirage in an endless desert; "We're seeking water / where there is only thirst."

This traditional month of celebration may have a more defiant edge this year, as the international queer community battles the current political and social environment. With that in mind, we offer the writing here as rebuttal, as testimony, and as a declaration of the force and importance of queer writing. And as we fight the forces of hatred, prejudice, and oppression, we must maintain our belief: yes, love is stronger.

© 2017 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.

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