Theydies and gentlethems, the first thing I need to do in this post is apologize for the sometimes sporadic timing of posts over the last several months. I am personally, officially more than one year into lockdown, more than one year into working as a literary agent, and I am doing my best to be mindful of my abilities and limitations during this weird part of our collective history. As such, there have been times when I’ve had to step back from some obligations in order to fulfill others, and at times the regularity of the blog schedule has suffered.
Today, however, I have a great post in store. First, I want to review a super exciting picture book, Jamie and Bubbie, by Afsaneh Moradian and illustrated by Maria Bogade. Then, I have a very exciting interview from author Zak Salih, whose gay literary fiction Let’s Get Back to the Party comes out THIS TUESDAY (!!!) from Algonquin books.
Before I dive into those, I have a VERY COOL resource to share for all of you who maybe didn’t get as much reading done in 2020 as usual. I’m super, super lucky to be part of a great online book community, called the Rogue Book Coven. This year, some of our incredible and skilled members put together this great resource featuring the best books read by our members in 2020 – across age categories, genres, and release periods. Check it out, and find something great that maybe you missed. I think of it like the front table at your favourite indie bookshop at the end of a long year.
Jamie and Bubbie
I have written about Afsaneh Moradian’s first children’s book, Jamie is Jamie, in this space before. I am a huge supporter of Moradian’s work, and so I was thrilled when she reached out to me to ask if I would review her newest offering. Moradian is an educator, and her expertise and familiarity with children really shines through in her picture books.
This book features illustrations of a diverse population that extends beyond racial inclusion, including wheelchair users, and a broad range of ages. It addresses an important topic – the use of pronouns – and it fills a huge gap in resources created on this topic by non-white creators. The book handles the topic with great sensitivity, allowing the young character to be the hero of the story, educating their elders in new and different ways to use language, while maintaining a sense of gentleness, positivity, and humility throughout.
This is a great 101 resource, and a lovely story. The only criticism that I could offer is that it is limited in the sense that there is no discussion of neopronouns. That said, for most people living in North America, this book is a great, accessible starting point for learning, that is expertly executed. It also includes resources for teachers and caregivers in the back of the book.
While you’re checking out Jamie and Bubbie, check out another one of my favourite picture books, Saturday, by Black author Oge Mora.
Feature Interview: Zak Salih
Debut author Zak Salih’s novel, Let’s Get Back to the Party, will drop this Tuesday, February 16th. It’s been hailed as “iconic” by the Gay Times, was one of this month’s most anticipated books from Lambda Literary, and Michelle Hart, the assistant editor of books at O Magazine, said that it was among the titles that would change the literary landscape this year. I am honoured to have gotten the chance to interview Salih, and I hope that you enjoy reading as much as I did!
I can remember the exact moment that I heard that the US had legalized gay marriage – it wasn’t so long ago, after all. Do you remember that moment in your life? What did it mean for you?
I was working in the marketing department at The Washington Post at the time, so I was at my desk and saw the news on the website as soon as it broke. The next morning, I went down to the lobby and picked up a copy of the paper; I still have the front page here somewhere in my office. While marriage equality hasn’t been a social panacea for the LGBTQ2S+ community, it’s a powerful symbol and its legalization was a powerful moment. I’m glad I was alive to witness it.
You write a lot about art in this book, which is in itself a very artistic, literary work. Is art something that you feel passionate about, or was it just something that you researched for your novel? What role has it played in your life? Do you have a favourite artist or particular work that you wish all of your readers could experience?
I’ve always enjoyed art—flipping through art catalogs, walking through art museums, reading novels about artists—so those sections of the novel were relatively delightful to write. When it’s safe, the National Gallery of Art here in D.C. is the first indoor place I plan on going post-pandemic. I highly recommend it to everyone, especially because you’ll find John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark there, a painting that’s fascinated me since I was a young boy.
For me, your book felt very nostalgic. I think that it really hearkens back to a tone and type of iconic gay literature that we don’t see as much of these days, but it grapples with very contemporary material. I wonder what books you would recommend for readers of your book, and what works you would say influenced you when you were working on it?
I’d recommend all of the LGBTQ2S+ books that inspire me— as a member of an incredibly diverse and wonderful community, as a writer, and as a human being. At the moment, I’m thinking in particular of books like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Elusive Embrace, Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, and Andrew Holleran’s The Beauty of Men.
From my experience, particularly for LGBTQ2S+ “elders” (feel free to interpret that in whatever way you wish!), childhood memories of grappling with sexuality and complex relationships with peers are often poignant, and linger throughout our lives. This is a theme that comes up in your book, and I’m curious what that was like to explore through your writing.
While I don’t share the specific childhood memories of Sebastian and Oscar, I do dwell on the past a little more than is healthy. But I think that’s true of most people, queer or otherwise. The past always tends to pop up in the most unlikely of places: the face of a stranger, a painting in an art gallery, a line in a poem. I find stories that focus on the past, or in which characters cannot get over the past, to be the most rewarding types of stories. They teach me about navigating my own relationship with memory and experience.
Obviously, as creatives, we all carry different parts of our identities into our work with us. How did your identities direct what you wanted to do with this novel, and to what extent do you feel your various identities define you as a writer?
In an obvious sense, my identity as a gay man informed what I tried to do with this novel, and the complexities of what it means to be part of a generation strung between a traumatic past and a more hopeful future. But when I sit down to write, I’m nothing thinking (at least consciously) about my identities. I don’t care to label myself a “gay writer” any more than I would label myself a “biracial writer” or a “cis-gender writer.” These identifiers and descriptors, I feel, are more for other people to make sense of me than for me to make sense of myself.
One of the characters in your book is a high school teacher. If an educator was going to teach your book to a group of young adults, what do you hope students would take away from that experience? Similarly, what do you wish you could tell educators who are going to choose this book to put in a younger reader’s hands?
I would hope students came away from the book with a sense of enlargement about their relationships with other people—the idea that they’re part of a larger community with a past, a present, and a future. I suppose I’d caution educators (and all readers to remember that Sebastian and Oscar represent no one but themselves; their messiness is not what makes them queer, it’s what makes them human.
Being a marginalized publishing professional can be super challenging once in a while. What has your experience been like working with the editorial team at Algonquin, which is a large independent publisher? What would you say the most fulfilling part of this process was, and what was the biggest challenge?
I honestly have nothing but kind words for everyone at Algonquin Books. Since they first acquired the novel, everyone from my editor to the marketing team has been entirely supportive not just of my writing but of the inherent queerness of the book itself. Perhaps other writers have horror stories to share, but in my relationship with Algonquin, I was never once asked to tone down or make more “cis-hereto-friendly” the story I was trying to tell.
Last, but not least, when I’m covering a non-Black author, I ask them to recommend a book by a Black author to go alongside their post. Would you mind sharing a rec with me?
Season of Migration to the North, by the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih. A fascinating, and occasionally disturbing novel about reverse colonization, whose enigmatic central character is a Western-educated Sudanese man who resolves to “liberate Africa with [his] penis.”