Diving Into Discomfort
It is Pride month. Like most queers I don't really like Pride month. The internal queer discourse always turns toxic. There's never enough attention on the real help our community needs and instead everyone gets mad about something stupid. I saw days of arguing about some tweet about bisexual women that I tried so hard to avoid that I think I actually have successfully forgotten it already. Thank goodness.
But one thing about Pride month is that all the gay movies and books suddenly come out all at the same time because I guess they still don't know how to market us the other 11 months of the year. Except that I have read two absolutely bowl-me-over wonderful queer novels that came out in MAY instead of June. Sneaky. (Actually, make that three because of Yerba Buena which is also a truly wonderful queer novel that came out in May, it just doesn't fit at all into the theme of this post but you should definitely still read it. But technically it came out on May 31 which is basically a Pride month release.)
It's not a surprise that they are not flag-waving Pride month books. They don't really fit the mold. They are both about queer women, yes, but as I told my cis man partner today, they are both books about being a queer woman who fucks cis men.
It is a dilemma, truly. It is not at all uncommon for bi/pan women to say, "You know, I'm going to take a break from cis men for a while." I am taking one right now. You almost never hear us say it about any other gender. Right now my cis-men break is because I am already at capacity, I have two cis men I have been seeing for a few years, I honestly would not know what to do with another one. If I am going to be nonmonogamous and live up to my greedy bisexual stereotype, I am going to mix it up and enjoy one of the primary pleasures of being attracted to multiple genders. But I digress. This is not the first break from cis men I have taken. And my previous ones were because, well, because well wouldn't everyone not date men if they had other valid options?
The thing about men is that they are everywhere. And when you're dating, the pool of cis men who will date you is so much bigger than the pool of literally every other gender. You've got around 5% of women compared to 95% of men. You have to be deliberate about dating other genders or else you will just end up with men because that's how the numbers shake out.
And part of why there is so much biphobic stuff out there in the queer community is the non-bi+ folks' distaste for when you are in a straight-presenting relationship. It is... maybe not distasteful exactly, but it is not the right kind of relationship. It is somehow inferior.
And after explaining all of that to you I haven't even gotten to the heart of what makes these two novels so rich and fascinating. It's not just all of that, it's also the strange mix of attraction and repulsion. Especially in men who are dominant, in relationships that play with power dynamics. When you are a feminist, an independent person, a queer woman, how do you deal with being attracted to what you spend so much of your time fighting against? Like I said, not exactly pride-flag-waving material.
The two novels are Little Rabbit by Alyssa Songsiridej and Acts of Service by Lillian Fishman. They intersect in many ways and yet they are not much alike. (Proof yet again that there are so many variations on a theme that there's no reason to say "There are too many books like that already.")
In Little Rabbit a struggling biracial writer falls into a relationship with a much older man, a choreographer. They are imbalanced in almost every way. Not just that he's older, but that he's extremely successful, very wealthy, moves through the world however he pleases while she still doesn't know where she'll end up.
In Acts of Service, Eve meets and is intrigued by Olivia, but Olivia will only see her with Nathan. The three of them become strangely entangled, and even though both women are queer, the dynamic revolves almost entirely around Nathan, the handsome, wealthy, straight cis man.
I completely understand the way reading both of those paragraphs makes you want to wrinkle your nose and say, "Gross." And yes. Totally. And yet? There's more to it than that.
You read and you think, "This is bad for you. Please stop." But she does not stop. The more uncomfortable it gets, the more she likes it. Is she being self-destructive? Or is she exploring a side of herself that she has not been able to explore before? Is this freedom or bondage?
There are no easy answers to these questions. And that is why these books are so good. They are determined not to make it easy for you. You may think you know how this will go but it always ends up being so much more complex than you expected. And our two protagonists have the same struggle. They are not unthinking, they do not run, oblivious, into danger. They feel deeply conflicted. They question their obligations, their morality as women, as queer people. The one thing that isn't in question is that they spend much more time worrying and analyzing than the men do.
I read Little Rabbit a few months ago so it's not quite as fresh in my head. But I just finished Acts of Service this week and while they were both extraordinary and both on my Best of 2022 list, Acts of Service was a real mindfuck for me personally. I am going to steal a little bit of the Goodreads review I just wrote for it for you here, but because you are such a nice person for subscribing I will flesh it out a little.
So many people are going to hate Acts of Service and everyone in it and I can see why they would think that. Almost everything that happens is very uncomfortable, from the very beginning when Eve posts nudes online while her girlfriend is in the other room. You will think these are bad and unrealistic choices. Maybe you will think that Eve and Nathan and Olivia don't act like real people. I get that.
Nathan in particular feels impossible. Why do these women continue to see him? Why do they answer yes to every question they are asked? What kind of man could actually get away with all of this? What kind of man really has this level of charisma? And yet, the thing is, I know him.
Years ago I had a not-quite-relationship with someone who is so much like Nathan in almost every way that it was absolutely eerie to read this book. It felt like Fishman had spied on us.
I don't tell many people about this man. The things that happened between us are difficult to explain and even more difficult to justify. (What happened to me was not abuse or assault, that is a clear line I can draw, don't worry.) While it was happening and for all the years since then I have never known how to feel. I feel grateful and I feel grossed out, almost in equal measure. There are all these things I can point to that make the power dynamic suspect, so many things about the ways he did things that were not coercive and yet they felt fuzzy somehow. This man saw many other women, and I knew this, and so did they, and yet everyone kept coming back and I totally understood because I did, too.
Almost every time Nathan spoke, I could hear this man in my head saying echoes of the same words. And I could hear myself responding the same way Eve did. Fishman is so precise about Eve's feelings and they were feelings I recognized with a squeamish familiarity.
How to explain everything between me and this man? It is hard to do, it has never gotten any easier despite all the time I've had to try and explain it. Except now I can just tell someone to read this book. Change a few of the personal details, and it is him. This impossible character.
Besides being so uncanny, reading this book has been kind of liberating. I kept thinking that if I just figured out the right lens to examine that relationship that I would somehow unlock the truth of what it really was. I would be able to say it was this percent good and this percent bad. Reading the novel, I could feel much more comfortable in the gray area, the inbetween, the way something can be pleasurable and painful, both running so deep that you lose the ability to quantify either one.
Anyway. It is possible you will hate this book and hate everyone in it. (The sex writing is so good, though. This is true of both novels.) It's possible that what you particularly hate is how unreal it feels. I understand. But you're wrong.
Before I go, must mention Little Rabbit has an absolutely killer ending. I am seriously considering a re-read (I will probably switch from print to audio) just so I can build up to it again.
Enjoy more gay new releases that I enjoyed...