Top picks: Queer voices

“The speed with which modern society has adapted to accommodate the world’s vast spectrum of gender and sexual identities may be the most important cultural metamorphosis of our time,” wrote New York Times reporter Jenna Wortham in a 2016 essay.

This may be true, but it’s also true that Australia only got around to legalising same-sex marriage a mere four months ago. The LGBTQIA experience remains a complicated, tangled thing: there is more visibility and acceptance than ever before. There also continues to be horrific discrimination and injustice.

There’s no single queer experience, but rather a shimmering, refracting multiplicity of ways to be in the world. The queer voices on the Festival line-up promise not consensus on the LGBTQIA experience, but intelligent, nuanced debate. Here are a few picks of the bunch…  

Who: Eileen Myles, a poet, novelist, performer and journalist.

You should read: Chelsea Girls, their funny, honest and raw autobiographical novel from 1994 which tracks their upbringing from Roman Catholic schoolgirl to New York City artist — with all the drugs, girls, poverty and book parties that entails.

Eileen on queer identity: “Even [the word] lesbian always felt inadequate. I felt trans before I even felt lesbian, but lesbian was the word we got to use […] When I realised I had a choice of a pronoun, and I didn’t have to flip from she to he, ‘they’ just suddenly started to seem really fun, and sort of loose and baggy, and I could sort of be whoever I wanted within that pronoun.” — Hammer Museum 

Who: Yrsa Daley-Ward, a poet of West Indian and West African heritage.

You should read: bone, an intimate collection of poems that Yrsa originally self-published before it was picked up by Particular Books, an imprint of Penguin.

Yrsa on queer identity: “I’m not one thing, even though I belong to so many identities. But I consider myself rich in that way—I don’t have to package myself as any one thing and neither does my work. A straight person can read it, a queer person can read it. Whether or not the author is queer or has experience with same-sex experiences, you know, the poetry is there for people who love each other.” —Elle

Who: Masha Gessen, a journalist on staff at the New Yorker and the author of nine books.

You should read: Gay propaganda: Russian love stories, a samizdat collection of first-person testimonials from queer Russians living under the Kremlin’s state-sanctioned homophobia, which Masha edited and prefaced.

Masha on queer identity: “The standard story goes something like this: as a child I always felt like a boy, or never felt like a girl, and then I tried to be a lesbian, but the issue wasn’t sexual orientation—it was gender, specifically, ‘true gender,’ which could now be claimed through transitioning. I found myself feeling resentful at hearing these stories. I too had always felt like a boy! It had taken some work for me to enjoy being a woman (whatever that means)—I’d succeeded, I had learned how to be one. But still: here I was, faced with the possibility that in the parallel life that my left-behind self was leading in the United States while I was in Russia, I would have transitioned. True gender (whatever that means) didn’t have much to do with it, but choice did.” — The New York Review of Books

Who: Carmen Maria Machado, a fiction writer, critic, and essayist.

You should read: Her Body and Other Parties, a collection of macabre and sensual stories that tackle sex, passion and the appetites of women with a fearlessly queer gaze. 

Carmen on writing: “I think that if you’re a woman, a queer person, a person of colour, a non-cisgender person, a non-able-bodied person, etc., writing is inherently a form of activism because you’re staking a claim in a world that is not meant for you. When you try and put your work into the world, you’re saying ‘I think that what I have to say, in the way I say it, is so important that I am willing to try and get it to other people, no matter what it takes.’ And that requires ego, in the best way possible. It requires that you take yourself and your craft and your voice seriously. When you’re not white, not male, not cisgender or straight or able-bodied, that ego is a radical act.” — Solstice

Who: Pajtim Statovci, a Kosovo-born, Finland-raised debut novelist

You should read: My Cat Yugoslavia, a surreal, arresting novel that tells two parallel stories: that of a Muslim girl who flees Kosovo for Finland with her abusive husband, and of their lonely son, raised in Finland, who meets and forms a relationship with an anthropomorphic talking cat.

Pajtim on writing: “Placing a person, a writer, an artist, in a category – whether it’s as ‘woman writer’, ‘immigrant writer’, ‘refugee’, ‘gay’, ‘Muslim’ – jeopardises what they can do and create, threatens their freedom to express themselves the way they see fit, and endangers the uniqueness of every single story.”  — English Pen

Who: Eddie Ayres, a musician, writer and broadcaster, and the former host of ABC Classic FM.

You should read: Danger Music, a remarkable memoir of music, identity and self-realisation that follows the story of Eddie’s gender confirmation from female to male just prior to his fiftieth birthday.

Eddie on queer identity: “When I was growing up, a woman realising she was really a man simply didn’t exist within my view. Very occasionally I saw males transitioning to females, but they were nearly always the target of spite and ridicule. And there was never any subtlety of differentiation between transgender people, transvestites, homosexuals and drag queens. Quentin Crisp seemed to be enough to depict all the above. Since society, culture and the media in England were so conservative, I never had the opportunity to see beyond being a lesbian. As far as I knew, there was nothing beyond that.” — Danger Music

Who: Christos Tsiolkas is a novelist, scriptwriter, playwright and essayist.

You should read: Merciless Gods, an unsentimental, sometimes brutal, often beautiful collection of short stories examining contemporary Australian life and its attendant anxieties around race, class, gender and sexuality.

Christos on writing: “I wanted to give voice to how frustrating, how tortuous the straightjacket of conforming sexuality and gender could be, regardless of whether the norms applied were patriarchal or feminist, heterosexual or gay.” — Meanjin

Who: Jenna Wortham, a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine and co-host of the podcast, Still Processing

You should listen to: Still Processing, a weekly culture podcast hosted by Jenna and fellow critic Wesley Morris. Each episode brilliantly examines different facets of the pop culture conversation, using current cinema, art, music, and television as a lens to examine the zeitgeist.

Jenna on queer identity: “Maybe we are relying on a single word, a single idea, a single identity, to do too much. After all, ‘queer’ never belonged to us; it was foisted upon us, and we reconfigured it to make it ours. The future will bring new possibilities and ideas — and new terms for them.” — The New York Times Magazine