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13 Books by Queer Authors Who’ve Called the Midwest Home

Books available in 2020 from queer authors you shouldn't miss.

Queer writers perform miracles just by telling their stories. They help us imagine how we can love, who we can be, and what we can make of our time in this world. Their words also make us feel visible and connected. To say goodbye to Pride Month, I rounded up thirteen books published in 2020 by queer authors, who have at some point called the Midwest home. 

Fiction 

Real Life
by Brandon Taylor 
Riverhead Books

In Brandon Taylor’s debut novel, a gay Black man from Alabama attends grad school in the Midwest and tries to balance both his new, cold world, and the heat of his past traumas. This book has been featured on nearly every literary list this year, and for good reason. Taylor’s prose is sharp and intimate, and his protagonist, Wallace, quietly demands we feel his isolation, yearning, and righteous rage.

Something to Talk About
by Meryl Wilsner
Berkley Books

Though Wilsner calls Michigan home, their protagonists are so very LA. Paparazzi follow Hollywood star Jo, and her assistant, Emma wherever they go. The press thinks they’re in a relationship, but they’re not—they’re each trying to advance their careers in entertainment at all costs. But what if there is something between them worth fighting for? This heartfelt romance is a slow burn, perfect for summer and always.

This Town Sleeps
by Dennis E. Staples 
Counterpoint LLC

On an Ojibwe reservation in northern Minnesota, two men fall in love in the shadows. Marion, an Ojibwe man, is haunted by the spirit of a dog he accidentally reanimated, a boy who died too young, and possibly even a family curse. He seeks solace in Shannon, but Shannon isn’t ready to accept his own hauntings and curses, even if they’re somewhat self-imposed. In Staples’ debut novel, family and love are there to hold, if only his characters are able to reach out and grasp them through the darkness.

Under the Rainbow
by Celia Lasky
Riverhead Books

In adulthood, many of us queer folk move to the city to find our people, and we sometimes forget queer people live everywhere—even in the fictional Big Burr, Kansas, the most homophobic town in the US. Lasky’s cast of characters includes activists trying to change minds, closeted fathers trying to come to peace with their own hearts, and scared, straight housewives digging towards the pit of their fear. Their struggles are messy, their interactions imperfect, but there is so much love in Big Burr too.

You Should See Me in a Crown
by Leah Johnson
Scholastic Press

The world will never have enough Black, queer joy, and Leah Johnson’s debut novel is a beautiful contribution. Liz Lighty’s goal is to escape her Indiana hometown to become a renowned musician and doctor, but her clearest path to her dreams includes a dreaded prom queen scholarship. One of the other girls running? The new girl, Mack. Be still, Liz’s anxious, ambitious heart.

Non-Fiction

Rust Belt Femme
by Raechel Anne Jolie
Belt Publishing

Raechel Anne Jolie writes with so much love for her working-class Cleveland upbringing in her coming-of-age memoir. As she grapples with loss, PTSD, and poverty as a queer femme, she reclaims a space that is often thought of as male and heterosexual. She does it with style, too—specifically, glorious ‘90s grunge: complete with “chokers, flannel shirts and cut-off jean shorts.” 

Save Yourself
by Cameron Esposito 
Grand Central Publishing 

Cameron Esposito is funny as ever in her debut memoir, Save Yourself. But it’s her vulnerability that makes this book so memorable. As a queer (ex-) Catholic myself, I felt very seen as she detailed her experiences leaving the church and finding the queer community, which is ultimately more compassionate and holy. This memoir thoughtfully balances pain and hope as Cameron walks us through her life in Chicago, Boston, LA, and beyond.

Tomboyland
by Melissa Faliveno
TOPPLE Books & Little A

The wonder of queerness is that it blooms even if it’s the only flower in town. In Melissa Faliveno’s forthcoming essay collection, she takes us to her Wisconsin childhood home where gender was binary and the roots of her life stretched under pines and prairies, lakes, and farms. How did F5 tornadoes, fast-pitch softball, gun culture, strange glacial terrains, and kink party potlucks shape Faliveno? How do her dark humor and curious heart balance the pain of being othered and the joys of self-discovery? I can’t wait to find out when this book hits shelves on August 1st.

Wow, No Thank You
by Samantha Irby
Vintage

Though Irby has long been one of my favorite Chicago-based authors because of her impeccable humor and sharp perspective, she’s a small-town Michigan woman now. In her newest collection, she enters her forties, suburbia, and a life as a full-time writer and wife. But she’s still Samantha Irby, not Suzy Homemaker. She defies categorization. She jokes about herself just as much as the world around her, and in doing so gives us permission to laugh at ourselves too.

Poetry 

Colton Behavioral Therapy
by Tim Jones-Yelvington 
Gazing Grain Press

This chapbook plays with genre and form as it uses techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy to craft poetry and explorations. It pairs pop (actor Colton Haynes as desire and body) with intellect (the extremely didactic, practical approach by which we control our thoughts) and occupies the space and glory in between. Jones-Yelvington wrestles with race, masculinity, and queer bodies and asks what it means to be beautiful. Jones-Yelvington lives in Chicago and creates not just as a writer but as a multimedia artist and drag personality.

Homie
By Danez Smith
Graywolf Press

Say the name Danez Smith, and those in the know might put a hand to their hearts or exhale. Their poetry releases the things so many have kept inside, and holds so many who have never had space before. The Minnesota‐born poet’s latest collection is described as “part friendship diary, part bright elegy, part war cry.” It seems, too, that it’s a love letter: to community, self-worth, and found family. Smith digs into our nation’s failures and violence against people like them—Black, queer, and HIV-positive—and also celebrates the people who have held them along the way. 

More Than Organs
by Kay Ulanday Barrett
Sibling Rivalry Press, LLC

Full disclosure: Kay is a dear friend of mine, which is why I tried to read More Than Organs in one sitting. That was a mistake. Within a few poems, I was already in tears—the full chest-heaving kind—because Barrett renders language such that it could tear the sky down. They write about being Filipinx, non-binary, queer, and Brown. They write, too, about being disabled and living with chronic pain, and due to COVID-19, this collection feels especially timely. It is as heartbreaking as it is romantic, but it’s worth every line.

The Lion Tamer’s Daughter
by Kemi Alabi
YesYes Books

Kemi Alabi’s debut poetry collection, The Lion Tamer’s Daughter, will be published this August by YesYes Books. The collection was chosen as a finalist in contests by Boaat Press, Button Poetry, and Vinyl 45, which goes to show how many people are rocked by their words, and how much we all need this book right now. Their words about body, family, nature, city, home, and love are deliberate and intimate. Alabi lives in Chicago and writes about their experience as a Black and queer person. 

About Jen Cox

Jen Cox is the fiction editor for Arcturus Magazine, a Daily Editor at the Chicago Review of Books, and has work in Gigantic Sequins, The Rumpus, and F(r)iction. She is working on her novel about two girls in love at the end of the world. Find her on Twitter: @jencoxshah.

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