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The Mirror Prismatic in Lydia Conklin’s “Rainbow Rainbow”

The Mirror Prismatic in Lydia Conklin’s “Rainbow Rainbow”

Captivating and brimming with love for queer life in all its weird glory, Lydia Conklin’s debut collection, Rainbow Rainbow, is by turns exuberant, tragic, funny, and whisper-quiet. Conklin’s luminescent portrayals open a doorway into the queer universe for readers of all stripes. Walk through, Conklin beckons, make yourself at home.

This collection takes its title from a story of two girls living on the precarious edge of adolescent love and queer sexuality. One of the girls has invented a history of herself to impress her friend: at her previous school, she came out as a lesbian at the age of nine, openly dated the most coveted girl, secretly masturbated during class, and even seduced a teacher. “And she had this band? Rainbow Rainbow? Their music made other girls gay.” In the moment of this declaration—to a group of thirty-something lesbians at a coffee shop, where the two adolescent girls hope for acceptance and sexual encounters—this is heroic, an awesome achievement. It is a hopeful reprieve from the homophobia of what readers can infer is a public high school or junior high in the early 2000s. And yet, there is an unnerving implication in this moment: the girls glorify versions of themselves as hypersexualized children, who wield sexual power over adults. 

In the context of the story, the invented band Rainbow Rainbow is both a beacon of self-knowledge and confidence, which neither girl quite possesses, and a discomfiting emblem of the girls’ attempts to turn the tables of predation. And so it’s a perfectly multi-layered title for this collection, which is in its way a luminous beacon of the multiplicity and nuance of queer identities, and a simultaneous grappling with the dissonance, uncertainty, hurt, and strange guilt of figuring your gay self out at every age. 

An established comic artist with publications in The New Yorker, Conklin is funny, especially in their occasionally absurdist depictions of contemporary dating or childhood perceptions. The cast of characters is so representational, and the circumstances sometimes so comically goofy, that the collection seems to tap into Alison Bechdel’s legacy of lesbian representation in Dykes to Watch Out For

The humor in Conklin’s stories is always razor-sharp, implicit threats and traumatic possibilities never quite forgotten. Better than comics, the stories feel high-stakes and riveting, every last one, with generously complicated insights into the tenderness of having a sexualized body. 

One story follows a group of middle school girls to an interstate off-ramp where they flash anonymous drivers, and another follows a grade school child who, with no small difficulty, opts out of gender roles in their class’s Oregon Trail reenactment by choosing to be an ox instead of a person. In the most searingly confessional story of the collection, a narrator and their girlfriend are stranded geographically apart by quarantine, and have opened their relationship. The narrator is pre-top surgery, and it’s their first experiment with physical touch post-quarantine. The fraught implosion of a faithfulness redefined, of a body redefined, of an excruciating physicality in the virus-riddled world, is nearly painful to read, and exquisite. 

Like Conklin, I’m no teen, and I have sometimes felt bewildered by the quickness of transformational queer discourse among the youths, who haven’t yet put in their years of reading theory, but who still have genius takes on Lolita culture or pronomial elasticity. Praise the youths: their courage, optimism, and resilience, their belief in their own newness, which makes it so. But lucky for me, Conklin doesn’t leave us old folks behind. One story features an adult taking their eleven-year-old trans nephew to a YouTuber convention, where he and his cohort meet in person and debate the intricacies of their various positions within and about being trans. The kids’ discussions reference questions of transness as linear or journey-based, and of whether there is a threshold of legitimacy. And the adult feels, like I have sometimes felt, left behind. The adult’s mind is often trapped in a binary framework, attempting to discern the assigned genders of the people at the convention. This person has not yet announced themself non-binary, and they feel as if they have missed their opportunity, surrounded by all these kids who had access to hormone treatment before puberty, in a world that idealizes young bodies. They feel guilty at having lacked courage, at having been shortsighted or small-sighted, and at not having been a role model. The story manages both to hold space for this sensation, and to simultaneously parse some of the discourse about transness. At its core the story centers the relationship between an adult and their nephew, asking what obligation they have to one another, how they might support one another, and, ultimately, how they can live. 

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This collection manages to cover a lot of “issues” without foregrounding them as such. Thanks to a few stories in which narrators navigate the looming threats of being perceivably gay or gender-queer outside the U.S., or in which mixed-race characters face racist treatment within their queer relationships, Rainbow Rainbow makes a point of engaging the many-faceted and incongruous global treatment of queerness, and the intersections of racism and gender/queerness in the U.S. One can hardly help but read these stories for their political implications, and yet it seems unfair the burden of representation weighing heavily on these stories. A couple of narrative moments in which characters lurch into conflicts or sexual interactions seemed thrust upon them by something outside the internal logic of the story. But awkward moments, in this case, reflect the lack of a social script for these characters, so many of whom find themselves operating without instruction, without precedence in their lives, and with a heightened fight-or-flight (or fuck) response.

Somewhat miraculously, Conklin manages to write all of these characters without feigning instructive moralization. Frankly, these stories are not all hopeful or joyful. And that’s actually a relief. The characters do ugly things, they suffer in or survive their ugliness, and their worlds often turn away from the reader, their conflicts unresolved. This is not a collection of idealized protagonists and role-model best friends who end up pinky-linked and skipping into the gay sunset. Yes, Conklin celebrates queer joy. Yes, Conklin values self-assurance and resilience. Yes, they find many ways of being okay. But not at the cost of erasure. In an ever evolving lexicon of queerness, self-knowledge is often prized and praised above all else. And yet, Conklin’s characters remind us, we are all just fumbling toward ourselves, and doing our best to be kind. The book is a deeply necessary and urgent showcase of sorts: a place for readers to learn and relearn themselves, a place of complexity and confrontation and joy. Like the invented band from which its name was derived, this collection has anthems, ballads, sexy slow jams, and total bangers. Rainbow Rainbow invites readers to realize themselves, however they are now, and however they will be.

Rainbow Rainbow
Lydia Conklin
Published May 31, 2022

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