Open Your Heart

Back in the 1990’s, I was lucky enough to get to write book reviews–in addition to my fitness column–for a long departed and still missed local queer paper here in New Orleans, IMPACT News. A lot of really good things came out of being the queer paper book reviewer–friendships with queer writers I still cherish to this day, like Michael Thomas Ford, Felice Picano, Jean Redmann, and Sarah Schulman, to name just four; and of course, it also played a part in helping get my first fiction published with Alyson Books. But for the first few years I reviewed queer books for IMPACT, I only reviewed books by gay men, with the occasional lesbian title thrown in. When a new editor, Melinda Shelton, came in after a few years, she insisted that I start reviewing more books by lesbians. I was a bit resistant, but also understood there was a parity issue; lesbian books weren’t getting coverage in New Orleans, and there was a strong, vibrant reading community of lesbians in the city. So, I started, and before long, through reading fiction by, about, and for lesbians, I began to come to a deeper understanding of my lesbian sisters; it helped me shed the toxic masculinity I’d been raised to believe in, for one thing, and helped me become more of a feminist ally. The more I read about feminist issues, the more educated I became–and the better of an ally I could be to women. This was an enormous help when I went to work for Lambda Book Report, and knowledge of women’s fiction, and women’s issues, was also enormously helpful back when Paul, Jean and I started Saints and Sinners way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

For me, the best way to learn has always been through reading. I was blessed with an insatiable appetite for reading as a child, and I always had a fairly good memory for what I read. A lot of what I read about other cultures as a child and as a teenager were filtered through the prism of white supremacy, of course–but I did learn. I eventually began to recognize that those filters were there and had to rethink and relearn a lot of things. Yes, this is work–but it’s also worthwhile; I’d prefer to continue learning and thinking and growing as a person and as a writer until the day I die; I cannot imagine anything so terrible as to have your heart and mind calcified, ossified, and preserved in amber.

And while I had some issues with the “#ownvoices” movement on social media, it did effect some important change in publishing; a long overdue paradigm shift that made voices that were once considered “other” welcome at the table, and has given publishing–and fiction–a much needed shot in the arm that has reinvigorated everything.

This is particularly true in crime fiction.

His brown eyes were open, the shock of being stabbed still reflected in his dilated pupils. Sharise pushed his naked, lifeless body off of her, and he tumbled heavily from the bed to the floor, landing on his back.

Fuck, she thought, breathing heavily, I got to get out of here. No. Take your time, don’t panic. It’s two in the morning, no one will miss him for a while.

She leaned up on one arm so she could look over the side of the bed at his body, the blood pooling beneath him on the cheap mustard-colored motel carpet. Fucking bastard. You got what you deserved, you piece of shit. Turning away from him, she looked at her own blood-soaked body, and the wave of nausea came without warning. She retched over the side of the bed, adding a final indignity to his corpse.

By Way of Sorrow is an impressive debut by a writer named Robyn Gigl. I had the great good fortune to do a panel of some sort during the pandemic with her–I don’t remember what it was for, or who arranged it, or any of the particulars–but I remember being very impressed with her intelligence and wit. I made a point of making note of her name and the title of her debut novel so that I could read it when it was released. It was finally released earlier this year, and while it took me a lot longer to read it than it should have, this was through no fault of the author; but more a result of COVID brain on my part and my scattered focus.

The book is about a transwoman named Erin McCabe, who is an attorney in New Jersey. Erin has transitioned and has been living as a woman for the last two or three years. The transition wasn’t easy–they never are, really–and she lost her relationship with her brother and her father; she also lost her marriage to a woman she deeply loved. Her law partner is okay with the transition, but constantly is making mistakes using improper language, which she constantly is having to correct; her patience with almost everyone who is uncomfortable with who she is or simply doesn’t understand–and it happens a lot–is done so indelibly well that the reader begins to experience just how exhausting it must be to try to navigate the world as a transperson. The rupture of her relationships with members of her family, dealing with the knowledge that her ex-wife has remarried and moved on, and constantly having to deal with being misgendered is rendered so well that you cannot help but empathize, not only with Erin, but with transpeople in general.

But the book is more than just a “experience what it’s like to be trans”novel–it’s also a compelling crime story. Erin is hired to defend a young transwoman of color, thrown out by her family at fifteen, who has been working as a prostitute in Atlantic City. She is picked up by a dangerous john who tries to kill her, and she winds up killing him in self-defense–but who will believe her? Especially since the victim is the son of a prominent and powerful south Jersey politician? The odds are definitely against Erin and her client–and the story is a real page turner.

And if the end isn’t perhaps as satisfying as one would have hoped, it was also based in a sad reality–there often is no justice for young transwomen of color who have to turn tricks to survive.

A terrific debut all in all, I am really looking forward to more work by Ms. Gigl.

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