A short interlude chapter entitled “Strategies for Survival #3: Silence” occurs almost exactly halfway through Leslie Pietrzyk’s novel Silver Girl (Unnamed Press, 2018). It’s halfway through the numbered pages of the book, and halfway through the unfolding story. Chronologically, it’s closer to the end than the beginning, but chronology fragments in this narrative, as does the protagonist’s voice. In this section, so does point of view. She begins by telling us, “It was cool on campus to talk about the Tylenol killer.” But this girl hides in silence, her own, made of all the things she doesn’t say. The section ends with her at a frat party apart from others: “. . . the single girl—you, me—standing quietly near the keg.” And someone shows up—some he—and she thinks, or pretends, that maybe he’ll rescue her. He asks about the Tylenol killer, who she thinks did it. And she says they’ll never know, that it’s the perfect crime. But he doesn’t believe in perfect crimes.
You smile at him. Sweet boy. Sweet, sweet boy. Then you fuck him anyway. I mean, I did. I fucked them anyway.
The telescoping of this perspective all at once, mid-story, was a sudden wrenching in my gut, a closing of my throat. It revealed what I’d been suspecting throughout the first half of Silver Girl—built on the scaffold of real events of poisoned Tylenol in 1982, and the deaths of seven people in Chicago: this book also speaks to larger truths that the best fiction attempts. The unnamed college girl protagonist is you, me—other girls and women seeking sisters, escaping home, wanting rescue but discovering only a “sweet, sweet boy” with failures of imagination. That’s not the story anyway—it never was.
Silver Girl is told in sections: The Middle, The Beginning, The End, and Where Every Story Truly Begins. Through sections that skip between the protagonist’s college years, her late childhood, and immediately after college, the reader meets her family, her college best friend and roommate (and her family), and contrasts those dynamics. Sisters—their bonds and rivalries—are central to the story, both biological sisters and the kinds of sisterhood that develops when people live together, forced into intimacies by shared spaces and confidences. The protagonist sees college in Chicago as an escape from her Iowa town, from her family, but also as a chance to reinvent herself, to be someone else. At home in Iowa, she takes her younger sister Grace to the mall before Christmas, where she has to explain the bookstore isn’t a library and then beg the salesgirl for a book, pretending to be the family named on the paper ornament hung on the charity tree. All that work for a $2.25 paperback, but they needed every coin for the bus home.
In her first conversation with Jess, the woman who will become her best friend, she refers to herself as “the devil’s daughter.” It may be a rare moment of honesty, but Jess is attracted to her bravado—the protagonist is only trying to distract from her cheap trunk suitcase, her threadbare clothes, the imitation pearls that don’t shine when compared to those of the rich girls in the dorm. Jess who wears “winter white,” and gifts her a plane ticket to London, and teaches her to spray perfume on her wrists, and knees, and the inside of one thigh only. Jess whose entire family calls each other “Lovey.” Throughout the novel, the protagonist works to conceal her identity, always wary of being found out. The unkindest thing Jess can do is let her know she knows she’s poor.
The protagonist has other secrets, too—these are revealed in bits and pieces throughout the story. She loves her sister Grace but cannot take care of her—that would mean having to stay. Boys and men are ways to hide, but also maybe ways to escape—she’s trying to figure that out. Her high school friend Janey resents and hates her. There are other family secrets no one is talking about. As her relationship with Jess grows, the protagonist ends up taking on Jess’s secrets also: the ones Jess talks about and the ones she doesn’t. The story is built on secrets, and it’s often unclear how self-aware the characters are—they are unknowable, unreliable, but dearer because of this. I deeply love stories about sisterhood, about girls and women navigating the complexities of their desires for intimacy: failing each other, and needing each other all the more. As the character we inhabit, the protagonist seems so clear-eyed about everyone but herself. I ache for her, want to walk up to her standing alone by that keg and talk to her about the things she thinks—make a list with her (one of her pastimes) about those stupid, sweet boys—and point out all the other girls at the party just like her who are only better at pretending, but no different, not really, than she is.
Ultimately, Silver Girl is a rule-breaking book. The narrator breaks rules and wonders when she’ll be caught. The storytelling breaks rules: we readers try to piece together clues to create a coherent picture of what made the narrator who she is—but in the end, there are shadows that remain, so we guess, and our guesses reveal more about ourselves than what’s explicit in the story. In this column, I try to focus on new writing from the Midwest, so writing about SilverGirl breaks a few of my own rules—although set in the Midwest, Pietrzyk no longer lives here, having left Iowa City, Iowa, years ago for Washington, DC. And the book came out a few years ago, but I just discovered it. I think we need to sing and celebrate the writing that speaks to us, that brings us out of whatever silvered-over thickened skin that’s interfered with our creativities during COVID isolation. For the last few months, I’ve had trouble reading much, and my TBR stack has grown and grown. The fractured narrative of Silver Girl broke through; the sharp eye of the protagonist that berates herself while seeing others so clearly made me want to telescope through time, talk to this fictional woman, tell her she’s seen.
A couple of months ago I was talking to dear friend—a sister—and she was telling me about my astrological sign. We were in our cups a bit, and I turned to her and said, “You’re only telling me the good things . . .” We were side by side on a couch, shoulders touching, and she turned her face toward me and said something so true—it could have been painful, but it wasn’t. It was a moment of recognition. There’s a moment like that when the protagonist and Jess are shopping, and rediscover composition books at Osco. It’s another interlude chapter, “Strategies for Survival #4: Lists.” They talk about list making. Jess says, “Like a diary, but quicker.” There’s recognition:
Her eyes locked on to me, into me, like I had breathed a secret out and she had breathed it right in.
My stomach did that thing it did when I read the perspective switch. Sisterhood, an intimacy of secrets—not only our own. Seen, and so sharply. Clear-eyed about everyone except ourselves.
C. Kubasta writes poetry, fiction, and hybrid forms. She lives, writes, & teaches in Wisconsin. Her most recent books include the poetry collection Of Covenants (Whitepoint Press) and the short story collection Abjectification (Apprentice House). Find her at ckubasta.com and follow her @CKubastathePoet.
Portaging celebrates new writing from the Midwest with a particular focus on experimental and hybrid work from small presses.
Created by Briana Lawrence, the illustrated novel series Magnifique Noir tells the story of Black queer young women as they come of age as young adults and as members of the magical girl team Magnifique Noir. Book 2 of the series picks up a few weeks after the ending of Book 1. In the aftermath of a difficult battle, the new generation of the magical girl group Magnifique Noir is trying their best to move on. As they start to balance their everyday lives with their magical ones, the past comes back to haunt them in unexpected ways.
A noteworthy theme of this book is the pressure on Black women to be “the strong one.” Black women are always expected to put everyone else before themselves. Even though they are magical superheroes, the ladies of Magnifique Noir are still human. They have to learn to check in with themselves and each other. This is especially apparent in the book’s first two chapters, in which one of the girls is having nightmares about the team and their loved ones dying — a development that reflects the influence of the Japanese anime series Madoka Magica. The darkness of the situation is softened by the display of concern from her friends and her eventual decision to talk about the nightmares.
Another theme, related to the insistence that Black women be strong, is the expectation for Black women to always be wholesome. Rooted in respectability politics, this expectation denies Black women agency in terms of how they present and express themselves. A later chapter comments on this theme when the ladies attend a burlesque show inspired by Magnifique Noir. Kayla, a Black female burlesque dancer, is slut shamed by a white woman for her sexually charged take on Magnifique Noir’s Cosmic Green. Even though their superhero identities are a secret, Magnifique Noir stands up for Kayla as civilians.
The decision to tackle the expectation of wholesomeness as it applies to Black women sets this book apart from other works inspired by magical girl anime. Given that the magical girl anime genre primarily features schoolchildren and was originally targeted at kids, it is rare to find books about adult magical girls doing adult things like seeing a burlesque show. Yet there are still some sparkly sweet moments could easily fit alongside classic magical girl manga like Sailor Moon.
One of my favorite moments takes the form of an illustration called “8 Bits of Rainbow” by artist Fried Unicorn Rainbow. It is a small yet dynamic and colorful piece depicting an awesome team-up between Magnifique Noir members Cosmic Green and Radical Rainbow. Another memorable illustration is “Rest Well, Magical Girls” by artist coloured_braids. It features three of the ladies in PJs sleeping together in the same bed. It is a tender moment captured well with pink pillows peaceful expressions, and the amusing contrast between the girl’s sleepwear.
In addition to illustrated moments, there is also great dialogue, scenes, and entire chapters devoted to queerness. One highlight features the character Marianna Jacobs figuring out how to define her asexual orientation with the help of Blaze, Magnifique Noir’s leader. The moments that build up to this one sensitively portray Mari’s orientation as something she is new to, but not something that she needs to change. Another notable moment is the romantic tension between Magnifique Noir’s Radical Rainbow (a lesbian) and Prism Pink (confirmed by the author to be a trans woman). Their scenes together capture the nervousness and excitement of having a crush very well.
One final bit of praise must go to the backstory about the old members of Magnifique Noir. While there are still some questions left unanswered, what is revealed is done in a way that will shock and perhaps surprise the reader. It was also great to see an older woman like Blaze growing a little closer to the girls and becoming more involved in their civilian lives as well as their magical ones. In this way, she becomes more like an auntie spending time with her nieces.
Adding a darker tone and some mature content, Magnifique Noir Book 2 continues to deliver a wonderful coming-of-age storyline with affectionate, powerful, and fun moments. This book shows Black women that they don’t always have to be strong or perfectly wholesome. No matter what you have to work through or how unwholesome you might seem, you are still magical.
As a Black Asian nonbinary queer femme from the United States, I find it fascinating to learn about what life is like for queer trans people of color around the world. Some countries have more queer freedom than others, but somehow international QTPOC always find a way to create a space to be themselves. This is exemplified in Dean Atta’s verse novel The Black Flamingo, which is heavily inspired by UK LGBTQ+ culture. It tells the story of Michael “Michalis” Angeli, a gay British young man with Greek Jamaican heritage. Growing up, his multifaceted identity makes him feel out of place. After deciding to attend a university in Brighton, Michael joins a drag club and slowly discovers how to combine his identities and his lived experiences to make himself feel whole.
One of the most notable aspects of this book that immediately drew me in was how it flawlessly combines standard poetry with narrative storytelling. As in Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X, this book’s protagonist becomes a poet and gradually uses his poetry to express his blossoming sexuality as well as his gender and his racial experiences. One of my personal favorite poems in this book is titled “I Come From,” which features Michael reveling in his heritage and the experiences that have shaped him to that point: “I come from DIY that never got done. / I come from waiting by the phone for him to call. / I come from waving the white flag to loneliness. / I come from the rainbow flag and the Union Jack.”
The narrative storytelling in verse is also remarkable because it shows Michael’s life from childhood to early adulthood. I haven’t read too many coming-of-age verse novels that present the character at different stages of their life. This choice allows the reader to see how both small and large experiences shape Michael as he grows up. For example, Michael recalls wanting to have a Barbie doll as a child and how his mom initially thought he was kidding, since boys are socially conditioned to like “boys’ toys” like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In a more affecting episode, preteen Michael takes an Easter trip to Cyprus and hears about a black flamingo on the news.
In fact, seeing how different experiences shaped the development of Michael’s drag character, “The Black Flamingo,” was thought-provoking and poignant. Inspired by events such as having his dreadlocks touched by white people and reciting his poetry at an open mic, Michael’s becoming The Black Flamingo allows him to transform into a more confident and fuller self. The character also serves as the result of Michael’s growth as a person and how he has learned about, and unlearned, things like internalized racism and Black queer lives of the past and the present.
Furthermore, some of the experiences that influenced “The Black Flamingo” also give the reader an interesting glimpse into LGBTQ culture in the United Kingdom. The contrast between a gay bar and a Black queer gay bar, and the homophobia casually tossed around by schoolchildren with terms like “bwatty bwoy,” show how complex the experiences of Black queer UK youth are, especially those of the children of immigrants. Michael has to unlearn a lot, especially regarding gender norms and heteronormativity. Neither completely fertile nor arid, UK LGBTQ culture is represented as something that Black queer people must navigate well in order to grow into the people they want to be.
Michael’s story also gives the reader a solid introduction to drag culture, with clear and creative explanations of what it is and what it isn’t. Since Michael is new to drag culture, the reader is able to learn about it alongside him. I love these lines that sum up what Michael wants from drag culture: “I’m just a man and I want to wear a dress and makeup onstage…. I’m a man and I want to be a free one.”
While The Black Flamingo is enjoyable as-is, it would have been interesting to see what the Jamaican side of Michael’s family thought of his queerness. Michael doesn’t mention his queerness to them at all, since he knows it’s illegal to be gay in Jamaica and that his family might have brought some of that prejudice with them to the UK. It is entirely possible that some of Michael’s family will not accept him. Yet given how completely Michael’s Greek mom accepts his queerness, it would have been nice to see at least one member of Michael’s Jamaican family do the same.
On the whole, The Black Flamingo is an electrifying, poetic declaration of identity. Through poetry, coming-of-age perspectives, and drag, the novel offers a triumphant tale of transformation and self-expression.
When other people define you based on labels, it can be hard for you to define yourself. This is the conflict at the center of Julian Winters’s second novel, How To Be Remy Cameron. After being assigned an essay about who he is, seventeen-year-old Remy Cameron must come to terms with the labels others have given him and how they fit into how he sees himself.
For Remy, the most suffocating labels are the gay kid, the Black one, and the adopted child. Each label is a reminder of his Otherness, and confronting them via an essay that’s worth half his grade and a chance at a prestigious college is overwhelming—as it would be for anyone who has attended public high school. In fact, Remy feels so overwhelmed that he refers to the essay as “The Essay of Doom.
While dealing with this essay and the labels placed upon him, he also experiences two life-changing events. The first is learning about a previously unknown member of his biological family. The second is crushing on Ian Park, a Korean young man who recently came to terms with his orientation and isn’t publicly out. These events are notable not only in terms of character development but also because they deliver refreshing storytelling.
As a reader, I really appreciated how Remy isn’t completely cut off from his biological family. Given that the book’s premise is about identity and his adopted family is white, it would have felt uncomfortable not to see him interact with any other Black people besides one of his friends. The biological family member who reaches out to Remy is wonderfully fleshed out, becoming a nice confidante while being her own character. Furthermore, the topic of adoption is explored in a sensitive and realistic manner through Remy’s adopted family and his biological family.
When it comes to Ian Park, Remy’s crush and their subsequent romance is both amusing and heartwarming. A particularly enjoyable aspect of their interactions is how they always ask each other permission to kiss and touch each other. Remy learns to do this from Ian, who in turn learned the importance of consent from his grandmother. It’s really nice to see Remy adapt to Ian’s needs this way, especially since Ian isn’t publicly out yet. Remy never tries to get Ian to do anything before he is ready to, and this allows Ian to explore his orientation at his own pace.
In addition to these events, other aspects of the storyline help Remy question his identity further. One enjoyable scene is a conversation about music tastes between Remy and Brook, another Black student. It moves from talking about their favorite music artists to how eclectic their tastes are and how music doesn’t define them. The dialogue shows how close the two are as friends while giving Remy a small nudge in his personal journey.
Speaking of friendship, Remy’s interactions with his circle of friends are fun to watch. Featuring the witty Lucy Reyes and the single-minded Rio, among others, their dialogue never sounds forced or too cheesy. Remy and Lucy’s scenes together are especially amusing, because Lucy teases Remy in a way that is friendly and supportive. At one point, Remy must learn not to keep his friends in the dark too much, and it’s touching to see friendship and romance given an equal amount of weight.
Other notable characters include Remy’s adoptive family and his English teacher, Ms. Amos. Remy’s adoptive family is quirky and loving, with the mom into 80s music and the father able to make wicked French toast recipes. As the book progresses, both realize that while they can listen to Remy and try their best to cheer him up, they aren’t always going to be able to help him through certain things. Meanwhile, Remy’s English teacher is wonderful and honest in a way that puts things in perspective for Remy and encourages him to find his own voice.
All in all, How To Be Remy Cameron is a thoughtful, poignant, and fun coming-of-age experience. While self discovery isn’t always easy, Remy’s willingness to question and learn about himself is inspiring. With a great cast of characters, memorable dialogue, and a entertaining setting inspired by Dunwoody, GA, this book is wonderful.
Having a sense of self-worth is important for any LGBTQ+ person, but especially for queer trans people of color. Our race often means that we are ignored among the LGBTQ+ community, while our gender identity and sexual orientation get scorned or overlooked among allocishet people of color. To that end, it is often up to QTPOC to support each other and show each other that we are worthy of life, love, and happiness.
In Kacen Callender’s Felix After Ever, protagonist Felix Love is an artistic trans boy who wants to experience romantic love. When his pre-transition photos are leaked for the world to see, he must figure out the culprit while examining his own sense of self and what kind of love he deserves. Through his experiences with others, Felix Love must look at who and what should determine his self-worth.
One of the most notable things about this book is how it shows the harmful effect of transmisia on Felix’s self-worth. His father helped Felix transition, but he can’t bring himself to say Felix’s name. Ezra Patel, Felix’s best friend, is sensitive and understanding, but another “friend” is revealed to be trans exclusionary. In turn, the behavior of family and friends, and the experience of having his pre-transition photos displayed, make Felix feel he wouldn’t be enough for any lover. The dialogue and scenes combine with Felix’s internal thoughts to convey his pain, but they also motivate Felix to confront transmisia by holding his family and friends accountable.
In fact, Felix’s relationships with family and friends are notable for their joy as well as their pain. Felix’s friendship with Ezra is wonderful and complex, in that they have fun together but also have hard, honest discussions about their future and themselves. At one point, Felix and Ezra fight because Felix is projecting his insecurities onto Ezra. As a rebuttal, Ezra points this out without invalidating Felix’s feelings. They do all of this while examining Ezra’s class privilege as the child of wealthy parents and the pressure that Felix feels as a child of a working-class father. Their friendship is never depicted as perfect, nor as competitive, but as a relationship based on support, care, and honest communication.
Meanwhile, Felix’s father is a source of financial and emotional support, despite Felix’s issues with him. Given that Felix’s mom left them years ago, Felix and his dad must learn to make their relationship with each other work—not to mention Felix can’t quite let go of his mother, and he’s constantly drafting unsent emails to her. A particularly poignant bit of dialogue occurs when Felix and his dad discuss Felix’s mom and how some love can be unhealthy to hold on to when you’re getting less than you deserve. This conversation has an impact on Felix that stays with him when he undergoes his introspective journey.
Speaking of which, Felix’s internal journey is an emotional roller coaster. Prior to having his photos leaked, Felix was already feeling stressed because of interpersonal issues, his ongoing questioning about his gender identity, and feeling that he needs to prove himself by going to an elite university. Once things go south, Felix gets angry enough to pursue revenge against the person he assumes leaked his photos while dealing with online harassment in the aftermath. Yet his frustration also urges him to hold his loved ones accountable for their transmisia and seek answers about his gender identity via an in-person support group and online resources.
While some might find Felix unlikable for his revenge plan, his reaction is totally realistic, and his feelings are never invalidated—nor are they completely condoned. His revenge plan turns out to be less cut-and-dried than it first appears, and Felix must learn to channel his anger in a healthier way while holding himself accountable for any harm he causes. In this sense, Felix feels like a true-to-life character: he is neither perfect nor a completely bad person.
A final aspect of this book that was enjoyable is how Felix eventually uses visual art as catharsis for his newfound self-love. Art in any form has long been a refuge for QTPOC to express themselves, and to see Felix learn to take time for himself and literally draw his true self into existence is beautiful. If the book’s cover is any indication, Felix’s final portrait encompasses all that he is in his vibrant glory.
Despite some slow, suspense-building pacing, after the first hundred pages Felix After Ever is an engrossing coming-of-age novel that presents queer pride in all its complicated and powerful aspects. Readers will root for Felix as he learns that the love he deserves can be found inside himself, as well as outside himself among others who truly care for and respect him.
Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong Destroys the Worldbegins one month after the events of the first book. Tristan Strong and the mythical world of Alke are traumatized—but their battles are far from over. When folk hero John Henry is attacked by a mysterious enemy and Tristan’s grandmother is kidnapped, Tristan must journey to Alke once more to save what’s left of the realm before its stories are lost forever.
One of the things that immediately grabbed my attention about this novel is the fact that Tristan is traumatized by his previous adventures. He has nightmares and distracted thoughts even when he needs to go save the world of Alke again. This is compelling, because I haven’t read a lot of books that show the effects of a grand yet dangerous adventure on a hero’s psyche. In most sequels, the hero seems perfectly fine emotionally and is ready to tackle the next adventure. It is wonderful for young readers to see that it is okay not to be okay, even when you’re a hero.
In addition, Tristan’s trauma allows him to better empathize with the residents of Alke, the world of beings from African and African American myths and folktales. Alke has literal scars and emotional ones, and things only get worse for it as the plot thickens. Yet there is also beauty, life, and history in Alke, and to see Tristan search for and attempt to protect those aspects of the world is poignant and emotional. By telling and collecting stories of Alke’s history, Tristan is able to put his skills as an “Ananseem” to good use in order to get to the heart of Alke’s current problems.
Part of Alke’s history lies within characters old and new. This second book in the Tristan Strong series sees the return of spunky doll Gum Baby and crafty trickster god Anansi (albeit in phone form), but it also introduces new characters like the mischievous and mouthy boy Junior. The introduction of new African and Black women characters in this book makes up for the lack of them in the first one. There is adventurous folk hero Keelboat Annie, resourceful juke joint owner Lady Night, and regal goddess Mami Wata. And I would be remiss to fail to note that Tristan’s grandmother, Nana, also has a larger role in this book as Tristan’s source of strength and inspiration.
Alke’s history consists of elements rooted in African American history and culture. These elements range from the painful and ugly to the lively and the resilient, embodied in everything from the new antagonist, DJ Culture Vulture, to the jollof rice served at Lady Night’s juke joint. A personal favorite of mine is the SPB, the portable smartphone version of Alke’s Story Box and the new home for trickster god Anansi. It was fun to see more of the phone in action after the events of the first book, especially through the new “Diaspor-app” that allows Tristan to see how Alke’s stories are connected to the Diapora.
Combining Alke’s history, Tristan’s trauma, and Alke’s current issues, Tristan Strong Destroys the World offers a compelling tale of intergenerational trauma and recovery. Whether it be through family, history, or a bit of both, many African Americans deal with intergenerational trauma in one way or other. Not only is this story a good way to teach the concept to younger readers, but older readers can also learn something from it as well.
Tristan Strong Destroys the World is a powerful sequel to its predecessor. There is more magic, action, and stories to learn from than ever before. If the ending is any indication, things are going to be even more epic in the next book of the trilogy. For now, though, readers who enjoyed Tristan Strong’s first adventure can join him once more and have their world rocked.