8 Great Books by LGBTQ Authors From Places Where It’s Illegal to Be Gay
On the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia
Today, May 17th, is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, first organized back in 2004 in order “to draw the attention of policymakers, opinion leaders, social movements, the public and the media to the violence and discrimination experienced by LGBTI people internationally.” While fighting against these kinds of mentalities takes more than just book-reading, literature is one way to bring awareness not only to the struggles of LGBTQ people in the world, but also their essential humanity. So: why not start with a reading list?
While there are still plenty of legislators in the United States working against LGBTQ rights—whether publicly or in secret, horrible meetings—we’re still doing much better than a number of other countries, at least for now. So, considering the international focus of the day, I’ve put together a list of great books by LGBTQ writers who were born in countries where it is still actually illegal to be gay. Necessarily, I’ve only been able to include authors whose work has either been written in or translated into English.
Now, LGBTQ is not a genre, despite the way books with LGBTQ themes are often ghettoized in bookstores and, er, reading lists, but one of the ways to fight intolerance is to create empathy for other people, even people who may be different than we are, and this is something literature does extremely well. It’s essential that we hear these voices. To that end, I’ve listed a selection of great books below, and please, do us all a favor and add on your own favorites in the comments.
Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings
Marlon James was born in Jamaica, where sexual activity between members of the same sex can be punishable with up to ten years of prison or hard labor. James was never out in Jamaica—he has described himself there as “very much in the closet and very much in the church, which is a very big closet in Jamaica”—and Jamaica still has strong cultural bias against homosexuality, even outside of the laws. Our own Gabrielle Bellot wrote in The New York Times:
When Mr. James was awarded the Man Booker Prize, I, like many Caribbean writers and activists, wondered how the Jamaican media would respond. The win was widely celebrated, but there was little discussion of his sexuality. Radio hosts expressed “regret” that he was queer, while others reportedly brushed off his being gay as a rumor.
A Brief History of Seven Killings, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2015, is an immersive, cacophonous exploration of Jamaica, but also, as James put it to The Guardian, “a novel of exile.” In the same interview, he explains that the genesis of the book was in one character, John-John K: “It was a gay hitman going through boyfriend troubles, trying to kill someone,” James says. “When the overall architecture showed up, it made sense to me. All of those tricky sexualities, the things we do to get accepted, and the things we do that make us acceptable, I really wanted to talk about that.” The book blossomed into much more than that single storyline, of course—it contains more than 75 voices—and is now on its way to becoming a modern classic.
Nicole Dennis-Benn, Here Comes the Sun
Like James, Dennis-Benn was born in Jamaica; she left at 17 to attend Cornell University. Her debut novel, Here Comes the Sun, which Jennifer Senior called “the ultimate antibeach novel,” follows four Jamaican women—two of whom must hide their relationship for fear of physical attack—hustling and struggling to survive in the brutal, unforgiving Montego Bay. In an interview with Out (and with Marlon James!), she said:
I write for people who have no voice, no platform, and no community. My character Margot in Here Comes the Sun is a working-class Jamaican woman who cannot express her love for another woman. Margot would not be someone who is privy to the insulated realm of student life at the University of the West Indies. Here is a woman who would have had it hard, had she been out. Also, it’s really hard, being married and living in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. A huge Jamaican population lives here, and I walk hand in hand with my wife in front of Jamaicans — the ones who had to emigrate for socioeconomic reasons and thus are from that class with less exposure and/or insulation. They’re not chasing me with machetes or anything, but the look that you get is so hurtful, so crushing, because they claim me, but they distance themselves from me at the same time.
Chinelo Okparanta, Under the Udala Trees
Okparanta was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and emigrated to the US when she was ten. In Nigeria, same-sex sexual contact is illegal, and can be punished by up to 14 years in prison, or in some places, death. In her debut novel, a young girl named Ijeoma, sent away to work as a servant after her father’s death, falls in forbidden love with another girl named Amina, to the distant tune of the Nigerian civil war. But this is only the beginning of her story, and her quest to be herself in a world that wants her to be anything else.
In an author’s note at the end of the novel, Okparanta writes:
On January 7, 2014, Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, signed into law a bill criminalizing same-sex relationships and the support of such relationships, making these offenses punishable by up to fourteen years in prison. In northern states, the punishment is death by stoning. This novel attempt to give Nigeria’s marginalized LGBTQ citizens a more powerful voice, and a place in our nation’s history.
Saleem Haddad, Guapa
Haddad comes from a multi-cultural background: “Palestinian, Lebanese, Iraqi, German, Muslim and Christian,” though he was born in Kuwait City, where same-sex relationships between men is punishable with up to seven years in jail. In his debut novel, Rasa, a young gay translator living in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, is caught with his lover (by his grandmother, no less), and then his best friend is arrested, and we follow the fallout—as well as delve into Rasa’s memories—throughout the day. In an interview, Haddad said:
As someone who is both queer and Arab, I never saw myself represented accurately in dominant narratives, both English and Arabic. Arabs are represented terribly in Western narratives, and queer people are similarly demonized in Arab narratives. So I have rarely, if ever, seen positive and realistic representations of who I am. At the same time, these narratives undoubtedly shape how you see yourself, both positively and negatively, so there is an odd relationship we have to these narratives: we may feel invisible and demonized, and yet it is human nature to want to try and fit ourselves into them. Growing up, I would often pick and choose positive representations from both English and Arabic media and culture and try to piece my identity together in that way—to build a positive picture of who I am.
Abdellah Taïa, Infidels (trans. Alison Strayer)
Often cited as the first openly gay novelist from Morocco, where same-sex sexual activity has been illegal since 1962, Taïa’s autobiographical novels have made him, at least for some, “an iconic figure in his homeland of Morocco and throughout the Arab world, and a beacon of hope in a country where homosexuality is illegal.” Infidels tells the story of a ten-year-old boy, the son of a prostitute, who grows up to become a young gay Muslim, and then a jihadi. In a 2009 interview with Interview, Taïa said:
I don’t have a theoretical background. I write from my own sensibilities and knowledge. I write novels and poems, not essays. But I don’t write only to say that I am homosexual. A novel is a complex entity. In the Arab world they try to keep us far from ourselves. They convince us that we should not define or interrogate things. That was the rule until now, and it had a disastrous affect on us and on our culture. Not to stand up to say who we are is playing the same game that those in power play on us. It is also a sort of betrayal to those who can’t express themselves….Poor Arabs don’t have that opportunity. Even today I consider myself as a poor Arab. The thankful and moving letters and emails I get everyday from people inside and outside Morocco testify to a despair and hope from people who are still feeling the burden of their own oppression. They thank me for having the courage to take a stand for them, to talk about things that we are not supposed to talk about.
In 2013, Taïa made his directorial debut with Salvation Army, a film adaptation of his novel by the same name, which, as Aida Alami wrote in The New York Times, “gave the Arab world its first on-screen gay protagonist.”
Manil Suri, The City of Devi
In India, it’s still illegal for two men to have sex, even in private, but unlike many other countries where that is the case, the courts do legally recognize transgender individuals as a “third gender” that can not be discriminated against, and also protect those who have surgically changed their sex. Bombay-born novelist and mathematician Manil Suri’s most recent novel, The City of Devi, is actually the third in a loose trilogy based on three Hindu gods. In this installment, narrated alternately by a young gay Muslim and a woman searching for her closeted husband through a wild political and cultural frenzy, nuclear war looms and things only get more and more bizarre. At The Washington Post, Ron Charles called it “the best sex comedy of the year about nuclear war between India and Pakistan…a careening ride through modern Mumbai — on foot, train and even elephant. The story veers unpredictably from romantic to satirical to outrageous, as though multi-armed Durga herself had sat down at the computer.”
In an essay entitled “How to be Gay and Indian” at Granta, Suri writes:
It takes a very long time to penetrate public consciousness in India—several odious social attitudes and practices have remained entrenched for centuries. Most Indians, even if exposed to the nascent gay visibility, have simply not thought the issue through. The onlookers gaping at exquisitely dressed drag queens strutting their stuff in parades might have no idea what the spectacle symbolizes. Some might react differently if they actually comprehended the slogans and signs, which are mostly in English . . . Despite my frankness with their correspondent, The Times of India managed to publish an entire nationwide centre-page interview with me without once mentioning the gay angle—either in my life or in my book.
. . .
And yet, I feel that compared to other cultures, India’s negotiation with this issue will be less contentious. It helps that there are no explicit proscriptions against homosexuality in Hinduism. In fact, the command ‘Thou shalt not’ has little traction in a philosophy where corporeal satiation is considered an essential stepping stone to reincarnation in a higher form. Hindu mythology abounds with gods who display distinctly androgynous characteristics, even change gender to enter into unconventional liaisons. The country is accustomed to tolerating an enormous amount of diversity: for instance, the ‘third sex’ comprised of hermaphrodites and eunuchs enjoys a well-recognized place in society. A population so characterized by difference (whether in religion, language, caste, class or skin color), and so proudly resistant to any attempt at homogenization, can hardly turn around to earmark queers for special discrimination.
Shyam Selvadurai, Funny Boy
Like the protagonist of his novel, Canadian novelist Shyam Selvadurai was born in Sri Lanka, where homosexuality is illegal (though paradoxically, so is anti-LGBTQ discrimination). In Funny Boy, really a novel-in-stories, a young boy named Arjie, born to a wealthy family, grows to understand his sexuality in the midst of the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict. As Edward Hower writes in The New York Times:
Funny Boy is a great deal more than a gay coming-of-age novel, for Arjie’s loss of innocence is as much a political process as a personal one. The action takes place in the 1970’s, when Sri Lanka, a land of breathtaking tropical beauty, has become bitterly divided by ethnic tensions between the Tamil community, descended from Hindu tea-plantation workers brought from India in the 19th century, and the Buddhist Sinhalese, who outnumber the Tamils almost five to one. Though wealthy and close-knit, Arjie’s Tamil family cannot insulate itself from the hatred politicians are stirring up against this vulnerable minority. For some of Arjie’s compatriots, ethnic identity has become a death warrant.
Abdi Nazemian, The Walk-in Closet
Abdi Nazemian was born in Iran, where homosexual activity can be punished by whipping and, in the case of serial offenses, execution, and where even expression laws are draconian—however, sex reassignment surgery is legal and in some cases can be partially funded by the government. Nazemian only lived in the country for two years, moving around a lot, and now lives in LA, where he’s a screenwriter (who thinks “the depiction of gay men in Hollywood is horrible”). His debut novel The Walk-In Closet, which won the Lambda Literary Award for Debut Fiction in 2015, is a comedy about a woman who pretends to be her gay, Persian best friend’s girlfriend—but how far will she go? In an interview about the book, Nazemian told Out:
I think my favorite thing—other than winning a Lambda Award, of course—that came from this book was this one evening. An older Iranian woman asked me to come to her house and talk to some of her friends. I thought it was just going to be this tiny group, but it ended up being this huge group of older Iranians. She’s very progressive, and she wanted to have this discussion with other members from older generations. And some of their questions, some of the things they were saying, were difficult to hear. They still have a long way to come to being open-minded, but they were engaging. For me, it felt like I had this very important role to play within my own community, and that was really gratifying. There aren’t a lot of out, gay Iranians. Actually, I’ve been told that this is the first Iranian novel to deal with a gay Iranian character in any depth.
That conversation he talks about? That is exactly what we’re looking for.