What is the future of queer fiction? It’s a question that editor Patty Yumi Cottrell posed to every contributor to McSweeney’s Issue 62: The Queer Fiction Issue, which comes out later this month. Their answers, which Cottrell lays out in an introduction to the issue, are spacious, insightful, and vast, an illustration of queerness’ expansive power; as one states, “The future of queer fiction is free of binaries and borders, so limitless that it’s impossible to contain in one sentence.” Reading them feels energizing in a way that little else does at this particular moment in history.
I asked Cottrell about the issue’s vision of queer fiction, how they approached the project as an editor, and which writers are helping them discover the unexpected.
You read hundreds of submissions for this issue. What did that reading experience show you about the landscape of queer fiction in 2020? Did you sense any common themes, techniques, obsessions?
I read all of the submissions over the course of late April to June. It was delightful and terrifying; I had this anxiety I would misread someone’s work or completely dismiss a perfect story because I hadn’t had enough coffee, or my eyes were tired, or whatever. I also want to mention it was a collaborative process. I read and discussed the work with Claire Boyle and the team of interns: Alia DeBurro, Emma P. Theiss, Paz O’Farrell, Alexandra Galou. Sunra Thompson worked on the art side of things, and solicited work from graphic artists and cartoonists. I loved how the cover turned out. It’s kind of eco-goth looking.
About common themes, I would say a lot of stories I read were about debt and how we manage debt. Credit card debt, student loan debt, not being able to pay rent, and so on. Arising out of this, a number of stories were about service work ranging from sex work to dishwashing. I ended up choosing a couple of stories that I thought elegantly and anxiously addressed money and debt, like Paul Dalla Rosa’s “Short Stack” and CJ Llego’s “Docile Bodies.”I wanted to take the reader on a journey without an agenda.
Because of my call for bleakness, many submissions were horror stories or fairy tales which I very much appreciated. Vi Khi Nao, K-Ming Chang, hurmat kazmi, and Bridget Brewer’s work all have absurd, but logical qualities.
All of this is to say, the landscape of queer fiction is brilliant, shimmering, vast, a dream.
What specific qualities were you looking for in submissions? What made the ones you selected stand out to you?
The short answer is I was looking for work that would make me feel hopeful about change.
The long answer is I am a trans person who began taking testosterone over the summer while reading for the issue; bodily changes became apparent immediately (muscles, acne) while my experience of time crawled. It’s like the experience of being a kid in the backseat: “Are we there yet?” At the same time, I don’t think there’s an actual destination, per se. I have to continue to remind myself I’m going through a period of change that feels as if it might take forever, as if I literally might be suspended in this state for the rest of my life: it “feels” like a particularly queer form of time. In reality, a handful of months have passed.
Thematically, most of the stories, in my opinion, constellate around the word “change.” What made these stories stand out to me is the way the writers approach their material from a particular aesthetic angle. For instance, Gabrielle Bellot’s excerpt from her novel-in-progress has a timeless quality—Bellot is in love with storytelling, and this excerpt reads as if it might have been written outside of time. That was really appealing to me. On the other hand, Eileen Myles’ story messes around with genre in a humorous and contemporary register.
How would you describe the process of putting together the issue once you had a final list of selections? (How did you design the flow of the book, conceive of your editor’s note, etc.?)
As soon as I read Eileen’s story, I knew it had to go first. I’ve looked up to Eileen for a long time and I was very fortunate to meet them earlier this year. I had read their work in my early twenties, sitting alone on the floor of the Milwaukee Public Library. I think I read Chelsea Girls and Cool for You. I thought of Eileen’s story as a portal, an entryway. And from there I put the stories together intuitively. I wanted to take the reader on a journey without an agenda. The issue is all over the place stylistically and I like that. People can dip in and out of it. I will say all of the stories are important. Every single writer in the issue is a favorite writer of mine: Eileen Myles, Bryan Washington, Emma Copley-Eisenberg, CJ Llego, Vi Khi Nao, Kristen, Arnett, Dennis Norris II, Gabrielle Bellot, Juli Delgado Lopera, K-Ming Chang, Bridget Brewer, Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya, Venita Blackburn, Timi Odueso, hurmat kazmi, Paul Dalla Rosa, Sarah Gerard. I really mean that. I can’t imagine having only one favorite writer. Part of the delight of this process was discovering so many new voices.
Your note also looks ahead, asking contributors to describe the future of queer fiction. Why was this an important question for you? How would you describe the relationship between futurity and queer writers?
Thank you for this question! I think futurity implies an experience of time as “not yet” that simultaneously has shades of utopian longing. I don’t think I can describe a general relationship between futurity and queer writers, though. I don’t feel adept at answering that. Instead, I would read work by the late queer theorist Jose Muñoz and also Elizabeth Freeman.
Asking about the future of queer fiction was a thought exercise and perhaps a way to express a hope or desire; I wanted to know what other writers thought about it because I still don’t have an answer myself.
You write that you hope the issue can “help you find your way somewhere new and unexpected.” Are there any particular writers that have helped you do the same in recent days?
I’m reading Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother which is about the Atlantic slave route, the afterlife of slavery, and encounters with the silence that permeates the colonial archive. Her work is vital, resonant. She’s obviously a genius. There’s so much to think through in this book. Everyone should read her work immediately. I also taught Sofia Samatar’s story collection, Tender. She loves utilizing different narrative frames and forms like letters, diaries, student essays, encyclopedias, historical accounts, etc. Her work is warm and generous. And finally, Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights. His writing makes me feel better about the world.
McSweeney’s 62: The Queer Fiction Issue is available now via McSweeney’s.