6th September marked the one year anniversary of the decriminalisation of Section 377 of the IPC in India. This archaic law made non-reproductive and non-vaginal sex illegal, representing it as ‘going against the order of nature’, and thus directly affecting the lives of queer individuals, While this is a huge step forward in the history of queer acceptance in India, many steps are yet to be taken in order to reach a place where queer residents feel as safe and welcome as their straight counterparts. Part of this can perhaps be achieved by making sure that the younger generations do not have to go through the forced repression and humiliation that older people faced and still face. Socialisation is key in helping young people learn to accept themselves and others as they are, without requiring everyone to conform to certain performative gender ideals. As Young Zubaan always believes, reading is an important part of the process and a great way to bring change, one page at a time. Talking about LGBTQIA+ identities might still be hard for some parents, and in such situations, books can become stairways for children and young adults exploring themselves only to find that they don’t quite “fit in.”
Books also help familiarise young people with things like neutral pronouns, or gender fluidity, normalising ‘queerness’ to the point where they don’t find it necessary to harass or exoticise people who are ‘different’ from them. They’re also places of comfort for young people searching for concepts and words with which to talk about or understand themselves. While the conversation is gathering speed in the realms of the adult world, youth literature in India is still wary of broaching this sensitive subject. Fiction for young people featuring anything but straight protagonists who reproduce standard gender roles is rare. The legal taboo only made things more difficult, with any mention of queer sex (criminal activity till a year ago) opening up potential for unwanted government scrutiny. This makes reaching outward important, bringing in books from places where authors, many from across the rainbow themselves, are writing representative queer fiction. And one would be wrong to imagine that such literature is only originating from the so-called Western countries. Countries like Japan and Nigeria are stepping up, as are a select few from India, in order to create a diverse, representative and rich world of literature for young people. People from all across the globe are creating beautiful and important books, writing about their own experiences and sharing hope and love with the youngest members of the queer community. Here is Young Zubaan’s curated list of YA books everyone should read, spanning a crazy variation of genres, countries, identities and themes, united in one crucial aspect — a heartfelt celebration of young pride.
One of the most popular themes of queer YA fiction is coming-of-age literature. It’s a simple way to represent even the most complicated stories of self-acceptance. The protagonists go through often highly emotional journeys of self-discovery at the end of which they acquire some amount of introspective understanding, helping them to better deal with the world they live in. The best part about coming-of-age stories is that they can be based in any world! These stories can be historical, wildly fantastical, dystopic, you name it! Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir by Kai Cheng Thom is a surreal fantasy featuring trans women with brilliant personalities which go way beyond simply their gender identity. The Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew A. Smith and The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan depict multiple queer and fluid characters living in dystopian worlds, facing apocalypses that involve grasshoppers or a messed-up environment. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz and Kings, Queens And In-Betweens by Tanya Boteju on the other hand, feature queer leads on a deeply explorative journey, building strong friendships, discovering new worlds like drag, and juggling multiple identities.
Art can be very eloquent, and the numbers of expressive comics/manga/graphic novels engaging with the queer narrative testify to that fact. Kabi Nagata sketches intimate and personal stories as a lesbian in Japan in her manga My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness, while Alice Oseman depicts a sweet queer romance in her webcomic Heartstopper. Princess Jellyfish by Akiko Higashimura is a josei manga which features a woman-only living space, cross-dressing and gender fluidity. Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, on the other hand, explores themes like toxic relationships and queer romances. Kari by Amruta Patil is an intense graphic novel following the life of a queer woman struggling through life in the smog city of Bombay, and Kiss Number 8 by Colleen A.F. Venable and illustrated by Ellen T. Crenshaw is a funny graphic novel about the everyday life of a teen exploring her sexuality.
As much as we all adore fantasy, reading realistic fiction helps us to take stock of the actual situations in which we live, and sensitise to the differently lived lives all across the world. Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta is a wonderful story depicting a war-torn Nigeria, and the navigation of queer and religious identities within that context. God in Pink by Hasan Namir talks about being gay and religious in war-stricken Iraq, while Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy depicts the experience of being gay in Sri Lanka of the past, amidst political unrest and social stigma. We Are Okay by Nina Lacour explores grief and queer romance, where the queer identity of the protagonist is, refreshingly, not the prime focus. Hannah Moskowitz deals with questions of bisexuality and belonging in her Not Otherwise Specified, while e. E Charlton-Trujillo brings in much-needed intersectionality with his Fat Angie which talks about the perils of being both fat and lesbian. Himanjali Sarkar is one of the pioneer authors of queer YA fiction from India, with her book Talking of Muskaan exploring the darker side of being queer — school bullying, attempted suicide and family troubles.
Light fiction on the other hand, like For Sizakele by Yvonne Etaghene and Lunaside by J.L. Douglas, are fun yet sensitive reads which reprise the popular themes of romance and friendship while still championing the queer community and often including diverse representation in terms of nationality, ethnicity or race. Little and Lion by Brandy Colbert is a heart-warming story with a very likeable queer protagonist, which also helps to open up conversations about mental health! Hostel Room 131 by R.Raj Rao is set in India of 1978 and, through the depiction of a gay romance, brings in the perpetual thorn of homophobia.
Science fiction/speculative fiction featuring bamboozling new worlds and dystopian ways of life are very popular in youth fiction right now, and some authors are making sure that this genre has its fair share of queer representation. Hullmetal Girls by Emily Skrutskie has diverse queer representation including an aroace lead, fighting for survival in a classist, futuristic, cyborg-soldier infested world. Jacqueline Koyanagi puts queer romance and family bonding into a Star Wars like setting in Ascension, while Alaya Dawn Johnson paints a dazzling, futuristic Brazil as the location of her political intrigue and bi-sexual romance laden story The Summer Prince. Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee is a queer superhero/villain style story with an adorable, bisexual protagonist, while Malinda Lo weaves in Chinese lore into her quest fantasy Huntress which features a strong lesbian lead.
Then we have the magic realism and surreal fantasy section, which homes the queerest but most exquisite books, artworks almost, in their strange, twilight world storylines. Anna Marie-McLemore, the queen of magic realist YA, brings people of colour and transpersons together in a romantic story entwined with Latino folklore, titled When The Moon Was Ours: A Novel. Patrick Ness explores questions of belonging and queerness in his dreamlike world of More Than This, while Heidi Heilig conjures an adventure in For A Muse of Fire that brings in themes of colonisation and mental health.
Period fiction is a great way to send readers on a journey to see how things used to be, and the next two selections are at the top of their game. Lindsay Smith, in A Darkly Beating Heart, concocts a dark drama around a bisexual teenager who time-travels to 19th century Japan. Mackenzie Lee, on the other hand, executes a flawless Regency-meets-roadtrip novel, about a bisexual gentleman and his asexual sister, in The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue.
For young people who do not have the patience or fondness for novels, short story collections offer a shorter time commitment while still providing crucial food for thought. Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean is a collection of queer science-fiction and speculative fiction, edited by Payal Dhar, Kirsty Murray and Anita Roy, interspersing regular stories with exquisitely illustrated short stories (also, it’s our book club pick for September 22!). All Out: The No Longer Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages is an anthology compiled by Saundra Mitchell with diverse contributions from brilliant YA authors from across the rainbow. A Safe Girl To Love collects unique short stories by Casey Plett, about young trans women going about their usual and unusual lives. Ivan E. Coyote’s mostly-autobiographical collection of vignettes called One in Every Crowd about life as a lesbian woman and experiences of being queer is also a brilliant read. Sarah Prager’s queer history book Queer, There, and Everywhere: 23 People Who Changed the World is a necessary non-fiction addition to the list, bringing visibility as queer to icons from various industries.
Finally, for young adults on the bridge to older adulthood, A.Revathi’s The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story is a brilliant read. An autobiographical account of her life from her realisation to her attempts to fit into the hijra community, it’s a good place to begin for curious teenagers wanting to research the innermost workings of this community in India.