To celebrate Pride month, we’d like to revisit some of the best and most influential queer literature. Books and their authors and readers alike have the power to combat a history of silencing and marginalisation and make LGBTQIA+ identity and representation commonplace in popular culture and dialogue.
This list and the fantastic books on it celebrates all the positive change that has been made so far and all the change that is yet to come.
1. Orlando – Virginia Woolf (1928)
Virginia Woolf was ahead of her time in every respect, and Orlando reflects this in many ways. Inspired by her famous relationship with Vita Sackville-West and the social and economic gender disparity in the 20th century, Orlando tells the story of a man who changes sex. Woolf was arguably the first author to discuss trans identity in what became a bestselling novel, and her rejection of gendered stereotypes and restrictive genres are themes we see continued in queer literature throughout history.
2. Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin (1956)
After Giovanni’s Room was rejected by Baldwin’s publisher Knopf Doubleday, Baldwin travelled to England to be published by Michael Joseph, where the book became a huge success. Giovanni’s Room was revolutionary, due in part to its frank depiction of queer relationships, but also to its honest portrayal of the universal struggle between the heart and the head. It is a love story, one which encourages you to prioritise happiness even in the most difficult of times.
3. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name – Audre Lorde (1982)
Audre Lorde once described herself as a ‘black, lesbian, moth, warrior, poet,’ a description that gives you an idea of the rawness of her writing. Zami, ‘a Carriacou name for women who work together as friends and lovers’ sets up A New Spelling of My Name as a book dedicated to celebrating the romantic and platonic relationships between women. Lorde’s primary discipline as a poet shines through in the prose of this semi-autobiographical account of growing up as a black lesbian in an ultra-politicised New York City.
4. The Colour Purple – Alice Walker (1982)
This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel changed the game both for black literature and queer literature. Like Audre’s Lorde’s work, The Colour Purple is a celebration of the love between women, and the solace and calm that it can offer in times of oppression and injustice.
5. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson (1985)
Jeanette Winterson’s first book – and arguably her most influential – is a semi-biographical novel which explores her staunchly religious upbringing in a Pentecostal community as she comes to terms with her identity as a lesbian. This coming-of-age story firmly positions Winterson as the queen of the lesbian canon. It is a poignant read for anyone struggling with their own identity.
6. And Tango Makes Three – Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell (2005)
You may recognise this title from earlier in the year. And Tango Makes Three was among the titles included in the ‘No Outsiders’ programme run by Parkfield Community School in Birmingham. It caused quite a stir when some parents accused the school of attempting to ‘convert’ children to homosexuality. The book describes the lives of two male penguins at the zoo who are desperate to have an egg. After the zookeeper brings them one, they raise their baby, Tango, together. It is a beautiful picture book for readers of any age.
7. Call Me by Your Name – André Aciman (2007)
After the release of the film of the same name in 2017, Call Me by Your Name became an instant classic, detailing the relationship of a seventeen-year-old boy, Elio, and a man who visits in the summer to help his father with research, Oliver. Aciman’s first-person perspective perfectly depicts the intoxicating and universal feeling of coming-of-age confusion and first love. Look out for Call Me by Your Name’s sequel Find Me later this year!
8. The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson (2015)
Described by the Guardian as a ‘genre-bending memoir’, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is the perfect love story, but one that manages to question every ‘norm’ that comes with traditional tales of love. The narrative develops in time with Nelson’s pregnancy and her partner, Harry Dodge’s, transition, commenting on society’s understanding of birth and conception. The prose is as fluid as the identities it describes – it makes for a beautiful and compelling read.
9. Proud – Various (2019)
Curated by author Juno Dawson, this anthology of literature from LGBTQIA+ authors celebrates the community and the talent and pride within it. Including contributions from Tanya Byrne, Priyanka Meenakshi and Kameron White, it’s the perfect book to accompany this year’s Pride celebrations!
10. The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali – Sabina Khan (2019)
The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali is a YA novel following the life of Rukhsana as she navigates her sexuality in a Muslim household. Sabina Khan decided to write the book after her own daughter came out, and she stated in a recent interview that she ‘wasn’t sure if anyone would want to read about the struggles of a Muslim lesbian from an immigrant family’. The book’s success illustrates the growing appetite for similar titles that are gradually filling an unlimited and eager space in contemporary literature.