Malaprop's Bookstore and Café is nestled in the middle of downtown Asheville, which is itself set among the impossibly verdant Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. It has been a travel destination since the 19th century when people would flock to us from flatter landscapes and hotter climes in the hopes that the fresh mountain air would bring them health and happiness. Sometime in the 1990s, Asheville also became something of a mecca for LGBTQ travelers, who sought inspiration not only from the natural wonders of the area but also the activism- and arts-oriented flavor of the city.
Malaprop's opened her doors in 1982, and she just turned 34. I've had the amazing luck and pleasure of working here for a year now, and I'm inspired every day by our staff and our influence in this beautiful community. Owner Emoke B'Racz has committed to creating a place "where poetry matters, where women's words are as important as men's, where one is surprised by excellence, where good writing has a home." Malaprop's is that place and so much more. Recently, in the wake of the unconscionable HB2 legislation, we have come together with residents and businesses alike to stand against discrimination of the LGBTQ community. We've always been a refuge for LGBTQ customers and visitors, and we are proud to be a lesbian-owned bookstore.
This year we are commemorating the Stonewall riots and their aftermath, a game-changing moment in the still-ongoing fight for gay rights. In honor of this hugely important week, I've created a reading list of LGBTQ books that have inspired me and that I feel connect the history of gay rights with our community of seekers here. In the spirit of Asheville's own status as a travel destination, my list focuses on books that I've loved that have transported me—and their characters—to places both literal and figurative. I think they'll be perfect for you as you embark on your own summer adventures.
"Aunty, whatever the matter, just remember that it is the same moon that wanes today that will be full tomorrow. And even the sun, however long it disappears, it always shines again."
Nigerian folk tales, the tragedies of war, and the rhythms of the heart come together in Chinelo Okparanta's debut novel, set in the final days of Nigeria's Civil War. The teenage protagonist Ijeoma must leave her home and work as a maid. When she meets and befriends the orphan Amina, her life is transformed. The two fall in love, but heartbreak and social stigma threaten them. Nigerian-born Okparanta is a powerful new voice in African and LGBTQ fiction. She is also the author of the short story collection Happiness Like Water.
"They burst into a kind of ecstasy at the sight of her tears, producing collectively a sound of mingled dismay and joy. Ah, said that sound, here at last is the life of significance, the real life that frees us from ourselves."
We hosted Garth Greenwell in the store for our recent "Authors for Action" event to promote awareness of and resistance to HB2. His compelling novel, set in Sofia, Bulgaria, tells the story of an American teacher who begins a complicated relationship with a Bulgarian hustler, Mitko. It's a powerful exploration of lust and loss shot through with eroticism and violence. It creates the world of Sofia with no idealization, and it's beautiful in its rawness.
"Happiness was like a green vine spreading through her, stretching fine tendrils, bearing flowers through her flesh. She had a vision of a pale-white flower, shimmering as if seen in darkness, or through water. Why did people talk of heaven, she wondered."
The story of Carol Aird and Therese Belivet was up on the big screen so recently that most people are familiar with its premise. Now I urge you to read the book. Carol and Therese's romance blooms in spite of the social mores of 1950s New York City, the belittling attitudes of others, and their own seemingly insurmountable circumstances. The book's epic road trip, which takes the main characters from the stifling city to the freedom of the American West, is also the turning-point for the two's love for each other.
"Stars are just jewelry stolen from graves, he sighs
pressing me into loam, amaryllis shoots
already owning my dark. I'll wake, a garden
gated in April light,
my veins in every leaf."
-From "Eclipse of My Third Life"
Every entry in this exquisite collection of poems transported me into Saeed Jones's memories, experiences, and dreams, from the nightmarish to the transcendent. These poems are grounded in the geography of the world and of the body as Jones negotiates his identity as a queer black man in the Deep South, invoking the strangling tendrils of kudzu and the heat of history itself.
"If Hundreds Hall is haunted, however, its ghost doesn't show itself to me."
A chilling Gothic tale that is classically frightening while also managing to reinvent the genre. Set primarily in Hundreds Hall, a crumbling manor house, the narrative comes through the skewed point-of-view of Dr. Faraday, who has grown up obsessed with the house and its inhabitants. The novel pulses with a darkly evocative sense of terror that builds in intensity until the chilling last page. It's sunny out there on the beach—bring a little darkness with you. Really, any and all of Waters's books could be on this list—this one was the one I most recently read and one of the most chilling novels I've encountered in a long time. It also inspired several truly great nightmares.
"The sky is blue,' he said, 'the grass is green.' Looking up, he saw that, on the contrary, the sky is like the veils which a thousand Madonnas have let fall from their hair; and the grass fleets and darkens like a flight of girls fleeing the embraces of hairy satyrs from enchanted woods. 'Upon my word,' he said [...], 'I don't see that one's more true than another. Both are utterly false." And he despaired of being able to solve the problem of what poetry is and what truth is and fell into a deep dejection."
Virginia Woolf's classic is the gender- and genre-bending story of the noble Orlando. Born a man who later becomes a woman, Orlando lives for centuries, and the book spans the reign of Queen Elizabeth I through the late 1920s. This novel was a wonder to me. Its shimmering prose captivated me and I soaked up every step of the hero/ine's journey, a 400-year long adventure that ends in self-discovery.
"I have been loved," she said, "by something strange, and it has forgotten me."
This classic of expatriate modernist literature is still as riveting and darkly moving as it was when it was first published in 1937. It's the story of protagonist Robin Vote and her lovers, including the idealistic "Baron" Felix Volkbein, Nora Flood, and "stealer of happiness" Jenny Petherbridge. As Robin moves from Europe to the United States and back again, she leaves behind her a wake of ruin. Ok, so it's not the most uplifting travel narrative you'll ever read, but it certainly will immerse you totally in the disturbing and devastated world of its characters.
"Surely a god can meet passion with passion?"
Jeanette Winterson's gorgeous novel spins a story from history and dream, love and despair. Set in the years of the Napoleonic Wars, it transports its main characters, the French soldier and cook Henri and the web-footed transvestite Vilanelle, from the frozen wastes of Russia to the French countryside and the glitter of the Venetian carnival. We, the readers, are taken along for the journey. Every line is breathtaking, crystalline, perfect.
"Garbage, you know, is very revealing. It beats the shit out of tarot cards."
Take a trip to 28 Barbary Lane, home to the lovelorn, lovely, and lost characters that inhabit Armistad Maupin's novel (the first of nine volumes). It's a snapshot of 1970s and beyond San Francisco awash with the blues of the bay, the neon hues of the city at night, and the emotions of the human heart. The short chapters invite you to read "just a few more" every time you sit down with the book, and the fantastic characters feel like the dearest of friends when you're done.
"If you stare at the center of the universe, there is coldness there. A blankness. Ultimately, the universe doesn't care about us. Time doesn't care about us. That's why we have to care about each other."
The first in a series, Every Day is about traveler A, who wakes up every day in a different body and a different life. When A wakes up in the body of Justin and meets his girlfriend, Rhiannon, A realizes that this life might be the perfect one. But can A hold onto Rhiannon even as bodies change and identities continue to shift? I loved this beautiful, heartful novel so much. It's technically a young adult novel but it will grab you no matter what age you are.