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New queer literature anthologies show the work done and the work yet to do

Book reviews: Queer: A Collection of LGBTQ Writing and Queer Love are cause for celebration

Two recent anthologies of queer writing, one capacious and spanning a wide historical range, the other small though no less important, testify to the recent flowering of queer literature and while demonstrating the necessity of continued work in publishing in the field.

Frank Wynne's hefty Queer: A Collection of LGBTQ Writing from Ancient Times to Yesterday (Head of Zeus, £25) is a massive book and, despite its size, is, as Wynne himself admits, a patchwork quilt. Because of the editor's decision to focus on writing by LGBTQ authors which deals, in an explicit way, with some aspect of gender or sexuality, the anthology is perhaps inevitably weighted to the 20th and 21st centuries, and missing a number of names readers might expect. In fact, out of 608 pages, works published before 1900 only take up the first 42.

Writers such as Katherine Mansfield, Somerset Maugham and Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose work demonstrates the use of a queer lens rather than an explicitly queer subject, are absent. So too are playwrights (whose words, Wynne argues, “were not intended to be read” but performed). But Sappho, whose works were also made for performance, nevertheless passes the test.

The title, in that way, is slightly misleading in implying a full span of queer literature; nevertheless, the book is admirably wide-ranging in its survey of the 20th and 21st centuries.

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Of course, all anthologies, even ones of this size, must have a rationale, and Wynne’s is personal. Testifying to the importance of identifying, through literature, with people who have lived lives similar to our own, he makes the political point of foregrounding uncensored stories: rather than coded expressions of queerness made necessary by various religious, social and political contexts, these are (by and large) the voices of those who felt able to be explicit, whether in private confidence or in the eyes of the public.

Global canon

Particularly noteworthy is the geographical capaciousness of the anthology: this is an attempt to establish a global rather than just western canon of queer writers,  and it is clear that Wynne’s expertise as a translator has allowed him to bring to Irish and British readers a fuller vision of the breadth and difference, the commonalities and the unique techniques, of queer writing. However, a more global vision of the pre-1900 texts would have been interesting to see.

In the 20th century, there are familiar names (Cavafy, Woolf, Lorde, Hollinghurst) as well as many who might be unfamiliar: the satirist and counter-revolutionary Reinaldo Arenas; the exquisite Swedish modernist poet Karin Boye; and writers best known for their film-making, such as Yau Ching and Pier Paolo Pasolini. New writing by trans and non-binary authors featured towards the final pages opens towards new frontiers in queer literature, and gestures to the importance of the forward as well as the backward glance.

Despite its huge size, this anthology (necessarily) gives only tasters, snapshots, and gestures of the capacious world of queer writing, and will leave readers eager to explore more widely. They might find, in the words of Pasolini’s The Cry of the Excavator:

"A soul inside me, not only my own,
a little soul was growing in that boundless
world, nourished by the joy of one
who loved."

Irish focus

Closer to to home, Paul McVeigh's contemporary collection Queer Love: An Anthology of Irish Fiction (Munster Literature Centre, €12) demonstrates why queer writers excel at writing. As with Wynne, McVeigh's introduction foregrounds the "safe space" of the library, the protection of books, the startling discovery of commonality in queer literature. McVeigh spent his youth, he tells us in a beautiful formulation, "searching for stories of those who lived my life before me".

The refuge of coded language is deployed again and again to brilliant effect. Emma Donoghue's intricately structured Speaking in Tongues centres around the discovery of a poem as Gaeilge (Dhá Theanga), which is revealed to be a cleverly elusive lyric about same-sex desire. Mary Dorcey's Diary of a School Girl is likewise written in the past tense and second person in order to protect the narrator "from the imagined gaze of others".

The anthology's stories, too, build up an echoing referentiality, citing Wilde, Chet Baker, DH Lawrence and Joyce (as in the title of John Boyne's Araby), consciously positioning themselves in history, making space, catching the ball and running with it. James Hudson's Your Roll uses a set of alternative endings to work through family estrangement. Among others, Colm Tóibín's masterly Sleep is wonderfully resonant and demonstrates, among other things, the miraculousness of the chance encounter, and the debt owed to those whose lives preceded our own.

The narrator speaks eloquently of history, and Tóibín’s words reinforce the celebration that should welcome anthologies such as these, reminding us “how easy it would have been for this never to have happened. How unlikely it would have seemed in the past.”