7 ‘Unconventional’ Lesbian Love Stories

Lesbian love comes in lots of different shapes, forms, and sizes. But, let’s face it, the most visible lesbian love stories are about a skinny white girl falling in love with a skinny white girl. You know the books I mean. Covers with an artistically posed waif gazing off into the distance, her back to the camera, or looking up at the sky as though the answer to how she gets the girl has been written up there by a plane. Bonus points if she has long blonde hair. Don’t get me wrong: it’s great that these books are being published and finding an audience with the women who crave them. And yet, there are other types of stories about other types of women that deserve the same kind of hype.

So here’s a list of lesbian books with ‘unconventional’ protagonists and relationships.

1) It’s Not Like It’s a Secret, by Misa Sugiura

Sana Kiyohara has all the worries of your typical sixteen-year-old girl. What if her friends have been going to parties without her? How can she get her parents to understand that she’s growing up and give her a bit more freedom? Then there are less universal problems, like the difficulty of coming out as a lesbian to her friends and family. Matters are complicated by Jamie Ramirez, a bold and charming girl who snags Sana’s heart. Over the course of the story, Sana grows into herself and learns that lots of things about adulthood aren’t how they first appear.

It’s Not Like It’s a Secret is a heart-warming coming of age story. It’s also one of those rare and magical lesbian YA books where two girls of color fall in love with each other. Sugiura has written a compelling story of lesbian love, and she tackles issues that are present in the lives of many young people even though they’re not always shown in books. Woven into the plot are racism in friendship, tension between different ethnic minorities, and the assumption that you’re either gay or a person of color. This acknowledgment will feel significant for lots of readers.

Highlight: Sana joins her school cross country running team as an excuse to get closer to her new bae. If that’s not an accurate representation of lesbian thirst, what is?

2) The Raven and the Reindeer, by T. Kingfisher

The Raven and the Reindeer is a lesbian retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic folktale, The Snow Queen. Not only is the story spellbinding, it’s also incredibly funny, with some cracking observations about the gender politics of traditional fairytales. Kay has been Greta’s best friend since they played together as children. He is quite figuratively the boy next door. And when the mysterious Snow Queen steals Kay away, Greta – of course – dives headfirst into a rescue mission. During the journey, Greta has time to question some things about their relationship – Kay hasn’t always paid attention to her, and he doesn’t make her heart skip a beat. Not like Janna, the spirited huntress she meets along the way…

Subversive from start to finish, The Raven and the Reindeer is the fairytale lesbians everywhere need. In addition to taking on the Snow Queen, the protagonist kicks feminine beauty standards to touch. Greta is stocky and plain at the start of the book, and she remains stocky and plain looking at the end. She is also a hero. And, as her romance with Janna shows, conventional beauty isn’t a requirement for a woman being loved.

Highlight: Greta’s romantic partners going from broke to bespoke. She trades in a basic white boy that she’s not even attracted to for an adventurous brown woman that even the reader will struggle not to fall for. The ultimate upgrade.

3) Under the Udala Trees, by Chinelo Okparanta

Pretty much every Black gay man or lesbian woman will have been told, at some point, that homosexuality is “un-African” – a western trend started by white people. Under the Udala Trees obliterates that old homophobic chestnut with a story that is unfailingly lesbian and distinctly Nigerian. Ijeoma, a young Igbo girl, struggles against the constraints of femininity. What is expected of her and what she desires are two very different things. And when her friendship with Amina, a Hausa girl, blossoms into something more, Ije’s world explodes. Caught between the dangers of the Biafran war and the brutal homophobia of her family, Ijeoma’s road to freedom is not an easy one. But it is gripping.

Highlight: The joy and sustenance Ijeoma finds in other women.

4) The Summer of Jordi Perez, by Amy Spalding

17-year-old Abby Ives is not your typical lesfic protagonist. She’s not the average fashion blogger either, living her best life as a fat lesbian babe with bright pink hair, and yet she lands her dream internship with her favorite designer. There’s even the possibility of a job with Lemonberry at the end of the summer. But there’s just one catch: her fellow intern and competition, Jordi Perez. Abby has the potential to become an icon to the Tumblr generation, but her appeal as a character goes so much further.

Reflected in Abby’s tense relationship with her mother are many of the challenges that come with being a lesbian in the family setting. Her mother hopes – despite knowing full well that Abby is a lesbian – the boy she has been hanging out with might become a boyfriend. Throughout the story, Abby struggles against the expectations of her mother and society in general: that if she lost weight, traded in her bold pink hair for a conventional strawberry blonde, and ditched lesbian life for heterosexuality, Abby’s life would be perfect. As it turns out, Abby makes magic happen in her life just as she is.

Highlight: Every. Single. Page.

5) The Terracotta Bride by Zen Cho

This novella has everything a lesbian reader could want: robots, first love, and the tenth circle of hell. Siew Tsin died in her youth, hit by a car when she was running across a road. Having given very little thought to what the afterlife could be like, she is surprised to find herself experiencing something very similar to life itself – the same politics, bureaucracy, and elitism play out around her. After being married off to one of hell’s wealthiest residents, she ends up with “the most desirable postcode in hell” – Cho’s dry humor makes the unsettling premise of this story work. Siew Tsin’s husband uses his wealth to fund the experiment of putting consciousness in an artificial body. He creates Yonghua, the terracotta bride, who turns hell into a sort of paradise – at least for Siew Tsin.

Highlight: the originality of the story. The Terracotta Bride is like no lesfic you’ve read before.

Photo: Riverdale Avenue Books

6) Juliet Takes a Breath, by Gabby Rivera

Juliet Takes a Breath is the lesbian feminist answer to Catcher in the Rye. Struggling to balance the traditions of her Puerto Rican family and culture with her sexuality, Juliet Milagros Palante writes to her favorite feminist author – Harlowe Brisbane – for answers. Harlow invites Juliet to spend the summer as her assistant, so Juliet swaps the Bronx for Portland, birthplace of the riot grrrl scene. The night before she leaves, Juliet comes out to her parents. Although they leave things on uncertain terms, Juliet grows into herself and flourishes within a community of women.

This book contains a fantastic story. It also paints a striking portrait of how women connect across differences of race, class, age, and sexuality. Juliet Takes a Breath is a quality coming of age novel.

Highlight: a group of feminists have an open conversation about the racism of a white woman among them. Nobody dies. It’s fine.

7) The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

Although The Color Purple is acknowledged as a game changer in terms of Black women’s writing, rarely is it celebrated as a lesbian classic. Steven Spielberg’s 1986 film adaptation further obscured this book’s Sapphic significance, erasing the lesbian parts of the plot entirely. What else can we expect when the white male gaze turns towards Black lesbian love? Set in 1930s Georgia, The Color Purple follows an African American girl named Celie as she overcomes trauma to develop a sense of self and claim her place in the world. And Celie’s love for the glamorous Shug Avery plays a vital role in that journey. Their passion awakens a joy in Celie that compels her to live life to the full.

The Color Purple has touched generations of women, and is required reading for any lesfic enthusiast. Alice Walker’s writing has something to teach us all about the power within the connections between women.

Highlight: When Celie quite figuratively wears the pants, sewing trousers for a living and rocking a proto-butch aesthetic.