Magic and Belonging: The 23rd Annual Lambda Literary Awards

The penultimate award of last weekend’s 23rd Annual Lambda Literary Awards in New York City was in the Lesbian Fiction category, and it went to Eileen Myles for her poet’s novel, Inferno. “The thing about the Lammys,” she said, “is that whenever I’m here, it’s so moving, because we belong here.”

Eileen Myles

And that, more than the celebrity or the excitement of the gold envelopes ripping open or the moving quotes, is what has compelled me to return to the Lammy Awards for now the third year in a row. I was a bookseller for more than 10 years, an English major, an intern at a feminist publishing house and a literary agency, and a bookworm kid who grew up reading everything I could get my hands on — and still do. Queer stuff especially. Queer fiction, novels, memoirs, poetry, personal essay anthologies — those are my favorites. I have frequently scoured the Lammy Award lists for good reads, looking up their descriptions in Books in Print or requesting title after title from the library so I could flip through the pages myself when there weren’t copies available at the local gay bookstore.

I know these books and these authors like I know my own life, like I know my own journals and history. I recognize their names, I recognize their influences. And this year, I had the chance to shake hands with Emma Donoghue, Val McDermid, Tristan Taormino, Kathleen Warnock, Carol Rosenthal, Jack Halberstam, Kathleen Forrest, Sassafras Lowrey, Amber Dawn, Kate Bornstein and Zoe Whittall, just to name a few. Some I am pleased to call friends, all have been inspirational to me as as a writer. I felt awed and humbled by the warmth and welcome with which everyone greeted me.

When I say that queer books changed my life, I do not say that lightly. Queer erotica is where my own queerness started: with desire, with a craving for descriptions of the body and what we women could possibly do in bed together. I have been reading the Best Lesbian Erotica series since it’s second volume in 1997 and I have never been disappointed. The 2010 edition, though a finalist in lesbian erotica, was not the winner last night, though the former series editor Tristan Taormino won for her anthology of butch/femme erotica, Sometimes She Lets Me.

Tristan Taormino

Taormino introduced the bisexual category, saying that at the risk of not being invited back, she was going off script: that “they gave me a script about boys with boys and boys with girls and girls with girls, and I thought, on occasion of the Lammys, let’s not reinforce the gender binary.” She was met with whooping support from the audience.

Kate Bornstein was there to accept the Lammy in the LGBT Anthology category for hir anthology Gender Outlaws: Voices From The Next Generation, co-edited with S. Bear Bergman and published by Seal Press. I was torn between Gender Outlaws and Sassafras Lowrey’s homeless LGBTQ story collection Kicked Out — they are both wonderful and I was hoping they could both win.

Particularly moving was Brian Teare, who accepted the Lammy for Gay Poetry saying that his book, Pleasure, is an elegy for his partner who died of AIDS in 1999. He added, “I’m a crier,” tearing up at the honor of remembering his partner this way. He was so sweet that I immediately added his book to my must read pile.

There is always a slideshow in memoriam at the Lammys, photos and brief descriptions of pioneers, activists, and writers who have contributed to the queer literary world. I have been in tears every time I’ve seen this, and this year was no exception. There are so many people doing this work, this writing, this striving to write and articulate queer lives and culture, and an event like this reminds me just how long we’ve been working, just how many of us have banded together to make it better, to improve our collective lives and experiences.

Edward Albee, honored with the pioneer award this year, spoke about Lanford Wilson and Doric Wilson, both of whom passed away this past year, both of whom were also playwrights. I didn’t like what Albee had to say (“I’m not a gay writer, I’m a writer who happens to be gay,” “I’m part of other minority groups — I’m white, I’m a man, I’m educated”) but I do at least kind of understand where he’s coming from. Unfortunately, his speech came across as so defensive, and I wish he could have relaxed those defenses in front of a room full of gay writers, readers, publishers. What other place is there that he could feel at home, and recognize that those old stories are dying out, that this particular room full of people have worked tremendously hard to heal those old wounds? It was as though he was having a conversation from 50 years ago that none of us in the room were actually taking part in.

The Lammys always honors two pioneers — one gay and one lesbian — and this year Val McDermid was also celebrated. I was the one who got to interview Val for the Lammy program, and I love what she had to say. She spoke of similar things, saying that when she was growing up she thought lesbians were mythical, “like mermaids,” and that it wasn’t until she was in college when she read a book which finally opened her eyes to the reality of an orientation other than heterosexual. She wrote about this in her interview as well: “When I was an undergraduate at Oxford, reading Kate Millett‘s Sexual Politics was an extraordinary moment for me. It changed the way I looked at books and really politicized me.”

Val McDermind

She also recognized who the pioneers were for her, and who came before her and paved the way for her to have her own career. In her interview, she wrote: “But as a lesbian trying to write crime fiction, three writers made a real difference for me in the early days. From Katherine Forrest, I learned how to weave lesbian lives into gripping stories in a credible way; from Barbara Wilson, I learned to be brave and take risks in my own stories; and from Mary Wings, I learned the value of being outrageous and the power of humor. Without the example of those three, it would have been almost impossible for me to get started.” I was honored to shake her hand at the awards show and I am excited to read her latest, Trick of the Dark (even though I am not a big crime reader). Val also took home the Lammy for Lesbian Mystery for her recent novel, Fever of the Bone.

The Lammys also honors two mid-career novelists and this year’s honorees were Alex Sánchez and Susan Stinson. I hadn’t heard of either of them before, but I especially liked Susan’s call to writers: “Be alive in the moment of writing. Be a voice.”

The first event of the evening was to honor the debut fiction winners, which come along with a cash prize. I was a judge this year for Lesbian Debut Fiction and had a blast reading through the 20+ books of new and aspiring authors, and our winner was clear and unanimous: Sub Rosa by Amber Dawn. If you haven’t picked up Sub Rosa yet, I highly recommend it. It would be fantastic summer reading in that you won’t be able to put it down, though it might make you feel a little nuts at times. It is beautiful and epic, dark and haunting, and plays on some deep themes of marginalization and queerness, such as sex work, hierarchy and power dynamics, and, ultimately, magic.

Amber Dawn

I was so pleased to see Amber accept the award after having judged her category. Not only is the book tremendous, but I was thrilled to meet the femme behind the book and to be able to chat with her about art, love, identity, and relationships after the awards. “May magic and a brazen imagination be a way we continue to tell our stories,” she said in her acceptance speech. Sometimes I am completely convinced that, armed with those two things, we can change the world.

23rd Annual Lambda Literary Award Winners

Lesbian Fiction: Inferno (A Poet’s Novel) by Eileen Myles, OR Books

Gay Fiction: Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett, Doubleday

Lesbian Debut Fiction: Sub Rosa by Amber Dawn, Arsenal Pulp Press

Gay Debut Fiction: Bob the Book by David Pratt, Chelsea Station Editions

Lesbian Memoir/Biography (TIE): Hammer! Making Movies Out of Sex and Life by Barbara Hammer, The Feminist Press and Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures by Julie Marie Wade, Colgate University Press

Gay Memoir/Biography: Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist and Sexual Renegade by Justin Spring, Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Lesbian Mystery: Fever of the Bone by Val McDermid, HarperCollins

Gay Mystery: Echoes by David Lennon, Blue Spike Publishing

LGBT Anthology: Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation edited by Kate Bornstein & S. Bear Bergman, Seal Press

LGBT Children’s/Young Adult: Wildthorn by Jane Eagland, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

LGBT Drama: Oedipus at Palm Springs by The Five Lesbian Brothers: Maureen Angelos, Dominique Dibbell, Peg Healey, and Lisa Kron, Samuel French, Inc.

LGBT Nonfiction: King Kong Theory by Virginia Despentes, The Feminist Press

LGBT SF/Fantasy/Horror: Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories by Sandra McDonald, Lethe Press

LGBT Studies (TIE): Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism by Scott Herring, New York University Press and Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality by Gayle Salaman, Columbia University Press

Bisexual Fiction: The Lunatic, the Lover and the Poet by Myrlin Hermes, Harper Perennial

Bisexual Nonfiction: Border Sexualities, Border Families in Schools by Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli,Rowman & Littlefield

Transgender Fiction: Holding Still For as Long as Possible by Zoe Whittall, House of Anansi Press

Transgender Nonfiction: Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community edited by Noach Dzmura, North Atlantic Books

Lesbian Erotica: Sometimes She Lets Me: Best Butch/Femme Erotica edited by Tristan Taormino, Cleis Press

Gay Erotica: Teleny and Camille by Jon Macy, Northwest Press

Lesbian Poetry: The Nights Also by Anna Swanson, Tightrope Books

Gay Poetry: Pleasure by Brian Teare, Ahsahta Press

Lesbian Romance River Walker by Cate Culpepper, Bold Strokes Books

Gay Romance: Normal Miguel by Erik Orrantia, Cheyenne Press