In "Real Queer America: LGBT Stories From Red States," Samantha Allen, a transgender reporter, revisits red-state locations from her past on a cross-country journey.
In 1989, before the United States was quite as divisively separated into red and blue states, reporter Neil Miller traveled across the country interviewing men and women living openly gay lives in settings outside of the usual urban gay meccas. The resulting book, "In Search of Gay America," is a clear precursor for the present volume by Allen ("Love & Estrogen," 2018), a GLAAD Award–winning journalist who covers LGBT issues for the Daily Beast. Despite some progress over the last several years, discrimination and human rights violations continue to plague the LGBT community, particularly in rural regions within red states. The author traveled from Provo, Utah, where she attended Brigham Young University, to locations in Texas, Bloomington, Indiana, where she met her wife at the Kinsey Institute, as well as Tennessee and other spots in the South. Along the way, she reacquainted herself with friends and mentors from her past or recent social media contacts, many of whom are also transgender. Readers old enough to recall the memorable profiles captured in Miller’s book might expect a similar approach here, at least based on the book’s summary and the author’s journalist credentials. However, Allen tells a more personal story relating to her own transformational experience, which, while often instructive, pulls attention away from the fascinating individuals she encountered on her trip. Though she generously acknowledges the strong work they are doing within their communities and sheds meaningful light on the progress achieved within these red-state regions, she doesn’t allow their portraits to come into clear focus; all too often their stories revert back to her. By the end of the book, few of these folks will be memorable for readers.
While expanding awareness on the efforts being made in the LGBT community within red states, this journey feels somewhat perfunctory, and the narrative rarely sustains the promise shown in the opening chapters.
(Allen will speak and sign copies of her book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd. Information: bookpeople.com)
Exploring Houston's myriad cultures
Bryan Washington's debut, "Lot," is a sensitive portrait of life among Houston's struggling working class.
At the center of this debut collection is a preternaturally observant, unnamed Afro-Latinx boy who narrates many of the stories. His philandering father eventually abandons the family, while his mother's pain at this betrayal permeates the home even after the father's disappearance. His brother, Javi, is a neighborhood drug dealer who reacts to this dysfunction with mean-spirited aggression against the narrator; his sister, Jan, distances herself from the family. Amid this domestic strife, our narrator begins to discover his sexuality through a string of encounters with other neighborhood boys. This is difficult for the narrator, whose brother is an intensely disapproving and homophobic figure. When the narrator's sexuality isn't met with disdain, it is mostly obscured in silence, in his family's collective inability to recognize who he is. But we don't get much of a chance to know him, either: Though he is the collection's epicenter, he functions more like a reader stand-in than an actual character, providing us access to his world. The collection ripples outward from his perspective, using story to bring Houston's myriad cultures to life. In "Alief," we're introduced to Aja, a married Jamaican immigrant who begins a torrid affair with a local white boy — much to the chagrin of the Greek chorus–like neighbors. Their nosy disdain sets a tragic denouement in motion. In the collection's centerpiece, "Waugh," a sex worker named Poke and his pimp, Rod, deal with the profession's inherent dangers; rather than painting a portrait of abjection, however, Washington gives us the story of a tightknit community of marginalized people who cling to one another for safety and support. For all of this, however, there's something airy about this book. Despite its aspiration to represent a city, its prose often feels maddeningly abstract. "Elgin" begins this way: "Once, I slept with a boy. Big and black and fuzzy all over. We met the way you meet anyone out in the world and I brought him back to Ma's." This vagueness characterizes many of the stories' voices, such that they are often indistinguishable from one another. The collection sometimes feels more like a collection of modern fables than the hard-nosed, realist stories it wants to be. Still, Washington writes with an assurance that signals the arrival of an important literary voice.
"Lot" is a promising, and at times powerful, debut that explores the nuances of race, class and sexuality with considerable aplomb.
(Washington will speak and sign copies of his book at 7 p.m. Wednesday at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd. Information: bookpeople.com)