Voice to Books: Queer Voices of Color

Constraint is often the birthplace of creativity, but it is also the birthplace of struggle and limitation. Arguably, no other people know this better than queer people of color. Faced with the oppression of their very existence, their intersectional identities allow them to thrive in radical self-acceptance and illuminate the horrors they and others face in their daily lives with grace and fearlessness.

In this issue of Voice to Books, we highlight queer authors of color and the characters of color in their stories who show that their identities are more than just checkboxes on questionnaires. We also see glimpses of better, brighter futures, and we also see queer joy and intimacy that does not need to be justified by overcoming tragedy. In a world where white bodies are still protected and seen as the default, these authors and their literature proudly say otherwise.

By Akwaeke Emezi
Reviewed by Karen Parker

Despite its reliance on Christian theology’s angel-monster dichotomy, Akwaeke Emezi’s Pet doesn’t talk down to its readers nor fall into black-and-white moral binaries. Its subtlety at referencing the all too familiar atrocities that transgender people of color currently face is what makes the novel compelling in its unflinching self-awareness.

Children like Jam, the protagonist, are taught that there are no monsters in their peaceful city of Lucille. Many years ago, the angels put a stop to their terror by any means necessary, even using methods deemed monstrous themselves. It would, then, be more accurate to say, as Emezi states eloquently in the opening line, “There shouldn’t be any monsters left in Lucille,” because monstrosity and morality are relative to those who wield it in the name of preserving peace.

Through Jam’s curiosity about Lucille’s history and her place within the community, Emezi reminds us that the greatest evils go unheard, unseen, and unspoken and that it’s up to those who are unafraid to speak truth to power to reveal them. Jam is exactly the kind of Black transgender girl representation sorely needed in YA because she expands the definition of #BlackGirlMagic. Her selective mutism is not a hindrance to her friends and family because it’s the very means by which she uncovers the dark truths lurking within Lucille while also grappling with what it means to withhold hurtful truths from the ones she cares about.

With growing support for defunding police and reinvesting wealth into struggling communities of color, Emezi’s underrated, timely, haunting YA debut gives its readers a glimpse at potential struggles such self-governing communities could face. However, Pet gives readers hope that a community’s educated, outspoken youth are key to its flourishing.


The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water
By Zen Cho
Reviewed by Matt Merendo

This fantasy novel never suffers from its low page count. Cho draws on various Asian histories to amalgamate something new, a world that is, at least, part Chinese and part Malaysian and that, more than the sum of its parts, is a wholly developed, lived-in space/time that never feels like just set decorations. Even though we see only slices of that war-torn world, lives are certainly being lived and battles fought offstage. Incidental characters appear fully grown and fully outfitted, like Athena springing from Zeus’s head; when the main cast of bandits interrupts the daily goings-on in a tailoring shop, there’s no doubt the family will pick up the pieces and keep on going.

Cho is a master of dialog; both the narrative and the world advance through spoken words, each line pregnant with backstory and characterization. The characters who speak more, or are spoken about more, tend to be more fully developed. The protagonist, Guet Imm, and the two primary bandits, Tet Sang and Fung Cheung, get a lot of speaking time and therefore feel more fully fleshed out, with conflicting motives and multifaceted personalities. The rest of the bandits are flat, with no more than one or two token attributes. Ah Boon, for instance, is horny with some medical skills, and Ah Yee is a bad cook.

Despite having a few interchangeable bandits, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water is a fun, engaging story that can be finished in a single sitting. You won’t get to stay in Cho’s fantasy setting for long, but you’ll enjoy the time you’re there.


The Black Flamingo
By Dean Atta

Reviewed by Michael Medina

Dean Atta uses main character Michael—aka the Black Flamingo—to celebrate gender, race, and being uniquely fabulous. A half-Jamaican, half-Greek Cypriot boy growing up in London, Michael doesn’t necessarily struggle with being gay but rather exemplifies how to become one’s best and truest self through poetry, blunders, and courage. He explores love, self-love, and authenticity through performing in drag as he transitions from secondary school through university.

The novel is written in verse, so the audio version recorded by the author is unique with a tone that, for most other books, might sound dry or monotone, but for The Black Flamingo brings a deeper layer of understanding and affection for Michael’s first-person point of view. Experiencing the story in first-person allows what feels like true honesty between the author and the audience; we feel Michael’s pain and opinions whether we agree with them or, as in my case, think they are often immature. This kind of honesty takes down a reader’s guard, allowing them to trust the author and enjoy the journey.

The poetry Atta uses to tell Michael’s story magnifies his personhood, providing necessary detail and perspective in a powerful and compelling way rather than through long, drawn out descriptions. He uses pop culture references and the dramatization of youth to create a convincing teenager’s viewpoint. And while all representation is valid, crucial, and important, The Black Flamingo is a refreshing and rare example of books by and about queer people of color that celebrate diversity and underprivileged populations without having to rely on tragedy or hate.



By Eloghosa Osunde
Reviewed by Brian Hooper

Eloghosa Osunde takes her reader by the hands and leads them to the heart and soul of a West African megacity. Lagos is magical and opulent. It’s full of secrets. Cruel and unfair. It’s also a hostile place for nonbinary/same-sex loving folks and those who aren’t born into privilege. Vagabonds! is a multilayered novel that shines a light on the social ills that define modern-day Nigeria.

It isn’t, however, a primer for those who may not know what it means to be Nigerian. The use of Pidgin English demonstrates Osunde’s unabashed commitment to authenticity. Before European colonization, Lagos was known as Eko, which is also the name of the central character who shows up as an omnipotent spiritual force that outsources its work to a host of other spirits. The use of Eko is an example of the host of cultural references that enrich the landscape of the novel.

Eko and his cohort of spirits are a collective that maintains the societal status quo that disadvantages the characters. The narratives in Vagabonds! present its cadre of personalities as agents of transgression. Its treatment of queerness vacillates between feeling like a celebration and a dark, brooding cloud. Although the characters’ journeys to self-acceptance are paved with opposition and the oppression that flows from it, it’s still a pathway that bends toward their unapologetic truth. The novel culminates with a clarion call for all of those who are seeking liberation.

Vagabonds! masterfully blends Afro-surrealism and personification with resounding clarity. Lagos might not be a familiar place for everyone, but Osunde has deconstructed it for our benefit. And because we can see it, we can know it, and this is the way literature can change us.

Voice to Books is a periodical short list of reviews from a variety of voices, created by Daniela Z. Montes and A.E. Santana and edited by Michael E. Medina and Karen A. Parker.

Michael Medina is a queer writer and purveyor of all things storytelling (from theatre to podcasting to putting words on paper). Pursuing his MFA in creative writing at the University of California, Riverside-Palm Desert’s low-res program, he is a self-proclaimed nerdy social justice warrior whose goal is to infiltrate heteronormative genres with queer, colorful, and inclusive themes.

Karen A. Parker is a Black, bi, nonbinary Secular Buddhist from Los Angeles, California. Now attending UC Riverside-Palm Desert’s MFA program, they hope to research Esoteric Buddhism, oral storytelling tradition, and Black liberation for their debut second-world fantasy novel, which will serve as their literary and academic thesis. When they’re not writing, they enjoy cooking, cartomancy, composing music, critting in Dungeons & Dragons, and completing their video game collection.