LGBTQI writers share their most treasured reads


Stella Duffy

The Passion by Jeanette Winterson

“There have been many books that changed my life, but one that is relevant to this festival is Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. At the time it was published, we writers who were out as lesbian were still expected to write only from and of a lesbian ghetto created by the straight world’s assumptions about us, rather than our own interests. This book cut through all of that, muddying lines around gender and sexuality, story and history. Years later ‘I’m telling you stories. Trust me’ stays with me still. And I do love a story full of water.”

Kiki Archer

Potty Training In One Week by Gina Ford

“I could claim that Alex Haley’s Roots sparked a love of history. Or that Jane Eyre led to a love of all things literary. In reality there’s only one book that’s actually changed my life. No longer was I the mother at playgroup wrestling my combative toddler into a judo hold in an often-failed attempt to change a saggy nappy in front of a group of judging mothers because said combative toddler was too big for the changing station. Instead, I walked with my head held high to the bathrooms, improving my social standing and dramatically cutting the cost of my weekly shop.”

VG Lee

The Unlit Lamp by Radclyffe Hall

“I read The Unlit Lamp at a time when I was trying to reconcile leading my own life with the responsibilities of a demanding ageing parent. The writing might seem dated but the subject matter will resonate with many women today. It is the story of Joan Ogden, and the power struggle between her mother Mary and Joan’s governess and later beloved friend Elizabeth, to win her affection and loyalty. Almost a century old, yet the book remains a relevant page-turner.”

Clare Ashton

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

“Not a queer book, but by a lesbian author, it features a woman in her eighties and her six-year-old granddaughter spending a summer on a Finnish Island. It’s a short, beautifully formed book full of tender, achingly real moments – as if looking back at your own childhood and reliving the most precious parts while simultaneously anticipating your own old age. The book captures these snapshots of life in such an understated, wise and humorous way you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. It makes me treasure everyday moments in my own family life now.”

Rosie Wilby

How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran

“The book I’d like to wave the flag for is Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman. It came out in 2011 when my romantic life and career were at a difficult turning point. The book was so hilarious, yet also made some serious contemporary points about society, and really inspired the way I thought I might write if I ever knuckled down to it. It was also the moment when it suddenly seemed alright to start using the word feminist again.”

Mari Hannah

The Murder Wall by Mari Hannah

“A book didn’t change my life, a woman did! The ambitious cop I’m still with, the inspiration for DCI Kate Daniels in my debut crime novel. Kate is clever, conflicted, torn between professional ambition and a relationship with an ex-partner she still loves. A lesbian in charge is what I was after; a bit part in someone else’s drama wasn’t good enough. That book changed my life: outing me, winning the Polari Prize, making my name. It’s now in the process of a TV adaptation. Go Kate! I’ll shut up now. She can speak for herself.”

Rachel Shelley

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

“When I first read it I was in awe of its ability to intricately detail the inner emotional turmoil of the lead character. I was typically obsessed with the power of emotions generated by simple life events, the pain and the ecstasy. As I’ve aged and re-read it, I understand the title better. How emotions remain a form of bondage. They can be crippling or misleading, destructive or liberating and often irrational. Emotion is what actors trade in. I discovered in my 30s that it’s also my mum’s favourite book, that she’s re-read many times too. Somehow that makes it even more significant.”

Veronica Fearon

Trumpet by Jackie Kay

“I had never read anything like it. I read it many times, discovering more depth each time. I loved the way the story revealed itself through the different characters and the fact that it showed a character embedded in mainstream society. I also found the characters multidimensional and thus completely believable, which allowed me to identify with aspects of all of them. But the thing I most loved was how reading about the main protagonist helped me to see myself in the world.”

Phyll Opoku-Gyimah

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Dr Maya Angelou

“Maya Angelou has always been an inspiration to me. She exudes black excellence, strength, power and resilience. This autobiography illustrates how her strength of character and love of literature helped Maya overcome racism and trauma. It confirmed all of that and more. She is certainly the real ‘Phenomonal Woman’. She lights a fire in my belly to keep fighting for equality, freedom and justice.”

Jacquie Lawrence

She Came series starring private detective Emma Victor by Mary Wings

“Set in San Francisco in the late 80s and 90s, these books manage to mix lesbian pleasure and politics perfectly but stay true to the burgeoning lesbian crime genre. Each novel involves a crime set against the backdrop of an LGBTQ issue but Wing’s skill prevents her from preaching to the perverted. Sassy, sexy and self-knowing, who could resist the double entendre of titles like She Came Too Late and She Came In A Flash? I reread them recently with the revelation that we need kickass Emma Victor to rescue us from the political mire we find ourselves in today.”

Valerie Mason-John

The Threshing Floor, a collection of short stories by Barbara Burford

“I’d left the nest of Dyke life at Leeds University in 1985, and was finding my way as a Black dyke in London. And to my delight, the main story in this collection featured a Black lesbian who had grown up in care. The plot was about Hannah, a Black lesbian, who slowly recovers from the death of her white lover, Jenny, a world-famous, feminist poet. It was the first time I could wholeheartedly identify with a character in a book. This recognition of my dyke transracial identity allowed me to be my authentic self. I had found the bright lights of London.”

Mary Paulson-Ellis

Free Love And Other Stories by Ali Smith

“I first read the title story of this collection when I was in my twenties. I had a small baby on my hip and was questioning everything – what I’d done, where I’d come from, what I might be. And, most urgently of all, who I was going to love. Smith’s tale of unexpected sexual freedom between women was like taking a drink from the purest mountain stream – champagne on the tongue. Suddenly, as the girl at the heart of the story says, ‘life was wondrous, filled with possibility’. There was no turning back after. It helped me dive right in.”

Reeta Loi

The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla

“It’s a collection of essays from 21 of the most talented writers in the UK, who happen to be Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME). The reflections on what it is to be a person of colour in the UK include work from Riz Ahmed, Salena Godden and Reni Eddo-Lodge. Sarah Sahim’s essay on caste struck a chord with my own personal views, whereas works from Vera Chok and Wei Ming Kam were eye-opening for me, making me realise I had little understanding of the experiences of British East Asians. I learnt as much about myself as I did about these writers.”

Karen McLeod

Crocodile Soup by Julia Darling

“Imagine you’re walking down Charing Cross Road and the novel in your pocket, the one you thought no one else was reading and is like a kiss of life that has woken you, has a major display in a bookshop window. As you stare in the window you realise this book – poetic, funny and electric – about a woman in love with a woman in a museum canteen is being celebrated on the very street you are stood on. You think, contemporary lesbian writing is being published. It’s not all Wells Of Loneliness. This changes everything.”

Clare Lydon

Venus Envy by Rita Mae Brown

“I read this book when I was 20, the first I’d ever come across with a lesbian lead. And what a lead Frazier is! On her apparent death bed, she writes letters to her family and friends spelling out what she really thinks of them and revealing her big secret: she’s gay. Then she doesn’t die and all hell breaks loose… Touching, funny and poignant, this book was ground-breaking when it came out in 1994, and still packs a punch. Rita Mae Brown is a fantastic storyteller who’s never played by the rules. She’s undoubtedly one of the reasons I write today.”

Sophia Blackwell

Two Girls, Fat And Thin by Mary Gaitskill

“Growing up in very different bodies but similarly affection-starved environments, Dorothy and Justine bond over their love-hate relationship with Anna Granite, an author whose books fuelled their adolescent fantasies. Mary Gaitskill’s short stories (including the modern classic Secretary) deal with similar themes, but the depth and breadth of this novel gives the characters’ emotions more space to spread out. Two Girls, Fat And Thin deals with women’s lives from early puberty into their late twenties and early thirties, and the tenderness that grows between these two damaged women is as heart-stopping and life-affirming as it is unexpected. An extraordinary book.”

Suzanne Egerton

The Woman In Beige by VG Lee

“Ah, The Night Watch, Sarah Waters’s tour de force. But towering achievement though it is, VG Lee’s The Woman in Beige was the real life-changer. It’s not even her best book (Edina rules), but pre-Amazon the only leslit I could get hold of was (mainly American) romances, dire and formulaic; all luscious lesbians have green eyes, it seems. Blimey, I thought, is this all there is? Then TWIB. Funny, touching, well-written and observed, mischievous realism eclipsing improbable romance. At last, a domestic niche to which I too might aspire. And also to the perfect black jeans!”

Cari Hunter

The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler by Gene Kemp

“As a nine-year-old tomboy who spent her summers haring barefoot around the garden in cut-off dungarees, I probably didn’t understand what an impact this book had on me. But I remembered it when I finally came out, and I still remember it now. It was the book that made me ok. It gave me the courage to ask for an A-Team Combat Headquarters Kit for Christmas, have my hair cut short, and refuse to wear dresses. I still own a copy, and if you want to know what the twist in the tale is, you’ll have to read it.”

Jane Czyzselska

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

“Rankine’s elegantly devastating prose poem about racism in present day America, written before the election of President Trump, traces the way that white people – even well-meaning lesbians and bi women – can perpetuate racism, leaving readers to reflect on how they might contribute to meaningful change.”

Cyd Sturgess

Written On The Body by Jeanette Winterson

“I was given Written On The Body by a friend’s mum when I was 16. I’d just come out and she knew I was having a difficult time. She’d been looking for Oranges but Waterstones had sold out. I was captivated immediately by the gritty romanticism of Winterson’s words and her story of a genderless narrator, ruminating on love and loss. It was, and remains, an utterly subversive and entirely seductive piece of prose. It is a story that taught me, at a time when it was still difficult to believe it, that ‘love demands expression’.”

Liz Kessler

Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown

“I’ll be honest: I don’t remember much about the book itself. What I do remember is that it was the very first book I had read about a lesbian. It was my first year at university and I had just started my first relationship with a girl. I was so scared of being found out that I hid this book in the back of a drawer. Each night I’d sneak it out and read. It filled me with a feeling of power and delight, and hope about the possibilities that lay ahead when I finally came out.”

Lucy Sutcliffe

The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling

“It’s ever so cliche, but Harry Potter absolutely changed my life. I discovered the series at just six years old. I had very few friends, and was extremely shy and awkward. School was a drag and I spent my days imagining I was anywhere else but there. The world of Harry Potter became my escape world. I fell head over heels in love with Hermione. She was strong, independent, and intelligent – everything I wanted to be. Hermione inspired me to be the best that I could be. She made it cool to read, be smart, and not care what other people think of you.”

This article first appeared in the November 2017 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!

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