Hot on the heels of the amazing A CHANGE IS GONNA COME, Stripes have unveiled their newest anthology to celebrate diverse writers – this time from the queer community. With four new exciting voices on the lineup, we spoke to Karen Lawler, Cynthia So, Michael Lee Richardson and Kay Staples to find out what we can expect!
1.) What does the idea of pride mean to you?
KL: Sheesh hard question (that I should probably come up with an answer for)! I suppose Pride for me means two things. First it has a personal meaning – it is about being authentically myself. It’s about holding hands with my wife wherever we go and seeing people like me in public spaces. Second, it has a community meaning – it is about fighting for and protecting our rights, and contributing to that fight across the world, especially in places where there is so much work to do to ensure that our community is treated equally and protected.
KS: Pride means loving and accepting the good things about yourself and refusing to be ashamed.
CS: It means recognising the value I bring to the world just by being my weird nerdy queer self.
2.) Have you written before submitting to Proud?
CS: Yep! I’ve been writing since I was tiny. I recently had two short stories published in sci-fi/fantasy magazines, Arsenika and Anathema. Also, I completed three NaNoWriMos as a teenager!
ML-R: I only really came to writing in my 20s. I’m from a working class family and I grew up in a working class town, and it had never really occurred to me that somebody like me could be a writer. When I was 25, I went through a whole bunch of life changing stuff – stuff that felt like a catastrophe at the time, but ended up being the catalyst for some big, exciting changes – and I wrote my first full, finished thing, a telly script about queer kids and nights out. That script got me onto a Masters course in writing for television, and I’ve never really looked back. A script I wrote that I’m really proud of was runner up in the BBC’s Trans Comedy Award a couple of years ago, and my first funded short film, My Loneliness is Killing Me (directed by Tim Courtney), came out this year. Writing prose is fairly new – so it feels pretty exciting for it to be part of a collection that I’d be eager to read even if I wasn’t in it!
KS: I got my first taste of creative writing when I was 5 and just kind of never stopped. I studied it at uni, I work in marketing/web content writing, I’ve finished a novel, and I’m working on an even better one in my spare time these days.
3.) What do you think will be the most surreal thing about being published in the Proud collection?
KL: Aside from everything??? Probably the fact that an artist will be creating a illustration based on my story. That is pretty cool.
CS: Sharing anthology space with David Levithan, whose books I have been reading since I was 15. By the time Proud comes out it will have been an entire decade since I first started reading and loving David Levithan’s writing, and I will be in the SAME BOOK as him. His books gave me so much hope when I was younger. (Even now they still do.) I want to give other teenagers the same hope.
M L-R: Being published in the same book as so many writers I’ve loved and admired over the years is very exciting – especially David bloody Levithan, who feels like the Daddy of queer YA at this point! I keep seeing A Change is GonnaCome on display whenever I’m in Waterstones and thinking that’s going to be us this time next year, which is going to be pretty surreal.
KS: I’ve already come out to my parents via the press release, so I don’t think anything can really top that on the surrealism front.
4.) Why are collections like A Change is Gonna Come and Proud so important within the YA community?
KL: As the book says, a change is gonna come, but it requires us to take action to make that change happen. These collections are just a part of what the whole publishing industry needs to do, but they are a great first step.
CS: They show YA readers that there are so many stories worth telling and celebrating. The UK publishing industry still has a long way to go, but these anthologies are all the more important for that. If you feel invisible, if you feel like your voice is constantly drowned out by all those other dominant voices in the world shouting over you, these anthologies show you that there are people who hear you. There are people who see you. Come here. Come tell us your story, too.
M L-R: As well as introducing readers to new writers – and writers that are new to them – I think the most important thing about collections like A Change is Gonna Come and Proud is that they expand the scope of the sort of stories we’re allowed to tell. Some of my favourite Young Adult books with gay and queer men as protagonists were written by (straight) women – recently, Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun and Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda, both books that I love – but it’s always struck me that the majority of books with queer characters weren’t written by queer authors. Even if it’s just to show queer readers that being queer and writing about queer experiences is possible, I think it’s exciting – and important – that all of the writers in the collection are also LGBTQ+.
KS: I can’t stress how vital they are. Young adulthood is a difficult period to live through, and seeing yourself and people like you represented in the stories you read can do so, so much to help you feel just a little less alone. On a wider front, books in general are still too white and too straight – anthologies like these help shift things a little, showcase the brilliant writers already working, and push new voices into the spotlight. And besides, reading the same kind of tropes and characters over and over is just plain old boring.
5.) What LGBTQ+ rep did you have in media growing up?
KL: The first thing that comes to mind is Ross’s joyless ex-wife Carol in Friends. Though Susan was pretty cool.
KS: The short answer is that I didn’t. I remember Stephen Fry and Lily Savage on telly, Scissor Sisters in the charts. That was kind of it. We didn’t even have LGBTQ+ books or information in schools, shops, or libraries, thanks to the long arms of Section 28. I grew up with next to no understanding about what it was like to be the person I’d end up being. Things could have been a lot different if I’d had the resources to figure out the scope of my queer identity when I was young rather than in my twenties. This is why books like Proud are so important. These young people exist and they deserve to know that there are thousands of us and that we’re all doing okay, actually.
CS: If we’re talking visual media, I think mostly of Torchwood and Glee. As for characters who actually looked anything like me… *nervous laughter* I rewatched Saving Face a few times–it’s a delightful romantic comedy about Asian-American lesbians. That was the only time I really saw queer East Asian women on screen. I also had Malinda Lo’s books!
M L-R: LGBTQ+ representation has always been my jam, so I think I had quite a lot of representation growing up, but only because I sought it out! Films like Paris is Burning, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and But I’m a Cheerleader! – the film
that taught me how powerful queer joy can be, and how funny queer people are when we’re together – were really important to me, as a teenager. I think I’ve always been particularly drawn to stories told by queer people, for a queer audience. Some of the queer stuff I read or saw when I was growing up – stuff like Queer as Folk, which is still one of my favourite queer stories – felt so grown up, and at such a distance from my own life, that they might as well has been science fiction.
Growing up in rural Northumberland – Newcastle was an hour away on the bus, and the bus only came once every couple of hours – Manchester might as well have been on the moon. I think what’s particularly exciting about where we are now – and a collection like this one – is that we can tell stories about younger queer people, for younger queer people, that really reflect where they’re at in their own lives.
Reading David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy for the first time was transformative – it was the first time I’d ever read anything that was about people my age, in school like me (even if the school in Boy Meets Boy is pretty special!) – and I’m so excited for the younger readers coming to this anthology, that they might get to have an experience like that.
6.) What writers have most influenced your writing style?
CS: Ovid, Catherynne M. Valente, and Neil Gaiman have really influenced the aesthetic of my fantasy writing in particular. When I’m working on contemporary/realistic YA, I’m most inspired by writers like Nina LaCour and Alice Oseman.
M L-R: Russell T Davies, definitely, all that warmth and heart and humour. He’s the poet laureate of gay and queer men, for me, and I’ve loved everything he’s done, from Queer as Folk to Doctor Who to Cucumber. My favourite books are Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage, a queer, feminist retelling of the Noah’s Ark story, told from the perspective of Noah’s wife’s cat and featuring a time travelling trans Satan – she’s one of the goodies – that I wish more people had read.
As a reader, I tend towards Young Adult – contemporary, romance, and a very specific sort of Buffy-influenced sci fi/fantasy (things set in high schools, usually, rather than sword and sorcery) – and I love Rainbow Rowell and Andrew Smith, John Corey Whaley’s Noggin and Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison’s books, and Simon James Green’s Noah Can’t Even. There should be more funny books, and more funny queer books, I think.
KS: The YA writers I tend to draw on Stephen Chbosky, David Levithan, Jaclyn Moriarty, and Patrick Ness the most. Outside of YA, I take cues from writers like Oscar Wilde, Donna Tartt, Nick Harkaway, Ursula Le Guin, and a whole host of web and magazine writers too.
7.) Outside of the theme of pride, what other ideas did you want to examine with your short story?
KL: I was also aiming for fun lesbian romantic comedy.
CS: The weight of familial expectations, especially in Chinese society, and that need to seek approval from your family. Also: what it’s like to be in love with your best friend!
M L-R: As a youth worker, I’ve worked with LGBT+ young people for nearly a decade now, and I’ve often felt like some of the types of young people I’ve worked with haven’t really been reflected in the stories I’ve seen. It’s definitely changing now, but I think some of that comes from the fact that queer characters often exist as cyphers in stories, as foils or accessories to the (straight) protagonists. That doesn’t reflect my life – I can go for days without seeing or speaking to a straight/cis person! When I decided I wanted to write about a team – and the theme would come from the idea of someone being proud to be part of a team – it felt like I’d found the perfect vehicle for exploring a bit of a mix of queer identities and expressions. The story is told from the perspective of a gay trans dude, and the other team members I focused on – a (ginger!) bi dude, an overtly femme, queeny guy (think Jonathan van Ness, but in his 20s and Scottish!), a non-toxic masc guy, and their cool, dykey coach and her nerdy girlfriend – are all different, but their queerness brings them together as a team.
KS: I wanted to explore gender and the complicated ways we interact with it, as
well as class and how a lack of opportunities can affect young people. And love,
8.) What has been your proudest achievement to date?
CS: Quite honestly, the fact I’m going to be published in Proud! The moment I saw the Proud acceptance in my inbox, I was on the Tube and I wanted to yell out the announcement to everyone in the carriage. Not sure they would have appreciated that though, so thankfully I restrained myself. (Other than that– finishing my Classics degree at Oxford with a Double First!)
M L-R: Finding out my story was in this collection is definitely one of them! I set up and ran Trans Youth Glasgow, a youth project for transgender young people, for 7 years. Sometimes that was exhausting and sometimes it was challenging, and sometimes it felt like we were putting the tracks down in front of the train in what’s already a really difficult funding environment, but there’s a magic in queers coming together, and being able to make a space for transgender young people to do that – a space that didn’t exist before, in Glasgow – is something I’m really proud of.
9.) What advice would you give to someone struggling to find their writing voice, or their own pride?
CS: It can take time and that’s okay! I stopped writing creatively for four years while I was at uni. I came back to it, in the end. Trust that it’s there even when you can’t find it. For both your writing voice and your pride, I think it’s possible that they’re always works in progress and ever-evolving. Your perception of yourself might change; you might change the way you identify, or the way you express yourself. And it’s important to understand that as much as society likes us to be certain, it’s okay not to be. You can be proud of yourself without being sure of who you are. You don’t have to be able to come out to everyone in order to be proud. You can have pocketfuls of pride here and there. But it really helps to find your community, people with whom you feel comfortable being truly yourself. I found my community on the Internet long before I found it in real life. If you’re both a writer and LGBTQ+, I have often found that writing is how I explore my identity and strengthen my pride.
KL: In terms of writing, I think the most important thing by far is to just keep plugging away. Even if you don’t think what you’re writing is good, it’s all practice.
KS: In both cases: Just keep exploring and seeing what fits. Have fun with it, take your time, remember that there’s no deadline. I’m in my late twenties and I’m still finding mine.
10.) If you could go back and tell 15 year old you one thing, what would it be?
CS: You’re doing amazing sweetie (More seriously: Just because you don’t like that one boy doesn’t mean you’re not bi! Honest!)
M L-R: Sometimes your world feels really, really small, and like that will never change, but you have everything you need to make your life what you want it to be. When people in your life will try to make you feel dumb for feeling the way you do or acting the way you do or liking the things you do, tell them to go and ride the bus. Oh, and in, like, six months your friend is going to convince you to get highlights and it is a really, really bad decision. Have fun having literally black hair for like 2 years afterwards, goth.
11.) What hopes do you have for the future of LGBTQ+ publishing? Are there any stories that you’re still yearning to see?
CS: Please let there be more LGBTQ+ characters of colour! Also, I’m still waiting for an epic YA fantasy series with a sweeping queer romance at the heart of it.
KL: I would love to see a wealth of funny, lighthearted stories across multiple genres. At the moment, a big chunk of YA LGBTQ+ literature and movies focuses on coming out, or societal rejection, or conversion therapy. Those are important stories too, but I would absolutely love to see more fantasies, thrillers and rom coms with LGBTQ+ protagonists at their hearts.
KS: I want to see a bigger variety of stories. Comedies, detective novels, Pulitzer winners, horror stories, the whole lot. We’re everywhere, in all walks of life, and I’d love to see LGBTQ+ people in all kinds of stories too.
I Hate Darcy Pemberley by Karen Lawler
Karen Lawler is an American living in London with her awesome wife and extremely cute dog Buffy. She loves reading, especially sci fi, fantasy, YA and historical non-fiction, and she funds her book habit by working in children’s publishing. She loves a good teen movie (10 Things I Hate About You is the best and she will fight you on that). This is the first time her writing has appeared in print.
The Other Team by Michael Lee Richardson
Michael Lee Richardson is a writer and youth worker from Glasgow. As a screenwriter he has written comedy for CBBC and BBC Alba. His original work has been shortlisted for BBC Scotland’s Frank Deasy Award and the BAFTA Rocliffe Comedy Award and his young adult comedy Real Life Experience was ‘highly commended’ for BBC Writersroom’s Trans Comedy Award. His short film My Loneliness is Killing Me – directed by Tim Courtney – will debut at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June 2018. In 2015 he won the Scottish Book Trust New Writer’s Award in the Children and Young Adult category. As a youth worker, he set up and ran Trans Youth Glasgow, a youth group for transgender children and young people, part of LGBT Youth Scotland. He currently work for LEAP Sports Scotland on Trans Team, a project aimed at encouraging transgender young people to engage with sport and outdoor activities.
The Phoenix’s Fault by Cynthia So
Cynthia So is bisexual and proud to be queer. She is Chinese, born in Hong Kong and now living in London. She studied Classics at university. Her writing has appeared in speculative fiction magazines including Anathema: Spec from the Margins, which publishes work by queer people of colour.
On The Run by Kay Staples
Kay Staples is a writer from the Midlands. After studying creative writing at the University of Birmingham, Kay now works in marketing as a content writer in London, and listens to an awful lot of alternative music.
Stripes will publish PROUD in paperback in March 2019.