A few weeks back I visited the one and only physical LGBTQ+ book shop in Belgium. ‘Kartonnen Dozen’. ‘Cardboard Boxes’. Covid-19 has made me and B’s tendency to order online soar, but this, I wanted to do in person. Obviously. It’s a book shop. Gotta stay true to my nature here.
My ever-simmering desire to break the heteronormative mould in the fiction the kids consume soars too, at times. Usually after an episode of Peppa Pig.
What an absolute privilege it is, to be able to do just that. I realise that, in theory. Sharing a server with people condemned to the closet until they swap countries, I’m learning to switch my gears back and forth. There is value in that, as there is in racing forward whenever life offers you the chance.
So what better than to walk the eldest into the book store and say: “You can read now. Take your pick.”
I’m still getting used to that. Before, it didn’t matter what language the books in the children’s bookcase were written in, but today, it does. And most of the LGBTQ+ children’s books we have, I gathered on a journey of my own. They were not the stories my eldest would pick. He picked a book about trees, and one about an invisible friend in the shape of a crocodile.
And I, I picked Girls Made of Snow and Glass, by Melissa Bashardoust.
Which I finished in the span of three days. A speed that amazed me I was still capable of. Girls Made of Snow and Glass is a retelling of Snow White. From the blurb alone, I reckoned it stood a strong chance to entrance me. A blind pick.
It’s been a while since I did that. The last time must have been during a shopping trip on a weekend at sea.
And it was a lucky one too, since that was the weekend when I told a dear a friend how, in my head, I was always writing. So more often than anyone saw. No matter where I am, no matter when I am, the urge revives with every story that steals my heart. There have been multiple stories like that since, but no more blind picks. I’ve replaced them with research. And I’ve resolved to stop doing that. The magic of reading demands I stop doing that, at least occasionally.
The first bike trip I made into town on my own as a kid, was to the library. Every two or three weeks. The amount of books I brought home varied with the current borrowing limits and the stretch on the binder of my bike. How many can she take at once? Eventually I discovered that with my parent’s library cards and mine combined, my carrier capacity was my limit.
The only limit.
If all these books appealed to me, I finished them all. I don’t think it often happened that I did not. Of course there were books, and then there were BOOKS. The ones that stole my breath away. That I remembered for months, years, to come.
The ones that reflect in what I write today.
My teenage room gave way to a storage room that held rows of books from my parents, and I tried and finished many of those, too. Despite that I never managed to appreciate books in the adult section with the same open gaze again. Did the books change? Did I change?
I think it’s a little bit of both. Perhaps with age, the mould gains force, and we are quicker to realise it doesn’t fit. Or maybe YA writers are just a tad more badass. Who is to say?
When I started writing the current version of Mesmer, reading became research.
Belgium will allow you to find LGBTQ+ literature in general bookstores. Today. I never stumbled upon it as a child, but I did in my teens. Targeted blurb reading helps. Still, finding historical fiction to compare to Mesmer was a blast. Boudicca? The novels of Spartacus? Ha. Such fun reads. Phyllis likes her fun, and oh gosh, the genre struggles to allow for that.
I struggled to find Phyllis, so I knew I could read one hundred library novels about the Roman Empire and still risk not to find Marcus. I know I did not meet him as a child, because I would have remembered. I know because when I dove into the historic background behind the comics I loved, that same background that treated my gender as a commodity, ridiculed him.
Tag swords and sandals on online writing platforms like Wattpad, Archive of our Own, Tapas, and you will have different findings. Hello smut. Can’t say I’ve never had fun with you. Research. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.
Mesmer isn’t smut and it’s, especially in book one, not a romance. It’s a search for identity. For all three main characters, and for me. All the other stories I have ever written have been snapshots of what I was while wrote them. Mesmer is the story that has evolved with me. Phyllis and Cornelis were born in the forests I grew up dreaming of, searching out, racing through.
Marcus was born in a different world. His function was to keep the plot from falling apart under Phyllis’s youthful lunacy. He is my voice inside the male-dominated society she will collide with. And while he has a found family that has kept him critical of said society, part of him is still shaped by it. Daring to portray that has been a journey. One I have not finished.
When you research, whether for a story or for yourself, sources matter. First-hand accounts matter. Own voices matter, and your average Boys Love anime targets straight women, not gay men. By copying the same tropes that I stopped being able to stomach in straight fiction somewhere near the end of my twenties. (Wow, that took long.) Funny story, Boys Love often handles that by erasing women from the narrative, more than most of the gay authors I have read.
To be consummated upon recommendation became the new manual. We only have so much time after all.
In a way we always read upon recommendation. What gets traditionally published is, at its very best, a recommendation. At its worst, a marketing choice. Reviews are a recommendation. The way ‘Girls made of Snow and Glass’ was positioned towards me on the shelf, with its shimmering blank cover, and lettering black as ebony, was a recommendation.
Where I stood, in the middle of Antwerp, in an LGBTQ+ book shop, was a recommendation.
My husband starts watching movies knowing next to nothing about them. Sometimes he quits, but not often. Sometimes he consults second opinions, but he takes the chance first.
Just like little me, who didn’t particularly like the ‘about the author’ part of a book review. The author wasn’t relevant, back then. To know them killed the magic. Even with my absolute favourites, I don’t think knowing much about the author has often brought me peace of mind.
JK Rowling was hard to get around. She became so omnipresent you couldn’t call yourself a fan without knowing her.
And look how well that turned out.
B is racing his way through Star Trek: Discovery now, and knew next to nothing before he dove in. Except that it was a cult series once, and he missed the boat back then. He boarded this time. All I have of that journey are moments of glancing sideward at a television screen, when a particular scene pulls me out of my reading or writing. So I’m not an expert, but it looks worthwhile.
I finished ‘Girls Made of Snow and Glass’ without reviews, without consulting opinions, and I will not seek them to validate my own. It’s been too long since I did that.
This book, to me, matters.
I’ve become cautious. A value as a researcher, a trap as a reader. To find the reflection you seek, you hand over the element of surprise. When I travel back to Antwerp, to the same bookshop, that’s exactly what I’ll claim. And that’s what I want to share, when, hopefully soon, part of my online crowd gathers there.
A deep dive, with more than just a fleeting chance to see yourself reflected as you hurtle towards the water.