Literature as Life

A novel is not an allegory, I said as the period was about to come to an end. It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don’t enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won’t be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing. 
Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi

This past week in one of my classes, we started Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. The book, billed as “a memoir in books”, follows the author’s journey as a professor at the University of Tehran during the Islamic Revolution and into the aftermath, and bases her memories around the books she taught at that time. It’s beautifully written, conceptually interesting, and packs a heavy punch of ideas. The above quote comes towards the end of the section on The Great Gatsby, and to me sums up the how I feel about literature as a whole. In particular, I think Nafisi’s idea of literature as breath, life, and experience is particularly important to queer people, and in particular queer kids.

When I first started really thinking about my identities, and how I wanted to portray myself, I turned to books. The internet is a huge resource for queer kids (and I’m definitely writing about that later- stay tuned!), but because I started working in a library at about the same time I really started coming out and tapping into the various possibilities I had as a not-straight person, books became my gateway. I was lucky enough to have an openly lesbian librarian mentor, who sort of instinctually took me under her wing and pointed me towards some of the classic queer books that she’d read. I discovered fiction and nonfiction, memoir and fictional autobiography, layers and layers of literature. I breathed books.

Looking back, books were the best thing for me. I had the benefit of being able to check books out on my own, without having to take them to the circulation desk, so I avoided the embarrassment of having to reveal my reading preferences to the world when I wasn’t ready to. (Working at a library does have its benefits.) Books gave me answers I didn’t know I was looking for, terms and ideas I wouldn’t have known to Google. I checked out books on queer theory, butch/femme dynamics, poetry written by queer authors, memoirs written by transwomen, YA fiction with queer protagonists, comics with lesbian characters, and vintage lesbian pulp fiction. I dove into the lives of queer characters, and saw myself in them, through their eyes, with their experiences. I lived vicariously through skater bois in San Francisco, closeted teenagers in the Midwest, fiercely political dykes in New York, and everyone in between. Through books, I found myself. Literature became my lifeline to who I wanted to be, what I wanted to become, and what I could achieve with my life and my identity. In the queer characters I found at the library, I found confidence and confidants. I found acceptance. I finally, finally, finally found room to breathe.