The Queer Issue V: Impressions from a Passing Train

I am writing this introduction from a speeding train. The Hudson, brown and wide, is skimming by my window as I hurtle upstate. The countryside is finally green again, the river swollen, and the analogies between the train’s manic progress and our fifth annual Queer Issue are coming fast and thick.

The decision to launch an annual Queer Issue in June 2010, though exciting from the outset, was something we had to discuss at length. Was there real merit to creating a separate space for writing about queer themes in the magazine? We already published a fair number of LGBT authors, and we certainly hadn't shied away from queer content in the past. The deciding impulse, at least on my part, was excitement about a forum where we could encourage an ongoing dialogue about what the queer literary experience looked like in remote corners of the world, and in closer corners reexamined through new eyes.

The mission of Words without Borders is broad and ambitious—to explore and promote the vast and compelling world of international literature. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. The appeal of the Queer Issue is in seeing that great ambition writ small, in discovering the swarm of details and experience that cohere into the big picture of world writing.

In the five years that have passed, we’ve covered a lot of ground while trying to fully embrace this detail and experience. We’ve gone from Indonesia to Morocco, to Greece, Finland, India, Bangladesh, and well beyond. And through it all our own ideas about the issue have evolved and our notions of Queer writing taken on new shape.

This latest installment isn’t a definitive vision of what queer writing looks like today. The train keeps barreling on, gathering flashing, brilliant impressions of the changing scenery, and someone new gets on at every stop with a new story to tell. This June we’re delighted to play host to a company of writers whose fiction, reporting, and poetry form a fascinating view on the landscape of queer literature.

Choosing the work for any of our issues poses a compelling challenge. The Queer Issue poses these, too, and then suggests some obstacles that are uniquely its own. How do we decide what best (and most literarily) represents the experience of being gay around the world? We strive, always, for diversity in our selections, and with the Queer Issue we try to apply this same criterion—looking for work that represents all the various parts of the queer literary experience. We’re very proud of the collection we have this month, which brings sex and sexuality, gender identity, relationships, and often just the minutia of life, to the forefront.

In his piece, Colombian journalist Alberto Salcedo Ramos follows Las Regias, a cross-dressing football team in the city of Cali, who navigate the fraught social currents they find themselves caught in with bawdy good humor. Ramos’s account of the relationships that the players form on the field is subtly interlaced with observations about the hostility and indifference that they have to contend with from the outside world. The invasive force of the outside world is palpable in the extract from Qiu Miaojin’s Last Words from Montmartre, too. Miaojin’s protagonist writes haunting, fiery missives on love, home, sex, and sexuality in this series of diary entries. Her dispatches ache with painful, lyrical insight—their erratic, ecstatic mood prefiguring Miaojin’s tragic suicide at the age of twenty-six.

The Belgian writer Stéphane Lambert brings his own perspective to bear on the theme of lost love. The short extract from his autobiographical narrative Mon corps mis à nu plumbs the emotional depths of an unlikely teen friendship with a serene melancholy that subdues some of the flames of a long-lost adolescence. Meanwhile, the Iranian writer Ghazal Mosadeq follows a young man seeking asylum in France on the basis of his homosexuality. Mosadeq’s story bristles with morose humor as her young man careens between confessions that he may not be gay and his guileless, self-lacerating admiration of the lissome young French men he sees around him. The story deftly weaves together the points of divergence between race, immigration, and sexuality and a young man’s struggle to bring them together.  In Miki Golod’s graphic short, the artist recounts how elements of his past as a medic in the Israeli army resurface in everyday life. A date in Brooklyn starts out like any other but is interrupted by the news of an impending blizzard. As the snow starts to fall, the white blanket of the storm gives way to slow flashes of persistent memory.

In a selection of haiku from her collection Carnia Haikai, the Galician poet Elvira Tobío discusses sex and poetry equally candidly, and makes it difficult to see the line between the appetites and predilections of the two. And in an extract from his novel,  Printemps, Algerian writer Rachid Boudjedra’s protagonist finds that she can’t separate her memories of Algeria from her tumultuous new relationship with a student—as the latter progresses, against news stories of the events of the Arab Spring, she finds herself returning ever more to scenes from her youth and home. And in Olga Pogodina-Kuzmina’s account of a fledgling romance between an older businessman and a young male model, the author unravels the ineffable attraction of fleeting, languorous youth.

In Nao-Cola Yamazaki’s story “Cavities and Kindness” and Javier Malpica’s “For Nina” the two authors make a study of transformation—of self and of memory. In Yamazaki’s story her protagonist remarks that “No one I work with has ever even seemed to notice that I dress like a woman even though I have a man's name,” a fact that quickly recedes into the background as she dictates the travails of her foundering relationship from her recumbent position in her dentist’s chair—refusing an anesthetic that might dull her perception of life. In Javier Malpica’s story, the main character finds her own way of rewriting the account of her life, through a diary she names after her maternal grandmother. “Dear Nina,” she begins each note, telling the story of how she has to bid farewell to one side of her identity and christen another.

These stories give a glimmering view of the scene outside. It’s been a breakneck trip and we’re only just beginning to pick up steam—I hope you enjoy the ride.