Books raised me as much as my parents did. I grew up in a conservative Christian home, so when I had questions I felt I couldn’t voice, books knew the answer.
For example, at age eight, I asked my parents, “What is having sex?”
“Don’t have it,” my parents answered.
Got it. The next day, I found American Girl’s The Care and Keeping of You on a trip to the library. I loved everything about American Girl, including my Addy doll and all the accompanying books. So, I gravitated toward something that felt familiar and was excited their body book existed. It provided answers my parents couldn’t, wouldn’t, provide.
Fast forward to a few years ago, when I slammed into understanding I was queer, and depression rode on its heels. Everything happened at once: realizing I was queer, a dear friend passing away, and falling for someone I would never be with. On top of this, my home was no longer a safe space for me to explore. I left my church because I knew it wasn’t a place I could stay. I felt eight years old again, unable to find answers to questions I desperately wanted to ask. So, I turned to the one thing I could always understand: books. I wanted someone who knew my story without being told — an overwhelming, yet silent, request.
Finding Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies — featuring short stories about women (mostly queer and Black) and religion — changed my whole life. The first story, “Eula,” most resonated with me. It follows two women who meet at a hotel every New Year’s Eve, both active in their church, both deeply closeted. One is ready to risk it all, while the other holds tight to finding the man God has for her. Yes, at the end, they still are intimate with each other, even though the knowledge that they’re going back to their inauthentic lives hangs over them. Deesha’s writing feels blasphemous, comparing kneeling at an altar to kneeling for oral sex. The ending line will always give me goosebumps: “Eula has her prayers, and I have mine.”
When I read those words, I paused and ran to find one of my current journals filled with poetry. Tears filled my eyes because what I had written in my journal was similar — taking things I understood, the ritual of worship, and comparing it to intimate acts with women. Acts I had not yet experienced but innately knew. This provided an answer to questions I did not and could not ask: Is what I am feeling valid? Are writing these thoughts down okay? The answer to both was, yes. Yes, I can correlate my religious upbringing with my sexuality. Both define me and don’t need separation.
For a while after, I found I did not want to read anything but stories that felt similar to my own. What I was looking for was community, and books provided that until I could find my chosen family. Next on my list was The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus. A girl growing up in Trinidad gets outed by her family and sent to New York to live with her aunt. Despite growing up in church and trying to repress her feelings, she falls for someone anyway. It has incredible pop culture references (especially to Whitney Houston) and an accompanying playlist. I devoured it in one day.
When I figured out I was queer, my immediate thought was, “I have no future.” I simply could not figure out a picture of life where I was happy – it did not feel possible. My life has always been so deeply intertwined with my mother’s because of codependency, and I figured the only way out of that was to no longer be alive. These authors helped me imagine hope, and hope turned into a future. I held on as tightly as I could.
Nowadays, my library search is always for queer authors first, if nothing else to reinforce that there are stories to be told, including my own. If you need a book to touch your soul, T.J. Klune weaves fantasy, whimsy, found family, and love in his books, including The House in the Cerulean Sea and Under the Whispering Door. Ever the fantasy reader, I loved The Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki, which brings together queer characters with a love of music and… doughnuts.
Poets like Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, and Nikki Giovani found me when I wasn’t looking. It’s like when you say “I think I want to buy a couch,” and all of a sudden all your ads have to do with couches. The universe (of the Internet) floated them up to me. Reading the words of older queer Black women who wrote unapologetically during a time that forcefully tried to silence them, I felt fortified and affirmed.
Getting book recommendations is one of my favorite things, so I’d love to know – what author(s) changed your life? Have books ever gotten you through a tough time?
Abby Mallett is a freelance writer and editor at Joy The Baker. She lives in Chicago with her girlfriend and three cats. She’s currently reading all the fantasy romances she can get her hands on. She has also written for Cup of Jo about traveling and falling in love. Follow Abby on Instagram, if you’d like.
P.S. How I travel as a queer black woman, and what 9 movies and shows with gay characters meant to me. Plus, sex-positive parenting for prudes.
(Photo by Lucas Ottone/Stocksy.)