Category: Uncategorized

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July Theme Table — Persistent Voices: Writers Lost to AIDS and Those Left to Remember

After a month of pride and celebrations, we’re taking July to honor the memory of the creativity and talent that was lost to the AIDS/HIV crisis, and those who work to preserve their memory.


Book Review: “The Town of Babylon,” by Alejandro Varela

Babylon boasts all the hallmarks of suburbia: strip malls, single-family homes, and almost no sidewalks in sight. Andrés hates it. He grew up as one of the few low-income and non-white students in his Catholic high school, sneaking around with his classmate, Jeremy, to make out secretly in basements and the backseats of cars. Now, he’s a professor of public health, and openly (but not happily) married to his husband, Marco. Andrés returns to his hometown to care for his ailing father, but he resents this place where his leftist values are in the minority, and where his brother’s early death dredges up a quiet guilt about his own upward mobility. On a whim, Andrés decides to swing by his high school reunion, catalyzing a reckoning with his hometown.

The Town of Babylon plots Andrés’ family and classmates like data points: mapping their migrations into the town, the racial hierarchies that organized which families were segregated to which neighborhoods, or who held the jobs and who worked them. We follow Varela through the histories of Andrés’ immigrant parents (Álvaro and Rosario), his brother, his first love, his former best friend, and his homophobic classmate. At his high school reunion, Andrés can’t take off the glasses of his public health professorship: he throws around speculative statistics about how many people have diabetes, how many people’s parents are cops, and how many of his classmates are named “Lisa” or “Nicole.”

The scientific lens that Andrés brings to this homecoming tale offers rich ground for exploring questions of agency and social mobility–questions as pressing for a teenage Andrés as a present day one. Why did Álvaro and Rosario have to work so hard? Why was Paul so homophobic in high school? Why did Andrés go to college, and Henry didn’t? Toggling between the past and the present, Andrés struggles against statistics. He understands how our circumstances determine our lives, but he also wants things to be different. The public health perspective holds the power of narrative: to tell a story that might inflate or disappear a person’s agency over their own life. The Town of Babylon unfolds so beautifully because Varela is hyper-aware of this power, and his primary concern is with wielding it fairly. 

So while Andrés can eloquently explain the social forces that caused his father’s ill health, his best friend’s seclusion in a psychiatric facility, or Henry’s death, he struggles with his inability to change these circumstances for the people he loves. To look at injustice and grapple with the question–what can, or what should, any one person do?–is an enormous task, and I’m not sure the novel succeeds in excavating the depths of where this question could lead. We end up lost in the many threads of backstory. The book is most interesting, I think, when Andrés’ optimism is checked by the realities he’s encountering, or when his politics are contradicted by his own desires. Speaking of desire, there’s also a gorgeous story of lost love embedded within Andrés’ homecoming. Jeremy disarms Andrés in a way that transforms his resolve to never look back at where he came from. Andrés has something to offer Babylon, and perhaps Babylon has something to offer him.

Varela’s compassion for his characters brings us sensitive portraits of queerness emerging in the cracks of American suburbia (metaphorically speaking–in Babylon there are still no sidewalks). Varela’s attention to the everyday negotiations of power and resistance are what make his book so fascinating to read. Babylon joins the ranks of books like Memorial by Bryan Washington, All The Water I’ve Seen Is Running by Elias Rodriques, or Little Fish by Casey Plett in tackling the generative messiness that arises when queer people return to their places and families of origin. If you want to read more of Alejandro Varela’s work, you’re in luck: his short story collection, The People Who Report More Stress, is out now. –Leo

June New Releases

Celebrate Pride with new queer books!

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Book Review: “Monstrilio,” by Gerardo Sámano Córdova

What do monsters have to do with queer books? From Frankenstein’s monster to Nosferatu to the most obscure of X-Files cryptids, monsters are threats to “normal” straight society. There’s definitely rich analysis to be had about the historical associations between queerness and monstrosity. But monster media is also so much fun. Any Jennifer’s Body devotee knows that some of the best queer media plays up the thin line between fear and desire. Who doesn’t want the adrenaline rush of thinking they’re going to be eaten by Megan Fox?

While Frankenstein might be the first book we think of as the “monster novel,” its queer descendants are taking up the inhuman body to explore queer sexualities and life. If you’re chasing the thrill of reading authors like Carmen Maria Machado, Gretchen Felker-Martin, or Shirley Jackson, put Monstrilio at the top of your reading list. 

When eleven-year-old Santiago passes away, his mother doesn’t cry. Instead, Magos does what feels natural: she cuts open Santiago’s body and extracts a piece of his lung, storing it in a jar for safekeeping. The lung becomes her secret stowaway, accompanying Magos to her mother’s home in Mexico City, where she retreats to grieve. On little but a folktale and a hunch, Magos spoons some chicken broth into the jar, watching for signs of life. Remarkably, the tiny piece of tissue grows and grows into a little creature, affectionately named Monstrilio. But the more the “grief creature” grows, the more his family struggles to satisfy his hunger. 

Monstrilio is Gerardo Sámano Córdova’s debut novel. Divided into four parts, the story dedicates a section to each of its four central characters: Magos, Lena (the woman who is in love with her), Joseph (Santiago’s father), and a mysterious “M.” A writer and artist from Mexico City, Córdova’s affection for gothic images shines through his work. In Monstrilio, a family’s love for such a terrifying monster mirrors their struggle to reckon with their own queerness and deviance–the monster uncovers the monstrous within.

Grief might be where Monstrilio begins, but the story isn’t exactly a tear-jerker. Córdova’s writing is detached–the novel is ruled by an otherworldly logic from Magos’ very first cut into her son’s body. It’s the kind of dreamlike state when a loss is just so overwhelming that the pain becomes ambient, and nothing feels real. For Magos, if Santiago can be dead, maybe none of the rules of the world make sense. These logical slips give way to intimate, weighty realizations about grief that Córdova sneaks in between the more action-packed moments of the novel. The beats are quieter, but they’re certainly there. If you’re interested in reading about grief, Monstrilio offers a beautiful, human portrayal of how far a person will go to avoid confronting such an immense loss.

But as the moves forward, it becomes clear that Monstrilio is also built for fans of horror. Monstrilio’s uncontrolled hunger is made way more terrifying by his pointed fangs, jaw that can unhinge to the width of his body, and extra long limb built for swinging from branch to branch while he hunts. His family desperately tries to figure out how to contain him as he feasts on basement rats, neighborhood pets, and threatens to graduate to larger beasts. Córdova’s horror winks at genre conventions, but the way he writes gore is so visceral and inventive that it doesn’t land as redundant.

By the final section, Monstrilio has matured into a teenager, and his family encourages him to pass as human. He’s going to restaurants, working in a bookstore, and venturing onto dating apps to meet boys. As Córdova adopts M’s perspective, we realize that M doesn’t just feed on pets because he misses a meal, M is always hungry. Witnessing M’s desire to eat is so satisfying after reading three characters who repress their feelings so forcefully. Who can blame M? He wants to eat men! He was born this way, baby! 

There’s an obvious parallel between M’s desire for men and his desire for human flesh. Córdova flirts with a commentary on social deviance that will resonate with queer readers, but it’s not overbearing. Rather than divorcing M’s queerness from his monstrous hunger, Córdova takes the likeness further, taking us through M’s teenaged dating app escapades as he tries to find – a boyfriend? A victim? The clever tension between cruising and hunting makes for a kinky, terrifying, and thrilling fourth act. It’s also what might align Monstrilio not with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but with Susan Stryker’s. Córdova doesn’t reinvest in “human” as a category any more than he invests in the straight or cis. In this book, the monster speaks back, and he doesn’t want to assimilate. — Leo