Welcome to another edition of Inside the Anthology! Today we’re celebrating Rural Voices: 15 Authors Challenge Assumptions About Small-Town America, ed. by Nora Shalaway Carpenter, which, as you may have guessed, contains rural YA fiction, some of which is queer! It releases today from Candlewick, and here’s some more info:
Gracie sees a chance of fitting in at her South Carolina private school, until a “white trash”-themed Halloween party has her steering clear of the rich kids. Samuel’s Tejano family has both stood up to oppression and been a source of it, but now he’s ready to own his true sexual identity. A Puerto Rican teen in Utah discovers that being a rodeo queen means embracing her heritage, not shedding it. . . .
For most of America’s history, rural people and culture have been casually mocked, stereotyped, and, in general, deeply misunderstood. Now an array of short stories, poetry, graphic short stories, and personal essays, along with anecdotes from the authors’ real lives, dives deep into the complexity and diversity of rural America and the people who call it home. Fifteen extraordinary authors – diverse in ethnic background, sexual orientation, geographic location, and socioeconomic status – explore the challenges, beauty, and nuances of growing up in rural America. From a mountain town in New Mexico to the gorges of New York to the arctic tundra of Alaska, you’ll find yourself visiting parts of this country you might not know existed – and meet characters whose lives might be surprisingly similar to your own.
And here are the authors of the queer stories, talking about their work!
“The Hole of Dark Kill Hollow” by Rob Costello
Dark speculative fiction with a queer bent is my creative wheelhouse. So, when Nora Shalaway Carpenter gave me free rein to contribute any kind of story I wanted to an anthology that would celebrate the rich diversity of teen life in rural America, I knew my piece had to be creepy. “The Hole of Dark Kill Hollow” is the result.
I came up with the idea shortly after a visit my husband and I paid to the Shawangunk Mountains of upstate New York. I’d never been to that corner of my home state before, and something in the air of those thickly wooded peaks and valleys spoke to me. Something mysterious, magical, and perhaps a little bit sinister. Soon, that something had evoked the image of two best friends—one gay, one not, each with secret hurts and desires—as well as the malevolent presence in the woods that offers much but could take everything away from them both.
Yet, the real trick with the story for me lay not in the concept but in getting the characters right. Above all, I wanted to depict a friendship between two teenage boys whose sexuality is irrelevant to their bond. I love queer romance as much as the next gay guy, but I don’t think we see enough portrayals of purely platonic male love in YA. Jesse, my gay protagonist, has an awful lot of problems in his life—really thorny, wrenching, heavy stuff. But his best friend Tyler is his rock. Over the course of the story, as they draw closer and closer to making a terrible mistake, it becomes clear to them (and to the reader) just how precious their friendship truly is.
Life saving, in fact. Together, I hope these two boys will challenge some of the toxic stereotypes about queerness, masculinity, and love that still poison our culture today.
“A Border Kid Comes of Age” by David Bowles
When writing my award-winning MG novel-in-verse They Call Me Güero, I did a lot of digging into my own childhood, growing up in a small community on the Mexican-US border in deep South Texas. Most of what I pulled into the fictional narrative were happy memories, beloved traditions, humorous incidents that I knew would draw readers into the complex and beautiful lives of border folks.
But I stopped short of one of the darker aspects of my adolescence in this Mexican American enclave called the Rio Grande Valley: the fear I felt when I considered the deep-seated homophobia of so many local men. As I realized I was attracted as much by boys as by girls, panic set in. My youngest uncle had just been run out of town, taking refuge at last in Austin, when he was caught outside one of the Valley’s clandestine gay clubs.
Like other queer Chicanx folks of the 80s, I managed to make a sort of peace with myself and those I cared about. Married an incredible queer woman. Eventually became a teacher and a mentor to students who, in slightly more enlightened times, found themselves in similar straits.
At the intersection of their lives and mine, I have crafted “A Border Kid Comes of Age,” a verse short story about the protagonist of They Call Me Güero, four years after the events of that book. I’ve given him the courage and family support I only wish I had enjoyed.
That’s the joy of being an author. You can craft the world you want to see.
All queer teens deserve a happy ending.
So I wrote him one.
“Best in Show” by Tirzah Price
When Nora approached me with the idea for this anthology, I knew exactly what I wanted to write about, and Molly sprang to life almost immediately. Like many of the contributors, I borrowed heavily from my own life when writing “Best in Show,” but I struggled to put into words my experience of growing up queer and rural, and the complicated feelings that arise in me even now.
Like Molly, I showed pigs in 4-H, lived on a farm, and picked up my first date in a farm truck that was older than us both. Like Molly, I’ve felt torn between the excitement of a new crush and the fear that acting on said crush means being visibly different in my town. I enjoy a certain amount of privilege even today—some people are surprised to find that my spouse is not a man—and as I’ve grown older, I’ve gained more confidence in myself and my relationships. But too often growing up rural and queer oftentimes means making a choice between leaving, or sticking around and finding the courage to challenge perceptions in your community, and face questions, discrimination, and even bigotry as they come up. That’s not always easy, and sometimes it’s downright exhausting. And yet, I’ve never wanted to define my hometown by the worst interactions I’ve had with others over who I love, because it discounts all of the fantastic people I know—and many times, some people I thought for sure would write me off have surprised me with their support and acceptance. Overall, I remain optimistic. Not because I want to present an unrealistic view of rural living, but because I want readers, especially teens, who are queer and live in small towns to feel seen, and to feel as though they don’t have to follow the narrative prescribed to them.
Shae Carys, “Black Nail Polish”
When I started “Black Nail Polish,” I had a rough idea of what the story would be about. It’s a bit autobiographical, although I didn’t find out about my Ehlers-Danlos until I was much older than Maddie and our motivations were a little different. I was miserable in high school until I decided to express myself, to dress like I wanted to, wearing black nail polish and lipstick and fishnets and vinyl. It had the added benefit of people making way for me in the halls who had previously tormented me. I later found out that my popular friends envied me for not caring what others thought. I will admit, it was heady.
Maddie’s embrace of the gothic comes from a place of frustration – it’s less about the desire to stand out, since she’ll never fit in. Dealing with the news of a disability is a multilayered process, much like grief. There is a grief to it, certainly some anger. It was important to me that Maddie wasn’t alone in the process of dealing with it, since it can be one of the loneliest things in the world. I will say that in the original version, Maddie’s crush on her best friend was explicit, but in the end, we decided that it didn’t need to be. The crush is still there; it’s just not the focus of the story. I’m sure Maddie will figure herself out later, just like I did.