Today on the site we welcome Becca Spence Dobias, author of On Home (releasing August 24th), to talk about writing queer lit against the backdrop of a hometown you fear won’t accept it and weighing the claim of #ownvoices against the potential resulting hostility. First, here’s a little more about On Home:
When tragedy strikes, Cassidy, a cam girl living in Southern California, must return to the small West Virginia town she left behind. Cassidy likes her job getting naked for men on camera, though she prefers sex with women. She never came out to her family or friends back in her home state―not about her sexuality and certainly not about her sex work. Now, she must figure out how to hold on to the life she’s built for herself while picking up the pieces of her fractured family.
As Cassidy’s story unfolds, we glimpse into the lives of the strong, complicated women who came before her: Jane, the sheltered daughter of farmers, escapes West Virginia for Washington, DC to work as a Government Girl for the FBI during World War II, until a fateful mistake threatens her future. Paloma, a Fulbright Scholar, journeys to newly Westernized Prague―only to fall for an idealistic but safe man from West Virginia.
Though worlds and generations apart, all three search for meaning as they face impending motherhood and the pull to return home to rural Appalachia.
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And here’s the post!
In the first draft of my novel, On Home, my character’s sexuality was ambiguous. I left her relationship open-ended, telling myself it could be read as a very close friendship, though early readers all told me they read it as romantic. I didn’t mention this aspect of the book at all when I crowdfunded it through Inkshares, as I didn’t want to turn off potential supporters. Now I’m preparing to launch a full-on #ownvoices queer book and am reflecting on the journey.
I grew up in a small town in rural West Virginia where very few queer people were out. In my high school, there was a token lesbian and a token gay guy, but everyone else was closeted—and with good reason—the two out teens were harassed constantly. Even without being out, anyone “weird” was called “faggot”—beaten up, made fun of, attacked in the hallways. It made sense, that as someone who was unsure of her sexuality, it was safer to follow what felt like the dominant part of it and pursue guys. A girlfriend and I flirted, talking about our fantasies, but it never felt like something we would actually pursue. It really didn’t even feel within the realm of possibility in the place and time where we grew up.
When I moved to North Carolina for college, my eyes began to open as I met more queer folks. I was so naive that when I found out a friend was a lesbian, I stared at her stunned for a moment and asked, “Like a full lesbian?”
“A full lesbian,” she confirmed, laughing at me. I was both impressed and intimidated.
Though I still only dated men, I experimented with women. My first time with a woman, I reflected that it was like “cake frosting”—almost too sweet and good. I hadn’t experienced sex purely for the physical pleasure of it before; I’d always been too wrapped up in my own head about what the sex meant.
I couldn’t shake my internalized homophobia though. I was fine with other people being queer, but it still felt embarrassing when I was thinking or talking about myself. It didn’t help that my first experiment with coming out went poorly.
I’d graduated college and signed on as an AmeriCorps VISTA. At our end of the year celebration, I was enjoying dinner and drinks with other VISTA volunteers from across California, where I’d moved. We were in California, we were all progressive. I felt comfortable and tipsy enough to share that I “wasn’t exactly straight.” The supervisor, a man in his fifties, was also tipsy. “Yeah!” He exclaimed, and gave me a high five. It felt gross and objectifying. He liked the idea of hot lesbians. I didn’t want anyone else to think of me as a sexual person, so I didn’t talk about it for a long time, especially not with people from home, who I wanted to see me as a successful hometown girl—accomplished, smart, definitely not sexual.
Still, at the suggestion of my editors, I made the next drafts’ relationship explicitly romantic. It felt truer this way—less wishy washy. Literature is often a kind of wish fullfilment. If we don’t have things in real life, it can be nice to read about them and in a way, live them vicariously. Writing is like this sometimes, too. I don’t wish for my life to be different. I am happy I ended up with the partner I have and in the place where I am. I have a happy marriage, friends, a wonderful community, and a beautiful loving home. But by writing On Home, and fully embracing West Virginia and a sapphic relationship, I’m able to have those too, in a different way—a way that will forever be precious to me. Once I embraced my book’s queerness, it became more than a book; it was a different way my life could have gone, wrapped into a neat package that I can keep with me, like a stone in my pocket.
Still, I was determined it not be marketed or labeled a “queer book.” I told myself this was about keeping my audience broad, but looking back, it was about my own insecurities about my sexuality. I would keep my distance from it—I’d be an ally, but certainly not someone who had sexual desires or preferences myself. As an adult—a bi woman in a heterosexual marriage—it was easy to continue to pass as straight. I still had work to do—external and internal.
Soon after, writers began to come under scrutiny for writing queer literature without being visibly queer, and I wondered again if I should come out. I fretted about what calling it an #ownvoices book would mean for my hometown in West Virginia, who had rallied around me to crowdfund the book without knowing it was queer at all. The decision felt like a pull between authenticity in the book community or scandalizing the people I grew up with. I hemmed. I hawed. I chose authenticity.
Finally, I came out in a book launch video for Pride month. No one seemed shocked or surprised. I was nervous it might alienate some of my audience, and perhaps it still will, when the book comes out, but I’m no longer hindered by this fear.
Now my book’s queerness is one of its main marketing points. My hometown has been supportive, or at least quiet about this move. Though I’ve received homophobic comments on Facebook ads, they’ve been from strangers.
Though the #OwnVoices movement is (rightly) under scrutiny for this exact reason—it’s intrusive, sometimes harmfully so, in my case, and my novel’s, it was a gift. The book’s story is the one it was meant to be, and I’m more my authentic self too. We will both find our people.
Becca Spence Dobias grew up in West Virginia and now lives in Southern California with her husband and two children. On Home is her first novel.