Let’s be honest. Reviewing an anthology is hard. Why? Because you are judging it on two levels: that of the individual stories and that of the editing. What do I mean by this? Well, one deals with evaluating each story on its own merit. When reviewing an anthology it’s near impossible to cover all of the stories adequately. And further, it’s impossible to like all of them. On the other hand, you have to judge the editing. The editor is crucial to the success of an anthology, as the editor must select and combine separate stories into a book in a way that makes sense. Weaker parts of an anthology can subtract from the stronger parts making for an uneven product. As I said, it’s inevitable on some level. But the importance lies in the editor having a vision that weaves a thread throughout the whole piece, tying everything together by the end of the book.
In the case of QU33R, an anthology edited by Robert Kirby, all I can say are positive things. Why? Because the individual stories are quite strong and Kirby’s editing makes for a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Kirby has been editing anthologies for a while, and it’s quite clear to me that he’s very skilled at it. QU33R however, is a big leap forward for him for several reasons. First, visually it’s quite arresting and clever, for instance using a rainbow header that spans the book. The feel of the book is nice and the jacket is colorfully covered with individual faces exploring multiple identities. Second and more importantly though, Kirby has an editing style that does not stifle individual artists from exploring their visions, but one that allows for their pieces to complement each other.
The book starts off quite strongly with Eric Orner’s “Porno” and Anne Murphy’s “Mother’s Sister”. Both artists deal with being haunted by the past, but in opposite ways. Orner recalls his process of coming out and regrets concerning a possible sin of omission, while Murphy reconstructs the life of her Aunt Helen, a dynamic yet somewhat mysterious family member who was most likely a lesbian. In Steve MacIsaac’s story “Vacant Lots”, he runs into an old bully at the supermarket years later and learns to make peace with his painful past.
Many of the stories such as those by MariNaomi, Rob Kirby, and Sina Sparrow delve into past romantic relationships, exploring their complexities as well as the fickleness of love. The take away from these concerns the struggle between sexual attraction/chemistry and miscommunication in certain relationships that we all experience at some point in our dating life. The most developed exploration of this is in Justin Hall’s “Seductive Summer”, which was one of my favorite stories in the collection. He experiences young love, wrestling with what his relationship boundaries are as he learns more about himself and what his needs are. Ultimately he realizes that you can’t make other people into who you want them to be.
While many of the autobio stories stir up painful emotions, some are humorous and lighthearted such as Carrie McNinch’s “Toot Toot HEYYYYYYY Beep Beep”, a first love situation that charmingly allows McNinch to discover her love for disco. Ed Luce’s “Kindness of Strangers” while most likely more semi-autobiographical, bring us into a subculture that the protagonist initially finds himself somewhat terrified of but eases into.
Not all stories are autobiographical or semi-autobiographical. There are some campy and pop culture-based pieces woven throughout the book, making for an engaging pace. “Just Another Night in Carbon City”, by Jennifer Camper, is an homage to old-school crime dramas complete with a scandalous and dangerous lesbian dalliance. “So Young, So Talented, So What?” by Jennifer Camper and Michael Fahy, satirizes the “typical” artist’s move to the big city to well…make it big. Things don’t quite turn out as planned, leading to a somewhat disturbing ending. Eric Kostiuk Williams explores the popularity of the show ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’, in “Sissy That Walk”, which will make you chuckle if you’re familiar with the show. He explores how bonding over pop culture, especially material that pushes boundaries, is community building. Sasha Steinberg also does a short story about drag queen who destroys a Walmart with her superpowers. That description does it little justice, but I assure you it’s fierce.
There’s no dearth of creative pieces in QU33R. Andy Hartzell’s “Manning/Lamo Project” follows a controversial political exchange while the protagonist explores their gender identity. Nicole J. Georges'’"Grief" is a very personal and thoughtful meditation on self-defeating behaviors. Ivan Velez, Jr.’s “Oso Oro: the night I got my hero card… ” takes the reader on an erotic adventure into a secret gay mask bar full of all sorts of fantastical creatures. In his untitled piece, John Macy remembers his historical and fictional muses, ultimately acknowledging his passion for being a cartoonist. Marian Runk leads us through the transition from winter to spring in a sweet and quiet journal comic with lovely pastel colors. And L. Nichol’s “Confession” is a perfect way to round out the book, as it highlights the juxtaposition between not defining yourself (ie. gender identity; in this case identifying as either male or female) and identifying as part of a larger group (ie. being queer). This is a nuanced sentiment to leave with, and one that I assume Kirby intentionally thought about when organizing the pieces.
Kirby certainly has a vision. It’s one that celebrates 33 contemporary queer artists, allowing them to authentically tell their own diverse stories in whatever storytelling style they want. And they may all be contemporary, but their work often wrestles with their past or explores their worries and hopes for the future.
Many of the themes throughout the anthology deal with LGBTQ-specific issues such as “coming out”, living in secrecy about one’s sexual identity, HIV/AIDS within the community, and gay erotica. Overall though, the deeper themes represent what it means to be human, whether it be exploration, concerns about exposure, miscommunication, community, or self-discovery. And that’s why providing a space for those with historically marginalized identities is vital to us on a larger scale. It lets us realize our shared humanity.