Why I’m only reading bisexual books this year
Christina Neuwirth, author of the watery wonder Amphibian, has decided to only read bisexual books in 2019. She tells The Skinny why she came to that decision, and what #twentybiteen will look like for her
On New Year's Day 2018, queer pop icon Hayley Kiyoko tweeted to announce her new album Expectations and gave us the hashtag #20Gayteen – an affirmation, celebration and a New Year’s Resolution all in one word. We’ve now arrived in 2019, aka #twentybiteen, a hashtag which Twitter users are embracing to celebrate bisexuality and combat bi erasure. For me, twentybiteen is the year I read only bisexual books.
My challenge follows in the footsteps of two reading challenge projects that have an overt political aim of highlighting and combating inequalities. In 2014, Joanna Walsh started the project #readwomen to encourage people to read more literature by women, and last year Gary Younge shared his challenge to read fiction by African women writers for a year. My #twentybiteen challenge (and for anyone who would like to join me) is to read only works by bisexual writers, and/or books that feature a character who is attracted to more than one gender.
The idea for twentybiteen occurred to me when I realised I had inadvertently been reading several books in a row that featured bisexuality – How to be both by Ali Smith, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan, Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney – and I thought, “Do you reckon I could read only bi books for a whole year?” As soon as I had thought of it I knew I had to do it, which I suppose is a sign of how stubborn a person I am.
The response to this decision has been overwhelmingly encouraging, but I also got questions echoing my first doubts: “Is it possible?” The truth is that even before I started looking for my books this year, I trusted that it was an achievable challenge; that the feeling there may not be enough to read was just a symptom of the lack of visibility for bisexual writers and bisexual stories. I knew they had to be there, and I hoped that recommendations from friends and the internet would help me find them.
I have a particular stake in this project, being a bisexual writer myself. I am interested in exploring how other writers have written about bisexuality. I want to get to know the tropes and traditions of writing bisexual characters, to find out if there are any commonalities, any conventions I can follow or subvert. On the flip side, I also want to read work by bisexual writers that isn’t necessarily about bisexuality, to highlight – to myself and others – that bisexual writing isn’t some kind of monolithic genre that has only one theme.
As well as learning how bisexuality is written about by different writers, I am also doing this because I want to spend more time reading books that reflect something about my identity. I only realised what I’d been missing when I first read bisexuality in fiction, in André Aciman’s 2007 novel Call Me By Your Name. The way I felt reading this book and discovering a complex, relatable bisexual character is perhaps best described in this passage, where the book’s central character Elio finds a kindred spirit: 'What never crossed my mind was that […] someone else in my immediate world might like what I liked, want what I wanted, be who I was.' It had never crossed my mind that instead of projecting my own desire onto straight or gay characters, I could actually read… bisexual characters.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably not going to accuse me of ‘reverse discrimination’, but just in case, I should tell you that I’m not here to say that you’re a terrible person if you’ve never read a bisexual author. What I want to highlight is that bisexual authors and bisexual stories exist, and that they offer a broad range of contributions. Even the attempt at this sort of reading challenge makes visible implicit biases in our reading habits that favour particular kinds of stories and books by – predominantly – wealthy, straight, cis, white (and often dead) men. I know there is a paradox inherent in this kind of project: by saying that I’m only reading bisexual authors, I am sort of putting them all in one box (or on one bookshelf), when surely the point is saying that your sexuality shouldn’t matter. Except that of course it does matter.
Stonewall’s 2017 LGBT In Britain research found that “one in five LGBT people have experienced a hate crime or incident because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity”, and another Stonewall study published in April 2018 revealed that bisexual people are less likely to be out at work than their gay and lesbian colleagues. On top of that, many bisexual people experience themselves as being seen as too queer to fit in with a heteronormative world, and not queer enough to fit into the LGBT community.
Of course my project is a political act, but it’s also – in practice – a simple, small change to my reading habits. It’s a change of paying close attention to the next book I will pick up, while still letting my reading be guided by what I want to read. The good news is that there’s no shortage – any and all genres of fiction and non-fiction, poetry, contemporary and historic. The internet has been very helpful for finding out more about the wealth of bisexual books out there: last year, as a starting point, Autostraddle published an article by Chaya Bhuvaneswar, listing ten books by bisexual women. In 2017, Casey Stepaniuk wrote about 100 bisexual books on BookRiot, including classics like Orlando by Virginia Woolf and Another Country by James Baldwin, young adult books like The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee, Pantomime by Laura Lam and many more. The @bihistory Instagram account regularly shares histories of bisexuality, including the work of bisexual authors. All these have been wonderful starting points for this reading journey.
On my bedside table at the moment is Hunger by bisexual author Roxane Gay and The Awakening by Kate Chopin, which features a bisexual character. I’ll start with these, and I’m excited to see where the year’s reading will take me.
So, circling back to the question, “Is there going to be enough to read?” I’m grateful to the recommendations from friends, blog posts and other resources that have already shown me that there are in fact too many books that meet my criteria, too many for me to read in a year. It goes without saying that more should be written, and that we’re not suddenly finished with bisexual representation, but still: what a joy, to find yourself reflected.
You can follow along with Christina's reading adventures using the hashtag #twentybiteenbooks and at christinaneuwirth.com