I’m Annie, a recent college grad and intern here at Art + Deco Agency. We’re a boutique publishing company based in the Bay Area. We specialize in artistic branding, contemporary craft, and hot takes. I’ll be running our blog, stocking you up on summer reading and current events in the world of books. You can expect posts from me every Tuesday and Friday, with special author Q+As popping up on Wednesdays. I’m here to give you a little glimpse into what A+D is about, and welcome you into our bubble.
This post is the first installment of a weekly series called The New Classics. Every Friday, I’ll be talking about innovations in the literary world that call the idea of the “classic” into question. This could be new voices, new content, new forms – anything that makes us reconsider what we define as classic. The word is a badge of honor for so many dead white guys, I can’t even count them. But the modern era has brought forth so many new voices, rewriting these age-old histories with honesty, personality, and vision. I’ll walk you through some of these older texts with the vibrant lens of the modern world, and introduce you to the new faces of classic literature.
This week, I want to give a serious shout-out to the organization Drag Queen Story Hour. It’s exactly as amazing as it sounds – they send drag queens to libraries nationwide to read to kids, and families flock from near and far to listen to real-life royalty. The organization began in Brooklyn, NY but has since spread to more conservative neighborhoods from Nebraska to Alaska. In Juneau, Gigi Monroe was prepping for her reading when she said, “Drag, like other performance arts, is just trying to connect with people, and letting them know whoever they are is OK.” It’s just playing pretend, exploring identity, with all the glitter and taffeta and pink I remember from my dress-up days.
Of course, given the raucous political climate of the Tr*mp era, someone was bound to have a problem with this. A lot of libraries swerved all the angry letters, the berating phone calls, and protests bigger than the event itself. But a lot of them got hit with it bad. Ohio representatives are calling for reduced library funding, and angry parents in Gerritsen Beach are protesting the drag queens, accusing them of pushing some off-kilter agenda. This effort to foster growth and open-mindedness is being met with shocking dissent.
For some reason, people have this weird idea that drag isn’t foundational to classic literature.
To which I say: Shakespeare.
I think back to my high school days, thumbing through pages of tiring plays, looking for those nuggets of gold everyone swore were there. It was easy to doze off in class until my teacher told me all the characters were played by men, even the ladies. The boys in the room giggled as I imagined them all wigged and lipsticked and blushed, corseted and floating across the stage. When we read Twelfth Night, it became glaringly obvious that there was a popping drag scene in 16th century England.
To which I say: bell hooks.
In her book Black Looks, a force of intellect and innovation, she writes of youthful gender bending in the chapter Is Paris Burning? (a nod to the absolute masterpiece of a movie). She reminisces, “There was a time in my life when I liked to dress up as a male and go out into the world. It was a form of ritual, of play. It was also about power. To cross-dress as a woman in patriarchy was also to symbolically cross from the world of powerlessness into a world of privilege.”
To which I say: Judith Butler.
In college, Judith became a name with such meaning. Conversations all followed a predictable train: English majors and feminists (aka all of my friends) spouting her words, me absolutely eating them up, going home and analyzing Gender Trouble when I had a biology exam I desperately needed to study for.
When you have these literary geniuses staring you in the face, how can you deny drag queens an extended stay in the spotlight? How could you restrict such whimsy and play? Gender can feel so suffocating if we are not allowed the opportunity to grow into it. We all need some wiggle room, and that is exactly what Drag Queen Story Hour illuminates for us: the space to explore.
I want to throw out some more up-to-date recommendations for two really stellar books about the drag community to show you that this culture really is integral to a modern canon of new classic literature.
First, you’ve got to read The Changing Room: Sex, Drag, and Theater by Laurence Senelick. It gives a really approachable and comprehensive survey of so many aspects of drag I had never considered. Senelick talks about early Sino-Tibetan shamanic practices, gender-bending in ancient Greece, and all the cutting-edge androgynous artists of the eighties like Bowie and Boy George. It’s a really solid background if you want to build up your knowledge of a super influential culture throughout history.
If you’re looking for something a little spicier, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor is for you. It’s definitely not a children’s story hour type of book, but it is allll about drag. Raunchy and vital, this book details the story of a college student experimenting with gender in the sole gay bar of his university town. Paul is a queer theorist, a zine maker, embedded in all the countercultures that circulate with drag today. He shops for identities, sequined or leather, bearded or smooth, in this bildungsroman that demands the title of The New Classic.
I’m Annie, a recent UC Berkeley grad and publicity intern here at Art + Deco Agency. I’ll be your resident blogger, chatting with and about emerging voices in the literary industry and getting you started on your summer reading list. Catch me here every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday!