Manga: My Intro to Queer Lit
It's funny how things can turn out.
Unless you want to count Lord of the Rings (which most people probably aren't willing to do, but the vibes are definitely there), I didn't read any queer fiction until high school, and my road there was a drunkard's walk—random, erratic, and only getting me where I needed to go by serendipity.
It starts, oddly enough, with Doctor Who. (Or maybe that isn't odd; mainstream gateway fandoms exist for a reason.) I got way into the new series, then started watching the classic-era stuff with my family.
I happened to be looking around YouTube for video compilations of Adric from 1980's Doctor Who (because, even before I knew I was gay, I already had at least one Type) when I stumbled across a fan video that had a link attached to a site called fanfiction.net.
I'd say the rest was history, but it gets weirder. For the most part, I must have come across m/m fiction in spades from then on, but I don't remember bothering with it all that much, especially at first.
Instead, I started to get into manga. (My first manga was Fruits Basket, and gosh, what a ride that manga was.) The pretty, smart young men were fascinating to me from the start. It was the first time I'd seen boys allowed to be so unapologetically feminine (especially when viewed from the Western perspective), and I was immediately enamored.
So when I saw a banner ad on FFNet for a new anime that Funimation had released the DVDs for recently, I clicked it. The anime—Nabari no Ou—stayed relatively fringe over the years, despite being popular enough to get an anime and then American licensing back in 2005. A modern-day ninja drama that aired deep in the era of Naruto, it ended after 16 episodes, getting one of those unfortunate Gecko Tail endings where the producers of the show have to make something up once they catch up to the manga-ka's material. Eventually I started reading the Nabari no Ou manga.
Thanks in large part to that anime, and the manga that inspired it, I'm now a third of the way around the world, studying a foreign language and teaching my native one.
There are plenty of manga out there aimed at portraying different kinds of relationships between people of similar genders. Some of them are aimed squarely at pleasing certain demographics (manga is sometimes separated into genres like shoujo and shounen, jousei and seinen, for men and women of different age ranges, for example), and some are aimed to appeal to broader audiences. Thus, there are things that run the gamut from pure porn (from vanilla to horrific), to weirdly exploitative fiction, to stuff that is hinted at but never acknowledged.
In Nabari, however, I was fortunate. One of the first manga I came across featured actual queer characters and relationships—as in, so designed and acknowledged by the creator—even if it took a while for those relationships to come clearly to light.
If I'd come across Nabari no Ou later—if it hadn't been my second manga, and my first with any openly queer characters at all—then it might not have affected me so strongly. But I hope I would have come across it regardless. The blend of magical realism, slice-of-life, and ninja battles was, and remains, very enticing. There are a lot of cats. While the story has plenty of tragedy woven into it, the ultimate tone is one of hope, acceptance, recovery, and kindness even in the most abject of circumstances.
The manga-ka is remarkable, too. Kamatani Yuhki is asexual and x-gender, and their work since Nabari no Ou (which was their first major manga to be released) has included a couple of anthologies of short works, as well as short series in genres as diverse as Buddhist-inflected fantasy and magical-realism in middle school choirs.
All of their work is at least LGBT-inflected, but their most recent work, Shimanami Tasogare, is particularly interesting. Leaving aside subtlety and bringing queer themes into the spotlight, the story follows the life of Tasuku, who is gay and contemplating suicide after almost being outed at school. He's stopped by a mysterious character who goes by the name Dareka (literally, "someone/anonymous"), and instead led to a nearby LGBT café. The café has members tied to a nonprofit that renovates old, abandoned houses for use as community spaces.
Starting from a place of self-hatred and secrecy, Tasuku gets to see other queer people, and his reactions to this are drawn metaphorically, with great profundity and immediacy.
The fourth and final collected volume of Shimanami Tasogare is set to come out in Japan sometime in the next month, but it has yet to be officially licensed in English. Alternatively, there are some unofficial translation groups out there, and it's also licensed in French and Spanish, so if you can read either of those languages, that's also an option.
The other manga I read that strongly influenced me as a young queer person was Wandering Son. While the characters never clicked for me in the way that Nabari no Ou's did, it still provided a realistic, slice-of-life picture of how the first steps of transness actually worked, in a way that really made it click for me: This was a way that people were, and was a way that I could be.
It was, in fact, the way that I already was.
Showing the everyday angst and confusion of young trans people—younger than me; middle schoolers—helped me understand that not every trans person knows as soon as they can talk that they want and need to transition. Sometimes we aren't sure what we want, or never really considered it, or even take some time to get used to the idea. Sometimes what we think we are and what we think we need shifts over time.
A twofold case in point: the (deuteragonist) character I first identified so heavily with for being a trans man, Takatsuki, started leaning in the direction of being nonbinary/questioning, and stopped actively pursuing transition, at which point I stopped following the series. I was a little bit sad about it, but I knew then (and know now) that such identities are also vital elements of representation. They're especially vital because they're overlooked so often in storytelling as even being in option.
Still, though, it's particularly hard to find stories about trans men, especially people of transmasculine experience who aren't nonbinary. (The same is not at all true of trans women, but that's the topic of a different article.) I read Parrotfish and Luna in high school—the only books about trans people I could find in my school library—and was ultimately unimpressed by both, for different reasons.
Eventually, I gave up looking for trans representation in published literature, and went back to realms where I was the most comfortable, where I'd gotten the greatest quantity (and, often, greatest quality) of male and/or queer characters with whom I could identify. On the one hand, I happily devoured manga, with its pretty, androgynous boys that had very few qualms about expressing emotions; on the other, I adored reading (and occasionally writing) fanfiction, and was an eager audience for other forms of online, amateur-generated media like webcomics.
Lately, I've been coming out of my shell and back into the world of published fiction and books rather than serials, and I've had some very positive experiences. Seanan McGuire's Every Heart a Doorway had a trans male character alongside the female, asexual protagonist; I think that was one of the first times I encountered a(n explicitly binary) trans man in traditionally published fiction. I'm slowly edging myself into other experiences, but if I'm honest, I'm nervous. I found so much of myself in the very pretty boys written by women and other people who weren't gay men. What will it mean if I find more realistic writing less enjoyable than what I've experienced so far?
Still, I'm slowly bringing myself to terms with the idea. One of the reasons that I joined this blog was to have an excuse to read more queer fiction. It's a growing genre, and one that's an eclectic, exciting combination of self-publishing, small publishing houses, and slowly, over time, greater interaction with major publishers. I really hope that I fall in love with it properly, and I'm finally starting to believe I will.