AWP2019: Both, Neither, and Something Else Entirely: Genderqueer Writers & Writing

Panel Participants: Sassafras Lowrey, Shelley Marlow,  Jacq Greyja,  Tiff Ferentini,  Kenning JP García AKA Kenyatta Jean-Paul Garcia

AWP19ThumbnailDescription: Genderqueer writers investigate the pleasures, joys, and challenges of writing and publishing fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and more outside of the gender binary. We’ll explore: navigating use of non-binary pronouns (they/theirs, ze/hir, and more) in text, professional misgendering of authors as well as characters, queering the boundaries and norms of publishing, challenges and opportunities that small and independent publishing offer non-binary writers, and the importance of representation.


An opening slide spelled out the correct pronouns to use with each speaker: they/them, ze/zir, or xe/xyr.

Sassafras Lowrey is the 2013 winner of the Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award. Zir books—Lost Boi, A Little Queermas Carol, Roving Pack, Kicked Out and Leather Ever After—have been honored by organizations ranging from the National Leather Association to the American Library Association. Sassafras’ book Left Out: How Marriage Equality Abandoned Homeless LGBTQ Youth is forthcoming from The New Press. Ze opened the panel, explaining that gender identity exists outside the binary. Zir identity has been fluid since 17, and ze explained that identity exists separate from presentation. Ze doesn’t translate zir work for cisgender/heterosexual readers, but assumes anyone unfamiliar can use google. Lowrey writes genderqueer characters for genderqueer readers first and foremost. Ze explained that queering language is a form of activism.  “Books are the first if not the only place we see our lives, our bodies reflected back to us,” Lowrey explains.

Shelley Marlow took over the mic, explaining that in 2003 when they began to write Two Augusts in a Row in a Row they eradicated pronoun confusion by writing in 1st person. However, not every book works in 1st person. They are currently writing in 3rd person. Someone advised Marlow that their work would be more accessible to a wider audience if they avoided “they/them,” but Marlow explains that pronoun diversity and genderqueer visibility is essential. “From feminists to men trapped by their idea of masculinity, we help the world move forward. Help the world accept their most vulnerable parts.”

Jacq Greyja is a queer poet from California. Their work has been featured in The Columbia Poetry Review, The Fem, The Nottingham Review, Yes Poetry, Berkeley Poetry Review, and elsewhere. Their first chapbook, Greater Grave, is forthcoming from The Operating System.

They spoke about the recent cancellation of Poetry Magazine’s Transgender/Gender Nonconforming issue. Greyja asked, “What makes literature brilliant and who makes that choice?” The themes Poetry Magazine were disinterested in were themes urgent and relevant to TGNC poets. The magazine wanted change that was representational but not structural.

Tiff Ferentini is a Publishing Associate at Kodansha Comics and Marketing Manager for Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan. Their work has appeared in The Gambler; Off the Rocks: The LGBTQ Anthology of Newtown Writers Press; and Songs of My Selfie: An Anthology of Millennial Writing, published by Three Room’s Press. Ferrentini explained that being queer or gender nonbinary can be incredibly solitary. They came into their queer identity at age 24 while getting their MFA. Ferentini’s thesis project was a YA historical fiction exploring gender rules, and identity became a predominant theme of their story. “My work lacked strength because I didn’t know who I was. It kind of worked out great because I not only graduated but I came out to myself as queer.”

Kenning JP García AKA Kenyatta Jean-Paul Garcia is the author of So This Is Story (Shirt Pocket Press), They Say (West Vine Press) and This Sentimental Education. Xe is an antipoet and diarist. “Find what works and reject what doesn’t. Enjoyment is never a necessary part of exploration. Sometimes it’s misery that makes history.” Xe explained that, “Disorienting people is how I create space…you’ve already put us in the margins.”

The panelists discussed the problems with querying while avoiding niche marketed. They advised that we try to find genderqueer editors and send your work there. Several writers have been told they were not trans enough. Shelley Marlow argued that, “My work isn’t a teaching moment.”

But the panel cautioned that just because a publisher says it is for you doesn’t mean they know how to protect you. Sassafras Lowery is a proponent of “difficult conversations with publishers.” Lowery is writing speculative historical fiction, explaining that “we can use these words and not translate them…world building is where I can channel how I want to see the world rebuilt.”

Audience member Julia(n) Leslie Guarch added that, “carving our own space is fantastic, but there’s a bit of privilege in that…you need resources, and sometimes they are from the cis/het community. Oppression is invisible to those who are not oppressed. (Band aids are not always skin color.) If we don’t make a fuss…if we don’t have loud, angry gay people we’re going to be the sad gay people who don’t get anything done.”


Lara Lillibridge is the author of two memoirs: Mama, Mama, Only Mama (Skyhorse, 2019) and Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home (Skyhorse, 2018). She co-edited an anthology with Andrea Fekete entitled Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility (Cynren Press, April 2019). Lara is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College’s MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. In 2016 she won Slippery Elm Literary Journal’s Prose Contest, and The American Literary Review’s Contest in Nonfiction. She recently judged AWP’s Intro Journals Award for 2019.


Visit Assay’s Spring 2019 issue for more!

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