Functionally Literate to hold first LGBTQ-themed reading event

By : Ryan Williams-Jent
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In the great tradition of Paris is Burning, reading is fundamental—and the library is open. Well, in the great tradition of quality LGBTQ literature, at least, the Blue Bamboo Center for the Arts in Winter Park is open for an exciting, first-of-its-kind event.

Functionally Literate, Burrow Press’ quarterly reading series that’s been pairing what it describes as “the best writers in Central Florida with visiting writers from all over the world” since 2012, will hold its first LGBTQ-themed event in the Orlando area Sept. 23. The event, free to the public, will feature authors S.J. Sindu and Kristen Arnett.

The two writers previously met as fellows for Lambda Literary, the world’s premier LGBT literary organization. Their mission statement proudly proclaims that “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer literature is fundamental to the preservation of our culture, and that LGBTQ lives are affirmed when our stories are written, published and read.”

The pair will each discuss their respective works—Sindu, her debut novel A Marriage of a Thousand Lies and Arnett, her series of short stories, Felt in the Jaw. They’ll each give a reading, participate in a question and answer session with the audience, sign copies of their books for fans and discuss LGBTQ issues in publishing.

S.J. Sindu, who was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Massachusetts, currently teaches and writes in Tampa. Her first novel follows her hybrid fiction and nonfiction chapbook, I Once Met You But You Were Dead, which won the 2016 Turnbuckle Chapbook Contest and was published by Split Lip Press.

She was a 2013 Lambda Literary Fellow, holds an M.A. in Creative Writing for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University. She’s also been published in Brevity, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Fifth Wednesday Journal, as well as other journals and anthologies.

Kristen Arnett is a queer fiction and essay writer who has held fellowships at Tin House, Kenyon Review and the Lambda Literary Foundation. She was awarded Ninth Letter’s 2015 Literary Award in Fiction, was named the runner-up for the 2016 Robert Watson Literary Prize at The Greensboro Review, and was a finalist for Indiana Review’s 2016 Fiction Prize. She has been, or will be, featured in the North American Review, The Normal School, Electric Literature, Volume 1 Brooklyn, OSU’s The Journal, Catapult, Bennington Review, Portland Review, Grist Journal, Tin House Flash Fridays/The Guardian, Salon and The Rumpus.

With Functionally Literate, the duo joins a long list of previously-featured celebrated literature icons. The Burrow Press reading series has hosted the Director of the National Book Foundation, Lisa Lucas, the National Book Award-finalist Lauren Groff, the award-winning novelist Jacinto Lucas Pires, as well as writer Padgett Powell.

Sundu’s novel “tells the story of an arranged marriage between a Sri-Lankan couple who are actually gay, dating on the side, and hiding their true identities from their conservative families,” the event’s press release reads. “Arnett’s short stories cover a range of topics but are bound by ‘dark humor [that] explores the lives of queer women and their families in the light of the bleak Florida sun.’”

Watermark spoke with both Sindu and Arnett about their work. For Sindu, the author noted that “marriages of convenience” are quite common in the South Asian community. They’re “a way to negotiate and deal with the homophobia that can exist in both South Asia and in the diaspora,” she told us.

“My novel is an exploration of that negotiation, and all the different forms that it can take. Each character makes their own different decision about how, if, and when they are going to be true to their queerness, and it’s important to portray that diversity,” Sindu continued. “There’s no one way to be South Asian and queer. There are many journeys and many choices, and this book tackles a few of them.”

For Arnett, her collection of short stories is one she’s been working on for years. “It’s about what I’m calling the ‘lesbian domestic,’ but also about Florida – which is my home and what I’m often most interested in talking about,” she told us.

“I’ve lived in Central Florida my whole life and it’s really embedded in my work. The stories in the collection aren’t connected, but they are thematically similar,” Arnett continued. “I wanted there to be a touchstone as you went along, a way for readers to navigate the spaces I’ve created.”

Sundu noted that the publishing world, “though it tends to be a little more liberal than mainstream culture, still reproduces the power structures of the wider world. This means that queer and [transgender] narratives and queer and [transgender] writers tend to be either exoticized or ignored.”

“It can sometimes be an uphill battle,” she said. “But there are many people who are trying to get more queer and [transgender] voices out there, and so you shouldn’t give up. Keep going. Queer and [transgender] writers, sadly, have to have more persistence and tenacity than [heterosexual and cisgender] writers, so keep going. Your voice is important. Your story is important, and somewhere, someone is waiting to read it.”

It’s a sentiment that Arnett shared. “There’s something so wonderful about seeing yourself represented in work. It happens infrequently, especially for queer audiences,” she said. “So many times I’ve read books or watched movies or television shows and wished to see myself represented that way – not as a token or as a cliché, but as a fully fleshed, fully realized queer person.”

“Writing like that for queer readers lets us know that we aren’t alone out there. Art is ours, it represents us, it is art worth reading. Art worth making. It lets other queer artists know that there’s a space for them too; that their work is vital and necessary.”

Watermark has paired with Burrow Press to present S.J. Sindu and Kristen Arnett on Sept. 23. The event will be held at the Blue Bamboo Center for the Arts 1905 Kentucky Ave, Winter Park, FL. Doors open at 7:00 pm EST with readings scheduled to begin at 8:00 pm EST. You can RSVP for the free event and learn more at BurrowPress.com/FL.

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