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Malinda Lo on Her Historic National Book Award Win and Lesbian Literature’s History and Future

Feature image via Malinda Lo’s Instagram

I was put on this earth to read gay historical fiction, and let me tell you, what a time to be alive. Malinda Lo’s National Book award win last month for her latest novel, Last Night at the Telegraph Club, affirmed everything that I love about this genre: the vivid and well-researched specificity, the emotional stakes of complicated historical moments, and the commitment to bringing queer community to life in ways that honor both the perseverance of the time and the progress we’ve made since.

This novel tells the story of a Chinese-American teenager in San Francisco named Lily who comes of age in the mid-50s, dreaming of space travel, covertly reading chapters of drug store lesbian pulp novels, and sneaking out to the Telegraph Club, the dyke bar of our dreams (based on the real San Francisco institution Mona’s!). In Lo’s hands, 1950s Chinatown is so close you could almost touch it. After covering her award announcement, I was lucky to catch up with Malinda to discuss how she brought Lily, Kath, and their milieu to life.


Yash: I just wanted to start by telling you how excited all of us were and what an accomplishment this win is. Last year’s National Book Award for Young People’s Literature went to Kacen Callender for King and the Dragonflies, which was the first LGBTQ book and the first LGBTQ middle grade book to win the title. But because your book is published as young adult rather than middle grade, that makes your book the very first LGBTQ YA winner in the category, as well as the first F/F winner in the category. So that’s huge. Congratulations.

Malinda: Oh, wow. I didn’t actually know that! Thank you for doing the research.

It’s a huge and well-earned success, especially because you know the F/F literary landscape better than just about anyone. Your data and your research on it as a field are so widely cited and influential. How does it feel to have so conspicuously moved the needle in this way?

Oh my God. Well, I didn’t know I had moved it until you told me! I’m honestly surprised. I thought there had been another one, and I think the fact that there hasn’t is a very big sign of how things have changed. I’m so happy that things have changed in this positive direction, in this little area of our lives.

I agree; it’s incredibly meaningful! There have been YA winners by queer authors who don’t mention queerness in the text; there have been YA winners where the protagonists were straight but side characters were queer; and there have been YA finalists with queer protagonists that didn’t ultimately win. But this is the very first YA book with a queer protagonist to win the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

It’s so weird to think of it as a winner! I still find it a little shocking.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club is historical fiction, but your previous books span fantasy, sci-fi, contemporary thriller genres too. So, in your writing, is F/F representation in each of these genres a deliberate mission or goal? And did your work in these other genres influence your historical fiction in any unexpected ways?

I have certainly wanted to write about queer girls and women in every genre. I’m very deliberately putting characters like me in the narratives in these different genres. That is a goal of mine. The genre thing, it’s so interesting because I think people find it unusual that I write in so many different genres. But as a reader, I read everything! So it’s not like I only read one kind of book, and I think I bring a reader’s perspective to writing in the different genres. I know that writing in all these genres has been a huge education to me as a writer. I’m pretty much self-trained. I didn’t major in English or anything like that. So writing in each one of these genres has been a challenge every single time. I actually think writing historical fiction has been the biggest challenge of all.

That’s so interesting!

It was really hard. And I did use some techniques of fantasy in this book because you’re creating a historical world. It’s not the contemporary world. So you do need to do some world-building in the story. But yeah, historical fiction was hard. How do you put all these historical details and facts in the story without turning it into a history lesson, right? I didn’t want it to be a history lesson. I wanted the reader to be fully immersed in the story and to get lost in that world, not just ticking off dates and names.

You evoke such a specific moment in time so vividly. The book explores McCarthy-era interlocking oppressions, and homophobia isn’t the only or even the most pressing axis of discrimination, which is rare for LGBTQ historical fiction. The depiction of racism and xenophobia really adds so much nuance to our understanding of the characters. How did you arrive at that specific historical moment and those specific years for the setting of the story?

When I started working on the novel, I didn’t know very much about the 1950s. So I had to go do a bunch of research into what actually happened. Because of Lily’s family, there were certain things I wanted to build into the story about immigration. Her family’s immigration story is kind of based on my family’s, except it’s the opposite. My paternal grandparents met in the U.S. in 1933, and then they went back to China, during World War II. So I wondered what would’ve happened if my grandparents had stayed in this country, which is what Lily’s parents do. World War II is the reason that they would have been able to stay actually, because to get citizenship Lily’s father would have had to enlist in the Army. From there, I counted forward from that time to arrive in 1954 and 1955.

I understand in the UK, they’re going to be marketing it as an adult rather than a YA book. The interstitial chapters from Lily’s family’s perspectives seem to account for how this book moves so seamlessly between different categories.

I think it is unusual to have chapters like those in a “young adult” novel. I’m not really sure why. My editor’s the one who suggested that I put them in, and I had thought I wasn’t allowed to have perspectives from adults. And I do think they were important to have in, because Lily would have no way of knowing some things I wanted the reader to know. I wanted the reader to know why her parents had made those choices. They didn’t just do it out of the blue.

I remember being a teenager and feeling like, “not only do my parents not understand me, but I don’t understand them either.” It’s powerful for a reader, especially a young reader, to understand both sides of those confrontations.

I remember when I was a teenager, I was often trying to understand my parents. Because we came to this country in 1978, and there was this Communist China as history hanging over my family. I knew some of what my family had experienced there because my grandmother had actually written a memoir about it. So I’d learned about my family’s experiences in a book.

Encountering your family as historical figures and not just as family members is such a unique perspective that really contextualizes the book’s level of historical attention. Which brings us to the afterword, where you elaborate on the Chinese history and LGBTQ+ history that informed your work. In addition to queer historians like Nan Alamilla Boyd and novelists like Sarah Waters, I really loved the attention you gave to the dyke pulp novels that Lily reads in the drug store. It felt like such a loving homage to the work of Marijane Meaker, Ann Bannon, Tereska Torres, and all those other heroes of the fledgling lesbian literary scene. How do you situate this novel in that literary lineage?

Oh my goodness, that’s such an interesting question. Yeah, that I would be really honored to have it in that lineage. The lesbian writers who were writing at that time obviously were often writing under lots of constraints, and they wrote what they could. I re-read The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith a couple of times when I was writing this book, and I was amazed by how direct she was able to be! She was very direct about Therese’s, the main character’s attraction to Carol. It was very clear for Therese. She never questioned it.

She’s so matter of fact!

She is! And it showed me that I could write characters who are also very clearly aware, “Yep. I’m gay.” Some people know and are not necessarily torn up about it. Some people are, absolutely — I personally had a very difficult time coming out, but that doesn’t mean everyone has had my experience. It was great to read a book written during the time period of Telegraph Club and understand that I could have those more accepting representations of queerness.

I loved all of the details in your afterword about the Chinese history, the American political history, the queer history. Were there any memorable details you found from your research process that didn’t make it into the book?

Oh my gosh. There were so many details I couldn’t put in, but one thing I remember, which is just a little funny side note for me, is that when I went to the GLBT Historical Society, I listened to a recorded interview with a queer Asian American woman who talked about her experiences in San Francisco in the ’60s. And she had been working as a clerk, I think, at Macy’s. And she said that all the managers were lesbians in the women’s department in Macy’s. They all knew about it. And she said they also all went to Wellesley, which cracked me up because I went to Wellesley. When I went to Wellesley in the ’90s, Macy’s was still recruiting at my college. So that really made me laugh. And sadly, I couldn’t include that in the book because there was no reason to. But I really enjoyed it, knowing that the Macy’s managers were all lesbian.

That makes me so happy. Especially because you do have Lily and Lana encounter each other in the department store where Lana works, and they can’t acknowledge that they know each other. The idea of the unspoken, these queer secret handshakes and these secret pockets of community is so compelling. Another thing that stood out to me was your inclusion of drag culture. Drag is such a powerful force in queer media, but there is relatively little about female drag kings and male impersonators beyond Tipping the Velvet or Leslie Feinberg’s novel Drag King Dreams. Honestly, it’s hard enough to get F/F representation even without more overt gender transgressing, so your inclusion of this theme felt especially meaningful. What drew you to drag kings as the specific impetus for Lily’s self-discovery?

I was very inspired by Tipping the Velvet. But also I lived in the lesbian community in San Francisco in the 2000s and drag was certainly around. There was a very active and supportive butch/femme community there. It was just part of the scene. And I think that in many of the representations of queer women’s spaces that I have read in fiction often avoid butch/femme dynamics. They often avoid female masculinity. And I love it! I want to put it in there because that was such a central part of my own queer experience. It’s fun to write about drag performance. Tommy, the male impersonator in my book, was super fun for me to write. I love Tommy. I mean, I think she’s kind of a jerk, but I still love that.

She’s just such a recognizable kind of person. She’s very, very charismatic and she knows it. She knows exactly the power that she wields.

Yes. People have met her. If you’ve been a lesbian, you’ve met her already.

I’m pretty sure I’ve dated her.

There you go. Rite of passage!

It’s so interesting to hear you talk about Tommy, drag, and female masculinity, because that takes us pretty seamlessly to my next question. If I had to pick one moment with Lily’s love interest Kath that I cherish the most, it would be when they’re in the Telegraph Club and someone tells Kath, “I can spot the baby butches from a mile away.” And Lily looks over at Kath and realizes, “Oh, my God, they’re right.” Those butch/femme dynamics are so hard to come by in fiction! I’d love to know more about why including this butch/femme element was important to you and what you hope readers notice about it.

I think that it’s important to me because it is the community that I was in. My queer friends may not identify specifically as butch or specifically as femme, although some do. But that dynamic, the masculine-feminine interplay, is certainly there. It has always been there in every single lesbian community I have been in. So when I see that it is largely erased from popular culture about lesbians, it makes me angry. And I don’t want it to be erased! I want it to be celebrated and described because it exists! It’s a truth about being a queer woman.

Especially in YA, I struggle to think of another character who is allowed to experiment with butchness in a way that is really specifically called out. There’s Britta Lundin’s book that came out this year, Like Other Girls, but before these recent titles I barely remember ever seeing a teenage girl who’s allowed to be butch, and to use that word and to take that mantle on.

There are a few, but there are very few and far between. It’s just like in popular culture, there’s this idea that butch/femme is a stereotype. And I understand why people want to avoid stereotypes, but they’re also avoiding the complexity around it and the history around it. And I didn’t want to avoid that.

I’d also love to talk a little more about Shirley, Lily’s straight best friend, who is this assertive, domineering, often uncompromising person. One of my favorite themes in your work is the intensity and potential danger of the capital-F Fraught Female Friendship. What do you think is the significance or the continued resonance of this trope?

I don’t know that I think about it as a trope. I think that Shirley is someone that Lily envies. Shirley gets to have it all. She gets to be the most popular girl in their community. She is a good Chinese girl. So Lily’s like, “Why can’t I have that too?” But Lily doesn’t want to do any of that. And it’s a difficult place for her to be in, because she both envies her and cannot ever be like her, and she knows that.

I feel like in high school also, when you’re in a smaller community, you’re stuck with people that are around you. I’ve certainly had friendships in my life with people because they were there. And after we moved away, those friendships ended. But while we were there, that’s what we had. One of the big struggles of adolescence is dealing with the friends that you have around you.

This question contains spoilers, but speaking of community and family, one of the most intense moments for me as a reader was the confrontation with Lily’s parents after she’s run away and been staying at her friend’s. However unreasonably or anachronistically, on some level I wanted Lily to resist that kind of punishment, which obviously wouldn’t have been realistic. I was so impressed that you didn’t make the easy choice of the unambiguously happy ending in that scene. In the hands of a less brave author, I can imagine someone making Lily’s family immediately accepting to soften the landing for the characters so everything ends “happily ever after”. Your version felt much truer to the characters’ emotional backgrounds as well as just the historical time. How did you arrive at that decision, and what do you want your readers to take from that really complicated dynamic?

Oh, well, I don’t know if I’m brave so much as just Chinese! To me, Lily never had a choice. There was no alternative for her. Growing up as a Chinese daughter in an immigrant family, you know that there are certain things you have to do, whether you like them or not. And you can resist them as much as you want. I certainly resist a lot of things. Lily tries to resist. But ultimately she is her parents’ daughter, and she has to do what they are going to make her do. What else can she do? Run away and knock on Lana’s door again? There is no other choice that she can see and she has to make the most of that situation. I knew it would be hard, and I wanted to give her an out in the end. I wanted her to have adult family members like her Aunt Judy too, who were not homophobic, and who just simply didn’t understand at the time because it was new to them as well.

My next question is what is next for you after this book? Do you think you’re going to revisit these characters or this genre, or are you going to try something completely new?

Well, my next book is coming out next fall. It’s called A Scatter of Light, and it is set in 2013, and you will see some characters from Telegraph Club in A Scatter of Light. But just keep in mind, it’s 60 years later. So time has passed and it’s a very different book. It’s a coming of age novel set in northern California about art and grace and desire. It’s interesting because I wrote it before and after Last Night at the Telegraph Club. So I’ve been working on this book for a very long time.

That is such a fascinating writing process.

Well, it was not the process I would’ve chosen for this book. When I first wrote it, it was back in 2013, and I was unable to sell it to a publisher at the time. I think when it went out on submission in 2015, it was too far ahead of its time, really, because it was quite sexy and it was clear to me from the rejections that I got that that was not okay. But through that process of rejection, I ended up meeting my editor, who bought a different book from me which became A Line in the Dark, my psychological thriller. I wrote that for him at Dutton. And then he said, “Oh, I want to buy A Scatter of Light, along with Last Night at the Telegraph Club.” We ended up doing Telegraph Club first because it seemed like it was the right book to do at the time, and it took me four years. And in the course of writing Telegraph Club, I realized some things that I then put into A Scatter of Light.

That just sounds incredible, especially focusing on 2013 as a specific moment. What a really, really fascinating point to revisit.

Yes. It was quite a year for the gay rights!

And, coming out next fall, that’s going to be on the cusp of the 10-year anniversary. We don’t always think of 2013 as being historical, but inhabiting those details is going to be fascinating from a queer history and politics point of view. I’m definitely looking forward to that, and I’m always trying to find more wonderful books to love — what books do you recommend?

So I don’t think, until this year, there have been two YA books about queer Chinese American girls. But this year, in addition to mine, there was the other National Book Award finalist, Shing Yin Khor’s graphic novel, The Legend of Auntie Po, which is about a queer Chinese American girl in 1880s Oregon or something. It’s a wonderful graphic novel. And I highly recommend that. The art is beautiful. And if you want a recommendation for a young adult, there is a fantasy duology that I absolutely loved by Marie Rutkoski. The first is called The Midnight Lie, and the second one is called The Hollow Heart. Marie writes so beautifully about lying, and it’s set in this fantasy world that is wonderful and hard to describe. There’s also a very sexy thief in it. And they have a wonderful romantic relationship. It’s also a good crossover; the characters are in their late teens and early twenties, I think. So it’s kind of that age range. It was super romantic and completely thrilling. And you need both books because as soon as you finish book one, you’re like, “What happens?”

My last question is a big one. I’m taking inspiration here from Tuck Woodstock, an incredible interviewer who runs the Gender Reveal podcast. In your ideal world, what would the future of queer, and specifically F/F fiction, look like?

Oh, wow. I think it would look bigger, with more different kinds of stories in it. A lot of people want happy stories. I want that, but I also am a big fan of murder and I would like some crime fiction! I would like some more state in the world stories, I would like some more historical novels. I think there has been an explosion in LGBT YA with many more F/F stories. But that hasn’t necessarily shifted over to adult fiction. And I would like adult fiction to do that too. I just want more of us. I want it to be bigger and I want us to have all the feelings, good and bad.


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Yashwina

Yashwina Canter is a reader, writer, and dyke putting down roots in Portland, Oregon. You can find her online at @yashwinacanter.

Yashwina has written 27 articles for us.

8 Comments

  1. This is a complete tangent, but for those looking for butchness in YA or stories about young lesbians, I highly recommend Madelyn Arnold’s Year of Full Moons.

    Thank you for this wonderful interview. I have a new book to go on my to-read list. ^_^

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