Feature image via Malinda Lo’s Instagram
I’m always keeping an eye out for LGBTQ+ novels in the running for major literary awards, and last night’s National Book Awards felt like my gay nerd Super Bowl. When Malinda Lo won a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature last night, I yelled.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club is the first YA book with a queer woman as the protagonist to win a National Book Award for Young Peoples Literature. Kacen Callender’s acclaimed middle grade novel King and the Dragonflies — which featured a queer Black boy as a main character — won the award last year, and several others have been named as finalists. Lo’s win last night is a landmark achievement made even more significant by the fact that Last Night at the Telegraph Club tells the story of a queer Chinese girl in the 1950s, confronting homophobia, racism, and McCarthy-era fearmongering in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
If I tried to list all the praise Last Night at the Telegraph Club has garnered, we’d be here until next year’s National Book Awards, but I always can tell a book’s going to be good when it’s blurbed by Sarah Waters, high priestess of gay historical fiction. Waters doesn’t just praise the book; she gushes, calling the book “restrained yet luscious” and going on to say that it’s “a lovely, memorable novel about listening to the whispers of a wayward heart and claiming a place in the world.” Also in the chorus of acclaim is YA phenomenon Casey McQuiston, author of this summer’s runaway success One Last Stop and Red, White, and Royal Blue. “Lo’s writing is so rich,” they say, “you can practically feel the glow of neon bar lights radiating off the page.”
Self-discovery and coming of age amidst lesbian pulp novels and dyke bars? Sign me up. This book felt like it was made in a lab just for me — and, I suppose, the 13,000+ other people who have rated the book on Goodreads. It’s no understatement to say that Last Night at the Telegraph Club has been a force in this year’s YA offerings. The book is already in its seventh printing, despite all the supply chain grumbling. This National Book Award win, however, cements it as a classic and plants a flag for queer YA everywhere.
Even as the floodgates finally seem to open for LGBTQ+ YA novels, books about queer girls and sapphic romance remain less common than their male counterparts — Lo herself has compiled the data on The Invisible Lesbian in Young Adult Fiction showing that when awards like the Stonewall and Lambda seek to recognize each year’s cohort of specifically queer YA, m/m predominates. It’s a big deal for an f/f novel to win on an LGBTQ playing field; for an f/f novel (especially one both by and about a woman of color!) to win on an industry-wide, national level is astronomical.
This National Book Award also comes at a particularly crucial moment for LGBTQ+ YA as a genre — as Lo noted in her touching acceptance speech, “the opposition to our stories has also grown. This year, schools across the country are facing significant right-wing pressure to remove books about people of color, LGBTQ people, and especially transgender people from classrooms and libraries… Don’t let them erase us.”
Lo posted her acceptance speech to Twitter, and you can watch it below (starts at 1:16:55).
I’ve loved this book since its cover reveal and excerpt here on Autostraddle last summer — I’m a simple girl, and emotionally-charged encounters with lesbian pulp novels get me every time. If you’ve been looking for a good follow-up to One Last Stop, or if you’re in the mood for Carol-meets-The Lesbian Bar Project with a POC’s perspective, clear your schedule. You can buy your copy of Last Night at the Telegraph Club here.