I fell in love with Stray City, Chelsey Johnson’s debut novel, on the very first page.
A self-identified young lesbian named Andrea Morales, in trying to get over a traumatic breakup, ends up sleeping with a straight cis dude named Ryan, getting pregnant, and decides to keep the baby. Divided into three parts and told from the first person perspective of Andrea, from letters written by Ryan, and from a close third person point of view, the story spans a decade from 1998 to 2009. It’s a book that could fairly be met with skepticism from a queer audience. But Johnson handles the plot with care, never letting her characters become boring or dangerous stereotypes; rather, she builds a world where people are flawed but have the capacity to change, and tells a seemingly familiar narrative in a way that’s both surprising and comforting. The plot — and the character’s sometimes enraging reactions — are in no ways prescriptive. Also, it’s a damn good story that engages the reader, and made me wonder what was going to happen next even as I turned the very last page.
Chapter one begins with a love letter to Portland that made my homesick heart miss my former home so deeply I felt a physical pain in my chest. The passage ends with a succinct description of the humans who make Andrea feel like the city is her home:
“Young people kept coming, seeking all the things you’d expect – music, work, drugs, adulthood, refuge from adulthood – but mostly, seeking each other. We came from dying logging towns and the rocky coast, from Salem and Nehalem and Battle Ground and Boring, runaways from Boise, SoCal misfits, kids from the South and Midwest, the suburbs of anywhere. Some stayed a month, others a year or two, some stuck around. Me, I came at seventeen from rural western Nebraska, where adulthood came hard and fast and narrow, and queers kept quiet or met violence. Here I was no longer The Only but one of an ever-gathering crowd – young forever, queer forever, friends forever, or so we all thought then. My people.”
I read that paragraph over about nine times then screenshot it and texted the words to my best friends in Portland from my bed in New York, where I’d moved just a few weeks earlier. Then I started crying, and kept reading.
Which is to say – I don’t think my experience with this book is necessarily typical. The deep love I feel for Portland and the particular moment this book found me, far away from the city that adopted me as a young adult and quickly became my home, makes me want to live inside these pages in a way that perhaps not every reader would. But the concept of feeling entirely at home in a place that is not where you’re originally from, and the reality that so often home is in the people we find in those new towns and cities is universal, I think, especially amongst fellow queers.
Chelsey Johnson and I sat down together via FaceTime to talk about the themes of the book, the story’s origin and how she researched to get all her nineties references exactly right, the deeply human emotion of missing a place that feels like home, and what we’re all doing when we engage in community building with our friends and lovers. “I couldn’t have written about this community while I was deeply immersed in it,” she said, as we discussed the careful balance of being honest and being kind when writing about one’s own inner circle. For Chelsey, who lived in Portland in 1995 and then again from 2002-2009, the inner circle that shaped much of her perception of queer community were friends she made at Girls Rock Camp. “That amazing community really shaped my world in so many ways,” she said.
One thing in particular that Stray City does extremely effectively is portray a specific kind of queer community that’s in some ways universal, even though it’s specifically set in Portland in the 90s. From a thrifting scene in a dorm room to a patchouli-scented purple house filled with old dykes to a chosen family dinner “blood bath” fight (Chelsey’s extremely apt words) to references to top surgery to having friends in a band to in-fighting to unconditional love and support, the portrait Chelsey paints of queer friendship in this book is just inescapably honest and embarrassingly real. It’s the best and worst parts of queer culture. “When I was away from my community, I missed it so intensely that I just felt like, these are the best people in the world, I didn’t want to give a single negative trait to anybody, I wanted them all to be heroes. But you forget all the kind of bad things we do to each other. We love these communities and yet they can be so vicious and insular… I had to remember to bring that stuff in.”
Chelsey does bring that stuff in successfully, and challenges both Andrea and the reader to figure out what exactly we mean when we say that our friends are our family, and what we’re really describing when we call a place home. “Growing up queer, you often feel a little bit out of sync with where your’e from,” Chelsey said. “[When I] left [Portland] to go teach at Oberlin for a few years, I felt that sense of displacement again. I felt profoundly homesick and missed that feeling of home so much that I had to kind of write it into existence. And so of course, my characters are also like, trying to figure out what home is. Andrea’s from rural Nebraska, I’m from rural northern Minnesota, and there’s something really complicated too about being from a small town, a rural place, and in many ways loving where you come from, and also feeling like I can’t actually live there… So I was really, I think, especially hungry for another place that I could feel at home.”
Stray City‘s imaginings of home and community are so distinctly queer in their worldview; Chelsey tells me she’s excited to have a conversation about the book with a specifically queer audience (that’s y’all, the Autostraddle readers!) after so many interviews with straight publications. The book garnered a lot of publicity and accolades when it was first published and its reach went far beyond the queer niche market. In fact, my mother is the person who recommended it to me. “I just finished a book about lesbians in Portland and I feel like I got a glimpse in your life,” she told me gleefully, and I was both amused and horrified. Chelsey explained that she very much wanted the book to have a wide reach, but at the same time had no interest in code switching or explaining any of the language or queer community knowledge to the straight reader. “I was so concerned about selling us out to [the straight audience],” Chelsey said. “On the one hand, I didn’t want to give them things that I really care deeply about and have them not understand, and on the other hand, I wanted very much to convey to them that this is one way that we live that you know, you might not know about.”
Though she thought a lot about how straight readers would perceive the book, Chelsey said she was even more concerned about how the lesbian and queer community would react to her portrayal. We talked about callout culture and how difficult it can be to feel as though one is supposed to be an ambassador for an entire huge diverse group of humans. Chelsey also articulated a major anxiety for every writer I’ve ever met: a deep desire to do right by the people in one’s life who have inspired a story. “On a very personal level,” she said, “I felt this big responsibility to my friends and community, whose lives I was trying to write about accurately.” Those friends and community that Chelsey found in Portland are, of course, the driving force behind this book.
With its characterization of that kind of deep friendship and community, Stray City turns every romantic cliche and expectation on its head. “We’re always obsessed with romance,” Chelsey said. “And I wrote a book where the friends kind of outlast the romance in a lot of ways.” Not only do the friends in this novel outlast the romance, but friend love is treated with gravity and importance that I have honestly hardly ever seen in any novels, period. All I ever want to do is talk about queer friendship and friend love literally until we die, so you can imagine my thrill at this plot point. On page 202 Andrea, the narrator, says she’d rather “break a lover’s heart twenty times than a good friend’s once.” The book’s heart lives in that sentence.
At its core, Stray City is a book that prioritizes queer friendship above romantic partnership and interrogates what kinds of relationship and family structures are privileged both by the state and society. It’s impossible not to root for Andrea and everyone she holds dear, even when they fuck up. It’s also a book that questions the meaning of home: what makes us fall in love with a place; what makes us feel as though we belong; what drives us to stay; what happens when we leave? I’m so grateful to Chelsey for writing these characters and raising the questions that they struggle with and force the reader to confront, too. Whether or not this book will resonate with you depends on how much you see yourself and your friends in this particular depiction of 90’s queer community, how much you can handle a cis straight dude as a semi-main character, and how deeply you adore Portland or somewhere like it.
A love letter to both a city and a community, and in some ways also to a specific moment in our queer history, this novel stole my heart and continues to inspire conversations, both with my peers and within my own brain and journal. If I could have willed a book into existence, that book would be Stray City.
Stray City is currently out in hardcover and is out in paperback on March 19, wherever books are sold.