In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado is one of those books that is impossible to describe. It’s a memoir, but it’s also a history. It’s deeply personal, but it also reaches into myth, fairytale, and pop culture. It’s not fiction, but it plays with elements of fiction. It takes everything you thought you knew about genre and storytelling and upheaves it. After I read it, I felt like I had just experienced something completely new. Books like In the Dream House are not common. But they do exist.
Since falling in love with In the Dream House, I’ve been on the lookout for books that give me that same feeling—the wonder of experiencing an entirely new kind of writing. The books on this list—some fiction, some nonfiction—are all books like In the Dream House in the ways they use language and topple expectations and conventions. These are books that refuse to be boxed into neat, easily-definable categories. They recreate and reinvent ideas about memoir, genre, queerness, and identity. They are playful and serious. They are not at all alike each other, as they all explore different subjects from different perspectives, but they are all revelatory.
If you’ve been hungrily searching bookstores and libraries for books like In the Dream House, look no further: here they are.
Brilliant Imperfection by Eli Clare
In this brilliant book, Eli Clare combines memoir, history, cultural critique, and academic rigor with beautiful, incandescent prose to delve into the messy nuances and contradictions of cure. What is cure? Who does it serve and who does it harm? Clare uses his long history of disability activism and his experiences as a queer, trans, disabled person to tell deeply personal stories. But he also stretches out beyond himself, reaching into all the messy places where race, class, ability, sexuality, gender, and geography collide. As he states in the subtitle, this is a book that grapples. Clare has a particular talent for writing beautifully about contradicting truths. This is a book of questions and answers that don’t always match up. It firmly centers trans, queer, and disabled people, and it moves fluidly from history to present, analysis to story, anger to resilience. Like the idea of cure itself, this book is not any one thing. It is an ongoing conversation, a collection of possibilities.
Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars by Kai Cheng Thom
In this novel, told in the form of a fictional memoir, Thom takes various trans memoir tropes and turns them on their heads. It is a very real story, grounded in the real world, about a young trans women moving out of her family’s house, finding trans community in a big city, coming of age, and coming into herself. But Thom uses various magical elements to open it all up, interrogating how we tell stories, especially queer and trans stories. It’s not exactly fantasy, but it’s not not fantasy. There is beautiful magic and dark magic. It’s a unique blend of the real and the fantastical, and the result is an unforgettable book that tells hard, complicated truths. Plus, Thom is a poet and it shows: the prose is beautiful, sharp, and constantly surprising.
Good Talk by Mira Jacob
In this graphic memoir, Jacob uses an unusual and riveting collage-inspired art style to illustrate the conversations she has with her young biracial son in the months preceding, during, and after Trump’s election. An Indian American woman and the daughter of immigrants, Jacob uses her son’s questions and uncertainties as a jumping-off point to tell her own stories about growing up, coming of age, and parenting as a woman of color in America. It’s poignant, direct, thoughtful, full of both anger and hope. The art is unlike anything I’ve seen in graphic storytelling; people in the book, for example, often have the same facial expression throughout. The effect is striking—the art is direct, almost stark, and it only adds to the power of Jacob’s words.
My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland
Combining memoir, biography, and literary criticism, Shapland does something unique with this book. There are several stories running parallel to each other here: the story of Carson McCullers’s life, queerness, and relationships with women; the story of how that queerness is often erased from literature about McCullers; and Shapland’s own story about coming out, being seen, and finding connection and recognition in McCullers’s work. This book is similar to In the Dream House in that they both explore queer women’s invisibility in history, and how that impacts the lives of queer women today. By inserting herself into McCullers’s story, and by insisting on her own non-objectivity, Shapland widens and complicates the possibilities of both memoir and biography.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Voung
Voung does so many innovate and breathtaking things with language here it’s hard to know where to start. The novel is structured as a letter from a queer son to his mother, a Vietnamese immigrant who cannot read. The language itself is a poetic masterpiece, and so are all the ways that Voung interrogates language throughout the book. It’s a book about words and silence and the space between words and silence. It’s a love story, a coming-of-story, a book about trauma and family histories and the devastating realities of communities in economic crisis. It’s as close to a poem-in-novel-form as I’ve ever read, but nothing about it is forced or contrived. It feels like the words are being invented on the page as you read.
Something That May Shock and Discredit You by Daniel Lavery
If you’re looking for a book that messes with structure, that turns memoir on its head, that blends fiction and nonfiction into a dizzying, hilarious and deeply felt mess of truth: this is your book. If you’re familiar with Lavery’s work, you probably know to expect a blend of truly absurd stories and cutting insight. There are some sort-of-traditional essays in this book, in which Lavery delves into his experiences and uncertainties and anxieties with transition. Woven among these essays are trans retellings of fiction, myth, and pop culture—everything from The Golden Girls to Pilgrim’s Progress to the birth of Athena. Lavery’s unique style and particular perspective allow him to look at transition—both his own transition and the idea of transformation more broadly—in truly unusual and revelatory ways. I have not both laughed so hard and cried so hard reading a book in a long time.
Looking for more books like In the Dream House? There are some gems on this list of queer audiobook memoirs. If it’s the experimental nature of some of these books that you love, check out this great list of books that play with text and genre. If it’s unusual formats you’re looking for, we’ve got you covered there, too. And if you’re just looking for exceptional queer storytelling, check out this list of the best queer books.