Tiana Coven Interview + Top Reads by LGBT+ Writers of Color

Tiana Coven is a native Floridian living in New York City with a B.A. in Literature from the University of South Florida. She serves as Senior Editor for Coffin Bell Journal, and when she’s not at her computer, she can usually be found reading or blogging about lgbt+ books on Instagram @Tianareadslgbt.

Hey! Could you tell us a little bit about your background?

I grew up in a smaller-ish, conservative town in Florida. When I first started the blog, I had just moved back to my hometown temporarily and there isn’t an active lgbt+ or literary community there. I was feeling pretty lonely since I didn’t have anyone to talk about gay books with. I live in New York City now, so luckily that’s not a problem for me anymore. Right after high school I went to the University of South Florida where I had a few brilliant professors who introduced me to marginalized writers whose work hasn’t been uplifted throughout history.

As for work, I’ve always bounced around doing internships in publishing while taking on various odd jobs on the side and working as Senior Editor for Coffin Bell Journal. My main goal career-wise is to get to a place where I can uplift diverse literature by marginalized writers on a larger platform.

When did you start TianaReadslgbt? How has the response to it been so far? What are your goals for Tiana Reads?

I just started TianaReadslgbt last January. It’s a mainly Instagram based blog and I’m still learning about the book blogging community that’s already thriving on Instagram. When I first started, my only goal was to be able to gush about all the lgbt+ books I was reading, I didn’t anticipate anyone would really interact with me honestly, but the response has been super positive so far! I’ve met a great deal of people from all over the world who have also fallen in love with lgbt+ books and it’s made me so happy. Going forward, I really want to be able to uplift all types of lgbt+ reads, not only bestselling novels, but also indie books, short-stories, and literary journals/zines/magazines that focus on the lgbt+ community.

What draws you to a book? What do you look for? What keeps you hooked?

I’m biased, so I’m drawn to any form of literature that is slightly gay and it’s a bonus if it’s written by a person of color. I mostly look for books by authors who are in the community, as an authentic perspective is a must for me as a reader. What keeps me hooked is the strong characterization of the narrator/protagonist and surrounding characters. A book can truly have no central action, but if the narrator has a strong voice, I’m happy. When I read a book, and review them, I try to always think Did this book achieve what the writer set out to achieve? I don’t like when people review books based on if they like them or not. That’s beside the point for me. A book will always keep my attention if I see that it’s staying on the path that the writer paved out for it.

What book do you want to read but still haven’t found yet?

I want to see more books and stories for children in the lgbt+ community! The first book I ever read with a gay protagonist was when I was in middle school, and although I didn’t know that I was gay yet, the thirteen-year-old character’s struggle with his sexuality really stuck with me, even though at the time I didn’t know why. As a big reader, I like to think my slow-realization of my identity would be less painful if I had more books in elementary school about the experience I was having. Ultimately, I want to read more books about the innocence and sweetness of discovering your sexuality/gender identity at a young age.

What drew you to publishing?

Once when I was in high school I got in trouble for reading during gym class. After a rather embarrassing lecture about how students are by no means allowed to read during time they are supposed to be doing sports, I went home and googled “jobs for people who like to read.” I’ve known I wanted to work in editorial ever since.

How do you feel reading and your own identity are woven together?

Sometimes I like to fantasize that my life is a novel, I’m the protagonist, and each time a large part of my life comes to a close I imagine it’s a chapter ending. It’s silly, but it often comforts me to think that better things are coming for me when life gets hard. That being said, I don’t know who I would be without books- I’ve been a reader since I learned how to read and when I look back on my past I often categorize my ages by the books I liked reading at the time. At my core- I’m a reader.

When was the first time you saw yourself in a book?

On one stormy Floridian weekday, my kindergarten class was forced to have our daily recess inside instead of on our playground. While the other kids were playing with the toys and crayons, I hovered over the small, classroom-sized library of first-reader books. My eyes locked on Nikki Grimes’ Wild, Wild Hair. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll describe it for you:

It has a soft pink background, a color that automatically catches the eye. There is a woman with dark brown skin, sitting on a wooden chair and smiling patiently as she leans over and combs her little girl’s long, wild afro. The little girl clutches her hair in dismay, a frown on her face and a look of frustration and pain in her eyes as she looks back at her mother in a look that says: Why are you doing this to me?

As a little Black girl myself, I regularly struggled with the knowledge that after my daily shower, my mother would bring out her dreaded pick and roughly comb out the knots in my afro.

She’s like me, I thought as my hand shot out for the book.

I think back to that moment often- a time in which I knew nothing about diversity in children’s publishing or any of the controversies among the book world. It was just a pure moment in which a little Black girl saw an experience that she herself had had so many times. As an adult, I would love to be able to make sure books like this are always in classrooms, so all marginalized children can have that same experience. And often!

What is your hope for the future of publishing? How do you think we can get there?

I’m a big believer in the decolonization of literature. Meaning, we can’t just seek out to publish diverse work, but we have to create an atmosphere where marginalized writers don’t have to feel like they need to edit their work in such a way that caters to a white/straight/cis audience. At this point in my life, I’m really beginning in my career in publishing and I have to be honest and say that as someone who is mainly on the outside looking in- I don’t know how we’re going to get there yet! But I have big plans for my career and when I find out, I’ll let you know.

Anything else you’d like to add? 

I’m always prowling on Instagram @tianareadslgbt and on Twitter @Tiana_Coven! If anyone has any recommendations for lgbt+ books/short-stories/writers/small presses I should check out, please reach out to me! And Coffin Bell is always looking for dark literature from writers of diverse backgrounds!

 

Tiana’s Top LGBT+ Reads by LGBT+ Writers of Color

Anger is a Gift by Mark Oshiro

Young Adult

Trigger warning-police brutality

“Stop killing us.”

This book is an amazing YA about systemic racism that runs rampant within police departments in the United States. Mark Oshiro, a Queer Latinx writer, tells the enthralling story of Moss, a Black/Latinx gay teen, who along with his diverse friend group, must find a way to protest the police brutality that’s infected their school. Moss’ only forms of escape are his badass mother who’s fought the same fight countless times and the super cute guy he met on the train. This is an outstanding book for young adults who are passionate about systemic racism and are looking for an exceptional amount of representation in a young adult novel.

 

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Young Adult

Trigger warning- sexual assault

“I’ve learned how to live with nightmares. I could cope with one more.”

Books for young adult readers that deal with sexual assault in a sensitive, but realistic manner are greatly needed, and this book does it so well! In a fantasy world inspired by Malaysian culture, Natasha Ngan, a queer Asian woman herself, writes about Lei, a girl who is abducted by the king’s court and forced to serve as his concubine. As Lei faces the greatest nightmare of her life, she finds herself falling for one of the other seven girls chosen to be one of the king’s “paper girls.” This fantasy hits every mark from plot pacing to characterization and will definitely warm your heart in some scenes, while keeping you on edge in others.

 

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Young Adult

“Maybe we just lived between hurting and healing.”

Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza is struggling with being a fifteen-year-old Mexican-American boy in El Paso as the 1980s come to a close when he crosses paths with the boy who would soon become his best friend and inevitably change his life. This book is amazing for teens of color who find themselves questioning their sexual identity. This book was such a comfort to me when I was seventeen and struggling with my own identity. I found myself relating to the protagonist, Ari, in his anger, his confusion, his quiet nature, and so much more. Sáenz has written that through writing this book he could finally accept himself as a gay man, which is why it is so beautiful that so many teens have undergone the same experience of self-acceptance through reading this novel.

 

History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

Young Adult

“I love you, but I can’t stay longer.”

Just when life can’t seem to get worse for Griffin following a life-altering heartbreak, his best friend, turned boyfriend, turned ex-boyfriend, dies in a tragic accident which leaves him spiraling and turning to the only person who knew his ex as well as he did: his ex’s new boyfriend. Griffin’s character is relatable and incredibly realistic. Silvera holds nothing back by showing the good, the bad, and the ugly in Griffin as he copes with his loss. He also serves as great representation for a gay character who struggles with OCD and other mental health issues. This is my favorite book by Silvera so far and such a balm to the heart for anyone dealing with trauma from heartbreak or loss of a loved one.

 

Another Country by James Baldwin

Adult

Trigger warning- sexual assault/racism/homophobia

“’We’re all bastards. That’s why we need our friends.’”

This was the first book I ever read by James Baldwin and it changed the way I will look at literature forever. Told by various characters of different races, sexualities, and economic backgrounds who are living in America during the late 1950s, this novel gives modern day readers an inside look on the social history of racism, homophobia, and misogyny during this time period. For me, this book acts as my sole argument as to how literature is a true art, though it’s not for the faint of heart. Baldwin never held anything back when it came to writing about the social issues of America and this novel is the absolute proof of that.

 

Cynthia So

Short-Story Writer

“Boys could be so tiresome.”

Cynthia So is a queer Chinese YA+SFF writer from Hong Kong, living in London whose short stories I was lucky enough to come across in the past year. The first work I read of hers was featured in Arsenika, a short story about a girl who imagines that a moth that flies into her bedroom must be her recently deceased mother and takes the opportunity to come out to her. One of her latest short stories, “The Phoenix’s Fault”, was featured as one of the new voice picks for the anthology Proud compiled by Juno Dawson. She is such a promising new voice and I recommend everyone keep a look out for her work. You can find her at socynthia.wordpress.com.

 

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Adult

“I have no way of answering my voices. I have no way of telling them that I can hear.”

This short story collection is filled with dark narratives that go from spine-chilling realities to full on science fiction. Each story focuses on a unique woman in an equally unique circumstance. These stories are fit best for an adult audience as they focus on complex life experiences and emotions. This collection is one of the most intriguing ones I have come across and I would recommend it to readers who have a deep love for dark science fiction.

 

Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn

Adult

Trigger warning-sexual assault/fetishization of Jamaican women/homophobia)

“The black seeps into her, masking any sentiments, mangling any desire to forgive, hardening the weak pulp of a muscle beating inside her chest.”

Focusing on three women and their shared, yet diverse, experiences living as native Jamaicans in a country that has been greatly infected by tourism and the fetishization that comes along with it. The novel is mainly focused on the protagonist, Margot, as she grinds to produce the money needed for her sister’s, Thandi’s, private school tuition any way she can. Thandi regularly gets her own chapters where the narrative is told from her perspective as a teenage Jamaican girl dealing with trauma from sexual violence. Because of the dual narratives, this book is appealing for teens and adults alike.

 

Hurricane Child by Kheryn Callender

Middle Grade

Trigger warning- homophobia

“It’s like a dream, almost, to be seen by someone who has never looked at you before.”

This middle grade was so deep and powerful. The protagonist, Caroline, a twelve-year-old Water Island native, deals with a mother who suddenly disappears, a father who doesn’t seem to understand her, bullies at school, and a new girl who sets her heart a flutter each time she locks eyes with her. Oh- and a spirit who has haunted her since she almost drowned. This book impressed me with its intelligent writing style and the strong characterization of Caroline. This is such a beautiful middle grade for any young girl who’s realizing she likes other girls and I wish so fiercely that I could have picked up a book like this when I was in elementary school.