Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. Photo by Chris Hammett

Contagious Exchanges Is Queering Out Space For Writing Again

The new lit series begins with Tara Hardy and Anastacia Tolbert.

There used to be two LGBT-themed bookstores on Capitol Hill alone. Now there are none. Lots of people would say this is a sign of progress—after all, though we may not have a Beyond the Closet or a Bailey/Coy on Capitol Hill anymore, pretty much every bookstore in town now has a huge section devoted to LGBT issues. Virtually every bookstore I can think of has at least one LGBT employee, and some have many more than one. With the mainstreaming of gay culture, many would argue, why would you need a space specifically for LGBT literature?

Well, uh, because it’s important. Because books are how we learn, and because LGBT youth will feel more comfortable if they can visit a space away from the judgmental eyes of cisgender browsers where they can feel included as they learn about themselves. Because no matter your age, sometimes it’s worthwhile to make a space where you can breathe and be yourself. Because it’s important to have a place dedicated to community and conversation.

If you’re out at a literary event and you see Seattle author Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, you know you’ve made the right choice for the evening. Her taste is impeccable and her politics are righteous. Now she’s finally launching a reading series to create a much-needed space to discuss queer matters. In October, Bernstein Sycamore’s new Contagious Exchanges series will kick off at Hugo House. It’s billed as “a monthly series featuring two dynamic writers bridging genre, style, sensibility, and all the markers of identity in queer lives.”

But on Thursday, Bernstein Sycamore is hosting a pilot episode, a proof-of-concept to give audiences a Pride-month preview of what to expect this fall. The first two people to join Bernstein Sycamore in conversation will be poets Tara Hardy and Anastacia Tolbert. Hardy is a self-described “working-class queer femme poet” who has served the community broadly (she was Seattle’s Poet Populist) and the LGBT community more specifically (she has read and performed with queer reading groups her entire career). Tolbert, the Hugo House’s current writer-in-residence, is seemingly everywhere right now, speaking out at events for people of color and queer writers. These two poets sharing a stage should be incendiary; putting them together with a curious firebrand like Bernstein Sycamore might just result in an explosion.

But more than just a promising reading series, what Bernstein Sycamore is doing with Contagious Exchanges is claiming a space to discuss queer issues in literature. She’s taking back some of the public conversation and claiming it in the name of her cause. When the LGBT bookstores shut down, some assumed it was because the community hadn’t been there to support it. Bernstein Sycamore is out to prove them wrong; Contagious Exchanges is proof that there’s more to be said, written, and discussed about the state of queer writing in America in 2016. Make sure you’re there to listen, and to add to the conversation.

Hugo House, 1021 Columbia St., 322-7030, hugohouse.org. Free. All ages. 7 p.m. Thurs., June 2.

Paul Constant is the co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. Read daily books coverage like this at seattlereviewofbooks.com.

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