I finished this book on the way back from our holiday in Penzance last Saturday, but I’ve had a spot of Review Lag as I threw myself straight back into a heavy work week (and book acquisition week: oops. More of that tomorrow). I won this book on NetGalley back in July and thank 4th Estate books for approving me for a copy in return for an honest review. If I’m trying to read more intersectionally, this one hits the spot, being about a non-gender-binary Arabic British Muslim drag queen – but I didn’t finish it to tick boxes, but because it’s enjoyable and taught me a few things.

The book opens memorably with Glamrou, the author’s drag persona, performing on stage in drag at a show, doing something that brings them closer to their mother, their roots, their religion even (there’s an interesting discussion of Sufism and the way the Qu’ran can be read to be inclusive) and is full of joy, allowing them to be their authentic self, when they spot a row of hijabi Muslim women sitting in the front row, and, what’s worse, they’re muttering about God in Arabic. Oddly enough, things start to fall apart. But there’s an explanation, don’t worry!

Via a very good explanation of intersectionality:

‘Intersectionality’ refers to the fact that we cannot study the issues surrounding one oppressed social group without understanding its intersections with many others; for instance, it is superficial to have a feminism that dismantles systems of misogyny without also understanding how this intersects with structures of racism. And, though mine is an extreme example of this, every person’s identity contains multiple facets that intersect with each other internally, and which are represented by intersecting political and social arguments in the outside world. Sometimes these intersections coexist peacefully; sometimes they are in conflict, and tear us into pieces.

we learn about Amrou’s life, their early happy years close to their mum, their desperate attempts to hide their true self from their parents once they realised it was not acceptable within the family, a journey through identity and bullying to the discovery of drag and finally an awed acceptance that Mother will always out-drag-queen any drag queen, hands down.

Amrou shares a lot of their experience of being femme (non-masculine acting) and the discrimination that exists in a gay world that seems obsessed instead with the hyper-masculine, and it was really good to gain more understanding of this issue and these divisions (however sad and distressing they are). They are aware of their learning experience through their life, including internalising prejudice to such an extent that they pretend to be both straight and completely British, and still get found out and then abused and bullied. Some of the abusive behaviour was hard to read about but absolutely needed to be included.

I enjoyed finding out more about the power of drag and the drag family to enhance and support people’s lives, and the mutual care and support in that world. I also liked the careful construction of the journey Amrou went on, from pretending to be straight and British to doing drag a bit to fully embracing doing Muslim-themed and Middle-Eastern appearing drag.

This bit’s a bit complicated, and forgive me if I put this badly. I appreciated the careful distinction that Amrou made when saying that the drag queens are parodying the constructions of femininity rather than reinforcing them or parodying femininity itself. As a straight, cis-gender woman who uses female pronouns but doesn’t particularly perform femininity, I have felt a bit threatened by these hyper-feminine displays at times, or more unnerved by them. It would be useful to read on this more widely to check if it’s a universal (I’m all for anyone dressing and behaving how they want, but it feels odd to watch someone of a different gender perform my gender way better than I do, if that makes sense).

This is a warm and self-aware book, a funny read, though maybe a little risque for a quiet carriage in a long-distance train. There was even a word I didn’t know (!) and the read was only marred by the incident with the neglected fish tank, which upset me as an ex-fish-keeper, however much it was necessary to the story to show Amrou’s mental state at the time.

Recommended if you want to learn more about the drag world, intersectionality and identity.