I have a confession to make. This is not my first time reading All Out. It was so delicious I just had to have a second go and write about it. Since it is a collection of multiple stories, I picked three of my favorites to discuss more in-depth.
Roja, by Anna-Marie McLemore
This gorgeous, richly written story takes place in 1870s Mexico, with a French outlaw called Le Loup and the red-headed girl who loves him. Early on in the story you find out that Le Loup was christened with a girl’s name, but he chose his true name, Léon, joining the French army to finally be who he is. The girl, an outcast in her village, is called by no real name because of her family’s history. They are Las Rojas, marks of el Diablo himself.
“They carried the whisper that the women in my family could murder with nothing but our rage.” – Anna-Marie McLemore
The two fell in love when she found Léon left for the wolves – a bit of cruel irony since Le Loup literally means “the wolf.” When he is eventually captured by the village authorities, La Roja has to find a way to save him before she loses him for good.
I loved everything about Roja. I loved that its queerness wasn’t this big deal. Like a lot of the stories in All Out, Léon’s gender identity was a prominent theme, but it didn’t take over the story and become so overly obvious, if you get what I mean. It wasn’t screaming at the reader: “Hey! Look! This is a QUEER story! Go us!” Instead, it nudged at you, firmly telling you to take notice but to also appreciate the rest. LGBTQ+ people are people. We have a million other things about us than just being gay or trans. And I have such an appreciation for writers who really get that.
Léon and La Roja, while you don’t get a full shot of their love story, are endearing and true to behold. I especially loved the part where she tells us how he trusted her enough with his dead name – and how she knew she was never to speak it. Their bond is as strong as they are.
Now it is a short story, so there’s only so much about its characters and setting that you can pack in. But McLemore’s writing more than fills that space. Her style is brilliantly detailed and unique, both in its descriptions and in its way of dispersing information on characters and their pasts. The way she switches back and forth between present and passive tense really adds to that tactic. The reader really gets a sense of this place and these people, even though it’s through small, quick glimpses.
Overall, Roja makes for an interesting read that guides the reader amidst different wavelengths in storytelling as a whole.
And They Don’t Kiss at the End, by Nilah Magruder
This modernly-written story is set in 1976 Maryland and its popular roller skating scene. Dee, our teenage heroine, just broke up with friend-turned-boyfriend Vince and has been avoiding the rink – and him – ever since. See, Dee is different. She isn’t into the steamy novels that her friends read, or the pornos they’ve watched with the volume turned down low. She doesn’t imagine romance like that. So when Vince shows up when he’s no supposed to, how can she explain herself? Why had she let go of his hand?
When I saw that there was a story in All Out about an asexual teen, I was thrilled. I think representation of everyone in the LGBTQ+ community is something to celebrate. Especially LGBTQ+ people of color.
“Lori had suggested that maybe Dee wasn’t into guys. Lori wasn’t, and sometimes she linked fingers with other girls at the rink. Dee didn’t think it was about boys and girls. She didn’t know how to explain that she preferred to have no preference at all, and so she said nothing.” – Nilah Magruder
Magruder’s writing mixes the old with the modern. She has this way of making her dialogue sound so authentic and her character interactions, especially between Dee and Vince, are nothing if not engaging. The reader does not want for much more, except for more. We need a whole goddamn novel.
The element I love the most about this story is its realness. It’s a scenario I could envision happening now, though maybe without the American Bandstand references. Asexuality is still something that a lot of people don’t understand, but Magruder doesn’t waste her time trying to slap a definition on to it. Instead she focuses on Dee’s personal struggle with it and the way it has affected her life and her relationships. Is she a prude, as she’s been labelled as? Is she going to change the way she feels in the future? Dee’s confusion is understandable and so, so relatable. How many of us struggle with knowing who we truly are? How many of us never grew up knowing for sure if we were this or that?
Magruder doesn’t end the story on a perfect, pretty-in-pink answer. The moral of this story is that nothing has to be “figured out.” Sometimes all that matters is the connection you have with a person and with yourself. So what if it’s not sexual?
Burnt Umber, by Mackenzi Lee
It’s 1638. Amsterdam. Constantijin is the only boy in his painting apprenticeship who doesn’t drool over the women they draw. He does not “exaggerate the breasts,” like Braam and Johannes do. However, if it was Joost Hendrickszoon – the gorgeously handsome dockhand – sitting naked in their circle, Constantijin would have a serious problem on his hands. His desires would ruin him if he was discovered. But he soon stumbles across someone else, a boy who he never would have noticed if not for a pair missing gloves.
What can I say? I adore a lavishly-written gay love story. They never get old. Burnt Umber is endearing and opulent, and Lee’s writing lends wonderfully to the establishment of such an antique, romantic city in the story’s background.
Early on in the story, the reader can immediately see that Constantijin is isolated. There’s just something missing from him. Using first person narrative is a way that Lee implements that solitude, by giving us a peek into the way he looks at the world. His sexuality does seem to be the main backbone of the story, which isn’t a bad thing. I would have liked to see a bit more of his character, but again, by using that first person, Lee is giving Constantijin the reins and that allows for more details about the other characters to come into light. And we do get to see how adorably awkward he can be when it comes to Joost.
“‘We were painting… We’ve been talking about the musculature of…’ I do a mime of something oblong shaped with the unfortunate placement of right in front of my crotch. ‘It was just for the painting. We didn’t do anything with them. Not the penises. The casts. The plasters.’” – Mackenzi Lee
That is what I liked most about Burnt Umber. I appreciated its simplicity and its little twist as to who Constantijin ended up falling for. I liked how the title tied nicely into the ending, and how lovely all the painting language was. It was a pretty, Hallmark-ish love story. The world always needs one of those.
All Out: The No Longer Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages deserves an outstanding 9.5/10 for it’s careful, well-written representation of both the LGBTQ+ community and the writing community as a whole. While I only featured the work by three of its authors, the others stories in All Out are equally as engaging and are worthy of a good read. Let me know what you think down below!