It Gets Better

Under the Rainbow BY Celia Laskey. New York: Riverhead Books. 288 pages. $27.
Celia Laskey. Photo: Leonora Anzaldua

Celia Laskey’s new novel, Under the Rainbow, takes place in the fictional town of Big Burr, Kansas, which could easily stand in for any small town in America. Like the town Laskey herself grew up in, Big Burr is full of people who love each other, while also being insular. After LGBTQ+ rights group Acceptance Across America determines that Big Burr is “the most homophobic town in America,” the group sends a cohort of queer people from the coasts to change hearts and minds. Under the Rainbow follows several characters over the AAA’s two-year occupation of Big Burr and details the ways their work affects both the townspeople and the occupiers.

This mission is absurd, of course. As the AAA ambassadors hold “listening sessions” at the library (unwelcome) and make a giant billboard (very unwelcome), the locals show up, but mostly to express anger. Initially, the people of the town feel resentful of the group’s attempts to change their way of life and aren’t afraid to say it. But over time, some surprising relationships form while others disintegrate—in the end, all of the characters are changed. Laskey portrays a complex community in which both the residents of Big Burr and the members of the AAA are flawed and empathetic, stereotypical and unique.

Bookforum sat down with Laskey to talk about writing from multiple perspectives, empathy, and unlikely friendships.

Where did you get the idea for this book?

The story was partially inspired by the fact that I didn’t realize I was gay until I was twenty-three. That doesn’t sound super old, but having gone through all that time being closeted—even to myself—it felt like a really long time. A lot of that was influenced by the lack of visibility for queer people in the small Maine town where I grew up. One day, I was talking about that with my wife and how awesome it would have been if there had been a way to encourage that visibility. What if there was a queer recruitment team that came into all of these small towns in America and showed people that “it’s OK to be queer”?

The members of the task force are often just as flawed and even prejudiced as the homophobic townspeople—I’m thinking of Karen, the head of the AAA task force, who says that she thinks “all activists are motivated by [hate], deep down.” When writing about an underrepresented group like queer people, it can be tempting to write the characters as purely good. What do you think about imperfect characters?

In Marilyn Frye’s essay “Oppression,” she writes that “it is often a requirement upon oppressed people that we smile and be cheerful. . . . Anything but the sunniest countenance exposes us to being perceived as mean, bitter, angry or dangerous.” But why shouldn’t we be mean, bitter, angry, or even dangerous in the face of hate? I think it’s really important to not give oppressors what they want—for us to not just be docile and “good” while they tell us we’re not worthy of basic humanity. Besides, the most interesting characters are always flawed in some way, and no matter what identity a character has, you want them to be interesting.

You oscillate between many different narrators in the story. Was it difficult to write from the perspective of the townspeople?

When you’re writing about “the most homophobic town in America” you force yourself to write about homophobes. In my daily life, outside of fiction, I have no interest in finding empathy for homophobes or people with any kind of prejudice, so writing this book was an exercise in finding that empathy.

You’ve created some surprising relationships, like the friendship between young task-force member Harley and elderly Big Burr resident Elsie. Where did the idea for that friendship come from and how did you avoid stereotypes?

I knew I wanted some unlikely friendships in the book. With Harley and Elsie, I tried to think of what could bring together two characters at supposedly opposite ends of the spectrum: a young nonbinary person and an older woman who’s spent her whole life in Big Burr. Since Harley has just lost their mother, and Elsie has essentially lost her relationship with her children, they’re both looking to fill that void, and they find connection there.

In an overtly political way, I also wanted to show that if a rural woman in her eighties can successfully learn to use they/them pronouns, then you can too! I hear so many arguments against using they/them pronouns. At the time that I was writing Harley’s story, I was in my grad program at the University of New Mexico and I was dealing with a lot of closed-mindedness from unexpected people, like one of my classmates who said he would never use they/them pronouns because “it’s grammatically incorrect.” It really upset me because what people like that are really saying is “I refuse to acknowledge this person’s humanity” but in a way that pretends to be less offensive. It made me think about how these pronouns are such a sticking point for some people, even those who seem “progressive.” I started thinking about the people that we would like least expect to use a nonbinary person’s correct pronouns and came up with an old woman in a nursing home.

The landscape in and around Big Burr is a really important aspect of the story. Some of the descriptions are beautiful, like the images of the migrating birds and the way the sun hits the silos in the fields. Some are not so beautiful, like the big agriculture feedlots. How did you choose Kansas for the setting and why was the physical landscape so important?

When I first came up with this book I wanted to set it in the South, because the South has a reputation for homophobia and bigotry. But I’ve never lived in the South and it soon became very clear to me that I could not pull that off. I started brainstorming about where else I could set the book, and Kansas seemed like a good fit because it is literally the middle of the country.

But, again, I’m not from Kansas. So during my grad program I applied for a grant to go there so that I could at least get an idea of the landscape and the people. My wife and I drove to a small town there from Albuquerque and it was very useful to see the landscape—all of those grain silos, fields, and feedlots, and the way Main Street looked.

It was also useful to see how people reacted to us. When we checked into our hotel, the look we got from the guy behind the desk was so suspicious, like, “What are you doing here?” Everywhere we went people said to us, “You’re not from here.”

I thought about what it would be like to stay there for two years like the members of AAA. I would probably find some people that I could connect with and some places that I liked to go. Or maybe it would all just be misery, but I had to at least try to imagine an alternative to that.

Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer and book critic whose work appears in the Seattle Times, Electric Literature, LARB, Literary Hub, BuzzFeed News, The Believer, and Bookforum, among other outlets. She can be found on Twitter @sarahmariewrote, Instagram @readrunsea, and at