I spent three days trying to find the words to describe Ryka Aoki's lyrical 2014 debut novel, He Mele A Hilo, while hawking books at the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference. On the table beside this beautiful book were seemingly more obvious choices for this particular audience: Imogen Binnie's much acclaimed Nevada, Casey Plett's touching A Safe Girl to Love, Sybil Lamb's surreal punk epic I've Got a Time Bomb. But as much as I wanted people to read those books, I so desperately wanted to get Aoki's novel into their hands, because I knew that it had the potential to change their lives. And by the end of those three days, these are the words I had settled on: “It's like a funny Hawaiian Toni Morrison.”

Unfortunately, to my great surprise, few had actually read Toni Morrison. “What...

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