Tomboyland is the 2020 debut essay collection by bi author Melissa Faliveno, published by Topple Books. Described as “fiercely personal and startlingly universal” by its book jacket, this memoir-in-essays received a starred review from Publishers Weekly and was named an NPR and New York Public Library Best Book of 2020; in that same year, Oprah Magazine also named it one of the best LGBTQ books. The collection later received a 2021 Award for Outstanding Literary Achievement from the Wisconsin Library Association.

Tomboyland gained these accolades for its willingness to tackle complex themes such as identity, home, violence, and class. It does so by exploring wide-ranging topics like tornadoes, kink parties, and softball, among many others. The essays don’t shy away from difficult material, and Faliveno isn’t afraid to admit that she doesn’t have all the answers, which lends a humility and approachability to Tomboyland as a collection.

In a 2020 conference panel, Faliveno noted that her memoir was brought about by a series of questions that had been bothering her: “What makes a person? What makes a family? How does class define us? Can we ever escape ourselves? Or the place we call home?” Though none of those explicitly mention bisexuality, discussions of gender and sexuality are woven throughout the eight essays in this collection — and bisexuality, in particular, is a key focus, discussed in great detail in the essay “Tomboy”.

This piece dives into Faliveno’s understanding of her own bisexuality. As an androgynous woman, she has experienced pushback for dating men, as her appearance leads others to believe that she must be a lesbian. Especially when she’s dating a man, Faliveno worries that her bisexuality “will be questioned or invalidated or both” — and in “Tomboy” she writes about how choosing to stay quiet about her sexuality felt simpler because these experiences of bi erasure and biphobia left her feeling less than. Unsure if she fit in with her straight or queer friends, Faliveno felt, for a time, that it was easier to stay invisible than risk “disappointing” new friends by talking about how she also dated men, an experience she relates in the opening of “Tomboy”.

Though discussions of bi erasure and biphobia are not new for the bi community, Faliveno’s essay collection handles these topics deftly, and with grace. Throughout “Tomboy” in particular, Faliveno asks questions about labels and identity, and who gets to decide what we call ourselves. She also points out the limits of language and how labels that feel right one day may not feel great the next. Labels, language, and identity are all fluid — and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Again, in 2020, these weren’t brand-new discussions for bi folk, or for the larger queer community, but Faliveno addresses them in their full complexity, allowing for more nuance than other conversations with limited discourse.

Tomboyland is a vulnerable collection that explores what Faliveno calls “liminal spaces”, or the in-between — a feeling that she has experienced not only with her sexuality but also in other avenues of her life as she’s unwound the complexities of identity and home.