In the October issue of Q&Q, Natalie Samson writes about how a handful of YA authors are creating positive role models for gay youth.
When Mariko Tamaki set out to write (You) Set Me on Fire (Razorbill Canada), her first novel for young adult readers, she didn’t realize it’d be the “queerest book” she’s written to date.
Unlike her previous YA books, the critically acclaimed graphic novel Skim (illustrated by cousin Jillian Tamaki) and comic Emiko Superstar (illustrated by Steve Rolston), Tamaki says her latest publication brings sexual identity to the fore. “[Allison Lee] knows that she likes girls, but it doesn’t seem to be a permanent thing yet,” Tamaki says of her 17-year-old protagonist.
The novel follows Allison as she slouches through freshman year in an all-girls university residence, and grapples with an intense and unhealthy relationship with her new best friend, Shar, all while mending her first broken heart and a fair bit of charred, scabby skin (she was accidentally set on fire twice the previous summer). Though Allison fumbles with her feelings about identity – at one point she likens being a lesbian to a “physical betrayal, like Tourette’s syndrome” – her queerness is established before the novel opens, making it one of several qualities she re-evaluates over the course of the year.
Tamaki’s novel is one of a growing number of queer-positive coming-of-age stories that reflect the changing realities faced by young LGBT Canadians. “The story about someone discovering their sexuality has to have changed,” Tamaki says. “Twenty years ago there was the experience of having to go to the library to look up what the word ‘lesbian’ means. Nowadays, you turn on the television and there’s at least one lesbian in a five-hour block of TV.”
Indeed, journalist Michael Harris, whose first novel, Homo, was published in September through Lorimer’s SideStreets YA series, recalls heading to his local library as a 17-year-old in the late 1990s to look up “homosexual” in the card catalogue. “There were two books in my suburban library: one was a clinical analysis of illness, and one of them was Stan Persky’s book Buddy’s,” he says. “These were my indoctrination into the community.”
Considering the isolation Harris felt as a teen, it’s no surprise that one of his aims in writing Homo was to craft a character who inhabits multiple communities. Will Johnson struggles with his place at school and within his circle of friends and family after his sexual orientation is leaked on Facebook. In addition to the more mundane dramas of adolescence – an uninspiring home life, a strained relationship with his best friend – Will also confronts the violence of homophobic bullying and the news that his 23-year-old boyfriend, Riley, is HIV positive (a fact he learns after they’ve had sex).
In Will’s older, urban boyfriend, Harris offers queer youth an example of post-AIDS gay life, as well as a warning against taking that history too lightly. “If you look at HIV rates among young gay men, they’re actually climbing,” Harris says. “I think it’s because young gay men are either not worried about AIDS because they think it’s a one-pill-a-day kind of lifestyle, or they actually think of AIDS as some kind of historic relic.… I wanted Will to have to confront that wrecked part of his history that he didn’t think counted.”
Confronting the difficult realities of intersecting identities is also at the heart of Paul Yee’s 2011 novel, Money Boy (Groundwood Books), in which the teenage protagonist, Ray Liu, is thrown out of his Toronto home when his father, a former Chinese soldier, discovers his son has been visiting gay porn sites. In the aftermath, Ray experiences homelessness, engages in sex work, and discovers relief and support in online gaming and the city’s Church and Wellesley neighbourhood. Ray eventually reconciles with his family and returns home.
While Yee is aware that the narrative arc may seem familiar, the book’s Chinese-Canadian context helps keep the story fresh. “There’s been this tradition in older gay lit that the gay characters would often die off or they’d be pathologized,” Yee says. “I wanted an upbeat ending, but not something that was entirely unbelievable.”
Like Tamaki and Harris, Yee felt compelled to challenge the coming-out archetype because it didn’t reflect his experience as a young, gay immigrant. The absence of relatable role models and the fear of backlash from schools and libraries led Yee to hide his queer identity, even as he published story after story celebrating his cultural heritage (including the Governor General’s Literary Award–winning Ghost Train).
“It felt [like] I had a lot of internalized homophobia if I kept avoiding my gay life,” says Yee, who started writing gay fiction for adult audiences in the 1990s, in collections such as Queer View Mirror and Quickies (both from Arsenal Pulp Press). Money Boy is the author’s first YA novel addressing life after coming out. “The inspiration for writing Money Boy was really for me to get some balance in writing about the two worlds that I belong to: a gay world and a Chinese world,” he says.
Ivan E. Coyote is another prolific author who recently tried her hand at queer-positive YA. One in Every Crowd, published by Arsenal Pulp last spring, was a long time coming, says Coyote, who has spent the past decade touring schools as a storyteller and motivational speaker. Her talks often centre on stories about her cousin Christopher, an awkward, unique kid who was often treated cruelly. After regaling high schoolers with her funny, touching stories of a cherished cousin, she tells them the sad truth: Christopher killed himself at the age of 22.
“I thought a lot about my cousin Christopher when I put this book together,” Coyote says. “I still feel like part of the work I do in high schools is my means of atonement for not being able to protect him more in his own school experience, for not seeing how serious the bullying was.”
Coyote’s extended family appears in much of this collection of fictionalized memoirs. “There are so many stories out there about gay, lesbian, transsexual, transgendered people being homeless and being kicked out by their families,” she says. “I wanted to present an alternate reality: a family that may have struggled with aspects of who I was when I first came out … [but] in which I’m just as beloved and adored as any other family member.” By casting herself as not just a valued member of her family, but a successful artist, mentor, friend, partner, and lover, Coyote hopes to fill a gap of inspiring and realistic models of queerness, especially for young women.
After years of stubbornly refusing to tone down her writing, Coyote says she finally heeded requests from teachers and librarians to publish a resource appropriate for teens because she saw first-hand just how badly many queer youth needed the positive reinforcement. These changes weren’t for the benefit of her younger readers, she quickly clarifies, but for those adults who would object to the book’s content, or to “a writer like me being in a public library.” Coyote adds: “They’re going to be looking for reasons … so I sort of took the easy things away from them. They can tackle the more complicated reasons why they might not want … their own kids seeing some reflection of themselves in popular culture.”
There’s no denying YA’s growing importance in Canadian publishing, leading to more options for young readers. But as Harris notes, a study conducted by author Malinda Lo found that only 1.6 per cent of YA books to be published in the U.S. in 2012 will include LGBT main characters (those numbers weren’t available for Canada). So while books by Tamaki, Harris, Yee, and Coyote are signs of positive change, their rarity makes them, as Harris suggests, political statements.
Tamaki, who says her inspiration for (You) Set Me on Fire came out of her belief in activism, agrees. “You can’t expect change to happen,” she says. You have to write it into being.