AIDS, coming out, Coming-of-Age, Gender Identity, Historical Fiction, immigrant literature, Iranian-American, LGBT, pride month, Sexuality, Young Adult

Thoughts on Two LGBTQ Pride Reads

Like A Love Story

Abdi Nazemian’s young adult historical fiction novel, Like A Love Story, is the fourth LGBTQ-themed book I’ve read this month. Like the others, it has not disappointed. Every good coming-out-story, like every good coming-of-age story from Little Women to The Catcher in the Rye, manages to do this, to balance a personal, individual story with a unique experience in time and place and the larger issues this entails. What the author does best in this novel is to integrate powerful and accurate portrayals of two difficult events, the Iran revolution and the AIDS crisis, into a story about an immigrant boy’s coming-of-age and coming out. Magically, it is all held together by the unlikeliest but most appropriate of figures: Madonna.

Reza is that immigrant boy. He arrives in New York City, by way of Canada, after his family flees Iran. Reza has always been the good boy, the one his mother can depend on, while his older sister has always been the rebel and troublemaker. But when Reza meets the beautiful punk photographer, Art, and his best friend Judy, everything changes. Reza is thrust into a world that values independence and individuality, and into a sphere that is fighting desperately to survive. Judy’s uncle Stephen is dying of AIDS, and through his example of activism, friendship, patience, and counter-pop culture, Reza, Judy, and Art learn to thrive, to live, and to love.

Like A Love Story is not only a beautifully-written young adult novel, but it is a historically and socially important one. Nazemian reminds the reader just how hard gay and lesbian people had to fight to win their freedoms and equal protections, a fight that continues to this day and that is constantly under attack. The author includes several important historical lessons, weaving them seamlessly into the story of these characters’ lives, so that readers who give this work a chance will find themselves learning critical history that is often overlooked, forgotten, or under-appreciated, while at the same time enjoying an excellent story. At the heart of it are themes of friendship, forgiveness, and first loves, as well as first losses and the reality of mourning. These very human themes are so universal that the reader, while connecting with the fictional of it all, might find themselves relating to a story well beyond their own lived experience.

This is one of the most important and illuminating LGBTQ novels published in recent memory.

Symptoms of Being Human

The fifth book I read for Pride Month is Jeff Garvin’s The Symptoms of Being Human, a young/new adult novel about a gender fluid protagonist’s coming-out experience. Riley Cavanaugh’s father is a conservative politician in a conservative Orange County, California district, in the middle of a re-election campaign. Riley’s mother is kind and well-meaning, but much of her time is devoted to her duties as a politician’s spouse. Just as the election season is heating up, Riley suffers a kind of panic attack at an important event, after which they are hospitalized for attempted suicide. To ease some of the tension, Riley transfers out of her private Catholic school, where they were tormented, to a public school, where they hope to be better treated. Unfortunately, high school is still high school, conservative areas are still conservative areas, and plans often go sour.

While Riley struggles to figure out who they are, some days feeling like a girl and some days like a boy, and other days not like either one, they also navigate the process of healing from self-harm, dealing with anxiety, hiding a powerful secret from their parents and, let’s face it, an entire district that has the Cavanaugh family under its microscope, and trying to make friends, or at least avoid making enemies, at a new school. Any one of these conflicts would be difficult but trying to deal with all of them simultaneously is beyond unlucky. To help, Riley’s therapist suggests that they start a blog and share privately and anonymously what cannot be shared publicly. To write is Riley’s true therapy, and as it turns out, they are very good at it. Ironically, this talent is what causes the largest crisis of all.

Somehow, Riley finds themselves with a popular blog that only grows in popularity as its presence is picked-up by one of the largest LGBTQ community websites online. Riley receives thousands and then tens of thousands of followers and is bombarded with comments of praise, questions for advice, and plenty of hate mail, too. Eventually, Riley’s identity is discovered, right around the time some of the advice they have given to a transgender teen goes terribly wrong, and suddenly they are thrust, with their secrets, into the glaring spotlight that is a political election season.

The major climax itself did feel unnecessary to me, in an almost troubling way. In my reading, the event felt manufactured to fit a gap in the construction of the narrative, rather than necessarily and organically manifested by the sequence of the story itself. It is also a device so often used in stories of sex/gender diversion that, at this point, it has become cliché. This is not to say the problem is not real, because it is very real and all too common, but the introduction and handling of it (and particularly the “fall out”) are even more important for that reason. This is the one element that pulled me out of an otherwise truly engaging, interesting, and important work that deals with gender fluidity, family, hate crimes, coming-of-age, and mental health.

One of the most incredible things about Symptoms of Being Human is that the author manages to treat Riley Cavanaugh’s gender fluidity with complete honesty throughout the course of the narrative. It is never revealed whether the protagonist was born biologically male or female, nor what their parents assume to be Riley’s sex or gender. This is an impressive feat. The story is well-paced, moving slowly and thoughtfully through the complex areas, then speeding up rapidly during moments of intensity. I was able to read the entire thing over the course of one round-trip flight, and rarely did I want to stop to put it down.


I’m currently reading Jane DeLynn’s DON JUAN IN THE VILLAGE, which will be my 6th book for Pride month (this one features a lesbian protagonists sexual experiences around the world), completing my planned reads for the month, though I hope to get one more snuck in under the wire. DON JUAN is also a book on my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge List. Check out my thoughts on earlier Pride Month reads, ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS as well as GEMINI and HOLD MY HAND.

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American Lit, Fiction, immigrant literature, Indian Literature, Rishi Reddi, Short Story, women's literature

Justice Shiva Ram Murthy by Rishi Reddi

Rishi Reddi’s “Justice Shiva Ram Murthy” is an interesting and insightful short story about the struggles displaced immigrants may face in big-city America. The author successfully applies techniques such as setting, characterization, and point of view to explain the main character’s motivation and to resolve one small conflict while presenting a larger, possibly unsolvable conflict.

The story’s setting serves to create a sense of displacement and confusion in the main character, Shiva Ram Murthy. Making the character a retired Indian judge who has been moved from India to a large American city where his judicial powers and knowledge are of no consequence add to Murthy’s wounded pride and inflate his apparently innate self-centeredness. Also, being in a new country where everyone speaks a different kind of English, leads to misunderstandings and arguments between Murthy and others throughout the story. Had this story taken place in India, Murthy would not have felt the need to prove himself to everyone he met. He would not have been walking around consumed with paranoia, thinking Americans were always purposely trying to misunderstand him. The setting is crucial to this story, in that any change to it would have meant the creation of an entirely different, or at least acting, character.

Characterization in “Justice Shiva Ram Murthy” is also very consciously thought out and articulated. Shiva Ram Murthy is a static character, his attitudes and ideas are generally the same at the end of the story as they were in the beginning. He is consistently self-centered and selfish. Murthy is always contradicting what his only friend says or thinks, as when he says “Manu told me later that as I pronounced these words, a little bit of saliva came from my mouth and landed on the girl’s sleeve.  I do not agree” (362). There are many instances throughout the story where his friend, Manu, will say one thing and Shiva will tell the reader about it, only to disagree with Manu’s statement.

Also, Shiva is completely selfish. He talks about Manu having no values, but when Shiva leaves his cane at the restaurant, it is Manu who goes back and gets it for him. It is also Manu who finds a lawyer for Shiva, and goes with him to the appointment. Shiva cannot seem to do much on his own, but at the end of the story he says that it is “Manu without any friends, without anyone to understand him and keep him company,” as if it was Shiva who is always there for Manu. These characteristics, and his personal pride, are the cause of both small conflicts in the story (the argument with the restaurant manager and the misunderstanding with the lawyer) as well as the larger conflict, Shiva’s inability to recognize his own faults and put any blame on himself, rather than heaping it all on his loyal friend and the rude “westerners” (Americans).

Being told in the first-person allows the reader to get inside the head of the main character. Hearing the story from this point of view is beneficial because it allows one to understand why Shiva acts the way he does, why he seems so stubborn and unyielding. The reader can, for example, get a sense of why Shiva gets so upset with the lawyer’s inability to help him. We get an idea of his thought process, what makes him tick, what he worries about even in his home. However, being told from the first person point of view limits this story, in that the reader does not get any sense of how anyone else truly feels about Shiva and his actions. The only example of this that is given is when Manu finally confronts him, yet, even after this confrontation, there is nothing more of Manu’s point of view, only all Shiva. The benefit of this, though, is that it further emphasizes Shiva’s self-centeredness. Reddi purposely harmonizes the way the story as whole is told with the way Shiva tells his story, inflating Shiva’s general self-centeredness.

There are two small conflicts within the story: the confrontation with the restaurant manager at the Mexican fast food joint, and the argument with the American lawyer. The first conflict is resolved by Shiva’s taking the lawyer’s advice to write a letter of complaint to the restaurant owner and getting a satisfying reply. The conflict with the American lawyer (who stands for American law in general) is never resolved, because Shiva is never content with American law or living. Both conflicts are reflective of the larger conflict in the story, which is Shiva’s inability to assimilate and adapt to the new culture he has been thrust into. He cannot accept that it is he who may have a problem understanding the Americans, rather than all Americans having a problem with him.

Reddi creatively applies various writing techniques within her story to create an entertaining story that is also consistent and purposeful. She uses symbolism to discuss larger issues on a smaller scale. For example, the lawyer who represents American law as a whole, and the cane he was given but insists he does not need that represents Shiva’s refusal to set aside his pride and ask for help. Also, it is not lost that both misunderstandings within the story take place between Shiva and American women. This represents a larger problem, as Reddi sees it, in either Indian male ideology or male ideology in general. Further, Reddi creates a setting and point of view which serve to accentuate the character’s personality and faults. For these reasons, Reddi’s story is well-written, and her point is made successfully.

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