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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Addiction, Coming-of-Age, Contemporary American, LGBT, Literature, Ocean Vuong, pride month, Vietnamese

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

The irony is not lost on me that, just a couple of days after claiming that I no longer plan to write formal/lengthy book reviews for this blog, I finish reading Ocean Vuong’s first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. It would be absolutely thrilling to think that I can articulate just why it is so necessary for me to write a full-length reflection about this novel, but the idea that I can do this book justice is ludicrous. Still, I’ll try my best.

Ocean Vuong is an acclaimed Vietnamese-American poet who has already won numerous prestigious awards, including the T.S. Eliot award for poetry. His collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, is one of the highest regarded contemporary collections on the market, which made the anticipation about this first novel all the more extreme. It is rare to see a talented writer in one genre, like poetry, crossover into another genre, like fiction, and even rarer still to find that she or he manages it expertly. Vuong is such a rarity.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is marketed as a letter from a Vietnamese-American boy to his mother, who cannot read. Taken literally, this is the case. Little Dog is writing to his mother about all the secrets he has kept, all the memories he has buried, and all the love he carries for his mother and his grandmother, both of whom are reeling from the traumas of war, immigration, loss of language, and Alzheimer’s. So, it is a kind of love letter to these women, to their past, but also to himself as a boy and to his future self, the man who will be made possible. He knows his mother cannot understand the words he writes, the language he speaks, so he shares without restraint and sends the letter to us all.

One of the reasons why I enjoyed and appreciated this novel so much is that it is written by a poet. This is clear not just in the language, but in the shape and delivery of the major themes and ideas. Vuong, through Little Dog, looks at the world through the eyes of the poet and describes what he sees in a way that only a poet could. The mundane is made miraculous, the painful is paradox, and the beautiful is wrenching. He manages to make the reader empathize with a host of characters, from the quietly rebellious protagonist, to his contradictorily abusive yet loving mother, and to his young boyfriend, a country redneck simultaneously terrified of yielding himself to another boy while still capable of treating his lover with the greatest compassion and tenderest care.

What holds it together most, what makes it a masterpiece, is its honesty. Words like “courageous” are often applied to novels like this one, stories that tell of family traumas, of coming-of-age and coming out. But Vuong’s honesty, here, is on a different level altogether. The way he describes his coming out and his growing up, his ever-progressing awareness of self, his first love and loss, moves beyond courageous. It is an act of total surrender, a giving up of everything that the world tells us should be kept to ourselves. In this way, Vuong allows Little Dog to reach the two kinds of readers who most need his story: the readers like Little Dog, who experienced or will experience the unique moments of gay life, of immigrant life, of life as an outcast, that can rarely be discussed in public, if ever. And the readers who know nothing of this type of journey, but who might learn what it means to be the someone else, the one without words or defense in a world that is terribly loud and aggressive. To be the dove in a crow’s nest.

For me, Ocean Vuong’s novel comes at a time when I am re-examining my own life and past. It comes at a time when Eugene Lee Yang releases his beautiful artistic articulation of a similar journey. For me, it seems, a universe of ellipses is falling into place at exactly the right moment, and to read a perfect book in a turbulent and confusing time is perhaps the most miraculous way to think of one’s place in that universe as intentional, purposeful, and necessary.

Notable Quotes:
“The nameless yellow body was not considered human because it did not fit in a slot on a piece of paper. Sometimes you are erased before you are given the choice of stating who you are” (63).

“The children, the veal, they stand very still because tenderness depends on how little the world touches you. To stay tender, the weight of your life cannot lean on your bones” (156).

“To be clean again. To be good again. What have we become to each other if not what we’ve done to each other?” (206)

“The thing is, I don’t want my sadness to be othered from me just as I don’t want my happiness to be othered. They’re both mine” (181).

“The sunset, like survival, exists only on the verge of its own disappearing. To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted” (238).

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2019 TBR Pile Challenge

June Checkpoint! #TBR2019RBR

Hello, TBR Pile Challengers! 

Welcome to the MID-WAY POINT for our 2019 TBR Pile Challenge! I don’t know about you, but the time seems to be flying for me. I’m already too many weeks into my summer “break” and feel like far too many months in the year have passed. 

That said, I have somehow, someway managed to keep pace with this challenge (sort of.) I’ve read and reviewed exactly 6 of my 12 required books. Since I hope to read all 14 on my list, this does put me a bit behind schedule, technically, but “to win,” one only needs to hit 12 of 12, so I’m counting it as pretty good performance thus far, even if my reviews have gotten rather brief.

Progress: 6 of 12 Completed / 6 of 12 Reviewed

As you can see, the more recent reviews are pretty short in comparison to what I usually write, but that’s partly because “book blogging” or “reviewing,” anyway, is becoming less of a priority for me. I still plan to keep up with this blog and sharing my thoughts on the books that I’m reading, but it will likely not be in the form of full-on reviews. I think the next book on my list I want to try will be either The Ascent of Woman or Light the Dark: Writers On Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process. 

Books read:

How are you doing?

index

Below, you’re going to find the infamous Mr. Linky widget. If you read and review any challenge books this month, please link-up on the widget below. This Mr. Linky will be re-posted every month so that we can compile a large list of all that we’re reading and reviewing together this year. Each review that is linked-up on this widget throughout the year may also earn you entries into future related giveaways, so don’t forget to keep this updated!

MINI-CHALLENGE #2 WINNER: Lindsay from Three Good Rats! Lindsay chose to receive a copy of OUTLANDER by Diana Gabaldon. Congratulations, Lindsay! Good luck to you all next month, when Mini-Challenge #3 comes around. 🙂 

LINK UP YOUR REVIEWS! 

 

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Essay, Personal, writing

The Note I Never Wrote

I first started coming out to people when I was sixteen.

It began with a friend who, as it turns out, didn’t deserve to be told first, but who was nevertheless mostly supportive in the beginning. A few months after telling a second friend, I told my sister. And that was the limit for a little over a year, until I went to college and came out more broadly to a whole bunch of friends and family back home, all at once during the first semester of my freshman year. I used a ridiculously cheap but safe-to-me method, one of those “How Well Do You Know Me?” personal surveys that were all the rage for a while back in the early-2000s.

For me, the process was mostly painless and undramatic, with the exception of a couple family members who did not take the news well. I didn’t expect it all to go very badly, but I also didn’t expect it to go as easily as it did. There are still some people who are uncomfortable with the fact that I’m gay, but for the most part I have been very fortunate to have a loving and supportive family and to have surrounded myself with good people, both before and after coming out, who never saw that one part of my personality as anything other than what it is, a normal aspect of who I am. I know how very lucky that makes me, which has always made this next part confusing and embarrassing to me.

After 20 years of being “out” in some form or another, I sit here during Pride month and realize that there is one coming out I have yet to achieve. It’s an even more painful one, something that I’ve hidden or avoided talking about for 15 years; only two people have known anything about it, all this time. I started to think about this while walking the mall a few days ago. I noticed so many stores have their PRIDE colors out and their love/equality merchandise on display. The commercialism of it is a double-edged sword, but for the most part I choose to look on the bright side: visibility is a good thing. To feel welcome in public spaces is a good thing.

As I walked through one store, though, I took a closer look at their Pride displays and read that they are partnering with The Trevor Project this year. With every purchase, customers can choose to “round up” to the next dollar, and all of those donations then go to help this organization prevent teen suicide in the LGBTQ community, where the issue remains severe and far too common. The juxtaposition of all those joyful, vibrant Pride colors with the reminder that, every day, there are queer kids out there contemplating suicide, was jarring to say the least, and it dragged me back to one of the most painful times in my life.

During my second year of college, I was, by all appearances, the happiest and healthiest I had ever been. As a kid who struggled his whole life with obesity and body issues, I suddenly found myself rather fit, making close friends, and doing crazy things like learning how to dance, performing on stage, going to parties, and all sorts of other activities I had only dreamed about since childhood. But, doing all of those things took a great deal of energy for me. I didn’t realize at the time what it meant to be as anxious and introverted as I am, so I ignored the pain of being in public and among people all the time, even though my mind and body were trying to tell me, again and again, that I was doing too much.

Eventually, I would listen, though, and retreat into an even unhealthier environment.

I was also dating for the first time. There’s a lot that could be said about who I chose to date and how those experiences went. It suffices to say for now that, none of those choices were healthy or right, and that I was looking for something to make me feel better, not realizing that this was just adding to the problem. It would take a long, long time to understand that what would make me feel better, feel like me, and feel like I deserved to be alright, wasn’t something I could ever find in someone or something else; not in a guy, not in a friend, and not in an activity. I realize now that I was overcompensating for the fact that I was not as happy or comfortable as I pretended to be, and that even though I was out and had been surrounded by friends who accepted me completely, I hadn’t ever accepted myself.

The combination of persistent, paralyzing body issues and lack of self-esteem plus the fact that I hadn’t yet accepted my sexuality, despite pretending confidence in both of these things, led me to long-distance online dating. There was something wonderful, I thought, about this opportunity. Here, I could be as romantic and loving as I wanted to be and fulfill any fantasies I had, emotionally and imaginatively anyway, but not have to risk being with someone physically. This meant I could “be me” in the safest way possible, and in the only way I thought would work for someone like me. Deep down, I was convinced nobody really wanted to be with me physically. I was so uncomfortable about my body, so unwilling to give myself up to another person, and so completely unsure of how I was supposed to “be” with another man, that I sacrificed the opportunity to heal those issues and learn more about myself. Instead, I would hide behind a screen and pretend to be happy in a digital relationship.

What I first thought to be the answer, turned out to be one of the worst mistakes of my life. The relationship I entered was an abusive one. I didn’t realize it at first, and even after coming to a slow and steady awareness about the kind of person I was dealing with, I couldn’t get myself to leave. Yes, it was a long-distance, digital relationship. Yes, eventually, I realized I was being manipulated by a sociopathic narcissist. But because my self-esteem was so low and because I had convinced myself that this kind of romance was the kind that I deserved, I stayed. I endured endless cruelties and started to doubt myself even more, even the things I actually was confident about. I started to question my own sanity and intelligence, and to berate myself for knowing the truth of the situation I was in but not being “smart” enough to get out of it. I started to blame myself and to hurt myself because I had convinced myself that if this person could make me accept these abuses, then some part of me must deserve the punishment and the pain.

After far too long, that relationship came to an end. It was, as can probably be imagined, not a pleasant parting of ways. But when it ended, I was left empty and devastated, and less in control of myself or my emotions than I had been before it all began. I know now that anytime a relationship ends, there is some pain and grief, some regret, even if things are amicable. But there should also be some growth, some path forward. Unfortunately, at that moment in my life, because I had been avoiding so many truths about myself in the first place and because I had been ground down by months and months of the worst kind of toxicity, I was left completely unprepared for the fallout and incapable of handling the loneliness and despair that followed. And because I hadn’t been honest with anyone about what I’d been going through, none of my friends even knew that I had been in this relationship in the first place. I felt quite literally all alone.

The night of the fallout, I was by myself in my dormitory room. A few months earlier, I had had my wisdom teeth pulled and there was a full bottle of pain killers left over in my closet. Never before that moment and never since have I ever had a desire to die. But that night, after 20 years of pretending to be happy, pretending to be normal, pretending to be that “ideal gay” who has his shit together and could do anything and be accepted by everyone, my inner pain spilled out, and I broke. I shattered completely and deeply, and in a way that I never knew a human being could break.

The tears started falling before I took the first pill and before I stepped out of my dorm room and started walking aimlessly in circles around campus. I remember the black and red hoodie I was wearing, because I kept the pill bottle in the front pocket, for easy reach. I walked around at midnight, at 1am, at 2am… popping another pill every few minutes and swallowing it with a sip of water from the bottle I’d remembered to bring with me. I passed the same group of students from my dorm three or four times. They were hanging out in the “smoker’s spot” near one of the back entryways, shielding themselves from the cold midwestern winds, and eventually one of them realized there must be something wrong with me, because he called out to ask if I was alright. Invited me to join them.

I waved him off.

Finally, I reached the bottom of that pill bottle. I don’t remember how many I had taken, but I do know it was mostly full to start. And nothing was happening. I thought the pills would have had an immediate effect. I thought I would be passed out in a field somewhere, or laying face-down on the sidewalk. But, mostly, I was just utterly exhausted and I couldn’t keep going. I felt a little dizzy and disoriented, and I was tired from all the walking. But I was still awake and still alive. Why? Another failure.

With the bottle empty and nothing happening, I went back to my dorm and sat down on a couch in the common room. A few minutes later, the guy who had called out to me wandered in and sat next to me. He started to talk to me, but I have no recollection of what he said. All I remember is the way it felt to have my hand wrapped tightly around that empty pill bottle, inside the front pocket of my hoodie. I can still feel the heat returning to my hand and making my fingertips tingle. I can feel the sweat making that small plastic bottle slippery as I debated taking it out of my pocket and showing it to this guy, which is what I finally did. I couldn’t speak. I didn’t know what to say. I was desperately confused, terribly embarrassed, and suddenly very aware of what I’d done. I was stunned.

He saw the bottle and immediately ran the few steps to the director’s apartment, pounding on it until she awoke. An ambulance was called, and I remember most of that ride, the questions they asked and the looks they gave me. I remember my boss riding with me, being supportive and asking me what happened, was it about a boy? And I remember the sidelong glances from the paramedics, the looks that I took to be disgust, and the way they spit out, “Ma’am, please stop talking.” I remember how humiliated I was when they inserted the catheter, how they took my blood, and when they asked me who they should call. And I remember my mom and my sister showing up. I remember their faces, most of all, though the face of the hospital psychologist completely escapes me.

All these things I will remember, but most of all, I remember how alone and confused I felt. Not just that night but, in retrospect, all the time.

When people talk about suicide, when they ask how anyone could do that to themselves, to their friends and family, I think back to that loneliness and confusion. I think about the façade I wore day in and day out, and the way that people saw me but did not know me. I think about how easy it is for us to imagine we understand the people in our lives, especially the ones closest to us, whom we love, and yet I know, intimately, that we may not know anything at all.

We say “things get better” and they do. We say “things are better” now than they were 100, 50, and even 5 years ago. And in many ways, that is true. But some things haven’t changed. The strength it takes to get up every day, knowing you’re different, is exhausting. The pain of having to come out not just once, but almost every day, in every public space or whenever you meet someone new, is ever-present, because the assumption of straightness remains. And the confusion about what it means to be gay, to be a boy or a girl, to be in a relationship or not, to be a friend, to be a son or daughter… that confusion is something, I think, almost everyone is trying to work out, all the time. It’s just especially difficult for those who are also questioning who they are and living in fear about being rejected or attacked for it at any given moment.

I never wrote a suicide note, so I’d like to think of this as a note of a different kind. A note I get to write because I failed. It’s a reminder, mostly to myself, to check in on people and to pay more attention. It’s nobody’s fault, what I did. Not that horrible guy, not the friends I kept at a distance, and not even mine. When you get to a point of true misery, you’re no longer in control. You’re not even yourself anymore. You’re lost and there seems only one way out. So, you take that route. You find that exit. In that moment, it seems entirely logical.

I can’t imagine, now, having tried to commit suicide. I can’t imagine, now, ever trying it again. But what I can imagine is the many seemingly valid and justified reasons why people, and LGBTQ+ teens in particular, make that choice every single day. I can imagine their pain, their loneliness, their fear. Because I’ve felt it, too.

I’m glad I’m still here. The friends I made in the months following that suicide attempt are still my best friends to this day. I met and married the love of my life. I went further in my education than my dreams ever really allowed, and now I spend my life educating others. I try my best, now, to really look at people. To see them in a way that I felt unseen, because I know what it’s like not to be able to look at yourself or show yourself to anyone else. I don’t know if it will ever make a difference, but I can’t risk closing my eyes.

I’m glad I’m still here. I’m glad I could write this suicide note.


To learn more about The Trevor Project and how you can help prevent suicide in LGBTQ+ youth, please visit: https://www.thetrevorproject.org

If you think you or someone you know might be contemplating suicide, please visit: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org

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Abdi Nazemian, charity, Hope In A box, Jane DeLynn, Jeff Garvin, LGBT, Michael Barakiva, Michel Tournier, pride month

Pride and Hope in a Box

June is pride month and I’ll be spending it reading a bunch of LGBTQ+ books from new-to-me authors. I posted the photo above (of this month’s TBR) to Twitter a few days ago and received some fun replies, so I thought I would share it here as well. I’m also going to be sharing about/donating to some worthy causes, like the Trevor Project and Hope in a Box (more about this below.)

Pride Month Reading

I’m currently reading Michel Tournier’s GEMINI and, so far, it is quite the trip. First of all, it is brilliant and beautifully written. It’s about a forbidden love between identical twins, but much of the story so far (and I’m about half-way through at this point) is narrated by another character, Alexandre Surin, who inherits his brother’s estate and becomes a kind of city refuse guru (yes, a genius trash disposal man). He’s also a gay man with wild disdain for heterosexuals, which is often articulated in hilarious ways. This one is hard to describe, but maybe I’ll have more words when I’ve finished (otherwise I’ll just share a bunch of insane quotes from the novel itself to help me explain it.)

In the top left, there is Jane DeLynn’s DON JUAN IN THE VILLAGE, which I assigned for my Queer Lit course last year. Unfortunately, that class required a last-minute change and I never got around to reading this one, so I’m going to do so now and hopefully re-assign the book again in the future. Spring 2020? It’s apparently a lesbian, Latina masterpiece of dark comedy, so I’m looking forward to it.

In the top right is Jeff Garvin’s SYMPTOMS OF BEING HUMAN, which is the story of Riley Cavanaugh, a non-binary person’s coming out and coming-of-age. I’m particularly looking forward to this one after reading and enjoying Mason Deaver’s I WISH YOU ALL THE BEST, another story about a non-binary individual’s coming out journey.

In the bottom left is Abdi Nazemian’s LIKE A LOVE STORY, which is blurbed by Mackenzi Lee (author of The Gentleman’s Guide to Virtue and Vice) as a book “for warriors, divas, artists, queens, activists, and anyone searching for the courage to be themselves.” What’s not to love about that? The book is about growing up gay (and otherwise) in 1989 New York City and is narrated by Reza, a gay Iranian immigrant boy.

Finally, to the bottom right, is the book I’ll probably read next. It’s Michael Barakiva’s HOLD MY HAND, and the book is about Alek Khederian, an “out and proud” gay Armenian-American who is about to celebrate his six-month anniversary by losing his virginity to his boyfriend, Ethan.

One of the things I’m most “proud” of in selecting these texts for pride month reading is that they cover a lot of bases, from stories about immigrants and white gays, to coming out and coming of age; from gritty Latina lesbians to non-binary teenagers, and from historical perspectives to the present day. I’m pretty excited about my June reading plans!

Hope In A Box

The other thing I wanted to write about today is an organization called HOPE IN A BOX. This is a group that “collaborates with rural public schools to make English classrooms more LGBT-friendly.” They take donations from individuals and corporations and turn those funds into libraries and resources for classrooms and teachers that need it the most.

In addition to making physical books with LGBT-themes available to students in rural communities, Hope In A Box also designs inclusive curriculum guides and provides coaching for teachers and educators.

As the organization makes clear, “This lack of representation has proven consequences for LGBT youth. At school, 66% of LGBT students experience discrimination. One in ten have been threatened or injured with a weapon. Such victimization is linked to lower GPAs, graduation rates, and college matriculation.”

Hope In A Box “works with librarians, teachers, and administrators to cultivate environments that put lgbt students on track for success.” Their “goal is to help every student—queer or straight—feel comfortable celebrating their identity.”

This is an incredible organization doing important work, and I hope you will consider learning more about them and, if you can, making a contribution to their cause. They are my new charity of choice this year.

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LGBT, Mason Deaver, non-binary, Young Adult

I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver

Ben De Backer is your typical modern American teenager. They have a pretty good relationship with their parents, at least as good as a parent-teenager relationships tend to be. They have an estranged sister who they miss and close friends who they met online and dream of meeting in person someday. And they have a big, life-altering secret. Ben De Backer is non-binary.

The fallout from this confession, which seems like it will go well at first, is swift and severe. Ben is forced out of his house and must scramble on a late winter’s night to find somewhere to go. They reach out to the first and only person that comes to mind, a sister who left years ago, without explanation.

What transpires in the pages that follow is the story of Ben’s slow and painful coming out and coming to terms with what it means to be Ben-the-person. This is the kind of story that reminds me just how important the “own voices” movement is right now, especially in Young Adult literature, where so much powerful and significant work is being done to help readers (young and old) make sense of the ever-more complex world around us.

Mason Deaver’s novel is groundbreaking for its portrayal of a non-binary protagonist, but it is also simply a darn good story. The author crafts a complicated narrator with a difficult background and invites the reader to figure things out right along with them. We cannot always root for Ben, or at least this reader couldn’t, because they sometimes overreact and make mistakes, sometimes become too self-pitying or indulgent, and sometimes seem to judge others a bit too harshly even though they, too, are in pain for being judged by others. But that’s the beauty of it. Ben, the character, is a real person. We can all, cis or not, gay or straight, young or old, recognize a bit of ourselves in Ben’s coming-of-age, because none of us did it quite as well as we could have.

I first heard about I Wish You All the Best some few months ago and added it to my “to read” list right away. I knew that reading a non-binary character’s story as written by a non-binary author was going to be a powerful and enlightening experience, and that certainly proved true. While I sometimes felt like I was missing too much of the backstory, particularly regarding Ben and his sister’s relationship with their parents, I found the story enjoyable overall. It is also helping to fill in a critical missing piece in contemporary fiction.

Ben’s struggle to balance privacy and authenticity, to find and accept love when they haven’t yet accepted themselves, and to pursue a path of their own rather than the one laid out for them, is an inspiring journey, and the added reality that this is a non-binary person dealing with all these very human experiences made the reading experience even richer.

This is the kind of book to be enjoyed for its universal appeal and for its specific concerns, ones that very few people can fully understand, but from which we all can learn.

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Anne Goodwin

Becoming Someone by Anne Goodwin

I was fortunate to receive a copy of Anne Goodwin’s Becoming Someone from the publisher, Inspired Quill, for review. Anne Goodwin is a prolific writer and has been short-listed for the Polari Prize, among other accolades. Upon reading six-part collection, it becomes quite clear how and why she has been so recognized.

One of the great successes for Goodwin’s collection is that the author manages to balance a wide array of topics and narrators without losing cohesion. Her narrators are male and female, young and old, and yet Goodwin’s voice centers and grounds them all in a common worldview and purpose. It is a kind of hopeful cynicism, the type one might recognize from the likes of Vonnegut who, despite seeing the world for what it is (when it is often not much to speak of), still wades through each day and experience from a place of love. So, while many of the stories in Goodwin’s collection are critical, even superficially hopeless, there is an underlying belief in something more and bigger than what we feel is possible on our own bad days.

This balance is on display immediately in the first story, “Madonna and Child.” While the plot describes one of the most terrible situations a person might ever have to face, it is supported by a character whose presence makes the situation survivable, both for the main character and for the reader. Similarly, in “How’s Your Sister?”, Goodwin describes the worst kind of family tension and a mental illness that seems unimaginable to most, but couches this in the very realistic, everyday way that many of us would indeed bring to the situation. Goodwin’s grasp of our social awareness (or lack thereof) and how we deal with trauma, pain, and embarrassment is on full display in these stories, and it reminds us to remind ourselves that, perhaps, there is a better way to treat ourselves and each other.

Some of the stories I enjoyed most from this collection are the ones that dip into the bizarre realm of sci-fi/fantasy realism. Goodwin has particular interest in marrying the real world with fantastical situations in a way that makes the bizarre seem common, and this turns out to be a simply fun and effective way of driving home important points about social issues, like gender equality, sexuality, aging and abuse, among other things. Two stories, in particular, “Telling the Parents” and “Heir to the Throne,” stand out in my mind as particularly accomplished in this way.

If you are a fan of the short story, enjoy reading about the human condition from a paradoxically cynical but hopeful perspective, or like a little dose of the uncanny with your realism, this collection is a fun ride. Many thanks to Inspired Quill, an ethical indie publisher with a big heart, for the chance to read and review it.

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