Saturday, June 7, 2014

Not All Teenagers Are White and Straight

Reactions from readers and critics alike never cease to surprise me. While I always welcome responses from anyone and everyone who reads my work, every so often I’m caught off guard by the unexpected: a book you think had no hope in hell sells like mad, a seemingly unlikable character becomes the object of immense literary love, moments that don’t ring true in a book are the subject of a stream of emails. By far, the element from my novel Wonderland (published in 2013 by Bold Strokes Books) generating the most feedback and discussion (not all polite) has nothing to do with my protagonist, the plot, or the supernatural and paranormal themes I built into the book. Rather, four of the supporting characters seem to have stolen the spotlight and are receiving an outpouring of fondness, but are also receiving considerable scrutiny and scorn.

The majority of the young adult novels I write are for and about LGBTQ teenagers. Call it a personal mission, but young people who are coming to terms with their identity and sexuality need literature that contains a reflection of their experiences. Some have said what I and other YA authors are doing is necessary. Others have deemed it controversial and immoral. After reading Wonderland, a 13-year-old boy wrote to me to tell me how much he identifies with the character of Topher, detailing the daily rounds of bullying he is also forced to endure. On the other hand, a mother Facebooked me to let me know I was corrupting the youth of America with every word I write. Yes, it’s true: you can’t please everyone. And a writer should never create with that objective in mind.

The main character in Wonderland is a straight girl. She’s fifteen, clever, strong willed, and dealing with the grief of losing her mother to cancer. When she moves to an island in South Carolina, she begins a new life that includes living with her two gay uncles (one is a relative, the other is his partner) who have been in a loving, committed relationship for well over a decade. Immediately, Destiny is befriended by Tasha – a self-proclaimed bisexual African-American girl who tells her, “I like comic books and I love anime. I’m not into hip hop. Or rap. Or BeyoncĂ©. I’m a diehard vegan and I hate people who refuse to recycle. I don’t hang out at parties and I refuse to go to school dances. Guys avoid me like the plague, which is perfectly fine with me, since I’m bi and I think girls are way hotter than boys.” In other words, Tasha refuses to conform. Given her somewhat rebellious nature, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by the numerous messages and emails I receive in regards to Tasha and her commitment to staying true to herself. While I live for the words from young people who find a connection with Tasha and thank me for bringing her to the page, there are other messages I get shaming me for Tasha’s outspokenness – and for her skin color. What kind of example are you setting for young people?! A very good question, indeed. Of course those words only add more fuel to my fire when I sit down at the computer to start writing a new novel.

Similarly, the character of Topher has stolen the hearts of many readers who feel empathy for his plight (although one reader referred to him as “a sissy who needed to toughen up"). Jennifer Lavoie, a fellow young adult author who also writes for a diverse audience, liked Topher so much she suggested he should have his own novel – and, because of the affinity for him that readers have shown, this may very well happen.

Perhaps the strongest reactions have been caused by my choice to have my young female protagonist be raised by two gay men. Believe it or not, this is still a foreign concept to many – even in 2014. While many of my readers who live in a similar family structure share with me how cool it is to read about a girl who has two fathers like I do, there are some (mostly parents, mind you) who are quick to tell me they feel this creative choice is a poor one, suggesting I’m “propagating perversion.”

I received similar responses to my 2011 novel Swimming to Chicago, a young adult novel about a gay Armenian-American teenager growing up in a small Southern town. I was prepared for the parental backlash regarding a subplot involving the affair between a young girl in high school and her English teacher. Yet, that story line generated only half a dozen (mostly misspelled) Facebook messages. What struck the chord was the fact that I presented two male characters from two different cultural backgrounds who fall in love and - like many gay teenage boys do - have an intimate relationship. One concerned reader (a high school librarian), took it upon herself to send me the page and paragraph numbers in which immorality was taking place. I was tempted to respond with a note that read: Do you date in high school? But, I refrained.

On the flip side, because Swimming to Chicago was the first YA novel to feature a gay Armenian as the protagonist, I can't begin to tell you how many messages I received (and still do, even though the book has been out for over three years) from young Armenian people. After the novel was featured in an article in an Armenian news magazine - and the many more messages and emails I received because of it - I had a complete understanding of the importance of representation, especially when writing from young people who rarely see a reflection of their life on page.

Of course, my main goal when writing is to tell the best story possible. Once the work is done and released to the world, you hope it connects with a reader – even if just one. When it does, then you know you’ve done the job you were supposed to. And...if it pisses off a few people...I'm fine with that, too.

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