I think my greatest hope as a writer is that I’ll resonate with someone. Not everyone. I think it’s impossible to write something that resonates with everyone. But even if just one person reads something I wrote and can empathize with a character or a situation, I’ve done what I set out to do.
When writing succeeds, it’s because of resonance. The writer holds up a mirror and gives us the shock of recognition. Sometimes we relate to a character’s aspirations. Sometimes we just understand their hardships. I’m not sure I believe in universal truths but I definitely believe in resonance.
David LaRochelle’s 2005 YA debut, ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY NOT was a book that resonated with me like no other. There’s a wealth of young adult literature that addresses a shared, defining moment for the LGBT community: questioning one’s sexuality and the exploration that follows. No two paths to understanding are exactly alike. Some can be easy, others almost unimaginably difficult. ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY NOT is the closest I’ve seen to what I experienced: a sometimes comical journey with an abundance of rationalizations in its wake.
Steven, the 16-year-old protagonist, is convinced he’s not gay. Anything that might even hint at his sexuality has a perfectly logical explanation. Such as his attraction to the assistant hockey coach:
I studied [the Superman] poster for the millionth time.
Mr. Bowman would make a good Superman. I pictured
him in tights…. . So what if I had been thinking about
Mr. Bowman every five minutes all day long? That
meant nothing. He was an interesting teacher, that’s
all. I bet every single one of his students was thinking
about Mr. Bowman right this very moment.
Or the magazines under his bed:
Beneath my bed, in a shoe box wrapped in rubber bands,
locked in a suitcase covered with an old blanket, were two
magazines: The Men’s Underwear Catalog and International
Male. I had discovered them at our neighbor’s when she had
asked me to take in her mail. I figured the post office had made
a mistake. What was an eighty-year-old woman going to do
with a catalog full of male models in thongs and jockstraps?
Not wanting her to be offended, I had brought the magazines
home with every intention of throwing them away. Two years
later I hadn’t gotten around to it yet.
The overall tone of LaRochelle’s book is infused with humor. Steven’s attempts to distance himself from his orientation only manage to bring him closer to acceptance. And that’s what hit home with me. In so many ways, *I* was Steven. I spent years assuring myself I wasn’t gay. I had an excuse for anything that even hinted otherwise.
If I enjoyed looking at pictures of shirtless men, it was because I admired their physiques and wanted to look like that too. If I had more female friends than male, it was because most of the guys I knew were only into sports (and I certainly wasn’t). These didn’t mean I was gay.
They still don’t. But, in my case, they might as well have been gigantic road signs with double arrows pointing up and to the right.
By the time I read the LaRochelle book, I’d been out for a long time. But I wish it had been around when I was fighting to understand who and what I was. I can’t remember reading any books with LGBT characters growing up (which, granted, was mumblemumble years ago when it was much harder to find such things). What I would have given to read about Steven back then. To understand that the excuses I made were just that: excuses. To see that my warped brain wasn’t solely capable of coming up with that particular path of resistance. But reading this in 2005, it retroactively validated all the excuses I came up with. I’m glad this book is out there. Because I have no doubt that somewhere, right now, there’s a struggling kid in the Midwest who’s doling out excuses like a blackjack dealer after downing six Red Bulls.
In a few weeks, my YA debut, WITH OR WITHOUT YOU, will be released. Like a lot of writers, this stirs a mélange of happiness and horror within. It’s not a coming out story. I tend to describe it as a young man struggling with maintaining his first adult relationship as he watches his oldest friendship self-destruct. It could be slaughtered in the reviews. Worse, it could be completely ignored. I’m not worried about that. I find myself thinking one thing over and over: I hope this means something to someone. I hope it resonates in readers like ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY NOT did with me.
No two coming out processes are alike. But most can be eased with a single realization, found in that shock of recognition. It’s the reason we desperately need LGBT-themed YA books. No matter what the story or the message, these books give anyone struggling with their sexuality the five words that have brought assurance to so many over the years. Five words that aren’t the end of the struggle but can be a significant turning point because of the resonance they provide:
I’m not the only one.
Brian Farrey’s debut YA novel, WITH OR WITHOUT YOU, will be published May 24 by Simon Pulse. He tweets @BrianFarrey and he blogs at www.brianfarreybooks.com/wordpress.