by Nathaniel Harrington
Tyson Rua has more than his fair share of problems growing up in South Auckland. Working a night job to support his mother and helping bring up his two younger brothers is just the half of it. His best friend Rawiri is falling afoul of a broken home, and now Tyson’s fallen in love at first sight.
Only thing is, it’s another guy.
Living life on the sidelines of the local hip-hop scene, Tyson finds that to succeed in becoming a local graffiti artist or in getting the man of his dreams, he’s going to have to get a whole lot more involved. And that means more problems. The least of which is the leader of the local rap crew he’s found himself running with. Love, life, and hip-hop never do things by half.
Trigger warnings: homophobic slurs and the threat of homophobic violence, domestic violence, recreational drug use, racism.
My rating on Goodreads: 4/5 stars
Before I start, I should note that I’m approaching Tama Wise’s Street Dreams (Bold Strokes Books, 2012) as an outsider to the community in which the book is set — indeed, the disconnect between Tyson (as a poor, gay Māori man) and the white gay community to which I belong is one of the central components of the book. I am neither Māori nor from even New Zealand — I’m a white settler from the United States whose family is not poor, both my parents are still alive, and I’m not especially into hip-hop or knowledgeable about it as a scene.
Bearing all that in mind, and understanding that there are undoubtedly things I missed about the book as a result of my extremely privileged position relative to its main character, I’d like to talk a bit about why I liked it. This review will contain some minor spoilers, but I’ll try to keep big stuff out.
For starters, there are the usual suspects. While the book isn’t only a coming out story, Tyson’s coming out is a large part of it, and I think it’s really, really well handled and very relatable. Wise perfectly captures the anxiety, the struggle to find the right moment:
Tyson stared, his mind sitting on the edge. The words hung on his tongue, waiting to be uttered. Rawiri was too busy watching the silent television to notice.
I also thought Tyson’s crush on Marc was very well-handled, both narratively and as a representation of what a straight crush feels like.
But there are other books that do these things well, so I’m going to move on to talking about four things Street Dreams does that I think are different and make it worth a look.
- Home as a source of strength: a lot of LGBTQ YA has a somewhat strained relationship with home (from Rafe feeling stifled in Boulder in Openly Straight to the community-wide homophobia in Ask the Passengers to active homophobic violence). Characters want to somehow escape their homes and families and go where the grass is greener and they can redefine themselves. Street Dreams does the opposite: while Siege (the leader of the local hip-hop crew mentioned in the blurb) is emphatic about wanting to “get out” of the community, Tyson’s anxieties stem from a desire to stay in his community, help support his family, and find a place for himself locally. He might not want to live in his family’s house any more, but he doesn’t want to leave South Auckland. Stories where being LGBTQ and finding a comfortable place for yourself at home (in a broader sense than having a supportive immediate family) aren’t mutually exclusive are important, especially when they’re set in a greater variety of locations than generic American suburbia.
- The intersection of race and sexuality: this is really important and not something LGBTQ YA about white teens can adequately address. Tyson concisely summarizes some of his anxieties about this in conversation with William, who runs a local gay support group:
“I guess guys like me ain’t gay.”
“When you say guys like you, you mean Māori guys?”
Tyson scowled at that, but refused to pick at that particular sore. He shrugged, fighting to find the words to explain it. He hated having to explain himself. “I mean guys like me. Guys who like the stuff I do, and yeah…brown guys too. Like I said, I guess guys like me ain’t gay.”
Tyson has to deal with the disconnect between all the images of gayness that he’s been presented with — all white, with a certain quantifiable “look” — and himself. Representation matters. Also worth mentioning is the scene where Tyson goes to a local gay club and is told by a guy he approaches that “I don’t do brown”: racism is alive and well in the LGBTQ community, and not just in whitewashed representations thereof.
- Support from the gay community: there are counterpoints to the above, though, especially William and (however imperfectly) Jason, another support group attendee who accompanies Tyson to the club. I suspect William’s words of wisdom may be Tama Wise’s personal message for young Māori men: “…if it’s a guy you want, you will get one in time. You don’t need to rush things, even if it feels like you don’t have all the time in the world.” Some of the rhetoric is a little It-Gets-Better-ish, but sometimes we all need a reminder that “you’re not the only one”, and in light of Tyson’s struggle to reconcile himself with his ideas about what it means to be gay, this is especially important.
- Class (/settler colonialism): Wise doesn’t pull any punches here, either. The Rua family is struggling financially. Tyson’s job is on the night shift, meaning he gets up and goes to work when the rest of his family is going to bed and returns when they’re all getting up to go to work and school, and it takes a real toll on him. His best friend Rawiri is dealing with domestic violence. Tyson’s community is poor and predominantly Māori in a country dominated by white settlers — of whom his crush, Marc, is one (and a rich one, at that).
Street Dreams covers a lot of ground. I should probably note here that there are both a masturbation scene and a sex scene in the book, although neither is especially explicit — the book overall isn’t much more explicit than, say, Grasshopper Jungle, and spends a lot less time focused on the main character’s genitals.
The writing does sometimes feel a bit stilted and thesaurus-y. Some of that may be an attempt by Wise to capture actual South Auckland Māori speech patterns, and if anyone from the area reads this and wants to chime in, I’d be happy to hear one way or another. But that’s my only real criticism, and the only thing keeping me from giving this book 4.5 or a full 5 stars.
On a broader concluding note: I agree up to a point with the rhetoric of “we need more than coming out stories”, in that I want to see books with LGBTQ characters in a wide range of situations and settings, fighting dragons, solving mysteries, and whatever else. But I also firmly believe that as long as there are people who struggle to come out, as long as there are people who have to wonder how telling people they’re gay (lesbian, bi, trans, what have you) will affect their relationships with family, friends, and community, the coming out story will continue to be relevant.
On top of that, while some readers may feel overwhelmed by coming out stories, I think it’s worth remembering that the “coming out story” as a subgenre has been (like most of LGBTQ fiction) dominated by stories about white people. Street Dreams is a welcome and important change of pace, and I hope that we will see more books like it, written by members of communities that have thus far not been well-represented in LGBTQ YA.