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The Coming Age of Normal

Scott Tracey is the author of WITCH EYES, a modern, gay Romeo & Juliet with witches, coming in September.  He can be found on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/#!/scott_tracey and his blog at http://www.scott-tracey.com.

When I started fleshing out the idea behind WITCH EYES – back when it was just a concept rather than a story, I knew I wanted it to be different.  I read a lot of urban fantasy/paranormal, so I knew that’s what I wanted to write.  As a reader, there were a lot of great books, but there weren’t a lot of books that would speak to ME.  Me as I am now, or even the me from high school.

So I decided I’d write what I’d want to read.  Something that hit all the key elements that would have made a teenage me pick up that book without hesitation.

It had to include:

  • magic and/or witches
  • manipulation and game-playing (think Cruel Intentions)
  • sarcasm
  • characters who happened to be gay, who were not defined by their sexuality

People have said to me “Oh, I didn’t know this was a gay novel.”  And my response is always some form of “That’s because it isn’t.  Well it IS, but it isn’t.”   The main character is gay, unapologetically,  and a relationship starts to form over the course of the book.  But at the same time it isn’t, because it’s a book about a feud, and a town full of secrets, and near death experiences, wayward spells, and demons.

One of the most important parts of that, for me, was having the story be about the story, rather than devolve into the character’s angst about their sexuality.   There’s this belief that novels about gay characters fall into two categories: the coming out story, or the tragic story.  And don’t get me wrong, both of those kinds of stories are incredibly important – if you’re struggling with coming out, reading a book with characters who are going through the same thing can help you.  It gives you someone to relate to, when you might not have someone in your real life who can do so.  Same with the tragic story – sometimes we want to watch a movie like Brokeback Mountain.   Sometimes that’s something that we need.

But what about the rest of the time?  One of the things I really wanted, but couldn’t find enough of, was novels that were identical to their straight counterparts – novels featuring gay characters where their sexuality was inconsequential, where the emphasis was still on the story.  In the majority of YA that’s out there, straight characters don’t have to struggle to accept their sexuality, and I thought it would be nice to read somewhere where the gay characters didn’t, either.

So where are the books like that for gay kids?  If you look at YA as a whole, there is a LOT of representation.  Gay characters appear in many bestselling series, or as side characters in beloved books.  But there’s a lot fewer novels that focus specifically on the gay characters, in which it’s there story being told.

Especially in the genre of paranormal/urban fantasy, where most gay characters are still on the sidelines.  Side characters, rather than the leads.  But I think that’s changing.  Even in just the past couple of years, we’ve gotten Ash and Huntress by Malinda Lo, Shadow Walkers by Brent Hartinger, and Hero by the late Perry Moore.

It’s becoming more normal to read about gay characters in novels.  They’re everywhere from Cassie Clare’s Mortal Instrument series, to Sarah Rees Brennan’s Demon Lexicon series; many people even talk about how Alec or Jamie are their favorite characters.

I think we’re coming to a point where we’ll start to see more and more novels that push “gay YA” novels from being “issue oriented” to becoming much like everything else: plot and story focused.  Where the character could be straight or gay, and the story would be exactly the same.  Because at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter.

 

Speaking of Malinda Lo, she wrote this fantastic piece on her blog entitled, “How hard is it to sell an LGBT YA novel?”  I think it’s still tough, to a certain extent, but getting a book published, period, is tough.  This may just be a little more tough, but when you get into this business you know that the odds are against you.

The reason?  Publishing is a business.  If you go out and buy books featuring LGBT characters (whether they are the focus of the story, or simply part of it), more books like that will get published.

Gay characters in YA are only as normal as we make them.  That’s why I think it’s important to HAVE gay characters in novels, but it’s the same issue with not falling into character clichés, whitewashing characters, etc.  It’s important to have all kinds of representation, but the trick is to not give in to tokenism.

It’s one of the reasons I think we’ll start seeing more and more novels come out where sexual identity is inconsequential.  Because at the end of the day it doesn’t matter, it’s all about the story.

 

The Brent Effect

Catherine Ryan Hyde is the author of numerous books including Pay it Forward and the upcoming Don’t Let Me Go. She can be found at her website or tweeting under @cryanhyde.

As recently as the 90s, when my first novel saw print, things were different in LGBT publishing. Authors worried about the positioning of books that contained LGBT characters. No one wanted publishers to perceive their books as being only for the niche “gay market” instead of the wider mainstream one. Authors always felt their work had that indefinable “broader appeal,” and didn’t want to be put into a smaller gay publishing box.

Which, if you think about it, contains the inherent silliness of assuming a straight person can’t or won’t read about a gay one. Well, they can. But, I guess the question is, would they?

Now, at least in YA fiction, I think we have our answer.

Suddenly LGBT YA is a phenomenon. A force to reckon with. And, more and more, I pick up (on Twitter and in the blogosphere) that lots of straight readers enjoy the genre.

This little post by no means claims to sum up how and why this sea change happened. It’s just a reflection on one aspect that resonates most with me.

For the purpose of illustration, I call it The Brent Effect.

It was only a little more than a year ago that a gay teen named Brent started the book blog Naughty Book Kitties. Fairly soon after, he emailed me, interested in an ARC of Jumpstart the World. I poked around on his blog, as I always do in cases like that. Not because there’s some special blog standard required before I’ll submit a book for review. More because I’m always curious about why someone wants to read something of mine. I also love discovering new blogs. We emailed a couple of times, and I asked Knopf to send him an ARC.

Just a couple of days later a Facebook friend posted a link to my wall. It was a post by a gay 15-year-old who publicly blasted his school librarian for refusing to stock LGBT books, which she said were “inappropriate.” Brent went viral, because, in my opinion, he was spot on. Here was a kid who needed to read about people like him, and was told that people like him were inappropriate reading for people his age. Suddenly “age appropriate” was called out on the carpet and boldly labeled discrimination. Which, of course, it was. Had been all along. Somebody just had to say it. Eloquently. Loudly.

Maybe Brent wasn’t the first to say it, and I’m sure he wasn’t the only one. But he was the first to break into my awareness with this message. He was my first exposure to the new breed of out gay teens.

I think it affected me so deeply because I wasn’t that brave when I was Brent’s age. I was not an out gay teen. In my defense, it was 1970. A number of factors had to fall into place to make that kind of honesty possible. The more honesty is shouted out, the more factors fall into place to allow even more honesty. Then, with any luck, you have a full-on revolution. Or, as they call it on Fox “News,” the Gay Agenda. And we all know what the gay agenda is, right? To be seen as human and treated with respect. To be ourselves and pursue our own happiness. Oh, wait, that’s everybody’s agenda, isn’t it?

Let me not get too far off track.

After meeting Brent (we’ve been friends ever since), I’ve also met John of Dreaming in Books. A very different, but also very out, young gay book blogger. I’ve met Craig of Craig’s Gay Word, a teen athlete who helps teach his entire school how to treat LGBT students. I even got a great review of Jumpstart the World from a young woman named Maggie who essentially came out as “closer to bi” or “at the very least questioning” during the review. I told her I thought that was important and good, because every person who does so makes it easier for the next. She told me she had wrestled with it and come to the exact same conclusion.

The more people speak up, the more people speak up.

Say what you will about social change, but you cannot, in my view, devalue these contributions. Sure, you have to multiply it by all the Brents and Johns and Craigs and Maggies, including scores I don’t know about. But coming out in itself is a force to be reckoned with. And blogs have embraced outness (as Brent would say, pretend that’s a word) in a way that’s changing the landscape.

When I was young, people actually made the ridiculous statement that they didn’t know, that they’d never known, someone who’s gay. The joke was on them, of course. Sure they had. They just didn’t know it. I believe intolerance finds its roots in fear. Humans are (like?) animals, wired for survival. Our brains tell us to fear the unfamiliar, and, when few dared come out, gay remained unfamiliar.

Now we have the beginning of a trend: straight teens who are perfectly happy to read a gay love story, if it’s a good story. So as an author of (among other things) LGBT YA lit, my hat is off to the new out gay teens.

Expect a snowballing of the Brent Effect. And celebrate it with me. It’s long overdue.

 

 

Pass It On

Tiffany Trent writes dark YA fantasy and can be found online at tiffanytrent.com

I find it so odd—all the buzz of including or not including gay characters in YA. To me, the fact that any of my characters at any moment are gay is a given. I don’t have to work to include them or sit and decide that one of them will be gay. Some of them are; some of them aren’t. These are the facts. I’m always delighted whenever a character shows him or herself to be LGBTQ, and I work very hard to make sure that I get it right. The one thing I continually note when speaking to gay friends about what they’d like to see in books is just that gayness is a fact of life just as natural as eye or hair color. One lesbian friend said it would just be so refreshing to read something fun, romantic, and gay-positive rather than either the typical coming-out story or tragedy. For myself, I love the notion of gay paranormal or gay YA horror—Steve Berman’s Vintage is an outstanding example of what I long to see more of.

Thankfully, it seems that the publishing industry is becoming more and more receptive to books that view gayness as an intrinsic lifestyle wherein being LGBTQ is not just about sex but also about love, romance, the joys and difficulties of finding the right mate, and ultimately about finding one’s true identity. My husband told me that just today, in fact, Bret Hartinger’s Shadow Walkers, a YA sci-fi novel with a gay protagonist was featured on NPR.

 

All of this is very happy-making news, considering that my own previous attempts at writing gay or lesbian characters were met with resistance by former publishers and editors. I knew in my heart that one character of mine was lesbian, though I also knew that she was an intensely private person. What I did know was that she wasn’t inclined at all toward men and was fiercely protective of the few female friends she had. I hadn’t planned on any lesbian romantic scenes, but I knew instinctively that heterosexual romantic scenes were not for her, either. In the end, I caved, and she was presented as staunchly heterosexual. It was heartbreaking to make that compromise, but I did it because I didn’t feel I had any other choice. I know differently now, and I’ll never make that same mistake again. It’s too important.

It took attending this year’s Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) (www.scbwi.org) Midwinter Conference panel about LGBTQ in middle-grade and YA for me to realize that I’m not wrong or alone in my desire to represent gay characters. Blogger and author Lee Wind , agent Jim McCarthy, and Penguin/Putnam Executive Editor Ari Lewin had some fantastically encouraging things to say to those of us want to write more LGBTQ work. Ari reinforced the notion that editors are, in fact, seeking stories that push beyond the coming-out story and into refreshingly new and fearless territory. She even encouraged me fiercely and with great passion to write something fun, a gay romance filled with laughter and sweetness and JOY. What a concept, right?

That panel alone was worth the entire conference and all the travel headaches. It gave me confidence in a character I’d been afraid to write—a gay blacksmith in a post-apocalyptic Appalachia. I can’t wait to get back to him once I finish the current revision, and I’m even more excited to share him with my readers who may have been hoping for just this sort of thing.

And so, for what it’s worth, I’m passing on this message. Go. Write your stories with your LGBTQ characters. Make their stories about more than coming out. Make their stories about what it means to be human and in love in this ever-changing world. Editors are waiting hungrily for your words. Pass it on.

 

Review of Vintage – A Ghost Story by Steve Berman

Small intro: Ana Grilo is a geek and a book smuggler. You can find her, along with Thea James, blogging at www.thebooksmugglers.com and on twitter @booksmugglers

I was ecstatic when we were invited to take part of the Gay YA blogathon: it is a worthy cause and we love to be part of worthy causes. Then it came the part where I had to decide which book to review. All I knew is that I wanted to review a book where the main character was gay and although there are a good number of YA LGBT stories being published right now, this number is nowhere near ideal. Not to mention that sometimes I feel like there is a choice to be made when picking a LGBT book to read: as unfair as this impression might be, the stories seem to be either “issue” stories, in which a character has to deal with the outcome of his coming out and with homophobia, or they are “fairytale” stories, in which a character’s sexual orientation doesn’t matter and homophobia doesn’t exist in the context of these stories (hence the “fairytale”). Just to clarify, I have absolutely nothing against either, as the truth is quite the contrary. Both are important in their own way: the former, because issues like homophobia are unfortunately part of our reality and something a lot of kids have to go through every day; the latter because “fairytales” represent the world as it should be and are, if anything, inspirational.

Having said that, there are stories out there can do be both and I wanted to pick one for this review. I believe Vintage to be a great example of what I was looking for – it is a contemporary ghost story with a heavy romantic arc (a “fairytale”), and it never loses sight of the hardships that its main character faces as a gay teen, but accomplishes this without making “issues” the central theme of the book.

The story follows a lonely gay teen that is a bit of a goth and a high-school dropout who works at a vintage shop. After his parents discovered he was gay and dubbed him a “sick child,” he has run away from home and lives with his aunt. Scared that his aunt might react in the same way as his parents, he’s never told her the reason why he has shown up at her door – although he is not ashamed of his sexuality. Rather, he has wholly accepted himself and found a close circle of friends that offer the external acceptance that has been denied by his family. He is lonely though and on the lookout for a boyfriend whom he could do boyfriend-y things like going out to his favourite café together and you know, make out and stuff.

One day, walking alone in a deserted road, he meets this very hot guy (in vintage clothes) who later turns out to be the ghost of a gay boy who died in the 50s. At first he is ecstatic to have found someone to share things with but soon it becomes clear that the situation is not exactly ideal, not only because the guy is dead but also because he doesn’t seem to be looking for a healthy relationship per se (leading to many scary scenes). To complicate matters even further, our protagonist starts to fall in love with his best friend’s brother, amplifying the tension considerably.

The ghost story is perhaps the central aspect of this book: it is what moves the narrative forward as it frames both the plot and the main character’s arc. With regards to the plot, Vintage is a highly effective traditional ghost story (with Ouija boards!) which is both scary and sad, and the novel progresses as the boy and his friends investigate the death of the ghost and his past. But the plot also provides a mirror of sorts for the character to realise certain things: part of falling for a ghost comes from wanting to fall in love, but also from wanting to escape reality. Having to deal with a living boyfriend on the other hand, means getting out there, potentially getting hurt, having to come out to his aunt and everything that he had been trying to avoid. I appreciated how the reactions of his parents were extremely hurtful to him and have become an essential part of who he is and an essential part of his story, but that hurt, although present and acknowledged, is not the most important nor what defines him. Instead, we get this sweet guy, who just wants to love and be loved.

In the end, the rewards are awesome to the main character and also to the reader. The romance turns out to be sweet and cool and heart-warming with the added bonus of very hot making out scenes. There is much to love about this book, and love it I did.

Not Through the Looking Glass, but In: Seeing Yourself in YA Literature

by Debra Touchette

I’m a straight, white woman. Plenty of books cater to me, reflect me, although, if I’m being honest with myself, most were written around 1900. Old fashioned is one of the nice things people have called me. I’m single and over 30, a former teacher, an assistant librarian (with the black framed glasses) and graduate student. (Spinster is the other name I get, but what evs.) Like I said, there are plenty of books geared towards me.
But here’s the thing. Not everyone is like me. It’s shocking, I know, but true, and it’s my job to find the best books for the kids who come to me for readers’ advisory and to guide students to literature in which they can have an authentic connection. It’s not only my job, it’s my pleasure.
Generally, I don’t know what sort of book will pique a kid’s interest when I first meet her or him, what book will best reflect his or her experiences, what book will open new and wonderful horizons, so it is my job (and again, my pleasure) to read whatever I can get my hands on, to read broadly and diversely and to ask questions. I have my blocks. Every one does. I’m sorry, but I will not read another zombie book. I can’t take the dreams. But I will know where the zombie books are, and I will give them to you with my compliments.
I started to realize when I taught 9th graders that teens are diverse and have wonderfully varied life experiences, that they are smart and capable of handling complex texts, that even if they read brain candy novels, they crave good, meaty stories as much as, if not more than, we serious adults. And now that I’m in grad school, studying literature and adolescent literacy, I have the research to back me up. I have SCIENCE on my side (social science, sure, but the research articles are dense and formatted in APA, and that, my friends, is science). I recently read an article by Elizabeth Moje and Mudhillun MuQaribu, from the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy (Nov 2003) called “Literacy and Sexual Identity” which cited heavy hitting theorists and educators like Peter Elbow and Nancie Atwood and Michel Foucault in evidence for including texts that address broader student experiences if we “expect students to write freely and openly about their experiences in the world…examine and critique the texts of their experiences …[and] focus on how individual experiences are embedded in larger contexts and experiences and on how experiences are either supported or subordinated by various power structures or discourses” (204).
If any teachers are reading this, I hope you cheered a little when you read that last paragraph. If you are a teen reading this, it means that we need to give you better stuff to read in order to really help you become critical thinkers, or generally awesome and responsible and curious and engaged adults. Sorry, I nerded out there for a minute. I really do get excited when something I feel in my gut to be right (i.e. give kids better books and for heaven’s sake, let them READ and TALK) is backed up by RESEARCH. It makes me feel powerful.
So. If you’re not getting the books you need, you have a few options.
1. Look to blogs like this and other awesome YA Lit blogs (check the blogroll).
2. Go talk to your librarians. We might get a little misty-eyed at how awesome it is kids want books and want our help, but we won’t make too big a deal out of it in public. Well, we won’t, like, hug you or anything. Probably.
3. Write your own stories. Not with the end goal of publishing in mind, but to create and to share. Write blogs and tell the world what you want and what you need from your stories.
4. Make yourself known and make yourself heard.

Debra is an assistant librarian, grad student, fledgling blogger and wanna-be teacher. She blogs about her reading at Library Lass: Adventures in Reading, and is @threelefthands on Twitter (but mostly just to see what shenanigans @maureenjohnson and @realjohngreen are up to).

All Those Who Default From the Default Will Be Punished (But I Personally Think They Will Be Awesome)

Sarah Rees Brennan is the author of THE DEMON’S LEXICON TRILOGY and can be found online at: www.sarahreesbrennan.com

So, let us discuss the most common fake fictional world of all. It doesn’t involve vampires or werewolves. It involves – well, rent a majority of mainstream movies and you can see it. It’s a world where everyone is a certain way – white, straight, able-bodied – and the really important stories are always a guy’s.

There mayyy be people who aren’t white, straight and able-bodied around in this world. I believe they live on the Isles of Issuelandia, and they are very seldom allowed onto the mainland where the adventures are at.

This is a fantasy world we’ve all been shown a million times over in our lives, so many times it’s had an effect on all of us, whether we know it or not. But most of us, if we stop and think about it, can put our experience of the real world up against the fake default-this-way world we get shown, and say ‘Whoa, these pictures are kind of different!’

So on one level this is a crafting issue. The fake default world is a more boring one, offering creators less chance to be exciting and interesting. Loads of people like a romance with conflict, or confusion: in Perry Moore’s Hero, the hero has a crush on a mysterious masked man, and the fact he’s gay and doesn’t know how to tell his macho superhero father is another layer of trouble for him and his already-troublous romance. Loads of books are about identity: in Holly Black’s White Cat and Red Glove, Cassel Sharpe doesn’t know if he’s a good guy or a bad guy (he’s inclined to think bad), he doesn’t know what his real surname is because his whole family are lying alias-using magical conmen. And he looks like a PoC: people speak to him in different languages, confidently, on the street. But he’ll never know about that, either: another layer for his fruitless noir-y search for identity.

On another level it’s a moral issue. It’s not just that it’s more interesting: it’s important not to exclude people, it’s important to represent everyone. As a nerdy book-loving (though not quiet… nobody will ever tell you I’m quiet) girl, I was able to see people like me in books, even if there was nobody quite as nerdy and book-loving in my real life. (For all the nerdy book-loving girls out there: Diana Wynne Jones’s House of Many Ways really rang my recognition bell. You’re welcome.) That was good for me, in a way I didn’t even recognise until years later. I don’t think any writer wants a reader to read their book, and think: ‘Well, I’m not there. Guess I’m on the Isle of Issuelandia. Oh man, not again. Kind of like always going to the Isle of Wight for your holidays. We never get to go out clubbing in Spain.’ It is wrong to banish people from the mainland!

It’s amazing to see people responding to the break with the default world. I remember having a room full of people tell me that Mercedes Lackey’s Vanyel trilogy changed their lives. I’ve read people saying Holly Black’s Tithe or Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat changed the way they read, or wrote, or saw the world. I’ve had gay guys and girls at signings telling me, hey, awesomely done, you made us happy. (One gay couple who yelled out ‘Go Team JAMIE!’ during a discussion of teams, always makes me smile to remember.) My favourite fanletter, in all the world, was about me saying no to magically curing my disabled character Alan. And once off the Issuelandia Isles, readers who do conform to the default will see that characters who don’t can be fun and lovable, and will love them and want to see more of them.

So, the books are better and readers will love them! Why not do it? you may cry. Well, the second bit is debatable: in fact you will get much more harshly critiqued for reasons I will discuss anon, and moreover: because you will pay for it.

Some libraries won’t carry you. Some bookshops won’t, either. You might get banned. None of this might happen, but parents might whisk the book out of teens’ hands. I’ve had people tell me they wanted to buy my book, or order it at the library, and they couldn’t because of their parents. Saddest for the teens who can’t get to the books they want to read. But sad also for the writers whose sales, and thus whose chance to write the next book, suffers too. (That said. I loathe book piracy. I find it gross that people think it’s okay to for them to benefit from someone else’s work, who feel that person shouldn’t benefit from their own work, as if it isn’t work or isn’t important. But if there is a teen who wants to read mine, and who can’t get them because of their parents by any other means… Go ahead. Don’t feel bad. Your need is greater than mine, and you have my blessing, and all my good wishes for the future.)

Recently there’s been a big hue-and-cry over a YA anthology called the Wicked Pretty Things anthology, in which author Jessica Verday was asked to change her gay love story to a straight one. She said no, retracted the story, and said why on her blog. Many other authors took back their stories in protest, which made me very proud of my genre, and the anthology has been cancelled.

I will say this: the editor of the now-defunct Wicked Pretty Things anthology I know a little, and she’s always been lovely to me. She edited a story I had with an intersex character in it, and let me keep hir. She also obviously in this case defaulted to the fake-default-world, and we’ll never know why: maybe on her own, but very possibly because someone hinted to her, or flat-out told her, that she had to.

Which doesn’t make the whole publishing house bad, either. (Gosh no. The same publishing house is coming out with an anthology called Truth & Dare, which I am in – but more importantly, which Saundra Mitchell’s in with a gay main character, and Emma Donoghue with a gay romance.) It’s just that publishing isn’t a monolith. There are always going to be people who support breaking away from the default, and always going to be people who are against it, and you’re always going to have to deal with the mix. Unfortunately, it does just take one person to create a problem you have to deal with. Jessica Verday had to take her fight out in public, in the same way Justine Larbalestier had to when the girl on the cover of her book was a different race to the heroine inside, but let me assure you: everyone who ever breaks away from the fake default world has had private fights.

Said little fight I had – I will note, not with my editor for the Demon’s Lexicon books, who has always been solidly supportive. Another author, who wrote one gay romance which went fine, and sold well. And then in her sequel she had a steamier gay romance, and despite her awesome sales, the publisher flatly refused to publish it. The story ends well. She got another publisher. But it is not a pleasant thing to have happen to you! Another writer, who had her gay characters deleted from her screenplay. These problems always, always happen, at some point. It is exhausting to deal with them, and fight against the fake default.

I have one friend (and I swear, these are all authors I know, and true stories, and not secretly me – I’ll tell you when it’s me) who had gay characters in her book. Editor took them out. She put them back in. Editor took them out and took issue with her for her naughty ways. She swallowed hard, and put them back in. The book went out with them in.

Almost the first review we saw of the book online said ‘Huh, not enough gay, what gay there was, was problematic…’ And of course, that’s what the person thought, so they were right to say it! But holy Methuselah on a bicycle, after all the author had been through to get it out there, it was hard to read.

Another author I know was slammed for showing a girl feeling shame after an assault. And of course, no girl has a reason to feel that – but some girls do, and they deserve books to say you do feel it, and yet you have nothing to be ashamed of. And yet, the critic has a perfect right to say she felt uncomfortable with it, too. I’ve been dinged (see, told you I’d tell you when it was me…) for having a gay character be too stereotypical because he once wears a purple ‘LOCK UP YOUR SONS’ t-shirt his sister gave him to annoy a homophobe. Made me sad, especially considering the fact I had a little fight on my hands getting to keep my gay kiss in the same book. But people have to be free to call out stereotypes as and when they see them!

People are always going to criticise stuff. People are critical beings! I myself constantly criticise books, movies, and the existence of bananas on this earth. And people notice books that stray from the fake default world more, and are more critical of them, because we are all so accustomed to the default that stuff that’s not-default is very noticeable. Besides which, nothing should be exempt from criticism, and it is important to call out offensive things in fiction.

So this will always happen, until the world changes. If you write anything that’s not the default, you will pay for it, because of publishers or readers or both.

I’ve seen the white-straight-able-bodied attitude be criticised, but I haven’t seen specific books be criticised as examples of that attitude, for the simple reason it’s much easier to criticise something that’s present than to criticise the absence of something (since no book can contain everything). It’s easier to be invisible to the audience – to go the white, straight, able-bodied route, with the focus on dudes and their dudely charms.

And some of those books are great. And I am a big fan of dudely charms, in general! But it has got to a stage where I will read a book that is otherwise good, and note it has the fake default, and I’ll feel a lingering sense of disappointment. I’ll never know if it was a consciously or unconsciously made safe choice – or just how the book turned out – or anything, really. No reader can know what the writer was thinking. All they have is the book, and their own conclusions.

Which is why I’ll add that I don’t like hearing ‘oh, some of my characters are gay, but I just didn’t mention it, it’s not germane to the plot.’ It’s disingenuous to pretend that the fake default world doesn’t exist, and that people won’t assume. It’s disingenuous to say it, if there are a bunch of heterosexual characters whose straightness was germane to the plot! I believe that it’s said in all good faith, and of course it’s nicer to hear than ‘Gay people in MY world, certainly not’ but hearing it (and I have heard it, oh gosh, at least twenty times from different writers) always saddens me. Put it in the book. All most readers will ever have is the book. The book is the important thing: the book could change a life, if you do it right.

And if you don’t believe that, why be a writer at all?

I always think of something I heard Karen Healey (Guardian of the Dead, heroine’s best friend is asexual) say at a panel once, talking about doing something that she knew would limit her audience and thus cost her money/potential future deals: ‘But then I thought, well, the cost of that is a lot less than the cost of thinking less of myself as a human being!’ (This is a paraphrase. Karen Healey probably said it a lot better!)

You will get pushback. And you won’t get praised. But it’s worth doing because it’s worth being a better human being, and a better writer

And maybe, the world will change, and it won’t be as hard for you, and–even better–it won’t be as hard for other people. Maybe, just a little, you’ll have helped.

Take a tiny hammer to the fake default world, and take the consequences of doing so. It’s not easy, but it is worth it. For more on authors interested in doing so: www.diversityinya.com

 

Taking the Homophobia Out of Fantasy

Malinda Lo’s first novel, Ash, a retelling of Cinderella with a lesbian twist, was a finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award, the Andre Norton Award for YA Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the Lambda Literary Award. Her second novel, Huntress, was just published in April 2011 and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Visit her website at www.malindalo.com.

 

In my two young adult fantasy novels, Ash and Huntress, the main characters are girls who fall in love with other girls. I admit there’s something different about the love stories told in my books, but it’s not that they’re gay love stories.

The difference is: in the world of my novels, being gay doesn’t matter.

What that means is that the characters are able to fall in love without dealing with homophobia. They don’t have to come out, because sexual orientation is never assumed in their worlds, and falling in love with someone of the same sex is seen as perfectly natural.

A lot of times, I get email from readers or come across reviews in which the lack of homophobia in my novels is described as refreshing or unusual, and I really appreciate that. I’m glad they find it a positive thing. On the other hand, it makes me realize that my approach to writing about same-sex romance is pretty much the exception to the rule, especially in YA.

There are adult novels in which coming out is no longer an issue and characters fall in love without needing to deal with homophobia — but often that’s because they’ve dealt with it already in their pasts. In YA, the characters are teens. They’re dealing with first love, and if their stories are set in our real world, homophobia is unfortunately a reality and coming out usually does have to happen.

But if the novel is a fantasy set in a secondary world, or a science fiction novel set sometime in the future, the author has the option from the get-go to write a world that is free from homophobia.

There’s no trick to this. The author simply has to decide: Are the people in this fantasy world homophobic? Or not?

If yes, then the author has to deal with that if she is going to be writing about gay characters. But if no, that means the gay characters don’t even need to identify as “gay” anymore. They can simply be human beings.

I think that sometimes people have a hard time wrapping their minds around how exactly one would write a homophobic-free fantasy world, because we’re used to thinking about gay identity being inextricably linked with homophobia. (Gay Pride parades can be, for example, positive ways to reclaim many homophobic stereotypes.) So here are a few practical tips I can give writers who are interested in writing worlds free from homophobia:

1. The characters do not need to come out to themselves or anyone else. That means that when they fall in love, they feel no shame about the fact that they’re falling for someone of the same sex; they only feel what a straight person might feel.

2. Nobody in the world needs to comment on the characters’ sexual orientations. When others notice that the character is falling for someone of the same sex, they would not comment on the same-sex aspect.

3. It’s helpful to insert some background characters who are in same-sex relationships, just as walk-on characters that help set the scene. But make sure that the description of those same-sex couples or relationships is presented as perfectly normal.

4. The words “gay,” “lesbian” or “bisexual” do not need to be used to describe these characters. This may feel very weird, but I believe it’s true. If nobody cares about sexual orientation, there don’t need to be words about it in the language, because essentially everyone would be potentially bisexual.

5. The existence or lack of homophobia is not necessarily related to the existence or lack of modern technology or sexism in the fantasy world. I think that sometimes people believe that a fantasy set in a medieval-esque world would automatically be homophobic and sexist, but that’s not necessarily true. It is within the author’s power to control all these elements; they are all part of world-building.

Personally, I want desperately to read more books in which homophobia is not an issue, but people still fall in love with others of the same sex. That’s the kind of world I want to live in, so I’m not surprised that I write those worlds and want to read about more of them.

Being gay, lesbian or bisexual isn’t an issue. Homophobia is the issue. While it’s a significant problem in the real world, I think that leaving it behind in a fantasy world is a wonderful and empowering way to say that being gay really is OK.

 

 

 

Guest Blog: Mike Mullin

Mike Mullin’s debut novel, Ashfall, will be released by Tanglewood Press in October 2011. Visit www.mikemullinauthor.com to learn more about Mike, Ashfall, or what termites taste like.

When I began writing Ashfall in 2008, I quickly realized that the story had the potential to take on a kind of comic-book quality. The disaster I’d chosen to depict, the eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano, was so horrible and the resulting world so severe that it could easily feel unreal to readers. And while I love comic books, that wasn’t the kind of book I wanted to write. I wanted to write an engrossing disaster novel: one that would make readers feel my hero’s confusion and fear, cheer for him along his journey, and cry with him over the human cost of the eruption.

Making the world of Ashfall seem real involved a lot of research. I read everything from an obscure self-published account of the Mount St. Helens disaster to scholarly articles in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research. I drove every step of the route my protagonist, Alex, takes through northern Iowa and Illinois, snapping photos and quizzing locals along the way. But I could have researched Ashfall until the heat-death of the universe and still not written a compelling novel. For that, I had to populate my novel with realistic people—people who reflected the diversity of Alex’s hometown, Cedar Falls, Iowa.

As I was drafting Ashfall, I happened across two different editions of Bruce Coville’s The Monster’s Ring—the original 1989 edition and the revised 20th anniversary edition. I read them side-by-side, hoping to glean some lessons in revision from a master. Coville’s books are like potato chips for me—I can’t read just one. So, I quickly re-read all his Magic Shop books.

My favorite Coville novel has always been The Skull of Truth. As I reread it, I tried to figure out why. Why did I like it best, and why did it feel so realistic, despite its wacky premise? The best answer I could come up with sounds like a Facebook relationship status—it’s complicated. Coville layers themes like a master chef making ratatouille: honesty, friendship, cancer, environmentalism, and social action, among others.

On top of the rich base of themes, Coville sprinkles a spicy assortment of minor characters. Just as every person you meet in life is unique, so is each of Coville’s characters. My favorite minor character in The Skull of Truth is Uncle Bennie. He’s a favorite relative and trusted confidant of Charlie, the protagonist. And he’s gay. Coville doesn’t make a big deal about it—Uncle Bennie’s sexual orientation is only hinted at until a late and hilarious dinner table scene.

Now, I love novels that deal directly with sexual identity as much as anyone. Just in the last month, I cheered my way through the incorrectly named Will Grayson, Will Grayson (it should have been titled Tiny Cooper, Tiny Cooper) and cried my way through Cheryl Rainfield’s brilliant Scars. But I think it’s equally important that ordinary sorts of books portray LGBT minor characters, not because portraying diversity is a good thing in and of itself (although it is), but because it makes the books, and ultimately the literature, richer and more realistic.

It’s not without risk. Uncle Bennie is a lightning rod for criticism. Here are a couple of not-so-choice quotes from Amazon and Goodreads reviews of The Skull of Truth: “It includes some subject matter that I feel is inappropriate for ANYONE to read about, much less children” and “The other thing that surprised and disappointed me was the homosexual angle.”

But I wasn’t thinking about reviews or booksales when I wrote Ashfall. What I thought, on rereading Uncle Bennie’s part in The Skull of Truth, was: I can do that. (Yes, the hubris of an unpublished writer is boundless. It has to be, or none of us would ever get started.) And I had a perfect pair of real-life models for my gay characters—my neighbors from across the street.

As character models, they have the additional advantage that they’re completely non-stereotypical gay men. Not long after my wife and I moved into our current home, our burglar alarm went off. In seconds, our two neighbors had dashed across the street, pistols raised above their heads, ready to defend their neighbors’ house. (It was a false alarm.) At election time, our mostly Democratic yard signs debate their mostly Republican yard signs across the street.

And so while I didn’t have to change the way I depict my neighbors in Ashfall to avoid stereotypes, I did change them (and their names). For one thing, I respect their privacy, and for another, they’re both entirely too nice to do some of the things my plot required the characters they inspired to do. Even with my neighbors as models, I found that my own bias crept into the manuscript as I worked. But I’ll save the story of how I and my astute beta readers dealt with that for another blog post.

I hope you will give Ashfall a read when it’s released in October—and I hope that you’ll find it is a richer and more realistic book for the inclusion of a couple of minor characters who happen to be gay. I may not (yet) be as masterful a cook as Bruce Coville, but the spices I borrowed from his cabinet make Ashfall a far tastier dish than it otherwise would be.

 

 

Skin Deep

Caitlin Kittredge writes the Iron Codex trilogy for young adults. The first book, The Iron Thorn, has been called “the next Hunger Games” and was released in February 2011. She also writes urban fantasy for adults, including the bestselling Black London series and the Icarus Project novels with fellow YA author Jackie Kessler. Visit her website at www.caitlinkittredge.com

I’m fortunate that I came of age when LGBTQ characters were starting to make appearances in both YA novels and YA media—but usually, they were sassy best friends, lesbian comic relief or, most often, characters who were tortured, murdered or humiliated. Stick a dead gay teen in your novel and it seemed that everyone was falling all over themselves to hand out accolades about how the authors had handled “gay issues”.

Hate crimes are issues, but they’re not gay issues. They’re everyone’s issue. As long as gay teens are murdered for being who they are, we’ve all got issues. When I decided along with my co-author, Jackie Kessler, to make one of the prominent characters in our Icarus Project series a gay teen, I realized that in the worldbuilding we’d set up (superheroes carry corporate brands and “alternative sexualities” are a no-no) we were going to run into what I call “gay punishment” pretty quickly. Gay punishment is another side of female punishment—minority characters are raped, killed or otherwise denigrated for having the temerity to think they compare to or surpass straight, cisgendered, most often white characters. If you don’t believe me, watch a few episodes of the “young adult” geared show of your choice, especially the ones dealing with paranormal topics. (Supernatural is notorious for its treatment of gay characters, females and minorities with sudden-death storylines, torture by bad guy characters, or homophobic slurs.)

Anyway, writing a character who wasn’t ashamed to be gay in a culture that reviled it did, in fact, lead to the logical conclusion that Frostbite, our ice-slinging superhero, was going to run into problems. Jackie and I decided that it was most important that Frostbite survive the bigotry he encountered—because gay teens live with it every day. It’s not fiction for them. It’s life. In the second book, Shades of Gray, we see that Frostbite (now a civilian named Derek), has survived the “re-education” given to him by his former superhero handlers. He’s still who he is, and proud of it. His boyfriend, unfortunately, doesn’t fare so well. He buys into the re-education, and Derek hasn’t heard from him since.

I went back and forth a lot on this plot point. I wondered if I was just playing into the skin-deep portrayal of queer teens, and queer adults, in most mainstream media. Sure, you can be gay. But you better be sassy. Or butch and funny. Or dead.

But this is reality: sometimes, gay teens don’t make it. Sometimes, they accept those who tell them that being gay is wrong, something they can fix. Sometimes they meet with a worse fate, in the form of hate crimes and or societal pressure that cause them to take their own lives.

It’s not right. It’s not fair. But I was determined that in writing Frostbite, I was going to make him a survivor. A whole character, and a whole person, rather than a skin-deep token gay man. As a straight, cisgendered female author, I felt this was especially important. I was petrified I wouldn’t get it right when I was drafting the first novel, Black and White—that my particular privileges and biases would blind me to something obvious that reduced Derek to a cardboard cutout, snapping fingers and offering fashion advice.

I decided to do it anyway, fear be damned. Because if I’m having a second thought about writing a gay character, worrying about backlash or about being misunderstood in my intent? Then I can’t imagine what it’s like for authors of queer fiction, or authors who identify as LGBTQ themselves. And Derek came out perfectly. He took on his own voice, his storyline became a huge part of both novels, and he was, as I’d hoped, a survivor—one of the few superheroes left after the events of the first novel. He is strong, and unbowed by what happened to him, and while I didn’t try to force him into any particular mold for most of his character moments, I absolutely did that on purpose. I wanted the gay teens reading to know that it’s not fair to be a target, it’s not fair to be judged for your orientation, but it does happen, and that they all have that same ability to survive inside of them. They don’t have to be ass-kicking superheroes, but they do have the ability to stand up.

I still don’t think I did a perfect job with my first queer character, but I’m so glad I went beneath the skin. That’s not a trait of an LGBTQ character, either—that’s a trait of all strong characters. And I firmly believe the more straight authors start realizing that, the better off we’ll all be.

 

Review of “I am J” by Cris Beam

JI am J Coveray is a teenage boy, going through the typical teenage identity crisis: His parents don’t understand him, his old friends are becoming distant, and he’s awkward around the opposite sex. But there’s something different about Jay. His actual name is Jeni.

In a world where most transgender characters are female, it’s nice to read a story about someone achieving manhood…literally. Jay’s parents and their reaction to his new life are portrayed realistically: ‘She’ll grow out of it.’ ‘Where did we go wrong?’ ‘But you’re such a pretty girl!’

Jay refuses to roll with the punches or back down one iota. He approaches his situation with typical male bullheaded stubbornness. If the world has a problem with him, then the world had better change.

Beam does a great job of weaving the real-life problems of transgender youth into a easy-reading, fast-moving story. Obtaining hormones, Jay’s disgust at his breasts and period, and the bureaucracy of changing one’s sex are all dealt with. Most touching is Jay’s simple desire to have a girlfriend, and the guilt of not being able to talk about his past.

This is an exciting, warts and all tale of a young man being true to himself for the first time. It’s not just a story for LGBT youth, but for anyone who appreciates a good, character-driven story.

Review by Brian Katcher.  He can be found online at his website.

 

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