…I went with queer because this title was getting long, but I mean LGBTQIAP+ or the not-as-used but less long GSM (gender and sexual minorities).
Also: major spoilers for Half Lost and minor spoilers for The Mortal Instruments.
So hi and welcome back to Weekly Reads! I read a few books this week (one of which I talked about in last Thursday’s post), but nothing seemed as important to me to talk about as Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe* by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. Because it got me thinking about queer books in general, and how I think (hope) they’re breaking more into the mainstream, but there’s still quite a way to go.
To preface this a bit: as I was growing up, children’s and young adult literature felt like they very rigidly reinforced heterosexuality and the gender binary/gender roles. Which as a bisexual (I found that out later, at 17) and a really boyish girl (though let’s give a round of applause for Kristy of the Babysitter’s Club) was pretty awkward for me.
Really, I’d say that in the mainstream, that’s still often the case. Unless I’m reading a book that specifically marks itself as being of LGBT interest (bookstores don’t really include the other letters), I’m reading something with a main straight couple and probably a main straight love triangle, and even the most non-girlish girl is dazzlingly pretty but just doesn’t know it. (And no possibility of peaceful polyamory, either, which is kind of a bummer.)
If I’m lucky, there will be another character in there who’s not straight. Jason’s lesbian moms in Magonia. There’s a barely-relevant queer couple in the Grisha trilogy. And so on, and so on. It’s better than I had growing up; as transgressive as His Dark Materials was in terms of religion, it was all about the straight pairings, and even the daemons very much have binary (and expected) genders. Harry Potter doesn’t actually characterize anyone as queer within its pages, and there are no queer relationships. (Hints are there, maybe, but there’s a lot of importance to printing it on the actual page.) The first few books of The Princess Diaries are very much an ode to straight relationships, with one gay character who I can remember, and he’s a stereotypical fashion designer. Books about being queer existed then—I found and held onto Empress of the World, and I know there were others—but this was a time when Google was just starting to happen. They weren’t easy to find, and it wasn’t always easy to just ask.
(By the way: Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles doesn’t even try to give me a non-straight couple among many couples, which was one of the reasons I wasn’t as sold on it as some. It’s neat, but I mean, a modern retelling of fairy tales with this many characters and no one is gay? We can get into the sexuality of robots but no one is even a little gay? A whole race can change their appearance at will and gender isn’t even a little bit flexible? It was so not queer that it actually wrecked my suspension of disbelief.)
In any case: at a time when many people question these aspects of themselves, myself included, the literature that we read didn’t have very many characters that reflected us. Even at that time, there were niche books, but they weren’t as easy to find and well publicized as they are now. So there’s that about it: queer books seem to be a lot more valued and get a lot more press in 2016. Mainstream bookstores have LGBT sections! And I’m happy about that.
But we’re still at a point where all of our mainstream queer books have to be about being queer. That’s what could have been interesting and transgressive about books like the Half Bad trilogy: Nathan is bisexual and one of his love interests is gay, but that’s really not the main part of the fantasy/chosen one story. However, Half Lost engages in the worst of all the tropes: bury your gays. As in: find a gay character, especially when they’ve hooked up with their love interest and get happy, and kill the hell out of them. Is it uncommon to kill characters when they’ve finally found happiness? No. But the issue surrounding this trope is that queer characters are barely represented, and even more rarely find happiness, and then even more rarely survive. (This trope is more from television—I don’t know that mainstream genre books have really caught up to mainstream genre TV in terms of their density of queer characters—but if this is any indication, books are not immune.)
So all of that said: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Universe was a beautiful and important book. It has a lot to do with coming to accept and talk about your queerness and what that entails, but it wasn’t all the book was about.
I felt dissatisfied by the ending in that sense, because it’s a bit abrupt and pulls a lot into that topic, although the book has a lot of other feelings and themes it deals with: a family that lives with wounds they don’t talk about and need to open up about to not isolate themselves from one another; the difficulty of being an outsider, in general but also culturally and also in terms of sexuality; the struggle not to use violence to solve difficult problems—and in general, a bunch of other feels. The book was often emotionally understated, thanks to Aristotle’s laconic, holding-everything-in way of being and narration, but that made it all the more beautiful to see people—Dante, his parents, and others—find a way to get through to him.
One of the things I loved most about this book is how involved the parents of the two titular characters are; a lot of young adult books, even ones in realistic settings (this one is set in the late 80s), are largely removed from the plot and might appear as side character from time to time, if at all. Aristotle and Dante’s parents are caring, involved parents, and both in mischief and in worrying about the people they appear to be or will become, it’s much easier to believe that the boys see their parents as people they want to love and approve of them, rather than plot-given obstacles to their happiness.
This book was, other than my one slight beef with it, quite stunning, and I’m glad I’ve seen it advertised and reviewed positively so often—because it wasn’t so easy to find books like this when I was younger. And if more teens see and pick up books like this, then I’m really hopeful about the future of young adult.
But I still wish that we were doing even better. I want us to get to the point in young adult books that we’re slowly getting to with television, where queer characters can just exist and while their stories and romances can be totally important, their plots don’t have to just be about their queerness. (I’d also like for them not to die more often in both mediums, but that’ s another story.) That’s part of what made this book so triumphant; while queerness was an aspect of character that was dealt with in poignant and real ways, there were also friendships, family relationships, talents, ambitions, and other parts of character—because us queer kids have lives outside of our sexuality, too.
(Whereas in The Mortal Instruments, for example, we do get a gay character in Alec, but other than being gay, Alec is basically a cardboard cutout. Oddly enough, I think he’s a bit better in the show version—but more on that another day.)
Anyway: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is great, and I would recommend it. But I still want to see some young adult bisexual protagonists and some non-binary love interests and some snarky ace mentors and some love triangles busted up with polyamory in books about time travel or magical kingdoms at war or future dystopias. I can dream, right?
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