Monday, July 16, 2018

Pride Month Reading, 2018

If you have at least one openly queer friend/colleague with whom you rarely discussed gender/sexual issues anymore because you've had this conversation years and years ago, it's often easy to forget that you are living in a bubble. You see queer representations (admittedly skewed towards able-bodied white cis gay men) regularly on the media and do not gag, you read the celebratory #Lovewins hashtags and your heart feels warmed, or you might have enjoyed the parading revelry as cities burst into colors for Pride Month. You are definitely living in a bubble.

I would know it, I live in it: Boston is one such bubble. (It's a pleasant bubble, mind you.)

And it was a pretty bubble, too. In June, downtown Boston hoisted rainbow flags on their buildings to celebrate the Pride month. On the 9th, the Boston Pride Parade went through Boston's major streets, and I got an excellent view from the BPL (Boston Public Library). Admittedly I only got to see the tail end of the parade, but as it were, it was really uplifting to see so many people in high spirit.

Inside the library, the BPL observed the Pride Month by showcasing a selection of their LGBTQ+ books on the first floor. They also published a list of their recommendation on their website. These were where I get most of the LGBT themed books that I read in June:

Generations follow Matteo, who returned "home" after he broke up with his boyfriend. He went to his grandmother's house, not wanting to face his father and risk facing his disapproval for his being gay (and running away to Milan to live with his much-older-boyfriend). He did not expect to live with so many family members: his aunts, his unmarried pregnant cousin, and of course, his Nan himself was living there. But really, what other options did he have?

Living in close quarters with his (extended) family revealed a lot of family dynamics that he had not been aware of. And this is one of the strong point of this book: family dynamics are messy and Generation captured this well with beautiful artworks.

As the story progressed, Matteo grew up. He dealt with his ex-boyfriend maturely, and started to pull his weight around the house (by helping taking care of his Nan). He still couldn't help but pine for his Nan's straight caretaker, but you can't help but root for him as he learned to understand the perspectives of his family members. It's not that he was estranged, but as families go you often don't try to understand them at all. Which was why he undermined what his father is capable of when he ran from home before.

It was spiriting to noticed the many different allies in this story. Even his Nan's nurse who lost her job to Matteo stood up for him when he was outed by his uncle. Or it was possibly his aunt--I could not get them straight and the way they were being referred to as Aunt A, Aunt B, and Aunt C throughout the story was really confusing.

The book ended with a death and a birth--which is really fitting for the title. Finishing it left me wanting to read more.

And that was how I started reading My Brother's Husband. MBH took the opposing perspective from the point of a family member (Yaichi) whose gay relative (Mike) come to a visit after Yaichi's twin brother died in an accident. The book revolves around Yaichi, his daughter Kana, and Mike. Having grown apart from his brother, Mike's visit spurred Yaichi to come to term with his late brother's homosexuality.

Unlike Generation, there weren't many allies to be found in MBH. Most of the characters are cluelessly respectful, so Kana unself-consciously bear the duty of asking revelatory questions to move the narrative forward. It's so transparent that to me Kana is reduced to mere caricature. I feel like there must be another way to avoid the characteristic Japanese demurral from hindering the story, but Gengoroh didn't explore that here.

To his credit, it did work to convey the idea that Japan still has a long way to go to accept those who are different. Yaichi struggled internally. Kana first was eager to show off her (big, beefy) gaijin uncle, but then she was ostracised when the mother of her closest friend's refused them to play together with Mike. The mother feared Mike would be a "negative influence". Yaichi was rightly dismayed.

Outside the story, it was interesting to note that Yaichi's brother had gone to Canada and married a Canadian man. Mike came to Japan doe-eyed and had expressed no concern at all about the race difference. He can afford to do that, I think partly because he is the right kind of gaijin: one with a white skin.

In stark contrast to Mike, Charlie in As the Crow Flies is acutely aware of the color of her skin. She came to an all-girl Christian backpacking camp--and had second thoughts when she realized that everyone else was white. She almost lost it with the constant whitewashing by the camp counsellors (who weren't even aware that they were doing that) but she was aware of the angry black stereotype that may backfire on her.

It really didn't helped that Charlie had a crush on one of the older counsellor, or that she had been questioning god. Things got better when she first befriended Sydney (who turned out to be trans), and even started to make a connection with the other girls in the program as they got further in their hike. There were also gorgeous illustration of the landscape throughout, and it made As the Crow Flies an even more charming read.

I read The Awkward Squad next--a detective story that revolved around the creation of a new police squad in Paris, one that is filled with outcasts and rejects from various police departments. Being basket cases as they were, they had to make do with cold cases. This ended up being a very enjoyable whodunnit story, as the two separate murder cases that the squad was investigating turned out to be connected--and when their potential witness got murdered, the squad members came head to head with their old bosses.

Given that this book did not put a LGBTQ+ issue as its central theme, it probably only earned its place in this list because of one of the side character, Lebreton:
"You married?" Rosière said, gesturing toward the silver rings on Lebreton's left hand.
"What was her name?"
Every time, without fail. The same "ah" that carried a mixture of surprise and relief. So this was not a real broken family; we were not dealing with a proper tragedy. Lebreton had lived with Vincent for twelve years, yet everyone seemed to think that he was not experiencing any real pain. Or at least not the same pain.
Lebreton hardly ever mentioned his sexual orientation, though. Not during recruitment, nor during his stint as a RAID/SWAT negotiator. When he bumped into his commandant while walking with his boyfriend, though, he was very quickly reassigned to IGS/Internal Affairs. But he grew interested with with the work there and took it seriously. However, when Vincent died, he couldn't concentrate and asked for a bereavement leave. His divisionnaire--who took bereavement leave himself was aghast, saying, "You can't honestly make that comparison!"

Still, Lebreton's story was only one of many interesting back stories that made up Capestan's awkward squad. There's another officer who was drunk, one who wrote a popular police TV series, one who was jinxed, and many more. If my French comprehension had been better I'd have tried to read the sequel, which is not translated to English yet.

At that point I thought the list could do no wrong. But I was wrong. I read Jaya and Rasa next and I honestly wanted to hurl the book across the room, or douse it in fire. Or both. It was so bad that I can't believe I bothered to finish it.

It was bad for three different reasons: it was pointlessly long, woefully flat, and it was annoyingly juvenile. The length was pointless: if the author could have just followed Vonnegut's fifth advice on how to write a good story, she would've made the book start as close at the end as possible and not spend the first third of the book with the two titular characters not even knowing each other. When they finally met, their connection was disappointingly rushed and their romantic development made no sense whatsoever.

It was woefully flat: everyone but Jaya and Rasa are Bad. Rasa's mother neglected Rasa and her siblings, and practically drove Rasa to follow her footsteps to prostitute herself. When Child Services took them, her foster parents sold her out to a prostitution ring. Jaya's father is a womanizer, leaving his mother depressed and suicidal. Compare them to Jaya who volunteered in a shelter and raised money by busking Nirvana songs for the plight of Hawaiian natives who were sidelined by developers like his father. Rasa who selflessly bit down her hunger so her siblings could eat. Other people in the novel are either friends who are unquestioningly supportive, or derisive passers-by who called them names.

It was annoyingly juvenile. Jaya immersed himself in Kurt Cobain's greatness/suicide, which totally didn't work on me. I don't know any Nirvana songs. It was also annoying when he swung wildly between besotted doting to Rasa and explosive jealousy. His shift between disrespect to the authority to incessant pestering to Rasa to report her pimp/foster parents to the police at the end is incoherently jarring.

I was glad when it was over. This book definitely tried to bite more issues than it can chew: transgender identity/Indian heritage/homelessness/Hawaii tourism/prostitution/child prostitution/substance abuse/child abuse/eating disorder/gun/suicide/adultery/class divide. The wide range of issues raised made the book lacked room to develop its depth and end up disappointing.

In contrast, the last book that I read on this list was really specific: And It Came to Pass followed a pair of Mormon missionaries in Barcelona. You can safely guess that the plot of the book explored the tension between of their religion and sexuality.

The main character, Adam Young, was conflicted when his companion, Christensen, started to ask open questions related to their church's teaching. He was raised in a strict household where asking questions meant that he was then rebuked by being made an example in his father's church sermon. This is of course a tad extreme, though it struck a chord with me. It seemed to work to endear his character, though, and not just for me: another reviewer mentioned his religious background, too (He was a Southern Baptist). I thought the first half when he was struggling with his religion was written well.

The second half, on the other hand, felt a bit rushed. His relationship escalated too quickly, though I found the way they quoted scripture to each other while they were *getting busy* hilarious. I also think that the additional crisis point of having his stern parents come to Barcelona to be their Mission President was really timely. With his father supervising them, of course they would get caught--I think otherwise it would have been a disservice to the reader. Not only they got discovered, but they were caught in flagrante delicto--although at first the chaste writing made it not clear at all that anything sexual was happening. (It was).

The other thing that I liked about this book is that it allowed me to look at the endings through Michael Arndt's framework of good endings. The formula fits: the climax of the book brings resolution to the internal stake, external stake, and philosophical stake of the book. Had the stakes been developed even further, this book would have been an insanely great. As it were, though, it capped off my Pride month reading nicely.

No comments: