Two Boys Kissing, David Levithan: Book review

Two Boys Kissing coverWhen I was about 14 or 15 – this was in 1998 – my English teacher took me aside and gave me a copy of Dance on My Grave to read. That teacher was openly gay (as openly as you can be as a teacher in a regional Australian high school in the ’90s, anyway), the novel is about gay characters, and I would turn out be gay. Pretty obvious why that teacher lent me the book: “Hey kid – you are this. Learn to accept it.”

But I refused to read it. A couple of days later I handed the book back to the teacher, insisting it interested me zero. This is called denial! I didn’t want to learn to accept anything. I probably knew – though had never consciously admitted to myself – that I was gay. But I really didn’t want to be.

Looking back, in the late ’90s it felt like homosexuality was on its way to acceptance, but a long way off being accepted. The same-sex marriage debate was a thing crazies speculated about, not seriously discussed. Pop-culture offered a smattering of gay characters – asexual sidekicks, mostly, or one-offs*. Being gay was the stuff of Special Episodes or Problem Novels. Gay people were a thing you knew about but didn’t look at directly. Being out in high school was unimaginable**.

(*Will and Grace didn’t premiere and Jack didn’t enter Dawson’s Creek till a year or so after my English teacher gave me that book. I guess Jack was a pretty Big Deal for teenagers my age, even though he barely pecked at other boys and Kerr Smith was pretty outspoken about how gross he found the whole thing.)

(**Adult Me is frequently amused that almost all of Teenage Me’s male friends turned out to be big ol’ raging homos. If only we’d been out to each other instead of dancing around it!)

Which is why David Levithan’s excellent book Two Boys Kissing, published in 2013, is so remarkable. He writes about teen life where being gay isn’t a problem by default. It doesn’t mark you as special. It’s just… a thing. (One character is even a transgender boy, which Teenage Me would find especially remarkable. Transgender teens were not even on pop culture’s radar when I was a Youth.)

Not that gay teenagers now exist in a utopian bubble of acceptance and tolerance. They don’t, and Two Boys Kissing acknowledges the floods of homophobic ugliness that will never entirely recede, and that coming out will never be effortless. Almost all its young characters struggle with different facets of their homosexuality. But the world they exist in is a very different place from the one 15 or 20 years ago, and that’s terrific.

(OH GOD HAS IT REALLY BEEN THAT LONG SINCE I WAS A TEENAGER OH GOD)

Two Boys Kissing balances several characters. Peter and Neil have been together a year (so in teenage terms they are an old married couple), but Neil isn’t out out to his parents yet. Blue-haired Ryan and pink-haired Avery (the aforementioned transgender boy) meet at a “gay prom” and start that delightful-but-awkward dance of determining what’s next. Self-loathing Cooper is disgusted and ashamed of his homosexuality – because his only experience with that world is through sleazy one-dimensional sex apps. And Tariq stands strong after a recent gay-bashing.

These boys orbit around Harry and Craig, a former couple-turned-best friends (with all the baggage that kind of relationship comes with) attempting to break the world record for longest kiss. That’s a gruelling 32 hours, an event broadcast to the entire world, and whether or not they’ll pull it off is terrifically suspenseful.

(Levithan was inspired by the real-life story of Matty Daley and Bobby Canciello, two college boys who set the world record for longest kiss in 2010 when they locked lips for 33 hours. Although Guinness says their record has since been broken by a heterosexual couple in Thailand.)

Levithan’s writing is honest and beautiful, though he does toss in a pinch of that literary-ish tweeness which is a hallmark of “realistic” YA fiction. Tariq is obsessed with the poet Walt Whitman and leads friends in a recital of Whitman’s work, while in another scene Neil and Peter spell out love messages in book titles. Obviously, yes, some teenagers really actually do stuff like this, but – to me, anyway – these kind of grandiose moments always seem contrived and sugary when they’re flattened on to a page.

The boldest, most memorable part of Two Boys Kissing is that it’s told from the point-of-view of the ghostly chorus of gay men who died amid the AIDS crisis of the ’80s and ’90s. It’s a striking, odd narrative structure. “Odd” because it sometimes keeps the living characters at arm’s length. But mostly because it filters the experience of being gay through such tragedy – like at any moment Two Boys Kissing might just become a tale of victims or the “descendants” of victims.

But it never does. Levithan – who in the acknowledgements explains  he came of age in the narrow window after the first AIDS crisis but before the advent of the internet – makes his ghosts vivid and important. By telling Two Boys Kissing from their perspective, he isn’t saying  gay people now need to define themselves by AIDS. But he is saying we need to remember it, and its cost.

Which makes Two Boys Kissing seem like kind of a downer. It’s not. The end of this book optimistic, powerfully hopeful, and filled with so much pride. I wish someone could have lent it to me when I was a kid, and that I could have put aside my teenage denial and cynicism and read it. I wish every gay teenager in the world could read and accept this book. I wish everyone, period, could read it and love it as much as I did.

Previously: Will Grayson, Will Grayson, John Green and David Levithan: Book review

 

Gaysia, Benjamin Law: book review

Gaysia, Benjamin LawPop culture has offered endless navel-gazing into what it is like to be a white gay man in Western countries. But what is it like to be an Asian gay man in Asian countries? It’s a mystery!

At least until you read Benjamin Law’s fine travelogue Gaysia. (Or unless you are an Asian gay man in Asia, in which case: just read this book anyway, OK.) An Australian child of Chinese migrants, Law ventures into Asia to learn how life for homos there is different (or the same) from life in his homeland, with each chapter exploring a different country or region.

Some chapters, while intriguing, are more or less what you’d expect: Law meets ladyboys in Thailand and explores sex tourism in Bali. Others reveal unexpected facets of Asia’s gays: Particularly interesting is the chapter in Japan, where Law explores how gay celebrities are “permitted” to be out and proud – as long as they’re men, sexless, and content with being entertainment for straight people.

Two chapters are particularly bleak. In Myanmar, Law explores the devastation wrought by HIV and AIDS. Even those who know how to get treatment – and that’s a short list – are unlikely to get it. It’s a terrible portrait of what happens when you mix poverty and oppression in one terrible soup.

The India chapter is bleak for a different reason. Law is positive about the country, which he visited after it overturned the section of its penal code outlawing homosexuality (laws dating back to the 1861, introduced during British rule). But in December 2013, India’s Supreme Court over-overturned that decision, so homosexual acts are illegal again. It’s a depressing, disappointing reminder that progress is not always permanent. Most of the anti-gay people Law interviews in India (and in Malaysia, too) are mostly motivated by their religious beliefs – unsurprisingly, and frustratingly.

Law doesn’t dive into the historical complexities of the countries he visits, but nor does he make out like he’s trying to paint a full picture of his destinations. Some of these places he visits, after all, have more than a billion people in them. Instead he meets people, talks to them, sketches a lasting impression of what life is like.

He’s also the world’s nicest travel companion. I relate to his buttoned-down brand of innocence – particularly when he politely-but-deftly deflects old leches in Bali then dares to (gasp!) go skinny-dipping. What could be termed his conservatism puts a compelling and often powerful spin on Gaysia: Law is a true observer without casting judgement, writing about his subjects with affection and respect.

 

Book review: Always You, Edina, V.G. Lee

Always You, Edina, V.G. LeeLast year I was pretty impressed by V.G. Lee’s short story “Knitting for Beginners, 1960,” a tale which featured in Paul Burston’s anthology Boys and Girls. That story centred on a 10-year-old schoolgirl Bonnie’s crush on the most popular girl in her class – nice, innocent, “aren’t kids adorably naive” stuff. Well! Turns out “Knitting” was just a sliver of the grander story that unfolds in Lee’s novel Always You, Edina. Which is a bit like eating a slice of cake then finding out you can stuff your face with the whole thing.

In Edina we first meet Bonnie as an adult, on one of her regular visits to a nursing home to see her (terrifically sharp-tongued) Gran. Bonnie seems reluctant to talk too much to Gran about her personal life, and her partner “Jay” (note that gender-ambiguous name), so instead their conversations tend to fall back on their family’s difficult history.

Flashback to Bonnie’s childhood in 1960s Birmingham (the same era “Knitting” is set): It’s working class, but seems pleasantly average. Emphasis on “seems”, because there’s more going on in the background that Bonnie realises. Her much-adored father is suspiciously close to his vivacious, bottle-blond sister-in-law – the eponymous Edina, who Bonnie idolises. Their relationship will have twisted consequences, even if Bonnie – who’s obsessed with her crush on popular girl Joanna and her rivalry with her cousin, Edina’s daughter – doesn’t comprehend what they’ll be.

Lee has a knack for gluing a child’s voice on to the page: Bonnie is both precocious and charmingly idiotic, insufferably convinced of her own importance. In other words, she’s exactly like every other 10 year old; there’s shades of Adrian Mole about her. She senses there’s bigger things going on than the ones that directly affect her daily life – the love triangle, her own unusual sexuality – but she’s too careless to be bothered by it. Which all contrasts nicely with the parts of the book set in the modern day (or at least, a day more modern than the 1960s). Grown-up Bonnie’s life has turned out okay, but her relationship with her family seems strained, and she’s not quite open about her sexuality.

Elements towards the end of the book are slapdash – notably when Gran awkwardly takes over the point of view to reveal some key plot points to Bonnie, and a soap opera twist when the identity of Bonnie’s long-time partner is finally revealed.

But any of Always You, Edina‘s flaws are overcome by its warm, funny tone, and the way it throws a spotlight on often-overshadowed subjects. For starters, “mainstream” culture generally pays a lot less attention to lesbians than it does to gay men. And it tells very few stories of gay children (or, to split hairs a little, children who grow up into gay adults) that aren’t weirdly sexualised.

(Also, I should mention: Lee very kindly sent me a free copy of Always You, Edina after she read my review of “Knitting for Beginners.” I mention this partly as a disclaimer but mostly because I want to boast about how an author personally requested that I review her book.)

Previously: Book review: Boys and Girls, edited by Paul Burston