I write ‘pink’ books. You know the ones. They aren’t always pink, but that’s what they get called: sweet girly romance for teens, probably with sparkles and shoes on the cover.
I also happen to be a lesbian.
So how does that work, exactly?
For starters, I’m fairly sure ‘making stuff up’ in is the job description. As it happens, my own teenage experiences were with boys - so creating my main female character’s adorkable love interest as a fella? Not such a giant leap. Being gay doesn’t make me immune to the concept of The Hot Guy (just as most straight women can go ‘hey, that Beyonce looked kind of smoking in the Single Ladies video, no?’ without their entire self-perception melting in panic). Supernatural’s Dean Winchester is a pretty, pretty man whoever is looking at him.
I write funny, contemporary fiction about learning to be the young adult a girl grows into – with all the embarrassment, glee, physical weirditude and lost lonely gloom that it can entail. Sex and sexual identity is a portion of that – and that’s scary and baffling whether it’s down to orientation, or the conviction that everyone else has DONE RUDE THINGS and you haven’t even looked at yourself naked in the mirror yet. Being a teenager can be relentlessly terrifying, and that’s universal.
I don’t mean to make light of the issues specific to LGBT teens: the genuine threats, hostility, violence and rejection that some have to endure. There are unique anxieties within the community, that YA lit can and does speak to directly and powerfully. (There’s a cracking list here.)
But as a comic writer, there’s only so much grit I want to include – and LGBT characters aren’t only there to ‘represent the issue’, just as ‘pink’ books are never only about romance. Even the most love-addled teenager (gay or straight) also has to deal with friendships and school and zits and sweaty bits and parents and The Looming Future and music and movies and bad decisions and burnt toast and money and facebook and the continuing tendency of the human race to knacker itself and its planet for no logical reason – and that’s without throwing in mental illness or bereavement or divorce or any of the million curveballs that real life involves. Real people don’t fall in love in a vacuum: bullies don’t vanish, the laundry doesn’t wash itself just because you distractingly like someone. (Boo.) Love is one piece of the pink puzzle, not the picture itself.
That doesn’t mean LGBT invisibility: it means giving my gay characters a place in a smarter world, where they have the same status as everyone else. Dai and Henry in Girl Meets Cake nearly break up because former fat-boy Dai worries he’s not good enough; Cam in Big Woo fights with her mum for dating rubbish blokes. Those worries could belong to any of their friends: they aren’t defined solely by sexuality.
To some that might seem like a cop-out: an erasure of difference. But what’s important to me is that they are there, visible, out and ordinary. It still startles me how frequently I read teen fiction in which not one character is other than straight and cisgendered.
If an author isn’t LGBT themselves, you might ask, why would they bother? Why should they, when the rest of our popular culture doesn’t? Or perhaps those characters are there, somewhere, like Dumbledore. The author just never got around to mentioning it on the page, it never seemed relevant to the story, it just didn’t crop up...
It matters because representation matters. Numbers matter. Names and faces matter. The It Gets Better project in the US – tragically prompted by multiple teen suicides – opened my own eyes to just how empowering it could be to see real individuals unafraid to be counted. Maybe it’s because I stayed in the closet for so long, or grew up in a place where I knew ONE gay teen, and even that was a secret. Maybe it’s because I associate silence on the subject with my own cowardice: because not taking every opportunity to say ‘yes, hello, lesbian in the room!’ feels disingenuous. (I am SO much fun at parties.) And, yeah, maybe those are my problems, and I can’t import them into every flippin’ book I read without going a bit barmy.
But – the reason I write for teenagers is because they’re important. All of them. The books they read are important: even the flip, sweet, funny ones; maybe especially those. We have a responsibility as writers of YA to offer them something of value. Hope. A voice. Guidance on how to be an ally. A perspective wider than the one in their front room. I know not every book can achieve world peace and a lifetime supply of KitKat Chunkys, but we’re writers. We’re daft by default. We can shoot for the moon.
Me, I’m still aiming. Maybe next I’ll write a funny, fluffy teen romance with a gay main character. The pink book world is ready for a Georgia Nicolson who’s torn between snogging Davina the Laugh and the Robyn the Sex Goddess, right?
What an amazing post! Thank you for sharing this with us. Visit Susie Day at her website, where she blogs intermittently, or follow her on Twitter. And I would recommend reading her books as well :)
Thank you for such a wonderful post, Susie and Michelle.ReplyDelete
Susie, I've been thinking about having a gay character in my next book, but I was worried about a) tokenism and b) that the gay best friend (tho mine is a brother, not a best friend) is such a chick lit cliche. I'd love to hear your opinion on it.
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What a fantastic blogpost! I applaud Susie wholeheartedly and think that maybe, just maybe the world could be ready for that pink book.ReplyDelete
I've long ago learned that pink books - the actual covers - turn me off. I've also learned that I'm stupid and should look past the pinkness to the amazing writing, characters and achingly honest real life anxieties beneath as well as the laugh out funny moments in these pink books. I even wrote a blogpost about it. Because I am so sad, I know.
Great article, you guys! And thanks to Susie for popping by and chatting to us, to let us know that being different isn't being that different, after all.
PS: I had to delete my first comment as I kept calling Susie, Sarah. Sigh.
I absolutely love this article!ReplyDelete
Thank you so much Susie for sharing your thoughts on this!
I would have loved to have read one of those pink books with LGBT characters inside when I was a teen. It probably would have made me see that I am not a freak and that other people are like me and we're basically just like everybody else rather than different (in that negative sense it always seems to have when you're a teen).
Will definitely go read your books soon :)
Brilliant post, interesting and inspiring. I think I'll be thinking about what you have said for a while.ReplyDelete
(And at a very shallow level seeing Dean Winchester looking all pretty and broody made me smile a lot).
Thank you so much to Michelle for inviting me to contribute to LOVE month!ReplyDelete
@Keris: personally I'd rather tokenism than invisibility. And yes, the 'gay bestie' is a cliche - but you're not a cliched writer, so you can find a way around that. Does it have to be the best friend? Or indeed a bloke? Or only one of them? Just don't let panic that you'll 'do representing all gay people ever' wrong hold you back, because no one is actually expecting these characters to do that. :D
@Liz - I'm the same about pink books, or was until I realised I was writing them. (I spent my teens thinking fantasy was 'proper books' and compulsively reading Judy Blume on the sly.) Would love it if you linked to your pink books post!
@Caroline - thank you, and yep: I wonder too how different my teen years might have been. I'm so thrilled there's a real range of representation in YA now, though in smaller bookshops and libraries you still might not see it. We're getting there, slowly...:)
What an awesome post. I want to give Susie a big hug for writing such a fantastic post. I am intrigued by the 'It Gets Better' project.ReplyDelete
Jenni - Thank you! Ahh, Dean: pretty, broody, Dean... :DReplyDelete
Vivienne - hugs all round! Love It Gets Better. There's an amazing youtube of people who work at Pixar: defy anyone to watch it and not feel teary and hopeful. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4a4MR8oI_B8
Wonderful wonderful post. Thank you, Susie!ReplyDelete
What an ace post, great topic discussed and I can confirm that both Beyonce and Dean W are SMOKING hot.ReplyDelete
yay susie. Its interesting what you say about the 'erasure of difference' ...because it seems to me like a future world in a way, or a parallel world where people are just more accepting of the fact that we're not all the same (and yet in a way we are) ...hmmm. I love your books! I love that the issues to the characters are multifarious ...anyway. I'm feeling inrticulate. Have you read the oz author Joanne Horniman? - she writes these beautiful books where characters are not just sexuality but so much more. If you can't get any I will send you some!ReplyDelete
TY, Luisa and Laura (smoking indeed! :D).ReplyDelete
Simmone - I do feel epic anxiety about the whole 'erasure of difference' question, because we still need books that shout their agendas and tackle those realities head-on. I'm just glad that other people are writing them already. ;) Haven't encountered Horniman - will check her out.