REVIEW: Running with Lions by Julian Winters

REVIEW: Running with Lions by Julian Winters (June 7. 2018); 320 pages. Available from Duet Books, an imprint of Interlude Press, here.

When I was coming up, queer YA was not available. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when my adolescence was in bloom, I felt lucky to have access to Daniel Pinkwater’s quirky, witty novels and novels like Forever, Ahbra (by Mary Anderson) as an alternative to my mom’s old Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries. I never dreamed books could be written about real kids—queer, of color, smart, struggling, complex reflections of me and the other kids I knew.

As an adult, I’m not one of those avid YA readers. I’ve moved on, and there’s so much not-good YA out there… I like complexity in a novel, darkness, a bit of grit and no melodrama, and that order seems in short supply in most YA. All this is to say I’m not a die-hard YA reader like some adults I know, but I can really appreciate a great YA story when I come across one.

Found one, friends!

Running with Lions by Julian Winters hits the spot for me. It’s many things that did not interest me as a kid: boy MCs, sports… well, I guess that’s the list. Nevertheless, it’s a beautifully-written, softly suspenseful queer young-person romance, by turns tender and stubbly and gently humorous. It’s not deliberately wallowing in ignorance of the world (which is what turns me off about many YA books—young folk know what’s going on, and they feel it intensely; no need to pander, authors).

Sebastian Hughes goes to training camp for his high school soccer team, the Bloomington Lions, and comes face-to-face with his former childhood bestie, Emir Shah, with whom Sebastian had fallen out of touch. Emir is sort of a social reject, both because he’s crusty and scowly, and because he’s not very good at soccer. (I marveled-cheered because the fact that he’s gay and brown and Muslim did not factor at all into his exile. I mean, finally.) At first Emir pushes everyone—including Sebastian—away. But Sebastian persists, offering to help Emir train and practice at night, alone, on the field. Sebastian has to fight through that prickly exterior to get to the soft, nougaty center that is the Emir he remembers, but it winds up worth it; slowly, Emir cracks open.

Sebastian, who identifies as bisexual, has never been in love with a boy before, but he falls for Emir (who has). The rest of the novel is a slow, careful unfolding of their relationship, little advances and retreats, skittish acceptance and unpredictably cold rejections. It’s rather like watching someone try to trap a feral cat, but in a good way.

What, perhaps, appeals to me most now, as an adult looking back, is that not only is the queer romance front and center, respected for its complexity and not just used for its queerness, but the major problem in the romance isn’t homophobia, it’s history and mistrust and other interpersonal complications. Queer people, in other words, get to be just as interesting as straight ones, and we get our full and difficult-human story here. The other players don’t care about the queerness, and even the coach is supportive and doesn’t pay mind to his players’ sexuality or masculinity. (How different from Mr. S–, the coach at my high school who giggled and eye-rolled his way through teaching sex ed like a frat boy and never once even mentioned queerness.)

It’s radical that a queer love story for young folk is not centered on homophobia. (In fact, much of the team is either gay or bisexual, and sexuality is hardly an issue.) I mean, it’s really, truly radical. Everyone—kids and adults—needs stories like this.

In some ways, this idea (that a teen’s queerness is not an issue, that there are these queer-majority sports team-havens for kids) seems like a fantasy. Yet all fiction is fantasy (that’s kind of the point). Every single novel contains a made-up world and made-up people. As long as we’re fantasizing, how about a new fantasy with better values, one that doesn’t depress or scare the boop out of young queer kids just coming into their own, one that gives them something to dream about and wish for?

School librarians, please grab this book for your stacks. Parents, slip this into your kid’s bookshelf. Request it at your local bookstore and library. Tell them an unathletic old queer lady sent you.

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REVIEW: Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan

REVIEW: Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan (Reprint edition: April 9, 2017); Broadway Books; 306 pages.

 

I’ve known of Jennifer Finney Boylan as an activist and scholar from my days as a professor teaching queer theory. What somehow eluded me all those years was that she also writes fiction. I discovered this quite by accident when I happened upon mention of her novel Long Black Veil (yep, the title is a nod to Johnny Cash) and picked it up, mostly because I knew who she is and I was really curious.

 
I’m glad dumb luck led me there, because I stumbled on a book I wound up really loving.
Long Black Veil is a sort of mystery, though It’s not a whodunnit by any means. It’s about a group of young folks who get lost in a creepy old jail and one of them winds up gone and is later found dead. There’s suspense for a while, until you find out who was responsible for her death and why, but that isn’t really the point. It’s about the fallout, the way all the other characters deal with loss, guilt, survival and moving on.
This horrible moment in the past is juxtaposed against the narrative of a trans character who, rather than come out to her friends as trans, winds up disappearing herself in a flaming car wreck so she can establish her transition and emerge a new person, with a new name and a new life.

 
These two enormous events, both in some measure traumatizing, wind up informing each other—at least for this reader. Judith, who is trans, winds up in a similar situation to those who are guilty of bringing about her friend’s death—she must “kill” her former boy self, then cover up her tracks and keep the secret forever, even from those she loves most (like her husband and son). In doing so, she loses connections to her former friends, and must grieve in secret, telling neither her former friends nor her new family. She winds up alone and in pain, and must struggle with the fear of losing (or having lost) those she loves if ever her true, whole self is discovered.

 
I pounced on this book not only because Boylan wrote it, but because the description I’d read suggested it is queer magic realism—a category I had, up until recently, thought I may have invented. It just seems so right to me, since magic realism is about the natural and the fantastic juxtaposed, the realness of something that we believe cannot be real; and since magic realism’s initial incarnation was as a form of protest against repressive political systems. But please, reader, please gliss past my hubris here, because it turns out queer magic realism is a thing already.

 
The novel has elements of this—it is a beautifully strange landscape of events, ripped up by the frequent intrusion of the everyday. Sometimes there are ghosts and visions, and sometimes they are just mirrors—characters are haunted by the ghosts of their pasts, but also by visions of themselves. Dead folks are not the only ghosts, friends, and they’re often not the ghosts most haunting us.

 
Perhaps I’m not making it sound so, but the writing is quite deft, very smart, and entirely believable, no matter how strange it gets. At its heart, it’s about loss and rejection—both of friends and family, but also of one’s history, one’s identity, one’s self. It’s about how you remake your life in the face of gut-ripping change. It’s about how you grow into newness, and what happens to the old parts of you when you do grow into something new.

What Use Is Violence?

I’m here to contend that not all depictions of violence are equal, and the distinction between them has a lot to do with purpose. There is a real difference between relishing violence and bearing witness to it, but the difficulty is that in art (poetry, fiction, visual art, music, dance, film, etc.), witnessing is often bound up with pleasure and the two are hard to tease apart.

In her article about violence in The New York Times Magazine (“Battle Cry,” 8/20/17, p 9-11), Amanda Hess suggests that how violence is presented makes a big difference, too. Context matters, she says, as in cases ranging “from those who express extreme positions in polite tones [like the white nationalist Richard Spencer, who calls for ‘peaceful ethnic cleansing’] to those who express reasonable positions in impolite ones” (11) like Black Lives Matter protestors have been accused of doing. The conclusion at which Hess arrives is that “[f]etishizing civility has a way of elevating style over substance” (11), so that we pay attention to the apparent politeness of the speech and not its incendiary content. She asks, essentially: should one be expected to politely answer to someone who’s calling for one’s extermination?

The implication here is that not all violence is equal, that there are more forms of violence than the physical (the verbal threat of violence is violence, too, as is hate speech in general), and that violence in many forms can be a necessary tool of resistance.

In the early 2000s, a travelling exhibit and subsequent book of postcards and other memorabilia commemorating the lynching of Black people in the U.S. (Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynching in America, ed. James Allen) caused a ruffle of objections and questions wherever it went—photographs showed lynched Black bodies and their proud, rowdy white audiences. Should one look, or look away? Is consuming these images the same as participating in the violence? It was disturbing, to say the least, and heartbreaking. As a professor, I told my classes about the online version of the exhibit and warned them that what they would see if they looked was racist and violent, extremely hurtful and most likely indelible (this, of course, only seemed to entice most of them to look).

I’m thinking about this today, so many years later, because the question of violence and its representation has surfaced for me again, though in a much smaller way: my novel Olympia Knife contains several depictions of violence, and there was some discussion between the publisher and me about how best to handle this. The novel takes place in America in the early 20th Century and is concerned with the lives of those misfits who run away with the circus. There is a Black Creole fat lady who, as a child, saw her father lynched by white men. There is a white bearded lady who, as a young woman, was the victim of attempted sexual assault (which she successfully fended off by kicking her assailant). There’s the murder of a violent and dangerous person (I won’t give away who). None of these events are given more than a paragraph or two of prose, and none of the violent events are described graphically or pleasurably, but they are troublesome for me nonetheless.

I know many people are disturbed by such violence depicted in art, and many seek to avoid it. Of course, this is always a person’s choice to do, and only the individual can determine what’s best for them. But sometimes, I think, one needs to be disturbed. It’s dangerous to look away, to sequester oneself in constant, pillowy safety. Many of us, due to our identities (as LGBTQ people, women, POC, disabled folk, immigrants, or other marginalized people) do not have the option to avoid violence. As a queer, disabled, fat woman, I’m subjected to violent speech frequently, occasional threats of physical violence (once, a guy driving a van suggested he might run over a fat woman like me with no problem because I had ample “cushion”), and several occasions of seriously wounding actualized physical violence. I don’t speak, in other words, cavalierly about this subject. And I’m far luckier than many folks in this country, for whom violence is more seriously or more constantly waged, or institutionalized in our very social/governmental structure. It’s a difficult subject I don’t take lightly. It’s life-and-death for many of us.

I thought a lot about this back when I was debating how to address with my college classes the exhibition of the lynching photographs, and came to the conclusions that (1) I believe it’s important to confront the violent realities in which many people are forced to live, (2) it is a disservice to paper over the depiction of that violence with civility when many people have to live through it, but (3) such violence must be addressed carefully to avoid as best one can promoting voyeuristic entertainment from the suffering depicted (promoting, in effect, emotional tourism) and (4) other people may disagree with these ideas, and so there must always be the opportunity to decide not to look.

At the end of his heartbreaking film Bamboozled, director Spike Lee included a montage of his own collection of “mammy” dolls and other racist toys and decorations set against striking monochrome backgrounds and a mournfully beautiful song by Steve Winwood. It’s disturbing and painful (as is the film itself), but entirely necessary for the moment. The film also contains genius performances by Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson in a modern minstrel-type show, and the juxtaposition of pleasure at their humor and talent against the horror of taking pleasure in a racist show is part of how the film intentionally hurts its viewers. But Lee does this for a very good reason. It’s the pain that’s produced alongside the pleasure, and being asked as a viewer to confront how I can enjoy those quietly, politely violent things, that teaches me about locking myself mindlessly into pleasure at the expense of others and gives the film its meaning, its ability to convince and to affect me so deeply.

Too often, in art that attempts to depict the wounds of racism and other dangerous institutions like it, the racism becomes an abstraction. Through depictions of violence, it becomes real—it makes a real, physiological effect on the body: you cry, you go cold, or you shake, you cringe, it produces pain. Because I taught about horror film for so many years, I cannot stop myself from explaining that this very idea is what underlies the workings of many horror films—the combination of psychological and physical reactions to its contents (you jump and shiver, as well as worrying), ensures you are affected deeply and intensely.

A 1922 poster included in the Without Sanctuary exhibit quotes the NAACP: “To maintain civilization in America, you cannot escape your responsibility” (http://www.cnn.com/2000/US/01/18/lynching.photography/index.html?_s=PM:US). In light of frequent police violence against people of color, one strategy in recent years has been for bystanders to observe and even film police interactions, to make clear they will bear witness to anything that takes place.

Violence and repression, in other words, happen more effectively in the dark and in silence. Denial is powerful (see, for example, how effective Holocaust deniers can be; 16 countries have laws against Holocaust denial and even more have more general laws against denying genocide). It is our responsibility to bear witness, to others and to ourselves. It’s part of the reason repressive political regimes often quickly silence the press and arrest or kill journalists before doing anything else (or they may simply ban the press from the White House, as a more recent and local example).

In my aesthetic, joy is political and vital—these days, I’ll take it when I can get it. But just as vital are struggle and displeasure. Art must not be an escape from pain and difficulty, it should be our way to confront it. Finding joy must happen in the midst of grief, not in ignorance of it. Responsibility can only be shouldered by those who are willing and able to bear it, of course, but for those who are up for the fight, art is a way of bearing witness and—through that—salving one’s wounds. Respectfully, I urge that one must choose, as a way of being socially responsible, to look and to see.