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A Different Light: On Identity

2013 April 8
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Photo by flickr user Guillaume Paumier

Photo by flickr user Guillaume Paumier

Identity — who we are, how we become those people — is a central theme in lots of YA novels. Given what Claire Gross calls the “still-in-progress audience” of YA literature, the prevalence of questions surrounding identity is not surprising. Two recent articles examining queer* YA were published recently: “What Makes a Good YA Coming-out Novel?” by Claire Gross in The Horn Book and “A New Way for Gay Characters in Y.A.” in The Atlantic Wire‘s YA for Grownups series. Although they’re written from different perspectives and with different questions in mind, both delve into the importance of identity in queer YA. Maybe this is unsurprising too; after all, “sexual identity” is often used as synonym for “sexual orientation.” What struck me in the articles, however, was the authors’ focus on the importance other parts of identity, parts of identity not related to who and how a character loves. Gross and Doll agree that good queer YA often focuses as much, if not more, on other questions of identity than it does on questions of sexual and gender identity. Sexual orientation may be a synonym for sexual identity, but a person’s identity is not defined solely by her sexual orientation. Gross and Doll recognize this and see the importance of it in queer YA different but complementary ways.

Gross, who is interested in what makes a good YA coming-out novel, posits that “a good coming-out novel is about more than just coming out.” In a great coming-out story, the protagonist is working out the kinks of many different facets of her identity. Often, as in Ask the Passengers or Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (both on the 2013 Best Fiction for Young Adults list), this includes her relationship with her parents. Other times, unraveling the code of one’s identity is as much about what happens externally; the communities a character finds, builds, or joins are another important piece of identity, too. The queer YA classic The Geography Club is a good example of this; so is The Miseducation of Cameron Post (a 2013 Morris Award finalist).

While Gross is interested what makes a good coming-out novel, Doll is more concerned with what comes after the coming-out novel. When authors and publishers no longer feel that coming out is the only story a queer YA character can have, what happens then? Here, too, a complicated identity is part of what distinguishes notable books. Still, as is the case with lots of non-queer novels, identity is a huge question for YA characters. The difference between newer books and the problem novels of a few decades ago is that, while characters are still sometimes grappling with queerness, “being gay or bi or lesbian or transgendered is wrapped up in conversations that often transcend sexuality.” The Difference Between You and Me is as much about learning what values you’re willing to stand up for as it is about being a closeted teenage lesbian. Pink is as much about the costumes and masks people hide behind — sometimes unintentionally — as it is about Ava deciding whether she’s bi. Tangled, jumbled, mixed-up identities and all the questions that come along with them are at the heart of these novels.

Readers have known for a long time that a good character is complex character. There is rarely joy in a character who never surprises you, and even less in one whose motives are so opaque that they are entirely impenetrable. A great character walks the fine line between knowable and mysterious, relatable and surprising. Only a multifaceted character can be those things, a character whose identity is not a single, glaring color — gay — but a rainbow of pieces working in harmony.

— Emily Calkins, currently reading Just One Day by Gayle Forman

* Gross’s article includes a note on the use of the term queer. It’s my preferred term, but I struggle to succinctly explain why — today, at least, I’ll let Claire Gross explain for me: “Throughout this column I use queer as a blanket term for people who are gay, lesbian, transgendered, bisexual, or questioning. While historically a derogatory label, it has been reclaimed as an inclusive term that acknowledges the limits of labels and acronyms in describing the pantheon of sexual and gender identities. I use it here in deference to that diversity.”

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