YA Pride, bi-visibility & representation

We’re coming up to the end of Pride month & I’ve been delighted (& proud!) to find The Accident Season on some readers’ lists of recommended LGBT YA.

The Accident Season is magic realism: a sort of contemporary, sort of mystery, sort of strange little book about teenage girls with predilections for fortune-telling who drink too much & break into abandoned places. It isn’t about coming out or coming of age or about sexual orientation at all, but three of its main characters happen to be bisexual, so it makes me really happy to see it on these kinds of lists, because while coming out & coming of age & figuring out your sexuality is undeniably important, I like that there is also space left open for stories with LGBT characters in which their sexuality is almost incidental.

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I wrote 3 of the 4 main characters of The Accident Season as bisexual. They were all bisexual from the beginning & it was never going to be A Big Thing & none of them were ever going to question their sexuality or even really mention it, because it was what it was. Because sexual orientation doesn’t always have to be the driving point of the narrative. Because there doesn’t need to be a big deal made of a girl kissing her best (female) friend even though they’re both in love with different people, of a girl falling in love with a girl after having been with a boy for years.

There are no labels in The Accident Season because the story is narrated by Cara, & not only are labels unimportant to Cara, but it was important throughout the book that she narrate through a sort of shroud. Cara doesn’t name things, doesn’t pin experiences or thoughts down long enough to label them because she’s too busy deflecting from all her secrets.

A lot of young people don’t like or want or need labels. A lot of young people exist within a group of friends in which everybody kisses everyone irrespective of gender (my teenage friends group was very much like that!) & for many people on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, life & love & kisses & relationships are organic and labelless.

Having said that, I am not Cara, & I think that labels can be really important. I did originally want to name the characters in The Accident Season as bisexual, but it never sounded right, never fit into the narrative. Because doing that would have been me (the author) making a statement, as opposed to me letting Cara (the narrator) tell her story. And Cara doesn’t really work that way.

But Cara is still bisexual. She’s bisexual even if she feels ambivalent about having kissed one particular girl. She’s bisexual even though her main romantic interest in the book is a boy. In the same way, Bea is bisexual even though she feels ambivalent about having kissed one particular boy. She’s bisexual even though her main romantic interest in the book is a girl. Alice is maybe the most obviously bisexual character because she has relationships with a boy & a girl during the course of the story, but readers very often read her as gay. Which I don’t understand. But I suspect it has something to do with bi visibility. We’re so used to the narrative of girl dates boy, girl realises she likes girls, girl goes out with girl. Alice had very good reasons for ending her relationship in The Accident Season & none of those reasons were her sexuality. She was bi when she was with a boy & she was bi when she was with a girl & she’d be bi if she were dating nobody at all because that’s kind of just how bisexuality works.

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Two out of four of the main characters in my next book, Spellbook of the Lost and Found, are bisexual & one is gay. There’s a lot I want to say about them that I can’t at this still-early stage (it’s due to be published in May 2017, so quite a while to wait), but in this book the narrator is a lot more matter-of-fact – she’s observant & little-to-no-nonsense & likes to call a spade a spade – & describes herself as openly out (except maybe to her grandmother) bisexual. This fact has absolutely no bearing in any way on the plot of the story, except that it is part of her history & identity.

So labels or no labels, I like to write books with bisexual main characters in which their sexuality has little to no impact on the story. Because that’s what I’m interested in writing, & because representation & visibility are important, both in theory & personally.

I’m bisexual but I came out as gay when I was 15. It was only in university that I realised I wasn’t. There were a couple of reasons for this, but one of the major ones was that I didn’t have a working framework for bisexuality. In 2000, when I was 14 & figuring this all out, the only representations of bisexuality in popular culture I had come across was the film Velvet Goldmine & the common harmful stereotypes we all know & hate: you’re just being greedy/ it’s just a phase/ you haven’t decided yet.

If I’d had a book or film or TV show with a character who happily identified as bi in either a same- or opposite-sex relationship, or a character who was maybe 80% gay & 20% straight who didn’t identify as gay but as bi, or characters who, like Cara, didn’t need or want any labels but kissed whoever they felt like kissing, with no sexual-orientation-related drama, then maybe I would have figured it all out sooner. But that’s what happens, sometimes, when you can’t find yourself in fiction*. So you just figure, “Hey, they must be right, maybe all lesbians are also somewhat attracted to boys. Maybe I haven’t made up my mind.” Sometimes you need examples to help back up your own instincts, especially when you’re young. And that’s where representation & visibility come in.

It’s getting better, especially in YA fiction, especially in the last few years. I’m not denying that there’s still a long way to go, especially when it comes to intersectionality, but right now I’m going to focus on the positives & share a bunch of lists posted this month of really excellent LGBTQ+ fiction. I’ve probably missed loads of roundups so if you have one or there’s one you’d like me to include, please let me know. And of course I’m always looking to expand my already-ridiculous to-be-read pile.

*I realise that being white, cisgender & able-bodied I obviously see myself in fiction all the time, but you know what I mean.

Penguin Pride: Coming of Age LGBT Fiction
Book Riot: Coming Out & Coming of Age
Adventures with Words: LGBTQ Library
Scholastic: Finding Me: LGBT Books for Kids
Buzzfeed: 26 LGBT Books Everyone Should Read
Claire Hennessy: YA LGBTQ Recs
Malinda Lo: Favourite YA About Lesbian, Bisexual & Queer Girls
Book Riot: Cotton Candy Queer Books

Most of my favourite books are on the above lists, but here are some that aren’t on any of them but definitely should be:

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About a Girl
by Sarah McCarry

Eighteen-year-old Tally is absolutely sure of everything: her genius, the love of her adoptive family, the loyalty of her best friend, Shane, and her future career as a Nobel prize-winning astronomer. There’s no room in her tidy world for heartbreak or uncertainty―or the charismatic, troubled mother who abandoned her soon after she was born. But when a sudden discovery upends her fiercely ordered world, Tally sets out on an unexpected quest to seek out the reclusive musician who may hold the key to her past―and instead finds Maddy, an enigmatic and beautiful girl who will unlock the door to her future. The deeper she falls in love with Maddy, the more Tally begins to realize that the universe is bigger―and more complicated―than she ever imagined. Can Tally face the truth about her family―and find her way home in time to save herself from its consequences?

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Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson

Lighthousekeeping tells the tale of Silver (“My mother called me Silver. I was born part precious metal, part pirate.”), an orphaned girl who is taken in by blind Mr. Pew, the mysterious and miraculously old keeper of a lighthouse on the Scottish coast. Pew tells Silver stories of Babel Dark, a nineteenth-century clergyman. Dark lived two lives: a public one mired in darkness and deceit and a private one bathed in the light of passionate love. For Silver, Dark’s life becomes a map through her own darkness, into her own story, and, finally, into love.

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Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea

Everyone in the broken-down town of Chelsea, Massachussetts, has a story too worn to repeat—from the girls who play the pass-out game just to feel like they’re somewhere else, to the packs of aimless teenage boys, to the old women from far away who left everything behind. But there’s one story they all still tell: the oldest and saddest but most hopeful story, the one about the girl who will be able to take their twisted world and straighten it out. The girl who will bring the magic. Could Sophie Swankowski be that girl? With her tangled hair and grubby clothes, her weird habits and her visions of a filthy, swearing mermaid who comes to her when she’s unconscious, Sophie could be the one to uncover the power flowing beneath Chelsea’s potholed streets and sludge-filled rivers, and the one to fight the evil that flows there, too. Sophie might discover her destiny, and maybe even in time to save them all.

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A History of Glitter & Blood by Hannah Moskovitz

Sixteen-year-old Beckan and her friends are the only fairies brave enough to stay in Ferrum when war breaks out. Now there is tension between the immortal fairies, the subterranean gnomes, and the mysterious tightropers who arrived to liberate the fairies. But when Beckan’s clan is forced to venture into the gnome underworld to survive, they find themselves tentatively forming unlikely friendships and making sacrifices they couldn’t have imagined. As danger mounts, Beckan finds herself caught between her loyalty to her friends, her desire for peace, and a love she never expected.

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The Cure for Death by Lightning
by Gail Anderson Dargatz

The Cure for Death by Lightning is the story of Beth Weeks, a young girl whose life is thrown into turmoil by her abusive father, a mysterious stalker, and her own awakening sexuality. But friendship with a girl from the nearby Indian reservation connects her to an enriching mythology, and an unexpected protector ultimately shores up her world. The novel is sprinkled throughout with recipes and remedies from the scrapbook Beth’s mother keeps, a boon to Beth as she faces down her demons and discovers what she is made of — and one of many elements that gives The Cure for Death by Lightning its enchanting vitality.

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The Last Beginning
by Lauren James

Sixteen years ago, after a scandal that rocked the world, teenagers Katherine and Matthew vanished without a trace. Now Clove Sutcliffe is determined to find her long lost relatives. But where do you start looking for a couple who seem to have been reincarnated at every key moment in history? Who were Kate and Matt? Why were they born again and again? And who is the mysterious Ella, who keeps appearing at every turn in Clove’s investigation? For Clove, there is a mystery to solve in the past and a love to find in the future.

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