[CBR10 – Review 3/13] What We Left Behind

What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

(Cannonball Read book review #3 – original post @ CBR10)

Sometimes, a random internet search leads you to some awesome places. One night two weeks ago, I was in the library. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to read, so I did a search for Southern Lesbian fiction. There were no new Rita Mae Brown books (that weren’t fox or cat related) and most of titles the query returned, the library didn’t have. (I know, shocking that a fairly conservation, Northern NJ, small-town library wasn’t overflowing with Southern Lesbian lit, right?) However, they did have one title: “What We Left Behind” by Robin Talley. I recognized the author’s name from another title that came up on the list that I had added to my reading list last year: “Lies We Tell Ourselves”. Unfortunately, the library didn’t have that one. I picked up “What We Left Behind” and read the dust jacket description:

Toni and Gretchen are the couple everyone envied in high school. They’ve been together forever. They never fight. They’re deeply, hopelessly in love. When they separate for their first year at college – Toni to Harvard and Gretchen to NYU – they’re sure they’ll be fine. Where other long-distance relationships have fallen apart, theirs is bound to stay rock-solid.

The reality of being apart, though, is very different than they expected. Toni, who identifies as genderqueer, meets a group of transgender upper classmen and immediately finds a sense of belonging that has always been missing, but Gretchen struggles to remember who she is outside their relationship.

Wait, I’m sorry. On a Southern Lesbian fiction search, I wound up with a YA novel with a genderqueer character? JACKPOT! I identify as nonbinary and prefer ze/zir pronouns and this has been a journey for me. It’s hard to find characters in mainstream fiction that have any of the thoughts I have so finding this felt like an amazing present. I immediately checked it out, went home, and started reading.

Talley had me hooked right from the first chapter, where she starts with how Toni and Gretchen met, from Toni’s perspective. The books’ “chapters” (it doesn’t have traditional, numerical chapters) are mostly divided into Toni’s first person POV and Gretchen’s first person POV. Though the story primarily takes place in present day throughout Toni and Gretchen’s freshman year in their respective colleges, it also takes a few dips back in time to important foundation points in their relationship in high school. The first chapter flips back and forth between Toni and Gretchen’s POV of their first meeting.

Toni fell for Gretchen at the Homecoming dance just after winning a major victory at their private, all girls school. Toni identifies as genderqueer at this point in the book, and was threatening to sue the school to be able to wear pants as part of the uniform instead of the mandated skirts. The school has allowed Toni to do this so we meet Toni showing up at Homecoming in “spiffy new grey-and-black-striped pants, a bright blue shirt, shiny black shoes, black-and-white-striped suspenders, and a black top hat.” Gretchen, we learn, is barefoot with blue toenails at the dance, which for a DC private school, was unheard of. Toni swooned. I swooned, too, thinking about Gretchen laughing on the dance floor, barefoot and carefree.

From there, it’s adorable and first love-y. The second chapter, though, is where shit starts to get real. Toni talks about how she and Gretchen are about to leave for college, and how close they’ll be, both being in Boston and all. I had to reread the dust jacket…no, it definitely said Gretchen was going to NYU….ooooooohhh. Gretchen lied to Toni. She originally got into BU and was waitlisted for NYU, but then NYU notified her that they would accept her off the waitlist. And she did it, mailed in the acceptance and the deposit, all without telling Toni. Until the night before they left. Ruh-roh!

Cue the Trouble In Paradise music!

So, that’s not a fun way to go off to college, but they manage to work it out. Kinda. Toni swallows the feels, and they embark on their separate collegiate journeys. Gretchen meets and befriends Carroll, a gay freshman from rural NJ who is looking to lose his V card. Her roommate is a goth chick named Samantha from the South. They don’t really hit it off right away because Gretchen bonds quickly with Carroll and spends all her time with him.

Toni, on the other hand, joins the UBA (Harvard’s Undergradutate BGLTQIA Association) and meets a group of people mostly on the trans spectrum like Toni, but a few years older and further along in their journey. It’s the first time that Toni has found people to talk to about all the questions running through Toni’s mind.

I’m trying to honor Toni’s pronoun choices by not referring to Toni as a she. Throughout the book, though, as Toni questions their identity, Toni’s pronouns change. One thing I really liked about this process was that the author was fairly smooth about bringing me into Toni’s head while this was happening. At various points, Toni tried not to use any gendered language to refer to people, then tries to use gender nuetral terms like “they/them” and “ze/hir”. Gretchen also has adapted to do this to honor Toni and usually winds up calling Toni “Toni” or “T” instead of using gendered language. But thing is, she is afraid to ask questions about what it all means and how it’s all affecting Toni. Mostly, when Toni has talked about these things, Gretchen has just smiled and nodded and was supportive, which is AWESOME for a partner to be, but she also isn’t really sure how to make sense of it all and doesn’t really talk about it much. Can anyone else sense the impending doom on this freshman ldr?

So between Gretchen lying about which school she was going to, and the lack of communication, and striving to never fight and be the “perfect” couple, their relationship derails over the course of the first semester. They had originally promised to see each other every weekend, but that gets pushed back and back as they each adapt to college and their new schedules and friends. Each chapter starts with where we are in the timeline, including the notation of how long they’ve been apart.

Both teens spend a lot of time mooning over each other and also questioning labels. Some reviews I read about this book in the last few days are pretty harsh about how selfish Toni is during this process, but…thing is…I get it. I’m 40 years old and have only in the last few years begun to ask some of these questions that I realized I’d pushed down when I was in my teens. As I’ve said to a friend recently, I don’t think I’m actually transgendered, but I don’t fully indentify as female, either. I don’t really like the gender binary thing. And there’s a lot to think about an unpack in there, once you start looking around at how gendered everything is. I mean, I even found “manly” candles and wet wipes. Because really, those needed some gendered tagging. Anyway, I won’t rant here about gender spectrum; there’s more to my journey, but if you’re curious, check out my blog.

Basically, Toni’s constant questioning and trying to make sense of things was very familiar. Identity isn’t always an easy thing to figure out, especially once you realize it can actually change over time. It was all actually pretty refreshing coming from some of the other trans YA books I’ve read where the characters just know and the meat of the story is every else’s reactions to them and what it’s like to transition. Toni, on the other hand, isn’t sure of anything. This seems to have made them annoying and selfish in some reviewers eyes, but to me, it was nice to find someone really spell out a lot of the questions that can come with this type of personal journey of identity.

From there, there are many differences. I am not a freshman in a big university. I’m not having experiences like drunken hookup sex that ruins a friendship for the first time (thankfully I’ve never had that happen) or contending with the pressure of writing papers and lining up internships while trying to maintain an ldr. And I’ve learned enough about relationships to know that you actually have to TALK about the things that are bothering you, or the questions you have. Gretchen is so afraid of sounding stupid to ask some of the questions she has of Toni and Toni thinks that Gretchen can’t possibly understand or really want to talk it out, so they wind up spending months mostly avoiding the topic with each other.

Toni does manage to get some stuff out, and winds up coming out to her very image-obsessed mother on a whim. That was an interesting scene. It felt pretty forced and rushed, though. I would’ve rathered a longer book to get into some of the fallout and character growth towards the end, but it all wrapped pretty quickly. We go from being with Gretch and Toni throughout their first semester and the last chapter is them having been apart for 8 months and talking to each other for the first time. It feels like they might get back together, but the book ends before that can happen, so if you’re someone who really wants to have that clear happy ending, this might not be for you.

All that being said, it is a cute romance, and it’s entirely refreshing to have gender be a discussion and not just an assumed binary. Oh, and one of the secondary characters also decides to get into an open relationship, so my polyamorous heart was happy with that. Plus, there’s a goodly bit of diversity amongst the secondary characters who are trans, lesbian, gay, bi, Korean, and black. Some support groups for people who care about trans people were mentioned, which is also awesome. I wish there was a little more in the story about being actively genderfluid and not having to pick one or the other but besides that, I thought it was a really sweet and realistic coming of age love story and I’m really glad YA fiction now has this representation. Also, I can’t wait to read more by Robin Talley.

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Polyamory (and so much more!) in Pictures

(Book review #5 – original post @ Cannonball Read 8)

KimchiCuddles-AskMeAboutPolyamory

Fair warning: I’m going to pepper this review with a few actual strips from Kimchi Cuddles, because pictures are awesome and I love being able to use the actual author/artist’s art to drive a point home. 

That being said, here; have a comic!

Kimchi Cuddles #300 - "The Scandalous Truth" from KimchiCuddles.com

Kimchi Cuddles #300 – “The Scandalous Truth” from KimchiCuddles.com

Yup. Welcome to polyamory. I’ve been a practicing polyamorist for close to 15 years now and this might just be my favorite book on the subject. And that’s saying something because while there aren’t nearly as many books on the subject as I wish there were, there are still a goodly amount and I’ve read most of them. This is not an easy relationships style and while it is incredibly rewarding and wonderful, it also, in my humble opinion, takes a lot of self-awareness, communication, and emotional maturity. I’m working on ’em. It’ll likely be an ongoing quest, but I’m glad to have people like Tikva Wolf to help with the journey for the past few years.

I’ve been following Kimchi Cuddles as an internet comic strip for a while; her semi-autobiographical strips sometimes make me laugh and sometimes chop a clear path of understanding right through a problem that I was having trouble with, and sometimes, just make me feel not quite so alone. It may seem counter-intuitive, but you can be polyamorous and feel alone or lonely. You can totally be polyamorous, have multiple partners, and still feel really alone and lonely sometimes. It’s kind of like how you can be going through the sadness of a breakup but also be happily married. Oh hey, btw, there’s a comic about that:

Kimchi Cuddles #301 "Sci Fi Marathon Time" - from KimchiCuddles.com

Kimchi Cuddles #301 – “Sci Fi Marathon Time” from KimchiCuddles.com (another thing I love about this is the note on Facebook when this was posted was that the author/artist likes to watch “Hedwig & the Angry Inch” after breakups. All Of The YES.)

This kind of thing is what makes polyamory so magical. Honoring the complexity of life and feelings and actively celebrating it all with people. Through polyamory, I’ve been able to grow more than I ever thought possible, come (mostly) to terms with anger, be a better communicator, open my heart to uncertainty and loving outside of social norms. And Kimchi Cuddles has helped me navigate all that. Tikva Wolf has a very open, nurturing way of handling the myriad challenges of polyamory and even when she’s struggling with her own demons, she helps others by sharing that struggle through her art. And as you may’ve guessed, there is a comic for that, too:

Kimchi Cuddles #326 - "Appearing Perfect" from KimchiCuddles.com

Kimchi Cuddles #326 – “Appearing Perfect” from KimchiCuddles.com

Being out of the closet is important to me, too, as is being able to write about my life. And I love being able to support artists and authors and musicians who help me along my path, so when I found out there was a kickstarter for the first compilation of Kimchi Cuddles comics in physical book form, I was SO on board. And so grateful I had the money to support this fantastic endeavor.

Random note: This book smells really good. I admit it; I love to open a book and stick my nose in center and inhale. I embrace my weirdness. Therefore, this comic seems appropriate:

Kimchi Cuddles #274 - "Queers" from KimchiCuddles.com

Kimchi Cuddles #274 – “Queers” from KimchiCuddles.com

What’s even more nifty about this comic, as you might be able to tell from above, is that it doesn’t just talk address poly issues. The book is divided into six sections (parenthetical notes are mine):

  • I. Discovery Polyamory (All Poly, All The Time)
  • II. Practical Living (the practicality of poly including family dynamics, sleeping woes any triad or quad (or more) poly person will recognize, and something I like to call “eating habits: you just can’t win with that many diverse people”)
  • III. Successful Relationships (I love this section because there’s so much relationship advice. It asks the big question: What makes a relationship successful? It also deals with metamours, love, intimacy, openness, support, and encourages discovery)
  • IV. Troubleshooting, Transitions, Taking Care of Yourself (a rougher chapter to get through, but so worth it. Touches on difficult things like jealousy, misogyny, relationship transitions, conflict, compersion, and fear)
  • V. Dating Scene (fantastic chapter about poly dating, NRE, labels or the lack thereof, LDR, Mono/Poly, Cowboys, and Unicorns. A very fascinating chapter, indeed.)
  • VI. Identities (Including: Trans, Genderqueer/fluid, Asexual and Sexual, Queers, and Pride!)

One of the most important things I’ve learned from Kimchi Cuddles is that there are a plethora of ways to love. I mean, I kinda knew that going in to reading this comic, as I’d been polyamorous for over ten years by the time I first encountered this comic. But I was still very enmeshed in hierarchical modes of thinking and feeling about love. Kimchi Cuddles helped me deconstruct that and see the fear that has been living underneath. By asking (and attempting to answer) questions like “what makes a relationship successful” and “what does love mean to you”, I’ve been asking myself those things and coming up with some surprising answers. And it’s cool to see characters in the strip go through a similar growth process as they seek the answers to questions like this and more. When I read books, the ones that stay with me often are the ones where I can relate to the characters and feel like in a parallel world, they’d be real. Characters I’d want to talk with, date, be friends with, get into arguments with, cuddle with, admire. This is what the cast of characters in Kimchi Cuddles is like for me. What’s even more brilliant is I may or may not know some of the characters that the people in the strip are based on. Cause it’s a small world, after all.

And that small world, even with all the love in it, and all the possibilities, can get scary. Love is the ultimate emotional vulnerability and it can be hard to navigate that with one person, let alone many. In the end, though, I’m learning to embrace the uncertainty, open my heart, and allow love in in whatever form it takes without trying to obsess over labels (though I still maintain they have their place and can help understanding, when applied judiciously). I’ve come to much of this new found understanding and peace with the help of Kimchi Cuddles, and for that, I’m entirely grateful. And with that, I leave you with one more comic in the author/artist’s words and pictures:

Kimchi Cuddles #93 - "Ask Kimchi from KimchiCuddles.com

Kimchi Cuddles #93 – “Ask Kimchi from KimchiCuddles.com