How Beautiful the Ordinary: Twelve Stories of Identity

Michael Cart, ed., 2009.  The long break since my last post reflects my difficulty with finishing books of short stories.  I have trouble getting into them; they’re just too short and I don’t have the chance to identify with the characters.  This isn’t the fault of the renowned list of authors (I was familiar with ten of the twelve), but it did take me a while to finish the book.

There’s been tons of buzz about David Levithan’s contribution, “A Word from the Nearly Distant Past,” but although I may well be Levithan’s biggest fan, I’m not sure this even qualifies as a story. It’s more of the kind of speech your sixties-feminist mother might give you about how young women today have it so easy because of the ground she broke at protest marches back in the day.  And while I agree it’s important to remember the past, I wonder how teens feel about this story.  Does it really speak to them?

I felt the same way about Gregory Maguire’s 117-page….what? novella?  Again, not a story and not for teens.  I loved it actually, but I’m 34.  Am I not giving teens enough credit when I say that they might not want to read this book about men in their forties?  Yes, there are flashbacks to college, when Blaise and Faroukh began their relationship, but most of the book is about men the age of teens’ dads.

Rounding out the trio of really-for-adults contributions is Ariel Schrag’s hilarious comic about a day at Dyke March: meeting up at the BART station, looking at naked girls, indulging in tequila and pot, “us[ing a] rich fag’s bathroom,” and drunkenly texting her girlfriend on the East Coast.  Probably my favorite story in the book, but – say it with me – will teens relate?

The rest of the contributions did seem to speak to teens. Jacqueline Woodson wrote a touching if plotless vignette about a little boy crossing gender borders as well as racial ones; he’s half-black and half-white and was born a girl.  Francesca Lia Block’s story about a pair of troubled teens who make a connection online (one cuts, one has gender issues) was strong, as was Julie Anne Peters’s story in two voices about a pair of girlfriends having sex for the first time.  Sweet and sexy, this is the best thing Peter’s ever written. Emma Donoghue’s epistolary story reminds teens of the bad old days when gay people weren’t allowed to get married, but unlike Levithan’s, succeeds in doing this in a way that teens will understand: the letter-writer is a non-bio mom who got shafted during a custody dispute, and the letters are to her estranged daughter.

Eric Shanower’s comic about a genie granting a young boy’s wish not to be gay and Ron Koertge’s story about…becoming a dog because his father treats him like a dog? were too weird for me but may appeal to teen fantasy readers. William Sleator’s exploration of love between a Thai boy and a white man was moving if a bit predictable.

That’s ten.  I’ve saved the best for last.  Margo Lanagan is a genius, and her story about a young boy revealing a secret affair between a girl and a robber features gorgeous language and an ending I didn’t see coming.  I had never heard of Jennifer Boylan before, but loved her “The Missing Person,” about a little trans girl borrowing her sister’s clothes and sneaking out to the town parade. “It was the first time in my life I had ever felt the sun on my face as a girl,” says the narrator. “I felt like someone who had been released from jail, like someone who’d spent her whole life in a prison only to be unexpectedly paroled, at the age of fourteen, and set loose upon the world.” When a magician picks her out of the audience to act in the classically superfemme role of his assistant, she’s embarrassed about moving from the sunshine to the spotlight, afraid people can tell she’s not like all the other girls. The story is deepened by a parallel narrative about an exchange student who disappeared long ago. Turns out she stepped on insulation in the back of a closet and fell within the walls of her host house, where no one could hear her cries.

So: two excellent stories, many good ones, some out of place, a couple I wasn’t feeling. That’s pretty standard for a short-story collection.  Still, this one probably deserves the attention it’s getting, thanks to the big names and the efforts to reduce tokenization; there were two comics in the mix, and that oft-ignored T in LGBTQ is fully represented.  Definitely worth buying for your library, but consider getting an extra copy for the adult fiction collection.

This entry was posted in 2009, Ariel Schrag, asian american, biracial, bisexual, black, college, David Levithan, drag, Emma Donoghue, epistolary, Eric Shanower, fantasy, Francesca Lia Block, gay male, gay-bashing, gaytopia, Gregory Maguire, high school, historical, Jacqueline Woodson, Jennifer Finley Boylan, Julie Anne Peters, lesbian, Margo Lanagan, Michael Cart, problem novel, queer adult, queer parent, queer protagonist, realistic, romance, Ron Koertge, secondary queer character, short stories, trans, Willam Sleator. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How Beautiful the Ordinary: Twelve Stories of Identity

  1. Cass says:

    I’m reading this collection right now, and I have to say I was blown away by Levithan’s essay; of course, I’m a twenty-something, not a teen, so I fit your theory. I just finished Block’s story, which I really enjoyed and which stands out for being romantic, as opposed to the more usual identity struggle (ie Woodsen’s story). I’m looking forward to the rest of the collection.

  2. Thats essentially what the AAP argues. Prevalent heterosexism and stigmatization might lead to teasing and embarrassment for children about their parents sexual orientation or their family constellation and restrict their ability to form and maintain friendships, says the AAP. Children living with divorced lesbian mothers have better outcomes when their fathers and other important adults accept their mothers lesbian identity. Above all, says the AAP, [d]enying legal parent status through adoption to coparents or second parents prevents these children from enjoying the psychologic and legal security that comes from having 2 willing, capable, and loving parents. In other words, those who oppose legalization of gay marriage and adoption thereby perpetuate the instability they cite as grounds for denying gays the right to marry and adopt.

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