(or, how I talk about Steve Brezenoff’s new novel by first talking about my old job)
(This post is crossposted at The YA-5. Comment here or there.)
Love, when it comes down to it, is not defined by gender, nor is gender defined by love. Love, in my experience, resists definition. It is without boundary, without pretense, without externally-imposed rules. Love makes the rules.
I once had a student – a long time ago – who told me that the term “trans” was too limiting in their particular experience. “Trans,” this kid told me, “assumes a person is transforming from one specific thing into another specific thing.” My student was young – maybe fifteen – with dark, wide-spaced eyes, a shorn head, a fine-boned face and an easy smile. Tattoos on the neck. Lean, ropy muscles. Long, tapered fingers. Painfully thin – a body made of reeds and sticks and dry grass.
“Some of us,” my student said, “are transitioning from middle to middle. A sea of endless middles. And endless possibilities. Gender doesn’t define us. Only love does.”
And so my education began.
Back when I was pregnant with my third child, I got a job as a GED teacher at a drop-in center for homeless youth in Minneapolis. Now, it doesn’t take very much time trolling through Google – its deep undergrowth of studies and statistics and reports, its wide canopy of articles and profiles and sob stories – to know that the stats on homeless kids really, really suck. They’re at risk for HIV and Hep-C. They’re at risk for prostitution and sex trafficking. They’re at risk for overdoses. And violence. And pregnancy. And lifelong poverty. They’re at risk for everything.
Even more at risk? They gay and lesbian homeless kids. Of the estimated 1.6 million homeless kids in America, between 20 and 40 percent of those kids identify as GLBTQ
And even more at risk? The trans kids. A whopping one in five trans-identified children winds up homeless before the time they hit eighteen. And these kids are terribly at risk.
As the teacher at the drop-in center, I saw the kids who chose to come downstairs to my windowless rooms, lit by the strange blue light of my glowing computer screens, to let me poke and prod at their brains, filling in the gaps left by too many self-imposed “vacations” from school, too many schools in general (one kid had been in seventeen schools between the ages of five and fourteen) and too many years when their brains were simply in survival-mode, which left precious little time for learning.
But because they chose, because they wanted their degree – and the paths that lead away from that degree – the kids that I spent my time with were the kids who were poised to beat that statistic. I spent hours and hours with them in my basement domain, drilling them, foisting books on them, quizzing them, and generally annoying them to bits until they were ready to take the test.
Now, in my teaching life prior to that job, I had certainly taught a fair amount of gay and lesbian kids and certainly a LOT of kids who were questioning their sexuality, but I had never had a transgendered child in my classroom until I worked at the homeless center.
And there – well I had many. Now, seven years later, I can call up the names and faces of fourteen different kids. There were probably more.
These were kids who had been kicked out of their homes. These were kids who had been abandoned by their families. These were kids who had loved the people who were supposed to love them forever – and were betrayed.
I loved those kids. I loved them with my guts. (It’s a mom thing, I think. The majority of your emotional energy goes naturally to the individual who needs it most. It’s like a homing beacon for Love Rays.)
I loved that job. I really really did.
Anyway, once I had three kids, I couldn’t make the schedule work, so I had to leave the job, but I found my mind and my heart and my memory pulled back into that experience so viscerally, so completely recently, that I could almost smell the cheap cigarettes and the haven’t-been-washed-in-four-years black jeans and the yesterday’s liquor and Jolly Ranchers that I smelled on those kids every day.
And it was all because of a book.
Last week, I read Brooklyn, Burning, by Steve Brezenoff. And maybe it’s ridiculously cruel for me to brag that I got to read this marvelous, heartbreaking little novel in the first place. I got to read it early because I’m the very very lucky, and the rest of y’all are going to have to wait. Sorry about that.
But holy crap. This book was amazing.
It’s not due out until September, I think, so come fall, I’m sure I’ll be blowing horns and putting out signs and forcing all y’all to open up your wallets and spring for a copy.
My point is this: there are other books that have come out recently – or that are making their way to the surface – that reflect a little part of the Trans experience in America (I AM J, for example. And Luna. And…..there was another one whose title I’m forgetting) (and, really, hallelujah, I say. We need more.) but none that I have read has achieved what Brezenoff has achieved in this lean, textured, lovely little book.
You guys. I loved this book so hard, I can hardly even express it.
Sometimes, you read a book that is larger, richer and more real than the elements that it contains.
This book, for example, has a main character in love with another character, neither of which is identified (nor do they seem to identify themselves) with a particular gender. But this is not a “trans book”, nor is it a “genderqueer book”.
This book has a character in the throws of an addiction, but this is not an “addiction book”.
This book has a teen runaway, but this is not a “teen runaway book”.
This book is a love story……no. That’s not right. It is a love song. And while the love relationship between Kid and Scout defines the arc upon which the story is drawn, theirs is not the only love story being told. It is also a love song to youth. It is a love song to summer, and Brooklyn, and the ecstasy of music making. It is a love song to families – the ones in which we are born into, and the families that we choose. The families of our own making. It is a love song to teeming streets and hot, packed bars, and the songs that grab us by the guts and pull us away.
This is a beautiful book – big-hearted, and tough; clear-eyed and brave. The prose reads insistent as a song, breaking the heart again and again and agin.
Brooklyn, Burning is the story of Kid – sixteen, kicked out of the house, homeless, aching and drunk (on booze, on youth, on music, on grief, on guilt). Despite the fact that Kid’s innocence has been shattered nine ways from Sunday – betrayal, abandonment, loving broken people and being broken in return – Kid is still primarily an innocent. Kid is tender, vulnerable, and despite the many, many flaws, ultimately lovable. And, well, I’m a mother – and my instinct as a reader was to gather that child in my arms and offer my protection and my love. I loved Kid. From the very first page.
And what I most appreciated was the fact that Kid’s story brought me right back to that room in which I hung out with a bunch of teenagers who were just as fragile, just as broken, and just as brave as Kid. I appreciated having the opportunity to experience a love story that transcends gender. To see Kid as Kid sees Kid – that is, without the pretense and limitations of the birth-gender construct – means that we can know that character in total. We understand Kid with no expectations, no assumptions, no baggage. Kid is just Kid – no more and no less, and that was an amazing experience. And what’s more, I was able to experience the miracle and audaciousness of love in the context of the world-view of my beloved students all those years ago. I was able to experience a story of redemption that explores the bright sea of middles between the hard limits of “male” and “female” – where gender does not – and cannot – define people. The only definition that matters is love – and it is boundless, uncontainable and wild.