The other day I explained to a friend that as soon as you meet someone else who is adopted, you instantly have a connection. Regardless of whether you later find out that the person is annoying, a Republican, has bad taste in music, or whatever, you always retain that small semblance of “I am he is me and we are one” because it’s just a thing. You’re both adopted. Obviously you can say that about any shared interest or quality, but I’m fairly sure it’s different when you find someone else who is adopted/Jewish/mixed (and that’s just for me) or shares another quality that makes you different and minority(-ish) status, as opposed to finding someone who, on that day, at least, likes the same types of movies as you do.
So I’m glad to finally see that in a novel. I just read If I Tell by Janet Gurtler, which does a great job of presenting unconventional friendships and relationships that aren’t the normal generic YA ones of popular friend, nerd friend, love interest, goofy guy friend, etc. This is the kind of older YA I like, because it gives a picture of more social maturity than is usually assumed in fiction for teens. Also, it’s always nice when a character isn’t a clear member of a certain social clique–Jaz reminded me of myself and people I went to high school with, where social classes and cliques weren’t as easily spelled out as they are in high school movies (or in bigger high schools). (That, for me, at least, didn’t happen until college, which was essentially another three and a half years of high school.) But I digress.
If I Tell does not at all shy away from big issues relating to race, as Jaz is haunted by a memory of being forced in a pool when she could barely swim, kept away from the edges, while her classmates taunted her for being shit-colored and mixed, essentially. In what seems like a kind of podunk town, she’s sort of doubly tainted, first for not being in the white majority, and second for being an anomaly, because it’s one thing to be one of those people, but it’s another to be just plain weird and biracial. The novel also wins at not making its central plot a cliche I’m-brown-gosh-isn’t-it-hard-to-be-a-minority-in-America? type. AND it hits right on the mark how it can feel to be so almost white that sometimes people forget that they’re not supposed to be racist in front of you, i.e. “‘What?’ Tina said to her. ‘You know what they say about black guys. I’m not prejudiced.'” For more of those goodies, look for the “shit mixed people get” video on YouTube–this is the first book I’ve read that deals with that whole “Well, this is what I think about most [epithet for some kind of minority] people, but you don’t count” thing that plagues anyone mixed or anyone minority in race or ethnicity but not in socioeconomic class. But I’m still digressing.
So there’s this guy, Jackson, and Jaz has this do-I-like-him-or-do-I-not thing going on, and when she finds out he’s mixed, it’s like everything’s a bit brighter. There’s still plenty of drama, but just like I’ve seen in my real life, it’s a connection that can’t be shaken, because it’s an experience so unique and yet so universal in that people who are mixed race and identify as such are still seemingly few and far between (especially in novels, but also in life), but they share so much of the same angst, discrimination, and identity struggles that you don’t need to talk about your experiences to know that the other person gets it. Also, Jackson becomes the first mixed person in a book not about passing to pose a different conflict in mixed race identity: wanting to identify as mixed but looking too white to do it (he’s a quarter black and tells Jaz this to bond with her, and it works, because that kind of bonding ALWAYS works). This sparks various arguments and issues, with Jaz thinking Jackson acts too white guy-y and the bitchy mean girl at school asking if they’re having a little interracial romance, etc etc.
I guess this really terribly written, rambling post is just my way of saying I think this book does a great job of showing how one way to come to terms with biracial identity is to find someone else who shares it, even if the composition isn’t exactly the same.
I’m probably not going to be posting on this much more, because my proposal on this topic just got accepted to the YALSA YA Lit Symposium, so I need to work on doing more of the actual reading and good writing, rather than this. But stay tuned! Cause you never know.