During the month of July, I’ve been participating in #Transathon – a month-long readathon to focus on trans books and support trans authors…
I saw this as a great opportunity to finally read the growing collection of trans books on my TBR. The recent discussions about the #BlackLivesMatter movements and the importance of reading diversely has highlighted to me that I am much better at buying diversely than I am reading diversely, so Transathon was certainly well timed.
One of the Transathon bingo prompts was “Read a book with a non-binary main character” so I selected Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin, a book I received via my previous Queer Book Box subscription. This is a YA novel about Riley, a teenager who is struggling with their genderfluid identity. On their therapist’s recommendation, Riley finds an outlet for their anxiety by writing an online blog about their experiences – until an anonymous troll threatens to out them.
When I began it, I wasn’t sure whether or not the author was themselves non-binary, but made a [questionable] assumption that because I’d received it via Queer Book Box, that even if that was the case, it may still be accepted as a novel with decent non-binary representation. However, after finishing it, confirming that the author is a cisgender man and researching reviews, I have mixed feelings.
After trying and failing to summarise the problems with this book in any way that feels satisfactory, I’ve realised that this is, in itself, linked to the main issue. Jeff Garvin is a cisgender man writing a first-person account about what it’s like to be a genderfluid teenager. I am a cisgender woman attempting to explain why that’s problematic – whose voice is missing here?
I have found several Own Voices reviews which I will link below and strongly encourage you to read them to understand the problems with this book. I should also say here that there were some OV reviews from people who felt very represented and validated by the book that I have also included, and in deeming this book to be problematic overall, I don’t want to dismiss or undermine that in any way.
One of the commonly cited issues was the lack of trigger warnings, so I will also summarise them at the bottom of this post for any who choose to read the book anyway, and please be aware that some of the trigger warnings also constitute spoilers.
4/5 star ratings:
3 star ratings:
1/2 star ratings:
I want to finish with a wider point about how we review books that are about experiences we do not have. All of us should be making every effort to read diversely, not just because Black lives or trans lives are in the media, but because we should be doing it all the time. However, it’s not enough to read these books and pat ourselves on the back that we’re doing the right thing without interrogating what we’re reading.
I was taken aback by the number of reviews from cis readers that described this as ‘fun’, ‘cute’, or ‘adorable’. I concede that the style of writing gave it a ‘lighter’ feel, but be under no illusions – this novel features a LOT of verbal and physical violence and characters in the midst of mental health crises. Yes, there are moments of light relief, but this is not a fun, cute or adorable novel and those kinds of descriptions bely the kind of distance we can have as people with cis privilege – this is not our lives, we will never have these kinds of experiences, so it’s easy for us to view this novel through a lens of comfort and security. While I was discouraged to find these kinds of reviews, I also recognise the amount of times I have done the same – whether it’s not doing my research by seeking out OV reviews or viewing a book that features someone else’s trauma as ‘interesting’ or ‘fascinating’, I need to do better.
To those who would read this and protest “if people didn’t write outside of their experience, so many books wouldn’t exist” etc., please go back and read the reviews I’ve linked to above. One of them, from a Goodreads reviewer named Cal, puts it perfectly:
“I know his heart was in the right place but I feel frustrated that a cis guy is getting the accolades for writing a so-called “groundbreaking” novel about our experience. Like, stay in your lane. I would absolutely love if authors of all stripes wrote nonbinary characters into their works, but writing a book about what its like to BE nonbinary is something people who don’t identify that way shouldn’t touch, and that goes for all minorities really. Include them in your writing, but don’t try to explain the lived experience of what its like to be from that minority group”
Content warnings (contain spoilers)
- Mental health – suicide, suicidal ideation, skin-picking, anxiety, panic attacks, breakdowns, institutionalisation, medication
- Verbal abuse – multiple instances of transphobic language and misgendering
- Physical violence – multiple instances of physical violence against cis and trans/NB characters (mainly the trans characters)
- Sexual violence – one instance of sexual violence against a trans/NB character and other references to sexual violence against trans people