Girl Problems, or something

Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir, by Liz Prince (2014)

Opening line: “No, Mommy!”

From the time she was a toddler (actually, she says from the time she left the womb), Liz knew that she wasn’t like other girls. She didn’t want to wear dresses, she didn’t want to play with dolls, and she didn’t really like playing with other girls either. Her heroes were Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones. She played baseball on a team with all boys (until the day they made everyone put on cups). She very strongly felt that she was more like a boy than a girl, or at least any girl that anyone else saw. And although we have a shared experience of being called a boy in the school cafeteria (thanks for insisting on that haircut, mom), we were horrified for different reasons. Me, because I was most definitely a girl and wanted to be seen as such; her, because she wanted to be able to be seen as herself.

I guess those are similar.

This graphic memoir is such a wonderful contribution to YA lit. Whether you identify with Liz, where your normal is different from what the world tells you is normal, or whether you are confused by all the transgender issues in the news today (to be clear: Liz does not identify as transgender), or whether you are wanting a way to show others that their normal is okay, this book is for you! It gives such an honest portrayal of what we all know is a very confusing time, when all of us try to figure out just who we are and how we fit, and how the image other people see of us is often not how we see ourselves. (Interestingly, the photo of Liz in the author’s blurb looks nothing like the way she draws herself, minus the short hair and glasses. Perhaps the two shall never meet.) Liz is an amazingly resilient character with lots of sass to combat the endless bullying she encounters, a great example for many to aspire to. We need more like her, and more like Tomboy.

2 stars

An epic family tale of gender curiosities

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)

I’ll be honest, the title for this post is a bit of a stretch. And the buzz around this book is too.

The first part is dead-on. It is an epic tale of the complexities of families that stretches three generations and the Atlantic Ocean. But the gender part of it, the part about the hermaphrodite, the part that was the only thing I’ve ever heard about this book, REALLY ISN’T THAT BIG A DEAL.

Let me start over. Yes. The book begins with the hot topic. In fact, the opening lines make you think you know exactly what the story is going to be about:

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petroskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

Intrigue.

Mystery.

And gender confusions.

There is definitely intrigue and mystery laced throughout the tale–one of the things I find enchanting about the book– and while the question of gender does come up now and then, it doesn’t really hit till the last few chapters. Really, most of it is about identity and the complications added to self-identification by immigration, family history, and (yes, finally) gender. Cal (once Calliope) is our narrator, and he directs us through his family’s history starting with his Greek grandparents in Smyrna (in Asia-minor…which is approximately Turkey… I think…) who evacuate their burning village to America.

But TWIST: The whole time Cal describes this situation in Smyrna, he refers to brother and sister Lefty and Desdemona…but the readers know that these are also the names of Cal’s paternal grandparents. Hmm….

And then we hear the story of Milton (Lefty and Desdemona’s son) and Tessie (L&D’s cousin’s daughter). Second cousins (Or is it first cousins once removed? I always get those confused). Who fall in love via the clarinet.

And finally we get the story of Calliope. Who finds herself different from other girls… flat-chested, tall, gangly, period-less, hairs on her upper lip, strong desire to touch her best friend’s stomach… And although she doesn’t know this at the time, the reader knows that her genitalia aren’t quite… female.

So yes. The book is about how the main character is a hermaphrodite due to his family’s strange, interrelated sexual history. But is the story really about gender? No. The story is really about how our identities are shaped by the actions and decisions of our parents and grandparents, by the social upheavals of the time, and most of all, by how we choose to define ourselves.

It’s a thick one, and it lost me for a bit in the second half, but stick with it for one final twist near the end.

2 stars