CW: Death, grief, mention of suicide.
Extra warning: spoilers ahead, avert your gaze if you do not want spoilers to Alicia Tuckerman’s, If I Tell You, or Adam Silvera’s, They Both Die at the End.
I read two YA books over the Christmas break, and both of them involved the death of a Queer main character: Alicia Tuckerman’s, If I Tell You, and Adam Silvera’s (USA), They Both Die at the End. These are both contemporary fiction, Tuckerman’s heavy on the romance, Silvera’s also with a major romantic sub-plot.
We as a community spent most of 2016/2017 raging hard against the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope (I’m legit still mad about Clarke/Lexa from The 100 TV series). As an industry, we saw more Australian Queer YA’s released in 2017 that didn’t kill off the main Queer characters, and most even had somewhat of a Happily Ever After (HEA). I had almost settled into this safe little space where I expected all Queer YA’s to be chill and happy (oh me). So after reading these two novels, I obviously have some thoughts.
Both of these novels are Own Voices. The anger surrounding ‘Bury Your Gays’ was very much directed at non-Queer writers killing off their only Queer character/s. So where do Queer writers fit into that? Should we not be allowed to write about grief? What if the novel has multiple Queer characters? Does death have a place in Queer YA?
Being Queer doesn’t make you immortal (that’s my next novel idea though, thanks myself). I get that we will all go eventually, but does it have to happen within the space of YA novels in 2018? Are we ready for that? Let’s compare the tactics taken in these two novels for some insight. For clarity, the following musings do not reflect the overall merits of either of these books, this article is intended to analyse the topic of death and how it sits within our industry/community from a critical perspective only.
Adam Silvera’s book, They Both Die at the End, is very up front about the fact that the main characters both die at the end. It’s literally the title of the book and the blurb clarifies that this is the characters final day on earth. Both characters are Queer, but while there is a minor plot thread where Mateo comes out, that is not the main point of the story. The point is to explore what you would do if you knew you had less than 24 hours to live.
Mateo and Rufus decide to say yes to life and yes to love one final time. It’s heartbreaking, obviously, but we also know they are going to die, so it’s less of an angry shock as say the death of Lexa was. I would compare the heartbreak in this to that of John Green’s, A Fault in Our Stars (a non-Queer YA). Incredibly sad, but nobody was angry at Green for killing off his main character (I mean, maybe a few people were, but there was no uprising that I heard of).
Overall, Silvera’s handling of death of his two main Queer characters was good. The story centred more strongly on the characters confronting their fears and trying to go out with zero regrets than a tragic portrayal of the doomed Queer.
The only issue I had with They Both Die at the End, was that Mateo died literally straight after having sex with Rufus (well, they had a nap, but still). This (albeit unintentionally I believe) linked Queer sex to a kind of anti-Queer ‘punishment’ thread reflected by past non-Queer writers. This, as seen in the Lexa/100 case, is where a character does a Queer thing, usually after spending the entire time previously denying/hiding their Queer identity, only to be killed immediately afterwards. In the context of this novel though, I appreciate that Silvera had only a 24 hour window for his story to unfold and perhaps wanted the teenagers to get to know each other for most of the day before having sex, but still, I feel like the story allowed them to realistically have some space between sex and death.
Alicia Tuckerman’s AusQueerYA, If I Tell You, is a contemporary romance that the blurb describes as, ‘… a heart-wrenching story of love in an unloving Australian landscape.’ Turns out the heart-wrenching part is that the main Queer love-interest dies. Oof. I gotta admit, I was unprepared for this.
This book is heavy. The main character self-identifies as a lesbian, but has never come out to anyone. It is not until Alex meets out-Queer Phoenix and starts a relationship with her that she comes out herself. This results in a rough ride for Alex, with homophobia being rife in her small country town and within her own family/circle of friends (mostly).
Then we find Phoenix is in hospital, losing the battle with a chronic, fatal illness she had know about before she met Alex. Only Alex didn’t know. So now we have this main character who has battled through all this awful stuff to live out and proud, pretty much directly because Phoenix told her to/Alex wanted to, you know, hold hands with Phoenix in public and stuff, but then Phoenix dies.
It’s some freaking high drama I’ll give you that.
Now, this is not to say it’s a bad book (and it does have a hopeful ending in a way). It is a well told story, highly engaging in that same way that Fault in Our Stars, or Nicholas Sparks’ A Walk to Remember (non-Queer YA), and other ‘sad romances’ are. We are not here to argue about the merits of sad-romance. This is a legitimate genre of fiction. We are here to talk about how the death of a Queer character can be handled without being problematic in the same way that we can write a non-Queer teenage death (broadly speaking that is. There are still non-Queer YA deaths that are problematic, especially when it comes to suicide).
Tuckerman is on the right track with If I Tell You, but like Silvera, there is still the issue of Alex being put through the ‘punishment’ wringer. I think in the case of If I Tell You, this would have been solved if Alex was at least out to Lin (her best friend, who is very supportive) first, eliminating the whole ‘when I come out bad things will happen’ vibe.
In saying this, it was incredibly brave of Tuckerman to write this in the current literary context. I finished this book a while ago and have been wrestling with my thoughts ever since. It opened my mind up to the notion that death is a very important topic in Queer YA and one in which we as a whole have been avoiding of late.
It is not realistic to only write Queer HEA’s. To erase those stories of grief, loss, heartbreak and all the other darkness in the world would be equally problematic as when there were no HEA’s. There needs to be a balance of both stories. We need Queer YA’s that have happy endings, that have love and hope and laughter. And we need YA’s without happy endings too, BUT…
We need to think carefully as writers, publishers and critics about what we write/publish/throw our support behind.
Queer writers SHOULD be allowed to write Queer (particularly Own Voices, but not limited to) stories about death, grief, homophobia etc. without being criticised in the same way non-Queer writers have been regarding the ‘Bury Your Gays’ debate. These are our stories. They need to be told. By us.
Whether or not they sell is not up to me. I’m not a publisher. I know the current reading trend is for happy endings, but that doesn’t mean that a person can’t write a sad story if they want to. And who knows, maybe our reading habits will swing back in favour of the sad-romance in the future.
The critical framework around the literary death of Queer characters by Queer writers needs to expand to align more closely with non-Queer deaths written by non-Queer writers, while maintaining a zero-tolerance policy for any Queer character deaths by non-Queer authors that are in any way problematic/toxic to our community.
There DOES need to be a shift by all writers, Queer included, to consider how any deaths may reflect the action/punishment dichotomy. It is something so easy to overlook. In the early stages of drafting, the best way to start addressing this in your work is to consider if the ‘bad’ thing is a direct result of a ‘Queer’ thing or not. If it is, and it is not being used to explore homophobia/transphobia/biphobia etc., then you may need to reconsider your plot structure.
For example, take a car crash scene. Did your Queer character crash their car because they were drink driving? Yes? That is an acceptable plot thread. Did your character crash their car because they were making out with a fellow Queer only seconds before they got into said car and were so happy they missed a red light? That is not an acceptable plot thread, do not pass GO, do not collect $200.
I encourage all Queer writers who have the death of a Queer character in their book to run it through a sensitivity reader for this. A list can be found here (myself included).
This is a complex topic, and one I am still navigating as a critic. I know we as a community are still reeling from the damage that ‘Bury Your Gays’ has done. I know we see the deaths of Queer persons on the news every day. I know we all have experiences with grief and loss and that a lot of these experiences are directly linked to our Queerness in ways that are unfair and incredibly painful. I know that when you are a teenager, these emotions can be even harder to process. The solution however is not to stop writing sad stories, but to write better ones.
I have said it before and I will continue saying it again and again for as long as I breathe. These are our stories. We need to be writing them. Queer writers who chose to write about Queer death, should be encouraged to do so.
In time, I do believe we will get to a place where non-Queer authors can learn how to write these stories sensitively, but we are not there yet. We need Queer authors to lead the way by writing stories that show the underlying resilience of our community. That show that there is life on the other side of death. That removes the harmful notion that being Queer means that bad things will happen to you, and instead replaces it with the more realistic, incredibly complex narrative, whereby Queer people die too, sometimes directly as a result of our identities, most of the time from accidents, or cancer, or old age etc., but that just because terrible things are experienced by our community, there is still everything to be proud of, every reason to be your true self and live your life fully and bravely and unapologetically Queer.
Small steps, my friends, but lets embrace this forward motion into the darkness together.
I strongly encourage all thoughts, feelings and discussion on this topic. You can comment below or private message me. We are also on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.