Whose afraid of the word bisexual? Negotiating the line between representation and realism in YA stories.
(Please note, there is some minor spoilage in this article for the book Points of Departure relating to a romantic sub-plot. Consider yourself warned!)
In my latest book, Points of Departure, one of the characters falls for a girl for the first time. It happens during a four-week trip overseas, where they meet for the first time, in a period that is ringing with change and newness for her. Before this, Olivia has only ever dated and been attracted to guys. But here she is, falling fast and hard for a girl.
I was surprised to find that a couple of reviewers castigated the fact that the word ‘bisexual’ wasn’t mentioned in relation to the character. And more by the fact that in both cases, the omission was touted as a fear of mentioning the word bisexual. Let me start by saying that to my mind, Olivia is bisexual. But that’s not the problem. It’s the fact that it is not stated that’s the problem for these reviewers.
I guess the first question I had was why would I be afraid of the word bisexual? Why be afraid of bisexuality at all?
The second question I had was whether it made narrative sense for this character to state her sexuality out loud at this point?
See, in writing the book I had thought hard about this character’s sexuality. I made a conscious decision about whether she was discovering her lesbianism or her bisexuality, and I decided she would be bi. But I did not say it in the book in the end. Why? It’s simple. Because I decided the character did not know it yet. To me, it did not make psychological or emotional sense for her to be claiming a label just yet.
This is where the tug-of-war between representation and realism occurs. Because as a writer, I want to represent lesbian and bi girls. I especially want to write bi girls because they have historically had a terrible narrative rap. I want to write these stories because can never be enough of them in a creative form that has spent so long ignoring LGBTQ experiences. But I also want these stories to reflect a psychological realism.
My first book, A Story of Now, featured a bisexual main character. It followed Claire’s experiences as she fell in love with a girl for the first time, and then, in the sequel, The Sum of these Things, as she negotiated the first months of their relationship. However, it’s not until months into her first relationship with a girl that Claire declares that she is bi. At this point in the novel, Claire has passed through that initial heady time when you falling hard for someone and sorting out your feelings and what they all mean (the angst!), and has had time to examine what that means in the larger scale of her life and her romantic experiences. It made sense for her to have arrived at a sense of her sexual identity.
The reason the criticism struck me was that for Olivia in Points of Departure, it is less than a week between the character discovering the strength of her feelings for a girl and the point where the story ends. She’s not thinking in definitive sexual categories yet. She’s too caught up in that beautiful terror of falling for someone she never thought she’d fall for. She’s too busy making out with that someone.
I started kissing girls long before I said or thought out loud I was a lesbian. I think it was because sometimes, when we’re young, the two plus two does not always equal four. Or we need two plus two to equal four a few times before we get it, you know? Out of interest, I have been asking my friends about this. And like me, most of them did not experience their first attractions to girls and arriving at a categorical definition of their sexuality at the same time. That, I sometimes think, is the stuff of a rushed plot. Not the stuff of real life.
But I also understand the imperative of representation. And that is where it gets difficult. Is it important to say the word bisexual? It absolutely is. In the grand scheme of writing so many narrative wrongs done to bisexuals in books, television and movies, it definitely is. I don’t think there are enough bisexual characters who are a) at the centre of fictional YA narratives, and b) treated well in those narratives (a great read on this topic appeared today here).
However, I made a decision that I believe is based in a psychological and emotional realism for this particular character in this particular moment. Because I also believe it’s important to show that sometimes it does takes a moment for young people (sometimes a lot more than a moment) to know and claim their sexual identity. This is not a fear or an evasion. It’s a choice. And it’s based on the fact that sometimes when we’re young things happen to us before we know precisely what it means. And I wanted to honour that, too. Because while both Claire and Olivia are bisexual, only one of them knows it yet. And I think that’s okay.
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The A Story of Now Series is available for purchase in hard copy of eBook at Ylva Publishing, or on Amazon.
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