Niki Bhatia says, Pink is Pink and Blue is Blue: YA Literature argues that Love is Love, and it shouldn’t Matter Who



Through YA literature, authors Miranda Kenneally and Steve Brezenoff promote that love is genderless. Regardless, male, female, gay, straight, or lesbian…the emotions we feel when we love someone are the same. Gender doesn’t matter.

I’ve always been the first to say, “I don’t have a problem with gay people. Lesbian people. Whoever you want to be with, it doesn’t bother me”. Well this last quarter at UCLA, I read Brooklyn Burning by Steve Brezenoff and I learned that it doesn’t bother me when someone is gay, or lesbian, or straight, or whatever…but it does bother me when I don’t know. As a product of society, I’m uncomfortable when I don’t know what someone “is”. Day by day, society makes strides towards acceptance of the LGBT world. However, it’s just that. Why do we have to categorize people based on sexual preference? Why do we need to know?

Brezenoff and Miranda Kenneally, author of Stealing Parker, both use the power of their literature to prove that a relationship is a relationship, and when you love someone, you love them, despite society’s desire to label and distinguish by gender and sexuality.

In Brooklyn Burning the protagonist, Kid, is never identified by gender or sexuality, and neither is “Scout”—Kid’s summer love. Nevertheless, it is obvious that prior to meeting Scout, Kid had engaged in intimate relationships with both sexes. Last summer, there was Felix. He was a drug addicted, rockstar, and he broke Kid’s heart when summer ended. There is also Konny. Konny is Kid’s best girl-friend, but they too, have shared a few “more-than-just-friend” moments together. As a reader it was aggravating, I wanted to know. Is Kid a guy, or a girl? Which way does Kid swing? However, I wasn’t alone. Other auxiliary characters in the text reflect my frustration. Kid battles the stares from others, while walking next to Konny. People wondering what their relationship was, and Dad for example says, “I’ve got the only kid I know who doesn’t know whether to be straight or gay or a girl or a boy or what” (Brezenoff 121). Dad desperately wanted to give kid a label. It didn’t matter what Kid “was”, but he wanted to know that Kid was “something”.

Kid was well aware of Dad’s opinion, “I made Dad uncomfortable, virgin or not . . . maybe it would have helped if I brought someone home so my parents would be able to put me in a box, a check mark on the census form” (Brezenoff 58).

Kid is a heartbroken and homeless sixteen-year-old teenager. A character that is deserted by parents because they don’t know what their kid “is”.  Nevertheless, as the story unfolds, Kid’s relationship with mom is rekindled. She learns to accept Kid—guy, girl, gay, or, straight. More significantly, Mom learns that this information doesn’t actually matter. When her child is hurting from heartbreak, or trying to control the butterflies from falling in love, those feelings are the same feelings she felt at one point. The turning point for Kid comes when mom is finally back, and when Kid and Scout take their relationship public and comfortably display it to the eyes of strangers. Worried eyes were now just meaningless stares. No one mattered, and it didn’t matter if anyone knew; as Kid realized, “We’re in love . . .You can’t hurt us” (Brezenoff 194).

In juxtaposition to Brooklyn Burning, I also read Stealing Parker, which is a completely different novel is terms of addressing gender. The protagonist, Parker, is a teenage girl that paints her nails bubble-gum pink and kisses boys just to prove to others that she likes, boys. On the first page, Parker states the “problem”. Her mom is a lesbian that ditched her family and divorced Parker’s dad, so she could runaway with her “friend”. Later, the reader finds out that Drew, Parker’s best guy-friend is in love with the same guy that Parker is falling in love with.

Without losing its complexity, this text clearly places each of its characters into a category. Parker tries to divorce the feelings that she has for her mom, like her mom divorced her dad, because she doesn’t want people to label her as, “A lesbian, a sinner,” (Kenneally 14) like they have done to her mom. The way the narrator clearly defines everyone, works as a reflection of society. I, for example, was more comfortable reading because I knew what everyone “was”. Even Parker was troubled by Drew, when she didn’t know if he was gay or not. He was her best friend, she would love him regardless, but she wanted to know.

In the end, Mom and Parker revive the mother-daughter relationship that they once shared. Parker realizes that her mom is still the mom she has always loved, with hugs that, “feel like the warmest blanket on the coldest night” (Kenneally 230). Additionally, as Parker is beginning to grow up and experience a new kind of love herself, she apologizes, “I’m sorry . . . for how I’ve acted . . . For judging you. For not thinking about your feelings” (Kenneally 208). Parker realizes that Mom was never trying to hurt her; it was just the way she felt towards someone. Parker learns that despite anyone’s ridicule, “I can do whatever I want” (Kenneally 242). She can love her mom, just like anyone else loves their mom and she can fall in love with Will, just like her mom fell in love with Theresa.

In each of these texts, the protagonist learns that he or she cannot escape society and its power to judge and discriminate. Nevertheless, he or she can do, as Susan Stryker declares in her essay, “My Words to Victor Frankenstein”; “though I cannot escape its power, I can move through its medium” (Stryker). Gender is something one is, “assigned at birth,” (Stryker) but unfortunately, it is also something that allows society to construct gender binaries as the “norm”. The characters in these novels learn that they might not gain everyone’s acceptance, but if they can accept themselves for whomever they choose to be, they will be just fine. Looking through a dictionary of twenty-eight different definitions of love, I did not once see a definition that defined love by gender. Like I realized through the work of Brezenoff and Kenneally, society finds comfort in categorizing people by gender and sexuality. It is easier to label, but it isn’t necessary. Love is genderless.


If I Am Not Like You, Dad and Mom, Then Who Am I? : Revisiting the “Absent Parent” Motif


VENUE: Los Angeles Review of Books

Surely, a world without a constant watchful – controlling- parent would give a teenager the ultimate sense of freedom, right? No authority figure to set the rules or limit the ever increasing need for independence and power. It could easily open up new adventures and experience for a teenager. Typical in YA literature, the absent parent motif merely allows for the quest of the young heroine/hero to occur and develop; however, both Sherman Alexie and Steve Brezenoff invert this motif. Reverting the function of the motif, both authors trigger a change in their protagonists’ individuation, for they now confront a dualized identity. In Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Arnold Spirit must confront and synthesize both diverging Spokane and Reardan halves. Similarly, Brezenoff’s Brooklyn Burning reimagines the teenager’s coming-of-age journey into one of reconciling two different parts of an already ambiguous identity. Both novels reinterpret the absent parent motif as a problematic absence of the home (represented by the parents) caused by the assumption of an outside threat or “other” force destabilizing the home. Such conflict is embodied by the protagonists whose reward comes in returning  home as a new person, effectively constituting his/her independence and identity within an accepting home.

Born with various medical problems in poverty at the Spokane reservation, Arnold Spirit believes that getting a better education will save him from the suffocating poverty; unfortunately, doing so means moving into another social and intellectual world called Reardan. Arnold’s relationship with the other Spokane natives is difficult and, mostly, violent because of his body’s inadequacy to physically support him. From the beginning, Arnold explains: “ I was born with water on the brain… with ten teeth past human” (1). Detaching himself from an alien body that is “past human,” Arnold opts out of using “my,” the possessive noun, for the distant article, “the.” His most useful weapon, as it turns out, is his brain, which he earnestly makes use of to learn and declare his self worth. The surplus of teeth and fluid signal Arnold’s uniqueness, but also, is the logic behind his  peer group’s rejection of him. In choosing to attend Reardan high school, Arnold moves even further outside the boundaries of tradition or the status quo of Spokane reservation. Yet, Arnold is the unifying piece between the “broken dams and floods,” the Spoken world inhabited by his loving albeit defeated parents. The hope he seeks outside of home, he brings back to Spokane at the end. His situation at home is not a healthy or ideal situation, and it pushes him outside the physical boundaries of the reservation into another social world untouched by poverty or violence.

No Direction Home

No Direction Home

The geographical distance from home, not only isolates him from other Native Americans, but it also metaphorically splits him in half. The diverging cultural practices seemingly depict inherently different worlds;  one in which  Arnold is a member of Spokane, and the other provides him with an ambivalent sense of hope, as poignantly portrayed in cartoon of the crossroads (43). At Reardan high school, “whose mascot was an Indian” (56), his existence dims under the shadowy misrepresentation of Native Americanness; so, Arnold enters into this new world as “the only other Indian in town” half existing in this new social world. Arnold travels through dangerous territory when neither place fully accepts him nor his dreams; he wanders in between a liminal state that hinders Arnold’s individuation because he’s directionless.

Similarly, Brezenoff’s protagonist, Kid, experiences a spatial dislocation caused by an already unstable home. Disturbed and threatened by Kid’s ambiguous body, Kid’s father believes he has “the only kid who doesn’t know whether to be straight or gay or a girl or a boy or what” (121). Kid’s own home and parents marginalize and alienate her/him, pushing her/him away from the home into another strange and mysterious territory. Being in Brooklyn is a testament to his fragmented self. While wandering the streets of Brooklyn and facing possible incarceration, Kid realizes that he longs for an accepting home, a place where Kid could be free and safe. Throughout the novel, Kid lives as a dual self. One part of Kid rebels against gender constrictions,  it is the authentic self that cannot be integrated into normal society, according to the father. The other half of Kid’s identity comes in the form of her/his father’s redefinition and labeling of his ambiguous sexuality as “Other.” It is in constant contrast with the other half, because  it is the only kind of gender identity accepted by the home, particularly,  Kid’s father.  In Brooklyn, Kid must cope with the isolating effect of being an outsider, literally being homeless, and reconciling both elements of her/him-self.

Now, both Arnold and Kid cannot forever live on the fringes of an outsider community, because, as both authors show us, it is a painful, dangerous, and lonely world; therefore, both protagonists must undergo what Susan Stryker — in her essay “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix” — explains as “the hard work of constituting [them] selves on [their] own terms, against the natural order.” In Brooklyn Burning, Kid validates her/his self worth by forming a close and romantic bond with Scout. Through the concept of love, Brezenoff strengthens Kid’s true self.  With her/his mother’s compassion, Kid finds acceptance and triumphs over the half that was in conflict with her/his true self. It is a sort of reconciliation, actually, between the part of that desires freedom of expression and the other part that sought acceptance at home.

Alexie’s character takes the distinct parts of his dual self — parts that have emerged out of life at Reardan and Spokane — to “articulate [him]self” and create a new hybrid American. However, acceptance from the tribal members comes at painful exchange; through his sister’s death, Arnold comes closer to his origins, surrounded by members of the reservation in his time of grief. While mourning for his loss, a community united by grief and loss is recreated. In a more permanent manner, Arnold realizes he cannot be just “a Spokane Indian” (217). “I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants,” he says, “I was not alone in my loneliness.” Arnold reclaims his loneliness as independence, a power that will allow him to move to other spaces, while maintaining his Spokane identity. He successfully constitutes the divergent parts of his double identity into a hopeful and unified consciousness inhabiting one body. This new self-made identity allows Arnold to call the whole nation, America, as home, establishing his worth as a true and whole American individual within an accepting space. Arnold is no longer an outcast.

Though both authors treat the absent parent motif in different ways and styles, both acknowledge the powerful effect that its presence in YA literature can have. A return to the home provides that warm and safe feeling of belonging and validation. As a literary motif, the present parent (or home by extension) allows the reader to explore the ways in which origins hinder and facilitate the process of finding our individuality and independence when we are caught between more than one world and not everything is black or white. Characters such as Arnold Spirit or Kid demonstrate that we don’t have define ourselves by pre-existing traditional notions of identity; rather, we can struggle but construct our own selves in a new fashion.