Friday, February 25, 2011

I Am J

Beam, Cris. I Am J. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

Coming out sucks. Whether you're coming out as someone who eats peanut butter out of the jar (and double dips), kind of likes Taylor Swift's new album, or is some permeation of queer, admitting that you fall outside of what everyone around you expects is awkward, emotionally draining, and often terrifying to think about.* Sometimes it just seems easier to go live your life somewhere far away where no one will know you as anything but a queer Taylor Swift loving peanut butter fiend. That's why when J decides that he has to bite the bullet and start living life as the man he knows he is inside, he runs away. His Puerto Rican Catholic mother and his super-macho dad will never understand or accept him. Better to start over on the other side of town.

I was a little scared of this book. I knew that Beam had it in her to realistically portray the transgender experience, so my expectations were super high. I also knew that a book like this has the potential to be filled with well-meaning stereotypes in order to present the most inclusive picture: of trans folk, of Puerto Rican New Yorkers, of the dream of being a "real boy," and more. I loved this book. J really rang true to me as a character and as a transguy, and his experiences, though not universal (thankfully not everyone has to move out or change schools in order to transition, though some undoubtedly do), were realistic. I Am J was everything I hoped it would be.

But I did have a couple of problems. I found it hard to believe that J, who has been looking around on the internet for information and support since he was eleven, hadn't heard about T (testosterone injections) or a (chest) binder until he was seventeen. I'm willing to let that go as it allows the reader to learn about these things at the same time that J does. I don't think it would have been such a problem if the book wasn't so obviously written by someone who, like J's support group leader, "talk[s] about the 'gender binary' and 'those of trans-masculine identification' as easily as reciting the alphabet" (243).** There were so many terms and concepts, including terms that confuse J, that were not defined in the text. A couple of them were even written in abbreviated forms, something that gives me hope that they'll be fleshed out and this won't be an issue in the final copy. Still, Beam is a very very knowledgeable woman, as evidenced by her previous work of non-fiction Transparent. She seemed to have a difficult time balancing her wealth of knowledge with the naiveté of her narrator.

I'm also hoping the list of resources at the back of the book will be more complete in the final copy. I don't think anyone could put together a concise list of resources on any topic, but especially a fairly new (to the public) one like this, that every reader would find complete. That said, I was still dismayed to see only female-to-male resources, especially as the separation between ftms and mtfs is bemoaned by Beam's characters. I was also sad to see TYFA (Trans Youth Family Allies) left off the list. Though their main focus is on kids much younger than J, the ladies at TYFA are rockstars at convincing school administrators of the necessity of single-serve, gender-neutral bathrooms for the safety of all students, not just those that are transitioning. Though bathroom issues are only briefly touched on in I Am J, they are some of the most distressing of day-to-day concerns for many gender-variant people, and organizations or websites that help gender-variant youth deal with these problems belong, in my opinion, on the list of resources in the back of this book.

This may look like more criticisms than praise, but it's really not! I loved I Am J, and I applaud Beam for taking on the issue of transitioning in the context of cultural and familial expectations, and the fallout from not meeting those expectations, in an accessible and authentic way. Not to mention that she wrote a pretty great story of a teen trying to find his direction and place in the world, regardless of all the issues that J has to deal with. I think this is a must buy for libraries serving youth; it's Luna for the guys.

I Am J comes out March 1st!

Book source: ARC provided by the publisher.

* By the way, now you know all my secrets.

**Quotes and page numbers are from an uncorrected proof and may not match the published copy.

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MissA said...

Ah that's a tough dilemma for an author, having so much knowledge that you want to share but trying not to infodump on your reader! But yes, in this day and age, the fact that Jeni never starte researching on the Internet till now is a little sketchy.

I like that the main character of this book is Puerto Rican because many Latinos have serious issues with gay people, let alone transgender people. I think I'm going to cry when I read this and it doesn't even really sound like a tearjerker but I always get upset about stories where people are loners because of something that's not their fault.

So glad you loved this book though :D

Lawral the Librarian said...

The Puerto Rican element was handled really well, in my opinion. I thought J's mom's reaction was pretty realistic without straying into too much sterotyping. Plus, other people's reactions help to balance everything out.

And yes, you may cry! But it's still worth it (and ends with a happy outlook).

Lee Wind said...

what a great and thoughtful review - thanks!