As I Descended by Robin Talley (Harper Teen, September 2016)
I have a longstanding theory that all literature, movies, and media can be improved by adding lesbians. Dante’s Inferno? Would be better with lesbians. Citizen Kane? Better with lesbians. Space Jam? Better with lesbians. Heck, I’d probably finally read David Foster Wallace if he added in some lesbians. As a self-identified Shakespeare nerd, you can only imagine my excitement when I discovered Robin Talley’s As I Descended, a retelling of Macbeth set in a boarding school where both M and Lady M are teenage girls.
The curtain opens on Maria Lyon and Lily Boiten, Acheron Academy’s resident power couple. It’s the girls’ senior year, and there’s only one thing standing in the way of their post-graduation happily ever after: the distinguished Kingsley Cawdor Scholarship. Whoever wins is guaranteed a free ride to any college in the country, and it’s the one thing Maria needs to lock in her Stanford acceptance. But the Kingsley Cawdor Scholarship is all but promised to golden child Delilah Dufrey. When Maria and Lily ask a Ouija board to take Delilah out of the picture, they get much more than they bargained for.
Retellings of classic tales are always finicky creatures. Stay too close to the original, and the writing can feel lazy, more plagiarism than homage. Stray too far, however, and the source material can become unrecognizable, at which point it seems useless and gimmicky to call it a retelling at all. As I Descended hits that sweet spot right in the middle. It’s a unique enough take to make it a fresh, exciting read, but contains enough references to Macbeth that the reader (if familiar with Shakespeare) feels like they’re being let in on an inside joke. The rival soccer team is called “Birnham.” All of the chapter headings are quotes from the play. After (spoiler alert) Delilah Dufrey mysteriously falls from a window, Lily even has a delicious “out, damn spot!” monologue.
The deviations from the original script (as is true with all good retellings) ended up being some of my favorite aspects of the book. There’s the genderbending of Macbeth to Maria, of course, which Talley turned into a study of female ambition that we don’t often see in young adult lit. Maria is also Latina in this version, and Talley beautifully weaves in Mexican folklore, turning the infamous three witches into the legendary and terrifying figure of La Llorona. The rest of the cast is diverse as well; Lily is disabled, MacDuff is Latino, and the MacDuffs are also a gay couple. There’s no reason for any of these “diverse elements” to exist, which makes it all the more perfect. Talley has simply updated an all-white, all-straight, predominantly-male cast to reflect what real communities actually look like.
The other main change is one that may divide readers, but which I absolutely loved. In the original Macbeth (depending on which English professor you listen to), there are supernatural forces at work, but the reader never knows exactly how much of a role they play. Is Macbeth really haunted by Banquo’s ghost, or is he just consumed by guilt? Is there really spectral blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands, or is she simply mad? Did the soldiers really disguise themselves as trees in the end and think that was a good war strategy, I mean, really, Shakespeare? Really?? Regardless, the ambiguity, some argue, allows for a more nuanced discussion of character and how far people will go to attain their heart’s desire. In As I Descended, Talley does away with this ambiguity altogether in favor of a spookier conclusion: there are ghosts at work at Acheron Academy, and the tragedy that results is almost entirely their fault. The ghosts push Delilah out of the window. The ghosts provide an unseen force which kills Brandon (our Lady MacDuff). The ghosts drive Lily to drown herself. I love a good horror novel, and to me supernatural thrillers are just as satisfying as psychological ones, so I had no qualms with Talley taking artistic license in this direction.
In conclusion, Talley worked this retelling masterfully. If she decided to rewrite the entire Shakespearean canon with contemporary (and queer) themes, I would devour each and every book. (Hint, hint, Robin Talley, if you’re reading this.)
Have you read any good retellings lately?
Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin (Balzar + Bray, February 2016)
*A quick note before I begin this post: I, the reviewer, am cisgender. I can’t speak for the experiences or opinions of any trans or genderqueer people reading this book. I have tried my best to review it speaking only to my experiences as part of the LGBTQ+ community, but it is very possible that I have gotten something wrong. Please feel free to reach out to me if you feel that is the case.
Meet Riley Cavanaugh: punk-rock enthusiast, child of a U.S. Congressman, snarky teenager trying to navigate the maze of being a new kid at a public high school. Riley is also gender-fluid, though that’s not something that anyone else knows. When transferring from an all-Catholic private school, Riley starts an anonymous blog chronicling the questions, triumphs, and struggles of life as a genderqueer teenager. Riley’s world is turned upside down when someone from high school finds the blog and threatens to out—and physically harm—Riley.
This book is Pretty Important. It’s an honest first-person narrative of a genderfluid teenager that doesn’t condescend or pull punches. Riley discusses the experiences of discovering what gender fluidity is, dealing with gender dysphoria, and coping with anxiety and depression. It has the potential to show real life genderqueer teenagers that they are not alone, that their experiences are valid and real. The book also talks openly about the extremely high risks that trans teenagers are at for being (at best) bullied or (at worst) sexually or physically assaulted. While most of the discussions that Riley starts on the blog are fairly basic, they’re still important, particularly for people who are only just beginning to understand or explore sexuality and identity.
One of Garvin’s strengths is character development. From our protagonist (Riley) to our love interest (a trenchcoat-wearing lesbian whose nickname is Bec in honor of her large nose) to our intrepid best friend (a Star Wars geek-turned-jock who is perfectly awkard), there isn’t a single character who isn’t fully fleshed out. While the story centers around Riley, most if not all of the characters have their own plotlines and struggles to overcome. You care about them. You cheer when they arrive and cry when they leave. The plot of this novel is not groundbreaking, but it doesn’t have to be. Symptoms of Being Human isn’t a thriller or a crime novel. It’s part of the quintessential coming-of-age genre whose only goal is to reach out to the millions of teenagers struggling with their own coming-of-age.
By this point, we’ve established that yes, this is a good book. Yes, it was important that this book was written. Yes, you should definitely read it. But I believe that all novels are political, and there are some politics that Symptoms of Being Human represents that I can’t ignore.
If you read a lot of YA like I do, you’re probably familiar with the #OwnVoices campaign, an offshoot of #WeNeedDiverseBooks. The idea behind #OwnVoices is that it’s not enough for the same white, cisgender, straight people (or men, if you want to get specific) to be writing “diverse” characters. If we truly want to revolutionize YA, we need to support the voices of authors of marginalized identities as they tell their own stories. While I think it’s incredible that there is an inclusive, informative book published by one of the “Big Five” with not only a genderfluid character but a genderfluid narrator, it did raise a teeny-tiny red flag that Jeff Garvin is a cisgender, straight man. In many interviews, Garvin praises himself for breaking ground in shedding light onto the transgender experience. For example, when speaking to the Orange County Register, Garvin said, “When I pitched the story to my writing group, nobody had ever heard of gender fluidity. I thought, ‘My god, I’ve got to write this.’ And when I pitched my agent, she said, ‘Is this real, or did you make it up?’”
News flash, Garvin: genderfluid people have been around since, well, people have been around. While he may be one of the first with a mainstream novel to do it, actual trans authors have been writing their own experience for years.
To be fair, Garvin certainly did his research. Riley’s voice comes across as authentic, equal parts angsty teenager and curious young person in the middle of becoming. Occasionally, though, he becomes preachy on LGBTQ+ issues that I don’t think he has any right to support or disclaim. For example—trigger warning here for transphobia, abuse, and suicide—one of Riley’s followers is a trans girl named Andie who is afraid to come out to her ultra-conservative parents. Riley urges her to come out anyway, despite the fact that Andie has stated her father is violent. When Andie comes out, her father brutally beats her to the point of hospitalization. Riley’s blog naturally receives hate mail for this incident, which becomes national news, including the stories of several users who have decided to stay in the closet because it is safe. Riley lashes out, condemning them for their fear. Throughout the book, the message becomes: COME OUT, NO MATTER WHAT. Frankly, it’s a dangerous and infuriating message for someone who has never had to come out to be spreading. While I agree that coming out can be freeing and a mentally healthy decision, it’s also never something I would push someone to do if their life was at risk. Never.
What do you think? How to we balance the need for #OwnVoices with the dire need for representation, no matter who writes it?