Wednesday, November 7, 2012

REVIEW: ROVING PACK by Sassafras Lowrey, or Why Every Straight Parent Needs This Book

This novel, told in the form of diary entries and email, offers a glimpse into the life of a young person who is gender*-fluid, marginalized, at tremendous risk for suicide, homelessness, and victimization by hate crimes, and who finds a tenuous stability in a loosely-woven community, where individual relationships are fragile but the group itself endures. It's extremely well executed, with a strong narrative voice, easy prose, smoothly handled nuances, and action that moves right along. Ultimately, it's a hopeful story, with resourcefulness and loyalty as well as despair. But it's also a disturbing book.

*Gender (as opposed to sex, which is the plumbing and genetics you're born with, or sexual orientation) affects so many aspects of our lives and how we see each other and the world. We grow up being told we're a boy or a girl and what those mean. (Whether we turn out to like boys or girls or both is another matter.) When a person experiences who they are as the opposite sex from the body and identification they've been given, we call them trans-gendered, as opposed to cis-gendered, when it matches. Some people are neither trans- nor cis-gendered; how they see themselves changes, not only from one sex to the other, but neither, something that does not fit into the tidy binary division. One such person is the narrator of Roving Pack, who over time changes name and gender as well as address.

When I made my way through this story, I became aware that I could not read it dispassionately. I could empathize, using my imagination and my past conversations with gay and trans-gendered friends and family. But everything I myself experience is colored by my own gender identification, which is fixed (as opposed to fluid) and congruent with my biology. I waded through the coarse language, the drug addiction, suicide, disease and promiscuity, trying to reserve judgment, trying to listen to what these kids were trying to tell me, to understand their lives in their own terms.

At times, the characters seemed unable to relate to one another except sexually, often through shifting alliances and games of dominance, and I felt sad and angry because however obsessed with sex all teenagers are, they need love and acceptance even more. I wanted to ask, How can you make permanent decisions about yourself when you don't know who you are from one moment to the next, and you think five months is a long term relationship? I kept reminding myself that this is not my story. I look at it as a mother of two adult daughters, and none of us ever faced what the characters in Roving Pack must deal with on a daily basis.

The voice of the narrator was so strong, and so clearly that of a young person grappling with survival as well as belonging in addition to the upheavals and confusion that are universal to teens. I found the best way to read the book was to let the narrator define the terms, to be aware of my own reactions as mine, and to accept that no matter how understanding and friendly outsiders try to be, we cannot tell the story of these young people. Only they can tell their story.

All kids turn into aliens (or rather, their parents and teachers do) when they hit a certain age. But these kids are not only not on the same planet when it comes to what's culturally demanded of them, they aren't in the same solar system. If we're to build a society that accepts and nourishes all our children -- if we are committed to seeing "that of God" in every single person -- we need to listen instead of dictating.

So listen. And weep. And rage that this should happen to anyone's kids. If you have teenagers, gay or straight, trans or not or in between, read it with them. Pass the book on to your friends. This is important stuff.

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