9 November 2015

What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

What We Left Behind by Robin Talley
Release Date: November 1st 2015
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Add it: Goodreads

I don't really know where to start with this review. All I really know is I was SO excited to read this. There is so little representation of people who identify as genderqueer and I couldn't wait to get my hands on it, but I ended up so incredibly disappointed.

Also to note, for the purposes of this review, I will referring to Toni as'T' as to not spoil anything.

To start with, the writing felt forced and read like a collection of short essays or even a textbook, and there was barely any resemblance of a plot. The plot essentially follows T and Gretchen's first year of college apart from eachother and how this affects their relationship. The plot was incredibly weak and essentially just served as a tool to try and educate readers about being genderqueer or transgender.

I wouldn't normally have a huge problem with this as this is so rarely discussed in YA (or at all), however among the info-dumps about how things can be problematic, was in turn, pretty problematic in themselves.

Now, I understand that this might seem a bit rich coming from the mouth of a cis, straight girl, but I had a lot of issues. One of the main issues I had with this was the misrepresentation of what it means to be genderqueer. From my understanding, genderqueer is a kind of umbrella term for those whose gender identity is outside of, not included within, or beyond the binary of female and male. It is also within my understanding that genderqueer is not PURELY a period in which you decide which gender you belong to. This book implies that genderqueer people just haven't made up their minds about which gender they'd like to be, kinda like how bisexual people just haven't made up whether they like men or women, right? *rolls eyes*

T's friend group at Harvard consists largely of transgender people, and it's fantastic to have such a huge cast of diverse characters, instead of having just one or two here and there. There is a lot of discussion about language and pronouns, which I found somewhat interesting and T spends a giant chunk of the novel trying out several gender neutral pronouns to see what T likes. As a general rule, T hates pronouns, which is fine. However, while experimenting with pronouns and deciding which ones fit best, T also calls everybody by gender neutral pronouns and ends up misgendering as a result. It would be one thing if this was a mistake, but T continues to do so even after being called out on it.

The conversation between T and a transguy in the group, Andy goes along the lines of:
"I never use gendered pronouns at all, I don't want to reinforce the gender binary"
Andy snorts, "Please. Don't be one of those hypergenderqueer people who's always ragging on the rest of us for wanting to look like guys"
"That's not what Toni said at all," Derek says. "Relax, dude."
"I'm just saying, I had to go through a lot of shit to get people to call me he," Andy tells us. "I don't need some kid coming in here and deciding I don't get to just because binaries are evil"

Following that exchange and being called out on it, T continues to call Andy whatever T likes and intentionally misgenders him, among many other people. It's just downright disrespectful to go OUT OF YOUR WAY to misgender someone, particularly after they've asked you not to, and yet T does it ALL. THE. TIME.

Another thing that really grinded my gears was how this book tried to portray feminism. Two of the only cis, straight females in this book (apart from T's sister, Audrey), were straight up transphobic arseholes, but also just served as a platform to have shitty views of what feminism means be thrown at us. According to our main character, feminists aren't allowed to conform to gender roles and aren't allowed to wear bikinis or take photos of themselves in them. God forbid feminists are comfortable with their bodies and want to show themselves off.

Joanna gets up at six in the morning to start a ninety-minute hair care regimen, and Felicia wears designer high heels every day even though they always get caught in the sidewalks. Joanna and Felicia are the ultimate gender conformists. Neither of them has the right to talk about feminism until they stop posting pictures of themselves in bikinis.

Are. You. Serious.

As I previously mentioned, I loved how many diverse characters there were, however I didn't particular like how there is so much animosity toward white, straight people, not because I feel sorry for white, straight people, but because it reinforces the misconception that gay or transgender people harbor hatred toward white, cisgendered, straight people.

As a character, Gretchen grew much more so than T did. I still didn't really like her and I am still trying to figure out why she decided to become best friends with a transphobic gay guy who regularly calls T a "shemale". Not once did Gretchen call him out on his fucking apalling behaviour, and it just seemed so weird for this to be accepted by Gretchen of all people.

I could probably write a 10 page essay discussing why things in this book were problematic and how disappointed I am, but I will stop here. The truth is, I am struggling to put my thoughts together coherently enough to even write this review. I am so beyond disappointed and it worries me that authors or publishers will be hesitant to write/publish more stories about genderqueer or transgender characters because of how much of a disaster this one was. Considering there are no other mainstream YA books out there that tackles this topic, I think Talley tried her best. However, that doesn't mean this wasn't riddled with problems. Misrepresenting people in an attempt to simply include diverse characters for the sake of ticking the "diversity" box, and pumping out these sorts of books because we all want to read books with more diversity, is not the kind of representation that is needed.

Please let me know in the comments if I've made a mistake or need to clarify anything (it was a little hard to put my thoughts together!), I mean no offense but please let me know if I have.

Thankyou HarlequinTeen Australia for providing me with a review copy. This has in no way affected my review

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