Creator Corner: Interview with Ji Strangeway, Author of Red as Blue
This past month has been unexpectedly refreshing creatively, and I’m so excited to offer you all another new installment of my Creator Corner series, where I sit down and talk with original content creators about their work. Fresh on the heels of my interview with writer, actor, and author of the graphic novel Journey to Gaytopia, I was given the opportunity to talk with Ji Strangeway, film director, writer, poet, and author of the soon-to-be-released hybrid graphic novel Red as Blue.
Her debut novel, Red as Blue is set in a fictional Colorado desert town in the 80s. The story follows 15-year-old June Lusparian, a Mexican-Armenian teen struggling to make sense of everything—her life, her sexuality, and her future. Touching on numerous settings and themes ranging from the LGBTQ community to the punk rock scene to the Reagan Era and high school shootings, the book features elements of the prose novel, screenplay, and graphic novel illustrations. It’s a story about finding hope and the transformational power of creativity in overcoming adversity. It’s about the power of love rather than the love of power. And a punk rock girl who falls in love with the cheerleader, who loves her back.
Gretchen: With all the options out there for telling stories, how did you decide on a graphic novel?
Ji: Well, it’s a hybrid novel, not a pure graphic novel. And the reason it came about is because even though I’m pretty well read, I’ve always hated reading. It’s really more of a mechanical problem than it is a content problem. I’ve always had a problem with staring at 100 to 300 thousand words. That never made sense to me, and I can totally relate to why a lot of people don’t like to read. People say our generation or the new generation hates reading, and they look down on us. But people didn’t figure out until social media got big that it has nothing to do with the fact that we hate reading; it’s just that our minds work differently. Our minds are much more fluid and visual and we need different things out of reading that books can’t always give to us.
The reason I created a hybrid is because I’ve always wanted to read a book the way I would like to read it. When I sat down and wanted to write this novel, I almost quit because I couldn’t write the way you’re ‘supposed to.’ So I said, fuck it, I’m just going to work with a really good editor who is also my friend, Michael Mann. He’s absolutely brilliant; he’s an author who’s taught creative writing and graduate studies in feminism and rhetoric. Michael helped me break rules in a way that’s not so experimental that it would be problematic for my first novel.
I thought about all the different mediums of writing that I love—I write screenplays, too—and I took stuff from screenplays, from prose novels, and from graphic novels. And I noticed that with every one of those mediums, there’s something about each one of them that I consider to be completely useless. I only took from them what I liked and everything else that didn’t work, I threw away. So that’s how my hybrid came about. It’s completely my own invention.
It’s all about efficiency for me. I don’t know if it’s because of my film background, but one of the things my directing teacher said to me was, “Get it up, get it in, and get it out.” I don’t know if that was meant to be pornographic, but it was intended for the economy of filmmaking. You get in there, you get your shot, and you move on because you have budget involved. That probably isn’t the best way to describe it because the efficiency isn’t about rushing the process, it’s just about ‘why do I have to suffer through this particular process of reading when there are other ways of doing things?’
G: Speaking of your process, how did you decide on which elements you wanted included in the story? Are there certain aspects you only did visually or only in prose, for example?
J: That part was actually very easy for me. It was intuitive, a lot of common sense. When I read novels, there are things about them that I really love, like that slow creative process of loving words, going deeply into that dream space where you can marinate and take your time. But there are things that are kind of masturbatory. Do I really need that much detail? Is it for you, the author, or is it for me, the reader? And that’s when the efficiency part kicks in for me.
There are other aspects of the rules of novel writing that weren’t really efficient. I don’t really want to figure out where we are in the story, location-wise. As a writer, I also don’t want to deal with describing to you how I left the room and ended up in a restaurant. It’s hard for me to do, and it really doesn’t matter. So, I took away the whole problem of interiors, exteriors, and location and just used a cyber-texting way of doing it efficiently, which is using the @ symbol and #. You know, like, “@Paradise High School #Cafeteria.” Right away you’re there.
That is actually borrowed from screenplays, but I didn’t want to write a screenplay so I created my own way of shifting locations.
The graphic novel part is very interesting to me. I love graphic novels, but I think I can only handle one page. It’s kind of visual overload. Just as a book can give you an overload of hundreds of thousands of words, the magic of looking at a picture kind of gets lost when the whole thing is images. I’m sure people who love comics would disagree, but I don’t read comics. I can’t read a page filled with images and thousands of word bubbles.
What I love about graphic novels is the imagery and ability to immerse yourself in an image that words fall short of. It was only after I sat down and drafted out the scenes that I looked at the images and realized that they are more like portals than they are explaining the story. You’re reading the novel, but then you take kind of an Alice in Wonderland-type excursion into an image, and it puts you deeper into the world I’m talking about. So, they’re used sparingly in places I thought were needed instead of doing a full-on graphic novel.
Those are some examples of the techniques I invented and used. Oh, I also want to mention one other thing about novels that I find utterly useless, which is that I don’t really see the point of “he said, she said, she replied, he explained.” I don’t see any purpose for that! That’s where screenwriting is brilliant, because you just have the name of the character and they talk. What’s beautiful about it is that you don’t have to know that the character is screaming. When an actor reads a screenplay, they imagine how a character would speak based on the words they say.
The whole experience altogether opens up your imagination and allows the reader to do more of the imagining, kind of like an actor would do when they read a screenplay. They’re doing more imagining and filling in the blanks rather than me having to say exactly what a character looks like when they talk. So when I do describe how someone looks, it’s because I really need you to know it!
That’s the kind of efficiency I’m talking about.
G: You’re giving your reader more agency to participate in the creative storytelling because they’re supplying their own interpretation of how things are said.
G: That’s really cool, I like that a lot. Speaking of what to include, the graphic novel is set in the 80s. Was that purely an aesthetic choice or is there some other significance to it?
J: I’m curious why you asked me that question, and I really love that you asked it. So, I’m going to answer assuming I know why you asked it.
There is nothing more irritable to me than when I see a new book, movie, art exhibition, or anything coming out that is 1980s just to be hipster cool or trending. It seems like when you look back in history, people love doing things that are set 20 or 30 years previously because it’s ‘cooler.’ At times, it just seems to be a fashion statement. I don’t know why that is, but you can always tell when someone is telling a true story about a particular era or if they’re just trying to be cool. I just want to say, I’m not a hipster and I’m not hipster cool! I’m just real, or I like to think I am.
Red as Blue is born purely out of the 80s. It’s really important that I talk about the 80s because anything before the internet was the dark ages. Unless you were part of the ideal at the time—blonde, big boobs, drove a Mustang, ran with kind of a Barbie and Ken crowd—unless you had a Brady Bunch family and all those Americana-type things, you were invisible. You were excluded. You weren’t part of the American narrative. You were not considered American and because of that, it permitted a lot of hatred and prejudice.
That was the 1980s for me; it was completely dark. This story comes out of that darkness, and I think because it was so dark, it also brings a lot of the beauty with it. The strange beautiful light that came with the alternative music scene and the post-punk movement that completely shaped society up to today.
The 80s were so critical because we were fighting for our lives. Listening to music was war, because if you didn’t like Bon Jovi or Bryan Adams, you got shit for it. If you listened to Depeche Mode? You’re a fag. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it was. Music was war. The stuff that we were listening to that was alternative was a form of—we didn’t know it at the time because we didn’t think about it—but it really was pure activism. Not political, but we were living it. We were walking targets.
So, the way my book captures the 80s is more like a redemption of the 80s that never were for a lot of people.
G: Shifting the topic a little bit, what inspired you to start writing?
J: Survival. I’m Vietnamese and was born in Laos, so we didn’t come here by choice. We came here as refugees, running away from a violent war and being displaced. We came to this ‘America the beautiful shithole’ because it was the promised land, the dream, the place that refugees go to do be safe and welcomed. But it wasn’t that way at all. My whole life was filled with “Go back to where you come from” or “What are you eating, dog?” Every name that you can think of, I was called every single day. I was completely torn down and ripped apart every single day by the environment and even by the other people who were oppressed, the Mexicans. They were treated like second-class citizens in Colorado where I grew up.
Then, moving to the suburbs, I got the same thing from the white, Christian culture except they were more awful with it. They didn’t say it to your face, they said it behind your back. I said, “I can’t handle this.” If I’m going to have racism, I’d rather have someone punch me in the face than say something behind my back because that’s just a slow, gnawing cancer. It’s just so painful.
I started writing for survival. I didn’t write because I was a writer, I couldn’t even spell. I was almost completely illiterate to be honest. All the kids around me were speaking slang. That’s why the character in my novel says ‘ax’ [instead of ‘ask’]. It’s not because I was trying to make my character weird, it’s because that’s how we were talking. We really were ‘axing’ people stuff.
I started writing through journaling, and it was something that I did instinctively for survival. I didn’t realize it was saving my life. The type of journaling I did wasn’t diary writing: “Dear Diary, today I bought some spandex at the mall.” It’s not that. It was going so deep into yourself and healing yourself and having someone to talk to because there was no one else who could understand you because they weren’t having your experience. I wrote so much that I was filling up Mead notebooks; whether they were 80 or 120 pages, I’d fill them up both sides. I was furiously, furiously writing.
I continued writing, and it evolved into poetry, then it evolved into essays, then it evolved into creative writing. It carried me through everything I did, including filmmaking. Because a good story has to come from writing, it doesn’t come from actual filmmaking.
So, it’s really interesting because writing has always been with me even though since childhood, I’ve pretty much been a visual artist. It’s interesting that I’ve kind of ignored writing but it was actually always there, and it took me this long to realize that I’m not a bad writer.
G: Given your personal experiences, talk to me about the importance of representation of marginalized communities. How did that shape the story you tell in Red as Blue?
J: The first thing is, I grew up in the housing projects of Colorado. It’s really upsetting to me that for the longest time, even up to today when I tell people that I grew up in the ghetto, people laugh. They think that Colorado is Aspen, Telluride, and film festivals. And that’s exactly the problem. There aren’t enough stories talking about your environment, and if you don’t talk about your environment or don’t tell your story, you’re invisible.
To describe this environment that June lives in would disturb a lot of people who haven’t heard about the place that she lives in. They might think I’m making all this up. But for those who have grown up in these Chicago-kind of neighborhoods or Mexicans struggling to be American but not—and I was strangely a part of that environment—it’s real. People tend to think it of it as fiction. But, when you tell the stories of these kind of communities, it brings people together and it educates others. They realize, for example, that Colorado, at least the Colorado I grew up in, isn’t just skiing and sunshine.
G: What do you want to see more of when it comes to depicting queer and non-white characters?
J: I’m not sure how to answer that question, because when I’m writing about LGBT characters, I’m not thinking about race. I’m usually thinking about what makes a character different. I think the core of a lot of the problems we have in this world, and especially in America, in terms of accepting one another is the differences, regardless of what race or gender we are. For me, I’m interested in characters who have some form of ‘otherness.’ I guess in political terms the word is intersectionality, but I don’t even know how to spell that word, much less how to use it!
But I like otherness. And in terms of otherness, it doesn’t even matter what—if we’re black or white or gay or straight. When we see that otherness in a person and we connect to them, it opens up our consciousness and our hearts. And that’s the part in us that destroys stereotypes. When you meet someone and experience their otherness, you see them as a human being. Like when you read stories about a Mexican in a white world or a lesbian in a straight world, or even worse in a straight male-dominated world, you start to learn what it’s like to be that person. When you experience a person’s otherness, you relate to them no matter how different they appear on the outside. That otherness is more important than anything else for me when it comes to writing characters.
I love that my main character is Armenian-Mexican, but her otherness is that she’s also gay. And her real otherness, her true otherness, is that she’s real, innocent, and incorruptible. And the girl that she falls for, and that falls for her, is a white cheerleader. But her otherness is this beautiful capacity to see through skin, class, and gender; she’s a beautiful girl because of her otherness.
So, more important than creating non-white, LGBT characters is if you can do it and still show this otherness. That really is what I’m going for when I write characters.
G: Is there anything out there—in film, television, or print media—who, for you, is getting it right in one way or another?
G: Blunt answer, I like it! In what way?
J: Well, I have only myself to blame because I’m one of those artists that other people hate. I find artists, whether they be a filmmaker or a writer or a visual artist, hate this about me more than non-artists. I don’t keep up with what other people are doing, and I never have. They get really angry with me if I don’t know who a particular author is or filmmaker or painter.
I don’t keep up with what’s going on in the world because I am one of those artists who gets everything from within. I really do. I’m not saying that to be special. I don’t see any reason to look at tons and tons of stuff and then emulate or imitate it. Everything that I do is coming largely out of my imagination and experiences. Anything I truly need to know about makes its way to me because it’s meant to be and is often a synchronicity.
So, I really am to blame for not knowing what’s good out there. That’s why I answered ‘no.’
G: So, it’s really more ‘I don’t know,’ rather than just ‘no.’
J: Yes! More like I don’t know. But I have to say that we live in a super diverse world, and there’s no one size that fits all. There’s not one lesbian film that fits all lesbians. I made a film, and a lot of lesbians probably can’t relate to it, because my films tend to be art films, more European style. They’re not the stuff you see on TV or mainstream filmmaking.
The only way you can get it right is to get it right in your niche market. And if that niche market catches fire, then it becomes accessible to the mainstream and to more people, which is great.
I don’t want to spend time naming names or bagging other people’s work, but one thing no one is getting right in terms of lesbian films is that I’m offended when men make lesbian films or even dare to write a lesbian story. That is so offensive to me, and they should be ashamed. People can have a lot of arguments around it, and it’s true, an author, director or anyone talented can make anything brilliant. But I haven’t examined this enough to be able to describe how sick it makes me feel. It’s just so offensive.
G: Red as Blue touches on the very sensitive topic of school shootings, which seems more relevant now than ever. What led you in that direction and why do you think it’s important to tell this story in media for teens and young adults?
J: First, I want to say that I thought it was really eerie that the Florida MSD shooting happened right when I started promoting the book. That was strange because for the longest time, I wanted to talk about homicidal teens and high school shootings somehow, in some way, in storytelling.
At the time that I was developing the story, nobody understood why the hell I was writing a teen love story with this stuff in it. I just felt like it needed to be told, but it needed to be told not as a focus. When people write or create stories about Columbine or high school shootings it’s always focused on the violence and on the mind of the killer. I’ve always felt that this isn’t the right way to go about it. The only way that we can heal society in terms of waking them up to why these things are happening is to open up their hearts. And that’s why it has to happen in love story.
The message I want to get across with the school shooting happens in the background of the society that my character June lives in. Ever since Columbine happened, I’ve been disturbed by high school shootings, and I sprinkled it in the story’s background in a way to show the societal cancer behind that shooting. When you look at the story and you see all the bullying, violence, hatred, and all these kids acting kind of Lord of the Flies in a 1980s way, and with the heavy white male patriarchal Christian consciousness going on in the time—all of that is the cancer going on underneath. That’s what is causing these kids to go berserk. I didn’t make it so I’m hitting you over the head with that message, but that’s really what I’m trying to show. To show the youth that they’re not the problem, society is the fucking problem.
And that’s what’s happening today. The youth are standing up because they didn’t have a voice back then. They were supposed to be obedient, listen to authority, and do what adults say. They didn’t have the media outlet to say anything and they were so used to being pacified, to shutting up and letting adults tell them about their experiences. So the cancer continued to grow. I was so pissed when I saw these so-called experts talk about the youth experience on the news. I was like, “Fuck you. You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. You’re the ones who caused these problems.”
Even back in the late 90s, if you dared to say that, you’d get shit for it. Nobody wanted to believe that religion was behind it or that society was fucked up. You couldn’t question authority. What’s happening now is that the cancer has grown so huge that it can’t be ignored anymore. Gun control is not the problem; gun control is just a massive, most obvious tumor. The kids—thank god for the kids. Social media has enabled them to take over and to show the adults that they didn’t know how to raise them. Basically, the kids have been raising the adults since Columbine because no one did shit for them.
That’s what I’m going for in this novel, and I’m so happy that in some strange way whatever is happening right is so true to what I dreamed of when I was writing this. The youth is so inspirational.
G: What do you hope teens reading your story walk away with?
J: How can I answer that without being kind of cheesy?
G: Be cheesy all you want!
J: I think I’ll stick with something simple and important to me since the time I made my short film “Nune.” It’s an adaptation and millennial version of Red as Blue in compacted form and takes place in modern times.
What I was going for there is the same thing I’m going for here with the book, which is that I want to show teens that no matter how dark, or how hard things are, or how invisible you feel, it is always worth holding onto your highest ideal. You need your highest ideal to save you and pull you through. In this story, the highest ideal was love for one another. And aside from that, for June, her highest ideal is to make music. For Beverly, her highest ideal is being good at what she does, which is sports.
But you have to have ideals. And if you don’t have them, you have to create them, because you have to hold onto something. That’s your life raft. That’s the part that gets you through, especially when the world gets fucked up and you have all these adults who don’t understand you and try to derail you and tell you you’re wrong about things when you know you’re right. You know you’re right when you’re holding onto that ideal.
G: What’s coming up next for you? Any other projects you’re working on that you’re excited about?
J: I’m just focused on promoting the book. I think I need to take a vacation and clear my mind to work on my next project, which will likely be a novel. More than likely it will be something transcendental, and probably female-centric and more than likely LGBT.
G: Thanks again for taking the time to talk with me; I’m so excited for the release of Red as Blue!
J: Thanks for interviewing me, it’s been really cool!
Red as Blue comes out May 15th and will be sold at all major online retailers in both ebook and print. Preorder begins March 27th, which is just around the corner, so get ready to reserve your copy! You can also ask your local library or bookstore to order a copy.
Images Courtesy of IDKL Media and GYATRi Media; Artwork by: Juan Fleites
Object of Desire Thrills and Chills
Full confession, I love murder mysteries and crime thrillers. I grew up on crime procedurals and British murder mysteries by Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and the like. As an adult I graduated from the tamer Perry Mason and Murder, She Wrote that my mom preferred to the more gruesome Law and Order: SVU, Criminal Minds, and CSI. However, my love for crime stories still remains, just see my enjoyment of Dark. While I enjoy the occasional romance, thrillers and mysteries are more my pace for summertime reading. Over the weekend, I sat down with Dal Maclean’s brand new release from Blind Eye Books: Object of Desire. It’s a story filled with mystery, angst, and thrills, though also with its share of drawbacks.
A Brief (Spoiler Free) Rundown
Tom Gray is one of the world’s top models—an effortless object of desire. Self-contained, elusive and always in control, he’s accustomed to living life entirely on his own terms. But when Tom comes under suspicion in the gory death of his employer, his world spirals into chaos.
Someone’s framing him. Someone’s stalking him. And as old secrets come to light, Tom finds his adversary always one step ahead.
Will Foster is the only man Tom trusts to help. But Tom brutally burned all bridges between them two years before, and Will paid a bitter price. If he wants to survive, Tom must prove his innocence to Will—and to the world.
The Good Stuff
As a thriller, it’s quite good. I’m not surprised by much, but there were several moments where I was caught by surprise with a reveal. I can’t say more without getting into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say, it caught me off guard more than once, and that’s truly high praise from me.
But does the ending resolution satisfy? That’s the big question with a mystery novel: is the revelation of the villain and how they accomplished their heinous crimes satisfying? For Object of Desire, the answer is yes, with caveats (that I’ll get to later). The revelation itself truly satisfies. The book twists and turns its way to the solution in a truly gratifying series of unmaskings. Just when you think you know, you don’t. A whole closet full of shoes drops over the course of it, and I loved reading it unfold. Whatever else I may say about Object of Desire and Maclean as an author, she writes one hell of a thrilling mystery story.
For a good thriller, you have to feel for the protagonist. You need to like them, worry for them, and always feel like the threat of danger is both real and unwelcome. Thankfully, Tom is likable. He’s appropriately flawed, by which I mean his flaws are appropriate to his job and the way those flaws work themselves out in his relationships never get in the way of relating to him. He’s a teensy bit of a stereotypical no-strings-attached model type, but his backstory provides enough context that it never feels flat or lazy. The push-pull of his dynamic with his ex, Will, and the two other men in his life—Nick and Pex—is believable. Plus, it’s great angst fodder, and I am a huge fan of angst.
In fact, I adore it. The slow burn romance/angst between Will and Tom in Object of Desire provides just enough release from the mystery while also furthering it. She really makes you want it, and it hurts so good. Maclean integrated the romantic subplots well into the overarching thriller plotline. When I’m reading the mystery, I want more romance, and when I’m the romance sections, I want more mystery. So, long story short, she did her job well intertwining them to where they mutually enhance each other.
All of the primary characters felt well fleshed out and round. All the men may be suspiciously gym-built, handsome, well-manicured, and sport full, lush, pouty lips, but who cares? That’s part of the men-loving-men (mlm) fantasy of it all. Every male protagonist—and some of the antagonists—are sexy and dtf, and that’s part of the aesthetic. It may not be my personal aesthetic, but this isn’t really for me, a queer woman. I can say, though, that for gay male readers, I can see how this would be super fucking hot to read.
I also really enjoy the casual gayness of the book. Almost all the primary characters are explicitly queer and quite a few of the secondary ones as well. Tom having a married woman-loving-woman (wlw) couple who live next door and help take care of his cat John utterly delighted me. Queer ladies and gents supporting each other ftw! Oh, and bisexual male love interest? Yes, please. I don’t know how normal it is for bi male character to exist in gay thrillers, but seeing one made me over the moon. Bi male rep is so rare, so good job Maclean.
Here come the chills; like the hot water tank running out of hot water right at the end of the shower, it diminishes, but doesn’t destroy my overall enjoyment of the book. I’ll start with the caveats to the resolution I mentioned at the outset. First, I didn’t particularly enjoy the use of a certain Hitchcock film as an inspiration, but that may be because I’ve seen it used multiple times in other crime shows. As I said, I’ve been pretty deeply immersed in crime procedurals and mystery novels for decades. This may be one of those your mileage may vary moments.
My biggest struggle with the resolution of the story followed a thread that I’d picked up on early on in the novel with regard to women and mental illness. Again, it’s kind of spoiler-y, but I’ll just say that when your cast of female characters is fairly small and three of them are mentally ill/unstable, obsessive, jealous, controlling women ruining queer men’s lives, I’m uncomfortable.
When it comes to the erotic sections, I’m not sure how to comment. As a queer woman, and one with highly specific taste in smut, I’m not the best person to judge. This isn’t smut that’s for me, after all. I actually hesitated in putting this under potential drawbacks because my quibble isn’t so much with the events as with the writing of them. I will say that the scenes felt well placed and paced and the emotional weightiness was on point.
However, some of the descriptions didn’t work for me. I’m not sure anybody’s skin can be described as “dusky rose gold,” for example—especially if the rest of their skin is olive toned. Some of the anatomical movements and mental reactions bordered on unpleasantly painful sounding. (Is having one’s balls turned inside out during an orgasm really a feeling that someone can have? And if so, is it desirable? To me that just sounds awful.) This might just be a me thing, because I prefer less…vivid descriptions of body parts and movement, even in my f/f erotica, so your mileage may vary.
I also wished that the author had cut her exposition and scene description in half. As more of a visual person, I find long, overly-complicated descriptions of clothing, rooms, and scenery distracting. Others might not find it so, so take that with a grain of salt. Still, the prose leaned toward purple at times, especially with the use of color words and adjectives/adverbs. Such of flowery descriptions purely for their own sake confused the tone and didn’t fit with Tom’s vocabulary. Thankfully, it wasn’t pervasive.
However, Maclean truly excels at dialogue. My favorite moments were where characters would just talk to each other, as she has a way with characterizing them through word choice. So, I wish we’d gotten more of use of dialogue and less use of over-long descriptions.
Final Score: 7/10
Object of Desire offers truly delightful thrills and an endlessly twisty mystery that will leave you on the edge of your seat. Despite suffering at times from purple prose and overly extended descriptions, the book balances romance and mystery well. And, while there may be unfortunate implications in the handling of certain female characters and mental illness, I found the rest of the characters to be delightfully flawed and complex. Overall, a good read and one that I feel comfortable recommending to my friends interested in this genre.
About the Author
Dal Maclean comes from Scotland. Her background is in journalism, and she has an undying passion for history, the more gossipy and scandalous the better. Dal has lived in Asia and worked all over the world, but home is now the UK. She dislikes the Tragic Gay trope, but loves imperfect characters and genuine emotional conflict in romantic fiction. As an author and a reader, she believes it’s worth a bit of work to reach a happy ending. Agatha Christie, English gardens, and ill-advised cocktails are three fatal weaknesses, though not usually at the same time.
Her first book, Bitter Legacy, was a 2017 Lambda Literary Award Finalist for best Gay Mystery and was chosen by the American Libraries Association for their 2018 Over The Rainbow Recommended Books List. You can find Dal Maclean on Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and her website.
Note: The author of this review received a copy of the book in exchange for a free and honest review.
Images courtesy of Blind Eye Books
Get Ready for a Summer Rom-Com, Queer Girl Style
Summer is right around the corner, and you know what that means: summer reading! Books by the pool, books to take on vacation and relax with on the airplane or bus. Summer is a time for lighthearted, brain-candy stories like action flicks, superhero movies, and rom-coms. Other than Valentine’s Day and Christmas, summer is basically prime rom-com season. And for women loving women (wlw), that means…we got nothing. Rom-coms and stories of young summer love are by and large straight and heteronormative, unfortunately. But there’s hope! Because I just finished The Summer of Jordi Perez and I can say definitively that if you’re looking for a queer story of summer love, plus sized fashion, friendship, and a fat, queer girl falling in love with a cool, artsy girl, this is it.
A Brief (Spoiler-Free) Run-Down
Seventeen, fashion-obsessed, and gay, Ibby Ives has always been content playing the sidekick to other people’s lives. While her friends and sister have plunged headfirst into the world of dating and romances, Abby’s been happy to focus on her plus-size style blog and her dreams of taking the fashion industry by storm. When she lands a great internship at her favorite boutique, she’s thrilled to take the first step toward her dream career. Then she falls for her fellow intern, Jordi Perez. Hard. And now she’s competing against the girl she’s kissing to win the coveted paid job at the end of the internship.
But really, nothing this summer is going as planned. She also unwittingly becomes friends with Jax, a lacrosse-playing bro-type who wants her help finding the best burger in Los Angeles, and she’s struggling to prove to her mother—the city’s celebrity health nut—that she’s perfectly content with who she is.
Just as Abby starts to feel like she’s no longer the sidekick in her own life, Jordi’s photography surprisingly puts her in the spotlight. Instead of feeling like she’s landed a starring role, Abby feels betrayed. Can Abby find a way to reconcile her positive yet private sense of self with the image others have of her?
The Good Stuff
The Summer of Jordi Perez by Amy Spalding has everything a good summer rom-com needs: a compelling female protagonist who wants love but isn’t sure she believes it will come true for herself, a cool, seemingly out-of-reach love interest, a best friend with a new boyfriend who is kind of unsure of this new cool girl, a new friend looking for relationship advice from the girl who can’t seem to find love. And burgers. (The best rom-coms have food be a major theme, in my opinion.)
Plus, readers of fanfic and lesbian fiction will welcome the subtle use of tropes we’re familiar with from those genres: tol/smol, blonde (well, pink-haired, but Abby’s a natural blonde)/brunette, opposite styles, one bed job they’re trying to share. In many ways, it feels like the perfect hybrid of romantic comedy and fanfic—and I mean that as a compliment.
When I started reading, I could immediately think of friends I would recommend this book to. It’s very much within the aesthetic of so much of the fiction my friends read, but it’s mainstream and it’s a summer rom-com—just the kind of story that we wlw rarely get to see. One of the best parts of the book is how cinematic it felt. Maybe it’s just because I’m so visual and tend to ‘watch’ books while I read them, but I could picture this book playing out on screen as a summer teen blockbuster rom-com no problem. It has all the right beats and pacing for a film but works super well as a book, too.
Spalding does an excellent job capturing the tone and voice of teen romance. Yet, even as an adult I found Abby relatable. Partly because I felt like the sidekick who’d never get my own romance growing up. Partly because Abby is so open about how she feels and thinks. She’s honest about her feelings. She’s at once confident in her sense of self and style but with that niggling insecurity that so perfectly captures teenage self-ambivalence (or at least did for me).
I especially love how well Spalding did showing us how important fashion is to Abby. And not just in her internship and blog. Every time Abby changes into a new outfit, we get a rundown of what it is in detail, plus we see her minute observations of other people’s fashion choices. That’s the kind of writing that characterizes a protagonist well. We know how much fashion means to Abby because we see it impact her thought processes.
“No, I wasn’t in love with clothes, but maybe I was in love with how clothes made me feel. I was designing how other people saw me.”
I also appreciated Abby’s interiority. There were moments where her day-dreaminess and tendency to lose track of conversations felt very familiar to me. As someone with ADHD, these kinds of things happen all the time, yet I rarely get to read that process in print. Now, Abby isn’t diagnosed or anything, but this is one of those moments were, whether Spalding meant it or not, Abby reads as ADHD and I found it charming. I so rarely get to see that representation of my neurodiversity in general, much less with a fat, queer girl in a romance.
Abby’s internal monologue about her feelings for girls is also one of the most #relatable things ever. Seriously. Spalding has that dry, self-aware gay panic voice down, and it’s utterly delightful to read. In response to realizing she thinks fellow intern Jordi is hot, Abby responds with:
“The human condition is bullshit.”
Later on, she says,
“I’ve never seen her bare legs before, and it’s honestly a lot to process.”
I couldn’t stop laughing because of how called out I felt by it.
The other characters have a lot of heart, too. Jax is surprisingly decent, and his dynamic with Abby reminds me of one of my good friends, a lesbian, describing her relationship with her best male friend. I also liked how Spalding wrote the dynamic between Malia and Abby, especially how it grew and changed over the course of the book.
Abby’s relationship with her mom hit home to me. My mom isn’t a health nut, but the same unhealthy dynamic exists between us as it does between Abby and Norah. The fundamental belief that you parents don’t support you and want to change you is one that a lot of queer teens have to deal with. Spalding found a way to talk about that without making it entirely about homophobia, which I think worked really well in telling this story. Abby’s relationship with Jordi and her relationship with her mom got to be two different things that affected each other, but never did homophobia become the looming shadow that overtook the joy of Abby’s first love.
More than anything, Abby’s relationship to herself, Jordi, her friends, and her mom felt very true-to-life. This seems to come from a place of intimate experience. Whether Spalding herself went through these struggles or not, that it can seem so intimate and real speaks highly of her as an author. It never veers into uncomfortably voyeuristic, but it never loses that sense of being honest. The formulaic nature of romantic comedy can at times undercut the heart that should be the driving force of the story. Spalding never lets that happen, and I’m impressed.
Like most teen rom-coms, The Summer of Jordi Perez is about romance, but it’s also about change. About what happens when the people closest to go to college or start dating. About the perception of loss and loneliness that comes when your best friend has more time for their boyfriend than you and your older sister, who was once your main confidante and balance in a chaotic family, moves away. It’s about family dynamics and friendships changing and how to work through that while you’re seeing your life change in other ways. There’s a lot going on, and Spalding balances out all of the threads of change in Abby’s life quite well considering how much there is.
The fact that Abby Ives doesn’t have any other queer friends, and in LA of all places, seems strange. When I was in high school and still under the impression that I was straight (HA!), even I knew that the queer kids all hung out together because I hung out with them (Yeah, yeah, it makes sense now, but then? I had no idea that meant anything.) There were the theater gays and then there was the group of mostly lesbians and a couple bi girls and guys who hung out separately. I guess with my other friend groups I was the token gay, even if unaware, but still. I knew where the queer kids hung out and that they came in packs.
That Abby knows absolutely zero other queer people at her school and has to wonder if both Jordi and her former crush are gay and try to figure it out by trolling their social media didn’t quite fit with what high school had been like for me. Maybe things are different now? Either way, it would have been nice to have Abby have one queer friend she could relate to.
I also wish we could have gotten more interactions between Abby and her boss/mentor Maggie. I really liked that dynamic and think there’s a missed opportunity there. It would have made the book longer, for sure, but I wouldn’t have minded. The payoff in giving Abby an older female figure, and one that she perceives as a mentor in her field, while she’s struggling with the internal conflict over who is going to get the job could have been amped up, especially if Jordi likewise got off-screen mentoring sessions with Maggie. Plus, I like the idea of Abby getting to have more of a mother figure given how toxic her relationship with her own mother is. However, your mileage may vary on this point. It’s more a personal desire than an objection to the book itself.
I also would have liked a bit more time with the conclusion. But that’s kind of how rom-coms go right? Everything leads up to the big crisis, then it dwells there for a while, then it’s all neatly wrapped up in a couple pages/minutes. The ending is happy, you feel good about where the story is headed, and can imagine the happiest of endings further down the line. And even with how brief it is, Spalding managed to bring in a healthy discussion of consent, forgiveness, and moving forward after feeling betrayed, so I can’t complain too much. Maybe I just like my afterglows a bit longer 😉
Final Score: 8/10
There’s a lot to love about The Summer of Jordi Perez. The unabashed centering of a queer, pink-haired, fat girl in a rom-com brings me a lot of joy. Wlw are under-represented in this genre as it is, much less wlw who aren’t immediately ‘marketable’ to a straight audience (read: conventionally attractive). This is a book for queer girls, make no mistake. And I love that about it. Overall, it’s a light, enjoyable read. Perfect for summer time! So grab a burger—preferably In-N-Out animal style, the objectively best burger (the book agrees with me!)—your shades, and a cute, fruit-print skirt or shirt, and get ready to fall in love.
About the Author
Amy Spalding has a BA in advertising and marketing communications from Webster University and an MA in media studies from The New School. Amy studied long-form improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. By day, she manages the digital media team for an indie film advertising agency. By later day and night, Amy writes, performs, and pets as many cats as she can. She is the author of several other young adult novels including Kissing Ted Callahan (And Other Guys, Love and Music (and Missing Ted Callahan), Ink is Thicker than Water, The New Guy (And Other Senior Year Distractions), and The Reece Malcolm List. She grew up in St. Louis, but now lives in the Better weather of Los Angeles.
Note: The author of this review received a copy of the book in exchange for a free and honest review.
Images Courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing
Denethor Despairs at the Siege of Gondor
J.R.R. Tolkien, as he would like you to keep in mind, was not a fan of allegory. He states in his letters, on twelve or thirteen different occasions, that he does not like allegory and that he is not allegorically-minded. In the introduction to The Lord of the Rings he bluntly states, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations… I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability.” There’s a rote-ness to his objections, and they are asserted every time the subject of allegory is even obliquely mentioned. It’s an argument that Tolkien seems used to countering.
“The Siege of Gondor” is one of the better examples of why Tolkien’s work can feel so allegorical, and why it ultimately is not. The siege, as it unfolds, is filled with tension and violence. Fiery projectiles smash into people and walls, a magicked wolf-demon battering-ram smashes through the front gate, severed heads get launched into the city. A siege is never pretty. But in “The Siege of Gondor,” the battle often feels existential more than physical. The tension between light and darkness, hope and despair is ubiquitous: it culminates with face-off between the Witch-King, a dark despair-monster, and Gandalf, decked out in white and radiating hopeful light. The momentum of the siege is largely measured in how much despair the Nazgul are able to inject into the men of Gondor lining the battlements. It’s an obvious, rather tropey vision of a fantasy battle, echoes of which can be seen trailing down the decades of subsequent fantasy epics.
But this sort of battle, and this sort of conflict, is not necessarily the focus of “The Siege of Gondor.” There is a battle happening, of course, that is drenched in morally-coded language. One that could easily be extrapolated into allegory. But before it’s simply written off as such, it’s helpful to take a look at what Tolkien actually thought it meant, and how it fit into storytelling. And the best place to do this is probably Tolkien’s letter to Stanley Unwin, after Unwin’s son Rayner read Tolkien’s manuscript and passed on his impressions.
Do not let Rayner suspect “allegory.” There is a moral, I suppose, in any tale worth telling. But that is not the same thing. Even the struggle between darkness and light (as he calls it, not me) is for me just a particular phase of history, one example of its pattern, perhaps, but not The Pattern; and the actors are individuals–they each, of course, contain universals, or they would not live at all, but they never represent them as such.
And that brings us around to the real focus of “The Siege of Gondor”: Denethor.
Hope, Despair, and Denethor
I was pretty taken by the second half of that letter excerpt. Tolkien’s story is fixed in time, even an imagined time. It is the result of specific events rather than universal principles (though an echo of the latter can always be dug up). And Tolkien’s characters are people. Their actions resonate with universals (there’s that Neoplatonism again!) but are not embodiments of them. It’s a story of people and their context. Universal principles are present, but incidental.
Denethor is the best instance of this. Of course, he’s a case study in despair. The chapter’s climax features him marching off to his mausoleum, scaring all his guards, and flamboyantly declaring:
Better to burn sooner than later, for burn we must. Go back to your bonfire! And I? I will go now to my pyre. To my pyre! No tomb for Denethor and Faramir. No tomb! We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West. The West has failed.
It would be easy to cast Denethor as the anti-Aragorn or anti-Faramir, falling into a despairing madness as the other two face grim fates with quiet and stoic resolve. He would function as a type or a counter, a foil for the protagonists who matter more in the long run.
But Denethor never manages to be—in Tolkien’s terms—quite representative of that sort of universal. He is too much a person of his moment, driven by a complex web of insecurities both political and personal. Throughout the chapter he flickers between cruelty, despair, pettiness, and arrogance. His fall, here and over the next few chapters, is not an abstract symbol. Denethor is a messy entirety of a person, his despair a statement of itself rather than a reference to something more abstract.
Denethor as Steward
Denethor’s despair is intrinsically rooted in his position as steward. He comes from an impossibly old house, handed down from son to son, ancient and illustrious even when Gondor’s origins and history had started to become brittle. He sees Gondor both as the only beacon of light in the world and as teetering on the edge of utter failure. He sees himself as a bulwark against evil and as the dimming conclusion to a fading house. And he sees himself as tied to the fate of Gondor intrinsically, a position that fills him with fear and pride that often burst out in fits of cruelty, arrogance, and astonishing levels of pettiness.
This myopic view of the world was apparent from Denethor’s first appearance, when Gandalf chided him for being a steward only to those immediately around him (a criticism he levels again here in “The Siege of Gondor”). The arrogance and fear this engenders is apparent throughout the chapter. When mentioning to Pippin that all great lords use other men as their weapons—drawing a direct, concerning parallel between himself and Sauron—Denethor feels the need to insist that this is not due to necessity but choice:
He stood up now and cast open his long black cloak, and behold! He was clad in mail beneath, and girt with a long sword, great hilted in a sheath of black and silver. “Thus have I walked, and thus now for many years have I slept,” he said, “lest with age the body should grow soft and timid.”
There is a flamboyant, performative element to Denethor’s leadership. He is utterly disengaged from his people (once again, it’s difficult not to hold Théoden in contrast). He asserts an abstract sort of leadership, decked out in secret clothes of austerity that affect only his own perception of himself. And he spends too much time inside his own head, to the extent that, in his position as steward, he increasingly sees the fate of himself and his whole society as intertwined. When Faramir returns, injured and on the edge of death, Denethor seems to imply that the end of his own line and the end of Gondor are linked.
Nay, nay, whatever may now betide in war, my line too is ending, even the House of Stewards has failed. Mean folk shall rule the last remnant of the Kings of Men, lurking in the hills until all are hounded out.
As his line extinguishes, so does Gondor. And later in the chapter, as he prepares to burn himself and Faramir, the reverse seems to be true as well. “We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West,” he states. “The West has failed.
Denethor as Father
Beyond his role as steward, Denthor’s despair is also rooted in his role as a father – particularly as a bereaved one. He is abjectly terrible to Faramir in this chapter. He’s routinely petty and dismissive, snapping back abuse at innocuous questions.
“I hope I have not done ill?” He looked at his father.
“Ill?” cried Denethor, and his eyes flashed suddenly. “Why do you ask? The men were under your command. Or do you ask for my judgement on all your deeds? Your bearing is lowly in my presence, yet it is long now since you turned from your own way at my counsel. See, you have spoken skillfully, as ever; but I, have I not seen your eye fixed on Mithrandir, seeking whether you said well or too much? He has long had your heart in his keeping.”
It seems like a baffling response to a deferential question, until the end. Denethor spends “The Siege of Gondor” both jealous and in mourning, grieving for Boromir and resenting Faramir for his relationship with Gandalf. He even—continuing on from “Minas Tirith”— seems to despise Faramir because of the similarities that they share.
“If what I have done displeases you, father,” said Faramir quietly, “I wish had known your counsel before the burden of so weighty a judgement was thrust on me.”
“Would that have availed you to change your judgement?” said Denethor. “You would still have done just so, I deem. I know you well. Ever your desire is to appear lordly and generous as a king of old, gracious, gentle. That may well befit one of high race, if he sits in power and peace. But in desperate hours gentleness may be repaid with death.”
“So be it,” said Faramir.
“So be it!” cried Denethor. “But not with your death only, Lord Faramir: with the death also of your father, and of all your people, whom it is your part to protect now that Boromir is gone.”
There is the sense that Denethor is not only grieving the death of one son and the perceived estrangement of the other, but also grieving that Faramir embodies the sort of leadership that his own time and position seemed to deny him. It is a luxury, Denethor seems to think, to be generous and gentle. To see his son practice it while he believes he cannot only seems to accelerate his resentment. And this, of course, leads to Denethor’s twofold denunciation of Faramir: telling him that he wished he had died in Boromir’s place, and then sending him out, “unthanked and unblessed,” to die in Osgiliath.
So many of Denethor’s problems are problems of his own making. He feels perpetually trapped inside his own head, old habits and conceptions grinding deeper into furrows from which he’s trying to climb out. This only grows with the revelations coming up in “The Pyre of Denethor.” Yet despite this, I always find there to be something very pitiable about Denethor, despite his coldness and his cruelty. He feels trapped in a cycle of poor decisions, powered by his place in the world and his fears and insecurities. He contains universals, as Tolkien would say. But he doesn’t stand in place of them.
- While I spend most of my time here on Denethor, the siege elements worked very well for me. The first fires springing up on the distance and a low rumbling, the utter rout of Faramir’s host at Osgiliath, the unrestrained unpleasantness of the siege itself. It is dark, relentless, and distressing, and Tolkien does well in conveying the weight of the army swelling in like a wave and the chaos of Minas Tirith’s desperate and apparently insufficient response.
- I also quite liked this line, when the walls of the Pelennor first came down. Now ever and anon there was a red flash, and slowly through the heavy air dull rumbles could be heard. “They have taken the wall!” men cried. “They are blasting breaches in it! They are coming!” It’s a nice echo of the final lines in the Book of Mazerbul in Moria.
- The fact that Gandalf, often more austere and implacable after his Balrog fight and makeover, trembles during Faramir’s story is a nice and subtle indicator of how intense Frodo’s mission is, even though he’s been off-screen a while. His distress over hearing that they are passing through the Morgul Vale does the same, especially since we’re about halfway through Book V.
- I enjoyed that, near the chapter’s start, Denethor is once again compared to a spider. I am unsure if there is a higher comparative purpose to it or if Tolkien just likes/hates spiders.
- Pippin’s description of Faramir is nice as well: “the face of one who has been assailed by a great fear or anguish, but has mastered it and is now quiet… here was one with an air of high nobility such as Aragorn at times revealed, less high perhaps, yet also less incalculable and remote: one of the Kings of the Men born into a later time, but touched with the wisdom and sadness of the Elder Race.” There’s a hopefulness in that description that’s touching, the depiction of Faramir as something old and new at the same time.
- Prose Prize: At that moment he caught a flash of white and silver coming from the North, like a small star down on the dusky fields. It moved with the speed of an arrow and grew as it came, converging swiftly with the flight of the four men towards the Gate. It seemed to Pippin that a pale light was spread about it and the heavy shadows gave way before it. It’s a chapter of conversation more than pretty prose, but I did enjoy the “small star down on the dusky fields.” I am also probably slightly biased because I remember being very fond of Peter Jackson’s depiction of this moment; it’s one of my favorite shots of the trilogy.
- Contemporary to this chapter: While reading this, I hadn’t realized that quite so many days were passing! We’re covering March 10th to the very early hours of March 15th. This is largely concurrent with “The Ride of the Rohirrim,” coming up next. Rohan musters and rides out of Dunharrow, meets the Wild Men in Druadan Forest, and arrives at Pelennor Fields at dawn on the 15th. Frodo and Sam go from the Crossroads all the way through their encounter with Shelob. And as Minas Tirith is being besieged, Sam is making his way to rescue Frodo in Cirith Ungol. A busy couple of days in Middle-earth!