Review of ‘What we Left Behind’
Written by Robin Talley
Reviewed by Trish Buckley, who has reviewed more LGTB* works here.
Toni and Gretchen have been girlfriends for almost two years. They never fight, they love each other, and now they both going to attend different colleges in Boston. Everything is working out. Except the weekend before they are due to leave, Gretchen tells Toni that she has been accepted as a late entry into NYU.
Instead of being across town, they are now a four hour bus ride apart. Toni’s sense of betrayal is profound. Although she tells Gretchen she doesn’t mind, she really does. Instead of seeing each other on weekends, Toni finds reasons not to visit, and to keep Gretchen from coming to Boston.
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What we left behind is told from both points of view. Gretchen struggles to make new friends. She worries constantly about Toni, and is distressed about their lack of real contact. She meets Carroll who seems like he’s on her side. She has to re-consider how she navigates through life without the charismatic and strongly opinionated Toni to guide her.
Meanwhile at Harvard, Toni seeks out and finds like-minded people. She joins the UBA – Harvard’s LGBT association, and meets Derek, Nance, Eli and Brad. Her sense of self undergoes a shift. Toni moves from referring to Toni as genderqueer, to using ‘he’. His involvement in gender politics explodes and suddenly his life has purpose and meaning and he sees other people who identify as trans articulating his own thoughts. It’s all very affirming. And although he remains confused about his label, there’s so much more to think about and be part of.
The two characters interact virtually, talk and think about each other all the time, yet their lives rarely intersect. It’s a very realistic and well written. The girls’ personalities are quite different, and they have a lot to learn about themselves and each other. Gretchen’s attempt to understand what Toni is struggling with is commendable, and yet, we can see that her reluctance to ask questions drives them further apart.
Toni’s inability to settle on an already established label is a double-edged sword. Talley wants to say that it’s absolutely okay to struggle with identity, and that for some people, there isn’t a clear box to which they can be assigned. However, Toni’s conjugations often seem more like an examination of gender studies rather than a personal identity crisis. It is very difficult to deal with complex issues in fiction and avoid exposition, and actually Talley’s is one of the better examples. Is that because it’s a topic with which I am both unfamiliar, yet extremely interested? Maybe. The discussion about the use of pronouns is problematic, and ultimately I silently agreed with Toni that it’s all too hard.
So, while this is an excellent narrative about heading off to college to start an independent and exciting life, it’s also an attempt to give insight into struggling with labels like ‘gender non-confirming’, and ‘increased masculinity of gender expression’, and on that level, it’s less successful. However, that this book even exists is a reflection of how far we have come as a society in beginning to accept and understand the transgender community. It’s another step in offering more diverse protagonists to a wider audience. There are a couple of great articles that explain why need to fill in these gaps, and try to offer safe spaces in our libraries for queer literature. And I always want to hear David’s Levithan’s words, because he is so eloquent when he calls for more diversity and more acceptance.
For non-fiction texts that offer transgendered teen voices, see Gender Outlaws (2010) and Beyond Magenta (2015).
Books for older teenagers (mature content and language)
The Art of Being Normal (2015)
Beautiful Music for Ugly Children (2012)
I am J (2012)
There are also two very recent publications which are targeted at middle years. Both are sensitive and highly acclaimed.
Gracefully Grayson (2014)
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