28 Oct 2015

Review: What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

What We Left Behind by Robin Talley
November 1st, 2015 · Harlequin Teen Australia
Source: Publisher
Format: ARC
Page Count: 416
From the critically acclaimed author of Lies We Tell Ourselves comes an emotional, empowering story of what happens when love isn't enough to conquer all.

Toni and Gretchen are the couple everyone envied in high school. They've been together forever. They never fight. They're deeply, hopelessly in love. When they separate for their first year at college—Toni to Harvard and Gretchen to NYU—they're sure they'll be fine. Where other long-distance relationships have fallen apart, their relationship will surely thrive.

The reality of being apart, however, is a lot different than they expected. As Toni, who identifies as genderqueer, falls in with a group of transgender upperclassmen and immediately finds a sense of belonging that has always been missing, Gretchen struggles to remember who she is outside their relationship.

While Toni worries that Gretchen, who is not trans, just won't understand what is going on, Gretchen begins to wonder where she fits in Toni's life. As distance and Toni's shifting gender identity begins to wear on their relationship, the couple must decide—have they grown apart for good, or is love enough to keep them together? 
I had such high hopes and expectations for What We Left Behind. I’d liked Robin Talley’s debut, but since historical isn’t my thing, I thought I’d love her latest. It sounded like a sure thing and it’s disheartening to be sitting here writing a negative review. Beware: ranting ahead.

Of course, I certainly don't claim to know everything about the LGBTQIA+ community and their experiences, so these are just my thoughts and what I took away the book.

I like that it discussed gendered pronouns. It's the first time I've seen it on the pages in YA and that was great. But that’s the only thing about this book that worked for me.

It’s really disappointing that for a book I hoped would be free of stereotypes, it was full of them. Not in just secondary, uneducated characters, but in the way Toni thought too. He was always stereotyping people he didn’t know and judging them, which got really old fast.
So I show Carroll yearbook pictures and tell him more about my friends back home. He’s shocked by how many gay people went to our high school. I think it was partly because it was an all-girl school," I say. “Going across the street to the guys’ school was so much effort. People got lazy.” pg 56
Problematic much? Turned gay because they're lazy? Really? Also:
Ebony and Felecia are both black, and Joanna is Vietnamese. I felt a little weird at first, like I was boring next to them. Then I remembered that I bring in the LGBTQIA diversity angle, so I was still contributing. pg 293 
Oh no, you didn’t. So being of a marginalised group is “contributing” and if you're not, you're boring? Wow… Note: this is only two alarming excerpts of many.

The thing I found most problematic though was how the author completely misrepresented what it means to be genderqueer. Transgender and genderqueer are COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. They’re not one and the same; they’re not interchangeable. For the author to basically depict that they are? I found that really damaging. I get that Toni was still questioning things and trying to better understand herself and what she wanted, but I feel the author did a major disservice in confusing the two and making them interchangeable when they are NOT. I feel this book was supposed to introduce people to the term genderqueer and instead it became a transgender book. And it’s not to say we don’t need books with transgender characters because we do, but I was just really let down with how things were handled here.

I think what makes me most disheartened is that people are going to pick up this book and take away a confusing, conflicted message. This may be their first time learning about genderqueer and transgender terms and the whole book was largely stereotypical. There’s enough stereotyping and erasure in the world when it comes to the LGBTQIA+ community, but I didn’t expect that from this book. We *do* need genderqueer characters, but we also need for that to be good representation.

P.S. I highly recommend this video, which explains genderqueer so, so well.

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