Task: Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+.
While shopping around for a book to fulfill this task, I learned that most authors don’t include their orientation in their bios. “Stephen King is the straight cisgendered author of more than fifty worldwide bestsellers.” I did find an interview with Pat Schmatz where she plainly identified as queer, though, which was a relief, because I really wanted to read this weird ass book Lizard Radio, which I loved.
The setting is Crop Camp, a nightmare of beige overalls designed to prepare nonconforming teenagers for a lifetime in agriculture and also squash them into the narrow roles defined for them by a rigid dystopian society – pretty standard YA stuff, really. However, it weirds up the premise considerably with the protagonist Kivali’s belief that a race of reptilian beings called Saurians communicates with them via “Lizard Radio,” a transcendental state Kivali reaches through meditation. Yes please!
The absolute reality of Lizard Radio is pleasurably ambiguous throughout the story. There’s no overt magic, really, but there’s not no-magic either.
When asked by their mentor Korm what they are, Kivali’s first response is, “I’m a lizard.” All Saurian wackiness aside, the book’s treatment of gender fluidity is so damned good, and so worth reading. Kivali is a “bender,” in the slang of the novel. It’s a really slangy novel, and I don’t have quite as much tolerance for that as perhaps I needed. Bender is unfortunate if you’re British, and there’s a devastating act of self-erasure or possibly sublimation that’s hard to take seriously, since it’s referred to as vaping. “She finally vaped” makes me think that a character is lounging outside a hotel puffing nicotine-laced water vapor into the sky after a long flight or something.
Back to benders. At first I thought it was in-world slang for transgender – samer is gay, asolo is asexual in practice, if not necessarily in orientation (I think), etc. It is emphatically not okay to be a samer, though asolo lifestyles seem to be tolerated. Benders aren’t okay either, but it turned out that being transgender wasn’t so much of a problem, provided the individual went far enough to the other end of the spectrum. Children are given a gender test, and a boy assigned the wrong gender at birth who scores near the top of the range for “boyness” will proceed to hormone therapy, surgery, and a life free of stigma. People like Kivali, though, who score in the middle range, don’t undergo mandatory transitions, as long as they can pass something called “post-decision gender training.” Kivali lives under a constant threat of getting shipped off to a prison colony called Blight for failure to comply with gender norms.
When Caitlyn Jenner’s Vogue spread was published, it was overwhelmingly met with comments about how beautiful she was – how she’d, in effect, pulled it off. This society is becoming increasingly tolerant of transgender people – provided they pass. We’re getting used to Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, Buck Angel, etc. This is a wonderful social advance, don’t get me wrong, but not everyone is LaVerne Cox or Buck Angel, as LaVerne Cox herself has said. The Trevor Project reported that 40% – FORTY percent – of transgender adults have attempted suicide, and there have been sixteen acts of fatal violence against transgender people in 2017 so far. It’s great that so many cispeople like me watched Orange Is the New Black and thought it was great that there was a legit trans character on TV being portrayed by a legit trans person, but that doesn’t do much for the more than one in ten trans people who have lost a home over their gender. And if that bothers you (it should bother you), take a positive step and donate money and/or time to Lucie’s Place in Little Rock.
All that to say, I appreciated Lizard Radio’s treatment of a protagonist who defied binary categorization. I don’t read as much LGBTQ lit as I should, and Kivali is only the second gender fluid character I’ve run into (Mat in Feedback by Mira Grant being the first, and may I strongly recommend her Newsflesh series? It’s hard to get excited about zombies these days, but hers are awfully fun). I also appreciated Lizard Radio’s own refusal to fall into easy YA dystopia tropes. There really aren’t any big set pieces – no Arena, no vampire baseball. It’s a fairly quiet story, and the charms of conformity are presented much more honestly than more bombastic YA offerings. It does feel good to fit in and to belong, and Lizard Radio doesn’t pretend that flying in the face of that social comfort is an easy decision. Kivali’s romantic interest Sully – who ultimately needs a friend more than a romantic partner – is heartbreaking and honestly dealt with. It’s all good stuff, and it’s a thoughtful, unexpected take on a genre that’s been badly played out for a quite a while.