May 2017 Round Up – Part One: Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming coverAs the second novel in verse that the Books Unbound (B.U.) group has read, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming is a lyrical dive into Woodson’s childhood. With its vivid descriptions of South Carolina land and culture, her story shines a new light on familiar elements of the state’s history, especially as it relates to Civil Rights. Woven throughout are themes of friends, faith, coming to and going from home, death of a loved one, and finding a calling or passion. Check out the round up below for main topics, insights from the conversation, a poetry-inspired creative exercise, and of course, the B.U. book rating!

Check back later for part two of the May round up, which will recap a special poetry workshop given by Charleston Poet Laureate Marcus Amaker.


MAIN DISCUSSION TOPICS

FAITH

By far, the topic that most interested the B.U. members was faith, and we devoted the bulk of our discussion to it. Two main conversations emerged: religious upbringing and embracing a new religion as an adult.

LEARNING RELIGION YOUNG

Just as it is now, South Carolina was in the Bible Belt while Woodson lived in the state as a child. Even still, it’s not uncommon that many families now and historically have engaged in institutionalized Christianity minimally, saving church visits primarily for Christmas and Easter. Even among those relatively rogue families, Woodson’s mother, who believed in letting her children choose their own faiths, must have been a rarity in the South. Until their mother leaves for New York City, forcing Woodson and her siblings to stay with their grandmother, references to religion in Brown Girl Dreaming are sparse. In contrast, their grandmother, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, insists that while the Woodson children stay with her, they, too, adopt her religion. A struggle to genuinely adhere ensues.

If Woodson’s mother’s indifference toward religion made her an outlier in the South, then Woodson’s grandmother’s particular faith also marked her as unusual. While Woodson went from one extreme to another  lack of faith to strict faith she remained in another extreme, which is that both individuals that lack faith and individuals that are Jehovah’s Witnesses are represented marginally in the South.

Given that just one percent of adults in South Carolina identify as Jehovah’s Witnesses, it’s no surprise that none of the B.U. members recall encountering the religion prior to reading Brown Girl Dreaming. In fact, many of the group members’ own upbringings correspond more to Woodson’s before she lived with her grandmother; organized religion doesn’t play a major role. They speculated that, like Woodson’s mother, their own families would support any faith they might choose. Like Woodson, they weren’t enthusiastic about her grandmother’s urging the children to be Jehovah’s Witnesses. However, they did not think it an unreasonable demand, given that she was taking care of them.

FINDING NEW FAITH AS AN ADULT

When Woodson’s uncle Robert is released from prison, he comes out changed. While we don’t know much about his religiosity prior to being incarcerated, we do know that he converts to Islam while serving his time. The B.U. members were quick to make the connection to Malcolm X, who also became Muslim while imprisoned.

The group and I discussed why it is common for people to turn to religion of any sort while in prison. Salvation, routine, and a positive lifestyle change are all strong motivations. Even among this pattern, the trend of African American men adoption of Islam stands out. We put Uncle Robert’s conversion in cultural and historical context. Malcolm X, we noted, likely served as an inspiration for him. This was the 1970’s, and Robert donned an Afro, and spoke of revolution as Shirley Chisholm ran for president. For him, converting to Islam may have been as much a social act as a religious one, and serves as evidence that practicing religion satisfies not just spiritual functions, but also broader cultural ones.

CREATIVE PROJECT

Since Brown Girl Dreaming is brimming with lovely metaphors, I had the group try to create their own. In her poem, “Herzel Street,” Woodson compares families like hers African Americans who migrated from the South to the North to things she most loves about the South: red dirt, pine trees, fireflies in jelly jars, and lemon-chiffon ice cream cones.

Using the same principal of comparing familiar people to the beloved things that they remind us of, the B.U. members each wrote a line of their own such that it mimicked Woodson’s technique:

They were basketball courts and cracked concrete.
They were mashed potatoes, fried chicken, and macaroni.
They were streetlights and crossed out graffiti.
They were tacos.

FAVORITE MOMENT

My favorite part of this discussion was at the beginning. After everyone was seated, they immediately launched into splendid reviews of the book. They were so impressed with Woodson’s verses and masterful storytelling!

BOOKS UNBOUND MEMBERS’ RATING

4 out of 5. In general, the group loved the book, especially since they could relate to the descriptions of South Carolina. There was only one complaint: the story didn’t detail Woodson’s adult life.

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April 2017 Round Up: Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Plus Playwriting Workshop!

Joe Turner's Come and Gone cover imageIn keeping with the late trend of sampling diverse literary genres, the Books Unbound (B.U.) group tackled our first play. Beneath the approachable prose of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (Joe Turner) lies a complex blend of American history. Filled with references to slavery in the South and the subsequent Great Migration, Wilson forces us to consider whether Herald Loomis – or any of us – can escape the past.

As a very special bonus to this month’s discussion, local Charleston poet and playwright Matt Hampton, who studied playwriting under August Wilson, generously facilitated a fun two-part workshop with the B.U. group!

To see highlights from the Books Unbound playwriting workshop and accompanying discussions, check out the round up below!


MAIN DISCUSSION TOPICS

Joe Turner as an Entry to Plays

Prior to reading Joe Turner, the bulk of the B.U. members’ reading material consisted of novels, punctuated with a smattering of comics, poetry, and nonfiction. While the group was excited to read a new genre – especially after learning how closely related plays are to screenplays – they struggled to fully grasp the many layers of language and history present in the work. Rather than focus on the content in Joe Turner, the group received the highlights of the history in the play, and we instead used it as a launching off point to discuss what it takes to be a successful playwright.

Lessons from August Wilson

Joe Turner‘s fundamental dramatic question – Can a person escape his/her past? – had a particular resonance with the B.U. members, who often speak of turning their own lives around for the better. As we learned, that’s something they have in common with both Wilson, a high school dropout, and Hampton, who shared details of his own troubled youth.

Despite odds that seemed pitted against them, both transcended their circumstances and found a way to do what they love. Through hard work and determination, Wilson became one of the most critically acclaimed playwrights the world over, and Hampton scored the chance to study under the prestigious artist as part of his own literary journey. Hopefully, Wilson’s and Hampton’s personal stories demonstrated that the path to success differs for each person, and that success is within reach even when failure seems imminent.

CREATIVE PROJECTS

Part One: Character Building

Since many of the B.U. members were curious about the genesis of a play, Hampton decided to guide them through a group character building exercise. He noted that ideas for plays frequently derive from characters that emerge from playwrights’ imaginations.

Sitting in a circle with the group, Hampton called out a series of questions about a character that anyone was free to answer aloud, such as:

  1. Male or female?
  2. How old?
  3. What does s/he look like?
  4. What does s/he do for work?
  5. What does s/he want?
  6. What does s/he need?
  7. What is an obstacle that s/he faces?
  8. How will this character get what s/he needs?

The exercise was fast-paced and high energy, and resulted in a healthy mix of faces that were by turns pensive and jocund. In the end, the exercise produced two characters – a young, ambitious boxer and the foreboding ghost of his grandfather – and even the beginning of a scene.

Books Unbound big button imagePart Two: Writing Dialogue

Though our allotted time with Hampton ended after the character building exercise, all of the B.U. members asked to have additional time to continue writing their group play. Hampton challenged them to flesh out their stories independently by playing with dialogue.

I let the group write dialogue quietly on their own for 10 to 15 minutes. Afterwards, we had a great deal of fun reading the pieces aloud for group critique. After each person read, we went around and named an element from their piece that we liked, from a single phrase to the direction of the story. Everyone was extremely encouraging and proud of each others’ work.

Most exciting of all for the B.U. members, they submitted their dialogues for one-on-one feedback from Hampton. They were thrilled at having received commentary from him, so much so that they all wanted to read their critiques aloud. After each critique, we discussed ways that they could achieve his suggestions.

FAVORITE MOMENTS

I loved seeing the B.U. members excited about reading and writing plays for the first time. Their eagerness to continue writing their collaborative play and their encouragement for one another was a genuine thrill to witness. And, of course, it was wonderful to see their pride at having accomplished something new and positive.

RATING

Since none of the B.U. group made a sufficient dent in reading Joe Turner, we did not rate it.

 

March 2017 Round Up: Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice

claudette-colvin-cover-imageFor many weeks before we read Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, the Books Unbound (B.U.) members had been requesting that we discuss a nonfiction book. After mulling over content possibilities for what seemed like an eternity (there are so many wonderful options!), a B.U. member’s own reading about the Jim Crow era in the South inspired my decision to choose this book. While race and history definitely topped the list of motivations to read Claudette Colvin, I was also interested in sharing a female perspective of the Civil Rights movement. In addition to sparking conversations about the justice system, youth incarceration, education and many other timeless subjects of social justice, reading Claudette’s story would illuminate issues that can be particularly painful for girls and women, such as teen pregnancy out of wedlock and the pressure to fulfill the norms of the white aesthetic. To see highlights from our Books Unbound discussions, creative projects, and how the B.U. members rate the book, check out the round up below!


Main Discussion Topics

Rosa Parks : MLK :: Claudette Colvin : Malcolm X

Anyone who worries that contemporary youth know and care nothing about history would have been pleasantly surprised at the B.U. members’ knowledge of social justice in America. They were so competent that they even compared historical figures not just across time and space, but also in reference to their nuanced approaches to changemaking. While the B.U. members granted that Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Claudette Colvin, and Malcolm X all fought for the rights of African Americans, they felt that Rosa Parks and MLK were more alike in their composure and gentility, while Claudette’s fiery anger was reminiscent of — though definitely not as extreme as — Malcolm X.

One example they cited was that Rose Parks and MLK sought to make change by starving the segregated Alabama bus system of paying passengers; they discouraged African Americans from riding. In other words, they rejected the system by turning their backs on the it. On the other hand, Claudette’s rejection of her oppression was manifest in staying on the bus as long as she could before being carried off by security. Perhaps the B.U. members saw something of Malcolm X’s militant approach to social activism in Claudette’s steadfastness. Whether or not you agree with the analogy, the B.U. members’ comparison demonstrates that their critical thinking gears are turning and that they are trying to make connections.

Inequality in the Justice System

“I was tired of hoping for justice. When my moment came, I was ready.”
— Claudette Colvin*

That’s how Claudette Colvin told author Phillip Hoose she felt after the barrage of daily injustices she experienced collided with her academic education about racism and slavery in the United States. Perhaps when star high school student and model citizen Jeremiah Reeves was condemned to death row, Claudette decided she had had enough. Enough of back row seats and outdated textbooks. Enough of flat irons and being too black. Most of all, Claudette had had enough of being treated unequally, especially in the eyes of the law.

Jeremiah’s case was exemplary of how race dictated — and was dictated by — inequality in the justice system — particularly, within the penal system. Even though slavery had technically been over for decades, Claudette’s story is chockablock with instances of how race could determine how the law treated you, from the back of the cop car all the way to the courtroom. Beyond race, Claudette also relates how gender and age affect your experience with the justice system.

The B.U. members and I discussed how Claudette’s story reveals the flaws of the justice system, which, in turn, reveals the flaws of its creators, who are, after all humans. We also talked about how important it is not to rely on institutional systems to be perfectly fair, and the importance of individuals taking a stand with their communities for what they believe is right.

Social Justice Today

Not long after I discussed Claudette Colvin with the B.U. members, I had the privilege of attending Jacqueline Woodson’s Arbuthnot Honor Lecture at the Darla Moore School of Business in Columbia, South Carolina. During her presentation, the Young People’s Poet Laureate noted that just as African Americans were discriminated against in bathrooms during the Civil Rights era and for so many years prior, mainstream society still uses bathrooms as weapons of oppression — currently, against transsexuals.

Listening to Woodson’s argument, I heard echoes of my conversations with the B.U. members when we discussed what pressing social justice issues exist in contemporary society. Interestingly, when asked why they think someone might want rules in place to restrict transsexuals to using restrooms aligned with their sex at birth, they answered that it’s probably to protect them from encountering ill-intentioned individuals who do not accept them. In short, maybe, the B.U. members posited, we restrict transsexuals in order to keep them out of harm’s way.

Their argument’s inherent duality simultaneously warmed and chilled me. Part of me softens at the notion that maybe they speak from experience, from having wished that at some point in their pasts, they could have been protected from a harmful situation. But another part of me wonders if this is an example of how oppression can be so entrenched as to have its victims and advocates alike regurgitating the same manipulative argument, which states that the rules exist not to protect those in power, but instead those who are disempowered.

After explaining the latter interpretation of rules, I challenged the B.U. members to always try to see if an alternative agenda might be masked under the guise of good intentions. I hope they will practice this in the future without losing hope for humanity.

Favorite Moments

As is common, I have more than one favorite moment from discussing a book with the B.U. members. This time, the first happened as soon as we all sat down. Immediately, with no prompting from me, everyone launched into a steady, enthusiastic, and very intelligent discussion of the book, which continued right up until it was time to leave.

My second favorite moment occurred when one book club member compared Rosa Parks and MLK to Claudette Colvin and Malcolm X. Not only was this very insightful, it demonstrated a knowledge of history that runs counter to the sordid refrain of senior generations who lament that today’s youth care nothing for the past.

The third was when the B.U. members wondered if there were other histories of minorities during the Civil Rights movement. In particular, they were curious about Latino historical accounts from the time, especially given the present volatility of immigration in the United States. It was a treat to see that Claudette’s story had spurred their interest in other lesser-known histories.

Creative Project

Since Claudette Colvin is still alive, I asked the B.U. members to think about what it would be like to meet her and imagine what they would say. Then, we wrote a collective letter containing their thoughts. So if they had the chance to talk to Claudette, here is what they would like to tell her:

“Thank you for what you did. It made a difference in our lives. It took a lot of bravery, and without you, maybe this country would still be a place where segregation happens.”

Their words are simple, but their sentiments are huge. From all of us to Claudette — and to Phillip Hoose for sharing her story — thank you.

Books Unbound Member Rating

5 out of 5 stars.

The B.U. members had nothing but stellar compliments for this book. From the black-and-white photos to the little boxes of history sprinkled throughout to Claudette’s powerful first-hand accounts to Phillip’s concise narrative, they loved everything about this book. They especially loved that this was a history of someone less well-known than top figures like Rosa Parks and MLK.


*Quote taken from Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose

February 2017 Round Up: The Crossover

As Books Unbound’s first foray into poetry, Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover marked an incredible transition for the Books Unbound (B.U.) members from reading prose to reading verse. Besides featuring contemporary coming-of-age issues like first crushes, dealing with conflict within the family, death of a loved one, athletic performance, and even homework assignments, The Crossover‘s format as a novel in verse makes it a soft dive into poetry that is perfect for readers who prefer prose. For in-depth insights from main discussion topics, creative projects, and the B.U. members’ rating, check out the round up below!


Excerpt from an interview with Alexander:

How do you feel about the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement happening in children’s publishing?

It’s a big part of the civil rights movement of our day. How do we create equity and equality in the images and ideas that enable. All of our children to imagine a world of possible, that empower. All of our children to dream a better world, is the most important question we can ask ourselves as parents, teachers, and librarians.


Main Discussion Topics and Insights

Introducing Poetry

Before deciding to venture into The Crossover, Books Unbound reading material was notably swayed in favor of prose. At any mention of poetry, the B.U. members’ eyes would glaze over as they recalled dusty tomes of Dickinson and Shakespeare — magnificent writers, to be sure, but not something any of the B.U. members said they would have chosen to read independently. In an effort to increase their interest in poetry, round out their reading, and dispel any lingering ghosts of poems as a medium of long-dead, white men, I decided we should read The Crossover, a contemporary novel in verse.

We briefly reviewed elements of poetry as they were used in the book, sticking to high level discussion of technical aspects like rhyme scheme, rhythm, and word sounds, and spending more of our conversation on message and affective responses that The Crossover provoked. We talked about what qualifies as a poem. Much to the B.U. members’ surprise, Kwame Alexander includes visual poetry, text messages, and everyday conversations in his book; some poems rhyme, while others are free verse. The B.U. members were invigorated by the idea that poetry transcends ABAB rhyme and can contain content related to romance as well as homework assignments.

Constructing Self vs. Other

Identical twins Josh and Jordan are alike in plenty of ways, most obviously in their age, parentage and high aptitude for basketball. But beyond that, they are distinct. The B.U. members noted that some of their differences seem to be inherent. For example,  they argued that Josh seems naturally selfish, while Jordan tends toward selflessness. Other differences seem to be products of purposefulness, or to have been constructed, in reference to each other. Josh takes pride in his long hair, while Jordan flaunts that he has a girlfriend.

The B.U. members and I discussed why we feel it necessary to distinguish ourselves from each other in the first place. Perhaps, we posited, it is to demonstrate self-worth or self-reliance. Whatever the reason, being a teenager often coincides with intense interest in and efforts toward defining who we are and who we will become as adults. Briefly, I presented the post-structuralist theory of self vs. other, which features prominently in works by cultural critic Edward Said and feminist Simone de Beauvoir. We discussed how people often construct their own identities, or selves, by identifying traits in others that they view as characteristic, and then either aligning themselves with or against others by embracing or rejecting those same traits. This, we recognized, is as fundamental to cafeteria cliques as it is to cultural groups determined by race or region; and, as Kwame Alexander demonstrates, this same dynamic can even be found between two siblings.

Creative Project

After discussing the book, we all participated in a short poem-writing exercise. Loosely based on mimic writing, wherein students base their own writing on that of an established writer — in this case, Kwame Alexander — we tried our hands at creating visual poetry. I gave the B.U. members the option to write about anything they wanted, or they could base their poems on a specific (and, admittedly, banal) topic that I provided: their lunch that day. After everyone chose their subject matter, I allowed for 10 minutes of writing. This included formatting their poems. They could use as many pieces of paper for rough drafts as they wanted. Afterwards, each participant read their poem aloud for the group and explained their thought process behind creating it.

Favorite Moments

I was ecstatic to see how open and supportive the B.U. members were when other participants shared their poems. While everyone had initially snickered at the idea of sharing their poems, they all happily volunteered to read aloud. After each person’s presentation, everyone clapped and offered genuine compliments about elements of a poem that they had particularly liked.

Books Unbound Member Rating

4 out of 5.

The B.U. members gave this book a high rating because the subject matter, especially Jordan’s romance and how it impacts Josh, interested them. However, their feedback on the plot resolution was mixed, and some found the characters’ intense involvement in basketball too unrelatable.

 

Repost: Three Ways to Teach Empathy Inside Writing Workshop

This video, narrated by Brene Brown, has been viewed over 7,000,000 times. Empathy is more complicated than its twin sister, sympathy. Empathy is a challenge for a lot of people–not just kids. The great poet Nikki Giovanni has said, “Let me clear about this. If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. […]

via Three Ways to Teach Empathy Inside Writing Workshop — TWO WRITING TEACHERS

January 2017 Round Up: Sunrise Over Fallujah

Published five years into the Iraq War, Walter Dean Myers’s Sunrise Over Fallujah tells the story of Harlem-born, 18-year-old Robin “Birdy” Perry’s experience as a United States soldier in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Written as a successor to Fallen Angels, which details Birdy’s Uncle Richie’s narrative of the Vietnam War, Sunrise Over Fallujah reminds readers of any generation about timeless issues of war, such as bravery, the violence of combat, and war’s psychological impact. In particular, the Books Unbound (B.U.) members were struck by the ever-changing rules of engagement, which often seemed to lack the rigidity and usefulness of regulation at the U.S. troops’ expense. For deeper insights from main discussion topics and the B.U. members’ rating, read the round up below!


Main Discussion Topics and Insights

Defining Heroism

Throughout Sunrise Over Fallujah, Birdy struggles to come to terms with whether or not he is a hero. He second-guesses convictions from family and friends, who regularly insist that he is heroic because of his military service. Birdy’s uncertainty reminds us that while soldiers are frequently deemed heroes by the public for standing up for their country, convincing themselves of the designation is an inner battle that soldiers often fight alone.

Birdy often notes that his fear while being in a war zone doesn’t make him feel like a hero at all. In one email to his mother, he writes, “I’m not the brave type. Not over here where the booming goes through you, where explosions in the distance shake your whole body.” As conflict in Iraq intensifies, Birdy constantly questions if his orders are just, and if the U.S.’s rules of engagement are any less shady than the Iraqi opposition.

In contrast to Birdy’s quiet nature, the B.U. members and I discussed how Sergeant Harris is always eager to fight. He is bursting with bravado, so much so that he comes across as foolhardy. Briefly, I explained Aristotle’s theory of the golden mean, and that true courage, according to that theory, lies between cowardice (a lack of bravery) and foolhardiness (an excess of bravery). Though Birdy doubts his ability to be brave, the B.U. members and I agreed that he is closer to embodying the golden mean of courage than Sergeant Harris.

We also talked about how defining a hero is ultimately a subjective judgment, implying that anyone could be regarded as heroic. Indeed, one B.U. member proudly proclaimed his grandmother as his hero, a figure who is no doubt a far cry from possessing typical hero traits like a strong jaw and super strength.

The Subjectivity of Right and Wrong

Just as the B.U. members determined that what constitutes a hero varies from person to person, they also decided that what is considered right and wrong often changes depending on time and place. For instance, while taking another person’s life is usually considered taboo in contemporary America, it is justified in war because the intent can be argued to support a broader narrative. In other words, to injure or kill someone abroad during war is considered less deplorable than the same act would be in non-war zone because the act is deemed a means to a noble end rather than an end in and of itself.

In contrast, one situation that has clearer boundaries of right and wrong to most contemporary Americans is harming someone as a reasonable act of self-defense. The B.U. members stated that regardless of whether or not it occurs in a war zone,  injuring someone to protect yourself or a loved one is permissible. For example, when Birdy kills two Iraqis who try to sexually assault his colleague Miller, the B.U. members felt he was justified. However, they frowned heavily upon Sergeant Harris, whose overzealous tendency toward violence regardless of the situation seemed to smack of something less than honor.

Literary Themes Across Walter Dean Myers’s Works

While this was the first time the B.U. members had read Sunrise Over Fallujah, they are well-versed in Myers’s other works. Besides having read Monster for our October 2016 book discussion, other books by him that they’ve read include Scorpions and Slam! As a result, we were able to consider constant themes present throughout his novels. Like all great literature, Myers’s works contain timeless issues like death, violence, negotiating difficult situations, and identity. But what makes his books appealing to young adults is that he sets these classic themes in contemporary contexts. In particular, the B.U. members noted his tendency to feature urban youth from low-income families — in short, kids similar to themselves. That parallel isn’t lost on them. As we discussed Myers’s books, they recalled with bright eyes his tense dramas played out during basketball games, and with somber faces, conflicts in court or crossfire. Most of all, they expressed gratitude for reading stories with characters who seem authentic, approachable, and familiar. Because the B.U. members can relate to the characters, Myers’s books make literature tangible.

Favorite Moments

I was thrilled to be able to talk with the B.U. members about constant themes in Myers’s books. Perhaps what I loved even more than the discussion itself was that the very basis of it rested upon how voraciously they read his books, both for and independent of Books Unbound. It also marked an interpretive shift from analyzing novels individually to analyzing a body of work, an exercise in critical thinking that will serve them as they continue to develop intellectually.

Books Unbound Member Rating

4 out of 5.

The B.U. members’ gave this book a high rating because they thought the story was extremely authentic, from its plot to its characters. They especially liked Jonesy, Birdy’s blues-talking confidant from the South. However, they found it difficult to wade through the military terms and acronyms, even with the help of the glossary at the back of the book.

December 2016 Round Up: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s award-winning novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe tells the story of the friendship between two Mexican-American teen boys. As they learn to navigate the world around them, their experiences range from exploring art to dealing with conflict both inside and outside of their homes. The Books Unbound (B.U.) members found the story’s depiction of the trials and tribulations of friendship authentic, and could relate to numerous issues — or secrets of life — presented within the book, including sexuality, prejudice, self-identification, cultural performance, experimenting with substances, and the impact of war and traumatic accidents. Check out the round up below for main discussion topics and the Books Unbound members’ rating!


Main Discussion Topics and Insights

LGBTQ+ Issues

One of the main elements of Aristotle and Dante is the romance that unfolds between the two boys. In most places in South Carolina, it’s no easy task to discuss LGBTQ+ issues. That proved especially true with the B.U. members. None of them identify as LGBTQ+ or have had much interaction with others that identify as LGBTQ+. At the start of our discussions of the book, they believed that homosexuality is a chosen lifestyle that “isn’t right,” and that, under certain circumstances, people can “turn gay.”

As relative strangers to LGBTQ+ issues, then, Aristotle and Dante showed the B.U. members a different perspective of coming out. Sáenz’s development of the book’s namesake characters makes it seem impossible that the two boys would not fall in love. Indeed, in spite of — or because of — their stark differences, they seem destined for each other from the very beginning. Even though Aristotle doesn’t express his love for Dante until late into the novel, the B.U. members said they intuited that he loved Dante all along, and that Dante’s influence did not transform his sexuality.

The B.U. members also noted that, while there is plenty of comic relief throughout the book, the love between Aristotle and Dante possesses a certain gravity. They argued that they think that’s due to the fact that they’re both boys, and that affection between girls is generally treated with less severity in our society.

 

Social Construction of Identity and Authentic Cultural Performance

The bulk of our discussion about Aristotle and Dante focused on individuals figuring out and expressing their identities. We noted that while the romance between Aristotle and Dante is a big part of the story, the two characters’ identities are determined by much more than their sexuality — something that’s true of everyone, both fictional and real.

Each person embodies many identities throughout the course of their lives, and adolescence is often a concentrated period of trying to figure out exactly which identities we want to possess. In other words, we all ask ourselves, “Who will I be?” We perform each identity with a mix of social and cultural practices that include, but are certainly not limited to, speech, dress and body posture. They’re how we tell others, “I’m like you,” or “We’re different.”

After discussing the ideas of social construction of identity and cultural performance, the B.U. members and I talked about Aristotle’s and Dante’s struggles to figure out who and what they are. Aristotle tries to negotiate how to be Mexican-American, and often says that he feels more white than Mexican. Meanwhile, Dante battles with his parents about what not wearing shoes signifies. For his mother, it’s poverty; but for Dante, it’s liberation. And, of course, both Dante and Aristotle deal with issues of gender performativity.

 

Conflict Resolution Within Families

Dante and Aristotle find no shortage of secrets to try and discover the answers to within their own families. For Aristotle, this is especially true. Rather than engage in meaningful discussions, his family is reluctant – and even refuses, at times – to talk with him about tough issues like having a brother in prison and his dad’s traumatic experience in the Vietnam war. Later, Aristotle learns a totally new secret: that the reason one of his aunts was considered the black sheep of the family was because she was lesbian.

In contrast, Dante is extremely open with his mother and father. Perhaps it is through his influence Aristotle’s family slowly, but surely begins to open up and talk to each other. Aristotle’s former hostility towards his father’s silence disappears once he understands why it’s difficult for him to reveal the gore and guilt that came from the Vietnam war. Similarly, Aristotle’s relationship with both of his parents improves when they agree to acknowledge his brother’s existence rather than keep it hidden in a bedroom drawer.

Favorite Moments

My favorite moment is when our conversations turned to which cultural groups each of us belongs. The B.U. members and I have some groups, or identities, in common, like being from Charleston, being readers, and being a part of prison culture. But more interesting to me are the ones that we don’t have in common, such as race, education, and age group. Despite our differences, we are able, through our love of literature, to come together and have wonderful, insightful conversations.

I also liked discussing how sometimes, like Aristotle, we feel like we don’t belong to certain groups that we are a part of or, in contrast, like we do have certain identities that we would rather not have. I think this amused the B.U. members quite a lot, since they seemed to have previously been under the impression that adulthood promises some sort of magical identity resolution. For my part, I feel that aging out of adolescence has only led to discovering more ways of learning how to find myself.

Books Unbound Member Rating

1.7 out of 5.

The B.U. members’ opposition to same-sex romance brought this rating way down. They all reported that they would have given it 5 stars had it been about heterosexual romance. Despite this, they were able to relate to many other issues in the book, including developing romantic feelings for close friends (though of the opposite sex).