Before I delve in, I want to cover what this post is not.
This post is NOT a call out to anyone on either side of the issue. I know people on both sides, and I happen to respect their opinions and greatly appreciate them as people, so even if I am openly disagreeing with anyone, I'm not in any way judging their character. They're all great.
This is NOT an argument against trigger warnings. This book should have been LOADED with trigger warnings, which is why I've done my best to warn about it on my social media. Clearly, I should do some more, and I'll keep this in mind going forward.
What this post IS is an intricate examination of the novel "More Happy Than Not" and how I feel about the representation and problematic elements handled within it. You don't have to agree with me, but I do ask that if you read this post and take issue with anything I've said, you either address it to me directly, or at least handle the situation in a polite manner because I'm using up about all the spoons I have left just to compose this post.
So, "More Happy Than Not". Wow. What a book.
The story is about this kid named Aaron and he's a Puerto Rican kid growing up in a pretty backwards neighborhood suffering from depression and also internalized homophobia. Jeez, we already need trigger warnings.
So, I'm not going to delve into the details of the plot because I simply don't have the time, but I'm going to tear apart some of the big picture ideas and the rep, so there will be spoilers, but I'll try to keep them relatively light.
Aaron is not a "good" person. Allow me to reiterate this. Aaron should not be anybody's role model, and the narrative does an excellent job of framing this using the basic literary techniques most readers are familiar with. The most obvious of which is the story's ending: an unhappy one. We've been trained that good actions warrant positive rewards and bad actions warrant punishment. I think it's pretty easy to agree that Aaron doesn't get a happy ending.
Now, people are going to say, "the kill your gays trope!" and there's a ton of reasons why this does apply.
1. He didn't actually die. Unhappy ending =/= death.
2. His unhappy ending doesn't serve to further a straight person's plot line.
3. The story is ownvoices, and while this doesn't remove harmful elements, it does show that being gay isn't just a casual prop thrown in for kicks. This story is an extension of the author.
So back to Aaron's unhappy ending. His ending is a result entirely of his own actions. This means that his unhappiness is brought on by himself, not by an outside force. This is a CAUTIONARY TALE. It tells the story of someone doing something bad and faces negative consequences for it. Aaron engages in ableism, heterosexism, etc. He is a product of a backwards upbringing that brings about his unhappy ending.
The narrative also frames the "negative" influence on Aaron in the way it portrays his environment. My personal favorite was the "no homo." These boys toss it around like they've never heard another phrase, and it's so obviously homophobic that it's clear our gay author wrote it in to EMPHASIZE the homophobia, not dismiss it.
Finally, there's the issue of Aaron's biphobia and assuming that Thomas is gay even though he never claims to be. Aaron, our very flawed protagonist, attempts to assume a character's sexuality and HE GETS IT WRONG. Throughout the entire story, he strings himself along pining after someone because he refuses to accept that this kid knows his own sexuality, and guess what? Aaron ends up unhappy and alone, which is further affirmation that Aaron was wrong.
In other words, while Aaron is never called out for being a casual douche, the narrative frames him this way. The story is about a boy who comes from ignorance, internalizes this ignorance, and then suffers the consequences of actions developed from this ignorance. It's a cautionary tale warning about internalizing the ignorance of society. Just because you come from it doesn't make it right. Learn better or you'll suffer.
Now, this is where the #ownvoices part really comes in, and this is the part I really want to unpack.
The story is a cautionary tale. I've said this like three times so far in this post, and this matters because this is a LATINX story. If you don't have any familiarity with Latinx stories, you should know that they're full of cautionary tales. Don't do this or the creepy lady will drown you and eat your family kind of cautionary tales. Latinx culture is full of stories that terrify kids into sleeping with one eye open so they don't end up like the victims of the story.
*Cough* Puerto Rican *Cough*
But even more than just the cautionary elements of this story, understand that Silvera is portraying Puerto Rican culture. Now, if you're not part of a culture, it's hard to understand how a culture works or see through it's eyes, but believe me when I say that Latinx communities (mostly) can be EXTREMELY conservative. This means casual racism, ableism, homophobia, etc. These are VERY common.
Does this make them okay? No. But understand that it would be completely fake for a story about Latinx characters to completely overlook these elements. The way that they're portrayed in this novel actually made me excited because of just how accurate they were.
Back to Aaron. He hates that he's gay. He absolutely loathes it. This level of internalized homophobia is often the Latinx experience. And no, I'm not saying you won't find queer Latinx people who totally accept themselves. That would be complete BS, but understand that most start somewhere like this, in a community that doesn't accept them so they learn not to accept themselves.
You can tell from the beginning that Aaron comes from one of these backwards communities. He has a friend called "Me Crazy", which is pretty ableist right? Yup, but do you know how casual these things are in Latinx communities? Do you know how many friends I had constantly called "crazy", how many people I know who were literally nicknamed "fat" or "skinny", how many times people referred to Japanese people as "China". These things are part of the Latinx experience, and leaving them out is catering to a white readership, not a Latinx one.
Why? Because when you come from this sort of community and step out into the world of social justice, you feel like garbage. You wonder how you were ever so ignorant, what sort of horrible person you must have been to hold these misconceptions, and how horrible you must STILL BE because you haven't quite removed all of these from your worldview yet.
When readers from these communities read this story, they're not just relating to the character, but relating to the author. It's an amazing feeling to know that your experience is not just an okay experience to have, but something that people can actually learn from.
And back to the story.
So I'm going to reframe several of the "problematic" issues in the novel with a little bit of #ownvoices perspective.
1. "Me Crazy"
I read a novel recently by one of the most famous latinx feminist authors. The story had a character named "La Loca". My first thought was, ugh, ableism, and my second thought was, yeah, I'm really not surprised though.
Terminology like this is SUPER common in Latinx communities. Not only did I have friends who told me that I would one day "end up in a strait jacket", but I was right there along with them, internalizing all that ableism, and talking about how "crazy" I was. This was middle school. We were very casual about all the ignorance we spewed.
Fast forward to present day, and even when I go home, people use these terms. They're common in Latinx communities. I keep repeating this for a reason.
There's a completely different mentality in these communities when it comes to causal ableism. My personal favorite are the people who think that "crazy" is kinda offensive, but will turn around and call someone "loco". A lot of Latinx/Americans I know think words are less offensive once they're in Spanish, and I'm pretty sure this stems from their casual usage. I can't explain my upbringing without mentioning them.
We have the issue of Aaron thinking that Thomas is gay. Gay is the only option he gives, not bi, not pan, not anything else. Is this biphobia? Sure, yeah. It's basically a text book case of bi erasure. Now, I'm not bi, I'm pan, but considering the fact that pan is given even LESS recognition than bi, I'm just going to classify them together for this. I'm in the nook of overlap, so I really don't mind identifying as either.
So, to frame Aaron's biphobia and why it's not "problematic" in regards to the narrative, we've got to look back at a few things. Again, Aaron is a problematic character. He does bad things. He gets an unhappy ending.
But more than that, Aaron comes from a very conservative neighborhood in which he actually thinks "no homo" is a valid statement. But beyond that, looking further into Latinx communities, let me explain why it makes perfect sense that Aaron may not have even heard the word "bisexual" before.
When you come from a community that's EXTREMELY homophobic, that considers "gay" a sin and wants to pray it out of you, the rest of the spectrum is largely ignored. It took me a little while to even pick up the word "lesbian". When "gay"="evil", no one cares "what kind of gay" you are. They're all the same.
To put this is some perspective, I had dinner with a friend last month, and she was talking about how excited she was to have learned so much about the LGBT+ community before misgendering a trans friend and saying in regards to bi, pan, and poly, "ugh, why do you we need so many terms anyway??" She's 21 years old and considers herself progressive.
And the sad part is, she IS progressive compared to the rest of the people in our high school. I knew someone who didn't think gay characters should be allowed on casual television (with or without PDA btw).
So, to have this child who obviously hates his own sexuality enough to want to have the whole thing erased not consider bisexuality is really just a part of the process. It wouldn't have been realistic to his background if he had.
3. Wanting to die at the end
At the end of the story, he's diagnosed with anterograde amnesia, and says that there's no point to living like that. This one is particularly delicate, but I still want to approach it with nuance because this character is suicidal.
Does this feed the narrative of disable lives aren't worth living? I don't know, and here's why.
Aaron is suicidal. He's been suicidal the whole story. When you're suicidal, most things make life seem not worth living. "You can't go to that party." "Well, I guess I'll just die then."
It's a meme, but it's true. When you're suicidal, everything is a reason to give up. It just is, and there really isn't a work around.
In the end, he doesn't die, and this ending is shown to be "more happy than not" (buh dum tssss). He may never make a single new memory, but his family and his friends are there to care for him because they love him. The ending is tragic (largely because of how terrified Aaron is), but he still chooses to live. So in the end, this suicidal boy ends up living despite his condition. I wouldn't say this invalidates disabled lives, but my only *diagnosed* disability is ADHD, so I won't act like an expert on this.
So, while this novel is extremely painful to read and very triggering, it's also very ACCURATE. Understand that there are very few narratives that show these perspectives, and because this is ownvoices, this story is really providing a lot of an audience that is often overlooked.
So what I'm asking of you is to consider before you label this novel "problematic" because there are a lot of people who need this story who will feel compelled not to read it with reviews like that. People are terrified of inauthentic rep, so when a story gets the rep this right, dissuading other ownvoices from reading it is... Well, it sucks.
I'm sure I didn't cover everything, and if there is anything that you have questions about, you can ask me, but I can't promise when I'll get back to you on it.
My parting words are thus: Be careful when you read and review ownvoices stories, especially if the marginalizations aren't your own. It's very hard to critique the ownvoices elements of a novel because you're essentially telling the author (and whoever agrees with that perspective) that their experience is wrong. Even if you are of that marginalization, while your experience may be different, that doesn't make a different experience wrong.
So, non ownvoices reviewers, keep doing your thing, but if you reach a story that no ownvoices reviewers have said anything negative about, consider how that experience might change the meaning of some of these elements, and if you're unsure, ask someone who would better be able to frame the story with context.