This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron is on sale on June 29, 2021.
By Kalynn Bayron
Relationships with family and friends are at the heart of young adult novels. Whether it’s contemporary or historical, fantasy, or sci-fi, it is always about the human connections. YA fiction is such a good place to explore the complexities of these often complicated and ever-evolving relationships. As teenagers, we’re learning who we are and what we stand for, we push boundaries and test limits, especially with the people closest to us. It makes sense that so many YA novels explore the relationship between parents/guardians and our teenage protagonists, but if that’s the case, where are all the queer families?
Recently, we have seen more visibility for queer YA. In 2020, we saw a slew of queer YA that encompassed multiple genres and saw inclusive, intersectional protagonists. It’s a welcome change that has been a long time coming. This visibility doesn’t always translate into true equity for queer creators but being seen counts for something and is an important part of the process. As we move forward and bring more queer stories to the page, I always ask myself what more we can do as creators to broaden the kind of stories being told. Queer experiences are vast and varied so there will always be room for stories that center on different aspects of queer identity but where do we go from there and where will I choose to focus my energy?
The thing that always pushes its way to the front of my mind is that we’re still struggling to see queer parents, family members, and friends that are also Black, Indigenous, and people of color in these narratives. When we talk about nuanced representation, we have to go further. We must show the ways in which queer people exist as main characters but also as friends, as family. In my latest novel, This Poison Heart, my main character Briseis has two moms. They are queer Black women. They are loving, supportive, they fuss over whether Briseis has her phone charged when she goes out, they worry about her, they’re deeply in love with each other and they have created an environment within their home that allows Bri, who is also queer, to feel safe and secure.
As I was creating these characters, I made an effort to show this family dealing with the common ups and downs of everyday life in a way that showcased their polar opposite personalities, their fears, their joys, and ultimately their unconditional love for each other. I kept asking myself why this felt so special to me? This is a completely normal thing in my world but as I put it on the page, I began to think of what it means to show queer communities of color in this joyful light.
My queer friends and family are raising kids, doing carpool, arranging socially distanced movie nights, stressing over college applications, and wondering why TikTok dances are so complicated. We’re fussing over our fur-babies and trying to figure out bills and balancing jobs. These are the people I was writing into my novel and it felt radical. Why? If I’m being honest, it is because I am so used to seeing queer families depicted as caricatures, only vaguely resembling actual queer people. It’s as if someone with no real window into different queer spaces tried to render us from memory, a mash-up of stereotypes and untruths—queer people through the cishet white gaze. Writing characters who more accurately represent me and the people around me is an act of resistance.
I am the queer parent of a queer kiddo. My family and friends are dotted with queer aunties, uncles, and other folks that have become family by choice. I have this wonderful network of people I love and care about, but I have come to understand that it is yet another facet of my life and identity that I don’t often get to see represented in YA. This is not to say that it hasn’t been done. I’ve seen nuanced, beautifully written portrayals of queer families in work by L.L. McKinney, Nic Stone, Akwaeke Emezi, and Camryn Garrett. Their stories—which are award-winning, bestselling, and critically acclaimed—have begun to show us what is possible, and I want more.
I want to see more queer families that include queer parents, queer extended family, queer elders, and more than anything I’d like to see queer families that stand at the intersections of marginalized race, gender, and sexuality.
Publishing, as a whole, has taught readers to expect a certain type of narrative when reading stories about Black and/or queer people—pain. For a very long time, there has been an expectation that if you are writing about Black people, queer people, you must be willing to put your deepest trauma on display and that the only way for people who do not share our identities to see us as human is for them to witness us at our most vulnerable. It says our stories are not worth hearing unless they are drenched in blood, brutality, and dehumanization particularly when we’re writing about queer Black communities. While stories that explore this pain will always have a part to play, we cannot only be defined by pain. Shaped by it, affected by it, yes, but it cannot be the only truth we’re allowed to tell about ourselves.
There is room for more. This is why writing Mom, Mo, and Briseis as a tight family unit felt so special to me. Queer Black joy is a radical act of defiance and self-love that calls on readers to come close and bear witness to our joys, our love, our triumphs. We exist in spaces that are joyful, soft, hopeful, and we deserve to be seen in that light as often as we are seen in any other.
Kalynn Bayron is the bestselling author of the award-winning YA fantasy CINDERELLA IS DEAD. She is a classically trained vocalist and when she’s not writing you can find her listening to Ella Fitzgerald on loop, attending the theater, watching scary movies, and spending time with her kids. She currently lives in San Antonio, Texas with her family.