Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Review: I Am J by Cris Beam

A book about a transgender teenage boy of color. Excellent. A book about a transgender teenage boy of color that I can recommend because it's a great book not just because it fills a void? Awesome.

I Am JFor as long as he can remember, J has been positive that he is actually a boy. Unfortunately, the rest of the world doesn't see him that way - to his parents, he is still Jeni, their beloved daughter, despite the short hair, boxers, and baggy male clothes. All his life, J has hoped and prayed for some sort of miracle - that he'd wake up one day and be in the body he belongs in. A few months before his 18th birthday, the next best thing happens: he discovers testosterone shots, the best chance he has before surgery of starting to look how he feels.

Comfortable in his decision to truly live the way he sees himself, J still has a host of obstacles to overcome. Parents that don't want to lose their daughter. A self-absorbed best friend that J might have feelings for. And the cute girl at the downtown Starbucks that definitely has feelings for J - without knowing what he's hiding beneath his layers of clothes. But J is determined that nothing will distract him from his ultimate goal - living as the man he wants to be.

Some of J's struggles are incredibly intense. Reading about the discord between him and his parents was terribly painful, mostly because both of J's parents seem like real people. They're well-meaning, but flawed, blinded by their love for the child they want to be raising rather than the child they have. We see more of J's mother than his father, but his father still makes quite an impact on the scenes he's in.

I loved that, unlike many other LGBT novels, the angst and main conflict in this doesn't stem from J questioning his identity and freaking out over it - from page one J knows that he should have been born in the body of a boy, and the conflict arises from his struggle to get the rest of the world to recognize the validity of that feeling. However, I'm not quite sure I buy the fact that J didn't learn about testosterone or chest binders until he was almost 18 - not when he says he's seen pictures of sexual reassignment surgeries online. But it's about the only convenient coincidence in the novel, and having J learn about these at the start of the novel means we aren't subjected to awkward info-dumps on Trans 101.

This is a beautifully multicultural book - one that reflects what New York City actually looks like. All sizes, shapes, colors, genders, and sexual orientations are represented in a very organic way. The downside is this also means the darker side of people comes out sometimes - it was a little uncomfortable to see gay and trans characters calling bisexuals "gross," but it does go to show that just because you are a member of one oppressed group, that doesn't mean you magically understand and love all others.

Being a cisgendered woman, I can't comment on whether J's story is actually authentic or not - all I can say is that it feels totally real, both the good and the bad parts. Beam includes an author's note that details her research process - she's written a nonfiction book about transgender teen girls and the ideas for J's story sprung from her notes and research on transgender boys that didn't fit into her nonfiction work. She definitely seems like she's done the research, and has done an excellent job of shedding light on an under-represented community.

Reviewed from an ARC picked up at ALA annual 2010. I Am J is now available - check it out soon!
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