Biphobia and The Bermudez Triangle: An Open Letter to Maureen Johnson

jcatgrl:

Dear Maureen,

When my mother got me The Bermudez Triangle for Christmas, I was thrilled. I even tweeted you about it. I had read books with queer characters before, of course (for a bisexual bibliophile, there is no better path to self-discovery), but I had never owned any for myself. I could not wait to begin reading it. Life interfered, however, and a week and a half passed before I could find the time to get more than a couple pages in.

I loved it. I loved it dearly, and you must trust me when I say that I have exacting standards honed by large quantities of novel-length slashfic. I am very difficult to please. But you met those standards, just as you did in The Name of the Star, which was the first of your books I read. However, I was quickly stopped short by a line about a “bisexual sex addict” (pg. 121). Well, one gets used to such deptictions in the media, so I made a displeased face and moved on. Then, just a few chapters later, Avery makes a remark about how “bi girls…go back and forth” (pg. 152). That one stung me. More, it was like a kick to the shin: sudden, unexpected, unwarranted, and painful. I realize that the views of a character are not necessarily the views of the author, but that line hurt enough that I had to put the book down for some time.

Read More

Jessica,

Thank you for your letter. I take this extremely seriously, and it saddened me deeply that anything I wrote might make you feel lesser about your bisexuality. Whatever you TOOK from the book is valid, but it does sadden me deeply that that is what you got. I can only assure that the AUTHOR of the book has only love for bisexual teens. And I’m answering because it so upsets me that I, though unintentionally, brought you any sadness in this regard.

I reply now not to say you are wrong—you’re not wrong. I reply because you asked and wrote such a nice letter and I wanted to tell you a little about what I was doing, or trying to do. Everyone is entitled to their interpretation of my work (or anyone’s work). I can only tell you that this was not my intention. I went into that book only wanting to make something good. I wanted to paint the picture complexly, warts and all. The Bermudez Triangle was the second YA novel I wrote—and I was writing it slightly on top of my first book, The Key to the Golden Firebird. What I wanted to do, more than anything, was to make teenagers that were real. I did a series of interviews with lesbian and bisexual women, asking them quite specifically about their experiences coming out in high school. As you can imagine, I got a wildly differing set of replies. I asked what book they would have wanted to see as teenagers—what kind of book would have spoken to a young lesbian or bisexual girl, and the answer I got was really just—ones with them in it. Ones with an actual story and a romance and real stuff. Real stuff. That was the key.

To address a specific concern:

“Then, just a few chapters later, Avery makes a remark about how “bi girls…go back and forth” (pg. 152) … . It hurt me to see, from an author and a person who I admire, a description of bisexual girls going back and forth, with the implication that none of us could ever be satisfied with a monogamous relationship, or that if we do “settle down”, then we’re actually gay, or actually straight.”

Avery is moving around not because she is bi, but because she is seventeen. She says this because she’s criticizing herself in a non-helpful way (more on this below). She only dates two people in the book—Mel and Gaz. She isn’t in any way out of control. Wanting to make out with two different people when you are seventeen (or really, any age) is not sex addition. It’s super normal. The same thing happens to Nina. Gay, straight, bisexual, anywhere on the spectrum—age seventeen is going to throw you some curveballs. Most people have no idea what they want at seventeen. This isn’t just about sexuality—this is about life, career, education, the future in general. There are a lot of options out there. Of course she can settle down! But she’s not going to do it yet. None of them are. If you think this is a treatment I reserve for bisexual characters, see all my other books for details because NO ONE IS SPARED. I don’t really do the happily-ever-after at seventeen stories. I do the “oh my God what is even happening to me” ones where everyone is on fire. I’d mention specifics but then I’d been giving spoilers and THEY WOULD COME FOR ME IN THE NIGHT.

I should point out, then, that there are Bermudez spoilers below.

At its heart, Bermudez is a story about friendship, and what you do with friendship when some of the friends begin to date. The romance part of this story had a full arc—it was about a getting together, a being together, and a breaking up. One person in this book had to be the breaker-upper and one person the dumpee. Breakups are always bad. Breakups make weird crap go through our heads, no matter what side we are on. It’s a million times worse when we still really care about the other person.

Because we currently live in a goofy, hetronormative world that falsely assumes everyone is cisgendered—we get problems when normal, healthy kids start to come into their sexual natures and smack up against this wall of garbage. Morons tell them they can’t be gay or bi or genderqueer. Avery, too, has this in her head. Frankly, her biggest surprise isn’t that she likes girls—it’s that she likes MEL, who has been her friend FOREVER. That’s the shocker. But then, she realizes that she also likes guys. She’s having the first realization that’s she bi. She isn’t being a great girlfriend to her very good friend—not because she is bi, but because this is a young, sweet romance between friends, and they have all that friend stuff in the background. They used to spend a bazillion hours a day together, but that can be super-weird when you date. They have to cross the friend-girlfriend divide, and not everyone survives the crossing. This is totally normal. And when you realize you might break up with someone you really have deep feelings for, the confusion and the self-loathing come up.

Avery basically asks herself—what the hell is wrong with me? This is something almost every person asks themselves one time or another, for a million different reasons. We always think there’s something WRONG with us and that’s why we run into conflict with the world, and how things theoretically SHOULD be. We tell ourselves we should be better or smarter or faster or nicer or thinner or more productive or blahblahblahblahblah. Anything but what we are. It’s not so much about her bisexuality, but about the fact that she has what SHOULD be the perfect girlfriend (Mel) and she’s breaking up with her. But, still, she is breaking up. Because people break up. And Avery, who does not pull punches, turns on herself as the person doing the breaking. She does use commentary that comes from the world at large, commentary that happens to be bullshit. I did this because these are the kinds of real feelings that come up, and I wasn’t going to make it less real because Avery was bisexual. (She’s not straight, by the way. She’s only dated one girl so far.)

Also, Avery’s not a baddie for breaking up. People do break up. But I think she feels like a baddie because it’s Mel. Avery feels deeply responsible and guilty about what she feels she must do. I didn’t just want to write a queer romance, but a breakup as well, because the breakup is the rub. When you break up at seventeen, you tend to reach out for anything that tells you that it’s survivable and other people have walked that path before. (Spoiler: it’s survivable. It just sucks so bad.) Had Avery managed the breakup and never felt bad, she would have been kind of a monster.

What you are saying is totally understandable. There you are, a bisexual teen, and you’re waiting for SOMEONE to come along and be bisexual in a book and be totally comfortable with it so you could finally point to one and say, “There’s my girl. Well-adjusted and happy!” This is a reasonable thing to want. On the whole, I think Avery is, because she often has the most accurate take on a situation. Except when it comes to herself. This is a pattern that’s pretty common in life, and so it’s the pattern I put in the book. Avery is a grouch, and I happen to love her. I see nothing wrong with her grouchiness. The roiling feelings she has now will mellow with experience.

We now reach the part where I consider talking about all the people who write and talk about how Bermudez helped them in a good way and was exactly the book they needed. I will accomplish that in the previous, rather awkward sentence. It reached some people. I am sorry it didn’t give you what you needed at the time. And I DO understand. I might do it differently now, as I now know more about the general sweep of YA lit. And things have changed in the last ten years. And you are RIGHT—we need more bisexual characters, and some of them need to be more HAPPY. 

But honestly? I might not. I might keep grumpy Avery just as grumpy as ever, and I might have her say the same things to herself, as people do say these kinds of things to themselves. Characters need flaws and need to make mistakes and yeah, as you say, they often say things that have nothing to do with the author’s beliefs. And some books will hit with some people and miss with others. And maybe I screwed the whole thing up, but I certainly tried. Never doubt that I tried.

So, okay, now you have my thought process in the creation of this part of the story. Does it make ANY difference? I hope at least it reassures you about what I MEANT to do, at least. There will always be a gulf between the writing of the book and how it reaches the reader. We write, and then it goes away, and what happens to the book after that— well, we don’t have a say any more. After that, it is your book. If this is how you feel, it’s valid. Full stop. I am permitted my sadness over your sadness, but that’s it.

And I will tell you how extremely happy it makes me that there are happy and out bisexual girls out there. More of this, please. More of it. Because, ten years out from the writing of that book, this is what I was hoping we would have more of. And more and more until every one of these walls of garbage comes down. I will also tell you that I will tighten my thinking cap when it comes to my bisexual characters. There is much in the commentary for me to think about. I only want to be better in this regard.

Also, I am thrilled to pieces for your personally for coming out in an atmosphere that was homophobic. You win, you win, you win. Take me to task any time you like. I may reply, but I reply thinking you are awesome.

With love,

mj

[Note: The Bermudez Triangle is now called On the Count of Three, in case you are all, WHAT IS THIS BOOK? The name was changed because Penguin suggested giving it a new title to give it a new lease on life in a re-release.]