In the age of Trump and bathroom bills, now seems like a good time to launch an LGBTQ lit column. When I was coming out in the early 1990s, lesbian lit options ranged from Jeanette Winterson’s wry Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Virginia Woolf’s magical, gender-hopping Orlando to the Zoloft-necessitating Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. Queer characters were nearly all white with a few exceptions, like Jewell Gomez’s Gilda in The Gilda Stories—about a badass multiracial lesbian vampire.
Some of these books were revelatory, regardless of their queer content, like Orlando. Some were fun but forgettable, like Desert of the Heart. But there wasn’t much that felt of the moment.
Much of recent queer YA lit, like Madeleine George’s The Difference Between You and Me, with its out-and-proud main character, reads like it’s happening now. It’s also more diverse. In Gabby Rivera’sJuliet Takes a Breath, the Bronx-born Juliet struggles with coming out to her Puerto Rican family and class stratification. Emily m. danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post deals with conversation therapy, and Julie Ann Peters’ books explore multiple contemporary queer issues, including trans identity.
In Misa Sugiura’s “utterly vital” (said Kirkus’ starred review) It’s Not Like It’s a Secret, the cast includes Japanese-American, Vietnamese-American, and Mexican-American characters. And the lead, Sana Kiyohara, has a lot on her mind aside from her orientation—calculus, Instagramming, soba noodles, and poetry, along with racism, infidelity, and the cost of casual assumptions. For Kirkus’ first LGBTQ column, we’re happy to talk with Sugiura about her debut novel.
The poems that Sana muses on in the book—Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” Ana Castillo’s “I Ask the Impossible,” Sandra Cisneros’ “Loose Woman,” etc.—seem engineered to spark interest in young adults. How did you decide which to include?
Some of the poems are old favorites of mine, and some I discovered the same way Sana does in the book—by entering search terms on poetry websites and browsing hundreds of poems. I only looked at poetry by women, and of course it was important to me to include women of color and LGBTQ women. I believe in the value of poems that require us to work before we love them, but for the book, I chose poems that I loved instantly, or almost instantly. I wanted the poetry to be like an exciting side trip that inspires another, more extensive exploration.
The diverse cast has plenty to say about racism (“Jews like purple”; “Asian girls aren’t lesbian”) as well as classism, homophobia, and infidelity. What strategies did you use to tackle weighty subjects without getting preachy?
I think that if you take on the perspective and voice of a teen who’s trying to figure things out, it’s hard to get preachy, even about heavy topics. When I wrote, I often felt like I was exploring the issues along with the characters; my goal for the most difficult scenes was about raising questions as much as it was about answering them, because I certainly don’t have all the answers.
Food plays a prominent role here. Sana’s description of eating tsukimi-soba is tantalizing—“I poke a hole in the egg yolk with my chopsticks and stir the yolk into the noodle broth a little. It makes a rich, silky contrast to the salty broth and chewy soba noodles.” What do you like to cook and/or eat?
I love all the foods in the book. My mom cooked most of them when I was growing up, and in a lot of ways, the descriptions of those dishes are my love letter to her. A dish that I love to make for my family is gyōza; it’s pretty labor intensive to make from scratch, but the results are always worth the work.
How did your experiences as a high school English teacher shape the book?
The great thing about being an English teacher was that my whole job was to get teenagers to find meaning in literature and to express their opinions on a wide range of topics. That meant that we talked a lot about our own lives and the big ideas that give meaning to life and literature. I got to know my students, who were as diverse as the students at Sana’s school, as thinking, feeling human beings with all kinds of opinions and experiences. They were absolutely the inspiration—and the foundation, really—for the kids in the book.
Which other LGBTQ books did you read to prepare for It’s Not Like It’s A Secret? And was there a topic you hadn’t seen in LGBTQ lit that you wanted to address?
I read Keeping You a Secret, The Bermudez Triangle, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel, and Openly Straight, among others. With the exception of Tell Me Again, all of the LGBTQ protagonists I saw in contemporary YA were white, which gave me extra motivation to write It’s Not Like It’s a Secret way back in 2014. (Things have really changed since then!) Also, the problems that arose between the characters and their love interests were often centered around being queer; I wanted to write a relationship where queerness was not the central focus—where it was normalized—as the couple struggle to deal with other problems.
Karen Schechner is the vice president of Kirkus Indie.