Lately I’ve been wondering about my novella It Helps with the Blues, whether or not it might bear significance to anyone aside from me and a few people close to me.
It is young adult literature geared toward a queer audience, an audience sorely in need of representation. It is relatively free of didactic passages explaining whatever the central LGBTQ+ topic is, a flaw that sadly plagues most queer YA that’s out there.
But still. I’m not sure how the demographics it’s aimed at would receive it.
My worry here is mainly because the background of the plot relies heavily on the “Bury Your Gays” trope. The trope being that in works of fiction queer characters are killed off and elevated to a larger-than-life status, a sort of transcendence through martyrdom. See Death in Venice, Brokeback Mountain, Boys Don’t Cry, A Single Man, The Hours. The trope is often implemented with good intention. It reveals a pattern of extreme discrimination against these people. Which is definitely a sobering message worth popularizing. But this trope also dehumanizes the character in question, turns them into a tool for a moral point. It tells the queer reader that they don’t get to live in the end, that the world ultimately has only cruelty to offer them.
It Helps with the Blues revolves around the suicide of a young queer character. I’m trying to figure out how one can use this trope well, and if I have succeeded in doing so. Because surely suicide among young queer people is a subject worth touching upon.
One common complaint regarding the trope is that it is often utilized in overly moralizing stories—simple, didactic tales that are created in response to widely-covered tragedies such as Matthew Shepard’s murder. Stories that are created to raise awareness of social injustice. Again, good intentions. But this kind of influence depersonalizes the narrative, makes them more socio-political in nature. And that is distancing for queer audiences, makes them feel treated like an endangered rainforest or the ozone layer rather than people.
I don’t believe that I’m terribly didactic on the subject—in fact the reasons behind the death are never explicitly stated. I was influenced by Cormac McCarthy, who has stated that he really doesn’t see why anyone should write about anything but the confluence of life and death (paraphrasing, but you get the gist). The novella is then intended more as an exploration of the ripples created by that trope (the second chapter is even titled “where ripples become waves”), about how the shock of death affects other people in the community, even those who might not even know the person in question.
Dennis, the queer boy whose suicide sets the plot in motion, isn’t much of a character, I admit. He only shows up for a few pages. But I hope that I humanized him by the way that he affected people post-mortem. Instead of being a martyred body necessary for the completion of the plot, he really is the plot. Not the side character who sacrifices himself at a pivotal moment of mortal danger in an action film, to be remembered fondly in the epilogue right before the surviving characters continue to live their lives in triumph. Not someone who becomes elevated to icon status as a result of their death. Just a person who quietly ended their life, who inadvertently caused a great deal of havoc among his peers.
I wanted to treat his as a small town death, one that creates a shock for a while before people go on with their lives. I wanted to make sure there was a realness to it, tried to avoid making him into a moral tool. Avoid making the character just a paper thin plot device.
I hope I managed that balance. Bury Your Gays is criticized for very fair reasons, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done well. It’s something that’s been so omnipresent in literature that it’s worth extrapolating upon and deconstructing, taking out the bad bits and emphasizing the good. I just hope that I’ve accomplished something with it.