I was, and often still am, made ashamed for not being “manly” enough. It happens less than when I was younger, but back in high school I wore tight pants, wrote formalist poetry, became a vegetarian, grew my hair out, turned down one of the most popular girls in school, and listened to pop-punk bands like Motion City Soundtrack and Fall Out Boy. People called me a “faggot.” My girlfriend at the time presented me with a list of 27 reasons why she thought I might be gay.
I stood there, blinking.
Point being: I’ve had to deal with my lifestyle choices being indicative of my sexuality all my life. It kind of sucks, which is why I found solace in books like Tomboy by Liz Prince. Tomboy is a memoir, yes, but the categorization of “memoir” makes me think of sappy, navel-gazing books onto which Oprah slaps her famous book club sticker. Tomboy, however, is the opposite of that. It’s too punk rock for Oprah. Tomboy is Bryan Lee O’ Malley meets Bikini Kill. It’s Persepolis meets Perfect Pussy.
Did I mention, too, that it’s for young adults?
Eat your heart out, John Green.
Although Tomboy is a great read, it is by no means a perfect one. To get the major flaw out of the way, I’ll put it bluntly: the story of Liz Prince’s life is boring at times. Of course, unless you’re reading the memoir of Keith Richards or something, you should expect that people lead relatively plain lives. But what I fear is that kids might find it as something to slug through, rather than enjoy. In the age of Angry Birds and iPhones, the YA writer is competing with a lot for a kid’s attention. You would think a book of funny cartoons might do it, but almost three hundred pages of it? They might switch to Minecraft, eventually.
For me, however, a 23-year-old fifth grade teacher and fiction writer, I find that Prince has a talent seldom found in many non-fiction writers: her work doesn’t scream, “Look how terrible my childhood was!” Like Dave Eggers and Steve Almond, two of the best non-fiction authors I’ve ever read, Prince strives for intimate human connection, above all else. The task of the memoirist, unless he or she has lived a fucked drug-fueled sex-crazed odyssey of a life (again, Keith Richards), is to universalize his or her mundane experience so as not reduce his/her reader-base to just like-minded individuals. Despite occasional narrative dullness, Prince is able to dodge this bullet, mining her life story for important messages about finding one’s self, one’s community, one’s sense of happiness in the world.
Here’s my personal favorite nugget of Prince wisdom: “When you don’t look or act like what everyone has been told is the norm, you get proverbially barfed on a lot.”
The story follows Liz Prince’s from a very young age, at which she vehemently detested traditional gender roles. In the opening pages, she screamed when her parents tried to put her in a dress. She loved to play with dirt and reptiles. She even bluntly questions whether or not she was meant to be a boy, instead of a girl. Prince’s narrative continues through most of her adolescence, from elementary education into high school, as she navigates friendships, boy-crazy crushes, issues of fashion, general acceptance, and schoolyard feuds. In other words, it’s subject matter is pretty typical for YA lit.
But there’s more to Prince than that Judy Blume stuff. Liz Prince’s gift, aside from her self-deprecating, Chelsea Martin-esque sense of visual humor, is her accessibility. I teach fifth and fourth graders, and every so often I hear one boy call another boy a woman, as if a gender identification can be an insult. I hear girls make fun of other girls for not being girly enough. I hear boys say, “Cheerleading is lame.” I could just pass this off as kids being kids as so many do, but the issue is that these beliefs are learned, not innate. What Liz Prince is doing in her fiction and cartoons is breaking down those constructions, and thus moving a young reader (or adult reader, like me) toward a greater understanding of the implications of gender roles.
We’ve all been proverbially barfed on, right?
I mean, come on. Even if you hate graphic literature of YA or memoirs, at least check the book out to make yourself a more open-minded person. I mean, I won’t go into how America has an awful relationship to gender. I won’t go into how we live in a male-glorifying, patriarchal, date-rape-and-hide-it nation that likes to put every person in a certain box, because I’m sure you get it. I won’t tell you how people still find themselves in the disorienting throes of gender dysphoria, unsure of how to accept and love their true and beautiful selves, or how tribes of fuckheads like the Westboro Baptist Church tell people God hates them, simply because they don’t fit their idea of how a man or woman should be. I won’t tell you about teenage suicide, Hobby Lobby, Ray Rice, or Barstool Sports.
I mean, really. I won’t get into it.
Greg Letellier is a Pushcart Prize nominated fiction writer, book reviewer, and teacher from Biddeford, Maine. He is the author of the forthcoming chapbook It’s Complicated (2015, Peanut Gallery Press), a collection of stories and Facebook statuses, as well as the limited run of a self-published book entitled Vacationland. His poems, essays, and stories have been featured in array of places, such as The Bicycle Review, Extract(s), Cheap Pop Lit, Thought Catalog, and on The Flexible Persona Podcast.