I Need This to Exist: #OwnVoices Reflection on Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

Posted 23rd August 2020 by Siavahda in Blogathons, Let's Dig In: Thoughts, Analysis, Essays, Queer Lit, Thoughts & Essays / 1 Comment

First thing’s first:

What are we doing here?

This post is part of a blog tour organised by the amazing people at Hear Our Voices, who work to connect #ownvoices reviewers to the books that represent us. I was HONOURED to be chosen as one of the participants in the tour for Aidan Thomas’ debut Cemetery Boys!

Since I haven’t read the book yet, I’m going to talk about what it means to me that Cemetery Boys even exists.

What’s Cemetery Boys?

Only one of coolest releases of the year! Here’s the description;

Yadriel has summoned a ghost, and now he can’t get rid of him.

When his traditional Latinx family has problems accepting his gender, Yadriel becomes determined to prove himself a real brujo. With the help of his cousin and best friend Maritza, he performs the ritual himself, and then sets out to find the ghost of his murdered cousin and set it free.

However, the ghost he summons is actually Julian Diaz, the school’s resident bad boy, and Julian is not about to go quietly into death. He’s determined to find out what happened and tie up some loose ends before he leaves. Left with no choice, Yadriel agrees to help Julian, so that they can both get what they want. But the longer Yadriel spends with Julian, the less he wants to let him leave.

But…Um…

Okay, okay, I hear you: what’s a white, half-Irish, half-Welsh girl doing on an #ownvoices tour for Cemetery Boys – a Latinx fantasy about a trans brujo?

Well. The thing is, I’m not a girl.

So you’re trans? Like Yadriel?

No. I’m agender. That means I have no gender at all. You can think of it as being gender-neutral, if you like; genderless, blank, missing a piece you think is vital but that I know is no such thing.

I do use she/her pronouns, because I’m AFAB and at this point in my life, it’s just easier. I’d like to change pronouns someday, but I haven’t found a workable set that I like yet.

Someday.

If you’re not trans, what makes this #ownvoices?

If you’re not a cis man or woman – someone whose gender identity matches up perfectly with the one they were assigned at birth – then you fall under the general umbrella of nonbinary (your gender doesn’t fall into the male/female gender binary) or genderqueer (which means more or less the same thing, but with slightly different connotations, and the umbrella is a bit bigger). Yadriel and I can both be described as nonbinary/genderqueer, though not all trans people describe themselves that way.

More to the point, Yadriel is a young man whose family refuse to accept that he is what (and who) he truly is. He’s perceived as being a girl, even though he isn’t.

And that is something I have plenty of experience with.

When your existence doesn’t fit

Everyone who’s nonbinary/genderqueer knows the struggle to present your true self to the world. It’s maybe a little bit simpler if you’re swapping one of the binary genders for the other – if you’re AFAB but actually a man, or AMAB but actually a woman. If you ask, everyone knows what a woman is and what one looks like; same with a man. That mental image is almost always completely wrong – you can be a woman without liking nail polish and dresses, just like you can by a man without loving fast cars and action movies – but there’s something to be said for having a societally agreed-upon image of what your gender is supposed to look and act like. I’d know what to do to myself, with myself, if I wanted people to look at me and see a guy, you know? Cut my hair. Bind my chest. Ditch the sparkly jewelry. Start testosterone (something that’s easier, here in Finland, than in many other parts of the world) to sort out the curves and lack of facial hair. Easy.

(In theory. It’s not that simple. It never is. But.)

But there is no agreed-upon societal picture for a person who has no gender at all. Even people who understand the concept of being trans often have no idea how to handle the idea of a human being who is completely genderless, especially if you’re not physically androgynous. We call ourselves nonbinary, but plenty – most? – genderqueer identities can be explained to a cis person using a binary gender system as a frame of reference. Genderfluid? Oh, that’s someone who switches back and forth along the gender spectrum. Demigirl? That’s a person who is almost, or partially, a woman. Multigender? Exactly what it sounds like. And so on. But trying to explain the concept of agender means trying to get them to think outside the spectrum completely. And a lot of people can’t quite do that.

What do you wear, how do you present, which parts of your body do you carve so that people see you as being without gender? Is that even possible, in a society as obsessed with gender as ours is?

(This is all making my situation sound rather desperate and dramatic. It’s not. I have so many advantages people of other gender identities don’t – when you look like a white woman, those come with the territory, no matter what you are on the inside. And while my gender identity might garner confusion, I’ve never yet seen it garner hatred, which way too many other nonbinary people have to deal with. So let’s not pretend for one second that being agender is The Hardest Thing. At least not my experience of it.)

Why Cemetery Boys matters

For Yadriel, making others see him as a man isn’t about how he presents visually; it’s about what he does. He performs an act of magic that, in his family’s tradition, can only be performed by men. He anchors his identity by claiming his heritage, by reinventing or reclaiming old traditions. And maybe that’s the only way to do it – take the old, and mix it with the new, and live it. Don’t present or perform – be.

I think that’s saying something really important.

Cemetery Boys is about a young man whose family see a girl when they look at him, whose world insists he stay in the role he was assigned at birth. It’s about a boy who breaks out of the mould everyone wants to force him into, and makes them see who he is. It’s a story about being yourself as powerfully as you can be, no matter how that shatters other people’s expectations or understanding of gender.

We need those stories. I need those stories.

Every time we get a nonbinary character – whether they’re trans or genderfluid or demi – we get a little closer to a world that has space for me in it. To a world that has a framework for understanding what the hell I am. And Cemetery Boys – seeing how much hype there has been for this book, how excited people are for it and how intensely anticipated it is by so many corners of the reading community – it makes me incredibly happy and hopeful. It demonstrates that more cis people are interested in nonbinary rep; it demonstrates that they understand what trans means – or if they don’t, they’ll learn as they read. And if they can understand what trans means, they’re on their way to understanding other nonbinary identities.

Ten years ago, I don’t think Cemetery Boys would have gotten the reception it’s getting now. Maybe in ten more years, we’ll all be this excited for a fantasy with an agender lead.

So for me? Cemetery Boys is more than just an incredible story. It’s a promise that, not so far from now, people will understand agender like they understand trans. It’s a stepping stone to that future. It’s a signal that the reading community and publishing industry have room for my genderqueer siblings in them – and hopefully even more of us, soon.

It’s a book about not seeing a girl when you look at someone girl-shaped, and its reach is going to be huge. So many people are going to learn, or be reminded, of that lesson: that you can’t tell a person’s gender by looking. That a person’s true nature has nothing to do with what they look like.

And it’s a celebration of being yourself, embracing who you are, no matter what. It’s a reminder to us nonbinary kids as well: that we’re the ones who decide who and what we are, and no one can take that away from us.

Cemetery Boys proves the magic will back us up if we call on it.

Magic shapes Yadriel’s world. Stories shape ours. Books like Cemetery Boys normalise the concepts and issues of nonbinary genders to readers who’ve never come across those things before. Those readers will talk about these things with their families and friends. And because Cemetery Boys is a book about a trans guy working magic with ghosts – a book with a trans lead, but not a book about trans-ness, not trauma-porn or anything like it – it’s showing that Yadriel – that all us nonbinary folx – are just like everybody else. We’re still human, we still have adventures, we still love. You might find our genders (or lack thereof) confusing, but it doesn’t actually make us into anything you have to fear or hate. Books like Cemetery Boys are vital to getting that through the heads of people who need to hear it. They’re a vital part of creating a world that’s more accepting of our differences, a world that treasures human diversity.

And me?

I think of Yadriel’s magic, and I remember that another word for agender is gendervoid. As if, where my gender is supposed to be, I have a supermassive black hole, capable of consuming and crushing anything – and anyone – who comes at me about what I’m supposed to be. As if I am the void, the distilled essence of creation from which anything and everything comes. As if I can be whatever I want.

I don’t know if I’ll ever live in a world where people see a void when they look at me. But like Yadriel, whatever others say, I can live my truth.

Cemetery Boys will be released on September 1st. If you haven’t preordered your copy yet, go do it already!

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
Representation: Trans MC of Colour, Latinx, M/M or mlm, cast of colour
on 1st September 2020
Genres: Urban Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Goodreads

Yadriel has summoned a ghost, and now he can’t get rid of him.

When his traditional Latinx family has problems accepting his gender, Yadriel becomes determined to prove himself a real brujo. With the help of his cousin and best friend Maritza, he performs the ritual himself, and then sets out to find the ghost of his murdered cousin and set it free.

However, the ghost he summons is actually Julian Diaz, the school’s resident bad boy, and Julian is not about to go quietly into death. He’s determined to find out what happened and tie up some loose ends before he leaves. Left with no choice, Yadriel agrees to help Julian, so that they can both get what they want. But the longer Yadriel spends with Julian, the less he wants to let him leave.

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