When people think of love, romantic love comes to mind. It is often tied with sexual attraction and the act of sex, seemingly inseparable.
As a result, asexual people who experience romantic attraction but not sexual attraction have a hard time explaining their identity to potential romantic partners as well as friends and family. In Claire Kann’s debut young adult novel Let’s Talk About Love the main lead is a Black biromantic asexual girl named Alice who is learning to redefine and appreciate the several types of love she experiences.
When it comes to asexuality, it is important to note that it exists on a spectrum that consists of a lack of sexual attraction as well as a lack of romantic attraction. Let’s Talk About Love features only one facet and experience of asexuality and should not be treated as a definitive text. However, there is no denying that it’s a notable book in more ways than one. Unlike most teen coming-of-age stories, this one is set in college during summer. This allows for a realistic, easygoing plot that focuses on self-discovery.
When the novel opens, Alice has just been dumped by her girlfriend Margot because she doesn’t understand Alice’s asexuality. Alice is especially hurt because Margot thinks that Alice doesn’t want to have sex with her because she doesn’t love her. Since Alice is already uncomfortable with being open with her asexuality, this breakup makes things worse. As a result, she has a hard time recognizing her feelings for her new library co-worker Takumi and dreads coming out to him.
With the help of a therapist, Alice starts to get in touch with her feelings, becomes closer to Takumi and her friends Fennie and Ryan, and starts moving out from under her parents’ career expectations. As she does this, she comes to realize the various types of love she is capable of experiencing and enjoying without giving in to heteronormative expectations. A fun aspect of this is Alice’s love for pop culture.
Although it’s not a major part of the book, Alice’s passion for pop culture is such a quirky and charming part of her character that you can’t help but smile. Thinking of love and passion in terms of how much you enjoy a thing is valuable; to see Alice do this so naturally is wonderful. She jokes about getting a degree in watching Netflix and Hulu. She cosplays as Velma Dinkley from Scooby Doo. It’s amusing and nice because it becomes something she shares with her friends and Takumi out of love for them.
In fact, Alice’s love for her friends Feenie and Ryan are just as powerful as her feelings for her love interest Takumi. In the book, she finds herself becoming a third wheel to Feenie and Ryan, slowly drifting apart from them as she spends more time with Takumi. After an incident where she feels her friends abandoned her, she and her friends become estranged until they have a talk about how they need to balance their relationships with each other.
It’s important to note Alice’s friendships.
Some young adult books focus on romance more than friendship, especially when romance is a major part of the plot. When a girl gets a love interest in a book like The Fault in Our Stars or Pushing the Limits, it feels like the girl’s entire world revolves around them. Another notable factor in this book is the rarity of having a Black female teen dealing with things like romance and friendship instead of extreme hardship. Although Alice does deal with microgressions, her personality is that of a carefree Black girl trying to happily live her life.
Meanwhile, Alice’s relationship with Takumi is notable because it evolves from friendship to romance. In fact, ninety-five percent of the book involves friendship. While this caused the romance scenes to be rushed at the end, having their friendship grow to romance works in Alice’s favor. Alice is allowed to figure out what exactly attracts her to Takumi, what type of attraction she feels for him, and how much she likes him versus how much she is attracted to him. Takumi is allowed to do the same and his relationship with Alice is all the better for it.
All in all, Let’s Talk About Love is a wonderful exploration of love in various forms. Alice’s coming-of-age story is entertaining and thoughtful because it shows that friendship, romance without sex, and personal passions are filled with just as much love as anything sexual. It forces the reader to consider what makes love special to them and why certain types of love are given a higher value than others. Let’s Talk About Love both entertains and starts a conversation; more people should be reading and talking about this book.
We have a variety of many-legged bug, some variety of arthropod. They like our brick house, our cement-floor basement, the clay soil, our proximity to the lake shore.
No matter how many times I hear the entomologist on public radio assure me these particular bugs are harmless, only unsightly, I want to kill them all. I put out glue traps, chase and flatten their long bodies, their multijointed legs. They skitter across me as I sleep. Even on the hottest nights, I must have a sheet fully covering me—just in case. There has been midnight panic: thrashing limbs, a tangle of sheets, cursing of the centipedes to wake an entire block. A few weeks ago I woke to the flurry of feet on my cheek; slapped and threw the thing against the wall. In the morning, I found its carcass: poor Gregor, the curled husk was at least an inch long.
The world is full of signs and wonders, portents. Tara Betts’s poem “A Season of No” has a spider wake her. The speaker is asleep on the floor, and the arthropod flutters her forearm, waking her. But this visitor is welcome. It calls her back to herself, breaks a spell. It is maybe a descendent of Anansi, an answer to the femme fatale spider woman, rebuke to a Dwight Yoakam lyric. The spider helps the speaker Break the Habit.
Folklore, more specifically fairy tale, has girls and women sacrificing much for love—their legs, their voices. They show devotion by cutting off their hands and wandering the world. As Betts chronicles the story of love, she touches on these themes. In “Ink on the Sheets,” the speaker worries about forgetting to cap a pen, explains, “after the divorce you get rid of all the bedding / you shared.” After the divorce—or maybe even before—“they felt like trying to sleep / on a hardened pea.” In stories about the creative woman, the intellectual woman, the investigative woman, a common theme emerges: at some point, to keep him, the girl/woman is offered a choice. She must sacrifice some integral part of herself. When the spider jolts you awake, you were on the floor, cast out of the marital bed, a pen loose in your hand, blank pages in front of you.
Betts’s poetry urges the reader to be awake to the world, to break the habit of inattention. In her poem “Acupuncture,” she writes, “after the last needle was drawn, I knew / people could be footnotes, or pain,” juxtaposing the body’s resilience with its permeability. By the end of the collection, she returns to spider stories: the Greek weaving goddesses, the Druids who believe a spider portends a creative project calling to be finished.
“Another Clearing of the Land: Epitaph for Hadiyah Pendleton” contains the story of Hadiyah, a fifteen-year-old girl shot in Chicago in 2013; it also contains the story of the two young men charged with her death: “One in school, & two not, & all / Black South Side teens / with nothing in common but a pained echo / for a future.” As I’ve been rereading this poem against the backdrop of fluctuating numbers of “victims,” of “deaths,” I’ve recalled how in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, some counts of victims/deaths would be smaller, two smaller—both the twenty-year-old shooter disappearing, but also his mother. Betts’s poem addresses the world that goes on:
What I hate, what I
will forever hate, is how she fades with every
day from numbness, from
an empathy undone, not bound to anyone,
the swift, ruthless slap casual
as someone swiping a bus pass,
for this is what
The poem imagines Hadiyah an “unopened bulb / that insisted on being much bigger,” but also those who shot her, mistaking her and the group she stood with for a rival gang, as “boys behind guns tamped / their lives heavily to prune // the years cut down.”
If the beloved asks the poet to give up her voice, he also asks her not to chronicle the world as it is, the world as it must be known, the world inhabited and filtered through the poet’s permeable skin. Break the habit of disconnecting context—the story of fast-fading names—from the world that moves too quickly to the next news, the new breaking report, the report of the too-soon-forgotten particulars that make the skin of the world we inhabit.
This previous fall semester, we had the distinct pleasure of Tara Betts visiting to read, meeting with students, and breaking bread. After the reading, driving back to the hotel, she told me how she crafts her collections—how she crafts her readings. She thinks about how each poem can reach someone differently; the poet uses her spinnerets, sending out a dragline, beginning to build. She read her poem “A Lesson from the Terrordome,” and I knew a friend who would love the idea of Chuck D introducing Huey Newton, uncovered through a library’s microfiche, that archaic magic. After the reading, another friend flipped through the book, stumbling upon “The Futility of Bras,” her face breaking into a wide smile. From the lectern, Betts explained the story of one of her spiders, the front-porch sitter she named “Craig,” lofting her eyebrow at the audience, waiting to see who would get the allusion.
And I am drawn back to the spider poems, their myth-making, their insistence on claiming the end of the book that is both end and beginning of a story. And I think I should be less brutal to my own house centipedes that call me to attention when I enter a darkened room.
To love, Betts’s poetry suggests, means to embrace the change and difficulty after the blared radio parking lot dance has ended. It means to welcome the portent of the spider, to watch the many-legged things in their short lifespans of weaving and egg sack and disappearance and desiccation. It means to offer a friend in pain a couch, your cat. It means to inhabit the pain of the body and make a textual music of it, the words lifting off the page. The spider wakes us, greets us, frightens and intrigues us, calls us to myth and history, “an inevitable / signature that flesh forces / us to write.”
I met Molly Sutton Kiefer in April of 2014. We were both reading at the Reader’s Loft bookstore in Green Bay, Wisconsin – a friend had recommended this place to me as a wonderful independent bookstore, with cats.
April in northern Wisconsin is changeable: outside, the graying skies promised late evening sleet, but inside (with much thanks to Molly, a former local who rallied her friends and family) the store was packed with poetry listeners, the cats wefted around our feet as we read, and we warmed ourselves in the glow of old-fashioned desk lamps and the peculiar glow of peculiar-looking lines. After the reading, Molly told me about her new project, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, which she hoped would be a place for hybrid work — poems that didn’t quite fit with traditional notions of poetry. She’d noticed the shapes of my poems on the page and asked me to send her some work — it was the first time a stranger had solicited my work.
Since then, Tinderbox has been publishing poetry, reviews, and essays that speak to these hybrid forms, and speak to poets like me who often find our strange poems don’t easily fit with the aesthetics of more conventional journals. More recently, the Tinderboxers have added another endeavor: Tinderbox Editions, a small press for poetry and literary prose. Both the journal and the press are located in Red Wing, Minnesota, and have become a part of the lively literary scene of the land of one thousand lakes. Milkweed, Graywolf, and Coffee House Press are well-known publishers in the Twin Cities, and Tinderbox augments this literary landscape in a number of ways.
Located about an hour outside of the cities, Red Wing is also home to Red Dragonfly Press and hosts a summer celebration of the arts at the Anderson Center. Last July, Molly curated the readings of several poets, including Heid Erdrich, Katherine Rauk, and Athena Kildegaard — in my correspondence with Molly, she shared this “lovely tidbit”: Molly met Chris Burawa (the director of the Anderson Center) through the preschool their children attend; she gives his homemade carrot cake a rave review. This year’s Summer Celebration of the Arts was held July 8, featuring poetry and fiction readings with Leslie Adrienne Miller, Mona Power, and Danit Brown. Tinderbox has recently joined the space at the Red Wing Incubator, sharing creative energies as they overlook Barn Bluff.
After the reading in Green Bay that night, it did indeed sleet. Highway 41 was closed — the thin covering of ice was completely invisible, and created some of the more treacherous driving I’d seen. The frontage roads were no better, so I crossed to the east and wefted my own way through country lanes and the edges of suburbs. I’m a bit of Luddite, so had no GPS or cell phone, but I kept Lake Winnebago to the left of me and tracked steadily south. The side roads were rutted and pocked, covered in places with branched shade. The slicked sheen found less purchase. I made my slow way home in the wavered light of the moon.
In a certain light, I willfully misread the title of Katherine Rauk’s poetry collection Buried Choirs. There’s a choir in my head that repeats those lines from Sonnet 73: “Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, / Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” There were no birds that night home from Green Bay, but the boughs did shake against the cold, and the sound of “bare ruined choirs” is buried in the back of the throat: a perfect swallowing.
The speaker’s voice in Rauk’s book rings with sounds and punning. The forms range from little rectangles of justified prose to spare couplets of simple language. The poems themselves oscillate from teacher-poems (invoking and mocking the mistakes of email, the ridiculousness of self-assessment, the mechanics errors of rough drafts) to intimations of loss to poems littered with imagery of childhood, often inverted to the strange and unsettling.
The birds are there too. In “The Price,” the speaker laments she “will never learn what love is / eating out of your hand.” The verb “think” and its variations build up, so the poem becomes a puzzle: the speaker thinking of the beloved not thinking of her, as she thinks of things — things like Thursdays, or “doorframes / stacked one up against / another’s emptiness.” The poem itself becomes this image of doorframes, spaces piled over spaces, with “some / kind of wind blowing through.” Rauk’s poems are often like this: a piling up of simple images, in simple language that becomes too complex to sort through simply. These deceptive poems require re-reading; the reader searches for the “I,” the source of the poem to hold onto and grasp.
There are also strange moments of humor paired with cleanly expressed loss, as in the poem titled “Instructions On How To Open A Gift That May Or May Not Be A Sausage.” The poem begins by referring to the mustard seed, and the Sermon on the Mount, which in Rauk’s poem becomes the “Sermon on the Meat.” But soon the poem points out that “the mustard plant is actually a weed, a subversive gift that is difficult to ungive.” And immediately after, the next sentence tells us: “Like the gift of love, which once opened cannot be returned to its original package, no matter what your ex-husband says.” From there, the prose poem returns to a pun or two, but we’ve been reminded that this is no joke — this is humor to save us from pain. Only a little funny, more than a little forced.
It is near the end of the second section that the collection reaches its apogee, its fullest emotional resonance, in the two poems “Summer Romance” and “Determination.” The first reminds us, “No less / beautiful for not being / true is the story / we tell ourselves / over and over / again about death.” The second reminds us of summer storms in prairie towns: “Sometimes we are given / lightning. Sometimes / the quiet heat / of a padlocked barn.” Both of these poems speak to the way we interpret images, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Both of these poems set up the third section of the book, which provides some resolution for the speaker, for us, and for this group of slow-burn poems with their central image of seeds – the Buried Choirs of the title.
Tinderbox Poetry Review and Tinderbox Editions continues to publish exciting work through the journal and the press. Of their work, Molly writes:
I’ve realized that I have a strong interest in promoting literary works that I felt were difficult, challenging, compelling, and ignited a spark inside me as a reader. Tinderbox wants to be a home for voices who need to be heard, whose works have an urgency in this world, and we also want to do what we do out of a sense of literary citizenship, which means that, for instance, [Kelly Hansen Maher’s book] Tremolo launched at Stillwater Prison, where Kelly taught, and we’ve given workshops in communities that might not have otherwise had this access.
She also promises exciting books in the works and the near future, including more poetry, an anthology of lyric essays, a poetic novel, and more. I highly recommend checking out the journal – free and accessible online – or buying a subscription to Tinderbox Editions.
From the moment I started reading young adult literature, I enjoyed many things about the genre.
I liked how there were subgenres like fantasy, contemporary, and verse novels (i.e., books written in poems that tell a story). I liked reading about teenagers who save the world. I liked seeing teenagers experiencing real-life issues that no one wants to talk about, like mental illness and feeling out of place. Yet I eventually noticed that some of the stories involving black characters only revolved around personal and socioeconomic issues.
As I mentioned in my discussion of Nicola Yoon’s Everything Everything, it was rare for me to find stories of black teenagers in romantic bliss. Although I felt somewhat validated reading young adult books as a teen, they also gave me the impression I had nothing happy to look forward to. I felt like my entire teenage experience would be defined by suffering because I never read about a black teen who was in a happy relationship or confident in themselves. I wanted black characters who were actual characters that felt a wide range of emotions and lived different experiences. Most importantly, I wanted black girl nerds.
When you think of nerdy girls in young adult literature, there is a certain type of girl that comes to mind. They are usually white and gorgeous or white and awkward. Not to mention, they might be so troubled that they need a guy to save them by instantly falling in love with them. After reading so many young adult books with nerdy white female protagonists, I was starting to think that there would never be one with a black female lead. Then I read The Unforgettables by G. L. Thomas and felt validated in more ways than one.
The major reason The Unforgettables appealed to me so much was because of Felicia Abelard, one of the main characters of the book. She is a Haitian American teenager who lives in a culturally rich home and loves comics, Japanese anime, and cosplaying. She is confident in herself to the point where she wears her kinky hair big despite her mother’s wanting her to straighten it. Yet she is also afraid to stand out too much due to strict parents and being bullied. Felicia Abelard is one of the most complex black female characters I’ve ever read in a young adult book, and also the most relatable.
Not only was Felicia Abelard’s nerdiness appealing, but it also broke the mold for what a nerdy female character was supposed to be. In many young adult books and coming-of-age films, the nerdy girl is relegated to what is known as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. According to the website TV Tropes, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a quirky, childlike girl whose purpose is to give a male lead character a better outlook on life. In young adult literature, characters who fit this trope include Sam from Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Dulcie from Libba Bray’s Going Bovine, and Alaska in John Green’s Looking for Alaska. Although some books deconstruct the trope, its pervasiveness in young adult literature and film suggest an unhealthy appeal.
In The Unforgettables, the other main character is Paul Hiroshima, a biracial Japanese teenage boy. Prior to reading the book, I was concerned that Felicia Abelard would become Paul’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl. However, the moment I read their very first encounter, I knew I wouldn’t have anything to worry about. When the two first meet, a yard sale is going on at one of their neighbors’ houses. When the two spy a collection of rare comics called Hit Boy and Slash Girl, they quiz each other on the comics to see who will get to have them. Felicia’s passion for the comics makes Paul realize that she would enjoy the comics more than him, so he lets her take the comics home.
In this first meeting, the stage is set for a friendship as well as romantic attraction between the characters. Yet Felicia Abelard never becomes a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, because her life doesn’t revolve around Paul and vice versa. Instead, Felicia Abelard is just a girl who learns not to be afraid of living her best life while being friends with a guy she has feelings for. Although Felicia considers Paul an awesome guy, she also wants to play forward on her soccer team, survive her junior year of high school, and get a little more freedom from her parents. Meanwhile, Paul wants to adjust to moving to a new town and school, apply to art school, and survive his senior year. Although their feelings for each other start to change their friendship, Felicia and Paul still manage to be there for each other while living their own lives.
Through her grounded life, her unabashed love of nerdy things, and her complicated friendship with Paul, Felicia Abelard’s character arc becomes a poignant story to watch unfold. Felicia calls herself “Sidekick Supreme” to Paul’s “The 8th Wonder,” and together they call themselves “The Unforgettables.” Despite her heroic moniker, she is not a sidekick in Paul’s life, but she is one in her own life due to her fears. Initially, her fear of being bullied by her peers keeps her from playing forward on the soccer team. Furthermore, her fear of her parents’ disapproval keeps her from admitting her feelings for Paul. Finally, her fear of losing Paul as a friend keeps her from sustaining their friendship when things get muddled.
Meanwhile, Paul is afraid of not being able to adjust to his new home and not being able to go to art school. Although he and Felicia have different fears, they hide from them behind masks both metaphorical and literal. For Felicia’s sixteen birthday, Paul makes her a superhero mask to go with her identity as “Sidekick Supreme” as well as one for his identity as “The 8th Wonder.” Since superhero masks are usually used by superheroes to hide their civilian identity from others, it makes sense that Felicia and Paul’s masks symbolize their need to hide from themselves and others.
Eventually, Felicia ends up shedding her mask to express her feelings for Paul. In turn, this inspires Paul to come clean to his parents about applying to art school. Although the two aren’t able to become a couple, Felicia and Paul rekindle their friendship and move on with their lives. After being asked out by a senior classmate, Felicia goes to the senior prom. Meanwhile, Paul goes to the prom with a friend and ends up attending a summer session at an art school.
By shedding their masks, Felicia and Paul allow themselves to get more out of life and appreciate each other more. This makes Felicia her own hero as well as hero to Paul. In fact, Paul comes to appreciate Felicia so much that he gives her a painting of herself as well as a hand-made comic book that features them as The Unforgettables. The comic book contains a bonus comic that has The 8th Wonder becoming a solo hero called Felicia Fantastic. At the end of the comic, there is a note from Paul says, “You were never my sidekick. You were always my hero.”
Although she fights personal fears instead of bad guys, Felicia Abelard is still a hero in her own right. She is a hero for Paul and herself by learning to face her fears. Most of all, she is a hero to me for being her nerdy, beautiful brown self. In a sea of suffering black protagonists and white Manic Pixie Dream Girls, she is Felicia Fantastic, and she is unforgettable.