“Things We Couldn't Say” Is a Powerful Book about Embracing Love and Letting Go

When Gio was nine years old, his birth mother, Jackie, walked out on his father, Charles, and Gio’s younger brother, Theo. After not hearing from her for eight years, Gio suddenly receives an email from her out of the blue.

On top of his family issues, Gio is also starting to fall in love with a new student, David. Now, in order to make sense of everything, Gio must work through the complexities of love and decide how much he wants to have.

I was immediately pulled in by Gio’s voice and his first-person internal monologue. He is angry, but he is also sensitive and has anxiety and depression. Much of Gio’s emotions and personality expresses his experiences of being a Black, bisexual young man who is learning to experience life after significant trauma. He is multifaceted and true to life in the way he speaks and in the roles he plays as an older brother, son, and friend. This is demonstrated in internal dialogue such as, “But look, just because I live in the ‘ghetto’ doesn’t mean I’m out here holding a Captain America shield everywhere I go. I’m gonna give her the benefit of the doubt and not let the ghetto jump out of me to cuss her out.”

Not only is Gio a notable protagonist, but the people around him are memorable as well. His stepmom, Karina, is really loving and considerate, calling Gio “honey bunches” and giving him the space he needs to process emotions. Gio’s father, Charles, is a messy work in progress due to his biphobia and the fact that he is trying a little too hard to protect Gio from his mom and the rest of the world. Theo is a hopeful young boy who is doing his best not to let his social anxiety get the better of him. Finally, Gio’s birth mom, Jackie, is messy in that she wants to reconnect with Gio but doesn’t know how to give him the attention he needs. In addition to Gio’s family, Gio’s friends Ayesha, Malik, and Ollie are fun and loyal, while Gio’s love interest, David, is sweet and yet another work in progress.

Through the interactions with his family, friends, and love interest, Gio starts to navigate how intricate love is in different relationships. When it comes to his birth mom, Gio has to consider whether acknowledging and forgiving his mom is worth the pain she continues to inflict on him and his family. A similar issue occurs with his father, who drinks too much and doesn’t acknowledge Gio’s orientation, but who gradually takes steps to communicate with his son better. With Gio’s friends Ayesha and Ollie, there isn’t much issue, but he walks a delicate line with Malik due to the fact that Malik deals drugs to provide for his sick mother, Diane, and Gio tries his best to keep Malik out of trouble. Finally, David is the embodiment of having a well-meaning, loving white partner who just can’t understand all the challenges his Black partner faces.

In fact, much of this navigation is done through a mix of heartwarming interactions and difficult conversations. One conversation that is especially poignant occurs between David and Gio right after a racist altercation with a police officer in a record store. Not only does Gio refuse to gloss over what happened, sharing his own feelings honestly as well as his responses to how David reacted to the situation, but Gio and David also take some time apart from each other to process and see where they can go from there. Other remarkable conversations occur between Gio and his younger brother, Theo, in terms of what their mom used to be like versus how she is now. In terms of fun interactions, seeing Gio and his friends watch Netflix together is entertaining because of how they pick what to watch.

Although the family relationships, friendship, and romance are all compelling, the best character development comes from Gio himself. It is great that he is somewhat out with his orientation and yet at the same time chooses to be private with some people, such as the members of his basketball team—not to mention that he is learning what kind of love he truly deserves despite being traumatized and marginalized. His story is as powerful as those of other Black queer characters like Felix in Kacen Callender’s Felix Ever After, Alice in Claire Kann’s Let’s Talk About Love, and Julian Winter’s Remy Cameron in How To Be Remy Cameron.

All in all, Jay Coles’s Things We Couldn’t Say is a powerful book about embracing love and letting go. Love should not be conditional, and this book shows that it is possible to work out how much love you want and need and how it can affect you for better or worse.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.