The summer parties at Cultus Lake are over, and it’s the first day of school at Chilliwack’s Spencer High. For Grade 12 student Will Johnson, the day begins inauspiciously when his best friend Julie informs him, with pitch-perfect teenaged ambivalence, that he’s been cyber-outed.
“By the way,” she said, “I know you’re not on Facebook, so you might wanna know that you being gay is sort of all over it … It wasn’t me. It was just, you know, the internet.”
For her part, Julie’s still pissed that Will told his parents before he told her. Although, as Will tries to explain, “technically it was a porn site that I’d left on my computer that told them.”
So, in Michael Harris’s Homo — which I expected to be a coming-out story — the actual coming out is over by page 11.
“That was something I told the publishers early on,” Harris explains. “I didn’t want to do a coming-out novel. I wanted to explore coming of age . . . dealing with the aftermath of coming out.”
In exploring that aftermath, Harris renders a candid portrait of a flawed protagonist who’s not always likeable. In fact, at times, Will Johnson’s an asshole.
The Canadian publishing house Lorimer & Company wanted something queer to add to SideStreets, its issues-based young-adult fiction series. After reading excerpts from Harris’s Campus Chronicles — which first ran in Xtra from 2002 to 2005 and is now available as an ebook from Amazon — Lorimer approached Harris.
The resulting young adult novel, Harris’s first, is sort of a prequel to Campus Chronicles.
With other titles addressing eating disorders, schizophrenia and addiction, Lorimer doesn’t seem interested in tales of wicked vampires or virtuous wizards-in-training. Harris’s refusal to make Will’s story a morality tale, and his surprising frankness, would seem to be a perfect match.
“That amoralistic stance came out of my own distaste for the majority of YA fiction that’s created,” he says. “If I was going to do this, I wanted to step outside that fairy-tale world on two fronts.
“First, the moral world of young people is as complicated and fraught as the moral world of adults — wrapping things up in a neat narrative is doing a disservice to how we all grew up.
“But also in the actual subject matter . . . as far as I know, there’s no other YA novel in North America that deals with HIV in relationships.”
Being the first at something is always difficult. Being the first at something aimed at a teen audience is difficult and weighted heavily with a sense of accountability.
“There’s an inherent responsibility — whether you like it or not — when there is such a dearth of queer YA content. One percent has any queer characters. So every queer YA novel that comes out is making an appreciable difference in the size of the canon for a 16-year-old that likes to read. But you can’t think about that when you’re writing.”
Harris committed himself further to the role of groundbreaker by recognizing that queer 17-year-olds are probably having sex. HIV wouldn’t just be something Will Johnson reads about in a pamphlet.
“HIV for a lot of young queer people feels like an historical artifact. They don’t get that it’s still part of who we are and that you can’t outrun history and that it informs every part of our culture,” Harris says. “In a way, it was necessary for him to have that thrown in his face.”
I was confronted by this frankness in Homo. I was uncomfortable. But, if I remember correctly, there is a lot about being a 17-year-old that is uncomfortable. Harris’s unflinching candor gives his novel credibility, substance and even the power to potentially change lives. I don’t think the same can be said of Twilight.