10th Anniversary: What Has Changed?
In a couple of weeks, the 10th anniversary edition of my young adult novel Suicide Notes comes out.
I wrote Suicide Notes at the request of my then-editor, who wanted me to write a funny story about a gay boy. Because I am contrary, I wrote her a funny story, but I wrote it about a not-at-all-funny topic: the distressingly high suicide rate among queer teenagers. The novel centers around a boy, Jeff, who finds himself in a psychiatric hospital following a failed attempt at ending his own life. There, he meets a peculiar cast of characters and eventually comes to accept who he is.
The book got great reviews, except for in the queer press. From them I received a lot of criticism for writing “another book where the gay kid hates himself.” I was told that I owed it to queer young people to write only happy stories about being gay. I was told that I was part of the problem.
In the decade since Suicide Notes was published, I’ve received hundreds of emails and letters from readers telling me how much the book meant to them. Some say it helped them understand themselves, others that it helped them understand a friend or loved one. More than a few say they discovered the book during a time when they were considering suicide themselves, and that reading it made them decide it was worth giving life a second chance.
A couple of years ago, I received an email from a school librarian telling me that two students at her school, in unrelated incidents, had attempted suicide, and that copies of my novel had been found in their possession. As a result, the school principal had ordered it banned from the library.
He hadn’t read it, but he was sure it must have contributed to the students’ actions. What, the librarian asked me, could she tell him to make him reverse his decision? I copied a few dozen of the emails I’ve received over the years and forwarded them to her. She presented them to the principal, and thankfully the ban was lifted.
Suicide Notes is by far my bestselling book, translated into a half dozen languages, which is why 10 years after its initial publication it’s getting a new edition. Honestly, I’m not sure whether I should be happy or sad about this. I want to believe that it’s no longer relevant, that the novel’s central issue isn’t such a concern for queer young people. But I know that this isn’t true. Suicide rates among queer youth remain distressingly high.
At the same time the new edition of Suicide Notes arrives on shelves, my new young adult novel, Love & Other Curses, is being released. This one also centers on a queer character, Sam, a gay boy and sometime drag queen. Unlike Jeff of Suicide Notes, Sam is okay with his queerness. His problem is that he falls in love with a trans boy who is straight. Despite both of them wishing they could bend their sexuality for one another and make it work, they can’t.
The trans character, Tom, has a rough time of it in the story. He experiences many of the things my own trans friends have. He’s dead-named by his unaccepting parents. His body is a source of commentary, and he’s forced to dress as a girl and wear makeup.
Even Sam, when he embarrasses himself by dressing in drag in a fumbling attempt to gain Tom’s interest in him sexually, reacts badly and mistreats him. Because that’s what teenagers whose emotions are running high can do, even to people they love very much.
Trans issues are front and center in young adult literature right now, and already my book has received criticism for presenting a trans character with an unhappy story arc. And I get it. We want to give all readers hope. We want to extend young people struggling to stay afloat a lifeline. But I also don’t want to ignore the reality of what a lot of trans teenagers face, just as 10 years ago I didn’t want to ignore the fact that queer teenagers were killing themselves and that their stories needed to be told.
I hope that 10 years from now I’ll have a stack of emails and letters from readers who discovered Love & Other Curses and found something of themselves in it. I also hope that queer kids will have stopped killing themselves, and that being trans will have become no big deal. Until then, we need to keep telling our stories, both happy and sad, so that we never forget. ▼
Michael Thomas Ford is a much-published Lambda Literary award-winning author. More Michael Thomas Ford