Teen novel advances conversation on gender identity

Elise Sommers, Editor in Chief

When local author Steve Brezenoff started writing his teen novel Brooklyn Burning, he didn’t mean for it to encompass issues of gender or sexuality. Yet the final product, published by Carolrhoda Lab in 2011 did just that.

“I started writing Brooklyn Burning I just had a sense that I had been wanting to write down and I didn’t really know what would come of it,” Brezenoff said. “The sense was ‘I almost kissed you once.’”

Brooklyn Burning tells the story of teenage Kid falling in love one hot summer. Kid lives on the streets, finding places to belong, whether that is the music-filled basement of a bar or the abandoned rooms of a warehouse. In a complex world of love and mystery, fire and melodies, Kid and love interest Scout find and almost lose everything that matters most.

“It’s first and foremost it’s a love story . . . between two teenagers living in the streets in Brooklyn and neither of them have a clear gender,” Brezenoff described. At the time he started writing the novel, debates were raging on several fronts about gender identity and sexual orientation.

“The issue of gender and sexualtity and how not rigid those things need to be was really at the forefront of our state consciousness and our national consciousness,” remembered the author. “It has really become a major issue that people were beginning to come around on and beginning to understand.”

The novel started off with a very different slant on gender issues, in fact, the lack of gender assignment started as a mistake.

“I realized that in that scene I hadn’t established the gender [of the character], and I thought it would be fun to see how long I could do that. And to see what kind of reaction it would get,” said Brezenoff. 30,000 words later, neither Kid nor Scout had been given a gender, something that many readers don’t notice until it is pointed out to them.

“It was actually surprisingly easy,” said Brezenoff, talking about his writing process. “Unless the person’s wearing a piece of clothing that’s ultragendered or unless you’re going to describe their sex organs, it’s not hard to describe a person without specifying gender.”

The novel is written in second person, using the ‘you’ address between the two main characters as they fall in love. Besides giving the book a pared-down, personal voice, it helped dodge the issue of gendered pronouns.

“It’s confusing to people, so I really wanted to highlight that and let people see that it [gender] doesn’t really matter,” Brezenoff said. “If we approach every person every relationship in our lives primarily putting sexuality and gender first, then we’re really missing a lot.”

Brezenoff is part of a wave of young adult authors writing for a more complex, subtle, nuanced audience. Characters in these new novels defy categorization or simplification, they are concrete people with rich lives and stories.

Brezenoff’s other young adult books The Absolute Value of -1, and the newly released Guy in Real Life deal with teens outside of the mainstream, figuring out their identities.

Other authors writing about character-focused gender and sexual identity include AS King, David Levithan, and Andrew Smith.

“I think that books like this help move the conversation in the right direction,” Brezenoff reflected. “In an open and accepting direction.”