Monday, 29 July 2013

Review: Pink by Lili Wilkinson

Pink by Lili WilkinsonPink by Lili Wilkinson (review copy) - The pink jumper was glowing in my grey bedroom like a tiny bit of Dorothy's Oz in boring black-and-white Kansas. Pink was for girls.

Ava Simpson is trying on a whole new image. Stripping the black dye from her hair, leaving her uber-cool girlfriend, Chloe, behind.

Ava is quickly taken under the wing of perky, popular Alexis who insists that: a) she's a perfect match for handsome Ethan; and b) she absolutely must audition for the school musical.

But while she's busy trying to fit in - with Chloe, with Alexis and her Pastel friends, even with the misfits in the stage crew - Ava fails to notice that her shiny reinvented life is far more fragile than she imagined.
From Amazon UK

I have been wanting to read Pink by Lili Wilkinson for a while as so many people have raved about  it. I knew LGBTQ YA Month was the perfect time to do so, but now I wish I had read it sooner! It's amazing!

Ava wants more. She applies to a new school, stops wearing all black and starts wearing black, makes friends with the popular crowd, and tries hard to hide her new self from her feminist girlfriend, Chloe. However, Ava's finding it difficult to find her place. She's one person with the popular crowd, another with those in stage crew, and yet another with Chloe. Will she work out exactly who she is, where it is she belongs?

Pink is a story about self-identity and self-discovery. Ava no longer feels like the person she is, is really her. It's like she's become the kind of person Chloe wants her to be, or, maybe, the person she thinks Chloe wants. But being that girl isn't enough anymore. She wants to wear pink again, have nice, pretty, feminine clothes. She wants to be liked and have friends that are typically girlie and lovely, not always going to see French movies that bore her to tears, or go to the local lesbian cafe to discuss feminism with other artsy lesbians. She wants to go to a school formal. She wants to go with a boy. She wants to be the real Ava.

However, Ava finds being in the popular crowd kind of hard. She's not as adorable as Alexis, she can't speak several languages like Ella-Grace, nor is she a classical musician like Vivian. The smartest person at her previous school, at Billy Hughes School for Academic Excellence, she finds she's struggling to keep up with everyone else, who all seem to be geniuses. Ava feels pretty less than.

When she tries out for the school musical with everyone else on Alexis' insistence and doesn't make it, she decides to join stage crew. Sure, those in stage crew are a bunch of misfits nobody likes, but at least she'll be involved in the musical somehow, right? And that way she can still hang out with the others during the breaks from rehearsals. But hanging out with Screw, as they call themselves, is a bit of an eye opener. Yes, they're losers in the eyes of everyone else, but they seem to be having more fun because they're just themselves and they don't care. Despite the fun they have, they still seem a little strange to her, and she doesn't want to get too close in case she's labelled a loser by association. So Ava tries to hold herself aloof from Screw, despite how much they intrigue her.

On to the sexuality side of things. Ava has been out as a lesbian for a year. Her parents are very liberal, have Ava call them by their first names, also feminist and seem very hippie-political. When Ava came out to them, they actually threw her a celebratory party. But Chloe has been the only girl she's every been interested. With the change she's going through, she just wants to be normal, and "Girls liking boys is normal," (p237). So she says nothing about her sexuality at her new school, and when Alexis tells her Ethan would be perfect for her, she see's his popularity, but also how good looking he is, and agrees. But during a conversation with Alexis about going out with him, she realised she never actually thought about being with a boy.
'I hadn't really thought about that side of things. I mean, I wanted a boyfriend. I did. I wanted to be normal and go to the school formal and wear a dress and for him to wear a tux and give me a corsage. But I hadn't actually considered that I would kiss a boy, let alone have sex with one. I mean Chloe and I had done plenty of... stuff, but it seemed different with a boy. Dangerous. Fooling around with boys led to scary things like STDs and babies.' (p33)
(Just as a side note: That last line makes me think Ava is under the impression that lesbians can't get STDs. They can.)

Despite her worries, she is attracted to him. But what does that mean? Is she straight after all? What's going on? Ava begins to question her sexuality, another question to add to the others as she tries to figure out who she is.

What I found interesting in Pink is how gay people talk about other gay people. Kind of insulting, but it doesn't seem to be a problem, because they're insulting their own. Jules, one of the guys in Screw, is gay. When discussing the musical, Jules belts out one of the songs, and Ava is amazed at his talent. She asks why he didn't audition for the musical, and he explains it's because he's not "ghey-with-an-h".
'"There's two kinds of gay," Jules explained. "There's normal-gay, which is people like me who happen to like boys, but are otherwise functioning members of society. And then there's the ghey-with-an-h. Gheys-with-an-h have shiny, shiny skin from too much exfoliating. Gheys-with-an-h constantly apply lip gloss - not lip balm, but lip gloss. Cherry-flavoured. And they wear women's jeans."
I didn't feel entirely comfortable with this conversation. It sounded like Jules was being homophobic, and possibly misogynictic as well. Chloe would certainly have said so. But could you be homophobic if you were gay?
"Oh, and they walk like ladies. Not women," he added hurriedly, catching my outraged look. "
Ladies. The kind who have their hair set once a week and use lavender scented drawer liners. These are the gays in the musical. Like bloody Miles Fernley,"' (p64-65)
I found my jaw had dropped just a little bit. Like Ava, I was so surprised. Is talking like that allowed? By anyone? And to top it off:
'"In conclusion," Jules said to me, "just because I'm a homosexual, it doesn't mean I'm a mincing queer."' (p66)
When Ava finally confides to her mum, Pat, about how she feels about not fitting in and her questions about her sexuality, Pat's response is awesome!
'"I just wanted to be normal."
Pat laughed. "Ava, if there's anything I've learned from my many years on this earth, it is that there's no such thing as normal."
"Girls liking boys is normal," I said with a sigh.
"No, it isn't. It's just
common." Pat examined the sludge at the bottom of her coffee cup and smiled in a gentle, introspective sort of way. "There's nothing normal about falling in or out of love. No matter who it happens to, or what gender they are. It's always completely bizarre and utterly extraordinary."' (p237)
Bold emphasism my own. Love is love, huh?

There are also some awesome discussions about gender stereotypes. It's a different topic, but it's something I've seen cropping up in a few books I've read for LGBTQ YA Month. Gender stereotypes and sexuality stereotypes can kind of merge at times, so some books have touched on the subject. Pat had something to say about being feminine (though this quote, on it's own, has nothing to do with sexuality):
'"Feminine?" she said. "Femininity isn't about wearing mascara and strappy tops and crippling shoes. Femininity isn't about distorting your body, or wearing face paint. Femininity should never be about turning women into sexualised objects to provide pleasure for the male gaze."
I sighed. "No. You're completely right. I'm sorry."
Pat ignored me. "Don't be ashamed of being a woman," she continued. "But at the same time don't feel you have to fit into some kind of
box, that you have to conform to some kind of stereotype. You should be challenging any universal definition of femininity."' (p105)
I kind of like this woman! However, this just goes back to the root of Ava's problems, as her thoughts immediately after her mother says this show:
'Didn't she understand? I wanted to fit into a box. I just didn't know which box was mine. Being boxless was confusing and lonely.' (p105)
These thoughts are reoccurring for Ava, it's the one thing she always comes back to. Even when she does feel like she belongs.
'It made me cry harder, because I knew it wouldn't last. This belonging feeling. Tomorrow morning I'd wake up and go to school and pretend to be a Pastel with Alexis and Ethan, and then I'd come home and pretend to be a lesbian with Chloe.' (p180)
Sexuality is just one aspect of this coming-of-age story of self-identity. It's a story of working out who you really are, and where exactly you belong. Pink is an incredible story, beautiful, eye-opening and thought-provoking, and with such a fantastic ending! I loved Pink, and would highly recommend it. And what better way to end this review than with an inspiring quote-within-a-quote.
'Pat considered me, her head on one side. "You know, a very wise woman once gave this piece of advice to women everywhere: 'Be strong, believe in freedom, love yourself, understand your sexuality, have a sense of humour, masturbate, don't judge people by their religion, colour or sexual habits, love life and your family.'"' (p236)
Thank you to Allen and Unwin for the review copy.

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Published: 1st August 2009
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Buy on Amazon US
Lili Wilkinson's Website

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