But what if you are from a different country? A country in which queerness is not acceptable in any segment of its cultures? Can a man who grew up in a society in which his identity is accepted ever be able to understand one who was raised in a country where queerness is outside the realm of accepted reality?
|The logo of RUSA LGBT, a "network|
for Russian-speaking LGBTQ
individuals, their friends, supporters,
and loved ones" which was formed in
At least, not like he is drawn to Dex, a fellow uni student he meets at a party for study abroad scholars soon after he arrives in London. Dex may be a native Brit (born and raised in Birmingham, thank you very much, despite having a Nigerian mother and a English black father), not a fellow International student, but no matter; Nick is far too shy, far too anxious, and too far into denial about his own sexual desires to make any overtures to the grumpy but smart science nerd.
But Dex's best friend, Isabel, takes a shine to Nick, and gradually draws him into their mutual circle of friends, many of who embrace queer identities. Claiming such an identity is not easy for Nick, even as it becomes increasingly clear that Dex is as attracted to Nick as Nick is to him. As Nick explains during a conversation with Izzy, after she assumes (correctly, although deeply embarrassingly to Nick) that Nick is gay:
"I can't. Not with my family."
"Would they be very angry?"
"I don't know how to explain. It's never been an option. Not how I grew up."
"It's how they grew up, too. Back there, it was not talked about. If it was, it wasn't good." How to truly describe the insular circle of friends his parents had surrounded themselves with? Jewish intelligentsia who feared much and talked largely of high art, or science, and only sometimes politics—in hushed voices and in vetted company. Their kitchen table was always crowded with makeshift dinners and discussions of how cultural standards had fallen along with the government and taken intellectual thought with them. Queerness would never even enter into such conversation. Once, Nick remembered someone mentioning a particularly flamboyant pop star. Mom had wrinkled her nose. Distasteful. In her reality, being gay was like being a wizard. Outside her realm. (262)
Being Black in a predominantly white country, Dex can understand what it feels like to experience oppression due to his identity. Yet he still has a hard time understand how anyone, even a shy guy like Nick, can keep something so central about himself hidden for so long.
Nick's anxiety about his sexual desires, already pretty high, ratchets up to an entirely appalling level after he and Dex share a kiss: "Nick felt himself splintering in two, a painful tearing of past and future. Before he knew and after. The truth of it laid bare and nestled inside him. He knew, now. He knew" (285).
Both Dex and Nick need some time apart before they can have an honest, and painful, conversation about why it is so difficult for Nick to accept his own sexuality, or to tell his family about it:
|Queer activists, St. Petersburg, Russia, 2008|
Nick genuinely flinched. "It's been worse."
Dex felt a dark shiver down his spine. "Why?"
Nick took a long pull of his beer, which drew shadows across his throat. "Because I'm not supposed to exist."
"No, really." Nick pushed on, and Dex forced himself to shut up. Nick was talking. Nick was talking. "I've never known another Russian gay person. I'm sure they exist, I mean, duh, of course they do. I know that. Now. But when I was a kid, I had never met one. I didn't know anyone. I didn't know any gay people."
Dex was frozen.
"I don't—I was alone. My parents never talked about anything like that, not ever. At least, not when I was a kid. And they they talked about it like it was something Americans did. Some Western thing. Not necessarily awful, just not for us. Not ours. So I couldn't be... that. I couldn't. I could be Jewish, I could be an immigrant, but I couldn't be gay." (321)
I really admired the way Jacobs shows how oppression manifests differently in different settings and cultures, as well as how difficult it can be to truly get someone else's experience of oppression even when you've experienced oppression yourself firsthand. She's also fabulous at capturing the cadence of young adult speech—the stops and starts, the repetitions, the meandering diversions and the conversational dead-ends—patterns of communicating that make it so very difficult to articulate, never mind to share, your most painful experiences and fears, even with your closest friends and lovers. Bonus points for a secondary storyline about Dex and Nick's friend Izzy, who is thrown for a loop after she discovers she's not as straight as she once thought she was, a discovery that unexpectedly leads to an estrangement between Izzy and her former best friend, lesbian Natali.
Can Dex and Nick actually pull off a romantic relationship, with Nick still keeping his sexuality a secret from his mother? And with his VISA expiring in only a few months? Will Natali's crush on Izzy lead to a shift in their relationship? Or will Izzy explore her newly discovered bisexuality in another way? I'm off to read Abroad: Book 2, eager to spend more time with these nuanced, sympathetically drawn characters.
Rainbow Russian doll: RUSA LGBT
Russian queer activists: ABC
Abroad: Book One
Brain Mill Press, 2017