Long time no see a discussion post. This one will be sort of a discussion/spoiler-y review, so there’s that, but I am rusty, so please apologize me if this post is all over the place.
If we’ve ever talked before, then you probably know Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is my favorite book of all times. I pretty much hype up all reviews of this book because I love reading different perspectives on it, but recently, I saw a person on Twitter saying they didn’t like it, because the book made it feel like being gay was the worst tragedy in the world.
When I checked the replies, I realized other people felt the same. That the book was “way too sad” and that being gay is not only about being sad, and that they were so done with tragic representation of gays in media.
And while I do recognize that Ari and Dante is a sad book and we deserve more diverse queer rep in media that is not only tragic, I think these thoughts can be very limiting. So, yeah, let’s discuss that.
“Maybe we just lived between hurting and healing.”
At first, I felt like what this person was saying made no sense, because the ending of the book is happy and hopeful. It shows that these two boys have finally found each other and are going to be together. But, obviously, that does not compensate for the fact that Ari spends most of this book hating himself. Then, it also made me question whether just following an individual story says enough about an entire community.
Like, because Ari’s story is sad, then it’s not worth-telling? Where do we draw the line between what is an individual experience that the author feels like sharing and a representation for an entire community?
That was one thing I felt when reading American Panda, by Gloria Chao. In that book, our protagonist, Mei, has very overbearing and strict parents, who do not accept of her taking any other course in life than going to medical school and becoming a doctor. While this definitely can be seen as a stereotipical view on Taiwanese parents, we actually learn in the acknowledgements that Mei’s story was inspired by the author’s, who experienced something similar with her own parents.
So, just because Mei’s story can be “stereotypical”, does it mean it’s not worth-telling? One thing that the author pointed out in her acknowledgements as well that I think works wonderfully for this discussion too is that this is one of the reasons why we need more own-voices stories. Because Mei should not have to represent every single Taiwanese-American kid out there, and their stories can be so different and unique that all it means is we need more representations of said stories.
Therefore, it’s not just because Ari’s story was sad and figuring out his sexuality wasn’t an easy journey for him, that this is how every single other Latinx gay kid feels. And this is why we need more Latinx queer authors, to tell these other stories.
“You know what I’ve learned from you and Mom? I’ve learned not to talk. I’ve learned how to keep everything I feel buried deep inside of me. And I hate you for it.”
But then, the other thing is that I also feel like by assuming that Ari’s story is nothing but a tragedy, this person is completely failing to recognize what was happening around him. And, how, yes, being a Mexican-American gay kid in the 1980s probably wasn’t the easiest thing in the world.
I recently read Like a Love Story, by Adib Nazemian, which I have mixed feelings about that are not really relevant to this discussion. But that book is set entirely during the AIDS crisis in New York and a lot of Reza’s (one of our protagonists, who immigrated from Iran to the US and is figuring out his sexuality) inner monologue is extremely negative, and he has a lot of internalized homophobia.
However, we have to consider that it was extremely scary for him to be a gay kid in the 1980s, when there were still so many misconceptions about what AIDS was and how it actually was transmitted. It’s not possible, in my opinion, to judge his thoughts with a 2020 mindset, where you can literally find more information about AIDS on your phone in less than a minute.
Back to Ari and Dante, though, I want to take this time to talk about one of the layers in that book that means the most to me, which is the machsimo and overall “unsaid things”, which I feel like it’s pretty standard for Latinx communities and one thing I related *so much* with in this book.
(Again, this is just based in *my* experience and I don’t think this should count as a representation of all Latinx families).
As examples of that, we have one of the biggest conflicts of the book, which is the fact Ari has a brother in prison and no one talks about him. I don’t know if this applies to other families and cultures, but being Latina myself, I definitely feel like we live in this paradoxal world where we can be open about so much and not at all about other things. Having an *entire* person you simply don’t talk about is a very common unsaid rule in my family and just shows how hard it can be to approach certain topics with your loved ones.
Ari also struggles a lot with talking to his dad. As much as he wants to, he also finds impossible to open up and express his feelings, much like his dad does. Machismo is still super present and I definitely see how a lot of the men in family and just around me, overall, grew up feeling like they were not allowed to express emotion and had always to be “strong”.
That’s why it takes so long for Ari to understand his feelings for Dante. Because, and this is a direct quote:
“I had learned to hide what I felt. No, that’s not true. There was no learning involved. I had been born knowing how to hide what I felt.”
And that is because the culture he was immersed since birth was not one that ever allowed him to be vulnerable.
“I left him alone for a while. But then, I decided I wanted to be with him. I decided that maybe we left each other alone too much. Leaving each other alone was killing us.”
When I first picked up this book, I did not know it was a LGBT read. I did not know that Ari and Dante were going to fall in love. I simply thought it was a friendship story.
Therefore, I do think that my judgement is a bit clouded, because I never went to this story expecting a gay romance from it. And so I was never disappointed that I got so little of it, and in fact, what I got the most of is what I still love about this book the most for to this day: Ari’s growth.
To me, this is not a book about whether or not Ari and Dante are going to end up together, and I feel like people who only see it for that are reading it COMPLETELY WRONG.
This book is about Ari learning that there is power in being vulnerable, in letting people in. It’s about Ari understanding himself by understanding the people around him – his dad, his brother, his mom, his aunt, even Dante. He spends most of this book trapped in his own cicle of hate (again, a direct quote), because that’s the only way he can comprehend his own emotions – by ignoring or hating on them. He’s never been taught how to understand love, affection, friendship, so yeah, it takes him a bit longer to feel like he’s worthy of a love story.
Overall, I think the point of this discussion isn’t even telling you whether or not Ari and Dante is “just a sad book”. It is sad, but there are reasons for it, and it’s ultimately, so much more than that.
If you’re looking for books about queer joy, I highly recommend this post I wrote for Pride Month, but I’d also like to recommend four extra titles I read & loved:
CAMP, BY L.C. ROSEN. Has a very smart take on the toxic masculinity in the community, while still being a fun & light-hearted read.
HER ROYAL HIGHNESS, BY RACHEL HAWKINS. Girl falls in love with her roommate, but her roommate also happens to be the Princess of Scotland. Free of drama, except for the royal one, of course.
THE GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE, BY MACKENZI LEE. Historical fiction, friends to lovers and Monty is pretty much the definition of chaotic bi.
YOU SHOULD SEE ME IN A CROWN, BY LEAH JOHNSON. One of the best 2020 releases, by far. Prom shenenigans, A+ family and friendships and a swoon-worthy F/F relationship.
Alright. If you read so far in this 1.5k words post, thank you! If you have read Ari & Dante, let’s chat in the comments: what are the themes you cared the most about when you first read it? Do you have any other recommendations for queer books that are not sad at all?