Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

Jeff Garvin
Symptoms of Being Human
Balzer + Bray
352 pages
8.3 (Best New Book)

The first thing you’re going to want to know about me is: Am I a boy, or am I a girl?

Riley Cavanaugh is many things: Punk rock. Snarky. Rebellious. And gender fluid. Some days Riley identifies as a boy, and others as a girl. The thing is…Riley isn’t exactly out yet. And between starting a new school and having a congressman father running for reelection in uber-conservative Orange County, the pressure—media and otherwise—is building up in Riley’s so-called “normal” life.

On the advice of a therapist, Riley starts an anonymous blog to vent those pent-up feelings and tell the truth of what it’s REALLY like to be a gender fluid teenager. But just as Riley’s starting to settle in at school—even developing feelings for a mysterious outcast—the blog goes viral, and an unnamed commenter discovers Riley’s real identity, threatening exposure. Riley must make a choice: walk away from what the blog has created—a lifeline, new friends, a cause to believe in—or stand up, come out, and risk everything.

In one of his best songs, "I Am Not Afraid", the Canadian Oscar-nominee, Owen Pallett condemns the binarity of English prononuns and uses something more neutral, ze, for the pronoun. After learning some thing about gender and sexuality, I begin to understand why Pallett does so. At first, I believe that gender (and sexuality, but let's talk only about gender) is not binary; it's more like spectrum of color. Gender is not a matter of boy or girl, male or female; it's beyond that. The Buginese people has known about this by dividing gender into five different classes, admitting the spectrum of gender centuries before modern psychology. However, as I dig more into this gender stuff, the more I realize that gender is as complicated as quantum physics, and it's no surprise that people have difficulty to understand this. 

The complication of gender system and being gender-fluid specifically is the major theme in Garvin's "Symptoms of Being Human", a nicely-written young adult book that gives us vaster insight about gender and how accepting our gender is--well--not as easy as it sounds. Riley, our main character, is a gender-fluid, the child of running congressman, who's not out yet. In "Symptoms of Being Human" Garvin allows his readers to see what Riley has to go through each day, defending what ze believes while ze has to pick up some braveries to out zirself

Reading "Symptoms of Being Human" reminds me of Luna, another provoking young-adult book about the strive in conforming the gender. And this makes "Symptoms of Being Human" an important book because living in the world where cis people take up so much space makes people who are not comforted with their assigned gender travail. Garvin--a cis man himself--cleverly and perfectly writes "Symptoms of Being Human" from a gender fluid's point of view in such an accurate and realistic way, opening his readers' mind. Garvin elaborates what it means to be a gender-fluid from a sarcastic teenager's point of view with nice pop-culture reference. My favorite part is when Garvin mentions my favorite song from Against Me!, "Transgender Dysphoria Blues", which pretty much sums up the story of the book because it is written from the experience of Laura Jane Grace who comes out as transgender woman in 2012. It makes the book a fun journey and effectively conveying the message subliminally. 

However, that's where Garvin's Achilles' heel is. He sacrifices the plot of the story for the elaboration of gender-fluidity. It doesn't mean that "Symptoms of Being Human" has a bad plot. The plot is sufficient enough to engage the readers with touch of mysteries and neat twist at the end of the book, but the main plot and subplot are not chained strong enough and by the end of the book, Garvin still hasn't resolved some subplots, omitting some important part about Sierra's secret, for example. 

Still, "Symptoms of Being Human" is a must-read book because it explains that gender-fluidity is not a made-up disease; it's not a disease after all. The book teaches us to embrace who we really are, regardless of our gender. There must be Rileys out there who still struggle with their gender, hiding out from the world, trying to gather some courage to speak to the world. Riley is lucky because ze is surrounded by loving parents and friends, but there will always be bullies out there who call these struggling people dyke or faggot or anything in your native language. Just be yourself and love yourself, it will get better. Please stay there.

Next Post »