Alex As Well

By Alyssa Brugman

Curious Fox

Description

Outspoken and adventurous Alex was born with biologically female and male chromosomes. Raised by her parents as a boy, she decides to stop taking her medication and live her life as the girl she is at heart. With unsupportive and frightened parents who refuse to acknowledge her biology and mollycoddle her, Alex becomes increasingly surly and seeks her independence away from her destructive family environment. When the opportunity arises to start at a new school, Alex reclaims her identity. But her Mother’s interference could complicate matters more than she ever realised.

What we like about it

A laid back, breezy, mostly happy LGBTQ* book with elements of humour. 

There are very few representations of young Intersex people. Alex As Well attempts to provide an important missing voice to the YA canon.

The inclusion of many points of view expressed on parenting boards shows the danger of assumptions and misunderstandings.

Questions & learning points

Alex seems to be portrayed with a split personality to signify two conflicting genders, her female identity and male identity. Does this accurately reflect Intersex reality or is it symbolic? Does the portrayal of two distinct personalities reinforce a binary gender divide?

The family unit fails to communicate which leads to huge emotional upheaval. In what ways could the characters have better handled their conflict?

In what ways are mental health issues portrayed in the novel?

Alex As Well only presents one perspective of the experiences of an Intersex person. Where can other representations be found?

Comments

Charlie: On the surface Alex As Well is an enjoyable and light read, refreshingly void of dark themes often found in LGBTQ* YA.  The characters are at times cartoonish in an almost Dahl-esque exaggeration of ghastly parents. However I’m afraid I was troubled by the representation of Alex, particularly in regards to the central concept of split personality as innately tied into Alex being Intersex, and felt Brugman’s writing lacked nuance and was at times under researched. I would strongly recommend further reading about Intersex people to gain a more thorough and accurate knowledge of the varied spectrum of gender identities and their reality, for fans of fantasy I would particularly recommend Pantomime and Shadowplay by Laura Lam. I commend Curious Fox for including further resources in their notes.

Beth: When I was first told about Alex As Well I was really excited, as intersex characters are so rarely represented, and often forgotten about when we refer to LGBT literature. However, I was a little disappointed when I finally got to read the book. I felt that the portrayal of Alex relied heavily on stereotypes about transgender and intersex people, rather than allowing the reader to see an alternative representation. Having heard Alyssa speak on the panel of 'Being Brave, Being Curious: LGBTQ teen writing' I now have a better understanding of how the book developed, and that her main focus was on the unreliable narrator, rather than on the intricacies of what it means to be intersex. Writing is, first and foremost, and act of the imagination, I'm not denying this, but I think that when writing about groups of people that are often marginalised and misunderstood, it is vital that the information given is authentic. I'm not saying that someone who isn't intersex can't or shouldn't write a character who is (as James Dawson pointed out at the same event, he doesn't get criticised as a gay man who writes straight as wel as gay characters), I'm just saying that research is important. It's easier to write about a straight man if you're not straight because the media has presented you with NUMEROUS representations of straight men since birth. This is not the case with other groups of people, and in that case it's important to do wide-ranging and far-reaching research to ensure that stereotypes aren't being perpetuated. Chimamanda Adiche has given a fabulous TED talk on The Danger of a Single Story, and we must remember her message in regards to all aspects of diversity. "The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete." Alex As Well is one story of an intersex teenager. Golden Boy is another. Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out is a collection of six photographic interviews with transgender and intersex teenagers, and truly shows how each individual's experiences is different. Representing a range of experiences is not solely the responsibility of authors and publishers, but also of readers. We must read widely if we are to understand those who are different to us, and hopefully there will be more books featuring intersex and other unrepresented characters in the future.

Alex: Like Beth, I was delighted to hear of a book featuring an intersex teenager. There are pitifully few such books out there - so huge credit to both publisher and author. My initial reaction to the book was actually very positive - I found it extremely readable, at times entertaining and at times disturbing, very pacy and highly thought-provoking. In terms of the theme, I confess to not knowing much about the subject and this was the first book I had read featuring an intersex protagonist. As such, I was fascinated to learn more. And I guess this is essentially where my concerns lie. As I got to know the character, I assumed that her feelings/situation were based at least in part on a real experience of being intersex. She has two voices - male Alex and female Alex - suggesting she has a clearly differentiated 'male' identity and a 'female' identity. It was only after having read the book that I discovered that this concept wasn't based in any way on a genuine experience. I don't think this would be a problem as such, were it not for the fact that - as we have all said - there are so very few books out there featuring intersex characters. The experience described represents just one 'possible' perspective, so as Beth said, we desperately need this book to be contextualised and complemented by a wider range of authentic experiences. If not, my fear is that most young readers are highly unlikely to come across other books featuring the subject and having read AAW may well naturally assume that this is "what it is like" to be intersex. It's great that the book is generating so much debate and raising awareness of this need. I sincerely hope that this encourages other writers and publishers to ensure we start to see more intersex experiences in books.

Fen: Early on in the book I enjoyed the lightness of touch. But like the other commentators, I found the portrayal of an intersex identity as somehow binary and ‘split’ horribly problematic. And then, my discomfort was compounded by the very stereotypical ideas of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ which Alex’s two ’selves’ are seen to inhabit. This idea of intersex as a split identity was at its most extreme and disturbing (to me) in the scene in the girls’ toilet where Alex refers to ‘himself‘ being sexually aroused by the image of Alex/‘herself’ as a ‘Clinique girl’ in the mirror. Intersex=grotesque narcissism? I too wonder about the research behind the book simply because I don’t know of any transgender, including intersex, people who speak or write of their identities in this way- instead trans people most often speak about their identities in ways which question and destabilise gender stereotypes, if not gender itself. A few other things which troubled me: the reductive ideas of ‘femininity’ and beauty which kept recurring; the exoticising of Amina’s ethnicity; the portrayal of Alex’s mum’s mental disintegration which linked abusive behaviour with madness and then with physical ugliness (by the end, her disintegration is so complete, she even ‘smells‘). But most of all, I’m afraid I just found this a bleak and depressing portrayal which just didn’t ring true and lacked an authentic voice at its heart. Young intersex people are a pretty vulnerable group so representing them is a huge responsibility- I haven’t yet seen an intersex character in YA fiction but, that said, I wouldn’t give any young person this bleak, fantastical portrayal to read.

Sarah: I echo the problems previous reviewers have raised particularly concerning the portrayal of intersex as a split identity and consequently find it very difficult to move on to discuss the merits of the book as a work of fiction. Beth noting that Alyssa's primary focus was on "the unreliable narrator, rather than on the intricacies of what it means to be intersex" makes perfect sense. I really think it is hugely unfortunate to chose intersex as the vehicle for such an abstract exercise. In our society both intersex and trans face constant questioning over the authenticity and reliability of our gender expression. Sadly I cannot see how this book can do anything other than reinforce such attitudes.

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