Book Review: I Am J by Cris Beam
Goodreads Description: J always felt different. He was certain that eventually everyone would understand who he really was; a boy mistakenly born as a girl. Yet as he grew up, his body began to betray him; eventually J stopped praying to wake up a "real boy" and started covering up his body, keeping himself invisible - from his family, from his friends...from the world. But after being deserted by the best friend he thought would always be by his side, J decides that he's done hiding - it's time to be who he really is. And this time he is determined not to give up, no matter the cost.
My Review: Oh, my lord. Where to start. I Am J is the coming of age tale of J, as he comes to terms with his gender identity. J uses his frustration and the prejudice he faces as justification for being a complete and total jerk. The whole plot involves J starting drama with his friends and family. Though this book is heavily about the transgender story and I can't speak to how well it reflects that, I will say there was plenty of other problematic material that turned me off.
First off, the best friend, Melissa, that up and "deserts" him does so after J kisses her while she's asleep, against her will. She kicks J out of her house and in an email tells him she needs some space afterwards. It's mentioned "If J was a real boy, it would be rape," which I have serious issue with. Just because J is biologically female-- and even if he identified that way as well-- kissing someone without their consent is still sexual assault. Women don't get excused from that behaviour simply for being women. Regardless, Melissa forgives him and they're friends again, despite J never showing remorse for what he did.
The book was also littered with homophobia, as well as some biphobia. J repeatedly stresses how being compared to a lesbian is "awful" and the "worst thing ever." I understand that he wants to be seen as a man, not a butch woman, but the way it was handled was incredibly hurtful. Moreso, during a classroom scene a biphobic comment is expressed by one of the kids: "For reals, this poet shoulda picked men or women or prostitutes. Bisexual's nasty." The other kids all agree and the teacher does nothing to challenge this. Meanwhile there is no representation of lesbian or bisexual characters. As well, we have a scene where J comes across a girl getting sexually exploited, and says he could care less about a bitch and leaves. Finally, after his parents express their love and support for what he's going through, J proceeds to run away and refuses to talk with them. When his mother sits him down to talk about his transition, she tells him that though she doesn't understand, she still loves him. Apparently that isn't good enough as J proceeds to cut contact with her for the most part. All of this and more made it incredibly difficult to find sympathy for J.
Not just in the plot elements, but in every scene J finds some way to be overly selfish, rude, or aggressive in an attempt to be more "masculine." I find this incredibly damaging, as it seemed to reduce being a man to only negative traits. Melissa is quite obnoxious and uses J throughout the book. She is a cutter and an awful representation of it. She is an attention-seeking cutter, right down to her "performance" where she cuts herself in front of an audience, yet she's somehow shocked she's sent to a psych ward afterwards. J's mom was awful for plot reasons, but those reasons could have been solved with some simple communication between J and his father. Their excuse for each other was, "Well, you didn't call either." It hardly felt realistic considering the circumstances. Meanwhile, J's father Manny is described as a complete monster by J, but that is never shown through any of his actions. If anything, he is open, communicative at times, and loving. He is ignorant, though not aggressive about it, but the fact that he calls J "Jeni" sometimes (before he even comes out) makes him some sort of monster.
The writing itself was very bland and clipped. Most sentences were short and to the point, often leaving scenes feeling abrupt. It's rare to say, but this story would have made a lot more sense told from first person point of view rather than third. J begins the book by seeing himself as a "head without a body," and after his assault on Melissa, decides to accept himself as a man. Yet the pronouns are 'he' from the beginning of the book, and though I suppose this is suppose to illustrate that J always had been a man, it just felt off with the narrative. The writing also jumps back and forth in time, often mid-scene, which can be a bit confusing. The flashbacks were incredibly prevalent and were often used to reinforce the scene currently taking place, which gave the sense of convenience. For example, we see flashbacks of Melissa and J's history right before the kiss, and we see flashbacks of why J hates swimming now mid-argument with mom, etc. etc. It's a version of telling through flashbacks instead of working that information organically into the narrative.
TL;DR: All in all, 1/5 stars. A character driven story with horribly unlikable characters.