Oh, you American YA novels and your obsession with Homecoming … sigh. At least in this case, I.W. Gregorio puts it right at the beginning of the novel and gets it over with. It is one of the many stock elements of None of the Above, a novel featuring an intersex protagonist coming to terms with her identity while navigating her final year of high school. I was very nervous to read this book, because Gregorio’s author bio mentions she was “inspired” to write this by an intersex patient she encountered while a resident. And that was … yikes. Nevertheless, I soldiered on. And my verdict? Well, it’s not my place to evaluate the intersex representation here—regardless, there are other problems with this book.
Kristin is your ordinary, average 18-year-old girl. She’s pretty popular (but not too popular). She’s great at track. She loves her dad, who is still grieving the death of her mother from cervical cancer. Oh, and she has a boyfriend! Then Kristin learns that she has a condition known as AIS, Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. As a result, Kristin has male gonads (testes) and XY chromosomes, but she has developed in many other ways, physically, as a girl, and was assigned female at birth. She falls under the umbrella known as intersex (which includes people with a variety of different biological characteristics that mean they deviate from what we’ve decided is “normal” male or female biology). This upends her entire self and her worldview—worse, of course, is when news of her condition gets out at school, resulting in a predictable spate of bullying. As the people Kristin thought of as her friends desert her and she herself questions her own sex, gender, etc., Kristin has to come to terms with the fact that she exists outside of one of the many binaries our society imposes on us.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m not qualified to comment on Gregorio’s representation of intersex here. As someone who is neither intersex nor a woman, Kristin’s experiences are way outside my remit. That being said, I was so dubious about this book once I learned it was not own-voices and what inspired Gregorio to write it. Reading her author’s note at the end didn’t help. I believe Gregorio’s heart is in the right place, and I don’t believe one must be own-voices in order to portray a marginalized identity. Nevertheless, just because one can write a story doesn’t mean one should—particularly when it’s not one’s story to tell. By this I mean: I think it would be great for perisex (non-intersex) authors to have intersex characters, even intersex protagonists, in their stories. But why does the story have to revolve around the character’s intersexuality, especially their discovery of that condition? Why not leave those stories for intersex authors to tell while simultaneously boosting representation of intersex people in other ways?
The idea that all stories featuring a protagonist with a marginalized identity must somehow be about that identity is another insidious way of Othering marginalized people. Speaking personally as an aromantic and asexual individual, I don’t just want more books about aro/ace teens coming to terms with their identity—I want those plus aro/ace characters who are involved in stories that have nothing to do with their sexuality.
Moreover, these stories are almost always written to be consumed by an audience of outsiders, and that is the case here. None of the Above’s focus on the medical aspects of intersex, its almost clinical portrayal of Kristin’s experience, the treatment she faces at the hands of her peers—all of this is points to the book being written for perisex readers, to inform them and educate them about being intersex (or at least, a particular variation thereof). Again, this is not a bad thing on the face of it. Certainly all of us (myself included) need a lot more education about and exposure to intersex people and their experiences. Yet it also means that, while an intersex person may very well still like this book, they are yet again not reading a book for them.
This is particularly evident in the way Gregorio portrays acceptance (or lack thereof) of Kristin being intersex. There’s bullying, name-calling, even to the point of using slurs. Gregorio defends this in her author’s note by saying that “intersex awareness isn’t widespread enough to have eradicated that term.” OK, sure, let’s say I buy that—what about all the homophobic and transphobic language and action in this book? On page 24, even before we find out Kristin is intersex, she describes another kid going around pretending he’s going to sodomize some dudes at Homecoming as a joke. And yes, I am well aware that—especially in small towns—toxic masculinity and homophobia are often visible and acceptable in high schools. But it’s interesting that Gregorio chooses to highlight such an environment throughout this book. It’s as if, having twigged to the idea that intersex people are marginalized and experience oppression, that’s all she can focus on.
That’s not to say Kristin lacks support. She finds her people, both literally in the sense of meeting other intersex people, and figuratively in new friendships or reaffirmation of existing friendships. Her dad is supportive, in his own way, which is good. She reluctantly consults a therapist, who makes some vague recommendations that are exactly the kind of thing you’d expect a generic therapist in a YA novel to say.
And that’s why I said at the beginning of this review that None of the Above has problems beyond the way it portrays intersex. As I considered what to say in this review, I wrestled with one question: why didn’t I like this, when I not only liked but loved Full Disclosure? Both books bear some superficial resemblance: they’re about a teenage girl with a marginalized identity that she tries and fails to keep secret, and in both cases, the author is not own-voices. Why do I rave about Full Disclosure yet pan None of the Above? It all comes back to the writing.
As I note in my review of Full Disclosure, I loved the whole novel, not just the parts about Simone’s experience with being HIV positive. I loved that minor characters, the support system Simone has in place, the way her friends all have their own issues going on. I also loved that the book is unapologetically, overtly queer in so many ways. Simone questioning her sexuality, her friends having their own queer identities, other queer characters—like, wow. It’s racially diverse, sexually diverse … it’s so much. Wait, when did this become a plug for Full Disclosure? Sorry not sorry, go read it.
In contrast, I don’t get that feeling from None of the Above. To be fair, Gregorio makes the attempt. There is, of course, the inevitable falling out with the best friends, the misunderstandings and miscommunications, the question of whether or not they can make up and move forward. But that’s precisely the problem: it feels inevitable, expected, stock. It’s as if Gregorio is following a checklist for how to write an American YA novel: ok, they care a lot about homecoming; add in some friendship drama; make sure the character gets bullied for her identity; have the character go through some therapy … and so on. It feels rote and perfunctory and entirely uninteresting. And on top of that, while there is some racial diversity here (though it’s hard to know, because Gregorio seldom actually points it out), this book seems very straight and cis. So not only is there overt homophobia and transphobia, but it’s also as if queer people barely exist. (There is one notable exception, which in some ways makes it almost worse, because she exists literally as a foil for Kristin. So I should say there are no casually queer people in this book—the only queer person is queer For a Reason. Ugh. Oh, and there’s a character whose Dad Turned Out to Be Gay, and so that’s a big deal.)
I know precisely two things about Kristin: she is intersex and she likes running. That’s it. I don’t remember what she wants to study in college (to be fair I think Gregorio told me, but I guess I’d checked out by then). I don’t know what kind of TV she likes. I kind of know her musical tastes (she hates Disney pop I guess?), but that’s about it. Intersex subplot or no, Kristin doesn’t feel like a very three-dimensional protagonist to me. This is a cardboard book full of cardboard characters.
None of the Above makes a valiant attempt. I’m not out to demonize or discourage the author. Yet as a debut novel it is lacking, and while I applaud people who try to shine more light on under-represented identities, I remain as skeptical coming out of this novel as I did going in that this book accomplishes that in a graceful, successful, and meaningful way. And that is part of a larger, ongoing conversation I hope we continue to have about representation in our literature, who should be telling which stories, and how our own assumptions and biases colour the ways in which we write (and read) even when our intentions are good.