Friday, January 26, 2018

Liz Jacobs' ABROAD: Book 1

Any reader of contemporary American gay and male/male romance will soon understand that acceptance of queerness varies markedly across the United States. Some areas of the country, and some subcultures within other sections of the country, openly champion gay rights. Romances with settings in the first group may occasionally depict their characters on the receiving end of negative words or actions against their queer identities or actions, but such narratives more often suggest that such words or actions are aberrations from the norm, rather than the norm itself. Romances set in the second group, though, still feature characters who struggle with social, cultural, and/or religious beliefs that insist that their sexual identities exist only beyond the pale. But even characters in romances set in the second group eventually meet with one, or many, who espouse more positive views towards queer identity. If you are growing up in 21st century America, positive models of queer identity are no longer as difficult to find as they were fifty years ago.

But what if you are from a different country? A country in which queerness is not acceptable in any segment of its cultures? Can a man who grew up in a society in which his identity is accepted ever be able to understand one who was raised in a country where queerness is outside the realm of accepted reality?

The logo of RUSA LGBT, a "network
for Russian-speaking LGBTQ
individuals, their friends, supporters,
and loved ones" which was formed in
In Liz Jacobs' debut romance, Abroad (split into two separate books), readers meet twenty-year-old Nick (Nikolay) Melnikov on an airplane, en route from Michigan to London to study for a year abroad. Nick's family immigrated to the States from Russia when he was ten, and although he and his older sister have picked up American language and culture, their mother still holds tight to her Russian identity. Including a Russian antipathy to queerness. Nick had a girlfriend through late high school and early college, but he broke up with her before leaving for London, not liking the way being with Lena "had suffocated him, like a yoke pulled too tight" (Book 1, page 9). He'd loved her, but he'd never been sexually attracted to her, nor to any of the other girls in the States who had crushed on him.

At least, not like he is drawn to Dex, a fellow uni student he meets at a party for study abroad scholars soon after he arrives in London.  Dex may be a native Brit (born and raised in Birmingham, thank you very much, despite having a Nigerian mother and a English black father), not a fellow International student, but no matter; Nick is far too shy, far too anxious, and too far into denial about his own sexual desires to make any overtures to the grumpy but smart science nerd.

But Dex's best friend, Isabel, takes a shine to Nick, and gradually draws him into their mutual circle of friends, many of who embrace queer identities. Claiming such an identity is not easy for Nick, even as it becomes increasingly clear that Dex is as attracted to Nick as Nick is to him. As Nick explains during a conversation with Izzy, after she assumes (correctly, although deeply embarrassingly to Nick) that Nick is gay:

"I can't. Not with my family."
     "Would they be very angry?"
     "I don't know how to explain. It's never been an option. Not how I grew up."
     "It's how they grew up, too. Back there, it was not talked about. If it was, it wasn't good." How to truly describe the insular circle of friends his parents had surrounded themselves with? Jewish intelligentsia who feared much and talked largely of high art, or science, and only sometimes politics—in hushed voices and in vetted company. Their kitchen table was always crowded with makeshift dinners and discussions of how cultural standards had fallen along with the government and taken intellectual thought with them. Queerness would never even enter into such conversation. Once, Nick remembered someone mentioning a particularly flamboyant pop star. Mom had wrinkled her nose. Distasteful. In her reality, being gay was like being a wizard. Outside her realm. (262)

Being Black in a predominantly white country, Dex can understand what it feels like to experience oppression due to his identity. Yet he still has a hard time understand how anyone, even a shy guy like Nick, can keep something so central about himself hidden for so long.

Nick's anxiety about his sexual desires, already pretty high, ratchets up to an entirely appalling level after he and Dex share a kiss:  "Nick felt himself splintering in two, a painful tearing of past and future. Before he knew and after. The truth of it laid bare and nestled inside him. He knew, now. He knew" (285).

Both Dex and Nick need some time apart before they can have an honest, and painful, conversation about why it is so difficult for Nick to accept his own sexuality, or to tell his family about it:

Queer activists, St. Petersburg, Russia, 2008
     "You told me once that you felt like you passed. Being Jewish, that is, that you didn't look it. Has being gay been like that?"
     Nick genuinely flinched. "It's been worse."
     Dex felt a dark shiver down his spine. "Why?"
     Nick took a long pull of his beer, which drew shadows across his throat. "Because I'm not supposed to exist."
     "No, really." Nick pushed on, and Dex forced himself to shut up. Nick was talking. Nick was talking. "I've never known another Russian gay person. I'm sure they exist, I mean, duh, of course they do. I know that. Now. But when I was a kid, I had never met one. I didn't know anyone. I didn't know any gay people."
     Dex was frozen.
     "I don't—I was alone. My parents never talked about anything like that, not ever. At least, not when I was a kid. And they they talked about it like it was something Americans did. Some Western thing. Not necessarily awful, just not for us. Not ours. So I couldn't be... that. I couldn't. I could be Jewish, I could be an immigrant, but I couldn't be gay." (321)

I really admired the way Jacobs shows how oppression manifests differently in different settings and cultures, as well as how difficult it can be to truly get someone else's experience of oppression even when you've experienced oppression yourself firsthand. She's also fabulous at capturing the cadence of young adult speech—the stops and starts, the repetitions, the meandering diversions and the conversational dead-ends—patterns of communicating that make it so very difficult to articulate, never mind to share, your most painful experiences and fears, even with your closest friends and lovers. Bonus points for a secondary storyline about Dex and Nick's friend Izzy, who is thrown for a loop after she discovers she's not as straight as she once thought she was, a discovery that unexpectedly leads to an estrangement between Izzy and her former best friend, lesbian Natali.

Can Dex and Nick actually pull off a romantic relationship, with Nick still keeping his sexuality a secret from his mother? And with his VISA expiring in only a few months? Will Natali's crush on Izzy lead to a shift in their relationship? Or will Izzy explore her newly discovered bisexuality in another way? I'm off to read Abroad: Book 2, eager to spend more time with these nuanced, sympathetically drawn characters.

Photo credits:
Rainbow Russian doll: RUSA LGBT
Russian queer activists: ABC

Liz Jacobs
Abroad: Book One
Brain Mill Press, 2017


  1. It sounds like a very interesting book. I'm thinking about buying it right now although I don't like the story being split in two books. That quote about gayness being a Western thing reminded me of something I heard my grandmother many years ago. Someone talked about having sex outside marriage, and my Grandma said that was something they did 'in Madrid' meaning, 'that cannot happen here, in our little homeland in Northern Spain'. My partner and I (he also heard my Gradma saying that) still remember those words, because, well, of course, everybody had sex outside marriage in the 1990s, and she was so oblivious.
    It shows that if people do not want to see reality, they just turn a blind eye. Because, obviously, there are guy people in Russia, and famous exemples in the history of that country. I just remember composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a famous one and he really had problems with that.
    But I understand that even today is not easy to come out if your family just doesn't understand.
    Do you know what? I'm going to buy this book just now.

    1. Will be interested to hear your thoughts on it, Bona.

      -- Jackie

  2. Haven't read the book, but from your description and the quotes it just sounds wrong. Oooh, those evil Russians who just hate all gay things. As a Russian, I can tell you with certainty that not only are there gay people in Russia, there are also gay-friendly people in Russia. There are Russian parents who are totally accepting of their children's LGBT-whatever-other-letter identities. Not everyone is like that, yes, quite a lot of people are anti-LGBT because of the governmental propaganda, hence the protests. But it's nowhere near as bleak and oppressive as the quotes make it seem. We have gays, we have feminists, we even have some sjw snowflakes. We're not that behind.
    It would be nice not to have our culture misrepresented by people with a clearly very limited knowledge of it. But since we're white I guess it's too much to ask.

    1. Hi, Anonymous:

      Thanks for adding your thoughts as a Russian about the portrayal of your country and fellow Russians. I'd be really interested to see if you feel the same way after reading the book. The author of the book herself is a Russian immigrant, and she is drawing upon her own background in telling Nick's story and experience. Which sounds as if it was not very gay-friendly. Nick did emigrate at age 10, and is now at college, and so would not have witnessed changes in Russia that took place in the past decade around these issues.

      Do you think American media exaggerates when it focuses on negative Russian attitudes towards homosexuality?

    2. Read the book, have returned.

      I have to apologize, I guess, for being harsh in my previous post. Sorry; this is a sore topic. I suspect most of my country people don’t care, but I deal with the English language professionally and therefore end up exposed to the cultures that speak it. And some of the stereotypes get very annoying very fast. (Admittedly, there is a lot of ridiculous stereotyping going both ways between our nations, but the thing is that at least ours don’t get exported; yours do. When was the last time you’ve seen a Russian character in a Hollywood film that was none of the following: a) criminal, b) prostitute/gold-digger, c) STEM scientist?)

      I think what’s important to note here is that yes, the author of this book is an immigrant, but she left Russia at the age of eleven. Having the blood of a certain nation doesn’t automatically grant you an understanding of that nation’s culture, and eleven is likely too young to have absorbed the culture fully.
      What I have seen in the book that relates to the experience of being Russian seems somewhat outdated; a lot of it is written as if the USSR ended just yesterday, when in reality we’ve been through a lot of changes since then. What also bothered me is that the book is set in present day, which means that Nick’s years in Russia would’ve happened in late nineties – early naughts. But that was a much easier time for gay people! There were openly gay celebrities and all that; yes, homophobia still existed, of course, but it was nowhere near as widely accepted as it is today, or as Nick’s memories seem to imply. So that just doesn’t add up.
      And even the language itself feels off – it’s correct, technically, but it’s not the Russian of today, or even yesterday – it’s more like what you’d hear in films from maybe the seventies… but okay, that may be some sort of regional dialect issue.
      The author also seems to go back and forth between the Russian and the Jewish identity; at times talking about how it’s totally not the same (true), but then calling the idea of teaching only girls to cook a “Russian thing”. Wait: how can she know, if she’s Jewish and it’s so very different? No, teaching girls to cook is not a “Russian thing”, it’s a “traditional thing”. As in, if a family wishes to cling to the past, then they’d do it, be they Russian, or Jewish, or American. And while there are some families like that, in my country they’re nowhere near numerous enough to constitute “a thing” for an entire nation. Not that we don’t have “things”, but this isn’t it.

      As for the general portrayals, I don’t think it’s just about homosexuality. I cannot claim to be an expert, but from what contact I’ve had with your culture – I do get the impression that Americans often fail to understand just how disconnected the government of Russia is from its people. For example, if there’s a homophobic law (and, unfortunately, there is), then it must’ve been enacted because most people wanted it, right? Not at all. The government does its thing, whatever that is, and while there are some that agree with it and support it, many more people just tolerate it in much the same way they tolerate winter: it sucks, but oh well whatcha gonna do.
      But even with the government, this place isn’t hell. The people are still just that – people; most can be reasoned with just fine. We’re not some sort of exotic dystopian land; we’re not that different from you at all, really.

    3. Thanks, Anonymous, for returning to the blog and sharing additional thoughts. I understand why stereotypes of Russian culture are a real sore point for you. And I appreciate the time and care you've taken in reading this book and sharing your thoughtful take on what you see as its dated portrayal of Russian culture.

      Your point about the disconnect between what the government does and what the population in general believes and supports is well taken. And not just regarding Russia...