The First Time I Saw Myself
After a brief hiatus for the holidays, we are back and excited to bring more dynamic and engaging content to our platform. We’re kicking off 2019 with a new column from long-time Siblíní correspondent, Channler Twyman. Happy New Year to all our readers, writers, and supporters.
Going home over the summer for the first time after beginning college was hard for me. I had developed my own life away from my family—a life where I was independent and in control of my schedule and daily actions. I didn’t have to answer to anyone but myself and I felt free to become the person that I always wanted to be but never really got the chance to be for a multitude of reasons. Going home often felt stifling. The change of pace akin to a loss of freedom. Don’t get me wrong—I love spending time with my family—but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more invested in the life I’ve been able to create, independent of the people that raised me. It’s empowering. But still, to numb those intense growing pains, I did what any sensible introvert would do—I read. A lot.
Reading and consuming other forms of entertainment have always gotten me through my roughest days. Getting lost in the created worlds of other people have always been a reliable source of comfort to me. Granted, books were only a temporary distraction from everything I was trying to avoid but I could count on those moments of intimacy. Between me and the worlds brought to life with words, I could push through whatever I was dealing with.
One day I went to my local Barnes and Noble and was in a YA novel mood. It was around this time that I began to become comfortable with my queerness and was still in the early stages of learning how to navigate my identity. I had looked up some queer YA novels that I thought would be interesting and my store had three of the books I was looking for. I can’t remember the other two, but I distinctly picking up Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz and thinking about how it sounded like the least interesting of the bunch.
The synopsis had no mentions of a romance or anything closely related to queerness in any way. All it talked about was how these two Mexican boys become friends and endured hardships together. I was skeptical. I might have rolled my eyes. And yet, it was the only book I walked out of the store with.
I don’t know why I picked it up. Maybe it was because of all the awards imprinted on the front, or maybe it was because I thought the other books seemed even less interesting. But looking back on it now, I think I was so tired of reading stories that only featured white cis-gendered gay men. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for books like Simon Vs. The Homosapien’s Agenda. I’d even argue that I’ll Give You the Sun is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read, even though I could not find myself in it. For the past four years, I have been trying desperately to attain the ability to see myself as black and queer as I am, to exist in a future where I am happy. The characters in Saenz’s book were not black but at least they weren’t white.
I brought the book home that night and started reading. It seemed to start out slow, but suddenly, as if I had blinked, it had felt like someone had shoved a mirror into the clutches of my hands. It was like all my life had led me to this penultimate moment. I devoured every single word as if I would never be able to read the book again. As if the moment I put it down, the world would immediately go up in flames. I read and read and read and before I knew it the sun was rising. When I finished the book, I cried not only because it was beautiful, but also because of the pure whim and random interest that caused me to discover the book that saved my life.
I’m sure my readers are probably expecting me to go into detail about how great the book is and why you should read it, but that’s not the point of this week’s article. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is indeed a phenomenal story and is worthy of all the accolades and praise it has received but I didn’t pick it up for the accolades. I practically ignored the award stickers on the cover. No one recommended this book to me either. I went in completely unaware of what to expect. It doesn’t matter that it won many awards or has gained significant notoriety in the world of queer YA fiction. It wouldn’t matter if it got the shittiest reviews. What matters is after 20 years I had finally seen myself.
After 20 years, I felt as if someone had seen me drowning for so long and finally offered me a life jacket. I was no longer holding my breath or trying to grasp at the tiniest bit of air. My lungs were finally able to expand free of constraint. After reading this book, I knew that I wanted to be a writer. It’s a large part of why I even started this column. I knew that somewhere out in the world exists some beautiful queer black or brown boy waiting for someone to see them. To tell them that they are not alone. They deserve to be loved and exist. If I could do what Saenz did for me, even if it’s just one person, I’d consider my life not wasted.
So, to my readers, I tell you this story in the hopes that you are able to find your own Ari and Dante. I hope you have been able to find yourselves in some form of literature or media at least once in your lifetime so far. If not, keep looking. If you’re tired of looking, then I suggest building your own mirror, and as hard as that task may seem, the work it takes to build one does not compare to living a life where you are unable to find yourself represented in the things you love. The world needs your story. You deserve to be seen.
— Channler Twyman is a Staff Writer from South Georgia. ICYMI: Last time on “I See You,” Channler wrote about how to create your own village of creative independents who support you and embrace your work. Click here to read it.