It might be hard to believe that a queer young adult novel written by a debut author, only twenty-four, won a Governor General’s award for children’s literature, especially when said novel is about a flamboyant, gender non-conformist, foul-mouthed kid with a stripper mom and a self-described slut for a best friend. Especially when this is a novel about a hate crime that refuses the paint the queer teenager as a victim. But that’s exactly what’s happened to When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid.
It’s no wonder people have been captivated by this novel: the main character Jude’s voice is one that grabs you by the collar right from the beginning and doesn’t let go. Jude spends the majority of the book painting his life in Hollywood colour, hoping to escape the mundanity of small-town life in a largely homophobic place. He wants you to believe the glossy Hollywoodizing retake of his life, and you do, even while you glimpse the harsh reality beneath the facade. For readers and for Jude, the divide between pretend and real is thin, irrelevant; as Jude says, “And it felt so real, I didn’t know when I was dreaming.” “If I were there [Hollywood],” he tells us, “it would be real. I would be real.” His persistence in re-imagining his life is a testament to the power of the queer imagination as a survival strategy. For him, “faggot” written on his locker is simply a letter from one of his die-hard fans.
Reid does a fantastic job harnessing that irreverent, fearless, reckless nature of teenagers. Jude’s perspective is naïve, of course, from an adult’s point of view, but you can’t help but see the strange wisdom in his words. For example, his description of school politics:
Everyone fell into one of three categories:
1. The Crew: They made things happen. They took over the honour roll, sports teams, extracurricular activities, and clubs. They had the most volunteer credits and were first to raise their hands whenever the teacher asked a question. They weren’t necessarily the smartest, most talented, or prettiest, but they were involved. Without the crew, nothing would ever get done, and we’d all be wandering down the hallways in search of our marks.
2. The Extras: All the misfits, outcasts, and social rejects. If you were as chipped as my nail polish and didn’t belong, you were an extra—kind of the opposite of the Crew. They were there, but you didn’t really know it; they were just bodies in desks filling space, anonymous smiles in faded school photos on a boulevard of broken dreams
3. The Movie Stars: No one thinks they’re more special than they do, but everyone wants to be tagged in a Facebook picture with the stars and get their autographs in the yearbook. They’re selfish, spoiled, and overly sexed. There isn’t much beyond the surface of their flawlessly airbrushed skin, and everyone talks about them behind their backs. Their eyes light up when you can do something for them, and everything that comes out of their mouths is totally fake.
I didn’t fit into any category. I definitely wasn’t a part of the Crew; I wasn’t about to be involved in anything unless it was court-appointed. I wasn’t an Extra because the last thing I could ever be was anonymous. But I wasn’t a Movie Star either because, even though everyone knew my name, I wasn’t invited to the cool parties.
So there was me, the flamer that lit the set on fire.
Examining the waitress at his favourite diner:
She just didn’t look like a Brooke. You never think a Brooke is going to be some fatty whose neck folds remind you of a vagina. You don’t think of a fifty-year-old waitress who looks like she’s never been to the dentist. You think of a Brooke as some blonde bitch in L.A. with perky tits and a phony personality, someone with a white dog named Snowball and a husband who buys her jewellery every time he cheats on her. Someone living the dream life.
It’s no spoiler to tell you that Jude dies as a result of a horrific hate crime at the end of the novel; you know from the beginning. This in no way lessens the impact, but it does make you see some parts of the book differently, like when Jude refuses to wear a down jacket in the cold, instead choosing a chic little pea coat and proclaiming: “Fashion before comfort; you can be warm in hell.” The end is heart-breaking, of course, but what makes this different from so many of these stories is that Reid steadfastly refuses to portray Jude as pathetic, as a victim. Jude retains the first-person narrative even after his death, and his story leading up to this moment shows that Jude knows who he is, who he wants, who he wants to be, and is proud.
I’m proud, too, of what so many queer Canadian artists have accomplished and that three! of them were chosen this year as winners for the Governor General’s literary awards.