“When did life get so dangerous? Kaz Adams just wants to read comic books with her best friend, Aisha Warren. And maybe get up the nerve to ask her out, if Kaz turns out to be a gender that Aisha’s into. Kaz figured she’d be the target of violence for her gender nonconformity, but a fatal police shooting thirty miles from their town opens her eyes to the realities of racism. She watches as pressures at school and in their social group mount against Aisha. Kaz would try to stop a bullet for Aisha if she had to, but she has no idea how to stop the waves of soul-crushing disapproval and judgement. When she talks to the other white students and adults in her area, they don’t seem to understand what she’s talking about. Aisha has helped Kaz find a place in the world, but that was about Kaz’s gender expression. Kaz can’t magically change the world for Aisha, but something has to change in their school system or she’ll lose the girl she loves.”
I received an e-book copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
DISCLAIMER: I’ve been increasingly absent recently for mental health and physical health reasons, and I have to admit this review is far later than it was meant to be, so I do want to apologise for that! My blog still won’t be back in action for a while I’d say, until I get my head screwed on straight, but I wanted to share my review (as scatty as it is) here while I could.
As is plainly stated in Rachel Gold’s Author’s Note, this is a book about a white person learning to be an ally, and it’s an excellent one at that. So often on matters of race, gender, sexuality, and other such sensitive topics pertaining to minorities, there’s a selection of ‘allies’ who – rather than using their privilege for good, and listening to those in worse positions than themselves – think that they should be the ones to speak on behalf of the disadvantaged. It’s so easy to tell yourself that you’re educating yourself, and those around you too, and doing it for some sort of greater good, but when that attempt at an education comes in the form of your voice being louder, clearer, and more trusted than the voices of those that you’re claiming to be an ally to – are you really helping anybody, or merely your own ego?
The great thing about In The Silences is that Kaz, our main character, has no intentions of doing that whatsoever. It’s so easy to create a story that addresses race from the perspective of a white person, and to have them fall effortlessly into the white saviour trope, but Gold never seemed to be at risk of doing so here. Instead, we follow Kaz on countless journeys throughout the course of the story.
Kaz and Aisha are best friends. Kaz is white, Aisha is black, and so begins Kaz’s education on systematic racism, as they play witness to every single instance in which Aisha is treated differently to them. Kaz slowly becomes aware of their own privilege as a white person, and how greatly their position differs to Aisha’s own.
Something that I adored about this story is the inclusion of Comic Books, their infatuation with the Marvel Universe, and how the stories of these mutants and these heroes paralleled with their own. In particular, I enjoyed the way that as the story progressed, and as Kaz’s own understanding of racism, their own social standing, and the ignorance of those around them grew, the more they were able to equate it to the characters they had grown to love.
“Evil had come into the house of my mind like Apocalypse – a parasite that promised to empower me if I listened to it. But listening didn’t give me power, it made me destructive. If I didn’t pay attention to this voice, it would gain power, it would overtake me when I wasn’t aware. It would use me to hurt Aisha. It would hurt me in order to hurt Aisha.”
The greatest example of this was that way in which Kaz constantly used Apocalypse – a villain from the Marvel X-Men comics – as a means to understand internalised racism, misogyny, transphobia, and homophobia. It may read as childish to some, but from the narrative of a 15 year old teenager, trying to understand their standing in a dark, confusing, and admittedly terrifying world, I felt as though it was very apt. I’ve read countless YA novels that try to put me into the mindset of just how a teenager is meant to feel, and I regularly come away from those books feeling as though the author has never interacted with a teenager in their life, and has long since lost any semblance of a grasp on their own teenage years. At 25 years old myself, I’ve moved on from my teen years, but they weren’t so long ago that I’ve completely forgotten them, and I can say for certain that I had an overactive imagination, and I was always, and still am, prone to using fiction and sci-fi as a reference to help me understand the real world. Using fantasy, science fiction, and any sort of fiction to help you get a grasp on the things that go on around you is fairly common, at least in my understanding, and to see Kaz using what she knows best as a way to help them gain a better understanding of such important issues was a joy to read.
“That voice, Apocalypse’s evil mind control, had to keep telling me that black people were dangerous – the same way it told me women were less than men and that gay was unnatural – to keep reinforcing those ideas. I knew that women were as powerful as men, Milo made sure of that. I knew that gay guys were beautiful together, my body made sure of that. But what was the truth of the situation with black people? It took me a long time to work through because there were a lot of truths, but the one that hit me hardest was this: in America, black people were in danger. That was a truth the voice wanted to hide.”
Countless times they reference back to Apocalypse, to his mind-control and his ability to get inside of peoples’ brains, using it as the perfect metaphor for the tiny voices that we all have in the back of our mind – you, me, and Kaz included. We are all born with these internalised prejudices, these little voices that tell us what is and isn’t superior, that build us up only to tear other people down. What matters isn’t that we have them – it’s inevitable, in many ways – but how we act upon them. So many people absolutely refuse to accept the fact that we live in a society that normalises prejudice, celebrates ignorance, and rewards the rich, white, cisgendered, able-bodied and heterosexual above all else. As a white woman myself, I would love to say that I have always had an open mind, and that I’m less inclined to fall prey to such bigotry – that said, we’d all like to believe that of ourselves, and I know fine well that, especially as a child and a teenager, I had certain views and opinions on the world that would mortify me to hear of now. I am not completely educated on the lives and cultures of others, and I have so much to learn through the course of my life, and I’m willing to, and desperate to undo any of the damage that society and these mindsets do inflict on minorities in any way that I possibly can. There is a large selection of people who are so ignorant, so set in their ways, that the mere concept of taking a step back and re-evaluating themselves, re-evaluating their views, and actually listening to minorities is such a foreign and discomforting concept to them that they will flat out refuse. So many people are so blind to what’s happening around them that they won’t even open themselves up to the possibility of learning and understanding new perspectives, no matter how damaging and dangerous their own attitudes are, and I think that Kaz – their narrative, and their own self-reflection through the course of this book – does an incredible job of addressing this and really digging into the root of it.
Kaz uses their love of comic books to help them understand these concepts, and so many of the characters in the book – but Kaz and Aisha especially – flit from fun-loving and playful, their ages clear in their behaviour and even their speech patterns, to educational and awe-inspiring, using their own personal privileges and experiences to learn and to adapt, yet all the while without making the dialogue feel like some sort of robot info-dump.
Kaz’s own ignorance is always addressed, by themselves and by others, and their self-awareness and growth throughout the course of the story does not go amiss. While intent on educating their white peers and family members as best they can, they never hold Aisha accountable or responsible, or expect her to have to put herself in a position of discomfort or danger. It’s never Aisha’s job to educate the white people around her, nor does Kaz ever try to force her into a scenario that shines a light on her or makes her feel as though she has to be the voice of the entire black community, or the bisexual community. Some of my favourite moments while reading this book were the instances in which Kaz recognised their own wrong-doings, and how their words or actions could have been perceived. Their acknowledgement of the way that they can treat Aisha in private, one-on-one, versus the way that they must treat her in public, when surrounded by their straight, white friends, was an eye-opener both for them and for me as a reader. The dynamic between both of these characters – both during the platonic and romantic stages – was so healthy and sincere, each of them holding themselves accountable for their own ignorance and errors, always apologising where necessary, and being willing to learn and adapt for the sake of not only each other’s comfort, but for strangers, too.
I really desperately enjoyed this book, and I think that Gold done an incredible job of addressing countless different issues. As well as approaching the topic of race so delicately, and without ever presenting Kaz as some sort of white saviour, Gold’s treatment of both Aisha and Kaz’s sexualities, and Kaz’s gender and identity issues, was treated with all of the genuine care and devotion that can, quite often, be sorely absent from other such LGBT+ media.
I enjoy reading books that deal with matters of race, gender, and sexuality, and I appreciate that some books are going to be harder to read than others. If I’m reading a book that inherently focuses on homophobia, and the dangers of it, I always try to prepare myself for the level of discomfort that might come from reading such content. I know that such books can often be filled with scenes of discomfort, with characters being goaded and bullied and singled out in a way that is often heartbreaking to read. Sometimes, I know that such stories can often be riddled with slurs, or abuse, or any level of toxicity that might put emphasis on the main character’s struggles. That said, there was a sense of relief in finally being able to read a story that handled so many different issues with such tender care, and never once resorted to slurs and discomfort. I was sad, uncomfortable even, any time a character in this book was subjected to some sort of snide or crude remark, and any time a character was hurtful or unkind. It’s never particularly nice to read racist, homophobic, or transphobic interactions, but there are ways to approach them that don’t leave a sickening, sour taste in the reader’s mouth, and I think that Rachel Gold absolutely hit the nail on the head with this one.
This is a book that handles hard-hitting subjects with grace, while still managing to make me laugh and squeal with joy in the process. Kaz and Aisha have such an endearing dynamic throughout the course of the book, and I went through a roller coaster of emotions right alongside them. Not to mention, the dynamics between Kaz and Aisha’s brothers, friends from school, grandparents and so many others was so touching and enjoyable, to be able to watch these characters grow and adapt with one another was a delight. Getting to witness such casual representation from characters of colour, non-binary, transgender, and non-conforming main and supporting characters, as well as Aisha, in particular, who had such a solid and uplifting grasp on her own bisexuality, never shying away from it or from educating others on her identity, was such a delight when such representation continues to be so lacking in other such media and fiction.
In an attempt to wind down this review, I’d just like to add, too, that the author’s note at the end of this novel was also another pleasant surprise. Rachel Gold understands her privilege and she knows her place, and rather than talking about the struggles of a white woman, or giving her own white character a pat on the back for being ‘woke’ and ‘accepting’, she focuses on drawing attention to novels by LGBT+ authors and people of colour. She cites all of her research and reference points for this novel on her website, as well as leaving links to safe spaces and websites that support those struggling with gender identity and transitioning. Not to mention resources to address stereotype threats, websites that support black LGBTQ+ teens, and websites that catalogue young adult novels searchable by race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and far more.
I would – and have already done so! – highly recommend this book to anybody. I think it’s a great YA novel that I could absolutely talk about for days on end if I had the time or the energy. There were so many points that I didn’t have nearly enough time to address, so I would absolutely implore anybody and everybody to read this and take an opportunity to see what all the hype is for themseleves!