Nina Lacour’s We Are Okay was the 2018 winner of the Michael L. Printz Award, an annual award promoted by the American Library Association that is supposed to work as a counterpoint to the worldwide recognized Newbery Medal. This organization seeks to “support library staff in alleviating the challenges teens face, and in putting all teens ‒ especially those with the greatest needs ‒ on the path to successful and fulfilling lives” through its Young-Adult services division (YALSA), and the award itself “honors the best book written for teens, based entirely on its literary merit”. So we can initially presume that Lacour’s book is an emancipatory literary text that is responsible for broadening the horizon of expectations of its readers. But is it really the case?
In We Are Okay we follow LGBTQ protagonist Marin’s journey as told by herself. The death of her grandfather - her only living relative, not counting the father she never met - culminates in her immediately running away to New York, leaving behind her experiences in San Francisco in an attempt to erase all her past, which includes her relationship with Mabel, her best friend for whom she felt in love and had a romantic/sexual relationship. Marin is now alone, living in the college accommodation as a freshman at a university, because the other students have returned to their parents’ house for the holidays (and that includes Hannah, her roommate). Marin is alone until Mabel decides to visit her. They haven’t chatted in a while (the protagonist does not answer her friend’s text messages), so Marin inefficiently tries to disguise her psychological wounds, but as she herself affirms: Mabel “knows me better than anyone else in the world”. This character comes to New York with a proposal to make: she asks Marin to live with her and her parents.
Marin’s journey is surrounded by grief and can be seen as having three intertwined paths: her relationship with her grandfather, who keeps his deceased daughter’s belongings to himself and tries to recreate her memory at all costs (even sending letters to a person whom he calls his “girlfriend”, but it’s actually his daughter); her relationship with her biological mother, a figure that she searches for identification with and whom she wants to get somehow closer (but she has barely seen a picture of this character in her entire life) and, towards the end of the novel, ends up finding in Mabel’s mother (Ana) the maternal figure she was looking for; and her relationship with Mabel: from best friend to the love of her life then “sister”.
Marin is afraid of not being capable of loving anybody else in the world but Mabel, who now has a boyfriend who has similar characteristics to Marin (they both love literature), but accepts her friend’s proposal to live with her family, rebuilding her life. She asks herself:
to think a new girl is pretty, and not in a way that lots of people in the world are pretty, but pretty in a way that might mean something to me. To look into Mabel’s dark eyes, try not to stare at her pink mouth or her long hair, and say that. To think that a girl who is practically a stranger could be the next person I love. To think she might take Mabel’s place (Kindle 2187-2189).
By accepting Mabel’s parents and her best friend herself as her new family at the end of the novel, Marin needs to give up her love (and sexual feelings) for Mabel, and accept that things have changed.
So the “path to a fulfilling” life we mentioned earlier in this post, for an LGBTQ character, seems to me as a path to heteronormativity, a term coined by Michael Warner in 1991. Gilmaro Nogueira explains that “the concept seeks to account for a new social order, that is, if before that order required everyone to be heterosexual, today the sexual order requires that everyone, heterosexuals, homosexuals, and other individuals organize their lives according to the ‘supposedly coherent’ model of heterosexuality”. Marin’s decision to accept the proposal and move in with Mabel’s family consolidates her dream of living in heteronormativity: “I always wanted to be your mother”, Mabel’s mother states. In heteronormativity, people (regardless their sexuality) organize their lives according to the heterosexual model and Marin’s sexuality is “made normal” this way.
In heteronormativity LGBTQ people are coherent only if they identify with heterosexuality as a model, maintaining what Nogueira calls “gender linearity”: men must be manly, for instance. To organize their lives according to the model of heterosexuality, he affirms, “homosexuals must do everything that a heterosexual person does. An example is the marriage ritual, which is a social exigency within acceptable parameters, and the adoption of children as a simulacrum of reproductive sexuality”. The researcher explains that “it does not mean that those who wish to marry and have children do so because of heteronormativity, but that this prescription will mark those who do not wish to ascend to this supposed bond model”.
In her study of sexual minorities in contemporary realistic fiction between 2000-2005, Corrine Wickens shows that “the depictions of heteronormativity, homophobia, and institutions of schooling tend to be authoritative networks of power that more often than not serve to oppress LGBTQ characters, rather than advocate on their behalf” and, in We Are Okay, Marin starts to understand her sexuality and is afraid of never loving anybody else in her life but Mabel. But at the same time her journey in search of understanding herself and being accepted culminates in embracing heteronormativity as a way of life.
LaCour, Nina. We Are Okay. Reprint, e-book, Penguin Books, 2019. “Mission, Vision & Impact Statements.” Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), 13 Nov. 2018, www.ala.org/yalsa/aboutyalsa/mission%26vision/yalsamission. Nogueira, Gilmaro. "Qual a diferença entre homofobia, heterossexualidade compulsória e heteronormatividade?." iBahia, 2013,
homofobia-heterossexualidade-compulsoria-e-heteronormatividade/ Wickens, Corrine Marie. Queering Young Adult Literature: Examining Sexual Minorities in
Contemporary Realistic Fiction Between 2000-2005. 2007. Texas A&M University, PhD
Guilherme Magri da Rocha is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies at the São Paulo State University’s School of Sciences, Languages, and Humanities. He currently holds a São Paulo State Research Foundation fellowship (grant #18/11314-0) and develops a project on the relationship between literary Modernism and children's literature. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org