Sam Brooks reviews Auckland writer Lil O’Brien’s memoir Not That I’d Kiss A Girl, and finds it a valuable yet unclear story of the author’s struggle with her own acceptance.
As queer people, we can be unnecessarily harsh on media that is about us, and by us. I think of the response to Looking, the HBO show that in retrospect, was probably… just fine. But at the time it was subjected to a lot of vitriol from the queer community for being boring, and for not being an “accurate” representation of the community it depicted. Some of that criticism was fair – it was very white, very sedate, and very navel-gazing – but some of the criticism seemed to be castigating it for not being everything to everyone.
This kind of response might not be fair, but it makes sense. As queer people, we’ve spent a lot of our lives trying to find queer subtext in media that is for and about straight people. Anything that might potentially be read as queer becomes a refuge for our unspoken wants and needs, whether it’s Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca or a quiet pretty boy in literally any anime you could name. We’re so used to looking into the clouded magic mirror for a picture of ourselves that when we’re put in front of a mirror that is supposed to reflect us perfectly, and it doesn’t, our response can be harsh. It’s fine to read something into nothing, but to read something and get nothing is unforgivable.
It’s why I approached Lil O’Brien’s Not That I’d Kiss a Girl with some wariness. There’s nothing worse than expecting a piece of art to be exactly what you want, rather than what it actually is. Thankfully from the first few pages, it’s clear that O’Brien is a confident chronicler of her own story, which starts at every queer person’s universal experience: the coming out, or in O’Brien’s case, an outing. When O’Brien is outed to her parents they respond poorly. She is kicked out of the house, and goes back to university to cut herself off from them entirely.
Not That I’d Kiss A Girl has two narrative spines. One is O’Brien’s journey from coming out to acceptance. The other is her relationship with her parents, her attempt to find some common ground with them, and address the hurt they’ve caused her.
The first journey is more successfully rendered than the second. O’Brien has a great eye for detail, and she renders mid-2000s Dunedin with the kind of detail that I imagine will immediately transport anyone who experienced the city in that era. She’s best when talking about those early queer touchstones: attempting to browse the library’s LGBTQ section without getting caught, watching The L Word for the first time and marvelling at the depiction of two women experiencing “simple domesticity”. These are the memoir’s richest moments, and while they’re not necessarily groundbreaking revelations, seeing them rendered in a New Zealand voice, with landmarks and references relevant to us (hey UniCol!), feels special.
When O’Brien writes, “I’ve watched countless hours of TV shows just to see lesbian characters, even if the pacing is so slow that you might catch just one hand hold or peck on the cheek for every four hours of content”, I felt that. Those moments or recognition get fewer and further between as O’Brien writes past university age, onto her job in advertising and various complicated relationships with complicated women. That’s understandable, because while coming out and coming to terms with yourself are universal queer experiences, we all live different adult lives with different points of reference. As the book progresses, it becomes less a chronicle of coming to terms with one’s sexuality, and more of coming to terms with one’s own unique dysfunction.
When it comes to her sexuality, her relationships, and her failings within those, O’Brien is admirably frank. She beautifully renders experiences that many authors would find difficult, if not impossible, to delve into. Even better is her ability to recount what it’s like to come to terms, as fully as one can, with one’s own place in the world. For people on their own similar journey (personally, I’m checked into a hotel near the end of that road), that’s invaluable.
It’s when she grapples with her parents and her privilege that her storytelling falters. Of course, it’s a memoir, so we’re only getting one side of the story. But both of O’Brien’s parents, referred to here as only Mum and Dad, are rendered flatly, and inconsistently. We get an idea of who they are from their actions – Mum going through O’Brien’s things to trip her up, Dad being the peacemaker and point of contact – but we never quite understand who they are as people. Their history is largely conjecture, and so the reader is often left filling in the gaps.
This is reasonable to some extent: the author has spent much of the last 20 years, the period the book covers, emotionally estranged from her parents. But it makes for awkward storytelling. Not only do we not fully understand the actions of her parents, or the thinking behind them, we don’t truly understand what O’Brien has lost by not having them in her life. It’s there in fleeting sentences – “she was the kind of person who, if she spied something she knew one of us would like, would buy it and save it away for a birthday or Christmas” – but such descriptions often feel like backfill. While leading with O’Brien’s initial break from her family makes sense narratively, it means the reader knows the outlines of O’Brien’s experience, but not the weight of it. At the end I felt like I had a sketch of her and her family – but a lot of the detail, the colour, was missing.
Not being able to address your relationship with your parents, especially when it’s so estranged and murky, is understandable. Less so is O’Brien’s approach to her own privilege. Though it’s hinted at early on, it’s not until nearly a third of the way in that she acknowledges it outright, during a meeting at a university support group for lesbian women: “ I was becoming more and more aware of my own privilege, from my private-school education to my body type, right down to the fact that I had never had to worry about money my whole life. This revelation was uncomfortable and slightly embarrassing. But it was also freeing.”
Later on, after an attempted reconciliation with her parents, O’Brien reveals the extent of this financial privilege – a credit card for emergencies, a petrol card linked to her dad’s business, a taxi charge card, her university fees paid, and a weekly allowance. She acknowledges her privilege again here. “That it was fucked up to feel immense gratitude towards my parents for only partially cutting me off financially didn’t escape me … I still had a place to live, a support system, regular money to keep me going. I was actually one of the lucky ones.” Later, her parents pay for her to take a summer holiday in Australia, despite still being estranged.
It’s not that O’Brien’s privilege negates her story, or her struggle. It’s more that the decision not to fully examine it hovers over everything else in the book. There’s no doubt that having parents who financially support you while cutting you off emotionally is a lot for a person to wrangle with, and perhaps O’Brien wasn’t at a place where she could deal with this, at least publicly. But given that one of the backbones of the book is her relationship with her parents, it feels like an uncomfortable omission. We understand why O’Brien’s privilege (and it must be noted, that this isn’t just financial, but in terms of her whiteness) makes her different from many other queer people, but what’s frustratingly unclear is if she understands how this makes her story noticeably different from those of her peers.
A memoir isn’t a mirror; it’s a window. A window into someone’s life and experience, built by them. They build the framing, they do the glazing, they decide the size and scope of it. If the writer is good enough, sometimes the reader can see aspects of themselves and their own stories in it. I’ve no doubt that O’Brien’s experience will be a mirror for many people, and if you’re a queer woman of a similar age, I expect it’ll be a welcome documentation of that time. But as a window into O’Brien’s experience, there are parts that remain frustratingly unclear, as though she was either unwilling or incapable of letting us see through them clearly. It’s O’Brien’s wish for the book to “mean something to people like me, who have so desperately searched for themselves on the page and on the screen”. That’s noble, but how do we see ourselves in a memoir if the writer doesn’t even let us fully see herself?
Not That I’d Kiss A Girl, by Lil O’Brien (Allen & Unwin, $36.99) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.