Thanks to Amanda and Jodie, The Mariposa Club started off at the top of my TBR list following the Book Blogger Convention in late May. And even though I finished it a couple of weeks ago, the distinct voices of the characters are still fresh in my mind. This is one of the most original stories I’ve ever read, and the representation of four gay friends (self-dubbed “The Fierce Foursome”) entering their senior year of high school in southern California brilliantly complicates our ideas of gender, loyalty, and love. Yes, the book’s cover is disappointing—especially after you realize just how vividly the characters are drawn; in my mind, I see a cover that shows gender-bending Trini with thumbs linked, her fingers fluttering like the mariposa (butterfly) that comes to represent the friends’ dramatic (and sometimes traumatic) evolution. What does it mean to be free? To live without any inhibitions? What if being your authentic self only seems to provoke others to violence? Can one person be free if others are not? Liberace, overweight and brilliant, follows his sister’s lead into the Goth world, but then stands virtually alone as he tries to raise awareness of gay rights in his conservative community. Trini clings to her beloved Aunt Carmen, knowing that if the elderly woman dies, she’ll have no family left (her parents threw her out). Isaac dares to do what the others can’t, hoping to find in LA the life he can’t lead in Caliente. And Maui watches it all unfold, craving love, security, and fidelity yet knowing from his own experience that nothing lasts forever…
I’m thrilled that author Rigoberto Gonzalez agreed to answer these questions about The Mariposa Club. There aren’t any spoilers, so read on! And if you haven’t read The Mariposa Club yet, go get your copy NOW…
1. I was particularly struck by Maui’s struggle with what seemed like internalized homophobia. Even he can’t understand his sudden bursts of rage, which are often triggered by Trini’s refusal to “play it straight” at critical moments. Is Maui envious, or afraid of living passionately?
You’ve got it right: it’s internalized homophobia. I believe many of us suffer from it because we’re afraid of what others (usually our friends and family) will think of us. Not everyone has the courage and, let’s face it, [are as] daring as people like Trini, who pays dearly for his flamboyance and exaggerated mannerisms–he’s bullied, beaten, and alienated even by his own friends who flinch at how Trini doesn’t mind the attention–even negative attention. That’s a whole set of other issues right there. And since Maui is unhappily controlling and repressing the way he speaks and talks, he begins to project his frustrations onto Trini who will be Trini no matter what corner of the world he stands on. In my next book, Trini’s being Trini and Maui says, “Hey, those people are looking at you.” And Trini answers, “Of course, they’re looking at me. I’m interesting.” So this love-hate relationship that Maui has for Trini is actually a love-hate relationship he has with this part of himself: he accepts that he’s gay, but he knows that his environment won’t be all too accepting. Maui wants to live, but he has to mature a little more, and learn from people like Trini who live the way they choose to live. Once Maui realizes that he has to come to terms with his sexuality as an individual, he can join the community. And Trini is there to remind us that not all of us have the privilege to be who we are because there are so many haters out there getting in the way. But he’ll become an adult soon, and then he will really be unstoppable.
2. I really admired your choice to include a range of fathers in the book: Mr. Dutton nearly dies of hard-heartedness, Trini’s father is brutal, and yet Maui and Lib have loving, caring fathers. It’s uncommon to find representations of tender men, and stereotypes about Latino men certainly tell a different story. Can you talk a bit about the parents in this novel–and why are mothers mostly absent?
I always go back to this moment when I was giving a talk at UCLA about ten years ago. I spoke about homophobia in Latino culture and how young men fled their communities in order to be who they wanted to be, but that this was a heartbreaking choice because many of us didn’t want to leave our families and culture. At the end of the talk, a young man came up to me and said, “There’s only one thing I don’t understand. If you had such a horrible experience at home, why would you want to go back?” I was haunted by that question, until I had to admit that I wanted to go back because I loved my family, despite the bad times. I never got to have that opportunity, but I knew many who did, whose families learned to accept their gay sons and lesbian daughters. So I made a conscious effort to show the range of experiences, from the outright homophobic, like Isaac’s father, to the endearingly tolerant, like Lib’s father. I chose to deal primarily with the father-son dynamic because that’s where the struggle of masculinity is most palpable and dangerous. I do a little reversal in the next book, where I introduce a gay teen with a mother to be reckoned with. But that’s a good observation: mothers are almost absent in the book. Part of the truth is that mine passed away when I was very young, just like Maui’s, so I wanted the boys (who call themselves girls) to negotiate their roles in a landscape where machismo was a dominant and oppressive presence.
3. Would Isaac have stayed in Caliente (and finished high school) if “the Fierce Foursome” hadn’t vowed to put friendship first? Falling in love with Maui would have bound Isaac to the other aspects of his life that he so desperately needed to flee–do you think teens recognize that love doesn’t always lead to liberation?
That’s an excellent observation. I know that one reason Isaac and Maui didn’t end up together is that they were on very different wavelengths. I think that if they had ended up boyfriends, the relationship would have given Maui a whole new set of anxieties he wasn’t ready to contend with, which would have led to a break-up. And then what? Friends again? I think many of us out there know how tough and awkward that can get. Even the safety of intimacy would not protect Isaac from his father, you’re right about that. If anything, these tough choices demonstrate how complicated teen life is, that love and desire are part of every teenager’s life. This is one reason it frustrates me that the U.S. still considers teenagers children, and laws and religion overprotect them in very unhealthy ways. But we won’t get into that. I have faith in today’s teenagers and know that they will not be the intolerant, fanatical grown-ups of today.
4. I felt a wave of panic every time Davy entered the scene, and was troubled by Armando’s possessive claim on underage Isaac. Why include these (potentially) predatory relationships in a novel for and about teens? Why not have Maui and Lib “protect” Trini from Davy?
One of the strange contradictions of high school is that up until graduation, teenagers are kept in a controlled environment, and then summer happens and they they’re out in the world as grown-ups. It’s quite a leap and many teens are ready for it. Others are in for a shock. For the gay teens, where there’s nothing to prepare them for the big gay world except rumor and misinformation, this can lead to some terrible encounters, which is why I chose to bring in the gay adults as omens of the dangers lurking right outside the door. If issues like birth control and sexuality are not part of a teen’s education during his or her formative years, then we’re going to see plenty of people get into trouble. One more strike against public education. The reason Maui and Lib can’t protect their friends is that they don’t know how. This is all new territory to them and it will remain secretive and seedy because no one wants to talk about it–not even their parents.
5. The Mariposa Club has a cinematic feel to it; considering the disappointment over your book’s cover, how optimistic do you feel about the representation of queer youth in US popular culture (publishing, film, television, etc.)?
I roll my eyes every time I see the same pretty faces and same pretty bodies on television. It’s worse now than ever before. Boys are buffed, girls are petite. Well, I was the overweight short kid. Now I’m the overweight short grown-up. Am I not part of this planet? Apparently not. I cringe at the thought of the book being made into a movie with pretty thin boys. I’m not going to say that pretty people don’t have problems, but they also have to admit that they have privileges many of us do not. Queers are outsiders, let’s just own up to that. And some of us are pretty and petite, but that’s just a single dimension of who we are, but I did not write those stories. I wrote about the overweight Goth, the scrawny trans kid, the lanky white boy, the plain brown boy. Hopefully the publisher of the sequel Mariposa Gown (in which the Fierce Trio–yep, and then there were three) will get it right.