SPOTLIGHT | Specificity of Identity, and Bisexuality in Malinda Lo’s ‘Adaptation’ & ‘Inheritance’

        He blinked at her, clearly taken aback by her rant. After a long pause, he said in a soft voice, “So you’re bisexual?”
        She threw up her hands. “Whatever. Yeah, I’m bisexual. Are you satisfied?”
        He smiled slightly. “Maybe a little.”

This is just one of the many exchanges between characters in Malinda Lo’s novels Adaptation (2012) and Inheritance (2013) wherein – rather than shy away from labelling – the narrative embraces specific terminology in order to promote conversation – for both its characters and its readers. Lo intended for her protagonist, 17 year old Reese Holloway, to explicitly label her bisexuality partly because Lo recognised that the sexual orientation of the protagonist in her previous novel, Ash (2009), had never been so clearly addressed within the text, and wished to dispel any further ambiguity for readers in her subsequent works. Certainly it is not common – across media – to see bisexuality referred to by name so unequivocally, and it is this insistence on explicit labelling but also the frequent open discussion that occurs between characters that makes these two books stand out so impressively.

I finally read Adaptation a few months ago after having let it sit on my bookshelf for at least a couple of years (for no reason other than I am very adept at procrastinating). Upon starting it, I happily devoured the first 180 pages, fired off a quick tweet about how much I was enjoying it, and finished reading the book the next day. Adaptation ends with a cliffhanger of sorts, so I ordered the sequel almost straight away, determined to see where Lo took Reese next. The simplest way to describe the duology is as a sci-fi mystery/romance. The vaguest way to describe it is as “the story I’ve always wanted to read, and probably needed to read as a teenager”. In my tweet, I said it read like a dream, and I stand by that. I made my way through those first 180 pages in a state of near-bliss, amazed that one book had somehow combined so many of the elements that I desire from fiction: an engaging mystery that grabs you from the start, a sprinkle of cross-country adventure, a queer romance, and interesting characters who feel real.  Spoilers ahoy.

In terms of structure and pace, the novel begins with what is ostensibly an escape sequence, then crashes literally to a halt with a scene very evocative of an alien abduction. Reese and her friend David Li – whom she has had a crush on for some time – then eventually awake under mysterious circumstances in a secret medical facility before returning home to San Francisco. Although there are many elements of the mystery still at play in this mid-section of the novel while they re-acclimatise to life in their city, the pace moves quite sedately as Reese begins a new chapter of her life: discovering her bisexuality.

There is something that feels very deliberate about the way that things slow down for 100+ pages in the middle of the novel whilst Reese comes to terms with her burgeoning feelings for Amber, the girl who suddenly crashes into her (I hadn’t really considered it until now, but the physical collisions of objects and people are used as a narrative feature throughout – the story begins with birds mysteriously colliding with planes). The insistence on slowing things down plot-wise whilst Reese dives into a relationship with the girl she has known for just a few days brings a romantic, dreamy quality to this section of the story. It’s hard to describe how rewarding – and rare – it feels to experience a story dedicating itself to slowly unfolding a romance between two girls, rather than rushing it, or glossing over it. Reese’s bisexuality isn’t an aside; it’s intertwined with the wider exploration of her character that unfolds over the two novels.

There is a level of complexity to LGBTQ+ representation within these books that is not commonly found across literature, film, or TV, and the ability to craft that no doubt stems from the author’s own identity as a lesbian. For example, though Reese has only just realised she is attracted to both women and men upon meeting Amber, she has not been without queer influences in her life. Her best friend, Julian (whose dialogue with Reese opens this article), has been out and proud as gay throughout his teenage years, and another of their circle at school, Bri, is a lesbian. In fact, Adaptation acknowledges on several occasions the inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community that San Francisco is renowned for, and the exclusivity of relative safety afforded to members of the community specifically within that city. Lo surely knows that even in the most nurturing and encouraging of LGBTQ+ environments, many people still take time to discover they are not straight as previously thought. Not every person’s experience is the same, and many gay and bisexual people can take years to discover their identity, even after growing up with other gay or bisexual identifying folk. Taking longer to figure it out doesn’t make a person any less gay or bi; it’s a byproduct of compulsory heterosexuality.

In addition, featuring other characters who are part of the LGBTQ+ community but unrelated to Reese’s romantic exploits is almost a revolutionary act in itself; media most frequently present gay and bisexual characters as existing in a queer vacuum, wherein except for the object of their affections, all their friends and family and social influences are straight.  Far from being the only gay in the village, many gay and bisexual folk gravitate towards one another, often intentionally (though not always!).  Presenting gay and bisexual characters as token representation and isolated from queer culture is not only an inaccurate depiction of real life, but also offers little comfort to those newly discovering their identity.  Again, specific detail such as this level of inclusion is something that only a member of the community is likely to address, whilst most straight writers would not necessarily be aware of this level of complexity in queer identities.

Amber is well-travelled (really well-travelled) and well-versed in queer culture, and when Reese and Amber are first getting to know one another, Amber clearly decides to test the waters and gauge what kind of reaction she can get from Reese. In one exchange, her habit of dyeing her hair non-standard colours is used as a playful metaphor for her ‘alternative’ sexuality:

        Amber laughed , and everyone in the vicinity turned to look at her again. “I can’t carry a tune, and I don’t know how to play a single instrument. But I’m good at dyeing my hair. How about you? Ever think of going pink?”
        Reese smiled. “I can honestly say that I have never thought of going pink.” Amber’s smile turned into something of a smirk, sending an unexpected quiver through Reese.
        “You should think about it,” Amber advised. Before Reese could come up with a response – she felt like she was missing something in the conversation – Amber leaned over and picked up Reese’s coffee, taking a sip.

To a queer reader – or indeed upon re-reading – the subtext is clear, and though Amber’s attraction to girls has not yet been mentioned at this point, it can be inferred through this simple exchange, giving the queer reader a moment to appreciate the in-joke with Amber, whilst Reese remains sympathetically clueless.

The next day they hang out again and Amber carries out a sweet seduction of sorts that seems realistic for 17/18 year olds, before outright saying “I wasn’t sure if you were into girls”. Reese is taken aback by the directness, claiming that she’s straight, but moments later they are kissing and Amber rather smugly points out that Reese definitely does not seem so straight after all. There’s something quite powerful about these two female characters not only demonstrating their physical attraction to one another (for someone who thinks she’s straight, Reese spends a lot of time thinking about Amber’s lips), but the text outright stating: they are not straight. It’s like holding up a ‘we’re queer, we’re here …’ sign. And speaking of ‘queer’, Amber and Reese even have a discussion about how the reclaimed slur is not a welcome term everywhere, a debate that most within the LGBTQ+ community are intimately familiar with no matter where they stand on the issue.

When Julian later spots them holding hands on a night out, he greets the two girls with a gleeful curiosity, instantly recognising that his best friend is now ‘family’ in more ways than one. He wants the low-down and tries to get Reese to define her identity, though she is initially reticent to label herself as bisexual, citing the damaging stereotypes usually associated with the word as reason to give her pause. Julian operates as a sounding board for Reese as she explores the boundaries of her orientation and later acknowledges that she is indeed attracted to both David Li and Amber. Later, in Inheritance, when the intensity of her feelings for both David and Amber threatens to cause misery for all three of them, Julian attests to the validity of polyamorous relationships, mentioning that one of his ex-boyfriends is poly.

Julian himself is a complex character who – though sometimes sparingly featured – manages to avoid stereotype. He’s confident and independent, obsessed with alien conspiracy theories, dabbles in amateur online journalism, and his intersecting identities – black, Jewish, gay – make him stand out in every community he belongs to:

        “People are always going to think something about you that isn’t real. It doesn’t matter what they think. Nobody ever knows what to think of me. I’m not black enough for some folks, and I’m not Jewish enough for others. I mean, my favourite food is bacon. And then you throw in the gay thing, and it messes it up even more.”

But when Julian questions why Reese isn’t willing to come out publicly, it drives a wedge between them for a while until they hash out their concerns with one another. Julian points out that whilst Reese may be comfortable with her best friend being gay, it doesn’t necessarily follow that she would be as comfortable with her own identity. However, Reese’s resistance toward coming out publicly (by which I mean actually publicly, as Reese and David are under constant scrutiny by the media at this point in the story) is less about internalised lesbophobia/biphobia and more to do with a desire to keep some semblance of privacy in her life:

        “If they knew that I had been dating Amber, there would be no end to the crap they throw out about us. Maybe I’m being selfish for not wanting to deal with the homophobes, but think about what they would say about David, too, for dating me. I know what people think about bisexuals. That we can’t make up our minds or that we’re nymphomaniacs or that we’re just doing it for attention.”

Lo doesn’t just address bisexuality with Reese’s identity, but rather through allowing Reese to come to terms with how she wants to express her bisexuality, the narrative also denounces the damaging stereotypes that are usually perpetuated throughout media and society. Lo specifically draws to attention the biphobic attitudes that are typically uttered both outside and within the LGBTQ+ community.

Interestingly, Reese’s coming out narrative differs from the norm in that she is barely concerned with how her mother, Cat, will react.  Because she knows that her mom has been fine with Julian (who is the son of Cat’s own best friend, Celeste) all these years, Reese worries little about how the news might be received.  The two have a relationship that is quite refreshing to see in a YA story; it feels believable, both in terms of the level of affection between them, and the amount of independence Reese is granted as a teenager still living with her parent.  Reese’s mother listens to her daughter and values what she has to say, even if they are not always in agreement, so it seems a given that they will at least have a mature, sensible discussion about Reese’s sexuality.  The majority of teen coming out narratives agonise over the reactions of family members, be they positive or negative, and though these are undoubtedly valuable, it is important to see a wider range of stories being told about this experience.  Cat’s support and acceptance of her daughter is no doubt a relief for Reese (and important for closeted readers to see) but it is only one fragment of Reese’s coming out arc.

However, perhaps the most astonishing thing about the bisexual representation in these two books is that Lo ends the story with a polyamorous resolution to Reese’s romantic woes. By the end of Inheritance, Reese is in love with both Amber and David, having attempted to date both of them on separate occasions but with both relationships ending for differing reasons. Amber is the first to suggest that Reese date them both, and Reese initially thinks it’s a preposterous idea, but once she discovers that David is also open to it, it almost becomes a matter of inevitability – something that can’t frequently be said for this sort of scenario.

In The B Word: Bisexuality in Contemporary Film and Television, Maria San Filippo coins the neologisms ‘compulsory monosexuality’ and ‘compulsory monogamy’, drawing from the concept of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’. San Filippo argues that compulsory monosexuality operates to keep bisexuality (in)visible (the parentheses illustrating bisexuality’s dichotomous nature as both visible and invisible): “the majority of [love] triangle films still represent bisexuality as a temporary condition requiring a monosexual resolution … even as they create narrative suspense through maintaining the possibility that she (for it is nearly always a woman) could ‘go both ways’.” Typically, “the triangle plot allows for the inclusion of homosexuality as a valid and stable identity, but stops short of conceding the same of bisexuality”. (Maria San Filippo (2013), p. 39)

With the final pages of Inheritance, Lo explicitly rejects both compulsory monosexuality and compulsory monogamy as resolutions to Reese’s complicated romantic scenario and opts for what, logically, seems like the most practical solution, but socially is the least accepted. In a 2013 interview with AfterEllen*, she addressed the reactions she had observed in response to this narrative decision:

“I did wonder if it would be a bad idea from a marketing standpoint, but it didn’t bother me much because I knew it was the only right ending. I knew going into it that it would be difficult for some readers because not everyone is willing to give polyamory a chance—even in fiction. … I also think that when it comes to certain things like polyamory, a reader’s real-life beliefs also play a big role in how they receive the story. I mean, you have to be open to the idea of polyamory (at least in theory) in order to buy the ending. If you’re not open to it, the ending won’t work for you. I get that.

But overall, the response has been pretty positive, at least with regard to the poly aspect. The aspect that has gotten me the most weirdness has been the fact that Reese is bisexual. Some of the feedback I’ve gotten has really saddened me because they seem to be biphobic reactions from lesbians. That’s really depressing to me. There’s nothing wrong with being bisexual, and it’s not a threat to being a lesbian. We can coexist. I’d say that’s one of the primary points of these books.”

By opting for polyamory, Lo upheld bisexuality as a valid identity instead of dismissing it as the ‘temporary condition’ San Filippo wrote of. Reese choosing to be with only either David or Amber would not have erased her identity as a bisexual woman – undoubtedly the majority of bisexual identifying people are not in polyamorous relationships involving multiple genders but this of course does not make them any less bisexual – but it would have betrayed the integrity of the narrative situation Lo had created. Not to mention, by choosing an explicitly bisexual-specific resolution (a polyamorous relationship with both a man and a woman), Lo avoided the possibility of ambiguity; if Reese had ended up with only David, subsections of readers could have interpreted this as her ‘choosing’ heterosexuality; likewise, had she ended up with Amber, some audiences would have seen this as evidence of Reese being a lesbian, even despite her earlier comments stating otherwise. One of the most damaging, pervasive stereotypes about bisexuals is that we’re undecided about whether we’re straight or gay, as though bisexuality is just a pit-stop; with this resolution, there is no room for doubt about Reese’s orientation or its validity.

It takes a certain amount of bravery to commit to such a specific portrayal, but that is exactly what I love about this story; though these books are not exclusively written for a bisexual audience, they are not afraid to be specific about language and experiences that are particularly pertinent for bisexual readers. At the same time, the way these specific experiences are referenced is not exclusionary but rather brought into the ongoing discussion within the story, to the extent that I would hope a non-bisexual reader would understand the bisexual identity better once having read these books.

Furthermore, this dedication to specificity doesn’t apply just to the bisexual identity.  At one point, Amber and Reese discuss the gender spectrum and the importance of asking people, when uncertain, what pronouns they use.  On another occasion, Reese comes to realise that she and David are treated differently by the media and society at large for different reasons – she because of her gender, and – after she is outed – because of her sexuality; he because of his race. At a party with David and his mostly Asian friends, Reese is for the first time self-aware about her whiteness, and when she sees online the racist comments that are written about David, she realises that she had never really considered him as Chinese-American, but simply as ‘David’. It’s this specificity of acknowledging identities, as with Reese, David, Julian, Amber, and more, that makes the text linger in the mind.

It reminds me – to focus on a different artistic medium for a moment – of the music of Asian-American singer/songwriter Hayley Kiyoko, in the sense that whilst Kiyoko’s music is, again, not exclusively for bisexual and lesbian girls, the specificity of the experiences that she writes and sings about as a queer woman in songs such as Sleepover, Girls Like Girls, and Gravel to Tempo means that these songs have extra emotional resonance for bi and lesbian girls.  There is a clarity of vision in Kiyoko’s songwriting that amplifies the emotions and messages she wishes to convey, and it’s to her credit that she has succeeded in finding the voice she needed to express that vision.

With the popularity of dual-casting (the strategy by which a piece of media is designed to appeal to two or more specific audience demographics) it’s no coincidence that so much media undergoes a broadening of appeal, and thus often a dilution of relatability, in an attempt to ensure it reaches as many consumers as possible. When a creative – be they an author, song-writer, director or screenwriter – instead narrows their focus, for the sake of reaching out to a specific audience, particularly an audience that is underrepresented, they are asking that audience to place trust in them. It’s a huge responsibility but if the creative can prove that they are worthy of that trust, it’s an extremely rewarding experience for the audience, as evidenced by the many female fans who see themselves reflected in Hayley Kiyoko’s music – including those looking for queer, Asian representation in pop culture -, and no doubt the readers who see themselves in the pages of Malinda Lo’s writing.

With regards to the specificity of sexuality in media representations, San Filippo summarises: “Appealing to variable spectatorial identifications, desires, and readings enhances commercial prospect, so long as representations of sexuality do not stray too radically from contemporaneous standards of mainstream acceptability” (p. 19). Thus, we all too frequently see our media make compromises in an attempt to universalise material for both straight and queer audiences; queerness is commodified and appropriated in the mainstream but rarely explicitly focused on, especially queerness that threatens compulsory monosexuality.  Polyamorous resolutions are rarely found in the media we consume because they threaten the monosexual status quo.

Even where media is decisively not universal in the experiences it portrays, many commentators are nonetheless all too keen to simplify in these terms. In her excellent argument against critics’ propensity for describing Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016) as a ‘universal’ film, Angelica Jade Bastién writes: “The discussion around Moonlight’s supposed universality betrays a stunning lack of empathy by white and straight critics that suggest the only Black stories that matter are the ones they can see themselves in. … What is revolutionary about Moonlight is that it makes no room for the white conception of Black identity; that it traffics in such minute specificity that to argue its universality is an act of erasure.”   Similarly, San Filippo criticises reviewers’ tendency to praise Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) as a ‘universal love story’, an act which mostly expunges the film’s bisexual specificity from the public discourse.  To flatten a text and strip it of its meaning is of benefit to nobody but the broadest possible audience.  As San Filippo writes: “While universalizing queerness may seem to promote empathy and tolerance, it really makes queerness safe only for straights – as an unthreatening, straight-regulated, commercially viable version of queerness that does nothing to displace the social and cultural centrality of straight privilege.” (p. 165).

With Adaptation and Inheritance, Lo has crafted a story that resonates, perhaps not with all readers but certainly with those who find themselves represented within its pages. Using and claiming the word ‘bisexual’ should not be a revolutionary act, and yet it is such a rare occurrence – certainly under positive circumstances – in literature and film and pop culture, that every instance of it is noteworthy.  When mainstream media does deign to render bisexuality (in)visible, it is frequently through euphemistic allusions – we’re all too familiar with the “it’s complicated” response some characters give when asked about their sexuality – and creators are often equally reticent to commit to labelling their bisexual characters so explicitly. By having Reese speak aloud the word, then, Malinda Lo has actively resisted perpetuating this trope, and her story is all the more potent for it.


* This excerpt is from the same source previously linked (http://www.afterellen.com/books/201624-afterellen-com-book-club-malinda-lo-answers-questions-about-inheritance), though I’m somewhat reticent to give AfterEllen traffic since the site underwent new ownership and became an unrecognisable cypher of its former self.

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