Brotherhood, Race, and Gender in Martin Wilson’s “What They Always Tell Us”

Front cover of Martin Wilson's What They Always Tell Us

Front cover of Martin Wilson’s What They Always Tell Us

Young adult novels, generally speaking, tend to be emotionally draining reads. It is not uncommon for teens and young adults to feel angst, loneliness, and depression when trying to transcend into the realm of adulthood (as many of us know when we look back at our teen years, or as we currently experience them). I guess it’s unsurprising that many books within the YA genre tend to fully embrace these sentiments. One of my colleagues once told me that she reads books in the genre when she wants a good cry, and lately, during my immersion into many YA texts for my doctoral examinations, I can’t help but feel this immense sense of sadness and impending doom when first approaching a novel. I guess this is why Martin Wilson‘s book surprised me, for although it certainly begins on a somber note, it ends not only with a sense of optimism, but also with a sense that there are fleeting moments in life when all is good in the world.

I included What They Always Tell Us in my reading list mostly because people tend to classify this book as a gay YA novel, but in all honesty the narrative centers not so much on the topic of gayness, but rather, on brotherhood. The two main characters of this text are James and Alex, two brothers who look alike and who are similar in terms of physical and intellectual prowess. Despite these superficial similarities, the brothers are characterized by different social and emotional nuances. Alex tends to be the more emotional or “sensitive” brother while James embraces a stoic and slightly “jockish” persona. Although the brothers used to get along when they were younger, they have reached a point where they barely talk to each other, not only because of their diverging interests, but also because of their inability to understand the other’s thoughts and actions (due to a lack of communication). The occurrence that propelled this divergence between the two brothers is Alex’s recent suicide attempt triggered by feelings of loneliness and isolation. James, rather than feeling supportive of Alex, ultimately shuns him because he is unable to comprehend why Alex would try to selfishly get rid of his own life. The bulk of the novel is centered on the subtle actions and developments that lead the brothers to rekindle their fraternal relationship by understanding each other, and more importantly, by understanding themselves.

The time in which the narrative of this novel takes place is a little unclear to me, but what it is clear is that the plot takes place in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I think this last bit is interesting because Alex’s story is focused on his emerging sexuality and his fixation on James’ friend Nathen Rao, a gay cross-country star who also happens to be half Indian and half white. Naturally, Alex’s and Nathen’s sexuality is very problematic within their current location, and as a romantic relationship develops between these two characters, they become aware of the difficulties of being gay in the southern region of the United States.

I was expecting race to be problematic during this point, either because the narrative takes place in the south, or because there would be issues of representation in terms of Nathen’s Indian background. Within YA fiction, it is not uncommon for authors to make their characters more exotic or interesting by given them particular physical traits or identities–what is commonly known as the token (insert identity marker here) character. These token characters’ thoughts, actions, and development are sometimes not affected in any way by markers of identity. What’s even more problematic is that the “marked” identity of these characters typically adds little or no narrative depth to the text. Perhaps the most well known case of this type of character would be Dean Thomas in the American edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, who is described as black, simply for the sake of making the novel seem more diverse and inclusive. At first, I was afraid that Nathen would be a character who was half-Indian in name only. Nathen’s cultural heritage is described by James as follows:

Nathen’s dad was born in Indian, but he grew up in England, where he met Nathen’s mother, who is white. They both have these great British accents, though Nathen–and his college-age sister, Sarita–sound as southern as everyone else. Sure, they stand out in Alabama, but Tuscaloosa is a college town with a lot of foreign students and teachers. Plus, Nathen and Sarita are good-looking and athletic and smart, and people in school have always are more about that than their heritage. (Wilson 40)

While on one hand this certainly alleviates the necessity to make race a central issue within the novel, it does feel like the issue is being brushed off completely–thus leading me to question how realistic this wholehearted acceptance of Nathen’s family truly is. Could Nathen ostensibly be a character of any other race without dramatically affecting the narrative? Nathen’s Indian heritage does come up several again in the book, especially when Alex visits his house during a weekend when Nathen’s parents are away. We find out that Nathen’s father almost tries to conceal the fact that he’s Indian, whereas his mother, who is white, tends to compensate for this concealment by decorating her house in Indian decor, and by constantly cooking Indian food. Unlike Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter series, Nathen’s heritage is explored with a little more detail– but I was expecting a little more exploration of issues of race. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that this novel is focused on James and Alex’s mental development. Nathen, after all, is a secondary character, and thus my expectations of racial exploration are a little too far-fetched and demanding when taking the aims of the novel into consideration.

Race aside, I thought the portrayal of Alex’s emerging interest in Nathen was a significant and well-developed aspect of the plot. I originally tried to approach Alex’s narrative as either a coming-out tale or a tale of self-discovery, but Alex’s development doesn’t really fit any of these narrative roles (especially when taking his sexuality into consideration). Alex does eventually come out to James, but this doesn’t seem to bother James in the least because he is more concerned about his brother’s happiness and well-being. I was also expecting to see some tension in terms of race due to the fact that there’s an interracial relationship taking place in the south, but as I mentioned above, race is presented as a non-issue within this novel. Gayness, however, is a significant tension in the plot, not only because it is implied that Alex lost his friends because they suspected he was gay, but also because it challenges James to question the extent to which his role as a loyal brother should trump his role as a friend to others. I think this was a clever choice made by Wilson as a writer, for he approaches sexual identity as a way of facilitating a discussion of family and brotherhood. It is through Nathen’s treatment of Alex that James comes to realize his flaws as a brother.

In due course, Wilson’s What They Always Tell Us is a worthwhile read because it manages to highlight the extraordinary embedded within the ordinary, while simultaneously combining seriousness with heart. Although we are not given perfect snapshots of what always goes on in the protagonists’ heads, we are given enough to debate and contemplate why they behave and think in particular ways. In other words, the novel provides entertainment, but it still provides the reader with a space for reflection, contemplation, and speculation. It is comforting to see a novel aimed at portraying both the good and the ugly present within the world, using the motif of brotherhood as a platform to discuss issues and events that bind us as humans and that simultaneously set us apart.

I guess in due course, the novel posits that what we are always told in life isn’t always true, but it certainly gives us something to hold onto, something to aspire to, and at times, something to deliberate.

Work Cited

Wilson, Martin. What They Always Tell Us. New York: Delacorte Press, 2008. (Hardcover edition)

You can purchase a copy of this novel here.

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