On Asexuality and Kinship: Ellen Wittlinger’s [Hard Love]

Front cover of Ellen Wittlinger's Hard Love

Front cover of Ellen Wittlinger’s Hard Love

Ellen Wittlinger’s Hard Love is at its core a novel about love, but it is quite different from other young adult novels on the subject that were written in the late 1990s. The narrative is centered on John Galardi (known by some as Gio), a junior in a high school who is still haunted by the ghosts of his parents’ divorce. On one hand, his father abandoned John and his mother because they did not comply with his self-image as an elitist literary publisher and playboy; on the other hand, because of John’s resemblance to his father, his mother has avoided physical contact with her son for over six years (no hugs, no physical proximity, nada). Because of this, John not only has difficulties expressing his emotions, but he also prevents other people from reaching out to him in order to avoid being hurt. He he poingnantly expresses this notion in a letter to his mother:

So I took all of the sadness of the divorce, and all the love I’d once had for both of you [his parents], and all the fear I had of being alone, and turned it into a stone wall to hide behind. To protect myself. I’m so protected now, dear mother, sometimes I feel like I’m barely alive. I am immune to emotion. And I hate you for it. (139)

John’s thoughts and feelings are shared with others anonymously through a zine he writes and publishes titled Bananafishwhich he writes after being inspired by a series of zines he read at a record store. He is particularly drawn to a zine titled Escape Velocitywritten by someone named Marisol, who is a self-proclaimed “Puerto Rican Cuban Yankee Cambridge, Massachusetts, rich spoiled lesbian private-school gifted-and-talented writer virgin looking for love” (9). Drawn to the rawness and honesty of Escape Velocity, John devises a way to meet Marisol at the record store the day she delivers her publication for distribution. Tethered by their emptiness, confusion, and lack of experience, John and Marisol become quick friends–and seeing as Marisol is the first person that John was able to connect to, he falls in love with her. The main tension within this novel arises through this love–John truly believes that their connection transcends labels of sexuality and sexual orientation, whereas Marisol is certain that she’s a lesbian and she can never envision herself dating a man. The narrative then explores whether their friendship can survive the incongruity that exists in terms of their love for each other.

Excerpt from page 93 of Ellen Wittlinger's Hard Love. The novel is mostly told through the protagonist's perspective, and this perspective is enhanced with the novel's zine-like structure. Text is written in different fonts, images and text are combined in unique ways, and the pages sometimes give the impression that they are collages of letters, newspaper clips, and clip art.

Excerpt from page 93 of Ellen Wittlinger’s Hard Love, illustrating one of the many zines that John reads throughout the narrative. The novel is mostly told through the protagonist’s perspective, and this perspective is enhanced with the novel’s zine-like structure. Text is written in different fonts, images and text are juxtaposed in unique ways, and the pages sometimes give the impression that they are collages of letters, newspaper clips, and clip art.

As can be seen in the image above, Hard Love is structurally interesting because it is presented as a collage-like collection of letters, narrative, images, newspaper clippings, poems, autobiographical pieces, and general musings that attempt to replicate the feel of an actual zine. All of these mediums work together to give us a snapshot of John’s mind. The fragmented feel of the novel does an exemplary job of concretely depicting John’s anger, confusion, and truth while at the same time leaving enough room for the protagonist to be ambiguous and difficult to understand.  John’s characterization was very intriguing to me, not only because of the novel’s structure, but also because of his gender identity and sexuality. For instance, early on in the novel, John expresses his inability to find women attractive, and he often expresses his disdain towards his friend Brian because of the latter’s overly enthusiastic attraction to women that he has never spoken with. As a matter of fact, for a while I was convinced that John was asexual, which would’ve been amazing given that as of yet,  I’ve not encountered an explicitly asexual character in a young adult novel. I got this sense in passages such as the following:

I can’t stand it anymore, the constant talk about girls and sex. I just don’t feel like thinking about that stuff. Waybe it’s weird, but I’m not interested in it. I mean, it worries me a little sometimes, because I guess guys my age are supposed to be like Brian, lusting after pouty lips and big boobs. But to me, the mystery of female body parts is one I’d just as soon not solve. Not that I’m interested in boys either–I’m just not interested in the whole idea of locked lips or proclamations of love. (19)

John’s sexual ambiguity and his inability to discern his sexual inclinations becomes a prominent issue in the early chapters of Hard Love, and there are instances in which John is unable to deduce whether he can potentially be attracted to any sex at all. At one point, John admits to Marisol that he possible could be gay, but he hasn’t taken a moment to contemplate this possibility. My initial reading of John as potentially asexual was further evidenced by Marisol’s attempt to fix up John with her gay friend, Birdie. This fix up fails, however, because Birdie thinks John is heterosexual based on his behavior and attitudes. Let me turn my attention to the following exchange between Birdie and John after the latter is accused of not being gay:

“What do you mean? I’m not  even sure myself if I’m gay or not. I mean, I’ve been thinking maybe I am.”

You have? Are you attracted to men?” Birdie asked.

“Well, no. But I’m not attracted to women either.”

“Oh, well, that’s just dysfunctional, not gay,” Birdie announced confidently. I was lost for a comeback. (52-53)

Marisol then asks whether John was disappointed to find out that he is not gay, to which he responds “It’s just Birdie’s opinion” (53). Now, there are obvious issues of asexual representation in the exchange between Birdie and John, because asexuaity is viewed as a dysfunction rather than an alternative way of being. It is possible to perceive a tension between John’s attempt to define his sexuality while at the same time having it defined by others. John’s non-normative sexual behavior and attitudes certainly make him queer to some extent, but this queerness is somewhat subdued when John “discovers” his heterosexuality through his attraction to Marisol. Although he confesses his love to Marisol, she does not reciprocate his feelings. She admits she loves him, but only “as much as [she] can” (223). Although he is attracted to Marisol, who is a woman, John suggests that his love is not a matter of genitalia and sex, but rather, who is capable of seeing one for who they truly are:

To tell the truth it couldn’t matter less

who wears the pants or the dress, but only

who becomes visible to whom.

You saw me truly, and I saw all you let me;

I’m not lying now, and I hope I never will. (205)

What makes this novel unique is that it is a love story that focuses on a protagonist who views love as a matter of connection rather than of sex or sexual orientation–although this in turn is problematic, mostly because at times it seems like John hopes that his love for Marisol could provoke her to overcome her lesbianism. This does not happen, and thus, this novel is anything but a young adult version of Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy. The novel also attempts to reconfigure the reader’s perceptions of friendship and family, ultimately presenting alternative ways of kinship that are not necessarily sexual or heteronormative in nature. Although it seems that John is in due course heterosexual and not asexual, there is an ambiguity and openness about him that is both refreshing, intriguing, and queer. Now, my question is: when will we have a great young adult novel with an asexual protagonist? Does anyone know about one?

You can purchase a copy of Hard Love here.

Work Cited

Wittlinger, Ellen. Hard Love. Simon Pulse, 2001. Print. (Paperback edition)

5 thoughts on “On Asexuality and Kinship: Ellen Wittlinger’s [Hard Love]

  1. Barbara Nieves says:

    Great book review. I just read another article somewhere (I wish I had written the info down) about “asexual” individuals and how they love. In asexual, there is an emotional connection, but there is no physical expression of the emotion.

  2. Hezekiah the (meta)pianycist says:

    As a teen who had two years prior come to the conclusion that I was asexual, I read Hard Love and was extremely happy to find that the main character (at least in the beginning) might be asexual. The book unfortunately had the effect on me of my becoming a little elitist for a while about my preferred kinship structures, because of John’s being frustrated that a particular lesbian wouldn’t be willing to date him. I have since then learned that having attraction to a single gender group does not make a person narrow-minded. And it is quite ironic that I ever thought it did, because I figured out a few years later that I am pretty much exclusively attracted to men, with the one exception of having had a brief crush on a girl when I was 9.

    In terms of additional YA fiction with asexual protagonists: Quicksilver by R.J. Anderson features an explicitly asexual protagonist. The author did extensive research on asexuality and spoke to many asexual individuals in the process of writing the book. The book can be read as a standalone work, but reading the preceding novel Ultraviolet makes Quicksilver’s backstory clearer.

    • Angel Daniel Matos says:

      Hezekiah, thank you for your insights! I think that you’re right to point out that attraction to a certain gender is not biased or limiting. Wouldn’t it be coercive or limiting to ask people who they can or can’t be attracted to?

      Thanks for recommending Quicksilver? I’m definitely going to check it out!

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