Imagining Islands

Review of The Importance of Being Wilde at Heart by R. Zamora Linmark (USA: Delacorte Press, 2019)
by Ng Yi-Sheng

How do you write a queer YA novel? Broadly speaking, there are two main ways.

First, go realist. Think Brent Hartinger’s Geography Club, Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Benjamin Aliré Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Believable narratives, set in the familiar backdrops of classic teen Americana: multi-ethnic high schools, shopping malls and suburbia.

Second, go fantastical. Think Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On, Mackenzi Lee’s The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue, Audrey Coulthurst’s Of Fire and Stars. Escapist romances of steampunk sorcerers and historical swashbucklers, set in pyrotechnic wonderlands, where first kisses may literally be magic.

But there’s a third path, somewhere between these two options. R. Zamora Linmark’s Being Wilde at Heart is a queer YA magical realist novel: both a work of speculative fiction and a coming-of-age novel that’s thoroughly grounded in reality.

It’s set on the imaginary island of Kristol, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, near Hawaii and Saipan. But Linmark's novel is no tropical fantasia: instead, it’s a world of economic inequality and American imperialism. Our narrator and protagonist, Ken Z Uchida, lives in South Kristol, an impoverished third-world territory with broken-down schools and no airport. His love interest, Ran, lives in North Kristol, a gleaming first-world holiday destination, which also happens to be an American colony. All kids receive an elite, state-of-the-art education, but they’re also all forced to serve in the US Armed Forces. (This may sound incredibly dystopian, but it’s grounded in reality: huge numbers of people in Guam, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands routinely become US soldiers in search for a better life.)

This scenario might seem tailor-made for a gay replay of Romeo and Juliet, with star-crossed lovers clashing with elders and fleeing across borders in search of freedom. But the truth is, Linmark isn’t terribly interested in those tropes of adventure and romance. As a Filipino-Hawaiian author, he wants to demystify life in the Pacific islands, showing it to be just as relatable as anything you’d see in the most white bread of sitcoms.

As such, none of the story actually takes place in the futuristic land of North Kristol. Instead, everything’s viewed through the eyes of Ken Z, who’s stuck in South Kristol. His version of poverty isn’t even an abject Hunger Games form of destitution. It’s an everyday, common version of poverty. He goes to a run-down high school and messages his friends on his smartphone, but sees little of his hardworking single mother, and can envision no great future for himself or his country.

In the midst of his humdrum life, what illuminates his world is literature. His English teacher’s organized an Oscar Wilde book club for him and other interested students. His first encounter with Ran takes place when he’s “bunburying”—taking an excursion while assuming a different persona, as defined in The Importance of Being Earnest—and he’s struck both by Ran’s beauty—so reminiscent of his imagined version of Dorian Gray—and the choice of his reading material, De Profundis.

And here’s where the magical realist element kicks in: Ken Z begins to converse with Wilde himself. Sure, the reader’s supposed to understand that these are imaginary conversations—our hero never claims to be a necromancer—but the interactions are vividly recreated, serving as vital motivations for his actions and emotional states. Eventually, Wilde grows into the role of a friend: a confidant and interlocutor; a companion in sorrow as he shares how he suffered under Bosie—his lover's—heartless mistreatment. The chapters are interspersed with Ken Z’s own poetry—a coming-out narrative that’s embodied less through sex than through the reading and writing of literature.

Mind you, these chapters do sprawl on a bit. Ken Z’s poetry is by no means transcendent—nor should it be, since it’s the supposed work of a teenager. And ultimately, the conclusion feels rather unsatisfying—Linmark's novel revealing itself as a coming-out story that’s marked by a lack of fulfillment: missed connections, a romantic beginning that’s never resolved. Still, the counter-argument to my complaint, of course, is that this is precisely what gay love is often like. The Importance of Being Wilde at Heart is in some ways more realistic, more true to actual life, than the bulk of queer YA classics.

The backdrop of Being Wilde at Heart engages with some very real global trends: the neo-colonialism, catastrophic climate change and insidious conservatism that characterize the early 21st century. Ken Z’s longing for love and a better life are paralleled by his wish to one day visit Antarctica, though he knows it’s melting fast. Though South Kristol is freer and less homophobic than its Northern neighbor, it too is falling under the spell of anti-gay ideology: the Oscar Wilde Book Club is forced off school grounds due to the undesirable nature of its content—a chilling reminder that fifty years after Stonewall, our governments are still too easily gripped by Victorian moral hypocrisy.

I’ve chosen the word “our” in the last paragraph, because, as a Singaporean, I can’t help but feel like my own country has much in common with the Pacific isles that Linmark writes of. Just like Kristol, we’re a small, multi-ethnic island nation with homophobic policies, mandatory conscription, and a chilling disregard for the rights of natives. We’re also subject to American hegemony —we were actually part of the Coalition of the Willing during the Second Gulf War! — yet that same legacy of Western colonialism is why our citizens can find refuge and delight in the work of queer Anglophone writers, like Wilde — or Linmark himself.

It’s convenient and profitable to market The Importance of Being Wilde at Heart as a work of queer YA fiction, but that’s by no means its only literary function. It’s also a depiction of the sorry condition of today’s Pacific, and a love letter to Wilde, honoring him for the solace he gives to even the most marginalized of his readers. It resists the fetishization of the colonial gaze, while also celebrating the value of transnational art and literature.

This is a story of fantasy, and of island life. But the island folks aren’t objects in the fantasy. They’re the agents in the act of creation. They read the Western canon, and dream up new versions of its voices.

Us islanders aren’t imaginary. We too, have the power to imagine.

Ng Yi-Sheng is a Singaporean writer, researcher, and LGBT+ activist. His books include the SFF short story collection Lion City and the poetry collections A Book of Hims and Loud Poems for a Very Obliging Audience.