Book review: The Inside of Out by Jenn Marie Thorne

Disclosure: This review is based upon a copy provided by the publisher. No other consideration was offered.

I was a little wary of The Inside of Out when I started reading, and my wariness only increased as the book went on. I really wish I could recommend it, but I just can’t: The book felt like an earnest performance of allyship to me, which would be turnoff enough, and the plot just didn’t compensate for it. I’m seeing the book get mixed responses, but a lot of praise too, and notably, most of that praise comes from people who like to pat themselves on the back about being good allies.

Before delving into the problems with The Inside of Out, full disclosure: I hate the term ‘ally’ and everything that goes along with it. I prefer ‘solidarity,’ for a lot of reasons, and it is up to marginalised communities to define who is working in solidarity with them and who is not, and what solidarity looks like. Self-labeled ‘allies’ tend to talk over people, tend to provide ‘instructive lessons’ on being ‘good allies,’ and generally tend to overwhelm marginalised groups instead of sitting down and taking a seat. Maybe I’m growing old and curmudgeonly, but the term leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, and it’s reinforced every time people act as though they’re striking some brave blow for justice as ‘allies,’ which is definitely what this book is about, and not in a sharp, meta way.

The Inside of Out revolves around Daisy, a junior who’s been best friends with Hannah since they were both very young. Daisy is kind of an outsider, and she’s formed such a close bond with Hannah that she doesn’t really make room for other relationships. When Hannah comes out to her, she’s so wildly enthusiastic that she’s convinced she needs to be the Best Ally Ever(TM) and thus tries to wedge her way into the LGBQTA group at school, which, notably, is actually for LGBQTA students, not for ‘allies,’ due to a breach of trust that happened in the past. The group grudgingly admits her after she airily pretends to be asexual to get a seat at their table and in their private space, and then she takes on the quest of changing the school policy against same-gender dates at dances.

Chaos ensues as the cause sweeps up the whole community and the nation, people assume she’s gay, she kind of lets them assume that and increasingly actually reinforces that assumption, and Hannah, among others, get pissed at her for appropriating their actual experience. Cue an eventual controversy as she’s ‘outed’ (get it?), followed by tidy resolution — including, of course, a change in policy to the LGBQTA group to start admitting allies again.

Issue books are tough. They have an important role and I’m not categorically opposed to them, and in fact, some of my favourite books are those that some people like to dismiss as ‘issue books.’ But when they’re done wrongly, they’re very, very wrong, and this is a prime example. Much of the book feels like a painful performative instructive lesson: It’s not just about Daisy not understanding power and oppression, but also about the author herself proudly presenting what a great ally she is. It’s critical to recognise that authors are not their works and their characters, but it’s also clear when writing reflects a writer’s own positions and beliefs, and isn’t just about telling a story.

This book, in the end, is just too earnest for me. Like Daisy, it’s trying so hard to show the reader what a great ally it is that it takes up space that it doesn’t need to. The author herself admits that she’s straight and cis, and yet she still seems convinced that she’s qualified to tell this story. I don’t hold with the camp that says people can never ever write about experiences that aren’t theirs — it’s in fact important to recognise that if we want to build diversity, we need to promote diverse depictions, and this includes encouraging people to think outside their experience. At the same time, though, those people need to do their research, and need to think about their larger positions of power and control.

It’s easier for cis, straight authors to get book deals about the queer experience. It just is. And when they’re telling our stories for us, we don’t get a chance to tell them ourselves, to discuss what solidarity looks like, to talk about bad solidarity work and good solidarity work. The book itself is mirroring Daisy, taking up space in a place it doesn’t belong, talking over the voices of people with actual experience, and positioning itself as an authority. These are the kinds of texts that we’re fighting so hard against, as we try to meet the needs of the diversity triangle.

The Inside of Out is the kind of book that publishers are pushing in response to the call for more diversity. It represents a safe option: It’s a book written about LGBQTA experiences, but it’s by someone who doesn’t share those experiences. It doesn’t challenge readers by introducing them to the actual experience of people who know what it’s like to be LGBQTA, to deal with these issues on a very personal level. People sometimes argue that these kinds of texts allow people to use their platform to signalboost marginalised voices, but I don’t quite agree: True amplification of marginalised voices doesn’t work like this.

Photo: Pride, Victoria Pickering, Flickr