I am not Triinu Hoffman. I never went to church; I never had a goth phase; my parents never blithely recited poetry to me in their spare time (how quaint!). I am certainly nothing like Triinu Hoffman in the overarching sense of the word. But we do have something in common, and it’s something both deep-seated and important—something that, before this last week, I had never before seen portrayed in a young adult novel. Forgive Me if I Told You This Before is the first novel I have ever read in which the protagonist is like me, a girl liking a girl and not apologizing for it. It’s just a girl who likes girls and goes to school and tells her parents and loses her footing but, ultimately, finds her way.
The power of representation in book publishing is an underutilized force. There is something quintessentially powerful about seeing yourself in the novels you read. It’s as if you need to see yourself in black and white before you can internally breathe that sigh of relief, that recognition that “oh, there is someone else out in the world like me.” Particularly in those impressionable YA years, it is critical that one sees themselves represented in those moments when they are floundering and wearing goth makeup and lanking their way through a perpetual awkward stage. Those are the years in which a foundation is set for the future, and without a sense of community and inclusion, how can these poor, lost, incredibly awkward souls find their way?
I never had the privilege of representation. Of course, my race was represented. My middle class upbringing was represented. Sometimes even my mixed cultural upbringing was represented, too. I connected to novels in different ways—in countless ways—but never recognized that there was a big piece missing. I tried to figure out, quite fruitlessly, why something about these girl-meets-boy tropes just didn’t settle well with me. Because I was never exposed to it, I couldn’t put a name to the feeling. I’d vehemently argue that because of the lack of lady lovers set before me, it took me eight years too long to venture my way out of that closely confined closet’s door. I’d also argue that I am not the only one for whom this has been true.
As writers, editors, and publishers, we have a brilliant opportunity to promote exposure. We have the means, the methods, and the drive to get things done. We hold the keys to inclusivity and representation for the masses. They seem like big shoes to fill, but this is the true power of the written word. Too many Buzzfeed slideshows and Tumblr rantings have jaded us; we have forgotten what it feels like to find yourself within the stories, and how it feels to see your life laid out before you in a 5″ x 7″ page. That it took me, a voracious reader, twenty-four years to find a character that reflected me is unacceptable. How many other closet doors remained closed because in every YA novel “Jane found love (and herself!) through meeting Michael, a strong and mysterious man who showed her it is okay to cry sometimes”? I know that these are the stories of many. But they are not the stories of all.
I found myself ripping through the pages of Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before, like I used to tear through books when I was small. I found myself connecting, even through the stark differences, and feeling like an old, deep-set hole in my heart had finally been filled. I am certainly not Triinu Hoffman, but I connect so intently to what Triinu represents. As I read, I found myself finally feeling positive, feeling that this lack of lady lovers could one day be just a thing of the past. And when that day came, Jane and Elizabeth could live happily ever after.