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Identity Politics

In David Levithan’s latest young adult novel, president-elect Abraham Stein

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David Levithan‘s Wide Awake begins in the near future with the election of Abraham Stein, the first gay Jewish president. It’s a provocative premise, especially for a young adult novel, though hardly a surprising one for an author whose debut, Boy Meets Boy, was heralded by Booklist as a “revolution in the publishing of gay-themed books for adolescents.” That novel imagined a high school romance remarkably free of coming-out angst, and was selected by the American Library Association as one of 2004′s Best Books for Young Adults.

Since then Levithan, also the editor of Scholastic’s PUSH imprint, has continued to win acclaim with books including The Realm of Possibility, a novel in verse; Are We There Yet?, a love triangle involving two brothers adrift in Venice; and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, a night-long love story, written with Rachel Cohn, in which the token straight guy in a queer punk band learns about tikkun olam.

But it’s Wide Awake that reads most like a follow-up to Boy Meets Boy—not only because it centers on another high school relationship, this one between Duncan and Jimmy, who’ve progressed well beyond their first kiss. It’s also a novel about growing pains: teenagers struggling to refine, and stand by, their beliefs—personal, sexual, spiritual, and political—and a country trying to do the same. A few chapters in, Stein’s supporters are still celebrating when opponents call the electoral results into question—a turn of events which creates doubts about Duncan and Jimmy’s relationship, too. Soon they’re both headed to Kansas, with a bus full of protesters, among them Elwood, a 12-year-old whose Christian parents won’t let him have a bar mitzvah; Janna and Mandy, a pair of progressive “Jesus Freaks;” and a few adults old enough to remember that “the good old days needed a lot of improvement.”

What made you write Wide Awake?

I think the very, very specific origin comes from listening to Green Day‘s American Idiot album on the bus ride home to Hoboken shortly after the election of 2004. I was obviously thinking very much about the American political system, and about all the protest music that had come out around the election, and was wondering what the teen novel equivalent of that would be. Why a gay Jewish president’s election came into my head, I have no idea. But that seemed to be an interesting event to start with, and then to show the teens’ reactions to it.

Why did you make Stein both gay and Jewish?

I wanted him to be sort of an outsider and unexpected choice on many different levels. If he had just been gay or just been Jewish, then it would have become all about those lines, and I think if you introduce two of them, then it becomes about something broader. And as a gay Jew myself, I thought that was an interesting intersection, not that I’m putting myself in the presidency.

It’s actually hard to get a grip on Stein—we only get his speeches and his public persona.

It would be so easy to play up his gayness and his Jewishness, and sort of cater to some wacko stereotype. Of course, most people would like to think, “Oh, my God, a gay Jew would be totally different,” but the truth of the matter is, although his views are clearly informed by his identity, first and foremost in the context we see him he is a politician and he is somebody talking about America.

How would you describe the Jewish characters in your novels?

Some of them take a good amount of identity from it, but others do not. In Wide Awake, I deliberately made the most eager-to-be-Jewish character not Jewish, and I wanted to use that as a mirror for Duncan to see himself, just hearing this outsider be like, “Oh, my God, and then you light the candles on Shabbat, and oh, my God, you do this for this holiday,” because if it’s your life you don’t really think about it as much.

The novel contains other historical inventions, like the “non-shopping mall,” the Greater Depression, and a political party called the Decents.

The one I want most to happen is the Jesus Revolution where the people who associate Christianity and Christ with love and kindness and forgiveness—we can call them the “Christian left”—steal the mantle back from the people who instead use Christianity for hatred and for intolerance.

I’m constantly joking that I set out to write a book that starts with the election of a gay Jewish president, and ended up writing a book that is largely about interpretations of Jesus, a subject which I did not know very much about because we didn’t get to that Testament in Hebrew school.

Is Wide Awake courting controversy?

Certainly I am aware that it could be controversial. At the same time, that’s not why I wrote it. I wrote it, again, to sort of deal with these themes and these characters and talk about where we are now by showing where we could be. But when your first book is called Boy Meets Boy, you know that you’ve already alienated a good amount of the population, and that’s very freeing because you don’t have to censor and you don’t have to hold yourself back.

One very deliberate thing about Wide Awake is that it’s very much meant to be a political novel. And I think certainly in teen literature there is not a very long history of political novels, especially explicitly political novels. There are a lot of allegorical ones.

Did you always know that you wanted to write books for teenagers?

I started working at Scholastic when I was in college, and just kept at it, and really just became totally enamored with teen literature and teen fiction. Ultimately, what I love about teen literature is, it can effect change in readers. When you know your readers are grappling with issues of identity, the right book at the right time can make all the difference in the world.

The books in PUSH’s catalog vary across the board in terms of ethnicities and identities. How intentional is that?

The idea of creating sort of a new wave of teen literature that actually reflected teen’s lives rather than the lives of their parents or grandparents was something we were really active about, and getting different voices in there was really important to us. We’re not saying, “Oh, we need an Indian book! We need an Orthodox Jewish punk rock book!” It comes from the authors, and we find authors who bring us great voices.

Does that reflect a larger shift in young adult literature?

Certainly in the 70s and 80s, it was more problem novels. It was, like, “Let’s do a book about anorexia.” That isn’t the case anymore. It really has to be much more based in story and character.

There’s a good deal of outspoken anti-Semitism in the novel from some of Stein’s opponents, which in a way seems less believable than the anti-gay rhetoric. When Lieberman ran for vice president, people talked about his orthodoxy in an oblique way but never called him a “dirty Jew,” as Stein is called.

I do think that’s there under the surface for some people. And they don’t have to be drunk Hollywood celebrities either. It’s also very much about the conjunction of the two. I think that once you open the door to slurring somebody, then the other slurs can come out as well, that because they’re calling him a “faggot” or whatever, they can also call him a “dirty Jew.”

I do oftentimes talk about—I don’t know if it’s a bell curve—but sort of the progression of tolerance, and how a lot of the things that I, as a gay man, am facing right now are very similar to the things that my grandfather as a Jewish man was facing two generations ago, or that an African American would have faced 40 or 50 years ago. Again, it’s not by any means an equal parallel, but I think that there are resonances throughout. I often talk in terms of teen literature because that’s what I know best, and say there are people, some of them very well intentioned, who will say very openly, “Oh, we can’t carry a gay book in my library, there would be complaints.” And certainly at this point in society, if a person openly said, “Oh, I’m sorry, we can’t have Jewish books in this library,” or, “Oh, I’m sorry, there are some parents in my school who are anti-Semitic, so they might object. They think Judaism is wrong,” there’s no way that would ever pass.

Are you worried people might say the book is too idealistic?

If there’s anything in this book, it is this notion that you should be idealistic; you should have ideals. Certainly, you have to wed them to reality, but at the same time, we dismiss things as idealistic all the time, as if “idealistic” is somehow synonymous with “unrealistic” and “impossible.” And, without giving away the whole ending, it was meant to be an optimistic book. I think it is trying to show and create a world that could be possible if we all got our act together and did it.

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Identity Politics

In David Levithan’s latest young adult novel, president-elect Abraham Stein

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