By Kathryn Hampshire
Walden, Tillie. Are You Listening? First Second, 2019.
Tillie Walden’s most recent young adult (YA) graphic novel, Are You Listening? (2019), tells the story of two young women, Bea and Lou, as they take a transformative road trip together that leads them into spaces of unexpected intimacy, past trauma, and feline mysticism. Although the characters’ queer identities are not the narrative focus of the text when one looks at the plot, queerness permeates the text to tell a story worth including in any course on queer theory in pop culture, YA literature, comics, or all three. This becomes clear by considering the physical centrality of a short but impactful coming out scene and the narrative intimacy Walden evokes through color, dialogue, and paneling. This text also presents interesting potential contributions to conversations surrounding queer representation in YA comics.
Bea is a young woman running away from home to escape a lifetime of sexual abuse, while Lou is a few years older and taking a road trip to search for solace after the loss of her mother. After being only casual acquaintances before this point, the two women stumble upon each other at a gas station and become companions who share their traumatic experiences with each other, and these bonding moments open up a space within Lou’s little red car for Bea to eventually confide her queer identity to Lou. Snacking on chips and chocolate (which Lou insists should be consumed together as opposed to separately, much to Bea’s horror) as they drive along a backroad under the light of the full moon, Lou shares some of her experiences with a past girlfriend; while deliberately avoiding eye contact, Bea discloses that she is gay too but has never told anyone before Lou, much less had a girlfriend before.
This opens a humorous yet heartfelt conversation in which Lou offers Bea advice, invoking the practice of older queer individuals mentoring younger members of the LGBTQ+ community, especially in the immediate aftermath of coming out—a mentorship not always available or possible, but always significant. In subtle reference to the lack of eye contact just a few panels earlier, Lou tells the curious Bea that the way to signal one’s queerness to another woman is “all about dropping the right clues,” like “very deliberate, very gay eye contact… or just go up, say hi, my name is so and so… I fuck women. What’s your name?” (110). The joking tone of the conversation quickly becomes more serious when Lou admits that she was never able to come out to her mother before she died. The somewhat tense end to this exchange is palpable in a few wordless, narrow panels that allow readers to feel the importance of the conversation that just took place, while also giving space for a decades-long silence that allowed so much time to pass before they were able to make this bond. Despite the importance of mentorship within the queer community, not all queer youths have the opportunity to forge this kind of connection due to the social pressures to stay silent about their identities.
Turning the page after this conversation introduces readers to a different setting: a brightly-lit diner. At first, it seems like they are still talking about sexuality, but it quickly becomes apparent that they have shifted gears to talking about when and how they knew what they wanted to do career-wise once they grew up. The conversation about their sexual identities is a relatively small moment in the narrative, taking up only five of its three hundred plus pages, but those five fall almost in the center of the text, indicative of the weight and importance of confiding their queerness in each other. The intimacy of this scene has ripples throughout the rest of their journey, even though they never explicitly bring it up again.
The physical centrality of this scene to the novel coupled with its low panel count is significant because of the way that it simultaneously gives appropriate gravity to this conversation while also making an effort to normalize queer identities. Their queerness does not have to be the focus of the text in order to be included or important to their characters’ development. This kind of momentary disclosure allows characters to deviate from heterosexual expectations while affirming the significance of ‘coming out’ experiences. This is especially significant to consider for young people like Bea and Walden’s target audience of young adult readers and could be a powerful scene to discuss within the context of teaching YA comics and normalizing queerness in the classroom.
Furthermore, this moment deepens their level of intimacy and trust to the point where Bea can later confess her true reason for fleeing her home: to escape her cousin’s repeated sexual assaults that began when they were much younger. This moment of unburdening comes in the form of several disembodied speech bubbles that dissolve into stand-alone text floating on the surface of an abandoned pool in shades of taupe that fade into the white surroundings, interrupted only by a wave of maroon, bringing Bea slowly back into focus. In semi-monochromatic frames, she screams and cries over not having fought back while Lou holds her and assures her that “You did fight. You left. You got out of there. You—you told me. You told me. That’s fighting” (203). This scene highlights one of the text’s primary messages: the simple yet powerful sentiment that intimacy between friends can create sites of healing.
To set the scenes in which these moments of healing can take place, the color scheme Walden employs for Are You Listening? incorporates shades of steel blue, pale pink, coral, yellow, maroon, and the occasional splash of brilliant white to create a stunning, emotionally ripe world that is simultaneously familiar and distinctly different from our own. Readers familiar with Walden’s past works will recognize her characteristic style of utilizing a limited yet visually arresting color scheme throughout a narrative, such as her use of lavender, yellow, blue, and coral in On a Sunbeam (2018); indigo, navy, and yellow in Spinning (2017); and shades of purple in I Love This Part (2015). The colors she selects for telling the story of Are You Listening? specifically evoke sunsets and sunrises, both of which play symbolic and literal parts in the narrative as the two protagonists take a multi-day road trip through the unexpectedly snowy Texan landscape in search of healing from past traumatic experiences and the promise of new beginnings.
The mystical, intimate, surreal tone that these colors set with purple grass and magenta snow help mitigate the potential disjuncture that readers may experience with the introduction of magical realistic elements into the narrative—but only somewhat effectively. After discovering a lost cat on page seventy-nine, the two women find themselves being followed by shadowy figures from the Office of Road Inquiry who are hell-bent on getting their hands on the feline, who happens to have mystical abilities, including the ability to create twisting, gravity-defying roads out of nothing.
Walden’s decision to make their surreal animal traveling companion a cat is significant within the context of a narrative about two queer women because of the cultural and mythic meaning that felines hold. Kristen J. Solleé’s recent work of feminist criticism, Cat Call: Reclaiming the Feral Feminine (2019), explores the role of feline figures in mythology and magical narratives historically, linking cats to queerness, femininity, and surreality. With this context in mind, readers can interpret Bea and Lou’s peculiar feline companion as an extension of their queer identities and experiences. Furthermore, the cat seems to serve as the modem through which Walden delivers her primary message for the story: that the potential for magic resides everywhere, especially in those heightened spaces accessible through shared moments of intimacy and healing. After they successfully return the cat home, her owner explains that “cats are sensitive critters. They take the cue of where they are…. West Texas is the perfect blend of giant and tiny. The land and the sky… it’s got its own mind, its own heart. [The cat] just taps into that. Out here, building a road is as easy for her as rolling on her back…. Everyone, everything has potential for magic” (253-254). The owner goes on to explain how big events—both good and bad—can shape the landscape around a person, especially in a place where “everything is listening” already (256). This results in a sense of place rooted in the philosophy that one can never experience the same location twice because the context they bring into that encounter is ever shifting.
Such ideas about place, transformation, and mysticism that Walden incorporates into this particular scene toward the end of the narrative simultaneously build on and distract from the tale of intimacy and healing that the two young women have been weaving thus far. As Bea and Lou seek escape from their everyday environments in order to move toward healing, it makes sense to circle back to the significance of place at this point in the narrative. The commentary on how a person’s experiences with a space can literally change that environment are well taken; however, the magical realism sequences with the cat, the Office of Road Inquiry men, and the near-death experiences that follow disrupt the narrative’s emphasis on authentic platonic intimacy between two queer characters. It is possible that Walden includes these scenes to up the ante, so to speak, and add excitement or physical drama to their road trip, but the vibrant character development thus far and the compelling story she tells about these two women almost leave no room for external conflict: the inner turmoil they are seeking to calm is enough to drive the narrative without the aid of shadowy villains or abstract surrealism. Thus, the overt reliance on the magical realism facet of the text has the potential to conflict with Are You Listening?’s authenticity. While the magical realism elements are artistically consistent and fit within the aesthetic world Walden constructs, they at times seem at odds with the intimate narrative the text seeks to convey through its characters.
Nevertheless, the narrative that Walden weaves between these potentially distracting elements is one that holds critical significance for anyone interested in queer representation in YA comics, the feline feminine and its relationship with queerness, and the role of magical realism in telling a story of healing. Are You Listening? is a breathtakingly beautiful text, both in terms of its color scheme and art style and in terms of its character development, and it has the potential to serve as an influential text for readers young and old as they come to a more nuanced and empathetic understanding of trauma, queer identity, and the magic that lies just beneath the surface of the world around us.