Please welcome Robin Lippincott and Julia Watts with
Rufus + Syd
The world is big and changing, but Vermillion, Georgia, like so many small towns, exists in a time warp. Rufus—a fifteen-year-old budding painter with flame-red hair—is so pale and skinny that one of his nicknames is “Matchstick.” He is also gay and a synesthete, with right-wing Christian parents. Syd—spiky-haired, smart-mouthed, and tired of having to act like a parent to her own mother—isn’t sure what she’s into, except for old movies, black eyeliner, and black coffee.
When Rufus and Syd find one another, they start finding themselves too, with the unlikely help of two Vermillion natives—Josephine, an old bohemian, who for many years ran a repertory cinema in Chicago with her late husband, and Cole, a middle-aged gay man suffering from brain damage due to the horrific hate crime perpetrated against him in his youth.
When the pressures of small-town life in the Bible Belt begin to build, Rufus and Syd, proud atheists, need the strength they’ve found together to survive.
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On Being Invisible
Growing up in small-town Appalachia in the seventies and eighties, there were two ways LGBTQ people could be regarded: as targets or as invisible. The targets, as one would assume, were easy to spot. Mostly male, mostly effeminate in a hyper-masculine culture of football and deer hunting, they were singled out for mockery or sometimes violence. The invisible ones were different. Often valued for their positive qualities (their ability to kick butt on the girls’ basketball team or to play the organ at church), their obvious queerness was carefully ignored by the straight citizens. Of the two “old maid” schoolteachers who had lived together for three decades, they’d say, “It’s nice they can keep each other company since no man ever looked at them.” Of the flamboyant bachelor church musician, they’d say, “Well, the right girl never came along, but he’s sure good to his mama.”
I grew up in this culture of invisibility being partly invisible to myself. I knew lots of ways I was different—I loved to read, to write, to create, and I couldn’t have cared less about high school concerns like fitting in or football games. But I wouldn’t figure out my sexual orientation until college. When, to use a Harry Potter-ish term, a cloak of invisibility has been thrown over you, you don’t see yourself any more than others can see you.
I left my small hometown to go to the big state university, which is where I started to see and be seen. My sophomore year I went to my first Pride March in downtown Knoxville. The words we chanted, while they had no doubt been chanted at many Pride marches in many cities many times, were nonetheless new to me: “We’re here/We’re queer/Get used to it!” Saying these words—not just saying them, but yelling them in the street—dissolved my cloak of invisibility. We are here, we were saying, not just in San Francisco or New York but in Knoxville, Tennessee, and in the hills and hollers of rural America. All you have to do is open your eyes and see us.
While being a young member of the LGBTQ community always has challenges, I do think things have improved hugely since I was a teen, even in rural areas. The media is largely to thank for these improvements. Unlike when I was a kid, you can turn on the TV and see a friendly lesbian talk show host or a glee club of singing, dancing LGBT high schoolers. Even more importantly, the internet gives teens everywhere a connection to the larger world and a community of like-minded people who are only a mouse click away. And unlike in my own teen years, LGBTQ characters are frequently and positively depicted in young adult fiction. It’s harder to feel invisible when you can turn on the TV, boot up the computer, or open a book and see a reflection of yourself.
And yet today’s rural LGBT teens do not live in the world of “Glee.” They still have to contend with the bigotry that comes from living in areas where fundamentalist Christianity and rigidly traditional gender roles are the norm. They live in states where legislators obsess over “issues” such as what restrooms transgender people should use and whether therapists should have the right to refuse their services to LGBTQ patients. These teens can turn on the TV or the computer and see that there’s a bigger, more accepting world out there, but that isn’t the world that they live in every day. And so the question, as Rufus says in Robin Lippincott’s and my novel, Rufus + Syd, becomes “how to get from here to there.”
Robin and I wrote Rufus + Syd with these small-town and rural kids in mind because we used to be those kids ourselves. In the novel, Rufus is a target of high school homophobia, and Syd, a nonconformist who is also the new girl in town, feels invisible. Rufus and Syd become friends because they truly see each other, and through their friendship they learn to see themselves, too, not as their narrow-minded neighbors define them, but as they really are. Just as Rufus and Syd give each other much-needed hope and healing, Robin and I hope that the novel Rufus + Syd will bring hope and healing to the teens who read it.
About Julia Watts:
Julia Watts’s newest novel is Rufus + Syd, co-written with Robin Lippincott. Julia’s novels for adults and young adults include Gifted and Talented, Hypnotizing Chickens, Lambda Literary Award finalist Secret City, Lambda Literary Award finalist The Kind of Girl I Am, and Lambda Literary Award winner Finding H.F. Her short pieces have appeared in magazines such as Now and Then and anthologies such as Walk ‘Til the Dogs Get Mean. All of Julia’s writing centers on Appalachia, where she has lived all her life. She teaches at South College and in Murray State University’s low-residency M.F.A. in Writing program.
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