It’s a truth universally acknowledged that modern teens are very political. Another truth: religious people are very political and regularly have high turnout for elections, which is why evangelicals have such immense voting power. Combine the two groups and you get Aki, Christa, and the other teens of the Holy Life mission trip to the wee little village of Mundanza in Mexico. They’re almost terrifying in their zeal for social justice and reform! Talley really gets what modern teens care about and shows them a great deal of respect. It’s honestly pretty inspiring.
Aki grows not just as a human being but as an activist, going from a closeted bi girl to a semi-open girl who has a major part in organizing a massive debate to help determine how their church’s delegate (aka her dad the minister) will vote on a variety of planks at an upcoming religious conference that determines the entire organization’s stances. She experiences both her first relationship and her first relationship with a girl, she learns to get over the fact she’s gonna have to ask someone for dental dams, and she learns more about her brother and father amidst all this. Though the romance is at the center of the book, the facets of Aki’s life aren’t neglected.
Talley doesn’t do any fade-to-black stuff for the sex Christa and Aki have, nor does she overuse euphemisms. All talk of sex between two girls and how to have it safely is very straightforward and the scenes of Christa and Aki together are never fetishistic. It’s two girls experiencing sex for the first time and learning how to express their feelings for one another through a physical act.
The novel doesn’t ignore how different Aki and Christa’s realities are either. Aki eventually comes out to her brother and father to complete acceptance; Christa can’t come out or be outed to her ultra-religious parents without fear of being kicked out. Though Aki is initially unhappy about this and thinks Christa cowardly, she comes to understand every QUILTBAG kid has their own unique circumstances. Some can be out and shove it in everyone’s faces (me), some can only be out to a select group of people, and some have to stay closeted until they are in a better situation. It even quickly acknowledges that queerness and racial-ethnic groups intersect in different ways!
What Left Me Wanting:
Sadly, the Holy Life mission trip that brings Christa and Aki together in the first place fades into the background. They build a church for the village of Mudanza, they paint some buildings, and Aki and Lori in particular make jewelry with the little girls. Criticism of short-term mission trips like the one in Our Own Private Universe typically centers on the lack of a concrete impact and that’s exactly the hole Aki’s Holy Life trip falls into. Though Aki leaves Mundanza a changed person, the Holy Life group didn’t really do anything lasting for Mundanza. Her experience is at the crux of the story, not what she does.
In a similar vein, the focus is one hundred percent on Christa and Aki exploring their sexuality together. Thanks to this, the entire novel moves slowly and it contributes to the erasure of the missionary work they’re supposedly doing in Mundanza. The girls might as well be at a Holy Life-organized religious summer camp for teens, not on an international mission trip. Such a camp would be a much better choice of setting; with very few tweaks, Aki’s growth as a human being would unfold in the same way. Then it might not feel like Mexico and its people are being used as a backdrop.
I read a brilliant article criticizing modern short-term mission trips, but I can’t find it after all these years. It came complete with a brilliant passage about an impoverished orphan girl taking the bracelet one teen missionary had given her and throwing it away with all the others she’d gotten from teen missionaries!
When puberty hit me like a bus covered in angry porcupines, my mom gave me her old copy of Forever… by Judy Blume, that classic heterosexual tale of two teens exploring love and sex together after they start dating. I never actually read it because it didn’t apply to me and I’m not entirely sure where that book is now. Anyway, Our Own Private Universe will one day be the book parents give their little queer girls so they can see themselves in fiction and learn how to have safe sex.
*sweet, complicated, and non-fetishized f/f romance that includes education on safe sex
*excellent character growth in Aki