There’s a certain meme that made its rounds throughout the queerer parts of Tumblr and Twitter several years ago, and still sometimes appears in conversation. In it, a person sees another person, and wonders, “do I want to be with them, or do I want to be them?” Lio Min’s new YA novel, Beating Heart Baby, collapses that space between desire of another and desire to become another in its breathless exploration of the relationship between two boys, Santi and Suwa.
Suwa is a surly, guarded, wildly talented composer and musician; he is also trans. And Santi is a troubled but kindhearted cis boy, and a burgeoning muralist in his own right. Both boys are Asian—Suwa is Korean-Japanese, and Santi is half Filipino. The two boys meet in De Longpre high school’s marching band, where Suwa and Santi are immediately drawn to one another; first by rancor, then by something softer. But Suwa has musical ambitions greater than just high school band, and Santi’s checkered past threatens to tear their relationship apart.
It’s an epic romance that tracks the messy spillage of a relationship as it transitions from childhood to adulthood. It’s also marketed as a “friends to enemies to lovers story,” the sort of tagline that derives explicitly from fan-fiction. This particular wording Min uses to describe their story isn’t a mistake—Min cheekily acknowledges that the plotline is “straight out of a Wattpad fic.” Which is to say, Beating Heart Baby doesn’t just happen to be YA, it explicitly revels in its genre.
Because while many things characterize typical YA work—teenage characters, first relationships and their attendant angsts, coming-of-age narratives—there’s exactly one thing about YA that makes it genre fiction: its ending. A mystery must be solved; a courtroom drama must have a verdict; a romance must be consummated. A YA novel must end, if not happily, then at least hopefully.
The innovation of Min’s novel is in how it superimposes the grandeur and pathos and necessary joy of the YA narrative onto a trans story about mixed Asian kids, for which a happy ending is often no inevitability (and often finds itself subscribing to another sort of drama—tragedy). Within the prescribed narrative structure of the YA tale, Min arranges it into a literary cassette tape, writing not just a trans story, but one that’s not about surgery, or coming out, or accessing transition, or all those other necessary but often tiresome subjects that trans literature often addresses. Rather, Min takes the constraints of YA and uses them to turn transness into a joyful space in which their protagonists are capable of nearly anything, guided to success almost as if by fate, or genre, which is pretty much the same thing.
For example: Beating Heart Baby takes place in a Los Angeles that is thoroughly realist, with its tangle of highways, jacaranda bushes, and ocean that “glistens like a band of beaten silver on the horizon.” But there’s also something unfamiliar about the place. The oranges are brighter (here, they’re shades of marigold and paprika); the bleach works on asian hair, the pink dye settles in well. Groups of high school friends stay together long after graduation; the electric possibility of fame seeks its protagonist not one, not two, but three times; childhood online friends find each other the way that apples fall to the ground due to gravity.
In short, Min’s Los Angeles, though seemingly realist, is also mythic, inhabited by prodigies, savants, models, and camera crews, by literal and metaphorical bands of talented queer friends, by preternaturally devoted mentors and siblings, by agents and writers who have their subjects’ best interests at heart. Most of all, Beating Heart Baby is fantasy in that it fantasizes about what queer family might look like: perhaps shot through by death, estrangement, and loss; but populated by a devoted cast of larger-than-life characters who form what people who like catchphrases might call “chosen family.”
Despite the grandiosity of its characters and setting, however, the novel does not refuse complication: that is, it does not eschew blood family. Suwa’s father is a complicated figure, a widower who poorly handles his son’s transition. In less able hands, he might have turned into a caricature of the stern, disapproving Asian parent who nails the windows shut and beats his child for being queer. Min, however, does not disavow him. Because Suwa’s father also introduces Suwa to music, gifts him the hanbok that acknowledges him as a man, and gives stray animals a home. He hurt his child; he is worthy of redemption—to Min these are not dichotomous things.
Beating Heart Baby reminds me of why I love YA so much: because of how it instructs a reader on how a life might be lived well, because of how it gives us a fundamentally flawed but loveable hero, and because a part of its fundamental mission is to offer comfort. While so many “diverse books” address negotiating with a hostile world and thus with whiteness, this is ultimately a book about the community that people of color make for another. There are no white people posed as desirable objects, there are no white people period, because the book is about wanting only one another and no one else, and for each other to be more than enough for a life.
Which brings us back to the question of romantic desire. Suwa and Santi want to be with each other precisely because of how similar they are, how the other brings you back to yourself. Suwa decides to kiss Santi because he ”can see [his own] reflection in [Santi’s] eyes;” he falls in love with him while also hoping to “com[e] out to him, as a boy, just like him.” Desire for another is bound up in desire to be reflected in them.
This penchant for reflection consumes them both—in life, in art. The subject of all of Suwa’s music is his relationship with Santi, and Santi paints “an assemblage of Suwas, caught and pinned to the canvas, stacked and filtered and warped on top of each other until it’s difficult to tell where parts of [him] begin and end.” It’s as if one lover weren’t enough, and in painting Santi could have more than a lover, but also a best friend, a conspirator, a muse, a fellow anime stan, and turn him into something endless and infinite. It’s as if they’re each holding a mirror to the other, always ”catching [each other’s] gaze in the mirror”, endlessly reflecting one another in life and in art like a modern-day Asian Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.
How gay and trans it is, to yearn for another person, and to also want to be what they are—Suwa to Santi, to his father, to his future self. How impossible, also. And yet, in Beating Heart Baby, Min makes it so. In doing so, they show us the violence and ecstasy of what it means to become an artist, to really be seen, both as and beyond a young adult.
Beating Heart Baby
by Lio Min
Published July 26th, 2022
S.M. Sukardi is a writer and essayist from the suburbs of Southern California. They have received fellowships for their nonfiction and criticism from the National Book Critics Circle and Periplus.