Before being assigned an essay that asked the question: “Who am I?” (aka The Essay of Doom), Rembrandt “Remy” Cameron thought he had himself all figured out. He considered himself a pretty chill guy, with great taste in fashion and indie music, and with a kick-ass family, an awesome dog, two amazing BFFs, and a pretty cool group of friends. He is also, unfortunately, a guy dealing with the pain of a break-up and wise enough to swear off boys and focus on himself. However, all the invisible cracks in Remy’s assurance of self are quickly exposed, not just under the pressure of his assignment being worth 70% of his grade in AP Literature (the class that his college plans are riding on), but the unexpected and unwelcome pressure the nature of the question places on him.
The Essay of Doom forces Remy to confront questions and uncomfortable feelings that have bubbled to the surface throughout his life, and that he’d quashed relentlessly —until now. Questions such as: how or even if he truly fits into the tapestry of the Cameron family after the birth of a biological, “miracle” child; whether he can truly know who he is if he doesn’t know his birth parents; and if there is such a thing as being too gay, or not black enough, or if it even matters who he is if people only judge him based on the beliefs they have about the labels they attach to him. In the course of the story, Remy is taken on a journey that heals the cracks and doubts he has by teaching Remy things about himself and his family and friends, as well as bringing new people into his life who help him learn and grow.
I picked How to Be Remy Cameron for our Diverse Books Week in our Reading Challenge Month because I wanted to do an own-voices book, preferably by an author of color, and was lucky enough to discover that Julian Winters, a gay, black man, was releasing his second novel. I was also glad to get Winters’ book because he writes realistic and representative characters. To be honest, Remy is the perfect fit for Diverse Books Week, as the irony of picking a book to read (which happens to be about a young, gay, black man struggling with being defined solely for his gayness and blackness) because it was written by a gay, black man is rather uncomfortable and pretty meta. Fortunately, I enjoyed the story and how Winters uses Remy’s perspective and journey to discuss topics such as homophobia, racism, bullying, religion, depression, and alcoholism without it being too heavy-handed or preachy. Unlike his previous book, Running with Lions, which is written in the 3rd person present tense, Remy is written in 1st person from Remy’s POV, so that how and why the essay affects Remy so much and everything that happens to him feels more impactful and personal.
Remy’s transition from cool and confident to suddenly (metaphorically) stumbling over his own two feet, questioning who he is, who he wants to be, and desperately wishing to return to the comfort of the “known,” for me is reminiscent of the beginning of Miles Morales’ journey in Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, whose big screen debut reintroduced me to a character I already loved, so full disclosure, by that point in the story I was primed to love Remy. However, I grew to love Remy based on his personal struggles with dealing with the dichotomy of young adulthood: being treated as a child while being expected to act and think as an adult; having adults talk of “we” and being a team when they map out their plans for your future, while they simultaneously ignoring your input and feelings because you’re too young to know what is best for yourself, yet expected to know what you want to be “when you grow up” and plan accordingly. It was also hard not to find his sudden splintering into different, sometimes contradictory and confusing, needs and ideas about belonging, prejudice, identity, love, and relationships compelling and relatable, especially as he searches for validation from those closest to him, while simultaneously isolating himself.
While the majority of the narrative revolves around Remy’s Essay of Doom and the secrets and revelations it unearths, there is a romance intertwined to lighten the teenage identity crisis overload. As cool as Remy is, he freely admits he has absolutely no chill when he’s interested in a boy, and this is VERY apparent when he meets Ian Park. Ian, a new student, has started the coming out process with a few family members, but is by no means ready to come out at school. Their romantic comedy-esque, syrupy as Southern sweet tea courtship is filled with awkwardness of the limbs and words, weird flattery, and enough heat generated from blushing to warm the Arctic. I enjoyed Ian and Remy’s dynamic, and there is enough depth, backstory, and development given to Ian that he’s a fleshed-out HFN partner for this Remy-centric tale, although I feel like the balance between how their relationship progressed is a bit off.
Generally, the pacing is a little uneven to me in places, which is one of the struggles with first person, especially with a story so entrenched in inner turmoil. It’s hard not to be repetitive or make some secondary storylines seem rushed or frankly, left unresolved completely. Unless there’s a book à la Leah On the Offbeat in the works for a certain character, I do have to raise my eyebrow at a particular “resolution” flyby Winters gives of some old-fashioned friendship drama Remy has. Another element to the writing style that made it a bit odd for me at the beginning is that several characters are introduced in a way that makes it seem as if I’m coming into a series, I’m guessing in order to avoid info dumping. But not in the “cool, I feel like I know this character” way, but rather the, “wait, do I need to go read another book” kind of way. Sometimes, the inner monolgues and dialogue feel this way too—a little abrupt and/or lacking in transition. Sometimes this works, in the scattered/random thoughts kind of way, other times, not so much.
That being said, I enjoyed How to Be Remy Cameron. I won’t lie; it will make some readers uncomfortable. As light a hand as Winters takes with discussions on being black, stereotyping in general, and growing up with a white family and/or in predominately white neighborhoods (and in one VERY realistic scene of fetishization), being told from the perspective of a black man who has lived these experiences can elicit a range of emotions. However, the most important thing I took from Remy, and what I love most about it, is why Remy struggles so much with the concepts of labels and groups—because of his hope for one day not needing them. That one day there wouldn’t need to be a Gay Straight Alliance club to provide a safe space for queer kids because they would be treated like straight people, i.e. just people. That one day, he would just be a Cameron; it wouldn’t matter that he’s black or adopted because his love for his family and theirs for him is viewed the same regardless. That one day, people will simply judge others by who they are and by their actions, rather than by the preconceived ideas attached to whatever labels others perceive. So, if you enjoy YA fiction, coming-of-age stories, teenage snark and insecurity, boys awkwardly dating but not-dating, and one young man’s journey to discover that you never really answer the “who am I question,” but that it’s the asking that’s important, then you’ll probably enjoy How to Be Remy Cameron.
This review is part of our Reading Challenge Month for Diverse Books Week! Leave a relevant comment below and you will be entered to win one of six $20 NineStar Press gift cards from the fabulous folks at NineStar Press! Commenters will also be entered to win one of our three amazing Grand Prize book bundles. You can get more information on our Challenge Month here (including all the contest rules) and more details on Diverse Books Week here.