The world has changed considerably since Heather Has Two Mommies was published to controversy and acclaim in 1989. Here in the US, we’ve seen the legalization of gay marriage, first on the state and then on the federal level. We’ve also witnessed a slow but meaningful change in the way that our judicial system conceptualizes parental rights, as evidenced by a recent decision overturning Alison D. v. Virginia M., a 1991 lawsuit in which the court held that non-biological, non-adoptive parents have no legal standing in custody disputes. Writing in 2016, the New York Court of Appeals declared that “the definition of ‘parent’ established by this Court 25 years ago in Alison D. has become unworkable when applied to increasingly varied familial relationships,” recognizing the degree to which gay and lesbian partnerships had been marginalized by the original ruling.
Our recent presidential election offered a powerful reminder, however, that the initial firestorm over Heather Has Two Mommies was never fully extinguished; no matter how much the law had evolved to reflect shifting cultural attitudes, some Americans still clung tenaciously to the idea that the only legitimate families were headed by a father and a mother. In this moment of uncertainty and pushback, Gengoroh Tagame’s My Brother’s Husband is a welcome arrival in American bookstores, offering younger readers a warm, nuanced portrayal of gay life that challenges the idea that the only families that “count” are based on blood relations.
Tagame’s story focuses on Yaichi and Kana, a single father and his curious, outspoken daughter. Their cosy household is upended by the arrival of Mike Flanagan, a tall, be-muscled Canadian who was married to Yaichi’s identical twin brother Ryoji. In an effort to better understand his late husband, Mike has traveled to Japan to meet Ryoji’s family. Yaichi is initially reluctant to host Mike, but seven-year-old Kana warmly embraces Mike, insisting that he stay with them as an honored family member and bragging to her friends about her “Canadian uncle.”
In the early chapters of the story, Mike represents a direct challenge to Yaichi’s unexamined beliefs about homosexuality. Yaichi is surprised to discover that Mike is a gregarious, thoughtful guest whose deep love of Japanese cuisine, geography and custom grew out of his deep love for Ryoji. Though Yaichi behaves boorishly at first, treating Mike as a nuisance, he gradually realizes that Mike knew Ryoji better than he did, and may be Yaichi’s only chance to understand who Ryoji became in the decade he lived abroad.
As Yaichi and Kana invite Mike to join them in their everyday routines, the trio begins acting more and more like a family, a point underscored by the arrival of Yaichi’s ex-wife Katsuki, who marvels at their closeness. The warmth and humor that informs Kana’s interactions with all three adults demonstrates to younger readers that it’s possible to have an unconventional family structure predicated on love, rather than biology. Older readers will see the respectful dynamic between Yaichi and Katsuki as a testament to how important self-awareness, flexibility, and mutual respect are in forming lasting family units; though Yaichi and Katsuki divorced after Kana’s birth, their affection for one another is evident in their conspiratorial conversations about Kana and Mike — he’s eclipsed both Mommy and Daddy for sheer coolness in Kana’s eyes — and in their candid assessment of whether Kana is lonely without a full-time female role model.
Gengoroh Tagame’s crisp, naturalistic artwork conveys both the small-town setting and characters’ feelings with great specificity. In particular, Tagame does a fine job of emphasizing Mike’s size and appearance, using the scale of Yaichi’s house — the rooms, the tatami mats, the bathtub — to convey just how conspicuous Mike really is in the small village where Yaichi and Kana live. Tagame proves equally adept at using the characters’ body language and facial expressions as a window into their feelings. In one of the story’s most poignant scenes, for example, a drunken Mike mistakes Yaichi for Ryoji, dissolving into tears as he collapses into Yaichi’s arms; it’s the only moment in which the strong, confident Mike seems vulnerable, his posture and face convulsed in grief over losing the husband he cherished. Yaichi’s grimaces, smiles, and gasps likewise reveal his vulnerability, documenting his ambivalent feelings about Mike in particular and homosexuality in general; the dialectical process by which Yaichi comes to embrace Mike as part of his family registers as much on Yaichi’s face as it does in his words and his actions.
Though some of the conflicts are resolved a little too tidily, My Husband’s Brother earns points for its well-rounded characters and frank acknowledgment of Yaichi’s initial discomfort with Mike. That we believe in Yaichi’s transformation from skeptic to ally, and embrace Mike as a complex individual and not a cardboard saint, is proof of Tagame’s ability to tell a nuanced all-ages story that will resonate with readers on both sides of the Pacific. Highly recommended.
A word to parents, teachers, and librarians: My Brother’s Husband is appropriate for readers in middle and high school. Though the subject of Mike’s relationship with Ryoji is discussed at length, the story focuses on Mike’s romantic feelings for Ryoji; the sexual dimension of their relationship is not depicted. The manga earns a PG rating for showing adults taking baths and suffering from hangovers.
Review copy provided by the publisher. My Brother’s Husband will be released on May 2, 2017.
MY BROTHER’S HUSBAND, VOL. 1 • BY GENGOROH TAGAME • PANTHEON BOOKS • NO RATING (SUITABLE FOR READERS 10+)