Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Book Review: Street Dreams

Title: Street Dreams
Tama Wise
ISBN: 1602
Reading Level: Young Adult
Gay YA Lit.
e: coming out, hip hop culture
Binding: paperback
Length: 264 pgs
Published: 13 March 2012; Bold Strokes Books
Buy: Amazon.
My Rating:

Synopsis: Tyson Rua has more than his fair share of problems growing up in South Auckland. Working a night job to support his mother and helping bring up his two younger brothers is just the half of it. His best friend Rawiri is falling afoul of a broken home, and now Tyson's fallen in love at first sight.

Only thing is, it's another guy.

Living life on the sidelines of the local hip-hop scene, Tyson finds that to succeed in becoming a local graffiti artist or in getting the man of his dreams, he's going to have to get a whole lot more involved. And that
means more problems. The least of which is the leader of the local rap crew he's found himself running with. Love, life, and hip-hop never do things by half.

My Review: I was really excited when I got the chance to read Street Dreams for a couple of reasons. One, because I enjoy reading LGBT literature, especially in the young adult category so that I can stay up to date on the issues some of these teens go through (all over the world as this book proves). Secondly, what better way to learn about another country and culture then to read a book set in a different place then my own?

Street Dreams takes place in a downtrodden area of Auckland, New Zealand. Tama Wise's description of the neighborhood where Tyson lives and has grown up sets the tone of the novel. I had no trouble envisioning this poverty stricken place, with its "creek overgrown and forgotten by Council" and the "overgrowth long since set up home in the old car tucked behind a tree." I deeply empathize with Tyson; to know the area you live in is the farthest place you want to be, yet you feel strangely comforted by it because it's the only place you've ever known. The only place you've called home.

Tyson finds comfort in the routine of his life--where most 18 year old young men are leaving home for the first time to experience the fruits of college, he was lucky to just get through high school. With younger twin brothers and only his mother to look after them, Tyson easily took on the role of "man of the house". Riding the train as transportation, working nights as a dishwasher at a busy restaurant, getting home in the wee hours of the morning, sleeping all day only to get up and repeat is Tyson's routine. It might not make him 100% content but it's what he knows and accepts, especially since it helps provide for his family.

Going back to my love for learning about different cultures and ways of life, Tama Wise challenged me with words and phrases I've never heard before. Some I figured out were in relation to the Maori/Samoan culture, such as the word "uso" which means "brother". "The dole" is another term used in the beginning but I haven't quite figured out the meaning yet. An other very interesting aspect of the novel that the author reveals is the importance of hip hop in the Maori community. I absolutely had no idea how big hip hop was in that area and was amazed at all the local artists Tama Wise mentions in the book. I also had no idea what consisted of a "hip hop crew" until reading this book. The way it's broken down in Street Dreams is, every crew has a rapper, a breaker (as in break dancer), and an artist (graffiti).

For Tyson, music and art is what keeps him sane, helps ease the loneliness on the train rides and walks to and from work. It's when he meets Marc that things begin to change. Not only does Tyson have to come to terms with the fact that he is gay and in love with this homeboy, but also must decide whether to believe his artwork is as good as Marc says it is. Can he afford to allow himself to dream? Can he take those dreams and make them a reality like Marc says?

Wise creates really distinct characters, all with their own set of issues or problems, even those that are minor. I've read so many books where characters are easily forgotten. I won't go through each one but the characters that really stood out for me were Rawiri, William, Robert & Jason, Siege, and Ihaia.

Rawiri is Tyson's best mate, friends and neighbors since they were little. It doesn't take rocket science to figure out that Rawiri has been and still is being abused, especially considering all the signs (that which you can figure out on your own :). But I must say, Rawiri's quiet rage broke my heart. Working with kids every day in a low income area school, I know kids like Rawiri, the ones that walk around with pain and anger all bottled up, ready to be set off and explode. At least he has his best mate to confide in, but is Ty too wrapped up in his own problems to see what's really going on with Rawiri before it's too late?

William, Robert, & Jason tie into Tyson's world in a very interesting way. When Tyson begins to confront his feelings of homosexuality, he has no idea who to talk to. Calling a number in the back of a magazine, Ty begins confiding in William, a GLBT counselor. Their few conversations over the phone finally results in Tyson meeting up with William and others like him. Only Tyson feels that Robert and Jason-- who are also gay-- are nothing like him. See, Tyson is Maori, with darker skin, dreds, and heavily into hip hop culture. Robert and Jason, on the other hand, are white, loud, and flamboyant, seeming comfortable and confident with their homosexuality.

This brings me to the next thing that I liked about Street Dreams. I deeply respect the author for addressing gay stereotypes and homosexuality vs. cultural identity. Let me set the stage. Tyson reluctantly decides to go with Robert and Jason to a gay club in which William sternly warns Robert to keep an eye on him. By going to the club, Tyson hopes to prove to himself that there are others like him out there. Instead of feeling relieved at being surrounded by other young gay people, he feels completely out of place and uncomfortable. Some of you may ask why? How could Tyson feel even more of an outcast when he is receiving hot looks from across the dance floor? The answer is simple. There are so many gay stereotypes out there. Many people believe that a homeosexual male is either:

a) Effeminate/Feminine gay male-- if they fit in this category, people assume they are attracted to strong, masculine guys

b) Butch/masculine gay male-- and if they fit in this category, people assume they like feminine type men.

This is a HUGE misconception. I'm not saying that there are no gay men that fit these descriptions, I'm just saying those characteristics do not define ALL homosexual men. Tyson is a perfect example of this. Tyson is what I would consider a strong, silent type. He is masculine, likes his hip hop, wears baggy pants, etc. It just so happens that those are the same qualities he is attracted to. Just because he is masculine doesn't mean he automatically likes feminine gay guys. That's why the hot stares across the room bother him, that and because out of a club full of gay men, he doesn't see anyone that looks like him, that he can identify with. This is wear the homosexuality vs. cultural identity comes in. Other then one Islander he sees sitting at the bar, everyone else in the club appears to be white. Tyson even finds himself thinking, maybe there is something wrong with him, maybe brown people like him aren't supposed to be gay.

What Tyson doesn't understand is that he is one of the very few in his culture (I'm talking about ethnicity and the hip hop world) that had enough COURAGE to come out. It's not that there are no gay people in the Maori culture or the hip hop world; it's that those who ARE are afraid to come out. Sadly, hip hop culture has a reputation for being "hardcore", painting rappers with images of being thugs, gang bangers, having baby mommas or women half clothed, in bikinis, etc. No wonder why Tyson and others like him are not only reluctant to come out, but have a hard time finding others they identify with.

Now to my few complaints I had with Street Dreams. I'm not against love at first sight. In fact, the people that really know me would say I am a hopeless romantic, a dreamer. I was fine with Tyson's strong, instant feelings he had for Marc. For spoiler purposes, I can't get into too much detail, but let's just say his sudden feelings for another potential love interest towards the end felt very rushed. It almost felt like as soon as this other person revealed their feelings for him, he suddenly latched on. Maybe if Tyson had showed more romantic interest in this other person earlier on, it would have made more sense. I'm not saying I have a problem with the end result, I just think the "sudden" way it happened was a bit awkward and unrealistic for me.

My second issue is actually with Tyson, Robert, and Jason during the club scene. As I stated above, William puts Robert in charge of keeping an eye on Tyson. It's actually Jason who sort of comes to his rescue. We already get a sense early on that Robert is a bit flaky. Before they go to the club, they go to Jason's apartment to get ready and while Robert is doing this and that, Jason is the one who sticks by Tyson's side. Ty even comes to realize that they have art in common as he sees some of his paintings. Once they are at the club, Robert kind of takes off. The reason I am pointing this out is because even though he has Jason there to watch over him, Tyson seems to harp on the fact that Robert is M.I.A. Ty never struck me as the kind of character that felt the need to be babysat. Plus, he never got along with Robert. Plus, he has Jason. So why is he harping so much about Robert? Check this out:

On page 172, he asks Jason, "Where's Robert?" Jason shrugs.
On the next page Ty thinks he sees Robert in a throng of people on the dance floor in which he thinks to himself, "so much for looking after him."
On page 176, "Tyson wondered where Robert had got to. He wanted to kick Robert's ass too. Fuck him for not looking out for him."

WHO cares?? He had Jason there to watch his back! Jason never left his side, so I have no idea why the author felt the need to make Ty sound whiny or like a little kid pissed off at his babysitter. That didn't feel believable at all.

My last complaint is completely my opinion. I know people handle things differently, not all handle things rationally when they are under pressure. I get that. Another reviewer wrote that the realism of the novel was taken down a notch because the author was following the "everything and the kitchen sink" formula, which basically is when an author keeps throwing problem after problem after problem at their character(s). I've read books like that before, but I don't believe this is one of them. The issues that start piling up on Tyson towards the end of the novel felt realistic to me. I've been homeless. I've been teased and bullied because of my mixed ethnicity. I've had health problems that have put me in the hospital for weeks. I've had days where I've thought, "this can't get any worse" and then something else comes up. Days and weeks like those have made me feel like I was going insane, like I was being tested to see how much I could take before I just snap, so I sympathize with Tyson. What I didn't quite find believable-- and this is without giving away too many spoilers so bare with me-- is when things come to a head, why didn't he call his grandparents? It's mentioned in the book that his twin brothers often go over to visit or stay over there when their mom is working since Tyson works night shift. Why didn't Tyson ask his grandparents for advice or help? I can't really get into it more without giving away a major spoiler but I just thought it was a bit odd that he never considered talking with them.

I give Street Dreams a solid 4 out of 5 star rating for its distinctive, colorful characters, its controversial subject matter, and also showing us a slice of life most people would never know about. If you like hip hop, break dancing, and graffiti art, then you will fall under Tama Wise's spell and want to know more about Siege, Ihaia, and Loot, characters I haven't even had the chance to talk about, but will bring this Auckland hip hop world to life before your very own eyes. Street Dreams is not one of those books that makes your heart race; its one of those novels that is powerful in its subtlety. It makes you think long after the last page has been read. It can be an influential tool in the right hands, a great source that addresses the ever controversial topics of gay stereotypes and homosexuality vs. cultural identity. Street Dreams is not a perfect book, and even Wise's style of writing may take some time getting used to. However, it's these imperfections that gives it heart. After all, sometimes it is the quietest book that can teach you the greatest lesson.


  1. Hey Mia, i left a comment following your post on goodreads. This sounds like a great book. Hope to read it soon!

  2. Hi Mia! I love reading young adult fiction books too but haven't come across to this type of genre. However, I'll look this book up.

    You know, I believe there's no imperfections in writing. Different authors have different writing styles because we all have different characters. If one's writing style is the same as another author's then it's probably a copycat, uniqueness is stripped off.

    1. Hi Geca! Thanks for stopping by my blog! You are right of course about how each author has their own writing style and there is no perfect writing style. We are from all different places in the world, so someone from over in New Zealand or the UK is going to sound a bit different than say, what I am used to reading here in the US! Also, like you said, it all depends on the kind of book you are writing and the type of characters. That definitely will change up how someone decides to depict their characters, setting, etc.

      Anyway, glad Street Dreams caught your eye. I think soon I am going to do a GLBT book & movie recommendation post. But if you are looking for something to start out with, may I suggest HERO by Perry Moore. It's a great book!

      Have a wonderful weekend!