“Think about the word destroy. Do you know what it is? De-story. Destroy. Destory. You see. And restore. That’s re-story. Do you know that only two things have been proven to help survivors of the Holocaust? Massage is one. Telling their story is another. Being touched and touching. Telling your story is touching. It sets you free.”
― Francesca Lia Block, Baby Be-Bop (1995)
I was a Weetzie Bat and a Witch Baby. I felt stuck in the wrong time, the wrong place, enamored by the books and fantasies I retreated into when life seemed too harsh or judgmental. Transitioning from childhood to adolescence, I had difficulty connecting with my peers. I wanted to wear costumes and conduct faerie hunts and taste poetry on my tongue like honeysuckle and find a place where I felt at home and safe in my difference. Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat (1989) came to me at just the perfect time. I both knew who I was from a young age and was struggling to understand how to manifest my identity in a way I felt comfortable with; I recognized my difference, yet was still fearful of how those around me would react. Difference didn’t thrive well in my hometown—there was hardly the profusion of magic and wonder that seemed to populate the Los Angeles in Dangerous Angels (2010). Weetzie, too, felt lonely. She danced between punk and manic pixie dreamgirl, starlet and dusty rambler, completely assured of her identity, despite its efflorescent, dizzying qualities. She brandished her creativity openly, yet spends most of the first chapters of Weetzie Bat spinning through Los Angeles, lost in a shimmering haze, searching for a human connection that will ground her. She discovers Dirk, a slamming-jamming friend and partner to her eccentricity. Throughout Weetzie Bat, Witch Baby (1991), Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys (1993), Missing Angel Juan (1993), and Baby Be-Bop (1995), Block crafts a contemporary fairy tale, one with all the charm and enchantment of Anderson, and the darkness and brooding of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
Dangerous Angels is a series that spirits you away with the language. That’s how I initially fell in love. The stories swirl and tinkle about like delicate ballerinas, twirling between an extravagance of description so lush you get lost in the language, copious metaphors, similes and analogies that spring like wildflowers throughout a sentence, and sheer joy at the miraculous heights that words can reach. This is a part of the magic of Dangerous Angels, the enchantment of the language simultaneously soothing and jarring in its specificity and grandeur. Dangerous Angels is deliberately overwritten, because you are meant to believe in the beauty and wonder the language evokes for the characters. Weetzie, My Secret-Agent Lover Man, Dirk, Duck, Cherokee, Witch Baby, Angel Juan and Raphael speak in a language specific to their dream-scape world, one that demands glitter and love and excess in all things, a spinning confectionary creation of characters rabid for life, eager for adventure and sometimes lost in the strangeness of their fantastical community. As a lover of poetry, a precocious reader who wanted to speak as eloquently and vibrantly as my favorite authors, Weetzie was my hero. Just as she wore taffeta ball gowns to art class, she did not force herself to reign in her speech or police the way she talks so she could fit in. The whimsy and sheer mayhem of description are all a part of the celestial dance Block performs, weaving fairy tale and fantasy elements into a narrative confronting more deeply disturbing, real-world issues and concerns.
Dangerous Angels has been banned or censored because of its negotiation of sexuality, marriage, relationships, HIV/AIDS and childbirth. Throughout the series, all of the characters are searching for love and acceptance, struggling with feelings of abandonment, self-hate and shame. None of the relationships in Dangerous Angels are as simple as falling in love, but each is deeply compelling and sincerely human. There are a number of interracial relationships depicted in Dangerous Angels: Valentine JahLove, a Rastafarian, marries Ping Chong, a Chinese fashion designer. Witch Baby falls in love with Angel Juan, an illegal immigrant from Mexico. In Weetzie Bat, Weetzie dreams of meeting her soul mate, a secret-agent lover man who will perfectly complement her free spirit and artistry. Though My Secret-Agent Lover Man emerges from the ether of a genie’s wish, his relationship with Weetzie is fraught with the complications of adulthood. He feels that the world is too violent and dangerous to justify having a child, and runs away to have an affair with Vixanne Wigg, a Jayne Mansfield cult groupie. Weetzie’s own parents, Charlie Bat and Brandy-Lynn are emphatically a marriage gone awry, loaded with too many expectations and too much hurt.
Toward the beginning of Weetzie Bat, it is revealed that Dirk is gay, searching for the perfect “duck.” It was one of the first books I ever read that featured homosexual characters in such a matter of fact, accepting way. Block tackles homophobia and the stigma that has often been associated with queerness. Duck’s own parents, despite their hippie-vibe and supposed liberal personas, fail to accept his homosexuality or condone the loving relationship between Duck and Dirk. Baby Be-Bop delves more deeply into Dirk’s negotiation of his sexual orientation from a young age, chronicling the task of “passing” for straight until he came out of the closet. Dangerous Angels was perhaps my first introduction to the concept of sexuality as a fluid continuum, something I wouldn’t really come to experience or understand until attending Vassar College, a place that celebrated queerness and sexual exploration and understanding. Block’s representation of homosexual, queer characters both attends to the stigma and discrimination they have historically faced, as well as expresses the fact that society is full of difference, a difference we need to celebrate and embrace. Dirk and Duck even struggle with the dangers of HIV and AIDS, a disease that emerged around the same time as gay rights activism began to take purchase. The couple, each with their own previous sexual histories, is concerned about the dangers of intercourse:
“It’s so sick,” Duck said. “I nicked myself shaving that last night at home, and I saw my own blood and I thought, How could I live in a world where this exists—where love can become death? Even if the doctor says we’re okay, how could we go on watching people die?”
Duck buried his face against Dirk’s shoulder and the streetlamp light shone in through the window, lighting up Duck’s hair.
Dirk stroked Duck’s head. “I don’t know. But we’ve got to be together,” he said.” (Block 1989).
Through Weetzie Bat, I was not only exposed to different kinds of relationships and formulations of love, but I was also drawn into the conversation about how sex can mean something both so gratifying and deadly. The people you love, and how you love, can be a dangerous thing in our society.
Dangerous Angels is also deeply concerned with the nature of family. When My Secret Agent Lover Man doesn’t want to bear a child, Weetzie decides to have sex with Dirk and Duck, celebrating the family she has created through her friends. It is an unconventional way of getting pregnant, one that has ruffled many libraries and schools, but one that also echoes the contemporary social conditions of parenthood. Cherokee Bat was conceived out of mutual love, affection and acceptance, rather than marital obligation, and Dirk and Duck prove to be incredible parents with Weetzie, further pushing the conservative boundaries of traditional, nuclear families. When Weetzie is asked what sexual preference she hopes Cherokee will have, she responds, “Happiness” (Block 1989). When My Secret Agent Lover Man returns to Weetzie, they discover that he impregnated Vixanne Wigg, who deposits Witch Baby at their doorstep. Rather than abandon Witch Baby, Weetzie incorporates the purple-haired baby into their ever-growing family, forgiving My Secret Agent Lover Man for his indiscretions.
As the children grow, they must wrestle with their own challenges and recklessness. Witch Baby feels the pain and injustice of the world as acutely as her father, and feels out of place amidst Weetzie and Cherokee. She channels her frustration and isolation into her drums and discovers love in Angel Juan. Despite their deep romantic connection, Angel Juan disappears, and Witch Baby must negotiate the dark underworld of Los Angeles, full of sex trafficking and exploitation of undocumented workers. Cherokee falls in love with Raphael, the son of Ping Chong and Valentine, but they fall prey to the world of drugs, parties and unprotected promiscuity. Block weaves narratives that probe into the tangled process of growing up, and all the difficult decisions that accompany it. Often times, you feel abandoned or alone, and have to find solace in your own difference or the friends you populate your life with. You find those who love you for who you are, but also challenge you to grow as a person, nurturing and supportive. During the time when I was reading the series, I wanted to know that apple pie kisses could exist for girls like me, that I could spend days figuratively buried in the mud scratching at myself and still emerge to make music, that I could find friends to share hotdogs with and dance under spangled lights with me.
Dangerous Angels is problematic for its representation of Native American culture. This is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed and acknowledged. But Block’s novels have historically been banned for the “inappropriate content” I listed above. Dangerous Angels is a collection that would greatly benefit young readers, struggling with their sexual identities and searching for a place in the tumult of adolescence. It could be an enormous source of solace to queer readers, as well as readers that don’t fit the prescribed conventions of their hometowns. As Francesca Lia Block responded to the question “What do you hope librarians, teachers and school administrators in communities facing challenges to literature take away from these controversies?” in an interview with the National Coalition Against Censorship, “I hope that more understanding, tolerance and awareness arises out of all of this” (NCAC 2009). The books that promote tolerance and love across boundaries, creeds and sexualities are the most important to keep on the bookshelves.
Block, Lia Francesca (1989). Weetzie Bat. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Block, Lia Francesca (1991). Witch Baby. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Block, Lia Francesca (1993). Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Block, Lia Francesca (1993). Missing Angel Juan. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Block, Lia Francesca (1995). Baby Be-Bop. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Block, Lia Francesca (2010). Dangerous Angels: The Weetzie Bat Books. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
NCAC Staff (2009). “KRRP Interview with Author, Francesca Lia Block.” National Coalition Against Censorship. http://ncac.org/update/krrp-interview-with-author-francesca-lia-block/