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Slow Takes: “Stone Fruit” and Choosing Given Family

I learned about the concept of chosen family from a heterosexual uncle I don’t talk to anymore.

We had a brief period of closeness when I was about ten. Once a week, he started taking me to play tennis. I wasn’t very good, and it wasn’t my favorite sport — in part because I wasn’t very good — but it was nice to spend a day with my uncle who was more intellectual and more interested in art than anyone else in my family.

One day, driving home from the court, he told me I should never feel obligated toward family. He told me that family, like any other person we encounter in life, was optional. If I didn’t want to spend time with, talk to, or care about someone, I should feel no guilt about that.

I’d never heard this sentiment expressed before. And I’d never considered whether or not I wanted to visit with family. My parents would say, “We’re seeing grandma on Sunday.” And then I would see my grandma that Sunday. Something felt wrong about what my uncle had said. And then, as the years passed, as our tennis lessons stopped, as our family gatherings lessened, I wondered if what he’d really been providing was a warning.

Lee Lai’s debut graphic novel Stone Fruit is dedicated to her sister.

It’s a melancholy work about family, childhood, play, depression, and the limits that exist between people. But this dedication to her sister soothes the melancholy. This dedication at the beginning provides the book a happy ending.

Stone Fruit is not a memoir. It’s the story of Ray and Bron, two trans people in a relationship who find their greatest peace when playing monster with Ray’s niece Nessie. Ray has a complicated relationship with her sister and Nessie’s mom, Amanda. She has a complicated relationship with Bron. Bron has a complicated relationship with herself. And Bron has a complicated relationship with her parents and her own sister, 16-year-old Grace.

Ray and Bron felt judged by their families for their queerness, their transness, their relationship, and so they cut ties. Ray rescued Bron from her parents’ house, and they started to build a life together, a new family, just the two of them. But the bubble of familial distance popped when Amanda’s husband left her. Ray re-entered her sister’s life, and the playdates with Nessie began.

When Ray and Bron play with Nessie, Lai draws all three in their imaginations. They look like monsters, a cross between a cat and a frog, moving with the pulsing fluidity of water rushing down a hill. These are the rare moments we see the characters with mouths turned up into something like a smile.

Ray and Bron turn into these happy monsters once when having sex. Otherwise, the book follows them and their families through grounded moments of slice-of-life frustration. Lai often includes panels with no dialogue. Moments of quiet. Objects. Landscapes without bodies. It’s like if Chantal Akerman wrote a graphic novel.

Eventually, Bron’s depression becomes too much for her. Her desire to be near Nessie isn’t enough to feel the pain of Ray’s failed attempts to connect. And so Bron leaves.

But where can Bron go when she leaves her new chosen family? Where can Ray go when her new chosen family leaves her? The answer for both of them is a return. They return to the family they were given.

I didn’t come out to any of my extended family. My parents wanted to be the ones to tell their siblings, and I was tired enough to let them. My priority at the time was maintaining my relationships with my parents and my sister. But, in retrospect, I wish I’d told everyone else myself. I’m not sure my parents realized how challenging it is to explain something you yourself are still struggling to understand.

When my dad told my uncle, my uncle said something to the effect of: I’m a therapist and I’ve worked with trans clients. Drew is not trans.

To my dad’s credit, he continued listening to me and not his brother. Two years later, when my dad sent him one of my first pieces for Autostraddle, my uncle responded: Sounds like Drew is continuing to have deep, rich, challenging experiences on his life’s journey.

Like most trans people, the response from my family varied. Some acted like nothing had changed. Others stayed away from me and kept me away from their children. But others went out of their way to make sure I didn’t just feel accepted — I felt supported. One aunt — who I know has less money to spare than some of my other relatives — gave me a gift certificate to a service that sent monthly clothes options. It was such a thoughtful, generous gift to receive at a time when I was figuring out my new style and needed a whole new wardrobe.

At the time, my mom and dad and sister often told me I needed to have more patience with people as they adjusted to my new lifestyle. They were referring to each other, themselves, their siblings, my cousins. But I felt I’d been expressing endless patience. The gulf between us was so large that both of our tryings just weren’t enough.

And so I turned to my new family. The girlfriend I transitioned alongside who’d been automatically supportive, my childhood best friend who lived with us, the queer community I was slowly starting to build. This is where I found comfort. This is where I found safety.

Years later, my mom told me that while she’d heard stories of parents disowning their trans kids, her worry had always been the opposite. During those early months, she felt me pulling away. She wondered if I’d ever return.

In the first two chapters of Stone Fruit, Amanda is introduced as a challenge. She interrupts Ray and Bron’s play time with Nessie, she’s neurotic about Nessie being dirty, she’s critical of Bron staying in the car, and she’s critical of Bron being there at all. She seems to fit easily into the role of “homophobic sister.”

But after Ray and Bron break up, we begin to see a fuller picture of Amanda. Her understanding of queerness may be limited, she might continue to call her sister Rachel instead of Ray, but mostly she’s just a well-meaning, exhausted single mom.

When Ray, deep in a depression, tries to take some weeks off caring for Nessie, Amanda snaps. “What you’re asking for is to shirk your responsibility so you can fall apart,” she says rather harshly.

She goes on to say that when her husband left her, she felt like giving up. And yet, she still cared for Nessie every day. Her harshness continues. You may disagree with her tone or even the substance of her argument — being a mom and an aunt don’t hold the same commitment as far as I’m concerned. But it’s not about agreement. It’s about understanding. In this moment, Amanda gains understanding — from Ray, from the reader.

“You said you wanted to be family again,” she concludes. “This is it. So I’ll see you next Saturday. You don’t have to be fun, magical Auntie Ray. You just need to show up.”

Meanwhile, Bron is struggling to find her own familial reconciliation. She knows that her attempt to cut ties with her family failed. She knows her depression is both clinical and causal — and her family could hold the answers to both.

“There is always a place for you in the family home,” her dad says to her. But when she tries to apologize for and discuss their last fight he says, “We don’t have to talk about those things.” When she tries to talk about her life, he says, “You don’t have to tell me everything, you know.”

Her mom is also unwilling to open up. She refuses help in her garden, and when Bron tries to broach the topic of her mom’s own mental health struggles, her mom denies that their family has a history of mental illness. “What, and I’m just the only fucked up one in a long line of God’s joyful children?!” Bron snaps. “Don’t be dramatic,” her mom replies.

But as hard as it was to leave her parents, it’s the distance with Bron’s sister Grace that really hurts. She can feel Grace’s resentment that she missed so many formative years. She can feel Grace’s desire to have a weird older sibling who she can lean on and look up to. But Grace is being raised in the same environment that Bron was raised in. And Grace doesn’t get Bron either.

Bron tries to express to Grace that their family’s community treats her like an outsider. Grace insists that they’re happy she’s back. Both things can be true.

Bron tries to express the same thing to her parents. Her mom insists that with time, she might become more accepted. This might also be true. More, yes. But not fully.

The truth is Bron’s family and hometown community don’t want to get rid of Bron. Grace, especially, wants Bron to stay forever. But there are just limits. There are limits to how much any of them can change.

When I was in high school, The Glass Menagerie was my favorite play. As a closeted trans woman, I could relate to its portrayal of queerness — like Tennessee Williams, society also forced me to express myself through a straight character.

This classic memory play follows Tom Wingfield as he looks back to the 30s when he lived with his overbearing mother and shy, disabled sister. He felt trapped, forced to work at a factory for a small salary, his only excitement at nightly trips to the movies. At the end of the play, he leaves, just like Tennessee Williams left, for a life of excitement, a life of art-making, a life of queerness. He was finally free — from everything but his memory.

Like Tom and Tennessee, I left home too. My parents told me I could only go to school out of state if I got a scholarship, so I worked as hard as I possibly could in high school to do just that. I turned 18, graduated, and went to New York to start a new life.

Transitioning at 23 was a challenge for my family and I, but this first period of escape was even more difficult. I hadn’t yet discovered why I found my childhood home so oppressive, why I felt so out of place with the people who raised me. I’d return for holidays and fight more with my family than I ever had as a kid. And yet, when they dropped me off at the airport, I’d always cry.

Coming out didn’t fix these conflicts, but it did clarify them. My entire childhood and adolescence got a rewrite. The subtext became the text. I began to understand suburbia as a shrine to heterosexuality. My family as the keepers of that shrine. I had no intention of ever moving back to California but slowly my trips home became less emotional. More than anything, they became more honest.

I got a job that would take me to LA for three months, and being close to the place I used to call home filled me with hope instead of dread. Okay, maybe a little dread, but I wanted the job. And then that job led to another. And then I broke up with my girlfriend back in New York. I broke up with the person who had become my family.

Like Ray and Bron, this breakup forced me to return to the given family I’d years earlier decided not to choose. I needed the things that family provides. I had my friends, but they were all back in New York — and I shared so many with my ex. But an hour away, I had my mom, my dad, and my sister.

It was during this time I found the relationships I have with them now. We began having more difficult conversations. We rediscovered our love. We bumped up against our limits.

During one conversation, my mom told me she understood I was making a new family with the queer people in my life. She’d always be there for me, but she understood there were limits to our relationship.

This was the closest I’d ever felt to her.

Ray continues to grow closer with Amanda. They share memories, they share stories, they share emotional scars from their mom, they share cigarettes. They don’t lose their limits — they just accept them. And they learn from one another. Ray learns to have more responsibility, Amanda learns how to be more playful.

Bron reaches her limit too. She has to move out. Grace is furious at her. She feels like Bron is abandoning her all over again. Bron insists this isn’t true. She needs space but they’ll still be in touch. They’ll have a relationship again. She just can’t live at home. There are limits.

Ray and Bron also find limits with each other. Bron returns to the city and apologizes for leaving so suddenly. But they’re not getting back together. Bron asks if she can still be in Nessie’s life, and Ray says yes. In time. For now, she needs space. Bron understands.

Ray and Bron are not separated by queerness. But they are separated by their past. They’re separated by cultural differences and the impact that has on how their families express emotions, the different ways they’ve been taught to express emotions. Every relationship has limits. That doesn’t mean they’re not important.

Sometimes given family needs to get cut off. Sometimes given family cuts you off. Sometimes it’s not possible to reconcile, sometimes bigotry is thicker than blood. But there are so many relationships that can exist in between total understanding and total dismissal. My family will never understand certain things about me. I’ll never understand certain things about them. But I’m glad we’ve worked to understand what we can. I’m glad we’ll keep working. Probably for the rest of our lives.

My uncle wasn’t wrong when he told me we don’t have to have relationships with people just because they’re family. He and I have just made different choices. Neither of us is wrong in our priorities. But I’m glad I’ve made the choices I’ve made — my relationships and my boundaries.

The title of Stone Fruit comes from a flashback to the first fight between Ray and Bron. Bron is excited for Ray to try her first nectarine. But Ray doesn’t know nectarines have pits, and she chips her tooth. Ray is upset that Bron didn’t warn her. Bron thought it was common knowledge. Neither is wrong. It’s just another limit.

But what a joy to share our favorite fruit with the people we love. What a joy to open up each other’s worlds to new experiences, new pleasures. Sometimes we’ll chip a tooth. Sometimes we’ll feel distant. We’ll feel sad. But to me, it’s worth it. Feel the guilt, feel the pain, feel the limit. And then try again. Take another bite. Careful, this time. Careful.

Slow Takes is a series of “belated” reviews by Drew Gregory of queer art released last year that Autostraddle didn’t cover.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 515 articles for us.


  1. As I’m entering my last year of high school, I’ve been thinking even more about the fact that by the time next summer comes I’ll be leaving. I’ll be leaving the tension, the isolation, the loneliness, the cold. I will also be leaving people who have brought me a lot of pain, but more especially, a lot of love. Although at times there are many moments where I cannot stand my family, I am also constantly returning to the fact that they are the only people I really have at this point in my life. I’m very bad at talking to people socially. I always talk about how lonely I am, how much I need new connections, to get out there, and need new people, but in virtually any situation in which I am given any of that, I feel like running. I feel too vulnerable, or maybe rather too delicate. and too scared. I keep on wondering how I will emerge into the other selves I want to be, how I will even approach them. Then I remember that basically everybody’s felt that. my case is not unique, but still, when you’re actually experiencing it, isn’t it such a heavy load to carry in the moment?

    “Sometimes given family needs to get cut off. Sometimes given family cuts you off. Sometimes it’s not possible to reconcile, sometimes bigotry is thicker than blood. But there are so many relationships that can exist in between total understanding and total dismissal. My family will never understand certain things about me. I’ll never understand certain things about them. But I’m glad we’ve worked to understand what we can. I’m glad we’ll keep working. Probably for the rest of our lives.”

    I’m going to remember these lines for a long time drew.

    This book sounds great too by the way. defiantly adding it to my list. You had me at ” if Chantal Akerman wrote a graphic novel.”

  2. I loved reading this piece almost as much I loved reading Stone Fruit!! Not many people I know have read it, and it’s one of my favourite books, so it was really wonderful to have this beautiful and in-depth analysis of it, coupled so well with your personal narrative. Thank you, Drew! (I love your work.)

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