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.
Street Dreams might be aimed at a YA audience, but it doesn't shy away from adult topics. Tyson, our hero, is up to his eyeballs in problems. His mother is working herself ragged to support their family, his best friend Rawiri is in the middle of an abusive home situation, and Tyson's own job as a dishwasher is growing more and more precarious. Most important of all is Tyson's own struggle to reconcile himself with his sexuality. As a young man of mixed islander descent, Tyson is expected to be the epitome of testosterone, knocking heads and taking names. Instead, he's fallen in love with a white hip-hop promoter who, for all Tyson knows, might not even be gay himself.
He can't tell his friends. He can't tell his family. Tyson has been thrown into a dangerous, confusing world without permission, and Street Dreams is the story of his struggle back to the surface. Will he come out in one piece? Or will his sexuality clash with the hyper-masculine culture of NZ hip hop, and leave him shattered?
As a white guy raised in an upper-middle-class family, I thought it would be difficult to relate to a gay brown guy stuck in a ramshackle lower-class society. It wasn't. Tama Wise paints Tyson's life with expert strokes, and while the YA style means a lot of the subtleties of Tyson's emotional struggle are laid out in black and white, there are also some beautiful instances where the harsh realities are left for us to infer.
...“Rawiri, bro, what are you doing there?”
“What's it look like, cuz?” came the quiet reply. “Sitting out under the stars, enjoying the night. What else?”
Tyson looked up through the row of trees that separated his house from his best friend's. The old wooden fence hadn't seen repair in years, and there was enough room to get back through towards the creek, and the trees there.
“How long you been out here?”
Rawiri shrugged his stocky shoulders. “Long enough.”
Tyson tried not to look too deeply under the hood of his friend's jacket and dug his house key out from the string around his neck...
Sleek, economical, and a punch in the gut. What else needs to be said?
There are so many other moments throughout Street Dreams that left my heart pounding. It's funny that, prior to picking up Street Dreams, I was reading a thriller packed full with explosions, murders and gunfights in the Egyptian desert that never really raised a sweat. On the other hand, Tyson's panic at having a gay magazine discovered beneath his bed (or Rawiri leafing through his sketch books and finding Tyson's doodles of naked men) left me hyperventilating. His terror was my terror.
Street Dreams also has a real autobiographical feel about it. For example, when Tyson (against his will) gets dragged to a gay club populated almost entirely by skinny white boys. Feeling like an outsider even when surrounded by other gay men, Tyson naturally gravitates towards the only other Islander in the club. After finally mustering up the courage to say hello and offer to buy the guy a drink, Tyson is told:
...“I don't do brown.”
“What?” Maybe it had been lost in the music. It was pissing Tyson off.
“I don't fuck brown guys.”
“What sort of bullshit is that?”...
You can't make that stuff up. Other moments, like when Tyson is invited out by a graffiti/breakdance crew to an abandoned industrial site to smoke pot and paint, are so vivid that I can't believe they weren't based on some measure of reality. And the pure existential agony of Tyson coming to terms with his sexuality is too cutting, too human. This novel is as true and honest as it gets.
It's not a perfect story, though. Tyson's life is filled with too many coincidences – people always show up at the worst possible times, like the whole cast of the novel is just walking back and forth between Tyson's home and the restaurant where he works. The finale is also relentless in how many terrible things pile on Tyson's shoulders at one time. Family tragedy, friendships in trouble, financial woes, relationship issues, homophobic bullying... It can feel really bleak. Then again, this is exactly why Street Dreams kept me up until 2am – I desperately needed resolution. Tyson had me in his grasp.
In conclusion, Street Dreams is excellent. Sure, it's aimed at a YA audience and written in a YA style, but the subject matter is dark and deeply affecting. When was the last time I picked up a slice-of-life YA novel that gripped me like this? Deadly, Unna? perhaps?
Tama Wise has serious talent. Keep an eye on him.