A Progressive Push (Further) Out the Closet: A Commentary on Contemporary Gay Cisgender Male YA By Seán Kavanagh and Anthony Stepniak

Introduction:

Young Adult (YA) fiction, has become somewhat of a safe space for LGBTQIA+ narratives, with a plethora of narratives for a diverse readership who deserve to see themselves represented in the stories they read. Alongside gay cisgender male and lesbian cisgender female narratives, which now have a strong establishment within YA field, there are a growing number of transgender narratives such as works by Meredith Russo, Lisa Williamson and Anna-Marie McLemore. Building on this more underrepresented identities and orientations such as non-binary and A-sexual ones are starting to be recognized in YA. Examples of this are Kathryn Ormsbee’s 2017 novel, Trash Hearts Tolstoy which follows an A-sexual protagonist and Julia Watts’s 2018 novel about a non-binary teenager, Quiver.

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With this ever-diversifying representation in mind, our contributor Seán Kavanagh, and European Officer, Anthony Stepniak look at how, and if, gay cis gender YA has also continued to diversify its representation and given itself a progressive push further out of the closet.  L.C Rosen’s Jack of Hearts and Other Parts, Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight and Honestly Ben, Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not and Mackenzie Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue are put under spotlight in this commentary on contemporary gay cisgender YA.

Explicit and/or Emotional? Representing Gay Male Sex: Jack of Hearts versus More Happy Than Not (A. Silvera) and Release (P. Ness)

Rosen wrote Jack of Hearts to smash what he calls the ‘glass closet’, the notion that gay characters are acceptable in mainstream media only if they stick to certain tropes. For women, this means not being too butch, and for men it means not being too effeminate, and not being overly sexual. Rosen takes issue with the sanitization of queer sex lives, and wrote Jack of Hearts in part to shine a light on what exactly a gay teen boy might get up to in the bedroom (emphasis on the might).

Jack of HeartsHowever, in order to sex up his character, to make Jack less ‘good’, he made Jack all about sex, and only about sex, to the point that the character seems totally blithe to anything that might approximate an emotional attachment. This drives the novel away from Rosen’s sought-after realism and towards the fantastic: Jack is so focused on being ok with having no-strings sex that it comes across as totally unbelievable. Rosen’s bid to diminish the importance of an emotional justification for sex only serves to highlight how complex the topic of sex is. By focusing on the physical, Rosen diminishes the inevitable emotional exchange that always happens during sex.

The emotional complexity has been explored explicitly by authors such as Adam Silvera, whose novels More Happy Than Not and History Is All You Left Me feature stories that centre complicated emotional motivations as well as explicit sex between gay teens.

In MHTN, Aaron Soto develops feelings for Thomas, his straight best friend. He decides to undergo a procedure at the Leteo Institute to erase all memories of those feelings. But a homophobic attack leads to the return of already-repressed memories: Aaron had previously undergone the Leteo procedure once before to erase his past relationship with another of his friends, Collin.

More Happy Than NotThe backdrop to MHTN is a group of teens and the relationships between them. When Aaron and Collin begin seeing each other secretly behind their girlfriends’ backs, the scene is set for a complicated emotional web to develop. The self-doubt that Aaron professes, the desire to erase his homosexuality, as well as the burning physicality of his desire for both Thomas and Collin, all combine to make an explosive piece of writing that touches on the key concerns of any teenager: the heady mix of new emotion and physical desire, and the complications and fears that arise from worrying about parts of ourselves we need to accept. These are the things that were missing from JOH, where Rosen situated Jack in an environment that was more-or-less totally accepting of him as an out and sexually active gay teen. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a welcoming environment for queer teens – there is even a dearth of it in YA – but the result in this case was no motivation for Jack to question himself, even if only to affirm how comfortable he is with his own sexuality. Even the main driver of the plot, the stalking incident, didn’t motivate Jack to question himself – once that threat had been removed he reverted to his previous behavior, without reflecting on the experience at all. The reader is left with the impression that Jack didn’t really understand or care about what happened to him. The link between rational and emotional thought and sexual desire, executed so well by Silvera, is much less clear in JOH.

Rosen also wanted to portray realistic or more realistic gay sex scenes in his book, taking issue with the sanitization of mainstream media that means, while straight teens are taking their clothes off, the gays are staying buttoned up for fear of being ‘too gay’. In his Guardian article, Rosen complained of the clear-cut polished porn that many gay men will be familiar with. He construes Jack as a foil to the ‘good’ (i.e. desexualised) gay, and as someone who lays bare the truth about sex in contrast to what a lot of porn might present. However, Jack’s sexual escapades appear to be nothing more than rote performances very much in line with the kind of pornography Rosen rails against. It’s explicit, yes, but it’s also totally and flawlessly self-assured. Neither Jack nor his partners ever doubt their sexual abilities, or voice uncertainty, or even seem to consider anything beyond the sexual. Sex seems to be a guaranteed good time for all involved, instead of the complicated mix of physicality and emotion that it so often is. Of course, sex can be more or less emotional and God knows we need sex scenes that aren’t always founded on the notion of heteronormative marital love. But the result in JOH is that Jack comes across as vapid, and the flat ending leaves him with no development in any sense of the word. The depth of Jack’s sexual knowledge is laid bare in his newsletter, and this only serves to distance the novel further from reality since Jack writes with a self-assuredness that rings unbelievable for someone of his age, even with his sexual history.

Patrick Ness’s 2016 novel Release, in contrast, features sex scenes that relish the ecstasy of sex with graphic descriptions, but also examine the connection that can occur between two people. Similar to MHNT, Release features an object of unrequited love and like MHNT this allows the protagonist, Adam Thorn, to question why he feels the way he does about certain people and not about others. Adam comes to contemplate the different types of love that exist in the world, and this is done partly through the lens of his different sexual encounters. Ness presents a real challenge to the polished world of gay pornography and the increasingly high sexual expectations that society demands. Sex in Release is messy, suffused with personal connections and connotations, and features a distinct lack of objectification, in contrast to JOH where the goal appears to be pleasure alone.

Demonstrating Diversity, The Shadows of the Past and Label-less Love:

There have been a number of gay cis gender YA novels in recent years which have looked beyond the door of their own gay male closet, and unlocked, even in some cases knocked down, doors concealing other issues around diversity.

Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight (2013) and its sequel Honestly Ben (2017) are examples of gay cis gender YA which interrogates the various levels which sexual identities function on. In the first installment protagonist and openly gay Rafe, decides to ‘go back into the closet’ when he moves to a new school to escape the attention the label of ‘the gay kid’ gives him. Interestingly, Rafe is explicit about how supportive his family and friends are, so rather than the more typical negativity driving him back into the closet it’s a suffocation of the ‘label’ of being gay from the cultural perspective. This brings up interesting questions around identity and the cultural rendering of homosexuality and the potential for it, even in a supportive environment, to warrant unwanted attention and even become suffocating as a cultural label. In exploring these themes Konigsberg refreshingly acknowledges the complexities of sexual identity and how it functions on a personal and cultural level and some of the negatives of the latter.

The sequel, Honestly Ben, reflects the issues highlighted in Openly Straight and follows the first-person perspective of Ben, the straight school friend who has a friendship and then sexual and emotional relationship with Rafe, who all along he believed was straight.  Couniting the clash of the personal and cultural levels of sexual orientation, Ben’s rejection of Rafe, upon finding out the truth, is perfectly portrayed through not a reflection based on sexual orientation, but on a feeling of betrayal where Ben believed he and Rafe were sharing an experience of same-sex feeling for the first time of ‘opening the personal closet door together’, only to discover Rafe’s was opened long along. This is a relatable reaction from Ben and parallel to this, Honestly Ben sees the novel’s namesake struggle to understand his attraction to Rafe. Once again, Konigsberg’s critique of the cultural categorization is maintained with Ben’s struggle not being his feelings, but rather his inability to label himself due to them… he discusses how he doesn’t feel gay or bi, but simply attracted to Rafe. Ultimately it is this conclusion which enables the happy ending for both characters – finally getting back together – with Ben proclaiming that its simply his love for Rafe that is important -whatever you want to label it as. This return to a focus of the personal closet of sexuality, stripped of too many cultural ‘labels’, is a refreshingly one which simultaneously represents the fluidity of sexuality.

Gentleman's GuideAnother progressive push comes from Mackenzie Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (2017) which follows the love affair of lovable gentleman rogue Henry, heir to his father’s vast estate, and Percy, Henry’s mixed race friend.  The 18th century setting functions on two key levels in relation to the novels representation of diversity. First, it illustrates the racial tensions and prejudice between their inter-racial friendship, let alone romance. While not public about it for many reasons, Henry and Percy are not ashamed by their sexuality; in the case of Henry it is hinted that it is a worst kept secret amongst the aristocracy his family knows. In multiple scenes we see the racist treatment of Percy by various persons they encounter on their adventure around Europe and Henry’s protection of him. Secondly, the setting works as an effective distancing device. As we know, interracial couples of all and any orientations still face prejudice today – let alone homosexual ones. The historical setting distances the reader at first, creating an almost fantastical space, where once engaged in the adventure the prejudice Percy faces can then be related to the present day in the eyes of the reader. The delayed relatability and distancing the historical setting creates makes the horror of the prejudice even more unsettling as the realization dawns that hundreds of years have still not abolished racism.

Part Historical fiction, part adventure – the exploration of and inclusion of gay male cis gender romance is not the primary purpose of the genre-hybridizing novel. Henry and Percy’s trauma, trials and tribulations of their formation into a committed relationship is more about Henry’s wandering eye, racial and financial issues than the fact they are both men. Much like Konsigberg it deals with a ‘label-less love’ of two characters and focuses on their attraction and connection on a personal level – where their personal closet doors are wide open to one another, but the complexity of the time means that, as many in the present can relate, the cultural ones must remain shut.

Conclusion:

In raising questions such as the intersections of sex, emotion and explicitness and the complexities of how sexual orientation functions on the personal and cultural level, gay cisgender male YA can be seen to progressively be pushing itself further out of the closet. Intertwining itself with questions of ethic, sexual and gendered diversity and fluidity and hybridising itself with other genres results in normalizing gay cisgender male representations. The process of normalization is a cog in the ever-growing queer YA machine which we can only hope continues to responsibly portray the plethora of queer identities and orientations the LGBTQIA+ community contains.

By Seán Kavanagh @seangkavangh and Anthony Stepniak @ATStepniak 

Review: That Asian Kid by Savita Kalhan

I (Leah) was delighted when Savita Kalhan asked if I’d liked to review That Asian Kid. I pretty much immediately said, of course, even before she had a chance to tell me anything about it! Last summer, I absolutely adored (even as it was an incredibly difficult read) Savita’s The Girl in the Broken Mirror, so I had high hopes for Jeevan’s story.

I wasn’t disappointed.

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It would be easy to identify That Asian Kid as a YA novel about racism. However, it is so much more. It’s the story of a British teenager, Jeevan, as he’s getting ready to sit his GCSEs (there isn’t really a US equivalent to this one!), hanging out with friends, meeting girls, navigating parents (and one brilliant grandmother), and social media. 

Indeed, social media – particularly the ethics of posting something that is technically yours, because you filmed it, but that is also to some degree not yours because it of other people, without their knowledge or consent – is central to That Asian Kid

Synopsis (from Amazon): Despite his hard work and brains, Jeevan, is doing badly in his GCSE English literature class. His teacher, Mrs Greaves, dislikes him intensely and Jeevan is convinced that he is the victim of racial prejudice. Can he stand up for what’s right? When he comes upon her in the woods outside school in a compromising situation with another teacher, Jeevan can’t help but film the scene on his phone. With this secret new ammunition at his fingertips – dare he upload it to social media?

If you’re looking to purchase the book,
I’d highly recommend your
local independent bookshop.
Even better, why not see if your local,
public library has purchased it
(if they haven’t, ask them to!)

Never would I give the plot away (go read it), but I will say: the ‘other teacher’ is Mr Green, Jeevan’s favourite, which certainly adds to Jeevan’s anxiety around posting, or not, the video, a question that becomes increasingly fraught as Mrs Greaves actions become increasingly racist.   

Interestingly, while I found Mrs Greaves utterly deplorable (there is a scene in the novel I’m sure I read just as wide-eyed and agog as Kalhan narrates Jeevan), I disliked Mr Green – yup, Jeevan’s favourite teacher – and Mr Rawson, the school’s head, more. These two ostensibly good men continually stand up for Greaves even in the face of mounting ‘evidence’ that her behaviour is racially driven and that she is explicitly targeting Jeevan. In Mr Green’s case, there is also a failure to immediately and publicly denounce her actions once racial prejudice becomes, even, utterly undeniable. 

Their support of Greaves, even as Green calls our her out in private, is tantamount to supporting her racism – in Green’s case, it felt even worse: he ‘gets it’ and yet doesn’t speak out and up. So, while Greaves is the ‘baddie’, Green and Rawson demonstrate just how embedded White privilege is. 

But, I mentioned above, the novel isn’t just about the racism Jeevan experiences; it’s also about being a teenager. And, the thing I loved most about That Asian Kid: Jeevan’s fabulous group of friends. Dread, Sandi, and Jeevan are such a great trio, despite and because of their differences. I loved reading their interactions with one another and the continued support and camaraderie throughout everything – even girlfriends!   

Definitely not one to miss – trust me, you need to know if he posts the video or not – and it’s now! Check your favourite local bookshop and tell your library to order it (if they haven’t already). 

You can also follow along with the rest of the blog tour…

Blog Tour Klaxon! We’re reviewing Savita Kalhan’s That Asian Kid

One to watch for, Leah Phillips will be reviewing Savita Kalhan’s latest book That Asian Kid on 2 September!

While you wait, check out my review for Savita’s The Girl in the Broken Mirror.

THIS book is out in August and follows Jeevan as he faces decides what to do with some dirt he has on a teacher who seems to have it out for him…

(What would you do?!)

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INTERVIEW: ‘Adorably Awkward Gay YA: Simon James Green talks New Book Alex in Wonderland’

With his new novel Alex in Wonderland already breaking hearts and flying off the shelves, the acclaimed YA author of Noah Can’t Even and Noah Could Never, Simon James Green, spoke to our European Officer Anthony Stepniak about what readers can expect from Alex and realistic queer YA representation.

Simon and Anthony GTW

Following on from the success of your two novels: Noah Can’t Even and Noah Could Never, you are now moving on to pastures new with Alex in Wonderland. Having established such success with Noah Grimes and co, was it difficult to move away and write a new character? 

Yes, it was terrifying, to be honest. A lot of readers are enormously fond of Noah, and I didn’t want them to be in any way disappointed with Alex. The difficulty I faced was that there are some definite similarities between the two boys: they’re both gay, they both have a strong awkward and geeky element to their personality, and they’re both about the same age. So the challenge was making sure that Noah and Alex would be distinct; that Alex wouldn’t be a ‘less funny’ version of Noah, but a fully-formed character in his own right. The other challenge was that I genuinely adored writing Noah – he’s such a fun character – so I needed to find that same love for Alex.

Alex in Wonderland Picture

What can readers expect from Alex in Wonderland and how does it compare to your already established work? 

In that it’s a gay, coming-of-age, funny story (with some mystery elements!) it occupies the same sort of space that the Noah books do. I’m a big fan of humour, and I wanted to continue to use that to tell feel good LGBTQ+ stories that basically show gay kids embracing the ups and downs of life, falling in love, getting it all wrong, messing it up and putting it all back together again – just like any other teenagers. From a personality point of view, Alex is a little less highly strung than Noah, and whilst just as awkward, Alex is more shy, whereas Noah has a (admittedly misplaced) confidence in his own abilities. So I think that lends itself to perhaps a sightly more gentle humour in Alex, whereas in Noah it’s sometimes bordering on slapstick. Although that’s not to say Alex doesn’t have those slapstick moments – there’s one scene in particular where he’s chased into the sea by a dog, whilst dressed as a flamingo. That was a particular joy to write!

With the Alex in Wonderland being explicitly Queer YA, as were the Noah novels, first, do you feel a certain responsibility in representing young queer people in your stories and secondly, do you think you would ever move away from writing YA which has a queer protagonist?

Absolutely. I’m well aware of some of the crap young LGBTQ+ people have to go through, and I feel a definite responsibility to both acknowledge that, but also show an experience that is positive and happy. There’s a need for all types of stories, and it’s important we see both sides, but I don’t personally want to dwell too much on ‘gay pain’ in my books – I want those kids to see that life can be joyful and a laugh, and that there’s good days and bad days, but that you can find your people, you’re loved and you’re going to be OK. In terms of future books, I don’t see myself moving away from queer protagonists at the moment. I think we still have a lot of catching up to do, not just in terms of gay YA books, but in terms of gay UKYA. The market is very US dominated, (and don’t get me wrong, many of those book are great and fully deserve every accolade going), but the British experience is just as important, and the experience of queer kids going through the British secondary school system is going to have differences to the American High School one, so it’s one we need to not just see represented, but actively promoted and talked about, with the same buzz that the US releases tend to get.

In Noah we met a character who was endearingly awkward, and now obvious from the cover and blurb of Alex in Wonderland, we meet a character who is painfully shy – did you intentionally want to write queer, especially young gay male characters, who maybe do not fit some of the dominant stereotypes portrayed in mainstream culture of gay men and gay male characters?

That was part of it, yes. Both Noah and Alex have body confidence issues, because they don’t fit that stereotype you see everywhere of the ripped and toned gay guy, fashionable, sophisticated…  Alex and Noah are both a mess compared to that. Of course, this is an issue that is prevalent throughout society, and I think it weighs on a lot of young people (and older ones for that matter!) – this idea of ‘perfection’ and having to be a certain way if anyone is ever going to fancy you. It’s horrible. It’s toxic. And it’s also the worst type of bullshit. With Noah and Alex I wanted to say that this is a beautiful romance, between two boys who are none of those things you see on the cover of a magazine, but look how lovely it is. Look how they support one another. Look how cute they are together. Look how beautiful their souls are. Look how those are the things that really matter. Too much of our media chases and celebrates that which is shallow and fake, where they should celebrate things like intelligence, kindness and wit.

Do you think that there is a possibility of revisiting Noah in the future or have you closed the book, literally and figuratively on him?

The door is always open for more Noah and he’s a character I would love to revisit. As ever, these things are ultimately up to my publisher, and that’s really going to come down to whether the books are selling well enough to warrant another. But I do have an idea for a third Noah story, and it would be huge fun to write, and the idea of following Noah and Harry’s relationship as it changes and develops I think would be fascinating, and not something you often see. So, let’s keep our fingers crossed, shall we?

You can connect with Simon via Twitter @simonjamesgreen and via his website simonjamesgreen.com

CONFERENCE REVIEW: ‘Highlights of 2019’s Academic YA Headliner – Being Human In YA’ by Seán Kavanagh.

Following the UK’s YA academic event of the year, Being Human in YA, our latest YALMC contributor Seán Kavanagh, shares his experiences and highlights of this stellar event.

On the 17th of May 2019, the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature (University of Roehampton) hosted Being Human In YA, a symposium aimed at addressing this key topic in YA fiction at a moment where the term identity and what it defines are being explored.Being Human in YA Emily

Being Human in YA is the 3rd (only!) UK event focusing solely on YA literature, following 2017’s Identities in YA at the University of Northampton and 2018’s Reading YA at the University of Birmingham. The Being Human in YA symposium was organised by Emily Corbett, a doctoral student at the NCRCL whose research interests include YA literature, in particular LGBTQIA+ YA with an emphasis on the T. Emily is also Administration Coordinator for the Trans Studies Network UK and co-organiser of the upcoming Thinking Beyond: Transversal Transfeminisms symposium, which will be held at the University of Roehampton in July 2019.

The symposium was opened by keynote speaker Dr Alison Waller, who spoke on the theme of the ordinary in YA. Unfortunately, due to traveling from a parallel dimension (AKA northwest London) I only arrived for the closing comments, but having studied under Alison, I’m sure it was an engaging discussion, seemingly centring around the reclaiming of the ordinary and the everyday, using examples from among others two novels by Patrick Ness, The Rest Of Us Just Live Here (2016) and Release (2018). As a huge fan of Ness and these two novels I was disappointed to miss the talk, but I’m know it covered points that I found fascinating in these works, the importance of everyday moments, the significance and impact that something seemingly inconsequential can have on a developing identity. Release, set over a single day (I caught the phrase ‘circadian novel’ in Alison’s closing remarks) deals with all the moments that make up a day in the life of Adam Thorn, supercharging them into moments of decision that shift the course of Adam’s future. The Rest Of Us Just Live Here tells the story of the non-heroes, those just trying to get by while the ‘indie-kid’ heroes battle vampiric demons from outer space. Not everyone can be the Chosen One – and that’s ok.

Being Human in YA Programme Cover

The symposium then split into parallel sessions, and I stepped upstairs for a session on the human versus the non-human by Deborah Williams and the impact on readers of extreme representations of refugee experiences by Julia Hope.

Deborah Williams: Witches, Monsters and Questions of Nation: Humans and Non-Humans in Akata Witch and Trail of Lightning

Deborah Williams’s talk focused on two novels: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (2010) and Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse (2018). In both novels, the protagonists sit uncomfortably in the human world, coming into their own when they pass through, what Williams referred to, as the porous barrier between the human and non-human worlds. The novels also orient the reader away from the human world and the ‘American century’, characterised by hierarchies of dominance – of identity based around nation states and borders, towards a world that is ancient and animate, a world that is less concerned with human concerns, where survival depends more on cooperation and community than concepts like national identity and the borders between nation states. Needless to say, this is a world where the characters challenge the status quo of representation, and is also ripe for critiquing capitalism and positing a pro-environmental position as a resistance to the mainstream, particularly where the mainstream is not beneficial for the majority of society. This might lead to the creation of certain identity profiles, such as whiteness, in opposition to the non-human, but Williams argues, and as Okarafor has pointed out several times on her Twitter feed, whiteness is not the default or the reference point in these works – in fact, whiteness is irrelevant. Focusing on whiteness would lead to a place where the non-human, the world around us, is ignored to the detriment and potential destruction of the human.

Julia Hope: Humane and empathetic? How far should YA novels go in exposing the worst horrors of the refugee experience?

Julia Hope gave an interesting paper focusing on Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow (2016), a novel that details the experiences of Subhi in an Australian internment camp for Rohingya refugees. Hope’s work led her to notice an increase in the number of publications detailing refugee experiences, and she wondered if this increase would lead to greater empathy from the reader, or have the opposite effect. While it’s recognized that reading can lead to greater empathic skills in children, Hope quoted the renowned scholar Maria Nikolajeva, who said that empathy is not a natural capacity. Empathy is therefore something to be taught or encouraged and a key way to do that is through reading. However, Hope’s concern is that increasingly violent representations will turn children away from publications that detail such experiences or even experience a numbing reaction instead of the intended caring response, particularly for younger children who may not be emotionally prepared for the violence in the text.

Amnesty International recommends The Bone Sparrow for children of around ten years old and up yet Hope pointed out a number of potential issues with Fraillon’s book for children of this age, including the extreme violence that is shown: lips sewn shut by refugees in protest as well as rioting and a violent beating that results in the death of one of the main characters. Metatexts that accompany Fraillon’s book include a postscript aimed at older or adult readers, sending mixed messages about the intended audience, and Amnesty International worksheets that require the reader to match quotes from The Bone Sparrow with images of real internment camps, bringing the fiction of the book even closer to the lived reality of refugees. Will the vicariousness of the experience bring the reader closer to or distance them from the subject? Quotes included some from children demonstrating a lack of engagement with the text and a potentially adverse reaction to the scenes of extreme violence.

Further questions were raised on Fraillon’s experiences of refugee camps – Hope could find no evidence that Fraillon had been to any as part of her research process – and the issue of the white savior, both in the novel’s conclusion and in the figure of Fraillon herself as a white author writing her version of a refugee experience.

Dr Leah Phillips: Reframing Girlhood in Mythopoeic YA 

Being Human in YA Leah

The first plenary session was led by Dr Leah Phillips and focused on the topic of her forthcoming book, mythopoeic YA, and tackled the subject of how this genre can be used to reframe the concept of girlhood. Traditionally, mythopoeic YA – a genre that features the creation of mythologies in its texts, features the white male body as ‘essentially adolescent’: it is what teenagers are. Philips outlined how deconstructing this hero’s position of power can be a useful tool in reframing girlhood, which is typically positioned in opposition to the male hero i.e. what he is not. With the male body as default, it is actually ‘missing’ from mythopoeic YA – not described precisely because it is considered the default, its existence and features assumed. Yet the body is arguably even more important for female characters given the cultural emphasis on changes in female bodies during adolescence. Indeed, the body of a teenage girl can be considered othered by this emphasis, the mystery around physical changes in adolescent female bodies situating them as different from the male.

This emphasis on difference has led to the exceptional female hero. Phillips used Katniss Everdeen from the film versions of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series, focusing on Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of the heroine, her physical presence, athletic able body that functions as a tool analoguous to the male body, and her exceptional archery skills. Phillips contrasted this with works by Leigh Bardugo and Marissa Meyer, which feature female misfits as heroines rather than idealised female figures.

Anthony Stepniak: When Selfhood dominates the (Sub)Text: Sexuality, Selfhood and the notion of Becoming in Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Anthony Stepniak tackled the issue of selfhood in one of my favourite YA novels, Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012). Stepniak highlighted the fact that this is not a novel marketed explicitly as a ‘gay’ novel. The book doesn’t deal so much with Ari’s development into a HomosexualTM as it deals with the development of one person’s feeling for another. While works that deal openly with teens embracing a gay identity are important, Sáenz’s focus on emotional development can be a refreshing alternative to the commodification of homosexuality within a capitalist heterosexual framework. In a way this makes the novel more accessible, since a rainbow-bedecked volume may appear less approachable to a closeted teen or indeed one who is simply searching.

Stepniak focused on Ari’s psychosexual development and the curious fact that the development of Ari’s feelings for his friend Dante are never directly addressed by Ari himself, in a brilliant execution by Sáenz. Rather, Ari develops into a ‘whole person’ as the novel progresses and the reader witnesses the growth of his sexual identity through subtextual elements. Ari’s subconscious desires are reflected in the lack of marketing of the book as explicitly gay, mentioned earlier, and the lack of labeling throughout the text. Indeed, Stepniak argued that at the beginning of the novel, Ari is little more than a shadow, almost non-existent – he is the little brother who could not be (since his elder brother, in jail for murder, has been effaced entirely from Ari’s household), and he is a shadow, almost Gothic, of Dante, who is very extroverted and who in contrast to Ari seems to already know who he is. Stepniak mentioned Julia Kristeva’s interpretation of the abject, where there is a breakdown between the self and the Other. Ari inhabits this space, in opposition to a normative lifestyle, but throughout the text he develops into or (becomes) himself. Ari’s becoming can be traced through Dante’s portraits of Ari: first unseen sketches, then a covered painting, and finally a fully realized portrait. Through his art, Dante figuratively draws Ari into being at the same time as Ari embraces his entry into the Symbolic and embraces his feelings for Dante.

Dr Lucy Andrew: ‘I haven’t got any options!’: Draco Malfoy, school-shooter fiction and adolescent identity crisis

This paper focused on one of the more adult elements of the Harry Potter series as it transitioned from a clue-puzzle school-based form to a more adult open crime narrative. Andrew positioned book 6 in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, as a threshold text, and it is in this book where Draco Malfoy develops beyond a two-dimensional ‘baddie’, always in opposition to the hero, Harry, into a complex character in his own right.

In the first five books of the series, Malfoy is a stable and static character, achieving the zenith of his power in book 5, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, as a member of Dolores Umbridge’s Inquisitorial Squad. but Lucius Malfoy’s fall from grace after the debacle at the Ministry of Magic at the end of book 5, puts Draco in an impossible situation. Used as a pawn by Lord Voldemort as vengeance on Lucius, Draco is obliged to kill Albus Dumbledore, an almost impossible task and one which leads Draco to more and more desperate measures as he is forced to make a choice about who he wants to be. Draco feels powerless, and becomes a lonely and bullied victim in a role reversal with his nemesis, Harry, who develops into an ever stronger figure throughout the series. Indeed, Draco has been a victim of violence throughout, whether he is being punched by Hermione or transfigured into a ferret. Andrew explained how the violence experienced by Malfoy turns from the comic to dramatic as its impact on him endangers not only Draco himself, but others through the actions Draco feels driven to, eventually leading to Dumbledore’s death and challenging the myth of the school as a safe space. Crucially, however, Draco chooses not to kill Dumbledore. Instead he uses a disarming spell, Expelliarmus – otherwise known as Harry’s trademark and mocked by Voldemort, though it leads to his downfall while technically being a defensive rather than offensive spell. Draco’s decision not to kill Dumbledore contains echoes of Dumbledore’s own words in Philosopher’s Stone : “it takes a great deal of courage to stand up to one’s enemies, and even more to stand up to one’s friends”. As ever, Harry Potter shows us the nuances of grey that make up the world and comparing Draco to a school shooter highlights the complex nature behind such acts of atrocity.

Amy Waite: Teeming Stomachs and Infinite Spirals: Posthuman Anxiety in John Green’s Turtles All The Way Down and Patrick Ness’s The Rest of Us Just Live Here

Amy Waite took us into the world of microbiology with John Green’s Turtles All The Way Down and Patrick Ness’s The Rest of Us Just Live Here in response to narratives of empowerment that tend to dominate post-human discourse. Waites focuses on protagonists Aza and Mike as they deal with the intricacies of ordinary life, a topic which resonates with Alison Waller’s opening speech. Aza and Mike both suffer from OCD, Aza’s manifesting in a fixation with the human microbiome and Mike’s in excessive handwashing. Both characters are fixated on their selves and identities and the question of where the self ends and the other begins. For Aza, the idea of being populated or colonized by bacteria, the fact that she is in a symbiotic relationship with millions of organisms that are not her, is hard to swallow – even more so when she ponders that, post-kiss, her love interest’s bacteria are now integrated into her biome for evermore. Mike, meanwhile, finds himself trapped in loops where he washes his hands until they bleed, the encroaching compulsion driven by anxiety about his place in the world. Neither character can fully trust their own bodies.

In a direct contrast to supposedly empowering fantasy narratives where dystopian tyrannies are toppled by teen heroes and the ‘Quest’ is clear from the start, presenting a straightforward challenge for an able-bodied and -minded protagonist, it’s instead the ontological question of where the self fits into the world that drives these novels by Green and Ness and Waite focuses on a topic that will resonate with many readers. It certainly did with me.

Emily Corbett: “I’m a girl. A real girl. At last.”: Transgender Bodies in Young Adult Superhero Fiction

In the final paper of the day, Emily Corbett, the symposium organiser, introduced what sounds like a fascinating series to me: the Nemesis series by April Daniels, featuring trans superhero Dreadnought. Danielle Tozer, a trans teen, inherits the dying Dreadnought’s abilities, causing her body to change from biologically male to female. Danielle is pleased that, as the title to the paper suggest, she is finally a ‘real’ girl. But what does that mean, and where is Danielle’s newly re-gendered body situated by this transition? Corbett referenced  Sandy Stone’s “binary phallocentric myth’ and examined the positioning by Daniels of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ bodies in a narrative that simultaneously deconstructs the gender binary but also  foregrounds an ideology motivated by the idea that only a particular body is the right body for a particular gender – in this case, the normative female body. Danielle is pleased to have the body she has long desired but is upset and questions her femininity when it transpires after a medical examination that she is infertile. Is she female enough? Is she ‘finished’, her transformation complete? Or does she still have the wrong body, despite her outward appearance? Again, this paper touched on the notion of the self in relation to the human body, and that body’s position in the world and viewed by others, including not only Danielle’s family but also her superhero peers. A fitting end to a day of excellent papers.

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As someone who focuses on YA both academically and creatively, this symposium was informative, giving me ideas both for directions to consider for my upcoming dissertation and my creative work. A huge thank you to Emily Corbett and everyone else involved in organising what proved to be a fantastic day.

Sean Headshot

 

 

 

 

Seán Kavanagh is an MA student at the University of Roehampton with the NCRCL. Seán’s current research focuses are folk and fairy tales with a special interest in YA fairy tale retellings and queer YA. You can connect with Seán on Twitter @seangkavanagh and via his blog

Conference Reflections: ISSCL, PCA, and CBC 2019

NB: Some of the below featured originally on Jennie’s personal blog, jennifergouck.wordpress.com

It’s been a busy few months for me. I’ve taken my research ‘on tour’, as it were, across three countries: Ireland, the US, and Croatia. Come July, I’ll complete the tour by presenting my work to some of the best scholars in the field at this year’s Children’s Literature Summer School, hosted by the University of Antwerp.

As I settled back into my desk chair for the next two months or so, I decided the best way to get over those post-conference blues was to re-live my experiences and tie them up in a little blog post bow. You’ll notice from the title that I’m calling this a ‘reflections’ post rather than a review. Perhaps it’s all a matter of semantics, but for me ‘reflections’ sums up what I’m doing here more than ‘review’ does; I’m reflecting on my own first experiences at international conferences. Maybe once I’ve been to a few more I’ll feel ready to make that leap down the dictionary to ‘review’…

Conference #1: The Irish Society for the Study of Children’s Literature Conference, 29th-30th March 2019

The first stop on the Manic Pixie Tour, the ISSCL’s conference in the Dublin-based Marino Institute, was nice and close to home. The theme, ‘Radical Youth Literature and Culture’ allowed for innovative and varied interpretations and, as such, delegates were spoiled for choice when it came to panels. I was also pleased (and comforted) by the number of ECR and postgraduate researchers; this healthy mix of emerging and established scholars is indicative of the supportive and inclusive ethos at the heart of the society.

Image result for irish society for the study of children's literature

While all the panels I attended were thought-provoking and insightful, the highlight of the two days was undoubtedly Professor Kimberley Reynolds’ keynote entitled “Rearranging the World: Radical Children’s Literature and Youth Activism in the Twentieth Century.” A well-known powerhouse of the field, Prof. Reynolds’ lecture explored the notion of radical children’s literature across a number of different media from the twentieth century. What struck me most, though – as a conversation Dr Jane Carroll and I had in the coffee break after put so beautifully into words – is Kimberley’s generosity with both her time and expertise. Prof. Reynolds has a way of speaking that is friendly and inviting, her delivery creating the impression that she is sharing this knowledge with you personally, not an entire room of academics eagerly poised with pen, notebook, and iPhone in hand. As a PGR, this really was quite inspiring.

The ISSCL is a small (but growing!) society. Having attended a handful of their events and conferences, I couldn’t recommend becoming involved with the community in one way or another enough. To present at ISSCL is to feel challenged but supported, a crucial yet difficult balance to strike. Their conferences and symposia are a must-attend for YA and Children’s Literature scholars based in Ireland.

Conference #2: PCA 2019, Washington D.C., 17th-20th April 2019

The Popular Culture Association’s annual international conference took place in Washington, D.C. this year – a part of the US I’ve never been to before. I was quite nervous about going; I knew these American conferences to be pretty sizeable and I came from a background of 50-100, possibly 200 people gathered on a University campus – not quite the 5,000 people in a swanky Marriott Hotel in the Woodley Park area of DC that I’d experience this time.

The conference was as expensive as it was massive. My registration fee (which included a mandatory membership fee) was $186. We got an email urging us to avail of the discounted rates for the conference hotel that the PCA had secured. Unfortunately, the prices were anywhere between $1500 and $2000 before tax – and flight costs were still to be added to that total. Without my Irish Research Council funding, I could never in a million years have attended this conference. They say much of academia is a privileged person’s game, but I felt it more than ever before this time.

I knew the conference would be big from the 45 pages of presenters listed in the programme in tiny font, but somehow that wasn’t enough to prepare me; when I arrived I was blown away by the sheer size of it all. I registered and was given my pass, a free (branded) messenger bag, and a free (branded) business card holder. Physical programmes were an extra $5, but given that they were nearly 400 pages in length, I understood. I was then directed to the “ribbon station” to choose ribbons for my badge. There was everything from “First time at PCA” to “10+ years at PCA” as well as some fancier ones for Area Chairs and so on.

While the ribbons were undoubtedly very cute, it all seemed a bit much to me. Did I really need those ribbons? Did I need a branded bag? What about that business/credit card holder? Yes they were nice, but I’d rather have gone without in favour of some refreshments here and there. While I understand that catering is incredibly expensive, something more than free tea and coffee on the registration morning would have been nice, especially since the hotel restaurant and snack shop prices were laughable, food in DC is relatively expensive anyway, and we were in a nice part of town. Even better would have been to use this money to make more funding available for the conference, as although some awards exist, they are highly competitive.

My musings on catering bring me to the next challenge of one of these conferences: pacing yourself. Depending on the day, panels ran from 8am to around 10pm and were back-to-back-to-back-to-back… with 15 minute breaks in-between. Given the size of the venue, though, these breaks meant nothing as the time was usually used to have a quick comfort break and then to trek the sprawling expanse of the hotel to find the room for the next panel. Again, I understand. With nearly 60 strands to accommodate, the programme needed to be intense. But even an hour scheduled for lunch would have helped here as I found myself having to skip what sounded like fascinating panels purely because I had to eat. My own panel fell foul of this, I think. Scheduled at 1.15pm on the Friday, there were only a handful of people present who weren’t speaking. I’m guessing that a lot of delegates were either a) tucking into a burger at the restaurant across the way, b) just needed a break, or c) had decided to go to panels elsewhere. At an event of this size, who knows?!

My experience of the panels, generally, was very positive. However, there were a few things that just didn’t sit right with me over the four days. Firstly, I was very aware that I was one of the few non-Americans present. I understand the US is vastly larger than Ireland, but I’m not sure how ‘international’ a conference with 98% North American attendance can be. Secondly, I was also very aware that I was one of the many, many white faces there. I saw few scholars of colour or Latinx or any real diversity in representation at all, and I wonder what the systemic issues are that lie behind this. Regardless, the PCA could do much better in this area. Thirdly, I was unimpressed with some of the presenters. One, the only man on his panel, went over time by a whopping ten minutes. ‘But why didn’t the chair intervene?!’ I hear you cry. Well, dear reader, because he was the chair! I know, I know. Imagine not just reading that, but living through it in real, painstakingly slow time.

Next year’s conference is due to be held in Philadelphia and, gripes aside, I did enjoy my first time at the PCA annual conference. Having been to the 2019 event, I would consider going again and I would hope to feel more prepared for 2020.

Conference #3: The Child and the Book Conference and Children’s Literature Scholarship in Europe Post-Conference Event, University of Zadar, 8th-11th May 2019

Although this conference could be rated 10/10 for location, CBC 2019 is otherwise one of the most mixed experiences I have had at a conference so far.

As a solo, postgraduate researcher I found it hard to break into the established friendships of the other delegates. Networking was definitely tricky here. Thankfully, at the opening reception (which, interestingly, followed a performance of Hamlet in the local puppet theatre), I managed to get chatting to another researcher who was there alone. Over the remaining three days I then met two other lovely researchers, one established, one a PGR like me.

The research presented at CBC was undoubtedly diverse. However, unless panels had been20190511_102829 proposed as such, papers seemed to have been put together with no obvious theme or connection. This meant that the discussion afterward was, on occasion, quite clunky. Indeed, my own paper was proceeded by a paper on a children’s novel from the former Soviet bloc and a research project which looked at how American children’s picture book Fancy Nancy was received in translation in Croatia. I’m still scratching my head as to how my paper, which looked at the evolution of the Manic Pixie through canonical literary tropes, really fitted here. Some audience members at my panel were also quite unreceptive to my research and seemed to be frustrated that I couldn’t offer them a ‘European perspective’ of the MPDG, despite the fact I made clear my research lay in contemporary American YA literature, media, and culture. 

The post-conference event, however, was just lovely. After a morning roundtable highlighting key children’s literature journals in Europe (although we seem to be lacking dedicated outputs for YA…), discussions moved to the Leut boat and we set off on a cruise to the nearby Kornati Islands. During the trip, we were lucky enough to see some dolphins as well as experience the beautiful landscape. Zadar, it must be said, is truly stunning.

Some final thoughts

Though a crucial part of academic life, conferencing is as tiring as it is enriching. While I feel so lucky to have had these opportunities over the past three months, I’d definitely pace myself better in the future. It turns out that an exhausted Jennie is not a productive Jennie. Who knew?!

Special thanks go to the Irish Association for American Studies, who awarded me a €200 bursary toward my trip to D.C. and, of course, to the Irish Research Council whose funding makes my entire project possible.

An Interview with Hafsah Faizal, Author of We Hunt the Flame

By Meriem R. Lamara @Meriem_Lamara

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People lived because she killed.
People died because he lived

 

 

 

 

 

 

Set in a fantasy world inspired by Ancient Arabia, Hafsah Fiazal’s debut novel We Hunt the Flame comes out May 14th 2019. YALMC’s North African Officer, Meriem, had the chance to ask Hafsah some questions about her writing inspirations, being a #ownvoices writer, and more!

 

We Hunt the Flame comes out in May 14th. How do you feel now that it’s almost here?

We’re little over a month away! It feels surreal. I still can’t believe I have an agent, let alone a book deal, despite it being nearly two years since it all happened. I think it’ll really hit me when I finally hold the hardcover in my hands!

The characters in the story represent a culture that we don’t often read about in YA Fantasy. What can you tell us about the characters of Zafira and Nasir? And what do their characters mean to you as a #ownvoices author?

Zafira is a huntress who will do anything for her people. Nasir is the crown prince and the greatest assassin alive. Both are legends, neither are content with their lives. By those descriptors alone, they could fit the bill for almost any YA fantasy, which is why they exist—one of the main reasons I set We Hunt the Flame in a Middle Eastern inspired world was to introduce readers to a world that isn’t as twisted as the media leads us to believe. You’ll find characters who wear turbans, who know the difference between dates, who speak Arabic, and know what it’s like to live amidst the ever-shifting desert.

As someone who has always been fascinated by the world of ancient Arabia with its rich history, mythology, and customs, I am very pleased to see it represented in YA Fantasy. What attracted you to it? And what type of research did you conduct for the story?

I think I was attracted to ancient Arabia because of my own ties to it! I wanted the world to feel fantastical, yet clearly inspired by the Middle East, so most of my research pertained to place names, language, weaponry and sometimes legends.

I am really curious as to how your process is when it comes to world building. What can you tell us about the world of Arawiya?

I love world-building, which I like to think stems from my career as a designer. The visual aspect of the story is my favorite—whether it’s constructing a palace down to the latticework along the wall or adding ornamentation to a character’s clothing. Having the Middle Eastern as a baseline for Arawiya most certainly helped. The world of We Hunt the Flame is lush and full of tiny details that I think work to immerse readers that much deeper into the story.

Did the title ‘We Hunt the Flame’ come to you fully formed or did you have to experiment with other ideas first?

It didn’t! The story was originally titled something else, which was more apt for what the story used to be (a tournament). It felt too concrete a title, so when brainstorming more abstract ideas, We Hunt the Flame made the list of a few titles I sent to my agent before we submitted the story to editors!

We can’t talk about the book without mentioning the stunning cover with Arabic Calligraphy nicely reflected in the title’s typography. Did you have any input on the design of the final official cover?

 Oooh, yes. My editor knew right from the start that I wanted to be a part of the cover design process. As a lettering artist (as well as a designer), typography is important to me, and creating something that emulated Arabic calligraphy was a dream come true, thanks to Erin Fitzsimmons! I was also asked for “scene” ideas for the cover artist, Simon Prades, to depict. Zafira standing before the shadow of an ominous palace is an unseen moment-between-moments that occurs in the story—it’s also a huge pivoting moment and I love that we were able to portray it so beautifully.

What do you think you’ve learned as an author in the process of writing We Hunt the Flame?

We Hunt the Flame is my fifth manuscript, yet I’ve always felt that it was, in my ways, my first. It was my first fantasy. My first time writing in the third-person, and my first time writing in the past tense. I’ve learned so much more while working with my editors—my favorite is how to differentiate the heart of the narrative from the bulk of the story—and I continue to learn as the days progress!

 What do you like to read? Was there any book that inspired We Hunt the Flame or inspired you as a writer in general?

Fantasy is my favorite genre. I also enjoy science fiction and the occasional contemporary, though I rarely read outside of YA. I’d say every young adult novel I’ve read over the years has contributed to my writing in some way. It’s taught me more than I could learn from any syllabus!

 

We Hunt the Flame is out on the 14th of May 2019!
Hafsah Faizal, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with Meriem. ❤