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 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.
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
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.
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.
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