Tag Archives: sexuality

Wednesday Write-In #84

This week’s words were: murky  ::  favourite mug  ::  hasty  ::  myth  ::  murder

Image: pinterest.com

Image: pinterest.com

Crisis Management

I knew it as soon as she came through the door. Murky look in her eyes, mouth drawn tight, frown lines like steppes across her forehead. When she threw her backpack into the corner without giving it a second glance, I knew for sure.

Favourite mug. Kettle on.

‘I could murder a cup of tea, love. You?’

‘Thanks, Mum.’ She slid into her chair, folding her legs under herself like she used to do when she was tiny. I had to look away, just for a second, as the kettle started rumbling beside me. A blink or two, and I was fine again.

‘Everything all right?’ The kettle clattered and clicked, belching steam. She spoke, but I couldn’t hear her over its racket. I poured the tea, carrying the mugs to the table. She wrapped her fingers around hers without even looking – her fingernails are gone to hell again, I couldn’t help thinkingbefore telling myself to shut up.

‘So. Is it something at school?’ I blew across the surface of my tea, pretending to watch it ripple. I saw her lick her lips, and the pained flash that crossed her face.

‘I told you,’ she said. ‘I’m fine.’

‘Good, good. So, how’s Maths? I know you were having some difficulty last -‘

‘Mum, is it true? About boys?’

I coughed. ‘What about boys, specifically?’ I took a mouthful of tea and held it.

‘That they can – you know. Tell.

I swallowed. ‘Tell?’

She rolled her eyes at me. ‘Come on.

‘You’ll have to give me something else to go on, darling. I’m good, but I’m not a mind-reader.’

‘It’s embarrassing,’ she muttered.

‘Try me.’

She started to chew the inside of her mouth, and tilted her head so that her hair fell down over her eyes. She huffed several long, pained breaths in and out before finally managing to clothe her thoughts in words. ‘That they can tell if you – if you’ve done it.’

‘Ah.’ I took another mouthful of tea, wondering why it suddenly tasted like acid. ‘That old myth.’

‘Myth?’ she said, flicking her hair out of her face and gazing at me with those eyes, so clear. So like her dad’s. My heart lurched, but it passed.

‘Yup. Think about it. How would they tell? It’s impossible.’

‘Stacey says it’s obvious. Like, on your face, or whatever. She says it’s like you might as well wear a big sign on your back saying ‘Virgin!’ unless you – you know.’

‘Well, no disrespect to Stacey,’ I said, putting down my tea. ‘But she’s talking nonsense.’

‘Really?’ She smiled at me, her dimples showing. ‘Them’s fightin’ words, Mum.’

I grinned. ‘Bring it on.’

She laughed, then – a genuine laugh, head thrown back. I felt a throb of something large surge up my throat, and my eyes filled again, and I had to blink hard to keep it all in.

‘Go, Mum!’ she said, looking back at me. ‘So, it’s for real? They can’t tell?’

‘Nope. Nobody can. Well – maybe a doctor. But that’s all right, isn’t it?’

She shrugged, her eyes falling. ‘Well, it’s good to know.’

I leaned in, and put my hand on her arm. She didn’t pull away, but she didn’t look up. ‘There’s no need to be hasty about anything like this. Do you understand? You have time to make your own choices, in your own time, and don’t let Stacey – or anyone – pressure you. All right, darling?’

‘Yeah, Mum. Keep your wig on.’ She unfolded herself, shaking off my hand. ‘I’ve got homework, okay? See you later.’ She grabbed up her bag and was gone, her untouched tea still steaming on the table, and I nursed my heart for a few moments before hauling myself to my feet and getting on with making dinner.

I wish I’d had a mum like me, I thought, as the carrot peelings piled up and the oven warmedbut then I just put the potatoes on and forgot all about it.

Genre Bending

So.

I have a question.

Image: irunoninsulin.com

Image: irunoninsulin.com

It’s concerned with genre, and why a particular book is considered to belong to one genre over another. It’s also concerned with what you expect to find, as a reader, in a book which proclaims itself to belong to a particular genre.

As I’ve said before, I love Young Adult books, and also stories written for children. These are the kinds of books I primarily read, and I’d like to think I’m fairly familiar with these genres. In most of the Young Adult books I’ve read recently, though, I’ve noticed a huge focus on complicated love and sexual relationships between characters, and a tendency to make those relationships a central part of the plot. In fact, sometimes these relationships are the plot! I wonder whether I’m behind the times a little in my taste, because those sort of relationships aren’t necessarily something I always look for in books that I would consider ‘Young Adult’. I wonder, too, if that’s because I tend to favour fantasy/SF type books, as opposed to contemporary Young Adult fiction – sometimes I think contemporary Young Adult stories have more of a focus on issues such as sexuality and love, which I suppose makes sense.

Before anyone thinks I’m a prude, I have to make it clear that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with books aimed at young adults dealing with complicated emotions and physical relationships. These themes are extremely important to young readers, and of course the literature should reflect this. Stories dealing with the complexities of love and relationships can be very affecting, emotional and beautiful, and if these issues are important to the characters in a story, then of course they should be included and dealt with. But if a book is written with teenage characters which doesn’t place sexual relationships, or an emotional, conflicted or complex love story, at the heart of the plot, I’m beginning to wonder if it should bear the label ‘Young Adult fiction’ at all. There’s been a lot of talk recently in publishing and writing circles about a new genre called ‘New Adult’, the definition of which I’m a little hazy on. It seems to be a genre encompassing books which are (broadly) about people in their late teens and early twenties, navigating sexual relationships and adult problems (like bills, careers, living away from their parents, and so on) – a sort of stepping stone between Young Adult and general fiction aimed at adults, perhaps. I wonder where the defining line between Young Adult and New Adult lies, and how a story is classified as being one or the other.

I’ve just finished reading a book which is amazingly well written, beautifully plotted, and fantastically enjoyable, but its protagonist is a 17-year-old girl who has had at least one significant relationship in the past, and who, during the course of the book, realises she has a strong physical attraction to an older male character who, for various reasons, she cannot be with. Her sexuality is one of her most important characteristics, and her desire to build a life and a future with the male character is one of the driving forces behind the book. She also feels the need to free her family from a terrible burden, but her connection to the man seems just as important to her, and her feelings for him certainly drive most of the story. The book I’m working on has a 16-year-old protagonist, so she’s only one year younger than the protagonist in the book I’ve just read, but the two stories couldn’t be farther apart in terms of the way the young female protagonists think about themselves, their bodies, feelings and desires. The book I’m working on is one I’d consider to be Young Adult, and the one I’ve read is also Young Adult. However, they are very different indeed. So different, in fact, that I wonder if they should belong to the same genre at all.

I suppose my question is this: if you’re a reader of Young Adult fiction, do you expect to find issues relating to sex and sexuality in the story? If the book lacks these things, do you feel it should more rightly be called a children’s book? Maybe this isn’t even worth worrying about, as I’m going to write the stories I want to write, and I’m going to let the character’s development dictate whether their sexuality should be an important part of their portrayal, but I’m just curious.

I’ve never really been a big fan of romance novels, and I don’t have a huge interest in writing romantic stories. I’m more about the adventure! So, if the genre I love is changing to accommodate more romance and a greater focus on love, I think I’ll be a little bit sad about it. Or, perhaps it’s an indicator that I need to read more widely in the genre – I’m sure this tendency doesn’t apply to every single Young Adult book being published at the moment.

And maybe it’s an indicator that I need to ‘get with the program’, as the young folk say these days!

Anyone have any opinions about genre, genre expectations, and the divisions between children’s, Young Adult, New Adult, and general adult fiction books? I’d love to hear ’em.

My favourite movie lovers!Image: fanpop.com

My favourite teenage lovers!
Image: fanpop.com

Issues in YA Literature

Hello, and happy Friday.

Even though I didn’t work on my WiP yesterday due to ill-health, I did spend my time doing useful things, including reading other blogs and keeping up to date with current thought in the YA world.  Turns out there are lots of burning topics to think about, but the one I want to write about today just stuck in my head, and thoughts started to congeal around it.  That topic is social issues – race, sexuality, disability, poverty – and how they are dealt with in Young Adult books.

My thought processes on this started yesterday when I read a blog article about race in Young Adult literature, and how the characters, particularly the main characters, tend to be white, or (even worse) are just assumed to be white.  I’m afraid I don’t know yet how to link things properly on my blog, but if you want to copy and paste the following into your browser, you’ll get to the article:

http://www.wordforteens.com/2012/10/the-whiteness-of-ya-books-and-book.html

The blogger was asking the question ‘why does this happen?’ and, unfortunately, came to the conclusion that ‘whiteness sells’; in other words, that putting pictures of pretty white girls on the cover of the book will help to sell it.  I thought the article was excellent, and timely – and very, very sad.

The blogger mentions the Twitter backlash a few years ago when a character in The Hunger Games was portrayed by a black actress when the book came to be turned into a movie.  It seemed that some people couldn’t get their head around one of the most important players in the story (Rue) not having the same white skin as the protagonists.  In fact, the character is described as black when we first meet her in the book, but it is such an unimportant part of her that it soon just becomes incidental; it becomes just another part of her, like her singing voice and her ability to climb, and her gentle compassion.  She’s probably my favourite character, not only in The Hunger Games but in the trilogy overall; it made zero difference to me what colour her skin was. I remember the furore around race when the movie came out, and I remember how disgusted I was by it.

By using the words ‘unimportant’ and ‘incidental’, by the way, I don’t mean to downplay the importance or significance of these characteristics, and I’m certainly not trying to belittle or disparage ideas of racial equality.  I don’t mean to imply that the fact of the character’s blackness is not significant – in fact, ideas of race, sexuality, gender and disability are very important to me as a person, and as a writer.  What I mean is, the fact that the character of Rue has black skin makes no difference to her character in this story.  Her compassion, her kindness, her talents, her loving heart, her bravery, and her beautiful spirit all have nothing to do with the colour of her skin; this is why the author doesn’t mention it again after our first meeting with the character.  She’s not brave because she’s black; she’s just a brave person who also happens to be black.  The protagonist, Katniss, is also a brave person – not because she’s white, she just also happens to be white.  It’s noteworthy that Suzanne Collins doesn’t really dwell on physical characteristics or descriptions in her books – we’re not constantly reminded of Katniss’ race, or the physical appearance of any character, to the best of my recollection.  People in these books are just people, and I think that’s important.

I then started to think about Ursula Le Guin, and the way she has always dealt with race and bodily difference in her novels.  For Le Guin, characters are nearly always described as being brown, or dark – it seems like everyone, more or less, is the same colour, but that colour is not necessarily white.  Again, like Collins, skin colour is not important to characterisation in Le Guin – it’s an incidental, barely-mentioned thing. The reader is given enough detail to fix the character in their mind and then we just get on with the story, with nobody paying any heed to what colour a person is. Even gender and sexuality, in Le Guin’s work, is seen as being fluid – distinctions are made unimportant. I’m thinking of The Left Hand of Darkness here, where it’s impossible to even describe a character as being ‘male’ or ‘female’ – everyone in this book is both, and neither, male or female. They can choose a gender at certain times in their lives (known as ‘kemmer’), and temporarily become one or the other, but for the most part gender is unimportant to who the characters are. I’ve always admired Le Guin’s treatment of people in this novel – even the idea of pronouns, and how to refer to people, was problematic but she overcame it through some very skilful use of language.  Sometimes characters who are usually referred to with male pronouns are described as women, and vice-versa; sometimes, pronouns are just ignored.

I also began to think about disability in Young Adult literature, and found myself stuck for examples of characters who are disabled. More often than not, in these books, protagonists are more specially gifted – stronger, faster, quicker to learn – than their contemporaries, and it’s rare to come across characters, let alone protagonists, who are just unexceptional, or who have a disability. There’s also a risk in literature that the author will decide to ‘cure’ a disabled character, or bestow some extra-special talent on them to ‘make up for’ their disability; though this might be done with a good heart, it’s important to remember that it can be seen as insulting by readers with disabilities.  Why is it so hard, I wonder, to imagine a character who not only lives their life perfectly well, but also excels at whatever it is they choose to do, and all this while disabled?

It would be wonderful, I think, if characters in novels could be just seen as ‘people’, regardless of their colour, gender, sexuality or disabilities.  These things are important, of course, and they will affect how a person sees themselves and how their world works, but they shouldn’t make a difference to whether or not they’re a good person, and certainly not to whether or not they’re a good character, about whom we enjoy reading. It would be wonderful if readers didn’t automatically assume that every character is white, straight and privileged, and if book covers (as the other blogger suggested) didn’t reflect a homogeneous, all-white picture. I certainly hope we never witness another ‘Rue is black?’ debacle, because – surely – at this stage, it should make no difference.

What are your thoughts on these issues? I’m particularly interested to know if anyone has any recommendations for books I could read with disabled characters, or books which deal with race or gender in interesting ways.  Let me know what you think!