JFA 28.3 (2017)
Introduction: Reading the Body, Reading (YA) Fiction.
Mathieu Donner, Guest Editor
In an article on the role of representation in Young Adult (YA) fiction, David Levithan, whose own 2012 novel Every Day is analyzed in this issue, argued that “teens read books to find themselves within the pages” (44). As an avid reader of YA fiction myself, I clearly remember going through Katniss’s trials in the Games for the first time. I remember feeling spells fly by, hidden behind a grave with “the boy who lived.” I remember the psychological and physical hardship of Tris’s trials just as much as I remember feeling Jonas’s joy, sledding towards the brightly lit house at the bottom of the hill in Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993). I remember these moments not solely because of the marks they left on the psyche of their protagonists, but because as a reader, I was “forced” to feel them in my bones, to experience them in the flesh.
Over the past decade, the explosion of fiction produced for young adult readers has resulted in a correlative surge in works by academics focused on YA literature, film, and television. This increase in focus has also brought with it a renewed attention to the particular subject of this special issue: the adolescent body and its representation. Whether approached through the prism of race theory, feminism, disability theory, or simply in its particular relation to time, the adolescent body has become a repository for broader cultural anxieties and concerns ranging from “the legacy of colonialism, political injustice, environmental desecration, sexual stereotyping, consumerism, madness,” to the prospect of death itself (Hilton and Nikolajeva 1). Hoping to contribute to this conversation, the articles collected in this issue all approach the adolescent body as intrinsically linked to identity, subjectivity, and the nature of being. Founded upon the assumption that “the body has a particularly magnetic relationship with the mind in adolescence” (Brady 11), they all focus on the ways in which the representation of the body in fiction for young adult readers challenges, subverts, and, at times, reinforces dominant assumptions about identity, race, gender, and subjectivity.
Whereas adolescence has tended to be predominantly perceived as a site of profound change and uncertainty, a period defined by ontological and categorical anxiety, this same liminality has often been embraced by science fiction and fantasy writers interested in questioning social boundaries and the nature of ontology. Having found in the adolescent body’s transforming dimension a way to challenge culturally-accepted norms—whether these are concerned with approved forms of sexuality, the “correct” performance of gender, or the “natural” division between body and mind—these writers have tended to invest adolescent protagonists with a powerful sense of social power and political agency. Frequently presenting their reader with “dark future worlds that radically critique adult ethical legitimacy” (Sambell 250), speculative YA fiction takes the adolescent outside their own reality in order to better question, challenge, and ultimately subvert the structures upon which our culture is built. Yet, if it often appears subversive in tone, YA fiction is also a fundamentally didactic genre. As Roberta Trites argues, because they cast their authors as figures of authority and because they carefully construct the conditions within which subjectivity is and can be gained, YA novels often “serve as yet another institution created for the purpose of simultaneously empowering and repressing adolescents” (xii).
Embracing this paradox and rooted in a belief that YA fiction not only reflects adolescence but shapes, partially at least, the way it is experienced by young readers, the articles in this issue all explore the relationship the adolescent body entertains with broader societal issues, from the impact of representation on the performance of race to the ethics of posthumanism, the nature of female trauma within an androcentric culture, or the violence implicit in capitalist competitiveness. In “‘I am humanity’: Posthumanism and Embodiment in Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave Series,” Lars Schmeink explores the relation between the alien invasion narrative, the figure of the posthuman, and their apprehension within a posthumanist theoretical framework. Arguing that the novels mobilize the alien Other in order to engage transhumanist notions of technological enhancement, Schmeink exposes how the ontological status of both humans and aliens is, throughout the series, continuously questioned and re-defined. By progressively moving away from the traditional paranoid conceit of alien invasion narratives in which the Other hides among ourselves, Yancey opens up this alien Other to a posthumanist approach in which the Other is always already part of the human. Highlighting the hybrid, if not thoroughly human, nature of some of Yancey’s alien protagonists, Schmeink ultimately argues that the series presents an interesting framework for assessing our own relation with technology and the posthuman futures it continuously produces.
Continuing on the theme of the posthuman, Tony Vinci’s “Mourning the Human: Working through Trauma and the Posthuman Body in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians Trilogy” analyzes Grossman’s critical mobilization of the dominant conception of the human subject as a discrete and singular entity, moored to traditional conceptions of the body. Showcasing how Grossman employs these conventions in order to destabilize ideological certainties and to establish an ethical relationship between the territories of trauma and the posthuman body, Vinci explores how The Magicians trilogy reveals the violence implicit in the ideal of a distinct human body. Aligning androcentric humanist ideology with the adolescent male gaze, Grossman’s series renders visible the processes by which the uncritical acceptance of the discrete human body reduces, mutilates, compresses, and disavows the full range of possibilities for female (and human) subjectivity, embodiment, and agency. By presenting two different perspectives, Grossman allows the effects of traumas suffered by female characters to be recovered from the realm of the unseen, the unreal, and the impossible, thus rupturing and destabilizing the androcentric gaze and making possible a mode of engagement with traumatic experiences that had previously been excised from both history and reality.
Following upon Vinci’s exploration of trauma and posthumanism, Jonathan Alexander and Jasmine Lee expose, in “‘We Are all Abnegation Now’: Suffering Agency in the Divergent Series,” how the trope mobilized by many contemporary YA fictions that sees young people subjected to various “games” that pit them against one another in a desperate bid for survival eerily parallels the structures of neoliberal society. Focusing on Veronica Roth’s dystopian series, Alexander and Lee argue that this framework reveals how, within contemporary culture, young people are reduced to fighting for access to increasingly limited resources. Exploring the effects of these limitations on our conception of adolescent agency, they highlight how the series exposes the violent impact of the deeply embodied nature of categorization. Arguing that Roth’s world-building ultimately speaks to the most devastating imagination of a social structure that has all but naturalized social categorization as essential and essentializable, they bring into focus the ways in which the survivalist trope promoted by YA fictions places responsibility for survival fully on the shoulders of young people while simultaneously robbing them of the agency needed for them to truly challenge this unfair system.
Moving away from the dystopian landscapes of Yancey’s and Roth’s series, my own contribution, “I have to figure out who I am”: Embodied Self, Time, and the Ethics of Adolescence in David Levithan’s Every Day,” highlights how Levithan’s 2012 novel, by offering the story of A, a disembodied entity whose life has been spent hopping from body to body and awakening to a new life every single day, explores the relationship that identity entertains with both embodiment and ethics. Arguing that, by highlighting the place otherness occupies in the constitution of the subject’s sense of self, Levithan’s novel opens up a potential space for re-thinking adolescence, I suggest that our understanding of adolescence as a centripetal and egocentric period driven by a quest for identity may not entirely be accurate. In its place, and using Levithan’s novel as foundation, we can re-conceive adolescence as a time of intense ethical negotiation in which the subject crafts her/his sense of self by opening this self to a continuous dialogue between an interior form of otherness and the commonality s/he finds outside her/his own self.
The final contribution to this issue, Kristen Shaw’s “‘Sticky’ Identities: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Nalo Hopkinson’s The Chaos” examines how Hopkinson’s novel, by framing the story of Scotch, a mixed-race teenager whose body becomes increasingly covered by black tar-like patches, as a transition tale in which its protagonist moves from racial and sexual alienation to an embrace of difference, opens up our current cultural framework to mutations and idiosyncratic performances. Bringing together Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s theories of assemblage, various theories of race, and Margaret Shildrick’s theories of disability, Shaw argue that Scotch’s progression models an alternative and affirmative ethics of the body that promotes the acceptance of anomalous embodiment through a focus on becoming rather than being. Considering how race, sexuality, and gender all come to signify as a result of their positioning within a socio-material and affective network of relations, she highlights how Hopkinson’s novel challenges theories of race as either purely biological or entirely socially inscribed and promotes instead a context-dependent conception of identity whose reliance on socio-cultural assemblages signals an openness to challenge and subversion.
As a guest editor, I hope that the essays collected in this special issue will contribute to a continuing conversation about the role of YA fiction in critical studies and will potentially open new avenues for considering the place the body can occupy within this conversation. If most of the novels under analysis here ultimately show a tendency towards conservativism, they also clearly expose the limitations of our current discourse on adolescence, ethics, embodiment, and identity. Inviting us to engage with the posthuman and with posthumanism, to re-consider what it is we mean when we talk about adolescence and the adolescent identity, or to simply acknowledge the problems inherent to our cultural acceptance of the body as a static and singular entity, these articles all confirm the important contribution YA fiction can make to our understanding of today’s society. Highlighting the benefits of engaging with these texts in conjunction with theories of narrative, justice, and identity, these contributions show that critical studies in YA fiction have a bright future ahead of them, a future it is our role to study, imagine, and ultimately create.
Brady, Mary. The Body in Adolescence: Psychic Isolation and Physical Symptoms. Florence: Taylor and Francis, 2015. Print.
Hilton, Mary, and Maria Nikolajeva. “Introduction: Time of Turmoil.” Contemporary Adolescent Literature and Culture the Emergent Adult. Ed. Mary Hilton and Maria Nikolajeva, Ashgate, 2012. 1-16. Print.
Levithan, David. “Supporting Gay Teen Literature.” School Library Journal, vol. 50, no. 10, October. 44-45. 2004. Print.
Sambell, Kay. “Carnivalizing the Future: A New Approach to Theorizing Childhood and Adulthood in Science Fiction for Young Readers.” The Lion and the Unicorn, vol. 28, no. 2, April 2004. 247-267. Print.
Trites, Roberta S. Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000. Print.
Guest editor introduction: Reading the Body, Reading (YA) Fiction
‘I am humanity’: Posthumanism and Embodiment in Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave Series
Mourning the Human: Working through Trauma and the Posthuman Body in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians Trilogy
Tony M. Vinci
‘We Are all Abnegation Now’: Suffering Agency in the Divergent Series
Jonathan Alexander and Jasmine Lee
“I have to figure out who I am”: Embodied Self, Time, and the Ethics of Adolescence in David Levithan’s Every Day
‘Sticky’ Identities: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Nalo Hopkinson’s The Chaos
Bill Ashcroft’s Utopianism in Postcolonial Literatures
Rev. by Amandine Faucheux
Corona Schmiele’s Masques et métamorphoses de l’auteur dans les contes de Grimm. Pour une lecture rapprochée des textes [Masks and metamorphosis of the author in the Grimms’ tales. Towards a close reading.
Rev. by Cyrille François
Chris Pak’s Terraforming: Ecopolitical Transformations and Environmentalism in Science Fiction
Rev. by James Hamby
Stefano Baschiera and Russ Hunter’s Italian Horror Cinema
Rev. by Cale Hellyer
Mark Bould and Rhys Williams’s SF Now. Paradoxa 26 (2014)
Rev. by Steven Holmes
Lorna Jowett and Stacey Abbott’s TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen
Rev. by Rebecca Janicker
Richard Firth Green’s Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church
Rev. by Amanda Madden
Arthur B. Evans’s Vintage Visions: Essays on Early Science Fiction
Rev. by T. S. Miller
Donald E. Palumbo’s An Asimov Companion: Characters, Places, and Terms in the Robot/Empire/Foundation Metaseries
Rev. by Don Riggs
Eric J. Silverman and Robert Arp’s The Ultimate Game of Thrones and Philosophy: You Think or You Die
Rev. by Don Riggs
Kyle William Bishop’s How Zombies Conquered Popular Culture: The Multifarious Walking Dead in the 21st Century
Cynthia J. Miller and A. Bowdoin Van Riper’s. Horrors of War: The Undead on the Battlefield
Rev. by Joseph Michael Sommers