The Intersection of Deaf and Gay Identity in Young Adult Literature

I’m thrilled to announce the publication in my essay “Without a word or sound”: Enmeshing Deaf and Gay Identity in Young Adult Literature.
This essay is found in an critical volume edited by Jacob Stratman entitled Lessons in Disability: Essays on Teaching with Young Adult Literature, published by McFarland Press (November 2015).

disability

Front cover of Lessons in Disability (2015)

Although not obvious at first, queer studies and Deaf/disability studies share a solid theoretical foundation. In this essay, I discuss how two young adult novels–Andrew Smith’s Stick and Brian Sloan’s A Really Nice Prom Mess–construct gayness and deafness, focusing on how content and/or form pushes one to approach deaf and gay identity in unprecedented ways.

I argue that the concurrent literary exploration of deafness and queerness allows these works to seek alternative models of kinship that are not reliant on privileged and normative practices. By representing events in which (spoken) language and heternormativity are made strange, these young adult novels depict imagined worlds that can be read as anti-hierarchical, non-neutral, and queer. By assisting readers in considering the strangeness of normativity, these novels provide a venue where comfort and optimism triumph in moments of anguish, and where solutions are provided to counteract the pressures of normativity. This essay, ultimately, is intended to serve as a model for how poststructuralist readings can aid readers and scholars in performing reparative critiques of young adult novels with disabled and/or queer characters.

Further complicating the stakes of my readings, the young adult novels that I scrutinize depict deafness as a spectrum; these novels portray characters that blur the lines between the deaf and the hearing. Stick and Prom Mess depict characters that cannot hear through one of their ears due to either a birth defect or accident. One can situate these characters on the fringes of the constructed abled/disabled binary, thus challenging the legitimacy and usefulness of this dichotomy in the first place. These partially deaf characters will allow me to explore the contours of subjugated identities, allowing me to develop an understanding of how hierarchy and power play a role in the imagined lives of teens that are not-quite-abled, and concurrently not-quite-disabled.

I hope you enjoy this essay! If you have any comments or questions about it, I will gladly address them in this post. You can read a manuscript excerpt of my essay by clicking here. You can also purchase a copy of the book here.

Featured image courtesy of Bert Heymans. Click here for the image file.

Developing a Course on Metafictional Young Adult Literature

During the past couple of weeks, I’ve been working on developing various literature courses, including a course on the metafictional turn in contemporary young adult literature. As of now, I have entitled the course Book-Ception: The Metafictional Turn in Young Adult Literature. For those of you who are confused about the title, -Ception is a suffix (slang) popularized by the 2010 film Inception, and it is usually attached to a noun in order to indicate that this noun is multifaceted, multi-layered, or contains parallel objects embedded within it (i.e. a dream within a dream, a text within a text, a play within a play, and so on, and so on).

I’ve noticed how many young adult novels published during the last fifteen years have demonstrated an increased interest in exploring matters of form, readership, authorship, and literariness. Some YA novels published during the last five years in particular have rivaled some novels published during the peak of postmodernity in terms of their exploration of the nature and purpose of narrative, the relationship between fiction and reality, and the intimate connection between text and audience.

I thought it would be interesting to develop a course in which students explore how metafictional elements and metanarratives affect how we interpret, analyze, and understand the imagined lives of teenagers in contemporary fiction. This course, ideally, will attract students interested in young adult literature, students interested in the literary remnants of the postmodern movement in contemporary fiction, and students interested in exploring the role of narratology in the creation, distribution, and consumption of literature.

The description for this course is as follows:

What do young adult novels have to say about the status of literature and narrative in contemporary society? Can a book be self-aware of its existence as a literary object? Can young adult novels challenge or thwart the relationship between a reader and a text? Recently, novels written for adolescents have been interested in addressing these questions—thus leading to a boom in young adult metafiction: books that explore the nature and function of literature, that question the parallels between reality and fiction, and that overtly scrutinize the relationship between audience and text. In this course, we will investigate how contemporary young adult novels use metafictional techniques in order to deliberate the importance and value of literature, narrative, and language in the imagined lives of teenagers. Furthermore, we will assess the role of metanarrative and form in disrupting the divide between “low” and “high” literature. We will read novels written by authors such as Lemony Snicket, John Green, and Andrew Smith.

I wanted to select texts from different genres, including realism, fantasy, and speculative/science fiction. The novels that I selected for this course also make use of different metafictional and metanarrative techniques. Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, for instance, explores the possibility of bringing words to life through literary consumption, and the overall role of books in the development of one’s imagination. Others such as Andrew Smith’s Winger and Patrick Ness’ More Than This explore the role of narrative and storytelling in helping one cope with traumatic and unprecedented events. Novels such as John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars explore notions such as the ‘death of the author,’ narrative endings, and the imagined lives of literary characters.

Here is the current version of the syllabus that I’ve developed:

What do you think of this course? Do you have any comments or suggestions regarding the course’s content or design? Are there any other texts that you would recommend for this course? Any and all feedback will be great appreciated!

Unrealistic Expectations: (Meta)Narrative in Andrew Smith’s [Winger]

Front cover of Andrew Smith's Winger (2013)

Front cover of Andrew Smith’s Winger (2013)

Warning: The following post contains major spoilers for Andrew Smith’s Winger. 

After reading Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle, I immediately knew that I had to read other works written by this author–and Winger seemed like the obvious choice. I finished reading Winger a couple of weeks ago. Typically, I write analyses and reviews of books soon after I read them, but for this novel, I needed time to process many things, including the novel’s “unexpected” twist and its narrative framing. I guess it’s also important to mention that I reacted quite viscerally to the novel’s ending. At first, I approached the death of Ryan Dean’s gay best friend, Joey, as narratively pointless. I was frustrated that so little attention was given to this event in the novel’s conclusion, and I was upset that the death seemed like a dramatic and rushed way of ending the narrative. I read other reviews of this novel, and many other readers approached the ending in a similar fashion. Although I had a stark reaction to the novel’s ending, I felt as if there was a major element that I was missing when approaching Smith’s work.

I ultimately messaged the author, and asked why the novel had such a dark twist. Andrew Smith kindly responded to my question, and he pointed out how careful attention should be given to the novel’s use of metanarratives–which in the case of Winger, refers to the moments in which the narrator discusses the purpose or function of reading, writing, and literature itself. Although Winger can be approached as a coming-of-age novel, it is also a work that self-consciously explores the nature of narrative, and its relationship to truth and to the formation and understanding of the self. With this in mind, I decided to revisit the novel, paying close attention to the ways in which metanarrative aids the reader in better understanding the novel’s conclusion and its narrative framing.

When approaching Winger, it’s important to keep in mind that the novel is structured into many sections. The novel opens with a small section that depicts the protagonist, Ryan Dean, being bullied by two classmates. Afterwards, the novel can roughly be divided into four major parts: Part One (the overlap of everyone), Part Two (the sawmill), Part Three (the consequence), and Part Four (words). Each one of these parts has a main thematic focus and structure, but I will focus my attention on parts One and Four in this discussion. Part One opens with a prologue–which can be considered an introduction to the literary text that is not necessarily connected to the work’s main narrative arc. This prologue helps frame the rest of the narrative, in that it shares key points that allow the reader to grasp the novel’s core themes. Even more so, the prologue, to some extent, foreshadows the novel’s seemingly dark twist towards the end:

Joey told me nothing ever goes back exactly the way it was, that things expand and contract–like breathing, but you can never fill your lungs up with the same air twice. He said some of the smartest things I ever heard, and he’s the only one of my friends who really tried to keep me on track too. And I’ll be honest. I know exactly how hard that was. (Smith 7)

When closely reading this prologue, there a couple of things that we can infer:

  1. Joey’s thoughts and views of the world are used to open the prologue. This demonstrates that Joey is a person who significantly influences how Ryan Dean thinks, and also influences how he writes. Joey’s discussion of expansion and contraction can be connected to the novel’s major focus on the theme of change, and more precisely, the inevitability and irreversibility  of these changes.
  2. Note the verbs that Ryan Dean uses when referring to Joey: “Joey told me […] He said […] really tried to keep me on track too.” Through the use of these past-tense verbs, we are indirectly informed that Joey is no longer present in Ryan Dean’s life. We are initially given no clues to understand why he is absent. Thus, the prologue, through its use of language, foreshadows Joey’s death.
  3. Although Ryan states that Joey tried to keep him on track, the text implies that Joey’s efforts have failed. Furthermore, Ryan understands how difficult it was for Joey to watch over and guide him.

With these factors in mind, it becomes clear that the crafting of Winger‘s narrative is approached as a way for Ryan to revisit, relive, and understand the past through the process of writing. However, Ryan recognizes the futility of this endeavor to fully help him understand himself or the events that he faced. Just as he is unable to breathe the same air twice, he is unable to relive events in exactly the same fashion. The novel thus commences with the protagonist’s recognition and awareness of his own failures, and how these failures will determine what he shares and how he decides to share it. Furthermore, it is worth noting that the prologue epitomizes the central role that Joey plays in this developmental narrative, even though he is a secondary character.

The role of metanarrative in the creation of Winger becomes overt later in Part One, where Ryan Dean discusses his penchant for drawing, and the relationship between knowing a story and expressing it aesthetically. As can be seen in the following drawing found on page 21 of the novel, Ryan Dean stresses the difference between knowing a story, and representing it: img_00002_2_crop Ryan Dean’s discussion of drawing, narrative, and representation makes it clear that the novel should be approached as a carefully constructed and meditative text. The text is not presented as a work that’s produced as Ryan copes with particular events (as seen in novels such as Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower), but rather, it presents itself as an artistic impulse to represent a story that has already been lived and experienced. The fact that Ryan mentions that he knows “the ending of the story” implies that as an artist, Ryan is struggling to identify the ways to represent the events that led to the outcome that he knows.

With this in mind, the combination of words and images in Winger can signify not only the futility of art to replicate a particular memory or event, but it can also be approached as a concretization of Ryan’s struggle to convey ideas that even he doesn’t completely understand. When Ryan attempts to depict Joey’s death in Part Four of the novel, we notice how the novel undergoes an effect of narrative dissolution or entropy. Part Four begins with a handwritten letter, in which Ryan discusses how life never follows the course that one plans, and how life’s unpredictability is capable of destabilizing the linearity that we perceive in life. Here is the letter that Ryan shares with his reader, found on page 411: img_00003_2_crop (1) It is in this letter that Ryan recognizes the futility of narrative in creating an accurate and realistic portrait of life: “I tried to make everything happen the same way it did when I was seeing it and feeling it.” Furthermore, the letter is a comment about the nature of narrative itself. When reading works in a certain genre, we have expectations about what should happen to the characters, how the novel should end, and the overall lessons that should be learned. In this letter, Ryan (through the writing prowess of Andrew Smith) brilliantly critiques the linearity and predictability that we’ve come to expect of the novels we read, particularly novels in the young adult genre. We expect narratives to be linear, we expect characters to have happy endings–but through a compliance of these expectations, the aesthetic text merely becomes an object of conformity.

Through the use of metanarrative, Winger strives to convey a greater sense of realism through an embrace of the chaos and unpredictability found in life itself.  Thus, while it may be easy to approach Joey’s death as haphazard, rushed, or as some readers have uncritically argued, homophobic, approaching his death as so would be an injustice to the novel’s overall literary, aesthetic, and narrative aims. Indeed, Joey is one of the most likable characters in the novel–but likability does not and should not make a character or person immune to the instability and dangers of the (real) world.

Thus, the possible anger and frustration that we feel towards the novel’s ending stems not from the text itself, but rather, the unrealistic expectations that we impose on the texts we read. In terms of the novel’s ending seeming contrived or unexpected, it is important to keep in mind that Ryan writes his story as a way of trying to understand the ramifications of Joey’s death.

The novel as a whole forces us to question our reliability on words and grand narratives. While Winger “fails” to live up to the expectations that we have of linear and conventional young adult narratives (and narratives in general), it is through this failure that the text is able to push us to question many things we take for granted. Part Four of the novel, in particular, refutes many of the narrative conventions that we have come to expect in the novel itself. Images are no longer used. The chapters in Part Four are no longer numbered as they are in other parts. Pages are occupied by an increasing amount of blank space. Ryan Dean, who was able to portray events with an excruciating amount of detail, can’t find a way to express his thoughts: “I need to vent. But I can’t. The words won’t come” (430). His prose becomes increasingly fragmented. This sense of fragmentation, dissolution, and chaos is able to represent pain and torment in ways that couldn’t possibly be conveyed by traditional, linear prose.

The more I think about Winger, the more I’m able to appreciate just how smart, insightful, and riveting this novel is. It’s a novel that has haunted me since I’ve read it, and it will continue to haunt me as I think about the role of (meta)narrative in young adult fiction. Andrew Smith is continuing to shape, deconstruct, and reinvent young adult fiction not only through the inclusion of fresh content, but also through the implementation of experimental narrative form. You can purchase a copy of Winger by clicking here.

Work Cited

Smith, Andrew. Winger. New York: Simon & Schuster BFYR, 2013.  Print (Hardcover edition).

When a Horny Queer Boy and Giant Praying Mantises Collide – Andrew Smith’s [Grasshopper Jungle]

Front cover of Andrew Smith's [Grasshopper Jungle]

Front cover of Andrew Smith’s [Grasshopper Jungle] (2014)

This is a bizarre novel–but it’s bizarre in the best possible way. Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle: A History is an end-of-the-world narrative about love. And sexual confusion. And growth. And God. And Polish ancestry. And paranoia. And Satan. And Saints. And two-headed babies. And bisexual love triangles. And bullying. And giant praying mantises. And pill-popping mothers. And genetically modified corn. And cannibalism. And pizza. And testicle-naming. And sex. And history. And mad scientists. And bison. As Austin–the novel’s protagonist–states when contemplating the nature of histories, “Good books are about everything” (217). If you enjoy deep, strange, complex, hilarious, nonsensical, non-linear, zany, over-the-top narratives, this is definitely the young adult novel you’re looking for.

On the surface level, Grasshopper Jungle consists of two core narratives. The first core narrative, focused on depicting the end-of-the-world, is triggered when Austin Szerba and his gay best friend, Robby Brees, witness a group of bullies who accidentally unleash a deadly virus known as the MI Plague Strain 412E in the fictional town of Ealing, Iowa. In a nutshell, when this plague comes into contact with human blood, it transforms infected humans into giant praying mantises that only do two things: “They eat and they fuck” (135). Austin and Robby attempt to explore the nature of the plague while also trying a way to prevent an emerging  population of ravenous, sexually-charged mantids from becoming the world’s foremost apex predators. The second, and more interesting core narrative centers on matters of queerness–Austin is in love with both his girlfriend, Shann, and his best friend, Robby. As Austin confesses when coping with the guilt of loving two people at the same time:

…I sat there and thought about how I was ripping my own heart in half, ghettoizing it like Warsaw during the Second World War–this area for Shann; the other area for queer kids only–and wondering how it was possible to be sexually attracted and in love with my best friend, a boy, and my other best friend, a girl–two completely different people, at the same time. (162)

These two core narratives twist and turn in convoluted ways, ultimately creating an effect of chaos, confusion, and instability that makes this reading rich and challenging. The thematic and narrative complexity of this novel is further charged via the implementation of stream-of-consciousness narration. Because of this, as Austin attempts to discuss the novel’s two core narratives, he often digresses into discussions of his living and dead family members, political figures, biology, and the act of documenting events. He also speculates about multiple events simultaneously, reflecting on what other characters are going through as he faces his own dangers and crises. Reading this novel thus feels akin to watching five television screens depicting five different (yet loosely interrelated) events at the same time. This multifaceted narrative structure, however, works brilliantly in Smith’s novel because:

  1. It invokes the sense of panic and turmoil that an apocalyptic event would trigger within the mind of a teenage protagonist, who’s usually dealing with the pains of transitioning from childhood and adulthood.
  2. It mobilizes the theme of paranoia that haunts the novel. Since Austin feels helpless in a world that is undergoing a state of unraveling and undoing, his only alternative to cope with this emerging world is to establish as many connections as he possibly can between people and events–even when said connections are forced or entirely fabricated. As Austin points out when documenting a series of events occurring simultaneously: “History is my compulsion. I see the connections” (71). His mission is to make a whole out of the fragments that he gathers.

Austin’s compulsion to document and curate history is another element that adds narrative depth to Grasshopper Jungle, for this compulsion is what frames the text. When we read the novel, we are delving into Austin’s mind as he attempts to recall, write down, abridge, and edit his own history, and the history of the world before it ended. As the narrative unfolds, we develop an awareness of the events that Austin jots down on paper, and we also witness the events that he hesitates to share with other people. It also becomes clear that he completely fabricates events when writing his history to reify certain connections that he visualizes. This notion becomes concrete when Austin describes the secret love affair that his great-grandfather, Andrzej Szczerba, had with a Jewish atheist named Herman Weinbach. According to Austin, Andrzej and Herman were in a clandestine gay relationship for over a year, until Herman died of Pneumonia in 1934. While coping with his grief, Andrzej “forces himself sexually onto” a young woman named Phoebe Hildebrant (220), and nine months after, Austin’s grandfather, Felek Szczerba is born. Realistically speaking, there is no way that Austin could know this information, for it is revealed that Andrzej dies without disclosing the details of his relationship with Herman.

Why does Austin spend a significant amount of time in effort in creating this fictional queer biography for his dead great-grandfather? Austin later discloses, while discussing a different event, that “historians need to fill in the blanks on their own. It is part of our job” (261). With this in mind, the history that Austin creates is not written to “prevent us from doing stupid things in the future” (8), but rather, it is his attempt to narratively repair his own life and own story–a life that was convoluted and fragmented even before the appearance of the monstrous insects. Austin’s fictional narrative of his great-grandfather’s homosexuality arguably be approached as his attempt to frame himself in a narrative that has unfortunately persisted throughout decades and arguably centuries. Austin needs to feel as if he’s not alone in his struggle to understand his sexual and romantic compulsions, especially since the world he previously knew no longer exists. This effort to frame himself in a prolonged narrative of sexual struggle also explains why Austin is so drawn to the figure of Saint Kazimierz in the novel, for he is characterized as a young man who also dealt with the pressures and tortures of sexuality at an early age.

If you dislike spoilers or if you haven’t read the novel, you should stop reading here.

I’m deeply impressed with how the novel handles its representation of queer sexuality. Throughout most of novel, we are left wondering whether Austin will end up having to choose between the two loves of his life, and whether he will find a way to end his sexual confusion. However, in the novel’s epilogue, Austin affirms that he continues to love both Robby and Shann, and he ultimately refuses to comply with heteronormative models of kinship in a new, post-apocalyptic world. As he discloses about five years after the world has ended:

I continue to be torn between my love for Shann Collins and Robby Brees. But I no longer care to ask the question, What am I going to do?

Sometimes it is perfectly acceptable to decide not to decide, to remain confused and wide-eyed about the next thing that will pop up in the road you build. Shann does not like it. Robby Brees asks me to live with him. I stay in my own room, which I share with my strong Polish son, Arek, and we are very happy. (383)

Austin thus inhabits a new world with new rules–a world with new possibilities of being and existing. I find it interesting that Grasshopper Jungle presents the idea that it is only possible to embrace confusion and refute stable categorizations of identity once our current world ceases to exist. Although Austin laments everything left behind with the advent of a new history, he looks forward to the possibilities of being a New Human. It is often said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine a change in our current mode of existence. Smith’s novel boldly and brilliantly pushes us to envision a new mode of existence by obliterating the world that many of us know and (problematically) cherish. Grasshopper Jungle is a work that all young adult novels should aspire to be. Andrew Smith is now on my radar, and I’m really looking forward to his future works.

As always, your thoughts, comments, and opinions are more than welcome!

Work Cited

Smith, Andrew. Grasshopper Jungle: A History. New York: Dutton Books, 2014. Print.

You can purchase a copy of Smith’s novel by clicking here.

Praying mantis cover image by Bill & Mark Bell.