queer-young-adult-literature

Course Syllabus: Queer Young Adult Literature

Hello readers! So, I’m finally teaching one of my dream courses, and it’s one that I’ve been anxious to teach for quite some time! Click here to access the syllabus that I’ve designed for an intermediate seminar that I’m currently teaching at Bowdoin College. The seminar is entitled Queer Young Adult Literature, and it is currently offered under Bowdoin’s English Department and the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies program.  The course description is as follows:

How do literary texts communicate ideas that are supposed to be unspeakable, especially to a younger audience? In this course, we will explore contemporary young adult literature that represents the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer adolescents. We will not only scrutinize the complex relationship that exists between narrative, sexuality, gender, and audience, but we will also determine how certain genres and narrative modes enable or limit representations of queerness. Drawing from temporal and affective approaches to queer studies, we will examine the genre’s attempt to encapsulate an enduring change in terms of how queer adolescence is (or can be) represented, perceived, and experienced.

This course is my opportunity to teach and discuss ideas that I’ve developed while writing my dissertation, especially when it comes to the analysis of youth literature with queer content using the critical lenses of queer, affect, and narrative theories. Although this course has various goals and objectives, there are three main things that I want students to explore throughout the course:

  1. The way in which young adult novels make use of non-conventional narrative forms and structures in their explorations of queer content, and the formalistic/structural strategies implemented by queer youth narratives.
  2. The ways in which queer young adult literature complicates or reaffirms ideas regarding queer childhood and queer adolescence.
  3. The affective and political potential of the young adult genre, and the ways in which youth literature uses emotion to help its readership develop historical awareness and resilience towards violence and queerphobia.

In all honesty, this was one of the most difficult courses that I’ve ever designed, particularly since I had to limit the amount of novels that students and I would read and discuss throughout the semester. There were various criteria that I considered when making the final text selection. First and foremost, I wanted the course novels to reflect the spectrum of sexual and gender identities (i.e. lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, etc.). Secondly, I wanted to include novels that represent the intersection between gender, sexuality and race, and that are written by authors of color–an issue, especially since youth literature with queer content is notorious for sidelining the experiences of queer characters of color (this has been changing, but ever so slowly). Last but not least, I wanted to include novels that implemented innovations of structure, form, and narrative mode, which wasn’t difficult to find given the propensity for queer narratives to implement nonlinear narratives and postmodern aesthetic techniques.

When you look at the course schedule that is located in the final two pages of the syllabus, you’ll notice that each of the course novels is paired with an important piece of theory or criticism focused on affective, temporal, and age studies approaches to queer theory. It is my hope that these difficult, theoretical texts will provide students with the means to conduct both reparative and paranoid readings of the young adult novels that I’ve selected. Furthermore, I hope that these difficult texts will help illuminate the intricacies and complexities of the young adult genre–a genre that is oftentimes viewed as simplistic and not worthy of critical attention.

As always, I appreciate any and all feedback! If you were to design a course on queer young adult literature, what novels would you include? What readings would you pair with your selected novels? What issues or topics would you focus on? If you have designed or taught a course on queer young adult literature, I would love for you to share your syllabus in the comments section below.

Just in case you missed the link above, you can access my syllabus by clicking here. I really hope you enjoy it!

Relativity

What is Postmodern Literature?

Defining the parameters of postmodern literature is a daunting task, due not only to disagreements about what texts can or can’t be approached as postmodern, but also to the paradoxical and elusive nature of the postmodern movement. Paradoxical seems to be an effective word to invoke when approaching postmodern literature–as Barry Lewis points out in his distillation of Linda Hutcheon’s views in his essay entitled “Postmodernism and Fiction,” postmodern works simultaneously create and destabilize meaning and conventions in their ironic or critical use of works from the past (171). Given that the postmodern movement embraces instability and skepticism as its main traits, how do we even begin to grasp what literature can or can’t be approached as postmodern? In this post, I will briefly trace out the major components of postmodernity and postmodern literature using the 2011 edition of The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism (RCP)–and when appropriate, I will bring in original examples to illuminate some of the points made in the text.

Before addressing the issue of postmodern literature, it’s important to quickly overview elements, trends, and perspectives that can be approached as postmodern. In the introduction to the RCP, Stuart Sims points out that postmodernity is characterized by skepticism and rejection, particularly the rejection of cultural progress, and even more so, the implementation of universalizing theories or grand narratives (sometimes called metanarratives). I am reminded of a universalizing theory when recalling a conversation I once had with one of my literature professors, in which she claimed that all narratives are either about “sex or war.”  A postmodern stance against my professor’s claim would argue for the inability of sex and war to constitute the totality of a particular narrative. The issue with grand narratives is that in their effort to generalize, they fail to account for experiences and beliefs that do not fit within their parameters or confines. To claim, for instance, that literature is the study of the ideas of “dead white men” would imply a failure to recognize other literatures produced by non-male and non-white authors.

In the TED-ED video entitled "What Makes a Hero," Matthew Winkler discusses the elements and conventions that most stories on heroism embrace. Winkler identifies a blueprint that most epic tales share--thus developing a universalizing theory of the elements that shape heroism in fiction. While postmodernists do not deny the existence of universalizing theories, they are skeptical about them. Wherein lies the "danger" of approaching all epic tales through this metanarrative? Another question we can ask is: how do postmodern tales on heroism challenge or refute the hero's grand narrative?

Postmodernists not only reject grand narratives, but they also embody an “anti-authoritarian” position when approaching and analyzing the world and its cultural productions. In other words, postmodernists distrust any entity or agency that tries to control or regulate what people can or cannot do, and they also distrust any agent or element that tries to fixate the meaning that something possesses (or can ultimately possess). As Sims states in his introduction to postmodernism, “To move from the modern to the postmodern is to embrace scepticism about what our culture stands for and strives for” (vii). It might become clear at this point that the aims or stances of postmodernity and poststructuralist theories go hand-in-hand. As Sims puts it,

Poststructuralism has been an influential part of the cultural scene since the 1960s, but nowadays it can be seen to be part of a more general reaction to authoritarian ideologies and political systems that we define as postmodernism. (x)

Thus, it is unsurprising to observe that after the advent of postmodernity, ideas such as Barthe’s death of the author began to emerge in the study of literature and the arts; even theoretical fields such as queer theory arose after the advent of the postmodern movement. Both the death of the author and queer theory are anti-authoritarian in their outlook: the death of the author discredits the ability of an author to dictate what his/her work can or can’t mean to an interpreter, whereas queer theory is designed to assume a position against normativity to challenge binaristic thinking and the regulation of identities. Much more than being a genre or a typology, postmodernism can be approached as an attitude that is reactionary, especially towards the ideas and ideals perpetuated in the modernist movement (e.g. the divide between low and high culture, the view of humanity as an entity that is perpetually improving and progressing, among others). As Lloyd Spencer puts it in his discussion on “Postmodernism, Modernity and the Tradition of the Dissent,” postmodernity’s anti-authoritarian alignment is the element that continues to give this attitude strength and relevance, even in the face of its critics:

One way of drawing the line between postmodernism and its critics is to focus on postmodernism’s refusal of the utopian, dream-like elements which have accompanied the constant change of modernity. Modernisms, including Marxism, dreamt of a better world. Legislating for this world on the basis of this dream of a better one is seen as the cardinal sin of that modernism which postmodernism seeks to go beyond. (220)

Returning to Barry Lewis’ essay on “Postmodernism and Fiction,” he claims that postmodernism underwent an “epistemic break” during the 1990s, creating a distinction between what he calls first-wave postmodernism and second-wave postmodernism. During the first wave, postmodernism referred to “an overlapping set of characteristics that applied to a particular set of novelists, bound together by their simultaneous acceptance/rejection of earlier traditions of fiction” (169). First-wave postmodern texts not only challenged the divide between high-literature and low-literature that was fostered by modernists such as Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot, but they were also known for being “self-reflexive, playful and exceedingly aware of the medium of language in an attempt to revivify the novel form” (169). A good example of how this self-reflexive and playful nature manifests in a literary text can be seen in John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse.” In Barth’s short story, what at first seems to be a conventional coming-of-age story quickly metamorphoses into a critique on literary conventionality and ordinary structure. The text not only exposes how conventional plots work, but it actively highlights and questions its own structure, plot, and content.

When Lewis refers to the literary characteristics that postmodern authors embrace and reject, he is referring mostly to well-known literary conventions such as plot, setting, character, and theme. These conventions are challenged and shattered both in first-wave and second-wave postmodernism through features such as:

    1. Temporal Disorder – This refers not only to the disruption of the past, but also the disruption of the present. Anachronism in historical postmodern fiction is an effective example of temporal disorder because it flaunts “glaring inconsistencies of detail or setting” (173). For an example, take Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2010 novel Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, which depicts and alters the biographical facts of the 16th president of the U.S. Other postmodern novels alter the present by deviating from ordinary time (chronos) and focusing on various instances of significant time (kairos), as exemplified by novels such as Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow–which is known for its overwhelming plethora of events and characters.
    2. Pastiche – Alluding to the act of piecing things together, as in the case of a collage, pastiche is a postmodern aesthetic that “actively encourages creative artists to raid the past in order to set up a sense of dialogue between it and the present” (231). Pastiche came to prominence when artists realized that the contemporary moment presents little room for originality because everything has been said and done before–leading postmodern artists to “pluck existing styles higgledy-piggledy from the resevoir of literary history” (173). A good example of pastiche would be Art Spiegelman’s Mausa graphic memoir that depicts a son who tries to create a work based on his father’s experiences as a Polish Jew in the Holocaust.
    3. Fragmentation – Perhaps one of the most prominent elements of postmodern texts, fragmentation refers to the breakdown of plot, character, theme, and setting. Plot, for instance, is not presented in a realistic or chronological fashion, bur rather, as “slabs of event and circumstance” (173). Take for instance Sandra Cisnero’s The House on Mango Street (1984), which is told through a series of memories or vignettes rather than through the traditional narrative structure expected from a coming-of-age novel.
    4. Looseness of Association – The incorporation of chance into the reading of a narrative text (e.g. pages in a random and disorganized order, or a program that scrambles the order of the pages in a text).
    5. Paranoia – Paranoia refers to the distrust in a system or even a distrust in the self. Postmodern texts often reflect paranoia by depicting an antagonism towards immobility and stasis. A notable example of a literary text that invokes postmodern paranoia would be Tony Kushner’s 1993 play Angels in America
    6. Vicious Circles – These circles manifest when the boundaries between the real world and the world of the text are collapsed, either through the incorporation of the author into the narrative, or through the incorporation of a historical figure in a a fictional text.

If first-wave and second-wave postmodernism share these traits, what differentiates the two? According to Lewis, the differing element would be experimentation. Whereas the features mentioned above were employed in first-wave postmodernism as a way of challenging the authority and dominance of literary conventions such as plot, setting, character, and theme, they are employed in second-wave postmodernism simply because they have become integrated with the dominant literary culture. Thus, fiction produced during second-wave postmodernism is crafted during a time in which “postmodernist fiction itself became perceptible as a kind of ‘style’ and its characteristic techniques and themes came to be adopted without the same sense of breaking new ground” (170). Notable examples of second-wave are novels such as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

I hope that this post gives you a better idea of the notions that constitute postmodernism and postmodern literature. I highly recommend The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism if you want to learn more about this “attitude” and “genre” with more nuance, and if you want to better understand how postmodernism manifests in other areas besides the literary, such as genre, sexuality, music, and popular culture, among others.

You can purchase a copy of The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism by clicking here.

All essays cited in this discussion can be found in:

Sims, Stuart (ed.). The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism. 3rd Edition. London: Routledge, 2011. Print.

giovannisroomcover

Space and Masculinity in James Baldwin’s [Giovanni’s Room]

Front cover of James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (2013 Vintage Edition)

Front cover of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (2013 Vintage Edition)

Originally published in 1954, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room was not only one of the first novels to tackle issues of same-sex desire with heart and honesty, but it was also a text that prompted frank discussions of homosexuality within the public sphere. The narrative focuses on the experiences of David, an American who moves to Paris in a quest for self-discovery after he experiences a near-fatal car accident. After spending a year roaming the streets of Paris with little money and spending most of his time in hotel rooms, he meets Giovanni, an Italian bartender who is attracted to him. Most of the novel is centered on the months that David spends living with Giovanni in his disorganized and disheveled room in the outskirts of Paris, where David comes face-to-face with gender-related crises galvanized by his intense relationship with the Italian bartender. Unable to cope with the inconsistency between his sexual orientation and the expectations of masculinity imposed by himself and others, David abandons Giovanni without notice–only to find out later that Giovanni is going to be executed because he murdered the owner of the bar he worked at.

The novel creates an intricate portrait of David’s sexual awakening, and the frustrations that prevent him from achieving a stable romantic and sexual relationship with another man. David pinpoints the development of his fear of same-sex desire to his first sexual relationship with another boy when he was a teenager in Brooklyn. He describes a tender first sexual experience with his friend Joey–an experience that degrades into a manifestation of fear when he realizes that he made love with another boy:

I was suddenly afraid. It was borne on me:but Joey is a boy.I saw suddenly the power in his thighs, in his arms, and in his loosely curled fists. The power and the promise and the mystery of that body made me suddenly afraid. That body suddenly seemed the black opening of a cavern in which I would be tortured till madness came, in which I would lose my manhood. Precisely, I wanted to know that mystery and feel that power and have that promise fulfilled through me. (9)

Masculinity and manhood are integral concepts that shape and form the narrative in Giovanni’s Room. Most of David’s frustrations stem from the fact that he tries to live up to an image of impeccable and flawless masculinity that he cannot possibly uphold. Even when he is in a relationship with Giovanni, the latter senses some distance and some withdrawal on David’s behalf. This thirst for masculinity is due not only to David’s association of manhood with power, but also due to his father’s desire for him to “grow up to be a man” (15). This overwhelming desire to comply with the expectations of masculinity–which include marrying a woman and having kids–lead David to propose to a young woman named Hella, who leaves to Spain on a soul-seeking trip while she considers David’s proposal. This proposal, however, is depicted as an hypocritical farce, mostly because David develops a passionate relationship with a man while Hella spends time in Spain.

David’s engagement to Hella becomes the topic of an intense debate and conversation between him and Giovanni, in which they discuss the nature of women and engage in a very sexist depiction of women as fragile creatures that exist to serve the needs of men. At one point, Giovanni suggests that David would still have a relationship with him even if he were with Hella at the moment. David disagrees with this claim, deeming that it would be disrespectful to Hella to sleep with Giovanni if she were around. Giovanni proceeds to tell David that his decisions shouldn’t be based on what Hella wants, and he accuses David of being too passive and melodramatic. While at first David is taken aback by Giovanni’s comments, he points out that Giovanni’s direct and matter-of-fact nature is perhaps the only way he can cope with David’s aloofness:

Giovanni liked to believe that he was hard-headed and that I was not and that he was teaching me the stony facts of life. It was very important for him to feel this: it was because he knew, unwillingly, at the very bottom of his heart, that I, helplessly, at the very bottom of mine, resisted him with all my strength. (82)

Although David is unable to express his love through words and intense emotion, he does express it through physical actions and through space/place. Given that this novel it entitled Giovanni’s Room, it is perhaps obvious that place and space plays a crucial role in the novel’s symbolism and development. The eponymous room can be approached not only as a symbol of domesticity, but also as a symbol of queerness. David describes the room as a dark and messy space–not only is the room littered with trash, old newspapers, cardboard boxes, and empty bottles, but it is also a dark space. This darkness is attributed to the fact that Giovanni glosses over the room’s window panes with white paint in order to assure his privacy when sharing a bed and being intimate with David. David decides at one point that he has to integrate himself within Giovanni’s room in order to transform it–which can be approached as a subconscious effort to embrace some degree of queerness. This integration leads to the transformation of the room into a domestic space, in which David assumes the role of a “housewife” as he voluntarily cleans and maintains the room:

I invented in myself a kind of pleasure in playing the housewife after Giovanni had gone to work. I threw out paper, the bottles, the fantastic accumulation of trash; I examined the contents of the innumerable boxes and suitcases and disposed of them. But I am not a housewife–men can never be housewives. And the pleasure was never real or deep, though Giovanni smiled his humble, grateful smile and told me in as many ways as he could find how wonderful it was to have me there, how I stood, with my love and my ingenuity, between him and the dark. (88)

Even though the room is a dark, small, and enclosed, it becomes a private space that allows David and Giovanni to live a life that would be impossible outside of the room’s confines. It becomes a space of domesticity and partnership–a space where the unwritten social rules of gender and masculinity are unable to regulate what the two men can or can’t do. This space, as can be seen in the passage above, also enables David to briefly deviate from the expectations of masculinity and manhood–and through the transformation of the room, he develops a sense of pleasure through domestic duties even though he downplays or denies this pleasure.

The problem, however, is that even though the room becomes a space of queer possibility, it also serves to keep queerness restricted and contained. Thus, David and Giovanni are able to have a passionate relationship as long as it remains within the dark and messy confines of the room. In due course, David feels suffocated by the room’s queerness, whereas Giovanni desperately struggles to expand the room’s queerness beyond the confines of its walls. This can particularly be seen after Giovanni is fired, and he begins to unsuccessfully tear down the walls of the room to expand the space. David, however, views this domestic and queer space as a farce–leading him to accuse Giovanni of using the term love as a way of enticing David into assuming a passive and feminine role:

“What kind of life can we have in this room?–this filthy little room. What kind of life can two men have together, anyway? All this love you talk about–isn’t it just that you want to be made to feel strong? You want to go out and be the big laborer and bring home the money, and you want me to stay here and wash the dishes and cook the food and clean this miserable closet of a room and kiss you when you come in through that door and lie with you at night and be your little girl. That’s what you want. That’s what you mean and that’s all you mean when you say you love me. (142)

David’s accusations lack a solid foundation–a notion that becomes even more heartbreaking when the reader realizes that Giovanni truly loves David. Giovanni’s love is not reliant on David’s embodiment of a “housewife” role. David assumes this role because he wanted to, not because Giovanni obliged him to. Since David is unable to assume the role of provider or head of the household within Giovanni’s room, he goes on to view his self-imposed role as a threat to his masculinity and manhood, prompting him to run away from the queer premises. By abandoning the room, David forces Giovanni to live alone within that space–a notion that fills Giovanni with fear and dread, since he despises being alone. Without David, Giovanni’s room becomes nothing but a dark, empty and lonely space–a place where his queerness is doomed to exist in pain and solitude.

Beautifully rich and complex, I highly recommend this novel. Many of the passages in this novel are stunning and gorgeous. There are so many other themes and characters in this novel that are worthy of discussion and exploration–but I will leave that for future work that I’ll conduct on this novel. I’m really glad that I’ve finally had the change to read this cornerstone text within the genre of gay fiction. 

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

Work Cited

Baldwin, James. Giovanni’s Room. New York: Vintage Books, 2013. Print.

Letter

A Note on the “Death of the Author”: A Discussion of the Viral Letter from a Dad to his Gay Son

Letter

Yesterday, a letter from a father to his gay son went viral on the internet. The image above was posted on the Facebook page of FCKH8, and as of now, this post has garnered over 80,000 likes. Here’s a transcript of the letter if you’re unable to read it in the image above:

Nate,

I overheard your phone conversation with Mike last night about your plans to come out to me. The only thing I need you to plan is to bring home OJ and bread after class. We are out, like you now. I’ve known you were gay since you were six, I’ve loved you since you were born.

– Dad

P.S. Your mom and I think you and Mike make a cute couple

Naturally, I began to read some of the comments people have written on this post, and of course, there are many who claim that the letter isn’t authentic, and that virtually anyone could write this letter and post it online. I conducted some online research for a couple of minutes, but I was unable to find this letter’s original source, and I was unable to identify who “Nate” and “Dad” are. True, anyone can be Nate, and anyone can be dad. I can grab a piece of paper, write this exact same message, and share it online for the world to see. Thus, it is unsurprising to see how many people are calling the letter a fake. Not only are they questioning its authenticity, but they are also demanding to know who originally wrote this letter.

My question is, does it really matter whether this letter is authentic or not? Does the message behind the letter lose any rhetorical power or agency if we determine that it is indeed a fake? Are the words in this letter unable to stand on their own without an author? Perhaps not.

Fiction, whether it be in the form of a novel, a letter, a short story, or even a poem, has always been deemed to exhibit emancipatory and inspirational potential. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for instance, is deemed to be one of the many literary texts that were capable of promoting social change. There’s even a story (or perhaps better said, a myth) in which Abraham Lincoln himself supposedly exclaimed “So this is the little lady who started this great war” when he met Stowe for the first time. Regardless of whether or not this statement was actually uttered by Lincoln, it still says a lot about the common belief of words possessing the power to change.

The viral letter under scrutiny has invoked a lot of positive response from the media and from people around the web. Many consider the letter to be heart-warming,  a clear indicator that times are changing. Others view the letter as a symbol of social progress, and that the act of “coming-out” is becoming less of an issue in our present day and age (I also discuss this notion of the issue of “coming-out”  and gay visibility here and here). Others were angry at the letter, claiming that it is fake, and that it is simply part of the media’s attempt to depict our society as more progressive and liberal than it actually is. What is definitely apparent is that the letter, regardless of its lack of background and context, still has the capacity to mean something to an interpreter. This notion reflects the ideas once posited by French literary theorist Roland Barthes in his 1977 essay titled Death of the Author (you can access the full-text essay here).

According to Barthes, readers generally tend to “glorify” the author, as if he or she is the absolute authority (pardon the pun) over what the text does or does not mean. Thus, the author tends to be approached as “the voice of a single person, […] ‘confiding’ in us” (Barthes), although when realistically speaking, once something is unleashed into the world or published, its meaning is no longer fixed nor stable.

True, a text or a product will always have a creator, but the creator is no longer the guardian of the semantic and cultural meanings that the product possesses. Popular internet memes succumb to this “death.” Indeed, many popular internet memes, such as Me Gusta and the Ridiculously Photogenic Guy have a point of origin and a creator, but these creators no longer control the meaning of these memes, or the eventual evolution of these meanings (for instance, note how “Me Gusta” eventually developed derivatives such as “No Me Gusta” and “Me Gusta Mucho).

What Barthes means by the “death” of the author, is that meaning should not centered on authorial intent, but rather, on the interpretative abilities of the reader. This, in due course, is because meaning itself is unfixed and unstable–what “happiness” and “pleasure” means for you, it doesn’t necessarily mean for me. As Barthes himself puts it:

The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted. (Barthes)

The reader is therefore the nexus of all the culture, the history, and the psychology needed to understand and interpret words, whether they be on paper, on a screen, or even if they’re transmitted orally. There is no possible way for you to read orhear a set of words and understand exactly what an author meant. Thus, when it comes to the viral letter from a dad to his gay son, authorial intent does not necessarily matter, and to some extent, it is not absolutely necessary for us to know exactly who created this letter in the first place. What matters is that the words written on that sheet of paper are capable of meaning something valuable to someone. Even if the letter isn’t exactly an authentic indicator that times are changing, it is capable of transmitting an the idea that the idea of change is tangible, palpable, and desired.

We’ve generally accepted the idea that fiction–including novels, stories, television, and movies–is capable of changing us and influencing us (for better or worse). Why does it matter then whether this letter is fictional or not? Regardless of what many think, the idea of the social and cultural emancipation of gender–to the point where coming-out is presented as a non-issue–is a fiction that I’m willing to embrace.

P.S. I think the postscript on the letter under scrutiny is absolutely adorable.

Book cover for Kelley York's "Hushed"

A Brilliantly Transgressive YA Novel: Kelley York’s “Hushed” (A Review)

Book cover for Kelley York's "Hushed"

Book cover for Kelley York’s “Hushed”

Murder. Love. Torment. Loss. Redemption. What more can you ask for in a book?

When first approaching Kelley York’s Hushed, it would be easy to classify the novel as a young adult adaptation of Showtime’s notorious show Dexter (a television program that one of my friends calls “every English major’s favorite show”). And while the novel’s main character has strong ties to Dexter‘s protagonist–in the sense that we see a serial killer who only murders “bad” people–Archer (the novel’s protagonist) is characterized by being able to feel remorse, empathy, and regret. York’s novel is a powerhouse of emotion driven by strong lead characters and a gripping plot that literally gave me goosebumps multiple times. The novel’s twist of events is quite unexpected, and until the very end of the novel, you have no clue what the outcome of the plot will be.

In a nutshell, college student Archer is unable to live with the fact that he was unable to protect Vivian (his best friend) from harm when they were younger. Vowing to protect her from then on, Archer is bent on killing all of the people that hurt Vivian in the past, including but not limited to her own brother.

Archer becomes obsessed with Vivian to the point of infatuation, and he remains faithfully by her side even when she clearly uses him and manipulates him for her own devious devices. This co-dependence develops to the point where Vivian becomes Archer’s everything. He soon recognizes that once he loses his everything, he will end up with nothing. That is, until Archer befriends Evan: the one person who seems to care about Archer without expecting anything in return. Archer and Evan’s friendship slowly but steadily blossoms into a romance… a romance that Vivian isn’t willing to tolerate.

There are many things I loved about this novel. First and foremost, I absolutely loved the dark, serious, and downright violent tone that the novel embraced. It was quite refreshing to see this novel deviate from the safe and the suggestive nature that is usually incorporated in habitual YA novels. This one was not afraid to shy away from violence; however, this violence is anything but gratuitous. Everything that happens in the novel, in spite of its graphic nature, immensely adds to the complexity and the development of its characters. I thought it was wonderful how various elements of the novel transgressed the norms of YA fiction without entirely obliterating them.

Speaking of character development, this is clearly York’s forte (as it should be with any well-written novel). I particularly appreciated how York approached the protagonist’s sexual identity. He is never depicted or described as an overtly gay character, and he does admit that he is infatuated by Vivian. Yet, the development of his romance with Evan seems completely organic and appropriate, and York does a splendid job at illustrating Archer’s venture into this unexplored territory, without ever dwelling on the repercussions or implications of being in a same-sex relationship. This is most certainly NOT a “coming-out” novel. Unless my memory is failing me, I don’t recall the word gay being used once, which is more than welcome in my book. It’s about time that homosexuality is presented as a non-issue!

Vivian and Evan are also very strong characters: while Vivian is clearly the villain that we love to hate, Evan assumes the role of the moral compass able to see the gray areas between good and evil. Even minor characters such as Archer’s cold and distant mom manage to invoke and stir strong emotions and reactions!

In due course, this book is simply one of the best young adult novels that I’ve read all year. Well, I would go as far as to say that regardless of genre, it’s one of the best books I’ve read within the last couple of years. I find that the content and the style of the novel will please younger and older readers alike. I also love how the novel doesn’t hesitate to explore the trenches of the human mind that all of us are afraid to explore. It’s ironic that the novel is called Hushed, yet it has so much to say.

You can purchase a copy of Hushed in the following web sites:

Amazon.com – Kelley York’s Hushed

BarnesAndNoble.com – Kelley York’s Hushed

Texas in literature - Pre Civil War

Mapping the Imaginative Landscape of Texas After the Mexican-American War

Part of the consequences of the Mexican-American War was the appropriation of over 500,000 square miles of Mexican territory by the United States in 1848. Places such as Texas, California, New Mexico, and Arizona, which were originally considered part of Mexico, were now considered part of the United States–which posed an immense problem for Mexicans living in these areas because they were now considered a social and cultural minority within the spectrum of a predominately white and Protestant America. Texas’s close proximity with the Mexican borderline made it a prominent nexus for the early stages of the Chicano movement (literature written by Mexican-Americans in the United States); after all, many battles during the Mexican-American war took place in Texan cities such as Brownsville, which were heavily populated by people of Mexican origins.

Since I personally have an interest in young adult Chicano/a literature, I became intrigued with the prominence of Texan locations (particularly those areas close to the Mexican/U.S. borders) in American literature published shortly after 1848–that is, when various parts of Mexico were annexed into the United States of America. Thus, this post depicts my efforts to map and trace the prominence of these locations in American literature, although not necessarily centered on texts written by Chicano/a authors. My data will therefore be centered on the presence of Texan locations in prose literatures written by American authors during the incorporation of Mexican territories into the U.S. (which marks the beginnings of the Chicano/a movement, generally speaking).

In order to achieve this, I generated maps using ArcGIS, an online application and content management system that allows users to create interactive maps capable of displaying quantitative data provided by databases. The data I used to generate the maps below was provided by a literary database developed by Dr. Matt Wilkens (which is based upon texts such as Lyle Wright’s American Fiction, 1851-1875), which includes a hefty percentage of the long prose titles published by American adults between 1851 and 1875, along with the geospatial information depicted in these titles using Google’s Geocoding API.

The database also included texts and geospatial information from other countries and dates, so I used MySQL Workbench 5.2 CE in order to create a table that only displayed the count of texts within the U.S., specifically within the region of Texas between the dates of 1851 and 1872. In order to avoid ambiguities within the data, I only included texts that mentioned specific cities or locations within Texas, meaning that all texts that simply mentioned the state of Texas were eliminated from the data set. The result of this search query listed over 31 Texas cities mentioned over a series of 972 texts. This data was used to generate the following map in ArcGIS:

(You can access the interactive version of this map by clicking here)

There are few major surprises within this generated map, seeing as the major cities in Texas seem to be the most prominent locations mentioned in American texts published between 1851 and 1872. The San Antonio and the Rio Grande regions are by far the most popular locations mentioned within the text sampling of this period, and the Rio Grande region, conveniently located near Brownsville, is by far the most prominent “borderline” region, with a total of 111 texts mentioning this location.

Although it is extremely interesting to see how prominent the Rio Grande region was in American texts written after the incorporation of Texas to the U.S. 1848, keep in mind that this data includes texts written during and after the American Civil War. Cities found within the U.S./Mexican border, particularly Brownsville, were notorious for being smuggling points of goods during the Civil War, which might have influenced the prominence of borderline locations within American literature. Seeing as my interests lie within the prominence of Texan locations in American literature influenced by the aftermath of the Mexican-American war, some adjustments had to me made. Thus, I accessed the aforementioned database once again, this time making sure to create a count of text locations mentioned between 1851 and 1860, right before the Civil War began. The results were as follows:

(You can access the interactive version of this map by clicking here)

A couple of interesting things occurred when eliminating the years marking the beginnings of the American Civil War. Notice how Austin and Houston decrease dramatically in terms of how many times they are mentioned within the literary corpus. The Rio Grande region, however, still caries the second-place medal in terms of location mentions of Texas after the Mexican-American war. Now we can rightfully assume that the prominence of this location is directly intertwined with the effects of the Mexican American War. Rio Grande, after all, was populated in 1846 as a transfer point for goods and soldiers during the invasion of Mexico during the Mexican-American war. San Antonio is perhaps the obvious and most salient contender for location mentions within American literature published after the Mexican-American war due to the Battle at the Alamo, the event that “inspired” many Texan citizens to join the army during the Texas Revolutions while in turn dramatically increasing U.S. hostility towards the Mexican population.

In due course, it’s quite interesting to see how American literature, especially in terms of location, is closely tied to historical events and shifts. But even more so, it’s quite amazing to be able to visualize and develop a more concrete notion of the presence of locations across hundreds of texts that shape the imaginative landscape of American literature during particular periods of time. Although this data is indeed tantalizing, note that the database used to create these maps contained authors deemed American, and I am personally not sure of how many Chicano authors were included within this data set.

My gut feeling, based on the prominence of places such as Rio Grande and San Antonio, is that few, if no Chicano authors are included–seeing as places such as Brownsville, Laredo, and other border regions contain few or no location counts. It would be extremely interesting to create or obtain a database that exclusively lists locations mentioned in texts written by authors of Mexican or Chicano/a descent, in order to generate maps that can be compared and contrasted to the ones shown above. Then, it will be possible to have an even more encompassing view of the imaginative landscape of Texas from an American perspective and a Mexican/Chicano perspective. After all, literature does not follow the strict boundaries that are imposed in terms of location and space.

Disclaimer: The discussion above was an attempt to experiment with the possibilities of the ArcGIS content management system, and share these possibilities with those interested in digital humanities, American literature, or history. None of the data interpretations above are definite nor conclusive.