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Course Syllabus: Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Hello readers! As promised, here is the syllabus for a seminar that I’m currently teaching at Bowdoin College. The seminar is entitled (Im)Possible Lives: Young Adult Speculative Fiction, 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 wizards, monsters, cyborgs, and dystopias shed light on precarious issues such as sexism, homophobia, racism, poverty, and illness? This seminar examines representations of identity and difference in young adult speculative fiction—texts created for younger audiences that include elements from genres such as fantasy, horror, science fiction, and magical realism. Students not only analyze the approaches that writers implement to construct hypothetical settings and characters, but also examine how speculative young adult novels depict different possibilities for existing and mattering in the world.

There are many goals that I have for this course. For the most part, I want students to realize the ways in which the content and structure of contemporary YA speculative fiction is symptomatic of many of the political, environmental, and sociopolitical crises that we face today in American society. In literature, film, and media, many have been exploring the issue of who matters, or who doesn’t matter. Particularly in social media discourse, we have seen a rise in attitudes such as homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, sexism, elitism, and so on and so on. We are also developing greater awareness of the violence experienced by people of color, LGBTQ+ communities, and immigrants. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for us to ignore violence (and violent discourse), and recent events have been pushing many of us to question the value and future of human life. Through these acts of hate and violence, however, many of us are recognizing the need for community, highlighting the importance of self-care, and developing a desire for safer, more collective ways of being and knowing.

I think that YA speculative fiction offers readers a unique opportunity to think through the aforementioned precarious issues, and I believe works in this genre will push my students and I to ask difficult questions and explore complex issues. Teaching this seminar is not going to be easy. It will involve difficult and tedious emotional and intellectual labor. But I think that my students and I will grow both as people and thinkers by the time the semester is through.

Part of what I find valuable about works categorized as YA speculative fiction is that they are often crafted with a Utopian bent, and they often envision alternatives to the suffocating and violent conditions of the present. Books in this genre are often exercises in positive affect, and they push readers to imagine, desire, and work for better ways of living in the world. Students and I will explore both the perks and the pitfalls of the ethical frameworks discussed in a selection of YA speculative novels that overtly include themes of gender, sexuality, race, and class. It is my hope that through this seminar, my students will not only learn more about themselves and their place in society, but they will also recognize the value and importance of narratives that deviate from normative paradigms. Furthermore, I hope that students will be able to recognize and discuss current and emerging trends in the genre of YA speculative fiction, especially the genre’s increasing penchant for non-traditional narrative forms and genre-blending.

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

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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.

Deviant Cover

Sample Chapter of my Young Adult Novel, “Deviant”

What I have here is a young adult novel that I’ve been working on for a while. The title of this work is Deviant, and in essence, it is my ultimate dream project because it combines all of the genres I adore: dystopia, science fiction,  coming-of-age, and yes, romance. The themes of gender, humanities and the arts, and politics are very prominent throughout the entire work.

This novel takes a different approach to the coming-of-age genre. Although it has three main characters, the novel is peppered with preludes and interludes that tell the separate yet complementary stories of other characters. This constant deviance from the main plot serves to highlight the flaws and issues of the dystopic society without compromising the action and budding romance present in the main plot. The prelude and the interludes simply enhance the reader’s understanding of the tensions and problems that the main characters face.

As of now I only have about four chapters left to finish. But what I’m desperately looking for right now is some good (constructive) feedback. In this post, I’ve shared the first chapter/prelude of my young adult novel. It is not the final version of the chapter, and it is still subject to change. Do you think the novel seems interesting and/or worthwhile? Does this first chapter grab your attention? Does it make you want to read more? Any and all feedback is more than welcome.

Deviant Cover

Chapter I: A Prelude

Amethyst

I rest behind the garbage bin, trying to catch my breath. I don’t know what’s more brutal… walking barefoot through the snow, or running through a city in the middle of the night with nothing but a hospital gown on. My feet are blistered. Shades of periwinkle overlap the bruises and scabs peppered all over my legs. I can’t remember the last time I had sensation in my toes. I huddle my legs against my chest in an effort to retain the little body heat I have left. Either I’ll die out here in the cold, or they’ll catch me. Either way, I don’t think I’m going to last much longer.

I take a deep breath, look up, and exhale. A large cloud of steam escapes my mouth. The cloudy wisps tango into the air until they dissipate. If only I were like the steam. If only I can disappear into thin air. I gently turn around and bend on my knees. I wonder if they managed to keep up with me. I grab the corners of the garbage bin with my fingers and I slowly tilt my head to the side. The three figures stand ominously across the street. Damn. I was too desperate to cover my footprints in the snow. I led them right to me.

I blow some steam into my hands, hoping to give them even a few seconds of heat and consolation. It’s useless. My fingers are a sickly shade of purple. I see a darkened alley nearby. Maybe if I make a run for it, they won’t catch me. I grab a crushed soda can near the bin. This is it. I launch the can towards the opposite direction of the alley. I hear the metallic clash a few meters away.

I run. Well, I stumble. I’m beginning to lose my ability to balance myself. My feet are warning me that they can’t handle much more pressure. I feel a beam of light hit the side of my face as I head towards the alley. So much for my distraction.

I head towards the alley and reach a fence. Seriously, a fence? I thought fences in dark alleys were only used to make escape sequences dramatic in action films. The movie’s hero is chased by the villains and he or she dramatically climbs the fence and jumps over it. That’s not happening here. Between my frozen feet and my frostbitten fingers, it would be a miracle if I could climb half a meter. I frantically look around. The windows of the adjacent buildings are also too high for me to climb. I’m trapped.

I sit on the ground, knees against my legs. I lean my back against the cold brick of the one of the buildings. Flurries continue to fall from the heavens. I can hear footsteps approaching. Bursts of bright light invade my pupils. I cover my eyes, shielding them from the gleam of the three flashlights. My back presses firmly against the grimy wall. The rough texture of the brick perforates my skin. Sweat pours down my soiled hair.  My chest heaves back and forth. A continuous flow of steam escapes my mouth. My carnation pink hospital gown offers little protection from the wind and the snow. I always knew that they would find me, but I didn’t expect it to be so soon.

“I d-don’t care w-what you d-do or say. I’m n-never going b-b-back there.”

I’m not afraid. I’m freezing. Too bad my stuttering makes me seem like a coward. I have to show them that I’m not afraid. I stand up. My fragile body shivers and quakes as I try to straighten up my body. I shake my head side to side, dusting off the snowflakes that have accumulated over the crown of my head. I take another deep breath. This time, I pronounce the worlds loudly and clearly without stuttering.

“Did you hear me? I…am never…going back.”

Two of the flashlights turn off; the other points directly at my face. Two men in black suits and cerulean ties grab me by each arm. The remaining light is soon consumed by the darkness.  Even without the flashlights on, I can see their faces quite clearly. It seems that even the moon has a luminous interest in this recent development of events. The moon shining. The snow falling. What a lovely night this would’ve been under different circumstances.

There she is, staring at me with her cold, calculating, eyes—one glows with a yellowish hue, like the eyes of the panther. I can’t distinguish the color of the other eye, but it is much darker than the one on the left.

She loosens up her ponytail. Auburn hair begins to flow freely. Her flawless alabaster skin reflects the moonlight, and her bright pink dress suit, on the verge of a neon tone, could be spotted miles away in pure darkness. She reminds me of those brightly colored frogs that live in the Amazons, distinguished by their dazzling colors that serve as a warning to other creatures. Even animals know not to mess with beasts that don extravagant, bright-colored coats. Who knew that someone so beautiful could be so… menacing. Yet the beauty is a lie. Inside of that captivating shell, all that resides is ugliness. She’s a mummy within a jewel incrusted sarcophagus. I’m not one to be fooled.

“Well, Amethyst, it seems like you thought you could escape the Hub yet again. But as you very well know, nobody escapes. Deviants such as yourself can never leave, at least not until reparations are finalized. I must say, however, that your attempt to escape was quite a… noble effort. Ineffective, but very noble indeed.”

“There’s s-s-still p-plenty of time for me to es-ca-ca-cape.” No. I started stuttering again. The woman chuckles. Seems like she’s amused.

“Did you hear that, boys? Amethyst still thinks she has a shot at freedom. Little girls and their big dreams. Dreams are for weaklings, darling.”

“At least I’m c-capable of dreaming. M-monsters like you never dream.” Even with the two guards grasping my arms, it’s still getting harder to stand by the minute. I can’t collapse on the floor. I can’t let them see any more signs of weakness.

She steps towards me. Her eyes scan me top to bottom, basking in the pathetic visage in front of her. My bloody face. My bruised knees. My shivering body. She must be enjoying this spectacle. She leans toward my face. Her mouth is about two inches away from my own. She softly closes her eyes and whispers, “True. But that’s because monsters inhabit the realm of nightmares. And guess what, my dear Amethyst? Nightmares are still dreams. Cooperate, or I’ll make sure that you’re living a nightmare for the rest of your meager, pathetic existence.” She says this with a demeanor that is both calm and serene. Now I’m beginning to feel afraid. I try to respond, but no words come out of my mouth. Only steam does.

“Denise knows better than to try and escape. She knows that we can repair her” says the woman, still inches away from my face.

Denise. For a moment, I nearly forgot about her. I tried to let her know of my plan to escape. I wanted her to come with me. The Hub, however, is very cautious with its administration. It would be a shame to allow a relapse to occur within its premises.

My mind wanders off to my time in the Hub. I recall the cramped white room with nothing but a bunk bed, a sink, and a toilet. My cellmate was a seventeen year-old boy named Trevor. He was clearly ashamed about his recruitment to the Hub. It could be worse. Enrollment in the Hub was usually one of the lighter punishments for Deviants like us.

He would toss and turn while sleeping at night, whimpering the name of a person that I didn’t know. A person that he refused to talk to me about. When I first mentioned this name, he cupped one hand over my mouth and just stared straight into my eyes. With his other hand, he gently made a zipping motion across his lips. I perfectly understood who this person was.

Trevor and I had known each other since our first year in the Culture and Communication Center. I was seven when I first met him. Our assigned Center is the least popular of all the training centers, and we knew that. Understandably, we weren’t excited to be there, but it’s not like we have much of a choice in terms of what center we are assigned to at that age. Although we briefly talked during the first couple of years, we soon grew apart. Who knew that we would one day be cellmates at the Hub?

The transgression that led to my imprisonment happened about four months ago. All it took was one moment. One moment to obliterate years of work and effort. One moment to destroy a lifetime of possibility. When it happened, Denise and I knew we were doomed. Hopeless. Lost. The Régime doesn’t take these matters lightly—and although it’s been decades since all the cells in the Hub have been full, you occasionally see one or two new faces in the dining hall every month or so. Denise and I were the unlucky ones this time. You can never be too careful here… the Régime is always watching, in addition to listening.

The agent stands in front of me, breathing heavily on my face, with a pocket placed firmly into her hand. I know what comes next. We all do. We’ve been warned about the penalties for multiple transgressions. We all knew the protocol that Hub-Masters usually followed when pursuing an escapee. Knowing what comes next, I looked at her adamantly with a sense of valor.

“Leave…Denise… out of this.” I’m losing my breath.

“Oh Amethyst, just drop the act of courage and valor. You already look pathetic. Do you want to actually be pathetic as well?”

I can’t take it anymore. With all my might, I yank my arms away from the guards and I lunge at her, trying my best to knock her into the snow. With any luck, her head will bash into the pavement. I lock my arms around her, but she barely budges. I must be way weaker than I thought I was. Not even adrenaline can save me now. She grabs me by my hair and tosses me on the ground. I look up and see those eyes. They truly do look monstrous in the moonlight.

I black out momentarily. I open my eyes and notice one of the guard’s boots embedded within my abdomen. The other guard swings his foot. I black out once again. Yes, that’s blood dripping out of my mouth.

I spit out the blood and watch the crimson masterpiece that I created on the silver snow. I lay the side of my head on the red-tinged snow. “I can’t be repaired. I refuse to be repaired” I whisper, loud enough for them to hear me.

The woman gives me a half smile and pulls out the roll of parchment that I was expecting to see. Parchment. How old-fashioned. How traditional. One of my history instructors back at the Center mentioned that all agencies belonging to the Régime use parchment for most of their official documents. It makes them feel as if they were in touch with history. The days when Deviants were nowhere to be found. The days when the entire population upheld the virtues of purity and dignity. Strangely, with my act of defiance, I feel like I have fully embraced both of those virtues.

She unrolls the parchment and reads the proclamation in a stern and cold voice. Even the snow seems warm in comparison to that voice. I know the proclamation by heart—I saw it all the time in movies and television shows repeatedly, all telling the story of people who dare defy the fourth natural law. To add insult to injury, they even made the proclamation rhyme—a lullaby uttered right before our final sleep. It sounds just like I expect it to sound, but with my name and borough mentioned in the first verse. Rhymes used to always calm me down as a kid. This rhyme manages to finish the snow’s job of freezing the blood running through my veins.

Amethyst Jacobson of the South-western Borough,

The Régime has been clear, its stipulations were thorough.

Your defiance of nature, and a will that won’t bend,

Leaves us no choice but to uphold and defend

The revered mandate of the fourth natural law:

your sacrifice will bring order and peace to us all.”

As she finished the proclamation, she kneels down on the floor and pulls out a syringe from her pocket. She pulls out a vial with a rose-colored liquid and fills the syringe. I don’t even feel the needle piercing my flesh. I never thought I would die this way. I always thought I’d be old, surrounded by my loved ones, dying in the warmth of my bedroom.

I feel the heat draining away from my body. My chest tightens. No more steam escapes from my mouth. My eyes are open, but now, all I see is darkness. My spirit breaks as I realize that for me, there is no white light at the end tunnel.

ALL RIGHTS TO THIS POST RESERVED BY AUTHOR

Published by Angel Daniel Matos

Copyright 2013 © by Angel Daniel Matos