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A Different Look at YA Novels

26 August 2019

From Publishers Weekly:

I don’t celebrate my Indian culture. I never have. I don’t know how to, because I was raised around ​it, not ​in it. Growing up, it was as if I was front and center in a dark theater watching my Indian relatives and family friends on the big screen like a Bollywood film. I didn’t ​feel Indian. Instead, I felt worthless.

Behind closed doors, my family’s way of life, our secret culture, was that of isolation, conflict, and abuse—a culture of dysfunction. My family’s culture of dysfunction was the lens through which I saw everything Indian. There wasn’t a single day of my youth that I experienced my Indian-ness independent of the culture of dysfunction, therefore the two became inextricably linked for me and transformed into a strange blend of otherness and pain.

I’m not alone. Many of the diverse teens I treat live in unique versions of cultures of dysfunction—innumerable combinations of abuse, neglect, parental drug use, parental mental illness, and/or other severe adverse childhood experiences. These teens become trapped in negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, a result of the medically proven brain changes that can result from trauma of all types. In addition, alienation from and repulsion by their birth culture(s) can become ingrained because they’re raised in cultures of dysfunction.

As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I can tell you it’s difficult, sometimes impossible, for these teens to move past their traumatic struggles when their brains are hardwired by it. They can become stuck in a survivor mode of poor decision making as a culture of dysfunction becomes the blueprint for future relationships, leaving them prone to an endless cycle of repeating and recreating with others what they’ve endured at home.

. . . .

This brings me to YA fiction. Some of my diverse teen patients enduring cultures of dysfunction find solace and temporary escape in YA fantasy, dystopia, or paranormal books. There are some, however, who seek to find themselves in diverse, realistic YA. But they usually can’t because, currently, most of it celebrates different cultures. Most of it includes at least one functional parent or family member who protects against the occurrence of a culture of dysfunction and thus makes it possible for the birth culture(s) to be appreciated, a tremendous advantage when it comes to rising above adversity.

When I was a teen, I couldn’t find any Indian or Indian-American YA novels. Thankfully there are some now, but the thing is, I can’t relate to any of them besides the ones I’ve written. More importantly, enough teens living in the complex dynamics of a culture of dysfunction have told me that they can’t see themselves in diverse YA fiction, including realistic bestsellers, that happen to be by or about people of their same background.

. . . .

YA fiction needs to expand its boundaries beyond safe, popular stories that only affirm and praise different cultures. It needs to push past the expectation that all diverse teens can conquer adversity in a tolerable way. It needs to depict the ugliness of when a culture of dysfunction hijacks birth culture.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly


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13 Comments to “A Different Look at YA Novels”

  1. YA fiction needs to expand its boundaries beyond safe, popular stories that only affirm and praise different cultures. […] It needs to embrace painful reality, not just what’s convenient. [etc]

    YA fiction is not a sentient being, and it does not “need to” do whatever it is she wants it to.

    • She is setting guidelines to get that particular form of (literary)fiction to meet her expectations of “social relevance”.

      It’s just her own expectations, describing the market she belongs to. If anybody else were to describe *their* expectations of their favorite genre (even YA) they would undoubtedly be very different.

      That said, there might be *some* room for the hobbsian kind of naturalistic YA she seems to prefer though I’m not sure how popular it might prove in contrast to the historical top sellers. There are limits to the amount of bleak unrelenting, meaningless struggle and ultimate defeat consumers have an appetite for.

      One-sie two-sie it might work (ala HUNGER GAMES) but the market has its form for a reason.

  2. YA fiction needs to expand its boundaries beyond safe, popular stories that only affirm and praise different cultures. It needs to push past the expectation that all diverse teens can conquer adversity in a tolerable way. It needs to depict the ugliness of when a culture of dysfunction hijacks birth culture.

    Why does it need to do that? YA fiction doesn’t do anything. Authors and publishers do things. Why do they need to do that? What specific author needs to do that? What specific publisher? What author needs to write something he’s not interested in writing?

    If authors and publishers need to do that to please some specific group or political agenda, why bother?

    If some specific group wants more of some specific kind of book, one way to do that is to write the book and hit the KDP upload button.

    Another way is to pay established authors. Tell them what you want written, write the check, and publish it.

    An even better way is to pay middle-aged humanities professors to write of the barely tolerable anxiety of their teen years in an ugly and intellectually brutal culture

    God Bless the free market, for most solutions can be found by following the money.

  3. Obviously it is nice if a genre expands to the point that it provides many different forms of entertainment. But literature is not medicine, and cannot be developed by a committee to perform tasks, or customized to fit every possible cultural variant.

    OTOH, if someone is a potential author, and likes problem stories, and likes to write about a specific culture, then obviously he should go for writing that stuff.

    But as the article admits, not every YA reader likes of wants problem stories about dysfunctional families. Every time that YA or children’s lot has focused on such stuff to the exclusion of normal fiction subgenres, the whole thing has died on the vine.

    Moreover, most people who read problem fiction are not from dysfunctional backgrounds and have no problems of the sort treated in the book. They read for emotions of pity, righteous anger, and catharsis. I doubt that kids today are much different than the Victorians about “sadness porn” or “hurt/comfort”.

    (Nurses notoriously write a lot of medical fanfic and romance fic where the protagonist suffers beautifully or just suffers, and it is very popular in fandoms.)

    • Obviously it is nice if a genre expands to the point that it provides many different forms of entertainment. But literature is not medicine, and cannot be developed by a committee to perform tasks, or customized to fit every possible cultural variant.

      Au contraire! The ideal for every genre is that it shall contract to the point where it disappears into its own navel and provides no entertainment for anybody. The surest way to encourage this is to bamboozle people, especially writers and publishers, into thinking that literature is medicine – a particularly foul-tasting and ineffective medicine – which must be developed by a committee to perform tasks that it can never actually carry out.

      Customizing to fit every possible cultural variant is, from my department’s point of view, a red herring; it merely gives the critics something to complain about if some rogue scribbler is accidentally allowed to grind out a tale that people like to read. Since every story is necessarily written from one cultural standpoint or another, it is always open season to complain that it was not written from any of the others.

      (Signed)
      H. Smiggy McStudge

  4. I forgot to say that of course there is plenty of YA that acknowledges kids being unable to conquer the dysfunction of their family or culture.

    As with Huckleberry Finn, countless US heroes and heroines respond to adverse conditions by getting the heck out of there. European writers even mock this common adventure starter, but it worked for most of our ancestors!

  5. In addition to the objections discussed above, permit me to point out that YA publishing is notoriously allergic to portraying any culture other than Western culture as potentially dysfunctional. This idea is an utter non-starter if one wants to go tradpub.

    • That’s what I was thinking. And as OP is an author herself, of YA in fact, you’d think she’d have an understanding of how much of a meat grinder YA Twitter/Tumblr/GoodReads can be.

  6. The writers of many of the popular sites covering genre like science fiction (Tor.com and syfy.com as examples) are just out of college and beyond, and they are constantly whining because books/media aren’t about them. They don’t “see” themselves (their sexuality, tastes, racial expectations, etc.) there, and they are very, very emo-goth sad about this. I try not to bang my graying head on my desk when I read this. I have never “seen” myself in anything I’ve ever read or watched. I’ve written fifteen novels, and I’m not there either. I’m perfectly fine about that because I want to experience others’ lives. It’s a great way to look beyond myself and my boring existence. So, either write what you want to read, or get over yourself, kids.

    • Well, I strongly identified with the protagonist of Heinlen’s BEYOND THIS HORIZON (his first novel) but I was 14 at the time. Plus he’s a cool character with a great first name… 😉

      • Hmm. I shall be certain to not offend you in a restaurant setting – my reflexes not being what they used to be.

        First published novel, of course. It was quite interesting to see how much of it was “lifted” from For Us, the Living (subtitle “A Comedy of Customs”) – except for the reason the future society was extremely polite.

        Actually, the novel was barely recognizable as a Heinlein – I don’t think that he would have allowed its publication when he was alive. But it was certainly a mother lode of ore from which he mined ideas with great success.

        • Even today it’s one of my favorites because of the second half: what does the hero do after saving the world?
          He grows up, of course.

          He took a second pass at the question with GLORY ROAD.
          Not quite as satisfying.

          And no need to worry, my reflexes have never been all that good. But like him, my memory never has been enought to be an encyclopedic synthesist, much as I would’ve liked it.

          Btw, I just found it is was recently given a retro-Hugo as the best novel of 1948. Which beladtedly recognizes how good it is.

    • That’s because so many of the young ones don’t know what to do and want someone to tell them and think finding themselves in stories will give them that direction.

      I don’t remember things being quite this way when I was younger. I certainly don’t remember wanting someone to tell me what to do with myself, but I see it in both my college age kids and I have no idea how it got there.

      I’ve started to think it’s the changes in the school systems (my kids went to public school) and how they’re being treated there. Instead of easing into treating children as young adults and then adults in the high school years, they’re treated the way I was treated in elementary school–hand holding, walk the line, do this-do that-do this, all the way out the door.

      I wish I’d seen it sooner for the trap it is for these kids.

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