Worlds Beyond: how young adult fiction can explore the lives of the marginalized

Even in science fiction and fantasy, we're used to hearing the stories of the rich and the white. This represents an enormous failure of imagination. 

Peter Kalu
24 August 2016

Cover of the Future Fiction magazine, November 1939. Source: Wikimedia Commons. (Public domain).

Having been the base of a human pyramid in an All Star circus and the maestro of a Moko Jumbie carnival band for a few hot summers, I’m a signed, sealed and delivered lover of the magical, the fabulous and the spectacular. So I watch the development of fantastical Young Adult (YA) fiction—shot through with runes, witches, latin puzzles and classical wizardry—with with genuine wonder. I have one large caveat: the omission of marginal voices from all this Young Adult fiction imagineering.

In the spirit of the Bechdel Test movement, I suggest three quick tests can be applied to YA literature to determine whether it has an ambition of inclusiveness:  (1) Does this novel acknowledge the existence of or tell me anything about the lives of those excluded from economic prosperity? (2) Does it suggest or stand with a society that is recognisably diverse? (3) Does it embrace a concept of humanity that is inclusive?

Applied prospectively, the three tests are for writers as much as readers. When we as writers take that deep breath and start Chapter 1, we carry with us a bag of assumptions, preferences and passions, usually drawn from our life experiences.  Taking a cool look at some of them before we embark can be a tough but rewarding exercise, pushing us to imagine wider, to innovate greater and to acknowledge our power to include as well as exclude: we have that power, we make that choice.

Sadly, the answer to the three tests that most YA novels give today is a dispiriting ‘no’. To focus on one element of the margin, when have the young, poor “working” class ever been so little represented in literature as they are now? A few authors keep a flickering flag flying—Melvin Burgess (Kill All Enemies) and Malorie Blackman (Boys Don’t Cry)—but the point generally holds true.

That had me pondering: what has caused the stifling of this voice?  There was a time when you could write about a distinct and distinctive working class, a time which produced novels such as the much loved 'A Kestrel for Knave' by Barry Hines, stories about the children of factory workers and miners. But the proletariat of the industrial age has dwindled in the post-industrial western countries that produced this literature, its raison d’etre sucked away by globalisation.

The big, beating, cultural rhythms of the industrial age machines have gone quiet with the closure of the mills and factories and the class which served that age as factors of industrial production is no longer employed there. The working class became an under-class, and is now routinely ignored.

Perhaps the YA genre’s absence of concern with material conditions is in sync with the post-modern phase of capitalism. The focus on semiotics, surface and un-realness—all is sign and nothing is substance—manifests itself in fiction in an emphasis on the magical and the fantastical. Literature becomes the ultimate post-factual art: its articulation is digital, its presence is virtual, and its creators are not real people but personas or constructs.  

Nearly 50 years ago, Roland Barthes signaled the 'death of the author'. These times have also seen the birth of ‘Any Author’: teams of literary functionaries adhering to a formula supplied by the dominant culture. For example, Mills & Boon has its guide-sheets which set out how you should write. Best-selling thrillers are currently being written by individuals or teams under the direction of the undoubtedly talented, ex ad-man turned author, James Patterson. And YA fiction too has its own formulas for marketability, including a heavy disconnect from the experiences of a significant percentage of the population, an erasure of whole communities.

The YA genre erases by omission the lives of ordinary black, brown and poor white people, the majority of whom go to state not private school, don’t live in white middle class models of the family and are more likely to hear, not church bells at dawn but an evening chorus of desperate blips as card meter emergency electricity credit expires.

There are some promising voices that break with this tradition. Against the grain of Harry Potter-led magicalism and its associated stories of the derring-do of privately-schooled Isabellas and Rogers, the Striker series depicts the hybrid, make-do lives of those living in post-industrial hinterlands. These books retain an element of the playful and fantastical, and are full of humour. But they also have a commitment, in the tradition of Hines, Dickens, and Zola, to being grounded in the real.

The cultural theorist bell hooks speaks about “the authenticity of experience” as a counter narrative to post-modernism’s nevertheless-important critique of essentialist notions of identity and culture.  I’ve spent most of my life living on (ex) council estates and in areas of economic deprivation. Reflecting these experiences in writing gives the ability to chart the sentiment which hooks suggests many poor white communities share with black communities—a sense of deep alienation, of uncertainty and a loss of identity-fixing purpose. It allows us to give voice to the joy and celebrate the conviviality that these communities often achieve—visible, for example, in my local public parks where white dog walkers and third generation Pakistani cricket enthusiasts rub along with kite flyers, keep fit joggers and mooching teens.

What is to be the fate of the grounded writer who wants to depict lives that reflect and transmute experiences other than those of the white middle classes? The current publishing world is not keen on them. The lives we describe are seen by the centre as anomalous, atavistic, perhaps irritating, the ghost at a wedding—wished away at the point of editorial and marketing decision making. If we could hurry up and vanish then that would be convenient.

The greater project then, whatever form or genre is chosen—whether poetry or fiction, horror or scifi, YA or adult literary—is to include all these lives in the national literature. To show the kindness and love, the magic and ingenuity, the resourcefulness and invention, the healings and life-affirming celebrations that make the margin a willed place of great creativity—not just a place from which you journey to the centre, or from which you aspire to become socially mobile outwards.

Instead, it’s a place where values are sustained that can lift and renew not merely an area or an (under) class but an entire nation. The territories of the poor and marginalised may be zombie-lands seen through mainstream and tabloid lenses, but they are also the lifeblood of the country, harbouring alternative value systems and ways of seeing—think of rap, disco, jazz and scratching, the glorious musical innovations that all emerged from society’s margins. These ways of seeing are themselves magical, fabulous and spectacular in their ability to endure—to find, as the poet Lemn Sissay puts it, “gold from the stone.”

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