Charlene Challenger is a writer and graduate of Ryerson Theatre School. Her first novel, the young adult fantasy The Voices In Between, is published by Tightrope Books. Her work is also featured in Stone Skin Press’s A 21st Century Bestiary and Exile Editions’ Start a Revolution: QUILTBAG Fiction Vying for Change. Charlene is currently working on the sequel to Voices. She lives in Toronto. Follow her at her Website, on Goodreads, on Twitter and on Facebook.
A few years ago, when the public latched on to the grossly overhyped rags-to-riches story of JK Rowling and people started paying slightly more attention to books-not reading them so much as waiting to see what their blockbuster incarnations would look and sound like—a slew of YA dystopian novels was published. And since websites are obligated to support their advertising content, readers were treated to an array of write—ups of variations of the following theme: “There’s a new fad among the teenaged literati—dystopian fiction!”
My response, to put it bluntly, was: “Like, really guys?”
Let’s set aside the fact that, often, the write-ups painted western adolescence with the same middle class brush. And let’s ignore the fact that the majority of the write-ups came from individuals who were commenting on art generated for a demographic that they are no longer a part of—namely, teenagers. I still couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the superficiality of interpreting dystopian adolescent stories as something new.
Adolescence is dystopian. There was nothing—is nothing—new about that.
People enter the adolescent phase roughly around the time they stop being cute (usually around age twelve). Teenagers endure the horror/indecency of acne and inconvenient erections, as well as the pain of growth spurts and menstrual cramps and broken hearts. Teenagers are not empowered by the truth: that nothing they do will make the experience any easier in the long run.
Once they’re no longer bundles of joy that must be protected from everything ugly and terrifying, teenagers are often shocked to discover that the world is rife with pollution, corruption, and cruelty. Their overlords first tell them it’s time to start acting like adults (meaning it’s time to start accepting authority, hierarchy, and their inherited lot in life) and then tell them they’re still children (meaning they’re still not entitled to self-advocate).
Adolescence is also a period of developing the wherewithal to recognize how frequently and casually adults lie, as well as the vocabulary necessary to call out bullshit. As a child, were you ever told to apologize to someone, and to “say it like you mean it?” What young person hasn’t confronted the uncanny valley of being forced to accept the so-called apology behind an adult’s simpering mug?
And the above-mentioned obscenities go double, triple, for young adults who are poor and marginalized. They become the invisible monsters the rest of society fears, their stories are rarely told, their histories are buried, and their present-days pitied and shunned. They’re not even allowed to get angry about it. The meek shall not inherit the earth. They never have, and they never will. People get their first taste of this unpleasant reality in adolescence, and then it’s all downhill from there.
Just as bloggers posited that young adults sure love them some grim depictions of everyday life these days, there’s sure to be post after post about the hot new trend in YA fiction. I can even picture some of the click-baited titles now: “Bald is the New Black – How Cancer Replaced Dystopian Futures in YA Literature” — as if teenage readers interested in stories about mortality is also a hitherto unknown phenomenon. I’m sure I’ll roll my eyes all over again when I’m sent dozens of links to posts written by adults wondering out loud, yet again, about what “them kids” are reading these days. An interest in dystopian fiction, science fiction/fantasy, young adult literature, etc. is not a trend. We adults may think it’s a trend, because teenagers appear to be spending more money on it, and most of us would rather ignore the fact that humanity starts at birth, not at age 18.
It’s like we’ve forgotten we used to be teenagers ourselves. And if ignoring the past over and over again isn’t dystopian, I’m not sure what is.
guest post, Charlene Challenger