by Jennifer Polish
As authors (us too, fan fic writers!), aspiring authors, and readers of YA literature, many of us are often thinking about the meanings of love in dystopian societies. Katniss’s protectiveness of Rue, of Prim. Peeta’s devotion to Katniss. Tris and Christina. Tris and Four. Lucky and Digory. Loup and Pilar. David and Callan.
But, as YA enthusiasts, it is also our responsibility to think long and to think hard on love in this dystopian time.
Because if you go to buy Skittles while Black, or if you love someone who does; if you attend a pool party with family and friends while Black, or love someone who does; if you drive while Black, or love someone who does; if you run through Central Park while Black (there is something distinctly dystopian about Jacqueline Woodson’s main character in If You Come Softly – a teenager – getting shot down by the state for running because he is excited by young love) – then you know that people often write and read very overtly dystopian YA fantasies because we need to root for the proverbial underdog, winning against insurmountable odds. And many like it because it is necessary, as food for survival, because this, too, is a dystopian time.
And especially as queer YA readers and writers, we need to care that most queers in our stories are white – and that does not accurately reflect the world (not to mention it perpetuates stereotypes of queerness as whiteness).
We need to care that in too much YA dystopian stories that take place in futuristic human societies, racism is written off as though it never existed – this “colorblind” thinking only perpetuates the racism that white supremacist structures enforce.
So those interested in GayYA need to blog, tweet, protest, engage – as often as we do in #weneeddiversebooks chats – about how #BlackLivesMatter matters in GayYA. We need to be as communicative about state violence against people of color as we are about the underrepresentation of all queers in YA lit: because the most underrepresented of us are queer POC, and because all of our oppressions are carried out by interrelated structures. Like the criminal justice system (which targets young QPOC all the time); like the education system (great white straight cis men, right?); the publishing industry that so often refuses to put QPOC on cover art (go Malinda Lo for Huntress’s cover art!). And on and on.
White as I am, I don’t want to finish this piece on my own. So here is Maisha S. Johnson on the importance of science fiction, though for our purposes – and I hope Maisha would approve – I am switching out “sci fi” for “YA”, and hope that we continue in this vein:
“Some might call [YA] a means of escape, a vessel for turning away from the ugliness of our world. But as black women, we can’t escape. Oppression is part of our reality at every moment of every day. And black women’s [YA fantasy] does not represent a flawless utopia of eradicated oppression. Instead, these writers draw the reader’s eye to issues like colonization and white supremacy, even when those forces seem absent – even the most imaginative science fiction exists in conversation with the reality it differs from.
Through [YA], we create conversations challenging the conditions we’re struggling in and shine light on the remarkable ways our communities survive and work to support and liberate one another. We can question our expectations of gender expression and race, and our sense of who economic and technological systems should benefit and how. I can wonder, “What if everyone in the world was as queer as I am?” and actually take to the page to visualize a world of magical topsy-turvy gender expression and abundant flirtation. I can do one of the most loving things I could ever do for myself – step away from the expectations and walk the wild path I can only create for myself.”
Jennifer Polish is an adjunct English professor at CUNY Queens College and PhD student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center. When she’s not working on her debut YA fantasy novel (so queer that she felt the need to include some token straight cis characters), she is likely to be reading or writing about YA literature for school, sweating an absurd amount at the gym, or writing fan fiction in small, dark corners.