The rules of the romantic comedy are simple and easy to learn, especially when you’re in love with the concept of love… but what if you’re an LGBTQIA+ teenager and this formula has historically cut you out? Well, you have to tweak those rules to make your own.
I have a new scholarly paper out, published and free to read in the International Journal of Young Adult Literature!
Malinda Lo has been an invaluable voice in the emerging field of queer YA fiction, both for her accessible statistics on the representation of LGBTQIA+ identities in traditional publishing, and for the content of her novels. Her fictional works place sapphic protagonists into genre narratives – sci-fi, fairy tale, thriller – that are traditionally presumed to be the realm of straight heroes. But the queer rebellion in Lo’s writing goes beyond simply casting queer characters into genres and roles that have historically been considered heteronarrative: Lo’s work is an example of what I define here as ‘queer narrative play’, a process of deliberately and visibly troubling, tweaking, and upturning readers’ expectations of the roles and functions of queer characters within recognisable genre frameworks, deftly challenging the historical binary that has existed between ‘mainstream’ genre fiction and ‘marginal’ queer coming-of-age stories.
Following from Tzvetan Todorov’s suggestion that “genres function as ‘horizons of expectation’”, this paper will explore how Lo’s body of work playfully challenges the traditional representation of LGBTQIA+ characters in a variety of methods; from creating speculative worlds that remove the need for narratives such as the coming-out story, to drawing readers’ attention to tragic queer tropes in order to make later subversions of them visible. Queer narrative play is an example of the ways in which contemporary YA writers may enact a rebellious conversation between author and reader, creating playful and progressive new works by reshaping the pre-existing materials of literary expectations, and Lo’s work makes for a stellar example of the craft.
Wonder Egg Priority is perhaps, by now, most famous for how it started out strong and then scrambled itself. The shift from dreamy fantasy to convoluted sci-fi and the show’s unsympathetic treatment of its young female characters, particularly in its finale, are two key factors in the series’ downturn. But these two storytelling issues do not exist separately; they intertwine and inform each other.
Egg’s shift from magic to sci-fi coincides with its shift in character focus. Early episodes center on the four female protagonists. But by the end, its narrative authority lies with its adult male characters, the Accas and Ai’s teacher Mr. Sawaki, who explain the motivations of teenage girls rather than the girls themselves telling their own stories. Intentional or otherwise, it’s worth examining this shift in priorities from magic and the emotional reality of young women to science and the “logic” of grown men. It provides insight into the author’s biases and underlying gender politics, anchored in a study of the series’ genre politics.
Join my colleague Chloe and I for a brief introduction to the world of queer young adult fiction, from its historic beginnings in the 1960s all the way through to the new directions it’s taking now! Originally presented at the Great Writing Conference, 10th – 11th July 2021.
How might the liminal, mischievous, underdog figure of the Trickster lend itself to stories about queer teens?
Take a peek into one of my thesis chapters in this short video! Originally presented at the Fresh From the Fight: Heroes, Villains and Tricksters in Children’s and Young Adult Literature and Culture conference held virtually at the University of British Columbia, 2nd – 4th July 2021.
Otherside Picnic is a portal fantasy… in a sense. Though you might be able to call it an isekai by a technicality, it certainly doesn’t have much in common with other “transported to a virtual world” anime among its contemporaries. It might be more accurate to call it a portal horror, because the titular Otherside is so delightfully eerie; constructed entirely of sweeping plains, ruined buildings, and strange inexplicable shapes and “glitches” in the landscape.
It’s scary because of the cryptids and folkloric monsters who roam the grasslands, but the horror is present even before they take centre stage. A sense of bizarre dread is baked into the setting itself. The Otherside is a monster in its own right, and the aesthetic of the world masterfully sets the stage for the psychological horror that is to come.
I read—and watch—a lot of stories about people growing up. Late in 2019, I officially narrowed the focus of my PhD to specifically zero in on YA fiction, which I was reading and analysing an awful lot of anyway. I also write a lot about anime, and I can’t help but notice that the series that really seem to carve out a special place in my heart—and jog my thinking brain—are the ones that deal with coming-of-age stories, or other examinations of the weird pocket of time between “youth” and “adulthood”. And gosh, it’s a weird pocket of time, huh?
As I write lecture material, and find myself going off on tangents enthusiastically explaining the literary and entertainment value of YA to my students, I also find myself wondering… well, how did I get here? Why YA? That’s a tongue-twister, Alex, why’d you even make me read that? But more to the point, why do we—as writers, readers, audiences, and a massive publishing industry—return consistently to the coming-of-age story, to examinations of youth, to high schools and final-summers-before-graduations and that weird transitional space between childhood and adulthood?
Well, I could get all Joseph Campbell on you and suggest something about how stories of “leaving the nest”, experiencing a ritual quest of rites of passage, and coming out the other side a grown human, are embedded in prehistoric tradition and are some of the tales closest to our hearts culturally speaking. And you know I have my beef with Campbell (affectionately so), but I reckon there’s something to his suggestion that this is an archetype fundamental to storytelling as a form, and I reckon there’s also something to his fondness for patterns.
The portal fantasy subgenre and its themes of displacement, liminality, and “strange” children coming-of-age in even stranger otherworlds, has been read queerly by many readers across its history. From foundational academics like Alexander Doty to contemporary authors like A.J. Hackworth, many have noted the thematic and allegorical undercurrents in the portal fantasy that resonate with, and provide valuable escapism and catharsis to, young queer readers.
Seanan McGuire’s 2016 novella Every Heart a Doorway takes a playful, metatextual approach to the portal fantasy, not only by interrogating its tropes and history but by unambiguously portraying queer characters in the genre. By giving her fantasy narrative to a cast of explicitly queer characters, McGuire acknowledges the queer resonance that has long been present in the genre and brings it to the surface of her work, creating a dual-layer of queerness in the text that interweaves magical metaphor with textual LGBTQIA+ representation.
Fate is a story where a bunch of retellings of myths are jammed together and sent to bounce off each other like pinballs—where would be the fun if it didn’t get meta about the nature of retelling myth? Obviously you can see a lot of examples of this in the Heroic Spirits themselves: heroes reflecting on the way their story has been passed down, what impact they’ve had on the world, and all sorts of fun themes to do with legacy, tradition, and the nature of transformative storytelling. A Heroic Spirit, after all, is a myth given form and agency. Would they do things differently, if they could, with their new knowledge? Challenge the patterns of their past? Or would they stick to the “canon”?
I love when Fate plays around with this, but it doesn’t just happen with the kings and knights and monster-slayers: one of the best embodiments of this theme is Shirou, the original protagonist who started all of this, and who burst into the scene ready to break and remake the patterns embedded in the worldbuilding around him. Continue reading →
Hey, guess who finally recorded and uploaded her presentation from last year’s writing conference? It’s a dive into the various shapes and forms the Trickster can take in popular culture, starring all manner of con artists, child geniuses, and… geese!