Content warning: discussions of transphobia, dysphoria; brief mentions of self-mutilation and surgery
It’s a beautiful day in March, 2023. The morning air is crisp, shimmering in between summer and autumn. The sun’s rays melt through a low-lying mist, lighting the world in smudges of gold, as if on the edge of a dream.
It is two years since the anime season of Winter 2021, when a certain series called Wonder Egg Priority aired.
And I’m still thinking about it.
God damn it, I’m still thinking about it. C’mere. Get comfy. Can I get you a cup of tea?
LGBTQIA+ characters (and their quests for love) are increasingly appearing in YA fiction, and more specifically in YA romantic comedies. The rom-com, particularly in its most mainstream and familiar Hollywood form, has long been rooted in heteronormativity, in so far as it rarely deviates from or offers any substantive variation of the boy-meets-girl model of romantic love. This is something that adolescent readers will surely be aware of. Likewise, many marginalised young adult protagonists are characterised by an awareness of these same conventions, thus placed by their authors in a metatextual conversation with the very genre they inhabit.
Fiction always responds to, and reflects, the context it is created in. In the year of our lord 2023, we’re several years deep in what one might politely call Historic Times. COVID-19, and the social context surrounding it, is gradually making itself known in various genres.
Jodi McAllister’s rom-com Here For the Right Reasons (2022) asks what might happen if a cast of reality TV contestants were suddenly trapped together by a snap lockdown. Emily Gale’s middle grade novel The Goodbye Year (2022) explores how the already weird, transitional phase between primary school and high school is disrupted by the first, scary wave of the pandemic in 2020. Contemporary YA novels are increasingly having to decide if, and how, they factor more than a year of remote learning (and a boatload of collective trauma) into the high school experience of their characters.
Alongside these texts that address the realities of COVID times, though, seems to be a rising wave of speculative fiction that responds to the pandemic. And I don’t mean sci-fi thrillers about post-pandemic post-apocalypses—quite the opposite vibe, in fact!
What in the world is a marketing demographic? They’re something that often seems so simple, so based in real-life logic about how humans grow and experience things, that sometimes you can forget how constructed they are. And how much our idea of what is suitable for a demographic of young people—or, even what a young person is—can vary from person to person, publisher’s office to publisher’s office. Where are those lines drawn, and who is holding the pen? Is it authors? Is it agents? Is it marketing departments? Is it a confusing disaster with no concrete answer??
I have a new scholarly paper out, free to read in the International Journal of Young Adult Literature! This scoops up and lays out a bunch of my thesis data, representing a lot of research work. Check it out if you’re interested!
Non-binary gender is a marginalised queer identity increasingly receiving mainstream media representation, a subject that warrants investigation. Non-binary is an umbrella term under which many experiences of gender fall, a factor that necessitates a nuanced variety of narrative representations to avoid perpetuating or creating static and singular archetypes. This article examines a sample of young adult novels with non-binary protagonists published between 2017 and 2020, exploring the various ways these texts express and explore their central characters’ gender identity. My findings reveal thematic commonalities between these novels, with particular focus on the language used to describe these characters’ felt sense of gender, their experiences with dysphoria/euphoria, their relationships to broader queer communities within their story worlds, and the intersections of queer gender and speculative elements. I argue that this subset we might call ‘non-binary YA’ serves as an emblem of the development of queer YA overall, its rapid expansion through various genres and narrative types providing a microcosm of the growth of the literary field and pointing to its future.
My Master Has No Tail opens with narration that promises this: “Today I shall tell you an old tale of a time when tanuki and foxes still tricked people.”
The series follows a young tanuki named Mameda who travels to the city to play tricks on humans like in those old stories. However, things are a little different: it’s the Taisho era, and advances in technology mean that a lot of the old repertoire doesn’t work. Electric streetlights make it difficult to cast illusions in the dark. New ways of making and handling currency mean it’s not as easy to pass transforming leaves off as money. There are cars and trams threatening to run Mameda over every time she tries to cross the street! She’s despondent, until she finds her way into a theatre.
This post contains major spoilers for the end of Gideon the Ninth and the whole of Harrow the Ninth, and minor spoilers for The Dawnhounds.
If I had a ten-cent coin for every New Zealand sci-fi/fantasy novel that killed off its sapphic main character only to bring her back to life through cool worldbuilding and thematically resonant means… well, I’d only have twenty cents, but it’s neat that it’s happened more than once.
We all know the trope—the cliché even—of the tragic queer character. “Bury Your Gays” is part of most people’s fandom lingo even if they’re not familiar with its broader media history. Whether due to censorship regulations, underlying homophobia on the writers’ part, or otherwise well-meaning creatives stumbling into familiar patterns, there’s a long, established literary history of killin’ off the non-heterosexuals. This makes every story that doesn’t do this refreshing, of course. But on a deeper level, it also makes room for stories that engage with this trope through genre fiction: drawing the reader’s eye to the familiar pattern playing out, and then ultimately rejecting it for maximum thematic satisfaction.
Watch along for a dip into some of my research on the different ways writers can use POV—first-person, close third-person, or the “voice of god” omniscient third-person—to tell different kinds of queer stories and affirm the identities of their non-binary characters in different ways. I use a small sample of recent YA novels as examples, and even talk a little about my own novel manuscript 👀
Please also enjoy my cowboy shirt, the way my glasses sometimes go fully white in the sunshine like an anime character, and the dorky eye-catching thumbnail I made.
Originally presented, virtually, at the Australian Children’s Literature Association for Research conference, 1st July 2022.
This post contains spoilers for the end of Our Flag Means Death season one.
Traditionally, fiction centring on queer characters has tended to be anchored in contemporary realism, making genre works—sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, historical, etc.— exciting and notable. This is true for basically every field and medium you look to: statistical studies like Malinda Lo’s note that “Historically, LGBTQ YA books have mostly been contemporary realistic novels”, making the slow increase of more genre works for that demographic intriguing. In the world of anime and manga, yuri, BL, and more general LGBTQIA+ focused titles also tend towards realistic settings, making series like Otherside Picnic and The Executioner and Her Way of Life really stand out for their clear positionality in sci-fi and high fantasy respectively.
When we get mainstream queer titles onscreen, they tend to be the Love, Simons and The Miseducation of Cameron Posts of the world. And these, of course, are important advancements! Every queer film that hits cinemas, every queer series that hits streaming services, is part of the evolving history of queer storytelling, and dismissing any one of them because they’re “just the same realist tropes again” isn’t helpful.
But it does mean that when a major network releases a work of queer fantasy, sci-fi, or in this case historical fiction, it stands out as something new and noteworthy. And it opens new, unique possibilities and ways forward that ought to be studied and celebrated alongside the simple fact of a “gay pirate show” existing.
Late last year as I languished in my feels after bingeing The Heike Story, I joined a centuries old tradition. Across many years, media, and languages Heike Monogatari has drawn audiences into its intricate tragedy, weaving the tale of one noble family’s arrogance and inevitable downfall against the lush and philosophical backdrop of medieval Japan. It’s an epic in the truest sense of the word: sprawling in scope, deeply poetic, and intwined in a glorious tradition of oral storytelling. It may seem like all this should make it nigh-impossible to adapt effectively, but somehow Science SARU pulled it off—not only successfully playing out the tale in eleven episodes, but successfully getting me, and many other very modern viewers, hooked emotionally.
Part of this, of course, is the enduring power of the story itself, but part of it is how the story is told. The Heike Story employs a clever narrative trick to play out the epic while also playing with the epic, adding new and very metatextual dimensions. And that narrative trick’s name is Biwa.