Originally presented at the Young Adult Studies Association online conference, November 2022.
Transcript: Hello YASA, wherever you are in the world! My name is Alex, and I’m recording today from Ngunnawal country. In this paper I’ll be presenting some work from my recently submitted doctoral thesis, which examined non-binary representation in YA through the lens of mythology-inspired fantasy. Specifically, today I’m going to talk about an issue that crops up when representing groups like non-binary people in fantasy, or other speculative fiction: the idea of the non-human non-binary character. This potentially dallies with a lot of negative conceptions, but I argue it’s also potentially a very playful space to explore gender identity outside of the confines of contemporary realism.
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.
So, what does the world of YA with LGBTQIA+ protagonists look like in my own backyard? Here are some examples I enjoyed from my recent reading! I’m always looking for more, so if you have any other recommendations, please do drop them in the comments!
For my thesis (which is now actually “nearly done” and will, come hell or high water, actually be submitted sometime in the middle of 2022) I analysed YA novels with non-binary protagonists. When I tell people that, often they’re surprised that there are enough books in that niche to make a study out of. And I get to say “yeah! There’s more than you might expect! In fact, I had to change the whole format of a chapter because there were too many to talk about all at once!”
So in celebration of nearly, actually, almost being done, and in celebration of the many fantastic books that have filled this category over the past couple of years (making said thesis, in its current state, possible!) I’ve compiled a pile of them for your perusal.
Please note this is only a handful of personal recommendations from within my studies: there are others I haven’t written about and others I haven’t read yet. Plus, this list is narrowed to non-binary protagonists (here defined as “a main POV character”) and if I included texts with non-binary love interests or ensemble cast members, there would be even more! More books exploring the complexity of gender in a variety of genres are being published each year, so no doubt I’ll come back and make more lists in future! For now, though, read on…
There is a scene in Alison Evans’ Euphoria Kidswhere one of the protagonists faces a conundrum I’m sure is familiar to a lot of trans people, especially those caught in between “still figuring it out” and “coming out”. The boy—as he is called throughout the novel, as he has not found his true name yet—has to fill out a medical form. This requires, of course, his legal name. But his friend, Iris, suggests that maybe he can make a note for the doctor to only call him by his surname—he’s keeping that, after all, no matter what he discovers his first name to be. It’s a small thing, but it’s a revelation for the boy and in the moment it eases his mind.
On the train home, they have this little exchange, from Iris’ perspective:
I ask the boy, “Do you know about gender euphoria?”
He shakes his head.
“I think, when you smiled after realising you could just use your last name, that might’ve been it.”
“It’s just like, good feelings? About gender?”
“It’s like… the opposite of dysphoria.”
He stares out the window, watching the shops go past. “I’ve only heard of gender dysphoria before.”
“I found out about it a while ago, but yeah. I thought I should let you know.”
Before the rose was there, the garden was full of moss. I started as a seed under it, waiting for the right time to sprout. Clover waited, and waited, and tended the garden, and didn’t listen to anyone who said she should give up. Moss, my other mother, she waited too. But Clover was the one who came out every morning and told me about her night, what she was planning on cooking that day, how Moss was going. […]
When my first two leaves emerged, Moss and Clover knew I would be okay.
I didn’t mean to be a strange baby made of plants, but it hasn’t caused any problems.
So begins Alison Evans’ Euphoria Kids, with the narrator, Iris, matter-of-factly regaling us with the tale of the beginning of their life: intermingled wordlessly with magic and a kind of dream-logic bizarreness, and intermingled effortlessly with queer love and affection. This sets the tone for the whole book: a dreamy, whimsical tale of understated magic that is almost rebelliously committed to letting its protagonists be. Continue reading →