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The #SVYALit Virtual Panel #2 Recap

Yesterday we had our second Google Hangout on Air as part of the #SVYALit Project. Author Carrie Mesrobian (Sex and Violence) moderated our virtual panel which included authors Stephanie Kuehn (Charm & Strange), Rachele Alpine (Canary) and Brendan Kiely (The Gospel of Winter). Below the video is a recap of the conversation with minute indicators should you want to go view a specific part of the video.

This was a great discussion as we talked about how institutional culture – including the church and sports culture – can put the needs of the institution above individuals and the danger that lies in that. They also had some great discussion about the important of friends and allies in breaking the silence surrounding sexual abuse and what we expect of our main characters in terms of likability and decision making. And tucked in here is some great discussion about the gray areas of consent and how we fail to talk to our teens about this.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xzIriaUoQ5k?rel=0]


A Brief Introduction of Each of the Books by the Authors

 
The Gospel of Winter – 16-year-old boy who recognizes that the relationship he has with his priest is not love but abuse. Kiely is from the Boston area and he wanted to do a story about the betrayal and the real courage it took to stand up and say that they had been abused. Young people were the ones who really opened the floodgates of this revelation. GOW is about a culture of fear that prizes secrecy and uses that secrecy to create an atmosphere of abuse and it relates to the post 9/11 culture.

Charm and Strange – A book about a boy who literally thinks he is a monster and what has led him to believe that. He is afraid he will hurt others so he actively pushes them away and the past narrative reveals why he thinks this way about himself. It is about him trying to integrate his past in his present together to be a more complete person. Trying to convey that for someone who was struggling with his mental illness to be seen as someone strong and resilient and doing his best given the circumstances.

Canary – A young girl dealing with grief, Kate, is thrown into a new school environment that has a strong sports culture that idolizes the basketball team and its players. She slowly cedes parts of herself to this culture until she is sexually assaulted and has to decide whether or not to reveal the truth or to be silent. It is told in multiple formats flipping between a traditional narrative and using poetry to reveal Kate’s inner thoughts.

Discussing the Idea of Institutional/Hero Worship and How They Ask Victims to Remain Silent (11:35)

Brendan Kiely: When we attack institutions, the people involved in those institutions sometimes take it as an attack on themselves. For some, it is a belief that the institution/the community as a whole are more important than an individual member. They begin to protect itself over the people that they are supposed to be serving. It’s never okay to sacrifice young people to protect the institution.

While researching GOW, Kiely learned that many of the priests guilty of abuse were abused themselves, they were perpetuating the cycle of abuse. If you are going to promote people to be community leaders (including teachers) there needs to be good education on how to best serve.

It has a lot to do with the “adoring” a certain figure, letting that figure stand in.

18:00 – We have to have open conversations about sex so that we can have real conversations about both sex and sexual violence. That failure to talk about it allows these types of things to happen.

Rachele Alpine: (20:00) – We are taught from a young age to revere certain people through our media and experiences. The culture that is created that exalts and celebrates certain people over others, in this case athletes, and speaking out against this culture becomes a problem of me against them.

Carrie Mesrobian: Discusses the entitlement of this culture and how it takes over everyone’s time and priorities; how it becomes the culture instead of becoming PART of the culture. There is also a good portrayal of how the male character grounds down Kate’s voice to the point that she starts to really lose pieces of herself.

Stephanie Kuehn (24:00) – Here we see the institution of the family and how it too can became a breeding ground for dysfunction and abuse. Kuehn wanted to discuss Win’s challenge to separate himself and his family, the evil that is in his family and whether or not it is in him. In this family, you are either a victim or a victimizer and it is better to be the one with power, the victimizer. Why don’t people speak up? Because of family bonds and the idea of personal narratives and blame.

The Response and Importance of Friends (26:00)
How do friends help or hinder people speaking the truth?

Carrie Mesrobian: If we can learn anything from Harry Potter – and really, I think we can learn everything from Harry Potter – it’s the importance of friends.

Brendan Kiely (27:00) – People need to find the space where two people can be equal in a relationship in order to form more honest relationships with each other. Adolescence are beginning to understand this process, how to share vulnerability, how to become allies. The danger is when a person can begin to feel like an outcast; it can require such a leap to bring that person back into the fold. In GOW, the MC doesn’t want to see himself as a victim. That’s okay that he wants to try to maintain a normal life, but he has to find a way to integrate that part of his life – his victimhood – into his overall identity or he will remain fractured. But there is a character in the story that reaches out to him and says they will be there for him. These types of stories allow teens to have conversations about how to be a better friend and ally. Friends are more important than family when you are 16. Having books like these to talk about how to support each other to be better friends is so important, there isn’t a lot of that in our culture.

Stephanie Kuehn (31:00) – For Win, all of his relationships have been destructive. He believes it is inevitable that he will hurt the people around him. But Kuehn wanted to create some characters struggling with their own issues who didn’t understand Win but we’re willing to reach out to him and say they were there for him. These characters demonstrate empathy; empathy and having someone care about you even when you can’t care about yourself can be that spark that makes you reach for healing. Compassion is a powerful gift to give to someone else.

Rachele Alpine (34:00) – The important part of Kate’s story is that she eventually recognizes that these people who have said they are her friends really aren’t. Her brother is the voice of reason that she refuses to listen to. “When you do find the courage to speak out, it might not always be the first or second person who listens to you. Keep looking and keep searching for that person who will.” You deserve to be heard. This message is part of Kate’s journey, she needs to make sure she is being heard.

Talking About Sex Scenes and Consent (36:00)
How do you look at the consent?

Rachele Alpine (37:00) – Poetry is used to reveal Kate’s real voice. In it we see that even though she says yes to Jack when they have sex, we see here that she is more being pressured into by Jack and by her friends. Kate is questioning it and doesn’t really want to do it.  To Kate, it is something she feels she needs to do to stay with Jack (which reminds me that we need to write that post about guilt/manipulation and how it can muddy the consent discussion). The gray areas of consent: we don’t talk enough about what sexual assault can be and what consent is. Teenagers know that someone forces themselves on you, that’s rape, but they don’t understand the finer elements of consent.

Carrie Mesrobian: Most young people’s idea of consent that silence and letting things happen is the same thing as consent. They need to understand that saying yes – enthusiastic consent – matters. (42:00)

Talking About the Main Characters (43:00)

Carrie Mesrobian: The main characters in these stories are important because they aren’t the noble, sympathetic character who was raped by knife point in the bushes. They are unlikable characters who don’t always make the right choices and we are still supposed to feel compassion for them.

Stephanie Kuehn (44:00) – Why would Win be likable? He is arrogant, cold, protective. There is no perfect victim, the idea doesn’t even make sense. For any kid that is victimized, we should care about them no matter who they are or what they are like; we need to protect them at all costs. If we can’t, that says a lot more about us as adults then it does the kids.

Brendan Kiely (47:00) – Adain imagines this scene where he sees the community seeing him as a monster. Kiely was consciously trying to make connections between the novel Frankenstein. Aidan is created in some sense by the circumstances of his abuse because you can’t not be affected by that. Just like in the novel Frankenstein, Adain might be described as a monster, but just as in Frankenstein Aidan, the “monster”, is actually the most human. If we are going to honor the victims of sexual abuse it does an injustice to paint them into a rosy picture rather than allow them their full humanity. It seems like a worse injustice to not allow our characters to be as messed up as people who aren’t victim of sexual violence. If we don’t have a character who is making poor choices, then it is harder to invite readers to discuss how to make better choices going forward. Unless we have muddy scenes, how else do we have real conversations with teens?

Here Brendan Kiely recommends the book Salvage the Bones

Carrie Mesrobians: The friends have moments of grace.

Listen to what Carrie says around the 52:00 mark about how we don’t allow characters with a history of sexual violence to have more complex narratives.

Rachele Alpine (53:00) –  Important to show some redemption for some of the characters. The most comments that she has gotten about Kate is that she shouldn’t get involved in the this world, but she needed to be flawed and we needed to see what she had to lose by speaking up.

Carrie Mesrobian (56:00) – People who do this don’t always look like evil, there is a banality to it. They tell themselves this story about themselves when they get up in the morning – they have a story they have to tell themselves to live with who they are. Having that nuance where we can hear that secondary victimization is so powerful.

Brendan Kiely (58:00) – If we insist on cardboard people it’s like we have no faith in people. At the end of the day it is celebrating how we emerge from the muck.

Stephanie Kuehn (59:00) – It’s so easy to qualify our compassion, but life is not black and white. Here she discusses reading Inexcusable by Chris Lynch.

Talking About the Ending (1 hour mark)

Stephanie Kuehn – There are no easy answers, but I wanted to show that empathy and friendship matter; that believing in yourself is what ultimately matters and moves us forward.

Rachele Alpine – Wanted to end it with the fact that you do move forward. At the end of the book Kate is not letting people silence her anymore.

Brendan Kiely – Wanted to end on the note that we are not alone. As victims we are not alone because there are other victims but also we are not alone because we can find the right communities and those communities can rally around the victims. Together we can work to make a better world then the world we found.

Carrie Mesrobian: “I love all 3 of the endings of these books because while they don’t show that the road ahead for any of the characters is going to be smooth, they kind of show that this is the reality of what you contend with when you deal with trauma but that you can be honest about it.” Read Carrie’s thoughts about the hangout on her blog.

The Next #SVYALit Google Hangout/Virtual Panel Will Be:

Consent Positive YA Lit: Looking at positive depictions of healthy relationships and consent in YA literature
Date: May 21st
Moderator(s): Christa Desir, Carrie Mesrobian, Karen Jensen

Confirmed: Courtney Stevens (FAKING NORMAL), Brandy Colbert (POINTE) 

Canary, Sexual Violence and a Culture of Athlete Adoration (a guest post by author Rachele Alpine)


Today we are honored to have a guest post by debut author Rachele Alpine. She will be participating in the #SVYALit Project Google Hangout on Air tomorrow, March 26th at Noon Eastern. 

My main character Kate’s story in Canary started in 1999 when I was in college.  I was taking an education class where my teacher had us write a multi-genre paper.   It was essentially a research paper, but instead of presenting our information in the tradition way, the information was shared through poems, artwork, prose, and other creative methods.  I chose to focus on sexual harassment in high school because I was educated at an all-girl’s school, so this was something that I really didn’t experience.  However, as a pre-service teacher and college student, the action of objectifying women was all around me, and I was shocked at home much people got away with.
I explored the issue of sexual harassment specifically among teenagers and out of my research came a story about a girl named Kate.  In the paper, Kate was a student who hooked up with an athlete at her school.  The athlete began rumors about what happened between the two of them and these rumors grew and grew until Kate was ostracized for things she didn’t even do.  The students turned on her and were able to victimize her because they were popular students and no one wanted to speak up or help out of fear that they would be the next target.

Kate’s story stayed with me for over eight years before I understood that I needed to tell it.   I was teaching high school English in public school and it seemed as if there was suddenly scandal after scandal focusing on college and professional athletes in the media.  My students were bombarded with the stories of people they looked up to, such as Kobe Byrant, or teams from colleges they rooted for, like the Duke lacrosse team.  The public’s reactions to these stories and the victim blaming of the survivors shocked me.  These athletes seemed to be able to do no wrong, and I began to wonder how our culture of athlete exaltation and idolatry contributed to this.  I thought a lot about how this was affecting children and their view on what is acceptable and what isn’t.  I began to think about where this treatment of athletes started and what our high schools were doing to contribute to it.  I created a list of questions that I set out to answer:  What were we teaching our athletes?  What were we teaching their classmates?  How do we stop this cycle of athlete worship?
Canary was first written as a traditional narrative, but I found that when I got to sections where Kate was dealing with her assault and other difficult topics, I wasn’t doing it justice.  The words didn’t sound true to me.  As a writer, I knew what she was feeling, but I couldn’t put it into words.  Everything I wrote sounded too trivial; it felt like it was impossible to do her justice and tell her story.  As a way to help, I would go back over and over again to the poem that I wrote in my multi-genre paper about the after-math of assault.  It was my touchstone to her stories, a place where I felt her words were true.  I took one of the scenes I was having trouble with and tried writing it as a poem.  Suddenly, the words that didn’t seem to come out right in my narrative made sense.  It was as if when I cut down the words all around my narrative, I got down to the rawest form and Kate’s words were pure and honest. 
This is how my mixed-genre book was created.  Kate’s story became a mix of narrative and prose.  She turned to a blog where she posted her most private words to.  She would write her “Daily Truths” and reveal everything she couldn’t say out loud.  The switch to poetry helped me tell my story, and I think reiterates how important it is to try to get your truths out.
Canary demonstrates the skewed sense of right and wrong for our teenagers that the media and our athlete culture has created.  It addresses important topics in terms of sexual assault, the athlete culture, and consent. It is essential that we bring attention to these topics and start conversations about them with today’s teens. Similar to the multi-genre paper I wrote in college, we can approach these issues in a variety of ways, but we must speak out and talk about it and that discussion needs to happen right now.
 
Additional Author Information:
Read more about Rachele Alpine and Canary on her blog:  www.rachelealpine.com
Read about Kate’s truths on her blog that corresponds with the poetry in the book Canary:  www.allmytruths.com

Book Review: Canary by Rachele Alpine

Staying quiet will destroy her, but speaking up will destroy everyone.
 

Earlier this year, the world was rocked by the Stuebenville case and it is like, somehow, Alpine knew it was happening and in her premonition wrote about it all, just changing the sport from football to basketball in her teen novel, Canary.  At the same time, we have spent the month of April speaking and Tweeting and blogging about things like Sexual Assault Awareness Month, consent, and the importance of teaching our teens to respect one another not only as sexual beings, but as people period. Canary is an important tool in that process.

Synopsis: It has been 2 years since the death of her mother from cancer has turned Kate Franklin’s home into a quietly desperate place of strangers who speak through post it notes, so when her father gets the coaching job at a prestigious private school Kate sees a chance to start over again.  She is immediately welcomed by the popular crowd, though at times she questions ther motives.  For a while, she is blinded by the glamour that comes from being star players boyfriend, the parties, the friends . . . but occasionally glimpses of the truth creeps in.

We’ve all heard the stories before, about sports stars (and sometimes cheerleading squads) that seem to rule the school to such a degree that even the adults in this world are willing to turn a blind eye to drinking, cheating, and barely passing grades.  Beacon is such a school and, for a while, Kate is a part of it all.  That all changes one night when one of the players attempts to rape her and she is suddenly labelled a slut and an outcast.  And just like the stories we have heard in the news lately, pictures are shared via cell phones, Kate is ostracized, and she is suddenly very desperately alone.


I am not going to lie, there is a little bit of everything thrown into Canary: grief, sexting, drinking, sex, drugs, attempted rape, parental alienation and even a little war anxiety.  It is a mega dose of the after school special, but done pretty effectively and, as we now know all too well, there are cases of this really happening in the world around us.  When even Kate’s father asks her to stay quiet, you know people’s priorities are really screwed up.  But don’t lose hope, Kate finally finds a way to stand up for herself and there is a definite theme of hope at the end.

There is so much to talk about in this book.  The way these teens all pressure each other to do things, like drinking and engaging in sexual activity, with little real care and concern for the actual person.  The bullying.  The slut shaming.  The rape culture.  The entitled sports culture.  All of it real and relevant.

The first part of Canary involves setting Kate up in her new world. There are parties, a new boyfriend, and that high one gets when you are suddenly on top of the world.  It also establishes the culture of Beacon, which can sometimes be a slow process but it essential to building up and then subtly revealing the layers of deceit and master manipulation involved.  The star basketball players hold all the cards, and they know it; the trick is too wield them without showing their hard, which they do quite successfully for a while.  Beacon is an example of a school that puts sports and profits over people and academics, it is disturbing and sinister in the “character” that it builds in these teenage athletes, more so because many of us can name places just like it in the real world.

Whereas Kate seems able to turn a blind eye for far too long, her brother Brett stands in as the voice of reason, reminding her that as his older brother he knows far too well this life she is living, how her friends may not be her real friends, and how he will always be there for her.  And even in the midst of his own personal grief and crisis, he comes through when she needs him most.  This is a sometimes strained but genuine sibling relationship, the shining beacon (no pun attended) in the life of these two teens who are suffering the loss of one parent quit literally while also dealing with the emotional abandonment of another.

Kate’s father, the basketball coach, is a disappointment.  He clearly is not dealing well with the grief of losing his wife and is failing as a parent.  His reaction to Kate’s admission of the sexual assault is so very disappointing. It is hard to imagine any father reacting the way he does, and it is troubling when you think that many parents often do in fact ask their children to keep these types of revelations quiet out of fear.

The way Kate eventually finds her voice is by publishing her online blog/diary, which has been revealed to us throughout the story in poetry form as it happens.  Some of these entries are cutting and poignant and spot on.  It is interesting, too, how Alpine uses current technology to have Kate keep her secrets and then make them public in an effort to save herself from the harassment she is receiving at school after the rumors about her start spreading.  There are definitely a lot ways that this book can be used to spark discussion about technology in the lives of teens, and again – there are some real relevant discussions to be had about sexting, privacy, the distribution of child pornography, etc.

Plot wise, there are no real surprises, but it is a compelling read all the same in part because it does seem like one of those ripped from the headlines episodes of Law & Order SVU and because of the addition of verse journal entries.  Canary helps teens put some emotional components in place with the current headlines they are hearing.  Real, relevant, and very discussable.  3.5 out of 5 stars. 

Canary by Rachele Alpine.  Published in August of 2013 by Medallion Press.  ISBN: 978-160542587-0.

More About Sexual Assault on TLT:
What It’s Like for a Girl: How Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama made me think about the politics of sexuality in the life of girls
Sexual Assault Awareness Month, talking to teens about consent and rape part 1 and part 2