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The Next #SVYALit Project Google Hangout: It’s the End of the World as We Know It

For the next #SVYALit Project Google Hangout On Air, we’re going to look at what happens when the world falls apart: post apocalyptic and dystopian fiction. 

It’s the End of the World as We Know It, what we can learn about current issues surrounding sexual violence through dystopian/post apocalyptic fiction

Date:September 24th (Noon Eastern)


Confirmed: Mindy McGinnis (NOT A DROP TO DRINK), Ilsa J. Bick (ASHES), and Elizabeth Fama (PLUS ONE)



Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis

In the near future, water is scarce. Some people will do anything to get it.  And some people will do anything to protect what little they have.  Lynn has never known a world in the before, all she knows is now.  She is used to living with her mom and protecting their water.  But there are wisps of smoke in the horizon.  People are coming.  Is Lynn ready? The companion novel, In a Handful of Dust, will be released in October 2014.

Ashes by Ilsa. J. Bick

“An electromagnetic pulse flashes across the sky, destroying every  electronic device, wiping out every computerized system, and killing billions.

Alex hiked into the woods to say good-bye to her dead parents and her personal demons. Now desperate to find out what happened after the pulse crushes her to the ground, Alex meets up with Tom—a young soldier—and Ellie, a girl whose grandfather was killed by the EMP.


For this improvised family and the others who are spared, it’s now a question of who can be trusted and who is no longer human.” (Publisher’s Summary)


Ashes is the first book in a trilogy. Book two is Shadows and book 3 is Monsters.

Plus One by Elizabeth Fama

After the deadly flu pandemic in the early 1900s, the population was divided into two groups: those who are permitted to walk around during the day and those who are forced to live their life only by night. It began as a temporary measure to help minimize contact between large groups and stop the transmission of the flu, but it has now evolved into a caste system. Sol is a Smudge, one of those forced to work at night and sleep by day. But in one last attempt to do something for her family, she plots to kidnap a baby – for just a moment – so that her dying grandfather can see his last born relative, a Ray, before he dies.

Politics and Sexual Violence in PLUS ONE, a guest post by author Elizabeth Fama (and a GIVEAWAY)

An Intro from Karen: So, here’s a deep dark secret: Sometimes, when I really love a book and want to talk about it, I contact the author, mostly to avoid spoilers for those who haven’t read it yet (you’re welcome). I first contacted author Elizabeth Fama when I read Monstrous Beauty and wrote my post about the common, every day sexual abuse many girls face in this world that we don’t normally talk about, like street harassment. And I was blown away once again by the upcoming Plus One (releases tomorrow). So I emailed her. And as we talked she asked if I wanted to be on the promotional tour for the book and I jumped at the chance. Today, she is joining us to talk about the sexual politics in Plus One. She will also be joining us later in the year for the #SVYALit Project. Read to the bottom for your chance to win a copy of PLUS ONE by Elizabeth Fama.
 
 
Note from Elizabeth to Karen’s readers: This post necessarily includes spoilers for Plus One, which I alert you to as they happen, so that you can scroll past the worst of it if you prefer. For trigger purposes, you should know the post discusses sexual violence, but without graphic descriptions. 
 
Politics and Sexual Violence in Plus One

Sexual violence seems to be an issue my brain wants to work on when I write books. I’m so glad that readers like Karen are thinking about it too, and engaging the literary world in conversation.

The action, romance, and even the baby stealing in Plus One seem to have captured the attention of many early readers, sometimes distracting them from the politics of freedom in the book–which includes sexual freedom as a subset. My own editor said that the design team had tried hard to create a cover that reflected the multiple aspects of the book, but they kept coming back to the fact that the romance resonated strongly with everyone on staff at Macmillan, and they decided to embrace it. They’re right: the book is hard to summarize with one image. And their jacket design turns out to be, frankly, irresistible–an outstanding marketing move. Still, I worry that the gorgeous cover has the potential to distract from the serious themes inside, which I hope teens will think about and discuss.

So you can imagine my pleasure when Karen contacted me with this:

I thought the politics of the situation were dead on and were in fact the most compelling part of the story….The sexual violence aspects of it — and to me, any type of unwanted sexual contact is a form of violence — definitely played into it. That scene with Gigi and the Hour Guard, uggh.  Also, interesting because I have read several [books] recently where sexual favors are coerced from young girls.  I’ve been wanting to write a thing about this. Of course there is also the scene with Sol and D’Arcy that is really a beautiful scene about consensual sex and caring.


The truth is, whenever I want to include a sexual interaction in a book, I try to ask myself why it’s there, and whether it needs to be. While many teens in the real world have sex simply because they enjoy it, this is literature, and I need it to be there for a reason that’s integral to the plot and themes. (The wise editor Jean Karl once told Franny Billingsley to remove every single thing from her manuscript that wasn’t “wholly necessary,” and I follow that advice to this day.)  In the case of Plus One, both of the major sexual encounters and even one minor one tie in with the politics of the world, and with the theme of lost liberties. 
****The paragraphs in blue contain spoilers. Scroll down to the black paragraph at the bottom if you’d like to avoid them.****
Gigi’s circumstance is obvious: Brad the Hour Guard is able to abuse his authority by putting her in a position where she has to barter for ordinary freedoms using sex. This is a case of sexual violence via asymmetric power. (The actual sex happens “off camera.”) Although Gigi technically consents to the encounter, she would say no if she could: she is forced to make this “choice.” (Recall that Sol observes in the hospital that another Hour Guard has “the Official-Business swagger that’s so ubiquitous among ordinary people who are granted extraordinary authority.”) No one takes this event lightly in the book; D’Arcy and Sol identify it as horrific violence, and a grim commentary on their helplessness. Despite her stoic facade, Gigi is profoundly affected, and in the meeting with the Noma she impulsively seeks validation that it was a necessary sacrifice. I know this scene with Gigi and Brad has upset some readers, who feel it’s unnecessary and “out of the blue,” but I think it’s important. In particular, the scene acts in tandem with the other sex scene of the book, in which Sol is able to express healthy sexual agency. In fact, Sol is so in charge of her sexuality that she can literally say these unequivocal words to D’Arcy: “I want to have sex with you,” and to act on them responsibly and without guilt. D’Arcy is definitely game, but even with her bold proclamation he checks twice that she hasn’t changed her mind (once before and once during their encounter).    
 
But wait, the consensual scene itself is a little more complicated than that, because it continues to tie in with the theme of loss of liberties. Yes, Sol and D’Arcy are equal partners when they have sex, but as I discussed in a post on Keertana’s blog, a different kind of pressure is present for them. Keertana worried that the sex was rushed and unnecessary, and that the professions of love were too quick. That sense she had of “rushing” was right on target: both the sex and the love are hurried for a reason. Sol believes she’ll never see D’Arcy again, and she’s taking the one and only opportunity she has to be with this person she cares so deeply about. Who knows how their relationship would have progressed if they’d had the luxury of time? We already know, for instance, that D’Arcy has taken dating other girls very slowly, and has been thoughtful about what he is and is not ready for. His fear of physically hurting Sol is strong enough that it may have led them to delay intercourse, and to take it in baby steps. But because of the politics of this world, they can’t do it that way. 

There’s a third sexual encounter in the book that’s also related to the political theme (but much more subtly): Sol’s encounter in the gangway with Ace when she’s only eleven. It’s an experience I think a lot of girls have, and it’s on the spectrum of sexual violence (even though it may seem relatively “harmless,” and Ace himself is underage). Sol believes his kissing and fondling are affectionate–that he must “like” her. She has a crush on him after that, and thinks she wants it to happen again, until she’s the same age he was when he did it and she sees his behavior for what it was (an older boy taking sexual advantage of a child). To me this has a (granted, very subtle) symmetry with the Day/Night policy, which people have accepted at face value as a restriction that was put in place to protect us, and are only slowly coming to realize is wrong. Sometimes breaches of rights present themselves as benign at first, and confuse us into not resisting. 
For me the point of this novel was to get young readers invested in the sexual and romantic elements so that they would really internalize multiple facets of individual liberty. While there are many other freedoms the characters have lost (such as the ability to choose their own education and career), I suspect sex and love are more powerfully relevant issues in the adolescent experience. I wanted teens to understand the violation of the Day/Night divide for what it was–to imagine themselves coping with it. I wanted them to pay attention to Grady Hastings’ speech “You can only be free if I am free.” (Which is actually Grady quoting Clarence Darrow.) I hoped Gigi’s predicament, and Sol’s and D’Arcy’s journey, would help readers see that all rights, including the rights of people who aren’t like you, are worth fighting for. The sexual violence is there for a reason: I wanted it to be very clear in Plus One that the world is not right–that a lot of work needs to be done in this society to restore personal freedom.  

About PLUS ONE:

Divided by day and night and on the run from authorities, star-crossed young lovers unearth a sinister conspiracy in this compelling romantic thriller.

Seventeen-year-old Soleil Le Coeur is a Smudge—a night dweller prohibited by law from going out during the day. When she fakes an injury in order to get access to and kidnap her newborn niece—a day dweller, or Ray—she sets in motion a fast-paced adventure that will bring her into conflict with the powerful lawmakers who order her world, and draw her together with the boy she was destined to fall in love with, but who is also a Ray.

Set in a vivid alternate reality and peopled with complex, deeply human characters on both sides of the day-night divide, Plus One is a brilliantly imagined drama of individual liberty and civil rights, and a fast-paced romantic adventure story




Goodreads Link: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17934493-plus-one?from_search=true
Buy Links Amazon  Barnes and Noble 


Author Bio:

ELIZABETH FAMA is the YA author most recently of Plus One, an alternate-history thriller set in contemporary Chicago. Her other books include Monstrous Beauty, a YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults selection and an Odyssey honor winner, and Overboard, an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, a society of Midland Authors honor book, and a nominee for five state awards. A graduate of the University of Chicago, where she earned a B.A. in biology and an M.B.A. and a Ph.D. in economics, she lives with (and cannot live without) her boisterous, creative family in Chicago.

Author Links: Website / Twitter / Tumblr

Tour Schedule:
March 31st  –  Fiction Fare
April 1st       – The Starry Eyed Revue
April 2nd      – Ivy Book Bindings
April 3rd       – Carina’s Books
April 4th       – Presenting Lenore
April 5th       – Shae Has Left the Room
April 6th       – The Best Books Ever
April 7th       – Teen Librarian Toolbox
April 8th       – Love is Not a Triangle  (Release Day)
April 9th      –  The Bevy Bibliotheque

Stop Street Harassment Week (March 30th – April 5th, 2014)

Last year, I wrote a very controversial post regarding something that the actor Matt Smith said about the actress Jennifer Lawrence at Comic Con. My basic premise was that I felt that his actions seemed similar to me to street harassment. In some ways, today, I would say they were possibly more like sexual harassment in the workplace. But that post is not the point, because people’s reactions to it were. I heard time and time again from Middle School and High School students responding to this post about how they were harassed walking down the hallways of their schools from boys around them commenting on their bodies, propositioning them for sex, etc. And I recalled that even I, in the 8th grade, had a student that I had never seen before reach out and grab my breast as I passed him in the school hallway. This, too, is a form of street harassment.

According to Stop Street Harassment, street harassment is “catcalls, sexually explicit comments, sexist remarks, groping, leering, stalking, public masturbation, and assault. Most women (more than 80% worldwide) and LGBQT folks will face gender-based street harassment at some point in their life. Street harassment limits people’s mobility and access to public spaces. It is a form of gender violence and it’s a human rights violation. It needs to stop.”

Follow #EndSHWeek and @hkearl on Twitter for Info


And yes, street harassment happens in our schools. It happens on the way to and from school both on the street and on the buses, it happens in the hallways, and it happens at school sponsored events.  “According to a 2008 study of 811 women conducted by stopstreetharassment.com, almost one in four women had experienced street harassment by age 12 and nearly 90% had by age 19″, as reported in this excellent YCteen Story: Street Harassment is No Compliment. Just think on that for a moment, by age 12 – the age my daughter will be this year – 1 in 4 girls surveyed had already been subjected to some type of street harassment. And in the responses from teens that I received, many of them have resigned themselves to this fate saying things like, it’s always been this way, boys will be boys, etc.

If we are looking for examples of street harassment in YA literature, there are some really good examples in both Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama and in Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt.

In Monstrous Beauty, the main character, Hester, is working at a historical re-enactment tourist trap when a group of boys begin to harass her:

“What have we here?” a cocky teenage voice said.
A group of boys ducked under the short door frame into the room.  A particularly tall one stared through the open window with his mouth gaping, as if she were an animal in the zoo
.
“Good day t’ ye,” Hester said. “I did not see ye at my door, or I should not have carried out such a graceless act.  Would one of ye care to rest yourself?” She motioned to the chair near the door.
A boy with a Boston t-shirt who looked to be about her age pushed his way past the others. He pointed in the direction of the bed. “I’d like to rest myself there, with you.” Machine-gun laughter burst from behind him.” – Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama

 

Infographic found at Hollaback

And in Uses for Boys, the main character, Anna, is walking home from work when she sees a man masturbating in his car and trying to engage the women around him. In one interview, Scheidt even mentions how nobody seems to comment on this scene: “That some see the book as dark, unrelentingly dark, was a surprise. I think Anna has some terrible experiences–nobody even comments on the street harassment, which to me is one of the really dark moments in the book–but I don’t see her story, the way that she tries and reaches and keeps moving forward, as dark” from an interview at The Rejectionist. Is street harassment so commonplace at this point in our lives that when we read about it in books we don’t even feel it’s worth discussing? My fear is that perhaps yes, yes it is.

In fact, the street harassment depicted in Monstrous Beauty was so profound to me that I wrote an entire post on the topic. It made me want to talk about street harassment and how it affected the way I now moved through the world.

In the past couple of years, there have been major movements, in part spearheaded by author John Scazli, to put anti-harassment codes of conduct in place at cons around the globe. And this year ALA even put forth one at it’s own national convention, which was met with very mixed reactions. But what about our schools? Our schools need to have clear sexual harassment policies in place and clearly outline the steps of recourse that students can take in the event that they are harassed. In addition, they need to have training – the same way that work places are required to have training – that engages teens in the discussion of respect, harassment, and what the consequences are. Our schools now have zero tolerance policies for violence, but why don’t they have zero tolerance policies for sexual harassment?

This week is a week dedicated to raising awareness about Street Harassment. Street Harassment is an issue that affects our teens. We need to be engaged in the discussion and raising awareness. It’s a good time to go to your administrator and make sure that you have the policies in place to protect your teens, either at school or in the public library. And it’s a good time to be putting up displays and sharing resources. The bottom line is this: all people deserve to walk through their daily routine without fear and harassment, are we doing our part to make sure we are moving in that direction?

To learn more and get involved visit these organizations:

Talking with Teens About Street Harassment (a part of the #SVYALit Project)
Street Harassment
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
That Time Matt Smith Perpetuated Street Harassment Culture at Comic Con

Book Review: PLUS ONE by Elizabeth Fama

This book.  Oh my goodness, people – this book!

Here’s the basic premise:

During the flu epidemic of 1918 the government decided that some people would get to be awake and operate during the day (Rays) and others during the night (Smudges).  This decreased the amount of contact people had with one another and helped end the plague.  But it also created a caste system where the privileged Rays get to live a regular life and the looked down upon Smudges never get to see the sun.  In fact, Smudges have to take a variety of medication to help regulate their sleep and wake cycle.  Everyone is forced to carry documentation and if you are caught out past your curfew by the Hour Guards you are thrown in jail.

Sol is a Smudge who concocts a plan to help her dying grandfather have one last moment of joy that involves breaking curfew and kidnapping babies.  This plan, of course, goes all wrong.  But she meets a boy named D’Arcy along the way and together the two of them fall in love and discover lots of truths about themselves, their world, and the lives they thought they were living.  It is a very thoughtful and complex look at politics, privilege, government, and more.

A More In Depth Look at the Sexual Politics of Plus One (Slightly Spoilerish about Two Scenes, but Not Plot or Ending)

And tucked inside are some very harrowing scenes that shed some stunning light on sexual politics as well.  I am now going to discuss them in a very spoiler free way.  You see, while on the run, Sol meets a young woman named Gigi and they have a conversation where they barter for Gigi’s help.  They use some very loaded language about rape as a metaphor for taking advantage of someone. And then, the 3 teens are stopped by an Hour Guard who uses his power to coerce Gigi into a sexual act in exchange for their safety.  It also is a harrowing scene, very uncomfortable to read and Fama uses the character of Sol and her reactions to remind us all the very complicated nature of power and sexual politics.

BUT THEN . . . there is one of the most sex positive and consent positive scenes I have ever read between Sol and D’Arcy.  It’s an amazing scene because Sol is very sure of what she wants and has the power to express it.  That’s right, a female character taking charge of her sexual desires in positive ways.  And in the midst of this scene, D’Arcy even reaffirms that this is indeed what she wants.  It manages to be consent positive and still very sexy.  It is a really good example to readers about what healthy sexual interaction can look like.

The Rest of the Review (Spoiler Free)

But let’s talk about Sol.  I love that Sol is a very complex, multilayered character.  She is driven, but very human and her plans often fail or get off track.  She has rough, hard edges built up by growing up in a system that affords her little freedom and is designed to tell her how little potential she actually has.  Yet under that is a layer of depth, intelligence, and sometimes even hope.  She is very passionate and dedicated, but sometimes reckless and selfish.  And in the end . . .

Actually, the ending of this book is so powerful.  it is an example of complex and amazing storytelling.  Fama doesn’t take the easy way out.  The plot has built up in such a way that you know there is no way everyone can come out of this with what they want.  So Sol arranges it so that a best case scenario happens – and she takes control of the situation even while others around her try to take that control away from her.  She makes incredible sacrifices – showing tremendous courage and growth – to create the best possible outcome for most of the people involved, including more than just our immediate players.  As they say, sometimes doing what is right is not easy, and that is definitely exemplified here.

I will say that Plus One was a slow start for me.  Fama takes her time building the world and introducing the characters and the plot, and I can be an impatient reader.  The set-up takes almost the first 75 pages.  But then it really starts steamrolling and I could not put it down and those beginning bits and pieces are important, they make sense.  Afterwards, I was amazed at everything Fama was able to put into this one book and how it really makes you think.  She does everything good storytelling does; the characters grow and draw you in, the layers are peeled back and reveal a complex and intricately woven world that makes you reflect upon the realities of our own, and then she makes you just want to talk to everyone about this book. It definitely and superbly sheds a kind of sideways light on a lot of the very discussions we are having in our world today about class, privilege, justice, politics, and more.  It is a masterclass in complex and sublime storytelling.

About That Cover

The cover makes it look like this is a romance, which it is not.  There is a love story in there.  And truthfully, the way Fama is able to make it so that this is not a case of insta-love even though our characters have just met is very creative and, yes, romantic. But there is so much more to this story. I fear that the cover might prevent non romance readers from picking this book up, and they will be missing out because this is not really a romance. I am not a romance reader, and I loved this book.

I give this 5 stars and highly recommend it.  Obviously you’ll want to note if you need to know that there are some intense sexual discussions and content and a little bit of violence.  Also, I contacted Elizabeth Fama yesterday after reading this book and she has graciously agreed to join our Sexual Violence in YA Lit panel for September.  I can’t wait to hear her talk about this book.

I received an ARC of this book for review in exchange for an honest review. It comes out in April 2014 from Farrar Straus Giroux.  ISBN: 978-374-36007-8.

10 Titles to Look for in 2014 – Karen’s Most Coveted

Fire and Flood by Victoria Scott

Victoria Scott is awesomesauce.  The real deal.  She totally floored me with her turn around in The Collector, which I thought I was going to hate because at first it seems shallow and superficial and bad female messaging, but then she pulled a 180 with her sexy, snarky demon and proved that she had mad skillz.  Fire and Flood is an epic race for a cure to save a beloved brother: “A modern day thrill ride, where a teen girl and her animal companion must participate in a breathtaking race to save her brother’s life—and her own.”


 

Plus One by Elizabeth Fama

I feel like all I really need to say is PLAGUE and those of you who know me will understand why this is on my list.  I don’t know what is wrong with me, I really don’t but I love a good epidemic book.  Also, this is set during the 1918 flu pandemic so it allows me a chance to read about an epidemic AND try to fulfill my personal quest to read more historical fiction. Boom. Okay, technically it is alternate history with a dystopian sounding twist, but I’m going to go with it.  It should make an interesting companion study to read A Death Struck Year, also about the flu epidemic of 1918, and compare.

 

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Delaria

Laurel writes letters to the dead, like Kurt Cobain and Janis Joplin, as she explores what happened to her and her sister May in a journal of speaking the truth and trying to heal.  Intriguing cover and title. Check.  Epistolary novel. Check. Looks like something teens will be drawn to. Check.  It goes on my TBR pile.

 

The Murder Complex by Lindsey Cummings

I feel like all I need to share is this brief description: “An action-packed, blood-soaked, futuristic debut thriller set in a world where the murder rate is higher than the birthrate. For fans of Moira Young’s Dust Lands series, La Femme Nikita, and the movie Hanna.”  I’m not a huge fan of this cover which seems a little “muddy” to me, but the concept is killer (see what I just did there) and I have been waiting for this one for a while.

 

Noggin by John Corey Whaley

Technically, I have already read this book.  BUT IT WAS SO GOOD. So very, very good. It was such a rich emotional portrait of a fish out of water.  Travis Coates was dying, so he had his head removed and preserved until now, where it has been attached to a new body.  It’s been 5 years since he was frozen, waiting for science to catch up, and the world went on without him.  Which is kind of a problem because to him, it’s like he just went to bed for the night and woke up the next day.  So he’s still a teenager while his girlfriend (wait, is she still his girlfriend?) and his best friend are now adults.  Such a great tone and writing style, an interesting way to explore traditional ya lit themes like finding yourself, and just really amazing.  Highly recommended.

Panic by Lauren Oliver

Um, so, yeah – I already read this one too.  It was actually probably one of my favorite books I read in 2013.  In small towns, you get creative trying to figure out how to pass the time.  So years ago the game of Panic was started.  Only seniors can compete for the cash prize, and they do so by participating in a variety of daring challenges.  This is a compulsively readable thrill ride, but it also poignantly depicts the stark desperation that teens feel to escape both small town life and poverty.  There is intrigue, backstabbing and some nail biting involved here.

Servants of the Storm by Delilah S. Dawson

Look, I was so struck by this cover that I thought, “I really am interested in this.”  And then, there it was on Edelweiss, so I downloaded it.  And then I started reading it, even though it doesn’t come out until August of 2014.  And then I couldn’t stop.  So, that is the story of how I read this book super early instead of doing things I was supposed to do.  Here’s a basic rundown: a hurricane roars through Georgia, one best friend, Dovey, survives and one dies.  A year later, everything changes when Dovey thinks she sees Carly.  Then it is like she falls down the rabbit hole as she learns the truth about what happened to Carly, what teems beneath the surface of her town, and the next big storm coming.  This is a unique, twisted look at demons.  It is obviously at times disturbing, but very interesting. 

Side Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy

Here’s what I know about this book: A girl is diagnosed with cancer so she makes a list of everyone she wants to get revenge on.  Then, when she checks the last person off of her bucket list of vengeance, she goes into remission.  Oops.  Now she has to deal with the blowback.  This just sounds so compelling.  Plus, I have met Julie Murphy and she has awesome style and voice and I think it will translate well to the page and resonate with teen readers.  Also, Printz Winner John Corey Whaley says this book is good and who can argue with him.

White Space by Ilsa J. Bick

Because this: “Ilsa Bick’s WHITE SPACE, pitched as The Matrix meets Inkheart, about a seventeen-year-old girl who jumps between the lines of books and into the white space where realities are created and destroyed – but who may herself be nothing more than a character written into being from an alternative universe, to Greg Ferguson at Egmont, in a two-book deal, by Jennifer Laughran at Andrea Brown Literary Agency”  Bolding mine.

Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige

Dorthy. Must. Die.  Great title. Great cover.  And here’s a small snippet from the blurb:  
“My name is Amy Gumm—and I’m the other girl from Kansas.
I’ve been recruited by the Revolutionary Order of the Wicked.
I’ve been trained to fight.
And I have a mission:
Remove the Tin Woodman’s heart.
Steal the Scarecrow’s brain.
Take the Lion’s courage.
Then and only then—Dorothy must die!”

Yep, sign me up. 

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

Please note: this post is on a sensitive subject and can have triggering discussions for some.
 
“What have we here?” a cocky teenage voice said.
A group of boys ducked under the short doorframe into the room.  A particularly tall one stared through the open window with his mouth gaping, as if she were an animal in the zoo.
“Good day t’ ye,” Hester said. “I did not see ye at my door, or I should not have carried out such a graceless act.  Would one of ye care to rest yourself?” She motioned to the chair near the door.
A boy with a Boston t-shirt who looked to be about her age pushed his way past the others. He pointed in the direction of the bed. “I’d like to rest myself there, with you.” Machine-gun laughter burst from behind him.” – Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama

Monstrous Beauty is the story of an older teen named Hester.  Hester lives in Massachusetts, a place still rich with history and legend and some believe, magic.  Hester is a lover of history with a scientific bent, she does not believe in magic.  A few days after Hester was born, her mother died.  The same thing has happened to every woman in her lineage as far back as they can tell.  This knowledge has made Hester take a vow that she will not allow herself to fall in love so that she is not tempted to marry, bear a child and suffer the same fate as her ancestors.  In an alternating storyline, we hear the story of passionate lovers Syrenka and Ezra.  With each turning page it is clear that their stories intersect in ways that Hester could never have imagined.

While reading Monstrous Beauty, I had a variety of reactions and immediately closed the book upon finishing to write a post about an aspect that I found both true and troubling.  Monstrous Beauty is many things: it is a richly dark gothic tale that slowly peels back the layers of a centuries old mystery and helps our young heroine, Hester, break a family curse.  The building blocks of the story are put together so incredibly well, almost flawlessly.  It is a mastercraft lesson in storytelling.  I give it a 4.5 out of 5 stars.

But there is one aspect of the story that I found deeply troubling: there is some incredibly disturbing sexual brutality, both outright and implied.  In fact, in the first 100 pages Hester is approached and put in sexually threatening situations twice.  Syrenka herself is raped in a moment that becomes the catalyst for our story.  I found this unnerving.  And then I spent some time really thinking about the implications of what life is like for a girl and how it is depicted in Monstrous Beauty.  So let’s take a quick journey through my life, shall we . . .

As a Middle School and High School student, I can vividly recall three separate instances when a fellow male student – whom I did not even know – purposely reached out and grabbed my breast while walking the hallway and changing classes.  I can also recall my best friend’s father once doing the same (and now you know why we were no longer friends – it wasn’t you, it was your dad.)

Twice in high school I went out with friends, with the clear knowledge that we were indeed nothing but friends, and at some point in the evening the drove me to the place called “lover’s lane” where people went to make out.  Nothing happened, but I had found myself in a very unsafe position with someone who was supposed to be my friend.  Because we were alone in the car, I realized that they were in fact in a position of power.

In another scene, Hester goes onto the beach and when it starts raining she runs into a cave for cover and is followed by a fellow student named Joey.
“Stop it, Joey,” she interrupted.  She pushed his upper body away, but he wrapped both arms around her waist and pressed his hips against her. – Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama

In college, I went with a group of students to a local cafe to study.  A male friend from the group was driving me when he went past the cafe and drove me down an empty street in the middle of the desert.  This was definitely one of the most terrifying times of my life.  In the end nothing happened, but he had all the power and control in this moment and I had never been so unsafe.  The conversation clearly indicated what his intentions were and I was just lucky that he didn’t have a weapon or chose not to use it.

Then there are all the times when you are simply walking from point A to point B, often in broad daylight, and men say filthy, lecherous things to you.  A couple of months ago a car of men drove by and screamed what they wanted to do to me as I played outside WITH MY CHILDREN.

Just last month I was visiting my dad when I went for a walk.  As I walked I passed a young man waiting at the bus stop, he got up and started to follow me.  At this point in my life I have learned what this life is like for a girl and I had my phone so I called and my people came out of the house to make sure I was safe.  As my family called me back to the house, the man waited a beat and then went back and waited for the bus.  Thankfully, my family was there to keep me safe.  And it was obvious that he was willing to forgo his bus ride for whatever nefarious plans he had upon seeing me.  This is another instance that could have gone much differently then it did, and I was terrified.

I have shared before, but there was even a time when I was continually sexually harassed by a teenage boy that was coming to my programs.  When we met with the boy and his father, the father said I should take it as a compliment.  There was never any acknowldgement of the innapropriateness of his behavior or how he failed to stop after having been told several times to stop.  These are the types of messages that our boys are being given – women should learn to take a compliment and they are ungrateful bitches when they don’t.

Statistics indicate that 1 out of 3 girls/women will be the subject of some type of sexual abuse/victimization – often before they even reach the age of 18.  If you include catcalls, unwanted sexual advances and off color remarks – all girls will.  Unfortunately, I fear that for a lot of teenage girls, Hester’s experience is in fact way too common.

Question: What is rape culture?
When we teach girls how to protect themselves from being raped and don’t spend our time teaching boys a plain and simple truth: It is not okay to rape.  As if the responsibility somehow rests on the victim and not the assailant.

Earlier this week, a Fox News correspondent made the comment on air that women who find themselves the victims of violence “should make better decisions.”  We continue to shift the blame onto women instead of shouting from the rooftops, Hey guys – it’s not okay to 1) touch a woman (another person really) without their explicit consent, 2) there are in fact situations in which a person can not realistically give consent and they include being under the influence and when there is an imbalance of power, to name just a few and 3) you – the aggressor – are ultimately responsible for your actions.  I can’t make you rape me.  Not by wearing the wrong clothes.  Not by walking in the wrong place. Not by saying the wrong things. Not by being in a night club. Not by being your friend, or your girlfriend, or even your wife.  You and you alone make those choices and they are your responsibility to bear.

On Twitter, I follow several people who are very active in a campaign to stop Street Harassment.  Street Harassment occurs when men yell out or whistle to women who are simply walking by.  Often, it is a group of men and these are terrifying situations that can easily escalate.  Again, there is an imbalance of power.  More importantly, women ARE in fact people and they deserve the courtesy and respect of being able to walk down the street without being harrassed, objectified, and intimidated.  (Side note: the objectification of women would constitute a whole other group of posts.)

Questions: What’s the cultural message we send to girls?
You must be thin, beautiful and sexy – but not too sexy or else I will rape you and it will be ALL YOUR FAULT.

As I continued reading Monstrous Beauty, I came to appreciate it for the rich story that it presented, the quality of the writing, and the way that Fama was able to juggle two story lines and weave them together in a way that followed through.  But I also thought, I want people to be reading and discussing this book because we should be talking about the sexual politics of our world and what it is like for a girl.  What happens in the book is unnerving and off putting – and it should be.  That is the power of story, sometimes it holds a mirror up to truth and makes us think about things we prefer to sweep under the rug.  I don’t know of a single female in my life who hasn’t in some way been the victim – multiple times – of some type of sexual harassment, intimidation or abuse.  We can’t still be thinking that is okay in the 21st century.  Thank you Elizabeth Fama for highlighting how little some of the politics of sex have changed since the time when Syrenka lived.

One final note: In the scene I opened this post with Hester is working her job at a Colonial America tourist resort.  Her job is to play a very specific role and remain in character at all times.  When approached by the group of boys in threatening ways, Hester stays in character and takes the opportunity to leave the cottage immediately under the pretense that a neighbor is expecting her to bring eggs.  She gets herself out of Dodge.  I thought this was an incredibly smart way for Hester to handle the situation because had she responded by verbally attacking the group, they more often than not will respond in anger and use it as an excuse to follow through on their threats – and then they will claim that bitch deserved it because she was disrespecting them.  Because somehow they can disrespect and threaten her, but she doesn’t have the right to defend herself.  I believe that this was a very realistic way for Hester to handle the situation and I applaud her intelligence.

Last night on Twitter I asked for help putting together a reading list of YA Titles that discuss sexual intimidation, violence and abuse.  These are some of the titles that were recommended:
What Happens Next by Colleen Clayton
Live Through This by Mindi Scott
Identical by Ellen Hopkins
Pieces of Us by Margie Gelbwasser
The Mockinbirds by Daisy Whitney
Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Schedit
Flawed by Kate Avelynn
13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher
But I Love Hime by Amanda Grace
Stay by Deb Caletti
Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers
Boy Toy by Barry Lyga
Something Happened by Joseph Heller
Leverage by Joshua C. Cohen
Just Listen by Sarah Dessen
Such a Pretty Girl by Laura Weiss
Not That Kind of Girl by Siobhan Vivian
The List by Siobhan Vivian
Bitter End by Jennifer Brown
Empty by K M Walton
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott
Exposed by Susan Vaught

I also asked for titles where a girl was put in a compromising sexual position, stood up for herself and the situation was resolved without harm coming to the girl.  The Twitterverse could not come up with very many titles.  This is what they came up with:
Knee Deep by Jolene Perry
Easy by Tammar Webber
Raw Blue by Kristy Eager
13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson

A note about boys: obviously sexual violence can and does happen to boys and it is just as horrific of a crime.

More discussion:
Force: Upsetting the Culture of Rape
Teach “don’t rape” instead of “don’t get raped”
Stop Street Harassment