Wrenching

Finally got around to watching Twelve Years a Slave, which I had on my to-do list but didn’t actually want to watch for a long time because I knew it would be difficult to watch the scenes of torture and abuse. We went to hang out with my first sister-in-law and brother-in-law and they had the DVD from Netflix. The original plan was to watch Team America: World Police but we couldn’t find a good streaming site.

The movie was indeed very difficult to watch but it was very well done. I was struck by a sense of deja vu because of Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Butler was a science fiction writer and to me a paragon in a field still dominated by white guys. I don’t know what her science background is (I’m the kind of fan who doesn’t care about the creator, only the creation) but as a biologist I loved the Xenogenesis trilogy, including little touches like calling the human-ooloi hybrids “constructs” like what we called our recombinant viruses in the lab where I did my Master’s.

Kindred‘s Dana is a black American woman from modern times who gets forcibly and mysteriously time-travelled back to the slave South at random intervals and for random periods of time. (She does, however, discover that extreme life-threatening stress teleports her back to the present day, suggesting that the time-travel is some kind of subconscious reflex.)  Like Solomon in Twelve Years who was a free man in his home state of New York, Dana acts as a proxy for the reader, their shock and disgust at the brutality they suffer and witness guiding ours. They knew that such things happened to others, but to see people killed in front of one’s own eyes and to feel oneself come under the lash is a different story. Having read Kindred, Twelve Years felt familiar to me.

As a side note, the actual book of Twelve Years has been downloaded less than 6000 times from Gutenberg.org at the time I write, which is surprising. I would have thought the success of the film would have made it at least somewhat more popular. From glancing at a few pages it seems like there isn’t much dialogue – not surprising from a person trying to recall many years’ experience a long time later – but you can see that the things that happen in the film are not exaggerated from Northrup’s account, and the film dialogue echoes some of the wording in the prose. I’m going to start reading it straight away (not like I don’t have half a dozen unfinished books going already due to my internet addiction distracting me from longform reading, Prof Abdul Aziz Bari’s Malaysian Constitution: A Critical Introduction and Sean Carroll’s Brave Genius among them).

The DVD had a trailer for The Book Thief film adaptation, so I mentioned this Slate article to my SIL. The link on the front page the day it was posted was extremely clickbaitish – something like “If You Read YA Books You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself”.  The article itself is more nuanced, arguing that YA novels don’t have the depth to tackle really complex emotional and relational issues. They also have an excessive amount of histrionic dialogue which might sound “deep” to a young person but you seriously can’t imagine someone saying something like that in real life without sounding like a wanker. Also, actual sad endings not allowed.

Another side note: “YA” is one of those damn stupid American euphemisms that I dislike. If someone’s under 18 they are not a young adult. They are a teenager. One does not rest in public restrooms. My best guess without having researched this is that “YA” came about because the word “juvenile” became associated with criminals, as in “juvenile court” and “juvenile detention”.

Jane Austen’s Juvenilia on the other hand are funny in the way of those embarrassing stories you wrote in middle school, but you can see where her young brain was going.

My SIL disagrees with the Slate writer, saying that The Book Thief for instance (she has read it and I have not) does manage to include complex and big-picture issues, but I agree somewhat. I have read many good YA novels, but I’ve never run into one that made me want to put it down because it made me think too hard or feel emotionally uncomfortable – only those that made me want to put them down because they were too dumb like Twilight and Divergent. I do fully agree that there are many YA novels worthy of the name and well-written, but I also feel like most of them are brain popcorn – easy and appealing to consume, and you don’t really feel like you’re “wrestling” with the text.

This is not to say that grownups shouldn’t read YA novels. But grownups should also read grownup novels, and the concern of the Slate commentator is that if grownups only read YA novels, then teenagers (and actual young adults) will see no role models encouraging them to mature and broaden their reading, and this is a valid concern. I grew up in a family of big readers and we were never pushed to read specific things; we started reading grown-up books at an early age simply because they were lying around all over the place.

There’s a special reward in that feeling of stretching yourself beyond the YA mark, akin to the excitement of graduating out of the kiddie pool and the rest of the padded trappings of childhood: It’s the thrill of growing up. 

I would encourage young people to read Kindred and Twelve Years a Slave. You would be unlikely to find them on the “YA” shelves.

One more side note: Before Borders Singapore shut down, I found The Memoirs of Fanny Hill on its Childrens’ shelves. (It’s straight up pornography.) On checking the computer catalogue it was in fact supposed to be there. I can only assume they anyhow shelved all the Penguin Classics together. (Also, why oh why wasn’t the merged company named Random Penguin House or Random House Penguin…would have been so funny.)

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