Inhabiting the Margins

 Young adult fiction embraces subculture

By Tara-Michelle Ziniuk

Things were different when I became a teenager-in the days of 90210 and “Kurt Cobain Lives” graffiti. There were no groups too exclusive for me on MySpace. There was no MySpace.

There were definitely no book covers in the Young Adult (YA) section of my local library that displayed Sex Pistols’ lettering or girls in wigs on the side of the highway.

But now, there are.

I’m not going to write an “I wish these books were around when I was a kid” sermon. First, because into my 20s I still consider myself a kid, and second, because even though it was cooler to be punk than goth in grade nine, as a younger kid, I didn’t have to compete for freak status. If these books had been around then, I’d like to think they would have been unpopular. Not because they’re bad, but because being an outsider was a different thing then, and not something easily flaunted, like it is now.

Idealistically, I hope presses are realizing that the unpopular kids need books too (and are more likely to be reading them than trendy mall-clique followers).

We’ve all seen this sudden hipness of subculture. There are easy-listening versions of punk bands playing to the needs of wannabe outcasts who are going through a phase. Now that alternative fashion and music is in, it’s no surprise that YA fiction is also taking on its aesthetic.

Canada’s big-time press for little people, Scholastic, publisher of such provocative new releases as Weather Fairies #2: Abigail the Breeze Fairy and My Secret Unicorn: The Magic Spell, started its own “edgy” imprint, PUSH, to cater to the needs of teens who weren’t impressed by (or buying) their usual pastel offerings.

Idealistically, I hope presses are realizing that the unpopular kids need books too (and are more likely to be reading them than trendy mall-clique followers). PUSH’s reprint of Patricia McCormick’s Cut, which deals with self-harm, sold over 60,000 copies in under six months. Conversely, I can’t help but wonder if the popularization of outsider culture is what gives these books their potential sales targets. I mean, clearly Blink 182 albums and AC/DC iron-ons have a market.

With screaming youth-fronted bands emerging from basements everywhere, it’s not surprising that alt teen music started selling long before alt lit. But, until American YA author Zoe Trope’s Please Don’t Kill the Freshman was released in 2003, books written by and for youth were rare-and unsurprisingly, most adult authors weren’t attempting to adequately represent youth subculture. Indie teen punk, rock and metal angst have also met their literary counterparts in Canada-Toronto writers Kristyn Dunnion and Mary-Lou Zeitoun have both been published by small presses (Red Deer Press and Porcupine’s Quill) in this emerging genre.

Young adult titles with underground characters are now appearing in publishers’ catalogues across North America. Michelle Tea’s Rose of No Man’s Land (McAdam/Cage), Michelle Embree’s Manstealing for Fat Girls (Soft Skull), and Matthue Roth’s Never Mind the Goldbergs (PUSH/Scholastic) are examples of new books of revolutionary teen fiction worth reading. These in-the-know authors use real-life subcultural references. Whether it’s the Portishead, petty theft or couches dragged into forests for pot smoking and school skipping-there’s a sense that these authors have been there.

Critically acclaimed for reading like an uncensored YA novel, loaded with realistic talk of sex and sexuality, drugs and rule-breaking, it saddens me to think of this book not making it to off-cast teens via schools or libraries, especially those outside of big cities.

Michelle Tea’s YA novel is comparable to her adult books, including Valencia, which featured tattooed dykes and girls with glasses, and her smart, analytical and true-to-life memoir, The Chelsea Whistle. It’s not hard to imagine her established readership will be just as inclined to pick up Rose of No Man’s Land as the 14-year-old contemporaries of the book’s narrator, Trisha Driscoll. This girl, who can wittily psychoanalyze her entire family and most others she encounters, but is lacking any real self-awareness, comes with a “you-know-how-it-is-for-girls-like-us” nonchalance. I hate to point to fashion as indicative of social ability, but there’s nothing like a girl in sweatpants to drive home a point. She’s not socially mocked, but not socially adjusted either-she doesn’t dread the school halls but only because no one’s noticed her enough to point and laugh.

Michelle Embree ups the age range to 17 with Manstealing for Fat Girls, using an underdeveloped but more competent model of Tea’s protagonist, one with at least a few friends, interests and parties to go to in her particular American shit-town. Angie and her friend have got subculture and social torment (as in being tormented) down. Angie is a fat girl, and amazing fat girls are most certainly underrepresented. Angie’s best friend is an out lesbian and her next best friend has a single huge boob. Critically acclaimed for reading like an uncensored YA novel, loaded with realistic talk of sex and sexuality, drugs and rule-breaking, it saddens me to think of this book not making it to off-cast teens via schools or libraries, especially those outside of big cities. The twentysomethings who got out alive will also love it.

Matthue Roth’s narrator in Nevermind the Goldbergs, Hava Aaronson, is an Orthodox girl who, in terms of faith, wouldn’t have it any other way. Although she abides by Jewish law more than her peers do, she doesn’t let this affect her fondness for secular music (Hole’s Celebrity Skin makes more than one appearance in the novel), over-the-toilet-haircuts or Sleater-Kinney posters. Within her peer group, she is the outcast because of her defiant taste and unusual aesthetic. Within punk circles and, in Hollywood where she works as an actor (playing the part of a “regular” Orthodox Jew on a sitcom), she is an outsider because of her religion. Though I’m sure there are a few Ortho-punks reveling in the existence of Roth’s creation, finally feeling heard, the book itself reads more like straight-up fiction than the others, and less like it is trying to speak to a more broad adolescent experience. Roth’s writing, much like Tea’s work, is also a YA fiction follow-up to his own memoir, Yom Kippur a Go-Go. Yet Roth finds enough balance between “this stuff really happens” and his fictional narrative so that it’s not alienating to the unaware.

Tea’s Rose of No Man’s Land, Embree’s Manstealing for Fat Girls and Roth’s Never Mind the Goldbergs do a fine job proving that their main characters are not the norm, nor conformist in any way, by juxtaposing them against their families and immediate surroundings, whether that’s a religious community in Brooklyn or a highway of neon strip malls. What’s interesting, however, is that all three books include secondary characters that are more easily characterized as “freaks” than the protagonists. Rose, the title character of Tea’s book, is a pathological liar, thief and adventurer. Embree’s Inez is a drug dealer and sociopath who yells absurdities into payphones to elicit reactions from passersby. Moish, Hava’s (also Orthodox) filmmaker friend in Roth’s book, dresses like Morrissey and films every waking, and sleeping, moment of his summer in the name of art. Says Hava, “Moish was the kind of person I always wanted to be. Honest. Singular. Solitary. We were both the outcasts of our school. Only I toned my punkness down, alienated it, ridiculed that side of myself…. Moish flaunted his intellectual dorkiness, wore it proudly.”

Perhaps these are the true outcasts, the ones that continue to exist in 2006, even with Gap-punk and commodified alt-porn-the wallflowers without successful bands, perhaps without even posters of successful bands, stuck in suburbs and small towns or sheltered within urban social traffic. Perhaps the Roses, Shelbys and Moishes of the world are still waiting for their mass market to come. Or hoping it doesn’t.

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