My Rebellion (for ELLE magazine talent competition 2013)

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At sixteen I was desperate to rebel against my parents.  I didn’t dislike them; they were perfectly fine as parents go.  But I was sixteen, chafing under the bit of their authoritative yoke.  I needed me some rebellion!

I experimented with calling them by first names then I failed a school choir audition and cried for Mommy and Daddy.  I stole Dad’s cigarettes.  He didn’t notice.  I stomped to the breakfast table wearing borrowed Doc Martins, mismatched knee-high argyles, artfully ripped t-shirt, neon tutu and denim jacket I had tortured then repaired with a hundred safety pins à la Donatella Frankenstein.  My mother grinned.  She told me about the plastic mini skirt she had loved when she was my age: black with yellow daisies worn over shiny white Go-go boots.  Outwardly I mocked her absurd fashion sense; inwardly I cursed her for not keeping these vintage relics to pass on to me.

            Honestly!  What was it going to take to get a reaction from these people?  Tattooed boyfriend?  Mom critiqued the shading around Betty Boop’s boobs inked on his bicep.  Obnoxious punk music?  Dad bought me a walkman—I was the first of my friends to have one.  Arrested at a political rally?  Just try and shock former flower children with that one! 

            Fail.  Fail.  Fail.  Against the front of my parents’ open-minded, freedom-loving, daisy-painted tolerance this rebellion seemed doomed. 

‘Instigate Generational War!’ vowed I.

But how?  Who could possibly battle against the stubbornly non-confrontational? An answer came on a pure beam of sunlight bursting through parted clouds across an azure sky.  Sympathetic to my recent musical failure at school, my friend Michelle, invited me to join her church choir. 

‘Church choir?’  I grimaced at the hymnal she handed me.  Its cover depicted a beam of sunlight bursting through clouds.  ‘Why would I want to join a church choir?  I don’t even like Amazing Grace.  I’d have to attend church every Sunday and my parents would not approve of—

            Hang on.

My parents would not approve.  My atheist parents never set foot in church unless attending a wedding (even then it would have to be the wedding of someone they really loved) or a funeral (even then it would have to be the funeral of someone they really hated).  If I joined a church they would be furious. 

Hallelujah! 

Michelle’s church choir welcomed their new alto with open arms and voices.  But I didn’t stop there: baptism, confirmation, youth ministry.  I even preached an Easter Sunrise Service.  I dressed the part as well, building a collection of vintage cocktail dresses, Mary Jane shoes and dainty cross jewellery.  I looked like the Catholic school fetishist poster girl of 1957. 

Best of all was the expression on my parents’ faces when they reluctantly attended the baptism.  Forced to conceal their fury and horror, they sat in awkward tight-lipped silence on the edge of their pew.  Those patent leathers of mine clicked delightedly.  God blessed my successful rebellion!

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She is Not for You: Sex Positive YA

I have many reasons for becoming a Young Adult Fantasy writer.  1) I love to write (duh).  2) I always have and still do mostly read fantasy novels (11-18 readership).  3) I find teenagers vastly interesting both individually and collectively (but not in a perverse way, let’s be clear).

imagesI also suspect I have a bit of an axe to grind.  An axe forged by Phillip Pullman, sharpened by Stephenie Meyer and then, more recently, sharpened again by Miley Cyrus.  Or, more accurately, sharpened by public response to Stephenie Meyer and Miley Cyrus and by my friend and fellow writer Janine Ashbless’ recent blog post about the film Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.  (Younger readers be aware Ms Ashbless is a writer of erotica and that her blog is aimed at adult readers, but following this link should take you just to the blog post in question which contains nothing too “adult” in content.)

Phillip Pullman is one of my favourite young adult writers.  His Dark Materials is thought-provoking, heartbreaking and full of pathos with an honestly-presented hero and heroine who, as a reader,  I’d kill or die for at the heart of it.  Plus, Pullman deserves props for making marzipan sexy.  Honesty about the sex lives and desires of young women is a bit of a theme for Pullman which he explores not only through Lyra and Will but also through his Sally Lockhart character and Jenny in The Butterfly Tattoo/The White Mercedes.  Pullman’s women, as we feminists like to say, have agency.  They accept and celebrate their desire for sex and love.

But is this attitude appropriate really, for young readers?  Should YA authors be presenting sex positive characters and themes in our books?  Yes it is and yes we should.  Yes, yes, yes, yes, YES!

Besides being an author, I am also a teacher.  In many direct and indirect ways, I encounter attitudes toward teen sex on a regular basis.  Empowering young women to have the confidence to say no and take control of their bodies is, and should be, a priority in schools, in homes and in clinics.  Because, as a wise person once told me, young women will never feel the power to truly say no and mean it if they cannot also lay claim to saying yes and mean it.

And mean it.

That means admitting girls desire, want, fancy boys, get horny and feel the urge to act on it.  That means giving our girls role models in fiction who experience sex as an expression of their own love and passion and not merely as objects of someone else’s.  Their own bodies, their own desires and their own experiences which they can initiate, negotiate and celebrate.

Young readers of both sexes cannot get enough of this message and Pullman is far from the only YA author preaching a sex positive message for young people.  Stephenie Meyer has come under massive criticism for her representation of Bella Swan as a role model for young women.  It bugs me to no end that, living with her adult father, Bella acts the housewife.  However, no one can say that Bella does not know who and what she wants.  She fights fang and claw to get it.  In deference to conventional morality, Bella and Edward marry first but they have pretty explicit, glorious sex which she initiates, negotiates and celebrates.

As Ms Ashbless points out in her blog post, Clary Fray similarly pursues a physical and emotional relationship with Jace in The Mortal Instruments.  I have mixed feelings about the books for other reasons, but in terms of giving a positive message to young women about sexual desire, I can’t fault Cassandra Clare for the role model she gives her readers.

Respecting the sexuality of young women and teaching them to respect their own sexuality is crucial for the physical and psychological development of both sexes.  A girl who learns that she exists only to fulfill the desires of men and not herself grows up accepting a rape model of relationships.  A boy who grows up with the idea that men are the initiators of sex and that girls and women need to be persuaded or convinced to have sex will likely grow up a rapist.  And it colours our entire attitude about women about men and about sex.

Equus-Pictures-daniel-radcliffe-85023_350_506The recent trend toward depicting the sexual fantasies of young women in fiction and the extreme backlash which has accompanied it shows just how much we need sex positive YA heroines.  How many blogs, reviews and memes have  crucified the Twilight series?  The sheer volume and vehemence of the criticism reeks of misogyny, which is ironic when so much of the criticism claims to be feminist in nature.

Compare this to the outrage over Miley Cyrus’s sexy song and dance routine on the MTV Video Music Awards 2013.  People are incensed about her performance.  Little Hannah Montana twerking her perky butt all over the place and pleasuring herself with a giant foam finger.  Shocking!  Yet when Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe got his wand out on stage for Equus, he was widely praised for bravely challenging his child actor image (and for his rock-hard sexy abs).  And no one turned ex-Disney poster boy Justin Timberlake into a pariah for ripping off Janet Jackson’s top.

These out-dated double-standards belong in the bottom drawer with the knee-high argyle socks.

I hope that YA heroines continue to be the agents of their own desires.  I hope YA writers continue to publish books which explore the fantasies of young women.  And when I come across young men who scowl at “that sodding twinkly vampire bollocks”, I simply remind them: “these books are not meant for you.  These are the fictional fantasies of young women, and if you’re smart you’ll learn something from them, mate.”

Burnsall on the River Wharfe: A setting for Burrs Water in Burly-the-Wath

Not for nothing do the proud inhabitants of Yorkshire call their county “God’s Own Country”.  Where I grew up in central Illinois, landscape variation meant swapping cornfields for soybean, so I never grow tired of the beautiful countryside of my adopted homeland.  I find it particularly inspiring as a writer.

For my first novel A Circle of Lost Sisters, I gave my pack of werewolf girls a vast moorland to run around in, based mostly on the North York Moors.  The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes is also based in Yorkshire, but I have placed my fictional community of Burly-the-Wath in more of a Dales type setting.  In particular the village of Burnsall on the River Wharfe.

In the first chapter of the book, Flora attempts to re-create an Ophelia-esque suicide, only to be defeated by poor aesthetics.

wharfeFor several moments, Floretta Deliverance Hughes froze in the midst of Burrs Water eyes tightly closed, face lifted beatifically to heaven.  Nothing happened.  Her brows knitted.  Still nothing.  Her eyes blinked open on the pale green undersides of willow leaves, bobbing pink cherry blossoms and hazy purple dawn.  It would be another clear and glorious spring day; another day of no rain.  No rain for some time now.

Flora looked down.  Burrs Water rippled jovially over her ankles, bubbled up to tickle the gooseflesh on her legs, but rose no further.  The river was not deep enough.  Not deep enough to carry her gracefully along its current—certainly not deep enough to drown her.  Perhaps, if she submerged face-down she might—  No!  Drowning in such a manner was artistically unacceptable.  Sigh.

*

burnsall2

‘Oh, honestly!  Why do I bother at all?’  She slammed the uncooperative book closed on her inadequate prose.  A nearby sheep bleated its protest to this sudden noise so early in the morning.  ‘Even you think I’m a nuisance,’ sighed Flora at the sheep.

Flora lay back on the woollen cloak and let despair engulf her as the river would not.  In this she was once again thwarted by charming weather.  The morning sun shone brightly through the branches of the flowering cherry tree making dappled patterns on the grassy banks, the bubbling river and the lacy layers of her voluminous dress.  Again she sighed. 

‘All the forces of God and man and nature are against me.’

*

wharfe2 Flora gave attention to every aesthetic aspect of death.  Her deceased mother’s wedding dress seemed perfect from a symbolic point of view.   Practical as well—the sleeves alone would have soaked up the entire river and dragged her swiftly into Burrs Water’s deathly depths.  If only Burrs Water had any depths.

Practical for drowning perhaps but not practical for walking through the surrounding grove of trees, over several fields and across bordering hedgerows.  Even trickier would be making her way home without being spotted by someone tending flocks or fields.  Fortunately, the vicar’s youngest daughter knew many secret paths.  By the time she reached the vicarage,  Flora’s legs and feet had collected grasses and flowers and all manner of countryside detritus.  The wedding dress survived mostly unscathed, though Flora had at one point nearly pulled it all the way over her head to protect the fine fabric.  She would hate to ruin her most precious death accessory. 

selected extracts from The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes, a work in progress by Katharine Elmer