Yesterday, I posted the first of two guest posts by Sykosa author Justin Ordoñez. Today, we return to the discussion of what an author does with a book that rejects definition with a look at the YA genre. You can visit the first part of this post here.
Defining the Book that Rejects Definition; A Genre Question
Let’s take a look at YA.
People say they like YA because it’s short, it’s easy, it’s different, it’s fun, but it so happens the YA hot streak has coincided with a culture becoming ever more obsessed with youth, and a culture that has—in an unfair manner—began to rob children of the right to be young. To say for certain what is happening is hard while living it, but it seems there’s a tremendous downward pressure (by downward, I mean the older applying the pressure to the younger) for the young to become sexualized in an adult fashion, and with this downward pressure has come, in my opinion, an immense need to segment the youth into categories—newborns, toddlers, kids, tweens, teens, young adults—so this sexualization can be coped with and appear implementary. Market segmentation is not a new phenomena, nor it the implication that adults—who fall for logical fallacies like kids doing chores for candy—view most implementary change as change that must have been rationally thought out. If you pay attention, society doesn’t get mad when an entity crosses a line, but when it crosses too many lines. We get angry when the fallacy isn’t present—when it’s obvious we are objects without humanity. (An example of this would be selling thongs for seven year olds). When this happens, society’s response is to create more lines, which might at first seem okay. If there are more lines, then there are more lines to cross, thus less offenses should happen. Unfortunately, the problem is being viewed from the incorrect frame of reference. If one were to plot the downward pressure linearly (in a line), then review this line from a distance, it would still be as long as it has ever been, except the space between lines is shorter, and so it is much easier to cross one line, wait for society to become conditioned to it, then move toward the next—it is easier to create the appearance of implementary change, and to create a change that feels legitimate and true, and so one will find radical change becomes easier and ultimately meets less resistance.
In a most perverse fashion, and I use that word “perverse” on purpose, (recall what I said about pornography earlier), we have decided to enact this war on the youth, telling them they’re unfit and unready for the sex they’re clearly biologically ready to have, while we dress them up in our suppressed fantasies, and place ever more intricate rating levels and oversight committees (more lines) on the media they ingest and the schools they attend—somehow thinking this will make things less violent, less sexual, less adult. Well, when has that ever happened? We’re contributing to the madness. And like it or not, we’re contributing to it not because we disagree with it, but because we want it—we want that youth, we want them to be readily available (and exploitable) for our somewhat immature fantasies about magic, science fiction, and an untarnished and unattainable innocence (we ask the same thing from the female body, by the way).
The need might not appear sexual, and sexuality might not be its whole story, but sexuality is a major part of it, and regardless of whether or not we agree on its causes, it’s nonetheless de-humanizing.
In many ways, we need our kids to be a different kind of porn star.
And Sykosa is pushing back. She is saying, “Hey, you can’t have to your cake and eat it, too. If you want things this way, you gotta take everything that comes along with it.” To me, Sykosa’s voice is loud and inescapable, I must write her, and I do so in reckless disregard of my rational self-interest, and I do it even if it makes me a hypocrite based on how I’ve lived my life. (And, trust me, that’s happened quite a bit). But, I trust Sykosa will always lead me true, and I believe she represents a type of sexuality that isn’t interested in exploiting young women, and it’s one that has no sensitivity for if things are going the way they “should” go. This is not to say that Sykosa is beyond reproach or that she represents the “ideal woman.” The very suggestion of such repulses Sykosa, and for her, misses the point. What makes Sykosa “different” or “unique” or “interesting” is that, throughout her story, she remains a human being, and does not ever allow herself to become an object or a character or something we can manipulate so we (the readers) can better process or cope with the harshness of her world (which includes, among other things, her father’s need for her to be a happy, bouncy daughter, her mother’s occasional need for a best friend, her school’s need for her to become the moral “product” that its built a reputation for shaping a student into, Tom’s sexual expectations and pressures, the bullying she experiences from other girls, and from the narrator, who occasionally offers harsh, disconnected critique of Sykosa and her friends as if their physical attributes were all that mattered [Who is that person, anyway? In what other places do we encounter that voice?]). And this constant pull on Sykosa is important, as the downward pressure I described above is a type of objectification, and objectification is—in one way or another—a disease that has destroyed and will destroy many young women, and their fight against it (and they fight, don’t think they don’t fight—they lose, but it doesn’t mean they don’t fight) is the greatest battle most will ever face, so while Sykosa may be a whiny, bratty wallflower, afraid of confrontation and frozen by her emotions, in her exists a bravery that is sometimes too easily discarded. And in place of being commended for her battle, or instead of saying, “Look this girl needs our help and I’m going to support her,” her struggle and her story get referred to as, “pornographic,” or to a lesser (and far safer) stance, “different,” “unique,” “interesting,” or a new word (that never came up from any my test readers), “raw.”
As far as Sykosa is concerned, these adjectives may sound different, but they’re all derived from the same place, by the same premises and engine. For while her story may represent any of these words—to use one of them—the “rawness” experienced by the reader should correlate to the level of “acceptance” the reader has shown to the notion that women are objectified in order to justify all sorts of immoral and unconscionable actions. If you are sensitive to it and aware of it, Sykosa will feel like a book that simply recounts what you’re witnessing daily. You may even view Sykosa as a hero, and you’ll find yourself rooting for her, and you’ll begin to feel there are deep moral implications at play in this story, that Sykosa is speaking to something within all of us, and that you need her to win—you can’t see her lose like you’ve seen so many lose before. Conversely, if you’ve become apathetic and “conditioned” to it, and your way of coping with this violence is surrender, which constitutes self-objectification—not solely as a sexual object, but the objectification of motherhood, of being a “professional,” of any pursuit in which women trade humanity for legitimacy—then Sykosa might feel like an all-out, never-ending, needlessly cruel assault on your senses, especially in regards to the levels of sex in the book.
Another segue that examines the genre critique of Sykosa.
“There’s too much sex! Don’t these characters think of anything else?”
Wait… Is that actually true?
Before we accept this premise, let’s explore the idea that the word “sex” has been misappropriated. In using “sex” as a blanket term to describe Sykosa’s thoughts, one is really saying nothing more insightful about her than if I proclaimed, “I, Justin Ordoñez, think about sports a lot,” which is true, I do, but “sports” is an encompassing term. There’re professional, collegiate, high school, and youth sports, sports I play with my friends, the softball league I did with coworkers, there’s occasional betting, family pride and tradition, fantasy sports, nationalist sports like the Olympics, sports metaphors like the 1981 US Olympic hockey team and America’s investment in the Cold War, philosophical notions like the idea of “team,” sacrificing for the betterment of the whole, delayed gratification for a championship. Sports for use as social grease—starting a conversation at a party, commenting on the paper someone’s reading on the bus, mentioning something to a woman who’s wearing a jersey of the team I root for. Sporting events on the TV and radio, TV and radio shows about sporting events, movies about sports, books about sports—it goes on and on. The same principal holds true for Sykosa. Sykosa is, of course, interested in her own sexuality, but she is also interested in the sexuality of Tom, her friends, and of the grown-ups around her. In a grander way, Sykosa’s interested in the politics that form and develop relationships. In this, very few of Sykosa’s sexual thoughts are pleasure-seeking. She believes the people around her are good, and she wants to understand them better, and learn their true motivations. She does this because she is curious, yes, but also because during her sophomore year, her entire identity and conception of the world was ended in one instant, and in the aftermath, all of the systems, authorities and individuals she was told she could trust, since she was a little girl, failed her massively, and did so without so much as an expression of regret.
The many variations of this theme this can be endlessly unpacked. Today, I chose to use if Sykosa was YA, and I used the example of pornography as possibly being a reason why she is not—but that is not to imply that these arguments are exclusive, or that they can be critiqued solely in the context I presented them. I had to limit my premises as this is a blog post, and attempting to answer these questions in such a forum can lead to a sloppy presentation if one isn’t strict with his/her scope. This simply isn’t the setting for such, whereas the novel, one like Sykosa, where characters can live, breathe, and play out these scenarios, suits it perfectly. Today, all I can hope to provide is some guidance as to Sykosa’s motivations, then try to show you why those motivations lead her to the genre and marketing she ended up in, which is where it was felt she was most likely to reach women who might agree with her, or be interested in the things she has to say.
So is Sykosa YA?
I don’t know. I don’t really think she is a genre. But, I know she isn’t pornography. And I know that can’t be a reason for not including her in YA fiction. And it can’t be a reason for prohibiting her from young women.
I’ll end on an example, if not because it’s a poetic ending, but because it sort of brings all the elements of this argument together. Imagine your Sykosa, and if you can’t do that, imagine you’re a sixteen year old girl. You have a crush on a boy who seems like a nice guy, but unbeknownst to you, he watches pornography several days per week, and has, in a manner you can’t even really quantify in your brain, witnessed five hundred women engaging in anal sex, which is (I believe) the most filmed and most popular pornography in America today. His consistent viewing has led him to slowly condition himself to believe, at some point, he is going to have anal sex with you. Is that not pertinent information for you? Certainly the boy should be forthcoming, but he’s been taught that being honest about his sexuality will injure you, so he’s not going to do it, but even if he did, would that forgive society from not having art and expression for you to engage about it? And by not being open and sharing this information with you, thus disabling you from properly understanding your environment and leaving you at a disadvantage to your peers, is anyone offering to take responsibility for the consequences you’ll one day face in regards to this? Or are they content to stand on the sidelines when all your ignorance becomes so starkly visible to you and you are left with little else to do but blame yourself? Or even better, how do you protest this in society, how do you try to effect change, when you’re not allowed to speak or know of it? How do you assume ownership of your soul and your sexuality without it?
I feel that most young women, if approached, would say they want this information for themselves, regardless of its appropriateness, and it might be more strongly worded than “want.” They might be like Sykosa. They might suggest they’re entitled to it. In addition, like Sykosa, they might express suspicion of anyone who would conspire, actively or passively, to deny them it. After all, she’ll argue, what good and moral person would want me to, one day in the near future after sleeping with, falling in love with and committing to my boyfriend, stumble upon his massive collection of pornography while using his computer to check my email? What kind of person would want me to suffer the anger and feelings of betrayal of that moment by myself? Or to stare at my boyfriend’s face that looks like, “I didn’t know this would be so upsetting to you”? Certainly not her mom, certainly not her dad, certainly not her teachers, not the religious authority she has subscribed to since birth—no, not those people, that kind of stuff is reserved for prostitutes, drug dealers, murderers, or faceless white men in generic board rooms, but they are not the people she trusts, not the people whom she holds dear, not the people who love her.
At one time, Sykosa would’ve agreed.
About the author: Sykosa is Justin Ordoñez’s life’s work. He hopes to one day settle down with a nerdy, somewhat introverted woman and own 1 to 4 dogs. Visit Justin on his website, Twitter, Facebook, or GoodReads.