The Unbound Writers co-sponsored a panel called “The Resurrection of Dystopian Lit” with the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. During Lighthouse’s annual LitFest, under a big sweltering tent, the panelists—Claire Vaye Watkins, Alexander Lumans, Thao Le, and Fiction Unbound's own Mark Springer—debated everything from what is a dystopia to whether it can be hopeful. What follows is my reflection on some issues that came out of their lively discussion:
Toni Morrison didn't come up with the famous line that literature should "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," as one panelist quoted; but she did say this: "everywhere, everywhere, children are the scorned people of the earth." And when it comes to Young Adult fiction, too many adopt that dismissive blanket view that a first-person romance is the only literature to which hormone-addled teenagers can relate.
In discussing YA dystopias, Thao Le posed the question, Whose dystopia is it, anyway? She suggested an authentic YA dystopia would have to be "hell for a teen, not what an adult thinks hell for a teen would be.” What if there are so many YA dystopias not just because of market imitation and saturation—what if Collins's The Hunger Games and its imitators actually touch a nerve?
I teach. Over the past eight years, my students have chosen to study such child-appropriate topics as contemporary slavery, child soldiers, genocide, multigenerational work camps in North Korea, the physiological effects of PTSD and the experience of refugees. (They have also chosen to study candy, origami and desserts of the world too. They are kids.) My students have often mined The Hunger Games to help them find language to use when wrapping their minds around the horrors of children killing children, of war, class, power and powerlessness. In the movie adaptations, visual references to poverty like Dorothea Lange’s iconic photographs were not lost on them:
Adults have contradictory wishes. We hope our children grow up and change the world, yet we also try to extend innocence for as long as possible. Beware of looking on children’s games with an indulgent smile, thinking you have shielded them from real life. They play in earnest. Children know about dragons much earlier than their parents want to think they do.
What would be hell for a teen? This is what I hear from my students: They fear losing passion, succumbing to complacency, stepping over the fallen bodies of the suffering as a condition of growing up. Their fear is not unfounded, and our "thoughts and prayers" are with them. While the many series inspired by The Hunger Games have sadly fallen into formulaic pandering, talking down to an audience they thought they'd nailed, genuine YA dystopia thoughtfully considers "what would be hell for a teen, not what an adult thinks hell for a teen would be."
This is the power of a dystopia, be it YA or adult: It holds up a mirror, it builds the language by which we name perils and possibilities that we would not see if we had not encountered them before in the world of a book.
Excerpted from Dystopia, Cacotopia, or Cock-a-topia? The Experts Discuss. w/ co-contributors Lisa Mahoney, Theodore McCombs, Mark Springer, To read more please visit FictionUnbound.com