young adult novel
While YA novels are increasingly diverse, safe diversity—with accessible and likable protagonists and their convenient struggles—is usually seen as enough. These unoffending books tend to be championed and more popular. Unsettling diversity, on the other hand, is often frowned upon, discounted, or misconceived.
I’m a practicing child and adolescent psychiatrist and a young adult novelist. To me, dismissing YA that’s outside the realm of palatable diversity is like a psychiatrist refusing to treat certain teen patients because they have “too many problems.”
I’ve spent over fifteen years treating diverse teens who suffer tremendous adversity—abuse of all kinds, neglect, parental mental illness or drug use, etc. Medical research proves that youth exposed to these types of adverse experiences have an increased incidence of chronic medical and mental health problems, increased risky behaviors, and less future success. That’s why I’m dedicated to being in the trenches with them, helping them dodge life’s bullets. Hoping to steer them to higher ground.
An example is in order.
Kai (not his real name), a seventeen-year-old Filipino-Hawaiian-Japanese-Korean boy, is sitting across from me, staring out the window. It’s been six months of almost weekly individual talk therapy sessions. I bring up the heavy family issue. Kai presses his lips together. Suddenly he shoots up, a scowl covering his usual poker face. He takes three steps to the large window and slams his head, three times. A pause then three more slams.
I call his name. He glances over his shoulder, his eyes moist. In a gentle voice, I ask, “Will you sit down or should I call the police to keep you safe like last time?”
He punches his head three times. “It hurts so much in here,” he angry whispers, tears now streaming.
“Let’s talk about it,” I suggest.
He glares at me but then sits. “Fine,” he mutters.
That was Kai’s breakthrough moment. It was the first time he spoke about a feeling instead of showing it with alarming behavior. It was the moment we started translating his behavioral language (obsessions, compulsions that were often harmful to himself, bullying, social isolation, alcohol use, and truancy) into English words.
Still, healing took years. Negative coping strategies had been automatically reinforced, and eventually hardwired, in his brain. New, positive brain pathways took time and work to form.
I have personal experience with this. You see I grew up in a dysfunctional Gujarati Indian immigrant family with dark secrets. The opposite of the typical Bollywood family depiction. I started writing to cope. It was poetry and rap at first. It turned into my debut young adult novel Rani Patel In Full Effect.
I struggled with how to portray Rani, my Indian-American main character. In the real way teen survivors of sexual abuse present to my office? Or in a sugar coated way with righteousness, fully formed feminist strength and insight, and flowery perfect prose to make her more appealing to readers?
I decided on real. Real meant raw and flawed. Real meant making her an uncomfortable protagonist. As a reader, you invest time caring about her. But Rani doesn’t have gorgeous words to describe the pain of her abuse, she speaks by recreating her role as an object for men to use and ends up making obviously bad decisions. You want to scream at her. That’s what it like supporting a person working to recover from trauma.
My next YA novel, Jaya and Rasa: A Love Story is based on amalgams of real teen patients. Sorry, but there’s nothing comfortable about walking in the shoes of a depressed, suicidal Indian-American trans boy and a sex trafficked mixed ethnicity girl.
My third YA novel, Bloody Seoul, will be released in July. The main character, Rocky is Korean and has aspects of Kai, other patients, and my imagination. If Rocky kept a journal, his abrupt sentences would reveal his brain’s ingrained survival reactions to the chaos of his mother’s abandonment and his father’s violence—a hard edge, limited empathy, emotional unavailability, and OCD behavior.
My fourth YA novel will follow suit. I can’t stop, won’t stop, introducing troubling protagonists because there are entire groups of diverse youth not yet represented.
YA lit needs to transcend safe diversity. It needs to be enthusiastically inclusive of disturbing realistic novels that purposefully miss the bull’s-eye of acceptability. Even when it’s really hard, we need to try to understand all teen protagonists who engage in incomprehensible behaviors. Even if we don’t agree, we need to try to empathize with them when they make upsetting choices. That is true tolerance. That is true diversity.
I’m passionate about providing psychiatric treatment to diverse teens who are struggling through various hardships. Along the way, these teens make poor choices in relationships and in self-care because that’s how real life often plays out when youth are raised in chaos. It’s important to me that their imperfect journeys aren’t dismissed. That’s why I’m also dedicated to translating their struggles into realistic young adult fiction that isn’t written to please but rather to expand narrow-minded views of mental health issues and diverse life experiences.
Real life isn’t perfect prose. Real life isn’t a perfect plot. Real life isn’t a perfect, happy ending. Real life can be brutal, scattered, mistake-filled, and beautiful. And when these real-life teens embrace their worth and learn to use their voice, they are fierce. They are feminist AF. Like my teen patients. Like Rani.
This School Library Journal blog post lists amazing, diverse feminist YA books. I’m delighted that RANI PATEL IN FULL EFFECT is on it!
Click on this link:
The ARCs arrived in the mail today! Introducing my boy, Yi Kyung-seok (aka Rocky). Official book birthday…July 2, 2019!
A photo collage of a bit of my BLOODY SEOUL journey.
Top row: Left- Cover lettering, Right- how I see the main character, Yi Kyung-seok (aka Rocky), in my mind's eye
Middle row: Left to right- I don't smoke, but Rocky does. Rocky wears fly, expensive suits like his dad (who happens to be the most notorious gangster in Seoul), always carries his knife, and always, always dresses sharp.
Bottom row: Rocky drinks soju with his boys, visits the Han River often, likes to make the yolk in his bibimbap "cry" (just like his mom taught him), and loves opera (Pavarotti is his favorite).