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Title:Fantasies of citizenship: adolescence and temporality in young adult literature
Author(s):Sahn, Sarah F
Director of Research:Rodriguez, Richard T.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Rodriguez, Richard T.
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Foote, Stephanie; McDowell, Kathleen; Stockton, Kathryn Bond
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):children's literature
young adult literature
queer theory
fantasy literature
Abstract:This project examines how the figure of the adolescent is represented, constructed, and disciplined as a potential citizen in young adult (YA) literature at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries. Engaging the field of children's and YA literature through queer and feminist theory, I analyze how the adolescent's proximity to, but inability to fully inhabit, normative adulthood disrupts totalizing narratives of development and citizenship. Queer theory has recently attended to the question of childhood through highbrow and adult literature and culture, perhaps most notably in Lee Edelman's No Future (2004) and Kathryn Bond Stockton's The Queer Child (2009). Conversely, childhood studies and children’s literature have engaged feminist and queer theory, but have not yet attended fully to the potential of adolescence for theorizing alternatives to what José Muñoz calls "straight time," the orderly procession of marriage and reproduction dictated by the norms of white middle-class respectability. Drawing on Muñoz's work on utopia and Stockton on queer childhood, I complicate recent conversations on queer temporality, community, and the queerness or anti-queerness of the child. My archive of popular and acclaimed YA fantasy literature of the last three decades engages the growing pervasiveness of powerful young women protagonists to explore the complexities of community, belonging, and coming of age in literature for and about young people. As a locus of especially visible resistance to normative constructions of gender, race, and adult citizenship, the figure of the girl highlights the potential of adolescence for theorizing alternatives to hegemonic discourses of self and community. The project as a whole argues that recent YA literature imagines the adolescent as a figure for utopian possibility and critical citizenship—what I argue is a kind of transformative citizenship—engaged in interrogating normalizing discourses of race, gender, sexuality, and community. Challenging the notion that children’s and YA literature functions to inculcate young readers into normative citizenship, I show how even mainstream literature for young people is engaged in rethinking citizenship practices in communities and collectivities not defined by the nation-state. Chapter One examines the intersections of adolescence, temporality, and citizenship in Avi’s Newbery Honor novel The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle (1990). Set aboard a sailing ship in 1832, the novel chronicles 13-year-old Charlotte's coming of age over the course of her journey from England to Providence, Rhode Island. Her discovery of a planned mutiny forces Charlotte to confront her complicity with the systemic violence that underlies her privileged world, and eventually to reject not only the limited model of American citizenship dictated for her by her gender, race, and class, but also the imperative to transition out of the liminal space of adolescence. Charlotte thus becomes the paradigmatic image of the adolescent suspended in transition that animates my analysis: Removed from the orderly, linear conceptions of time defined by capital and the developmental imperative of what she calls her destiny, to become "a lady," Charlotte finds axes of movement previously unavailable to her and chooses to remain in a suspended, unpredictable, and cyclical temporality that reveals how adolescence disrupts naturalized racial, classed, and gendered imperatives of adulthood and citizenship. Turning from historical fiction to medievalist fantasy, Chapter Two argues that the developmental period of adolescence and the historical period of the Middle Ages are analogous temporal "middles," bracketed off but with a tendency to trouble the boundaries between past and future, fantasy and reality, the archaic and the modern, and the primitive and the civilized. Analyzing Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet (1983-1988), an early exemplar of recent trends in YA fantasy directed at girls, I argue that medievalist fantasy is especially well-suited to engaging the slippery temporality of adolescence to facilitate a transformative politics of growth and resistance. Focusing on the third novel of the series, in which the protagonist Alanna is adopted by a tribe of the desert-dwelling Bazhir people who live under the colonial rule of her native Tortall, the chapter shows how Alanna’s move to the marginal space of the desert stages potential for, and limits of, resistance to the patriarchal and colonialist power structures she is subject to even as she bears them with her. Chapter Three focuses on the relationships among the protagonists of the three loosely-connected novels of Kristin Cashore’s Seven Kingdom's Trilogy (2008-2012) to theorize the potential of transformative citizenship as a source of community and worldmaking that transcends political, geographic, and even temporal boundaries. The protagonists of this YA fantasy series all possess extraordinary powers that mark them as dangerous to their communities and make them vulnerable to dehumanization and exploitation by those in power. Through their contacts with one another, they form an alternative kinship network that allows them to reimagine themselves as healers and protectors. Offered alternative avenues of growth from the monstrosities prescribed by their societies, their metamorphoses transform the world around them. In contrast to the utopian visions in Cashore's trilogy, Chapter Four examines the limits of transformative citizenship in an analysis of Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games Trilogy. Katniss Everdeen lacks even the limited the privilege and access that allows the protagonists of Cashore and Pierce's novels to bring about change in their respective homes. I engage the temporal disruptions of personal and historical trauma—a thread throughout this dissertation—to understand the impossibility of complete liberation from histories of violence and exploitation. Finally, I consider the utopic longings of Collins's dystopia, even as it disappoints expectations of both the revolutionaries in the text and many readers who desire Katniss's unequivocal triumph. Collins's trilogy provides glimpses of utopia even in the midst of horror, offering a dynamic vision of a utopia that is always in process. Contributing to queer theory, children’s literature, and American literary studies, "Fantasies of Citizenship" shows how YA literature offers dynamic alternatives to stagnating visions of normative adulthood, citizenship, and futurity. Both no longer and not yet, the adolescent’s unstable temporality emerges as a generative site from which to engage processes of citizen formation, collectivity, and worldmaking.
Issue Date:2016-07-01
Rights Information:Copyright 2016 Sarah F. Sahn
Date Available in IDEALS:2016-11-10
Date Deposited:2016-08

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