The politics of empowerment: young adult literature, heterotopia and the possibility of social change
AuthorWilkinson, Lili Mei-Ling
AffiliationSchool of Culture and Communication
Document TypePhD thesis
Access StatusOpen Access
© 2015 Dr. Lili Mei-Ling Wilkinson
Critical component Young Adult (YA) literature features adolescent protagonists challenging dominant power structures in order to experience transformation and development – the postmodern entwicklungsroman. This thesis will deploy Foucault’s theory of heterotopia to locate spaces that are empowering not only for the adolescents within a fictional text, but also for teen readers. An analysis of Janet Tashjian’s Vote for Larry, David Levithan’s Wide Awake and Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother reveals a seemingly unavoidable ideological didacticism that closes down possibilities for seeing the world differently. Although Meg Cabot’s chick-lit series The Princess Diaries and All American Girl are more successful in achieving a politically transgressive approach, they also ultimately succumb to ideological dogma, failing to open up a dialectical space between author and reader. Although similarly didactic, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels contain an incompatible jumble of ideology that prevents the reader from being forced into a closed utopian locus. This contradictory space allows readers to narrate their own ideologies through fan fiction, within the fictional world but outside of the original text. In the case of the Harry Potter Alliance, the fan-space opens up into an alternative pathway to activism – creating transformative and empowering possibilities for young readers. This marriage of fiction, fandom and activism is further explored in an analysis of John Green’s Paper Towns, and the Nerdfighters community. Unlike Rowling, Green is an active participant in this online community, consciously destabilising the author/reader binary and encouraging a cultural hybridity that opens up new possibilities for social organising and activism. The YA heterotopia creates not only new pathways to resistance, transformation and social change, but also offers radical new possibilities for fiction in the space revealed between author, text and reader. Creative component Green Valentine is a YA novel that blends romance, humour, environmentalism, community and social change. The emotional development of protagonist Astrid reflects the procession of arguments in the critical work. Astrid is passionate about politics and environmentalism, but is trapped by her own didactic ideology. After experiencing the transformational power of heterotopian space – a guerilla garden – she learns to see her drab suburb of Valentine differently, empowering her to resist the cultural hegemony of her world and become a catalyst for social change. It is in the alternative space of the garden that Astrid begins to see the world differently – her growth and transformation mirroring the organic metamorphosis of ugly, concrete Valentine into an oasis of subversive greenery. Astrid’s Victory Garden enables her to imagine new ways of thinking and being, beyond the fixed dystopia of present-Valentine, or the stark utopian vision of Mayor Tanaka’s future-Valentine. Astrid gains an understanding of the multitude – realising the futility of trying to impose her own ideological dogma upon others, and instead embracing the rhizomatic power of individual subjectivities united in alternative spaces. By allowing the unpredictability of the wilderness into the static rigidity of Valentine, a heterotopian space opens up that transforms not only Astrid, but the entire Valentine community, empowering them to resist, subvert and bring about social change.
KeywordsYA, young adult literature; heterotopia; fandom; creative writing
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