In February, NCSCL’s Chris Deming and Andrea Kade sat down with University of Calgary’s foremost scholar in media and queer studies, Dr. Derritt Mason. We originally posted his lecture highlights at SDSU on our blog in April. Read on for a detailed insight into Dr. Mason’s work on occluded queerness and how he challenges assumptions about YA and children’s literature.
Academic Position: Assistant Professor, Department of English, University of Calgary
Places of Education: BA Hons. (Faculty of Information and Media Studies, Western University), MA (Department of English and Cultural Studies, McMaster University), PhD (Department of English and Film Studies, University of Alberta)
Webpages: https://english.ucalgary.ca/profiles/derritt-mason; https://ucalgary.academia.edu/DerrittMason
Webpages: https://english.ucalgary.ca/profiles/derritt-mason; https://ucalgary.academia.edu/DerrittMason
CHRIS: Your current project looks at queer young adult literature as a repository for anxious adult affect. Can you tell us more about what this project looks like and what you are trying to explore?
DR. MASON: Well, my project looks at a specific period in time that is fundamental to how queer YA [Young Adult literature] has evolved. This project focuses on a period of time around 2010, when suddenly there was increased media interest in queer youth suicide. It’s been a problem for a long time, but all of sudden it seemed like our headlines were filled with stories of queer young people taking their lives. For the first time since Matthew Shepard’s murder in Wyoming, the media was covering in-depth the material violence that young queer people have endured. At the same time, you have Dan Savage and Terry Miller launching their YouTube anti-bullying campaign, “It Gets Better Project.” This new focus on queer YA literature and the anti-bullying project seem to be offered as a potential remedy for the social issues that young queer people are facing.
In the 80s and 90s only a handful of books in the queer YA genre appeared each year, but after 2010—20, 30 or 40, sometimes up to 80 titles were published in a given year. There was also a new emphasis on the types of visibility and representation in queer YA books.
In the early days of queer YA lit, publishers wouldn’t allow these books to have happy endings. They thought it would be harmful to tell young people that you can be out and queer and live a happy life because they believed they were selling a delusion. Now the opposite is true: if you don’t show queer young people that they can be “out and proud” then you are doing them doing a disservice, even potentially harming them with this message. Thus begins a really anxious conversation surrounding the queer YA genre. What it does is foreground a certain type of visibility where the protagonists are concerned—characters have to be out and embody a coherent and cohesive sexual identity. The affect has to be positive. [Dr. Angel Matos] does a lot of work on these lines as well. A lot of queer theory, however, is resistant to coherent identity and embraces negative affect.
ANDREA: Why do you think that is?
DR. MASON: Well, queer theory itself, is resistant to the idea that something is stable or fixed, and this is not how identity gets narrated in a lot of this criticism surrounding queer YA. For example in the “It Gets Better Project," we often see a coming out narrative that suggests that when you discover your true self, your identity becomes stable. Whereas queer theory implies that sexuality is shifting and not something that’s sedimented, but always changing through time.
My project is called Sites of Anxiety in Queer Young Adult Literature and Culture and I’m interested in those places and spaces and sites that seem to produce the most adult anxiety in the discussion of queer young adult literature. I look at these sites and diagnose what I think is making critics anxious and then I use queer theory to push at and challenge them. I believe there’s actually something really interesting that’s happening here and we can’t reduce it to a failure of visibility.
ANDREA: How are you approaching this? Any specific framework you are using?
DR. MASON: In these conversations I’m looking at what kind of language is being used to talk about queer YA. For example, I’m drawing from a chapter on visibility for my lecture [today]. Critics, especially contemporary critics, look at older works like John Donovan’s I’llGet There, It Better Be Worth the Trip and Isabelle Holland’s The Man Without a Face and tend to say that these books are remnants of an older time, where the protagonists are lonely and sad, and if the protagonist has an animal, the animal is inevitably going to die, and conventions like these represent an unevolved form of queer YA. However, what I am saying is that there is still something interesting happening in these texts—queer relations, forms of desire—that can’t be reduced to one single type of visibility that critics view as being a remedy for queer youth suffering.
CHRIS: Very interesting!
DR. MASON: So I have a chapter on visibility and another chapter on risk—this idea of risk in queer YA.
ANDREA: Any particular type of risk?
DR. MASON: I trace how the idea of queer youth has emerged though pathologizing discourses where young people are talked about as being at risk for various things. Essentially, I kind of trouble that idea. There are some theories that discuss how we risk something in order to gain something productive from whatever we risking.
ANDREA: Risk is very much a large component in adolescence—sexually and physically.
DR. MASON: Yes, but I’m trying to move away from this idea that risk is inherently negative—rather, it can yield productive things. In one chapter, I draw on the work of DeborahBritzman, a queer educational theorist. She talks about risk as being essential to learning. When you learn something new and exciting, you risk an element of yourself in how you come to understand the world and your relationship to other people and to yourself.
CHRIS: That sounds like a really fascinating project. Are you almost done with it?
DR. MASON: The full manuscript is due in August. It’s a book based on my dissertation project and I’m currently revising it.
CHRIS: So it’s going to get done soon enough anyway.
DR. MASON: That’s the hope!
ANDREA: Do you have any ideas about future projects you want to work on?
DR. MASON: I’m teaching a graduate seminar on digital children’s and young adult literature. I was lucky enough to get a grant so my students could have iPads for the duration of the term. We are looking at picture books and their digital adaptations, digital fairy tales, but also online cultures and communities that young people tend to frequent. So that’s potentially the next project, but it’s still in a very preliminary phase.
ANDREA: Any particular communities?
DR. MASON: We look at fan culture and fandoms, but also new narrative forms in online spaces like “LetsPlay” videos—when someone will record themselves playing a video game and then narrate their experience playing it. It’s a massive online community.
CHRIS: What are the differences between the Canadian and American children’s literature fields? Are there any differences in how you go about studying it?
DR. MASON: I think the way the publishing industry currently works makes it hard to sharply distinguish between Canada and the US when it comes to contemporary children’s and young adult literature, although certainly these two countries have their own distinct literary histories. My own research is mostly contemporary, and primarily in a context that includes Canada and the US. There are, of course, scholars who have a regional focus on Canadian children’s literature, in English and in French. Currently there is also some really important work being done on texts for young people that address Canada’s legacy of colonial violence against our Indigenous peoples.
Most of the texts I analyze in my project are by American authors, but I do have one Canadian text in there, which is Shyam Selvadurai’s excellent YA novel Swimming in the Monsoon Sea. When I teach, I try to support Canadian authors and create a diverse syllabus. But I think in terms of the scholarly communities, just by virtue of the way conferences are set up, like the Children’s Literature Association’s international conference held in the US, the boundaries and borders of our discipline are pretty permeable.
ANDREA: I know you will be discussing ParaNorman at this afternoon’s lecture and I’m writing an essay on this film that focuses on how methods of play function for the child in their path towards adolescence. In particular, I’m looking at repressed play with Agatha and her transformation into the monstrous child. Can you tell me your thoughts on the character of Agatha, in particular?
DR. MASON: That’s really interesting because I’ve never thought about it through the lens of play—it sounds like you are doing something really cool. With this film, I’m specifically talking about these two versions of queerness. You have Mitch who is the gay jock, right, and he comes out through a punchline at the end of the film. But, the entire film is more structured around this occluded type of queerness embodied by Norman and Agatha through their outsider status--Agatha is executed for being a witch and Norman has inherited those same kinds of powers. So my approach to the film is through this occlusion. And this is part of the same 2010-2012 shift in queer YA discourse, where you have visible forms of queerness that get all of the attention. But you also have all of these other, more subtle, occluded queernesses circulating in the film, and the relationship between Norman and Agatha is a fundamental part of that.
ANDREA: Can you define “occluded queerness” for our audience?
So in the discussion later today, I will talk about Alexander Doty who has written a ton on what it means to read queerly. He writes about how texts can contain meaning that is not limited to visible representations of say, gay or lesbian identities. But we can still read and interpret these texts queerly, and what that means is we find ways of identifying or counter-identifying with certain characters or relationships between characters. And we do the work of producing queerness in a given text through the way we read and interpret it. Fan fiction is actually a great example of producing queerness in a given text—you write queerness into a text, acting kind of like a detective, hunting for clues in a story that might suggest where two characters could potentially have a queer relationship in the margins of the text. Fan fiction on [J.K. Rowling’s characters] of Harry and Draco is a good example of this type of thing.
ANDREA: Do you think this is because the characters and readers are so young? Since their own sexual identity isn’t fully formed, especially at this particular stage in their life, is this a way of exploring their own sexuality?
DR. MASON: Yes, I think that’s part of it—that the child in the text might not have a sexual identity that is visibly formed, so we as spectators can partake in its formation. But I also think it’s doing something to serve the needs of queer audiences. Especially when looking back a few decades, when there weren’t as many overt queer representations in literature. In order to see yourself in a text, you had to do the work of creating and producing queerness in a text. There is a huge body of work on queerness in Disney films, for example. Disney films are often notoriously sexist, heteronormative, and yet, they contain all of these queer signifiers. For instance, there’s an article on Timon and Pumbaa in The Lion King as kind of a queer male couple. And it’s commonly known that Ursula, the Sea Witch in The LittleMermaid, was modeled after Divine, the famous drag queen.
And so you can think about how those are not necessarily visible, obvious forms of queerness but rather these more subtle occluded forms of queerness that you need either some contextual knowledge for, or you can produce queerness in the film through your own reading or interpretation of the film. And I think ParaNorman is filled with that kind of thing. In the upcoming talk, we’ll see how Norman’s parents discuss his magic powers. His father says, “I don’t want any of that limp wristed, hippie garbage around here. This isn’t the West Coast. People talk.” This is exactly how you would expect a homophobic father to talk about his queer child, and even though Norman isn’t visibly gay (the way Mitch is), we still have all of these queer signifiers that are circulating around him.
ANDREA: Yeah, it’s like saying, “this is how you should be!” in trying to deter him from a particular path.
DR. MASON: Exactly. And Norman says “I didn’t ask to be this way,” and his dad’s reply is “well, neither did we.” In a different context this would be like a coming out story, and that’s why I find the film so interesting! Instead, you have this gay jock character who comes out at the end of the film.
ANDREA: Where you expecting it the first time when you watched the film?
DR. MASON: I did, because I had read about it, so that’s why I watched it.
CHRIS: If you hadn’t of read that article would you have expected it or seen that coming?
DR. MASON: I don’t think so. And the way they designed that character subverts that expectation because he’s this huge beefy dude. And Courtney, Norman’s sister, flirts with him the entire film and he’s completely clueless. Another reason I like this project, is because the National Film Board of Canada, where I used to work, specializes in stop-motion animation and we would teach the kids to build characters’ expressions with clay, completing twenty-four frames per second. But they way they do it now is through 3-D rapid prototyping. In 3-D, they print out all the facial expressions needed for the frame.
ANDREA: Per our NCSCL director’s request, Dr. Joseph Thomas wants to know: What are the three most interesting things about you?
(Laughs all around the table)
DR. MASON: Oh my god! It’s uncomfortable to describe yourself as interesting …
ANDREA and CHRIS predicted this question would be a challenge for our guest. DR. MASON suggested we ask DR. ANGEL MATOS, whose office is located across the hall from the NCSCL office—a most lively section in the SDSU Arts and Letter building—what he thinks is the most interesting thing about him. DR. MATOS remarked on DR. MASON’s keen fashion sense, and then fell flustered because “you can’t just extrapolate three things!”
CHRIS: [saving the day] How about this…what are three interesting things about the interdisciplinary area that you are studying that you really didn’t expect to find?
DR. MASON: That’s actually a really great question! It’s always interesting to find what surprises you about your own work. I guess in terms of this project, all of these things occurring in the queer community after 2010, a time when I was writing my dissertation, radically changed the shape of what I was working on. I guess too—this might be tied into things that are interesting about me—I never thought I would be…well, my own background is very interdisciplinary, I have an undergraduate degree in media studies and I taught English in a high school in France for a little while between my undergrad and my master’s in cultural studies, and then I worked between my Master’s and PhD for 3 years the National Film Board in Canada, one of the few remaining film production agencies funded through taxpayer dollars.
I worked there for three years designing educational workshops on documentary filmmaking and animation for students of all ages and for teachers, as well. So I never thought I would settle on a literature PhD, or become a children’s literature specialist either. It was just something that happened. Originally I was going to do a queer Canadian literature project, but I’ve always been interested in young people’s culture and working with young people. My master’s research was on a queer youth digital video project that the Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival does every year. And so that ended up shaping my dissertation interests, where I look at this fascinating new way that people are now talking about queer young adult literature and putting all this emphasis and importance on it—which I totally agree with—it became something that I ended up wanting to study. And that led me down the path towards children’s lit.
ANDREA: I feel like some people don’t really understand what the study of children’s literature is—the way scholars approach this field or what they are trying to do.
DR. MASON: It’s traditionally an undervalued part of the academy. There’s this great book by Beverly Lyon Clark called Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children's Literature in America. She looks at the history of children’s literature and how it has not often been taken seriously by the academy. And you sometimes find this amongst students, too. Some of them assume a children’s lit course will be an easy “A,” and they’ll only be reading Harry Potter or picture books. That’s what I like about teaching it—you get to challenge those students, to change their perspective on the discipline and show them how wonderfully complex literature for young people can be.
We'd like to thank Dr. Mason for taking the time to sit down with us before his talk at SDSU in February. He will also be a presenter at the 2018 Children's Literature Association Conference in San Antonio, Texas this summer. As always we ask our guests for suggested reading lists. Below is Dr. Derritt Mason’s Canadian YA or Children’s literature recommendations.
Vivek Shraya (vivekshraya.com) is an amazing interdisciplinary artist—she’s a filmmaker, musician, poet, and children’s & YA author. One of my all-time favourites is her first book, God Loves Hair (re-released in 2014), which is an illustrated coming-of-age narrative unique for its powerful account of queerness at the intersections of race, gender, and religion. Vivek has also recently authored a picture book, The Boy and the Bindi (2016), which is a really sweet story of a boy who is fascinated by his mom’s bindi, so she gives him one of his own.
One of the best novels I’ve read lately is Kai Cheng Thom’s genre-blending Fierce Femmes andNotorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir (2016). It’s part fairy tale, part biomythography, part bildungsroman, and it puts a really compelling twist on the trans memoir. https://ladysintrayda.wordpress.com/
Finally, an author to keep your eyes on is Joshua Whitehead, a Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer-identified writer who is about to release his first novel, Jonny Appleseed (http://www.arsenalpulp.com/bookinfo.php?index=479). This one is going to rock the YA world—I just know it. Joshua is a super talented writer and he also just released a book of poetry, Full-Metal Indigiqueer, to critical acclaim.
You can follow Dr. Mason on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org