FICTION: KNOCKING FOR CHANGE

12 Jul 2020

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There is an emerging crop of Young Adult fiction writers that believes the genre can do much more than entertain and offer up raw material for glamorous, cinematic projects. These writers have dared to venture beyond the tropes: the shy and awkward high school underdog — arguably a white, middle-class kid — trying to woo a crush.

Authors advocating for more representation in this space are challenging and expanding the genre to accommodate voices from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed’s inspirational Yes No Maybe So is another refreshing addition to this spectrum of voices. Inspired by the nightmarish turn taken by American politics in 2016, Saeed and Albertalli’s collective debut is a profound narrative about the power of activism and compassion, garbed in a comical and heartfelt tale of cross-cultural romance between two high school students.

The story alternates between the first-person accounts of Maya Rehman and Jamie Goldberg, two high school juniors who meet and grow intimate while canvassing for a progressive political candidate running for a special election in their home district. Maya’s parents are going through a trial separation, while her best friend and confidante, Sara, is busy juggling multiple jobs and preparing for college with little time to spare for Maya’s woes. Jamie, a meek and introverted Jewish boy, is dreading giving the toast at his sister’s upcoming bat mitzvah. To make matters worse, his mother is insistent that he sign up for volunteering in order to overcome his fear of public speaking.

Knocking on strangers’ houses and telling them to vote is not how either of them had planned to spend their summers. Initially coaxed into canvassing by their mothers, Jamie and Maya gradually learn — a few jarringly racist encounters later — that the stakes, especially for their respective communities, are much higher; their district has been “red-as-hell” for the longest time and a Republican win would hand the Grand Old Party a supermajority. Moreover, the sitting Republican representative plans to introduce a racist bill that effectively criminalises Muslim women — such as Maya’s mother — who wear a hijab.

At his younger sister’s bat mitzvah, Jamie tells the crowd, “There’s nothing quite like the futility of being 17 in an election year.” These words echo the feelings of many 17-year-olds in the United States during the year that saw Donald Trump elected to office. Millions of US citizens with the right and privilege to vote also did not feel any differently. Trump’s election emboldened racists and bigots all over the country. Hate crimes surged. Anti-Semitic symbols resurfaced. Albertalli and Saeed — the former a Jewish and the latter a Muslim of South Asian origin — felt just as appalled, scared and helpless. Only a week after the elections, an obsolete anti-masking law — originally designed to protect the public against the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist group that roamed around clad in hoods — was recycled as the House Bill 3 in Georgia by Republican state representative Jason Spencer, to target facial and head coverings worn by Muslim women. The bill features in the story as “H.B. 28” and the other, more outspoken narrator — Maya the Pakistani American Muslim teenager — is enraged when she hears about it on the news: “Women are problematic if they show too much skin and problematic if they don’t show enough?”

A co-written Young Adult novel challenges stereotypes, of young people as politically apathetic, of inter-cultural relationships and of marginalised communities, as well as of the genre itself

Both Albertalli and Saeed are quite adept at weaving strong political messages in young adult fiction. In her award-winning 2015 debut novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Albertalli poked fun at critics of the LGBTQ movement. In 2018’s Amal Unbound, a work of children’s fiction set in a Pakistani village, Saeed tackled a broad array of loaded themes such as class, gender and feudalism. Yes No Maybe So portrays the ugly reality of white supremacy in American society just as gracefully; the racists in the book do not pull women’s hijabs on the streets, shout derogatory slogans at them or scrawl racist symbols in public spaces. Instead, they hide in plain sight: legislative directors, the supportive white best friend, “the ridiculously intricate local babysitting network” and the high school project partners. They don’t intimidate, they “gaslight” — a term used to refer to the subtlety with which a person plants self-doubt in another. Though encounters with these people are not as harrowing as the ones that make news stories, they do leave the characters — and the readers — just as horrified.

A romantic relationship between two characters of culturally disparate backgrounds is not the only way through which the novel establishes the importance of bridging cultural barriers. There is a beautiful scene in the book where, at an interfaith iftar, a pastor, a rabbi and an imam are huddled in a corner, discussing basketball: “Bits of their conversation like the defence is weak and fouls are how they get us drift over to me,” Maya observes. The same is illustrated through the friendship between Jamie and Maya’s mothers who have known each other since Jamie and Maya’s childhood. By furnishing the narrative with such minor details, the writers demonstrate that interfaith harmony is not as elusive a thing to achieve, even in an unforgiving post-Trump era.

The authors also very successfully sidestep the stereotype of post-digital age teens; lazy, bored, uninterested and perpetually glued to screens. They show that young people, too, can have a political voice and be just as conscious of the inequities that surround them. Jamie and Maya are bold, determined and wise and the tension in an adolescent relationship is portrayed with remarkable realism. Albertalli and Saeed also explore coming-of-age themes such as teenage insecurities and sexuality — Jamie’s sister comes out of the closet the morning after her bat mitzvah — and do not shy away from commenting on a host of other modern-age phenomena: the role played by social media in creating political tensions and mobilising voters is a testament to the power wielded by virtual platforms, while a tech-savvy grandma, whose pictures of her pet dog make her a local Instagram sensation, mocks the arbitrariness of internet fame.

One of Yes No Maybe So’s most notable accomplishments is that it manages to convey the anger and frustration felt by people of marginalised communities without fetishising their suffering. The book entertains and inspires with the right balance of wry humour and sentiment.

The reviewer is a Lums graduate, currently working at a policy think tank

Yes No Maybe So
By Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed
Simon & Schuster, UK
ISBN: 978-1471184666
436pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 12th, 2020