Home is the waves, his family swimming beside him as he hunts for fish, the sparkling water and the hidden depths, forests of kelp swaying gently in the current. But home is also Kevin’s smile, the way he cuddles up next to him in Kevin’s bed, watching movies; it’s the colorful rocks on the trail in the state park, the dazzling cliffs and the beaches.
“Kat,“ Hale groaned, then fell back onto the pillows. “Funny, I didn’t hear a doorbell.” “I let myself in; hope that’s okay.” Hale smiled. “Or the alarm.” She stepped inside, tossed a pocket-size bag of tools onto the bed. “You’re due for an upgrade.” Hale propped himself against the antique headboard and squinted up at her. “She returns.” He crossed his arms across his bare chest. “You know, I could be naked in here.”
“She’s never asked for a drawing before. I’m horrible at giving them away. ‘For the sun, stars, oceans, and all the trees, I’ll consider it,’ I say, knowing she’ll never agree. She knows how badly I want the sun and trees. We’ve been dividing up the world since we were five. I’m kicking butt at the moment - universe domination is within my grasp for the first time. 'Are you kidding?’ she says, standing up straight. It annoys me how tall she’s getting. It’s like she’s being stretched at night. 'That leaves me just the flowers, Noah.’ Fine, I think. She’ll never do it. It’s settled, but it isn’t. She reaches over and props up the pad, gazing at the portrait like she’s expecting the English guy to speak to her. 'Okay,’ she says. 'Trees, stars, oceans. Fine.’ 'And the sun, Jude.’ 'Oh, all right,“ she says, totally surprising me. 'I’ll give you the sun.”
I had a big chunk of my thesis talking about why Katniss’ narrative voice is an ineffective authorial choice and, as a result, actually objectifies Katniss in and of itself by removing her agency, but it ended up not really fitting in with the rest of my paper. Howeversies, I still kinda like it, so I’m posting it here. Panem Companion Parte Deux, all.
And yes: it is written very informally, not in Academia Language, because the crux of my paper is Voice, so @anneursu had me write the whole thesis as myself, not as an Academia Robot. Although I am kind of an academia robot anyway.
Also, this is minus the italics and stuff for titles and whatever because I’m lazy and MLA suuuuuuucks.
SO WITHOUT FURTHER ADO:
In bestselling YA fiction, there is no shortage of teenage girls who speak out around and against the system.
In Ally Condie’s The Matched Trilogy, protagonist Cassia Reyes teaches herself to write longhand—an obsolete skill in her world—and uses it to her advantage to be able to communicate with fellow rebels and to trade for priceless banned books and works of art. Language matters to Cassia Reyes.
June Iparis, a female soldier and top recruit for her own shadowy government in Marie Lu’s Legend series, becomes intimately acquainted with the duplicitous nature of double-speak as she finds love with her society’s number one criminal and sees her brother murdered by the ruling class he served: while the coding of her military superiors’ speeches allows them to conceal insidious truths, Day, her rebel boyfriend, relies on being able to hide his messages in plain sight so they can survive.
For all of the stories about teenage girls overthrowing corrupt governments, communicating rebel information, and infiltrating unseen behind enemy lines, there are few novels written in voices that take advantage of their protagonists’ proclivity towards playing with language.
Cassia Reyes teaches herself to write but models her language, from the outset of the trilogy, on bare-bones grammatical prescriptivism and the poetry of dead white guys; she learns to write longhand, but the words that she shares in this writing, and in her narration, do not speak of a girl learning that her entire world is a lie and her place in it, more variable than she could have dared to dream. Cassia Reyes is the same narrator, even if not the same girl, by the end of Reached as she was at the beginning of Matched, despite one of the major themes of her series being the way that censorship and control quell individual thought. After all that Cassia sees and learns and feels and grows—and leads—her voice remains the voice of Ally Condie: a traditionally educated adult from our contemporary United States. Even before she discovers the lost poetry of Dylan Thomas, Cassia’s voice suggests a Brigham Young English major.
Marie Lu offers alternating perspectives through June and Day, each speaking in first-person chapters, throughout the Legend series, but both of her dynamic personalities speak in the same voice. As a soldier, an orphan, a party to the system itself, June’s voice is measured and hesitant to become emotional, and this makes sense. It makes less sense for Day to be the same: Day, who lives on the streets to protect his beloved, and deathly ill, family from recriminations for his rebellion; Day, who makes his money in fistfights and betting matches; Day, for whom remaining alive is an act of sedition. Lu’s otherwise-impressive worldbuilding is belied by the similarity in June- and Day’s thoughts and voices, and the way this similarity undermines as superficial their supposed gaps in gender, economic status, and right to live in the world.
The opportunities for linguistic play available through science fiction and fantasy are abundant in general, but young adult books gain an additional layer of permission to screw convention when their protagonists are teenage girls. Unfortunately, too many of the series that gain mainstream attention do so because they adhere most strictly to prescriptivist language: the language of adult, white men, in particular. In doing so, they break a covenant with their readers that is as deep a betrayal as the covenants broken by the dystopian governments of their pages – these books, too, cast their teenage protagonists out and refuse them a full “life” on the page.
In The Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins writes Katniss, her teenage female protagonist, as often the last to know and integrate coded language, or to be excluded from its creation entirely. While it is arguable that Madge Undersee, also seventeen and a tertiary character, set the image of the Mockingjay into play as a revolutionary symbol, Collins gives no female teen characters real agency in their diction or syntax: Peeta, a boy, gets to lie and charm; Gale, a boy, chooses to eschew language for action; Annie, a very young woman, can barely speak; Katniss’ own most stunning verbal moment, her singing to Rue in her grave, is given over to words that Katniss credits with her father and his mining culture.
It is in this mining culture, though, where we do see some semblance of personal voice from Katniss. Before she ever volunteers for The Hunger Games, Collins allows for the reader to meet Katniss by engaging in a day of normalcy before all the bloodlust and conspiracy. We are gifted with Katniss’ small, private moments with her beloved sister Prim, and the nickname that she’s bestowed her (“little duck” ). Collins crafts, beautifully, Katniss’ tense and restrained reaction to the animosity between her only two friends, Gale and Madge, in a minute-long exchange that will come to define so much of the remainder of Katniss’ life: “I don’t like that Gale took a dig at Madge, but he’s right, of course. The reaping system is unfair… here’s the catch” (13).
On her hunting trip with Gale—the only time we see her feel at home—her language is straightforward: “[I] retrieved the small bow and arrows he’d made me from a hollow tree. I probably didn’t go more than twenty yards into the woods… After several hours, I had the good luck to kill a rabbit” (50). Her language early in the book reflects her necessary self-interest: she did the thing she needed to do to survive. No frills. While in its own way prescriptivist, this is a narrative stance that makes sense with Katniss’ upbringing and character.
All too soon, though, the story moves out of Katniss’ home in the Seam of District 12… and the realism, the grounded personality, in her voice slips away, too. As soon as Katniss boards the Tribute train, her narration relies on language that Suzanne Collins would know and use—not an uneducated teenage hunter-gatherer from a marginalized race in a marginalized nation-state under a tyrannical dictatorship. Katniss enters the Capitol knowing the names of foods she’s never eaten and clothes she’s never worn. Her metaphors and similes come from places and things she’s never seen.
The creature standing before me in the full-length mirror has come from another world. Where skin shimmers and eyes flash and apparently they make their clothes from jewels. Because my dress, oh, my dress is entirely covered in reflective precious gems, red and yellow and white with bits of blue that accent the tips of the flame design. The slightest movement gives the impression I am engulfed in tongues of fire. (120)
The language of this passage, when Katniss is first transformed into The Girl on Fire by Cinna, is one of the more lyrical scenes in Collins’ writing. Unfortunately, that’s where it goes most awry in its narrative voice. Katniss is self-admittedly not a lyrical person. Earlier in the same book, the most beautiful article of clothing Katniss knows is “a soft blue thing” (15), hardly the lush and waxing detailed knowledge of Cinna’s creation. Katniss’ costume is meant to transform her into a symbol for external viewers to recognize as she parades around the arena, but in betraying her voice, this passage also transforms Katniss from a fully-fleshed character into a mere symbol, an archetypical object, for her author to move around the plot. Much like Cinna arguably does when he uses Katniss’ body as the host for his own political ideals, Collins removes Katniss’ agency in favor of her own linguistic comfort.
Before, last spring, when everything began to unravel, it never occurred to me that the girl I’d always been in high school could bend and shift and change without breaking altogether. But the girl I am now, this girl—she survived. I just needed a little help getting here.