David Biddle: The Sound of Young Loners
In 9th grade English class we were told to choose between two books — Invisible Man or To Kill a Mockingbird. I chose Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which will always be one of my favorite novels. Forty years later, I finally sat down and read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s astounding to me that a novel published in 1960 about life in the South during the Great Depression can still be so profoundly captivating, tender, and intimately absorbing.
Without doubt, Mockingbird has a few plot problems, and it’s frustrating to behold small town racism and injustice the way that book does, but the depiction of Lee’s young heroes is about as good as it gets in American fiction. Scout (Jean Louise), her brother Jem, and their friend Dill are as perfectly rendered as any three buddies in stories anywhere — especially Scout. That narrative voice of hers is still singularly striking more than sixty years after publication. It’s the secret sauce of that quintessential book.
Within days of finishing, I was compelled to re-read J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye where we get a full dose of young, post-World War II Holden Caulfield whose narrative voice is defining of non-conformist, individualist teens everywhere—then and now. In addition, Holden has just the right touch of poetics in his tone:
“It was that kind of a crazy afternoon, terrifically cold, and no sun out or anything, and you felt like you were disappearing every time you crossed a road.”
In reading those two great American novels, I could see quite well the importance of YA fiction for all of us here in the 2000s. If a main goal of fiction is to depict complex emotional truth, there isn’t even a contest, in my opinion, between those two coming-of-age novels (along with Huck Finn) and the most important serious adult-oriented fiction out there. More to the point, perhaps, the best fiction is almost always in the voice of young loners trying to figure out how to get along with the rest of the world.
I needed to read more YA. Next came all of the Hunger Games novels over the course of a few winter months. I fell in love with Katniss Everdeen. Then I read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. After that, I took on Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I was re-learning that there is something vital and essential about the voice and ethos of coming-of-age narration. Heck, either we’ve all been there, are in the middle of it as we read, or we’re heading in that direction soon enough.
I point all of this out because since graduating from college in 1980, I’d been an avid reader of that serious adult-oriented fiction I referred to above—from Don DeLillo and V.S. Naipaul to Elena Ferrante and Lucia Berlin. I’ve published stories over the last few years influenced by those writers and many other “serious” fictionists.
But somehow, in the midst of all that YA reading, one morning a voice showed up in my head, basically demanding to narrate a story about how she and her family came to truly understand what we all think of as gender identity and how much more expansive that issue is than most people think these days. She threw out a lot of vague ideas connecting the way people love music and baseball and cooking food to everyone’s search for who they are. She also wanted to make sure there was a connection in the story between the fact that her family is multi-racial, and that people sometimes define multi-racial people in ways that don’t make sense. So much of identity is wrapped up in biology and our strange cultural definitions of the body, even though most of us know better.
She was also concerned about a problem that every person faces once they become teenagers—the problem of having to figure out how we want to think of ourselves versus how other people seem to think of us. Are we supposed to stand our ground? Not rock the boat? Figure out some happy medium that kind of works? Ivy needed that problem to be part of the story. I went to work translating as best I could.
At first, though, I worried about trying to “get away with” writing Old Music for New People in the voice of a 15-year-old girl. Point of view ownership is a big thing for some people these days, especially in the arts and media worlds. However, when a character shows up ready to get to work, the last thing you want to do is tell them to find someone else. Besides, when you’re writing a story about people questioning gender definitions, exactly how does the sex and gender of the author matter if the characters are doing their best to be honest and open and authentic?
I’d say, here and now, facing all the struggle and strife of the 2020s, everyone should be reading more coming-of-age and young adult novels. In particular, I’m in agreement with SS Turner who wrote on The Story Plant blog a few posts back a piece called “Top 5 lessons I’ve learnt two months into being a published author…” where among other things he pointed out that men seem to be reading less and less these days. When that young woman’s voice came to me, she also made it clear that we would be writing a story for male readers as well as female readers––and all readers in between.
We’re witnessing blinding change out of nowhere in our overly modern world. We’ve re-arrived in a brand-new, transformative cusp era. Each one of us is required again to figure out who we are and where we’re going next. Reading is one way to slow things down, gather strength, and hopefully begin to think more clearly than we have over the past 10 to 12 years. This is not a brave new world we’ve arrived at exactly, but it’s certainly a world where being brave (and honest) is essential if we’re ever to come of age again and find new voices for each other and new ways to live together.
About the Author...
A part-time professional freelance writer since he published his first article on appropriate technology education with RAIN: Journal in 1985, David Biddle has published work with the likes of Harvard Business Review, BioCycle, Huffington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, GetUnderground, Resource Recycling, BuzzWorm, Talking Writing, etc. He was also a contributing editor to InBusiness (the 2nd best sustainability publication of all-time) for over a decade. His coming-of-age summer vacation novel, Old Music for New People, was published by The Story Plant in December of 2021.