Waterstones Birmingham are really spoiling us young adult novel readers this year. After a fantastic talk earlier in the year about the nature of feminism and female positive friendly authors, the bookshop put on a talk hosted by #FeminisminYA creator Mariam Khan, plus authors Alwyn Hamilton and Samantha Shannon.
True to nearly all the talks I manage to get to, I’ve only read Alwyn’s Rebel of the Sands, but it was one I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s the story of Amani who is frustrated living with her uncle in a remote town, in a land where magic still filters through the desert nation of Miraji. One evening she meets an intriguing foreigner in a shooting contest, a place where she, as a female, has no place being and ends up escaping Dustwalk, the backward town she lives in, for an adventure where she learns her true power. I think the best description I’ve read of it is ‘Middle East meets Wild West fantasy’ and it’s so rich and colourful that it made a really great read.
Mariam did a really good job chairing the discussion and lots of really great questions were asked. She started with one about “strong female characters” a phrase I think we’ve all come to dislike and both authors talked about how problematic it is; Samantha Shannon talked about how the comparison with other female characters flattens them and diminishes the characteristics of both, and Alywn Hamilton talked about how the phrase is wrongly used to imply masculine traits in female characters. A similar discussion was brought up about the phrase ‘feisty’ when used to describe, almost solely, women.
Mariam also asked the authors their feelings on whether the characters in their books are role models and whether there’s a sense of double standards with female characters in YA novels and if they’re allowed to be considered as such. There was also discussion about the role of Katniss from The Hunger Games and how lazy journalism means ‘strong female characters’ are almost all compared to her, in a way that male protagonists aren’t constantly compared to Harry Potter. On a more positive note, Samantha told the audience about a message from a reader who took inspiration from her character Paige and how it inspired them to change their own life – which really makes me want to read the book now!
In Rebel of the Sands, Amani talks about the frustration of being female and, as the character spends a lot of time dressing up as a boy, as soon as it is revealed she’s female she loses her authority. It’s a very telling line, and feels applicable even in 2016, but it inspired Alwyn talked about how much she enjoys the ‘female characters disguised as boys’ trope.
The evening was a real success with lots of interesting topics that made me go away and think more about the books I read and the descriptions of female characters. It also made me go back and watch Joss Whedon’s Equality Now speech; “‘So, why do you always write these strong women characters?’ Because you’re still asking me that question”.