This was a really special experience. I will move mountains to come to all future Margaret Mahy lectures. I’ll admit that the concept of a named lecture often gives me doubts, but I have read Levithan, and I knew I did not want to miss what he had to say.
Kate De Goldi gave the introduction, saying ever since his first novel Boy Meets Boy, “he has energetically reimagined queer experience.” Levithan has now written, edited, and anthologised more than 20 books. “He has peopled the YA stage with self-aware, thoughtful, engaged teenagers.” The highlight of his books for De Goldi is the concept that we are at our best in relationship to one another: change comes only from connectivity. As well as writing his own books, he is a publisher and editorial director at Scholastic US.
He opened his talk by speaking briefly to the Orlando shooting: “What do we do in response? We raise our voices not singing, but shouting. Not shouting, but telling stories. We must look for people who don’t get to speak, and make their stories part of the collective story.”
Levithan re-read Margaret Mahy’s Memory in preparation for this talk. He was delighted to find that it is still as profound as he remembered it. He took us through one paragraph, about Johnny five years after his sister’s death, which expertly delves into the teenage mind, the mind in hurt and pain and turmoil, which manifests in indifference to his self. He says:
It’s ridiculous to think you can go through the world indifferent to it. I don’t believe in the word ‘apolitical’: if you are absenting yourself, that is a political act. That will make you feel hollow. The cure that literature can offer – the hope that we can give, is empathy. That is the panacaea. Literature can teach you that other people are people too. That is why we become so invested in telling the stories of others alongside ours. We believe in sharing other voices. That, to us, feels like engagement. The device of a book is to take you into that other world.
From the phrase from Memory: ‘It was disconcerting for Johnny that imaginary things can grow, as lucid as if they were true.’
Levithan seized here on the notion of ‘proper imagination.’ The power of the imagination can make things become real. Levithan wrote Boy Meets Boy as an editor, this was the book he wanted to exist. “Before this, all gay characters in novels were under a threat. To make this book shouldn’t have been a radical notion: but it was. And that was why it was important. The characters in the book weren’t defined by who they loved. That space in the pages made it feel like that space existed in the world. That effect, that is what a book can do.”
He carried on – I was typing more or less verbatim: “When you are reading a book, you are bringing yourself into the book. That is a powerful thing – understanding your empathy toward the people. That’s why our literature lives, and breathes, and grows.”
The next sentence: ‘He had always been the victim of stories, not only others but his own as well.’
Levithan says, “I didn’t grow up seeing myself in literature. The way to change this is to write. It is ignorance and indifference to think that stories aren’t at war all around you. We don’t have control of others’ stories, but as those things go wrong, we have control of our own stories.”
Every person Levithan has met since being in Christchurch has told him where they were when the earthquakes happened. This is a way of people gaining control over their own stories: it didn’t only happen to us, it was part of our story.
“Writers of YA literature need to include as many stories as possible. There is a benefit in that YA literature doesn’t need to overthrow eons of history – it has only existed for around 50 years. YA authors need to keep an ear out for stories that aren’t being told. That is part of their mission.” He noted that this isn’t something YA authors do in isolation: they get power through it, but they are nothing without the bloggers, the librarians, the teachers, overcoming condescension against YA literature. “We just need to not care if the cricics are condescending. We understand the power our words have.”
You Give Them Words
Levithan gives a lot of anti-censorship talks, and been on a lot of anti-censorship panels. He has heard stories of writers being pulled into a principal’s office and told ‘you can’t read your book here, or I’ll lose my job.’ His response is: “What is the point of keeping your job if you aren’t going to do your job.” He doesn’t know a teacher who went into teaching without wanting to teach kids things: librarians want to put books into kids’ hands. Parents want to teach their children. “Why do we have to keep fighting for things that are clearly basic equality?”
This part of the narration is abridged, and I sincerely hope that this will be published in full one day. Here is part of his talk called ‘You Give them Words.’
You are here for the inquisitive and the ignored. You are here because of your passion for people: to give them words… the truth is electricity to power them. You know that some of them struggle to rise against the power of their own thoughts. Some only feel their own isolation. Words can take you out of the band that believes in closed borders and closed minds. You give them words to know that all human beings were created equal. You give them words to show them the context. To bring out the meaning. If they do not know who they are, you give them words.
By learning the ways other people have told stories, you learn to tell your own. By telling our own, we become free. You have chosen this path not because it is easy, but because it matters. Thank you for leading us to the truth. Thank you for encouraging when you are not obligated to encourage.
Levithan went on to say: “The important thing is the readers. I am baffled when people talk about books as their own entity. As long asa book matters to a reader, it doesn’t matter where it is in relation to other books. The book is written to matter to a reader: no matter their age. That is what we pour into the book. We need this wonderful conspiracy of teachers, writers, readers etc – to give these kids don’t have access to the books they need.
Jane Higgins asked Levithan a question from the audience about hope in YA literature. He says, “Most YA authors have an ability to change things: the stories don’t have to reflect that hope, it’s not a requirement. I find more hope in a book where it tells you the way out of a problem: most will point towards how to make things better.” Even when things look bleak, you trust the reader to see the larger world and see how to stop the ultimate ending happening. You are hoping the reader gets angry, rather than giving up. His example was M T Anderson’s Feed, which is “scarily prophetic about our dependence on technology.”
I hope you have gained a flavour of this session, through my use of Levithan’s words. Please do read his books, and do your best to see him when he appears again tomorrow.
Reviewed by Sarah Forster
The Margaret Mahy Lecture
9.30am – 10.30am, Saturday 27 August
Boy Meets Boy
by David Levithan
Published by HarperCollins
Two Boys Kissing
by David Levithan
You Know me Well
by Nina Lacour and David Levithan