Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.
Pride Month is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond, where during the month of June, queer authors and bookish content creators are invited to celebrate being queer, queer books, and their experiences of being a queer reader. Find the introduction post for Pride Month at The Quiet Pond here.
What a month it’s been, friends! I hope you’ve enjoyed all our lovely author interviews about queer identity and stories, and that the discussions we’ve hosted have helped you to feel seen too, wherever you are on this weird and wonderful journey! Today, to bookend our Pride Month series, we are closing with a post about the importance of radical YA fiction, and its absolutely critical role in helping us imagine better futures—both for ourselves and the teens who will one day grow into the world that we leave for them.
It is therefore with great honor that we welcome Ryan Douglass today to the Pond! Ryan is the author of the widely-anticipated upcoming YA horror The Taking of Jake Livingston, and he joins us today at the Pond as a dapper little otter dressed in a bowtie. I’ve been unspeakably excited for Ryan’s book ever since its stunning cover was revealed, and I think that the essay we’re about to read today is absolutely vital in placing YA fiction within its wider purpose of sparking discussions about social change. The questions it asks are salient and culturally evergreen: how are we interrogating our world in the fiction that we read? How do we envision and build better realities? Where do we go from here?
As we head into the second half of a turbulent year, I hope the themes we discuss in today’s post resonate with you too, and that Ryan’s discussion will linger in your mind for months and years down the line. I know it will in mine.
The Taking of Jake Livingston by Ryan Douglass
Sixteen-year-old Jake Livingston sees dead people everywhere. But he can’t decide what’s worse: being a medium forced to watch the dead play out their last moments on a loop or being at the mercy of racist teachers as one of the few Black students at St. Clair Prep. Both are a living nightmare he wishes he could wake up from. But things at St. Clair start looking up with the arrival of another Black student—the handsome Allister—and for the first time, romance is on the horizon for Jake.
Unfortunately, life as a medium is getting worse. Though most ghosts are harmless and Jake is always happy to help them move on to the next place, Sawyer Doon wants much more from Jake. In life, Sawyer was a troubled teen who shot and killed six kids at a local high school before taking his own life. Now he’s a powerful, vengeful ghost and he has plans for Jake. Suddenly, everything Jake knows about dead world goes out the window as Sawyer begins to haunt him. High school soon becomes a different kind of survival game—one Jake is not sure he can win.
It’s weird to have a book releasing in 2021—the year after near-societal collapse in America. The zeitgeist of 2021 seems to be a “return to normal”, which means escaping through the nostalgia of TV reboots and pretending things last year weren’t as bad as they seemed.
In the summer of 2020, a rising tide of people were hungry to see policing abolished right away. We’d graduated from negotiating for racial equality to setting police stations on fire and toppling Confederate statues. I felt empowered against institutional racism for once in my life, because yes, the government, and the police were never on our side at all, and we were letting them have a taste of their own medicine.
This year, a movement that felt radical for a moment feels muted. Instead of looting and starting fires out of our rage, we’re back to suppressing it, accepting the quiet racism that flies under the radar, and gently educating our oppressors on why we deserve rights.
That moment felt like a pivotal time to write fiction in. The protests in the streets inspired me through my final edits of The Taking of Jake Livingston as I asked myself how far I could go, and how far I should go, in condemning academia for its crimes against Black kids. I asked what I could write to dismantle hate. What words could nurture a society where discrimination doesn’t exist anymore? How could I be emotionally honest about the anxiety and fatigue caused by the capitalist rat race, shed light on the mass violence we’re desensitized to so that young people could begin to root it out?
I’m grateful for the strides we’ve seen in representation with the rise of pop stars like Lil Nas X, and a small but growing stack of YA books that speak to Black queer experiences. But it still feels like the audience for this content is left to inherit a world that wants to push them out of it, and that there aren’t enough books reflective of this reality.
Fiction seems our safest option to carry the message of the radical leaders that the FBI systematically slaughtered with the emergence of COINTELPRO. The government stamped out the dramatic, compassionate change that radical leaders preached, their ideals of Black revolt and transnational solidarity. The violence enacted on the Black Panther Party cast a cloud of fear over modern radicalism. Today, radical movements have been watered down and made safer. Leaders like Fred Hampton and Angela Davis are reduced to representation symbolism and divorced from the praxis of Black Marxism, which emphasizes active resistance and says that systems with racist hierarchies aren’t worth infiltrating at all, but destroying.
There is always room within radical fiction to validate, invalidate, and re-imagine systems without putting our lives immediately at risk. Through fiction, and art, we can create consciousness, foster empathy, and justify and stage rebellion. We can explore how the mistakes of adults have impacted kids’ current realities, how they’ll shape their futures, and give them tools to make the world a kinder place.
The Taking of Jake Livingston is one look at how systemic violence can isolate the most vulnerable among us. It’s the story of a Black boy who fights back against a white boy attempting to snatch his body. But Jake’s condition parallels that of any Black kid who’s had to adjust to the culture of their colonizer’s school system—one that was never built to help Black kids thrive. How much can you mute yourself until you lose yourself completely, until there’s no point in being in an environment attempting to destroy you? What if you are queer without familial support? What is the horror of having nowhere to go while feeling too fragile to turn to yourself? Where, in society, does one go from there?
Too many people have to ask themselves these questions while surviving a country that lacks a backbone of true empathy. Those who feel powerless deserve their stories represented, yes—as a means of re-considering their day-to-day, and imagining alternatives to assimilating to abusive structures. What, about the competitive nature of schools and the workplace is normal? Why can’t we come up with environments that are more cooperative, less dog-eat-dog? Why aren’t we in a constant rage about a police force has been documented on camera fighting peaceful protest with tear gas?
We have to stand up to structural violence, and show kids it’s okay to do the same. Let’s not lose the momentum of justified rage to polite asks. That courage in the air in the summer of 2020 gave voice a long-lasting ache in the belly of America. As 2021 veers “back to normal” it’s attempting to skip over an answer for that rage, but that rage needs an answer, and that answer must be immediate change. It’s time we use fiction to tell teens the truth about the corruption of the world they must inherit, and empower them with tools to fight back.
About the Author
Ryan Douglass is an author, poet, and freelance writer from Atlanta, Georgia. His work on race, literacy, sexuality, and media representation has appeared in The Huffington Post, Atlanta Black Star, Everyday Feminism, Nerdy POC, LGBTQNation, and Medium, among others. His debut novel, THE TAKING OF JAKE LIVINGSTON, is a YA horror out through Penguin/Putnam on July 13th, 2021.