Reading Matters 2017: Author Talks: Jennifer Niven (#YAmatters @jenniferniven @CentreYouthLit)


As a reader, getting to know a new author is an intensely personal and often intimidating issue, especially when your first encounter is to watch them talking on stage under the spotlight. There they are, internationally celebrated, radiating confidence and success, fully aware of readers yearning for love and understanding and acutely keen to serve them. And you sit there in the dark, an anonymous and silent member of the audience, feeling small and ignorant, embarrassed to admit you have never heard of this author before. Part of you desperately want to get your hands on one of their titles because everyone else is doing it. But you also feel reluctant to invest precious time, money and shelf space, knowing that you would only love an author after you have read and connected to their books –- no matter how famous they are.

(Then, once you have truly read and connected to an author’s books, to watch them talking in public is to know they exist, sometimes as a separate entity from their writing. It is to know they appreciate you, have experienced your emotions and thoughts, and are able to express them in a honest and respectful way. It is to know they not only identify with you, but also encourage you to develop your own voice. It is to know you are not alone.)

Jennifer Niven is the author of New York Times and international bestseller All the Bright Places (2015), as well as many other works. While talking about “Reading and Writing Yourself on the Page”, she shared how her mother and Judy Blume influenced her decision to become a writer. “Reading and writing can save you, because one can do anything and everything in the world of imagination.” Niven loves those stories where she can find herself. Blume’s books helped to make her feel less isolated, that she was not alone as a teenager. While Niven’s mother was a biographer, Blume also writes about real people, just less famous ones. “She seems to understand me, a little girl with little feelings.”

“Sometimes you need to write and have to write in order to remain centred and balanced.” Niven said she writes because there are stories she has to tell, and there are pieces of her in each and every one of her stories. Through writing fiction and non-fiction, she has learned to “get under other people’s skin”. This “intimate pretend-game” enables her to let others who may be struggling know that they are not alone.

“There are enough people in this world who will tell you NO. Don’t be one of them.” Niven said YA fiction allows writers to tackle hard issues (e.g. youth depression and suicide) and tell the personal aspects of stories. Writing something personal can be terrifying, but “whatever it is, I want to write it because there is nothing else”. She writes about real people like her, living and breathing on the pages, confronting real and imagined things that she has struggled through, with feelings that she once experienced. She endeavours to write as honestly as she can.

“Young people need to know they are not alone,” said Niven. A good example is the character Theodore Finch in All the Bright Places, who struggles with severe mental illness but decides not to die after learning about others like him. “Young people don’t need to be protected or sheltered. Otherwise, they’ll feel like a burden and there’s no one they can talk to.” I found the following words by Niven to be particularly thought-provoking:

There’s pressure to be OK all the time when the truth is the opposite. There’s pressure to suppress one’s emotions. Many young people can’t see past today, but they need to know how to do so. Through books is a good way to be anxious, afraid, or heart-broken.

“You have to be able to write because of everything, in spite of everything. Let yourself cry or laugh or feel while writing.” Niven’s advice to aspiring authors is to “compartmentalise and concentrate”, to “write from your heart because you have to write it out” while locking other things away. “It’s OK to be vulnerable and messy, but you have to be honest. Nothing is perfect and that’s the hard part of life. Put yourself on the page.”

During the Reading Matters Conference, Niven also participated in two other panels: “The New Romantics: Teen romance is more than just a subplot” (hosted by Daniel Binks [@danielle_binks]) and “The Personal is Political: How representation can change the world (hosted by Will Kostakis [@willkostakis]). When asked about the first “kissing/love book” that she enjoyed, Niven confessed she has always loved Christopher Robin. “All humans need to love and be loved, and that includes self-love.”

Binks argued “many things are mistaken as love, such as dependency”. Examples of this include Catherine and Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847) and Bella and Edward in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series (2005-2008). “Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, not romance.” When classic and modern literary works “often get love wrong”, such as F. Scott Fitzegerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) “trying to teach what love and beauty is” — what should we do about young people and those “unhealthy” representations of love? How should we represent relationships to young readers?

Niven responded that young people these days do so much reading that it is almost “savage”, yet variety is what they need. There are different types of love and different concepts of beauty, and we all deserve a diverse range of books. “We need to include everyone.”

Binks further pointed out that YA romance does not get the respect it deserves. Terms like “puppy love” imply the kind of love between young people is immature and superficial. In this sense, how should authors respect their characters? In literature and life in general, how should adults talk about their kids’ romantic relationships?

Niven responded that authors owe it to readers to be honest. They know these feelings because they have been through them. “Just be honest with those important huge moments that shaped you. You need to get back in touch with them.”

Kostakis suggested that when one’s political self is introduced, their personal self is often lost. When asked how she would introduce her personal self, Niven found it hard to respond. She then described herself as an “only child of two people who are no longer there”.

Niven said she is not a political person on purpose. With Holding Up the Universe (2016), she set out to write a personal story, but there happened to be political issues involved so she ended up becoming an “advocate”. It surprised her, but she has learned to welcome it. Sometimes it is still tempting to remain “sweet and fluffy”, but she is more than happy to write brave and empowering stories.

Kostakis then mentioned the “Own Voices” movement (#OwnVoices), a prominent topic on Twitter and Goodreads in recent years. The Twitter hashtag was created by Corinne Duyvis, Amsterdam-based author of Otherbound (2014) and On the Edge of Gone (2016). She is also co-founder and editor of Disability in Kidlit (@DisabilityInLit), a website that reviews and discusses portrayals of disability in MG/YA since 2013. In an interview, Duyvis said:

#OwnVoices is a hashtag for sharing book recommendations which I first suggested using in September 2015. To be specific, it’s for recommending books with characters from a marginalised group written by an author from that same marginalised group. The topic of diversity has been getting more and more attention in past years, including within the book community, with all kinds of initiatives to promote diverse titles and all kinds of blogs to discuss them. The #OwnVoices hashtag is an extension of that, talking not only about diverse titles, but also authors who can speak from their own experiences.

As for how it came about? There was a discussion on Twitter about authors writing about experiences outside of their own. At first glance, this concept seems obvious. Of course authors write about things they haven’t experienced. That’s part of what being an author is about. I’ve never experienced a world-destroying comet impact, but I still wrote about it. I’ve never experienced being a Surinamese-Dutch teen girl or a teen boy with an amputated foot, but I still wrote about them.

There is a danger in promoting certain books more than others, though, which many marginalised authors have experienced. A book about a Japanese character by a white author may get more attention and marketing push than a book about a Japanese character by a Japanese author. That’s a real problem, and something we need to address.

The interview quoted above is worth reading as Duyvis gives three reasons why #OwnVoices representation is important. Here in Australia, in recent years there have been fierce debates about the notion of “cultural appropriation”, especially during this year’s Brisbane Writers Festival and Sydney Writers Festival. In the United States, this complex issue is highly sensitive, as Niven, too, has found herself among those authors accused of writing in other people’s voices.

“How do you qualify in writing other people’s experiences? You can WRITE RESPONSIBLY. It’s dangerous to say that authors can only write what they know. It’s dangerous to pigeonhole.” Instead of trying to make any political statement, Niven said she just wants to be honest and responsible, and to continue writing about mental issues. Some people tell her not to, but readers welcome different experiences. “Readers can relate to universal themes and feelings… My books are about mental health and bullying and being lost, but I think they are about seeing and be seen.”

Added on June 21, 2017: You can read Inside a Dog’s interview with Jennifer Niven for the 2017 Reading Matters Conference here.


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