Category Archives: Controversy

“May Not Be Suitable For Children”: What Is Appropriate for Young Adult Fiction

goldshaft-advisory“May Not Be Suitable for Children” should be my pen name, plastered across every short story, poem, and novel I write. There arises a dilemma in writing young adult fiction for teens, even for older teens, in that you must purposefully censor the content, language, and context of the story. At the same time, you want to commit to a certain degree of realism in your portrayal of teenagers—they cuss, take drugs, and make poor decisions. But at one point can the pursuit of depicting something “real” cross the line into commercializing the controversial? While editing my novel The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, these questions have plagued me.

Young Adult Lit in general has begun catering to younger teens, from ages 12 to 15, and with that comes a certain sacrifice of material. Violence becomes cleaner, romance becomes chaste, and the 14-year-old who might be a bundle of angry hormones speaks proper as a British butler. On the other hand, there exist plenty of YA novels that explore the dark and gritty. Thirteen Reasons Why explores the suicide of the protagonist’s sister. The Perks of Being a Wallflower highlight sexual abuse within the family and contain scenes about drug exploration. Probably one of the books that takes on the most criticism for dark material is Crank, which details a girl’s descent into meth addiction.

The controversy has already been much discussed in blogs and articles, asking whether YA is TOO DARK? Here are some opinions on that, but here too is my opinion.

The Article That Started the Debate

YA Fiction Is Too Dark

YA Fiction Saves Lives

Think of the Children!

YA Fiction Shows Teenagers As They Actually Are

As edits began on my novel The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, I began to have these exact conversations with my editor and publisher. After we reviewed some of the scenes in question, I agreed—some of these existed purely for shock value, the I can’t believe they might do that moments. Some were clearly inappropriate, though others existed for very particular reasons.

I’ll give an example: one character in the novel struggles with abuse in her relationship. In the first draft, I merely hinted at this dynamic and in subsequent drafts I wanted to bring the conversation of partner abuse to the forefront. So I employed the Toni Morrison school of realism and left nothing to the imagination, which created a powerful though perhaps horrendous scene. Was the scene necessary to show the horrors of abuse or could have I implied my opinion in some other way? In the end, I removed that particular scene because I believed that the character could convey her unsettling experience more easily herself. I could explain why domestic abuse was a terrible thing without actually showing domestic abuse, therefore in some way glamorizing that sort of violence.

Other controversies arose, as well, such as certain sex scenes and the presence of drugs and especially the level of cursing that some characters undertook. This caused the book to lower the f-word count nearly 100 f-words, which you probably might not notice reading the book. I based this novel and some of the action and the idiosyncrasies of the book on my friends, and my friends in high school swore like sailors. Of course we were always talking about sex and crimes and what we going to do once we broke out of our hometown. That’s part of growing up.

The most important question to ask is, why are you writing? Is the scene, though controversial, serving a specific purpose? I want to write something entertaining but also something educational. You learn not just about science or the South or even about the inner workings of teenagers, but a little something about what it means to be human.

Lastly, another big question: who are you writing for? It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I’m writing young adult literature, but the stigma of writing for teenagers has begun to dissolve. I always wanted to write “literary fiction,” something serious, though you can write serious fiction for teenagers. After all, I was reading Melville and Fitzgerald and Dostovskey and Eggers as a teenager, and even now I’m barely removed from “teenager status.” Over the past few years, YA Lit has trended toward younger readers (12-15), but I wanted to write something for the almost New Adult. And I don’t mean the genre “New Adult,” which has been swamped solely by romantic fiction. I want to for those in-between, people like me. Maybe we’re not ready to read academic treatises yet and still crave the adventure of a teen lit book, though we also want something substantial in our fiction. We wanted to learn something about being human, want to better ourselves through the process of reading.

So, maybe The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County isn’t “suitable for children,” but I hope it’s suitable for you.

First Novel The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, To Be Published Fall 2015

I am extremely happy to announce the forthcoming publication of The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County.

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On May 21st, I signed a contract with PRA Publishing for my first novel. This summer I am working with my superb editor to put the finishing touches on the manuscript, and then we’ll begin a massive marketing campaign. You’ll see reviews, blurbs, interviews, and other creative forms of marketing on this site! The tentative release date is August 2015, though I’ll keep you updated about specifics as the time draws nearer. Find out a little more about the book here:

When Declin Ostrander arrives in Lickskillet, South Carolina, he encounters a town on edge: after a grisly hate crime in their most affluent gated community, the citizens have adopted extreme caution and comical political correctness. The lynching coincides with a series of strange occurrences: the haunted house burns down, the local swimming hole is filled in to make space for condominiums, and a corporate lawyer arrives in town to defend the accused– a lawyer who happens to be Declin’s father. He moves to a new city every six months, sometimes once a year. Such might be the duration of the average hate crime trial. When Declin arrives at Lickskillet High, he struggles to relate with others and must seek out his own identity in the wake of tragedy.

Every town the same: a new racism, a new house, a new you. Declin’s father works for the infamous Knights of Southern Heritage, a cultural group often accused of hate crimes, and though he does not care fondly for the Knights or the victims, he relishes the chance to constantly move from town to town, to essentially recreate himself. The town reels over a central mystery: who killed Francis Jameson?

The book re-landscapes the South as an absurdist menagerie of Southern heritage groups, social segregation, and corrupt local politics. At the center stand the disaffected and aloof teens of Lickskillet, crusading against the humid hum of boredom with reckless mischievousness, post-modern apathy, and redeeming humanity.

Of course, I’ve written a book that is Young Adult (though that term here applies to 16-30 years old) and Southern. I wanted to write a different southern novel, one that didn’t glaze over the potholes of our history and society. Whether I’ve succeeded in recreating the SC atmosphere will be up to you readers come next year.

Derek Berry Discusses Hip Hop and the Phenomena of THE BEST RAPPER EVER

download (7)Now, I’m by no mean a “hip hop artist,” though my art form shares roots with hip hop, IS the root of hip hop. The reason I don’t say I make hip hop is firstly because I don’t make music or beats to poems, and I also don’t participate in hip hop culture. Understand, I mean positive things when I say “hip hop culture,” as in using art to create solidarity within black communities and spread messages of defiance and love.

But I’ve been open-mic-hopping for years, and what irks me is rappers who take hip hop out of context. They realize they can rhyme “life” and “knife” and suddenly assume they’re “THE BEST RAPPER EVER.” Like, you made a mix-tape with your older brother in the garage, and now you’re “ON TOP?” What does that even mean? On top of what? You’re not even the best performer at the open mic, so I don’t know why you’re accusing me of being a “hater” because I point out you’re an amateur. It’s okay. I’m an amateur, too. We’re all amateurs, and we don’t have to pretend to be anything else.

Offensives include dissing on famous rappers you don’t even know, rapping about how much money you don’t actually have, and objectifying women. These are not actual staples of hip hop, only the version of hip hop that has been force-fed to this generation. Albeit, there are some really great artists out there talking about some real shit, but too often, we are exposed to those who glorify violence, hedonism, and apathy. Apathy isn’t as cool as you think. You’re not going to earn anyone’s respect rapping about how many one-night stands you’ve had, because I frankly don’t care.

For example, though, if you’re trying to argue that Lil Wayne’s a better artist than Notorious B.I.G., get out my face.

Alright, check out this video in which I go ham on some fake hip-hop artists, bam…

“Perfect Nights” performed by Derek Berry

Created this video at the Water Front Park before a Monday Night Open Mic. Enjoy.

Perfect Nights

Thursday, at 11am

On the morn of another Thirsty Thursday, students roll out of bed early—on average, ten minutes before class—to traipse across the Novembered campus en route to the nearest Starbucks. The wind pushes through the streets like a gaggle of British tourists, slapping students’ faces, rippling every Fraternity flag, and snatching piles of leaves into cyclical whirlwinds. The perfume of reefer, estrogen, and dead fish wafted against the historical buildings, which when campus tour guides spoke of them used almost visible quotation marks—”Historical Buildings.” At 11, the students still stand in a winding line out the door of Starbuck’s and down Calhoun, as girls file out the other end clutching Gingerbread Lattes, Caramel Brulee Lattes, Peppermint Mocha Lattes, Pumpkin Spice lattes, and occasionally an iced coffee.

Somewhere on the corner of campus, a man grills hotdogs. Somewhere beyond him, a hung-over professor packs his notes into a leather attaché case and sprints through the wind-scarred streets to class on the third floor of Maybank—where his students are absent, mired in a stuffy Starbuck’s across the road.

Swimming Pool Reflections

His older sister’s friend lays on her back, stretched against the white plastic slats of a poolside chair in the glaring light of the sun. July afternoons have cooked her tan, her long legs shiny and satin-soft, even her feet perfect and brown and pretty. She wears her hair down, un-wet because she never dipped her head beneath the pool’s lukewarm water. Instead, she allows the water to cling to her in tantalizing droplets.

The boy swims around the pool, bobbing his head up from the surface of the pool and back down again. He wears goggles that mask his entire face, even his nose because he has not yet learned to properly hold his breath. When he pops up from the water, he peeks at his sister’s friend through the fogged glass of the goggles, then returns to his aquatic exploration. He wears blue swim shorts with cartoon sharks, which he thinks make him look childish. For the past thirty minutes, he has wanted to climb out of the pool and jump from the diving board to impress his older sister’s friend. But each time she stands and stretches cat-like, her bikini bottoms caught in her crack and revealing the tanned buns he has seen only in videos he watches at 2 am while his parents sleep.

Meanwhile, the girl looks up from a book she is reading for school. She holds it aloft in front of her face, mumbling the words with chapped lips and adjusting her bikini bottoms which unfortunately ride up her ass every time she moves. She contemplates buying a new pair she saw yesterday while shopping online. From behind her amber-tinted glasses, she can see the bloated old man in the pool staring at her. He does not seem to harbor any shame in viewing her body, his eyes glazing over her legs and her breasts. She does not think her breasts look as good in her bikini top as her friend’s, whose little brother looks like a frog dipping in and out of the water. For a moment, she wants the old man to watch her, but she does not.

She reads a book she must read before school starts back, and though she secretly adores the story, she does not tell her friends because they absolutely hate reading.

The man floating on an inflatable ring is a poet, 67-years-old, and gay. With his shirt off, he believes he looks like a Goodyear blimp. He can already feel the sunrays blistering his skin, caressing it with singes that will broil the white into a sickly red. Across the pool from where he floats, he watches two teenage girls—they must be only seventeen. Whenever they look back at their books—they are reading the same novel—he peeks at the girl on the left and shudders. She reminds him of his dead sister. The man wants to cry but he thinks it might be inappropriate. Somewhere behind him, a thirteen-year-old boy bursts through the water, spins around quickly, then descends back underwater. His sister had been driving home drunk one night from a party—this was when the poet had been attending college in another state. He did not hear about her accident until three days later when their foster parents called.

The boy wonders what it might feel like to drown. To test himself, he swims to the bottom of the pool and sits cross-legged on the floor, pinching his thumb and forefingers together like a Buddhist monk—or rather, what he conceptualizes as a Buddhist monk. He attempts to hold his breath for as long as possible, but he cannot. He cannot think about anything other than his friend’s sister if you don’t count the chicken fingers he ate for lunch—they came with honey mustard dipping sauce. He uncrosses his legs and pumps his legs hard, kicking off of the bottom and rocketing to the surface. His splash licks at the old man’s feet, who brushes the droplets of water off his toes, and the boy gasps for breath, then goes under again.

A Conversation in the Cougar Mall: A Vignette

[Based on true events that happened today. A conversation.]

                He nodded at me. “Sure, used to be a cop. Dad was a cop. All my friends were too.” His legs were skinny, the muscles shrunk from disuse. He wore a beard hastily shaved, and I couldn’t guess his age, though he was older than most professors. For the past hour, we had been talking about his involvement in the War on Drugs as a police officer.

                “What was that like? I mean, what did you feel about what you did?”

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                “It was great, don’t get me wrong. Worked Interstate 95 right out of Camden, Georgia. What you have to understand is, the drug trade runs through there. My daddy—he was a sheriff. One time he stopped a car and got three million dollars for the department.”

                “Wait, why?”

                “Because it was drug money. Bought cars, uniforms, everything. For Camden officers, the War on Drugs is the best thing that ever happened. It gave us purpose, not to mention funding we’d never had before. Don’t look at me this way. It’s cocaine—we dealt mostly with cocaine.”

                I never caught his name, but we had been speaking for an hour about his life; he sat in a motorized wheelchair eating just the chicken from a Chick-fil-a sandwich. “Cocaine?” I asked, shifting my books from my lap. “I didn’t realize rural Georgia had a coke problem.”

                “Sure, they don’t. The local cops—they just bust people for marijuana, but me—cocaine.” I wanted to ask him if he had been injured in the line of duty, but that would be rude. “See, you understand, cocaine comes out of Miami. You can get Coke there with 90% purity, maybe a kilo for $25,000. So you drive up through Georgia on the way to New York, where coke is maybe 30% pure. So you cut that coke into three piles, mix it with meth, Adderall, sugar, what have you—you can imagine these drug runners made a shit ton of money.”

                “Sure, sure. And you think that’s okay? I mean, I don’t condone anyone taking cocaine, but what about the War on Drugs. Don’t you think the money is misspent?”

                “Federally? Sure. But in my department, it was the one thing still funding us. Pull over three cars a year—they may have a couple million each in them. Used to work with my father, and with one bust, he could afford patrol cars for the entire force. I’d say it’s worth it. I mean, I agree with you about marijauna. That should be legal, even though I’d never try it.”

                “Even in your condition.”

                “Well, you could get addicted.”

                “Addicted to marijuana?”

                “Sure. You see, now that’s it’s legal in some states, the THC levels are higher. So kids start smoking sooner, they develop physical addictions. You’ve heard about this?”

                “Yeah, actually. They keep making more and more potent weed, until it has become dangerous.” I nodded, then looked at his legs. “So, what happened?” I gestured broadly at the chair.

                He shrugged. “Car accident. Gotta tell you, only about three weeks after the accident, the seat belt was recalled. What do you expect? Korean company.”

                “Uh-huh. Well, that’s shitty. I’m sorry.”

                “Well, we went to court, reached a settlement. They gave me millions of dollars but—I mean, what the hell is that? Just throw money at me, but that doesn’t mean I’m not paralyzed from the waist down. Doesn’t change the fact I’m in a chair. Mind getting my smokes?”

                Rifling through the bag on the side, I found a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. I handed him the cigarettes and helped him light it, then sat back down. “That’s rough. Corporations—well, you know.”

                “I mean, the same thing is with marijuana. Even when I was a cop, I didn’t think having it illegal was wrong, but hell—now? Now that it’s becoming legal, it’s becoming dangerous. Not that I care that people smoke it—long as they don’t drive.”

                “Of course. Just like drinking.”

                He nodded, and before rolling away to class, he added, “You want to get them going south.”

                “The cocaine dealers?”

                “Sure. You get ‘em going south, you get millions of dollars, but going north, who cares? You bust them and all you can confiscate is piles of cocaine. What’s the use in that?”

Genre Crisis: “New Adult” Label

a_4x-horizontalNobody likes to be put into categories, most of all writers. But categories—or in the world of books, genres—are very helpful for marketing and selling a book. When querying publishing firms and literary agents, one must identify their genre, which helps the editors and agents decide whether the project will fall into their areas of interest. But recently, I’ve had an extremely difficult time placing my novel in a genre, which should be a good thing because agents seek works that cross several genres, except it seriously curtails one’s ability to market himself.

I could easily make up my own genre: Southern comedy transgressive? Meta-cultural southern teen exploration? Young adult, but not that young, but maybe still in their twenties who like funny but also serious writing?

The problem is, if the agent doesn’t recognize the genre, then she or he cannot place it right? I tried literary, but that

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can’t just say that: you need a better phrase.

brand is too broad. While my project has literary elements, it certainly could be explained more descriptively. I tried young adult, but this generally means the books is marketed for teens ages 12-15. My novel is marketed toward older teens and 20-somethings. It, like many New Adult novels, tracks the growth and development of young adults whose identities are forming, who are seriously changing.

So maybe your book is a noir space opera western with thriller-paced plotting, literary aesthetic, and occult elements? Well, you need a better way to say that, a shorter way.

As I’ve been e-mailing literary agents, literary magazines, and publishers, this question has plagued me constantly. Finally I found an age-group description “New Adult” with which to market the novel THE HEATHENS AND LIARS OF LICKSKILLET COUNTY. “New Adult” bridges the gap between the safe and young group of Young Adult (YA) readers and Adult fiction. But because my books deals with characters in between, I think this genre (a relatively new invention of words) is fitting.

Querying agents has so far not worked out, but I am still sending many, many emails all over the country (and the world!) to publish this novel, as well as poems and short stories.

Have you had trouble labeling a piece of work? What genre did you settle on?

Poem: “Revolutionary”

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[A poem about a specific event in Cuba, though severely exaggerated. It had an interesting impact and summed up much of what I learned while I was in the country. I'll post a live reading of it when I debut it at an open mic, which should be some time next week.]

On my final night in Cuba, while strolling home

from the Malecon, drunker than Hemingway

and more nostalgic than Buzz Aldrin during a full moon,

a boy spat on my shoes and screamed,

“Screw you, dirty American. You ruin everything!”

That is the edited version of his comment,

bleary-eyed and angry as he was.

My entire life I had grown up being called names:

Spazz, geek, twitch, space cadet, nerd, stupid face,

weirdo, pothead, loser, Southern boy, and usless.

But nothing hurt my pride more than

being called, a “dirty American.”

Which in Latin America is a strange insult:

they too are America, not just the United States,

which the US citizens tend to forget.

Without breaking a sweat, I turned about face

and stood in the place before him and said,

“Look, don’t you realize—don’t you see?

I love you!”

We stared each of us for a moment, tense,

and I said, “Look, man, we’ve got a war going on,

and we’re losing. Love is losing.

We’re being drowned in a sea of apathy

while our violence is anything but holy.

But we need to return to the sacred, to the human,

to the soul and to our passions.

We’re facing giants of oppression

and if we don’t learn our lesson, we’ll be done for.

So you and me, we gotta stick together.

We have to rally on the side same,

and what’s the point of shouting at each other on the street

when you’re little brother doesn’t have anything to eat?

Why would you want to fight like this

when you don’t own a toilet where you can take a piss?

So, I’m here for you, and I’ll always be here for you,

so don’t you dare talk to me that way.

I know, I know, you can only get drunk and forget your life

only because today was a good day.

But what about tomorrow?

When will we fight for tomorrow?

When will we wield our imaginations like swords?

I’ll charge into the battlefield mounted on a unicorn

There’s no time to squabble and there’s no time to mourn.

Because it’s bigger than us.”

I realized as he nodded his head

He didn’t understand a damned word I said

But he understood my voice and with what passion I spoke

and I guess he figured I was an alright bloke

He shook my hand and I went on my way

and we got drunker, because today had been a good day.

Sometimes, words won’t do, and sometimes

we fail ourselves—that’s evolutionary

But if we live and we love,

that act is revolutionary.

Why “I Love It (I Don’t Care)” May Have Redeeming Cultural Value

Like English teachers who labor to drain the meaning out of every sentence in a novel, I want to try to deconstruct and explicate the simple, catchy pop tune “I Love It (I Don’t Care)” by Icona Pop. The song has been playing over and over on the radio, and often I must suffer through it because I don’t own an IPod and often forget to bring CD’s. But the tune itself is not exactly without merit—it provokes an interesting commentary on our generation. Do we really “not care?”

First off, if you haven’t heard the song, which is doubtful, or would like a reminder of its glitzy glamorizing of apathy:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxxajLWwzqY

icona-pop-iconic-EP-400x400            After listening to song too many times while driving down the road, I glean two possibilities about the tune’s overall plot. Most likely she’s describing a failed relationship with an older, more serious lover; the other possibility is that she’s actually describing her relationship with her parents. Because of the emphasis on party lifestyle and young hedonism in the music video, I am going to go with the second option.

The main refrain of course is “I don’t care,” which clearly manifests the feelings of youth today, the generation of Icona Pop and me (clearly 90’s children). My generation lacks anything to care about beyond their own petty lives, not because worthy things do not exist, but rather because we do not focus on those things (i.e. war, global climate change, human trafficking, etc.) We don’t care about anything but our own lives, and even those to us seem ethereal, inconsequential. We’re trapped in a system that marginalizes the efforts and desires of the youth, and so we figure, why bother?

I should clarify that when I say we, I mean our generation as a whole, and I am not writing this to defend the perversion of apathy, but rather critique it. In fact, I somehow wonder whether this song does exactly that—while glorifying “not caring,” is it also pointing out the lack of involvement youth have in politics, culture, and their own futures?

After each “I don’t care,” comes “I love it,” which is a disturbing idea. Not only do we not care that we are spiting our parents, but rather we enjoy it. We are proud of our own nihilism.

We reject the wisdom of other generations, instead relying on our innate instincts to carry us through life. See lines: “You’re so damn hard to please, we gotta kill this switch
You’re from the 70’s, but I’m a 90’s bitch.” This line convinces me that the song is talking about more than a failed relationship, but rather a series of failed relationship, the failure for one generation to transfer knowledge to the next; we constantly ignore the advice of the experienced.

Furthermore, we seek an illusion of perpetual twenty-something ecstasy, retaining the notion our lives can be a images (14)nonstop, adrenaline-fueled party, relying on drugs and dancing to keep us in the “Milky Way.” This part of the song reflects our desire to reject earthly principles such as class, money, and politics, embracing a more humanitarian philosophy “up in space.” Of course, the fact that “I don’t care” undermines the means to ever affect such a philosophy for this generation.

We are disappointed with our life has turned out and want something better than what our elders built, but rather than attempt something better, we caustically accept our lot. We do nothing to actually change our situation, simply referring to fact that we don’t even care.

Crashing the car and letting it burn serves as a symbolic act of revenge and rebellion for the singer, but she may fail to see the futility in the act. While angry, she may feel satisfied with her action, but the action is merely symbolic. Her frustration with the person she’s addressing may never be resolved, because she like most of my generation only symbolically rebel from our parents (or rather, from old traditions and old ways of thinking). This is not progress.

images (15)            Progress is changing the way we act and think, not just symbolically crashing cars or getting tattoos or doing drugs or dying our hair or having sex with strangers. Teenagers have been systematically programmed to react in ways that only harm themselves, not the system which has wronged them. Therefore, they become cynical much too young, usually resigned to a world system because “that’s the way it is.”

But I refuse to believe that all of us truly “don’t care,” or even that we “love it.” Maybe I am reading into the song too deeply, but each time I listen to the synth-heavy pop ballad, I think of the responsibility each of us holds for the future and the fact there is no room for apathy.

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