Embodiment and the soul in young adult fiction

Every now and then, I get on a thematically-related reading tear, pursuing books that are all interrelated to look at larger themes within given loose categories of literature. Recently, the theme was embodiment in young adult speculative fiction, because I’m deeply interested in the relationship of the body to the soul (if there is one), self-conception, and how these things relate to coming of age. There’s actually a fair amount of material out there, illustrating some things I’ll be getting too presently, but I got particularly interested in the Unwind Dystology (Neal Schusterman) and Hybrid Chronicles (Kat Zhang), both of which are about many things other than embodiment, but it plays a central role.

Given their genre — speculative fiction set in a vaguely futuristic landscape — it’s not surprising that both are a bit postapocalyptic, but they come about it in a different way. For the Unwinds, the story is the result of a bitter Heartland War between pro-choice and anti-choice forces that resulted in a settlement: Families could choose to retroactively ‘abort’ children as teenagers by having them ‘unwound’ into their constituent components for transplant, with medical professionals claiming that because subjects weren’t actually killed, they would go on to live inside transplant recipients, though they might be living out their lives as separate components rather than whole people.

For the Hybrid Chronicles, the story also revolves around a post-war landscape, but in this case, it’s an isolationist future in which North America has driven out all people who are ‘hybrid,’ possessing a dual soul rather than just one, with each one behaving autonomously, having her own hopes and dreams, interacting with people differently. Where the Unwind Dystology looks at reproductive freedoms, the Hybrid Chronicles look at racism and American exceptionalism, with both exploring the subjects through the lens of embodiment and identity.

Every Day (David Levithan) is another example — who are you, really, when you leap between bodies, waking up in a new one every day?

Obviously, young adult readers are having coming of age moments, and many of those revolve around exploring their bodies and their relationship to them. Whether that’s experiencing a sense of disconnect with a body that doesn’t fit, taking pride in a body, questioning beauty norms, engaging in sports, or participating in any number of other activities, youth are forming the attitudes surrounding their bodies in a very intimate way. Many are also exploring the nature of the soul and what may or may not lie in the afterlife, as they’re forming their own opinions, potentially breaking from both their parents and their peers — some may be leaving the church (or finding it), for example, while others may be delving into philosophy and mysticism. Books of this nature, therefore, bring up familiar and very personal themes for readers, drawing upon a deep tradition for young adults and literature.

As an older reader, I’m finding these narratives really interesting to explore and delve into. I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships to the body of late, perhaps not unsurprisingly, but also of the larger role of the soul and identity — I’m not convinced that we have souls, but we clearly have a unique arrangement of synapses that makes us into ourselves, and makes us effectively irreplaceable. Given the size of the human genome, the complexity of brain chemistry, the huge environmental factors, the odds of someone exactly like me being born are extremely low. In a sense, whether I have a soul or not, I’m still an entirely unique person who hasn’t appeared before and never will again, even if I have traits that draw upon others.

The question of whether transplant recipients experience some transference has haunted people since organ transplantation became viable and more readily available, because many find something deeply eerie in the notion that we could install body parts from one person into another. It raises uncomfortable questions about where, if anywhere, the ‘soul’ might reside, a vexing question that’s been frustrating philosophers for thousands of years, particularly in the context of death. It doesn’t escape notice that funeral rituals from numerous cultures focus heavily on locating and defending the soul, sometimes in the context of ensuring it can pass into the next life, or be free, or be reincarnated, or be available for wakeup at the Last Judgment, or any number of other things depending on sectarian beliefs.

These texts are a way of exploring the relationship between body, soul, and identity, and while they may be dismissed by some older readers, I’ve argue that they play an important role in the literary canon (as indeed does all of young adult fiction). This isn’t just about coming of age stories for teens, or dystopian futures, but very specifically about probing into the way we relate to ourselves and what makes us human. It’s been a theme in adult poetry, fiction, and art for centuries, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that youth are interested in the same subject — especially since historically, some people believed that humans weren’t fully ensouled until well after birth, and that souls developed much like personalities. In today’s environment, we assert that living people have souls (for the most part), but many of us still don’t know quite what that means.

Dismissive attitudes towards young adult literature and its readers are, of course, par for the course, but texts like these raise some valid questions for readers and push people to think beyond their expectations and experiences. It’s not surprising that youth derive so much from them — what is surprising is that adults insist on belittling them, because many adults are reading books on exactly the same subject to grapple with the same issues.

Image: I am the master of my fate, Aristocrats-hat, Flickr