The Boston Teen Author Festival (BTAF) is a yearly event that celebrates YA fiction in the Boston area, aimed at connecting the Boston-area YA fanbase with the best authors in the industry. This is the second year I’ve attended, and for me, it’s a great opportunity to keep abreast of interesting ideas and trends in my industry, meet authors whom I’ve either only met online or who write books I admire, and come home with a bunch of book swag! (Because you can never have enough books, right? RIGHT?)
The first panel I attended was titled “Speculative Fiction Reflecting Our World,” and consisted of Victoria/V.E. Schwab, Malinda Lo, and Michael Buckley. First, the authors spoke about what drew them to speculative fiction. Schwab spoke about always wanting the world to be a little stranger than it was, and wanting to explore the notion that magic is just out of reach, accessible if only you knew how to reach behind the curtain. Lo noted the ability of fantastical elements in contemporary settings to allow for use of metaphor, which heightens the experience of the story. Buckley spoke about growing up as “basically one of those kids in Stranger Things” and loving the iconic battle between good and evil.
The authors then spoke about how speculative fiction, without being “supposed to” do anything, has the ability to reflect the real world through a fresh lens. Fantastical elements, whether they are science fiction or fantasy, challenge the reader to think about things they think they know in a different way. And while Schwab particularly noted that for her stories, escapism comes first, tragedies, pains, and issues, when presented in new worlds, take on new meaning. And while Lo pointed out that there are “no new ideas,” taking what’s been done in and presenting it in new ways offers a base of familiarity when including “alien” elements. Buckley wrapped up the discussion by saying that ultimately, speculative fiction is about being human, and these stories show you yourself in one way or another. Love, hate, war; all aspects of the human experience are reflected through a lens in speculative fiction.
Later, I attended a panel entitled “Magic Beyond the Grave,” with panelists Roshani Chokshi, Zoraida Cordova, and Daniel Jose Older. The authors began by discussing the role of Death in teen fiction. Cordova noted how this common thread relates to young adults’ often complicated relationships with their ancestors and families, coupled with the burgeoning realization of their own mortality. Older spoke more specifically about how the presence of underworlds and death in his book took its power from the counter-narrative, specifically relating to his POC characters. For him, a traditional ghost story was too simplistic, and allowing his characters to embody a more complex relationship with the dead explored notions of power and ancestry in non-White narratives.
Chokshi then pointed out how reactions to and celebrations regarding death differ across the cultural spectrum. In Hindu belief, for example, death is a door to a new life, and the final release is an escape from the endless cycle of death and rebirth. For her, this opened up interesting avenues in her own fiction, as she explored notions of shadows, memories, and who we might have been before. She also spoke about how in so many underworld narratives, female characters are the closest to death and other aspects of the supernatural, and wanting to explore female power with regards to this; what if Persephone was not tricked, but had chosen to rule over the dead instead of living a mortal life with no power? Cordova expanded this point by mentioning that often, that which is forbidden to women in mythology, fiction, and even reality, is power, and denying it is a kind of internalized misogyny. Older agreed, saying that in his book, the patriarchy denies ancestral magic to women, thereby denying them links to both the supernatural and, via their ancestors, death itself.
The authors wrapped up the session speaking about their writing processes. While Cordova is a die-hard outliner, and relies on lots of planning to keep her on track, Chokshi stressed the importance of flow; “remember the Orpheus myth, and never look back.” Older emphasized that regardless of your process, you should honor your work, trust yourself, LOVE your writing, and give yourself permission to create art.
Overall, the festival was another great experience and I came away with a lot to think about regarding the stories I want to tell! Have you been to any great panels recently? Let me know in the comments!