The Interconnectivity of Community, Identity, and Young Adult Literature
Shannon DiCristina, Fairleigh Dickinson University
Abstract: This paper examines the concepts of “community,” “home,” and “identity” as they appear in two contemporary young adult novels, Pride by Ibi Zoboi and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. These topics are intricately interrelated and integral in the lives of young adults and, correspondingly, are especially prevalent in their literature. Identity development is a prominent issue for young adults and is largely affected by the communities they are connected and interact with. Through the protagonists’ experiences in these two novels, it is evident that creating an identity based of a location and community is not sustainable nor practical; the characters in the novels, and young adults in general, should create an identity that can endure regardless of the status of their communities. This paper argues how one’s relationship with their communities is critical in identity development, as reflected through the young adult novels and corresponding research, and therefore, young adult students should learn sustainable ways to build their own identity through thoughtful analysis of literature. It is suggested that teachers of a young adult audience should lead their students to thoughtfully analyze young adult literature; this will help their students better understand the concepts of community and identity which will help them navigate through their own personal identity conflicts.
The relationship with home is especially important for young adults who use the culture of their communities to define their individual identity as they begin to navigate through the world beyond. This identity building process is central to young adult fiction, as the challenges of belonging in different spaces and places are “especially prevalent” in the lives and literary representations of youth (Hamilton‑McKenna 307-308). In the young adult novels, Pride by Ibi Zoboi and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, the protagonists go through a journey where they are confronted with the need to alter and reconceptualize their authentic identity in relationship with their communities. The characters in these novels mirror the complexities that arise for young adults as they try to formulate an enduring identity in response to the multiple and ever-evolving spaces they occupy. Young adult literature, specifically the books previously mentioned, display the nuances between community, location, and belongingness that affect identity building in young adults, and, in return, through thoughtful analysis, these books can help young adult readers formulate their own identity that can endure despite the status of their communities.
Both Starr, from The Hate U Give and Zuri, from Pride, create an identity in response to the locations they frequent. Starr lives in Garden Heights, a working-class neighborhood that is troubled by gangs yet has a strong sense of community, but attends school at Williamson, which is outside of her neighborhood and is predominately white and wealthy. Due to her involvement in the two very separate spaces, Starr feels that “Williamson is one world and Garden Heights is another, and [she has] to keep them separate" (Thomas 36). Because of this notion, she creates two distinct versions of herself: a “Williamson Starr” and a Garden Heights Starr (Thomas 71). Additionally, and importantly, she claims how her different identities are separate from who she is. By clearly naming and labeling her different personalities, such as “Williamson Starr,” she is putting up a barrier in her mind and disassociating from the multiple personalities she creates in order to fit in. She is not fully one version of Starr or another; she can pick and choose which Starr she wants to represent, like choosing which shirt to wear. Just the act of naming her personas reveals how she feels that they are separate entities from her real self. In short, Starr creates different versions of herself depending on her location, and she even goes as far as to name them. On the other hand, Zuri, the protagonist in Pride, lives in Bushwick, a neighborhood in Brooklyn. Zuri loves her neighborhood and defines her identity very closely with her community: she even claims that she and the members of her community are “made of the same stuff” and resents those who are not from her neighborhood (Zoboi 197). She holds a deep conviction that Bushwick is who she is and where she belongs. She states, “my hood, my Brooklyn, my life, my world, and me in it" (Zoboi 2). The repetition of “my” strongly articulates how Zuri views Bushwick as an extension of who she is, a possession that she is both a part of and is a part of her. Overall, both characters identify themselves in relation to the spaces they occupy, whether that be solely their home, or the different communities they belong to.
These characters recognize how the language they use reflects who they are. As Starr changes how she portrays herself in Garden Heights and at Williamson, she adjusts the ways she speaks. Code-switching takes place when a speaker alternates between two different languages or forms of speaking. The way someone communicates and uses language—as it is one of the main forms of expression—is highly reflective of their identity and audience (Betz 18). For this reason, research supports how language use and identity are closely tied and extremely complex. This is reflected in the book when Starr indicates how she must “[flip] the switch in [her] brain so [she is] Williamson Starr" when she is at school (Thomas 71). Starr code-switches purposefully, fully knowing that she is representing herself differently in each particular setting. As Starr uses her Williamson identity when talking with the police, she notes, “my voice is changing already... I don't talk like me or sound like me" (Thomas 95). Explicitly, her change in language reflects her change in personality. Zuri exhibits the behavior of code-switching, too, when she travels outside of Bushwick to Washington D.C. and has a conversation with a character who is not from her neighborhood. In an effort to change her public presentation, she alters the way she uses language. The character confronts Zuri on her code-switching: “Why are you suddenly talking like that?... Zuri you don't have to pretend to be someone you're not (Zoboi 161)”. The character, like the readers, understands that Zuri is using her language to change her identity as she navigates a new territory. The concept of identity, language, and code-switching is not unique to these novels; many young adults experience this phenomenon in their lives and, correspondingly, it is often reflected in other young adult literature (Betz 32). Overall, the protagonist’s use of language further emphasizes how they create different versions of themselves depending on where they are and who they are with, a physical manifestation of identity-conflict that many readers will also recognize and relate to.
Both characters share the issue of representing themselves in different ways in response to their location, as seen through their code-switching; however, Starr’s unique conflict stems from her inability to reconcile her various personas. Starr feels like she must embody different personalities to belong in certain communities. She claims, “there are just some places where it’s not enough to be me. Either version of me” (Thomas 3). Part of the problem arises because Starr feels a sense of hyper vigilance and hyper judgment in these various locations (Thomas 95). As Starr explains it,
Williamson Starr doesn’t use slang—if a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it, even if her white friends do...Williamson Starr holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the “angry black girl.” Williamson Starr is approachable. No stank-eyes, side-eyes, none of that. Williamson Starr is nonconfrontational. Basically, Williamson Starr doesn’t give anyone a reason to call her ghetto. I can’t stand myself for doing it, but I do it anyway. (Thomas 71)
In this example, Starr claims that when she is “Williamson Starr,” she must closely monitor everything she says and does in an effort to maintain a certain appearance. She refers to herself in the third person to better articulate how this persona is not her, but a figure she creates and then embodies in order to fit in. She hates having to create multiple identities to appeal to her different communities, but she feels that she must do so. It is a taxing balancing act for Starr to maintain her carefully crafted image, with “act” being an important word. She conscientiously constructs a well-posed public persona at Williamson and, in contrast, creates a version of herself at Garden Heights that does not seem too “bougie” (Thomas 3).
The idea of hyper-conscientiousness of one’s identity is consistent with literature that supports the connection of a home and identity. Home is considered a “realm clearly differentiated from public space and removed from public scrutiny and surveillance” (Mallet 71). This statement suggests that a person’s public persona is different from who they are in a private sphere where there is no outside judgment. Starr wishes that she can just be “normal” Starr where she does not have to choose which version of herself that she must express to avoid public criticism (Thomas 163). She wishes to be at home in her different worlds so she can be her authentic self. Starr goes through life in Garden Heights pretending to not have her Williamson side, and she hides the Garden Heights side of her at Williamson in fear of judgment. After strenuously juggling her multiple personas and hiding her authentic voice, Starr learns to appreciate both aspects of her divided identity. As she comes to this realization, she reflects, "I was ashamed of Garden Heights and everything in it...I can't change where I come from or what I have been through, so why should I be ashamed of what makes me, me? That's like being ashamed of myself" (Thomas 441). Starr understands that her neighborhood is a part of who she is and correspondingly embraces that aspect of her life. In fact, when she finally allows her boyfriend from Williamson to see Garden Heights, she comments how she is letting him see her most genuine, deepest self (Thomas 379). She also allows her Garden Heights friends and family, such as her dad and friend Kenya, to see the Williamson side of her by showing them her boyfriend and school friend (Thomas 229, 358). Starr learns to accept both aspects of her persona by fully embracing both communities, which creates an identity that can endure between her multiple locations. She can finally feel at home with herself and her place in the world.
Zuri’s main identity conflict, as someone who actively identifies closely with her community, comes from her unwillingness to adapt her identity to include more than Bushwick. When Zuri’s new neighbors threaten to change the identity of her neighborhood—which she then perceives as a threat to her own identity—she, metaphorically, puts up a wall to protect her sense of self from changing and expanding (Zoboi 257). Zuri loves Bushwick and resents any threat of change; in fact, she is very vocal about her goal of saving her “hood” from evolving (Zoboi 29). This close tie to home is not unfounded. In literature, the home is often connected to “an expression or symbol of the self.” This is because, as research indicates, home and community are usually defined as a “space where people feel at ease and are able to express and fulfill their unique selves or identities'' (Mallet 82). Essentially, research across multiple disciplines-- sociology, psychology, human geography, history, architecture, literature-- understand home as fundamental to being (Mallet 83). This idea is, in part, why Zuri is so afraid of her community changing; in Zuri’s eyes, her community and identity are one, so if her neighborhood changes, so will she. Madrina, the voice of reason within the novel, echoes this sentiment when she acknowledges how Zuri is going to change through the course of events, just like how it is inevitable that the neighborhood will change as well (Zoboi 29, 60). She even urges Zuri to “let things change” and allow for her identity to grow and evolve (Zoboi 60).
Zuri struggles with this idea until she is left with no other choice but to confront it. When finding out that her family must move to another neighborhood, she acts as if it is her death: "I feel as if I've stepped outside my own body, and I am leaving it behind" (Zoboi 283). However, Zuri then learns to expand her world and change her concept of home and identity. She notably claims, “I have always thought of Bushwick as home, but in that moment, I realize that home is where the people I love are, wherever that is" (Zoboi 270). Zuri decides that the physical location of her house does not have to be her home or her identity—her home is where love exists. Just as Zuri comes to realize, research supports the concept that a community is not always a physical structure; home is merely a territory or space that has a connection with identity, and that can be in the space of a person or loved one (Wise 199). In the end, Zuri comes to terms with leaving Bushwick while still feeling secure in her identity. No longer will she let her physical location sway who she is: she creates an identity that exemplifies her authenticity regardless of the location or status of her community.
As seen through the analysis of these two young adult novels, home, community, identity, and young adult literature are closely associated and integrated topics. These books, or rather all books, have the power to influence and impact the lives of their readers. Because of this, English Language Arts teachers can and should use literature to help young adults develop their own identities. The American Psychological Association notes how the young adult phase of life is crucial for identity development and creating a coherent sense of self (Benson & Elder 1646). Thus, helping adolescents recognize the complexity of belonging, location, community and identity is critical and literature serves as a great tool to help these readers as they face the challenge of building their sense of self.
In her research, Rudine Sims Bishop shows how books can act as windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors for their readers. Books can offer readers a glance at a world different from their own, like one looking through a window. Books can also reflect the lives of their readers, just like a mirror, allowing readers to see themselves and their struggles through the characters. Books can act as sliding glass doors when readers can “walk through” the book and experience it themselves. This experience can be transformational for readers as it can change the way they understand themselves and the people around them. In all these scenarios, books have an overwhelming power to shed light on prominent and especially prevalent issues. Pride and The Hate U Give are no different. These novels offer their readers the opportunity to witness and relate to different forms of identity conflict, and through thoughtful analysis and introspection, these books also offer the reader insight as to how to resolve this inner—and sometimes outer—conflict.
The importance of identity development is further emphasized by teachers who report how “young adults crave the desire to have a place in which one can be oneself.” Also, after reading young adult novels about home, students can realize, just like Zuri, that home is love and home can be found within them (Stover 87-88). There is a rich and growing body of literature that examines how young adult fiction, with books such as Pride and The Hate U Give, represent how protagonists “negotiate, shape, and define their relationships to physical and cultural worlds” through “spaces, places, and subjectivities” (Hamilton‑McKenna 316). Teachers can capitalize on these notions to help students reconceptualize what it means to develop an enduring identity in response to the different communities they interact with. All too often, people, and characters represented in young adult literature, mold themselves to fit their settings and not seem “out of place.” In order to cultivate a sense of belonging in different spaces, just like Starr, people create multiple identities—which can also become a source of inner conflict (Hamilton‑McKenna 316). Reading literature that deals with these common and relatable issues has the power to help young adult readers recognize and change these detrimental patterns. Through the tools of literary analysis, readers can analyze and critically reflect on the representations of identity, home, space, and belonging throughout literature which will help them reconceptualize their own version of self-identity that is dynamic enough to endure throughout their own multiple and changing communities, just as Starr and Zuri do in their respective novels (Hamilton‑McKenna 321).
Home is more nuanced than just a simple structure with four walls and a roof. It is a complex integration of community, belonging, and identity. The protagonists of The Hate U Give and Pride begin their journeys with rigid ideas about their communities and their identities within them. Starr creates two different personas that are dependent on the places she occupies. Zuri identifies so deeply with her neighborhood that any threat of change challenges her sense of self. Throughout their journeys, the characters learn about the true nature of themselves and their homes. Starr learns to merge her two personalities into one to create an enduring sense of self, which she exemplifies regardless of location. Zuri learns that she can still be herself, and even care about her neighborhood, while her community changes and while residing in a completely new area. She learns that her home is truly the people who love her. Ultimately, through the course of the novels, both characters come to terms with themselves and their place in the world—a concept that is no longer dependent on their changing and varying physical location. Most importantly, these characters’ journeys have real life implications: young adult readers can better understand their own place in the world through witnessing and reflecting on these protagonists and their journeys of finding and creating their unique identity.
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