Author Meg Elison writes extremely queer books; her Road to Nowhere series is “queers in the apocalypse.” There are few queers in dystopic work, and Elison, a Philip K Dick award winner, wanted to write about queerness at the end of the world outside of “the importance of continuing the species. I wanted to write queers in the apocalypse and people who refuse to reproduce, or who looked at reproduction or the theory of gender as a fragmented thing even in the face of human extinction.”
Elison’s latest is a young adult novel titled Find Layla, a book that holds up the realities of poverty and neglect for teens in the age of social media. It’s the sort of novel that my pretentious ass wants to describe with words like “searing,” and “bold” but if we set that aside, Layla is an incredibly lovable character in terrible circumstances in rural Southern California. Her love of science inspires her to borrow a video camera and shoot the biome that is her life. The black mold in her house, her mother’s neglect, and the difficulty of her life go viral, and she loses her brother through Child Protective Services.
“When I started writing for young adults, I realized how really important it was to represent the kind of fierce independence and self governance that I picked up from queer women. There were so many books that I read as a kid that don’t have a romantic or sexual component, like there’s no boyfriend. But there’s still the imposition of patriarchy and the male gaze on the way that a girl defines herself in just about every book, and I wanted to write about a girl who defines herself in her own way, and fights against her own injustices and is kind of a stealth queer. I didn’t make Layla overtly queer because I didn’t want to introduce a love interest but it is very much a part of who she is and her extreme fixation on her best friend.”
Find Layla’s setting is reflective of Elison’s own life experience, but a strange sort of rural narrative. Rural experience often gets written off as far away, especially in coastal communities. As someone who lives in California now, the rural culture is remarkable in its difference to my rural experiences in the Midwest and on the East Coast. Elison’s experience is similar: “I grew up all over the United States because I was a military brat. I have lived in base towns and barracks and cities and suburbs and distant rural places. And what I’ve found is the portrait of rurality is America is closely keyed into the south and the Midwest, and people forget that there are rural places in every state. So I feel like the indelible stamp of rural California is really on me.”
California is “deeply agricultural, and I know that people in the south and people in the Midwest will tell you the same thing too, but they typically have one cash crop, it’s soybeans, it’s corn, it’s cotton. California has a variegated agricultural identity since we are the world’s leading producer of nuts, stone fruits, tomatoes, lettuces, berries. So it’s a really different feel, and it’s also a different overlap of cultures since we rely so heavily on migrant farm workers here, primarily from Central America and Mexico, so it makes for a culturally different experience of rurality.” This grinds against most perceptions of the Midwest and South where cities exist as islands in seas of perceived wasteland.
California is the inverse: “There’s also an expectation in coming from California that you are urban, that you are well connected, that you are well travelled. That everyone from California is from Hollywood or the beach or San Francisco, or the middle of big grey Los Angeles. And that’s just the smallest little dots of California, there’s big wide swaths of the state where it’s very conservative, and very red, and very far from a freeway, and very devoid of the things that attract queers.”
Elison dropped out of high school in a small agricultural SoCal town called Hemet and was homeless for a period of time after being kicked out of her high school girlfriend’s house. Housing insecurity looks different in rural spaces, and transportation is one of the biggest challenges. “Without public transit you are going nowhere, and I was really poor when I lived [in Hemet], so I did not have a car, I had to make friends with cars and do a lot of favors. I mean you can’t even go grocery shopping without a car in a town like that. But the thing that most people from other states don’t understand about California is how sprawled we are. The city I went to high school in is, I want to say, 40 miles wide? Biking isn’t really an option when it’s 117 degrees out, so sprawl presents its own barrier.”
Elison is now a graduate of Berkeley, and often exists in circles where she’s the only person with her life experience. “Being homeless in a city is dangerous because it puts you in proximity to other people who are dangerous but it also puts you in a position to go to shelters, and to network, and to maybe pick up a little spare cash on the street, to maybe go to a day labor outfit and get a little work.
Rurality means there is no shelter, there are no services, there’s no one to direct you to services, there isn’t an encampment, it’s just you on your own. And contact with the elements is a real consideration. I lived in the high desert when I was unhoused, the temperatures during the day can be very high, three digits, and at night go down to thirty or forty, and if you don’t have the equipment to survive the night, it quickly becomes a grime battle of sleeplessness and survival. In a shitty desert town there isn’t even a bridge to sleep under. I remember sneaking into other people’s backyards and sleeping in a doghouse at least once because it provided shelter from the elements.”
Elison’s work, from fiction to essays, discusses the isolation she felt as a rural queer. “So isolation and access definitely shape one’s queer identity, being able to find the community, to find support in whatever form you want that support to be, whether you’re looking for a lesbians moms group or just a gay club. The county I grew up had, as far as I know, one gay club. There wasn’t a place that was a men’s gay club, and there wasn’t a place that was a lesbian club, there was just one queer club, and everybody had to take turns using it. It also set us up in such a conservative and church heavy environment that in many ways is much more akin to what queers in the south experience because of the emphasis on religion and traditional family values as we understand them in this country than one would expect being two hours away from LA.”
But Elison clarifies It’s not that there are fewer queer kids in a rural area, there’s just as many, it’s that we’re a lot less visible because it’s less safe to be visible. I dropped out of high school in the year 2000, and my school had out gay kid. He was our flagship gay. He had the stereotypical gay voice, he had effeminate gestures, he was fashionable, he was artistic, and just everybody knew. It meant that he took the brunt of everyone’s abuse when it came to singling us out for being different, especially for being femme, because that’s always the most marginalized of queer identities whomever choose to express themselves that way or just is that way. It really cheers me up so much to see Gen Z kids and kids younger than that who know who they are, I mean we all knew who we were, one of my friends in high school knew she was a lesbian at five years old, but they’re okay saying it, and they feel safe saying it in places where you would place that. I feel like that’s changed a lot, but back then rurality meant we were less safe when we were visible.” Elison didn’t have a youth under the specter of social media, but wanted to include social media and its power and danger.
In Find Layla, Elison describes the complicated visual of rural homelessnes. “I wrote Layla out of my own experience of poverty in childhood. We were food insecure and housing insecure and the lights were off a lot of the time, and I didn’t always have a place to sleep. And I wanted to write that experience into a book because it’s underrepresented in literature for kids and teens, and I wanted to purge painful parts of my own identity into my work and Layla contains some of the stories that I’m not able to tell in polite company. A book makes a home for that.”
Most youth literature about poverty looks like Boxcar Children, Little Orphan Annie, or poor families that band together against the elements like in Little Women. In The Graveyard Book, Nobody Owens doesn’t need to consider money, the Baudelaire orphans have a fortune they must protect, The Secret Garden, the Great Gilly Hopkins, there’s always an aspirational out, a rich benefactor. A pathway to money that empowers the orphans to rise about their lack of support.
Elison intentionally created a character facing down the systems for children with neglectful or absent parents, “My experiences with the Child Protective Services system as a kid were not entirely positive. I know from very close experience that adoption is not a cure all and that is a really difficult nut to crack in most cases especially with teenagers like Layla is. I fell in love with books about orphans, or functionally an orphan the way Layla is though she has a living parent, that gravitate toward found family. That’s such a huge theme of queer novels and queer short stories and queer movies. You know people find a fairy dragmother and they find a collective of queers who are also abandoned by their families. For me, the very notion of family was so tainted as a kid. As much as I wanted Layla to have a magic fix where she discovers her found family, her experience and my experience predispose us to not trust those bonds when they appear.”
Poverty or even existing lower than the middle class is often written off as a social ill or faux pas, “There’s a limit in polite conversation of how much you can involve your own experience if it was drastically different than that of your peers. They lack the context to understand it. In many cases they lack empathy for it. In a lot of cases, lifelong exposure to capitalism makes them think it was your fault, or your parents fault. Or there is some way you could have elevated yourself out of it sooner. It always marks you as something different and very apart, especially if it came with a lack of parental care, another thing I wrote into Layla. I want adults who read YA to see the representation of that experience as someone who came through it and is relatively okay. And I want kids who read YA to know that their lives are not uniquely miserable, that there is someone who went through the same, or better yet that their friends might be engaged in struggles they don’t know anything about and it would be best to be kind to them.”
Find Layla comes out September 1st and is available for preorder at your favorite local bookstore. If you’re an educator and are interested in teaching Find Layla in your classroom, reach out to Elison on Twitter or through her website.