Prep Schools, Misogyny, and How Men Can Be Better Feminists: Joy Interviews YA Author Brendan Kiely

Article by Joy

I first had the privilege of meeting Brendan Kiely in Fall 2016 at the Young Adult Literature Conference hosted by Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, Illinois, just south of Chicago, where we were both speaking. I had read his ALL AMERICAN BOYS, which he co-wrote with Jason Reynolds and which deftly explores racism and police violence in America. Like everyone else, I was in awe of this book and its authors. Kiely himself was funny and humble and kind and a million other adjectives that basically boil down to awesome human being. That fall he was promoting LAST TRUE LOVE STORY, about a boy and and his friend who end up on a cross-country road trip in a stolen car with the boy’s grandfather, who wants to find his way back to the hill where he first kissed his wife before Alzheimer’s steals the memory from him. Like its authors, the book is funny and heartfelt in turns and as I stood with Brendan in Anderson’s eating doughnuts and chugging coffee, I told him that one day we needed to have him in the store.

I told him that again over bourbon in the Omni bar in Corpus Christi where we were once again both on panels because occasionally Brazos manager Ben lets me sneak away to be author Joy and this translated into ‘hang out with the other authors at the bar and remind Brendan Kiely how he promised to come to Brazos someday’. I reminded him again this past October at Texas Book Festival. (Ben lets me out a lot, it seems.)

Fast forward to this spring, and a new Kiely book is arriving, this one called TRADITION, and here at Brazos Bookstore we are all beyond thrilled that Brendan Kiely will indeed be here on April 24 at 7pm, in conversation with his very brilliant author wife, Jessie Chaffee (FLORENCE IN ECSTASY) and YA superstar Katherine Howe (CONVERSION)!

TRADITION takes place at Fullbrook Academy and elite prep school where the word tradition equal power, prestige and privilege. Except some of the traditions it hides behind are ugly and dangerous and new girl Jules and hockey scholarship student Jamie are about discover exactly how high the stakes at Fullbrook are. Never one to shy away from tough and timely topics, Kiely has written a hard-hitting and emotional novel that tackles misogyny and rape culture in America, inspired in part by a desire to explore toxic masculinity and its effects on society.

I was delighted that Brendan was able to take some time to chat about the book and its inspirations.

JOY: Well, I need to start with this: What drew you to a boarding school setting for this novel? It does place the issues in a very specific context that not everyone has experienced personally. (I note that your SLJ review notes that you depict boarding school as a ‘bastion of debauchery’)

BRENDAN: I think the pressures, traditions, and dangerous behavior at Fullbrook Academy stem from the same deeply seeded misogyny we see in our culture at large, but by setting it at a boarding school, I thought I might be able to heighten the tension in the story--the teens are stuck there, forced to "raise themselves" so to speak. Bax, one of the main characters, a newcomer and outsider to the boarding school culture, makes a comment about "raising themselves," and Aileen responds, "I hope we're doing a good job." Some of them are clearly trying harder than others, but where are all the people in the administration? It's a question we might ask people in power in many different institutions across the country: why is misogyny so normalized here?

JP: You examine some very tough issues here: Sexual violence; male privilege; consent; institutional misogyny are just a few of them. You’ve written on tough topics before, certainly in ALL AMERICAN BOYS with Jason Reynolds. But TRADITION goes to other, unfortunately very timely places. Can you talk a bit about what inspired this particular story at this particular moment in time in America with what feels like vast cultural upheaval?

BK: I try to write about the world as we know it and about young people who have the courage to ask us to make it better. I began writing TRADITION the year Emma Sulkowicz graduated from Columbia University, dragging her mattress across the stage to collect her diploma, not letting the institution sweep her assault under the rug. And the following year, when a candidate for the highest office in the land dismissed his violent language and behavior toward women as "locker room talk," I saw a photo of a boys' football team in Portland, OR all wearing Wild Feminist tee shirts and with a caption that read, "Not in our locker room." The novels I like to read, the novels I try to write, are character-driven because I think novels are gymnasiums for our emotional lives, where we can test out and strengthen feelings, understanding, and empathy. Novels are a way to better get to know the world we live in--a world that we can all help make better if we look the ugly, cruel, unjust stuff in the eye, like racism and misogyny, and see where we ourselves are reflected in those stories in order to address the hard questions within us. I love the way novels like BELOVED or A HANDMAID'S TALE, or SPEAK or PIECING ME TOGETHER ask us to think and make us feel.

JP: You are definitely promoting TRADITION with the admonition that you want to open a discussion of how men can be better feminists. Tell me about this. Do you consider yourself a feminist? Is this a tricky conversation with other men? With women?

BK: I do consider myself a feminist; I have a hard time understanding a perspective that doesn't believe we should strive for a more equitable and just society. Honestly, why aren't we all feminists? Shouldn't that be fundamental to our lives as human beings? The problem is that misogyny, like racism, is learned behavior, and it can be so ingrained in life that I don't even know when I'm perpetuating it. This is the kind of conversation I hope to have with young people, especially young men. We can't just call ourselves feminists. We can't just call ourselves anti-racist. We have to actively work against those attitudes every day--and I believe the work begins first within ourselves. I count myself in that lot too. I have to be better and do better. And this is how I have my conversations with young folks--I throw myself under the bus, show them where and how I messed up, and ask them to think with me about how I could do better.

JP: Tell us a little about Jules and Bax. (Who both have quite ‘boarding school’ names, I might add.) Are they based on real people or are they fully fictional -- or at least as much as any character can be? Why these characters for this story?

BK: The book takes place at a boarding school filled with traditions that enable sexual assault and a culture of silence that perpetuates the harm. Jules is a smart, assertive, and confident young woman who never suspects something could happen to her. Bax is a young man on a hockey scholarship who feels out of place at the wealthy school, and who is slowly realizing he has been cultured to be a violent machine. Jules has had it with the school, the environment, and many of the people there, and Bax is trying to find a way to fit in, although he's not sure he even wants to. To my mind, they seem very much like the kinds of kids I knew growing up, and the kinds of kids I had in class when I was a high school teacher, but they are not based on any particular individuals. I think there are so many kids out there like them, and I try to write about people who feel as real as possible and who are dealing with pressures that are absolutely real out there.

JP: You are appearing at Brazos Bookstore in conversation with your author wife Jessie Chaffee. (Who is a delight!) Is it difficult having two writers in one household? Do you read each other’s work in draft form?

BK: I'm so excited Jessie and I are doing this event together! Her book, FLORENCE IN ECSTASY, is phenomenal, and we met in graduate school when she was working on that novel and I was working on my first novel, THE GOSPEL OF WINTER. I fell in love with her passion and intelligence and we became friends first, reading each other's work, and we are still each other's early readers. I never could have written TRADITION without Jessie's help and patience and suggestions. I've never thought sharing a passion and pursuit with the person you love is a difficult or hard thing. It's the exact opposite. We pour our hearts into our writing, it's a vulnerable process, and we're incredibly fortunate to have each other to lean on, to count on, and whose hand the other can hold as we make the running leap off a cliff into the abyss of a new story.

JP: We are so excited, too! We shall see you then! And we can’t wait for TRADITION.

Make sure to join us on 4/24 for the TRADITION event!

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