Just Be: On Jessica Schiefauer’s “The Boys”

By Saskia Vogel

As a pre-teen in Southern California, I was terrified of the day I would have to wear a bra. As soon as you wore one, the boys would stalk you around school, sneak up behind you, and painfully snap the hook and eye closure against your back. It was a humiliating hazing ritual of sorts, with one foot in the innocence of childish play, and the other in the common attitudes about gender in the adult world, where women are often portrayed or treated as objects. And then there was the garment itself. Even the plainest of bras had something frilly sewn between the cups—no matter how modest the cut was, that alluring silk rose or come-hither bow suggested things about me that weren’t true, and that I didn’t want to be true. I wasn’t “that” kind of person. Not yet.

One day, the girls in my class were rounded up and given a strict lecture by our gym teacher on the medical dangers of kicking boys between their legs. Apparently someone had had enough of the bra-snapping. Whoever the unidentified assailant was, she was a hero to us all. During this fragile time, when the changes in our bodies were weighing so many of us down, and the uninvited gazes were making some of us want to shrink from view, I was reminded that standing up for yourself and taking control of your narrative is always an option.

How I wish that Jessica Schiefauer’s August Prize-winning young adult novel Pojkarna (The Boys) had been on my bookshelf when I was a young teen. It would have immediately become part of my YA canon, reminding me that my reluctance to slip into womanhood wasn’t unusual, and that just because I was being looked at in a certain way by men didn’t mean that their perception of me was a reflection of who I was.

In The Boys, Schiefauer gives three fourteen-year-old girls a magical way to take control of their narratives. Schiefauer says that “the gaze” is at the heart of her novel, that it is ultimately a novel about perception. Kim, Bella, and Momo are sexually harassed by the boys at school and feel uneasy about the attention that puberty has called to their door. These are imaginative, willful girls, who are also insecure and searching for ways to simply be in the world as people. How do they escape or neutralize the unwanted attention? One day, Bella plants a mysterious seed that grows into a resplendent flower. The flower’s nectar has the power to transform the girls into boys for about half a day. Through this transformation, the girls experience what it’s like to exist in the world outside the heterosexual male gaze. They now know what it is to be seen as a subject, rather than an object. Each girl uses this experience to reimagine herself in her own way.

This novel could also be read as queer literature for its tender treatment of desire (in this extract, note the moment where Kim feels a pang of attraction to Momo after they’ve turned into boys) and how it explores gender fluidity. For Kim, her female body is an alien shell, and she finds a home in her male body. The other girls are at home in their original bodies to varying degrees. I kept thinking of Cris Beam’s project on the increasing visibility of transgender youth in Los Angeles, as featured on This American Life. And of Brendan, the Internet-famous “teen diva” and LGBTQ activist who is the face of a recent American Apparel campaign. Or of Roscoe, the gender-fluid son of the main character in Showtime’s House of Lies that writer Matthew Carnahan based on children he has met. Let’s put the language we can use to describe this to one side: there’s something interesting stirring among young adults today. There seems to be a swell of young adults who perceive gender as a fluid concept. Who feel empowered to fundamentally question who and what and how they can be, however they were born. I wonder what Judith Butler has to say about this.

The extract in this month’s issue of Words Without Borders introduces us to Kim, Momo, and Bella on the eve of a masquerade in Bella’s greenhouse. During the party, they discover the magical power of the resplendent flower and have their first night out as boys. These chapters from the middle of the book showcase the simple richness of Schiefauer’s prose. There is something of Theodore Roethke in her sensual and fraught engagement with nature and the greenhouse. We see how she lays out the landscape of the girls’ lives and how they carve out safe spaces for themselves in this town near an untamed forest. We see how they blossom or shrivel in various environments. And in the moment when the girls first see their boy-bodies, you know you are in for a wild ride.

One of the translation challenges I faced was capturing Schiefauer’s magical tone. Through Kim, the narrator, the fantastical and the quotidian mingle, drawing the reader into the uninhibited imaginations of the girls as their extraordinary story plays itself out in an average Swedish town. There was a risk that Schiefauer’s easy flow between reality and fantasy would become jarring. Tube socks and the ceremonial drinking of a magical potion aren’t natural bedfellows, but I hope I’ve succeeded in bringing them together as seamlessly as they work in the Swedish.

As the lively current discussion of issues around sex, gender, and power show little sign of waning, I hope that every reader that identifies with “The Boys” will find comfort in this story and, regardless of how they are perceived, will feel empowered to just be.


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