Nova Ren Suma’s new novel, 17 & Gone, comes out tomorrow, March 21, and to mark the release of this story about a 17-year-old girl haunted by the missing, she’s asked some authors she knows to join her in answering this question… What haunted YOU at 17?
I was unathletic, creative, and sensitive. For a boy growing up in Ohio during the late 80’s, these were not good qualities. You got beat up a lot. So I spent pretty much all of middle school hiding in my bedroom with my nose in a book. I had no friends and no reason to think I’d be getting some anytime soon.
Then, in 1990, as I made the graceless transition from middle school to high school, I discovered Jane’s Addiction. No one else in my small conservative, all boys Jesuit Catholic school had ever heard of them, and even if they had, I’m sure they would have considered the band “too weird”. So I continued my quiet exploration into underground rock alone, listening to Kurt Cobain and Trent Reznor whisper and wail about angst and alienation. It made me feel that somewhere out there were other kids listening to this music, feeling the way I felt.
And then two things happened in rapid success: my mother forced me to go to community theater classes, and the first Lollapalooza came to Ohio. That was when I discovered a community. There were other people like me. Weirdos, misfits, freaks, right there all around me. People who didn’t care that I couldn’t throw a football, that I questioned my religion, that my parents were divorced, that my step-brother and step-sister were black, that my family was run by a strong, independant woman, and that we had gay friends. To my surprise, I found other kids out there who even shared some of these qualities with me.
So I stopped trying to fit in to the Midwestern conservative hellhole in which I was trapped. I stopped trying to be “normal”. In fact, I started to take pride in my otherness. I may have even gotten a bit belligerent about it. Rather than be ashamed of it, I used it as armor agains the bullies and jocks and everyone else who had ever picked on me.
Even more importantly, I had friends! We would go to bands, discuss Anne Rice and Douglas Adam, and read poetry at open mics. We did it all loudly and defiantly, in smokey coffee shops and back booths at Denny’s because we didn’t care any more what the popular kids thought. We were pro-Feminist, pro-Gay, pro-Equality, pro anything really that pissed off the Conservative Establishment. We did theater and art and music and whatever else we could think of to mark ourselves as different from–and, okay, I’ll just go ahead and say it–as better than Normal.
But then suddenly it was cool to listen to these bands, to wear Doc Martins and flannel, to feel “disenfranchised”. They called it “grunge” or “alternative”. Jocks grew their hair long and tried to discuss the meaning of Pearl Jam songs with me (a band I’ve always hated, btw). With growing horror, I realized we were being assimilated by the pop culture Borg. Then Kurt Cobain killed himself, and everything was thrown into question. If Kurt couldn’t hack it, how could the rest of us? It felt like Normal had won, the Establishment could not be beaten, and our weirdtopia was nothing more than a meaningless blip, a childish notion.
What haunted me at 17 was the fear that I would never escape my hometown, that I would never achieve my dreams, that my only two choices were to accept conformity or die. But it was precisely this fear that goaded me on. That would not allow me to give up. I’d be damned if I would go down without a fight.
In some ways, it is that fear, and the defiance it inspires, that drives me still.
To see all the authors taking part, be sure to visit Nova’s blog distraction99.com.