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The tricky business of believing in yourself: Reading Alice Oseman

For everyone, finding your own voice, doing the work of etching out your own path, can be a tiring, messy thing. It’s especially thorny when somebody else’s voice is so much more exciting, so much more fantastical, confident, infinite in the ways it can spin gold from its stories; Or on the other hand, that voice can be comforting and familiar, all its contours and modulations known to you, a voice through which you made your way through the world, a guide so good that it is a long, long time before you realise it’s the only one you’ve ever heard, including your own. British YA author Alice Oseman, writes about the fight to find your own voice and more in her 2016 release, Radio Silence, and her 2018 release, I Was Born For This.

Radio Silence follows Francis Javier, Head Girl at a Grammar school, on a fast track to Cambridge, who is delightful, but quite unhappy, and struggling to deal with the veil of tears that is the academic pressures of sixth form, the last years of school before university. She is a massive fan of a cult fictional (as in non-factual) podcast, Universe City, which has amassed a fervent fanbase, and she posts anonymous fan art on Tumblr dedicated to it. She befriends a boy at her school, Aled Last, kind, helpful and shy, when he leaves his house in the middle of the night to help Francis with a homework freak out (my heart). Aled also turns out to be the mind behind Universe City, and Radio Silence primarily chronicles their friendship and their collective struggles to find their own voice, be true to themselves and deal with their breaking bond when Aled’s identity is revealed to the podcast’s fans. Whereas I Was Born For This follows Angel Rahimi, ardent fan of boyband The Ark as she comes to London to see them in concert, and Jimmy, the incredibly anxious frontman seriously struggling with their lifestyle and his mental health as their paths collide.

Both stories deal with how easy it is to buy into a hierarchy of stories and voices, always putting your own last, whether it be because your voice is a sort of formed but incredibly unimportant thing because sweetie we have a zillion other things to do (Radio Silence) or it is so trivial and boring that it isn’t worth trying to explore or mould in the first place (I Was Born For This). If they went to the same school, they probably wouldn’t even be in each other’s orbit based on their outward personalities, but both Angel and Francis are expert at making themselves comfortable in somebody else’s narrative. In I was Born For This, Angel, who is despairingly dispassionate about her A-Levels, and listless about her future and her own abilities, finds joy and friendship and genuine connection in the Ark, and the Ark fandom, none of which she gets from school or from what is expected of her. Angel’s story is Francis’ in reverse – Francis’ love of Universe City and her art keeps her afloat, but it is secret, something she folds away. She doesn’t put much stock in her loves and passions, throwing them aside for a more culturally endorsed form of validation – Cambridge university and the like. Which is fine for some people, but it is not fine for Francis, and her underlying constant anxiety, her fear of not being good enough, particularly at the beginning of the book, infiltrates every part of her life. The way she dresses, the way she talks, how much of herself she shows to her friends, how much space she takes up, how much air she breathes. As the novel goes on and her friendship with Aled develops, and she becomes more herself, the relief not just for her but for the reader is palatable.

All her characters have mantras that they repeat to themselves when any doubt about their way of life and what it is doing to them rear its head. Angel’s is about how brilliant The Ark is and how, more importantly, if they are okay, everything else is okay. Francis’ centres around her going to Cambridge and getting a good job and being happy, showing that the paths they are on have (supposedly) an emotional promise to them, the paving of a happy road. They feel almost like cartoon characters whose eyes glaze over when aliens invade their body. It’s an interesting literary device - you, as a reader, are almost taken out of the narrative, because it is so at odds with how they’re actually feeling, it is so obviously a facade, but they hold onto them so tightly, you fear for when these beliefs are inevitably shattered. Interestingly, at the beginning of Radio Silence, when Francis is giving an address to her year (she is head girl, because of course she is) she says ‘I Was Born For This,’ so certain, so sure, that the path laid out for her is the right one for her. No wonder she is so terrified of anything that suggests otherwise. No wonder she is so scared and ashamed of anything that suggests less than perfection, less than good enough, and that includes the conclusion of a situationship with Aled’s sister that pre-dates the novel’s timeline, the details of which are slowly revealed as the book goes on.

It’s well documented that there is a genuine psychological danger to supressing yourself. Both books’ climax are when some characters are in a race against time to save another character from themselves, fearful of how unhappy they’ve become, fearful of what an inability to do what you want and say what you feel for a long time can lead someone to do.

Radio Silence also deals with abuse and trauma, and delicately shows how, even when you’re away from the bad place, the splinters of your experience stay with you and affect you hugely.

For all she writes about the dark and the very dark side of fandom, Alice Oseman writes about its nuances, and how participants are aware of and navigate all of it – the good, the bad, the ugly, the erotic, the invasive and the beautiful bits. No part is a silo. Both Radio Silence and I Was Born For This contend with a love of something (a band, a podcast) and the subsequent love that stems from this. Angel’s friendship with Juliet, her online fandom friend she goes to meet in real life for the first time, is uneasy thoughout I Was Born For This and their connection is tested when confronted with unchartered territory, how to genuinely support and look after each other without a mutual love of The Ark. In her book Playing To The Crowd: Musicians, Audiences and The Intimate Work of Connection (post-millenial pop), of which I read an extract online, Microsoft Researcher Nancy K. Baym writes:

“Industrial market logic views these people (fans) as atomized, perhaps with demographic characteristics by which they can be grouped and counted, but rarely as immersed in relationships with one another.”

There’s so much more going on in fandom than many of us think. It’s easy to roll our eyes at the passionate reaction of a boyband split, but stakes are higher and more personal than whether there’s ever going to be another single or another album. Baym also writes that:

“Fans feel for feeling's own sake. They make meanings beyond what seems to be on offer. They build identities and experiences, and make artistic creations of their own to share with others … individuals experiences are embedded in social contexts where other people with shared attachments socialize around the object of their affections. Much of the pleasure of fandom comes from being connected to other fans.”

Also quoted in Baym’s book is Carrie Brownstein’s memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, where Brownstein writes “loving trumps being beloved.” Angel and Juliet’s have to learn how to trust that this affection is strong enough to extend beyond its fandom foundations, because fandom, and that loving, that collective euphoria, is a pretty solid foundation in the first place.

By filling her stories of people with different genders, races, sexualities, religions, ways of life, both the main characters and the people around her, the fact that this is not even really commented on, just part of the tapestry of her stories, is somehow even more insistent that this is how things, places, life is. Brimming with unamplified voices. By writing so many different types of characters that are multi layered and real, she implicitly gives the main characters a way to breathe, an insight into the plurality of ways to be. Say it with me: you can’t be what you can’t see, kids!

Her characters find their people, their community, and learn how to explore these things while putting what they want, putting their own voice at the epicentre of their new worlds. I genuinely haven’t stopped thinking about Radio Silence since I read it last year, and I loved I Was Born For This. I can’t wait to see what she writes next.