DEVOTED: Religion, Feminism, and the Case for Compassion , a #FSYALit guest post by author Corey Ann Haydu
Earlier this year I read and was deeply moved by a book called Making Pretty. I was so moved by the author that I wrote her an email explaining to her what my life was like growing up and how I knew exactly what the two main characters in her book were thinking and feeling, and how important it was that someone had given voice to that. That author was Corey Ann Haydu. We talked a little bit and she was completely kind and empathetic as I reached out to her about her book. Then it came time for Ally Watkins and I o read Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu for the Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit Discussion. We read it, we talked about it a bit, and then Ally sent me an email and said, “Corey Ann Haydu really wants to talk about Devoted for #FSYALit, would that be okay?” Which, of course, it was, because I believe that the more voices involved in a discussion the better it is. And also because I deeply admire and respect Corey Ann Haydu because of the books she writes. So here she is today sharing her thoughts about Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu.
Back in graduate school I wrote my first YA novel. It was about Amish teenagers on a Rumspringa and about non-Amish teenagers who became their friends.
There are a lot of reasons to be interested in Amish culture— most of us have not grown up in that culture. Many of us will never even meet someone who has grown up in that culture. It is a small, contained universe unto itself. But what interested me more than rituals and traditions and linguistic nuances or the logistics of dating and marriage was that after teens go on their Rumspringa (a period of time where the rules are relaxed and often teenagers enter the non-Amish world before committing personally to their faith), they come back. Not a few of them. Not even a sight majority. Almost all. They try the world—sex, drugs and rock and roll as it were—and return to their Amish life.
I wrote the book to try to understand why, to get a whiff of what it’s like to choose faith. I wanted a book that was about choosing a more rigid lifestyle, and mostly I wanted to understand how that choice could be positive or hopeful or one that I could stand behind. I wanted to imagine a world in which I would make that kind of decision, or at the very least live in the skin of someone for whom that choice would be the right one.
My book didn’t get published, and I’m glad it didn’t, because Jennifer Mathieu’s DEVOTED is really the book I was looking for, I think.
Partly, religion interests me because it intersects with feminism in challenging and complicated ways. That’s what Mathieu’s book understands as well. To really explore the way religion and feminism, choice and restriction, intersect, an author has to enter the space with openness and a lack of judgment. Abuse is wrong—we can all agree on that. Oppression is wrong too. But where does oppression end and where does surrender to faith begin? How much of religion is culture, and how much is faith? Where does choice come in, and how can we come to understand it, when it conflicts with our personal views? When is community a positive and when does it turn dangerous? Can faith exist without community?
It takes a special book to investigate so many questions, and a special writer to resist judgment and answers, to make way for the nuances of faith.
DEVOTED is about the Quiverfull community, and a religious faith that many of us associate with 19 Kids and Counting, although from my understanding they are not officially part of the movement. That the book has entered the world at the same time as horrifying revelations about the cast of the show have come to the surface is in some ways a gift to those of us who struggle to understand what happened in that home. It is an even greater gift to those of us who want to understand how faith and feminism and co-exist, how space can be created for dedicated religious practice and open-minded ideals. How devotion isn’t tied to fear, even if they do sometimes, sadly, meet each other.
The success of DEVOTED has to do with the way Mathieu is willing to explore the light and the dark with equal amounts of respect. The book is interested in the troubling aspects of Quiverfull as much as it is interested in the positive light that faith in general shines into so many people’s lives.
This is a feminist novel.
The wonderful thing about feminism is that it’s about women living their truths and being allowed the space to be rounded and filled out. Mathieu’s book leaves room for that to mean different things for different people. It takes a stand against practices that leave women suffocated and trapped, but it isn’t about only what is wrong with religion. It isn’t about one kind of woman or a right kind of woman or a right kind of relationship with faith. Feminism, ideally, has something to do with flexibility. DEVOTED, I think, understands that. In fact, it helped ME understand that.
I’m not a person with a very religious background. I call my old church “hippie church” and mostly was in it for the donut holes at coffee hour and the fact that the amazing minister was a history buff who taught us, fearlessly, about Christianity’s complicated history with oppression. He didn’t want us to get confirmed without understanding the context of our confirmation. He wanted us to grapple with all religion, and make the choice that worked best for us. I was into the donuts and the live nativity at Christmas and the idea that Jesus maybe did or maybe did not exist but could totally teach us lessons about being a kind person. I liked singing in the choir.
It would be easy for me to feel like that is the “right” amount of religion in someone’s life. It was right for me. But books are the place where I can explore the idea that more religion, greater faith, even a more traditions and stricter value systems” are right for other people. DEVOTED lets us question from both ends—why might someone stay active and invested in their faith; why might someone else reject all whiffs of religion?
The power of this book is in the way it doesn’t shy away from that complicated place where religion and feminism meet. It lets that space remain complex but not irreconcilable. It draws the lines we have to draw around oppression and abuse, but it asks us to remain open to the idea that faith and feminism don’t have to exist in separate universes.
This is a feminist novel about a problematic religious community that leaves room for more than just judgment on the concept of faith and communities of faith.
DEVOTED is proof positive of what I believe in most of all—that there’s no place for judgment in writing and in literature. There’s only room for compassion.
And for all my lack of faith, compassion is something I have total faith in.
Meet Corey Ann Haydu:
Corey Ann Haydu is the author of OCD LOVE STORY, LIFE BY COMMITTEE, MAKING PRETTY and her upcoming middle grade debut, RULES FOR STEALING STARS. A graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and The New School’s Writing for Children MFA program, Corey has been working in children’s publishing since 2009.
In 2013, Corey was chosen as one of Publisher Weekly’s Flying Starts. Her books have been Junior Library Guild Selections, Indie Next Selections, and BCCB Blue Ribbon Selections.
Corey also teaches YA Novel Writing with Mediabistro and is adapting her debut novel, OCD LOVE STORY into a high school play, which will have its first run in Fall 2015.
Corey lives in Brooklyn with her dog, her boyfriend, and a wide selection of cheese.
Publisher’s Book Description:
“Rachel Walker is devoted to God. She prays every day, attends Calvary Christian Church with her family, helps care for her five younger siblings, dresses modestly, and prepares herself to be a wife and mother who serves the Lord with joy. But Rachel is curious about the world her family has turned away from, and increasingly finds that neither the church nor her homeschool education has the answers she craves. Rachel has always found solace in her beliefs, but now she can’t shake the feeling that her devotion might destroy her soul.” (Published June 2, 2015 by Roaring Book Press)
For more on the #FSYALit (Faith and Spirituality in YA Literature), check out the discussion hub.
Filed under: #FSYALit, Faith, Jennifer Mathieu, Spiritual Life, Spirituality
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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