Akwaeke Emezi’s Pet and the subversion of ‘just happen to be’ queer narratives

    Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


    The issue of ‘representation’ dominates much of the discourse surrounding contemporary young adult fiction – and queer young adult fiction in particular. Increasingly, critics, authors, and scholars advocate for representations of characters who ‘just happen to be’ queer – that is, whose queer identities have seemingly no impact on their lives. The rationale behind this push is often a desire to represent queer subjects living happy lives free from prejudice, as a means of providing hope and reassurance that a better world is possible to young queers struggling with their identity. However, by their very nature, such narratives of incidental queerness require a total absence of homophobia and transphobia to allow characters to ‘just happen to be’ queer. By extension, the structural nature of queer oppression is entirely disregarded. In this article, I will discuss how ‘just happen to be’ narratives in queer young adult fiction highlight the shortcomings of focusing on representation alone outside of broader power structures. Central to my argument is a discussion of Akwaeke Emezi’s 2019 novel Pet, which features a Black trans protagonist who is unaffected by racism or transphobia. Although ostensibly an exemplar of the kind of incidental diversity that is standard in ‘just happen to be’ queer narratives, I posit that Pet, in centring the violent revolution that enabled its protagonist to live untroubled by racism and transphobia (to ‘just happen to be’ Black and trans), refuses to overlook the systemic inequalities that define the contemporary. By drawing on work at the intersection of queerness and YA studies, futurity, African-American studies, and trans studies, I explore how Emezi’s novel offers a radical vision of a future, in which the ability to ‘just happen to be’ queer relies on the centring – rather than the side-lining – of sociopolitical critique.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - 14 May 2021
    EventQueer Representation: Pasts, Presents, Futures Conference - Institute for Advanced Studies, University of Edinburgh
    Duration: 11 May 202114 May 2021


    ConferenceQueer Representation: Pasts, Presents, Futures Conference

    Cite this