English 394 – Young Adult Literature

Grant T. Smith, Ph. D.

Discussion Questions for Joey Pigza Loses Control


Write your own discussion questions for the novel that are “age appropriate” for the following issues:


·       Difference:  how do you respond to someone who is “different?”  In this case, how do you respond to a person who has Attention Deficit Disorder Syndrome?

·       The Family:  There are several issues at play regarding the family in this novel:  divorce, separation, father/son relationships, role models.  How does a child survive in a "dysfunctional" family?

·       Identity:  Definitions of masculinity, “normal.” 

·       Choices:  Making moral decisions.

·       Literary Style:  The author’s use of humor, characterization, point of view


True Believer – Feminine Discourse?


For the feminist reader there is no innocent or neutral approach to literature:  all interpretation is political.


Four main directions of present-day feminist criticism: biological, linguistic, psychoanalytic and cultural criticism (Elaine Showalter)


Naming:  Feminists have consistently argued that “those who have the power to name the world are in a position to influence reality.”  Women have historically lacked this power and as a consequence, many female experiences lack a name.  Definitions can certainly be constructive, but they can also be constraining.  Definitions stabilize, organize, and rationalize our conceptual universe.


Many French feminists argue that language systematically forces women to choose between adopting the male-dominated discourse or opting out—and thereby remaining silent. Women may either imagine and represent themselves as men imagine and represent them (in which case they may speak but will speak as men)or they can choose “silence”—becoming in the process “the invisible and unheard sex,” as Ann Rosalind Jones argues in her essay “Inscribing Femininity: French Theories of the Feminine.” (1985)


These feminists suggest that women not only have different life experiences than men but also write differently, which leads them to advocate embracing and developing a “feminine language” l ecriture feminine: women’s writing


Julia Kristeva has characterized feminine language as semiotic (not symbolic) discourse.  By semiotic she means that feminine language is rhythmic and unifying; it does not rigidly oppose and rank qualities or elements of reality, nor does it symbolize one thing but not another in terms of a third.  If from the male perspective it seems fluid to the point of being chaotic, that is a fault of the male perspective.


Feminine language is associated with the maternal rather than the paternal, it poses a threat to patriarchal culture.  Kristeva’s central claim—that truly feminist innovation in all fields requires an understanding of the relation between maternity and feminine creation—came paired with a warning, however; feminine or feminist writing that resists or refuses participation in “masculine” discourse risks being politically marginalized in a society which still is, after all, patriarchal.


Helene Cixous:  She explores the connection between women’s bodies, whose sexual pleasure has been repressed, and women’s writing.  “Writing in the feminine is passing on what is cut out by the Symbolic, the voice of the mother, passing on what is most archaic.”  Cixous sees as models those women who have operated on the edge of culture; their voice is the most authentic—witches, madwomen, hysterics.  “The hysteric is a divine spirit that is always at the edge…She’s the unorganizable feminine construct.” 


Women must write, must speak out of an authentic sense of their own differentness, their own body.  “Write your self.  Your body must be heard.  Only then will the immense resources of the unconscious spring forth.”


For Cixous, feminine texts are texts that “work on the difference,” strive in the direction of difference, struggle to undermine the dominant phallogocentric logic, split open the closure of the binary opposition and revel in the pleasures of open-ended textuality


Luce Irigaray argues that women’s sexual pleasure cannot be expressed by the dominant masculine language.  She explores the connection between women’s sexuality and women’s language.  Just as women “jouissance” is more multiple than men’s unitary, phallic pleasure (“woman has sex organs just about everywhere”), so “feminine” language is more diffusive than its “masculine” counterpart.


Irigaray suggests the mother-daughter relationship may be the source of a reenergized authentic feminine Imaginary, a revolutionary feminine ideology.  The “desideratum,” she specifies, is that “as women become subjects, mothers and daughters may become women, subjects and protagonists of their own reality rather than objects and antagonists in the Father’s drama.”


The French feminists urge that women affirm their otherness, their differentness as a means of destroying, subverting, or deconstructing the patriarchal order—despite the fact that such an orientation, separatism, may mean perpetual relegation to the marginal world outside history, outside the realm of public discourse. 


            Since women’s differentness is located in their bodies, it is the female body and female sexuality that must be the source of an authentic, disruptive, “feminine Imaginary.”  In particular, it is the sexual mother, “la mere qui jouit,” that has been repressed and who must be resurrected.



Language, institutions, and social power structures have reflected patriarchal interests throughout much of history; this has had a profound impact on women’s ability to express themselves and the quality of their daily lives. (from Literary and Cultural Theory by Donald E. Hall)


Gerda Lerner defines “patriarchy” as the “manifestation and institutionalization of male dominance over women and children in the family and…in society in general.  It implies that men hold power in all the important institutions of society and that women are deprived of access to such power.”


Terry Tempest Williams:  “Women’s language is like connective tissue…detailed and circuitous; it goes in and out.”  According to Williams, the language of women knows no time.  “A woman’s language is about meanderings, like a river.  You may go through eddies and spiral in one place again and again.  You may enter white water, full of risk and danger…You may just decide to take the flat water very slowly.  It is a language without self-consciousness.”


Discussion Questions for True Believer by Virginia Euwer Wolff



Questions about “style” in True Believer


1.  What is your “image” of a narrative?


2.  What is your definition of a novel?


3.  Is True Believer a “subversive” text?  How does the book subvert our assumptions  about the following:


·        Race

·        Sexuality

·        Class

·        Religion – What is a “true believer”? 

·        Identity “Definitions of Self”

·        Gender (masculinity and femininity)

·        Language and Discourse


4.  Is Wolff’s narrative public discourse or private discourse?  What are the implications of your answer to the “legitimacy” of the novel?


5.  Many of you believe that “race” as a meaningful political issue is removed from the narrative.  Is gender also removed from the text?  Does the text address these questions:  (1) What does it mean to be an adolescent girl?  (2) What does the text say about gender relations?  (3)  How are women and girls represented in the text?  How are men represented? 

6.  Read this excerpt from an interview with Virginia Euwer Wolff and consider the following:

·        Is the “sense of plot” difficult to discern in True Believer?  Is the novel in any way “non-linear”? 

·        Wolff says that True Believer is not poetry…but it is how LaVaughn talks.  Can you detect a personal voice in the narrative?  Is there a cadence to her speech?  Is there a uniqueness to her language?

·        Wolff intentionally omits last names, ethnicity, and place in the novel.  What effect does this have on the reader?  What effect does this have on the characters?

·        Wolff suggests that this is a “girls’ book.”  She says there are girls out there who need to read this book.  She is writing for them.  How do you men read this novel?

When I was writing Make Lemonade, it began to occur to me that I couldn’t be doing what I was doing. I was not allowed to do this. You can't write a book in this pretentious form that looks as though it's pretending to be poetry. Lord love us, we are not trying to write poetry. It's not that presumptuous. It's not that arrogant. Also, nobody in the book has last names. The ethnic group is not identified and the state is not identified. All these things that I knew you had to do, I wasn't doing. I was just doing a really different thing.

Gradually the question came up from my stomach and made its way to my
cerebrum and got asked, "How are you going to feel when reviewers say, she can't do this?" I really had to think about that. The answer was, there are girls out there who need this book, I hope, and I'm writing it for them.  I'm not writing it for reviewers. That was very freeing. With True Believer, that question has crossed my mind again.

And True Believer uses the same line format.?

Yeah, because that's how LaVaughn talks. She's the narrator. We revisit Jolly and the kids, and they're a bit older. This time I tried to take on a yet more challenging set of things.

As always, it was hard. I'm always on thin ice, not because I'm so daring, but because I'm so inept. I couldn¹t write most of the stories you and I read in kids' books. I was reading something recently and thinking, this person has more sense of plot than I'll ever have in my life. But I just went ahead and wrote True Believer.

Was it fun to go back to these characters and pick up their stories?

I loved being back with that family. I was rejoining my friends. I felt they were unfinished. Also, being able to write in those funny-shaped lines once more freed me. I would much rather write in those funny-shaped lines than in any other form.

But as always, I did all the wrong things at first. Usually I have to go back to scratch and start again. True Believer took me another year-and-a-half to write because what my editor asked didn't seem easy at all. When she first saw Bat 6, she was utterly flummoxed. It was like a blind date with acne, bad breath and three legs who's drunk. We managed together over a few years to make the book into something more acceptable.


Belsey, Catherine and Jane Moore, Eds.  The Feminist Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism.  New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

Donovan, Josephine.  Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions of American Feminism.  New York: Continuum, 1991. 

Hall, Donald E.  Literary and Cultural Theory: From Basic Principles to Advanced Applications.  New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001. 

Moi, Toril.  Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory.  New York: Routledge, 1986.

Richter, David H.  Falling Into Theory: Conflicting Views on Reading Literature. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000.

Warhol, Robyn R. and Diane Price Herndl, Eds.  Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism.  New Brunswick: Rutgers U P, 1991.