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The new novel about drag teens, queers and lonely towns

We speak to YouTube star turned YA author Jeffery Self about his much-needed novel about a young teen drag queen

In a world where literature is ever-becoming a passing trend amongst teens, it’s refreshing to see an author tackling issues like queer identity, small town claustrophobia, and drag culture through fiction. Los Angeles-based comedian and actor Jeffery Self, best known for his cult US TV show Jeffery and Cole Casserole with artistic partner Cole Escola, is now venturing into writing with his first young adult novel, Drag Teen.

Self’s book follows the journey of JT, an openly gay high schooler from Florida, who yearns for the freedom of the road and the promise of acceptance in the big city. As a coming of age narrative, Drag Teen encompasses many of the usual tropes of such literature, but injects a much-needed dialogue about the queer experience and widens the scope of typical coming-out tales. Self-admits film and media representations of gay men are limited at best, and that all aspects of queer culture should be examined more diversely: “We can’t have only stories of hot white guys going to clubs.”

Starting out as a stand-up comedian in New York after leaving his hometown of Georgia, Self went on to became a pioneering force in YouTube comedy as the platform took off to dizzying heights. He could easily be described as the millennial answer to self-documentation and satire: navigating the brave new world of online expression with eloquence and intelligence. And while Self has carved out his place on the internet-era landscape, he has now traversed into the more traditional story-telling form of fiction as a way to explore his ‘own emotional journey.’

“I think the ability to communicate with the world beyond is important for teens of any sexuality” – Jeffery Self

Growing up in the deep south, where bigotry and prejudice are still very much alive, the comedian identifies with his protagonist as a meandering teen searching for something “other.” Self says: “I grew up in a small southern town, like JT, and spent the majority of my life plotting and panicking about getting out and forging my path. Our similarities lie in our insecurities and longing to find our ‘otherwise’. I just didn’t know where I wanted the path to lead.” While asserting the novel is by no means autobiographical, Self encapsulates a simultaneous fear of and desire for the unknown that marks the dawning of adolescence.

Drag queens and their unapologetic gospel of excess is what inspired the concept for Drag Teen. The exuberance of drag performance is something teens can often only dream about as they battle with sexism, homophobia, racism, self-esteem issues, to name a few, and a yearning for acceptance largely dictates the personal narrative. “The inspiration was both my love of drag queens and my personal yearning to embody the kind of confidence displayed by drag queens,” Self explains. “There’s something so authentic about being so outrageous and I’ve always wished I had more of that in me.” The culture of drag and fierce queens has moved from the margins and onto our screens in an unprecedented way. RuPaul’s Drag Race helped pave the way for drag performance to be seen, discussed, and accepted, in a global arena, and what we are now beginning to see is a more nuanced representation of queer identity against the backdrop of white heteronormativity.

While RuPaul and his predecessors have been criticised for commodifying a fringe culture and endorsing drag as a consumerist product, there is no mistaking the importance of deconstructing gender roles through a popularised medium. “I love drag’s place in today’s pop culture,” Self asserts. “It’s exciting that people can watch these brilliant queens lip-synch for their lives on TV once a week. Drag is inherently transgressive because it is a commentary on some sect of culture. That’s why I find it so important.” When asked if we now live in a post-drag world, Self maintains ‘we’re quite a way away from a drag queen president – but a boy can dream.’

The literature and material available to teens grappling with processes of self-identification have greatly changed with the establishment of social media, and the internet more generally. Youth culture today is well acquainted with the confessional style of online communication, and while so many rush to argue it will be the downfall of our future generations, social platforms have aided many on the road towards understanding and a sense of shared community. Self says: “YouTube and all social media has been an amazing way for teens to communicate with each other, and most importantly to feel less alone. I think the ability to communicate with the world beyond is important for teens of any sexuality.”

Yet, Self still believes we have created a society that ‘exploits some of those stories for the sake of progress,’ and emphasises what we are given on our TV and phone screens is never the whole picture. As a gay teen growing up in America’s south, Self understands the significance of having books such as Drag Teen to level the playing field that separates the moving image from literature. “I think it’s super important to have all kinds of queer YA fiction, and I think it’s even more important that we showcase all aspects of queer culture,” he explains. “The community is far too wide not to cover all these stories and remind youth that being queer is a lot more encompassing than they might see on TV shows or movies.”

“The community is far too wide not to cover all these stories and remind youth that being queer is a lot more encompassing than they might see on TV shows or movies” – Jeffery Self

Influenced by the “ballsiness” of writers and performers like Sandra Bernhard, Dan Savage, Carrie Fisher and Rosie O’Donnell, Self’s novel is the kind of adolescent handbook that was virtually non-existent when us pre-00s kids were coming to terms with our sexual identity. Yes, we had lightweight authors like Jacqueline Wilson who taught us about fancying boys, sexual pressure and the bitchverse of girlhood, but it never had any substance further than voicing the generic concerns of straight, middle-class white teens. Where was our gender-bending exploration of adolescence that queered sexuality rather than polarised it? Perhaps, as many would contend, teens are more interested in Snapchatting now than picking up a book, but that brand of one-dimensional, millennial-hating thinking is a gross over-simplification of the needs and demands of our youth.

“It’s very rare to see people be authentic and we’re trained to shy away from it,” Self asserts. The problem is we’re unsure of what authenticity even looks like now. The murky waters of capitalism and creativity make it difficult to separate these two realms, but we shouldn’t give up on tomorrow’s generation because of a yearning for “simpler times.” Let’s block out the proverbial horse shit being flung at us and look to the innovators actually making teens feel less isolated, less alone, and more willing to accept non-normative avenues to adulthood. Self’s willingness to ditch YouTube and write a novel targeted at youth culture is commendable when publishing houses are dying, bookshops are going bust and increasingly the world gears up for a paperless future. Arming teens with the tools for survival is paramount… “The rest is all drag” (RuPaul).

Drag Teen is available now