Woman with backpack looking at books on jumbled shelves

Chronicling coming of age

Notes from the May Literati meeting

In our online Impromptue Literati discussion about all things literary related to ‘Coming of age,’ we talked a lot about what that phrase means. Do we only ‘come of age’ as we move from childhood to being an adult? What about the major shifts of becoming a parent, losing a parent, getting married, coming out or ending a relationship? Do we not grow into another version of ourselves when we move to a new place, start or complete an education, change careers?

‘Coming of age’ can be more than simply when you’re legally recognized as an adult and we might feel that type of momentous shift several times in our lifetimes. We might be feeling it now. The novel coronavirus has created a tumultuous world where we don’t know (and are probably unwilling to predict) what the future months will hold. It’s uncomfortable, but maybe also a little exciting and ripe with opportunities for change.

All of the books, movies and poems we discussed share a common aspect: a dramatic period of transitioning from one life (which is often defined by others) into a new paradigm—frequently chaotic and filled with possibilities.

The wide-ranging reading list

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Vuong’s poetic first novel has been mentioned at every Impromptue get together in recent memory. And there’s a reason we keep talking about it: it’s a difficult and beautiful read.

Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs

The shift between de Beauvoir’s upbringing in a strict Catholic family to her unconventional life as an intellectual sets the ‘coming of age’ stage for these intimate autobiographies.

We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks - The Pool Players / Seven at the Golden Shovel // We real cool. We / Left school. We / Lurk late. We / Strike straight. We / Sing sin. We / Thin gin. We / Jazz June. We / Die soon.

‘We Real Cool’ by Gwendolyn Brooks

Adolescence observed by one of the most widely read 20th-century American poets and the first Black author to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan E Coyote

Biographical stories of Coyote growing up in Northern Canada, moving to ‘the big city,’ and discovering themselves—both hilarious and heart-breaking. Coyote also has a TED Talk on gender-neutral bathrooms that I highly recommend.

The Shoe Boy by Duncan McCue

After high school graduation, McCue spent several month learning to hunt, trap and fish with one of his Chippewas elders. Now a journalist, professor and writer, The Shoe Boy captures his rite of passage and experience with the traditional Cree First Nation’s experience of learning.

My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgård

A six-book unified work from this Norwegian author who’s been called a writer for the “selfie generation” (that’s a thirty-six-hundred-page autobiographical novel!), this potential overshare delves into all aspects of Knausgård’s life from losing his virginity to how he takes his coffee.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Direct and vivid, the first book of Angelou’s seven-volume autobiographical series (some authors have a lot to say about their lives!) gives readers a chance to inhabit someone else’s life and see coming of age from another perspective.

Den lille røde bog for skoleelver

The Little Red Schoolbook (Den Lille Røde Bog For Skoleelever) by Søren Hansen and Jesper Jensen

A controversial Danish guide for real life teenagers (published well-ahead of its time in 1969) that includes how-tos for sex, drugs, alcohol and tobacco. It was banned in France and Italy… and briefly in Switzerland, too, when cantonal politician Hans Martin Sutermeister campaigned against it. (In a happy turn of events for free speech, the backlash against the book-banning ended Sutermeister’s political career.)

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

In the way only a late-night comedian can, Noah draws hilarity from his experiences as a biracial kid in South Africa. There’s also a version adapted for younger readers with the more adult language and situations toned down.

The Cutmouth Lady by Romy Ashby

A collection of autobiographical fictions based on Ashby’s experience as an American teenager transplanted to a Catholic girls school in Japan.

The Overstory by Richard Powers

Nominated for the Booker Prize, The Overstory is a beautiful and painful work of activism that sews together the stories of nine characters and the trees they feel a kinship with.

Crimson by Niviaq Korneliussen

Originally written in Greenlandic (and then rewritten by the author in Danish) as Homo Sapienne and now translated into English, Korneliussen’s short novel portrays people outside of the norm in Greenland’s capital city. And check out Korneliussen being interviewed for an English-language episode of the La Poudre podcast.

La Poudre podcast - episode 43 with Niviaq Korneliussen

Coming of age on screen

Becoming by Michelle Obama

It was the new Netflix documentary specifically that came up in our discussions, but the book of the same title is certainly relevant too. Obama’s coming of age is evident in her recollections of arriving at Princeton and feeling like she had to prove herself just to be seen as equal. Both the film and the book are proof that sometimes growing up doesn’t mean rebelling against your family and where you come from.

I am not your Negro directed by Raoul Peck

On a grander scale, nations often have some growing up to do, too. This movie shows a component of the USA ‘coming of age’ as reflected in James Baldwin’s writings about race relations.

Working Moms created by Catherine Reitman

An example of coming of age in motherhood, the show has a “deft ability to deliver punchlines while at the same time confronting the realities of 21st-century motherhood.” (Quoted from Brad Oswald in the Winnipeg Free Press).

Frances Ha directed by Noah Baumbach

Greta Gerwig plays the title role of a woman who throws herself into following her dreams.

Never Have I Ever created by Mindy Kaling

Yes, it’s funny, but this series is also a much-needed perspective on growing up in a first-generation Indian American family.

Nói albinói (Noi the Albino) directed by Dagur Kári

The Rotten Tomatoes critics agree: “A darkly humorous, quirky coming-of-age film, enhanced by its Icelandic setting.”

From the shelves of our past selves

A rapid-fire list of books we remember reading in our own teenage years, roughly listed in order of whether we’d suggest that anyone else read them:

And for the future

Some books we’ve enjoyed reading and are passing along to the next generation.

In addition to talking about a whole host of word-related materials related to ‘coming of age,’ we also shared a reflective personal discussion around feeling like an adult in our own lives and the idea of emerging adulthood. There’s a lot of content to mine in this area and, as always the conversation ranged far and wide!

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