At the opening to Radio Silence, Alice Oseman’s latest YA novel, 17-year-old British-Ethiopian girl Frances Janvier shoots straight: “Being clever was, after all, my primary source of self-esteem. I’m a very sad person, in all sense of the word, but at least I was going to get into university.” Frances has always been laser-focused on getting into Cambridge, but academic success has never brought her joy. Instead, she feels most like herself when creating fan art for a podcast called “Universe City,” and when she strikes up a friendship with the podcast creator, a “partly asexual” white boy named Aled Last, their friendship is the beginning of something uplifting and important. Oseman shares a peek behind Radio Silence and how she learned to redefine the meaning of success when surrounded by pressure to conform.
I have always been a “high achiever.” A “gifted student.” “Top of the class.” Growing up, these labels defined me, completely and thoroughly. I was known among my classmates as the girl who got top grades, took extra qualifications, was loved by teachers and destined for Oxbridge. Academia dominated my identity and left little room for much else.
Going to university to study something “academic” wasn’t even a question. I’d known I’d do it since I was 9. There was no need to consider interest or enjoyment. It was my destiny. It was who I was and what I was meant to do. My parents told me that it would be a waste not to use my academic skills. My friends assured me that if I couldn’t get into Oxbridge, who else could? When I showed a slight interest in pursuing art instead, my teachers laughed at me.
So I went to a top university to study English literature.
And I hated it.
I wrote my second novel, Radio Silence, while I was studying for my undergraduate degree at Durham University. I was having a terrible time and could not understand why. The reading was dull and lifeless, the assignments were boring and painful, and I was finding no enjoyment from the very thing that I believed defined me as human being. Having been told all my life that being academic was what made you successful, rich and happy, I was terrified. Why did I suddenly hate that which made me who I was? Who exactly was I underneath that?
I looked around me and began to realize that other students were in the same position. Being at a prestigious university, I was surrounded by high achievers who believed that there was little else to which to aspire than to be academically successful—to get good grades, top scores and that certificate and graduation gown at the end. But very few people were actually enjoying it. The joy of learning was practically nonexistent. Most students didn’t even have a career in mind. They were just here to get those grades. Because that is all they were ever told they could do.
I wanted to drop out. But I had no idea who I was without academia.
Frances, the protagonist of Radio Silence, stands where I stood at 17—at the cusp of deciding whether to go to university. Like me, she is a high achiever and is expected by everyone around her to go to university and study something academic, and because of that, she keeps her artistic side a secret. But then Frances meets Aled, a boy who lives and thrives off his creative pursuits, and Frances begins to question whether academia is really the right path for her, despite everyone in the world screaming at her that it is. Aled, on the other hand, is forced into an academic university course that he does not really want to attend, and pays the price for doing so.
Teenagers today are defined by academia. Assignments, homework and exams are so intense now that they occupy students’ entire lives. In writing Radio Silence, I hoped to suggest to young people that they must fight back against those who try to write over their identities and warp them into study machines. I wanted to reach out to my past self and to those in her position—blind to the knowledge that there could be any other path for them apart from academia.