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The ‘Divergent’ series is all about exploring young adult identity

As the young adult fiction series celebrates its ten years, author Veronica Roth looks back at the many notions of identity that have informed the ‘Divergent’ books over time

The bestselling series has inspired a series of major motion pictures, starring Shailene Woodley. Images: courtesy HarperCollins Children's Books
The bestselling series has inspired a series of major motion pictures, starring Shailene Woodley. Images: courtesy HarperCollins Children's Books

When the first book in the Divergent series was published in 2011, the story of Beatrice and Tobias appealed instantly to young adults. The books, set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic Chicago, looked at a society divided into five factions. Those groups went on to define the personality and affiliations of the citizens, and anyone exercising free will was seen as a danger to society. Today, as we live in a world divided by ideology and beliefs, the storyline of the Divergent series becomes even more pertinent. Veronica Roth, the New York Times best-selling author, looks back at the ideas of choice and identity that have informed the books. Edited excerpts:

If you could talk about the ensuing significance of Divergent today?

Divergent was never a prediction—I’m not actually concerned that Chicago is going to wall itself off and divide into virtue-based groups! But the dystopian world of Divergent centres around a basic human tendency: we are always grouping ourselves and defining ourselves in opposition to others. If Divergent still feels relevant, it is not because I knew where we were headed as a society, but because I know what we’ve always been like.

The point of the story isn’t even to demand that people stop defining each other—that’s impossible, impractical—but to ask people to continually question their definitions of themselves and others. That’s all we need, really, a little bit of doubt in our assumptions. The more we learn to embrace uncertainty, the more space we leave ourselves to see people as complex.

In the series, you continue to place loyalty and humanism above everything else. How do the various characters, in their unique ways, explore these in the choices they make?

You know, I’m not sure the series really insists on loyalty—Tris’ choice of the faction is a kind of betrayal of her parents, but I don’t think the book argues that she made the wrong choice. Tobias, too, isn’t loyal to his father, because his father doesn’t deserve it. The series is more concerned with forming your own identity without losing the ability to care for or love other people. When Tris makes sacrifices, it’s not because of her loyalty to others—it’s because those sacrifices are in alignment with her identity. She’s trying to figure out who she wants to be, what she wants to be. She wrestles with what’s right and what’s her and how to make those two things the same.

We are already living in dystopian times. As an author who writes about dystopia, what do you make of these times?

My fear is that if we label our world a dystopia, we’ll be so defeated by that label that we stop trying. And we should never stop trying. So I try to think about what people have done in the past to make things better—and what they’re doing now. For example, we were just able to develop vaccines for covid-19 in a year. That’s such a stunning scientific achievement. It wouldn’t have been possible at any other time. That doesn’t mean everything is good right now— it’s definitely not. But it means that there are people doing good work. My focus is on making sure that in some small way, I’m one of them.

The pandemic has been a period of slowing down for some, while others have tried to making meaning of loss and grief. What has this period meant to you?

For the first six months of the pandemic, I felt frantic. Social media connects us, but it’s also a constant stream of information, and everything feels equally important and unimportant at the same time. Our minds are not built for that. So I took a six month hiatus, and in that time connected with family and friends individually, privately—sometimes even in person, when I was able to be outside. Everything became meaningful again. My mind got quiet again. And after two months of that, I wrote more than I have in years. I wrote my next book.

We need to slow down to understand what’s happened to us and what’s happening to us now. This period of time has been sad and scary and full of loss for me, as it’s been for everyone—but it’s also reacquainted me with my priorities, and helped me to find quiet in my mind. I’m thankful for what I’ve been able to make of it.

The 10th Anniversary Edition of ‘Divergent’ has been published by HarperCollins Children's Books

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