Sunday, January 27, 2013

The unbearable whiteness of being: Jo Walton's 'Among Others'

Fair warning: this blog post contains spoilers.

One of the last things to happen at Arisia Science Fiction and Fantasy convention in Boston before I left on Monday was Kiini Ibura Salaam (author of Ancient, Ancient) turning to me in the Crossed Genres Publications booth and asking me if I had read Jo Walton's "Among Others" (2010, Tor) and if not, whether I wanted her copy of it.

I had heard of the Nebula- and Hugo-award-winning novel but only really remembered one thing: that it was considered a love letter to the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre.

"Did you like it?" I asked.

Kiini never did give me a yes or no answer.

I took the book anyway.

From the first, I had a hard time connecting with the main character. But I'm nothing if not stubborn, which means I rarely set aside a book. I kept soldiering through, hoping for that moment when I'd be caught up by the language, the characters or plot —something to which I could point and say "This. This is why the book has won its accolades." Don't get me wrong, I wasn't finding "Among Others" awful, just pedestrian.

I regret to say that the disappointment and disconnect persisted, right through the end. But worse, after the final confrontation of the book, I realized the feeling had become something stronger. Distaste. Enough to make me want to write this post.

A little context is perhaps in order. I had just come off four days of panels at Arisia, most of them dealing with issues of diversity and representation in SF/F, when I started the book. I always note the dearth of characters of color in the genre novels as I read, but the discussions about destructive tropes and monochromatic world-building had honed my attention even further. Perhaps if I had picked up "Among Others" at a different time I wouldn't have felt so acutely its white-only rendition of the world. Perhaps I wouldn't have noticed how the only schoolmate of color is nothing more than a stick figure with an exotic name. Perhaps I would have been more forgiving of the almost total lack of names of SF/F writers of color among the main character's collection of books.

Perhaps.

Morwenna, the 15-year-old protagonist of "Among Others," is defined and moored by her love of speculative fiction. At first blush she seems like a protagonist most of us would have no problem  connecting with: a smart outsider living in the aftermath of tragedy.  Mor's newly moved to England from Wales because her mother has had a hand in permanently injuring her and killing her twin sister.

Mor is afraid her mother will come after her at boarding school (where she's been enrolled by a father she hardly knows) so she engages in protective spellcasting and consults with faeries, whose cryptic utterances she interprets as guidance.

But most of all Mor reads. A lot. References to SF/F books fly fast and furious through the novel. In a seamless juncture of formal and material, we understand from the first that Mor wouldn't exist if SF/F literature didn't exist.

I should like this part, right? Especially since I am a writer of SF/F and the conceit that writing is central to survival is something every writer would like to believe. Except that the SF/F references in "Among Others" feel more like syllabus than celebration of the genre to me, and all I wanted to do as I read was shake the heavy weight of canon off my back. I can't help but contrast this to the exuberant way SF/F and comic book references manifest in Junot Díaz's "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." Mor talks about SF/F, Oscar revels in it.

Mor disdains pop music, reads the Greeks, and completes writing assignments for her more dim-witted schoolmates. The SF/F she loves is a litmus test by which she measures the worth of others. It also provides the pass to a club wherein intellectualism is recognized and treasured. Walton gives the book club meetings a lot of real estate in the book. They are reflexive, of course, and probably the key to why this novel has been hailed as a love letter to SF/F —a genre that is often impugned as anti-intellectual and which carries, collectively, a huge chip on its shoulder about that characterization.

The ironic part is that if the intent of the book club sessions really was to accord intellectual weight and heft to the way we talk about speculative fiction, it was completely counterproductive in my case. I found the book discussion scenes lazy and facile; one-note (or cliff-note) facsimiles, slighter than the paper they were printed on. This is particularly annoying given that spec fic really has done self-reflexive intellectual discourse about literature well — take a look at Borges' stories if you don't believe me. 

In any case, Walton is at pains to let us understand through these book club meetings that although Mor is an outsider, she is really better described as an insider's outsider.

The narrative arc of the book allows us to witness Mor's first inklings of love and sexual interest; we explore the crucible of family with her, and trace landscapes — both remembered and current — which shape her. We meet ghosts in her company, and ruminate on the nature of magic. It is an intimately focused narrative, quiet and evenly paced. 

Mor's small ambit is filled with people just like her. Some are better at maths, or have less money, or have made mistakes in their past, but they are essentially uniform, interchangeable pieces lined up neatly on the white side of the author's chessboard.

During the endgame, Walton slides the black queen across the board. 

Mor's mother, who we haven't seen but understand is probably insane and certainly responsible for great suffering, shows up for a long anticipated showdown at the conclusion of the book. She is described this way: "She looks like a witch. She has long greasy black hair, darkish skin, a hooked nose and a mole on her cheek. You couldn't typecast someone more like a witch."

And then, just to make sure we don't miss the tiresome, dark-evil-white-good trope she's exploiting, Walton gives us this about the other witches in the book (the ones who are no threat to Mor): "Of course the Sisters are witches too, and they're impeccably blond."

O-o-okay. For a book that takes itself seriously — and purports to take genre fiction seriously — the unexamined use of this trope is pretty remarkable. And not in a good way.

There is an unintentionally amusing moment toward the end of "Among Others." As Mor and her mother are locked in magical battle, the mother (Liz) starts ripping pages out of her edition of the Lord of the Rings, and turning them into flaming spears she throws at her daughter. I started laughing and found myself cheering Liz on.

Now, Tolkien is one of those weighty old farts we all carry on our backs if we chose to write SF/F. Many of us were introduced to SF/F through Tolkien, and LoTR is practically holy scripture to a good number of genre readers and writers. The destruction of this book, in particular, seems as close as Walton can get to showing the desecration of something important.

And I laughed and cheered. Why?

Despite its other meritorious attributes, the Lord of the Rings set the bar for the dark-evil-white-good trope in SF/F. It is a particularly ugly example of it, in fact, wherein every character described as dark or swarthy is in league with evil. Every one. This canon of canon has an unabashedly racist worldview that is undeniable, though those who love it will, and do, try to defend it vigorously. (In the spirit of full disclosure I must admit a deep and abiding love for Tolkien's highly problematic opus.)

So it was a kind of brilliant, poetic justice that the only real, dark character in "Among Others" (Liz) threw the pages of LoTR in the face of a guardian of the SF/F canon of whiteness (Mor). Weapon for weapon; damage for damage; wound for wound. I wish I believed Walton had done this intentionally, it would make the book more satisfyingly complicated, and less cloyingly self-congratulatory and complacent.

Walton's money line from the "Among Others" is this: "If you love books enough, books will love you back." It is a lovely line, and one that will delight many SF/F readers and writers. It would probably make a good motto silkscreened onto library totes, too.

But, in view of Walton's shabby treatment of her few "dark" characters, it is nicely worded lie. The real line should be: "If books love you enough, you will love them back."

Now there's a real discussion topic for Mor's SF/F book club. Too bad Walton didn't write it.






12 comments:

  1. Thank you for the very interesting post! I have an e-copy (got it with my Hugo ballot last year) but I haven't read it yet, I've been putting it off to be honest... I'm rather tired of this kind of meta-writing writing (or meta-reading reading), and Best Novel isn't really my focus of voting, plus I got the ebook bundle late.

    But! I felt the same way about CJ Cherryh's Foreigner recently, which was recommended to me by several people (mostly white, with one exception) and... to me the aliens read like the writer's totally unexamined concept of the Other, which involved (among other things) black skin, large body size, violent tendencies etc. and a huge unpassable cultural and even biological chasm between them and humans. This got to the point of being completely contradictory, for example the book said "liking" something was a concept the aliens didn't understand, and gave a description of it that seemed... perfectly adequate to me. Maybe I don't understand the concept of liking something either...? (Gee, I never knew.)

    All this blatant and ignorant othering completely ruined the book for me. I kept on thinking "did the writer REALLY intend to write a book about Scary Violent Africans? I'm sure this wasn't a conscious aim, but it definitely turned out that way..." I've been meaning to write a longer essay about this; the book is old, but it's never too late to take a new look at something, I guess. Especially when it runs with covers like this:

    http://www.amazon.com/Foreigner-Anniversary-C-J-Cherryh/dp/0756402514/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1359332151&sr=1-1&keywords=cherryh+foreigner#reader_0756402514

    I also recently watched the LotR movies for the first time, and made a post about the racism - a friends only post on LJ, because I fully expected the apologetes to jump on me. To my huge relief, it didn't happen, instead people were like "but it's common knowledge LotR is very problematic". I was all PHEW.

    I did read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, so the comparison was very useful to me. Thanks again!

    "She looks like a witch. She has long greasy black hair, darkish skin, a hooked nose and a mole on her cheek. You couldn't typecast someone more like a witch."

    This sounds like a typical Nazi caricature of Jews, too; with the hooked nose and all. ...Makes me kind of O.O; since I've had Jews recommend this book to me too. Welp.

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    1. Wow, that's some cover. You should definitely write about the Cherryh book.

      Re the witch description in "Among Others": Yes, it is reminiscent of Nazi caricatures of Jews. Also Roma, I think. The thing that's so unbelievable is that not only did Walton write it, the book's editors let it through. Which just goes to show you how ingrained the "othering" is and how willfully oblivious people are about it.

      Thanks for commenting!

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    2. I think it's more likely to get through with a light character, because they can become conveniently white. All the while the author wants someone to apply non-white stereotypes to, the character is portrayed as non-white. But the moment someone comments on it, the character becomes white, so it couldn't possibly be racism.

      This also happens in real life. I'm light brown, so it's easy for people to decide I'm non-white when they want to hurl abuse, but white if I complain about it (so therefore it's not racism and they don't need to do anything about it).

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  2. This was an instance insightful post. Afraid that I've never heard of this book but in the scheme of things it seems to have the weaknesses of so many books today.... Books that fail to recognize that the world is multi hued and cultural - global - and that the worlds we create should be reflective of that. The thing is, until the masses wake up, admit there is an issue, and demand better more diverse literature, I fear things won't really change. So many of us are asleep. And so much of literature is a monochromatic adventure in lala land.

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  3. I'm not white & liked it, although while reading it I thought we're supposed to see Mor as intellectually immature for failing to recognize all the problematic stuff in the books she read, instead of treating her as some serious commentator of sf/f genre.

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    1. Wow - I don't see the portrayal of Mor as intellectually immature based on her not recognizing problematic stuff at all. Can you post some examples of where you think Walton is winking at the reader like that?

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  4. How lucky am I ... to read your review on my first visit to your site (via acrackedmoon). At the risk of sounding like a total suck-up, it's the ideal model for the quality of reviews which I aspire to write. It's also caused me to view Walton's first book (Tooth and Claw) in a new light. Thank you so very much!

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    1. Thank you! You can come by and bolster my ego any time!

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  5. Um. Not to defend Ms. Walton, or deny the issues you found, but to state:
    (a) The book started as an autobiographical piece and contains elements from Ms. Walton's own life, so I'm reasonably sure that she was reflecting the actual racial/class makeup of the school she attended at the time. If I were writing an autobiographical piece, I'd have 100% whitey whites in my story, since there were no minorities at my high school. I only ever met one black person in any school I attended until I went to college. Reflecting that reality is not racist, I do not think.
    (b) The Sister witches are evil. They might be white and blonde and thin and upper class(ish) English, but Ms. Walton specifically points them out as evil and plotting against Mor just as much as her mother does. (Trying to take away her magic by having her ears pierced, e.g.) AFAIK, Mor herself is dark and Welsh-looking, so she's more like her mother than a blonde person.

    While this might not change your mind about Ms. Walton's book, it might give you more insight into why she made the choices she did in the writing and why so many people did not see the issues you do. (For the record, while I do read Ms. Walton's livejournal and enjoy some of her books, I do not know her and I'm not what you would call a fan. I did like this particular book quite a bit, as it reflected my own teenaged experiences reading sf/fantasy.)

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    1. I have to disagree with you on the Sisters issue. While Mor has a fraught relationship with them, they are certainly not portrayed as evil in the way Liz (Mor's mother) is. Mor is ambivalent about them but there is no confrontation with them that is even remotely life or death, nor anything of the weight given to the confrontation with her mother.


      It's interesting what you say about the book having started out autobiographical. Interesting but not mitigation of criticism. Many of us draw from childhood experiences but we are not writing from within them. We don't hesitate to put faeries in our reimagined worlds, but we hesitate to put people of color? Ridiculous. To create a white world because we remember the world as only white is a choice and a very political one at that.

      It is quite true people don't see the same things in the book as I do, but then they're not the ones writing my blog post about it. ;)

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  6. Thanks for your reasoned reply. I in no way want to discount your reactions, but... if one is writing about a time and place in which there are few if any POC in the protagonist's world (by actual demographics, in Ms. Walton's case, due to the autobiographical element), wouldn't it be a misrepresentation to add them in? The fairies are presented in such a way that allows a reader to believe they were all in Mor's mind (which is a popular interpretation with the folks I've talked to), so the book could be read as an imaginative sf-loving kid working through the trauma of her twin's death and and her own laming, as well as being taken out of familiar environs and put into a very stressful situation. YMMV.

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    1. Among Others is fiction, not memoir.

      And even if this were straight autobiography I don't believe for a minute there were no people of color working in or around the school. What I believe is that Walton didn't notice them. Like so many white writers, actually. (Lena Dunham, whose TV show "Girls" is set in NYC and has precious few people of color even as extras is probably one of the most egregious examples of this kind of writing, but it is everywhere).

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