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Book Review: On Representation in Literature: All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater

As always, this review is spoiler-free. Enjoy!

A few notes: This post was written originally in 2018, but since then I’ve revamped this blog. That being said, I think this post holds up, so on its first anniversary I thought I’d re-share it, and use it as a vehicle to relaunch my very occasional book reviews. Below is the original text, with a few updates (indicated in bold).

This post was inspired by a very thoughtful Goodreads review of Maggie Stiefvater’s All the Crooked Saints, and the comment I made in response to it. Before I begin, I feel the need to express a disclaimer: I do not speak for all minorities, nor even all Latinx people. What follows is my own opinion, but one that I have seen widely expressed throughout minority conversations about diversity and representation in literature.

With that out of the way, let’s begin!

The question of what types of writers can write what types of characters is nothing new. Throughout history, white writers have written characters of all races and ethnicities, sometimes well, but very often, very poorly. The effects of blackface minstrelsy and stock characters like “Sambo” and “Aunt Jemima” still have a major impact on how African Americans are portrayed in present-day media. Whitewashing in Hollywood films erases roles for Asian actors, who make up only 1% of Hollywood’s leading roles. Muslim men are often portrayed as terrorists, and Muslim women as victims who must be saved from the “oppression” of the hijab. I could go on and on for hours about the countless movies, TV shows, and books that portray Latinx characters as maids, drug dealers, or sexy, spicy, feisty Latin lovers. With all of this, it’s easy to understand how some people believe writers should stick to writing about characters of their own racial/ethnic background.

*Addendum from 2019: A lot of the negative reviews I’ve seen about this book are from readers who didn’t seem to connect with the characters, as though their Latinidad is by its very nature ostracizing to non-Latinx characters. This is a phenomenon that happens frequently with books about minorities of all varieties, and I find it deeply frustrating. Just because something is outside of your personal experience doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy reading it or connect to the characters. I don’t know about you, but my lack of dragon-riding experience didn’t keep me away from A Game of Thrones, so the fact these characters speak a little Spanish shouldn’t scare you off.

But this is not a solution to the problem in the slightest. If white writers, who still hold the majority of writing posts in America and whose path to publication has fewer hurdles, write only white characters, then the vast majority of characters in literature will remain white. Representation is crucial for people of color, especially for children, who should see positive examples of people of their racial or ethnic background in the media they consume. So this presents the conundrum: how do writers depict someone from a different cultural background sensitively?

There are a myriad of answers from a number of different sources. Some people recommend sensitivity readers. Some immerse themselves in the culture they’re depicting. Some believe that characters of different ethnicities should be treated no differently, that the color of their skin or the second language they speak should be incidental, background information with no more importance attributed to it than eye color or favorite song. Personally, I believe a mix of all three is important. A non-Latinx writer may never capture the full nuance of my day-to-day Latinx life, but it isn’t, quite frankly, that different from non-Latinx life most of the time. Sure, I have abuelos who I love, and a tin of Vicks VapoRub and a bottle of Superior70 Alcoholado to heal my ailments, and I like my food with lots of Adobo and garlic. But my daily thoughts are not about my Latinidad. I go to school and struggle with that. I have complex relationships with my friends of all backgrounds. I worry about what I wear, and I read great books, and I watch too much Netflix. All in all, I’m normal, and that’s what writers should remember.

Now, to connect this all back to All the Crooked Saints. The Soria family of Bicho Raro is nuanced, delicate, real. Not once do the central female characters appear to be “spicy chicas” oozing sexual energy, or saintlike virgins whose faith is the most important thing in the world to her. Not once are the male characters reduced to “cholos” or drug dealers, men who rely on their machismo to secure their otherwise undifferentiated identities. Instead, the family is a collection of oddball individuals, whose problems stem from human flaws. And while some reviewers have pointed out the potential stereotyping of the radio name Diablo Diablo, I think it is justified by its explanation in the story: that triple repetition of the devil’s name summons him, and that double repitition is just close enough to be cool and just far enough to be safe. To those questioning why Stiefvater would write about Latinx characters, I want to make clear that choosing to make the main characters of this story Latinx is especially important considering the roots of magical realism in Latin American life, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Isabel Allende to Jorge Luis Borges and more. Stiefvater acknowledges the long literary tradition she is writing in in a respectful manner, and has clearly done her research in the use of Spanish and the realities of life for a Latinx family in the 1960s.

The same care should apply to all portrayals of minorities in literature, whether that be racial/ethnic minorities, neurodiverse individuals, LGBTQ+ characters, or women. Research must be done. Drafts must be read and revised. Characters should be treated with respect. But don’t you dare tell me that male authors can’t write female characters, or that straight authors can’t write LGBTQ+ characters, or that neurotypical authors can’t write neurodiverse characters. That’s a sort of literary segregation that will get us nowhere.

*Addendum from 2019: I also feel like this is an important moment to remind folks that Latinidad isn’t monolithic. Latinx people come in all races, are of all faiths, inhabit all countries. Some of us use a lot of Spanish. Some of us know none. Some of us like spicy food, but many of our cuisines aren’t hot at all. We are millions of people from dozens of countries, and taking that into account is crucial. Sometimes we live up to certain stereotypes and oftentimes we don’t. No work is necessarily flawed because a few stereotypical boxes are checked, so long as the complete humanity of the characters is guaranteed. And I’ve never seen Stiefvater fail to capture the humanity of her characters, regardless of background.

Musings: On Originality, Inspiration, and Unintentional Frankensteining

It was a warm, dense day in April when I realized that for two years, the novel project I’d been working on was not truly my own. I had been struggling for months to find the inspiration to continue writing, going through brief spurts of energy, revamping the entire plot before again losing interest among my myriad other commitments. I couldn’t understand why this story, which had interested me for so long, was getting worse and worse even as my prose skills were rapidly increasing.

Then it dawned on me: it wasn’t my story.

I know the various theories, that there are only seven stories, or thirty-six, or one. I’ve heard that every story that can be told has been told. I know that West Side Story is just Romeo and Juliet, that even Shakespeare stole from Chaucer and that Chaucer stole from Boccaccio and classic myth. All telling is retelling and all that. I’ve been told in writing classes that what changes is simply the way the story is told, the presentation, the word choice, the voice.

I don’t buy it. At least, not completely. When you break a story down to its constituent elements, there are two major layers: language and plot. To break plot down even further, there are only two elements of that: tension and release. These are what make art great. Music builds and swells and escalates your heart rate only to come crashing together in a sigh, a cadence that allows you to regain composure and reset. But like binary code, two ingredients can compound to make vastly different works. Two cells can make a living being.

The problem comes when the similarities between your story and others are on a much larger scale than tension and release. My novel wasn’t a shimmering layer of language set atop the skeleton of some ancient, primal structure. It wasn’t a retelling, or a subversion. It was a monster, stitched together from books and movies and TV shows I liked, borrowing major motifs, character profiles, plot elements. I wasn’t rearranging the thirteen tones all Western musicians have to work with. I was cutting from Dvořák to Tchaikovsky to Wagner and back in whole chunks.

Once I had realized this, it became easy to see why my writing was losing steam, easy to understand how this had happened. In appreciating other art, attempting to recreate the wonder those works inspired in me, I accidentally wound up recreating the stories themselves, or at least cheap facsimiles.

To quote T. S. Eliot, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

I had fallen into the trap of defacing. It was disguised by pretty words, darlings I still struggle with killing, turns of phrase I’ll likely recycle into later works if I have appropriate occasion to do so. But it was defacing all the same.

In one of the hardest decisions of my writing life, I set the project aside. It’s all saved somewhere so that I can go back to it someday with a clearer head, but as of right now I’m novel-less, and a little unmoored. I’m still in a strange haze coming down from that fictional world I spent so much time in. But this break is for the better. I’ve been focusing on short fiction, and I definitely feel my prose strengthening. I’ve experimented with poetry and nonfiction, and liked what I’ve discovered. And I can feel another novel churning in the nebulous horizons of my mind, just wisps of something now: a snatch of a character here, a glance of a deserted street there, the whisper of magic in the shadows. Nothing has coalesced, yet, but there’s still time to be had and research to be done and life to be lived in the meantime. I’ll just have to be a little more careful what books I read when I’m plotting and planning next.

Book Review: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu

As always, this review is spoiler-free. Enjoy!

Sometimes, I read a book that provokes such wonder in me I don’t know whether to put it down and marvel at the changed world around me or to keep it pressed tight to my face and never let it go. The dilemma between a desire to process thoughtfully and a burning hunger to consume more is overwhelming.

But eventually I finish the book, one way or another, and find myself in a strange haze afterwards, trying to reconcile the real world around me and the much realer world I’ve just left. Everything seems distant, and shiny. And then it all sharpens. The knowledge crystalizes. My worldview has changed.

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu is one such book. Shifting between science fiction and fantasy, traditional and wholly innovative, Liu focuses in on human concerns even as he leaps through space and time and species lines. I read The Paper Menagerie in a week last summer and it’s been turning over in my mind ever since. This week, after finishing another read, I decided to revisit Menagerie, this time as an audiobook.

Some books are thin. Not in size necessarily, but in content, in complexity. They may dazzle and astound at first, but become thin upon the closer scrutiny that comes with rereading. Menagerie is not thin. It instead unfolds, revealing ever more layers, striking the same chords and new ones. From its first tale, “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species,” which chronicles the reading practices of alien races of Liu’s invention, to its last novella, “The Man Who Ended History,” which zooms in on a future Earth and on the very real atrocities of our past, Liu manages to gather nostalgia, loss, shame, and love together in his fists, ball them up so as to make them indistinguishable, and release them, now commingled, into the world. His characters make sacrifices and make mistakes, explore the American frontier and the final frontier, but they are always reaching out to one another, always searching for connection. They are raw and complex and intricately human, distinct and compelling, and within the many worlds he casts they come to life, some timid and some bold, all more than what they seem at first.

It is for this reason that I found The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories so difficult to put down the first time, and for this reason I revisited it again. It makes me feel the sort of connectedness that I only ever find through fiction. This book broadened my understanding of what short stories could do, and helped me to realize there’s more worth reading than just novels.

I can’t give this book five stars. That’s too simplistic. It’s worth a galaxy.

Nonfiction: Excuse Me

A brief note before the actual text begins: This work received 2nd place for the George M. Lucaci Award at Duke University this year. I wrote it partially because of the anger I was feeling after compiling a list of questions that women ask which men rarely have to consider. I recommend reading that list in tandem with this work. At any rate, let the piece begin.

I.

Excuse me, I know you don’t mean anything by it but I’m just not comfortable with the way your palms are on my shoulders with your fingers trailing down towards my chest because I am a small girl in a foreign country who doesn’t speak the language and you are a grown man some thirty years my senior who owns the restaurant enveloping me and you are talking to my professor across the table like everything’s fine. In a way everything is fine because I’m about to drink this delicious mint lemonade you brought out and chat all night with my friend across the table and nothing will happen after you leave except me scooting forwards in my chair a bit so when you have to lean forward the next time your hands will have hard wood to grip instead of bird-thin bones. But I won’t say anything and you won’t say anything and my friend will say something only after you’re gone and my professor’s husband will say something the next day to another student when I’m not even there to hear it except through the grapevine, which is how these things travel anyway. I know they’re all sorry. I know they froze, we froze. But in this moment with your hands on my shoulders and your warm rough fingers dripping onto my skin I am alone.

I’m sorry but I’m not comfortable watching you become a punchline these next few days because I’m part of the same joke in that case. You’re the reason I flinch when my professor taps me on the shoulder the next day and the reason why I’m so much more tense when a drunk man starts following our whole group because the road to hell is paved with guys who didn’t mean anything by it.

II.

I ate freeze-dried raspberries once while camping in a yurt with my Girl Scout troop, a bunch of rambunctious twelve-year-olds comparing tree bark patterns, led by a woman some nine years our senior, a child herself but eager and bright-smiled and warm. I remember being shocked that the berries were similar in taste and texture to Fruit Loops, and when we tried the freeze-dried edamame I spat them out.

She showed me how to turn a penny from copper to silver to gold, and in turn I let her graduate and move away, and I stopped talking to her as she went on with her life. It’s these little decisions we look back on and question. Fourteen months ago in Kansas she swallowed a bullet put there by an ex-lover. She was not yet twenty-eight.

Sometimes I remember the raspberries but mostly I cry when I eat Thin Mints alone and wonder if I will ever give a little girl the world and rip it away in a long-game, one-two punch.

III.

 If I go to hell I’ll be sure to greet Brett Kavanaugh there with a swift kick to the nuts before I’m dragged away so someone else can take a turn. On the day he gave testimony I called my mother in tears because I knew him, this man who laughed and held women down, by some thirty different names. I knew the many faces of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, knew the flavor of the tears she shed both raw and stewed. I know what it is to hold a woman shaking in my arms as we both hunt for the words to make things right.

I was fourteen the first time I bit my tongue to bleed. A friend—and not even a close one—had made me her first point of contact. I would later discover that this was my talent, inspiring trust—I have a friendly face and a burning spirit. The moment she said the word “rape” I was tight-fisted and shaking.

But she asked me to tape my lips shut, so I became all ears and glares and gentle hugs. I learned well what to do, and the next time I was ready. When another friend came forward, and another, and another, and told me, in a stony-faced Greek chorus, about Persephone, I clenched my mind and loosed my muscles.

IV.

When my sister took a self-defense course in college, they taught her to go for the eyes. As a writer I think that’s a lesson I learned long ago.

V.

I was taught to cross my legs at the ankle like a lady. I was taught to cross my fingers and hope for the best. Never put down my drink at a party. Never look a panhandler in the eye. Keep my neckline high and my hemline low. Keep my gaze low—no, lower. Speak rarely, quietly, shyly. Apologize if I interrupt. Apologize when I’m interrupted. Say no once, then acquiesce.

I found out I was a girl on a mustard-yellow school bus that ferried me from elementary to middle school for algebra classes. I was all elbows and knees, joints wired together with gangling copper and not a hint of spare fat for curves. The six boys I had for company on those rides back and forth would talk to each other and rarely to me, spreading their legs wide to claim entire seats, making fart jokes in August, dick jokes in November, pussy jokes in March. They spoke in tongues too large for their mouths of violent acts and degrading deeds while I shrank in the corner, raised my hand less in class, and stopped outscoring them on tests. It didn’t keep them from turning on me by April. My very presence was an attack.

There are so many rules for being a woman in public, rules that change shape based on the color of your skin or the weight of your body, the prominence of your breasts or the wideness of your eyes. There are so many ways to erase ourselves from hungry eyes that keep uncovering us.

VI.

So when your fingers brush my shoulders, grip my collarbones, graze the skin above my breasts, I cannot breathe because I’m tired of having to make myself small for you but I don’t know how to speak without making you angry and I don’t know how to make you angry without making myself unsafe and I don’t know how to do anything but stiffen and make awkward eye contact with my friend across the table and wait for someone to say something and crumple as you leave.

Fiction: Cheshire

I kept all your milk teeth in an old jam jar, you know, after taking them from underneath your pillow. Over the years I paid you twenty dollars in singles and collected an ever-increasing rattle, holding you while you cried and bled and healed and teethed again. You never lost your faith in the Tooth Fairy or Santa or the Easter Bunny, even when you were ostensibly too old not to wonder, and I had to fill you in over steaming bowls of pho at the corner store on Second and Main and you did your best to fight the tears but they came strong as ever.

You were a late bloomer, a real shrinking violet when it came to speaking up, and the other moms would always tell me how to fix you with honey in their voices and arsenic in their eyes. Don’t you think he’s a little strange, they’d always ask, and haven’t you tried music therapy or tae kwon do or did you give him the MMR vaccine before he started to talk? It was that sticky smile in the asking, the way their questions sounded like accusations, the pseudoscientific bullshit they’d shoot me with until I stopped showing up to parent functions.

So bright, you always were, though, and curious, but your fear grew in lopsided like your upper left canine. You gave no thought to reckless things, stepped into traffic to see how headlights look up close, but shrank at little things like raising your hand or talking to the boy next door. I always told you life was a fragile thing like the little glass doll you used to love that fell and lost her head. You never listened.

Rough and tumble, you racked up scrapes and bruises faster than I could count, but as you aged the nature of them changed. Your eyes grew purple underneath from late nights studying, your wrists callused from resting against the keyboard. Your teeth straightened out on their own, almost like you’d willed them to when you found out how damn much braces would cost. You were always stubborn like that.

Anyway, all this is just to say that I still had your teeth rattling around in my bedside table when you graduated, and I still had your teeth when you moved away to college on the opposite coast, and they sat in the jar still rimmed with residue of age-old peach preserves when they became all that was left of you.

They kept you in cold storage for almost a month while I made up my mind because I knew you couldn’t bear the thought of being chewed by worms, but I couldn’t let them turn you to dust. Those are your options, they told me, take your time (but not too much). I could hear the parentheticals, and I could hear the tick-tick-ticking as the clock wound down. I didn’t know what they’d do to you if I couldn’t decide. But I couldn’t decide.

You’d never believe it if I—no, you would. Only you would, because when I was talking to you with my mouth half-full of noodles you stopped me with watery eyes and made me promise never to lie to you again. I held fast to that promise just as soon as I gulped down the broth and we were always straight with each other. You used to tell me things, but you stopped. Sometimes I wonder if…

But you were cold and hard and smooth, like a diamond in one of those fancy steel drawers, and I was hours away because I couldn’t afford the plane ticket out with all the cost of the funeral I was delaying. I slept with the windows open like always, letting the sound of rain on rustling leaves try to steady my breathing. I was curled into myself beneath the blankets and I remembered the way your hair used to smell when you were little, sweet and clean like day-old shampoo and a hint of sweat and fabric softener and vanilla. I couldn’t cry.

But something scuttled at the windowsill and when it wouldn’t stop I looked up. In the dim illumination of the city’s light-polluted glow, there was just the fuzzy outline of a squirrel, slick aerodynamic body belied by a bloated silk-spun tail, perched and staring with glassy eyes. I froze, a shiver sliding up my spine, and could only watch as the squirrel leapt down to the nightstand and bent over, its small busy hands tugging at the drawer.

Everything that followed was sounds. A whoosh as the drawer opened, a thud as the squirrel leapt in, and the sound of rustling as it burrowed, searching, searching. The rattle of teeth as it found its mark.

It lifted the jar and leapt out of the drawer holding it, though by all odds it shouldn’t have been strong enough to do so. And it shook the jar some more, scampering back to the windowsill on two stubby legs, and in a last brief flash of lightning before it jumped away, it smiled, and that squirrel had your teeth.

I called up that minute when a gunshot thunderbolt swept the squirrel away and no one answered, of course, because it was the middle of the night, even in your time zone. But the next morning I looked out at the little mound of overturned dirt beneath the roots of that oak you used to play by, and I called them and told them to bury you in the ground before winter because that wasn’t you anymore, not really. You were a beautiful boy, you were, and now you are only a smile.