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

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.

Musings: A List of Questions…

This is a list of questions I compiled from an Instagram story poll, wherein I asked the young women I know to share questions that they have to consider which rarely occur to men. I have withheld the names of the submitters to protect their privacy, but I know their identities and can vouch that they are all real young women I know personally. These questions are listed in the order of submission.

The questions on the list range from relatively light-hearted (e.g. Question 53: Why does this male author writing a female character describe her boobs so much?) to anguished (e.g. Question 63: What do I do about the guy who raped my friend if she doesn’t want anyone to know? and Question 64: If it happens again, am I partially responsible?) though notably more of the questions are on the heavier end of the scale. Of particular interest to me was Question 60: Why do I constantly gaslight myself about whether what’s happening is real? This is a phenomenon I have experienced, in which an instance of harassment/assault is committed by someone who is usually kind, or someone who is greatly apologetic after the fact, to the point that such harmful rhetoric or action from the perpetrator seems entirely uncharacteristic. We live in a world where it is easier for women to change their memories than to confront the problems posed by men in their lives.

It is important to acknowledge that the questions on this list do not exclusively apply to women, but occur more often to women than to men. Many of these questions were submitted by able-bodied, heterosexual, white women and as such do not reflect the even greater intersections that women of color, LGBT women, and disabled women must deal with on a regular basis. According to the National Sexual Violence Research Center (https://www.nsvrc.org/statistics), a nonprofit that seeks to inform the public about sexual violence and ways to prevent it, “one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives,” and “one in three women and one in six men experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime”. These rates are significantly higher for minority groups of all forms, and “one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old”. I encourage you to follow the link and read more statistics about sexual violence.

To bring this back to a more personal scale, every single respondent is someone I know personally, ranging from about age 16 to about age 20. Every one of these women has experienced sexual violence or knows someone who has. It is a fear that follows women regularly, both consciously and subconsciously, as we navigate a world that seeks to silence us, a world where victims are threatened further when they do come forward. The purpose of this list is to present to you plainly the ways this fear is made manifest in our daily thoughts and behaviors, and to make it concrete to those of you who do not experience this fear.

I do not have a solution to the epidemic of sexual violence plaguing not only the US, but the world. I do not know, or claim to know, any way to calm these fears in my own mind, or to protect my friends. I know, however, that I have to live every day knowing that my former Girl Scout troop leader was murdered in January of 2018 by her former partner. I carry with me the rapes of at least three of my closest friends, the harassment and assaults faced by countless more, the knowledge of my small body and inability to fight back if my life depended on it. I carry with me tears and hugs, support and shame, and always, always questions.

And to those asking why I’m sharing this on my blog which up until this point has only included my creative content, my answer is twofold. First, it makes an excellent companion for a nonfiction piece I’m posting later this week, which received 2nd place for the George M. Lucaci Award at Duke this year. And second, I think these questions tell a number of important stories of their own. With that in mind, the list begins here:

  1. Is it safer for me to give him my contact information and hope he never uses it, or to turn him down and hope he doesn’t get angry?
  2. Are we just going in the same direction or is he following me?
  3. Do I take the short way home that’s poorly lit, or the well-lit route that adds on a lot of extra time and distance?
  4. If things go wrong when I say no, am I closer to the exit or is he?
  5. If I called out right now, would anyone hear? Would anyone care?
  6. If I report him, would anyone believe me?
  7. Do I need to borrow my friend’s pepper spray to walk back to my dorm if it’s just barely after midnight, the path is well-lit, and it’s a five minute walk?
  8. Is he joking or am I in danger?
  9. This makes me uncomfortable, but if I say something about it will he take it the wrong way and overreact?
  10. If I speak up, will it hurt my career?
  11. If I speak up, will it hurt my social life?
  12. If I speak up, will he hurt me physically?
  13. Is he really my friend or is he just “playing the long game” and going to freak out when I tell him I’m not interested in being more than friends?
  14. Is this old guy being friendly because he’s just a nice old man, or should I be leaving right now?
  15. I’ve told him no in every way I can think of, including gently, firmly, and with profanity, but he still doesn’t get it—how do I make him just leave me alone?
  16. What is the best response to have when I hear about someone I considered a friend harassing women?
  17. Is it my responsibility to correct the way this person inappropriately acts?
  18. Will I be unsafe if I do?
  19. Will I be complicit if I don’t?
  20. If I accidentally make eye contact and smile, will it be considered an invitation?
  21. Should I avoid wearing this cute dress because it will draw unwanted attention?
  22. Why has this boy I have barely met latched onto me as someone to share personal information/struggles with?
  23. If I tell him to stop, am I mean?
  24. Will he lash out at me?
  25. Will he tell others I am unkind?
  26. If I don’t stop him, will he only grow a stronger sense that I am someone he should turn to?
  27. Can I no longer show simple kindness/politeness to strangers because it makes them latch onto inappropriately?
  28. Should I be doing more? If something happens will people say it’s my fault?
  29. Is carrying my keys like Wolverine claws too much? Or is it just a safety precaution?
  30. Will I be safe walking upstairs to ask the floor above me to stop partying at 3 am?
  31. Am I safe at this coffee shop with a 30 year old man hitting on me and touching me uncomfortably?
  32. Should I not try to leave because I’m not sure anyone will help me if he tries to go further?
  33. If I leave will he follow me?
  34. Do I trust this male friend to walk me to my car? Should I find someone else?
  35. Wait, why did I just say I’m sorry?
  36. Am I okay letting my male boss drive me somewhere?
  37. My friend and I are sharing a cab/Uber/Lyft, should I spend extra so she can get out first and be safer?
  38. Is it safe for me to give this man directions, or is he using that as an excuse to follow me?
  39. Why do women feel obligated to help male strangers even when it inconveniences them?
  40. Over half of all rapes are perpetrated by someone the victim knows. Am I really safe with my friends, family, and partners?
  41. What do I do if a guy gives me unwanted compliments while I’m at work (in the hospitality industry)?
  42. Is the way he’s touching me creepy or platonic?
  43. Does it matter if I’m uncomfortable?
  44. Can I give this male acquaintance a ride? I know it’s cold, but am I safe?
  45. Does the man I’d be alone on this elevator with if I take it seem nonthreatening?
  46. Will I be wanted in a relationship if I don’t want sex?
  47. Will I be safe if I say no?
  48. Will I be wanted in a relationship if I have a physical challenge that prevents me from having sex at all, or at least without pain?
  49. Would I be creeped out by this action if a woman did it?
  50. If I wouldn’t, is it still valid to be creeped out when a man does it?
  51. Why am I so used to men being unapologetic that when they are kind, respectful, and apologetic after an incident, part of me feels bad for calling them out in the first place?
  52. Is it safe to meet up with someone I met through a dating app?
  53. Why does this male author writing a female character describe her boobs so much?
  54. Is the trauma of reliving my assault in a trial worth the slight chance my attacker sees consequences?
  55. Did it count as rape if he didn’t seem to know he was raping me?
  56. Why do I keep making excuses for my attacker?
  57. Will wearing headphones in public keep me safe from harassment and unwanted conversations, or put me at more risk of not hearing potential assailants?
  58. Why do women on TV and in movies excuse abusive/stalkery behavior just because the male lead is attractive?
  59. Is love an excuse to put up with abuse?
  60. Why do I constantly gaslight myself about whether what’s happening is real?
  61. Do I have to forgive something unforgivable just because he said sorry?
  62. What do I do if he knows personal information about me that he could use against me?
  63. What do I do about the guy who raped my friend if she doesn’t want anyone to know?
  64. Is it partially my fault if it happens again?