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.