I didn’t want to add to The Hunger Games hype but the recent swell of responses to matters tied with race compelled me to share some thoughts.
For those who haven’t been following the situation, the film, The Hunger Games adapted from a novel of the same title, is currently wildly popular (Please note I haven’t watched the film yet. I’ve read the trilogy some time ago.). After the release of the film many of the fans of the books have taken to social media to air their disappointment, dismay, unhappiness, indignation, etc. that some of the key characters were cast as black when they had thought them white instead. Some of the comments are overtly racist. Some mildly so. Though it’s disheartening to see so many people respond this way I can’t say that I’m terribly surprised. I do think if there’s one good thing about this situation it’s an opportunity to talk about race, representation, systemic racism, expectation, and diversity. As teachers say, it’s become a “teachable moment”. There’s a lot out there where you can view and evaluate for yourself. An excellent article in The New Yorker and on tumblr, Hunger Game Tweets where racist commentary on the race of characters in the film are being compiled and reposted.
I feel less intellectually and emotionally involved with the amount of racism that’s made itself visible in this situation than people might first imagine. As a Japanese Canadian who’s grown up in Canada I’ve personally experienced a wide range of racially charged interactions from the weirdly mildly polite racist to outright hatred. That racism is there, beneath the surface, and springs forth at different times is not news to me, nor to a great many other people. It’s troubling, of course, but what is made visible is easier to address. Clearly there’s a lot more work for everyone to do.
As a writer who is keenly aware of the importance of race and representation and diversity in fiction I’m very much interested in:
1) How the readers read the characters as white in the novel in the first place. (Thereby leading them to feel “disappointment” when they see how the characters are cast on film.)
2) How writers write about race and represent race in fiction.
1) I’m actually not surprised that a great many people read characters like Rue as white in the novel because aside from a mention of dark eyes and brown skin there is nothing mentioned in terms of race. As far as I can recall (sorry, no longer have copies of the novels), The Hunger Games future dystopic is post-racial; people are only identified by skin tone and eye colour and/or as a group via their District.
Brown eyes and brown skin does not automatically assign race if you are not seeking to see it. For instance, Rue’s district was a grower of orchards. Her brown skin could have been a result of working outdoors all of the time. Brown eyes does not necessarily signal racial background. One physical trait, however, that would have signalled Rue’s racial identity/ies as Black would have been a description of her hair. If Collins had described her hair as kinky, or wiry, or perhaps in numerous tight plaits the reader would have made a more solid connection to Rue’s race(s) of origin. But Collins did not include (or the editor advised her to delete it?) this distinctive detail. I noted this absence when I read The Hunger Games. I noticed that Katniss has “olive skin”, black hair and grey eyes– that there are some traits, but no links and ties to more concrete clues that point directly to race.
Critically, I’m inclined to think that it was a conscious choice by the author and publisher to take a kind of beige-browny “generic” race approach. I call this effect on characters as being cosmetically brown or melaninated. Vague-races do not have the power to unsettle and disturb any one person’s world views. Nothing is twigged in terms of learned and systemically sustained bigotries. And it also magically erases current racial realities and legacies we’ve still not dealt with. Leaving the racial topography vague also means that readers can insert their own world vision in terms of demographics. Appeal to everyone, discomfort no one (Well, except for me, and others like me…. >__< ). Vague-races also means that the author does not have “to worry about race” in her story. I would have loved to have seen actual descriptions of different races in the Districts. It would have taken the stories to a totally different level.
This racial vagueness in The Hunger Games has led to readers placing their own racial selections onto the characters and when they watched the film for the first time their worldview was disrupted. It does not surprise me that they felt disappointment upon seeing a race different from what they had imagined from the cues they decoded from the story– textual representation and filmic representation are experienced in different ways by the eyes, our minds and bodies. I’m not saying that it’s okay for readers to be bigots– I’m turning my focus toward the responsibility of the writer to be specific and concrete on something that’s so important, fraught, and potentially a matter of life and death (as pointed out by Anna Holmes in The New Yorker article).
2) Race and racial and cultural identities can be written about in many different ways. There are never any absolutes; racial identity is complex and widely varied. As writers we often must resort to some kinds of shorthand methods. How much the plot centres around race can range from next to nothing to central to the text. But in terms of realistic depictions of humans, race is one of the biggest concerns in our lived lives. It’s careless and problematic to ignore it in our stories.
Some ways race is conveyed in fiction:
a) Specific physical traits in a social and cultural context. Certainly skin colour, but also hair. Shape of eyes. Height. Body type. We must be careful to avoid tired cliched and stereotypical shorthand ways of description, however. We’re writers– we’re a creative bunch. In what kinds of new ways can we detail physical traits? (If I have to read one more description of a girl of Asian background as having “almond eyes” I’m going to dig out my eye with a pen!)
b) Languages. Of course languages speak across race and cultures and we should not be reductive in our treatment of the their connections. I.e. The statement, “She’s Japanese so she only speaks Japanese”, is clearly reductive and problematic. People can speak numerous languages completely separate from race. However, there can be a strong correlation. In a far future, how would have languages shifted/altered. Wouldn’t there be greater blending of diverse languages for certain communities?
c) Tied to language are character names. Names can also signal racial diversity. I found it notable that the names used in The Hunger Games were again disconnected with any kinds of cultures of origin other than English-speaking. Katniss is a type of plant. As is her younger sister’s name. Gale is, of course, a storm. Rue is also a plant-based name. The names provide no links to our known references of racial identities or connections to the practice of being named after ancestors, etc.
d) Cultural practices. Again, like language, cultural practices aren’t absolute and there’s a great deal of crossover and complexity. However, there are cultural practices that have passed down through hundreds (if not over a thousand) of years that we can identify as having racial and cultural connections. The Hunger Games do not detail any cultural practices that we can identify with in our current lives. It may be said that the survival situation in the Districts are so dire that there’s not space or room for any kinds of cultural practices. I remain unconvinced.
e) Religions. Like cultural practices religions also move across races, but there are also correlations. I don’t remember any kind of religious practice being described in the world of The Hunger Games.
f) Food and preparation of. I can’t recall any food descriptors that depicted food connections to diverse races. Food is very much identified with cultures and races. For a narrative that focussed upon the lack of it for many, and the abundance of it for the elite few, I think Collins was again very generic in terms of actually detailing any kind of racial specificity to the foodstuffs. In a key scene Katniss receives a gift of a bun or loaf from Rue’s District (and presumably her peoples). This could have been a moment when Collins could have signalled more specificity re: race/culture via choice of food item. The bun/loaf was very generically Western/Euro. Different cultures have different variations of breads, ie. injera, roti, mantou, naan, tortilla, etc. Her selection of a food item again locates a racial subjectivity that gestures mostly toward a whiteness.
I found The Hunger Games to be well-plotted and a page-turner– I enjoyed what it did well despite noticeable elisions in the narrative. It was entertaining and it was also commendable that the hero was a girl with some measure of agency. But the handling of (or lack of) specific races and sexualities meant that it toed a very “safe” line insomuch that the narrative did not disturb generic normative readings. Maybe Collins did not want to make the story “about race”. This is her prerogative, of course. However, that does not mean that the novel is exempt from criticism over how it’s been rendered. Fiction has an impact upon how we see the world, how we see ourselves in this world, how we imagine ourselves, and how others imagine us. We need to be able to speak to that, the relational between fiction and reality.
Note: I didn’t have a copy of the novel in front of me while I wrote what’s turned out to be a much longer post than I originally intended. So potential for mis-rememberings of the text– I read the novel last summer, I think. Please let me know if I’ve screwed up!