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The E-Racing of The Hunger Games : Race & Cultures in Fiction

March 30, 2012 By: Hiromi Category: Blog, Books & Films, Craft, Thoughts on Writing

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.

Why?

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!

 

Manipulation and Intimacy in Narrative Fiction

September 26, 2011 By: Hiromi Category: Blog, Books & Films, Craft, Thoughts on Writing

Reading a work of narrative fiction can be compared to embarking on a type of journey. The reader embarks upon this journey willingly (unless it’s assigned reading for school, etc.), entrusting her well-being into the hands of the author. Of course this voluntary contract is non-binding– the reader can leave the book, unfinished, for whatever reason (Thankfully, this final power remains with the reader because no one wants to be trapped in a Clockwork Orange scenario. We call those nightmares….).

One of the key challenges faced by the writer is to draw the reader into the text and keep her engaged to the end of the journey. The writer maintains engagment in a variety of ways. In narrative fiction the common ways in which a reader can be held are:

1) An engrossing plot. This activates our hard-wired human trait, curiousity. I.e. What happens next?

2) A compelling character/voice. (We wish to be like her. Or we make the proxy cross-over and think we may actually be like her if we were to find ourselves in the same situation. Or we can’t ever imagine being someone like her, but wonder what someone like her thinks/feels.)

3) Creativity/Imagination. I.e. Elicits a sense of wonder.

4) Beautiful language and/or poetics. This elicits aesthetic wonder.

5) Via character, emotionally hooks the reader. I.e. Intimacy. (Also connects back to the idea of proxy. Empathy is socially and culturally valued if not a hard-wired trait in most of us.)

6) Eliciting intellectual curiousity. I.e. In terms of (new) information being relayed, or the mechanics of the structure of narrative is atypical thereby resonating as a puzzle to be solved or deconstructed, or making connections between disparate ideas in a new way, etc.

(This list is not defnitive, of course.)

I’ve been pondering the levels of intimacy that are subtly and not-so-subtly reached/triggered during the back-and-forth play between author-narrator-reader in that stretch of time/space of writing and a book being read. Because the flip side of intimacy, which can be beautiful and so deeply moving, is vulnerability. To open oneself to intimacy is to receptive and unguarded– we are open to intense connection, but also to deep hurt. Consequently, I believe that it behooves writers to take time to consider the ways in which they create and shape narrative fiction and to what levels and the ways in which they will use intimacy to engage their reader.

Authors have a wide range to work with. There are texts that are very cool, distant, emotionally removed and dry. The primary engagement may be foregrounded as intellectual, and intimacy can be pushed far back, into the nose-bleed section of the emotive auditorium. I think the British literary tradition excels at this type of narrative style. To the other extreme we can be placed so subjectively close to a fictional character that we can experience her life completely as if we, momentarily and actually, are her. We can be more intimately connected to a fictional character, know more of what she thinks and what she feels, than we will ever be able to with our own lovers!

Narrative fiction, on one level, is the careful manipulation of words in order to construct an artificial imaginary temporal, causal, emotional and intellectual mindscape for a reader. The very nature of this work is one of manipulation. Although I’ve stated that ultimately the reader holds the power to close the book should she find herself taken into a place she does not wish to enter, writers also hold a great deal of manipulative power in hooking the reader (particularly through plot) to staying until the end. (I’m not going to go into books that are “difficult” to read i.e. unfamiliar form, or political content, or experimental, etc., but are actually doing an important work/writing. This is separate topic from what I’m detailing here.)

I’ve been thinking about trust and intimacy relationships between the author-narrator-reader because I’ve recently read a novel where I felt hooked enough to follow the plot until the end of the tale, and left the completed reading of the book feeling that the author manipulated me, the reader, as much as she manipulated the characters she created. Of course I understand that the entire construction of a fictional narrative is, on one level, the manipulation of words into a specific form. One must manipulate in order to succeed. But what are the terms? What is shared? Who gives? Who takes? How much? Are there junctures in the narrative where the flow of power shifts? Does the writer leave space for the reader to maintain a sense of autonomy. Does the writer love and respect the reader? Does it matter if she does or doesn’t?

I don’t want to be coy– the novel that troubled me was Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. I admire her earlier novels a great deal, especially as I read them when I was coming into my feminist understandings in the late 80s and early 90s. In terms of the a narrative of the dystopic/utopic, I was and am interested in what she’s created in Oryx and Crake. She’s clever, imaginative and engaging and she’s a skillful storyteller. Outside from its genre (which is highly foregrounded), however, was a kind of pounding upon my emotive reading psyche– one of manipulation. I felt like I had been led through a narrative Matryoshka doll-effect, with the final largest doll being the reader, and Atwood the agent who gets to put the set away after she’s finished playing with them. And I did not at all appreciate how this felt.

SPOILER ALERT! Technically, Atwood adeptly and quickly hits the reader with a dual track of causality with which to hook our drive to discover what happens and why: 1) We’re placed in the “present” where it’s post-disaster, so we wonder what’s led to the disaster, and also what will happen next in the “present” timeline of the hapless narrator caught in a survivor situation, 2) the narrative’s past leading up to the disaster is unveiled through its own timeline underscoring the causal elements that led to the disaster as well as establishing the protagonist’s own bildungsroman. Nothing troubling about these strategies; I think she was/is very clever to double up on the narratives and it’s also not unheard of. She treats the same character (Jimmy/Snowman) as two separate characters via the distance of time with the timelines meeting at the end of the novel. Clever.

But the smallest of the Matroyshka dolls comes into play via the introduction and treatment of the characters of 1) Jimmy’s mother, and 2) the figure in the child porn abuse film that Jimmy views/overlay of Jimmy’s narrative of the abused child atop of Oryx. Clearly Jimmy/Snowman is a kind of anti-hero. And his understanding and perceptions of his mother and child-abuse victim/Oryx is that of a flawed and sexist/misogynist/colonialist character. But by situating the text via Jimmy/Snowman’s subjectivity the reader is situated to impose this reading upon them as well, and the writer who orchestrates this manouvre is Atwood. We are vicariously set up to perceive in a way we may abhorr, in order to experience Jimmy/Snowman as Atwood has constructed. The next stage of manipulation is unveiled when we discover Jimmy has been utterly manipulated by his long-time friend, Crake (who may have manipulated the video depicting the execution of Jimmy’s mother in order to manipulate Jimmy into having feelings of vengeance, as well as manipulating Jimmy via his obsession/desire for Oryx). Jimmy, whom we thought had had at least some level of agency in his own story, has actually been played like a pawn by Crake, throughout. To top it off, we are clearly made to understand that Crake is only the “natural” outcome of a society gone utterly wrong. Crake has been manipulated into being by a bad human world. The novel ends with a seemingly “open-ended” sequence– Snowman is at the ultimate crux of having to choose between the lives of humans like himself, or protecting the genetically constructed Children of Crake (as designed by flawed Crake). Atwood does not finish the scene for us, but in terms of how Jimmy was manipuated throughout the narrative, she leaves us with very little space to imagine him doing anything other than what he was manipulated into doing. This is the final manipulation. The reader is manipulated into reading only one ending even when there seems to be space to choose other options.

It could be said that I’m missing the entire point of the novel in that it was written as satire (as implied, for instance, by the main character’s Leave-it-to-Beaver-like name, “Jimmy” alongside the figure of the emotionally distant and disengaged mother, invoking a kind of contructed and heimlich gesturing toward an artificial nostalgia that’s clearly ironic, not to mention the over-the-top names of drugs, trends, organizations, products, etc. found throughout the fictional world as constructed by Atwood). It could be stated that we aren’t meant to engage with the novel on an emotive and empathetic level when the primary engagement is meant to be satirical (and intellectual). This may have been the intention, but I’m not convinced that the intention was successfully deployed. Or, perhaps Atwood intended the reader to recognize that manipulation was the modus operandi, both cause and effect, and appreciate this?

I do enjoy satire– Philip K. Dick excelled at it in the best of his books. Perhaps it’s a matter of degree and tone. In our current lives of hyper-consumerism atop of inherited legacies of colonialism and oppression, that which Atwood gestures toward as satirical is actually part of our lived realities. The real and satirical collapses into one and the same. So the future that Atwood creates is not necessarily perceived as humorous embellishment. This is the whole point, it may be said.

I would respond to this idea with Fred Wah’s, “So what?”*

So what?????

Social commentary and warning if humanity doesn’t change its trajectory? Don’t be manipulated like Jimmy was? Don’t be a Jimmy or a Crake? Don’t be manipulated like they are, even though I manipulated you so that you can see how manipulation works? Aren’t our consumer-driven corporation-led lives a comedic tragedy…?

There is a huge experiential difference between satire that allows us to observe the unfolding of the joke, and one in which we are part of the joke. The dividing line may not be so clear in the construction of the joke– context and subjectivities are not static. I have no idea of whether or not Atwood situated the reader as reader-pawn intentionally, or if it was an unintended outcome. I like to believe that it was unintended. But the reading of Oryx and Crake had me pondering less about the dire conditions we are moving toward in terms of our global impact upon environmental/ecological/social/cultural wellness, and more focussed upon the difficult-to-measure ethical relationship between the writer and the reader.

In the end I felt like the writer had no love or affection for the reader. Indeed, I felt like I had been had. A curious place to find myself when the underlying impetus for the writing of dystopias could be said arises from a place of deep caring for the survival of humanity.

Ultimately I don’t regret having read Atwood’s novel, because it has had me  considering important moral and ethical issues around the relational between author-narrator-reader. We should not enter this space lightly, even if the creative intention is an expression/articulation of levity. It is a relationship that we ought to consider every time we write something intended for a readership.

*Fred Wah was my first creative writing instructor at the University of Calgary. He had a very effective way (if not somewhat alarming/intimidating) of directing a critical gaze upon a story or poem that was skillfully constructed and stylistically “faultless”, but, somehow, devoid of life, or vibrancy, or risk, or edginess, or urgency, etc. The story set out what it intended to do, and achieved it, the end. Stories/poems like these elicited the dreaded Fred Wah’s, “So what?” A rhetorical question, but one critically necessary for the writer to consider.

Feeding my yashi….

June 28, 2011 By: Hiromi Category: Blog, Books & Films, Thoughts on Writing

Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy features aliens that have three “sexes”: male, female, and ooloi. The ooloi are neither male nor female but a third sex that is necessary for reproduction. The ooloi can manipulate DNA and make genetic alterations– they are living sythesizers of new life. The ooloi manipulate the genetic material in an organ called yashi. The ooloi hunger for new DNA, discovery of new species, etc. If they haven’t tasted something new for a while, they need to seek it out.

I’ve been taking to thinking of the “creative” organ inside of me as my yashi…. Yashi was hungering this past week, so I fed her. ~___~

Watched several films, read several graphic novels, a trip to the Vancouver Art Gallery, made a painting of a squid, attended a lecture on our microbial environment, and working my vegetable gardens all nourish my yashi so very much!

I’d been curious about Parnormal Activity for a while and finally got to see it– was a huge fail for me. Perhaps the intended audience is meant to be younger…? I think I might have been frightened if I were fourteen? But I found the main characters so extremely annoying that I didn’t care what happened to them. (Which led me to question my own morality– i.e. if I didn’t care for a person based on their personality traits, clearly it’s amoral to have no empathy over whether they live, suffer, or die, etc.) However, another element that prevented any willing suspension of disbelief was the use of the hand-held camera as documenting-event-as-they-occur premise, which I find a huge leap of faith because if you’re really in a life or death situation, how many regular joe people (as opposed to dedicated and practiced professional journalists/camerapeople) would keep on filming? If there’s some weird scary evil shit going down, wouldn’t you just frickin’ stop filming and run, fast? There were several lines delivered throughout the film with the character addressing this very question– explainers, on why he feels compelled to keep on filming. Which only underscored the constructedness of the narrative. In the end it was a gimmick film. But I was very much impressed by the low-budget aspect! It did remarkably well for a small-scale production. Kudos!

Also watched My Dog Tulip, a feature-length animation about an older curmudgeonly bachelor writer who adopts a German Shepard. The writing/narration is a little dated (it was written as a memoir in 1956), but the drawings/animations are so very beautiful and lovely…. Gorgeous and strategic use of colour. The deep greens, blues, red alongside shades of brown. The lines sometimes left gestural. It was such a balm upon the senses, especially in this time of CGI-created uber uncanny valleys… (The most recent unpleasant valley I visited was Rango! Especially the female lead, Beans, to the Depp-Rango-Chameleon. Beans was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen. I was so distracted by the CGI that I could scarcely follow the story.).

Also finally watched Kinsey! Whoa! Very gripping and interesting and well-performed. Who doesn’t love Laura Linney? I also found the doubling of father behaviours to be well-done. I’ve also begun watching the TV series, True Blood. Not too shabby! And there’s not so  many seasons to catch up to. Not like Battlestar Gallactica. Captn’, it’s not possible!

Read the Best of American Comic 2007, Dogs and Water, and American Widow. American Widow is a memoir of life after 9/11, from the point-of-view of a young pregnant wife who has lost her husband in the attack upon the Twin Towers. Deeply personal, honest and sad, it reveals what the aftermath was like for Alissa Torres, the very intimate human suffering behind a large-scale historic tragedy. The clean, spare artwork of Sungyoon Choi was a perfect pairing with this narrative. Very powerful use of dark and light, simple lines. Unfussy. This graphic novel made me cry….

I was going to share some thoughts on the Surrealist show at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Ken Lum’s installations, and a simple and haunting piece, “Torso of a Young Girl”, by Myfanwy Macleod, but I need to leave, soon, for a plenary session at the Asian Canadian Studies Graduate Workshop! If you’re in Vancouver area please do go to the gallery. If you go on a Tues, between 5-9pm it’s sliding scale and you can pay what you like!

Feeding the yashi is so important to nourish creativity…. Writing is the very visible part of our creativity, but the stuff that supports and sustains it should receive just as much time and focus. And respect.