So I’m reading this book Threatened [IndieBound] right now, and it’s pretty good, and it’s about chimpanzees in Gabon. I liked Eliot Schrefer’s previous book about apes, Endangered [IndieBound] (bonobos), so I don’t know why it took me so long to read this one when I’ve had the ARC sitting around since forever. I’m only about 100 pages in, so I don’t have much to say about it except that it will probably appeal if you’re into animals, and also I find it interesting how it takes the usual poor-brown-kid-rescued-by-western-white-lady narrative and follows it but spins it at the same time.
It’s amazing how much I keep stopping myself to remind myself, Everyone in this book is a person of color. Because it’s assumed, and unless you’re a dummy who’s never heard of Gabon and thinks it’s maybe in the white part of Africa, it would be obvious. But there are these interesting racial layers, because the main character, Luc, an AIDS orphan living with a Fagin type, has been taken under the wing of Prof, whom he likes well enough but also keeps looking at with a bit of disdain, because Prof calls himself “African” while Luc calls him “Arab.” Because Prof is from Egypt (and also works in Germany). And there is this constant tension of what it means to be African. I learned that Gabon has only been independent from France since 1960, so I wonder if some of that tension will come up when they get back to civilization, but at the moment it’s just a boy, a man, and some chimps. And a hunter. And there are no endless descriptions of skin color, because everyone, unless specifically described not to be, is black. It’s like a reverse of the white-as-default thing, and it’s refreshing. I also worry that a bunch of clueless white readers are going to pull a Rue Is Black!? on it, but that’s their problem, not Schrefer’s.
When I tell people that until I moved to Boston, I didn’t know all the climate-, weather-, and season-related I read about in books and magazines my whole life were true.
I know it sounds silly, but when you grow up in the Southwest, things like leaves changing color, layering your clothes, and “spring” don’t mean a whole lot. I saw seasons change in movies, and it’s not likely I truly believed that the East Coast/Midwest utopia that the great majority of American fiction takes place in was a fairytale land, but it may as well have been for all that it resonated with me. I have never put snow chains on a car. The first time I saw salt residue on my jeans after walking in the snow I flipped out because I didn’t know what it was or whether it would come off. I called my dad in almost tears of joy the first time I looked out and actually saw autumn colors and leaves of different colors all around me, and his response was, “Geez, your mom and I really should have taken you and your sister to the East Coast more.”
When we talk about diversity in literature and publishing*, those who think diversity is stupid or that books published by marginalized people are only for marginalized communities often like to kvetch that reading a few words here and there in another language or referencing a religious practice or cultural practice without explaining it in detail is a shortcoming because then “nobody can understand it.” That is, of course, because the presumed readership and audience of all cultural production is the magical Default Human, who is white, upper middle class, Protestant, and heterosexual (and, furthermore, is entirely generic and conventional and doesn’t participate in any subcultures of music, politics, fashion, etc), so anything mentioned that does not come from one of those groups must be defined and explained ad nauseum.
You could look at geographic and climatic references the same way. Continue reading