When I tell people that until I moved to Boston, I didn’t know all the climate-, weather-, and season-related things 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.
Take, for example, the time that Sarah Jamila Stevenson mentioned to us at KidLitCon in October, when a well-meaning editor in Minnesota suggested that she had made an error when she had characters in her book lunching outside in February. She had to explain that no, in Berkeley, California, the weather and culture is such that it is entirely normal to eat outside at that time of year.
Or when I was doing edits for a short story that was being published in a literary magazine, and the editor said that she didn’t understand my reference to a drunk girl being dangerously close to a jumping cholla.
If you are from the Southwest, you are probably doing a “oh man, that would SUCK!” right now, because jumping cholla** is a type of cactus that is semi-sentient or whatever (like a venus flytrap) and sends out prickles when you are close enough in proximity that it can feel a change in the air or in its environment (more or less. I’m not a botanist, but you feel me).
There was no reason for me to go out of my way to explain this. Nobody in a book has ever gone out of their way to explain to me myriad Christian worldview references that have no bearing or relevance to my life as a Jew. Names of expensive cars, clothes, alcohol, and jewelry were learned because of reading, not because of life. I’ve learned WASP drinking culture from TV shows like Private Practice and Arrested Development, but it’s certainly not my background. Either I move on, I learn from context, or I look things up. Or, you know, the thing all of us learned from our first grade teachers to do when encountering anything at all we don’t understand. Nobody has ever given me sympathy or the benefit of the doubt or the space to ask questions about all these assumed normals, but I’m crazy when I assume that people know different types of cactus.
The reason I’m thinking of this today is that I just finished The Lord of Opium (IndieBound), a follow-up many years later (in this world, not in the world of the novel) from Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion (IB). It was pretty great. It has been ages since I read the first book, but it is also great. It is a dystopia from before there was such a glut of them. And it’s also great because it’s a very different from the usual dystopian world that’s just a derivation of The Giver. I guess now you might call it cli-fi because so much deals with environmental degradation and technology’s impact on what it means to be human. It’s also about growing up really fast, about having to create your own family, about being a kid in an adult’s world, and about the realities of political leadership, because Matt has to carry out a lot of the evil and inhumane treatment of the denizens of Opium by necessity in order to stay in power long enough to effect change. A lot of complex ideas are presented here.
But I digress. You can read any review of the book to find that out. What I want to talk about is how this book, though post-apocalyptic, takes place in my hood. And it uses it so well. See, the country of Opium is basically made up of bits of northern Mexico and bits of the southwestern US – Opium is pretty much the Sonoran Desert. The cities (ruins, really, because this is the future) are real cities and towns whose names I know. Biosphere 2 is a real, still-functioning place that I have always wanted to go to but never gone to. Kitt Peak is a real place with real observatories that are the reason there are very few streetlights in Tucson (light pollution). Coatimundis are real animals. And that’s just how it is. Farmer does an amazing job not dumbing anything down, not giving you a pronunciation guide, and yet seamlessly explaining and integrating everything. Any reader can be happy thinking all the locations are made up; they’re that well formed. But if you’re part of the in-crowd, the book is that much richer. Because you get to be the expert. When you talk about it at book club, you’re the tour guide. Everyone should have the chance to be the tour guide at least once.
This is a silly way of putting it, but I hope you’ll see my point: because fiction is more often than not placed in the Northeast or the Midwest, readers will finish this book giving credit to Farmer for making all of this stuff up.
You realize I actually give her all the credit in the world, because she did create her world and all, but most people will think that the places, the Biosphere, the trappings, are entirely fictional instead of based on, inspired by, and extensions of real things in the real Southwest, and that’s a shame. What people should get from reading her book is the desire to see what else the real Southwest and the fictionalized Southwest have to offer, because clearly it’s an excellent setting. And what people who live in and people who know the Southwest should get is a literary culture that celebrates it not just as a cool, different place, but actually just a regular old place where regular people live–we just happen to be able to eat lunch outside most days of the year. What we should get is the same chance to see our boring old hometown as a literary character in its own right, to see the nature we take for granted as the beautiful, life-giving (literally, in Farmer’s book, Oracle’s Biosphere 2 and the wild desert are about to save the world at the end) thing that it is.
There’s no reason not to have more fiction in general and more fiction subcultures and more literature traditions based in the Southwest. I’m not saying there’s none, but I would sure like a little more and little more mainstream so that people don’t think we’re all East Coast-raised white men in search of The Truth hidden in a canyon à la a lot of the creative nonfiction of the Southwest or detectives. All the other Southwest books are mystery series. I would like people to be as familiar with the paloverde as the oak (I don’t actually have a picture in my head of what an oak tree is like…my brain just pulls up generic “large tree of import”). I would like it not to be seen as strange that we (and also northern Californians, but with their own set of rules) have very specific Spanish words about town that we pronounce properly (“Ajo” is always “ah-ho,” never “ay-jo”) and words we anglicize (“Tanque Verde” is “tank-uh ver-dee,” even though it should really be “tank-eh vehr-deh”).
If people talk of “New York writers” and “a distinctly LA feel” and that sort of thing, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t also learn to recognize a Tucson flavor (just to be specific about my hometown, but also why not Nogales, why not Santa Fe, etc etc) to other books. Hell, Tucson has so much going for it – nature, aging hippies, a thriving indie scene, independent businesses, diversity, a beautiful old barrio, an annual international mariachi and folklorico dance convention, an annual international gem and mineral show….Nancy Farmer shouldn’t be the only person using this area to her advantage.
I’m just saying that as a kid, this was just one of many ways that literature said that I didn’t exist.
I’m just saying that the Southwest is pretty awesome.
I’m just saying that it’s nice to read a really excellent book like The Lord of Opium and be reminded of that, especially now that I live elsewhere.
Well, and here is are three other books that do a great job using the Southwest as a character in its own right:
I really want more to add to that list.
*I am not trying to suggest that this is as an equity or social justice issue as other elements of diverse identities, but it is still a “diversity” issue, so let’s not play oppression Olympics.
**pronounced, incidentally, “choy-ah”