when you take a trope but color it

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.

Anyway, we also have this thing where there is a street rat with a heart of mostly gold and a good head on his shoulders who is plucked out of his miserable life by an educated person who can offer him a “better one.” Except what makes it refreshing is that a) it’s a modestly better life, because Prof is still just a guy who’s about to head into the jungle and live in a tent and eat rice, so you can’t really call him Daddy Warbucks; and b) Prof is a foreigner to Gabon but not to Africa, and given our western tendency to claim that Africa is one homogeneous nation, I think it’s interesting to capitalize on that and position Prof as a nonforeigner, even though technically he is. And there’s a great passage where Prof explains what a “janegoodall” is to Luc and then talks about how he is going to blow academia out of the water, because Goodall studied chimps in Tanzania, and here he is in Gabon instead, and also because he’s tired of white foreigners studying apes, and won’t it really be something when an actual African publishes major research on African apes?

And it’s true. And I love that he recognizes that and says it to Luc, even though Luc doesn’t exactly know how academia works nor does he know a lot about international politics. And I love that Schrefer recognizes that Prof is both a trope and a breakdown of a trope and weaves it into the narrative.

Anyway. Just some thoughts before I’ve even finished reading it.

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