Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Sensitive Reader - Books I couldn't enjoy

I am a sensitive reader. I am not talking about crying, though I am a crier. When I read books I am acutely aware of the characters that resemble me, be it gender or race. I find myself looking out for them. Even more so when a female character is created by a man or a Black character is created by a non Black author. This year I read a mystery one of my co-workers loved, called A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn. Set in South Africa. Its 1952 and new apartheid laws are being enforced. I liked the main protagonist Emmanuel Cooper. My problem with the book was with how Davida, only Black South African female featured in the book was treated.

I didn't care for the way Davida, was a used and abused pawn for everyone including her father. Davida is also drawn as a weak character. When I told my co-worker why I didn't like A Beautiful Place to Die, she said it was small part of the story. Maybe my co-worker's right and I am simply being the overly sensitive reader that I am. Big or small I couldn't ignore my feelings for how this character was treated.

Little Bee by Chris Cleave. Little Bee is a young Nigerian refugee living in Britain. Sarah and her husband took their holiday at resort near Little Bee's village and something very bad happened. Somehow Little Bee finds herself living with Sarah. Both characters have been through and lost a lot but its Little Bee who ends up comforting Sarah most of all. That just made me so mad. I thought Little Bee, a young girl living in a detention center in another country deserved someone to lean on.

Off topic but, the beach scene for this book is talked up, so my expectations were high. When I finally read it I was underwhelmed. If a scene is going to be hyped up, the author better bring it. My first thought after reading the beach scene was dude, have you not read The Kite Runner.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larrson. This mystery series is an international bestseller but it there was way too much sexual violence against woman for me. There were three sadist in this one book. In Swedish the original title translates to Man Who Hate Women.

Off topic - with all the unnecessary graphic sexual violence, I thought this read more like an American mystery as opposed to a Swedish one. If you are looking for a good Swedish mystery try Before the Frost by Henning Manknell or The Martin Beck mysteries by Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall. The Beck mysteries are very good. The first one Roseanna was written in 1965. The series was released a few years ago, and they've lost nothing with time.

I got the idea to do this post thanks to Paul Mooney's autobiography Black is the New White. It wasn't that well written to begin. Mooney continuously equates beauty with fair skin. When he refers to his female cousin as very light light and attractive. I was done. Its been awhile since I looked at the book, Mooney could've used one light, though I am 90% he used two. I am 100% sure very was used. When I stopped reading Black is the New White over one sentence, my first thought was I am a sensitive reader.

I will never apologize for this. I am open to hearing other points of views but who I am will always influence how I see a novel.

Are you a sensitive reader? Is so what books were you unable to enjoy?


Mardel said..., probably most of the books that you read about POC, race relations, events, etc that are set in an earlier, "less enlightened" time (I say this wishing we were even more enlightened) ARE going to show uneven characterization.

I'm totally going to make some generalizations here, but each writer probably writes from his/her perspective. And no matter how hard each of us might try to empathize or understand, an Asian woman probably won't know completely how a spanish person experiences things, or a caucasion person will never know completely what it's like to have lived with racism, oppression, (unless of course they've been treated that way). All we (each of us) really KNOW is what we, ourselves experience. We can read about others, hear about others, but just like a person that has never felt pain, has no concept of what it feels like to live with it everyday, the same reasoning applies to what ever a person has lived with. I don't know if I'm expaining adequately what I'm feeling, or what I mean.

It all boils down to, yes I totally agree with you feeling sensitive when reading characters that you identify with.

I'm one of those mixed race persons - and one of my mixes is caucasion. But we weren't "normal" caucasions - as in we didn't grow up "privilidged". In fact, as a kid in a kind of bohemian town, growing up in the late sixties, early seventies I had no idea that people had hate, contempt or simple disregard based on skincolor or religion until I was taught about it in school and read books. Even when I was 12, I remember reading books that had slaves, whether it was American, or back in the Viking days and I remember wondering why people could behave this way. I also remember naiively thinking, it's a good thing people weren't like this now. Sitting in classes learning our filtered lessons about the civil rights movement, we were given the false impression that things were so much better now...My mom never watched the news until we were in bed, so we only heard about events when taught in school. The rest of the time we were just being kids.

It took me quite a while to understand why my fifth grade teacher, who used to treat me like a teacher's pet, suddenly didn't have a civil tone to her voice for me after meeting my mother - who spoke with a very thick spanish accent. That's how naive I was. My sister and I were more aware of our mother being judged for being a single mom of four kids in the 1960's than her being spanish. Hell, all of her friends were from various countries.

So yeah, I cringe at knowing I'm part caucasion - I don't want to identify with the caucasions as a group. Ironically the only thing we know about our own family tree (the caucasion side) is that one of them women lived with an Indian tribe for years until she was "rescued".

Regarding Mooney - I was always under the impression that he hated "whites", based on his comic acts on the Dave Chappelle show - which I should know were scripted and written.

That's the way it was with my mom's family too-back in the 40's and 50's being light-skinned in Panama was to be "special". My abuela used to treat my mother pretty rough (she was light-skinned) so my mom wouldn't feel spoiled, or get a big ego. My mom, whether she realized it or not, treated me the same way. I had the light skin and blue eyes from my dad - my brothers and sister have darker skin and black/brown eyes.

So we all see things through our own perpective, and my perspective is hella confused. I look white (though with my mom's features: thicker lips, broad nose) and feel NOT-white, speak mostly English but feel more spanish - THAT's confusion there!

Sorry for the long comment and I hope everyone get's what I'm trying to say - though I'm not sure I really know anything. :)

tanita davis said...

Don't ever apologize for it, definitely. There are things which make me throw books across the room -- generally violence toward women, author-invented stupidity (He breaks into a house where She's sleuthing after a violent death, and later, she goes out with him? Really? HELLO? IS HE NOT A SUSPECT?), author-invented relationship complications (deliberately wrecking a romance with things unsaid that would fix the "problem" if the hero/ine would just speak out loud instead of musing/worrying/running away) the author treating the reader as if they're too dumb to figure out the clues laid down (Yes. Been reading many mysteries lately.) -- so, so many things cause me upset. It's not just preference, although that comes into it. It's sensitivity to how people are treated in relation to their ethnicity, gender preference, and intelligence, which sometimes touches on both of the above. (Stupid because you're a girl? Stupid because your of whatever ethnicity? Stupid or airheaded because you're gay/lesbian?)

I can't think of titles right off, but I very much feel you on that, Doret. When an author uses a caricature or a cliché as a go-to writing shorthand, then the book gets tossed with great force.

Oh, well. It's good exercise, at least. ;)

LM Preston said...

Perspective is such a heated topic. Not only for POCs in writing but also for males and females. I believe a writer can do justice to writing outside of their race, provided they have good material to pull from. I've grown up with diversity in my family and my peers and we would have heart to heart honest discussions about our pre-conceived notions about one another. And we found that all of those notions were so untrue. Being honest about what we didn't understand or know for sure about each other helped all of us grow as people and me as a writer.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I'm very sensitive too but much more in real life and nonfiction than in fiction! Like for example, living in Arizona at the moment, which is making my skin crawl. Or reading about Jim Crow, that kind of stuff - just makes me so upset. My husband can read it as a "history" or "an account" and I just cannot detach like that emotionally.

But in terms of being sensitive to perspective in fiction, I'm never sure about that. Like, does the author really think [whatever], or is the author trying to show people who think that? Or to take Cleave specifically, does he really have a colonial frame of mind, or is he trying to show that one has been inculcated into both women?

It's so much easier with nonfiction to know who and what to get mad at!!!!!!!!!

Doret said...

Mardel - These are only the books I didn't like though I've read many more by authors who write out side of their race and gender that I love.

And long comments are good.

Tanita - I hate when after a mystery is solved and the person is caught, the author than proceds to explain step by step what happened.

LM - I agree. Maybe one day, I will do a list of titles I enjoyed by author who write outside of their race or gender.

Jill - When I read fiction, sometimes I can't help but see an author's perspective.

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