Sunday, July 3, 2011

Why is a mixed race character in this white novel?

So I'm back after a 2-week stint at the Project Narrative Summer Institute at Ohio State University. For any humanities or even social science scholars out there who are looking to deepen their understanding and appreciation of narrative theory/narratology, I highly recommend PNSI. It was an intense 2 weeks--I feel like my brain expanded in a myriad of ways--and I am hopeful that the things I learned and the relationships I developed with my fellow PNSI seminar members will be long-lasting.

But I digress.

The above explains my lack of blogging over the last 3 weeks (I came back a week ago but needed a week to decompress after such an intense experience) and why I have been thinking about certain narrative elements in the fiction I'm reading. In this case, why the race of certain characters is either pronounced/announced or muted/invisible/assumed.

The book in question, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender, is a story that I quite liked. In fact, I got to a certain point in the narrative where I couldn't put it down but simply had to keep reading it until I found out what "happened" (so to speak) to the main protagonist, Rose Edelstein, the first person narrator of Bender's novel, whom we are introduced to on the eve of her 9th birthday and whom we follow through her young adulthood over the course of more than a decade. The central conceit of this work of magical-realist fiction is that Rose can taste the emotional life of all the people who handled the ingredients that comprise a dish. In the case of the title food--the lemon cake that her mother prepares for Rose tastes hollow and full of emptiness, and every subsequent meal that her mother makes reveals the same flavor of unfulfilled promise and quiet desperation that her mother's perky exterior masks but that Rose's newfound taste buds discern.

However, my quibble isn't with the premise (which I accept--along with the other fantastical elements woven into this realist novel) but with the introduction of the character George--the best friend to Rose's older brother Joseph:
"He was Joseph's best and only friend. George Malcolm: half white, half black, with messy tousled hair, rumpled and tugged between kind of curly and extremely curly. Once, a year or so before, he'd been at our house and he'd pulled out a lock of his hair and used it to teach me about eddies and helixes. It's a circular current into a central station, he'd explained, giving me one to hold. I pulled on the spring." (31)

Then there's this description, much later in the book:

"The nurse, a black woman with a perfectly shaped nose and red-tinted hair, said he was getting tested at the moment by a specialist but that I was welcome to wait." (286)

In both these accounts, the "blackness" of these characters does not seem to have anything to do with their function in the novel. With the exception of George using his hair to demonstrate a helix (and one can imagine that nearly anyone with curly hair could have produced this type of demonstration), his mixed-race status is never dealt with again. In other words, in terms of what he is doing in the novel (and George actually does a lot--he is a major-minor character, if you will) George's race or racial difference from Rose and her family is never a question, a point of contention, or important from the perspective of plot or character development. It's simply a non-issue. Similarly, the race of the nurse in this brief sentence seems a non-starter--she appears on two pages of the novel, and her race apparently has no impact on her function as a nurse or her interactions with Rose or any other character.

Which brings me to the issue of racial difference. How do I know that Rose is white or even is Rose white? Her race, like that of most characters in the novel, is never announced. Indeed, the only two characters who are racially marked are George and the unnamed nurse--all other characters, major or minor, are never noted for their race--although Rose does reveal that her father's family is Jewish. So to the degree that we read and understand Jewishness as a type of racial category--as a type of whiteness--then Rose does, in fact, announce her family to be white.

Yet even her father's Jewishness is not pronounced or seemingly has anything to do with family dynamics, background, characterization, or plot. It simply seems to be a piece of information that, at some point, Rose shares with readers in her first person narration--in the same way that she informs us that George is mixed-race and that the nurse is black.

So why does Bender do this?

In a novel set in Los Angeles in our contemporary period, it seems very odd that her book isn't populated with more people of color--particularly Asian American and Chicanos/Latinos.

[Aside: although Bender doesn't specify an exact date, there are computers and the internet towards the middle-end of the novel, so my best guess is that it opens sometime in the mid to late 90s and closes in the first decade of the 21st century--the great thing about setting the novel in LA instead of NYC is that you don't have to put in a reference to 9/11 or the twin towers if you don't want to--your periodization can remain ambiguous.]

But even if Rose and her family live in a very white neighborhood (which seems to be the case), the fact that whiteness is the default setting--the universally taken-for-granted identity--the identity that need not be named--remains a point of annoyance for me. Rose's best friend--her neighbors--her class mates and teachers--are not racially marked and thus I think most readers assume that they must be white--a point emphasized through the way that Bender has clearly marked George as mixed-race within the first 6 chapters of the book. The fact that she goes to the trouble to mark the nurse as black, even though her blackness seems to do nothing for the narrative, again highlights the seeming racelessness of all other characters--a racelessness we are to see as synonymous with being white.

Which is a problem. To believe that whiteness is a universal--that it is a form of racelessness--is a HUGE problem in our day and age when trying to understand the ways in which people of color are racialized and the ways in which racism operates--because this IS one of the very subtle ways that racism operates--as a form of normalizing certain races (white) and emphasizing difference for all others (the non-white).

I did like The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake--and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good summer read, particularly if you like quirky magical-realist novels (although it has an air of melancholy to it--so don't pick it up expecting a light-hearted read). But I am disappointed in Bender's bow to convention (which I'm sure she didn't even realize she was doing) by marking some characters race but not all. Which makes me, particularly sad.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the interesting post.

It took me the longest time to realise that I code characters as white, unless otherwise instructed. I'm not sure why that is. I guess you're right: that's because white is the default, the norm.

Though I'd say her identity as Jewish can be derived from her name. But that raises the question whether her Jewish identity is relevant to the story.

Genepool said...

Is it different with novelists who are not white? I mean most of the novels I have read penned by non-whites tend to include dialogue that points out experiences or difficulties that come with being a member of whichever race is the focus of the story. And in my mind I just equate every other character as being a member of that race unless told otherwise. Maybe I just lack imagination or perhaps it's laziness?