Monday, August 31, 2009

Chris Crutcher Gets It

Since writing characters of colour seems to be the topic du jour (both by White writers and Writers of Colour), I want to spend a little time looking at WHALE TALK, by Chris Crutcher. As some of you know, Mr. Crutcher is white, and male. He writes believable, multi-dimensional characters of colour while exploring issues of race head-on. In this YA novel, the protagonist is a young man of colour navigating teen life and school, and exploring the concepts of identity and family. In the same novel, Crutcher also takes a brutal look at how racism affects the life of a young biracial girl (white mother, black father).

What makes Crutcher's portrayal of characters of colour so effective in this book is quite simple: he gets it. Mr. Crutcher's background is in social work. He was a therapist and child protection advocate. He directed a "last chance" alternative school for at-risk K-12 students for almost ten years. I have no doubt he would agree that among the first steps to self-actualization are self-acceptance and self-love. And isn't self-actualization what we're trying to do? To fulfill our highest potential? To shine our light -- to be as great as we are capable of becoming?

Mr. Crutcher has obviously been around young people of colour and knows, quite intimately I'd imagine, the issues they face in school and at home. As anyone who has worked with or been around young people of any colour knows, they are working out issues of--among other things--identity. Young people of colour are working these issues out with the added element of race.

Obviously, all teens face issues of self-esteem at one point or another. But teens who fall outside of the social power hierarchy (teens of Colour, LGBTQ, and working class teens, as well as teen girls) are particularly prone to bullying, alienation, ostracism, and plummeting self-esteem because of the added layers of oppression.

Crutcher doesn't skirt around the topics of neglect, abuse, racism, and class. He slams into them without fear, picks them apart and looks at the way they function on a micro level. He connects all of them and brings them home, to the personal.

In one scene, the young biracial girl scrubs her skin raw because she is trying to "wash the black off." This is heart-breaking to read for so many reasons, but specifically, 1) what a devastating place for any child to be; and 2) this is, tragically, not uncommon.

Most PoC know what it's like to be compared to a beauty ideal that is often not only unrealistic, but completely impossible. White skin and/or light skin are ideals in countries where brown people live the world over, including countries that are predominantly non-white. "Non-Asian" eyes have become a beauty ideal for Asian women, and the practice of blepharoplasty (surgery to create a double eyelid fold) has become a profitable venture for many plastic surgeons. Women everywhere struggle to accept body shapes that deviate from the Vogue and Cosmo norm. Magazine, film, and television images featuring one idealized type of beauty affect the self-esteem of PoC and women, and are tremendous obstacles to overcome when working toward self-love and self-acceptance,* and thereby impeding self-actualization. In children, these types of self-hatred work themselves out in the most devastating ways.

Crutcher not only displays an understanding of the fact that all teens struggle to accept themselves, but that this battle is exponentially amplified for teens and children who are on the margins of mainstream society (as depicted in the "reality" of television, books, and mainstream media).

WHALE TALK shows a grasp of two critical elements: 1) all teens (and people) are essentially the same; and 2) all teens (and people) are not operating on a level playing ground. In other words, yes, on a personal level we are all the same. We have the same emotions, similar struggles, and want the same basic things out of life. But on a systemic, political, and economic level, we are not all the same. And this reality affects our personal lives -- advantaging some over others, with the advantaged never having to acknowledge or be aware of their unearned privilege.

These two elements are not only beautifully incorporated into Crutcher's fiction, they allow his characters to breathe on the page. Combined effectively, they create life-like, believable characters who are "other" to Crutcher's experience, without "otherizing" them. He is with them as an insider, not looking at them as outsiders. And when we read them, we experience them as intimate as family; we rejoice in each character's triumphs as we would our own family, and we share in their pain as we would with our own loved ones.

This is an accomplishment for any writer, indeed. WHALE TALK is believable, it is compassionate, and it is a must-read, IMO. I'm also thrilled to note that the cover now features a model who is more obviously multi-racial, to reflect the main character. Here is another review for this book by teen blogger, Miss Attitude, who runs the blog, Blackteensread2.

I'm hoping to feature more writing of the "other" that is multi-dimensional, layered and nuanced, and effective. I want to explore what the author did that worked exceptionally well where other writings may fall flat. It helps us all understand what makes us different and what makes us the same. It helps us all understand, period.

*For those of you still insisting that not all White people experience white privilege, this is yet another of the unacknowledged benefits of being white. It is part of the "knapsack" of white privilege that Peggy McIntosh describes in her most excellent essay, though she does not list "beauty ideal" specifically -- the closest her list comes is with numbers 6, 26, and 50, which, to me, are along the same lines.


MissA said...

I love this book! It was my first Male Monday post. You're right, Chris Crutcher GETS IT. I cried when I read this book and laughed so hard I cried. I too think it's a must-read and I look forward to reading about other authors who help us understand each other :)

Kelly Milner Halls said...

You're dead on, Neesha. I work for Chris and I'll be sure he reads your blog. It's insightful and, simply put, great.

If it's okay with you, I'll also link to it from Chris's website. Brilliant work.


Neesha Meminger said...

Kelly, I'd be delighted to have you link this. Thank you so much for stopping by.

Ari, send me a link to the post you did. I'd love to read it, as well.


Amy Bowllan said...

Ordering the book now for my library. What a fantastic review, Neesha! I'm also sending this link to my faculty members. Thank you. -Amy

Laura Atkins said...

Thanks, Neesha. Firstly I am ashamed to say I haven't read this book yet, but will put it high on the list now. And it's very useful to have you talk about writing about "the other" without "otherizing." It's the tricky question about wanting more characters of color in the books that are published, and asking white authors to think about including them. I'm working (ever so slowly) on a novel which includes a mixed-race character, but worry about how to write in a true, nuanced and respectful way. The book focuses on a girl whose mother is a lesbian, based loosely on my own experiences. So there are different ways of feeling other, and part of what I'm interested in portraying is how these things aren't always issues. So part of what seems important is showing a lesbian mother as normal, where the issue is more one of inter-personal dynamics. This is rambling, but just to say, I'd love to read more from you on this topic, and see who else you think has gotten it right. One book I'd recommend is Life Is Funny by E.R. Frank. I thought she did a great job of portraying a range of diverse children attending an urban school. I'd be curious to hear what you think.

Neesha Meminger said...

@ Tockla: Your novel sounds fascinating. I hear you about writing issues without focusing on the *issue*. I faced some of that with SHINE, as well. I wanted to write the experience of an unconventional Indian family, without blaring lights going off screaming, THIS IS A SINGLE MOM HOUSEHOLD.

In Whale Talk, the issue of race is pretty explicitly addressed, but it's all about the *personal*, i.e. it's about how racism works on an inter-personal level -- how it affects a little girl and the people who care about her. So, it still doesn't scream, THIS IS RACISM AND IT IS BAD. It allows the reader to have our own feelings, but the context of the story and the journey the characters are on has to do with racial dynamics, class, and other Issues.

Even in your story, it's really the characters that come first, right? It's not the lesbian-ness. Not all lesbians have the same experience. So for the mother, did she have a tough coming out experience? Were her parents okay with her sexuality? Was it a non-issue? All of this will affect who she is, how she sees the world and, more important to your story: *how she parents*. I think, once you know what all these things are, you can get them out of the way and focus on the interaction between the characters--the *emotions*.

Keep me posted!

Doret said...

I really must read Whale Talk. I love the idea of highlighting authors who not only create diverse characters but get it right.

I wish I could say what IT is but there really are no words. IT's hardly ever constant and varies within race culture and religion.

Even though there is no definition I still believe authors should be able to get It. By observing, asking questions and research.

If an author is creating a character unlike themselves they should get feedback from someone of that race. Two White people saying an Hispanic character reads authentic, makes no sense to me The same goes for two men saying a female character reads authenitc.

Sarah Stevenson said...

Whale Talk really was an excellent book. Neesha, wonderfully written commentary! Tockla, I didn't realize you were working on a book with a mixed-race character. I have several mixed-race characters in my writing (being of mixed ethnicity myself, I can't seem to avoid them--they just creep in) and I still worry about authenticity. It's amazing how Chris Crutcher handles such a wide range of characters believably.

Anonymous said...

I have read Whale Talk and all of CC's other books. I have been very fortunate to hear him speak twice. Both times he talked about the young biracial girl and her "washing the black off," and both times made me cry.

I use two of CC's books in my College Learning Skills (CLS) class, Sledding Hill and Deadline. Our main topic is censorship and the depiction of characters in the media. Awesome.

I am agreeing with the others, awesome blog! PS I will have my students read this to connect with censorship, media, etc.
Thank you!
Leah Deasy

Ceci Miller said...

Fabulous review. Insightful, with sensitivity equal to CC's. I have recommended his books many times, for just the reasons you so eloquently lay out here. Following your blog now, thanks so much.

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