Monday, 2 May 2011

WHO GETS A HAPPILY EVER AFTER?

Hi Guys - happy Monday. I hope you've all read some cool books over the long weekend (if you were in the UK) or at least got some sun.

Today's post is a toughie for me. I've got a bug and I'm feeling a bit gubbins. Frankly, I was planning on posting a video for you, calling the job done, and curling up on the sofa with a jug of orange juice and a comfort book. But then something happened, and I felt that I couldn't let today go by without discussing it. So if this post is even more incoherant and rambling than normal, I beg your pardon. Just bear with me, because I need to get this out or burst.

Over the weekend I got a Google Alert to tell me that an early review of Shadows on the Moon had appeared on a blog. I checked it out and the review was generally positive and had lots of nice things to say about the book, but despite this it caused me to nearly fall off the sofa in utter shock - and horror - at two things the reviewer said.

I'm not going to name the blog or provide a link. For a start, I don't want to cause a dogpile. More importantly, I know that the reviewer has the absolute right to think and say whatever she wants. In many ways, her opinion on my book is none of my business. I have no problem with her at all, and I don't take issue with her review.

My horror had its origin in the sudden sinking sensation that the points the blogger raised were going to come up again. And again. And yet again. We live in a prejudiced world full of unfair assumptions and privilege, and when I wrote Shadows on the Moon I didn't think about any of that. I just wrote what I wanted and needed to write. My horror came from the realisation that we live in a world where people can still make statements which I feel betray a terrible lack of understanding for those different from them, without any apparent consciousness of the fact. If these points are going to end up being common in the discussion of the book - and I feel worried that they will - then I really want to make a definitive statement about them now.

The first - and probably the most shocking - thing that that made me draw back from this review was the language used to describe Otieno, the male main character in the story. Otieno is a member of a diplomatic party visiting the heroine's country from a foreign land. He's highly educated, softly spoken, funny and intelligent. He is emotionally articulate, polite, loves music and is an accomplished archer. The reviewer acknowledged much of this. Yet they still used to the terms 'exotic and savage' to describe him.

Why?

I bet you've already guessed. Otieno is black.

I think any regular reader of the blog will know how I feel about writing books that reflect the beautiful diversity of the real world, especially in fantasy (if not, go here, you'll soon get it). Shadows on the Moon is set in a faerytale version of Japan, so the vast majority of the characters are what we in the Western world would describe as 'Asian' or 'Oriental' in appearance. I created Otieno and his family to provide a contrast to this mono-ethnic world. I also created them to provide a contrast to the heroine Suzume's repressed, rigid, emotionally barren life. Otieno is, in many ways, the heroine's moral compass within the story.

Otieno is not savage. Animals are savage. He is not exotic. Fruits are exotic. Before assuming that he must be one of the above just because his skin is darker than that of the other characters? Realise that you are using 'othering' language which isolates and alienates people just because they are different than you. This is not okay.

*Deep breaths, deep breaths*

Okay, now I've gotten that out of my system, we come to the second point which disturbed me, which was the attitude to mental illness.

The blogger very rightly picked up on the fact that Suzume suffers with depression throughout most of the book, and her ways of dealing with this are often self-destructive. No one who had been through the ordeal the heroine had by the age of fourteen could escape without suffering deep emotional trauma. Especially not if they had any vestiges of control wrenched out of their hands and were then forced to repress all their emotions about what had happened. I think it's also clear that Suzume's mother had very depressive tendencies and passed these onto her daughter (just as my mother passed depressive tendencies onto me, and her mother passed them to her). To be fair, the reviewer had no problem with this.

What she did have a problem with was that Suzume was not cured of this depression by the end of the book. The blogger said she found it hard to believe in Suzume's future happiness because her depression was not fully 'addressed'. She wanted to know that Suzume would 'prevail' over her self destructive behaviour.

Look. This...I don't even know how to express how wrong this is. But it is sadly representative of a very strong underlying assumption made by many neurotypical people, which is that mental illness of any kind is a fatal flaw, a stain, a horrible shadow on the life of the afflicted person. That it must surely be impossible for anyone to live a normal life if they're, you know, a bit cuckoo, and that in order for a fictional character to complete their story arc, they must throw off their mental illness and take their place among the normal people.

No. PEOPLE WITH MENTAL ILLNESSES DESERVE HAPPILY EVER AFTERS.

There is no cure for depression - not even in this day and age. Sometimes it goes away on its own, and sometimes you suffer with it periodically for your whole life. Sometimes it's as mild as feeling sad and low and sometimes it's as extreme as feeling that you want to kill yourself. And guess what? Millions of people live with it. I do. That doesn't mean we can't be happy, or that we need to be in limbo until we somehow figure out a way to escape from our mental illness.

And here's another kicker: people who self harm also deserve happy endings. They can HAVE a happy ending even if, now and again, they may revert to self-harming again during times of stress.

How can these issues be addressed? How can a character prevail over their depression and their tendency to self harm? Well, they can take control of their own life as much as possible. They can isolate the things that trigger depression and work on that. They can make the decision to try to resist the desire to revert to self-destructive behaviours. It's not a dramatic-flash-of-light-chorus-of-angels kind of thing. It's an ongoing process, and it's hard. This is what Suzume decides to do at the end of Shadows on the Moon. Because there is no super-special-awesome-sparkly cure for mental illness or self-harm. And the young adults who are going through similar trials in their own lives KNOW THIS.

How much of a cop-out would it have been for me to show my character shrugging off her trauma and suffering like an old cloak and skipping away with unalloyed, undamaged happiness at the end of all she had been through?

Just what message would that have given to anyone reading the book who has a mental illness? 'Get over it or you'll never get a happily ever after?'

You know what? Imma say it again:

PEOPLE WITH MENTAL ILLNESSES DESERVE HAPPILY EVER AFTERS.

So do people with scars and disabilities (which is why Zira and Sorin don't get magically healed at the end of Daughter of the Flames)! So do all kinds of people who are not perfect, normal, typical and beautiful. So do people who have made mistakes, done awful things, and hope one day to redeem themselves. So do people who are lost and lonely or isolated or 'othered' by the society where they dwell.

These are the people that Shadows on the Moon was written for. And to them I offer a big virtual hug, and a virtual cookie, and the assurance that there are people out there who do understand. You are not alone.

25 comments:

Lynsey Newton said...

I will definitely bear all of this in mind when I read it. I took three books off my shelves last night as being "next in line" and yours was one of them ;)

I agree that people with mental illnesses are not always "cured" and I think the comments made were probably ignorant in nature (as in - unintended to cause offence but didn't really think about mental illness in the real world). In books and films, we sure do like our happy endings!

Again, I don't think the previous comment was intended to offend either. As my dad once said to me "our vocabulary is limited" and we can't always say what we mean. I do believe there is an element of truth to that and sometimes we choose the wrong words, words that sound good but probably don't convey what we mean.

I'm not trying to defend anyone or choose sides but I'm a Gemini so I see things from all angles ;)

I think that it's a nice point to pick up and talk about though Zoe especially as I read another post lately about happy endings - http://www.wastepaperprose.com/2011/04/resolved-aint-always-happy.html

Zoë Marriott said...

Oh, I'm sure there was no intention to offend at all! And, as I said, I don't want to take the reviewer to task. I totally support any blogger or reviewer's right to say and feel whatever they want about any book. It's just that, regardless of the reviewer's opinion on the book and the language used, the review betrayed some unthinking assumptions that I found really worrying. And more worrying because I think a LOT of people have these same underlying feelings and haven't really examined them and realised how unfair they are.

So I'm responding to the world we live in and these prevalent attitudes, rather than to this specific reviewer. I'm saying: see people (or characters!) for who they actually are, not for the description of their skin colour, and reject 'happy endings' that exclude people with disabilities or illnesses or scars or who aren't 'perfect'.

*Hops off soapbox*

Susie Day said...

Great post, Zoe. I know the author-responding-to-blogger etiquette is a tricky area, but I think you're absolutely justified in raising both these points - because privilege IS everywhere, and the casual assumption that there are recognisable, universal defaults always needs poking at.

Feel better soon!

Rosie Lane said...

While I agree with you on the mental illness, 100%, I am not sure about the word exotic. To me, exotic means unusual in the setting. In such a mono-ethnic world, black would be exotic. So would caucasian. Suzume would be exotic in Otieno's homeland, while entirely normal in her own.

The use of the word savage says a lot about the observer, either within the world of the book or outside it. Is the commenter perhaps assuming that Suzume's culture would (mistakenly) perceive Otieno as a savage and seeing Suzume as looking past the prejudices around her?

I haven't read the book yet (I plan to, but I want to start with The Swan Kingdom), but I am curious as to the perceptions of race within the world of the book and whether the reader is accidentally imposing real world prejudices onto a a fantasy one where they don't exist.

Zoë Marriott said...

Thanks, Susie! Like I said, I didn't want to take issue with the reviewer - but I felt that I HAD to take issue with those assumptions.

Rosie: I think a lot of people tend to see 'exotic' as a harmless and even flattering word, but following the discussions on RaceFail I realised that it's perceived by many people to be offensive and 'othering'. 'Savage' really has no justification in the modern day world, I don't think.

In the book, many people that the heroine despises dismiss Otieno and his family in *exactly* this way, calling them savage, heathen and ugly. However, one of the strongest arcs in the book is the heroine (and the reader) learning to understand that these value judgements are made from a place of fear and bigotry, and are entirely illusionary. Otieno and his family are, on the contrary, highly civilised, educated and attractive - to anyone who actually looks at them without prejudice. For a reviewer to read the book and acknowledge that the character of Otieno is sweet, sensitive and funny and then STILL describe him as savage and exotic (terms used as insults in the book) simply because he's dark skinned is...kinda backwards in a way that hurts my head.

Vivienne said...

I agree with the use of the words to describe Otieno as being unsuitable. I would never consider describing anyone regardless of their colour or origin as 'exotic' or 'savage'. These words have not been used correctly in my eyes.

I also agree that the reviewer may have been premature in her need to see the character completely cured of mental illness. I know that it is a disease that doesn't just go away and stays with a person for life, however some are lucky enough to learn to deal with it better than others. It would definitely have been a cop out by you, to miraculously cure the character of a lifetime disease purely for the sake of fiction. It doesn't happen in real life, so why should it in stories.

I did read the review in question and noticed that the reviewer was quite young and therefore may not have experienced life to the fullest as of yet to realise that mental illness is an ongoing disease. I also think she may not have quite thought out her review before writing, thus allowing certain descriptive words to appear suitable, when on reflection she may have chosen differently.

So I can fully see your points on these issues and will remind myself of them when I read the book.

Vivienne said...

I know this review isn't aimed directly as the review mentioned, however it has highlighted areas of importance that need to be taken into consideration on reading Shadows On the Moon.

Zoë Marriott said...

Viv: What's odd is that I hadn't really thought about these issues myself while writing the book. It was reading the review that crystalised in my own mind just how important it was that Suzume not be 'cured' and that Otieno be treated as an individual, not a skin-colour on legs. So I'm actually grateful to the reviewer, because the remarks allowed me to focus on something that I had taken for granted before.

Alex Mullarky said...

This was a really inspiring post. You're very good at arguing your point and I totally agree. What a strange outlook for the reviewer to have had.

Zoë Marriott said...

Thanks, Alex. Unthinking prejudices quite often ARE oddly illogical and strange - by definition people aren't questioning them, and noticing how little sense they make.

Isabel said...

First of all, I think that it's great that you addressed that first issue, because those are two words that I think are used a lot but that people don't really... think about too much.

I agree with you entirely about the second point made as well. I will definitely think about these things when I'm reading the book. It's so great that you are able to criticize the comments made in the review while still being constructive -- obviously, the insults the reviewer made were unintentional, and I'm glad that you were kind enough to acknowledge that. :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Well, I didn't really want to criticize those comments - or the reviewer - as much as I wanted to explore the points here so that if they come up again I won't have to clutch my head and groan about them.

Megha said...

A very nice post, Zoe.

You're VERY good at addressing your points etc. I don't want to sound repetitive, so let me try and make it original.

First of all, I don't see why some people assume that what you have written is not a "happy ending". I can guess, without having read SotM, that the problem is resolved (I can tell by your other books), but what I like is that not *everything* is resolved. Not everything in real life is resolved either.

You might not see where I'm going here.

Basically, I think that if someone who gave themselves pain continued to do so after The End of the book, it's completely fine! Because, after all, that's their way of dealing with stress! And there will ALWAYS be some stress, even after the end of the story. Always. And it might not be the best way to deal with pain, but it's how they do it.

Zoë Marriott said...

Megha: Basically, yes. The character may suffer with depression all her life or even self-harm again because it's part of her illness. That doesn't mean she can't be happy or have a wonderful, full life.

Phoenixgirl said...

When I flip through the romances I'm shelving at the library - particularly the historical ones - I've noticed that if the hero (or sometimes the heroine) has a disability of some sort, as often as not it's "cured" by the end of the story. Men blinded in the wars get their sight back, the young woman hired to care for the wheelchair-bound hero works a miraculous cure on him... agh. It feels like, once they've used the disability to make him seem tragic and romantic, they decide he has to be "normal" again to have a proper happy ending. As you said above, Zo, that was one of the things I liked about Daughter of the Flames - that Sorin still walks with a cane, and Zira's face is still scarred, and it *doesn't matter*. We need more authors who think like that.

Zoë Marriott said...

Thanks, Phoenix! I've noticed that trope too, and frankly it drives me up the wall! Did these people not READ Jane Eyre? Argh.

Megha Z said...

(Well, I didn't. LOL.)

I agree with you, Phoenix. Happiness doesn't lie in cures.

Phoenixgirl said...

That's a good point about Jane Eyre - although I saw a movie version once where they indicate that Rochester gets all his sight back eventually rather than just part of it...

Zoë Marriott said...

Megha: Give it a try one day - you might like it!

Phoenix: *Headdesk*

Misty said...

Oh my lord, I wanna read this even more now.
And good for you for speaking up (which I normally am dubious about when an author addresses a review), because you didn't attack the reviewer and you raised really good points that extend well beyond the review.
A+ (or whatever the British equivalent would be. lol)

Zoë Marriott said...

Thanks, Misty! And we have A+ in the UK - just FYI.

Ashley said...

Once again Zoe, you are my hero. You are amazing!

I mean, really. SERIOUSLY! This was an amazing post and I commend you for writing it. I think you handled this perfectly. Way to go for you. (Also, I WANT this book. WANT!!) :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Thank you, Misty. It felt really ticklish trying to tackle this, but although I know the reviewer has the right to say whatever she wants (and I will defend that right fiercely) it made me sad to see these prejudices betrayed in an otherwise articulate and intelligent review. I just HAD to say something. Hopefully it will be the last time, tho!

Ashley said...

Umm... Is that comment directed as me, or at Misty? Because, if it's supposed to be to me, that's the second time you've called me Misty, and I'm going to develop a complex... :P

Zoë Marriott said...

Oops. Sorry Ashley - I've not had any caffeine yet. Please forgive me. Have I called you Misty before? How awful! I beg your forgiveness again!

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