Review: The Liminal People, Ayize Jama-Everett

The marvelous Bina reviewed The Liminal People some time ago and mentioned that it’s frequently compared to X-Men, which naturally was all the inducement I needed to buy it and its two sequels a few AWPs ago. “X-Men meets [literally anything]” = a sales pitch that will win me over 10/10 times.

The Liminal People

Taggert, our hero (ish), is a healer with the power to magically repair any ailments of the body, from wounds to asthma to cancer. He has wandered the world for most of his life, desperate to meet more people with powers like him, and his wanderings have washed him up on the metaphorical shores of a warlord in Morocco, who has helped1 him develop his powers, in exchange for Taggert’s help pursuing the warlord’s own ends. But when Taggert gets a desperate call from Yasmine, the only woman he’s ever loved, he rushes to London to help find her missing daughter — who may have powers of her own.

In so many ways, The Liminal People is the type of fantasy I’m excited to be reading. Jama-Everett takes a familiar trope — the minority population of superheroes — and puts it in global perspective, so that we see how differently Taggert’s powers have been received in the many places he’s lived. Whereas many iterations of this trope have used it as a stand-in for race, The Liminal People looks at how powers like Taggert’s interact with race (and other marginalizations).

It’s also just a good story. I’m never not going to be there for “tough loner teams up with angry youth,” even if we weren’t living through a calendar year that gave us the apparently-very-gruesome-so-I-haven’t-seen-it-yet-please-don’t-@-me Logan. There’s a plot element towards the middle that wasn’t a great look for Feminism, but since it was in clear service of the tough loner / angry youth team-up, I am prepared to overlook it. Jama-Everett is quite fantastic at fight scenes, even if you don’t think you care about fight scenes. His are excellent, weird, and inventive, and they make full use of Taggert’s powers and the powers of the people he’s fighting.

Okay. That’s the good stuff. Now for some things that are not so good in re: the portrayal of villains. One of the big villains of the piece is a hired thug called Rajesh whose powers run to blowing things up. Here’s how Tamara (a protagonist and fundamentally sympathetic character) describes him:

He’s Asian, Paki, I think. . . . He’s a bully. A big stupid Paki bastard bully. He pushes his parents around. I’ve heard he’s raped girls. . . . He’s a savage fucking brute.

I get that troubled youths say gross things and don’t appreciate the impact of their words, but the text doesn’t frame this description as problematic. There is no push-back against the use of the term Paki (which unless I’ve misunderstood England completely is a really racist thing to say), and we don’t see any acknowledgement that Tamara has been ugly here: Her rage and the expression of it appear justified by the text, because Rajesh is a rapist and a murderer.

Moreover, because there are no other significant South Asian characters in the book, the depiction of Rajesh and his family takes on an outsize importance. Unlike the other villains, whom Jama-Everett portrays with more nuance, Rajesh is exclusively, simplistically evil, and the reader is meant to feel viciously satisfied when Taggert tortures and kills him (in the Indian restaurant his parents own). I suspect Jama-Everett didn’t intend to link Rajesh’s nationality with his villainy, but it’s noticeable and really disappointing in a book that gives us a terrific array of superheroes of color.

MOREOVER. The Big Bad of this book is a club promoter called Alia, who uses her powers to conceal her true face. When Taggert and Tamara face off with her in the final battle, they force her to drop her illusions, and she is described in the following super-ableist way:

And she’s ugly. Not everyday ugly — she had major genetic problems: oversized cranium, malformed palette, cleft lip — mother-was-probably-her-sister type ugly. Her teeth are gray and look like they belong to an infant. Her arms are deformed, almost flippers.

It goes on from there but I got depressed typing it and decided to tap out. Like. Number one, can we retire the flippant tone when we’re talking about incest? Number two, the Evil Cripple trope is harmful to disabled people. Number three, the aligning of disability with ugliness is yuck, and both Taggert and Alia explicitly refer to her as ugly (repeatedly). In a book that I generally really loved and found inventive and brilliant, it was disappointing to see it lean on tedious cliches about disability at the end.

If you’ve got other feelings about the portrayal of Rajesh and Alia, and particularly if you want to let me know if there’s stuff I should watch out for in the subsequent two books, I’d love love love you to get at me in the comments.

  1. for some values of the word “helped”

I Read a Book about the Comoros and Didn’t Tell You: A Links Round-Up

Happy Friday, friends! I am trying to get back into the regular swing of blogging now that it is the new year, but some of these links are slightly old. Oh well! Maybe you haven’t seen them yet! In which case, lucky you!

What to do if you are white and straight and cis and male and not all the stories are about you anymore (Star Wars spoilers included herein).

“More as heroines than damsels”: How Disney gave their Princess dolls business to Hasbro.

Nichole Chung on microaggressions and the certainty that you are the only person who can make sure everyone at the table keeps having a nice time.

New York Magazine has been one of my favorite places for pop culture writing since time immemorial, but my God they have been crushing it in 2016. This piece by Sulagna Misra about how “internet boyfriends” get created is so m.f. good.

Mismatched communication styles and Hanlon’s Razor (I don’t necessarily agree with everything in this article, but I think it’s at least interesting).

Jenny, are you tired yet of reading about people escaping from cults? NO NEVER.

A detailed look at the publication process, and how it might be shortened for George R. R. Martin’s doorstopper The Winds of Winter.

Here’s something I just found out about this instant because the book I read about the Comoros was thirty years old because nobody writes about the Comoros: The United Arab Emirates bought a whole bunch of Comoran citizenships to bestow upon members of a stateless ethnic group living within their borders. Because this world makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

The Telegraph has helpfully compiled an extensive article about how to do heists, but also, why you shouldn’t bother.

I ride hard for Paterson Joseph, as you’ll know if you were around me when David Tennant announced his departure from Doctor Who. I still think he’d be an amazing Doctor, NOT THAT Steven Moffat would ever remotely consider hiring him for that gig cause he’s a jerk. Anyway, Joseph is now doing a one-man show about Ignatius Sancho that sounds awesome. Way to goddamn go, Paterson Joseph.

Review: The Rock and the River, Kekla Magoon

If I may borrow a phrase from Renay, this book punched me in the soul. I have a thing where anything about slavery and civil rights struggles and that business immediately makes my heart hurt and then when the inevitable family member dies or gets sold or whatever, I cry and cry, and that’s why I don’t really read that many historical fiction books from those periods. But Jill said The Rock and the River was good, and I happened to see it at the library, so there you go. I had the hugest lump in my throat from page 3 onward, and towards the end of the book I was bawling messily.

(My puppy came into my bedroom while I was crying and rested her head on the side of my bed. And I thought, Oh, Jazz is worried about me, what a good dog; so I got off my bed and put her in my lap and snuggled her, and after about two seconds of this she ran away and got her tennis ball and spat it onto my lap. After that I had a hard time not suspecting her motives.)

The Rock and the River is about two brothers, Sam and Stick, the sons of prominent (but fictional) civil rights figure Roland Childs. When one of the boys’ friends is brutally beaten by the cops, Stick becomes involved with the Black Panther movement. He has to do this more or less covertly, because his father is part of the nonviolent peace movement and disagrees with the Panthers’ aims. In the midst of all kinds of 1968 racial violence, Sam is trying to figure out who he is and what he stands for.

In the afterword to this book, Magoon notes that schools tend to lionize Martin Luther King’s nonviolent approach to attaining civil rights while criticizing the Black Panthers for violence and general unruliness. This, um, happened in my education. So for that alone, I’m really glad I read this book, which casts a critical eye on gun violence while still spending time on the social activism of the Black Panthers (opening health clinics, working as advocates for black people accused of crimes, etc.). I shall now go forth and read more about the Black Panthers and then presumably have a less cartoony view of how they worked.

What a great book. The relationship between the brothers (I have a thing for sibling relationships too) is so strong and moving. Good sibling relationships in books reduce me to mush, and I want to run around flailing my arms and sobbing “They love each other! They want to protect each other!” Basically, Kekla Magoon should write lots more books, which I will only read when I am willing to have my soul punched.

Other people who read it:

Rhapsody in Books (thanks for the recommendation!)
Page 247
Maw Books
bookshelves of doom
The Happy Nappy Bookseller
Readingjunky’s Reading Roost

Anyone else?

Review: Thank You, Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse

Every time I have checked out a Jeeves book from the library, it has been because I went looking for something in the W section and failed to find it.  In this case, the library claimed they had several Jeanette Winterson books in, when what they meant was that they had absolutely no Jeanette Winterson books in at all.  In particular they did not have Sexing the Cherry, which is the one I was after.  I drifted gloomily down the shelves and checked out two Jeeves books instead.

I do not advise this as a strategy.  It invites comparisons, and comparisons, as they say, are odious.  Thank You, Jeeves is no Sexing the Cherry.  (Or anyway it is no Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which is the only book by Jeanette Winterson that I have read.  I assume that Sexing the Cherry is of similarly high quality.)  However, I am afraid that I would not have liked Thank You, Jeeves, even if I hadn’t checked it out as a poor alternative to Jeanette Winterson.  It repeatedly uses a racial slur of which I am particularly unfond, and Bertie spends at least half of the book in blackface.  Because apparently to PG Wodehouse, THAT IS HILARIOUS.

Hey, guess what I hate?  Minstrelsy!  Aaaaaand racial insults!

Bayou, Vol. 1, Jeremy Love & Patrick Morgan

Jeremy Love‘s Bayou, evidently the first physical book to be created from DC Comics’ webcomic imprint Zuda, is about a little girl named Lee who lives in 1930s Mississippi with her father.  When he is accused of raping and murdering Lee’s young white friend Lily (who actually got eaten by an enormous monster in the bayou), and carted off to jail, Lee sets out fearlessly to find Lily and thus save her father from death.

Before I head off to bed*, I just wanted to say, Holy God, this book was scary.  I read about it (where else, for my graphic novel recommendations?) on Nymeth’s blog, and nowhere did she say anything like, In addition to its beautiful art and plucky protagonist, this book has the SCARIEST SCARINESS OF ALL TIME.  You know why I didn’t buy this book immediately after I finished reading it at Bongs & Noodles this evening?  Because I want to have kids eventually, and I don’t want them to find this book and read it and be scarred for life, as would inevitably happen, and then they’d get taken from me by CPS for abuse which I would deserve because that’s how scary this book is.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system – hang on, wait, I don’t feel like I have adequately conveyed how scary it is.  The kids thing wasn’t a good example.  Kids scare easy.  Let me try again.  Imagine the most terrifying nightmare you have ever had.  Now multiply it times six, and add a shark attack salad, a side of being-buried-alive, and a large scoop of public speaking.  Are you imagining that?  Because the scariness you are imagining right now has to go sleep in its parents’ bed when it has nightmares about Bayou.

You have now officially been warned, so when you pick up this book and start reading it, you will not be thinking, la la la, aren’t these illustrations beautiful; la la la, there’s going to be an enormous rabbit; la la la – trust me, you won’t be thinking any la la la at all.  And if you were (which you won’t be, once you read the rest of this paragraph), it would get knocked out of you the second you realized that the reason that child is diving into that bayou is to fish up the body of a kid that got lynched.  And that is not the scariest thing that happens in this book.

And now for something completely different: This book is so good.  How good, you ask?  Very, very, very good.  (Help, I can feel myself going into gush mode – this can happen when I shriek complaints about things for a while – it is like the universe needs to balance me back out – here we go…)

Bayou may be the best graphic novel I’ve read this year, and I read Fun Home and Ordinary Victories this year.  It is relentlessly wonderful with its beauty and brilliance and wonderfulness.  In the first place, Love and Morgan have made about the most gorgeous illustrations you ever saw.  The art is dreamy and cartoony and exactly real – it doesn’t feel that incongruous to see Lee (our heroine!) one second being knocked unconscious while her father is taken away, and the next second talking to a giant rabbit.  Lee’s journey to save her father takes her to some weird places (and, I’m given to understand, will be taking her to even weirder ones), in a rather Alice in Wonderlandy way, but the emotional grounding of the story means that you need Lee to succeed.

Bringing me to my next point: Jeremy Love’s ear for dialogue.  This book has perfectly perfect dialogue, and when you’re writing a story set in the past, it’s crucial to succeed at this.  Love’s dialogue does, of course, give the reader an incredible sense of place.  What’s even better, he gives his characters such distinctive, genuine voices that only a few lines between, for instance, Lee and Lily, or Lee and her father, convey their relationships perfectly.

If I haven’t put you off by going on and on about how pissingly terrifying it is, you should read it in book form (which is nice because it’s beautiful) or online here.  My computer is too slow to read it online, which is frustrating because I desperately want to know what happens next.  And if you are reading this and thinking, Oh, that Jenny.  She is exaggerating.  Nothing is scary enough to scare six times my worst nightmare plus shark attack & public speaking & being buried alive, just you look at pages 40-50 and you will see that I was not exaggerating.  At.  All.

*WHERE I WILL UNDOUBTEDLY HAVE HORRIFIC NIGHTMARES

Sisterland, Linda Newbery

Ah, Linda Newbery. I’ve been meaning to read one of her books for about a year and a half – I very vaguely remember wanting to buy it at the Foyle’s on the South Bank when I was there in January 2007 with the family. Something with clocks.

Sisterland is about a girl called Hilly who has a problematic sister that’s got a crush on a racist kid (British kids are scary! I’m never raising my kids in England cause those British kids are way too frightening!), and her grandmother has got Alzheimer’s and is forever talking about someone called Rachel (on account of how she was secretly Jewish when she was a kid and she had a sister called Rachel who she lost touch with), and also there’s Hilly’s BFF Reuben who has a crush on a Palestinian kid called Saeed, and Hilly gets a crush on Saeed’s brother Rashid.

I enjoyed this, but my God, it dealt with a lot of issues. In that ostentatious way, like, And now, I will be dealing with the issue of – racism! Hey, don’t worry, homosexuality, you’ll get your turn! And look at the Holocaust crowding in on the side! Hold your horses, Holocaust, you’re our main event! I’m all in favor of YA books Dealing with Issues and everything, but I thought that Ms. Newbery was too clearly trying to Deal with Issues, rather than just letting them happen as they happened. And there was a lot going on here, so that none of them were really very thoroughly handled. Lots of juxtaposing of different kinds of intolerance, but not enough to where you really had time to get a ton of sympathy for anybody dealing with the intolerance.

Still, it was good. Not as good as I bet that book of Linda Newbery’s is that I saw at the Foyle’s but my library doesn’t have and I can’t remember its title and will thus never find it … but pretty good.

The English Governess at the Siamese Court, Anna Leonowens

Okay, the truth comes out.  You won’t believe it, but Anna Leonowens did not, in fact, have a hot but platonic romance with the King of Siam; or if she did, she kept remarkably quiet about it in her book.  Although I’m not ruling out the possibility that all the late-night “translating” she was doing for the king was actually sexual favors.  Because, you know, she acts like a proper Victorian lady but who knows?

Seriously, though, I feel that this memoir (travelogue) lacked a certain something.  Taking into account the prejudices of her time, she was still kind of a bitch about a lot of stuff, and I think she was rude to tell all the ladies of the harem that she’d rather be boiled in oil a hundred times over than even think for a single second about marrying their vile pagan king.  And believe me, Mrs. Leonowens, we got the point the first time that you were an agent of mercy and tolerance, helping all the pathetic hapless Siamese people to get their way whenever they came to you with weeping petitions.

Okay, I feel really mean now.  I’m sure she was just as helpful as she says and saved many a harem lass from being beaten or imprisoned for a very long time.  She’s probably up in heaven looking downcast and telling her best friend “Why’s that girl being so mean about me?  I was doing the best I could” in a small voice while her friend comforts her and shakes her fist at me.  Or else she’s running to tattle to God, and he’s making a little note for when I die and they play me an IMAX film of all the nasty and uncharitable acts I committed during my life.

Well anyway – no fun subplot of Tuptim and her lover being brutally beaten and murdered, so that’s a bummer; but actually a quite touching speech from the King upon Mrs. Leonowen’s departure.  She does not, incidentally, change her mind at the last moment and decide to stay, but goes heartlessly back to England to look after her health and her son.  Whatever.