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Sarah Schulman: People who say “move on” are often advising us to give up our dreams. Usually they would have to make us change something fundamental for us to get what we need, and they simply don’t want to be bothered. Both of my books, The Tuner of Silences by Mia Couto and The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, are about male authors creating black male characters who are charged with imagining what women could be, and I admit I did hope. But neither book, I would say, is successful on those terms. If the reader can “move on,” as disappointing as that might be, one of these novels gives us a little bit of somewhere else to go.
Mia Couto is a white African writing about a young black boy living in an imagined dystopia somewhere in the Mozambique hinterlands. James McBride is African American, telling a different kind of black man’s story, roaming from Kansas Territory to Wilmington, Del., from slavery to the ethical uplift of America’s favorite black era, the 1960s. Couto served in the revolutionary government after being in the struggle for independence from the Portuguese. McBride, as we all know, has a National Book Award.
Couto’s protagonist is a black child, Mwanito, whose father has locked him and his brother, uncle, and servant away in an all-male land, convincing them that the rest of the world has been destroyed. For the father, this is an expression of the end of civilization that emotionally accompanied the death of his wife. For the son, it is an internalized truth. There is something that veils this book, and it might be the translation. Even the title seems forced and awkward. Of course, that could also be an accurate replication of the author’s original voice, in which case there may be a formal revelation here that I am just missing. Is this a plot, or is this a metaphor for a society isolated by loss? Are these characters recognizable and resonant for black Africans? How much background would I, as a reader, have to have to be fully capable of evaluating the book? Obviously I have to rely on my experience of reading, alone, while recognizing that that could easily be misleading and filled with distortion. So, for this reader, Couto has a gross disadvantage, to the extent that I would say the contest is stacked.
As far as dystopias go, this one is no fun and holds little insight into experience, which is counter to the options created by the author’s choice of a first-person narrator. First person-ness equals hindsight. But without the advantage of stunning insights, first person can be an underminer. We know he lived to tell the tale. We know this boy grew up, gained perspective, developed a stylized grasp of language, became a coherent storyteller, perhaps even a novelist. As a result, I don’t worry for him. This defeats a lot of the potential reader involvement: suspense, anticipation, fear. The brothers know that women exist or have existed, but their modes of imagining Her are not inspiring. It’s all gash and blood. Why would two boys who have not been formed by the Western canon, the People’s Choice Awards, or any of this year’s Oscar nominees not be able to imagine woman having selves? Where did those dumb reductions come from? Their father is busy fucking the donkey, until she gets pregnant, which makes him suspicious, jealous and enraged. At this point I lost faith that the author would remember that this reader too lives in his world, and has come to call. Hello? Hello? Don’t you want Sarah to enjoy this book? Finally, an actual woman appears, the first one our protagonist, Mwanito, has ever seen. Maybe things will change.
She’s white and dressed like a man in order to survive. My white-savior alarm went off. I hope she’s not going to rescue the day. Well, in a way she does. She writes of her desire for a white Portuguese boyfriend in a way that Mwanito finds liberating. “The vision of this creature” he rhapsodizes, “suddenly caused the frontiers of the world I knew so well to overflow.” Not only has he discovered white women, but he has discovered white colonial heterosexual romance. And what could be more enriching to a black African boy than that?
The protagonist of James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, Henry “Onion” Shackleford, also cross-dresses for survival purposes. Living, as I do, in the epicenter of the trans-revolution, that does seem awfully quaint. Why did he have to? As black comic Flip Wilson’s drag persona Geraldine used to say, “The Devil made me do it.” Made you? Immediately, I was worried. Queer writers have labored in the trenches of underground and grassroots literature only to watch their bounty show up in the most mainstream of texts. Certainly intersexuality won one straight man, Jeff Eugenides, a Pulitzer Prize and awkward unrecognizable lesbian characters seem to be popping up in the supporting casts of many very heterosexual novels. Whatever McBride’s objective for Shackleford’s gender transgression, I don’t want it to be derivative of lesser-known works or a sham on real people’s lives. I want it to sing true and deep, and, most of all, not be cute.
Unfortunately, it was both cute and not. See, little Henry is rescued from slavery by the famous abolitionist John Brown, but John thinks he’s a girl, named Henrietta. Why doesn’t she ever correct him? Because “lying come natural to all Negros during slave time for no man or woman in bondage ever prospered stating their true thoughts to the boss. Most of Colored life was an act.” It’s a plausible explanation. He passes as a woman because of racism. But when the hired hand sees Henrietta’s genitals and asks, “Are you a sissy?” it’s asked with no stakes at all. No sense that he could be beaten to death or simply shatteringly shunned. The real life of the real black sissy cross-dresser just isn’t in McBride’s mind. When it comes to women, McBride is a bit more liberal. Henrietta finds that men expect her to do so much for them that “being free weren’t worth shit.” Many opportunities to reveal his true gender are obstructed for stagey, devicey reasons and Henry learns nothing about what it is to be female.
The plot is propelled by the John Brown angle and even that seems to miss opportunities. Henrietta and John meet Frederick Douglass and, alas, we learn nothing about him that matters. He is “handsome,” his shirt is “starched.” Come on! We are meeting Frederick Douglass! There is the fact of his polygamous household, but the man himself is a drunken predator and there is no insight into his intellectual activities or deep and authentic personal contradictions. McBride simply does not rise to the occasion. Sometimes the fun of writing carries the reader along, and there’s a lot of arch historical detail so the reader is really living in a stylized kind of Tarantino America that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but can be engrossing. We are transported, even if it’s to Netflix. He enjoys writing, and you can kind of see the author talking to himself, tapping his foot, cracking himself up. There is a real person here, and there is an intimate relationship going on. But there are a lot of disappointments.
Kevin: In the fall of my freshman year at Notre Dame I took a film class, and one of the first movies we watched was Night of the Living Dead. In the tiny classroom theater, I was probably still wearing a bed sheet, my mouth tasted like metal from shotgunning beers at an off-campus party the Saturday before, and I was like, “College is awesome!”
John: See, I thought all you Golden Domers were too busy studying and praying to the football gods to engage in this kind of state school revelry. I actually feel a little superior now knowing that we had the good sense to do beer bongs rather than the far cruder shotgunning. It also meant you could mainline two beers into your gut in one fell swoop.
Kevin: We were up to date on all the most advanced beer delivery systems at Notre Dame, probably because not drinking large amounts of beer very quickly was considered a form of birth control.
After watching the movie, we spent a week reading criticism of that film. Dozens of different essays. Feminist critiques. Racial critiques. Gender critiques. Conservative political critiques accusing George Romero of being a communist. Hippie critiques alleging Romero was a fascist. None of these people seemed to have watched the same zombie movie I did.
It was the first eye-opening of my higher education.
I bring this up because because I think Judge Schulman has a different edition of The Good Lord Bird than I do. I’m sure the words are the same, but I don’t think we read quite the same book.
John: But isn’t this true of every book? It’s the old “the book and the reader make meaning together” deal. There’s also a kind of predisposition to what the reader looks for in a book. I’ve never been very good as a critic: I have a hard time articulating what a book means, and an even harder time trying to place it in the culture at large. For me, books—particularly books I like—are like flash-bomb grenades. All my higher senses are temporarily disabled and it’s only later, sometimes much later, that I can offer any kind of coherent comment on the book itself.
Kevin: The first thing I tell people about The Good Lord Bird is how funny it is. Henry has a wonderfully wry comic voice that dances across every page. I laughed out loud many times, and there aren’t many novels that make me do that. I don’t think Judge Schulman thought it was very funny at all.
John: I’m with you on this one. There was a bit of a wink behind a lot of the events in the book, and the scenes with Brown himself are frequently high comedy.
Kevin: When it comes to Frederick Douglass, Judge Schulman claims McBride provides “no insight” and “does not rise to the occasion.” I thought McBride’s depiction of Douglass was one of the most startling things in the novel (and it is also, yes, funny). It is no doubt inaccurate: McBride acknowledges some of the real-life scandals that followed Douglass throughout his life, but this version is intentionally more outrageous than the one in history books. I wondered while reading it if McBride had in his mind the mischievous notion that only a black writer could get away with portraying Douglass this way, even after 150+ years. I found that a little bit thrilling, a little bit hilarious, and a little bit telling about both the world Americans lived in then and the world we live in today.
And I honestly didn’t find The Good Lord Bird to be even the slightest bit like a Tarantino film, a comparison Judge Schulman makes in an effort at faint praise (although that would be generally fine with me if it were, because I’m a fanboy).
John: The Tarantino comparison was a head-scratcher for me as well. Maybe it’s the humor juxtaposed with violence? Perhaps there is something in the notion that Tarantino’s characters are such, well...characters, but I always think of Tarantino’s style as a kind of pastiche, a parade of skillfully woven cinematic in jokes that may only make sense to Tarantino himself. At Salon, Laura Miller likened The Good Lord Bird to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which makes perfect sense to me. It’s a road novel, a series of tales, some of them tall. I wasn’t always sure how seriously I was meant to take it because I was entertained, but that’s part of its power. Huck Finn’s power too.
Kevin: I wish I had thought of that comparison, because it’s spot on. And although it has nothing to do with this conversation, now I’m thinking that Quentin Tarantino’s Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the greatest idea for a movie since Wes Anderson’s Blacula.
In addition to the idea of writer and reader as collaborator, John, it is a working theory of yours and mine that our reactions to literature are visceral, and the reasons we give for not liking a book are often justifications after the fact. But Judge Schulman is so specific in her criticisms that it is clear she has thought about them carefully. She seems disappointed that The Good Lord Bird features a male character dressed as a girl without addressing the issues of contemporary gender identity. She even asks “Why did he have to?” Well, it’s very clear in the text that Onion allows John Brown and his crew to believe he is a girl because he knows that, as a boy, he’d be expected to fight, and probably die, in Brown’s war. But there’s a structural purpose for it, as well. As a young girl, Onion (and therefore the reader) has intimate access to both male and female characters.
So let’s address the issue that’s on the table: Can an author have a male character dress as a female without acknowledging 21st-century gender identity politics, even if the character in the book lives at a time when those politics don’t exist?
I would suggest that this book is about identity, it’s just not specifically about gender identity. Onion can’t pretend he isn’t black, but he can pretend to be a girl. He has no gender dysphoria, and he’s frankly ambivalent about being freed, but passing as a girl offers him a measure of control over himself after spending his entire life as a slave. I don’t think it’s a gratuitous plot device. Judge Schulman criticizes it for being too “cute,” but I think it’s a sophisticated element of a well-considered story.
Still, it’s an interesting question. And while I’d generally say it’s unfair to criticize an author for not writing more about the subjects we’re most interested in, Judge Schulman balances that with a provocative critical point of view and uses the book as a springboard to discuss something she’s passionate about. That’s cool. I don’t question the sincerity of her disappointment but, having read it with a different set of expectations, and through a very different pair of lenses, I don’t share it.
John: Like you, I don’t quite “get” Schulman’s take, but those differences are why I find what she has to say so interesting. I never would have thought of these things, and now I have. I don’t know that I agree with her, but what I do believe about the book and books in general is sharper for having been challenged. That’s worth a lot.
We should say something about The Tuner of Silences, and the thing I’d like to say is, “I’m sorry.” Every year I intend to read the lower seeded, less-celebrated contestants, and I always seem to fall short of this goal. The Tuner of the Silences lost out. In penance, I’m going to point to this appreciation of Couto’s work by my former professor, Philip Graham, published last year at The Millions.
Kevin: Last year, you and I took some probably deserved heat for not getting to Miles Klee’s Ivyland before the tourney started (although we did manage some discussion of the book after the fact). This year, The Tuner of Silences drops between us like a pop fly in shallow right field. This is where we rely on our beloved commenters. Does Mia Cuoto have some readers here who can either challenge or reinforce Judge Schulman’s verdict? I’d love to hear them.