Response to Censorship, and a Joint Book Review of Between the World and Me and Kindred


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Title & Author: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Publication Date: July 2015

Genre: Nonfiction, Journalism

How I got it: Bought used from McKay’s 

Title & Author: Kindred by Octavia Butler

Publication Date: 1979

Genre: Science Fiction

How I got it: Bought used from McKay’s

 

Review:

“The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a Man.”

This line from Between the World and Me gave me chills when I read it, and still does. Yesterday, when I tried to post a review of this book to Amazon, which included the above quote, Amazon rejected it because it failed to “adhere to the following guidelines.” While Amazon did not specify which guideline I broke, I believe this is the one:

 

Hate Speech & Offensive Content – We don’t allow reviews that express intolerance for people belonging to identity groups including race, gender, religion, sexual preference, or nationality. Customers are allowed to comment on products and question the expertise of authors, sellers, or other customers as long as it is in a non-threatening manner.”

 

Anyone moderately familiar with Between the World and Me knows that it’s a treatise on racial intolerance in the United States. What I did to deserve censorship was to quote directly from the book. But if a book concerns “intolerance for people belonging to identity groups,” then how can I or anyone else quote from it without using the ‘offensive content’ the book discusses?

Here’s the quote again:

 

“The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a Man.”

 

By censoring the review, Amazon has unintentionally proven Coates’ point with this passage: that to be a bitch, a nigger, a fag, is to exist on the borderline of what is human, is to be offensive, and thus in need of censorship. Notably, there are no derogatory terms for Amazon to censor for being a white man. Bastard? White Trash? These terms lack the horror of bitch, fag, and nigger because they lack the societal implications of these terms—much as Coates argues that being ‘black’ is a social construct, a status society has arbitrarily given to specific people that is otherwise meaningless.

 

“But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.”

 

Between the World and Me is ostensibly a letter from Coates to his 15-year old son exploring what it means to be a black man in America, where your body can at any time be taken, beaten, and/or killed. But it’s also much more than a letter—it’s a philosophical treatise, memoir, investigative journalism. In addressing his son’s distress over Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, Coates describes his own internal struggle when, in his twenties, a friend dies after a police officer shoots him, and his struggle to answer Why, both in terms of the death but also in broader terms, why there’s race at all, why the black body can be taken, used, destroyed. More than anything, Coates wonders how to raise a black son under these conditions and have him still be him.

 

“So I feared not just the violence of this world but the rules designed to protect you from it, the rules that would have you contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give the police a reason. All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to “be twice as good,” which is to say “accept half as much.” These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile.”

 

I have mixed feelings about Amazon’s censorship. I want to read reviews that engage critically with a text and give accurate portrayals of what I can expect from a book. It would be impossible to write an engaged review of Between the World and Me without writing about how it confronts “intolerance for people belonging to identity groups.” Obviously, there’s a difference between hate speech and discussing a book about hate, a difference Amazon does not distinguish between. At the same time, some guidelines seem appropriate. If Amazon hypothetically eliminated their guidelines, how many racist comments would this book receive? Given the current Republican candidate for president, I fear the number would be far higher than I can imagined. Yet, part of me still thinks there should be no guidelines, that everyone should have the right to say what they want about a book, even if it’s hateful.

Interestingly, my review posted without issue on Goodreads, even though they have a similar policy, and are owned by Amazon. Goodreads must be doing something Amazon isn’t. I’m sure both use a computerized system to catch offensive language, but perhaps Goodreads adds a human element to it? Does someone actually read a tagged review before it’s rejected?

On a similar note, immediately after reading Between the World and Me I picked up Kindred by Octavia Butler. Butler is considered a grand master of sf, and Kindred to be one of her most beloved novels. Goodreads also says it’s the first science fiction novel written by a black woman, which seems almost impossible considering it was published in 1979. That’s less than forty years ago. Wow. As Coates argues, we are still living with the repercussions of slavery.

Kindred relates to many of the same themes addressed in Between the World and Me; primarily, the physicality of the black body and the legacy of slavery.

The novel begins in 1976 as Dana—a black woman—unpacks with her husband—a white man—in their new home. Then, suddenly, Dana’s not there. She’s time traveled to the worst possible time for a black woman: early 1800s America, though she doesn’t know that yet. What she does know is that a boy is drowning, so she saves him, and when his father puts a gun in her face she time travels again, back home and to her own time of 1976.

She’s not finished with time traveling. She fazes back and forth in time over the course of a month, to the same boy, each time having to save his life even as she’s forced to work as a slave on his father’s plantation. At one point her husband grabs her as she fazes out of the present, traveling with her, but when she returns to 1976 he fails to reach her in time to come too, and is stuck in the 1800s for 5 years before Dana returns to the past after what’s been only 8 days for her.

Kindred asks, how would you survive if you were a slave? (I would not have been as strong as Dana, I know that.) What would you do now if you were suddenly a slave? How did some good white people come to condone or manage to ignore the horrors of slavery? It’s a compulsive read, full of bodily danger and horror.

While Between the World and Me addresses the physicality of the black male body in current society, Kindred looks at the physicality of being a black female slave. Not only is her body owned as a slave, but in order to return to her own time, her body must be put into danger. She must believe that she could die. Thus Butler depicts the many ways the black body was abused: rape, whipping, suicide, violence. (Disgustingly, my used copy came with some art work—the previous owner had drawn a penis right after a rape scene.) But even outside of Dana’s horrific experience, Kindred depicts how the black body was owned: families are torn apart on the whim of their owners, children sold to keep people ‘in-line.’

Reading both Between the World and Me and Kindred  back-to-back was emotionally wrenching, but so worth it. They’re both tough reads, ones I want everyone to tackle. I’ve passed on my copies to a friend, and hope they both keep on passing.

 

Rating for Between the World and Me: 5/5

Rating for Kindred: 4/5

 

What are your thoughts on censoring reviews, as Amazon does?

 

Book Review of Dreams of Distant Shores by Patricia McKillip

Title and Author: Dreams of Distant Shores by Patricia McKillip

Publication Date: June 14th, 2016

Genre: Fantasy, short stories

How I got it: NetGalley. Thanks to Tachyon Publications and NetGalley for providing me with an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review:

At the recent International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts, I went to a panel called “Putting the Epic in Fantasy,” and Patricia McKillip was one of the panelists, along with Stephen R. Donaldson, Matt Oliver, and Alethea Kontis. I fangirled at McKillip a bit later in the day, in the bathroom of all places, holding the bathroom door open for her as I sang her praises. Could there be a more awkward place to fangirl than a bathroom?

Anyway, I was reading Dreams from Distant Shores at the same time I attended the conference, so it was impossible not to relate her theories and ideas concerning fantasy from the panel with the short stories in the collection.

For example, when the discussion turned to the essentialism of fantasy settings, McKillip asserted that “Landscape is the human condition.” While all of the stories in Dreams from Distant Shores deal with how humans and landscape are inextricably linked—even the title suggests such—nowhere is that theme more prevalent than in the novella “Something Rich and Strange.” “Something Rich and Strange” is a reprint, but this was my first time reading it. In this novella, the ocean enraptures couple Jonah and Megan with its seen and unseen wonders, which are rich and strange. It begins when Megan, an artist, realizes she’s capturing odd moments in her paintings of the sea, moments she didn’t realize were there until she looks at the finished painting. Then two sibling newcomers come to their small coastal town and Jonah, Megan’s husband and an antique shop owner, becomes ensnared by one of their voices, which sounds just like the sea’s song. Meanwhile, Megan is drawn to the singer’s brother, who brings beautiful, sea-inspired jewelry to sell in the antique shop. A fairytale quest follows, venturing deep into the ocean’s depths. This novella is an atmospheric, ecological-themed treatise on the ocean and its magic.

Random: Here’s a picture of a turtle sunbathing in a pond outside the conference hotel. No, it’s not relevant to this book review in any way, but if landscape is the human condition, than this landscape was part of mine while attending the conference. And it’s cute.


Moving on, McKillip also said during the panel that “Language speaks more than what the words say.” As any reader knows, the right rhythms, patterns, and words can be visceral, emotional, almost like a spell, a spell McKillip has most certainly mastered. “The Gorgon in the Cupboard,” my favorite story in the collection, is a lovely example of the power, both spoken and unspoken, of language. In this short story, a painter struggles with his craft. He’s developed an obsession with another painter’s model, and one day paints that model’s lips on his unfinished painting of a gorgon. The model he’d been using for the gorgon has disappeared, and he’s been searching for her for months. Once he finishes painting the lips, the gorgon in the painting opens her mouth and speaks. Magic follows. With its artistic themes, this short story reminded me of Charles De Lint’s Memory and Dream. It’s definitely going to stick with me.

My favorite quote from the panel came near the end: “As a fantasy writer, I have to believe that there’s hope in the end.” Her short story “Alien,” my 2nd favorite in the collection, uses hope of the impossible as the impetus for plot. In this story, a grandmother believes she’s being visited by aliens, but her family at a family reunion uses this belief as an impetus for gossip. But some hang on to that hope, including the grandmother. “Alien” is a fantastic story about belief, and original to this collection. If I decide to renew my Hugo membership, I’ll definitely consider nominating it.

While these three are my favorite stories in the collection, there are many more to enjoy. In “Mer,” another original to this collection, a witch awakens after a 100 year nap to find a goddess who wants her body. The two switch shapes, and the witch becomes a wooden mermaid. This is a lovely story of switched identities and small magics in a small town. In another fun story, “Which Witch,” a young witch finally finds a familiar—a crow—but the problem is neither can understand a word the other’s saying, and something dangerous lurks at her rock concert that night.

My two least favorite stories were also the weirdest: “Weird” and “Edith and Henry Go Motoring.” “Weird,” the very first story, makes more sense as an introduction to the entire collection. In “Weird,” a couple lies on the bathroom floor while terrible noises echo around them. The man asks, “What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened to you?”, and the woman answers him with increasingly weird anecdotes amidst the noise. In context of the entire collection, all of the stories that follow could be a response to “What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened to you?” The weirdness in “Edith and Henry Go Motoring” occurs when Edith, Henry, and their driver travel to a small town right out of a fairy tale, and find a house that appears empty, until they step inside. It’s a story of confronting repressed hope, and letting your dreams go, but lacked the cohesion of the other pieces in the collection.

The collection ends on the essay “Writing High Fantasy,” where McKillip gives a short description of fantasy, using The Riddle-Master Trilogy as examples. Unfortunately, I have not read the Riddle-Master books, but I’m sure the essay would be an interesting read for those who have. (I know, I know, I really need to read the trilogy!)

McKillip’s writing is sharp and lyrical, full of humanity, myth, and hope. If you haven’t read McKillip before, this is a great collection to start with and see if you like her style. If you’re already a McKillip fan, then you should definitely pick this up, if you haven’t already.

Rating: 4/5