It’s All About Perspective

One of the most powerful things in the world to experience is someone else’s perspective. It’s also one of the most frustrating. As anyone who’s encountered a view or opinion that they find utterly objectionable on social media, the TV, overheard in a bus (a broadcast of anything Donald Trump has ever said) the initial reaction is that they are wrong. Utterly, idiotically wrong. The interesting thing is, no-one thinks they’re ill-informed. No-one thinks they’re simply regurgitating biased news sources in place of an opinion. Everyone thinks they’re a nice person. Which is all the more reason we need to examine why these opinions exist, where they come from, and why the people who hold them think they’re so reasonable.

A fascinating and absorbing way to do this is though fiction. I would argue it’s the best way. In a first person narrative, even if you are infuriated with the character, you have no choice but to see the world through their eyes. You are forced, in some way, to empathise with them, even if you don’t agree with them.

Arguably, one of the most important times to be reading books like this is in your teens. All too often it seems like the world is revolving around your tiny little sphere of existence, and that no-one could possibly have it worse than you. Enter Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher, a young adult novel about a transexual MTF and the problems they have. But, interestingly enough, it isn’t told from the point of view of the trans character. It’s the teenage boy who meets her and how he copes with the discovery.

It’s a story of hormones and lust, coping with growing up and dealing with your feelings. In this sense, a pretty typical young adult story. Jason is an eighteen-year-old boy who has recently been dumped by his girlfriend, who refused to sleep with him. He’s reasonably clever but lives in a trailer with just his mother who works as a waitress. When Sage moves to town, he is immediately attracted to this mysterious new girl. In time, he discovers that she was born a male. Not before he’s had time to fall in love with her and kiss her. The prose is readable and the narrative interesting, it almost made me miss my stop a couple of times, which is a fair measure of the level of engagement.

I’ve read a lot of criticism of this book, based on the awful things Jason thinks and says when he finds out the truth about Sage. That the character is fundamentally shallow and unlikeable, and the addition of the new girl in his life is the only thing that makes him interesting. I would argue that this is exactly the point. By putting us in the shoes of a very narrow-minded young man from small-town Missouri (my US geography isn’t fantastic but I gather they’re not famed for being the most open-minded of states) we can experience the genuinely awful responses trans people can experience. First hand. And that’s important. We don’t like it, we certainly don’t agree with him, but it allows us to share his head, the ridiculous way he would do absolutely anything to not be considered ‘gay’ by his friends and family, and that he feels unable, emotionally, to open up to anyone around him. That in itself is just as much of an indictment of the hyper-masculinised ideals placed on lots of young men, as it is a criticism of how open-minded people are.

What this book allows then, is both the appreciation of how difficult growing up transgendered and going through a transition can be (yes the hormone therapy is a bit of a plot hole) and an appreciation of where the stigmatism and hateful attitudes come from. In order to make progress, we need to address both sides. To understand that people who are violent and cruel to trans people is based on skewed ideas of ‘manhood’ and lack of open conversation is just as important as understanding how traumatic it can be to feel you are born into the wrong body, with a family (or in this case, a father) who refuses to accept your true gender.

There was a fashion not long ago for perspectives of ‘monsters.’ Books like American Psycho that allowed us to see into the minds of truly disturbed characters. What seems to be happening now, is more books where there is less of a division. People acting hatefully but with their own stories behind it. Simplified ideas of us v them or monster v villain aren’t going to help educate and inform anyone because they oversimplify the myriad of issues and feelings behind the scenes. Books like this that lay bare all the feelings involved, both good and bad (and Jason is really a lot less of a judgmental idiot by the end) are what is necessary to move conversations forward, open up dialogue and discussion, rather than shutting them down by pretending they are too straightforward. And hey, it’s fantastic to have a trans character in mainstream young adult fiction.

There are a million quotes about why you should walk a mile in someone’s shoes, but I, as ever, tend to prefer Terry Pratchett: “They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it’s not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance.” Can’t say fairer than that.

Exposure

One of the key pleasures of reading (and, as it turns out, the one that makes you a better person) is the way you can be completely dissolved in the experience of a person which you will never know yourself. As a white woman living in London, there’s absolutely no way I can truly understand the myriad feelings experienced by a Nigerian moving to the USA. Being able to read about a fictional character’s experience in Americanah, through the eyes of Chimanda Ngozi Adichie, I can get much closer than if I read a book of statistics or research papers on immigration.

The reason being, fiction is immersive. Through the creation of characters, a reader follows the emotional journey of a person, which creates empathy and understanding. The devising of plot and narrative exacerbates this, as I then become caught up in the challenges and problems this character faces. I learn to care about them, the things that are important to them, and, at least for those few hundred pages, appreciate what it must feel like to look out of eyes that are not my own when I see the world. If for no other reason, this is why reading must be placed as a high priority for everyone. Sure, I could watch a film, but I’m still a passive observer, it doesn’t give me the same sense of appreciation of how that person must feel, because I am watching it from the outside.

In fact, for so many people who insist on spreading their hate and ignorance of others, I would prescribe a book. Try telling me everyone on benefits is a scrounger after reading Tony Hudson Bought me an Ice Cream Float Before he Stole My Ma, or that immigrants should all go home after reading Boy Overboard. The list is endless. Anger and hatred largely springs from fear of the unknown, or a lack of understanding. Call me idealistic, but if we all sat down and read a decent narrative about the people we don’t understand, the world would be a far more pleasant place.

Americanah is primarily a love story, a tale of the complexities and problems that still make themselves felt in what appears to be the perfect relationship. Echoing this is the convoluted and problematic love story between the people of Nigera and the idealised Western cultures of the UK and, primarily, the US.

Firstly, it’s just a great story. The characters are compelling and interesting, the language and description evocative. It also sidesteps the often problematic idealisation of the ‘homeland,’ where it is described as verdant, lush, fertile, exotic, in contrast to the cold and hard Western world. Although this is more of a trope of the old fashioned ‘colonial’ novels, in those as recent as Mr. Pip it’s all too recognisable. Of course, it may well be because it wasn’t written by a white person idealising a native culture.

Which is one of the well-crafted elements of the novel. It captures the struggles and concerns of non-white people in Western culture, as well as looking at the equally problematic Nigerian culture. It does it in a way that, through the voice of the main protagonist, is blunt and unapologetic.

The literary techniques employed by Adichie are also impressive. By making the central character a blogger, she is able to boldly comment on the nuances and hypocrisies of modern US culture. This allows (what one assumes is the author’s) personal experiences and grievances to be aired. The novel can make overt political statements without needing to awkwardly place them in the mouths of the characters (although this does occur in places. The sense of shared hope in the lead up to Obama’s election is beautiful).

She also directs her two central characters to different locations (US andUK) in order to illustrate two very different immigrant experiences. Even so, it doesn’t feel like a plot device, mostly because of the characters.

Above all, characters are Adichie’s forte. The language to show their expressions, appearance and mannerisms are what truly makes this book a delight to read. Ultimately, it’s through the desires and actions of the characters that subtle political messages emerge, highlighting the myriad issues and problems in both Western and Nigerian culture, and clearly showing that there aren’t any simple solutions.

After all, this is surely the gateway to greater understanding. As Atticus says in To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s hard to understand someone until “you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” If we are able to empathise and relate to an individual’s experiences, it is far harder to lump them int a homogenous racial or gendered group that judgements can be made about. We are firstly, people. We would do well to remember that.

‘The Seas’ by Samantha Hunt

Haunting prose, well sculpted book. From the outset, this has a very distinct voice. The prose is flooded with (har har) metaphors for the sea and water, the style is quite childlike and innocent, and it is clear from the outset that the reader is seeing the world through a very distinct and warped lens. What’s interesting about this novel is that it also manages to put an interesting and compelling story together, without relying too heavily on the prose style to simply take us through and hold our interest. The setting is described and evoked in minute detail, yet never named, so it can therefore allow itself to be substituted for all small northern seaside towns that are held in check by the sea. The writer weaves mythology and etymology throughout the story of the protagonist, which adds to the feel of an almost other-worldy presence. It feels both timeless and relevant. The fact that this is all hinged around a character whom the protagonist loves who has just come back from the Iraq war, helps to cement it in reality and make the ideas and emotions over arching in terms of an examination of the effects of pain and abandonment on the human mind. The consciousness of the character seems to lap in and out like waves, so at times it is clear we are in her head, and at others we are in the ‘real’ world. This allows her to get away with some very interesting and unusual dialogue which would be impossible in a more realistic novel.

What impressed me most I think was the structure. Having experienced this first hand, I get the feeling that prose and sentences can be honed and shaped, whereas managing a whole piece and threading information through it which leads to a climax is far more difficult. Or at least that’s where my personal difficulties lie. The climactic plot twist which takes us in an unexpected direction is nicely linked to the prologue at the beginning, and the ending takes us forward into unclear territory. From a three-act point of view, it takes us nicely through the key plot points and deposits us in not entirely unexpected territory. Having said that, the rest of it shifts much more subtly, so that we are almost unaware of the climax building. There were only a couple of points where I suddenly realised we were in an important ‘scene’ that was pulling the narrative forward. This is probably because I’m currently obsessed with doing this in my own book, rather than her plotting being clunky.

Essentially it is a coming of age book, but it is managed with such effective melancholy that it seems somehow older and wiser than that. I like the way that over the course of the book we felt the narrator becoming more and more isolated from those around her, and we began to doubt the validity of the way she saw the world more and more. The voice would be unsustainable for a longer book than this, and such a distinctive style forces lots of events to happen, but I found it compelling rather than tiresome. It had the weight of conviction behind it which made it work. Personally the scientist metaphors and images jarred, and I didn’t find that they worked or were especially relevant, but I can see why they made their way into the final edit. Teaching us that mythology is as relevant today as it ever was, this is a lovely book that will sit in your brain, washing through you, for many days after you read it.