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08 July 2012 @ 08:29 pm
Leah Bobet's Above  
I've been pondering how to post about Leah Bobet's recent YA book, Above. I've seen it called a fable, but it's not, it's solid urban fantasy, with scifi undertones that never become explicit. I love it. Above has stunning prose and went straight to my heart, for reasons artistic and political; for story; and for how story, character, politics, and prose are one. I want to write about some politics, but that involves some spoilers. Even some demographic identities are spoilers, and some are revealed late in the book.

If you prefer to stay completely spoiler-free, don't click. I'm recommending this book highly but with concerns, and I dearly hope you'll go read it and come back and talk to me about it. If you've read the book already, or haven't but still want to read my thoughts on race, genderqueerness, intersex, mental illness, and physical disability, venture behind the cut. I'll include as few spoilers as possible, but I do need some to make my points, even some from late in the book.

RACE. The protagonist is a POC, and so is another primary character. They're wonderfully written characters, and the fact that they're not white is wonderfully done, I think. (General note: I'd love to read any crit of race and everything else in this book, no matter whether it disagrees with me and changes my mind. Please point me to any.) Some other characters are white, and there are plenty of characters whose race I don't know, but unlike most books like that, this book doesn't suggest a default of whiteness. I think I have some inklings of how the text pulls that off, and it's rare, and I appreciate it.

I love that the brown-skinned adult is a woman who's Native. I love that she's educated and awesome and complex and strong and hurt and limited. She lives hella morally, and she works her ass off, but she has doubts and flaws. She can't save the world; she's not a superhero or an icon. I don't find her a martyr but another reader could. If she is, she's a martyr for reasons she chooses herself, living morally in a hard place with few options.

I don't love that, although she is explicitly Native, she doesn't come from a specific tribe or nation. The book's setting is (probably...I think?) Toronto, so this character could come from any tribe or nation in Canada or the US. One word is given from her original language that she spoke when she grew up on a reservation, but I've not been able to track the word (I tried) to see whether it's from a real language. I don't love that this character is Native but doesn't live amongst -- or connect back with in any way -- anyone from her own nation; that she's the single (explicitly) Native person without her chosen community; and I really don't love the reason for that, which is a thin, shallow, stereotypically tragic portrayal of how her people back on the reservation are doing in modern life. (Not well. Entirely victimized. The victimization is laid at the right hands; but I wanted complexity, I wanted the book to allow that some Native people are doing fine and well with their lives, even living on reservations.)

COVER. I don't know if this is called whitewashing or a cousin of it, but the cover shows a long-haired blond head (standard coding for a girl seen from behind) despite the fact that the main character is a brown-skinned boy with dark hair. The girl on the cover is a primary character and it's clear why she'll draw visual interest (the wings, the hair, the inexplicably nakedish torso, marketing sigh blah), but still, she's white, and she's on the cover, and she's not the main character. I want the brown-skinned main character on the cover (maybe "too").

I don't love that that girl's blond hair seems to be the primary or first reason that someone else falls in love with them. The love is real, and I don't feel that I need to know the reasons: I like the reason for falling in love to be a good je ne sais quoi sometimes. But if it's that, if it's je ne sais quoi, I don't want the blond hair mentioned at certain key moments.

PHYSICAL DISABILITY. Well done. I'm not done thinking; I have some questions about the relationship between physical disability and the magic that makes this book fantasy (or maybe that part is scifi, it's obscure). But no doubt that tons of it is well done, and physical disabilities exist, and they don't define a person at all or symbolize anything internal.

MENTAL ILLNESS. Fantastic. I'm more pleased with the mental illness portrayal here than I've been with most books I can think of. It's not symbolic. It's not a failing. While some characters without mental illness sometimes find mental illness tragic, that's deeply connected with societal treatment of people with mental illness -- and with the pain that the specific mental illnesses represented bring to the people who have them. All that said, I may not be done thinking, and am open to other viewpoints and actually dying to hear what other people think. I could be wrong, and if I am, I'd be grateful to know.

This book confronts deep moral issues of treatment, and of who decides when and which treatments should be tried. It's potentially triggery on that count. There's a spot at the end of the book when I think the text makes a wrong call by skipping a moment of consent that should be present. But overall I'm impressed and grateful for most of the mental illness portrayal.

QUEERNESS. This book has an intersex character; how rare is that in YA? Are there any others? There is also real genderqueerness here, and while YA has a handful (which needs to get bigger yesterday) of trans characters, does it have anyone who's solidly, specifically genderqueer while specifically not being trans? Maybe Choir Boy by Charlie Ander. So I love this book for that. I love how being intersex and genderqueer, in this book, has no bearing on a person's humanity. In many ways this portrayal is deeply humane: being genderqueer and intersex is no obstacle to being loved -- by a parent, by a lover -- and no obstacle to regular daily things like quarreling with a lover like anyone else does. Forced medical treatments are unequivocally immoral and inexcusable (and possibly triggery). I love that when this character goes in a bad direction, it is unquestionably because of being treated badly over and over and over, and unquestionably *not* caused by hir being intersex and genderqueer in the first place.

And yet. And yet. I don't love that the intersex genderqueer person turns out to be causing harm -- it's not their fault, but they need to be stopped. I'm uncomfortable with that, not because the mistreatment zie suffered could never have had that result (I believe it as an individual story) but just because here zie is, an intersex genderqueer person so rare in YA lit, and harm to others comes at hir hands. Yes we can trace the harm back to what made hir this way, and yes it's explicitly NOT BECAUSE of intersex NOR BECAUSE of genderqueerness. I'm deeply glad about that. But still, there zie is, causing harm. Needing to be stopped. A bad guy.

My opinion of hir pronouns matches that. Badly disrespectful pronouns are used through the majority of the book. I sort of understand why they're used, in the sense that it's connected to a too-spoilery-to-say aspect of the book's fantasy element. But they're also used in a way that connectes to real-life anti-intersex/anti-genderqueer bigotry. It's stunning relief when, near the book's end, respectful pronouns pop up after I'd given up hope for them. Yet still, it burns to read the bad pronouning over and over, it burns the wrong pronoun into a reader's mind (and it could be triggery).

People always ask me if I find K.L. Going's Fat Kid Rules the World to be fat positive. While I like some aspects of it -- there's no weight loss over the arc, and weight loss is not required for emotional growth -- I can't get over how often the fat character "waddles" or something. I feel like his body is a fat object and we're reminded over and over and over how fat he is, that he can never just walk but must constantly waddle. For that reason, the book pushes my buttons, and I can't personally stamp it fat positive. The pronoun situation in Above feels that way to me. The horrible bigoted pronoun happens too many times, and is not adequately rescinded, not even at the end.

I'll be thinking about this book for a long time. You should read it and tell me what you think. It's got phenomenally beautiful inverted prose, not showy, ever meaningful. And aside from certain exceptions, it has a profound kindness and humanity at its heart, in ways I find unusual and amazing.
Hollygrrlpup on July 9th, 2012 02:04 am (UTC)
looking forward to returning to your post after I read the book!
Rebecca Rabinowitz: Hotter Than a Hot Dogdiceytillerman on July 9th, 2012 02:08 am (UTC)
I look forward to that too!
Holly: rosegrrlpup on October 25th, 2012 05:53 am (UTC)
I finished Above and finally got to read your comments!

Spoilers below.

I fought the prose all the way through, though I tried seeing it as a storyteller trying to fit an oral story into writing. That could account for all the hyphenates (smooth-graveled, light-blind, dark-vision, bloody-edged, smoke-mouthed, thick-paper, shadow-things-- all in ONE two-page spread), which are vaguely Homeric. And the repetition: (I run light-blind. I run hands out in front of me...Everything's burning. Everything's burning bright...I stomp them. I stomp 'til they break...I'd stop, I'd stop to hold her-- all those and more on that same two-page spread). I don't think it accounts for all the times three words are strung together (verbs, usually) like none of them is quite right. The overall effect, for me, was a stuttering, almost choked feeling that made it hard to see what was going on. I've had similar troubles with Robin McKinley recently. I like my prose more transparent, I guess.

Matthew mostly seemed to be in love with Ariel because she's pretty and blonde and vulnerable, and did I mention blonde? :D I think the cover was a bad idea: I skimmed Goodreads reviews and there were a lot of people who assumed for pages that the narrator was the girl on the cover, and were confused and mad when they found they were wrong. Maybe it gained some sales with a cool-looking cover, but I bet it lost some in word-of-mouth and the reduced number of boys who would pick up a book that apparently has a fairy on the cover.

I did like the portrait of Ariel's mental illness and how it affected her relationship with Matthew, especially before it was all spelled out in the files. I liked how clear it was that what looked to most people like sulky and infuriating behavior had everything to do with trauma, and I also liked that she was right about some stuff, like not sucking up to Atticus. And I liked how it gradually became evident that Matthew's understanding and methods of tiptoeing around her were not going to suffice for a sustainable relationship.

The connection between Dr. Marybeth's First Nations background and her work with Safe seemed...shallow. Like, I could imagine the author going, "hey, Safe would be kind of like the reservation!" and getting all excited, but the development didn't go deeper. It didn't feel real.

I'm dissatisfied with there still being one decider who gives Sanctuary, at the end. I would have liked to see more change in the social structure of Safe than that. (I'm also dissatisfied that no one could think of a better plan than killing Corner, but I feel like that dissatisfaction is part of the story and intentional.)

The pronoun shift was very powerful. I wish it was sustained and repeated by someone besides Matthew during the remainder of the book, but I don't think it is. Matthew keeps the pronouns for the paragraphs immediately following Corner's death, and then there are no pronouns for Corner.

I didn't love this book like you did, but I was kind of amazed how much is going on in it, and what a thoughtful book it is.
Rebecca Rabinowitz: Bea and Mr. Jonesdiceytillerman on October 25th, 2012 06:29 am (UTC)
I'm excited that you read it no matter how much or what you liked or didn't!

I happened to love the prose style, but you're not alone in finding it difficult.

I share your on why Matthew loves Ariel -- the (non)reasons. It's like he sees her once, is smitten, and that is that, and that is supposed to equal love. I wanted more of a sense of her than what she looks like and what her mental illness is like.

I felt that the portrayal of Ariel's mental illness was one of the better ones I've seen in YA fantasy. Though at the end, given the core issue of consent running through everything, I wanted an EXPLICIT textual bit of Ariel making that decision. So it would be crystal clear she's choosing rather than aquiescing.

I wanted more about Dr Marybeth's background.

The cover. O whitewashing. Matthew is the MAIN character and should be on the cover. It was done to get the book into more hands, but the more book teams in the world decide that a main character of color should be overridden on the cover by a white character, the more the cycle continues. What about the readers they might have gained -- people who *want* to see a COC on the cover?

Angel's pronoun shift (I've taken to calling hir Angel because I think sie didn't like "Corner," IIRC) whomped me in the soul in the best way. And then it broken my my heart again when the text went back to "it."

...It now occurs to me that this note might be only repeating things I said in the orig post, which TBH I did not reread when reading your comment tonight. Mea culpa.

Still not found a single other intersex character in children's lit.
Kitty Ryan: flowerskitty_ryan on July 27th, 2012 03:44 pm (UTC)

This is my fledgling review tumblr that I've set up as part of my library masters, and since Above has been pretty much on a loop in my head since I first read the thing, I tried to write about it there. Not sure how successful I was.
Rebecca Rabinowitz: House You Pass On the Waydiceytillerman on July 27th, 2012 06:31 pm (UTC)
That link leads to a log-in page, but I'd like to read what you wrote.
Kitty Ryan: flowerskitty_ryan on July 27th, 2012 06:59 pm (UTC)
Ack! Sorry. Tumblr is still a mysterious beast to me. I've reblogged on LJ, here