Critical positions toward this book that I take issue with:
1. A part-white/part-anything else protagonist is a literary device to allow white readersCritical positions toward this book that I take issue with:
1. A part-white/part-anything else protagonist is a literary device to allow white readers permission to identify with the main character, thus garnering mainstream appeal. This attitude debases the validity of a multiracial identity. It is especially insulting when the author himself holds this identity. If, for some reason, some white readers are more willing to identify, ok, but I'm suspect that all readers lack the capacity to read/identify outside their racial demographic. Why don't we question if Mexican-American readers will identify more easily? Are we assuming there is no such thing as a Mexican-American reader? Or if there are, they'll only read books about Mexican-Americans? Does it appear that the main concern of this argument is for white kids to read "multi-cultural" books, while Mexican-American kids should read Mexican-American books? White kids should be exposed to experiences lived outside of white privilege, while Mexican-American kids should have the advantage of recognizing themselves in literature? While I tend to agree with that particular sentiment to some degree, I also recognize that this is in contrast to my belief that readers are not incapable of identifying outside of race boundaries, and that doing so can be transformative. I've tied myself up in a knot; what do you think?
2. Rondell is a demoralizing stereotype. From time to time I find myself in conversations with people who want to discuss the problems they see with the popular Netflix series Orange is the New Black. One frequent complaint is that, though they are happy to see black actors taking roles in a successful tv series, they are angry that, once again, these roles available to black people are as criminals and prisoners, prostitutes, murderers, and drug addicts. I get that. But it seems unfair to make that accusation when the subject of a tv show is a prison. For all of its faults in characterizing women's prison as some kind of sorority or summer camp with titillating lesbian sex and interpersonal drama (not to mention a white protagonist that introduces us -- a primarily white audience -- to this exotic environment (see above)), I'd have far more criticisms if all of the actors were white. The reality is there are far too many black people in American prisons, and, in fact, OITNB should probably have MORE black actors in it.
Rondell is black, Miguel is multiracial Mexican/white. They share a harrowing experience and become friends over the course of their journey. They don't tell each other their backstory. Rather, we learn Rondell's backstory as Miguel reads his juvi file he has stolen from the group home. We learn Miguel's backstory at the same time Rondell learns it, at the end of the narrative, after they are friends. Rondell is described throughout the book as slow, illiterate, violent. One reviewer describes his characterization this way: "...who literally embodies almost every single negative stereotype associated with African Americans in our culture. Rondell is described as hulking, slow-witted, illiterate, sentimental, superstitious and prone to inexplicable bursts of violence. Oh but wait -- he does have some good qualities -- he is an AMAZING basketball player! And he is incredibly trusting and loyal." These descriptors of Rondell are all accurate. He is all of these things.
But then, as readers, we are privy to learning his backstory as Miguel reads his file. Rondell was born significantly premature, the child of a crack-addicted mom. He never knew his father. He was quickly tracked to special ed in school. He lived in multiple foster homes until he committed his first crime, and then lived the rest of his childhood in the juvenile system. He had poor schooling, poor family support, poor modeling. He was raised mostly by institutions. Sadly, tragically, this is the story of thousands of children. Many of them are black. Does this mean Rondell is a stereotype? Or does this mean he is the product of a prison industrial complex that replicates his story a million-fold? In no place does de la Pena ever characterize all black characters as slow or illiterate or violent. But it doesn't mean that Rondell can't genuinely be this way, and it doesn't mean its Rondell's fault, or the fault of his race. We can't allow literature to ignore the truth of an individual's experience, nor can we ignore the systemic oppression that impacts some populations more than others. Let's not oversimplify it by calling out the "stereotype" card.
"For most of the men in our group, serving time kindles a singular construct; for them the world is the thing they stand on. But between these shelves"For most of the men in our group, serving time kindles a singular construct; for them the world is the thing they stand on. But between these shelves, amongst living books, the shape of your world can shift a thousand times, once for each title, or be changed forever in a single page. In its own way, the prison library is more dangerous than the big yard" (p. 44). Stephen Reid has lived a life stranger than fiction, so his memoir can't help but be interesting, but the real luxury here is his stunning use of language. He seamlessly meshes the jargon of hard time with fresh and artful metaphor, and he gives dignity both to his own experience and those around him without becoming precious or arrogant. If I were to teach a course in prison literature, this would be at the top of my list. If I were to teach a course in memoir writing, this would also be at the top of my list. ...more