Monday, September 30, 2019

Reviewing While White: Exile from Eden

Andrew Smith’s Exile from Eden, the sequel to his award-winning Grasshopper Jungle, had its book birthday last week (September 24, 2019). There is… a lot to unpack with this book, and today I’m going to highlight some of the racism and sexism that abounds in Smith’s latest YA novel. Quotes and page numbers are from the advanced readers copy. Spoilers ahead, if you care about that sort of thing.

Before we dig in, some background: At the end of Grasshopper Jungle, protagonist Austin, his best friend/boyfriend Robby, Austin’s girlfriend Shann, and several of their parents move in to a massive underground bunker (aka "Eden"). There, they hope they will be safe from the ginormous, horny praying mantises (also sometimes called Unstoppable Soldiers) that have taken over Iowa and also possibly the USA. Austin is unethically nonmonogamous (he is dating Shann while also dating Robby, which Shann knows about but does not consent to) and at the end of Grasshopper Jungle has sex in the bunker with Shann. Exile from Eden is set sixteen years after the end of Grasshopper Jungle and is narrated by their son, Arek.

One of the few characters we meet from beyond “Eden” is a twelve-year-old boy. Described as “brown-skinned” with “wild dreadlocks,” his name is Breakfast (edible brown child, much?). He is frequently described, by himself and the narration, as “completely wild” and he is obsessed with the idea of having money. “‘You have to be wild to survive,’ he told Olive. ‘Just look at me, wouldja? There’s no denying I’m wild. Who’s got money? Me. I’ve got money. Wild’” [16].

Breakfast (again, the only brown character) spends most of his time naked because he “hates wearing clothes”, and he is constantly “scratching his balls,” spitting, and urinating. He is described as animalistic: “Roaring incoherently like an animal, which was basically what Breakfast was anyway” [107-108]. Also, wait for it: his only companion turns out to be a CHIMPANZEE who doesn’t talk (because, ahem, she’s a CHIMPANZEE) and whom he GENUINELY BELIEVES IS JUST A VERY HAIRY GIRL WHO NEVER TALKS BECAUSE SHE JUST AGREES WITH WHATEVER HE HAS TO SAY. Holy cow. Just let that sink in.

The three main human women in Exile from Eden fall neatly into the maiden/mother/crone series of archetypes, existing with few hints at any interior life beyond their relationships to Arek.

Arek’s love interest is his only peer, Amelie Sing Brees, a biracial (Chinese and White American) teen girl who is his aunt by partnership (Arek describes his father Austin’s partner Robby as his father as well, and Amelie is Robby’s half-sister). Arek constantly puts her on a pedestal, regularly saying she’s braver than he is, and she simultaneously has no shame about and no knowledge of anything related to Arek’s sexuality. In keeping with the “maiden” trope, which requires sexual purity and vulnerability simultaneously, Amelie is almost sexually assaulted by a rogue ex-soldier (human, not praying mantis). Even this, though, is really about Arek; we learn almost nothing about how Amelie feels and it is a plot point primarily used to further Arek’s emotional development and increase “drama” (*ahem* #menwritingwomen). Arek’s mother Shann is described as an emotional deadweight whose depression is oppressive (“Thirteen was a bad year for me. My mother’s sadness and anger became a stormy ocean inside the hole, drowning me, and I think Robby was only trying to make me happy” [13]) and whose parenting is overly controlling (“‘Why have you never taken me outside like this before?’ I asked. / My father shook his head. ‘Your mother and grandmother would never stand for it.’ / Robby nodded. ‘There will be hell to pay when we get home, Porcupine’” [34-35]). Arek’s grandmother (Shann’s mother) is described as uptight, obsessed with the perpetuation of traditional nuclear familial structures and traditions, and in particular obsessed with circumcising Arek. The symbolism is… rich.

Arek’s primary influence seems to be his father Austin, the misogynistic protagonist of Grasshopper Jungle, and unfortunately the two-dimensionality with which he views and treats women seems to be a patriarchal lineage. Unsurprisingly, Austin constantly perpetuates toxic masculinity by both ignoring the women who make up a *literal* 50% of his community and passing that misogyny onto his son. Austin completely ignores Shann as a co-parent, undermining and belittling her role. Likewise, Arek is vaguely aware that his mother’s emotional distance may have been caused by something (gee, I don’t know, maybe the MASSIVE AMOUNT OF UNACKNOWLEDGED TRAUMA she experienced since the finale of Grasshopper Jungle??), but he has no interest in understanding her better.

In perpetuating these most basic systems of oppression without using his text to push back against them, Smith makes readers complicit in that oppression and further perpetuates the idea that this representation--inaccurate, harmful, and insulting to his readers--is acceptable. This is not a surprise; we all remember the “keep YA kind” debacle of 2015. Nevertheless, it’s frustrating and disappointing that Smith, his editor at Simon & Schuster (David Gale), and his agent (Michael Bourret) have chosen to yet again ignore both the specific critiques Smith has previously received (it’s been almost exactly four and a half years since “I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female” and the street date of Exile) and the important work of scholars like Edi Campbell and Kyla Wazana Tompkins, who highlight the problematic associations of black children with monkeys and brown children as comestible. When you’re been gifted the tools to do better, it is shameful to fail so greatly.

--Kazia Berkley-Cramer


Beverly Slapin said...

Hi, Kazia. Just a not to say that I admire your bravery, not to mention your dogged perseverance, in reading the damn book and crafting an excellent critique. It’s hard to believe that—what with all the important work by scholars Edi Campbell and Kyla Wazana Tompkins and all those who came before—this crap is still being written published, and promoted. I especially appreciate the final line of your review: “When you’ve been gifted the tools to do better, it is shameful to fail so greatly.” You go, girlfriend!

Kazia Berkley-Cramer said...

Wow! Thank you so much, Beverly!