Cora searches for a place outside of racism's insidious grasp
February 21, 2017 10:18 AM   Subscribe

In Strange Horizons, Na'amen Gobert Tilahun reviews Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad and Ben H. Winters's Underground Airlines, two recent novels that integrate speculative fiction and fictional slave narratives. His critique includes an interlude asking (and answering), "How can you tell if a narrative is meant for a white audience?"
posted by mixedmetaphors (15 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Well done. Thanks for posting this. Tilahun is definitely someone I will check for.
posted by janey47 at 11:10 AM on February 21, 2017

Gracias. These happen to be the next two books on my nightstand.
posted by Lyme Drop at 11:55 AM on February 21, 2017

I really liked The Last Policeman (and its sequels to lesser degrees) but as a white person, I can't imagine the amount of hubris involved in writing a slavery narrative told from a black point of view. I hope Winters hears this criticism and learns from it. I know I have.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:16 PM on February 21, 2017 [7 favorites]

I had to read the article kind of carefully because I haven't read Whitehead's book yet and I didn't want to be spoiled. (And FYI, there's a big spoiler about Winter's book in the article.)

Not that I feel Winters needs to be given a pass for the valid faults the reviewer points out with Underground Airlines but I went into it knowing the author was a White male and the book is science fiction. I somewhat adjusted my expectations accordingly. Frankly, I would've been surprised to find him writing expertly on Black women's hair, or with much context or insight into Black women at all. And while the main character is Black--hence the basic irony of his being a slave tracker--the story seem to me to be more about "oh, no, will he get caught out now?" than a real examination of his inner conflict as a Black man compelled to do the White Man's bidding in a world controlled by White Men.

I did appreciate the comment Tilahun made about the recent film folly, Birth of a Nation. Nate Parker probably still doesn't get it.

As a huge fan of Whitehead's Zone One, I'm probably going to have higher hopes for The Underground Railroad than I did for Underground Airlines.
posted by fuse theorem at 12:32 PM on February 21, 2017

Thanks for this! I read Railroad and had Airline on my list, but now I'll give that a pass.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 12:40 PM on February 21, 2017

Full disclosure: I could not get through Underground Railroad, and I have not read Underground Airlines and did not realize until I saw this post that the author was white.

But this review is LIFE. So much of the discussion about whether white people should write characters of color, and their varying levels of success in doing so (previously), centers around "accuracy," as if these are factual issues that white writers can get right or wrong. (And they do get facts wrong, often.) But what tends to bother me about white people writing narratives that don't belong to them is much more squishy, and this review (and that interlude in particular) gets at the heart of it. Who and what are you really writing about? Are you using a character of color, their perspective, to write about whiteness, to look at and admire yourself? Are you thinking you're looking into a window when it's really a mirror? The natural, understandable tendency of white writers to do this without realizing it is amplified intensely by the largely white system of gatekeepers (agents, editors, reviewers) in publishing (and this also tends to reward writers of color who write in a way that is familiar and/or unthreatening to the white gaze, previously).
posted by sunset in snow country at 12:42 PM on February 21, 2017 [29 favorites]

Metafilter: Are you thinking you're looking into a window when it's really a mirror?
posted by lalochezia at 12:48 PM on February 21, 2017 [8 favorites]

I'm a little wary of making this comment, as I am a white person, but I've read both of these books in the past several months. To my reading, the major point of Underground Airlines was that the institutions of that world forced Brother into a situation where he could not have community with his own race or live any sort of authentic life. The emotional distance from the character felt right to me, because he was forced into emotional distance from himself and the world around him by nature of being forced to live as a slave catcher. And while he did automatically categorize skin color via the runaway slave schema established by the US Marshals, I got the impression he wasn't pleased with himself about it. Overall I thought the book walked an interesting line in portraying Brother as not quite consciously hating himself.

That said, The Underground Railroad is by far the superior book. It felt like Winters had an interesting idea for an alternate history setting, but didn't do a very good job in coming up with a plot for that world. Whitehead's book is populated by real characters living in an authentic world; Winters' felt like a thought experiment.

Thanks for posting this article; I've thought a lot about both these books, especially with reading them so closely to one another, and this adds a really important perspective I hadn't considered.
posted by something something at 12:55 PM on February 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

Just started reading Airlines, Railroad is on my list.

I'm about 3 chapters into Airlines, and it's keeping my interest. So far I'm getting a sense of , to quote Chuck D from Welcome To The Terrordome, "Every brother ain't a brother, cuz a color just as well could be undercover" and self-awareness about it from the main character.

I used to frown heavily on the practice of people writing from the perspective of folks who are very different from themselves, but lately I've come to believe that while there are some epically bad examples out there, on the whole, I'd rather have ambitious failures than deal than non-existence.

Thanks for this post -- though I'll likely have to wait until I've finished both books to dive into the article.
posted by lord_wolf at 2:09 PM on February 21, 2017 [4 favorites]

My sci-fi bookclub was considering reading UA, but I convinced them to read UR instead for just these reasons. There are enough competent black authors out there trying to tell these stories that we don't need a white dude to do it for them.

Ever since Chabon's egregious Telegraph Avenue I have steered well clear of this type of appropriation and I am glad to see well thought out criticism that addresses it as well.
posted by OHenryPacey at 2:29 PM on February 21, 2017 [3 favorites]

The author was explaining why they don't like slave fictions - and I kept thinking, "except Kindred, you need to read Kindred!" it doesn't do any of the things they were complaining about.
posted by jb at 4:56 PM on February 21, 2017 [9 favorites]

Father Comes Home from the Wars is also a powerful fictional story about slavery that neither centres white experiences nor ignores women.

Of course, both were written by African American women.
posted by jb at 4:59 PM on February 21, 2017 [7 favorites]

The author was explaining why they don't like slave fictions -

But they did say "generally," and they well might have read it!
posted by listen, lady at 8:51 PM on February 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

I also kept yelling about Kindred in my head. If you haven't read it, please do.
posted by domo at 5:01 AM on February 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

I cannot recall exactly whether I have discussed Butler's works with Na'amen Gobert Tilahun but I feel it's safe to say that if he hasn't read Octavia Butler's Kindred I will eat my hat. (Most of my conversations with him have been at WisCon, the feminist scifi convention -- sign up now to be on panels this year!)

I read Underground Railroad (but not Underground Airlines) and I should seek out more criticism that talks about how Whitehead specifically chooses to use or not use the scifi counterfactuals to illuminate slavery and its effect on everyone and everything around it.

On who a book is for: A few years ago I remember pulling a book off a shelf in a bookstore (Room of One's Own in Madison, Wisconsin, just before a WisCon) because the author's name was South Asian and I always give at least a quick look if the author's name is South Asian. It was fiction and someplace in the first few pages I saw there was a word that wasn't in English, and then a parenthetical or subclause quickly defining it. I thought, "ah, this is for white people," and put it back.
posted by brainwane at 6:07 AM on February 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

« Older The integrity of the game is at steak   |   Sure, Mark 4:9 and Matthew 11:5, but Luke is oddly... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments