A Rant on Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird

A Rant on Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird May 29, 2019

Spoilers ahoy for the novel under discussion. But wow, does this ever need to be discussed, because it is such a terrible take on trauma and gender.

Photo from Unsplash by King Lip. In public domain.

I’ll start with a spoiler-free summary, in case anyone’s thinking of reading the book and wants to know if it’s for you. I like the summary at Raging Biblioholism:

Boy Novak escapes her brutal father in post-WWII New York and heads north, to the Massachusetts countryside. There, in a small town some way out of Boston, she begins a new life and falls in a kind of love with widower Arturo Whitman and his daughter Snow. But a surprise revelation upon the birth of Arturo & Boy’s daughter changes everything she thought she knew about the town, about her husband, and about herself…

As a folklorist I’ll add that it’s a loose “Snow White” retelling with other fairy-tale references woven into the text at stylistic and structural levels. I caught a whiff of “Bluebeard” (a husband with secrets around his former dead wife), a lot of “Cinderella” references in the wicked stepmother stuff, many frame tales in the letter exchanges, and so on. The characters were often sparse in terms of description and motivation, which is very in keeping with fairy tale style. This Medium post by Black Hole Books goes into a few more of the fairy-tale intertexts, and how the description both fits and doesn’t fit.

So, I enjoy the writing for the most part. And I enjoyed ruminations on women’s independence, how abortion was subtly woven in as an issue, and so on. I loved lines like this one:

“If you wish to be truly free, you must love no one. But of course if you take that path you may also fin that in the end you’re unloved.”

But…

(and here’s where explicit spoilers come in)

Having Boy’s abusive father Frank turn out to be Boy’s biological egg donor, a brilliant woman named Frances who was raped and then suffered a psychotic break that led to her gender transition, is FUCKING TERRIBLE.

Oh my gods where do I even begin???

First, trauma does not cause people to be transgender. Surprise! Yes, trauma can do a lot of things to people. I talk a bit about being trauma-informed here, but basically, it helps to know a bit about how trauma works, and that trauma is not always sexual in nature, when we encounter it in literature and want to critique it. Not all trauma causes PTSD, either. I’m not surprised to hear that the violent rape Frances endured in the novel was traumatizing… but to link the trauma to this character transitioning is totally inaccurate and perpetuates damaging stereotypes about trans people being damaged, traumatized, mentally ill, etc.

Second, trauma does not cause people to become abusive. It can be the case that traumatized people stay in relationships where they are being abused for a variety of reasons, some of them physiological in nature (especially in cases of developmental trauma, where the brain is still growing and hence things that are unsafe get coded as “normal”). And obviously, sometimes people who have experienced trauma becomes abusers; I think there’s research out there on this topic but I’m drawing a blank right now on where to find it (I’m jetlagged, don’t judge me). But to so clearly link the two, as Oyeyemi does, is super problematic, especially in a culture where trauma continues to be misunderstood and not taken seriously.

Third, people with mental illnesses and trans people are more likely to experience abuse than to commit abuse. This comes up every time there’s a gun control debate and people start blaming those with mental illnesses – because, nope, people with mental health issues are ten times more likely than the general population to experience violence (citation here). As noted above, linking a trauma history with becoming abusive is super problematic, and it’s even more so when we throw a different gender identity into the mix. Right now, mainstream representations of trans people are so limited and stereotyped that any representation risks being seen as The Representation, which is a problem for many marginalized groups wherein an individual becomes symbolic of the entire (often quite diverse) group. So if your only representation of a trans character is one who’s mentally ill, traumatized, and abusive, then screw you, you are NOT helping.

In the Raging Biblioholism post linked above, the author attempts to side-step the serious damage done by this depiction:

Because I don’t think, at least based on my understanding of the book, that Frank/Frances is meant to be considered a trans character in the strictest sense – but, rather, a person placed under a spell.

I’m sorry, but no. We don’t get the luxury of turning a marginalized character’s identity into a magic spell or a metaphor, not when we’re clearly supposed to read other characters as representing themselves in a more literal, realistic sense. I make the same point about disability in The Shape of Water in a forthcoming book chapter; to read disability as a metaphor for powerlessness is bullshit, in a culture where representation of disabled folks as themselves, as real people, is still lagging terribly.

I like a lot of the points that Melinda Guerra makes in her review of the book, some of which I quote here:

Even in the most charitable reading, one which would suggest Oyeyemi wants to extend her exploration of passing to make gender too a thing in which a character has “passed,” the disregard for the character’s declared, preferred gender is astonishing, not to mention such an explanation would still reinforce the harmful myths the trans community faces.

Adding to all of this, Boy suddenly has compassion for her abuser, a matter about which no one seems concerned, and in these pages Frank’s identity as a person who repeatedly abused Boy is suddenly gone, eclipsed by his new narrative role as a problem for Boy to travel back to and solve. Adult survivors of childhood abuse can face a variety of feelings about their abuse and toward their abusers, and to feel a pull toward reconciliation and salvation could fit within the realm of possibilities. But for Oyeyemi to send the survivor on a trip back toward her abuser, armed with a belief she can “free” her mother from Frank (which, again, is completely belittling of trans experiences) is unsafe for Boy: she is walking into a situation which is not only very possibly physically unsafe, but emotionally unsafe as well–Boy has done little to no dealing with the abuse she suffered, and is exposed and vulnerable as she returns.

Ultimately, Oyeyemi handled the revelation at the heart of Boy’s family dysfunction so poorly, I’m surprised that no editor or publisher was like “ummm…?!” It was hastily tacked on the at the very end of the book, too, making it narratively unsatisfying for me. And this is a secondary complaint, but I disliked the framing of trans-ness as a magic spell in the same way that I disliked the references to mirrors being potentially kinda magical in the book; this was yet another instance of a mostly-mainstream author coming to play in the speculative fiction sandbox by borrowing some of our tropes, but then not playing nice with our toys. One could argue for a more ambiguous, slipstream, magical realism reading of the novel’s use of fantasy motifs, but I feel like the author let readers down by giving us some intriguing clues about the role of fantasy in the novel, and then utterly ignoring them for the rest of the book.

So while the book was in some ways nicely written and in some ways a pleasant travel read, the author handled gender and trauma in a way that left me utterly unable to recommend the book. I will certainly never teach it, because I wouldn’t want to perpetuate these horrible stereotypes and assumptions, nor would I want to potentially make my classroom unsafe for trans, non-binary, or gender non-conforming students (I’ve taught materials with sexual violence, rape, and trauma before, so those elements aren’t the problem here – it’s the utterly untroubled manner in which the author makes the links discussed above).

If you decide to read this book (even after all the spoilers here), do what I did and get a copy from your library, so as not to financially support the folks who think all this stuff is okay. Ugh. For a palate cleanser, I’m reading N.K. Jemisin, by the way, who handles issues of trauma, gender, and speculative fiction a billion times better.

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