Tag Archives: Books

Diversity in Middle-earth

The Lord of The Rings is at once both one of my favorite books and one of my favorite film trilogies. And I don’t really feel the need to write another sentence justifying that.

In any case, I reacted with some consternation upon finding out the Amazon was, having attained the rights to Tolkien’s world, developing a new series set in Middle-earth. On the one hand, we get to return to that world. On the other, it’s hard to top Peter Jackson’s interpretation of that world – how else could Minas Tirith look if not like that?

But then, revisiting Middle-earth means a chance to do some things differently. Like maybe making the world look a little more inclusive.

The Lord of The Rings is very white. That’s not so much a judgement as it is a fact. It doesn’t make it any worse as a work, it’s just how it is. So if we’re telling new stories, let’s ask why not and mix things up and cast some people of color as these characters.

Now, my own knee jerk response is “hey, let’s make all the elves Asian!” because that way you’ll be forced to have an Asian actor on screen anytime an elvish character is in play (and also we’ll get Elrond, half-Asian). But equating fictional races with real life ones becomes real hairy real quick. It runs the risk of feeling like stereotyping and, in the case of my own “make all elves Asian” orientalism and exoticism. Because if they don’t look like the normal, clearly they must be other, so let’s make them not-human. That line of thinking falls back on to the white-as-default mindset, where if you need a normal Everyman you make him a white guy. And let’s not do that.

Because if we’re diversifying Middle-earth, let’s let everyone be everyone. Let’s have black elves and surly Asian dwarves, let’s have Latino hobbits and an Indian shieldmaiden of Rohan.

Because why not.

The Lord of The Rings, and a lot of high fantasy with it, falls into the trap of looking a lot like Western Europe in the Middle Ages. Which, I suppose, is fair, given that Rings is the forerunner  of modern fantasy and that in writing it Tolkien wanted to give England its own myths to rival those of Greece. So of course it’s gonna portray a very (white) England-inspired place.  But that’s done, and it doesn’t excuse modern fantasy works (and the upcoming Amazon show would indeed count as a modern fantasy work) from being very white and European.

Cuz there’s nothing in The Lord of The Rings’ mythology that precludes a more diverse cast. Sure, you’d have to ignore Tolkien’s descriptions of characters as fair and golden-haired, but that’s not a loss. Heck, even adding more women makes sense; we’ve already got characters like Lúthien and Galadriel who’ve kicked ass in their time. Eowyn’s given the title shieldmaiden so she’s probably not the first. There’s no reason not to.

This is a fantasy world with magic rings and enchanted swords (and, y’know, elves and dwarves and stuff), there is literally no good reason why everyone has to be white. The only reason a black elf or Asian dwarf sounds so odd is because it’s outside what we’ve internalized as normal for the genre. We’re simply used to seeing these archetypes as white. And that’s s gotta change.

And where better for that change to happen than in the world of The Lord of The Rings? This is the book that elevated fantasy from children’s books to something taken seriously. It’s what inspired the world of Dungeons & Dragons, it’s the basis for just about every modern work of high fantasy. This is a chance to shift the framework, to redefine how fantasy usually looks.

I love The Lord of The Rings (and The Hobbit and The Silmarillion). Why can’t I, someone who’s reread the books countless times, quoted the movies in the opening to his thesis, and dominated Lord of The Rings bar trivia, get to see people in those stories who look more like me?

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Characters Like Poetry

I talk about characters a lot on this blog. Okay, this blog’s been around long enough that you could say I talk about anything a lot.

But that’s not the point. The point is characters.

Like how in Crazy Rich Asians there aren’t really characters so much as vague ciphers used to progress a not-really-there plot, or how The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet and Mass Effect created such realized characters that you could easily imagine spending time with them.

But let’s unpack this for a second. Angry Planet and Mass Effect rely on characters, the former even more so. The characters are super developed such that being able to spend more time with them serves as a valid reason to keep reading/playing. You like these people, you like hanging out with them.

Crazy Rich Asians takes more of a plot-centered approach (if it had much of a proper plot to speak of). The book seems to want to explore Singapore and the spheres of the super-rich and so creates characters to populate it and push along the exploration of those themes (except the characters are kinda just there and don’t really go much further).

In some ways, it’s a bit like science-fiction: here’s this weird, different culture and place (the super-rich of Singapore), now let’s drop some people into it so we can explore it. Unlike a deft science-fiction writer, though, Kevin Kwan doesn’t give his characters any traits that inherently tie them into the nuances of the strange world. They’re just rich, or an outsider, and things don’t get more complex than that.

Now, characters don’t need to be fully fleshed and rounded to be real – especially in written fiction. A character can be real just from you being able to get a, well, a sense of them. You don’t have to be able to put them into words, like you could with Angry Planet, but you can still know them.

I currently have a small personal initiative to read more fiction by people who aren’t white guys, particularly science-fiction. One book recommended to me was Stories Of Your Life, a short story collection by Ted Chiang. The titular-ish story (“Story Of Your Life”) was adapted into Arrival, so naturally my interest was piqued – in no small part because Ted Chiang is an Asian-American science fiction writer.

So, I’m halfway through Stories Of Your Life and, ugh, it is so frustratingly well written. One thing I’m surprised to really like is how Chiang handles characters. They aren’t these fully alive people you could write a profile on like in Becky Chambers’ Angry Planet or many of Timothy Zahn’s characters in Pawn’s Gambit. But they aren’t these shapeless ciphers either. Rather, we get such a strong sense of them by how they interact with each other and the world around them that they feel real, fleshed.

Consider “Division By Zero,” a short story that frames a relationship against a mathematical proof. The plot itself is about Renee discovering an impossible theorem, one ignites an obsession that in turn pushes her husband away. Again, the characters are somewhat vague and we only know them in their relation to the plot, but Chiang positions us, the reader, so firmly within their headspace that we know how they feel, how they think — which then becomes doubly important in the subsequent piece, “Story Of Your Life.” This creates an intensely intimate space, the sort that, like a good poem, sweeps you away such that you don’t need to spend too much time understanding them. And given Chiang’s tendency for rooting his stories brilliantly complex concepts, the evocative characters let your brain focus on following the plot. Thus rather than reading like character sheets from an RPG, Chiang’s characters read like poetry.

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Trusting The Story

I was initially hesitant to watch Dunkirk, given that it seemed like Christopher Nolan being as Nolan-y as possible. Which, after The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, wasn’t terribly enticing. The Dark Knight Rises was long on ideas and short on smooth implementation. Interstellar too had big ideas but lacked the characterization they needed to land. Dunkirk seemed like it could be more of the same: Nolan being self-indulgent to the point of breaking. All concepts, no substance.

To my delightful surprise, Dunkirk was actually quite excellent. It grounds Nolan’s concepts in a straightforward narrative that allows his strengths as a director to really shine. Even if you don’t really know what’s going on in the beginning, so long as you’re willing to trust him and his movie, things make sense.

But that’s the big If. If you spend the first half-hour of Dunkirk trying to figure out what’s going on, you’re going to have a rough go at it. What’s important is what Nolan tells you: that guy running through the street is English, wants some water, and wants to get across the channel. There’s also a fighter pilot in a dogfight and a civilian volunteering to sail the channel on a rescue mission. You don’t really need to know much more than that, and none of the characters get developed much further. But it’s not important. Over the course of Dunkirk, Nolan crafts a narrative around a particular moment that borders on impressionistic. Dunkirk asks that you watch it on its level, to trust that Nolan knows what he’s doing. Doing so lets you get swept away in the story of the Dunkirk Evacuation, with the movie’s interlocking time periods making themselves clear over time. Don’t overthink it.

There’s an amount of trust that the audience has to put in when watching a movie (or really, consuming any story), namely that if we get invested in this story, it will have been worth it. Something like Dunkirk may seem obtuse at the onset, but you’re trusting Nolan to make sense of it.

Which brings me to Star Wars. The start of A New Hope has you following a couple of droids walking around a desert for a solid chunk of time. You know the droids’ names, sure, and you know there are good guys and bad guys in space from the very first few minutes, but that’s really about it. For all intents and purposes, this seems like it’s going to be a terribly dull movie about actors in metal suits walking in a desert.

But.

If you trust that George Lucas knows what he’s doing, you end up meeting Luke Skywalker and get sucked into an epic battle between good and bad. Y’know, Star Wars. But to get there you have to trust that these droids in the desert have a purpose and aren’t just there for their own sake.

Of course, sometimes that trust can be broken. Let’s talk about Crazy Rich Asians, which has become my go-to now for bad narrative. Throughout the first couple hundred pages we’re led along to a lot of places without a lot of plot, but there’s the trust that it’ll be worthwhile. Maybe we’ll meet some interesting characters, maybe we’re in for some exciting drama. We’re waiting for it, whatever it may be. Thus it kinda sucks when Kevin Kwan’s novel suddenly culminates in an awkward fizzle reliant on characters we don’t really know and a relationship we’re not really sold on. All that trust has been wasted. And I’m left gaping in disappointment at this book.

One of the best things about stories is getting sucked into them, and letting them work their magic. That takes an amount of trust that ought to be rewarded. Just gotta let go. In stories like Dunkirk, it pays off.

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Hanging Out

Upon having it recommended to me independently by two friends, I’ve finally started reading The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. And the book’s delightful; it’s a space opera about people on a ship written by a writer who’s clearly seen the same movies, read the same books, and played the same video games as me. It’s one of those books I can’t stop reading but don’t want to end.

It’s a very episodic book; while there is a definite narrative throughline, thus far (I’m about halfway through) it’s been secondary to the misadventures the crew have been having along the way. And I’m totally fine with that.

Which is strange, because last week I harangued Crazy Rich Asians for spending too much time lollygagging and not enough time plotting. Asians is characterized by episodic misadventures until a whole lot of plot shows up in the final hundred-odd pages, but I found it frustrating.

And I think there’s a clear reason why.

And it’s not the spaceship thing.

It’s characters.

Like I said last week, the folks in Crazy Rich Asians are more cipher than characters, bodies with a trait or two slapped on them to say what’s needed for the scene. They’ve no inner life. The characters in Long Way, conversely, are sharply defined with a rich sense of history to them. They feel distinct, different; like you could hold a real conversation with them. And so, when placed in an episodic narrative, it’s fun to see them interact with each other, to watch them hang out.

It’s a benefit of long-form storytelling. The deft writing in The Avengers characterizes the heroes well enough that you wish there was more time to see them hanging out together. A book has plenty of space for that to happen.

As do video games. Arguably one of the strongest aspects of the original Mass Effect trilogy is how well Shepard and (most of) his/her crew is sketched out. You have someone like Mordin, a former black-ops scientist/commando turned doctor who also sings showtunes. Which is interesting enough, but it’s when he’s mixed in with Shepard that things get really good. Interacting with Mordin on his loyalty mission in 2 has you grappling with the morality of the Genophage (a virus that affects the reproduction rate of a martial species). Was it a necessary measure? Do the krogan deserve a second chance? Good characters enhance each other; iron sharpens iron and all that. Captain America and Iron Man each push each other on and force the other to be more stubborn. It’s around Inara that Malcolm Reynolds will let the holes in his armor show. Barney and Robin drink scotch and smoke cigars.

The final DLC for Mass Effect 3, Citadel, is essentially all hanging out with your crew. You get small side quests with each one and then throw a big party with these characters you’ve spent tens of hours over multiple games getting to know. It’s great fun and a fond farewell. It wouldn’t work near as well had these characters not been so well done. If the games didn’t give you the time to get to know them or made these characters worth knowing, it’d just be a drag of cutscenes while you waited to get back to shooting stuff.

I think that’s a hallmark of good characters; you feel like you know them. The characters of a tv show start to feel like your friends. When I talk about my crew in Mass Effect, they’re my crew, who I fought the Collectors and Reapers with. And with characters like that, I don’t mind watching them going on misadventures.

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Why Am I Reading This?

There aren’t a lot of books that take place in Singapore. Wikipedia’s category page for Novels Set in Singapore lists only twenty-six. Now, there are books missing from that list (I added one to the list while writing this), but let’s take this as a sample group. A cursory glance shows that many of these books are not set in contemporary Singapore, but rather around the second World War or before the country was established as it is now. None of them are books you’re probably gonna happen upon, and a few are long out of print.

Point is, not a lot of books about modern Singapore.

Which is why, upon finding it on display in a bookstore in the Village, I added Crazy Rich Asians to my reading list. The blurb sounded interesting enough; a Singaporean-living-in-New-York (Nick) brings his ABC girlfriend (Rachel) to Singapore for a friend’s wedding and to meet his parents (who are crazy rich). Should be fun.

Of course, the main reason I picked up the book and read it was because it was a book by a Singaporean about Singapore. I haven’t read a book that would fall into either category since… well, I can’t remember.

And for most of the book, it’s why I kept reading. The prose of Crazy Rich Asians, is passable at its best, perfectly perfunctory and rife with massive chunks of exposition. Most frustrating of all, it is bereft of a voice. It could almost be excused as just lackluster writing, except that we catch glimmers of one in the footnotes used to translate bits of Singlish or explain a reference to a Singaporean institution (but, for some reason, not to excise the paragraphs of stilted exposition that exist in the text). Writer Kevin Kwan does shine through in parts, particular when capturing the idiosyncratic speech pattern of Singaporeans, or small details about the food (and importance thereof) in Singapore. But it is, for the most part, a bit of a dull read.

But I can forgive lackluster prose. Michael A. Stackpole is not the most deft writer, but his X-Wing books are well-plotted and offer a fun, pulpy read with distinct, memorable characters. Crazy Rich Asians, however, has only the barest bones of a plot. Rachel gets a chunk of culture shock when she realizes how rich Nick’s family is, meanwhile Nick’s mother tries to break them up, seeing as Rachel doesn’t come from an established family. There’s also Nick’s cousin who suspects her husband of infidelity. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these plots, except that they’re all stretched out over the book’s five hundred-odd pages, with little development for whole swaths of the book and interspersed with small subplots that offer little insight into characters or the bigger, overacting plots. It’s like an open-world video game with too many sidequests in book form. The big issue, besides the whole pacing thing, is that so much of the conflict is contrived. Which, again, wouldn’t be an issue were the characters interesting; but Nick, Rachel, et al. feel more like ciphers than characters, hollow shells who act and react however best to move the plot along or, more often add to The Drama. When the book finally resolves with the most overdone trope ever, it’s more an eventuality than a culmination. Characters don’t make choices, character’s don’t have inner conflict, characters don’t have character.

So why the hell did I keep reading? Besides, y’know, my aversion to complaining and criticizing material I don’t watch/read/play. Simple answer: Singapore. I’ve spent around half my life in that country at various points and have a complex relationship with the place. There’s a thrill to seeing it in fiction and recognizing places and foods. I suppose for people without a connection to the country would find the book intriguing for the, well, exoticness of Singapore and it’s super-rich elite. It leaves a weird feeling in my gut. To me, Singapore isn’t exotic; it’s pretty normal, so exoticizing someplace like Singapore is odd in and of itself, and downright bizarre when the book’s appeal seems to hang on that hook. We get it, Singapore is a unique place, but you’ve gotta do something with it. Tolkien didn’t just create an encyclopedia of Middle-Earth, he sets epic stories in it to flesh it out. Kwan’s characters never become more interesting than Singapore, and a location, no matter how exotic, shouldn’t be what drives a story.

There are two more books in this series, and I’m mildly curious about whether they improve. But as it stands, Crazy Rich Asians is an immensely frustrating book. I want to see Singapore and all its idiosyncrasies in fiction, I just want to see it done well. I guess I kept reading with the hopes that hey, it’d finish well, but so much for that.

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Normalizing The Different

It’s easy to dislike folks you don’t know. They’re different. They look weird. You have no horse in their race. They’re those people. The Unknowable Other.

But it’s hard to keep up this mindset, that of the Them, the Other, after you’ve met said other. When you take the time to recognize them as a person, put a face to that Other, it’s much harder to not like them. Suddenly, they become an Us, rather than Them.

Meeting people, however, is hard. Especially people outside our relatively well-defined social spheres. Small towns are small, countries have borders, there’s a limit to the people you see every day.

Enter literature. Books. Movies. Video games. Comics. Anything that tells a story.

Stories are about people of some sort. And there’s no reason they have to be about someone like you.

Take Ms. Marvel. It’s a superhero comic about Kamala Khan, a first generation Pakistani-American immigrant who fights bad guys. Amidst all the crime stopping, we get a peek into Kamala’s home life. She’s balancing high school, friends, family, and faith. She struggled with heartbreak, talks to her imam for advice, and breaks curfew. Her story is new, but at the same time familiar.

But then, when we see stories about her move to the US; and in her first day at school and get a snapshot of her first day of school; I see my own experiences as someone who moved to the US is given weight, acknowledged, and affirmed. It’s normal to be different, the book says. I’m not the only oddball, my weirdness is shared. It’s the story of someone moving to the US, maybe it’s your grandparents, maybe it’s you, maybe you were just the weird kid in high school. It may not have been your experience directly, but it’s translatable.

We live in a world of narratives, we interpret the world as a story. Normal is a narrative. Weird is a narrative. Us and Them is a narrative. When we have one narrative dominating – the ‘all-American hero’, who is coincidentally typically white, male, and straight is the default and the most normal – anything that deviates is by default outside of the norm. Kamala is Other. I, a biracial Asian-American immigrant am Other.

That is a narrative of import to me, of course. Which is not to discount stories about other people. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing makes the African Diaspora immediately personal. It’s easy to learn about it from a textbook and think about it in dictionary terms, but when given a face, it becomes more than that. The concept, one that I have the privilege to not have to think about, becomes unavoidable as I read about people – persons with names – who went through this. I hear stories about the people who went through it, who have made their lives in the aftermath.

And so the narrative can change; now Those People who I only knew about in the abstract become individuals with their own stories; recognizably human

Stories are important. Stories let us explore other people’s experiences. Stories let us see each other as we see ourselves. Stories make the foreign recognizable. Stories take Them, and make them Us.

It’s hard to dislike people once you’ve met them, once you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Good stories let us in to other people’s lives. Ms. Marvel offers a narrative where the Pakistani-American girl is just like everyone else, Homegoing gives a voice to people you hear about. Alongside all this, they lend weight to experiences, say that, hey, your experiences are valid. Your life is worthwhile.

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Book Listening

I’ve been a huge Trevor Noah fan since he showed up on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and started ragging on misconceptions of contemporary Africa by comparing it to the rural US. I found his stand-up special, African American, on Netflix and was delighted to hear him cracking jokes about growing up mixed. Though mine was in no way identical, there was enough familiarity there to really connect. Also, he’s funny. So I was one of the five people who was really keen on him taking over The Daily Show and I also got a chance to see him live last fall in New York when he taped his new special.

Point is, I’m a big fan of Trevor Noah. So when his book, Born A Crime, was available for free on Audible, I got audible and the free book. And by book I mean audio book. A book you listen to. Not read.

As was made plenty clear last week, I have Many Feelings about the Physicality of Books. I got a hold of the audio book because it was ~free~ with the intention of probably intentionally buying the physical version to actually read.

Because who has time to listen to a book?

When I read I like having my full attention on said reading. If I’m listening to music it’s gonna be instrumental (Current favorite: The Transistor soundtrack). I’m the sort who gets distracted easily and can end up reading a page and a half before realizing I was thinking about what to cook for dinner. So listening seems counterintuitive. A little too easy to get distracted.

That said, I did end up listening to a couple hours of Born A Crime while on a long car ride. It’s a great listen, and as a perk it’s narrated by Noah himself and so rife with accents and proper pronunciation of the Xhosa names. It’s a charming listen, and I don’t really feel like I’m missing out on anything I would from reading.

Except for the whole bookiness thing.

Look, I like turning pages. I like glancing back. But one thing that Audible does that I really like is that I can bookmark chunks and write notes down. Well, type notes up. So I can take the recording back to the place where he discusses how his grandmother saw him as being white growing up or how he used language as a kid to jump between social spheres at school. It’s neat, to be sure.

That said, one thing that’s nice-but-daunting is that it clearly says how long each chapter will take you. I’m gearing up to start the next one, but it’s gonna take twenty-two minutes and I don’t know that I have twenty-two minutes. Sure, I could break it up; listen to ten minutes now and twelve later, but it feels like I’m interrupting his train of thought. More so than a book ‘cuz I can’t skim the past couple of pages. I can rewind back a minute or so, but I can’t skim. But I can now consume a book while doing something else, like playing video games. Which is how I usually watch The Daily Show or stand-up anyway. So not all bad – but Born A Crime is a pretty meaty book in some parts, so, again, full attention is better. But hard. Because I’m sitting around doing nothing.

Now, Born A Crime is a bit of an oddity, in that it’s read by Trevor Noah, a person known for talking. Where most audio books are read by someone who’s not the writer, with this we get to actually hear it ‘as intended.’ So does that make it truer to its ideal than the written version? I’m not sure. I lean towards the understanding that if something is presented one way, it is intended to be seen that way. Movie scripts are great and all, but they’re supposed to be movies. A stand-up special doesn’t work as well on the page, for obvious reasons. So does a work that’s meant to be read work as spoken word? Especially if it’s spoken by the dude who wrote it?

I don’t know. I do know that I’m enjoying the book, but I wonder if I’d enjoy it more read. I do know that I will be picking up a physical copy eventually to reread and annotate. Will I listen to another book down the line? Hard to say, ‘cuz half the reason I like reading is, well, the reading part.

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