The most talked-about, most prize-winning book of poetry in the United States right now is “Citizen: An American Lyric,” by the Jamaican-American writer and performer Claudia Rankine. Published in the midst of the Ferguson protests, Rankine’s prose poems are an attempt to make the reader feel the workings of racism—not only the prejudice and aggression that lead to police killings, but the more insidious discrimination found in educated circles. Her painful examples are often given in the second person. “The wrong words enter your day like a bad egg in your mouth,” she writes, so that not “I” but “you” undergo the alienation of being misrepresented, insulted, or overlooked because of the color of your skin.
In novels, too, much of the acclaimed writing about race right now takes the form of finely observed descriptions of social interactions—novels of multicultural manners, as it were. Zadie Smith’s great subject in books like ‘NW’ is the codes and assumptions held at various rungs on the class ladder, and their effect on friendship and love. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s perceptive and canny “Americanah” a Nigerian academic at Princeton writes a blog on the unwritten laws of race in the United States, while her friends in Lagos try to give shape to an African professional class. To these and other upwardly and internationally mobile writers, realism is an essential way to document experience and explore identities that can’t be taken for granted but must be traced, reiterated, claimed.
But because race is constructed in part at the level of the imaginary, it can also be confronted on its own imaginary terms. Two recent novels from the English-speaking world explore racism in the symbolic language of the fairy tale, a form in which hidden emotions come to light and, sometimes, find magical solutions. Fairy tales reveal the inner life of the family, including the psychic damage that is done to children by parents who suffer from injustice and secrets. Like Rankine’s poetry, fairy tales are good at putting the reader at the center of the disturbance. In a fairy tale it is always you who goes on the journey, who loses the shoe, who undergoes a change of skin.
The tale that’s retold in both books is “Snow White,” and in both a girl’s skin color plays an important role. One is by Helen Oyeyemi, the young, playful British writer who has made a career of finding new meanings in old tales. The other, more surprising version is by Toni Morrison, who has been one of America’s great magic realists but has never gone so deep into the rich world of dreams.
Oyeyemi’s fifth novel, “Boy, Snow, Bird,” is set in a small New England town in the 1950s and ’60s, a sort of fantasy village out of Grimm by way of Hollywood, all soft colors, no sharp edges. A young woman named Boy comes to town, having run away from her cruel father, and marries a widower, Arturo Whitman, who has a beautiful daughter named Snow. Together they have a daughter named Bird who is dark where Snow is fair, revealing that Whitman has been passing for white. It seems impossible for the two girls to be raised together, and one must be sent away. Deft play with magical elements—lost children, stepmothers, wise grandmothers, and, of course, mirrors—make this a book that handles problems of difference, growing up a girl, marriage, and secrets with both keen insight and irrepressible charm.
Mirrors and reflections play a role in Morrison’s new novel, too, but she wouldn’t be Morrison if her tale didn’t involve quite a bit more broken glass. In “God Help the Child,” Morrison takes up her familiar theme of broken parent-child bonds, and especially the “wicked stepmother”: the mother who, trapped in her own situation, has nothing to give her children. She has given us dramatic examples of this in the past, such as the mother in “Beloved” who kills her daughter, and the mother in “A Mercy” who gives her daughter away rather than raise her in slavery. “God Help the Child” begins in fact with the mother’s protest: “It’s not my fault. So you can’t blame me.”
What the mother, Sweetness, has done is given birth to a child as black as tar, “midnight black, Sudanese black.” A woman proud of her light complexion and “good hair,” Sweetness can’t love her dark-skinned, different-colored child, can barely bring herself to touch her. The daughter’s longing for her mother’s love later leads her to accuse an innocent woman of child abuse. Cruelty to children runs through Morrison’s tale, just as it does in real fairy stories: another character, the sensitive, studious Booker, experiences his brother’s death at the hands of a child molester and struggles to recover from his loss.
The dark-skinned child, born Lula Ann Bridewell, becomes a beautiful young woman who works in the fashion business and shortens her name to “Bride.” The inventor of a cosmetics line called “You, Girl,” she sets off her black skin with all-white clothes: we see her “driving a Jaguar in an oyster-white cashmere dress and boots of brushed rabbit fur the color of the moon.” Morrison has fun coming up with fashion-catalog names for white and black, comparing skin to licorice or a chocolate soufflé, while Bride’s clothes are “ivory, oyster, alabaster, paper white, snow, cream, ecru, Champagne, ghost, bone.” Her fashion consultant assures her, “Black sells. It’s the hottest commodity in the civilized world.” But when your skin color is a commodity, you remain confined in your image. This fairy tale character, a California princess the color of “sable and ice,” is just as trapped in the mirror as Snow White.
Bride is in love with Booker, and when he leaves her, strange things start to happen. She has a violent and unforgiving encounter with the woman she once put in jail. She loses her body hair, stops menstruating, and seems to be turning back into a child. She steps into her Jaguar, journeys into a dark forest, is cared for by a family of woodcutters, and puts herself in danger to save the life of a little girl called Rain. She meets a wise woman called Queen who is part spider, part witch in a gingerbread house. And at last she finds Booker, her prince—though in lieu of a kiss scene she brains him with a beer bottle for leaving her. It’s this moment of righteous anger that clears the way for an honest discussion and, for both Booker and Bride, an acceptance of adult responsibility.
Morrison has always been open to magic and the uncanny, but never has she been so willing to fantasize and play as in this parable about choosing not to be defined by past hurts. Perhaps because she’s experimenting, she doesn’t always get the tone right. The combination of detailed, often harsh realism and improbable events can wrong-foot the reader. It’s not always clear when to read “God Help the Child” as social criticism and when to see Bride and Booker, Queen and Rain as purely symbolic figures. What is clear is that Morrison is writing about the problem Claudia Rankine raises in “Citizen,” the problem she herself has been exploring since her first novel, “The Bluest Eye”: the way society holds up a mirror to people of color in which they don’t recognize themselves. Her outrage is as alive as ever, her openness to new genres a surprise and a delight.
Trouw, June 20, 2015. Toni Morrison, God sta het kind bij (De Bezige Bij). Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric. Helen Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird.