reading maupin’s latest: thoughts on race

it’s long past my bedtime and i know i should be sleeping, seeing as i have a long day at work tomorrow followed by a long evening of the dreaded holiday staff party… but i’m on the very last page of michael tolliver lives by armistead maupin (one of the books i picked up secondhand in ottawa @ after stonewall) and as much as i’ve been enjoying it, something hasn’t been sitting quite right and i feel the urgent need to work it out.

so, here’s my figuring.  the characteristics of the people in this novel are described thusly:

  • page 1 – Stranger: close to (michael’s) age, “not bad-looking, in a beat-up, Bruce Willis-y sort of way”
  • page 6 – Barney: forty-eight, muscle daddy, has a “big white marble ass”
  • page 7 – Ben: blond, brown eyes
  • page 8 – Anna: eighty-five, wears a turban, has “snowy hair”
  • page 30 – Brian: sixty-one, cleft chin, white “sandpaper” beard
  • page 32 – Shawna: twenty-two, black hair, dark-red lipstick, wears harlequin glasses
  • page 45 – Jake: ~thirty, short, stocky, grey eyes, bearded
  • page 79 – Bed and Breakfast owners: “a pair of retired Italian queens from Queens”
  • page 80 – Lenore: ~fifty-five, girlish, petite, “careful hair”
  • page 80 – Sumter: seven, delicate, “doe-eyed”
  • page 91 – Irwin: has a comb-over, rugged
  • page 92 – Nursing home receptionist: “a balding Middle Eastern man”
  • page 98 – Alice: “meticulous” blue hair, blue skin tone due to illness
  • page 113 – Patreese: “a solid-looking black bear nearing fifty”
  • page 119 – Pot-smokers outside bar: ~forty-five, highlighted hair, fake tans
  • page 142 – Waitress at Denny’s: “hefty young gum-chewing black woman”

okay, i’m bored of this, and even just above proves my point:  the only characters whom maupin describes in a racialized manner are people of colour.  no one is ever explicitly described as being White, with the possible exception of Barney, whose ass is described in a way that seems to imply he is caucasian (though he might not be).  this is a classic example of the way in which whiteness is considered to be the status quo, the standard, the assumed-state-of-being-unless-otherwise-indicated.  by only using racialized terms to describe the bed and breakfast owners, the nursing home receptionist, patreese, and the waitress at denny’s, maupin has indicated them to be “the other” because it makes them stand in stark contrast to all the characters whose descriptions focus on clothing, hair, and other features that are non-race-dependent  (though, of course, are still indicative and important).

stuff like this makes me cringe.

especially when it’s in a very popular queer novel… and especially when it’s mixed in with some self-conscious attempts at decrying racism.  when seeing the “balding Middle Eastern” nursing home receptionist for the first time, our protagonist responds:

I noticed the  bumper stickers on his file cabinet- PROUD AMERICAN and SUPPORT OUR TROOPS -strategically positioned for the benefit of anxious visitors.  Poor bastard, I thought. Guantanamo Bay must seem awfully close.

is it cuz i’m an educated white canadian, relatively far removed from common mindsets of the united states, that this seems like a pretty weird response to noticing some unknown person working at their job?  here are my other questions:

  1. how does michael tolliver know this dude is “middle eastern”?
  2. how does he know that those stickers are there for the benefit of visitors?  (maybe the guy is a soldier, or comes from a military family!)
  3. why would michael tolliver assume that visitors would be anxious?  (are all visitors racist ignoramuses who jump to conclusions about complete strangers?)

this sort of shallow thoughtless pitying of a person of colour is… well, plain offensive, actually.

…ESPECIALLY WHEN IT IS IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWED BY THIS PHRASE:

Outside Mama’s room we held a brief powwow…

to be clear, no one in this novel has been indentified as indigenous:  the “we” in the above phrase are all people who have been constructed as part of maupin’s assumed-white posse.  so, in case you were wondering, these characters did not actually take part in a “…a specific type of event where both Native American and non-Native American people meet to dance, sing, socialize, and honor American Indian culture” ; they made a plan for their morning and that was all.  this is not an appropriate use of the term “powwow”.  it just isn’t.

there’s more, but i haven’t got the energy right now.

i’ve loved the tales of the city series since i was in high school. i think armistead maupin is a pretty good writer and i’ve loved being transported to his version of san francisco in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.  the insights into the AIDS epidemic and the angsty lessons about love and romance were always fascinating to me, even if the characters seemed a little too white/healthy to be real, because at least there was queer content.  my criticism of this final wrap-up novel is proof that it matters to me, because  if i didn’t care, i’d just write the book off and not even bother blogging about it.  but i can’t do that, cuz dammit:  i was looking forward to this book and i’m too disappointed now to let it go quietly.  why, armistead, why?

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3 responses to “reading maupin’s latest: thoughts on race

  1. This seems like a perfect example where an editor could have saved the novel. We talked about this sort of thing in one of our classes, about how it’s the editor’s job to find stuff like racism and suggest to the author that it be taken out. Or, at least, point it out, because oftentimes the author doesn’t know it’s there in the first place. Now, I’m guessing that Tolliver isn’t a racist, ignorant kind of guy, so it’s not simple characterization that’s happening here. And if that’s not the case, then it wouldn’t hurt the novel to simply have these pieces taken out. Maybe the publishing house got lazy because of the author’s previous success. Let him do his thing. It’s too bad. Maybe you should write him a letter?

  2. taggart, i am so glad that you’re going to be in publishing… yeah, you’re right, this is a great example of the power of a good editor. the novel would be great without these cringe-worthy bits: i didn’t even detail everything, because it was too much.

    i don’t know if i should bother writing maupin a letter, because i don’t know how well he’d react to “i’m a fan, but…”. i think it might just trigger defensiveness, as my pointing out racism usually does. especially in performers/artists, now that i think about it. the change that’s needed here isn’t really about maupin, anyway: it’s about the publishers too, and their possible laziness, and the queer community’s thoughtless acceptance of a default whiteness, and systemic racism in society at large.

    so yeah, i’m just going to rant about it on my blog! but really, i mean that: the more this sort of thing gets called-out and discussed by everyday people, the better.

  3. I’m glad to find you ranting about it here, because if I did it, well of course I’m a (half-)brown guy with some kind of chip on his shoulder. ;)

    But yeah, most stuff written by (white) North American writers is implicitly raced (even by ‘of colour’ writers – I’ll bet you’ll find passages where Ondaatje describes the mine-sweeper Sikh guy in the English Patient by his skin, but not whats-her-face, the white nurse…).

    For myself, the stuff I want/try to write, I wonder if it is too heavy-handed to ‘race’ the white characters, if it will come across as some kind of agenda-pedaling and turn readers off. There remains a subtler way to do it, which I’ll try my hand at, at some point, and let ya know…

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