Here’s a loaded question for you: When are microaggressions okay in literature?
After I had written several paragraphs in the comment box, trying to clarify my thoughts on the subject, it made sense to just write my own post and ask for feedback on this question.
Sinead is reviewing a book called Water in May (an ARC) which is about a pregnant 15-year-old Latina girl, Mari. The review doesn’t state what the PoV is, but the description reminded me instantly of Push by Sapphire, probably since I have a review of that book going up this Friday. Push is a novel about pregnant African-American teen Precious, who’s been badly abused and is struggling, but learning how to read and navigate her challenging life. The novel is nearly all told from her first-person point of view.
In Sinead’s review, she points out some of the (many) microaggressions that occur in the text and explains how they hindered her enjoyment of the text. I appreciate that she always gives an honest opinion of every book she reads and goes into the reasoning why she liked or disliked it.
For that particular review, it got me thinking a lot about microaggressions in fiction. My first thought was wondering if the book is written in first or third person. For me, this makes a huge difference. When writing in the third person, there is a lot more room for the author to subtly express disapproval of a microaggression even if it isn’t explicitly called out. However, in third person writing I would also expect the author to call out microaggressions as much as possible.
When reading The Kids Got It Right, I was pretty disgusted by the constant microaggressions and even referred to the book as “dripping with straight white male privilege.” This was a 2013 nonfiction book which was purportedly presenting facts. The primary audience is straight male football fans, not a demographic widely known for objecting to microaggressions. The third person narration and frequent digressions left plenty of room for the author to comment on the wrongness of the rampant microaggressions, but he didn’t.
In contrast, a nonfiction ebook I recently finished (Matthew Henson’s account of the ‘discovery’ of the North Pole) also contained rampant microaggressions, but this time it didn’t bother me as much. First, that book was published in 1910, in a very different time where Henson’s social status, employment, and even his personal safety could be jeopardize by his public statements.
There is also a tension apparent in the book between what Henson says and what he carefully leaves unstated, or apologizes profusely for. Henson is himself a black man, so his internalized microaggressions, while distressing, definitely have a place in a book about his life. Henson’s racism towards Native peoples was more troubling, but in the end I felt the book would still be worth reading in some circumstances.
However, if this book was republished today, I would definitely expect commentary or notes around these issues to explain the context for modern readers and correct at least the worst statements.
A book by a Spokane author, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, also contains frequent microaggressions. This first-person YA novel written in 2007 is chock-full of a wide variety of racial, homophobic, ableist, and ethnic slurs. The PoV character is Spokane and disabled himself, so some of this is internalized, and some parts are called out. But the homophobic speech in particular is never called out within the novel. This did bother me, and I mention it in my review, but still recommended the book as a flawed yet beautiful representation of one Spokane boy’s truth.
It seems that the debate on microaggressions is most difficult when there is a conflict between marginalized groups. One group’s story might legitimately include perpetuating microaggressions against another. So how do we decide if the treatment is appropriate?
Let’s look at some examples of microaggressions in fiction that can stand as exemplars for authors and reviewers.
One of our family’s absolute favorite books of the year was Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer. I was so excited by this middle grade book directly addressing microaggressions that I even included an example as the header quote for my review.
Jones is careful to include realistic microaggressions from allies as well as antagonists, and the various ways her main character deal with them are a great role model for young people. Also, every single one is called out, without it interrupting the flow of the story or becoming preachy. There is never any doubt in a young reader’s mind about right and wrong statements to other people. Jones also includes at least one ally who recognizes her microaggressions and attempts to apologize/atone for them, providing a role model for white or traditionally privileged readers as well.
Turning to a widely known YA title, The Sun is Also a Star had some elements I wasn’t as fond of, but it really shone in its discussion of race in America and the treatments of different cultural reactions. I do not recall any particular incidents of microaggression in the narrative (as opposed to discussion of microaggressions by the main characters) but I believe that both were present. The issues I had with this book were technical problems with the two narrators and one aspect of the romance, but the discussions on race, culture, and immigration will make the book worthwhile for many readers.
Finally, returning to another middle grade book (but this one will also appeal to high school students and adults). The novel in verse A Time to Dance had so much to love about it that I didn’t even mention this in my review, but microaggressions and ableist terminology are present in this novel as well, and deftly handled by author Venkatraman. Besides simply loving this book, I also wanted to provide you with one from another culture, since all of the others I’ve listed so far take place in the United States.
In the end I identified four factors important to me when evaluating microaggressions in a book:
- Is the story told from a limited first person point of view, where the narrator (especially if disadvantaged) could reasonably be expected to hold this opinion?
- Who is the author? I have higher expectations for authors who traditionally hold privilege or those who are part of the group the microaggressions hurt.
- When was the book published? I’m willing to consider the context of the original time period and social climate the author wrote in. After all, in a few decades the pronouns and denigrating mental health phrases common today may be dated.
- Who is the audience? The younger the reader, the more important that microaggressions are called out explicitly. Will the microaggressions perpetuate a stereotype, or can the author reasonably expect the readers to recognize and reject them?
How do you feel about microaggressions in fiction? Are they ever okay to have unchallenged? What did I miss in my factors to consider?