Discussion: Microaggressions in Fiction

A look at several books to try to articulate different ways of approaching microaggressions in literary texts.

Here’s a loaded question for you: When are microaggressions okay in literature?

This question came up today as I was reading a book review over at Sinead’s blog.

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.

Water In May resized

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.

Push by Sapphire

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.

The Kids Got It Right resized

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.

Henson Immediately After the Sledge Journey
“Matthew A. Henson immediately after the sledge journey to the Pole and back (Showing the effect of the excessive strain. Compare with frontispiece and with portrait facing page 139)” Facing page 123, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole.

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.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian resized

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.

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer

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.

the-sun-is-also-a-star

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.

A Time to Dance

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

8 thoughts on “Discussion: Microaggressions in Fiction”

  1. I actually had a similar thought process to you while writing my review. I was so unsure about what to think of the book because I know that there are people who are similar to the main character, however I felt that just allowing it to remain like that would not provide a nice reading experiencing to teens who are Latinx and marginalised in another way as well.

    The story is told in first person, however I think that it is the mark of an excellent author if they can still call out the microaggressions in the text, as is done in A Time To Dance.

    Ultimately, I decided on this low rating not only because of the microaggressions but because of the glossing over of the abusive family and the general conclusion at the end that “All is well”, as I felt like this brushed over some of the harrowing experiences she had growing up. I also thought that this wouldn’t send out a good message to teens who are reading this book and might be pregnant themselves and in similar situations. I totally understand that the book is realistic, but I just feel like the ending meant that the issues were all solved even though I didn’t see any development in that area.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the reason your review resonated with me so strongly was that there are a lot of similarities yet differences with Push.

      If you don’t mind spoilers for that book (if you do, skip this paragraph). Both are first person accounts of pregnant, PoC teens with abusive families who experience/perpetuate microaggressions. However a big difference for me is that Push, while it’s been read by a lot of teens, was marketed as adult fiction and intended for a mature audience. Precious is homophobic but it is explicitly called out, and at the end of the book one of the lesbian characters is able to present her story. Some of the other elements (body negativity, slut shaming, etc.) are not explicitly called out, but as the novel progresses Precious changes these elements and starts speaking differently about herself and others as she gains education and deals with her personal trauma. Precious also leaves her abusive family and creates a new family environment for herself that is more supportive. It was an incredibly sad book but did include points of hope for those in similar situations, and Precious’ character grew and learned.

      However, your review also got me thinking about my review of Sherman Alexie’s book. The homophobia in that book (which is intended for teens) is never called out. I feel like I need to go back and reread it and reconsider my recommendation. As you point out, a LGBT teen could be very hurt by reading it, and the depiction of eating disorders could also be damaging. I don’t know if the Native representation is enough to balance those out in that case.

      But, I appreciate knowing bloggers like you and Wendy and Naz, who have encouraged me to think more about these issues that I might not have otherwise considered and helped me become a better person and reviewer!

      Like

  2. This is a great discussion of a really loaded question, definitely one worth considering. I have to agree with the assessment you had at the end. For me, my view of microaggressions in fiction depends on the author/character marginalization. If the author is white, for example, I feel like they should take more responsibility for calling out microaggressions in the text. Full disclosure, I’m white, and I still feel this way. When I read books by authors of color, I take their perspective on race at face value because I realize it’s their lived experience, and it’s not about me. I also like what you said about it being more important to call out microaggressions in books for younger audiences. Reading books as a kid is how you learn how the world works (or at least how I learned some of that stuff).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely agree that white authors need to be taking more responsibility for calling out microaggressions! It can be so difficult to have the conversation or bring up the topic, but ultimately worthwhile.

      As a teen, a family friend and I had a conversation that has stuck throughout my life. She pointed out that when we went to their neighborhoods, my less privileged friends were taking responsibility for keeping me safe and making sure I acted appropriately. Then she suggested that I had a similar responsibility to speak up in the face of prejudice and call out discrimination, since white people are less likely to resort to violence or extreme measures if they are called out by another privileged person.

      Like

  3. This is such an interesting question. I agree with your four factors. I am more likely to tolerate the microaggressions I recognize in literature when the book is written in first person, #ownvoices and/or a classic aimed at an adult audience. I cannot stand racist language or themes in children’s literature, but I generally make an exception for classics that are otherwise worthwhile to read. For example, Anne of Green Gables contains anti-French, nativist sentiment as well as other outdated views, and I used it as a point of discussion with my children.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You make a great point with Anne of Green Gables. I feel like many of my coworkers try to avoid literature (including classics) that contain stereotypes or microagressions, which can be good. But if we never read anything that addresses those topics, then we lose the chance to have conversations with children about what they consume. For example, that’s why even though Saints and Misfits dealt with tough topics, I felt like it could start a great discussion and encourage kids to think about harassment and religious identity.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I like using books as tools for these types of discussions with my kids. I think it’s a little more difficult when the book includes biases against people my kids would identify with, though.

        By the way, this excellent post has generated some Twitter discussion (I don’t know if you’re on Twitter). You should be able to find it here:

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Wow! I’m honored that you shared my post on Twitter, and that it’s generating discussion, thanks! These days it’s about all I can do to keep up with this blog (which is mainly possible because of scheduled posts), so I don’t have a Twitter account yet.

          I especially agreed with this comment from Clare Favara though: “This is a tricky issue (especially in 3rd-person POV). If the author explicitly calls out these microaggressions, it is likely to come across as author intrusion/heavy handed. If the author does not do this, readers might assume they condone them or are unaware of them.” Very true.

          Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: