Inspired by Nikesh Shukla, Naomi Frisby and Dan L, I am participating in #DiverseDecember – a month of reading books by BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) writers. My Goodreads list shows that of the 120 books I have read so far this year, only 6 have been by BAME authors. I could definitely do better. I’m not interested in reading to some kind of politically correct quota, but I am interested in stretching my reading habits and exposing myself to a wider range of perspectives on the world.
I’d never heard of Octavia Butler and her classic Sci-Fi trilogy, Lilith’s Brood, but she was recommended on Twitter and I recently read that Junot Diaz included it in the reading list for his MIT ‘World-Building’ class. I decided to try the first book in the series, Dawn, published in 1987.
Lilith Iyapo wakes in an unfamiliar environment to discover that she is one of the few survivors of a nuclear apocalypse on earth and is now residing on a spaceship with an alien race, called the Oankali. The aliens, though basically humanoid in shape, have no recognisable eyes or nose, just a frightening proliferation of tentacles. They also have three genders: male, female & ooloi, and they copulate and reproduce in groups of three rather than couples. The ooloi can also manipulate genes.
Lilith (a mythological allusion to the first wife of Adam) has been specially selected and genetically altered to prepare a group of humans to resettle on the earth and build a new improved race of human/Oankali hybrids. The humans, however, do not accept Lilith as a benevolent mother – they perceive her as a threat in league with their alien captors, and are not willing to cooperate with this plan.
The Oankali ship is a fantastic feat of imagination, as is the psychological tension between the humans and the Oankali, particularly the capacity of the Oankali, despite studying them closely, to completely misunderstand human motivations and behaviour.
It’s been suggested that Octavia Butler’s trilogy refers to the integration of African slaves into American culture and the resulting African American identity, but the theme of the assimilation of aliens is just as relevant to the current migration of refugees to the UK and other countries. The refugees obviously do not have tentacles all over their bodies, but they may as well have if you consider the xenophobic reaction of the right-wing media. And of course the ethical issues surrounding genetic engineering are increasingly relevant in today’s society.
Dawn is a vividly evoked, thought-provoking read and I’d like to continue with the other two books in the series soon.
Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird has been on my to read list for a while, mainly because the US cover design is so enticing, but I didn’t really know anything about the book or the author. The only thing I’d heard was that it was a retelling of Snow White. It is one of those books it’s better not to know too much about before you read, so I’ll try not to include any spoilers.
Twenty-year-old Boy Novak has beautiful, long, white-blonde hair but she’s no Disney princess—she escapes from her abusive father, the rat catcher, in New York, and takes the bus to Flax Hill, Massachusetts where she meets widower Arturo Whitman and his beautiful daughter, Snow. Boy seems destined for the role of evil stepmother in this scenario but all is not as it seems. When Boy’s daughter Bird is born she brings a truth to light that has been buried for many years. Snow is the embodiment of the deception practiced by her father and her grandparents and bears the brunt of the exposure of this deception. The book is narrated by Boy in the first section, then by Bird in the second section with letters from the inscrutable Snow, and back to Boy again in the third section.
Boy, Snow, Bird is a book that continually subverts expectations. It is not a straightforward reinterpretation of Snow White but does utilises fairy tale language and imagery, and appropriately, mirrors are a recurring theme. The author approaches the narrative obliquely in a beautiful, assured prose style, and her story weaves a spell on the reader while addressing important issues of race and identity. I was utterly engrossed in this captivating tale.
Boy, Snow, Bird is Helen Oyeyemi’s fifth novel and I’ll definitely be reading more of her work.
Next up: I’m reading Mahesh Rao’s new short story collection, One Point Two Billion, and I’ll be revisiting a childhood favourite of mine, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D Taylor.