perspective

The Girl with All the Gifts – Black Characters Matter

 

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Hello, fellow book junkies! Now that I’m on summer break, I’ve been going like gangbusters with writing and editing three YA novels. One of my projects is a YA fantasy about a girl who can vanish into shadows and longs to see the world but can’t because her family keeps to themselves. Then she learns the shocking reason why.

I recently made a big change in the second draft of that story. It was originally set in the distant past, but I switched it to a couple of hundred years in the future, and now it’s working much better and has an interesting new vibe. I likely got the idea for the time switch from two books I’ve read recently/am reading: Ready Player One and The Girl With All the Gifts, the latter being an adult zombie story with a POV that blew my mind.  (Beware, it gets scary as sh*t.)

The movie version of The Girl With All the Gifts hit UK theaters this week (maybe the US too, but I can’t seem to find it). As a reader who fell head over heals for the character Ms. Justineau, imagine my dismay when I discovered how the producers decided to cast her role.

In the book, Ms. Justineau is depicted as a 40s-ish dark-skinned black woman, in my imagination, kind of like Teyonah Parris:

In the movie, this is how the producers cast her:

Gemma-Arterton02.jpg

?!!? I mean, come on. Nothing against Gemma Arterton, who’s probably a fine actress and certainly is lovely but, well, she’s 30 and so white. Honestly, I felt betrayed and sad, as if the fictional 40-year-old black Ms. Justineau  I adored has been erased.

Other notes about casting for this movie: Glen Close was a good choice, I think, to play the sort of mad scientist Dr. Caldwell, and it seems the movie producers decided to try and balance the color scales by casting the little girl Melanie, who in the book is white, with a black actress.

Okay, but . . .

Ms. . .

Justineau. . .

— Eve Messenger

 

And the Muslim Woman Sang

My mother was born in Fukuoka, Japan. She fell in love with an American soldier (my dad) and moved with him to a small northern Virginia town. Though she arrived there well after World War II, my mother came to know all too well the sideways glances and outright scorn of white people who viewed her as the enemy.

Here’s another true story. My best class in high school was Freshman English with Mrs. Kiyoko Bernard. Woven among our exploration of great literature were stories Mrs. Bernard shared with us about her life. Like the story about how she and her young Japanese-American husband were forced by the U.S. government into an internment camp during World War II. This remarkable woman who touched our lives with her humanity and her encouragement suffered the degradation of having to bear her first child in an internment camp.

In the heart of Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles is the Japanese American National Museum. JANM is beautiful, always clean, with many windows allowing in natural light, knowledgeable docents, and engaging Japanese cultural exhibits and activities. As a Japanese language teacher, I have taken my students on field trips there many times. But the museum’s purpose extends beyond expanding awareness of Japanese-American culture. Founded by survivors of Japanese internment camps who pooled government restitution money to build the museum, JANM exists as a reminder that, even in the land of the free, especially during the toxic climate of war, fear can drive the masses to ignore, subscribe to–even call for–foul human actions.

In 1942, by executive order of the president of the United States, everyone of Japanese descent, including natural-born U.S. citizens like Mrs. Bernard, were forced out of their homes, businesses, and schools. The lash of wartime anti-Japanese rhetoric fell swiftly. Here’s the story my dear friend and second mother Pauline once told. Pauline grew up in Bellflower, California, when it was still a small farming town. One morning in 1942, when Pauline was twelve, she arrived at school to find many of the classroom seats empty. To her horror, she realized that all of her Japanese friends were gone. Pauline’s parents and other good-hearted neighbors attempted to keep the land for the Japanese farmer friends. Others took advantage and bought the well-worked Japanese farms on the cheap.

Meanwhile, Japanese-American soldiers in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team were fighting and dying in Europe for the very country that was forcibly interring their family members.  38 years later, in 1980, President Jimmy Carter called for an investigation into the government’s internment action. The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians determined that interring Japanese-Americans had been a clear violation of their human rights and was stoked by “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

Here is another true story. It is not set in the 1940s or the 1960s or even the 1980s. It happened very recently in the large metropolitan area in which I live.

My old friend Luke, whom I’ve known since high school, has a lovely wife Cathy who’s always been kind and generous toward my family, especially my children. Cathy is very involved in her church. During winter break, she invited my daughter and me over to decorate Christmas cookies. Some of Cathy’s church friends were there. The political discussion became uncomfortable.

One of Cathy’s church friends shared this story:

Across the street from her a Muslim family had moved in, and the church friend felt very unsettled about this. One day the Muslim mother, a woman in her thirties, even crossed the street with her six-year-old daughter and rang the church friend’s doorbell. The church lady was terrified. She peered through the peephole and panicked. What should she do? Her husband was at work, leaving just her and her own young daughter at home, and a woman in a hijab was standing there on her doorstep with a little Muslim girl beside her.  So here’s what the frightened church lady did. Through her closed door, she insisted she would only open the door if the Muslim woman proved her patriotism by singing the national anthem.

And the Muslim woman sang.

 

 

–Eve Messenger

 

 

 

 

I’m not Saying I have an Imaginary Friend. . .

I.F.'s peace sign-patterned loveseat

But if I did, then she just said to me (from the comfort of her peace-sign-patterned loveseat), “Gravity doesn’t exist in my world.  I can rise as high as I need to, so get out from under those ceilings so we can soar.”

She’s corny like that sometimes.