Sunday, March 20, 2011

So, I read "Fledgling" and I feel shockingly ambivalent

I've been consuming a lot of urban fantasy books for a project I'm involved in and, as I've mentioned before, have grown weary of the unrelenting race fail, among other problems, that appear common to the genre. Let me be clear, I read books, first and foremost, for entertainment, knowledge or enlightenment, not to analyze them for their treatment of social justice issues. But as an African American, a woman and someone who tries to be sensitive to  injustice and marginalization, too much erasure, tokenism and triggering can take me right out of a book and ruin my enjoyment of an otherwise strong story. And so, I was thrilled when several smart folks told me that award-winning sci-fi writer Octavia Butler had written Fledgling, a unique take on vampirism. As Butler, an African American, is known for a) her great writing, and b) thoughtful weaving of race and other issues into her narratives, I was all in. I eagerly grabbed a copy of Fledgling and read it (Along with my urban fantasy buddies Renee and Sparky. See their review of the book below.). I am left unsatisfied.

More authoritative bodies than mine have deemed Octavia Butler an excellent writer. She is that. I often consume urban fantasy as sort of a confection--beach reading for someone who never goes to the beach. The writing quality in the genre is often serviceable at best. It was a pleasure to read a more, I don't know, literary approach to the vampire thing. But there was also something utilitarian about the writing in Fledgling that made the protagonist and the plot feel remote. Characters lacked dimension and the plot lacked bite. I didn't find myself truly caring what happened next or what happened to any of the characters. The book evoked the strangest feeling for me--It was a fast read that felt slow and not altogether enjoyable. It could be that Butler's is a decidedly sci-fi approach and I admit to not being a fan of science fiction. But the characters and plot of the book left me cold.


Fledgling is about Shori, who we gradually learn to be a unique member of the Ina species. Ina are an ancient "people," who are the source of human legend and mythology surrounding vampires. Like our Dracula, Ina are pale, unable to walk in daylight and require blood to live. Little else that we believe about them is true. They are not monsters, but instead assemble remote polyamorous communities with willing humans. (Think a cross between a 60s hippie commune and a Mormom polygamist sect) Shori is different, though. She is a result of experimentation by one family of Ina, who used the DNA of an African American woman to create the dark-skinned Shori--whose melanin-rich skin, plus good covering, protects her in the sun.

Butler's take on the vampire myth is clever, interesting. And it is a pleasant to see blackness presented as a benefit for once. As she often does, in Fledgling Butler uses a science fiction narrative to explore issues of race. Here she tackles bigotry and notions of racial purity. Shori and her family are endangered by other Ina families who disdain the idea of a half-human/half-Ina child. They especially abhor the idea of a half black human among their people. One enraged Ina says, "You want them to get black, human children from her. Here in the United States, even most humans will look down on them. When I came to this country, such people were kept as property, as slaves."

In a trial featured in the book, Shori's opponents argue about preservation of Ina culture; how "mixed" children will ultimately destroy it. They accuse Shori of not being Ina enough and doubt her knowledge of her people and their ways. They use racial epithets. It is an excellent approximation of how many people think about race. If there is any doubt, remember the discussions about Barack Obama not being truly black during the 2008 Presidential Election or watch the amazing documentary, Hearing Radmilla about the first Miss Navajo Nation with both African- and Native American heritage (which I saw the day I completed Fledgling).

On the other hand, I found it peculiar that a supposed ancient species, present all over the world, could be uniformly a) white in skin and b) only immersed and accepting of European human culture. Would not a "people" who has allegedly been around for 10,000 years have had to have been on the African and Asian continent at some point? Are their no brown Ina in South America? No Ina in America among Native peoples? It seems on this point, Fledgling follows other fantasy books in presenting supernatural characters who are exclusively white and grounded in European mythology.

I also found Shori, but more importantly, her African American human symbionts, to be strangely deracinated, void of any culture commonly associated with black people. In this way, they appear as tokens. And then there is the idea of experimenting of people, based on their race, which has a long sordid history in reality.

But there is something else you should know about the protagonist in Fledgling and her people, the Ina. The Ina age very slowly and live for centuries, so 53-year-old Shori is, among her people, a prepubescent child, and to the human eye, appears to be a 10-year-old black girl. And there is something else, the process of taking human blood is sexual for both the Ina and their human partners, and it is often tied with intercourse. And here is my greatest problem with this book. Leave aside what is correct sexual practice for the fictional Ina. Shori's human and very adult partners, before they have been "bound" by her seductive venom, willingly engage in sexual acts with what they only know to be a little, black girl. Worse, the very real human readers of the book are repeatedly asked to visualize a little, black girl engaging in seductive, sensual and sexual acts.

In an early scene, Shori, recovering from intensive injuries, is found wet, filthy and wandering the side of the road by a concerned 20-something man. He offers to take Shori to the hospital or police, which she fights. Eventually, she gives him a small bite and begins licking his hand. The scene grows increasingly seductive.
"Let me bite you again," I whispered.
He smiled. "If I do, what will you let me do?"
And then it grows sexual. And as the book unfolds, we are to embrace this man, Wright, who, before he knew anything about the Ina, their aging or habits, had sexual relations with a prepubescent girl, in a car on the side of a deserted road. And we are repeatedly reminded of his adultness to Shori's childishness. He is described as large and "hairy." He picks Shori up to kiss and cuddle her.

This element of Fledgling is disturbing, particularly given the common sexualization of black girls and women, which puts them in danger exploitation. It is also disturbing, because by making Shori a sort of irresistible child seductress, the book seems to affirm some of the excuses of pedophiles and sexual abusers.

It is this element that made it impossible for me to embrace Fledgling. I could neither relate to the protagonist nor feel comfortable with her treatment by the human adults surrounding her. And it is this element, I am surprised, is so rarely mentioned in reviews or recommendations. I did find two opposite analyses of Shori's sexuality in Fledgling:

Human Agency and Pedophilia in Fledgling 

Plots and Pedophilia in Butler's Fledgling

Have you read Fledgling? As I provided updates on my reading through Goodreads, I received lots of notes from folks saying "I love this book!" "This is my favorite book!" I'd love to hear from some of those readers in comments. What was your opinion of the book? If you liked it, why? And how do you explain the sexual nature of adult human interaction with Shori?

But before you chime in, read Renee and Sparkly's review; originally posted on Womanist Musings:

Octavia Butler: The Fledgling Parts People Don't Talk About

Yesterday I asked what books you felt had the potential to trigger others.  This came out of my complete and utter shock and horror from reading Fledgling by Octavia Butler.  As part of our unofficial reading group Sparky, Tami and I have all read the book.  What follows is a piece written by Sparky and I about our thoughts on the book.

So as people know, I'm on a massive Urban Fantasy kick, reading books at a great rate of knots, along with Tami and Renee. Of course we have our podcast on Mondays (Is this an excuse to link drop and pimp the show? Why yes yes it is!), where we ramble about what we've watched/read and take out our social justice lens to take them apart.

And, in our rambling, we've had several books recommended. In particular, Fledgling by Octavia Butler has been recommended - highly recommended - from several sources – so we all got our hands on it and decided to give it a go.

I have to say, I'm actually kind of irritated here. I'm irritated that several people decided to recommend this book with glowing praise, yet none felt the need to say “warning – contains explicit paedophilia.” I am shocked that people recommending this to us didn’t feel this needed to be mentioned. I think this is especially surprising, because these recommendations came from social justice forums and social justice advocates, who we would expect to be very alert to problems like racism, misogyny, homophobia et al, yet didn’t see fit to warn us about the paedophilia content.

And no, that's not some very very bizarre typo.

The main character, Shori, is an Ina. Inas feed on human blood by bonding with humans who are called Symbionts. The bite of an Ina injects venom into the human and it makes them love the Ina, it  increases their lifespans and improves their health and healing.  Ina are not created, they are born. They have very long lifespans and mature slowly.

Right. Now Shori is a child by Ina standards, though she is over 50. Physically she looks human. Specifically, she looks like a black girl of around 10 or 11 years old. Let's be clear here, she is a child and has the body of a child.  She is specifically considered to be a child by all of the Ina, depsite the fact that her age would make her the equivalent of a mature human woman.

And the book gives us not only explicit sex scenes between her and a 23 year old man – but other adult humans. Though the Ina consider her to be a child, they no problem expressing sexual desire for her as well. To exacerbate an already disturbing situation, not one of these lusters thinks there's anything remotely wrong in their attractions – or actual sex – except that they maybe they may be arrested. There is no moral questioning at all – but this total acceptance of paedophilia is not only seen in those having sex with children – but also by every single other character.

Frankly, it astonished me and I was very close to just deleting the book and finding a wall to beat my head against until the memory faded.

After such a thing, it seems almost redundant to point out any other fails a book may have – after all, it contains child sex, how much more do you have to criticise a book after that?

However, for the sake of completeness, it's worth mentioning some other problems the book has.

Firstly, the main character is a Black Ina. The only Black Ina. This is because all Ina are White. In fact, not only are they White, but they’re White and delightsome. They are super-hyper-White. They are extremely pale, blond (pale brown hair was noted as an unusual feature) all of which really hyper-underscore’s Shori’s Blackness - and Shori as other. This is further shown by the fact that most Ina are tall and Shori is unusually short for her age among them - again, she is 'Other'.

Shori is a product of genetic engineering - she is altered, unnatural. Whiteness occurs naturally, it’s the default. Even though being Black brought her some strengths (she can go out in daylight) above the white Ina, it still served to emphasise how “other” she is compared to "natural" Ina.

While it seems the author tried to use this character to challenge racism, it could have been far better done without presenting Shori as constantly victimised. As an added problem, because all of the Ina are so White and delightsome, every other Black character is bound to a White character in an addictive form of sexual slavery. Their sexual acts carry strong undertones of slavery, where Black people were expected to fulfill the sexual demands of their masters.

A further continuation of an extreme trope that stains the entire genre is here we have another Black character, who has no individual or differentiated culture from the White norm. Shori is the only Black Ina - but except for skin colour, she is indistinguishable from the White Ina. There is no sense of differing culture or experiences - it’s black character for the sake of inclusion without  Blackness as a culture. She is yet another example of a White girl painted Black.  It’s further glaring in Shori’s case because her amnesia gives her no experience at all - this makes the White female Ina the ones who define what is and is not a womanhood/feminine - and they are actively educating Shori on how to be a ‘proper’ Ina Woman. This a pattern that is already glaringly established in real world history and is still active today.

In addition, the book is beyond heteronormative. Each Ina needs between 5-8 humans to act as Symbionts to satisfy their blood needs. And each and every damn time we have a same-sex Symbiont, with a same-sex Ina, someone will ask “don't you mind?” Even Shori – who is an amnesiac and can't remember a shred of her own culture, who can’t even remember her own name or species - still apparently remembers enough to expect a man to mind being bonded to another man, or a woman to another woman. In each case, we are assured “don't worry I can have a child with/have fun with someone of the opposite gender” because relationships have to be opposite sex.

And then we have Wright (chief paedophile) who wants Shori to have nothing but women Symbionts and him – because he doesn't have to be jealous of women. Real sex happens when a man penetrates a woman and anything else clearly cannot be categorized as sex.

And that's before we get to the skeevy idea of chemically addicted servants who can be commanded at will.  Removing the ability to consent is rape. The very fact that consent is coerced through a drug means that the Symbionts have no sexual agency.

I suppose after this I should make some reference to the plot. To be honest, the plot was blah. It wasn’t boring like LA Banks (which was truly, amazingly, painfully boring), but still there was little enough to care about or to truly intrigue me. There were no twists, no real mysteries, and it was more a news report of simple events following one after another, rather than an actual story. In short, it was kind of dull.


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