Representation NOTES, March 2015

This week as I made my way around the city (and around a few books), I encountered a mish-mash of success and failure when it comes to diverse representation, and I wanted to take a brief moment to recommend and warn.

The Kehinde Wiley exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in a long time. To quote the museum website, Wiley’s worksraise questions about race, gender, and the politics of representation by portraying contemporary African American men and women using the conventions of traditional European portraiture.” Wiley casts strangers on the street to pose for him, and lets them choose their pose from a book of traditional portraits. Many of the works in the Brooklyn Museum exhibit are from Wiley’s World Stage series, which took his street-casting around the world, from Haiti to Israel. The agency and power these paintings illuminate in their subjects is spellbinding. The works are gorgeous and poignant, that appropriation of a traditionally oppressive style deeply powerful, and I was left sharply conscious of how much is lost or silenced without diverse representation. 

I also highly recommend The Wicked + The Divine, by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. I read the first volume of this comic book over the weekend—a pop-mythology story set in the contemporary world, in which gods are reincarnated every ninety years and live for two (often as a kind of volatile cross between folk heroes and pop stars) before dying. The writing was intriguing and respected the intelligence of its audience; the artwork is beautiful; and it felt like a massively important book in terms of representation, one in which Lucifer is a Bowie-styled queer woman and the main mortal characters a transwoman and a woman of color. What a pleasure, what a luxury, to read a comic book and recognize oneself, to never once flinch.

 One negative tinge to this mini-roundup: I went to The Strand on the hunt for works by female science fiction authors, and though I could have built three separate bunkers out of their Stephen King, Arthur C. Clarke, and George R. R. Martin titles, there was nary a title by James Tiptree, Jr.; no anthologies of feminist or female-authored sci-fi; nothing by Joanna Russ save one (prohibitively priced, I'd argue) forty-dollar gilt-edged copy of The Female Man. These too are staples, genre-definers, and there’s something profoundly disheartening about standing in “Eighteen Miles of Books” and not being able to find anyone like yourself. Especially when you’re looking at three shelves of identical Game of Thrones paperbacks.

This last is relatively mild censure, but I finally read Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch and I although I was impressed by the first half, I found myself hollowed out with disappointment at the fates of the female characters. A story that sweepingly ambitious, and the women are still there on the margins, there to die or fall ill or fade away in order to shepherd the nihilist male narrator on to his next epiphany. Pippa’s greatest contribution to the book comes in its first pages, and it’s that she is so entrancingly beautiful a stranger that Theo starts to follow her out of a room with a bomb in it and so doesn’t get blown up. That this is allowed to remain her greatest contribution to the book for almost 800 pages (and over a decade) is disappointing.    

That's it for this representation roundup! I'll try to make a habit of these check-ins.