A crop of new novels about race and racism find freedom in satire

In Chinelo Okparanta’s new novel, a young white man is disgusted by his fanatical small-town parents. Some of his reactions are typical: he disavows their views and moves to New York. Others, however, are decidedly strange: he starts calling himself G-Dawg, joins a self-help group for white people who are race-shamed — and begins to identify as a black man from Africa.

Yes, Okparanta knows the premise might offend.

When she started working on a novel about well-meaning white people who are blind to their own bigotry, Okparanta, who is of Nigerian descent, realized the subject matter was explosive. After all, she was getting into a heated debate about racism and identity politics at a time when those issues were supercharged by the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed. So she resorted to satire.

The humor was the “safety measure I put in place so that I didn’t have to put up with the accusations of trying to write whiteness,” she said. “I don’t try to write whiteness in a real way. I write about the pain that was endured being on the other side of whiteness.

The resulting book, “Harry Sylvester Bird”, published this week by Mariner Books, is dark and biting, but often disarmingly funny – one of the few new and upcoming novels that uses satire and surrealism to distinguish common assumptions about race and culture. identity and explore what it means to transgress these socially drawn boundaries.

Many of these new novels confuse the more subtle forms of prejudice that stem from blind spots and racial ignorance, or from a misguided desire to imitate or appropriate another culture.

Mithu Sanyal’s new novel ‘Indentitti’, out this month, satirizes debates about race and identity politics in academia. The plot centers on a South Asian doctoral student who is unmoored when she learns that her mentor – a prominent professor of South Asian postcolonial and racial studies – is not Indian, but white. In his upcoming novel “Yellowface,” RF Kuang calls out the lack of diversity in the publishing industry with a twisted story about a white writer who steals an unpublished novel written by a recently deceased Asian American author and tries to pass it off as his own book. .

In his new novel, “The Last White Man,” out Aug. 2 from Riverhead Books, Mohsin Hamid uses a surreal premise to examine racial identity as socially constructed fiction. Set in an unnamed land, it tells the story of a white man who wakes up one morning with dark skin, a mysterious disease that is spreading throughout his town and forcing people to confront their latent prejudices.

Hamid, who was born in Pakistan, made the assumption more than 20 years ago, when he found himself suspected of having “a Muslim name and dark skin” after the September 11 attacks. He returned to the story during the pandemic and found that approaching it through the prism of fantasy gave him more freedom to examine the artificial fault lines around race.

“Because I think race is this imaginary thing,” he said in an interview, “if we start intervening at the level where we imagine in the first place, there might be some worthwhile ideas .”

Black novelists have long used surrealism, farce and satire to tackle taboos around race.

In 1931, black journalist and writer George S. Schuyler published a critical critique of white supremacy titled “Black No More,” which features an ambitious black man who undergoes medical surgery to turn his skin white, but then finds alienating whiteness. In the decades that followed, Ishmael Reed, Charles Wright, Percival Everett, Mat Johnson and Paul Beatty used comic surrealism to address topics such as slavery, lynchings and hate crimes, as well as the failures of the civil rights movement.

Humor and whimsy can act as a sort of buffer when writing about issues that would otherwise be too painful, such as anti-black police violence and colorism, said Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. His next novel, “Chain-Gang All-Stars,” is set in an alternate America where the for-profit prison system allows convicts to compete for their freedom in a gladiator-style, deathmatch-style reality show.

“Having this kind of surreal, satirical conceit allows me to create a space where I have a lot of control and can always bring up the same subject,” he said.

The new generation of race satires also reflects an ongoing debate over cultural appropriation and conflicts over whether and how novelists should write across racial and cultural boundaries.

Okparanta said she wanted to explore racism from an unfamiliar perspective.

“As a black person who has endured a lot of racism and microaggressions, I wanted to understand how a well-meaning white person could still hurt you,” she said.

She first came up with the premise for “Harry Sylvester Bird” in 2016, when she taught creative writing at Columbia University and hosted a seminar on the ethics of writing fiction on other races and cultures. Okparanta, who moved from Port Harcourt, Nigeria, to Boston at the age of 10, had recently published her first novel, “Under the Udala Trees,” a lesbian coming-of-age story set in the 1960s in Nigeria during the country’s civil war.

As students debated novels like The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron and Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, Okparanta was struck by the polarization of the issue.

“It got heated,” she said, “because there was the question of power: who has the power to do it, and what does it mean if you use that power of in a way that is not faithfully representative of the culture you are?depicting?

A few years later, Okparanta was living in Lewisburg, a small town in Pennsylvania, where she often felt out of place as a black woman and African immigrant. She found herself pondering her old idea and began to wonder what it would be like for a black writer to create a white character who ignores her own racial blind spots – an idea that seemed even more powerful in 2020, with a growing political polarization. and social unrest.

“Harry Sylvester Bird” opens in Tanzania, when a teenage Harry, on safari vacation with his rude parents, is horrified by the way they treat African guides and staff. Back in Pennsylvania, he decides he no longer wants to be white and begins to identify as a black man, then moves to New York for college, where he begins the next phase of his metamorphosis. He attends meetings of Transracial-Anon, a therapy group for white people seeking “racial reassignment”, which will eventually result in changes to members’ hair and skin.

As Harry’s story unfolds, Okparanta paints a portrait of an alternative America with disturbing parallels to our own, a country divided by growing extremism and nationalism, and reeling from the pandemic and rising of a far-right white supremacist political movement called the Purists. . His desire to shed his whiteness and be “an ally” sets him apart from the blatant bigotry and hatred of emboldened white nationalists, but Harry still makes unintentionally offensive comments about black people. He fetishizes dark skin and at one point marvels to his Nigerian girlfriend “how people in Africa can be so happy with so little”.

Okparanta said she wanted to make Harry over-the-top, but not so cartoonish or unsympathetic that readers would dismiss his spell as a prank.

Even with the buffer of humor, Okparanta says she’s prepared for a backlash from readers and critics who might misinterpret her goal or think the novel fails as a satire. Initial reactions were somewhat mixed. Kirkus Reviews called it a “tangy, questioning exploration of the depths of racism,” while a searing New York Times review argued that the novel “lacks the gripping surrealism that drives successful racial caricature. “.

Novelist Tayari Jones, who praised the novel in a blurb for using humor as “a weapon, tool and balm”, said Okparanta’s satire succeeded because it tackled the characters and the subject with irreverence but also empathy.

“He is not a white man in racial crisis, but he is a keen observer of a society in racial crisis,” she said. “She knows what it’s like to be an African under Western gaze.”

Okparanta said she wouldn’t be surprised if some readers thought her satire went too far. After all, she noted, when Voltaire published “Candide,” a coming-of-age adventure story that doubles as a vicious critique of European power structures, “the French nobility didn’t didn’t like it.”

“Since this is a satire, it will be understood and digested differently by different people in society,” Okparanta said. “Some bands might see humor more easily than other bands.”

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