Tag Archives: books

It’s Baaack: Sweet Valley High Redux

by Guest Contributor Nadra Kareem, originally published at The Whirliest Girl

Years ago my mother was an avid reader of the Harlequin Romance series, while I read what some would view as the young adult version of those books—Sweet Valley High. From about fourth through sixth grade, I was obsessed with the central characters of the series, a pair of blond, blue-eyed Southern California twins named Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield. Now, I’ve learned that the books, first published about 25 years ago, are back. The series has been updated to include references to contemporary technology, such as email, the Internet and cell phones. But the most controversial change is that the Wakefield sisters will now be a Size 4 instead of a Size 6. The downsizing of the girls’ much touted tan frames has sparked debates on Feministing.com, as well as at the Dairi Burger site, a blog named after fictitious Sweet Valley’s favorite teen hotspot.

I’ve been unsettled to read comments from visitors to these sites who say that the Sweet Valley series is to blame for their development of eating disorders. The readers say that the books ingrained in them the notion that Size 6 was the ideal. This isn’t surprising because, in each book in the series, the twins’ size and height (5 feet 6) are emphasized. What I’ve forgotten in adulthood, however, is that the books actually contain character after character with dietary habits that fall under the umbrella of bulimia or anorexia. One mother’s use of diet pills during pregnancy is responsible for her daughter being born deaf. And characters constantly criticize each other for doing things like eating full plates of food or looking fat in their jeans. Those who aren’t thin are almost always viewed as being impaired, if not downright sub-human.

Wrote one visitor to the Dairi Burger Web site:

“Here I was, thinking I was the only one who developed an eating disorder after reading SVH. This is fucking hilarious!”

From reading the site’s revisionist retellings of the books, not only does the Sweet Valley High series promote dysfunctional eating, they are also filled with episodes of attempted rape and sexual abuse that are completely forgotten about later. As if that weren’t enough, the books are filled with classist/racist/heterosexist rhetoric.

“I don’t know how she can date him,” a character says about a classmate who is dating a Latino student. “He’s so ethnic and working class.” Continue reading

Claudia Kishi, Fashionistasian

by Guest Contributor Jen, originally published on Disgrasian

We were recently turned on to What Claudia Wore, a paean to the smart, sartorial stylings of fictional character Claudia Kishi, from the children’s book series The Baby-Sitters Club. Wikipedia describes the Japanese-American teen as someone who comes from a “scholarly, conservative family” (sounds about right) and is “particularly bad at spelling” (hmmm…). WCW’s author Alex points out time after time how very “now” Claud’s fashion choices are–from leggings to vests to rakish hats to oversized tops–and we couldn’t agree more:

PHANTOM CALLER: (breathy) What are you wearing?

CLAUDIA: I’m wearing an oversized chambray button-down, a Navajo-striped vest, and a bitchin’ side pony. I’m also armed with pepper-spray, asshole.

CLAUDIA: Black tights and knee-high boots for spring? Sure. Mochi ice cream, anyone, before we get this blowjob party started?

NEW GIRL: Claudia, please, tell me what you think of my outfit.

CLAUDIA: Keep the Timberlands. Burn everything else.

MEAN JANINE: What are you doing with your life, Claudia? All you think about is clothes, clothes, clothes. What about your grades? How are you going to get into an Ivy League school when you’ve failed the seventh grade? Don’t you want to be successful like me?

CLAUDIA: Dude. Four-eyes. Chillax. Don’t you know how much that bob haircut ages you? You look like Mom after she squeezed us out, stopped having sex with Dad, and started hording the Rocky Road ice cream all to herself. Your outfit’s halfway to Sexy Secretary, but you might consider throwing on a big Alaia corset belt if you wanna get past second base.

(beat)

Can I borrow that high-waisted skirt when you’re done with it?

Trans-Racialization in “21″

by guest contributor Jenn Fang, originally published at Reappropriate

Six MIT students band together to hoodwink Las Vegas casinos for millions.

It sounds like the plot of a Hollywood movie — and it is. But before Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe), Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey and Laurence Fishbourne were cast in 21, Ben Mezrich wrote a non-fiction book called Bringing Down the House, upon which the film is based. In that book, Mezrich documents the infamous MIT Blackjack team, which was led by Asian American — not White — students.

Although referred to by pseudonyms in the book, it was later revealed that the main characters of Bringing Down the House – Kevin Lewis and Jason Fisher — are former real-life MIT students Jeff Ma and Mike Aponte who are both Asian American men. Jeff Ma has since gone on to start a company based on fantasy sports, while Mike Aponte remains a professional Blackjack player.

Mezrich has criticized the casting of 21, and argued that it plays into fears of the marketability of an all-Asian cast.

During the talk, Mezrich mentioned the stereotypical Hollywood casting process — though most of the actual blackjack team was composed of Asian males, a studio executive involved in the casting process said that most of the film’s actors would be white, with perhaps an Asian female. Even as Asian actors are entering more mainstream films, such as “Better Luck Tomorrow” and the upcoming “Memoirs of a Geisha,” these stereotypes still exist, Mezrich said.

Mezrich notes that the Asian American identities of these students was critical to the MIT Blackjack team’s strategy. According to Wikipedia:

In the book, Mezrich explicitly states that a young Caucasian betting large amounts of money stands out, while a young Asian or other minority would be less conspicuous.

Perhaps in response to criticisms that 21 was “White-washing” the story, the filmmaker also cast Asian American actors Lisa Lapira and Aaron Yoo in the movie, but they remain secondary characters, distantly-removed from the story of the White male and female protagonists. The casting of Sturgess and Bosworth remains a damning assertion that Asian American faces are simply not “American”-enough to carry a big-budget film like 21. And though the story of the MIT Blackjack team centres on the Asian American identity of the team members, the movie loses its opportunity to explore this reappropriation of stereotypes by real-life Asian American men who used society’s perception of them — for better or for worse — to steal millions from Las Vegas casinos. Instead of exploring this interesting (and arguably empowering) story of racial identity, the movie becomes yet-another “boy-meets-girl” trifle with Asian American characters existing only as props to further a story about White protagonists. Continue reading

Literary memoirs, lies, race, and appropriation

by Carmen Van Kerckhove and Latoya Peterson

The latest fake memoir scandal erupted last week. Margaret B. Jones’ critically acclaimed book “Love and Consequences,” about a half white, half Native American girl’s experiences with sexual abuse, foster care, and gang violence, turned out to be a complete fabrication. Not only did Margaret Seltzer (her real name) actually grow up with her white biological family in well-to-do neighborhood, but she even faked the foundation she supposedly started to end gang violence. Latoya and Carmen had an IM conversation about it…

Carmen: It’s funny because just a few days before I this story broke, I had been thinking about this very issue while skimming some book reviews
in Elle. Why is it that these literary memoirs about people with fucked-up lives are written by white folks? Is there something about a white person experiencing this kind of dysfunction that seems unusual or abnormal? Whereas if a person of color wrote something similar, it would strike people as par for the course? And therefore less marketable?

Latoya: Def – it’s all about the fucked up lives of white people, I guess because they just assume minorities are fucked up so there is nothing special about that. I was reading ABW, and one of her guest bloggers mentioned how Felicia “Snoop” Pearson of The Wire has a book about her life and experiences…that didn’t get nearly as much press. And, I’ll agree, probably not a $100K advance either.

But that’s neither here or there.

My question is why did no one pick up the phone and verify the basics of her account? The publishing industry wants to act like they publish too many books to check – but they can’t take 30 minutes to call the Child Welfare department or whatever state organization is in charge of child care and verify she was there from xxxx – xxxx?

Carmen: Seriously. And if you think about how long the life cycle of a book is (can take 2 or 3 years to actually get published) – there is plenty of time for some basic fact-checking.

I was really struck by the fact that she chose to identify as half Native-American, half white, when in real life she’s just white. What did you make of that?

Latoya: Minority street cred?

Maybe she was trying to find the most oppressed group to identify with?

I’m just confused about the whole situation. The biggest thing I’m wondering about – if these were people she knew through her work, why didn’t she publish their memoirs? Or a book about her experiences? Or an anthology of their stories? Why did she feel the need to internalize their suffering and insert herself into the narrative?

Carmen: Who knows – maybe her agent told her that would be an easier sell? Not saying she has no blame/say in the matter, but there are people other than her involved in this project, I’m sure.

It is amazing though, that after Oprah ripped James Frey a new asshole on (inter)national television, that publishers wouldn’t take at least some basic precautions to prevent a similar debacle. Continue reading

Interview with Mat Johnson, author of graphic novel Incognegro

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Mat Johnson is winner of the prestigious Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for fiction and currently teaches at the University of Houston, Creative Writing Program. Read more about him at Niggerati. Click the thumbnails below to read full-size pages from his new graphic novel, Incognegro.

Carmen: Mat – congrats on all the great media coverage your new book is getting! (New York Times, Seattle Times, San Francisco Chronicle)

Mat: Thanks. It’s a hell of a lot better than watching a book tank, I’ll tell you that.

Carmen: LOL I’m sure. Well you’ve been a co-host on our podcast, Addicted to Race a couple times (episode 57 and episode 61)…

Mat: I miss that. We had fun.

Carmen: …and longtime listeners will remember that former co-host Jen and I used to do a segment called “Racial Spy.” Your book takes the racial spy concept to a whole new level – can you explain to our readers what Incognegro is all about?

Mat: Incognegro is about a mixed race Negro journalist who looks white who investigates lynchings in the 1930s. The story is about when his own brother is framed for a murder, and he must go Incognegro to solve the crime and free him.

Carmen: As soon as I read that synopsis, I was hooked.

Mat: So was Vertigo. I sold them the idea based on the synopsis. [Note from Carmen: Vertigo is Mat's publisher, they're an imprint of DC Comics.]

Carmen: How did you come to make Incognegro a graphic novel?

Mat: I have read comics since I was 6 and still read them. I thought this story had the elements of the comic hero, but had the chance to do something new in the form as well. With my prose, the work is character based, prose based. Graphic writing just let me focus on the story and the dialogue.

Carmen: I think the format really works well – as I was reading it, I kept imagining what an awesome movie it would make. Speaking of… I hear there is interest in turning Incognegro into a film. Anything you can say on record about that at this point? Continue reading

Latino Artists Bear Burden of Anti- Immigrant Frenzy

JLo in Bordertown(Jennifer Lopez in “Bordertown,” which won’t be seen in the United States)

by Guest Contributor Alisa Valdes-Rodiguez, originally published at Multiplicative Indentity

In 2007, Mexican-born author Reyna Grande’s first novel, “Across a Hundred Mountains,” is released to critical acclaim, and wins the American Book Award – yet Grande’s San Diego bookstore appearance is canceled after anti-immigrant patrons call the manager to protest their support of a novel by and about “illegals”.

In 2004, the South Coast Repertory Theater in Costa Mesa, Calif., kills its Hispanic Playwright’s Project, in part to appease donors who fear “illegals” benefiting from their money.

In 2007, Touchstone Pictures pulls the plug on “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” a feature film starring Eva Longoria, about a fully assimilated Mexican American woman, saying there is nothing particularly “Latina” about an educated, professional shopaholic from Texas; meaning, the character is “too American” for audiences to believe as “Latina”. (Meanwhile, Texas is no longer a majority-white state, and most Latinos there speak English…)

In 2005, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles dismantles all four of its minority playwright development programs.

In 2008, People magazine puts Latina singer Christina Aguilera on the cover and sees the average number of copies sold drop by more than 100,000.

The Latin Grammys, created in 2000 with a mainstream English-language CBS audience in mind, have since been downgraded to Univision only, in part due to protests from anti-Latino viewers.

In 2007, ABC decides to pull the plug on The George Lopez Show, even though the show had better ratings than at least two other series that were renewed; he is replaced by a short-lived sitcom about cavemen.

Also in 2007, Jennifer Lopez wraps filming on the Gregory Nava movie “Bordertown,” about serial killings of Mexican women along the US-Mexico border, only to find that it will not be released in the United States after all; hostile anti-Mexican reaction in screenings relegate the film to release in Europe only. Variety magazine savages the film’s anti-NAFTA stance. The film goes on to win several awards at the Berlin film festival, including one from Amnesty International.

I, meanwhile, have seen my publisher decide to stop printing my books simultaneously in Spanish for the domestic market, citing a waning interest from booksellers for such material. Latina authors in my circle of friends all say times have gotten harder and harder for them over the past two or three years, with several telling me they, like I, have been on the receiving end of more and more hate-mail through their web sites and blogs. Personally, I have seen the advances paid on my books decline by 80 percent, and the size of my book tours slashed from 14 cities to 4.

Taken separately, these anecdotes might appear to be nothing more than bad luck, or flukes, a the natural ebb and flow of a career in the fickle entertainment industry. But taken together, and held up against a shifting corporate media climate that increasingly scapegoats and targets immigrants and Latinos (a trend both the ACLU and FBI blame for drastic rise in hate-crimes against Latinos), they paint a frightening picture of an increasingly hostile America for all Latinos – creative artists included.

Continue reading

Has Class Trumped Race? Part 3.5 – An Aside

by Racialicious Special Correspondent Latoya Peterson

The blog SavvySugar recently posted about a college grad who did an experiment to prove the American Dream – he voluntarily went into “poverty” to see how quickly he could climb out.

Adam Shepard’s experience has – naturally – netted him a book deal. ABC summarizes:

But Shepard’s descent into poverty in the summer of 2006 was no accident. Shortly after graduating from Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., he intentionally left his parents’ home to test the vivacity of the American Dream. His goal: to have a furnished apartment, a car, and $2,500 in savings within a year.

To make his quest even more challenging, he decided not to use any of his previous contacts or mention his education.

During his first 70 days in Charleston, Shepard lived in a shelter and received food stamps. He also made new friends, finding work as a day laborer, which led to a steady job with a moving company.

Ten months into the experiment, he decided to quit after learning of an illness in his family. But by then he had moved into an apartment, bought a pickup truck, and had saved close to $5,000.

The effort, he says, was inspired after reading “Nickel and Dimed,” in which author Barbara Ehrenreich takes on a series of low-paying jobs. Unlike Ms. Ehrenreich, who chronicled the difficulty of advancing beyond the ranks of the working poor, Shepard found he was able to successfully climb out of his self-imposed poverty.

He tells his story in “Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream.” The book, he says, is a testament to what ordinary Americans can achieve.

Fascinating. I mean, everyone loves an American Dream story, don’t they? The interviewer from ABC News was excellent, asking really targeted questions about the validity of the experiment and how Shepard came to the conclusions he outlines in the book. By directly asking about privilege and his upbringing, the interviewer tries to shed some light into the thought process of this young man.

Continue reading

Intimacy, Irresistibility and Political Depth

by guest contributor Tasnim, originally published at Epiphanies of the Shocked and Awed

Persepolis, the animated film based on Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel, was released in the US on 25 December. The film, like the novel, is in black and white and just as visually striking. Satrapi says that she sees “images as a way of writing” in a more accessible, international language: “when you draw a situation—someone is scared or angry or happy— it means the same thing in all cultures”.

Satrapi refused several offers to buy the rights for ‘adaptations’, being aware that ”normally when you make a movie out of a book, it’s never a success.’’ But whether or not Persepolis the film gets it right, it does seems unrealistic to ask a 90 minute film to pack in all the qualities Gloria Steinem praised Satrapi’s book for having – “the intimacy of a memoir, the irresistibility of a comic book, and the political depth of a the conflict between fundamentalism and democracy.”

Such neatly phrased praise decorates the blurbs of bestselling books everywhere, and is possibly not intended to be taken as strict truth stripped of all rhetoric. But it seems to overlay a genuine feeling that reading the personal experiences of an oriental is conducive to comprehending “a world, most Westerners can scarcely comprehend”.

That quote comes from the Washington Post Book World, referring to Mernissi’s memoir, Dreams of Trespass, which is given its own triple set of helpful qualities: “its good humor is unwavering, it tempers judgmentalism with understanding, and it provides a vivid portrait…” of that other, alien world. That is, Mernissi’s memoir is intimate, irresistible and, also, as enriching its entertaining exotic aspect, it provides ‘political depth’, in the same way that waging war has the benefit of geography lessons.

It seems to me that having the political depth of the conflict between fundamentalism and democracy requires a lot of ‘depth’. Such depth as might perhaps extend beyond the personal frame of a memoir and into history. These are conflicts that Satrapi’s dry remarks acknowledge. As she says, “if I pretend that I was sitting in a house worrying day and night about my country, that would be a big lie.” Continue reading