Book Review: To Barbara Kingsolver and Julie Otsuka After Reading You

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As a nerdy gay boy growing up in a rural, working class town in the 60’s, novels were my escape route. Consider the wonder of a kid destined for a life as a laborer upon first encountering Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown children’s stories. Encyclopedia Brown is the hero because he’s a thinker! It opened a window on the world in a wall I didn’t even know existed.

Today, I still read, and Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite literary figures. Not only is she a very good writer, she’s also the founder of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. The prize acknowledges that fiction can contribute to the creation of a better world.

PEN/Bellwether is a good representation of its founder. Few writers I’ve read have as deft a hand at using fiction to make complicated social themes accessible and personal, a talent that is evident in Kingsolver’s latest novel, Flight Behavior.

The novel is the story of a woman in rural Appalachia whose life is interrupted by the climate crisis. I absolutely ate it up. The writing is inspiring and the story is pretty damned amazing.  I loved her way of using the clash of cultures and classes that occurs when scientists and working class rural people come together in order to help us understand climate science, and why that science isn’t enough to move people to action.

My favorite moment is when Kingsolver helps us see that those who we dismiss as backward and ignorant (in this case, rural, white, conservative, and poor) are much more than the sum of our stereotypes. In fact, believing we can simply pummel them into agreement using data is the ultimate act of ignorance.

The story makes the point that formally educated people are also ignorant of many things, not least, that we too are not mainly informed by data in the choices we make. In fact, belief trumps facts, and belief is made of many things that those of us concerned about changing the world for the better would do well to get to know.

But there is one troubling aspect of Flight Behavior. It’s absolutely tone deaf about race.

For instance, there’s a Black scientist in the story named Ovid who comes from the Virgin Islands where poverty far exceeds what most of us experience in the states. Yet, somehow this man is stunned by the state of poor people’s schools, and by a woman who manages to be intelligent without the benefit of a college education.

Mako, a middle-class, twenty-something year-old Japanese American graduate student from California is absolutely clueless when it comes to frugality, much less poverty. When Mako breaks a zipper on an expensive jacket he plans to toss it. When our heroine offers to fix it, he’s shocked to find that real people know how to sew much less own sewing machines.

How, I wondered, could someone so good at writing about class and gender be so completely lost on issues of race? A real life Ovid could no more be ignorant of poverty than  a farm worker could be of where market tomatoes come from. I’m old enough to be Mako’s father. If I were Japanese American from California, I would most likely have been raised by parents born to farm workers or poor farmers. In childhood, my parents would have had their lives interrupted by the mass incarceration of virtually every ethnic Japanese on the U.S. mainland during WWII.

The experience of living in a prison camp in the middle of what must have felt like nowhere, and with nothing, penniless, often in forced labor, would have been part of the family lore. But the story would not have ended there. Japanese Americans were eventually released. Most left camp broke, many homeless, to face hostility, suspicion, and racial terrorism.

To present us with characters like Ovid and Mako is to deny all of this and more. It denies the reality of our racial history in a novel in which a contest over truth is central.

Part of that racial history is told in The Buddha in the Attic, a novel by Julie Otsuka that I read right after Flight Behavior. Buddha in the Attic managed to make a story I’ve heard a hundred times or more feel fresh to me.  I plan on sending a copy of it to Kingsolver from “Mako.”

Otsuka uses beautiful writing based on historical accounts to tell a story about a group of Japanese women who immigrated to the U.S. as picture brides, fooled by marriage brokers into believing they were leaving behind hardship in early 20th century Japan for the good life in America, only to find their husbands were expecting wives who would join them in the fields as laborers. A real life Mako would certainly have a grandmother who could use sewing machines, make less food than most of us expect from a restaurant entree feed whole families, perhaps even manage a farm.

Her children, people my age, would, like me, know how to make a dollar out of 25 cents, and not just to survive, but in order to keep the values and the memories of those who went before us alive.

 

 

 

 

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