I found Judge Schulman’s verdict interesting and considered reading. Let me make it clear that my issue is not with her. My issue is with the way her legitimate concerns were largely ignored by the commentators.
Judge Schulman opened her piece talking about being disappointed, about having a fundamental problem with the texts and trying to find merit outside of that. Her issue, and one that I fully identify with, is the wack place that women are allotted in The Good Lord Bird and The Tuner of Silences. For Mia Couto, women are a mixture or mother-figure and sex-object and that’s when they are present at all. As Judge Schulman asks, why would two young boys not exposed to the Western canon come up with this idea? Why would they, who know women to be people, be incapable of imagining women as having selves? Unlike Judge Schulman, I really enjoyed the prose in The Tuner of Silences. It sat at a slight remove from the action. It felt dreamlike, hallucinatory and kind of like a strange folk-tale, heightening the feeling of isolation and strangeness of these two boys trapped in the middle of nowhere with their father who insists that the world has ended. It was halfway through the book when white Portuguese woman Marta makes her appearance that things started to unravel for me. She read wrong. She was a stack of traits and anecdotes thrown together without any internal logic: Marta picked up to go to Africa in an attempt to discover her sexuality (colonialism ahoy!). She instantly bonded with two young boys and seemed to hold the emotional answers to everything. This is despite the fact she alienated herself from a cheating husband she creepily idolised and was essentially a directionless mess during the first section of her letters. I wish I could do a better job of explaining this but I finished the book half an hour ago and I don’t think I’ve fully processed it.
Anyway after all these valid thoughts about women in these books the commentators…. completely ignore it? They say ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about women. Nothing whatsoever. I know neither of them has read the book but there are issues here that can be extrapolated to The Good Lord Bird too (sexy mother figures and beautiful, chaste women make up the majority of the female characters there as well).
Now let’s talk about intersexuality. Or should I say, let’s not talk about intersexuality? Judge Schulman raises the point that McBride’s Onion is a cross-dressing character with no concern for the real issues that such a character would been forced to deal with. In response to this complaint, Kevin Guilfoile asks: ‘Can an author have a male character dress as a female without acknowledging 21st-century gender identity politics, even if the character in the book lives at a time when those politics don’t exist?’ The thing is I don’t think Judge Schulman is talking about that at all. As she says, ‘When the hired hand sees Henrietta’s genitals and asks, “Are you a sissy?” it’s asked with no stakes at all. No sense that he could be beaten to death or simply shatteringly shunned. The real life of the real black sissy cross-dresser just isn’t in McBride’s mind.’ That question is relevant for then as well as for now.
Personally I think James McBride does a whole lot of telling why Onion does as he does, particularly dressing as a girl and not running away from John Brown. I don’t think he does a lot of showing. His reasons are plausible but not backed up by Onion’s actions. This could be an attempt to show Onion rationalising his behaviour that in fact comes from places of unadmitted fear and loyalty but that doesn’t feel quite right either. I’ve actually talked about the book a bit before and I do think it is funny and I love the playful language. I also love the humour and mischief in McBride’s Frederick Douglass. But, as I said then, it feels a bit pointless and I think the lack of stakes in Onion’s cross-dressing is a part of that that I hadn’t identified before Judge Schulman noted it.
Anyway, I was disappointed in the commentary on these books but then again I was also disappointed in the books themselves so let’s just call it even and tomorrow we’ll move on to two other books I hated. Catch you then!