Cardyn Brooks introduces her new regular book feature with two reviews on the theme of Mentors, Odysseys, and Collective Memory
familiar storylines, fresh angles and POVs
trope – n. 1. a word or expression used in a figurative sense 2. a common or overused theme or device
spin – n. 1. a quick rotating movement 2. rotation given to a ball to make it change direction 3. a viewpoint, bias or interpretation, especially one that is presented to influence the public in a desired way
Commercial fiction is the entertaining sibling to serious literary fiction. Regardless of the genre, it’s designed to appeal to the masses, or to publishing execs’ assumptions about them. That can create a disconnect between content and readers.
With acknowledgement of fiction as a safe headspace for exploring uncomfortable, unfamiliar or controversial subjects, it’s the space between an author’s rendering of life, and reality that interests me most about popular fiction. What gets lost or distorted or magnified in that gap, especially for people whose humanity is discounted? Where’s the variety and volume of fun fiction with organically diverse casts of characters? Where are the HEAs and HTNs endings for black and brown, non-hetero, non-Christian, and “other” characters? Where are the stories about women who are pro-themselves without being anti-men? Mainstream romance and women’s fiction often reads like subversive protest literature or satire, and at other times it’s like propaganda that reinforces and promotes colonial imperialist patriarchy. Sometimes it’s all of those things simultaneously.
Reading Jenny Northington’s clever “Story Tropes Bingo for (Almost) Every Genre” helped me to clarify my own list of recurring tropes in mass-market fiction. MaryJanice Davidson also includes a substantial list of tropes at the end of Danger, Sweetheart.
Trope Spin reviews will focus on popular fiction, especially contemporary romance, my particular favorite variety of brain candy because everyone deserves love. They’re about fun stories that put characters from marginalized groups in the spotlight as fully developed, multifaceted individuals who are featured in the broadest array of human experiences. Does the cast of characters reflect actual population demographics and evolving societal attitudes? How does the story challenge or reconfigure familiar tropes? Thoughts about answers to these questions form the majority of the content of Trope Spin reviews along with a very brief overview. Although similar to my Literary Canon Fodder reviews with the absence of numerical rankings and ratings, the tone is less formal and more fun.
My biases lean U.S./Western Civ, hetero, feminist, Christian, middle class, life-long monogamy, Golden Rule.
February 2018: Mentors, Odysseys, and Collective Memory
Amla Mater by Devi Menon
Yali Books 15 June 2018
adult contemporary graphic novel
This stream-of-consciousness personal journal as memoir uses minimalist sketches and a few more elaborate drawings reminiscent of wood block prints to guide readers through Mili’s wistfully nostalgic swings of memory from past and present, from India to England. There is a subtle playfulness to the author-illustrator’s tone that begins with the title. Flipping the letters l and m in alma to amla in the phrase alma mater transforms the meaning from bounteous mother or place where someone was educated, to gooseberry fruit mother. As in Mother Goose? And since anticipation along with the British tradition of telling kids that babies come from “under a gooseberry bush” are common associations, it’s a clever interweaving of ideas about fertility—imagination, human procreation, nature’s growing cycle—with impatient longing and trepidation about the future.
Mother figures abound in Mili’s review of her life that doubles as entries in a pregnancy journal beginning at week 19. As she explores new frontiers from Kerala, India to Mylapore and Bangalore (officially Bengaluru) to East London, England, Mili’s childhood experiences and friendship with Maya overlay her present expectations and perceptions with a willingness to recognize shared fundamental traits in humans and societies regardless of appearance and geographic location.
Mili’s openness and respect for each character as distinct and specifically named individuals make the designation of her boyfriend to husband, the only Anglo character, The Baker stand out. Other than remaining unnamed he’s rendered and described as a full-fledged human who is thoughtful, considerate, loving, and successful. He’s not portrayed as dangerous like “Man” in Bambi or marginalized like the second wife in du Maurier’s Rebecca. Is this a nod to the infancy of comics and graphic novels when female and non-Anglo characters were routinely unnamed (if they were included at all)? Maybe it’s just used as an innocuous reminder that Amla Mater exclusively focuses on Mili and her journey from girlhood to womanhood to career professional to motherhood through her interactions with other girls and women. Not sure, but it’s interesting to consider the author-illustrator’s intention.
This deceptively easy, breezy G-rated graphic novel tugs on thematic threads of inheritance, social hierarchy, entrenched hetero-normative gender expectations, career apathy and burnout, globalization, and pop culture touchstones in entertainment media. Instead of a bath bomb, Amla Mater is an idea bomb where thoughts about moving through life in a hetero female embodiment keep fizzing in the brain long after reading the last page. It would make a thoughtful addition to a gift basket for an expectant mother.
There’s a glossary for the non-English words, but the story context makes their meanings easy to understand.
For a variety of reasons graphic novels aren’t my reading jam, but my enjoyment of Amla Mater led me to the Comics Plus: Library Edition database of graphic novels, and to The Comic Book History of Comics by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey. Their amusing, informative survey of Comix* from ancient times to the early 2000s, predominantly U.S. focused with an acknowledgement of international artistic synergy and derivations, totally hooked me into adding more graphic novels to my to-read list.
*An alternate spelling of comics that deliberately differentiates mainstream comics from ones written for adults or underground or alternative audiences. http://www.ipl.org/div/graphicnovels/gnsHistBasics.html
Sunny and the Mysteries of Osisi by Nnedi Okorafor
Cassava Republic Press 13 March 2018
This playfully serious sequel to What Sunny Saw in the Flames riffs on various interpretations of the wealth of knowledge, fraternity, and revelation.
Stumbling from one life-threatening challenge to another, thirteen-year-old Sunny’s gauntlet of trials forces her and her coven of slightly older friends to consider her teacher’s questions on page 13 in real time: “Who do you want to be? What do you want to do when you grow up?”
With a rapport similar to the intrepid Stranger Things crew, Sunny, Chichi, Sasha, and Orlu march forward into their studies, both mundane and magical. Preparation for their adventure fills the first 60 or so pages and then the pace hops forward with an increasing sense of urgency.
References to Wole Soyinka’s work to dismantle the negative excesses of the confraternity system also tap into his reframing of classic European literature through the lens of West African peoples. Okorafor executes a similar synthesis with her reframing of popular YA fantasy formulae by smoothly incorporating cross-cultural signposts with references to Nollywood, German juju, Uzoma’s Chinese Restaurant, Coca-Cola, and rap music as experiential bridges that connect humans beyond borders and labels.
Mami Wata and Ogbuide on the African continent and in the African diaspora are queen mermaids and selkies elsewhere. Chittim, the Biblical name for ancient Cyprus, gets translated into currency earned for diligent study, comprehension, and application in this fictional version of present-day Nigeria. Sunny and her friends venture forth along a red dirt road to Osisi instead of a yellow brick road to Oz.
These and many other shared themes are filtered by culture and geography and placement in time. They’re also filtered through social class, ethnicity, gender, age, and language as if the tap of an imaginary “select all” option simultaneously applied every filter type to a slide show of images to create this exciting adventure story about recognizing and embracing one’s self and multiple sources of strength and power to think and to act.
“Who are you, Sunny?” she’s asked throughout Sunny and the Mysteries of Osisi. By the end of this culturally kaleidoscopic tale, she and readers have some profound answers to that question.
[Infrequent use (maybe a handful in total) of profanity by the minor-aged characters when talking with each other.]
If you enjoyed this, and want more like it, then please consider making a donation, it can be anything from £2 and takes no time at all. Or give what you can afford from £2 per month and become an MD member.
All work published on MD is the intellectual property of its creators, and requires permission to be republished. Contact us if you have any questions.