Maryam the Curious SFF Reader and I did another buddy-read, yay! This time we read Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country together and found plenty to talk about (although I suspect this is as much to do with how much I enjoy chatting with Maryam as it is because this was an interesting read).
The first half of our resulting conversation can be found over at Maryam’s site here, and that’s definitely where you need to start if you’ve found yourself here first. If you’re visiting here having already read the first half, then hi! And welcome.
So, to continue where we left off…
Matt Gruff is a white author writing black characters, what do we think about that and, would we have enjoyed this book better if it was #OwnVoices? Do we think it makes the book less powerful?
Mayri: This is a particularly great question because I was worried about reading this book for this reason. Because I was worried that racism is too sensitive a subject for a white person to write about. Does that make sense? Sometimes I’m stupid, I guess.
And now, having read it, I think that no, it’s not less powerful for Ruff being white. I feel like this is an incredibly well researched book and the characters are deep and wide and real and everything that happened to them mattered to me.
Maryam: I think that it is important for white authors to write about people that are different from them and that includes having BIPOC characters in their stories. However, if the subject of the book is about the black experience and dealing with racism, it’s a bit more complicated for me.
I think Matt Ruff did a good job at portraying how it was for black people at the time but, I still would have preferred to hear this story from black authors. Especially for Ruby’s chapter since it’s about a black woman wanting to become white. I’m not saying it isn’t believable for a black person to want to be white since – especially at this time – life would be a lot easier for them if they weren’t black but, I’m uncomfortable with the way Ruff wrote this chapter.
The fact that the main character never really questions her transformation, that she doesn’t discuss it with anyone, that she decides to drop her identity entirely (even her name!!) to become white… I don’t know about that. I feel like the author should have developed this story more or chosen another way to tell this story that didn’t involve a character changing the color of their skin.
Mayri: I hear what you’re saying. There is the question of who owns this history and this experience. Whose story is it to tell?
I completely agree with your feelings about Ruby’s story and it was the most uncomfortable part of the book for me. I don’t feel that I ever really understood Ruby’s feelings, and that bothered me. She had no one to talk to as either a black or white woman, she seemed a very lonely character, which is perhaps what made the transformation easier, but … I don’t know. It felt off.
Still, for the most part I feel that Ruff is convincing and sensitive in his portrayal of black lives. I know it’s not the same thing, as it’s less sensitive in nature, but I tried to flip the question around: ‘Matt Ruff is a male author writing female characters …’ and I think that a lot of my discomfort over his being a white author writing about black lives is that I worry I am being a bad ally by saying that he did a good job.
Maryam: Yep exactly, whose story is it to tell? In the afterword of my edition Ruff mentions that one inspiration for writing the book is that, when he was in college, one of his black friends said something that made Ruff understand that he could do things that his friend couldn’t and that was just because they didn’t have the same skin color. Before this moment, he hadn’t realized how their daily life was really different. After reading this afterword, my first reaction was “and so, what gave you the right to tell this story then?”. I know there’s no right or wrong answer to this question but still, it makes me uncomfortable and I don’t know how to think about it.
Do we think this book would translate well on screen? Are we interested in the adaptation after finishing the book?
Maryam: I was intrigued by the HBO adaption before reading the book but now I’m certain I’m going to watch it! I think the creepy elements will probably translate better on screen than in the book (I’m not easily scared while reading but I’m very easily scared while watching creepy things on screen!). I wonder if the adaptation is going to have the same “anthology-feel” than the book or if the writers will adapt the story to give it a less episodic flow. I have also heard that some changes have been made regarding the characters and that in the TV show, Caleb Braithwhite is now a woman! For some reason, I am very excited about the change! 😀
Mayri: Agreed, I’m even more interested in seeing the adaptation having read the book. Like you I’m more easily scared when watching than when reading (although I am a massive scaredy-cat in any format) and I think I’ll appreciate a lot of the horror elements more on screen. Particularly Scylla. I really want to see how they portray her because I have a pretty definite image in my head.
The episodic structure of the book seems to lend itself quite nicely to a TV show – I’ll be interested to see how the story is moved around or changed to fit the format.
And they’ve made Caleb Braithwhite a woman?! I hadn’t heard that. That is going to be interesting! It could bring in a whole new dynamic … ooooo, I’m even more excited to see it now!
Maryam: Yes!! I can’t believe they gender-swapped Caleb but I’m here for it! The character is now Christina Braithwhite and she looks quite beautiful and scary. The Caleb I pictured in my mind pales in comparison! 😉
Mayri: Oooo, is that her? She looks … terrifying. And intense. Yeah, definitely better than my imagined Caleb. I wonder how they’ll play Ruby and Christina’s relationship on screen? OMG, this is going to be so good!
Maryam: Yes, that’s her! It definitely makes their relationship more interesting to me now, it changes their dynamic quite a bit!
So, the last question has to be: would you recommend this book? And if yes, would you add a caveat to your recommendation?
Mayri: Yes, I would recommend it. But also, yes, I would mention that it’s written by a white author. Thinking of this from a work point of view, I’d want to suggest further reading material. I know I now want to learn more about the history of segregation in America because it seems that it’s a far wider topic than I truly appreciated before reading this. Sometimes I am ashamed of how naive I can be.
Maryam: Yes, I would recommend Lovecraft Country. It’s a really good story with fascinating characters, it shows how difficult life was for black people during the Jim Crow era and how some things still haven’t changed for black people in America. However, while the book is good and it’s obvious that Ruff has done his research on the subject, I wouldn’t recommend this book over own voices stories such as The Ballad of Black Tom or Ring Shout that are written by black authors. Reading Lovecraft Country is a good place to start with if you are in the lookout for Lovecraftian stories that question Lovecraft’s work. However, I think readers should not stop there.
And I feel the same as you Mayri, I want to learn more about the history behind the systemic racism in America, what has changed and what hasn’t changed.
So, we’d recommend Lovecraft Country, what about you? Have you read it? Do you want to read it? Or do you have any recommendations for books that might broaden our knowledge?