CHAOS TRYST – Shirin Dubbin

Standard

Ariana Golde may be known for breaking and entering but she’s no thief, she’ s a returner. She retrieves stolen objects and gives them back to their rightful owners. Her latest job: retrieving a statue from the Medveds. But Ari is having an off night, and she’s caught red-handed by the three brothers, who don’t just get mad—they turn into bears.
Maksim Medved is outraged—the statue belongs to his parents. But Ari’s returner magick doesn’t lie: the heirloom has a new rightful owner. Ari is drawn to the surly, handsome Maks—maybe because he possesses the same chaos magick she does. But while Ariana enjoys a touch of chaos, Maks hates its destructive power.

When Ari and Maks team up to find her mystery client, their chaos magicks ignite even faster than their attraction. Can Maks learn to love a little chaos, or will the havoc they cause among the faebled creatures drive him away for good?

Does Carina ever publish anything good? No, of course not. It’s all dreck in there, isn’t it. Romance presses, there you go. At least this book doesn’t contain gross rapist logic presented as loving kindness from your one true love–we just get racial exotification instead!

Inari’s softly accented voice rang sweet as tinkling bells and struck like a hammer.
Ari nearly laughed. Inari excelled at passive aggression; one of the top ten wielders in the land. “Yep, Okaasan, you guessed it. I plan on letting my nether regions wither and blow away. Talk about a dry spell. I can see it now—‘Ariana Anase Kitsu Golde, the cause of a dust storm unparalleled since the 1930s dust bowl. Click here for the full story.’” She clucked her tongue in an imitation of a mouse clicking the imagined link. “Poor you and poor Baba. No little Faeble scions to carry on your legacy.”

For the record, Ariana here is the daughter of Inari and Anansi. Why does she have a name with Greco-Roman origins? Your guess is as good as mine. Does the author know Japanese people don’t have middle names? Likely not. Why do her parents live in the US? Probably because the author thought American Gods was really clever and she can’t imagine writing anything outside her immediate comfort zone (though having said that, that’s probably a good thing; can you imagine someone this ignorant trying to tackle a novel set in–say–Mexico without exoticizing the shit out of it and spurting racism everywhere? Exactly).

Ari spun around so quickly the satiny coils of her golden dreadlocks hit her in the face. Ow. The combination of her Japanese and West African heritages made for a solid grade of hair.

I know what this means, but I really don’t think “the combination of Japanese and West African heritage” results in golden dreadlocks.

What made her hesitate was how much the man resembled another—the Eastern European bone structure tempered by the exotic, the swarthy olive skin, and most of all the bearing. But this man’s hair was much too long, his features too refined, almost pretty

Suddenly, racism! “Exotic swarthy skin” is the kind of description you expect in… 20th-century fiction? 19th? At first I didn’t know what is meant by “Eastern European bone structure” exactly, but–

Their features and coloring were so alike, from the chiseled slash of high cheekbones to the strong Slavic jaw lines, on to the Gypsy brown skin and hair of ebon curls. While these were classic trademarks of the Bolshebnukh Roma, the magical sect of the Roma Ruska Gypsies, Maks had to note his brother’s slimmer build and much longer hair to be sure he wasn’t looking at his own reflection.

NO NO NO NO

Literal magical gypsies. I ask you. His mother, by the way, is a dancer and a thief. She’s just missing a foretuneteller gig. “Cross my palm with silver!”

Ari sipped her hojicha green tea. Placing the cup on the table, she paused, looked to see if anyone watched, and surreptitiously munched a stolen cookie. Sweet baby Buddha.

This is how you know the author is American. “Sweet baby Buddha” is only authentic when pronounced while chewing glass and swallowing a chainsaw, please.

“What are you? A fortune cookie? Way to be stereotypical, Mommy. And he’s an ogre not a goblin.”
“I am Japanese, so no, not a fortune cookie. And yes, this is what I have said.”

This is neither funny nor clever. The author is not East Asian.

“Let us go there,” he said, pointing to a business down the block and across the street. “Do you know karaoke?”
“I’m half Japanese.”
He raised both brows. “Is this meant to be an answer?”
She tried again, putting extra stress on the last word and holding her arms out to her sides. “I’m Japanese.”
In mock frustration Maks looked away and back. “So you would like me to stereotype you?”

[...]

“Fine. Sing.” She sat. “But I’ll pick the song.”
“You may choose. There is no song I do not know.”
“Shenanigans.”
“Choose something.”
“You really sing that well?”
“I am part Gypsy, part boyar and Faebled.”
“Gotcha. I’ll stereotype you now.”

This is also not funny. I’m not sure who finds this clever or funny.

The image of his lean muscular legs stretched into the aisle of the train car, his bearing and appearance caught somewhere between Russian aristocracy and Gypsy—odd, incongruent. Enthralling.

EXOTIC GYPSIES what the fuck stop it already.

Black-tie Armani, before it had become passé, tailored impeccably with a red cravat to illustrate personal flare. The man was a thing of epic pulchritude.

It’s a bit like “a chivalrous knight of archaic proportions.”

How dapper her lover looked. His new striped scarf giving him the air of a mushroom-colored, blond-haired Doctor Who. Dearest snuggums.

Can anyone picture this? How does this work? What does this mean? Ia, ia, Dr Who ftagn!

A funky guitar lick kicked things off. Followed by a shimmy-inducing groove—sultry and bright. The performer in Maks transformed his posture. He sneered, pinning Ari with a rock star glare.
Gulp. He’d always been graceful but this was…he swiveled his hips and…and…she didn’t have enough synapses to process such pulchritude.
Her middleman strummed an air guitar, launching into the opening verse of “She’s Always In My Hair” by Prince. As a result, Ari lost her fragile little mind.
He gave her no quarter as he strutted through and wailed on two more verses. Hand to the heavens, if they’d been in a stadium she’d have thrown her panties at his feet while still wearing them.

What the fuck. Anyway, come to think of it, this is one of those books where the dude is a manly man’s man–a bear shapeshifter even!–and the woman is a tiny, delicate waif, kind of like in the author’s other title Dreams’ Dark Kiss. But at least the guy doesn’t exploit her emotional vulnerability for sex in this one, so hooray for low bars.

“We cannot happen.” He pointed from her to him, then back into the karaoke parlor. “Did you not see them? They were taken by a frenzy.” He cursed. “I am hoping those paired off at least like one another.”
Ari threw her hands into the air. “They looked happy to me, Maks, and not everyone took part. Some folks walked out. Others seemed to be dreaming.”
“We have no idea what they feel. Our energies are too strong together. This will not happen again.”

When they make out they produce magic that drives everyone else in the building have sex. Maks raises the concern that that is kind of fucking rapey and reprehensible, you know, we can’t make out anymore. No worries, by author fiat Ariana is exactly right that it’s all true love:

Rose-colored lights danced throughout the karaoke parlor and the storied folks made love. Couples on the verge finally came together in crashing passion; unspoken devotion poured from throats. Long-time lovers sparked anew while relationships hanging by the barest clinch of a fingernail lost their holds as new ones, true loves, cemented. The entire building blossomed into an anarchy of lovemaking.

Haha we don’t want any moral dilemma here, and also magical true love pink crystal power make-up!!! Apologies to Naoko Takeuchi, I don’t think Sailor Moon goes around causing rape orgies.

“I am not liking this ‘middleman’ you keep calling me,” he shouted over roaring air. “I am Maksim Mikhail Valentin Skazkakh Bolshebnukh Medved.”
“Fabulous. You Russians really pile on the monikers, huh?”
“My brothers and I are of the Bolshebnukh Roma, Faebled Gypsies, on my mother’s side. The lengths of our names come primarily from them.”
“That’s a serious inheritance to lay on a kid.” She repeated his full name, mimicking his accent. From behind, she noticed his cheekbones rise, becoming more defined. He smiles?
“When you have a son, vixen-vorovka, mine will be his name too,” he said, his tone feral.

NO NO NO NO

I’ve been given to understand that “Skazkakh” is not a name and “Bolshebnukh” is not a word, and that nobody strings up a bunch of first names together like “Maksim Mikhail Valentin.” EXOTIC!!! What is research, mommy?

Bear ignored him. The hunt within them saw no problem with deception. In the forest they called it survival. Outsmarting others kept you alive. Stealing didn’t matter either. Their ancestors stole honey and thievery made it sweeter. Bear did not care about chaos. Not when the returner’s body should be underneath him; he knew how wonderful her moans would sound in the hush of a forest, and he already dreamt of the good strong cubs she would bear him. Against desire and the hunt, trepidations about chaos were lame. With these things in mind, Bear calmly invited Maks to kiss his furry brown ass.

Oh, did I say no rapist logic? He has a separate furry alter-ego in his head and it wants to rape her. Cool.

Anyway, like Dreams’ Dark Kiss this dicks around with most of the same paranormal bullshit tropes: the fated mate, the hulking manly man with his manly hugeness (hur hur) paired with the tiny waif of a woman (who unlike him isn’t very good with physical violence), and–

“Do not cry, vorovka. I beg you.”
Her footsteps whispered across the sand, stopping a few feet from him. “I’m not going to cry, Maksim.” There was a sob embedded in the words. He’d seen the way she clutched the staff when Bear scared her in the fields. It had made her feel safe. Now she was injured and vulnerable, and her vulnerability whipped his chaos magicks into a furor. He breathed deep and slow.

–blah, blah, vulnerable woman and manly invulnerable man. What is it with this shitty sub-genre? The obsession with referring to sex as “mating” too, because hey, animals. A lot of it goes fantastically well with misogynistic biotruths, now that I think about it.

The way it is written I can tell that it’s meant to be light-hearted fluff, which is fair enough, whatever; it at least isn’t weighed down by the galloping rapist logic/abuse conga line that makes up the crux of Dreams’ Dark Kiss, but even as light-hearted (if hideously written, with a peculiar, overexcited teenage voice and prose that looks like it’s fresh out of NaNoWriMo school) fluff it’s tough to overlook the random bursts of racialized exotification. The Russian characters speak broken English of course and don’t use contractions while dropping in the two-three Russian words the author googled up, which is again how you know the author is American through and through: non-Anglophones are othered by their foreign accent, cultural details are used as flavor (badly and wrongly), and obviously fuck-all research was done. It’s written with the sure, absolute ignorance of someone whose sole exposure to cultures not her own are through the stereotypes and misinformation of the US media.

The “ohhh, exotic gypsies!” shit is something else again. It’s the trend with romance writers to use racialized descriptions to increase the (perceived) appeal of a love interest–and while I don’t give a shit about women objectifying men, it’s pretty skeevy to go “ohhhh exotic” over “swarthy olive brown gypsy skin.” I would even say it is gross. In case you think it’s an isolated thing, from one of the author’s other works (though romance writers in general love to do this) we’ve got–

The features of his face told of an Asian heritage, which made perfect sense for his kind. Dark luxurious lashes framed almond shaped eyes and—if she had seen them correctly through her sunglasses—liquid copper irises. [...] The platinum hair streaking the inky black at his temples combined with his defined cheekbones bore evidence of a distant Scandinavian heritage. This upped his appeal, making him an exotic among exotics.

–Shirin Dubbin, Keeper of the Way

EXOTIC!!!

52 thoughts on “CHAOS TRYST – Shirin Dubbin

  1. What is it with the racial profiling in paranormal romance/ urban fantasy books? I’m reminded of Sookie Stackhouse and her “interesting racial blends”.

    • This whole thing of long, detailed descriptions of even minor characters is characteristic of this sort of romance, both fantasy and non-fantasy. To me it reveals the romance genre’s primary aim: to groom young women for “mating” and childbearing. You know, making them obsess over not just their beauty but their genetic background, so they can get the man with the “best” genes and have the best babies, etc. Western culture in general is obsessed with this whole “passing on” into the future of one’s family line, making sure power never goes from the people who have it and since it’s all traditionally tied into marriage and family that’s what’s emphasized. Of course “democracy” and so on is meant to loosen these bonds and distribute power more evenly, not just keep it tied up in the genetic lines of a few families, but it’s working against thousands of years of entrenched tribal beliefs and customs.

      • “Western culture in general is obsessed with this whole “passing on” into the future of one’s family line, making sure power never goes from the people who have it and since it’s all traditionally tied into marriage and family that’s what’s emphasized.”

        Western culture specifically? Weren’t most cultures ever obsessed with tradition and passing on power through the family lines? I’d say these themes are far more universal than “democracy” and “distributing power evenly” which are relatively new and/or rare ideas.

        • One more thing: while all cultures focus on marriage and babies and family lines, it’s the Western culture’s version of doing so that’s the problem, because Western Culture is currently the imperialistic, dominating force on Earth. When, say, China takes over the world like the rightwing paranoiacs are always saying it will then I’ll worry about having to deal with Chinese family power dynamics and how they affect non-Chinese cultures. Right now saying “b-but they do it too!” is just another derailing tactic.

    • “It’s hot and if you criticize me you’re being anti-feminist and CRITICIZING THE FEMALE GAZE!!!”

      I think white women find darker-skinned men of color intriguing in the “noble savage” (ew) sense, and pale-skinned Asian men in the…. I don’t know, but there is this shit. They seem to think racial fetishization equals anti-racist activism too, a bit like men with jungle and/or yellow fever.

      • The whole “noble savage” thing is really problematic in US culture, what with the Native Americans and all. If I could have a dime for every white American who’s bragged to me about their “Indian” great-grandma or something, I’d, well, be able to buy a Prius for cash at least. The “Indian Princess” ancestor (never someone recent enough to know, it’s always an “ancestor”) is a staple American family origin myth, more common than the “my ancestors came over on the Mayflower” because that’s an obviously small percentage to draw from and also, unlike “Indian Princess” unions, records of the Cabots and so on actually exist.

        And in the myth it’s always been an “Indian Princess” — i.e., a female Native-American — who cleaves to a white ancestor, but there is of course the other myth, supposed to be the “bad” version, of the white woman who gets “stolen” or worse, runs away with, a man of color. This is the “bad” version of the myth because of course white women are supposed to belong to white men and not choosing a white man (being raped is considered the woman’s fault too — she is supposed to kill herself to avoid “the fate worse than death”) is considered a betrayal. Nothing is, of course, said about whether or not Native American women who end up bearing a white man’s child is “betraying” her own people, because of course white men are allowed to have any woman they choose. It’s all very disgusting, but it’s one reason why women who read and write books full of this sort of interracial love story thing don’t recognize it as just another component of racism: they think they are actually being anti-racist as well as standing up for women’s right to choose whoever they want. (Well, as long as that person is their “soul mate” and he’s an Alpha Male, I guess, not a whole lot of deep thought goes into this beyond “you go girl!”)

        • There’s a whole sub-genre of this shit in romance–the “sheik” who kidnaps a white woman for his harem. Look for “sheik” on Amazon under the romance genre and it’s absolutely swimming with that excrement.

        • Yes, it’s really gross. For a while there old rapemances like The Lustful Turk were objects of mockery, but then the Romance novel industry took off.

  2. Okay I’m not a native Japanese speaker by any means, so feel free to kick me in the face if this is wrong, but doesn’t the word houjicha literally contain the word/kanji tea, making the phrase “hojicha green tea” awkward as all fuck? I would assume that you’d just call it houjicha… If anyone could confirm this for me that would be lovely ^_^ it’s likely my ignorance is showing.

    • Yeah, I’m not a Japanese-speaker either, I just took it for a year in sixthform and am an ex-weeaboo (:’D) and I also thought it was awkward. I have read that green tea is so ubiquitous in Japan that it’s simply referred to as ‘ocha’, so its usage here is especially redundant, I understood ‘hojicha green tea’ to mean ‘Japanese roasted green tea green tea’ and I’m like… ??

      It’s one small thing on top of all the other cluelessness which makes me sigh all the harder.

  3. ““I am Japanese, so no, not a fortune cookie. And yes, this is what I have said.””
    Actually, fortune cookies come from Japan. The Chinese co-opted them back around 1940 when all the Japanese were jailed. So uh, research fail there. (Not that any American would actually do the research.) Also holy shit comparing people to food, because OMGs >_<

  4. “The image of his lean muscular legs stretched into the aisle of the train car, his bearing and appearance caught somewhere between Russian aristocracy and Gypsy—odd, incongruent. Enthralling.”

    WHAT DOES THIS MEAN. His legs (or their image???) stretching into the aisle? I keep imagining just a set of legs flexing themselves on a train.

  5. I cannot stop chuckling at ” The combination of her Japanese and West African heritages made for a solid grade of hair” Solid. None of your mixed-gradient 60/40 hair here. No, this is pure hair, clean hair, solid hair. Lay it down in blocks and it would stop a freight train.

    • I’ve never thought of East Asian hair as “solid” either, but then I don’t go around grading people’s body parts.

  6. Quite apart from anything else because holy god (or baby Buddha, lol, um) where to start….

    I have only the barest smattering knowledge of linguistics from sixthform and uni, but representing people speaking in broken English is basically always really fucking dodgy. Anglophones usually do it in order to shove their characters deeper into the pit of alterity and it honestly doesn’t matter to me if they have a descriptive intention. It almost never ends well because the author often just ends up reproducing, via a slightly different route, the negative attitudes towards people who speak broken English. There’s an interesting paper on this though it’s more to do with television and therefore has the aural element to it, but I think we can transfer the ideas to written speech, too. (Not a scientist so will defer to expertise of others in terms of more informed critiques!)

    This shallow pick’n’mix attitude to representing the Other just shows how people view marginalised identities, a series of items to be collected and curated with as little context as possible. The only thing you really know is the exoticising bullshit projected onto that character. Dehumanising people by turning them into a cabinet of curiosities is probably not the best way to build solidarity.

    • Thanks for the link!

      but representing people speaking in broken English is basically always really fucking dodgy

      Extremely. Nothing screams “I’m a lazy, ignorant shit” quite like it.

    • Awesome paper! The shallowness of interactions so abundant in the media is definitely present in real life. You don’t go a single day without being casually othered one way or another by essentially nice people. And why would I be surprised that Shirin Dubbin didn’t even think she ought to do some very basic research before writing a book set elsewhere. She doesn’t give a damn, but it’s not like anyone else does.

  7. I’m a lurker here, and generally enjoy the critiques, but after reading the comment section this particular one leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I read several different genres, including science fiction (coded masculine) and romance (coded feminine), and don’t consider any of them inherently better or less problematic. When it comes to romance, I read almost only books with POC main characters, preferably written by POC authors. And write them too. Since there aren’t that many—we often write white characters, because they sell better, and we like to be able to actually make some money sometimes—I’ve read a lot of terrible stories in search of the good ones.

    I’m not saying go easy on Shirin Dubbin because she’s a WOC author writing WOC characters. We have to take our lumps along with everyone else. But it’s a little disturbing seeing what appears to be a heavily white commenting crowd picking apart errors with such glee. For example, the middle name issue. I’m Japanese-American and I have a middle name. My dad, a Japanese citizen, doesn’t. To me, it’s not that important. Sweet Baby Buddha actually made me laugh, and I’m a Buddhist and don’t go easy on Buddhism-fail. Just because I have a different standard doesn’t mean other people—especially people hurt by Orientalism and exotification—should relax theirs, but I’m throwing that out there for context.

    I’m all for seeing romance and erotica skewered, but given the infrequency of their appearances here, as opposed to stuff like UF and science fiction… more white authors please?

    • I sorta see what you’re getting at – there is a danger to being too critical of women and POCs, which sometimes signals a desire to attack advancement on the basis of false pretense. (I trust the regulars here, many who actually aren’t white though.)

      And one should be aware of white/male/straight/cis/able-bodied privileges when we criticize those who don’t have them.

      But I also do think that there comes a point where criticism of a work for failing is a necessary part of the ecosystem. Definitely a good post though as it helps to keep these issues in mind.

        • *snort*

          My goodness. I thought, ‘By “special Buddhist language” she must mean that the script writer for that atrocious-looking TV series really mangled the liturgical languages of Buddhism, right? RIGHT???’ but no, it wasn’t even that :-\ just a throwaway sprinkling of ~exotically spiritual homogenised Buddhism~

          I come from a Thai Theravada background and I try really hard not to collapse all Buddhism ever into the kind I practise, and even then I slip up sometimes. It’s therefore especially confusing when I encounter people who are operating at a far, far lower standard than me….

    • For example, the middle name issue. I’m Japanese-American and I have a middle name. My dad, a Japanese citizen, doesn’t.

      But why would a West African god and a Japanese one immigrate to a country where they know they’ll be shat on constantly due to racism (and their offspring likewise)? What rationale goes into it, since surely powerful deities don’t have to come to the Home of the Brave in search of glorious freedom and bootstraps? Why is it that in American media all important, world-shaking events always take place in the US? Why do you think people joke that Americans think the US is the entire world?

      I haven’t even delved into the deeper shittiness of Keeper of the Way. Heh.

      Sweet Baby Buddha actually made me laugh, and I’m a Buddhist

      It didn’t make me laugh, because it’s a particularly western bit of stupidity rooted in a mindset dominated by Judeo-Christian culture, written by someone who is not Asian (and I’m guessing not Buddhist). You aren’t, I’m afraid, the only Asian Buddhist around here.

      Just because I have a different standard doesn’t mean other people—especially people hurt by Orientalism and exotification—should relax theirs

      Exactly. I’m not relaxing mine. This is a mild review, if anything.

      given the infrequency of their appearances here, as opposed to stuff like UF and science fiction… more white authors please?

      Now, it’s funny: if I review mostly whiteys (often negatively, because I have standards) I will be told “why don’t you read POC writers, huh? GOTCHA!” If I review mostly WOC (and a good bit of it will be negative; I still have standards) then it will be “oh you go after WOC exclusively, do you? GOTCHA!” But given that I review a fair amount of books by POC, and have given due vitriol to white authors, your request to have me shred more white writers who specifically write romance looks simply like goalposts on wheels. Is your thrust that when I review works from genres I hold in contempt I pick the ones by a WOC? If so, you might want to consider that I’ve shredded tie-in fiction, YA, and self-published works by white authors, unless you think I hold those genres in high regard.

      Your threshold for shittiness may be different from mine, and that’s fair, but given that I’ve read multiple works from Dubbin and the same execrable racial fetishism/gender dynamics is present across all of them, well. Last I heard, being a WOC doesn’t mean you can wax rhapsodic over the sparkling exoticism of biracial Asians or “brown gypsy skin” without raising eyebrows. But what do I know.

      • I haven’t read this book and doubt I will, so I can’t really speak to the specific problems.

        “Is your thrust that when I review works from genres I hold in contempt I pick the ones by a WOC?”

        No. I’m being very specific here, and focusing on romance and erotica because that’s what I’m most invested in. I don’t read YA at all—just zero interest. I regularly get involved in debates about how to improve the wretched state of things for romance readers of color. So often, it really comes down to choosing the lesser of two evils: erasure or crap representation. Some readers lower their standards very strategically. Others stick mostly with books with white characters. It’s a choice I’m sadly familiar with. So my priority is making things better for readers of color and writers of color in a very specific niche that I know fairly well, and in which things are pretty tough for us. I’m not assuming everyone shares my specific priorities or strategies. I figured my suggestion ran the risk of being irritating, but it’s just that… a suggestion, and I won’t continue on in this vein. I know you’re already supporting the work of several WOC authors outside this genre.

        • My interest in romance is probably even less than your interest in YA and tie-in fiction. I’m not really “a romance reader of color,” let’s just say. Sorry for misinterpreting your comment, but if more romance reviews on this blog is what you’d like to see, why more white writers of all things?

  8. “I am Maksim Mikhail Valentin Skazkakh Bolshebnukh Medved”

    /falls

    I’ve been given to understand that “Skazkakh” is not a name and “Bolshebnukh” is not a word

    That… is a mangled Russ. prepositional plural of “magic fairytales BEAR” with bolshebnukh supposedly “volshebnykh”, though you do not use the prepositional case without a preposition in modern Russian, nor is that a name, dear gods…. why do authors feel this is needed, and when will this end?

  9. The insistence on cleanly separating features according to nationality/ethnicity and the exotifying of mixed-race people is… annoying, to say the least?
    (I have no idea if it’s an American thing? I see it a *lot* in American media and I wonder to what extent it’s cultural. France has other issues with race, but this one doesn’t seem to top the list)
    Granted, it’s all made worse by the romance genre, which is probably responsible for the much stronger emphasis on physical appearance…

    • Basically what you said — not only does the romance genre emphasize appearance (my previous comment opines as to why), but it’s pretty much an obsession in the US. I think it has something to do with how we’re all a “nation of immigrants” but there’s the whole racism thing, and also the capitalism thing I think may have much to do with it (in that we commodify people as objects and therefore grade them on physical appearance just like we do furniture and clothing).

    • I’ve noticed that American authors often mention certain traits of a character’s appearance to mark that the person is not the “standard” white character, without mentioning a racial category. So if our heroine is approaching her three friends, one will be “blond,” one will have “chocolate skin” or “curly hair,” and one will have “almond-shaped eyes.” They will be described that way even if the story is set somewhere with American racial categories, because it’s impolite to write “black friend” or “Asian friend.” But the reader is supposed to be able to slot the character into the proper American category of race by deduction.

      In romance novels, everything is superexotic to pump up the SEXY, so it’s ok to mention race as well as physical traits. But a biracial character would still naturally think of themselves in terms of their hair or eyes!

      (How is this done in French writing? What are the racial markers?)

      • I was actually commenting specifically on the attitude to mixed-race people–there’s a lot of “the combination of XX from his father’s race and YY from his mother’s race made him extra sexy”. Now, in some cases, it’s entirely possible to separate which bits come from which parent (case in point, the shape of my eyes, which is unlikely to be very Western), but it’s not like you can do it for everything (for instance, my skin colour is neither my father’s nor my mother’s, but a combination of both; my hair likewise). It seems that every other book I read with a mixed-race character has a neat separation between racial attributes from father’s side and mother’s side: I have a twofold problem with this, the first is that, as I mentioned, it’s not that easy to draw neat lines; and the second one is that it reduces the father and mother to representatives of their respective races rather than human beings (I am immensely bothered, for instance, by someone saying, “oh, they’re in an interracial relationship”. No, they’re not. They’re people and they’re in a relationship first and foremost. Race is important, but should certainly not be the main signifier here…)

        I could be wrong since I don’t read French literature on a day to day basis, but I haven’t seen as many physical racial markers (a lot of markers are done either through first names and customs–someone called “Camille Thanh Van” who shops a lot in Chinatown is a dead giveaway). Not to say there aren’t any markers at all, but the emphasis on physical markers (esp. skin colour) at the expense of everything else is something that really strikes me when I’m reading US literature.

    • It gets even better: “I am part Gypsy, part boyar and Faebled.”
      I waited for Lieutenant Schmidt to make an entrance, but one can’t have everything.

  10. A bundle of racism, rape-romance, and bad prose. This is the kind of fantasy that substitutes for looking at people as people. Gotta love the bestiality associated with a nonwhite character’s desire (I know that probably happens with white men who are also wolves characters too, but still.)

    Right after reading this, I came across a skincare site selling themselves as discoverers of ‘Geisha secrets.’ I had entered their giveaway before looking at the actual site.

  11. Ok, I read it. What a mess. My favorite bit is actually this:

    “When the instrumental section came in he approached her, his intent indeterminate, thrilling. Before she took the next breath, Maks pulled her to her feet and into a ballroom stance—Ari had watched enough TV dance shows to recognize it.
    One beat.
    Two.
    And they tangoed.”

    Sure, if you watch enough dance shows on TV to recognize a ballroom stance, you can tango.

  12. So, hold on. The main character asks her mother if she’s a fortune cookie, and her mother responds by saying that she is in fact Japanese?

    I don’t know, I’m not expert on how the Foreigns conduct their familial business, but I kind of feel like this is a fact that would have come up in conversation prior to this point.

    • No, she knows her mother is Japanese but trots out the “joke” anyway. I believe we are meant to think it is funny rather than awkward and a bit stupid.

      • I think part of what makes it awkward is that the only reason a person would respond that particular way (i.e., by giving her daughter information that is already well-known to her) is because she’s being written by an author who wants to telegraph the fact that they are aware that fortune cookies are Chinese. (Well, “Chinese”, obviously they are not actually Chinese.)

  13. Hahahah, also this:

    “From behind, she noticed his cheekbones rise, becoming more defined.”

    I am definitely sure that’s not how bones work.

  14. Huh, I have olive skin. (My parents are Romanian.) I wasn’t aware that olive skin was particularly exotic.

    Reading excerpts from books like this makes me glad that I’m so bad at describing people that the most you’ll get out of me is skin (NO food metaphors), eye, and hair color and some vague suggestion of what they might be wearing. I’ve never really understood why it’s necessary to describe every inch of someone. It’s just kind of creepy, you know?

    • Re: description of people–totally agreed. You know the novel I immediately think of when there’s lovingly emetic detail of a person’s physicality? ‘Lolita.’ Cut through all the prose and it’s just disgusting, objectifying, and creepy, ‘specially if you consider that the text is presented as written by Humbert Humbert so it is particularly clear that it’s an exercise in power and control.

      Also I think C19th English novels tend to be very involved with physical descriptions, particularly the face due to the obsession with physiognomy. Not even going to touch on the whole creepy eugenics thing. It all comes back to the beauty = goodness thing, which ties into who is “worth” loving and how love = marriage and breeding. All that has contributed to the conventions of romance in barely evolved form.

      Zadie Smith does detailed portraits of people very well; her interest in the face and the power of beauty/ugliness comes through in her texts. Although her descriptions sometimes verge on deteriorating into a parade of grotesques, I find her observations to be interesting and amusing rather than creepy, and she doesn’t do it for every single character. But not everyone can write like her, so, yeah.

      • Pear – first let me thank you for your posts in general, as I feel like I learn a lot from them. Second, if you have a minute or two can you give an example of this:

        “Although her descriptions sometimes verge on deteriorating into a parade of grotesques”

        Smith is definitely in my large TBR pile, but I’m really interested in how disfigurement or just a far deviation from traditional aesthetics is a signifier or evil at the moment.

        • Too kind of you to say so, Saajan.

          Well, the thing is about Smith is that she largely doesn’t go for the whole circular and boring ‘This Character Is Bad You Mustn’t Like Them Because They Are Ugly And They Are Bad Because Ugliness’ thing. There’s no straight up evil character/group of characters. Everyone has their share of unlikeable, not-nice traits, though admittedly in varying proportions. Characters have conflicting goals and loyalties without devolving into simplistic goodies and baddies; even if some lose out more than others, it’s mostly not connected to whether they conform to conventional attactiveness. (I don’t want to spoiler you unless you want!)

          What Smith does tend to do is to have little portraits of people to show off her talent for observation and description and yes, it is at times problematic. I have ‘aaargh’ moments a few times as I read her books, as opposed to ‘aaaarg’ every other page for other authors.

          You can see a little for yourself–these descriptions run from the funny to the problematic. It is mostly white people’s features she describes in an Othering way, which I enjoy.

          From ‘White Teeth’:

          ‘Poor Ryan Topps. He was a mass of unfortunate physical characteristics. He was very thin and very tall, red-headed, flat-footed and freckled to such an extent that his skin was rarer than his freckles.’

          ‘… Irie saw nothing, not even a type, not even a genre of face in his; the monstrosity of him was quite unique, redder than any red-head, more freckled than the freckled, more blue-veined than a lobster.’

          ‘The headmaster of Glenard Oak was in a continual state of implosion. His hairline had gone out and stayed out like a determined tide, his eye sockets were deep, his lips had been sucked backwards into his mouth, he had no body to speak of, or rather he folded what he had into a small, twisted package, sealing it with a pair of crossed arms and crossed legs.’

          ‘Now, the children knew the city. And they knew the city breeds the Mad. They knew Mr White-Face, an Indian who walks the streets of Willesden with his face painted white, his lips painted blue, wearing a pair of tights and some hiking boots… they knew Mad Mary, a black voodoo woman with a red face whose territory stretches from Kilburn to Oxford Street but who performs her spells from a bin in West Hampstead…’

          ‘Mad Mary was beautiful, a striking woman: a noble forehead, a prominent nose, ageless midnight skin and a neck Queens can only dream about. But it was her alarming eyes, which shot out an anger on the brink of total collapse, that Samad was concentrated on…’

          From ‘On Beauty’:

          ‘His teeth – uniquely in his family – are straight and of a similar size to each other; his bottom lip’s fullness goes in some way towards compensating for the absence of the upper; and his ears are not noticeable, which is all one can ask of ears. He has no chin, but his eyes are very large and very green. He has a thin, appealing, aristocratic nose. When placed next to men of his own age and class, he has two great advantages: hair and weight. Both have changed little. The hair in particular is extremely full and healthy. A grey path streams from his right temple. Just this fall his decided to throw the lot of it violently forward on to his face, as he had not done since 1967 – a great success.’

  15. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with food metaphors per se, when indicating that people are scrumptious (a perception that’s inextricable to sexual attraction). However, it has to be applied across the board.

    Also, as the possessor of olive skin, I must agree that it’s neither invariably shallow” (there are plenty of shades, literally) not particularly exotic. Nearly all of Southern Europe, Northern Africa and the Near and Middle East carries such hues.

    The phrase “part gypsy, part boyar” is a non-sequitur. Boyar is a title of rank (roughly equivalent to duke in Kievan Rus and its neighbors). It’s like saying “I’m part French, part prince.” The rest sounds like the usual unthinking clichés and travelogue regurgitations mashed together with a soupçon of Rus(t)icity.

  16. @requiresHate, I tried to reverse-engineer this with google translate and two other translation engines, and got much less bizarre versions, so I have no idea how the author arrived at this particular form.

    @NextFriday I waited for Lieutenant Schmidt to make an entrance It might have saved the book! :P

  17. Why are everyone mixed race? And not all mixed race people sport featured from both sides of the family, thank you very much. Genetics is not like mixing red and blue and getting purple as a result. Most of the mixed race people I’ve seen aren’t obviously mixed. A half-white half-Asian can just look straight Asian without any visible “white” features on them at all.

    EXOTIKX!!!

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