Thursday, April 23, 2015

Daniel Jose Older's SHADOWSHAPER

Last year I read Daniel Jose Older's excellent essay in Buzzfeed Books. Titled "Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing," it was shared widely in my social media networks. I started following him on Twitter, and learned that he had a young adult book in the works. By then I'd already read Salsa Nocturna and loved it. His is the kind of writing that stays in your head and heart.

I've now read his young adult novel, Shadowshaper, and am writing about it here. Older is not Native, and his book is not one that would be categorized as a book about Native peoples. There are, however, significant overlaps in Indigenous peoples. There are parallels in our histories and our current day politics.

Here's the cover:



The girl on that cover is Sierra, the protagonist in Older's riveting story. She paints murals. Here's the synopsis:

Sierra Santiago planned an easy summer of  making art and hanging out with her friends. But then a corpse crashes the first party of the season. Her stroke-ridden grandfather starts apologizing over and over. And when the murals in her neighborhood begin to weep real tears... Well, something more sinister than the usual Brooklyn ruckus is going on.
With the help of a fellow artist named Robbie, Sierra discovers shadowshaping, a thrilling magic that infuses ancestral spirits into paintings, music, and stories. But someone is killing the shadowshapers one by one -- and the killer believes Sierra is hiding their greatest secret. Now she must unravel her family's past, take down the killer in the present, and save the future of shadowshaping for generations to come.

That synopsis uses the word "magic." Older uses "spiritual magic" at his site. I understand the need to use that word (magic) but am also apprehensive about it being used in the context of Indigenous peoples and people of color. Our ways are labeled with words like superstitious or mystical--words that aren't generally used to describe, say, miracles done by those who are canonized as saints. It is the same thing, right? Whether Catholics or Latinas or Native peoples, beliefs deserve the same respect and reverence.

For anyone with beliefs in powers greater than themselves, there are things that happen that are just the norm. They're not mystical or otherworldly. They are just there, part of the fabric of life.

Anyway--that's what I feel as I read Shadowshaper. The shadowshaping? It blew me away. I love those parts of the book. We could call them magical, but for me, they are that fabric of life that is the norm for Sierra's family and community. When she starts to learn about it, she doesn't freak out. She tries to figure it out.

She does some research that takes her to an archive, which eventually leads her to a guy named Jonathan Wick who wants that shadowshaping power for his own ends.

That archive, that guy, that taking? It points to one of the overlaps I had in mind as I read Shadowshaper. 

Native peoples in the U.S. have been dealing with this sort of thing for a long time. Someone is curious about us and starts to pry into our ways, seeking to know things not meant for him, things that he does not understand but is so intoxicated by, that he has to have it for himself. It happened in the 1800s; it happens today.

But let's come back to Sierra. She's Puerto Rican. When she starts her research in the library at Columbia University, she meets a woman named Nydia who wants to start a people's library in Harlem that will be filled with people's stories. Pretty cool, don't you think? Nydia works there, learning all she can to start that people's library. Amongst the things she has is a folder on Wick. She tells Sierra (p. 50):
He was a big anthro dude, specifically the spiritual systems of different cultures, yeah? But people said he got too involved, didn't know how to draw a line between himself and his -- she crooked two fingers in the air and rolled her eyes -- "subjects. But if you ask me, that whole subject-anthropologist dividing line is pretty messed up anyway."
Sierra asks her to elaborate. Nydia says it would take hours to really explain it but in short (p. 51),
"Who gets to study and who gets studied, and why? Who makes the decisions, you know?"
I can't think of a work of fiction in which I read those questions--straight up--in the way that Older gives them to us. Those are the big questions in and out of universities. We ask those questions in children's and young adult literature, and Native Nations have been dealing with them for a very, very long time. I love seeing these questions in Older's book and wonder what teen readers will take away from them? What will teachers do with them? Those questions throw doors wide open. They invite readers to begin that crucial journey of looking critically at power.

Older doesn't shy away from other power dynamics elsewhere in the book. Sierra's brother, Juan, knew about shadowshaping before she did because their abuelo told him about it. When Sierra asks Juan why she wasn't told, too, he says (p. 110):
"I dunno." Juan shrugged. "You know Abuelo was all into his old-school machismo crap."
Power dynamics across generations and gender are tough to deal with, but Older puts it out there for his readers to wrangle with. I like that, and the way he handles Sierra's aunt, Rosa, who doesn't want Sierra to date Robbie because his skin is darker than hers. Sierra says (p. 151):
"I don't wanna hear what you're saying. I don't care about your stupid neighborhood gossip or your damn opinions about everyone around you and how dark they are or how kinky their hair is. You ever look in the mirror, Tia?"
"You ever look at those old family albums Mom keeps around?" Sierra went on. "We ain't white. And you shaming everyone and looking down your nose because you can't even look in the mirror isn't gonna change that. And neither is me marrying someone paler than me. And I'm glad. I love my hair. I love my skin."
I love Sierra's passion, her voice, her love of self, and I think that part of Shadowshaper is going to resonate a lot with teens who are dealing with family members who carry similar attitudes.

Now, I'll point to the Native content of Shadowshaper. 

As I noted earlier, Sierra is Puerto Rican. That island was home to Indigenous people long before Columbus went there, all those hundreds of years ago. At one point in the story, Sierra notices the tattoo on Robbie's arm. He asks her if she wants to see the rest of it. She does, so he pulls his shirt off (p. 125):
It was miraculous work. A sullen-faced man with a bald head and tattoos stood on a mountaintop that curved around Robbie's lower back toward his belly. The man was ripped, and various axes and cudgels dangled off his many belts and sashes.
"Why they always gotta draw Indians lookin' so serious? Don't they smile?"
Did you notice the tense of her last question? She asks, in the present, not the past. There's more (p. 126):
"That's a Taino, Sierra."
"What? But you're Haitian. I thought Tainos were my peeps."
"Nah, Haiti had 'em too. Has 'em. You know..."
"I didn't know."
That exchange is priceless. In the matter-of-fact conversation between Robbie and Sierra, Older guides readers from the broad (Indian) to the specific (Taino) and goes on to give even more information (that Taino's are in Haiti, too).

But there's more (p. 126)!
Across from the Taino, a Zulu warrior-looking guy stood at attention, surrounded by the lights of Brooklyn. He held a massive shield in one hand and a spear in the other. He looked positively ready to kill a man. "I see you got the angry African in there," Sierra said.
"I don't know what tribe my people came from, so it came out kinda generic."
It is good to see a character acknowledge lack of knowing! It invites readers to think about all that we do not know about our ancestry, and what we think we know, too... How we know it, what we do with what we know...

What I've focused on here are the bits that wrap around and through Older's wonderful story. Bits that are the warm, rich, dark, brilliant fabric of life. Mainstream review journals are giving Shadowshaper starred reviews for the story he gives us. My starred review is for those bits. They matter and they speak directly to people who don't often see our lives reflected in the books we read. I highly recommend Shadowshaper. Published in 2015 by Arthur A. Levine Books, it is exceptional in a great many ways.


4 comments:

Lydia McClanahan said...

Thank you Ms. Reese for this review. I will definitely pick up a copy of Shadowshaper. I have a question about the discussion about the tattoo passage. The angry African that looked as if he was about to kill someone, made me flinch a bit. I immediately thought of the descriptions of Michael Brown by the police officer that shot and killed him. Sierra questions the serious face of the Indian on the tattoo. Is it implied that she had a problem with the "angry African" as well, or does this line portray the image of the "angry blackman" in a stereotypical way?

Debbie Reese said...

Lydia, I read it as a question about stereotypical imagery in general. When you get the book, I'd love for you to come back and share your thoughts.

Angela Savage said...

Wow! Great review, Debbie. One for me and my tween to read. Thanks you.

Sabrina Carnesi said...

Debbie,

I know you are probably shaking your head as you read my comment to this beautiful post on one of my favorite writer people, D. Jose Older, but you have to excuse me for the 2 year delay, for I've been trying to successfully resist the meta aggressive forces that be in my doctoral program that rain down on me like after lives breaking through portals. This morning I thought it was Friday and thank goodness it's Thursday.

So, let me say that I always surf through your site and I am comparing your annual titles for First Nations with the titles that come up on In the Margins Awards List and will be using some of your titles as vetted ones to try and establish a list to conduct my research that involves literature for youth from underrepresented groups. When I saw "Shadowshaper" like I said, I stopped and read your review. The one thing if I may respectfully comment on that was not correct is that Sierra was not of Puerto Rican heritage, she, like Older who is from lower Washington Heights in NYC, is Dominicano. His placement of her on the cover of his book as a brown skinned person of D. R. heritage was a straighten-up-and-fly-right-or-come-see-me statement in that many in the community do not embrace the African in their history. They continue the ancient respect to the ancestors and what the rituals are but not admit to where it came from. The other statement made in the story is that Haiti, the twin country of Hispaniola, upon freeing themselves, went over the mountain and freed Dominican Republic, and has been snubbed by DR ever since due to the same thing - their connection to Africa and the ancients and the ancestors is a reminder of DR's connection(not saying Haiti's caste system is to be excused). So in the storyline Sierra, for her survival, must turn to a young Haitian male to tutor her in the procedures for protection and catch her up on what she just didn't take serious as a 21st Century teen who was busy with other interest and whose granddad kept her from knowing until his death. This book, makes peace with the old rife between the two cultures and provides the commonalities shared between them that when bonded is a strengthening force.

So I didn't really mean to write so much, but I am impressed with your ability to embrace the root common denominator found in the Indigenous nature of spirit and so appreciate it.

Please accept my humble apologies, if this is received in any manner but upmost love and respect for the dedication you have made to ensure authenticity of voice and representation so our youth may form healthy identity to survive in this crazy world.