What If the Protagonist’s Ignorance Is the Author’s Unconscious Bias?
There is too thin a line between Ann Patchett and Ann Patchett’s heroine in State of Wonder.
People, good and bad, can Other, (yes, I learned that can be a verb) individuals and entire populations. They can even do it unintentionally. And authors can tell stories that exacerbate the Us/Them dichotomy that marginalizes populations already struggling with disenfranchisement.
As the term “cultural appropriation” is increasingly (and distractingly) appropriated by self-appointed social justice warriors its meaning and its goals are getting diluted. Like the privileged who love to privilege-check other privileged people, sometimes your work can be counterproductive. Apparently this is called “virtue signaling” and it can be competitive. When it happens in writing, the author can lose credibility and the reader can lose faith.
What is unclear, however, is if Patchett is the mastermind using her heroine and her main characters to make a savvy point about classism and Othering, or if Patchett herself is guilty of nativism in fabricating an ethnicity from what appears to be an amalgamation of stereotypes about numerous cultures.
The “Lakashi” are an exoticized one-dimensional product of Patchett’s imagination. For some fifty years an interdisciplinary team of Johns Hopkins medical professionals have ingratiated themselves into a tribe of jungle-dwelling illiterates that are described, when they are described at all, as “jungle-dwelling” and “illiterate”. While these descriptors are not inherently bad, in the absence of literally any other description, they read as elitist. These characters are developed with as much nuance, depth and arc as Africans in Out of Africa or The White Masai. That is to say not at all. When they are mentioned at all it is more as set dressing. They are described visually, the same way the scenery is — the insects, “the hard-shelled and soft-sided, the biting and stinging, the chirping and buzzing and droning, every last one unfolded its paper wings …” are described with more character depth than the “enthusiastic locals”.
The “natives”, save for one boy, do not have personalities, back stories or even names. And the one boy who does have a name and a personality and fears and joy is named Easter by white people, after perhaps the holiest of Christian holy days. A boy who can “never get over” the long blonde hair of a young trustafarian woman.
They are part of the setting, not the cast of characters.
It vacillates between a seemingly serious treatment of neocolonialism and just the latest iteration of Fern Gully.
I suspect Patchett thinks she sidestepped any racism or cultural insensitivity by a.) inventing a tribe instead of depicting a real one, and b.) making her main character half-Indian and including a supporting character from Java. But her story is still implicitly classist. Now it certainly doesn’t mean that Patchett contributes to the astonishingly disproportionate concentration of global wealth that impoverishes populations all over the world. Or that she’s intrinsically classist.
But. It doesn’t mean that she’s not.
And while this story does have an intriguing premise, the attainable pursuit of which does not even begin until 153 pages in, this is not only not her finest work, as some reviews claim.
It is more problematic than it is literary. Despite Patchett’s ample storytelling gifts, this story just might be a net negative. Even with a vindicating humanitarian plot twist I truly didn’t see coming.
If you want to experience the splendor that Patchett is capable of, textured beauty you can run your fingers through, read bel canto. And when you’ve finished that you might even want to read it a second time.