Battle Royale: Culture, Writing, & Representation

TW: Brief mentions of suicide

A few posts back, I wrote about my difficulties in finding something to read with my current state of mind. That problem persists, sort of. New books are still gathering dust on the shelves. But I have found refuge in some of my old favorites. (I reread Richard Adams’ Watership Down at least once a year, and that’s a soothing one for anyone out there also trying to stay away from darker material.) Except, for some reason, in my foray into lighter fare, I have somehow stumbled back into Koushun Takami’s infamous Battle Royale.

Spoiler alert: The book is full of blood, murder, suicide, oppression, and tears.

I think, a few sleep-addled nights ago, I decided that this book would somehow be uplifting. What a reflection of the war of chemicals in my brain! Life is a battle; now, fight! This is not a train of thought I recommend for the general public, but — so far — it’s actually going surprisingly well.

I love this cover because of the gun design between the two students. But what a weird quote from Stephen King.

For those not in the know, Battle Royale is the first and only novel written by Takami, a Japanese author, in the late ‘90s. The book was both wildly popular and deeply controversial in both Japan and then America following its English translation and the book’s subsequent film. (Note: The movie only skims the surface of the book, but I know it’s most people’s intro to the pop culture context.) I read this in high school and it blew my mind. This is maybe my second reread since then and it is still an emotional minefield.

Since Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Game trilogy there have been a lot of references to Battle Royale as some people claim Collins ripped off Takami, citing myriad similarities between the books (or the films). Battle Royale follows 42 high school students participating in one of fifty yearly Programs designed by the government, supposedly for military experiments. The students are taken to a remote location, armed with menial supplies and grab-bag weapons, and told to kill each other until only one survivor remains.

To add fuel to the fear, each student is fitted with a collar that not only tracks their location but can be triggered to explode if they are caught in a forbidden zone (six new zones on the grid of the map they are given), if they try to remove the collar, or if they otherwise piss off the Program staff. If no one dies within 24 hours, everyone’s collars explode.

By now you should be wondering: “But, Cheri, this is the darkest shit ever. Why are you doing this to yourself? You just bared your soul to us and said you couldn’t handle the darkness anymore. You wanted prancing Austenesque fare with which to gallop off into the sun. Why the lies?”

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This is true, dear readers. I have been giving it a lot of thought and this fluke may be due to one of two things: 1) All these characters are struggling in different ways because they want to live. That’s a brilliant model for my brain to latch onto. Granted, some of the characters are of the more murderous mindset of wanting to live, but the main characters fight with idealism, morality, trying to understand their government, corruption, complacency, and what it means to be alive. The loftier philosophies all boil down to this one very primal emotion, which my brain apparently is open to processing.

It’s either that or, 2) I’ve also been thinking about this potential blog post concerning Takami’s writing and its connection to Chebk’s post on Cultural Views and my post on Culture + Writing.

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Guest Post: Gender in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Hello, all. My name is Sanjiv and I’m a member of the Banana Bunch. I’ve collaborated with Chebk on the Psych 101 posts you may have seen here. I am currently working towards my PhD in Clinical Psychology, where I focus on research and clinical work related to children, trauma, and evidence-based mental health services. Currently, most of my reading and writing occurs within academia, but, outside of my ivory tower, I enjoy science-fiction, fantasy, and early 20th century American literature.

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Last month Chebk and I attended a science fiction convention. Overall, I found it was an enjoyable experience, but I regretted attending one panel (Chebk actually tried to get me to leave the panel early instead of silently fuming in my seat). The topic was “Kick-ass Women in Science-Fiction and Fantasy.” From the panel description, it sounded like an interesting and relevant discussion. Instead, I found it to be an infuriating reminder that our society (and more distressingly, the authors and audience of fantasy and science-fiction) is far from gender equal.

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OKPotato April Book Giveaway!

Hey, readers. For the month of April we will be giving away two of the books we’ll also be reviewing later this month:

2The Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard (Feb. 2015)

The poverty stricken Reds are commoners, living under the rule of the Silvers, elite warriors with god-like powers. To Mare Barrow, a 17-year-old Red girl from The Stilts, it looks like nothing will ever change. Mare finds herself working in the Silver Palace, at the centre of those she hates the most. She quickly discovers that, despite her red blood, she possesses a deadly power of her own. One that threatens to destroy Silver control. But power is a dangerous game. And in this world divided by blood, who will win?

(Chebk will be reviewing this title.)

None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio (April 2015)

A groundbreaking story about a teenage girl who discovers she was born intersex . . . and what happens when her secret is revealed to the entire school. Incredibly compelling and sensitively told, None of the Above is a thought-provoking novel that explores what it means to be a boy, a girl, or something in between.

(Cheri will be reviewing this title.)


HOW TO ENTER:

Leave a comment on this post with either book title or “either”  and you will automatically be entered in the giveaway drawing pool. We will be using a random generator to decide winners for both books. You must be willing to give us your mailing address to receive your prize. (Unfortunately we are shipping only to people in the United States.) The winners will be announced April 30, 2015.

(NOTE: Winners from February are not eligible to re-enter to win the following giveaway. You may re-enter in the giveaway after this.)

Good luck, everyone, and happy reading!

Top Five PoC Author Recs

Hey, readers. If you’ve been following OKP for a bit, you’ll notice we’re constantly promoting or discussing diversity in media, particularly books (and especially Young Adult books, where diversity can be especially hard to find at first glance). Wandering the bookstore recently, it occurred to me how daunting it can be to start reading diversely for the uninitiated — and soI’ve put together some recs to help!

These are mostly not Young Adult, but rather contemporary PoC (People of Color) authors I would like to personally promote:

  1. Helen Oyeyemi
    Writing Style: Experimental, whimsical. Explores race and gender issues with heavy use of fairy tale structures and conventions.
    Start With: Mr. Fox (2011). The eponymous Mr. Fox is a writer who kills off his heroines story after story, until his muse, Mary, comes to life and places Mr. Fox into a story himself. Dialogue-heavy and a bit slow to begin with, but it’s fun to watch Oyeyemi play with both her characters and words.

    3A black British novelist and playwright, Oyeyemi focuses on women of color battling what it means to be both female and black in contemporary contexts. In that sense, she reminds me a lot of Toni Morrison, but, unlike Morrison, she does not focus on the historical so much as subverting literary traditions, most often in fairy tale settings, as in Boy Snow Bird which is told from the stepmother’s perspective as she raises Snow, her stepdaughter, and Bird, her new daughter, who is born a light-skinned African American (a trait taken from her father who passes as white.)I’ll be reviewing Oyeyemi’s White is For Witching later this month; the book is a weird cross between Shirley Jackson subtle horror and Toni Morrison slice-of-life magical realism.

 

  1. Junot Diaz
    Writing Style: Somehow incorporates an entire cultural environment in the way his characters move and talk within the prose. Uses slang and bilingual language with a focus on movement and rhythm in the text so it sounds like natural thought or dialogue. Lots of asides and footnotes.
    Start With: This is How You Lose Her (2012). This is a short story collection but all the vignettes are interconnected by character (a boy named Yunior who shows up in Diaz’s other works) and themes (loss, identity, love and relationships, especially infidelity).2You may have seen a few of Diaz’s quotes on media representation floating around Tumblr and the like, and if not, it’s something everyone should see:

    “You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist? And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”

    Diaz is a Dominican American writer whose work generally focuses on the immigrant experience in America. His protagonists are young men of color who struggle with their native roots (i.e. Dominican Republic) and living in modern America which isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

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Review: The Darkest Part of the Forest

I first came across Holly Black with the release of her first Tale of Modern Faerie, Tithe, which followed half-Japanese (sort of: read more on this here) Kaye as she journeys through the dark fey world with her best friend’s older brother, Cornelius. I was deeply enamored with Black’s writing style as a teenager: the fluidity of her imagery, the dark undertones of each character and creature and dialogue, and especially her boldness with sexuality and nonchalant LGBT representation (notably only reserved for side characters though; more on this later).

I wasn’t around the YA genre when her follow-up books to Tithe were released, (Valiant and Ironside) and so I was pleasantly surprised at the recent publication of The Darkest Part of the Forest (Jan. 2015) which coincided with my own return to exploring YA. Having returned to the genre from a very different perspective (and, cough, age), it’s kind of comforting to have something familiar to fall back on. But Holly Black and her faerie worlds have changed, too.

From the book trailer, which you can watch here.
From the book trailer, which you can watch here.

The Darkest Part of the Forest tells the story of Hazel and Ben Evans, siblings connected to and destined for the strange faerie world in the forest beyond their tiny town of Fairfold. Unlike Tithe, the human and faerie world not only interact but overlap: Tourists come to Fairfold to gaze at the horned boy sleeping in a glass casket, and some go missing due to fey mischief, a truth openly acknowledged by everyone in town. The contrast between the modern and the folklore make for a great backdrop for the main story: The horned boy in the glass casket wakes up and Hazel and Ben suddenly have a faerie king at their backs and a monster at the heart of the forest tormenting the townspeople.

But, how does Black’s latest novel hold up in terms of diversity? The simplest answer is: It tries.

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Writing Diversely: Character + Culture

Greetings, readers. Let’s get right down to it: Where are all the culturally diverse, quality characters across media? One of the biggest problems with diversity in media is representation of various races in meaningful ways. The “standard” hero story still focuses on the White (Straight) Male Protagonist and the “standard” romance on the White Heterosexual Couple. Mainstream audiences are used to People of Color in movies about overcoming racial hardships and little else (e.g. 12 Years A Slave, Selma, and 42), or exotified cultural mysticism (e.g. 47 Ronin, Last Samurai, etc.)  which is not to say that these are not good movies or good representation, only that PoC are still not acceptable in broader stories and roles. Those visionaries trying to bring racial representation to the forefront definitely exist, but there is still a problem getting the viewers and producers to support what the Powers That Be still deem “a risk.”

No Asians allowed in this cartoon about Asian cultures. Via Colorlines.
No Asians allowed in this cartoon about Asian cultures. Via Colorlines.

While representation or lack thereof is easy to spot in movies and television due to visuals, the whitewashing of casts in literature is equally problematic. So, let’s say you’re a writer who wants to ensure you have a culturally diverse cast or main character. Where should you begin?

Well, let’s start with the definite DON’Ts:

  • Do NOT make a character’s race their main focal point (unless it drives their arc/story) or a justification for their existence, even (or especially) for background characters. In other words, if you ask someone to describe your character to you and they can’t go very far past, “They’re black/Asian/Mexican/whatever,” then you’re doing something wrong. Ideally your PoC characters should be allowed the same amount of complexity as any other main character. Don’t get hung up on making sure they are [insert culture here] enough.

    Good Example: Ari and Dante in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (read my review here). Their Mexican heritage is mentioned and important to establish both their physical appearance and their family background. Their diversity (as queer people of color) informs their conflict but is not as all-caps descriptors of who each character is. They are Ari and Dante, but they are also Mexican and LGBTQ.

    Bad Example: Some characters that can’t be described very far past their race: Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles and Mickey Rooney’s yellowface character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Think that no longer happens any more? Try BBC Sherlock’s The Blind Banker episode and its China Doll/Lotus Blossom Soo Lin, the Dragon Lady boss of a Chinese smuggling ring, and Orientalism everywhere.

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    Literally every time we see Soo Lin she is surrounded by tea pots.

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    Exhibit B.
  • Do NOT base your knowledge or representation of a culture off of already existing stereotypes or tropes. This goes hand-in-hand with the above DON’T. If your diversity decisions are based on thoughts like, “This character is going to be smart and shy, so it’s easiest to write them as Asian,” or “I want this character to be a gang leader, so he’s going to be black,” you may need to start reframing or rethinking how you will diversify your cast, lest you fall into the Fake Diversity cast. Your Asian character can be smart and shy, but hopefully that won’t be the only thing your reader will take away from your story about them. Just like any other character, you want to move away from 2-D simplicity.

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Guess That Literary Couple! (Valentine’s Edition)

Happy Valentine’s Day, readers! To celebrate the occasion, we’ve decided to do a post honoring popular literary couples. Part of what makes a literary couple “popular” is how ubiquitous they’ve become in our culture — they become identifiable by the simplest symbols or phrases. Can you guess these six literary couples by picture?

(Correct answers will get you automatically entered in our February Book Giveaway!)

ONE1

TWO

2

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