Sloan’s collection of essays are written in a sharp, modernist style. Her book explores the complexities of race, culture, society and media. It’s packed with close human moments – subtle interactions that have a profound impact on her development.
Fleur Philips doesn’t waste any space in her novel, Crumble. Her accessible writing style and well paced plot carry the story. It’s the kind of story which feels both familiar and new. A San Francisco Book Festival Winner in YA Fiction, Crumble alternates between the perspective of Sarah and Alex, both high school students in Kalispell, Montana. Sarah is an average, small-town teenage girl who lives with her single-parent father, George – except for a secret she keeps from her traditionalist father. Sarah is dating one of the few black kids in town, and as is quickly revealed, becomes pregnant. Alex works for George, who owns a gun shop, and because of his tumultuous family life, develops a close bond to him. When George senses that something is off with Sarah, he asks Alex to keep an eye on her. As Alex discovers Sarah’s relationship with her boyfriend, David, both of their lives begin to unravel. Sarah, caught between love, practicality, and loyalty to her father, searches for a solution that will keep everyone happy. As the novel comes to a close, Alex, armed with both George’s fear for his daughter and new familiarity with guns, considers taking it upon himself to right any wrongs in honor of the man who has helped him.
Though the first chapter starts slow in order to introduce many characters, the pace picks up quickly as Sarah’s situation complicates. There is a clear sense of tension about her relationship with David from the beginning, as Sarah knows the social expectations set by her community: “Reggie, Jalen and David aren’t treated any differently than anybody else, as long as the mingling of blacks and whites stays within the boundaries of friendship. But for me to be dating one of them?” (20). Philips makes sure to give the characters complexity beyond differences in race, (with only the exception of David’s parents, who seem to take the news of the relationship and the pregnancy very easily), and provides an interesting backstory that weighs heavily on each of the main characters. By switching points of view, she provides a full landscape of the world these characters inhabit. The dialogue and interaction of the younger characters is realistic and well structured. One of the most compelling aspects of this novel for me is the dynamic between Sarah and George, and how this secret changes their home life in a profound way. With Crumble, Philips has highlighted the tensions that still exist today about interracial relationships, and contributed to the dialogue about the modern face of racism. She does this with characters than can fully connect with a young adult audience and with a twist at the end, offers a glimpse of a reality that is far from perfect.
Here is my conversation with Fleur:
The switch in POV is surprising and refeshing. What made you chose to write in two POVs?
I had originally written the story in 3rd person for both characters, alternating chapters. By doing this, I allowed myself to remain a safe distance from both of them, but after rereading the novel (and having several other people read it), I felt I needed to be more in touch with Sarah’s character. For some reason, she felt too distant from me. Once I rewrote the story with Sarah in first person, I was able to ask more in regards to her feelings and emotions, and I think this made the novel more powerful.
How did Alex’s POV open up the story for you?
One the contrary, I needed to remain distant from Alex, but I also needed Alex to have a voice, more than just from Sarah’s perspective, which is what he would of been if I’d written only from Sarah’s POV. Although I personally wanted to be distant from Alex (as the author), I didn’t want my readers to be. I wanted them to identify with Alex, not just Sarah. By allowing Alex to have his own voice, I was able to create an identity for him that would have not happened otherwise.
In light of several school tragedies, did any current events affect the way you approach the end of this novel?
No. I actually finished the novel a few weeks before the Sandy Hook tragedy, and I find this ironic because Alex doesn’t obtain his gun by purchasing it (as did James Holmes in the Colorado movie theatre shooting). Alex was given the weapon, and taught how to use it, by the man he considered his mentor (much like Adam Lanza who took the weapons he was taught to use by his mother and that belonged to her). I has actually considered going back and changing the ending after Sandy Hook, but I realized I’d be going against my writer’s instincts – the “go with your gut” ideology. As a reader, I always want a happy ending, but in the real world, this just isn’t the case. If I’d changed the ending in light of current events, I would’ve done it for the wrong reason.
You write about how antiquated race politics can still persist in modern times – what about this theme resonates with you?
I guess I just don’t understand how race is even an issue anymore, and that misunderstanding infuriates me. Writing about it helps relieve some of the anger.
Can you share any of your own race-based experiences and/or the differences or similarities you’ve witnessed between Montana and California?
I have friends who are the children of mixed couples, and I have friends who are in biracial relationships. So, although my personal experience is secondary, I have witnessed the looks and heard the comments, and as I mentioned above, it just infuriates me. In Montana, I grew up on a reservation, so my high school was roughly 70% white and 30% Native American. There was definitely a divide between us, but I don’t feel that division was as obvious as it might be in parts of the rural south between whites and African Americans. I’ve lived in Southern California now for almost 12 years. When I go back to Montana, I definitely see the difference, although at times subtle. For example, the anti-Obama stickers in places up there aren’t as politically correct as the ones you might see down here. In Crumble the intolerance is not necessarily obvious. Nobody is throwing stones in windows or egging cars, but there’s a definite tension. And that’s what it’s like in Montana – quiet, but apparent.
Though Alex wants to be the hero, no one in the story comes out as a savior for anyone else. Was this intentional? How do you approach writing complex characters?
I’m not sure I intended this, but I realized after finishing the novel that nobody could have been a savior. The pure lack of communication between and characters and anybody with authority would have made that impossible and therefore, unrealistic.
The novel is well thought out and plot driven. How much do you outline before diving into writing?
I’m a firm believer in developing an outline before diving into writing. I do this both with the story and the characters (which helps in creating complex characters). Just like the story, the character needs to be mapped out and then fleshed out.
How did you approach writing characters that are different from you, such as David and his family members?
Thanks to Nia for submitting this great interview to Mixed Reader. Check out her website at artistactivistnia.com, her zines and her comics at QTPOC Comics! She’s an artist and writer who explores the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality in a compelling and accessible way. Support her work!
Bodies on the Line: An Interview with Nia King by Tali Weinberg
Nia King is multimedia producer with a passion for social justice. She started out as a zinester writing about mixed-race identity, made a short film about searching for trans-friendly housing in the Bay Area, and has recently transitioned into journalism. Her ongoing projects include a web comic about her interracial relationship, and a podcast about queer and trans art activists of color. Feminist textile artist Tali Weinberg, an MFA student at California College of Art, recently interviewed Nia for part of her thesis on women art activists in the Bay Area. Below is an abridged transcript of the interview.
Do you consider yourself part of a certain activist or artistic lineage?
As a queer, mixed-race woman of color who’s an ex-punk and an ex-anarchist I feel like there’s lots of different things that I draw from, some of which have nothing to do with my identity. Jaime Hernandez is definitely my biggest influence in terms of my comics. He and his brother do a series of comics called Love and Rockets. His branch of the Love and Rockets franchise is about these two young queer punk rockers growing up outside LA, I think one of them is Chicana and the other is Colombian and Scottish. For me as a young punk growing up in a white scene, seeing queer women of color represented in comics as actual people was a really amazing thing.
I also really love the visual art. Every panel looks like something you could put up on a wall, which is not something you see with all comics. There’s a really strong graphic style with a lot of solid black and white shapes that are really sort of distinct visually and that’s something I also really draw from.
When something is racist or sexist but also entertaining or creatively inspiring, how do you negotiate that?
It’s hard. I think being from a marginalized group in our society and having any kind of relationship to pop culture or “the media” in any way requires a split consciousness. For example, if you’re a woman and you listen to the radio, you kind of have to make a conscious decision. “Am I going to listen to Top 40, where most of the messages about women…” They’re not even about women, they’re mostly in the imperative tense, “Get on the floor, ride my elevator, blow my whistle,” all these increasingly inane euphemisms for sex acts … You have to decide, “Am I going to shut off the part of my brain that cares? Am I going to let the angry feminist part of my brain run things, or am I going to let the part of my brain that just wants some music to drive to run things right now?”
And that’s very much true if you’re a queer person or a person of color as well, you have to choose how you’re going to engage with popular entertainment, if you’re going to engage with popular entertainment. You can choose or try to extract yourself from it, but a.) it’s a very difficult thing to do, and b.) are you still relevant if you’re not engaging with the culture, the mainstream culture, in any meaningful way? I don’t think you have to listen to Flo Rida or whatever to be relevant, but it does sometimes help, if you want to change the culture, to know what’s going on in it.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the phrase “putting your body on the line.” I’ve been thinking a lot particularly about Occupy last year, and the very white, male front line of Occupy. At the time I felt like “I really want this to be my movement, and it’s not.” As a woman, what does it mean to put your body on the line, and when is your body on the line? How is art potentially part of that or not part of that?
I generally try to keep my body as far away from the line as possible. [Laughter] “Putting your body on the line” is such an interesting expression, and also I think an expression of privilege in a lot of ways, because if you are putting it on the line voluntarily, that’s very different than it always naturally being a site of battle. I have a lot of experience with white anarchists looking for fights with the cops because that’s how they measure their radicalism or their viability as activists. That’s not something that, for the most part, women, poor people, people of color, people with disabilities and trans folk can do. I mean some do, and I don’t want to diminish that, but it’s really different to consciously make a decision to engage with the police in the streets if you’re a person who deals with street harassment, with police raids, with stop-and-frisk on a regular basis.
Being in community with trans folks and being in a relationship with my partner, has made me think really differently about privilege and the privilege that I have. I used to think, “I’m queer, I’m a woman, I’m a person of color, I’m young, I’m sort of disadvantaged in all these ways.” But I’m also light-skinned, middle-class, perhaps sometimes straight-passing, and cisgender. When you’re walking down the street with someone who is trans and every guy you pass has to say something to them, you become really aware of how invisible – and in my mind privileged, because for me invisibility (freedom from unwanted sexual attention) is a privilege – that you are.
How do you define your role as an artist in society?
A lot of my work focuses on microaggressions, especially in my earlier zines like Angry Black-White Girl. Racism is often portrayed as something that’s very obvious, outright and easy to identify, and a lot of times racism is not like that. Sometimes, it can be really hard to put your finger on, even if you’re the one experiencing it, which can make you feel crazy. I hope my work will add a layer of nuance to conversations about race in our society by showing that it can be subtle as well as overt.
I do a comic about my relationship with my partner. He’s a white trans man, he’s currently transitioning with hormones. Each of the comics is for the most part just a cute little story, I don’t try to make them light or try to make them heavy, but because he’s trans and because our relationship is an interracial relationship race and gender do come up.
The way that the political nature of trans identity is integrated into the comic is that I draw my boyfriend the way he looks. He has facial fair and breasts. When people are confronted with that image they have to try and make sense of it for themselves. If you go to the tumblr where the comics are, right under the title it says, “I’m mixed. My partner is trans, these are our stories.”
I could have chosen to draw myself with darker skin so people would recognize me as a person of color, but I felt weird about that, and also, I wanted to challenge that people think they know what a person of color looks like, or what a man looks like. I think just presenting an image of a person with breasts and saying “this is a man,” is inherently a political act.
My agenda as an artist is to make people understand that queer people of color’s lives matter, which sounds really basic, but…
Yeah. I think we like to assume that we all understand that everyone’s life matters, but the policies and that practices that we have, from stop-and-frisk to this law that just passed in Arizona saying that transgender people can’t use the bathroom of the gender they identify with, make life so much harder if you are queer, or trans, or brown. The value of your life and your life expectancy are very much impacted by everything from the kind of representations that exist of people like you on TV to interpersonal violence to microaggressions to policy. It’s all related. And it starts at the level of representation.
The way that we’re represented in the mainstream media has a huge impact on how people treat us. When people don’t see representations of people like you, they believe that you don’t exist. So then when they see someone like you walking down the street, they feel like you shouldn’t exist. I believe is part of what inspires hate violence. I don’t think that my comics are going to end hate violence, although that would be wonderful, but I think that showing queer and trans people as human is definitely a necessary step in the right direction, which hopefully other people will take, and then as a society we can get somewhere. [Laughter]
Mine starts with a square afro. I was seven years old when my father decided my hair was too much trouble and cut it all off. He was an unsteady barber at best: lopping away chunks of thick curls until my head was an uneven puff. Before this, my hair was long enough to sit on. In kindergarten I kept it in a long braid that collected paste and fuzz and paper clippings from our afternoon art projects. My mother would diligently pick these things out of my hair piece by piece as we sat on the front step of our apartment; my siblings and the neighbor kids running around the small plaza of grass outside our place. I learned quickly that I was tender-headed: the rough sweeps of the comb pulling at my skin like a slow, revengeful scalping.
“If you…would just…keep this…out your hair…it wouldn’t hurt,” my mother said, trying to keep the slow rhythm of the metal comb catching each knot. If I moved too much, she ripped the comb from my head to paddle whatever bare skin of my arms or legs she could reach.
I also learned yelling didn’t help. Our immediate neighbors consisted of other lower-class, children-should-be-seen-not-heard traditionalists who praised my mother on her patience with us. Most of the other mothers had their own comb-swatting techniques to keep their long-haired, squirming girls in check. As one of those kids who more scared what would happen if I made a scene, I sat through it, lips pursed and tears flowing.
I figure my father was tired of my whining or my mother’s complaints of how much time it took. Here’s a truth about mixed kid hair: it’s a lot of work. There’s a mix of textures up there, from rough brillo to baby soft, all fighting for space. It’s not the defined curls of the models in TIME magazine’s glossy spread of the New Mixed America. My hair was pretty…when it was wet. Heavy with water, my ringlets hung loosely around my shoulders, the deep brown-black color of coffee grounds. Every time, I was convinced that it would just stay this way if we left it alone. Untouched, my precious curls would uncoil upward and outward, matting together. Like a good roast, without the prompt slathering of oils and marinades, it dried out and frayed. My post-shampoo moment of beauty ended when the jar of product appeared on the bathroom counter.
I was my father’s first white baby. He met my mother after he had already made his first family. From this first family I had five older half-siblings who carried his same light brown skin and high forehead. If he wouldn’t have left, they could have been picture perfect. I still don’t know that story, but I know he came out West with something to prove. I was one of his statements. The high-yellow, “you so pretty with that soft hair and freckles” kid. Eyes the streaky brown of a coconut shell, skin a buttermilk cream, he paraded me around and sent back photos of his half-breed wonder. I got older though. My skin caught the sun like a biscuit browning in the oven, and my hair grew bigger and more tangled.
I guess my novelty wore off.
I have no memory of the actual hair-cutting. I imagine I would’ve cried or run away from the vibrating buzz of his hair clippers. I can’t remember whether it was outside on our square backyard patio, or in the upstairs bathroom that always smelled of that Rogaine dye he used to cover his grays. Maybe he was trying to get my hair to look like that lady on Murray’s pomade jar – a haloed afro that might make me look more like his kid.
My mother says she was gone when it happened. She said she tried her best to shape up the new ‘do with the sharpest scissors we had: the ones that came with the kitchen knife set.
I don’t remember the first day back at school with my new hair; whether I was teased or what my friends said. There’s a few pictures left over from this time that show the square ‘fro from different angles. The top was shorter than the sides so that it was going outwards similar to your average circus clown. My hair had the shape of a cigar box. It was the mid ‘90s, so I accessorized my look with floral print leggings and Girl Power t-shirts.
It was the first time I became aware of my body and the way people would question me. The square ‘fro ripped me from the world of passing into the in-between space of whispered comments. Unsolicited nappy hair care advice. Stares. This is when I became a mixed kid.
How do you create opportunities for yourself? This question has nagged at me for weeks. Post MFA/grad school life is here and I’ve got to make something happen.
I have bigger hopes & aspirations for this blog and for my future as a writer/editor. I’m working to revamp this site really soon. I’m thinking about Mixed Reader on the regular: changing it up, making it a collaborative space, telling more stories, celebrating more stories. This is where my heart is, so I know it can be better.