Thursday, September 29, 2016

Shadowhunters: Diversity, Racism, and Postcolonial Readings

When The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, directed by Harald Zwart, was released in 2013, it opened to lackluster reviews and disappointing box-office numbers—it only earned about $31 million domestically to date. Based on the bestselling young adult urban fantasy novels by Cassandra Clare, the story follows the heroine Clary Fray as she stumbles into what most teenagers would want to discover: she’s not entirely human, and she’s an important player in the race to save the world—and not just the human world. The Shadowhunter world and its occupants are also in danger from a purist Shadowhunter bent on purifying their race. (Not quite the whole wipe-out-the-world ploy but close. Really close.)

Shadowhunters the television show is the second adaption of the novel series and premiered on Freeform on January 12, 2016; it has since been renewed for a second season run of 20 episodes. And being a fan of anything fantasy (and having seen/read both the movie and the novels), I had to take it upon myself to watch this particular adaption as well.

Now, the thing about Shadowhunters isn’t that it’s the Best Show on TelevisionTM, because it’s bad. Truly, honestly, undeniably bad in the way that most shows aimed at young adult audiences are. The acting goes from good to terrible in the span of a scene; the cinematography is mediocre; the dialogue is awful; the special effects are cringe-worthy.

However, though the show is objectively Bad TelevisionTM and was probably made on a budget of two cents, a bent paper clip, and a crinkled candy wrapper, what the show does well is a number of more nuanced narrative and directive choices. Arguably, Shadowhunters is the best portrayal of fictional oppression as a metaphor for racial oppression I’ve seen on genre TV lately, as the casting director cast actors of color in a multitude of roles that were originally white. It has real, visible diversity that are present not only in the extras but, perhaps most importantly, in the characters that actually move the plot forward (namely the main cast). Most of these characters were white or “up to interpretation” in the original text material, and most were portrayed as white in the 2013 movie adaption.

While not an exhaustive list by any means, here are 8 characters of color in the show:
  • Emaraude Toubia, as Isabelle Lightwood (Mexican-Lebanese)
  • Harry Shum Jr., as Magnus Bane (Costa-Rican Chinese)
  • Kaitlyn Leeb, as Camille Belcourt (Chinese-Canadian)
  • Jade Hassouné, as Meliorn (Lebanese-Canadian)
  • David Castro, as Raphael Santiago (Puerto-Rican, Jewish)
  • Alberto Rosende, as Simon Lewis (Cuban-Colombian)
  • Isaiah Mustafa, as Luke Garroway (African American)
  • Shailene Garnett, as Maureen Brown (African-Canadian, Creole)
Shadowhunters, then, is a turning point in representation in TV shows, as a means to critique Hollywood’s toxic history of whitewashing everyone under the sun in the name of profit and audience turn-out for big-name actors. 

More often than not, people of color are regulated to stereotypical roles: the sidekick, the comedic extra, the villain, the sexualized subject, and so on ad nauseam. These particular images get repeated often enough that they assume a reality of their own. Postcolonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha, professor of English and American Literature and Language, and the Director of the Humanities Center at Harvard University, has offered perhaps the most challenging and innovative engagement with the issues of racial/cultural otherness and the colonial stereotype. In his book, The Location of Culture, Bhabha asserts that the colonizer is able to produce images and remark upon things that are then reiterated and reified, especially in the case of the racialized Other. Skin color provides a convenient strategy for that signification; if the Other has a particular skin pigment, they can be known and exoticized as something dangerous that society cannot contain. The purpose of this, as Bhabha writes, is to shore up the identity of the colonizer by molding the colonized subject into a more palatable form—someone who is like the colonizer themselves. Critically pressuring this goal, however, reveals that the (white/hegemonic/heteropatriarchal) identity being protected is not as stable or secure as the colonizer might wish to believe.

Because the Downworlders (beings like werewolves, vampires, and faeries who are half demon) are portrayed by people of color in Shadowhunters when they once were white, the narrative makes room for a postcolonial reading about the fragility of the Shadowhunter’s dominant, hegemonic society.

Despite the increased diversity in the show and allowance for these types of dialogues are a positive step in the right direction, it does not pardon the show from breaking down under critical analysis. While the handling of racism in the show is a little more nuanced than what we would normally see, I can’t help but raise my eyebrows to my hairline with the way the show handles it. Shadowhunters is so specifically focused on these conversations about race that it lacks the specific context of that racism. 

In the show, the Downworlders exist in an uneasy alliance with the Shadowhunters, but the Shadowhunters seem to find ever-increasing ways of being verbally offensive about them. For example, Alec (one of the protagonists) insists that Downworlders are ruled by impulse while Shadowhunters are not, which repeats the racist, colonialist discourse of civilized versus non-civilized people. Even Isabelle (played by Mexican-Lebanese actress Toubia) informs Meliorn that “some of us [Shadowhunters] enjoy a little spice” when referring to his part-demon blood and also in reference to her relationship with him, contributing to the hypersexualization of people of color in media, and thus reduces Meliorn to that one aspect of his identity rather than a coherent whole.
Isabelle Lightwood

At the same time, it’s hard not to see the show succeeding in smalls ways despite itself. Shadowhunters engages in depictions of POC (people of color) on POC racism, and that is unexpected but welcome, because it does address internalized racism and adds complexity to the fairly straightforward fantasy. 

If a “silly fantasy” young adult genre dramedy can do this, why can’t HBO do it with their high-budget shows?

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

(Re)introduction to Your NCSCL Graduate Assistants

Welcome back, familiar faces, and a warm welcome to the fresh-faced students whose first time it is on SDSU’s campus! 

The National Children’s Literature Center is excited to say that we have a lot of exciting things planned by way of blogging and Instagram, so if you haven’t followed us on all of our social media, please do so! We’d love to hear from you. 

Facebook: /NCSCL
Twitter: @NCSChildLit
Instagram: NCSChildlit  

My name is Susan Shamoon (hello again!), and I’m back for another amazing year as a graduate assistant and new teaching associate with the Rhetoric and Writing Studies Department. 
This marks my second year of graduate school, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to come to terms with how fast this program is flying by! It’s both terrifying and gratifying to see how much work and knowledge you can accumulate in only the few short months of a semester, how many people you can meet and befriend, how many activities there are to participate in. 

Crazily enough, I’m plunging face-first into the thesis route of masters graduate study, and for a while, I wondered what I could write near-endless pages about—what interests me? Spoiler alert: unicorns. Unicorns interest me. That hasn’t really changed all that much from my elementary school days, but now it’s expanded and reinforced with theory and new interests. I’ll be writing about identity formation and blurred realities in young adult fantasy literature—which will include a certain unicorn who was almost the last of her kind once upon a time. My childhood self is squealing in excitement; you have no idea. 

And now, here to introduce herself, is our newest member of the NCSCL Holly Russo! We are so lucky to have her! 
Hi! I’m Holly Russo! Like my friend and colleague Susan, I am beginning my second year of graduate school here at SDSU. I am so happy to be joining the NCSCL team. I was lucky enough to watch my good friend Cristina Rivera in this position last year, and I have learned so much from her dedication.

This graduate program has been quite an adventure for me; I have two and a half year old twins at home who are just the cutest and happiest babies around (you can find all the cute pictures you can handle over on my Instagram). I just recently switched my field of study from American Literature to Children's Literature, and I couldn’t be happier. I come from a long line of teachers—my grandfather taught here at SDSU in the English department for thirty years; he was a Hemingway and Faulkner scholar, and I found myself following in his footsteps for a long time. It wasn't until graduate school that I realized my own personal interest in literature was leading me to Children’s and Young Adult Literature. I thought the switch would be incredibly difficult because I always believed that children's literature and American literature were vastly different, but they aren't, really. Both fields of study have their particular challenges, but when it comes down to it, the study of literature of any kind, in my humble opinion, is truly about understanding the world from various points of view. Now I get to see the world through children's books and young adult texts, and it’s just as beautiful and enriching as any other lens I've had the pleasure of learning through. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Passing the Torch

As the Fall semester begins the NCSCL team is sad to say that one of our amazing graduate assistants, Cristina Rivera, is now officially a Ph.D. student at The Ohio State University; she is now a Buckeye!

Q: What made you want to specialize in children's literature?
A: I would say it started in 2012 when I took Professor Thomas’s Young Adult Literature class. It was in this class that I learned how amazing and versatile studying Children's Literature is. I had taken one Children's Literature class prior to the YA Lit course, which was with Mary Galbraith. This was also a really awesome class, and little did I know there was so much more to discover. I didn't know that SDSU had a children's literature program when I transferred from Mesa college, but learned about it toward the end of my BA when I was looking into Graduate programs. Professor Thomas’s class was exceptional to me because it incorporated a lot of really excellent theory with books that I was familiar with. The class definitely opened up some really interesting conversations and discussions. This was so brilliantly unexpected and I totally fell in love with the study of children’s literature. Upon realizing that I would probably go for a Master’s Degree, I tricked Dr. Thomas into doing an independent study course with me the following semester for an honors thesis. It was after that, I knew that I wanted to apply specifically to the children’s literature master’s program at SDSU and study children's literature because it was my favorite.

Q: What are your favorite children's literature or YA books?
A: So, Kid Lit wise I love The Lorax, The Giving Tree, I love Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, I love Stellaluna by Janell Cannon I also really like all of Christopher Van Allsburg. He has a way with children's books and letting imagination be at the forefront of everything.
For YA books, FEED is rad and awesome, I loved the Hunger Games series and The Giver and I really loved The Neverending Story because it is an awesome book. It's a little long; I started reading it in 5th grade and didn't finish it until 6th grade. It took me a few times to get through it because I would always get stuck with the language. It is probably higher than a 5th grade reading level, which was probably why it was such a challenge to read. I remember wanting to get through it so badly because I really loved the movie and when I got into it, even with the really small, it was great. I really loved reading that book.

Q: What were your favorite classes in graduate school?
A: Wow, well, Katie Farris had a class that was a creative writing type class, which I enrolled in not knowing it was a creative writing course but I ended up sticking it out even though creative writing is terrifying, and it was really fun. I ended up sort of writing all of the writing assignments centralized around a child, childhood, or children. For example, I had just learned about nonsense poetry with Dr. Michael Heyman’s visit to SDSU, and so I tried to emulate that type of poetry, which looking back now I probably wasn’t very good at. Regardless, it was really fun to be on the other end of things, writing creatively instead of analytically. I also really enjoyed Dr. Ewell’s Neurotexts class. That class was all about the mind and literature. It was so interesting and I would take it again if I could. Then, I really loved the Edward Gory class that Professor Thomas taught. I learned a lot about poetry and I never thought I would learn that much about poetry, but I did, and it was really cool. Learning about the Oulipo was really neat , as well as all the really cool things that nonsense literature does. I ended up using that for a chapter of my thesis.

Q: What was your thesis about?
A: I focused on the boogieman as a trope through different forms of children's literature. I started with the Sandman, which we all know Freud used from ETA Hoffman’s The Sandman in his essay, “The Uncanny.” Being someone who is very interested in the psychoanalytic theory, that paper came to me in the Neurotexts class. I was looking at the reaction and outcome of the child character in Hoffman's story and then comparing the story that the main character hears to the Hans Christian Anderson publication, which was the first printed version for children. I was interested in looking at the different qualities that the story holds to scare children into behaving a certain way. This idea of scaring children to behave was and still is really interesting to me. The idea is that if you do something wrong someone is going to come get you and why is that ok to do in kids books? So then I looked at a fairytale that has a less obvious boogieman. I turned to Bluebeard and I used Bluebeard, which was first published by Charles Perrault in France and Angela Carter’s feminist rendition, a feminist rendition. I looked at how the parents or the adult figures are all privileged in the story versus the child or younger character who is punished. It's always like you have to be interpellated otherwise you get killed. Then I looked at nonsense literature, which the only form of boogiemen or monsters that I found allows the child to work through what might be scary to do or what might be scary if you aren't obedient. I found that this allows the child to imagine in a different way and be able to interpret and work through reality from a distance in a better way. So basically in Nonsense Literature fear is not instilled the same way, but becomes something to laugh about.

Q: What made you choose that topic?
A: Well, like I was saying, I think it's just that I was fascinated with the idea that scaring children into behaving a certain way. Why is every child's fear like a monster character at some point in their life? I was always terrified of the ghost who lived in my moms room, and I never went into my moms room; lucky for her she never had to worry about me going in there because I was afraid of the ghost in there. But, what reason did I really have to be afraid? And why is it when we look back at our own monsters it's still a scary thing, even though we know it's silly? We still remember those childhood feelings of terror. I became curious about how boogiemen were brought into children's stories, because of course children are scared of things presented in a certain way. I am interested in discovering a way to tell stories that empower children, in order to help them grown into rational and moral adults. I feel like now communities are pushing engineering, psychology and business because reading books and discussing them is not as valued in the Academy. We need to really push stories that we know can really benefit the way people interact with the world. If we have people who are too afraid to articulate creative ideas, then what's the point of our brains continuing into future generations? We need to think about making more nonsense literature and promoting it and allowing kids to be silly and even adults to be silly. You know? What's wrong with that? It really makes you question the definition of what we attribute to a child and the size that they are and the age that they are versus an adult. Like really, what age do you stop being a kid? I still feel like a kid. If you ask anyone “At what age do/did you become an adult?” you’ll have each person in the room give a different answer. There is no concrete answer. As an quote un quote adult society, we don’t say: “When you turn 21 and three seconds, that's when you become an adult.” We are defining life according to things that are not real, but that goes with a lot of things in society that we get to break down with the study of literature. So viva La Literatura!

Q: Why is it worth studying CH/YA lit?
A: Personally, I feel that Children's Literature is perhaps the most important literature to study in many degrees, but I don't want to pick a favorite. I would say it is because children are our future. How many presidents get elected because they want to help the children and help education and follow such a valiant cause? It took a while for children's literature to become established, probably because scholars were skeptical about it. British literature and American literature have been studied for a really long time and I feel like Children’s Lit gets passed over because it's not considered real literature. How could something for children that is sometimes silly be considered for literary analysis? But I think the real question is: why are we so afraid to study it? Why are we so afraid to make children's literature more of a selective process? So much getting published today is for profit or marketability. People are publishing left and right and there is a lot of crap out there that children read and it sucks! I don't think that that's a good way to go about it. Making the world a better place should be our focus as scholars. In a world and time where many people just can't think for themselves, I ask if maybe we should’ve tried to promote reading good books when they were growing up. Adults now, they don't have an imagination. They can't think for themselves and I would say a lot of that has to do with not reading good books as a kid. Of course I don’t mean all adults, but I do believe in a correlation between reading, building and imagination, and the ability to create a more positive reality, I even think it can really help an individual do better in school, become a better problem solver, and produce empathy. So I think it's as important as anything else we study. You have really great authors that write really great stuff but it's not getting published because maybe parents are afraid that it's not appropriate. Publishers focus on wherever the market is and what going to sell well. Maybe parents who pick up more thought provoking books ask themselves, “What happens if my child thinks for herself? She might argue with me. She might ask me questions that I won't be able to answer and then I'm going to look inferior and I'm the parent and I'm supposed to come out on top.” So they pick the new Disney Elsa Princess book because Disney will never let you down as a parent.

Q: What publications have you participated in?
A: I published in The Routledge Companion to Latina/o Popular Culture, which is a compilation of essays from different genres of literature being analyzed for types of representations of Latinos in today's society. I published a piece on Dora the Explorer and how we want to praise Dora for being this saving grace, “finally Latinos are represented in the world,” and my essay didn't find it that way. I found that Dora basically just perpetuates the stereotypes further and makes it so that stereotypes are okay, acceptable and actually desired. I find that quite dangerous.
I also just published in Pacific Review, which is this sort of this YA book that I've been working on for a while. I published a couple of chapters out of that.

Q: What was it like running the Pacific Review?
A: It was awesome! It was such a rewarding experience, but it was really tough because it was something that I had never done before. Now I know how much work goes into publishing books and creating books, which is a lot of work. But it was a really rewarding experience to create a topic and a theme and see how people interpret and analyze what we put out there. It was myself and two other graduate student editors. It was really fun to read everybody’s pieces. By the end of it I think we had a really great compilation of stuff and we had some really awesome contributors. Overall, no complaints! SDSU Press was fantastic to work for and I definitely appreciate everyone in the small publishing sector a lot more after doing it.

Q: When you were the Chi Lit grad assistant what was your favorite thing about the job?
A: This is a tough question! I really enjoyed all of the books that we would get shipped in; we get the latest books at the office because publishers want us to give them good reviews. All the big names in publishing came to us before they were even available. I think that is really just the coolest thing because we really get excited when we see what is coming out, even if it is a little absurd. I also really enjoyed working in the Library with Linda Salem; that was also really awesome. As part of its special collection, San Diego State University’s library holds the Edward Gory personal library, which is truly spectacular. This collection taught me a lot about the logistics of creating an archive and cataloging as part of the library process. Linda was also so wonderful to work with. She has so much knowledge and such a passion to get this collection to a really good place. You should refer to an interview that I did with last year.

Q: What advice would you give an incoming undergraduate students interested in studying Children's Literature?
A: Go for it! Take as many classes as you can and see what you love and then follow that passion. You have to follow what you’re passionate about because if you follow something that is dreadful and that you find boring, you’re gonna burn out and you’re gonna burn out really fast.

Q: What advice would you give an incoming graduate student specializing in children's lit?
A: Keep your head up; it’s a challenging ride. It’s a lot of fun, so have fun with it! Don’t let other professors that study other types of more classical and canonical literature tear you down because they might. Just find your niche and take as many classes as you can in areas that sound most interesting to you. In every class that you take whether it's American literature or a creative writing class, you can incorporate aspects of children's literature or childhood into those final projects. I feel like this also really helps to bring awareness to children's literature as a valid academic conversation and that is the coolest feeling to get someone to kind of realize.

Q: What advice would you give to the new children's lit grad assistants?
A: Love yourself, and just do the best that you can; participate in conversations with people that are knowledgeable in children's literature because that is where you can really learn the most. We, as up and coming kiddie lit scholars, are really fortunate to have some of the greatest children's literature scholars teaching in SDSU English Department. Kiddie lit is both serious and fun and you got to roll with that, prove that the world can’t bring you down; “We can have lots of good fun that is funny,” as Dr. Seuss would out it. So I would say that making the most of your time with the coolest children’s Literature department is vital, because this opportunity is a once in a lifetime kind of thing and it's really special to be doing stuff like this.

Q: What will you miss most about SDSU?
A: Everything. The people. The turtles. The kid book section in the library. The library. The coolest office. Just everything.

Q: Where are you headed for your PhD?
A: The Ohio State University

Q: What made you choose The Ohio State out of the other options?
A: I am interested in their Narrative Theory and Pop Culture specialization. OSU has some of the top scholars in Narrative Theory and Pop Culture. The professors there are welcoming and had a lot of good feedback on my writing sample when I went to visit. I found that they welcomed my interest in Children’s Literature exceptionally well, giving me ideas and other scholars at OSU I can work with or take classes from, such as Michelle Abate, whose class I am very much looking forward to. I feel like Children's Literature needs to become part of the larger conversation so I feel like OSU will give me the opportunity to introduce children's literature into that larger academic conversation.

Q: What do you think you’ll study at Ohio?
A: I think it depends; I can't say one way or another because it’s tough to decide on anything too specific before you learn more, and I'm not there yet. I don’t know if I’ll continue with the Boogieman topic or if I’ll branch out into new ideas and books. I think would like to look at the repeating narrative of something that terrifies children into behaving and seeing how we can work through those things as a society. Or even perhaps what in popular culture promotes terrifying children?

Q: What do you want to do after you get your PhD and why?
A: I would like to be a professor and teach awesome classes on children's literature at the university level. I would love to write. I would like to help write books for elementary school and teenagers, and establish children's books in the digital age that are positive and not consumer driven productions. Travel; travel the world and talk about children's books with people all over the place.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: If anyone is interested in children's literature, they should take a class and see what it's about! You won’t be disappointed because everyone knows what being a kid is like.