I picked up SHADOWSHAPER by Daniel José Elder (photo by Michael Frost, cover design by Christopher Stengel, all rights to image reside with current holder) because he’s guest of honor at January’s local Illogicon so I wanted to read something by him. Happily, it’s very good.
The Story: Sierra Santiago is a Brooklyn teenager of Puerto Rican adversary, an artist using local walls as her canvas. But funny things are happening to her images: they’re changing. A photo of Sierra’s grandfather and his friends shows the faces fading. Her grandfather, now sunk in dementia, talks about something called shadowshaping. One of Sierra’s classmates has some of the information, but he’s not good at sharing.
It turns out that shadowshaping is a magical Puerto Rican tradition, in which spirits infuse the mage’s paintings and bring them to life. The good news is that Sierra’s inherited the power. The bad news is that an anthropologist researching shadowshaping has decided they’re doing it wrong and is eliminating shadowshapers to consolidate his own control over the craft (I assume this was an intentional cultural appropriation metaphor).
WHAT I LEARNED
Messages Don’t Have to be Western Union: The cultural appropriation metaphor doesn’t overwhelm the story because the story stands on its own: if I didn’t pick up the message, I’d still enjoy the story. And Older never explicitly criticizes appropriation, the story speaks for itself.
I have limits as a reader. I have no knowledge of Puerto Rican communities in Brooklyn. Older’s setting feels real to me but if he were pulling it all out of his butt, I wouldn’t have a clue. Which I think is one reason why getting things right writing about The Other is so important: people may assume we’re writing accurately even when we’re churning out stereotypes or half-truths.
I have limits as a writer. Like I said, Puerto Rican Brooklyn is terra incognita to me. I honestly don’t think I could write a story set there, using someone like Sierra as POV character. It’s too alien and I doubt I could get it right—certainly not without a lot of research (way more than I would want to do unless I had an idea that absolutely had to be in that setting). It’s not just the Hispanic aspect; it’s a Y/A book and Older’s cast are contemporary teenagers. I’m not sure how well I could do a realistic teenager as they’re so far removed from me in age, experience, attitudes, etc. Most of the teenagers I’ve written have either been in the past (I’m much more comfortable with kids who were teens in the 1970s, fictionally speaking), or they’ve been portal-fantasied out of their usual environment (so I’m only dealing with one teenager rather than having to capture Teen Culture).
In writing Southern Discomforts, my portrayal of the town’s black life is almost entirely from outsider POV characters. Maria. The FBI agents. Rhonda Mitchell, a black transplant from Atlanta. I find this makes it easier, though that’s of course no guarantee that I’m doing it well.
So this month’s book was both instructive and entertaining. Yay.