Sunday, August 05, 2012

Indigenous peoples in Victoria Foyt's REVEALING EDEN

Tweets I read yesterday prompted me to read Victoria Foyt's young adult novel, Revealing Eden. Some call it provocative, others call it misguided, and others call it utterly racist.

Revealing Eden came out in January of 2012 from Sand Dollar Press. It didn't get reviewed by any of the major review journals. That is due to it being published by Sand Dollar Press, which has only published one book: Revealing Eden. 

In an interview posted at Amazon, Foyt said she drew on her "deep fears about Global Warming" to write this story in which "an overheated earth turned social standards upside down." On her website, she writes that she wanted to create a world where "environmental chaos turns today's prevailing beauty standards upside down."

So... she created a story set in the future in which "Coals" are black people whose dark skin makes them more resistant to "the Heat" (skin cancer). That makes them more powerful than the "Pearls" whose white skin makes them more susceptible to skin cancer. The Coals survived "The Great Meltdown" (caused by depletion of the ozone) in greater numbers and are now the ruling class. The Pearls are the lowest class. They all live together underground. The Pearls coat their white skin and blonde hair so their skin is darker and their hair is black. The product they use is called "Midnight Luster." It has to be reapplied every few days. It wears off, and if it gets wet, it comes off. It can also be rubbed off. They wear it for protection from the sun (which would make sense if they went above ground, which they don't) and so that their white skin doesn't antagonize the coals. "Midnight Luster" allows Pearls to pass as Coals. Lowest in class are "Cottons" (Albinos). Between the Coals and the Pearls are the Ambers (Asians) and just above them are the Latinos who I think are "Tigers Eye."

It is difficult to follow the story itself. There are gaps and inconsistencies that an editor would have caught. The logic of the world Foyt creates doesn't hold up. I suggest you read Margaret J. B. Bates's critique at Legendary Women. It has links to other sites with information about the book and does an excellent job of discussing blackface. 

Writing about Foyt's book lets me call attention to the ways that Foyt (and those who like the book) are caught up in stereotypical ideas about Indigenous people.

Yeah... Indigenous people are in her book, too.

But they don't have a category like Coal or Pearl.  They don't live in the tunnels. Instead, they're on the surface near the equator, and they're the Huaorani. Somehow, they've made it into Foyt's future (on the surface), but she doesn't tell us how they were able to survive the Meltdown. 

In the story, Eden and her father (a scientist experimenting on "Interspecies Structural Adaptation") and a coal named Bramford leave the underground when a radical Coal group led by a guy named Jamal attacks the lab. But before they leave, Bramford asks her father to do his experiment on him, which turns him into a creature that is part jaguar.

They fly to Sector Six which is "a lawless, barren land" where "drug lords," or "The Heat" or predators might kill them (p. 48). As we'll see, Sector Six is near the equator. This reference to drug lords is one of the things that doesn't make sense and isn't explained. Instead, it just IS. It is not unlike the ways that a lot of Americans---today---blame Latin America for drug problems.

When they land, Eden sees "a half-dozen, short, muscular Indians wearing a rag-tag assortment of clothes" (p. 50). Some have machetes, some have blowguns (and poison darts), and, "Despite fanciful feathers tucked into simple bowl-cut hairstyles, the warriors appeared fierce" as they stood by their vehicles (p. 50).

Her father is excited to see "The Huaorani" (and yeah, Foyt uses a capital T every time she references The Huorani) who, he says, are "the world's last independent indigenous tribe. No one knows how or where they've survived." Course, that is his (outsider) perspective (Foyt's, that is). Obviously, the Huaorani know how and where they survived. Not telling us (readers) keeps them in the realm of an unknowable exotic mythical tribe.

They're expert hunters, her father says, who hunt "cowode" which are "non-humans or anyone different from them" (p. 50).  Since Bramford isn't human, Eden thinks she can get the Huaorani to kill him. Eden, Bramford, and her father get off the plane, and she yells "cowode" and points to Bramford, but instead of killing him, they "fell to their knees and began to chant in ecstatic voices" (p 51):

"El Tigre! El Tigre!"

I'm guessing that the Huaorani people of Ecuador speak their own language and Spanish, too, so their use of Spanish in the novel is plausible.

Anyway, it turns out that the Huaorani think Bramford is El Tigre ("the Jaguar Man") who is the "long-awaited Aztec God" and because Eden is with him, they look upon her with "equal reverence" (p. 51). I guess Foyt want us to think that the Huaorani and Aztec have the same gods. Indigenous people, whether we're in North or South America... some writers think our ways are the same, no matter our location or history. Monolithic, ya' know! Interchangeable!

The Huaorani take Bramford, Eden, and her father to a village where (p. 54):
Native women and children in tattered rags stood by, staring blankly at the arrivals. They looked ill with patchy hair, and red, scaly rashes on their brown skin. Their stomachs were swollen, their eyes lifeless. Two drunken men sprawled in a heap of garbage. One of them raised his head, eyed the commotion, then spit and turned over.
Blank stares and lifeless eyes? This portrayal of the Huaorani isn't consistent across the novel. Here, it sounds like she's looking at a 'save the children' commercial. And drunken men?! Why is THAT there?

The nearby river is covered with green and black layers, which her father says is residue from oil mining (p. 54):
"My hypothesis is the tribe sold their oil rights long ago, probably for worthless cash. I suspect no one ever explained the consequences."
Ah, yes! Primitive, ignorant savages! Except that's not the case in reality. It is a trope, however, that works when the author and her audience are all steeped in stereotypes of primitive Indians.

From that village, Eden and Bramford go to another one where the people aren't as destitute. They are mostly naked, and wear their "ragtag" clothes when they're going to town (p. 85).  They make no sound when they walk (ah, yes! Another stereotype!) and boys become warriors only after they've been initiated by being stung by dozens of "bullet ants" (p. 88). They are a happy people with shamans and remedies and a lifestyle that Bramford wants to preserve and emulate. Sounds like Lieutenant Dunbar in Dances With Wolves! Or that guy in Avatar!

Soon, Eden wants to be Native, too!

She asks Maria, a Huaorani woman, to cut her hair in the Huaorani style (bowl-cut). As her blonde hair falls to the floor, she wonders if Maria's daughters think it "held some potent magic or evil" (p. 112). As she looks in the mirror, she thinks she "might pass as a tribeswoman" (p. 112). Her father asks her and asks if she's "going Native" (p. 114).

Towards the end of the novel, Eden and Bramford go to "Heaven's Gate" to get a root they need to save her father's life. There, they see an "ancient, fortress-like stone terrace" that Bramford tells her was built by the Aztecs.

Did they really go all the way from Ecuador to northern Mexico?! Or, has Foyt got us back in the interchangeable Indian space again?

At Heaven's Gate, Bramford tells Eden that the Aztecs are watching them but are afraid of Eden's skin color. The pair dig up roots that Eden realizes are the "proverbial Fountain of Youth" (p. 130). Later, Aztec warriors help Eden and Bramford fight the radical group that wanted to take over the underground. The warriors appear and disappear without a sound.

The novel ends with Eden and Bramford kissing, ready for part two in Foyt's "Save the Pearls" series.

A too-kind word that sums up my appraisal of the book? Ick.

My concluding thoughts

Foyt's book is a mess. Through most of the story, her main character is racist. She says and thinks things about Coals and Huaorani that are racist, arrogant, and ignorant. Because of that, her early comment that she wants to mate with a Coal (Jamal) to improve her standing doesn't make sense. She is sexually attracted to Jamal and later transfers that attraction to Bramford, but she detests Coals, and, what are we to make of the title of the series title, "Save the Pearls"?!

Eden does blackface and isn't happy. Happiness only comes when she goes Native, with "going Native" an act that is based on stereotypes and romantic notions of what it means to be Indigenous. In that way, Revealing Eden is a lot like the picture book, Brother Eagle Sister Sky, in which white people learn to take care of the earth only when they adopt romanticized ideas of Native views.

Foyt is asserting that the story is about global warming, and while that is part of the story, it seems to me that the overwhelming storyline is calculated to stir things up in a bid for attention... Like an internet troll. There's nothing to learn or think about in this story. Its too rife with stereotypes and us-versus-them binaries. The writing is bad, and I struggled to read the book. I thought I could just stop, but given the rise in self-published novels and the apparent success this one is receiving, I stuck with it, in hopes that other might-be-self-published authors would read it and revisit any Indigenous themes they may be exploring. Stereotypes will sell, but don't do it.
The book cover (shown here), story, and video promoting the book caused a great deal of conversation on the Internet. Given the way Foyt described Eden when she goes Native (with the "bowl-cut"), some clever person could figure out how to show the three faces of Eden. But then again, maybe Foyt will do that herself on the cover of her next book.

Let's hope that there is no next-book.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this insight. I could only offer what I knew from travelIng and living in Bolivia. I was very irked that they interchanged not just Aztec and Huaorani but what I think was basically Aymara/Quechua customs of Peru because of use of coca leaves for altitude sickness (in Ecuador?!?). It is clear she felt one tribe = all others = Spanish, and it was usual mystic tropes and supporting cast for Eden to explore herself. Of course no real care of their own. I am glad u covered this issue because it gets buried under the blackface racism but the native/Spanish potluck mix is as offensive and deserved to be highlighted. I especially got tired over Eden complaining about the food and medicine they chose to share as everything was so beneath her.
Margaret Bates

Delux said...

Thanks for taking this on. I had already thrown my hands up in despair at gargantuan crater of hot mess coal/pearl/blackface, but when I found out that the "the natives" (?) were worshipping "El Tigre" (??) the Jaguar god (???)....

Anonymous said...

Yeesh, this sounds diabolical. Anyone who wants to read a book that "turns racism on its head", try Malorie Blackman's 'Noughts and Crosses' - really well written, and by an author who knows her stuff.

Jennifer Daniels said...

Good Lord. Black people, white people, Asians, Latinos AND people of Native descent? Who the hell DIDN'T this author screw over?