Monday, November 16, 2015

Absolutely disgusted by Catherynne M. Valente's SIX-GUN SNOW WHITE

I've never used "absolutely disgusted" in a title before today. There are vile things in the world. Some of them are subtly vile, which makes them dangerous because you aren't aware of what is going into your head and heart.

Some things, like Catherynne M. Valente's Six-Gun Snow White are gratuitously vile. As a Native woman, it is very hard to read it in light of my knowledge of the violence inflicted on Native girls and women--today. Here's the synopsis:

A plain-spoken, appealing narrator relates the history of her parents--a Nevada silver baron who forced the Crow people to give up one of their most beautiful daughters, Gun That Sings, in marriage to him. With her mother s death in childbirth, so begins a heroine s tale equal parts heartbreak and strength. This girl has been born into a world with no place for a half-native, half-white child. After being hidden for years, a very wicked stepmother finally gifts her with the name Snow White, referring to the pale skin she will never have. Filled with fascinating glimpses through the fabled looking glass and a close-up look at hard living in the gritty gun-slinging West, readers will be enchanted by this story at once familiar and entirely new.

There is no redeeming Valente's words. There is nothing she could write, as the book proceeds, that will undo what she says in the first half. I quit.

I don't think this is meant to be a young adult novel but I've seen a colleague in children's literature describe it as "fantastic" which is why I decided I ought to see what it is about. As the synopsis indicates, it is a retelling of Snow White. It was first published in 2013 by Subterranean Press as a signed limited edition (1000 signed and numbered hardcover copies), but is being republished in 2015. This time around, the publisher is Saga Press.

Obviously, I don't recommend it.  I've never read anything Valente wrote before. I asked, online, if this is typical of her work, and the reply so far is no. So why did she do this? Why would anyone do this?

Six Gun Snow White is not fantastic. It is not brilliant. It is grotesque. It is so disgusting that I will not sully my blog with actual quotes from the book.
  • Valente uses animal-like depictions to describe the main character's genitals. Yes, you read that right, her genitals. Animal-like characteristics are often used in children's literature but none, that I recall, that are anything like these. In children's books, you'll find things like Indians who "gnaw" on bones or have "steely patience, like a wolf waiting." Such descriptions dehumanize us.
  • Valente has the stepmother bathe the main character in a milk bath to make her skin lighter in tone, but to do the inside parts of her she shoves the main character's head underneath, which echoes the intents of the boarding schools established in the 1800s. A guiding philosophy was 'kill the Indian/save the man' and the idea of the "civilizing" curriculum was to "hold them under until they are thoroughly soaked in the white man's ways."  
  • Valente shows the main character and her mother (her mother was Crow) being lusted after, abused, beaten, and violated by white men. This is especially troubling, given the violence and lack of investigation of that violence that we see in the US and Canada. 

I suppose all of that is so over-the-top to make a point of some kind, but that point need not be made in the first place. As the title for this post says, I am absolutely disgusted by what I see in Six Gun Snow White. 


Anonymous said...

Valente has appropriated from East Asian and Russian cultures. This is not the first time for her.

Debbie Reese said...

Appropriation is one thing that I can (unfortunately) read without feeling as though I'm being hit over and over again as I read. Remembering the lines in the book--just remembering them--makes my stomach tighten up.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the anon above. As a Japanese I will never forget the vile things she had said about my culture, before publishing her books "inspired" by Japanese mythology, on her livejournal. It was when she lived in Japan for a while. She blocked them a few years back but the things she had said...

Debbie Reese said...

Thanks, Anon at 10:55 AM, for adding to what Anon at 9:24 said.

I should say a bit more. Appropriation, as I see/understand it, is taking/using something that does not belong to you or your people. Sometimes it is a misrepresentation, too, and sometimes it isn't. Sometimes it is misrepresentation coupled with stereotypes and biased depictions.

That is really different than what Valente did. What she did is flat out racist and misogynistic in the ugliest ways imaginable. I wonder if there are critical writings about her work? Going to look...

Unknown said...

I've worked on Valente in my book and in a recent article, but I haven't read "Six-Gun Snow White." I probably should, as fairy-tale retellings are my area of expertise, but I haven't done so yet. (I worked on an on-line novel of hers called The Ice Puzzle.)

There is a tradition in fairy-tale retellings of making unmistakably explicit the sexual and gender violence that is often implicit, so as to bring the reader face to face with what dominant culture pretties up and romanticizes and Valente might be doing that with respect to racist beauty standards and US genocide of First/Native Nations people. But I don't know if she imagined First/Native Nations readers as her readers, and considered the impact of these scenes on people for whom those images are not just words on a page, and that is a serious issue (obviously--I mean that supportively, not condescendingly).

I haven't read all of her stuff, only some of it, and while very explicit sex is not uncommon in her work, I really don't remember such explicit racist violence being depicted in her work before (at least, not that I've read, so I honestly don't know how it was "supposed" to work here based on what I have read.