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Why America needs Marvel superhero Kamala Khan now more than ever

Katie M. Logan, Virginia Commonwealth University

During the first few weeks of the Trump administration, we’ve seen increased pressure on Muslim and immigrant communities in the United States.

In the face of these threats, which Marvel superhero might be best equipped to defend the people, ideals and institutions under attack? Some comic fans and critics are pointing to Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel.

Khan, the brainchild of comic writer G. Willow Wilson and editor Sana Amanat, is a revamp of the classic Ms. Marvel character (originally named Carol Danvers and created in 1968). First introduced in early 2014, Khan is a Muslim, Pakistani-American teenager who fights crime in Jersey City and occasionally teams up with the Avengers.

Since Donald Trump’s inauguration, fans have created images of Khan tearing up a photo of the president, punching him (evoking a famous 1941 cover of Captain America punching Hitler) and grieving in her room. But the new Ms. Marvel’s significance extends beyond symbolism.

In Kamala Khan, Wilson and Amanat have created a superhero whose patriotism and contributions to Jersey City emerge because of her Muslim heritage, not despite it. She challenges the assumptions many Americans have about Muslims and is a radical departure from how the media tend to depict Muslim-Americans. She shows how Muslim-Americans and immigrants are not forces that threaten communities – as some would argue – but are people who can strengthen and preserve them.

Superhero-in-training

After inhaling a mysterious gas, Kamala Khan discovers she can stretch, enlarge, shrink and otherwise manipulate her body. Like many superheroes, she chooses to keep her identity a secret. She selects the Ms. Marvel moniker in homage to the first Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers, who has since given up the name in favor of becoming Captain Marvel. Khan cites her family’s safety and her desire to lead a normal life, while also fearing that “the NSA will wiretap our mosque or something.”

As she wrestles with her newfound powers, her parents grow concerned about broken curfews and send her to the local imam for counseling. Rather than reinforcing her parents’ curfew or prying the truth from Khan, though, Sheikh Abdullah says, “I am asking you for something more difficult. If you insist on pursuing this thing you will not tell me about, do it with the qualities benefiting an upright young woman: courage, strength, honesty, compassion and self-respect.”

Her experience at the mosque becomes an important step on her journey to superheroism. Sheikh Abdullah contributes to her education, as does Wolverine. Islam is not a restrictive force in her story. Instead, the religion models for Khan many of the traits she needs in order to become an effective superhero. When her mother learns the truth about why her daughter is sneaking out, she “thank[s] God for having raised a righteous child.”

The comics paint an accurate portrait of Jersey City. Her brother Aamir is a committed Salafi (a conservative and sometimes controversial branch of Sunni Islam) and member of his university’s Muslim Student Association. Her best friend and occasional love interest, Bruno, works at a corner store and comes from Italian roots. The city’s diversity helps Kamala as she learns to be a more effective superhero. But it also rescues her from being a stand-in for all Muslim-American or Jersey City experiences.

Fighting a ‘war on terror culture’

Kamala’s brown skin and costume – self-fashioned from an old burkini – point to Marvel Comics’ desire to diversify its roster of superheroes (as well as writers and artists). As creator Sana Amanat explained on “Late Night With Seth Meyers” last month, representation is a powerful thing, especially in comics. It matters when readers who feel marginalized can see people like themselves performing heroic acts.

As one of 3.3 million Muslim-Americans, Khan flips the script on what Moustafa Bayoumi, author of “This Muslim American Life,” calls a “war on terror culture” that sees Muslim-Americans “not as complex human being[s] but only as purveyor[s] of possible future violence.”

Bayoumi’s book echoes other studies that detail the heightened suspicion and racial profiling Muslim-Americans have faced since 9/11, whether it’s in the workplace or interactions with the police. Each time there’s been a high-profile terrorist attack, these experiences, coupled with hate crimes and speech, intensify. Political rhetoric – like Donald Trump’s proposal to have a Muslim registry or his lie that thousands of Muslims cheered from Jersey City rooftops after the Twin Towers fell – only fans the flames.

Scholars of media psychology see this suspicion fostered, in part, by negative representations of Muslims in both news media outlets and popular culture, where they are depicted as bloodthirsty terrorists or slavish informants to a non-Muslim hero.

These stereotypes are so entrenched that a single positive Muslim character cannot counteract their effects. In fact, some point to the dangers of “balanced” representations, arguing that confronting stereotypes with wholly positive images only enforces a simplistic division between “good” and “bad” Muslims.

Unbreakable

Kamala Khan, however, signals an important development in cultural representations of Muslim-Americans. It’s not just because she is a powerful superhero instead of a terrorist. It’s because she is, at the same time, a clumsy teenager who makes a mountain of mistakes while trying to balance her abilities, school, friends and family. And it’s because Wilson surrounds Kamala with a diverse assortment of characters who demonstrate the array of heroic (and not-so-heroic) actions people can take.

For example, in one of Ms. Marvel’s most powerful narrative arcs, a planet attacks New York, leading to destruction eerily reminiscent of 9/11. Kamala works to protect Jersey City while realizing that her world has changed – and will change – irrevocably.

Carol Danvers appears to fill Kamala in on the gravity of the situation, telling her, “The fate of the world is out of your hands. It always was. But your fate – what you decide to do right now – is still up to you … Today is the day you stand up.” Kamala connects the talk with Sheikh Abdullah’s lectures about the value of one’s deeds, once again linking her superhero and religious training to rise to the occasion. In both cases, the lectures teach Kamala to take a stand to protect her community.

Arriving at the high school gym now serving as a safe haven for Jersey City residents, Kamala realizes her friends and classmates have been inspired by her heroism. They safely transport their neighbors to the gym while outfitting the space with water, food, dance parties and even a “non-denominational, non-judgmental prayer area.” The community response prompts Kamala to realize that “even if things are profoundly not okay, at least we’re not okay together. And even if we don’t always get along, we’re still connected by something you can’t break. Something there isn’t even a word for. Something … beautiful.”

The ConversationKamala Khan is precisely the hero America needs today, but not because of a bat sign in the sky or any single definitive image. She is, above all, committed to the idea that every member of her faith, her generation, and her city has value and that their lives should be respected and protected. She demonstrates that the most heroic action is to face even the most despair-inducing challenges of the world head on while standing up for – and empowering – every vulnerable neighbor, classmate or stranger. She shows us how diverse representation can transform into action and organization that connect whole communities “by something you can’t break.”

Katie M. Logan, Assistant Professor of Focused Inquiry, Virginia Commonwealth University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The ‘inevitable sadness’ of Kazuo Ishiguro’s fiction

File 20171006 25784 1ghvr4m.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro listens to a question during a press conference at his home in London on Oct. 5, 2017.
Alastair Grant/AP Photo

Cynthia F. Wong, University of Colorado Denver

On a damp October day in 2006, I followed Kazuo Ishiguro and my 10-year-old daughter Grace to a back table at a bustling cafe in London for an interview. As Ishiguro answered my questions, he explained how he “auditions” his characters’ voices and personalities in his head before they appear in his fiction. He spoke candidly about a writer’s messy work.

Now he is the laureate for the Nobel Prize in literature, for what the Swedish Academy praised as his unapologetic portrayals of “the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”

It’s a nod to the self-delusion that many of Ishiguro’s characters possess. One, for example, rationalizes his service to a fascist loyalist. Others see their past through the cloudy lens of trauma. If we were to peel back the warped self-deception, we might find a bottomless pit of despair.

At that interview years ago, Ishiguro talked about his characters’ painful chasms, the way they protected themselves by concealing their mistakes. But when everything seems hopeless, his characters often courageously turn to their imagination to forge a connection to life and meaning.

In doing so, they beckon readers to imagine something better, too.

When I asked Ishiguro about his 2005 dystopic novel “Never Let Me Go,” his tone shifted. He lowered his voice when he told me about the students in that novel, and how they eventually perish. But he was surprised when I said that I found the novel sorrowful.

“There is an inevitable sadness,” he admitted. “On the other hand, it’s not a bleak view of human nature.”

I could sense Ishiguro’s concern for how my daughter might take his observations about death and despair.

He continued: “The question, ‘What are we useful for?’ is the question that your daughter Grace asks, and one Tommy and Kathy ask in ‘Never Let Me Go.’ Some cold system says to Tommy and Kathy that they will be useful [to the world], and it’s the same as another system saying to Grace that someday she will be useful to the world economy.”

Human systems figure in all of Ishiguro’s novels, whether these are governments, communities or families. Often, these systems are damaged, and humans still must move through them. They try to repair them or save themselves. Ishiguro has examined many facets of what it means to live among and within countless systems.

The first-person narrators of Ishiguro’s first three novels, “A Pale View of Hills,” “An Artist of the Floating World” and “The Remains of the Day,” reflect on personal losses in the context of world events: friends and families dead from atomic bombings in Japan, unrealized romances, wrong choices and lives founded on delusion. These characters long for clarity, retribution or forgiveness.

The narrators of his next three novels are, variously, a pianist (“The Unconsoled”), a London detective (“When We Were Orphans”) and a roving hospice-type worker (“Never Let Me Go”). Whether they’re situated in Japan, Great Britain, some unnamed European city or even a medieval village, Ishiguro’s characters beguile his readers with their disclosures. His eloquent prose expresses their anguish or their repressed longings. We sense time passing darkly for these characters. We see how they face disappointments and ache for dignity.

Ishiguro explained that to probe the emotional force of his novels, we must understand that the characters are set within “an internal world [and] it’s an emotional logic that is being played out.”

In narrating their sorrows and their fruitless optimism, Ishiguro gives his readers a way to empathize with his characters’ situations.

Ishiguro’s capacity for compassion was cultivated during his university gap year, when he worked with the homeless. He also studied piano and guitar and dreamed of a career in music before he detoured to the creative writing program at the University of East Anglia. He still writes musical lyrics and works with musicians as an avocation.

By his own admission, Ishiguro is a slow writer; he produces a novel every few years. In 2015, when he came to Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop to promote his latest novel, I was able to catch up with him. He remarked that he may have only a couple more books forthcoming.

“We’re not immortal,” he said. “We’re here for a limited time. There is a countdown.”

The Swedish Academy honors a laureate for a lifetime of achievement. To date, Ishiguro has published eight books as well as many short stories, television and film scripts. His career may seem disjointed when focusing on only the best-known novels, “The Remains of the Day” and “Never Let Me Go.”

But few contemporary authors have dared to take as many risks as Ishiguro. The more complicated, Kafka-esque novel “The Unconsoled” is a book some critics called disappointing. A different sort of writer might have quit, but Ishiguro persisted.

Similarly, even though some readers responded coolly to “The Buried Giant,” Ishiguro had taken yet another literary leap: The highly metaphorical story is set in an early English era that predated historical records. Memory, repression of pain and the resolve to protect oneself and loved ones return as themes, but in unusual, allegorical ways.

Each novel is a singular achievement; each successive undertaking enriches a broader canvas of Ishiguro’s portraits of alienated lives.

During that 2006 London interview, I watched Ishiguro banter with my daughter during a break. They were laughing about what it means to “snarf” food, and they were picking up some biscuits and spooning melted ice cream to demonstrate. Ishiguro’s ease and humor when speaking with my child captivated me.

In spite of the sadness in his books, Ishiguro is a gracious guardian of humanity. He is a fine curator of emotions and a skilled storyteller.

The ConversationWe don’t know how many more books Ishiguro will publish. But we can be certain that in his literary explorations, he will remain undaunted.

Cynthia F. Wong, Professor of English, University of Colorado Denver

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Lana Condor finally becomes the rom-com lead she always wished to be

You’ve seen Lana Condor even if you don’t remember her. If you’ve seen X-Men: Apocalypse, you’ve seen her as Jubilee, even though the film did her dirty and didn’t actually let her speak. But you’ll not only hear her speak in her latest film, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, she’ll be starring as the love interest, a dream she never thought possible.

Condor spoke to NBC Asian America about her role in the film adaptation of Jenny Han’s YA novel. In the film, Condor stars as Jean Song Covey, a biracial Korean/white American teenager who lives with her two sisters and widowed dad. The book and film will follow Covey’s love life, which gets completely turned upside down when the letters she’s written to boys she’s liked are taken from under her bed and sent.

“A few months ago when I was on a plane, I was daydreaming about how fun it’d be to act in a romantic comedy, because I don’t know of any rom-coms where Asian women are the leads,” she said. “And now here we are.”

Han herself gave Condor her blessing with the role. “That is truly groundbreaking,” she wrote on Instagram. “I haven’t seen Asian American women centered on the screen since Joy Luck Club which was nearly 25 years ago. Representation is so important, and this means the world to me. More than anything, I hope that the success of this movie will lead to more opportunities for Asian American actors and writers down the line.”

A little love note from me to you

A post shared by Jenny Han (@jennyhan) on

Condor said she hopes her work career can change the landscape for the Asian diaspora in Hollywood, something she started thinking about after landing her role as Jubilee.

“It got me thinking, if I can just put a little dent in the wall that is Hollywood in terms of race, then I’ve done enough,” she said. “Now, I’ve been so lucky in my career that I might be able to put an even bigger dent in that wall than I thought.”

You can read more at NBC News.

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Racially Insensitive Casting: Henry Zaga (Reportedly) as Sunspot in “X-Men: New Mutants”

(left) Sunspot, (right) Henry Zaga (side-by-side from Latinx Geeks)

Another day, another whitewashing controversy in Hollywood, the land that never learns its lesson. This time, erasure controversy surrounds the newest in the X-Men film franchise, X-Men: New Mutants.

According to Comicbook.com via Entertainment Weekly, Brazilian actor Henry Zaga has been reportedly been cast as Sunspot (aka Roberto da Costa), a mutant who absorbs the sun’s energy and uses it to increase his own physical abilities as well as to blast enemies and fly. Zaga, who is best known from Teen Wolf and more recently 13 Reasons Why, might be Brazilian like Sunspot, but he’s not Afro-Brazilian. Enter the controversy.

In a Medium post written by Latinx Geeks, the online community explains why racial identity is so important for a character like Sunspot. His Afro-Latinx identity is a central part of his storyline, including the moment when he discovers his powers.

“Sunspot’s powers first manifested during a soccer game where a rival team member hurled racial insults at him calling Roberto a ‘halfbreed,'” they write.  “This was due to the fact that Roberto’s father, Emmanuel da Costa, is Afro-Brazilian and his mother, Nina da Costa, is a white Brazilian.”

“…Henry Zaga, a white Brazilian actor, being cast to play Roberto da Costa is whitewashing pure and simple,” they wrote. “Sunspot’s Afro-Brazilian identity is directly tied to his very origin and the manifestation of his mutant powers. To deny his race is to deny who he is as a mutant, superhero, and as a person; the son of a black man and a white woman.”

Zaga’s casting speaks to the continued ignorance in Hollywood when it comes to casting characters to correctly reflect their ethnicity and background. Just because Zaga is Brazilian doesn’t mean he’s the correct choice for a role such as Sunspot.

Hollywood tends to either miscast characters completely (such as Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell) or it takes the “good enough” casting method, such as many of the roles in Memoirs of a Geisha, in which Chinese actresses were playing Japanese roles, or having actors who make a living off of being racially ambiguous play everything from Mexican to Native American. The latter seems to be happening with Zaga and Sunspot. The idea is that Zaga’s Brazilian, so that’s “good enough” for him to play Sunspot. Not accurate.

This is not even taking into account the type of privilege Zaga has as a white actor and, as Hollywood would classify him, an “white ethnic” actor. As a white actor, Zaga could audition for–and land– as many leading roles as he wants. As a “white ethnic” actor, he can take not only traditionally white roles, but also those that call for non-white roles as well, such as Sunspot. Another example of this is Zach McGowan, a white actor who, because of his slightly darker “surfer boy” look, has been cast to play native Hawaiian historical figure Ben Kanahele in Ni’ihau.

Once again, fans of beloved characters are waiting on Hollywood to give them accuracy when bringing characters from the page to the screen. Sadly, it seems like Sunspot is yet another casualty of whitewashing.

5 of the best transgender books for kids

The need for transgender books is great, and the need is only growing, especially as children become more aware of themselves, their bodies and how they identify with gender. Jazz Jennings, a transgender teen girl who was the subject of TLC’s I Am Jazz documentary series, summed up why books on transgender characters and narratives are important.

“Having transgender characters leads to more visibility which creates education,” she told USA Today. “Education can hopefully lead to everyone treating our community with acceptance and love.”

With such a need for representation, the fiction world is now beginning to cater to the underserved market of transgender kids and teens. Here are five of just a plethora of books for kids out there focused on transgender characters and experiences.

All summaries from Amazon.com. 

I Am Jazz  by Jessica Herthel, Jazz Jennings, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas (ages 4 to 8)

Summary: From the time she was two years old, Jazz knew that she had a girl’s brain in a boy’s body. She loved pink and dressing up as a mermaid and didn’t feel like herself in boys’ clothing. This confused her family, until they took her to a doctor who said that Jazz was transgender and that she was born that way. Jazz’s story is based on her real-life experience and she tells it in a simple, clear way that will be appreciated by picture book readers, their parents, and teachers.

Why I like the book: I really like what fellow ASFA-ite Laverne Cox wrote about the book:

“This is an essential tool for parents and teachers to share with children whether those kids identify as trans or not. I wish I had had a book like this when I was a kid struggling with gender identity questions. I found it deeply moving in its simplicity and honesty.”

George by Alex Gino (by ages 9 and up)

Summary: When people look at George, they think they see a boy. But she knows she’s not a boy. She knows she’s a girl.

George thinks she’ll have to keep this a secret forever. Then her teacher announces that their class play is going to be Charlotte’s Web. George really, really, REALLY wants to play Charlotte. But the teacher says she can’t even try out for the part . . . because she’s a boy.

With the help of her best friend, Kelly, George comes up with a plan. Not just so she can be Charlotte — but so everyone can know who she is, once and for all.

Why I like the book: The review by the School Library Journal points to what makes George a must-buy for parents–it’s a book that focuses on the power of pronouns and visibility.

…George offers more than the novelty of an LGBTQ coming-out story, however. Here, what is most remarkable is the use of pronouns: While the world interacts with George as if she is a boy, the narrator only refers to her with female pronouns, which gives her girl-ness a stronger sense of validation. In addition, George comments on the fact that, in past years, gays and lesbians have achieved a certain amount of visibility and acceptance, while the trans* community is still largely ignored and misunderstood. George’s mother remarks that while she can handle having a gay child, she simply can’t accept her as “that kind of gay.” For George, as is the case for many LGBTQ youth, coming out is a process that she must repeat until she is properly recognized. There is pain in George, but not without the promise of a better tomorrow, even if tomorrow doesn’t arrive as soon as it should.

Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky (ages 11 and up)

Summary: Grayson Sender has been holding onto a secret for what seems like forever: “he” is a girl on the inside, stuck in the wrong gender’s body. The weight of this secret is crushing, but sharing it would mean facing ridicule, scorn, rejection, or worse. Despite the risks, Grayson’s true self itches to break free. Will new strength from an unexpected friendship and a caring teacher’s wisdom be enough to help Grayson step into the spotlight she was born to inhabit?

Why I like the book: Gracefully Grayson has been lauded by readers and reviewers as being a thoughtful story that has helped teachers and tutors better understand their students. According to one Amazon review:

“Gracefully Grayson is a must read for middle school teachers and parents. Ami must have been a wonderfully insightful and compassionate teacher. I found myself weeping many times throughout this story. Learning who you are, who you want to be is a lifelong process. No one said it is easy, especially for children who have life issues to deal with. Books like this offer all readers the opportunity for thoughtful introspection and meaningful discussion or just the experience of broadening ones horizons. I am recommending an immediate read for my former colleagues, grandchildren and their parents.Kudos to Ami. Well done.”

Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger (ages 12 and up)

Summary: The groundbreaking novel from critically acclaimed author Ellen Wittlinger that tells the story of a transgender teen’s search for identity and acceptance has now been updated to include current terminology and an updated list of resources.

Angela Katz-McNair never felt quite right as a girl. So she cuts her hair short, purchases some men’s clothes and chose a new name: Grady. While coming out as transgender feels right to Grady, he isn’t prepared for the reactions of his friends and family. Why can’t they accept that Grady is just being himself?

Grady’s life is miserable until he finds friends in unexpected places—the school geek, Sebastian, who tells Grady that there is a precedent for transgenders in the natural world, and Kita, a senior, who might just be Grady’s first love.

In a voice tinged with humor and sadness, Ellen Wittlinger explores Grady’s struggles—universal struggles any teen can relate to.

Why I like the book: Parrotfish gives readers a look at gender identity on an intimate level. According to Booklist‘s review:

“…[Wittlinger has] done a superb job of untangling the complexities of gender identity and showing the person behind labels like ‘gender dysphoria.’ Grady turns out to be a very normal boy who, like every teen, must deal with vexing issues of self-identity.”

Freakboy by Kristin Elizabeth Clark (ages 12 and up)

From the outside, Brendan Chase seems to have it pretty easy. He’s a star wrestler, a video game aficionado, and a loving boyfriend to his seemingly perfect match, Vanessa. But on the inside, Brendan struggles to understand why his body feels so wrong―why he sometimes fantasizes having long hair, soft skin, and gentle curves. Is there even a name for guys like him? Guys who sometimes want to be girls? Or is Brendan just a freak?
In Freakboy‘s razor-sharp verse, Kristin Clark folds three narratives into one powerful story: Brendan trying to understand his sexual identity, Vanessa fighting to keep her and Brendan’s relationship alive, and Angel struggling to confront her demons.

Why I like the book: Freakboy has been called a “must-have for library shelves” by Booklist, citing its verse, multiple main characters, and an in-depth exploration of gender identity.

When Brendan Chase types “Want to be a girl” into his Mac’s search engine, one word pops up: transsexual. In Clark’s raw, honest debut novel, told in verse, three voices capture a few experiences of teens on the transgender spectrum. Brendan is “not one of those people / who’s always wanted to wear a dress. / Who’s always known / he should have been born female.” Sex with girlfriend Vanessa, although confusing, feels good, and Brendan questions throughout whether or not he’s trans. Fortunately, there’s an angel in his life—literally. Angel, trans without sex-reassignment surgery (“My junk doesn’t dictate who I am”), fights against demons of her own and struggles to reconnect with her younger brother. She’s a volunteer at Willows, a center for queer teens, and eventually introduces Brendan to terms like gender identity, gender attraction, genderqueer, and gender fluid. Meanwhile, the third voice belongs to Vanessa, a girl on the boy’s wrestling team, who can’t understand why her boyfriend, Brendan, is suddenly so distant. Unlike many novels that deal with one transgender character, this movingly explores so many gender identities, from the three main characters (each appears as a different font) to Angel’s roommates. A must-have for library shelves, this will be popular with fans of Ellen Hopkins. Resources and further reading conclude.

What books do you recommend? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

Background research: Huffington Post