Thursday, February 5, 2015

Kaleidoscope - Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios

The anthology Kaleidoscope is the first book I've received a review copy of though the Dutch language book portal Hebban. I've been reviewing for them for a while now but I usually review books I already own. They have graciously agreed to let me do and English version as wel. A much longer version of this review will appear in three installments on Hebban, so if you read Dutch head that way.

Kaleidoscope is an anthology of diverse Science Fiction and Fantasy stories. The basis for this anthology was a panel discussion on how few QUILTBAG characters can be found in Yong Adult dystopian novels. The stories in this anthology do not just focus on gender and sexual identity however. The editors want as much diversity in the anthology as they manage, they want to see themselves represented, but also stories of people "who aren't like us." The stories cover a wide range of protagonist, people with handicaps, people with mental health problems, people who belong to ethnic minorities, and of course a bunch of stories of people who are not cis and heterosexual. Sometimes the being different part can even be bound in the ability to do magic when nobody else can. It is, in other words, very diverse and that is both the strength and greatest weakness of this anthology.

Given the somewhat controversial nature of the theme for this anthology - let's face it, in many parts of the world it is still not OK to be different in some or all of the aspects I mentioned earlier - it is perhaps not entirely surprising that the anthology is crowdfunded. Personally, I suspect that many a highschool will put it on the black list based on the pink cover alone. With most of the backers presumably adults, it makes me wonder how many copies will reach the intended audience. The fact that there is a need for such an anthology and the fact that it has to be crowdfunded shows we have a long way to go when it comes to diverse characters in genre fiction.

As usual with anthologies I didn't like all stories equally. There are a few that I simply didn't like or that made me wonder how much they contributed to the overall theme of the anthology. How much did the editors want the writers to engage with the theme? Is merely making a character gay, foreign or disabled enough? Somehow it doesn't feel like it is sufficient if the reader can just mentally ignore that one different fact about them and still read and appreciate the story just fine. Sexuality, gender, ethnicity and so on, shape a person's outlook on life. Not every story has to be a struggle of dealing with rejection, discrimination or accepting differences but I am looking for characters that truly incorporate what they are in there personalities. That, for me, was one of the key elements why some stories worked and others didn't.

Gabriela Lee 's story End of Service for instance, is about a Filipina character who loses her mother who is hardly ever there because she works abroad. It is a very moving story of dealing with loss but the main character is a Filipina in the Philippines and doesn't feel she is different in any way than the majority in her society. She misses her mother and that doesn't make her half so different as she thinks it does. The theme for this story is so universal that if the main character had been Irish or Senegalese is would have worked fine too. Maybe I could read this as diverse people facing the same challenges in life, that while they may look, act or feel differently, there is still much more we have in common? Other stories that touch on the theme very lightly are The Legend Trap by Sean Williams, Double Time by John Chu and Welcome by William Alexander. It doesn't make these stories bad mind you, but they do not contribute as much to the theme of the anthology as they might have.

Then there are a few stories, that for me at least, hit the bull's eye. One I particularly liked is Ken Liu The Seventh Day of the Seventh Moon. It's a story about two Chinese girls in a relationship and how to carry on after one of them leaves to study abroad. Liu combines it with a Chinese legend related to the Quxi festival (you get to Google this one, I'm not doing anthropology lessons today). It's very moving and very beautifully written. Liu's first novel will be out later this year. I'm very much looking forward to reading it.

One can look at differences from the outside as well of course, and that is what Sofia Samatar does in her story Walkdog. She writes it in the form of a paper from, probably a high school student. I couldn't really tell the exact age of the main character from the story. While on the surface it is a paper, complete with footnotes and the formal structure expected in such a work, in reality it is one long rant. As the story progresses the subject of the paper is more and more abandoned and a story of the bullying the boy who helps the main character write the paper rises to the surface. This should be required reading on schools everywhere. Despite the formal structure of the story it packs a serious emotional punch. A wonderful piece of writing.

A third story I want to mention here is Amal El-Mothar's The Truth About Owls. The story is about a girl who ends up in Scotland, fleeing the violence in her native Lebanon. Estranged from her parents who want her to leave Lebanon behind and faced with prejudice and presumptions of her classmates and teachers she has trouble setting in. The thing I liked about this story is how it mirrors the anthology as a whole in a way. What the main character does to find her balance again and break through the negative spiral she is caught in, is collect her desires, wants, wishes, longing and anthologize them, or as the story puts is makes them into a florilegium. I understand that is a term that isn't used anymore in English but the Dutch word for anthology, bloemlezing, is still derived from it. The story shows us a breakthrough for the character, an acceptance of her wants and desires without judging them by other people's standards that align so well with Kaleidoscope as a whole that I wonder if maybe this should have been the final story in the anthology.

The art of editing a good anthology is to select the stories and present them in such a way that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Krasnostein and Rios would probably have been able to achieve that effect if they had chosen to narrow the theme down just a little bit. Kaleidoscope is so diverse, that apart from showing what is possible in Young Adult fiction, it does not quite achieve that synergy. What I do very much appreciate in this anthology is the fact that the authors do not shy away from difficult themes and accept the reader's ability to handle them. There is no underestimation of the audience anywhere in the selection the editors made. Looking at the stories individually, it contains a number of excellent stories, material even that would not look out of place on the awards ballots. That alone makes Kaleidoscope more than worth reading. It also, as should be apparent from my comments, raises a lot of interesting questions on diversity and the lack of in genre fiction. Looking over all of my comments, the English as well as the Dutch ones, I come to the conclusion that I have much more reading to do before I really have a firm grasp on the subject. If, like me, you are interested in such questions, Kaleidoscope is definitely a good place to start.

Book Details
Title: Kaleidoscope
Editors: Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios
Publisher: Twelfth Planet Press
Pages: 437
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-9221011-1-2
First published: 2014

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