Title: When We Was Fierce
Author: e. E. Charlton-Trujillo
Date: Candlewick; August 2016
Main Character: Theodore “T” Clark
young adult fiction
Edited 26 July 2016
This review is part of a collaborative effort that began on Sunday 24 July with a guest review from Jenn Baker.
It continued on Reading While White Blog with a post, “When Whiteness Dominates Reviews”, by K. T. Horning.
If you are a parent who uses professional book reviews to select books, K.T.’s Keynote Lecture that is part of School Library Journal’s Diversity Course is a must.
(NOTE: All references to text are from an advanced copy.)
Mimicry reveals something in so far as it is distinct from what might be called an itself that is behind. The effect of mimicry is camouflage…It is not a question of harmonizing with the background, against a mottled background, of becoming mottled—exactly like the technique of camouflage practiced in human warfare.
Jacques Lacan, “The line and light, Of the Gaze
When We Was Fierce has been a much anticipated book from e. E. Charlton-Trujillo. While writing the book she delivered many oral readings from this novel in verse, building excitement for its release. It was met with positive reviews from Teenreads, Kirkus (starred), Booklist (starred), Publishers Weekly (starred) and Library Journal.
When We Was Fierce is the story of Theodore, aka T, a young African American teen who is struggling with the choices in his life. He chooses to try to help Ricky-Ricky, a young boy from the neighborhood who has a developmental disability and is beaten to death. Crossing the territorial line to help this boy puts T in the crosshairs of the leader of the gang that dominates the community, the Jive. T is somewhat of a pariah among his friends, not wanting to join a gang, spending time reading books and wanting to cross the line to help Ricky-Ricky. Because of the danger he put himself in by helping Ricky-Ricky, most seem to think T needs to leave in order to make something of himself. Indeed, he seems to have choices to make.
Every major reviewer who embraced this book was impressed by the language Charlton-Trujillo made up for the contemporary characters in the book. The author states
“Right from the jump, I could hear the music of T’s world that hadn’t existed in YA before. Slang can become dated quick, so I had a unique opportunity to incorporate some slang along with a new vernacular.” source http://www.booklistonline.com/ProductInfo.aspx?pid=8227716&AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1
It was this same made up language that made the book so problematic for me. Who makes up language when portraying real people living in a contemporary society? Just how entitled is that?
This same language that mimicked black vernacular made the story a problematic read for me. Typically, when I read black vernacular, I can hear it in my head as spoken by someone in my life and it resonates as a home to me. It is a language with a pattern in how nouns and verbs relate, tense is express and how verbs are conjugated. The language in this book jolted me, caused me to pause, re-read and wonder what meaning was being conveyed. The slang of contemporary African American teens evolves from and relates very much to phrases that were used back in my day and I can understand exactly what thoughts the characters are communicating. Not so much with this made up language. And, that leads me to wonder for whom this books is written.
When reading books from Latinx authors, we’ve come to understand there will be no definition in text and no glossary at the end of the book because it is written for Latinx readers. The authors do not want to ruin the reader’s experience for Latinxs by provided definitions for others. But Charlton-Trujillo provides neither definition nor context clues for the vocabulary she’s created. Struggling readers aren’t going to spend time figuring out this language that is not their own. For whom is this book written? Who is meant to understand? I do not believe it’s meant for African American teens. Perhaps it was written for the reviewers who so eagerly embraced the book and its language.
As you will find from this review, this is a fault filled novel. I intended to simply walk you through the first chapter of the book, look at the issues in those few pages that have prevent most people I know from continuing to read the book, but there are deeper issues throughout.
As previously mentioned, the book begins with the brutal beating of Ricky Ricky, a young man with disabilities, including stuttering. Charlton-Trujillo uses this character and his disabilities to quickly create a character, build empathy for him and then destroy him. His disability allows him to be easily victimized.
e.E. Charlton-Trujillo presents a monolithic urban African American neighborhood where everyone is low income and everyone is broken or damaged. Single homes, abusive parents, criminal records combine with neighbors who have little more than bad history between them. Money Mike, the leader of the Jive and the person who beat Ricky Ricky, is actually T’s brother. This relationship is explored only enough to let us know that there is bad history between the two brothers. While this relationship could have been developed to bring some depth to the story, it is not. These histories depict a violent and toxic community. But, to save the day we have Smokey, the story’s Magical Negro.
Smokey is a war veteran who has killed so many people in Iraq that he cannot stand the thought of more killing at home, in his own community. He’s the ultra cool, mack daddy that everyone respects. Smokey is the only one who sees the brilliant goodness in T, his ability to overcome the horrors of The Split, move out and actually make something of himself because, from the book’s perspective, there is nothing but violence and violent people in The Split.
Charlton-Trujillo says she wrote the book in response to the Trayvon Martin shooting. I think I expected a different response to Trayvon in a book written for teens. Here, she clearly defines the Split, the black community, as dysfunctional and completely responsible for its own problems.
Smokey takes T to a “speak out” in the local church where community members come together to decide what to do about the murder of Ricky Ricky. (Why do churches always appear in African American movies and in this book? Can you say stereotype?) The first person narrative voice of T states it was “jammed up packed in there”. My brain read ‘jam packed up in there.’ Before speaking, T recounts being counseled by his deceased father that the “po-lice” were not bad yet, none of the adults in the church care for the Pigs. (I’m not sure why she chose to capitalize that.) Smokey empowers T to speak his truth to the church crowd and their combined message is “violence is not our answer.” But, an old man, Charley, (an odd name for Black Man) responds with “we gotta take back what’s ours”. (p. 104) The adults in the church embrace the violence and detest the Pigs.
So, how does this relate to the murder of the Trayvon Martin? Is it that the black community is so violent that the ‘po-lice must act accordingly? That they’re justified in reacting violently to young black men?
While Smokey is the Magical Negro, women in the story fit the Jezebel stereotype.
The Jezebel images which defame African women may be viewed in two broad categories: pathetic others and exotic others. Pathetic others include those depictions of African women as physically unattractive, unintelligent, and uncivilized. These images suggest that African women in particular and black women in general possess aberrant physical, social, and cultural traits. source: http://ferris.edu/jimcrow/jezebel.htm
She is oversexed, loud, often pregnant, unintelligent and unattractive.
- “the natural disaster know as Hilda A. Clark stood in a doorway, ready to go ten rounds in a six-round fight.” T’s mother. (p. 34)
- Monica, T’s sister. “Her belly swole up tight and somebody else’s baby big-bouncing at her hip.” (p. 50) “Your sister is better beast” say Catch. (p106)
- a female patient in the hospital. Delusional? In pain? “Then this woman swallow up all the quiet. She go to S C R E A M I N G in the room across the way. You think she seen her own death comin’ the way she go on. She was fierce in her sound.” (p. 50)
- Tish steppin’ up to the guys. “She roll em breasts a li’l too open to be up in church. Might blind the holy right out every brother in the room with ‘em.” (p. 107)
- Gabi, Jimmy’s girl who he hasn’t seen in a while, but he runs into her at the club. “She do a step-back showcasing all her curves. Jimmy smile go wide. I ain’t mad at it.” he say. “You ain’t … she say, and fo’ real, drop tongue all up in Jimmy and grab his Man. Damn@ She got no limit.” (p. 134)
Most female characters are developed little beyond their introductions but we find out just a little more about Nia, the girl who catches T’s eye.
“That what you into?” I ask. “Brothers with guns?
She tease the lip of that can with her finger
“I don’t step anywhere with a brother that carry heat,” she say. “It ain’t my cool. Ever.”
“Me neither,” I say. “I mean heat. Not brothers.”
She bust out smile.
It put my stomach to twitching.
“Where is you I say. I mean, you from Atlanta? That’s what Gabs was sayin’.
“Yeah. My mom and I came to share time for the Fourth.”
“Fo’ real?” I ask.
“Yeah…?” she say.
“Look I’m sorry. It’s just… you come all the way from Atlanta to visit West Split? That’s just — we in the hood. You on that, right?” (p 149)
As Nia weaves her intoxicating, alluring and sexy spell over T by simply circling the top of her soda can with her finger, we realize how naïve and unworldly our young protag is in having never travelled outside his own confines. We also realize his disdain for this place. Why would Nia, this lust-filled goddess visit this, his neighborhood? And here, e. E. Charlton-Trujillo levels condemnation on this space that so many African Americans call home. Outsiders writing about a community often do this, not seeing beyond the broken beer bottles (p, 6), casually commenting that it’s not “something fresh to see a kid busted up” (p. 10) rather than seeing through to the ebb and flow of life that make the city blocks a vibrant community.
Here in The Split, there is no code switching. African Americans in The Split speak the same broken vernacular whether a child is speaking to a parent, police officer or peer. T’s mother walks into her son’s hospital room and finds a police officer there.
“You been questioning my boy?” she ask.
I was here when he woke up, Ms. Clark.”
“Mrs. And don’t play me the fool with your with eyes, Mr. Kelly,” she say. “You can sniff somewhere else.” [These black women are such Jezabels!]
“Let me clear the noise for you, sir. My son nearly lost his life today. And whatever questions you have can wait till he up and pee without a tube in his man business.” (p.36)
This inability to switch indicates a lack of sophistication among her characters, an unwillingness to draw a line that defines the other and holds them as outsiders. Yet, in the language Charlton-Trujillo creates, there is a distancing created between the characters and the reader. Her language provides indirect action.
- p 62 “Man, my pain ached!”
- p 64 “You need to get real fact, Theo,” Hilda snapped. Read on the paper.”
- 76 “he just keepin’ me to the know. That’s all.”
- 19 “Money Mike hated on me for not enlisting.”
As if creating the language is not offensive enough, we have to deal with the use of ‘slave’ and ‘nigga’. Figure this out.
“Shit beast!” Jimmy was raw at Catch!
“What the fuck, Negro?”
“Don’t talk slaves to me,
“Stay out between this, smalls,” warned Catch. (p. 7)
Slaves? Negro? What the what??
Charlton-Trujillo’s voice comes through (p.116) when she breaks into her tirade on ‘nigga’. Although many of us who are not young African Americans do not embrace usage of this term, we know and understand why young people incorporate ‘nigga’ into their vernacular. Their vernacular. This highlights the transgression committed in the writing, publishing and editing of this book about which Charlton-Trujillo proclaims “I had to write this story now. Kids needed it. The Fierce wouldn’t let me go.”
Whose voice? Whose language? For whom is this book featuring African American characters and mimicking black language, black culture, black youth and black community written?