The Acorn and Thimble

The important things in children's books

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Shattering my prejudices

As a quick warning, this post contains a spoiler for Monsters of Men, from the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness.

Well, not really, it doesn’t ruin the plot. But it might ruin a moment to understand your own prejudices and have the ‘smack in the face’ moment that I experienced. I read a post by a writer a while ago, who said that deep down, most of us are a little prejudiced without realising it, simply because we  write, read, or in my case, imagine, what is ‘normal’ or ‘familiar’ to us, and I think she was probably right. 

In the fracas about Rue from the Hunger Games, a lot of fans who had imagined the ‘dark skinned’ character as white were incensed by the actress being black. Here of course, we see blatant racism, as some decided that as a result it just ‘wasn’t as sad’ when she died. But a friend of mine admitted she had somehow missed the description, or forgotten it, and had also been surprised to see Rue as black. Of course, she wasn’t angry, as she isn’t a racist. She had simply ‘defaulted’ Rue to white in her head, and had a moment of ‘oh yeah, right!’ when she saw the film.

It’s interesting though, when however good our intentions, our own expectations can limit our understanding of a text. My own moment came in Monsters of Men. I had been smugly pleased to see how Ness introduced a gay couple early in the trilogy without any kind of fanfare - just as normal. No one in this new universe seemed to think anything of it. There were strong, autonomous women too. ‘Well done, Patrick Ness’ I thought. ‘Well played.’

But then I came to my own ‘default to me’ moment. There is an alien character in Monsters of Men, one of the indigenous beings called spackle. He is known only as 1017, the number he is branded with by the humans. The spackle are a beautiful creation, communicating through thought, normally throughout the species rather than individuals. Each of them is part of a greater whole. Think the ‘thought speak’ of the Animorphs, but crafted into a beautiful expression of interconnectedness. Within this beatuiful language there are unfamiliar phrases, and rather than the phrases ‘partner,’ or ‘spouse,’ the spackle have the ‘one in particular.’ 1017 has lost his one in particular to the brutality of the humans. We follow his mourning though the book - how his one in particular protected him, covered his shyness, taught him to avoid beatings, before being brutally killed in front of him. I’d already shed tears.

Then 1017 is talking to the Sky, the leader of the spackle, about his pain and loss, and how it makes him determined for revenge. The following exchange takes place as visions (the spackle ‘show’ not ‘say’) of his one in particular fill 1017’s mind (please excuse the formatting, I don’t have the fonts and typefaces to do this justice):

-my one in particular rising when the shed door is opened and the Clearing are there with guns and their blades, my one in particular standing before me again, protecting me for the final time -

The Sky lets me go as I call out, the horror alive again in my voice, alive like it is happeneing just now, all over again -

You miss him, the Sky shows. You loved him.

BAM. I had read over 270 pages of this book, and it had not even crossed my mind that the one in particular was male. With Ness cleverly writing the character without using terms of gender, I had automatically assumed that 1017’s one in particular was female. A strong, autonomous female admittedly, with the role of protector, and I was pleased that Ness was showing so many strong females in his books. But for me, it was just so easy to assume a heteronormative relationship that I hadn’t even considered the alternative.

It wasn’t just me. A few days ago I was discussing the book with a friend and she asked, uncomfortably, ‘what gender do you think 1017 was?’ She’d had the exact same slap in the face that I had. The slap where you realise that maybe you aren’t quite as open minded as you thought. Of course, this doesn’t make us homophobic. Neither of us thought ‘oh, well that’s ruined that that tragic love story.’ We weren’t determined for a heterosexual relationship and were feeling thwarted. It was just what our imaginations had filled in for us, incorrectly.

But thank you, Patrick Ness, for reminding me that there’s still a battle going on for complete open mindedness, even among the most willing.

Filed under 1017 YA literature chaos walking children's literature monsters of men open minded patrick ness prejudice gender