So I was catching up on Booklikes last week and came across a post about an event taking place during the last two weeks of September entitled #Diversiverse hosted by Aarti Chapati’s blog, BookLust, inviting participants to read and review one book by a person of color during the event period. Generally, I don’t pay much attention to the author’s bio unless I’ve interacted with them or if something about the text makes their background or nationality seem relevant.
Still, I couldn’t help but be struck by Chapati’s points, first about the general need to immerse yourself in a variety of perspectives—national, religious, ethnic, racial—and second about the importance of making an active, deliberate choice to do so through your reading. As she puts it,
“Reading diversely may require you to change your book-finding habits. It ABSOLUTELY does not require you to change your book reading habits.”
Fortunately for me, the blogger Saturday in Books who'd let me know about the event kindly recommended several titles, in particular Karen Lord's The Best of All Worlds, which she described thus: “Jane Austen Star Trek is all you need to know. Jane. Austen. Star. Trek. People.”
Jane Austen (subject of roughly half my dissertation) and Star Trek (I’ve seen every episode of Next Gen. At least twice.) being two of my most enduring and influential cultural reference points, I was instantly sold. And I can’t really say enough in praise of the book. It’s an emotional read, as much for the subtlety and gentleness with which it allows its developing relationships to unfold as for any passion or drama. It also ended up being an excellent choice for this particular event, since this is a story about cultural difference, about the dangers of assimilation put against the urgent need for compromise and discovery of shared values.
Reading the story requires patience and attention. The blurb gives a rough—and crucial—background to the story since the narrative prefers to allow the key facts about characters and their world to come to light gradually without anything resembling an info-drop. But at its heart, this is very much a story about exile and resettlement and the ensuing clash of cultures, though “clash” suggests something far noisier and more obvious than what we have here. Instead we are immersed in a world of greys, of hard choices and competing values where questions of right and wrong can only rarely be settled without the sacrifice of an equally worthy principle.
The story begins only shortly after the Sadiri home planet has been viciously destroyed. A small group of males have been offered asylum on the planet Cygnus Beta, which has a markedly different culture--as if the survivors of Star Trek’s Planet Vulcan had been forced to settle in the old American west. The Sadiri are desperate to rebuild their lives and preserve their culture yet survival requires intermingling and intermarrying with the local women, which they quickly find is a far more fraught prospect than they’d expected.
Lord’s narration is extremely deft in managing the reader’s waffling reactions to the dilemma. There are aspects of the Sadiri culture that the Cygnians (and most readers) understandably find off-putting: their obsession with mental self-discipline, their emotional reserve, their sense of superiority, their inflexibility and obtuseness when faced with the emotional needs of other peoples.
As the heroine, Delarua, tries to explain, “we’re all descended from peoples who thought they were kings and gods, and who found themselves to almost nothing in the end. Don’t let that be you.”
And yet every time you want to scream and shake one of the Sadiri, you’re forced to pull back: are we really prepared to advise that the survivors of planetary genocide set aside their values, essentially all they have left, for the sake of practicality, or even survival? Especially when every compromise, every sacrifice, furthers the cause of the enemies that tried to exterminate them?
The novel uses two traditional devices, a romantic courtship and a physical journey, to document the psychological journey of how these differences are addressed, how through dialogue, introspection, and shared experiences members of these two cultures can find enough common ground to coexist and ultimately flourish.
My breakdown makes the narrative sound far more schematic than it is. In fact it proceeds with a remarkable absence of the usual melodrama, speechifying and point-hammering that you might expect to find in this kind of story. Instead the ideas and connections emerge almost invisibly through the sum of many encounters, many scenes, where the point is often not obvious.
It might make for a sleepy or dry read but for the remarkable voice of the first-person narrator, Delarua, in turns self-deprecating, professional, vulnerable, humane, heart-broken, insecure, mischievous, and endlessly curious. I’ll just give a few characteristic quotes:
If there’s one thing a Cygnian can’t bear, it’s the stench of superiority. Too often it has been the precursor to atrocity and rationale for oppression.
Warm tendrils untangled from my nervous system, withdrawing gently but swiftly like the leaf-brush of startled mimosa.
A faint smile curved his lips as he looked at me. For a moment, I saw… I don’t know how to explain it, but I saw just a man—not an offworlder, not a foreigner, nor even a colleague and a friend but just a man, relaxed, smiling, glad to be in my company. I felt an odd, fragmenting sensation of suddenly perceiving something differently and having the whole world change as a result.
I can’t help comparing this book to Lois Bujold’s Shards of Honor and offering both as evidence of why I like female-authored sci-fi so much. This is an extremely well-written book, with lovely poetic passages, subtle, insightful characterization and a deeply resonant theme; it is also refreshingly free of the ‘chosen one’ grandiosity and superhero antics so typical of sci-fi, and which too often feel designed to appeal to an audience of adolescent boys.
Finally, as someone who reads overwhelming in a single genre, M/M romance, Chapati’s event was a timely illustration of how much I've been missing by not forcing myself out of my comfy generic house. So my gratitude to both Chapati for organizing a terrific event and to Karen Lord, for writing a subtle, humorous, lovely and always challenging story about the gifts that come when you look beyond your familiar horizons.