Bitch YA Book Club: Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan
For this month's YA book club, Jessica Stites asks Erin Blakemore, Jennie Law, Ellen Papazian, and Nona Willis Aronowitz what they thought about Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. Add your own answers to Jessica's questions (or come up with your own discussion points) in the comments section!
Jessica: Liga goes through incredible trauma: molestation and abuse at the hands of her father, forced abortion, gang rape. What did you think of how Lanagan's handling of these events? Was it ever sensational or prurient? How does it compare with other writers' handling of rape? Is there a "right" way to write rape?
Erin: One thing I appreciated about Lanagan's handling of horrible events is that she always stayed true to her character's experience of them. You could really feel Liga's disassociation and strange acceptance of what was happening to her. There was also a dissociative quality about the other acts of sexual violence in the novel (I'm thinking the terrible retribution rapes near the end). I'm not sure if there is a right way to write rape, but I suppose looking straight at it is better than avoiding the topic.
Nona: I found the description of these events to be neither prurient nor sensational. The scenes weren't graphic and instead focused on how Liga was feeling throughout. I appreciated that she was portrayed as having mixed feelings—terrified and disgusted and hateful, but also helpless and in need of comfort, any comfort and affection even if it came from her rapist father. This approach reminded me of Sapphire's Push, where Precious admits to the reader that despite herself, her newly sexual body occasionally desired physical closeness, however painful and abusive.
Ellen: I thought Lanagan handled these traumatic events with great skill, and I did not find her handling sensational or prurient at all. I actually admired the fact that she didn't go into a point-by-point dramatization of the young men's sexual assault against Liga—though Lanagan's dramatization of it before and after, in and of itself, was terrifying. Even one brief line chilled me—"On seeing her, they started to run [toward her]"—and I couldn't get it out of my mind. It was refreshing to read an author who didn't feel it necessary to approach rape in a sensational way.
You ask if there's "a 'right' way to write rape," and I would say of course not. Each fiction writer creates her own rules and "laws" within her own fictional world. Any handling of a traumatic event like rape must abide by the universe she creates in her story. Anything taken out of context of that world of the story might ring false or even sensational when taken out of the world of the text in that way. I would never suppose there are "right" or "wrong" ways to write about rape in fiction. Yet that fiction either "works" (is successful and credible) or does not. I may not "agree" with the author's POV or handling of the rape or other traumatic event/crime, but it's her right to create that story, and I can judge it by its literary merits. Of course, I feel far more rigid (and quite the opposite) about this when it comes to nonfiction about rape.
Jennie: I have no idea if there is a right way to write about rape aside from being honest and not making it sexy. How rape should be represented in books, movies, and other sources of information and entertainment continues to give me pause. It is very important that these events be examined in a realistic way. But, personally, I find it gut wrenchingly hard to read books and watch movies that include instances of sexual assault. I almost threw up about five times while reading this book. The writing was so urgent and present it was hard to separate myself in some passages to cast a critical eye on this book.
The cloth men retribution scene felt sensational to me. I get where Lanagan was going with that part of the book but at that point I couldn't handle more sexual violence. I think there may have been a less eye-for-an-eye way to handle the revenge. I mean I almost think that a castration scene at the hands of the cloth men would have been easier to read and accept as in line with the bigger story.
Jessica: A Guardian review of Tender Morsels written by a teenager ran a few weeks ago, and it began: "Tender morsels, do not read this book. If you are easily scared, frightened or emotionally unstable then please consider whether you can stand the depth this book presents." Do you agree? Who would/wouldn't you recommend this book to? Should it be taught in schools?
Ellen: I just taught a group of 12- and 13-year-old students and one of them told me he loves watching Jersey Shore. So, when I hear you ask whether this excellent novel that poses some very deep questions should or should not be taught in schools, my answer is a no-brainer: Yes, absolutely. As with any text that has the ability to trigger survivors of sexual molestation, rape, and other forms of violence, I think it has to be taught by a masterful teacher who can handle a roomful of intense discussion on some of the events in the novel or questions it raises. But, yes, by all means: teach the text. How many rounds of The Giver do students need? We need a great work that sheds some necessary light on these issues for young people (in other words, give students a break from the Situation and "GTL").
As to whether or not I agree with that teen reviewer's quote about Tender Morsels, I think it's a bit over the top (i.e., "…whether you can stand the depth this book presents"). I'm not sure whether I can "stand the depth" I see in a 10-second clip of the aftermath of a tsunami. The novel brings you into its world and allows you to handle its depth at whatever rate, pace, or level you can in the moment. It is what it is. It's a journey we take with text and images we encounter every day.
Erin: I was actually a bit taken aback at the weight of the book, especially the fact that it seemed to be almost completely rooted in a world of sexual trauma and abuse. But I think that if you hang with the book long enough, some of those issues are faced and unspooled, if not completely sorted. That comment is interesting to me because I was really struck by the book's dreamlike quality, which to me sometimes detracted from or diminished the weight of some of its subject matter. The retribution rape visited on the perpetrators completely shocked and discouraged me near the end of the book. I thought surely it would be seen as "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind" type of thing, but it really wasn't dealt with much at all and it felt incredibly loaded, sad, frustrating, and problematic.
Nona: I'm of the mind that as long as a young reader has an adult on hand to answer questions, there is no such as "inappropriate" literature for teens. I remember reading The Color Purple and being horrified, saddened and confused. But since I had a fabulous teacher, I got an enormous amount out of the book. And what does "young adult" literature mean, if not to signify the introduction of mature topics? Anyone who is able to comprehend what's going on in Tender Morsels—it has a lot of euphemistic language, after all—has a right to read it, and have a teacher who will put it in context for them.
Jennie: There is no way in hell that I would recommend this to a young adult reader. If a young adult reader in my library or in my immediate vicinity picked up the book, I would not tell her to put it down. But I would urge her to speak with an adult about her experience reading the book. I think I might need to find an adult to help me process my experience with this book and I'm 31.
Tender Morsels in an amazingly written book. It's an absolutely incredibly put together piece of literature. I just don't think that it's for young adult audiences. I think it is too heavy of a topic and too heavy of a treatment of such a heavy topic to shelve next to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince or Pretty Little Liars and to market it to readers who might be looking for their next fun read.
Jessica: Liga is given a "heavenly" world in which to recover, then pays a harsh price for staying in it too long. Do you think this was fair?
Nona: I do think what happens to Liga at the end is cruel, unspeakably horrible, and I guess technically "unfair." But I don't believe the author was trying to weave a cautionary tale. It's a parable about rape culture, above all, and portraying the "damned if you do, damned if you don't" aspect was Lanagan's priority. The realities of trauma ring true in this story—that it can reverberate into your adult life, stunt you emotionally, and leave you unable to cope with the scary, outside world.
Jennie: I really don't think that she paid that harsh of a price. Her daughters growing up and away from her was just what would have naturally happened if she had never been in her heaven to begin with. Reality is rarely easy but I think that Liga bares it amazingly well.
Erin: Like Liga, Urdda and Branza themselves, it took me quite a while to orient myself to which world was which and to realize the fact that Liga and her daughters had been truly sheltered in their heaven world. I must admit I was irked that Liga didn't at least get some emotional/love satisfaction at the end of the book after all of her travails...it almost seemed like she was just destined to have trauma visited on her and to live without adult love, which opens up a bunch of really problematic conversations about the ability to recover from/live in spite of traumas. One thing I think Lanagan did a great job with in the last third of the story was demonstrating that though it was placid and lovely, the dream world was terrible in its own way BECAUSE it was in reaction to terrible things.
Ellen: No, I don't necessarily think this was "fair," but I think this rings emotionally true to how unfairness spreads throughout our lives. Nothing is perfect, but in the narrative, it is compelling. I also think it speaks to the letting go that is at the root of all growth—what happens when we're too attached? It was a dramatization of the idea that we "pay" for these attachments, whether warranted or not.
Jessica: Race comes subtly into this book: Branza is described as "fair-skinned," while the "dark" Urdda is the child of the "foreigner." What did you think of Lanagan's handing of race?
Erin: Again, I was sucked into the Lanagan world, but also a bit disappointed that Urdda, the biracial or dark character, ends up being a magical sorceress while the white, blond character is overall placid and "good" (although you could also argue that the fight was bred out of her due to her parentage). Problematic, but I liked the way Lanagan managed to flesh out both characters with good and bad qualities in addition to their more traditional/close-minded "types."
Jennie: I saw the messages of race revolving more around the bear characters. I see what you are getting at with the physical differences between Branza and Urdda but I thought of that more in terms of biological differences between each girl's father and commentary on the methods of conception. Precisely, Branza came from Liga and her da and possessed a combination of their outward traits. When Liga was assaulted by her father, she felt she deserved it and bore the rapes with stoicism, acceptance, and guilt which are all traits that are seen later on in Branza. Urdda was created from Liga and the sperm from one (or several as Liga postulates in the text) of the five boys who gang rape her one afternoon. Liga wildly fought against the assault and the resulting child; Urdda possesses a almost feral countenance and temperament that don't mirror Liga's. I see the two girls as the two halves of Liga: acquiescent and fair, and wild and dark, splitting off and out into her two daughters.
To me, the bears represent the more subtle examination of race. There's the pageantry of Bear Day which appears to me to be the appropriating of a perceived savage, wild culture by darkening their skin and giving chase. When Bullock and his fellow "bears" are trapped in their skins, thus trapped as savages, Bullock is the only one who recovers fully. The others die, mate with a she-bear and continue to carry a torch for her, and go insane. I'm unsure exactly if a specific racial group is being referenced by Lanagan with these scenes but I feel like I'm digging out the very tip of a bigger examination on race in this book.
Nona: I found this throughline in the book to be a profoundly annoying cliche. I realize this story is based on "Snow White and Rose Red," which I immediately recognized when the dwarf has his unfortunate beard mishap. (Brothers Grimm shoutout!) But still. How often have we seen this pattern of the white/Aryan girl as gentle, virginal, innocent, domesticated and maternal—while the darker/foreigner girl is adventurous, world-wise, visceral, reckless, sexual, and outspoken, with an undeniable erotic energy? This contributes absolutely nothing to the meager selection of multilayered, unpredictable female chacters in YA novels. I found myself liking Urdda more—but predictably, as if the author needed to make a choice between which sister is going to have an actual personality.
The one exception to this rule is when Branza has her uneasy encounters with the second Bear. In a less nuanced story, she'd be a victim, simplistically violated, "ruined" the way Liga was, without any agency whatsoever. Here, we see a deep ambivalence on the part of Branza as she becomes a sexual being. She hazily desires a male energy in her fantasy, female-only world, and finds this bear exciting. Yet she also feels unsafe and coerced—and, in her bubble world, is without the language to express these feelings.
Jessica: In Sisters Red, men became soulless, predatory werewolves. In Tender Morsels, young men turn into large, clumsy bears. What do you think the bear metaphor says about masculinity, and do you agree? How does it contrast with the werewolves in Sisters Red? And what is with YA writers turning guys into animals (or, for that matter, vampires) anyway?
Erin: I actually liked the bears much better than the soulless werewolves...perhaps because the men were still themselves even as they were bears. Still, I'm a bit grieved by the need to present ALL men as predatory, instinct-riddled, animalistic creatures against whom girls and women must protect themselves at all times. The bear metaphor seemed to highlight a pervasive cluelessness and lack of control that I look on with some degree of bitterness, though I suppose the existence of the two bear boys and the original Bear at least showed variations of goodness and badness in the "true natures" of men. Can we all stop with the ham-fisted animal metaphors, though? Maybe it's just because we read this right after Sisters Red, but I'm disappointed this device has been resorted to so often!
Jessica: Lanagan has a very distinctive writing style, almost a dialect of its own—her characters use words like "Mam" and "nudding." Do you like it?
Jennie: Lanagan's indisputably an amazing writer. She manages to craft a narrative with a distinct diction and complicated plot from scraps of fairy tales and her own imagination. Her descriptions are some of the best I've ever read. So yes, on a purely semantic front, I was enchanted by her muddling of dialects and phrases from old and new and entirely fabricated sources.
Ellen: I have to be honest in saying that I had a difficult time adjusting to Lanagan's writing style. I'm more comfortable and interested in more realistic YA fiction and the voice that usually accompanies it. So, her style seemed appropriate for the genre, and it just provided another layer of work for me in terms of accessing the story through her distinctive language.
Erin: I was blown away by the completely immersive world Lanagan wove in this book. The language was so beautifully woven and so deliberate and intricate. It managed to convey a real sense of time and place without beating me over the head with tons of telling, if that makes any sense. The nonsense words were juducious, and I appreciated that she managed to give each person a very distinctive style of speech and manner despite the imperative to include them all in her world. There's a reason this book has won a ton of awards, and I'd venture that Lanagan's use and creation of language is a big part of that.
Nona: I did, but it certainly made me feel that I was missing some sort of Welsh inside joke. Is it Lanagan's distictive writing style or just a reflection of cultural quirks? And I was also confused when this was supposed to take place...I thought the dialogue might give me a clue, but I couldn't figure it out.
Jessica: This is our second book about sisters—what do you think of Urdda and Branza's relationship? How do they compare to Scarlett and Rosie from Sister's Red?
Erin: I'd say that while the sisters in this book are further variations on the Snow White/Rose Red theme, they seemed much more complex and real to me. I thought that the age difference introduced into the relationship added an interesting twist on what otherwise could have dipped into old-feeling subject matter. There was one point of the book where Urdda realizes she is acting like Branza that really rang true for me as a sister and a family member.
Jennie: I recognize the relationship between Branza and Urdda much more than the one between Scarlett and Rosie. The push and pull between Branza and Urdda is much smaller and more realistic. They are sisters. There's nothing that can jeopardize or change that, not time, not distance, and not living in different realities. I was able to see the love and understanding between the sisters of Tender Morsels much more so than Rose Red's siblings.
Nona: Their respective relationships couldn't be more different. Scarlett and Rosie were bound together by a knowledge that most of the outside world didn't possess—they were on a mission together; their emotions about each other were entangled in this one obsession, this secret they had. With Branza and Urdda, it's the opposite—for much of their lives, they are oblivious to the world around them. Or, more accurately, to the "real" world. And until Urdda slips into this "real world," their relationship seems generic and just as much of a utopian fantasy as the parallel town and cottage and forest. It was as if their identities weren't allowed to fully develop because they were beholden to Liga's dream; it's only later in the book, when they end up to be vastly different ages, that they begin to confront each other as individuals. And by that time, they're strangers and relearning how to be sisters.
About today's panel:
Erin Blakemore learned to drool over Darcy and cry over Little Women in suburban San Diego, California. These days, her inner heroine loves roller derby, running her own business, and hiking in her adopted hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Erin's debut book, The Heroine's Bookshelf, was published by HarperCollins in October.
Jennie Law is a feminist children's librarian in Decatur, GA. She's also a member of the Amelia Bloomer Project (Feminist Books for Young Readers) under the Feminist Task Force of the Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association. She spends her free time challenging the patriarchy, hanging out with Butler (her Russian Tortoise), reading, tap dancing, and writing in rhyme.
Ellen Papazian is a writer and teacher. Her work has appeared in the anthologies About Face: Women Write about What They See When They Look in the Mirror and The Long Meanwhile: Stories of Arrival and Departure, and Bitch, including the Page Turner book blog. She leads creative writing workshops for young people and senior citizens. She gifts her babysitters with Weetzie Bat and her niece with Pippi. Learn more about Ellen here.
Jessica Stites is a Ms. editor and a bookworm. Her recent Ms. article "Kick Ass Girls and Feminist Boys" explores race and gender in today's young-adult-fiction boom. When she's not reading or editing—and the blinds are drawn—she enjoys pretending to be Anne of Green Gables pretending to be The Lady of Shalott. Join her feminist-YA conversation here.
Nona Willis Aronowitz is a 26-year-old multimedia journalist and cultural critic. She has written about women, sex, politics, music, and youth culture for numerous publications including The Nation, The Village Voice, Salon, Slate, and BUST. She is the author of Girldrive: Criss-crossing America, Redefining Feminism. Nona is currently a contributing producer at public radio's All Things Considered and Morning Edition in New York City, and feminist-blogs in her free time.
Next up: Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott. Get your hands on a copy of the book (In Portland? Check the book out from our library) and tune in for another book club discussion on June 3rd! For a complete schedule of Bitch YA Book Clubs, go here.
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