Looking for Alaska, and finding my brain!

It's been a while since my last post mostly because I'm not sure what to blog about these days. So much of my life is caught up in being a new mother, and there are so many brilliant mommy blogs out there, I'm not sure my little tidbits are necessary to the conversation. So, for now, I'll keep my mommy-musings minimal although they may warrant a blog post every so often.

That's why I was so excited when I picked up Looking for Alaska, a YA novel by John Green, and I read twenty pages! In one sitting! My post-partum brain, it still worked. And then I read another 20, but then I came across a paragraph on page 48 and I stopped. The narrator had been a pretty stand-up kid, trying to find himself like most high school kids, but this one paragraph made me stop. So, I posted this question in Twitter and Facebook: "The narrator of Looking for Alaska, a YA book I'm reading, just revealed he's racist although he would deny it. Do I keep reading?"

I loved the conversation which followed and I decided to finish the book because I had been enjoying it, until that paragraph. I hoped at some point the narrator might revisit his misguided thoughts, but as I suspected, that paragraph, that racist paragraph, just sat there, and I chalked it up to character development. I mean, I guess it shouldn't surprise me that a white, middle class kid from Florida would exhibit racism. So I read, and I enjoyed this kid's quest for the Great Perhaps and how he seeks to escape the labyrinth of suffering. But after finishing the book, when I look back at that one paragraph, I think the author was revealing his racism.

I also wasn't sure why it bothered me so much. Why did this paragraph make me want to abandon a book I'd been previously enjoying? I've forgiven poorly written paragraphs, misogynistic paragraphs, wasted paragraphs that should have just been deleted, so why did this racist graph bug me so much? Well, I think, in part, because it is an extremely familiar form of racism, the kind I encountered too often growing up in Bend. Someone I really liked, a friend, a classmate, would say something racist and I'd have to decide how to handle it. Should I call them on their racist comment or say nothing and remember, oh, so-and-so is racist and begin to silently hate them? I usually called people on things which didn't garner many popularity points, but now, twenty years after leaving Bend and a couple of weeks after my high school reunion, I've forgiven and forgotten racist comments my former classmates might have made (although I've been known to hide racist "friends" on Facebook). And as for John Green, I'll be writing him to ask why he chose to include this paragraph in Looking for Alaska. 

"Unfortunately for the Culver Creek Nothings, we weren't playing the deaf-and-blind school. We were playing some Christian school from downtown Birmingham, a team stocked with huge, gargantuan apemen with thick beards and a strong distaste for turning the other cheek" (48). 

But mostly, I'm celebrating the return of my brain.


  1. We all have a racist friend or 2 in our circles...hell I might be considered that racist friend since my sister from another mother Jane Lee is also my Korean nanny...but what do you do when they make racist comments? Chuckle? File it away and move on? Or call them out on it? I have and still do all of the above.

  2. At the risk of sounding stupid or behind in my racial epithets, what did you find racist about this paragraph? I'm genuinely curious because to me, nothing stands out as racist, especially out of context and even more so if you didn't detect any other similar remarks in the book. I know that Birmingham is a largely black community so I'm guessing (just guessing so I apologize if I'm mistaken) you mean his use of "apemen" in conjunction with that fact, but I don't read that as a racial comment myself. If nothing else, I read it simply as a physical description of bigger kids (which actually reminds me of bigger athletes when I was growing up). Maybe some insensitivity towards the handicapped perhaps, but I don't read anything racial into it (again, out of context).

  3. Well, I suppose you could assume this was not racial, but the choice of "apemen" to describe big basketball players from downtown is incredibly stereotypical and would not be used in a multicultural setting like my classroom without getting some serious flack. That's why I said the narrator would deny it being racist, but many readers, not to mention the author, editor, and publisher should have recognized it. I don't think it was the author's intention to have the narrator appear racist, or maybe it was...

  4. I don't know how much better it is to not be surprised that a middle class white kid from Florida is racist. But glad you kept reading and that your mommy brain is functioning. Baby steps, so to speak.

  5. Do you think that besides it being a familiar form of racism, you also felt let down and disappointed by the character?

  6. I would like to continue this dialog with you next time we hang out Nori. Knowing myself, I figure that banging away on the keyboard will most likely get me misinterpreted and generate more text than anyone is willing to read (trust me, I already started and decided to blow it all away) but I think this is an interesting discussion and would like to get into it more sometime.

  7. Yes, Jeremie, I'd love to discuss further. And Jordan, definitely, I felt let down by the character and it definitely caught me by surprise. Touche, Susanna. I shall not expect/excuse racism from middle class white kids!

  8. I found this because of your twitter post. Let me say that I in no way think that Mr. Green meant for the "apemen" description to be racist, consciously or subconsciously, nor have I ever personally heard that word in a racist context in real life (and I'm from the South where racism is still sadly rampant). Also, if you've ever had any exposure to Christian schools in the South, which is where the basketball team in the book is based, you'd know that they are predominantly made up of white, middle- and upper-class kids. I attended a Christian school for 15 years and we had exactly 3 non-white students in that time. (Which is horrible, but that's a whole different conversation.) I know that my opinion is unwarranted, but I'm interested to know if now that you have confirmation from Mr. Green that he did not intend that passage to be racist if you are able to read it differently or if you're still convinced that it is racist and he's just unwilling to admit it.

    1. Thanks for reading and for providing me with that perspective. I don't think Mr. Green intended to be racist, but unfortunately it could be and has been read that way. I have not had much personal experience in the South which did limit my interpretation, but I still think the passage (and that scene in general) is problematic. I'll be posting again with how Mr. Green responded on twitter.