Saturday, November 12, 2005

Review: Autobiography of a Blue-eyed Devil

[Inga Muscio. Autobiography of a Blue-eyed Devil: My Life and Times in a Racist, Imperialist Society. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2005.]

I think I'm in love with Inga Muscio.

Well, okay, maybe that's putting it a bit strongly. After all, I've never met her, she mostly isn't too into bioboys, and I've only read one of her books. But that one book really, really rocks. Call it an early-stage literary and political crush, if you'd like.

People of colour and Aboriginal people have been talking about getting screwed over by systems of power that target them and benefit white folks for, oh, five-hundred years or so. Since they fought their way to still-more-limited-than-white access to the resources to publish, they have written plenty about it as well. Writing by white folks that really tries to speak about racial oppression honestly and in a way that is integral to its analysis is a rather more recent development, however.

For any oppression, the alpha and omega for privileged people educating ourselves has to be material that comes from them what get it worst. True to the realities of privilege and oppression, sometimes white folks get rewarded for saying/writing things about racism that people of colour get punished for, and it can be just another way for white folks to benefit from the oppression of racialized people. But you can't really say much about the world that is truthful and useful and revolutionary without talking about racial oppression, and as long as the self-educating person of privilege constructs their pantheon of political wisdom in a way that does not allow white ally voices to in any way subordinate the voices of racialized people themselves, then including ally wisdom can be a real benefit. The journey to understanding and ultimately trying to undermine our own privilege can be scary, and it helps to have guidance from others on the same journey.

I've read articles and books that fall into that category, and I've learned lots from them. Words in such books have challenged me, inspired me, taught me, reminded me, helped me.

But there is something about Muscio's book that stands out. It isn't necessarily that her politics are in some sense "better," though they are certainly no-holds-barred radical. Rather, it's something about the writing. It is quirky and passionate. It is playful and deliberately tweaks convention. It coins new phrases, and curses copiously when cursing seems called for. It is built from bite-sized chunks of text, engaging and easily digestible when exhausted after a hard day at work or between changing a diaper and cleaning up spilled orange juice. You feel a person in those pages. You are pushed poetically, and however fleetingly, into the kind of imaginative empathy that insticntive avoidance of pain, and the narcotic of the mass media and our own privilege, innoculates us against. You feel anger and despair -- the anger and despair that we should all feel if we are human, but so often we don't. And you feel pushed to find hope and joy, too, and to act.

I think, at heart, I'm drawn to and maybe even kind of jealous of the writer's ability to put her self out there on display, without apology and without shame. That, and her organic experience and expression of anger. The book isn't necessarily flawlessly crafted in the sense that a reviewer might deploy such a phrase to describe snobby high-art writing. It is better, though: It is alive.

Okay. Enough gushing. I have a couple of things that I would tweak in terms of analysis, were it me -- like maybe I'd include a bit more to acknowledge the inevitable limitations of anti-racist ally consciousness among white people while systems of white supremacy remain intact, and maybe shift some stuff in terms of talking about the relationship between white supremacy and capitalism. And I'm sure there are other things to debate and critique, too, as there always is with this kind of stuff. To a certain extent, though, too much focus on trees and not enough on forest seems counter to the spirit of the book.

Despite its length it is an easy read. I think that even though it doesn't shy away from scary political words like "white supremacy" and "imperialism," its approach and its passion will allow it to engage readers with these ideas who might be turned off by works that are more restrained in their rhetoric but that fail to get past the "blah, blah, blah, politics, nothing to do with my life" barrier which so often stands between people and upsetting (i.e. unconscious privilege disturbing) ideas.

Thanks Inga!

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


SR said...

Did you see on her website that Inga is scheduled to appear at the Toronto Women's Bookstore in February? Let's go!!

rabfish said...

What a beautiful review.

Thanks for putting a bit more of yourself out on display, by describing how you responded to her quirky, passionate, unconventional, original, alive words. You make me want to read the book.


Scott said...


Thanks R. -- you're sweet!