Not the Girl You Marry by Andie J. Christopher
My rating: 0 of 5 stars
My initial feeling was that I might too close to this one—I have a long-standing academic interest in and opinions about how interracial relationships are portrayed in fiction and why it matters. And why so many of these depictions are incredibly problematic. That’s why I’ve stewed about this for months without comment. But that feels too much like cowardice. So here’s a quick rundown of what I thought and felt in reading this book.
From my perspective, the story skimmed the surface of the challenges faced by mixed race individuals and interracial couples, presenting the most basic takes on issues that we’ve now read about everywhere from the New York Times to a plethora of magazines and every day discussions on social media as though they were revelations. I struggled to write this review because I know this is an own voices story. But own voices isn’t and should not be a free pass on criticism. While the issues around identity and belonging seem to be heartfelt and personal (as discussed in the author’s note), the way they’re presented here, the story they’re wrapped up in, doesn’t have the depth to do those issues justice. Instead, the protagonist, a biracial woman struggling with her sense of belonging, sexuality and self-worth, veers close to centuries-old stereotypes about about race and what it means to be black. Without ever using the language, in her own head, the main character basically characterizes herself as a tragic mulatto, a character of mixed racial parentage, who fits in nowhere, who’s rejected by both black and white, and whose race is their downfall.
To take one example, the paragraph that first tipped me off that this was probably Not the Book I Should Read:
“Because they were never looking for a girlfriend, especially not her as a girlfriend. That didn’t hurt anymore. It didn’t. She’d accepted that she was just not the kind of girl men romanced. With her ethnically ambiguous looks, bawdy sense of humor, and filthy mind, men wanted to have sex with her. And then—once they realized that she wasn’t entirely domesticated—they wanted her to disappear.”
That’s my problem with this book in a nutshell. First there’s the strangely old-school tragic mulatto narrative and the self pity that comes with it. Plus the fact that this book seems to take place in an alternate reality, one in which multiculturalism isn't a marketable concept capitalism thrives on, and multiracial identity isn't privileged for its relative proximity to whiteness, and as though that hasn’t been the most acceptable form of blackness in popular culture (see Mixed Race Hollywood for more on that).
Then there’s also the fact that this paragraph is written as though it represents the character’s own thoughts, but the language and sentiments are recognizable as cliche but unrecognizable as the way real people think and speak about themselves in their own words. ”With her ethnically ambiguous looks” is an awfully awkward, stilted way to phrase this idea in one’s own head. “Bawdy sense of humor”? Bawdy, really? Who thinks in those terms?
There’s also a part where the protagonist’s black ex-boyfriend and his mom were horrified to find out she’s biracial. She thinks that also makes her not the girl you marry for bougie black people.
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