I’ve chosen to cut how I came to this train of thought, but here is the basic observation where it starts: there exists a genre of popular media in America that spends two hours critiquing systems of oppression within it only to end on a note of sudden optimism, a well-we’re-all-Americans-and-we’ll-figure-it-out-at-the-end sort of hope.

Which… is very context-dependent, and maybe not always inherently bad? But it brings me to how quite often, throughout our class, we have focused on the question of hope (and concepts connected to it, even if they can’t be fully quantified as such), and whether our endings have any. The hopeful ending of No-No Boy rang true in a way that resonated with me; I found hope very sparse at the end of When the Emperor Was Divine; I think The Hungry Tide is meant to have something like a happy ending, at least moreso than many of our other novels, but I didn’t find it there either.

An argument I’ve made a few times is that ‘hope’ isn’t a fair thing to look for in most of these novels. There’s a gray area between pure misery and genuine hope, and a lot of that comes down to a specific and painful portrayal of the human experience, one which can’t always be defined around “do I feel hope” but sometimes around “I exist, and that’s what matters.”

Still, I feel like talking about hope (and related concepts) matters too, especially in the context of … feel-good political art as opposed to don’t-feel-good political art? The question of lifting one up over the other, or of different kinds of hope, of hope for a system as opposed to an individual. And the question (as always, I guess) of who is telling whose story, and for what kind of audience?

Also, a thought I had while writing this: I identified No-No Boy as our most successful ending, but I feel like that’s also the most pro-America book we’ve read? There’s a thought, one I’m not quite sure what to do with.

the politics of hope

4 thoughts on “the politics of hope

  • December 1, 2019 at 5:26 am

    Ooh, I don’t know. I think it depends on how you define “hope.” If “hope” is “it’s going to get objectively better from here” then yeah, I agree–that’s not always present in these stories. But I think sometimes “I exist, and that’s what matters” is also hopeful, depending on the context. I like your point about systemic hope vs. individual hope–maybe that’s what it comes down to.

    I don’t know if it’s an American thing or an everybody thing. I want to say it’s an everybody thing. I think that searching for hope in stories and in real life events is innate, just part of being human. Certainly some cultural influences encourage it more than others, but I think it’s always there.

  • December 1, 2019 at 3:39 pm

    This might sound like a super far off connection I’m making here, but I’ve been following a lot of the discourse around racebending specifically in the context of superhero storylines, and I think many of the concerns raised here tie in with discussions there. For instance, Eve L. Ewing and Jamelle Bouie both have fairly recent tweets/twitter threads surrounding the rewriting of white superheroes as black and the ways in which there is simultaneously a responsibility to showcase the challenges they would face that white superheroes would not, while also showing the character as heroic for more than just their triumphs over racism and injustice. (I’ll link some here: https://twitter.com/eveewing/status/1199724645043392512?s=20 and https://twitter.com/jbouie/status/1091354524206415872?s=20).
    Obviously this isn’t necessarily the genre that you’re getting at, but I think it’s interesting to see that a genre seemingly based in the desire to give hope really grapples with the ability to give a realistic portrayal without reinforcing the notion that people of color have to be triumphant over racists/racism in order to be hailed as hopeful figures. I know that I agree with Elisabeth’s comment, and that existence in the face of mass violence is triumphant within itself, but I also don’t know that it’s wrong to say that it’s valid for people to hope for more hope within their fiction. I could go on for days about the way that media representation impacts psychological associations and how giving the privileged classic happy endings and the oppressed hopeless ‘realistic’ takes perpetuates negative stereotypes (i.e. that race/sex/gender/ability/etc. creates hopelessness rather than oppressive environments/individuals) but, y’know, I’ll end here for now.

  • December 2, 2019 at 12:50 am

    You guys are definitely getting at what I meant in a far more direct way than I was. It all comes down to the question of, when writing any kind of fiction about marginalized groups, whether a uniformly happy/hopeful ending is a powerful thing (you can not only survive but be happy, you can not only survive but definitively rise above the things that have been done to you), or whether it’s propagandistic in some sense (if this person turns out fine, how bad can the system really be?).

    And I pose this like it’s a question that needs some kind of definitive answer, when it would be ridiculous to come down on a definitive side of either answer. It all so definitively depends on genre, and on context, and on who’s telling the story, and on how the nuances of tone in the ending are carried out. I think the way Elisabeth put it – “I exist, and that’s what matters” – is gorgeous, and connects very well to how I was imagining these stories. But I also really appreciate what Bekah said at the end about media representation and the psychology thereof, because that’s definitely also true.

    By default, I tend to always come down to “When hope exists, it must be earned. Existence in a fully realized world is more powerful than existence in an imaginary one.” But… that can be read to imply that every piece of fiction about a marginalized person has to be about facing the grueling struggle of existence AS a marginalized person, which is not what I believe at all! But also I don’t think any of our books are a happy power fantasy, but none of them are solely about misery either. BUT ALSO…. people deserve the right to consume fiction about themselves that doesn’t really directly concern social issues at all, fiction where they are unquestionably powerful and unquestionably happy. A lot of it comes down to personal preference. Here comes the dreaded personal analogy: as a lesbian, I would hate to exclusively consume media about how horrible it is to live in a homophobic society, but also I feel weird reading things where homophobia just magically doesn’t exist. But also I know plenty of people who feel differently about it.

    Ultimately, all we can do is to trust people to speak freely from their experiences and from the things that they themselves would want to see, and then exercise our right to critique the execution of this interplay when we feel it’s gone too far in either direction. Still though, personally, I am always going to admire the power of the sentiment so many of our books have ended on as Elisabeth put it. “I exist, and that’s what matters.”

  • December 2, 2019 at 5:20 am

    Katia—“I exist, and that’s what matters” are your words from your original post, not mine. But you are right—they are gorgeous.

    I really like both of your points (as in Bekah, too) about how not every story that’s “about” a marginalized group or person is actually about the experience of marginalization, or the resulting trauma, or whatever we want it to be. (And that’s an important point, too—a lot of this depends on the audience and the audience’s intentions and expectations, which we’ve talked about a little in class). People—individuals—and their experiences have value beyond the social forces behind those experiences. And sometimes people’s source of hope —however you define that—is a result of internal, not external struggle, and that’s equally valid. Sometimes stories are stories about people, and sometimes they’re stories about People. I think both are beautiful in their own way.

    After all, I don’t think the idea that anybody turns out “okay” (as in, not affected by the terrible things that happen in this world), marginalized or not, is easily defensible.

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