Thursday, May 17, 2012

Tyler, Shadow on the Wall (2012)

Pavarti K. Tyler, Shadow on the Wall. Fighting Monkey Productions, 2012. Pp. 215. ISBN 978-0-9838769-0-8. $11.95.

Reviewed by Kathryn Allan

Pavarti K. Tyler’s Shadow on the Wall: Book One of the Sandstorm Chronicles promises to be a new take on the superhero mythos by challenging the current trend of Islamophobia in the United States with its lead, Recai Osman: “Muslim, philosopher, billionaire, and Superhero” [backcover]. Set in modern day Elih, Turkey (Elih is the Kurdish name for the real Turkish city of Batman), Tyler creates a not-so-imaginary world of corruption and oppression that is “all in a day’s work for the nefarious RTK, the brutal, self-appointed morality police” [backcover]. Basically, the narrative follows the trials and tribulations of Recai, a spoiled—but disenfranchised—playboy who wakes up in the desert one day and must rely on the kindness of strangers in a hostile land. Recai is a difficult character to like, and Tyler takes her time with his transformation from mere man to the superhero, The SandStorm. Aiding him on his journey of self-discovery are an old Jew, Hasad, and a young Muslim nurse, Maryam.

Before I get into my actual review of Shadow, I want to briefly note the difficulty I had in evaluating it. The content and world building of this novel made me uncomfortable as I read it (and I’ll get into the specific details of discomfort soon). Through the entire narrative, I kept asking myself: Who is Tyler’s intended audience? What would a Middle Eastern reader think of this story? How can I go about critiquing this book without being offensive to Tyler and the readers who might enjoy Shadow? Since this is a book that ideally is addressing the need for greater diversity in genre literature—by placing its story in the Muslim world—a certain care is required when talking about where it fails and why.

Basically, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t forwarding a critique based in any essentialist view of race, religion, gender, and genre. Needless to say, pretty heavy stuff to consider for what was supposed to be an easy review of superhero novel. I was therefore grateful when I read the wonderful and challenging post, “Why is Diversity Important?” on The Cogsmith. I hope that any readers of this review take the time to read that post, as it effectively sketches out the difficult ground a writer, reviewer, and reader might find themselves on whenever there is an attempt to translate experiences outside of one’s own history.

Tyler herself is neither “Turkish, Kurdish, nor Muslim” (Q&A), and so has dedicated an evident amount of research into writing Shadow, peppering Arabic words and insider knowledge about Muslim religious customs liberally throughout the book (and there is a seven page glossary of terms). The effect of these details, however, end up reinforcing the fact that this is a tale written by an American, fully-Westernized writer. At times, Tyler uses these Arabic touches successfully, effectively drawing out the unfamiliar aspects of a still largely misrepresented and misunderstood Eastern culture. Unfortunately, more often than not, the writing ends up reinforcing stereotypes (i.e. all Eastern government officials are misogynistic tyrants; the word “oppression” is used a lot) and distracts the reader from becoming fully immersed in the story. Simply said, Tyler’s lack of experience with the setting, culture, and religion of the people who inhabit her narrative is obvious—to the detriment of the reading experience.

In the author’s “Q&A” discussion that follows the story, Tyler acknowledges that some readers may have difficulty with the substantive and explicit scenes of violence against women. I count myself among those readers, as my first reaction was to put this book down and walk away after the first lengthy and gratuitous rape scene at the start of the story. It’s not that I believe that realistic descriptions of violence don’t have a place within genre literature, but it is a matter of scope and purpose. There is not just one explicit rape scene in Shadow, there is an entire series of them (either carried out or threatened) strung throughout the novel. It seems that every female character is either raped or in immediate danger of being raped, at all times.

Tyler states that she included these scenes of violence because “our civilization is at a breaking point” (Q&A) and expresses the hope that Shadow will make the reader question their own role in sustaining a political environment of increasing oppression. My problem is not with Tyler’s inclusion of rape as a way to illustrate a culture of violence—as other notable writers such as Octavia Butler do this with great skill—but that the victimized women act as mere moral gauges for the men in the story. In Shadow, the Muslim man who does not rape, or does not turn his back on a raped family member, is the exception to the rule. This is a clearly problematic construction in a novel that purports to counteract Islamophobia.

I like the subtle allusions Tyler makes to the well-established and loved backstory of DC Comics’ Batman, but they are fleeting and do not offer any real landing points of identification. By focusing on the “foreignness” of the desert landscape and characters, not enough time is then given to the “superhero” aspects of the story. Unlike Batman, who most of us can easily conjure up an image of in our minds, I don’t have any lasting impressions of the hero, Recai. The most intriguing characters in the novel are the villains, in particular the greedy, high-achieving Darya and her rapist half-brother Isik. In particular, Darya’s transformation into something else, something darker, is one of the novel’s few highpoints.

Setting Shadow in a real location, Elih, Turkey—instead of creating a fictional city like Gotham—is another misstep. Tyler fails to create a necessary distance between a justifiable critique of the real human rights horrors that play out within some Islamic political regimes and an outright Othering of the Muslim world. In a storyline like Batman’s, the reader is encouraged to identify with “the good people of Gotham,” but in Shadow there are not enough “good people of Elih” to draw the reader into the book. As a superhero narrative, perhaps it is enough to sketch out only villains and heroes, but in setting the story in a distinctly Muslim city, it only serves to replicate misconceptions and removes any of the real-life social, cultural, and political complexities that are present in that part of the world.

I guess I expected a different superhero story than the one Tyler delivers. While dark scenery and tone can act as a fitting background to the rise of a hero, Recai’s transformation from billionaire playboy to The SandStorm just doesn’t parallel the depth of brutality in the story’s plot. I’m happy to see a new take on the superhero trope—I think that Tyler has created a character with great potential, but the appeal of The SandStorm ultimately gets lost in Shadow’s explicit sexual violence and cultural appropriation.

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The Radicchio Diaries said...

Brava Kathryn, An excellent review - without in any way sugar-coating the painful and negative elements of the book, you have still managed to make me want to read it.

Thinking about what you wrote I was reminded of Orhan Pamuk's, novel 'Snow' a very powerful and disturbing novel also set in Turkey, his homeland. In that, rape is not the problem facing women so much as is family encouraged suicide of young women. It is a challenging read. About half-way through I realised that what was disturbing me the most was my Western personality perception of the events. It was as if the book was holding up a mirror that reflected my own prejudices about Islamic cultures. I didn't like it or what it said about me. Islamic societies are so very different that it will be a long time, I think, before we can read books about them with equanimity.

Unknown said...

Kathryn, thank you so much for your thoughtful and honest review. Its clear you put a lot of work into articulating your feelings intelligently and reasonably and I really do appreciate the feedback. I'm off to read the article you shard from The Cogsmith now :)

Kathryn Allan said...

Radicchio Diaries,
Thanks for your comments - I haven't read Pamuk's SNOW yet, although it is on my shelf and my spouse has encouraged me to read it many times.

For me, as a reader with an academic background in postcolonial and feminist studies (among other things), I think that I am prone to being hyper aware of how race and gender get played out in Western narratives.

The challenge for me then, when approaching a novel like SHADOW, is to appreciate the effort of the writer and try to tease out those deep seated elements of cultural bias of which we aren't always aware.

Do give SHADOW a read - there's definitely promise there (even if it is a story that didn't work for me).

Kathryn Allan said...


Thank you for leaving such a generous and kind comment.

I was hoping that you would stumble upon my review, because, like I mentioned above, I really do believe that the SANDSTORM CHRONICLES have the potential to add something positive into this area of genre literature.

The Cogsmith article is a part of a much larger on-going discussion of diversity in the SF & F community, so, in many ways, the timing of your book is just right.

Good luck with the second book in the series.