A week or so ago, my partner and I went to see Everything, Everywhere, All at Once in the theater. It’s a fabulous take on the multiverse theme. It’s action-packed, full of drama, while slipping in bit of the absurd, which to me felt right on point for the kind of philosophical, nihilistic backdrop of the film. I recommend it.
Yesterday I listened to an NPR Code Switch podcast episode that included an interview of Everything’s star, Michelle Yeoh, and later held a roundtable discussion of the movie. I loved listening to them talk about the many themes the movie addressed including the immigrant experience, generational trauma, family relationships, identity, marriage, and depression. And the nihilistic backdrop! Because yes, they are the ones that used that word and yes, I had to look it up to remind myself of what it meant. Essentially, it is the philosophical belief that nothing in the world has true meaning. “What’s the point of anything?”
I know what some of you are thinking now. All those things I listed as “themes” had you thinking, wow, that is a lot.
Maybe you were thinking “issues” instead of “themes”.
And then a part of you thought, “that kind of seems like…too much.”
Too Many Issues.
Truth time from me. Once upon a time, I might have said the exact same thing. In fact, I’m sure I did in some of my book reviews. And then I learned about my internal biases. Specifically to me, the ones borne out of my whiteness. And my straight, cisgenderness. I recognized how critical I was of Otherness. Not necessarily in the attitude of “this is bad”, rather it was often, “this was good, BUT…” In other words, I was infamously full of “well-meaning”.
It’s extremely common for this kind of criticism to occur of non-white (and other non-dominant culture) art. Several years ago, author Malinda Lo wrote a piece highlighting key ways straight white reviewers reviewed books by BIPOC and/or queer authors. I recommend the article to others all the time because it was eye-opening for me and is full of numerous examples to demonstrate her findings. It helped me become more aware of my own reactions to my reading and how I wrote any reviews.
Honestly, it was about at that time I decided to put a concerted effort into reading far more widely and diversely, because that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? Readers and reviewers have been limited to a certain kind of storytelling and with token characters from oppressed populations, and those characters often get pushed into stereotype roles. When we see real stories from BIPOC authors, queer authors, neurodivergent authors, we get all of the complexities surrounding them.
I haven’t actually read any negative reviews yet of Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, so I’m hoping it keeps getting recognition for its brilliance. I feel like we are getting more movies from broader cultural experiences that are being received well. I’m thinking of Encanto and Turning Red (although, one reviewer exemplified the white-centric problem I’ve mentioned… “limiting in its scope” but also somehow “exhausting”? He has since recanted, and yet).
But still, I think of publishing and the challenges still facing BIPOC authors as they try to sell stories that aren’t centered solely on racism, for example. Or ones that don’t try to “do too much”.
What do I mean by “do too much”?
I have an example, but I want to clarify that while it is about my own work, I do not feel any angst about it because for me, it is only a drop amongst many reviews when for authors from oppressed populations encounter many of these kinds of reviews.
An excerpt from a review I received for my debut, All I’m Asking:
“Exploring such as issues as sexuality, race, gender, addiction, chronic illness, book clubs, teaching and (no I’m not done yet) even candy, it’s easier to say what topics this book DIDN’T tackle. If I’m being honest, it was all a little too much for me and between all the issues and the confusing format, at times I had a hard time keeping up.”
Apparently, Too Many Issues.
Except, I’d argue the book doesn’t explore sexuality, for example. My MC simply is pansexual. Is it about how she discovers this? Nope. It’s just part of who she is. Is it about gender? No, but it does have at least one transgender character in it. Is it about racism? It is, a little, but it definitely is about teaching, book clubs, and chronic illness. When I see that “sexuality, race, and gender” are the first “issues” mentioned, I get a pretty good idea of what’s going on.
People are more than one thing. Their lives are about more than one thing. It’s what gives us beautifully layered stories. To strip any one of us down to a single issue is a disservice to authenticity. I loved the multiple layers in Everything, Everywhere, All at Once and the way they wove the themes together, even when they were absurd.
Maybe at this point I should be offering what we can do about this. I don’t have all the perfect answers. But maybe I can offer a couple suggestions that have helped me.
Choose to read more widely. I don’t mean necessarily to read outside of your genre. If you love romance, keep reading those, but if you haven’t read beyond white, cis, hetero pairings in your romances, pick up some Talia Hibbert, Alison Cochrun, Alexandria Bellefleur, or Helen Hoang. Love sci fi? How about Nisi Shawl, Nnedi Okorafor, or Sarah Jane Anders. Watch all the movies and TV featuring BIPOC character experiences that you’ve heard are great and authentic.
And then, if you write reviews (and even if you don’t), pause for a moment and consider what you didn’t like and why that was. Was it simply because it didn’t feel familiar? It’s valid to feel as though you can’t relate, but I also think it’s worthwhile to reflect on why that is and to consider if your experience is representative of the wide readership/viewership involved.
Also, go see Everything, Everywhere, All at Once. 😀