Racism in the Time Traveler’s Wife

When I was a teenager and first getting my feminism on, I used to have a test for movies and books. Where am I? Where am I in this story? Who could I get to be? Asking myself this helped me identify why reading some books (Philip Roth, Jerzy Kosinski) left me feeling so … empty/scared/lonely/depressed/angry. Because very often the who I could be (the woman or women in the book) were empty stereotypes. Those stereotypes left me feeling worse than if I hadn’t been there at all. In other words, having women’s roles limited by sexist stereotyping felt worse to me than reading a book where women didn’t even appear. Because I could read a book, say, The Chocolate War and know that the lack of women was about the focus of the book and not about the unimportance of me and women like me in all of our technicolor detail.

It’s not that I’m arguing for a complete lack of representation but I am saying that token representation can feel just as bad if not worse. Because I would read those books and think, “Is this all I am to men? Is this all they see of me? Is all the scope I’m allowed to be?”

I sometimes still use this tool to point sexism out to, say, my husband who doesn’t have a lifetime of evaluating media under his belt. For me, understanding the limited range of my imaginary role-models helped me not to take that subtext on as my own. Seeing that my empty feelings after one of those books or movies had to do with the limited imagination of the artist let me reject it.

Let me say right off that as a writer, I didn’t like The Time Traveler’s Wife. I thought it was a lumpy story full of unnecessary detail that detracted from the narrative. I felt that the complex structure of the plot didn’t make up for the unfinished main characters, stilted dialogue or self-indulgent trivialities. I wanted to like it but I didn’t. I felt about it the same way I felt about Mr. Holland’s Opus; I cried at the sad parts even while cursing the master manipulation at work. I knew I was being strung along but gave into my base emotions anyway.

Still, you can’t argue with numbers and the sales attest to the skill of the author. People loved this book. Writers whose opinions I admire loved this book. Readers who read with a discerning eye loved this book. Besides which, Becca has done a good job in reminding me always that to sit down and write a book is an endeavor worthy of admiration in and of itself. So there’s that.

Thing is, The Time Traveler’s Wife is also really racist and that I can’t forgive.

Two of the characters of color have supporting roles. (And by supporting, I mean they literally support the main characters. Hero Henry gets one and heroine Clare gets the other.)

Clare’s supporting character is Nell, who cooks for Clare’s wealthy family. “Nell is like cordon bleu meets Detroit; she’s how Aretha Franklin would be if she was Julia Child.” That’s how Clare introduces us to her. The first time Henry meets Nell she is “sticking her broad, snub-nosed face out of the dining room, grinning” to see Clare coming home for the holidays. And this is how Nell talks:

“What you’re smellin’ is a Thompson’s Turkey … Don’t look so dubious, boy. Underneath that crust is the best eatin’ turkey on Planet Earth. … That’s your Christmas dinner, son; you want to pick one out? … Awright, then. Now scat so I can get on, here.”

In other words, Nell is that stereotype of the black servant — talented beyond reason and sassy to boot. Plus her employers are like family as evidenced by the lack of her own family life and apparent contentment with this. She’s working on Christmas, mind you.

“In the midst of it all stands Nell with her back to me, singing ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’ and waggling her large hips, waving a baster at a young black girl who points at me mutely. Nell turns around and smiles a huge gap-toothed smile and then says, ‘What are you doin’ in my kitchen, Mister Boyfriend?”

Just put a red kerchief on her head and call her mammy. I mean, seriously.

Let’s move on to Kimy. Kimy is Henry’s parents’ landlord and his mother-figure after his mom dies. Kimy is also Korean. We know this because Henry tells you, “Mrs. Kim (Kimy, my nickname for her) was my buddy, my crazy Korean card-playing babysitter.”

Kimy, like Nell, is wise and warm in the way that only ethnic stereotypes can be.

She appraises me. Kimy has piercing black eyes, which seem to see the very back of my brain. Her flat Korean face conceals all emotion unless she wants you to see it.

And like Nell, she’s got dialogue to match:

Okay. Yeah, I go in once, ’cause I worry about him. He’s got trash everywhere; we’re gonna get bugs if he keep this up. He’s got nothing in that fridge but beer and lemons. He’s got so much clothes on the bed I don’t think he sleeps in it. I don’t know what he’s doing. I never seen him this bad since when your mom died.

There’s another supporting character of color and she’s an African American woman who is also sassy (of course) and exotic. “Her voice is like butter” and “her laugh is caramel.” “The light from the street turns her burnt-umber skin blue and then purple. She looks like a glamorous martian.”

Now you gotta ask — there aren’t a lot of characters who aren’t white in this book. What literary device is she using when she chooses to make these three of color? You can’t argue it’s just happenstance — the book is too meticulously plotted. What is she trying to convey? In what way is she using their ethnicity and is it necessary to the plot or is it — as stereotypes are — lazy.

It makes me wonder, how could the book have been better if she left the stereotypes out? What if she created characters of color that weren’t one-dimensional? How would that have changed and deepened the book? How did using stereotypes hurt her story?

(Also, since this book is really hard to dig around in, you can use the google version to make it easier.)

Comments 11

  1. I both liked and disliked the book. Classic gemini in all ways I could go both ways. I was anxious to read why you thought it was racist. I read it many moons ago but appreciated (and now agree) with your commentary. Veddy interesting.

  2. Ugh, how can I missed all that awful stuff? That’s steeped in stereotypes! I was so lost in the sadness that mirrored my own depression at the time, I don’t think I could tell you much about the storyline except that it was so cathartic to sink into literary despair rather than my own. I should re-read!

  3. I hated this book too, and will reiterate that I am glad to have yet another reason. It is also nice to know I am not alone in this opinion. I have felt completely isolated regarding this for literally years.

  4. Oh, and ditto on Mr. Holland’s opus. That movie made me hate the John Lennon song Beautiful Boy for a while because it was just so damn bad and manipulative within that movie. Richard Dreyfuss should have been ashamed. And that opus stunk to high heaven. What a waste of his time.

  5. Your thoughts and reasoning are very much appreciated. I remember trying to tell someone why I didn’t like Giles Goat Boy by John Barth — there was one woman and she was good for one thing. The person who recommended the book didn’t understand.

    And it is sloppy and it’s sloppy of her readers. A writer really doesn’t make a book in a vacuum (friends pressed in to service as readers, her agent, her editor) and I’m surprised no one noticed.

  6. You know, I skimmed the book to get the plot before giving it to my mom as a gift, and I didn’t even remember those three characters.

    If I’d noticed them, I would have tossed the book, not passed it along. ICK.

  7. I am late to read the book but I completely agree with you! I just posted a similar thing on my blog.. I’m glad someone saw the madness I did, now I don’t feel so crazy for feeling that way!

  8. Pingback: The Boylan Blog

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