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Book Review: "The Sacrifice" by Joyce Carol Oates

by Annie Kapur 15 days ago in literature

2/5 - Joyce Carol Oates seems to be confused by the idea of black people having personalities...

I love Joyce Carol Oates and I think that her writing is fantastic, there is always so much atmosphere and story that you can really sink your teeth into. The sheer depth of her novels are amazing and grand, they are raw and often violent - but you still love them for telling incredible stories - no matter how controversial. With this one though, I'm going to have to take off one or two marks and you will see why later on. Her writing style most of the time though, is a conscious choice and in the vast majority of her books, this would seem perfectly fine. The same cannot be said for this one though. I don't think so at all.

Get ready for a long, slightly off-handed rant as I write this in a time of sickness and my blood pressure dropping pretty damn low - so forgive me if I sound 'off-key'.

For those of you who are old enough to remember or are at least old enough to have been growing up in a time that this was still being talked about - this book is a semi-fictional account of the Tawana Brawley case. It is where Tawana Brawley was found unconscious in a large plastic bag with marks on her body plus racial slurs written on her etc. She awakens to claim that she had been raped by a number of white police officers. Now, since the case, everything has been here and there and nobody has really come to a conclusion about what had actually happened that night - though many claim it was a hoax. Whether it can be proven or not - well, that is another story. I think though it is wrong to relate this to the blatantly obvious Jussie Smollet case - that case can and has been proven without a doubt to be a hoax.

It truly is a compelling story to read about in nonfiction and adapted to become a true crime type novel by Joyce Carol Oates. However, I do have a problem with such a high profile case being treated as 'semi-fictional' - but that isn't the main problem at hand. Be that as it may, I find this to be the same kind of novel as In Cold Blood - there is a little bit of emellishment here and there, but ultimately, the story is still pretty much the same at the core.

However, I cannot stress enough how much Joyce Carol Oates seems to stereotype black women. For example: she keeps going on about their dark skin and their black, curly hair - once or twice I can sort of understand, but the idea seemed to be that Joyce Carol Oates didn't really know what to do when it came to serious black protagonists and black lineups of characters. She masked it with her charisma of writing fluency - which is something to think about honestly - it really is. How can you have a charismatic writing fluency when you can literally only describe about two or three aspects of a character's appearance? You are only as good as your last book and I think Oates has been riding the roller coaster of her own ego in this one a bit.

Another thing I did not particularly like was the blatant appropriation and misuse of black culture - though I am not black (I am a British born Indian), it did make me uncomfortable with the thought of 'how would you like it if it was your culture' - I would not.

One of these things is having the black characters speak in AAVE - which it is not appropriate on any level. It's pretty horrible to do it 99% of the time, yes - I think it is harmful to the sterotype that if you come from a poor area and you are a person of colour - then you are going to speak in a certain way all the time - you could not have any other way of speaking.

(I honestly don't know what we are more concerned about here: the fact that Oates is suggesting that poorer black people speak in AAVE all the time, or that she is using AAVE as a way of making poor black people look unintelligent. In fact, if we are being realistic here, the ability to create a vernacular in a small percentage of the population that all of that population can understand is a lot more intelligent than many of us give it credit for. I for one, find it fascinating. It is another evolution of language).

However, I do not think she did this on purpose with any malice, I actually think that she believed she was changing the tone of her characters instead of making them all sound completely different she ended up making them all sound the same from one particular group and well, it ends up becoming fire for those who claim she's stereotyping and well, in their case they are correct. I think Joyce Carol Oates simply did not have any further way of distinguishing these two groups of people (for the life of me, I don't know why she has trouble giving the black characters their own personalities). On the other hand, she would have a subconscious invested interest for making those of her own group look smarter, better and more apt at coming to conclusions and solving things. That is a story for another day though.

As you can see, it is a shaky issue and I have lost a lot of my previous respect for Oates after reading this book.

The Aftermath:

What I have found through my research after writing this entire review is that many black people who have read this book find the use of AAVE as being used as a way of making the black characters look 'less than' is offensive and wrong. I myself have to side with them since they would know more about their vernacular and why it is used than I do. I have to say this is one of the strangest Oates novels I have read and it would be more than great if she never did it again.


About the author

Annie Kapur

Film and Writing (M.A)

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IG: @AnnieApproximately

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