Friday, August 14, 2009

Race & Racism in The Time Traveler's Wife

(i will try to keep spoilers to a minimum)

Besides what my sister saw as the author of The Time Traveler's Wife's unfortunate name (Audrey Niffenegger), there is a lot of subtle discussion of race and racism in The Time Traveler's Wife.

When I started reading The Time Traveler's Wife, I was already aware that in the movie version of the book, Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams were cast to play Henry DeTamble and Clare Abshire. So I was already aware that the two main characters were white, and I didn't really bat an eye at it - most successful authors (particularly if their book is becoming a movie) choose white protagonists for whatever reasons (or without even considering other options).

But as I was reading, I started to notice a trend - in contrast to the white main characters, who were rich, musicians, lawyers, artists, etc - and versed in punk music as well as opera, and in German, French and English literature, the characters of color were either silent, strange, and/or did not speak English, but rather english, or slang/broken/obviously-second-language english.

Which annoyed me.

Don't get me wrong; as an English Major, I fully enjoyed the book, and consider it possibly one of my favorites. To deny the racism/lack of race in the "usual" favorites - Pride & Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities, Wuthering Heights, etc, or in the general canon of English Literature is a bit ridiculous - so I have come to accept that many books I love were born out of a time of racism, or have subtle or overt racism in them themselves...(Did you know Heathcliff might've been a person of color??)

But the fact that representation after representation of smart, intelligent, or 'worthy' characters in the Time Traveler's Wife were white...troubled me. There are flaws to the white characters, but their "flaws" are human flaws - they somehow never struck me as weird, and they never took away from their roles in Henry's life as saviors and friends, respectable and intelligent.

The first person of color I noticed was a child that Helen was teased for liking when she was twelve - a child who is mentioned when he is absent, and who is described as "the only black kid in class. He's real shy and small and he's good at math". However, despite his affinity for mathematics, "everybody laughs" when someone suggests that he likes Helen. This is in contrast to "Everybody giggles" when it is suggested that "Bobby", another boy in class, presumably white since he is not described by race/ethnicity, may like their friend Nancy.

There are two major characters of color in the book who seem to get wrapped up in stereotypes. First, there is Mrs. Kim, or "Kimy" as Henry calls her - his "crazy Korean card-playing babysitter" (28).


The major stereotype/characterization of Mrs. Kim is arguably be a reflection of realities: throughout the 30 + years of the novel, she speaks English as a non-Native speaker, rather than English. While English is a difficult language to learn through immersion without grammar lessons, it was also, on first glance, unneccessary for Niffenegger to make Mrs. Kim to speak English. The significance that emerged, at least for me, was that Mrs. Kim's english syntax made her 'other', 'different', and cemented her place as a person of color rather than a mother figure to Henry.

Considering that Henry "spent most of my waking hours with Kimy", that she had been in America for over 30 years throughout the novel, that she was close friends with the DeTambles - a great violinist, and an opera singer, and that she lived in the same apartment building and frequently takes care of Henry well into his adulthood, it struck me as odd that in world of eloquent dialogue and literary/upper-class references, Mrs. Kim never stopped speaking in broken ESL-english throughout the novel. After Henry's mother dies, and his father becomes alcoholic, it is left on Mrs. Kim to raise Henry who would become fluent in English, German and French.

Now, I'm not saying that someone who doesn't speak standard English can't be friends with the DeTambles of the world, or cannot (or haven't) raised intelligent, successful children who speak multiple languages to study European literature. On the contrary, women from less privileged countries frequently raise the children of richer (often white) families, and women who don't speak English can (and do) raise their own children to be successful, intelligent and multilingual. However, in Audrey Neffenegger's constructed world, by simultaneously denying Mrs. Kim the eloquence of the white companions with whom she is always immersed, and by characterizing her as a "crazy Korean" - she seems to deny Mrs. Kim the equality or respect an adult would otherwise automatically demand.

Seeing how "Kimy" spoke to Henry, and how Henry refers to her, especially as an adult, made me cringe. I often felt that he was talking down to her; that somehow the dynamics of their relationship changed when he got older to a point where he was more familiar and comfortable in the world as a time-traveling librarian; but that "Kimy" would always be the "crazy Korean" who still said spoke in 'ESL-english'.

In her middle age and Henry's adulthood, Mrs. Kim speaks thusly: "We did have child... You guys got a baby yet?"'; while Henry responds: "No news, Kimy. No baby. Clare and I fight about it just about every waking moment. Please don't start on me." Immediately, the scene struck me as Henry talking to Mrs. Kim as though she was a child: "Please don't start on me". And Mrs. Kim is only asking what any interested mother-figure would. Furthermore, Henry is shocked to find out that Mrs. Kim and Mr. Kim had had a child. The fact that Henry, who is obsessed with his mother and her death (when he was 5) didn't even know such a significant event in the life of the woman who raised him for the other 30 years, made me sad. It really displayed the power dynamics: no matter how long you know him, and care for him - you, the "crazy Korean", will never be his dead, white opera-singing mother. The dynamic shifts from son-mother, to man-elderly caretaker/ex-babysitter, etc.

Am I the only one noticing this contrast? That Mrs. Kim, who raised this eloquent protagonist, continues to speak to him in ESL-english, while Henry responds to her in English and seems to deny her the role/status/respect she has come to deserve as his primary female caregiver? Or is "Kimy" a reflection of Mrs. Kim as understood by Henry, who may be biased by his own racism/privilege/etc.. is it a reflection of author Audrey Niffenegger's experiences/world? Is it a commentary on it?

I think Mrs. Kim's dialogue would be less damning of the racism in Niffenegger's constructed world if there was a contrasting character of color who spoke English anywhere in the book. It is not Mrs. Kim's dialogue alone that makes her syntax troublesome, it is instead Niffenegger's stubborn refusal to write a character of color who speaks English with the same eloquence as her white protagonists.

Another thing about Mrs. Kim - her husband kind of disappears in the book (which is another post altogether - the missing man of color). Besides the first time we meet her at a dinner party of sorts, we never see Mr. Kim again. Which makes me wonder.. did he die? leave? did they get divorced? More importantly, I was always waiting for Mr. DeTamble and Kimy to get together. She spent a lot of her adulthood taking care of his son, and then of him after his wife died. Maybe that is just me wanting a happy ending - but I found the book's stubborness to actually turn the single woman and single man into a couple, or more than friendly neighbours.. wrong.


Speaking of interracial couples, that brings me to the next character that awed me. Celia is the book's angry black woman who is constantly described as "beautiful", who is a lesbian, who dislikes Henry for how he treats Ingrid (his ex; her friend/girlfriend/crush), and becomes friends with Clare. In fact, Clare is the only lesbian in the book - Ben is not the only gay man since he alludes to a previous partner, and the man his partner cheated on him with. Celia doesn't have a large part in the book, but she is certainly not normalized.

Romantically, Celia takes an alternative path - she does not outrightly hit on or date Ingrid; it all seems forced, contrived, and manipulative. Celia also becomes friends with Clare, someone Ingrid despises for 'stealing' Henry, despite the fact that Celia is in love with Ingrid (the book reads more like "because she is in love with Ingrid", but I think it is in spite of...because who becomes friends with someone your lover hates!). Furthermore, Celia is the only lesbian in the book. In that alone, she stands apart from other woman characters who are perceived as the "norm" - that is, women who pursue love (Ingrid, Clare), have premarital sex (Ingrid, Clare, Shannon, Clare's mom), and are heterosexual.

Aesthetically, Celia is described as a "small black woman with beautiful long dreads" by Clare. The fact that Clare pauses to call a black woman's hair (dreads are a statement in and of themselves) "beautiful" kind of annoys me - it reminds me of exoticization; of declaring the appearances of "others" beautiful because they are "other". In contrast, in the same paragraph, Ingrid's hair is just "hair".

Celia's speech struck me as much as Mrs. Kim's did. It alienated her from the white characters of the book, who in contrast become increasingly defined by their use of English. Like Mrs. Kim, Celia is never depicted with other people of color, but rather spends time with Ingrid, Henry, and later Clare. Narratively, Celia's character, and the small role she has in the plot, does not demand, and is not enhanced by her use of english or ebonics. Nonetheless, Celia speaks like this: "Sister... A word to the wise. You are mixing in where you're not wanted. Henry, he's bad news, but he's Ingrid's bad news, and you be a fool to mess with him. You hear what I'm saying?" To which Clare responds - "What are you talking about?".

Celia is the first color of character who we see in the book for a long time - the majority of the plot and characters before this are white, privileged, upper class, and readers are wrapped up in a wealthy world of opera, art and obscure literary quotes. However, Niffenegger seems to go out of her way to further "other" her. Celia's hair is exoticized, her sexuality is 'other'-ed from the book's imaginary norm - she even 'hates' the characters we are supposed to love (Henry), and loves the characters we are supposed to side against (Ingrid). In this context, it seems obvious to me that her syntax and dialogue is not a stylistic, realist or creative choice; instead, Celia's dialogue seems positioned to further 'other' her, to make her 'different' from our lovable protags, and, most importantly, suggests that she is 'less than'.

To take it a step further, Celia is not only characterized as 'less than' in a world where English, music, and art are the qualities that make you "worthy", she is an "angry" lesser-than. Celia's aforementioned speech is aimed at Clare when she is angry at her - she wants to threaten/scare Clare off of Henry, out of loyalty to Ingrid. What does that say about ebonics, cultures of color, and english in the context of the novel? To me, it is obvious - those who don't speak English are colored, othered, exotic, and "beautiful", but ultimately excluded/outside of the DeTamble and Abshire households/worlds/immediate storyline.

Speaking of Clare - she is like a bastion of class privilege. First, her family is rich. Second, they live in a huge house beside a meadow where her mother spends her days gardening (or bossing around the gardener). Third, she has servants: Nell and Etta. And of course, Nell is black. When Henry visits Clare's home, at one point he walks in on Nell "waggling her large hips" singing Christmas carols with with "a young black girl".

Like Celia and Mrs. Kim before her, Nell is a characterization more than a portrayal of a character. She doesn't speak English - not even to her employers or their guests, but rather says "Shoo son, get out of here and go sit in the living room and pull on the bell and I will make you some fresh coffee.. I'm gonna feed you up." As a character, Nell reinforces the Abshire's class and race privilege by embodying the stereotype of a black servant - doesn't speak English, is happy to serve at the ring of a bell, and loves her employers.


Then there is Gomez. Gomez is not a character of colour, but he is worth mentioning because of his name. When I first saw the name "Gomez", I admit I got excited. I thought - "Yay, a main character of color!". More importantly, I already knew that he was a lawyer from scoping out IMDB boards, etc, so I thought he was more of a "giving back to where I come from" kind of person, rather than a "save the world" kind of lawyer. In all fairness, Gomez only lauds his "holier-than-thou" attitude over his friends; it is never mentioned if his clients are people of color - they are instead marked by class (which is another blog post all together!).

But what's interesting is the fact that Gomez is white. Gomez is not his real name, but rather a nickname - even after readers know it is just a nickname, all the characters in the book continue to refer to him by it. I found that so odd - it was like having a character of color in the book without him having to actually be a character of color. On paper, seeing "Gomez said" or "Gomez laughed"; you don't think blonde-blue-eyed, etc etc. So it allows Niffenegger to have a "different" name, while still retaining the idealized, normalized look - white. Which in turn reminds me of Celia's exotization as a sexual, black lesbian woman with "beautiful" hair.

Basically, after reading The Time Traveler's Wife, and being pleased by the literary references (Derek Walcott? Hell yes.), the ways in which the protagonists speak (complicated and witty), and the way the story itself is crafted and written, I was disappointed by the lack of characters of color who were real, rather than caricatures.

Of course, had Henry been a POC, his time traveling problem would've probably been a lot more damning; his white privilege let him escape a lot. Similarly, when Clare is seen in a care with a much older man (a Henry from the future) when she is 16, no one bats an eye because Henry is white. Had either of them been black in the 70s/80s, that would've been something to quirk an eyebrow at; they wouldn't have gotten away so easily. So yes, I understand the plot advantages of having Henry and Clare be white, but even if the secondary characters alone remained racialized as they are, it would've been nice to see some diversity of interest, speech, characteristics and class. Instead, Mrs. Kim, Celia, and Nell come off as the same formula with different stereotypes: i.e. "insert Korean immigrant stereotype", "insert sexualized 'othered', angry black woman stereotype", "insert black servant stereotype", etc, etc.

In fact, it is not the characterizations themselves that make Niffenegger's work particularly offensive; instead, it is the context in which the characters of color are (mis)placed - the only characters who do not speak English, who have lower-paying jobs, and who are often in service of the protagonists. The world Niffenegger constructs is one in which the privileged, white, upper class only encounters people of color who serve them (Mrs. Kim, Nell), hate/threaten them (Celia), or are actually white (Gomez). Henry and Clare never describe people they view as intellectual equals (colleagues, etc) who are also people of color.

There are also some minor characters who I'm sure I've forgotten.. like Dr. Gonzalez who does Henry's vasectomy, who is barely mentioned by name in the book (but even that is a step up from the other caricatures).

In a world of time traveling genes, second string violinists, opera singers, lawyers, drug dealers who seek to cure, is it asking too much for the same imagination to be extended to the characters of color in the book?

Ok. That was a long rant that was long overdue. I'm sure I've forgotten a lot since I read the book a few weeks ago in preparation for the movie. I haven't seen the movie yet, but when I do, I hope that whatever characters of color they choose to keep are more believable and less offensive/racially stereotyped than they are in the book.

Although, Brad Pitt produced it, didn't he? With his "rainbow" of children, I don't know if I should expect more.

[edited 08/19/09]


  1. Wow -- loved this! I was disappointed Gomez was a nickname, too, because I also got excited at first!!!

  2. I was super excited.. and disappointed. Serves me right for trying to cheat and skip ahead by skimming imdb boards.. though I think I would've been disappointed regardless :(

  3. It's great to see that someone else noticed some of the same chords of unconscious privilege that I noticed. I was 1/3 through the book before the whole effort became weighted with the ugly white cocoon in which Henry and Clare lived. I nearly stopped reading when they began to name their child Alba, meaning white. But I trudged on to the end. The writing is often contrived and the perspective so backwards in its portrayal of people of color that it was hard to enjoy the writing. I'm glad to be done with it. Thanks for writing about your hunches that privilege was sticking its head out so blatantly.

  4. This is an interesting observation. I just posted on my blog about the fact that most white authors' books only tag the non-white characters with race.

  5. I came across this blog entry when I was looking up info about the Time Traveler's Wife. I think you make some interesting points. However, I wanted to point out to Hope that Alba is also the Gaelic name for Scotland and in Italian it means dawn. Perhaps the writer had these in mind when she named her character. I'm sure she wasn't being intentionally racist. Are white people not allowed to use the word white for fear of offending people of other races?

  6. Hi Sarah, I don't think Hope meant she was offended by the meaning of the name in and of itself, but more so the fact that the connotation that the name (and why it was valued over others) - was that whiteness is valuable/better (which begs the question - better than what? valuable as opposed to what?)/etc.

    Racism doesn't have to have malicious intent for it to be racist :) It is often unintentional, and points out a lot about society's acceptance/internalization of racist hierarchies (in this case, white = good), and binaries.

  7. Thanks for this. I picked up the book last week, and I was loving it. But each WoC maldepicted (and in servile roles no less) just made it harder and harder to read.

    Glad to know I wasn't alone.

    Clearly I won't be finishing the book and I'll put it where it belongs, in the recycling.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.