I’ve been reading Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore for a work book club. It’s the first novel I’ve read in a while that showed people like me. It’s based at a bookstore in San Francisco and involves programmers, VCs, graphic designers, website managers, and the future of human immortality.
A few weeks before starting Mr. Penumbra’s I was thinking about the novels I’d read and heard about recently and thought: I don’t work the kind of job people write novels about.
I don’t read and see people working for the internet, people working for brave-little-nonprofits, people mixing a graphics and graphs and being shown as heroes for doing it. Usually, we’re punchlines–that geek there, that nerd there, that “techie.” We get repped in books by Neal Stephenson and Terry Pratchett, and arguably that’s a category Robin Sloan could skate into, but every once in a while I want people like me to star in something apart from always-friendly and always-sidelined genre fiction. To be seen in the mainstream.
In Mr. Penumbra’s I feel recognized in a novel. I feel seen. I feel like I have discovered shared language to describe my experience to people who do not do exactly my job (“What do you do?” “Have you read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore?”). I’ve found fellowship with the other people who work for the internet, who help to build the content and protect the laws and the people and engage in the great work of talking on the internet for money. But some of my better friends who work outside of my space have no idea the dance I spin between intellectual property laws, creativity, social justice, technology, representation and deadlines that makes up the kind of work that people like me, and the main character in Mr. Penumbra’s do. Reading it makes me feel seen.
That “relief of being known” came through clearly in Syreeta McFadden’s “Teaching The Camera To See My Skin: Navigating photography’s inherited bias against dark skin” on Buzzfeed. The issues of representation she brings up are never far from my work or my heart.
I usually assume this is one of those social justice issues that I can care deeply about for moral, theoretical reasons but with little gripping immediacy to my experience. In many ways this is true. As a white woman, there are lots of me in film, in ads, on TV shows, in books. Even digging deeper, looking to issues of size and passivity, of sexualization and segmentation, I still have a better than even bet of finding people who share my demographics in the media I consume.
But even sharing demographics I don’t feel a relief of being known when I look at Scarlett Johansen. I do when I see Meg Allen’s portraits of butch women in San Francisco, also showcased on Buzzfeed. I don’t when I watch Clara try Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl the Doctor out of his post-Amy funk. I do when I watch Michonne use to katana to clear a path around the people she vowed to keep safe.
In a social justice exercise last fall, I had to answer questions about privilege, one of which was:
Do you see relationships like yours depicted in the media?
My first thoughts were this was meant to tease out the difficulties of being in an interracial couple, or a same-gender one, not to dig into this space of micro-representation.
I still wrote “No.” I don’t see successful long-distance relationships, egalitarian relationships, or early-and-well-married relationships in my media. I don’t see couples that look like Matthew and I in mainstream media, and so I write my own representations, as part of that great work of helping to build-out the internet. If it is so hard to find movies with two women who speak about something other than men, what’s the hope of finding one that also shows my admittedly non-standard relationship.
And this question gets to what representation could mean in a world where millions, not dozens, of people choose who is represented and how. As Syreeta McFadden and Robin Sloan show, the choice is between learning enough to show people’s true faces, and just defaulting to the flawed portraits and settings others gave you.
This is why books like Mr. Penumbra’s are so important to me. They are examples of someone seeking to build a world, and then instead of filling it with Manic Pixie Dream Girls and Rescue Romances, filling it with people.
Some of whom read just like me.
“Walking the stacks in a library, dragging your fingers across the spines — it’s hard not to feel the presence of sleeping spirits.” ― Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore