Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
My friend and I were discussing the problem of finding books featuring non-White protagonists written by non-North American descended authors. We noted that, more often than not in our limited scope, we’d find non-White protagonists written by White authors, or, White protagonists who find themselves in non-White environments, written by White authors. Generally speaking, the result are hit-or-miss when it comes to a respectful representation of a culture that one is not raised in.
Shortly after, I started reading Alif the Unseen and, after confirming the heritage of G. Willow Wilson, was impressed by her handling of the Middle Eastern culture - from dialogue, to religions, to terminology, to class and more. She also did an effective job of portraying the hacker culture within that cultural environment. The writing and dialogue presented aspects of the culture in ways that I could easily understand, without things being spelled out completely. Meaning could be inferred without much effort. Of course, I am not familiar with the Middle Eastern or hacker cultures, so I am assuming the portrayal did them justice.
The book moved smoothly through the main character’s introduction – his risqué profession his forbidden love and the girl next door – and then moved just as smoothly from the seen into the unseen, namely the world of the jinn that exists amidst our own, if only we are willing to believe.
This transition is where my only real disappointment in both the book and the author arrives, taking shape as the character called “the convert,” an American woman who has converted to Muslim and, for some reason, is the only person Vikram, the jinn Alif’s future now depends on, decides can identify the source of the mysterious book Alif has been given. In an interview, Wilson claims that the convert is “not really” herself, but “the place she ends up in the book is where I have ended up.”
Unfortunately, the convert and her sentiments come across, for me, like a raging opinion piece where Wilson denounces Western culture for being so blind. I found it particularly disturbing that, despite it being made clear that Alif enjoys reading fantasy novels from Western culture, it is stated in the book that Americans specifically can’t grasp the unseen world of the jinn. The convert also denounces non-Western culture for denying the Westerners who truly try to understand. The convert proclaims that non-Westerners are able to move freely between cultures, citing Kazuo Ishiguro, author of Remains of the Day, as an example of a person from non-Western culture writing about life in Britain. A very poor example, considering Ishigoro was raised British. The convert laments that no Westerner has successfully written an epic tale that works in the other direction, and I consequently got the distinct feeling that Wilson hoped to become that person who succeeded.
I had hoped the convert was just an interlude that allowed Wilson to express her feelings, but annoyingly, the character continued on with the main group, providing little purpose. Not even in the end when her beatific pregnancy was supposed to have commanded attention. I read the acknowledgements which referred to Wilson’s own pregnancy during the writing of the book and have concluded that Wilson’s claim that the convert isn’t really herself is slightly delusional.
Aside from this, I enjoyed the book. I enjoyed the use of and discussions about language and how mutable it is. I appreciated that the step into the fantastical was gradual and that the characters each displayed interesting and varying reactions to the discovery of the unseen world. I liked the religious comparisons and the questioning of beliefs, but respected that the characters that did have their own religious beliefs, remained true to those beliefs, while still being able to accept the unseen. I enjoyed that the main character was an annoying, whiny creature who did not suddenly find a backbone and become a respectable hero. And in a culture that Westerners believe poorly treats its women, the character of Dina serves as an interesting insight.
View all my reviews