Last year I read Daniel Jose Older’s excellent essay in Buzzfeed Books. Titled “Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing,” it was shared widely in my social media networks. I started following him on Twitter, and learned that he had a young adult book in the works. By then I’d already read Salsa Nocturna and loved it. His is the kind of writing that stays in your head and heart.
I’ve now read his young adult novel, Shadowshaper, and am writing about it here. Older is not Native, and his book is not one that would be categorized as a book about Native peoples. There are, however, significant overlaps in Indigenous peoples. There are parallels in our histories and our current day politics.
Here’s the cover:
The girl on that cover is Sierra, the protagonist in Older’s riveting story. She paints murals. Here’s the synopsis:
Sierra Santiago planned an easy summer of making art and hanging out with her friends. But then a corpse crashes the first party of the season. Her stroke-ridden grandfather starts apologizing over and over. And when the murals in her neighborhood begin to weep real tears… Well, something more sinister than the usual Brooklyn ruckus is going on.
With the help of a fellow artist named Robbie, Sierra discovers shadowshaping, a thrilling magic that infuses ancestral spirits into paintings, music, and stories. But someone is killing the shadowshapers one by one — and the killer believes Sierra is hiding their greatest secret. Now she must unravel her family’s past, take down the killer in the present, and save the future of shadowshaping for generations to come.
That synopsis uses the word “magic.” Older uses “spiritual magic” at his site. I understand the need to use that word (magic) but am also apprehensive about it being used in the context of Indigenous peoples and people of color. Our ways are labeled with words like superstitious or mystical–words that aren’t generally used to describe, say, miracles done by those who are canonized as saints. It is the same thing, right? Whether Catholics or Latinas or Native peoples, beliefs deserve the same respect and reverence.
For anyone with beliefs in powers greater than themselves, there are things that happen that are just the norm. They’re not mystical or otherworldly. They are just there, part of the fabric of life.
Anyway–that’s what I feel as I read Shadowshaper. The shadowshaping? It blew me away. I love those parts of the book. We could call them magical, but for me, they are that fabric of life that is the norm for Sierra’s family and community. When she starts to learn about it, she doesn’t freak out. She tries to figure it out.
She does some research that takes her to an archive, which eventually leads her to a guy named Jonathan Wick who wants that shadowshaping power for his own ends.
That archive, that guy, that taking? It points to one of the overlaps I had in mind as I read Shadowshaper.
Native peoples in the U.S. have been dealing with this sort of thing for a long time. Someone is curious about us and starts to pry into our ways, seeking to know things not meant for him, things that he does not understand but is so intoxicated by, that he has to have it for himself. It happened in the 1800s; it happens today.
But let’s come back to Sierra. She’s Puerto Rican. When she starts her research in the library at Columbia University, she meets a woman named Nydia who wants to start a people’s library in Harlem that will be filled with people’s stories. Pretty cool, don’t you think? Nydia works there, learning all she can to start that people’s library. Amongst the things she has is a folder on Wick. She tells Sierra (p. 50):
He was a big anthro dude, specifically the spiritual systems of different cultures, yeah? But people said he got too involved, didn’t know how to draw a line between himself and his — she crooked two fingers in the air and rolled her eyes — “subjects. But if you ask me, that whole subject-anthropologist dividing line is pretty messed up anyway.”
Sierra asks her to elaborate. Nydia says it would take hours to really explain it but in short (p. 51),
“Who gets to study and who gets studied, and why? Who makes the decisions, you know?”
I can’t think of a work of fiction in which I read those questions–straight up–in the way that Older gives them to us. Those are the big questions in and out of universities. We ask those questions in children’s and young adult literature, and Native Nations have been dealing with them for a very, very long time. I love seeing these questions in Older’s book and wonder what teen readers will take away from them? What will teachers do with them? Those questions throw doors wide open. They invite readers to begin that crucial journey of looking critically at power.
Older doesn’t shy away from other power dynamics elsewhere in the book. Sierra’s brother, Juan, knew about shadowshaping before she did because their abuelo told him about it. When Sierra asks Juan why she wasn’t told, too, he says (p. 110):
“I dunno.” Juan shrugged. “You know Abuelo was all into his old-school machismo crap.”
Power dynamics across generations and gender are tough to deal with, but Older puts it out there for his readers to wrangle with. I like that, and the way he handles Sierra’s aunt, Rosa, who doesn’t want Sierra to date Robbie because his skin is darker than hers. Sierra says (p. 151):
“I don’t wanna hear what you’re saying. I don’t care about your stupid neighborhood gossip or your damn opinions about everyone around you and how dark they are or how kinky their hair is. You ever look in the mirror, Tia?”
“You ever look at those old family albums Mom keeps around?” Sierra went on. “We ain’t white. And you shaming everyone and looking down your nose because you can’t even look in the mirror isn’t gonna change that. And neither is me marrying someone paler than me. And I’m glad. I love my hair. I love my skin.”
I love Sierra’s passion, her voice, her love of self, and I think that part of Shadowshaper is going to resonate a lot with teens who are dealing with family members who carry similar attitudes.
Now, I’ll point to the Native content of Shadowshaper.
As I noted earlier, Sierra is Puerto Rican. That island was home to Indigenous people long before Columbus went there, all those hundreds of years ago. At one point in the story, Sierra notices the tattoo on Robbie’s arm. He asks her if she wants to see the rest of it. She does, so he pulls his shirt off (p. 125):
It was miraculous work. A sullen-faced man with a bald head and tattoos stood on a mountaintop that curved around Robbie’s lower back toward his belly. The man was ripped, and various axes and cudgels dangled off his many belts and sashes.
“Why they always gotta draw Indians lookin’ so serious? Don’t they smile?”
Did you notice the tense of her last question? She asks, in the present, not the past. There’s more (p. 126):
“That’s a Taino, Sierra.”
“What? But you’re Haitian. I thought Tainos were my peeps.”
“Nah, Haiti had ’em too. Has ’em. You know…”
“I didn’t know.”
That exchange is priceless. In the matter-of-fact conversation between Robbie and Sierra, Older guides readers from the broad (Indian) to the specific (Taino) and goes on to give even more information (that Taino’s are in Haiti, too).
But there’s more (p. 126)!
Across from the Taino, a Zulu warrior-looking guy stood at attention, surrounded by the lights of Brooklyn. He held a massive shield in one hand and a spear in the other. He looked positively ready to kill a man. “I see you got the angry African in there,” Sierra said.
“I don’t know what tribe my people came from, so it came out kinda generic.”
It is good to see a character acknowledge lack of knowing! It invites readers to think about all that we do not know about our ancestry, and what we think we know, too… How we know it, what we do with what we know…
What I’ve focused on here are the bits that wrap around and through Older’s wonderful story. Bits that are the warm, rich, dark, brilliant fabric of life. Mainstream review journals are giving Shadowshaper starred reviews for the story he gives us. My starred review is for those bits. They matter and they speak directly to people who don’t often see our lives reflected in the books we read. I highly recommend Shadowshaper. Published in 2015 by Arthur A. Levine Books, it is exceptional in a great many ways.