Literature is one of the best ways for marginalized people to fight back against oppression. It’s an unfortunate truth of the publishing world that many marginalized voices are smothered. So that literary weapon can seem out of reach and hard to use. I’m glad to say that Daniel Jose Older grabbed that weapon with SHADOWSHAPER and took a couple of necessary jabs along the way. But like much good literature, he doesn’t have to tell you that’s what he doing. He just walks you into the room and you figure out the decorating for yourself.
This Young Adult (though I find that label limiting here) novel is about a young girl named Sierra and her embracing her family legacy. That legacy is held up in stark contrast against the gentrification going on in her community of Brooklyn. I have a very good friend from that area who has more than made me aware of that insidious invasion going on in an area full of rich history. So I had an idea of that going into the novel, but Older makes it real. He breathes life and circumstance into it. He’s able to contrast the richness and depth of the Dominican culture against the blandness of rising coffee shops and suburban living trying to disguise itself in an urban setting.
The indictment of gentrification and how it drains on communities is ever in the background as Sierra is dealing with fading murals and the significant danger that represents. I can’t help but to think of these fading murals as a symbol of the encroaching nature of gentrification and how it erases the character of a neighborhood with hipster barber shops and nauseating cafes. Sierra is struggling to figure out exactly what is causing these murals to fade and why they seem to be alive in the first place.
There is also another angle in which the acidic nature of gentrification and how it destroys the foundation of a neighborhood is explored. You see how it erodes history and makes people ashamed of it. Sierra is in a constant struggle with her family and the elders of her community to discover the origins of shadowshaping and just how that flows into her family history. It’s symbolic in a way of how the original residents in gentrified neighborhoods, if they survive the price hikes, are forced to alter themselves to survive in their new surroundings. They have to become something acceptable to the new white infrastructure.
Sierra’s character is a loud middle finger to such a system. She is unapologetically her ethnicity, embracing every aspect of it without doubt or shame. You can’t help but to love her because of it. I look at Sierra and hope that my two nieces are so in tune with themselves like this young woman is. That’s what makes her important in the YA field. She’s a female character of color who isn’t going through existential angst about her gender or color. It’s not some source of boogeyman drama. No, it’s her identity and it serves the story without having to be the story.
I look at Sierra and hope she is the future of Young Adult characters for POC audiences. We want to see ourselves represented but not have our identities dragged out for white audience torture porn. We want to be the heroes, the warriors, the people flying starships and to paraphrase another remarkable YA series; we too want our girls to be on fire! Loved this book from top to bottom and it has solidly made me a Daniel Jose Older groupie (and if I ever get to meet him I’m sure that’ll be amazingly awkward…)