Booking It: ‘An Unkindness of Ghosts’ Part II
(Emily Dembinski/Daily Bruin)
By Kristin Snyder
Sept. 12, 2020 11:15 a.m.
Kristin Snyder: I’m Kristin Snyder.
Paige Hua: And I’m Paige Hua, and this is Daily Bruin Arts and Entertainment’s newest series “Booking It.”
Kristin Snyder: Here on “Booking It,” Paige and I will be flexing our abilities as English majors to discuss a book of our choosing. Today, we’re wrapping up our first read, “An Unkindness of Ghosts” by Rivers Solomon. We are once again joined by A&E senior staff writers Brooke Cuzick and Kaia Sherry.
Brooke Cuzick: Hello to all the book podcast listeners out there. Excited to jump back into this read.
Kaia Sherry: I’m also excited to do that, as well.
Kristin Snyder: How about we get started by wrapping up our discussion on gender from the last episode? So in the second half of the book, Solomon more explicitly states Aster and Theo’s genders, so I think it’s important that we explore that a bit. So the direct quote is Aster says, “I am a boy and a girl and a witch all wrapped into one strange, flimsy, indecisive body,” and then Theo is described as “not a man” and “gender malcontent.”
BC: I’m really drawn into Aster and her dealings with gender, just because she seems to like always wrap it back to the scientific aspect of existence. So there’s a quote towards the end of the book where she is being chased or being captured by the lieutenant, and he compares her to a dog that he has, but then she wraps it back around and refers to herself as an amalgamation of chemicals. The book grapples with it not like as an existence of human or gendered existence, but rather just like, I don’t know, like, at the end of the day, gender doesn’t really matter to her as much as it’s just like to be alive is what matters.
Kaia Sherry: I mean, throughout the entire thing, while exploring this idea of gender, Solomon never explicitly says the words nonbinary or really gives a label to it, which I thought was really interesting to think about just because their existence didn’t necessarily need a label for them to feel valid or feel like they could live within this identity. And I think that goes to show sort of what happens when you strip away the idea of language. And I guess the power that language gives to identity, especially when it’s put into the hands of someone like an oppressor like Theo’s uncle.
PH: I also thought it was interesting where, Aster, in her view of gender was, you could tell that she kind of thought about it in a gender-fluid sort of sense. And it was interesting how that mirrors how she thought about how her as a character lacked a history and a past. One of my favorite quotes from the second half of the book was that, “There were worse things than being a motherless child. Without a past, Aster was boundless. She could metamorphose. She could be a shiny, magnificent version of herself.” And I just thought that quote really epitomized one of the central themes of the book or a central question of the book, which is like, “Are we like crippled without a past or sort of liberated?” And I do think by the end, you kind of realized that it’s a little bit of both because it’s like we’re left without closure at the end, just like how Aster sort of lacked closure with her history, but we’re sort of able to create a new future and a new path, both with how Aster’s able to sort of like reinvent herself and how we can imagine the future of the novel as well.
Kaia Sherry: I think that’s also reflected in the planet itself because it was destroyed for some unknown reason that the author didn’t really get into. But by the time that Aster gets back, it has essentially renewed itself and it’s ready to metaphorically like plant a new future, and is, essentially, whatever Aster wants it to be so.
Kristin Snyder: Well, there’s also the fact that they describe how beautiful the Earth is now and how nature has kind of like restored itself without humanity. And I feel like that kind of ties into Aster’s bonatarium, which Giselle burned down at one point. Her plants and being able to work there was so integral to Aster’s time on the Matilda, and now that she has a chance to like redo that on Earth, it’s interesting. There’s also when her bonatarium is burned down she says, “It was one thing to destroy a person but to destroy their work was a sacrilege Aster couldn’t easily forget.” For her everything is about her legacy and everything is about the work that she leaves behind, which is kind of what she learned from her mother in the journal that was left for her. And then that kind of ties into Earth because when humans left the Earth on the spaceship, it was just completely decimated. But now through leaving it, the legacy that they’ve left there is this peaceful, beautiful place that doesn’t exist where humans can actually enjoy it, and the fact that all the terrible things about the Earth were a part of their society instead.
BC: The thought of leaving the past behind, which is kind of like a broad concept I guess, it kind of ties back I think, for me, to the fact that her mother’s remains were in the little pod that she takes back to Earth. What is the relevance of her bringing her mother’s remains with her and kind of does it symbolize the past and growth because her mother didn’t quite make it but she is? So the way that societies may be progressing a little bit and how she is that kind of token that’s gonna take it there are like if you guys had anything that you’ve made of that.
Kristin Snyder: This is gonna maybe seem a little not related at first, but I’ve been reading a lot of books about burial rituals and how a different societies view death. I’ve been reading a lot of stuff by Caitlin Doughty, I think is how you say her name. For people who don’t know her she’s very integral in transforming how Americans and Western society in general view funerals and death and like making it more of a hands-on process. And so a lot of what she talks about is how our current society in America, we are very removed from someone’s death. When a family member dies, very often you just send them to a funeral home, and you don’t have anything to do with the body. In this book, Aster is very hands-on. And when she sees her mom’s body for the first time and then she takes that back to the place where I don’t know if it was her mom had always wanted to be there. But her mom was integral in changing the course of the Matilda. And so being able to do that, and then physically burying the bones and laying hand in hand with Giselle at the end, I think it’s really interesting how Solomon allows her this one final moment with her mother, where she’s only really had moments with her through her journal. Versus when Flick died, she was completely removed from it. There was nothing she could do to help them. So, this really gives her a moment of closure and how important these rituals that have lasted for centuries are for people in their grieving process. So I don’t know if that makes any sense, but it makes sense to me.
BC: That was a nice connection. Look at that, wow.
PH: I definitely think it made sense. And for me, the ending was sort of like all of that, but also, it made me connect it a lot to real life because I think for a lot of African Americans that’s sort of like the reality is that you don’t get to know your past, and if you do you, don’t get to go very far back with it. I feel like we can take ancestry tests and find our quote-unquote ancestors but like they don’t ever have that because of what slavery in America did. So it was very much just like seeing or reading Aster with her mother, it was a lot of closure because it was like she finally got that bit of a past that she was looking for, even though she can’t go further back than that.
Kristin Snyder: Speaking of her return to Earth with her mom, what did you guys think of the ending in general?
Kaia Sherry: So, I wasn’t a huge fan of it. But I don’t know. I just felt like it felt very disconnected from everything that had happened so far because we spent all this time getting to know all these different people. We get flashbacks from Melusine and from Theo, and it all just kind of seems not really relevant anymore once we get to the ending. Aster sort of sheds all this and just is able to very cleanly sever herself from the life that she had lived, well, her entire life. There was a part of it that just felt too easy, I guess. And she didn’t really have an emotional reaction that you would sort of expect from that.
BC: Yeah, I was gonna say the same with a lot of the opinions that we’ve mentioned on this book is it felt very quick to me. I don’t know if you guys felt the same. It felt very quick, but it makes me think of that one TikTok sound where Harry Styles is like “Oh, that’s it?” like “Oh, that’s the end? Oh, oh, all right.” Like that’s what the ending made me feel because I was just like, “Oh, please don’t – OK.” Yeah, but it made me think of that sound just because yeah, like Kaia said, you spend this whole entire time thinking about Theo’s past and all of Aster’s friends who are basically her family and then all of a sudden at the end, she kind of has that and they’re very much left in the past because the people that she takes with her have passed away. Even though she does get to have this nice moment with them, it’s not like they’re alive and that their storylines are going to continue to progress. So it’s just like, “Oh, what is she going to do now that she’s back on Earth, but she’s by herself?” So like, is anybody gonna go with her? Or I don’t know, it felt very open-ended to me. And part of that might have just been because I was confused by it because it was like, just kind of like tie every – and not even tie everything up in a bow but just end things like it ended the story and I was like, “Oh, OK.” It seems like there could be more to that. But I guess that’s up to the reader to determine themselves.
PH: I enjoyed the open endedness, but it did just feel unsatisfying, and a little bit undeserving mostly because it felt a bit too much like a death sentence for Aster because she’s there alone. And it’s not like she can – well, I guess she could try to start society but there’s no one to join her for it. So it just feels like, “Oh, well. She’s there alone. She just buried the two people she took with her.” It just feels like there’s nothing, nowhere left for her to go. So I feel like in that sense if maybe the author was able to end it with like, “Oh, like a crew of people came to Earth with her,” then it just felt like there would feel like there was more possibility to go with the story whereas now it’s just like there’s nothing to imagine other than Aster’s eventual death.
BC: Yeah, it kind of helps the novel escape kind of a cliche that I feel like just makes me think of like “WALL-E.” OK, you know, at the end of “WALL-E,” how they’re all in space, and then they eventually go back to Earth because they’re like, “Oh my gosh, we have a plan.” So they all go back to Earth. And so there’s this like, really harmonious, “Oh, we could just put Earth together again, and it’ll be fine.” It’s a little bit more melancholy than that, which I guess makes it its own piece of work compared to following what has come before it. I don’t know the open endedness I have a hard time accepting just because I want to know what happens.
Kristin Snyder: For me, it was like, throughout the whole book, we just see how deeply lonely Aster is the whole time and how she lacks community and how she’s so separate from everyone around her. And even the friends that she does have, for a long time, she’s not really sure where her relationship with Theo is just because he is in a higher social standing than her, so that obviously creates a power imbalance. And then obviously Giselle has a lot of her own troubles that she ends up taking out on Aster, and so she spends so much time just being so alone. And then we finally get to a point where her and Theo have an understanding, they’re open about their relationship, or at least how they feel about each other, on both a friendship and romantic level. So we see that progression, and then she just leaves it all behind and goes back into this sort of isolation. It’s just so sad to me. And then does she have any survival skills? Can she live in the wilderness?
BC: Well, she’s got medical skills. She’s a surgeon. If she got hurt she’d be fine, but I feel like she does though because he has her little botanical garden, so I feel like she could live out her own lifetime. But at the end of the day, if nobody comes there to be with her, it’s just going to end there. And then is there gonna be like another person super far in the future who follows in her path? And they’re like, “Oh, look, there’s more people that came before me.” It’s an endless cycle.
Kristin Snyder: In general, I’m not a fan of ambiguous endings. And I haven’t been a fan of ambiguous ending since I read my very first one in “The Giver” when I closed the book, it was like, “What was that?” But I guess in this case, what elevates it to me from different just unsatisfying endings, I guess, is if we’re taking the book as an allegory for like the current environment in America for Black people where we have this social hierarchy and how people with lighter skin are always in power. I guess it can be a reflection of the fact that there’s kind of no real end or concrete view of a path to an end for this in real life for people. So, I guess that makes sense. From that perspective. But from a “I want to see this character be happy” perspective, not great.
Kaia Sherry: I will say that the one thing I did like about the ending was how it came full circle with the whole theme of nature with her bonatarium, because on the ship she was sort of trapped and confined to that very small space. And it wasn’t even entirely hers, which I guess can be exemplified by the fact that Giselle literally burns it all down, and there’s nothing that she can do about that. But I think it connects to the idea – there’s a really great article by William Cronon about wilderness and how the idea of wilderness is really just a Western concept that colonial settlers came up with, to sort of like, make an us-versus-them thing because wilderness is arbitrary, it’s connoted to be savage and stuff like that, while at the same time when it’s used by white people, it seems sort of as an escape or something that’s used for like inner discovery and stuff like that. And that’s sort of shown by the way that the people in the upper decks were able to use nature for like golf courses and for enjoyment and for being able to take shows and stuff like and finally, now that Aster has a fresh start, now that she’s back on Earth, she could use that wide open space to do what she wants with, and she’s given a sense of agency that she’s not allowed while still on Matilda.
Kristin Snyder: There is one quote from Rivers Solomon from a interview that they did a while back, where they said, “I prefer to think of it as a book about how we survive because, like you said, it is firmly tied to our past and present. The way things are is completely unacceptable. There are people alive today, whose living conditions are worse than those in ‘Unkindness.’ The horrors and oppressions discussed in the book are nothing new or that I invented. So I wrote ‘An Unkindness of Ghosts’ as a tribute to all my ancestors who survived and didn’t survive unspeakable things, and for myself and for my siblings in arms.” So I think that kind of ties into Kaia’s reading of the end where it does give Aster this specific agency where she is able to survive. Forget creating a physical community of other people. At the very least, she’s able to survive free and make rules for herself and not live in constant fear of the people who have been oppressing her all her life.
BC: Self-fulfillment ending, I think, is a good way to look at it. Even though it doesn’t create a super happy ending, it does mean that she’s kind of like escaped the oppression that was on the Matilda.
PH: Yeah, and just to pivot a little bit like not really, it’s still on topic. I felt that the ending, like the freedom hit that much harder because you realize that she escaped the reality that she’s been living on Matilda where rape and abuse was a constant reality for her and it was just her norm. I feel like once she got on Earth, you kind of really are able to come to the realization that her freedom is also it’s so much about like her having her own control of her body again.
Kristin Snyder: And I think it’s interesting because for those who don’t know, afro-futurism is a genre that, in general, explores how the African diaspora interacts with technology. So Octavia Butler is really famous for a lot of her works falling within the genre. A more recent examples is “Black Panther,” the movie. And so it’s interesting how so much of the book is focused on like technology and the advanced technology of the Matilda and how Aster uses that for her own botanical and surgical means, but then at the end, that doesn’t matter and it’s her returning to the Earth and like finding a home there.
Now, we’ll get into some recommendations based off of “An Unkindness of Ghosts.”
Kaia Sherry: So my recommendation is, this was probably my favorite movie of 2018 honestly, it’s called “Sorry to Bother You,” and it was Boots Riley’s directorial debut. It has Tessa Thompson in it, so that’s always a plus. It follows a young Black telemarketer who is able to sort of adapt this exaggerated white accent in order to do his job. And it has a lot of commentary about Black-white relations and how Black people are supposed to sort of assimilate in order to fit into society. It is very satirical, and it’s really, really funny. There’s horses in it, and I can’t say any more than that without spoiling it.
BC: That movie is freaking wild.
Kaia Sherry: Yeah. It’s crazy, but it’s a really great watch. And it has a lot of great commentary about activism and the organization of labor.
Kristin Snyder: I have two recommendations. So my first is “On a Sunbeam” by Tillie Walden, which is a graphic novel, and it’s about this girl who lives on a spaceship and kind of just goes around with this team of people who go and fix up old remains on old planets for people to then like move back into. The art is really cool because it has a lot of those like blue tones that we know I love from the “Twilight” movie. Obviously besides the spaceship setting, a lot of what the main character goes through is the same isolation and loneliness that I think Aster experiences. There’s also queer romance, which is fun. And then my second recommendation is “Felix Ever After” by Kacen Callender. That is a queer love story, it’s more of like a teen rom-com type deal about people who are exploring their gender identities and falling in love. And it’s a cute and fun time. So a different vibe than this one but still so good.
BC: I am going to recommend it is a duology by Lydia Kang. And I read it in early high school. The first one is called “Control” and the second one is called “Catalyst.” And it’s basically about this girl named Zel and her sister. And to start the first book, their father passes away in a crash. They end up in this house with all of these people that are around the same age as them, and they all have different genetic variations so that they have – I wouldn’t even call them superpowers because they just make them kind of abnormal and they kind of have to hide from society. And yeah, it’s kind of just a story of them acting together as this like faux family. And also it takes place in the future so there are all kinds of futuristic party scenes that are really colorful to read. For me, the relation to this book is just the fact that the characters are trying to like explore what it means to live within their own bodies and like accept who they are. So, it’s a little bit – I wouldn’t call it cheesy. It’s not really as deep as this read was, but it’s definitely enjoyable if you like kind of futuristic novels.
PH: And then I’ll guess we’ll end it with my recommendation, which is “Snowpiercer,” which I know is a really popular film, but I feel like what I’m not recommending the film so much as the TV show because it stars Daveed Diggs as the main character rather than in the film, which starred Chris Evans. So I feel like the television show is able to tackle some of the same ideas as Solomon’s novel in regards to race, but it definitely has that same sort of setup where it’s a futuristic dystopia where the last known survivors of an apocalyptic event are sort of on a train hurdling to nowhere. People are divided into a caste system, so the workers are at the very back, and the elite are at the very front. So I think it’s definitely a good film or TV show to explore if you few like Solomon’s novel.
Kristin Snyder: Speaking of Daveed Diggs, Rivers Solomon has a novella that came out in 2019 if you want to read more of their work. It’s called “The Deep,” and it’s focused on mermaids who are the descendants of pregnant African slave women who were thrown overboard by slave owners. I’ve heard pretty good things about it. But the Daveed Diggs connection is that it was inspired by a song also called “The Deep” that was created by Daveed Diggs’ hip hop group Clipping, and I know the author collaborated with that group a lot to write it, so that’s fun.
Thanks for joining us on “Booking It.” I’m excited to announce that our next book is “Sourdough” by Robin Sloan. If you want to read along, we’ll be reading the first half of the book by week one of fall quarter. You can tweet any comments, questions or observations @DailyBruinAE or email them to [email protected]