The Trojan horse of Ice Cream Star

Last weekend I had the strange and wonderful experience of reading The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman. I had put off starting it because the whole thing is written in an invented post-apocalyptic dialect and sometimes you just don’t feel like doing all that work. Well, it was work, in the best possible sense—immersive, rewarding and exhilarating, the best kind of reading there is. In fact, you can get a feel for Ice Cream’s language and grammar within a few pages; what’s really dangerous about the book is the way it gets a feel for you. My truest life is reading and writing fiction. I read a new novel every few days, but this one reached me in a place where books don’t usually go. I think that’s in part because the half-alien language is a Trojan horse that carries the book’s beauty and despair straight into your heart.

US hardcover, Ecco As observed on NPR, this is “a book about black people . . . written by a white lady.” For the most part I didn’t have a problem with this. If you’ve read anything else on this blog, you know that’s an uncharacteristic statement for me to make. And there were, as I say, a few spots where I cringed. Much as I loved and was (cough) totally turned on by the sex scenes, I was conscious that this Black sexuality was being portrayed by a white author, and reminded that readers of color have asked me why my Black heroine is so extremely sexual. (I have no good answer. I tend to write highly sexed characters because I’m not that way in real life. It hadn’t occurred to me that I was writing Lore in the context of four hundred years of white-supremacist sexualization of Black female bodies.) But overall I found this aspect of the book to be a delight. My favorite part is when Ice Cream remarks of a biracial child, “This baby born with normal skin and hair, but Pasha’s bluish eyes.”

UK hardcover, Chatto & WindusSeveral reviewers have drawn a link between Ice Cream Star and Riddley Walker, a 1980 sci-fi novel (which I haven’t read). S. I. Rosenbaum responded to my siege of tweets about Ice Cream by noting that “Riddley’s language is based on Estuary English, this is based (?) on AAVE. I wonder if reactions will follow prejudices.” Indeed, Andrew Ervin, reviewing Newman’s book in the New York Times, compares its language to “Jar Jar Binks narrating an audiobook of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’” and warns that “the readers most likely to enjoy this novel are those who can tolerate nearly 600 pages of pidgin English . . .” Given that Jar Jar Binks is seen by many as a racist caricature and that Ice Cream’s language draws on African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and French, this struck me as frankly offensive. Compare the Guardian’s Liz Jensen, who praises the book for “the extraordinary, blistering insistence of its language.”

Speaking of race, it’s no secret that the American publishing industry doesn’t like to put Black people on book covers. Take a look at the two images on this blog. The right-hand picture is the US hardcover, released this year by Ecco. On the left is the British hardcover, from Chatto & Windus. See any difference? Nor is there any hint on the U.S. cover copy that in Ice Cream’s country everybody is Black (with the exception of the hated “roos,” an invading force of which Pasha is one). I’m just saying, I don’t think this was an accident.

There’s much more to say about this book. I intended to tell you all about the language, from the awesome way “roo” can be used as both a noun and a verb; to the mystery of “digger” as a term of reference (never address), which made me laugh when I solved it; to the complete and utter absence, in six hundred bloody, sexy, and vividly emotional pages, of the word “fuck.” But it’s getting late, so I’ll just leave you with the part that broke my heart.

As I cross the empty mall its snow, I gone in stranger minds. Be thinking blind of Pasha. How we find him in that burning house. He run, and Driver shoot at him. Roo wheel back with his pistol, and I walk up, terrify and bold. I hold his gun nose to my chest. He look at me, besweaten scary, and all children love each other. He let go his gun. . . .

The vampire live. I braving poisons for his life. He cannot die. He hold my hand like animoses, every day I been a god—and rid me, when his chance become. All children die who love each other, but the vampire live. . . .

Yo, a smutten mist drift toward, across the river’s blackish shine, and I be gripping Kalash like I prepare to fight this distance. Be thinking how Pasha be fourteen, and watch his burning city. How I kill him with this gun he given me. He kill myself. All children love each other when they dead.