Do verse novels perpetuate stereotypes? Kwame Alexander's Solo
Here’s why I ask. I just finished Kwame Alexander’s verse novel, Solo (in prep for his appearance at Festival of Faith & Writing, coming up very soon!). While I really loved aspects of it, it was not my favorite verse novel. I then realized I have only one favorite verse novel, Out of the Dust. More on that in a moment. First, in Solo I found myself not caring much about spoiled rich boy’s heartache, largely because he was so First World Problems about it all. Plus, the dead mother trope just needs to die already. Please, authors everywhere, let the parents live!
But beyond that, when the setting switched to Ghana (which I loved because US novels for teens are absurdly ethnocentric), I discovered something surprising. Because I’ve never been to Ghana, and because verse novels have so little actual description (well, this one anyway. Out of the Dust seemed to have ample description), I found myself creating mental images from old news reports, social studies books from elementary school, movies. Basically, I had the stereotype of remote TV-infomercial-sponser-starving-children-Africa in my head. So when a detail did appear, and if it contradicted my stereotyped image, it was jarring. Taxis and bakeries in the little village? Huh? But weren’t they all in grass huts?
Well, ok, the book never said they were in grass huts. I assumed grass huts because I equated “remote” with descriptions in my college cultural anthropology course (see, I'm a little more informed than infomercials!). And in that course we read a lot about grass huts.
Some will say this is my fault. I’m ignorant of the Real Ghana. I won’t argue because it’s true. I, like most Americans, have very little experience with Africa in general, let alone differentiating between Ghana and Ethiopia, South Africa or Kenya, for example. But I wonder if the fault is really with me, or at least in part, with the author. Or perhaps even with the genre.
Are Verse Novels Anorexic?
Verse novels tend to be minimalist by nature. Spare, saying the most with the least, focused on language and emotion rather than description. And we can’t expect every reader to be an expert in the setting or world of our books. In fact that’s one reason we write, to bring a strange world into reality, to make everyone see it and understand it. As Stephen King shares, writing is a form of telepathy. The goal of the writer, one goal anyway, is to transport the reader from their reality to that of the author’s creation. There's only one way to do this for a writer: words. Something verse novels have far, far fewer than a book written in prose.
So I wonder… What would have happened had the author slowed down to write a scene about Ghana? What if he’d really wrestled with the words to paint a picture, giving us all the sights and sounds and smells? In that case I clearly wouldn’t have filled in the gaps with grass huts—because there wouldn’t be gaps. My ignorance would be schooled by the author’s experience; his book would educate me.
Is this lack of solidity a trait of all verse novels? I don’t know. Maybe. With the exception of Out of the Dust I realize as I write this that I don’t have a very vivid impression—nothing lingers—from any other novels in verse I’ve read. Ever. Surprising since I read dozens during my MFA and even wrote several papers about them. Most other books, those in prose, leave some mark on me: emotional, visual. I remember something, some moment that can recall the whole book. A bus crash, zinnias in the forest, an airport pay phone, milk boiling on the stove, a slate broken over a boy's head. So why don’t novels in verse?
I suppose that’s all to say while Solo didn't satisfy completely, it does make me hunger for stories with richly drawn settings in far-flung places. Like Last Star Burning or The Ear, The Eye and The Arm. Give me more of those, please.