Last week, I looked at how Malinda Lo and Marie Lu, adult Asian-American authors, wrote race and gender into their worlds. In this post, let’s look at how a NYC Asian high school student writes race and gender in his dystopia.
Fifteen-year-old Isamu Fukui wrote Truancy while attending Stuyvesant High School, one of New York City’s most competitive and demanding public high schools. In many ways, the book reads as a critique of the public school system.
In 2002, six years before the book’s publication, Mayor Michael Bloomberg instituted mayoral control over the city’s public school system, allowing him to appoint eight of the thirteen members of the school board, set educational policies, and hire the chancellor. Test scores have been given greater emphasis; schools with low test scores are closed rather than undergoing evaluation for the reasons behind low test scores (such as students not being proficient in English or having learning disabilities). As a result, schools increasingly spend more time on test preparation. At the same time, policing in schools has become more extreme: Children as young as six have been handcuffed and arrested for behaviors like throwing tantrums or, in the case of older students like one honors student at my daughter’s school, trying to enter school early to finish a project!
In Fukui’s unnamed city, mayoral control is taken to the extreme. The city is run by the Mayor and his team of Educators. Within schools, teachers punish students for any infraction, including speaking. Outside of school, students are weighed down with homework and studying for the frequent tests that determine their grades and, ultimately, their futures. Students even have bar codes imprinted on their arms.
Fighting against the dictatorial control of the Mayor and Educators is the Truancy, a group of drop-out and pushed-out students who sabotage the city and assassinate Educators. The Mayor carefully keeps all news of the Truancy from the general public, explaining power outages, explosions and other attacks as accidents caused by gas leaks or mechanical failures. At the same time, he increases restrictions over students, seeking to prevent them from joining the Truancy.
Fifteen-year-old Tack is only aware that school sucks. His only respite from the mountains of homework, tests and teachers’ bullying is the time he spends with his younger sister Suzie. While attempting to protect Suzie from bullies, Tack encounters Usami, a boy who lives alone in an abandoned city district. Umasi understands the purpose behind the Educators’ increasingly controlling and sadistic policies, patiently explaining them to Tack and revealing the Truancy’s existence. He also teaches Tack fighting skills.
Then Suzie is accidentally killed during a Truancy assassination. “She was collateral damage,” Zyid coldly explains as Tack holds his sister’s body. “Nothing more.” Tack joins the Truancy, planning to avenge Suzie’s murder.
Truancy often reads like an action film. Fukui has a knack for describing attacks and fights, although some are more cartoon-ish than reality-based. What Fukui doesn’t develop in great depth are the characters’ appearances. Neither Tack nor Suzie are ever fully described save for their brown hair. Umasi and Zyid have black hair and sallow complexions. Given that both have Japanese names, the reader can infer that they are Japanese.
Then there is Noni, a skilled assassin and Zyid’s second-in-command. Interestingly, Fukui leaves Noni’s gender ambiguous when she first appears: “The assassin’s face was almost completely concealed by a hood…as well as a think black scarf wrapped around the lower face.” Given that all Truants thus far have been boys, the reader may assume that this is an all-boy gang. Three pages later Fukui nonchalantly reveals Noni’s gender: “Noni whipped the cell phone out of her pocket.” The other Truants describe her as both hot and a cold-blooded killer. When Fukui describes her, 130 pages after she first appears, she has icy blue eyes, pale skin and sleek black hair.
Other than a slavish devotion to Zyid, Noni doesn’t seem to have her own personality. The one time she opposes Zyid’s decision, she explains quietly, “I think only of your safety, sir.” While Zyid plans an ambush by phone, Noni stands quietly behind him, not moving. Apparently this happens frequently enough that Zyid is unsurprised to find her waiting for him.
Oh, Fukui does imbue Noni with one other trait—insecurity about her looks. When Tack reveals a scar running from her chin to her cheek during a fight, she crumbles, dropping her sword, covering her face with her hands and sinking to the floor. Later, she becomes Tack’s love interest but still lacks any personality.
At the risk of being accused of age-ism, I’m willing to give Fukui much less flack about Noni’s flatness than I would if he were an adult writer. After all, how much experience does a fifteen-year-old have with character development, particularly of characters outside their realm of direct experience? Fukui has since graduated from high school, is now in college and has written two other books—a prequel and a sequel. I haven’t read either, but I understand that Truancy’s sequel has several female characters. I’m hopeful that having experienced more of the world (and people of other genders) will have enabled Fukui to write more interesting and nuanced female (and other) characters.
In the meantime, the book stands as a not only a dystopic re-imagining, but also a warning about what the public school system (both in NYC and in other areas) could become if we allow politics and tests to determine education.