In the fourth chapter of Street Magic, I really, really need to stop being shocked at how messed up these books can be. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Circle Opens.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of gangs/gang culture, homophobia, death, and poverty.
I wasn’t ready. How many times have I written that sentence while talking about Tamora Pierce? A billion. I should know better, but here I am, reading my twenty-fourth book of hers, and everything still hurts. (I’m counting Tortall and Other Lands as a book.) Lord. LORD.
Now, I wasn’t in a gang, and while my relationship to them was complicated, they were unavoidable. You simply could not live in the part of town I lived in and ignore them. The same goes for the schools I went to, for the people I went to school with, for the rules I lived under on campus. We had all sorts of very specific campus “laws” that targeted these very people, but it often was a way for the school to regulate pretty much all of the people of color at once. From rigid dress codes that punished black and brown men, to the same codes that demonized women for wearing certain outfits because we men are disgusting filth, to the ways in which the school board tore apart any perceived “gang,” our lives were heavily monitored by authority figures. I spoke about this on the first leg of tour this year, but I went to a school where we had police officers permanently on campus. They had an entire part of the main office devoted to them, they could pull anyone out of class, and anyone could arrested – even temporarily – just because. Our language was regulated; there were certain slang words we could not use in class or in the hallways. (Of course we all used them.) If you spoke Spanish in class at any point, you were often berated by the teachers or told to leave and visit the assistant principal’s office, despite that Latinxs and Spanish-speakers were the vast majority of those who lived in the neighborhoods around the school.
We were told this was for own safety. To better our education. To provide us with an optimal environment for learning. And I can assure you that all of these asinine, racist, and harsh rules were far more distracting than a girl wearing spaghetti straps or someone sagging their pants. I am certain that the constant disruptions by the cops on campus every time they wanted to pull someone out of class for suspected gang activity was worse than anything the administration imagined.
Which is not to paint this culture as some sort of ambiguous innocence either. As I was reading the opening scene of chapter four, it was hard for me not to think of all the innocent bodies caught in the crossfire of the gang initiation rights. That included me at one point, back when I was a freshman, and I had the shit kicked out of me for someone’s initiation rite. Why’d they choose me? Well, as was pretty common in that part of the world, I was an easy target. I was an effeminate and nerdy dude who wore tight jeans because he couldn’t afford anything else, and I was a completely shy coward. It’s true! I didn’t know how to stand up for myself; I was so scrawny that anyone who did pick on me knew I couldn’t hurt them in response. And I know from talking to a lot of the people who lived in that city (or who lived in cities where gangs were prevalent) that a lot of queer or LGBT folks were the butt of their violence. There’s a machismo that runs rampant within a lot of these Latinx communities that would manifest not only in the culture as a whole, but in how they lashed out at those that they deemed unworthy.
It’s one of the reasons Zenadia disturbs me so much. While Briar is busy trying to help the Camelguts deal with the violence dealt to them by the Vipers, Zenadia is busy treating the Camelguts and her own gang like pawns. There’s a deliberate disassociation happening here because she doesn’t associate her violence with any implications aside from her quest for power and respect. She doesn’t care that she’s waging war on children. She doesn’t care that the Camelguts and many of the other Chammuri gangs are made up of the poor. I mean, how old was Sajiv? Briar’s age? Younger? Why is an adult measuring a child’s actions by a standard that MOST ADULTS COULD NOT MEET? I mean, we know the fucking answer: because Zenadia is a selfish, greedy terror. Seriously, look at how she talks to Sajiv:
“But surely you can see that it is hard to assign blame elsewhere,” she said reasonably. “First you allow your nose ring, which I gave to you, to be taken by three mere thukdaks. Then you and two others who have never disappointed me fail to capture a girl I wish to meet. Do you see where I might be forced to wonder at your contribution?”
Again, this is a very rich woman speaking to an incredibly poor youth, one who was initiated into a gang with PUNCTURES THROUGH HIS HANDS (!!!!!!! what the !!!!!!). She twists her language to make it sound like Sajiv “allowed” his septum ring to be pulled out. (I confess this may just be a nose ring on the side, but having once had a septum piercing, the injury Pierce describes sounds like a septum ring. I COULD BE WRONG.) Her use of the word “contribution” is so messed up, isn’t it? It implies that Sajiv needs to constantly contribute in order to earn his keep and his life. Which… good gods, that’s exactly what she meant.
Sajiv’s death is just… how? How does this series keep getting more fucked up? I am so scared. It’s scary because there are innocent lives claimed by gang violence. That conversation is important, too, and as much as I might understand the gang culture that sprung up in my hometown, I think I need to talk about how it negatively affected me, too. That kind of toxic masculinity outlined earlier was part of it, but so was the rampant drug use that took lives. Years later, when I lived in Los Angeles, I was mugged at gunpoint for an initiation ritual for a local gang. So I don’t have a problem having a nuanced conversation about this, despite that it’s more challenging and more uncomfortable. That’s the way it should be.
Evvy and Briar
As dark as this chapter is, I can’t deny that I was quite tickled by Briar teaching Evvy manners. I thought it was pretty funny because it wasn’t like Briar knew these things his entire life. AND THEN ROSETHORN, IN ALL HER BEAUTY, VOCALIZES THIS SAME THOUGHT:
“What’s so funny?” Briar demanded crossly.
“You,” Rosethorn said, snorting. “Teaching table manners. You!” She gasped and said, “Please – don’t let me interrupt! I’ll see you tonight!” Cackling, she left the house.
It’s everything I ever wanted.
I am fascinated by this dynamic, though, because Briar’s not exactly the kind of person who enjoys the nobility or the charade you have to act out in their presence. Yet he understands that this is the only way he can get Evvy to Jebilu, as much as he hates it. His predicament is best summed up by that earlier line that said he felt split in two. He’s now doing the same thing to Evvy, isn’t it? He’s going to introduce her to this new world and this new way of thinking, and whatever happens to her, she’ll also feel like she’s not a part of either place. How does he feel about that? I don’t quite know, though I suspect at the moment, he just wants to pass Evvy along to Jebilu so that he’s not responsible for her anymore.
So is he ever going to get there??? I was totally surprised by how quickly the violence against the Vipers escalated. I assumed it would be another few days before they attacked the Camelguts again, but they did it OVERNIGHT. (Zenadia clearly can motivate them through fear.) I think what we’ll see next is the growth of Evvy’s curiosity. She’s going to get a chance to see Briar in action, helping people no one else would ever bother assisting, and I think that’ll have a profound affect on her.
It’s entirely possible I’m wrong. OH, WELL.
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