In The Dirty Girls Social Club, which was a New York Times best-selling novel last year and is brand-new in paperback, Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez introduces six twentysomething friends: Latinas who met at Boston U and who still gather for food, gossip, and epiphanic now-I'll-tell-you-how-I-REALLY-feel-about-you revelations. This setup spun gold for Amy Tan (bred in Oakland) and Terry McMillan (lately of Danville): ethnic girls celebrate solidarity amid a happy-sad clamor of dishes and dishing and, by way of reward, hot sex with guys. These days it's a genre whose latest arrivals on the scene include Caroline Hwang's In Full Bloom, Tova Mirvis' The Outside World, Nina Marie Martínez' Caramba! and UC Berkeley grad Kim Wong Keltner's The Dim Sum of All Things. Still not sure it's a trend? Check the back cover of Dirty Girls, dead center, which calls this book "the Hispanic version of Waiting to Exhale."
It's identity-politics chick lit. And one of its favorite tropes is making fun of white people. Especially white males. They're dumb, they're dull, they're racist, sexist, shallow, sleazy, condescending, cowardly perverts, and they just ... don't ... get it.
Dirty Girls is told in alternating voices, but its primary narrator is journalist Lauren Fernández, whose Cuban father is a college professor and whose Caucasian mother is a coke-snorting lowlife currently in jail. Lauren works at a newspaper whose white staffers "expect me to reach up and pick mangoes out of the fruit basket I must wear in my head whenever I'm not in the newsroom." They ask her for advice on where to buy Mexican jumping beans, and they say to her in "deliberately too-loud English ... 'I'm so glad you're here representing your people.'" At a meeting during which attention is called to Lauren and "four other 'minorities' (read: coloreds) ... all those blue and green eyes turned to me in -- what was it? -- in horror." Sardonically, Lauren drapes her desk "in Mexican rugs and Santeria beads just to scare everyone." It works, too, because "all my guilty white colleagues look at me" as if to say "Don't hurt me, please, exotic little Latin thing. "
The Dim Sum of All Things' heroine Lindsey Owyang, who lives with her mah-jong-playing grandmother in San Francisco's Chinatown, works at a publication too: Vegan Warrior magazine, where she is the only nonwhite among a staff of "Limoges liberals" dedicated in word if not deed to diversity. Cute, vintage-sweater-wearing Lindsey is plagued by what she calls Hoarders of All Things Asian: "shy, Caucasian beta-males" who "tried to pick up on her, saying garbled things like, 'Konichiwa, Chinese princess.'" These "nerdy white guys ... sought the erotic, hassle-free companionship they believed to be the specialty of lily-footed celestials, geishas, fan-tan dancers, and singsong girlies."
Riiiight. Ask the typical frat bro down the block if he even knows what fan-tan is. Was. Whatever. At one point Lindsey gets a yellow-fever fella to confess: "I love Asian women. ... I love the idea of geishas, and I have fantasies about having sex with dim sum waitresses on top of those rolling carts!" These "loathsome trolls" should be "confined in a criblike pen where they could not escape to molest her," Keltner tells us.
Ah, white people. In bad weather, Lindsey muses, they smell like dogs. And dense? The details of "real Chinese anything," Lindsey laments, "were too complicated to begin explaining to white people. Of course, not that anyone ever asked. ... White guilt was like smog in the Bay Area, like filthy puffs of charcoal-gray exhaust ... hanging around the horizon like a ring of oven grease, but perhaps, at times, contributing to prettier sunsets."
Lindsey lives in a double-standards wonderland. Seething over Russian Hill boutiques that mix Asian decor with Western decor and jumble together elements of disparate Asian cultures with "confused disregard," Chinese Lindsey adores Japanese Hello Kitty accessories and European literature. (As does Keltner herself: The back-cover blurb describes how the author met her husband in a Cal Chaucer seminar.)
But hey, the fact that white guys who crave Asian girls are "disgusting" -- not to mention litterbugs, as evinced by a scene in which Lindsey scurries to seize and discard the plastic sushi wrapper a Hoarder of All Things Asian has carelessly let fall -- doesn't stop her from wanting them. "Although Lindsey was admittedly attracted to white boys, she ... hated the idea of some pervert zoning in on her because of her black hair [and] almond-shaped eyes." Griping that her grandmother's traditionalism means that "there would be no way to respectfully get it on with a white devil" in the shared apartment, she makes out vigorously with a River Phoenix look-alike who keeps forgetting her name and mistakes her for a Korean. She has nothing but scorn for the Chinese guys with whom Grandma sets her up. And the major love interest on which this novel turns is by all appearances a white man. (Spoiler alert: At the end you find out he's one-quarter Chinese.) He speaks with a Southern accent and his anything-but-ethnic name is Miles Michael Cartier.
How weird is it that a major love interest in The Dirty Girls Social Club is also named Cartier? In this case it's Andre Cartier, Nigerian-British computer millionaire and foreplay virtuoso.
Characters in both of these books are seen to have gone over to the other side and married white dudes. "She married a cracker," Keltner writes of Lindsey's cousin Stephanie. Dirty Girls' prim Rebecca is miserable with slack-jawed blond moron Brad, whom she married for his money and who has a Latina fetish: "We fascinate him," Lauren muses. "Soon as that freak hears Spanish, his face gets all red and flushed and he looks like he's hiding a hard-on."
It's all sly and wry and you go, girl. But who's supposed to be laughing? What percentage of this genre's intended audience is the ethnic group in question and what percentage is ludicrous palefaces driven by guilt and gonads to use such books as portholes onto those secret realms they yearn to own and understand? You have to wonder. If these novels weren't meant for outsiders' eyes, why then all the labored definitions of typical dishes and lifestyle stuff that insiders already know? And if Dirty Girls' titular females embody a wide span of Latina types -- from a coffee-fleshed Colombiana to a kinky-haired Dominicana/Puertoricana to a SoCal daughter of Aztlán to half-Cuban Lauren and several others in between -- then why do all three lissome figures depicted on the book's cover have creamy white skin?
Dirty Girls is for the most part deftly written; Valdes-Rodriguez can draw characters expertly as long as they aren't Caucasian. Dim Sum strangles in its own self-consciousness; we can practically hear the author laughing at her own jokes as she writes that Lindsey "was well aware that no hottie was going to be unlocking the chink in her chastity belt anytime soon" and that "she often wondered if all writers had big fat butts and sat around in sweatpants all day." In the novel's final third, as the love revs, Keltner starts to find her feet, writing less like a playground stereotype-slinger and more like someone with an actual story to tell. But how much of this genre is about actual stories anyway?
The Dirty Girls Social Club
By Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez
St. Martin's, $12.95
The Dim Sum of All Things
By Kim Wong Keltner
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