Obsidian Butterfly — Laurell K. Hamilton

My goal when I began rereading the Anita Blake books was to finally write up a post centering on Obsidian Butterfly. I wanted to talk about how OB stood out as an awesome treatment of mixed race issues. Because it takes Anita out of her surprisingly monoracial St Louis context, and plunks her down in the middle of New Mexico, you’d think there’d be tons of discussion of Anita as a mixed race Latina. Since the plot revolves around Aztec mythology, you’d also think there’d be something on the various ways indigenous beliefs inform mainstream faith experiences as well as understandings of history.

Yeah, no.

Like I mentioned in my previous post on the series, LKH writes Anita as a character with some serious issues with her identity as a mixed race person. While this is a laudable project, and has been well-handled in works like Toi Derricote’s The Black Notebooks, it’s not an identity treated with any sort of serious or critical analysis. Throughout the text, LKH reinforces Anita as an “exceptional female,” Adrienne Rich’s term for a woman or female character who forms her identity by the constant rejection of stereotypical traits. These characters do very little to debunk sexist notions of femininity; instead they treat those notions as real, as completely valid, and instead construct the character in question as being the awesome, exceptional female who’s not like (read: who is better than) the other girls she encounters. So there’s that. And it’s very very weird.

What’s even more troubling is the text’s handling of mixed race issues. Anita’s mixed. Her mother is Mexican, and it’s from this side of the family that Anita gets her awesome cosmic powers. I talk about the issues with LKH’s treatment of this here, where I describe Anita as a tragic mulatta. I want to further develop the race issues LKH presents in OB, especially since Anita’s also such an exceptional female.

On to the plot. Anita owes Edward (her psychopathic BFF) a favor. He calls it in by asking her to help him solve a case in New Mexico. Part of the team include Olaf, a serial rapist/killer, and Bernardo Spotted-Horse, a mixed race bodyguard/hitman. During their first encounter, Bernardo confronts Anita about her whiteness.

“You may be a little dark around the edges, but you can pass for white,” Bernardo said.
“I’m not passing, Bernardo. I am white. My mother just happened to be Mexican.”
“You got your father’s skin?” he asked.
I nodded. “Yeah, what of it?”
“No one’s ever got up in your face about it, have they?”

At this moment, Anita engages in some self-reflection, remembering how her stepmother always had a disclaimer about her troublesome child: Anita’s not hers. Her mother was Mexican. She’s not adopted. It should be a good moment for the character, especially as they continue:

“Do you think of yourself as white?”
I nodded. “Yeah. Now ask me if I think I’m white enough?”
Bernardo looked at me. “Are you white enough?”
“Not according to some people.
“Like who?”
“Like none of your damn business.”
He spread his hands. “Sorry, didn’t mean to step on your toes.”
“Yes, you did,” I said.
“You think so?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I think you’re jealous.”
“Of what?”
“That I can pass and you can’t.” (OB 131)

Later on, these same two characters talk about cultural authenticity. Bernardo’s brown-skinned but white-washed due to having grown up in foster homes. His father died, and the implication in-text is that he doesn’t even know what tribe he’s from. Part of his boorishness (indeed, part of what makes him a less honorable character than Olaf, our international serial killer) is his ‘massive chip on the shoulder’ (OB 147), his unexplained envy of whiteness. This lack of explanation is part of what makes this such a weird moment. Being able to pass has concrete material and social advantages in a world where race matters. To ignore that — to treat it as though Bernardo’s just a hateful jerkwad — is to ignore the very real benefits color grants Anita. She is a little dark around the edges — but if you made her phenotypically Chicana living in St. Louis, how much access to crime scenes would she get then?

So there’s that. I originally read that whole sequence as a sort of schizophrenia. Surely, this a moment where Anita’s getting complicated as a heroine, since, seriously, how messed up is it to present your ability to pass as a virtue, as something to be jealous of? However, near the end of the book, Anita uncovers the real big bad. He captures her, and surprise, surprise! He’s mixed too.

I stared up the line of his body, and the tongues were moving as if still trying to scream. He took off the helmet, and showed a slender, handsome face that reminded me of Bernardo’s, not the pure Aztec ethnicity I’d been expecting. He had turquoise ear spools in his lobes, and they matched the blue green of his eyes. (OB 542)

As they talk, he reveals that his purpose is to drive out the Conquistadors’ taint, even though he’s a bit late. He’s been in an enchanted sleep the last 500 years, along with his pet Quetzacoatl. In this treatment of Aztec myth, the patron deity of knowledge is reimagined as a ravenous, but beautiful, dragon. Anyways, Anita comments on the — to her — obvious disconnect between Red Woman’s Husband’s desire to fight the Conquest of indigenous people and his obvious mixed identity. This disconnect is a symptom of his overall insanity, much as Bernardo’s ambivalence towards his skin color is a symptom of his lack of honor.

“You must believe that I am a god. I am the Red Woman’s Husband. I am the body that will be revenged on those that destroyed my people.”
“You mean the Spanish Conquistadors?”
“Yes,” he said.
“There aren’t a lot of conquistadors in New Mexico,” I said.
“Their blood still runs in the veins of their children’s children’s children.”
“No offense, but you didn’t get those turquoise eyes from anyone local.”
(OB 546)

The introduction of Bernardo and Red Woman’s Husband highlight another group of which Anita is an exceptional member. She’s not just an exceptional female; she’s an exceptional mulatta as well. While she’s tragic, she’s not insane. She’s not phenotypically marked as being mixed race in the same ways these other characters are, and, more importantly, she embraces and lives out her whiteness, without questioning the advantages this gives her. Bernardo and Red Woman’s Husband are physically marked as Other. Like Dominga (The Laughing Corpse) and Seraphina’s use of Anita’s Mexican mother as a temptation (Bloody Bones), their appearance here reminds both the reader and Anita what happens when that ethnic stuff is allowed to run free. You get people getting bitter about passing and questioning the Conquest, and we certainly can’t have that.

Comments

  1. says

    I don’t have anything to add, but I wanted to say that I really enjoyed reading this analysis. I may have to go back and reread this book now and see what I can see.

  2. aby says

    I’ve read a lot of the LKH books – ITA with your assessment. I always found Anita’s mentioning of being half Mexican as a “despite of” factor. *My opinion only* LKH plays it up as an exotic point about Anita, but then cancels it by the fact that she’s totally detached from that part of her heritage. “I’m so exotic and beeyotiful! Just don’t ask me about Those People.”

    I want to look this book over again now, because there was something about the characterization of Obsidian Butterfly herself that bugged me.

    Overall, I find LKH’s handling of race/culture badly done, but not the biggest reason that this series degraded.

    Anita being the Temptress Of All Things Living And Maybe Not So Living is where I bowed out. And um, the were-rats leader just happens to be Hispanic? Granted he was better drawn than a lot of them, but still. The rats. Agent Perry is a PoC but scarily and pristinely polite and “safe”?

    Also, there are no other strong were-leaders/vampires of Color that *I know of* that happen to get lucky when Anita is overtaken by that whole lust thing she goes through? Seriously?

  3. Furikku says

    I never got as far as Obsidian Butterfly.

    I do remember finding it odd that Anita had such a damn hangup on race despite passing, and felt the whole ex-boyf dumping her for having dark hair and eyes to be unbelievable and dumb. Even as a Clueless White Girl middleschooler.

  4. says

    I haven’t read the book, but that has to be one of my least favourite tropes: introducing a tragic figure who has been beaten down and made bitter by an unfair society and then turning them into the villain, with the hero taking a moment to go “How tragic” before enthusiastically bringing them down (a villain is a villain after all) Are there any examples ever given of happy little non-bitter conformist mixed race people who don’t pass as white? Or are they all doomed to misery?

  5. aby says

    Thanks, I didn’t think there were any.

    Though there is Narcissus – hermaphrodite/sadist/crossdressing were-hyena. Guess he’s not her type. *rolls eyes*

  6. draconismoi says

    I was bizarrely blind to the race issues the first time I read the series…..right up until I got to OB and the first think Anita said about being in New Mexico was how much she loathed Mexican food.

    I just sat there thinking, what the..??

    Then I went back and reread things. Sigh. On the surface it seemed like such a great series with a kick-ass heroine…..

  7. says

    sqbr –

    What makes that plotline worse is that Red Woman’s Husband isn’t treated like a tragic figure. I mean, seriously? A mixed race Aztec/ Spaniard (srsly, what does that even mean? The Aztecs were a federation of several different peoples… so what the heck does she mean by an ethnic Aztec face?) character who’s been oriented like a warhead to forcing out the Conquistadors who’s been asleep so long they’ve already won? THAT’S SAD! But in-text it’s treated like a symptom of his overall insanity. :(

  8. says

    um, the were-rats leader just happens to be Hispanic? Granted he was better drawn than a lot of them, but still.

    That character is, I think, going down hill… from what I recall, he’s dating Ronnie, Anita’s erstwhile female friend, and she’s getting pissy at Anita.

  9. Daomadan says

    How could I have only found this brilliant site today?! *is hooked*

    Wonderful analysis of the books. I’d always been annoyed (read: pissed) about LKH’s handling of queerness, but the way she handled Anita’s Mexican heritage never sat well with me either. I’m glad to see a different analysis of why these books are so weak. I may need to actually revisit this book after reading your essay.

    I used to love the books growing up (until they became horrible porn novels). Now I really want to write an essay on how LKH/Anita treat queer people in the Anita Blake Universe.

  10. says

    Thank you!

    I’d love to see your thoughts on queer issues in LKH’s work. It seems like bi men are sexy (but secretly always prefer the ladies) and that other women’s sexuality is threatening in general.

  11. Maddyane says

    I don’t read them anymore. I’m not in the least bit interested in Anita’s boring sex life; Hamilton’s treatment of racial/queer/ethnic issues and characters bothers me very, very much; and all the women characters but villains and Anita pretty much vanishing from the books did in the last little bit of interest I might have had.

  12. Daomadan says

    I should link you to my rant about LKH in my LJ. It was cathartic. Some of it has to do with the whole, Anita thinks, “Bisexuality is gross, Jean-Claude! No you can’t do other men, ew! Wait…the ardeur…must…screw some random guy that isn’t you!”

    Yeah.

    That’s pretty much how you can sum up the books now. *LOL*

    Okay, totally working on a Queer Critique of the series now.

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