Welcome to On Beyond Katniss, a column exclusively for the heroic young women of YA who face incredible odds, shatter expectations, and bring something new to a genre that’s already overflowing with amazing female characters.
Every once in a while, I’ll read or see something that infuriates me so much it leaves an indelible impression. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky comes to mind as an example; the 2002 film Rabbit-Proof Fence is another. I remember after watching the latter, I called my mother in a helpless rage—I suppose because, in some childish way, I expected her to somehow make sense of the terrible things human beings do to one another.
Of course, these things are as inexplicable as they are cruel. But the reason these stories leave such an impression, I suspect, is that the more horrible the struggle, the more heroic are those who overcome it. Half the Sky is full of women who struggle up from a world literally designed to put them down. The three young Aboriginal girls in Rabbit-Proof Fence flee on foot from the government that stole them from their mothers. And in Fox Benwell’s novel Kaleidoscope Song, we see a protagonist who, in the face of horrific violence and prejudice, quietly rebels against the status quo to try to make life better for herself and others like her.
Kaleidoscope Song is set in modern-day South Africa—the “rainbow nation” of post-apartheid that, we gradually discover, still suffers from forms of prejudice that manifest themselves in terrifying ways. The book lures you in with a familiar-feeling story of a young girl—fifteen-year-old Neo—whose dreams are ill-matched to her parents’ expectations: Neo is obsessed with music, and longs to one day work for Umzi Radio, the local station that broadcasts to her hometown of Kayelitsha. Benwell uses lovely, poetic language to describe how deeply music entwines with the mundanities of Neo’s life: her boredom doing chores at her mother’s salon, her complicated relationship with her best friend, and her frustration that her parents do not see her music dreams as realistic. Her relationship to music, as both entertainment and escape, is deeply felt in every part of her life.
Neo’s love for music eventually compels her to sneak out to a bar where Umzi Radio will broadcast live, and propels her into the lives of a band called Tale and the Storytellers, whose music moves her deeply, and whose lead singer, Tale, she immediately becomes infatuated with. The story slowly, tantalizingly leads you to the fact that this infatuation isn’t merely one of musical admiration: Neo is in love with Tale, and as she interacts more and more with Tale and the members of her band, it becomes clear that, while her feelings are reciprocated, she is entering into a larger and vastly more dangerous world—one that she does not fully comprehend.
[Spoiler alert below]
It’s Neo’s hopeful naïveté, juxtaposed with the hardened, fearful attitudes of Tale and her LGBT+ bandmates, that creates the starkest portrait of what it’s really like to be LGBT+ in this South African community. Those of us who have grown up in relatively LGBT-safe communities will surely identify with Neo: she longs to hold her girlfriend’s hand in public, is overjoyed by her very first Pride march, and takes a public stand for LGBT rights on her radio show. The rest of the band becomes frustrated with her lack of caution and her failure to comprehend their warnings, but a reader like me—who’s never had to fear for her life simply for being LGBT—can’t really understand it either. It’s why the horrific act of violence, toward the end of the book, packs such a terrifying punch: neither Neo, nor many of us in the audience, could ever have imagined this happening.
And while Benwell bravely tackles the issue of corrective rape—an issue which, according to a 2015 article in the Telegraph, is still pervasive in South Africa, with hate crimes based on sexual orientation not recognized by South African law—he does not simply leave his heroine there to flounder as a tragic story or a cautionary tale. Rather, he presents us with these terrible realities and has her rise up against them yet again. To tell you exactly how Neo stages her recovery would be to spoil the book’s incredibly triumphant end—a conclusion so brave and hopeful that it cemented this as one of my favorite novels of 2017. But rest assured, it’s worth slogging through all the pain for.
Kaleidoscope Song is by no means a perfect book. I’ve become almost hypercritical of LGBT novels that focus on the pain of being gay or have unhappy endings, and the triggers this book contains are numerous and heavy. But ultimately I believe Neo’s strength and belief in the future—in the face of a terrifying reality—can, and should, be called heroic.