Perne notice: The Last Vampire and racial representation

I raved last year about Christopher Pike and the Last Vampire series, and how one benefit of the Twilight phenomenon is that stories I read as a teen are being re-released. Now, as I make my way towards the end of Pike’s second compilation, Thirst: No. 2, I have mixed emotions.

First, reading as an adult, I’m beginning to remember why I dropped out before the series ended. These last three novels, Phantom, Evil Thirst and Creatures of Forever — go off the rails. Kalika, ancient Egypt, reptilian aliens…it’s all very “Who with the what now?” The straightforward tale of a five-thousand-year-old Indian vampire gets muddied with irrelevant off-the-wall plots. And therein lies the second problem I have with the books.

Thirst No. 1As much as I love Alisa Perne, a.k.a Sita, and think her internal voice is beautifully authentic — she feels Indian and Hindu — I can’t help but wonder if her being white is a cop-out. And she’s not just white, she’s the idealized epitome of white female beauty: the svelte, blue-eyed blonde. Sure, there’s the built-in Aryan explanation — though I’m sure it’s debatable as to how fair-skinned Aryans really were, given the geography and climate — and one could also point out that the entire series hinges upon Alisa being able to wander around the United States without sticking out like a sore thumb. But she sticks out anyway by being incredibly beautiful. What’s a tan and black hair going to take away from that? So why? Why does such a gorgeous story about faith and identity have to be pegged not just around her passing as human but also passing as a white Westerner?

I don’t want to diminish that she’s still very much Indian for being Aryan/blonde/white; however when we have a bitter history in this world of minority tales being told and retold — effectively legitimized — by white voices, I can’t help but be bugged by it. It’s as though the story of Sita, the last vampire, devotee of Krishna, wasn’t good enough with her just being a regular brown Indian. To sell it to an audience, to market it to teens, she had to be something better. “Your culture is cool enough to write a book about,” this says to teen readers of South Asian origin, “but not if you look like you.” And the new covers reinforce that…showcasing this ghostly pale, blonde girl with red lips. You don’t know that it’s a story about India by looking at it.

You’re effectively “fooled” into reading about a different culture. Ha-ha! Gotcha! Frankly, that marketing ploy pisses me off to no end. Like, “Hey, see Valentine’s Day because Bradley Cooper and Julia Roberts flirt…oh, by the way, we won’t tell you until you see it that he’s gay.” That doesn’t make you edgy or win you cool diversity points. It makes you a coward.

So how brave is it, really, to tell a story about an Indian, Hindu vampire that has all the glamorous parts of the experience — the culture, the spirituality, the bad-assness — but none of the annoyingly difficult stuff like being a racial minority?

I mean, that…bites.

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12 thoughts on “Perne notice: The Last Vampire and racial representation

  1. I suppose this depends on some extent on who Christopher Pike is. Is Christopher Pike a brown-skinned Indian who took on a nom de plume that wouldn’t scare off “mainstream” American readers? Did Christopher Pike submit a story to a publisher about a brown-skinned Indian vampire and then was told that it would be more marketable if the main character was white?

    An alternative possibility is that Christopher Pike is a white-skinned Anglo-American who just found himself or herself unable to write the story without making the character a white-skinned exemplar of European beauty. Sometimes it’s the author who has internal limitations and and if that’s the case it might be a little unfair to burden him or her with the racial representation problems experienced by the reader.

    When it comes down to it, a writer writes the story that her or she is able to write. If the story has flaws then maybe the only option is to find an author who can write a better one.

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    • As far as I know, Christopher Pike is the pseudonym of a white American writer. But I would have the same icky feelings if he were Indian with an American pseudonym or a woman with a male pseudonym.

      When it comes down to it, a writer writes the story that her or she is able to write. If the story has flaws then maybe the only option is to find an author who can write a better one.

      I don’t think anyone’s expecting a story without flaws, but the “writers write the story they’re able to write” argument, to me, implies that a creator has no responsibility except to just birth their project and sit back. Telling a story with authenticity and thought is important. And saying it was beyond Pike’s capability to write Sita as brown when he’s gone to the lengths to explore her religion and the culture she comes from just doesn’t track.

      Sometimes it’s the author who has internal limitations and and if that’s the case it might be a little unfair to burden him or her with the racial representation problems experienced by the reader.

      I don’t think it is, because isn’t all art, to a certain degree, contingent upon the response of the person taking it in? How are an author’s internal limitations my problem, when all I know is what I’m reading or seeing firsthand? I’m also not burdening Pike with my interpretation, per se, since he has no idea I had this reaction to his text, but that’s neither here nor there. We all bring our own subtext to anything we consume — that’s a given — and I do think using that subtext to interpret material is fair. Perhaps not always accurate, but definitely valid.

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  2. Is it wrong that when I saw ‘Christopher Pike,’ I immediately thought of Star Trek? :P I read Chain Letter about a bazillion years ago, but I never got into the rest of his books.

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    • Ha. No, because I frequently think of Star Trek when I type or see the name!

      And I read almost everything he wrote back then. Not everything was great, but there were a few good yarns!

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  3. > I don’t think anyone’s expecting a story without flaws, but the
    > “writers write the story they’re able to write” argument, to me,
    > implies that a creator has no responsibility except to just birth their
    > project and sit back. Telling a story with authenticity and thought is
    > important.

    Authenticity by whose measure? I believe that an author’s primary responsibility is to the authenticity of his or her own voice, the story that to a large extent comes out of a bundle of buried thoughts, feelings, and experiences. If that inner voice produces a caucasian vampire with an Indian background, then I think Christopher Pike’s artistic duty is to write that story, regardless of what racial interpretations might be overlain by any particular reader.

    > And saying it was beyond Pike’s capability to write Sita as brown
    > when he’s gone to the lengths to explore her religion and the
    > culture she comes from just doesn’t track.

    You and I both grew up in Ohio very close to the Indiana border. The corn fields and the small towns on the two sides of that border are almost indistinguishable in character, culture, and society. I once tried writing a story about a person from a small college town on the Indiana side of the border. It didn’t work. I moved the character’s point of origin just a few miles to the east, on the Ohio side. Suddenly it worked. It’s almost impossible for a writer to account for or explain his own voice. I don’t think it’s more possible for a reader to determine what that writer could have written differently.

    > I don’t think it is, because isn’t all art, to a certain degree,
    > contingent upon the response of the person taking it in?

    That depends on what the question is that we’re asking. Are we questioning the author’s motivation? Are you asserting that Christopher Pike had an overt intent to characterize whiteness as superior to Indian-ness in some way? If that’s the case, then I think the discussion calls for other evidence about Pike and his ideologies or motivations. Or something more overt in the story itself.

    Or are we talking about something the reader is bringing to the table in interpreting the story? If that’s the case, then I don’t think it’s fair to imply that the author is trying to hoodwink the reader or question his artistic courage.

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  4. Well,i m an indian nd wen i read the first part or the first one,i was quite taken back.first of al sita is the name of a goddes in india,wife to ram who is also considered an incarnation of god vishnu,krishna too is worshpd here as an incarnatn of vishnu..so projectin an old indian vampire with name sita and she’s white is a big ouch factor.But,these thoughts r entirely mine,and mayb other youngstars in india may feel same.

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  5. Just because Sita is white (Caucasian), does this take away from the Hindu religion? Is she not Indian because of her skin colour?

    As a White male, I found that the character of Sita; a white, aryan/Indian female who displays a very strong minded individual, unafraid to talk about or share her religious beliefs whilst acting as a somewhat noir superhero is still a character that I can follow/identify with.

    At no point did I have to stop and think, maybe this book would be 10 times better if Sita was brown/black/yellow.

    When the first books in this series came out nearly 20 years ago, I thought it did a very good job of promoting the Hindu religion throughout a predominantly western/Christian society.

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    • Well, “as a white male,” you are privileged to not have to think about Sita’s racial/ethnic origins too deeply, nor do you have the same triggers about skin tone and social hierarchy in Indian culture. That’s a luxury a young South Asian reader doesn’t have.

      When I originally read the series, I was happy just to have SOME part of my culture represented in a book aimed at my age group in a positive way. I was absolutely thrilled. But, as an adult, seeing the reissues with a white, blond girl on the cover, it’s just a reminder of how we shouldn’t have to settle for scraps. For the bait-and-switch that teaches predominantly white readers about an “exotic” culture by using a mirror for them instead of one that reflects a more traditional Indian face.

      I’ve had to follow/identify with white characters my entire life. The reverse shouldn’t be that difficult.

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      • Amen, Mala! That bothers me too!! He did that in Remember Me 2 and 3 when she supposedly came back to help out her HISPANIC community and write stories as Jean Rodriguez but of course, did so under her original name Shari Cooper. I was like . . . um, this helps Chicana literature how??? And the whole White Sita things bugs me too and her constant references to how beautiful her Whiteness is.

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      • It’s basic cultural appropriation: cherry picking the convenient parts of Indian or Chicana heritage to add color to a story, without having to do any of the “harder” work of making these women multiracial.

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  6. I’m so happy that I’ve found this article. I’m a big fan of CP and the hypnotizing and gorgeous Sita/Alisa Perne. But something has always bothered me i.e her appearance. I mean, okay she has blue eyes, awesome, but why couldn’t she has blue eyes, golden skin and black hair instead of blonde hair and pale skin? Even the way CP describes Krishna and Radha hinted that they looked Caucasian. I’m not Indian but my ancestors were and I do look like a North Indian, it would have been great for 14 years old me to identify myself with Sita but it always seemed impossible as she was the opposite of me( Blue eyes,blonde,pale skin when I have tea-milk skin,black hair and brown eyes) anyway, I think this article was great!

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  7. Pingback: Episode 37.5 – Pike vs Stine: Round 2 | Papercuts Podcast

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