Notions of the Universal, Redefined

Posted March 8, 2018 6:06 p.m. EST

Last month, when I returned to Madeleine L’Engle’s novel “A Wrinkle in Time,” more than 35 years after I first read it, I was taken aback. The intricate plot was as I remembered: The gangly, genius teenager Meg Murry; her younger brother, Charles Wallace; and her friend Calvin O’Keefe still travel through time and space by way of a tesseract, a fifth-dimensional phenomenon, to rescue her father from the evil IT, a disembodied brain that demands conformity from all who surround it.

Rather, I now was unsure about my lifelong insistence that it was my favorite book as a child. Rereading it as a 42-year-old African-American woman, I started scouring “A Wrinkle in Time” for that original sentence or scene of identification in which my 7-year-old eyes saw myself in that all-white setting.

Readers have long hailed Meg as a heroine of science fiction, but the 1962 novel is beloved as much for its unconventional female protagonist as L’Engle is for weaving together complex ideas about religion, Cold War politics and astrophysics within the genre of children’s literature. And for a whole generation of white girls who grew up during the 1960s and ‘70s, the novel served as a political awakening.

Catherine Hand is a producer of the new Disney adaptation of the book. After working on a made-for-television version for ABC, Hand told The New Yorker in 2004 that she discovered the book when she was 10, adding: “The engine that drives it is Meg’s inner life, and it’s astonishing, because here is a girl who at that moment is stronger than her father. For some of us, it planted the seeds of the women’s movement.” For others, the novel’s influence has only grown over time. Pamela Paul, writing in The New York Times on the book’s 50th anniversary in 2012, opined that “bookish girls tend to mark phases of their lives by periods of intense literary character identification” and “for those who came of age anytime during the past half-century, the most startling transformation occurred” upon reading this book. She went on, “It was under L’Engle’s influence that we willed ourselves to be like Meg Murry.”

But for African-American girls like me, identification with Meg was not as easy. Even as we saw parts of ourselves in Meg’s heroism, we also had to resist our own invisibility in a novel that was unable or unwilling to imagine any people of color as inhabitants of the many planets, including Earth, to which its characters traveled. Such racial myopia is not L’Engle’s alone. After much debate in the publishing industry, children’s literature is more diverse today than ever before but still is far from representative. Of some 3,500 children’s books received in 2017 by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 116 were by black authors and 319 were about African-American characters, the center said. In the 1980s, I had even fewer choices. So instead of seeing my full self in Meg, I ended up cherry-picking the traits to which I could relate: her bravery and intelligence, or even more rare her feelings of abandonment and anger caused by her father’s absence.

Ayana Mathis, the African-American author of the best-selling novel “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” had a similar disconnect with this novel even though it remains her favorite book, alongside Mildred D. Taylor’s “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” (1976).

“My thoughts on the book have nothing to do with my identifying with Meg,” Mathis told me in a phone interview. “But I was intellectually challenged by it in a way that few books written for my age group at the time did. It expanded me but it also scared me and not with cheap thrills, but because it asked such compelling questions about evil. IT was a brain that was frightening and instructive.”

It was only when director Ava DuVernay announced that Storm Reid would play Meg as a biracial girl in the screen adaptation that my relationship with the character started to change. Reid described Meg as “an African-American girl that is smart, that is beautiful and that basically realizes that she is enough.” Through this awareness, the actress added, Meg “just taps into her superpowers to be able to save her dad, her brother and save the world.”

This revision — alongside the film’s broader multiracial cast, which includes Mindy Kaling, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Reese Witherspoon and Oprah Winfrey — not only expands the feminist reach of L’Engle’s original vision, but also directly challenges the overwhelming absence of girls of color as leads in Hollywood films in general, and science-fiction films in particular. As recently as 2012, controversy greeted Amandla Stenberg when she played Rue in the first “Hunger Games” movie. Rue was a black character in the dystopian novel it was based on, but fans seemed not to realize it and complained loudly about the casting. Reid’s turn as Meg, by contrast, seems to have only increased fan anticipation for the movie.

More radically, DuVernay’s choice for Meg helps redefine our notions of the universal. Rather than assume children of color will seamlessly identify with Meg as we do with the book or with the young, white heroines of the “Hunger Games” or “Divergent” franchises, this film gives us a different, racially inflected female future and present.

And that changes how I now appreciate the book.

It is still my favorite from childhood, but now, rather than contort myself into Meg, I am able to see how the novel’s play with time and space continues to influence me as an African-American writer. I’m obsessed with how people, events and cultural objects from the past shape our understandings of race and gender in the present. “A Wrinkle in Time” might not ask the same questions that I do now, but it was the first novel I ever read that explored multiple time dimensions and gave me permission to imagine history as incomplete, unfolding, and a phenomenon with hopes that can be taken up by successive generations. After I was done with the novel this time, I put my copy on my 5-year-old daughter’s bookshelf, for I am comforted by what she is now able to find in “A Wrinkle in Time.” Though we contemporary viewers and readers are unable to engage in interplanetary travel like Meg, DuVernay’s version takes us somewhere even more substantive. By emphasizing diversity over dystopia, her film does not simply warn against the dangers of who we might become, but celebrates the vast richness of who we are.