‘A Wrinkle in Time’ Is a Radical Reimagining of What It Means to Be a Hero
How Ava Duvernay’s diverse casting of a ‘Wrinkle in Time’ gives the novel new meaning
My father read to my brother and me every night and the book we had him read over and over was Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Eventually, we would move on to other books like The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and even The Hobbit but I would always come back to L’Engle. A Wrinkle in Timewas the first ‘big book’ I read all by myself. And I read it over and over. I felt that it belonged to me and I to it. Meg Murry belonged to me and I identified with her in a way I couldn’t with other heroes in other books and not just because she was a girl although that was a large part of it. It was nearly impossible to find books with a girl as main heroic character and it’s still rarer than it should be. And Meg is a smart girl who isn’t simply the chosen one with special powers, but a brave person who figures things out and just keeps fighting even when things turn against her. Even when friends and family turn against her. And her mother was a scientist. So was her missing father, but it was and still is remarkable to have a mother in a book who’s a scientist. ‘Men are scientists, not women’ is a message young girls receive every day from every part of the world. I wanted to be a scientist and L’Engle made that seem possible. I wanted to be a hero and Meg Murry showed me I could be that too.
When I was seven or eight, after my parents divorced and my father quit teaching at the university and everything had fallen apart. I (and my little brother) with a great deal of help from my Dad, wrote a letter to Madeleine L’Engle asking if we could make a movie of her book. I would, of course, play Meg. My brother, maybe, would play Charles Wallace, although he wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about it. We knew nothing about how movies were made, the astronomical sums of money involved. At that point, my father was living in an ancient, falling-down house on a horse farm. It had no heat except for a wood-burning stove and holes in the roof. The owner of the horse farm wanted to be a patron of the arts of sorts and my father, the writer and english professor, was chosen. In exchange for living rent-free in the house, he would fix it up a bit. We barely had money for groceries or clothes much less a movie-making budget.
Madeleine L’Engle wrote us back. At least six pages of handwritten letter (I remember it as twelve, but it was probably more like six) telling us about her travels (she was in Africa at the time) and how much she’d love to make a movie with us, but to think about the kinds of movies that get made and how terrible A Wrinkle in Time movie would probably be. I remember being terribly disappointed, but I also remember her words about the realities of film-making: the people who would make the book into the movie she and I would want it to be, people like me, don’t have the money. And the people who have enough money to make it, wouldn’t make the movie we’d want to see. It’s not a direct quote. I don’t have the letter. My father doesn’t have it. We moved (my mother and my father separately) over twenty times after that across three states. Things were lost. Almost everything was lost. But I remember that.
Before their divorce, my parents along with several other young couples at the university (at that time that meant fathers who were professors and wives who were not) decided to create a Montessori school for their kids. They found teachers who were progressives and hippies like themselves and very much in line with the Montessori theory of education: that children want to learn and learning should be fun for them.
It became clear to my parents quickly that this school and its students were looking awfully white and homogenous. My parents had settled far from their racist parents in Jackson, Mississippi and were committed to raising us to be little civil rights activists. They wanted us to grow up around a diverse group of people. We went to the public pool rather than the all-white private pools or country clubs. My mother, once a devout Christian who had read the Bible twice by the time she was in high school, left her Baptist church over its racism, which she knew from her own readings was antithetical to Jesus’s teachings. Her church regularly sent missionaries to Africa to ‘educate and convert’ young African children to Christianity. When one of these converted young men was accepted to a university in Mississippi, he naturally wanted to visit and worship in the church that had changed his life. When he reached the doors of Calvary Baptist Church, he was turned away and even threatened with violence. Even after he had explained who he was and had met with some of the missionaries who had helped to convert him, he was told that he couldn’t enter the church because he was black. My mother said it was this incident that made her turn away from the church that had been the center of her life, forever. The hypocrisy was untenable to my mother who tends to see the world in wrong/right binaries, a very Christian outlook.
My parents reached out to staff at the university (very few professors, which is still, unfortunately, the very white reality at most universities) and found parents willing to send their children to their fledgling Montessori. Every Sunday night, my parents would work to help convert the church that had agreed to donate space into a school and then back again on Saturday. It was a labor of love for all of them and it changed all of us kids. Instead of a rigid, authoritarian public school, we learned at our own pace and we loved it. University professors volunteered their time and taught us whatever we wanted to know about cell biology or evolution or astronomy. And we were not all white. My friends were Black, white, Asian-American, Native American. I regularly stayed over at the home of one of my best friends who was black and he stayed at my house. It never occurred to me that this was unusual. My parents had explained racism to me but it seemed like something that was in the deep past or at a safe distance because for me it was.They had warned their own parents about passing their racism onto us, that if they made racist remarks around us, they wouldn’t get to see their grandchildren. My parents understood something that many white people have forgotten or obscured with their insistence that ‘they don’t see color’: Fighting racism is an ongoing battle, even for white people. It is real work. Racism is built into every part of our culture and our lives so we have to actively search it out in our own behaviors and thoughts, to dismantle it.They could have easily looked at the all-white student body of their early Montessori and shrugged that it would be too hard to find a diverse group of students or that they could work on it later once the school was up and running. They didn’t. They did the work and my life was richer for it.
(You may be thinking that this means I’m not a racist, that my parents aren’t, but that’s not this story. I’m a white person in America, my racism runs so deep it’s impossible to scrub out. I’m still working on it.)
When my parents divorce blew our worlds to bits, my father lost his tenure-track university job and started bartending, eventually finding work on an oil rig and we could no longer afford to attend the Montessori school they started. My mother took whatever jobs she could get, usually unstable jobs like substitute teaching. We entered the world of the poor and poverty in America is deeply racialized. While in our Montessori school, having children who weren’t white enrolled took active work, entering the world of public schools in the poor districts meant that my classes were diverse by default. Until my parents began to claw their way slowly into the middle class when I was in junior high when my mother rented a house just inside a richer school district even though we were really living in the university’s student slums. By a block.
In the south, instead of outright segregation, racial tracking is often used to segregate schools along color lines. When I went to junior high, most of my friends, and every single one of my friends who were black, went to a different junior high that looked more like the schools I was used to. My new school was a terrifying and gigantic space full of predominantly ‘rich’ kids who were almost all white, who wore clothing and jewelry I could never afford. Despite my high standardized test scores, because I had gone to a ‘poor’ elementary school, I was tracked into remedial classes and had to fight my way into honors classes where I believed I belonged. The other junior high didn’t even have honors classes so by the time most of us were dumped back into the same gigantic high school, my old friends were tracked into remedial classes while me and most of the white kids from the richer junior high tracked into honors and AP classes, which were even in an entirely different part of the high school. The damage was done.
I could have fought to reclaim those friendships, but I was trying to survive high school and get myself into a good college with a scholarship. In other words, I wasn’t willing to do the work. I didn’t even know at the time that the work could be and needed to be done. It was just the way things were and it was invisible to me. I was the definition of white privilege and I was going to work that privilege as hard I could to overcome our poverty, my queerness and woman-ness. I didn’t even notice that I had ended up in the scene in A Wrinkle in Time where Meg finds herself in a suburb full of people all alike, where any derivation from the norm meant punishment and removal. I was trying so hard not to be that deviant that I became part of the problem instead of being Meg or even an ally to Meg. I still am. I’m still trying to survive. We all are. But I’m trying harder, trying to keep my eyes open and do the work.
(Is it the same faith children have that they could tesser across the galaxy that makes us think at that age that blackness or whiteness don’t matter? That racism can be defeated because we are white and those we love and want the world for are not? I see too many people holding onto this faith (I’m colorblind!) in the face of overwhelming systemic racism. It’s a lovely dream, but it is not reality and insisting it is (even for you) only reinforces that system of racism that counts on all of us white people being blind to it.)
I was disappointed when I saw that A Wrinkle in Time was finally going to be made into a movie. I was positive the film-makers, the studios would mess it up as L’Engle predicted they would. Until I saw who was directing it — Ava Duvernay, whose Selma was an absolute work of genius. Then I was only wary. It’s still MY book, my childhood, after all. Even Ms. Duvernay, I was certain, couldn’t do it justice. I have very distinct memories of these books that are almost as clear (sometimes moreso) than my own memories. Then the trailer was released and didn’t match my memories of the book (actually the biggest mismatch for me is the witches who I’d imagined as odd almost ethereal crones — especially Ms. Which — instead of fierce, glamorous warrior women) but it brought all the same feelings to the surface I had on every reading as a kid: from soaring and cheering for my hero, Meg, to crying my eyes out. It looks like Duvernay made it better than I ever could by remaining true to the spirit of the book instead of the details. No one could ever get those details right because they belong to everyone who ever read and loved it enough to imagine it fully.
(It’s difficult. With people like Meg Murry or more recently, Lena Waithe, who is a queer woman so I want to claim her as another queer woman but I am white and she is black so this feels dangerous. Like cultural appropriation, like ownership. It feels violent. But we white queer women need to see these stories as part of our own, as queer women. Maybe the problem is the claiming. Is there a way to claim stories, to inhabit them and understand them as part of our own without ownership? Maybe this is worth thinking about because the current way of thinking about stories and narratives and the way we interact with them is damaged and damaging. Like the boys and men who claim the Star Wars canon belongs solely to them and that women or POC wanting to be a part of that narrative or just to enjoy it is somehow stealing something from them. They react violently to what they see as an act of violence because they believe and have been told that the story is theirs. A thing they can own like a car. Or a laptop. Is it because we have to pay to interact with these stories? I don’t want to own Meg Murry in the way that whiteness, that masculinity owns our culture, but that may not make any difference because the fact remains that I am a white woman. Is there a way to claim Meg Murry for all of us? I think/hope that is what Ava Duvernay is doing with A Wrinkle in Time.)
It was the racist backlash over the casting (read the disgusting comments on any announcement or discussion of Duvernay’s attachment to the project or the casting of Storm as Meg if you can stand the stench) that finally made me a convert. Yes, Meg was mine and I’m white, but that doesn’t mean I want or expect Meg to be white like me. And I certainly don’t want bigots to own or claim her in any way. Meg is mine but she is also ours. And by ours I mean all the weird fierce girls and boys who wanted and want to be heroes. The racists, the bigots, the haters can’t have Meg. They are everything she was fighting. A Wrinkle In Time is, at it’s base, a story about a young girl triumphing over the monster of authoritarianism. It is radical. It’s necessary. Even now. Especially now. Trump and his xenophobic, racist, misogynist followers are IT. I see the fight this time and I won’t back down when they come for Meg Murry. When they come for my friends, I don’t have the witches or a tesseract, but I’ve got time.