#RivetingReviews: Anna Blasiak reviews RUDE GIRL by Birgit Weyhe

This is a story within a story. Or one story and then another story about telling the first story. Whichever way you look at it, both layers are equally important. It’s also quite fascinating how Birgit Weyhe brings them together, clashes them, uses one to counterpoint the other.

The first story is of Priscilla Layne (in the book the character is called Crystal), an African American professor of German studies, of Caribbean origins. She is too white for the Black kids at school and too Black for  the white ones. They call her ‘Oreo,’ i.e. black on the outside, white on the inside. Crystal’s identity and life form a complicated, at times uncomfortable patchwork. Feeling rejected by all, the girl rebels. That rebellion turns her into a skinhead, the ‘rude girl’ from the title.

Priscilla Layne’s/Crystal’s story is told by a white German graphic novelist, Birgit Weyhe. This is Weyhe’s eight book, the one before being Madgermanes (reviewed here) which focused on the stories of people from Mozambique coming to East Germany in 1970s and 1980s to provide cheap labour. That book scored Weyhe some major awards, but also caused uproar – she was accused of cultural appropriation. Is it ok for a white author to tell stories of Black people? This question returns in Rude Girl and forms the second layer of the book, a kind of a frame for the main story. So we have a story of the ‘Oreo’ girl who is too black for the white ones and too white for the black ones, intertwined with a story of a white writer telling a story of a black person and receiving comments from her protagonist on how she tells her story.

Weyhe notices the absurdity of the accusation of cultural appropriation. “In the future, I’ll just write about middle-aged, white women from northern Germany.” But later she rebuts herself, “Eventually I decided to turn [the interview with Priscilla Layne] into a book. About the life of an extraordinary woman who is neither white, middle-aged nor from northern Germany.”

Crystal is bullied at school, not allowed by her family to dress the way she wants to, not allowed to play sports she wants to play. But she refuses to be a Caribbean girl. She dreams of being Indiana Jones and fighting the Nazis. She wants to learn German. Her imaginary friend is Kevin from Home Alone. When she tells a teacher about her cousin sexually abusing her, the family turns on her. Nobody wants to believe her, everybody pities the cousin, not her. She takes him to court, but loses and is forever scared of meeting him. This is the beginning of her panic attacks. It also means losing contact with the entire extended family and having to move to a different part of the city with her mother. 

She speaks the wrong language – doesn’t fit with the Afro Americans. She is not religious and is not oriented on wealth – doesn’t fit with the middle class Blacks. “What’s more divisive, race or class?,” she asks.

Crystal’s story of feeling alien on lots of levels also unfolds through music, marked here by the snippets of songs and covers of vinyl albums. Changing music also demarcates different periods in her life. First it’s Wendy Alleyne and The Dynamics, Bob Marley & The Wailers and Jackson 5. Then it’s The Cure and The Clash. Eventually, it’s Sex Pistols, The Exploited and The Beat. There is also Caribbean music: Calypso Rose, Marry Belafonte, The Escorts, Calypso Cavalcade. There are formative films too: Edward Scissorhands, Indiana Jones, Home Alone and Jurassic Park.

The two layers of the story are different visually. The story of Crystak is black and white plus mustard yellow and orange, while the Weyhe’s layer is just orange. Four-colour chapters are intertwined with the orange ones. As you can imagine, colour in this story is of particular importance.

In one of the Weyhe’s sections Layne says, “You haven’t been using skin colour in the drawings. That implies a kind of ‘post-racial’ society. That would mean skin colour doesn’t matter and prejudice and discrimination no longer exists, But everywhere in the world we see the opposite. We can’t look past the division in society. That’s why I think it’d be better if you made skin colour clearly visible in the comic. But I don’t want you to colour people completely black, like in your early comics. Then their facial expressions are restricted and it reminds me of blackface. I like when you combine two colours, like you’ve done in other comics. That’s actually the best solution.”

As the reader goes through the book, the visual set up of intertwining chapters changes according to Layne’s feedback. So we do get skin colour, eventually.

Weyhe’s layer concludes with the author admitting that she has learned a lot from working with Layne. She has learned about her privilege, not only stemming from race but also from class. “At the start of the book, I thought depicting Crystal’s feelings of being excluded and being different was central. I understood her experience as related to immigration and race. But Crystal also suffered from poverty and class barriers.”

“I wish […] that everyone could have the freedom to tell a story from the perspective of a different gender, skin color, religion or class. I wish for us to perceive the world around us as observers and learners. And that we can talk about it, make mistakes and admit to them.”

Reviewed by Anna Blasiak

RUDE GIRL

By Birgit Weyhe

Translated by Priscilla Layne

Published by V&Q Books (2024)

March 2024 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Anna Blasiak is a poet, writer, translator and Managing Editor of the European Literature Network. Recently she translated According to Her by Maciej Hen (shortlisted to the EBRD Literature Prize 2023), published a bilingual poetry and photography book with Lisa Kalloo Café by Wren’s St-James-in-the-Fields, Lunchtime, and a book-length interview with a Holocaust survivor, Lili: Lili Stern-Pohlmann in conversation with Anna Blasiak.

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Category: March 2024Reviews

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