Randy Ribay’s AN INFINITE NUMBER OF PARALLEL UNIVERSES and YA Participation in Rape Culture

From the moment I heard about it, I was excited to read Randy Ribay’s An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes. Nerd stuff? Check. Gay stuff? Check. Filipino author writing characters of color? Oh yeah. It’s been promoted at places like We Need Diverse Books and The Pirate Tree as an excellent example of what needs to be happening in YA literature.

There was much that I liked about it, too. The writing is poetic and urgent, the characters are complex and richly developed, and the road trip that the four protagonists take is an excellent coming-of-age journey.

The story follows four friends whose friendship is no deeper than playing Dungeons and Dragons once a week at the home of Mari, a biracial, adopted girl reeling from some difficult news. There’s also Archie, a white guy whose father recently came out as gay; Dante, a Black teen who’s struggling with his own coming out; and Sam, a young Filipino man recently dumped by his longtime girlfriend. The four set out on a cross-country trip to try to catch up with Sam’s girlfriend and possibly win her back, in the process deepening their friendship. I was thoroughly enjoying the book.

Until they reached Minnesota.

Trigger warning: sexual harassment/assault

Along the way, they make a stop at a home in Minnesota, recommended by a hitchhiker they picked up as a safe place. Upon arriving, the place most definitely does not seem very safe. They come upon “four men reclining in lawn chairs around a bonfire, drinking from red plastic cups” (163). Soon after inquiring with the name they were given, they’re told they don’t know anyone by either the hitchhiker’s or the supposed homeowner’s name—and that they’re trespassing. Then things get real disturbing:

[Archie] starts to back up but then bumps into someone. He turns around and comes face to face with the other two guys who, having left their places at the fire, must have circled around and snuck up behind them. One is skinny and short, grinning to reveal gleaming, white teeth. The other is fat and unsmiling.

The bearded guy takes a puff from his pipe, still seated at the fire. “They have to pay the price.”

“Fuck you,” Sam says. He moves to walk away, but the fat guy blocks his path. Sam stares him down but thinks better of it and rejoins his friends.

“As we were saying,” says the skinny guy, still smirking. “The price.”

“What is it?” Archie asks. “We don’t have much money.”

The skinny guy looks over at the bearded guy who nods.

“Her,” the skinny guy says, tilting his chin toward Mari. (164).

Mari then stands up for herself, prompting the “bearded guy” to get up, stand creepily close to Mari, and sniff her hair. Archie says, “Don’t even think about touching her,” to which the “skinny guy” replies, “Too late” (165).

The tone here is one that implies sexual assault, at least very plainly to me. Mari is threatened, seriously, with rape. Until the men start laughing, shrugging off the whole scene with a “We’re just fucking with you.”

It turns out, the four men are actually two gay couples, they definitely know Sunshine (the hitchhiker), and they’re happy to have the four friends stay for the evening.

As I read this scene, I was literally shaking—first with fear for what was going to happen to Mari, and then abruptly with rage at the sheer awfulness of four gay men making such terrible, ominous threats as a “joke.” I had to set the book aside and take a few breaths before being able to continue. And then, the tone shifts at breakneck speed into a happy-go-lucky party.

There is no recognition of the horror of this scene. Once it’s over, the four road-tripping friends happily mingle with the four gay guys, swimming late into the night, drinking, and crashing until they can continue the next morning. Not a word is said about how terrifying and terrible the way the groups were introduced was. The “rape joke” is shrugged off and glossed over completely, even by Mari. It’s completely ignored. No one says “sorry,” or, “That wasn’t okay,” or “Are you okay, Mari?” or even “Hey, that was a dick move.”

Look, I’m no naïf. I know that men—especially young men—make jokes like this all the time. This is why we have developed the concept of rape culture: it’s pervasive. Sexual assault is everywhere, and it’s considered “normal.” You can shrug my anger off by saying, “it’s realistic.” Sure. But a book that is being marketed and applauded as a remarkable example of diversity—and particularly, intersectionality—can’t ignore the fact that it’s so completely steeped in patriarchy that horrifying references to sexual assault are reduced to being unworthy of conversation.

It’s not like Ribay doesn’t recognize that harmful content shouldn’t go unaddressed in his book, either. At one point, Archie calls Dante a “fag,” and Mari calls him on it. Archie is made to apologize. Look, slurs are terrible, but honestly, “joking” about raping someone is worse. Yet, the former is the one that needs to be addressed in Ribay’s book; the latter is conveniently glossed over.

Mari is a biracial, Black woman. She is literally the kind of woman Kimberlé Crenshaw had in mind when she developed the idea of intersectionality. And for all of its buzzword-y appeal in this moment, Crenshaw calls us to remember that the intersection of race and gender oppression is a very dangerous place to stand. The audacity of four (presumably White) gay men making such demeaning and scary advances on a woman of color without a word is something that I’m unwilling to let go unaddressed. In particular, I want to point out something that many other people have pointed out before me (here’s the Crunk Feminist Collective on a situation that deals with similar themes—the Azealia Banks/Perez Hilton brouhaha): gay men don’t get a pass on sexism. Again, for the people in the back: GAY. MEN. DON’T. GET. A. PASS. ON. SEXISM.

And yet, that’s exactly what’s happening here. The four gay men get to presume access to Mari’s body in order to make a joke, and when they’re done, it’s like it never happened. Their world gets back to normal. Ribay writes a biracial girl without thinking about the concerns that a biracial girl might have after having thought that she was in a dangerous situation. I can’t imagine that a biracial girl like Mari, after having been in this situation, would have actually been okay with staying with these men for the rest of the night. It’s almost as though any of Mari’s reactions don’t matter.

I think this book participates in the sexism of the YA in a particularly terrible way. It’s not exactly a new realization that YA exists in the patriarchy, and patriarchy exists in YA. Please see Justine Larbalestier on awards, Kelly Jensen on honoring girls’ stories, and Tessa Gratton on the Andrew Smith debacle for just a tiny introduction to this pervasive problem.

Honestly, I found the whole book kind of sugarcoated in male privilege. Archie is pretty much an asshole throughout the entire book, especially toward women, and he’s rewarded for it. Also, their journey is about Sam trying to get back with a girl who’s made it very clear that she’s no longer interested, ending with the realization that (spoiler!) he was actually the good one in the relationship. The sexual harassment of Mari in Minnesota is merely the most egregious example.

I’m not going to say that’s it’s not okay to like this book. Rachael at the Social Justice League has offered advice on how to be a fan of problematic things, if you have a different interpretation or reaction to this scene. What I am very concerned about is the fact that I have not seen any reaction to this scene, anywhere. Ribay’s book has been been hailed as the next big thing in LGBTQ and racially diverse fiction. (And it really does make important contributions there!) But it has serious problems with unproblematically assuming rape culture as a given. And for that, I can’t see myself recommending it as a “diverse book.”

You don’t get to write a diverse book as though biracial girls don’t matter. You don’t get to write a diverse book and have it participate in rape culture.

Spoiler ahead in next paragraph.

Also, there’s something a bit uncomfortable about men with wives writing books with gay characters that end with a gay-bashing (*cough* Andrew Smith *cough*), but I’ll just leave that there.