The City of Folding Faces by Jayinee Basu

the city

By Nicole  Yurcaba

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Jayinee Basu’s The City of Folding Faces explores a multitude of themes relevant to our own current American society. Mara, the novel’s main character, is an everyperson of sorts. Her struggle as a Ruga—a subculture composed of those individuals who have uploaded themselves into a conscience-expanding system that defies human limits known as Roulette—to communicate to her non-Ruga boyfriend, Arlo, provokes the reader to think about the discrimination of transgenders in the military and the workplace as they appear in day after day in our own world. For example, at one point in the novel a news release states that “Belgium has proposed a bill banning Ruga individuals from being employed in governmental positions” (66). This ban effects Hanne, Arlo’s one-time lover and a Ruga who suppresses her dimensional dysphoria by using a nasal spray she developed, who left Belgium but eventually decides to return. More importantly, the fictional ban echoes the Trump Administration’s 2019 transgender military ban of nearly 15,000 transgender troops serving in the military, as well as the subsequent follow-ups by military academies to ban transgenders from enlistment, all of which cited gender dysphoria as a reason for the block.

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Hanne’s character in the novel opens the discussion regarding what lengths people go to in order to conceal or deny their identities, a discussion that is more and more important in American society where discriminatory public policies regarding transgenders and others of the LGBTQ+ community often force people into emotional, even mental, seclusion. Though the novel does not focus on Hanne’s struggle with her Ruga identity, it alludes to the struggle, since the reader sees Hanne utilizing a nasal spray that she developed in order to suppress her Ruga tendencies, and the reader experiences, along with Hanne, the painful effects of identity suppression. At one point, in an attempt to help Mara, Arlo asks Hanne to give him access to the nasal spray, though the spray has not been federally approved for public use, and Arlo is unaware of Hanne’s Ruga identity and her use of the spray.

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While Hanne makes the choice to return to Belgium under dangerous and hostile conditions, Mara makes the choice to undergo a radical, figure-changing surgery that modifies her face in order to express the inexpressible. The surgery, nonetheless, has consequences: Ruga are increasingly ostracized, discriminated against in the workplace, and ultimately banned from the rest of society. Mara also grapples with the loss of her relationship with her boyfriend, Arlo. Again, an informed reader might think of the Trump Administration’s transgender military ban. Theoretically, under the Administration’s ban, those transgender individuals who have already enlisted and serving can stay in the military, as long as they are out and have a diagnosis. However, many transgenders—much like the Ruga in Basu’s novel—fear promotion denial, deployment denial, or forced discharge.

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At a turning point in the novel, Mara leaves Arlo to live with not only a group of Ruga, but also the creator of Roulette, who struggled with dimensional dysphoria and desired to create a safe place for Ruga members. For awhile, it seems that Mara and Roulette’s creator will form a creator-creation romance. What happens is a shock: Mara eventually returns to Arlo, after stealing her memory files from Roulette’s creator, and Arlo becomes a character that many might see as the antithesis of American society’s attitudes towards those who choose otherness, a different or new identity, etc.: accepting, welcoming, and progressive in his attitudes: “Some people grow steadily, like a tree. Others are like volcanic rock, the accumulated sediment of serial eruptions. Arlo was an analog vine creeping along the violently digital protrusion of her existence” (98). Thus, Arlo, in one person, represents the many Americans and citizens of other nations who have opened their homes, their hearts, and their lives, to love and acceptance, such GLAAD and other local and national support groups for those who are transitioning.

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Basu’s novel is brief, sparse, and open, and the openness allows the reader to interpret and engage with the novel at superficial, metaphorical, philosophical, and even spiritual levels. The City of Folding Faces allows readers to enter a society radically similar—maybe even radically prophetic—yet different from our own, where the issues and choices those of otherness face are real and every day. The novel also implicitly asks the reader to search within themselves to find the answers to difficult questions posed by the acceptance of otherness, as depicted by Arlo’s eventual acceptance of Mara’s Ruga identity, and society’s eventual tailoring of itself to meet individual needs. At both the figurative, the personal, the universal level, The City of Folding Faces asks “What’s next?” When interpreted through the current lens of American social and political issues, The City of Folded Faces becomes a must-read for those engaged in discussions regarding identity, fluidity and even race.

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You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07PVCW7FS/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_taft_p1_i1

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Nicole Yurcaba is a Ukrainian-American poet and essayist, who teaches at Bridgewater College and serves as the Assistant Director to the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Atlanta Review, The Lindenwood Review, Whiskey Island, Raven Chronicles, and many other online and print journals. While her poems often focus on Ukrainian culture and the Ukrainian diaspora experience, her essays primarily focus on US Army Special Forces. She lives in West Virginia, and she holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University.

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