Thursday, February 8, 2024

Novella Project: To the Woman in the Pink Hat

A futuristic exploration of contemporary race and gender issues woven into a both disturbing and relatable tale. 

Set in a near future America, which feels futuristic and as well as current, To the Woman in the Pink Hat is a story that challenges our views on morality and justice. Jada is a young, Black woman with a supportive family and a bright future ahead of her. But when Jada is convicted of a terrible crime (one which she fully admits to committing) she gets the option of an alternative sentence. Instead of spending her life in prison, she has the chance to live in a state of the art rehabilitation center designed to reform convicted young women of color into future leaders in society. Like many of the other program participants, Jada is both a victim of and a perpetrator of a horrific crime. All of the criminal inmates are referred to by the title “Leader” so the facility’s staff refer to Jada as “Leader Jada.” This is a brilliantly creepy way to open the story. Jada and her fellow inmates sarcastically compare the center to college. Young people of color sleep in dorms, eat at a dining hall, and attend classes on a range of subjects including politics, botany, and martial arts. They are constantly being evaluated to determine their aptitudes and their potential future “leadership” path in society.

The vibe of the facility feels like that of a dystopian version of an HBCU. But what is really going on in this rehabilitation center? Each title of respect and each exchange of therapeutic encouragement also carries an underlying threat. Some of the classes the inmates must take don’t align with leadership responsibilities. And most of all, it is clear that while the “leaders” have some elements of self-determination, they really have no true freedom.

The narrative begins with Jada in a counseling session with her AI therapist Ayana who wants Jada to come to terms with her crime and her victim. Ayana is an artificial intelligence originally designed to look like a graying, kindly, older Black woman. She is designed for Jada’s comfort since, due to the crime committed against her, Jada cannot abide a white therapist. However, because of new rules relating to AI transparency, Ayana has some of her physical features stripped so that she looks partly robotic in the therapy session. The visual of Ayana that Jada describes is jarring, and the initial scene grounds us in the dichotomy of truth versus fakeness that permeates the story. With this setup in the opening pages, we may think we know how this story is going to unfold. It feels like a classic dystopian institutional setting with an inevitable path to racism and oppression. But the tale takes an unexpected direction, particularly by the end, and circles back to the opening themes of justice versus retribution, self-determination versus manipulation, and accountability versus guilt. 

To the Woman in the Pink Hat efficiently weaves multiple layers of racial and gender social commentary through Jada’s lived experiences. Authentic connection, support, and beliefs are contrasted with artificial or superficial responses. The title of the story references the superficial, performative ally-ship symbolized by the knitted pink hat worn by someone who seemed to be an ally. Other reminders of falseness are quietly and deftly sewn into the story’s setting, including the unappetizing dining hall food called printloaf and the center’s artificial but life-like window scenery used to create a false sense of connection with the outside world. 

In contrast, the story shows us genuine family bonds through Jada’s relationship with her father, her younger sisters, and memories of her late mother. We also see the friendships Jada forms with the other inmates. However, the primary conflict in the story is the terrible racial and gender based crime perpetrated against Jada (and other women) as well as her equally terrible response which landed her in prison. Jada never denies her guilt and always expresses regret. The problematic inconsistency in the story is Jada herself. She is at times strong, resilient, and pragmatic, and at other times naïve and irrational, and at other times, cunningly rage-filled and vengeful. This frustrating contradiction in the main character ironically keeps us hooked because we genuinely don’t know what she will do or say next as each scene unfolds. 

  The twisty ending is powerful and unsettling, returning to the concept of self-determination versus manipulation, as well as grief and violence versus accountability. Overall, the story is a powerful allegory of well-intentioned but performative emptiness contrasted with the larger concept of the rage of a dream deferred. To the Woman in the Pink Hat is both brilliant and unsettling, leaving us with difficult questions to ponder and even more difficult answers to absorb.


Highlights: Futuristic but relatable, contradictory protagonist, efficiently addresses multiple layers of racial and gender social commentary

 Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Jordan, LaToya, To The Woman in the Pink Hat, [Aqueduct Press, 2023]

POSTED BY: Ann Michelle Harris – Multitasking, fiction writing Trekkie currently dreaming of her next beach vacation.