Why I Hate The Sparrow. A Lot.
- by Diana What -
“They meant no harm.”
—The Sparrow, Prologue
The Sparrow did not come to my attention until 2015, almost two decades after it was first published. I lay the blame for my late discovery of it at the feet of Tumblr, which I was addicted to, and where somehow I came across a very passionate post by a fellow person of colour about how they felt personally betrayed that Matt Damon had obtained the rights to the book and wanted to cast himself as the protagonist, Emilio Sandoz.
Intrigued, and in an unusually good financial situation, I decided to pick the book up on Kindle.
In hindsight, I feel like the Matt Damon thing was a warning sign.
At least for the moment, they all fell in love with God. But Emilio Sandoz fell hardest of all, letting his fear and doubt go almost physically, his hands opening as everyone else clutched at controls or straps or armrests or someone else's hand[. . .] [I]t seemed only natural that he should move into the airlock and open the hatch and step out alone [. . .] and fall to his knees weeping with the joy of it when, after a long courtship, he felt the void fill and believed with all his heart that his love affair with God had been consummated.
—The Sparrow, pg. 229
I learned my grandmother was Christian when I was around 18 years old. To be fair, neither of us are particularly well-versed in expressing ourselves in Mandarin, Taiwan’s official language, but as my cousin pointed out, “She has a picture of Jesus on the wall.”
I don't have a relationship with God, but this passage hit me in a surprisingly tender part of my heart. One of the misconceptions that plague me as an asexual is the idea that my lack of interest in sex means that I am fated to end up sad and alone, utterly loveless.
Asexuality is not a choice, not like celibacy. That’s something I struggle to make understood to people who don’t know much about asexuality, especially the people who love me the most and worry that I will never be able to live my fullest life without a romantic partner. Their concern is so omnipresent in my life that sometimes I wonder if maybe they’re right. Maybe what I really need is to find a husband to fill my life in all the ways a husband can.
But here was Emilio Sandoz, falling in love with God! Here was a person who had chosen, who chooses over and over not to succumb to the narrow idea of love being tied to only romance, friendship, love, duty—someone who loves and is loved by a found family of his own making. It was profoundly validating to follow along emotionally with Emilio as he literally left the Earth behind to travel toward some unknown but promising new world. To me, Emilio was someone who knew the struggle of finding themselves sexless in a world where the height of love is often expressed with physical consummation. I loved seeing him achieve his own kind of spiritual consummation through his love of God.
The fact that his entire journey wouldn’t have been possible without the contributions of his friends and Jesuit ‘family’ made this moment even more significant for me. The idea that this connection to a higher plane of love and self-discovery was possible because of one’s friends and family is one that is very appealing to me—as someone who never intends to find a romantic partner. It brought me to tears that he “[let go of] his fear and doubt” and “felt the void fill.” I wanted that. I wanted that.
Since I read on the Kindle, it was something of a shock to realize this passage is located in Chapter 19 of 32, not far from the halfway point of the book. The second I became aware of this, a coldness seeped into my soul. After all, if this moment was not the book’s emotional endgame, what was? In ninth-grade English, my teacher always drew the shape of the story using a line that curved sharply upwards before cresting and turning its nose down, drawing the steep path of an upside-down smile.
Plus, I hadn’t yet forgotten that in the first chapter that Emilio himself appears, the reader meets him after he has been taken back to Earth—not under his own power, not in triumphant return, but broken and shamed and without the friends or family he had left with. The world’s media clamoured for the hidden details of his return and his Jesuit brothers could barely contain their disdain.
It is after seeing Emilio in this state that we are brought back into time to the beginning of his story to watch him come into his own, make jokes and friends, wrestle with the meaning of his life and his place in the world, and fall in love. His spiritual consummation with God is the pinnacle of his story of discovery—which meant the next thirteen chapters were going to show me how Emilio Sandoz was brought back to Earth as less than the individual he had been when he’d left.
So, I skipped right to the end of the book to see what happened to him.
Oddly, it was men who'd left the active priesthood to marry who were the most eloquent about celibacy. It was as though, having given up the struggle themselves, they could more freely acknowledge the value of it. And it was in the words of one such priest that Emilio had found the clearest description of the Pearl of Great Price: a humaneness beyond sexuality, love beyond loneliness, sexual identity grounded in faithfulness, courage, generosity.
—The Sparrow, pg. 194
I hate the word ‘virgin.’ There is no room for love in the way the word is applied to people, just like the word ‘slut.’
For young female-identified people, these are words are often used to shame and demonize. A young woman’s innocence and goodness, her path to God and to heaven, can be destroyed with just the insinuation that she is no longer a virgin. Unless she is married, a Good Girl does not succumb to sexual deviance. She remains pure and unsullied, like a doll in mint condition, until God or her husband takes her.
Her love does not transcend boundaries. She plays her role dutifully, makes a family, and does not go on wild space adventures with a ragtag group of friends who love her, or find satisfaction in a life without a significant other.
Emilio Sandoz is not a woman, but I recognize the dichotomy of the Good Girl versus the Bad Girl (also known as the Madonna/Whore complex) in the way Emilio’s sexuality and the examination of it is the true core of the book. Every important event and conversation, every relationship, every moment of deep introspection comes back to that topic: Emilio’s sexual and/or emotional availability (or lack thereof).
Emilio considers his clerical celibacy often, speaks frankly about masturbation, and is forced to confront his celibacy because of his attraction to Sofia Mendez, a beautiful, indentured servant from his past. Sandoz’s friend, Jimmy Quinn, initially blunders at flirting with Sofia, which is made more tragic when he realizes the connection that the two of them have: “But, Jesus, Anne, he’s a priest!” he cries when Anne Edwards, one of Emilio’s oldest friends, comes to comfort him.
Anne herself bonds with D.W. Yarborough, the gay Jesuit priest in charge of their mission to space, over their shared attraction to Emilio. (“It’s okay, she wanted to say. He’s easy to love.”) Her recognition of that attraction to Emilio, who is unavailable to her because of his celibacy, is contrasted to the wholesomeness of her relationship to her husband, George, and their sex life.
Emilio is attractive, he is loveable, but he is ultimately unavailable. In addition, his goodness, his virtue as a priest and the perceived quality of his spiritual connection to God, is measured by the purity of his celibacy. Of course, that is not all he is. Emilio’s character is laced with gentle humor, human fallibility, empathy and doubt—and, until he leaves the Earth, his remarkable ability to choose faith and hope. He is, as Anne says, extremely easy to love.
However, it’s not difficult to argue that his untouchability and dedication to his vows to God enhances both his appeal as a person and a man of faith, not unlike the Good Girl. It’s important that a significant amount of emotional tension is caused by whether or not he will give up on his vows as a priest to pursue his connection with Sofia, which he ultimately doesn’t.
It is in this way that The Sparrow sets up Emilio for his ultimate destruction.
“This is rich. This is very funny! You see, I was scared but I didn’t understand what was going on. I never imagined—who could have imagined such a thing? I am in God’s hands, I thought. I loved God and I trusted in His love. Amusing, isn’t it? I laid down all my defenses. I had nothing between me and what happened but the love of God. And I was raped. I was naked before God and I was raped.”
—The Sparrow, pg. 474
For days after I skipped to the end of The Sparrow, I laid awake at night unable to shake a profound sense of betrayal.
How could Mary Doria Russell write a beautiful, intelligent, and compassionate Latino protagonist, only to turn him into a victim of rape and bestiality?
Surely there must have been a better way to engineer a crisis of faith? Why rob Emilio of his dignity, his consent, and even his sexual autonomy in this way? Why make it so explicitly and violently sexual after so deliberately building him into a character filled with gentleness, love, and conscious celibacy?
I struggled with the horror of it, trying to make sense of it. The ending The Sparrow gave Emilio Sandoz was all of my worst dreams come to life—he had been violated, vilified, and stripped of love.
I want to be clear. This kind of sexual violence is never random, whether in real life or in fiction. Mary Doria Russell created a male protagonist of colour and had him raped by an alien species that she imagined to resemble kangaroos.
Let me ask you, if you loved the book and feel uncomfortable with me phrasing it this way, do you think this story would have been less poignant if it hadn’t involved his sexual violation? Would it have been more or less horrifying if her protagonist had been a woman? A white woman? A white man?
I wonder if my devastation in the wake of reading The Sparrow is equivalent to whatever you are feeling in response to your imagined white-protagonist version of this story. I wonder if it really helps explain how damaging it is to see race and sexuality and sexual assault written in such a way.
After all, the conclusion I can’t help but come to is that a non-white character was chosen for this tragic journey because it was too unmarketable for a white protagonist to go through it. That’s the best case scenario that I can think of, because the alternative is to think that this book’s popularity and many awards can be attributed to the systematic destruction of Emilio’s sense of self and of all the people and values he’d held dear . . . because something about a protagonist of colour being violated and stripped away appealed to those readers.
I wasn’t able to go back and finish reading the chapters I’d skipped. Out of morbid curiosity, I decided to read the Wikipedia article instead and uncovered another disturbing element of The Sparrow, one rooted in the idea of white Christian saviours (a concept related to white supremacy) and damaging stereotypes of native peoples.
Apparently the kangaroo aliens in the book are actually two species, a predator species that eats the other despite their physical similarities and a prey species that doesn’t fully recognize or bother to fight back against this state of affairs until the mission arrives on their planet.
The helplessness of the prey species is only highlighted by the casual depravity and abusiveness of the predator species. Not only do they eat their compatriots, but their music is so perverse as to elevate pornography (especially rape) into glorious works of music so wondrous that when it reaches Earth, Emilio thinks that it is God himself calling him out into space.
This chain of events leaves a bad taste in my mouth, because on top of making literal aliens the agents of Emilio’s fall from grace, it draws a direct link between Emilio’s love for God and his ultimate destruction. It’s almost like the book is trying to say that Emilio deserved it, for loving God more than he loved Sofia Mendes or Anne or D.W. For being so beautiful, yet so unattainable. For daring to want more than he has been given, for choosing for himself how he will move through life, and for looking for God where no one else wishes to look.
The worst of it, Sandoz said, was that he had loved God. Given that, Giuliani could see the tragedy: to fall so far from such a state of grace, to be on fire with God and let it go to ashes.
—The Sparrow, pg. 289
I reject this idea.
Emilio Sandoz deserved to be forgiven for his imperfections, honoured for his faithfulness. He deserved kindness, understanding, and choice. He deserved to love and be loved with humility and grace, and great wonder. He deserved to have his humanity acknowledged, treasured, and protected.
He deserved, as we all do, to not be forgotten. To not be torn to pieces in the name of some ideal created by someone else, to be forced to find himself lacking where he never imagined he might.
I believe, despite everything, that this is possible. I don't believe in God, but I believe in people.
Isn't that madness? We live in a timeline where we haven’t found proof of life beyond Earth, but our world leaders are openly cavalier about sabotaging systems designed to protect us. The #MeToo campaign that caught on after the revelation that Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse of women he worked with turned into a wave of women calling out powerful men who have abused them and others for decades without repercussion.
But I have to believe that we can be better. If I don’t believe that Emilio deserved to be protected, loved, and cherished, how can I believe myself to be deserving of it? If I don’t reject the idea that loving differently means I will eventually be torn apart for it, how can I hope to think that I could have my own type of Happily Ever After?
The Sparrow says, “Your love will burn you to pieces in the end. Your faith will not be repaid. Your compatriots will drag your truth out of your throat with knives.”
But what does it know? It’s just a book. It doesn’t know the way my mother makes funny jokes about her coworkers and sends me memes from last year. It doesn’t know the way my best friends and I schedule regular Skype calls around work and social engagements, or how my family and I communicate brokenly across a mishmash of four different languages.
It doesn’t know the devastating grief I felt when my father died, or the way my family was on the plane from Taiwan less than twelve hours after my dad was admitted into the hospital. It doesn’t know the way old high school friends I hadn’t talked to in years reached out to me when I touched down in Michigan, exhausted from over fifteen hours of travel and suddenly fatherless. It doesn’t know the way my coworkers quietly made space for my grief when I returned to Japan and my job.
It doesn’t know the way me and my queer friends of colour have discussed what it means to occupy space in a way that doesn’t hurt, our fears and confusion over not being what we’re ‘supposed’ to be. The way we support and validate each other’s existences and truths with words or simply by being there for one another.
Certainly, it doesn’t know how this network of people saves me, inspires me, and gives me hope every single day. We send gifs of dogs helping kittens climb stairs, share terrible jokes, lend sympathetic ears when someone needs to vent, and enable each other’s shopping decisions.
And so, this is why I hate The Sparrow: it reduces the pain of people of colour to a question of faith, punishes them when they think they are on the verge of true happiness, and takes away their agency—like their right to not have sex. It makes an art out of breaking us down, telling us that it’s inevitable, and that nothing we have will last the test of time.
It says: God does not care, but He will still take all that you love and crush it beneath his heels.
Perhaps God truly is so cruel and so indifferent. Perhaps God is the kind of being who would watch us suffer and feel nothing, or even rejoice to hear us beg at his feet for mercy.
Then perhaps we should stop looking to God for answers.
I am reclaiming my life now, as we all should. I’m taking it back from the pervasive idea that there is a pipeline to happiness, so long as I follow the signs exactly.
I believe that even if I don’t want sex, I can have love, that I do have love, that I am as entitled to it as the next person. No matter what the world becomes, no matter where my heart leads me, I am committed to living my life with all the love and laughter anyone could ever want.
I believe that love and kindness for myself and for others in every form it can take is what will make my life everything it could possibly be. I believe that love will save us all. No one will take that faith away from me, not even God.
That is what we all deserve.
“You see, Meelo? Your family came for you. I found you for them.”
—The Sparrow, pg. 478
 “What do the people of Rakhat look like?” Answered by Maria Doria Russell on Goodreads. https://www.goodreads.com/questions/1141545-what-did-the-people-of-rakhat-look-like-i
© 2017 by Diana What
Diana What is a Taiwanese American person who is currently living in Japan. They generally identify as agender, but doesn't mind she/her pronouns. Also, asexual. Lots of 'a's. Often on Twitter (@diana_what), not writing.