Archive for July, 2013

July 31, 2013

Not a review of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah

I really enjoyed Americanah, though I don’t think it’s Adichie’s best novel (and certainly not her best book, but I prefer her shorter work anyway). I also refuse to review this because it was my sick day reading but I did mark out bits in my copy and make useful observations like “hah!” and so forth. So here are some quotes and some thoughts anyway.

So much of Americanah is so sharply observed and genuinely funny.

The man standing closest to her was eating an ice cream cone; she had always found it a little irresponsible, the eating of ice cream cones by grown-up American men, especially the eating of ice cream cones by grown-up American men in public. […] The graying hair on the back of his head was swept forward, a comical arrangement to disguise his bald spot. He had to be an academic, but not in the humanities or he would be more self-conscious. A firm science like chemistry, maybe.

Delight.

While reading this book I mentioned on twitter that it was like being among brown friends. The book itself seems to get that, and get how comforting, and how important it can be:

[…] their different accents formed meshes of solacing sounds. They mimicked what Americans told them: You speak such good English. How bad is AIDS in your country? It’s so sad that people live on less than a dollar a day in Africa. And they themselves mocked Africa, trading stories of absurdity, of stupidity, and they felt safe to mock, because it was a mockery born of longing, and of the heartbroken desire to see a place made whole again. Here, Ifemelu felt a gentle, swaying sense of renewal. Here, she did not have to explain herself.

Ifemelu has a successful blog about race, and occasionally the text is interrupted by an entry from this which is pertinent to a situation Ifemelu has just faced. The blog voice sounds like a lot of other race blogs and some of the jargon is certainly there—she links, for example, to Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh when she talks about privilege, and she mentions (and dismisses) the phrase “Oppression Olympics”. What Americanah doesn’t do, though, is give us much in the way of internet discussion, the fluid ways in which conversations take place in comments sections, through links across blogs. The blog isn’t the point of the book and I don’t think Adichie is particularly interested in this particular facet of internet life, so it’s not surprising that she shouldn’t have spent much time exploring it. But I still find it interesting because so much of what Americanah has to say about race seems to me to be pertinent to the discussion of race online. Because (and some of my best friends are American POC, she says hastily) I spend so much of my life on the internet and the internet is still so strongly weighted towards the idea that everyone lives in the first world, that a third world-residing (I want to add a disclaimer about how far from “third-world” my privileged, airconditioned, South Delhi life is, but the UK still thinks I’m high-risk, so I’m owning the title) person with opinions and access to the means with which to express them is some sort of mythical beast (actually I am a pretty manticore). And Americanah understands that the bonds between third world postcolonial and other third world postcolonial can be based on as much or more common ground than American person of colour and non-American (or non-British, let’s not let them off) person of (same) colour, and that sometimes there’s a comforting solidarity in banding together against first world privilege for a bit, no matter what colours and histories it may come in.

Ifemelu and Jane laughed when they discovered how similar their childhoods in Grenada and Nigeria had been, with Enid Blyton books and Anglophile teachers and fathers who worshipped the BBC World Service.

“The African Americans who come to our meetings are the ones who write poems about Mother Africa and think every African is a Nubian queen. If an African American calls you a Mandingo or a booty scratcher, he is insulting you for being African. Some will ask you annoying questions about Africa, but others will connect with you. You will also find that you might make friends more easily with other internationals, Koreans, Indians, Brazilians, whatever, than with Americans both black and white. Many of the internationals understand the trauma of trying to get an American visa and that is a good place to start a friendship.”

 

And yet it seems that Ifemelu’s American blog is read almost exclusively by people in America—whether they are long term residents and citizens or more recent immigrants—and the Nigerian blog she starts later by mostly Nigerians. There isn’t a spillover of readers from one blog to the other, no note of “this is where I’m going to be, come read me there if you like”. I can’t imagine a hugely popular blog ending that way.

 

He had not been back to Nigeria in years and perhaps he needed the consolation of those online groups, where small observations flared and blazed into attacks, personal insults flung back and forth.

This is that man in the comments on Times of India or Rediff or wherever, who is outraged by the reservation system, feminist activism and everything that is ruining our great culture and whose profile says he lives in California. There’s nothing original here, because is anyone really surprised that other countries have them too? But I smiled anyway.

 

There’s an enjoyable  encounter with an annoying white girl who wants braids but has no idea what sorts there are or how they’re made, and who thinks the finest, most “honest” book about Africa she’s read is A Bend in the River. Adichie goes into (well-deserved) attack mode—this bit has been widely quoted in other places.

She did not think the novel was about Africa at all. It was about Europe, or the longing for Europe, about the battered self-image of an Indian man born in Africa, who felt so wounded, so diminished, by not having been born European, a member of a race which he had elevated for their ability to create, that he turned his imagined personal insufficiencies into an impatient contempt for Africa; in his knowing haughty attitude to the African, he could become, even if only fleetingly, a European. She leaned back on her seat and said this in measured tones. Kelsey looked startled; she had not expected a minilecture. Then, she said kindly, “Oh, well, I see why you would read the novel like that.”

“And I see why you would read it like you did,” Ifemelu said.

 

“I just can’t get up and go to Paris. I have a Nigerian passport. I need to apply for a visa, with bank statements and health insurance and all sorts of proof that I won’t stay and become a burden to Europe.”

This! This is the sort of thing that made me feel, as I said, that reading the novel I was among friends. I’m sure no one needs me to rant about this (Ekaterina Sedia recently suggested on twitter that a useful measure of privilege could be the number of countries into which one can enter without needing a visa or having to worry that one would get one). (See also “America“).

 

“He was left-leaning and well-meaning, crippled by his acknowledgment of his own many privileges. He never allowed himself to have an opinion. “Yes, I see what you mean,” he said often.”

I know you, this guy. I like you; I kind of wish you’d own an opinion (and possibly be shot down for it) more often, but you’re rather nice.

 

“I was actually going to tell you about it. It’s called the Nigerpolitan Club and it’s just a bunch of people who have recently moved back, some from England, but mostly from the U.S.? Really low-key, just like sharing experiences and networking? I bet you’ll know some of the people. You should totally come?”

Ooh, this is interesting. I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere Adichie respond to Taiye Selasi and this whole concept of “Afropolitans” unless this is it. And it … is complicated, and again I’m sure I’m likely to draw false equivalencies between the situations of being a privileged Indian who has travelled a bit and lived in other countries and being a privileged Nigerian or a privileged Ghanaian (if Selasi identifies as such?) who … etc—and perhaps even assuming too much of a similarity between Nigerians and Ghanaians in that position is silly. But it’s one of the most interesting sections of Ifemelu’s return that she joins this club of “Nigerpolitans” and finds herself, on the one hand, despising them for being the sort of people who talk about “the sort of food we can eat” and whining that their cooks don’t know how to make the sort of food they’ve grown accustomed to while admitting that she does have a lot in common with them and she does miss quinoa. Most of the time Americanah is placing Ifemelu in wider context of the world, and the first world, and her place within it; this is one of the places where we see her within the more specific context of Nigeria. And of course it is as complex, and as contradictory as her wider context is.

 

 

July 30, 2013

Karen Lord, The Best of All Possible Worlds

Backstory: I wrote 650-odd words about The Best of All Possible Worlds for my column this weekend (and you can read it here)- then, because I felt I’d spent so much time on the popculture-as-human-artefact aspect of it that I hadn’t talked about the stuff about the book that really annoyed me, expanded the piece with a rant of another 1000+ words. As you do. So here you go.

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Centuries from now, people will still be reading Shakespeare. I know this not because his work is so wonderful (though it is pretty amazing) as to be immortal, but because I have it on the best possible authority: Star Trek. The original series and the movies based upon it contain a number of references to the bard, including a rather wonderful one about reading him “in the original Klingon”

Shakespeare has survived in some form on Cygnus Beta, the planet on which most of the action of Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds takes place. Cygnus Beta is populated by peoples descended from four other planets, of which our own is one. Its popular cultural references are, presumably, inherited from all of these planets as well as some that are the product of its own multicultural history. But most of those mentioned, or the ones the (Terran, or Earth-based) reader notices, are from Earth.

So what aspects of our culture have survived into whatever point in the future this is? The Wizard of Oz (movie, not book)—Delarua, our narrator, describes a character as looking like “a tall, middle-aged Wicked Witch of the West except not, you know, being actually green”. The Indiana Jones movies. Casablanca. A Superman movie, in 3D. Othello. What doesn’t make it is Star Trek, but I’ll come back to that.

The Best of All Possible Worlds takes its title from Voltaire’s Candide and like Candide is something of a picaresque adventure. After the destruction of the planet Sadira, some of the remaining Sadiri seek refuge on Cygnus Beta. In a scientific expedition to assess the potential for the remaining Sadiri to intermarry with Cygnus Beta’s part-Sadiri population, a small group of experts visits each of a number of “taSadiri” colonies. They include Delarua, a woman from Cygnus Beta, and Dllenahkh, a Sadiri councillor. Delarua is our heroine, Dllenahkh is brooding and tragic. Naturally, this is a romance.

As a result it’s rather episodic—each new colony provides a different model of society and a different challenge. But many of these societies are drawn almost directly from (earth) popculture. There are Faeries, for example; Sadiri who have chosen to live entirely by the precepts of Terran folktales about elves and similar creatures. They are organised into the Seelie and Unseelie as in various stories, there’s something of the Eloi/Morlock divide from H.G. Wells, and definite hints of Tolkien. There are secret societies of telekinetic monks. Mysteriously, only aspects of Western pop culture seem to have survived.

And there are the Sadiri themselves. I said earlier that Star Trek no longer seemed to form a part of this world’s pop culture, but perhaps that’s because on a more fundamental level the text itself is a piece of Star Trek fanfiction with the Sadiri being obvious stand-ins for the Vulcans. It’s probably a coincidence that this book should have been published soon after the 2009 reboot Star Trek which destroyed the planet Vulcan, leaving its survivors homeless and trying to establish a new colony, but this is hardly the only parallel between these two fictional races. The emphasis on emotional control, the part-telepathic skills, the arranged marriages that involve mental bonds, the violent rages of which Sadiri men are capable. One taSadiri community calls its treetop platform dwellings (shades of Tolkien’s Lothlorien) “t’bren”, a word that looks cod-Vulcan. In her acknowledgements Lord does not mention Star Trek. She says that the Sadiri were inspired by communities of fishermen affected by the 2004 tsunami, who were relatively safe in their boats as their homes and families (the majority of those killed were women) were destroyed. Yet the connections are impossible to miss, and every reviewer seems to have noticed them. In a different book this playing around with one of our major cultural artefacts could have been engaging, incisive, critical (and Star Trek offers a lot to play with from the critical point of view).

But this obsession with Earth’s popculture is only one of many things that eventually weigh The Best of All Possible Worlds down. These little tributes to earlier works may be fun, but they don’t lead anywhere, and all the resolution we’re offered is a happy ending for its lead couple whose romance, muted throughout, has never felt like the point of the book. Entire potential plots are bypassed or skimmed over—such as information about an abusive relationship in Delarua’s past, or an intergalactic slave trade. There are constant references to the originators of this world but these are never resolved. Which would be fine, if anything else had been.

And those homages mean that this is a science fiction novel obsessed with the past, not the future; which would explain why so many of the things its characters take for granted feel so out of keeping with the liberal, far-future setting. A situation in which most women stay at home while men go out to work or explore might be the norm in some fishing communities in 2004 or in the science fiction of the 1960s, but in science fiction published in 2013 and set further in the future it certainly requires examination. Then there’s the belief of the characters in genetic determination—the extent to which one is empathetic, cerebral or physical is credited entirely to how much of which planetary race one has in one’s genes. At one point it is implied that people from Earth are physically fundamentally superior to those of the other three planets, as they have developed all aspects of the self where the other “races” have each focused on only one. The Sadiri’s hunt for women with whom to mate is based entirely upon their bloodlines, and even though love is an option, there appears to be a government bureau to assess and sanction unions—the existence of this body is treated as a useful convenience. There’s also a widespread acceptance of the idea that (since Sadiri have significantly longer life-spans) the first generation of babies after the tragedy are to be sex-selected as female and then to be raised in order to provide brides for the remaining adult Sadiri—no one seems to find this creepy at all. Moreover, the models we’re given for relationships are strictly limited; polyamoury is a weird sexual thing only those strange city people do, and homosexuality isn’t even mentioned as an option till close to the end of the book. At least Star Trek fanfiction has traditionally had queer people in it.

The romance is one of the areas in which The Best of All Possible Worlds allows itself to play. Delarua’s first-person narrative sometimes knowingly parodies the language of the romance text; “I was quite sure at this point that my bosom was heaving in maidenly confusion”. As L. Timmel Duchamp points out here, Dllehnakh is very clearly the desired object of the romance, and it’s unsurprising that Delarua’s sections of the narrative are in the first person while his are in the third. But it’s in the resolution of the romance plot that we discover what is perhaps the novel’s most bizarre moment. Having discovered her love for Dllehnakh and convinced him that kissing is not icky, Delarua chooses to quote one of the most recognisable lines in the western canon. “Reader, I married him”.

Jane Eyre. What is going on here?

So Lord has chosen at the end of this book to evoke a book which is terribly concerned with miscegenation and racial purity (Rochester’s first wife, the “madwoman in the attic” Bertha Mason, is mixed-race, and Rochester seems to find this horrifying), and in which the violent, lying man tries to trick the impoverished governess into a wedding that would be legally invalid. Dllehnakh also has a former spouse, we’re told; she fell for someone else, “arranged” for Dllehnakh to find her cheating on him (as with Jane Eyre we only have the husband’s word for the extent of the wife’s culpability) and in a murderous rage he broke his rival’s jaw. We’re told that the Sadiri have different laws for crimes of passion, so this is okay. If Karen Lord is signalling that Jane Eyre is one of this book’s intertexts, another one seems to be the Star Trek: TOS episode “Amok Time”; the one in which Spock’s betrothal is cancelled just as he is entering pon farr (in Star Trek the “fuck or die” meme is canon) and he goes into a state of bloodlust in which he almost kills (and thinks he has killed) Kirk. We’ve already been warned that Sadiri men are incredibly strong when enraged, and towards the end of the book Delarua sees for herself just what that entails.

I mentioned earlier that Delarua had been in an abusive relationship. Her former parter was Ioan, a man with incredible psychic powers, who has, since Delarua left him, been married to her sister Maria with whom he has had two children. It’s inexplicable that Delarua should not have warned her sister about this man, unless his powers continued to operate on her even then. That seems to be the case; at the end of a tense visit with her sister’s family Delarua runs away and Dllehnakh seems to mend the damage to her mind that Ioan has caused—damage more extensive than Delarua herself had realised. Ioan is caught, Maria and her children require therapy; Delarua opts out of this, as she presumably did the first time she left Ioan. What this means is that up to that point (relatively early in the novel) Delarua has been an unreliable narrator. The most redemptive reading for this book that I can come up with then, is this: that years of psychic torture by Ioan have taken their toll on Delarua and we’re meant to see her as an unreliable narrator, meant to question her romantic choices (soon after the encounter with Ioan she expresses interest in a young man because “what he didn’t have in looks he made up for in self-confidence”) and, particularly since Dllehnakh also has psychic powers and she has  let him into her head, meant to see that relationship as fundamentally sinister. “Reader, [he was a creepy, powerful man who messed with my head and] I married him”.

But the relationship is a relatively small part of the plot, and if this is a book about sinister mind-controlling men it’s a terribly unfocused one. I suspect I was right in my first assessment, and this is merely a set of charming references with little to tie it together and almost no engagement with the tropes that it endlessly invokes. It’s a mess.

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July 26, 2013

Creepy uncles and Sixteen

I have a piece at FirstPost in which I talk about why one of the central plotlines of Raj Purohit’s Sixteen freaked me out. I may have used the phrase “creepy uncle gaze”. I may have linked to a song from The Sound of Music. I may have mentioned a Dev Anand film the world would prefer to forget.

July 24, 2013

Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo’s Calling

No regular column this week because I was reading and writing about Galbraith’s debut novel instead. And about the new Rowling. It’s been a busy week.

This was published in the Sunday Guardian, here.

 

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It’s impossible to write an innocent review of Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling after the events of these last few days. We all know why it’s being reviewed, why it’s at the top of the Amazon bestselling charts at the moment—last week it was revealed that Galbraith was a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling. Rowling apparently submitted the manuscript anonymously; it was rejected by some publishers before being picked up by Sphere. Rowling seems to have wanted to write free of the weight of expectation her name carries with it. That, of course, is no longer an option. That weight of expectation has now fallen heavily upon the book. It has become the focus of editorials about the State of Publishing (capital letters required) all week, either because it’s fascinating that critics, not knowing who its author was, should have given it positive reviews (and what are the implications of that?) or because it is somehow supposed to be meaningful news that the hardback sales of a book by an unknown, barely-promoted debut author should not have been in the thousands. Whatever one says about The Cuckoo’s Calling thus has a meaning that goes beyond the book itself. The completely objective review is probably a myth, but rarely is a book so heavily outweighed by its own context. I might not have read this book and certainly wouldn’t be reviewing it were it not for the revelation of Rowling’s secret authorship.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a crime novel in five acts, centred around the death of the supermodel Lula Landry. Lula’s mysterious fall from her balcony is thought to be suicide, but her brother is not convinced. He hires private detective Cormoran Strike to find out whether his sister was really murdered. Strike must also sort out his relationship with his new temporary secretary who is efficient, attractive, and more interested in the case than she is in him.

This is a book that places itself very solidly in its specific genre tradition. Cormoran Strike is the classic private eye in his shabby office in a run-down building; approaching middle-age, overweight and in possession of a prosthetic leg (as a result of his time in the army), and currently homeless as a result of the end of his marriage. He is also, for some reason, irresistible to beautiful women. In some ways it’s as if someone had tried to transpose a Raymond Chandler novel upon London. This sits rather uneasily with the very definitely twenty-first century feel of much of the plot’s London setting; the young musician who avoids the paparazzi by putting on a wolf’s mask, the exciting fashion design and the use of google search in the crime-solving business. There are no smartphones; perhaps that would be a step too far.

Since we can’t un-know its author, it’s inevitable for those of us who came to the book too late to look at it in the context of Rowling’s earlier work. Some of the similarities are superficial, such as the use of the epigraph (all in Latin in this book) at the beginning of each part of the work. The delight in naming; Cormoran Strike and Lula Landry would not sound out of place in a Harry Potter book. Eager internet commenters have already pointed out that Rowling’s chosen pseudonym translates to “Fame-bright” “British stranger”.

Rowling’s strength has always been in telling a story and moving a plot along. Most of the characters in The Cuckoo’s Calling slot neatly into type, but this doesn’t hinder the novel. The genre works in Galbraith/ Rowling’s favour here; the book does nothing particularly new, but manages to be a solid, satisfying crime novel. It is interrupted on occasion by awkward prose, as when Galbraith/ Rowling describes a young man as “a masterpiece produced by an indecipherable cocktail of races” (he kindly deciphers said ancestral cocktail for us a page or so later) or when she literally describes characters in terms of feline orifices (“when her mouth puckered into hard little lines around the cigarette, it looked like a cat’s anus”). But moments this spectacular are few and far between.

We’ll never know now whether, given time, word of mouth and the more affordable prices of paperbacks, Robert Galbraith would have built up a dedicated fan following of his own. I suspect he might have; The Cuckoo’s Calling is as good as or better than many popular mystery series. I might not have read the first Cormoran Strike book before I knew who its author was but I think I may be looking forward to the second.

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July 23, 2013

Bulletpoints: Pacific Rim

There will be spoilers, and also squee.

  • Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes so very yes.
  • But also no.
  • Um.
  • Okay, so this movie has all the flaws of many other big summer movies. It’s incredibly cheesy, respectable actors are forced to mouth the stupidest of lines (poor Idris Elba with his “cancelling the apocalypse” speech), we never come anywhere near passing the Bechdel test, entire cities are destroyed without it seeming to matter to us that people’s lives are being torn apart because explosions are pretty, our hero falls in love with the sole female character.
  • The thing is, though, some part of my consciousness is just so immensely satisfied by giant robots punching giant monsters.  I think this might be how Michael Bay wants us to react to his films, at a level that is far removed from the intellect … I want to say something about lizard brains, but then I suspect I’d be more in favour of kaiju punching giant robots. I do not respond to Michael Bay films in this way. Here I was smiling throughout, even while groaning at the cheese.
  • There’s a moment when the young Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako is terrified and shaking and she sees Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost step out of his jaeger and he takes his helmet off and the sun is behind him and all you can see is golden light and that is what looking at Idris Elba is like and this movie gets that.
  • The fight scenes were at their best when they were at their silliest. Of course the kaiju can pick up a jaeger and carry it nearly into space; of course the jaeger has run out of weapons except for an actual sword; of course the vengeance-hungry woman co-piloting the jaeger screams “for my family!” while wielding it.
  • During the interval we (I watch movies with the best people) had an argument over whether someone involved in the film was a Lovecraft fan or a China Mieville fan. Del Toro loves his monsters which to me must indicate a familiarity with Lovecraft, but what with the breach under the ocean (The Scar), the occasional giant bones with cities built partially around them (Perdido Street Station) and the two-people’s-brains-required (Embassytown) …
  • The women, sigh. All …three (?) of them. There are a bunch of minor characters who could have been women without it causing some massive change in the script but no. Three women, of whom only one gets a name that is repeated so that one actually remembers it. There’s the Russian jaeger pilot who speaks maybe one word in the entire film, the nameless woman in Hong Kong who speaks to one of the scientists, and Mako, who is one of our heroes. Mako can take on our other hero in a fight, and is apparently supremely qualified to pilot one of these machines. Except that she has emotional issues that compromise her (and that nearly get a lot of people incinerated) and that somehow the men around her still feel the need to defend her honour (our hero gets into a fist fight). The men often treat her as delicate and inexperienced (and she is inexperienced, but the film chose to write her that way), and from the moment she gets into the machine Raleigh seems to take over.
  • The frustrating thing is that Mako comes so close to being the hero of this film (and see this for a more charitable reading than mine of how her character is treated). She has odds to face (her own personal demons that hold her back from being the brilliant pilot she’s capable of being), things to prove, daddy issues that aren’t really daddy issues because she and Pentecost mostly have what seems a respectful adult working relationship, more backstory than her co-star Raleigh (though I liked that he was also emotionally damaged). And I genuinely like that she doesn’t have to be a Strong Female Character and show a consistent ability to be tough and sassy and brilliant at everything. But. Pacific Rim isn’t necessarily interested in a traditional hero arc (and most of the time I think this is a really good thing about the movie); even the giant robots that power the story need two pilots with linked minds. And so Mako gets what feels to me like a raw deal; she gets the earlier obstacles and failures of the hero story, then as the narrative builds up to the point where she can prove herself, the focus shifts and we remember that this is not a hero story. She gets her big moment (it is cheesy and involves swords and I laughed a lot and it was great), but it’s followed by Pentecost’s big moment and Raleigh’s big moment (which involves near- sacrificing himself for The Woman He Loves) so it no longer stands out.
  • Most of the time Pacific Rim is entirely critical of the hero narrative, in any case. The jaeger pilots with their twinned minds and the need for emotional compatibility between them. The coming together of the various nations that we’re told of at the beginning– more on this in a moment. The heroes that think of themselves as heroes and act according to traditional lone wolf narratives, such as the younger of the Australian pilots, are horrible people. If this movie has a protagonist at all (considering the central plot is GIANT ROBOTS ARE PUNCHING GIANT MONSTERS) it has at least two, and possibly four.
  • And yet it insists on its heroes. Raleigh has to be willing to sacrifice himself to save Mako and the human race, douchebag Australian younger guy has to sacrifice himself as redemption, Pentecost has to sacrifice himself because Idris Elba is too perfect for this world, our small but dedicated team of heroes is going to Save The Day (shoutout to science dudes, who also helped). This isn’t so much teamwork as it is a collection of individual hero stories– and if I find myself struggling to articulate what the difference between those two is I’m not sure how much of that is my own incoherence and how much it is a general problem of not having those narratives to draw on for examples.
  • At io9, Annalee Newitz suggests that this film is somehow international, “a fairy tale for the global age”. She says ” There is no undercurrent of American patriotism, the way you get in Transformers or Independence Day. It’s just humans against monsters. No nation or group can do it alone … we need to stop identifying as Americans or Chinese or Russians — we need to identify as humans”. And agreed it’s  lacking most of the America, yeah!ness that characterises many big budget action films. But this is setting a low bar, and let’s not do that. The jaegers we see are American (but run by one American and one Japanese pilot), Chinese, Russian and Australian, okay. Pentecost has a British accent. And most of the film is set in Hong Kong. Surely this will be the smart, multicultural film the world needs? But the Chinese characters don’t talk, the Russian characters don’t talk; apart from Mako (and I don’t even know how citizenship works in a post-giant-monsters world; would Mako have taken on Pentecost’s citizenship at some point in the last howeversomany years?) all the dialogue is between English guys, American guys and Australian guys. Quite a reasonable proportion of the people in the background in this picture (via Vulture.com) are black, and maybe we can choose to believe that most of them are from countries other than England, the USA and Australia–it’s not like we can be proved wrong, since they don’t get to speak. The movie is unable to get away from the reality of the actual population of Hong Kong, but they barely speak either. And this is the thing–we can’t forget that we’re “Americans or Chinese or Russians” when being only one of those things is a guarantee of being heard, and when the people celebrating the global diversity of movies like this somehow fail to notice that most of the world doesn’t get to speak. So is it possible to make a movie where two out of three of the main actors are non-American people of colour, set it in Hong Kong and still provide a vision of the future in which England and America (and white Australians, because they’re not The West but they kind of are) are the active parties who save us all? Apparently.
  • Right, back to short, bulletpoint-sized points. What was with all the shoes? If baby!Mako was wearing one tiny red shoe and carrying the other, surely this meant she had both shoes? And what was with Ron Perlman’s character losing a shoe and having someone pick it up? Is this a world where people just randomly take other people’s shoes as souvenirs? Is it secretly Cinderella fanfic in some clever way I haven’t understood?
  • Possibly the one aspect in which this film shows restraint is in its refusal to give us more than a glimpse of the alien world from which these creatures come. I respected that. I also wished I could have seen a Del Toro fantasy landscape though.
  • We terraformed the world for monsters. Whoops. It’s information provided in a  throwaway line that doesn’t turn itself into a Message, and somehow becomes the more effective for that.
  • I genuinely thought the baby kaiju was going to think comedy scientist guy was its mother. I feel like that comedy subplot was not taken to its full potential.
  • There is a dog that lives. There is an awkward confession of love right before the glorious last stand that the characters will probably not survive. There are awkward confessions of parental love as well. Cliches are embraced with an enthusiasm that (mostly) makes them incredibly endearing.
  • No one makes a “once more into the breach” joke, despite ample opportunity to do so. This is a genuine loss.
  • A nerdy English scientist wears a bowtie and says “by jove!” I will forgive many movies many things for this.

But I loved it. And I have Issues. And I want to watch it again just so I can watch my friends watch the fight scenes because pure, childish glee is something I find I value a surprising amount.

 

July 22, 2013

The Cuckoo’s Cover

My review of Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling appeared in The Sunday Guardian today (and will be here on the blog soon)

 

I was interested in the cover with which the newspaper illustrated the review. My copy of the book has this cover, which I think works pretty well at signalling its genre at least. TSG chose this one on the right, which I hadn’t seen before (is it the American one? I’m not sure). I’m assuming that the figure whose back is turned to us is supposed to represent the celebrity model Lula Landry, whose death drives the plot of the novel. Now [spoilers, possibly] quite a big part of the book focuses on the fact that Lula was multiracial, and particularly that her father was black. We’re also told that she’s very beautiful, and I don’t know how far the book is relying here on that slightly creepy trope where people of mixed race are always astonishingly beautiful. Here, for example, (I quoted a bit of this in my review) the detective Cormoran Strike meets a young man who often acted as Lula’s chauffeur:

A masterpiece produced by an indecipherable cocktail of races, Kolovas-Jones’s skin was an olive-bronze, his cheekbones chiselled, his nose slightly aquiline, his black-lashed eyes a dark hazel, his straight hair slicked back off his face. His startling looks were thrown into relief by the conservative shirt and tie he wore, and his smile was consciously modest, as though he sought to disarm other men, and pre-empt their resentment.

The novel suggests that Landry is visibly non-white. She’s described as “dark, luminous, fine-boned and fierce”, in one photo shoot we see “a single dark nipple”, she is described as “black, too, or rather, a delicious shade of café au lait“. We’re told that “‘They go darker, see; when she were born, she looked white.’” More than one character (her adopted brother, as well as another minor character) describes her as having issues from growing up as the only black member of a white family.

And so we come to the image above, and …hmm. I don’t know. I don’t want to outright claim that this cover has been whitewashed, because you could stretch a point and consider the model’s skin “a delicious shade of café au lait“, maybe. But I don’t know. Given the publishing industry’s less than ideal history with putting characters of colour on its covers, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that they should choose a woman with her face turned away from the camera and skin that would usually be interpreted as (at most) lightly tanned to depict a character who’s visibly a woman of colour. I’m still annoyed, though.

July 18, 2013

Bama, Harum-Scarum Saar and Other Stories

I’m being good this year and trying to read some of the backlog of enticing short story collections I’ve accumulated over the last few years. This one came from the book tent at the Jaipur Literary Festival a couple of years ago.

From this weekend’s column:

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Not much happens in the tales in Bama’s Harum-Scarum Saar and Other Stories. Most of them act as small character studies, focusing on notable individuals. There’s Kisambukkaran, the “harum-scarum saar” of the title, who fearlessly kills snakes, who allows sparrows to eat his father’s crops and who delights in tricking an old man who is unnecessarily suspicious of his wife’s fidelity. Ponnathayi, who leaves her husband to start her own business. Malandi thatha, whose smiling exterior conceals a great deal of rage. Ammasi, whose great crime is to casually refer to a member of another caste as “annachi”, or “brother”.

The rebellions in Bama’s stories are all small ones. A small boy urinates on the plant whose leaves his employer uses to do her cooking. A family choose to symbolically throw away the pongal received from their landlord in a most unequal exchange. A boy refuses to give up a hard-won seat in a bus simply because the man asking claims higher caste status. It becomes clear that the reason there isn’t much narrative progress within these stories is that the larger plot is caste (and more, the whole system of social inequalities of which caste may be only part). Bama doesn’t envision revolution; there’s nothing in this collection to suggest that a single social upheaval could fix everything. But these tiny rebellions are a continuous process, a constant chip-chipping away at inequality.

The rebellions in question are celebrated. The characters in these stories display a gleeful contempt of those oppressing them; the narration is colloquial and casual and frequently wonderfully eloquent (N. Ravi Shanker’s translation does a fine job of conveying the feel of the spoken language). Bama often chooses to end a story abruptly just as its hero has delivered a brilliant bit of repartee and so our last sight of them has them clearly in charge, with their opponents utterly taken aback. The reader (unless she is very naïve) knows that this isn’t really enough for victory, that the system has means at its disposal for recovering from these attacks and restoring the status quo. But knowing that doesn’t detract from the delight of seeing the underdog win, however temporarily, and for seeing Dalit characters as active, often playful, agents rather than simple victims.

Yet we’re not allowed to forget the magnitude of the odds these characters must face. Often it is dropped into the story casually (Malandi thatha has already paid over a thousand rupees’ interest on a two-hundred rupee loan), but occasionally it forms the focus of the story. For most of its duration “Rich Girl” is not about a rich girl at all, but about a family struggling to balance the parents’ jobs, the daughter’s education, supervision for the baby and earning enough to live on. The daughter is the “rich girl” of the title—on the last page of the story she explains excitedly that the landlord has given them a hundred rupees to compensate for the death of her father as he was trying to save the landlord’s cow. And we’re not allowed to forget that violence is gendered, as when Ponnuthayi’s insistence on leaving an abusive spouse earns her the censure of most of her community.

If the stories in this collection deny us the possibility of a revolution, there is also a quiet background narrative of gradual change. In “Pongal” it’s implied that it’s his education that spurs Esakkimuthu to question his family’s treatment by the landlord. In “Chilli Powder”, Gangamma may have the law and the police on her side, but she can’t stand up to the other women when they work as a group. “Those Days” is another story about a positive change that seems to be taking place—once again by coming together as a group Masanam thatha and his allies are able to demand a dignity that should already be theirs by right. “That’s how it was, those days. Now we won’t spare anyone, not even if he comes armed with two tusks. Ama!”

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I’ve linked to it elsewhere, but Manoj Nair’s interview with Bama here makes for excellent reading.

Also, I really wish the publishers of translated works would include an introduction or an afterword. I can think of at least a couple of recent examples of translated anthologies that omit these, and I have really felt the lack.  In many cases the intention is to try and introduce a new audience to a writer’s work, and providing it entirely free of any context (including, for example, what else the author has written) isn’t always the best way to do this–in the case of this particular book Bama’s relatively well known, but it would still be nice. And as a reader I’m always interested in introductions that get into what sort of translation this is, how it works, what strategies it employs. More of that sort of thing, please.

July 16, 2013

Redface, Cumberkhan, and whitewashing in Hollywood

Apparently I have been so openly grumpy about Hollywood whitewashing in recent months that I was asked to do this piece for the Indian Express. It is considerably shorter and less ranty here than it was in first draft, at least.

 

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In an interview with the cast of Star Trek Into Darkness, done months before the film was released, actors were asked to choose a favourite Star Trek villain. John Cho, who plays Hikaru Sulu in the rebooted series of films, chose Ricardo Montalban’s Khan Noonien Singh, adding pointedly that he was  also “a man of colour”. Cho’s comment may have

(The newspaper version of this piece may not have contained this picture)

seemed innocuous enough at the time. But the same interview included Benedict Cumberbatch who was at the time only known to be playing the villain of the movie. A few months later we were subjected to the ridiculous spectacle of the lily-white Cumberbatch declaring “my name is Khan”.

Hollywood has a history of changing the ethnicity of a character, either by rewriting them as white, or by having white-skinned actors don “blackface” (or “yellowface” or “redface”) in performances that frequently lampooned them through the use of racial stereotype, as in the whole tradition of minstrelsy. While it is generally accepted that blackface is no longer acceptable (though a Hindi movie used the trope for humour earlier this year), the number of non-white characters played by non-white actors is still far smaller than one would expect it to be.

Racebending.com was an organisation formed in 2009 by fans of the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. The series was based on a number of Asian cultures, yet Manoj Knight Shyamalan’s adaptation failed to cast Asian actors in the major positive roles.

It is not simply a case of getting the “best” actor for the job, though that excuse is often trotted out. In an industry where white is the cultural default (unless a role is specified as belonging to a character of a specific ethnicity it is too often assumed to be white) talented actors already have a difficult time finding a range of complex roles. Even when ethnicity is specified, it is sometimes not clear enough for the culture around it. When the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games was released last year, there was a wave of internet outrage over the casting of the character Rue. Collins had mentioned Rue’s dark skin and hair more than once but this wasn’t enough for readers, who went so far as to suggest that the character seemed less “innocent” and her death less tragic when played by the African-American actress Amandla Stenberg instead of a light-skinned, blonde girl. Viewers also expressed anger at the movie Thor, when Idris Elba was cast as a minor character. The idea of race-blind casting seems to be trotted out selectively, and rarely to the advantage of non-white actors.

Most recently, there’s Johnny Depp’s performance as Tonto in The Lone Ranger, which released in theatres this week. Tonto has long been a controversial character, a pidgin-speaking sidekick whom a number of Native American critics have found to be a demeaning stereotype. Depp has spoken about the potential for reimagining the character in a respectful way, perhaps even mocking the racist depictions that have come before. But none of this answers the question of whether or not Depp should be playing Tonto in the first place. Depp claims some unconfirmed Native American heritage, and has been adopted as an honorary son by a member of the Comanche Nation, but this hardly makes his casting appropriate. Surely Disney (or Depp himself, if the project is so important to him) could have produced a film with a Native American actor in the part? Debate will continue to rage, people will continue to point out that there are no Native American actors of Depp’s stature (and why would that be?) and the cycle will continue. (Edit: I was going to link to one of Native Appropriations’ posts about Depp and Tonto, but here are all of them)

But there’s hope. Iron Man 3 came as a huge surprise this summer. When the most recent movie in the franchise, starring Robert Downey Jr was announced, much attention was focused on Ben Kingsley’s turn as The Mandarin, a character originally portrayed in the comics as a half-Chinese supervillain. Kingsley, of course, is not Chinese (though he is part-Indian) and to many fans this particular casting choice, and this choice of villain, seemed potentially fraught. In the event, what the film offered was a partial deconstruction of the “yellowface” it seemed to perpetuate; The Mandarin wasn’t a Chinese man at all, merely an English actor (though one far less successful than Kingsley) playing to stereotype. This is still far from ideal, and the movie’s exploitation of its own seeming racism for effect is problematic. But the implication that the movie recognises that audiences are aware of this debate is heartening. If, as the blogger Marissa Sammy at Racebending.com suggests, the makers of Star Trek Into Darkness deliberately used the secrecy surrounding Cumberbatch’s role in order to avoid criticism, this too is heartening in a way. It suggests, at least that the issue is finally making its way into the public discourse to an extent that it can no longer be ignored. What Hollywood chooses to do with this information is yet to be seen.

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July 10, 2013

Some prize-related news

First, the winner of this year’s Caine Prize has been announced, and it is Tope Folarin for “Miracle”. As I said in my last Caine post, “America” was my favourite of this year’s shortlist, but I can certainly see why Folarin’s story won. You can read the story itself here (links to a pdf), and my post on it is here.

 

And the shortlist for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Awards (of which I am a member of the jury) has been announced and can be found here. Obviously I have favourites; obviously I’m not going to declare them here just yet. But it’s a very good collection of books and short stories, and I’m glad to have had the chance to read them.

July 9, 2013

Marie Brennan, A Natural History of Dragons and Matt Kaplan, The Science of Monsters

I yelled a bit at Kaplan’s book even as I enjoyed it; Brennan’s I read over the course of a single night and at 6am I was demanding a sequel. This may be why I’m clearly playing favourites in this weekend’s column. Or I’m just trolling. Have some dragons.

(I had to put my copy of Kaplan’s book face-down and take a bad picture because no one had put that wraparound image on the internet. People who treat their books better than I do, please try not to be too scandalised)

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In one of those strange and delightful coincidences where completely unexpected books find themselves in dialogue with one another, this week I read two books (both published in 2013) with oddly similar covers; a popular science book and a fantasy novel. Both featured dragons, intact in the front, but further back with scales and skin missing to show their musculature and bone structure. The first was Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent, the second was Matt Kaplan’s The Science of Monsters.

Brennan’s book is set in a fantasy world where dragons are real. Isabella (she has not yet become “Lady Trent” when this book ends) lives in her world’s equivalent of Regency England, where gender and class roles are clearly defined and where her sole responsibilities are to concern herself with ladylike pursuits and eventually marry a suitable husband. But Isabella has a fascination for dragons that will not go away- whether she’s pickling tiny dragons in vinegar, dressing up as a boy to join in a hunt, or choosing a husband on the strength of his library.

Because part of what makes A Natural History of Dragons so good is Isabella’s singleminded love of her subject. This is a love story in which the object of the affections is science; families and lovers are nice, but they’re not really that necessary. If Isabella has to be calculating, or manipulative, to get her way, it makes sense.

Brennan frames this story in such a way that the novel’s primary voice is the elderly Isabella, recounting the adventures of her younger self. As a result the text is frequently self-reflexive, with Lady Trent often correcting Isabella’s assumptions, both social and scientific. The rapid progress of scientific study in the nineteenth century and the exhilaration which could come with it are always clear here, even if this is not our nineteenth century (Lady Trent’s preface is written in the year 5658 of her world) and dragons cannot be our scientific specimens.

That sense of discovery and absorption in its possibilities also categorises Matt Kaplan’s The Science of Monsters. Kaplan, living in a sadly dragonless world, takes for his subject human beings instead; specifically, our tendency to create monsters and the possible reasons that our historical monsters have taken the forms that they do. Kaplan is a science journalist who studied palaeontology; it’s not surprising that that is the discipline to which he turns for many of his answers. Fossils (of animals eating other animals, of dinosaurs, of incidents preserved in tar pits) come up frequently, as do things like shifting tectonic plates, the accumulation of methane in burial mounds, and the shape of an elephant’s skull. Much of this is fascinating.

In his acknowledgements Kaplan adds the caveat that he is not a classics scholar, and it’s true that in areas that don’t concern his particular areas of expertise the book is weak. There seems to be an impulse to find a single direct, material explanation for every legendary creature, and while this results in some wonderful aha! moments, it also sometimes rests on some very weak premises. There’s also a moment in which the author seems to think it wonderful that dragons (which within the book are defined as reptilian beasts that sometimes breathe fire) across the world are never depicted with fur. Well, no—because taxonomists of monstrousness wouldn’t call them dragons.

And I wonder if it’s this, as much as any difference in genre (fiction/nonfiction, fantasy/popular science) that really marks out the divide between these two dragon-bearing books. Brennan’s ostensible author-narrator is constantly self-correcting, examining and critiquing the problems with her own methods even as we read of her conclusions. Kaplan (as we all do, perhaps) tries to remake the world in order that it fit the narratives of his own area of expertise. The Science of Monsters may have a stronger basis in reality, but what if A Natural History of Dragons is the more rigourous academic work?

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