Archive for July, 2016

July 31, 2016

Of Interest (31 July, 2016)

I’m slowly, tentatively, beginning to look through all the things I saved and didn’t read over the last couple of months, when too much was happening (globally, personally) to take things in. I don’t know if that means that the next few weeks of links round-ups will be unusually dense or the opposite.

 

The world:

At Scroll.in I had some preliminary thoughts on maps and fantasy and Pokémon Go. I’m hoping to expand this when I’ve thought about it more, perhaps, and it will be on the blog when I’ve done so. But I link in the piece to this essay by Keisha E. McKenzie, which is good and which you should read.

Amitav Ghosh interviewed by Nayantara Narayanan, on most art’s failure to confront climate change. I am looking forward to this book; I already know what I want to read it alongside, which is exciting in itself.

Kate Schapira on a “new” whale.

JR on flags, raising them, bringing them down.

Robbie Shilliam on racism and brexit–I found his distiction between biculturalism and multiculturalism in particular very useful to think with.

Nikesh Shukla on the “isolated incidents” that we’re being told to dismiss.

Colin Dickey on the genderedness of spiritualist tradition and Ghostbusters.

Ishan Marvel follows the Yamuna in Delhi.

 

 

Books in the world:

Fireside’s report on the dearth of published short science fiction by black writers is damning, and needs to be read.

Sam Wallman’s So Below, a comic about land and space.

Kim Reynolds on left-wing interwar children’s literature.

Arshia Sattar remembers A.K. Ramanujan.

Matthew Cheney on living/reading/writing through the AIDS crisis.

Keguro Macharia on queer truncation; in a column, and then a review.

(Both Macharia pieces from Strange Horizons‘s Our Queer Planet month, which also featured a review of Cheney’s collection: Week 1; Week 2; Week 3; Week 4–other favourites include a story by Vajra Chandrasekera, a review of Steven Universe by Erin Horakova, an interview with O Horvath.)

July 31, 2016

Mathangi Subramanian, Dear Mrs. Naidu

Today’s post features a children’s book not from the Carnegie shortlist (and not eligible, though it would have been had it been written during the prize’s earliest years). But (since I’ve been thinking so much about the prizing of children’s literature recently) it did win a recent South Asia Book Award and was shortlisted for the Hindu Young World-Goodbooks award (and I’ll be reviewing the winning book sometime this year).

Sarojini is twelveNaidu. She lives in a colony where the houses don’t have permanent roofs (an image I loved was that of a neighbour whose house was covered by the canvas billboard hoarding from a local politician’s election campaign–the councillor had promised development) and goes to a government school where some teachers maintain discipline by hitting their students while others speak of expanding hearts and minds. One of the latter sort has set Sarojini an assignment–to write a series of letters to someone she’d like to get to know. Sarojini picks Sarojini Naidu,  freedom fighter, child prodigy, and Sarojini’s namesake (she’s never heard the term before, but a local lawyer says Naidu’s hers). Obviously Mrs. Naidu is dead, which is a matter to be treated with some delicacy in the actual letters.

Sarojini also faces something of a crisis when her best friend Amir moves away. Amir’s brothers have got good jobs, and now the family can afford a small flat. More importantly, Amir himself is now a scholarship student at a reputable private school. Sarojini’s discovery of the Right to Education act seems like the solution to all of her problems–it may mean a way for Sarojini to join Amir’s new school, or it may at least provide her with a way of making her own school better.

It would be so easy for this to turn into a 1980s TV-esque educational story–for perfectly legitimate plot reasons the characters spend a lot of time explaining the RTE to one another. In the acknowledgements Subramanian (no relation) refers to her research into the book as “fieldwork”, and describes sitting in the corner of a school “for almost two years, watching and asking questions”, which gives the whole thing a rather dubious anthropological feel. What we get instead, fortunately, is something like gritty realism (as far as that’s possible in something this light in tone)–a story about activism, and coming up against structures built to uphold the status quo, and the tiring/frustrating/rewarding work of getting things done. Discovering that admissions to the free slots in the local private school are dependent on bribes, and learning from Amir that being a poor student among rich classmates is harder than she’d realised, Sarojini focuses her attentions on another aspect of the RTE: the one that requires that government schools have basic resources; potable water and toilets and playgrounds and decent compound walls.

A thing that gives me pause is that this realism also flags up some goals as too hard or inconvenient to work towards. Yes, Sarojini might have a bad time of it in Amir’s school, and yes, fixing the public schools so that everyone (or at least everyone in this part of Bangalore) can benefit from them is a better and more sustainable solution, creating quality, free, alternatives to the private schools rather than rattling at their gates and hoping to be let in. One of the things my Carnegie reading group discussed while reading Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves (a book about a completely different sort of segregation in schools) was the fact that, in that book, Sarah does feel occasional resentment that the politics of their families have meant she and her friends have to suffer this sort of abuse. (Lucy Pearson discusses the book here, and notes that Sarah’s parents are presented as oddly unconcerned by the danger their children are in.) Dear Mrs. Naidu is a lighter book for younger readers, and doesn’t make explicit the violence, structural and individual, that Talley’s book tries to invoke at a visceral level; yet it’s clear from Amir’s account of his new school that things aren’t exactly great–he will not turn down the opportunity, but it is going to cost him.

And yet Sarojini’s decision not to go to Greenhill, to instead allow the school a lovely PR opportunity to present Ambedkar School with a playground, though a pragmatic decision, is one that works out very conveniently for Greenhill. I was reminded, a little, of a recent struggle to gain admission in a local school for a child whose parents are janitors. In the face of indignation on twitter (see some of the replies to the linked tweet) and requests to name and shame the school, those involved chose not to, as the aim was to help the girl in question rather than punish or antagonise the schools. And it may well be the case that a pragmatic approach will yield better results than my own kneejerk anger, and yet. Dear Mrs. Naidu knows that under unequal conditions, progress is made by allowing the powerful to save face/look good (Sarojini’s turning of her campaign into a human interest story is crucial to its success), knows that when the poor muster together resources and make things for themselves (in this case a rebuilt and freshly-painted compound wall) they do so at a far greater cost to themselves.

I realized that I wasn’t proud.
I was angry.
Really angry.
Why should Deepti’s Appa and all the other workers have to miss a whole day of wages for something the government should be doing for free?

This is one of the few times in the book where Sarojini displays actual, real, anger, and I wish there was more of it. If there’s one aspect of the book’s (for want of a better word, though I don’t think I mean it as a criticism) didacticism that grates, it’s this; that it doesn’t allow for negative feelings like bitterness and rage–even Sarojini’s anger can only be of the most productive sort.

I find myself wondering how, in a book centred around “Ambedkar School,” caste is never explicitly mentioned. There are certainly various forms of bigotry at play among these characters–throwaway references to Amir’s family being Muslims, the chorus of local aunties who warn Sarojini away from Deepti, whose parents work on a construction site. I don’t know if there are signifiers that I’m missing; if not it’s a strange omission.

July 2, 2016

June Reading

Is this going to be another of those months where I disapprove of things? (Yes)

 

Elizabeth McKenzie, The Portable Veblen: I promised a friend I’d attend at least one of her Bailey’s prize shadowing book group sessions, and picked the last one largely because of this book. I’d seen it compared to Karen Joy Fowler’s work (which I love), there was an approving Ursula Le Guin blurb, and various other enthusiastic reviews (including this one from Jeff Vandermeer). It was probably inevitable that I’d be disappointed, and I was, a bit–as a social novel, with lots of exaggeratedly horrible characters, The Portable Veblen is successful; as the sort of thing that KJF does, it is not. I liked its joyous, over-the-top-ness, I liked every moment of Veblen and Paul attempting to figure out how to be those two people in a relationship; reading it against Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love (also for the abovementioned book group) I enjoyed the ways in which it was big and sweeping and comic in ways that felt stronger than Rothschild’s own invocation of those things. But at moments where I’d have wanted it to be weird it was twee, I wanted it to do more with its Thorstein Veblen references, and Veblen herself in particular embodies a particular sort of precious, whimsical whiteness that I’m strongly put off by. I feel more kindly disposed towards it than Abigail Nussbaum does here, but the comparison with Where’d You Go Bernadette?, which I hadn’t thought of, rings disappointingly true to me.

Patrick Ness, The Rest Of Us Just Live Here: Many (many) words on this here.

Marcus Sedgwick, The Ghosts of Heaven: Many words on this here. Both this and the Ness were a part of my Carnegie shortlist shadowing project.

Garth Nix, Goldenhand: Nix was in my city for a conference and I got to interview him (forthcoming from Strange Horizons!) and also to wheedle an ARC of the next Old Kingdom book out of him–and since I’d just reread the series for the interview, and have been a fan of the Old Kingdom since the 1990s, obviously I stayed up all night and read it immediately. I have many thoughts, but am saving them for a proper review in a couple of months.

Anna Breslaw, Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here: I seem to know a lot of people who deeply loved Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (which is about a young woman who writes very successful fanfic) and have generally attributed the fact that it does nothing for me to my general lack of engagement with fandom. Breslaw’s book is also about a BNF in a fictional fandom but is so clumsy in its engagement with fan culture that it makes me appreciate Rowell’s book a lot more. Scarlett is a fan of a teenage werewolf drama, which is cancelled at the beginning of the book. Undaunted, Scarlett and her friends in fandom (the most popular writers) decide to keep writing fic set in this universe anyway. Scarlett makes this an excuse to write thinly-/not-at-all disguised versions of her schoolmates into a weird RPF that features a) sexbots and b) no werewolves at all and for some reason, rather than turning away in vague embarrassment the fandom decides to embrace this setting and it grows popular enough for there to be ship wars. Naturally, the principal characters (the Mean Girl who is the basis for the main sexbot, the popular boy Scarlett has a crush on) find out and things blow up.

There are the bones of a good book in this–Scarlett’s initial idolisation of her father’s Cultured-ness (vs her mother’s lack thereof), the ways this maps on to her assumptions about who is and is not culturally valuable, these make for thoughtful, nuanced character portraits, and I think the book is reaching for exactly this. But it’s awkward in its relationship to and unnecessary explanations of fandom (and what on earth is that moment when Scarlett is surprised that a writer of m/m slash is a woman???), trite in its discussion of middle-aged white man fiction (to make me want to defend Jonathan Franzen is quite a feat), just generally unimpressive.