Archive for August, 2017

August 27, 2017

Some Borribles

Borriblecover

While on the subject of things I’ve written in places other than this blog:

I was in Ireland late last summer, for a conference in Galway and general reunions with lovely people in Dublin, and while I was there took the chance to rummage about the Michael de Larrabeiti archive, which is now housed at TCD (it moved there almost immediately after I’d left, which seemed rather pointed). I’ve been sort-of-kind-of working on the Borribles books for years, though they’ve been pushed into the background for a bit while I finish my thesis. The archive made me really want to come back to them, though–I’m surprised (and a bit relieved) that no one has taken the opportunities offered by the last few years to think about these books in this historical moment. Almost a year later, I still haven’t sat down to think through all the notes I took, and I really want to go back and rummage some more. (I’d also really like to speak to someone working on German history in the 70s and 80s, to make sense of some of the correspondence about the translations of the books–if you might be that person, please let me know!)

tardiIn any case, here’s a short thing I wrote a few months ago for the Newcastle University Children’s Literature Unit blog, on libraries and archives and canons and the relation in which these books sit with all of them. I’m hoping, soon, to give proper time to writing about the books and canonicity as part of my next project. For now, that link leads to a much shorter version, and as a consolation I offer a French edition of the first book, with cover art by Tardi and with a title that is an absolute joy to say.

 

 

August 25, 2017

New review and Strange Horizons fund drive

SH logoI have a review at Strange Horizons this week. It’s of the Guy Ritchie Arthur film that came out earlier this summer; I was ridiculously late with it (particularly shameful given that I’m usually on the other side, sending gently nagging emails to reviewers). I happen to be editing a chapter of my thesis that does a lot of thinking about the Arthur myth after empire, so think of this as a tiny bit of my PhD, but with more dick jokes.

More importantly, this week also marks the start of this year’s Strange Horizons fund drive. Lots of lovely people have been saying nice things about the fiction we publish (and this year has been great–here’s Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s incredible “Bluebellow”, for example). But as I’ve said before (and before I joined the enormous team of people who make the magazine happen), the thing that makes me commit myself to SH is how seriously it takes its nonfiction. I love that we published this wonderful essay by Dexter Palmerthis roundtable by Rebecca Roanhorse, Elizabeth LaPensee, Johnnie Jae and Darcie Little Badger, these columns by John Clute and Andrea Hairston, Erin Horáková’s astonishing Kirk Drift piece; that these pieces can be academic or sweary or long or full of almost incomprehensible neologisms, or whatever they need to be. And obviously I love our reviews section, for similar reasons. (I’m planning a twitter thread of beloved reviews from the past year, but I’ve barely started it so here’s last year’s.)

All of which is to say: I think we do good things, and I hope we continue to be able to. If you like the things linked above (or any of the other things we make!) and if you have cash to spare, please consider contributing. There’s an indiegogo page, and a patreon, and 61 (!) hopeful members of staff.

(And if you cannot contribute, ignore the last paragraph and just enjoy the several thousand words of great writing linked to above.)

August 5, 2017

July Reading

What I read in July–not counting all the Wolves rereads (see here), because I’ve read them before. As I say below, much of this month has been about comfort reading, and I’m a bit sick of it. I don’t wish to dismiss fluff as a genre (I love it and respect it), but I’m really looking forward to having the mental space to have most of my reading be properly chewy again. Anyway.

 

Mhairi McFarlane, Who’s That Girl?: I’ve been ill for a large part of this month, and needed all the comfort reading I could lay my hands on. This was good on the subject of manipulative men, though the thinly-disguised Game of Thrones plot made me cringe and the instagram bits made me wonder why everyone was so young. (This was also a thing I noticed with some of the actual YA mentioned below, but McFarlane’s protagonists are about my age, which suggests I’m very out of touch.) Still, enjoyable.

Daljit Nagra, British Museum: The Nagra collection of my heart will probably always be Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White Man Eating Tiger Toy Machine!!!, because of course. British Museum feels … quieter, and less confrontational, but is also doing a lot of work. In particular it’s staking Nagra’s claim to the institutions he’s writing about–the lack of confrontation is because the poet’s adopting the voice of a collective “we” in ways that I can’t decide whether I find intriguing or a bit disappointing.

Becky Albertalli, The Upside of Unrequited: I’ve spoken at length about Albertalli’s first book, which is also deeply enjoyable fluff. This book feels like a natural sequel to that one–it’s good on very specific feelings (romance taking your people away from you, the sort of alienation that suddenly makes being around well meaning people whom you like a nightmare, body stuff). It’s good, I liked it.

Victor LaValle, Dietrich Smith, Joana Lafuente, Jim Campbell, Destroyer #3: When this series is complete I’m expecting to find that this issue was the one where most of the exposition happened. I’m still finding it difficult to believe that this story will be entirely resolved in the three remaining issues, but LaValle seems like he knows what he’s doing. The art continues to be gorgeous.

Julie Buxbaum, What to Say Next, Tell Me Three Things: On the recommendation of a friend to whom I’d mentioned reading the Albertalli. Both books are about teenagers coping with death, both very … teenage in the ways in which their characters are a) emotionally isolated b) the only people who feel this way (they’re not, of course, but the books commit totally to the feeling)  c) in the case of TMTT, unable to make sense of T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land (this is a plot point, and it’s to Buxbaum’s credit that she doesn’t artificially make these schoolchildren more erudite). Tell Me Three Things in particular gets a bit silly in its adherence to tropes–all the attractive boys in the book seem to be interested in our protagonist, and it’s annoyingly committed to retaining a dichotomy between nice girls in jeans and mean girls in pretty summer dresses. Still enormously satisfying to read.

August 1, 2017

Joan Aiken, The Stolen Lake

I’ve been ill, and so I’ve been comfort-rereading the Wolves Chronicles. Here is some thinking about one of them in particular.

TheStolenLakeThe Stolen Lake is set in an alternate history in which, during the Saxon invasion of Britain, a large community of (Romans and Briton) refugees fled to South America and founded the countries of Hy Brasil, New Cumbria and Lyonesse. This occurred soon after Arthur had left for Avalon; Guinevere was still alive, however, and knowing that Arthur would probably come back over the water had the lake transported in frozen blocks to New Cumbria, so that he would have somewhere to come back to.

There … is some stuff going on here. It’s never entirely clear to me what aspects of our world’s history do and don’t make it into Aiken’s alt-histories. Catherine Butler and Hallie O’Donovan (in Reading History in Children’s Books) point out that though it’s tempting to try and find a/the jonbar hinge in the Wolves series and extrapolate what changes might have stemmed from there, it’s all but impossible to do so; that form of alternate history is simply not the framework within which this series operates. I do understand this, and I don’t think this is an attempt to read the book in such terms. But there is, as I say, stuff going on, and I’m particularly interested in trying to parse for myself what it’s doing with regard to my own pet subjects, space and empire. The other books in the series don’t really suggest much is going on with the British empire–the monarchs we see are all benevolent and vague, and things like the East India Company aren’t mentioned. On the other hand, there are trading ships travelling across the world, pirates, and missionaries in China. Meanwhile, British material culture is broadly as you’d expect it to be for the mid/late 19thC. This is all fine; we’re in that familiar space of British children’s literature where the country is small and decent and there is no shortage of tea.

But then we leave the British Isles and it gets newer and more interesting. That long ago flight to South America described by this book takes place in 577AD. We’re not sure what it means for (our world’s history of) Spanish and Portugese colonialism, if the Americas are already widely known within Europe and large parts of South America are already essentially a British colony. Several minor characters have names like Jose or Gomez, but this could either signal an Iberian influence that happened anyway or simply be a shorthand for “South American” (since in the world in which the book is written, the Spanish and Portuguese did conquer the region). Scraps of information suggest that the Inca empire has continued in some form into the book’s present (sometime in the mid-19thC), though they don’t come into this book’s plot. It’s also not clear what the racial makeup of the three Roman colonies is–did the original colonists kill most of the natives, intermarry with them, or were the lands just mostly empty, terra nullius except for that one picturesque and unnamed tribe who shrink heads? (Of whom more later.) There are ancient temples on mountains here, but they are dedicated to “Sul” (New Cumbria’s capital is “Aquae Sulis”), who is also somehow Medusa. Hy Brasil (the book’s afterword explains what Hy Brasil was) is ruled by a king named Huascar, son of Huayna Capac, and there is a hint that the country will soon be taken over by Huascar’s brother, Atahuallpa; all pretty much as recorded, just a slightly different empire and three centuries late.

[According to Neil Philip, a major scene in Alan Garner’s Elidor was based in part on Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun, which dramatizes Atahualpa’s encounter with Pizzaro. I’d love to know (someone must) whether Aiken had likewise seen or read Shaffer, or if for some reason there was particularly widespread interest in the Incas in 1960s and 70s Britain and both Aiken and Shaffer were affected by it.]

stolen lake gorey

Bodily transporting a myth across continents is fraught at the best of times. In Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, for example, we’re told that the Greek gods have moved their centre of operations to New York because America just is the centre of things now, so *shrug*. It’s a piece of imperial thinking that is so basic to the structure of the books that even the increasingly politically aware novels later in the series never quite get away from it. Riordan struggles to navigate this (as does Gaiman in American Gods, from what I remember of it) but I’m not convinced that there’s a way to do it that doesn’t invoke and then validate geopolitical inequalities. In this case, the myth is being transported specifically to a (current) colony, which makes this aspect of the situation even more acute.

Then there’s the fact that the Arthur myth itself is one that is inherently about landscape–Arthur territorially binds Britain (see Subramanian, 2017, or just take my word for it that I have a thesis chapter on this), is buried under Britain, will rise to save Britain. It makes sense, then, that the myth can only be relocated by relocating a part of the landscape itself. [That image of individual ice blocks being transported by ship (at some point they must have crossed the equator, I protested) also calls to mind that recurring image, in British children’s literature of the mid-century, of Americans buying up British heritage buildings and relocating them. (I have no idea if this happened often, yet the prevalence of the image has convinced me it did. Wikipedia suggests that there were at least a few prominent instances.)] Unsurprisingly, we discover that Arthur is inscribed upon the local landscape as well–travelling into the mountains the characters see huge geoglyphs that resemble their companion’s birthmark.

Above I suggest that we’re not really being invited to consider these books through the lens of European imperialism, but Ginevra, this version of Guinevere, is a nightmare colonist. Not only has she showed up and reshaped the entire landscape as well as instilling her own weird religious system, but she is preying upon her subjects in more horrifying ways. It turns out that she is a sort of cannibal, who has stayed alive for these several centuries by murdering and consuming local children. (Again, it’s not immediately obvious how race works in New Cumbria, but the racial politics of the situation also seem striking.) In order to protect them from Ginevra and her minions, local parents send their children to work in the mines underground where, horrific though the conditions are, their chances of survival are marginally better. The princess of the comparatively idyllic neighbouring kingdom of Lyonesse finds the existence of an entire industry based on child labour horrifying, but Dido Twite, Aiken’s London born, working class protagonist is less surprised. “It should not be allowed. It is not so in Lyonesse.” “It is in England.”

It’s possible, then, to read Ginevra not only as individually monstrous (though she is), but representative of much that is monstrous about 19th century Britain, a country known for treating its own working class children badly, as well as for consuming and imposing catastrophic change upon other peoples in other places. There’s also, in the image of the grief-stricken queen mourning her lost husband, more than a hint of Victoria (who of course, in Aiken’s world, is never crowned).

What, then, of Arthur/Atahuallpa/Gwydion/Holystone? “The whole of Roman America apart from that is in a disgraceful condition of tyranny, anarchy, and misrule. Time it was the High King came back; someone who will be accepted by the people and set matters to rights,” says a friend and ally from a neighbouring kingdom. In one sense, Arthur is as much of an import as Ginevra. But he has been reborn here in South America, has an Inca name (not that we’re told that that’s what “Atahuallpa” is); he is even described as having “pale brown” skin. His followers are eager for him to reunite “Roman America”, and this is in keeping with the character’s British roots (as I’ve said, one of the Arthur myth’s functions is to bind Britain into a single territory), but the idea of a single ruler of possibly divine provenance uniting the empire also runs in tandem with our-world stories about Atahuallpa as the last Sapa Inca.

A benevolent combining of the two continents (Europe and South America) and their histories and politics, then? It’d be nice, but neither in our world nor the world of the book is any equal footing ever possible. The need for a king like Arthur is in keeping with the myth, sure, but it’s also framed within a rhetoric that imitates current constructions of South America as lawless:

And as for the things that go on in Biru, you’d never believe–brigandage, cannibalism–I believe they even sacrifice their grandmothers to Sul. Grandmothers! in the streets of Manoa you daren’t go out at night because robbers make off with the silver manhole covers; you could fall straight into the sewers and get washed away.

And there are those shrunken heads. Almost the only instance of Ginevra embracing anything local is in her fondness for these heads as decorative objects–we’re told also that “Foreign travelers buy many of them; they are one of Cumbria’s principal exports”, wording that does at least implicate those tourists (probably North American and European?) in the continuation of the practice. We know that Arthur, an enlightened monarch, plans to concern himself with “Dissident elements in Hy Brasil … abolish practice of head shrinking … joint action to exterminate the aurocs … improved conditions in the silver mines …”; fair enough, I suppose, but the continued invocation of South America as a space of headshrinking and lawlessness is still uncomfortable.

Which is to state the obvious, and say that however much this may be more complex than many British fantasies that unthinkingly appropriate other spaces,  The Stolen Lake‘s charming alternate history is of necessity drawing on an imperial vocabulary that means something.