September 1, 2017

Further self-promotion

(In lieu of any actual blogging, until this cruel thesis is over; you weren’t seriously expecting a Books I Read in August post.*)

 

I’m one of the academics interviewed as part of this project by Connie Jeffery on the history of British children’s literature, and its role in “shaping” ideal children. There are five twenty-minute podcasts, organised broadly chronologically up to the mid-twentieth century, and it’s impressively lucid, particularly if the other people interviewed were anything like as waffly as I was. Connie’s framing (morality) is one I rarely have to think of with regard to my research, so apart from being a fun thing to do, this was also an interesting exercise in putting my own work in a different context.

Go and listen!

 

 

 

* (I read no books in August.)

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.

July 17, 2017

Kiran Millwood Hargrave, The Island at the End of Everything

hargraveWriting about Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s first novel, The Girl of Ink and Stars, I said that one problem I had with the book was its inability to establish a baseline reality for its world; the reader had no sense of what was and wasn’t possible in this world, and so moments that might otherwise have been startling or meaningful lost their effect.

Which is why, despite my own genre leanings, I’m very glad that her second book isn’t a fantasy. The Island at the End of Everything is set in a version of our world, in the Philippines at what appears to be the beginning of the twentieth century. The book opens on the island of Culion, an island populated by those “touched” by a disease (that we soon realise is leprosy) and their families. Our narrator and protagonist, Amihan, is one of those untouched–she lives with a mother who is affected by the disease. Unfortunately, the state authorities (or their representatives on the island) have decreed that harsher rules of segregation are needed if the disease is to be isolated and wiped out. People from all across the Philippines who are affected are to be brought to the island, while those adults who do not have it can still choose to live on Culion but only in areas designated “clean”. All children who do not have the disease are to be shipped off the island and sent to orphanages.

One of my favourite short stories is Karen Joy Fowler’s “King Rat”, which I’ve never yet managed to make my way through without crying. “King Rat” is about the Pied Piper of Hamlin, and more broadly, the visceral awfulness of stories in which parents and children are forcibly separated.

Shortly after I met Vidkun, I wrote my own book. This was an illustrated collection of short pieces. The protagonists were all baby animals. In these stories a pig or a puppy or a lamb wandered inadvertently away from the family. After a frightening search, the stray was found again; a joyful reunion took place. The stories got progressively shorter as the book went on. My parents thought I was running out of energy for it. In fact, I was less and less able to bear the middle part of the story. In each successive version, I made the period of separation shorter.

I quote Fowler because I can, and because every excuse to do so is a good one; also to explain that I, like the narrator of this story, find this form of separation particularly hard to bear. The opening sections of The Island at the End of Everything are wholly taken up with the ripping apart of this small family, and the more straightforwardly sentimental it is (Ami and her mother calculate the number of letters they’ll have to write if they are to write one a day until Ami is allowed back on Culion again) the more I’m willing to commit to the book entirely. Which is all fine, except that the book is doing other things as well.

At the behest of the authorities, and particularly of Mr Zamora, the horrifying representative of the state, the children are removed from the island. Zamora is (I don’t like this comparison, let us have one conversation this year that’s not about Harry Potter) Umbridgelike, not only in his position as representative of deeply awful state institutions, but in a bigotry and sadism which start out seeming like they’re merely a feature of the institution he represents but that is revealed to be teetering on the brink of of something dark and unbalanced. (I’m forcibly restraining myself from making comparisons to other political leaders of this moment.) He hates and is terrified of the people he has been forced to work among–his obsession with “cleanliness” underlining just how afraid he is of catching the disease. This is not his only flaw–he is a naturalist, obsessed with butterflies (there’s some wordplay around “leprosy” and “lepidopterist” that fortunately isn’t made much of). To Ami, this mostly means that he kills butterflies, poisoning them in a bell jar that he keeps for the purpose. Her nanay (mother) is also fond of butterflies, though she, of course, has taken the opposite approach, planting a butterfly garden in the hope of bringing them to her home. (It hasn’t worked. “‘Not a single butterfly came last summer, Ami’ says Nanay. ‘I don’t think they like it on Culion.’”) The butterflies will turn out to be Significant–the evacuated children will force Zamora to drop his specimens and lose some on their way off the island–and when Amihan returns to say a final farewell, there they are, gloriously.

The butterflies are also the element that destabilises the book’s realism. In most senses this absolutely is historical fiction; the presence of the butterflies is such that we’re forced not to read the book in an entirely realist mode–it’s not magical realism (you could make an argument for The Girl of Ink and Stars being in or adjacent to that genre, though I don’t know that I’d be convinced), but I think it’s probably closest to fabulism.

Other people will probably write at length about this book’s found family, its implicit queer relationship, its evil scientist plot. All of these are handled varying degrees of well, and none of them made a huge impact on me. What stuck with me, I think, was something less tangible. In a dangerous attempt to return to Culion, Ami, Mari and Kidlat risk their lives on the sea, so that we see Ami “[...] think of all the things beneath us, the fish and the coral and the sharks.” There’s some of this sense in the early chapters as well, which feature characters both living with and very carefully not thinking about the thing that is going to kill so many of them and/or their loved ones. Which is to say that the lasting impression of this book for me, reading it in this year and at this time, is one of people giving themselves up to huge, fatal forces, and doing what needs to be done in the knowledge that things are ending, and ending soon. Until its final act, which is a reassuring return to normal operations (though perhaps not for Ami, for whom such a life has never been normal), the main emotive thrust of the book for me was a sort of gentle apocalypse.

July 2, 2017

June Reading

Looking increasingly wild-eyed, I assure you that when this thesis is over I will read some serious important books again. For now, this is what I read in June.

 

Sandhya Menon, When Dimple Met Rishi: This has been getting some positive buzz in the US as a romcom about arranged marriage, and friends and I have been rather side-eyeing it–not because we’re set against the concept per se (some of our best friends and family etc) but because this particular iteration of it seems to involve a) teenagers and b) manipulation by family (and c) being very clearly aimed at a not-Indian audience ["idli cakes"]). Having read it, I don’t think the book ever manages to deal with or explain away the parts of the story that feel inherently unpleasant; which might be fine in some circumstances (a lot of romance fiction does this, and it can be cathartic or have other uses for the reader) but I don’t get the impression that this book is positioning itself that way.  None of this, however, was as hazardous to my experience of the book as my dislike of its male protagonist, who you just know will be posting sanghi memes on facebook about three years into this relationship.

 

Thomas Burnett Swann, The Forest of Forever, The Day of the Minotaur: I went through a period, lasting several years, when I’d forget both author and title but suddenly feel a yearning for a particular story in a particular anthology and have to hunt it down. (It was Swann’s “The Sudden Wings”, in the Tom Shippey-edited Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories.) More recently, I’ve been promising myself that I’d read some of Swann’s work beyond that one story. I did enjoy these two books, but I suspect that was more to do with the novelty of reading a book entirely unconnected to either my thesis or to any current literary conversation. The Day of the Minotaur (which was published first) begins with some of the things that I liked about “The Sudden Wings” (our history, but with ancient remnants of a world of gods and monsters, sexy Other mythological creatures, siblings, generally charged interactions) and peters into something rather more domestic and less exciting, whereas The Forest of Forever, a prequel to the earlier book, doesn’t really add much except the revelation that the Minotaur was previously in love with his eventual girlfriend’s mother, and to make the sexy tree nymph character of the earlier book seen pathetic. I’ve seen commentary on Swann that describes these books as sexually charged, and while there are moments where that is true, the thing that I’m most struck by in these books is how profoundly uncomfortable they are with sex, even as they seem unable to move away from the idea of it. In “The Sudden Wings” these impossible impulses turned into something sharp and lovely; here they just … dwindle into not very much.

 

Victor LaValle, Dietrich Smith, Joana Lafuente, Destroyer #1-2: I’ve been planning for ages to read Victor LaValle, particularly since this great review of The Ballad of Black Tom (full disclosure: I edited the review, so am biased in the matter of its greatness. I’m still right though). I have read Frankenstein, over and over; I love it for its richness, and how much it offers a reader to play with. LaValle’s take on it, planned as a six issue series, is set in the present; the creature comes back among humans just as a (black, woman) scientist has begun to reanimate her child, killed in circumstances the reader hasn’t yet been explicitly shown. It’s probably a reductive way to look at LaValle’s career (he’s written a few novels and a short story collection) to focus on one novella and one comics series, but I get the impression that the two would bounce off one another really well–both repurposing classic works of horror to centre a grief and anger that are specific to an African American context. Thus far, Destroyer is upsetting and uncomfortable in all the best ways, and I’m looking forward to the next installment.

 

Kiran Millwood Hargrave, The Island at the End of Everything: I was underwhelmed by Millwood Hargrave’s first book, though I seem to have been in a minority in this opinion (it has won several prizes since I read it). Even at the time though, I thought there were things it did well–domestic details and (initially) sense of place, some startlingly good turns of phrase. It just didn’t cohere into one thing, or (this feels more important, because coherence is overrated) make me particularly care about it. It’s at times like this that one notices things like flaws in worldbuilding. This new book is set in our own world, or a version of it, and has a much clearer sense to me of what it wants to be–this version of the Philippines is not miles away from the “real” one, and the tone is fabulist rather than fantastical. Its concerns (families split apart, people waiting to die, found family, stigma) feel contemporary without being allegorical, and there’s a lot about it I like. Still not entirely to my taste–there’s a lot of capitals floating around in phrases like “the Places Outside” and the lyricism of the prose is a bit hit and miss–but that’s me, not it.

 

(I also managed to watch some movies this month. My thoughts on The Mummy are here; and I’m still trying to write about the sort of thesis-relevant Arthur: Legend of the Sword. I doubt I’ll be writing about Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, which seems a pity since it’s the most interesting of the three by some distance.)

June 24, 2017

Bulletpoints: The Mummy

I’d like to say I watched The Mummy so that you (the reader) didn’t have to, but judging by the near empty theatre the day we went to see it, I’m not sure I’ve saved anyone anything. Nor am I saying anything original in telling you that it’s a bad film, given that even everyone who’s in it seems aware of this. Russell Crowe is having the time of his life. Tom Cruise looks like he can’t believe these words are emerging from his face. Annabelle Wallis looks apologetic, as if she knows that she had a hand in the two terrible big budget films I’ve watched this summer. (It’s impossible to tell how Sofia Boutella, in the title role, feels about the movie or her own performance; the mummy spends much of the film resurrecting her own face.)

In any case, some thoughts:

 

  • I’ve been lazy about paying attention to this film’s marketing, but must assume that someone somewhere has explicitly said it’s a reboot of both the Karloff and Brendan Fraser films (I think the Dark Universe is meant to be a set of loose film reboots, but still). Because all of the commentary around the Tom Cruise Mummy seems to focus on those films to the exclusion of all else–as if the 1930s had been the start of the mummy story rather than a temporary revival. It’s not, particularly, because of a similarity in plot–and even those two films are only broadly similar in their choice of Imhotep as Mummy.

 

  • This looks (oh no) like a grumpy “why don’t kids these days read books” complaint, but I promise it’s mostly that mummy fiction comes from and is rooted in a really specific context (here I am, discussing this at some length), so that most later iterations of the genre feel like they’re missing some key part. Plus, that context is imperial Europe, and Hollywood can only (barely) invoke imperial America.

 

  • The Mummy deals with this by shifting some of the action to modern day Iraq (with frequent reminders that we’re in Mesopotamia, The Cradle of Civilisation), thus giving Tom Cruise an excuse to be there. The archaeologist points out that an Egyptian tomb in Mesopotamia is weird and probably important, but beyond that acknowledgement of geography the viewer is left to assume that the ancient Egyptians simply wanted to get this body as far away from them as possible. There’s a sort of collapsing of space here that feels familiar from imperial literature–Egypt is Egypt, obviously, it’s where the mummies and the pyramids etc are, but it’s also all of the East, and to some extent interchangeable with other parts of that larger orientalist whole.

 

  • And yet the film must still shift its action to England–it’s England, not America, that has a history with Egypt; English people’s habit of carrying home Eastern artifacts is what shifts the action to these shores.

 

  • There’s something going on with artifacts and what one does with them. The main action of The Mummy opens with Nick from New Girl and Tom Cruise (confusingly called Nick here), US soldiers and looters in Iraq, following a map to “Haram,” which they’ve chosen to interpret as “treasure, probably”. “Haram” (I know) turns out to be in the vicinity of a village that has been overrun with “insurgents”–you can tell they’re the bad sort of native by the fact that they’re destroying some ancient Mesopotamian statuary. Luckily our heroes, loveable rogues, get in and cause some explosions, one of which reveals the giant underground chamber in which Ahmanet has been contained. Nick and Nick-from-New-Girl’s plunder is clearly bad and shows no respect for the objects or their history–the archaeologist, Jenny Halsey, shows a desire to preserve them. Meanwhile, we’re reminded that the people with whom the US army is at war are hostile to their own history and want to wipe it out. Halsey’s removal of historical artefacts is thus contrasted both with the bad natives and (cleverly) the bad invaders–anxiously justifying itself by setting up these terrible alternatives. It’s all a bit reminiscent of your friend who isn’t racist and knows the British empire did bad things, but isn’t it great that the British Museum exists? And wouldn’t these artefacts be damaged if they weren’t there? (Sometimes your friend will even point out how ironic it is that a lot of the situations from which these important bits of heritage are being saved are in part due to the countries doing the saving. [It's like raaaaain ....])

 

  • Mummy fiction does this all the time. This is a genre based in the violation of human bodies, and because of this it not only works as a sort of distillation of the imperial project (empire is built on turning [black and brown] bodies into [consumable] objects), but also the awareness of that violation haunts the genre and it needs to constantly push back against it. And so there will always be a reason, completely plausible in-text, why this violation was necessary, even admirable.

 

  • It’s interesting, then, that the film so thoroughly sidesteps questions of empire. The important connection between Egyptian and British history, the reason Ahmanet comes to Britain, the source of our information about this ancient backstory is … the Crusades. I don’t wish to generalise (#notallCrusaders) but of the various encounters between Britain and Egypt, is this really the one most likely to have involved the uncovering and preservation of important historical and archaeological secrets about Egypt’s supernatural past? Later, we discover that Russell Crowe’s secret lair (of which more later) is a part of the Natural History Museum–not the British Museum, as this piece, for example, claims. You can (I’m probably going to) argue that the NHM is as much a product of empire as the BM; you can probably argue (I’m not going to) that the Crusades are as relevant or more so to British imperial history in 2017 than the entire nineteenth century. But it seems to me that, beyond those misleading opening sections (surely a movie about Americans being gross in Iraq is going to make a political point?) the film goes out of its way to avoid being visibly about empire. (It still is, of course. It’s a mummy story.)

 

  • The refusal to discuss the Victorians is even more pointed when we’re introduced to Russell Crowe’s Henry Jekyll, the Nick Fury of this Dark Universe (our world, but all our classic supernatural adventure stuff is real, like a crap League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). Jekyll’s organisation Prodigium is clearly set up as a sort of framing narrative for this series of films; from the specimen jars present in his labs, we know we’re going to be dealing with Vampires and their ilk in coming installments.I find myself wondering about the choice to go with specimens rather than objects (the end credits do show various Egyptian artefacts, alongside what appear to be their catalogue numbers in a [the British?] museum); mummies and vampires as natural phenomena in no way connected with any sort of cultural grounding.

 

  • The major thing that attracted me to this film was the fact that the Mummy is female. Colonial space is always gendered (oh my america) anyway; one of my favourite terrible facts about the 19th century is the existence of mummy-unwrapping parties where groups of people would get together to strip a human corpse. There’s a full appreciation of the erotic potential of veiling and unveiling inherent in both the figure of the mummy itself and more generally popular depictions of sexy Eastern women (all those veils!). It’s not surprising, then, that early mummy fiction generally depicts the mummy as a woman. (Another reason this film is better read in the context of the books.) The film buys into this completely in its early depictions of Ahmanet–our visions of her are mediated through Nick’s daydreams/trances so they’re already fragmented; teasing glimpses of trailing strips of white fabric with beautiful limbs being revealed and then concealed.

 

  • (Here’s William Prime, in 1857, fantasising about tomb robbers violating a mummy: “What fingers tore the coverings from her delicate arms! What rude hands were around her neck, that was once white and beautiful! What sacreligious wretches wrested the jeweled amulet from its holy place between those breasts,once white and heaving full of love and life, and bared her limbs to the winds, and cast them out on the desert sand!” [From here, some more context here. It’s worth noting that Prime’s fantasy violated dead woman is also white and blonde.])

 

  • 19th Century mummies are women because the East is just mysterious and feminine boutella mummy chainsand because the Victorians like to turn their anxieties into something they can also want to fuck, but perhaps most importantly because they’re violable. In these books about mysterious undead women with supernatural power, and later in films about male mummies risen from the grave to be reunited with their true loves, it’s other women who are possessed or kidnapped or expected to play host to the reincarnated spirit. It’s unusual to see a plot in which the male hero’s mind is the one taken over; and Ahmanet’s attempts to resurrect Seth in Nick’s body require him to be held down while she straddles him and so are presented to us as a sort of sexual assault.  Being terrible, the movie can’t really commit to this disorientation–we’re in Nick’s head throughout so that his possession appears more a minor annoyance than anything, and he’s still The Hero, while Ahmanet is the one presented to us as an aesthetic/sexual object. At one point, when she has been captured, she’s chained into a submissive position and tortured by having mercury pumped into her body while the characters (and the camera, and so us) hang around watching her.

 

  • Ahmanet is a brown woman, and that matters not just because of the specific ways in which she’s sexualised/sexually voracious/grotesque (there’s literal bits of missing skin on her for much of the film), but in the ways she’s contrasted with the beautiful white, blonde woman (the archaeologist, Halsey, who quickly becomes “Jenny”). Even while being possessed by an evil Egyptian death god (really, though) Nick recognises which woman deserves his allegiance and which deserves to be thrown about the room. White womanhood remains precious beyond the grave.

 

  • There was a brief, and wonderful moment when I genuinely believed that Nick’s heroic trajectory would involve accepting the necessity of his own death–it seemed a fittingly current plot development. He does accept the possibility of dying … and then survives. The spirit of Set has now entered into Nick, who the surviving members of Prodigium discuss as a potential ally. Should the franchise survive long enough for this to happen, this “Egyptian” god will therefore be represented by a white American man. Meanwhile, Marwan Kenzari gets to be unnamed attractive Prodigium employee (imdb tells me his character’s name is “Malik”) and Courtney B. Vance plays the only named black character (unless we count Ahmanet herself) and the first named character to die.

 

  • A brief note on the film as horror: The Mummy has decided to interpret the mummy genre as a subset of zombie horror, which is fair enough, since both involve reanimated corpses. Ahmanet calls up several dead bodies to do her bidding, from ordinary people who appear to have been buried under London to the crypt of Crusaders whose discovery opens the film. (It’s not clear to me if she can only do this to human bodies–she leaves a perfectly good woolly mammoth in the museum.) This leads to a scene in which Cruise’s Nick is swimming slowly through a submerged crypt, followed by a bunch of reanimated Crusaders, still in chainmail, and swimming very slowly also. It’s almost as if the film is rebelling against the recent trend of fast-moving zombies by slowing down the zombie chase entirely. It’s hilarious. Meanwhile, Nick is hallucinating/being haunted by a dead Nick-from-New-Girl. Other horror tropes–scary animals in swarms (spiders, ants, crows) appear to be working with or controlled by Ahmanet; though the cows in the field adjoining the scene of her resurrection seem unconcerned. The film does an excellent Final Girl scene–Jenny, having done literally nothing to ensure her survival, is seen alone, shivering, alive and holding a knife.

 

  • And then there’s the film’s own final scene, which I’m not sure what to make of. Obeying the compulsion to dress a bit like a mummy (Ahmanet didn’t seem to have time to get solid clothes, though she’d clearly youtubed some hair tutorials), Nick has wrapped some strips of cloth around his hands, resurrected his best friend, and … travelled to Egypt to have “adventures”. The last thing we see are these two American men, on horseback, kicking up a sandstorm, and riding towards some pyramids, as if someone had watched Lawrence of Arabia and understood that it was good but not why. I doubt the film is meant to invoke all that this image implies, but even the commitment to the image is rather telling.
June 22, 2017

Jared Shurin (ed), The Book of the Dead

From three years ago, a slightly-edited review of an anthology of original mummy fiction. Published in Strange Horizons, and brought to you by my shady Victorianist past. I was reminded of this review’s existence because of the recent film The Mummy, starring Sofia Boutella (as the Mummy) and Tom Cruise. (Thoughts on that are forthcoming, probably, but please know that it is terrible.)

 

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The mummy story emerges from a nineteenth century that is saturated with Egyptomania. Which is to say, of course, that it emerges very specifically from imperial Europe’s troubled history with Egypt. “[S]ince this accursed Egyptian style came into fashion . . . my eldest boy rides on a sphinx instead of a rocking-horse, my youngest has a papboat in the shape of a crocodile, and my husband has built a watercloset in the shape of a pyramid and has his shirts marked with a lotus,” John J. Johnston quotes from an 1805 letter to the London Morning Chronicle in his introduction to Unearthed, an anthology of classic mummy stories. Robert Southey complained in 1807 that “everything must now be Egyptian, the ladies wear crocodile ornaments, and you sit upon a Sphinx in a room hung round with mummies.” Europe was never exactly unaware of Egypt, but Napoleon’s invasion of the country in 1798 opened it up for European scrutiny in ways that it never had been before. Egyptology as a discipline begins with the Description de l’Égypte; nineteenth century knowledge about Egypt, whether fact or fiction, was produced in the context of, and in the service of, empire. (This is the basic premise of Edward Said’s Orientalism.)

Which raises a question about how these two books—The Book of the Dead, an anthology of original mummy stories, and its companion volume, Unearthed, both edited by Jared Shurin—present themselves, and how they are packaged. The Book of the Dead is dedicated to Amelia B. Edwards, feminist, writer, women’s suffragist, and founder of the Egypt Exploration Society. Both volumes contain introductions by a member of the EES, and both end with an advertisement for it. This shouldn’t be a surprise—Jurassic London have clearly stated that these books are published in partnership with the society. But in a post-Orientalism (not, alas, post-orientalism) world, it’s hard to stomach this uncritical celebration of Europeans producing knowledge about Egypt in light of how that knowledge was, and in some ways still is, put to use. It’s probably worth noting at this point that as far as I can tell, all the writers in The Book of the Dead are British or American.

Fortunately, many of the best stories in the collection take as their impetus the complex, uncomfortable historical relationship between the west and Egypt. One of these is Adam Roberts’s “Tollund,” which is certainly aware of the power inherent in the creation of knowledge, of who gets to produce it and who has it produced about them. “Tollund” is a reversal of our expectations of a mummy story; not only is the preserved body in question a bog body in Jutland but the scientists who come to study it and have a terrible adventure in the process are named Hussein, Suyuti, el-Akkad, and el-Kafir el-Sheikh. It’s not always subtle; the phrase “occidental exoticism” appears and the characters spend a lot of time sitting around discussing the inferiority of these barbaric Northerners. It doesn’t need to be; a number of the stories in the collection critically examine the roots of the genre, but this blatant overturning of it delighted me.

Other stories in the collection deal with the transport of Egyptian artefacts to museums across the western world. Louis Greenberg’s “Akhenaten Goes to Paris” has its title character travel to France to visit a father who is currently on display in a museum. Paul Cornell’s Rameses I wakes up in a museum in Canada. Den Patrick’s “All is Dust” has canopic jars stolen . . . from the British Museum. The turning of bodies into objects and the attendant undercurrent of discomfort that comes with this has been a part of the mummy tradition since its inception; fittingly, Unearthed begins with Theophile Gaultier’s 1840 short story “The Mummy’s Foot,” which has a young man buy a disembodied foot to use as a paperweight. One of mummy fiction’s most uncomfortable moments comes in Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars, when the Egyptologist Professor Trelawney unwraps the perfectly-preserved body of the Egyptian Queen Tera. The unrolling of a mummy for an audience was a popular spectacle in the mid-nineteenth century, and once it is done Trelawney and his associates stand gloating over Tera’s beautiful naked body. But also in the room is Trelawney’s daughter Margaret, who is for supernatural reasons the physical double of Tera. As long as Margaret is present, it is impossible to entirely think of Tera as an object—and so the sense of violation is brought uncomfortably home.

In The Book of the Dead, Louis Greenberg’s Akhenaten moves constantly between the states of person and object—unable to bluff his way through airport security as a living person he begins the story by traveling to Paris as cargo; once there he is able to hide in a museum by pretending to be one of the exhibits. In his perorations about Paris (a city he quite likes) in the guise of a living being Akhenaten is subject to multiple instances of casual racism and suggestions that he go back to where he came from—including in the Place de la Concorde, which has at its centre the Luxor Obelisk. As fond as Akhenaten is of the modern world, it’s clear that he is more welcome in Paris when he is an artifact than when he is a person.

If the museums preserve mummies as objects, we’re also reminded that they can be destroyed, and even consumed. As Johnston reminds us in his introduction, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europeans even ingested powdered mummy as a form of medicine. Roger Luckhurst’s “The Thing of Wrath” takes for its inspiration stories of rags from mummies being imported from Egypt to the USA in order to make paper for newspapers. Jenni Hill’s “The Cats of Beni Hasan” is based on the use of mummified cats (tons of them were shipped to England in the nineteenth century) as fertilizer.

Two stories in the collection deal with the physical consumption of mummies. “All is Dust” has a group of old friends accidentally snort some dead mummy along with cocaine—the only one it affects is the Egyptian character who turns into a vengeful murderer. In Maria Dahvana Headley’s “Bit-U-Men,” a reanimated mellified man (or not a man—its gender is ambiguous throughout) allows for its body to be used in the production of American confectionery. This story, which later contains a reference to “mummy brown” ink, centers the consenting human owner of the body and in doing so invokes thousands of mummified bodies that were used in various ways without the possibility of consenting, and harks back to the tradition of mummy stories built upon the sense of unease created by the inability to wholly erase the humanity of these bodies-as-collectable/consumable-objects. “Bit-U-Men” is probably the strongest story in the collection, both in the ways it harks back to and interrogates the traditional mummy story and in its fittingly thick-as-honey prose.

Headley’s story is one of many in the collection that play with that other great trope of mummy fiction—the love story. Early fictional mummies are usually female and beautiful; Gaultier’s Hermonthis, for example, possesses “the purest Egyptian type of perfect beauty.” Whether this was connected to a more general feminization of the Orient, or the erotic potential of veiling and unveiling (all those public mummy-unwrappings!) Victorian mummy fiction is full of the beautiful undead, whether they be beautiful and deadly (like Queen Tera, or even Rider Haggard’s Ayesha) or harmless like Hermonthis or Haggard’s Ma-Mee. Lou Morgan’s “Her Heartbeat, An Echo” has another Egyptian princess fall in love with a modern man—a museum security guard who refuses to treat her as an object and offers to share his lunch. The susceptibility of thousand-year-old beautiful princesses towards random British men is another fine Victorian tradition, but there’s something rather nice about this particular iteration of it. The eroticized female mummy takes on a different form in Michael West’s rather muddled story of rape and revenge, “Inner Goddess,” while David Thomas Moore’s “Old Souls” adapts the reincarnated lovers trope as a retelling of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter (complete with a reference to the film, so that we know it knows it’s doing it).

Jesse Bullington’s “Escape from the Mummy’s Tomb” is one of the few stories that refer to later cinematic iterations of the mummy. Seth Rasul (I don’t know how common “Seth” is as a modern Egyptian name; I suspect its use in two consecutive stories in this collection has more to do with its familiarity as an English or American name) is of Egyptian descent and the target of racist bullies at his British school. He also loves mummy movies and retreats into them when he is the target of abuse; in his head he is the mummy, a boy on whom he has a crush is a werewolf, said boy’s girlfriend is a vampire. I can’t help reacting rather uncomfortably to this story, which in most ways I love. It’s well done; Bullington never oversimplifies the complex relationships members of minority groups can have with the media we grow up with. And yet and yet and yet. Part of the point of “Escape from the Mummy’s Tomb” is that immigrants and minorities tend not to exist very much in mainstream culture, so that our relationships with the things that are conceivably “ours” can be possessive, even when we’re the monsters. Perhaps when it’s done this convincingly it’s irrelevant that Bullington (as far as I know) has never been a queer brown kid in a white school. And yet I keep coming back to that (all British/American) table of contents and think that maybe it does matter.

At the most basic level mummy stories are about dead bodies, and so about death and what you can and cannot keep holding on to. Maurice Broaddus’s “Cerulean Memories” and David Bryher’s “The Dedication of Sweetheart Abbey” focus on the physical aspects of this; the ways in which keeping a dead body around is rather horrifying. Glen Mehn’s “Henry” takes the opposite route with a focus on the virtual—if everything stays on the internet forever, how do you let go? This question of how you face the death of someone you love is at the heart of the last story in the collection, Will Hill’s “Three Memories of Death.” Hill’s story takes the form of a philosophical debate carried out by two men over decades, and it’s quiet and elegiac; a reminder that this genre can also be intensely personal.

Much of this review seems to consist of describing the ways in which these stories adapt classic tropes. Because even where there’s a clear, critical engagement with those tropes, most stories in the collection still feel very traditional. Sarah Newton’s “The Roof of the World” feels like a classic Victorian adventure set in the Pamir Mountains—I’m not convinced it’s a mummy story, but I like the genre enough not to mind. And despite its undercurrent of political commentary (or not “despite”; the original stories often do this too) Luckhurst’s “The Thing of Wrath” is very much a cozy Victorian horror story, complete with frame narrative (abandoned midway) and bad title. I love the mummy story because it’s rooted in a historical moment with which I’m fascinated; a collection like this one, where the strongest pieces focus on interrogating the origins of the genre and where attempts to update it feel more like window dressing than anything else, isn’t much of an argument for its resurrection. Perhaps Hill’s story is a fitting end to the collection, a reminder that sometimes it is necessary to let go.

 

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Rereading this has reminded me that someday I want to reread Louis Greenberg’s story alongside Beatrice Alemagna’s Un Lion à Paris (this is mostly a children’s literature blog, nowadays). Someday.

June 6, 2017

April and May Reading

By the time I sat down to write about what I’d read in April, it was nearly June (it is now very much June). Thus: a two month reading post, in which, as you’ll see, not very much actual reading was done.

 

Alex Wheatle, Straight Outta Crongton: Naturally I’ll be writing about this at length eventually, but some preliminary (potentially spoiler-y?) thoughts: firstly, there’s something interesting going on with time here. Straight Outta Crongton has as one of its major characters Elaine, older sister to the protagonist of Liccle Bit, but it’s set a few years before that novel, when Elaine is in her mid teens and hasn’t yet met Manjaro. So it’s a prequel; that in itself isn’t unusual–but all its cultural references are current. So either all three books take place in a much tighter time frame than I’ve been assuming (and even then, considering Obama is the former US president in this book that can’t be all), or Crongton is outside time for the space of the books (much as it’s set in a place that isn’t real), or this is the current book and Liccle Bit and Crongton Knights are set in the future. It’s also in many ways darker than the first two books, and thinking about that both in terms of This Historical Moment and of Wheatle’s switch to a cast of mostly women is interesting to chew on. It’s good, which is the important thing.

Robin Stevens, Cream Buns and Crime: Because I read every Robin Stevens book about ten minutes after it becomes available, I’d also been buying her Wells and Wong short stories as they came out as ebooks. Cream Buns and Crime is in part a vehicle for getting those short stories into print, so that alongside the couple of new stories and other material in this collection, I was effectively getting a bunch of things I’d already got. Which is not an unusual thing for a publisher to do, but did make the book a bit underwhelming as a New Robin Stevens Book. The couple of new stories are good, though I’m slightly offended at the break from the Hazel-writes-the-novels, Daisy-writes-the-shorts tradition (one of these is a Junior Pinkertons story, and one is narrated by Beanie.

Hope Larson, Brittney Williams, Sarah Stern, Goldie Vance Vol. 1: The friend who lent this to me grabbed my interest by claiming it was a girl detective story, set in a 1950′s hotel, with a queer romance subplot–all of which made for a convincing argument. She did not mention the drag racing and cold war anxieties  (in retrospect, I ought to have expected both) or indeed the space! plot (which I did not expect). I don’t know how I feel about the comic’s choice to so completely identify with its heroine’s 20th century American fears of The Russians, however plausible that might be for this setting, but it’s still really charming.

Innosanto Nagara, My Night in the Planetarium: Nagara has featured in these monthly lists of reading before for his alphabet and counting board books, A is for Anarchist and Counting on Community. This is a few steps up as regards reading age–where the audience of A is for Anarchist was probably going to have to rely on parents for conversations about what “Zapatista” meant (which was one of the book’s strengths, of course), this has brief, accessible explanations of colonialism, censorship and recent history, woven into an autobiographical story. The art continues to be great, and I think Nagara’s achieving a really interesting balance between taking big things seriously and making them accessible to very young readers.

Rick Riordan, The Dark Prophecy: I don’t know that I have much to say about this, given that it’s mid-series; I did enjoy it, but was also a bit underwhelmed. The previous book set up a horrifying, complicated situation (wrt one character’s history of abuse, and her relationship to the man who abused her); the abuser is not in this book, which is nice; but the problem seems rather to have vanished for the duration of his absence, which is … hm. On the other hand, I’ve been reading these interconnected series since they started and there’s something so nice about (how to say this without sounding patronising? I don’t mean to be) seeing Riordan’s politics evolve, and seeing the books increasingly value particular forms of community and safety. (Also there’s a very good elephant.)

Elsie J. Oxenham, Stowaways in the Abbey; Strangers in the Abbey:  Readers of this blog know of my series-completionist side, which has led me to make unfortunate choices in the past. These two were the result of a visit to Barter books some weeks ago. I’ve read most of the Abbey series at some point or another, but my knowledge of the “retrospective” titles (see) is patchy. As with many fill in titles both of these are heavy on the foreshadowing (see for example Jen’s insistence that Joan is going to call her daughter Janice, and that said daughter will be May queen at school and will choose lobelias for her flower, or all the discussion of the marriageability of the various Marchwood brothers). While I was reading I was having thoughts about the level of emotion these books allow their characters to show (too much, she said disapprovingly)–it’s all heightened to a point that feels ludicrous to me, but then there are solid reasons for that, and if this was a genre other than Books For Mid-Century Girls they would probably be more clearly theorised. Still, these are extremely far from being among the better Oxenham books.