May 1, 2016

April Reading

April was mostly a thesis-writing month, as is probably clear; nothing here is very long or heavy, and quite a bit of it is work-relevant. Still.

 

Penelope Lively, The Whispering Knights: Well this is defnitely Lesser Lively, though I did enjoy the image of a witches brew made from canned frog’s legs.

Penelope Farmer, The Summer Birds: I’d have to reread Charlotte Sometimes to check, but this felt very tonally different. I liked it a lot–it’s really good at invoking all the things that make Peter Pan and Wendy work so well: sex and flight and the promise of death.

Sheena Porter, Nordy Bank: At some point I’m going to have to write something making wild generalisations about changing relationships with plot and structure in fiction. I’m reminded of this every time I read children’s books from the 60s and 70s (which, at the moment, is all the time), but even more so when it’s one I didn’t already know well. This was my first time reading Nordy Bank, and I’m not sure how it’s a book about a girl and her dog and a book about being possessed by your Bronze Age ancestors and a book about camping and tramping in a minor key but it certainly is all of those things. I can understand why it’s not one of the Carnegie-winners that has continued to be popular, but I also liked it.

Becky Albertalli, Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda: I’ve written about this here. Short version: I thought it was cute.

Noelle Stevenson, Nimona: Adorable, and has moments where it feels like it’s touching on something raw and wonderful. But it doesn’t feel like enough–I’m not sure you can successfully invoke the depth of trauma that some of these characters have faced, or the scale of violence that they’ve either perpetrated or had to forgive their loved ones for perpetrating, without going a lot further than this comic was willing to.

Jean Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad, Asterix and the Missing Scroll: I didn’t think much of Asterix and the Picts, and rolled my eyes at the Relevant Social Commentary implied in an Asterix comic about leaked documents, and now that I’ve read this I find it rather slight. But then it does this thing on its final page that creates a metanarrative for the whole series, and. Well played.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze, Laura Martin, Black Panther .1: It may need a few issues (perhaps I’ll wait for the first trade) before there’s enough here for me to work out if I like it. For now, all I know is that I really enjoyed the art.

Kate Saunders, Five Children on the Western Front: I’ve written about this at length here. Short version: Touching, but I’ve read better and smarter fanfic than this.

Julia Quinn, Because of Miss Bridgerton: I enjoy Julia Quinn but don’t know what the point of this book was.

William Mayne, Earthfasts: I’m writing about this separately, and I’m not entirely sure what happens in some sections of it but Mayne is such a good writer.

April 28, 2016

Kate Saunders, Five Children on the Western Front

Saunders PsammeadI want to think about what Saunders is doing with this book as a (sorry) transformative work.(Is it worth mentioning here that my favourite piece of Nesbit fanfic is C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew?) There have been other continuations of Nesbit’s Psammead books before–most notably Jacqueline Wilson’s Four Children and It, but the internet informs me that there’s a Helen Cresswell book as well. The Cresswell appears a pretty straightforward sequel–the same sort of thing told over again, but with a new set of Edwardian children. The Wilson is a bit different–the Psammead books exist in this world and one character has read them. While the general children/ adventures/ be-careful-what-you-wish-for theme is inevitable, there’s something being done with the idea of the book itself. The character who most likes to read, and who has read Nesbit, is the one who wishes she could visit Edwardian England–and finds herself in a workhouse. It’s a bit of a kickback against the construction of Edwardian England as a sort of golden age of childhood; one which Nesbit’s books do a lot to construct in themselves.

And that construction, that golden England, is connected to WWI as well. It’s all country houses and elaborate afternoon teas and the Empire is strong (I’ll come to that, inevitably) and people dressed like Wodehouse characters and we, with hindsight, know that this awful thing is going to befall these happy, well-dressed people and they’re so young and it’s so tragic.

(There are things to say here about pre-WWI England as a kind of childhood, but smart people whose actual area this is have already said them.)

Saunders’s origin story for Five Children on the Western Front is itself a version of this. In the afterword she writes of reading the Psammead books as a child and seeing the Pembertons “as eternal children, frozen for all time in a golden Edwardian summer,” but then, in her teens, learning about WWI for its sixtieth anniversary and connecting the two worlds. Suddenly the golden summer becomes tragic, suddenly there’s all this loss awaiting our characters.

But how does this work as a children’s book in 2014 (when it was published in the UK) though? I read the Psammead trilogy when I was quite young because I was the sort of child who would–I don’t know how well known it is even among people of my own generation (a good couple of decades older than the supposed audience for this book). Nor are this book’s hypothetical readers credited with a great deal of background knowledge; witness the clunky, infodumpy scene in which the text explains to us what a VAD is. Does this prior knowledge/lack thereof matter? That adventures and endearing grumpy magical beings are fun, and that war is horrible, are things that any random set of characters could convey–but for this book to work do you need to invoke precisely that sense of a golden past, that protectiveness towards these characters?

I think one of the ways the book tries to get round this is with its opening chapter, which is a rewritten version of one in The Story of the Amulet, in which the Pemberton children travel in time to visit “the learned gentleman”/”Jimmy” (“Professor Knight” in Saunders’s version, though I’ve read one review suggesting this is inaccurate) in the near future, where their old nurse is dead, Jimmy is old, and keeps photographs of the now-grown-up Pembertons in his home. [Pause here while I refrain from talking about how great and messy and great the reasoning behind their trip into the future is.] In 1906, when the book is published, this future really is the future; a Wells-inspired utopia (Wells and Nesbit were friends and fellow Fabians, of course). In the 2010s, we know that this is not what the 1930s looked like. Jimmy has pictures, yes, but mostly of the girls–we know that something has happened to the boys. His nostalgia for the past is transmuted into grief–we, but not the children, see him crying when they leave. In the book’s final chapter set some years in the future a grown-up Anthea visits Jimmy and we see that life has moved on, and that most of the Pembertons have happy adult lives, but Jimmy’s grief, his knowledge of what is to come, frames the book, and our experience of it. But is that enough for a reader who doesn’t come to the book already feeling some stake in these young people’s lives? And if it is enough, is that because the book is blatantly manipulative in this respect (and is that necessarily bad)?

psammead millar

I mentioned the British empire earlier, and of course it’s hard for me to separate the niceness and the romance of this setting from the empire that sustains it (and it feels necessary to me not to do so). (Nesbit’s original series occasionally wanders into questions of empire and there are things you might choose to read as critique, but it’s so clever and funny and the characters are so charming and political critique never really seems the point.)

Conveniently, Five Children on the Western Front is also about discovering that a thing that is cute and charming is also kind of evil! The Psammead, the “sand-fairy” that the Pembertons have befriended, is tubby and furry and cross and has little eyes on horns and is generally adorable–the version above, by (I think) H.R. Millar, is a good one. Impossibly ancient (it remembers the dinosaurs), the Psammead, we learn, has spent at least a part of its life as a vengeful Akkadian god. It is reticent about its activities during this time, and it’s through a combination of coaxing and Jimmy’s expertise (in The Story of the Amulet he was an Egyptologist, but I suppose it was easier to be a genius dilettante a century or so ago) that the children are able to extract some stories. I wondered if Saunders had read Terry Pratchett; there’s a definite feel of Small Gods here. It seems less likely that she’s an Oglaf fan, though from these accounts the Psammead seems to have been a bit more Sithrak-like than one would want.

While reading the book I suggested on twitter that thinking of it as an easy allegory about empire might be more fun than reading it as the billionth World War One book of the last few years. Now that I’ve finished I don’t think it works as allegory, but there’s enough there to make a case for something. The empire isn’t particularly present in the book in fact–though Cyril’s favourite book is something titled With Rod and Gun through Bechuanaland and surely Saunders cannot have put that in there innocently. I’m depressingly unsurprised to see no sign that Cyril and Robert’s fellow soldiers might be any colour other than white–I guess the soldiers from the colonies were just deployed elsewhere. However.

The Psammead, we discover, has been sent to the children and stripped of its magic in order that it face up to and repent of its various crimes. All of the stories we hear are cruel– a handsome prince turned into a donkey (and here, rather wonderfully, we circle back round to C.S. Lewis), young lovers turned to stone for disobedience, a young scholar sent off to die because he’s inconvenient. This group of British children in 1914-1917 is shocked by these acts of tyranny against the natives. They’re even more shocked to learn that their friend had slaves, and thinks little of having killed a few thousand here and there. (The Psammead is at this point a few millenia away from being a slave-holding imperialist, at least; the British Empire abolished slavery in 1833.)

In a world where a reader might be expected to make connections between the Psammead’s treatment of his subjects and Britain’s treatment of its own (But witness the book’s insistence that its readers might not know what a VAD is; and WWI history, unlike imperial history, is at least taught in British schools)  this could make for an interesting reading of the text as embodying an uncomfortable confrontation with the national past–and as I am such a reader, and I like Nesbit, I want that reading to work. Unfortunately, I suspect that discomfort is more present in the original books (you can’t ignore empire in 1902, but if you’re British it’s all too easy in 2016). What we’re left with, then, is the plot in which, at the height of the empire, the barbaric and vengeful (and Eastern) god is taught the values of kindness and compassion by a group of middle-class, white British children; where a creature that has existed since the dawn of time finds its salvation and the whole trajectory of its life bound up in said children.

I cried–of course I cried, that was never not going to happen, the whole shape of this book is one intended for crying at–at the end. I don’t know that that’s enough to make it good; in the main, it only made me uncomfortable.

April 20, 2016

Becky Albertalli, Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda

I’ll be blogging the Carnegie shortlist over the next few weeks, and so decided to write about a few other children’s books that came out this year. Some of them, including the one below, were on the Carnegie longlist.

Becky Albertalli’s Simon vshomosapiens. The Homo Sapiens Agenda takes for its starting point a favourite romcom/fanfiction trope–the Daddy-Long-Legs/You’ve Got Mail model of the mysterious anonymous correspondent with whom the protagonist falls in love.*  Simon sees an anonymous post on the school gossip tumblr about being gay and not out, and contacts the writer to let him know he feels the same. Using fake names and email addresses, and being careful not to give away too many clues about their own identities, “Blue” and “Jacques” spend months talking to one another and eventually admit to their feelings.

There are other things going on in Simon’s life; his correspondence with Blue has been discovered by a classmate, Martin, who is using the knowledge to blackmail Simon to help him spend more time with a  girl on whom he has a crush. Simon isn’t out to his friends or family yet, though he expects them to react supportively (too supportively, in some cases) to the news when he tells them. There’s a production of Oliver! to put on, lots of complicated interpersonal relationships–and then Martin outs Simon on the gossip tumblr.

Things are less dramatic than might be expected. Simon does point out that the consequences of being gay and out in his small town are potentially more serious than they might be in other places, but it’s also clear that his personal circumstances (supportive friends, family and teachers) make it possible for this not to be a story about the horrible dangers and persecutions of being queer (and we need those stories too, obviously, but also our fluffy romcoms). There’s some homophobic bullying, but it is quickly shut down. Everyone has problems, but no one has problems that are horrific or insoluble. Martin is not villainised for the awful thing he has done, but the book doesn’t require that he be forgiven for the sake of a tidy ending (though there’s reason to believe that he will be forgiven soon enough). People are occasionally angry and hurt, but in temporary ways. If I have a complaint about the book (and I’m not sure I do) it’s that its politics are a bit too good–everyone has thought their positions through a little too well and is able to articulate them a little too clearly. Perhaps this is an alternative universe where everyone is just better at feelings and thoughts than me. (Perhaps this is true of this universe.)

I find myself talking/thinking/writing about Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda as if it were a particular sort of fanfiction. Because when I go looking for fic often I’m looking for precisely the things that this story provides–the bulk of a full-length novel, gentle, kind, low-stakes romance with characters like these characters. It’s comforting and restorative and accomplished and low-stakes. It is in part because it’s those things that I’m not too bothered by its non-inclusion on the Carnegie shortlist (then again, I’ve seen far less ambitious, and less good, things on that shortlist in the past, so hm).

But there’s one thing that the book does exceptionally well and it is this: looking. I’ll try to explain what I mean by this. We know that “Blue” is someone in Simon’s school. We know, because we know how narrative works, that he must be someone Simon knows, or someone he will meet over the course of the book. We’re primed therefore to treat this as a mystery; to look at every boy mentioned (and perhaps characters who aren’t boys; what if Blue’s lying?) as a suspect (which is not the right word for a prospective love interest, but I’m not sure what would be).

Simon himself says at one point that “Simon means ‘the one who hears’ and Spier means ‘the one who watches.’ Which means I was basically destined to be nosy.” We discover that this is not true at all–Simon has in fact been pretty oblivious to quite a lot of things. And yet the book places him in the position of having to be the watcher–he too is aware that one of the boys he meets might be Blue, he is looking at them, and because we’re in his head (it’s a first person narrative), we get to see him looking.

(We’re also relatively sure, long, long before he is, who he wants to be looking at, but like I said, Simon’s not very observant.)

I’ll be writing about Robin Stevens’ Jolly Foul Play soon, and hopefully will expand on this there, but so much of the attraction of girls’ school stories for me is in the ways characters look at each other, how looking is fascination is attraction. (I like David Ehrlich’s formulation here, that “falling in love is an act of looking” (though he goes on to say that being in love is an act of seeing, and I don’t know that I want to burden these kids who have just met with the weight of that). But the book’s achievement is a sort of active readerly participation in its looking; one that isn’t objectifying, but that serves as a reminder of what the act of being fascinated can be.

 

 

*Disclaimer: I use those as examples of a form, but feel it necessary to explain that a) The correspondence in D-L-L is one-sided, b) both of these examples contain some sort of creepy power difference that is not really in evidence here. But still.

April 17, 2016

Of Interest (16 April, 2016)

Unsorted (spot the themes though):

 

Via Darran Anderson, this piece by Christopher Turner on utopianism in architecture.

You have probably read this already but just in case: Sara Ahmed interviews Judith Butler, and they are both great and therefore this is also pretty great. (Link goes to a PDF)

Danika Parikh on Zac Goldsmith’s attempts (i.e. Modi, Hinduism, islamophobia) to reach out to British Indians.

Joe Macaré interviews Walidah Imarisha here. (Via Josh Kitto)

Long, impressive piece on B.R. Ambedkar, by Pratap Bhanu Mehta.

Tiara Jante interviews Rasheedah Phillips (of Black Quantum Futurism and The Afrofuturist Affair) here.

The Ladies Finger on recent events in Kashmir.

Naben Ruthnum watches DDLJ, his first Bollywood film. (I too identify with nearly being driven away from the films by Lata Mangeshkar.)

Shaheen Ahmed on the erasure of Assam’s syncretic traditions.

At We Are Wakanda, a review of the new Black Panther.

An extract from Minnie Vaid’s The Ant in the Ear of the Elephant.

Timothy Yu on the (a) problem with “Have They Run Out Of Provinces Yet?” (Via Sandeep Parmar)

Shruti Ravindran is fantastic, this piece on two Mumbai biologists and the natural wonders of Aarey Milk Colony is fantastic.

Sharon Irani interviews Appupen about Rashtraman and his recent work.

Nathan K. Hensley on drones, empire, space.

Via Keguro Macharia, Vijay Prashad on international scrutiny of caste-based violence, and India’s response to this.

Gautam Bhatia on Ambedkar’s revolutionary constitution.

 

April 9, 2016

In which Rhodes falls and doesn’t, Britain faces its imperial past and doesn’t, several large cats are featured, and nothing is propelled into outer space.

One Year in the Afterlife Of the British Empire:

 

April 9, 2015: A statue of Cecil Rhodes is removed from the University of Cape Town, a result of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign

November 8, 2015: (approx, that’s when the news stories seem to be published) A group calling themselves “Mountain of Light” demands the return of the Kohinoor diamond to India. British historian Andrew Roberts explains that the Kohinoor belongs in Britain “in grateful recognition for over three centuries of British involvement in India, which led to the modernisation, development, protection, agrarian advance, linguistic unification and ultimately the democratisation of the sub-continent.”

November 10, 2015: Karnataka decides to celebrate Tipu Sultan Jayanti; public debate (also riots, violence) about whether he was an anti-colonial hero, religious tyrant, or both. (I suspect forced religious conversion may have been an effective rulerly practice; I suspect his tyranny may have been exaggerated by British historians for their own ends; I suspect that the decision to celebrate his steampunk tiger2birthday ten days before his actual date of birth was not an innocent one. I have a suspicious mind.)

November 25, 2015: An exhibition titled Artist & Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past opens at the Tate Britain. Of this more anon.

Sometime in November, 2015: I write a trollish column about Tipu, the Kohinoor, memorialising history, and museums. (I don’t publish it, for reasons that are not political ones.) (If I was cleverer at formatting that whole column would go here: please scroll down and read it and imagine it here, in these parentheses.)

Sometime in November, 2015: I discover that Tipu’s Tiger, on display at the V&A in London, can also be viewed on the museum’s website:

 

V&A Conservation in Action: Playing Tippoo’s Tiger Part 2 from Victoria and Albert Museum on Vimeo.

Yep, they’re playing God Save the Queen.

Multiple sometimes in December, 2015: Various (three) British men explain to me that the while the British Museum makes them personally uncomfortable, at least some of the artefacts are safer there than they would be in their countries of origin, and at least it’s free. I am polite and do not draw up a list of expenses for my own visits to the British Museum (but if we are, let’s start with the cost of a language test for my visa application).

January 17, 2016: Rohith Vemula kills himself. This is a post about Britain and empire, and I don’t wish to usurp for Britain any of the credit for the violence that India’s savarna state (the HRD minister was directly involved) and society inflict upon young Dalit students. But the role of the state, the memorialising of particular national narratives (Rohith was accused of anti-national activities, obviously), the university as a site of protest against these, all are in play here.

January 19, 2016: Oxford Union students vote to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College, following the Rhodes Must Fall movement’s campaign.

January 29, 2016: Angry donors threaten to withdraw millions in funding, unless the college continues to honour Rhodes and his (racist) legacy. The statue stays.

January-present, 2016: Protests on Indian University campuses, protests off Indian University campuses, more students’ lives being threatened, fascinating use of colonial laws against the country’s citizens. I’d say something obvious and platitudinous but true about university campuses being a space where debating national legacies, histories, narratives, etc is possible and necessary and how that space is being gradually threatened, but this week Baba Ramdev wants to behead you for not saying “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” and it’s hard to imagine what one could say.

Steampunk tiger

February 13-18, 2016: Everything is burning. It’s also Make in India week. (Is this linkable to everything else we’ve been talking about? Probably, but at the risk of losing focus. Still,) I’d be remiss if I failed to point out that the Modi government’s big development initiative also has a big steampunk cat for its symbol.

March 26, 2016: I finally go to Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past (it is important to write out that title in full), and have cleverly timed things so that three of my favourite critics can come to it at the same time. By this time we’ve read some unfortunate reviews of the exhibition, so we’re aware that this isn’t going to be all that we could wish.

It is not all that we could wish. Here is a storify of our reactions, which (alas) omits the annoyed people who edged away as Maureen or I started muttering, or Paul’s amused tolerance or my face upon seeing Niall Ferguson’s Empire prominently displayed in the shop outside, next to Fanon.

Possibly the closest we can get is this George Stubbs painting (“A Cheetah and a Stag with two Indian Attendants”), which was one of the better things on display. The cheetah’s name is Miss Jenny and she has a most expressive face. I know just how she feels.

miss jenny

 

March 28, 2016: I stop by the V&A to pay homage to Tipu’s Tiger, as you do. I’m surprised by how uncomfortable its presence there makes me feel, even though I quite like the V&A. There’s lots of wandering through the “Nehru Gallery” (of course) and muttering to myself and having rude thoughts. In front of the Tipu’s Tiger display case a toddler is fascinated, and asks her mother why the tiger is eating the man. The mother pauses and then explains that the man has been very naughty. That makes me feel better.

 

**********************************************

(That unpublished column from November)

I’m a little worried about our current obsession with the Kohinoor diamond, an artefact that has for a good portion of its history passed from empire to marauding empire, even as I feel instinctive glee at the thought of Taking Back Things the British Stole. The most recent attempt to reclaim it comes from a group comprised, apparently, of Bollywood stars (of whom I’ve never heard) and businessmen. This does nothing to disprove my suspicion that this particular object is a bit like political power and the Elder Wand, in that anyone who wants to claim them is too morally suspect to be allowed to.

There is an artefact I’d like ‘back’, though. In the Victoria & Albert Museum (the V&A) in London is a musical automaton, created in the eighteenth century, featuring a tiger mauling a European man. The man is wailing piteously, the tiger is making tiger-ish noises, and contains within its stomach a small pipe organ (for, presumably, more dramatic sound effects). Once you know that this thing once belonged to Tipu Sultan it all makes a lot more sense as a symbol. It also makes the fact that it’s in a London museum rather depressing; it’s clear who “won” that round. On the museum’s website you can watch a video in which “God Save the Queen” is played on the pipe organ, which is frankly perverse. But then, historical legacies frequently are.

tiger toy machineIn India this month (had I been there, and I wish I had), and in the UK always, it would have been tempting to walk around with my copy of Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!!, Daljit Nagra’s second collection of poems, just to provoke. Nagra is British-Punjabi and the son of immigrants, and in his first two collections he draws on all his languages (various Englishes, Punjabi, Hindi), refusing to privilege one register over the other. But to speak and write in English at all is to grapple, in some way, with history and our imperial heritage; and Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!! is often explicitly engaged in that work.

Some of this is done through references to canon. So you have “This Be the Pukka Verse” which begins “Ah the Raj! Our mother-incarnate”; the reader can’t not have Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” and its opening “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” in her head as she reads, and so can’t help but be reminded of the effects of empire upon the rest of us. Sometimes Nagra writes his history into the canon in other ways—“The Balcony Song of Raju and Jaswinder” has its star-crossed lovers confronting the realities of caste, alcopops and Bally Sagoo before a reference to the Hampton Court maze where “we stayed in the deep trying to murder our names”. Kevin Keegan is absorbed into kabbadi; the gaze of history writing is reversed in “A Black History of The English-Speaking Peoples”. Colonial-era spelling (including that “Tippoo” in the title) is adopted and discarded at will. In “The Ascent of a Victorian Woman”, ostensibly an excerpt from a travel journal, our narrator sits in a bullock cart and listens uncomprehendingly to a stream of “Bettychudes and Banchudes” from the Indian driver who often slips seamlessly into a Shakespearean register. It’s clear who has mastery of whose language. It’s not subtle, but why would it be? The poem which shares the collection’s title begins with the poet “rifl[ing]/ through your stash/ of coolly imperial/ diction”; it ends with the word “Raj” transmuted into a tiger’s roar.

This isn’t likely to come as a revelation to anyone who hasn’t somehow missed the last century or so of English literature. Of course we deal with the legacies handed on to us by wresting control of language, of course we hybridise, of course we face, embrace, distort, play with the history that weighs us down; we show our working, are unsubtle, roar. Nagra isn’t here to offer a revolutionary theory of language but to make from it poetry that works.

None of which really explains what we should do with the Kohinoor; diamonds are notoriously less malleable than language. Perhaps we could send it (and the British royal family, and statues of Cecil Rhodes, and memorials to Winston Churchill, and everything all of this stands for) into space?

**********************************************

Coda

March 29, 2015: A visit to the V&A Museum of Childhood to look at a mini exhibition on Oliver Postgate and Nicholas Firmin’s work, and pay homage to another great cat. (Bagpuss has nothing to do with empire, probably.) We also go through some of the permanent exhibitions on the history of children’s culture. It turns out there are several golliwogs, scattered about the place and uncontextualised. (Okay, but it’s a child-friendly space, how much context can you give?) (Okay, but it’s a child-friendly space, how are you just going to leave those there?) (Upstairs there’s an exhibition on British child migrants, complete with a video in which adults who survived physical and sexual abuse as children talk about their experiences and we’re sickened and furious and yet I’m still thinking something like “this you felt you could address.”)

April 3, 2016

Of Interest (3 April, 2016)

Unsorted:

Two (or possibly three) interviews with Victor LaValle: a conversation with Lincoln Michel that is spread out across here and here, and another with Samuel Sattin at the Rumpus, here.

Namwali Serpell on Nnedi Okorafor and Afrofuturism.

Shing Yin Khor on food, authenticity and appropriation.

A profile of Naezy, a young Muslim rapper in Mumbai, by Bhanuj Kappal.

Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive, an ebook by Professor Achille Mbembe, at Africa is a Country.

An interview (by Tom Lamont) with Laura Mvula, about anxiety and success and her new album.

Via Subashini Navaratnam, this piece on the use of African fractals in the building of Benin City.

On Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas: Nilanjana Roy, here, and Jai Arjun Singh, here.

Ijeoma Oluo on not always loving your body.

Sofia Samatar being correct on the subjects of Gormenghast and fantasy and language (and I nearly cried at this piece because yes)

Megan Milks on personal pronouns, being “we”, subjectivity.

This interview with Sarnath Banerjee (by Ratik Asokan) is great and annoying in equal parts and therefore very good indeed.

April 2, 2016

March Reading

(Things I read in March)

 

Andaleeb Wajid, No Time For Goodbyes: Many words about this are available here.

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, Split: See above.

Kim Fu, For Today I Am A Boy: This is richly, gorgeously written, and yet and yet. For Today I Am A Boy is about Audrey, the child of Chinese immigrants (one of them an extra-conservative father with Ideas about masculinity), coming to terms with the fact that she’s a woman. I say this, but it’s not really true–the only time we ever see Audrey, female pronouns and all, is in the epilogue, in a fuzzy future; for the vast majority of the novel she’s going by her masculine-sounding given name (which I’m not using here for reasons). Which might be fine; the long process of someone coming to terms with (and finding ways to think about) their gender is a story, but. A pause here so you can read this Casey Plett piece. Having said all of which, there’s a section towards the end when our protagonist has befriended a young trans man and his friends, and they have all the words and the clear definitions, and Audrey resents this certainty (and perhaps my insistence on using “Audrey” here is a part of that imposition of certainty) and that feeling felt familiar and nuanced and right.

Payal Dhar and Vartika Sharma, A Helping Hand: A series of letters from an unnamed protagonist to the new kid in school, who has a prosthetic hand. For what is clearly A Book About Tolerance it manages not to be cringingly preachy, and the format leaves a lot to the imagination (what is the incident that “happened at lunch,” mentioned more than once?). I wish the title was less “lol, see, because prosthetic hand”, and I wish (as I always do with this subgenre of children’s books) that we actually got to  hear from the person in question, rather than the “normal” kid coping with this intrusion of otherness into daily life. Vartika Sharma’s illustrations are good though.

Robin Stevens, Jolly Foul Play: Who wants a couple thousand words on how the queer subplot in this book is so much less good than the queer subplot in Murder Most Unladylike and why that is? (I exempt the two people at the next table at a restaurant last Saturday; they probably heard all of this.) It is still a very good book though, and still excellent at its main characters and their feelings.

William Mayne, It: Everyone in this book is alarmingly sanguine about being haunted. I first discovered that this was probably a very thesis-relevant book about a year ago, when Nick Campbell did a conference paper on it, and I’m not sure why it has taken me this long to actually read it. It’s a very William Mayne book, in that there are landscapes and churches and dreamlike detachment, and it’s just generally gorgeous.

Sophia McDougall, Space Hostages: I like this for the reasons I liked Mars Evacuees, the first book. I also rolled my eyes at a throwaway line about the protagonist’s knowledge of Hindi, and while McDougall’s clearly trying to avoid the “Earth-kids-swoop-in-and-save-oppressed-natives” trope in scenes later in the book (by having the natives do quite a bit themselves), the odour of said trope and its history for me permeated the whole episode anyway. But apart from that. This had genuinely delightful aliens, and a ship who is finding herself (can the sequels just be about this spaceship travelling across space by herself?) and other good things.

Evelyn Smith, Val Forrest in the Fifth, Milly in the Fifth: I think I’ve said here before that I love how Evelyn Smith does character. Val Forrest herself is just another good schoolgirl, but her spoilt friend Nina is not, and the cool girl who is contemptuous of Nina is not, and the abusive boarding house lady is so impressively poisonous. I think, though, that I like Milly better–it questions lots of basic schoolgirl ethos things (though backtracks in the end by making the girl who does that questioning a fine sportswoman and Loyal To The School), again has poisonous, manipulative characters done well, and most importantly has a timid, not jolly-schoolgirl-ish heroine who likes looking at, and being fascinated by, other girls.

Amandla Stenberg , Sebastian A. Jones, Ashley A. Woods, Darrell May, Niobe: She is Life (issue 2): Everything I said about the first volume a couple of months ago still holds true–the story and the world are unfolding, slowly; the artwork continues to be very beautiful; I’m still not sure what’s going on but continue to be fascinated anyway.

 

 

March 20, 2016

Of Interest (20 March, 2016)

Unsorted:

Nisi Shawl’s crash course in Black SF history.

Supriya Nair interviews Sunil Khilnani about his new book, Incarnations.

I’ve come to Doreen Massey’s work very recently (I wasn’t expecting space/landscape to play as big a part in my research as it has come to do); here’s “Landscape/space/politics“.

Sharanya Manivannan on the Karaikal Ammaiyar approach to existing in public.

Look at these glorious freshwater crabs. Look at them all colourful and smiley.

John d’Addario on Gran Fury. Via Chapati Mystery.

A Helen Oyeyemi interview (with Lauren Oyler) in which she continues to say good things. Via Aaron Bady.

Eric M. Gurevitch on Handsome Nanda, the Therigatha, and empathetic criticism, feat. a Very Long Footnote. Via Nilanjana Roy.

Amit Chaudhuri on Rhodes Must Fall.

Fandom Following’s Wendy on Personal Favourite White Boys and Problematic Faves. Via Rukmini Pande.

Ramzi Fawaz on diverse mutants and superheroes, the hollowness of some current “diversity” discourse, and a much more nuanced reading of Umapagan Ampikaipakan’s infamous column than most of the outraged responses I’ve seen. Via Niall Harrison.

And via Fawaz’s piece, this good thing, by Alexandro Segarde.

Vinay Lal on Godse, the RSS and the murder of Gandhi. Via Bhuvi Gupta.

China Miéville on social sadism.

I meant to link to this weeks ago: Aman Sethi on the Jat agitation, water and the economy.

(Finally a self-plug) Here is a roundtable on South Asianness, folklore, etc., featuring Arun Jiwa, Suna Dasi, Vajra Chandrasekera, Laila Borrie, Shveta Thakrar, Sukhbir Cheema and me.

March 16, 2016

No Time For Goodbyes/Split

 

Andaleeb Wajid, No Time For Goodbyes

A friend finds it deeply annoying when trilogies (or books otherwise in series) fail to indicate the fact somewhere on the cover (front or back). I’m less hardline than him on this subject, but that there’s no hint anywhere on or in Wajid’s book that this is the first of a trilogy seems an odd choice on the part of the publisher (Bloomsbury India). I genuinely wouldn’t have known had I not looked the book up online.

No Time For Goodbyes is a time travel romance. Tamanna, just out of school and about to begin college, finds an old polaroid in her attic and is sucked into the past; the early 1980s Bangalore of her mother’s schooldays. Appearing in her grandmother’s house with no way of explaining what has happened to her, she pretends to be the Australian pen pal of the boy next door—Manoj, whose scientist grandfather created the camera responsible for her predicament. Naturally Manoj and Tamanna fall in love; naturally Tamanna returns to her present just as things are getting interesting; naturally it appears the two are destined to be tragically torn apart.

One doesn’t particularly want scientific rigour from this genre, and critique from that angle is therefore a bit pointless. But I want to pick at threads—why would Tamanna’s mother name her daughter after the weird Australian who showed up at their house and was rude about their clothes (and refused to buy any of her own) and made her friend sad; why has she not noticed that her daughter looks identical to said weird Australian; has no one given the Christ College library a decent spring clean in three decades? (Okay, that last one is plausible.) And there are things I find jarring about its engagement with pop culture—the determined, awkward references to the Harry Potter books, to the friend who likes the Twilight films (Tamanna, of course, has nothing but scorn for them).

I mention this awkwardness in part because while Tamanna herself often thinks longingly of the comforts of the 2010s (better ice-cream flavours, better YA fiction, not having to wear Mirinda orange dresses, the internet), none of these are particularly deeply-felt arguments for the present, as they might be presented (um) by one who lives here. I’m speculating, obviously, but it rather feels as if someone sat down and tried to think of reasons a teenage girl might like to live now, but wasn’t convinced by their own arguments (and do teenagers in the 2010s see enough of Mirinda for it to exist in their consciousness as a colour the way Digene pink was for my unfortunate generation?). Underneath it all the book seems far more convinced by its nostalgia for the Bangalore of the past, where there were more trees, less crowded public transport and affordable cinema tickets (all good things, don’t get me wrong, though I have questions about the public transport thing). Perhaps people with a greater connection to the city might find this less trite than I did, but I imagine reading a similar take on my own city and I cringe. And if a girl from the future came along and told me she liked my world because it was “quaint”, I don’t think I’d be falling in love with her (Manoj is clearly a nicer person than I am). For a teenage romance, its notion of the present sounds suspiciously like it was written by someone who also writes letters to the editor (the editor of The Hindu).

I’m not really a reader of time travel romances so I hesitate to generalise about the appeal of the genre. But it seems to me that a big part of the point is the impossibility of a happy ending (until, of course, there’s a happy ending but then often there isn’t). And as much as I dislike this book’s treatment of time and change, it often does manage to invoke the bleak impossibility of this couple’s getting together. The choppiness of Tamanna’s movements between times is genuinely discombobulating, the lack of explanation given to the device makes the characters seem helpless in the face of an enormous, unknowable universe. There’s enough there to make me curious about the next two books in the trilogy (both published in 2014, though I haven’t yet obtained them).

 

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, Split

This is a more recognisable (to me) version of teenage romance. Noor is part of the group of popular girls at school, and has an ideal-sounding home life with cool parents with cool politics and tastes. But her mother has fallen in love with someone else and moved to Paris, and Noor finds herself unable to tell her friends (incidentally, this is done in emotionally believable ways that made perfect sense). Forced to go to an after-school support group she finds herself lying to and drifting apart from her older friends and socialising with children and nerds. She also meets A Boy who is funny and nice and from Bombay, but has not been previously vetted and declared acceptable by her popular friends.

I say “recognisable” above for a couple of reasons. Firstly because the book is rooted in a very specific (in terms of class, gender, geography, family) South Delhi milieu, one which is relatively close to my own upbringing; though separated by 15 years and a bit more privilege. Which I’ll come back to, but the other reason it feels familiar is that it’s a lot closer to high school narratives that we’re mostly familiar with through literature/TV/film. So obviously football players can be regarded as acceptable boyfriends; boys with glasses are a bit iffy; the head of Noor’s little clique is more than a little Regina George-ish. (This isn’t Mean Girls; Madhavan takes much of what that film suggests about teenage friendships for granted, but shows a lot more empathy for her popular girl characters, and manages to write them as vulnerable children.) This isn’t really the space for musing about how high school romances as a genre inflect the lives of teenagers who are exposed to the genre, but I think both forms of recognisableness are interlinked and sustain one another in complex ways.

I don’t know if it’s a feature of the book (the author’s about my age) or a feature of me that I spent the whole thing thinking how young and vulnerable everyone was.

But. The book is, as I say, fixed in a very particular milieu, and it is very much Noor’s own. We’re seeing through her eyes, and it’s not always clear where the split between book and narrator lies. Which is fine to an extent–as we cringe at her bigoted grandmother, or learn with her to appreciate the younger, poorer girl with the looped, ribboned plaits,  and so on (some visible assumptions are being made here about the sort of reader the book expects). A corollary of sorts is that you sometimes wonder if Noor’s prejudices are in fact the book’s–the fat girl from West Delhi who has no taste but they keep her around for the money, and whose inferiority is left unquestioned? (Not the only example, but one that irritated me with how blatant it was.)

Split is good at the inside of a (certain sort of) protagonist’s head, then, but I have some reservations about how it has said characters interact with the world.

March 13, 2016

Of Interest (13 March, 2016)

Unsorted links about SF and empire and race:

 

Debbie Reese collects responses to J.K. Rowling’s “History of Magic in North America”.

Roz Kaveney in the TLS is insightful about Tolkien and also voices some of my frustrations with much of the Tolkien criticism I’ve read.

Phenderson Djèlí Clark has some fantastic black history and SF essays on his blog (and you should read them all, obviously), here’s one on SF and racial terror.

Esther Wang on the appeal of fictional worlds where everyone is white. (I feel this essay so hard.)

Vajra Chandrasekera has a new column at Strange Horizons, of which this is the first installment, and it’s great (and advocates blowing things up; I do like this man). His recent review of Binti is also fantastic.

K2 on colonial settlers in The Revenant. (Fun fact! Apparently Grace Dove wasn’t invited to the Oscars.)

Sofia Samatar’s “Notes Toward a Theory of Quantum Blackness” is beautiful; the things it links to and references are vital.

Rega Jha on only one of a long history of atrocities perpetuated on Indian culture by our colonial overlords. Via Sunny Singh.

Andrew Yang on Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings.

Dr. André M. Carrington, whose book I’m very eager to read, interviewed here by Noah Berlatsky. Via Matthew Cheney.

The Ramayana in Persian (an extract from a book by Audrey Truschke), and a Persian Mahabharata (Yael Rice, via bint battuta)

Aaron Bady on A. Igoni Barrett’s Blackass.