May 22, 2016

Of Interest (22 May, 2016)

Unsorted, but (unsurprisingly) mostly about empire and activism and books:

 

Shoaib Daniyal on the Hindu Right’s targeting of Akbar as a national symbol. I have my reservations about this piece (and rolling my eyes at “a Hindu Pakistan”) but mostly, yes.

All trees are the most superlative tree, but this is a pleasing map of superlative trees.

Charlotte Cooper on fat, the (UK, but also applicable elsewhere) left, and class.

Reading Claudia Rankine reading Adrienne Rich is a good thing.

Kavita Bhanot on Vedanta’s sponsorship of the London Jaipur Literature Festival, and more broadly, what the JLF does and means.

I have tried and failed to watch (sober) this alphabetical-order edit of The Wizard of Oz, but here it is for anyone unwise enough to wish to attempt it. (Via Debbie Reese on Twitter.)

Yasmeen Ismail on her I’m A Girl.

Abigail Nussbaum on Sofia Samatar’s The Winged Histories.

I’m (pleasantly? maybe?) surprised this piece on drone operator PTSD and child soldiers by Laurie Calhoun doesn’t reference Ender’s Game.

Ntina Tzouvala on Eye in the Sky, drones, and the law.

I’d never seen these clips of Janelle Monáe interviewing Nichelle Nichols but look (and look)! (If there’s a longer version available anywhere, please let me know!)

Via Sandeep Parmar, this interview (by Fred Johnson) with Forrest Gander.

Catherine Baker on the geo/politics of this year’s Eurovision.

Jaymee Goh on Southeast Asian steampunk, editing The Sea Is Ours, space, worldbuilding, #OwnVoices. Several things; it’s a good paper!

Frank B. Wilderson III on Afro-pessimism is v. good, and I want to come back to it.

 

 

May 20, 2016

about a girl who gets away

A little over a year ago I was at a seminar on Helen Oyeyemi’s work, and wrote the conference report below for Foundation (and there’s a version of it here). Boy, Snow, Bird had been published a few months before and I’d read it quite recently, but otherwise hadn’t read the author since Mr. Fox a few years before. Which is why, though the report creates a nice, easy framework through which to read Oyeyemi’s work, it’s one I’m reluctant to use, when it’s so far removed from the texts themselves (and I’m unwilling to turn everything into a nail for a particular critical hammer in any case). But I’m reading the author’s new collection, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, at the moment, and keep wanting to come back to this and play with it.

Anyway, as flawed as it is, it is here. Things it’s currently bouncing off productively in my head: Benjanun Sriduangkaew on the collection here; Aaron Bady here; and a forthcoming Nina Allan review that I’ll link to when it’s up (edit: here).

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

 

Helen Oyeyemi is the author of five novels and two plays, is British and of Nigerian descent, and has been on the Granta Best of Young British Novelists list. Each of her novels contains fantastic or supernatural elements; White is for Witching is a haunted house story, The Icarus Girl centres its protagonist’s relationship with a ghostly double, Mr Fox and Boy, Snow, Bird are both rooted in fairy tales, while The Opposite House is the story of a goddess. She has, predictably, been claimed (and I want to think about the implications of that word) at various points for fantasy, horror, the gothic, literary fiction, postcolonial fiction, magical realism. What is less understandable is the lack of critical material that has thus far been produced around her work.

Which is why the Helen Oyeyemi symposium at Teeside University in February was so very welcome. Organisers Sarah Ilott and Chloe Buckley are the editors of a forthcoming collection of essays on Oyeyemi’s work. Most of the presenters were working on chapters for this collection; as a result the symposium became in part a space where people could test out ideas. There were fewer conclusions than papers, yet this added to a general sense of the symposium as a single conversation, the subject of which was something like: what, exactly, is Oyeyemi doing? During the welcome address Dr Ilott insisted that she did not wish to impose a master narrative upon Oyeyemi’s work; that reluctance was to become something of a theme as the day progressed.

The symposium opened with a panel on “Race, racism and postcolonialism”. Dave Gunning (of the University of Birmingham) presented a paper titled “Locating Racial Harm”. Oyeyemi, Gunning claimed, has responded to a discomfort over being always read through a framework of postcolonialism, or as a Black British author, by consistently nuancing and problematising race. An ongoing tension he locates within her work is that between individual identity, “the urge to autonomy that can characterise adolescence” (Gunning was not the last speaker to point out that Oyeyemi’s protagonists are usually young people) and its uneasy relationship with history—a tension that is palpable through White is for Witching in particular.

David Punter (University of Bristol) presented a paper titled “Witches, fox fairies, foreign bodies”. This too was concerned with the notion of individual identity when in so much of Oyeyemi’s work the self is rendered violent and strange, twins and doubles and other iterations of the same self are menacing, the subject (and subjectivity) are displaced. Punter, however, is interested in the effects of this as narrative. White is for Witching is in part the story of Miri, who has developed the eating disorder pica, which causes her to ingest materials like chalk from which she cannot derive nourishment and so are both inside and apart from her. But selfhood is so fraught in these narratives that at times it appears to be no more than this concatenation of foreign bodies; scraps of other myths, other narratives, Frankensteined together. Punter and Gunning both, then, were working around questions of agency and narrative (or historical, which is a subset of narrative) authority, of the self as subject vs the subjective self, and how these come together in Oyeyemi’s work.

Chloe Buckley’s paper “The burden of representation and the gothic child” opened the next set of papers on “The Gothic”. In gothic fiction the child figure often functions as a repository for adult desires, particularly for stability and futurity. Buckley reads Oyeyemi’s child protagonists in this context, as burdened by identities and expectations placed upon them, but also irreducible to empty vessels. Sarah Ilott’s paper, “(De)constructing national borders” brought together acts of (physical) consumption and racial and national identity construction, demonstrating the ways in which the bodies of protagonists (Ilott focused on White is for Witching and The Icarus Girl) become sites of domination, conflict and control. Anita Harris (University Kebangsaan, Malaysia)’s “Vampires, monsters and consuming the other” tied together both of the previous papers on the panel, in addressing parenting, gender, consumption and monstrousness, and making a useful comparison with Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which is signalled as an intertext in The Opposite House.

It’s probably clear from all this that the first two panels often felt as if they were in conversation with each other, as well as among themselves. One particularly interesting idea that arose from the discussion afterwards was the public narrative that has been placed upon Oyeyemi herself, as a celebrated young, Black, British writer and whether we might usefully read her work in this context as well.

The final session, on “Revision, rewriting and metafiction”, focused on Oyeyemi’s use of fairy tale, in particular in Mr Fox and Boy, Snow, Bird. Jo Ormond(Lancaster University)’s “Retelling fairy tales” read Oyeyemi’s work in the context of other recent fairy tale adaptations, which humanise their villains and present them as sympathetic subjects of trauma. Yet “it’s obscene to make such things reasonable,” as Oyeyemi reminds us in Mr Fox, and so the author must negotiate the space between humanising and excusing while, like Angela Carter before her, challenging narratives of how victims should behave. In a paper titled “Gender, race and history”, Helen Cousins (Newman University, Birmingham) discussed beauty as a shaping force in female identity, linking Boy, Snow Bird to “The Juniper Tree” and making connections between Oyeyemi, Angela Carter and Barbara Comyns. But while these were both interesting papers, they lacked some of what had made the earlier sessions so exhilarating. Perhaps it was that they seemed more closed-down; we have frameworks in place (haunted eternally by the spectre of Angela Carter) for talking about fairy tales, and so there was less space for the open-endedness and uncertainty that made the earlier discussions so full of possibility. (Or perhaps it was because we had all just had lunch.)

It’s not always clear where this uncertainty comes from. In an interview with Niall Harrison in 2013 Oyeyemi explained that she wanted to “make room within the gothic genre for stories that make some of its themes explicit”, and if these books are difficult (and they often are), they are rarely obscure about what it is that they are doing.

And yet. To be “got” in The Icarus Girl is to be attacked, and possibly possessed. Through the symposium the larger narrative of these books that emerged was that of a body of work deeply uncomfortable with the idea of a larger narrative.

“Please to tell a story about a girl who gets away,” says Miri in White is for Witching. This isn’t it.

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

 

I stammered finishing the story, because of Miranda’s gaze, her eyes like swords. We were nose to nose.
‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘That was just the thing.’
‘The girl doesn’t get away. It’s not a story about her getting away. She was born free.’
‘The soucouyant gets away, though. Doesn’t she count as a girl?’
I drew back. ‘No she doesn’t,’ I said. She is a monster. She dies.’

 

May 19, 2016

Robin Talley, Lies We Tell Ourselves

LiesLies We Tell Ourselves has by far the best opening sentence of the books from this year’s Carnegie shortlist that I’ve read so far: The white people are waiting for us.

As Sarah and her companions prepare to walk into their new school, they face an indistinguishable mob, shouting things that can’t be made out, merely a “dull roar”. The crowd gets closer but is still “the white people”; but now the words can be heard. There’s “go back to Africa,” and there are the slurs and the threats.

It is tremendously effective writing because it takes a long history of racist tropes, faceless black and brown mobs yelling incomprehensibly, pawing at white protagonists, and it turns them around and weaponises them. We recognise (because centuries of books and art are there to remind us) the horror of this mob, this faceless mass. Except that this section needs to be brutal (because the history of racism is brutal; because this mob is brutal) so we must have the slurs as well. Suddenly you’re hit by a solid wall of the n word. It might be necessary for what the chapter is trying to do, and I’ve never had that particular word thrown at me by a shouting mob, but if I hadn’t committed to reading this book for the award I might have stopped reading. I began to suspect that perhaps Talley’s book was assuming an audience that needed to know what having racist slurs yelled at them felt like. I still don’t know if that was unfair.

The plot: it’s 1959 in a fictional US town in Virginia, and a group of black children is to be integrated into a previously all-white school. Sarah Dunbar is one; she’s in her final year of school, is a brilliant student and singer, and plans to go to university. Linda Hairston, daughter of a prominent local racist and violent abuser, is one of the students most vocally opposed to integration–in part because her father’s arguments make sense to her, and in part because placating him is the safe thing to do. The narrative is divided between these two characters, as Sarah attempts to survive her school year, Linda comes up against her own racism, and both girls struggle to come to terms with their attraction towards one another.

This splitting of the narrative across the two voices may not have been a great idea. Sarah’s story works, on the whole; Talley captures some of the paranoia of being on guard all the time, the constant threat of violence, and the anger. But then we have Linda’s narrative, and the very structure of the book suggests that these two stories should have equal weight, that Sarah’s tale of quite literally trying to survive is worthy of the same amount of space as Linda’s harrowing story of having to rethink her racism. There’s an attempt to level things out a bit by emphasising Linda’s difficult situation (her father); but Mr Hairston is either an extenuating circumstance, or a result of a structural sexism that surely affects both girls (in the circumstances it’s interesting that Talley dramatises the threat of sexual assault to the black girls but never has it result in anything very concrete). To have these two (at first) opposing voices sets the book up as a sort of dialogue, and positions the disagreement (“disagreement”!) as in some way reasonable; “well obviously racism is bad, but there are arguments to be heard on both sides”. I was taken aback, when looking for reviews online, to find a review by a (presumably) teenage reader which came to the conclusion “I’m not siding with either”. [I wonder, also, if the dynamic Dani Gurira describes here is playing out in this narrative as well.]

Having made that criticism, it may seem contradictory to then complain that Linda’s racism doesn’t seem reasonable enough. Racism may not make sense (whatever that may mean), but it generally seems to generate its own logic, at least enough for people to buy into it. A different book might have had its protagonist come up against her own beliefs over and over; last year’s winner, Tanya Landman’s Buffalo Soldier, achieves something similar, though its later sections disappointed me. Linda never seems convinced by her own arguments–and perhaps that’s because they’re her father’s arguments, but then what are Linda’s thoughts? What is it like to believe this stuff? It’s interesting to me that the one moment in the book where racial difference is felt is in that opening sequence, and suggests that the book is either unable or unwilling to make its racist characters feel … racist.

In that remarkable opening chapter is a scene where Sarah, forced to face the crowd, squares her shoulders and walks forward reciting Psalm 23. It’s a beautiful moment; I love its acknowledgement of faith as a powerful factor in its characters’s lives, as well as a political force in the civil rights movement, and I love that my mind leapt to Bree Newsome reciting Psalm 27 last year. It was disappointing, then, to have Christianity all but disappear from the narrative, only resurfacing each time the girls wanted to berate themselves for their attraction to one another. This, too, felt to me like a missed opportunity to attempt to get into other heads and other mindsets or at least to treat those other heads and mindsets as significantly different to one’s own.

The school year continues [spoilers here]: the girls are forced to work together on a project and find themselves appreciating one another’s gifts more and more; Sarah berates Linda for being racist when she’s so clever; Linda is horrified that the other children in her school are being so barbaric (she didn’t mean hit them, just structurally discriminate against them at every level); Sarah and Linda accidentally kiss; Linda attempts to appease her father by way of a public barb about Sarah’s friend Chuck dating a white girl; a mob attacks him and he nearly dies; Linda is sad about nearly causing her friend’s friend’s death; the two girls decide to move to Washington and drive off into the sunset. It’s a happy ending!

It’s a happy ending if you’re reading from Linda’s perspective, anyway. Faced with the horrifying reality of racism through her guilt at (oops!) nearly causing a death, she’s forgiven, redeemed, able to escape her horrible father, and start a new life with the girl she likes. Perhaps Sarah also feels lucky to be able to get away and travel to another city with the girl who played a major role in her friend’s near death and who persists in insisting that Sarah herself is merely an exceptional member of her race. Perhaps Sarah is a lot more forgiving than I am.

One of the people with whom I discussed the book said that she found the use of “white people” throughout jarring, and again, targeted at comforting a white audience (there there, no one’s denying your personhood). I don’t have enough historical context to know what more likely contemporary alternatives would have been, so can’t speak to that, but I was surprised by the author’s note, in which she claims that people she speaks to about the book tend to ask “Was desegregation really that bad?”, which to me feels indicative of an audience that can afford not to be too aware of this history. (But I’m not American, I don’t know to what extent this history is available–to black communities as well as white ones.)  Lies We Tell Ourselves feels a fundamentally safe book that gives its audience just so much but no more racial violence and a reassuring redemption arc. If, as I say, you’re reading from Linda’s perspective.

May 15, 2016

Of Interest (15 May, 2016)

 

Bodies in the world:

Ruby Tandoh on clean eating and the wellness industry.

I love Your Fat Friend and you should read all her things. This recent piece is good.

Rinaldo Walcott on the decision to put an image of Harriet Tubman on the US $20 bill.

Morgan Jenkins on “Lemonade”, healing and community.

Paul Gilroy interviewed by Rosemary Bechler on activism, location, universities.

Antonia Randolph and the necessity of spaces for black vulnerability.

 

Books and film in the world:

I have such mixed feelings about Film Crit Hulk (they don’t use Hulk-ish linguistic ticks at all, other than the allcaps, and said allcaps is exhausting for me to read at length) but this, on cinematic language, is good and relevant to my genre interests.

Two Black Panther links: Evan Narcisse on the politics of the character (via Kajori Sen) and Rebecca Wanzo on the high stakes involved in Coates’ and Marvel’s versions (via Rukmini Pande).

Keguro Macharia thinking through African poetry. (See also Aaron Bady, here)

This year’s SF count at Strange Horizons. See also this piece about it by Niall Harrison (bonus: several Guardian commentors explaining that women don’t read or write much SF and why can’t we make Romance a more gender-balanced genre instead?)

May 12, 2016

Sarah Crossan, One

one-by-sarah-crossan-196x300Sarah Crossan is, like Patrick Ness (of whom more in a few weeks), on the Carnegie shortlist for the second year in a row. I wrote a little about that previous shortlisted work here–I enjoyed it, but found it rather lightweight and insufficiently thought through to really consider one of the best children’s books of the year. One is stronger and more interesting merely by virtue of being a novel in verse.

The plot, in short: Grace (our narrator) and Tippi are conjoined twins in their teens, about to go to school for the first time as there’s no longer money to educate them at home. Both are dreading the new school; but they befriend classmates Yasmeen and Jon and spend a few relatively normal teenage months (smoking by an old church, falling in love with the one boy in the group) before tragedy strikes.

There’s a lot going on in One. Money is a constant concern–the two major life changes that the twins face (going to school, and later allowing a journalist access to their lives) are made out of financial desperation. Their father is unemployed and alcoholic, their mother loses her job part of the way through, their little sister can’t afford her ballet lessons, Jon is at their school on a scholarship. Jon’s mother has abandoned him, Yasmeen has HIV, Dragon (the little sister) is anorexic and to all appearances no adult has noticed yet. If I’m reading this book in a good mood, all of this is a useful reminder that people generally have several things going on at once and have to cope with all of them. Some of it is done well–that Dragon’s anorexia goes unnoticed by the adults in the story while Tippi’s weightloss is a cause for concern is treated with restraint; the two incidents are placed together but not commented on.

The One of the title is Grace-and-Tippi, and it’s also Grace herself, as a separate person. A recurring complaint made by Grace is that people tend to see her and Tippi as a single unit rather than two individuals–though the same people also misunderstand the depth of their connection. I was relieved that Crossan didn’t do the dull thing and have the twins both tell the story in alternating viewpoints. (It did mean that when the tragic end loomed the outcome became easier to predict, but it’s not the book’s job to shock you.) Within the text, Grace is the bookish one; in the fine tradition of twins who love each other but are also totally different in temperament–Grace is definitely the Elizabeth to Tippi’s Jessica. That’s probably an unfair comparison (both twins are perfectly reasonable humans, and neither of them reaches anything like the extremes of self-righteousness or sociopathy that the Wakefields achieve), but it’s one I make because it speaks to an aspect of Crossan’s work that I find disappointing. Here, as in Apple and Rain, her characters seem to fit very easily into stereotype, and beyond those broad lines we’re rarely given a sense of fully-realised people. I don’t know much about Grace except that she’s quiet and bookish; I know next to nothing about that bookishness except that it seems to embrace everything that the boy she has a crush on likes (and Who Among Us, to be fair). Presumably she had likes and dislikes before she met Jon; perhaps she’s even told him about them and he too is reading her favourites feverishly? We don’t know, and Crossan never gives us the sense that there’s more to these characters than this.

Where things get interesting, to me, is with the introduction of Caroline Henley, a reporter who (or whose employer) pays the family $50,000 for the right to follow the twins around and film them. The possibility of being paid to make a spectacle of themselves is broached relatively early in the book, and it’s always framed as invasive and creepy. Tippi is more strongly against it than Grace (as far as we can tell from inside Grace’s head and outside Tippi’s); Grace seems to view it as a pragmatic choice, noting that lots of people make money from putting themselves on show (her examples are supermodels). Tippi aside, though, all of the other people being outraged by the possibility are being outraged for the twins– their father, for example, rudely asks the reporter if she’ll expect to film the twins in the bathroom.

Early on in the book Grace tells us that:

[...] the details of all our bodies remain a 
        secret
unless we want to tell
 
And people always want to know.
 
They want to know exactly what we
        share
             down there,
so sometimes we tell them.

And then she does tell us. To stop us from wondering (“it’s all / the / wondering / about our bodies that bothers us”); and the effect is to place the reader in the position of the outsider whose curiosity may be well-meant, whatever that means, but is still invasive, is still prurient. [I'm reminded, unavoidably, of trans writers talking about cis people's preoccupation with the state of their genitalia.] Like the supposed viewers of Caroline’s documentary, we’re being invited into the book at least in part for the purpose of understanding what it is like to be a conjoined twin, what it means to be a conjoined twin, how these two people and their bodies work. Crossan’s author’s note suggests that there’s been a great deal of research involved in the project for her, but it also contains things like “It might be astounding to a singleton, but conjoined twins do not see themselves or their lives as tragedies” and “writing this novel has been a huge honour,” which seem to place it in a very specific tradition of Writing The Other. It’s a tradition that the book is clearly aware of–witness the characters’ initial suspicion of reporters. And yet the book ends with Grace telling her story to that same reporter–Crossan is placing herself and her book in Caroline’s position.

None of this, unfortunately, means that One is able or willing to tackle the discomfort inherent in this situation–to face the question of whether the novel’s gaze is inherently exploitative. Caroline is willing not to film the twins constantly, to provide them with contraband snacks in hospital, to cry when things get bad. “I want to be suspicious,” says Grace, but it seems Caroline cares. “She has proven she isn’t the paparazzi / She has proven she won’t take / our lives and turn them / into a sensational story”. The book, then, performs this critical engagement–it dramatises discomfort with its premise, and then has it “proven” benevolent. Tippi and Grace trust Caroline, who are you, the reader, to complain? It raises the spectre of its (and our) spectatorship and then reassures us that we’re fine.

May 8, 2016

Of Interest (8 May, 2016)

It’s been a while! Links this week are loosely divided into actual categories.

 

Books:

This interview with Jessa Crispin is perfect. (Also see Crispin on the self-hating book critic.)

Kei Miller on the unbearable (or stupid and limited) whiteness of the Forward Prize.

Vicky Smith at Kirkus on the White Default and mentioning race in children’s book reviews.

Chris Taylor on the legacy (afterlife?) of C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins.

 

Empire, maps, the structure of the world:

Rohit Gupta on the shape of the planet.

Karina Puente’s gorgeous illustrated Invisible Cities.

This record of correspondence between B.R. Ambedkar and W.E.B. Du Bois is doing wonderful things to my heart.

Tressie McMillan-Cottom on Anne-Marie Slaughter’s trickle-down feminism.

Subhas Rai and Himal’s right-side-up map of South Asia. Great at all times, but particularly in times like these.

Maps of the end of the world, by Allison Meier.

Great moments in apartheid, and also the use of language.

 

Film/TV:

Samira Nadkarni being brilliant on Captain America: Civil War. I’m finding the disgust of most people I know who’ve seen the film cathartic, post-AoU; as Marina Berlin points out here, this probably has to do with the fact that it’s released outside the US first, so the critical discourse hasn’t (yet) been dominated by people steeped in US-centric imperialism. (Then again, it’s probably also because I’ve shut out the voices of people who might disagree on this.)

Salman Adil Hussain on the women Zindagi Gulzar Hai imagines.

Rukmini Pande on racism and erasure in fandom, after recent Star Wars: The Force Awakens related badness. (You should read Rukmini’s twitter, also; she’s continued to say good and important things since storifying this.)

Harneet Singh’s interview with Gulzar is full of great moments, particularly the bit about his children’s songs.

 

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.