March 1, 2016

Bhimrao Ambedkar, The Boy Who Asked Why/The Strange Haunting of Model High School/On the tip of a pin was …

Sowmya Rajendran and Satwik Gade, Bhimrao Ambedkar: The Boy Who Asked Why

This was one of the picture books on the Hindu/Goodbooks shortlist, and has text by Sowmya Rajendran, who’s generally reliable.

20160301_232322-1I think, considering the title, that it’s interesting that at no point during the book is Ambedkar shown to ask “why”. In fact, apart from asking his parents when he can go to school, at the beginning of the book, and telling a station master that he and his siblings are Mahars somewhere in the middle, he doesn’t speak at all. I don’t (I think) mean to suggest that the book silences him—no one else speaks either, and the whole thing feels more reported than anything else. I don’t know what the effects of this might be. But if Ambedkar isn’t shown asking the question, the book itself does—at various points as the text and art (by Gade) depicts a bad situation in its protagonist’s life, there’s a big “WHY?” across the page. I wonder if, going by the title, you could make a case that the book’s identification with Ambedkar is so complete that its whys are his own. (I’m reasonably sure you could not.)

I like to think of children who are learning to read being exposed early on to an abridged life of Ambedkar, but I’m not sure this is the best or most artistically interesting of those I’ve seen. But then, I don’t really know how to talk about picture books, so it’s possible that I’m missing obvious, wonderful things.

 

Shabnam Minwalla, The Strange Haunting of Model High School (illustrations by Svabhu Kohli)

[Full disclosure: the publishers are my former employers; I don't know who the editors were but it's possible that they're friends and former colleagues.]

I had a gleeful yay school story! moment when I started reading this one. I know Jai liked it, and I mostly do too—it’s set in a well-regarded girls’ school in Bombay, and features a production of Annie, ghosts, attractive boys from the school next door, and an evil teacher scheming to take over from the current principal. There are annoyances—one of the protagonists tends to burst into song at random (like Lord of the Rings, it’s usually best to skip over these moments); there’s a class Fat Girl; some of the prose is questionable (emotions “slosh” around the insides of the characters; and why is everyone wearing multiple leotards?). But then there’s Mrs Rangachari.

Mrs Rangachari is both fantastic in her own right and a general symbol of what this book does particularly well. She’s larger than life and evil, in the way that, say, Dahl’s Miss Trunchbull is evil (and without the underlying gendered badness of that depiction). She hates happiness, she’s greedy and vindictive and power hungry, she’s willing to scheme and indulge in ridiculous, over the top plots to get what she wants (power). And yet, her evil is expressed in familiar, knowable ways—the excuses she finds for her anger are based in class (how dare Lara be poor and clever and successful) and Indian Culture (the delighted horror at the girls she wants to get in trouble befriending boys). (Tangentially, you should read Amulya Gopalakrishnan on auntyhood.) And the (or one) result of this is to remind you that this is a school where, as is true of so many well-regarded schools in Indian metropolises, skirts and tunics “must be worn three fingers below the knee” (true of my own old school, before it was decided that skirts of any length were too dangerous to our morals) , fraternising with boys is strictly discouraged, and everyone but Lara is rich.

There’s a moment early on, immediately after we’ve learnt about the skirt length rule, when we learn that “Monitors can conduct the finger test at all times”. Probably any connection between this three finger test and the much more notorious two finger test is a bit of a stretch,  and I don’t (entirely) mean to suggest that the book is a scathing indictment of the ways in which culture and tradition and class are used in schools to target girls and systemically harass, slut shame, and generally make the world a lot worse, but more than in most books set in schools I think those ideas are present.

 

Geeta Dharmarajan and Ludmilla Chakrabarty, On the tip of a pin was …

Not really that recent—the first edition of this picture book was published in 2009. But it describes itself on the back as “sci-fi”, and I was never not going to read it. Like How to Weigh an Elephant (also by Dharmarajan, also published by Katha) it ends with a child-friendly description of the science involved.

The plot is rather incoherent—there20160301_231951-1-1‘s a village on the tip of a pin (Pintipur, obviously), populated by children, and also by a group of animals. All of the animals have their faults, but worm, for reasons that are unclear, is the worst. She “had races with herself to see if she could dig the deepest, the longest, the straightest holes … across the village and over the moon and the stars and the sun and the clouds”. And so she keeps disappearing in space and time and annoying everyone. Until they discover the village on the head of the pin (Pintopur), and learn that wormholes mean travel to other worlds, which is cool. Then everyone has space adventures.

I don’t know if any scientists were involved in the making of On the tip of a pin was …, and I don’t know that it’s so much SF as it is surreal. Which is fine, probably—adventures in time and space should be weird and incoherent and fractured and disproportionately sized (Goat, one of the animals, seems to cause solar and lunar eclipses on a regular basis because he’s so large) and it all feels perfectly reasonable and a far better explanation for wormholes than the explanation at the end.

February 28, 2016

Of Interest (28 February, 2016)

Rohith Vemula/JNU/India/This Cultural Moment:

How Delhi Police put out our candlelight vigil for Rohith.

Asha Kowtal on the insidious decentring of caste from the discourse. “Because our history is being distorted even before it is fully formed.” (Via Amba Azaad.)

In recent weeks I’ve kept linking to things Ravish Kumar says/does because he’s great; here’s an interview.

A photo essay in the Caravan by Nikhil Roshan, as a group of JNU students waited to be arrested.

Lawrence Liang on Gandhi, Tagore and Anti/Nationalism.

 

Books:

This awards season, remember the Gold Star Awards (and be glad that the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo exists and is in the world)

Claudia Rankine is interviewed here by Lauren Berlant and some good things are said. (Via Kawrage on twitter.)

Sarah Howe is interviewed by Greg McCartney, and she also says good things. (Via Sandeep Parmar.)

Ethan Robinson reviews Nancy Jane Moore’s The Weave, and in the process also offers a reading of the entire genre, and of assumptions in fiction in general, that I’d find useful and important even if a) he wasn’t a friend b) I hadn’t edited this.

Smriti Daniel on the Noolaham Digital Library.

Kuzhali Manickavel’s continued explorations into SF on the radio are still great. “It is neat how advice about sex can also be advice about interacting with aliens.” (Via Blaft)

E.R. Truitt (whose book sounds relevant to the interests of many who read this) on our imaginary North.

Adam Roberts on the wrath of Achilles John Wick.

Nayomi Munaweera is author-photographed twice.

 

 

February 25, 2016

The Adventures of Stoob/The Tigers of Taboo Valley

While I’m in India, I’m trying to make my way through as many relatively recent children’s books as I can get a hold of; particularly those on this shortlist (the picture books and fiction, mostly). Here are a couple, both published by Red Turtle/Rupa in 2014:

51C6nTU6HDLSamit Basu and Sunaina Coelho, The Adventures of Stoob: Testing Times

I’ve never actually read a Wimpy Kid book, so saying that this is like one of those is probably not the most rigorous of statements. But it certainly feels like it wants to be seen that way, judging by the cover art, etc. They’re for similar age groups, they’re told in first person with text interspersed with comical illustrations, both series even begin with slouching boys with backpacks, but that’s a bit of a reach. (There are obvious differences—the Wimpy Kid books are presented as diaries, whereas the context of Stoob’s narrative is less clear; Coelho’s illustrations aren’t so much a part of the narrative as they illustrate and enhance particular ideas/images. But still.)

Stoob (Subroto Bandhopadhyay) is 10 and in class 5, and a few short months away from being a senior. Those months are, it seems, to be filled with end of year exams—there are also monkeys and crows, more diligent friends, and a quest to stop a friend from cheating in the final exam. It’s light and funny and gave me a mnemonic for remembering the order of the Mughal emperors. There was a moment partway through where I thought we might be heading for a rather abrupt genre switch; Stoob’s guitar teacher is missing from his home, and the door is unlocked, the house is a mess, and there’s a horrible smell. Fortunately there’s an innocent explanation, and lightness is restored.

It’s all good fun and the illustrations are great, but I’m not particularly drawn into Stoob. As I say above, the context of his story is never quite clear—is he addressing an audience? Is this a diary? Are we in his head? How much does he feel the need to explain to his audience, whoever they are? I’d have liked to see more interiority given to these characters—to, for example, see the cheating dilemma feel like the huge battle for the soul that Stoob seems to think it is (which is not to suggest that I want morally instructive books about the badness of cheating in school exams). I’d just like more substance somewhere.

 

Ranjit Lal, The Tigers of Taboo Valley

The anthropomorphised-animals-with-apposite-names genre is not one I particularly appreciate except when targeted at very small children (what about Kipling??? cry my readers. Kipling is an exception to most rules). Particularly when the naming attempts clumsy references to Our World Today. Unfortunately, this is exactly the sort of book that The Tigers of Taboo Valley is—the tigers in question are both well aware of, and a bit obsessed with, their presentation in the media (courtesy a famous wildlife photographer named Ayesha, with luxuriant black hair). We’re told that Rana Shaan-Baahadur changes his facebook profile picture often—except not really, he’s a tiger, their facebook walls are the trees they urinate on. The vultures are named Diclo and Fenac, the crocodiles Magar and Machch, the jackal is Naradmunni, the poacher is Khoon-Pyaasa. This is all probably fine if you’re into this sort of thing. There are also terrorist porcupines: the Al Seekh Kebab Atankvad Andolan (ASKAA). This is not fine, it is cringeworthy.

Raat-ki-Rani, the mother of four cubs, is shot by the poacher, Rana Shaan-Bahadur takes over parenting duties. Taboo Valley is so named because the former natives put chemicals in their cattle to increase milk production and in doing so poisoned the vultures (and possibly the cattle?). It’s now deserted and the animals are afraid to enter it—except that they do enter it, and find that it’s perfectly safe, so it’s hard to be sure what the point of this interlude was other than to give the book an alliterative title (and gesture at an Important Lesson about putting chemicals in your cows). The other tigers decide to kill Rana Shaan-Bahadur for being a disgrace to gendered assumptions about parenting, the porcupines and hyenas and poachers are also converging upon the family, and it all gets a bit Game of Thrones. Everyone makes it out alive, somehow.

I’m being harsh, probably; other than some of the cringey names it’s perfectly competent. I’d rather read the Jungle Book, like many of Lal’s own characters.

February 21, 2016

Of Interest (21 February, 2016)

 

Sedition/JNU/Being Anti-National/Campus politics and the state:

 

Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech (translated from Hindi), before he was arrested.

Rahi Gaikwad on caste and the nation. (Via Mridula Chari)

Puja Sen in Himal on what all of this says about the party in power.

Jamall Calloway connecting Rohith Vemula’s death to a wider system of global oppressions. (Via Shruti Iyer)

(via Aakshi Magazine,) Mohamad Junaid on freedom of expression, the space of the campus, what the current narrative centres and what it erases. This, in particular:

The same day frothing TV journalists were holding court martials against Umar Khalid and Kanhaiya Kumar, the news of Shaista’s and Danish’s cold blooded murders was quietly suppressed—part of a larger history of suppression, which makes a certain kind of “national conscience” possible in India.

Swara Bhaskar writes to Umar Khalid.

David Palumbo-Liu on the possible ramifications in the US of what’s happening at home. (Via Chris Taylor)

Atul Dev in conversation with Vikram Chauhan, the lawyer who led the attacks on students and journalists outside Patiala House.

Nayan Jyoti points out that the state’s repression of the university just happens to be taking place at the same time as it suppresses workers across Haryana and Rajasthan. (TW for pictures of injuries, possibly)

Meanwhile, Dalit activists seeking permission to fly a black flag are arrested.

Shuddhabrata Sengupta on Ambedkar, Tagore and the Nation State.

In the most charming of all possible responses, the university has been hosting public talks on nationhood and they’re all available at the Stand With JNU Youtube page here (schedule here).

A performance of Dastan-e-Sedition.

A tweet by Anupam Kher, actor and tolerant Indian. (At least till someone explains to him about Nazis and he deletes it; though right now he seems to stand by it):

And Ravish Kumar on NDTV with this searing piece of reportage/performance art (on the channel’s website here) about the current state of our news media.

February 14, 2016

Of Interest (14 February, 2016)

Unsorted because I’m on holiday:

Kate Schapira on bodies and science and the world and bringing people into it.

Keguro Macharia on living with Jess Row’s Your Face in Mine. (Disclaimer because I edited this; on the other hand, it’s wonderful and everyone should read it.)

Sophia Azeb on the Tate Britain’s Artist and Empire exhibition.

Timothy Burke on Uagadou and the mechanics of African wizarding schools.

Ruchika Sharma on the origins of the Bhojshala myth.

Anuradha Vikram on witches and anti-colonial botany. Via Karen Gregory.

Soraya Roberts on Winona Ryder. Via Anna Carey.

Debbie Chachra on maker culture and the forms of work it excludes or devalues.

A roundtable (feat. Naomi Zeichner, Doreen St Felix, Anupa Mistry and Judnick Mayard) on Beyoncé’s “Formation“. Via Kate Schapira.

“and next thing you know the State has sponsored a musical warning people about you.” Creatrix Tiara on decolonization, western activism, other complicated things. Via Shruti Iyer.

A Dalit Marxist Manifesto by Chittibabu Padavala.

Edit: And this gorgeous piece on urban India, imagining love, and cinema, by Ravish Kumar. In Hindi here, translated into English here.

 

 

 

 

February 1, 2016

January Reading

Look at all the books I read this month! …

… a regency romance and a comic. Putting words into my eyes is currently not a thing I enjoy at all. I’m taking some time off in February, and am hoping I’ll magically find myself inhaling and wanting to talk about books as a result.

 

Loretta Chase, Dukes Prefer Blondes: Hm. I’m not a big fan of the Dressmakers series–Chase is always going to be a good writer, but what I value most in her is her humour, and these books are relatively short on that. This was a nice evening’s read, but I can’t imagine wanting to return to it as I would many of her other books. It’s also rather suggestive of the limitations (boundaries? Limitations sounds inherently negative) of the form; the minute you discover that the un-titled, not-rich hero has a titled cousin, you just know he’s going to inherit the dukedom, even if the title hadn’t (why that title? it’s a poor title) pretty much told you this anyway.

Woods NiobeSebastian A. Jones, Amandla Stenberg, Ashley A. Woods, Darrell May, Hyoung Taek Nam, Joshua Cozine, Niobe: She Is Life #1:  I don’t read comics enough until they’re pressed on me by friends who know what I’ll like, and when I do they’re usually a) in trade form and b) things for which I already have some context. So it’s possible that my general sense that I have no idea what is happening in this story is normal for people who start reading new series in single issues that are so short that there’s not much time to find out. I’m only really reading it because the thought of Amandla Stenberg doing a fantasy comic intrigued me. However.

I’ve written elsewhere, I think, of how often reading fantasy in India in the 90s was a process full of gaps; you’d start a series in medias res, would quite likely never read the next (or the last) book, and if your interest in fantasy is in estrangement and being unsettled (and not in the Learning All The Things And Filling In All The Gaps) this is a great initiation into the genre. Reading Niobe reminded me very much of that feeling–it’s proper epic fantasy; there are a lot of people (and gods?) with important ancestries and destinies being very angry about things I don’t understand yet, but I am entirely sucked in, am planning to read Jones’s The Untamed (which, I understand, is set in this world and to which this is a sort of sequel), and am looking forward to the next issue (which I’m told will be out at the end of the month). Plus Ashley A. Woods’s art is gorgeous.

 

 

January 31, 2016

Of Interest (31 January, 2016)

Here are some good things I read this week.

Children’s Books (and media):

Rob Maslen on T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone (which is of course perfect). And here is a conversation from a few months ago about The Once and Future King, in which Felix Gilman, in particular, says some good things.

Brent Ryan Bellamy at Strange Horizons on energy in The Jetsons and The Flintstones.

The results of the Hindu Young World-Goodbooks awards are here (shortlists here). I’m in Delhi soon, and am planning to pick up some of these (definitely the Venita Coelho).

Nicole Pasulka and Brian Ferree on Ursula the Sea Witch and Divine. I enjoyed this, but also I’m confused by any writing about Ursula that reads her as white.

Anne of Green Gables is pro-choice! (Mrs Lynde I’m not so sure of …)

 

Empire:

Malcolm Harris reviews Ned and Constance Sublette’s The Slave Coast; I’m particularly struck by this, near the beginning:

But to think about American slaves merely as coerced and unpaid laborers is to misunderstand the institution. Slaves weren’t just workers, the Sublettes remind the reader—they were human capital. The very idea that people could be property is so offensive that we tend retroactively to elide the designation, projecting onto history the less-noxious idea of the enslaved worker, rather than the slave as commodity. Mapping 20th-century labor models onto slavery spares us from reckoning with the full consequences of organized dehumanization, which lets us off too easy: To turn people into products means more than not paying them for their work.

Deana Heath on Britain’s national curriculum and its whitewashing of imperial history. Via Alex Adams.

So many Rhodes Must Fall thinkpieces, so little time. But this by David Olusoga and this by Christopher Phelps and this by Minesh Parekh aren’t bad. (The position of this website is, obviously, #RMF)

 

Other:

Joyelle McSweeney interviews Kamau Brathwaite on catastrophe, ecological and otherwise, and history, and home. (This is amazing, you should read it.) (via Kate Schapira.)

In Goa, coconut trees are no longer trees.

Rather terrifying (and yet also not at all surprising :/) that the effects of the caste system are literally visible in Indian DNA. Via Alok Prasanna Kumar.

Florence Okoye on realising an Afrofuturist Africa. Via An Afrofuturist Affair on twitter.

Pritesh Pal’s everyday photographs of a queer couple are rather lovely–link and some context at Gaylaxy, here.

The text of Sara Ahmed’s lecture, “Feminism and Fragility“.

Vajra Chandrasekera destroys SF and writes a really good essay.

What I loved about these books is what they had in common, this beautiful blue-shifted Soviet optimism. “I want to capture the many fleeting expressions on the faces of my youthful contemporaries—those who ride in trams and make their way on foot, those who are building towns in the taiga, those who are training for flights into space.” That’s Aksyonov talking about his book, the one without robots or artificial islands. It comes from that particular time and place when real people like Korolyov and Glushko did utterly science-fictional things, and even though I was reading it as the dream of the USSR crumbled, it managed to transport me across the thirty intervening years to a place where the dream was still alive. Communism, the future, space—no, I had it right at thirteen, that was science fiction.

JR Martin on Carol, Velvet Goldmine and David Bowie.

Sridala Swami links me to Dhrubo Jyoti’s fantastic reply to a ridiculous piece about caste by Devdutt Pattnaik which Scroll.in inexplicably decided the world needed to see.

 

 

January 24, 2016

Of Interest (24 January, 2016)

A two week silence, and there are things I’m not linking to this week. I’m sorting through the sheer volume of what has been written since the death of Rohith Vemula, and can only link to a couple of things–including his own words on the subject.

(In a completely different way and for completely other reasons I find I’m unable to link to any of the thousands of editorials and personal responses that have been written since the death of David Bowie.)

Anyway.

 

Rohith Vemula:

Rohith Vemula’s last words.

Meena Kandasamy on Rohith’s death is a call to arms that feels necessary.

Let them realise that Vedic times, the era of pouring molten lead into the ears of the Shudras who hear the sacred texts, the era of cutting the tongues of those who dared to utter the knowledge that was denied to them, are long gone. Let them understand that we have stormed these bastions to educate, to agitate, to organise; we did not come here to die. We have come to learn, but let the monsters of caste and their henchmen bear in mind that we have come here also to teach them an unforgettable lesson.

 

Books:

Children’s literature has managed two painful controversies over books about happy slaves in the past few months. Debbie Reese has collections of links here and here; Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s annotated Storify is the best thing I’ve read on the subject.

There was an annoying piece about the book in the NYT recently, so here is a reminder that you should read Christina Sharpe on Alice Goffman’s On the Run.

Via Megan Milks, Kayla E. collects the thoughts of ten women and nonbinary comics creators about the Grand Prix de la ville d’Angoulême and its failure to recognise that not-men exist.

Sneha Rajaram on growing up with Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye.

Via Egbert Alejandro Martina, Nadina Botha on the necessity of Afrofuturism.

Gayatri Jayaraman on recent Indian poetry. Via Sridala Swami.

 

Bodies and Places and Histories and Things:

Mindy Hung at the Toast on her relationship(s) with her father and religion. Via Kate Schapira.

Sanam Maher on the rise of Mr Burger. Via Bilal Tanweer.

This week on television: Sunny Leone was interviewed by Bhupendra Chaubey; he could not get over the whole “used to be in porn” thing; she was unruffled and thoroughly showed him up. More here.

Elizabeth Royte (words) and Charlie Hamilton Jones (pictures) on the necessity of vultures. (several graphic pictures there)

Padmini Ray Murray and Chris Hand on Making in India.

Dallas Hunt on Mad Max: Fury Road as a totem transfer narrative. Via Hiromi Goto.

Louis Allday on the Tate Britain’s Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past, which. Er. Doesn’t.

Dominique Malaquais in Chimurenga on bodies and gender and embodying/engendering Africa.

 

January 13, 2016

Bulletpoints: The Borrowers (2011)

Some disconnected notes on the 2011 BBC adaptation of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (first published in 1952–the dates are important). Since the book is a) good and b) relevant to my interests (academic and otherwise) I decided drag Erin into watching it with me (and reading the book and thinking about empire–she has some really good stuff about the book here).

  • The plot (book): A couple of frame narratives in, we learn that the Borrowers are tiny, humanoid creatures that live in big houses, stealing borrowing from the “human beans”. Our main characters are a family of three, the Clocks, the only Borrowers left in a declining country house. Arrietty, the adventurous daughter, disobeys her parents, goes outside, and meets a human boy; their subsequent friendship leads him to give the Borrowers a number of things from an old doll’s house, but it also leads to their home under the floorboards being discovered so that they must escape. They end the book as exiles, forced to abandon their home and “emigrate”. borrower2

 

  • I’ve written about the book on this site before, and it forms a biggish chunk of my thesis (which is what Erin’s referring to when she says she’s about to “read Subramanian on this”). Briefly–The Borrowers raises a number of issues around power and dependence; the Borrowers are dependent for their material needs upon humans, whom they dismiss as resources (“Human beans are for Borrowers”), but their names, language, domestic paraphenalia, are all presented as attempts at aping human cultural life, and therefore inauthentic. Through the presentation of human and borrower spaces here it’s easy  (I think) to see how domestic material culture (and national identity–think of the importance of the country house to the heritage industry) is linked to the (declining) empire. And yet the whole thing is appropriately ambivalent; as Erin says in the linked post, it never straightforwardly assigns colonizer-colonized positions. In the human boy, we even have a sort of hybrid figure.

 

  • The plot (film): This is set in the present. The human family here are a boy named James, his unemployed father, and his grandmother Mrs Driver. They live in London and are poor; the dad’s doing all he can to afford a nice family Christmas. Mrs Driver believes her house is infested by tiny creatures who  steal–James and his dad think she drinks too much. James befriends Arrietty, the Borrowers are found out; this is relatively close to the book’s plot but only a small part of the film. Because Stephen Fry plays Richard Dawkins Professor Mildeye, a blustering scientist who is something of a joke; he’s convinced that tiny humanoid creatures exist and that he must catch them (and then display and dissect them) in order to make a name for himself in the scientific world. Pod and Homily are captured (heroically sacrificing themselves for Arrietty’s freedom) and the rest of the film is devoted to Arrietty, another Borrower named Spiller, and James attempting to rescue them before Mildeye can display them at a huge press conference. Toy cars and planes are involved; also chase scenes and Mildeye’s inept attempts at romancing Mrs Driver.

 

  • What does the change in setting do? As Erin noted, the obvious consequence for me is that the immediate colonial context is gone; there’s probably stuff to be said about the ways in which the current economic climate is reflected in the film, but the very specific material relations that constituted (part of) empire are lost. As is Homily Clock’s obsession with perfect housekeeping, but that’s probably a relief. And yet there’s something in Mildeye’s handling of his “specimens”. Granted, this is a made-for-TV children’s movie with a lot of plot and little time to explore nuance, but we were both surprised by the scientists’ unabashed villainy–there’s no attempt to justify to themselves the displaying (like zoo animals), attempted stripping (that was an uncomfortable scene) and planned dissection of sentient beings with whom they’re able to communicate. Of course Europeans displaying or killing colonial subjects for science/curiosity/lulz has a long, proud history–though most of those earlier academics at least made the effort of trying to convince themselves their subjects weren’t fully human. (Coincidentally, we watched this film a few days after the Daily Mail reported on a story about a projected Saartjie Baartman film, referring to Baartman as the “bum woman”.)

 

  • This chimes with other issues of power within the book, and in other, contemporary (with Norton), children’s books. In The Borrowers, the friendship between Arrietty and the boy may be genuine and well-meant, it may give them both wonderful things (they’re both lonely before they meet; she reads to him; he performs tasks she’s too small and vulnerable to do) but good intentions cannot erase that difference in power. When they’re found out, it’s Arrietty and her family who lose everything.

 

  •  I’m thinking as well of T.H. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946), which deals with questions of power, tiny people and sentience even more directly. In the book, which is about a girl in a declining English country estate who discovers and befriends the tiny descendants of some Lilliputians (I know; I promise this is a different book), the attempts of various people to capture the Lilliputians for display in circuses are very clearly seen as bad. And yet our ‘good’ characters aren’t immune to these impulses– the kindly Professor fantasises about capturing and displaying a Brobdingnagian before guiltily deciding he would pay the giant, of course. More importantly Maria, who also means well, has to learn to overcome the tendency to treat the Lilliputians like toys just because she can–she learns an important lesson when she puts a Lilliputian in a toy aeroplane and flies it, and he falls out and is badly injured. (The Lilliputians also learn an important lesson, but decide to forgive Maria anyway. I’m not sure that was wise.) Both The Borrowers (book) and Mistress Masham’s Repose demonstrate that  good intentions don’t protect you, if you’re powerful, from causing harm to vulnerable people; MMR further suggests that a disparity of power is going to make it inherently harder for the more powerful party to see the less powerful as fully human (for want of a better word).

 

  • There’s a weird echo of the aeroplane scene in MMR in this film. James shoots Arrietty out of a sling, and I’m wincing and waiting for her to be badly hurt. She doesn’t–conveniently unbreakable, she thanks him for the exciting ride. Later on the plot to rescue her parents has her taking rides in toy aeroplanes and cars. James is Arrietty’s friend; he likes her and so cannot harm her. (Their relationship is presented as even more egalitarian because the Clocks give the human family a rare coin that solves their financial dificulties). It’s the bad people who are a threat to the Borrowers’ personhood–power in and of itself is rendered irrelevant.

 

  • The other possibility, of course, is that issues of personhood and power aren’t raised in any sustained way because practically every man in this film is evil and terrifying. In the book, the Clocks live in isolation because they genuinely don’t know where to find the other Borrowers and it’s too dangerous to go looking; and what if Borrowers are dying out? They might be the last of their kind, holed up in this hiding place, waiting for the end. Pod does plan to teach Arrietty how to Borrow, because this is a basic survival skill she needs to learn. In the film, he refuses to let his daughter go out at all, insisting that he  provides enough for his small family that she shouldn’t need to. This feels like the beginning of a horror story–and when we discover that there are in fact hundreds of Borrowers living communally in London, and that Pod and his family are welcome among them, it gets more suspicious still (and then Pod gets violently protective of the young man flirting with his daughter. This could so easily be a much more sinister story). Eventually we’re given the backstory–Pod is a hero among the other Borrowers but there was one girl he couldn’t save from a disaster–his niece. See? Says the film. We told you there was a reasonable explanation! Except that this is not a reasonable explanation for locking up your wife and child for years and refusing to let them see other people ever, so this backstory hasn’t helped at all. borrower film

 

  • It’s rather a pity that all these other Borrowers exist. One effect is to take away our focus on the isolation of this family–there are moments in the book that feel genuinely apocalyptic (though there’s a wonderful moment in the film [see picture] when all three Clocks hide under their dining table that recalls Cold War era duck and cover drills).There’s a version of this story (it wouldn’t be The Borrowers, but hey) in which film!Pod is aware that the world has ended, and he’s keeping the two women locked up in a misguided attempt to protect them from that knowledge until they all die together. (I think I’ve read that horribly bleak SF short story.)

 

  • About the only bit of Pod’s overprotectiveness that does make sense is his initial distrust of Spiller, the young Borrower boy the family hire to guide them to a safe new home. Spiller is gross. Spiller’s flirtation technique is to sexually harrass Arrietty into exhausted compliance. Spiller is from that really horrible moment in 90s Bollywood and someone should punch him, though I’d prefer Arrietty rather than Pod to be the one to do so. Unfortunately, when Pod and Homily are trapped by Mildeye, he decides to literally hand his daughter over to Spiller to look after. Solid parenting as ever there, Pod.

 

  • To be fair, there’s a solid argument for reading Arrietty’s sex life as central to the book and film. As Erin says, there are some erotically charged moments in the book, when Arrietty first goes outside, and as she and the boy learn about each other. But on an even more basic level the book, and Arrietty herself, are concerned with “saving the race”–it doesn’t seem to occur to her that to do that she might need to find a nice Borrower boy. In the film this does seem to occur to her and everyone else–early on, when Pod protests that he provides everything Arrietty needs, we’re reminded that she has Other Needs (though there’s no un-disturbing answer to how Pod should provide for those).

 

  • James finds a dollshouse bed for Arrietty and Spiller to sleep in. “Is there another bed?” asks Arrietty (I’m paraphrasing) as the two boys smile at her (James innocently, Spiller leeringly) and ask what the problem is. She has to get into bed with Spiller. But she does manage to kick him out when he gets too threatening (the film presumably doesn’t think of its target audience as one likely to have experienced sharing beds with men who will not stop, and apparently sees this as all in good fun).

 

  • Arrietty eventually admits she has feelings for Spiller and the two leave to have adventures, with Pod and Homily’s blessing. UGH.

 

  • How many people are likely to have read The Borrowers? Erin observed that adaptations of other children’s books tend to be a lot more faithful–and I wonder if part of the reason this is able to be the film it is is because this book has fallen out of the popular canon (is it in bookshops? do actual children read it?) to some extent. Everyone knows it’s about tiny people; the rest is optional. (Erin: “[but] it could as easily be Jim the little fairy who lives in your house. Fae are common property.”)

 

  • A thing I miss  about the book is the sense you get of a switch in perspective. I love what Erin says in her post about the clever cover art of her edition and the tricks it plays with regard to size. In the book, most of the time we’re seeing through the eyes of Arrietty who is the right size for a Borrower, and so the human world is huge to us. It’s no accident that I refer to the boy in the book as The Boy, and to James in the film–the film roots itself in the human, gives the humans context and story and thus loses its capacity for estrangement. This is a vital difference for me. The book is set in a vast and terrifying landscape populated by huge creatures that can kill you–the film is set in your nan’s house with cute tiny creatures scurrying around. It keeps the Borrowers small. And it renders the film safe–the heartwarming tale of How Little James Helped The Friendly Tiny People With No Bad Consequences For Him Or Them looks a lot more fraught from the other side.

 

Which is a lot of words to say “this film is mediocre”, but hey.

January 10, 2016

Of Interest (10 January, 2016)

Here are links to some things I read this week.

 

Books:

I hadn’t realised quite how much discussion the LARB had devoted to Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (which is a book which should be spoken about lots) until a link from Natalia Cecire to the first part of this symposium–the links at the end of the piece lead to the second part, as well as a two-part roundtable; I haven’t read the roundtable yet but I’m glad it’s there.

Maureen McLane on Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women.

Did I mention (I did) that Danez Smith’s [insert] boy was one of the best things I read last year? From “summer, somewhere”, in this month’s Poetry, via Sridala Swami. And here’s “I’m Going Back To Minnesota Where Sadness Makes Sense,” via half of my twitter feed this week.

A new Anne Carson story, “1=1“.

Salman Hussain in Dawn on Deepa Kumar’s Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire.

 

Film and TV:

When Casey Plett tweeted a link to this conversation between her and Jonathan Kay about The Danish Girl she said she’d thought to suggest titling it Ok Fine Goddammit Let’s Talk About The Danish Girl so that is what I am going to call it because it’s a good title. Related, very good, and linked to from that piece, Plett’s essay Rise of the Gender Novel. And less formal, but still great, Red Durkin’s livetweet of the film here (via Sabine on Twitter).

Via Rohan Maitzen, Maddie Rodriguez on three versions of Jane Eyre‘s red room scene.

I haven’t seen the Sherlock Christmas special. I’m  torn between my continuing bemusement at the British national pastime, so it seems to me, where everyone must always watch the same things on TV always and forever no matter how angry (Question Time) or disappointed (Doctor Who) one expects to be, and my shiny new bemusement at how little I care–I remember waiting for season two a few years ago and actually being excited. I mention this mostly to explain why I am the only Strange Horizons book reviews editor not to have written about it– but these pieces by Maureen and Dan are great, so you’re not missing anything.

I don’t know much about 6 Pack Band, who are being marketed (by Yash Raj Films?!) as India’s first trans band, but this cover of Pharrell’s “Happy” is making me very, er. Happy.

Deepra Dandekar performs a feminist reading of Mastani’s religion and caste in Bajirao Mastani.

 

Bodies in Space (i.e. miscellaneous?):

I’m not sure where else to classify this great conversation between Amandla Stenberg and Solange Knowles, on the subject of being young, black and amazing, but it’s so good, and so full of excellent pictures, and I’m very glad Stenberg is alive in the world (and also writing SFFnal comics!).

Medical student Bahar Orang on touching naked bodies. (Via Shruti Ravi)

Chandrahas Choudhury on food historian Pushpesh Pant. (I will admit to giggling at the “ey khaana to ey gaana” story.) (via Chapati Mystery)

The Ladies Finger have posted a best of the year list that has so many good things I want to link to. For a start: this lovely, warm piece by Aneela Z. Babbar on her Pakistani-Indian-Australian family (I’ve met her, she really is that funny in person), this useful illustrated guide to women on panels, and everything Sneha Rajaram has ever written.