Archive for ‘children’s literature’

April 19, 2019

Swapna Dutta, Juneli’s First Term, Juneli at Avila’s, An Exciting Term

(I wrote most of this last year and for some reason abandoned it in draft form. Recently I read another series of girls’ school stories from India, and thought that before I wrote about them I should probably finish this. Expect that other piece soon or, judging by my current form, within the next year or so.)

 

We moved to Delhi (from a village in the north of England) when I was ten, and I lost a number of my old books in the move. I was, however, allowed a new book each weekend (which seemed riches at the time, even though I generally finished them in a couple of hours on the Saturday), and usually this was whichever (Armada edition) Chalet School story I could find in the local bookshop. Some adults would hear that I liked school stories and ask me if I’d read the Juneli stories, which had been serialised in Children’s World in the ’70s and ’80s. I hadn’t, and at this point in the mid-’90s they were out of print (in recent years they’ve become available as ebooks); and in any case, though I wouldn’t have articulated it that way at the time, I was a bit suspicious of the results of bodily transporting genres across continents. At least some of this was probably a prejudice against Indian fiction in general, coupled with that (by now well-worn) trope of readers brought up with the literature of the global north not thinking books with brown kids in them were quite real.

This was particularly baseless in the context of my own inter-continental move. In England, I’d attended a state school a short walk from my own house, far removed from the sorts of institutions I’d been reading about. In India, I was at a big private school, with much stricter rules about uniforms and an actual house system. Before I left the UK, I’d told a friend (and fellow school story reader) that I was going to a school with prefects, a house system and a head boy and girl and she was as entertained by this as I was—to both of us these seemed concepts out of fiction rather than real life. Because if Indian children of my generation (and that of my parents) and social circumstances (read: class, caste, etc) grew up reading English genre fiction because of the colonial history that made that fiction culturally available to us, we also grew up in educational institutions that were partly modelled on British ones. (And it’s probably irrelevant to this post [but nonetheless true] that those British institutions were themselves created in an imperial context and were shaped by that colonial history and those relations of power.)

The characters in Dutta’s Juneli books have read the same school stories as I have—and of course Dutta has herself. There’s a long tradition in the school story (as with some other forms of particularly trope-y genre fiction; detective fiction often does it too) of continually referring back to the genre within the plot; for example having the new girl, whose point of view the reader is most likely to share, come to boarding school for the first time and compare it to the schools she’s read of in fiction. (Antonia Forest has a particularly good version of this.) Juneli arrives at Avila’s with a head full of the Chalet School and Malory Towers, having inherited a huge trunk of girls’ own fiction from her mother—when she mentions these series titles, her friend Ritu points out the differences between their own setting, Brent-Dyer’s Austrian Tyrol and Blyton’s Cornwall, revealing that she too knows these books well. What the books insist on, however, is a sort of commonality of schoolgirl experience that transcends time and borders–this is something that Dutta herself suggests in the forewords to the ebook editions, claiming that while she based Avila’s on her own school, readers from a variety of backgrounds have found the characters and situations familiar, and “basically people–including schoolgirls–are the same everywhere”. This may well be true, but in this genre it’s particularly hard to disentangle the shared experience from the shared literature. Soon after Juneli joins the school, a classmate neatly maps the major characters from Malory Towers onto their classmates; the one who’s good at drawing (Ina/Belinda), the vain, spoiled one (Balbinder, whose peers even call her Gwendoline Mary after the Blyton character), and so on.

Part of the reason the Juneli books are satisfying as school stories is because they are so familiar, hitting every trope. In the first book there are guides, midnight revelries, a subplot in which Juneli is Falsely Accused, a daring rescue in which our heroine saves the life of another girl, and a version of the plot of (Elsie Oxenham’s) The Girls of the Hamlet Club, in which a group of girls, left out of other school activities, form a club of their own and eventually have to step in and save the school after the cast of the school play falls sick. I’m not accusing Dutta of being derivative here, so much as suggesting that the genre is often built on a series of set pieces that are instantly recognisable to fans. The second book in the series has an undeserving head girl elected on the basis of her popularity–another plotline I’m sure I’ve read before, but the only instance I can remember is in one of the Naughtiest Girl in the School sequels (by Anne Digby), published long after these stories. It’s only through Juneli’s interference that the misguided headgirl doesn’t re-enact another existing plotline (see: EBD’s New Chalet School, EJO’s The Two Form Captains), where the Bad Girl is off doing something fun and disobedient and is thus not on hand to go to the bedside of a dying parent. The third book has the entire school move to an ancient fort at the last minute and thus provides a fantastic setting for an adventure story involving disinherited young women, cryptic directions that lead to treasure, and a gang of thieves. There are even hilarious domestic science mishaps of the sort that, in Brent-Dyer, are inevitably in a chapter titled “A Little Cookery”.

campfireUnfortunately, the books inherit some of the less pleasant parts of the genre as well. I have read a lot of British girls’ school stories about the camp fire movement (thanks, Elsie Oxenham), and I’m made really uncomfortable by the romanticised/fetishised version of Native American cultures that seems to underpin them–I don’t know how central this was to the American movement, or if it was exaggerated as an embarrassing side effect of its adoption by British writers. (There’s nothing about British school stories’ portrayal of American history that isn’t bizarre to me–there’s a moment in Brent-Dyer’s Rivals of the Chalet School in which the girls decide to play at being the Ku Klux Klan and somehow fans of the genre have just ignored this and gone about our daily ways.) It’s possible that Dutta’s portrayal (in Juneli at Avila’s) of an episode in which Juneli and her fellow girl guides put on “beads and coloured feathers,” and act out bits of Hiawatha is a nod to that tradition. On the other hand, I know very little about Guides in India in the 70s; it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that they thought dressing up as “Red Indians” and prancing about was a fun way to spend time. I started reading school stories in the early 1990s and at that point (unless my childhood was extremely unusual) the idea that parodying other cultures was in poor taste was pretty mainstream, and it’s even more unpleasant to read now.

In addition, there’s the apparent willingness to mock characters for their weight or lack of athletic ability (in school stories as in life, the two are often unfairly conflated). This is all realistic enough–girls at school are as capable of cruelty and bullying as anyone else–but when in all other respects Juneli herself is treated as ideal (good, honourable, kind, etc), her willingness to participate in things like fat shaming suggests that the book itself endorses (or at least thinks nothing of) this behaviour.

Which is to say, reading these books was like reading any other school story–familiar, entertaining, and often jarring with the reminder that my values are not those of the genre’s earliest authors. In a series so relatively recent, I wish that this were not still the case.

April 16, 2019

Bali Rai, City of Ghosts

I have a post about Bali Rai’s City of Ghosts on the Children’s Literature in Newcastle blog, as a way of commemorating the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Alongside the book (and since I finished it), I’ve also been reading Kim A Wagner’s book on the incident; it’s published as Amritsar 1919 outside India, but here it’s only Jallianwala Bagh, which I think speaks to the sort of mythic resonance that it has within how Indians (at least, Indians from my part of the country) tell our history.

Rai’s book was published in the UK in 2009–I don’t know if it was ever actively linked to the 90th anniversary of the massacre. Nevertheless, I feel that questions of how the empire is remembered have been so much more prominent over the last few years (Brexit, Rhodes Must Fall, multiple rounds of the was-Churchill-bad wars) that reading it now may be quite different from reading it a decade ago. The centenary has taken place amid a number of calls to the British government to issue an official apology for what is now, at least, widely acknowledged as a horrific event (it’d be nice to be able to be shocked that the public at the time did the equivalent of a racist GoFundMe [to steal the term from my friend Vajra] to support Dyer, but then this happened this week and I’m not surprised at all.). I’m unconvinced that an apology is worth much–as I say in the blog post linked above, I’m suspicious of attempts to cordon off particular aspects of imperial violence and mark them as uniquely awful, when doing so serves to render all the other imperial violence (i.e. all of empire) relatively benevolent (on twitter I linked to Tom Bentley’s thoughts on this, which are good). I’m also suspicious of how these arguments constantly quote Churchill and work to suggest that he wasn’t a big fan of large scale violence on nonwhite colonial subjects.

As for the book itself, I think my main feeling was that I wanted it to go further and be the full-on angry indictment that it could have been. Given its audience, I’m not sure how far it could have gone, though. I got curious and read as many online reviews of the book as I could find, some from ten years ago and others more recent, and while they were all complimentary none of them suggested a possibility of deep engagement. Several iterations of “I’d never heard of this awful event!” (fair enough, sorry about the history curriculum); at least one that was uncomfortable with the fact that the book seems to endorse Udham Singh;s doing a murder; one, memorably, that sought to compliment Rai by comparing his presentation of India to Kim, by Rudyard Kipling (who famously called Dyer the “man who saved India” and supported his actions during the massacre. I love Kipling’s prose but if there was ever a time this comparison was inappropriate …). I’m suspicious of narratives of progress, and I don’t know that the relative prominence of imperial history in the public discourse over the last few years has actually led to an increased public understanding of it (most of the time, all it seems to mean is that people say offensive things more often and with more media coverage). Would the dramatic indictment I craved be more likely to be written in the current climate? I’m not sure. I’m currently doing some work on contemporary British children’s books and how they imagine/memorialise/ negotiate the imperial past, and I suspect I’ll be coming back to City of Ghosts to think about it more.

April 9, 2019

Aditi Krishnakumar, The Magicians of Madh

The Magicians of Madh is set in the sort of independent city state you see in quite a lot of fantasy, and so is immediately familiar. Krishnakumar knows you know this. Madh is full of hooded and cloaked figures, improbable architecture, competing and tax-avoidant temples, and more than the usual quantity of supernatural beings. The city’s skyline is dominated by the Academy (not actually the tallest building), where young people study magic and alchemy, as well as maths and philosophy. The assassins who roam the streets have, pragmatically, unionised. It’s all rather Terry Pratchett, and that is generally a good thing.

Strange events are taking place across the city; evidence of powerful magic but with no trace of who the practitioner/s might be. Teenage genius Meenakshi, along with her more practical foster brother Kalban, undertakes to find out what, who, and why.

I’d assumed from the back cover, and the fact that the book is squarely aimed at a middle-grade readership, that the Academy was a magic school, a setting that I thoroughly enjoy. For a while after the book opened, I found myself slightly disappointed that I wasn’t getting all the educational scenes I’d hoped for—and then I realised that what I was actually reading was magic university.

There’s space here for another call back to Terry Pratchett, but it wasn’t the one that felt most immediate to me. I have no way of knowing whether Krishnakumar has read Diana Wynne Jones’s Year of the Griffin, but some of that book’s (and to some extent Dark Lord of Derkholm’s, which it follows) sense of university life unfolding in the plot’s background, of deep immersion in personal projects, academic rivalries, earnest and ridiculous debate, awkward relationships with irascible supervisors,  and university social life (there’s even a Disembodied Voice Society, which I love), is present here as well, and is genuinely charming when it happens. (Also there are griffins.) The city in the background can sometimes be a bit of a gimmick taken too far (In other cities people would run away from danger! In Madh they run towards it! In other cities you’d look conspicuous all hooded and cloaked! Here you pass unnoticed!); the university is less of a genre parody and more a space in which people live and interact, and possibly even work.

There might be a reason for that (and note that this is a mystery story, and anything mentioned here may have relevance to the solution). The Academy is enchanted, in a very particular way, so that how it appears to each person is constantly changing, and no one has ever seen what the building itself looks like. Most often, as the characters creep through its corridors, it seems to look rather dungeonlike—dramatic and medieval and rather too dark. It’s giving its students the sort of portentous, pseudo-medieval setting they expect, as well as the one we expect—as the book does in its broader descriptions of Madh, it’s working with, building on and undercutting its audience’s expectations of what this sort of setting looks like, and what sort of genre this is.

And then events transpire so that we do see the Academy’s true form. It’s only described briefly; the characters find themselves in a room whose “floor was tiled in polished stone and the walls and ceiling painted a pale neutral cream.” Not much there, but shortly after Kalban describes the experience as seeing the Academy while it “looked like a government building designed by an architect in the middle of a minimalist phase.” I love this. For multiple reasons: I like the sort of building this seems to suggest; I like that Madh is the sort of world that might plausibly have minimalist government buildings; and I love how familiar, how immediate, and how Indian such a building feels to me.

Calling it “Indian” feels important given that all my references to other works thus far have been British ones–the names are Indic (Meenakshi, Chitralekha, Paras, Nalini), but is there more to it than that? Fantasy (or at least a certain sort of fantasy) in India faces something of a challenge when it attempts to build worlds that draw on the national past. (I can’t let that sentence pass without noting that medievalist European fantasy has been weaponised by Nazis more than once, including very recently, so the problem is not unique to us.) So much of Indian history, myth, folklore has been co-opted into a Hinduist narrative that a story that tries to use those things risks being co-opted in similar ways.

I don’t know whether Krishnakumar is actively trying to negotiate this situation, but if she is she comes up with some appealing solutions. Madh has its elements of Hindu mythology—a “Celestial Dancer” (Krishnakumar chooses not to say “Apsara,” but she’s not hiding what Chitralekha is—or for that matter her superiors Rambha and Urvashi) is one of the major characters, dividing her time between trying to solve the mystery alongside Meenakshi and irritating Kalban. It’s probably more a case of shared sources than a deliberate allusion, but the name of the neighbouring kingdom, Melucha, kept reminding me of Amish Tripathi’s Immortals of Meluha–fittingly, as Melucha seems a more traditional mythic kingdom.

And then we have the academy, and its blocky minimal-ness and suddenly I’m at home in a completely different way. I’ve spent most of my life in a country many of whose public institutions were built in the mid-twentieth century, and whose architecture reflects that moment. I’m suspicious of schools that want me to notice that they look like Hogwarts; I like a medieval castle in its place, but I’m suspicious of what about its old-ness I’m being asked to admire. Madh is–fundamentally–a post medievalist world, one into which government buildings just fit naturally. There may be some of the trappings of medievalism in its material culture (why are people wandering about with bows and arrows?), and Kalban in particular may be used to a court full of intrigue and assassination (I’d love to read fantasy set in Melucha, but I’m glad it’s offscreen in this story); but it’s no accident that the book’s appendices consist of a chart depicting the structure and hierarchies of Madh’s bureaucracy where many other fantasies would have family trees and glossaries. It seems the India I want from Indian fantasy is a post-independence one.

I realise that Krishnakumar probably did not set out to create a Nehruvian alternative to mythological fantasy, and I’m okay with that knowledge.

My feelings about buildings and bureaucracy aside, I’m not completely sold on this book. A couple of years ago I complained about another Indian fantasy that was aimed at middle-grade readers that it felt incomplete, as if there’d been several more chapters of backstory and worldbuilding. There’s a similar feeling of incompleteness about this book, and it has a bigger effect on me when I read. I describe the book above as a sort of mystery/detective novel–there are lots of small background details that turn out to have a real bearing on the solution. But in order to participate in the working out of the solution we need a basic understanding of how the world and its magic work and we don’t, quite. I have no idea whether Krishnakumar plans to write more books set in this world; if she does the main attraction for me would be that gradually I might come to understand this world better.

September 1, 2017

Further self-promotion

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

 

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

Go and listen!

 

 

 

* (I read no books in August.)

August 27, 2017

Some Borribles

Borriblecover

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

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

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

 

 

August 1, 2017

Joan Aiken, The Stolen Lake

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

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

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

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

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

stolen lake gorey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 17, 2017

Kiran Millwood Hargrave, The Island at the End of Everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 7, 2017

Malorie Blackman, Chasing The Stars

chasing starsI have a review of Malorie Blackman’s most recent novel in Strange Horizons this week–most of my thoughts on the book are therefore to be found over there. Both as an SF novel and as an adaptation of Othello I found it … not great, but intriguing. In the review I read it in the context of the other texts that it is (both explicitly and implicitly) bouncing off, and suggest that it works better as an intervention into those works than it does as a thing in itself. Which is all fine.

But that isn’t the only context in which I’m reading the book–it’s also a children’s book, and more importantly (this year, at least) it’s a Carnegie-eligible children’s book. It appeared on the list of nominations for the Carnegie medal, as well as being shortlisted for the Guardian and Waterstones prizes and longlisted for the Jhalak prize. Some further thoughts, then:

I’ve been reading this book as an adult, a science fiction fan, and a person who knows Othello relatively well; and my particular reading of it means that I find it harder than usual to imagine how the book would work in the absence of those contexts. (The internet suggests that lots of people are coming to it that way, and many seem to be enjoying it.)  It also makes judging it in light of the Carnegie criteria seem rather meaningless.

(But let’s try anyway: with the exception of the Love At First Sight trope the characters and their development do make sense; there’s clever use of “literary conventions and techniques” though not necessarily as I think those criteria intend; the resolution is credible; I’m going to stop now because the Carnegie criteria always feel weird and limited to me.)

In the review I mention very briefly the fact that Olivia’s interest in film becomes a marker of class. I was trying not to give too much away, and also not get boring and rambly, but that is not a concern on my own blog, so here are some details.

For most of the book, the only characters we see Olivia interacting with, other than her brother, are the refugees. We know that Vee’s interest in old-timey films is weird because she tells us so, and also because when she makes movie references in conversations with her new crew they seem to be confused by them. But–these characters are also former “drones”, a sort of underclass who work in the mines, most of whom were born into these conditions. There’s a point in the book where Nathan points out that drones do not have the opportunity to watch films and read books, so that the access that Vee has always taken for granted, and which is a basic condition of her particular hobby, is specifically a function of her class position within the universe. Vee is taken aback, assimilates this into her understanding of the universe, moves on; it’s a throwaway scene, though one of many in which Nathan and his friends draw attention to the fact that Olivia has watched films and they have not.

[Here be spoilers]

Late in the book we discover that the serial killer aboard the ship is Doctor Sheen, the colony’s sole doctor who has never herself been a drone. Sheen wants to get back to Earth–with her knowledge of the drones and their allies she can easily buy her freedom–and has been killing off those on the ship towards this goal. She is, however, willing to see Vee as an equal and a potential ally, because “You have a love of literature and films and music and art, all the things that separate us from beasts and drones.”

And I’m wondering how this knowledge, that a familiarity with certain sorts of culture is both a marker of power and a weapon itself, sits with a book which is itself a reworking of a classic (and is thus made richer and deeper in the reading by the reader’s knowledge of its intertext/s), and there’s a lot here that is rich and interesting and that I’m not sure yet what to do with.

 

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The other thing that I could not fit into the review was the revelation that at one point, when Vee and Nathan are having sex, the act of cunnilingus is described as “to go where no one had gone before”. I’m not sure whether Star Trek exists within the universe of the book, but I’m choosing to believe this is a widely-used euphemism among Olivia’s people.

April 30, 2017

Another Carnegie Project

Eagle-eyed readers of this blog will have noticed that I’m not, as I was this time last year, reading and reviewing the shortlist for the Carnegie medal–and will probably not be surprised.

Last year (why make more words when I can use my old ones?), I said this:

So what have the last three years’ Carnegie shortlists had to say about British children’s literature, other than that the judges and I don’t seem to agree on very much? Well for one, that non-white authors don’t write it. In each of the last three years (and I’d be interested in going back a few more years to see if things are better at any point) the shortlist has been composed entirely of white authors. This year I was so annoyed to see it happen again that I decided I’d read all the books by non-white authors on the nominees list. There are 93 entries on the nominees list. There are 4 books that I know to be by authors who aren’t white– and hopefully some I’ve missed, because those numbers are dismal. The Carnegie shortlist loves talking about race–though as Karen Sands-O’Connor points out here, it seems to prefer it when the whole thing can be conveniently displaced onto America, as with last year’s winner Buffalo Soldier, last year’s shortlist-ee, Ghost Hawk, and this year’s Lies We Tell Ourselves. (Or Australia, in last year’s Middle of Nowhere, or another planet, as with Patrick Ness’s Monsters of Men.) (And the celebration of books like The Child’s Elephant by Rachel Campbell-Johnston and Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper suggests a reluctance to engage with the ways in which structural racism allows certain books to be published and lauded.)

This year, the award went a step further in achieving an entirely white longlist as well, this time provoking some level of pushback from authors and critics. CILIP have announced that there will be a review (they’ve also included some of the usual “this has started a useful conversation” nonsense that makes me rageous, but moving on …), and that there may need to be structural changes–including to the existing criteria for examining the books. I’m curious to see how this turns out, but the current state of British publishing doesn’t make me too hopeful.

So why not give up on the Carnegie altogether? Honestly, I’m tempted. My academic work tends to focus on the British children’s literary canon, and like many people who work with a canon I spend a lot of time worrying that in producing more work on (e.g.) Arthur Ransome and C.S. Lewis and Mary Norton I’m just reinscribing their centrality to British children’s literature. But I work on Britishness after empire; and literary awards, and the creation of national literatures, are a key part of how this imagined community articulates its nationhood to itself.

This is particularly the case with the Carnegie, an award set up specifically as a British children’s literature award, and one whose parameters have shifted with shifting ideas of what that word “British” might encompass. Owen Dudley Edwards (British Children’s Fiction in the Second World War, Edinburgh University Press, 2007) notes that while the award at its inception in 1936 had claimed to reward “the best book for children published in the British Empire”, this wording morphed within a few years to refer to “England” (probably a result of parochialism rather than a deliberate attempt to exclude writers from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). In 1944 the criteria changed again to specify “a British subject domiciled in the United Kingdom” and “published in Great Britain”. And so forth. (The current eligibility criteria merely require the book to have been published in the UK first, or within three months of its first publication, which avoids that minefield at least.)

All of which means that if you’re studying Britishness and children’s literature, the Carnegie medal is pretty hard to ignore. If the books rewarded by the medal change with a changing understanding of what a “British” book might be, one is compelled to notice what is not rewarded by the medal–where the limits of this Britishness lie. When, 82 years into the creation of the award, it has never been won by a non white writer … well.

 

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Here is the complete list of nominees for the medal for 2017, according to the website. On it, there are eight books that I’m aware of by authors who aren’t white. There are some omissions that confuse me (were neither of  Catherine Johnson’s two most recent books eligible?); and googling the names of unfamiliar authors and titles is of necessity a crude method for determining something like this, so there may be others I’ve missed (and I’d be grateful to be corrected if so).

 

Booked, by Kwame Alexander

Alpha, by Bessora and Barroux (trans. Sarah Ardizzone)

Chasing the Stars, by Malorie Blackman

Where Monsters Lie, by Polly Ho-Yen

Orangeboy, by Patrice Lawrence

The Girl of Ink & Stars, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Crongton Knights, by Alex Wheatle

Everything, Everything, by Nicola Yoon

 

In an alternate universe, this might have been the shortlist for the medal (how many black and brown writers on a list is enough?). Given the rather shameful stats for the publication of children’s books by BAME authors, the last year or so has been unusually good for rewarding them.  Orangeboy was shortlisted for the Costa and won a Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, The Girl of Ink and Stars is on the Jhalak shortlist and won another Waterstones prize as well as the overall prize,  Nicola Yoon’s second book was a National Book Award finalist and is on the Waterstones list (and Everything, Everything is being made into a film, for what that’s worth), Crongton Knights won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, Malorie Blackman has won literally everything that isn’t the Carnegie (she was on the shortlist for Pig Heart Boy nearly ten years ago) and has been the Children’s Laureate. This is not an attempt to argue for the merit of these books (some of which I have not yet read) over the ones currently on the shortlist. It’s to say that, if one were to pick a shortlist of eight possible contenders from the nominations list (something like the Shadow Clarke), the list above would have been plausible.

 

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Alex Wheatle pointed out in this conversation on twitter that one of the reasons the Carnegie is so influential is precisely that it is shadowed–that schools (and other groups, like the one I’ve been a part of for the last few years) read and discuss the books in question, so that if books by BAME and other non white authors are not shortlisted they’re entirely removed from the conversation.

All of which is a longwinded way to say: I’m not interested in contributing to a conversation that has to take place in the absence of these authors. I don’t have the institutional power to take people with me, but instead of the official shortlist, this year* I’ll be reading and writing about my possible shortlist instead. I’m cheating a bit, since I’ve read some of them already. I wrote about Crongton Knights here and The Girl of Ink & Stars here, and my review of Chasing The Stars will be appearing in Strange Horizons in the next few days. I’m particularly curious about Nick Poole’s suggestion that “there may be a case for changing the criteria to protect the prize from unconscious bias”, so am considering returning to the books I’ve already read and reflecting on how they do or don’t work with the existing criteria upon which the books are judged. As the Millwood Hargrave and (when it’s out) Blackman reviews will show, I’m not expecting to adore these books or rage about how their authors were robbed–as a reviewer my default position is grumpy. But if I’m to direct my critical energy at anything, I’d rather it be these books than their absence.

 

 

 

 

*I’d like to say “this summer” and map this project onto the actual Carnegie timetable, but I also have a thesis to finish writing …

 

March 2, 2017

Shalini Srinivasan, Gangamma’s Gharial

gangamma (I spent a good hour or so of today trying to find and link to a completely charming short story by Srinivasan that I’m sure I didn’t imagine. There’s a yali in it. If anyone reading this remembers where it was published and/or can find a link, I would be very happy to read it again.)

There’s a vast, overarching conflict in the background of Gangamma’s Gharial of which we see only a fraction. “A long time ago”, a conflict between a small group of twelve yakshas and the rest of their more ascetic community led to a confrontation on a certain hillside. The twelve were defeated, but achieved at least one of their objects–the blue lotuses that they had cultivated in their palace outside time now had a place to grow. The local landscape suffered somewhat, as did the nearby village. The only part-witness to what had happened was a small girl, now left alone in the world. Clutching an apple seed that she has found at the scene of these events, the small girl travels north, to find it a suitable climate in which to grow. Centuries later, the hillside in question has morphed into the temple town of Giripuram, known for its temple (sacred to twelve gardener gods), and the Giripuram tank which is the only place in the world where these blue lotuses grow.

Other places have other blue lotuses but the finicky and snooty blue lotus of Giripuram grew only in the small Giripuram tank. It was a small bluey-purply lotus with a spicy-sweet smell of cinnamon and pine. It was said that its scent could drive away any grief or sorrow–temporarily, of course, for even magical flowers can only do so much. Just three Giripuram gardeners–three people in the entire world–could grow it.

Gangamma, an old woman who grows flowers to sell, is one of these three gardeners. In mysterious circumstances one morning she comes into the possession of an earring, shaped like a gharial and bearing a suspicious resemblance to a piece of jewellery that we, through the eyes of a young girl over a thousand years ago, have already seen tumbling into the lake. The gharial turns out to have some unexpected powers–when worn, it can instantly transport the wearer anywhere they wish to go. It can, however, only travel to a particular place once–great for travelling, not so good for getting back. Gangamma’s first trip is to the mountains in the north, where it’s considerably colder–and where a young girl, feared by the locals because rumour has it that she’s immortal, tends an apple tree with only the tree itself and a friendly chough for companions. Attempting, in an impulsive moment, to steal the tree and take it back to Giripuram, she finds herself transporting all three, and saddled with a new assistant gardener. “Ondu” (the girl will not give Gangamma her real name) is annoyed at her kidnapping and rude to Gangamma’s friends and colleagues, but she does have a way with flowers.

There are, as I imply above, two stories here. The one that we see most of is this smaller, more domestic one: of gardeners and found families and local community and rivalries. Gangamma and Ondu work well together, despite their major differences–Ondu likes wild flowers, Gangamma likes masala in her dosai–in large part because Ondu is openly rude to all the people Gangamma wants to be rude to (quick, someone do a reading of Ondu as the embodiment of Gangamma’s repressed desires). It’s good; it’s comic and full of sudden, clever observations and broadly-drawn but recognisable characters. (“She had forgotten how annoying Kempu was until you knew him well enough to like him despite it.”)

But there’s also the bigger plot–the one where yakshas purify themselves until they turn into diamonds, where there are palaces under the North Pole, where it’s possible to travel to other planets (or at least moons of planets–Gangamma and the Gharial spend a while hanging out on Ganymede when things on earth get particularly bad). The yaksha plot is correspondingly more elevated and tragic. Jayanti, the yaksha of whom we see the most, has deeply conflicted loyalties, particularly with regard to her brother, one of the twelve rebels and now existing in some residual form in Ondu’s chough. There’s a lot to play with here–the idea that Ondu has been living parasitically off her friends, to what extent the yakshas’ presence in these objects (trees, birds, jewellery) is really them–is the gharial less far gone than Jayant and Mahendra just because it happens to be able to speak? Are all yakshas as brahmanical as the ones we see here, or is this not true of the more liberal groups of yakshas whom the gharial mentions?

I’m a big fan of the ‘small people getting caught up in forces bigger than they can control’ plot, and the shift between the yakshas and the humans (and whatever Ondu has become) works really well for that smaller scale story. I like the reminder that Giripuram–its landscape, its temples, its lotuses, its entire ecosystem–is a mere side-effect of inter-yaksha rivalries across millennia. On the other hand, the deliberate decision to focus on the small scale story works best when we know what those larger forces are. By the end of Gangamma’s Gharial we know about as much as Gangamma and Ondu (which is to say, not very much) and perhaps that’s the point. But it doesn’t feel like the point–it feels like the book could have sustained several chapters of yaksha politics and weird bodies and cloud espionage.

I’m sort of tempted here to compare it to Srinivasan’s previous book, Vanamala and the Cephalopod. Vanamala‘s ending gestures at the possibility of lots more story to come, and there’s a sense throughout of narratives that are big and sweeping but are also tangential to this story–but the book itself still feels complete.

And yet I think I prefer Gangamma’s Gharial precisely for its ambitious messiness and the way in which it spreads its tendrils in several directions at once. (This may be entirely because I haven’t read Vanamala in a couple of years, so please consider this opinion unfixed. It may also be because I share Ondu’s dosai preferences.) Ideally, of course, it’d turn out that Srinivasan is planning several books through which we’ll gradually be able to piece together a sort of superstructure, but even if not, there’s a lot here that I like very much.