Archive for ‘genre’

October 12, 2014

Courtney Milan, Talk Sweetly To Me

Because why not write the same piece over two weeks and have one half be about narrative poetry and the other be about romance?

Here is that second part; it’s from last weekend’s column and much of what’s in it will be familiar to anyone who has read this earlier piece on Milan’s series and this one on historical romance in general.

 

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

Last week in this column I wrote about Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe, and the ways in which it can be useful to challenge our received understanding of history through competing narratives that focus on the things that those better known accounts tend to gloss over. Evaristo’s novel told (in verse) the story of a young black woman, a member of a minority community in the London of Roman Britain. This week I read a very different piece of historical fiction about another young black woman in London, this time in 1882.

I’ve said in the past that I do not often like politics to be explicitly raised in the historical romances I read. Such books tend to focus on aristocrats, and it’s hard to sympathise with them when reminded of things like slavery and oppressive class and gender constructs, especially when the author is pleading with us to appreciate these characters merely for being slightly less awful than everyone else. If I want to read about handsome dukes in period costume, I need to pretend they exist in a magical universe that does not share a history with our own.

Courtney Milan is one of my exceptions to this rule. Her Brothers Sinister series, concluded recently with the novella Talk Sweetly To Me, is set in a 19th century England full of political agitations, strikes, suffragettes. It’s also populated by, among others, clever women who work, queer people, non-white characters, and people with disabilities. Talk Sweetly To Me has for its protagonist a mathematical genius who happens to be a black woman.

The general narrative of the erasure of non-white people from European history tends to insist that such people simply weren’t there to be represented. It’s harder to make this claim about women, but we’re often told that historical gender roles were so rigid that any narrative of a woman doing something spectacular is simply ahistorical (as opposed to unlikely, which tends to be a feature of stories about heroes). An important feature of Milan’s books are their afterwords which, by providing more historical context and pointing to some of the sources she drew upon for research, validate these characters’ and these stories’ right to exist. There’s data on the presence of black doctors in London, as there is on the erasure of women’s work from the history of science. She’s least successful when she puts this justification of these characters’ presence into the text itself (a Bengali character in the book The Heiress Effect is constantly explaining himself), but it’s easy to forgive this.

Which isn’t to say that the world of the books is in any way the historical truth, whatever that may mean. Milan’s occasional deviations from historical records are flagged up when they occur, and some of them are significant enough to turn the whole into alternate history. What is not flagged up but is no less important is the way in which these books joyously take part in the wish-fulfilment that is a part of every hero story: of course we know that in most cases the social forces against them would break these characters, but sometimes we need stories of success, or simply happiness. Talk Sweetly To Me is lighter on both politics and drama than most of the full-length novels, and is certainly not the best of the series, but there’s something wonderful in reading a romance that we expect to be difficult (well-educated and tenuously-socially-accepted Irish writer of low birth falls in love with genius black female mathematician?), and to have it be joyous and pun-filled instead.

In her afterword Milan points out, pointedly, that while her protagonist Rose’s community was certainly a very small minority, there were “at least as many black doctors as there were dukes”. Milan is writing in a genre where dukes are plentiful (they even show up in her other works); to invoke them here is a reminder that we choose which stories to tell, which stories we allow to frame our understanding of the past.

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

 

September 8, 2014

Rainbow Rowell, Landline

I did not read much last month (I will post my regular list in the next few days, along with my excuses) but a thing that I did read and enjoy was the new Rainbow Rowell.

A thing I do not address here that is nonetheless worth talking about is, as Din pointed out in a conversation elsewhere, the extent to which the book’s premise is gendered and what it does with that. Probably a task for someone other than me, considering how bad I’ve been at writing words down lately.

Here is a column, anyway.

 

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

Neal is the perfect father, working from home and looking after the children, cooking healthy meals for the family, making the house beautiful. His wife Georgie is a comedy writer who does not cook, works long hours and, horror of horrors, has chosen to prioritise attempting to achieve her dream job over her family this Christmas.

This is the situation with which Rainbow Rowell’s Landline opens. Neal flies home to his family, taking the children with him and avoiding Georgie’s calls. Georgie is left to spend the few days before Christmas alone. Then by chance she uses the landline in her mother’s house to call her husband and finds herself talking to Neal again—not the Neal of 2013, but the Neal of 1998, when he and Georgie had just become a couple and when she used to call him on this number.

The conceit is vaguely science-fictional (a phone that allows you to call someone in the past); the execution is not. Some of the staples of time travel fiction show up later in the story—conversations with characters who are dead in the book’s present, the potential for paradoxes, the suggestion that these conversations are a part of the past which the Neal of the present remembers. But all of this is relegated to the background, existing merely to put these characters into this situation. It’s not science fiction, and I suspect this may be important to a reading of it.Landlinegrey-1-e1381519474537-300x441

I think more than anything else Landline is in dialogue with a particular sort of romance narrative, and one I’m very susceptible to, that has the teenaged romance of the nineties as a sort of ideal of the form. It works because we find the story of the young protagonists meeting at the college magazine, falling in love through a series of misunderstandings, worrying about the future familiar and likeable; for readers (women in particular, since this sort of narrative tends to be marketed to us) it’s a story we grew up with.

It’s no surprise, then, that at times the young Neal is more appealing than adult Neal, even to Georgie. “She hoped this was the right Neal. (She didn’t mean the right Neal, she meant the young one.)” Youth and young love are important because beginnings are important; for much of the book Georgie is allowed to believe that if she can only say the right things to the Neal of the past, she has a chance of fixing her relationship with the Neal of the present.

Where Landline is interesting, though, is in the moments when it challenges this construction of romance and forces us to see these characters as flawed adults who have already said the right things, who have begun well but still need to work on what they have.

And perhaps this is the deeper reason why this book is not a science fictional novel. The time travel story of necessity generally constructs time as a series of events that lead to other events, so that changing one small thing can affect the whole world. Everything may be connected, in a butterfly effect sort of way, but some form of cause-effect relationship is still there and the only reason we can’t plot it out is the impossibility of sufficient data. With the right amount of knowledge perhaps we could go back in time and kill Hitler and not cause any awful effects to our own world.

No, suggests Landline, you can’t just swoop in and change things, however much you want to, because things are constantly moving and human relationships are a work in progress. Rowell’s book ends with a grand gesture that is narratively satisfying, but we’re never allowed to believe this is the end of the characters’ problems. Time and relationships don’t work that way, even if you have a magic phone.

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

 

July 31, 2014

Robin Stevens, Murder Most Unladylike

I bought Stevens’ book about ten minutes after I’d discovered its existence (via Daisy Johnson and Farah Mendlesohn, who both had good-to-gleeful things to say about it). So obvious was it that it was for me that a friend asked if I was sure I hadn’t written it myself. I hadn’t, I’m not good at fiction.

Part of the reason this was such a wonderful discovery is that I’ve been in a school story murder mystery mood for a few months now. I reread the Blake and Crispin books mentioned below, two Gladys Mitchell books (I discuss Tom Brown’s Body below. Laurels Are Poison does not have a non-white student; it does have an Amusing Black Servant. Fun times!), and Gaudy Night. And earlier this year I read Missee Lee, which is not a murder mystery or a school story, but which also has that incongruous figure, the brown student who worships everything English and tries so hard. And I cringed a bit when Hazel speaks about her family’s obsession with England; it’s heavy and unsubtle and one of the few places the book slips up for me. But for the rest of the book, the ways in which Hazel does not fit that stock character type came as such a relief.

Plus, how nice to have a prominent character (okay, the murder victim, but she wasn’t murdered for this reason at least?) be bisexual, and have no one within the book’s universe be surprised or puzzled.

From this weekend’s column.

 

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

I am a very limited crime fiction reader, and I know what I like. Amateur detectives, not much gore, a focus instead on the web of individual human dramas that make up the small community (golden age detective fiction is very fond of small communities) and a comparatively low stakes (though not for the victims, presumably) approach to murder. There’s a reason they call more modern iterations of this genre “cosy crime”. It’s soup on a cold day, or an airconditioned room in summer; at least as far as any of these comforting things can be built upon violent death.

For the lover of school stories (and readers of this column know that I am one), the detective novel set in a school or college is particularly magical. And so much great crime fiction has this setting. There’s Edmund Crispin’s wonderful Love Lies Bleeding (which combines crime, a school setting and Shakespeare and therefore almost deserves a genre of its own); Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. John Le Carré ventures partway into the genre with A Murder of Quality. The first of Cecil Day-Lewis’ Nigel Strangeways novels, A Question of Proof, has a school setting as well. And I have a fondness for Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons and Val McDermid’s Report For Murder, even if neither of these is an example of either author’s best work.

But most of these authors belong to an earlier time, and reading them today it’s hard not to notice that it was apparently a time in which casual racism was acceptable, the working classes are fundamentally slack-jawed and superstitious, and if occasionally a character is not upper-class or white, the reader is very quickly made to wish they were. I recently read some of Gladys Mitchell’s classic crime novels; the “African prince” in Tom Brown’s Body has an unfortunate habit of biting opposing footballers due to his ancestry.

And then there’s Murder Most Unladylike, the first in a modern series of crime novels for younger readers by Robin Stevens. Set in 1934 (but published in 2014), it follows the adventures of thirteen year old boarding school detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong, after Hazel finds the body of one of their teachers in (where else?) the gymnasium. Both Stevens and her characters are very genre-conscious; early in the book we learn that the girls have been reading Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham, and we will discover that Hazel is a school story reader as well. The whole thing opens with one of those terribly useful floor plans, and we have all the school politics and crushes and annoying juniors of an Angela Brazil book. The references to earlier literature are sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle enough to be in-jokes. More than once I laughed out loud in recognition.

But it’s unfair to Stevens to treat this merely as a pastiche of two genres, and it’s where she deviates from them that Murder Most Unladylike is at its best. Because Hazel, our narrator, is from Hong Kong (she is, as far as we can tell, the only non-white pupil at Deepdean school); she’s clever and pretends not to be; she has a complicated relationship with her overbearing, popular best friend. This is about as far as it’s possible to be from Gladys Mitchell’s African prince, or the Hurree Jamset Ram Singh of the Billy Bunter books—or even Christie’s precocious Princess Shaista. Stevens’s depiction of Hazel’s cultural background is sometimes clumsy, but it always acknowledges her as more than a stock character, and depicts a world in which casual racism exists and affects those who are its targets. It’s unlikely that most of the target audience for this book will recognise these deviations from a pattern with which they are not yet familiar, but they mattered to me. In more ways than one, Murder Most Unladylike felt like being given a place in a genre (two genres) that I love.

 

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

Apparently Stevens’ next book in the series is a country house murder. Which, as far as I’m concerned, just proves that she is writing for me.

July 13, 2014

Megan Milks, Kill Marguerite

The whole time I was reading Kill Marguerite I was conscious of an undercurrent of yes these are my people yes in my head. On twitter, I described it as “genre-blend-y, queer, outsider-y, perverse fiction that is also about 90s girl pop culture and myth”(I ran out of space for “intertextual”); I was never not going to love it. It all got quite personal, and now I’m afraid that if I ever meet Milks I will embarrass myself in some awful way.

But even if it hadn’t been so obviously relevant to my own interests (and I’m sometimes dismissive of readings that value recognition above all else, but on the rare occasions that I find it I realise that it can be incredibly powerful), I’d think a lot of this collection. It’s fiercely intelligent, it’s energetic, it’s just very good writing. There are entire sections I’ve marked simply for how perfect those words in that place are.

(Also, I want someone to read this alongside Charles Yu’s How To Live Safely In a Science Fictional Universe, just for their complementary covers)

A slightly shorter version of the piece below was published as my regular column on Sunday.

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

Somewhere in suburban America teenaged Caty is making out with a boy on a rope swing. The setting with which Megan Milks opens her collection of short fiction, Kill Marguerite, is a familiar one to me, as I suspect it would be to most people reading this. Not because I’d lived it (Delhi in the ‘90s was short on rope swings) but because scenes like this seem to belong to a mythical preteen/teenagerhood of the 80s and 90s that is part Instagram-filter and part the result of reading too much American preteen fiction. Not that Caty is thinking of the genre she belongs in; she is preoccupied with how kissing this boy on this swing will help her relationship … with her best friend, Kim. And shortly she will be embroiled in a series of attempts to kill her rival Marguerite, in a universe that follows the conventions of a video game.

This title story encapsulates a number of Kill Marguerite’s concerns. A preoccupation with girlhood in popular culture; the queering of relationships; dizzying shifts between genres that test out the limits of each.

Some of these limits are of format. There are fourteen stories in the collection but only thirteen included in my ebook—“Circe”, which requires its recto and verso pages to be read simultaneously, had to be left out for formatting purposes but is available on the website. Meanwhile “Sweet Valley Twins #119: Abducted!”, fanfiction with large chunks of text borrowed from the original series, is in the form of a choose your own adventure story, to which the ebook format is far better suited than the print versions we had to grow up with. Many of the stories are collaborative—“Floaters” is written with Leeyanne Moore, “Earl and Ed” illustrated by Marian Rink and “Traumarama” pieced together from the responses of several friends. It’s obvious that other texts, whether classical or popular, are closely interwoven into these stories, sometimes less obviously. “The Girl With The Expectorating Orifices” doesn’t gender its narrator and doesn’t draw the reader’s attention to this, until a throwaway reference to Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body which famously did the same.

Myth and metaphor and reality blur into one another in these stories, and it’s never possible to claim that, for example, “Dionysus” is “about” a relationship with an alcoholic. In “My Father and I were Bent Groundward” the “sword” that impregnates the narrator and her father (both of whom claim a dislike of penetration) is also able to slice off their legs. In “Slug”, a young woman who has been on a disappointing first date has sex with a giant slug while turning into one herself. “Tomato Heart” is, literally, about a woman with a tomato for a heart, and has the distinction of being the only story (in a collection full of stories about bodily fluids and slug erotica) to make me feel a little ill. In “Circe” the myth and video game genres slot neatly together as Hermes “drops bottle of immunity into Odysseus’ lap”. The connections between stories are as startling and as perfect; the “Patty has died” in “Slug” which connotes orgasm comes shortly after the series of “Caty has died” in the previous story that signify her failing to beat a level in the game. A metaphor from the relatively mundane “Floaters” resurfaces in the weird, liminal space of “Swamp Cycle”. As each story progresses it becomes clear how much about this world each protagonist takes for granted; the resignation with which one narrator, for example, explains “that was when I knew we were to bear immortal children from our wounds” is very appealing. When the lovers in “Earl and Ed” (an orchid and a wasp) enter into a transgressive relationship, the text immediately turns them into a singular Earl&Ed.

Yet my favourite thing about this collection is its interest in a particular kind of adolescent girlhood in which other girls are all that matters and where aspiration, desire and the urge to wound are all tangled together; particularly if you’re the sort of girl-reader (too not-blonde, not-white, not-straight, not-etc) for whom this model of adolescence is fundamentally impossible. A story based on a column from the magazine Seventeen, for example, and another told through Tegan and Sara lyrics. This last is “Elizabeth’s Lament”, another piece of Sweet Valley High fanfiction and also an angry, incestuous declaration of love. All of these stories, with their young female narrators, begin from the assumption that teenage girls are fascinating. It’s particularly pleasing that Milks does much of this through fanfiction, a medium that has developed in large part through unravelling and queering received narratives.

This is an area of popular culture which literature rarely draws upon—possibly because of its association with young girls, whose tastes are always particularly vulnerable to mockery. That Milks sees it as important would be itself be enough to make me love her work. That the collection deals with it in this way—smart, queer, perverse, intertextual—means even more. The stories in Kill Marguerite are unsettling and often unpleasant but they feel like a gift.

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

May 3, 2014

Suniti Namjoshi, The Mothers of Maya Diip

For context, here is a short review from last year of The Fabulous Feminist. I’ll be doing a longer (and therefore better) piece on The Mothers of Maya Diip at some point. A shorter version exists in my notes, and consists entirely of the sentence “This book gives no fucks”.

It really doesn’t though.

(From this week’s column.)

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

When Zubaan’s Suniti Namjoshi reader, The Fabulous Feminist, came out last year, I wasn’t sure what to make of some parts of it. The fables, for which she’s probably best known, were wonderful, but the extracts from longer works often left one adrift. Particularly fascinating to me was the chapter from the middle of The Mothers of Maya Diip, which looked a lot like a classic feminist utopia story.

Maya Nagar is a matriarchy on a remote island (presumably off the coast of India), populated only by women. Motherhood is synonymous with adulthood in this society, the raising of children (biological or otherwise) is seen as the fundamental function of an adult, and social hierarchy is based on the maternal duties one is considered qualified to perform. Into this world the Blue Donkey (who appears in some of Namjoshi’s other work as a sort of stand-in for the author) is invited for a visit. She brings with her her friend Jyanvi, who immediately falls in love with a woman from the city. Unfortunately, Jyanvi also immediately finds herself chafing at the lack of choice, the inability for a “mother” to define herself separately from children and both outsiders find themselves caught up in the machinations of state politics.

The Mothers of Maya Diip was published by the Women’s Press, which had also published a number of works of feminist science fiction, among them Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Joanna Russ’ The Female Man, and it’s difficult not to read it as a book that is aware of and in conversation with this tradition of writing. The utopia or dystopia is (or sometimes is, or ought to be) a novel of ideas, of taking things to their logical conclusions. The Mothers of Maya Diip moves between three fictional societies; the woman-dominated Maya Nagar, the male-majority Ashagarh, and the island of Paradise where gender hardly seems to exist. Each model is examined and found to contain some form of violence at its heart—the revelation of what happens to the boys born in Maya Nagar would by itself be enough reason to condemn that society.

But if The Mothers of Maya Diip is placing itself in that tradition, it isn’t necessarily submitting to it. There’s a sense that the book is at least one remove away from the sort of story it is telling; there’s an ironic distance that is maintained throughout. At times one gets the impression that this is itself part of Namjoshi’s response to the tradition of books in which she’s writing; and the presence of Valerie, a visitor and western feminist who explains these traditions to the Blue Donkey and Jyanvi (and who believes that Jyanvi, a lesbian, has things easier here) seems to bear this out.

If it both emulates and distances itself from feminist utopian science fiction, The Mothers of Maya Diip is willing to invoke (and discard) other genres as well. There’s something of the epic about this story, with its arcane religious ceremonies, its power struggles between priestesses and queens. We are offered not one, but two fictional, fantastic city states. At one point the Ranisaheb and her entourage are cast out of the city and exiled in a forest. There’s a bizarre science fictional interlude featuring a group of androids and a maternal helicopter. There’s even a love story, most of the time about two people who are completely incapable of understanding one another.

At the centre of it all is the Blue Donkey, sometimes treated as human and sometimes not, and devastatingly commonsensical in the face of all that is going on around her. It’s her cool detachment from the book that allows it to be as odd a thing as it is, that makes thought experiments of its genres as well as of its fictional cities.

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


February 27, 2014

Two posts about Courtney Milan

I’ve said in the past that I like to think of the regency romance as being set in a sort of fantasy world where things like the slave trade and gross economic inequality don’t exist—because if they do, our protagonists are thoroughly implicated in them. Even if they’re the ‘nice’ ones who think that small poor children should not be forced up chimneys, or that one should be kind to one’s servants, or at least learn their names, or that the slave trade is maybe not that good (standards for ‘nice’ being pretty low here), it’s hard to think of them as sympathetic in any way. Romances that draw our attention to these social realities as part of their elucidation of their protagonists’ characters manage to annoy me far more than ones that don’t mention any of this.

Courtney Milan’s books, though, are in one sense set firmly in the past of the real world. Recently I’ve been reading her Victorian-England-set Brothers Sinister series—I cringe a bit (a lot) at this title, but at least Oliver, Sebastian and Robert (none of whom are actually brothers, though they are related) are left-handed. And also these books are kind of great.

It’s obvious that there’s research involved; specific parliamentary reform acts, medical and scientific developments, social history, all of these are placed at the centre of the various stories in ways that ought to jar with the genre-romance format, but usually don’t. There’s an amusing moment in the afterword to The Duchess War where Milan, describing the radicalisation of workers in 1860s Leicester, admits that they really did not need a pamphlet-writing duke to stir them up, since they were managing quite well on their own. Why is Robert there, then? Because romance novel. It’s a concession I’m willing to grant her (though unlike pretty much every other minor historical change she makes, it doesn’t make 1800s England a better place). Apart from stray moments like this, though, it’s fiction that is solidly grounded in the material reality of its time. More realist than most realist fiction then, despite its basis in a genre one of whose strengths is a frequent departure from reality.

But then there’s the science thing, and I think it might be the most important of all. A minor character in the first few books in the series is Sebastian Malheur, the most reviled scientist in England, a Darwin supporter and a scandalous discusser in public of the sex lives of plants. These minor references are more serious than they might at first seem. As Milan herself says in the afterword to The Duchess War, “[e]very piece of historical fiction alters history in at least some tiny regard”. But this is more than a minor change; putting a geneticist in the same time and place as Darwin (Milan’s drawing on a lot of Mendel’s work, as she explains) could have enormous consequences.

Then in The Countess Conspiracy (spoilers all over this, sorry) we discover that what has been presented as Sebastian’s work so far has been that of his friend Violet Waterfield, who was in no position to publish (or be read, or taken seriously) because she’s a woman. This particular book has Violet discovering the chromosome, considerably earlier than was done in our world. Milan has already suggested, as I say above, that the minor changes she makes in her universe could have larger consequences, and this one is pretty huge.

So that’s where we end the series (I think there is to be one more book, but I’m not sure how far into the future it takes us), with scientific knowledge considerably further advanced than it was at this stage in our own world’s history. And while I’m not convinced that this makes The Countess Conspiracy science fiction (it is definitely fiction about science), I’m willing to argue for it, and I’m pretty sure that any sequel to it would be at least alternate history. Can SF claim Courtney Milan? Probably.

_______________________________

In The Heiress Effect, we are introduced to Anjan Bhattacharya, an Indian student in England. Particularly in the years since RaceFail, I’ve seen a lot of Writing The Other conversations in my various corners of the internet– why it’s important, how to do it, how to react to criticism of how one is doing it. I don’t know if Milan hangs out in the same parts of the internet as I do, but in many ways she’s done everything right; she’s read first-hand accounts of Indian students in 19th century Britain (including Gandhi’s, but she names a few less obvious ones at the end of the book), the 1857 war is namechecked*, there’s even an almost-reference to the Bengal Renaissance. Anjan isn’t only an angry freedom-fighter, though there’s plenty of anger there, he recognises that his own presence in England, studying law, requires a certain amount of complicity; his relationship with Britain is as tied up in his class position and family (and caste, though the word isn’t mentioned) as it is in the fact of being a brown man in 19th century England.

Here’s the thing, though. When Milan writes about, say, anxiety disorders, as she does with Oliver’s aunt Frederica, she doesn’t feel the need to have the character speechifying about it. I assume that this is in part because none of the characters is in a position to speechify; normally, when the books deal with historical fact that doesn’t commonly show up in romance novels there’s a note in the afterword. Anjan, on the other hand, is constantly explaining himself–to Emily he explains that brown people can have complex feelings towards their colonisers, that the British Empire is kind of bad, and that vegetarians exist; to her uncle Titus he explains that Indians don’t all force their wives to commit sati and that Hindus are generally monogamous. 19th Century English people had a number of fascinating ideas about Indians and I’m well aware of this, but underlying all of these authorial choices is what feels to me like an assumption that Indians in books still need to be explained, that their literary presence is an opportunity for a teaching moment. And I’ve read historical novels whose authors have clearly done no research at all into India (*cough Libba Bray cough*) and as long as that sort of thing is seen as normal and acceptable perhaps we do need to be explained (no wonder Anjan falls in love with the first person who bothers to learn to pronounce his name). And perhaps posts like this are proof that You People Will Never Be Satisfied. I’m not, though.

 

*I know Emily is very sheltered but the only way in which I can account for her not having heard of the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ at all is that her uncle is deliberately keeping the newspapers away from her. Which is plausible, I suppose, but it seems unnecessary unless as an excuse for Anjan to also explain that conflict; another teaching moment.

January 9, 2014

Anna Katharine Green, The Affair Next Door

This is what I was reading while almost everyone else in the country was watching the first new Sherlock (she said smugly. And then Sherlock was available to watch online and then I did almost immediately so please feel free to mock any further smugness).

On the subject of Miss Marple’s greatness, I’m fond of this piece by Sarah Rees Brennan.

A version of last weekend’s column.

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

The question of who wrote the first detective novel, like all questions of genre-origins, is one that probably isn’t worth answering, though it’s always worth discussing. Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is often given this credit (Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone is sometimes cited as the first English language detective novel), and it’s as good a place to start as any. Poe’s Dupin is a genius, the sort of person who is regularly consulted by the police, and has an admiring audience at any time in his companion, the narrator of the piece. It’s a convention that shows up in later detective stories as well—Holmes and Watson, Poirot and Hastings being particularly well known examples. It makes sense; a story narrated by Holmes or Dupin would verge on incomprehensible (and probably quite annoying) without someone more like the reader to interpret. Agatha Christie takes it further and provides in Hastings a narrator whose words generally make the reader feel considerably more on top of things than Hastings himself. I love all of these fictional detectives but a thing in common they have is an assumption that they will be listened to. The very presence of their narrator-companions attests to this; these men exist within the books as listeners, their presence is proof that there is something worth listening to. And yet I prefer the ordinary witness who has to struggle to be heard, who cannot take for granted a world in which her opinions are immediately worthy of respect; the detective who doesn’t look like one. I am suspicious of an Agatha Christie reader who prefers Poirot to Marple.

Long before Christie (and before Conan Doyle) there was Anna Katharine Green, the American author of a number of nineteenth century detective stories. Most of Green’s stories focused upon another great detective, Ebenezer Gryce. But her hero is fallible, and in The Affair Next Door Green introduced Amelia Butterworth, a nosy, middle-aged woman who manages to out-deduce even Gryce.

It’s not easy to be a woman and be taken seriously in nineteenth century New York, and Amelia is very aware of this. Modesty is not an option; only a very strong sense of self-worth can survive her constant setting-aside. Amelia may not have had the opportunities for experience that her male counterparts have had but, she says, “though I have had no adventures I feel capable of them”. She must constantly be on the alert lest compliments she receives have a patronising tone, she changes her name to one she thinks sounds more sensible, she is ridiculed as a busybody. And yet it is she who finds the vital clues, she who proves Gryce wrong and saves two innocent men from wrongful arrest.

The Affair Next Door is wonderful because Amelia is wonderful. She is exactly what she seems to be—a woman in her fifties, concerned with appearances (she purposely feeds two young guests poor meals so that she won’t appear to be trying to impress them), far too nosy and unaware of how ridiculous she often appears. But it’s okay that she is all of these things, and these traits help her, and we’re never allowed to forget that she’s more than that. She’s acerbic, prejudiced (“I don’t like young men in general” she informs us), worried about her writing style (“Excuse the metaphor; I do not often indulge”). In some ways she reminds me of Miss Marple; the two women are vastly different in temperament, but in neither case are appearances deceptive. Whether it is Miss Marple’s gentle Victorian demeanour, or Miss Butterworth’s pushy society spinster, these women’s greatest strengths are exactly the things for which others dismiss them. By the end of the novel Amelia Butterworth has won Gryce’s respect (she collaborates with him in two more mysteries) but we’re under no illusions. With or without his support, she will still have to push to be heard, every time.

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

September 9, 2013

Were-lizard? (There lizard!)

Occasionally, non-Indian SFF fans ask me if India has an equivalent tradition to the werewolf– stories of humans turning into animals (or animals into humans). I’m no expert, and traditions of the supernatural differ wildly across the country, so I usually say something vague about human-snake transformations and leave it at that. But now there’s this.

This was the front page of this Sunday’s HT City, and was brought to my attention by Aadisht.

It appears to be advertising a show called Shapath: Super Cops vs Super Villains (Monday to Friday, 9pm). The caption, in case it’s not clear enough, reads: “Kya zeheriley chipkali-manav ke atank ko rok payenge supercops?”*

I’m assuming the answer is yes, but I really, really want to find out.

*(“Can the terror of the lizard-man be stopped by the supercops?” Or, why I am not a translator.)

April 10, 2013

Bet Me, choice and body horror

About halfway through Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me, the protagonists have decided that they want to stay away from one another. Neither of them particularly wants a relationship with the other person (though they are attracted to one another), and (naturally) a series of increasingly unsubtle signs that they are destined for one another makes them uncomfortable.

Bet Me was recommended to me as a funny, fat-positive romance novel. It’s certainly the first, and to some extent the second–though I take issue with some aspects of it. It’s also a book that bases its plot on a well-worn trope of the genre, only to completely to undo it. Because the bet plot is a staple one. Our hero (or in at least one book I’ve read, our heroine) bets he can seduce our heroine (or our hero, presumably), but finds himself falling in love with her; heroine finds out about the bet at the worst possible time and will not believe he really cares for her; true love prevails and our hero is forgiven because men will be men or something. In Crusie’s book this is all a misunderstanding– it’s Min’s evil ex-boyfriend who tries to make the bet with Cal, and though Cal doesn’t accept it, Min, overhearing, thinks he has (we’re not told if she is a romance reader).

But as these characters struggle to deal with their increasing tolerance for one another,it seems fate has other things planned for them. A childhood treasure lost by Min turns up again after she has joked about loving Cal forever if he’ll get it back for her. Attempts by both parties to avoid one another result in their sitting next to one another in a movie theatre. As Min’s friend Bonnie complains, “True love is beating you over the head to get your attention”.

A lot of the romance I’ve read (and I can’t claim to be an expert) is in dialogue with the idea of love as irresistable, overpowering force that overrides the free will of its protagonists and gives them no choice but to be together. Characters seen as resisting this (because who wants to lose the ability to choose?) have to learn to trust in whatever higher power is in this case seen as being in charge of things – destiny becomes an external, supernatural force that a) cannot be countermanded b) knows what’s best for us all anyway.The supernatural force that, at multiple points in the book, is literally yelling “THIS ONE” in Min’s or Cal’s ears. If Bet Me bases its plot on the undoing of one of the genre’s tropes, it also literalises one of its most enduring metaphors.

And so I don’t think the violence of Bonnie’s “beating you over the head” metaphor is accidental, particularly when it turns out to be less metaphorical and more violent than you’d expect.

 

“She said yes,” Cal said, reaching for his toast. “However, I cannot bring her because I will not be seeing her ever aga—” His fingers brushed the metal top of the toaster and he burned himself and dropped the phone. “Damn it,” he said and put his scorched fingertips in his mouth.

“Calvin?” his mother said from the phone.

He picked up the receiver. “I burned myself on the toaster. Sorry.” Cal turned on the cold water and stuck his fingers underneath the stream. “Anyway, I will not be seeing Minerva Dobbs again.” He stepped away from the sink onto something hard and his foot slipped out from under him and smacked into the cabinets. “Ouch.”

“Calvin?” his mother said.

“I stepped on a knife.” Cal bent to pick up the peanut butter knife and smacked his head into the counter. “Hell.”

 

Cal and Min will [spoiler alert! except not really] get together, of course, and the book suggests they will be very happy. But you have to wonder to what lengths destiny would have gone had they not succumbed exhausted to its machinations. From the middle of the book onwards Cal and Min are hostages, not protagonists, of the romance plot–a supernatural entity that they cannot see or control is forcing them together and inflicting physical violence upon them when they do not immediately go along with it. Imagine destiny as a child playing with dolls, smashing their faces together and making kissing noises. Now imagine those dolls are sentient.

 

November 29, 2012

Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home

Blaft recently published an English translation by Aliyu Kamal of this Hausa novel. Quite besides the merits of the book itself (and I enjoyed it) what I’m really excited by is what it represents to have an Indian publishing company commissioning and publishing Nigerian genre fiction. There’s already a lot more south-south collaboration than a lot of people are aware of (apparently Bollywood is an influence on Hausa literature, though I don’t think that’s so much the case with this particular novel), and I’d be even more thrilled if someone would publish translations directly from, say, Hausa to Hindi. But I’ll take English too.

 

From last weekend’s Left of Cool column.

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

Judging by past example, when a form of literature becomes associated with a particular place it’s probably not going to be spoken of in the most flattering of ways. In the eighteenth century, Grub Street in London was famously associated with literary hacks and news writers – some of whom were probably perfectly good writers, though you wouldn’t think it to hear some of the more respectable contemporary writers on the subject.

In Nigeria in the 1980s, the label “Kano Market literature” began to be applied to Hausa language popular fiction, also known as Littattafan Soyayya, or “love literature”. These books, apparently, have often been condemned – for corrupting young minds, for being too heavily influenced by Bollywood, for being vulgar, or formulaic, or trivial. The usual complaints, in fact; particularly since this is now a field of literature dominated by women. Early critics of the novel made similar arguments (though maybe not the Bollywood one), and even now the same arsenal is regularly brought out to criticise the romance genre, another field dominated by women writers. Which isn’t to say that some of these criticisms aren’t true.

Indian publishers Blaft recently brought out Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home, a translation by Aliyu Kamal of the soyayya novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne… by Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu.

At first glance, this is clearly a novel of wish fulfilment. Rabi is the virtuous wife of Alhaji Abdu, a prosperous man who despite his wealth hardly gives her enough money to pay for the household goods to feed herself and their nine children. Matters get worse when Abdu takes another wife, who fights with Rabi. Soon, Rabi and her children have been kicked out of the house with no means to support themselves other than the help that Rabi’s and Abdu’s horrified families can give them. Despite this, Rabi prospers, setting up a successful cooking business, sending her oldest son to college, and finding a wealthy husband for her eldest daughter. Meanwhile, things rapidly go downhill for Abdu. His wife is unfaithful to him and his business fails when a fire in the market burns down his stall and most of his stock.  In the end, destitute and remorseful, he is forced to come back to his wife, hoping that she will take him back.

In her introduction to the book, Balaraba Ramat states that she’s purposely writing against men who treat women “as a sort of slave to be bought or sold at the marketplace”, “[believing] her to be completely worthless”. Yet although the book’s primary impulse is against treating women as discardable, as a woman I sometimes found it an uncomfortable read. In the world of the novel, women are constantly pitted against one another in order to better their own positions. Rabi’s situation at the beginning of the novel is bad enough, but it’s the presence of the new wife, Delu, that makes it intolerable. And then there’s the marriage of Rabi’s daughter Saudatu to Alhaji Abubakar, who has already discarded his two quarrelsome previous wives, after beating up one of them. What seems to be a happy ending for Saudatu thus has an undercurrent of unease. At the beginning of the book Rabi consoles herself with the thought that at least Abdu “didn’t marry and divorce his women friends at will”. Saudatu has been the perfect wife and daughter-in-law, but is she really safe from the same fate as her mother’s?

There’s also the discomfiting situation at the end of the book, when Rabi states repeatedly that she does not want her husband back (and why would she?) but is pressured into doing so by the men around her. Power has shifted drastically within the household, but Rabi is still in a marriage that she does not want, and it’s clear that the novel recognises this.  And it’s at moments like these that Sin Is a Puppy That Follows You Home leaks out of its formulaic structure and becomes something darker and more complex.

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