Archive for ‘Not The Carnegie shortlist’

March 26, 2017

Patrice Lawrence, Orangeboy

orangeboyI don’t like thrillers. The specific ways in which tension works in a thriller narrative tend to register to me as actively unpleasant. This was true even before the last year or so made me spectacularly unable to deal with vulnerable characters being put at risk. But I knew I was going to be reading Orangeboy, however reluctantly–it was Carnegie-eligible (though not on the shortlist or longlist, but that is a matter for a separate post), Costa-shortlisted, Waterstones prize-shortlisted, Jhalak prize-longlisted; and it’s a work of YA about a young black character and by a black British author at a moment when both British publishing and Britain itself seem to be really doubling down on racial exclusion.

So I did the bad thing (I don’t really think this was a bad thing); early in the book, when our protagonist Marlon has been found with drugs in his pocket and a dead white girl next to him and I was particularly worried about where this was going to go, I flipped to the back of the book to see how it ended. Knowing where it was going to go made it a much easier book to read.

But all of this is perhaps overemphasising my reluctance–even before I’d had to check the ending, I was already surprised by how quickly and easily I’d fallen into the book.

Marlon is in his teens, a bit of a nerd, good at school but generally not remarkable. His father (who is responsible for naming him Marlon Isaac Asimov Sunday) is dead, his older brother badly injured in a car accident some years ago that killed his best friend Sharkie and has left him scarred and, among other things, unable to remember his little brother very well. As the book opens, Marlon is at the fair with Sonya Wilson, a pretty girl from school who has, out of the blue and to his utter bewilderment, asked him out. Marlon has avoided drugs in large part because of his older brother’s example, but Sonya gets him to try ecstasy. Then, as they ride the ghost train, she convinces him to hide the rest of the pills in his pants. And by the time they have emerged from the tunnel, she’s dead and he doesn’t understand what has happened or why. Suddenly, he’s involved not just with the police, but in deeper and deeper trouble, with someone who is clearly targeting him.

It’s interesting to be reading Orangeboy in the same year as I’ve read both (so far) of Alex Wheatle’s Crongton books, because though very different in tone (and Wheatle’s books feel directed at a younger audience) they work off one another in some interesting ways. As with both Crongton books, Lawrence’s protagonist is drawn into this dangerous series of events as a result of an older sibling’s previous choices. (Choice is a loaded word here, and we’re given plenty of opportunity to see how those choices are weighted, but at the same time, these characters are never merely hapless victims of circumstance. There is, for example, a definite moment when Marlon decides he’s going to put himself at risk to find out what happened to Sonya. Even if later events show that had he backed away his targeters still would have come after him, that decision still has meaning.) There’s also, as with Wheatle, a very specific and deliberate use of cultural reference not to underpin the text and give it a particular structure and meaning (or not only that, as that seems to be one of the functions of the quest literature references in Crongton Knights) but for colour, and warmth, and play.

So we get:

Walking through the estate, I tried to remember the streets I’d passed. Rothko Heights, Dali Court, Turner Tower. These ones were different. [...]

Mondrian, Blake, Hirst. This definitely wasn’t the way I came.

(c.f. the Notre Dame sections of Crongton Knights.)

Then there’s a throwaway detail that Marlon’s best friend is really named Titian. Marlon himself, as I’ve said, has “Isaac Asimov” as his middle names (his mother tells him it might have been worse, he might have been named after a minor Blakes 7 character*), and we learn later that his first name is “after Superman’s dad in the film”. His dad proposed to his mother in Klingon, his brother’s middle names are “Han and Luke”, he himself describes Tish’s new boyfriend as “a skinny version of Roy, the mad replicant from Blade Runner“. Some of this feels a bit clumsy (though I’m suppressing my “Star Trek and Star Wars?” scepticism); some of it’s marvellously built in; there’s a moment where he describes his brother’s crooked glasses and “the scar that almost cut his face in two” and doesn’t mention Harry Potter. But either way, I like the way it layers the Sunday family as composed of SF fans, their London as composed of art references, gives them, and their world, more to do and be than characters in a thriller. (The book’s cover also feels relevant here.) Perhaps the one character to suffer that fate is Sonya, whose death quickly shifts from being the central mystery to an unimportant aside, as the book reassures us that really it’s all about Marlon. (But perhaps this is not the time to complain about the Problem With All Narratives That Foreground A Protagonist.)

There’s lots to like, so here are some things: That Marlon has a mum who goes in to fight for him magnificently; that her, and therefore his, circumstances give him privileges that another character like D-Ice can’t count on; that moment where D-Ice invokes fairytale naming powers (if only to remind Marlon that they’re not real; Louis leaving the police force; the number of ways the book dramatises care between friends and family and community–from Tish’s willingness to date assholes for information that’ll keep Marlon safe to Marlon’s own choice to keep his mother safe from the knowledge that her words turned Marlon and Andre into targets (she’s bound to find out, but this again is one of those choices that mean something in and of themselves) to little things like bus drivers who slow down for women to catch them. I’m not reconciled to the genre, and I don’t think I’m going to enjoy reading about danger for a while; but in the spaces outside and around its thriller plot, Orangeboy manages, quietly, to build and make more imaginable things that feel nourishing.

 

 

* Because I’m friends with Erin Horáková (whose essay on Blakes 7 you should read), I feel compelled to point out that Orangeboy spells the title with an apostrophe and my loyalties demand that I register disapproval.

October 14, 2016

Alex Wheatle, Liccle Bit and Crongton Knights

Liccle Bit, the first of this series (trilogy?) was on the Carnegie nominee list this year, but never made it to the shortlist. Crongton Knights, I suspect, will be eligible next year, and I’ll be interested to see whether it is short (or long)-listed. It’s on the Guardian Children’s Fiction longlist–the shortlist is not out yet. (This is mostly a post about Crongton Knights.)

“Liccle Bit” is the nickname of teenaged Lemar, the second shortest boy in his class. His height, as his friends McKay and Jonah constantly remind him, is one reason he’s unlikely ever to be in a relationship with Venetia King, the hottest girl in school. Bit lives with his mother, grandmother, his sister Elaine and baby nephew Jerome; his mother’s the only member of the family with a job, and there isn’t much money for cool haircuts and the other minor luxuries that he thinks might make a popular girl notice him. As it happens, Venetia has noticed him; Bit is a talented artist with work in a forthcoming exhibition, and Venetia needs someone to draw a portrait of her. The two become friends, even as Bit learns that the portrait is to be a gift for Venetia’s boyfriend.

Meanwhile, Bit has gotten tangled up in events of which he really wants no part. Elaine’s ex boyfriend (and Jerome’s father) is local gang leader Manjaro. As a result, Manjaro knows Bit, and calls upon him to run various errands- and Bit is too afraid to say no. Things come to a head when he’s asked to conceal a gun for Manjaro for a few days.

If this feels rather heavy on character summary, it’s because characters and relationships were central to my experience of the book. Liccle Bit is fundamentally kind to its characters–it makes room for Bit’s mother’s anger at his father and his father’s current happy marriage, Manjaro’s ruthlessness and violence and the possibility that he might want to be a good dad, and even finds space for us to step back and notice Bit’s own biases. Everyone makes sense as a complex, real person (except perhaps the wise, kind grandmother; but presumably those do exist outside literary cliche).

I liked Liccle Bit, though I took a while to warm to it. Crongton Knights, though, I fell into straight away.

Crongton Knights is told from the perspective of Bit’s friend McKay, and is set a few months after the events of the earlier book. Life in Crongton has been tense ever since, though things are returning to normal. Venetia and Bit have continued to be friends, which is why when she breaks up with her boyfriend and discovers that he has pictures of her naked on his phone, she asks Bit for help. Venetia, Bit, McKay and Jonah, along with a couple of friends they’ve picked up on the way, have to make the long journey across Crongton to find Sergio, get hold of his phone, and delete the pictures, on the way becoming entangled with enemies of McKay’s brother, Nesta.

This is a quest narrative. For some reason, my Kindle edition of the book skipped straight to the prologue of the book and so I missed the map at the beginning on my first read though. But: there’s a map! There’s a small but determined fellowship of friends and allies, walking though dangerous territory to complete a quest, and there’s a map.

crong

Early in my first read through Crongton Knights, I was already aware that I had sunk comfortably into it much more quickly than with the earlier book. I assumed that my rapid involvement in the narrative was simply a byproduct of reading series fiction–that I recognised character and setting and was thus able to find my bearings immediately (pause to consider what it means that that metaphor is cartographical). That’s probably true, but it’s also true that I’ve grown up on fantasy quests. The shape of this story made sense to me in ways that Liccle Bit could not (and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that LB is drawing on genres and/or narrative traditions that I don’t know as well), even before I found the map.

It makes sense to McKay as well. McKay likes the Lord of the Rings movies and Arthuriana; it seems perfectly plausible that he’d conceive of  this mission as a heroic quest. Bit would not have told this story in this way. It’s hard to express why this is impressive writing without running the risk of sounding very trite (perhaps I am sounding very trite now); it’s to talk of the sort of fundamentals that surely we all take for granted by now (of course the shape of the story is a result of who’s supposed to be doing the telling) except that taking things for granted can mean not thinking about them at all, and they should be thought about. To shift between the rhythms of different genres with the same set of characters and relationships isn’t just a matter of skill (though it is skillful), it feels important to what the text does, and how it conceives of itself.

There are other reasons why I think this is great. One of them is purely personal–in the week before I read Crongton Knights I was in Dublin, doing some work with the Michael de Larrabeiti archives, and so ended up rereading large swathes of Across The Dark Metropolis, which is another beloved story about a band of loyal young heroes travelling across a dangerous London. After that, this book felt like coming home.

It also, I think, has something to do with language. Apparently Wheatle has invented much of the language used by the characters in the Crongton books, bringing together “elements of US Hip-Hop, Jamaican dancehall, old school reggae and every other sub-culture I thought could supplement my concoction.” I’m very obviously not in a position to suggest that the result feels “authentic”, whatever that would mean; Crongton is far enough from any of the cultures I inhabit that I’m not sure I can tell the South London bits from Wheatle’s additions. But I have, inevitably, been reading the books in the context of the discussions around e.E Charlton-Trujillo’s When We Was Fierce.

A couple of paragraphs above I mention fundamentals that too often are taken for granted in writing–perhaps the most basic of them is the idea that things can be represented in any meaningful way at all. To invent a fictional language (and I’m speaking here of languages that are supposed to feel “plausible” within their frames of reference; nonsense verse and deliberately silly dialects are doing other things entirely) is to suggest, implicitly, that languages are inventable; that this big, interconnected, evolving thing is actually basic enough that a convincing imitation can be produced in the head of just some guy. But fine, all representation is suspect, the word is not the thing, language is inherently reductive, life goes on.

In a recent article, Lili Loofbourow discusses the powerful and reductive nature of naming, before noting that:

We have shown the same proficiency when it comes to labeling behavioral patterns in minorities and members of other cultures. One of anthropology’s early problems as a field was the worrying ease with which white people could label behaviors and systems that weren’t their own. Ethnocentrism makes it simple to diagnose the peculiar habits of others while you, the implied (white male) observer, remain gloriously exempt. Science plays a huge and important role in the world, but the fantasy of scientific objectivity can bleed dangerously into other areas: that fantasy being that you, as the detached observer, are the one capable of universality, of transcendence. Of objectivity. Of naming.

It’s possible that I’m flattening the author’s point here in extending this from naming and the creation of particular vocabularies to all language ever (sorry Lili, if you read this), but it’s reasonable to suggest that, even if All Representation Is Suspect, questions of who gets to represent what and who gets to present what as real are tied to specific histories and power dynamics. One of the many good posts on When We Was Fierce is this one, by Jennifer Baker, which has a useful section on the ways in which Charlton-Trujillo’s constructed AAVE doesn’t work. Baker notes, crucially, that it is “perceived (and current reviews from White reviewers see it) as ‘real.’” Here, the power to simplify and misrepresent is inherently bound up in race*–the author, who is (afaik) not African-American, writes a book presenting a community in a particular way, and an overwhelmingly white publishing industry endorses it as Truth.

In the interview I link to above Wheatle places his own linguistic innovations in the same tradition as Tolkien’s, and I think that framing is important. Not only because it positions them as something akin to fantasy (and therefore frees them of some of that burden of representation, possibly? Though only if one came to the book as I did, after having read that interview), but that Tolkien’s labour in inventing languages, whatever one may think of the utility of such an exercise, is presented as Work. Whether you think of him as a philologist doing philologisty things or as a massive nerd wasting far too much time and energy on making stuff up, language is positioned as difficult, requiring effort, not just something you can casually create. Wheatle’s invocation of Tolkien, then, helps us to frame his books within that tradition of innovative language, rather than the one where creating “believable” dialogue can so easily lead to a mass of lazy stereotypes.

(On the other hand, one of the functions of secondary world fantasy of the sort Tolkien gave rise to is as an outlet for the sort of colonialist anthropology that deems Other societies and systems and languages eminently classifiable/categorisable; what does one do with that?

I’m not sure. But Crongton Knights has a character who “wrapped untold ice cubes in my flannel” and that “untold” is so good, and pleased me so much.)

 

 

* Whereas Wheatle is a Black British writer from South London, writing about black and brown kids in a fictional/ised South London.

September 18, 2016

Alice Pung, Laurinda

I only discovered a few days ago (when I saw the Reading While White review of the book) that Alice Pung’s Laurinda had been retitled Lucy and Linh in its American edition. My own copy of the book is the Black Inc/Penguin version that was available (in kindle form, at least) in the UK–as ever, I’m unsure whether this means it would have been eligible for the Carnegie award or not.

I’m not sure what to make of this title change, and to talk about my ambivalence I am going to have to give away certain plot elements (I don’t think most people who read this blog care about spoilers, but just in case: Spoiler Warning).

The novel is written in epistolatory form from Lucy Lam to someone named Linh. Lucy is a Vietnamese-Australian teenager of Teochew ancestry, and she has grown up in a working class suburb of Melbourne. She has been attending a local Catholic school, but wins a scholarship to Laurinda Ladies College, an old, exclusive private school. From the beginning, she’s a bit ambivalent about the scholarship, which she really did not expect to win–it may mean a better future, but it also means leaving her friends behind. Linh, we’re given to understand, is one of those friends.

It is probably clear from “we’re given to understand” that this isn’t really true. Towards the end of the book it is revealed that Lucy and Linh have been the same person all along; that the letters are a form of mediation between the two sides of our protagonist’s life.

Which is fine; the trick of allowing your readers to frame the narrative in a particular way and then undermining those assumptions at the end can be really effective–I’m thinking of books like Rebecca Stead’s Liar & Spy, or Gene Kemp’s Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler. An attentive reader who has read this sort of thing before and has some sense of what to look for may begin to suspect not very far into the book that there’s a reason we’ve got a much clearer sense of Lucy’s other friends than of Linh (who is seemingly her closest friend). But even for a pretty experienced reader of This Sort of Thing, Laurinda presents a bit of a challenge. An example, from early in the book. Lucy and her friends have come out of the scholarship exam, and are discussing the final essay question:

Suddenly, Tully turned towards you. “What did you write about, Linh?”
You just laughed. “Something stupid.”
[a page or two later]
For some reason, the picture in the exam paper had reminded me of my mother, so I’d written about her. If the other girls had asked, I would have told them. But somehow I did not want to share this with Tully.

“If the other girls had asked” is doing some good work here–allowing for both “the other girls in Lucy’s group,” and “the other girls, except Tully, with whom she does not want to share this.”

Moments like this are really cleverly done–at other points, it’s still not clear to me to what extent Lucy is imagining herself as separate from Linh; whether some of the difficulty in working it out is from inconsistency rather than skillful elision. But I think the concealment of Linh’s identity does add something to the book– and it’s something quite disconcerting. For much of the book Lucy is talking about the split in her life between her working class suburb and family, and Laurinda’s posh whiteness, and the level of performance that survival at the school entails. It’s all too easy to map this split onto Lucy and Linh, but then we’re left with the possibility that Lucy, with whom we’ve spent the duration of the book, is only half of the complete person we’ve let ourselves think we’re seeing; that we are part of the audience to whom she must perform. And you then go back through the book, wondering to what extent things are being framed to suit our expectations of the narrative (and you remind yourself that voices aren’t that neatly split across people, and whether it’s possible to write as Linh at all without some Lucy slipping in). I wonder to what extent the reframing caused by changing the title then changes this experience–if by giving Linh equal weight in the title, the reader is led to focus more on her role, and what that does to the book’s playing around with the reader’s assumptions. (I also don’t know if the book has been edited and/or changed in other ways for its American edition, so this speculation may be meaningless.)

But my other reservation about the changed title is a personal one–that it shifts the focus from the school.

I became interested in reading Laurinda because it was a school story. (Pause for regular readers of this blog to roll their eyes.) It’s a school story because it’s set in a school and is about a student’s experiences of that school, but I don’t know if Pung is a fan of the school story genre; Laurinda doesn’t obviously position itself in dialogue with that tradition (in the way that, say, Robin Stevens’s books do), but that needn’t mean she isn’t familiar with it.

Here are some tropes of the school story: the new student who comes to the school and has to familiarise herself with its structure and ethos; the scholarship student who, despite being poorer than the rest, shows herself to be as worthy as them and triumphs in the end; the bad prefects who are exposed so that things are put right. Intentional or not (perhaps some of these tropes are just inherent to the setting), Laurinda ends up negotiating exactly these situations, but in complex, and (if you’re already interested in school stories) fascinating ways. Arriving at the school, Lucy finds that her background has not made it that easy for her to prove her worth–there are things that are taught differently, or better, here than in her old school; there are cultural shibboleths that will continuously mark her as an outsider. More, her outsiderness itself will be weaponised in ways she hadn’t anticipated–by the well-meaning white woman who wants her for a protégée, the popular kids, and most importantly, by the institution itself. She learns that she is expected to perform her role as (poor, ethnic minority) scholarship student in ways that are sufficiently palatable to those around her as well as making the institution look good. The book’s big climatic moment is not the one where Lucy and Linh finally merge to tell the powerful girls of the Cabinet to fuck off, it’s later, when Lucy gives a speech that proves that she’s finally understood her place in this system, has understood how far she can go without being crushed by the institution; how to accept that she is being manipulated and to manipulate it right back.

Because throughout her year at the school, both in her interactions with the principal and with the Cabinet, Lucy has been receiving an education in power. The Cabinet, whose mastery over the student body means that they can hurt others for fun and escape any consequences (“Because Amber was crying so much, Gina could not” is one of the most succinct descriptions of a particular sort of power play as you’re ever likely to see), befriend Lucy because she makes them look better, discard her when she is insufficiently teachable, and attempt to co-opt her once more when she has learnt to play the game. But the Cabinet become negligible as Lucy begins to understand their role in the institution as a whole. In the traditional school story, morality emanates from the institution itself, and the head of the school is unfailingly good. It’s Mrs Grey, the principal, whom Lucy “finally [accords] the respect she was due,” and who is in a position to see that Lucy has become “this true Laurindan who now layered her words with care and cunning.” Mrs Grey and Lucy understand Laurinda (and the world of which it is a part) and are in that sense allies–but this isn’t a happy ending. The corrupt prefects (the Cabinet come as close to this as anything) will not be reformed, and Lucy will not triumph, because they are part of a system that is already working as it is intended to.

I was prepared to be disappointed by Laurinda because so many of its early scenes document the sort of racist microaggressions that are designed to make white readers go “oh wow I never thought of that before!” and move on; the sort of thing that already feels like a cliché (though now that I’ve come around to the book, I want to defend these moments by pointing out that its young adult readers may not have reached the point of thinking these clichéd yet). I’m glad that the book turned out to be so much more, that its depictions of power and its workings are this incisive and this ruthless. And I’m still going to read it as a school story.

 

August 12, 2016

Crystal Chan, Bird

After complaining about the whiteness of the Carnegie award for three years in a row now, I’ve been trying to find recent children’s books, by non-white authors, that might have been on the shortlist (or even the longlist) in other circumstances. Would Bird have been eligible for the medal? I’m not sure—it was shortlisted for the Waterstones children’s book prize this year, but I suspect that, if it was eligible at all, it would have been so for last year’s Carnegie, since it first came out in 2014. (To further complicate matters, one of the rules for the prize is also that if published elsewhere first, the book must be published in the UK within three months, and that can be difficult to work out.)

Jewel is twelve, and knows that the home she lives in is an unhappy one. On the day of her birth her older brother, then five, tried to “fly” from the local cliff and plummeted to his death. Since then her birthday has been marked by mourning, her parents unhappy and still blaming one another; and her grandfather, who gave John the nickname “bird” and who blames himself for his death, has not spoken since it happened. Jewel’s multiracial family is also something of an oddity in her small Iowa town; her father’s family are Jamaican, while her mother is half-Mexican. Her father, always superstitious, has forbidden her to go near the cliff, and futilely attempts to grow non-native plants in their garden in order to ward off duppies. Her mother is worried and distracted and would like her daughter to have safer and less extraordinary thoughts and ambitions.

But then Jewel meets John, a boy her own age who is visiting his uncle for the summer, and everything changes. John is fascinated by astronomy in the way that Jewel is by geology; they are awed and respectful of one another’s knowledge, show each other their own particular haunts and secret places, and share some of the complexities of their respective families (John is black, and adopted, and has complicated feelings about his adopted [white] parents). Jewel’s initial discomfort over the coincidence (or is it?) of John’s name being that of her brother soon dissipates, but her grandfather refuses to accept John’s entry into his home.

It’s clear to the reader, if not to Jewel (for a surprisingly long time) that her grandfather believes John to be a duppie—whether or not he is justified in this belief is less clear. Jewel and John’s friendship begins rather eerily—John is a common enough name, but long before the grandfather’s suspicions enter the picture the reader is wondering about his connection to Jewel’s lost brother. Until we know what genre of book we’re reading, we can’t know who or what John really is. There’s much about Bird that teeters on the brink of the supernatural in any case—its spectacular landscapes, the exaggerated (but not, because it’s entirely plausible) extreme of the man who has been silent for over a decade are all there to invoke—if not the strictly SFFnal—a sense of wonder, or the possibility of wonder. Jewel has created a set of rituals for herself involving the rocks she arranges at the top of the cliff, and there too, the reader is left half-believing in them. And Jewel and John’s respective hobbies mean that we’re full alive to the vastness of astronomical space and geological time.

Supernatural (or not) overtones aside, a thing that Bird does particularly well is a set of real, complex, and often awful relationships. The book informs me that the author also grew up as a mixed-race kid (though in Wisconsin, not Iowa) and some of the complexities of Jewel’s situation are presumably drawn from experience. But there are difficult things here (that are hopefully not drawn from experience) and in dealing with them Chan is largely precise and kind. Jewel’s family do, at some level, all love one another, but grief has affected the individual people involved (in varied and complicated ways), as well as the dynamics of their relationships; the impact of that grief is never trivialised and can’t be fully resolved. The book in this aspect is well-named; the shadow of Bird/John’s death lies heavy over the characters. It’s hard to imagine an uncomplicatedly happy ending for this family that doesn’t first involve years of consciously working towards it. But of course “and things were complicated for several years afterwards” isn’t really a satisfying plot structure, and Bird obtains what structure it has from two particular relationships: Jewel and John, who are friends, face conflict, and have to learn to forgive one another; and Jewel and her grandfather, who she has never heard speak in all the 12 years of her life. The second of these is by far the more complicated—and if they’re both a bit too easy and too pat, they’re counterbalanced by still existing in a world where very little else is easy.

And yet, despite all the things about Bird that I like very much, I’m not sure whether I think it works well as a whole object. I applaud its lack of easy resolution and its refusal to simplify its world, but much of what’s going on in the background, however well drawn, feels a bit directionless. I keep changing my mind—either I think it’s got a clever slice-of-life feel to it (here is some stuff that happened over this summer, but life will go on, slightly altered, for these characters; that’s the story) or it’s a bit baggy and slack.

July 31, 2016

Mathangi Subramanian, Dear Mrs. Naidu

Today’s post features a children’s book not from the Carnegie shortlist (and not eligible, though it would have been had it been written during the prize’s earliest years). But (since I’ve been thinking so much about the prizing of children’s literature recently) it did win a recent South Asia Book Award and was shortlisted for the Hindu Young World-Goodbooks award (and I’ll be reviewing the winning book sometime this year).

Sarojini is twelveNaidu. She lives in a colony where the houses don’t have permanent roofs (an image I loved was that of a neighbour whose house was covered by the canvas billboard hoarding from a local politician’s election campaign–the councillor had promised development) and goes to a government school where some teachers maintain discipline by hitting their students while others speak of expanding hearts and minds. One of the latter sort has set Sarojini an assignment–to write a series of letters to someone she’d like to get to know. Sarojini picks Sarojini Naidu,  freedom fighter, child prodigy, and Sarojini’s namesake (she’s never heard the term before, but a local lawyer says Naidu’s hers). Obviously Mrs. Naidu is dead, which is a matter to be treated with some delicacy in the actual letters.

Sarojini also faces something of a crisis when her best friend Amir moves away. Amir’s brothers have got good jobs, and now the family can afford a small flat. More importantly, Amir himself is now a scholarship student at a reputable private school. Sarojini’s discovery of the Right to Education act seems like the solution to all of her problems–it may mean a way for Sarojini to join Amir’s new school, or it may at least provide her with a way of making her own school better.

It would be so easy for this to turn into a 1980s TV-esque educational story–for perfectly legitimate plot reasons the characters spend a lot of time explaining the RTE to one another. In the acknowledgements Subramanian (no relation) refers to her research into the book as “fieldwork”, and describes sitting in the corner of a school “for almost two years, watching and asking questions”, which gives the whole thing a rather dubious anthropological feel. What we get instead, fortunately, is something like gritty realism (as far as that’s possible in something this light in tone)–a story about activism, and coming up against structures built to uphold the status quo, and the tiring/frustrating/rewarding work of getting things done. Discovering that admissions to the free slots in the local private school are dependent on bribes, and learning from Amir that being a poor student among rich classmates is harder than she’d realised, Sarojini focuses her attentions on another aspect of the RTE: the one that requires that government schools have basic resources; potable water and toilets and playgrounds and decent compound walls.

A thing that gives me pause is that this realism also flags up some goals as too hard or inconvenient to work towards. Yes, Sarojini might have a bad time of it in Amir’s school, and yes, fixing the public schools so that everyone (or at least everyone in this part of Bangalore) can benefit from them is a better and more sustainable solution, creating quality, free, alternatives to the private schools rather than rattling at their gates and hoping to be let in. One of the things my Carnegie reading group discussed while reading Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves (a book about a completely different sort of segregation in schools) was the fact that, in that book, Sarah does feel occasional resentment that the politics of their families have meant she and her friends have to suffer this sort of abuse. (Lucy Pearson discusses the book here, and notes that Sarah’s parents are presented as oddly unconcerned by the danger their children are in.) Dear Mrs. Naidu is a lighter book for younger readers, and doesn’t make explicit the violence, structural and individual, that Talley’s book tries to invoke at a visceral level; yet it’s clear from Amir’s account of his new school that things aren’t exactly great–he will not turn down the opportunity, but it is going to cost him.

And yet Sarojini’s decision not to go to Greenhill, to instead allow the school a lovely PR opportunity to present Ambedkar School with a playground, though a pragmatic decision, is one that works out very conveniently for Greenhill. I was reminded, a little, of a recent struggle to gain admission in a local school for a child whose parents are janitors. In the face of indignation on twitter (see some of the replies to the linked tweet) and requests to name and shame the school, those involved chose not to, as the aim was to help the girl in question rather than punish or antagonise the schools. And it may well be the case that a pragmatic approach will yield better results than my own kneejerk anger, and yet. Dear Mrs. Naidu knows that under unequal conditions, progress is made by allowing the powerful to save face/look good (Sarojini’s turning of her campaign into a human interest story is crucial to its success), knows that when the poor muster together resources and make things for themselves (in this case a rebuilt and freshly-painted compound wall) they do so at a far greater cost to themselves.

I realized that I wasn’t proud.
I was angry.
Really angry.
Why should Deepti’s Appa and all the other workers have to miss a whole day of wages for something the government should be doing for free?

This is one of the few times in the book where Sarojini displays actual, real, anger, and I wish there was more of it. If there’s one aspect of the book’s (for want of a better word, though I don’t think I mean it as a criticism) didacticism that grates, it’s this; that it doesn’t allow for negative feelings like bitterness and rage–even Sarojini’s anger can only be of the most productive sort.

I find myself wondering how, in a book centred around “Ambedkar School,” caste is never explicitly mentioned. There are certainly various forms of bigotry at play among these characters–throwaway references to Amir’s family being Muslims, the chorus of local aunties who warn Sarojini away from Deepti, whose parents work on a construction site. I don’t know if there are signifiers that I’m missing; if not it’s a strange omission.

April 20, 2016

Becky Albertalli, Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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