Archive for ‘racism’

March 17, 2014

Angela Thirkell, High Rising

I was informed that I would really enjoy Angela Thirkell and I did. I was informed that I would find some of her politics (oh look, random anti-semitism, baiting Irish people and being hideously classist) unpalatable and I did. I’ll be reading more by her, anyway.

Column here.

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“We are by no means in Wodehouse territory” claims Alexander McCall Smith in his introduction to Angela Thirkell’s High Rising. By which he means that Thirkell’s characters have normal economic problems to deal with (to be fair, Bertie Wooster aside this is to some extent true for Wodehouse); nor do they “spend their time in an endless whirl of silliness”. This too is debatable. But it’s interesting that McCall Smith should choose to make that comparison because the two authors are similar in ways that he does not, perhaps, anticipate. Both authors’ stories take place at one remove from reality while ostensibly being set in “real” England; Wodehouse’s characters, as Evelyn Waugh has been widely quoted on book jackets as saying, are “still in Eden”; Thirkell’s books are set, less ideally, in the fictional Barsetshire of Anthony Trollope’s novels.

Then there’s the plot, as it appears in the back cover, filled with unsuitable marriages, overbearing secretaries and the need to unite young girls with the men they want. We’re only a pig and a couple of imposters away from a Blandings novel, and it’s a little jarring to realise that the book has us ranged on the side of an unpleasant Wodehousean Aunt.

Laura Morland is a widow and a novelist, who has supported four boys through boarding school, has a house in London and one in the country, and at least one servant (whose irascibility, rather than any financial consideration, is cited as the reason there are no more servants), a lifestyle that Laura herself doesn’t seem to class as particularly wealthy. Laura’s neighbours in the country are a distinguished writer of historical biographies and his beautiful daughter; to this household has been added an attractive secretary whose designs upon her employer are seen as a real danger.

Difference in class is never stated as the reason behind the unacceptability of Miss Una Grey. We’re given plenty of other reasons to dislike her—she’s underhand, has an awful temper, is encroaching, is revealed to have a history of falling for her employers—but the weapons employed against her have everything to do with her background. Jokes about the Irish (she is from Ireland) are thrown around lightly to make her visibly uncomfortable, while various social manipulations are brought into play to keep her away. Multiple women band together to prevent an “unsuitable” marriage between two adults, apparently believing a reasonably powerful grown man in dire need of protection.

There’s something a bit distasteful about all of this, and I wonder if this undercurrent is why McCall Smith’s introduction launches into a defense of the book’s politics as being “of its time”. Unfortunately, while it’s possible to love and respect literary works with dubious class, gender or race politics (I thoroughly enjoyed High Rising), the of-its-time defense never makes the work or its defender look good. History is no more homogenous than the present, and by the time this book was published in 1933, many people had figured out that class- and race-based prejudices were wrong.

But there are books in which these unpleasantnesses intrude upon the reader constantly, and books in which she can block them out. If High Rising proves to be one of the latter (as it did for me), it’s possible to appreciate the consistently great dialogue, a reminder that the magical England of these books is populated by supremely witty people. It’s possible to see that characters can be acutely and brutally observed but (provided they are of the right background) treated with affection for their weaknesses. Laura’s affection for her intolerable child, Adrian’s suggestibility, Sibyl’s lack of personality, George’s insistence on talking over everyone in the room; there are moments when Thirkell almost channels Austen. There’s much here that will not stand up to scrutiny and much that ought to make a reader uncomfortable, but at its best High Rising is a fine piece of comic writing.

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July 31, 2013

Not a review of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah

I really enjoyed Americanah, though I don’t think it’s Adichie’s best novel (and certainly not her best book, but I prefer her shorter work anyway). I also refuse to review this because it was my sick day reading but I did mark out bits in my copy and make useful observations like “hah!” and so forth. So here are some quotes and some thoughts anyway.

So much of Americanah is so sharply observed and genuinely funny.

The man standing closest to her was eating an ice cream cone; she had always found it a little irresponsible, the eating of ice cream cones by grown-up American men, especially the eating of ice cream cones by grown-up American men in public. […] The graying hair on the back of his head was swept forward, a comical arrangement to disguise his bald spot. He had to be an academic, but not in the humanities or he would be more self-conscious. A firm science like chemistry, maybe.

Delight.

While reading this book I mentioned on twitter that it was like being among brown friends. The book itself seems to get that, and get how comforting, and how important it can be:

[…] their different accents formed meshes of solacing sounds. They mimicked what Americans told them: You speak such good English. How bad is AIDS in your country? It’s so sad that people live on less than a dollar a day in Africa. And they themselves mocked Africa, trading stories of absurdity, of stupidity, and they felt safe to mock, because it was a mockery born of longing, and of the heartbroken desire to see a place made whole again. Here, Ifemelu felt a gentle, swaying sense of renewal. Here, she did not have to explain herself.

Ifemelu has a successful blog about race, and occasionally the text is interrupted by an entry from this which is pertinent to a situation Ifemelu has just faced. The blog voice sounds like a lot of other race blogs and some of the jargon is certainly there—she links, for example, to Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh when she talks about privilege, and she mentions (and dismisses) the phrase “Oppression Olympics”. What Americanah doesn’t do, though, is give us much in the way of internet discussion, the fluid ways in which conversations take place in comments sections, through links across blogs. The blog isn’t the point of the book and I don’t think Adichie is particularly interested in this particular facet of internet life, so it’s not surprising that she shouldn’t have spent much time exploring it. But I still find it interesting because so much of what Americanah has to say about race seems to me to be pertinent to the discussion of race online. Because (and some of my best friends are American POC, she says hastily) I spend so much of my life on the internet and the internet is still so strongly weighted towards the idea that everyone lives in the first world, that a third world-residing (I want to add a disclaimer about how far from “third-world” my privileged, airconditioned, South Delhi life is, but the UK still thinks I’m high-risk, so I’m owning the title) person with opinions and access to the means with which to express them is some sort of mythical beast (actually I am a pretty manticore). And Americanah understands that the bonds between third world postcolonial and other third world postcolonial can be based on as much or more common ground than American person of colour and non-American (or non-British, let’s not let them off) person of (same) colour, and that sometimes there’s a comforting solidarity in banding together against first world privilege for a bit, no matter what colours and histories it may come in.

Ifemelu and Jane laughed when they discovered how similar their childhoods in Grenada and Nigeria had been, with Enid Blyton books and Anglophile teachers and fathers who worshipped the BBC World Service.

“The African Americans who come to our meetings are the ones who write poems about Mother Africa and think every African is a Nubian queen. If an African American calls you a Mandingo or a booty scratcher, he is insulting you for being African. Some will ask you annoying questions about Africa, but others will connect with you. You will also find that you might make friends more easily with other internationals, Koreans, Indians, Brazilians, whatever, than with Americans both black and white. Many of the internationals understand the trauma of trying to get an American visa and that is a good place to start a friendship.”

 

And yet it seems that Ifemelu’s American blog is read almost exclusively by people in America—whether they are long term residents and citizens or more recent immigrants—and the Nigerian blog she starts later by mostly Nigerians. There isn’t a spillover of readers from one blog to the other, no note of “this is where I’m going to be, come read me there if you like”. I can’t imagine a hugely popular blog ending that way.

 

He had not been back to Nigeria in years and perhaps he needed the consolation of those online groups, where small observations flared and blazed into attacks, personal insults flung back and forth.

This is that man in the comments on Times of India or Rediff or wherever, who is outraged by the reservation system, feminist activism and everything that is ruining our great culture and whose profile says he lives in California. There’s nothing original here, because is anyone really surprised that other countries have them too? But I smiled anyway.

 

There’s an enjoyable  encounter with an annoying white girl who wants braids but has no idea what sorts there are or how they’re made, and who thinks the finest, most “honest” book about Africa she’s read is A Bend in the River. Adichie goes into (well-deserved) attack mode—this bit has been widely quoted in other places.

She did not think the novel was about Africa at all. It was about Europe, or the longing for Europe, about the battered self-image of an Indian man born in Africa, who felt so wounded, so diminished, by not having been born European, a member of a race which he had elevated for their ability to create, that he turned his imagined personal insufficiencies into an impatient contempt for Africa; in his knowing haughty attitude to the African, he could become, even if only fleetingly, a European. She leaned back on her seat and said this in measured tones. Kelsey looked startled; she had not expected a minilecture. Then, she said kindly, “Oh, well, I see why you would read the novel like that.”

“And I see why you would read it like you did,” Ifemelu said.

 

“I just can’t get up and go to Paris. I have a Nigerian passport. I need to apply for a visa, with bank statements and health insurance and all sorts of proof that I won’t stay and become a burden to Europe.”

This! This is the sort of thing that made me feel, as I said, that reading the novel I was among friends. I’m sure no one needs me to rant about this (Ekaterina Sedia recently suggested on twitter that a useful measure of privilege could be the number of countries into which one can enter without needing a visa or having to worry that one would get one). (See also “America“).

 

“He was left-leaning and well-meaning, crippled by his acknowledgment of his own many privileges. He never allowed himself to have an opinion. “Yes, I see what you mean,” he said often.”

I know you, this guy. I like you; I kind of wish you’d own an opinion (and possibly be shot down for it) more often, but you’re rather nice.

 

“I was actually going to tell you about it. It’s called the Nigerpolitan Club and it’s just a bunch of people who have recently moved back, some from England, but mostly from the U.S.? Really low-key, just like sharing experiences and networking? I bet you’ll know some of the people. You should totally come?”

Ooh, this is interesting. I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere Adichie respond to Taiye Selasi and this whole concept of “Afropolitans” unless this is it. And it … is complicated, and again I’m sure I’m likely to draw false equivalencies between the situations of being a privileged Indian who has travelled a bit and lived in other countries and being a privileged Nigerian or a privileged Ghanaian (if Selasi identifies as such?) who … etc—and perhaps even assuming too much of a similarity between Nigerians and Ghanaians in that position is silly. But it’s one of the most interesting sections of Ifemelu’s return that she joins this club of “Nigerpolitans” and finds herself, on the one hand, despising them for being the sort of people who talk about “the sort of food we can eat” and whining that their cooks don’t know how to make the sort of food they’ve grown accustomed to while admitting that she does have a lot in common with them and she does miss quinoa. Most of the time Americanah is placing Ifemelu in wider context of the world, and the first world, and her place within it; this is one of the places where we see her within the more specific context of Nigeria. And of course it is as complex, and as contradictory as her wider context is.

 

 

July 16, 2013

Redface, Cumberkhan, and whitewashing in Hollywood

Apparently I have been so openly grumpy about Hollywood whitewashing in recent months that I was asked to do this piece for the Indian Express. It is considerably shorter and less ranty here than it was in first draft, at least.

 

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In an interview with the cast of Star Trek Into Darkness, done months before the film was released, actors were asked to choose a favourite Star Trek villain. John Cho, who plays Hikaru Sulu in the rebooted series of films, chose Ricardo Montalban’s Khan Noonien Singh, adding pointedly that he was  also “a man of colour”. Cho’s comment may have

(The newspaper version of this piece may not have contained this picture)

seemed innocuous enough at the time. But the same interview included Benedict Cumberbatch who was at the time only known to be playing the villain of the movie. A few months later we were subjected to the ridiculous spectacle of the lily-white Cumberbatch declaring “my name is Khan”.

Hollywood has a history of changing the ethnicity of a character, either by rewriting them as white, or by having white-skinned actors don “blackface” (or “yellowface” or “redface”) in performances that frequently lampooned them through the use of racial stereotype, as in the whole tradition of minstrelsy. While it is generally accepted that blackface is no longer acceptable (though a Hindi movie used the trope for humour earlier this year), the number of non-white characters played by non-white actors is still far smaller than one would expect it to be.

Racebending.com was an organisation formed in 2009 by fans of the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. The series was based on a number of Asian cultures, yet Manoj Knight Shyamalan’s adaptation failed to cast Asian actors in the major positive roles.

It is not simply a case of getting the “best” actor for the job, though that excuse is often trotted out. In an industry where white is the cultural default (unless a role is specified as belonging to a character of a specific ethnicity it is too often assumed to be white) talented actors already have a difficult time finding a range of complex roles. Even when ethnicity is specified, it is sometimes not clear enough for the culture around it. When the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games was released last year, there was a wave of internet outrage over the casting of the character Rue. Collins had mentioned Rue’s dark skin and hair more than once but this wasn’t enough for readers, who went so far as to suggest that the character seemed less “innocent” and her death less tragic when played by the African-American actress Amandla Stenberg instead of a light-skinned, blonde girl. Viewers also expressed anger at the movie Thor, when Idris Elba was cast as a minor character. The idea of race-blind casting seems to be trotted out selectively, and rarely to the advantage of non-white actors.

Most recently, there’s Johnny Depp’s performance as Tonto in The Lone Ranger, which released in theatres this week. Tonto has long been a controversial character, a pidgin-speaking sidekick whom a number of Native American critics have found to be a demeaning stereotype. Depp has spoken about the potential for reimagining the character in a respectful way, perhaps even mocking the racist depictions that have come before. But none of this answers the question of whether or not Depp should be playing Tonto in the first place. Depp claims some unconfirmed Native American heritage, and has been adopted as an honorary son by a member of the Comanche Nation, but this hardly makes his casting appropriate. Surely Disney (or Depp himself, if the project is so important to him) could have produced a film with a Native American actor in the part? Debate will continue to rage, people will continue to point out that there are no Native American actors of Depp’s stature (and why would that be?) and the cycle will continue. (Edit: I was going to link to one of Native Appropriations’ posts about Depp and Tonto, but here are all of them)

But there’s hope. Iron Man 3 came as a huge surprise this summer. When the most recent movie in the franchise, starring Robert Downey Jr was announced, much attention was focused on Ben Kingsley’s turn as The Mandarin, a character originally portrayed in the comics as a half-Chinese supervillain. Kingsley, of course, is not Chinese (though he is part-Indian) and to many fans this particular casting choice, and this choice of villain, seemed potentially fraught. In the event, what the film offered was a partial deconstruction of the “yellowface” it seemed to perpetuate; The Mandarin wasn’t a Chinese man at all, merely an English actor (though one far less successful than Kingsley) playing to stereotype. This is still far from ideal, and the movie’s exploitation of its own seeming racism for effect is problematic. But the implication that the movie recognises that audiences are aware of this debate is heartening. If, as the blogger Marissa Sammy at Racebending.com suggests, the makers of Star Trek Into Darkness deliberately used the secrecy surrounding Cumberbatch’s role in order to avoid criticism, this too is heartening in a way. It suggests, at least that the issue is finally making its way into the public discourse to an extent that it can no longer be ignored. What Hollywood chooses to do with this information is yet to be seen.

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March 12, 2013

While on the subject of Angria/ Gondal (Ankaret Wells, Firebrand)

It occurs to me that while I’ve read a lot about the Brontës’ magical worlds, I’ve read very few of the stories set in them. I’m working my way through this book at the moment, and these stories are very … very. Their veryness is their chief characteristic. I’m charmed, but also I’m so glad you moved on to other things, Charlotte.

The Tiptree Award for 2012 was announced earlier this week, along with its regular Honour List. Winners and honour listees are here, and I’m intrigued by many of them. But I was particularly interested in Ankaret Wells’ Firebrand. I’ve loved her fanfiction in the past (she’s one of a very small number of people who sometimes writes Antonia Forest fic and does it well), and this looked excellent. I’d managed not to read any reviews other than the bit on the Tiptree list, so it came as a complete surprise that the story was set in a version of the Angria universe. But with steampunk.

[There may be spoilers]

Firebrand is a romance novel in a steampunk, fantasy setting (is this gaslamp fantasy? I’m never sure). Which means that its focus is those elements of the story that are pertinent to the romance. So we take for granted the existence of the weird, magical creatures known as the warplings, and the particular negotiations with them that Kadia makes- in a different genre this, not her relationship with the Duke, would be at the centre of things. What are the consequences of Micah Ellrington’s theft? How does religion work in this setting? How vast is Zashera’s spy network in Cordoza, and is it used for purposes other than to split up the Duke and his new fiancée? In a fantasy novel these could be failures of worldbuilding and I’m not entirely sure they aren’t here. But it makes sense for Kadia as a character (she’s not particularly observant, either of the people around her or the mechanics of the world) to drift through this setting without telling us much. Plus, it makes sense for the romance novel to focus on the two people at its centre without much regard for the world around them. Particularly when the whole thing is told in first person.

It doesn’t always work, of course. There’s a kind of suspension of judgement I think a lot of us commit when we’re reading certain parts of a romance novel; outside that very specific reading experience such things as intense sex scenes are often just really funny. Wells writes them better than many other authors. But the first person narrative means we’re also being forced to reconcile romance-novel-narrator Kadia with the Kadia of the rest of the book, who is funny and caustic and never mawkish.And Kadia’s voice is the best thing about Firebrand. I laughed out loud in public places.

Since this book is on the Tiptree honours list, it’s probably worth talking about how it deals with gender. One of the things that Firebrand does is to present us with a world in which it isn’t surprising (despite the semi-historical setting) for women to be engineers, traders or lawyers. It’s also a book that allows for relationships between women: at least as sisters, friends and stepmothers-in-law, though the stepmother-stepdaughter relationships aren’t all one could hope for. And it’s a book that takes for its heroine an adult woman who has lived through two unhappy marriages; though I don’t think we’re ever told Kadia’s age.

But it’s still a world in which gender inequalities exist, and are perpetuated even by the  “good” men whom we’re presented with. Zashera, the Emperor, takes raping women as his right. But he has a good side! I’m not sure if I loved this section for tearing that particular argument apart, or was disappointed in it for spelling it out:

“But — my God, Kadia, he saved my life. Is that supposed to count for nothing?”

A spattering rain-shower starts to blow past us, striking the battlements and turning the granite slick and wet. “I’m sure it would make me feel better about him, if I wasn’t a woman. Or if I had never cared about a woman. Or never met a woman. Or if I wasn’t born of a woman, but made of bones dipped in flesh in some kind of experimental furnace.”

[...]

“I think he’d take you gambling and throw a parade for you in the streets of New Trinovantium, and when he tried to steal your airship he’d argue to himself that all’s fair when you’re fighting a worthy equal.” My eyes feel hot and itchy with tears, but I’m too angry to cry. “Whereas he calls me my sweet delight and threatens me.”

 

If Firebrand is mostly good on gender, I have mixed feelings about how well it deals with race. There are certainly people of other races present in the two states– including a “copper-skinned lady with angular eyes” and a General with a bevy of beautiful daughters including one with “tight dark curls held back with a ribbon from her ebony brow”. What it doesn’t do (and am I contradicting myself, after offering excuses for the book’s not fleshing out its own world?) is give us more on the subject of its Empire, its colonies, — anything about this history of colonisation that doesn’t consist of bemoaning being regarded as wild colonials by the Home Archipelago.

And there are the Warplings, or ingenii, who do stand in to some extent as an Other race. We’re told very little about the warplings. Their physical appearance is strange but seems to be individually so; we’re not given particular physical markers that are common to the entire race. Everything around them is mysterious, except that somehow they or the warplands themselves seem to have the power to change humans as well.

“Some places the Home Islanders went to, and either enslaved the people who already owned the place or got outsmarted by them. Here, they fell asleep in the warplands and woke up to discover that some of their companions had changed in the night.”

I’ve written before of my discomfort with aliens as nonwhite race stand-ins. And the power imbalances here don’t make sense to me; apparently most of the human characters think it is completely acceptable to cheat the ingenii in financial transactions, to rob their graves, and to banish them from their houses– yet the ingenii appear to have supernatural powers that these human characters cannot comprehend. It’s the X-Men problem; in giving your supposedly oppressed class superpowers you justify and validate the fear in which the majority who is oppressing them holds them. Equally, I can’t help thinking (because they’re one of my pet subjects) of all those magical colonial monsters (mummies! The Beetle! She!) that popular 19th Century literature was so obsessed with. Which makes this particular plot element appropriate for the steampunk-ish setting as well as for the Brontës.

I’m also not sure what I think of Kadia’s cousin Isabel, who is part-warpling, particularly after Aliette de Bodard’s recent excellent post about mixed-race/half-human characters in fantasy. Certainly Isabel can (mostly) “pass” and the ability of some part-warpling people to pass is important to the plot. And she has mysterious powers inherited from the warpling side of her family, and uses them to faithfully defend her fully-human relative.

Having said all of which, I mostly loved Firebrand, enough that I’ll be reading Wells’ science-fiction duology soon. And I’d love to read more of her writing set in this world, possibly fleshing it out and tackling some of the trickier parts.

 

April 25, 2012

Thanhha Lai, Inside Out and Back Again

A couple of people had good things to say about this book recently – Requires Only That You Hate didn’t hate it, and Larry of the OFBlog thought well of it. So did I, evidently. As I think I say in the review, what makes Lai’s book so remarkable for me is the extent to which it centres Hà so that she’s never the one out of sync with culture, but American culture is out of sync with her.

A longer version of last weekend’s Left of Cool column

 

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Sometimes it seems as if everything about the immigrant experience novel is a little too easy to predict. Displacement, contrast between the culture within the home and outside it, physical difference, amusing linguistic mix-ups (of which the English language provides several), and a general crisis of identity. There’s nothing to stop a writer from telling this story again, and telling it well, but there’s surely a limit to how much it can be done and still feel fresh.

And so it was difficult for me at first to be enthused by Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again when it was published last year. Lai is an American author of Vietnamese descent and the book, her first, is partly autobiographical. People began to pay attention to this book when it received the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature last year.

Inside Out and Back Again tells the story of one year in the life of a young girl. In 1975, Kim Hà and her family live in increasing poverty in South Vietnam. The war has not yet come to this part of the country, but its echoes are being felt. Hà’s own father has disappeared and been missing for many years now. Matters come to a head, and just as Saigon falls, the family boards a ship and leaves the country. This is the first third of the novel; the second and third parts take place first aboard the ship itself, then in Alabama, where Hà’s family must build a new life for themselves.

A large part of what makes Inside Out and Back Again unique is the style. The novel takes place over the span of exactly one year, starting and ending with Tét, the first day of the lunar calendar. The story develops over a series of what appear to be diary entries written by Hà, each of them carefully dated. But this is not a straightforward autobiographical narrative either – the entries themselves are in verse, and the verses themselves are often only obliquely related to what is going on in the plot. The effect of this is to give the words that make up this deceptively slim story a power that they could not otherwise have.

But I heard

on the playground

this year’s bánh chưng,

eaten only during Tét,

will be smeared in blood

(February 12)

 

But more than this Hà herself makes Inside Out and Back Again work. Because there is no identity crisis here – from the very beginning Hà knows exactly who she is and clings to that knowledge. She is no frail victim of circumstances. We learn that she was an occasional bully in her old school, and see her learn to defend herself in the new one. Where she feels rage and confusion it is not at her own inability to fit in, but the failure of her new country to accommodate her – the inferiority of America’s canned meats and imported dried papayas (she has her own tree at home); the ludicrousness of people who patronise her for being able to count and recite the alphabet when she has graduated to far more advanced literature in her own language; the English language itself. Within the text all of this only serves to make Hà a more engaging character; in the larger context of immigrant books in general this is practically revolutionary.

 

To make it worse,

the cowboy explains

horses here go

neigh, neigh, neigh,

not hee, hee, hee.

No they don’t.

Where am I?

(August 29)

She must have heard

ha,

as in funny ha-ha-ha.

She fakes a laugh.

I repeat, Hà,

and wish I knew

enough English

to tell her

to listen for

the diacritical mark

(September 2)

 

I mention above the cliches of immigrant fiction, and surely one of these is a difficulty with the new language. It’s less common in literary works, I think (unless you consider The Inscrutable Americans; let’s not)  but occasionally shows up in cinema, and is usually played for laughs. Particularly because so much of this fiction is either in English or directed at people who are familiar with English – we may laugh and agree that the rules of the language are strange and illogical, but we still know that what the supposed non-native speaker has said is incorrect (or is unfortunate innuendo; hilarious!) and in a sense that makes us insiders.

Hà turns the orientalising gaze of her peers (and of the book’s primarily white, English speaking audience) back on them. She plucks red hair from the arm of an American marine and doing so makes white bodies alien. Hà is the centre of her own world, and that is exactly as it should be.

 

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April 16, 2012

From the reading while brown chronicles

Gail Carriger’s Timeless has, early on, a werewolf smelling someone unusual. ”Something spicy and exotic and – he paused, trying to think – sandy”.

The character he smells speaks Arabic and is implied to be Egyptian. This is not a spoiler – the Sphinx and some pyramids are on the book’s cover.

There is a tradition of having exotic Eastern characters be associated with the smell of spices.

Sometimes Eastern writers do this to themselves.

Werewolves have an acute sense of smell so probably can smell the difference in someone used to a different cuisine.

Perhaps Egyptian werewolves think English people smell of tea. We don’t meet any Egyptian (or otherwise non-European) werewolves in the series, so it’s hard to be sure.

Sometimes I smell of cloves. That’s because of my anti-acne gel, so if you notice it it’s probably because my skin is having a bad week. It’s politest not to point it out.

I mentioned the werewolf thing on Twitter. I said “You know, I’d prefer it if the Egyptian character didn’t smell “sandy” and “spicy” to a werewolf…”. I rolled my eyes. I went on with the book.

I enjoyed Timeless. I have enjoyed all the Parasol Protectorate books. I especially like Professor Lyall. In my head he looks like Paul Bettany. No one agrees with me about this, though I have many long casting discussions about these books.

Some people who saw my twitter update said they were less interested in reading the series if this was the sort of thing they could expect. I said no, no it’s really good.

I thought – what a pity if such a small thing should turn someone off reading a book entirely.

English is the only language I am really comfortable reading. Most things I read growing up had moments that threw me out of the text.

Perhaps being able to dismiss a book for alienating you thus (because you always assume that you’ll find something else that doesn’t treat you as other) is easier if you belong to a group of people for whom books generally are more likely to be written.

Perhaps my willingness to overlook the spicy, sandy Egyptian and go on with the book is unhelpful and unlikely to lead to change.

Perhaps I can shrug off occasional, throwaway orientalism in a book because it’s easier on me.

I think the racism in, say, Rider Haggard is quite funny.

I have a strange, antagonistic relationship with the books I read growing up. I love them and I also like to tear them to bits. I think it’s made me a better reader. If it was a relationship it would be very dysfunctional.

I argue for greater diversity of characters and settings in genre fiction. I think genre fiction (and all fiction, but genre still feels like mine in some way) would be better for this.

I feel uncomfortable when well-meaning allies argue for greater diversity on behalf of the poor Brown/Queer/ThirdWorld child who grows up reading English language fiction and never sees herself reflected in any of this.

Do they see me as fundamentally broken as a reader because I grew up that way? I don’t ask.

I think there’s lots wrong with me as a reader (insufficiently critical; sometimes dismissive; too lazy; not smart enough; too lazy) but I don’t think I’m broken.

If I had sufficient critical rigour there would probably be a Homi Bhabha quote here.

 

April 11, 2012

Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars

Before I watched John Carter last month I reread A Princess of Mars for the first time in many years. I realised I’d forgotten most of the plot but very little of the feel of the place – for all its problems (and they are legion) Barsoom is a truly epic setting.
Because I am a lazy person, this month’s short column for Kindle magazine was about A Princess of Mars.

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For most of human history we have known very little about space – for that matter, we still do. Dreams of space travel once focused primarily on the moon, the heavenly body most visible to the naked eye. But then telescopes were invented and we began to learn more about the planets, our knowledge growing with improving technology.

In the 1870s the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli discovered a strange feature on the surface of Mars – the appearance of straight lines. He called these “canalli”, or “channels”. When Schiaparelli’s findings were translated into English the relatively innocent “canalli” was translated as “canals”, the latter word carrying the connotation that these lines were man- (or martian-) made. This was probably the reason behind the flowering of fiction about Martians at the turn of the twentieth century.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars is one such work of fiction, published in 1912. It tells of John Carter, a former confederate soldier and now gold prospector who, while fleeing from savage apaches (racial sensitivity is not one of the strong points of this book) stumbles into a mysterious cave and, in an incomprehensible series of events, has an out of body experience and is transported/astrally projected to Mars.

Carter’s early hours on Mars do at least pay lip service to the fact that it would be difficult to survive on a planet other than one’s own. He has trouble adjusting to the difference in gravity, and does not speak the language of the natives – Mars, or Barsoom, is home to various species of alien but they share a common tongue. This state of affairs does not last for long. Soon enough he is adopted by the four-armed green Martians (known as the Tharks), and it seems a matter of days before he has mastered their language, and begun to rise in their ranks. If all this seems something of a cliché, it’s because A Princess of Mars is one of the founding texts of the genre. It’s also why Carter is the least interesting thing about this book. Things get a lot more fun when the titular princess, the humanoid Dejah Thoris of Helium, shows up. In what is a rather scattered plot, Carter and Dejah Thoris escape, bring down a rival ruler, and unite the green and “red” (humanoid) Martians.

Yet the plot isn’t really that important. What makes A Princess of Mars work is Barsoom itself – a dying planet with a failing civilisation. We’re told very little of the history of Barsoom. We learn that there were once more humanoid races; that, like Earth, Mars once had seas. We’re told almost nothing of the strange old men who operate the machinery that keeps the Martian air breathable.

It’s easy to see why in John Carter, Andrew Stanton’s 2012 adaptation of the novel, the director should have chosen to jettison most of the plot, cobbling together a new one and focusing on the visual depiction of the planet. Because A Princess of Mars isn’t really a very good book, but Barsoom? Barsoom is glorious.

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February 23, 2012

What is it like to be a dragon?

It is probably not news to anyone by now that the new My Little Pony cartoons are quite good. Unfortunately it is probably also not news to anyone who has spent more than a minute thinking about it that they have problems, particularly with regard to how they deal with race. Because despite this being a series in which the main character is purple and her friends come in all the shades of the rainbow, ethnicity does exist in Equestria. We see it in an episode where the sole zebra character (not a pony, note) is signalled as being African. We see it again in the episode Over a Barrel, in which the ponies come into conflict with the buffaloes who are obvious Native American/First Nations analogues (in this as well as other episodes of the series the history the ponies are given is of the settler/pioneer variety). I find the show’s apparent comfort with that tradition a little bizarre – presumably at some point someone gave a thought to how the race thing worked within the show’s universe? Besides the obvious offensiveness it seems incredibly naive.

Children’s books/tv with talking animals tend to anthropomorphise unevenly. Pets and food in particular often don’t get a voice – everyone knows pets don’t speak, and food that did so would be creepy.  Goofy can talk, Pluto cannot; Noddy and Miffy are friends with bears, monkeys, and pigs but Bumpy Dog and Snuffy only bark. In the MLP universe, the cows, buffalo, donkeys, griffins and dragons all talk; the animals the ponies keep as pets (an owl, a cat, a tortoise who humiliates himself considerably for Rainbow Dash’s company, a rabbit, etc) do not.

Speech is important here because in a fantasy world with multiple sentient species in it I suspect the ability of a species to communicate becomes at least in part the arbiter of what personhood entails. So the buffalo are people in a way that Owloysius the owl (despite being excellent and an owl) isn’t.

My Little Pony does quite a bit of playing around with language, as is evident from the episode titles, the flood of horse-puns and cities like “Fillydelphia” and “Canterlot”. One of the things the show does is to insert the word “pony” into a number of words and phrases, such as “everypony”. “Pony” is thus used to replace “body” or “person”. I’d been bothered by this for some time, but in the most recent episode (“A Friend in Deed”) I particularly noticed that non-Pony characters, a pair of donkeys, were using “everypony” as well.

And so Spike the dragon, Cranky Doodle Donkey and other characters live in a world and communicate in a language in which personhood is literally defined as something that they are not. The idea that a person and a pony are the same seems to be at the heart of the language. And going by the racial stereotyping I mention above, if the Native Americans are buffalo-not-ponies and the African immigrants are zebras-not-ponies, it seems heavily implied that personhood in Equestria is limited to what in this world would be the white settlers.

November 14, 2011

R.M. Ballantyne, The Coral Island

In writing about The Coral Island and two books that use it as a starting point I have revealed myself to have read Chris Kent’s Coral Island Boys (or the gay porn version). Which is rather a strange book in general but descends into the truly bizarre at the point when Jamie (‘Peterkin Gay’ in the original; one cannot accuse Ballantyne of making things difficult for his parodists) kills a pig. This is an incident that occurs in both books: the other boys return from their unsuccessful hunting expedition to find the youngest triumphant. But in Kent’s version (which I thought it best to leave out of the official column) the narrator notices that Jamie has used the animal for purposes other than food. Then we get this: “My heart went out to the little pig. Not only slain but right royally rogered into the bargain. I hoped Jamie had used the animal before it had given up the ghost. I did not fancy having a pervert in our midst!” (Emphasis mine)

 

Below, a version of last week’s Left of Cool column in which I discuss Ballantyne’s book and mention Golding’s and Kent’s.

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For the third time this year I am going to draw attention to a birth centenary. This time it is that of the author Willian Golding. Golding is best known for Lord of the Flies, a book in which a group of young boys are stranded after a plane crash on an uninhabited island. At first they band together to survive, but power struggles and paranoia take over, they descend into savagery, and a child is killed.

But this column is not about Golding’s book, but about a book that inspired it.

R.M. Ballantyne’s 1857 book The Coral Island has three British boys shipwrecked upon a beautiful Polynesian island. The three find it easy to survive on the island – there are fruits, fish and wild pigs to eat – but though they manage to build a small boat they have little hope of getting home. Yet for a deserted island it seems quite busy, as they are visited first by cannibals, and then by pirates. The three boys heroically save a beautiful young island girl from the cannibals. Ralph, the narrator, is kidnapped by the pirates; one of them, Bloody Bill, he befriends and causes him to repent of his evil deeds. Later the three boys are held prisoner by “savages”, but they are saved by the timely intervention of a missionary; the native islanders are converted to Christianity, heathen gods are burnt, and the boys can finally leave for home. They will reappear in The Gorilla Hunters, where they travel to Africa and are (unsurprisingly, on the evidence of this book) hilariously racist.

It’s possible that at the time, or even for many years afterwards, one could read The Coral Island unironically. But the sheer, one-note goodness of the boys, the muscular Christianity (religious activism alongside a preoccupation with sports and physical fitness) and insistence on the superiority of the English make it seem almost a parody of itself. It doesn’t help that the narrator will occasionally digress into meditations upon such subjects as the moral benefits of cold baths:

The feelings of freshness, of cleanliness, of vigour, and extreme hilarity, that always followed my bathes in the sea, and even, when in England, my ablutions in the wash-tub, were so delightful, that I would sooner have gone without my breakfast than without my bathe in cold water.

Golding’s contention is simple: would a group of teenaged and pre-teen boys really be this saintly, cut off from all forms of social control? With Lord of the Flies he suggests that they would not; and with the multiple references to classic boy’s adventure stories (The Coral Island is mentioned a couple of times and Stevenson’s Treasure Island at least once) he draws attention to the unrealistic aspect of these as well.

But would boys in this situation really only fight? Lord of the Flies is not the only book to be based on The Coral Island. Chris Kent, in his parody Coral Island Boys, takes a different approach – surely, he suggests, a group of young boys in this situation would be tempted into sexual experimentation? Kent’s book is an uncomfortable read, being as it is a work of pornography featuring characters, many of whom are children or teenagers. But I am forced to wonder to what extent my discomfort is hypocritical – while reading Ballantyne’s book I certainly giggled at some rather homoerotic moments. Kent’s parody only recognises and magnifies things that are already in the text.

An aspect of The Coral Island that is rarely touched on is the baffling appearance of a flock of penguins. There is no explanation of why penguins should spend so much time on an island whose climate is more conducive to growing coconut trees. It will remain one of life’s great mysteries.

Having said all of which, The Coral Island remains rather charming. Robinson Crusoe-style shipwreck-survival stories are always fun, and Ballantyne’s descriptions of the island are about as good as anything you’re likely to see in classic children’s literature.

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November 7, 2011

Further thoughts on Snuff

[For a far more lucid account of many of the things that bothered me about this book, see Abigail Nussbaum's piece here.]

I posted a review here a few days ago, but it had a limited word count and was for a general audience. But there were other aspects of Pratchett’s new book that I wanted to discuss. Obviously there will be many, many spoilers. I’m dividing things into subheadings to keep it all coherent.

 

Race

There’s a thing quite a lot of SFF has done – discuss race relations using actual different races (dwarves, trolls,etc) as opposed to merely people with different coloured skin. One of the problems with this way of talking about race is that it has tended to make the various other races represent people of colour (or any other group that is non-mainstream, as ridiculous as it seems to talk of nonwhite people being non-mainstream when they surely make up most of the world’s population) whereas the ‘humans’ have tended to represent white westerners. A recent example of this for me was China Miéville’s Embassytown, which I read as partly based on British colonialism in Asia.

In the Discworld no race is an obvious stand in for a real world community – there are obvious similarities, but the roles which particular races assume may shift with each plot, and (sometimes) with whichever classic fantasy trope Pratchett is currently playing with. And there are sympathetic, real characters from most races. Yet I think there’s still a tendency to centre the human. Human characters on the Disc can be marginalised (see werewolves, vampires, zombies) but in a generalised manner that shows the dynamics of the process more than it references any realworld racial group. In Snuff, the victims of the slave trade are goblins, the people doing the trading humans. But also in Snuff, I think there are signs that Pratchett is acknowledging this. The quoted bit below is from a section in which Carrot and Angua interview an elderly goblin lady.

[Angua] waited with Billy Slick while Carrot went on the errand, and for something to say, she said, ‘Billy Slick doesn’t sound much like a goblin name?’ Billy made a face. ‘Too right! Granny calls me Of the Wind Regretfully Blown. What kind of name is that, I ask you? Who’s going to take you seriously with a name like that? This is modern times, right?’ He looked at her defiantly, and she thought: and so one at a time we all become human – human werewolves, human dwarfs, human trolls … the melting pot melts in one direction only, and so we make progress.

 

Edit: I’m now wondering how it would be to Unseen Academicals in the light of this book. With UA’s focus on racism in other books (the main character is an orc) rather than – if such a distinction can be made at all – real-world racism.

 

Slavery

I’ve touched on this in my official review: the Discworld books may deal with some very serious subject matter, but they generally end nicely. Sometimes characters have died and the ending is bittersweet, but it’s never entirely bitter. On my twitter feed a couple of weeks ago Alex Keller said  he was in the mood for Pratchett because he needed a “human decency boost” and I felt that was an apt description of how I feel reading these books.

So how do you fit the history of slavery into that framework? On the front inner flap of Snuff (I have the HB) we have “They say that in the end all sins are forgiven. But not quite all…” But how far can you approach something as vast and awful as the slave trade and tie it up neatly into a happy ending?

One of the things I think the text does to deal with this is to have a comparatively minor character discover what is happening. It’s not nice – there are piles of bones of corpses and tortured goblins on the verge of death. But Wee Mad Arthur has never been given a point of view in the earlier books – we don’t know what the inside of his head looks like and we don’t learn much about it here. As a result we’re distanced in ways we would not have been had a character with more depth – Angua or Cheery, or even Colon – seen what Wee Mad Arthur sees.

There’s also the fact that this book is comparatively muted, and that is despite the poo jokes. Of the characters that tend to provide the comic relief, Nobby is barely present until the end and Colon is (for a major chunk of the plot) unconscious. There are even less footnotes than usual.

But at the end the book seems completely at a loss. You have one evil instigator (who is offstage throughout) transported to Australia. The others involved get away all but completely – which may be an accurate depiction of history. But there’s an incredibly ill-judged moment when Colonel Makepeace, whose wife is one of the major figures behind the crime, pleads for her to be treated leniently because while he fully agrees that the slave trade was wrong and needed to be stopped, his wife “is a rather foolish woman”, “I do love her” and “I’m very sorry you’ve been troubled”. And this is framed in terms that suggest the reader is intended to feel sorry for him.

 

Children’s Books and Evidence

Snuff came out a few days after my birthday. One of the presents I received this year was this Dutch edition of The Story Of The Little Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business - for those unfamiliar with the book, a mole discovers that someone has defaecated on his head and sets out to find the animal responsible.

Yes there is a reason I have the Dutch edition. No, I don't speak the language.

In Snuff, Vimes’ son Sam is immersed in the works of Miss Felicity Beedle, an author of children’s books whose most recent work is titled The World of Poo (Miss Beedle had previously written Wee). Inspired, young Sam begins to collect samples of the different sorts of poo available (since the Ramkin country estate comes attached to a farm there is much variety) and to observe and record the differences between them.

Reading these two books within the same week brought home for me how forensic in nature many books for very young children are. In Thud!, young Sam’s favourite book had been Where’s My Cow? In this the narrator (who had lost his cow) walks around wondering if various animals are the eponymous cow and eliminates them from suspicion on the evidence of the sounds they make. (“Where is my cow? Is that my cow? It goes “Hruuugh!” It is a hippopotamus. That’s not my cow!”)    The urban equivalent made up by Vimes follows the same principle. The little mole in the book above visits each of his suspects, eliminating them only when they prove their innocence by showing that their faeces is completely different from the sort he has found. (Eventually he calls in the experts – flies – and finds that the dog is the culprit). There’s nothing particularly exciting or revolutionary about the revelation that gathering evidence and learning to make deductions about things are one of the major ways in which we learn about the world. Or that it makes sense that they should therefore be a big part of children’s books. But it pleased me anyway; particularly coming within the context of a detective novel.

 

The Summoning Dark/Landscapes of the mind

One of the major principles upon which the Discworld functions is the power of story – Narrativium. Most books in the series deal with this idea to some extent. Naturally, then, the insides of people’s heads are quite potent. Of late this has had one slightly annoying consequence, which is that every other story now ends with the protagonist playing out his or her mental battles on a literalised metaphorical landscape.

Thud! had something of this sort. In the course of his investigation Vimes becomes possessed? infected? by The Summoning Dark, a powerful, ancient entity from Dwarf lore. This leads to multiple mini-scenes in which the inside of Vimes’ mind is a city, the Summoning Dark is trying to get into the houses and a watchman (because Vimes is the sort of man who will keep a watch on the inside of his own head) follows it through the streets and prevents it from doing so.

Vimes and The Summoning Dark end Thud! on terms of mutual respect, and there’s an understanding that the thing will never completely leave. In Snuff, Vimes seems to have completely made peace with the presence of a demonic entity in his brain, and The Summoning Dark is now being used to give him superpowers – night vision and new linguistic skills. It’s a bit silly. But it also means that the internal/supernatural aspects of the book are more integrated within the action in the physical world. I’ll be interested to see whether Pratchett will find ways to avoid these mental landscape scenes in future books as well.

 

Sybil

Vimes’ wife’s characterisation is a bit patchy through the series. We know that she’s rich and aristocratic (“as highly bred as a hilltop bakery”) and kind. We also know that upon their marriage she signs all her property over to her husband. She’s a play on the (often “horsy”) upper-class woman who breeds dogs – or in this case dragons – and is forceful, hearty, not physically very attractive. She is big, fat, has a large chest, is rather pushy. In Guards! Guards! there’s a sense that Vimes has been swept into their relationship by her sheer momentum. In later books we do see comfortable domestic scenes and can assume (from her pregnancy and the birth of their son) that they have sex. There’s als0 an occasional return to the henpecked husband joke – notably Sybil’s attempts to improve Vimes’ diet.

Which is why I am on the whole delighted by her character in Snuff. We have the assertion that Sam ‘worships’ his wife, we have (Pratchett doesn’t do graphic sex scenes but still) bathtub sex. We have respectable flaws – Sybil’s heritage allows her to be less unsure about her identity than her husband, but her privilege blinds her to things as well. And her real involvement in the goblin cause is triggered by discovering that they can make great music – it’s the sort of petty, selfish, human thing that the text doesn’t draw attention to, but it’s there.