Archive for ‘racism’

January 26, 2017

Gabby Rivera, Juliet Takes A Breath

juliet-gabby-riveraI got lucky in my feminist education. Sometime in the very early 2000s (I was about the same age as Rivera’s protagonist), I was just beginning to write publicly about gender on the internet–it was new, I was still learning (I’m still learning) and I’m sure I said things that would embarrass me horribly now. Someone I knew a bit from their blog invited me to a super secret mailing list composed in the main of people whose feminism/s had to take into account other forms of marginalisation. I’d never heard the word “intersectional” before, though I knew of course that I was brown and queer. Suddenly I had access to new ways of thinking about gender and race, gender and sexuality, gender and class, gender and sex work, gender and bodies–and a vocabulary with which to seek out those ideas in my day to day life as well (it would make it much easier to think about gender and caste, for example, a few years later).

As an adult I now know that it’s not unusual for women and nonbinary people (and sometimes men) in such communities to make their experience available to callow young feminists, but I still feel like I got exceptionally lucky–much of my ignorance was a result of youth but some of it was also the result of laziness, and I’ve never quite felt I earned the trust that being included in such a community implied. (I don’t dive into new knowledge as Rivera’s protagonist does, risking my heart and dignity in the process. [An incident midway through the book, where Juliet discovers what a Banana Republic is, really brought this home.])

This lengthy introduction is in part just a tribute to some good people and in part a way of framing for myself the ways in which Juliet Takes A Breath did and did not feel familiar to me. The plot: Juliet Milagros Palante is in college, is Puerto Rican, lives in the Bronx with her mother and younger brother, is in a relationship with a rather posh sounding white girl, and has just read something called Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind, by feminist writer Harlowe Brisbane. On the basis of a fan letter to the author, Juliet is offered a holiday internship in Portland, working on a large research project. Arriving in Portland she soon finds herself feeling somewhat out of her depth, surrounded by people whose political jargon is unfamiliar, who all seem to know more than her, and whose knowledge is sometimes relevant to her but is also sometimes off. Juliet cycles through a series of new experiences an ideas–attends an Octavia Butler-inspired SF writing group, discusses the mechanics of poly relationships and argues theology, flirts with a hot librarian, receives a breakup letter from her girlfriend. It can get educational at times–Juliet learns about famous feminists or that she can’t just go around demanding people’s gender identity while other characters patiently explain who and why, nodding encouragingly out at the reader from within the text. (At least these are good things to learn.)

Harlowe herself Juliet finds fascinating and sympathetic, ready with natural remedies to period pains and breakups alike; willing to listen to the feminist mixtapes Juliet had made for her girlfriend Lainie. But almost immediately the cracks begin to show–and when Harlowe publicly does something really awful (I’m not normally cautious about spoilers, but I think the impact of the scene in question would be damaged by foreknowledge), Juliet escapes this environment for one where she can think things through.

(I pause here because it feels like a natural break in the narrative.)

This is a young (or new?) adult book; I’m no longer a young (or new?) adult. I’m reading this book through a lens of “what it was to be young in 2003!”; a lens which, inevitably, places me in a position of knowing more than Juliet about certain things. Readers who are closer to the character’s age may not feel this as strongly, but then the setting of the book in 2003 may play a role there–many of the ideas and much of the jargon that is new to Juliet will be familiar to any queer kid with a tumblr (not to suggest that that information was unavailable in 2003; but possibly harder to find?). I mention this because for me, much of the book was spent waiting for the warning signs in Lainie’s and Harlowe’s behaviour to be proved correct. Everything leading up to the climactic scene when Juliet rushes out of Harlowe’s reading felt inevitable.

There’s a Joan Aiken story I’ve been wanting to write about, titled “Watkyn, Comma.” It’s about a haunted (in the nicest possible way) house and a room that exists in a sense outside of time, where our protagonist can breathe and pause and recalibrate (and obviously one of the things a comma does is to provide a space to breathe in) before reentering the world. (Parentheses do some of this space-for-stepping-out-for-a-moment work as well, incidentally.) I read Juliet Takes a Breath on the kindle and so was able to search for how often “breathe” and “breath” come up in this book–as ways of being, coping, being nourished. There “isn’t enough air to breathe [in the Bronx]. I carry an inhaler for those days when I need more than my allotted share.”; “I hadn’t seen one other Latino. No faces like mine, nowhere to breathe easy.”; “it’s less about there being ‘no white people’ and more of a night for us to breathe easier.” Juliet leaves the Bronx in order to breathe, and then leaves Portland when breathing there becomes difficult as well. Both are temporary moves, both in their way to places of sanctuary; In Miami Juliet finds another community and learns more–this time from an aunt and a cousin who is also figuring these things out.

But this is also the section where Juliet pushes back against her cousin Ava’s dismissal of Harlowe as “some hippie-ass, holier-than-thou white lady preaching her bullshit universal feminism to everyone” (it’s truth though). If the incident that forces Juliet to leave Portland is the climax, the rest is denouement. Juliet returns, able to see Harlowe and her world as flawed and unreliable, but also as people with whom she has to learn to work. Her solutions aren’t mine. But I’m writing this during a week when questions of “universal” feminism and what it erases and what it needs to be forced to acknowledge feel more present than usual (see e.g. these pieces for example), so. This is a coming of age story and this final section has Juliet coming into herself–by the end of it she has tentatively reconciled what she’s learned with what she knows, is able to breathe, is able to say “we were going to be okay”.

May 19, 2016

Robin Talley, Lies We Tell Ourselves

LiesLies We Tell Ourselves has by far the best opening sentence of the books from this year’s Carnegie shortlist that I’ve read so far: The white people are waiting for us.

As Sarah and her companions prepare to walk into their new school, they face an indistinguishable mob, shouting things that can’t be made out, merely a “dull roar”. The crowd gets closer but is still “the white people”; but now the words can be heard. There’s “go back to Africa,” and there are the slurs and the threats.

It is tremendously effective writing because it takes a long history of racist tropes, faceless black and brown mobs yelling incomprehensibly, pawing at white protagonists, and it turns them around and weaponises them. We recognise (because centuries of books and art are there to remind us) the horror of this mob, this faceless mass. Except that this section needs to be brutal (because the history of racism is brutal; because this mob is brutal) so we must have the slurs as well. Suddenly you’re hit by a solid wall of the n word. It might be necessary for what the chapter is trying to do, and I’ve never had that particular word thrown at me by a shouting mob, but if I hadn’t committed to reading this book for the award I might have stopped reading. I began to suspect that perhaps Talley’s book was assuming an audience that needed to know what having racist slurs yelled at them felt like. I still don’t know if that was unfair.

The plot: it’s 1959 in a fictional US town in Virginia, and a group of black children is to be integrated into a previously all-white school. Sarah Dunbar is one; she’s in her final year of school, is a brilliant student and singer, and plans to go to university. Linda Hairston, daughter of a prominent local racist and violent abuser, is one of the students most vocally opposed to integration–in part because her father’s arguments make sense to her, and in part because placating him is the safe thing to do. The narrative is divided between these two characters, as Sarah attempts to survive her school year, Linda comes up against her own racism, and both girls struggle to come to terms with their attraction towards one another.

This splitting of the narrative across the two voices may not have been a great idea. Sarah’s story works, on the whole; Talley captures some of the paranoia of being on guard all the time, the constant threat of violence, and the anger. But then we have Linda’s narrative, and the very structure of the book suggests that these two stories should have equal weight, that Sarah’s tale of quite literally trying to survive is worthy of the same amount of space as Linda’s harrowing story of having to rethink her racism. There’s an attempt to level things out a bit by emphasising Linda’s difficult situation (her father); but Mr Hairston is either an extenuating circumstance, or a result of a structural sexism that surely affects both girls (in the circumstances it’s interesting that Talley dramatises the threat of sexual assault to the black girls but never has it result in anything very concrete). To have these two (at first) opposing voices sets the book up as a sort of dialogue, and positions the disagreement (“disagreement”!) as in some way reasonable; “well obviously racism is bad, but there are arguments to be heard on both sides”. I was taken aback, when looking for reviews online, to find a review by a (presumably) teenage reader which came to the conclusion “I’m not siding with either”. [I wonder, also, if the dynamic Dani Gurira describes here is playing out in this narrative as well.]

Having made that criticism, it may seem contradictory to then complain that Linda’s racism doesn’t seem reasonable enough. Racism may not make sense (whatever that may mean), but it generally seems to generate its own logic, at least enough for people to buy into it. A different book might have had its protagonist come up against her own beliefs over and over; last year’s winner, Tanya Landman’s Buffalo Soldier, achieves something similar, though its later sections disappointed me. Linda never seems convinced by her own arguments–and perhaps that’s because they’re her father’s arguments, but then what are Linda’s thoughts? What is it like to believe this stuff? It’s interesting to me that the one moment in the book where racial difference is felt is in that opening sequence, and suggests that the book is either unable or unwilling to make its racist characters feel … racist.

In that remarkable opening chapter is a scene where Sarah, forced to face the crowd, squares her shoulders and walks forward reciting Psalm 23. It’s a beautiful moment; I love its acknowledgement of faith as a powerful factor in its characters’s lives, as well as a political force in the civil rights movement, and I love that my mind leapt to Bree Newsome reciting Psalm 27 last year. It was disappointing, then, to have Christianity all but disappear from the narrative, only resurfacing each time the girls wanted to berate themselves for their attraction to one another. This, too, felt to me like a missed opportunity to attempt to get into other heads and other mindsets or at least to treat those other heads and mindsets as significantly different to one’s own.

The school year continues [spoilers here]: the girls are forced to work together on a project and find themselves appreciating one another’s gifts more and more; Sarah berates Linda for being racist when she’s so clever; Linda is horrified that the other children in her school are being so barbaric (she didn’t mean hit them, just structurally discriminate against them at every level); Sarah and Linda accidentally kiss; Linda attempts to appease her father by way of a public barb about Sarah’s friend Chuck dating a white girl; a mob attacks him and he nearly dies; Linda is sad about nearly causing her friend’s friend’s death; the two girls decide to move to Washington and drive off into the sunset. It’s a happy ending!

It’s a happy ending if you’re reading from Linda’s perspective, anyway. Faced with the horrifying reality of racism through her guilt at (oops!) nearly causing a death, she’s forgiven, redeemed, able to escape her horrible father, and start a new life with the girl she likes. Perhaps Sarah also feels lucky to be able to get away and travel to another city with the girl who played a major role in her friend’s near death and who persists in insisting that Sarah herself is merely an exceptional member of her race. Perhaps Sarah is a lot more forgiving than I am.

One of the people with whom I discussed the book said that she found the use of “white people” throughout jarring, and again, targeted at comforting a white audience (there there, no one’s denying your personhood). I don’t have enough historical context to know what more likely contemporary alternatives would have been, so can’t speak to that, but I was surprised by the author’s note, in which she claims that people she speaks to about the book tend to ask “Was desegregation really that bad?”, which to me feels indicative of an audience that can afford not to be too aware of this history. (But I’m not American, I don’t know to what extent this history is available–to black communities as well as white ones.)  Lies We Tell Ourselves feels a fundamentally safe book that gives its audience just so much but no more racial violence and a reassuring redemption arc. If, as I say, you’re reading from Linda’s perspective.

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.


“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.


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.


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.



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. 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 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.


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



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


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.




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.


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.


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.