Archive for ‘racism’

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.

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

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.

 **********************************************
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.

January 15, 2011

Not knowing better and other thoughts about books and race and words

Some theses on books and race, not directly related to but inspired by some of the comment that these new edits of Huckleberry Finn have caused. Feel free to apply these (in modified forms obviously) to sexism, or most other forms of discrimination. I repeat, none of this is directly related to Twain’s book. I haven’t read Huckleberry Finn. (For actual Huck Finn commentary, see here,here and here).

Thesis 1: Racism was not invented in the Twentieth century.
Things which were not perceived as racist when they were written may still have been so at the time; they did not magically come to be that way after someone proposed this revolutionary idea that we should treat all people like human beings. It also means that things a lot of us consider completely innocent now will likely be looked upon with horror in a few decades. As long as we’re moving in the direction of being nicer to a greater number of living beings, this is a good thing and does not cause me too much concern.

Thesis 2: Most of the time, they did know better.
There’s a particular defence of racism in literature that I find insulting to pretty much everyone involved. That is that people living at a particular point in time simply didn’t know better than to be racist. This is patronising to start with – “s/he doesn’t know any better” is not the sort of remark you make about someone you’re treating as an intellectual or moral equal. But it’s also only varying degrees of true. At most points in history there have been plenty of people suggesting that certain forms of behaviour were not okay – it’s one of the ways we’ve gotten to (at least) this point. I’m not suggesting that it doesn’t take effort, or that it isn’t far easier to believe what your society and the structures that make it up make it easiest to believe. But, particularly in the twentieth century, the means for knowing better have always been there, and people who chose to have had the opportunity to seek them out. To suggest that this is not the case does a tremendous disservice to all the people and movements in history that worked so hard at taking those first steps and making those thought processes available.

Thesis 3: Things that are critical of colonialism/slavery/other things associated with racism may still be racist in and of themselves.
Three words: Heart of Darkness. Strongly anti-colonialist. Frequently very beautiful (subjective, I know. But I think it is and so do many other people). Racist. I’m not a huge fan of people who dismiss it entirely for that last characteristic, but I prefer them to the sort of people who believe that because of its anti-colonial stance it simply cannot be racist and the rest of us are all just missing the point.
[Corollary: “The author once said this thing that was really progressive” is not a particularly strong defense of a work of literature.]

Thesis 4: Fraught words are fraught.
And thus we descend into lolcat speak. I’m against removing words from books. I think we need to keep them there and confront our pasts. And this is a viewpoint I’ve seen in a lot of commentary on the Huckleberry Finn debate. It’s well-meant, and to a point I agree with it. But I’d like to do this with the understanding that making those decisions for everyone is a tricky issue. No one has a right to mandate individual responses to words – certainly not in situations where the fraught histories of those words have generally been to the disadvantage of the individual whose response you are attempting to mandate. This has all gotten very convoluted.

Thesis 5: Replicating the racial politics of the forms you emulate is still racist.
Certain Tolkien Scholars, no one cares how many medieval texts you cite to prove that the portrayals of certain groups of people were *only* that way so they’d echo his literary tradition. Missing the point. Stop now.
I suspect this is an ongoing list. What else would you add?
April 20, 2010

"Every species of calamity and horror befell me"

…or, The Trials of Arthur Gordon Pym
[There are spoilers, if you care about that sort of thing]

I don’t actually remember reading The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. I always assumed I had in my extreme youth because I remembered the basic plot and it isn’t one of those books that is so embedded in culture that everyone knows the plot just by existing. But surely I’d have remembered reading something this odd?

It’s tempting to sneer a bit at this book for being so ridiculously over the top. There’s a quality of breathless “and then, and then, and then!” about it – there was a mutiny! And then we were shipwrecked! and there were ghosts! And we had to eat a crew member! Then we were attacked by sharks! Yet this works – this is a story posing as a travel journal and if this were supposed to be a realistic narrative (it’s not) it would be a bit strange to have it carefully plotted. As a horror (? travel? fantasy? shipwreck? angry natives, run away!?) story it works even better – the eerie, bizarre incidents build up one on top of the other and by sustaining a level of hysteria throughout the book promise a spectacular climax.

I was struck by how genuinely weird the book is. Towards the beginning, when Arthur stows away aboard the ship, his friend Augustus has made careful arrangements to conceal him until they’re safely away at sea. He is to be hidden down a secret passage (on a ship!) in a box:

The taper gave out so feeble a ray that it was with the greatest difficulty I could grope my way through the confused mass of lumber among which I now found myself. By degrees, however, my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, and I proceeded with less trouble, holding on to the skirts of my friend’s coat. He brought me, at length, after creeping and winding through innumerable narrow passages, to an iron-bound box, such as is used sometimes for packing fine earthenware. It was nearly four feet high, and full six long, but very narrow. Two large empty oil-casks lay on the top of it, and above these, again, a vast quantity of straw matting, piled up as high as the floor of the cabin. In every other direction around was wedged as closely as possible, even up to the ceiling, a complete chaos of almost every species of ship-furniture, together with a heterogeneous medley of crates, hampers, barrels, and bales, so that it seemed a matter no less than miraculous that we had discovered any passage at all to the box. I afterward found that Augustus had purposely arranged the stowage in this hold with a view to affording me a thorough concealment, having had only one assistant in the labour, a man not going out in the brig.

My companion now showed me that one of the ends of the box could be removed at pleasure. He slipped it aside and displayed the interior, at which I was excessively amused. A mattress from one of the cabin berths covered the whole of its bottom, and it contained almost every article of mere comfort which could be crowded into so small a space, allowing me, at the same time, sufficient room for my accommodation, either in a sitting position or lying at full length.

Pym shows absolutely no surprise at the notion that he is to encoffin himself and sit around in the dark for a few days; it is treated as an entirely routine part of stowing away. He obligingly goes off into a delirious dream for a few days. He wakes up days later to rotten meat, a dog who is behaving strangely , and the discovery that the ship has been taken over.

But it’s the delirious dream part that I find interesting – for someone who has just recently shown such willingness to bury himself prematurely (a chapter or so later Pym finds himself impersonating a corpse again) Pym seems to be suffering quite the breakdown.

While occupied with this thought, however, I fell in spite of every exertion to the contrary, into a state of profound sleep, or rather stupor. My dreams were of the most terrific description. Every species of calamity and horror befell me. Among other miseries I was smothered to death between huge pillows, by demons of the most ghastly and ferocious aspect. Immense serpents held me in their embrace, and looked earnestly in my face with their fearfully shining eyes. Then deserts, limitless, and of the most forlorn and awe-inspiring character, spread themselves out before me. Immensely tall trunks of trees, gray and leafless, rose up in endless succession as far as the eye could reach. Their roots were concealed in wide-spreading morasses, whose dreary water lay intensely black, still, and altogether terrible, beneath. And the strange trees seemed endowed with a human vitality, and waving to and fro their skeleton arms, were crying to the silent waters for mercy, in the shrill and piercing accents of the most acute agony and despair. The scene changed; and I stood, naked and alone, amidst the burning sand-plains of Sahara. At my feet lay crouched a fierce lion of the tropics. Suddenly his wild eyes opened and fell upon me. With a conculsive bound he sprang to his feet, and laid bare his horrible teeth. In another instant there burst from his red throat a roar like the thunder of the firmament, and I fell impetuously to the earth. Stifling in a paroxysm of terror, I at last found myself partially awake.

It strikes me as I write this that the characters all spend a good deal of their time not in their senses. There’s a drunken boating expedition in the first chapter that nearly causes Pym and Augustus their lives; there’s a lot section during which they and Dirk Peters are crazed with hunger (which happens to be when they see the alleged ghost ship), and the last section of the book, as they sail closer to the south pole, has a definite dream like quality to it.

And that’s how the terror element works as well. The shriekiness of the beginning (which is also the section where things like rotting flesh and cannibalism form the major part of the horror) gradually slips into this muted fear that is far more effective. When the southern barbarians kill most of the crew towards the end of the book, it’s a relatively bloodless mass murder that involves getting a cliff to fall on top of them (the earlier chapters would have included some dismemberment at the very least). The final sections of the book have the narrator and two of his companions sailing south into the unknown. At the very end Pym sees “a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow” and the narrative ends abruptly, with nothing more than a note in the frame narrative to tell us that the next few chapters are missing, that Pym is dead, that companion Dirk is alive. The climax we were promised turns out to be not knowing.

Arthur Gordon Pym is bizarre – it has elements of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, Lovecraft, and the pirate comic in Watchmen, and I haven’t said half of what I want to say about it here. I’m surprised it hasn’t been referenced more in later literature – and if anyone reading this can think of instances where it has, let me know?

April 5, 2010

YfLs6 & 7: Gopi Manjuri with donuts for afters.

I was lazy and failed to post the Yell for Language column last week. As a result, this week you get two whole columns on the subject of spelling.

Hurrah?

[Edited versions of the pieces below appeared in the New Indian Express today and last monday.]

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

A la carte: according to a menu or list that prices items separately

Among the more fascinating sites upon which one can see the English language being used are restaurant menus and signs. Some of these are completely unrelated to the food itself – I recently visited a cafe in Pune where patrons were informed in no uncertain terms, “READING WRITING USE OF LAPTOP STRICTLY PROHIBITED”, conditions that might have led to difficulties where reading the menu and ordering food were concerned. Nissim Ezekiel famously wrote a poem based on the noticeboard at his favourite Irani cafe which had a long list of things that patrons were not supposed to do, including “No bargaining/ No water to outsiders/ No change/ No telephone/ No match sticks/ No discussing gambling/ No newspaper/ No combing/ No beef/ No leg on chair/”. One wonders what patrons were allowed to do.

But signs and menus (or in one case, Meenu) that deal with food are far more exciting. It is amazing to note, for example, the new and wonderful forms that a basic dish like matar-paneer takes on asit travels across the country. One can sample mutter-panir, mater-panner, mottor-paneer, cheese-peas (to attract the foreign clientele, perhaps?), often within two hundred metres of each other. You could also order some toast, or “tost”, accompanied by omelette, omlet, omlit, or even crumbled eggs. Or Garlic Bread with Chesse, which is sadly less about the intellectual stimulation and more about the calories. A venue in Calcutta practically bludgeons you with the perplexing sign “CHICKEN HUNGER TASTE”. Chinese food options include chowmin, chomin, gobi manchurian, and gopi manjuree. If you’re lucky enough to be in a place which serves alcohol, you could even have a Child Bear on the side.

It’s far too easy to mock the dhabas and reasonably inexpensive restaurants though – especially since the food they serve is frequently delicious. It is far more satisfying to visit an expensive place, where the people writing the menu have attempted to make the food sound as wonderful as possible with prose that grows thicker and purpler by the moment. What you thought was a dosai is actually a golden rice pancake, crisped to perfection with coconut chutney offering a transcendent experience. On Valentine’s Day I visited a restaurant in Delhi that had hopefully marked at least half the items on its menu as having aphrodisiac properties (artichokes, who knew?). They had also written flowery and ungrammatical pieces of poetry to describe their cocktails, making me particularly keen to sample something called “First Kiss”:

Kiss is a lovely trick designed by creature to stop speech, two souls but with single thought, two heart but beats as one. Served with a slice of banana.”

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

Lexicography: The editing or making of a dictionary (Merriam-Webster)

Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words. (Dr. Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language)

In 1746 Samuel Johnson started his project of creating a definitive English language dictionary. There had been other works before, but none of them had been particularly satisfactory, and Johnson practically had to start out from scratch. When you think about it, it’s mindboggling: that it took Johnson less than a decade to write (it was published in 1755) is amazing.
Three years later, Noah Webster, the American lexicographer, was born.
Noah Webster is the “Webster” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary (the “Merriam” part comes from the name of the publisher). Webster had very firm ideas about language and education – he believed that American students ought to learn from American, not British, books.
It was Webster who initiated a number of the differences between American and British spelling that we still see today – dropping the “u” from words like colour and flavour and changing “re” to “er” in centre. I do not know whether he was responsible for changing “doughnut” into “donut” (I will never accept this spelling. It is pointless and makes no sense), but he did apparently try to change “tongue” into “tung”. Fortunately it never caught on.
Webster genuinely believed – and lets face it, he had a point – that the rules of English language spelling were far too convoluted and could do with simplifying. He also seems to have wanted not only to definitely distinguish American English from British English, but to create a standardised language for Americans. In addition, he added new words that were unique to America. When Webster’s dictionary was published in 1928, it was big enough for two volumes and contained seventy thousand words – almost thirty thousand more than Dr. Johnson’s version.
What I find fascinating about Webster’s dictionary is that it was written as a means to an end – the author had these stated goals that he hoped his dictionary could achieve. Dr. Johnson occasionally stuck a few hilariously snarky opinions of his own into his dictionary definitions (see “Oats: a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”, or “Monsieur: a term of reproach for a Frenchman”) but there’s no sustained effort to make the reader subscribe to Dr. Johnson’s opinions – on language or anything else. Which is why, while Johnson’s dictionary is more fun to read (as far as you can call reading a dictionary fun), Webster’s is fascinating for showing clearly that even dictionaries are not ideologically innocent. And once you’ve figured that out, language becomes much more fun to play with.

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

December 12, 2009

Orcs and football and racism, oh my.

Terry Pratchett in the Guardian on orcs and football hooliganism:

Ever since I first read Tolkien at the age of 13, I was worried about the orcs. They were totally and irrevocably bad. It was a flat given. No possibility of redemption for an orc, no chance of getting a job somewhere involving fluffy animals or flowers.

This is no reflection on Tolkien. We are all prisoners in the aspic of our time. But now, I think, people have learned not to think that any race or culture is naturally or irredeemably bad. We have seen the world from space and it isn’t flat.

I have waited decades to write about Nutt; I can remember the excesses of football hooliganism that began in the 1960s and have only recently been cleaned up. It was a world of scaffolding-pole clubs and Stanley knives slashing railway seats and faces. The orcs, with a scarf or two, would have fitted right in in those days. More recently, an inflatable banana is the worst thing that’s brandished; it would appear that the leopard can change his shorts.

China Miéville on orcs and racism:

In the broader sense, I absolutely do think that the implicit politics of our narratives, whether we are consciously “meaning” them or not, matter, and that therefore we should be as thoughtful about them as possible. That doesn’t mean we’ll always succeed in political perspicacity—which doesn’t mean the same thing as tiptoeing —but we should try. So for example: If you have a world in which Orcs are evil, and you depict them as evil, I don’t know how that maps onto the question of “political correctness.” However, the point is not that you’re misrepresenting Orcs (if you invented this world, that’s how Orcs are), but that you have replicated the logic of racism, which is that large groups of people are “defined” by an abstract supposedly essential element called “race,” whatever else you were doing or intended. And that’s not an innocent thing to do. Maybe you have a race of female vampires who destroy men’s strength. They really do operate like that in your world. But I think you’re kidding yourself if you think that that idea just appeared ex nihilo in your head and has nothing to do with the incredibly strong, and incredibly patriarchal, anxiety about the destructive power of women’s sexuality in our very real world. These things are not reducible to our “intent”—we all inherit all kinds of bits and pieces of cultural bumf, plenty of them racist and sexist and homophobic, because that’s how our world works, so how could you avoid it?

And Ros-who-is-amazing on football and racism. Slightly more harmful than an inflatable banana.

When this first started, the season before last, I had a racist moment myself. I looked at the banners and thought oh wow, well. One day Mario Balotelli is going to score the winning goal in a World Cup final, and it will shut everyone up and we will all look back to the abuse he was subjected to as a teenager in sad stupefaction. It was a stupid kneejerk fantasy that made me happy for about a minute. It was obviously rubbish. Mario’s future success, and the future improvement of his character, and the thought that maybe somehow someday he is going to morph into the best, nicest, handsomest, most successful footballer ever created, will not stop racism against him. It will not retroactively correct tifosi’s failures because he triumphed in spite of them. It will not be the final proof of his Italianness to those who sing that black people cannot be real Italians.

Because Mario’s character is really not the point at all.

November 30, 2009

Other people’s words

Via Deepa D., this wonderful, true speech about writing and children and stories by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The danger of a single story“.

(Here’s a transcript, via RoseFox)

I’d linked several months ago to Deepa’s excellent post “I didn’t dream of Dragons“, but it’s still worth a reread.

November 16, 2009

Wholesome TV for kids

Last week I was sitting around with my grandparents and youngest cousin (who has just started primary school). The cousin was watching TV, which is how I ended up seeing an episode of Chhota Bheem, a cartoon on Pogo.

Here are the main characters of the show:

Three of the people in this picture are villains. I bet you can’t guess which ones. It couldn’t have anything to do with that subtle colour gradation, could it?

This is what Bheem, the main character is like (taken from here):


(all pictures can be embiggened by clicking)

This is Kalia, the bad guy. His name, FFS, is Kalia.

Kalia also has henchpersons of sorts, twins called Dholu and Bholu. They’re not as bad as Kalia. Colourwise, they’re somewhere between Kalia and Bheem.

Incidentally, here’s the show’s main female character; a role model for little girls everywhere.

She is “simple” (always a useful trait in a woman), really likes housework, and is feminine even while being able to play with the boys – which is a relief considering she views the only other young female character in the show as a rival for Bheem’s attention.

This article in Mint quotes parents who applaud these new cartoons (including Chhota Bheem), not only because they’re entertaining and well made but because they apparently inculcate “traditional values”. I don’t believe that literature, television, or any other form of media directed at children is under any particular obligation to impart the right set of values, just because they’re children and impressionable. Nor do I think that Chhota Bheem is such a powerful piece of art that it’s going to singlehandedly convince my young cousin (who does not live in a household where this sort of thing is discussed/debunked on a regular basis) of the validity of traditional gender roles, or of forms of bigotry relating to skin colour and how melanin turns you evil. But that’s just the thing, these are traditional roles. Which means that Chhota Bheem doesn’t have to do anything singlehandedly, because all these ideas are already out there, influencing Young Cousin (and me, and you, and everyone) and all this show has to do is tap into this larger set of narratives about bad, dark-skinned people and fair, docile girls.

And the reason the previous paragraph reads like The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Ideology (assuming such a thing exists) is because I don’t know what level of basic political awareness I can take for granted anymore. Because it’s 2009 and the creators of this show are apparently both clueless and unchallenged.

November 11, 2009

Bread And

Poster seen in various places around Dublin


(click to embiggen)

But wait? What is that bit of text at the bottom?

“Acrobats, Dogs, Kangaroos, Emus, Horses African Zulus & much much more…..”

Ah. Well that…makes sense? What is this thing, does anyone know?

August 16, 2009

Links: in case you haven’t been obsessively monitoring my sidebar

Here are some things I think you should read:

Laura Atkins on white privilege in children’s books.

Hal Duncan being amazing. John C. Wright has since deleted the post that inspired Duncan’s epic reply – which is rather a pity because some of the replies in the comments were magnificent as well. Oh well.

More epic replies – this time the Angry Black Woman on Paul DiFillipo’s comments about The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF

Neesha Meminger at Justine Larbelestier’s blog
. The Liar cover has generated some amazing essays, and I only wish I could keep up with them all. This is very much a 101 sort of post, but it’s a good one.

Pradipta Sarkar, who is one of my favourite people in meatspace, on how not to impress an editor.

Jai Arjun Singh, another of my favourite people both on and off the internet, on freedom from religion. Comments are worth a read too.