Archive for ‘reading while brown’

February 27, 2014

Two posts about Courtney Milan

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

September 29, 2013

Strange Horizons is a good thing

I feel the need to point this out because they’re entering the final stages of their yearly fund drive.

I sometimes write for Strange Horizons. This year I have a review in their bonus fund drive issue (the full issue can be found here) and a piece in their forthcoming issue on Indian science fiction. But when I linked to the fund drive a couple of weeks ago on twitter, I said that while I would like the magazine to continue as one of its occasional writers, it’s as a fan that I’ve found it most vital to me, and it’s as a fan that I’m speaking of it here.

Other people have written about the fiction that the magazine publishes, and obviously a lot of it is very good (See this and this and this). Lots of places publish good SFF short fiction though*. What I really value about SH are the nonfiction parts–the reviews, articles and columns, which are often brilliant. (I’ve been unforgivably late with my own reviews for them in the past, simply because having a standard to live up to is unnerving and makes me want to curl up and read fanfiction instead).

SH is the sort of place that will review mainstream literary fiction which has elements of SF, or epic fantasy from a major publisher, or self-published work, or academic work on SF, or translated fiction, or My Little Pony (before it became a Thing), or the occasional video game, and it is always taken for granted that all of these are worthy of serious thought, and that engaging with things is an enjoyable activity. Sometimes they publish academic work. Recently a review linked to a cat gif.

It’s also the sort of place where it is almost taken for granted that lots of contributors (both fiction and nonfiction) will be from outside the USA, will come in skin colours other than white, and gender identities other than male. Conversations about diversity within fandom often make me feel uncomfortable; here, I don’t particularly stand out and it’s great.

There isn’t any single conversation around books and films or other media on the internet or off it; it’s always a set of overlapping sub-conversations (stating the obvious here, sorry). The set of conversations and (I just wrote “reader-book interactions” and deleted it because *shudder*) that make up Strange Horizons has felt sometimes like coming home. I’m rarely sure of my ability to contribute something of value to the conversation, but this is a literary (and fannish?) culture that I value and want to be a part of.

I spend a lot of time on this blog trying to think through half-formed ideas, and feeling inarticulate and not very bright. If you don’t read Strange Horizons and you do read this blog, and if any of the sort of writing I want to be doing is coming across at all, it’s possible that you will also find SH valuable and important.

Plus, there are prizes to be won.


*Or so I assume; I’m very lazy about reading short fiction.

September 26, 2013

Maria Semple, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

Apparently I have reached a point where “not enough Indians” can be my stance on a book. It’s a good book though.


For me, the most fascinating character in Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? was one who was offscreen (or whatever that term’s literary equivalent might be) the whole time, and eventually, it turned out, may not have existed.

Semple’s book tells of the disappearance of its title character through a collection of documents—emails, letters, bills, transcripts, even a school report card—all put together and interspersed with narrative by Bernadette’s daughter Bee as part of her search for her mother. We learn that Bernadette was, several years ago, a celebrated young architect, a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Award, that her insistence on using local materials was way ahead of its time. We also know that her husband Elgin is a genius computer programmer. In the years since her finest work was destroyed, however, Bernadette has withdrawn from the world. She drops her daughter to school by car, never getting out to meet the other parents, or volunteering for school activities. She accomplishes most household tasks through the offices of an online personal assistant. She certainly hasn’t worked as an architect in several years.

If Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is overly quirky at times, it’s also a smart, lighthearted exploration of creativity and depression, as a precocious teenage girl might see it. We have here the snappy dialogue and observational comedy that are probably the legacy of Semple’s time as a TV writer, and the broad stereotypes with which we’re presented at the beginning of the book remain unchanged at the end, though perhaps we’re encouraged to see them more kindly.

But then there’s Manjula. Early on, we’re told that Manjula Kapoor is an associate with an organization known as “Delhi Virtual Assistants International”. For the rather exploitative fee of seventy-five cents an hour, she manages her client’s life entirely. New clothes and other items are selected and bought online by Manjula, and delivered to Bernadette’s house. She arranges flight tickets and makes restaurant bookings. She is superlatively efficient. She even manages to sound polite and friendly when faced with Bernadette’s ramblings about Ikea (“You know what it’s like when […]Of course you don’t.”) or her frequent rudeness (“You are able to place calls, aren’t you? Of course, what am I thinking? That’s all you people do now”, “you bet your bindi that’s how big I want it”). She is the ideal assistant, made all the more so by the fact that she’s never seen. It’s easy to compare her to Elgin’s administrator, Soo-Lin, who is too present, and with whom Elgin cheats on his wife.

Elgin disapproves of his wife’s employment of Manjula, and later events seem to prove him right. Delhi Virtual Assistants International doesn’t exist, and nor does Manjula. The whole thing has been a scam, a front for a Russian crime syndicate who are now in possession of the family’s financial details. Incidentally, this means that a book with characters named Manjula and Balakrishna (Bee’s real name, because she was blue when born) and set in part among computer programmers in America has no Indians.

And yet, all of this only makes me more curious about the perfect assistant. Her name (or his name, or their name) may not have been Manjula Kapoor, but someone has been reading and replying to emails, negotiating with chemists for stronger anti-seasickness drugs, making dentist’s appointments and booking flight tickets and restaurant tables.

To wish that a book had been written from a different perspective altogether is like wishing it had a different ending, or different characters; it is to want change something fundamental about it. Semple’s an author fully in control of her book; there’s a reason that it is narrated by Bee and not Manjula. But perhaps it’s something fundamental that I want to change. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is a book that suggests that its various wealthy and privileged characters are worthy of a lot more kindness than we are at first inclined to give them. I wonder whether Semple could have made a convincing case for doing so from Manjula’s perspective.


September 12, 2013

“The Indian” reads Rumer Godden

I’ve been reading Rumer Godden’s India novels recently, and have found myself both impressed and annoyed by them. More impressed an annoyed, though, and I do wish I’d read them as a teenager.

This was published in the Sunday Guardian this past weekend.

To read Rumer Godden only as an adult feels like missing out on some vital part of the experience. Often featuring thoughtful, intense, young women, they are exactly the sort of thing my teenage self craved.

A selection of Godden’s early works, set in India, were recently reissued by Virago Modern Classics. India played a major role in the author’s life. She spent much of her childhood first in Assam, then in Narayanganj in what is now Bangladesh, after the outbreak of the First World War put an end to her time at school in England. As a young woman she opened a dancing school in Calcutta, and, years later as her marriage was failing, lived for a time with her children in Kashmir.

Much of what occurs in these books is, if not directly autobiographical, at least strongly drawn from personal experience. In The River the large family in a house on the river bank in Narayanganj bears a  close resemblance to the author’s own (Godden was one of four sisters). Breakfast With the Nikolides has two sisters coming to join their father in India when the Second World War breaks out in Europe, just as Godden herself did during World War One. Kingfishers Catch Fire is loosely based on an incident that took place while Godden and her children were in Kashmir. Godden was close to her older sister (the author Jon Godden, with whom she collaborated on a number of non-fictional works) and pairs of sisters appear again and again in these books: Binnie and Emily in Breakfast With the Nikolides, Harriet and Bea in The River, Halcyon and Una in The Peacock Spring. Sometimes less attractive or outwardly interesting than their siblings, these characters are observers first of all. In her introduction to the books Rosie Thomas describes Breakfast With the Nikolides’s Emily and Kingfishers Catch Fire’s Teresa as “vulnerable, observant individuals […] deficient in charm but gifted with perception beyond their years”. This is true also of The River’s Harriet, stumbling over her first attempts to be a writer, and trying to work out what it means to be a person, and learning that “the world goes on turning, and it has all these troubles in it”. Observers themselves, these characters are partly detached from the events of the story, even as they affect events deeply. To anyone who has been a child, has watched adults, and the world, failing and showing their imperfections, there’s something deeply moving about all of this.

But even more than the rich inner lives of her characters, I’m fascinated by the attitude that Godden’s books have towards India.

Black Narcissus was Godden’s first commercially successful book. In it, a house in the Himalayas, facing Kanchenjunga, is given over to a group of nuns to establish The Convent of St. Faith. At first the sisters are enchanted by their beautiful surroundings; the clarity of the light, the imposing mountain, all add an intensity that at first they welcome. “they were filled with a kind of ecstasy. They woke in the late October mornings before the sun had reached the hills, and saw its light travel down from snow and cloud over the hills, until it reached the other clouds that lay like curds in the bottom of the valley”.

But all too soon, this first rush of ecstasy fades. “They were so tired. The light at Mopu seemed to make the yellowness of their faces more yellow against their wimples; their steps sounded heavy in the clear air. They were not strong enough for the wind”.

As the novel progresses it becomes clear that something about the spot makes it impossible for the convent to continue here. It’s nothing so mundane as a haunting, though it’s tempting to read Black Narcissus as a horror novel; but the oppressive grandeur of the mountain, the feeling that they are not completely safe among the local Indians, perhaps even the clarity of the air exacerbate the small problems and flaws among the nuns. Somehow, it’s all too much. The whole thing ends in tragedy, and the sisters return to England.

I snickered a little during the introduction, where Rosie Thomas claims that Black Narcissus “thrums with sex”, but it is certainly thrumming with something. Godden’s writing is often so descriptive as to verge on the purple were it not so sharply observed. If there’s certainly an element of orientalising India as she writes about it, the sights, textures and sounds she invokes all feel familiar, the result of lived experience. But if these are the words of an author who knows the country, at times the books evoke another India; one that is unknowable and inaccessible.

Good Europeans want to embrace India in Godden’s books. There’s a clear moral line being drawn through most of Breakfast With the Nikolides between Louise Poole who loathes India and her husband and daughter who both love it. Charles Poole has settled in the country and made it his own; Emily Poole seems willing to do the same. So strongly are our sympathies solicited for one side and not the other that the book almost glosses over the reasons for Charles and Louise’s estrangement—his sexual assault of his wife is reduced to a minor detail. Like Louise, Sophie Barrington-Ward in Kingfishers Catch Fire is a far from ideal parent. Yet in the matter of India she is set up by the book as clearly superior to her compatriots in the country who choose to try and replicate their English lifestyles as far as possible. And if Black Narcissus’s Mr Dean isn’t necessarily more virtuous than the nuns, he’s certainly better equipped to live in Mopu than most of the other Europeans.

There’s a tradition in some sorts of literature in which the “good” European is the one who treats the non-white natives (or the servants, if no natives happen to be about) better than some of his ruder countrymen. Think of Victorian adventure books (or Enid Blyton, or even the Tintin stories) in which a minor act of kindness may earn the noble English character a faithful native servant for life. In setting up these oppositions between the English people who feel kindly towards India and those who don’t, Godden often seems about to fall into this tradition. It is one of her strengths that she does not. Where a massive difference in power or status exists, friendship is hard to come by. Sophie may think she is living frugally among the Kashmiris; to the inhabitants of the village she is extravagant with her money and easily cheated—and though she may mean well they will always, and with good reason, be suspicious. Harriet in The River withholds the information that leads to the death of her brother, and so the family servant is sacked. A completely innocent interlude between Emily Poole and a young Indian student causes a violent, destructive riot. English people, even the nice, well-meaning ones, don’t get the luxury of somehow rising above their material contexts, and are often shown to be foolish or naïve for thinking that they can.

So if there’s something about India that compels Godden’s favoured characters to draw closer, it’s also something that ultimately eludes them, and something with which their fascination can be dangerous. India is turned into something like the cobra that fascinates Harriet’s brother in The River—too interested in it to let his parents know that it is in the garden, he watches it for days before it kills him. Breakfast With the Nikolides and Black Narcissus both end in tragic deaths, and Sophie of Kingfishers Catch Fire is in danger of it when she is poisoned.

And what of Indians themselves? It’s hard to tell. Godden does have the occasional Indian who appears as a fully realised character. Breakfast With the Nikolides introduces us to Narayan and Shila, a young couple trying to navigate the marital relationship in a rapidly changing culture. Narayan also has an intense friendship with a young man named Anil, and some of their exchanges are about as interior, and as erotically charged, as anything I’ve read. The Peacock Spring has a young Bengali poet as a major character. These are exceptions. While Godden often speaks of “the Indian”— “the Indian cultivator is rooted in deep, slow prejudice”, “the Indian[‘s ] sense of social service and citizenship is small”— she rarely speaks of Indians. The vast majority of the Indians in these books exist as background figures, part of larger populations (the farmers, the villagers, the crowd in the bazaar), undifferentiated, and by virtue of their sheer difference from the English protagonists, vaguely menacing. Deeply intertwined with the intense, sensual undercurrent of the writing is a sense of unease at this unpredictable, unknowable mass of people.

I can easily imagine the child reader I was devouring Godden’s work, thrilling with the sheer unfairness of the adult world, the sensory overload of the prose, the writing that, yes, thrums with sex. And I imagine that reader identifying deeply with the white-skinned teenaged protagonists, and finding it (because they are such good teenaged protagonists!) deeply satisfying. As an adult, I’m torn between these finely-drawn, brilliant characters and my real place, somewhere in that brown mass.


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 2, 2013

Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria

I expected to love A Stranger in Olondria, and then found myself underwhelmed for the first half or so of the book. And then in the later stages it suddenly got wonderful and I was reading a book about reading postcolonially and I’m sure I’ve projected myself and my own issues all over this, but it worked.

From this week’s column:


The fictional book (a book that exists only in the world of another book) and the reader in a fictional world are two tropes I find myself frequently drawn to. These are in part a mirroring of character and author—most authors, presumably, love and value the idea of books and reading. But it’s also fascinating to consider the book as something less personal and more of an artefact, to imagine how a book might work in this different world- what cultural position it might hold, what it might mean.

Sofia Samatar gives herself an even wider task than this in A Stranger in Olondria; she must imagine an entire literary canon. Olondria is the ‘cultural’ centre of her fictional world, home of its great art and literature.  Into this new world comes Jevick, an island boy culturally far removed from all of this, but raised to love books by his teacher. After the death of his father Jevick inherits the family business along with the opportunity to travel to the land of which he has heard so much. To Jevick Olondria seems magic, full of things he has already learnt of and loved through literature. Yet he is not allowed to settle into the sort of life he had envisioned, exploring his new city’s historical landmarks with a bohemian group of student friends. He is haunted by a spirit with close connections to his home.

As most reviewers know, it’s often harder to write about loving a book than it is to write about hating it, particularly in limited space. The prose that was flawless on the page, or the idea that was brilliantly placed become far less impressive out of context. (Samatar’s own prose is almost the opposite—so full of standout lines that it is sometimes rather oppressive). So it is, often, with Samatar’s imagined books. When Jevick spends a sea voyage reading from “the battered and precious copy of Olondrian Lyrics my master had sent with me” I see nothing in the extracts he provides to elicit the sort of feeling he claims. But I’ve been in his position, finding the right book almost unbearably moving, and so his failure to explain what he loves feels authentic to me. In some bizarre way, this failure is then a success built upon the reader’s status as reader.

And when the reader is also an outsider that connection is made even stronger. The “stranger” part of the book’s title may be even more important than the “Olondria”. Jevick’s own island culture lacks a written language; as does that of Jissavet, a girl whose life becomes entwined with his own. To write, at first, means to write in a language that doesn’t belong to him; the books he has grown up loving can never be about the world he comes from. The culture that produced these great works of literature, he finds, can be oppressive in other ways—is there ever a good reason for the libraries to burn? Can he adapt for his use the language and script of another people in the absence of an organic form of his own? Can cultural centres be shifted; could small islands like Tyom become important in the way Olondria is? And so in its later stages the book becomes also an interrogation of that love for books, and to those of us whose primary cultural markers are in English and of England or America, it all feels rather personal.

And yet books continue to matter. To live on in a book is what Samatar’s characters refer to as “jut”, it’s proof of humanity and a place in the world. Cultures metamorphose but they don’t disappear; languages grow every day. A Stranger in Olondria may not allow its reader to love words uncritically, but that we may (and do) love unconditionally is never in doubt.


Edit: Or just replace this with everything Abigail Nussbaum says here.

April 23, 2013

Zen Cho, The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo

In case anyone on the internet hasn’t seen it (how have you managed to miss it?), the spoken word piece I refer to is this one: To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang

From this weekend’s column:


Over the past week, multiple people have directed me to a video of a spoken word poetry performance. The poem in question is “To J.K. Rowling, From Cho Chang” by Rachel Rostad and, as the title indicates, is an indictment of Rowling’s portrayal of that character in the Harry Potter books. Rostad lays out a number of criticisms here- including the very low number of students of colour in Rowling’s Hogwarts and the likelihood or otherwise of Cho Chang’s name (though since the video went viral a number of Chinese readers have defended Rowling on this count). But most interesting of her arguments is that Rowling has placed the character in a tradition of stereotyped East Asian women, who fall in love with a white, male hero and then are either killed off or spend the rest of the plot (and their lives, presumably) pining for him. Rostad mentions Madame Butterfly and Memoirs of a Geisha as examples of stories that perpetuate this trend, but it’s far too easy to think of others.

A good antidote to that particular narrative is The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. Author Zen Cho is better known for her science fiction writing (she figured on the recently-announced list of John W. Campbell Award nominees for best new writer). But The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo is a romance set in early twentieth century London and centering itself around the literary and artistic life of Bloomsbury. Jade Yeo (or Geok Huay) is a Malaysian-Chinese woman who lives in London and makes a (tiny) living writing – mostly about books but occasionally fluff pieces, because hey, money. Most of her literary reviews are carried in the relatively obscure Oriental Literary Review, run by a young Indian man named Ravi. But both Jade and the OLR achieve fame when the journal carries her scathing review of a book by literary society darling Sebastian Hardie. Hardie’s attention is arrested; he and Jade have a whirlwind romance (note: this is not the usual outcome of writing a negative review). But though Hardie may look like a Romantic poet, Jade is not that smitten. Or only temporarily. (“I see the source of all my problems: a Bronte was completely the wrong thing to be reading unless it were an Anne. I should have been reading George Eliot.”)

In the past, this column has talked about E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady and Joyce Dennys’ Henrietta books, both examples of how the intimacy of the diary or epistolatory forms can make a book funny and engaging. Jade has a wonderful voice; enthusiastic, curious, cutting, original. This is the sort of character who complains that “all I have done as an unaccompanied maiden in London is read and write and cook. This is hardly tasting the delights of debauchery in the immoral West”. She exposes us to the full absurdity of people who ask if they have tea in China. She dismisses Hardie’s attempts at seduction by complaining that he has “the heavy-lidded gaze of a romantic tapir”. She is glorious.

For many of us who grew up on a steady diet of very light ‘English’ fluff, the lack of non-white people is something we very carefully do not think about—I’d rather not know what P.G. Wodehouse or Georgette Heyer would make of someone like me. But with this novella, Cho writes us into the period in ways that are politically astute, affirmative, and above all joyous. It’s clear she’s having as much fun paying tribute to books she likes (Wodehouse fans will be pleased to know that Jade has an article in Milady’s Boudoir) as she is undercutting those works and placing herself at their centre, rendering them feminist, anti-racist, political, and still lighthearted and funny. It’s short and never particularly deep, but The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo is the happiest thing I’ve read in a long time.


February 21, 2013

South Asian Women Writers Challenge

Some of you will remember that I wasn’t very impressed with my reading stats from last year. I did read more women writers than men, but only a tenth of the things I read were by writers who weren’t white, and I have a worrying suspicion that the number of romance novels and school stories I reread made the gender balance look more impressive than it really was.

So I’d planned to fix that this year, and I like to think I’ve already made a good start. And then a couple of days ago my friend Aishwarya G (with whom I am proud to share a first name) suggested a writing challenge along the lines of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

So we spent some time trying to work out how many books people read per year on average, arguing over whether we wanted to focus on Indian writers or not, and finally came up with what seem like a comfortingly liberal set of guidelines. An introductory post is here; there’s a twitter account here, there’ll probably  be a facebook page soon (Aishwarya has done most of the work so far). Join in, read things.


For my own challenges: I will not be counting books I am asked to review professionally as part of the challenge, but I will count books I choose to review for my column. I don’t want to commit to a number (though I hope it will be more than 10 at least) but I will review at least half of the books by South Asian women that I read.

September 22, 2012

A friend (@mycrotchetyluv on twitter)  posted this picture a few days ago. I blinked when I saw it.



Newspaper caption: Woman buys Renoir worth ₹50 lakh at flea market for ₹ 350. Virginia resident was planning to throw away the painting and keep the frame.


I’m typing this on a laptop (it’s a Dell) bought in India a couple of years ago. My keyboard doesn’t have a ₹ sign; I don’t know if that’s something that future laptops sold in this country will have. It hasn’t been a bother to me thus far. My last laptop was bought in Ireland and had both € and £ signs. It did not have the $ sign but that felt more like a minor rebellion than an inconvenience.

Longitude is measured from Greenwich, north is the top of the map, the value of famous paintings is described in currencies other than my own (unless they’re bought in India or by Indian artists and sometimes not even then). We’ve only had a rupee sign a couple of years. Have Indian companies that manufacture laptops/computer keyboards started to include a ₹ key yet?

Either way, I wasn’t expecting to be so disoriented when I saw it in this context. It is good to have a ₹ sign.

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.