Archive for ‘sexuality’

January 11, 2015

Himanjali Sankar, Talking of Muskaan/ Payal Dhar, Slightly Burnt

This was a bit uncomfortable to write, and I’m not even sure how objective I can be (one author’s a friend, both books were edited by friends), but there you go.

(Published column here)


A couple of weeks ago saw the anniversary of December 2013’s Supreme Court decision overturning the Delhi High Court’s ruling that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was unconstitutional. It felt like an important occasion, particularly since I was at the time reading two recent YA novels, both of which structured themselves in part around that moment in our recent history.

Himanjali Sankar’s Talking of Muskaan has been heralded as India’s first queer YA novel. The action opens on the day after the Supreme Court ruling, which is also the day after the title character has attempted to kill herself. The narrative then shifts to a few months earlier, and through the voices of three of Muskaan’s teenaged classmates (best friend Aaliya, clever-but-poor Shubhojoy, spoilt, rich Prateek) we piece together the events leading up to this moment.

Komal, the narrator of Payal Dhar’s Slightly Burnt, is another teenager who is shocked to discover that her best friend Sahil is gay. Even as she is absorbing this new information, the news about Section 377 breaks, forcing her to confront the levels of intolerance that still exist around non-normative sexualities among her friends and family.

Komal’s initial reaction to Sahil’s coming out is far from ideal—and perhaps this is realistic. She feels uncomfortable with his sexuality, resentful of his lack of normalcy, betrayed because he is not who she thought he was. So shaken is she that she must go to the school counsellor for advice on how to process things. Dhar doesn’t entirely indulge her in her discomfort—the counsellor gently, and the internet less gently, remind her that Sahil is probably suffering more than she is.

But this doesn’t change the fact that Komal’s discomfort, and the process by which she overcomes it, are the story of Slightly Burnt. Sahil probably is going through a lot, but we don’t see it directly. Sankar’s book too is talking of, about, around but never by, or to, Muskaan.

Dhar and Sankar’s choice of (mostly) heterosexual narrators makes sense in a way, and the references to Article 377 form a part of this. We’re reminded over and over that all non-heteronormative sexualities (it’s to both books’ credit that they do not erase bisexual, transgender, or other queer identities) are the subject of ignorance and prejudice, and that people need to be educated about them or risk causing unimaginable harm to vulnerable people. Komal’s change of heart comes when she reads up on LGBT suicide rates; Aaliya’s comes after her best friend nearly dies. There’s a sense in which the reader too is being educated along with the characters.

Both books, for all that they adopt the idiom of contemporary YA, are very much in the tradition of the teenage “problem novels” of the ‘70s and ‘80s, which brought their protagonists face to face with a social issue, and over the course of their pages educated, unpicked said issue, and generally promoted tolerance. In a country where the sex lives of consenting adults can be criminalized and queer youth must constantly be reminded that they are “unnatural”, education and tolerance can only be a good thing. And yet.

As an (admittedly very lucky) young adult, I didn’t think of my own feelings as a burning social problem. I looked for myself in poetry, in romance, in tensions simmering under the radar; not in novels that explained me and the harmlessness of my tastes to the world. Both of these books assume a heterosexual reader who needs to be educated past her prejudice and reflexive (both books seem to assume that this is inevitable) disgust, not a queer teenager trying to find herself in fiction.

“At some point it has to stop being about you,” says Usha, Komal’s counsellor. Perhaps as long as this law exists that point cannot be reached. For now, queer readers will have to resign ourselves to reading books about, not for us.



May 25, 2012

Stanley Kenani, “Love on Trial”

When I started to read “Love on Trial“(that link’s a pdf), my first thought was that it read like one of Teju Cole’s “Small Fates”. For those unfamiliar with these, Cole has been taking snippets of news, first from the papers in Lagos, more recently from old New York papers, and turning them into elegant, tweet sized reports. Cole talks a little about these here. Some examples below:

Children these days. Frank Oriabure, son of the deputy superintendent of police in Onitsha, would rather be a robber. (from the link above)

Tourists Neyes and Kistinn, at the Broadway Central and the Capitol Hotel, by revolver and defenestration, respectively, committed suicide.

Mysteries of the female sex: merely because women are not allowed to vote, Miss Belle Squire, of Chicago, has refused to pay her taxes.

The reportage in Kenani’s story is has a similarly heightened, ornate feel to it; Mr Kachingwe’s stomach “was terribly upset beyond what he could bear”; with the popularity of his story, being his friend “has become a lucrative undertaking”. These early sections are hilariously exaggerated – people actually travel to the village to hear this man’s story. There’s the recurring and endlessly deferred question of how the two men had sex, which seems of more interest to the public than the supposedly immoral nature of the act. And there’s certainly a bit of mocking the media.

Reach Out and Touch is a programme on MBC television which reaches out to, and touches the hearts of millions of viewers. Ordinarily the programme is designed to bring rare human-interest stories to the nation’s attention, so that those who are touched to the heart might also be touched to the pocket to help the victim.*

Most of the central portion of the story is taken up with Charles Chikwanje (the young gay man) and his televised debate with the host of Reach Out and Touch. This is the driest bit of the story – everything about this debate has the feel of going through the motions. Bible quote, check; the Greeks, check; we’re just like you, check. Other people have read this as earnest issue-based fiction but I find myself unable to do so; I don’t see it as trying to convince or argue for its side in any way, but instead taking for granted that we’re all on Charles’ side here. And yet how convenient for the story that the first young man to be publicly exposed as gay should also be so eloquent, so well-educated, and so able to defend himself. These social markers are at work within the text, and do more than his actual arguments to get people on his side. “By the time he walks out, Charles has reclaimed much of his lost respect. Many people are talking about how eloquent he is”. As important as it may be to the world as a whole and to Malawi, in many ways the homosexuality angle is pretext rather than subject here.


Because we’re reading this set of stories specifically in the context of the Caine Prize, there’s a level of meta commentary involved. What do these stories say about Africa and African writing (and the idea of such a thing as African writing), yes, but also what do they say about the sort of stories that are chosen as representativeof Africa and African writing? Those who read the list of links at the end of my “Bombay’s Republic” post will remember that some people read it as partly being about this subject. I find myself wondering if “Love on Trial” does not contain an element of this as well.

At the beginning of the story Maxwell Kabaifa tells Mr Kachingwe that to continue spreading this story will ruin a young man’s life. Mr Kachingwe continues anyway, because “among the qualities of a good citizen of any state on earth, telling the truth was of great importance. He was reporting the truth as he saw it. The consequences of the truth were none of his business”. The consequences of the truth turn out to be very much his business; the arrest of Charles Chikwanje leads to international outrage, leading to a cutting off of aid to Malawi. Mr Kachingwe, who has recently tested positive for the HIV virus, finds that his ARV drugs are now cut off, and at the end of the story he has been coughing up blood for a while and seems close to death. This could be a mere aside, a horrible throwaway authorial punishment upon the character who, in a way, started this whole mess. But we’re not allowed to see it that way. Maxwell Kabaifa (who seems a nice, sympathetic man until we learn that he’s only trying to convert Mr Kachingwe to his own particular brand of Christianity before he dies) hammers the point in further with a fable that I’m not going to relate here. In beginning and ending the story with Mr Kachingwe, and by the use of this story, Kenani shifts the focus from what happens to Charles to what happens to Mr Kachingwe; it makes him the point of it.

By now everyone who is commenting on these stories has read Bernardine Evaristo’s call for stories that “move on” from the “familiar images that dominate the media: War-torn Africa, Starving Africa, Corrupt Africa”. JP had a post responding to this in which he talks about the dilemma that he faces as an Indian writer when the truth of his experiences corresponds to stereotypes of the country. He asks: “if I am to reflect my own experience accurately, how do I ‘move on’ from the reality that the odours of slums and the aromas of incense both actually happen to be things I have extensive experience of?” I think Kenani’s story addresses this dilemma in part, though I don’t think it provides any clear solutions. I don’t think one can draw the simplistic conclusion that one should only write a particular sort of account of Malawi/Africa, or that certain truths need to be hidden. Charles Chikwanje goes to prison but he goes defiantly, he protects the man he loves (we never hear his name), and professes relief that it’s all out in the open. But there is at least an understanding that narratives of Africa have real world consequences.


*Insert Aamir Khan joke here for Indian audiences.


Other people’s thoughts on “Love on Trial”:

Method to the Madness
Stephen Derwent Partington
Backslash Scott
Black Balloon
City of Lions

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.



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.



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.



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.

September 21, 2011

On garlic

And, most dear actors, eat no onions nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath; and do not doubt but to hear them say it is a sweet comedy. - William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Some of you who have been reading this blog for a while will remember my “Practically Marzipan” column – it ran in the New Indian Express’ Zeitgeist from 2008 to the beginning of this year.
One of the (many) columns I never reposted to the blog was written in 2008 and it was about garlic. And various other things (like sex), but mostly garlic. A conversation on twitter today led me to seek it out.
(This is an unedited version – the published version appears to have disappeared from their website)


The consumption of onions and garlic (and others among the delicious consolations that make human life worth living) was just one of the many things a large number of my ancestors seem to have been against.

In India, a number of religious groups disapprove of onions and garlic. These are supposed to be Rajasic foods, clouding the mind with passion and making it harder to concentrate on spiritual matters. A related explanation I’ve seen used in various quarters is that these foods enhance the libido. I find this baffling – surely onion-y, garlicky breath is a turn off? – but supposing it to be true, the hostility is understandable. Few people would meditate when there were enhanced libidos to be taken care of.

The writers of scripture (and more recently, well known dieticians) express themselves even more strongly on the subjects of meat and alcohol. Had America been discovered at the time when these scriptures were written, doubtless potatoes and chocolate would have been found to be objectionable too.

Of course, this idea that you are what you eat is not limited to the subcontinent alone. In 1800s America, similar beliefs led to two major culinary revolutions. An early campaigner for diet reform was one Sylvester Graham. Like all great reformers, Graham seems to have taken an active interest in the private lives of his fellow men; particularly their sex lives. Being of the belief that any form of excitement was unhealthy and that animal-based products created lust, Graham advocated vegetarianism, sexual abstinence (he believed that masturbation led to blindness and insanity) and (his one good idea) frequent bathing. He also invented the Graham cracker, the most boring biscuit in existence and thus a stalwart foot soldier in the war against sexual gratification.

But as influential as Graham crackers were to become, Sylvester Graham was only preparing the way for a greater man who would one day overshadow him. That man was John Harvey Kellogg.

Like Graham, Kellogg was a fan of vegetarianism and abstinence, and against exciting food and sex. He even wrote a book, titled Plain Facts About Sexual Life (the title was later changed to Plain Facts for Old and Young) to support his views. He and his wife occupied separate bedrooms for the forty years of their marriage. Clearly he practiced what he preached.

What Kellogg is really known for is the invention of the cornflake along with his brother W.K (Will Keith) Kellogg. The cornflake at the time was a healthy, whole grain product that was unlikely to encourage any unwanted desires. In later years the humble cornflake would take on new and startling forms and a number of exotic flavours, but the Kellogg brothers actually argued in 1906 over the necessity of adding sugar to the basic recipe – presumably John thought it would be too exciting for the consumers. A century later, there’s certainly sugar in most breakfast cereals, so it seems that W.K had the right idea.

Religious scripture remains silent on the subject of cornflakes, while continuing to shake its head disapprovingly at onions and garlic. So for now I think my breakfast, however sugared, is safe.



Srividya Natarajan’s 2006 novel No Onions Nor Garlic plays with the Shakespeare quote above – it’s a satire about TamBrahms staging a more Hindu Midsummer Night’s Dream in Madras. It is excellent.
Also I’d like to think my ability to write 500 word columns has improved over the last few years.
July 23, 2011

Edward Gorey, The Curious Sofa

Last week’s Left of Cool piece focused on this strange, clever book by Edward Gorey (who can usually be counted on for strangeness and cleverness). At the paper’s website here, or in unedited form below:




Some people believe that the real purpose of a book or a film is simply to tell a story well, with things like style being secondary concerns. These people must find pornography very frustrating indeed. Regardless of any aesthetic merits that porn might have (and we could argue over what these are indefinitely) it must be admitted that it rarely provides a solid plot or fleshed out characters. Equally, however, you could argue that these are not flaws but features. Pornography doesn’t so much fail at traditional storytelling as it succeeds at being pornography.
“Ogdred Weary” has a name that is an anagram of that of Edward Gorey,the renowned artist and writer. It’s possible that this is a coincidence. Gorey is best known for The Gashlycrumb Tinies, an illustrated alphabet book in which twenty-six children with names beginning with all the letters of the alphabet die in diverse and horrible ways. Ogdred Weary, by contrast, is barely known at all for his book The Curious Sofa: A Pornographic Work.
The Curious Sofa is the story of Alice, who is sitting on a park bench eating grapes when she meets Herbert, a well-endowed (the text tells us, though the illustrations only show him fully clothed) young man. Matters proceed in a manner easily recognisable to anyone familiar with the genre. Herbert escorts Alice to the home of his aunt Celia (the taxi ride providing Alice with new experiences) where a house party appears to be in progress. Alice seems unfazed by events. There follow a series of tableaux involving French maids, well-formed butlers, a game called “thumbfumble” and a couple who both “had wooden legs, with which they could do all sorts of entertaining tricks”. Frolicking gardeners and a sheepdog ensure that the work covers a reasonably broad range of the better known subgenres of pornography. The fun continues the next day, with a change of location and the addition of a few more characters. Thus far things seem to be proceeding as one would expect.

And yet Gorey Weary is coy about the actual acts. The word sex, or any of its synonyms are never mentioned in the book, and nor are any particularly direct euphemisms. People “romp”, “frolic”, perform “rather surprising service[s]”. The illustrations never show genitalia, merely people (usually fully clothed) standing or sitting around, usually eating grapes (which for some reason always seem to show up in depictions of erotic situations).

The sex acts in question (if indeed they are sex acts; perhaps it’s all in the reader’s filthy mind?) grow increasingly bizarre as time passes. We can well imagine what Alice might have been doing with the sheepdog, but what of Scylla, the guest with “certain anatomical peculiarities”  who demonstrates “the ‘Lithuanian Typewriter’” with the help of two young men? What is the “astonishing little device” provided by Reginald, another guest?  And what on earth is the “terrible thing” that Gerald did to Elsie with a saucepan?

We are not fated to find out. Elsie’s sudden and unexplained death is the first indication that all is not well. Soon after, the partiers visit Sir Egbert, possessor of the “Curious Sofa” of the title. Alice feels “a shudder of nameless apprehension”.

We never see the curious sofa (the illustration has it shielded by the audience), but with its nine legs and seven arms its proportions seem decidedly non-Euclidean. Nor do we know what the “machinery inside the sofa” does. All we know is that Alice begins to “scream uncontrollably” before the book ends. The last picture in the book is a bunch of grapes abandoned on the floor. Whatever is going on in that room, the party would appear to be over.

The Curious Sofa may be the only book in the world to combine pornography with a nod to country house murder mysteries and an almost Lovecraftian horror element. Readable as a clever comment on plot in porn or simply a bit of dark hilarity, this is classic Gorey. Or Weary.



Suggestions for shocking saucepan-inclusive sex acts now solicited. I was not expecting that sentence to be quite so alliterative.



July 8, 2011

Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories

I have a review of the Torquere Press collection Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories (edited by JoSelle Vanderhooft) at The Future Fire. I was quite excited about this collection, which contained work by people like N.K Jemisin, Shweta Narayan and Amal el-Mohtar. What I found was excellent – a bit uneven, but on the whole this is a collection of very good stories; original, diverse, politically engaged.

My review is here: I may put it on this blog at a later date if TFF don’t mind this, but for now I’d prefer it if you read and commented over there.



November 23, 2010

The Moving Toyshop and female biology

While reading I often come across useful facts about the psychology of women – that we are changeable, that we like shoes, that poison is our preferred method of murder and so on. These are all practical and worth knowing, but I rarely (outside of pornography) come across a startling physical revelation. This happened yesterday when I was reading Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop. In the scene from which I quote, the poet Richard Cadogan has just discovered a corpse.

She was dressed in a tweed coat and skirt and a white blouse, which emphasized her plumpness, with rough wool stockings and brown shoes. There was no ring on her left hand, and the flatness of her breasts had already suggested that she was unmarried.
This bit of biological hilarity aside, The Moving Toyshop is great fun. The only other Crispin I’d read was Holy Disorders, which was entertaining but not remarkable. This is entirely different.
Considering that Crispin’s detective, Gervase Fen, is a professor of English, it makes sense that the book should be very literary. But while literature is important to the plot (the whole thing hinges on a knowledge of a particular poet but I shall say no more) and the title comes from Alexander Pope, I was surprised by how aware of it’s own status as fiction the book was. Catherynne Valente has just posted about her love of books talking about books, and books that know they’re books, and it’s a love I share. And I think with genre fiction in particular there’s an opportunity for texts to demonstrate awareness of the fact that they are part of a genre, and to be in conversation with said genre.
So you have a villain who kindly sits the detective and his companions down before explaining everything to them-only to be shot through the window of the opposite house (and could that be a reference to “The Adventure of the Empty House“?) just as he’s about to reveal the name of the murderer. You have a whole array of suspects, a completely absurd plot, and ridiculous car chases around Oxford during which this sort of thing is said:
“Lets go left,” Cadogan suggested. “After all, Gollancz is publishing this book.”*
And you have the narrative commenting on Fen’s love of the deus ex machina as a technique, and attributing to this the fact that a deus ex machina has just occurred within the text. This is the sort of thing you’d complain about in most mystery stories; here, as an affectionate comment on fiction, it’s hilarious.
Conclusion: I need to read more Crispin. What next?
*My copy is published by Vintage, but a perusal of the copyright page proves Cadogan to be correct.
July 12, 2010

Charming Gentlemen

(Contains spoilers for multiple books)

One of the great moral dilemmas I struggle with is my love of Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub*. However much I adore it, I’ve never been able to ignore some of the sinister opinions in the text.

Vidal is an attractive young marquis who must flee to France after a drunken duel in which he may or may not have killed his opponent. He decides to take with him a beautiful young woman who he has been attempting to seduce. Unfortunately, her older sister decides to come instead in order to protect the younger sister’s reputation. Vidal is furious when he finds out he’s been tricked, and attempts to rape her. She defends herself by shooting him in the arm; he realises that she must be a nice girl if she’s willing to defend her honour like this; a couple of hundred pages later they are in love and able to marry with parental approval. Meanwhile, the mother and sister of our heroine (whose biggest crime is to be crass and lower middle-class) are never redeemed.

Another Heyer book, The Convenient Marriage, has a charismatic aristocrat try to take revenge on an old acquaintance by kidnapping and raping his wife. The wife in question manages to knock him out with a poker and run away before rape occurs. Later, her husband fights him (with swords), wins, and the two men become friends again. The whole attempted-rape-of-wife thing is forgotten, and one imagines the man will be a valued dinner guest in the couple’s household for years to come. One person who will not be invited to dinner is the husband’s former mistress, who aided the would-be rapist in some of his (earlier, less rapey) plans. That bitch.

Moral: pretty much anything an attractive man does is excusable in some way. Forgive and forget, eh?

Devil’s Cub was published in 1932, and The Convenient Marriage in 1934. Heyer’s politics were not progressive (her anti-semitism in a few places is pretty jarring). And I’m not a historian, so I don’t really know how socially acceptable rape was in the late 1700s or the 1930s.

I’ve spoken before of my desire to finish Stephanie Laurens’ books so that there won’t be any more of them for me to read (this is a perfectly logical reason to do such a thing). Yesterday I read The Promise in a Kiss, a prequel to her Cynster books. It was published in (I think) 2002.
This book features an Evil Guardian who manipulates our heroine into attempted theft by threatening to rape her little sister. Things are sorted out, the hero is heroic, and…it turns out the man wasn’t planning to rape the child after all. The threat (and the whole plot, including the theft) was for the lulz, because what else is there to do for fun when you’re a bored aristocrat?

Sebastian humphed. He looked down on his old foe, knew the wound he’d delivered would cause serious discomfort for weeks. Counseled himself that that, together with all that would come, was fair payment for all Helena had suffered—that he couldn’t, no matter what he wished, exact further physical retribution. “You and your games—I gave them up years ago. Why do you still play them?”

Fabien opened his eyes, looked up, then shrugged—grimaced again. “Ennui, I suppose. What else is there to do?”

And it’s so sad that the Evil Guardian Ennui-afflicted Charming Gentleman has no children! And he’s not an actual rapist. And he ends up being a close friend of the hero and heroine, and they’re genuinely sad when he moves to America. So…that’s alright then, I guess? The real villain of this book is the hero’s sister-in-law: she’s pushy, presumptuous, and will later in the series be blamed for her son’s murderousness and general sociopathy.

I suppose it’s progress – in seventy years there’s been a shift from actual rapists being condoned to people who only threaten rape as a manipulative tool being condoned. Clearly the Laurens book is a massive victory for feminism.

*My life is hard.

March 8, 2010

In which the Chief Justice asks us not to judge

The Chief Justice of India, K.G Balakrishnan, has been quoted in a number of papers today warning people against being “overtly paternalistic” with regard to a rape victim’s personal autonomy…when it comes to her choosing to marry her rapist.

A couple of things:

One, he’s absolutely right about respecting the victim’s decisions. People do what they can to cope, and it’s not always the most progressive or universally useful action. One sees a lot of this when complete outsiders hint that someone is not doing her duty by reporting a rape, whatever it will cost her.

Two, and this is where I say but. But does Justice Balakrishnan live in a different world from me? (Answer: yes). Because while I’m sure there are plenty of people disapproving of and passing judgment upon rape victims who choose to marry their rapists, should such women exist, I’m aware of many, many more stories where it hasn’t been a choice. Rape victims in this country are still treated with a great deal of disapproval for bringing the rape up in the first place, and not choosing to take this easy way of ending the scandal quietly is likely to bring upon them even more pressure. The choice between marrying one’s rapist and being cut off from all of ones support systems is meaningless, and I see no reason to “respect” such a choice or the people who forced it.

Three, would the number of victims marrying rapists be lessened if said rapists were found guilty by the courts and put in jail? I suspect it would.

(Oh and here is some further weirdness from the Supreme Court. Via Nanopolitan)

February 13, 2010

Practically Marzipan: Bad Romance

rah rah ah ah ah ro ma ro ma ma ga ga ooh la la…

Ahem. An edited version of the column below was published in today’s New Indian Express.

Regular readers of this column are probably aware that I am well-disposed towards the romance novel. I will devour uncritically most historical romances, and I do not scorn the products of Messrs. Mills & Boon or Harlequin when accompanied by the right combination of tea and laziness.

Nor am I particularly against the romance movie genre. I like romantic comedies; I like films that are all romance and no comedy; I even like teen films and have a special fondness for the Makeover Movie. Nevertheless, on what is probably the most significant weekend of the year, romancewise, I feel the need to complain about them (thus proving that this column is Serious Cultural Critique). So here are some of the romance tropes that annoy me most:

  • Eyes Meet Across A Room: I said I liked makeover movies, though they rest upon the assumption that a romance can only really go ahead after the girl has shown herself to be capable of beauty (and every virtuous heroine is secretly gorgeous). Nonetheless, at least in those stories the couple are forced to get to know each other before they fall in love. Whereas all this love at first sight rubbish requires is that one partner be superlatively attractive. For the majority of us who have had to charm our partners through conversation, this can all be rather dispiriting.
  • The Hero Learns An Important Lesson: This trope works in Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Darcy has actual, cultural reasons for thinking so highly of himself, and he does learn (we’re told) to laugh at himself. But Austen was writing at the end of the 1700s. Why, then, do I keep reading romances where the male romantic lead consistently underestimates the female because she is female before finally learning to respect her? Occasionally this is masked in terms of career – the (male) businessman dismissing the (female) baker/designer because after all, how hard could it be? Of course by the end of the book they generally do learn some respect, and it’s nice that they’ve reformed. But why bother with such a man in the first place? I’m not sure what Elizabeth Bennet’s choices were, but I live in a world where there are a number of good men. Why go to all the trouble of reforming the arrogant ones?
  • Sex Is Suddenly Really Good: You find the man of your dreams and sex suddenly goes from being awkward and bumpy and comical to transcendent and earth shattering. Even leaving aside the question of whether this is even desirable (surely sex with no sense of humour would get boring?), this is a bit off. Sure, sex with someone you Truly Love adds a new and excellent dimension, but was it really that bad before? I feel like they’re trying to confer upon the heroine a sort of virginity: sure she’s (in the interests of modernity) had sex before, but at least she didn’t enjoy it.
  • All Romance is Heterosexual: You could apply most of the traditional romance plot (barring the sex) to most buddy movies – thus the“Bromance” genre. I’m sorry; if you don’t think Star Trek is about the epic romance of Kirk and Spock, you simply haven’t been paying attention.