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.


5 Responses to “From the reading while brown chronicles”

  1. Interesting. I agree with you, mostly, but you do internalize prejudice and bigotry if you read it all the time. I’m sure I did when I was younger: as I grew up, I could read more critically. And it would be nice, once in a while, to read an interesting, funny book with a story that has me not want to put the book down even to go to the bathroom, and doesn’t have these issues either.

    • But do you think that brown people who internalize prejudice and bigotry are more broken as readers than white people who internalize prejudice and bigotry?

      And god, yes, it’s hard sometimes to imagine what an unproblematic, fun book would even look like. :)

  2. I think there’s lots wrong with all of us as readers — we have internalised copious amounts of shit. And sometimes? We’re just really fucking tired of shit and just want to read a book and enjoy it, and this might manifest itself in several ways, including giving up on a book that talks about Egyptian werewolves smelling sandy OR carrying on reading it because it’s pretty damn enjoyable.

    I just stated the bleeding obvious.

    I don’t know, I don’t have anything valuable to say here beyond the fact that I love this post because it captures my RC (Reading Condition) perfectly. I wonder if this is a good excuse to use to retreat from the world at times? “Please forgive me, my RC is acting up.”

    The only Homi Bhabha you will need to make sense of anything (even if I hate the song – or maybe especially because I hate it?)


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