Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Moore, Not So Stories (2018)

David Thomas Moore (ed.), Not So Stories. Abbadon Books, 2018. Pp. 320. ISBN 978-1-7810-8612-4. $15.99.

Reviewed by Samira Nadkarni

Meant to address the legacy of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories (1902), Not So Stories (2018) is a set of 14 postcolonial short stories that problematise or confront colonial nostalgia, and what Nikesh Shukla (in his foreword) terms the “feeling that the British Empire was a benign part of the lives of those oppressed.” The collection offers narratives that centre the point of view of those marginalised under British colonialism, responding not only to the racist narratives of Kipling’s original text, but also the persisting bedrock of colonial ideology its popularity once drew, and somehow continues to draw, upon. Shukla notes that these stories are for “children and adults” (his emphasis)—and I’d argue that the majority of the collection’s stories are in fact aimed at adults rather than children.

This in itself is pertinent as Kipling’s legacy is a complex one that extended beyond the bounds of a presumed white audience to the multiracial audiences of the countries once colonised by Britain. Non-white audiences who imbibed Kipling’s texts through cultural cringe (where one dismisses their own culture as inferior to that of a coloniser); through a choice to identify with Anglo literatures; and/or because any representation may once have felt like good representation, may now find their recognition of Just So Stories’ colonial themes at war with childhood nostalgia or, in many cases, updated versions of cultural cringe. To me, it feels like that sense of conflicted nostalgia is a definite factor in many of the narratives that form Not So Stories as, unable or unwilling to wholly repudiate the material they're reworking, the writers employ aspects of Kipling's style and tone (most notably, his use of “Best Beloved” and the idiosyncratic shifts between first and third person that characterises Just So Stories).

I found this evocation of Kipling’s style used to undo colonial purpose oddly meaningful because it drew on familiar conflicts of childhood nostalgia and adult repugnance that I’ve experienced with a wide variety of European authors I read as a child (Enid Blyton, Rudyard Kipling, Hergé, Arthur Conan Doyle, René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, etc). That is, the collection felt at its most compelling when it used its uniquely responsive positioning to focus on complications of power and agency. Kipling's racism is popularly acknowledged, but that acknowledgement is often phatic and superficial. It fails to account for the systemic racism that precedes, enables and works beyond specific instantiations of its logics, such as a given element of Kipling's work, and often it fails to move the conversation forward in any useful way. Saying “Kipling is racist” is often not in and of itself necessarily productive literary criticism or likely to achieve change because Kipling’s works are but a drop in the proverbial sea of colonial texts. Moreover, I wonder how many readers are coming directly to Kipling himself rather than through some form of mediated adaptation that then makes confronting colonialism or white supremacy within the text its own can of worms. For example, I grew up on Indian comic book adaptations of Rikki Tikki Tavi and the (Japanese anime) TV adaptations of The Jungle Book dubbed in Hindi. These are mine and my family’s in a way that has nothing to do with the colonial whiteness of its author; I have no idea how I would bring whiteness into that space because, for me, it was never there to begin with (though no doubt my parents brought very different preconceptions to the material). In effect, a sort of reclamation occurred somewhere between my parents’ generation and my own. While I don’t doubt that the reworked versions of these carry legacies of orientalism, the result is that my negotiation with it is not as simple—like Rukmini Pande’s, it is something else entirely.

I bring this up because I feel like Jeanette Ng’s “How the Tree of Wishes Gained its Carapace of Plastic” plays with this idea in a metatextual manner. Like the fantastic structure it describes, the tale has multiple layers to it as the narrator informs Best Beloved of how the Wishing Tree—once a natural tree which would have red ribbons, oranges, and wishes bound to its branches as part of a cultural tradition of making wishes—is eventually taken over by the government. As the tree dies, it is replaced with a plastic tree, as are the oranges used to hang on its branches as part of the wishing process replaced with plastic, so that the weight the plastic tree has to bear is reduced. The narrator explains, “Our history is a tangled one and our wishes are heavy,” and this sentence is a warning to anyone seeking to read the story as a straightforward denunciation of binaries (such as tradition/nature versus modernity/plastic, or attempts to forcibly preserve and nationalise the practices of culture rather than explore their inherent meaning). These are definitely factors to the story, but there’s also a suggestion here of the way a community exists and persists, that this tree—eventually used merely for carrying wishes, not granting them—is offering a sort of freedom and togetherness. Whether this freedom of acknowledging desire or togetherness is true or false is largely irrelevant to the narrative, since the act itself performs community and identity exists, even with a false tree or especially with a false tree constructed for this very purpose. Ng’s story plays with my expectations of valorising a more traditional “natural” past as “authentic” by making the passing on of this tradition, both the oral telling of the story as well as the process of wishing, part of its narrative. Under the veneer of plastic and my judgemental pre-assumptions, this is a story about the survival of community and an ongoing reworking of culture with all the tools at hand. It is a mix of old and new, authentic and inauthentic—an idea of history that is not divided into pre- or post-colonial, but something that is both and wholly ours right now.

The “origin stories” in Just So Stories draw on colonial ways of seeing-and-naming, a cultural mapping of the world, and the production of creation myths that supersede the culture’s own—setting oneself up as “knowing” of these origins; affirming dominance and power. Children’s stories abound with this sort of social conception of the world, and increasingly, adult stories do as well. As a result, though I enjoyed the tales in Not So Stories that sought to only rework “origin stories” themselves from perspectives outside of white European identities (such as Kipling’s), the ones that struck the hardest (for me) tended to be ones that challenged moral binaries and “origin stories” themselves, deliberately addressed and questioned power, and staged narratives that didn't simply end with the rupture of or resistance to colonialism, as if the problems that process exacerbated or gave rise to could be so easily dismissed.

For example, in Stewart Hotston’s “How the Ants Got Their Queen,” tribes of ants free themselves from the domination of pangolins only to eventually find themselves appropriating the same systems of colonial violence in order to maintain what they seemingly believe is an appropriate amount of control over a local populace now under a single queen. A tale of moral downfall, the plot shifts between different ideas of culpability such that there is no single victim or victimiser but a series of shifts between these two poles. This is important as forcing “ideal victimhood” or unattainable pure, childlike innocence on the colonised is often used later to deny reparation under proof of less than ideal victimhood. Colonisers may also propound ideas of a precolonial “innocence” or childishness that allows them to maintain cultural control of a populace. And notably, local postcolonial dictators (whose authoritarian power benefits from the continued propagation of this ideology) benefit from this cultural mindset as well, as the return to a pre-colonial child-like innocence of its people must then be maintained through someone “taking on” the task of ruling with authority. Hotston’s tale finds easily apparent parallels in the narratives of many postcolonial nations around the world where authoritarian regimes valorise obedience and establishing a nation of toiling citizens whose labour benefits a rich few, all while valorising particular sanitised narratives of “great leaders.”

Zedeck Siew’s “Serpent, Crocodile, Tiger” somehow manages to tell about three stories in the space of one, each dealing with hierarchies of power and escape, performances of (supposed) authenticity, and a larger metanarrative of the creation and control of narratives itself. Within the story are two mythological accounts of transformation that occur during the search for freedom—‘How The Tiger Left Her Mother’s House’ and ‘The Princess and the Crocodile’—that are then cited as folklore within academic accounts by clearly white academics who use colonial systems of culture to badly decode the cultural relevance of these accounts. This makes one of the characters, Tengku Azhar, furious and he seeks to address this within academia but finds the manner in which he’d be expected to do this as much a part of the problem as the existing system itself. The experience clearly sours Azhar who, upon his return to Malaysia, seems unable to engage with the way cultural plurality exists in the same space due to co-existing and ongoing histories. Through his role as part of the Archaeological Service and Religious Department, he plans to demolish certain structures and preserve others, but is hospitalised before he can carry out his plans. Thus, at the heart of Siew’s narrative is this sense of transformation (of Azhar, of the landscapes, of narratives themselves), of attempting to flee oppressive structures, or, in the case of Azhar, drowning under the weight of this colonial legacy and seeing no way through or no way in which plurality can be bearable. The story not only talks about addressing colonial control of narratives, but also the manner in which this inflects local authoritarianisms, the two endlessly feeding off each other. The seeming necessity of historical preservation can be disruptive to ongoing communities who are not static, and this preservation can become its own form of attack on local marginalised communities by postcolonial powers. I particularly enjoyed the manner in which the story explored reactions to cultural accounts, and how the same systems of rewriting and infantalisation that we so dislike from colonial powers are so easily reproduced within our own systems when aimed at locally marginalised communities.

The aforementioned stories definitely felt aimed at adults. Georgina Kamsika’s “Samsāra,” however, had a far more straightforward narrative that felt aimed at someone far younger. It’s something I’ve seen discussed quite a bit when it comes to second or third generation diasporic South Asian communities in the West. The narrative details how, following her grandmother’s death, a young girl visits her grandmother’s house and comes to terms with wearing South Asian clothing in white community spaces. She decides to keep a few pieces of her grandmother’s clothing, and feels the presence of her grandmother’s ghost leave the room. Perhaps it was because the story clearly wasn’t aimed at me (as a non-diasporic audience), but it felt like it performed a really simplistic engagement with performance of culture. I mention this because, even within diasporic spaces, the process of reclaiming an identity or locating oneself in a cultural history necessarily invokes the fraught ongoing domestic issues (such as caste and gender violence) surrounding such identities. These identities, even in white spaces, are still in conversation with identities in one’s nation of origin; and it is increasingly necessary to question the current growth and spread of right wing South Asian nationalisms in diasporic communities, or issues of caste and gender, or even the ways in which wearing particular types of clothing can also be about systems of patriarchal and national cultures of power within communities. To clarify, the issue in question is not simply cultural whiteness versus cultural non-whiteness, but a far more complex negotiation as the identity you're reclaiming may well come with its own entanglements ongoing violences and power differentials.

Knowing what we now know of local postcolonial power struggles, representation, people further marginalised under reclaimed nationalisms, postcolonial nations turned colonisers, diasporic identities participating in settler colonialisms, etc., telling a story meant solely to fight the white gaze or older types of colonialism feels like a narrative that still doesn’t want to acknowledge the elephant in the room—that doing so is still prioritising whiteness, if only to fight its cultural power. Reworking Kipling’s “origin stories” only goes so far if the tales we tell are still ones where whiteness is central to the events of these narratives, as though even imaginary spaces beyond whiteness did not and do not exist.

Intentionally or not, parts of this collection and indeed, this way of framing post-colonial discourse, seems to prioritise a particular view of the world and a particular notion of who counts as a “person of colour” or “postcolonial.” It's a common problem, but for all that it’s one I never know how to come to terms with: my struggles are distinctly local, usually with people who look like me, or against my own violent cultural power over people. Maybe this is why I gravitated so strongly towards the stories I mentioned; because whiteness didn’t feel like the narrative’s central support structure in those stories and because it acknowledged postcolonial complicity in power dynamics. And this is complicated because diasporic identities (who are forced to self-define against whiteness) will need different reclamation narratives than non-diasporic identities (who are dealing with occasional distanced whiteness and local identities), so it’s impossible to reconcile these to one size fits all.

Perhaps that’s why a collection like Not So Stories is a good thing—people coming to this collection at different stages of this resistance and reclamation will each find stories that speak to them about their experiences. That’s always a good place to start.

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