Sunday, April 5, 2009

Less a Review, and More a Thank You

In my quest to read more classics, I came up to Rudyard Kipling's classic YA tale, Kim. I especially wanted to read this because I realized that it influenced quite a bit of espionage fiction that came after--most notably in my mind, Tim Power's excellent Declare.

As I began reading it, I was fairly pleased with the way Kipling treated race. It's obviously a central concern of the novel--the second paragraph makes it clear that Kim is White, and this is emphasized many more times.

There was some justification for Kim - he had kicked Lala Dinanath's boy off the trunnions - since the English held the Punjab and Kim was English. Though he was burned black as any native; though he spoke the vernacular by preference, and his mother-tongue in a clipped uncertain sing-song; though he consorted on terms of perfect equality with the small boys of the bazar; Kim was white - a poor white of the very poorest. The half-caste woman who looked after him (she smoked opium, and pretended to keep a second-hand furniture shop by the square where the cheap cabs wait) told the missionaries that she was Kim's mother's sister; but his mother had been nursemaid in a Colonel's family and had married Kimball O'Hara, a young colour-sergeant of the Mavericks, and Irish regiment... His estate at death consisted of three papers - one he called his 'ne varietur' because those words were written below his signature thereon, and another his 'clearance-certificate'. The third was Kim's birth-certificate. Those things, he was used to say, in his glorious opium-hours, would yet make little Kimball a man. On no account was Kim to part with them, for they belonged to a great piece of magic - such magic as men practised over yonder behind the Museum, in the big blue-and-white Jadoo-Gher - the Magic House, as we name the Masonic Lodge.

While Kipling makes it clear that the poorest white is superior to the richest Indian, he also respects many of the native characters in the story. One of the reasons Kim is so successful is that he can move amongst and communicate with the native population. One of his best mentors is a Muslim horse trader from what I assume would today be Pakistan. Probably the most impressive figure in the book as a whole is a Tibetan lama--who holds up well as a pretty impressive character. I had a mental picture in my mind of the racism present in society at the time Kipling was writing (1900), and decided that Kim was probably pretty darned enlightened by the standards of its time. I felt the same way about King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard (1885) -- sure it's racist, but it seemed to accord a measure of respect to the African population that I thought would have been uncommon at the time. Certainly by the time Haggard wrote She, he'd abandoned any sort of enlightened attitude at all. So I'd heard at times about people taking issue with Kim, but I'd never investigated the matter at any depth, and didn't quite see what the problem was.

I was in the middle of reading Kim when Racefail09 entered my consciousness. I came to the discussion very late, but I tried to follow some links, especially to the early material. And I read I Didn't Dream of Dragons. That made a huge impression on me--all of the sudden, I was reading Kim and understanding why it is persistently hurtful. Sure, read by a white audience of its time, it may have been slightly progressive. Read by a white audience today it's antiquatedly Colonialist, but still can be charming. However, read by an Indian audience either then or now, it must be incredibly painful. The casual assumptions, the dismissiveness. As Deepa D. put it:

Do not tell me, or the people like me who have grown up hearing Arabic around them, or singing in Swahili, or dreaming in Bengali—but reading only (or even mostly) in English (or French, or Dutch)—that this colonial rape of our language has not infected our ability to narrate, has not crippled our imagination. When I was in class 7, our English teacher gave us the rare creative writing assignment, and three of my classmates wrote adventure stories about characters named Julian and Peggy and Tom. Do not tell me that this cultural fracture does not affect the odds required to produce enough healthy imaginations that can chrysalis into writers. When we call ourselves Oreos or Coconuts or Bananas (Black/Brown/Yellow on the outside, White on the inside)—understand the ruptures and bafflement that accompanies our consumption of your media while we resent and critique it.
I started to read Kim differently. It didn't seem so charming anymore. Sure, the Tibetan lama is awesome, and the real bad guys are Russian and French. However, the assumption of English colonial benevolence didn't sit quite so well. The assertion of innate racial difference no longer seemed quaintly antiquarian. I began to read it from another viewpoint, one that saw the insulting depictions--especially of one Bengali spy who is very clever but suffers from an amazing inferiority complex re: the English, also the sherpa-type laborers and other native populations--and saw how hurtful they are.

I'm not on Livejournal, and I haven't made any really public statements about Racefail. However, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank so many people who have written. You have helped me understand why even casual, non-KKK-crazy, every-day racist assumptions HURT. Why attempts at tokenism don't help (River and Simon Tam in Firefly have an Asian surname, and as xkcd pointed out, that future is supposed to be half Chinese dominated. But they're played by white actors. WTF?) From your anecdotes, from your long and thoughtful posts, from your repeated assertions in the face of commenters who were telling you that it's not that bad, that you should just shake it off, I learned why that's just not possible or right. I read differently now because of what you've written. I'm thinking here specifically of Tempest Bradford (Angry Black Woman), coffee & ink, Mary Ann Moharanj and Deepad--they've written the main posts that I read. But there were a whole ton of folks leaving comments with names I didn't catch, and I want to thank them too. I'm sorry that so much of the sf/f community decided to be complete assholes about this--you shouldn't have to suffer more for trying to get folks to understand an important truth. When it comes to dickish behavior from so many quarters, all I can do is point to Torque Control's post on the subject and say I whole-heartedly agree.

I'll continue to try and read differently, to read with an awareness of race that I had previously been privileged enough to ignore. I'll try to support small presses like the start-up Verb Noire, PoC authors both established (e.g. the incredible Nalo Hopkinson) and new (Craig Laurence Gidney) and blogs like World SF news. The more viewpoints that feel welcome in sf/f, as I have previously maintained, the better off we'll all be. The future will be incredibly diverse, and more diversity in writing about the future will help everyone think about it in more interesting ways. So while I haven’t become some enlightened being overnight, at least I know to be aware of things I wasn’t before, and hopefully I’ll be able to seek out more authors who will enlighten me further.

PS - this isn't as much a review of Kim as it is a description of an evolution in my thought process. However, Kim is over 100 years old now. You can find out lots about it if you want to. It certainly was quite influential for a significant swath of genre fiction, and worth reading on that account. Also, it is a rather fine illustration of colonialism in action, if you want to see what that looked like at the time. And it's a fun read, although the language hasn't dated terribly well. I'm not in any way saying that people shouldn't read it--just that folks should be aware of its glaring flaws and less willing to give it a pass just because it's old, like I was going to do.

No comments: