Friday 28 September 2012

simpering for whitey

If you watch a lot of old Hollywood movies, the kind of things TCM shows, you'll notice that whenever a black character shows up there's suddenly a lot of teeth. Those old Hollywood chiefs sure made their occasional African-American employees grin and guffaw and speak in the most exaggerated accents to earn their pay.

I kind of get why those actors subjected themselves to it. They had chosen a profession and, well, those were the roles they were offered. While there has been a black cinema scene in the US longer than most people would imagine, the real money was usually in cliched walk-in parts in something like D.W. Griffiths' 'The Birth Of A Nation'.

And maybe that's why a lot of Indian writers and journalists, when they get the chance to write for a western audience, ham it up and exoticise themselves - they know or think that's what the western audience wants. In the process, they sure do come out with some Grade-A bullshit.

Look at this crap Booker-winner Aravind Adiga spewed after the terrible November 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai:
One of the differences between India and other countries is that a lot of our civic space is contained within the five-star hotels.

They have a different function here for us, they are places where marriages happen, where people of all economic backgrounds go for a coffee. For the Taj Mahal to be attacked is somewhat like the town hall being attacked in some other place, it is really something that is quite extraordinary.

 The only real remark this deserves is WTF, but let me expand. I don't know what bizarre subculture Adiga exists within (actually he's a middle class Mangalorean boy who should know better) but this is pure hocus-pocus, creating a race of naive, joyous Indians who flock to the local 5-star hotel for coffee, no matter how poor they are. No sorry, Adiga, that's crap. Only a very select, elite slice of Indian society would be able to afford coffee in a 5-star, let alone be granted admission. We get that the attack on the Taj hotel was a terrible thing - but do you need to  paint a quaint, false picture of Indian life to make that point?

Or did you just think no one would ever call you on your bullshit?

Second case in point: this article by journalist Manu Joseph on Salman Rushdie. Attempting to quantify Rushdie's legacy, he launches into this remarkable observation about my hometown:

In Madras, now Chennai, where boys were preordained to become engineers and literature was considered the refuge of the handicapped or the effeminate, the news of a rock star "Indian" writer made literature suddenly look respectable.
 To begin with, he's oversimplifying: Madras boys can also become lawyers and doctors. Literature, like music and art is respected in a slightly condescending way; as a vocation it is Fine For Others but if your own son or daughter wants to become a writer, you remind him or her to Be Practical (and quite rightly; writers are paid peanuts). This attitude hasn't changed either, whether or not Rushdie is considered a rock star. Joseph has, like Adiga, mixed a few cliches and stereotypes together with total nonsense randomly pulled out of his ass to come out with an amusing, yet fake, slice of life for his western readers.

It's possible to be responsible and accurate, to use the opportunity you've been given to paint a more accurate picture of your country for a foreign audience. But time and again we choose to deck ourselves out in saffron and sandalwood paste and simper for whitey. That's the power of a stereotype; even the people it misrepresents start trying to live up to it.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

more on why Song Of Kali sucks

Wow. That whitesplaining piece of shit likes some of the same writers I do (not Gene Wolfe; I honestly don't give a fuck for Wolfe's woman-hating shit anymore). I feel dirty. Or is it just because of the shit rising outside my windows and my 'animalistic' ways?

There is a difference between noting that a country has huge, possibly insoluble problems and calling it a 'shithole'. There is a difference between taking exception to a condescending and borderline racist characterisation of my country and 'foaming' at the mouth.

There is a also a huge difference between a good book and The Song Of Dan Simmons' Xenophobia.

Not a single Indian character is depicted as having any dignity or essential worth in that novel. Everyone is slimy or shifty or insincere or somehow both pathetic and sinister. This is a common and sickening element in a lot of ignorant, hateful tales of white men abroad and there's really no excuse for it. It has nothing to do with whether our society has deep issues (it has; this is one of the very worst places in the world to be a woman, for instance); it's do with depicting a foreign race as caricatured negative stereotypes for effect and insulting a billion people in the process. It's about lazy, inept characterisation, if you don't care about the insulting bit.

It doesn't matter if this is just how the deeply unpleasant narrator sees us; Simmons at no point makes it seems that he's wrong in any way. In any case, Simmons isn't a writer on the level of Nabokov, who can inhabit a loathsome narrator's viewpoint while leaving us with enough clues to the unreliability of that narrator. He's just better than average from the perspective of the stylistically impoverished idioms he works in; not objectively much better than Koontz and definitely inferior to Barker.

And, cult or no cult (and I do know what a cult is; thanks for assuming that someone from a shithole must be ignorant) Kali herself is depicted as a vector of ultimate evil in Simmons' novel, as a 'bitch goddess'. It is the equivalent of writing a novel where a small cult brings on the Second Coming and Jesus rides back in glory slaying people left and right. Oh wait, isn't that The Bible?

My point is that Simmons egregiously fails to engage with a complex myth outside of his cultural framework and he's capable of better - look at his riffs on Homer and Shakespeare in Olympos. I said Simmons' depiction of Kali is a fucking travesty and I stand by it.

Fuck this book. And fuck its apologists. And to hell with smugly superior white people who travel the world, are horrified that not everyone enjoys the privileges that white folk thanks to their heritage of empire and appropriation and then proceed to think they have the right to dehumanise an entire people and express a seething disdain that seems to leave very little room for the compassion that would be a more fitting response to the countless human tragedies that surround us.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

The Song Of Kali by Dan Simmons

Does for India what Heart Of Darkness did for Africa; uses it as a setting for a tale of unease and terror that could have been set anywhere, really, except that using a third-world setting plays to the western gallery's delicate sensibilities.

This is a superbly structured and masterfully woven horror novel; it's also a fucking travesty of the real nature of Kali and her various manifestations. He's taken a unique female power-divinity, something with no parallel in any other living religion, and reduced her to a 'bitch goddess' of evil.

And I wish that westerners would do a little homework. Nobody spells their name Jayaprakesh. Jayaprakash, sure. Jaiprakash, even. Not Jayaprakesh. Thanks very much kindly. For all the play Simmons makes of Indians mangling English he certainly doesn't hesitate to mangle Indian names.

Simmons' unpleasant narrator hates Calcutta; there are long descriptions of the filth and squalor of the city. There isn't even a hint of compassion for the inhabitants to leaven it; every Indian character is either sinister, conniving, hypocritical or in some way less than human. The only Indian given any sort of a sympathetic portrayal is the narrator's wife, who of course is safely tethered to a white penis and vents her own hatred of India frequently.

And then there's the constant 'bitch goddess' portrayal of Kali. How many things are wrong with this, where do I even begin? From the misogyny of the recurring phrase 'bitch goddess' to the fundamental Indiana Jones-style misunderstanding of a complex and righteous goddess figure, there is just not one redeeming factor here. Kali serves as a stand-in for one of Lovecraft's pantheon of deities waiting to unleash cosmic terror on the world; Calcutta is Simmons' Red Hook and his xenophobia is monumental.

Like metal heads in India, horror fans here are surprisingly forgiving of racism in their favourite genre; this book is one of the favourite novels of many of my horror fan friends. It just shows how deeply we internalise the attitudes of the west; the truth is, this is a vile, hateful book. How xenophobic is Simmons? All the chapters have an epigram taken from an Indian writer except the one chapter that lets in a note of hope and therefore has to return to the light of western civilization with a quote from W.B. Yeats.Yeah. India's only good for being a vector for horror, some poetry and providing unpleasant western men with exotic trophy brides. Fuck this book.