Amal Unbound

In AMAL UNBOUND by Aisha Saeed, an academic young girl dreams of becoming a teacher, but is forced into indentured servitude for the wealthy loanshark family which dominates her small Pakistani village.* Heavy stuff for a children’s book, perhaps, but the difficulty of reading it is almost entirely emotional, as broader issues are made vividly concrete: local power dynamics come alive in a tussle over a pomegranate, sophisticated dissonances echo in the division of chores. The inner voice of Amal, her web of familial and neighbourly intimacies, and a strong flavour of village and estate life, are all rendered with remarkable economy. The book insists–to a rather impressive degree–on nuance and humility. If it falters anywhere, it is perhaps that I at least found it hard to be quite as convinced by the hopeful resolution of the book as by the bleakness of the realities it conveys. I also felt that certain narrative threads got a little lost along the way–were the early scenes with Omar, or even Amal’s mother’s post-natal funk, perhaps, destined to go somewhere else? But overall, a powerful volume well worth the time to introduce to children–and while the experiences depicted do not map exactly onto those of live-in domestic workers in Singapore, there are significant parallels which give the book some additional relevance here.

*I see Elena Ferrante in everything now, of course, but the Khans very much put me in mind of the Carraccis and the Solaras; and both Amal’s bookishness and moments of defiance were likewise slightly reminiscent of Lenù and Lila.

Acts of quarantine

Here is an extra spoiler-filled Byatt/Ferrante-off that nobody asked for.

It is unsatisfying to me that the (largely excellent) My Brilliant Friend adaptation gives Antonio short shrift, to the detriment of the characterisation of Lenù. On screen, Antonio is played for cringes. Lenù becomes a passive recipient of the semi-wanted attentions of an over-eager bumbler, who makes shallow jabs at the grooming of his rival, the cool intellectual, Nino. But in the novel, Lenù is actively, if ineptly, manipulative. When Antonio appears after school it is at her request, in order to rub Nino’s face in it. Moreover, it is she who asks that they attend Lila’s wedding as a pair, and because Antonio reasonably takes this as a willingness to socially cement their relationship, he goes into debt to get a new suit—an expense which the show presents as a spontaneous vanity. These changes rob the relationship, and consequently Lenù, of considerable complexity.

Critically, the television series also downplays their mutual physical chemistry. This seems a small matter in the first book alone, but their connection presents a significant comment on sexuality in the wider arc of the four novels. Aside from the creepy elder Sarratore (who is an awful bag of shit), to the best of my recollection only Antonio is strongly presented as offering a woman sexual satisfaction. (For the most part, the books’ descriptions of sex echo Lila’s: “Fucking is overrated.”) In this respect, Antonio is specifically contrasted favourably against Lenù’s other, highly intellectual, middle/upper-class partners, even as union with him represents the danger of being trapped in her origins. Only with Antonio, a man of the neighbourhood—and only after social climbing renders Lenù utterly outside the power of the neighbourhood—do we see in any detail an honest and non-threatening consummation of mutual desire. As is often the case, the neighbourhood is both a source of vitality, as well as inhospitable to it.

I find it fascinating to juxtapose this against (what else) the early loves of Frederica Potter, and her philosophy of “lamination”. Frederica’s compulsive drive to keep everything separate—love, sex, affection, thinking, reading, home—her need to hold all experiences at an analytical distance—is her safeguard against being swallowed whole by local domesticity. For both Ferrante’s and Byatt’s young women, there is a kind of satisficing going on, with their hunger for things that come into conflict—for status, for independence, for knowledge, including sexual knowledge. A major part of how they handle this problem is to quarantine sexual exploration from emotional vulnerability, in defiance of societal (and perhaps also readerly) expectations.

In Frederica’s case, this centres, perhaps counterintuitively, in the character of Alexander. Alexander begins in many respects as a Nino-esque figure, embodying a quiet cultural and intellectual glamour, and inspiring painful desire of an impossibly compound nature: Alexander is sex, he is writing and reading, he is romance, he is social advancement, he is intellectual worth, he is clever company, he is metropolitan escape from Blesford and kitchens and curates. Yet when he is finally within reach, the very completeness of Frederica’s devotion to him repels her. Any possibility of total intimacy is a trap, here signalled by the appearance of the trimmings of domesticity, the chops she can’t cook. She runs away in favour of a lower-stakes, almost clinical—laminated—tryst with the reassuringly unexciting Wilkie.

There are curious parallels between the consensual sexual encounters that both Lenù and Frederica hold at the greatest distance. Both take place outdoors, with older men of extremely peripheral relevance to their lives. Both men seem at first to be safely left behind as private biographical footnotes, until the moment of the women’s first public artistic triumphs, when they reappear in a strange mixture of comedy and threat. Ed, the “traveller in dolls” whom Frederica meets on a bus, comes pushing through the crowd after she performs in Alexander’s play, and has to be hastily evaded. Lenù, cannier and in more control in many ways, successfully transforms her own incident into literary material, and finds her work at the receiving end of a bitter review from the man in question.

Quarantine is a strategy for a rigged world. Marriage, the ultimate running-together of things, simply doesn’t work for the women of these books. Not for Stephanie Potter or Lila Cerullo, with their romantic visions of package deals of love, sex and meaning. Not for Frederica, gambling somewhat incoherently on maintaining emotional and social independence with a sufficiently alien man. Not for Lenù, compromising on social ascension with an inconsiderate sexual damp squib. I’m glad she gets to enjoy Antonio after making it out the other side, and I hope the television series stays true to that, at least, when the time comes around.

The Emperor’s Riddle

Last night I raced through the final chapters of THE EMPEROR’S RIDDLE by Kat Zhang, a rollicking treasure hunt and rescue mission in which eleven-year-old Mia, reluctantly dragged on a summer holiday from the US to her family’s hometown of Fuzhou, goes in search of lost riches said to be hidden by Ming dynasty emperor Zhu Yunwen–a search which she believes will also save her missing aunt.

The book has a slow start but really takes off after the first few chapters. There is a wonderful interweaving of riddle-solving with real historical and cultural sites around Fuzhou, and a clever interdependence between the treasure hunt and Mia’s family dynamics. The adventure is launched because of Mia’s singular trust in her aunt (who co-parents with her mother); the enterprise tests the endurance of her sometimes troubled bonds with her cooler older brother and her harried, practical mother; and success is only possible in part because Mia overcomes her natural reticence to build bridges with her “stranger-uncle” in China.

Somewhat irritatingly, I had to order it online (an indie bookstore in Cardiff said they couldn’t even order it in–and it’s hardly an old book, published in 2017). Obviously I’m far from the first to observe that Anglosphere children’s publishing and bookselling is far more eager to promote books about non-humans than it is about non-white/non-western characters and settings; and that the exceptions are often Books About Issues. Those very much have their place, but one does wince at the idea of implicitly teaching children that there are Fun Whites (boy wizards! girl pirates!) and Worthy Others. Given that, part of what is refreshing about this book is its both gentle and informed use of elements such as a diasporic family’s homecoming and the Chinese Cultural Revolution (which has a major impact on Mia’s aunt’s past) in what is first and foremost a very enjoyable adventure story.

If I had one criticism: the gloomy villain is a bit of a flat plot device. That said, the book already has so much on its plate that to give him more psychological depth might have needlessly complicated matters. It was fun. I think kids would like it.

You were all right

Despite some earlier ambivalence toward Elena Ferrante, I finally took the billion and a half recommendations to read the Neapolitan novels, and have just stumbled, reeling, off the exhilarating ride that is MY BRILLIANT FRIEND. I will need to get onto the other three books pronto, and I’m sure I will have many more thoughts when I’m done. But I wanted to pause for a remark occasioned by the comparison by John Freeman included among the praise quotes in my copy: “Imagine if Jane Austen got angry.” In fact the parallel that struck me more forcefully, if one really must insist on grounding everything in analogies to works by Anglo authors (note: one need not), is “Imagine if A.S. Byatt weren’t so snobby.” I couldn’t help recalling, as I ate this book up, that other gorgeous, labyrinthine quartet on gender, literature, domesticity, sexuality, tradition and violence–the Frederica Potter books.

Both first volumes begin in the 1950s (with the first appearance of television in the neighbourhood an event of some interest); both trace in sumptuous detail and with great psychological penetration the divergent lives of young people in a close-knit neighbourhood; both centre on young women’s intellectual ambitions and the threats that thwart them; both are rigorously critical but humanistic at heart; and both climax in weddings with varying elements of farce, and, in Ferrante’s case, horror. From what I’ve read so far, Ferrante is a more consistent and disciplined writer–sticking to comparisons between the first volumes for now (avoiding the painful subject of A WHISTLING WOMAN), though I love Byatt in an almost foundational way, I have to admit that the Marcus Potter subplot in THE VIRGIN IN THE GARDEN is not always entirely readable. Ferrante is also, and powerfully, much more attuned to matters of class. While Byatt sometimes gestures in this direction, it’s not really a matter of interest in the Potter books for her as much as it is in THE CHILDREN’S BOOK.

It is hard to overstate the significance of this comparison for me. The Frederica Potter books are, not to put too fine a point on it, like some kind of personal religion. It was on closing the pages of STILL LIFE that I knew I would write A CERTAIN EXPOSURE. I am enormously excited about what the rest of this series is going to do to my head.

Growing Up in an Unequal Society

So you’ve read Teo You Yenn’s book, but have you seen the movie? I’m so excited to have drawn and animated this–an illustrated version of “Growing Up In An Unequal Society”, the talk she gave for the Singapore Children’s Society lecture in September. It was an absolute delight and honour to work on such rich and important material. Please watch and share.

Small Worlds: Northern Lights

I’m in the middle of revisiting His Dark Materials, which I absolutely adored when I first read it. This time around, having just finished NORTHERN LIGHTS, I continue to be awed by its imaginative grandeur and its daring, as well as its willingness to inject a kind of wildness and philosophy which is striking to find in a series of children’s books.

But it is impossible for me now not to notice how little time Pullman has for women.

For sure, there are key female characters, notably, of course Lyra. And they are compelling, though still half in the clutches of stereotype: it is rather wearying how Mrs Coulter’s villainy, contemptibility and femininity are all represented as pretty much the same thing. Ma Costa is a powerful presence but—as you might guess from her name—her main role is simply to be maternal. Even Serafina Pekkala can’t quite escape lavish attention to her physical beauty and how much witches love men.

My main complaint, though, isn’t about how the women and girls in the book are portrayed, so much as how needlessly all-male settings recur with dismaying regularity. Why does Jordan College have to be so wholly uncritically portrayed as excluding women? Why (except in the sex-segregated Bolvangar) must all of Lyra’s child friends be boys? Why, among the armoured bears, does “bear” mean male bear, with “she-bear” marking the (silent, passive) exception?

This dynamic undermines the portrayal even the important female characters, whose male daemons get approximately a billion times more airtime than any of the female daemons of the male humans. Contrast the enormous attention given to Mrs Coulter’s golden monkey, the vast amount of dialogue and acts of significance given to Serafina Pekkala’s grey goose, compared to the dumb animal presence of Lord Asriel’s snow leopard or Lee Scoresby’s hare.

The most frustrating example of all, for me, is when the gyptians discuss their rescue mission to the North. A woman in the meeting actually raises an objection to the intention to exclude women, and offers suggestions of how women might be useful (even assuming a firmly gendered division of labour). John Faa says he’ll consider it, and in the next chapter we learn merely that he has decided against, with no real justification. One can’t help but think this represents Pullman’s own approach: noticing that his own book was sexist, giving it about two seconds’ thought, and then shrugging and getting on with (male) things. It lends a strange and arbitrary smallness to a work which is otherwise so vast in its ambitions and achievements.