The Underground Railroad / The Hate U Give

I’ve recently finished reading two novels about anti-black racism in the US context: alternate-historical THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead and best-selling YA volume THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas. I’d highly recommend both.

They are very different in tone – where Whitehead is formal or even majestic (though without being fussy), Thomas is all sarcastic first-person teenager, replete with sweary onomatopoeia, Harry Potter references and characters arguing about Tumblr. But they both offer important windows into a still-ongoing history of hellish violence and the extraordinary experiences of people who have been brought down by or else forged on through it. These are worth understanding both for their own sake, and because of what they can tell us about the country that continues to hold the power of violence over all of us on this planet. And they are also just cracking good reads.

A new orbit: Lessons from parenthood on trust

Note: This essay was first published as a chapter in The Birthday Book 2017: What should we never forget?, edited by Sheila Pakir and Malminderjit Singh.

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A new orbit: Lessons from parenthood on trust

The story goes that independent Singapore began, needfully, in paternalism.  Lee Kuan Yew is cast as the family patriarch – “Ah Kong”, reverently or derisively, depending on who speaks – declaring his government’s benevolent dominion over “who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use”.

This, it is said, kept the body of our young nation alive.  Some regret that it left our hearts and minds less developed, but no matter – now we are growing up and making space for different ways, secure in the foundation that the firm hand of authority laid for us.  Admirers praise the stern father figure who famously preferred fear to love; critics mourn the “infantile” citizenry.  

For me, as a feminist and a parent, this pat tale is illuminating for what it omits.  It takes for granted a certain vision of relating to children.  But there are other ways of parenting, just as there are other ways of governing.  

Many parents are consciously striving toward what we describe as respectful parenting.  We seek to shed the view that children are lesser or incomplete people, whose conduct should be managed purely to produce outcomes unilaterally predefined by adults as desirable.

The child is a whole person, whose individual perspective must be respected.  Children do not enjoy developed adult brains or the benefits of experience, but this gives adults no inherent right to deference.  Child feelings can seem outsized and uninformed, but it does not follow that they merit dismissal.  

We cannot control who children are; we can only choose what kind of relationship we offer them.  Their values are shaped through that relationship if we earn their trust, not by fiat.  Do everything “right”, and they will still surprise us with who they become.  

This can be frightening.  It is reassuring to cling to the illusion of control.  But only embracing this risk gives children the chance to be themselves, and therefore to truly connect with us.

A key insight of this form of parenting is that labelling has power.  Call children “naughty” or “lazy”, and they see themselves through that lens.  More subtly, they respond to the model of their personalities that our parenting projects, expressly or implicitly.  Imagine them as manipulative, as seeking domination, and this perception bleeds through in our actions and communications.  They pick it up.  If we parent by reference to worst-case spectres conjured by our fears, instead of responding attentively to the specific child in front of us, we sow distrust in the relationship.

Citizens are not the children of public institutions, and some use of coercion is inherent to the nation-state in a way that it is not to families.  But it is nevertheless instructive to apply the insights of parenting to governance, because both involve the use of powers with unusually deep abilities to shape self-image and relations with others.  

In discussing social needs with policy decision-makers, I meet a remarkably consistent projection of the citizenry.  Authorities are highly exercised by the idea of abusive system gaming by the sly fox who has learned all the rules just to cheat.  Often, confronted with how policies can cause hardship, they are sceptical about the accounts of ordinary people: “There’s something they aren’t telling you” is a popular refrain.  Clear harms raised – families torn apart by migration regulations, people struggling with poverty – are rarely as real as the spectre of this liar.

One group of decision-makers were amused at my observation that the citizenry might be harmed by a restrictive policy because many earnestly play by the rules, instead of pushing to squeeze every last advantage they can.  At another moment, a different decision-maker suggested that if foreign spouses faced marginally fewer barriers to employment, citizens might marry foreigners en masse at the behest of their employers.  What does it imply when this absurd proposition is taken seriously, but the very idea of rule-abiding citizens is laughable?  

Why would a people honour rules that are designed around the belief that to do so is naive?  What is the impact on citizen confidence in institutions, when decision-makers pervasively communicate distrust, including through opacity?  One clue may be found in the work of political scientist Eric Plutzer, who found a strong connection across different US states between more inclusive food stamp programmes – which communicated less distrust of the public – and greater political participation in the form of voter turnout.  People cannot become invested in a national enterprise that has little faith in them.

Sometimes our institutions seem to disclaim the idea that relationships have any power at all.  Like the parent who does not take time to transmit their values via positive connection, we instead pursue compliance only through surveillance and punishment.  For instance, students in universities have long engaged in organised sexual harassment in orientation activities, such as being pressured to perform push-ups over one another.  When a particularly dramatic example emerged in 2016, with participants being quizzed about their “sluttiness” and whose bodily fluids they would like to consume or facing forfeits such as enacting scenes of incestuous rape, there was widespread talk of investigation, expulsion, blacklisting, policing.  But there was much less appetite – even from institutions whose mission is to educate – for engaging the cultural roots of the behaviour.  Instead of merely suppressing one manifestation of mob misogyny, we need to understand how and why it has become commonplace among young people, and invest in nurturing better values, which can counter it head-on.

Just as in the parent-child space, the relationship of power and labelling between public institutions and the people operates with profound consequences, whether we wish to see it or not.  When those with power orbit psychologically around notional figures that they distrust, at the expense of engagement with people before them, there is a deep impact on our collective images of social relations, which cannot straightforwardly be undone by other incentives or blandishments.  We urgently need to pay attention to this, because ultimately – and most visibly in times of crisis – the nation itself, no less than any family, is only the sum of the relationships that create it.

Frogs, toads and despots

Some months ago we were gifted a book of FROG AND TOAD stories, pitched as helping emergent readers. I had never encountered this series before. I was very struck by how the author, Arnold Lobel, working within the constraints of very simple vocabulary, short sentences and sentence repetition, and using simple but evocative illustrations, created a surprising depth of characterisation and feeling. His stories are brief but highly memorable portraits of two distinctive individuals with differing outlooks but a deeply complementary friendship. (I am, for the record, Toad.)

Recently I looked Lobel up and discovered that he was a gay USAmerican man who had lived most of his life in the closet, coming out to his wife and children after a long time, eventually dying of AIDS. The beautiful snapshots of connection found in his fiction were, it’s been speculated, testimonials to his experiences of homosexual tenderness. His feelings were denied ordinary expression and sublimated into extraordinary work.

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Lately I’ve been absorbed in Peter Pomerantsev’s NOTHING IS TRUE AND EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE, an account of the contortions and confusions of media and political thought under Putin. It is both horribly, fascinatingly weird and also (for Singapore’s liberals and democrats) a little familiar.

It feels good to be reading again. I’ve done exceptionally poorly on the books front this year so far, largely because I find it hard to have more than one book going at a time, and for ages I’d been stuck on Marlon James’ A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS. I finally gave up somewhere around 150 pages in. I can sort of see why it’s reckoned good, but I just didn’t want to deal any longer with the reptition, the lack of forward momentum and the numbing brutality – which kept putting me in mind, perhaps unfairly, of the ‘wot u starin at’ send-up Edward St Aubyn created in LOST FOR WORDS. I’m sure some unflattering inferences can be drawn from the fact that I went from struggling with James’ mode of violence to finding delicious relief in revisiting the sterile bitchiness of the world of Patrick Melrose, but it is what it is.

The Handmaiden

Note: this is really spoileriffic.

I wanted to, I really wanted to, but I didn’t much like THE HANDMAIDEN.

It was, I’ll grant, visually enchanting. Every frame is beautifully composed—in the opening minutes alone, the mere placement of household objects and the light falling on a car in a forest gave me as much pleasure at looking in a screen as I’ve had in some time.

But the film was filled with baffling storytelling choices that, as time wore on, went for me from mildly irksome to confusing to downright unpleasant.

I admit that my view is coloured by my strong sense of the film’s departures from Sarah Water’s novel FINGERSMITH, on which it is based. I find it hard to know exactly how I would have reacted coming to the story cold. But I don’t see fidelity to source material as an end or virtue in itself. For instance, the transplantation of context to Korea and the introduction of the element of cultural colonisation of Korea by Japan, to me, enriched rather than detracted. So my feelings aren’t (only or mainly) the fangirls’ cry of “They got it wrong!” It’s more that a knowledge of their deliberate redirections makes the substantive failings of the film—and the politics of its choices—clearer.

Anyway, my complaints, in vaguely chronological order (since that is also the sequence in which my irritation mounted):

Initially, I was lightly troubled by how heavily they play on Hideko’s beauty in constructing the romance between the leads, beginning with Sookee being (somewhat unconvincingly and soap operatically) dumbstruck at the sight of her. In general, I’m not a fan of any romances that begin with being blown away with one party’s looks; and this certainly compared unfavourably to the growing fascination across distance that is slowly built up in the novel.

It didn’t help that Hideko is a much more unsympathetic character than her novel equivalent. Sue and Maud are no saints, of course: FINGERSMITH’s power comes from its dramatisation of two individuals finding love and recognition in a kind of radical equality of sins—they both entered exactly the same callous plot to do each other in, at the behest of the same greed which seems like the only freedom they could ever enjoy. Mutual honesty and forgiveness come from realising they made their choices from the same trap—a prisoner’s dilemma—and that they are stronger together than pit against each other.

But relations between Hideko and Sookee are much more unequal. In the film, it is Hideko—rather than Rivers and Sucksby—who invents the madhouse scheme. Hideko is the prime mover, Sookee only the pawn. And Hideko’s cruelties to her servants and to Sookee (including striking both) are much more intense and gratuitous than Maud’s. By doing away with the plots to do with maternal love and mistaken identity, the idea of equality between the two and their common identity is also undermined.

But this could have perhaps been forgiven, as weakness rather than failure, had the film not gone on to pander to precisely the kind of degrading fetishisation of their sexuality which is supposedly being criticised in Hideko’s uncle and is coterie. It’s a delicate balance which is walked in FINGERSMITH: sexual frankness is both a tool for damaging and exploiting Maud and a source of her liberatory connection to Sue. But THE HANDMAIDEN seems to me to tip toward reproducing rather than challenging dehumanising views of the protagonists’ sexuality.

Beside the ways their connection (as described above) is undermined, there’s the dreadful move of having the Rivers analogue (the fake Count—I don’t think we ever learn his real name?) “fall in love”, whatever that means and for whatever it’s worth, with Hideko. This takes place for no discernible reason other than presumably once again her enchanting appearance, since there is no warmth between them whatsoever. This undermines the supposed contrast between the mercenary and exploitative relations exemplified in how the Count/uncle treat Hideko and Sookee, and how the two women treat one another. Why is the Count’s “love” different from Sookee’s or Hideko’s?

Worse, Hideko begins to sexually perform for the Count—and also the viewer, who seems increasingly to be made to take the role of the film’s voyeurs. I don’t count in this the part where she kisses him to drug him, but I can’t find any other way to describe the fact that she masturbates in front of him on their wedding night—if the point was only to fool Sookee, making false noises would have sufficed.

The part which to me most encapsulates the increasingly voyeuristic tone of the film is the closing scene, where Sookee and Hideko re-enact one of the scenes which Hideko had had to describe to her uncle’s audience. Confusingly, they do this with very stagey symmetry, on what I remember (perhaps wrongly) on rather uncomfortable looking furniture, taking positions and roles that are remarkably reminiscent of women laughing alone with salad.

A final, relatively minor, gripe: FINGERSMITH is not subtle. Nobody would accuse the film-makers of lack of drama for simply transcribing its matters to screen. So why they had to dial everything to do with Maud’s uncle up to eleven really escapes me. Is it not enough that he’s a nasty pervert who makes a young girl read erotica to men for fun and profit? Does he also have to be a wife-killer—with an underground torture room—complete with rape-octopus—who wants to marry and fuck his ward—and who can mobilise all the country’s border guards to search for them? Calm down a bit, guys.

So, yeah. I wanted to like THE HANDMAIDEN. But I didn’t.