Thursday, June 13, 2013

Tiger’s Curse and Cultural Appropriation.

I’m white. Being white means I have a certain level of privilege that people of colour are not afforded. I’ve never had to experience racism, I’ve never been slurred based on the colour of my skin and I don’t have to live with the extreme social and economic gap that people of colour do in terms of employment, higher education, sexual assault, health issues, etc. Sometimes when I’m looking at an issue, it can be very easy for me to look over the experiences of others. This isn’t deliberate but it is a sign that my race has levelled the playing field in a way that just isn’t open for people who aren’t white. I make a conscious effort to see the bigger picture, take into account the experiences of others and to check my privilege at every possible turn. Frankly, every white person should do so.

I say all this now because I think it’s important for me to put this disclaimer before my piece, wherein I discuss what I saw as the gross ignorance and cultural appropriation present in the book “Tiger’s Curse” by Colleen Houck, a white American YA author. The novel, which takes place primarily in India, centres on a young white American woman called Kelsey who, through a series of laughable and increasingly convoluted events, finds herself looking after a cursed Indian prince who is stuck in the body of a tiger. She accompanies him back to his homeland in order to accomplish several tasks to break the curse, and through this process finds out that she is the chosen one of the Hindu goddess Durga.

Before I can even tackle the cultural issues of this book, I have to discuss just how terrible it is on a basic storytelling level. The book, which was originally self-published on Amazon before being picked up by a publisher and becoming a NYT best-seller, is abysmal. There’s no other word for it. The prose is childish and juvenile, often reading like an essay by a fourteen year old who has just learned how to speak English. Throughout the extremely padded story, the irritating narrator Kelsey displays the emotional and intellectual maturity of a tween, one who is far more concerned with describing every single meal she eats or piece of clothing she wears over the action packed tasks she is set to accomplish. We are subjected to list after list of every single thing Kelsey does, from her morning routine to her showering. Any potential for excitement in the more action packed scenes is quickly shot down because of the stilted prose. I don’t ask for much realism in my books with cursed tiger princes but when I’m rolling my eyes on page 4 (when Kelsey literally walks into a job centre and is given a job helping to look after a tiger in a travelling circus despite a total lack of qualifications), that’s not good.

Supporting characters make no impact beyond their broad offensive stereotypes (the Italian circus owner speaks like the pizza chef from “The Simpsons” while most of the Indian characters speak in the broken English style reserved for racist jokes – shockingly, people in India can speak English, many of them very well. They’re not uneducated simpletons who need a nice white lady to fix their problems). The romance is essentially insta-love but Kelsey is at least smart enough to acknowledge that an Indian price deprived of female contact for hundreds of years may just latch onto the first one he sees. Overall, I was actually embarrassed by the quality of the novel. There is basically no villain until the cheap cliff-hanger epilogue, and the story really could have benefited from some actual antagonism beyond “Baww, Ren is so hot and I want to kiss him!” I was dying for the opportunity to find a paper copy and take big red pen to it. I easily could have removed 20% of that padding and it wouldn’t have made an ounce of difference to the story.

Of course, the real issue with this novel is the portrayal of India and its culture, particularly its religious mythos. The moments where facts about India are shoehorned in feel like Houck just googled random Indian facts and copy-pasted them into the document. People recite stale facts as part of the dialogue and it sounds as though they’re just reading from Wikipedia. I even googled several passages to make sure they weren’t plagiarised from websites because I just couldn’t be sure otherwise. Whenever Kelsey stays in a hotel in India, she stays in the lap of luxury, conveniently avoiding the poorer areas of the country and even the more middle-class areas. This is tourism for the spoiled White Kelsey. It’s like colonialism never happened.

Then again, these moments aren’t anywhere near as offensive as when Houck just makes stuff up. For instance, a character mentions an Islamic belief that Allah sends tiger’s down from heaven to protect his devotees. That’s completely untrue. No such legend exists. While Islam is one of the main religions in India, its origins lie to the Middle East, and there aren’t a whole lot of tigers there. My GoodReads friend Nessa covers this in more detail, including Houck’s inability to keep the mythology of any country straight (kappas?!). This isn’t Hindi culture, this is Disney’s Hinduism for beginners, completely stripped of all the complexities and less then PG rated aspects.

I really became angry when White Kelsey is declared the chosen one of the goddess Durga. The population of India is over 1.2 billion people, yet the chosen one of Durga is a white American girl. Even she questions whether this is right! This brief moment of clarity only serves to aggravate the sheer insulting nature of yet another appearance of the white saviour. Remember in “Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom” how Indy, the very obviously white guy, was the one the poor helpless villagers said was sent by Shiva to save them? What about Kony 2012, a white saviour project so smug and misinformed that it went from online sensation to public joke in about a fortnight? Let’s not forget every single movie set in an American inner-city high school where the nice white lady/man comes in to teach those black/Hispanic kids how to improve their lives, then she gets down with their urban dancing! And, of course, Bono. It is not the job of white people to swoop in on some moral mission and save the poor unfortunate non-white souls. It’s depressing enough that we’re still trying this shit in 2013, I don’t want to have to see it deployed as a cheap exploitative plot device in order to make an irritating and poorly developed Mary Sue be made even more special.

Two things came to mind while reading “Tiger’s Curse”. One was “Temple of Doom”, since the action scenes and general narrative felt very much like Indiana Jones fan-fiction, only without Short Round, and the other was Selema Gomez. Lately, Gomez has been on the receiving end of a lot of justified controversy for her repeated wearing of the bindi in her performances. Gomez seems to be wearing the bindi for no other reason than it looks “cool”.Iggy Azalea’s latest music video “Bounce” is set during an Indian wedding for no apparent reason, with Azalea in traditional dress. Gwen Stefani wore the bindi in the past, as have many other white pop-stars. They took something that wasn’t their culture, stripped it of its cultural and historical context and made it into a fashion accessory. The Aerogram put it best here:

“The political context in which cultural symbols exist is important. Cultural appropriation happens — and the unquestioned sense of entitlement that white Americans display towards the artifacts and rituals of people of color exists too. All “appropriation” is not merely an example of cultural sharing, an exchange between friends that takes place on a level playing field.”

“Tiger’s Curse” uses Indian culture for no apparent reason other than it’s “cool”. The food is tasty, the clothes are colourful, the gods and goddesses are interesting and it’s all there for white people to cherry pick for cheap artistic purposes. Houck at least doesn’t white-wash this version of India, although the two love interests (yes, love triangle) are essentially blank slates who exist to push a plot forward and fawn over the extremely irritating White Kelsey. This should be their story and it’s not. It’s the story of the white girl. It’s yet another tired narrative where the white people come in to save the day from those poor locals with their non-white skin and lack of privilege. Keep in mind just how few mainstream YA novels feature heroines of colour and then look at this book. Why is the supposedly relatable heroine white and why is she so special to an Indian goddess when she has absolutely no connection or understanding of said culture besides the plot telling us she’s special? There are many reasons why you should avoid “Tiger’s Curse”, but if you need to pick one then avoid it because Hindi culture is not Houck’s to fetishize.

Some important links.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Romance No-Nos.

Contrary to popular belief (which I am partially responsible for), I actually like romance novels. No, really, I do. I firmly believe that romance is one of the trickiest genres to write well but when it’s pulled off, it’s unbeatable. With Summer coming (it’ll come to Scotland eventually) it’s the perfect time for me to curl up with a romance and enjoy the brief moments of sunshine my glorious country receives. However, as much as I love romance, I’m also notoriously picky about what I read. There are so many different types of romances out there, with more tropes than you can shake a stick (ahem) at. A lot of my preferences and must-avoids are pretty well known to our loyal readers but there are a few that truly grind my gears, and I’m here to share them with you now!

Student/teacher relationships.
Cora Carmack’s “Losing It” has received a lot of love lately but it’s a book I’ll never be able to read objectively because I am so uncomfortable with the student/teacher dynamic being played for romance. For me, the balance of power is too unequal, even if the age difference is only a few years. When I was in high school, there were more than a few controversies due to students and teachers being caught having affairs. There was nothing hot about hearing stories of 16 year olds caught up in sexual encounters with the people who graded their homework and were closer in age to their parents. It even unnerves me if the student and teacher are both in their 20s because the student, who in these stories is usually female, will always be less in control than the teacher. That’s how that dynamic works. I’d rather read about a relationship where those constraints aren’t being used to create weak dramatic tension.

Instant First Time Hotness.
The virgin is an all too commonly used trope in romance. It always has been. It appears a lot in YA for obvious reasons, but it’s become rather popular in NA too. The fetishizing of sexual purity is something I’ve written about before but one of the many other elements of virginity in romance that bugs me is when the blushing virgin girl finally does have sex and it’s instantly orgasmic. No pain, no discomfort, no hymen clean-up afterwards (to be fair, not every virgin has a hymen because those things are pretty easy to break), just instant screaming and stars in the eyes. It’s romanticised, of course, but the sheer level of disbelief I have to impose on myself to get through reading one of those scenes without rolling my eyes is exhausting. I would love to see more romance novels where the couple genuinely care for each other, have a mutual attraction, and have sex for the first time and it’s not all that. Unfortunately, life is not that excellent. I’m also cynical about romances where the virgin heroine hasn’t even masturbated before she meets the designated love interest. More sex positive romances where auto-pilot is encouraged!

Any book that fetishizes wealth bothers me. Money is a really easy way to bypass a lot of necessary plotting in your book – you don’t need to bother with your heroine having to work to pay the bills and student debt if she’s got a guy with limitless wealth at her disposal. Money is a hugely important part of all of our lives because that’s how capitalism works but I don’t like it to be part of the romance in the sense that the courting features a lot of extravagant displays of wealth. It just makes me think “Jeez, lay it out on the table already” and wonder if I can start socialist warfare.

Controlling a-holes.
This is a pretty obvious one and I’ve covered it many times already so won’t go into too much detail. If the heroine at any point talks about being scared of the designated love interest or feeling intimidated by him, the book stops being a romance for me. If he grabs her, hurts her in any way or controls her actions, dress sense, friendships or anything else, that’s not romance to me. Not in any way.

“Your pussy is mine!”
Come on, do I even need to explain this? One, it’s not yours because it’s not on your body. Two, is this considered sexy talk? I tend to cringe whenever anyone refers to female genitalia as “pussy” or some of the more purple prose leaning euphemisms (never ever call it a “flower” unless you’re studying Georgia O’Keefe). The slang for vagina tends to be far funnier and more awkward than that for penis, in my experience. I’m not sure why, although I do know a lot of stupid names for the ding-dang-doodle! On this note, I also roll my eyes at any sex scene where the hero feels the need to describe the feeling of one organ inserted into another. “Ooh, it’s so hot/wet/tight!” You’re hot drilling for oil, you’re having sex so just get on with it and cut the commentary! I’m also unnerved by sex scenes that don’t seem to understand the difference between the vagina, vulva, clitoris and cervix. They’re not interchangeable! This is why we need good sex education in schools.

Highlander romances.
I’m Scottish, as you all know. I’m also a Celtic studies graduate who focused for a while on cultural representations of Scotland in entertainment. I had to watch “Brigadoon” for class. I had to look up pictures of Shrek in a kilt. I found surveys taken from several years ago in America where the most famous Scot the people polled could name was Groundskeeper Willie. I’m incredibly fussy and hyper-aware of Scottish cultural stereotypes. Sometimes I’m okay with it, like with “Brave”, but most of the time it’s just too embarrassing for me, and rugged Highlander romances are a big no-no for me. I just don’t have a high enough level of cringe tolerance to read them without wincing in pain. Having said that, I am curious about Diana Gabaldon’s work so maybe I’ll give it a go one of these days.

There’s just a few of my no-nos. I’m really picky and have stupidly high standards, can you tell? What are yours?

Monday, June 10, 2013

A Brief Thanks to Iain Banks.

When I was in my 2nd year of high school, I moved from reading the teen section of my school library to the adult section. The adult section was about the quarter the size of the teen section, and jam-packed with huge tomes with familiar names, some of which had never been checked out. I quickly immersed myself in chunky paperbacks full of stuff that was entirely inappropriate for a 14 year old – mainly gritty crime fiction and the Hannibal Lecter series, but basically, I would read anything. During one English class, we ended up doing a close reading assessment of the opening chapter of “The Crow Road” by Scottish writer Iain Banks, the book with my all-time favourite opening line:

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”

How could you not love a line like that? Of course, I was hooked and had to go read one of his books straightaway. Unfortunately, at the time somebody had already checked out “The Crow Road” so I browsed through Banks’s other books and was drawn to one with a simple black and white cover entitled “The Wasp Factory”. The blurb talked about a murdering child so it was basically right up my alley. I read the sort of books that made people worry about me and I loved it!

I remember being completely engrossed in that book for the couple of days it took me to read. I would rush to finish my classwork so I could have free time to read it. One day in geography class, my teacher excitedly asked me how I was liking the book and if I’d gotten to the end yet (I hadn’t but even that vague warning couldn’t have prepared me for it). When I did finish the book we ended up having a great chat about it. My class-mates didn’t tend to read the stuff I did – probably because they didn’t want people to think they were murderers – so having someone to talk about it with meant a lot to me. I eventually did read “The Crow Road” and loved it but it didn’t impact me in the same way “The Wasp Factory”, in all its disturbing, visceral and bleakly funny way, did.

I mention this because, as you probably know, Iain Banks died yesterday after a short battle with terminal cancer. I haven’t read a lot of Banks’s work but sometimes all it takes is one book to make a difference. “The Wasp Factory” shaped me in a huge way. It’s one of the defining pieces of entertainment in my life, up there with “The History Boys”, “Harry Potter” and the music of Rufus Wainwright. One of the reasons I wanted to study English literature was because of that book. I desperately wanted to understand every page as well as look into literary criticism (the fact that this book’s critical quotes section included ones from people who loathed it just made me smile so much). His work was the sort of stuff I wanted to write for the longest time because to me it felt completely honest, viscerally so. I wanted everyone to read this book so they could understand why I loved it so much.

That was almost 10 years ago but the impact it made on me remains, and it breaks my heart to write this.

It only takes one book to change everything. So thank you, Iain Banks, for everything you gave me.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

"Extreme Romance" in YA & NA.

Dear Author, one of our favourite sites, recently had an excellent post examining the appeal of the now infamous 50 Shades series as well as that of self-publishing sensation Kristen Ashley. Ashley, who is an extremely prolific writer, has attracted a massive fanbase with her alpha male romances, the most popular of which centre on motorcycle gangs, law enforcement and the like. Personally, I find both Ashley and James’s work to be hilariously bad in terms of their prose (Ashley’s devotion to the run-on sentence is a continuing source of pain) and cringe-worthy in terms of their dynamics portrayed. I admit it: I don’t like alpha males, I hate romanticised “claiming” of women and I absolutely loathe abuse portrayed as love. So the appeal of these kinds of romances will forever elude me. Call me old fashioned but the moment a man starts talking about how a woman is “his”, I’m consumed by an overwhelming desire to run away and buy some pepper spray.

These kinds of all-consuming romances are hardly old hat in publishing, both adult and YA. It feels as if we spend most of our time on The Book Lantern discussing the rape culture and romanticised abuse ever present in modern mainstream YA and NA. The latter in particular has fallen in deep with this trope to the point where it seems as if the entire category of New Adult is limited to contemporary romances with a huge dollop of sexism on top. I get that for a lot of women, this is an extremely desirable fantasy to have. That’s one thing. The issue here is that these particular kinds of romances have saturated the genre and category to the point where it seems as if they’re the only option available to readers. Not only did extreme romance become the norm, it became the expected romantic mode.

So what’s the appeal of “extreme romance” for readers of YA and NA? First we need to look at who these readers are. The expected answer for YA fans is, of course, teenagers, but we all know that it’s not so simple these days. With over half of YA recent purchasers being adults, the category seems tilted in favour of the adult audience, one with more disposable income than the average teenager. This audience is the primary target of NA, in my opinion. The romances in the work of Abbi Glines, S.C. Stephens and Jamie McGuire, for example, operate in much the same way that the all-consuming passions of Twilight and Hush Hush, only consummating the love isn’t considered heinous.

Next, we need to look at what the term “extreme romance” suggests. Personally, I’m disappointed whenever the word “extreme” turns up and there are no explosions involved. In this context, explosion free, “extreme romance” conjures up images of the highly dramatic: soap opera style arguments, passionate embraces in the rain, wall banging orgasms every time you have sex, the overwhelming, all-consuming passionate love that you literally can’t live without. Extreme suggests risk and danger, and isn’t all that positive sounding. However, even I can admit to seeing the appeal in the idea of a gorgeous man who fits the general definition of “perfect” having eyes for you and only you. Not only does he love you wholeheartedly but his entire life is ruled by that love. It’s not a new model of romance, it’s been around as love as love stories have been. Why is it so popular now, particularly with the teen/new adult age group? That’s a thesis I’m not quite ready to write.

The interesting thing about this “extreme romance” in the context of YA is that it’s still incredibly safe and predictable for the reader. We never doubt for one second throughout four books in the Twilight series that Bella and Edward will end up together. Nobody is ever in any real danger because the author is not emotionally prepared to put her characters through that, nor is she distant enough from her own creation to have real dangers to the relationship unfold. Dating a vampire with control issues is “safe” for Bella, even if it’s a potential landmine of sexism and rape culture. This can also be applied to a huge chunk of the paranormal romance canon of the past 6 or 7 years. Even in a dangerous world of mythical creatures, the relationships are never actually at risk, no matter how many red herrings or tired plot points are thrown in (I’m looking at you, Mortal Instruments). No amount of desperate love triangles will threaten the designated pairing.

This extends to NA, where contemporary romances rule the roost. Romance is grounded in its rules of safety. Happy ever after or go home. Granted, there’s usually a lot of angst thrown in the way but the basic pattern remains the same. The reader lives vicariously through a new and shocking tale of romance at its highest peak of emotion with the knowledge that no matter how much anguish one must endure, “love” will win (note the quotation marks around love because dear god I refuse to refer to anything that happens in a Jamie McGuire or S.C. Stephens book as love). There’s a certain appeal to the kind of romance that relinquishes a woman of her control, leaving her able to just give in and have someone else take care of the big issues. There may be some sparky dialogue that “proves” how equally matched the pair are but in the end it’s marriage and babies and love saving the day, then sex (after the wedding for YA, before it for NA, pretty much every time).

The issue with extreme romance isn’t that it exists – your kink is not my kink – but that it’s the sole option available right now in the categories. The all-consuming angle somewhat fits with the rush of first love that’s so appealing to many young women. However, there’s a huge difference between the adrenaline of first love and the possessive nature of the “extreme romance”, and when that’s the only thing you can see in YA and NA, that becomes a problem because the problematic elements are normalised to the point where we dismiss them as just par for the course. NA is currently a Formula 1 style race to the top, with self-publishing leading the way and prolific writers churning out generic stories as quick as they can to keep up with trends and make a bit of money, so the category hasn’t had a chance to settle down and evolve beyond extreme romance. Perhaps with time that will change. Now that YA has moved somewhat beyond the sparkly bandwagon and is on the lookout for pastures fresh, we’ll find something a little less extreme.