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.

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