Monday, 21 December 2015

Reflection: #WNDB & Beyond a Single Story

Whether they realise it or not, most Australians are familiar with the concept of a single story. It's when foreigners ask us, unironically, about keeping kangaroos as pets. Its the entire sub-genre of Australian Outback romances. I've been polling all my romance reading friends about these, and none of them have ever read an Outback romance. Even though these books are (sometimes) made and distributed in Australia, they are primarly meant for external consumption. It's the advertisements on my cable television provider for a program in which some minor British personality goes bush to search the "real Australia". Cue images of horse-wrangling, cattle stations and crocodiles, and British Guy patronisingly explaining everything despite having a day's experience of the place. It's not that the stories of rural Australians aren't worthy or important - in fact, in our internal media these are often sidelined - but their presentation to international audiences invalidates the 85% of Australians who live in urban environments. 

And countries and regions all around the world have similar experiences. Often, we even encourage the stereotypes of the outside world to brand ourselves for tourism and business purposes, Australia's Where the bloody hell are you? ad campaign being a prime example, but this doesn't make them any less alienating or dangerous.

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's talks about how we are often lead to believe that one story about a particular place or people is the only story in her influential TED talk entitled The Dangers of a Single Story. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend watching it, or reading the transcript.

She recounts how, on coming to America for university, she realised that people saw Africa as a place of "beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS", and related to her through this lens. It was not their fault; this is what the media and popular culture presented to them with little differentiation between nations, regions, cultures and religions. Adichie, however, was not in the same boat. She says:

...because of America's cultural and economic power, I had many stories of America. I had read Tyler and Updike and Steinbeck and Gaitskill. I did not have a single story of America.
I thought of this quote when I was reflecting on my #WNDB Challenge as it comes up to the end of the year. Despite the fact that I had sought out books featuring characters of varying ethnicities, religions and sexualities, I have realised that 14 out of the 20 books I read were set in the US, and all but two took place in either the US or UK (and when I say the UK, I really mean England with the odd Scottish setting thrown in; Wales and Northern Ireland don't get a look-in). I undertook the #WNDB Challenge to counter hegemony, but ended up perpetuating it in another form. Unless they had immigrated to the US or UK, the people of the periphery were still silenced. No doubt about it, the fault was in my selecting skills, but this also reflects what I was exposed to on Goodreads, Amazon and other blogs.

I'm always loath to buy into romance/'light' fiction vs. 'literary' fiction binaries, but I do feel like the romance world is dragging its feet in this regard. The Man Booker prize has opened itself up to writers from all over the world and novels from all over the world are feted as literary masterpieces (this is has it's own set of problems as well, don't get me wrong). In contrast, all of the 2015 RITA Winners were set in the UK or US. 2014 had more diverse settings: one Outback, one partially set in Bangkok and one set in various European locations (but with the characters based in London). In 2013, we were back to all US or UK, excepting two fictional locations.

I have no doubt there are many romance novels set outside these conventional locations out there, but they are not making it past the literary gatekeepers and so languish in the dusty corners of the Kindle Store. In 2016, I'm making it my mission to find them. The aim is to review books from countries around the world in an aim to help myself see beyond the single story, and I would be grateful for any recommendations. 

As always, there will be an element of working this out as I go along. For example, should the author have to be from the country in which the book is set? The only things I'm sure about is that I would like to read more than one book from each country. After all, it would be pretty useless to counter a single story with a single story.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Review: The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

5 stars

I want you to imagine two things: One, think of Kate and Wills not as clotheshorses, curiousities or stuffy royals, but as flawed twenty-somethings who have to sort their shit out with the whole world watching. Secondly, imagine that Kate wrote a tell-all book about that experience. Because that's pretty much what The Royal We is: a thinly-veiled, no-holds-barred, somewhat sensationalist imagining of the royal courtship. Except instead of Wills and Kate, we have Nick and Bex, an American on exchange to Oxford. It sounds terrible, but it wasn't. And, from a card-carrying member of the Australian Republican Movement who thinks we should ditch the royals, that's quite a testimony. 

The thing that made The Royal We work was its humour. Bex's narration is searingly honest and often very ambivalent, and yet she always remains hilariously droll. Not only do she and the other characters have a sense of humour, they also have funny little quirks, like Prince Nicholas, who loves crap TV so much he votes for people on reality shows. 

And yet, I wouldn't want to give the impression this book was a laugh a minute, because it wasn't. Somehow, I ended up crying. Twice. I blame this on the fact that Cocks and Morgan make the reader empathise with just about every single character in the book, who are all superbly drawn, vulnerable and human. When I started audibly sobbing, I told myself to take a break, and yet I kept reading. There was something compelling about The Royal We, a need to know what happened next, and the ending is far from a foregone conclusion. There was, of course, a HEA, but it was a real-life HEA, an acknowledgement of imperfection and mistakes and a decision to stick together forever in spite of them. 

The HEA is all the more poignant for the ups and downs Nick and Bex and their circle of friends and family go through. As I said, this is no whirlwind fairytale, but a long book set over several years. It took a while to read, and if your response to it is anything like mine, it will need commitment, because it's not the kind of book you put down willingly. 

There was the stray Americanism at which I ground my teeth, and sometimes it also required a greater-than-usual suspension of disbelief, but, ultimately, the level of absorbstion it induced in me makes it impossible to give The Royal We anything but 5 stars. 

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Review: Badlands by Seleste deLaney

2 stars

Seleste deLaney's Badlands is a Steampunk romance, set after an alternative American Civil War that saw the US divided up into the Union, the Confederates and the Badlands. The Badlands is a frontier, where the Union expel their criminals to be rounded up and imprisoned by the Amazonian women who live there. Ever is one of those women, a military commander for Queen Lavinia. When the queen is killed in a brutal attack, Ever escapes and embarks on a mission to bring home the new Queen from her university in the Union before there's a massive power vacuum and whatever mysterious enemy they're fighting manages to wipe the Badlands off the face of the earth. Spencer Pierce, captain of the airship that picks up Ever after she flees her people's settlement, reluctantly assists her in her mission, but he's got problems of his own. The attack on the Badlands has meant he was unable to complete the last cargo run of his indenture, leaving him under the thumb of a powerful Union Senator.

Badlands suffered from all-round poor characterisation. For a start, Ever was an insufferable and nonsensical heroine. There was a massive disparity between her rhetoric and her actions. She was intolerant and judgemental and stubborn beyond belief, and didn't seem to have the good sense God gave a flea. She's meant to be a warrior, but you'd never know it the way the the hero has to coddle her, even though Ever decided Spencer is weak and idiotic when they first meet. (Spoiler alert from here on in). Next time we turn around Ever's got a serious case of insta-love. Which, I'd just like to add, she tries to banish by sleeping with another crew member. Spencer's insta-lust was a bit more understandable, since Ever has some kind of aversion to clothing herself appropriately, but why he puts his crew in danger for her I'm not quite sure.

In fact, the motivations of all the characters were very patchy. The villain of the piece was inexplicably evil, and I can't help but think that there would have been much easier ways achieve his aims. The ship's doctor, Henrietta, wants to marry Spencer, although once again I'll be damned if I can work out why she's set her heart on that. I mean, the guy was the most unobjectionable bit of the whole book, but he doesn't exactly have a lot in the way of prospects and Henrietta didn't actually seem to be in love with him.

It's getting 2 stars, and that's mainly for world-building; I liked the broad strokes of the setting, even if I found some of the smaller details a little incongruous. 
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