What I’ve Been Reading This Week: Ants Among Elephants, Harry Potter & Orphan Stories, & Literary Adaptations on TV

I just finished reading this excerpt of Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India featured in the Boston Review. I’m adding the book to my reading list–what I’ve read so far is a fascinating and beautifully written story that touches literature and politics through the lens of family history.

“The Threat Within: Harry Potter and the Cultural Baggage of Orphan Stories” by Kristen Martin Martin reflects on the trope of orphans in literature about children and teens, her own experience losing her parents at a young age, and the absence of honest depictions of grief in “orphan stories.” For me, her essay also brought to mind the debate over Netflix’s recent adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, which spends more time exploring the impact of Anne’s childhood traumas than original novel or the 1985 TV mini-series.

And speaking of TV adaptations, check out Lisa Rosman’s “Have You Seen What TV Has Been Doing to Books Lately?” on the recent trend of prestige TV shows adapted from literary novels.

I also just learned that Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties will be debuting in October 2017! I first stumbled across Machado’s work as an intern at AGNI and have been a fan of her writing ever since, so I’m eager to read the book when it comes out!

Things I’ve been thinking about: Malls, Manor Houses, and Revolutionaries

I’m currently based in Hangzhou, China, and being in a new and unfamiliar city means that while I have much to discover, I have little to do–and a lot of time to spend reading. Here are three things that I’ve been thinking about this week:

Qiu Jin, The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake

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A few days ago I stumbled across a memorial to Qiu Jin near Hangzhou’s West Lake. I had briefly studied her in a college history class, and a quick online search reminded me of what a fascinating figure she is. Born in 1875, Jin was a Chinese feminist poet and revolutionary who left her husband in order to pursue her education in Japan, then returned to China to fight against the Manchu Qing dynasty (she was executed in 1907). I love these lines from her poem Capping Rhymes with Sir Ishii from Sun’s Root Land:

Ashamed, I have done nothing; not one victory to my name

I simply make my war horse sweat.

The image of accomplishing nothing except tiring out yourself and an animal who can’t understand the context for this exhaustion conveys a very specific sense of futility.

Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited

I finished reading Brideshead Revisited a few weeks ago, and I’m still not sure what to make of the way Evelyn Waugh writes about romance, sex, and sexuality. Most of the sex in the novel—and especially queer sex—is subtextual. Is this just a function of censorship in 1950s Britain, or is it a calculated choice? And if it’s intentional, then is Waugh being subversive by refusing to label sexuality, or does his characters’ refusal to talk about sex indicated how repressed and self-loathing most of them are (and does that tie in to his views on Catholicism)?

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I’ve also been thinking about similarities between Brideshead Revisited and Atonement: I think Atonement might be the better book, but it might not have been able to happen if Brideshead Revisted hadn’t been written first. Both center on a country house and a family, both have a writer/narrator looking back on the past, both use WWII to mark the end of an era and the destruction of a class system and way of life.

I haven’t yet seen any of the movie/tv adaptations, but it’s now vaguely on my to-watch list.

Joan Didion and Malls

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Luxury malls are everywhere in China (apparently many of them are actually closing down because the market has become over-saturated). But the experience of going to a mall here is very different than going to a mall in the US—and very, very different from going to a mall in my hometown in Oregon. The mall where I grew up was ugly, with outdated 1970s architecture and stale, stuffy air. When I was older, I learned it was also a hub for local sex trafficking (which explains why my mother wouldn’t allow me to go there alone in my early teens). But reading Joan Didion makes me think that visiting malls in China must be akin to the experience of visiting a brand new mall in California in 1975. It is easy to get lost in these malls. They are vast, filled with clothes and sweet shops and luminous white melamine surfaces. In On the Mall, She writes:

Ala Moana, The Esplanade, and Edgewater Plaza are the same place, which is precisely their role not only as equalizers but in the sedation of anxiety. In each of them one moves for a while in an aqueous suspension… ‘It’s a hard place to run in to for a pair of stockings,’ a friend complained to me recently of Ala Moana, and I knew that she was not yet ready to surrender her ego to the idea of the center.

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I loved Wonder Woman, but I wish it had been even better

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I am not a comic book buff or, very often, a fan of superhero movies, but I found myself enthralled by Wonder Woman. As many women have written in the past few weeks, there was something powerful about seeing Diana (Gal Godot) defending her home and then taking on injustice in the outside world. I do not often enjoy action movies, but I found the fight sequences exhilarating. Wonder Woman breaks new ground; I found it empowering and often smart. But it’s not perfect. Here are my thoughts on where the movie succeeds and where it falls short:

The film is at its most political in the London scenes, when it uses Diana’s confusion at the norms of 20th century Europe to highlight the absurdities of patriarchal society. Why do couples marry—and why do they stay married when they are no longer in love? Why do men—all of whom are far less skilled at combat than she—insist her that she is the one being protected? Why does her mere presence scandalize British lawmakers? Why will no one listen to her? Why must she fight so hard to prove herself? “I don’t understand,” she says, again and again, and we are reminded how nonsensical the rules of war, politics, and heteronormative, patriarchal society truly are.

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In one scene, Diana tries on a series of outfits in a London department store that are intended to help her blend in in 20th century Europe. One by one, she nixes the options that Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and his secretary Etta (Lucy Davis) present to her: they are too uncomfortable and constricting. “What do your women wear to fight?” she asks, leaving Trevor to stumble over his words, uncertain how he can explain that, in this world, women don’t fight.

The film’s attempt to make a point about the impractical nature of women’s clothing in early 20th century England is slightly undercut by its own costuming choices. Inexplicably, Diana and the Amazons wear boots with wedge-heels. Sure, wedges are more stable than stilettos, but they’re highly impractical for running, horseback riding, or rappelling from island cliffs. Likewise, the shoulder-baring, waist-nipping armor that the Amazons wear is slightly too similar to the corsets Diana scorns. Wedge-heels aside, I can see a case for costuming the women in outfits that echo the traditional (if sexed-up) iconography of wonder women past. The Amazons’ barely-there armor is reminiscent of how the Spartans supposedly trained in the nude and make their fearlessness that much more impressive. Who needs bulletproof vests? The Amazons’ righteousness, brilliance, and skill are their armor.

Whatever you think of Diana’s armor, it’s clear that Trevor is correct when he tells her outfit is inappropriate daywear for the streets of London. Yet when Diana emerges from the fitting room in a practical, loose-fitting gray suit, Trevor tells her that her looks are going to attract too much attention. Introducing a movie-makeover cliché, he suggests she put on some glasses. “Right,” Etta scoffs “Put on some specs and suddenly she’s not the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen.” I loved this subtle call-out: glasses don’t make Gal Godot (or any woman) less attractive.

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Last week, Christina Cauterucci of Slate’s XX Factor blog wrote about her discomfort with the way Diana’s male sidekicks ogle her and crack jokes about her sex appeal, and argues that “whatever chance Wonder Woman had of being some kind of feminist antidote to the overabundance of superhero movies made by and for bros was blown by its prevailing occupation with the titular heroine’s sex appeal.” While I agree that the men of Wonder Woman engage in some unquestionably icky behavior, I read these moments differently. For me, the leering jokes of men the “right” side of the war actually emphasized what Diana is up against. She’s suddenly found herself in a world where sexism, injustice, and violence are normalized and to a certain degree perpetuated by even the men who claim to be fighting against injustice, and who she considers to be her friends. Trevor, the most virtuous of the men Diana meets, becomes her truest ally and then her lover, but he knows as well as we do that he is not worthy of her. The audience’s realization that even the “good guys” are not wholely good aligns with Diana’s realization that ending the war or restoring peace to the human world will not be as simple as killing a single general or even destroying the God of War.

The second half of Wonder Woman explores the idea that both good and evil are a part of human nature, and director Patty Jenkins was able to underline this theme by setting the film in the final days of World War I. A devastating, brutal conflict fought over the concerns of dying empires and geopolitical alliances, World War I has become an archetype for the meaninglessness and wastefulness of modern warfare. A World War II-era Wonder Woman could have joined the Allies in rightfully punching Nazis, but rather than construct a narrative that placed Diana on the virtuous side of a moral war, Jenkins sets Diana in the midst of a war where no one is in the right.

Given this intelligent setup, I was mystified that the movie’s Germans, when we finally meet them, take the form of Nazi-esque clichés. If Wonder Woman’s true enemy is war and humanity’s inherent flaws that lead them into violence and cruelty, why does she also need to fight against two human supervillains: the twisted Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya) and General Ludendorff (Danny Huston), who test mustard gas on prisoners and murder German officers committed to the armistice? While these characters act as an effective red herring (we, like Diana, never suspect that the god of war might be disguised as a mild-mannered British politician played by David Thewlis), their all-out wickedness weakens the argument that all humans have the propensity for both good and evil.

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We could have seen the devastation caused by poison gas without Dr. Poison’s torture experiments, and General Luttendorf need not be a supervillain—just a cruel man with a horrifying commitment to the ideas of total war. In making the Imperial Germans into the Huns of Allied propaganda, Wonder Woman missed an opportunity to subvert superhero movie tropes and created a more nuanced comment on the nature of war and violence.

Perseverance, but little nuance, in Ernest Shackleton Loves Me

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Yesterday evening, I went to see Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, a new and inventive musical that has been nominated for Best New Musical for the 2017 Off Broadway Alliance Awards. I’ve included some initial thoughts in the paragraphs below, but I have much more to say about the production—I had a lot of fun watching the show and admired many aspects of it, but ultimately I felt that its thematic simplicity held it back.

Valerie Vigoda and Wade McCollum bring talent and spirit to Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, which bills itself as “an epic musical adventure.” Brought together by time travel, a mysterious refrigerator, and a dating site called Cupid’s Leftovers, polar explorer Ernest Shackleton (McCollum) and experimental composer and installation artist Kat (Vigoda) weather two antarctic winters and the cold indifference of the art world as Kat learns to face the uncertainties of parenthood head-on. Vigoda’s live looping performances and soaring electric violin are vivid, emotional, and technically impressive; McCollum transitions convincingly between the role of Ernest and a chorus of farcical supporting characters, gracefully balancing comedy with more poignant moments; the production’s use of multimedia—particularly projected historical footage from Shackleton’s real-life journey—succeeds in creating a sense of awe at the explorer’s against-all-odds story without overpowering the action onstage. 

Yet though I enjoyed myself immensely, I couldn’t help but wish that playwright Joe Pietro had pushed the plot and the characters further. In the ninety minutes we spend with Kat and Ernest, we don’t gain a nuanced understanding of what motivates them or how they gather the strength they need to do the seemingly impossible. In the opening song, we learn that Kat dreams of fame in the art world and fears she will be unable to support herself or her child as a single mother. Ernest is hungry for adventure and maintains a stoic, optimistic attitude in order to inspire his men. Full-fledged optimism, the two sing, is the answer to their problems. Yet while perseverance and optimism are inspiring, the show’s insistent focus on this one core theme feels a bit pat and one-note. Kat’s self-doubt upon finding herself a single mother is referenced throughout the show, but it remains oddly abstract and tangential to the central action of the plot. Similarly, Ernest only briefly expresses fear and doubt, and when he does, Kat simply tells him to “man up.” I would have preferred to see the couple discuss and explore their fears, giving the audience a sense of who their are behind their facades of bravery, and making their undaunted perseverance even more compelling.