Imagine - Unsuitable for Children

Ika blake at
Wed Jul 14 14:25:48 EDT 2004

Well, I finally watched the "Imagine" programme last night - the tape will
go in the post to Australia this week (many apologies for the delay), and
it started me thinking, so I'm going to weave some of the thoughts it
sparked into my responses to some of the interesting recent posts on
related topics. (This means that this post will contain spoilers for the
documentary - if you are planning to see the show on tape and don't want
any advance information about its content, look away NOW! Thank you.)

Minnow wrote:

> What I suppose
> I
> meant, in a muddled sort of way, was that if they were headlining things
> in
> the way "Sex, drug-taking, racial murder, the death of God" suggested,
> then
> her subtlety might go straight past the makers of the programme.
> Something
> like that, anyway.

Which I agreed with wholeheartedly at the time, and now that I've seen the
programme I agree with it even more. It was quite a badly-made and muddled
documentary, I thought, and they never worked out quite what they were
meant to be talking about: for example, there was some hand-wringing about
how "even the Holocaust" shows up in children's literature these days.
This made me and my girlfriend exchange puzzled glances, since the
Holocaust has been showing up in books for children since... well, since
it happened (the Diary of Anne Frank is the most obvious example).  But
then the example the programme-makers chose was Art Spiegelman's *Maus*,
which, as Spiegelman pointed out in forceful terms, is in *no way* a
children's book. So I have no idea what they were talking about, or indeed
what they thought they were talking about.

The way they dealt with DWJ was probably typical: out of (was it 2 or 3
hours or something?) of interview, they selected a little snippet about
the children attempting to murder the Ogre in the Ogre Downstairs. It was
interesting and articulate, of course, but it certainly wasn't
representative of DWJ's work or the place it has in relation to the
subject-matter of the programme. So you did get the feeling they hadn't
*read* any DWJ *and* that they hadn't thought very hard about the
subject-matter of the documentary, since anything with any subtlety did
indeed seem to whistle straight past them (the first ten or twenty minutes
seemed to be taken up by a very tedious attempt by GP Taylor to show that
he was "darker" than Pullman or Rowling).

(I talked to my girlfriend about it afterwards, though, and we decided
that it was a Good Thing that DWJ showed up, despite the limitations of
the programme and the not-very-representative nature of the interview
clip.  It was a useful counter to the obscurity in which her work
sometimes seems somehow - despite the critical acclaim and the awards - to
languish, and just the fact that her face was on the screen asserted that
her work has a place among the more controversial and [sometimes] less
subtle books they were talking about. It didn't do justice to exactly what
that place *was*, but readers can find that out for themselves...)

And now on racial murder, mostly, because, although I'm still thinking
about the rest of the posts/discussion, I don't have anything to
contribute to the interesting things others have already said.

>>Racial murder shows up quite a lot, though: the mermaids in Lives of
>>Christopher Chant; the centaurs in Deep Secret; the exploitation of the
>>whole world in Dark Lord probably comes in here too.
> I don't think that the murder of someone who happens to be of a different
> race is necessarily racial murder, though, is it?  If it is not motivated
> by their race, I mean, and I don't think that the race is the motive in
> any
> of those cases, or not exactly so anyhow.  The mermaids aren't being
> killed
> for *being mermaids* but because their flesh can be used for magic, and I
> think there's some sort of difference there though I'm blowed if I can put
> my finger on why I think that, precisely.  (Something like elephants being
> killed not because they are elephants and therefore nasty and deserving of
> death, but entirely because they have ivory tusks.)


> My difficulty with all these is that I'm not sure where the borders are of
> "racial murder", and my first thought is "premeditated unlawful killing of
> an individual motivated entirely by the race or species of the victim and
> no other consideration such as robbery or in order to exploit", and that I
> don't think turns up anywhere.

I don't think such *pure* racial violence turns up very often in the real
world, either. I guess my definition of a racial murder would be a murder
that would not have happened if the victim weren't of the race they belong
to, which is why I think both Orban's murder of the Dorig at the opening
of PoT and the killing of the mermaids count, though in different ways.
Orban kills the Dorig because he's  too proud to back down in an argument,
but he wouldn't have killed him had he not been a Dorig (the basis of the
argument which leads to the murder is also all about "what business had
the Dorig to act like men", and so on). I suspect the mermaids are also
only killable because they've been defined as less than human, which (as
other people have pointed out) is one of the ways racism and genocide have
historically been justified and motivated, though I agree it's a different
case, as they're being exploited as a natural resource. (As for the
centaurs - I think I was misremembering. I included them because I *seem*
to remember that there was a general feeling on that world that
half-centaurs were racially/species-ally inferior to humans, and I vaguely
remembered that was why they were murdered - specifically to stop a
half-centaur heir from taking power - but I think I may be wrong there.)

Anyway. Circling back on myself -  I guess the thing is that the programme
was implying very strongly that certain subject matter, regardless of how
it is handled or the context in which it appears, is 'unsuitable for
children' - which implies there is only one way of approaching such
subjects (the assumption is that we all know roughly what sort of book a
book 'about racial murder' will be, what its tone will be, what it will
say). Where subject matter *like* that shows up in DWJ, it tends to show
up in ways and contexts that are less familiar, less laid-out in advance.
Or something. I do think you could define Power of Three as a book about
racial murder  - I think the problems between the three groups are
*resolved* through redefining the dispute as a territorial one, as you
point out, but the narrative structure reminds me of Melissa Lukashenko's
Killing Darcy (if anyone's read that - it's another book about the
relationship between territorial disputes and racism, with a past murder
that haunts and drives the action of the main narrative, but because it's
set in contemporary Australia, with an Aboriginal main character, it
doesn't immediately occur as a parallel).

Or Homeward Bounders seems to me to be about the death of God as much as
the Northern Lights trilogy is - but they don't *feel* the same, and I'm
interested in what the difference is. Is it just the hype surrounding
Northern Lights that makes it feel more 'obviously', more 'directly' about
the death of God? Or that Killing Darcy is set in the 'real world', and
PoT is only partly so? I don't know. Anyway, I think I've probably just
gone in a circle to agree with you again, Minnow, so that's probably a
good place to stop...

Love, Ika

PS: Irrelevant Anecdote:

> On the whole I don't suppose all that many of the slaves in our world have
> much time for reading children's literature, either, even supposing they
> can read, and read English at that, which is probably why the subject
> wasn't put into the "ooh shocking" teaser for the television programme:
> unlike drugs, which get discussed to death, present-day slaves are a
> genuine taboo about which people tend not to talk in front of the
> children.
> It might upset the children to realise just how some of their fashionable
> must-haves are produced, after all.

Recently I was leafleting outside the Disney shop in my town, and a group
of youngish boys - eleven years old or so? - came up to ask what it was
all about. We explained politely that we were passing out information
about labour practices in Disney factories in Asia and the boys exclaimed
in what looked like genuine shock and horror: "Are you dissing Disney? You
can't diss Disney!", threw the leaflets back at us and walked off.
Probably they were just trying to wind us up, in fact, but when I remember
it now I hear it in my mind as "You can't diss Chesney!" and start
wondering whether there are kids on Derk's world who are as brainwashed as
that: it wasn't like they were passionately enamoured of Disney for any
*reason*, just that it wasn't *thinkable* to diss Chesney, er, I mean

"You walk into the room like a camel"
- Truly, Bob Dylan is a great poet.
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