Josna Rege

213. Censorship at Bedtime

In 1980s, 1990s, Books, Childhood, Education, Family, Politics, postcolonial, reading, Stories, Words & phrases on June 9, 2013 at 2:02 pm
(from mamalisa.com)

(from mamalisa.com)

When singing or reading to my young son at bedtime, my first choices were naturally the songs and books beloved to me as a child, but sometimes I found myself editing them in mid-stream. One song that required revision in his infancy was the lullaby, Rock-a-bye Baby, in which the baby is rocking in a cradle high in a tree:

When the bough breaks
The cradle will fall
And down will come Baby,
Cradle and all.

Not a very reassuring little ditty for a babe as it falls into the Land of Nod! I changed the words to:

When the bough breaks
The cradle will fall
But Mummy will catch you,
Cradle and all.

Sometimes Nikhil himself made it clear at the outset that I needed to shut the book and put it away, as in Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, which I hadn’t read before, and which opens with James’ parents being unceremoniously eaten by a rhinoceros. (See also TMA 65. Curb Your Enthusiasm: A Bedtime Story.) At other times, however, in the midst of reading a work I thought I knew, I would find myself brought up short by shocking words, imagery, and sometimes entire passages and perspectives that I must have overlooked or taken in my stride in my own childhood; in particular, passages in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. I’m referring to the racism that was pervasive at the time the works were written, even if the authors themselves may have been well-intentioned.

If the offensive passage reared its ugly head while Nikhil was tucked cozily into bed, with his eyes half-closed and a peeled-and-sliced Granny Smith apple close at hand on a little plate, a lecture on Orientalist stereotypes or the displacement of Native Americans by white European settlers in the American West was not an immediate option. Sometimes I would make a comment, hardly pausing, simply registering my disapproval; but most of the time, for better or worse, I would censor the problematic passage altogether, saving the conversation for another time, and in the meantime protecting his innocent mind from the poison.

Readers of The Secret Garden will remember that the protagonist Mary Lennox had been born and raised in India. Since little Nikhil knew nothing of the evils of colonialism, and since I don’t remember the novel actually saying explicitly that Sarah was white, I let it be assumed that, like his own mother, she was Indian or half-Indian, with an English uncle. Much of the point of the novel is that Sarah, having been raised to be selfish, arrogant, and imperious in India, redeems herself in Yorkshire through hard work, caring for her cousin, and the democratic spirit of the English servants.  The narrator of the novel certainly presents the Sarah who is newly-returned from India as a spoiled brat who needs taking down a peg or two. Nothing wrong with that—at least, not in itself; the problem lies in the assumption that Indians are inherently cringing, servile, and undemocratic. The forthright Martha who will not take any nonsense from her charge is contrasted with Mary’s ayah in India who loved her too, but allowed herself to be abused by the young Memsahib. Somehow I managed to elide the worst of this while reading to Nikhil, judiciously skipping over particularly offensive bits as they came up.

(from narniawikia,com)

Illustration by Pauline Baynes in The Horse and His Boy (narniawikia.com)

My main problem with the Narnia books, which I loved and still love, was the pervasive and pretty overt Crusader mentality, in which the bad guys, particularly the Calormenes in The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle, fight with scimitars, not swords, have beak-like noses, Arab-sounding names, and are generally portrayed, like scimitars in contrast with swords, as not straight (in the English sense of the word; that is, essentially crooked). Similarly, in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the bad guys, such as the pointedly-named Easterlings and the Haradrim, all seem to be “swarthy” hordes. (Disappointingly, Peter Jackson faithfully reproduced the representation in his films.) In the latter case, I simply excised such words; I tried to do the same to the most blatantly Orientalist images in the former, but it was not always  easy.

(from newspaperrock.bluecorncomics.com)

Illustration by Garth Williams (from newspaperrock.bluecorncomics.com)

In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, particularly Little House on the Prairie, it was the representation of the Indians that was the most troubling for me. At the time I read the books to Nikhil I had not yet read Michael Dorris’ moving essay, Trusting the Words, describing his reactions as he re-read the Little House series in order to determine whether or not it would be appropriate to read them to his own children, and explaining his ultimate decision not to do so. When I did, years later, I understood his conclusion completely, much as I love the series (see TMA 177, The Sugar Snow). I had chosen to read them to Nikhil—again, pausing to comment on the passages in question, or, in some particularly egregious cases, censoring them out—but I might avoid them altogether today.

In the Little House books, Ma was portrayed as the racist parent, with a visceral revulsion toward Native Americans (Indians, as they are called in the novels) and Pa—to whom the protagonist Laura was closest—as the more enlightened one. However, even Pa (who reprimanded Laura when she said she wanted a little Indian “papoose,” reminding her that it was a real baby whose parents loved it, not a doll designed for her pleasure), who seemed to show respect for the Indians and who acknowledged that it was their land that the government had declared open for settlement, seems to fully accept that this is the order of things. And despite the novels’ acknowledgement of their humanity, the Indians are portrayed as irredeemably alien, their ways incomprehensible to the white settlers.

I don’t make a practice of recommending censorship; in general, I would prefer to review a book in advance in order to decide if it was appropriate to read to the child. And, where possible, I would prefer to tackle the issue head-on by discussing it with the child—in age-appropriate terms, of course. But when I come across disturbing content unexpectedly, it depends on the child and the setting whether I talk about it on the spot or whether I simply cut it out.

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  1. Beautiful post Josna. Sad how our prejudices manifest themselves in our literature. When they are consciously put there to raise the issue they have such an important message to convey, but when they are simply an unconscious thread in the writing it’s rather sad, especially in good literature, the kind you’ve mentioned.

    • Thank you, Don. Yes, it is sad when first one realizes that one’s childhood favorites don’t in fact take one to another world, but are firmly rooted in this one, with all its ugliness as well as its beauty. I take comfort in the late Edward Said’s approach in his book, Culture and Imperialism; in it, his readings of works of literature like Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park with attention to their dependence on colonialism and slavery does not make us stop reading them, but gives us several more layers of rich complexity to appreciate. Through them, we don’t escape the world, but understand it more deeply. But of course, much of the pleasure in reading magical works like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Secret Garden lies in escaping the world; one wants to give one’s child the opportunity to experience the magic, the transport. Later, when they are older, one hopes that there will be time for analysis and critique. Sigh.

  2. Just to say that those unconscious threads I spoke about have to be made conscious as you’ve so ably done.

  3. I remember reading The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit to my youngest son many years ago when someone was casually described as a “nigger”. Took the pleasure right out of that book for me. I think I stopped reading the book after explaining why. I was stunned. It’s always horrible to be going along thinking you are just a “regular” reader and then finding out that the author wouldn’t consider you as such.

    • You’ve put it exactly right, Kristin. What a horrible experience–going along reading happily and then suddenly having hate speech hurled at your innocent child. It’s such an intimate form of communication, reading, especially reading out loud. You feel that the author is talking to you personally. Then the shock of realizing that s/he is not, is like a punch in the gut, and it does spoil the whole thing. There’s a passage like that in one of the Mary Poppins books, which has been excised from later editions, but I was reading along from an earlier edition. They go to visit “savages” in Africa, I think. The experience with The Secret Garden was similar, though more indirect, in that it was clear that it didn’t occur to the author assumed that Indians might read the book–for her, “Indians” meant British people in India (as in the “Indian uncle” in A Little Princess by the same author). Too bad about E. Nesbit; it sullies her for me, too. You’d think that modern editions of the book would have had that taken out. I read The Enchanted Castle to Nikhil, but can’t remember that hateful word. I love some of her other works–The Railway Children, The Story of the Amulet, The Phoenix and the Carpet, The Wouldbegoods, Five Children and It. She was an early socialist, but I guess that didn’t prevent her from having racist attitudes.

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