Not So Stories by David Thomas Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Not So Stories has been one of my most anticipated reads ever since Zedeck Siew announced that he was part of the lineup. I was about to bite the bullet and buy the book when I managed to score a review copy, so YAY!
Not So Stories was compiled as a response to Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, which Nikesh Shukla describes in his foreword as "steeped in colonial nostalgia." I don't recall if I've specifically read Just So Stories (which I've recently found on Project Gutenberg) but if it's in the same vein as other Kipling books I've read, I get what he means. Not So Stories tries to recreate a new collection of animal tales from multicultural, multiethnic lenses, "confronting readers with the real harm colonialism did and taking the Just So Stories back." I cannot meaningfully compare the two right now but I will say that this book both succeeds and fails in its intent.
It succeeds because this wonderful collection of short stories does offer a multitude of unique voices, some of which I can personally identify with as a Southeast Asian, and some of which I can recognise and understand as stories from other cultures, none of which revert to the standard white male Christian point of view that I grew up with as an Anglophilic Chinese-Malaysian. Yet, where it fails is in its target audience--although the anthology is purported to be for children, one story has sexual elements unsuitable for younger readers and at least two others have themes that would probably only appeal to adults. Maybe if it had been targetted for "adults who grew up reading the original as children," it would have succeeded on all counts.
Now on to the stories!
Cassandra Khaw opens this anthology with the brilliant How the Spider Got Her Legs . It has a lovely folklorish feel, beautifully lyrical, but is also very, very brutal--not in physical sense, but how it rips away the veils from your eyes to reveal the evils of colonialism. At first, I wondered at "All of them pale, with hair like someone had spun the noon light into threads, eyes like ruptured sea glass", but Spider soon gets the [White] Man to admit that he took the land from "the Man who once lived here" and that his venom makes his victims "slowly wither of self-loathing." It's subtle, easily missed; yet as you read, you come to realise that this is what has been done to us in Malaysia (where Khaw comes from): we learnt to deify the White Man and loath ourselves, until we grew up and realised the lie--they are no better than we are. (5 stars!)
Queen (Joseph E. Cole) brings us into Africa (I presume?) with an inversion of roles: men here are described as beasts, whereas the anthropomorphic animals are the people. There is anger and pain, sorrow and desperation, a fight for life and freedom. There is also the quiet othering of what is usually a central narrative ("when they worship their cruel man-god who makes them eat his flesh and drink his blood, like savages") and harsh accusation against humanity ("... kill one another for paper and pieces of metal and for any number of pointless reasons. You rape the earth, molest the Earth, taking what you desire without thought or consequence"). Yet there is also reconciliation, the Queen who speaks to the princess who would be queen of her tribe. (5 stars!)
Wayne Santos's Best Beloved is one that I resonated with quite a lot, being set in nearby Singapore, but is also the first of the stories that step out of the children's domain into a rather more mature arena. In fact, Best Beloved also seems rather out of style with the other stories in the book. It's very much more contemporary in feel, with a horror/urban fantasy vibe, besides moving away from animal stories into the paranormal, featuring Chinese ghosts, angry spirits and pontianak. (5 stars!)
The next story hops over the causeway to Malaysia. The Man Who Played With the Crab (Adiwijaya Iskandar) has a Stranger trespassing Beting Beras Basah in a bid to find the great crab that wrecked his ship. There's a deliberate garbling of names--Adiwijaya emphasises the lack of effort made by white men to pronounce names from other cultures--and blatant disregard for lives and beliefs that aren't central to whiteness. There is also a sense of heavy resignation ("my kind shall be written away as myths") amidst a tinge of hope ("But your time shall pass too.") There is an amusing hint of an origin story for British perception of Malays and Malay culture in Malaysia--and because I got distracted, here's a link on the mysterious Tasik Pauh Janggi in Beting Beras Basah (in Malay, sorry). (5 stars!)
In Samsara, Georgina Kamsika explores what it means to be bicultural. Should Nina learn to embrace her mother's Indian roots, or should she fight to retain the white-passing privileges inherited from her English father? Must she choose one or the other? Can she not be both? I don't personally have experience in being biracial, but I do relate to her never-quite-fitting in, in my case because I am a "banana"--white on the inside, yellow on the outside. This one, like Best Beloved, dips into the spirit world, instead of the animal one. (Four-ish stars?)
And we finally get to Zedeck Siew's Serpent, Crocodile, Tiger! Other reviews complain that this is three (or more) stories in one. In a way it is--I see the thread that goes through the whole thing, but it's hard to digest. Siew weaves a convoluted story that begins with the river-mother, who makes the crocodiles, the youngest of which becomes a Tiger. This shifts into Were-Tigers and Were-Crocodiles, playing hard and fast with myth and religion, magic and faith, acknowledging the temptation to disregard culture, upbringing and heritage for the feeling of belonging and acceptance, before finally ending up back where he started with the river and the Tiger, and maybe a retribution (but maybe not). The ending feels satisfying, in its own way, but also as if I've missed something. This one isn't explicit, but part of the setting (a girl stays the night, they hang out at the club) might need some navigation with younger readers. (I'm confused. And conflicted. Four stars?)
How the Tree of Wishes Gained its Carapace of Plastic by Jeannette Ng was like a peek into a culture I'm supposed to be of, but I've never really identified with. I spent much of the time wondering whether the Tree of Wishes was located in Hong Kong, or if this was some other harbour, a village that worships dragons of the sea, "the price paid to buy peace" that becomes part of an "empire so vast that the sun never set upon their queen's soil". Ng returns to the beautiful style that Khaw uses effectively at the beginning of this anthology, tangling history with modernism and progress. I really want to know who Old Man Uncle is. (4 stars.)
After all that good stuff, Stewart Hotston's How the Ants Got Their Queen felt just a little too labourious to get through. It's mainly a powerplay between the ants and the pangolins anyway, with a lot of eaten ants. (I probably didn't get much out of this story as you can tell. Two... three stars, maybe?)
Tauriq Moosa returns us to fantastical animal tales in How the Snake Lost its Spine . I was amused by "the White Devils from distant lands" (Northern Mountains) who believed themselves "first and chosen, those who most resembled the Creators though no one knew what the Creators actually looked like" whilst the "Others, Those Below, Those Far Away" were believed "to be a mistake". There's no hiding that this part at least is allegory, plain and simple, except maybe to the White Devils themselves. (Four stars.)
The Cat Who Walked by Herself (Achala Upendran) is a myth of the origins of the homestead, relating how Man got himself Woman, Dog, Horse and Cow through his might and magic. This one veers out of cultural identity into a more feminist lens, focusing on the power play between Man and Woman. It's a little gory, with many severed limbs, so probably okay for older children. Also, more Woman than Cat, though it's Cat who instigates Woman mostly. (Ah, I'd say four stars.)
Zina Hutton's Strays Like Us meanders into Egyptian territory with Bastet drifting through Miami refusing to be forgotten. This one has hints of American Gods (with a nice reference to Neil Gaiman too!) so it doesn't quite blend in with the rest of the stories either. (Three stars.)
How the Simurgh Won Her Tail (Ali Nouraei) reminds me faintly of Haroun and Luka by Salman Rushdie. Against the backdrop of a children's hospital, Amir tells the story of the Simurgh, who sets off on a quest to make herself a tail. The story is charmingly told, juxtaposing the Simurgh's distress at seeing the state of the world with the comfort gained by the children in the Paediatric Oncology Ward. If there is equanimity to be achieved, it is from the words, "This too shall pass." (Five stars!)
Raymond Gates's There is Such Thing as a Whizzy-Gang is another story that doesn't quite fit. It seems to be about a mythical creature from Australia and reads like a Enid Blyton-type pixie/fairy story but it's never quite clear if this Whizzy-Gang actually exists. Oh well, I guess that's the mystery of the story? (Three stars.)
Back to the animals, How the Camel Got Her Paid Time Off (Paul Krueger) seems to be mainly harping about overwork, bad HR practices and recognising religious celebrations of minority cultures. It gives off a kind of hard-boiled detective vibe, without the detective, and features a lot of smoking, pizza and beer. This story will really only appeal to adults so I'm not sure what it's doing in here. (Three stars.)
Overall, I'd say that each individual story in Not So Stories is great on its own (except the ants. What was with the ants?) but the problem is that not all of them fit together quite well in the same book. Where I was expecting a fantastic collection of animal tales for children (or at least tales related to animals), some stories veered off into the paranormal and the mythical, and some into very adult mindsets/settings.
Note: I received a digital copy of this book via NetGalley. I was given the book with no expectation of a positive review and the review is my own.
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I was going to post this for Music Monday, but didn't. Still. A song for today.
Kasih-Mu, karya-Mu, nyata dalamku | Your love, Your works, are evident in my life
Kau pegang hidupku dalam tangan-Mu | You hold my life in Your hands
Darah-Mu, salib-Mu, tebus hidupku | Your blood, Your cross, redeems my life
Nama-Mu berkuasa sanggup bangkitkan | Your Name is powerful enough to raise
Harapanku di dalam-Mu | My hope is in You
Hanya Kau Yesus kuatku \ Only You, Jesus, are my strength
Kupercaya kuaman dalam-Mu | I believe I have peace in You
Tak pernah gagal rencana-Mu | Your plans have never failed
T’rangi jalanku kuasa-Mu sempurna | Light my way with Your perfect power
Pengharapanku takkan hilang | I will not lose hope
S’bab masa depanku Kau sediakan | Because You have prepared my future
Tak pernah gagal rencana-Mu | Your plans have never failed
T’rangi hidupku kuasa-Mu sempurna | Light (Illuminate?) my life with Your perfect power
Pengharapanku takkan hilang | I will not lose hope
S’bab masa depanku dalam-Mu | Because my future is in You
Words & Music: Andre Hermanto, Andriyanto, Billy Simpson, Joshua Tremonti, Kevaz Lucky, Nina Sari Ishak, Ricky Sutanto, Tirza Agatha, Winny Jessica, Yumir Vishreda
Crappy translation by me.