Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Rudyard Kipling in Retrospect:

Schools should study Rudyard Kipling more, especially when covering British literature. Neil Gaiman mentions that the original Jungle Book influenced The Graveyard Book strongly, and even Robin McKinley has her title character from Beauty reading Kim in a library with books that haven't been written yet. No mention that Rudyard Kipling wrote about India with affection from the perspective of an English imperialist, yet he was a great writer of his time. Raised in what he considered the mother country, he nevertheless soon came to live in both England and the United States for short periods of time.

What I admire

His courage- Kipling knew he wanted to be a writer when he graduated from school. His family encouraged him, and he took on as many journalist opportunities as possible to support himself while working on his book. He was quite willing to live on a few pennies a day and risk bankruptcy. Even after he was published, Kipling wrote what he wanted despite the criticism he received; he believed in himself, whether writing a propaganda piece for an unpopular war or a series of schoolboy adventures.

His view of human nature- Kipling's best works are when he shows people as people, faults and all. In his autobiography he includes a short story based on abuses he had suffered as a child, which immunized him for life from suffering. This is also prominent in The Jungle Book and in fact the reason I couldn't read the story as a child. I grew up on the Disney version where the tiger didn't get his own back until the end- and in the first chapter of the Jungle Book Shere Khan convinces the wolves to kick Mowgli out of the pack. Harsh indeed, and harsher when Mowgli learns to become a man in the local village and gets kicked out on charges of sorcery. The story nails human nature at its worst; never fear, though, because Kipling also captures human behavior at its best when talking of Mowgli's human mother and how she eventually helps him return to mankind (seen in The Second Jungle Book).

What I Dislike

Kipling's Benevolent Portrayal of Englishmen in Comparison to Indians. This happens a lot; remember how I mentioned that Kipling nailed human nature? In The Jungle Book, he applies the good and the bad to every human and animal except the off screen Englishmen. The off screen Englishmen are honorable gents who would never tolerate an angry mob when facing a feral child. I mean, seriously; consider the English witch hunts and immigration into the New World.

Using the "n" word to describe an Indian- Happens in Kim with a British soldier describing the Indians they're ruling over; at that point I stopped reading the book. Once again, seriously? If Mark Twain cannot use the "n" word as a non-offensive common way to describe black men, then neither can Kipling. That is fairness.

Authors are people and are thus complex. You cannot simply label them as good or bad because they use racist terms or come from imperialistic perspectives. You cannot thus censor their books out of context, although the idea is tempting. Was Rudyard Kipling more racist than Mark Twain? Yes, because of his attitude about native Indians and applying the worst of human nature to them. I am prejudiced because I am Indian and feel that these are personal attacks, but I can also admire an author who knew what he wanted and did all he could to get it in the world of literature.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Great Literary MacGuffins, Part Two: More Great Examples

What other titles out there capture the essence of the book with one powerful noun and a few adjectives? Let's see . . .One of the best Harry Potter books of the series, and it's not hard to see why. The Chamber of Secrets becomes the Literary MacGuffin as the Heir to Slytherin uses it to petrify Muggle-born students, a ghost and a cat. Harry, already suspected of being the Heir, investigates the real attacker's identity while fending off a house elf's attempts to "save his life." I love how the American cover illustrates the climatic scene, where Fawkes carries Harry, Ginny, Ron and Lockhart out of the Chamber, because it's vivid and colorful. Chamber of Secrets may not be warm and fuzzy, but it needed a happy cover.
Come to think of it, the best Harry Potter books have the best Literary MacGuffins in the title. Deathly Hallows didn't work for me because the search for Hallows fell back when Harry, Ron and Hermione had to search for Horcruxes, BUT Goblet of Fire remains my favorite book in the series, partly because the question "Who put Harry's name in the Goblet of Fire?" drives the book despite its many subplots. We learn in the end how the Goblet connects these subplots together, but I digress. Another great Literary MacGuffin for the charts...

Anyone who has not read this book or seen the movie with AnaSophia Rob and Josh Hutcherson needs to CHECK EITHER OUT IMMEDIATELY! Aside from being a beautifully written and bittersweet story, the title makes you wonder "What is Terabithia? What is the bridge there?" Terabithia, the fictional country that Jesse Aarons and Leslie Burke create to deal with the real world's hassles like bullies and mean teachers. Leslie gets picked on because she doesn't have a TV, and Jesse has to hide his fantastic drawings from his frugal, practical family. Terabithia becomes prevalent throughout the book as Jesse and Leslie's fortress and becomes the climatic focus when tragedy hits home- a surprise that snaps you out of the fantasy this novel has created. But you get reeled back into the fantasy, fortunately, once Jesse figures out how to revive it. I know only one person who didn't cry when reading this, so be prepared with tissues when you start reading.

PLEASE Don't Censor Mark Twain!

This recent controversy over taking the "n"-word from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has upset some, even though the book has upset several generations of American teachers for including the word while appealing for slaves' humanity. The teachers worry because Huckleberry Finn is a great book, an American classic, AND a book by one of the best American writers, so it has to be taught in school.


Mark Twain (Real name Samuel Clemens) was probably the mildest famous author from the nineteenth century in terms of race, except for Harriet Beecher Stowe. Huckleberry Finn is great because it covers the moral ambiguity that troubles American society; a boy fights standards ingrained from birth to save a friend's life at the cost of his integrity.

Next post will be about authors that I consider far more racist than Twain, who must not be censored. Ever.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Righteous Fury: Short Comment on the UCF cheating

The original paragraphs I had for the post on UCF got swallowed up by cyberspace...so let me comment briefly and relate it to literature somehow.

For a bit of context, a business professor accused 200 of his students of cheating on an exam . The students retaliated by posting the lecture on YouTube with their subtitles and a defense: Professor Quinn had used the textbook publisher's exam as his template, and the students had not known they were cheating. The debate has exploded on national television, with some of the major new outlets siding with Professor Quinn.

I side with the students on this issue, though I understand Professor Quinn's frustration. Education may be a privilege, but you have to rear it like a child: sometimes it refuses to comply to your need for a GPA above 3 points. Most of us work our butts off to pass our classes while trying to learn the subject matter. I preferred to learn, but grades measure our learning. And then someone CHEATS and surpasses all the hard-workers, including the professors who once had to work their butts off? No wonder the administration hates students who take the shortcut.

All the good teachers I've had in school believe in elbow grease. An art professor who gave me a B (and fairly enough because I didn't put in my best effort) warned us that he knew when students didn't hand in their own work. My high school economic teacher was head of the Honor Council AND the Social Studies department; she made us work hard, but we all got high scores on the AP Economics exam.

Something else all my good teachers believed in: courtesy. If they lost their tempers, we accepted it in grace and tried to learn from it. If we disagreed with them, we were allowed to bring it up in class, and we allowed them to shoot us down or apologize when we were right. I did a three-part blog post about the importance of courtesy when writing; ideally, we would apply that same courtesy to real life.

As several news outlets have noted, technology has stretched into grey areas where "cheating" and "information exchange" are concerned; students got furious when they perceived Professor Quinn as a hypocrite, since he hadn't made up his own exam. But could they have handled it better? Let's see . . .

Posting a YouTube video of the infamous lecture with subtitles of the students' counter-argument? Effective, but the video was filled with typos. Normally I wouldn't care, but writers never get published if their work is filled with typos and grammatical errors, and I'm a stickler about this sort of things. The students had made their point, but missing apostrophes don't help your cause.

An article in the student newspaper about "confronting" Professor Quinn, with students in the comments calling him "lazy"? I understand your point, but your enemy isn't a serial killer with a chainsaw and a hook.

Source: http://t1.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcS2-SD3boMVvtylbCnssvMEWwkioaabbk-r6vztC29-QwRlY0MZOg

Treat him objectively, and let him give his side of the story. Asking him loaded questions will support your view, but it won't give you the truth, or even his version of the truth.

But Professor Quinn is also at fault. While offering clemency to the accused, he not only forced every student to retake the exam, including the 400 who "did not cheat" but also refused to comment for student press. Professor Quinn has, in a nutshell, burned his bridges with the students as well as the student body by not offering his opinion to the newspaper or being gracious in the face of pressure. Teachers make mistakes, and they're not politicians; any administration that fires someone over a misunderstanding is a narrow-minded administration.

I'm also disappointed with Quinn's supporters; they claim that moral standards have lapsed in the twenty-first century. First off, while everyone doesn't cheat, there will always be people in the world searching for dirty shortcuts. College students have NOT become miscreants, and it's not fair to accuse the hard working of moral lapses. Lapses in work ethic, yes, especially in the age of consumerism. Lapses in working under pressure, yes. But lapses in MORALITY? Not only does that hurt, but we're the generation that has to handle potential ecological damage and political incompetence. I may not be planning to build efficient solar energy, but I know that I will do SOMETHING. I may have a heart turning into stone, but I have values.

I will treat you with courtesy because I believe in being nice, but do not think I am a selfish waif because of my age, or the technological era I belong to. I am not representative of my generation, and my generation does not represent me. I do not cheat. I procrastinate, yes, I may drink coffee and eat peanut butter when stressed, I may enjoy writing horror stories, I may text my friends, but I do not plagiarize. I cite my sources.

I am a writer. I am an artist. And I am a college student.