Control Your Shelves

Content warning throughout, for discussion of sexual violence and racism, including examples of racist language.

A few weeks ago we literally had to extend our Billy bookcases, as this year’s Christmas haul had joined last year’s unshelved presents. So, the question came up: why would we give shelf space to writers we really don’t want there? Whose works are you willing to be in dialogue with, even when they and their authors are not perfect? Whose works do reflect who you are? And which works and authors cause embarrassing silences at the table?

Death of the Author, in short, is the theory that argues that creation and creator are unrelated. There are many facets to this, and your personal mileage may vary: what one puts up with, another will not. Emotions may come into play here, but principles too. For me, death of the author doesn’t wash, as what an author says and does is of influence on how I perceive their work. This extends to writers, filmmakers, musicians and visual artists. Critics may say that this is Cancel Culture, yet as a consumer I have the right to choose what I consume, just as publishers have the right to choose what they publish, and can choose whether or not to listen to calls from the public to publish – or not – a writer/artist. And if they are published, we can choose whether or not to financially support that work.

These choices are not always based on what’s legal. Material proof of Marilyn Manson’s abuse of Evan Rachel Wood has yet to be produced. Yet, her testimony is powerful and convincing, as are the reports of others who have experienced similar abuse. I believe her. But what to make of the hordes of men (mainly men) in the comments sections of entertainment websites, with their cries of “pics or it didn’t happen”? What climate does this create for any woman who suffers sexual or other abuse, when the default setting at coming forward is not being believed?

When will the Didn’t happen crowd be satisfied? Amber Heard did come with the pictures, yet it was easily spun as “self inflicted” and “she abused Johnny Depp first”. What proof will men be satisfied with, when in the UK less than 5% of rape cases reported to the police are referred to the Crown Prosecution Service, and of these, only three quarters make it to court? And what chance do women stand in court, when the defence attacks their morality and underwear, whereas the promising future of young men must not be compromised? And as for Marilyn Manson, if his own words are explained away as “That’s just his media persona talking,” can I understand why women feel embattled and a #metoo movement sprung up? Yes, I can. Does it affect how I listen to Manson’s music? Oh, yes!

Mists of Avalon: feminism and female empowerment?

Likewise, could I re-read the “feminist masterpiece” Mists of Avalon knowing how she sexually abused her daughter from the age 3-12 (should I add “allegedly” here?) and how she remained silent about the child molestation by her husband, for which he received multiple convictions? No, when finding that out, Avalon and other stray MZBs left our house. I wouldn’t be able to read them without adding a mental “yes, but you abused your daughter,” after each “strong female protagonist” bit of writing. This, also because she’s so very present in her books: the author may be dead to me, but it’s not a case of Death of the Author. Less clear-cut, of course, are films, the products of many hands and many talents: auteur films from the likes of Roman Polanski or Woody Allen may have lost their gloss, but films produced by Harvey Weinstein, not so much.

Then there are films that I can enjoy, though I won’t support the author. Don’t @ me; the first Twilight film isn’t bad. However, as I will not support the Mormon church and their wacky and homophobic beliefs, and knowing that Stephenie Meyer is a member of the church and will pay 10% tithe of all money she earns, I’ll not see a single penny of mine go towards her. Likewise for noted transphobe J.K. Rowling. And sometimes I’m just petty: a noted horror writer was rude to me in a Facebook group, so his books went from my shelf to the charity box.

And then you’ve got authors whose attitudes where, perhaps, “of their time”. How do you deal with sexism and racism in works from an era where these were the standard? Firstly, there is the work itself: is it unreadable? H. Rider Haggard is at times patronising about Black people and too often falls into the Mighty Whitey or White Man’s Burden tropes, but you can read he’s sympathetic towards his major Black characters. You feel he’s trying at least, as opposed to for example Edgar Wallace in his Sanders of the River stories. Rider Haggard I’ll happily read – She, for all its faults, is a powerful work, in which the Mighty Whitey’s rule is not at portrayed as entirely benevolent. Wallace’s “gunboat diplomacy”, however, I can do without. Then over to the people “behind the page”; what of H.P. Lovecraft, for instance? It’s pretty well known that the Weird Tales stalwart and Call of Cthulhu writer was racist. But, which white man in the 1920s and ’30s wasn’t? To answer this, I’m aided by the question: “How would they vote, now?”

Colonial justice: Sanders of the River. Illustration: William Marshall, 1976

I believe that HPL would’ve voted Trump, would’ve been very much in favour of The Wall, and I’d dare go as far as to say that he’d be liable to adhere to some QAnon trappings. He was a learned man, had ample opportunity to create a broader worldview, but stubbornly and unapologetically refused to do so. That racism is part and parcel of stories like Shadow Over Innsmouth is extensively documented.Now, Lovecraft scholar Bobby Derie, in his Deep Cuts, has chronicled some of HPL’s real life encounters with Black people. It’s worse than I imagined. In 1933 he wrote of Hitler: I’d like to see Hitler wipe Greater New York clean with poison gas—giving masks to the few remaining people of Aryan culture (even if of Semitic ancestry). The place needs fumigation & a fresh start. (If Harlem didn’t get any masks, I’d shed no tears ….. & the same goes for the dago slums!)

Compare this with what Robert E. Howard wrote on Nazi Germany, in a 1933 letter to Lovecraft: I might also point out that no one has ever been hanged in Texas for a witch, and that we have never persecuted any class or race because of its religious beliefs or chance of birth; nor have we ever banned or burned any books, as the “civilized” Nazis are now doing in “civilized” Germany.

Both letters are from 1933; before the concentration camps, before the worst excesses of the Reich, yet the writing was already on the wall, and with his “poison gas” comment, Lovecraft of course hearkens back to World War I gas attacks, so we’re not talking abstracts here. What (finally) did it for me was Derie’s quoting of a letter Lovecraft wrote in 1922. To colleagues and others further removed he could be polite, even to a Black editor, but writing to close family we get the unfiltered HPL, not only drawing a link between apes and Black people, but also using a slur frequently used by slave holders for Black men: Before the chimpanzee cage; gazing with rapt interest, & unconscious of the time, we noted two huge, jet-black buck niggers; one of them—curiously enough—in army uniform with a very businesslike trench helmet.

Shadow Over Innsmouth: “queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, stary eyes that never seem to shut, and their skin ain’t quite right. (Art: Hannes Bok, 1942)

But how about Robert E. Howard then? Yes, he was racist too. However, his is a more tangled web where very bad portrayals of Black people go hand in hand with sympathetic descriptions of non-white characters. In his article Bran Mak Morn: Social Justice Warrior Jason Ray Carney writes about the story Worms of the Earth as a story about oppression, yet recognises that it is also written against a theoretical background of inter-war racist pseudoscience. While Lovecraft travelled and lived in New York for a spell, Howard pretty much stayed in Texas, and his literary influences go back decades, so there seems to be an element of ignorance too, less wilful than Lovecraft’s.

Howard’s ambivalence and confusion regarding race is can be illustrated with a 1932 letter to Lovecraft: I am not yet able to understand my own preference for these so-called Picts. Bran Mak Morn has not changed in the years; he is exactly as he leaped full-grown into my mind – a pantherish man of medium height with inscrutable black eyes, black hair and dark skin. This was not my own type; I was blond and rather above medium size than below. Most of my friends were of the same mold. Pronounced brunet types such as this were mainly represented by Mexicans and Indians, whom I disliked.

Bran Mak Morn: inscrutable black eyes, black hair and dark skin. (Art: Gary Gianni)

Howard’s more blatant racism (and sexism) seem to mainly occur in the more cliché Conan stories, which makes me wonder whether he wrote them pandering to a market which he knew was receptive to such tropes, much like he got the coveted cover spot by including lesbian flogging. This doesn’t excuse racism but implies a similar cultural landscape to today, in which it was a choice to act, or not, on principles of equality; in Howard’s case, earning his daily bread seems to have won out in the end. What for me is important is that Howard shows the capacity to grow and learn. Had he lived, I think he’d have enlisted to punch Nazis in WWII, shoulder to shoulder with Black soldiers. Lovecraft, I think, would merely bemoan the loss of American, Aryan, life and prudently keep his deeper thoughts from polite society.

With Derie’s work, and in particular discussions around the television series Lovecraft Country, a taking stock of sorts is underway. The Mythos, stories based on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and other cosmic horrors, is not to be scrapped completely, but conversations like this make it easier to discern which implicit and explicit elements to get rid of, and which to keep and foster. I am not convinced that a similar consensus has been reached around Howard’s work. Due to its more ambiguous nature, fans roughly fall into the camps of, “I like it, though it’s flawed, and we need to talk about it,” and “I like it just as it is. No SJW in my books!” Howard’s Conan stories, and the Sword & Sorcery genre in general, were discovered by many in their teens, and it’s hard for some to reconcile their undeveloped teenage views and nostalgia with a more adult, critical view. One publisher of a recent S&S anthology states, amongst other dog whistles: No political correctness and No social justice warriors.

Lovecraft Country: reclaiming Mythos territory.

Even so, with a recent flux of podcasts like The Cromcast (their episode on The Moon of Skulls, on racism in the Solomon Kane stories, is a must), Rogues in the House and Appendix N, all looking at the genre from a critical perspective, as well as a host of magazines who aim to make the genre about more than Manly White Men, the genre is slowly emerging from its unreconstructed ghetto. Robert E. Howard himself can yet be redeemed too; I just finished rereading the Kull stories, and found little racism or sexism in them: women are written with agency and personality, and I got the feeling that Kull’s Pictish, and non-white, brother in arms Brule is far wiser and hardly less skilled a fighter than Kull is. Then, as was pointed out by commenter Cora Buhlert: Yes, he was prejudiced and yes, there are racist bits in his fiction, but he also had Kull smash Valusia’s miscegenation laws with his battle axe.

Adaptations too need not be uncritical, and can be transformative. The Dark Horse Conan comics were generally well received, though Becky Cloonan’s portrayal of Conan was derided as “too thin.” Aside from this being a younger Conan and previous Conans perhaps having been drawn “too muscular,” I also wonder how much misogyny against a female artist has played a part in its reception. Cloonan drew the adaptation of Howard’s Queen of the Black Coast, as scripted by Brian Wood. Wood has a history of harassing women, and is a good example of Death of the Author. The adaptation, despite Wood’s interpolations, is still predominantly Howard’s story, and Cloonan’s art is worth sticking around for, so I don’t feel that urge to throw it out; Wood did lose his gig at Dark Horse when word got out, which I feel is just.

What strikes me on reading, and in particularly viewing, the comic is how it deals with its crew of Black pirates. When Conan first encounters them, they are (in Howard’s prose) “painted and plumed, and mostly naked, brandishing spears and spotted shields” with their white queen Bêlit forming “a dazzling contrast to the glossy ebon hides about it.” Cloonan depicts them as anonymous, almost black shapes with empty eyes and a suggestion of sharpened teeth; the idea of the savage as a 1930s reader, and a young Conan, would have it.

Conan joins the pirate queen on the Tigress and becomes the Mighty Whitey himself next to her. But as the story goes on, we get to know some of the crew better, like old N’Yaga and sub-Chief N’Gora. The language gets toned down a bit to blacks, black warriors, with huge muscles coiling and straining under their ebon skin when they try to shift a stone altar; terms which, aside from the words black and ebon were used to describe Conan. Later still, it’s N’Gora and his comrades. Cloonan’s pirates too morph into recognisable individuals, away from stereotypical depictions.

So, this is what we can do with what we don’t like; certain writers and artists we can take off our shelves, and not spend our coin on. Genres with a history of racism and sexism we can investigate and then transform and subvert. Inclusivity, in 2021, is a must, yet it involves excluding or changing that which is toxic. Because – who needs the presence of a writer who (“but think of the children!”) would want women barred from female toilets? Who’d want a Mythos that espouses fear of strangers, when those “strangers” are our neighbours and colleagues? What is a Heroic Fantasy fandom which cannot imagine heroes who are different but equal to the white, heterosexual male?


White Man’s Burden

(Content warning: historical racism)

I’ve been thinking about whether to write this blog. Whether it’d just be to patch my own soul, or whether it could actually contribute something. While not denying the former, I do think that there’s something that can be learnt from it. Where we are now, the Western world needs to change. There’s a lot of anger, a lot of misunderastanding and a lot of mistrust. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. And if the horse starts kicking, what are you going to do then? The problem, as it were, is that the horse may well think that the water is poisoned.

Whenever you’ve got a movement like #metoo or #blm you’ll find two main antagonising groups. Firstly, you’ve got those who are ideologically against (male chauvinists, neo-nazis, whatnot), and then you’ve got the people who don’t have a firm opinion but are alarmed because (as we say in Dutch) “what the farmer doesn’t know, he doesn’t eat.” There are a lot of people in that second group.

When you look at society as a whole, you’ll still see a lot of segregation. Sure, formally everyone is equal and has the same rights, but socially the communities where people of different backgrounds, and skin colours, are living together are a minority. In the cities you’ve got ‘white’ and ‘black’ neighbourhoods, and in the countryside you’ll still have villages where there are non-white families.

Cartoon characters Sjors & Sjimmie in their first incarnation in the 1940s and their modern version.

When I grew up, and I’m in my mid-40s now, we had a village school with about 50 children, of whom 3 were non-white. They were adopted from Bangladesh and Indonesia if I remember correctly, by what we’d consider people from the ‘better middle class’. Aside from that, it was not until the Millennium, and the coming of an Asylum Seekers Centre, that the village saw a significant amount of non-white (and non-northern Dutch for that matter) faces…

Only a few welcomed them with open arms, while the majority started locking their bikes and back doors. “After all, you don’t know what kind of people you’ll get.” For the few years that the centre was near the village, the refugees were kept at arm’s length. Of course, the village’s actual waywards were indulged, and accommodated – as ‘missing stairs’ they may have been skipped over for generations, at least they were familiar missing stairs.

We had black people on television of course. The Cosby Show was unmissable, with the wholesome Huxtable family, minus daughter daughter Denise when actress Lisa Bonet became too scandalous. The A-Team came with Mr. T’s B.A. Baracus, who was the mercenary team’s strongman and occasional comic relief. Miami Vice had Rico Tubbs, conceived as “nobody’s Tonto”, though according to showrunner Michael Mann “that eroded a little bit.” I certainly don’t have any strong recollectons, other than pastel jackets with the sleeves bunched up.

Sitcom Zeg n’s Aaa, with GP John Wijntak (Kenneth Herdigein) of Surinam origin.

The comedy series about a GP practice Zeg n’s Aaa (Say Aah) became water cooler talk in 1988 when a black GP and the white surgeon’s (white) niece got involved. Actor Kenneth Herdigein was born in Suriname in 1959 and came to the Netherlands in the early ’70s. As a young actor he refused to play criminals or drug addicts, and wanted to be an example for the young men in De Bijlmer, the ‘projects’ of Amsterdam: “In Suriname I was an outsider because I was too light, but when I came to the Netherlands I was too dark.” Those boys in De Bijlmer were far away from me and my brothers in Ulrum, though.

Our library had a few boxes with records, but no rap or hiphop. What music there was for the youth was pretty much decided on by the vocal majority, which basically came down to Metal and Madonna. Her “Like a virgin, touched for the very first time,” got a pass, of course. I don’t know what we thought where she was touched – her heart? What we did know was that Prince was a little pervert. Michael Jackson was fine, as long as he still had some of his boyish charm.

Ah, and the library had books, of course, through which a young boy from the desolate coast got to know the world. Like the books he has at home, his own and the hand-me-downs from brothers and parents, it’s a collection of new books, old books, and new books with old stories. These would of course include such standbys as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Robinson Crusoe, a thankful ‘Man Friday’ rescued from savages, but also original Dutch fare. And there were black people in the Dutch books. Strangely enough, not from former colony Suriname but from Africa. Nor were there any people from our other ‘big’ colony Indonesia, come to think of. Perhaps another bit from our past we’d rather was kept buried.

A 1946 Suske en Wiske comic rife with stereotypes. Later reworked, but not improved.

One of the comics I borrowed time and time again from the library is a facsimile reprint of an early book from the Suske en Wiske series, De vliegende Aap (The Flying Ape). It’s set in Africa and formed my image of Africa for years to come. They’re crude caricatures who speak broken Dutch and come with a giant cooking pot to stew Europeans in. Our heroes don’t mince words: “That n* even starts to swing! He’s more civilised than I thought!” In the 1968 this comic was redrawn, but the crude stereotyping, with lips filling half the face, and the racist slurs remained. Only in the last decade or so was the text adjusted.

Retiring Sjors & Sjimmie artist Frans Piet literally handing over the pencil to incoming artist Jan Kruis. Two modern (for 1969) children say goodbye to their predecessors.

For decades a staple of Dutch comics Sjors & Sjimmie, about a white and a black boy. The white boy Sjors was ‘borrowed’ from an English comic in the 1930s; once adventuring in Africa he met the black boy Sjimmie. Sjimmie, drawn ‘as usual’ was not too clever, easily frightened and definitely the sidekick of bread-and-cheese grown Sjors. In 1969 the comic radically changed: “It was in the spirit of the times. I have taken the wildman Sjimmie and made him into a normal Surinam boy, like you’d meet on the street,” artist Jan Kruis said.

Bizarre: in the 1950s there had already been a restyling of the white boy, whose sailor’s uniform was seen as old-fashioned. In the middle of an adventure, the boy got a letter from his parents, calling him home. “Sjimmie very sad is. He now alone. What is Sjimmie without Sjors?” his friend frets. “Cheer up, Sjimmie, you’re not staying behind alone,” comes the reply, “you’ve got a new friend, the boy nextdoor. His name is Sjors too. Will you help me pack my suitcases?” It seems black friends are disposable, and transferrable. And a few panels later, Sjimmie seems happy enough alongside new-Sjors.

Disposable friends. Frans Piet’s Sjimmie had lost his curly hair (“too intricate to draw”) and also his ability to speak proper Dutch. With the loss of language, he’d also become less bright.

Another ‘fun fact’: Dutch filmmaker Henk van der Linden produced several films around the duo. Filming in the rural south, he often had difficulties finding a black boy, and several times a girl in blackface had to do, including his daughter: “Sjimmie was a fun type to play. I had to talk weirdly. That was in the script. My father had to stick to that. Nobody found it discriminatory at the time. Sjimmie was just a fun fellow, and whether he was black or white, we didn’t care about.”

Going through the children’s books and comics I read as a child is an onslaught of the same stereotype. People over a certain age, say 40, grew up with a huge amount of racism that was soaked into culture. This is true for The Netherlands, and I doubt it’s been much different for the UK or the US, and not everyone has had the opportunity, the impetus, or the will to address that.

Blackface in the late ’60s. The last Sjors & Sjimmie film was in colour in 1977, and blackface would no longer do: “because blue eyes would show up.”

I’ve been living in the UK for 15 years now, and working in an office where we regularly have young people starting who are fresh from The Netherlands. It’s almost a ritual that the first year they’re here, they get ‘the talk’: “Black Pete might be youth sentiment for you, it’s also a racist caricature.” A year later, they’ll likely give the talk themselves; it really is a lot worse when you look at it from the outside.

When I was 18, I moved away from the small village; first to the city of Zwolle, then to Amsterdam, where I lived for 8 years in De Bijlmer. Yes, ‘the projects’. During that time, I got ‘deprogrammed’ fairly well, but I’m thinking of all those people of my age who never left their villages, never left the white neighbourhoods, and genuinely can not see Black Pete as anything other than harmless fun for children. Cannot, or will not, as the price they’ll pay is too high, while they’ll get nothing back for it: why would they change their values for people they don’t know?

There does seem to be a disconnect between the ‘real’ black people we grew up with on television and those in our children’s books, but I think it reinforced something that I now see coming to the fore in the USA too. The black people in television shows and music, I think, were accepted as long as they conformed and didn’t rock the boat. This because from our books we had an idea of what black people really were underneath: impressionable, irresponsible and child-like at best, savages at worst.

Oki en Doki bij de <slurword>, still published in my childhood. The language was sanitised up a little bit by that time, but not the images.

And that’s what I think is what someone from the outlands, who doesn’t know black people, sees in the BLM protests. The question is not just how we give them a wider, more informed perspective: it’s how we make them want to see.

I’ve been thinking – were there no non-stereotype, neutral depictions of black people in the books I read a child? Yes, there was one book in the Pim, Frits en Ida series, which were read in school classes. I’ve looked it up; it’s part 8. I remember there’s a black boy temporarily in our heroes’ class, whose father is an ambassador. They set off on a school trip to the caves, and the four children get lost. They pretty much spend the rest of the book in pitch blackness…