18 October 2017

“Comics and Medicine” Coming to MICE, Oct. 21

The Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo (MICE) is coming up this weekend, and on Saturday I’ll moderate a panel on “Comics and Medicine.”

This session is being organized by Matthew Noe, the Graphic Medicine Specialist for the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, New England Region. He wrote about it here on the agency’s blog.

Here’s an extract from Matthew’s posting:
In anticipation of this panel, I asked each panelist to say in a few sentences what graphic medicine is to them. Here are their responses – a bit of a teaser of the panel to come!

Cathy Leamy: Graphic medicine is anything involving comics/cartooning and health and illness. I love that it’s not rigid and nailed down; the door is open for all kinds of explorations and investigators. Health education comics, illness memoirs, analysis of comics for medical themes, art therapy, teaching self-expression and empathy through comics making – so many applications are possible, and we all benefit from the cross-pollination of being exposed to them.

Kriota Willberg: My goal as a cartoonist making GM is to normalize medicine and the body. I hope to make illness, anatomy, and science a benign and familiar trio of actors in our lives, thereby mitigating the anxiety and confusion that often effects patients and their families, and stigmatizes the ill.

Iasmin Omar Ata: [To me, graphic medicine is] using unique mediums to heal through the power of art. Particularly in comics and games, there exists such an opportunity for those with illness to speak, be heard, listen, and heal.

Matthew Noe: Graphic medicine, beyond the strict definitions and the difficult task of reigning in what exactly it means to be a comic, is about communication. Patients communicating with physicians. Physicians communicating with patients. Family communicating with family. Comics can give voice to the voiceless, clarity to the unclear, and can help us refocus medicine on the human.
I’m looking forward to hearing more! Our session is at 11:00 A.M. on Saturday in the Auditorium of University Hall, 1815 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge.

06 October 2017

Choice Bits from M. T. Anderson

Entertainment Weekly’s interview with M. T. Anderson about his new novella, Landscape with Invisible Hand, focused on its timeliness and political overtones—which came as a surprise to the author. Here are some of his remarks, insightful as always:
I wrote the first version of it like four years ago at this point. Supposedly I had no idea what this political climate was. There is a health care element — like this kid has this weird disease, somehow alien-inspired disease, and his health care won’t cover it. And at the time I actually remember thinking “Oh, with the ACA going into effect, by the time this is published I bet that this will seem kind of backwards.” Like it would seem like a throwback. . . .

I think that the tension that was probably there in my mind — that I was expressing — was after the 2008 crash, suddenly a couple of years later, everyone is saying, “Look, the economy’s doing great!” But of course, the “economy” — that did not extend to about 95 percent of the population; 95 percent of the population was still in a horrible state. I didn’t think of this as I did it, but then it was immediately clear later: Even the fact that the wealthy now, literally, there is space between them and the rest of the population in this book because the wealthy are now hovering in aerial condos a mile above the Earth’s surface, with access to all this vuvv tech and all this alien tech and all this alien medicine and everything else, while the rest of us are falling around on Earth still. That is, in a sense, I feel also a great representation of how it feels right now. Kind of like a gap between that upper one percent and the rest of us. . . .

If you had talked to people 10 years ago to say that their book was somehow relevant to specific political events, it seemed really kind of embarrassing. It felt like that was a cop-out somehow. . . . there was a phase where dystopian fiction was in but it did not yet have that feeling of complete urgency, except for stuff like Cormac McCarthy. It was a little bit more fun window-dressing to suggest teen angst than it was about a truly political situation in some ways.
In an alternate universe, as the kids say, we’d still be talking about dystopian, apocalyptic near-future science fiction that way.

04 October 2017

Years before Lord of the Flies

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies sits in a long line of novels about shipwrecked voyagers stretching back to the beginning of the English novel with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

Other famous examples of the “Robinsonade” genre include Gulliver’s Travels, The Swiss Family Robinson, Enoch Arden, Haakon Haakonsen: En Norsk Robinson, Treasure Island, The Blue Lagoon, The Black Stallion, and Island of the Blue Dolphins.

The example that Golding cited as inspiration was The Coral Island and a Tale of the South Pacific, by R. M. Ballantyne. He explicitly alluded to that book twice in Lord of the Flies and borrowed two of its main characters’ first names. In Ballantyne’s tale three boys are shipwrecked on an island, look after themselves and friendly natives, fight off pirates and unfriendly natives, and convert natives to Christianity. Really their island’s not that deserted.

One novel resembles Lord of the Flies in its premise a lot more: Deux ans de vacances (Two Years’ Vacation, also titled Adrift in the Pacific, A Two Years’ Holiday, and A Long Vacation), written by Jules Verne in 1888. Verne liked Robinsonades, publishing two others before this one: The Mysterious Island (titled L’Oncle Robinson in its first, discarded version) and Godfrey Morgan.

In Deux ans de vacances, a group of mostly British schoolboys are cast ashore on an uninhabited, unmapped island. They organize themselves into a rudimentary society, the older boys looking after the younger ones. They hunt wild animals. They see no other humans for two years until a ship comes by.

In those respects, Lord of the Flies is more like Deux ans de vacances than The Coral Island or any of its predecessors. And the similarities don’t stop with the thick lines of plot. In the first English edition of Verne’s novel, titled Adrift in the Pacific, the younger boys are frequently referred to as “little ones.” In Lord of the Flies, the younger boys are “littluns.” (The 1967 translation of Deux ans de vacances, titled A Long Vacation, comes up with the jargon “Elbees,” short for “little boys.”)

There’s no evidence that Golding ever read Deux ans de vacances. The 1889 British version was reprinted in 1927, 1934, and perhaps other years, however. Golding said he and his wife shared a number of island adventure stories before he got the idea to write about how boys would really behave on an island. Adrift in the Pacific might have been one of them. If not, then there are some mighty strong coincidences.

02 October 2017

Dahl’s Chocolate Boy

Last month I wrote about the suddenly fashionable but not really new news that Roald Dahl had originally described Charlie Bucket as black.

Maria Russo of the New York Times interviewed Catherine Keyser, Associate Professor of English at the University of South Carolina, about the part of Dahl’s early draft for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Keyser identified the agent who advised Dahl against making Charlie black as Sheila St. Lawrence of the Watkins Agency in New York. She had pushed Dahl into giving children’s books a try, so she was a big part of his literary success and wealth. Their working relationship ended in a transatlantic row, of course.

In the first draft Charlie’s status as a “small NEGRO boy” became significant in a scene that Keyser summarized like this:
Charlie ends up in the Easter Room, where there are life-size candy molds of creatures, and one of these life-size molds is shaped like a chocolate boy. Charlie is fascinated by this. Wonka helps him into the mold and gets distracted. The mold closes, and the chocolate pours over his body and he is suffocating and nearly drowning in it. And it hardens around him, which feels terrible. He’s trapped. He’s alive but can’t be seen or heard. No one knows where he’s gone. Then he gets taken to Wonka’s house to be the chocolate boy in Wonka’s son’s Easter basket. . . .

As far as this version goes, I think it is a really powerful racial allegory that might seem very surprising coming from Dahl. I think the mold in the shape of a chocolate boy is a metaphor for racial stereotype. In the early 20th century, chocolate marketing in both the U.S. and England was very tied up in imperialist fantasies and in connecting brown skin with brown chocolate.
I can’t help thinking that Keyser’s reading of the episode as a “powerful racial allegory” is too charitable to Dahl. He was not known for his broad sympathies, after all.

What’s more, the guiding pattern in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is that the kids get in trouble because their personal weaknesses draw them toward a certain type of candy, and they end up nastily transformed in some way related to that candy. This Charlie is “fascinated” by the chocolate boy mold, even wishing to get inside. It feels like Dahl was thinking that a black boy would naturally be drawn to the chocolate boy mold. That’s the suffocating stereotype itself, not an allegory for it. Dahl eventually dropped that characterization of Charlie and that episode, letting him sharpen the book’s moral allegory.

Another part of the interview:
When you started your research, had anyone else ever written about “Charlie’s Chocolate Boy”?

No. It was mentioned by Dahl’s biographer, Donald Sturrock, and it was mentioned in Lucy Mangan’s popular book “Inside Charlie’s Chocolate Factory.”
So actually I think the answer to that question is “Yes.” Even if, as Keyser goes on to state, no previous author had looked at the episode “in great textual detail.”