Painful Representations

By Allanah Hunt

I have always been a lover of literature. As a child, I voraciously gobbled up every book in my path. One of my favourite authors was Enid Blyton. I owned copies of Famous Five, The Faraway Tree, and The Twins of St. Claire, which were all well-worn from multiple reads. I loved the thought of kids solving their own problems, no matter how large, and how mysterious the world could be, with or without magic. But there were a lot of foreign concepts to me, and I was never able to see myself in the characters. Did people actually say ‘gosh’ that much? Did people really send their kids off to boarding school? Did it seriously get that cold in England?

Answer: yes. Yes, it does.

Growing up, I realised there were no characters like me in any books I had access to. Unfortunately, as an Aboriginal person, I am accustomed to being invisible in literature (let alone adding being female and identifying as part of the LGBTIQ+ community to the equation). The stories got even more problematic for me when I stopped being invisible in texts, and instead was outright represented in a shockingly racist light. In Enid Blyton’s works, people of colour are portrayed as ugly or untrustworthy (not to mention the rampant sexism!). These words are painful to read as an adult, let alone to a child.

Still though, I loved these books. The characters were my friends and I found a way to get around those hurtful words, and enjoyed the worlds Enid Blyton created, where children had adventures away from the eyes of grown-ups, and I skipped over the parts that cut. This wasn’t the only time I would do this in my life, and I’m sure many other people can share this sentiment.

In the essay collection Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of J. R. R. Tolkien Una McCormack writes about how, despite the problematic representations of people of colour and women in Tolkien’s works, fans have worked to still love them. An extreme labour of love and frustration, which I share.

As I grew older, I was shocked to discover how many well-loved texts contain extremely problematic representations. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell is full of racist and stereotypical characterisations of African Americans. Lord of the Rings has more names for horses than women. Wuthering Heights, a book I adored, has many problems with representations of class and race. The list goes on.

In a positive step toward undoing the harm these works perpetuate, these ‘classics’ are being critiqued for their problematic representations by the very people they misrepresented. Just because the authors' biases and ignorance make these texts difficult doesn’t mean we won’t snatch them up for our own consumption, loving them for what we want and pointing out where they went wrong, reclaiming our voices.

Many have written replies to these problematic texts. The Wind Done Gone by African-American author Alice Randall provides an alternative account of one of the African Americans who were enslaved by the ‘heroine’ of the original novel; Wide Sargasso Sea by Dominican-born Jean Rhys, a reply to Jane Eyre, is from the point of view of Mr Rochester’s previous wife; My Jim by African-American author Nancy Rawles tells the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Jim’s enslaved wife in the original book, Sadie.

These are the published replies that I know about, but many fans do this online in a variety of fandoms, from the original Star Trek to Sherlock. One of the most popular fan-sharing websites is Archive of Our Own. There is an entire subgenre of fan fiction dedicated to calling out misrepresentation (called decolonial fan fiction) which actively deconstructs problematic representations, drawing attention to the problem and/or ‘fixing’ it, i.e., making the invisible visible. This is a genre I like to work in, exploring narratives, issues or characters that weren’t central or present in the original stories. The opportunity to speak back and have my voice heard in stories I didn’t exist in previously is a wonderful experience to write.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I might have to go write a fantasy epic about how an Aboriginal girl comes out of the Faraway Tree, becomes best friends with Jo, Bessie and Fanny and give it to my future daughter. That way, she won’t have to labour to love these stories like I did but, simply, love them.

Allanah Hunt is a Junior Editor with black&write! She is currently undertaking her PhD in Creative Writing at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, UK. She has published several short stories, and two of her manuscripts were highly commended in the black&write! inaugural writing fellowship. Read Allanah’s Nakata Brophy Prize-winning short story here.

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