Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Noughts & Crosses

(Crossposted here)

I was caught up in a hurricane, with all the noise and madness whirling around me until my head was about to explode.
“Stop it! Just stop it!”
“STOP IT! YOU’RE ALL BEHAVING LIKE ANIMALS!” I shouted so hard my throat immediately began to hurt. “WORSE THAN ANIMALS – LIKE BLANKERS!”
The sounds of the crowd slowly died away. “Just look at you,” I continued. “Stop it.” I glanced down at Callum. He was staring at me, the strangest expression on his face.
Callum, don’t look at me like that. I didn’t mean you. I’d never mean you. It was just for the others, to get them to stop, to get them to help. I’d never mean you…

I’ve just finished reading Malorie Blackman’s marvellous Noughts and Crosses (and the novella An Eye for An Eye included in this edition) and I was blown away. This is by far the most complex treatment of race in a YA novel that I’ve ever come across. It is in many ways a fictionalized history of the Civil Rights movement (in Britain? I’m more familiar with the American movement so I associated it with that but Blackman is British), but with the colours reversed – the “Crosses” (capitalised throughout), the race in power, are black; the “noughts” (no capitals here) are white. Plus it’s dealing with present day issues of race and power as well – like language and education and economics.

“D’you know what they call a nought with all the money in the world?” I asked.
Rob and Gordy shook their heads.
“A blanker,” I told them.

Blackman says she chose the title because Noughts and Crosses is “ of those games that nobody ever plays after childhood, because nobody ever wins”. I love this, and it makes a lot of sense in the context of the book. Blackman’s characters so often seem stuck – the racial divides that they’re trying to overcome are so deeply embedded that they’re checkmated at every step.

Lots of Big Issues are tackled – the involvement of the male members of the McGregor family in a violent liberation organisation* makes the family home the site of a number of arguments about what makes a terrorist, violent rebellion, means versus ends, freedom fighters versus terrorists (familiar, but far more interesting than in the CBSE modern Indian history textbooks), while somewhere in the background is a Martin Luther King/Gandhian figure who wishes to bring about change through peaceful means. Interracial relationships. Abortion (my thoughts on the book’s treatment of it would take up another post, so maybe later.)

Ultimately though, Blackman’s biggest achievement is in her portrayal of the numerous seemingly minor things that go into racial constructions. Possibly my favourite moment in the book is when Persephone (whose name is of course significant) notices the conspicuous plaster on Shania’s head and realizes that even bandages are designed based on the assumption of “Cross” skin. Beauty constructs are built up around Cross superiority. So is religion. History books celebrate Cross contributions to history. In one chapter a list of great Cross scientists and pioneers is given, and Blackman’s note at the end of the book tells us that these were real people, African-American innovators whose names have been written out of history. And it all comes back to that huge overturning of assumptions right at the beginning of it all because the Crosses are black and the noughts are white. I’d once quoted Ursula LeGuin on the political importance she attached to not making most of her Earthsea characters white, and I see something very similar here.

Also, there’s a lovely little bit at the end where Callum daydreams about a society where the whites instead of the Crosses were in charge. “…no more discrimination, no more prejudice, a fair police force, an equal justice system, equality of education, equality of life, a level playing field…”

I’m amazed that this book hasn’t caught on more in India. It was published in 2001 and it’s pretty big in the UK, and books that achieve that level of popularity abroad generally get here eventually. But I’ve only seen this in one Indian bookshop (where I bought it) and no one seems to have heard of it. If you do get a hold of it, avoid reading it in public – I completely humiliated myself by sniffling all over it while on a plane seated between two staid men in suits. Had I been at home I would have bawled.

*I’m not sure what to think of the gendering here. Later in the book we do have a pretty kickass female freedom fighter, but a) she’s also hot b) she dies.