Sunday, July 23, 2006

Old school and "Other-ness"

Manila Times column
July 2, 2006

It wasn’t until the spring term that I got around to reading Alexander McCall Smith. Two of his books – The Number One Ladies Detective Agency and one of its sequels, Morality for Beautiful Girls – were required at one course at Roskilde Universitetcentret. Filipinos will not be all that familiar with McCall Smith – his books tend to be expensive, and moreover, he often writes about Botswana, a setting that many of my countrymen would consider too remote and unglamorous to immerse themselves in.

At the Cape Town book fair, someone asked him how he got around to creating characters so radically different from himself. McCall Smith is a jocular, tweedy Scotsman in his 60s, a former law lecturer, but his most famous creation is Mma Ramotswe, owner of the said ladies’ detective agency, a “traditionally-built” black woman tooling around the countryside in her little white van. As I remember, he didn’t answer the question directly, but went into a vague speech about using one’s imagination and powers of observation and empathy.

I read the first book at the start of the term, and enjoyed it – it was extremely light reading, and it was pleasant to clip through the unfamiliar names and tales of witchcraft and snakes in car radiators. The books, as my teacher, Kirsten Holst Petersen, pointed out, are a send-up of the classic, scientific detective story – Mma Ramotswe’s methods are intuitive and what she resolves are, for the most part, family misunderstandings and moral conundrums rather than statute-book crimes. But by the end of the term, we had pored over several novels that explored the complexity, bitterness and frequent violence of race relations in southern Africa and the Caribbean, and I found the second book, Morality for Beautiful Girls almost impossible to digest.

Finish it I did, in time for the class session, the scene of a vigorous debate on whether the McCall Smith books presented stereotypes of black people, i.e. whether he was guilty of what Eduard Said called Orientalism, the tendency of “Westerners” (Europeans and, now, Americans) to construct an image of those different from themselves (the Other) that simply reinforces Western prejudices. There were those who thought McCall Smith had arrogated unto himself the voice of someone so different – we were reading his books against Unity Dow’s Juggling Truths (also set in Botswana) and were inclined to believe Smith’s women characters were inauthentic. As for me, I was unhappy with a certain patronizing tone throughout the novels – the author’s tendency, for example, to refer to certain prosperous characters by their full names and titles at every mention, as one might address royalty – or speak of the neighborhood chieftain whom one might snicker about over tea.

The McCall Smith lecture I attended was packed, and there were a few squabbles over seats. He told anecdote after anecdote about his experiences as an author, the strange things his fans had told him (one California woman purchased a white van and drove around the state pretending to be Mma Ramotswe) and throughout he was as charming as the English-language press had reported that morning. The queue at the Penguin stand, where I waited to have my books signed, were equally long, for McCall Smith had a tendency to chat with his admirers, shaking their hands and inquiring as to whom the book was to be dedicated to. Significantly, there wasn’t a black face among his fans. Not a one. With the exception of two or three “coloreds” or Indians, they were all English-speaking white South Africans. It would be interesting to know what the blacks think of his work.

It occurred to me that McCall Smith, with his avuncular, old-school charm, must have filled a deep need among these 40- and 50-somethings. He may have represented an England they had yearned for but never really experienced. Strange that in South Africa, the British have, to this day, maintained their Britishness – in Norwich, where I lived for a while, the inhabitants might say “Hi” in greeting and “Cheers” in farewell, but in Cape Town -- oh boy! -- it was “How do you do?” and “Thank you”-“It’s a pleasure” all the way.

McCall Smith was oddly cool when my turn in the queue came, but I suppose any author would be mortified to hear the words, so enthusiastically uttered – “I’m so glad to meet you! We debated your books in our Post-Colonial Lit class!” Despite writing about southern Africa, he wasn’t at all serious. Maybe his Botswana days had been fun.

Congratulations to Fil V. Elefante for winning second place in the Ongpin awards for Journalism for his special report on wire-tapping, published while he was an editor at the Manila Times. Keep up the good work, Fil!

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