This seems to be turning into a theme, so, previously on race and fiction: Writing Race, How to write yourself out of your own life, How White Writers Should Address Racism, Race and the Non-White Reader.
I’ve just finished up Mister Pip by New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones. It’s set during the blockade in early 1990s Bougainville, and is from the perspective of the teenage Matilda. (Matilda is an iconic Australian name, one that makes its way to this novel’s Matilda through Australian miners, and it strikes quite a note through the course of the novel.) Most of the white people and her teachers have escaped from the island, but the last white man, Mr Watts, stays and teaches at Matilda’s school. He teaches using Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, and Matilda comes to very much identify with Pip, the main character in that novel.
Now, I’m quite loudly not a fan of Great Expectations, and Dickens’ work in general, which is why it was such a pleasure to see it reimagined from the perspective of a black girl. I’ll get back to exactly why that was in a moment, but, before then, I want to note Mr Watts’ wife, Grace. They met in New Zealand while she was at dentistry school – we find out later in the novel that she was subsequently institutionalised. She is regarded as rather odd once they move to her village in Bougainville, having married a white man and for keeping herself isolated. The mad isolated wife who has been in a white world? A suspicious Grace? How very familiar. I was reminded at once of Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea.
I wrote about the relationship between Charlotte Brontë’s novel and Jean Rhys’ last year, so I’ll not repeat myself. Wide Sargasso Sea reimagines Jane Eyre’s story from the perspective of her love’s wife, who has been cast aside and shut up for her non-whiteness and her (supposed) mental illness. It’s a direct filling in of the gaps in Brontë’s narrative, which has a horror of the racial other. That filling in of marginalised perspectives from the source text is not the case with Mister Pip, which doesn’t confront the racial framework of Great Expectations directly at all.
What Mister Pip does do is show a black girl reshaping a white man’s narrative on her own terms, for making it about her where its author wouldn’t have considered her a proper person. It’s about learning collaboratively, and storytelling orally, bucking the kinds of reading and storytelling expected in the West. This is especially so when they no longer have a copy of the novel – and all the more so when Matilda later finds a copy of Great Expectations in Australia, and realises that Mr Watts changed parts of the narrative. It’s about loving something that came from a white man, and making it thoroughly about a non-white story. Racism doesn’t have a monopoly on the kinds of stories we can tell.
There are all kinds of ways to reimagine narratives that centre whiteness and white people, and Rhys and Jones have presented us with two particularly powerful means of smashing and transcending racism.