Tag Archives: Brexit

Fit for a King: Traditional tales and Revision

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The Oxford Reading Tree version of the Dominican tale, “The King who wanted to Touch the Moon.”

Since the referendum on Brexit, many of the British political parties have been in turmoil; I was camping along Hadrian’s Wall for a few days this week and came back to find that the UK had a new prime minister. The Labour party is also mulling over changes: should Jeremy Corbyn remain the head of the party? The thing that struck me most about all of the changes and potential changes is that they largely are being discussed at the top. Whereas Brexit was a straight majority-rules vote about remaining in the European Union, Theresa May became prime minister without an election, and the Labour Party is arguing over whether the “three pound” Labour Party members (who joined during the last Labour leadership campaign, and mostly supported Corbyn) should be allowed to have a say in the next leadership vote. This all, of course, complies with British political party policy—but many ordinary British voters might well begin to suspect that the leaders of the major parties do not really want to know what they think.

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Many voted for Brexit because they said they didn’t like the “elites” telling them what to do.

The upheaval in Britain made me think of a story that will be familiar to many Americans, at least those born in my era, Dr. Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle (1958). The story concerns a turtle king who wants to have complete power over all that he sees; once he does, he climbs higher to find more to conquer. Seuss has King Yertle climb on the backs of his citizen turtles to get higher; the lowest on the stack, a turtle named Mack, constantly complains but Yertle ignores him. The story comes to a climax when Yertle wants to be ruler of the moon and Mack, in protest, burps, bringing down the turtle stack and dumping Yertle in the pond.

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Dr. Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle has Yertle governing without regard to his people’s needs.

Somewhere along the line—I can’t remember when, but we came from a household where political messages in texts would have been suggested to us—I learned that this story was written with Adolf Hitler’s then-recent attempts to conquer Europe (and beyond) in mind. This is one of the now-accepted interpretations of the book: the author of the blog, The Children’s War, for example, writes, “Now, I am sure you can see the resemblance to Hitler and his quest for more and more Lebensraum in Yertle.  And it isn’t hard to figure out that the turtles are the German people under Hitler’s dictatorship” (https://thechildrenswar.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/yertle-turtle-by-dr-seuss.html). Seuss was certainly political; there’s even an American public television programme, Indpendent Lens, which has done an entire episode about “The Political Dr. Seuss” (http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/politicaldrseuss/); the web page about this episode also mention the link between Hitler and Yertle the Turtle.

But Seuss’s story—though certainly originally presented—is not an original story. I recently came across a Dominican folk tale strikingly similar to Seuss’s story. Like Seuss’s story, it is set on an island. The island is ruled by a king, who has a wish for power, and makes his people serve his every desire. The Dominican story is entitled “The King Who Wanted to Touch the Moon.” In the Dominican story, the king gets his carpenter to tell him how to build a tall tower to touch the moon. Even though the carpenter knows that it is not possible to touch the moon, he and the villagers obey the king’s wishes and stack up all the chests and boxes in the kingdom. When it still does not reach the moon, the king insists that the people send up the bottom chest. They take it out, and the tower—and the king—fall down.

Seuss’s story and the Dominican folktale are similar in most ways. The differences are significant as well, however. In the Dominican story, people are the main characters. Even though readers/listeners would know that it is a folktale setting—the Dominican Republic was never ruled by a king, unless you go back to its Spanish colonial days—the use of humans connects the story directly to the readers. This is particularly important when versions of the story are published outside of the Dominican Republic. Oxford Reading Tree, for example, published a very simple version of the story entitled The King and His Wish (2011), authored and illustrated by Alison Hawes and Kate Slater. Although only the teacher notes indicate the story’s origins, the pictures of people of various shades who can see the foolishness of the king serve to underline the idea that wisdom (and foolishness, for that matter) is not just the purview of white, western people. Given the white, western publishing world’s tendency to place non-white people only in supporting roles, the message in The King and His Wish is not insignificant.

 

Another difference between the Dominican tale and Dr. Seuss is the ending. Seuss has Yertle become “King of the mud” while the other turtles become a free people. The Dominican tale, on the other hand, ends with a humble king who is better able to rule and will take the advice of his people. The distinction between a specifically (white) American individualism and the more communitarian approach of the Dominican tale reflect different approaches to government. Interestingly, the Oxford Reading Tree version has an open ending, with the king on the ground and the people standing round him with varying attitudes toward his demise. It would be interesting to hear kids from different countries and/or backgrounds discussing what happened next in the story.

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The Oxford version has an open ending; these are the last pages of the text.

 

Kings—and governments—fall when they don’t listen to their people. This is a lesson that both Yertle the Turtle and “The King Who Wanted to Touch the Moon” teach, and a pertinent one for our times. But the folktale version also reminds readers that the community has a role to play, not just in deposing government, but in making it better. And this too is a lesson fit for our times.

“It Seems I Test People”: Voices from Earlier Immigrants to Britain

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Centreprise’s Talking Blues brought many young writers together, sharing poems about the realities of Britain’s attitudes toward immigrants.

The past week has seen a depressing rise in racially- and ethnically-based incidents of hatred in Britain. Perhaps emboldened by the Brexit vote, perhaps fueled by fear, many British people have found it acceptable to shout at those who appear different in the streets, telling them to “go back where you came from”. The Polish embassy has reported leaflets, shoved through their letterbox of Polish people in the UK, which say “No more Polish vermin”. The Guardian reports on attacks on Muslims (“Racist incidents feared to be linked to Brexit result” 26 June 2016), and the former children’s laureate Malorie Blackman, was told she was “not a true Brit” on Twitter. Social media and the immediacy of news reporting has made such events more visible, but it is useful to remember that they are not new, and that previous immigrant groups to Britain have withstood such attacks, and endured to become a part of the fabric of Britain. The writer and editor Leila Berg recorded such experiences in an article published on December 30 1963 in The Guardian entitled “We don’t mean you.” In the article, Berg compared her own experiences of anti-Semitism in WWII London to that of new West Indian immigrants experiencing racism. Berg would later go on to share stories of endurance, humor and racism surmounted with children in her early reader series, Nippers.

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Leila Berg sought out Black writers to tell stories about experiences with racism for children. Illustrated by Shyam Varma.

Another place to find a record of this endurance is in poetry. Seven Stories’ archival collections include the poetry of both children and adults from post-WWII migrants to Britain. People from the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia all journeyed to Britain in the period between 1945 and 1970 (by which time new legislation was in place to restrict mass immigration from these groups). They were, in many cases, asked to come to fill post-war labour shortages, but they were met with fear and suspicion from members of the resident British population. The Nigerian poet and playwright Wole Soyinka, who would later go on to win the Nobel Prize for literature, recorded some of this suspicion in a poem entitled “Telephone Conversation,” found in the collection How Strong the Roots: Poems of Exile collected by Howard Sergeant. Searching for housing upon his arrival to Britain, Soyinka’s speaker telephones a potential landlady. When he tells her he is African, she asks “Are you light/ Or very dark?” (32), something Soyinka labels as “public-hide-and-speak” (32). The poem ends without telling whether he was offered the flat, but the experience of thousands of non-white migrants during the time period suggests that he would have eventually been told that the flat was “already let”.

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Scene from British Pathe film that depicts the immigrants’ plight that Wole Soyinka discusses in “Telephone Conversation”.

 

The day-to-day racism experienced by new migrants extended to their children, born in Britain or not. The collection Talking Blues, published by the community organization Centreprise in 1976, included poems from young writers who formed part of a writers’ group at the centre. One of these poets, Donald Peters, wrote an eight-line poem called “Explain” in which he asks “someone” to explain to him “Why the world we live in today/ Has no hope for us to stay” (5). Sandra Agard—who as an adult continued to write poetry and perform as a storyteller throughout Britain—demanded that the white Briton see the Black Briton as “your brother” (13) while at the same time knowing that “You took my identity/ . . . [but] You don’t even know what I’m talking about!” (13). Talking Blues appeared in the very year that increases in racist incidents, including those that led to the Notting Hill Carnival riots and Eric Clapton’s rant about “stop[ping] Britain from becoming a black colony… the black wogs and coons and fucking Jamaicans don’t belong here” (“Reggae: The sound that revolutionized Britain” Neil Spencer 30 January 2011 Observer), were causing the Black British population to fear that they would never be “allowed” by white Britons to belong in British society. While (as today) there were many who agreed with Clapton’s racist sentiments (and the racist actions of others, including the police), his words galvanized many British people—Black and white—to action. Membership in the Anti-Nazi League rose, and Rock Against Racism (which united punk and reggae bands at concerts focused on anti-racist messages and campaigns) was formed.

 

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Testing times for Berry–and for all of us.

For me, the point of all this is that the voices of newcomers (or those perceived as “Others”) in Britain matter, not simply as a record of their experience in Britain but as a call to action for everyone. James Berry wrote a poem, “It Seems I Test People,” which can be found in his 1988 collection When I Dance. Berry, who came to Britain from Jamaica in the Windrush year of 1948, described his “skin sun-mixed like basic earth” (84) being the cause of discomfort for others. Despite “my eyes packed with hellos behind them/ my arrival bringing departures/ it seems I test people” (84). Otherness does test people, because it reminds us all that we have only one world and its resources must be shared. For many of my British colleagues, the post-Brexit world seems rather frightening, not because of the (perceived) “others” but because of what those others might think of the British in the face of the racist incidents that are getting so much coverage. The poets of post-WWII immigration show us that the answer to racism is not to worry, and fear, but to act positively. Speak out against racism. Listen to the voices of those experiencing it. And think about how you can help to make those the loudest voices. As humans, we are being tested all the time; in this case, it’s important not to be found wanting.

I’d like to dedicate my blog this week to my friend Lisa Pershing Ballinger, who despite being tested by lung cancer for over three years, always faced everything with courage and a sense of humor.  I’ll miss you, Lisa.