I have been terribly anxious for my term to end in the US–not just for the ordinary reasons (exam time does not exactly reveal anyone at their best, most cheerful self)–but because, nearly as soon as it did, I hopped on a plane for several weeks in the UK. And I went straight to the bookstore.
One of the curious things about American publishing (not to mention American television, American film stars–I’m talking to you, Samuel L. Jackson–and other elements of the American cultural world) is that, if they recognize that there is such a thing as a BAME British writer (tv star, film star, whatever), they do not think their work is relevant to Americans. This is similar to the way that white British publishing often acts as though BAME lit is only for BAME readers, despite the phenomenal success of writers such as Zadie Smith or Malorie Blackman (just to name two of many). When I am in the US, I can get the work of BAME writers, but generally by special order from the UK, which is expensive–or slow. So when I’m in the UK, I stock up.
And I’d been especially impatient to read two recent releases by 2016 award-winning authors, Alex Wheatle’s latest installment in the Crongton series, Straight Outta Crongton (London: Atom Press, 2017) and Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Island at the End of Everything (Somerset: Chicken House, 2017). On the face of it, these books could not be more different. Alex Wheatle’s series, including this latest, concerns the lives of young urban Britons growing up on a fictional estate plagued by gang warfare aimed at the young adult market. Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s novel is a fictional account for older middle grade readers of a real island in the Philippines where people with leprosy were sent in order to try and eradicate the disease.
But despite this surface-level contrast, the two books actually have some important things in common. Most obviously, they are both focalized through female protagonists, and feature mother-daughter relationships as critical elements of their plots. Wheatle’s Mo Baker has a troubled relationship with her mother–or rather, with her mother’s choice of male company. Things get bad enough that Mo eventually leaves to stay with friends. Millwood Hargrave’s Amihan Tala adores her mother–or Nanay, the Tagalog word for mother–but she too leaves home, by force, because government officials decide to segregate people with leprosy (Nanay) from people without (Amihan), even if this means separating families. Each girl experiences an eventual reunion with her mother, but in both cases the reunion is (or in Mo’s case, appears at the end of the book to be) temporary.
During their separation from their mothers, both Mo and Ami get strength from female friends. Indeed, the importance of the connection between girls is a major theme in both these novels. Mo’s friends support her by taking her in (even when the adults involve demur, Mo’s friend Elaine insists that she be able to stay with them), by not allowing Mo to accept an apology from her mother’s boyfriend after he physically abused her and instead trying to get her to report him to the police, and by accompanying her on a dangerous mission of revenge. Ami’s friend Mari also accompanies her on a dangerous mission, to escape the orphanage–and island–where she has been sent and get back to her Nanay. Neither Mo’s nor Ami’s mission results in an entirely happy conclusion. But it is their female friends who help them get through their trials alive, and with a deeper understanding of the complicated actions and emotions of the adults around them.
As you may be able to tell from this brief description of the novels, ‘race,’ racism, racial politics are not the focus of the books, though these things are not entirely absent from them either. Wheatle’s Mo is white, and her boyfriend Sam is Black. They have known each other since childhood, when even then they had an awareness that race mattered, at least to older people. They play a trick on a social worker who comes to visit Sam’s mother, telling her that they were “the first black and white twins born in the country” (78). But at the end of the day, what matters more to Mo and her friends is that they share a common language and experience, united by the good and bad things about Crongton–which in many ways is as much of an isolated island for them as Culion and Coron are for Ami in Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s book. The Island at the End of Everything does highlight the difference of skin color: Ami’s friend Mari is “paler than the others, paler than any of us, her hair light and flyaway, making a halo around her head” (94). Later Ami learns the pale skin comes from Mari’s being half-Spanish. Mari’s background is not insignificant, but what matters more to her relationship with Ami is that they are both in an orphanage under the thumb of a tyrannical government official.
And this is one more thing that The Island at the End of Everything has in common with Straight Outta Crongton. Both novels view the government as unhelpful, sometimes unkind, and always untrustworthy. Mo Baker mistrusts “the feds” enough so that she does not turn to them for help when she really needs it. Ami Tala experiences the consequences of a well-intentioned government policy (few would argue with the eradication of leprosy as a good goal) that disregards the human cost of separating families. Both heroines ultimately accept the authority of that government–after they defy the dehumanized government to connect with people they love.
Wheatle and Millwood Hargrave have written novels that are departures from the one(s) that came before. Wheatle’s earlier Crongton novels are focalized through male protagonists, and Millwood Hargrave’s The Girl of Ink and Stars is a fantasy. The reason that these authors matter so much right now is patently not because they have one story, “the” BAME story. These novelists prove that there is no such thing as a single BAME story–no such thing as a single Wheatle story or a single Millwood Hargrave story. At the end of everything is the start of something new. And now that I’ve finished these novels, I can’t wait for the next ones.