When I was a child, I loved Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, tales of how animals became what they are: how the leopard got its spots, the camel its hump and the rhinoceros its skin. But it’s a book that doesn’t age well. Kipling, after all, was part of the British Empire and believed that colonization was a force for good that helped to improve the lot of the “natives”.
So if you’re looking for an alternative version, here it is. Although I’m not sure that you could read all of these to your children, it’s a book whose time has come. Nikesh Shukla begins his foreword with a quote from Junot Diaz: “There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”
To me, this quote not only sums up the thinking behind Not So Stories, but the way it subverts conventional thinking. The collection that David Thomas Anderson has put together is diverse, both in terms of the background of the authors—which include Australian Aborigine, Malaysian, Philippines, Iranian and Indian (disclosure: Achala Upendran, one of the authors, is the daughter of a friend, Usha Raman, who writes for this blog)—but also in terms of genre: folk tales, fantasy, horror and realism.
There is a lot to enjoy here: Cassandra Khaw’s sly tale of how Spider persuaded Man to give her venom, which he did without thinking because she was such a small harmless thing (he was in for a surprise!); Joseph E. Coles’s angry account of panther who is kidnapped and made to fight in the Roman arenas; and Achala Upendran’s upending of the traditional account about First Woman and First Man: not woman as temptress but man as oppressor. There are those who lose their roots and find them again: Wayne Santos’s Yuan Ching, whose job is to keep the ghosts of the dead from entering the city but is distracted by her English boyfriend; and Georgina Kamsike’s Nina, who rediscovers her Indian identity after her grandmother dies. And the colonizer is definitely not a force for the good—quite the opposite.
That’s just a sample. I look forward to more retold tales, to diverse voices. We all need ourselves reflected.