Not So Stories, edited by David Thomas Moore (Solaris, 2018)
Was Rudyard Kipling a racist?
Okay, not the most helpful question. Put it another way: was he especially racist above the median of his time? Was there mens rea? The argument will run and run, never mind Kipling’s own stated preference for believing the best of everybody – it saves so much trouble.
Which brings us to one of Kipling’s most famous works, Just So Stories for Little Children (to give it its full original name). Nikesh Shukla’s introduction to the present collection takes the gold for understatement: ‘The book doesn’t age very well’. Even Kipling’s most devout fan must admit he used terms and ideas that are breathtakingly inappropriate in the early 21st century, which will get you ostracised faster than anyone can sneer ‘social justice warrior’. The review sheet that came with this book helpfully includes a couple of examples which don’t need to be repeated here. We get it.
Thus, Not So Stories: a collection of 14 stories that bravely takes on the classic. Fourteen authors, all themselves people of colour, set out to reclaim the good of the original collection and discard the bad.
Sometimes the authors use ideas from existing myths and traditions, sometimes they make up their own that still sit comfortably within the milieu of the tale. Some stories are set during a colonial period, with the worldview that of the people and cultures being colonised. Some are even set in the modern white western world – but still exposed to more ideas than Kipling would ever have realised.
In keeping with the original collection, the best stories are origin ones. ‘How the Spider Got Her Legs’, by Cassandra Khaw; ‘How the Ants Got their Queen’, by Stewart Hotston; ‘How the Snake Lost its Spine’, by Tauriq Moosa; ‘How the Simurgh Won Her Tail’, by Ali Nouraei. The most enjoyable of these is ‘How the Camel Got Her Paid Time Off’, by Paul Krueger. This last is not strictly speaking an origin story, but it is a funny and witty blend of both this kind of story and a satire on the modern work place.
Some stories are more outright fantasy, yet rooted in indigenous myth structures. ‘Queen’, by Joseph E. Cole (apparently the sole debut author, though just as polished as the rest); ‘The Man Who Played With the Crab’, by Adiwijaya Iskandar; ‘Serpent, Crocodile, Tiger’, by Zedeck Siew; and ‘The Cat Who Walked by Herself’, by Achala Upendran. ‘How the Tree of Wishes Gained its Carapace of Plastic’, by Jeanette Ng, is maybe the most distinctly post-colonial of all the stories, synthesising a whole new mythology out of the indigenous culture and the remnants of western culture bequeathed by the former colonial occupants.
And then there are tales of modern urban fantasy – where ‘modern’ can be any time between the mid-19th century and the present day. In ‘Best Beloved’, Wayne Santos cleverly plays on the term used by Kipling in Just So Stories to address the reader. The Gaimanesque ‘Strays Like Us’, by Zina Hutton, has the goddess Bastet in Miami. ‘Samsāra’, by Georgina Kamsika and ‘There is Such Thing as a Whizzy-Gang’, by Raymond Gates, come closest to being modern horror stories, the latter blending modern white Australia and older indigenous traditions.
Can the collection live up to the sheer charm and joy of the original? Yes, it can and does. There is enough sly humour to make any eye twinkle. But most important, does it achieve its aim? It would be painfully easy for a book like this to hit you over the head with its worthiness, but editor Moore and the authors have pulled off quite a feat: quietly, simply, making their point without banging any drum. Remember who said that if history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.