by Kate Clanchy
Tuesday, 21
June 2022
Debate
07:00

In defence of my critic Monisha Rajesh

The author has every right to use physical descriptions
by Kate Clanchy
Monisha Rajesh

‘All it boils down to is: please stop writing about us like this’. This weekend in The Guardian, as part of a feature by Gaby Hinsliff, Monisha Rajesh admonished me for the physical descriptions of young people in my book, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. She says that she’s not trying to ‘cancel’ me, but challenge me on my depiction of the characters in my book.

It is strange, though, to see her attack me on these grounds when she makes such a habit of physical descriptions herself. In her lauded debut, ‘Around India in 80 Trains,’ she describes a ‘Punjabi lady’ with a ‘buffalo-sized backside,’ who Rajesh likens to ‘a pudding in a purple salwar kameez’. Or the closeted gay man she enjoys outing with a reference to the ‘nipples that peered through the black netting’ of his top.

Older women are not spared the treatment: one has ‘a fleshy pink triangle at the neck, adorned with ugly beads that hung like freshly speared testicles’, while another has ‘bleached curls that spiralled around her oversized head and clumped together to reveal patches of sunburnt scalp’.

Rajesh is unsympathetic to the very poor, mocking the way the ‘eunuchs and hermaphrodites’ of India’s Hijra population ‘huddled together in their plight beneath one umbrella of transgendered ambiguity’ and ‘flimsily embrace womanhood with garish make-up, cheap jewellery and low-cut blouses stretched around their broad backs’. When she watches a ‘dwarf march…past pulling a suitcase behind him, the same height as he was,’ she records her friend making the crack: “Ooh can you hire them?”’

There is of course context to all these passages, but I confess I found them somewhat chilly and unpleasant to read. As Rajesh said of my book, they could fairly be said to suggest a ‘general lack of kindness’ in tone. The joke about the person with the suitcase I found rebarbative: I could well imagine him crying ‘please stop writing about us like this’.

On the whole, however, these physical descriptions add, rather than subtract, from the book. Rajesh is a travel writer who specialises in vivid, cartoony, images intended to amuse. Her images are bright, pungent and memorable, and that is a travel writer’s job. Her physical descriptions of people serve as an effective way of de-centring the narrator; they emphasise the fact that there are two people involved in a written encounter, one seeing and one seen. We can see the other person more clearly and fully if we know the eyes that are seeing them — and that is often done best through explicit boundaries, especially embodied ones.

That is why there is a strongly bodied, loudly middle-class and explicitly privileged ‘Kate’ in every scene of ‘Some Kids’: she is there to acknowledge her limits, and to learn from conversations rather than take over narratives, to be a character, rather than an omniscient narrator. I, as white middle-class adult, held the cultural power over the disadvantaged and often migrant children I was writing about. I couldn’t tell their stories as they happened to them, but rather, as they happened to me: as I heard them, as they changed me.

It is plain that Rajesh’s images have not spread harm or unduly influenced anyone: this is a book for adults, not one being read aloud to children. She is not telling the Hijra’s story for them, though we may be frustrated by her prejudices: she is recounting her personal impressions. She has not directed her contempt to a real short person on a train platform: she has confined her wit to the page. No one will be harmed by any of her words.

If, on the other hand, I queried her right to write colourfully, I would be questioning a right invaluable to all writers: to write as we see and as honestly as possible, to experiment, to be young, to make mistakes. We can help each other best by not shaming each other. Images and physical descriptions are invaluable writer’s tools: we cannot regulate them out of existence. In other words, I didn’t like the images Rajesh used, but I would defend to the death her right to use them, and I would heartily hope her publishers do too.

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Arkadian X
Arkadian X
4 days ago

I don’t know Monisha Rajesh and her books, so I can’t comment. I have read Kate’s book, though and I have to say that not in a million years would I have found her descriptions offensive. I read it after all the fracas, so I had been “unduly” influenced and I recognized some phrases as I was reading it. However, had I not heard them before I doubt I would have noticed them at all. I thought that in parts the book was very moving and, by and large, honest.
This long preamble to say that for me the problems within the book lie not in the “ashkenazi noses”, but elsewhere.
I found all the political sniping, directed 100% towards the Tories and Gove in particular, not so much misguided, but uninteresting. Mention it in the passing once if you must, but instead this is a concept that was reiterated a few times and at length. Why would I care about the author’s political leanings? Does the reader really benefit from a lesson on English politics from her perspective? I don’t think so. Besides, in a few years’ time, would anyone remember who Gove was?
However, the bit I liked the least was when the author put on her holier-than-thou hat to talk about her son and how, after agonizing about it, decided to send him to the sink secondary school, rather than an allegedly better one slightly further out, to the shock and horror of her colleagues. The author makes a point of how she sent her child to that school on principle and highlights how he turned out fine with straight A’s anyway, so what is all the fuss about? The fuss is because when you talk about your child there are no do-overs; you get one shot and that’s it. If you are a teacher instead you can change year after year to make things work better for the next class; in other words you have endless do-overs. Hod her child not turned out so well, what would she have said?
In my view that whole story (assuming it has been described as it actually happened) is unbelievably sanctimonious. The way I read it, she used her child to score a political point and to prove her impeccable left leaning credentials – and, I think, to criticize Katharine Birbalsingh, AKA the evil incarnate, too.
(Full disclosure: we agonized on what to do with our secondary school too and in the end we opted for a fee paying school which is a HUGE stretch for us, not because our secondary is bad, but because our school system is so awful – and I am Scotland, so no Gove to blame. It seems that not only the Tories get things wrong on schooling…)
As I was reading the book I had the interview she gave to Freddie in mind; I could hear the subtext loud and clear where she would say,
“WTF, I sent my &%$& son to a %$& sink school and now you are accusing me of being a heretic? What else could I have done to prove my faithfulness? Like Abraham of old, I offered my first born, could I have done any more?”
No, you could not have done any more, but are we surprised that the mob turned on you? In due course probably it will turn on Monisha Rajesh too.

Last edited 4 days ago by Andrea X
Paul Coffey
Paul Coffey
4 days ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

Brilliant comment.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
4 days ago
Reply to  Paul Coffey

Indeed. I hope Clanchy reads it.

John Tyler
John Tyler
4 days ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

Ouch!

James Meyer
James Meyer
4 days ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

I read Kate Clanchy’s book and I though it was wonderful, and that she should be called racist is absurd. It seems that the term “racist” is now casually applied to anyone who happens to observe that some people have features that are characteristic of their race!
As for Clanchy’s description of her thoughts on which school she should send her son to, I found it to be a very thoughtful appraisal of all the relevant facts – including her own prejudices – and that the point was that she did not send him “to score a political point” but to cast aside the prejudices, not only hers, but those of others too.

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
3 days ago
Reply to  James Meyer

You say that Clancy “did not send him “to score a political point” but to cast aside the prejudices, not only hers, but those of others too.”
Indeed, and that is exactly my point. We don’t know whether the story is fact, fiction or a fictionalised version of the truth, however, the point she made is exactly that she says she used her child to “cast aside prejudices”, and to me that is NOT a good reason at all as it might not be in the best interest of the child.

Last edited 3 days ago by Andrea X
James Meyer
James Meyer
3 days ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

One should not use quotation marks to imply that somewhere in her book Clanchy wrote “cast aside prejudices” because she didn’t.
I wrote in terms of casting aside prejudices because of what I took from reading her book. I see now that I could have expressed it better, I intended that she came to her decision because she was able to cast aside her own prejudices, and also those of others – not, as you imply, as a grand gesture to persuade others to cast aside that prejudices.

David B
David B
2 hours ago
Reply to  James Meyer

The quotation marks are for your text, not hers.

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
4 days ago

Kate “as white middle-class adult” you aren’t ‘entitled. You might have been ‘entitled’ yesterday, but times have changed, as has the ‘colour’ palette from which we draw. Not only have you failed to keep up and acknowledge past transgressions, but you have also committed the ultimate sin, which is a failure to have predicted the future. Shame on you!
If you had spent more time studying history, you would have known that ‘Revolutions’ have a nasty habit of eating their own. (Please don’t take seriously, I’m just trying to be cheeky)
Just be grateful you’re not a man as well.

Last edited 4 days ago by Tom Lewis
Maureen Finucane
Maureen Finucane
4 days ago

Cancel culture is repulsive. It doesn’t matter how many apologies are uttered, essentially the critics want the “wrong doer” erased. The novelist who wrote about this eloquently was J.M. Coetzee when his protagonist in “Disgrace” is not deemed sufficiently contrite after having an affair with a student. Particularly this passage struck me: “What do you want the statement to contain?”
“An admission that you were wrong.”
“I have admitted that. Freely. I am guilty of the charges against me.”
“Don’t play games with us, David. There’s a difference between pleading guilty to a charge and admitting you were wrong and you know that.”
David refuses to play the game. He knows that however much abject contrition is expressed it won’t make any difference anyway.
Coetzee wrote this in 1999. What would he say now?

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
4 days ago

“ the critics want the “wrong doer” erased.”

I think you’re wrong. The wrong doer is ‘almost’ immaterial, the objective is to silence and intimidate others from having ‘challenging’ thoughts and opinions. It is, at it’s worst, I think, a kind of fascism. It may not be terrorism , in as much as there is no overt violence, although ‘others’, who follow a not dissimilar path, seem to be fond of saying that “words are violence”, which might suggest, if you take them at their own word, that they are actually terrorists, with a very definite political objective in mind.

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
3 days ago

What Kate does not say above, but which many of us will be aware of, is that some of her pupils have defended her descriptions of them.
I wonder if Monisha Rajesh knows this: it does knock her self-identification with Kate’s pupils: as in, “…please stop writing about us like this.” (my emboldment of ‘us’).

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
3 days ago

Aah Kate, Monisha is clearly a hypocrite, like most woke justice warriors. And she is allowed to be a hypocrite because she has Asian privilege.
Most people disagree with how you’ve been treated – though maybe it has opened your eyes to the hypocrisy of woke left wing ideas.

Last edited 3 days ago by Ian Stewart
MJ Reid
MJ Reid
20 hours ago

When I read such articles, I am taken back to the most extreme case of “wokeism” – Salman Rushdie and the fatwa taken out against him. People need to remember this case (or educate themselves about it) and what it did to the author and his family. Prejudice comes from all sides, but people do not have to put it out there, they can keep it inside their heads.