The author has every right to use physical descriptions
‘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.
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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.