What’s the truth about Uncle Tom and Mowgli?

A new series of literary events, dedicated to close readings, started last week at Litteraturhuset. The first objects of discussion were Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Kipling’s The Jungle Book, both recently in new, complete Norwegian translations.

While scholars Jon Haarberg and Arild Engelsen Ruud gave us the context for the books, about the time in which they were created and their reception, authors Jan Grue and Ole Robert Sunde contributed with some new interpretations and impressions of the books in our context. Here are some of the things they touched upon.

Too old or not old enough?

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was dealing with a specific, «pressing» problem, that is why it seems outdated today, says Jan Grue. The political goal of abolishing slavery in the US has been accomplished. While race and ethnicity are still hot topics, both in the US and in Norway, some of the language and observations made in the book come off as pretty stereotypical, even racist, in today’s context.

Grue offered the opinion that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is at once «too old» and «not old enough» for us to appreciate it.

We are used to stereotypical characterizations in literature. We accept Richard III’s «deformed, unfinished» appearance as connected to his character because it was written a long time ago, but when Uncle Tom’s obedient character is tied to the colour of his skin, we spot racist and discriminatory descriptions more easily.

«Boyology»-tales from the arch-imperialist

If you haven’t read The Jungle Book growing up, you might have seen the Disney movie, with the little boy Mowgli growing up among the animals in the jungle, eventually becoming their leader and even defeating the tiger Shere Kan. Originally not a single story, but a collection of stories in two books, The Jungle Book might be read quite differently if we know the context in which it was written, Arild Engelsen Lund says.

Kipling, living much of his life in British India, was a strong advocate for the British Empire and its colonial project. The time the Jungle Book stories first appeared in print coincided with a rise in Indian nationalism. The British, and Kipling among them, saw the Indians demanding independence as ridiculous, much like the monkeys are portrayed in The Jungle Book. So, is Mowgli the British imperialist conquering exotic lands and taking charge among the animals, the natives that are «half devil, half child»? Or does Kipling’s eloquent writing justify his imperialist views?

More than one truth

The Jungle Book and Uncle Tom’s Cabin are two books that many have grown up reading, but at least the Norwegian versions have been what one might call «light» ones, for a long time author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s name wasn’t even connected to the Norwegian Uncle Tom text. Jon Haarberg explained that the first Norwegian translation of the book was anonymous – as was its first, praising review, oddly enough. Much of the political and religious message of the novel was cut in the translation, as it was adapted into a harmless children’s book.

The Jungle Book was soon acknowlegded in Britain’s literary canon – a book all children should know, or at any rate all boys. In fact the book greatly influenced Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouting movement, who named the junior movement Wolf Cubs after Mowgli’s adopted family. The stories of the Jungle Book were treated in much the same way as Uncle Tom, with several editions abridged and adapted for younger readers. And with several comic books and movie adaptations, the symbolism and layers that might be found in Kipling’s text are maybe less evident.

The new, complete Norwegian translations are a reminder that there could be more to the books than we remember. Going back to the original texts of the stories we’re familiar with, we might discover the truth about Uncle Tom or Mowgli, or maybe we find that there is more than one truth?

Talking about Bee Rowlatt in Oslo

At Idefestivalen on June 18th, the University of Oslo was lucky enough to host Bee Rowlatt, a BBC journalist who came to talk about her newly published book, Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad.

Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad is a modern epistolary novel, and one of those rare books that focuses on the other side of a story. It’s a collection of emails between Rowlatt herself and an Iraqi professor she contacted by chance. Through the letters between Rowlatt and May Witwit, an Iraqi professor of English literature, we get to hear the grim realities of everyday life in Baghdad versus the chaotic life of a mother of three in England. Witwit describes bombing and death threats as part of her everyday life. Soldiers constantly bursting into her house, Islamic extremists threatening to kill her if she teaches human rights, and in the midst of it all, her electricity disappearing every time she turns on her computer. It was a miracle that the correspondence even took place. And once it did, Witwit’s emails brought a shocking message: life was good before the invasion. Witwit tells: “Baghdad is like a mosaic of different cultures and beliefs with Sunnis, Shi’ites and all the different types of Christians, Arabs, Kurds, Turcoman Amernians and others living in one city. All these groups seemed to live peacefully together until the US ‘democracy’ ignited all the differences that we see today…” We are introduced to a country in chaos, people suffering and dying at every corner — wistful thoughts to the days “before the invasion.” The situation becomes real to those of us who have only heard stories and read cold facts.

“My feelings changed after talking with May,” Bee Rowlatt explains in her talk. “As a journalist, I was aware of what was going on in Iraq. Much of journalism capitalizes on misery — the larger the body count, the better the news. But with May it was different. I cared about her, and suddenly when you heard about a new bombing in Baghdad, it meant much more.”

I believe this is what this books sets out to do, whether intentional or not. It humanizes a people. These are ordinary people, trying to live their day-to-day lives. May’s only desire is continue teaching literature at the university in peace. Yet, Rowlatt must ask: “how can you teach Jane Austen in Baghdad?” “How can [your students] make sense of it?” Literature takes on an entirely different role in this text. There are women risking their lives to come to class to learn about Dickens and Chaucer. Literature isn’t entertainment, it’s a form of escape, or as Rowlatt describes, a “transportation to another world.”

To some, talking about literature in a war zone may seem trivial. But women like Witwit and Rowlatt know better. “It’s small rituals that make us human, like making tea,” Rowlatt reflects in one her many emails to Witwit. And although for some people, reading is nothing more than a minor ritual in their lives, sitting in a chair at night curled up with a good book may very well be one of the things that makes us most human.

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Bee Rowlatt was kind enough to talk to New Narratives during and after the talk. Here are some of the questions and answers.

Karina: “This is a story of incredible friendship. Without spoiling the book for those who haven’t read it, after 5 years of correspondence, are the two of you still friends?”

Rowlatt: “Yes, absolutely! We still have a great relationship.”

Karina: “Did you feel differently about America and Iraq after exchanging emails with Witwit?”

Rowlatt: “My feelings for America haven’t changed. Since I’m a journalist, I know what happened and what was happening in Iraq. I must say that May had a lot of interesting things to say about Iraq before the invasion. In my opinion Iraq used to be this great country for men, and not so great for women, but if May were here right now, she’d have a snappy comment that could contradict that.” (Laughs)

Karina: “Will Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad be translated to Norwegian?”

Rowlatt: “I don’t know. Are you bilingual?”

Karina: “Actually I am! Give me a call! On another note, I couldn’t help but notice that the title of your book is very similar to one that New Narratives wrote about: Reading Lolita in Tehran. It’s a memoir about a female professor of literature from Pakistan. Any particular reason why your title is so similar?

Rowlatt: I get that all the time. I don’t know why, but Penguin chose that title for us. Maybe it was so that people who liked Reading Lolita would buy our book? Like, “if you liked this book, then you’ll looove Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad“? Penguin said we could choose another title, but we couldn’t think of anything better, so it just stuck. They’re not really all that similar, because Reading Lolita is a memoir, and this is collection of letters.”

Karina: “In what way do you feel that Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad is new or different?”

Rowlatt: “It’s different in that it talks about everyday life in two very different places. It’s a true story. One of the great things about it is how unselfconscious we were. We had no idea that we were writing for an audience, we were just two friends trying to stay in touch.”

Karina: “So would you say Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad is a new narrative?”

Bee Rowlatt gave her thumbs up.

To conclude: it was a fun presentation with a lively author who managed to perk interest even in those who obviously hadn’t read the book. People were crawling to the front to meekly ask for copies of Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad after a convincing talk. New Narratives certainly recommends it. In fact, click here and you’ll find it too!