BOOK REVIEWS (2013): Marsden and Tan’s (1998) The Rabbits

2 December 2013

Abstract

An (inadvertent?) children’s primer for the normalization of colonialism.

Pre-Disclaimer

Last year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to provide one when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow.

I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To:  Marsden and Tan’s (1998)[1] The Rabbits

As will become obvious over the next several posts, I have had a run of reading the illustrator Shaun Tan’s works. With the exception of one book, his (2006) The Arrival, all of them tend to the short side, so this disinclines me to write anything too absurdly long about them. Plus, I doubt that any warrant much comment.

Tan has a marvelous style, and for all that anyone calls his work unique (meaning without precedent or peer), he frequently has recourse to stuff that resembles Jim Woodring’s blobby shapes from his Frank books.

Meanwhile, on the dust jacket of this book, one finds some ad-text noting the incisiveness and perceptiveness of Marsden’s text as regards the consequences of colonization, particularly as it played out in Australia (where the rabbit, introduced as a foreign species, has since gotten deemed a pest an ecologically destructive). One Amazon reviewer explains:

To read this book requires understanding a little about its background. Originally published (as far as I could ascertain by the nationalities of the author and illustrator) in Australia, the book is about the effects of colonization. As you may recall, rabbits were once a foreign species that was introduced to the Australian wildlife with disastrous results. Devouring the native resources and spreading like mad, both they and cane toads are considered dangerous pests. Taking that idea as a starter, we follow the arrival of civilized rabbits on a vaguely Australian-like land. The story is told from the point of view of some brown curly tailed spear carrying native animals. As the book begins the native animals say, “At first we didn’t know what to think. They looked a bit like us. There weren’t many of them”. Time passes and more and more rabbits come to the land. They build their own kinds of houses and introduce their own animals. When the native creatures (bush babies, perhaps?) fight back they lose because there are too many rabbits. The rabbits destroy the land and (in the worst and most heart-wrenching scene in the book) they, “Stole Our Children”. Rabbit driven planes fly away with little baby creatures in kites trailing behind as they parents run along the ground, their arms extended. In the end, the land is bare and all the animals are gone. In a final picture, a native creature sits across from a rabbit next to a tiny puddle that reflects the stars, the ground littered with trash. The animals asks, “Who will save us from the rabbits?”

I have almost nothing but praise for the crazy creativity of Tan’s illustrations in this book, and almost nothing but scorn for Marsden’s shallow text. All that this book has comes from mere facts; nothing perceptive comes out of it from Marsden’s text at all as the dust jacket claims. The above reviewer does a nice job of showing the vacuity of Marsden’s text in the comment on “Stole Our Children.” Doubtless countless parent-readers—the publishers market this as a children’s book for grades 2–8—will feel the terrible sting of native or aboriginal people having their children taken away, something that happened extensively in the United States as well both formally and informally through the waves of international adoption. Obviously, the easy sentimentality—“think of the children!”—already itself forms a major bulwark of colonialism, let us try to remember. Besides the main purpose, of destroying native culture, native children got “rescued” in order that they receive the great gift of colonization (from white folks), rather than living in squalor on a reservation, &c.

I realize it may seem a kind of stupid to rail about a children’s book but children’s book have provided important leverage points for the early introduction of propaganda, usually with cute/engaging pictures, for a long time, so let’s not pretend that degree of naiveté.

Besides the irresponsible fit of the allegorical story and the actual experience of colonization by those colonized, we see with this text what in some overly ideologized circles gets called the re-centering of whiteness. Usually when I hear this, it has  strongly rhetorical or merely political tone to it—it represents an attempt to control a discourse in a room—but in the case of this book, we definitely have an authentic case of re-centering whiteness, making white people the center of the issue, despite purporting to describe the experience of the colonized. One may, for instance, easily read this book merely as an environmental invasion, rather than a colonization. Of course, in the course of this invasion, the natives gets attacked, but precisely because they represent a part of the (Orientalized) “nature” (rather than any full-blown existing culture itself) that the colonizers must conquer.

Some fan of the book might say that Marsden has a line or two suggesting this. I do not find this sufficient. I do not find it warrantable to devote “a line or two” to suggest the entire experience of a destroyed people. Nope. Not good enough, especially from a white writer purporting to describe the experience of non-whites.

I think it no exaggeration to say that the overwhelming general response to this book—after parents get done debating with themselves over its “appropriateness for children”—arises from reactions to Tan’s illustrations, which, again, seem magnificent. One could remove Marsden’s text entirely and the book would improve, probably. But having said so, then let us not fail to acknowledge that the native people do not form the center of this book, which Marsden does, after all, title, The Rabbits, and ends with the question, “Who will save us from the rabbits?”

The answer: apparently not the native people, since a native person asks the question. Again, some fan of the book might say (in Louis CK’s stupid eighth-grader voice, I imagine), “Well, it doesn’t say who will. Maybe a native person will.” False. The end of the book invokes or echoes the white man’s burden, and since mostly colonial children will hear this story, those children saying, “I will” provides the most likely answer to the question. “Who will save us from the rabbits?” “I will, Mommy,” pipes up the small child.

The inculcation of white guilt anyway already has a politically paralyzing, rather than galvanizing, effect most of the time.  People in the United States, when not otherwise enthusiastically racist, feel bad about the history of Indians and do nothing to address that history, much less acknowledge that it continues. Most of this book—really, all of it—occurs in that same past: mistreatment of Native Americans, aboriginal people, Africans as slaves, all of that happened back then: very sad, yes, but in the past. We all agree need to “face up” to our “real” history, even if we think it merely some liberal-biased smear job on the glory of Imperial history—all so we don’t have to think about the actual history still going on around us.

I really don’t want to critically dissect the whole apparatus of quasi-sympathetic orientalism Marsden’s text deploys—he opens with the statement, “They came many grandparents ago”. I hope that represents some authentic aboriginal phrase and not some substituted white imagining about how “natives” (the quotation marks become necessary here) think. The offence of this would not lie in the white imagining but in the substitution for whatever actual phrase the actual people actually used. Just as, locally where we have  perennially problematic Native American image for a school mascot, people clearly do not get that the (white) substitution of a white-imagined parody of a native dancer (utilized in a wholly inappropriate context, i.e., at sporting events, of course) provides a major, major piece of the offense.

No, what I especially want to point to actually implicates Tan’s illustrations. His stuff thrums with creativity and that aesthetic delight, therefore (I will say), normalizes or even monumentalizes the colonizer’s right to destroy the natives. The natives have no culture anyway, no awesome illustrations. The rabbits, by contrast, have monumental illustrations, technology, scale. Even in the images of war, we see no rotting heaps of corpses, but rather fantastic looking machines. I don’t think I need to fill out more of the argument here—you can run far enough the rest of the way with this prompt. At least when Sergio Toppi offers illustrations of primary cultures peoples he not only gets a shit-ton of details right, but he etches out each of his figures in grand style or with tremendous, individualized humanity.

My last point involves the demonization of rabbits. Woe to the writer who does not consider the consequences of his writing choices, but in a book ostensibly about colonization that leans more heavily on the ecological destruction of the land theme, it becomes very squirrelly (pun intended) to use Australia’s problematic history of (introduced) rabbits as the symbol for colonizers.

Immediately, I would have to ask: “well, who brought the rabbits?”

The image of the rabbits’ arrival in the book seems to borrow from Christopher Columbus’ historical landing—so in that case, the rabbits were brought by the imperial power of Spain. In Australia, the imperial power of Britain, adding, then, that the rabbits were very often criminals. It forms a cute broadside against all Australians that they’ve “genetically inherited” an ancestral rabbit criminality, but a felon (Marsden) tells the tale, so what exactly gets represented in this allegory? “Who will protect us from the rabbit?” The State? The gas-chamber for criminals? The ongoing extermination of rabbits in Australia to try to control the problem? State-sanctioned eugenics or birth control. Involuntary sterilization? I mention all of this because such practices already occurred extensively (in the US), very often against native people.

The whole allegory makes for a vast mess and Marsden does nothing, if not less than nothing, to avoid even the most minor misreadings or problematics of the discourse he throws down. If his topic were only ecological destruction, I might fault less such n irresponsibly oversimplified anti-engagement with the topic, but since it involves the still-breathing descendants of historically mistreated people, that makes his negligence closer to criminal. The question becomes how unconsciously the authors have taken up the colonial discourse, which, of course, has historically (and not necessarily disingenuously) tried to offer solutions to its own problem the very gesture of purporting to offer a solution, in fact, becomes a critical part of maintaining the status quo, because instead of enacting (or attempting) a solution that would actually address actual problems of actual people living next door, an indirect solution like this substitutes for such direct action.

The book includes a dedication to someone who “cares about these things”; when the care proves worse than the disease, beware!

Endnotes

[1] Marsden, J., & Tan, S. (2003). The rabbits. [Vancouver]: Simply Read Books, pp..1–29.

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