Jeannette Ng on Reclaiming the Classics for Today

The Just So stories of Rudyard Kipling as classics—unforgettable tales most of us encountered in childhood. But they are also products of there time, full of ideas and cultural representations that are outdated at best, and outright racist at worse. In Not So Stories, a new collection edited by David Thomas Moore, a diverse group of contemporary writers of color have reacted to these tales with stories that recontextualize them, giving voice to cultures the original texts ignored. 

In the same spirit, author Jeannette Ng (Under the Pendulum Sun), whose story “How the Tree of Wishes Gained its Carapace of Plastic” appears in the collection, joins us to highlight other authors and stories that have sought to examine “classics” of Western literature. 

The classics cast long shadows, having been canonized in our culture through repetition. In aggregate, their presence as beautiful cloth-bound reissues, classroom fixtures, library decor, and film adaptions is often impossible to ignore. They are inescapable, and resist fading gently from our collective memory. We must consciously purge them and rewrite them. In the spirit of reclaiming and rewriting dominant narratives, here is a slightly scattered list of classics that have been recast by modern authors.

The original: Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
The revision: The Wind Done Gone, by Alice Randall
Gone with the Wind still towers in the Southern imagination as a romanticization of the American plantations and slavery. The Wind Done Gone tears the narrative focus away from Scarlet and the rest of that set, giving voice instead to Cynara, half-sister to the pampered Other (Scarlet O’Hara) and recently freed slave. Despite legal action on behalf of the Margaret Mitchell estate, Randall’s novel persists as an “unauthorized parody”. It’s a powerful, transformative work and a beautiful challenge to the original. Very much worth reading.

The original:: The Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft
The revisions: She Walks in Shadows, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia; The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle; Hammers on Bone and A Song for Quiet, by Cassandra Khaw
The bar for revisionist Lovecraft is remarkably low. He viewed anyone not white and English and male as fundamentally Other and suspect. These fears are baked into his world, his mythos, his imagery. Many have tried to excuse his writing as “of his time”, but a brief gander at his life will show how he repulsed many of his contemporaries (including his ex wife) by his racism and antisemiticism.

But his weird, fearful texts remain compelling to many and those he once viewed as Other have thrown down the gauntlet at him in that selfsame arena of words. She Walks in Shadows is an all female anthology of Lovecraftian horror edited by the inimitable Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom parallels Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook specifically and dives deep into the 1920s, following the bluesman Tommy Tester of Harlem. Cassandra Khaw writes a haunting pair of novellas in Hammers on Bones and A Song for Quiet. There is a touch of the noir in their detective narrator as the plots twist through modern London. But not the glamorous, wealthy London, this is Croydon.

The original: Peter Pan, by J M Barrie
The revision: Peter, Darling, by Austin Chant
Even without delving in the painful portrayals of the “Injuns” of Peter Pan, Barrie’s classic is notably gender essentialist. Wendy as the only girl of the group labors under the Victorian expectations of the her gender, being expected to be the “mother” of the Lost Boys. Austin Chant’s Peter, Darling brings a queer perspective to the story with an own voices retelling of a trans Peter Pan returning to Neverland, grappling with the ideas of “manhood” (as opposed to “boyhood”) and resolving his antagonistic attraction to James Hook. It is simply a delightful and thoughtful read from start to finish.

The original: The Sherlock Holmes stories, by Arthur Conan Doyle
The revision: The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard
Doyle’s ever observant Holmes brings with him that uncomfortable Victorian judgement and dubious generalization with him as he describes various people of color in the adventures. The distinct lack of female characters is the Holmes canon is also often remarked upon, with adaptions seeking to expand Irene Adler’s role to fill the gap. The Tea Master and the Detective sets its compelling mystery in space and gives us Holmes and Watson as Long Chau and The Shadow’s Child, a human and a mindship. Playful and endlessly inventive, de Bodard plays with and inverts many a Sherlockian’s expectation.

The original: Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen
The revision: Longbourn, by Jo Baker
Longbourn gives voice to the servants of the Bennetts and mirroring carefully every meal and ball and tea of Pride and Prejudice, Jo Baker strips away the coziness oft associated with Austen (or at least, adaptions of Austen) and reveals an uncomfortable world of toil and class. To the sharp, observant Sarah, beauty is a form of currency and there is no doubt that the sisters rich in loveliness if not coin will find monetarily wealthy husbands. Her own life is not so predictable, however, nor so fortunate.

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