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Wednesday reading

I'm reading through Eden to Paradise, by Margaret King. She was an anthropologist, and this book, published in 1963, describes her time in what was then Portuguese Timor. I'm excited to read it because there's not a whole lot that's easily available to me about Timorese lifeways prior to independence. But oh holy wow to the wowth, this woman is self-satisfied, self-congratulatory, and casually racist like you wouldn't believe. (Actually, you would probably believe it.) I kept on mentally thinking I was reading something from the 1930s or something and then having to remind myself that this was the 1960s. Her attitudes seem just so... ugh. It made me curious about the woman herself, and it turns out she was born in 1922, so her notions probably reflect the era in which she was raised.

For all that she condescends massively toward the Timorese (and then is irritated when a Chinese man condescends to her, ah, yes, feels different in that direction, doesn't it), she clearly likes Timorese culture, and when she's talking about fishing practices or dances or things like that, you can brush aside her condescending remarks and just enjoy the thing she's talking about:
The Timorese women work long hours planting out the seedling rice and as each paddy is completed a long banner of bamboo, browned leaves waving in the slightest breeze, is raised as the signal to all who pass by of the successful beginning to another season. The paddies stand ranked in tiers one above the other, protected by their dry stone walls or earthen banks. These signals of bamboo are reminiscent of the scarecrows standing so solemnly in the fields of Europe to guard the newly planted grains, yet they have one enchanting difference, for, while the European scarecrows are either menacing or pathetic in their dilapidation, the bamboo signals wave gaily to everyone.

But oh man, when she's going on about herself, or when she's trying to wax poetic, she's just awful! Try not to choke on the self-congratulation in this excerpt:
Never having bothered very much about nationalities, preferring always to judge people as individuals,* it was a strange experience to be accepted as a compatriot by four different nationalities in one day. To make matters even more interesting the four races were widely divergent and, after the third encounter, I did begin to wonder whether I possessed the characteristics of a chameleon.

She's mistaken for Portuguese because of her fair skin, for Kashmiri because she knows about Kashmiri music, for Chinese because she quotes the poetry of Po Chü-i and Ou Yang Hsiu, and Timorese because she plays two Timorese tunes from memory on a Timorese flute. See how **special** she is?

The copy I have does have a lovely cover, however. Wakanomori found it in a used bookstore in England and presented it to me without comment--and I could tell by the houses and the woman's face that it was Timor. (Hmm, a little self-congratulation of my own, heh. So easy to criticize others; so hard to acknowledge the same flaws in myself)



*Not true: she remarks on everyone's nationality and talks about whether they adhere to her notion of the national stereotype.

This entry was originally posted at https://asakiyume.dreamwidth.org/892806.html. Comments are welcome at either location.

Comments

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
judo100
Aug. 30th, 2018 12:42 am (UTC)
The casual racism, sexism, ageism, genderism, etc from even a few decades ago is staggering. And to people raised in those decades (especially if they are of the privileged group), it all sounds "right" and "natural," so that even if you point out what they are saying, they basically say, "So what?" I think your author would react with a shrug if you tried to discuss her prejudices with her.
asakiyume
Aug. 30th, 2018 01:00 am (UTC)
You're probably right.

Admittedly, some of it is just a change in terminology and conversational/written style. I get my back up every time she talks about "the Chinese race" or "the Portuguese race," but I think in those days it may have had no more baggage than saying "Chinese people" or "Portuguese people" does today (but I could be wrong).

... but even with that sort of leeway given, she rubs me the wrong way. But still, I like the glimpse it gives me into life in Timor-Leste 50 years ago.
yamamanama
Aug. 30th, 2018 08:14 pm (UTC)
It's hard to be surprised when something from the 1960s is casually racist.
asakiyume
Sep. 4th, 2018 01:05 am (UTC)
I guess, on reflection, you're right...
yamamanama
Sep. 4th, 2018 04:42 am (UTC)
A victory I can't feel good about.

Especially now that it's making a comeback.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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