In the sixth part of Interesting Times, Rincewind escapes and runs away like the professional coward that he is. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.
Trigger Warning: For talk of racism (anti-Asian), and extensive talk of food.
I do wish we’d see something more for Rincewind aside from his usual affair. I might be less distracted by the really uncomfortable shit that surrounds his story if I didn’t feel like this Rincewind book was unfolding just like all the others did. Obviously, it’s not the same story, but how many times can Pratchett write about Rincewind disliking adventure, running away from all conflict, and inadvertently helping out along the way? Truthfully, there’s a lot of repetition within the Discworld, but it’s usually much easier to ignore. Here, though, it feels forced. As funny as a few of these gags are, Interesting Times comes across as if Rincewind is darting from one punchline to the next instead of one part of the story to the next.
I blame that partially on the fact that I don’t actually know what the conflict is in this book. Is it Rincewind’s need to get home? Is it the polite revolution that people are quietly waging against the Empire? Is Rincewind literally going to be a white savior for these people? Like, even if that’s accidentally, that’s not exactly all that better. Yet after this section, I’m now getting the sense that this might actually happen. Rincewind accidentally administers a competitive exam for the position of… well, something to do with literal shit. He accidentally enters an inn where he accidentally identifies himself as a rebel because of that pamphlet he accidentally got.
I’ll get back to that. Let’s talk about food:
Besides, he liked Hunghungese food. A few refugees had opened restaurants in Ankh-Morpork and Rincewind considered himself something of an expert on the dishes.
There is a cool joke in here somewhere, but I don’t think Pratchett executes it well. The problem I see with any attempt to interpret it is that I can’t quite tell where he’s directing this satire. On the one hand, I think he might be describing a very common behavior in white people: when they consider themselves an expert in a non-white culture’s cuisine. The text might support that, given that Rincewind demonstrates that he can’t even name the food he likes without a menu, nor is he at all aware that Hunghungese food in Ankh-Morpork is totally unlike the food that people actually eat here. That dynamic really does exist in our world! How many foods are watered down to better adapt to a more bland palate? I’m not talking about cultural exchange or the brilliance of cultural fusion. There’s a specific phenomenon at work here that you can see all over Europe, the UK, the United States, Canada… you get the idea. Have you ever had “Mexican” food in Stockholm, Sweden? I have. It was the only meal of the last decade that I simply refused to finish because it was so disgusting. (STOP FILLING EVERYTHING WITH SOUR CABBAGE, THAT’S NOT HOW THAT WORKS.) But I’m used to Mexican food in the Southwest, particularly the way that Mexican and Central American food has grown and adapted and changed in Southern California. There are certain flavors I need or find deplorable that others don’t.
I’m still mad about the sour cabbage and the complete lack of any spice in any of the “hot” sauces or “salsas,” though. NO.
But I’m worried that Pratchett isn’t going that far. Given what I’ve read in the previous sections of Interesting Times, there seems to be an amount of scorn heaped on these people that we don’t really see in other books describing other cultures. It’s the kind of satire and humor written in a way that assumes all players are on equal ground and deserve equal amounts of criticism, and I’m not so sure that’s fair. While Pratchett is certainly foolish in ordering his perception of Hunghungese food, Pratchett never makes any sort of comment on this horrible bit about what that food is in Ankh-Morpork:
Such as Dish of Glistening Brown Stuff, Dish of Glistening Crunchy Orange Stuff, and Dish of Soft White Lumps.
I’d prefer it if I had any evidence that Pratchett knew he was invoking such an awful racist trope, but I can’t tell at all. I can’t tell if this joke is at Rincewind’s expense or he’s actually making fun of Chinese food! (And, again, a version of dishes changed for consumption in a local culture.) Honestly, this joke is almost verbatim what I’ve heard from uncultured white people whenever they eat Asian food from any number of cultures. It’s all weird colors, it all glistens, it’s lumpy, and it looks lifeless. So… which is it?
And now we’ve got to talk about Twoflower because I AM CONFUSED. I absolutely loved the reveal that Twoflower’s account of his time spent in Ankh-Morpork during the The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic is what comprised What I Did… It’s so clever! Until I had to ask an uncomfortable question:
Wasn’t Twoflower white?
At least, that’s what I remember, and that’s how he’s depicted in every piece of fanart that I’ve seen of him. How does that make sense? Okay, maybe that’s simply an issue of the fandom not knowing anything about the Agatean Empire until this book, and thus, their information wasn’t complete. Now it is! So… is he still white? Do fans draw him looking Asian? And if they do, do you mean to tell me that Twoflower is a bumbling, ignorant tourist who takes pictures of everything? That would make him a very obvious racial stereotype and LITERALLY EVERY OPTION MAKES ME UNCOMFORTABLE.
So, Twoflower unknowingly set this all in motion, and now, the revolutionaries are reaching out to Rincewind for help. I think there is something neat about perspective in this story. To the people who’ve lived under an empire as oppressive as this one, Ankh-Morpork seems like heaven to them. Yet I think it’s pretty obvious how weird that feels, too. A mostly-white part of the Discworld is the place to be emulated and adored? Granted, I don’t actually think that this is the entire message. Part of the joke is that to Rincewind, Ankh-Morpork is a huge mess and not at all what these people think it is. So I wonder if Pretty Butterly, who finally nabs Rincewind, will see through this. She doesn’t seem ready to worship Rincewind at all:
“You are maintaining a disguise?”
“It is a very good one.”
“Thank you, because–”
“Only a great wizard would dare to look like such a pathetic piece of humanity.”
BLESS. But I actually found this second part far more interesting:
“Listen to me,” she said. “A lot of bad things are happening. I don’t believe in great wizards, but other people do, and sometimes people need something to believe in. And if these other people die because we’ve got a wizard who is not so very great, then he will be a very unlucky wizard indeed. You may be the Great Wizard. If you are not, then I suggest you study very hard to be great. Do I make myself clear?”
See, there’s a lot of great potential here! If Rincewind inspires people, that’s great, especially if that means that these people get to otherwise run the revolution as they see fit. I don’t think it’s as bad if this happens, and that’s what I hope we’ll see. But how? I don’t know that most folks would find Rincewind very inspiring, you know? I imagine that it’s probably going to happen… accidentally.
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