In the ninth part of Interesting Times, the Silver Horde makes a civilized entrance, and Rincewind does magic! Not really, but you know, he does what he can. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of racism and rape.
So, for a moment, let’s entertain an idea, just for the sake of discussion. Let’s take out all the Orientalism and the really, really unfunny ongoing joke about rape. At this point, those two issues are overwhelming my experience with this book. I am trying to remain open-minded about Interesting Times, and I still think that there’s a value in trying to sort through everything instead of just focusing on one or two aspects in it. Look, I’ve read MUCH WORSE in my life and for Mark Reads. And hey, even while I was reading the Fifty Shades series on YouTube, I managed to put aside my unending hatred for that work of fiction to find things that worked well or that I enjoyed.
It’s a complicated thing to do literary criticism, especially when some fans feel it’s an unworthy contribution. And I’ve gotten enough emails and private messages on Facebook in the last couple weeks to realize that even in the Discworld fandom, there is a small group of fans who have no desire to see anyone engage critically with Pratchett’s work. It doesn’t dissuade me from doing this in the slightest, but I’m also not going to sit here and say that this is guaranteed entertainment, either. So, as I said in the opening paragraph, I wanted to think about what Interesting Times was without the two major roadblocks that are preventing me from enjoying this all that much. When you remove all of the racist stuff, and if you excise the extended rape joke from the text, what do we have left?
Well, there’s Pretty Butterfly, who is my favorite character in the book. This section gives us the most visceral demonstration of the Emperor and Lord Hong’s brutality. The Silver Horde’s plot is amusing, but I’m not sure where it’s going and how it will further collide or converge with Rincewind’s story. (Which is fine! The unknown is great!) But for the most part, this is a Rincewind novel, and I am having difficulty seeing how this is going to unfold any differently than the stories he’s been in before. Rincewind wants to run away, he does so repeatedly, Luck thrusts him back into the action, and he helps save the day through reluctant coincidence. I knew that by sheer luck, he’d be outside the wall of the Forbidden City just as Mr. Saveloy’s decoy went off. I don’t think Pratchett was trying to surprise me with this, but it’s part of the pattern for this character. He refuses to get involved, is forced to, and through circumstance, he succeeds. Sort of. Does this count as succeeding? He got arrested!
Of course, you can’t just take out entire parts of the book when doing literary criticism, and even if you’re focusing on one aspect of the book, it can lead to a narrow idea of the text as a whole. For me, the consistent skewering of a homogenous “Asian” culture, combined with the continued use of terrible stereotypes for humor, adds up to a distracting experience. Then you throw in the callous and inappropriate rape jokes, and… well, I find it hard to immerse myself in the narrative. Y’all, he names a character Little Wang. Why? Why are you doing this? Again, who is the butt of that joke? Is it racists, or is it an entire culture and their language? Taking traditional names and making gross puns out of them is not something new, and that’s particularly the case for those who are Asian. So many cultures – Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, etc. – have had their names butchered and made into jokes by jerks who speak English that I don’t see how Pratchett doing the same thing is subversive or supportive. If anything, I worry that people might internalize the idea that this shit is perfectly fine as long as you say it’s a joke.
I don’t know what else I can say about the casual use of rape. I feel like I’m at a point where I’ve said everything humanly possible to explain how I feel. Like… do I really need to explain why it’s inappropriate to make reference to raping an inanimate object? Actually, it’s gonna bother me if I don’t, because it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of rape. Yes, the whole joke is that these men don’t understand civilization, so their basic response is to default to their barbarian ways. Comically so, at times! How are they supposed to deal with a guard? Murder them! How do they get in a building? Burn it down! What happens after you’ve successfully snuck into the Forbidden City through the pipes underneath it?
“We’ve conquered a F-a lovemaking pipe. What good is that?”
“We could rape it,” said Caleb hopefully.
Sigh. Does Pratchett think rape is a passive act? Something that’s not one of the most violent things a person can experience? Look, perhaps Caleb is meant to be the one who doesn’t understand what rape is, and perhaps he’s intended to be the character who goes along with everyone else and says a word he thinks is cool, but he doesn’t actually know what it means. There is a story there! There is a joke there about peer pressure! Except we have no evidence that these men haven’t been raping women their entire lives. The other explanation is that Caleb has raped so much and so frequently that this is the first thing he goes to once something or someone has been conquered.
Am I overthinking a joke? Absolutely. And I’m certain that people haven’t done this with this running gag. I know that plenty of folks must have passed it by without a second thought or with just a chuckle. Perhaps Pratchett wrote it and intended it to be a throwaway line, one that doesn’t contribute to a greater plot or development, but merely to inspire a brief moment of humor in others. It does the opposite for me. It reminds me of all the rape jokes I’ve heard since I got raped that made me want to disappear because I was too cowardly to say anything at the time. It reminds me that it often feels like there’s a dichotomy in the world that you can’t see until you’ve been a victim. Which is a horrible way to view the world because dichotomies don’t help. They really don’t, and there’s so much more nuance in the world than that. But when I read this, I feel like there are people who will never have an aversion to that word like I do, and then there are people like me, whose nerves crackle and spark just by the sight of it. And it doesn’t help that it’s used in this context in Interesting Times. It doesn’t make me feel better about being assaulted, and it certainly doesn’t feel like there’s any sympathy left for someone like me.
The text contains use of the word “mad.”
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