By Shreya Banerjee
“Childhood is the geometric place of all nostalgias”
-Jean-Claude Brisseau’s On Sunday Afternoon (1966)
There are as many variations of childhood, as there are children in the world. A child’s orientation to their particular contexts are inflected upon by various social, political and economic factors. For instance, the boyhood/girlhood of a child growing up in war-torn Gaza will be vastly different from the childhood of the Prince of Bhutan. In children’s literature, we rarely see these vast realities being represented. Most times, ‘children’s literature’ is unable to penetrate the cracks, crevices and chasms that lie at the heart of any civilisation, one that intrinsically stems from the ever-widening gap of varied social, political, cultural differences, violent conquests and economic inequalities. At best, the history and politics of any country is a mosaic of intersections and overlaps that cannot be tailor-made into an overarching definition.
In academic disciplinary settings, childhood is often studied through the lens of education, social sciences, medicine, without it being given the opportunity to stand on its own like women’s studies or black studies. Similarly, children’s literature is often an optional paper, or a belated entry, or the prodigal daughter of literature or library science disciplines. According to Peter Hunt, children’s literature does not belong to any group or discipline, neither does it integrate into the Department of Literature or Library of any school 1. .Most times, children’s literature is governed by a cardinal feature: a sense of redemption, a homecoming and usually ends with a restoration of the once fractured status quo2. Therefore, each time a child leaps into the spectrum of children’s literature he/she is met with comforting ideals and a safe haven of sorts. However, reality is rarely like that.
Further, every time a child meets with the first brushes of the literary, they take with them the extent of their intertextual existence, verbal experiences, limits of their sensibilities and effective reciprocation. The years that lead to the culmination of one’s childhood is of profuse experience and observation. Rhymes like “Ringa Ringa Roses, Pockets full of poesies…” and “twinkle twinkle little star”, lends to us the meanings of symbols, metaphors, rhythm, flow and cadence.
In 1941, Virginia Woolf filled her coat ‘pockets’ with stones and walked into the Ouse River, towards her death, causing, as if the ‘pockets’ of childhood to turn upside down, a reversal, or a negation that traces the psychosocial journey undertaken by the child who was sexually abused and one who fantasised death. What these pockets are, how children inhabit them and how their inhabitances translate into meaning requires critical examination, for children’s literature is complex and varied. The personal and political history of a child does not exist in a vacuum: the waters of the unconscious remain buried deep in the psychic spaces of children and adults alike. Therefore, the merging of the strain of childhood into adulthood can either be a successful union or one where the two strains paralyze each other.
At this juncture, I would like to initiate an overwhelming query, that, if troubled authors like Sadegh Hedayat and Dhondup Gyal had, in their formative years, access to literary material that rather than promising, challenged this redemption, would it have prevented their suicide?
Sensitive, sullen and dark, Sadegh Hedayat was a foremost writer from Iran. Born in Iran, the years of his youth were shaped by a climate of political unrest. What consumed Hedayat was the trauma of the Islamic conquest of Iran which made him believe that a simple return to innocence was not possible3. His vast oeuvre, ranging from folklore, drama, translations, poetry, criticism, short stories and even paintings echo his sinister and foreboding vision of the world. His most famous novel, The Blind Owl is inundated with metaphysical death, Gothic Horror, Existentialism, motifs from Persian fairy tales and elements from science fiction. Narrated by a tormented neurotic, even the flowers in the novel aren’t white (a symbol of the Persian empire) but a bluish black rose (appropriated from Nizami’s fairytales) which signify the impossibility to return to the state of innocence. American philosopher and writer, Jason Reza Jorjani, whose grandfather was best friends with Hedayat remarked in an interview that Hedyat’s novel was so unsettling that a widely held superstition cautioned that, to read The Blind Owl at least with any care, would inevitably lead one to commit suicide4. Ironically, Hedayat did ultimately commit suicide in Paris in 1951.
Jorjani articulates that Hedayat believed that folklore inescapably structured the deepest layers of the collective unconscious of a particular people. He adds that, “Hedayat was specifically concerned with how the Folkloric consciousness can re-emerge on the other side of modern scientific rationalism, and in a way accommodate, assimilate and also supersede scientific rationalism.”5
Thus, folklore, for Hedayat, became a structure of the psyche, not just a linguistic component: a trope that pertains promise but performs collapse- a complete inversion of the redemptive features employed in children’s literature. Imbued with Zoroastrian, European and Indian mythical references, the novel provides an artistic inroad into the mind of the author whose arrival at death signalled the beginning of his art. Perhaps, in an effort to cure the traumas and aberrations of his formative years, he was lured towards an almost Oedipal self-abandon and ultimate self-destruction.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama was born in Tibet’s Amdo in 1935. The history of Amdo emerges from a deluge of public unrest, resistance, war – like battles, shelling of monasteries, torture, execution and famine – experiences6 that are systematically being erased from the region’s geopolitical history. Eventually, the violence and destruction caused His Holiness to leave Amdo for India. It is in this political climate that the poet Dhondup Gyal was born. Regarded as the founder of Modern Tibetan poetry, the poet has shaped the imagination of an entire generation. In Amdo, Gyal’s educational years were disrupted by the chaos of Mao’s Cultural revolution. The vast pastoral area between Tibet and China is described as ‘Zomia’, a non-governed area between centralised states that has escaped study7. Interestingly, in Gyal’s poems, there is repeated use of pastoral or vegetal imagery further accentuated by a Modernist trend; breaking away from the older structures of traditional Tibetan formalist elements, in order to create something more abiding from the vestiges of the fleeting and fragile8. The poet is celebrated for “rang mos snyan ngag” which translates to “poems according to one’s own wish”, thus proclaiming freedom from rules and regulations9. Further, this rejection appears as a breakdown of correlation or an attempt to string the broken voices of survival and continuity into his ‘body’ of work that lay beyond his corporeal ‘body.’ Again, a rejection of the self that stems from collapse; one which makes the author violently at revision with his other selves. Tibetan studies scholar, Riika J. Virtanen supports that in some of his free-verse poems the ‘boundaries of man and nature are transcended and humans and nature are blended together”10.
About Gyal’s family, Virtanen mentions that the author had ‘difficuties in his private life”11. His excessive drinking habits caused Gyal’s first marriage to fall apart.
In his poem “A Flower Destroyed by Frost’12, Gyal writes about two flower buds that were connected by the common landscape of childhood. As the petals of the other flower blossomed, the arrival of a violent frost untimely robbed it of its youth, vitality and future. Again, this imagery takes us to the state of innocence, as if the blossoming of the petals were a culmination of impending terror and the flower’s consequent death only a confirmation of the same.
The writer left behind letters of testament or “kha chems si gye” which confirm his suicide in 198513. Writer and journalist Choekyong mentions that the letter contained words of farewell to life, friends and the author’s inability to ‘awaken’ the Tibetan people through his work14.
The relationship between childhood and lived histories are two strains which form the core contents of an individual’s psycho-social environment. Psychological dissonances in one’s childhood tend to morph into aberrations like suicide and fanasising death. Since the erasures of populist and anglocentric children’s literature are manifold, the themes that continually escape the registers of children’s literature reveal more about this genre than it seeks to conceal. Themes like homosexuality, feminism, gender fluidity, trans awareness, colonial and post colonial history, dispossession, exile and disability do not find expression in the already compromised world of children’s literature. Owing to their lack of representation, these themes have collapsed into a shrinking paradigm – a mis-location that has been socialised into silence. It is these erasures that require understanding, contesting and critiquing in order to make all kinds of histories heard, felt and amplified – towards creating a more ontologically and politically aware children and people.
1. Hunt, Peter. Understanding Children’s Literature. Routledge, 1999.
2. Nodelman, Perry. Pleasures of Children’s Literature. Pearson Education Limited, 1999.
3. The Blind Owl of Sadegh Hedayat with Jason Reza Jorjani. YouTube, Uploaded by New Thinking Allowed by Jeffrey Mishlove, 29 May, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORSw0CRDtaQ
6. Erhard, Franz. “Remembering History in Amdo: Three Literary Accounts for the years from 1956-1976”. ResearchGate, 12 March, 2019, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328497250_Remembering_History_in_Amdo_Three_Literary_Accounts_for_the_Years_from_1956_to_1976
7 Virtanen, Riika. Tibetan Written Images: A Study of Imagery in the Writings of Dhondup Gyal. Studia Orientalia, 2014, 53.
8. ibid, 53
9. ibid, 144
10. ibid, 144
11. ibid, 33
12. ibid, 55
13. ibid, 33
14. ibid, 33
Shreya Banerjee is a student, writer and translator. The author has written for several English dailies and has completed her BA Hons in English Literature from Calcutta University. She is currently pursuing her Masters in English Literature from the same University.