ugly

IGUANA GIRL BY MOTO HAGIO

One of my earliest memories is sitting with my mother while she passed judgement on my brother and I. “Girls will love you,” she said to my brother, “because you’re beautiful.” He had, at that time, long curly blonde hair; and I now imagine that she caressed it as she spoke to him. “You!” she turned to me. “Girls will like you because you’re cheeky.” I don’t think my mother intended to hurt me, or even that her aim was to criticise me, but I was old enough to read between the lines. I felt clearly who she favoured, and who she found the most appealing. But, more than that, she was, I realised, so sure of her opinion that she was able to speak with such authority for other people, for the rest of the world, who would, I now knew, never like me for my appearance. For a period following this incident I would stare at myself in mirrors, at my large eyes and plump lips, which never before had struck me as unattractive, and become ever more disheartened, because my brother did not look this way. My mother had defined beauty for me, and it belonged to only one little boy in the world.

2l7vn.png

Moto Hagio is considered to be the most notable, and influential, creator of shōjo manga, which is to say manga that is aimed at a teenage female audience. While shōjo manga is not restricted to any particular subject matter, or genre, it generally features more prominent female characters, is more introspective, and more focussed on emotions and issues affecting young women, than traditional manga. Iguana Girl, which was first published in 1991, is the story of Rika, whose mother believes her to be an iguana and therefore ugly. This may sound something like a manga version of The Ugly Duckling or that awful Mask film, but the reality is something more moving and complex. Iguana Girl isn’t about being unconventional looking or different [or certainly not in terms of appearance]; it is not about the beauty within, or anything so glib. For Rika is not considered ugly by all, or even most; only her mother sees her that way. Indeed, her father calls her beautiful and boys find her attractive. There are, moreover, moments in the text when one is allowed glimpses of Rika as human, in other words as she appears to everyone except her mother, and she is, even in cartoon form, obviously a pretty girl.

Yet, while Rika is not ugly, she is often awkward and clumsy. For example, in one scene she runs to show her mother a bug in a box and accidentally lets it out to fly in her face. She is also, and more significantly, not stereotypically ‘girly.’ She is, with her interest in baseball and her ‘good throw,’ what we might call a tomboy, although that is a phrase that I dislike. In fact, one character says of her that she should have been born a boy. In this way, Iguana Girl engages with some of the issues surrounding gender roles and identity. What does it mean to be a girl? Or a boy? What is a boy activity? How should a girl behave? Certainly, Rika’s mother has firm ideas about such things. She considers grace and reserve – which her iguana daughter lacks – to be feminine qualities. When she has a second child, Mami, she is pleased that she now has a daughter with whom she can bake [suggesting she couldn’t with Rika]. Mami, we’re told, also looks good in a dress, while Rika does not.        iguana-girl-d20fe387-d4c9-408f-9d6c-392ac441ac1-resize-750 (1).gif

However, one gets the impression that Rika’s awkwardness is not natural; it is her mother who makes her so by repeatedly criticising and abusing her. Likewise, if she is tomboyish, one might argue that it is because she has been raised to believe that she is unsuited to traditionally feminine activities. There are a series of panels in which Rika applies make up to herself, and the mother is angry when she finds out; so it is not that the girl has no interest in such things, simply that she has been convinced that they are shameful, and that she is made ever more monstrous or ridiculous by them. Rika isn’t born thinking that she is ugly, either; she learns her self-loathing about her looks. Iguana Girl is, therefore, as much about how one’s upbringing affects you, about parent and child relationships and dynamics, about nature versus nurture, as anything else. While Rika gives the manga its title, the most important character is, in fact, her mother. It is her disappointment in not getting the kind of child she always wanted that drives the action; it is her expectations that are not met. She cannot love Rika for what she is, because she does not see her as a person in her own right; she is, instead, a breathing, bumbling, broken dream.

Advertisements

THE HOUR OF THE STAR BY CLARICE LISPECTOR

I know that women are not intrinsically weak, that they are not more vulnerable than men; I know that unhappiness is not gender specific, that both sexes can suffer equally, and yet something deep in my psyche tells me that a woman’s sadness, her pain, is worse than a man’s, that it is less acceptable or tolerable. Philip Larkin once wrote that ‘they fuck you up, your mum and dad, they may not mean to but they do,’ and I don’t know if I would go that far, but if I had to trace these feelings back to anything or anyone it would be my mother, who raised me on her own. Ironically, she always endeavoured to give me the impression that she was strong, and maybe she was, but I never quite bought it. Her life was a constant bitter struggle to keep disaster at bay, to extract even a glimmer of hope or positivity from each day. In short, she suffered terribly, and I suffered in witnessing it.

All of which goes some way to explaining why I anticipated that Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star would be an uncomfortable, or upsetting, reading experience for me. And to some extent I was right in that regard, for Macabéa, the nineteen year old girl at the heart of the story, is a wretched creature: orphaned, raised by her pious and unpleasant aunt; poor and unloved; ugly and physically withered. She has a job as a typist but, due to a lack of education or inherent mental weakness [the narrator calls her ‘backward’], she is not very good at it. Indeed, there are few characters in literature who have so little going for them. Yet, despite her situation, Macabéa is sweet-natured, even-tempered; she takes all her misfortune on the chin.

One could perhaps explain her stoicism as being a consequence of her naivety, or lack of self-awareness [which the narrator frequently comments upon] or experience. Misery is a habit. You passively accept misfortune because it is all you know; in fact, you come to believe that it is all there is. Moreover, I know from experience that when you have so little, you do not expect or covet things. As a teenager I didn’t think about having a nice girlfriend, nice clothes, a nice house, a stable family life, an exciting future; I didn’t even realise these things were possible, that they even existed. It seems ridiculous, but it is true. If you had tried to convince me otherwise, I’d have brushed it off as make-believe.

favela

[A favela, or slum, in Rio, Brazil]

As a way of accentuating her unimportance, the nothing that is her existence, the narrator says that there are thousands of girls like Macabéa. She is, we’re to believe, not even special in her misery. In one sense, that is a reasonable statement. There are certainly thousands of people [men and women] were are born and raised in poverty, who have few or no prospects, who get so little of any worth out of life. However, there is something extraordinarily delicate about her, something other-worldly, which reminded me of the girl from Anna Kavan’s Ice, or even those sometimes found in Dickens’ novels. Dickens’ work is often accused of being exaggerated or romanticised, vis-a-vis the poor, but I have always resisted that interpretation, for there are all kinds of unusual people in the world, living in circumstances that, were they to appear in a novel, would be rejected as unrealistic. There is, in fact, no such thing as realism, because in life absolutely anything is possible. Yet, that does not mean that Macabéa is ordinary, or archetypal, or representative of a certain class of people, for the average person does not kiss walls because they have no one else to kiss.

For all this talk about Macabéa, it is the narrator, Rodrigo S.M., who dominates The Hour of the Star. I dislike the term ‘unreliable narrator’, for they are all unreliable, but he is certainly unstable. The novel is very short, some way shy of one hundred pages, and yet for the opening half [at least] he struggles to get his story going, focussing more on his own feelings, turning his attention to Macabéa on occasions, but constantly interrupting himself. It is as though Macabéa is a conduit, that it is the appearance [or illusion] of wanting to tell her story that gives Rodrigo S.M. the opportunity to talk about what he really wants to talk about: himself; he is, in this way, like all authors, who use, or take advantage of, their characters. Moreover, he claims to want to play it straight, to be cold and impartial, to avoid sentimentality, etc., in his presentation of Macabéa and her plight, and yet the novel is full of pity and compassion, only, again, one feels as though it is directed more at himself.

“Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?”

So, while it is temping to think that this is a novel about poverty, or how happiness is not doled out fairly, that some subsist on meagre rations, it is actually primarily about the writing process, specifically the relationship between a writer and his characters, a relationship as intimate as any you may have had with your sexual partners. There are a lot of religious references in the book, and you could make much of all that, I’m sure, but for me it relates to how to be an author is to be God, creating worlds, directing events and giving life. In her quiet, contemplative moments, when in need of guidance or assistance, to whom should Macabéa pray? To Rodrigo S.M., her Father who is in His Study, scribbling lines. Her life is in His hands. And, yet, His is in hers also; they sustain each other. Without her we would not know Rodrigo S.M.; if she dies, so does He; her disappearance necessitates His; her end, is His.

As one progresses through the novel, one comes to realise that Macabéa and Rodrigo S.M. are opposite sides of the same coin. Considerable discussion could be devoted to the innocence and sweetness of the poor girl in contrast to the experience of the more worldly and unpleasant narrator. One could also of course touch upon the male-female dynamic, for it was not an accident that Lispector chose to make it so that it is a man who creates, who holds sway over the woman, who puts her through such awful experiences [there is a definite aroma of sadism involved in all that, which does not only have a social-political context, but could be seen as the sadism involved in being an author]. I don’t, however, wanted to linger over this stuff too much. Before I finish, I do want to devote a few words to Lispector’s style, because that is the novel’s real selling point, that is what makes The Hour of the Star one of the necessary books. When reading Lispector previously, I found myself frequently irritated by what I saw as being a dated kind of modernism. But The Hour of the Star is nothing like that. There are no passé Joycisms, rather an abundance of memorable aphorisms, beautifully carved images, and droll asides. It is a strange, unique and threatening style, and all the more cherishable for it.