Thursday, May 14, 2009

The hat trick

If Mookse and the Gripes’ review of her Orange Prize-shortlisted Burnt Shadows is accurate, Kamila Shamsie scores the hat trick with an image that is at once plagiaristic, ludicrous, and politically correct: “Hiroko survives the [Hiroshima] atomic blast, but the image of some cranes from a kimono she was wearing at the explosion were forever burned onto her back.”


Trevor said...

I'm interested in your claim here that this is plagiarism. I'm not disputing you, but I'm curious what source. In her defense, she says she got the idea for her book after seeing pictures of women who had kimono images burnt onto their skin.

D. G. Myers said...


The photo can be examined here. I do not dispute that this photo is one source for Shamsie’s image. But the more immediate and definitive source is obviously the choketree that has been whipped onto Sethe’s back in Beloved. The fiction that an image can be discerned on a victim’s back belongs to Morrison, not to the historical photo.

Perhaps “secondhand” or “derivative” would be the more exact term for Shamsie’s appropriation of this image.

Trevor said...

I see. I didn't even think of Beloved. One thing's for sure, Burnt Shadows will not be eclipsing Beloved. In fact, I was disappointed in the book because such metaphors ceased at the scars. I expected a bit more of a metaphorical link between the characters and the history, but really the characters only represented certain perspectives. That said, had Shamsie been able to make of that image something extraordinary, I wouldn't begrudge her taking it from Morrison.

Anonymous said...

Many Victorian authors (Dickens, Trollope, Austen) used scars to convey an image. Following your "obvious" example, does that mean you think Morrison was "secondhand" and "derivative" in her "appropriation of image" and you just haven't gone back far enough? Rather, it would seem to me the use of a scar as an image in fiction is "commonplace". To describe it as "plagaristic" is grossly unfair and bordering on defamatory.

D. G. Myers said...

Since Jane Austen died two years before Victoria’s birth, it is difficult to know how she can be described as a Victorian novelist. No matter. And the word scar appears nowhere in her fiction.

I suppose you are thinking of Rosa Dartle in David Copperfield. She has an “old scar—I should rather call it seam,” David says, “for it was not discoloured, and had healed years ago—which had once cut through her mouth, downward towards the chin, but was now barely visible across the table, except above and on her upper lip, the shape of which it had altered.” Although she has “some appearance of good looks,” Miss Dartle is “not agreeable to look at.” The reason she is not, however, has nothing to do with her scar, but rather because, as Steerforth tells David, she “brings everything to a grindstone . . . and sharpens it, as she has sharpened her own face and figure these years past. She has worn herself away by constant sharpening. She is all edge.”

Nor is her scar an image of victimhood. Steerforth confesses that he gave her the scar—by throwing a hammer at her when, a young boy, he had been exasperated by her. “She has borne the mark ever since, as you see,” he says, “and she’ll bear it to her grave, if she ever rests in one—though I can hardly believe she will ever rest anywhere.” Nor does she. For it turns out that Miss Dartle has been in love with him ever since the assault. Her scar is a symbol of her unrequited love.

Miss Dartle does not bear on her back a synecdoche of victimization. There is no similarity whatever between her and Sethe or Shamsie’s Horoko.

It is amusing to have criticism redefined as “defamation” (you mean “libel”), but for now I am going to say nothing more about the novel. Although I did not originally want to read it, I see that now I shall have to. Review to come—in time.

Anonymous said...

When you read the book, I think you will find that the birds that have been "burnt" (not "whipped") onto Hiroko's back are as much, perhaps more, a symbol of "unrequited" love as they are of victimization. And she does remain in love throughout the book -- I had not thought about Mrs. Dartle in that context until your post, so thanks. Perhaps in your desire to find Morrison as a precedent you have jumped to a conclusion. Also, could you explain why you think the whipping by an individual and the burning by a horrendous act of war directed against a nation have the same roots? Seems a bit of a stretch to me.

And while we are being pedantic, I did mean defamation not libel -- assuming that since you hold this view you might well articulate it to a colleague, student or reader in discussing this book and that that possibility should be inlcuded. As a former newspaper editor and publisher with some experience (alas) with published plagiarism, I do regard a false accusation of plagiarism -- be it libel or slander -- as defamatory. I realize in American law, there is probably an argument that it is criticism. The stricter British code would allow a case of defamation (or at least that's what our lawyer told a falsely accused reporter -- never went further, because a retraction and apology was issued). I agree your response to Trevor has mitigated the damage of your original statement.

Richard said...

For what it's worth, by coincidence I just read Susanna Moore's My Old Sweetheart, which is from 1982, a few years before Beloved. A virtually identical image appears there as apparently does in Burnt Shadows (in the case of Moore's novel, it's flowers that were burned from a kimono).

J.T. Oldfield said...

I'm disappointed that no one has commented on whether or not the picture inspired the metaphor. What about art imitating life?