Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories was one of the first true children's books in the English language, a timeless classic that continues to delight readers to this day. Beautiful, evocative and playful, the stories of "How the Whale Got His Throat" or "The First Letter Written" paint a magical, primal world. It is also deeply rooted in British colonialism. Kipling saw the Empire as a benign, civilizing force, and his writing can be troubling to modern readers. Not So Stories attempts to redress the balance, bringing together new and established writers of color from around the world to take the Just So Stories back; giving voices to cultures that were long deprived them.
This anthology contained an interesting mix of stories and authors of different backgrounds, including a lot of new-to-me authors. Most of the stories tackled colonial themes in one way or another and most of them took cues from Just So Stories (mind you, I haven't read the other book since I was a child and even then I'm not sure I read all of it, so my opinion on that point is unreliable). A lot of the stories engaged with difficult themes and were emotionally challenging to read, which is why I found myself breaking up the anthology with other unrelated short stories and a couple of novels.
My favourite stories, in table of contents order, were: "How the Spider Got Her Legs" by Cassandra Khaw, which did the thing where the starting situation was quite far from what we now think of as the status quo and made the story more interesting for it; "Best Beloved" by Wayne Santos, which was heartbreaking and powerful; "How the Tree of Wishes Gained its Carapace of Plastic" by Jeannette Ng, which was told on a grander scale than the other stories for all that it focussed on a specific tree; "The Cat Who Walked by Herself" by Achala Upendran, which was also heartbreaking and which ended in a way I didn't foresee from the start. As you can see, I liked a lot of the stories. Some didn't grab me as much, but that's to be expected in an anthology.
By the time I got to the end of the anthology, I did find the arrangement of the stories a little peculiar. Not only was it odd to find the only two cat-centric stories next to each other, but I also found the last few stories engaged with ideas of colonialism a lot less strongly than the earlier stories. That didn't necessarily make them bad stories, but a lot of the last part of the anthology didn't feel like it fit in with what the first part had set the book up to be. I think it would have worked better if the stories had been more intermixed and set up the expectation of varying engagement with colonial ideas earlier. As it was, I felt faintly confused reading three of the last four stories, even though they were perfectly fine stories in their own right.
Overall this anthology was filled with solid stories that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to anyone interested in the themes and ideas it explores. The authors come from a variety of backgrounds so the anthology does not lack in diversity on that front. (It could have stood to be a bit more gender diverse, however.) I very much like the concept of Not So Stories and recommend it to all readers to whom the basic premise appeals.
How the Spider Got Her Legs by Cassandra Khaw — Probably my favourite Khaw story so far. Told in the style of Kipling/traditional children’s cosmology stories as suggested by the title. It was also a bit longer and more complicated than I might have expected with a few acts to the story rather than just one simple origin explanation of how the spider got her legs. Anyway, I rather liked it.
Queen by Joseph E. Cole — A story about slavery and human cruelty. Not exactly an enjoyable read but not a bad story either. It didn’t particularly grab me but it was still told in an evocative way (and I think I spotted several references to Just So Stories).
Best Beloved by Wayne Santos — A Singaporean guardian of the living against the dead has taken up with a British official while still finding time for her duties. Until those duties become more difficult and she learns more of what the British are up to. A powerful story of love and devastation.
The Man Who Played With the Crab by Adiwijaya Iskandar — A father and daughter come across a westerner killing animals and demanding to be taken to their sacred crab so that he can kill it. A story that’s about as positive as possible, given colonial history.
Saṃsāra by Georgina Kamsika — A story set in the present day about a mixed race teenager reconnecting with her Indian heritage as she and her mother clean out her late grandmother’s home. It feels a bit out of place among the other Not So Stories I’ve read so far, but then so does the protagonist in her life, and maybe that’s the point.
Serpent, Crocodile, Tiger by Zedeck Siew — This is more like a few stories that ended up being tied together in a way I didn’t predict from the start. It tells Malay folktales as well as giving a few different modern perspectives on the tales and on the people having perspectives. It gives an interesting cross-section of views and various cultural influences. I enjoyed it although I found the sections that were academic excerpts a little too dry.
How the Tree of Wishes Gained its Carapace of Plastic by Jeannette Ng — A story telling the history of a wishing tree in Hong Kong and, by necessity, the history of the people and the place. A sweeping story of gods and history told in the style of a bedtime story. I enjoyed it.
How the Ants Got Their Queen by Stuart Hotston — A clear metaphor for colonialism, it’s ills and aftermath. Although the story was not subtle, I still found myself enjoying it. And the direction of the ending was not overly telegraphed, which was nice. Not a cheerful story (of course), but a good read.
How the Snake Lost its Spine by Tauriq Moosa — As you can guess from the title, this is another creature-origin type story. I liked the ideas in it, but I didn’t find it to be as strong as some of the others. The writing could have been tighter where I found it a little dull in places. Not bad overall, just not one of the best.
The Cat Who Walked by Herself by Achala Upendran — This story is about how common domesticated animals, as well as Man and Woman found their place. I found this story quite upsetting in how it just kept escalating in patriarchal (not sure that’s the right word) terribleness. The ending was satisfying but didn’t erase what went before.
Strays Like Us by Zina Hutton — A story about Bastet, the Egyptian cat goddess, who no longer has a place in the world, and a stray kitten. The story was fine, but I’m not sure how well it fits with the other stories in the anthology. It put me more in mind of various forgotten/unworshipped god stories more than colonialism per se.
How the Simurgh Won Her Tail by Ali Nouraei — A lovely story within a story. A grandfather visiting his sick (cancer, I think) granddaughter in hospital and telling her the titular story. It was very heartwarming, despite the depressing hospital setting and the hints of life outside the hospital.
There is Such Thing as a Whizzy-Gang by Raymond Gates — A story about a boy in Australia, his uncle that likes to (mostly) benevolently tease him and the Whizzy-Gang that attacks him. Not a bad read, but I didn’t really spot any direct engagement with colonialism.
How the Camel Got Her Paid Time Off by Paul Krueger — If not for the title itself, this story would feel quite unresolved, which I have mixed feelings about. I didn’t mind the story overall, but I again didn’t find it to be quite what I expected. It’s about animals fighting (or not) for worker rights.
4 / 5 stars
First published: April 2018, Abaddon Books
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley