Her Story: Ladies In Literature is a special, month-long series on Pop! Goes The Reader in which we celebrate the literary female role models whose stories have inspired and empowered us since time immemorial. From Harriet M. Welsch to Anne Shirley, Becky Bloomwood to Hermione Granger, Her Story: Ladies In Literature is a series created for women, by women as twenty-six authors answer the question: “Who’s your heroine?” You can find a complete list of the participants and their scheduled guest post dates Here!
About London Shah
London Shah is a British Muslim of South Asian descent. London has lived in Britain’s capital city for most of her life. When she’s not busy re-imagining the past, plotting an alternate present, or dreaming of an odd future — aka writing SFF stories — then she’s most likely drinking copious amounts of tea, eating all the sweets and cakes, strolling through Richmond Park or along the Thames, getting lost on an evening in the city’s older, darker alleyways — preferably just after it’s rained – listening to punk rock, or losing herself in a fab SFF book or film. London also occasionally dabbles in poetry; her poems have won contests, been published in the Young Adult Review Network and Blue Minaret, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her debut novel, The Light At The Bottom Of The World, the first in a planned YA sci-fi duology, is forthcoming from Disney-Hyperion in Autumn, 2019. Her work is represented by Rebecca Podos of the Rees Literary Agency.
“I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m big and you’re small, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” – Matilda by Roald Dahl
In South Asian culture, displaying respect for elders is everything. Being classed as an elder isn’t necessarily confined to the older generation, either; an elder could be older siblings and cousins. In our community, politeness is paramount in showing respect. While on the surface this seems like a great idea — how can displaying respect ever be harmful?! — in practice this can get rather tricky. Because notions of politeness are broad-ranging and can easily slip into expectations of subservience.
Many South Asian families don’t share my own personal experience — and effective education plays a major factor in that — but I have experienced the abuse of these expectations of politeness my entire life. I must specify here that I’m not referring to the elders passing on universal truths — any younger generation would be remiss to ignore such wisdom. I’m talking about the unquestionable passing on of their cultural norms as the only way to behave and think, a practice very clearly designed to maintain the individual elder/s position of power and/or status quo of that community. I’m commenting on remaining quiet, “respectful”, while those older than you are able to speak freely — even when they are unequivocally wrong and you know it. They will talk nonstop about why certain things must be done in the manner most acceptable to them, and when you finally move to politely object by way of simply stating the truth, they will be offended by your “lack of respect”.
The indisputable wisdom projected onto someone who may be older than you by a mere couple of years, and the power consequently afforded them, is not only illogical, it’s downright dangerous.
Because if there’s one lesson life has taught me, it’s that age doesn’t guarantee wisdom. And if the elders always “know what’s best” and nobody may ever question them, then this not only results in never having your say, it also means no learning or growth takes place. And so the cycle of ignorance continues. Indeed, in my opinion, plenty of the elders in my then community and family alone held extremely uninformed and unIslamic views on a whole host of matters — and far too many still do. But how do you deal with this, when they’ve already anticipated objection and have devised an automatic shutdown by way of inferring etiquette? As a child especially, how could you speak up when they’re speaking over and down to you? That’s impossible without breaking the golden rule of politeness, right? As a child, I don’t think I’d ever witnessed someone stand up to their elders.
And then oh my goodness, along came little Matilda Wormwood.
I loved Matilda then, and love her still. I connected with her and her situation unlike any other literary character or story I’d previously discovered. Here was someone who did manage to stand up for herself, who pointed out when things were unfair — all without breaking those bloody rules! In five-year-old Matilda I discovered someone who was able to use her wits and genius to plot revenge against the ignorant adults who were cruel to her without resorting to “rudeness”. Holy Miss Honey, Matilda was achieving the impossible…Matilda was exceptionally polite and still got to punish anyone who really wronged her. Behold, I had found my literary heroine!
Little Matilda doesn’t throw tantrums or scream and shout. She uses her inner powers — both magical and intellectual — and gets things done:
“She [Matilda] sat there very still and white and thoughtful. She seemed to know that neither crying nor sulking ever got anyone anywhere. The only sensible thing to do when you are attacked is, as Napoleon once said, to counter-attack.”
This last line makes me laugh as much now as it did back then. I too was more apt to try and work around limitations as opposed to throwing tantrums. Alas, I did not possess Matilda’s magical powers — though given my wild imagination at the time, I can state with absolute certainty that the world was better off for it!
Back to the little girl of marvels and oh how I was hooked when she put her new resolve into motion! Matilda dislikes how her father wrongly accuses her of being “a cheat and a liar” and so plays pranks on him, and when the Trunchbull — the horrifying headmistress at Matilda’s school — also accuses her of lying, she exacts revenge by way of a certain jug of water and newt. And finally, when she can’t bear the injustices the very lovely but meek Miss Honey has suffered at the Trunchbull’s hands, Matilda teaches the crude and greedy headmistress a lesson — in a most spectacular way.
This little girl won’t be silenced.
Matilda is perceptive; it’s not just her magical powers that help her — it’s her instincts, the way she absorbs and interprets what she experiences. In this way, she already possesses ample interior means to effect change. This was eye-opening for me who’d never personally realized such agency. Matilda is curious — about everything. This is another thing we had in common. I always wanted to know more about almost everything I encountered, though obviously unlike Matilda, I was greatly limited by my brainpower. I had to create imaginative ways to feed my own inquisitiveness.
Without doubt, a creative mind is what got me through my childhood and teen years; I was hardwired to see the fantastical and/or humour in almost everything. Humour and mischief helped me to both ignore and make light of anything difficult or bewildering I experienced growing up. Matilda too is mischievous — in the most innocent and delightful ways! To amuse herself and cope with her father’s insufferable ego, she plays up to his weaknesses:
‘She also knew that he liked to boast and she would egg him on shamelessly. “You must be very clever to find a use for something that costs nothing,” she said. “I wish I could do it.”’ And of course Mr Wormwood replies as only Mr Wormwood would. ‘“You couldn’t,” the father said. “You’re too stupid.”’
When Matilda superglues his hat onto his head she goes on to make him feel even worse by telling him what happened to another person when they got superglued, and even tells him it looks like lice! Of course she does all this in her own gorgeous, childlike way. I cannot emphasise enough just how much I connected with this side of Matilda, and how it meant the absolute world to me. And I will love any story that makes me laugh! Humour has always been incredibly important to me; laughter can help you through so much and like most children, I sought it out. And it’s another trait I shared with Matilda:
‘“There aren’t many funny bits in Mr Tolkien either,” Matilda said.
“Do you think that all children’s books ought to have funny bits in them?” Miss Honey asked. “I do,” Matilda said. “Children are not so serious as grown-ups and love to laugh.”’
Even when you feel awful for her because she’s upset and trying to work through things, humour still surfaces:
“She [Matilda] decided that every time her father or her mother was beastly to her, she would get her own back in some way or another. (…) You must remember (…) it was not easy for somebody as small as that to score points against an all-powerful grown-up. But she was determined to have a go. Her father, after what had happened in front of the telly that evening, was first on her list.”
I still find this last sentence — the mischievous implication contrasted with the matter-of-fact tone of the delivery — incredibly funny! But of course it was more than humour and mischief that connected me to Matilda.
Matilda and I faced similar frustrating reactions whenever we tried to politely correct our elders. When Matilda tells her father how dishonest his illegal car-dealing antics are, he yells at her to shut up. His ego is bruised and he comes back with a demeaning retort implying she’s stupid and ignorant. Her mother adds to it:
“You’ve got a nerve talking to your father like that. Now just keep your nasty mouth shut…”
Apparently speaking the truth is being nasty and cheeky. This has also been my experience growing up — and still is oftentimes – with many who are/were older than myself. A carefully constructed idea of “respect” is wielded like a shield to protect the elders’ position of power and to manipulate and silence other voices. If your opinion differs from theirs it’s classed as answering back, impolite — even if it’s the truth. The Trunchbull, an adult, is the rudest person in Matilda’s world and delivers the most horrifying verbal abuse and as usual, Matilda has to remain unaffected and polite, while the condemnable adult can be as crude and cruel as she wants to be.
Through Miss Honey, Matilda — and consequently I — saw how staying silent out of fear wasn’t just wrong for children, but had grave consequences for adults, too. And still the culture I was brought up in greatly values a girl’s silence. Completely and utterly in denial, and ignorant of the fact they won’t allow her to speak up — that their politeness rules have ensured she can’t — they instead interpret it as a sign of obedience, and thus, virtue. The depth of ignorance at play here is astounding and most unfortunate, almost guaranteeing dire future implications for the child.
Not only did Matilda’s wonderful traits make me fall in love with her, but they also highlighted just how wrong the elders were by comparison. Both in her world and mine. If you’re not willing to learn and grow and change, you’ll remain just as ignorant as you always were. And if a child values honesty, kindness, humility, courage, and justice, then they’re the more mature ones and it’s them who deserve the respect — and yes, politeness! — that the elders so egotistically crave and demand of them.
I will always hold Matilda so dear and close to my heart — the little five-year-old girl who spoke up, took action, and held true to her uncorrupted instincts. May we none of us ever lose our inner Matilda!
Title The Light At The Bottom Of The World
Author London Shah
Intended Target Audience Young Adult
Genre Science Fiction
Publication Date 2019 by Disney-Hyperion
Find It On Goodreads
In 2099, the world is submerged a thousand feet beneath the ocean’s surface, and in Great Britain an undercurrent of fear courses through everyone’s lives. Fear that must be maintained at all costs.
Sixteen-year-old British Muslim Leyla McQueen loves blasting punk rock and racing in her submersible. But when Leyla’s innocent papa is arrested, she must use her racing prowess for more than just thrills. Leyla must participate in the challenging London Submersible Marathon for the chance to win her papa’s freedom.
The submersible race takes an unexpected turn, though. Then when new information about her papa’s situation comes to light, Leyla must face her own fears, and act. If she wants to find and rescue her papa, Leyla will have to venture outside of London for the very first time. To make matters worse, the hotheaded and maddening teen, Ari, thinks he’ll be accompanying her — no bloody way.
Leyla must remain defiant and cling to hope. She will have to brave the unfathomable waters, defy the oppressive authorities, and learn to work with the ever-secretive Ari, who is slowly working his way into her heart. But as she discovers a world drowning in lies, how much longer can Leyla hold out hope for the truth? If her faith in her quest wavers, she risks capture—or worse. And her beloved Papa could be lost forever.