Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Please Look After this Bear - Charlie Butler


Immigration is a hot political topic at the moment, both here and in the States. In the wake of recent immigration laws in Arizona, which many see as legitimizing racial profiling, the image above gained a certain notoriety. It's shocking because Dora the Explorer, the inquisitive Latina created by Nickelodeon, lives in a world that is not only geographically imprecise (is she Mexican? American? South American? Her makers are careful not to say), but blissfully free of violence, or even significant conflict. For all her exploring, Dora will never have to scale a 14-foot metal fence on the north shore of the Rio Grande. To put her face on a mug shot is thus a grimly-effective way of saying, "This is what 'Homeland Security' really means." Dora may seem out of place here; but she also reminds us that a good many of the immigrants, refugees and displaced persons in the world are children.

The poster works, in fact, by crossing another kind of border - the border between Dora's safe world and the decidedly dangerous one inhabited by many of her viewers. No one goes to Dora the Explorer looking for life at its seamiest; for many, indeed, her adventures may offer welcome escape. This isn't, of course, to make a case for children as innocents whose minds must never be intruded upon by real-life unpleasantnesses. Children's books have frequently taken on difficult topics - and novels such as Gaye Hicyilmaz's Smiling for Strangers, to name just one, deal realistically with the hardship and prejudice faced by children who find themselves living as illegal immigrants.

However, the republic of children's literature has many provinces. Elsewhere, particularly in the regions of the fantastic, different rules have tended to apply. Many fantasy stories involve long quests and journeys between different lands and even worlds; but these journeys are seldom conceived of in terms of immigration, legal or otherwise. Did Lucy Pevensie obtain a visa to enter Narnia? I'm afraid not, even if her brother Edmund got official permission to send for the rest of the family. ("You let one Son of Adam in, and before you know it they're running the country!") Similarly, Frodo Baggins spent a long time finding ways to sneak into Mordor, a very determined immigrant indeed. The Black Gate would have put even the Department of Homeland Security to shame; but Tolkien is unlikely to have seen it in quite those terms.

Closer to our own world, Paddington Bear's adventures often involve minor brushes with officialdom, but on his initial journey from Peru to England an absence of immigration papers doesn't seem to have been a problem. A simple luggage label was sufficient; or perhaps he just gave the immigration officer a Hard Stare? Then again, perhaps Peruvian immigration just wasn't such an issue in 1958. The past, after all, is another country.




4 comments:

John Dougherty said...

"You let one Son of Adam in, and before you know it they're running the country!" Brilliant! Bloomin' foreigners, coming over 'ere, taking our thrones. I hear they smuggle 'em in in items of bedroom furniture...

By the way, Paddington did meet the immigration people in his latest adventures, Paddington Here and Now, published in honour of his 50th anniversary.

Charlie Butler said...

Thanks for the tip, John! I must admit I haven't come across Here and Now, but I shall check it out. I'd love to see how Michael Bond handles that potentially tricky subject.

John Dougherty said...

He handles it very deftly, as I recall. And, of course, Paddington's friend Mr Gruber is also an immigrant.

Katherine Langrish said...

Well put, Charlie.