Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Blue Shoes and Happiness: In the Company of Snakes and Feminists

Imagine a cobra coiled up at your feet--would you panic? I don't know much about surviving an encounter with a venomous snake, other than to limit sudden movements which could provoke a snake to strike. Blue Shoes and Happiness takes place in Africa--as do all the books in the No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency series--where snakes are a real danger. In the second chapter of Blue Shoes and Happiness, a snake is discovered in the detective agency office, and while the chapter is humorous it's no laughing matter to deal with this formidable creature:

"And remember that they are as frightened of us as we are of them--possibly even more so." (Omed Ramotswe, Precious Ramotswe's late father) But no snake could have been as terrified as Mma Matkutsi when she saw the hood of the cobra at her feet sway from side to side. She knew she should avert her eyes, as such snakes can spit their venom into the eyes of their target with uncanny accuracy; she knew that, but still found her gaze fixed to the small black eyes of the snake, so tiny and so filled with menace.
~Blue Shoes and Happiness, Alexander McCall Smith

Needless to say, they survive this frightful snake encounter, and Alexander McCall Smith goes on to write the eighth book in this series. Another "frightening" subject in the book is feminism. What does it mean to women and men in Africa, and elsewhere? Is it something to be feared? When Mma Makutsi tells her fiancé, Phuti Radiphuti, that she's a feminist, after he asks her, she unwittingly scares him off, and soon regrets her "careless words". Phuti, who has not had much experience with women, fears that he'll be "swept aside" by this feminism--he even dreams of a giant broom--and be the target of future criticism and derision. Mma Makutsi's thoughts dwell on this matter and what feminism means to her:

"Of course she believed in those things which feminists stood up for--the right of women to have a good job and be paid the same amount as men doing the same work; the right of women to be free of bullying by their husbands. But that was all just good common sense, fairness really, and the fact that you supported these goals did not make you one of those feminists who said that men were finished. How could they say such a thing? We were all people--men and women--and you could never say that one group of people were less important than another. She would never say that, and yet Phuti Radiphuti now probably imagined that she would."
~Blue Shoes and Happiness, Alexander McCall Smith

A good way to think about feminism and sexism, in my opinion. Will Mma Makutsi and Phuti Radiphuti resolve their misunderstanding and head towards matrimony? My fingers are crossed.

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