Hogart the Hedgehog Turns Nink
text by Blair Reeve, pictures by Chris Stapp (Anapest Press, $25)
Reviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana
I rather like this slight, self-published book; slight because at only 41 multi-coloured pages – some with no text on them – it’s very easy to read at one sitting, especially as much of it is in anapestic rhyming and alliterative tri-lines, rather like a looooong nursery rhyme. Given Blair Reeve’s strong performance poet background, this is a book to be read, indeed chanted, OUT LOUD. I can well see him onstage doing exactly that.
It is a clever wee book too, because, while it is ostensibly a children’s picture book for dads and mums to read to their kids and tots at bedtime, in reality it has several other layers. It’s not so slight after all, eh.
Let’s look at the multi-levels contained between these bright hard covers:
1. Hogart the hedgehog, can of course, be read entirely as a kid’s book, replete with Edward Lear type nonsense and multiple Dr Seuss rhyming patterns – generally aaa/bbb – gone madder. Yet I sensed more, the more I scanned in and between the lines.
2. Reeve may or may not have been 100% aware here, but he has penned – and Stapp has vicariously depicted – a rather intense political allegory. The entire plot evinces the ongoing, seemingly never-ending American electoral process, although it could easily also be a brilliant dig at current scurrilous Chinese political hegemonies.
So it’s Hillary Clinton as the robin, whereby the early bird gathers the worm, namely the vote of some echelons of unfortunate citizens, who have no real alternative but to side with her, given that the alternative is the nasty badger, who has to be Donald Trump, as in some creep of a creature. The owl is America supposedly altruistic and democratic potentate who keeps an eye on the World. What then of the centipede? The calming voice of reputedly objective and scientific poll interpreters, perhaps? Hogart himself, then, is the ‘average’ American voter, inhibited by self-doubt and surrounded by apathy, ignorance, indecision, inferiorities … This potential reading also segues into a more likely intention, as follows.
3. A sage Existentialist epic, whereby Hogart becomes authentic. His quest toward nink – as opposed to the word nine – is his own way of saying, “bugger it, I’ll be what I like as I like, in a world where meaning is imposed by individuals like me and not through the dictates of arbitrary pedants.” The next number after eight can be anything; can be a spontaneous individual nisus; a continuous phenomenological exegesis. For as the centipede recites –
As for counting beyond that, it’s just a recital
A sequence of names, for each number a title.
You can name them yourself, though your titles aren’t vital.’
To me, then, Hogart the hedgehog is a miniature Bildungsroman. Hogart goes out into the world on an existential mission of (self) discovery, after initially being prompted by one of his granddaughters, named Truffle. He becomes brave, he grows strength. Yet, there is even a related further level here, the more closely I view the actual words.
4. This slim tome is an anti-colonialist synecdoche. The book is replete and complete with English language-isms (‘neath) and distinctly English names and names of things, such as pasture, wood, brooks, badgers, squire, robins, meadow, fox – given that there are almost as many Americanisms, such as fall, mom, varmints and trash. The words chosen expand out to represent the far wider Western impact on colonised territories such as Hong Kong, Aotearoa, even Mainland PR China – and their respective overall cultural ethos.
Now I know Blair Reeve is a long-term expatriate Kiwi, who lived in Japan and lives in Hong Kong and teaches creative writing there; has done for years now. He is no mug. His Hogart the hedgehog ranks right up there with Orville Broughton’s (1995) Looting the Mind: The Ideology of the Secondary English Textbook, [Hong Kong: Oranges and Lemons Press] in its portrayal of just how English language books of all persuasions potentially affect the Chinese languages, the Chinese cultural nexus, deleteriously. This petite book could well stand, then, as a fairly astringent satire of Anglo-American English language pomposity and its concomitants.
It is thus both the sort of book and at the same time a spoof of the sort of book that generally Cantonese-speaking middle-class Hong Kong parents will buy and impose on their tuition-centred children as a ‘real’ English language storybook. Why buy? So as to attain and improve what they perceive as the Holy Grail, which is the ‘standardized’ English language, a viewpoint hegemonically imposed by their ostensibly ‘former’ colonialist masters – a process as delineated in my own two recent co-edited books, namely English language as Hydra and the forthcoming Why English? Confronting the Hydra. And that’s why there is no inkling of China or Chinese language anywhere in Reeve’s own pages. Such Hong Kong parents only want English from native English-speakers.
Reeve and Stapp give us the plot clues too: that it is time to unshackle the imperialist yoke that the English language brings to traditionally non-English speaking communities. Indeed Citizen Hogart learns –
Each creature must count on whatever it’s got.
We hedgehogs are lucky – we’ve got quite a lot.
There’s no need for the word nine; no vital requirement for English language dominion at all. The implication is to be just like Hogart and to utilise your own language, whenever. What’s wrong with nink? Indeed, what is wrong with the Cantonese, 九 = gow?
Thus we have a happy, multi-layered cake of a book set firm in a mono-cultural mould, but with an extra moorish ingredient, that is a message of freedom, mixed in. So that there is this definite aftertaste.
Reeve is having a laugh or three of his own
I see the joke – he’s not alone
A satirical book with a cheery tone.
This book is available online from http://anapestpress.com/