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Alitji in Wonderland

In my post about a Swahili Alice in Wonderland I made a call for Alices who would look a little different from the blond English girl we know from so many depictions of Carroll’s classic, even those which are set in contemporary Europe or North America.

The 2018 Pirelli calendar came up. As did Whoopi Goldberg’s variation on the story, with its dazzlingly urban illustrations by John Rocco.

Now a new book has found its way to me: Alitji in Dreamland, (European-Australian?) Nancy Sheppard’s 1975 adaptation and translation into Pitjantjatjara, illustrated anew in 1992 by Donna Leslie (of Australian Gamileroi heritage).

Like Elisi, Alitji makes an attempt at translating Lewis Carroll’s Victorian world into that of a different culture, in this case situated in the central region of Australia. This book, too, seems to start off with the rather safe work of bringing a European cultural gift (Alice in Wonderland) to a faraway culture, without Aboriginal Australian cultures or people conversely impacting on the white homeland (whether this is England or white settlements in Australia itself). In that sense, Goldberg and Rocco’s book is more exciting: there, an African American Alice finds her way through money-obsessed New York City.

But as their story unfolds, Sheppard and Leslie’s work does touch on often dangerous cultural contacts. And in doing so, it gave me a new perspective on Carroll’s original story in the bargain.

The Caterpillar for example, who is often likened to a crabby Oxbridge don, is not only transformed into a Witchety Grub (which, interestingly, would have counted as a food in Alitji’s waking life), but also into a pink, or ‘white’, man. It gives a whole new angle to the famous question ‘Who are you?’ From a university tutorial, the scene has changed into a colonial interrogation. (I was perhaps slightly disappointed that Alitji ends the scene by eating from two sprigs of berries, rather than nibbling the top and the tail off the Witchety Grub.)

Donna Leslie, Alitji in Dreamland (1992)

The Mad Teaparty develops even more ominously.

The Stockman – the Mad Hatter – who seems to have been a light-skinned man in Sheppard’s conception (though not in the pictures), utters his usual

‘No room, no room!’

Of course Alitji retorts:

‘There is plenty of space’.

Territorial politics?

Then the Horse – the March Hare – chips in:

‘Your skin is very dark. You ought to wash yourself.’

Obviously, this is a comment the Aboriginal Australian girls reading the book in the 1970s may in fact have heard (do they still?), and its racism gives a much starker edge to the original Hatter’s ‘personal remark’ ‘Your hair wants cutting’.

As befits her, Alitji again has her answer ready.

‘My skin is always dark, even after washing,’ Alitji replied with dignity.

And so, there were a number of moments throughout this book which made me find the adaptation pretty grim. A final example:

A stockman is an Australian herdsman. The Horse in Alitji would probably have been his work companion. And like the Hatter his watch, so the Stockman has his own accessory.

Donna Leslie, Alitji in Dreamland (1992)

The Horse picked up the Stockman’s rifle and said,

‘Really, this is useless. Why did you tell me to put salt in it?’

Rather embarrassed, the Stockman answered,

‘It was good salt.’

The Hatter’s little machine was a watch, the Stockman’s is a rifle. Not the friendliest of machines to sit next to on a tea visit, especially when one’s hosts are as mad as a Hatter.

But then again, is the Hatter’s original watch so innocent? To what extent have clocks been used since the nineteenth century to terrorise schoolgirls, factory workers, prisoners, indigenous peoples?

Perhaps I’m only thinking this because I have been reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish at the same time as reading Alitji, yet perhaps also Sheppard has simply not made such a violent leap at all when introducing her Alice into rifled company.

After all, is Carroll’s Alice not one of the most violent of children’s stories which we still read? (Children’s stories tended to be more violent in the nineteenth century anyway, but most we have stopped reading.) How about the Queen’s decapitations? How about the Pigeon’s children who continue to be taken away from her by serpents, or by little girls such as Alice? How about Alice’s own repeated laconic confrontation of mice and birds with her mice- and bird-eating pet Dinah?

It’s a cruel book, Alice is, and it seems only right that Sheppard and Leslie did not sanitise it.

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