Monday, November 16, 2020

Nerds on Tour: Taty Went West by Nikhil Singh (2015 novel)

Dossier:  Taty Went West by Nikhil Singh

Location: South Africa (Author)/The Outzone (Book)

Package Type: Novel

Itinerary: Taty is a teenage girl who has run away from her home and her mother after accidentally killing her brother, into a place called "The Outzone": a dense jungle hiding various hidden settlements, otherworldly ruins and supernatural mysteries. Armed with enough money for a bus ticket to the outskirts of the Zone, and a walkman playing the hits of her latest favourite Holo Singer, Taty finds herself taken in by a sinister woman who traffics her into (non-graphic) prostitution at the Nebula Sea Shell Hotel, a hub for various lowlives, quasi-religious figures, robotic nuns and criminals. Taty initially comes across as a passive observer to the various strange goings-on in the Outzone, with her own exploitation and emotional response to the world around her filtered through a sense of ennui that mutes the impact of any abuse described in the text. The hotel is only the start, though, and as events push Taty further into the Outzone and into contact with an even wider range of characters, she's forced to step up and start to take control of her own destiny as an active participant in this weird, unforgiving new society. 

Taty Went West is the first novel by author Nikhil Singh, and was shortlisted for Best African Novel in the first Nommo Awards.

Travel LogTaty Went West combines a strong sense of place and a cast of colourful characters and spins them up into an absolute fever dream of a narrative, propelling its hero through an increasingly bizarre set of circumstances. From the relatively mundane setting of the Nebula Sea Shell Hotel, Taty's adventures into the jungle take her through a disorienting range of natural, industrial and supernatural settings, culminating in otherworldly pyramids and a mission into space. These settings seem to shift around the needs of characters, who are luridly illustrated by the author within the text itself (both in the textual sense and in the form of actual pictures, which are cartoony and nightmarish in equal parts and fit perfectly with the aesthetic of the book). Add in the somewhat drifting, omnipotent narration style, which is quite happy to segue into a conversation between two minor characters or divert into unpicking their inner lives and motivations (and/or robotic programming), and Taty Went West is the kind of book where it's hard to predict what's going to happen from page to page, let alone over the course of a 400-page journey. That it's all told in a lush prose style makes concentration all the more important, and Taty Went West is a book that demanded a lot of attention from me as it leapt from one vignette to another.

That it is a journey built on the abuse and exploitation of a young woman is something I'm not sure how to feel about. As well as the prostitution mentioned above, there is also an explicit rape scene, which is perpetrated by a genderqueer individual who appears to have entirely different personalities and memory depending on whether they are presenting as male or female: thus, the female personality befriends Taty after the male personality has raped her, and a great deal of the third quarter of the book is dedicated to this relationship and to its eventual gory closure. To say "well this isn't a very accurate or positive portrayal of trans identities and queerness" is a pretty obvious point, but Taty Went West is doing too much, too thoughtfully to deserve for that to be the end of analysis on that point. The book's approach to queerness mirrors its iconoclasm in many other areas - particularly the religious, one of the characters is walking around living her life while nailed to a cross - and, for almost all of its characters, this iconoclasm is just there. It's not minimised, it's not played up for titillation or performative grittiness, it's just part and parcel of the weird outsider landscape that Singh (who is, for the record, a creator who refuses the label "trans" but elsewhere identifies as Venusian) is building up.

In most genre works I am used to reading, we analyse sexual assault and other problematic content by weighing up the harm of the portrayal against its "purpose" in the narrative. If a character is raped we ask ourselves if it contributes meaningfully to the plot or understanding of the characters involved (particularly the victim) in a way that couldn't be done otherwise, and if it does, then does the story involve the bare minimum to get that contribution across without crossing into titillation or misogynistic punishment? And do those perpetrating the harm get sufficient comeuppance for doing it, if not within the story in itself then in terms of whether we are expected to view them as sympathetic? Taty Went West satisfies itself with the second question: yes, there is comeuppance for abusers, though not in the context of their abuse; yes, Taty's journey is impacted by the assault she goes through. The first, though, seems really orthogonal to what the book is trying to achieve. What would Taty's journey be if she wasn't in a landscape whose dreamlike decadence and decay doesn't involve the constant reality of violence? It's an element that will put a lot of readers off of experiencing this book, and it's certainly not an element that should be taken lightly for those deciding whether or not to check it out, but it's not something that the book takes lightly or that should take it off our radar automatically.

I don't know if I enjoyed Taty Went West, but I certainly appreciated it: a constantly shifting, bizarre world which seems a perfect, if surreal, stop for our tour. I will be watching Singh's future releases with interest.


The Adventure: 3/5

The Scenery: 4/5

NerdTrip Rating: 7/10

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy