Possum Magic is a classic Australian picture book by Mem Fox.
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY OF POSSUM MAGIC
Grandma Poss uses bush magic to make a child possum (Hush) invisible so that Hush won’t be eaten by snakes. (I’m going to put aside the fact that snakes seem to ‘see’ via vibrations, so an invisibility superpower wouldn’t necessarily protect her…) But soon, Hush longs to be able to see herself again, the two possums make their way across Australia to find the ‘magic food’ (quintessentially Australian food) that will make Hush visible once more. Each year on Hush’s birthday they eat the same food ‘just to make sure Hush doesn’t turn visible again’, thereby creating a kind of mythology about why (white) Australians eat certain foods as celebration.
In case you were wondering just how deep it’s possible to go in the analysis of a seemingly simple children’s story such as this one, Carolyn Daniel has much to say about Possum Magic in her book Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature. First she points out that this is an example of a Quest Narrative.
Mem Fox’s Possum Magic is a quest narrative, following an ancient tradition in which a hero strives for something of value such as treasure or a beautiful woman. In this storybook the quest is for personal identity, a universal, internalized, and significantly contemporary goal. Grandma Poss makes Hush invisible to keep her safe from snakes. Hush has lots of adventures but there comes a time when she wants to be visible again. Most pertinently Hush wants “to know what [she] looks like.” In Julie Vivas’s illustration Grandma Poss leans over a pool of water witha fuzzy outline of Hush beside her. But Hush has no reflection in the mirrored surface of the pool. Because she is invisible she lacks subjectivity and, therefore, agency.
The food in Possum Magic is obviously important, but did you know how important?
But Grandma Poss has trouble finding the magic to make Hush visible again and, although Hush tells her she doesn’t mind, “in her heart of hearts she did”. Eventually Grandma remembers that, “it’s something to do with food. People food–not possum food”. And she and Hush set off around Australia to find the food that will make Hush visible.[…]
The foods that Grandma Poss and Hush eat are seen to be quintessentially Australian and their journey is a search for national and cultural identity as well as visibility or subjectivity. Fox’s narrative suggests that an individual’s sense of self does not arise spontaneously but is derived by literally consuming culture. By eating these significantly Australian foods Hush becomes visible and can be recognized as having a legitimate place within Australian society; she thus eats her way into culture. This reflects and supports the notion that ‘we are what we eat’ and that food narratives teach children how to be proper human subjects.
When we say this is an ‘Australian’ picturebook we should be careful to acknowledge that it represents a particular part of Australia and not its whole. She also offers a great example of the word ‘metonymically‘, which comes in handy when talking about picture books:
Applying a post-colonial reading to this storybook, which was published in the early 1980s, it is pertinent to point out, however, that the national and cultural identity Fox writes about is limited: geographically to the coastal regions of Australia and gastronomically to exclude indigenous foods and flavors.
In Fox’s narrative food is the magic that makes Hush visible. It constructs her as a subject and thus may be said to stand in, metonymically, for culture itself. For Michel Foucault culture is the magic that makes individuals visible. Following Nietzsche, Foucault argues that cultural discourses of truth, power, and knowledge distinguish between normal and deviant behavior, thus determining individuals’ actions and constructing them as subjects. For Foucault power does not “crush” individuals; it does not need to because[it is] one of the prime effects of power that certain bodies, certain gestures, certain discourses, certain desires, come to be identified and constituted as individuals… The individual is an effect of power, and at the same time, or precisely to the extent to which it is that effect, it is the element of its articulation. The individual which power has constituted is at the same time its vehicle.
In Fox’s story the consumption of certain foods constitutes Hush as an individual. The various foods might be said to carry certain discourses or stories about what it means to be Australian, including lifestyle, attitudes, desires, and even power relations (who gets the biggest slice?). As Hush consumes these foods, she also consumes Australian-ness and is constituted as an Australian. As a visibly legitimate Australian subject Hush embodies culture or as Foucault puts it, she is an “effect of power.” Simultaneously she is also “the element of its articulation.” Hence by her annually repeated consumption of proper Australian food/culture she confirms, for all those (child readers) now able to see her, just what it means to be Australian.
And the feminist reading:
Continue reading “Possum Magic by Mem Fox and Julie Vivas”
Having eaten into Australian culture, Hush is visibly an individual. Grandma Poss is additionally visibly designated as specifically female by the apron she wears (notably she is the only character in the book who is clothed). Judith Butler argues that the body is “always ready a cultural sign” and is “never free of an imaginary construction” as either male or female. To Foucault’s argument that there is no position outside power/knowledge,” Butler adds there is no classification outside of the culturally assigned binary opposites male and female. For Butler embodying culture means acquiring the necessary skillls, “bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds,” to “constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self. Butler argues that the bdoy is a politically regulated cultural construct,” “a signifying practice within a cultural field of gender hierarchy and compulsory heterosexuality”. Gender is an “act” which is both “intentional” and “performative”. It is “a strategy of survival within compulsory systems” performed through a “stylized repetition of acts” under “duress”. For Butler then, gender is performed rather than possessed. Its performance must be reiterated repeatedly in order that the illusion appear natural. Each and every successful performance reiterates the systems of power relations that produce the illusions in the first place. Even something as simple as Grandma Poss’s apron reinforces the systems of power relations that produce the illusion of femininity. The apron is a symbol of domesticity, a stereotypical accoutrement of the maternal figure in children’s fiction. Grandma Poss’s apron is metonymic of culture; it defines her and serves to reiterate the definition of proper femininity.