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Book Review: Reclamation Song by Jhilmil Breckenridge

Reclaiming the Power of the Feminine

Reviewed by Soni Somarajan

Reclamation Song cover

Title: Reclamation Song
Author: Jhilmil Breckenridge
Publisher: Red River
Pages: (Paperback) 100
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Holding Reclamation Song in my hands is sheer joy – here, at last, is a book of poetry made beautifully, an object of art in itself. Much thought is given to the cover design, the choice of paper, and the font – in this case, a Fell Type. The publisher, Red River, seems to have insight into how poets would love their books to be designed, evocative of the content as well as the fine delicateness of poetry itself. Thanks to Jhilmil Breckenridge, the poet who is also a painter, the illustrations in the book complement a poetic landscape that refuses to wear off days after.

The 55 poems in Reclamation Song are anything but ‘let it be light, it should float’ kind that Jhilmil aspires to, because the personal tragedy and anguish – the crux anchoring this collection – is of an enormous scale. The verse may be light but the effect is anything but floating, the weight of angst becoming our own – threatening to undo the objectivity of a review. For a debut collection, it has everything going for it – including a glowing introduction by the Master himself, Keki Daruwalla, who terms it ‘solid poetry grounded in pain’. Also, add a cluster of luminous blurbs from the who’s who in the world of letters.

Divided into three sections, we can easily say the first, “Overtures” hinges on the autobiographical – a diverse terrain: separation from children, graveyards, being born dusky, the mother’s influence, a lost childhood, abuse, longing, meeting expectations, and relationship dynamics. One begins to picture a comfortable couch, each poem a session of opening up – the release of the memories, vulnerability subject to public gaze, the poetry an attempt in and becoming the catharsis.

In “Letter to Liam”, notice the contrast between ‘I feared for your life and I let go’ and the delicateness of ‘grass and the daisies’. We focus on the poet’s earnest efforts for control over the turn of events as recalled from memory, the loss of her children. In the light of past events, note the second stanza’s ‘I love you more than words can express’ escalating into a superlative trope, ‘like an endless daisy chain’ – the mother’s love rendered in an unusually higher register, disguising a scream of helplessness. In “Love and Other Stories”, love of another kind, bruised by life’s experiences, comes full circle, inwards: ‘So now the safest place for my heart/ is with me. It beats a triumphant song…’

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Landays

(From Poetry Foundation. Link to the complete article given below)

I call. You’re stone.
One day you’ll look and find I’m gone.

 

The teenage poet who uttered this folk poem called herself Rahila Muska. She lived in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold and one of the most restive of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces since the U.S. invasion began on October 7, 2001. Muska, like many young and rural Afghan women, wasn’t allowed to leave her home. Fearing that she’d be kidnapped or raped by warlords, her father pulled her out of school after the fifth grade. Poetry, which she learned from other women and on the radio, became her only form of education.

In Afghan culture, poetry is revered, particularly the high literary forms that derive from Persian or Arabic. But the poem above is a folk couplet — a landay — an oral and often anonymous scrap of song created by and for mostly illiterate people: the more than twenty million Pashtun women who span the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Traditionally, landays are sung aloud, often to the beat of a hand drum, which, along with other kinds of music, was banned by the Taliban from 1996 to 2001, and in some places, still is.

A landay has only a few formal properties. Each has twenty-two syllables: nine in the first line, thirteen in the second. The poem ends with the sound “ma” or “na.” Sometimes they rhyme, but more often not. In Pashto, they lilt internally from word to word in a kind of two-line lullaby that belies the sharpness of their content, which is distinctive not only for its beauty, bawdiness, and wit, but also for the piercing ability to articulate a common truth about war, separation, homeland, grief, or love. Within these five main tropes, the couplets express a collective fury, a lament, an earthy joke, a love of home, a longing for the end of separation, a call to arms, all of which frustrate any facile image of a Pashtun woman as nothing but a mute ghost beneath a blue burqa.

From the Aryan caravans that likely brought these poems to Afghanistan thousands of years ago to ongoing U.S. drone strikes, the subjects of landays are remixed like hip-hop, with old words swapped for newer, more relevant ones. A woman’s sleeve in a centuries-old landay becomes her bra strap today. A colonial British officer becomes a contemporary American soldier. A book becomes a gun. Each biting word change has much to teach about the social satire that ripples under the surface of a woman’s life. With the drawdown of American forces in 2014 looming, these are the voices of protest most at risk when the Americans pull out. Although some landays reflect fury at the presence of the U.S. military, many women fear that in the absence of America’s involvement they will return to lives of isolation and oppression, just as under the Taliban.

Landays began among nomads and farmers. They were shared around a fire, sung after a day in the fields or at a wedding. More than three decades of war has diluted a culture, as well as displaced millions of people who can’t return safely to their villages. Conflict has also contributed to globalization. Now people share landays virtually via the internet, Facebook, text messages, and the radio. It’s not only the subject matter that makes them risqué. Landays are mostly sung, and singing is linked to licentiousness in the Afghan consciousness. Women singers are viewed as prostitutes. Women get around this by singing in secret — in front of only close family or, say, a harmless-looking foreign woman. Usually in a village or a family one woman is more skilled at singing landays than others, yet men have no idea who she is. Much of an Afghan woman’s life involves a cloak-and-dagger dance around honor — a gap between who she seems to be and who she is.

Read more at the Poetry Foundation link here


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Book Excerpt: The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch by Sanam Maher

Qandeel Baloch

Bold’, ‘Shameless’, ‘Siren’ were just some of the (kinder) words used to describe Qandeel Baloch. She embraced these labels and played the coquette, yet dished out biting critiques of some of Pakistan’s most holy cows. Pakistanis snickered at her fake American accent, but marvelled at her gumption. She was the stuff of a hundred memes and Pakistan’s first celebrity-by-social media.

Qandeel first captured the nation’s attention on Pakistan Idol with a failed audition and tearful outburst. But it was in February 2016, when she uploaded a Facebook video mocking a presidential ‘warning’ not to celebrate Valentine’s Day, that she went ‘viral’. In the video, which racked up nearly a million views, she lies in bed, in a low-cut red dress, and says in broken English, ‘They can stop to people go out…but they can’t stop to people love.’ The video shows us everything that Pakistanis loved—and loved to hate—about Qandeel, ‘Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian’. Five months later, she would be dead. In July 2016, Qandeel’s brother would strangle her in their family home, in what was described as an ‘honour killing’—a punishment for the ‘shame’ her online behaviour had brought to the family.

Scores of young women and men are killed in the name of honour every year in Pakistan. Many cases are never reported, and of the ones that are, murderers are often ‘forgiven’ by the surviving family members and do not face charges. However, just six days after Qandeel’s death, the Anti-Honour Killings Laws Bill was fast-tracked in parliament, and in October 2016, the loophole allowing families to pardon perpetrators of ‘honour killings’ was closed. What spurred the change? Was it the murder of Qandeel Baloch? And how did she come to represent the clash between rigid conservatism and a secular, liberal vision for Pakistan? Through dozens of interviews—with aspiring models, managers, university students, activists, lawyers, police officers and journalists, among them—Sanam Maher gives us a portrait of a woman and a nation.

 

Excerpt

The video from Murree has been viewed thousands of times. By the end of the year, the words ‘How I’m looking?’ would be the first phrase mentioned in an article about ‘10 notable quotes that defined Pakistan’s entertainment scene in 2015’. Qandeel would be called an ‘insta-celeb’. People are turning to Facebook and Twitter to find the ‘How I’m looking’ girl and they want more and more of her videos. They like to laugh at her.

Mec says he has never seen anything like it in all the years he has been in the industry. He would think about that video when she was no longer around and would wonder what people had seen in it. He would remember that Afghan woman who had been on the cover of a magazine in America and then became famous all over the world. ‘It was her eyes,’ he would say. That was it. ‘That’s what got everyone. Show people something different. They don’t want to see the same old stuff.’

Qandeel disagrees with him on how her career can progress. He takes her to every single event, books her for any show he can and introduces her to everyone they meet. Sometimes she complains that all of it is a waste of time. People take photos with her at these events, but she isn’t getting paid for that. She doesn’t just want to make friends—she is looking for connections.

She stumbles across the Facebook profile of a man in Karachi, Mansoor, who had been a model when she was just a girl in Shah Sadar Din. His Facebook feed is full of photographs taken at dinners and parties with girls Qandeel has seen on TV. She recognizes some of the names from his friends’ list. He seems to have the connections she needs. She sends him a friend request. He is used to these requests from strangers, usually women, who hope that he knows all the right people and will be able to help them break into the fashion industry. In fact, it happens so often that he now has a policy of asking any girl who sends him a friend request on Facebook for her phone number to confirm whether she is indeed an aspiring model or an actress, and not some man who is trying to fool him. The ones who willingly give their phone numbers are legitimate. Qandeel sends him her phone number.

‘Hi must talk to you,’ he texts Qandeel. ‘Call now.’

She is travelling. She is unable to speak with him then. ‘Let me come too then I talk.’ He notes that her English is not very good. ‘Take care.’

They continue to exchange messages and soon she is affectionately calling him ‘baby’ and ‘jaan’. When she tells him she is back in Karachi and feeling lonely, they meet for the first time and he takes her to a friend’s house so she can have some company. She messages him on WhatsApp late at night and asks, ‘What are you doing?’ He is usually fast asleep. She likes Dubsmash, an app that lets users lip sync phrases or songs, and sees that the video from Murree has also become popular there. She sees actresses and singers mimic her words in videos that they post to their social media feeds.

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The rare women in the rare book trade

(From The Paris Review. Link to the complete article given below)

In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Dalloway picks up the phone and receives a solo lunch-party invite intended for her husband, from another woman. Clarissa puts down the phone and reels over “the dwindling of life; how year by year her share was sliced; how little the margin that remained was capable any longer of stretching, of absorbing, as in the youthful years, the colours, salts, tones of existence, so that she filled the room she entered.”

Mrs. Dalloway, a book about an aging woman who is no longer valued by society, has increased in value as it has aged. The corrected 1928 typescript, with Woolf’s musings scribbled on its pages, now sells for £27,500. What is a woman worth as she ages? What is a book by a woman worth as it ages? The answers are braided into the realities of the book trade, which is still an old boys’ club. As you’d expect, the expensive books are by men: Joyce, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway. “No twentieth-century women command those prices,” said Heather O’Donnell, owner of Honey & Wax Booksellers. “Woolf tops out in the mid five figures, and Gertrude Stein and Zora Neale Hurston are relatively cheap.”

Although it’s true that old white men have always run the large, moneyed, century-old rare-book trade—buying and selling books for a living—women have made enormous inroads as private and institutional collectors. Things started shifting in the seventies. Second-wave feminism gave women a voice, and female collectors started patching the historical holes by seeing value and relevance in objects that men had ignored. When you put your gaze on a manuscript and call attention to it, you create value in the eyes of others. Curiosity creates a market.

Read the complete article at the Paris Review link


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Counterview: Urvashi Butalia’s rejoinder to AR Venkatachalapathy on women publishers and editors

Long years ago, when I began working in publishing, it was an almost entirely male world. Women were to be found in some publishing houses, but mainly in administrative and secretarial positions. The bosses were all men – at least in English language publishing in India – and so were the editors. There was something about their anatomy that seemed to qualify them more to work in the business of creating and disseminating knowledge – an activity that is generally governed by the brain, something that lies between the ears (and not the legs) and looks the same no matter what sort of bodily shell it’s placed in.

As women, we – the handful of us who joined the industry at that time and who slowly made our way to becoming editors – knew well we would never rise to the top of our professions. My bosses at the Oxford University Press were concerned that I was a woman: “We’ve never employed a woman in an executive position,” they told me. “They get married and go away.” They made it sound like a crime – one, clearly, that the men never had to answer for.

The Oxford University Press, where I began work, was filled with kind and caring men: Charles Lewis, Santosh Mukherjee, Ravi Dayal, Adil Tyabji, Adrian Bullock, Dipen Mitra. Yet none of them ever had to answer to the kind of questions posed to me. None of them needed to worry about how they would get home at night if they had to work late. None of them needed to be concerned about the safety of seedy hotel rooms when they travelled on business. None of them had to defend themselves against leering printers who wanted to take you out to coffee when all you wanted was to get a book printed. Not surprising then that their paths to the top were smooth, whereas ours were non-existent.

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Book Review: Frazil by Menka Shivdasani

By Jhilmil Breckenridge 

Frazil

Title: Frazil
Author: Menka Shivdasani
Publisher: Paperwall Media
Pages: 154
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According to the dictionary, ‘frazil’ is the soft, needle-like ice on top of lakes and rivers that are too turbulent to freeze. Living in Lancashire, near the lakes, I often see this. Thanks to Menka Shivdasani’s new collection, Frazil, I now have a word for them. The poems in Frazil are a lot like the needle-like ice, glittering and beautiful on the surface but hiding angst within. Her unusual imagery allows you to see the world forever altered while her humour lurks, teasing.

Shivdasani’s wry look at women, their worth as defined by breasts and ovaries, in the poem, ‘The Whole Deal, states, “It takes much to know the burning coal / that lay inside of you / is now a charred and empty space / and the river is no longer red.” Much of this collection, spanning 37 years from 1980 to 2017, speaks of love, desire, sex, and issues that concern many women, but her keen mind also writes, with sarcasm, on religion, eating fish, bees, the ethics of killing animals for our own pleasure, and of course, as with many poets, death – there are a lot of death poems in Frazil.

‘Bees’, for instance, mulls over the beehive adjoining her own home, sharing the same wall, and ends with, “Now I carry their sweetness squeezed into a jar, / alone again, except for that one queen bee / who keeps flapping about / wondering where her home disappeared.” Poetry is often political and Menka Shivdasani’s politics is displayed clearly and openly in her work, be it talking of how a bee’s home is as important as ours, or in ‘What We Do To Our Gods’: “… we serve death on our dining tables / and the taste on our tongues is great.”

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How to suppress women’s writing: “She only wrote one good book.”

In about 1971 I was teaching Charlotte Brontë in a women’s studies course and decided to use her Villette instead of Jane Eyre. The number of different publishers who have in print different paperback editions of Jane Eyre I know not; I found several editions in the bookstore of my university (and one more, a year later, in the “Gothic” section of the local supermarket). But there was not one edition of Villette in print in the United States, whether in paperback or hardcover, and I finally had to order the book (in hardcover, too expensive for class use) from England. (The only university library editions of Villette or Shirley I could find at that time were the old Tauchnitz editions: tiny type and no leading.)

In three women’s studies classes in two separate institutions (1972–1974) I asked my students whether they had read Jane Eyre. About half had, in all three classes. Of these only one young woman (almost all of the students were women) knew that Charlotte Brontë had written any other novel, though a considerable number (looking, they explained, for another “Brontë book”) had happened upon Wuthering Heights. Most of my students who had read Jane Eyre had done so in their early teens and most were vague about exactly how they had come to read it, although most were also very clear that it was not through assigned reading in school. It seems to me that these youngsters, who had somehow “found” Jane Eyre as part of an amorphous culture outside formal education (librarians? friends?) would have gone on to read Shirley and Villette—if the books had been physically available to them. But they were not, and Charlotte Brontë remained to them the author of one book, Jane Eyre. None of them, of course, knew of Emily Brontë’s poems, let alone her Gondal poems.

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Book Review: Louisiana Catch by Sweta Srivastava Vikram

Reviewed by Bhaswati Ghosh

Louisiana Catch

Title: Louisiana Catch
Author: Sweta Srivastava Vikram
Publisher: Modern History Press
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Sweta Srivastava Vikram couldn’t have written Louisiana Catch at a better time. Across the world, women’s resistance is marching on a stronger footing than ever before. To rephrase the title of an Indian poet’s recent collection, more and more girls are coming out of the cages – self-erected or societal – to make themselves heard on sexual exploitation. Social media networks have provided grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter, the women’s march to Washington and the recent Me too campaign the potency of exponential outreach. Ahana Chopra, the young protagonist of Vikram’s novel lends a credible face to this epoch of evolution in the women’s movement with her story of survival and comeback.

For Ahana, the stakes are high from the get go. As if her recent divorce from a decade-long abusive marriage weren’t enough, her mettle would be further tested with her mother’s sudden death. This double whammy notwithstanding, she must carry on – with life and with No Excuse, her passion project that gets accepted as the main theme for an annual women’s conference in New Orleans. No Excuse also serves as the fulcrum around which Vikram pivots her novel. The aim of the campaign is as straightforward as its name – to make sexual abuse unacceptable, no matter the excuse.

On a personal level – and this is the parallel track on which Louisiana Catch runs – Ahana joins an online therapy group to cope with the grief of her mother’s loss. The group brings her closer to people dealing with emotional trauma. One of them is Jay Dubois from New Orleans, who is also grieving his mother’s death. Ahana and Jay strike an immediate bond, brought closer by their loss and also their mutual admiration for J.D. Salinger.

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How women are collaborating to tell stories that break through the noise on Syria

Between the news coverage, reportage and statistics around the ongoing Syrian civil war and the battle against Islamic State the firsthand experiences of ordinary civilians on the frontlines are difficult to source and expose. Yet these are often the very stories that can often provide crucial wartime evidence, chronicle social and historic shifts, or unearth true narratives that can counter official ones. And these stories are increasingly found on our bookshelves rather than on the newsstands.

From testimonies to short stories, graphic novels to memoirs, female writers, journalists and survivors are currently fronting the literatures of war, conflict and exile. The past two years have seen a surge of books and memoirs authored by women that capture the far-reaching human consequences of the Syrian civil war. Amid the fatigued reportage on its increasingly more complex escalations – and the cynical moves of other nations vested in opposing outcomes – these are compelling testaments to what befalls ordinary people as a consequence of fanaticism and powerful interests.

A remarkable example is Farida Khalaf’s 2016 memoir The Girl Who Beat ISIS. Khalaf and her family are Yazidis, members of a Kurdish-speaking minority who follow an ancient, pre-Islamic faith. The book recounts how Islamic State crossed the border into their mountainside village in northern Iraq, killing the men, recruiting the boys, and taking women and girls to slave markets in Raqqa.

Through testimonies of those such as Khalaf, the genocide against the Yazidis was officially recognised by the UN. Khalaf, in collaboration with German journalist Andrea C. Hoffmann, shaped their series of detailed interviews into a first-person narrative. Despite the indiscriminate violence visited on whole communities and towns, her memoir reminds that what women have suffered at the hands of IS, and what they continue to endure in refugee camps, is further devastating still.

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Book Review: This House of Clay and Water by Faiqa Mansab

Reviewed by Mayeesha Azhar

This House of Clay and Water

Title: This House of Clay and Water
Author: Faiqa Mansab
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Price: 499 INR
Pages: 272 (Hardcover)
https://penguin.co.in/book/fiction/house-clay-water/

 

For those who need one more reason to dream about visiting Lahore someday to take in the juxtaposition of the city’s pandemonium, history and romance, Faiqa Mansab’s This House of Clay and Water only adds to the list. The protagonist, Nida, wanders along the boundaries between the walled estates of the metropolitan’s wealthy, to the markets of the underclass and, finally, the shrines that offer refuge to the disowned. Nida has lost much to the rigid patriarchal structures of her life — a child, freedom, her right to choose, a sense of self. In a way, this book is about Nida’s journey of rediscovering her dignity, and the immense price that she ends up paying for it.

Among the three main characters that narrate the story by turn is also Sasha. Bringing glitz and glamour to this tale, Sasha is indulgent, decadent, and a siren by choice. In dusty Lahore, Sasha’s ephemeral aura marks her out as a creature from a different world. She is an object of desire incarnate and she knows it. What is more, she is not hesitant to use it to get what she wants — designer fashion and a thrilling escape from a life she feels is too ordinary for her. Try as hard as she might to deny this, sometimes to herself, this respite is only fleeting. Her image is a mirage that Sasha has carefully constructed even as she makes it look effortless. She does indeed sashay into every scene that she inhabits — cafés, the hotel rooms of her lovers, even spiritual ground like the Daata Sahib dargah. This is where the two women first meet.

The contrast between them is softened for both by their distance from Bhanggi, the transgender Qalandar, a title that is typically held by holy men. Bhanggi’s is a short life full of cruelty and exclusion, first from society itself after being abandoned at birth and then from the Hijra community where he was raised. In exchange for being allowed to live at the shrine, Bhanggi must be indentured to the administrative clerk there. This is part of the clerk’s deal with the Hijra community, who rely on sex work to make a living.

Bhanggi’s voice is enough to make this book rare. The Hijra community is ever-present in South Asia, but can exist only on the edges, hardly ever coming into the purview of the respectable milieus that Sasha and Nida come from, let alone be featured in a novel. Rarer still is Mansab’s mention of the violence committed daily against these bodies. One such instance is that of a man paying a Hijra woman, Chameli, to have sex, and then killing her, just one instance in a series of systemic murders of trans-people around the world that occur with minimum ado and furore.

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