Leave a comment

Comforting myths – Notes from a purveyor

Who gets to tell stories? Let me answer this quickly: for the most part—and the exceptions are relatively recent—the writers who are allowed to talk are those who prop up the dominant culture, who reflect it with a gilded mirror. But wait: writers have been critical of the dominant culture for quite a while, you may say. Look at James Baldwin, look at Margaret Atwood and The Handmaid’s Tale. Well, fine, but criticism of the culture is not necessarily a threat to it. When the story is truly threatening, the writer is marginalized, either deemed a “political” writer or put in a box to be safely celebrated as some sort of “minority” writer. In his day Baldwin was considered more a black writer than a writer, and so he still is. If he is inching his way into the canon, it is because the culture has shifted. Overt racism is a bad thing now, so a liberal American can read Another Country and think, sure, there were a few bad apples back then, but this is not about me or how I live. It is easier now to tell ourselves that Baldwin is not talking about us, that he is criticizing people we no longer are.

When I bring this up in conversation, people stop me in my tracks because, you know, Conrad, Heart of Darkness and all that. Didn’t he criticize empire?

He didn’t. A story about a bickering couple does not threaten the institution of marriage. Heart of Darkness might disapprove of colonialism, but it’s not an attack on empire itself. The book deals in strict dualities and reinforces the superiority of Western culture and ideas. Africa, its jungle, is what blackens Kurtz’s heart, and just in case you start to feel uncomfortable because you find yourself identifying with him, the supposed bad apple—the Lynndie En­gland of nineteenth-century Europe—Marlow, the novel’s cordon sanitaire, is there to make you feel better. If that’s not enough, it’s actually some other shadowy narrator telling you what he heard when listening to Marlow’s story, so you, imperial citizen, are at least two steps removed from the apple and its African rot. No need for you to feel yourself in jeopardy. Your world might not be perfect, but that other world, that world of the other, is just simply horrid.

Read More

Advertisements


Leave a comment

Dispatches from the Land of Erasure


Over the past year, a group of Arab American writers—Hayan Charara, Marwa Helal, Randa Jarrar, Fady Joudah, Farid Matuk, Deema K. Shehabi, and I—began a group text, sharing stories about our own lives and the predicament of being Arab in America. This group text often touched on matters regarding the state of literary arts, though it was equally a space full of photos of our kids and lives. We had the sense of wanting to archive these conversations for future Arab American writers and somewhere along the line, the idea of a group essay emerged. I proposed that it would catalog the erasures we’d witnessed or experienced, but that it also would celebrate the liberatory work happening in our community, the poems and stories and art that hold us together and raise us up. In that group text we were after an asylum, a safe space, where we could explore and share inchoate thoughts, half-dreams, and the rough edges of our feelings.

These dispatches emerge from the inspiration of that space, though they lack the rough and informal improvisatory quality of a community talking with itself. Three other recent essays are also points of departure for these “Dispatches”—all of which were informed by the group text. Fady Joudah’s “Say It: I’m Arab and Beautiful,” Randa Jarrar’s “Ask Auntie Randa” pieces, and my “Same as It Ever Was: Orientalism Forty Years Later” confront the poison of white supremacy and Orientalism in American politics, literature, and culture, while offering antidotes: reclaiming beauty, liberation, and community.

Read More


Leave a comment

Essay: Lucknow… a Tryst

By Mitali Chakravarty

Bada Imambara
Pic: Bada Imambara

Lucknow, the land of nawabs and kebabs, of grace, courtesy and old world charm had been tempting us since 2015, ever since we watched Badshahi Angti, the cinematic rendition of Satyajit Ray’s novel by the same name, in a movie theatre in Calcutta. We saw the Bhool bhulaiya for the first time on the silver screen as the modern version of Satyajit Ray’s famed detective, Feluda (Prodosh Mitter), wound his way through the dark passages of this labyrinth in the Bara Imambara armed with a mobile and a revolver. Watching him fight villains in the Residency and biting into succulent kebabs and delicious biryanis, we decided to explore this city of nawabs during our next trip to India.

Meeting nawabs was not on our agenda. The last one, Wajid Ali Shah, had danced the Kathak and sung Babul Mora into the arms of the British East India Company more than a century and half ago and eventually migrated to Calcutta. Still, there was his palace to be explored – Chattar Manzil on the banks of the river Gomti, and the mysterious Bhool bhulaiya built by Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah, who’d moved the capital from Faizabad to Lucknow in 1775. The Bhool bhulaiya is the only labyrinth of its kind in India. As for the kebabs, the thought of them made my mouth water…

When we landed in Lucknow, we were told, courteously and gracefully, that no cab could accommodate four adults and a child from the airport to the hotel. They only had small cars. While the negotiations were on, I was forced to make a minor diversion in quest of a washroom – our little party was taking turns at stomach ailments since we’d arrived in India. The airport had access to one sad bathroom; the others were being cleaned… all a part of the endemic charm of small towns in India. The two cab drivers we finally hired did not know the way as the hotel had opened a fortnight before our arrival in the newer part of Lucknow that was being developed. We – first timers to Lucknow – had to download Google maps to guide the local cab drivers. The good thing was that the courteous drivers were willing to listen to us and eventually took us to the right place.

Continue reading


Leave a comment

A thing meant to be: The work of a book editor

In my senior year of college, having discovered that I generally liked working on other people’s prose a great deal more than my own, I confided to a professor that I was thinking of trying to become an editor. “Pretty thankless job,” she said. The truth is, despite its moments of frustration and overwhelm and failure, I have never found the job thankless.

More than anything, there is this: the sublime moment—and it never stops being sublime—when you get to attend, as beautiful, meaningful, and original work emerges in the world. When I gave birth to my daughters, one of my sisters-in-law said, “It is one of the rare experiences for which ‘miracle’ is not an overstatement.” It’s not an overstatement for the birth of art, either. What’s most miraculous is the “let there be” of it—the way a new and unique something yet again emerges from the wordless deep.

The sense is that the book is trying to communicate what it wants to become, how it wants to incarnate itself. Masha Gessen recently spoke of this process in an interview: “I know what my objectives are and I know what the topic is, and then I’m just reporting. I walk around for a bit, literally, bike and walk, and then suddenly, I get an idea of what it should be, what the structure is. I can’t tell you how I came up with this.” Peter Matthiessen thanked John Irving for his comments on the sprawling early draft of what would become his monumental Shadow Country back in “the book’s cretaceous days, when the whole was still inchoate, crude, and formless.” And when Matthiessen died, just before we at Riverhead had the precious honor of publishing his final book, Irving mourned the loss of “a friend I dared to show what I was up to, when I was still unsure of what it was.”

Read More


Leave a comment

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.

Read More


Leave a comment

What happens when a book designer is totally stumped

I find designing book covers to be tremendously difficult, and every time I start a new cover, my first thought is usually: Why on earth did I commit to this? Rarely do I find joy in this pursuit. I love the feeling of a perfect, beautifully finished cover in my hands, but getting there generally entails a long, hard journey.

When I’m lucky, a cover essentially designs itself—I read up on it, generate a few images, execute them, and one gets published! Designing Up Up, Down Down was not one of those times. I still consider it somewhat of a miracle that the final cover came out so nicely; looking at it brings back tortured memories of a painful process—a long, difficult exercise in “designy” design: a true exploration of concept, layout, color, and type. When I say exploration, picture not so much an expert explorer, but a hapless amateur, lost in the jungle, frantically trying every trick and tool they know, hoping and praying that one will be the way out. I am pretty sure lots of designers feel this way—or maybe it’s just me.

I tend to think I can have an intelligent opinion about most books I pick up. One of the things that drew me to book design is how much I like to pore over a book, pick it apart, pull out themes, discuss it, and dive deeply into it. It’s like a visual book report. But Up Up, Down Downstumped me. I read the entire manuscript, took tons of notes, made lots of sketches, and still closed the book wondering what the damn thing was about.

The text itself is a collection of short essays from one author. There was a lot of interesting subject matter. Normally I would relish rich visual material about amateur wrestling, UFO hunters, and skateboarding. But I couldn’t figure out what the author was trying to say with these pieces, especially when viewed as a whole. Essays would often start with what could almost be considered reporting, go straight into personal anecdote, and wind up circling the author’s anxieties about writing. I was stumped.

Read More


Leave a comment

Writing about Indonesia

By Anita A Thomas

Photo credit - Anita A Thomas.jpg

‘Writing about Indonesia’ predicates a knowledge of the country, and the panel discussion hosted by Books Actually on March 22nd presented interesting viewpoints from Singapore-based author Shivaji Das (also humanitarian, photographer and management consultant) and award-winning Indonesian author Okky Madasari, currently writer-in-residence at the International Writing Program, University of Iowa.

While both panellists spoke of (and write about) Indonesia from individual perspectives and experiences, their sentiments were similar – socially conscious, politically cognisant, concerned with the effects of nationalism, populism and patriotism, the increasing polarities between communities, the plight of the lesser-known groups and people on the fringes, the marginalised and the displaced.

Geography undoubtedly underpins Mr. Das’s understanding of Indonesia and all its variegated dissimilarities. The density and sheer diversity of people and experiences from across the archipelago have found a place and recognition in the pages of his Stories of the Other. His appreciation embraces it all – the physicality of the mountains, seas, forests, rivers and calderas, the pervasive humidity, the ubiquitous odour of merokok (Malay for cigarette), the buzz of urban areas with the aroma of sausages, rows of Betawi dolls and loud music in the streets and cafes; the sulphur mines of the Kawah Ijen caldera/ volcano and the incomparable electric-blue fire streaming down its sides (visible at night), funeral rites in far-flung islands, Makassar with its prostitutes, sailors, sea, ships, trucks, dandut music and scantily clad women.

Ms. Madasari’s writing – shaped by her experience of being a woman in a patriarchal society dominated by gender inequality, and compounded by the situational conflicts of minority groups, human rights and women’s rights – uses fiction to focus on individual stories that reveal the larger picture; stories about life, humans and conflict in society. Her books reflect her conviction that fiction can influence perspectives and that literature is an agent of change, as the act of writing or reading becomes, in itself, a political activity.

Mr Das found demographics and geography a block to literary research. With no access to a body of literature, writers like him have to depend on oral history in localised languages beyond the island of Java.

Ms Madasari was vocal about Indonesia’s underlying issues needing to be written about with courage and sensitivity, as a citizen and a human being. She spoke of the need for women to stop being ‘objects of consumerism’ and become ‘subjects’ inspiring other women to make their own choices, without having to justify those choices.

Both panelists agreed that Indonesia today is almost a country of strangers unto itself. Geography, demographics and intra-island migration has given rise to minority groups seeking identity and community. Religion, an anchor for those seeking to ‘belong’, has led to overt and intense religiosity. It was posited that Indonesia’s current problems stem from the Suharto regime, noted for protectionism through collusion, power and nepotism. Decades later, the system, culture and habits have not changed and repression and intimidation continue the tyranny of the majority and the legacy of colonialism. Indonesia has the ‘great capacity’ to forget and carry on with a smile, noted one panelist.

Errant stewardship of the environment, intense nationalism, provincialism, parochialism and frustration with traditional political groups; inequalities in education and opportunities, the need to discourse values, culture, knowledge and ideas – all these call for awareness and demand a society of writers, artists and activists to rise above current popular chick-lit and religious themes to influence and bring about change. It was noted that newer Indonesian writers largely aspiring to the book-to-film route, write within the context of a ‘city’ reflective of western cities and not representative of other parts of Indonesia like Aceh, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Papua, Flores or Lombok.

Continue reading


Leave a comment

When a language dies, something irreplaceable dies: Ganesh N. Devy

The scholar’s quest to document languages began as an intellectual one but went on to take a strong emotional turn

“I’m this angry person,” Ganesh N. Devy tells my photographer colleague, but his eyes are mild, and what might be a smile touches the corners of his lips. If the scholar is indeed ever upset about anything, it rarely shows. All through our conversation, on the lawns of a Goa conference centre where, the next day, he is to speak about murdered journalist Gauri Lankesh, his voice does not rise above a conversational tone, his expression stays genial.

I begin by asking the literary critic and linguist about his academic journey and his evolution into a public intellectual. Devy tells me he dropped out of his first attempt at college because “everything happened in English, and I did not understand all of it properly, I felt inadequate.” He had read in Marathi, but not in English, which he could write but hadn’t spoken. He moved to Goa and did manual work before giving higher education another shot.

There’s a little story about how he turned his weakness — the lack of familiarity with English — into a strength. (He has a B.A. in English literature, two M.A.s and a Ph.D., and was professor of English literature at Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda.) As a 17-year-old, he chanced upon a book by Nobel prize-winning writer Pearl S. Buck — The Good Earth. “I found I could actually understand it fully. With the help of a dictionary, I read two or three other books. Then I decided I like literature, enjoy it. I found my natural inclination.” He then decided to read at least 200 to 300 pages every day. “Even if it took eight or 10 or 12 hours. Even on the day I got married, I read my quota. I continued without any exception for the next 25 years, till I was 42.” Then, he won a Sahitya Akademi Award, for After Amnesia, a book in English, “I said to myself, now I do not have to learn any more English. I decided not to read books at all.” He says he covered most of the literature worth reading in those 25 years, and now only reads challenging books: something disturbing or highly philosophical, some obscure book.

Read More


Leave a comment

A crash course in diversifying your bookshelf

Is your reading list looking a little monochrome? We’ve compiled 15 books to help you broaden your horizons

In the past year, I’ve made a conscious and intentional effort to read in an inclusive and representative way. For me this means reading perspectives that differ from mine, about experiences that are new to me, and learning from people who have lived in ways that offer precious teachings. It also means reading nonfiction and fiction in equal measure. Consuming the news and nonfiction about important but heavy topics can be emotionally draining; whereas poetry and comics can uplift us when we feel weltshmerz or despair.

This is why I’ve put together a list of books by writers, poets, and artists from a range of backgrounds. When read in the order presented, it creates a narrative arc of its own. The list builds from a slow crescendo of more accessible books to heavy-hitters that draw on academic and historical research, finishing with a few books that unearth the kinds of futures we want to create.

These titles will humble you and fill you with wonder. But most important, they will hopefully also inspire you to create your own stories in ways that are most representative of your experiences.

Read More


Leave a comment

9 hopeful books about schizophrenia

……

The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

This is a deeply considered and gorgeously rendered work, part memoir and part clear-eyed assessment of the past, present and future of genetic study. Mukherjee, both a physician and gifted writer, begins by describing the several members of his family whose lives have been devastated by schizophrenia. In order to better understand schizophrenia, he explains all of genetics generally, unraveling the fascinating story of how researchers have come to know what they do about genes. Arriving in the present day about halfway through the book, he then shifts into exploring the ramifications of genetic knowledge today. He discusses such matters as race and gender and identity and intergenerational trauma and psychiatric diagnoses like schizophrenia. I think the world would be a better place if everybody read The Gene.

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg

This 1964 novel fictionalizes the author’s self-described descent into and recovery from schizophrenia right before the dawn of psychopharmaceuticals in the late forties and early fifties. The book rivetingly animates the protagonist’s elaborate inner world, and the devoted efforts of her psychiatrist — who is based on a real-life doctor, Dr. Frieda Fromm-Reichmann. Rose Garden was initially published under a penname at the behest of Greenberg’s mother. It resonated with a surprising number of readers, becoming an unexpected bestseller and inspiring many adaptations. Today Rose Gardenremains something all too rare: a widely read story about schizophrenia written by someone who had herself been diagnosed. It’s a very powerful and formally daring work, one that remains as necessary as ever.

Agnes’s Jacket by Dr. Gail Hornstein

In this memoir, an academic psychologist traces her own journey toward a more scientific and historically grounded understanding of madness. I recommend this book particularly for mental health care professionals seeking to better understand schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses, and to those partaking in the debates about how to best treat people diagnosed. For those interested in psychiatry, I also recommend Dr. Hornstein’s thorough biography of Dr. Frieda Fromm-Reichmann (of Rose Garden fame), To Redeem One Person is to Redeem the World.

Read More