Josna Rege

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505. My Cup

In Aging, Music, Nature, reading, reflections, Stories on November 11, 2021 at 5:22 pm

   Lu Hersey (Pinterest)

Remembrance Day, 11/11/21. How many dear ones have gone these past few years, and the pace at which they have left has surely picked up, what with the COVID-19 pandemic, the ageing of my generation, and the ageing-out of my parents’ generation. Each one of them a shining light who brought joy to my life. Each one with something for me, a gentle admonition, a pointed joke, a vote of confidence. There is the fear that sitting too long with them risks drowning in a bottomless well of grief. But perhaps there is a different way to think about that well.

A few weeks ago, in the midst of the usual busyness of an academic semester, with deadlines advancing toward me in an unending column and the list of unfinished tasks looming ever-longer even as item after item was checked off the top, I was urged to sit for a minute and go inside. How was I feeling? My first response was bewilderment–what a question! I hardly knew, hardly dared to know; even if I wanted to, I didn’t know how. But I gave it a try.

The next thing I knew I was overcome. Everything welled up in me, brimming, and threatening to spill over. Was I about to drown in grief, as I had feared? Dismissing the question, I tried to keep on feeling. This was different, and I wasn’t drowning. As it went on welling up and washing over me, I could only describe it as fullness. Fullness. So much, so rich, this life. So many more that mingle with mine.

This week my class finished reading Toni Morrison’s luminous novel, Beloved, which is ultimately about healing, even from unspeakable grief. (Don’t listen to the haters. This is a novel for the ages.) In it, Baby Suggs, holy, tells the people struggling to reclaim their newly-freed selves, “love your heart. For this is the prize” (86). Not an easy task for people haunted by horrific “rememories” of enslavement (43): for characters like Paul D, who had a “tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. Its lid rusted shut”; or Sethe, for whom every morning began anew the “serious work of beating back the past” (86). And they certainly couldn’t do it alone. 

Letting yourself feel, fully, does risk everything welling up. But with the grief also comes unexpected joy, and immense gratitude for the inexhaustible wellsprings of life.

My cup is running over
And I don’t know what to do
                        (My Cup, Bob Marley)

 

[Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Random House, 1987, 2004.]

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501. The Small Things

In Books, Childhood, culture, Family, parenting, people, reading, reflections, Stories on August 15, 2021 at 12:36 am

Dad would read Anatole and the Cat (“Quelle horreur!) in his inimitable French accent.

It’s the small things I remember these days, but they seem to come all the more freighted with meaning. Things that might have irked me at the time are endearing now, and I long to hear them just one more time: Dad joking, when we children protest at his insistence on reading to us in a pseudo-French accent, that he can’t help it, he has been speaking like this ever since he visited gay Parree. My Uncle Ted insisting on teaching his one-year-old grandson Jon to jump with glee into muddy slush-puddles, shouting “Splash”, when his exhausted young mum has just finished washing and drying his snowsuit. Bob, beloved partner of my dear friend Cylla, teaching our five-year-old son to say “bottle” with a Cockney glottal stop (“bo’l”). Mum crying out with a pang of loss when I first pronounce an ‘r’ American-style. All of them gone now. All of them larger than life in my memory.

I remember those loved ones who are grown and gone, one in particular whose childish charms lit up my life for a spell. When being dressed for bed in a new all-in-one sleepsuit, a little toddler’s voice chirping, “ Is it one hundwed pooercent cotton?” (For once it wasn’t, and he could tell.) When it became clear, playing his first board game at age 3 or 4, that he was about to lose, I remember him sweeping all the pieces and players off the board in a fit of fury. But when, ten years later, mother and tween were playing a truth-or-dare-style board game and the youth answered a question about his mother’s maturity with ruthless honesty—”she is immature”—this adult role-model proved it by ending the game then and there in a fit of petulance. On the only occasion this indifferent cook made calzones—with two different fillings, on a real terracotta baking stone, mind you—the appreciative young teen declared that it was the best thing his mother had ever made, filling her with guilt about her distinctly unmemorable performance in the kitchen for the past 15 years. (She has never made them since.)

 

Memories of watching movies as a family, two in particular. The violent fight scenes, filled with stereotypically racialized bad guys, in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) sending the older boy-next-door bouncing off the walls in paroxysms of manic glee; whereas our son the budding film aficionado, no older than seven, seemed hardly to notice them, commenting instead on words of wisdom uttered by the Turtles’ mentors.

Watching Amadeus (1984) at about the same time, he had to leave the room, so upset was he by Salieri’s murderous envy of the young Mozart’s virtuosity. As he put it, “I would feel happy for Mozart; why couldn’t he?”

Some of these memories are glorious, some ignominious, all of them infinitely precious. Small things, but so telling.

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482. Knowledge and Right Action

In Books, culture, India, postcolonial, reading, Stories on July 26, 2020 at 6:38 pm

As a graduate student in the 1990s and for my book, Colonial Karma, I studied colonial, nationalist, and postcolonial translations of the Bhagavad-Gita into English, focusing on the problem of action at various historical moments. Starting with Charles Wilkins’ 1784 translation, but also reaching back to modern and contemporary discussions of much earlier interpretations, I must have read a score of different versions of the Gita for this project, including versions with the Sanskrit slokas and their English translations side by side; even so, I still haven’t yet done the subject justice.

Although I devoted a great deal of time and effort to this project, I must confess that I didn’t study the Gita outside of a particular literary-historical frame and set of questions I was asking of it. Even now, after so much reading, although I can comment on the competing interpretations of particular moments in the Gita that reformists, nationalists, and Sanskrit scholars of different stripes have argued over, and different ways in which various Indian English novelists have incorporated the Gita into their works, I couldn’t tell you what the Gita means to me personally. An even larger omission in my reading is the epic Mahabharata itself, a massive work in 18 sections in which the 18-chapter Gita is only Section Six. I have read abridged versions and contemporary commentaries, but it is said that one must read the Mahabharata in its entirety before one dies; and that awesome task still lies before me.

Why even consider taking on that task? The answer for me lies in the Mahabharata‘s expansive nature, full of stories within stories that digress from and return to the main plot like a baggy 19th-century novel to the power of ten; but beyond that, in the fact that its endlessly fascinating characters are all complex and flawed. Their actions are not only open to questioning, but they are consulted and questioned by contemporary Indians daily, as they face moral and ethical conflicts and dilemmas in their own lives. Dharma, or right living in tune with cosmic law, is not presented as a cut-and-dried set of rules for all time, but arrived at through reflection and struggle–in short, through the process of living. What is right in one situation may be wrong in another, or different for different people even if they are in similar situations.

It is also important to me that the epic Mahabharata is considered smriti, a “remembered” work, rather than the canonical sruti, which are the “heard” or “revealed” works. This means that the characters and conflicts are up for interpretation without subjecting one to charges of blasphemy, all too common in the current climate where religious–and political–zealots everywhere proclaim their interpretation as the only right one.

***

First Edition (wikipedia)

All of the above is prologue to what I really want to talk about. A year ago, my friend Dinah, whom I had previously known only from my monthly RUSH singing group,  visited us at home for the first time, and we had a lovely afternoon, singing, eating, marveling at the many connections that linked us, and discussing books. John Steinbeck came up, I forget how, but Dinah mentioned his East of Eden (1952), which had sat on my bookshelf unread for at least twenty years. There was a particular passage that she wanted us to look at, which was where the Chinese character Lee reveals that he has undertaken a study of Hebrew with Chinese sages and they engaged a rabbi in order to understand the full import of a passage in the Hebrew Bible (or Tanakh), a passage that he had previously only encountered in English translation, in the King James Bible (1611) and the American Standard Version (1901). The passage is in the fourth chapter of Genesis, in which Cain is jealous of his brother Abel (and later kills him) because God has shown greater favor toward Abel’s accomplishments. In the King James version, God says,

If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him. (Genesis 4:7)

The same verse in the American Standard Version reads,

If thou doest well, shall it not be lifted up? and if thou doest not well, sin coucheth at the door: and unto thee shall be its desire, but do thou rule over it.

In Chapter 24 of East of Eden (Part 3) Lee discusses the Hebrew Bible, in which the Hebrew word timshel replaces “Thou shalt” (a prophecy) and “Do thou” (an order). Timshel is translated as “Thou mayest” (a free choice), and herein, to Lee and to Steinbeck, lies the key.

By the way, in case you are wondering what has come over me, it is important to remember that to Steinbeck, literature was not the province of priests claiming exclusive access to some divine decree, but an exploration of the real struggles of human beings, developed by human beings to serve the greatest good. In this regard it is worth reading his 1962 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, found here in its entirely.

That day Dinah planted the seed of timshel, which inspired me to read East of Eden, a mind-blowing American epic. Even before I had finished Chapter 1, Part 1, I knew why Steinbeck had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. But I won’t say anything more about it here so as not to spoil it for you.

***

That was last summer. But why, you may ask, is this story coming up today? A year later, I have just encountered the self-same discussion in the Indian English novelist Shashi Deshpande’s autobiography, Listen to Me (2018), which arrived on my doorstep directly from India earlier this week. For Deshpande as well as for Steinbeck, “Thou mayest” [rule over sin] is the translation that she finds the most compelling, because it offers the human being true choice. But Deshpande couches her discussion of East of Eden in the context of a larger discussion of the Bhagavad Gita, in which, in the final chapter,

Krishna tells Arjuna, ‘I have given you the knowledge, now do as you desire.’ (Yathecchasi tatha kuru, Chapter 18, sloka 3).

Deshpande comments, “To have the knowledge and then to decide what to do—there is no greater wisdom than this” (85).

***

In a different context about four years ago, I was discussing a personal dilemma about a possible course of action, with my friend Margaret, who said something that made a deep impression on me. “It’s clear that you can do this,” she said. “But should you?”

What an important distinction, perhaps all-important. Ultimately, the choice was mine; it was not cut-and-dried, and there was no single right answer that anyone else could dictate to me. But it was my highest responsibility as a human being to make an informed decision for myself and then to act honorably based upon that decision.

Complete and unabridged Mahabharata (Penguin, 2015)

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463. Love, Longing, and Living in the Moment

In Books, Britain, Family, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, poetry, reading, reflections, Stories, United States, writing on April 15, 2020 at 1:51 pm

This is the twelfth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Love, Longing, and Living in the Moment.

 

Loch Lomond, looking south from Ben Lomond (Wikimedia Commons)

For migrants, longing comes with the territory. Many migrants—especially women—did not choose to leave a place they loved, where they themselves were known and loved, and where many of their nearest and dearest still live; it is only natural, then, that they would yearn for home and for those they left behind. At the same time, they must love and protect those who migrated with them and who may be particularly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of everyday life. Finally, they have a duty to themselves, to allow themselves to live in the present, to open themselves to the possibility of love flowering anew.

In the 1990s, after not having traveled much in the 1980s, I took three or four short trips to England, one for an NEH summer seminar that allowed me to stay in London for the better part of a summer with Andrew and Nikhil joining me for a month, and one long trip to India, where Andrew, Nikhil (then 8 years old) and I stayed with family for nearly six months while I was doing research for my doctoral dissertation. These visits allowed me to renew my connections with the beloved people and places of my own childhood and of my family, which, in an important sense, helped me maintain my equilibrium back in the United States. By the mid-1990s I had lived in the U.S. for 25 years. Was it still not home for me, and if not, was I living too much in the past?

                             Early-morning view of Kanchenjunga from Darjeeling

So many expressions of love are outpourings of longing. Langian, the old English word for ‘long’, means to grow long, prolong, and also to ‘dwell in thought’. It is also related to the German langen, ‘reach, extend.’ Immigrants in particular, unless they choose to burn their bridges completely, to cut themselves off surgically from their past lives, are particularly susceptible to this complex and persistent emotion. But if you think about it, many if not most of the most moving poems and songs of love are in fact songs of longing or loss. Kālidās’s Meghadūta, or Cloud-Messenger, comes to mind, a lyric poem written in the 4th-5th century CE in which a yaksha (nature-spirit) in exile for a year asks a passing cloud to convey a message to his wife. In song, think of The Water is Wide, Loch Lomond or Danny Boy. In fact, songs that celebrate love fulfilled are few and far between. The Beatles’ And I Love Her is a beautiful expression of love realized in the present. John Prine’s The Glory of True Love springs to mind, too, mostly because it is so uncharacteristic of the rest of his love songs.

Hampstead Heath, North London

My mother never stopped longing for her family and home, even though she lived away from them for nearly 65 years. In her late seventies, just as, unbeknownst to us, Alzheimer’s Disease was beginning to attack her mind, Mum joined a group called The Power of Now, after the book by Eckhart Tolle. In it she struggled with the idea of living in the Now and ceasing to dwell in and on the past. She argued with the group and with herself, asking how she could and why she should let go of what was, in her view, the very best of herself. Sadly, the fog of Alzheimer’s descended soon afterwards, progressively robbing her of her precious memories. However, even when she could hardly talk, evidence of her continued love for her family in England would still surface from time to time, and her remaining sister and brother in turn continued to express their love for her, calling to talk to her on the phone every week, even when she could no longer reply.

I have just started participating  remotely, via Zoom, in a daily mindfulness meditation session with John Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). As he says, we only are alive in this one moment, now”, and mindfulness practice trains us to make our default refuge our awareness in and of the now. Like most people’s, my mind has the habit of dwelling everywhere but here, and I am reaching gratefully for this gift of being fully present in the moment as one of the unexpected silver linings of this terrible pandemic. (This does not mean, though, that we censor or condemn our mind when it we find it reaching across time and space; just that we observe it, and bring it back here, to this breath.)

I want to close this reflection with a quote from the late, great Toni Morrison’s perfect novel, Beloved, which I have just finished teaching. In the penultimate chapter, Paul D, who came back into the protagonist Sethe’s life after an absence of two decades, left again, and now re-returns to find her in mourning for the lost ghost of her dead daughter. He attempts to comfort her, but Sethe is disconsolate, saying, “She was my best thing.” Gently, tenderly, and without any judgement, Paul D responds.

     “Sethe,” he says. “Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.”

     He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” His holding fingers are holding hers.

     “Me? Me?”

As immigrants, as human beings, we owe it to those we love who are here with us now, to give ourselves to them in the present. More importantly, we owe it to ourselves to live fully in the here and now. We are, each of us, our own best thing.

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451. Life Depends on It

In Books, health, Inter/Transnational, reading, reflections, Work on March 22, 2020 at 3:37 pm

Still from David Gladwell’s film adaptation of The Memoirs of a Survivor

A friend just wrote to me that she feels as if she is living in Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor; so do I. So do I.

It’s been interesting to see how quickly we can make drastic changes in the way we live if our lives depend on it and if the authorities tell us that it is essential to do so. One day we hear the term social distancing for the first time and the next day we are practicing it (and rightly so). One day we are getting up and going to work and the next, we are working from home indefinitely (with or without pay). One day we are in the thick of a critically important election campaign and the next, primaries are being postponed with little to no opposition, despite fears of the general election going the same way. No such drastic action followed when more than 50,000 children died of starvation in Yemen in one year alone; or when we received dire warnings of impending climate catastrophe from the scientific community; or on the numerous occasions when the current U.S. President has overstepped the limits of his constitutionally defined powers for what seemed like one time too many.

Passengers in a train in Chennai on March 19, 2020 (PTI)

We are living in conditions we never dreamt of just a few short weeks ago, and there is no end in sight. Nevertheless, I’m sure that even as each of us goes through the motions mandated by our leaders, a part of us is watching and seeking to understand what it all means. What kind of a world is going to emerge at the other side of this crisis, and what can we do to help shape what that world will look like? We feel the need to act, not only for ourselves but for the future.

COVID-19 scenarios and benefits (Washington State)

We know that the wealthy and powerful are working hard to ensure that they come out of this on top, that even as patients gasp for breath, healthcare workers run out of masks, and hospitals out of ventilators, they are in the process of restructuring the system to consolidate their power still further. Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, has called it a pandemic shock doctrine; in a March 16th video, Coronavirus Capitalism—and How to Beat It, she warns of this opportunism but suggests that the unfolding  global disaster also offers the opportunity for transformative change from below—if we demand it with the same urgency that we are now putting into hoarding toilet paper.

Yesterday I read an article about the millions of workers in India’s informal sector who are suddenly out of work; there are no provisions or protections for them. It’s the same with gig workers around the world, or part-timers without benefits. Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, pointed out on March 15th that because the United States doesn’t have a public health system worth the name, millions of Americans will be left without adequate care and coverage. In the face of this crisis, authoritarian rulers around the world are acting to protect themselves and their own but, aside from empty posturing, have little of substance to offer their people except for draconian measures that may well become permanent, unless we act and keep on acting to create a different future.

In the meantime, we do what humans do: we hunker down, obey orders from above, share frenetically on social media, and do our best to ensure that we and our loved ones survive. But we are also working hard—albeit  in place—to gain an understanding of this developing situation, reaching beyond and deep within ourselves to help create a just and sustainable future for us all. Life that’s worth living depends on it.

P.S. If you read The Memoirs of a Survivor, do let me know what you think. Love, J

Shelves at a Tesco supermarket after panic buying (Picture: Michelle Davies)

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448. Returning to Little Women

In Books, Childhood, history, reading, writing on January 1, 2020 at 5:01 pm

I’ve returned from watching the new film version of Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig (2019). I haven’t got my critical glasses on because I’ve wept buckets of tears. Was I crying for my lost childhood, the love the sisters had for each other despite the inevitable sibling tensions, the fulfillment of a writer in seeing her first book published, the beautiful scenes of Massachusetts, where I’ve lived nigh-on fifty years (including in Concord, home of author Louisa May Alcott and where the novel and film are set), the evocative letterpress printing and book-binding scenes, taking me back to the days of running our own press, and before that, working together at David R. Godine Publishing? All I know is that I thought I was sniffing surreptitiously until Danielle, who was sitting next to me, offered me a tissue to wipe my eyes. There was little left of it by the time the film was over, just a damp wad of something resembling papier-mâché. We all—three adults and two children—sat in the dark, emptying cinema until all the credits had stopped rolling, and then emerged, blinking and still sniffing a little (me), into the local mall on New Year’s Day, 2020.

Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

There is a lot to be said about the various film and television adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 novel. The only one I’d seen before this one was the 1994 Gillian Anderson film starring Winona Ryder as Jo. I remember reading a newspaper article back then that I used in a first-year composition class which noted that a new Little Women was made just about every decade, and each adaptation reflected the preoccupations of its day. That was the fashionable way to think about history at the time—that it serves the needs of the present—and I still think that it’s patently true. Still, there is more to the experience of reading the novel (or watching the film) than how it speaks to us at any particular moment, something—dare I say—universal. I had gone to the theater this morning expecting, somehow, to feel cynical about it, but the sodden tissue is all the evidence you need of what actually happened. I don’t remember weeping when I read Little Women as a child, but a whole lot more of life has unfolded since then.

From left, Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon and Claire Danes in the 1994 movie. (Credit: Columbia Pictures)

Mary, my old writing-group friend, invited us to the New Year’s morning screening, and her two children came too, her teenage son as well as her nearly-ten daughter. I gave her daughter, who is only a year older than I was when I was presented with my first copy of Little Women, an old but completely untouched Puffin edition, but brought along with me for show-and-tell my original hardcover copy, its spine fallen off, its frontispiece loose. Our family friend Pranab Chakrabarty had presented it to me in Athens, Greece, in June 1962, for my eighth birthday. (Pranab: we met and re-met on three continents, starting in Greece, then  back in India sometime later in the sixties, and then in the 1970s in the San Francisco Bay area, where I introduced him to Andrew—my future husband, though I didn’t know it then. Then we lost touch; my father mentioned that he had moved to a new continent, South America—Venezuela, I think. We never visited him there and somewhere along the way the Christmas cards and letters stopped coming.)

(photo: Sony Pictures)

Mary told me that her daughter still hadn’t read the novel in its entirety. Unlike most girls who favor Jo, Beth was her daughter’s favorite, so (spoiler alert!) Mary warned her of Beth’s fate ahead of time. But her daughter came back to her and reported that Beth hadn’t died, which is when they realized that the edition they own was only Part One. Then I told the story of my own reading experience as a girl, in which I somehow skipped right over Beth’s death; in one chapter she was burning up with fever, in the next, she was gone, with no explanation. I deduced that she must have died, but when I went back to find the missing scene, combing carefully through the pages, it was nowhere to be found; only, at the end of a chapter, this: Jo “thanked God that Beth was well at last.” I assumed it was a euphemism to cushion young readers from the shock. But now I’m not so sure.

Opening my old edition just now to photograph Pranab’s inscription, I turned to the title page and came upon something I had never noticed before: my childhood Little Women, the one I had thought of as the Urtext, was in fact abridged. Horror of horrors! All this time I have never actually read the original novel. So Mary’s nine-year-old daughter and I will both be reading, for the first time, how Beth’s death was actually written. In the latest film adaptation it was handled with delicacy and power. I won’t spoil it for you with any further details. But I do know that I’ll probably cry my eyes out all over again.

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436. Feel-good, feeling good

In Aging, reading, reflections, seasons, Stories, Words & phrases, Work, writing on June 13, 2019 at 12:09 pm

from Friday’s Tunnel, written and illustrated by John Verney

It is a grey weekday morning. Rain is forecast, with gusty winds and temperatures 20°F below what is usual for mid-June weather, but so far it is pleasantly cool, overcast, and expectantly still. The street, too, is still, now that most of the students have left for the summer, with only the occasional dog-walker dawdling in front of the house with his cell-phone, studiously indifferent to his companion marking my newly seeded strip of lawn, and a car going by maybe once an hour, if that, and at a snail’s pace.

Yesterday I pruned the bushes out back, inexpertly and overzealously. Now the clippings lie in heaps on the terrace steps, and before the rain I ought to pull on gumboots and tick-proof clothing to dump wheelbarrow-loads of them in the copse at the end of the garden. All such a joy and a luxury now that my grades are finally in and I am officially on summer break. But instead, a lady of leisure, I have donned an old dressing-gown of Andrew’s and gone back to bed (after a breakfast of oatmeal and strawberries) to read and write. Rain looms, brush clippings beckon, and a clipboard with its fresh notepad awaits my long To Do list, but it will all just have to wait; I’m feeling good.

In ten days I will turn 65—or complete 65, as we say more accurately in Indian English—officially a Senior Citizen. I wonder, will I command greater respect, inspire pity, or simply become irrelevant? Will I cease to strive or strive with all the more urgency? Will I slow down and count my blessings, or set myself demanding new goals to keep mind and body active? I’m noticing the aches and pains in my joints, especially my thumbs, the decisiveness with which exhaustion dictates my bedtime at the end of the day, the lag before the word I want comes to me. How much more time do I have to set my house in order, to write, even to think?

As a young smart-alec, I routinely mocked and dismissed “feel-good movies” as sentimental, without any critical edge, opiates synthesized simply to attract the largest possible audience (and, of course, box-office profits) and turn their minds to mush. Yet at the same time—and I didn’t seem to notice the contradiction here—I personally avoided horror films, thrillers and tragedies. Life was horrific enough, I argued, with more than enough misery to go around; why pay to subject oneself to even more? I preferred to lose myself in romantic comedies—why? Because they made me feel good.

In an email a few years ago, Barbara, an old friend, made an observation about me  which I continually find myself returning to and mulling over; she had noticed that I didn’t want to do things I didn’t want to do. Although this may appear tautological, in fact it goes right to the heart of things. My attitude toward the feel-good movie—and perhaps to feeling good in general—is of a piece with Barbara’s penetrating insight. There are things I need to do that I must tackle with a will, whether or not I want to do so. Afterwards there will be time to relax and feel good in the knowledge that the work has been accomplished. On the other hand, there is nothing inherently wrong with doing things that make one feel good, as long as it isn’t at the expense of doing what has to be done. And it is downright counter-productive to make oneself, or others, feel bad about wanting to feel good.

I’ve looked up and it’s already raining, hard. That’s put paid to any hopes of garden clean-up today. Andrew’s just come in—he’s already tackling the To Do list I haven’t even made yet—and I’ve told him guiltily that I am about to get up and at ’em. So, signing off to face the day but feeling defiantly glad that I made the feel-good decision to go back to bed. Old and obstinate and feeling good about it!

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419. Three Ks: Kamala Markandaya, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Kamila Shamsie

In blogs and blogging, Books, Britain, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, postcolonial, reading, Stories, Words & phrases, writing on April 15, 2019 at 4:29 am

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Arriving at the letter K, I refuse even to utter the name of, let alone consider naming a blog post after the abhorrent white supremacist organization that thrusts itself forward rudely, seeking my attention. The only three Ks that come to mind are names of world writers who are themselves migrants, whose works have migrated, and who—among other things, for they cannot be pigeon-holed—have explored the experiences of people displaced or marginalized in a changing world: Kamala Markandaya, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Kamila Shamsie.

Kamala Markandaya was the pen name of Kamala Purnaiya Taylor (1924-2004), a novelist and journalist who was active in the Indian independence movement and then moved to England in 1948, after Independence. She published 10 novels between 1954 and her death in 2004 (with one additional work discovered and published posthumously). However, she is remembered by her very first novel, Nectar in a Sieve (1954), an international best-seller and probably the best-known and most widely-taught work of Indian literature outside of India until Salman Rushdie came along in 1982 with Midnight’s Children.

Sadly, the rest of Markandaya’s writing career was a casualty of Nectar in a Sieve’s success. Global publishers and readers alike wanted more of its desperately poor, stereotypically fatalistic peasants, eternal victims (note the representations of Rukmani, the Indian heroine, on the covers of 1956 and 1982 U.S. mass-market paperback editions of the novel); but Markandaya’s subject matter did not oblige. In Feminize Your Canon: Kamala Markandaya, Emma Garman discusses the currency of her 1972 novel, The Nowhere Man, set in the 1968 of Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech. But it was a flop; it wasn’t exotically Indian, and the English weren’t ready for Indian colonial subjects to tell them what was wrong with their country.

I taught Nectar in a Sieve once or twice while I was in graduate school. But I was enamored of Midnight’s Children by then. Nectar was already old-fashioned to me, and I can’t teach novels if I have too many reservations about them. I did read Markandaya’s second novel, Some Inner Fury, and her fourth, Possession (A.S. Byatt, your Booker Prize-winning title was already taken), but there my familiarity with her work ends. Such was Markandaya’s fate. After that early success, she lived a quiet life in England, out of the limelight; but despite sickness, despite being lost in literary oblivion, as Manu S. Pillai discusses, she kept on writing. Eleven novels, not counting her early stories and her journalism; nothing to sneeze at.

Coincidentally, Kamala Markandaya was born in 1924, the same year as my father, and travelled to England in 1948, the very same year he did. I must seek out The Nowhere Man, belatedly, and return to Nectar In a Sieve with fresh eyes. Perhaps in the nativist climate of post-Brexit England Markandaya’s work will receive belated recognition.

(photo: David Levene for the Observer)

While Kamala Markandaya was my father’s contemporary, Kazuo Ishiguro (b. 1954) is mine. He was born in Nagasaki, Japan, of Japanese parents, who moved with him to England when he was 5 years old. To date he is the author of seven novels and one short-story collection, as well as some screenplays. He won the Booker Prize in 1989 for his third novel, the quietly devastating masterpiece, The Remains of the Day; and, in 2017, the Nobel Prize for Literature (here’s his Nobel lecture). I jumped for joy when I heard the news, since I was teaching The Remains of the Day at the time. Apparently Ishiguro himself, unassuming as he was, thought at first that it was a hoax.

The Nobel Committee said of Ishiguro that: “in novels of great emotional force, [he] has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” I confess that although I have almost all of his novels in my possession, I have only read The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go: knock-outs, both. Why I haven’t yet read them all is inexplicable; but in the last year of his life my father read, one after the other, just about all of Ishiguro’s works, including his most recent, The Buried Giant.

If you’ve read anything by Kazuo Ishiguro, you’ve probably read The Remains of the Day, so anything I say about itis likely to be redundant. But if you’ve read P.G. Wodehouse, and know, or think you know, the consummate Gentleman’s Personal Gentleman through his character Jeeves, then check out Ishiguro’s Stevens, and see what you think of his inner life. As Salman Rushdie said, of the novel, contrasting it to the Downton Abbey genre, The Remains of the Day, in its quiet, almost stealthy way, demolishes the value system of the whole upstairs-downstairs world. You may know the 1993 Merchant-Ivory film production starring Anthony Hopkins as Stevens and Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton. I must confess that I fell asleep during the movie, but the novel I was riveted to throughout.

Kamila Shamsie (b. 1973) is the youngest of my three K’s, born in 1973, nearly two decades after Ishiguro (and me). Born in Karachi, Pakistan, educated in Pakistan and the United States, and now living in London, Shamsie has already published seven novels and one book of non-fiction. She has worked to uphold the rights of free speech for writers at risk and has contributed to Refugee Tales II, in which poets and novelists  interview and retell the stories of asylum-seekers in Britain being held in indefinite detention. In November, 2018 she delivered the 2018 Orwell Lecture, Unbecoming British: Citizenship, Migration and the Transformation of Rights into Privileges.It is well worth watching in its entirety.

It was with Kamila Shamsie’s fifth novel Burnt Shadows that I fell in love with her work. It is a novel of epic scope that starts out in Nagasaki just before the dropping of the atomic bomb, travels to India on the eve of Partition, to Pakistan in the 1980s during the period when the United States was providing covert aid to Afghan resistance fighters (or mujahideen) against the Soviets, to a training camp in Afghanistan, and to New York City in 2001, in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. How it links them all together is brilliant and beautiful.

Shamsie’s latest novel, Home Fire (2016), has become her most highly acclaimed. Home Fire is a contemporary reworking of Sophocles’ Antigone, but also an almost-prescient story that seems to anticipate the rise of British Asian Conservative MP Sajid Javid to the position of British Home Minister and, most recently, his controversial act of stripping a British subject of her passport. Life imitating art indeed. If you are moved to read the novel, I wonder whether you will be moved to empathize with a number of wildly differing characters, some of whom you could have sworn you would never feel for in your wildest dreams. But that is what great art does; and the works of these three postcolonial writers make us empathize with characters on the wrong side of wealth, power, and geopolitics.

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413. E is for Emigrant, Expatriate, and Exile

In blogs and blogging, Books, culture, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Music, people, Politics, postcolonial, reading, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 6, 2019 at 6:54 pm

This is my fifth entry for the 2019 Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge and since, yet again, I couldn’t settle on just one, I offer you three related words: Emigrant, Expatriate, and Exile.

Emigrant is a word used much less frequently than its counterpart, Immigrant. People are emigrants when they leave their country of origin. When they arrive at their destination, they are immigrants. That seems cut-and-dried, doesn’t it? But it leaves me with all kinds of questions. Once an emigrant arrives and becomes an immigrant, is her emigrant status over and done with? Or does she become an emigrant all over again whenever she returns to her country of origin? What if the person seen as an immigrant in the new country actually thinks of himself as an emigrant and inhabits the remembered haunts of his past as much as he does the physical spaces inhabited in his present? Another way to look at it might be in terms of Raymond Williams’ concepts of dominant, emergent, and residual cultures or and social structures; the social structures of the new society may be dominant; the immigrant status may be seen as emergent, as the immigrants develop interesting new fusions of culture and thought; and the emigrant status may or may not be residual, with old traditions and habits of thought persisting. The bottom line, for me, is that the immigrant and the emigrant are the same person; it’s simply that the former word privileges the place of departure while the latter privileges the place of arrival.

I’ve had an English translation of W. G. Sebald’s 1992 work, The Emigrants,on my bookshelf going on two decades, and still haven’t read it. I’m not sure why; maybe it would call me out as a fellow-emigrant. Sebald was German, studied in Germany and in England and tried to return to Europe but could not settle; he lived in Britain for the second half of his life but continued to write in German. Here’s the closing paragraph of Elizabeth Jaeger’s review of the recent New Directions edition of The Emigrants:

Here in America we think in terms of immigration, people coming to us. All too often, we lose sight of the fact that these men and women were emigrants first, leaving a place they may have loved. We focus on their expectations, their dreams of a new life, and we have written history in a way that highlights what they are running towards. As a result, we often forget or overlook the reasons they fled, the shadows in pursuit, and the memories that may never stop haunting them. The Emigrants is a reminder that many immigrants are burdened with experiences that we are fortunate not to have endured.

An expatriate is a person who lives outside their native country. This category may include people who must live abroad for work, for tax purposes, because it is cheaper to live there, because the climate suits them. It can be a temporary status or it can become a way of life. For one reason or other, expatriates don’t completely burn their bridges back to their country of origin, neither do they fully put down roots in the new country; why not? Are they dilettantes, privileged people who, unlike political exiles who have been banned or expelled from their countries, have the choice to return if they so desire? Sometimes; but expatriates certainly don’t all have lives of luxury. Consider, for instance, the many African Americans who have lived or currently live outside the United States, in search of a place where they can feel free—or at least freer—to be themselves, outside of the U.S. straitjacket of race. France Francois interviews 10 African Americans living in as many different countries in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, and all of them say that they feel freer living abroad. Francois concludes her piece:

All the responses came from people who have lived abroad for years and have immersed themselves in a new society and culture, making a conscious decision to disengage from the U.S. and reaffirm their humanity elsewhere- an act that is still revolutionary in its simplicity almost 50 years after Baldwin left for Paris. Rather than remaining static, Baldwin reminded us that we have a responsibility “to move as largely and freely as possible.”

James Baldwin in Istanbul, 1965. National Museum of African American History and Culture

Kimberly Springer’s essay in The Atlantic, The Tricky Allure of Becoming a Black American Expatriate, notes that for generations African American artists and intellectuals have left the U.S.to find a place where they can be free from the toxic racism that they have to endure back “home” on a daily basis. Still, she notes that they face other struggles and no place is free from institutionalized inequities. She concludes:

Feeling free from the metaphorical shackles of American racism has lasting value. Yet, being a black expat, one who’s attuned to American racial suffering, can merely heighten one’s awareness of other colonialist histories around the world and the racial disparities that persist because of them—a far cry from actually escaping racism. Living abroad can mean becoming one’s full self and being more deeply engaged with black struggle throughout the diaspora. But after staying in London for seven years. . .I arrived at the sobering conclusion that it’s better the devil you know. And with that, I came home.

Exile is the state of being barred from one’s native country, typically for political or punitive reasons. An exile is a person who lives away from their native country, either from choice or compulsion; so, too, is an émigré: someone who has left their own country in order to settle in another, typically for political reasons.

In 1984, the late Edward Said, the eminent Palestian postcolonial scholar and author of Orientalism, Culture and Imperialism, Covering Islam, The World, the Text, and the Critic, and the memoir Out of Place, among other works, wrote, “Reflections on Exile,” later reissued in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays.  In an audio interview, Said explained that the essay

seemed to me to capture—for my purposes, anyway—the condition of being somebody away from the place where he was born and belonged to, which was my condition. And I tried to generalize out from that to a more widespread modern condition of exile, of uprootedness, of migration, immigration, expatriation, and so on.

While exile can be a terribly lonely state, in fact, as Said notes, it can be enlarged from an individual plight to the condition of our age, one in which we are all uprooted; all dislocated even if we have never moved outside of the town in which we were born, the ground itself shifting under our feet. We can choose to resent and resist the change, or we can seek to understand all the forces that have brought the world to this moment and seek, as Edward Said did all his life, to encourage people in this shrinking world to find ways to live together, with all their differences; to thrive in the insecurity of our times rather than to live in a permanent state of siege, trying in vain to shut out the feared barbarians at the gates.

Let me tell you a story of an exile. Back in early twentieth-century Japan, a man translated Marx into Japanese and was banished from the country for leftist activity. But in Japan at that time a man’s son could go into exile in his place, and so Takashi Ueda Ohta left the country of his birth forever and set out to travel the world. He eventually met and married Virginia Berry, an American woman, and together they moved to Munich, where their daughter, Toshi Aline Ohta, was born. The Ueda family returned to the United States and settled in New York City, where Toshi met and married the singer and musician Pete Seeger, and they became legends in the folk music community, living a long, joyful, engaged, hard-working life together that touched millions of people across three generations and around the world. Toshi Aline Ohta Seeger’s life was predicated on her father’s voluntary exile. But she went on to carry the best of her grandfather’s values to the world.

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399. East of What?

In Books, Music, Politics, postcolonial, reading, Stories on May 30, 2017 at 1:52 pm

Illuminated Meridian Line (Royal Museums Greenwich)

People’s faces sometimes register impatience when I insist on putting the terms “East” and “West” in quotation marks. Okay, I see them thinking, we get it: you’re flagging them as fictions, or as intellectual shorthand, but there’s no need to be pedantic; everyone knows what they stand for.

Do they really? What is it then, that the West stands for? Liberty, tolerance, and rational inquiry? As Anthony Appiah points out, these ideals are certainly not exclusive to Western civilization, and in any case the “West,” however it is defined, has spectacularly failed as a beacon of such enlightened principles.

What about the East? The late Edward Said argued that the East, or “Orient,” through the impressive body of 18th-19th-century Orientalist scholarship,  has been created as Europe’s Other, serving to justify and facilitate the ends of Empire. In European colonial thought, the East stands for everything that the West is not. Where the West has enlightened leaders, the East has “Oriental despots”; where the Westerner is active (manly), rational and capable of exercising self-control, the Easterner is passive and effeminate, superstitious, and sensual; where Western systems of governance are a model for the world, Eastern governments, without Western oversight and tutelage, cannot help becoming mired in corruption and intrigue. In a 1998 documentary by the Media Education Foundation, On Orientalism, Said and MEF founder Sut Jhally discuss these stereotypes and the purposes they serve.

How are East and West defined? During the era of European colonialism, the West was Europe and the East stretched from the Persian Gulf all the way to East Asia including everything in-between. During the Cold War, the West referred to the capitalist world: the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, while the East referred to the communist Soviet Union and its satellite states east of the Berlin Wall. Since the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the West refers, as far as I can tell, to capitalist democracies that are allies of the United States (and populated primarily by white people). Despite being in the Far East and the Southern Hemisphere to boot, Australia is considered part of the West; so is Israel, though it is located squarely in the Middle East; while democracies in Africa, South America, Asia, or the Caribbean will never be admitted to the club.

Where is the East? East of What? Well, the dividing line between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres is Longitude 0º, or the Prime Meridian. Here it is on a map:

The National Geographic Society helpfully reminds us that the prime meridian is arbitrary, meaning it could be chosen to be anywhere. However, it is no accident that the Prime Meridian runs right through Greenwich, England, which is also the center of world time. It won Longitude 0º in 1884 at the International Meridian Conference in Washington, D.C., by a vote of 22 to 1, with one No vote—Santa Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) and two abstentions—France and Brazil. Why was it chosen? Because Britain, with its far-flung empire, was then the reigning global superpower, and so it was able to claim centrality.

Ask yourself what the function of the East-West divide is in the 21st Century. Why divide the world up based on an arbitrary line that makes neither geographical nor philosophical sense? Why lump together all the diverse societies and cultures that fall into one or the other categories under a simplistic and patently false set of stereotypes?

The answer is pure, naked Power. The East-West divide serves the interests of power. That’s my view—biased, no doubt, but informed. Verify my claim if you like: start paying careful attention to where, how, and by whom you see the two terms employed and decide for yourself. But until I am persuaded otherwise, I will continue to put “East” and “West” in quotation marks.

Let me close with “The Funky Western Civilization” (a 1978 song by Tonio K from his album, Life in the Foodchain), that I danced and sang along to gleefully in my twenties, loving the irony. You can listen to it here and read the lyrics here. The Funky Western Civilization is a dance, and this is how you do it:

Grab your partner by the hair
Throw her down and leave her there. . .

Oh get down
Get funky
Get Western
(Own up to it boys and girls)
And if you try real hard
Maybe you can even get
Civilized . . .

As Mahatma Gandhi famously quipped when asked what he thought of Western civilization, “I think it would be a good idea.”

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