If you’re pregnant and you know it, quit your job *clap clap*

May 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

I picked up the New Straits Times this morning, and felt my serene Sunday vibes melt into a frothing foam of red-hot anger. There was a letter to the editor written by one Marisa Demori, the same Marisa Demori whom I’ve seen write in before not just to the NST but also to The Star and The Sun saying how maternity leave only incurred losses for employers, and how women who wanted to have babies should just go… collectively procreate on an island and raise their island babies away from the hardworking capitalists on the mainland. Or something to that effect, anyway.

Today’s letter can be found here, and if the link somehow disappears in the future, I’ve also scanned it and included the visual below:

Below is my response to that damned letter. I’ve sent it to the NST, but on the off-chance that they don’t print it, I’m putting it up here as well:

I refer to Marisa Demori’s letter dated May 30, 2010, titled “Maternity leave: Better for pregnant women to resign.” In the interests of clarity, I’ll assume from the name that the writer is female.

Ms. Demori has suggested that a woman, once pregnant, becomes delicate, and hence should resign from her job because “even the best work environments present some hazards and this will affect the health of both mother and baby.” This seems to be me rather ludicrous. That’s like telling someone not to ever walk on the road because a car might potentially hit them someday, because even the best cars are potential hazards. Pregnancy is a fraught condition for many women; yet it also a regular one. The normal “hazards” of everyday life can prove risky for pregnant women, yet we do not encourage them to sit on their beds and remain in their rooms for the entire 9 months of their pregnancy. There are ways in which women manage, control, and work around their immediate surroundings while pregnant – and this includes their career. Just because a woman is pregnant does not render her “unfit to perform her duties.”

Secondly, Ms. Demori seems to be an unthinking worshipper at the altar of capitalism. Capitalism is a system; human beings are the factors that make the system work. We do not bend ourselves to fit the system; the system must be altered to fit human needs. The last time I checked, women constituted half of the population. As mothers, they produce the labour that goes into the economy. I would venture to say that people are indispensable, Ms. Demori, and that no job or system is.

Thirdly, while there is a glimmer of reason in Ms. Demori’s argument that women be paid a pension for housework, it is also an indication of further myopic thinking. It will be great if we could come up with solutions to provide socialised child-care and housework so that both men and women who choose to have kids will not have to bear the burden of child-raising (an important goal for society at large, to be sure) on their own. However, I don’t see our hyper-capitalist government becoming rabidly socialist anytime soon. In the meantime, maternity and paternity leave is the only humane and viable solution for the masses of workers who have to juggle both a career and child-raising, be it within a traditional nuclear family, or in different circumstances. While the work of raising children and keeping a home is full-time work, it has no value within a capitalist system. It has been relegated as a “woman’s duty” because the conditions of power in our society are still very male-centric. I would assume that if men bore babies and did the housework, housework would have become a paid (and industrialised) “career” a very long time ago.

I suggest we stop trying to fit women into this grand, overarching human plan that is seen from only male perspective. (And as Ms. Demori has shown, it is not only males that are capable of being myopic and sexist.) It’s time we saw the world, and the solutions for its myriad problems, through the perspective of women AND men. What seems radical will perhaps start to make more sense, and solutions will seem achievable. Until then, viewpoints like the one propounded by Ms. Demori must continually be questioned, and regarded with suspicion. Human beings have a right to live within a system that fulfils their needs in the broadest possible sense, Ms. Demori. So to that end, I agree with you that “women should be reasonable” – and ask for as much as they want.

Grunt. Mumble. Grunt.

May 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

I realise that my blog’s heading says, “On the disquieting effects of everyday life” but I’m more likely to simply yammer on about the effects of books than anything else. This must be rectified. More of everyday life must be included. Hence, a summary of recent events of everyday life:

1) The worst possible smoked salmon angelhair at Delicious in Mid Valley. The sauce was watery, runny, bland; I’ve gotten a bigger taste-kick out of pureed baby food before than I could ever get out of this. This is not to say I steal food from babies when babies appear to not want the food. Anyhow, I’ve tried the pasta many times before at the Delicious outlet in Bangsar, and they always got the sauce right – creamy without being too thick; a tasty parade on my tongue without actually being a carnival. But it seems that any decent restaurant chain that opens a branch in Mid Valley is doomed to suffer the Curse of Yuckiness.

2) Robin Hood, the movie. Yes, yes, we’ve read the reviews, it sucks, why did I watch it? I’m a sucker for historical epics. No, that’s not true. It’s just that I’m a bit of an Anglophile, although that’s somewhat embarrassing to admit these days – I can see certain postcolonial theorists giving me dagger looks, or worse, the side-eye. I was expecting the movie to be a rather fun romp, the kind where you leave your brain slinking about by the popcorn stand outside while you head inside to the theater. But it was such a painful romp, this movie, all stolid and sober and brutal without any sense of lightness to leaven the landscape. Furthermore, I’m not sure why Russell Crowe thought he had an accent. I’m not sure why certain people thought he had an Irish accent. He had, for sure, his mumble-grunt more pronounced than usual, meaning that no one could understand what in King Richard’s hell Robin Hood was saying without straining their God-given ears. Cate Blanchett was a delight, but she was relegated to the wispy female role – the wispy female with deep reserves of strength, that is. I maintain my position: she should have played Robin Hood.

Put that bow and arrow down, and go bake some bread.

3) I have recently discovered Ellie Goulding. Her music will not move mountains or shatter your perspectives on life, etc., but they will sort of put a twinkle in your sleep-deprived eyes, and perhaps a slight bounce to your heels-ravaged step. My favourite song at the moment is perhaps ‘Black + Gold’.

“In all the universe nothing remains permanent and unchanged but the spirit.”

May 25, 2010 § 2 Comments

In the interest of a full disclosure, it’s probably best to say that I’ve had a crush on Scarlett Thomas since I first read PopCo. That sprawling yet compact book on consumerism, branding, cryptography, pirate treasure maps, food politics, and homeopathy struck a chord with me – but more than that, it fascinated me. Very little contemporary fiction does, these days. Most current writers seem soundly encased within a bubble of self-absorption; the kind that echoes their own experience and nothing else. There’s nothing wrong with telling a story from your own experience, or based on it, but the reductive perspective of basing a story only on personal experience or “what you know” is like a closed shell. A locked room. A dog chasing after its own tail.

It’s possible to tell of some mundane part of a person’s experience while connecting it to the larger world – the absurd, messy, often irrational world of contradictions and paradoxes.

And indeed, that’s exactly what Thomas tries to do in her most recent book, Our Tragic Universe. Unlike her other books (and I’ve read three of them so far: PopCo, Bright Young Things, and The End of Mr. Y in exactly that order), Our Tragic Universe begins languidly, like taking the long scenic route to a countryside cottage instead of the path carved out by the regulars. It took me awhile to get into it, but it still held me captive. Now that’s some strange narrative magic right there. I warmed to Meg, the main character, immediately. There are days when I’m on Twitter, and everyone’s a “journo” or a “features writer” or “comic artist” or whatever, and I’m like, where are the miserable ghostwriters, slogging away at freelance work, writing blogs that no one reads? Turns out they’re not on Twitter, or if they are, they’re not talking about it – just like me.

And so I found Meg, although Meg is hardly an unsuccessful writer. Yes, she’s ghosting for a YA science-fiction “writer” Zeb Ross (he exists only insofar as his ghostwriters exist), but she also writes reviews for a newspaper, and is rather famous within her community in Devon for what she does. She just isn’t successful in the conventional sense. I’m tired of reading of shiny, bright, successful people. I adore reading about people like Meg, or Ariel in Thomas’ previous The End of Mr. Y, or Claudia Steiner in Kate Christensen’s In the Drink. I like the hazy, blurry, messy stupidity of their lives, shot through with the characters’ undoubted curiosity and keen intelligence, but ripe with the realisation that keen intelligence in this world is a liability more than a blessing.

Even if I was a bright, shiny, successful person, I doubt I’ll enjoy reading about them the way they seem to be portrayed in fiction. Something about their lives just seems so suspiciously tidy. And neat.  But as Thomas tries to show in this book, the need for a narrative arc featuring a hero who overcomes the odds and leaves happily ever after is the essential underpinning of all stories and myths that resonate with the people and become cultural touchstones.

Or does it?

When we meet Meg, she’s just finished reading a book she thinks she’s meant to review for her paper, ‘The Science of Living Forever’ by Kelsey Newman. She’s stuck in this agonisingly painful relationship (from the reader’s perspective, at least) with one beautiful and sexy and completely moronic Christopher. Christopher is the kind of guy who doesn’t participate in life, because all of life is one long-line of consumer bullshit that is beyond the realm of anything meaningful. Hence, he helps out with conserving heritage sites on a voluntary basis, while Meg’s covers their expenses, forcing them to live in a cold, damp house that aggravates her asthma. From the first chapter, I was thinking, “Leave the asshole.” But anyway…

Meg’s constant companion is her lovely dog Bess, or B for short, the most fully-realised dog character I’ve read about in awhile. I’m not sure if dogs are characters, but I believe they are in my little dog-loving heart, so let’s leave it at that.

And it looks incredibly cool, too!

The central idea underlying this book, juxtaposed with Meg’s reading of Newman’s book which propounds the scientific possibility of endless life, is that of narrative. What kind of narrative is central to life and /or imagination, and which type of narrative is authentic? Is narrative willed upon by the person telling the story to give the author and the reader a sense of control, and is this how we approach our lives, as well? (The rise of reality TV shows, for example.)  Meg writes formulaic plot-boilers for a living under someone else’s name, but she’s long been wanting to work on what she and others call her “real novel” – a novel that’s meant to remove itself from the constraints of formulaic narrative, the 3-point arc of beginning, middle, and end. But, at the same time, Meg teaches ‘writing retreats’ for other up-and-coming ghostwriters, and the reader is treated to her meandering and immensely gratifying musings on Aristotle’s Poetics, Baudrillard, and Chekhov’s and Tolstoy’s literary theories. But Meg is also increasingly troubled by the “fictionalisation of life.”

Meg is at once fascinated and repulsed by Newman’s book because she can’t fathom the idea of an unending life: “In Newman’s never-ending universe there’d be time to write an infinite amount of novels,  and even finish reading all the books I’d never begun. But who’d care about fiction anymore? We only need fiction because we die.”

Thomas is known as a writer of ideas, which she is, but in this book she’s also honed her art of characterisation. Some characters do sometimes feel like mere mouthpieces for the various thoughts and ideas the author is trying out (Rowan, for example, and Frank and Vi) but some are so fleshed-out that one feels truly in the presence of real people having a conversation (Josh, Libby, and Meg herself). However, most dinners I’ve been to don’t really centre a conversation around the idea of a paradox, with people remembering quotes from Aquinas and Chekhov – which kind of makes Our Tragic Universe a utopia, in a sense. A utopia in Devon, where a one-dimensional, consumerist society is left behind and one is just surrounded by a largely considerate if emotionally fucked-up group of curious thinkers.

There are some utterly snarky and captivating passages on the nature of relationships, as well, so far different from the kind of conversations and thoughts women are forced to read through “chick-lit” books forced down their throats by savvy marketers. In contemplating her relationship with Christopher, where Meg wonders how come every second of their time together is characterised by her need to get away from him, she thinks:

Then I would start coughing, because of the damp in the house, and my lungs would put themselves in Safe Mode until I could go outside again. I’d never directly told Christopher that the damp in the house made my asthma worse, thinking only an idiot wouldn’t be able to see that. This was a bit passive-aggressive, of course, as was the way I hammed up my coughing when we were arguing. Sometimes I dredged up stuff from my lungs that felt as if it had been there since the beginning of time.

From Agatha Christie to Anna Karenina to the Cottingley fairies*, from Fred Hoyle to Tarot and poltergeists and superheroes and the Beast of Dartmoor, there’s no single reason not to turn the page of the book and keep reading, even though it’s clear that one’s not in a traditional story of beginning, middle, and end. Thomas’ gift, and this is particularly true in Our Tragic Universe – is to take what seems airy-fairy, or New-Agey, and turn it into ideas worth thinking about – in fact, it’s clear that as an author she’s always thinking about everything – that the reader can’t help but ponder the meaning of Tarot card reading and its relation to archetypes, or consider for a moment that maybe Feng Shui practitioners, greedy for money as they are, have at their basis the principle of Qi (or energy) that might have some truth to it, especially since no one knows the truth.

It’s her ability to take the simple questions and dig further that makes Thomas such a fascinating writer. She references a lot of stuff – for example, I didn’t know a theory existed of poltergeists being the “manifestation of misery, angst, and childhood uncertainty, and would stop bothering everyone only when the child grew up or became happier” – and whether or not the reader considers this stuff common sense, gospel truth, a revelation, or pure bunkum, one can’t dismiss it entirely without feeling compelled to research it first. (There’s also a quote by Darwin in there from this The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals that I found simply revelatory – because I was wondering about this particular issue and had made no desire to find out the cause of it when lo and behold, this quote popped up while I was reading the book – synchronicity, as those bunkum New-Age books will you.) I was also reading Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man while reading this, and couldn’t help seeing parallels in Thomas’ arguments for fictionless fiction in our current hyper-consumer society, and Marcuse’s concept of transgressive fiction in a three-dimensional, thinking society.

It may not be everyone’s cup of herbal fair-trade tea, but I’ll try to foist Our Tragic Universe (and by extension, PopCo and The End of Mr. Y) to anyone who attempts to listen to me swoon about it. It’s an eminently white book – there are no characters named Mustafa, Kiran, or Young Lee, and most of the characters are described as being white, which is what you’ll get if you set in Devon, probably – I think it’s important that people are aware that fiction like this exists – fiction that embraces thinking as the default mode of being rather than an elitist exception to the rule.

(A fantastic book on the Cottingley fairies phenomenon from a fictionalised perspective – involving an acerbic Arthur Conan Doyle – is Steve Szilagyi’s Photographing Fairies.)

Excerpt: One-Dimensional Man

May 23, 2010 § 2 Comments

Reading Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man slowly and laborously. Not that the book is a ponderous read – it’s heavy-going and dense, yet eminently readable – but it’s a bloody effort to read it as I am on my laptop, in PDF format.

Passages that I currently find profoundly relevant:

That a political party which works for the defense and growth of capitalism is called “Socialist,” and a despotic government “democratic,” and a rigged election “free” are familiar linguistic—and political—features which long predate Orwell.

Relatively new is the general acceptance of these lies by public and private opinion, the suppression of their monstrous content. The spread and the effectiveness of this language testify to the triumph of society over the contradictions which it contains; they are reproduced without exploding the social system. And it is the outspoken, blatant contradiction which is made into a device of speech and publicity.

[...]

The unification of opposites which characterizes the commercial and political style is one of the many ways in which discourse and communication make themselves immune against the expression of protest and refusal. How can such protest and refusal find the right word when the organs of the established order admit and advertise that peace is really the brink of war, that the ultimate weapons carry their profitable price tags, and that the bomb shelter may spell coziness? In exhibiting its contradictions as the token of its truth, this universe of discourse closes itself against any other discourse which is not on its own terms. And, by its capacity to assimilate all other terms to its own, it offers the prospect of combining the greatest possible tolerance with the greatest possible unity. Nevertheless its language testifies to the repressive character of this unity. This language speaks in constructions which impose upon the recipient the slanted and abridged meaning, the blocked development of content, the acceptance of that which is offered in the form in which it is offered.

Well, you’re my Venus, but you’re not my fire

May 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

The moment the latest issue* of VenusZine landed in my hands, I knew something was not quite right. And indeed, I have the power of the Oracle through sight and touch – the cover looked different, and damn, I thought… it feels different too.

And what do you know? The previous owners of VenusZine have upped and left us desolate, and a new team has taken over. Publisher Sarah Beardsley, owner of Venus Holdings, writes us a tepid note telling us how she’s “always been a passionate advocate for other women.” Great, but I thought this is a fun, smart, out-of-the-mainstream magazine I’m reading. But forgive me, I was wrong, clearly we’re at a leadership seminar.

I know that VenusZine is probably aimed at the BUST demographic – meaning, women largely aged 12 – 25. However, I’ve always enjoyed reading it. Compared to BUST, to which I still subscribe but which in the last few years has become a rather mainstream glossy mag for “subversive” women (pictures of vibrators towards the last few pages, obligatory masturbatory reading), VenusZine had a DIY-aesthetic that appealed to me. As it should have, since it literally began as Amy Schroeder’s stapled and collated zine from her college dorm room. I loved that its focus was resolutely diverse and varied, and not just a few pages of fluffy cool reading for the endlessly vegan-baking and knitting hipster set.

But now! Now clearly VenusZine is targeting a much younger demographic. Like, the Harry Potter demographic? The ridiculously large typeface adorning every page is both plain damned ugly and very suitable for a young girl who’s just learning to read chapter novels. Your grandma might also appreciate it.

A cover story, titled “The Babysitters Club is Back” is revealed to be a “feature” story that features… four questions with the creator of the series. Yup, count ‘em… four. The book reviews are pathetic. While the former VenusZine had about 3 – 4 pages covered in its ‘Reads’ section, the typeface was tiny – and I loved it. Pages were dense with information. Text wriggled for space next to the pictures. There was so much to read! So, so much!

Now, there are big white spaces big enough for you to colour in with your sparkly Crayolas or whatever. Strangely enough, the Art Director, Denise Gibson, seems to be the only member of the original Venus team who has stayed on – and yet she has allowed for this travesty of large type and chunks of white space hideousness to happen.

But the thing that irked me the most is the crappy writing. The Babysitters Club story is blah, the reviews are meh (the books chosen for review were… I just… what?!?), and there is a new section called ‘Verve’, which actually features a blurb titled “5 Gal-friendly Apps”. There’s a line in there somewhere that goes, “Here are our top picks for chicks.”

It’s been awhile since I was a “gal”, and I doubt I ever was a “chick”, so I’m sorry to say… you lost me there, VenusZine.

*Not so much the latest, as it turns out. It’s the Spring 2010 issue, while the Summer 2010 issue has already come out in the States.

How do I love thee? Let me repeatedly text, IM, and tweet the ways…

May 17, 2010 § 2 Comments

Love, the kind for which Cristina Nehring argues in The Vindication of Love, is “a brush with the sublime.”  It’s not quite the years of compatibility that arises from an arranged marriage that slowly matures into a resigned form of love, or the convenient companionship of two souls tilling common ground. It’s not the pee with the bathroom door open as your spouse clips his toenails on the bed type of love.

“Romantic love,” claims Nehring, “needs to be reinvented for our time. For those of us as bored by the cult of safe love as we are repelled by the man-hating clichés of old-style feminism, it needs to be formulated afresh.”

Why? “The purpose is by no means to beatify romantic love, or to reclaim it as a fine hallmark sentiment suitable for swooning schoolgirls. The goal is to embrace its dangers and darknesses as well as the light it sheds so amply, sometimes piercingly.”  She wants us to reclaim romance from the vapid, insipid, sterile version of love that infiltrates the capitalist, mass-market culture of today.

Well, sign me up. Who doesn’t want to wrestle love from Taylor Swift’s puny grip?

As a writer, Nehring doesn’t hold back from expressing enthusiasm or interest in her subjects, and it’s hard to stay disengaged from a book where the author so clearly demonstrates affection, empathy, and fellow-feeling for the people she puts under her critical microscope. She marches boldly forward with her premise, and fearlessly argues her way through with examples ranging from solitary females like Emily Dickinson and Mary Wollstonecraft, to figures of myth and literature like Tristan and Iseult, and the Wife of Bath in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, to real-life romantic explorers and screw-ups like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone Beauvoir.

Admittedly, though, there’s a fine line to be drawn between psychopathic, neurotic behavioural tendencies in love relationships and the kind of obsessive yet fully self-aware passion of a sustaining love affair. The problem is, I’m not sure where it is, and who draws it.

Inevitably, I turn to the self and use a personal barometer with which to measure levels of passion or insanity in the more general scheme of things. When I reflect upon it now with many years in between to fill in the blanks and shade the experiences a pretty shade of rose, my romantic past proves that I am an exceptionally intelligent and creative person with an emotional landscape stunning in its depth and breadth, not an over-emotional nutjob with a bad temper.

Yup, that’s right.

That’s the essential problem with Nehring’s book. It’s tempting to think that repeatedly drunk dialling an ex is normal behaviour – passionate and grand behaviour, the most loving of all gestures. With some sense of irony and perspective most of us might be able to make that distinction between gestures of passion and those of plain, pure lunacy, but we all like to think we have that sense of perspective. When we’re sane, and reasonable (ie. reading the book in freshly-caffeinated state on a Tuesday morning), it’s easy to take the good, and leave the bad. Committing suicide over love like young Werther – bad! Committing yourself fully to a love affair – good. But when you’re so obviously caught in the web of a complex, overwhelming, tricky relationship, (and let’s face it, which relationship isn’t all of those things?) it’s going to be a little harder to make that distinction. Throwing yourself under the train seems like a viable option – hell, even a healthy one – as opposed to enduring another one of those dinners at the in-law’s, or another one of those cocktail evenings with your partner’s set of judgmental, vapid friends.

But that’s a minor quibble on my part. While it’s not perfect all the way, I still enjoyed the book and learned much from it, and I thought her ideas were fresh and timely. I’ll be gladly recommending it to friends.  I think we’re all kind of sick of instant porn and tabloid details on the sex lives of famous people we like to read about, but not care about in THAT way. I don’t really want to see Tiger Woods’ pitiful face crumpled up in tears, weeping in front of his wife for having had sex with numerous mass-produced women of same stripe. Whatever Heidi Montag did with her repulsive husband onboard an airplane that allowed her membership into the mile high club? I really don’t want to know. These repeated images tar love relationships in general with the same brush – that of decrepitude and shame, and utter futility.

Better instead to read about the passion that kept George Sand alive, or the love that sent Frida Kahlo crazy enough to produce those astounding paintings. Because I think most of us think, or else hope, that love is far from coordinating bath towels and choreographed bedroom moves, or matching t-shirts, or a reality TV show exploiting a couple’s moronic daily activities.

I suspect most of us could do with love that’s more Heloise and Abelard and less Bill and Giuliana Rancic. Love as a mass-marketed commodity rarely gets any heart beating faster. When popular culture (in this case, Hollywood) tries to spin love in a different or original way, it often gets it wrong, such as in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Smith (although to be fair, I’ve not seen the original Hitchcock version). Sexual desire as a point-and-click maneuver, done in isolation, rarely lifts the spirit or soothes the troubled soul. Pornography might teach us new ways to contort, but no one’s showing us creative, expansive ways to love, to woo, and to romance – or supporting anyone else’s attempts.

Far from Disneyfied happy endings, the real-life and fictional examples of romantic couples cited by Nehring saw their love stories end badly, or tragically. There’s almost always one partner left bereft, or still in love while the other has moved on. But the problem lies in the way in which people respond to heartbreak; the coping mechanisms which we don as armour and that enables us to continue to trudge through the world. As the author says, “When we fall out of love, we reclaim the blinders with which we trot horse-like through so much of our lives.” Love is not the cause of blindness; in Nehring’s imagining, non-love is the cause of it. She writes that when people “cease to love” we “return to the world of surfaces and stereotypes.”

Most interestingly, Nehring talks about “love as art” in one of her chapters. Throughout the book, there are many examples of women who have lived and loved large. Nehring is of the opinion that intelligence, complexity, creativity, and emotional breadth go hand-in-hand with a large appetite for love. She’s strongly critical of the notion that thinking and creative impulses are hampered by romantic impulses, or weakened by it. Specifically, she’s critical of the belief that women are somehow made lesser by their involvement in romantic relationships – that they can’t love deeply and think or create at the same time, like these inclinations are two opposing ends of the spectrum.

70 years ago Anais Nin was wrestling with the same questions in her journals, and concluded that for women, it had to be thus: “There are only two remedies: intellectuality or work, and adoption of masculine attitudes in love. Women are still too idealistic to admit duality, which can be achieved only by a comparative atrophy of feelings” (The Early Diary 1927 – 1931). Nehring would balk at those words. Nin was trying to figure out how to maintain both head and heart in pursuit of men, and her conclusion was to sublimate feelings, and prioritise desire, as though feelings and desires, love and lust, were two separate, tangible entities.

Nehring’s whole book is written to for smart, complicated souls who understand that love and lust, and all the things in-between, is simply an expression of the self. It need not be higher or lower on the scale. In fact, she wants you to believe that love is the ultimate creation. Despite myself, it’s an utterly captivating and delicious thought. If only, I think…

Lots of people will probably object to Nehring’s premise, and many already do, decrying what they see is her unusual obsession and affiliation for what some term the ‘cult of love.’ Nehring does fall prey to occasional bouts of over-feeling that border on the melodramatic when she writes words like these: “I bear the bodily scars of a loss or two in love. I have been derailed by love, hospitalized by love, flung around five continents, shaken, overjoyed, inspired, and unsettled by love,” but I’m more inclined to consider it an overstatement of profound feeling rather than an indication of unbridled mania to put Love on pedestal and worship it while chanting bad poetry.

Yes, love is a battle. It wounds, it leaves scars, and it fucks up belief systems and sends one from the world of sense to that of sensibility or worse, utter chaos. But for all that, Nehring’s book inspires some hope. It provides some measure of comfort to those of us who know that we love in different ways – to those of us who believe that love can be varied, complex, and astounding, as opposed to neutral, bland, and cookie-cutter – to dream big when it comes to romance. A far cry indeed from settling for ‘Mr. Good Enough.’

I am the Dickinson

May 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

While reading this lovely article on Emily Dickinson in The New York Times, it occurred to me: Dickinson is often portrayed as a recluse who reached out to the world through fervent letters – all the while remaining shrouded in obscurity.

Now, this sounds like me.

Hear me out. I mean, this me, sitting at home, with my ever-present mother guarding the door, and I’m furtively blogging, obsessively tweeting, compulsively emailing – reaching out to the world, but preferably without meeting the world, because people… yearggghh.

All of this fits the bill of a modern-day Malaysian Emily Dickinson, right?

Poetic genius, you ask? I’m sure I’ve got a drawer filled with poems. The genius of those poems will be evident after my death. (I may be an atheist but there better be an afterlife for some literary vindication.)

*For anyone who cares, this was entirely tongue-in-cheek, because it’s VERY hot out, and if I let my tongue do what it will, it will loll out and I will resemble my dogs and my mother will tell me to get down from the couch and stop shedding all over the place.

* No, I am not 12.

When being a 11-year-old girl was actually fun

May 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is a thick, comforting, warm, and immensely lovely book. I loved how it did not have any particular story arc or narrative peak, yet remained compulsively readable thanks to Kelly’s gorgeous writing style. It’s gorgeous writing because of her simple yet fleshed out prose, sentences running languorously under events, thoughts, and dialogues like water in a clear, sparkling brook. Characters are also lovingly shaded; Calpurnia is feisty, quirky, and smart without any of the clichés associated with female characters of this type. Despite growing up with six brothers, she boxes no ears, clambers up no trees, stomps no feet. She’s still uniquely who she is without buying into what conventions, or her parents (and her mother) dictate to her about how a girl “should” be.

Kelly also does a great job of presenting all the characters as full-blooded people without sacrificing their messy or sometimes awkward humanity and individual idiosyncrasies. There’s Calpurnia’s incredibly sweet relationship with her eldest brother, Harry, who calls her “my own pet” without making it sound or seem cloying. There’s Calpurnia and her relations to her other brothers – feisty yet peaceable relations – that seems believable to those of us who come from large families.

Then there’s her grandfather, who by virtue of being a patriarch who built up his cotton gins from scratch (and which his son, Calpurnia’s father, has inherited – thus inscribing Calpurnia’s upper-class status in Texas society in stone), is allowed to tinker away in his laboratory carrying out scientific experiments (he’s been trying to distil pecans into liquor) and taking long walks out to the river for his nature observations. In her grandfather, Calpurnia finally sees another way of being – and in Kelly’s hands, it’s not some Great Feminist Feat that a girl is able to envision a life that’s different from what’s expected of her, while her brothers blithely continue to carry on as normal – it just is. No doubt, Calpurnia’s talent for observation and her incessant curiosity makes her question the very things that others consider normal.

Through her first tasting of Coca-Cola, or her first sighting of a new species of vetch with her grandfather, or her attempts at making pie dough, or being gifted something horrible by her parents for Christmas, Calpurnia never loses sight of trying to stay true to herself, even if she learns that it sometimes means having to put on a brave face for the benefit of your loved ones. It’s an incredibly uplifting story that made me miss the girl I was at 11 – chubby and nerdy, no doubt, but also someone who adored dinosaurs, Egyptian and Greek mythology, astronomy, and puzzles/codes –and that’s probably why the book resonated as much as it did. I remember going through a stage of being a ‘naturalist’ as well (short-lived, as my drawing skills were limited at best, and plain goddamn awful at worst) when I went around trying to “sketch” the plants or stones that I saw. I’m sure that I was inspired by a book I read at the time, although I can’t remember which one.

The ending is perfect – it neither resolves nor simplifies anything, but simply leaves the reader with the possibility of hope. One can only hope that Calpurnia Tate goes as far as her mind can take her, especially as she enters the 20th century – a brand new world of telephones, automobiles, and lady scientists.

Saree merchants – our first feminists?

May 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

I went to Brickfields to buy my mother a saree for Mother’s Day. (I’ve just about exhausted the usual list of scents, handbags, purses, shawls, scents, handbags, perfumed toiletries, handbags, shawls.) Anyhow, one of the stores, India Silk’s, has now become my favourite after I observed its paper bag:

Isn’t that the cutest? Aww. “It’s a woman’s world.” You can say it, and we’ll all believe it, our silk saree pallus blowing in the breeze. Things like this give me hope to carry on, I tell you.

Heavenly bastard in the sky, I didn’t expect to enjoy this

May 5, 2010 § 2 Comments

When I was about halfway through it, I had tweeted that reading Xiaolu Guo’s 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth was akin to slurping down a bowl of hot instant noodles. I didn’t mean to imply that the book was tasty but forgettable, as instant noodles often are. I just wanted to convey the feeling I had of not wanting to stop. Just like you wouldn’t want your bowl of instant noodles to get cold and gummy, I didn’t want to stop reading the book lest I missed something. The urgent pace, the refreshing perspective – suffice to say that I wasn’t bored by it.

It’s a slim novel, focusing on the trials and tribulations of Fenfang, a recent transplant to Beijing from a village “that won’t be found on any map of China,” a village that chiefly consists old people, rivers, and sweet potato fields that seem to go on forever. These individual chapters – the twenty fragments – are a nice conceit, with black and white pictures adorning each one with engaging title-phrases like, “How Fenfang, bewildered, put down roots in Beijing” or “Xiaolin, before he got violent.”

As befitting the title, these are a series of fragments – not a straightforward story of rags-to-riches or from-village-to-city with a beginning, middle, and an end. The fragments give us a snapshot into Fenfang, an incredibly plucky, vulnerable, smart, and quirky character as she attempts to grow up. Whether she succeeds is up for the reader to decide; but if anything, Xiaolu Guo shows us that even the process of growing up occurs in fits and starts. For instance, Fenfang seems incredibly grown-up from what she has to endure, living alone in the big city and finding her own way without any kindly (or intrusive) relatives or friends to help. Yet, she’s still raw and untouched, incredibly idealistic, and quite loveable.

Right from the third page, you can see why Fenfang proves likeable:

So I was the 6,787th person in Beijing wanting a job in the film and TV industry. Between me and a role stood 6,786 other people – young and beautiful, old and ugly. I felt the competition, but compared to the 1.5 billion people in China, 6,786 wasn’t such a daunting number. It was only the population of my village. I felt the urge to conquer this new village.

Certainly, the Beijing that Fenfang sees – complete with homicidal drivers, ambitious cockroaches, countless other exhausted, displaced individuals – is relentless and brutal, just like any other big, overpopulated city is in a developing country. Fenfang makes pithy observations about the state of Chinese culture and people, as when she meets her future boyfriend, Xiaolin, for the first time:

The he asked my age, and I asked his. That’s the tradition in China. If we know each other’s ages we can understand each other’s past. We Chinese have been collective for so long, personal histories are not worth mentioning.

Fenfang’s description of sharing Xiaolin’s home and his family’s one-bedroom apartment with his two parents, grandmother, two sisters, and two brown cats and a dog – the latter which keeps shitting right next to the bed Fenfang shares with Xiaolin – takes on a surreal turn when Guo writes: “And in bed, whether sound asleep or restless with frenzied dreams, Xiaolin always held me close, as though afraid of our naked bodies parting.” Hmm, okay. If they’re sharing that room with the whole family, as Fenfang describes, then I certainly hope she and Xiaolin get naked only when… well… the whole family is not around.

When Fenfang says things like, “For me, it was old people who were responsible for all the shit things that had happened in China,” I agree with her perspective just as I know it’s an unfair, biased one. That’s Guo’s biggest strength – she’s able to depict sullen, hopeless, hopeful, utterly ravenous youth with a deft, loving hand. She writes of Fenfang with no bitterness, anger, or sentimentality. I couldn’t, naturally, help but wonder if Fenfang’s experiences mirrored the author’s own life (I know, I’m such a bloody literal reader, always wondering about the unimportant things, who cares if the author’s life is true to the story or not? Etc., etc.), and if so, she does an admirable job of maintaining authorial distance while allowing Fenfang’s voice to flower, mature, and speak for itself.

Post-communist China is a rubble of misplaced dreams and newfound hope, and I can’t pretend to know anything about the country except what I see of it and what I read about it. Yet, when Fenfang says things like, “I loved piracy. It was our university and our only path to the foreign world,” I could also completely relate to her. I’m sure many others who have to make it in Kuala Lumpur on their own after moving here from the outskirts of the city, or remote places in the village, might find that the story of displacement and readjustment really doesn’t change. The greatest discrepancy between people in our world may not be gender, or race, in the end… just class – and by extension, the country and the city.

While reading it, I was thinking that the translator(s) must have had a hell of a job; maintaining the nuances of Chinese language while incorporating youthful slang and still keeping the prose fresh, energetic, and lively – and true enough, Xiaolu Guo thanks both of her translators towards the end, as the author herself made some revisions to the original text of the story which the second translator helped polish. It doesn’t show in the pages, not at all, and no doubt it was an immense labour of love for both Rebecca Morris and Pamela Casey.

This was a rather delicious introduction to Xiaolu Guo’s written work (she’s also a filmmaker), and I can only dream that her other books are equally quirky, potent, and utterly unputdownable.

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