whiteness and giants

June 24, 2014 § 44 Comments

Rodger believed his proximity to whiteness (and wealth) ought to have guaranteed him elevated status and whatever objects of his desire (in this case, white women).

Rodger’s words feel viscerally familiar to me; I, and many other women, have known men like Rodger. I’ll go further and say that as a southeast Asian woman of color growing up in the Bay Area, I’ve known Asian men, mixed Asian men, and other men of color, like Rodger. Men who openly worshipped white women and whose self-worth existed in direct correlation to their own proximity to whiteness. Men who routinely degraded the poorer or darker-skinned Asian women and other women of color in their communities.

Reading Elaine Castillo on race, economies of desire, proximity to whiteness / aspirations to whiteness, and recognising some of these effects in Malaysia. I wish I had the words. I don’t have it, I think, I’m stumbling and fumbling and unsure, but I want to put this down and lay it out. Although Elaine is specifically talking about growing up Filipino in the States, living in Malaysia and having met and known Asian men in Canada I too have known Asian men, mixed Asian men, and other men of colour like Rodger. “Men who openly worshipped white women and whose self-worth existed in direct correlation to their own proximity to whiteness.” On the flipside, I have also known women who openly worshipped white men and women, openly desired to be white women. I don’t say this to make some flat equivalence and to erase the work of gender. I say this because whiteness is always there in post-colonial Malaysia, even when it’s not there.

To see the world refracted through American conceptions of race would be a reductive, flawed thing—but I’m also not sure what is to be done, or how to think through, the invisible whiteness that structures economies of desire in “post”-colonial Southeast Asian nations. The way in which aspiring to a life of American whiteness, where apparently everything is better, where even democracy is “cleaner”, structures the political and social investments of the middle and upper classes in Malaysia; the people who have the say, the people whose fucking votes matter. That it’s so banal, so normal, this Americanisation of the world—even in parts of the world that just saw the British leave.

Out goes the white man and in comes another; where would [we / the world] be without them.

A part of this circling around what I’m most ashamed to say: that I grew up thinking white men were better, that I believed somehow that the misogyny I saw around me in Malaysia did not inhabit the pure white bodies of American men I assumed, in my dreams, to be better. Pop culture and society taught me how to desire, but I also took matters into my own hands and thought that if I tried to be white—

Against this, my father, properly bourgeois but with a small kernel of rebelliousness in him, I think, that knew of no other way of manifesting itself except through excess drinking, used to always say to me and my sisters: 1) “America is the worst”; and, 2) “Don’t trust white men”. Not in those words, exactly, but those were the words he meant to convey. The folly of youth is convincing yourself that everything your parents teach you must be unlearned.

Not everything, as it turns out.

I was reading the first book in the KL Noir series, KL Noir: Red, and one of the stories is by Marc de Faoite; his brief author bio says he was born in Ireland but has lived in other countries and now resides in Langkawi. His story is written from a first-person point-of-view of an Indian migrant worker, which—I mean, okay. He has also authored a collection of short stories titled “Tropical Madness” (coz the tropics be MAD, yougaiz). And the blurb for that book says he “sensitively deals with some of the realities of modern Malaysia” and that he “gives voice to a mix of marginalized and overlooked sectors of Malaysia’s population, including immigrants, transsexuals, fishermen, ethnic minorities and sex slaves”. So like this white guy inhabits all marginalised identities in his fiction and gives voice to their something. I am fucking astounded, give him all the awards.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. (And also being unfair, not having read his collection of stories yet.) Back to his story in KL Noir: his character surveys the people at the restaurant he works at and this is what he sees #IndianMigrantWorkerGazeviaWhiteMaleGaze:

KL Noir

In light of everything recently, thinking about that piece by Elaine, about proximity to whiteness and economies of desire in Southeast Asia, and I can’t seem to “let go” of those “giant-sized, short-haired Tamil women”. Can you imagine them? They are not big or large; they are “giant-sized”, practically inhuman. In contrast, a very safe description of Muslim women (because anything more and you’re in trouble?), and alongside these giant-sized Tamil women, young Chinese women with their “skinny bare white legs”.

I’m trying to let go but I can’t quite.

Further on in the story, another worker is talking about having seen two Malay guys check out a pair of Chinese girls in shorts—to which another guy asks, “So they weren’t Indian?” Because hafuckingha. There’s so much going on here, and talking to any Malaysian-Indian women will reveal this: Malaysian-Indian men desire Chinese women because they’re [thin / sexy / less hairy / and most important, fair-skinned]. Growing up, this was the “joke” I knew that structured beliefs about desire. (In college, a Chinese guy put his arm next to mine merely to observe, “Wow you’re so much darker and hairier than me”. But every Indian girl I know has this story to tell in some version.) I grew up realising that Tamil women were not sexy, not desiring or desirable, that in the hierarchies of desire wanting a Tamil woman comes pretty low on the list, unless you have a freakish fetish for dark women or hairy women; that Tamil women who want to get the man must perform the labour that is required to look like the other women who are closer to the ideal version of a woman. Chinese women are a step closer to exquisite white womanhood, perhaps. One upper-caste Malayalee guy I know is still waiting for his dream blonde with “Aryan features”; in the meantime, Chinese girls and “fair-skinned Malay girls” who don’t wear the tudung are nice to look at and why would he even look in the direction of a hirsute dark-skinned giant like hello he has latte-coloured skin and a well-defined nose and he is entitled to so much more than that I mean??? How dare you suggest he settle for less?

We haven’t yet entered into the economies of desire within Indians themselves (Malaysians of Tamil, Malayalee, Telugu backgrounds collectively refer to themselves as “Indians” in Malaysia, so it’s not a term designating nationality but ethnicity, and I think this is confusing to ourselves and everyone else), but caste and class play a huge role in this. How do I sort out this mess? Hannah Black writes that, “Love at present is always about gender, just as beauty at present is always about white supremacy” and I agree, obviously, but I don’t agree, less obviously, because I know white supremacy but how to begin to sketch out its effects in places like Southeast Asia? Or maybe the question is wrong, and belatedly, I’m coming to realise that the question that has to be kept in mind, alongside how white do Asians want to be, is how we don’t want to be black. And keeping in mind that much of Tamil bourgeois mores are caste and colour based, wherein the untouchable castes perform the labour that no “civilised” person would do:

tweet

There is one other story in KL Noir where an Indian female person makes an appearance and she’s a little girl in Brian Gomez’s “Mud”. The girl is described as “looking ugly as ever” (i.e. like all other Indian girls) by the self-hating, Chinese-women-in-sexy-clothes-desiring Indian rich guy. The guy is an ass; in fact, he’s a criminal in the grotesque sense that only the rich can be. We’re not meant to identify with him because he’s not sympathetic. However, here it is: in a collection of stories about KL life, Indian women and girls are neither desiring nor desired, they are “giant-sized”, in passing, and “ugly as ever”, in passing. It’s no surprise that he is visiting a Tamil community that’s impoverished; the colour of the girl’s skin, to this man, is the ugliness of the laboring classes and their symbolic proximity to blackness.

What Amalia Clarice Mora says here is a fairly common observation throughout Malaysia, so common as to be banal. Our beauty queens and our “brand ambassadors”, our faces that sell and our very favourite people, are as close to “Eurasian” looking as possible, “Pan Asian” or what have you, Asian because exotic but not too Asian, not excessively Asian, because that would not be “universally” desirable: “The mixed people are so beautiful sentiment, which often really means white-ish looking people with an ethnic twist are so beautiful or ethnic people with white features are so beautiful.” If you talk about white supremacy in Malaysia people will, on the whole, look at you funny because What does that have to do with us? but still they want you to be lighter, lighter, lighter, and beautiful in a way that you can never be, further from a kind of blackness that is always hypervisible, and closer to a kind of whiteness that no one thinks they want.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

June 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

This is my review of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch for Pop Matters. I’m still steadily trying to post reviews up here and so this one is also several months old. Yes, we’re still in 2013. Today in my Twitter feed, Sridala linked to an article about the atrocious racial politics in the book, and I was so glad to read it, and so glad that this piece exists. Joy Castro, who wrote the article, makes some pertinent points. This was something that I picked up on while reading it — it’s hard not to — but was familiar enough with Tartt’s previous two books to know that she only cared about moneyed, slightly disgraced WASPs. That’s her Thing. By the time I got around to writing the review for The Goldfinch I was so tired. So tired of noticing and caring too much about how white people write about, and thus write off, people of colour in their highly-praised bestsellers. But Castro makes an important point about the depiction of racialised others in the book that fits in with the theme of the book at large: that of Art and Beauty and Great Literature. No room for anyone less-than-white (and rich, rich rich rich!) in that world. Castro emphasises how the working class non-white others in this book are willing to put themselves in service of these Great White People Living Their Fascinating Lives; willing to put their own (mediocre and unimportant, presumably) lives on hold so that whiteness can flourish. The labour of black and brown bodies for white ones is a story that must be told that way, as one of great willingness and good cheer. This view of the world is of a piece with the rest of the book. If great art must circulate (and this book does nothing in terms of deconstructing what great art is, how it’s made, or what it does), it must always return to white “culture”. For my part, by the time I got to the phrase “dead-eyed ethnic families”, I was ready to stab Tartt in the face with an expensive, beautiful, authentic fountain pen.

***

I read Donna Tartt’s impressive first novel, The Secret History, at an impressionable age and in a stage of my life I will politely refer to as Colonised Mind v. 1.0. Having grown up middle-class and Tamil in Malaysia—title of my forthcoming memoir, hahaha!—and fed Austen, Dickens, Christie (Agatha) and Blyton (Enid) throughout a very protected childhood, I was very susceptible to romantic Life of the Mind-type ideas and proclivities.

Besides, I had a tattered copy of Bullfinch’s Mythology that followed me everywhere. I—like about a zillion other young kids who came to learn about Greek mythology by way of Anglo-European classicists—loved Greek myth. Who doesn’t? Myths are great. Why would you not like stories? Stories are great.

So when I found a tattered copy of The Secret History in a used bookstore, an Ivy Books trade paperback with a lurid cover image comprising a mishmash of an imposing New England colonial building, a Doric column and a single stem rose, with various phrases like “Greek scholars, worldly, self-assured,” “a terrifying secret that bound them to one another”, “an incident in the woods in the dead of the night”, “an ancient rite that was brought to brutal life”, and “gruesome death” strewn across the back cover copy, it worked like a charm. I bought it, devoured it, and read it over and over again, before I even knew that Tartt was “a sensation” in that faraway place called the literary world.

This makes The Secret History sound almost flimsy, even silly, but it’s not. Despite its premise, Tartt is a writer who plays with excesses and extremes in the most delicate way. You don’t read Tartt for pared-down elegance, although there are moments when she does this, too. You read Tartt like you would watch Pretty Little Liars: for the unalloyed pleasure of surrendering to a familiar story that is, at turns, also new and menacing.

Tartt’s third and most recent novel, The Goldfinch, was hugely anticipated among industry types and fans because she’s only written three so far; ten years separated the publication of her second novel, The Little Friend, from her debut, and 11 years separates The Goldfinch from her second. I still pull The Secret History from the shelves every so often, skipping the parts that bore me, and going over the passages where the Greek scholars who so fascinated the novel’s protagonist, Richard Papen, are at their most knowing and obnoxious.

Now older, wiser and bitter, I’m tempted to throw copies of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena at their heads, then set off on a long lecture about the appropriation of Greek knowledge and thought by Eurocentric thinkers and writers. Still, the story remains tantalising. And, as reductive as this might probably sound, this is what Tartt does very well. She tells a good story.

The Goldfinch can be said to be an anti-bildungsroman, in that it traces the life of one Theo Decker from about 13years of age, where he survives a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum in New York that kills his mother, until his late 20s, where he reflects on this life while telling his story. It’s an anti-bildungsroman because Theo, much like Richard in The Secret History and Harriet Dufresnes in The Little Friend, has his head firmly turned back to the past, to that point in time where a singular event changed his life.

This isn’t a straightforward novel of growth and progression as it is a novel of regret, and for much of the book, Theo exists in a state of anguished perpetual adolescence. He’s always that 13-year-old boy on that fateful day at the Met.

The premise of the novel hinges on Theo’s possession of Carel Fabritius’s “The Goldfinch” following the museum bombing. When Theo and his mother first arrive at the Met, Theo is drawn to a young girl with red hair and her elderly male companion, and after the blast, Theo finds himself in the same space with the dying old man, and in a distinctly hazy, dream-like encounter, this man gives Theo a ring and encourages him to leave the museum with the painting.

Later, after learning about his mother’s death from a pair of social workers—his father having long since disappeared from their lives—and after having narrowly escaped a life in care by moving in with his friend Andy Barbour’s family, the ring will lead Theo to the old man’s business and home, an antique shop in the West End, and into the orbit of the lives of the man’s business partner and Theo’s future mentor and guardian and father-figure of sorts, Hobie, and the man’s young niece, Pippa, the redhead of the museum encounter. The painting stays with Theo until, of course, it doesn’t, which is a sort of plot progression the reader would have seen coming from the start.

Throughout the book we meet a cast of characters that includes the family members of the Barbour household, as well as Hobie, Pippa, and Theo’s estranged alcoholic father and his new girlfriend, Xandra. Theo moves from the Barbour’s upper-class posh lifestyle in New York to Las Vegas with his father and Xandra and makes a life-changing new friend named Boris, and then moves back to New York again, with a fevered, nightmarish pit-stop in Amsterdam before the novel’s end.

Boris, as it turns out, is the novel’s most entertaining character probably because he’s Polish-Ukrainian and is made out to have both socialist and criminal tendencies, a perfect foil to the generally law-abiding and liberal Theo. Tartt’s liberal American imagination allows Boris to be the wild and fun and yet corrupting influence in Theo’s life—yes, he’s a good friend, in his own way, but in some ways Boris just an amalgam of how Americans view foreigners who have lived in countries with different political systems. Those insane Eastern Europeans and their dangerous political ideas and lax ways with the law! Crazy Boris even tried out being Muslim for awhile, which teenage Theo finds positively incomprehensible.

While The Goldfinch is set in a politically-charged landscape—the bombing at the museum is vaguely attributed to “terrorism”—Tartt is a writer of bourgeois psychological novels, and the large cast of characters in this book only serve to contextualise Theo’s interior life. This isn’t to say they aren’t well realised, even larger than life, as in Boris’ case—but this isn’t a novel that’s grappling with social and political issues surrounding the bombing in 21st-century New York. It’s about a boy and his painting, and how it both circumscribes and expands his relation to other people, and serves as a talisman that links him to his mother and to a gentrified world of art and beauty and stability—Hobie’s world—that he wants to be a part of, even while he realises he stands outside of it.

Tartt’s fascination with rich WASPs continues in this book, as seen in Theo’s perpetual amazement of the Barbours and their lifestyle, but equally unappealing for me is the casual othering of people of colour. Boris is larger than life because he’s a central character, but otherwise while criminal white Germans might each have a name, criminal Indonesians only appear inscrutable and are compared to anacondas, while criminal Chinese are inscrutable and wily and are in possession of a name that all the white people can’t be bothered to remember, or have “difficulty” remembering, because it sounds so strange. (Theo can’t even tell at one point, if this person is a man or a woman or a boy or a girl, and somehow this problem seems related to this person’s Asianness.)

When Theo arrives in Amsterdam and looks around at the airport and sees “dead-eyed ethnic families”, it’s hard not to flinch, though I was also curious about where one could obtain this all-purpose “ethnic family”—at the gift shop, presumably? Does the ethnic family come in all sizes and colours? Theo even exoticises his own mother’s appearance because she was part-Irish, part Cherokee, telling us that “in the slant of her cheekbones there was such an eccentric mixture of the tribal and the Celtic Twilight”—the what and the what?, was my question—and that sometimes the exotic character of her facial features were too stark when her hair was pulled back, making her look “like some nobleman in The Tale of Genji”. Okay.

There’s a Dickensian aura running through The Goldfinch, most notably Great Expectations, and there are certain similarities between Pip and Theo as they navigate their orphan hood (Theo’s father is far from a father) and find parental figures in the unlikeliest of places, not to mention their inability to love anyone but the one woman they can’t have, though Theo’s spiritual twin appears to be The Secret History’s Richard. In all her novels, Tartt is particularly adept at conveying the banal hazards of estrangement and evoking sensations relating to place and space. Both Richard and Theo, for example, wish they were anyone but themselves, and are particularly gifted in losing themselves in copious quantities of alcohol and pills. “A self one does not want. A heart one cannot help,” as Theo puts it. And while The Secret History will always be reminiscent of frost and snow and ice and the chill of the unknown, this book is notable for the hot, barren, drug-infused Las Vegas suburban desertscape and its air-conditioned ennui.

In this novel, as with her previous two, Tartt seems to be circling around the same concerns about a person’s fatal flaw. “Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs”, Richard begins in The Secret History—and the same is true for Theo. His longing for beauty, and his inability to let go or exist separately of “The Goldfinch”, once he’s set eyes on it, is his constant downfall.  For one thing, it connects him to his mother, who loved Fabritius’s work before Theo even began to pay attention. But more alarming, for Theo, is how hard he fell for the painting, and the lengths he with which he destroyed little aspects of his life in order to keep it:

What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted—? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one wilfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?

This is a thread that runs through all of Tartt’s novels, with protagonists floating in a sea of banal everyday life routines, desperately wishing for wings to fly out and touch the sun. Even in The Little Friend, Harriet was convinced of her difference—her fatal flaw being the morbid longing to find out the truth, at all costs. (And the price is steep, as she learns by the end.)

While the ending for The Secret History was rather exquisite, evoking the tragic in a way that was both sad and tender, The Goldfinch ends with what feels like a sermon from Theo, desperately trying to attribute meaning to everything that had happened thus far while still assuring us that the knows that “life is catastrophe”. It feels tacked-on and forced, and one wonders if Tartt felt compelled to drag the novel on for as long as close to 800 pages in order to give us A Lesson to make up for the dissatisfaction many felt with The Little Friend, which ended on a totally bizarre note, with no resolution of any sort for anyone—and which, I thought, was perfectly in keeping with the slow drip of menace that increased with every page.

While talking about how a novel is about one thing is a sure way to kill the experience of reading, the ending of The Goldfinch seems to want to reduce it to a meaning: about the magic that exists in that unfathomable place between illusion and reality, that lives on between people and things—in particular, things that are passed on from one hand to another. After some 700 pages of one catastrophic event after another, after repeated attempts at self-erasure, these words don’t seem true delivered in Theo’s voice, and the conclusion seems too tidy, too hopeful, too trite.

Tartt’s novels aren’t novels of ideas—there’s a reason why I compared reading a Tartt novel to watching a TV show, and it’s because it’s propelled by a forward-moving momentum; it’s about action and places and people. These are novels concerned with the psychology of its characters. The Goldfinch seems ripe for meditations on art commodities, and ideas and politics that are transmitted through works of art, as well as deep explorations about what cultural anthropologists like Arjun Appadurai have called the social life of things, but any asides or discussions on books or paintings and the exchange of and desire for commodities are tangential to the main story of Theo’s life. It’s only at the very end that Theo attempts to weave the history of this masterwork he’s kept, hoarded, and lost into the trajectory of his own life, but by then it’s all delivered in one big rush of a moral lesson, and the effect is one of vague disorientation at this newly-wise Theo.

The Secret History was a compelling modern tragedy because its effects were rooted in mimesis, in replicating the elements of the Greek plays in the catastrophes of Richard’s, and his friends’, modern American lives. The Goldfinch merely uses the central artwork as a prop for the plot, for the service of the protagonist’s inner life, even while Theo tries to convince us otherwise through occasional meandering and repetitive musings on art that are, unfortunately, superficial and uninteresting. Tartt’s novel is eminently readable and entertaining, even moving at times, but while I kept turning the pages I never wanted to linger over it like how Theo does when he looks at the painting and meets the eyes of Fabritius’s all-seeing goldfinch.

 

Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon

May 23, 2014 § 2 Comments

In further installments of “Book Reviews I Wrote Months Ago”, this is my piece on Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon for Full Stop:

The panopticon has been over-theorised. Maybe Foucault can take some of the blame for that. Jeremy Bentham, 18th-century  philosopher and social theorist, came up with the design of the Panopticon to enable institutional surveillance, primarily in prisons. The design involved a curved or circular building, where inmates would live, with an inspection house or tower right in the centre. Guards or managers or nurses or wardens could watch over the entire building this way. Inmates would know they were being watched, but they wouldn’t be able to know who was doing it, or when. In the 20th-century, Michel Foucault’s seminal work Discipline and Punish was largely responsible for introducing the idea of the panopticon as metaphor for modern Western societies. Disciplinary societies, according to Foucault, normalized the mechanisms of the panopticon precisely because it is a mechanism that “automatizes and disindividualizes power”:

He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.

When talking about the twenty-first century surveillance state, it’s practically impossible not to talk about the panopticon as metaphor. Revelations about NSA surveillance have led to comparisons between the surveillance state and the panopticon, with one crucial factor overlooked or erased: for the panopticon to work as the panopticon, people have to know it’s there. The NSA surveillance is different from, say, how social media works. The metaphor of the panopticon might work for how users are both subject to and agents of surveillance in sites like Facebook and Twitter; but revelations about NSA surveillance came as a shock precisely because no one knew that they were being monitored in precisely this way. Vague generalizations about how we’re all complicit in mass surveillance serve to mystify actual mechanisms of power that operate through capitalist state structures; they rob it of form and content,making the general public “complicit” in state-sanctioned NSA surveillance, except of course — they are not

In Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon, the panopticon is not a metaphor but an actual building an institution for troubled foster kids. It is a building as Bentham envisioned it; a place where power is present but unseen. When fifteen-year-old Anais Hendricks arrives at this building, her new home, she has blood on her school uniform and has been remanded for possibly having attacked a female police officer who is now in a coma. She has also been in the Scottish foster care system her entire life and has a history of starting riots in previous institutions, of setting fire to police equipment and vehicles, of drug dealing and bloody, knock-down fights. Anais is a veteran of various care institutions, and she quickly observes the various features of the building — how the windows are only open about six inches, for instance, in the third-floor bedrooms, or how the windows on the top floor are barred and boarded up. We see the building when Anais sees it: “The Panopticon looms in a big crescent at the end of a long driveway. It’s four floors high, two turrets on either side and a peak in the middle — that’ll be where the watchtower is.”

“We’re just in training for the proper jail,” Anais tells us, acknowledging the role of foster care institutions in executing the state’s disciplinary power against the poorest, most deprived members of society — abandoned, abused, and unwanted children. “Nobody talks about it, but it’s a statistical fact. That or on the game. Most of us are anyway — but not everybody. Some go to the nuthouse. Some just disappear.” By the end of the book, the reader learns about how “some just disappear” and how some just die.

Anais is the central character in Fagan’s novel and its sole voice, and it’s a truly arresting one. Having lived in the care system all her life, Anais is especially keen to know something, anything, about her biological mother. She wonders if she even has one, or if she’s just part of the “experiment” — a fantasy/nightmare that keeps recurring throughout the novel because of her undetermined parentage. The closest Anais ever got to having her own family was a woman named Teresa who adopted her, a sex worker who was found murdered in her bathtub when Anais was eleven.

While reading The Panopticon, we’re certain that there’s one single thing that’s rotten to the core, and that’s the foster care system. Like schools or prisons or asylums, it’s a disciplinary tool meant to produce docile — but ideally broken — bodies and psyches. Anais is scathing about social work in general, where she’s diagnosed with borderline personality. “It’s better than no personality,” Anais retorts, to which she quickly learns: “Wrong. Apparently — no personality is the correct answer.” There is her case worker, Helen, who is more interested in saving her spiritual soul by making trips to India and being conveniently absent during some of the more crucial aspects of Anais’ life, such as police hearings and questioning. Anais deems herself a “lifer” because she realizes that what is deemed her history of “violence” and antisocial behavior, and how that’s filtered through machinations of the system, is likely to keep her institutionalized forever, first in care homes and then in prison. So she knows better than to trust social workers:

As specimens go, they always get excited about me. I’m a good one. A show-stopper. I’m the kind of kid they’ll still enquire about ten years later. Fifty-one placements, drug problems, violence, dead adopted mum, no biological links, constant offending. Tick, tick, tick. I lure them in to begin with. Cultivate my specimen face. They like that. Do-gooders are vomit-worthy. Damaged goods are dangerous. The ones that are in it cos they thought it would be a step up from the office job are tedious. The ones who’ve been in it too long lose it. The ones who think they’ve got the Jesus touch are fucking insane. The I can save you brigade are particularly radioactive. They think if you just inhale some of their middle-classism, then you’ll be saved.

Anais is particularly acerbic of Helen’s expectations of her as a damaged foster kid. Helen is frustrated by Anais’ inability to code her class position through particular forms of dress and style that would render her an ideal, to-be-pitied, poor thing: “What [Helen] really didnae like, though, was that I wouldnae stick tae the uniform. No hair extensions , no tracksuits, no gold jewellery. That really pissed her off. The first time she saw me in a pillbox hat and sailor shorts, you’d have thought I’d just slapped her granny.”

In fact, The Panopticon shows how the care system produces the damaged subject it’s supposed to “help”. The capitalist state reproduces this underclass through specific institutions meant to accommodate them to “a regular life” of wage labour and despair, up to the point where they’re productive but not actually happy or content. And if that’s impossible, then there are countless ways to control them: prison and psychiatric institutionalization. And if some of them die along the way, well, it couldn’t be helped. When lectured by the police on her vandalism, Anais says that they tell her “how much money vandalism costs the average taxpayer a year. They talk to me a lot about the taxpayers. The taxpayers hate me.”

Parts of The Panopticon can be read as interesting commentaries on the production of identity and how it is performed both in the private and public sphere, and in places where these differences start to blur — such as the internet. Anais knows that for people like her, visibility is a trap. She looks at CCTV footage of herself caught stealing and thinks, “It’s me. I’m a movie star, Mama, are you proud?” Darkness, for her, is safer than daylight, “her safe place”. Throughout The Panopticon, there’s no reference to self-performance, to selfies, Tumblrs, and livejournals or blogs. Anais and the other kids spend their time with each other, alone, or getting high on an addictive substance of their choice in a bit to escape. For a hypervisible and heavily-monitored person like Anais, the internet holds no particular appeal. And if she were to use it, her access to it would be limited—and as in all aspects of her life—heavily-monitored. As Anais explains, it’s impossible for her to be labelled a borderline personality with “identity problems” when she barely has an identity, having moved some fifty-odd times throughout her fifteen years of life. Anais’ fantasies and dreamscapes involve flying cats and a quiet artist-life in Paris. Hers is a life of the mind and a multitude of actual, living nightmares. For Anais, who is watched all the time, her mind is the one place where she can be herself, whatever that may be, and it seems dangerous to want to surrender that part of her to the world when it’s the one place the world hasn’t trespassed and invaded — yet:

The surveillance window in the watchtower glitters in the dim. Dinnae look up that glass. There could be anyone behind that glass. Five men in suits with no faces. All watching. They can watch.

I dinnae get people, like they all want to be watched, to be seen, like all the time. They put up their pictures online and let people they dinnae like look at them! And people they’ve never met as well, and they all pretend tae be shinier than they are are — and some are even posting on like four sites; their bosses are watching them at work, the cameras watch them on the bus, and on the train, and in Boots, and even outside the chip shop. Then even at home — they’re going online to look and see who they can watch, and to check who’s watching them!

Is that no weird?

But while Foucault, in Discipline and Punish, wrote that in the Panopticon, “inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers”, Anais’ community of inmates show that it’s not so simple. Power, here, is not disindividualized — in fact, these kids are well-aware that power is exercised through the very people who are meant to care for them. Their resistance to the care workers is often clever and subtle, but not diffuse. When it’s time to demand for a change, they band together through communal acts of resistance, like the riot that takes place towards the end of the book, even if they know that the bond cannot possibly last for more than a moment, perhaps. Even the care worker whom Anais feels the most affinity with, Angus, is not really on their side. At the end of the day, he stills answers to a system of power that is beyond the efforts of his own individual acts of kindness, and when Anais is close to being sent away to a secure unit for the crime she is certain she did not commit, he has no choice but to comply with the requirements that make it so.

In a chapbook published by Guillotine titled Violence, Vanessa Veselka and Lidia Yuknavitch talk about how “territories of violence — psychic territories, physical territories, psychosexual territories” are under-represented in most women’s fiction. Of course, the question may be less to do with women not writing about violence than about what type of books get published, and the attendant ideological functions that work towards making those decisions — whether in book publishing, or films and television. Fagan is uninterested in pretending violence isn’t a fact of Anais’ life and in the novel, Anais is resigned to it. It’s a book that doesn’t flinch from portraying the territories of violence in Anais’ life. It shapes her very existence, but she hates it and can’t bear to see violence inflicted upon the powerless — the idea of someone harming or abusing a child or an animal, for example, makes her so angry she can hardly think. And yet knock-down fistfights between Anais and other girls are a basic fact of her day-to-day life. She hates fighting, but she has to do it; not only is it a means of staying alive, but it’s a means of crafting an identity, a reputation, and crucially — a means of preventing further violence in the future. When placed in a new institution with a new group of people, if you can get that first fight out of the way and do it reasonably well, you can then hope to be left alone afterward. Crucially, The Panopticon also depicts violence inflicted on girls like Anais by the cops, especially in carefully-manipulated ways designed to let the cops off the hook: they’re not meant to rough-up these kids too much because it could lead to bad publicity if word got out, but they can rough them up if they see fit, which is almost always. But as Anais would be the first to tell you, institutional violence against foster kids and runaways is rarely the subject of a news report or an online petition.

One of the more harrowing incidents in the book is about sexual violence and how it plays out on women’s and girls’ bodies as means of communication between men. The Panopticon shows how even the most impoverished and desperate men work around the issues they have with each other and with the system that violates them through the use and abuse of women’s bodies. And so too Anais’ boyfriend in prison, who is deep in debt and tricks Anais into a situation where her body is offered up as repayment. Earlier on, Anais is surprised when she meets a girl in care who’s still a virgin in her teens because she knows that if young girls haven’t already had transactional sex to survive, they would have been raped by any number of men, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, who view their bodies as goods for the taking. The teen girl in care who’s still a virgin is an anomaly. The poorest, youngest, least-defended bodies are handed around, back and forth, and one is reminded of that passage in Virginie Despentes’ King Kong Theory:

I find it strange today, when so many people walk around with tiny computers in their pockets — cameras, phones, personal organisers, iPods — there exists no object at all to slip into your pussy when you go out for a stroll that will rip up the cock of any fucker who sticks it in there. Perhaps it isn’t desirable to make female genitalia inaccessible by force. A woman must remain open, and fearful. Otherwise, how would masculinity define itself?

Because Anais is such a force, it seems as though her voice is enough for The Panopticon, and it is, but it’s also a particular kind of loss that so many of her thoughts remain in her head. When we meet Anais at the beginning of the book, she’s alone in a world that wants nothing to do with her, and when we leave her at the end, she’s still alone in a world that wants nothing to do with her. Although Fagan’s novel is one of the finest I’ve read in a very long time, there is no respite for Anais from an atomized neoliberal existence, no possibility of a different kind of life that doesn’t require a partitioning of the self for mere survival. Anais finds moments of solidarity, even love and friendship, with other kids in her position. But it’s gone in a flash. She then has to move. An isolated existence bereft of attachments is the only mode of survival for a person like her in a world like ours.

girl, awkward

August 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

Taking this blogging thing to a whole new level and putting up a review of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband,  and He Hanged Himself some three months later. #awkwardblogging

This originally appeared in Pop Matters:

In her book of short critical commentaries and interviews with ten contemporary writers, Voices of Russian Literature, Sally Laird describes the women and girls who populate Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s stories as hapless and ill-suited to even the most basic machinations of life. They seem to lack “even the rudiments of pride or strategy,” and on the surface, as Laird points out, “many of Petrushevskaya’s heroines appear to live their lives ineptly.” Nothing better describes the heroines of the stories in There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband and He Hanged Himself.

These girls and young women are average-looking or sometimes outright unattractive, as in the case of the protagonist in “Give Her to Me”: “Karpenko… was one of those unfortunate creatures forced to compensate for their appearance with a pleasant disposition and a carefree attitude.” They’re barely visible to the world outside of their cramped apartment shared with family members. “There once lived a girl who was beloved by her mother but no one else,” begins one story, for example. “Until Clarissa turned seventeen not a single soul admired or noticed her—in that respect she was not unlike Cinderella or the Ugly Duckling,” begins another.

Motherhood is a central theme in these stories, and mothers loom large over these inept, awkward daughters. But these daughters then grow up to become inept, awkward mothers. This pattern keeps repeating itself throughout Petrushevskaya’s stories. That the parents are practically indistinguishable from their children is one of the key tropes in this collection.

In her interview with Laird, Petrushevskaya is keen to emphasise that she doesn’t regard herself as a women writer.” As she says: “I write above all about children, not about women; the land I inhabit is a land of children, not of grown-ups.” These love stories are as much about women trying to find their lost or dead babies in grown men as it is about love between two adults or supposed “equals”.

If Petrushevskaya’s women are hapless, then the men are clueless. But if there is a war of the sexes in Petrushevskaya’s stories, however, it’s a war between two losing sides. Husbands have lost their jobs, money, and teeth, and their wives plot to escape to another apartment inherited from dead aunts. Husbands and wives scream at each other over dinner and stomp off to bed; they wake up the next day and show up to perform the same ritual all over again.

That’s because they have nowhere else to go. Another central theme in Petrushevskaya’s stories is that of space or the absolute lack of it—the key characteristic of the Russian kommunalka. Petrushevskaya’s stories make no overt mention of politics, but her characters are constantly manoeuvring their way around the cramped spaces of communal apartments; the concept of privacy is literally impossible, barely even imaginable. The space of the communal apartment organises the behaviour of the inhabitants; it mediates their social interactions.

Petrushevskaya may eschew overt discussion of Soviet communism in her stories—all the action tends to take place “inside”, in these apartments and in offices, bus stops, grocery stores—but the Soviet-era administration of space haunts each and every personal encounter. In “Young Berries”, one of the collection’s most poignant and formally-inventive story with its alternating first and third person point-of-view, a young girl finds that she’s unable to have the phone conversation she wants to have with her crush because “the apartment’s entire population now stood in the hall… The conceit was that everyone was waiting to use the phone after me.”

More central to the story, however, is how the girl’s stay in a sanatorium—with its autumnal park and lush trees, with all its space—is what she comes to miss the most after she returns to a crowded apartment shared with one too many family members. “By the time the girl reached fifth grade, of course, all Soviet citizens were proletarians.”

To the extent that this collection features “love stories”, however, love is a mangled, ugly thing. Despite love’s viciousness, manipulations, and violence, however, Petrushevskaya’s characters are lonely, and they want some of the sweetness it brings: human contact, warmth, an elevated sense of self, the idea that there must be something better out there than life as they know it. Often, it’s a means of escape—a way out of those damn communal apartments, for one thing (and into another, as it often turns out), but for children, it’s primarily a means to escape the pressing weight of their parents.

In “Father and Mother”, for example, Tanya leaves her bickering parents’ home with her lover after deciding that she’s had enough of them, and she never looks back: “Everything that happened to her afterward—homelessness, then a landlady who drank nothing but kefir and tried to hang herself every March but was rescued by her son—all this adversity she considered happiness, and not a shadow of doubt or despair ever touched her.” In the hands of a different writer, the bleakness of these stories would be overwhelming, its black humour enervating or merely “ironic”. But Petrushevskaya wants her characters to have a better life. She’s not sure if they can, given the fact that the world is a pretty shit place, but she’s not going to give up on them.

It’s this aspect of Petrushevskaya that American reviewers seem to adore, perhaps assuming that this reveals a kind of liberal humanism that has seen the worst of Soviet communism and whole-heartedly refused it. And perhaps it does. Petrushevskaya is well-known playwright and writer in her own country and has been writing since the ‘70s, although it was only after the implementation of glasnost under Gorbachev during the ‘80s that her prose writings began to see light of day.

Meanwhile, she became well-known to American readers (and by proxy, readers in other parts of the world) after the publication of a collection of “scary fairy tales” by Penguin Books, ,i>There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby, in 2009. While Petruskhevskaya, in Laird’s interview, says, “I’ve never concerned myself with politics—it doesn’t interest me at all, for all sorts of reasons,” this strikes one as a particularly disingenuous statement because while it’s never overt, there is a sense of resistance or criticism to forms of communal living, and by extension, the Soviet communist project at large, in all her stories. This seems to indicate a particular political position, even if it’s not explicitly articulated.

In this light, then, her characters’ absolute lack of drive, ambition, or self-transformation is particularly interesting—their incompetence at life becomes more of a political stance and less of a quirk of the “the mysteries of human nature” variety for which Petrushevskaya’s stories are often praised. As Jochen Hellbeck points out in his study of diaries written during the Soviet revolution, Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary Under Stalin, “The concern with self-transformation, shared by the Communist regime and these Soviet diarists, was rooted in the revolution of 1917, which promoted a new thinking about the self as political project… Talking and writing about oneself had become intensely politicized activities. One’s ‘biography’ had become an artifact of considerable political weight.”

Petrushevskaya, whose forebears were part of the Old Bolsheviks and comprised the Russian intelligentsia, lived a life of poverty and neglect. Anna Summers writes in her translator’s introduction that as a young girl in Moscow “Petrushevskaya and her mother lived under a desk in her insane grandfather’s room, while occasionally renting cots in nearby communal apartments,” while in the interview with Laird Petrushevskaya talks specifically about wanting to write the stories of “ordinary people” outside of the circle of politicians and intellects that she knew grewing up.

The characters of her book don’t keep diaries or ruminate on their innermost thoughts—they are consumed by detail and the minutiae of the everyday life; in those cramped apartments, they barely have space to think. This fulfils one common narrative beloved by liberal capitalists about life under Soviet communism: people are so victimised they barely even know how to have thoughts! On the other hand, as Hellbeck points out, Soviet diarists came from varied backgrounds and occupations, and many were wrestling with the summons to “internalize the revolution” with a personal attempt to write themselves into “the revolutionary narrative”. In this sense, while it was a Communist dictat that the people should write their lives and transform themselves into ideal revolutionary subjects, indicating a certain form of political and social coercion, people retained a sense of agency in their writings and sought to shape their troubled, conflicted individual narratives within a larger, collective one.

Petrushevskaya’s stories of “ordinary people” are ambivalent and unsettling because while people show up to help each other, they seem unaware of their own actions or the impulses, desires, and reasons behind it. Petrushevskaya wants her characters to come out on the other side, still surviving, but this concern for her characters can be as forceful, patronising, and muddled as the love parents have for their children. In her introduction, Summers wants us to see that Petrushevskaya “wants us to be strong, and clever, and resourceful, like the Russian people she loves.” But if the characters in her stories stand in for the Russian people she loves, then these are a people who are exhausted and perplexed, sent out into a world they don’t quite know how to navigate, subject to love, luck, and brutality by the incomprehensible energies of an indifferent universe (or, depending on your point of view, a gifted and shrewdly manipulative writer). There’s a sense that some readers can take some form of comfort from that, but for others, these stories merely suggest business as usual—only bleaker.

Are you there, Foucault? It’s me, the tourist.

October 17, 2012 § 8 Comments

I was in Sydney for two weeks, which was nice, but nice doesn’t quite capture it. And what was nice about it? Being away from KL was nice. “I need a new city”, someone I follow once said on Twitter, and that seems to be the thing: I need a new city. I don’t think Sydney will be my city, although I loved it, and I loved spending time with my nephews while they were on their school break, I liked the idea of a wholesome PG-13 holiday and I liked being asked by the barista if I was enjoying the school break, being away from school must be fun and all, he said. And then I said no, I’m no longer in school, and then he was like, Oops and Are these your children, then? referring to my nephews, and I somehow went from high school kid to mum in like two seconds but look, if someone wants to think I’m still in high school I am going to silently, gratefully thank the universe. But why should I thank anyone or anything, fuck this ageist capitalist society, fuck it, yes, but I still live in it, so how to fuck it is the question. The barista was cute, and my sister watched me from afar, and then calmly informed my nephews that the barista was trying to flirt with Aunty Suba and then my nephews giggled and I stammered and blushed as much as I could blush with brown skin. And the one thing they don’t tell you about older sisters is that you might get older but you’ll always feel (be) 12 around them.

We went to Darling Harbour while I was there, and that’s the one part of the city I loathed because it was a nightmare concoction of what corporate city planners think is “wholesome family fun”, there are restaurants and malls and museums and an IMAX theater and carefully-planted trees and Disneylandesque stone paths and manufactured conviviality and it reminded me so much of Singapore’s Marina Bay, another place that makes you want to run away as you enter into its vicinity.

Doesn’t this just scream LOOK AT ME I’M MANUFACTURING SOME UBER-COOL URBAN HARBOUR VIBES

Uniformed white men on horses in Circular Quay. I think there were epic ceremonial rites taking place that we basically stumbled upon by chance. I mean, there were reporters and shit! And who can resist the uniformed white men on horses? Not us Malaysian tourists, that’s for sure.

While taking the train from the suburbs, where my brother’s family lives, to the city, I stared out of the windows and saw things — shops and places and people and the “Say no to burqas” graffiti next to the one proclaiming “Free speech”.

Things that stick in your mind.

The one place I can’t get out of my mind is Cockatoo Island, which was formerly a penal colony (in the mid to late 19th century), now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and tourist spot (when we went it was a long weekend and families were coming in on the ferry to camp there for the weekend). While I really wanted to visit the place — absorb it, in a way — because of its history (that awful, almost unavoidable touristy need to cannibalise history and its affects), I also couldn’t shake off the wrongness of my presence, my out-of-placeness, or the out-of-placeness of all “visitors” in a place that was formerly a site of discipline, surveillance, and hard labour. “Foucault tourism” as Nicholas Mirzoeff writes, in a piece which you should read:

My British forebears did know how and where to build prisons, you have to give them that. The island is isolated in the middle of Sydney harbor, with the prison itself located on top of a steep cliff. Recent excavations have uncovered minute solitary confinement cells, which have a distinctly contemporary look in this Abu Ghraib era. The officials built themselves sandstone residences with a Georgian feel but placed at the highest point to give them a panoptic viewpoint. Grain silos dug into the rock still have chain rings, to which the excavating prisoners were linked while working. The prison was created right at the end of the transportation era in 1849–convicts were not sent to New South Wales after 1850, although they went to Western Australia as late as 1868.

Factory workhouse on Cockatoo Island

I stood inside the the military barracks/guard house, the place from which military supervisors of the penal colony monitored the prisoners, and took pictures of the panipticon while watching other tourists take pictures of the panopticon, all the while waiting for an answer from Foucault. Are you there, Foucault? It’s me, the tourist. What am I doing here?

Cockatoo Island’s military guardhouse i.e. panopticon

Mirzoeff:

In 2000, a group of Aboriginal people occupied the island and claimed it as sovereign territory. You can still see their murals, using the Aboriginal flag as a motif. Using the colonial doctrine of terra nullius, Isabell Coe and others asserted that Britain had never formally claimed the island, a claim rejected by the courts as “inconceivable.” Really? A deserted island on the edge of the harbor? Regardless, Coe created a tent embassy on the island and asserted sovereignty. The occupation of occupied indigenous land and the counterclaim to sovereignty was a powerful performative act.

The art exhibition was over when I was there and so the island was populated by adults and surly teenagers and perplexed babies, looking at the air raid shelter and the powerhouse chimney and the sewerage treatment plant and perhaps recognising the ghosts among us. It’s a quiet, isolated place; perfect, in fact, for isolated disciplinary methods and punitive labour. Strong winds, the bright sun. “This place is fascinating,” said a mother to her two teenage sons, coming down the road just ahead of us. “It was the most boring experience of my life,” said the elder son, shoving his younger brother.

**

While I was in Sydney my review of Roshi Fernando’s Homesick went up on Pop Matters. I didn’t expect to like it for various reasons I talk about in the review, but it surprised me. You can read the review in full here but here’s an excerpt:

One of my favourite stories, “Sophocles’s Chorus”, gives us a youthful Preethi slowly blossoming into her sexual and intellectual powers: she kisses the most lusted-after boy in school, she reads Howard’s End and Antigone, she is the star in a school play, and her dreams and words and images slowly bleed into one another until fantasies and imagination hold the possibility of becoming real. But these moments of youthful potential and hope, moments that appear to be touched by a sort of otherworldly grace, sour pretty quickly, and the kiss becomes a shame that Preethi must endure under the watchful, cruel eyes of her peers.

What starts out as tragedy on the page, experienced from a distance as a reader of Sophocles, becomes the unwished-for reality: all that held the promise of something sweet becomes rank with wrong choices and misdeeds, and Preethi slashes her wrists in the bathtub. She survives this suicide attempt, of course, but the Preethi we meet later will always be raw and vulnerable, always approaching the edge of something, only to be pulled back by someone: a husband, a cousin. Families will consistently fuck you up, Fernando seems to say, but sometimes they also don’t let you die.

**

I was supposed to stay away from the cinema but I didn’t. I watched Looper and I am flummoxed by all the swoony reviews. The reviews don’t really tell you what it’s about. It’s about Mothers! MOOOOOOTHERS! MOTHERS ABANDONED US BY US I MEAN LITTLE LOST BOYS WE ARE BAD MEN NOW FROM BOYZ TO BAD MENZ BECAUSE MOTHERS CRISIS OF MASCULINITY GUNS MONEY BRUCE WILLIS GOES APESHIT SILENT CHINESE WIFE IN SLOWMO EMILY BLUNT CRIES AND TOUCHES HERSELF BUT AT LEAST SHE GETS TO TALK

Also if I had to choose between watching a slice of dry toast sit on a plate and a Joseph Gordon-Levitt performance, I’d go with the former.

See?

People tell me that JGL is Great and Hot but I think Toast is Better, Seriously. I know he was supposed to be really good in Brick, which I think I watched, although I can’t remember maybe I just ate some toast who knows, so maybe I should watch Brick and revisit my opinion of JGL.

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Confessions NOT on a dancefloor

March 22, 2012 § 6 Comments

1)      I used to be a Hanson fan.

There, I said it.

No. I have to tell you that it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I was an active member on a Hanson fan forum! I got mad at my sister when told me that Taylor Hanson looks like a girl! I read Hanson fanfic! I wrote Hanson fanfic! I thought Taylor was misunderstood by the world and the hambrained Hanson-haters and only needed to get to know me in order to live a happy and fulfilling life! I made friends on the Hanson fan forum, friends with whom I exchanged postcards, letters, mixtapes, mix CDs, posters, books, and phone calls! Actually, this last thing was the best thing of all. I haven’t talked to any of them in about 12 years, which suddenly makes me feel sad.

Taylor Hanson married someone else and had someone else’s babies, and life went on.

I was reminded of this because I just read this great piece on Rookie. The part that made #lolsob:

Though I am way too old to believe that my teenage fantasies will save me, I still find myself taking comfort in them. A few weeks ago, I stayed up all weekend watching Hanson videos on YouTube and I came across a clip of Taylor forgetting the lyrics at a concert and then endearingly asking the audience to help him, and suddenly I was all, What a magnificent person, I wonder if he and his wife are going to get divorced, even though they have four kids. He would probably be more intrigued and fulfilled by someone really creative and unhinged like, um, me.

(Jenny, who wrote that piece, writes a really great blog called Fashion for Writers. And it just occurred to me that we’re both using the same WordPress template, as are a few other WordPress blogs I frequent, and it’s always a little bit embarrassing, like going to a party and finding out that you and a bunch of other people you really admire are all wearing the same outfit. Or another way of looking at it: There is only one decent WordPress outfit theme and we all have to use it.)

The Hanson brothers

2)      I haven’t properly read Marx. I read The Communist Manifesto but I think it’s the least you can do and not something you’re allowed to brag about. So my project for 2012 is to get through Capital, with David Harvey’s help. (A sub-confession: this is 2011’s resolution, brought forward.) And about 20 minutes into David Harvey’s introductory video, he makes a joke and I do not laugh: “One of the best things about reading Hegel before reading Marx is that makes reading Marx pretty easy. So get yourself a dose of Hegel before you do Marx and everything will be okay.” I DO NOT LAUGH because-

3)      I have not read Hegel. Not even a sentence, I don’t think. Maybe a phrase. Maybe I’ve glanced at some Hegelian words. (Do I need to read Hegel before Marx? Should I go back to the Greeks? Perhaps reread Shakespeare? WHEN DOES THE PROJECT START AFTER I’VE READ EVERYTHING EVER WRITTEN HOW THE FUCK HOW HOW HOW FOR THE LOVE OF ISSUS OF BARSOOM I HAVEN’T EVEN READ ADAM SMITH UNLESS EXCERPTS COUNT WHY DO I NOT KNOW A DAMN THING WHAT HAVE I BEEN DOING WITH MY LIFE WHAT DO I READ WHEN HOW HOW)

The Karl Marx

4)      Instead of starting on Capital as I had planned to, I read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars last weekend in preparation for John Carter because I had no say in the matter. (The choice of movie, that is.) I think I liked the book, despite taking the time to laboriously type notes in my Kindle along the lines of, “Bahaha!” and “LOL!” and “For fuck’s sake!” Books that you can simultaneously mock and enjoy possess a certain form of power. I love that John Carter has gone to Mars but all the rules of heteropatriarchy still apply. I mean, that’s just how our world the universe works. I just got such a kick out of this hypermasculine wish fulfillment fantasy that is also one of greatest sci-fi classics of all time or something.

5)      I watched John Carter and I think I liked it and maybe you might like it too IF YOU IGNORE the nice Disney-liberal sheen, when John Carter tells some Confederate soldier dude, “You started it. You finish it!” and soldier dude goes, “Oh-ho, gone all native have we?” and John Carter replies, “No, damn the Apaches too,” or something to that effect and we’re meant to relate to and agree with this hunky embodiment of rational (white) male subjectivity, who is an Individual and who sees the robbing of American lands from the natives as a fight among equals, you know, damn you all to hell all of you I AM JOHN CARTER AND DO I NOT LOOK GOOD WITH MY DIRTY BLONDE LOCKS and when the Therns talk about how the human race is overpopulating itself and fighting to the death because THERE ARE SO MANY HUMANS and you’re meant to think OH THAT’S WHAT WAR IS ALL ABOUT NOT REALLY ABOUT GEOPOLITICS AND POWER MATRICES IT’S BECAUSE THERE ARE JUST TOO MANY OF US WELL WHY DON’T WE GET RID OF A FEW and maybe it should be the Tharks because they’re not aesthetically pleasing like John Carter of Earth and Dejah Thoris of Barsoom who are PRETTY PRETTY PEOPLE AND NOBLE AND GOOD AND PRETTY AND REALLY WOW GREAT BODIES TOO and the Tharks are just so strange looking aren’t they and none so noble as a human as Tars Tarkas and Sola, because the rest of them are brutes but hey John Carter’s loins say save Helium and Dejah Thoris and so, for that purpose, let us harness the labour of the Tharks to fight on behalf of Helium even though John Carter told Sola earlier that she is the only Thark worthy of the honour of her father’s legacy of kindness and nobility but that’s okay coz none of the other Tharks heard him say that and now they’re all really excited to fight for him even though they called him a white ape earlier, the brutes, but John Carter was really exemplary in dealing with all that hatred and racism from the uncivilised Tharks and you see the lesson here? John Carter may have benefited from white supremacy on planet Earth but he went to Mars and he was discriminated, just like the rest of us, DO YOU SEE, he just triumphed and showed the Tharks the way by staying true to the course and so if you can ignore all that, then yeah. It was pretty enjoyable, and you might like it.

The script was co-written by Michael Chabon.

The lovely people of our various planets

6)      The only book by Michael Chabon I have ever attempted to read: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The attempt was unsuccessful. I really, really, really did not like it. (Related question: What fuels the Chabon-mania? I do not understand. Do I really want to? No.)

7)      I willed myself to stay away from Twitter for a few days and I did and those few days became a week and then I was scared to go back there but then I went back and all my time is gone, again, because I read and wrote more in my spare time than I would have while tweeting, retweeting, and madly favouriting, which is what I’m doing now, having gone back. How do people hold down a job, be married, make babies, write books, write poetry, direct films, sing songs, play musical instruments, go to the gym, bake a fucking cake, and STILL ACTIVELY TWEET AND BLOG? I don’t know.

8)       I can’t stand Don Draper. I finally watched Season 4 of Mad Men and I realise that we sat through a whole season of smugbum privileged pricks just so that we could enjoy what was engendered by the various hypermasculine charades: interaction between Peggy and Joan, for like 5 glorious minutes, in the final episode. In general, I just don’t know about the adult characters this season. I’m #TeamSallyDraper all the way. I’m really sad that she has Father Issues and that her Father is Don Draper. (In summary: #nodads.) I’m amazed at how quickly Betty became the wholly unsympathetic witchmother/wife. I felt like her character was made to stand in for much of the audience’s rage and disgust over the treatment of Carla although neither Don Draper or Betty’s new husband Henry Francis gave a shit about Carla until she was fired. (And then, specifically on Don’s part, it was about how it would affect him when he takes the kids with him to California.) Yes, they’re all racist, the show vaguely and quickly assures us, but Betty is just a little bit worse for being so bitchy about it. Meanwhile, Don Draper carries on with the DonDraper Guide to Life which goes along the lines of, Secretaries: use or marry. “You don’t want to start giving me morality lessons, do you? People do things,” says Don Draper to Peggy, in reference to him sleeping with his former secretary while drunk and not taking any responsibility for the fallout. Oh, but he TRIED! How he tried! He attempted to write a letter, wrote one sentence, and threw the letter away because words on a lousy letter cannot bear the significance of the complexity that is Don Draper. Meanwhile… next episode! (File this under: “How Don Draper’s Creators Allow Don Draper to Get Away with Shit.”) Seriously. I cannot stand Don Draper. (Does Betty say the same thing? I think so.)

9)      Since reading Joan Riviere’s “Womanliness as a Masquerade” a few months ago and identifying myself as one of the intermediate types, I keep asking myself, What went wrong during the oral-biting stage? This is the question to ask (your)myself. And this made me realise that although I’ve read quite a bit of Freud I haven’t quite properly read Freud, either, and even less of the feminist critiques/engagement with Freud, and WHY DO I NOT KNOW A DAMN THING WHAT HAVE I BEEN DOING WITH MY LIFE WHAT DO I READ WHEN HOW HOW

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Review of Rahul Bhattacharya’s The Sly Company of People Who Care

January 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

A slightly delayed posting of my review of Rahul Bhattacharya’s The Sly Company of People Who Care for Pop Matters. Here’s an excerpt:

This is a book about Guyana, but it’s also in part about India, where the protagonist and the vast number of the Guyanese population locate their roots. Guyana, the protagonist informs his readers, “had the feel of an accidental place”. The protagonist of The Sly Company is a 20-something cricket journalist from Bombay who ups and leaves his job to spend a year in this accidental place. Up until this point, this book had only referred to India tangentially through the acknowledgement of the myriad ethnicities that people present-day Guyana. It spoke of a past India seen through the lens of colonialism that brought indentured labourers to emancipated Guyana from Calcutta and Bihar and other parts of India (alongside, in smaller numbers, people from Portuguese Madeira, China, other West Indian colonies). It spoke of a hyper-realised Bollywood India seen through the wistful eyes of Indian descendants of labourers who had never been “back”.

I wanted very much to like this book in an uncomplicated way, but perhaps the discomfort I had with it speaks more of Bhattacharya’s talent than a simple “I liked it!” This was the book review I was wrestling with when I wrote this post on Fanon.

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Open City by Teju Cole

June 26, 2011 § 8 Comments

I reviewed Teju Cole’s Open City for Pop Matters. I can’t recommend this book enough. I’ve been having trouble reading fiction for awhile now. I’m not sure if I’m having trouble or I just haven’t been interested enough to read a novel or a collection of stories. I’d read only good reviews of this book prior to reading it and, as a result, was dreading it. But having read it – count me in among the swooning masses.

This book was hard to get through because I read it during a time when I wanted to escape my own mind – and it was impossible, because Open City places you smack dab in the narrator, Julius’ mind, and of course this means you’re in your mind while in Julius’ mind. I wanted to be less think-y. Julius is think-y. So I read it slowly, and felt slowly consumed by the ever-present consciousness that belonged not to me, but to a fictional character, and yet one that was refracted through my own consciousness. Short of escaping myself, it was an invitation to dwell.

I think I’ve recommended Open City enough in my review and on Twitter that I probably don’t need to say more besides invite you to read the review for yourself, if you’re into the sort of thing. Speaking of Twitter, Teju Cole is on Twitter, and you’ll want to follow him. None of that “I will be launching my book at ______” or “Read a review of my book at __________.” Nope. “News from the Lagos papers, remixed” is what Cole’s Twitter bio tells us, and that is exactly what you get.

(If I swoon a little too much when I talk about Teju Cole it has nothing to do with anything.)

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In which I review Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey

May 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

for PopMatters.

It starts like this:

Zachary Mason’s reimagining of The Odyssey in 44 vignettes is a fleet-footed and agile act of creation, much like wily Odysseus himself in Homer’s original epic. The premise of The Lost Books of the Odyssey hinges on this literary conceit: 44 variations of Homer’s The Odyssey have been found at an excavation site, written on “pre-Ptolemaic papyrus”. The result is this purported “lost books” of the Odyssey, translated and compiled into one book.

This mock-scholarly preface to the Lost Books already prefigures the sense of play that will imbue the narrative, but it’s a muted kind of play. If anything, Mason’s fragments subtly reveal what I found most affecting about Homer’s tale of Odysseus: the bleakness and loneliness that constantly shrouds this perpetual wanderer slash trickster. “I hope this translation reflects the haunted light of Homer’s older islands”, writes the unnamed writer of the preface, and the light that is cast on these fragments is indeed haunted by the unending play of memories.

And you can read it in full here if you want! Or not.

I started out feeling really ambivalent about the book. I dislike feeling ambivalent about a book. I know that sometimes ambivalence probably helps, in terms of writing an objective (as much as it can be) review, but the reading experience felt strangely… muted. And then somewhere in the middle it suddenly became an emotional experience, and then towards the end I cried a bit. I know. What on earth? you’re thinking. On the whole I admired Mason’s sense of structure and his ear for language. The bits that really got to me were the bits where Athena hovered about, wily and cunning like Odysseus, always looking out for him. I’m agnostic, I guess, but there is some residual Hindooism in me. My inner Hindoo likes to talk to Hanuman, thinking that he’s watching out for me. Hanuman, too, is a little bit wily, a little bit of a trickster. I felt something for the relationship between Odysseus and Athena – at least, in the way Mason portrayed it.

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“This is our land [Coconut City]”

February 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

Nikesh Shukla’s Coconut Unlimited invited me in with its very tempting cover of vivid saree-appropriate orange. And not just ordinary saree-orange. Saree-orange speckled with graffiti-ed words and doodles. A cow accompanied by a “no beef” sign hung out next to a cassette tape, and a microphone floated somewhere above it. More important, however, were the blurbs. I would like to consider myself blurb-proof. Apparently, I only am blurb-proof when the blurb reads: “A lyrical portrait of an ordinary American family in the heart of the Midwest rocked to the core by sudden revelations and secrets from the past.” Coconut Unlimited’s blurbs were penned, though, by hip names – Joe Dunthorne of Submarine and Riz MC, star of Four Lions, for one thing – and embellished with choice words. The choicest of them being the phrase, “the Brit-Asian Rotters’ Club”, courtesy of Niven Govinden. What to do? I bought the book. I am not blurb-proof. I am not impervious. Altogether, say it to me: Hubris will be thy fall, etc.

The combined effect of colour + cover + blurbs leads the susceptible-to-covers reader (me) to believe she’s about to read THE BEST NOVEL EVAH. So it’s hardly surprising that Coconut Unlimited did not quite live up to the hype. It had its journey very well-mapped out, and it followed closely to the prescribed path. This was meant to be a warm, comedic, light-hearted yarn about three Indian boys in a posh public school in Harrow banding together to form a rap group as a buffer against the virulent British-strain of public school classism and racism. And so it was a warm, comedic, light-hearted yarn. Yet, interwoven threads of cultural differences and immigrant blues underpinned the yarniness, and it felt like the narrative would have sometimes liked to go down a different a path – a little less slap-your-knee funny, a little more turbulent and chaotic – but it seemed to have been firmly yanked back into warm, comedic, light-hearted yarn territory. Still, it must be acknowledged the flood of acclaim that came out for Coconut Unlimited book probably points towards the need among readers for adolescent school stories featuring less-than-lily white characters, for stories situated outside of the sphere of the white British experience trotted out as being representative or typical.

As far as male friendships go, Coconut Unlimited is a fine tribute to the ties that bind. Amit, the protagonist who presents this tale to us in a narrated flashback, and his two buddies Anand and Nishant, are ready-made outcasts in their posh collegiate environment because of their race and skin colour. The three are intermittently geeky and surprisingly smooth, and the dialogue between the three form some of the best parts of the book. Amit is witty and adept at summing up his social condition in a few well-chosen words:

At private school, the only thing to rebel against was wealth, which made all the white kids turn to angsty guitar music about upset stomachs and parental resentment. We three had no wealth to rebel against. We were the victims of our parents’ desire to ensure we had a good education, meaning all their money was spent on private school. No holidays, no proper nights out, no musical instruments, no frivolity – only austere learning. We rebelled against the stigma of being the three Asians.[i]

Being brown and not black isn’t enough to withstand white contempt, or at the very least it only invites a different kind of contempt that is rooted in unflattering comparisons to curry – and so Amit and his crew decide to go black via rap music and “street” culture. Problem is, neither one of them can rap – and neither one of them has experienced “life on the street”. But where adolescent energy finds its destiny, nothing can stand in its way, and so Amit, Anand, and Nishant are on their way to being Coconut Unlimited by careful and disciplined appropriation of black culture and rap music as gleaned from TV and music magazines.

Coconut Unlimited is set in the 1990s, so for these cash-deprived Indian boys of Harrow, cassette tapes are the medium by which music is discovered and consumed. Hey! Much like it was for cash-deprived Indian girls of Malaysia. Amit and his friends trade mix tapes and record songs off of bought albums and spend hours listening to beats and memorising lyrics. The mix tape is the site in which the self is continuously being remade. This isn’t surprising as music-obsessed adolescents of the 80s and mid-90s attempted to build, demolish, and reconstruct new identities in tandem with their shifting interests and obsessions with newly-discovered music, and the cassette facilitated easy acquisition and dispersal of music to suit rapidly-changing needs. Press play, hit record, or rewind – it’s there one minute or deleted and recorded over the next. The Coconut Unlimited trio also record their self-made music using cassette tapes, figuring out creative ways to layer rapping over vocals and beats in an awkward and adorable attempt at bricolage. But what’s interesting is that Amit’s father does the same, using his cassettes as a way of maintaining ties to a place – in this case, India – by copying Bollywood albums brought over by friends, and then circulating and trading these tapes amongst his friends. In Amit’s father’s case, the mix tape is a means by which he rediscovers what probably constitutes the lost self of a first-generation immigrant to Britain.

Amit’s always-present anger and confusion is often sublimated into crafting rhymes that sound good in his head but also tend to stay in his head – Amit is a failed rapper before he can even begin – which is interesting, of course, and funny. But this aspect of Amit’s character also feels overly-prescribed, as if Shukla’s attempt to rewrite the comic English novel to the key of brown prevents him from exploring (or wanting to) the boundaries between laughter and shame, or laughter and pain. After all, the immigrant experience of being the outsider constantly reminded of one’s “otherness” is not always summed up with a catchy rhyme or deviated with a few laughs. When I think about what is one of the most successful depictions of both vivid pathos and humour as it plays out in the daily lived experience of the immigrant, I think of The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon. The Lonely Londoners tells the story of the working-class, however, and Coconut Unlimited tells the story of young men who aren’t poor but who are trapped within limited economic circumstances that seriously circumscribe their ability to be “pretty cool”.

Perhaps there is never really any true pathos in the experience of the marginalised-yet-pampered second-generation Indian immigrant, only sublimated anger and resentment. Pitching the narrative at one particular emotional note throughout the book doesn’t seem to have done justice to Coconut Unlimited’s scope and imagination. Sometimes the racist bullshit that the boys endure are not so much of a laugh, haha. The familial tensions that arise out inter-generational conflicts are tiny stabs to the heart, and not so much of a laugh, haha. That’s not to say that Shukla shouldn’t have set out to write a comic novel undercut by humiliation and marginalization (two situations ripe for humour), but the comedy faltered at points. From a reader’s perspective, it felt like the comedy faltered at precise points where comedy needed to sit back and allow a little pathos to seep in through the gaps. But those emotions aren’t given permission to expand to fit those gaps, and what remains are absences in the text that don’t so much as engage curiosity as shut it down.

This is partly a problem with Amit, who drops tiny bombs throughout the narrative about his displeasure for Asian and Indian girls. He meets the daughter of his parents’ friends, a girl whom he considers sexy, only to remind us that he only considered her “sexy for an Asian girl.” Amit spends a lot of his time wanting to distance himself from his white male counterparts – and white male culture in general – while generally only desiring white females and holding Indian/Asian girls in contempt. Amit’s dislike and contempt for Indian and Asian girls is constant – he derides his sister’s Indian friends as stupid and giggly, and derides the Indian girls at a Gujarati cultural event he attends as stupid and giggly, and objects to Anand’s first girlfriend on grounds of simple jealousy, but also because she’s Indian. This is interesting, and one wonders if it’s an expected immigrant malaise to sexually reject the people who are most like you and desire those most unlike you as you grow up in a culture that valorises the people most unlike you.  The Lacanian construct of “desire is the desire for the other” seems to bear out most convincingly in immigrant or post-colonial communities. No surprise then that the teenage Amit reveres white girls more than others – except that the grown-up Amit, who narrates this story and comes back to join in the final chapter, has fulfilled teenaged Amit’s dream by marrying a white woman. One can’t help but wonder about the buried subtext of this after an adolescence spent imagining Indian/Asian women to be somehow deficient – capable only of provoking Amit’s disgust and scorn.

Amit’s pretty astute in realising that he’s mocked for appropriating black street culture while living in the comfortable suburbs of Harrow, and is aware enough to feel embarrassed when his mom says unthinking sort-of racist things about black people and black culture. At the same time, it’s a fairly common adolescent rite-of-passage to rebel, strongly and loudly OR subtly and wimpily, against one’s parents and by extension, one’s culture – since most parents tend to fill the role of cultural gatekeepers – and also to rebel against all that undercuts your sense of self and rubs your face in daily misery. In Amit’s case, the latter is realised by his posh white classmate and the entire racialised structure of his private school experience. But Amit also performs some of his own (unconscious, perhaps) cultural gatekeeping when he evaluates his Indian peers, mocking them for their fondness for vacuous R‘n’B music and appropriation of bling-bling culture:

The boys: gelled spiky hair in a variety of angles and shaved sides, jumpers with logos emblazoned near their nipples, Moschino or Ralph Lauren or Armani – s’ all bout da laaaaabels blud – jeans with insignias all over them, gleaming white trainers, gold rings on every finger displaying religious iconography.

The girls: grey or green contact lenses, foundation like pate, catty eye make-up and the rest all in black, their long small fingernails painted golden, their hair straight and middle-parted, small, all under five-foot – all so generic, so exactly the same that there was nothing even remotely attractive about them.

Sure, people might argue that Amit is young – it’s practically a requirement for him to be an ass.[ii] But young or no, one hopes to excavate other character traits that would make him interesting to be with for the duration of the narrative, if not exactly a pleasure to be with. Shukla gives us an Amit with a sparse history and with very few engagements in life beyond this sudden manic obsession with rap music as a means of attaining cool factor and redeeming his social standing. Amit seems intangible, almost a figment of authorial nostalgia and memory, while the people around him – Anand, Nishant, his parents, even Pentil the racist bully in his school – are sketched out in strong, sharp strokes, imbuing them with a stronger presence on the page than Amit ever achieves.

Shukla’s prose, however, provides the rhythm that propels the book’s narrative forward in a fairly entertaining way; the dialogue peppered with the steady and catchy beat of street slang (or at the very least, mimics the attempts of straightlaced good boys trying to speak in slang). There are some hilarious inclusions of Amit’s (misfired) attempts at crafting rhyme for their rap songs, and as expected for a comic novel well-versed and respectful of its tradition, rapid-fire wit and humour are in abundance. Amit’s mother’s constant irritation with her son’s speech style, “What do you mean ‘what’s up?’ Why must something always be up?” got a smile out of me each time. The general tenor of her dialogue is affectionately and tenderly executed; she isn’t framed as being silly or nasty (as some Indian moms appear to be when seen from the perspective of their beloved sons… or yes, daughters), just stolidly and comfortingly present.

So is Coconut Unlimited the Brit-Asian The Rotters’ Club? I remember the latter creating a world of juvenile angst, confusion, lust, desire, and the manic teenage enthusiasm for 70s British punk. It was absorbing; I read it very quickly and without many breaks while I listened to XTC in the background, and came out of it fully-convinced I was a young English male on the cusp of an exciting future. Coconut Unlimited peeled off only very outer layer of its characters’ complicated lives, and as a result I only wanted to give it my very superficial attention. It’s like expecting a lunch of rice and sambar made from scratch, only to be given sambar-from-a-box. You eat it… but there’s some crucial element missing. There’s very little room in Coconut Unlimited for the characters to feel genuinely bad for more than two seconds, and because of that the book is somewhat inadequate. From other reviews I’ve read, I seem to be in the tiny minority. But I can’t say I don’t look forward to see what Shukla will come up with now that he’s exorcised the ghost of his adolescent past with this book.


[i] Note that Amit is British yet refers to his public school as a private school, although I do believe that a public school in Britain is the term used for private school, but perhaps public schoolers in Britain refer to their public schools as private schools in private. I do not know. The alternative explanation is that this was a concession made in the text so as not to confuse non-English readers, who are more likely the easily-confused Americans. Ha! Just kidding. No, not really.

[ii] This definitely leads one to wonder if that’s the reason why there’s been a recent wave of books by adult men for adult audiences – Proper Books, mind you, without brain injury involved – featuring adolescent males as main characters filtering the world through an adolescent male experience.

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