September 30, 2013 § 5 Comments
I reviewed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah for Pop Matters awhile back, and would like to say more but writing the review exhausted me because there was so much to say and I didn’t even articulate a tenth of what I wanted to say and what’s the point of words, even. I mean, in the hands of people like Adichie, you get the point of words, but what’s the point of a reviewer’s words?
But the wonderful Sridala reminded me of this Junot Diaz interview, where he talks about decolonial love and though Americanah is about many things, the romance between Ifemelu and her white boyfriend is one of the more complex aspects of the book that really got to me. It’s not that Curt is an Evil American White Man; it’s just that he’s an American white man. Although Ifemelu’s African American experience is very different from the African-American experience, the central question that Junot asks—“Is it possible to love one’s broken-by-the-coloniality-of-power self in another broken-by-the-coloniality-of-power person?”—is I think one of the central questions of Americanah, even if it’s not consciously articulated.
So is decolonial love a kind of radical love? And is it possible? Not just in romance, but in friendship? Or in romantic friendships? (I want to have hope, or have the ability to imagine a time when YES is possible, but all I can think right now is, No.)
The review in full:
I came to the end of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s recent novel, Americanah at the same time the verdict to acquit Trayvon Martin’s killer was passed. While immersed in this vast, sprawling book about uncomfortable, unpleasant, and often unmentioned truths about racism in 21st-century America, the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer seemed a kind of judgment about America itself, the America that not-white Americans and immigrants have been telling us about America for years, decades, centuries.
As a novelist, however, Adichie is not interested in passing judgment, which is what makes her a likeable writer. What makes Americanah powerful, however, and ultimately quite devastating in parts, is its refusal to refrain from pulling punches. Like her previous award-winning novels, Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie’s main focus is on middle and upper class university-educated Nigerians; similarly in Americanah the protagonist, Ifemelu, comes from a respectable middle-class Lagos family.
Through various circumstances shaped by political and social factors, Ifemelu travels to the US for a university education and ends up staying. It’s a familiar situation for most post-colonial third worlders—inevitable, practically—this idea that some form of the good life must be found outside the borders of their corrupt and backward birth country: preferably in the West, in the lands of plenty, where years of imperialism and colonialism have enabled its subjects to enjoy Freedom™, drinkable tap water, and partake of a seemingly unlimited bounty of foodstuff in grocery stores and supermarkets.
Or so it would seem, seen from the outside.
As in her previous novels, commentary on political and social circumstances is folded delicately into layers of the personal. In Americanah, Race-in-America is as much a character as Ifemelu and her first love, Obinze. Made up of seven parts, Americanah begins and ends as a love story, but it’s a love story that travels and migrates and sees and learns, so that when Ifemelu and Obinze meet again, in the novel’s final pages, they’ve been so shaken and turned inside out by the forces outside of themselves that they’ve shed and accrued different layers. It’s a most believable kind of love story, and a kind of triumph, the kind that left me crying because it seems to be the kind of love that no one dares to believe in, anymore.
Weaved into the dominant love story are the narratives of racism, displacement, migration, border-crossing and borderlessness, liberalism, Nigerian middle class apathy, Nigerian ruling class exploitation, colourism and its cousin, hairism, and white American do-gooders. The novel begins with Ifemelu’s point of view, and maintains it save for a few sections that allows us a glimpse of Obinze’s thoughts, and from the start we know that Ifemelu is not one to be trifled with and not one to trifle with us.
When she notices a fat woman in a miniskirt, Ifemelu feels admiration, an admiration that would not be there had it been a body that fit normative beauty ideals because “It was safe and easy, after all, to display legs of which the world approved”. When we meet Ifemelu she’s a successful blogger who has achieved some amount of fame blogging about racism in America, even earning herself a fellowship in Princeton. In fact, we meet her in Princeton, where on the very first page she tells us that in “… this place of affluent ease, she could pretend to be someone else”—but not really herself, the self that wears natural hair, since she’s on her way to Trenton to braid her hair because there are no braiding salons in Princeton.
If Americanah wrangles with perceptions of race in America, it’s because Ifemelu is unused to the concept, which is a very shrewd commentary on the hegemonic functions of American thought. So much of what passes as discourse on “racism” is a very specific view of racism that pertains to the American experience, exported globally like Coca-Cola and military weapons. This raises some troubling moments, not just between Ifemelu and unapologetically racist white Americans—or the more forbidding kind, unconsciously racist and well-meaning white Americans—but also between her and black Americans, particularly her boyfriend Blaine and his sister, Shan. In a conversation about how American white men and European white men view black women differently, Ifemelu tells Shan she gets “a lot more interest from white men than from African-American men”, and Shan tells her it’s probably because of Ifemelu’s “exotic credential, that whole Authentic African thing”, a statement that leaves Ifemelu angry, but not exactly in full disagreement.
It’s these prickly territories that Adichie covers so well, because Americanah is interested in laying bare all the hypocrisies of the liberal American elite.
When she starts dating a wealthy, attractive white man, Curt, she takes note of his mother’s disapproval and the looks directed her way from other white women, the look of people “confronting a great tribal loss”. As Ifemelu explains, it’s not just because Curt was white; it was “the kind of white he was, the untamed golden hair and handsome face, the athlete’s body, the sunny charm and the smell, around him, of money”, that seemed to be the problem: why would a white man like that date a woman like her? Ifemelu takes note of the easy kind of subjectivity well-off white Americans are allowed to slide into, “all easy limbs and white teeth… people whose lives were lived always in flattering light, whose messes were still aesthetically pleasing”.
And Curt, while he loves Ifemelu for who she is, who she is is also part of the allure. Cocooned in white male privilege and wealth, he, a free-spirited and do-gooder white American presumably well aware of his country’s history, asks Ifemelu “Why do you have to do this?” when she comes back after a hair-relaxation treatment with a singed scalp.
Ifemelu is that rare thing: a woman who doesn’t hide that she’s quite secure in her own sense of attractiveness and worth. She knows she’s beautiful, but Adichie deftly shows how racism works to undermine even Ifemelu’s sense of confidence with all the banalities of the everyday comments and stares about her hair and what people take to be her projection of Africanness. When Ifemelu writes on her blog, and announces at a dinner party, that “the simplest solution to the problem of race in America” is “romantic love”, not the “kind of safe shallow love where the objective is that both people remain comfortable”, but “real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved”, Adichie brings the novel’s ruminations on race and desire to its fruition.
She leaves this radical notion of love open to interpretation and disagreement, and foregrounds it against Ifemelu’s awareness that while that some white American men might find her intelligent, funny, and beautiful, they don’t really see her, don’t allow themselves to see her, don’t desire her, because of how race has shaped and disciplined their sense of desire. Rather, race trains them to see only some as loveable, and it’s definitely not meant to be a woman who doesn’t look at all like a woman shaped by the ideals of white supremacy. As Blaine’s sister, Shan, remarked earlier—it’s a problem that not’s limited to white American men, and Adichie’s many readers around the world can probably bring their specific experiences with colourism to bear onto this notion of radical love across racial borders vs. sexual fetish and/or temporary this-will-do-for-now romance.
As it turns out, Obinze, the most America-obsessed among Ifemelu’s crew of high-school and college friends, is the one who doesn’t get to go to America when she does. It’s a twist of fate, “fate” otherwise known as politics and the ramifications of 9/11. In this, too, Adichie is superb in depicting the variables in migration narratives along gender lines: how monstrously fucked-up the situation can be for black and brown men travelling to the US or Europe, and where black and brown women (with some amount of money and connections, at least) may have a better go of it. Post 9/11, it’s never a good time to be a man of colour, and so Obinze ends up in London, trying desperately to avoid being deported, only to end up being deported.
Obinze is the only male character—the only one of Ifemelu’s lovers—whom the readers get to know. It’s easy to see why: he’s the only one who matters to her (and to us). But through Obinze, Adichie is able to show the post-9/11 situation of migration refracted through gender, and because Obinze is also in some ways less brash and more gentle than Ifemelu, not so much more thoughtful but more inward, some of the more effective commentaries on the politics of travel and border-crossing comes our way by way of Obinze. Working class white British men note how Obinze speaks “African posh”, and Obinze spells it out for himself and for us when he attends a dinner party filled with his Nigerian cousin’s white friends: he knew “they understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness”, why people like him end up in London in a deportation holding cell, people like him “who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look inwards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else.”
It is Obinze too, now back in Nigeria and newly-wealthy, who notes the contradictions of Nigerian life under capitalism and legacy of an artificially imposed time-lag of modernity that was the gift of colonialism: “Remember this is our newly middle-class world. We haven’t completed the first cycle of prosperity, before going back to the beginning again, to drink milk from the cow’s udder”, he tells Ifemelu, explaining to her why restaurants in Lagos preferred to serve “imported frozen fries” out of a bag instead of fries made out of freshly-cut and fried “real potatoes”.
Adichie is perhaps the kind of educated “well fed and watered” writer from the “postcolonial” third world who might make someone like Aijaz Ahmad grit his teeth, as when he talks about how imperial dominance shapes “even the way we think of ourselves”, and the valorisation of literature produced by the bourgeois class of the postcolonial third world country that becomes “more of a condition of the soul” unrelated to the material facts of life, as he writes in In Theory. But Adichie turns a gentle, satirical eye upon other liberals like herself, particularly when she (gently, gently) pillories the Nigerian returnees who like her spent many years abroad in the civilised West, only to return to Nigeria and find the roads full of potholes and the restaurants devoid of vegan dishes.
Ifemelu doesn’t hold back when it comes to the skewering of liberal notions of race; one only wishes that she would have done the same for class relations. Similarly, when Obama wins the election and she and her boyfriend and their circle of friends celebrate, she touches upon a truth that resounded with many people across the globe in the significance of seeing a black man as the President of the United States. As her cousin American cousin Dike puts it, “My president is black like me.” And while only black Americans could own that moment and all its various nuances, to really know and feel just what it meant, for people as far away as Malaysia or Indonesia or India, believing in Obama and hoping that this time things will be different was in some ways a way of showing solidarity with black Americans, to acknowledge the historical value of that moment, a way for those outside of the US to say to black Americans, We see who he is and what it means to you, or what Eduardo Galeano, in this interview with Gary Younge, aptly refers to as the “symbolic resonance” in a country “with a fresh tradition of racism”.
Adichie underscores the value of that moment, but the material realities of Obama’s presidency, the imperial and military might of the American empire under his helm—the wars, the torture prisons, the surveillance and spying and arrests without detention, the drones dropped on Arabs, Pakistanis, Yemenis, the continued economic exploitation and advancement of capitalism through war and “free-trade” agreements, the laws that set killers of young black men free, the prisons that imprison young black men, (the list goes on and on and on)—is untouched. Perhaps that’s too much to expect from Americanah, which is already a massive achievement on its commentary on American race relations and late-capitalist Nigerian life. Perhaps these concerns might irritate Adichie, who doesn’t and probably wouldn’t, ever, one presumes, set out to write an explicitly political book.
But I could be wrong—if Obinze says accurately of Ifemelu that she is hard to predict, as a reader that’s what interests me most about Adichie. In an interview with Aaron Bady for the Boston Review, Adichie talks about Half of a Yellow Sun and its reception as a political and historical novel in Nigeria, versus its reception outside of Nigeria, where she says it was seen as “just a novel”. Maybe we might meet Ifemelu and her criticisms of the Obama presidency and American imperial and military policies in a future story.
For right now, however, we have Americanah to grapple with. And what a frustrating, challenging, and rewarding gift it is. A momentary but necessary salve for the soul, like the protests that broke out across the America in memory of Trayvon Martin, suggesting that a different life can be imagined and made possible.
September 13, 2013 § Leave a Comment
This is my review of Masha Tupitsyn’s Love Dog for Pop Matters.
There’s a passage that brought on a feeling of instant recognition:
In the opening scene of Days of Being Wild:
He comes in for the third time, after he’s told her that she will see him in her dreams, and asks her why her ears are red? I think: why is this whole movie red? And green. Green tinted (made green) and truly green (the jungle, the trees). Green like Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du lac and Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Red like Marnie. But parts of Days of Being Wild are shot like The Third Man, only all the shadows on the narrow streets are green. Outside, the angles belong to that noir. It’s overwhelming to see these two colors together like this in one movie after everything they have meant to me the past few months. Maybe always.
She’s embarrassed. Embarrassed because she is excited, so she can’t look at him. I like people, no love people, who take looking and being looked at this seriously.
Because 1) I love Days of Being Wild and 2) I too love people who take looking and being looked at this seriously.
This leads me to think about that troubling passage in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover (translated by Barbara Bray):
Never a hello, a good evening, a happy New Year. Never a thank you. Never any talk. Never any need to talk. Everything always silent, distant. It’s a family of stone, petrified so deeply it’s impenetrable. Every day we try to kill one another, to kill. Not only do we not talk to one another, we don’t even look at one another. When you’re being looked at you can’t look. To look is to feel curious, to be interested, to lower yourself. No one you look at is worth it. Looking is always demeaning.
I always stumble over those last four sentences because it seems to contain contradictory ideas about looking. I’ve been trying to write a post about looking for a long time now but I have no ideas about looking, only collected thoughts and impressions from various sources.
Something about how people are meant to look now, at themselves and each other, seems impoverished and demeaning, in a way. Now people are meant to glance at each other with speed and efficiency, and sum up, very quickly, whether they want to pursue the gaze or not. You are not even worth looking at in the mirror, sometimes. Or you must earn your own gaze, of yourself, by working hard to present a seamless, attractive self.
Nicholas Mirzoeff has written about looking and slavery, and Jonathan Beller on the labour of looking and how it is embedded in the history of racism and colonialism. So you can’t think about looking without thinking about power.
Sometimes you wish for the mutual look to be an equaliser but it never is.
I don’t know. Circling around the idea of looking, of how we’re trained to look, about what Mirzoeff says about it, that “the right to look is not about merely seeing”; where he thinks about “a time in which my claim to the right to look is met by your willingness to be seen”.
Like Nelson in Bluets, “I have been trying, for some time now, to find dignity in my loneliness. I have been finding this hard to do.”
Today, while out on the streets, I told myself not to fall into my habitual pose, which is to stare at the ground or at my feet or off into the distance, but to look at faces, to offer this silent gesture of something in what I think now was just an attempt to feel less alone while among so many people. But it’s hard(er) now to return the glance or to initiate one. The faces are opaque; or rather, faces have become obscure screens we can’t afford to waste eyeballs on.
Sometimes I wonder if I learned how to unlook in Winnipeg as a way to avoid the endless stares of a certain kind coupled with the amazing number of white dudes, bros, men, whatever who could never make eye contact but only dart glances your way when they think you’re not looking. (Which — when I sat down to analyse this with fellow not-white women in Canada, all from other countries, 100% of whom experienced the same — basically boiled down to endlessly complicated discussions about racism and fetishism of “the exotic”, discussions that were never resolved, of course not, how could they ever be.)
Also, the ever present threat of misogyny that makes looking such a fraught affair for a woman who just wants to claim her right to look.
August 12, 2013 § Leave a Comment
This is a review of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Outsourced Self: What Happens When We Pay Others to Live Our Lives for Us that first appeared in Pop Matters. If you expect The Managed Heart-type analysis and insight, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Barring any structural analysis, it appears as though Hochschild just wants to let us know that life is pretty shitty these days–and for all of us equally, at that.
Arlie Russell Hochschild is a sociologist who published an influential book about emotional labour and gender in late capitalism, The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling, in the early ‘80s. For that book, she studied two types of workers for major US airlines and companies, flight attendants and bill collectors, to explicate how the discipline and management of feeling became embedded in service work in ways that both shaped and produced gender norms. In her description, emotional labour is “the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display” that is meant, of course, to produce the “proper state of mind in others”. The “others” in this case are the consumers of a particular service, a service which is either increased or diminished in value by the emotional labour of the workers performing it.
Twenty years later Hochschild’s latest book, The Outsourced Self: What Happens When We Pay Others to Live Our Lives for Us, delves deeper into privatised emotional labour, exploring how the free market logic has spread its tentacles into the sacred haven of the home. While The Managed Heart was informed by Marx’s theory of the alienation of labour—“If we can become alienated from goods in a goods-producing society, we can become alienated from service in a service-producing society”, Hochschild wrote—The Outsourced Self is less interested in providing an analysis or, indeed, a workable solution or alternative to the market-driven logic. Rather, it tells stories of the people who are caught between its contradictory demands and impulses.
If The Managed Heart was about how emotional labour was becoming a fundamental job requirement among white-collar or “pink-collar” service jobs undertaken by largely middle-class white American women, then The Outsourced Self is about how middle and upper class white American families are made to cope with the disconnection of late capitalism by having to outsource the most private, emotional aspects of the self.
Hochschild emerges as a dogged and determined sociologist and storyteller, and the examples she cites are numerous. They run the gamut from love coaches and surrogate mothers to nannies and wedding and party planners and care work for the elderly, with companies offering personalised services for the disposing of the ashes of the a deceased love one as well as services for grave and headstone maintenance. Hochschild interviews both the people employing these services and the people who perform them, the latter being overwhelmingly female.
If being an efficient worker under capitalism means making enough money to have a comfortable life, having the means to acquire that comfortable life means not having the time to participate in the personal and social relationships that make it comfortable. When the bride is too busy working, it’s the wedding planner who has to figure out “how to coax the groom to get more involved”. When the private equity fund manager-father with a strong “faith in the global free market” is too busy to have mastered the art of party organising for kids, it’s the children’s party planner who comes up with the perfectly productive party that keeps the children occupied from start to finish.
If capitalism requires a productive, efficient worker to be available around-the-clock, then the increasingly inconvenient business of being human has to be outsourced—ideally for a negotiable fee.
Part of the business of being a productive worker is to project the image of how productive one is, to crow about one’s lack of sleep and inability to stay away from email as a form of accomplishment that justifies having a job and a salary. It’s a particular class of people who get to boast of this busyness and be admired for it. And it’s this class of people that can afford to outsource the undesirable or scary or unpleasant or unproductive aspects of their emotional lives to others and set the terms of the contract.
The reason why some of Hochschild’s critical analysis is blunted, one suspects, is because underlying these examples is Hochschild’s own story detailing her struggle to find an adequate care provider for her aging and increasingly frail Aunt Elizabeth. The stories of others are refracted through a personalised lens, and while this serves a particular motive—showing how people’s lived reality is often at odds with their intentions, for one thing—it doesn’t attempt to contextualise these forms of late-capitalist living for the reader, preferring instead to merely conclude that the logic of neoliberalism has penetrated into the most intimate aspects of our lives.
Hochschild’s sociological framework doesn’t render her oblivious to the ways in which capital works through race relations to create a class of precarious American emotional labourers who are largely working class black and Latino Americans and migrant women from Central and South America, South and Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe. In this book she travels to India to speak to surrogate mothers and notes how the Americans using the services of these women seem to consider this situation through the lens of free-market democracy.
Talking to an American couple who used the services of an Indian surrogate agency, Hochschild notes how some aspects of guilt at the nature of the transaction and the imbalance of the power between the employer and the employee are justified through contradictory rationalisations by the couple doing the choosing. They attempt to reach out to the women they hire, to convey their gratitude for the monumental service that is provided, but at bottom they remind themselves that, as one woman named Lili did, that “this girl is poor and she’s just doing it for the money”. Her husband, referring to the surrogate’s reticence and lack of amiability—she had asked the American couple no questions while they had “reached out” and asked her about herself—says, “I’m sure for them it’s a pure business transaction. Payment for surrogacy could equal ten years’ of salary in India. Still, if she’d been more cheerful, maybe we could have talked more.”
In another example, while relating the story of a relatively well-off American family and their Filipino nanny, Maricel, Hochschild writes:
“In the eyes of their employers, the actual stories of the Maricels of the world are often replaced by mythic ones. In the global South, people live more authentic and relaxed lives, Alice Taylor felt … Other versions of the “happy peasant” fantasy held by other well-meaning employers draw a similar curtain over the fractured lives of the many Maricels around the globe.”
There’s a lot packed into that phrase “well-meaning employer”, obscuring the ways in which people simply choose not to see what’s right in front of them. But of course, they don’t have the time. The imbalance of power between the people who do the outsourcing for emotional and care work and those who actually do the work is simply that the former consider themselves important enough; their needs and desires and lifestyles trump those of their employees even if they’re not aware enough to recognise it, or choose to misrecognise what they see. It’s enough to have their nanny’s authentic Filipino self present to care their child, but who cares for Maricel’s child back in the Philippines?
A curious contradiction emerges among the affluent professional class who can afford to outsource whole chunks of the self: they don’t have a “choice” to do otherwise, but their employees seem to have freely chosen this particular type of work. As such, at the end of the day, it’s just a perfectly legitimate and necessary pure business transaction. The privileged can afford to lack self-awareness at the expense of hiring someone from a poorer background from another country. Having internalised the logic of the market, they imagine they’re helping to ease the poverty “over there”. As for the other details, such as who cares for their family while they care for yours—well, it’s a working relationship and it might be unprofessional to pry.
This is how people are encouraged to think, as Leopoldina Fortunati pointed out in 1981 in her seminal autonomist feminist text, The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital, because it’s how they are meant to live. As Fortunati says,” It is not by chance that under capitalism, while at the formal level there appear to be many opportunities for individual relationships, in reality there exists a high level of isolation between individuals, who are obliged to produce surplus-value even in the moment in which they reproduce themselves.” She’s referring to the family nucleus, which she says provides a “sufficient nucleus in the sense that this time, these relations, and these exchanges must suffice for labor power to reproduce itself”. Anything more than that is a waste. The more time you have, the less time you have—and that suits capitalism just fine.
Lacking more of an analytical framework, Hochschild’s book seems to posit historical problems with capitalism as new and novel issues. Because of this she is sometimes left asking us questions to which answers seem glaringly obvious, and have been, for awhile. “Can it be that we are no longer confident to identify even our most ordinary desires without a professional to guide us?” Well, perhaps. Part of the genius—or insidiousness—of capitalism is how it sells you a solution to a real or imagined fear, then sells you the uncertainty of an incorrectly or inadequately applied solution, thus creating an endless cycle of zero confidence—which it can sell back to you. (Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, for example.)
More interesting are the unasked questions, like how life coaches help their clients “redefine their desire”—redefined according to what standards and why? What’s shaping these new desires? These aspects of the production of disciplined subjects are factors that Hochschild does not examine. The book is also is burdened by Hochschild’s hazy nostalgia, based on her own memories, for a time before urbanisation when agrarian village living held out the best possible alternative to atomised neoliberal societies, offering emotionally-connected communities where people showed up unannounced at each other’s doorsteps with pie. While it may not have been her intention, Hochschild’s reminiscences seem to imply that the dangers of capitalist living began right on the dot when Hochschild started to take notice.
Hochschild’s work in The Managed Heart has been particularly useful for feminism in showing how emotional labour and care work are gendered and how subjects who perform these forms of emotional work are transformed, and social relations altered, when the practice of “deep acting” and emotional performance are exploited for the purposes of capital. Therefore, her tendency to frame the situations in The Outsourced Self as specifically new and novel problems under neoliberalism rather than as symptoms of capitalism seems particularly ingenuous, since her arguments in The Managed Heart could have predicted this outcome. It also allows her to sidestep how emotional labour was always required of women and the working classes performing domestic service in the past, or the ways in which emotional labour was required of labouring colonial subjects—both men and women.
While the aim of The Outsourced Self is not to present in detail the varied histories of forms of emotional labour, its tendency to skip from story to story with minimal analysis renders it essentially unremarkable, especially coming from a scholar and sociologist like Hochschild who has offered challenging and useful arguments for the field of labour theory in the past. The Outsourced Self is essentially pop-sociology light reading, a collection of anecdotes interspersed with brief (mostly personal) reflections. Hochschild is good at pointing out the general ambivalence and contradictions that underlie “intimate life in market times”, but the reader is not left with much more than a general sense of how troubling and inescapable it all is.
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.
April 12, 2013 § Leave a Comment
In yet another instance of Shameful Neglect of the Blog, I share with you a review of Sonic Multiplicities: Hong Kong Pop and the Global Circulation of Sound and Image by Yiu Fai Chow and Jeroen de Kloet that came out in Pop Matters a month ago. A whole month!
Why have I been slacking off on self-promotion? I don’t know. I’ve been away, travelling in Sri Lanka, writing fragments in my notebook, fragments in Microsoft Word (do MS Word users still publicly admit to using MS Word?) and staring into my dogs’ eyes in an attempt to find the answer(s) to various hard questions. No answers are forthcoming, but one of my dogs does like to nibble on my chin and nose–perhaps that should be enough for now.
I’m going to do a revolutionary new thing and post the entire review here, below.
When did Hong Kong popular music die? Theories abound as to the death of Hong Kong pop songs delivered in the local language of Cantonese, or Cantopop. Some say it died when Hong Kong was handed over by the British to the Beijing authorities in 1997. Others say that it died along with its two international superstars, Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui, in 2003.
Either way, facts and especially figures are marshalled up in defence of this death, with decreasing record sales being the primary means of assessing the pop music’s industry ill-health. If the industry isn’t making money, or as much money as it used to, then it’s clear that something is ailing the Hong Kong pop music industry. The industry cannot imagine that Cantopop continues to live on in various different forms and places: as karaoke, for one, or on the internet, for another.
Sonic Multiplicities: Hong Kong Pop and the Global Circulation of Sound and Image enters into the discussion as a sort of corrective. Jointly authored by Yiu Fai Chow, assistant professor in Hong Kong Baptist University’s department of Humanities and Creative writing and songwriter of Chinese pop songs, and Jeroen de Kloet, a professor in globalisation studies at the University of Amsterdam and author of China with a Cut, Sonic Multiplicities is deeply immersed in theories and techniques of cultural studies as it sets out to look at (and listen to) the multiple ways in which Cantopop has proliferated into new and different forms in late capitalism.
The issues of Chineseness and Chinese national identity is the spectre that haunts Hong Kong pop culture, and Chow and de Kloet are interested in troubling or resisting conventional “rise of China” narratives that present a stable and uniform history and Chinese subject. With Hong Kong’s colonial legacy as the geopolitical starting point, the first chapter of Sonic Multiplicities is a combination of theory and autobiography that sees Chow speak on a political and personal level about the “politics of Chineseness” through articulations on nationalistic songs, or folk ballads known as minzu gequ.
The autobiographical “I” in this chapter is refreshing in an academic book, and Chow’s struggle with notions of Chineseness growing up as a young boy Hong Kong, and later while living in the Netherlands, is reflected through the changing political and social mores of the ‘90s when, as Chow explains, “the Chinese Communist Party replaced its legitimizing ideology from communism to a market-driven nationalism”. Chow’s analysis of how Chineseness is performed in nationalist songs is undercut by his own ambivalence in having written songs meant to serve as nationalist propaganda and his attempts, within that particular framework, to subvert and discreetly undermine accepted, conventional narratives with his lyrics. How are newly (re)nationalised subjects allowed to dream of a nation, or a better nation?
“For the Hong Kongers at the time of imminent changes, we willed ourselves to be brave, to be Chinese, to become one with tens of thousands of those who at least looked like us. But it is not easy… It necessitates a logic of empowerment by conjuring up an enemy, the other… It also necessitates a submission of the part of us alien to the whole, the part of the city alien to the nation, the part of the future alien to the past.”
To be of a nation but not of it is a theme that resounds over and over again throughout the book, and in their sensitive and generous assessment of the politics and cultures of fandom, the authors aim to show readers how “the fans” exercise their agency in their consumption of pop music and their engagement with, and celebration of, celebrities. In this sense, by focusing on two “local” celebrities from the Netherlands and Hong Kong, Marco Borsato and Leon Lai, Chow and de Kloet shift the pop cultural focus away from the US and onto what is truly a global sphere, although they recognise the hegemony that operates within “global pop culture”, where North American pop stars are often claimed as “international stars” while Asian pop stars are rarely so—even when they are truly international, as was the case with Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung. In this sense, “whose international” seems to the concern here—whose cultural production is centred and considered “global”?
One of the more intriguing chapters focuses on sex and morality in Hong Kong and Chinese pop culture by way of the Edison Chen scandal. Far from adopting simple and reductive positions that sees the scandal as either bad (yet another spectacle!) or good (sex is healthy and we should enjoy it!), the authors interrogate the questions of morality that were mirrored in the media coverage of the scandal, particularly in how the subjects involved in the scandal immediately sought to control their reputation and image along conventional binaries of proper male and female behaviour.
Edison Chen, the sole male actor, sought refuge in cringe-worthy pleas and what the authors term “extreme moralism”, even announcing at one point that he will need to “step away from the Hong Kong entertainment industry… to heal myself, and search my soul”, in addition to performing the role of the moral, law-abiding citizen by publicly promising to assist the police in ongoing investigations. As the authors point out, the mediatised nature of the public spectacle demands the so-called salacious or transgressive act for collective consumption and, following Rene Girard, also demands a public scapegoat.
Meanwhile, with the women involved automatically framed as victims, the female stars in Chen’s videos had to take another, culturally proscribed route: that of repentance with a feminine/maternal slant, as in the case of Cecilia Cheung, who said “I have to stand up for the sake of my son.” The authors ensuing discussion of spectacle and conspicuous consumption—as evidenced by Edison Chen “bouncing back” from this scandal by throwing himself into his fashion business, and by co-opting the scandal for an art show—and its connection to “mediatized moral panics”, which, by way of Stuart Hall’s arguments in Policing the Crisis, act as “vehicles for the transmission of dominant ideologies.” The more scandalised we are, it would appear, the more things stay the same.
If there is a problem in Sonic Multiplicities, it’s that its ethnographic approach produces a rather shaky foundation on which the authors juggle multiple concepts and theories, going as they do from Rey Chow to Theodor Adorno, back to Guy Debord, then to Fredric Jameson. While discussions are deep-rooted and show an inclination to resist pat conclusions and easy assumptions, Sonic Multiplicities suffers from a less-than-rigorous consideration of political economy, as in the chapter on Beijing’s Olympic ceremony and the production and interpellation of national subjects in spectacles of global sporting events.
In discussing Soviet and Chinese authoritarian communism, the authors rightfully resist dominant narratives in liberal democracies that tend to depict “the masses” in these countries as totally docile and utterly subject to control—being away from the local particularities and nuances, these narratives often miss out, or simply can’t see, the necessarily discreet or prudent forms of resistance. But while they discuss the performative aspects of nationalist songs and speeches, the authors neglect to tease out the implications of a kind of performative Communism as espoused by China’s main party, even while market reforms put into place by Deng Xiaoping since the late ‘70s have had everything to do with capitalism. In this sense, the authors missed out on an opportunity to interrogate China’s official communist position against its increasingly capitalist reforms. While the authors state that “performative contestations” of the spectacle is not something unique to China, they neglect to draw connections between performativity and late capitalism and continued Western political and cultural hegemony in the global pop culture marketplace.
However, Sonic Multiplicities is an intriguing study of pop culture that doesn’t take North America as its starting point and yet does not avoid analysis of political or cultural forms of dominance that affect and, indeed, produce these forms of “globalised” pop commodities. The authors are particularly attentive to the formation and production of both the national and diasporic subject, consistently grounding these subjects in temporal and spatial circumstances, especially or even when these circumstances are stable, shifting, or ambivalent. It manages to trouble notions of a radical or emancipatory potential in pop culture without demeaning either the cultural workers or the consumers—indeed, recognising that subjects and producers of popular culture using the internet as a platform are most often both.
Hong Kong pop is not dead, but it has transformed, mutated, and altered, and the authors want to encourage people to see, listen, and think in new and altered ways.
January 30, 2013 § 5 Comments
I am sorry, once again and for always, for the absolutely crap blog post titles.
I have three reviews out in Pop Matters:
- Joanna Luloff’s The Beach at Galle Road: Stories from Sri Lanka
- Aman Sethi’s A Free Man—this one messed with my head a little, or a lot, and thus the review is an incoherent mess; it just seems difficult to rate a book about poverty, written by an educated journalist from a different class, as “good” or “bad” or profound or moving or well-done or whatever, without implicating oneself in the consumption of these narratives.
- Sibylle Lewitscharoff’s Apostoloff—this is the first book I’ve read by Lewitscharoff and she has such a great style, strengthened by the bleakly funny, whip-smart voice of the protagonist, and this book has about a billion frustrating and revelatory Eurocentric anxieties and neuroses to wade through, or drown in.
Is it in bad taste to link to one’s own reviews and then rant about someone else’s review? Probably; all the more reason to do it.
I was reading the review of Sheila Heti’s latest in the LRB and I was (am) so perplexed:
Much has been made of the fact that How Should a Person Be? passes the Bechdel Test (two named female characters must talk to each other about something other than a man, invented by the graphic novelist Alison Bechdel), but its woman-centredness also hints at feminism’s dirty secret: that feminists might be feminists because they are supremely interested in themselves, even if that interest is in the shape of self-doubt.
“that feminists might be feminists because they are supremely interested in themselves” – this is such a coy argument. Is the reviewer objecting to or applauding the narcissism of Sheila Heti’s character? Does the reviewer think that feminism—FEMINISM IN ITS ENTIRETY—only exists because feminists are supremely interested in themselves? Does being “supremely interested” in oneself preclude the desire/ability to be “supremely interested” in other things? Is this form of supreme self-interest only to be found in feminism and/or woman-centred narratives, although the reviewer seems to think these are interchangeable / mean the same thing? Is this state of supreme interest in oneself a problem or not a problem, reactionary or revolutionary? Why is Sheila Heti, or the Sheila Heti of the book, a stand-in for feminism? Whose feminism?
“Woman-centredness” = “feminism” = feminists “supremely interested” in themselves (“even if that interest is in the shape of self-doubt”).
I think it’s interesting that this review takes the book’s “woman-centredness” and presents it as feminism’s “dirty little secret” without making an explicit value judgment, although much of its judgment, or what it thinks of “woman-centredness”, is contained within its use of the phrase “dirty little secret.” How nice to be able to mime at making an argument without making an argument. It’s such a useful way to say something provocative and yet distance oneself from the implications. In this way, it becomes nonsense. And the arrogance in the assumption that a broad movement like feminism, with its multiple global proliferations and histories, can be assessed and diagnosed by narrowing it down to how two (fictionalised) North American women, Sheila Heti and Margaux Williamson, relate to each other.
Not just a secret, but dirty, too.
November 12, 2012 § 54 Comments
I’ve been reading sad books. Books about sad people. While I was reading Suzanne Scanlon’s Promising Young Women (which I reviewed here), I was rereading Two Girls, Fat and Thin by Mary Gaitskill, and at this point in my life I must have reread it five or six times. It’s always a bad idea for me to read this book—I’m always in a funk for a week after, sometimes longer, or perhaps but now it’s just lodged itself somewhere inside me and each time I reread it it’s like lighting a match. Two Girls is about two girls, but it’s also about gender war(s), heterosexuality as violence. Chris Kraus writes about wanting to solve heterosexuality before turning 40 in I Love Dick but I feel like every conversation with single straight women friends over beer is an attempt to solve heterosexuality, and after a few drinks the solution is simple: Drink some more or dance; failing that, overthrow the patriarchy and end heterosexuality (somehow).
But what do I know?
It’s just that when I walk around this city I wonder if it makes sense to talk of the Neoliberal Heterosexual Couple. Gym-toned bodies, “tasteful” dressing (“Keep it classy!”—I fucking hate this fucking ubiquitous phrase), identical cannot-be-arsed-about-anything-except-ourselves faces. The couple that won’t let go of each other’s hands even in a crowded walkway; not so much because they’re so In Love and cannot bear to let each other go, but because they have so much contempt for everyone around them who is not-them; contempt written on their faces. Handholding as a weapon, maybe, handholding as a contemptuous gesture. I mean, not being able to step aside, even for a second, for an elderly lady with her shopping bags. The Couple as a Fuck-You-to-the-World might have been a romantic idea at a certain point in time, or even a form of resistance against the status quo, maybe? But now just a part of the obnoxious status quo.
But what do I know? I am single and bitter. (Maggie Nelson, in Bluets: “I have been trying, for some time now, to find dignity in my loneliness. I have been finding this hard to do.”)
And no doubt dying to get married, as various members of the “older generation” have implied to me over the last year. Not even a question, “Do you want to get married?” No. They just know that you need to get married because if you do not you will rot and die. I bumped into an old acquaintance of my father’s a few days ago, while I was with my sister, and among the things he said to me after not having seen me for close to twenty years (I didn’t even recognise him!) was the ever-reliable, “You should get married and take care of your family.” It was the last bit that puzzled me, this idea that I could not be otherwise taking care of my family if I was not married. But it’s not a puzzle really; Tamil people everywhere are on autopilot when it comes to giving Life Advice to wayward young (and not-so-young) women doing horrible things with their lives like being unmarried, cutting their hair short, and wearing red lipstick. GET MARRIED> MAKE THE BABIES> TAKE CARE OF YOUR FAMILY BY MAKING MORE BABIES> YOUR MOTHER IS WORRIED
Overthrow the patriarchy. End matrimony. (I shouted, in my head, while smiling vaguely into the distance while this man gave me free life advice. Oh, the smile, how it makes you fucking complicit.)
Thinking about singleness and marriage, stewing over it, often means that I start thinking about beauty. Because it’s beauty that I’m struggling with at this point in time. That is, I lack it, but this is not news to me; when I say “this point in time”, I mean that at this point in life as I know it, it seems that everything is the exterior, that the image is you, and you are nothing but the image. (This day in Capitalism it was discovered there is no there, there.) Romance is a marketplace, and you are one of the many images on sale, and if you’re not the right image you are, essentially, shit. “Never before has society demanded as much proof of submission to an aesthetic ideal, or as much body modification, to achieve physical femininity,” says Virginie Despentes in King Kong Theory and I’m suspicious of the phrases here—“never before”—“society demanded”—yet this sentence rings with truth, for me, and perhaps for other (cis, straight) women who are single and wanting (yearning? dying for?) a connection with someone else that isn’t predicated on aesthetic ideals, all of us who identify as “normal-looking” or “not beautiful” or whatever-
“What if the self-commodification of individuals is all-encompassing, as the analysis of the job market suggests? What if there is no longer a gap between an internal realm of desires, wants and fantasies and the external presentation of oneself as a sexual being? If the image is the reality?”
“Objectification implies that there is something left over in the subject that resists such a capture, that we might protest if we thought someone was trying to deny such interiority, but it’s not clear that contemporary work allows anyone to have an inner life in the way that we might once have understood it.”
-Nina Power, One Dimensional Woman
What if the outside is all we have left?
When I talk about beauty I don’t know what I’m talking about, particularly if I’m also talking about desire, and I want to talk about beauty without talking about Plato or Kant (I just can’t with Kant), and I know for a fact that desire is a colonised space.
“We speak, act, think, behave, and micro-manage ourselves and others according to the “score” that is the general intellect—in short, the protocols or grammar of capital,” Jonathan Beller reminds us. Love in the Time of Capital. Yes, okay, I tell myself I know how to grasp this intellectually, but the bigger fear is that this is the only way I know how to love: according to the protocols of capital.
I watched Love of Siam a few weeks ago and cried all the way through it, and after it was over, cried some more, and felt like I couldn’t understand myself—why all these tears? And the movie is a “tear-jerker”, in a sense, in the vein of Asian family dramas that are a blend of realism and melodrama, and so it wasn’t unexpected that a person watching it would cry. But it’s also a film that’s unabashedly pro-love. And as soon as I write that I know it sounds silly—what does it even mean? But I guess it means what it is: it’s a film about love, and not just the “provocative” aspect of young gay love between two Thai adolescent boys that’s highlighted in all the promotional reviews of the film, but also about all the banal and taken-for-granted forms of love between friends and family, the kind that is familiar to me because the families and the communities in Love of Siam remind me a little of what I knew growing up in Malaysia, of how I came to understand the intersection of multiple identities. The differences between these (often conflicting) identities–of discovering one’s queerness, of being a son of an alcoholic, of being a brother, a friend, a grandson, a pop star, a boyfriend—aren’t reified; one identity doesn’t trump the other, and it makes no sense to speak of Love of Siam as a movie only about romantic love or gay love. I contain multitudes, said some American poet and everyone went ooooh, but come on, Asian people have known this forever.
But a big part of this movie is about love between these two boys, Mew and Tong, and it’s the genius of the movie (the result perhaps of the direction and the casting decision to go with two young, relatively inexperienced actors), that the love between these two boys feels so organic and unforced, an entirely surprising yet predictable outcome of shared moments and the pull of desire. Looks are not the currency, eroticism isn’t purchased or a choice[i]; love happens because two people like each other so much, and the question of attraction—sexual or otherwise—is not absent or glossed over so much as it is depicted whole. Mew and Tong are attracted to each other because they’re drawn to each other as people containing multitudes, not because they possess an alluring physicality; not once does anyone tell the other “You’re hot” or “You’re sexy” and I don’t know if I’m regressing or blossoming into full-blown prudedom, but it was so fucking refreshing I don’t even know how to talk about it. I recognise that a lot of the movie’s dialogue and scenes are necessarily circumscribed by the cultural norms in which it was made—in this case, Thai society and Thai censors—but it’s astonishing how much is and was conveyed through looks and faces, and tenderness and understanding. So much of how we understand romance these days is mediated through this narrative of consumerism: “I’m worth it”, “You’re worth it”, “I deserve the best”, “You’re hot”, “I like a nice smile and nice tits”, “I need a man who’s all man, you know what I mean?” All these standards that we think arrive fully-formed in our heads without any external influence, all these principles of picking and choosing The Right One, of having control and autonomy—this movie sort of chips away at those assumptions very quietly and tenderly. The camera loves its subjects; the film loves its characters. The act of loving reveals the love.
But talking about how it’s not a choice doesn’t simply mean that love is something that chooses you. It’s a convenient poetic fiction, and poets and writers and artists talk about it this way all the time, and I fall for the force of that fiction: It wasn’t my choice, I can’t help who I fall in love with. In order for that to happen there has to be an “I” who stands outside of economic, political, social, and cultural influences. So maybe part of my love of Love of Siam is a desire to want to believe in that fiction again. I don’t know though: everything I just wrote down, I believe and don’t believe. Love is attachment, so maybe love is a kind of choice or decision to allow oneself to like/become attracted to a person who is close to you (literally, in the sense that the other person is physically present, as opposed to, say, an image on a dating site; also, figuratively in the sense of a mental and emotional connection based on shared moments, experiences, conversations, and silences that constitute shared time[ii]). Mew and Tong turned inward, toward each other, and it was love. But the movie didn’t require them to turn away from other people, or from life itself. (Although there were necessarily moments where they retreated from life, from people, pulled away and stood aside in order to stand beside each other. But it wasn’t a mode of being, this retreat from life. Their love isn’t about making an investment in coupledom as the only form of solace in a difficult world.)
Similar to the points Elaine Castillo makes about Senna, another movie that moved me in an almost forceful way, Love of Siam is in love with faces—long close-ups of faces dominate throughout. The camera lingers tenderly, lovingly, on faces. I watched it online where the sound and subtitles were off-time; characters would say things before the audio and subtitles kicked in, and although it’s one of the most agonising ways to watch a movie, I kept watching because once I watched the first ten minutes I was hooked. I had to closely watch and observe the faces to understand what was going on before the subtitles arrived to provide the language with which to make sense of these faces. The camera follows their faces slowly and closely, and because the two actors in the lead roles were so young, and almost naïve, watching their faces is a kind of heartbreak. The close-ups of Mew and Tong’s faces are also meant to reveal how much they want to look at each other. The frequency with which they simply look at each other is astonishing; astonishing in the sense that it’s unashamed and assertive. (Here I think about Nicholas Mirzoeff’s The Right to Look, and what it means that two queer Asian boys claim this right so forcefully and tenderly.) I also think about Kelly Oliver’s “The Look of Love”:
“A loving look becomes the inauguration of “subjectivity” without subjects or objects. In Etre Deux, Irigaray suggests that the loving look involves all of the senses and refuses the separation between visible and invisible. A body in love cannot be fixed as an object. The look of love sees the invisible in the visible; both spiritual and carnal, the look of love is of “neither subject nor object”.
Irigaray’s suggestions about the possibility of loving looks turn Sartre’s or Lacan’s anti-social gaze into a look as the circulation of affective psychic energy. The gaze does not have to be a harsh or accusing stare. Rather, affective psychic energy circulates through loving looks. Loving looks nourish and sustain the psyche, the soul, as well as the body. Irigaray’s formulation of the loving look as an alternative to the objectifying look, and her reformulation of recognition beyond domination through love, suggest that the ethical and political power of love can be used to overcome oppression.
There is no happy ending in Love of Siam, though. Nothing is “resolved”. Life goes on and love adjusts its proportions to let life pass through. Love is the vessel and life rushes in to fill it. “If we can love someone so much, how will we be able to handle it one day when we are separated? And if being separated is a part of life, and you know about separation well, is it possible that we can love someone and never be afraid of losing them? Or is it possible that we can live our entire life without loving at all?” Mew asks Tong, and it’s a question that isn’t answered. “Now that we’re grown up, loneliness seems so much worse,” says Mew, and it’s true, and the movie doesn’t rush to fill the loneliness with love. Rather, it suggests that love doesn’t replace that fundamental sense of aloneness, much less transcend it. In the end, Mew and Tong don’t end up together as A Couple, and Tong tells Mew, “I can’t be with you as your boyfriend. But that does not mean I don’t love you.”
Maggie Nelson, in Bluets:
238. I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world.
239. But now you are talking as if love were a consolation. Simone Weil warned otherwise. “Love is not consolation,” she wrote. “It is light.”
Like when Courtney Love sings in “Malibu”, “I can’t be near you, the light just radiates”.
No happy endings in sight.
When I think about Senna, too, I think it’s a film about love. It feels like it was made with so much love, and it’s also a movie that’s in love with its subject, a subject who’s not afraid to love his life’s work, the people who matter to him, God. I love that Masha Tupitsyn focuses on what is, for me, the most moving scene in Senna: that brief moment between Senna and his father, which she describes here:
In the scene where Senna wins the Brazilian Grand Prix in 1991 (after he won the race, Senna actually passed out, so great was the anguish of his ecstasy. Victory.), he suffers unbearable shoulder pain from the tremendous stress of the race. He is literally pulled out of the race car and driven off the track. He can barely move. But when Senna sees his father, he calls over to him, “Dad, come here. Come here.” His father hesitates, but Senna insists. “Come here. Come here! Touch me gently,” he orders. His father, much taller, stands beside his son, as Senna rests his head against his father’s chest for a moment. When he starts to walk back, Senna tells everyone else (even before anyone actually touches him; even if no one is trying to touch him at all), “Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me!” He commands everyone but his father to get away from him. This scene, which is the difference between touch me gently and don’t touch me at all, between everyone else and you, between a son and his father, beloved and not-beloved, can also be read as a love story.
If ever a moment could be charged with love, a love so rarely seen on screen in its rawness and vulnerability—the love between father and son—it was this. I think I scrunched my eyes a little when I watched that scene, I wanted to keep looking and then I looked away, mostly because I wanted to cry (tears! again!) because watching felt like I was looking right into a bright light.
Being a witness to love can often feel like an affirmation of something (of what? something you had but lost?), but more often it feels like a wound. Late-capitalist society doesn’t tend wounds; it just looks for ways to avoid it and move on.
[i] There is one scene that involves a kiss. The camera doesn’t intrude; it pulls back, and then goes a little closer, but maintains a respectful distance—this kiss isn’t for the benefit of an audience.
[ii] Which makes me think of this: http://likeafieldmouse.tumblr.com/post/33874562265/felix-gonzalez-torres-perfect-lovers-1987-91 What if lovers are not in-time? “We conquered fate by meeting at a certain TIME in a certain space. We are a product of the time, therefore we give back credit where it is due: time.” And yet—as if it can ever be that simple—“[A]s military time has become militarized time over the past few years, time itself, what is defined as ‘my’ time, has ceased to exist in any meaningful way. We are in the time of service.” How does militarised time shape how we love? What is the neoliberal couple in service of?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
September 19, 2012 § 2 Comments
My review of Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? went up on Pop Matters awhile back and I’ve been tardy in doing one of these exciting blog updates where I tell you that The. Review. Is. Up #breakingnews
The short of it is I reallyreallyreally did not like it. I wanted to talk more about why I did not like it but it occurred to me that I have written a review about exactly that. So I will put up a Fiona Apple song instead as a fine, tongue-in-cheek, clever example of feminine discontent that Sheila Heti is unfortunately not:
Michelle Dean, whose Slate essay is otherwise spot-on about how sexism works in book reviews and definitions of what counts as Serious Lit, draws a comparison between Heti and Apple which I quite obviously disagree with. Heti’s whole book is determined to absolve Sheila, the (fictionalised) character. I mean, as Jessa Crispin points out, she compares herself to Moses—this was either meant to be flippant and subversive (as in, why can’t women characters lay a grandiose claim to greatness like men often do in their books?) or serious and earnest (as in, look, Sheila is like Moses). Either way I can’t help but feel so strongly against the style of the book, which I suppose means that I dislike the writing, which probably means that I dislike the thinking. As Jessa writes:
But the Heti is sneakier. Part of it is the self-help aspect. The way she compares herself without blinking to Moses. The way the book gets historical fact flat-out wrong. The selfishness and the lack of awareness of the real world, and the certainty of it all. The girlishness. The, god help me, tweeness of it all. And then, behind all of that, a tone of cynical “just kidding!” to protect itself from criticism. None of this is necessarily frustrating in and of itself, at least not in an intense way. It should have just been a “not for me” book that I set aside after two pages.
I disagree with Jessa about the girly aspects of the book; or rather, that girlishness is somehow always-already twee and fluffy and shallow. I just don’t think Heti’s exploration of female subjectivity is at all compelling or interesting or new or challenging or bold or anything. And this is where I do agree with Jessa’s comments: the “tone of cynical ‘just kidding!’ to protect itself from criticism”—yes. That’s why I mentioned Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl in my review, because Green Girl is about female subjectivity, girlishness, hysteria, sensitivity, emotions, but it’s bold and strongly-written; it doesn’t shy away from its subject, whether it’s shallow or unintelligent or whatever, it plunges right in, and as a result it is a ferocious, tentative, vulnerable, intelligent book. Heti’s tone, in contrast, is coy in a way that I really can’t stand; I don’t know if this just boils down to taste, and if so, what that says about me.
(Anyway, I’m generally in agreement with most of Jessa’s thoughts about How Should a Person Be? and also way too thrilled that she linked to my review. #notahumblebrag #anoutrightbrag)
Meanwhile, Fiona Apple is fucking up and making a mistake and telling us that she “sure had fun”. And that’s why she’s different from Heti, who compares herself to Moses. (Also, Apple is just a few years older than me and I’ve been a fan since her first album, so I feel like I “grew up” with her and I cannot bear to see her compared favourably with Heti, just nonononopleaseno.)
August 27, 2012 § 12 Comments
I don’t mean to pop up every few weeks on my own blog only to say, “Here is my review of …” but here is my review of Amit Majmudar’s Partitions for Pop Matters. I found the book to be … not good, and here’s a little extract to explain why:
Majmudar’s characters appear to serve as vessels for goodness, innocence, and hope. They are good Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, and for that reason they come together. Consider his Hindu characters: two children, wide-eyed and confused and learning about the greater world as their world falls apart. Consider his Sikh character: a young girl on the cusp of womanhood, a girl so immersed in religion that several characters in the book understand that for her to be raped would be the worst thing of all. Our male narrator with the probing medical gaze tells us this about Simran: “It baffles me at first, but she has no way of truly understanding what those men will want with her.”
Or consider Simran seen through a sex worker’s shrewd, world-weary eyes, seen through the male narrator’s eyes: “It’s part of what confuses Aisha’s feelings towards Simran: her vulnerability, her hypersensitivity to things Aisha herself scarcely registers. Like the gazes of men.” (Later on, the narrator will tell us that “the partition between Aisha’s first and second mind, the woman and the whore’s, tore open” while listening to Simran speak of religious purpose. Clearly, one can be a woman or one can be a whore, but one can’t be both.) Consider his Muslim character: a bleeding heart doctor with a stammer, the latter marking him out of the orbit of adulthood because he is unable to converse with other adults, only children—and later on, Simran. Simran comes to symbolise the curative properties of womanhood, psychically healing herself and the men and boys of her newfound family by sheer presence of her pure soul.
I was reading Manto’s short stories at the time (am still reading, going through them slowly, taking my time to let the flavours of Manto’s translated prose sink in) and it’s unfair to compare anyone to Manto, really, but it was my first time reading Manto as opposed to reading about him. And Manto’s short stories work a kind of subtle magic, and I was trying to think what it is that makes Manto’s short stories work (for me) while something like Majmudar’s doesn’t—Manto recognises chaos and ambiguity, while so many contemporary writers want to resolve it. Partitions is written like a dose of strong medicine that wants to cure humanity of its ailments; Manto seems to have written his stories to feel and think and live within the muck—not above it, not beyond it. Reading Partitions made me a feel a bit queasy, actually. Though it was written about the events of 1947 India, it feels like a response to current, post 9/11 phobias: fervent moralising about the goodness of different people from warring/contesting ethnicities and religions.
My review of this book, seemingly highly-praised elsewhere, is a negative one. I’ve been reading the current flap over nice reviews vs not-nice reviews and wondering what this says about me, that I write not-nice reviews. Maybe I’m a not-nice person. (A revelation?) The flap over book reviewing started off on the wrong foot, with a bizarre Jacob Silverman piece that claimed to be “against enthusiasm”, which is silly—presumably people get into book reviewing as a Thing To Do because they’re really enthusiastic about books? Surely it’s not about enthusiasm and niceness and more about the demands of the market and book industry and the concurrent intensification of networking, “branding” (with “positivity” playing a part; less about niceness than shrewd, aspirational ass-kissing.) I mean, I liked Silverman’s initial blog post enough to expect that he was going in a different direction than where he ended up going in that Slate piece. I think he had a bigger, more interesting point buried in that piece, part of which I saw as having to do with how social media functions to uphold or replicate hierarchies of print capitalism, as such, and how reputation, expertise, and cultural capital accrue to reviewers from corporate media and media dynasties—and now, online magazines (some which formerly started out as blogs.) I mean, think about the networks of visibility on what is considered book talk worthy enough to be retweeted, reblogged, or linked to and they’re basically writers, contributors and editors for the The Millions, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, Slate, Salon, The Awl, to name a few. And if you follow enough of them on Twitter and Tumblr you begin to see that the editors, writers, and contributors for these publications tend to know each other and prop up each other’s work—fair enough (or not), but it’s particularly North American, and it’s particularly insular. If we want to talk about social media and book reviewing, it should probably be a conversation about the reification of these digital connections in social media; how social media is implicit in dominant modes of cultural production and dissemination.
This discussion about book reviewing/criticism is largely among North American reviewers and critics. (Stuff First World People Like: Talking to Each Other & Assuming It Speaks to a Global Audience.) But you would think that any discussion about social media and economies of attention in The Literary World (forget the reductive discourse on enthusiastic vs critical, for the moment) would be more illuminating if it focused on the entrenched hierarchies of reputation/knowledge, within the North American milieu itself and between North America and the rest of the world. Someone can write a fantastic critical piece for the India-based The Caravan or Livemint and it will mostly be retweeted/liked/favourite/whathaveyou by other Indians or a select number of people within Asia and North America. But even a middling review or piece of criticism in The Rumpus or Slate will generally enjoy the privilege of being seen and read by readers from all over the world. (That is, by readers who are interested enough in books to actually want to read book criticism and reviews.)
I mean, what I’m trying to say is, sometimes a negative review of a highly-praised cultural product from the first world—the kind that enjoys wide distribution and robust marketing—is a necessary intervention by readers at the margins, at the borders, from other places and spaces.
I mean, I know. Cultural hegemony, imperialism and its discontents. I’m simplifying the argument greatly to think of it wholly in terms of first world vs the rest. I’m thinking of Aijaz Ahmad’s argument in “Literary Theory and ‘Third World Literature’” (Ahmad is magisterially scathing throughout In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures; he will no doubt be magisterially scathing of the half-baked, incoherent thoughts in this post):
By the time a Latin American novel arrives in Delhi, it has been selected, translated, published, reviewed, explicated and allotted a place in the burgeoning archive of ‘Third World Literature’ through a complex set of metropolitan mediations. That is to say, it arrives here with those processes of circulation and classification already inscribed in its very texture. About this contradictory role of imperialism which simultaneously unifies the world, in the form of global channels of circulation, and distributes it into structures of global coercion and domination, I shall say a great deal throughout this book. Suffice it to say here that even as we open ourselves to the widest possible range of global cultural productions, it is best to keep in view the coercive power of the very channels through which we have access to those productions.
But this is a Very Big Topic that probably wouldn’t have generated as many page clicks or as much worthless discussion as an article titled, “Against Enthusiasm”, so. But when you write a piece like that you will predictably get a very meh response about “the case for positive book reviews” which is about as useful as being “against enthusiasm”. What is Laura Miller saying here? I’m particularly peeved because I used to enjoy reading her in the (distant) past. Here she basically says, “Meh! I’m paid to write this so I’m just going to write a few hundred words about nothing at all” and bizarrely (or not) it ends up being widely circulated. And her response prompted a particularly abrasive response from Scott Esposito (though I might add that the terms of which the debate is framed was always-already stupid). Then there’s the response from Dwight Garner, who actually writes these words: “What we need more of, now that newspaper book sections are shrinking and vanishing like glaciers, are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics — perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star.” Abusive enough? Punishing? Gold stars? #NODADS for fuck’s sake.
I’d much rather think about Tom Ewing’s brief but useful post on “criticism as a vehicle for ideas about things”. I also appreciate Michelle Dean pointing out the gendered aspects of any discussion on nice vs. not-nice, but I tripped over this bit:
“And why do I need to be nice?” these men ask, when actually all you are asking is that they not approach you as some aspiring immigrant from another country, and one on the bad end of a trade deficit, at that.
I want to be a compassionate reader. I am concerned with learning how to inhabit a text in a way that encourages more reparative readings than merely being satisfied with a paranoid reading (the result of having recently read the chapter on “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” in Eve Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling—her ideas run deep and I probably need to reread it a few times). But where does the anger go? How to place it within narratives of love and compassion, to strike that crucial balance between anger that illuminates and anger that becomes moral authority, as Audre Lorde recognised in “The Uses of Anger”? I am an angry reader a lot of the time and I want to be nice, but niceness rarely allows me to say what I need to say. I also want to be responsible in saying what I need to say, not to let honesty and anger become an excuse to hurt. But sometimes I just want to shout because being told to be nice and positive is often a mode of suppressing something uncomfortable for the status quo and when faced with the authority of reason and objectivity, particular groups of vulnerable are often the ones who already feel the pressure to be nice: women; people of colour; people from other parts of the world interested in Literature and All Its Glory and but who aren’t well-versed in Literary Theory, Philosophy, the Classics, etc.; people whose first language isn’t English but who write and think in English now because fuckyeahcolonialism.[i] (As Lorde reminds us, much of this has to do with trying to avoid the anger of others; there is the need to make nice with racist/imperialist/patriarchal authority so that it doesn’t hurt you further; for bare survival.) Notice the trend that Dean points out: white male reviewers are comfortable with not being nice and writing about not being nice, but female reviewers are writing about being nice. Female reviewers also recognise the burden of being nice and the burden of being subject to (often sexist) vitriol and unkindness.
You bring all your issues to the table when you read, when you write about what you read and how you think your way through a text. Do we keep those issues separate from the text under our scrutiny? I’m thinking about Chris Kraus on female writing and schizophrenia, and in that vein, female criticism and ALL FEELING ALL THE TIME. Because conventional wisdom states that good, proper criticism should be objective, cool, rational, distant. What to do with all these feelings? (But how then to avoid the inevitable overemphasis on individual subjectivity, and the subsequent professionalisation of feeling, resulting in something like Sheila Heti’s loathsome How Should a Person Be?) The thing is, I abhor “against enthusiasm” but I also abhor “the case for positive reviews” and the constant reminders (demands/pressure) to be nice; it’s a tyranny of its own sort, no less harmful than “objectivity” or the “critique the hell out of everything, hold nothing back, make people whimper and cry” position that some heavyweight tough-man critics want to adopt.
Perhaps I should just leave you with some words from Kate Zambreno (from an interview in The Millions):
I was writing all sorts of these block-like reviews 500 words for various places, and I loved the opportunity to engage with contemporary literature and to get these shiny pretty books in the mail! but always felt like I had to bury my self and my complex associations with the text in order to write these objective capsule reviews. I wanted to write about how a text made me feel, and to write about myself as a reader experiencing the text, how I spilled some hot sauce on a certain page, that I was on the rag when I was reading it, that my hands were down my pants when I was reading it, all the libidinal and emotional experiences of reading, the ecstasy of experiencing literature, the way a book fucked with my head or changed my life, and then also tying reading into my process as a writer. So, I think there was this period of liberation, I came unbound in the blog, and wrote and wrote and wrote and read and read and read and vomited it all up.
This is so relevant, and you can see this in a lot of blogs by book reviewers/critics, too, who link to their published review and append messier, chaotic, less-publishable thoughts in their blog posts, saying, “This is the longer version”. And those “extra” thoughts are always so much more interesting to read alongside the “proper review” itself.
[i] As Aijaz Ahmad puts it, “One cannot reject English now, on the basis of its initially colonial insertion, any more than one can boycott railways for that same reason.”