“Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then.”

February 28, 2010 § 4 Comments

Recently, I started watching Big Love because its premise of a modern-day polygamy-practising Mormon family in suburban Utah caught my interest – it seemed like a wholly original one for TV.  I’m only two episodes in, but my Malaysianised TV eyes were really caught by surprise by the very sudden appearance of Bill Paxton’s bare ass, in all its very bare glory. It figures that the first time this happens, my mother walks into the room. It’s also interesting that American TV is open to showing bare male asses, but not so much female asses. Is it because female bodies are inherently imbued with pornographic qualities, while male bodies are not? Typically, while Bill Paxton romps about naked in bed, the women must keep their tops on – but I’m still not sure if any women really have sex that way.

I’m only two episodes in so it’s too soon to judge, but I do enjoy the portrayal of polygamy, which admittedly is given a nice TV-friendly glossing in the sense that Bill Paxton’s character is rather wealthy, and thus is able to provide each of his wife with her own house (albeit, with each one connected to the other).  He is able to provide his first two wives with cars, although in the second episode his third and youngest wife, played by Ginnifer Goodwin, is already pleading for a car of her own. (Chloe Sevigny, as wife #2, is absolutely droll and fucked-up in a very entertaining way.)

I find the show interesting because it brings to the fore one very important fact of polygamy – that it’s just monogamy writ large, and basically still a patriarchal family unit where the husband who pops Viagra can have amazing sex with BOTH his wives in one morning if he chooses, while the wives must necessarily wait for their ‘turn’ to have him, on their assigned night based upon a pre-established schedule. Interestingly, while the first wife has a job, the younger two don’t, and their lives generally revolve around their homes and their children. If all this seems archaic, it’s also interesting to note how the show emphasises, through the wives’ characters, how the women ‘chose’ this set-up willingly.

After all this polygamy on TV, I also read two articles today on the issue: one, an op-ed on polyamory in The Star, and the other a news article in The New Straits Times on an Islamic polygamy group. In his Star article, Andrew Sia wonders exactly why people oppose the arrangement on moral grounds, when it can deter situations like what happened with Tiger Woods and Ashley Cole (both examples his own), or prevent men from seeking sexual satisfaction elsewhere. I think it’s interesting that he assumes that only men want and need a variety of sexual partners, but this is a common enough socially-sanctioned misconception that has become utterly boring in its frequency and predictability. But it’s strange, all the same, since he’s talking about polyamory in general, and that applies to both males and females. It’s also interesting that he asks: “On a matter of principle, if people can love several people as friends, why can’t they love several people romantically – honestly, respectfully and openly? Is that inherently immoral? Is love all about exclusive ownership and control of one partner? Where you love someone only on condition he or she loves nobody else?”

This is what hell looks like

As Nina Power writes in the article ‘Capitalism, Consumerism, and Feminism’ at The New Left Project (and at length in her fantastic book, One-Dimensional Woman), it serves capitalism’s interest to have at its basis the monogamous heterosexual couple that plays on its own inherent contradiction: fuck all you can, as many as you can, before marriage, but remain committed to that one person for the rest of your life after marriage. This dialectic keeps people working as hard as they can on relationships, while fulfilling capitalism’s need to subsume every aspect of an individual’s life as labour. In this sense, polygamy is essentially the same game: an economic institution that serves capitalism’s needs while keeping men in charge. For that reason, I think people like to think that most people – and here I’d like to emphasise, especially women – oppose polygamy on what they might consider to be moral grounds, but mainly for the deeper reason that it seems pretty much the same thing as monogamy, only worse. Now the wife not only has to ‘work hard’ at keeping her husband ‘interested’ by plucking, waxing, dieting, prancing, stripping, dancing, or whatever, but she has to be engaged in active competition with other wives, while also engaging in competition with every other woman that comes into contact with ‘her man.’

Polyamory is a viable and potentially emancipatory concept, but as Power asserts in that article, it’s often derided and thrown out of the discussion entirely as some sort of bohemian throwback to the 60’s-style of ‘free love’ – when it can actually be a viable alternative for many people, especially since monogamy appears not to work, and childraising within the single unit of a nuclear family is becoming an increasingly fraught and problematic activity. It’s a lot easier to morally castigate polygamy while having an ‘aw-shucks’ attitude towards it at the same time, and allowing it to happen under a variety of guises. It’s just one man having many wives, and isn’t that the same as the mistresses he has on the side, and the women he visits on occasion in the brothels, wink-wink?

Well, essentially yes, if you ask the people who are interviewed as part of the Global Ikhwan’s Polygamy Club in the NST article. Polygamy should be allowed, says the Deputy President, herself a ‘third wife’, because it gives an opportunity for women who are reformed prostitutes, who are divorced, or who are “past the marrying age”, to be married. Yay. Interesting, because she basically admits that a deplorable woman is a prostitute, a privileged one is a wife. A rose by another name will still smell as sweet. Interesting also to note the assumption that women come into prostitution rather naturally, as though prostitutes are born and not made, rather like how Athena seems to have emerged fully-formed from Zeus’s forehead. But I suppose she has a point  – the demand for prostitution is the very same demand behind the demand for wives, albeit cosseted and wrapped in a society-friendly bubble-wrap package.

Essentially, then, as Marx and Engels implied in The Communist Manifesto, wife = prostitute, prostitute = wife, because the wife is, of course, a “mere instrument of production.” And it further enforces male supremacy, because, as one of the men interviewed in the NST article asserts, “It is not easy to control and educate four wives. Only the brave can do it. That is why, here, if you are a man with only one wife, you will be teased.” Naturally, as women are just a means to more production – they will need to be ‘controlled and educated’ by a man, preferably a true man, one who is brave and ready to step up to the demanding plate – and free himself from a lifetime of teasing.

The one true man, of course, who like Bill Paxton’s character in Big Love, provides a house, a car, and with a little bit of help from Viagra, unending sexual pleasure to ALL his wives, equally, working hard to please her, so that she can work hard in return to please him.

All, very naturally, in a day’s work.

(Quote used in the title of this post is apparently attributed to Katharine Hepburn.)

“Green is the prime colour of the world, and that from which loveliness arises”

February 27, 2010 § 3 Comments

Reading Lloyd Fernando’s Green is the Colour is like being in a dream, or rather a sort of slow-moving, languid nightmare where you know the end is going to come slowly, but when it comes it’s not going to be good. That’s not an indication of the book, but an indication of the world within the book, a world that seems all too familiar until you realise that it’s the world of Malaysia, circa 2010. As the book is meant to reflect the state of the nation after the May 13, 1969 events and state of emergency, this is a horribly depressing realisation, but if I’m honest with myself, not a surprising one.

As a MyKad-carrying Malaysian, it is rather deplorable that Green is the Colour was written in 1993 and I am reading it for the first time in February 2010. It’s worse when you think about the fact that I was an English major, and should have taken a keener interest in the literature that was being produced in Malaysia, and within Southeast Asia. (So let’s not think about this too much.) Lloyd Fernando is a Singaporean, technically, but that’s a minor quibble surely, considering that this region is practically founded upon interreligious and interethnic mingling.

But national purity is just what gets the knickers of fundamental nationalists in a twist. And the issues and concerns of nationalism is a fundamental thread that runs through the entire book, casting shadows over matters of race, religion, colonialism, independence, identity, and love (specifically love between ‘outsiders’, love for the Other).

Malaysia is a jittery nation post-May 13, and all its insecurities and fears are refracted through the thoughts and behaviour of the main characters: Siti Sara, a Malay sociology professor, Yun Ming, a Chinese civil servant, and Dahlan, a Malay bleeding-heart lawyer and activist, and to lesser degrees Gita, an Indian who is Siti Sara’s friend and colleague, as well as the uglier personas like Panglima and Omar, Sita Sara’s misguided husband.

Central to the story is Siti Sara’s burgeoning love affair with Yun Ming, who is married to a woman he seemed to have stopped loving a long time ago. In this case, the words ‘love affair’ really does suggest all that is hidden, illicit, and reckless, because in the highly volatile aftermath of the recent racial riots in Malaysia, a sexual relationship between a Chinese individual and a Malay one is not only taboo, but downright dangerous.

The only Malaysia we’re given in this book is a depressed, divided one (the only Malaysia most of us have ever known?); not merely along racial and class lines, but also ideological ones – simple barriers that nevertheless create chasms that appear  insurmountable, even among  people who were formerly good friends (Yun Ming and Dahlan). In the aftermath of colonisation, nations need to carve out individual identities. Green is the Colour typically exemplifies the inherent confusion that lies in a nation-building project – chiefly among the ‘ordinary’ citizens, the ones not vested with political power. It brings to mind Benedict Anderson’s definition of nations as imagined communities (the entire book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism is an illuminating, original read, but this short excerpt provides a quick distillation of his key theses). There is a definite need for a sense of ‘comradeship’ among the disparate ethnic groups residing in Malaysia; but it’s a haphazard sense of comradeship, enforced by the government and accepted by the citizens themselves, but it’s more akin to sticking band-aids over a broken, bleeding leg instead of performing the much-needed surgery.

But, as Fernando tries to show, there is a real sense of terror in the nation’s psyche after the recent racial riots, and the general consensus is to refrain from “making things worse.” To drum home the point, this phrase is uttered within the first three pages of the book by Yun Ming, the placating, by-the-book civil servant, as he tells Dahlan during a cultural concert organised by the Department of Unity to lay low and leave off from ruffling the feathers of the Department’s Secretary-General. Dahlan, along with Siti Sara, wears his emotions close to his skin, so much so that he’s unable to leave the band-aid of pseudo-unity on for any length of time without chafing against the friction of the ‘fake’ Malaysia versus the real Malaysia.

Yun Ming’s concern for Dahlan’s outspokenness on issues that are deemed ‘sensitive’ is the greatest irony of the book, because it’s the sensitive who are willing to speak out against what’s sensitive, or in the case of Siti Sara, internalise much of its contradictions and suffer from a sense of displaced individuality, a kind of vertigo of the self that sends long-cherished beliefs and principles into a tragic freefall. But Yun Ming’s concern for Dahlan goes deeper than mere defensiveness – he cares about his old friend, and knows that the very people who applaud Dahlan will be the very ones who run back to the comforts of their own lives when the time comes to pay a price for one’s words:

“He supposed it was a great thing to be able to do what Dahlan did and was doing. The pseudo-intellectuals would gather around him and admire his active commitment. It was in the best traditions of liberalism. If he was arrested, they would put the hat around for his defence. If there was no trial they would murmur in the luxury of their living-rooms at night. None of them would look further to ask, Are not Dahlan’s opponents committed, too? Is not Dahlan wrong just to bring an idea in without asking how it should be brought in for people of different cultures?”

In Yun Ming, we have a character who toes the line not because he’s unthinking or unfeeling, but simply because he sees no other alternative. In that passage above, his ruminations are justified. But there is no one with whom Dahlan and the likes can engage in dialogue. It’s an either/or mentality that is pervasive in a time when discussion, empathy, and structural analysis would have better served the people.

But as Fernando shows through the characters of the vile Panglima, and to a lesser degree in Omar, Siti Sara’s husband, the quickest route to national identity is also the easiest way – a hearkening back to how things were before the British came, as though pre-colonised Malaya was a pure landscape of a single ethnic group, practising only one type of religion.

Omar, who while he was a student in America with Siti Sara, enjoyed the privileges of an ‘imperial’ education, now finds the only solution is to retreat into close-mindedness – and one gets the sense that this is both of out of a sense of fear of the unknown (what will Malaysia turn out to be?) and out of falling into the rut of listening to, and subscribing, to only one small, narrow view of the world. This is evident in one of the conversations he has with his wife:

“He said, ‘We’ll be all right. First we must purify and strengthen ourselves, then nothing can touch us. We’ll be all right.’

This was a manner he had begun to cultivate: rage was overcome by remembering that all obstacles would be removed, everything could be explained, everything fell into place in the vision he had and would impart to others when the time was ripe.”

When Siti Sara tries to tell him that, “Many ordinary people show respect and understanding. We should do the same to them,” Omar responds with the disappointing, all-too-often heard refrain of, “It’s their duty. They came here as strangers, they must show their understanding of the situation.”

The “they” naturally refers to the non-Malays, and it’s in interest of the colonialist legacy as well as the ideology of the fundamentalist nationalist that this myth of the ‘strangers’ must continue to be perpetuated. Memories are short and selective for the likes of Omar; this way, they can continue to assert that there is ‘one’ way of doing things as defined by the one group of people who are the originators, the deserving, the first sons of the land.

But, typically, the first sons of the land rarely stop to ask who came before, and the insult to our collective intelligence if we keep asking, over and over again, “Who came first?”

It’s clear where Fernando stands on this issue, because the characters of Omar and Panglima, epitomising small-minded chauvinism of the worst sort, are also the most despicable characters. They view other people as disposable or potentially-useful ‘property,’ and as such it figures that Omar would be the type to rape his wife and brook no dissent from her while valuing her physical attributes that mark her out as ‘different-looking’ from the ordinary Malay woman:

“He was proud that she was his wife. There she was, lighter-skinned than even many Chinese, the nose in profile straight but not unduly prominent like Indian noses, and a complexion that reddened slightly in the right places.”

He sees her as a collection of pleasing physical attributes that are the negation of those belonging to other races – complexion ‘lighter-skinned than even many Chinese,’ nose ‘not unduly prominent like Indian noses.’

Panglima, the Political Secretary to the Minister of Home Affairs, does not know of his true origins, although we are told that he came from “humble origins in a derelict corner of Rangoon,” his father found dead along the banks of Irrawaddy River with a knife in his throat when Panglima was very young, thus rendering him under the care of his father’s common law wife. It’s telling that Panglima recalls nothing much of his father, and refers to his caretaker simply as, “The Karen woman was his father’s common law wife; perhaps his father was Karen too.” He ran away a few days after his father was buried, and worked in a brothel.

Probably due to this lack of self, he grows up to be a vicious man who gets his kicks from violent sex with underaged prostitutes and girls, and most of all, from wielding absolute authority over everyone else. It seems almost fitting that he works for the Home Ministry, then, and that he gained his nickname of ‘Panglima’ due to his very public enthusiasm for “the revival of religious values and of the cultural decay which the West had spread to the countries of South East Asia.” Predictably, he leers over Siti Sara’s jeans-clad form even as he rails against the evils of body-hugging Western clothing.

When Panglima speaks to Siti Sara’s father, the Lebai Hanafiah, a gentle and compassionate religious teacher, on the immodest attire of the young women, her father tells him that in many other countries, women wear much less, but are still principled and moral. Panglima’s response: “In some countries they are caned. They are much better after that.” Fast forward to what the Home Minister says in 2010 with regards to three young women who were caned for having ‘illicit sex,’ and one can’t help but feel despair while reading that passage, or the entire book, for that matter. Panglima’s final act of defilement, directed towards Siti Sara, hinges purely on power and thwarted lust.

Green is the Colour is a hugely important Malaysian novel that every Malaysian should read. If, like me, you fear as if you’re coming to it ‘too late,’ you’ll be glad to know that it’s not too late, in fact, maybe you’re even being premature, because it seems we have regressed instead of moving forward. The fears and alienation of Malaysians post-May 13, 1969 are exactly the same as the fears and alienation of the Malaysians post-May 13, 1969 in 2010.

It’s an important book for the themes and ideas that rise to the surface of practically every page, but it’s far from a perfect book precisely because the characters are mere vehicles for the different viewpoints and ideas. Certain characters play a key role, but hang about vaguely at the periphery – Gita, for instance, and even Dahlan. Fernando has a tendency to switch from a factual style of writing that reads like reportage to sudden oblique and twisty ramblings when in the mind of one of the characters, notably Siti Sara, and this doesn’t quite flow and progress the way it should – sometimes it’s merely jarring and shakes the reader out of the pages for a bit, and one’s left stumbling about for one’s bearings. For that reason I couldn’t quite get lost in the book the way I would have liked to – in long, uninterrupted stretches of time – I could only manage a few pages each time before putting it down for a bit, and then picking it up again.

As far as characters go, only Siti Sara is truly fleshed-out (even that, only in comparison to the other characters), and because of this, her meandering stream-of-consciousness musings towards the final chapters are chilling, desultory, and portentous; the reader is left with a very strong feeling that nothing is as is should be, and all is wrong and potentially devastating if we keep going along the same path as we always have. Most important is the Foucauldian sense of the post-colonial Malaysian society where power is looming over you from seemingly everywhere and yet from nowhere in particular, the idea that you should watch yourself because everyone else is, leaving one with no choice to but to put on several masks, adopt several facades;  one to suit each ethnic group or person you’re with at the time. Except for a select few who dare to probe their own prejudices, and die as a result, or go mad, or become simply numb, this foundation of assorted masks and disguises is the frail and shaky one upon which the country is building is postcolonial identity:

“Nobody could get May sixty-nine right, she thought. It was hopeless to pretend you could be objective about it. Speaking even to someone close to you, you were careful for fear the person might unwittingly quote you on others. If a third person was present, it was worse, you spoke for that person’s benefit. If he was Malay, you spoke one way, Chinese another way, Indian another. Even if he wasn’t listening. In the end the spun tissue, like an unsightly scab, became your vision of what happened: the wound beneath continued to run pus.”

Green is the colour, says Lloyd Fernando, but there’s nothing lovely about it.

“You will be an old maid! And that’s so dreadful!”

February 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

I don’t know what it is about Jane Austen, or the romance of Regency life, happy and unencumbered in the countryside, with letters, and flowers, and cotton long-sleeved gowns and supper of cold chicken and leg of lamb, of balls, long walks, and general good manners (if not exactly good thoughts), but I’m a sucker for it. Watching the BBC version of Emma made me so happy, almost deliriously so, and I actually regretted being greedy and watching 2 episodes last night. Now I’m left with only 1 more to go tomorrow, after today’s treat.

Damn. I’m so going to end up a Miss Bates.

But I can’t help it. I grew up on Austen, I was fed it, and now I keep waiting for a Mr. Darcy to sulk his way into my heart with his secretive charitable good deeds and immense fortune, or a Mr. Knightley to spar verbally with me on all counts and nurse a tender passion for the youthful sprightliness and  sparkling embodiment of joie-de-vivre that is me. DAMN IT.

Oooh, ahhh... the life of a blushing English rose

There is much to be done. To be fair, if I’ve plonked my bum down here, I should be writing more intelligent blog posts, writing essays or poetry, using my brain, but I am not. I’d rather be catatonic, reading tweets from people who care far too much about the things I could care less about (Tiger Woods’ infidelity, Winter Olympics… zzzz), and going from one open browser window to another.

Be careful: this is what Stupidity and Vanity look like

“A masterpiece… may be unwelcome but it is never dull”

February 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

“Written with consummate grace and wit…” begins the gushing first sentence of the back-jacket copy of Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World, and I steeled myself for a potentially boring and vapid book. Usually, ‘consummate grace’ tends to be synonymous with ‘boring’ where jacket copy is concerned. But I stand corrected. After finishing the book, I will concur; yes, Pierpont writes with consummate grace and wit.

Passionate Minds is a collection of 11 essays, all of which were previously published in ‘The New Yorker,’ and all of which focus on literary women of influence, as opposed to women of literary influence, as Pierpont herself distinguishes in her introduction. “The resulting group is emphatically diverse,” she concludes, which is sort of true, but not really. They are all white (all except one, Zora Neale Hurston), and lest you take the ‘world’ bit in the ‘Women Rewriting the World’ subtitle seriously, let me assure you that the world in this case means the United States, Europe, and chunks of South Africa. I suppose for some people, that constitutes the world. (“What, you mean there’s more to it?”)

Pierpont takes a razor-sharp view of all the women – Olive Schreiner, Gertrude Stein, Anais Nin, Mae West, Margaret Mitchell, Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, Marina Tsvetaeva, Ayn Rand, Doris Lessing, Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy – and their resulting influence, never once wavering in her steely-eyed stare. That means she makes the reader privy to their immense talent, intelligence, and ambition, as well as their cringing weaknesses and narcissistic fixations. And she doesn’t gloss over the unpleasant facts of their characters that naturally cast a shadow over their reputations. In the case of Olive Schreiner, Pierpont acknowledges that while The Story of an African Farm “was the first to place the landscape of the vast and barren South African karroo – like Emily Bronte’s moors or Willa Cather’s Southwestern mesas – on the map of literature,” Schreiner was also the product of her times. Denounced by some as a ‘racist feminist’, Schreiner wrote in 1899 in a pamphlet promoting democratic, integrated national union that “the dark man is the child the gods have given us in South Africa for our curse or our blessing.” This is a factor that Pierpont could have chosen to gloss over, to make her own job easier, but she didn’t – and the Schreiner chapter is all the richer because of it.

Indeed, what was interesting to me about Pierpont’s book is not the catalogue of each woman’s achievements laid bare, but their horrible, human, often frail and contradictory beliefs and principles. It’s astounding how all of them were, to greater or lesser degrees, as steadfastly racist as most men of their times were steadfastly sexist. One often thinks that intelligence and talent can count for something in the personality stakes, polishing a duller, conforming character into one that sooner or later miraculously gleams with self-awareness and compassion. Sadly, that is rarely the case.

Reading about these women, one can’t help but believe the Foucauldian theory of there being no exterior subjectivity outside of ideology, that one gets happily sucked in to the prevailing status quo all the same, whether gifted, intelligent, or obscenely talented, with no point of external reference from which to examine one’s own skewed prejudices. This seems to have been the case with Hurston, tragically, and Welty, and Lessing, and Arendt. Pierpont is often subtly sarcastic, or mildly scathing, all the while being extremely respectful, but in the piece on Hurston she is warm, almost tender. It’s certainly disconcerting to read about Hurston’s ambivalence to her own race, and the place of race in the grander contexts of literary success and physical beauty. The protagonist of her best-loved and most influential novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie, is a mulatto who is revealed to possess fair skin and lustrous, non-kinky hair – her physical attributes thereby elevating her to a position of greater significance than if she were simply black. While acknowledging Hurston’s own internalised racism, Pierpont is nevertheless gentle and respectful with how she treats her subject. She writes that Hurston “created a myth… in which she herself plays a mythic role – a myth about a time and place fair enough, funny enough, unbitter enough, glad enough to have produced a woman black and truly free.”

Zora Neale Hurston

Other points of honesty in the book caused me to wince – Pierpont’s entire piece on Anais Nin was an exercise on restraint on her part, one feels, because the glass is about to drop any second, and one senses that Pierpont just wants to come right out and say, “She was a manipulative bitch who had not one jot of true talent,” but she doesn’t, and this is where the consummate grace and wit comes in, I suppose. I’ve only read one volume of Nin’s journals, which is not enough to give a sustained, overarching view of her personality, but I was always rather amazed at her ability to detail her own life in exquisite detail. Conversations, looks, touches, glances – EVERYTHING is noted down and brought to life again in her journal, and I was inclined to believe that most of it was true. But as any writer would know, it’s impossible to have a memory that remembers much beyond the last 3 minutes of your life, especially when you’re trying to mine the fertile plains of memory for some fodder for your work. Also, it would be impossible to devote that much energy to yourself, and the process of journal writing, and still have some creative energy left over for other forms of writing.

According to Pierpont, Nin devoted her life to her journal because that’s the only form of writing she was capable of doing. She notes how some writers and critics, all male, fawned over Nin’s other writing – stories and essays – even though they had no clue what was going on. They did this by claiming that Nin was doing truly ‘feminine writing.’ Nin’s lover, Henry Miller, was most guilty of this, because, as Pierpont writes, “All that he (Miller) had objected to before, all that he tried to save her from – the secondhand surrealisms and the self-conscious ‘femininities’ – are no longer presented as destructive intellectual flaws but as a biological absolute. […] Nin wasn’t a failed writer, or a lazy writer: she was a woman writer.” In another page, Pierpont writes that Nin’s reverence for  “the ‘modern spirit’ became an excuse for unintelligible writing, as her father’s desertion was the excuse for her games of betrayal.” Or, another stinger: “The real and bottomless subject of Nin’s diary is not sex, or the flowering of womanhood, but deceit.”

When Pierpont sharpens that consummate wit, things really get cracking.

Doris Lessing

Other moments, at once painful and sympathy-inducing, are Lessing’s inability to love her first two children, after having sleepwalked into marriage and motherhood, while later showering her third son Peter with unlimited founts of maternal love. Or there’s Eudora Welty, hanging on to racial prejudice even while being privy to the extreme poverty of both blacks and whites in the depths of Mississippi, while battling virginity, an all-pervasive and dominant mother, and love for a homosexual man. Then there is Marina Tsvetaeva, who lost her youngest daughter to starvation when she, destitute, temporarily gave up her children to an orphanage while living alone with them in war-torn Moscow. The child died, but 2 months later Tsvetaeva was back in another love affair, producing poetry as a result, and it’s hard NOT to wince while reading about these facts, just as it’s hard NOT to feel anguished when we find out that she later killed herself after possibly finding out about her husband’s and eldest daughter’s traitorous activities with the Soviet secret police.

Hannah Arendt

All of these women left a lasting legacy, certainly, beyond the borders of the literary landscape, but I failed to see Mary McCarthy’s lasting contribution. Possibly, she paled in comparison to Hannah Arendt, both of whom Pierpont wrote about in one essay, contrasting the differences of their beliefs and upbringing against their sturdy, enduring later friendship. Arendt, despite holding on to some very unfortunate beliefs about Africans, and the causes and effects of colonisation and empire – produced a body of work with lasting philosophical implications, but as far as I see, McCarthy merely slept around a lot and wrote some dark and wildly funny stories.

It’s clear that Pierpont wrote about female figures within a certain milieu, within a specific historical time period, and it would be unfair to have expected her to produce an encyclopaedia that covered all literary women of influence throughout all time. But the inclusion of Mae West – Pierpont considers her a writer for having written roles for women in film that defied all the sexual straitjackets women were made to be in, up until that point – suggests her ability to look far and wide for inspiration. However, as a woman rewriting the world, I doubt that Mae West had much lasting influence on how female sexuality was perceived in, say, Asia. She’s clearly an American icon. But even within the realm of America, Pierpont neglects key figures – writers of the ‘Native American Renaissance’ for example, such as Louise Erdrich and Leslie Marmon Silko – writers whose lives and influence we hear so little about already. What about Gloria Anzaldua, bell hooks, Julia Alvarez, Maxine Hong Kingston, or Amy Tan? What Margaret Mitchell did for popular literature is akin to Amy Tan’s influence, I believe, within the same demographic, as well – women readers, but maybe largely of Asian descent (although I’m sure that’s not quite true anymore).

For anyone interested in literature, and fascinating literary figures, this book is a given. For others among us who believe that the written word can move mountains (or at the very least, move a molehill or two) this book can provide hours of insight; chewy nuggets that you can contemplate while firing up your browser to Google more information.

But some of us might also expect just a tiny bit more from a book that tantalises us with the premise of ‘women rewriting the world.’

Something’s rotten in the state of 1Malaysia

February 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

It’s always a good time to foam at the mouth where Malaysian politics is concerned. Every day is a new day to get your panties in a twist over some idiotic comment or policy being made or approved. And I told myself not to write about it here, because I’m not very articulate when I’m angry, and the spectre of the ISA looms dark over the Malaysian public.

But sometimes, it’s simply impossible to wax lyrical over a book, or a film, or some aspect of ‘culture’ without recognising the politics that underlie our everyday lives.

The recent foam-in-the-mouth situation is brought on courtesy of the Home Ministry. In the wake of the Kartina issue, where the Syariah High Court meted out a punishment of an RM 5, 000 fine and six strokes of the cane after a Muslim woman was found to have imbibed alcohol, most Malaysians (myself included) thought that this was the first attempt on the part of Malaysian officials in meting out a draconian law under the guise of religious piety. But as the Home Minister will tell you, fret not. Other women HAVE been caned before, in Malaysia, for having partaken in ‘illicit sex.’

The obvious questions are, clearly, are only women liable to be caned for illicit sex, if sex outside marriage is unlawful in Islam? In that case, were/are men caned too, for the same reasons? Or were these women caned for having illicit sex with other women? And what levels of intellectual and ethical maturity does our Home Minister possess if he trots out this beautiful example in defense of the sentence meted out to Kartika?

What I love about Malaysian online alternative media is that we’re given examples of the reactions this announcement has elicited. On the one hand, you get the outrage. On the other, you get the applause.

It’s important to note what is said in that Malaysian Insider article by one of the lawyers who is against the sentence :

“Malaysian Human Rights Association president Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, a Muslim constitutional lawyer, said he believed that the caning was outside the jurisdiction of the Syariah courts.

He said the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 — which confers powers on the Syariah courts — does not authorise caning of the kind dictated by Islamic law.”

In other news, books are banned in Malaysia, and books are seized from the bookshops by Home Ministry officials hell-bent on ‘studying’ potentially offensive and sensitive publications.

I placed an order online at Acmamall.com for what I thought seemed to be an innocent enough book: Laini Taylor’s Lips Touch: Three Times. It’s a young adult novel that incorporates elements of fantasy, and as far as I know, the stories and the illustrations have gotten rave reviews in the (largely) American press and blogosphere.

Over there in America, they do things different. They let their kids read books like this! Over here in Malaysia, the Home Ministry detains the books at the Subang Jaya entry point and Acmamall.com needs to send me an apologetic email offering me various options for a refund.

Reasons why the book is detained? The possibilities are endless. It could be that the Home Ministry is worried that young men with no morals might tempt the pure young girls of Malaysia by offering them luscious fruit that have been ‘cursed’ by a bomoh.

Or the sight of those red lips on the cover could send Malaysians into a nation-wide kissing frenzy. (But this could work in the government’s favour. No one would ask questions about the Kugan case or Anwar’s trial, or why one of the submarines commissioned for RM 3.4 billion ‘can’t dive’, or how come huge amounts of taxpayers’ money went down the drain in the PKFZ fiasco, how Umno Youth suddenly gets RM 2 million funding handed over for its ‘programmes’ just like that, etc.

But Malaysian politicians, if nothing else, lack the ability to look ahead. Their view of history, and of the current world, is always synchronic, and always seen through not rose-coloured, but heavily-tinted glasses. The kind that they use for their state-sanctioned vehicles.

Postscript: Marina Mahathir has an insightful blog post about the caning issue here. She brings up a key point, namely how class differentials plays a key role in our government’s moral police’s extreme policing. The people who are subject to these stringent religious laws are the ones least likely to be able to have access to decent legal representation. One would think it would have been more Islamic to counsel these girls, and offer them financial support with regards to their babies, or an avenue through which they can still remain in school/complete their studies and bring up their babies at the same time (as some are without family support). In all 3 cases there was no mention of the other party – ie. the ‘sperm donors.’ Clearly, they did their job and then went on to do other things.

‘Awake for ever in a sweet unrest’

February 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

Jane Campion’s Bright Star is a lovely, tender, moving film – all vapid, bland words that don’t do the film any justice. It’s a gorgeous testament to the life of art being heightened, and strengthened, by the gift of love.

I must admit to not knowing much of Keats’ poetry, which I intend to remedy pretty soon. I suppose it’s the voice of Ben Whishaw, as Keats, reading Keats’ poetry, that did me in – but heck, who cares how I get there as long as I get there, right?

Bright Star is rather long; almost 2 hours. For most of our Twitter-fried brains, that might be more concentration than we focus on our loved ones in the span of a week. Also, it is a movie that demands concentration as much as it is aesthetically stunning. There are no neon mushrooms and inter-species sex here that might have kept you glued to your seats while in Pandora, but there are triple-pleated mushroom collars.

Fanny Brawne’s creative outlet is sewing, Keats’ is poetry. It’s a credit to Campion that Fanny’s interest in sewing, and by extension, designing, is not merely a feminist ploy – it seems totally consistent with her character. Furthermore, Campion does a great job of displaying the social mores of the time without being pedantic. Lives, especially female lives, were firmly on the inside. You were always surrounded by people. You had to woo and court and write and create surrounded by other people. Although, it must be said, being a male poet gave one license to shut the door and block out the world.

An interesting point to note is that when Fanny is deep in the throes of love, and the obsession that comes with it (or with first love, I’m not sure), she rarely picks up her needle and thread.

Most of all, though, I was in love with Fanny’s family. Her lovely siblings – the most exquisitely adorable little sister, Toots! I loved how the movie captured the tenderness that siblings have for each other (particularly sisters) even while you threaten them with things like, “I’ll cut your hair off at night if you do that.”  Fanny’s mother is traditional while being liberal, and it’s almost too easy to see how Fanny managed to become the headstrong, independent, clever person that she is with a mother like that. When Keats writes to Fanny, accepting her invitation to spend Christmas with her and her family, it’s because he wants to be with her and her family. It’s clear that he’s besotted with Fanny, but the comforts of the home provided by Mrs. Brawne and Fanny’s siblings simply cannot be refused now that he’s bereft of a family of his own after his brother’s death.

That’s Ben Whishaw, as Keats, with a flower in his hair, for your swooning pleasure.

In goddess we trust

February 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

I had high hopes for Betsy Prioleau’s Seductress: Women Who Ravished the World and Their Lost Art of Love. I had read this particular interview with the author in Salon awhile back and thought she seemed smart, and engagingly enthusiastic and excited about the possibilities of being seductive without being reductive, and without reducing the art of seduction to a shopworn, used-once-and-discarded cliché. It’s quite possible, I thought, that she had something to say to the 21st-century woman in need of meaningful seduction techniques as opposed to the merely coy and/or cute maneuvers that are rehashed over and over again in the mainstream media.

In fact, Prioleau probably had me in mind when she wrote the book. I’m so unversed in the ways of men and women and the subtle, playful art of seduction and flirtation that I had to Google things like “how to tell if he’s attracted to me.” (There was a time in my life when I needed to know these things, because when a FRIEND asked me, “how do I tell if he’s attracted to me?” I had to be a good friend and tell her. So I Googled it.) In the manner of most how-to guides on the internet, someone wrote the First Article to begin all articles on “how to tell if he’s attracted to me” and everyone else ripped off that basic template around which to structure their ‘guides.’

I present to you the key points:

  • Eye contact – must be meaningful. Too much deep-staring into your eyes indicates that he has something to hide, or wants to kill you with a bread knife when you turn your back on him. Trust your ‘gut instincts.’
  • Physical space – The attracted will try to invade the space of the attractee. But again, if he’s coming too close, that’s just kind of gross. Hopefully, he’s just sexily honing in on his prey. Relax, it’s all part of evolution, it’s what hunters did before they speared that unsuspecting deer. Trust your ‘gut instincts.’
  • Body language – The attracted will turn his body towards the attractee. He will prance, preen, and most importantly, adjust his tie. (No word yet on what t-shirt wearers will do.) But trust your ‘gut instincts.’
  • Mannerisms – He will look at your lips, boobs, and then touch his own face. (Oookay. Isn’t that creepy? But never mind. This is why everyone else is seducing and being seduced while I read online how-to articles.) Regardless, it’s important to trust your ‘gut instincts.’

The most important way of knowing if he’s attracted to you?

“He will ask you out.”

And there you have it.

But no one has asked me my friend out since I read that article, so I turned to Prioleau.

In her preface, Prioleau writes that she conceived of the book while teaching a course on ‘The Seductress in Literature.’ Predictably, the class was filled to the brim, and apparently she was inundated with pleas and confessions by the female students after class – none of them knew what they were doing where romance and relationships were concerned. The campus dating scene was a jungle. There were no rules. Men used and dumped women, and women stayed back in their dorm rooms to cry while the men went out with their friends for beers, or simply moved on to the next woman.

Women of the 21st century, she realised, had no reliable role models to help cast them out of their modern “erotic despair.” She searched the annals of history and found that there was more than a fair share of seductresses from antiquity onward who were worth their kohl and rouge. How was it that we don’t know of them, don’t know of their powerful secrets and techniques of seduction, don’t know that it takes more than Botox, hair flips, high-pitched giggles, pseudo-lesbian displays of affection with other women, waxed underarms, and artificially-inflated breasts to keep a man interested?

Well-intentioned as it is, Prioleau’s book could have been so much greater than it actually is. Much of it has to do with her prose style. She tells you she was raised in a “southern belle culture, with a mother who was the Miss Valentine of Richmond, Virginia.” You do sort of feel like you’re clasped to the warm and comforting bosom of a motherly Southern woman, the kind who advises you to improve on your “lovecraft” or “sexpertise,” both of which are words Prioleau actually uses. However, being clasped to the bosom for too long can leave one feeling, well, stifled and suffocated. Her prose becomes rather breathless and rah-rah, which can be a lot more grating than the sound of pink frosted fingernails scraping a chalkboard. Sentences like, “Sirens snapped their fingers at authority and went their own way, the Seductive Way,” are fine when occasionally dropped here and there, tongue-in-cheek. Sprinkled liberally throughout the book, however, it gives one a headache; like the effects of being in a too-small room with a woman who talks volubly, non-stop, while wearing too much perfume.

That’s not to say I hated the book; I found myself unable to stop reading it, although it was always with a slight headache. Drawing on her initial chapter on ‘The Goddess Archetype,’ Prioleau takes a sweeping overview of goddess religions and cultures throughout the centuries. And sweep she must, as she flits breathlessly from one civilization to another in her attempt to prove her point that the belief in female-centered religions was wide, expansive, and more historically-extensive than newer, patriarchal religions. Interestingly enough, she sticks to Western civilisation and pre-civilisation societies. One suspects that if she stuck even a toe into the goddess-like waters of Africa, India, China, or Egypt, the book would naturally have expanded to double-D proportions. That’s a shame, really.

Prioleau neatly divides her book into six different categories of seductress-types, and each chapter pretty much follows the same vein: a 4-5 page sketch of each woman, with some preamble to introduce each woman with the goddess archetype that she best resembles: non-beauties, seniors, scholars/intellectuals, artists, political players, and ‘adventurers.’ The last category and chapter is the most amorphous one of all, and not surprisingly, it’s also the least interesting.

There are common threads running through the lives of most of these women: they usually triumphed over hard and bitter childhoods, or proved their parents and family wrong when nothing was expected of them but docility and ordinariness. All of them were confident, and had an intrinsic belief in their self-worth. But sometimes it seems like Prioleau had to cast her net a little too wide in order to provide a wide array of examples of first-rate seductresses. For example, in the chapter on ‘Siren-Adventurers’ she cites the example of one La Belle Ortero (1868 – 1965) whose chief achievement seems to have been sending men to their death. Plenty of men apparently went nuts over her and killed themselves, but Prioleau never really explains why. It’s somewhat troubling, because had this been a male, he would have been vilified for victimising his women lovers and adopting such a horrifyingly blasé attitude towards the people whom he attracted. But as La Belle Ortero is being worshipped as a seductress, well, rah-rah away!

Interesting chapters are the ones that focus on ‘Scholar-Sirens,’ ‘Siren-Artists,’ and ‘Seductresses in Politics.’ In these pages, you get the sense that these seductresses actually DID something as opposed to merely bedding and leaving; they created, thought, and lived a purposeful life, in addition to enjoying their sexual liberties with a wide variety of men. One of the highlights for me was reading about Emilie du Chatelet, a French physicist, mathematician, philosopher, and classicist who slept only 2 – 4 hours a night in order to fit in time for all her pursuits and interests, alongside dalliances with men. Her translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica remains one of the definitive French versions of the text, an achievement that earns her a single, passing sentence in Prioleau’s book. One almost wished that Prioleau allowed these women more of an opportunity to speak in their own words, whenever it was possible. In the case of du Chatelet, Prioleau tells us that she wrote, “for fun,” a how-to guide for women entitled On Happiness. In order to achieve a truly joyous state, du Chatelet said women should “cultivate strong passions, savour the pleasures of the flesh, enrich their minds through study, and make themselves mistresses of the metaphysics of love.”

That would have been a good note with which to end the book, providing sound advice besides. But Prioleau chose to end with her final chapter, ‘Goddess-Trippin’: Into the Future,’  a fuzzy and lukewarm call to arms to modern women to heed the call of their sexy ancestors. It’s not really clear how we’re supposed to do this. Prioleau half-heartedly offers an option: modern women should learn how to really dance and move their hips, and makes a dazzling attempt at racial generalisation by suggesting that “modern Afrosirens are on to this.” Her source? One scholarly article cited from the Journal of Black Studies. Her other suggestions include learning about your body, enjoying sex, practicing your skills in the sack, growing a brain, and developing a talent. Also, to master the art of witty, charming, seductive conversation. All these are elements that a thinking woman would have thought about before reading this book. However, if seduction is a science as simple as Prioleau makes it out to be, then all these disparate elements should come together in one breathtaking formula that can be applied in all situations with the same effects, regardless of variables.

I can’t help noticing that she writes primarily for a Western audience, and her examples draw from this tradition. She can’t be faulted for this, because one can’t reasonably expect someone to write a history of seductresses the world over. Fair enough. However, it would have probably augured well for her project if she expanded her view and considered seductresses (living examples and goddess archetypes) from outside the West. Her subtitle does bear the claim, “Women who Ravished the World.” Well, one very small chunk of the world, more like it.

All of Prioleau’s examples feature women who prized individuality and went their own way, regardless of what other people thought. A laudable personal trait to have, especially if one is a woman. Yet, how did seductresses thrive in cultures where community and communal living were, and are, integral aspects of the dominant social structure? I understand the running theme throughout the book: ‘proper’ women are expected to be docile and behave according to rules set by other people (men, mainly), while women who subvert and challenge these norms are the ones most likely to reap the most delicious fruit. Yet, plenty of women throughout the world remained shackled to these norms for various reasons, some for the very existence and preservation of their lives. It would have been interesting if she could have even considered these issues and explored potential outcomes for more of the world’s women keen on exploring the ‘lost art of love.’

That’s me in the spotlight… losing my genitals

February 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

Kuzhali Manickavel has a great post on how to “combat people who molest unmarried, unnovelized people.”

If you’ve had a slimy person come up to you recently and ask why you haven’t yet written a novel, or why you aren’t married, she offers a few choice responses to shut them up.

I will need some balls courage before I’m able to try this out on my grandma, aunts, and other assorted cute-as-a-peach relatives, but everyone else should give it a try. Try all these responses at once, strategically structured in proper order, of course. That would be more awesomer.

Thank you for buying

February 12, 2010 § Leave a comment

Amcorp Mall in Petaling Jaya is a mall for misfits. It’s a mall for the mall-less, or a mall to assuage the people who hate the malls that simply don’t cut it. It is alive and pulsing with human activity while the building itself staggers on in a halting, limping gait.

More importantly, for a bookshop that’s particularly tiny, it has three bookshops and one book rental outlet, as well as two stores selling old issues of magazines at a discounted price. That’s saying a lot. You can tramp about floor upon floor in glitzy Pavilion and only come upon one bookstore tucked away from the madding crowd. But I suppose no one goes to Pavilion to buy books.

BookXcess is a lovely bookshop in Amcorp that sells new books at discounted prices. Presumably, these are excess print run copies that publishers wish to clear off. I’m not sure about that, but I’m thinking that’s the only way you can get brand new books in Malaysia for RM 17, or new hardcovers for as low RM 30. If I sound like I’m gushing over BookXcess, well, I am. You can see any number of people browsing through the racks on a given day; it’s made book-buying a relatively achievable ideal. Instead of shelling out RM 100 for a hardcover edition, or RM 60 for a paperback in regular bookstores, you can buy the book for much less and have some spare change for dinner and a mug of beer.

And buy books we must. Don’t get me started on the local libraries.

Next to BookXcess is a used bookstore that’s called – well, I don’t believe I know the name because I don’t think it has one. The shop is tiny, and books sprout from every which corner, shelf, and bare space on the ground, making the browsing activity a particularly dusty, and potentially painful one (especially if we’re not all, you know, flat and narrow). It helps if you’re agile, especially if you’re browsing one of the shelves towards the front and someone else decides to enter the shop, or leave it. Naturally, I love the place. When it comes to books, I’m of all the all-or-nothing mentality. So yes, give me a shop with books precariously balanced on shelves that could kill me at any moment.

This long, rambling preamble is basically just a means of saying: I’m pleased as punch, today. For I bought books, and books make me happy.

I’ve been wanting to read Pinkerton’s Sister for a long time now, but I’ll often see it in regular bookshops for about RM 60 and then put it down, because I WANT to read it but there were always other books to buy, books that I was sure I’d like. RM 60 seemed an extravagance on a book of fiction that seemed potentially promising, but that I wasn’t really sure of. Well, how thrilled was I to find it at BookXcess for only RM 17? Hello? SO thrilled!

Also, a copy of The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle: A Biography in hardback. Yay.

Books I bought  from that aforementioned used bookstore that requires agility and dexterity of its patrons:

All 5 books for under RM 50! Eeeeeee!


February 12, 2010 § 2 Comments

I was watching Diane von Furstenberg on Christiane Amanpour’s talk show on CNN and was somewhat taken aback, and rather charmed, by her loud, argumentative, in-your-face style of discussion/conversation. I’ve only seen von Furstenberg’s face before, but I’ve never heard her speak. The other guest, however, Joe Zee, Creative Director of ELLE magazine, was clearly a typical by-product of the consumerist beauty industry – shallow, vain, and narcissistic. He was just like, “Oh me!” “Oh, in my magazine… we would NEVER… put someone on the cover who looks like she’s dying!” Or some similar crap.

The program topic was on unattainable beauty, and Amanpour had brought up the sticky issue of photo retouching/airbrushing. She talked about the recent French legislative push for retouched photographs or advertisements in magazines to be visibly labelled as such.

Joe Zee’s argument was that photos have been retouched from the 50’s, bla bla bla. Yes, slavery was also the done thing in the past, let’s continue with it now! Moron. Von Furstenberg’s argument was that everyone retouched photographs, both for public and private consumption, which was harder to argue with. I’ve retouched colour on vacation photographs as well, to make it look artsy, and used the black-and-white effect on close-ups of a photograph of my face to hide a visible red pimple. I suppose the issue is complex simply for the reasons behind the retouching. Photographs are retouched all the time for artistic effect. But let’s not insult everyone’s intelligence and pretend that fashion magazine editors retouch for artistic effect. The point is: are people always consciously aware that these photographs of seemingly perfect-looking people have been expressly manipulated to create an unrealistic image of perfection?

I’m sure we all KNOW this, but it’s harder to keep in mind when you’re actually looking at the picture. And what about younger children and teenagers, supposedly more impressionable than adults? I think the label warnings/reminders might then actually serve a purpose. It’s that constant voice telling you, “No one can look like that, silly! Get a grip.” A useful warning sticker, really.

There was a comment that Zee made, which apparently Karl Lagerfeld also shared, is that “we all need something to aspire to.” Well, I hate to say “big, fat DUH” but… big, fat DUH. The need to aspire to beauty is fairly common, although I would hardly say it’s universal. Many men, I’m sure, could not give a damn that they’re butt ugly but will gladly hit on Megan Fox without aiming for some sort of personal aesthetic improvement beforehand. I digress. This could be a whole other post.

But for the sake of a simple argument, let’s say that a whole bunch of people aspire to beauty.  This is the part that gives me trouble. Do fashion magazine editors believe in a Platonic sense of beauty? The very essence of beauty? Achieving one’s OWN sense of beauty and extraordinariness is VERY different from being forced to adhere to unrealistic models of beauty that glut the market (eg. white, blonde, bony, gamine, whatever’s the ‘in’ look).

In a sense I do believe in Furstenberg, in the sense that when I hear von Furstenberg speak, I know where she’s coming from and I believe her intentions to be sincere. Furstenberg got pretty animated and voluble at one point, because she objected to Amanpour saying that she designed clothes for the woman on the street, “the ordinary woman.”

“I don’t design for ordinary women! Women don’t want to be thought of as ‘ordinary.’ I believe that all women are special!” I’m paraphrasing here, but that was von Furstenberg’s response. I’m sorry to reduce myself to clichés to describe her, but with her mane of uncontrolled hair and her flashing eyes, well, yes! I’m sold. I’m special, hell yes. I love you, Diane!

Anyhow. It just angers me to no end that in the hands of editors like that Zee guy, beauty is rigid and codified and stripped of every essence of its unique elements. The fashion industry (as opposed to the creators, who form a miniscule portion of the industry) says, “Every person should aspire to beauty, and THIS is the type of beauty to aspire to. We show you what beauty is, and you’d better conform to it or be prepared to face our ridicule.”

Better yet, be prepared for their non-interest. They don’t give a shit for people who aren’t as pretty as pretty is meant to be.

Sod off Joe Zee, you couldn’t even defend your job or your magazine very well.

Where Am I?

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