On being soothed

June 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

My brain feels like it’s filled with fuzzy balls, dandelions, and lamb’s wool. Or something. Apologies to anyone reading this for the protracted silence on this blog. Another year older, and another year closer to learning how bowel-churning deadlines, the World Cup, and lack of sleep combine together to create an occasionally-drooling, occasionally-ranting Sloth Monster Extraordinaire.

I have met the monster, and the monster is me.

I had a good four days last week when I went over to Langkawi to visit my sister. Free from Bukit Monyet (where my sister had stayed on my previous trip, and which deserves its own book, much less blog post) and its many ghosts, real or imagined, I could enjoy the pace of Langkawi life for what it is – peaceful. And it’s a bloody cliché, for a true-blue city girl to come to Langkawi and find it “peaceful”, to find even its poverty “charming”.

Unabashedly romantic view of the sunset from the jetty point

The bird. (Famous Eagle construction at the Jetty Point, called 'Dataran Helang', or, Eagle's Landing. CHECK it out. It is hideous and that's the first thing you see when you arrive by ferry.)

And I don’t find poverty charming, but in Langkawi I have to remind myself NOT to, as otherwise even its poverty fits neatly into the tableau of the picturesque mist-covered mountains over the horizon of the blue seas and cows placidly chewing on grass and toothless young ‘uns running free with no underwear. It was relentlessly soothing.

Relentlessly soothing view of an the mountains on an overcast day from my sister's apartment

Each time I’m in Langkawi, I’m a little bit perplexed. Long touted as the ideal tourist destination for its beaches, the Langkawi of today is a sad mix of modernisation gone awry and nature modified to go astray. Though millions of ringgit were pumped in during the 90s to ensure that it would be our leading tourist destination, like many other projects started by the Malaysian government, it’s simply been forgotten.

Relentlessly soothing view of ships on water

For those of us who come in from other cities and sit about, revelling in the “peace” and marvelling over the bizarreness of having “nothing to do”, it’s all fine and dandy. But I always wonder what it’s like to be one of the people living there; those who know Langkawi as home, and who had put up with the encroaching modernity in the hopes that it would bring about sustained modernity, but who were only left behind with empty shells of buildings, a tainted natural land, and the influx of boorish tourists during every school break.

Relentlessly soothing view of greenery

Anyway, I’m back from Langkawi… and have been back for almost a week now, but have been ruined in the meantime by a super-drinking session that left me hungover for days. Add that to the mix of deadlines and late nights for the World Cup and I’m left with the kind of mental capacity that thought my puppy was a massive rodent out to kill me when it dashed across the living room.

Reading seems a MONUMENTAL effort, although I have started Wilkie Collin’s No Name, which is delicious, delicious fun. Captain Wragge is so repulsive, he’s also delicious. Also, I’ve been churning through some graphic novels and manga (courtesy of the friend who devised the evil concoctions that led to the Big Hangover), and will probably bore you all to tears with some meandering thoughts about those at some point in the next few days.

I’ve also written up the first part of my Angela Davis review-guide thingy, and am waiting for Part 2 to write itself, which I’m guessing will happen if I scrunch my eyes up real tight, focus, and do The Secret thing.

Free as a queer and still be straight?

June 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

I read Virginie Despentes’ King Kong Theory a few months back and have been meaning to blog about it, but was too awed by its raw power at the time to feel that I’d do a reasonably objective job. So I’ve been meaning to reread it again in a calmer, less-fawning state of mind, but that’s proving to… take quite a bit longer than I thought it would.

She has a short interview in the June/July issue of BUST magazine, and I found her answers to two questions particularly resonant:

Q: Women feel very restricted in the role of femininity, yet I don’t read about this sort of rejection very often. Why is that?

A: I don’t know. It’s hard, but once you say, “I am out of the market of beautiful women,” it’s easy. It comes out of dyke culture, because once you’re with women, lots of things don’t concern you anymore. I fell in love with a girl for the first time six months before writing the book, and that gave me lots of strength.

Q: Is there any way to be as free as a queer and be straight?

A: Not until men start real reflection upon themselves. If men want to stick to masculine values, it will be difficult to live with them and to have good relationships with them. For example, I’m always fascinated by the fact that men don’t feel bad that they always have to kill people in movies. I mean, every actor you like, you will see him killing someone on screen. And once you realise that, you really wonder, Why don’t they feel bad about it? How do they keep their dignity? For 40 years, we’ve tried to deconstruct femininity, and we’ve had some revolutions. If you don’t do the same thing about masculinity, then no, it’s going to be difficult for a straight woman to be as free as a queer.

When I mentioned this to a friend, she asked me if I was going to hit on her. I said no, but perhaps… the time has come to go queer in practice and not just in spirit/theory, or go asexual.

June 13, 2010 § 3 Comments

I am silent because of this:

Isn’t that a massive ball?

Also, because I am very good at planning and strategy; I’ve increased my freelance workload for the whole month of the World Cup. That is amazing, and I am now suffering, what with FIFA goons having no ounce of sympathy for Southeast Asian fans and scheduling the best matches at what is 2:30 AM for us. Ah, how we suffer.

But at some point I intend to post a guide (as opposed to review) of Angela Davis’ astounding Women, Race, and Class and a themed-review of several YA novels based on the Tam Lin ballad. I’m not sure if I should include thoughts on Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, as well, as its hard for me to stay objective and un-fawning like over one of my favourite books of all time.

Passing beyond hope

June 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

Nella Larsen’s Passing forces the reader to confront shades. Shades of colour as it appears on skin. Shades of sexual ambiguity and desire; shades of morality; shades of truth; shades of motherhood and wifeliness. A slim novella of only 94 pages is rarely expected to leave devastating imprints on the reader, but here’s Larsen with her gorgeously-wrought sentences and delicate phrasing, and she takes all the clichés associated with gorgeous and delicate and rips it out from its pedestal and the reader won’t even see it coming.

Although Larsen was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance movement, and is probably taught in most university literature programmes (or at the very least, mentioned in passing), she’s unknown to most people. Her life, as it were, also remains largely unknown to everyone. We do know that she was born to a Danish mother and a West-Indian father, thus marking her for life as “black” in American society even as she straddled the liminal space that is afforded to people born out of a mingling of ethnicities.

Passing, on the one hand, refers to the practice of “passing” that blacks sometimes did in the early to middle 20th century in order to carry off white identities. There are shades of passing, as Larsen outlines it; fair-skinned blacks could do it temporarily, simply to go from the hot, sizzling streets of Chicago in August to “being wafted upward on a magic carpet to another world” – the air-conditioned coolness of a cafe in the Drayton – which is what the main protagonist of this book, Irene Redfield does, in order to escape the scorching heat. (The Drayton, naturally, is off-limit to blacks.) Then there’s a more permanent sense of passing, which is what an old schoolmate, Clare Kendry, does, married as she is to a racist man who calls her “Nig” for fun because her complexion is getting tanned under the sun, but who firmly states to his wife in front of Irene’s presence (thinking her to be white, like Clare supposedly “is”), “You can get as black as you please as far as I’m concerned, since I know you’re no nigger. I draw the line at that. No niggers in my family. Never have and never will be.”

And there are the different shades of passing that regular people do all the time – passing as a contented married wife or husband, passing as a loving mother, passing as a happy person – which, in Larsen’s superbly able, gifted hands, can be condensed and stretched taut over the short span of just 94 pages.

Irene craves security, but as Larsen shows us, this has much to do with her circumstances of being black, and a woman, in pre-Civil Rights America that had just come to terms with recognising women as political beings. From the very first moment Clare re-enters Irene’s life, the ground starts to shift slightly beneath Irene’s feet. At their first meeting, in the Drayton, Irene wonders why Clare stares at her for so long before coming up to her – and Irene’s first instinct is to assume that Clare has registered that Irene’s not a white woman at all, but a black one, and was going to inform the hotel management to throw her out. Irene’s thoughts start running riot:

One of the few rare images of the author

Never, when she was alone, had they even remotely seemed to suspect she was a Negro. No, the woman sitting there staring at her couldn’t possibly know. Nevertheless, Irene felt, in turn, anger, scorn, and fear slide over her. It was the idea of being ejected from any place, even in the polite and tactful way in which the Drayton would probably do it, that disturbed her.

Within a few short pages, Larsen has painted the picture of Irene as we’ll come to know her – careful, guarded, safe, and in perfect control of her reputation. The irony of it, however, is that Clare’s sense of passing is greater and riskier than Irene could have imagined.

Larsen’s writing literally throbs with sensory images: “A brilliant day, hot, with a brutal staring sun pouring down rays that were like molten rain,” or “Her fright was like a scarlet spear of terror leaping at her heart.” But she’s deft at conveying obscured feelings through slight moments, through the unseen gestures of everyday life, through a half-seen expression or barely registered tonal change in voice. This tightrope balancing act creates a marvellous tension between the sense of stifling closeness of the domestic or internal space – which is where the majority of actions and revelations take place, whether in a hotel restaurant, a tea-party, a dance, or the bedroom – and the unfettered and mildly subversive undercurrents of the external space, where Irene usually escapes to fulfill her regular errands or gain a sense of clarity.

Irene’s carefully-constructed existence owes a lot to her tenacity and practical reason – she has carved out her life like a master designer, etching on the details of husband and children onto a smooth, polished surface of normalcy and privilege. She enjoys a stable life in Harlem, what others consider a good life, but Larsen shows us the deception in this as well, in the tense passages that describe Irene’s interactions with her husband, Brian. For all that her race might have caused her moments of trouble, or danger, Irene has subsumed them entirely into her domestic life, and to a larger extent, her social connections. She is a proud member of her race, yes, but with skin light enough to pass as white when she needs to enjoy the privileges that are not extended to blacks – privileges that dark-skinned blacks can’t attain through her kind of subterfuge. Irene’s duplicity, her voluntary deceptiveness, does not in the least trouble her, because she does not think about it. She spends a lot of time thinking about Clare’s situation, but very little time on her own.

While Irene is at once repulsed and drawn to Clare for the rifts and fissures her very presence starts to reveal in Irene’s own life, she only realises the double-burden of her race and sex towards the end:

Sitting alone in the quiet living-room in the pleasant firelight, Irene Redfield wished, for the first time in her life, that she had not been born a Negro. For the first time she suffered and rebelled because she was unable to disregard the burden of race. It was, she cried silently, enough to suffer as a woman, an individual, on one’s own account, without having to suffer for the race as well. It was a brutality, and undeserved. Surely, no other people so cursed as Ham’s dark children.

In contrast, Clare, whom we only perceive through Irene’s eyes and is thus presented as childish, immature, selfish, and wilful, appears to be honest with her own self-deception. She makes it plain that her pain is raw: “You don’t know, you can’t realize how I want to see Negroes, to be with them again, to talk with them, to hear them laugh.” With those few words delivered by Clare, Larsen just lays it all out on the table: that of the sacrifice of lifelong ‘passing’ for white. The renunciation of not only a significant chunk of the self, but a whole tribe of kinsmen and kinswomen – whether real or imagined.

Passing is infused with deep melancholy, and there is no resilience of human spirit here to carry the relentless burden of hope. There is very little joy or laughter; this is a book about pain and loneliness and the long, drawn-out martyrdom of a woman’s suffering for the sake of a husband, a few children, a nice house, and social acceptance and reputation. The most profound sense of pain derives from the reader’s realisation that Irene is as practical and no-nonsense with her herself as she is with the rest of the world.

Things might have turned out different for Irene, one thinks, if only she allowed herself to like and care for herself more and realised that the battle fought along racial and gender lines is never individual; that it’s never just one person’s fault for lack of trying. There are so many women who are of the same and the tragedy, Larsen seems to imply, is that we can’t save them all.

Caution: no pictures of Jake Gyllenhaal included

June 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

I went to see Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time today, and predictably it was boring and dull, with all the “action” scenes a pastiche of all the action scenes we’ve seen before, time and again. It’s quite likely that my enjoyment of the movie was ruined by the fact that I didn’t particularly feel good about seeing it today, when I had the nagging issue of Unfinished Work hanging over my head like the spectre of… a sandstorm. Thought it must be said that dumb as the movie was, Jake Gyllenhaal couldn’t give a dumb performance in his life even if he tried. Possibly I’m biased towards that cheeky smile and drowsy eyes… sigh… but more than that, I think that quality is just inherent in the type of actor he is: a steadfastly non-dumb one. Just like his sister, Maggie. Those are some good genes they be havin’.

However, that doesn’t mean Jake escapes from the sorry fact that seems to befall all thinking actors when they find themselves apparently acting in a steadfastly dumb movie. There is an unmistakeable tinge of shame, a shadow of dispirited listlessness that follows Prince Dastan as he scales palace walls, runs after a valuable something-or-other, leaps from one high place to another high place. And I don’t think that it has much to do with Prince Dastan fearing for his life, or worrying about the fate of his country and brothers. I think it has much to do with Jake Gyllenhaal thinking, “Why the fuck am I doing this? Oh yeah, the money. The money, Jake ol’ boy, stay focused, don’t let the audience SUSPECT that you did this for the money.”

Full confession is that I’ve never played the videogame, so I can’t happily go off on a bitter rant as to how the movie “ruined the game” like I would for a movie based on a book. But there was something indescribably creepy about watching white actors play Persian people, royalty or not; it’s like some sort of weird and relentless imperialism in reverse. How disturbing it is that white actors can now appropriate ancient Persian culture (granted, how much of it is realistic Persian culture is up for debate… forever) for the benefit of entertaining a global audience of non-discerning (or simply bored) movie-goers. And yes, white actors and Hollywood have been doing this for years, but for some reason I just felt indescribably irritated to hear Gemma Atterton and her proper British accent, untouched, in the role of some “Persian princess” and Jake Gyllenhaal with his white-boy (though lovely) face scamper about as the ragamuffin orphan turned “Persian prince.” And then the requisite real black people playing the fear-inspiring, knife-throwing slave (inevitably, despite all their ferocity, forever yoked to a superior, fairer master-owner and with a heart of gold ), and ostrich races, and some other bullshit. I mean, hell, even modern racial and cultural appropriation is a pastiche of all that has gone on before that one even wonders how to be suitably angry or outraged about anything anymore.

It was all just wrong, and there I was, having paid for the ticket, watching it. I mean, Jake – I share your shame.

Speaking of Gemma Atterton, she annoyed me less here than she did in Clash of the Titans, but I think her ethereal floatiness was kept in check by the decent chemistry she had with Jake. (Although I’m not too happy about the way he occasionally looked at her, pleasure and amusement mingled with desire, damnit.) In other words, just like Prince Dastan kept saving the day relentlessly while the feisty, opinionated, and independent princess yelped in fear, Jake saved Gemma. However, with her eternally pursed lips and straight and proper button nose, she is going in the way of Keira Knightley (only more irritating, though who but the Lord would have even thought that possible?).

God, this entire post has been one long rant of irritation, for which I apologise. May the dagger of untold secret powers help me out, or something.

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