September 14, 2017 § 4 Comments
This is a hard book to review. I wanted to love it but I have some significant issues. In a sense, this is a timely reworking of Antigone.This novel considers present-day issues of state power, borders, and terrorism. The ideas are worth thinking about but I feel the depth of the novel is less a feature of its writing, structure, characters, and plot, and more about what present-day readers will bring to their reading of the book. It’s the fact that it’s about our current political and social issues and the fact that it’s based on Antigone. I’ve seen reviews where people say they would have given it two stars, but knowing that it was based on Antigone elevated the book to three stars. I’m not sure that this reflects well on the novel.
Some of my issues: (SPOILERS AHEAD)
Antigone as the novel’s symbolic framework is also its limitation. I have a significant problem with the romance and the blockbuster film ending, and I can see it had to work that way to fit the parameters of the tragedy on which it’s based. But it simply did not feel true. This is largely in part to the flimsiness of the central characters of Aneeka (Antigone) and Eamonn (Haemon). Aneeka comes off as a cardboard character of a moody girl who’s mysterious in her ways and beautiful and unpredictable and impulsive, while Eamonn is a shell of supposed charm and humour and earnest do-gooder privilege. So far, so stereotypical. Much of the gravitas of Antigone is lost because Aneeka is not given the depth of a narrative voice. We see her through others. To Eamonn, she appears as some Manic Pixie Muslim Dream Girl. Their sudden passion and attraction does not leap off the pages. Maybe part of this is because Aneeka had a motive for getting closer to Eamonn, and Shamsie wanted to convey the “is it real or is it not” ambivalence of the romance. Or whatever. I did not care at all and that to me is a significant flaw. I was rolling my eyes and writing “Oh, please” in the margins. The wheels of this story is set in motion by their love. It felt like a weird, coldly-choreographed infatuation.
There is this really cringe-worthy scene after they have sex, when Eamonn looks at Aneeka praying after she has naughtily taken off everything for him except her hijab. Eamonn is the cultured, cosmopolitan posh Muslim boy who has, thanks to how he was raised, disavowed his Muslim self, but as it turns out what really turns him on is hijab sex with a hot hijabi! This is the section from his perspective: “He should have left immediately, but he couldn’t help watching this woman, this stranger, prostrating herself to God in the room where she had been down on her knees for a very different purpose just hours earlier”. Oooh. First she was down on her knees for dirty times and now she’s down on her knees for God! Honestly, I thought this self-Orientalising nonsense was Shamsie’s way of poking fun at Eamonn’s privileged worldview and insularity, but Eamonn is only depicted in such a tediously dull way as a Good Man that it turns out that scene was quite sincere.
Isma (Ismene) and Karamat (Creon), and even Parvaiz (Polyneices) to an extent, are complex and dynamic. Isma is the heart of the story but she is made to have a supporting role, because this novel needs to construct itself around the Antigone tragedy. The connection between Isma and Karamat could have developed into something interesting but that was prevented because, again, Antigone. I’d rather read a whole novel about Isma and Karamat. But Aneeka? Repeated references to her beauty does not a character make.
Despite enjoying the sections on Isma and Karamat, and feeling moved by Parvaiz’s situation, or rather, by the burden of family and fate that he feels he shoulders in isolation, I failed to connect to the novel as whole. Ultimately, it’s too comfortably bourgeois, too careful and too centrist in its politics. Shamsie’s language is polished and careful. Sometimes this language is a delight to read; it slips down easily and comfortingly like pudding, but sometimes it veers lazily towards sentimental platitude. Not having read Shamsie before, I’m not sure if this is her style. I know what the politics were going to be and I know that it’s meant to pull the right emotional strings. It’s meant to make you feel bad about good, innocent Muslims vs. the very evil and bad ones.This is not because I know what happens in Sophocles’ tragedy. This is because there is nothing remotely unpredictable in here that I haven’t read in zillions of liberal op-eds and thinkpieces.
Where is the ugliness, the blood, the mess, the absolute and mind-numbing fear and uncertainty brought on by the bureaucracy of borders and the security state? These characters move around like pieces on a chessboard. I can accept this if the novel was brave enough to take fate as a serious concept like the ancients did. Because part of that utter futility of human effort is at the centre of ancient Greek thought and in Sophocles’ play. The terror and awe of Antigone’s commitment to the gods and the concept of philia. But we live in a different time and we’re all materialists now even if we’re not, and this novel wants to be a realist novel of action, of cause and effect, and everything is so self-contained.
Aneeka’s love for Parvaiz and her willingness to do anything to get him buried at home is utterly unreasonable to others because she’s one half of twins. Great. So it basically comes down to: she’s acting that way because, well, twins! You know how they are!
What about Aneeka’s God and how she wrestles with religion in modern-day, increasingly right-wing UK where the only way “others” are told they should exist is by assimilating? We get a strong, almost sympathetic depiction of that conservative viewpoint via Karamat. In fact, his perspective closes the book. He gets the final word, even if it’s meant to be a representation of his hubris before his personal fall. But there is no real, strong political opposition to his view by other Isma or Aneeka. Isma’s critique of both the police state and Islamophobia carries more weight than Aneeka’s sense of justice. There is never that confrontation between Aneeka and Karamat that enables readers to think of another way of how the state should exist, of a way that it can protect and yes, care for its citizens without trying to eradicate difference in people by means of weapons, war, incarceration, poverty, torture, and weaponised security.
And if this is Antigone, then it’s Aneeka’s impassioned arguments that should strike the heart of the reader. But we only get inside her head at the worst point of her grief, and her viewpoint is submerged in the “chorus” of newspaper reports, tweets, etc. I don’t understand why this section was done this way. It doesn’t work as a structural choice, it doesn’t work as a stylistic choice. Thus, instead of the argument between Karamat and a worthy foe of opposing political views, we are meant to make do with sentimental claptrap about Karamat having to be a father and pleas for him to “be human” from both his wife and son. Really? Both Islamic State fighters and war-mongering NATO politicians think they have the monopoly on what it means to be human, don’t they?
I thought Shamsie was going to take a risk in the Parvaiz section, which I found moving until it was again clinically-engineered by the hand of the author. After giving us an engaging, even sympathetic Parvaiz, I thought Shamsie was going to show us how unreasonable we are in our desires, how mad we can become when faced with a family legacy that is riven with trauma, in a world that is brutal and unjust. That after getting the reader to sympathise with Parvaiz, she would leave him there, with the choice he made, thereby making the reader flail in the uncomfortable space of finding themselves sympathising with a terrorist. Or not sympathising, as such, but living in his head and seeing the world from his eyes. But no. Very quickly Parvaiz repents, and enters the world of good humans again. The dichotomy of Muslims terrorists as monsters and the rest of us as good humans remains. This is straight out of Mahmood Mamdani’s Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, but not in a good way. In fact, it is just like any depiction of “Muslim terrorists” we see in the media. But fiction is not corporate-sponsored journalism. One hopes that if you’re going to write about this, you would take the risk of humanising the people that the media have Othered and made monstrous. Because that is the black hole of our collective consciousness, isn’t it? How is it that people, actual humans, vast numbers of them, think that so many of us are not fit to exist on this planet with them? Shamsie does this by taking an ethical shortcut. Parvaiz regrets his choices; hence, we are allowed to feel pain that he is denied humanity in his death.
Daniel Mendelsohn on Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Antigone’s relevance: “This is the point that obsessed Sophocles’ Antigone: that to not bury her brother, to not treat the war criminal like a human being, would ultimately have been to forfeit her own humanity. This is why it was worth dying for.” There is none of this terrifying, heart-rending power of sticking to a principle, of ethics, conveyed in Aneeka’s position. This to me would have been the most crucial aspect of the novel, the element that should have been carefully developed, the bright flame at its core. I searched for it and was left wanting.
To me, all of this suggests that the reader is meant to fill in the gaps in Shamsie’s book by connecting it to the long, rich history of interpretations and readings of Antigone. Instead of fleshing out a key character in the novel and the mechanics of its plot, we are meant to assume Aneeka’s actions are powerful and tragic based on what we know about the tragedy. Such a shame. There are seeds in here for a novel that could have been really messy, brave, and complex. I was expecting so much! I still think it’s worth reading, despite my lengthy criticism, but it’s not memorable and it did not shake me up inside, it did not take my thinking to new places. It’s worth reading because it’s topical and relevant. But it could have been so much more.
June 28, 2017 § Leave a comment
I reviewed Anuk Arudpragasam’s The Story of a Brief Marriage for PopMatters. Here is an excerpt from the review:
It seems wrong, somehow, that some reviewers on Goodreads and elsewhere have pointed out that this novel is too thoughtful and does not teach the readers about the war in Sri Lanka or give detailed descriptions of what one expects to be the correct image of a refugee in a war camp. Writers of fiction are not obliged to teach the reader anything; novels are an act of imagination that ideally should spur the reader to learn more about the social and political contexts in which it’s set on their own. To say that a thoughtful and introspective, reflective tone is an inaccurate description of a person in the midst of war also reveals a limited and perhaps even condescending worldview; one that assumes that people in dire straits somehow continually exist in a state of animal-like barbarity that precludes thinking and feeling in ways that the reader might recognise. There is a need, on the part of the well-adjusted reader reading about the horrors of life from a position of relative comfort, for a certain degree of suffering that they can pass judgment on and deem sufficient; it enables them to give themselves, as readers of harrowing things, a pat on the back.
Arudpragasam has bypassed the usual conventions of writing about war. This book is small in scope, distilled into the course of one day featuring a single and singular point-of-view. This is a novel of integrity, in the sense that Virginia Woolf refers to in A Room of One’s Own: “What one means by integrity, in the case of the novelist, is the conviction that he gives one that this is the truth. Yes, one feels, I should never have thought that this could be so; I have never known people behaving like that. But you have convinced me that so it is, so it happens.” This book affords its characters, especially the central character through whom we see this slice of war-ravaged world, dignity.
The full review is available here.
June 24, 2014 § 53 Comments
Rodger believed his proximity to whiteness (and wealth) ought to have guaranteed him elevated status and whatever objects of his desire (in this case, white women).
Rodger’s words feel viscerally familiar to me; I, and many other women, have known men like Rodger. I’ll go further and say that as a southeast Asian woman of color growing up in the Bay Area, I’ve known Asian men, mixed Asian men, and other men of color, like Rodger. Men who openly worshipped white women and whose self-worth existed in direct correlation to their own proximity to whiteness. Men who routinely degraded the poorer or darker-skinned Asian women and other women of color in their communities.
Reading Elaine Castillo on race, economies of desire, proximity to whiteness / aspirations to whiteness, and recognising some of these effects in Malaysia. I wish I had the words. I don’t have it, I think, I’m stumbling and fumbling and unsure, but I want to put this down and lay it out. Although Elaine is specifically talking about growing up Filipino in the States, living in Malaysia and having met and known Asian men in Canada I too have known Asian men, mixed Asian men, and other men of colour like Rodger. “Men who openly worshipped white women and whose self-worth existed in direct correlation to their own proximity to whiteness.” On the flipside, I have also known women who openly worshipped white men and women, openly desired to be white women. I don’t say this to make some flat equivalence and to erase the work of gender. I say this because whiteness is always there in post-colonial Malaysia, even when it’s not there.
To see the world refracted through American conceptions of race would be a reductive, flawed thing—but I’m also not sure what is to be done, or how to think through, the invisible whiteness that structures economies of desire in “post”-colonial Southeast Asian nations. The way in which aspiring to a life of American whiteness, where apparently everything is better, where even democracy is “cleaner”, structures the political and social investments of the middle and upper classes in Malaysia; the people who have the say, the people whose fucking votes matter. That it’s so banal, so normal, this Americanisation of the world—even in parts of the world that just saw the British leave.
Out goes the white man and in comes another; where would [we / the world] be without them.
A part of this circling around what I’m most ashamed to say: that I grew up thinking white men were better, that I believed somehow that the misogyny I saw around me in Malaysia did not inhabit the pure white bodies of American men I assumed, in my dreams, to be better. Pop culture and society taught me how to desire, but I also took matters into my own hands and thought that if I tried to be white—
Against this, my father, properly bourgeois but with a small kernel of rebelliousness in him, I think, that knew of no other way of manifesting itself except through excess drinking, used to always say to me and my sisters: 1) “America is the worst”; and, 2) “Don’t trust white men”. Not in those words, exactly, but those were the words he meant to convey. The folly of youth is convincing yourself that everything your parents teach you must be unlearned.
Not everything, as it turns out.
I was reading the first book in the KL Noir series, KL Noir: Red, and one of the stories is by Marc de Faoite; his brief author bio says he was born in Ireland but has lived in other countries and now resides in Langkawi. His story is written from a first-person point-of-view of an Indian migrant worker, which—I mean, okay. He has also authored a collection of short stories titled “Tropical Madness” (coz the tropics be MAD, yougaiz). And the blurb for that book says he “sensitively deals with some of the realities of modern Malaysia” and that he “gives voice to a mix of marginalized and overlooked sectors of Malaysia’s population, including immigrants, transsexuals, fishermen, ethnic minorities and sex slaves”. So like this white guy inhabits all marginalised identities in his fiction and gives voice to their something. I am fucking astounded, give him all the awards.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. (And also being unfair, not having read his collection of stories yet.) Back to his story in KL Noir: his character surveys the people at the restaurant he works at and this is what he sees #IndianMigrantWorkerGazeviaWhiteMaleGaze:
In light of everything recently, thinking about that piece by Elaine, about proximity to whiteness and economies of desire in Southeast Asia, and I can’t seem to “let go” of those “giant-sized, short-haired Tamil women”. Can you imagine them? They are not big or large; they are “giant-sized”, practically inhuman. In contrast, a very safe description of Muslim women (because anything more and you’re in trouble?), and alongside these giant-sized Tamil women, young Chinese women with their “skinny bare white legs”.
I’m trying to let go but I can’t quite.
Further on in the story, another worker is talking about having seen two Malay guys check out a pair of Chinese girls in shorts—to which another guy asks, “So they weren’t Indian?” Because hafuckingha. There’s so much going on here, and talking to any Malaysian-Indian women will reveal this: Malaysian-Indian men desire Chinese women because they’re [thin / sexy / less hairy / and most important, fair-skinned]. Growing up, this was the “joke” I knew that structured beliefs about desire. (In college, a Chinese guy put his arm next to mine merely to observe, “Wow you’re so much darker and hairier than me”. But every Indian girl I know has this story to tell in some version.) I grew up realising that Tamil women were not sexy, not desiring or desirable, that in the hierarchies of desire wanting a Tamil woman comes pretty low on the list, unless you have a freakish fetish for dark women or hairy women; that Tamil women who want to get the man must perform the labour that is required to look like the other women who are closer to the ideal version of a woman. Chinese women are a step closer to exquisite white womanhood, perhaps. One upper-caste Malayalee guy I know is still waiting for his dream blonde with “Aryan features”; in the meantime, Chinese girls and “fair-skinned Malay girls” who don’t wear the tudung are nice to look at and why would he even look in the direction of a hirsute dark-skinned giant like hello he has latte-coloured skin and a well-defined nose and he is entitled to so much more than that I mean??? How dare you suggest he settle for less?
We haven’t yet entered into the economies of desire within Indians themselves (Malaysians of Tamil, Malayalee, Telugu backgrounds collectively refer to themselves as “Indians” in Malaysia, so it’s not a term designating nationality but ethnicity, and I think this is confusing to ourselves and everyone else), but caste and class play a huge role in this. How do I sort out this mess? Hannah Black writes that, “Love at present is always about gender, just as beauty at present is always about white supremacy” and I agree, obviously, but I don’t agree, less obviously, because I know white supremacy but how to begin to sketch out its effects in places like Southeast Asia? Or maybe the question is wrong, and belatedly, I’m coming to realise that the question that has to be kept in mind, alongside how white do Asians want to be, is how we don’t want to be black. And keeping in mind that much of Tamil bourgeois mores are caste and colour based, wherein the untouchable castes perform the labour that no “civilised” person would do:
There is one other story in KL Noir where an Indian female person makes an appearance and she’s a little girl in Brian Gomez’s “Mud”. The girl is described as “looking ugly as ever” (i.e. like all other Indian girls) by the self-hating, Chinese-women-in-sexy-clothes-desiring Indian rich guy. The guy is an ass; in fact, he’s a criminal in the grotesque sense that only the rich can be. We’re not meant to identify with him because he’s not sympathetic. However, here it is: in a collection of stories about KL life, Indian women and girls are neither desiring nor desired, they are “giant-sized”, in passing, and “ugly as ever”, in passing. It’s no surprise that he is visiting a Tamil community that’s impoverished; the colour of the girl’s skin, to this man, is the ugliness of the laboring classes and their symbolic proximity to blackness.
What Amalia Clarice Mora says here is a fairly common observation throughout Malaysia, so common as to be banal. Our beauty queens and our “brand ambassadors”, our faces that sell and our very favourite people, are as close to “Eurasian” looking as possible, “Pan Asian” or what have you, Asian because exotic but not too Asian, not excessively Asian, because that would not be “universally” desirable: “The mixed people are so beautiful sentiment, which often really means white-ish looking people with an ethnic twist are so beautiful or ethnic people with white features are so beautiful.” If you talk about white supremacy in Malaysia people will, on the whole, look at you funny because What does that have to do with us? but still they want you to be lighter, lighter, lighter, and beautiful in a way that you can never be, further from a kind of blackness that is always hypervisible, and closer to a kind of whiteness that no one thinks they want.
February 13, 2014 § 2 Comments
the death of my grandmother, the only grandparent i’ve ever known. 94 years of nerves and will of steel. she outlived her husband and three of her children. never one to back down, she ruffled feathers — even ours. there’s so much more i’ve yet to learn from her; and of course, i realise this, selfishly, after she’s no longer here. what a cliche. can’t escape this life that keeps giving you people and taking them away. time out of joint, always; everyone leaves too soon.
i learned yesterday that stuart hall also left us on february 10. i’d always hoped (dreamed, wished) that i would be able to meet him. what would i have said to him? nothing. what could i have said? it would have been enough to be in his presence, i think, or to be in the same room with his voice. maybe in another life, as they say. the first time i read stuart hall, it was in andrew burke’s critical theory class at the university of winnipeg. it was “notes on deconstructing the popular”, and something lit up in me. a way of thinking that didn’t seem possible before. there’s no way to describe it without sounding unbelievably maudlin, but there was no going back after stuart hall.
it occurred to me that my grandmother was living in london at a time when she and hall might have crossed paths. what if they did, i keep asking myself. this thought makes me ridiculously happy, and i refuse to stop imagining it to be true.
June 16, 2013 § Leave a comment
“We don’t forget,
but something vacant settles in us.”
–Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary
For those of us (still) in mourning, or for whom mourning has become a continuous process, a fluid thing, just like Barthes said.
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?
November 13, 2011 § 2 Comments
Yesterday The day before yesterday was the eleventh of November, which is Remembrance Day in certain countries not including Malaysia. The eleventh of November is also my father’s death anniversary date. Another kind of remembrance day.
When I was living in Canada I couldn’t not pay attention to Remembrance Day, but I tried anyway. For Canadians (or the national, public proclamation of Canadian-ness), Remembrance Day involved a specific exaltation of war that seemed to override its original purpose to remember people who died “in the line of duty”. But even “in the line of duty” is a tidy phrase. It suggests that Duty is a clean, abstract concept that all documented human beings in service of a nation-state come to quite naturally. It carefully elides the narratives of power that fuel state interests and produces war as a necessity.
As far as I know, no one in my family has died while serving in a war. I think I come from a long line of people who kept their head down, did what needed to be done, and tried not to kick up a fuss. Sometimes I see this as unfortunate, but that’s a story for another time. Maybe.
There have been people in my family who have been hurt (and killed) while resisting the forces of war as they tried to keep their head down, did what needed to be done, and tried not to kick up a fuss – when the Japanese forces occupied Malaya, for instance, or when the Sri Lankan army occupied its own country.
The thought of my father as a soldier makes me laugh, and it would have made him laugh. This despite the fact that that I always sensed he was at war with himself and the world. (But really, who isn’t?)
While in Canada, when November 11 came around each year I tried to block out what the world instructed me to remember and tried to remember what I could of what I wanted to remember.
Sometimes panic sets in because I think I’m forgetting. I pay attention to what Barthes[i] wrote in Mourning Diary and feel worse because this is true to my experience, and far more encompassing than the simple act of forgetting:
We don’t forget,
but something vacant settles in us.
The vacant threatens to spread.
My father was religious, but in all the wrong ways. I was for awhile similarly and haphazardly religious until I dabbled with an obnoxious bout of atheism and soon realised it made about as much sense to me as religion. So now I’ve settled into a comfortable agnosticism that alternately disbelieves and believes the gods to be in everything. In the brown pools of my dog’s eyes, for example. Or in my smartphone, when I receive a text from someone I’ve been thinking about for months. In my nephews.
Perhaps I’m like my father in this sense; he adhered to a form of Hinduism that sought gods in everything and everyone. To see gods everywhere is different from recognising the god(s) only in yourself. To see them everywhere, you’re going to have to risk being fool a lot of the time. I mean, you’d probably have to be a blubbering fool. You’re going to have ridiculously high expectations about everything, and as a predictable consequence you’re going be consistently disappointed, hurt, and taken for a ride. You’re likely to be absurdly emotional, moved by all the wrong things and wrong people and touched by some wonderful things and some wonderful people.
I can’t imagine any other way to be. Or, it’s likely that I don’t know any other way to be.
I’ve been dipping in and out of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s translation of Kabir’s poems since I bought it some months back. My introduction to Kabir was through my father’s copy of the anthology translated by Rabindranath Tagore, though I’m sure I was too young to appreciate the subtle, quiet dynamics of Kabir’s phrases back then. Since my father’s death (it’s been 11 years, I just realised, though true to the cliché it feels just like yesterday) I’ve been unable to find my father’s book. It bothers me that little bits and pieces of my father, kept alive through a slapdash collection of old watches, old rings, old books, and old documents, letters, photographs, postcards, and birthday cards could one day just disappear. First a book goes missing, then a photograph, and then you forget the face, the grooves and the lines on the skin, the tilt of a smile.
When I can’t remember anything, before I start to panic, I think about where my father might be now. Maybe a sort of ragtag paradise with unlimited dishes of spicy mutton varuval and whisky under palm trees, in a cool breeze, Louis Armstrong singing into the night. I imagine him hanging out with Hanuman; they’d get along with their similar rogue sensibilities.
Mehrotra renders Kabir’s devoted, irreverent style in a way that reminds me of my father’s devoted, irreverent worship of the gods. “He’s a tricky chap,” was his common refrain when I used to tell him as a child that I’d prayed to Hanuman for so-and-so and did not receive what I had requested. He’d say that, and then place an offering of flowers or fruit at the prayer altar where a row of pictures and statues of the gods sat in a row.
When I try to remember my father I just remember him as he was. I imagine that his reaction to any kind of paradise would echo Kabir’s:
I’m waiting for the ferry,
But where are we going,
And is there a paradise anyway?
What will I,
Who see you everywhere,
I’m okay where I am, says Kabir.
Spare me the trip.
I imagine him to be okay where he is largely to remind myself to be okay where I am.
I try to remember his voice and as I do I can almost hear him saying these words: And is there a paradise, anyway? I’m okay where I am. Spare me the trip.
September 4, 2011 § 1 Comment
So do we perish of shame, or rather, as Bernard Lazare suggests in his extraordinary remark, do we die from hiding our shames? Shame swept under the carpet, this history suggests, breeds violence like nothing else. What would it be like to live in a world in which we did not have to be ashamed of shame?
I just finished reading Jacqueline Rose’s The Question of Zion, which is one of the hardest books I’ve had to read in awhile. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been immersed in as much readings as I could find on the topic of Israel and Palestine for the review I was writing for Pop Matters on Gilbert Achcar’s The Arabs and the Holocaust, a book I desperately wanted to read but felt underqualified to review, that Rose’s book seemed particularly harder to read and think about than it actually is.
Rose’s book requires a mind willing to go deep into dark, murky, subterranean places, and it requires a willingness to temporarily abandon a position – if only to return to it later – to excavate the tangled, labyrinthine histories of the roots of Zionism. Owing its debt to psychoanalysis, Freud, and Lacan, Rose’s book tries to understand an ideology as symptom – Zionism as a form of phantasy, schizophrenia, and refuge. Because Rose is also deeply influenced by Edward Said, her project follows in his tradition of tender yet ruthless interrogation. She refrains from dehumanising the aggressors and perpetrators of violence, and tries instead to bring into focus the roots of their own torment that led them to this place of terror, both feared and inflicted. Understanding Israel’s violence means understanding anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and the willingness (courage?) to locate the roots of deep violence against the Jewish people that shades much of Europe’s history.
Rose doesn’t offer solutions, but a psychoanalytic interrogation of Israel’s violence, I think, hinges upon that quote I’ve referred to above. The shame of the Holocaust, and the burdens of historical marginalisation, are scars that refuse to heal, and continue to inflict their pain through imagined power manifested through brutal oppression of others. Rose refers to the “cruelty that native Israelis had shown to the survivors” of the Holocaust, points to Ben-Gurion’s remarks that “we do not belong to that Jewish people” – that Jewish people being shameful aberrations, people who allowed what seemed to be unimaginable violence to be done to them. In this repudiation of their own history and their own people, Rose seems to say, lies Israel and Zionism’s tragic error – which, for all of us cognisant of the history of Israeli war and occupation, is a tragedy that keeps repeating itself on the Palestinians.
I have been unable to move past some of the more brutal truths that Rose attempted to excavate – it’s a splinter under the skin of my thoughts – this idea of Ben-Gurion’s that “we do not belong to that Jewish people”, this reality of cruelty shown by native Israelis to Holocaust for having been weak, and for bringing about shame, as though if they had been strong the Holocaust would never have happened. (A phantasy, of course, as Rose reminds us over and over – the idea that we can make ourselves infallible. The phantasy that seems to underlie the entire project of the Israeli nation-state.)
No violence is unimaginable, of course. Once imagined, it keeps repeating itself through the shame it inflicts.
*Image taken from A Holocaust Art Exhibit.
June 12, 2011 § Leave a comment
It’s June 12 — what would have been my father’s birthday if he were still alive. This isn’t the first time in the twelve years since his death that I think about the cognitive dissonance in remembering a birthday for someone who has died, but I suppose this is the first time that I have a blog on which to write about it. Somehow I imagine that the act of writing for someone will provide a shape for grief. It’s not that I miss him more on his birthday than on any other day; it’s just that grief settles in comfortably, for the long haul, where the ladders start in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. When the grief was fresh it was impossible to write about it. But now that the grief is a permanent fixture in life just like that dull ache in your back from having spent a lifetime sitting hunched over computers, it’s harder to write about what was absolutely life-changing without reducing it to the sum of its parts: anger, tears, pain, abandonment; without succumbing to the ever-present clichés.
It’s like I keep forgetting how I remember him, or I forget how I want to remember him, and I imagine the dark-brown skin and those strange green-hazel eyes never before seen on a Tamil-Ceylonese person (as family myth/lore will have it) and the words start intruding, pushing their way in, and reducing what was flesh and blood to a simple phrase – “He was an attractive man, if not in the conventional sense.” Or, “He was a good father, if not in the conventional sense.” Or the lesser-said words, “There was his drinking problem, but…”
I’ve been circling the topic of his death for twelve years. What I need is a shelf. A feelings-shelf. Place rage on the top shelf, place regret on the bottom, and somewhere in the middle the warm living mass of hurt and despair and joy and pride and love that will enable me to reach in and pull out the appropriate one when I finally say, “Here, I am going to write the story of my father.”
Feeling-shelves have to be built from scratch.
The problem with writing is that you write about the living as if they’re already dead, and the dead die all over again.
I read Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary some months back, and I’m a coward all over again – I gave up on building feeling-shelves. I allow Barthes to build it for me. Did Barthes imagine that his scribbled words on index cards would be published one day, giving shape to his grief and that of others who read him? Was he conscious of his attempts to build a feelings-shelf or did he just have to eliminate the words getting in the way? “Depression comes when, in the depths of despair, I cannot manage to save myself by my attachment to writing,” Barthes writes.
Yet one saves others.
As an example, something deep inside me flickers in recognition when I read this:
As soon as someone dies, frenzied construction of the furniture (shifting furniture, etc.): futuromania.
And I’m reminded of how we busied ourselves moving the as-old-as-I-am bamboo-sofa out of the living room in order to fit in a brand-new, gleaming casket, my mother avoiding the casket and focusing on the sofa, “Should we throw it out? Do we keep it? We need new furniture.” Futuromania.
Now, from time to time, there unexpectedly rises within me, like a bursting bubble: the realisation that she no longer exists, she no longer exists, totally and forever. This is a flat condition, utterly unadjectival – dizzying because meaningless (without any possible interpretation).
A new pain.
The non-existence of a person, formerly so present, whose very existence was threaded, linked, with your own. How do you build an interpretation of an existence turned non-existent? There is none.
I had thought maman’s death would make me someone “strong,” acceding as I might to worldly indifference. But it has been quite the contrary: I am even more fragile (unsurprisingly: for no reason, a state of abandon).
And a few pages later, Barthes continues:
It is said (according to Mme Panzera) that Time soothes mourning – No, Time makes nothing happen; it merely makes the emotivity of mourning pass.
Recently, talking to someone about my father – the strangeness of it, because it’s been twelve years and I don’t talk about him to most people who never knew him, or didn’t know me from then. It’s been twelve years. But – and here comes the cliché – it could have just as well been yesterday. There is no bravery involved in grieving. It’s a wound, you take care of it so you don’t bleed all over the place and repulse people and you carry on. This person says, “Well, at least it must be okay for you now – it’s been awhile.” That statement bore no malice, and the sentiment was sincere, but inside my heart of hearts some tiny anguished animal let out a roar.
Seeing the swallows flying through the summer evening air, I tell myself, thinking painfully of maman: how barbarous not to believe in souls – in the immortality of souls! the idiotic truth of materialism!
After my father’s death, I could no longer believe in my atheism in good faith. I’m well-aware that one level of it is wishful – the belief in life after death, or the eternity of a soul, as a means of keeping a dead loved one alive. Beyond that, there are dreams, old scents and smells returning for a visit, memories, and the foolishness of the immediate. The “idiotic truth of materialism”.
I’m not sure why I’m writing this. Circling, circling again – never coming close. Mainly to suggest that Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary is a gift for anyone in mourning. (And we all will be, at some point.)
But mainly to wish you, pappa, a happy birthday. Today we received news of the death of an old family friend, your old friend, a “brother to you” as you’d like to tell us before things went wrong and you never spoke to each other again; him never seeing you for years until he showed up at your funeral. I imagine you and him together now, maybe, grievances put aside? Maybe you’re sharing a pint in a pub in Brighton, where you said you had some of your happiest and most miserable moments of your life as a young man in the 1960s. And then I imagine you back in Jaffna for the home you’ve missed all the years you lived in Malaysia in order to give us – as clichés would have it (being right) – a better life.
Every birthday is the start of death. “Henceforth and forever I am my own mother,” writes Barthes, and I suspect you’ll laugh, pappa, if I tell you that being my own father is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And then you’ll tell me to stop indulging in self-pity and get on with it, your face serious, those hazel-green eyes smiling.