Books I loved in 2017

I have many things to write about, but since it's the beginning of the new year and all, I thought I'd get in the spirit and look back at something I really enjoyed in 2017. Books! In between all the teaching and research and editing and writing and running around, I managed - somehow - to fit in reading books I just felt like reading. This is a list of the best that I can remember, in the order in which I happened to write them down.  You'll find poetry, afrofuturism, fantasy, science fiction, literary fiction, short stories, memoir, and young adult fiction here. Rather than write about each book individually - which I'd love to do, but we all know would mean this post would be delayed till at least June - I will say that the thing they all have in common is a deep engagement with the truth at the heart of their stories. There are stories here that are quietly clever, laugh-out-loud funny, frightening, heartbreakingly sad, infuriating, melancholy and contemplative (and often many of these things at once) but they all create compelling worlds where the stories they have to tell unfold beautifully.


Peril published My Grandmother's Language in August this year in their 31st edition called I Can't Speak to You

I've been working on this poem since 2012, when I went to an exhibition of Persian literature at the State Library of Victoria called Love and Devotion. I've grown up hearing snippets of Farsi poetry from my maternal grandmother who was a lecturer in Urdu Literature for many years and is from a Farsi-speaking family herself. My grandfather, for his part, had a beautiful singing voice and so long as his Parkinson's allowed, would sing ghazals of an evening. Poetry, and particularly Farsi poetry from which Urdu poetry emerged, was a constant presence in the house when I was little, specially when the family gathered for meals. Imagine then the weirdness of seeing this intimate, personal thing displayed as a curiosity in Australia, thousands of miles away from its origins. 

I can't speak Farsi myself, but when I was a child my grandmother would often recite a couplet to me and then ask me to work out what it meant based on what little Urdu I knew at the time. Because Urdu - specially the 'good' Urdu you're taught in school - takes its nouns from Farsi, I could usually work out what the subject of the couplet was and perhaps even the sentiment being expressed. (But because Urdu is an Indian language, which means that the grammar works like that of other North Indian languages and not like that of Farsi, I couldn't - and can't - tell what is actually happening in the poem.) It was a game I enjoyed and one that has helped me focus on the connections between languages rather than the differences. 

My Grandmother's Language has gone through many different iterations and edits since my first encounter with the verse that opens it, but it has always had that title. One version of it was shortlisted for the June Shenfield Poetry Award last year, and another served as the dummy poem I gave to my poetry students to practice workshopping earlier this year. - I'm quite happy with the version that eventually got published, but there's no telling how much more I'm going to tinker with it.

Here's the poem as it appeared in Peril.




Zomg I sang in public

In June, I took a deep breath and signed up for my first ever open-mic night. The event was Late Night Lit: Collisions and was part of the 2017 Emerging Writers Festival. The headliners were amazing, which didn't help my nerves, but the organisers and the crowd were all so warm that I didn't completely lose my voice before I went up.

I sang a bit of Peera Ho, a Punjabi Sufi song that I've loved since I first heard it around 20 years ago, and then I segued into a multilingual poem in English, Urdu and French about identity and language. 

I lik the bred - and so can you

This semester I taught a second-year Poetry subject that introduces students to various forms and styles of poetry. One of the things I like best about teaching poetry subjects is showing my students that poetry isn't some kind of rarefied art form open only to those 'smart' enough to 'work it out', but something vital, relevant, electrifying and even, dare I say it, fun

I especially love poetry memes because they're such a great example of just how much fun you can have with poetry and poetic convention, as well as how wonderfully flexible language is. People delighting in linguistic play on the internet is one of my favourite things, so the week we did the sonnet, I decided to help explain iambic metre by using a meme I'd been seeing a lot of at the time.  

The meme in question is called 'bredlik' (among other things) and, like most memes these days, started on Reddit and found a home on Tumblr. Each poem is in iambic dimeter and consists of a six-line stanza followed by a two-line punchline, which reminds me a little of a Shakespearean volta. The phonetic spelling is in line with the animal-speak that the internet is so fond of (see LOL-speak or LOLCat speak, doggo, birb, and many, many more.). I find the effect both oddly musical and very amusing because of the often innovative alternative spellings people come up with to fit the meme. 

Anyway, I was compiling all the instances of it I had found, as well as the discussions about its form and structure that I'd come across (as one does on a Sunday afternoon) and Ameel suggested turning it into a PowerPoint presentation. So we did.  I'm quite happy with what we came up with so I've uploaded it here. If nothing else, it's proof that rhyming iambic verse is alive and well out there in the digital world. 

If you've not come across this meme before, I hope you enjoy this little foray into the delightful silliness of internet poetry. 

'Eid is Another Country'

In October last year, my poem 'Eid is Another Country' was published in Victoria University's arts journal Offset 16. Somehow I missed that there was an online version available when it came out, but now that I have found it, here it is!


Eid is Another Country

A thick-plaited little girl, sequined top a-glitter, steps
through the doors,
her orange-patterned hand safe in her father’s large,
brown grasp.
She giggles, her glass bangles bright and clinking as she
is jostled, sending
ripples through her cheap silk lehenga, blocked gold
embroidery holding
the hem still as the tram moves, a bright spot in the

I worry that she is cold.

The rainy grey of Melbourne is no place for Eid.
She should be ruining her fancy clothes with water
fights, chasing cousins up trees and being
rewarded with food, money, presents and her elders’
blessing pats on the head
for how much she’s grown this year.

They must only see her in pictures now.

Or maybe one or two of them are here battling
the cold as they cook kheer and seviyan.
If they know to look for vermicelli.
If they can use this thin milk, this watery sugar
to recall home
and family.

The girl’s accent carries no memory.

She was born here perhaps or brought
so young she doesn’t remember
the smell of sweet milk thickening with heat
blanketing the city, the town, the country
the moment the moon is spotted
and the Chand Raat cry goes up.

Maybe she’s never heard the sirens, never seen the stalls
they summon
bristling with bangles in more colours than you can
mehndi-wallas with their wood stamps and strange citrus
dye that
makes your palms sting but looks pretty under the hasty
qatlamma and jalebi stands that materialise from the mist,
oil already
boiling, next to sugar cane juicers and their smell of
ginger, the crush of
people with one night to get tomorrow’s Eid just right.

She knows nothing of that frenzy, her speech slow and
As she tells her father her clothes are itchy.

'The Compliment'

This arrived today.

Tremble is the University of Canberra Vice Chancellor's International Poetry Prize anthology for 2016 and my poem, 'The Compliment' is in it. The anthology contains the prizewinning poem, the runner-up, the shortlist and the longlist. It's a beautiful volume and the poetry in it is pretty amazing. I'm going to be coming back to it a lot, I think.

It's available in print and for free download on the University of Canberra's website

And this is my poem.

The Compliment

'Where are you from?'
There is bloodlust in that question.
I swing my net and offer up
the shortest possible answer
but it's never quite the right kind
of exotic.
And so the hunt begins.
A sharpness
between the eyebrows
a showing of teeth
then the demand to know
my blood and body.
Personhood is not
only skin satisfies
the lust for such trophies,
this collector's desire to stake, 
splay, stuff, and own the objects
of fascination
poisoned wings spread
on pins, unmoving
dead things
displayed on walls
to be called

Narrating Stories

From time to time, I narrate fantasy stories for PodCastle. My latest recording just went up as part of their Flash Fiction Extravaganza - a beautiful short story called 'Gaps of Joy and a Knot for Love' by S.B. Divya.

I also read Charlotte Ashley's 'La Heron' in August and Setsu Uzume's 'For Honor, For Waste' back in April, both of which were quite a lot of fun to read.

It's been fun connecting with the authors of each story and hearing what they have to say about how I've interpreted their work. It's quite a responsibility, but it's also a lot of fun to interact with these stories in a way that I don't often get to do with prose. And in the confines of my own space, with no one watching, I find I slip into the voices of the different characters without much self-consciousness. 

I've also learnt a bit about recording and editing audio so now I'm thinking of different ways I can use those skills to produce my own work. One of these years, I may even get something up and running!

Pictures of my first recording studio/blanket fort, built for Setsu Uzume's 'For Honor, For Waste'.


Border Dwellers and Forked Tongues

I quoted several of Gloria Anzaldúa's essays in my reading tonight. Here is the text with the readings listed below that in the order in which they appeared. 

In 1987 Gloria Anzaldúa wrote an essay titled: ‘How to Tame a Wild Tongue’, after which this evening is named, Gloria says:

‘Wild tongues can’t be tamed; they can only be cut out.’

 Anzaldúa speaks of how being multilingual in a monolingual, monocultural, straight white world means that those of us who are aware of our multiplicity – the minoritised, the disenfranchised, the exoticised – are required to perform daily acts of mutilation on ourselves to simply exist. She talks of the silences that this forces upon us. She talks of the toll that twisting and silencing herself has taken on her spirit, on her humanity. And she resists.

Instead she says ‘I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of existing. I will have my voice. I will have my serpent’s tongue – my woman’s voice, my sexual voice, my poet’s voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence.’ 

In ‘Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers’, written in 1980 Anzaldúa says:

‘I write to record what others erase when I speak, to rewrite the stories others have miswritten about me, about you. To become more intimate with myself and you. To discover myself, to preserve myself, to make myself, to achieve self-autonomy. To show that I can and that I will write, never mind their admonitions to the contrary. And I will write about the unmentionables, never mind the outraged gasp of the censor and the audience. Finally, I write because I’m scared of writing but I’m more scared of not writing.’ 

‘It is not on paper that you create but in your innards, in the gut and out of living tissue …’

‘I say, mujer mágica, empty yourself. Shock yourself into new ways of perceiving the world, shock your readers into the same.

Write with your eyes like painters, with your ears like musicians, with your feet like dancers. You are the truthsayer with quill and torch. Write with your tongues of fire. Don’t let the pen banish you from yourself. Don’t let the ink coagulate in your pens. Don’t let the censor snuff out the spark, nor the gags muffle your voice. Put your shit on the paper.’ 

Hybridity is one of Anzaldúa’s main concerns. Herself a descendant of Indigenous Americans as well as Spanish and White invaders, she constantly interrogates the notion of a single identity.  In ‘La Prieta’, written in 1981, she says:

‘I am a wind-swayed bridge, a crossroads inhabited by whirlwinds. Gloria the facilitator, Gloria the mediator, straddling the walls between abysses. “Your allegiance is to La Raza, the Chicano movement,” say they members of my race. “Your allegiance is to the Third World,” say my Black and Asian friends. “Your allegiance is to your gender, to women,” say the feminists. Then there’s my allegiance to the Gay movement, to the socialist revolution, to the New Age, to magic and the occult. And there’s my affinity to literature, to the world of the artist. What am I? A third world lesbian feminist with Marxist and mystic leanings. They would chop me up into little fragments and tag each piece with a label.’ 

This question of allegiances, of belonging, of finding ‘her’ people is repeated in her later writings as well and is a theme that many of us –  including third culture kids like me, who were only starting to be talked about when she was writing – continue to identify with today.

In ‘Bridge, Drawbridge, Sandbar or Island’, first published in 1990, Anzaldúa writes:

‘Do they only want those parts of us that they can live with, that are similar to theirs, not different from them? The issue of differences continues to come up over and over again. Are we asked to sit at the table, or be invited to bed, because we bring some color to and look good behind the sheets?

‘When I am asked to leave parts of myself out of the room, out of the kitchen out of the bed, these people are not getting a whole person. They are only getting a little piece of me.  …we need all of us together…and all of us needs all the different aspects and pieces of ourselves to be present and totally engaged in order to survive…’

In ‘To(o) Queer the Writer—Loca, escritora y chicana’, from 1991, Anzaldúa continues to challenge the question of allegiance to a single identity:

‘“Lesbian” doesn’t name anything in my homeland,' she says.

‘Queer is used as a false unifying umbrella which all “queers” of all races, ethnicities and classes are shoved under. At times we need this umbrella to solidify our ranks against outsiders. But even when we seek shelter under it we must not forget that it homogenizes, erases our differences…I must constantly assert my differences…I must stress: The difference is in my relationship to my culture; white culture may allow its lesbians to leave – mine doesn’t.’ 

For me, 1993’s ‘Border Arte’ strikes a more hopeful note by framing the hybrid identity as a source of creativity. Anzaldúa refuses to be categorised and labelled, and talks instead of embracing border-dwelling.

‘…The dominant culture shapes the ethnic artist’s identity if she does not scream loud enough and fight long enough to name herself. Until we live in a society where all people are more or less equal and no labels are necessary, we need them to resist the pressure to assimilate.’

‘The multi-subjectivity and split-subjectivity of border artists creating various counter-arts will continue, but with a parallel movement… where a refusal to be split will be a given.’ 

‘The border,’ she says, ‘is the locus of resistance, of rupture, implosion and explosion and of putting together the fragments and creating a new assemblage...Border art deals with shifting identities, border crossings, and hybridism.’ 

I was born and live in that in-between space, nepantla, the borderlands. 


Essays quoted:

'How to Tame a Wild Tongue' 1987

'Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers' 1980

'La Prieta' 1981

'Bridge, Drawbridge, Sandbar or Island' 1990

'To(o) Queer the Writer-Loca, escritora y chicana' 1991

'Border Arte' 1993

These essays can be found in Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldúa and The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader edited by AnaLouise Keating.


Wild Tongue: Feminist Readings and Zine Launch

Photo Credit: Loving Feminist Literature

"Wild tongues cannot be tamed; they can only be cut out." 
                                                                                         -Gloria Anzaldúa

Tonight I will be reading from and responding to Gloria Anzaldúa's work at Wild Tongue, a reading of intersectional feminist literature and a zine launch. The event is hosted by the Loving Feminist Literature collective and will be held at Hares and Hyenas on Johnston Street in Fitzroy.

There are 14 readers in all, some of whom have also contributed to the Wild Tongue zine being launched about halfway through the show. Because of the numbers and because we want the event to move at a decent clip, we're all going to be doing short 5-minute readings. Having seen what everyone else is reading, it promises to be a very edifying, challenging and fun evening.

I'll be putting my reading up online after I perform it so that you can see what I've quoted and chase up the books and essays yourself if you are so inclined. 

Tickets are available at the Fringe link above and also at the door but nobody will be turned away for lack of funds. Start time is 8pm sharp.


Diverse Women Writers

On Saturday 17 September, I made my way to the Wheeler Centre to attend the Diverse Women Writers day thought up by Maxine Beneba Clarke and hosted by Writers Victoria. It was the one sunny day we got that week and I was a little annoyed that I'd have to spend it indoors, but it turned out to be worth it.

There had already been a bit of buzz about it on Twitter and I'd been looking forward to meeting up with the few friends I knew were attending, but I was unprepared for the sheer volume of friendly faces and conversations I encountered. I ran into people who had attended my panel at the West Writers Forum earlier this year, former students, twitter friends, guest lecturers, and friends-of-friends, and was introduced to their friends as well. I live-tweeted a lot of the event and in the process ended up connecting with other participants who were doing the same. I even found myself going up to people and commenting on (great) things that they had said, which I rarely do because, extrovert or not, I can be quite shy. But something about being in a space where I didn't have to perform a particular kind of identity for the majority present made that kind of movement and connection easy.

The wonderful Eleanor Jackson was the MC and kept us on track during the panels, which were really half panel, half audience questions. The warmth and inclusiveness with which she kicked off the event set the tone for the rest of the day. 

The first speakers, Maxine Beneba Clarke and Jax Jacki Brown spoke about advocacy and activism as part of their writing practice, and the role that identity plays in writing and publication. There were questions raised about having to 'perform' a particular identity for the sake of publication or particular publishers which continued into the next session on pitching, which featured Robert Watkins from Hachette Australia, Aviva Tuffield from Black Inc, and literary agent Jacinta di Mase. 

After a windswept lunch we continued to a panel about best practice with Fiona Tuomy, Lian Low, Jane Harrison and Lefa Singleton Norton. Each participant spoke about the demands and requirements of organising events and ensuring representation and accessibility for often marginalised and minoritised groups. The discussion of disability and the minimal effort put into access was discussed at length and it was pointed out that even in that 'inclusive' space, many people had had to remove themselves because the format presented serious difficulties. Just prior to the panel, a participant tweeted about being shaken after having encountered an instance of transphobia. Although the participant were able to get support from the organisers, it's still disgusting that such an incident happened in the first place. 

Some of this was discussed during the open forum, when the audience was asked to comment on the day's proceedings and make suggestions for improvements. Overall there seemed to be a feeling that events like this one were useful because of how isolating it often is to be the only non-white, nonbinary, non-male, non-straight person in the room. To be with a cohort with whom we could share multiple intersecting parts of our identities was a relief. There was a discussion of the use of the word 'women' when what was meant was more broadly 'not men', and the possibility of using 'women and nonbinary' as an identifier was floated, which several of the people I spoke to seemed to think would work. 

If there was anything I could change, it would have been the use of the word 'diverse'. While discussing us as a group, the word was perfectly appropriate. We were indeed a diverse group. However I, personally, am not diverse. I am a single individual. Arguably, my background and experience may be diverse, but I am still their unique product. One. Not many. 

The reason using 'diverse' to speak about an individual bothers me so much is that, used like this, 'diverse' is basically a stand-in for 'not white'. When a panelist says 'I myself am not from a diverse background,' what they're saying is 'I'm white'. My question is, why not go ahead and say that? Or, better yet, why don't they try to understand that they are part of the diversity of humanity and announce themselves as 'Anglo' or 'Anglo-Celtic' or whatever they are? By limiting diversity to not-whiteness, they fall into the same old trap of Othering that the notion of diversity was supposed to combat. It reflects the laziness of the status quo, the swapping out of now inconveniently racist language for more 'appropriate' buzzwords without putting any actual thought into why these words are being used in the first place. 

Although this was brought up here and there, the discussion didn't gain much traction, but I expect that if this event is repeated - and similar discussions certainly will be - that it might get some airtime. 

Other than that, it was hard to tear myself away from the event even after it was over. I met many wonderful people and, in order to keep some of the momentum going, I've created the DiverseWomenWritersAus list on Twitter. I've started to populate it, but people who fit the bill are welcome to add themselves to it.

Overall it was a wonderful event and I'm glad I spent my Saturday meeting, listening to, connecting with, and learning from such a great group of people.


Wilder Beasts: The Global Scary and Supernatural

My Yakka Munuu or household guardian spirits.

On Tuesday, September 13, I was part of a panel at the Wheeler Centre called Wilder Beasts: The Global Scary and Supernatural. We had a great turnout, specially considering the horrible weather and you can listen to the whole discussion at the link above. 

Hosted by Serpil Senelmis, I shared the stage with Sami Shah, comedian and author of Fireboy - a YA novel about a half-Djinn half-human boy living in Karachi.

The session was a lot of fun, with Sami and me sharing stories about the Djinn - beings made of smokeless fire who live on earth but in a different dimension and so are invisible to humans - as well as many other supernatural creatures from cultures outside the West. Being Turkish, Serpil had her own stories of the Djinn to share, which really rounded out the discussion.

I took my Sri Lankan 'good luck devils' on stage with me. Thanks to the power of Twitter, I had learnt only hours before the show that they're called Yakka Munuu and are household guardians - a little like gargoyles. Fitting then that they've accompanied me on every one of my moves. They're also the only thing I have from Sri Lanka, where I was born, so they have a lot of sentimental value. 

From there we moved on to other South Asian and wider Asian beings. Even though we're both from Pakistan, Sami and I had slightly different accounts of what Churdails actually are - a variation which goes the show the age and range of these stories. We also talked about the Pontianak - a being that has a very similar story to the Churdail - and the Sri Lankan Mohini. 

The audience was great and we had some really interesting comments and questions at the end. I'm sure we could have gone on for much longer than the hour we had, so it's a good thing the Wheeler Centre team kept us on track. 

Thanks to the Wheeler Centre for thinking of this panel and inviting me to be on it. It was a great experience, nightmares and all!


West Writers Forum this Saturday

2016-07-28 18.50.25.jpg

I'm participating in a panel about translation at the Footscray Community Arts Centre's West Writers Forum: Our Stories this Saturday, July 30 from 1 - 2 pm. The panel is called 'Lost or Found in Translation?' and we'll be talking, among other things, about whether translation can create the kind of fluid cultural exchange and understanding that the progressive side of society seeks, or whether any such ease is necessarily illusory. 

My awesome co-panelists, all writers and translators who live across languages, are Sanaz Fotouhi,  Lily Yulianti Farid, and Josiane Behmoiras. Mridula Nath Chakraborty, the Deputy Director of the Monash Asia Institute at Monash University, will be hosting. 

There are plenty of fantastic panels as well. I'm particularly looking forward to the one immediately before mine, '#DangerAsians' hosted by Hoa Pham(whose book, The Other Shore is brilliant), and 'What is Australian Writing III?', hosted by Khalid Warsame, but there's lots else, from dance to art installations to spoken word events and workshops about aspects of art production. It's going to be intense!

Setting Up

I have finally set my desk up. There's still plenty more to bring over - my dictionary! - but hot sauce and chocolate are a pretty good start. 

Update: Hot Desking at the Wheeler Centre

I am a fiction!

I am a fiction!

This year I wrote a novel. I shouldn't really put that in the past tense because what I have at the moment is a first draft that I spent about five months putting together in between tutoring, lecturing, teaching and generally functioning as an adult. I wrote it at home, at friends' houses, on trams, at work, in the tutors' room, in cafes - pretty much anywhere I had my computer and at least 15 minutes to spare. I'm glad I can work like that and I did get it all done, but I knew I needed to work on Draft 2 in a less scattered way.

Fortunately, I won one of the Wheeler Centre's Hot Desk Fellowships which means I get a dedicated workspace, wifi, and an environment humming with industry. I'm just getting settled in and I can't tell you how great it is to have a desk, specially one that is a decent size and clutter-free (for now). It's as exciting as opening a fresh notebook - the possibilities are endless.

Today I'm just getting set up, but from tomorrow onwards, Draft the Second can begin.

And who knows, I might even come up with a title!


SlutWalk Melbourne

'Slut'. I hate that word. I really really hate that word. Even as used in The Ethical Slut. It just sets my teeth on edge.

But I totally support the SlutWalk. To recap, a stupid cop in Toronto, during a talk on rape prevention, suggested that if women didn't want to get raped, they shouldn't dress like sluts. (I won't unpack the idiocy of that statement here because many feminist blogs have done so quite adequately already.)

In response, women in Toronto and now all over the world have staged SlutWalks in protest of the victim blaming inherent in the cop's statement, and in solidarity with the women who are so often on the receiving end of this kind of crap.

And I think it's great. Not because it is a 'reclamation'*of the term as has so often been said, but because it taps into the Riot Grrrl credo of the 90s that I loved so very much. Riot Grrrls were all about rubbing your face in patriarchal assumptions about women. You get treated like property? Write the word 'Property' on your belly and make people confront what they think of you. It was aggressive and raw and made people very very uncomfortable because of the way they would see their internalized assumptions about women externalized on women's bodies, often in grotesque and disturbing ways. In short, it rocked.

There's been much talk among the participants to 'slut it up' for the walk. Lots of discussion of what 'provocative' stuff they'll wear and how it's such a celebration of women's sexuality. I see the politics of it a little differently. I don't think there is any particular need to dress any differently than you normally would, because somewhere out there is someone who thinks it's ok to call you a slut regardless of how covered or uncovered you are. So rather than yet again reinforcing the stereotypical image of  a slut as someone who dresses and acts in a particular way, I would like to see people take that horrible little word and slap it across every woman of every age in every kind of dress and say, Riot Grrrl style: THIS is what you think of us for simply having been born female.

Because that's the point. If you get sexually assaulted, NOTHING you were wearing or were doing is going to be good enough. There will always be some moron going on about how you shouldn't have gone there or done that or worn such-and-such or had a sexual or professional or intellectual history. The bottom line is that we live in a global society that believes femaleness is a fault and that if something happens to you, well then that's just what you're going to get if you  insist on existing while female.

So yes, I'm going to the Melbourne SlutWalk and I'd encourage anyone of any gender and any orientation who can attend to do so. Because this isn't about one kind of woman or one kind of world view or even women as a group. Victim blaming and a culture that allows and even expects it are toxic for all of us, whoever we are and wherever we are. It is important then that, when handed the opportunity on a silver platter, we lend our voices to the protest against it.

*Because I am a nerd: 'slut' has been a pejorative used to shame women from the 11-12th century (Middle English, basically). Its secondary and less often used meaning of female dog only appears in the late 19th century. Think about that for a second. 'Bitch' meant female canid before it was used as an insult for women (Old English, and 14th century, respectively). 'Queer' meant strange or weird before it was used to insult gay people. These words were neutral once and can literally have that neutrality 'reclaimed'. 'Slut', on the other hand, entered the world (or at least the OED) fully formed as an insulting term for a woman. I'm all for rendering it useless and refusing to let it be used to shame women, but I don't think it's a candidate for reclamation as such because there's nothing to reclaim.

A Moral, if Meaningless, Victory

A Facebook friend shared a video last week titled "Slap on face of Jamat islami fanatic Fareed Paracha."  I've never heard of him, but I do know of the JI - anybody with a passing interest in Pakistan would have heard of the religious fundamentalist party -  so I took a look.

The video is from a panel-discussion type of show called "Frontline" which airs on Pakistan's Express News Channel. I don't know what the discussion prior to this clip was about for sure, but the first woman they refer to is Dr Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani neuroscientist extradited to and convicted in the US of attempting to kill US army personnel who were interrogating her in Afghanistan.  The second woman referred to is Asiya Bibi, a Christian Pakistani woman sentenced to death under the Blasphemy Law. She has appealed the verdict and has been receiving some amount of support from politicians, but it seems if you support her and - implicitly or explicitly - criticize the Blasphemy Law, there is a strong likelihood that fanatics will kill you. Salman Taseer, former Governor of the Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, the former Minister for Minorities, found that out the hard way.

So as Pakistan rushes headlong into a future bleaker than its past, seeing someone really lay into one of the (many, many) architects of that collapse elicits a certain amount of glee. The first speaker is lawyer and activist Asma Jehangir, who is well known for speaking out against fundamentalism and the oppression of women and minorities in Pakistan. Her comments, while accurate, are reiterations of things she has said - and no doubt will have to say - hundreds of times before.

The second speaker was a complete surprise however. As I watched the video, I realized that the very familiar-looking commenter from the audience is Zarina Saeed, one of the most inspirational teachers I've ever studied with. How's that for a bonus?

Most of the discussion is in Urdu, so I've added a translation after the video.

Asma Jehangir, mid-discussion: Did you see no women other than Afiya Siddiqui? We petitioned for her; when the ISI took her, you stayed quiet. You didn't say a word.


Fareed Paracha: What can we do? We're obliged to work. We talk about everyone (meaning we represent everyone, I think)


AJ: Look, what I'm saying is that this debate should not be twisted. They claim to be the friends of the poor and the enemies of the US when they spent ten years with Zia-ul-Haq working shoulder to shoulder with the US. After that, how can they...?


Host: [indistinct]


FP: I'd like to say a word here...


Other panelist: [inaudible]


AJ: We [The NGOs working for women and minorities] were never with the US [repeats over the babble]. When the US was working with/through them [the Jamat] we were out there organizing protests for the rights of women. There was no Afiya Siddiqui back then.


When the ISI took Afiya Siddiqui, I filed a petition in the Supreme Court, Petition no.5, that very same day. They stayed silent. Nobody spoke up then.


When they took her to the US, when she was out of our jurisdiction, that was they day they decided to make it an issue. Other than Afiya Siddiqui, do other women live here or not?


FP: [talking over AJ] We talk about all of them.


AJ: Why don't you talk about them too? I am threatened daily. Talk about me too. People have tried to kill me, people have insulted me, and yet you have never spoken about that.


FP: [sounds like he's asking the host to intevene] I just want to say one sentence...[Drowned out by applause]


Audience comment:


Zarina Saeed: These panelists seem to be in a kind of denial, that there is no extremism, no intolerance, no nothing. Tell me something, what is the definition of intolerance and extremism? When a society is extremist, there is some parameter against which that can be checked. And that parameter is that those who are weak, those who belong to marginalized communities, how are they living? What is the status of women in our country? What is the status of minorities in our country? Are they prospering?


You're all sitting here...our Mall Road...once upon a time, there were lots of properties here that were owned by minorities. Where are those property owners now?


Host: Who got rid of them?


ZS: is an intolerant community. The Mafia can take can put a notice up in front of a house saying that the owner is a heathen or a _munafiq_ and the community will harass them and force them to leave. That's what happens in our country.


Then there's Asiya Bibi who we've been talking about. Asiya is...we're  talking about an illiterate, uneducated woman and we think Islam is in danger from her? Our religion isn't so small...for God's sake...don't make Allah out to be so small...that is the biggest of blasphemies..when you reduce God to human beings. This [God, I imagine] is something beyond us.




I am amazed that there is such outrage over Asiya Bibi, who is uneducated and illiterate, and yet when one of your ministers from Balochistan buried women alive, nobody issued a fatwa.


[Host: He's a People's Party minister.]


ZS: That is a heathen. He is a heathen. He committed blasphemy. Because he turned around and said that this was a 'tribal custom'.


[Host: [echoing ZS] 28 August, 2008]



Did any political party accuse them of blashpemy then? They did not. Why were you quiet at that time? Why were you silent at that time?


Now you're talking.. the Jamat people are talking... Mr Paracha is very respected...he's talking about how they've served the poor. Putting the poor aside, this rich man, this feudal as you'd call him, his power scared you off?


FP: I would very respectfully like to say that her own tolerance is so low that she refers to a person who has a PhD and academic distinctions worldwide, three times as uneducated and illiterate simply because she professes a belief in Islam, simply because she...


Host: [interrupting] She's talking about Asiya Bibi, not Afiya Siddiqui.


[Brief discussion - I can't make out who says what, but eventually Paracha realizes his mistake]


ZS: My reponse to this is only that they are reinforcing my point. We are in a state of denial and we are not willing to listen to the Other. We are that biased.




None of this means anything, of course. The country - at least the idealized one I've had an on-again, off-again relationship with all my life - is pretty much gone. Displays like this can make us feel good for a moment or two, but the "crossroads" that everyone seems to think Pakistan is at, as Ahsan Butt suggests, are actually fast disappearing in the distance.

Skeptical Humanities

The best sentence I have read all week:

Postmodern criticism that finds the meaning “outside” of the text is especially vulnerable to this type of goof, and when you fuse the two in Lacan, you get unfettered bollocks.

That's from a blog post called Psychoanalytic Literary Theory: Where Freud Ended Up, by Bob Blaskiewicz at Skeptical Humanities.

The post itself is a wonderful takedown of one of my pet peeves. I find Freud interesting and important as a historical figure and as one of the people responsible for the development of psychology--even if he was wrong about the specifics--but I am often frustrated by the uncritical use of psychoanalytic theory as if it were some sort of universal truth handed down by the ancients and not something that has been largely discredited by newer research. You can imagine, then, just how happy I was to read this post and this sentence in particular.

Organic Investigations 1 - Potatoes?

I've been curious about what exactly 'organic' means in Australia. I started off thinking it was pretty much the same bullshit as it is in the US, as Brian Dunning points out here and here, but given I have very little information on Australian farming practices or corporations' involvement with organic produce (and very little time to look these things up) I'm reserving my judgment. I don't buy organic though - not the produce and certainly not the rhetoric - but I have vague plans of conducting some research into the subject as and when I can before I write it off completely. At the moment, this consists of little more than taking a claim and comparing it to what I can observe personally and/or find out from a reliable source. Information, comments, suggestions are all welcome.

Today, for instance, Rebecca Blood linked to an article titled The 7 Foods Experts Won't Eat. Ignoring for a minute that this article quotes 'nutritionists' among other 'experts' and is therefore suspect, the potato example raised a few questions for me.

4. Nonorganic Potatoes

The expert: Jeffrey Moyer, chair of the National Organic Standards Board

The problem: Root vegetables absorb herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides that wind up in soil. In the case of potatoes—the nation's most popular vegetable—they're treated with fungicides during the growing season, then sprayed with herbicides to kill off the fibrous vines before harvesting. After they're dug up, the potatoes are treated yet again to prevent them from sprouting. "Try this experiment: Buy a conventional potato in a store, and try to get it to sprout. It won't," says Moyer, who is also farm director of the Rodale Institute (also owned by Rodale Inc., the publisher of Prevention). "I've talked with potato growers who say point-blank they would never eat the potatoes they sell. They have separate plots where they grow potatoes for themselves without all the chemicals."

The solution: Buy organic potatoes. Washing isn't good enough if you're trying to remove chemicals that have been absorbed into the flesh.

I don't buy 'organic' potatoes. I buy the 'conventional' ones you get at Woolworth's, and I've left mine lying around long enough for them to start sprouting on several different occasions over at least 3 years of living here.

So are potatoes sold/grown in Australia are not treated with the same cocktail of pesticides and fungicides or is Mr Moyer simply wrong about their effects?

Australia may have different environment from the US, but it stands to reason that the same crops grown in both places would require the same conditions and be vulnerable to the same infestations, and would therefore require the same treatments. But I don't know that for sure. On the other hand, it is not uncommon for proponents of organic produce to overemphasize the use (and implied harmful effects) of 'chemicals' in conventional farming and gloss over their use in organic farming, but that doesn't mean that everything they say is automatically unsound.

I also wonder what measures against fungus and insects the potato-growers mentioned above use to protect the potatoes they grow 'without all the chemicals', given that 'organic' pesticides are also 'chemicals' - just sourced from plant or animal matter as opposed to manufactured in a big scary lab.

Like I said, I haven't got any answers at the moment, but if I find any, I shall post them here.

Losing Things

I just read Gina Barreca's post, Everything You Lose Makes Room for Something New and it reminded me of two things. One, a vilanelle by Elizabeth Bishop that I have a love-hate relationship with called 'One Art'. Although it's 'about' the death of her partner, my favorite lines are:

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

The whole poem is here.

The second thing this post reminds me of is my own just-so postcard that Shanti sent me from Geneva when I was studying in Lahore. The quote, from Jules Renard, reads:

Ecrire, c'est une façon de parler sans être interrompu.