Stuff I'm Reading: Identity

From Amin Malouf's On Identity (translated by Barbara Bray.):

But let us return for a moment to some examples I quoted at the beginning of this book. A man with a Serbian mother and a Croatian father, and who manages to accept his dual affiliation, will never take part in any form of ethnic "cleansing". A man with a Hutu mother and a Tutsi father, if he can accept the two "tributaries" that brought him into the world, will never be a party to butchery or genocide. And neither the Franco-Algerian lad, not the young man of mixed German and Turkish origin whom I mentioned earlier, will ever be on the side of the fanatics if they succeed in living peacefully in the context of their own complex identity.

Here again it would be a mistake to see such examples as extreme or unusual. Wherever there are groups of human beings living side by side who differ from one another in religion, colour, language, ethnic origin or nationality; wherever there are tensions, more or less longstanding, more or less violent, between immigrants and local populations, Blacks and Whites, Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Arabs, Hindus and Sikhs, Lithuanians and Russians, Serbs and Albanians, Greeks and Turks, English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians, Flemings and Walloons, Chinese and Malays - yes, wherever there is a divided society, there are men and women bearing within them contradictory allegiances, people who live on the frontier between opposed communities, and whose very being may be said to be traversed by ethnic or religious or other fault lines.

We are not dealing with a handful of marginal people. There are thousands, millions of such men and women, and there will be more and more of them. They are frontier-dwellers by birth, or through the changes and chances of life, or by deliberate choice, and they can influence events and affect their course one way or the other. Those who can accept their diversity fully will hand on the torch between communities and cultures, will be a kind of mortar joining together and strengthening the societies in which they live. On the other hand, those who cannot accept their own diversity may be among the most virulent of those prepared to kill for the sake of identity, attacking those who embody parts of themselves which they would like to see forgotten.

Food around the world

What the World Eats, Part I is a photo essay documenting what 15 different families around the world eat during an average week. It's from the book Hungry Planet, which features many more families and apparently deals in some detail with their lives and their relationship with food. It doesn't sound like it'll be all that interesting, until you start looking at the pictures. Even with very little text accompanying them, they speak volumes.

Science and Literature

In his article May 11 article for the Boston Globe titled Measure for Measure, Johnathan Gottschall writes:

We literary scholars have mostly failed to generate surer and firmer knowledge about the things we study. While most other fields gradually accumulate new and durable understanding about the world, the great minds of literary studies have, over the past few decades, chiefly produced theories and speculation with little relevance to anyone but the scholars themselves. So instead of steadily building a body of solid knowledge about literature, culture, and the human condition, the field wanders in continuous circles, bending with fashions and the pronouncements of its charismatic leaders.

Something that frustrates me no end about literary theory is its lack of understanding of the sciences, particularly when it purports to draw from them. Witness theorists who present their musings as meaningless mathematical formulae or draw on an at best limited understanding of physics. Nevertheless, these theorists manage to impress, because they most often happen to be addressing people who have no interest in either mathematics or physics (or biology or chemistry) and who are therefore happy to take their word for it because the theories in question are interesting and seem to make sense in context.

The other frustrating thing about literary theory is precisely its irrelevance to anything outside literary theory. Certainly it enhances the reading of literature and provides new and startling ways to conceive of the world created by literature and, given that literature is often seen as a reflection of real life, the world itself. But while it contains ideas and philosophies and suggestions that are a joy and a challenge to explore, it ultimately doubles back on itself without actually providing answers and students are left right where they started.

At the same time, it irritates me when the science bloggers I read make offhand, dismissive comments about the humanities and those who study them, saying things like "Even the arts students understand that intelligent design is bogus."* No we're not scientists, but why does that automatically make us the morons of academia? ID is a shoddily presented argument. You need only basic reason to see that, not deep scientific knowledge.

And while we're on common misconceptions, why are scientists so often cast as drones lacking all imagination? The rigors of method notwithstanding, I can't see a scientist as anything but imaginative. What is the development of a hypothesis if not a creative act?

We seem to be stuck in this very high-school perception that the arts=flaky vs. science=nerdy. Gottschall argues that this is simply unnecessary:

Above all, these changes would require looking with fresh eyes on the landscape of academic disciplines, and noticing something surprising: The great wall dividing the two cultures of the sciences and humanities has no substance. We can walk right through it.

I think he's absolutely right. If we all actually bothered to get to know each other, I think we would all realize that we are, at heart, all knowledge-obsessed geeks.

*This quote is illustrative only. It reflects only the tone of various statements littering the web, not the actual content.

Benazir Bhutto's book, women, Islam, Pakistan, etc.

The Australian published an excerpt from Benazir Bhutto's book yesterday in which she speaks of starting college in the US in 1969, where she experienced firsthand the rights and freedoms that Americans took for granted. She also arrived at a time when feminism was finally gaining some ground in the US. What struck me though, was this passage:
My parents had taught me that men and women are equal in the eyes of God, that the first convert to Islam was a woman, that the prophet of Islam married a career woman, that the line of the prophet was carried through his beloved daughter Fatima, and that on the day of judgment all souls would be called in the name of the mother.

She goes on to add that,

...despite this emphasis on women's rights and the importance of women in Islam, all around me I could see that women were not treated with much importance in Pakistan, nor did they have many rights.

The rest of the article deals with her realization that any true improvement in Pakistani society would come only with an improvement in the condition of women, starting with education. That's not exactly a revelation, but I don't think it's meant to be - I think this is simply the story of how she came by her beliefs. Which is why I'm not taking it up.

What struck me about the excerpt was the first paragraph that I've quoted above. It shows, I think, the basic class divide that exists in the country, not so much between rich and poor as between educated and illiterate (though the two are obviously related and overlap considerably). That right there is the version of Islam that we were taught as children in school and at home - that at bottom, there is no difference in the worth of men and women - and that formed the basis of our idea of what this religion that we were born into stood for.

Before we read any actual scripture or learned to say our prayers, we were taught that Islam meant progress, equality, tolerance, kindness, honesty, and so on. And even when we did come to reading parts of the Koran in Islamiat classes, they only confirmed all that we had been taught before. As a girl, I was never fed the patronizing "you're as good as any boy" line but rather, "you're a person; you can be as good as you want to be."

So when people ask me now about how "intolerant" Islam is and how difficult it must be to live in an "Islamic" society, it takes me a minute to process the question. First of all, I don't think Pakistan is an "Islamic" society (despite the unfortunate change of name), but a Muslim one, at least for the time being. I say that because the term 'Islamic' now describes strict adherence to the letter of the law, as it were, at the expense of the spirit. To me, the term 'Muslim', in contrast (and probably in reaction) means pretty much what the term 'Christian' means today: someone brought up in a culture that grew out of a religion and that consequently maintains some contact with the spirit and trappings of that religion. (As I write this though, I'm aware that in some parts of the world, most notably the USA, 'Christian' increasingly means evangelical or fundamentalist. Here's hoping secular America and Europe manage to hold out.) To me, Pakistanis are - or at least have been until recently - what Faiz called 'cultural Muslims' - public rituals, such as weddings and funerals, are carried our according to a certain formula, but personal belief (or lack thereof) is, well, personal.

Secondly, the reason the question of the "oppressiveness" of Islam doesn't compute, is because I have never directly experienced it. I know that there are some horrific laws in place in Pakistan, but all my life all I've heard is how 1) there is no place for them in Pakistan and 2) that even if Pakistan were to go ahead with the "Islamic" thing, that these laws contravene the spirit of the religion and that the powers that allowed their institutionalization did so by fooling the uneducated masses into believing they were doing something sanctioned by religion, ie, 'good'. I am aware that there are people who routinely suffer as a result of these laws and also as a result of other laws in place in other countries that also purport to be 'Islamic'. But I am also aware that there are people - Muslims - fighting tooth and nail to change or remove these laws altogether and to protect and advocate for their victims.

My own beliefs notwithstanding, I still cannot equate the word "Muslim" with "fire-breathing, bearded/hijab-ed fundamentalist" despite the best efforts of the international press (generously assisted by the fundamentalists themselves). I had, however, forgotten why, until I read what Bhutto had written. As I've said before, I was no supporter of hers, but I realize that she did represent 'my' kind of Pakistani - she went to school with my mother, for heaven's sake. I don't know that she would have done Pakistan any good as PM this time around (except in terms of appeasing the 'West'), but she was certainly more 'one of us' than any of the people who'll be vying for power next Monday.

The price of happiness

In his article In Praise of Melancholy, Eric G Wilson writes:
I for one am afraid that American culture's overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life. I further am concerned that to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations. I am finally fearful of our society's efforts to expunge melancholia. Without the agitations of the soul, would all of our magnificently yearning towers topple? Would our heart-torn symphonies cease?

My fears grow out of my suspicion that the predominant form of American happiness breeds blandness. This kind of happiness appears to disregard the value of sadness. This brand of supposed joy, moreover, seems to foster an ignorance of life's enduring and vital polarity between agony and ecstasy, dejection and ebullience. Trying to forget sadness and its integral place in the great rhythm of the cosmos, this sort of happiness insinuates that the blues are an aberrant state that should be cursed as weakness of will or removed with the help of a little pink pill.

He goes on to talk about the role of melancholy in creativity. He's not advocating the kind of depression that can be self-destructive or dangerous to other people, but talking about a kind of sadness or melancholy that comes from the knowledge that we are essentially fractured ephemera, but which makes us appreciate what time we do have and makes us strive towards some kind of wholeness.

That reminds me of something Coleridge said about the necessity of opposites. If we didn't have sadness, how would we appreciate joy?

Wilson's book, Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy will be published this year.

Armistead Maupin in Brisbane

Armistead Maupin was here and I missed him. *sniff*. Buuut, thanks to the wonders of teh tubes, here's a link to his talk at the Brisbane Writers' Festival as broadcast on the Book Show on ABC Radio. This'll take you the page about the talk where you can either listen to it or download it for later. Click me.

In it, he reads a bit from his new book Michael Tolliver Lives and then gives a bit of a directed talk. I loved hearing him read, and I love that Mouse is back and that Anna Madrigal is still alive and kicking.

Maupin makes some excellent points about visibility for the GLBTI community and why it's important for authors and artists to align themselves with it if they happen to be part of it (or even if they don't, really). He takes on Gore Vidal's refusal to do so particularly well, and I think he's right. If it really was just about who you have sex with and nothing else, it probably wouldn't be such a big deal. It becomes a big deal though because being gay or lesbian or bi has to do with who you love and who you build a life with - that's what gets up people's noses because it says to them that there are other, reasonable, valid ways of living than theirs. I just find it funny how, despite the lip service payed to loving one's neighbor, charity, community, etc., hate is by far the easiest emotion to stir in people. Anyway, not getting onto that soapbox just yet. Listen to Maupin.

Goths in books

Goth is easy enough to dis, what with the spooky stuff it seems to entail, but studies of late seem show it in a much more positive light, funny as that might sound. I stumbled across this review in the Chronicle of Higher Education while browsing through Arts and Letters Daily. Professor Mikita Brottman reviews Contemporary Gothic, by Catherine Spooner (Reaktion Books), and Goth: Undead Subculture, edited by Lauren M.E. Goodlad and Michael Bibby (Duke University Press) and considers some of the reasons why goth, unlike other 'youth' cultures, refuses to die. (Yes, I am aware of how many jokes and puns are just waiting to be made there.) Some snippets:
Goth obviously emerged from punk, but punk didn't last. The same is true of most subcultures: Hippies are old hat; skinheads have come and gone; grunge is yesterday's news. Why does goth alone remain undead?
According to Spooner's book, the consistent allure of goth lies in the way it achieves a balance between different kinds of contradictions — "the grotesque and incorporeal, authentic self-expression and campiness, mass popularity and cult appeal, comfort and outrage." Bibby and Goodlad put it differently, pointing out that goth has a "complex relation to subculture," or, in the words of one contributor, the self-proclaimed Modern Goth Rebecca Schraffenberger, "there are as many ways of being goth as there are goths out there." In other words, goth can be anything you want it to be, from the theme of tonight's party to an entire way of life.
There are goth clubs and pubs, goth movies (anything by David Lynch, Tim Burton, or Ed Wood seems to fit the bill), goth jewelry and fashion, goth-friendly home décor, even goth lingerie. Within its own confines, too, goth embraces contradictions; it contains multitudes. Hair can be long or short, flat or spiky; shoes can be heavy boots or light slippers with pointy toes. And while individual goths can be totally asexual or polymorphously perverse, goth itself breeds peacefully with other subcultures, producing such independent offspring as gothabilly, doom metal, gothic Lolita, cybergoth, and goth 'n' roll.
...Anyone can be a goth; you don't need to run in a pack (goths are traditionally loners). And, as teenage subcultures go, it's unusually quiet and friendly. Goths are generally hygienic; their piercings are clean and discreet; they don't stick dirty safety pins through their noses or ride around on motorbikes spitting and swearing.

A review

Some time before the summer between eighth and ninth grade, I started to volunteer at my junior high school library. I shelved books, checked books out and in, sorted index cards, and did all the other things you do to help keep a library running. In exchange, I got first dibs on all the books that were discarded at the end of the year. I think my haul that summer was about 120 books. Most were tattered and dog-eared and quite a few fell apart before the year was out, but what an amazing find. I'd been a good little overachiever and was already familiar with all the 'serious' authors my anglophile upbringing required I know, so nobody objected to my bringing home this 'young adult' stuff. I was free to read all I wanted. And boy did I read. Science fiction, fantasy, biography, horror, suspense, mysteries, mythology, poetry, and books that were simply about kids growing up. I've forgotten all but a few of the authors' names, but I always imagined them to be magical beings, almost. Adults who could somehow bridge the gap between their grow-up selves and the kids they used to be and who could use this amazing ability to tell other kids trying to muddle through this whole growing up thing that we'd make it to the other side ok. Most adults I knew at the time couldn't do that. Most I know now still can't. Like me, they got to the other side and just kept going.

And I might have kept on going had I not met a few people through my MA who still have that magic about them. I've spoken of Penni Russon before - she's written the amazing Undine trilogy, Undine, Breathe and Drift and has other projects underway - but this semester I also met Jennifer Cook. Soon after meeting her, and having just come off the fantastic ride that Penni's books had taken me on the previous year, I decided that I absolutely had to read her books as well. So, the day I handed in my thesis, I headed over to the library and picked up Ariadne: The Maiden and the Minotaur.

Now the thing about this book is that it's not like anything I've ever read. And I'll bet it's not like anything you've ever read either. Having been 'into' mythology aeons ago, I knew the story of the Minotaur and of Ariadne and Theseus and I was curious to see what Jen had done with it. I was expecting a strong female voice. I was expecting something written for smart thirteen- to sixteen-year-olds. I was expecting something exciting and eventually empowering. And I have to say Jen delivered on all of these things. But the thing about Jen, speaking as someone who has the priviledge of being able to call her 'Jen', is that she does everything in a way that is absolutely, unmistakeably, uncompromisingly her own. You sit up and notice when you meet her. And you sure as hell sit up and notice when you read her.

Ariadne begins with a girl, sixteen and dumped. Yes, it's thousands of years ago and she's on a stony island in the middle of the Aegean Sea, but that's not the point. The point is she's angry and from the get-go you know you don't want to get in her way. Her heart may be broken, but she isn't and from the story, you get the feeling she won't be, no matter what the gods throw at her. She'll get bruised and battered - she already has after all - but she's the sort who cusses her head off at fate and keeps going. She may be the daughter of a king and the granddaughter of gods, but our Ari is no 'princess'. Yes, as the blurb on the back and the prologue will tell you, she's had it a bit rough the last few days and does need "a good lie down", but you know, you just know, that she's going to get up again and come out swinging.

The book consists of the story of the events that led Ariadne to this desolate island and is written in Ariadne's voice. No hemming and hawing for this princess though. She calls a spade a spade and often much worse, and I have to say that the book deserves prizes for the inventiveness of the cussing alone. It is hilarious and so real that you forget at times that you're actually in "Mythical Greece".

And that's the beauty of it. Behind the hilarity and the fantastically indignant voice that Jen weilds so effortlessly is the incredibly meticulous and ultimately convincing retelling - re-weaving, really - of a story as old as Western culture. It is fascinating to watch as the King and Queen of Crete, for example, are shown not just in all their terrible mythical glory but in their role as parents. Jen explores the relationship that Pasiphae and Minos have with their daughter and, for the first time, you see them as real people with real problems and worries and duties and obligations and fears and jealousies and all the rest of it. You see how they (and by extension, we) set traps for themselves and paint themselves into corners. But while you're reading all this, somehow, at the same time, Jen makes sure you are aware of the politics at work, of the cultural landscape of the age.

Ultimately, yes, this is a book about a girl finding her way into womanhood and working out her relationship with her mother, with her legacy, with other women, and with what it means to be a woman in any age. That's plenty already, but Ariadne manages to be more than that as well. By the time you read the last page you've travelled so far and back that it's hard to believe the book is actually only 200 pages long. There's the incredible tale of the Minotaur and the story of Theseus's battle with the beast, there's the story of Ariadne's sister Phaedra and their relationship, there's the story of how Ariadne ends up on the island. And then there's the 'real' version of all these events, as told by an Ariadne who will brook no romanticised nonsense in the telling of her tale. And I can't think of a better, more magical person to tell it than Jen Cook.

The realist interviewed

Oh this is exciting. Dawn interviewed my baby brother author Ilhan Niaz for its weekly 'Books and Authors'  supplement. Read the interview here.

Ilhan's description of the book:

“The first chapters of the book deal with the subcontinent and describe the major empires that ruled the region. I started with the Harappan civilisation, moving on to the Guptas, Mauryas and Mughal period; this is what we call ‘macro history’. The following chapters go on to explain India and Pakistan and their common culture of power that has evolved in the 60 years of independence. The culture of the ruling elite is essentially the same — subsequently any consequent inadequacies in both states are also basically the same.�

When the interviewer suggests that it might be the heat that predisposes the people of the subcontinent to emotion and egotism (the comparison being, as always, with the 'cool' British), Ilhan responds:

“We can observe that since 1066 AD, there has been no invasion of England, whereas the region we are now sitting in has endured 70 major invasions between 1000 AD and 1800 AD. It could be this atmosphere of heightened insecurity and instability that contributes in making a nation more spiritually and emotionally charged.�

And of course this post wouldn't be complete without a plug for An Inquiry into the Culture of Power of the Subcontinent. I'm more than halfway through it and have put it on hold only because I have deadlines I can't extend. It's a great read.