Tag Archives: feminism

Moebius Trip: Digressions from India’s Highways by Giti Thadani

The more I read about Giti Thadani, a scholar based in Berlin and New Delhi, the more intrigued I became. Thadani dropped out of high school (Convent of Jesus and Mary in New Delhi, y’all) when she was fifteen. She started India’s “first lesbian organization ‘Sakhi Collective’ way back in 1990″.  And she spent several years driving around India exploring temples and museums in order to understand the representations of the female divinity in ancient Indian culture. What’s not to like about her courage and commitment and her zero tolerance for bullshit?

Moebius Trip: Digressions  from India’s Highways  (Spinifex Press, 2007)  is a travelogue focusing on Thadani’s experiences as a solo female traveler in India, and on her discovery of female-centric iconography in Hindu temples. In the latter thread, Thadani considers religious semiotics, linguistics, architecture, and mythology.  She visits long-forgotten yogini temples and sites devoted to Matrika worship, deploring the kitsch that has invaded most of the better-known places of worship. She bludgeons apathetic museum curators into showing her long-neglected statues depicting lesbian relationships in Indian myth.  She ponders the histories that have been erased and the stories that have been appropriated over time to create contemporary (male-centric) religious practice in India.

This book was first published in 2003,  and much of its value lies in its commentary on the situation faced by women traveling alone in India. As a woman driver in India, Thadani must deal with “hordes of men, all trying to overtake so as to ascertain my gender.”  She meets men who help her change a wheel when her hands are too numb with cold, who go out of their way to help her locate hidden sites, and she also meets many idiots drunk on their masculinity. In one chilling episode, a truck deliberately makes her crash, and the truck driver boasts that the road belongs to men and he hence “had to” teach women drivers “their due lesson”. Public spaces in India have largely been taken over by men, as have most religious spaces (which have deliberately diminished and domesticated goddesses); we could debate endlessly about the causality here.

While I have nothing but unqualified admiration for the author, I must confess to mixed feelings towards this book.  Thadani is obviously deeply knowledgeable about the feminine in ancient Indian myth and culture, but her analysis in this book is mostly unanchored by documentation. She subverts many dominant narratives (which is great! I love it!) but often doesn’t cite a source. For instance, while summarizing the Ramayana,  she writes that “Rama never had children of his own”,  that “Sita remained virginal [...] in his company” and that when Sita was later exiled, she “parthenogenically produce[d] two male twins. ” Now, the popular version (of what is arguably India’s most famous epic) has Sita’s twins fathered the usual way by Rama. I’m eager to consider a new story, but without the source it’s speculation, innit? Another example:  while writing about British India, Thadani says that any large-scale migration was punishable under colonial law–”people could have their hands and feet cut off.” I’d love to know where she got that information (and if such a law was ever implemented, and what the consequences were). But again, there’s no further detail about that statement. One could argue that Moebius Trip doesn’t ever claim to be anything but a travelogue, but that doesn’t preclude attribution.  The book would have carried so much more weight if only Thadani had bothered to document her sources.

My frustration/fascination with Thadani’s work was perhaps keenest when considering her prose. Much of the writing is beautiful,  poetic in approach and intensity, seeking to articulate profound mysteries, making for opaque yet hypnotic reading.  There are lovely insights–I was very impressed, for instance, with her description of a hotelier in Kerala who was attempting  to “finesse his culture” through his presentation of local cuisine.  Some of the writing is quite academic in tone, and I found it heavy going. And some of it is just plain clunky–for instance, she writes about “marriage processions composed of people who seem to believe they have to compensate for the empty jar of arranged marriage mediocrity by blaring their bandbaaja.” What?! Writing about her hotel room, she says, “Mosquitoes are rampant, and the electric repellent does not work.[...] The food in the adjoining cafe is equally repellent…” Aaargh! How can the same person who notes that “Each cosmology has its own aesthetics of light” also claim “…when I am completely concentrated, I can cover these two hundred-odd kilometers in three hours”? 

Despite the above complaints, I do recommend this book–when it’s good, it’s very good. And for another viewpoint, do check out Marilyn’s thoughtful review here.

Thanks to Spinifex Press for sending me this book all the way from Australia! This review goes towards the Global Women of Color Challenge.

Revenge by Taslima Nasrin

I heard Taslima Nasrin talk when I was in grad school ten years ago, and the memory has stayed with me since. Nasrin read from from her (then) new work, Amar Meyebela; as with all her writing, this one too called to account patriarchal Bangladeshi society. And inevitably, she got some members of the audience all riled up–one student stated that since he’d never witnessed any such thing growing up in Bangladesh, she had to be wrong. What I remember most: her steely, detached calm as she answered him, and her utter unconcern for how he (we)  might judge her. She’d been exiled from Bangladesh, gone into hiding, and had faced death threats from extremists; understandably, she was unlikely to set much store by censure from this audience. I also remember that she never smiled during the entire talk.

Revenge, titled Shodh in the original Bengali, was first published   in 1992, and the translation was brought out by The Feminist Press, New York, in 2010. I reviewed the book for Herizons magazine last year.

***

When Jhurmur, a spirited Bangladeshi girl weds her boyfriend Haroon after a passionate courtship, she believes she’ll be happy. She was raised to think for herself, she’s well-educated, and she’s sure of Haroon’s love and commitment. A woman’s chance at marital happiness, however, is always a gamble in a patriarchal society, and Jhurmur learns she must be a bou (daughter-in-law) first and a wife second.

Haroon was an ardent suitor who wooed her patiently, but post-marriage, regards her with suspicion for having succumbed to his courtship. He isolates her from her friends and family, refusing to let her go out to work, telling her to concentrate on the household instead. Financially dependent on Haroon and fearful of the consequences of divorce, Jhurmur acquiesces to Haroon’s emotional abuse. But when Haroon denies he’s fathered her baby and insists on an abortion, Jhurmur is roused out of her complaisance and plots her revenge.

As with all of Taslima Nasrin’s books, Revenge is primarily an indictment of the patriarchal mores of the author’s native Bangladesh. Education has always been seen as the answer to such societal ills, but in this novel, Nasrin acknowledges a very basic truth: education isn’t a path to women’s empowerment unless it provides a chance at economic independence. In Haroon’s home, Jhurmur’s degree merely gives her “a rather irrelevant superiority” over the household’s other daughter-in-law, a girl who’d barely finished secondary school. But when Jhumur finally gets a job, she views it as a sign that she’s finished with a life of submission, and that her husband will now understand that she “will no longer stand for his cruelty”.

Jhurmur is a complex character, with enough moral ambiguity to rise above the caricature of a subaltern employing western-style feminism to attain “liberation”, and the manner of her revenge poses an interesting question for the reader: does it truly count as revenge when the principal has no recognition of the act? Jhurmur is delighted at comprehensively betraying her husband–who, oblivious of her actions, is content with his lot. Perhaps Nasrin is just being pragmatic here–if Jhurmur’s secret were discovered, the social consequences would be devastating; secret rebellions must suffice till the revolution arrives. That we’re left feeling discomfited is testament to Nasrin’s refusal to look for easy answers to deep-rooted issues.

Bastards and Bullies: When Fenelon Falls by Dorothy Palmer

Dorothy Palmer taught high school drama for twenty-three years before publishing  her debut novel, When Fenelon Falls (Coach House Press, 2010). Critics called Palmer “a talented writer with an original voice and a marvellous ear for the nuance (and fun) of language”, and the book earned much acclaim, including a long-list nomination for the Re-Lit award.

When Fenelon Falls is a tragic-comic story set in 1969 in Ontario’s cottage country, featuring a young girl, Jordan, who is adopted and disabled–a protagonist based on Palmer herself. I interviewed Palmer about her activism, her feminism, and her writing, and the resulting piece “Bastards and Bullies” is up at the new issue of Herizons magazine. Here’s an excerpt.

DP: Since I was a teenager, I longed to see someone like me in a book and never did. I wrote to hear a voice I’d never heard, either in Canadian literature or later in broader feminist fiction or academia: the modern doppelganger of Canada’s girl orphan icon, Anne of Green Gables. I wanted to write a novel about a red-haired adoptee who knows it’s more than hair making her angry, who does far more about it than break a slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head. When Fenelon Falls is about things that fall–Jordan, a girl with a limp, Yogi, an entrapped bear, and all of the bystanders who should have stood up and done something about the falling they enabled and witnessed.

[...]

Alice Munroe said some years ago that she said she no longer liked the term “autobiographical fiction” because it had the cast of being a smaller, somehow less authentic, kind of writing done by women [...] to my mind, Canadian women writers are still more often asked about and somehow tacitly dismissed as writing “just autobiography,” which carries the suggestion that autobiographical content is some kind of safe blueprint, or crutch. “Just” implies that fiction with less autobiographical content is somehow, A: the domain of real writers, namely men and B: real fiction, a more pure or literary art form. Obviously, many novels draw on autobiography, but nobody ever suggested that Faulkner or Dickens wrote “just autobiography.” While the settings are all real, When Fenelon Falls has far too much fiction in it to ever be considered “just” a memoir—its plot and commentary is larger than one life and certainly far larger than mine.

My novel is informed by years of working in my union and school board against other oppressions, against racism, bullying, sexual harassment and homophobia. My analysis and practice was always as two things: as an adult adoptee who almost passed as “normal” and as a disabled woman with a disability that almost let me pass in the walking world. Jordan makes many analogies between sexism, racism and what she calls “bastardism.” She sees bastardism as systemic, as built right into everything – language, children’s stories, television and books, and she knows her brother doesn’t see it because he’s a boy, because he’s privileged, “to the bloodline born.” He never has to think about how painful it is to hear what you are, a bastard, being used as a daily swear word [...]

If you’d like to read more, please pick up a copy of Herizons (the piece isn’t online). And here’s an excerpt from my review of the novel, also in Herizons.

It’s the summer of 1969, and fourteen year old Jordan May March is figuring out her tenuous place in her family, in society, and in the world. Jordan is adopted and disabled, and is thus considered fair game for her family’s cruelty, especially from the cousins who gather each summer at the family cottage in Fenelon Falls. Jordan’s fierce intelligence, while enabling small acts of revenge, is also her downfall, for she senses the true animosity that lies beneath the teasing, and is unable to fool herself into thinking that it’ll get better. [...]
When Fenelon Falls is saturated with rich detail about Ontario in the fifties and sixties, from the clothes to the music to casual bigotry that was simply how things were back then, and the narrative vividly illustrates what a complex, problematic, fractured, fertile era it was. If you know someone who insists that Canadian society was easier to navigate before the advent of, y’know, multiculturalism and all that new-fangled stuff, give him this book—and then watch him squirm.

It’s a funny, wrenching book, and I recommend do hope you’ll pick it up.

Theatre: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

I had the glorious chance to attend Nightwood Theatre’s adaptation of The Penelopiad on the opening night.

The Penelopiad is a re-telling of Homer’s Odyssey, which, as most of the Western world knows, describes the twenty-year-long adventure of King Odysseus–ten years in the Trojan War and the next ten attempting to return to his kingdom of Ithaca. Odysseus spent most of his travels battling monsters and having sex (first with the goddess Circe, and then, when living with the nymph Calypso for seven years), while back in Ithaca, his wife Penelope wept and prayed and waited.

(From the performance: Odysseus on his travels. Photo Credit: Robert Popkin.)

But eager suitors laid siege to Penelope’s wealth, clamoring that she marry again. Penelope put them off by claiming she needed to weave a shroud for her (not-yet dead) father-in-law; every night, Penelope unraveled her day’s weaving with the help of her twelve maids, who also undertook, at her request, to divert the attention of the odious suitors with food, foot spas, sex and anything else they might demand.

(Penelope and her maids. Photo Credit: Robert Popkin)

Finally, Odysseus returned to Ithaca and killed the pesky suitors, and Penelope, united with her husband, was forever held up as edifying example of womanhood for her patience and fidelity; all was well in Ithaca. Oh, and Odysseus had Penelope’s twelve maids hanged–they’d been sleeping with the suitors, and he couldn’t have that kind of slutty behavior in his kingdom, you know. It was a mass honor killing, mostly on whim.

The Penelopiad,  published in 2005,  is part of the Canongate’s Myths series, which feature re-imaginings of myths by contemporary authors (the most recent is A.S.Byatt’s Ragnarok). Atwood, in essence, gives us the Odyssey from the view of those left behind when the heroes are off chasing glory.  The protagonist Penelope, now dead and wandering around the Asphodel Meadows, tells us about her marriage at fifteen, the birth of her son, and her wait for Odysseus. As she ponders the nature of lust, gender roles in marriage and parenting, and the mythologization of womanhood in the service of men, she warns, “Don’t follow my example.”

(Penelope, played by Megan Follows. Photo Credit: Robert Popkin)

Also wandering amongst the dead are the twelve maids, and their chorus undoes Penelope’s attempts at self-justification or self-pity.

“we are the maids/the ones you killed/the ones you failed
we danced in air/our bare feet twitched/it was not fair
with every goddess, queen, and bitch/from here to there/you scratched your itch
we did much less/than what you did/you judged us bad [...]“

The Penelopiad is written in a chatty, thoughtful tone, completely shorn of the rhetorical flourishes that typically accompany myth, and is peppered with audacious epigrams–for instance, the darker grottoes in the Asphodel Meadows are populated by “minor rascals” such as “a pickpocket, a stockbroker, a small-time pimp.” The book has Atwood’s trademark combination of profundity and sly wit, and gallops along at a fine pace, though I did feel that the chapter entitled “The Trial  of Odysseus, as Videotaped by the Maids” said a lot of things that were known already. And an exposition about the significance the number of maids was rather tedious; called “An Anthropology Lecture”, it would no doubt goose-pimple a student of the classics, but as a non-student, it left me unmoved, as lectures tend to do.

So I was very happy to see director Kelly Thornton following William Goldman’s precept, and giving us a Penelopiad devoid of lectures or trials. And it was very good indeed, conveying all the power and wit of Atwood’s vision in a production bursting with flair and energy. Nightwood Theatre is a Toronto-based feminist group, and this play featured an all-woman cast who were required to sing and jump and dance and simulate sex and shed any notions of the body as anything but performance instrument, which they did with utter conviction. The music by Suba Sankaran (whom I know from Autorickshaw, and btw, for those who follow Carnatic music, her dad is Trichy Sankaran), was moving and amusing by turns. Penelope was played by Megan Follows, famous for her Anne of Green Gables, and, in a nice little casting coincidence,  Penelope’s maid Eurycleia was played by Patricia Hamilton, who is Rachel Lynde in Road to Avonlea. I was most beguiled by Kelli Fox, who played Odysseus with a  one-sided, glinting smile that perfectly conveyed his belief in his own (admittedly considerable) cleverness, and in the next breath, played a submissive-shouldered maid. How? How?

With minimal props and no special effects apart from fake smoke, the Penelopiad had the audience for 140 minutes, and we emerged shaken and stirred, outraged on behalf of the characters and yet amused by it all. I was left, at the end, with a huge appreciation for the cleverness of the whole thing–for the original material as well as the sensibility of the adaptation, for the splendid orchestration of the production’s many component parts, and for the ingenuity of the staging. The show runs till Jan. 29th, and tickets are available here. Go on, Torontonians, thrill yourselves.

More than Love Letters by Rosy Thornton

Here you go, RyanMore than Love Letters (2005) by Rosy Thornton.

Twenty-four year old Margaret Hayton is a school teacher in Ipswich, and she’s an edgy (and infinitely more likeable)  Pollyanna for our age. Margaret directs her energy towards issues ranging from global warming to the placement of garbage bins on her street, and frequently writes her local MP Richard Slater to voice her concerns. Slater assumes that she’s a stereotypical old biddy (though Margaret’s letter protesting VAT on sanitary protection might have tipped him off differently), and dodges her requests until Margaret threatens to send her collection of his form replies to the Prime Minister, following which he agrees to meet her.

ZAP! Margaret’s  enthusiasm (and, um, her good looks) shock Slater out of his spin-centered existence into championing one of her causes–obtaining asylum for an Albanian refugee, Nasreen, who was forced to flee her home because of her inter-faith love affair.  Slater’s ideals, long gone to seed, sprout in Margaret’s sunny company, and the two gradually fall in love.

(Manly men: don’t be put off by the butterflies and hearts and love letters. Thornton, who teaches law at Cambridge, takes for her subject nothing less than immigration laws and domestic violence.  She  has much to say (all disturbing) about the marketing of her book,  whose original title, by the way, was Asylum. This cover is about as accurate having a David Lodge novel feature a gun and beer barrel propped up against a giant obelisk. Get out the, um, brown paper if you must.)

I’ve rarely read a novel where the personal combines quite so seamlessly with the overtly political.  Thornton’s delicacy of touch is especially impressive considering that More than Love Letters is an epistolary novel. We’ve all read books where it’s painfully obvious whom the heroine is addressing when writing to her  BFF “I was brushing my long chestnut-brown hair when my brother Jack phoned me from our father’s real-estate office.” MTLL never has you wondering why the characters seem compelled to quote Wikipedia entries at each other; the writing informs without ever veering into dreaded info-dump territory. We learn that Nasreen was forced to leave Albania as her brothers threaten her life for daring to love a man from a different faith, but Britain doesn’t recognize her as a legitimate candidate for asylum, and she’ll be deported unless Margaret and Richard manage to change the law. It’s only a day or two  after finishing the book that you realize that asylum laws in Britain circa 2005 have seeped into your mind despite yourself.

Perhaps what I relished most about MTLL was the humor and positivity steaming off each page.  Thornton’s fictional landscape has more than its fair share of grimness–there’s suicide and domestic violence, and the wicked often go unpunished–but after reading this book, you feel that it’s not a bad old world after all, and Thornton proves conclusively, you doomsters, that happy endings and intelligent writing aren’t incompatible.  Her characters are mostly pleasant and obliging, shouldering their burdens without whining, and they do the best they can (which is often pretty stupendous).  Thornton’s wit is pointed and yet very good-natured indeed–here’s Margaret’s Gran on her first brush with chick-lit.

“…I’m not sure they are my kind of thing. One has a picture of just the bottom half of a girl on the front cover, doing the hoovering in a miniskirt and stiletto heels, and she appears to have a half-empty wine bottle in one hand. I quite enjoyed the one she [Gran's helper] brought me last week, but I find it such a distraction to be told in every chapter what shade of lipstick the heroine is wearing and the name of the shop where she bought her blouse.”

So, Gran is a kindly soul, who is obligated to her helper for supplying her with reading material as she has mobility issues, and who doesn’t like to criticize, but  her remarks are no less devastating for their gentleness.  Thornton is very very good as straining her opinions through the particularities of each character. And what characters they are–I took each one into my heart, and I dare you to find a more likeable heroine than Margaret in contemporary fiction.

And finally: I so love literary Britain–I grew up on Enid Blyton and her  kin, and it’s instant magic when a book refers to Mrs Danvers, Pooh Sticks,  Nevil Shute, and Mallory Towers. And when Rosy Thornton had Richard Slater quote John Thornton on Margaret Hay to Margaret Hayton’s dad, well, it was all very meta (or do I mean pomo?),  and *just* the kind of thing I chuckle over as I’m getting ready to sleep.

So as you can see, MTLL hit every sweet spot on my reading desiderata, and as god is my witness,  my first Rosy Thornton novel will not be my last. I hit my credit card for The Tapestry of Love earlier this week; you can borrow it from me if it’s not in the library, Ryan.

The Power of a Plate of Rice by Ifeoma Okoye

Cheta, a teacher at a Nigerian secondary school, is furious with the principal, Mr. Aziza, for withholding her salary because she took a few days off to tend to her sick child at hospital. Cheta is a widow with rent to pay and two young children and a mother-in-law to feed, and Mr. Aziza has now willfully held back her pay for 5 months. Matters are desperate, but Cheta has no legal or institutional recourse.

At this point, kill that voice telling you to skip a sad third-world tale of exploited women. Cheta is smart (bordering on smart-ass); when she remembers her mother’s advice to stay calm and do nothing in anger, she remarks, “Only an angel or an idiot would remain calm in my situation.” Obviously, Cheta isn’t going to take Mr. Aziza’s bullshit for long, and her response is magnificent, all more powerful for its spontaneity and primal nature.

Cheta begs Mr. Aziza for the better part of a month, imploring him for money for rent and food, but when he proves obdurate, she’s reduced to following him home after work one evening. Mr. Aziza ignores her, leaving her while his help sets dinner–and returns to find Cheta eating his rice and meat.  Oh, what audacity! What courage! What a masterstroke! Aziza is undone by Cheta’s actions, and faced with her unshakeable desperation, agrees to pay her salary, and asks her to get out. Which Cheta does, still chowing down.

Okay, let me count the ways I love this story. First: this is the story of a bully defeated, so it gets a thousand points. Second: gosh, it’s funny–I laughed out loud often, and my mental image of Mr. Aziza’s chagrin on seeing Cheta eating his dinner makes me smile weeks after reading. Third: Cheta is magnificent–she is brave and no-nonsense and resourceful, and I’d marry her in a flash if I could. Fourth: Okoye says so many things about Nigeria without ever spelling it out. That common people are often denied their rights–and can do nothing about it. That the bureaucracy has undue power, which they abuse without accountability. That professional women have it particularly hard in a patriarchal society where men can openly voice their reluctance to employ women–even when those women are the bread-winners in their families. That  traditions and customs can cripple as much as they can provide succour. And I was struck at each turn by how familiar this narrative is to anyone who’s ever lived in South Asia. And Fifth: the story is crisply written, with a chatty, no-nonsense tone that is a perfect fit for Cheta.

So: get hold of this story, which I found in Opening Spaces, a collection of contemporary African women’s writing edited by Yvonne Vera (you may find it elsewhere too). I reviewed this short story for Amy’s Nigerian Literature Challenge; if you are interested in going beyond Adichie and learning more about Nigerian literature, do check out the other entries in the challenge.

My new publications, and other bookish news

It took over a year from query to publication, but my feature article on YA literature for girls is finally up at the Canadian feminist magazine Herizons. The piece, which examines the kind of messages conveyed by contemporary YA lit. for girls, includes a list of my recommendations of (mostly Canadian) YA novels of all kinds from historical to paranormal to issue-based works. I interviewed several people for this piece–Canadian YA authors Courtney Summers, Neesha Meminger and Y.S.Lee, teen and youth services librarian Kat Drennan-Scace, YA bloggers (including Audrey from holes In My brain), and publishing industry insiders including as Amy Black, Senior Editor at DoubleDay Canada,  amongst others, and they all had wise and interesting things to say about girls and reading. The article isn’t available online, but  I hope you’ll take a look at it if you find a copy of Herizons at your bookstore or library.

I also have a review of Farzana Doctor’s new novel Six Metres of Pavement  in the latest issue of This magazine. Farzana, who is also a psychotherapist and a queer activist, is a wonderful writer, and I URGE you to check out this novel. This piece isn’t available online either.

And I’m going to be talking bout books–on TV! (Many thanks to my fellow blogger Amy for making all this happen.) There’s a new show about books on Rogers Television called Book ‘em TV, and I’m the featured guest for the second episode of the show. The guest for the first episode is, um, Terry Fallis. Who just won Canada Reads. And is awesome. No pressure, what? Please wish me luck (lots of it).

Finally: my feature profile of Mitali Perkins is up at Fusia, a new Asian-Canadian magazine. Fusia contributes to the charity Because I am a Girl, which empowers young girls all over the globe, and I’m very glad that Perkins, who writes books featuring strong MG and YA girls, is featured in this magazine. She’s in good company–the  women profiled in this issue include Lisa Ray (on the cover), Devyani Saltzman (whom you may know as as Deepa Mehta’s daughter, and the author of the memoir Shooting Water), and many other impressive women.  The feature may appear online after the issue hits the stores (on August 10th, I think), and I’ll link to it then.