Tag Archives: languages

A Ministry, a Garden, a God

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I read a lot of books. For research mainly, or so I tell others and myself but also for pleasure, for comfort and to know myself better. I read fabulous books and ordinary ones, heartbreaking books and healing ones, smart books and hilarious ones, and I have a system of shelving these in idiosyncratic ways. I give away a lot of books too, sometimes because I can’t stand to have them in my house and sometimes because I realise guiltily I have multiple copies I don’t need. And I rarely loan them out. I’m sure the ones that I do loan to very special friends burn in their hands until they return them. The bibliotaph’s burden. We all have something to carry, do we not?

I try to read the world in the voices of the world. Three recent books have been on my mind so much that I feel compelled to unpack their hold on my consciousness.

Kamila Shamsie’s A God In Every Stone follows the journey of Vivian Spencer from England to Turkey to Peshawar in the troubled years from 1914 to 1930 when colonialism compressed the lives of a disparate band of people and left a trail of personal and global destruction. Vivian’s legacy is loss. She loves the Turkish archaeologist Tahsin Bey and follows him into the ancient city of Caspatyrus (modern Peshawar) but betrays him anyway, echoing the subcontinent’s colonial enterprise; the aftershocks of which its people continue to feel today. Years later she befriends Najeeb Gul, a young Peshawari boy whose troubled older brother will unleash his own brand of destruction within the countries that have used and discarded him. Shamsie uncovers the layers of the ancient landscape where her story is set, turning an unflinching eye towards the lives buried beneath and superimposed over those layers. This novel is fiction at its truth-telling best. “Why sigh over lost mulberries instead of giving thanks to the engineers who saved the city from floodwaters? said Qayyum and Najeeb threw his hands in the air in exasperation. Lala, why can’t you see that the past is beautiful” (p263).

Nadeem Aslam is another writer who walks confidently into the murky territories of war, loss, race and religion. I read The Blind Man’s Garden on a recent plane trip from India to Perth and remember feeling like I couldn’t take my eyes off the page in case I missed something. Aslam’s writing always evokes a sense of doom. When this writer decides to place his characters inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban while their families attempt to live lives of ideological beauty, the result is beautiful, raw and intense. And scary. The slow build-up of horror swept me up entirely and dumped me, metaphorically on the other side, bleary-eyed and stunned. Rohan, the blind man of the title, knows that “history is the third parent.” When both his son and foster son leave him in his garden of memories to go and help save wounded civilians from the Taliban, Rohan remembers that his ancestors had played a part in the loss of Muslim lands to nonbelievers. “This was the century-old taint that Rohan had tried to remove by spreading the soils of Allah’s six beloved cities here. Mecca. Baghdad. Cordoba. Cairo. Delhi. Istanbul” (p11). Nadeem Aslam and Kamila Shamsie both know their landscape, their people and their sorrows and understand how the world will always come to the doorsteps of those whose lives are considered expendable. We live in times when the words ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ cause fear or at least discomfort in a Western context. Here are two contemporary writers (and there are several) unafraid to write the complexities that define the politics of terror, fear and justice.

Arundhati Roy’s long-awaited second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness took me through a journey of the country of my birth and showed it to me in ways that confronted, broke and made me whole again. Roy uses myth, larger-than-life landscapes and people, and the minutiae and particularities of lives lived under fear and despair to describe love and joy. Aftab/Anjum lives his/her life in the crumbling graveyard of an Old Delhi neighbourhood. Anjum distances herself from her genteel family of birth after deciding to live as a woman despite being born a hermaphrodite. And yes, there are troubled boys across the country with legacies they cannot contain in their bodies; boys like the enigmatic Kashmiri Musa who loves the South Indian Tilottama. Under the vast canvas of modern India and the lives she follows, Roy’s fierce, iconic politics is never disguised. “Today, as the saffron tide of Hindu Nationalism rises in our country like the swastika once did in another, Naga’s ‘foolish faith’ schoolboy speech would probably get him expelled, if not by the school authorities, then certainly by some sort of parents’ campaign” (p165). Roy has her detractors, most of whom appear to think she ought not to fiercely criticise a country that shelters her, but like Shamsie and Aslam, Roy’s truth shines through the refracted prism of fiction.

These were difficult books to read and grieve over. They fed my pessimism. They made me long to hold those I love fiercely. They made me wish someone would ask me to run a course on reading that elevates you and makes you want to be a better person and a better writer. They spoke to those nerve-endings that tingle when I know I am being transformed. And most of all, they taught me how hard it is to write elegantly about difficult things and how astonishing it is when complexity and tragedy combine to create beauty.

First published in Southern Crossings

http://southerncrossings.com.au/arts-and-culture/a-ministry-a-garden-a-god/

 

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Books I loved in 2017

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I started the year as I always do, with a selection of books by Australian writers, this time because I was fortunate enough to be on a writing panel with Carmel Bird, Josephine Wilson and Nicole Sinclair at the Perth Writers Festival. Also on one of my panels was Rajith Savandasa whose debut novel Ruins situated me into the heart of family I felt I already knew, so rich and immediate are the details of intimacy that appear effortless in this novel. Bloodlines by Nicole Sinclair, another debut novel, follows the Australian Beth, running away from something she cannot come to terms with, to Papua New Guinea, where she encounters the ‘ugly Australian’ expat community but also immerses herself in a country whose culture will always remain a mystery to her. Carmel Bird’s Family Skeletons made me laugh out loud while feeling like I knew these people in their rich mansions, their extraordinary secrets, their humanity and their cruelty and their inability to let go of a way of life they consider their birth right. And Josephine’s Wilson’s luminous Extinctions which has since won The Miles Franklin and The Colin Roderick Awards, reminded me of the writerly skill it takes to care about a mostly unlikable main character. Frederick Lothian frustrated me while simultaneously allowing me to care deeply about his bumbling and failing relationships. I know brief musings do not do justice to the depth, richness and literary truth of these exceptional novels. Therefore I recommend them with all my heart. Collectively they made me a better reader and human being.

It did seem to be the year of reading debut novels – the next on my list is Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. It is hard to describe in a sentence, so I invite you to read my review here. Persian myth intersects with political reality and a poetic sensibility that filled my heart with music. And as this is a translation, one of my resolutions over the coming year is to teach myself Farsi, so I can read this in its author’s original language.

Clementine Ford’s Fight Like A Girl reminded me of all the things I had either forgotten or learned to live with. And misogyny in all its forms, even when practiced by other women (Ford calls this internalised misogyny), must always be called out. And Ford does this with wit, clarity and anger. I have bought copies for most young women I know, especially the ones that tell me, ‘there’s no need for feminism anymore you know; we ARE equal.’

For different reasons completely, I loved Toni Jordan’s, Our Tiny, Useless Hearts. A farce about couples and marriage and fidelity and integrity, Janice’s sanity is at risk because she is surrounded by the most selfish collection of individuals that would send any vestige of normalcy right out the window.

Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, a book, that I, along with millions, waited 20 years for, plunged me into the iconoclastic philosophy of a writer who will always be hard to define. Both lament and howl, both narrative and politics, this is a tough book, a sprawling and messy book – utterly beautiful and heartbreaking. It made me whisper to myself – my India, what have you done? What have you become?

 I came late to Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. I learned so much reading this fierce, sumptuous, honest novel. Every time there was a reference to a piece of American history I was unsure about, I asked Professor Google and came back to the novel with a deeper sense of recognition about its concerns.

I ended the year with Aboriginal Australian writers, as seems fitting.  Kim Scott’s Taboo is written with lyrical precision and invites us to witness years of dispossession and the excesses of colonial abuse. You can read my review here. Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby sings – that really is the only way to describe it. It sings to country, motherhood, loss and love in a way that only a writer like Lucashenko can do. Language and landscape are inseparable and we are such a small part of an ancient connection that predates us, that I’m freshly grieved these stories are not more mainstream. They ought to be required reading in every school. Maybe the power of story can make us better. Maybe we can start treating the men in Manus with the same respect we accord to our trees and wetlands.

The books that disappointed me thoroughly were ones I had long looked forward to reading. Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, despite its intriguing setting in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books was tedious in execution and lost its way several times in bylanes that went nowhere. And Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love, again, despite the fascinating Marina Abramovic as subject, introduced me to Arky Levin, who will go down in my reading memory as the most irritating and irredeemable character it’s ever been my misfortune to encounter. His sudden transformation at the end into a caring husband inspired me to fling it across the room.

And finally, 3 slim volumes of poetry made me grateful for the gift of being able to read. Keeping Time with Blue Hyacinths by Sholeh Wolpeh with its precipice of loneliness and women who unfold, sin by sin, is a deeply evocative and sensual commentary on the things we didn’t know could break our hearts. Charlotte Guest’s Soap reminded me of those lodgings at the end of girlhood and how when things become bearable; it is actually the most unbearable part. Lovely, musical and highly recommended. Amanda Joy’s Snake Like Charms made me care about snakes and algae and insects and told me that black water fish shudder once to light/then darken into gone. The woman is a magician and everyone should read her.

Writers who trusted me to read their finished first drafts were a special treat. While I cannot reveal the names of these wonderful and hopefully-soon-to-be-published writers, I can say that one of them has been shortlisted for a major award, another two have found literary agents, while yet another has won a writing residency. I anticipate being able to add them to my next year’s reading list.

And before the year is done I look forward to reading Kohinoor by William Dalrymple & Anita Anand, and The Golden House by Salman Rushdie.

 

The Persian Book Club

One of the unexpected joys of publishing a book is that I am sometimes invited by book clubs to speak about my novel. This can be slightly nerve racking because book clubs have savvy readers who are not afraid to read critically and question assumptions. This morning it was my absolute delight to spend time with a group of readers who all belonged to one nationality, and while they don’t call themselves that, they are the Persian Book Club. We met at the delightful Bodhi Tree Cafe and Bookshop. My novel The Historian’s Daughter is a story with a connection to Iran, especially post revolutionary Iran. I was excited and nervous when invited to speak with this group of readers. I needn’t have worried. They were an amazing, erudite, honest and discerning group. It was gratifying that they had read and identified with my novel. As a writer, ‘writing other worlds’ can be fraught, especially when the lines between cultural exchange and appropriation are blurred. Our conversation ranged over topics as varied as Tehran’s propensity to attract dust, Eastern hospitality, and the writer’s insistence on leaving words from Farsi and Urdu untranslated. The morning ended with the group extending an invitation to me to visit Iran, and I hope I am able to go, some day, preferably with one of the group as guide. I have a feeling it will be not unlike ‘going home’ as I am steeped in this country’s history, folklore, sights, films, literature and have an affinity with the people that feels like a cellular memory. Thank you to all the members of the club. I look forward to visiting again.

Brown girls who shout

Whereas we write and speak as members of a small minority of marginal voices, our journalistic and academic critics belong to a wealthy system of interlocking informational and academic resources with newspapers, television networks, journals of opinion, and institutes at its disposal. Most of them have now taken up a strident chorus of rightward-tending damnation, in which they separate what is non-white, non-Western, and non-Judeo-Christian from the acceptable and designated Western ethos, then herd it all together under various demeaning rubrics such as terrorist, marginal, second-rate, or unimportant. To attack what is contained in these categories is to defend the Western spirit.

Since Edward Said wrote these words in 1993, I can’t say much has changed. Recent events in Australia, as well as globally, in the past few weeks, have sent me scurrying to my boxes of books and tearing them open with the distress of one who usually retreats to literature when confronted, challenged, heartbroken.

Last week, the ABC program, Q&A made headlines as viewers were subjected to the spectre of Tasmanian Senator Jacquie Lambie shouting the oft repeated refrains – ban the burka; deport Muslims; halt immigration. Lambie’s website explains that she puts Tasmania first, advocates the banning of the burka and thinks that Sharia law is an anti democratic cancer. When fellow panellist and Muslim writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied attempted to explain Sharia to the Senator, voices were raised, fingers were pointed and insults were hurled. The so-called moderator of the program interrupted Abdul-Magied when she raised her voice and she backed down. Later, those journals of opinion erupted in a frenzy against Abdel-Magied; the mildest, accusing her of being an apologist for Islam, going on tax payers funded holidays to extremist societies, and the vilest, calling her names that brought to mind the campaign against former Prime Minster Julia Gillard. Abdel-Magied’s sin, in part, appears to have been that she raised her voice in an attempt to be heard. Senator Lambie’s finger pointing and yelling appeared to gain her more support (Go Jacquie) in those bastions of public opinion whereas Abdel-Magied’s defence of her way of life inspired vitriol and a recommendation she be deported. Brown girls must not shout.

Not long ago a similar incident involving Jamila Rizvi and Steve Price on The Project also divided viewers. Rizvi, another brown girl, asked Steve Price to keep quiet because she was talking and refused to let him interrupt her. Well. A Change.org petition demanded an instant apology from Rizvi on behalf of the scowling, misogynistic Price who pronounced himself ‘humbled’ by the support. He also appeared to think that Rizvi’s shouting was unacceptable, but did not see any contradiction in attempting to interrupt her or speak over her to get his point across. A point worth noting here is that The Project’s co-host is Waleed Aly, also a Muslim, whose behaviour is scrutinised closely and whose every utterance is pounced upon. But Ali, because of his gender, star power and intelligence, is allowed to get away with occasional ‘misdemeanours’ as perceived by his white audience. Brown girls, however, cannot. We need to keep our heads down and our voices low. We must be nice. The sub-text appears to be – we understand that your origins, race and religion condemn you and make you inadequate but we are willing to help you if you’re nice. If you’re not nice, we’ll get upset and point out all the things that are wrong with having people like you in our country.

This is the message I hear when I emerge from my self-imposed burial in the books I turn to when I’m upset. As a brown Australian it’s hard to stay apolitical when the country slides publicly into bigotry, as this report indicates. It’s hard to stay positive when the people in my city greet Pauline Hanson enthusiastically. It’s hard to stay buoyant when men in suits order the destruction of Aboriginal and environmental sacred sites and ignore their humanitarian obligations.

But brown girls mustn’t shout. That’s important. And here’s the thing. Brown girls know they mustn’t shout. We were raised to keep our voices and eyes lowered. We were raised by patriarchs in societies emasculated by colonialism. When we left our brown shores for these white sands we already knew how to behave. Despite centuries of conditioning, we raise our voices. Think of the cost. The shame of our mothers. Why do we do it?

In the words of the magnificent Sarah Kay;

You keep your scissors in the knife drawer

I keep mine with the string and tape.

We both know how to hide our sharpest parts,

I just don’t always recognise my own weaponry.

Aside

A native knows the scene, right? Wrong. I was born in India and have been a fairly regular visitor for the last thirty years. Earlier this year, when my university in Perth gave me a travel grant to go to … Continue reading