racism Posts

Hanif Kureishi’s “What Happened?”

Hanif Kureishi’s What Happened? is a collection of essays and stories that were published in various literary magazines and newspapers in recent years. The publications may be recent but it is an interesting mix spanning a few decades of his life. The essays are mostly autobiographical revolving primarily around his desire to be a writer, his determination to achieve his goal and once a published writer, inhabiting a literary world which was predominantly white and seemed to constantly sideline writers like him who were of a different colour.

The British creativity I grew up with – in pop, fashion, poetry, the visual arts and the novel – has almost always come from outside the mainstream, from clubs, gay subcultures, the working class and from the street. Many of the instigators might have been white, but they were not from the middle class, a group that lacks, in my experience, the imagination, fearlessness and talent to be truly subversive.

The truth is, the conservative fear of other voices is not due to the anxiety that artists from outside the mainstream will be untalented, filling up galleries and bookshops with sludge, but that they will be outstanding and brilliant. The conservatives willhave to swallow the fact that despite the success of British artists, real talent has been neglected and discouraged by those who dominate the culture, deliberately keeping schools, the media, universities and the cultural world closed to interesting people.

The essays that stand out are those that describe Kureishi’s awakening as an author, his descriptions of inhabiting the literary world and his firm opinions about racism. These have been consistent themes in his essays over the years but in this collection they are stand out as being extremely relevant. What really hits home hard is that Kureishi was writing about these subjects much before it became fashionable to discuss diversity and inclusivity in the creative industry. He was writing what he saw, experienced, and analysed. He made it his trademark to write about various subjects particularly the racial discrimination he saw daily. It is a perspective that was quite literally being whitewashed in mainstream media and literary platforms though chinks had begun to be visible. Hanif Kureishi is of Asian origin but he was born and brought up in UK. So he was like any other British child except he was made acutely aware of the difference because of his skin colour whereas he did not see himself as any different. But in his very moving essay remembering his friend David Bowie it becomes apparent that to some degree even colour does not matter, but the socio-economic station that you inhabit does. Bowie and Kureishi were a decade apart, they went to the same school in Bromley, but become firm friends later, probably when they joined showbiz.

From the time Kureishi began writing in the early 1970s till now, he has always been comfortable with who he is and his voice has never changed. His style of writing is predictable but never boring, if anything it has become sharper with age. What comes through extraordinarily beautifully in What Happened? is that Hanif Kureishi has not changed but the world has to a certain degree — the horrors of sectarian violence and racism that he was alerting us to over the years have only intensified. So commentators like Kureishi who speak confidently, sharing an opinion, continue to be relevant.

Read it.

22 Oct 2020

Juan Pablo Villalobos’s “I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me”

Juan Pablo Villalobos’s novel I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me has a protagonist who shares the same name as the author. It has been translated from Spanish into English by Daniel Hahn. The fictional Juan like the real Juan did has plans to move from Guadalajara in Mexico to Barcelona in Spain to pursue a doctorate in literary theory made possible with an EU grant. This is where the similarity ends ( at least we hope so!). The fictional Juan has a cousin who is of no good and hobnobs with local criminals. Practically on the eve of Juan’s departure, the criminals kill the cousin and persuade Juan to run an “errand” for them in Barcelona. He is asked to “infiltrate” the literary postgrad world in order to acquaint himself with a wealthy Catalan magnate’s daughter, Laia. The devious plan involves the Mexican cartel wishing to extort money from the wealthy man. Juan agrees to this preposterous plan. He enrols himself to study humour in Latin American literature. Meanwhile his life outside the classroom flip flops between third grade crime fiction and literary fiction. Juan on a mission encounters the dirty underbelly of society. He comes face to face with dodgy folks of all kinds, he hears gutter language, he experiences xenophobia and it is contrasted with the more genteel talk of the educated and socio-economic elite. It is an absurd situation to be in. Ripe fodder for his thesis but mindboggling to be in the heart of it while trying to ensure one’s sanity and safety of his family.

Reading I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me is almost like television channel surfing pausing for a moment on a thriller and the next moment on a more sophisticated drama and then a mindless serial, each with multiple accents and settings. Only difference being here that this is a single novel with four distinct voices, crafted by one man, the Spanish writer Juan Pablo Villalobos. The four characters who offer four different perspectives on the plotline hail from different parts of society. Apparently the original novel had very distinctive kinds of Spanish attributed to these individuals. Daniel Hahn, the translator, had quite a challenging time translating the different registers of Spanish spoken into English. He has written a fascinating essay at the end of the book which recounts in detail how he achieved this feat. It is an extraordinary essay which is worth reading especially by many Indian translators who struggle to translate different dialects of a single Indian language into English. One of the toughest challenges is to carry forward the different registers of the original language into the destination language without corrupting the literary intention and craftsmanship of the author. Daniel Hahn shares some of his insights. His essay is truly brilliant!

The novel I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me is a comic romp though multiple socio-economic layers of Spanish society. For the most part they are invisible to each other but it needs a Juan to meander through it, making visible much that would prefer to remain under the radar. But the mirth created by fast paced, pitch perfect novel, cannot really mask the racism and immigrant related tensions that abound. It is a novel not easily forgotten. Worth reading!

It has been published by the fabulous independent publisher based in London, And Other Stories.

4 July 2020

Of debut novels

2019 is proving to be a year of debut writing. Perhaps it is also an indication of the disruption that digital technology has made of print publishing. It is becoming more and more expensive to publish and if the advance against royalties is also included for publishing established names, then the unit cost of printing a book escalates. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why 2019 has been the year of debuts. Presumably publishers feel that the ROI on a debut author can be easily absorbed in their P/L sheets. Who knows?! Fact is, extraordinary amounts of literature across the globe by debut writers has been published in the past year. Some of it is stupendous. Three worth highlighting in this blog post are: Varun Thomas Mathew’s The Black Dwarves of the Good Little Bay , Nana Oforiatta Ayim’s The God Child and Rehana Munir’s Paper Moon. Three very distinct voices. Three distinct stories. All three debut writers who will shine in the future.

Varun Thomas Mathew is a lawyer by profession but has written a dystopic novel set in the near future where all humanity in India seems to be concentrated in a towering structure called Bombadrome. It is inhabited by people who have no memory and hence no sense of history. They have no recollection if this place was once called Bom Bahia or Bombay or Mumbai. It is a colony where there are specific functions allocated to each section. Occupiers of each section are identified by their uniform. Every task, evey person has a specific role that is designated by the powers that be and there seems to be no existence of free will. It is a “memoir” being written by a former bureaucrat called Convent Godse. The Black Dwarves are manual scavengers who resorted to splashing buckets of filth on to walls to create “arresting art”. Thus capturing the imagination of the media. But the black dwarves are like multiple versions of the real-life Banksy. Despite the Police Commissioner claiming to have arrested the Black Dwarves, a movement arose that could not be ignored. Like this there are many instances in the immediate past that Convent Godse has witnessed and finally opts to write them down. Another one is of the flautist who would stand at the Gateway of India playing tunes that “made passers-by of different religions fall in love” — love jihad. Convent Godse seems to retain a sense of perspective and sanity as he chooses to stay outside the boundary walls of Bombadrome. One of the people incarcerated in the medical quadrant who is a witness to the current chief minister’s past atrocities and the day the politician gains power, the witness “loses his mind” and is taken away. This is a sharply told tale that despite being set in the near future is horribly close to present realities. It is a powerful debut for sometimes fiction thinly masks the truth. Read it. Perhaps one day Man Booker Prize winner Paul Beatty and Varun Thomas Mathew can be encouraged to have a heart to heart talk about the literature they make and what propels them to write these extraordinary stories.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim is a Ghanaian writer, art historian and filmmaker whose debut novel is The God Child. It is about Ghanian expatriate Maya who is brought up in Germany and England. Later she is joined by her cousin from her mother’s side, Kojo. Maya’s mother belongs to a Ghanian royal family and is fairly regal in her ways. The children are close. So when Kojo is bullied, Maya is a witness and his confidante. Later as an adult she visits Kojo in Accra where he is trying to put together a museum that will revive their past royal glory. He is working very hard to put it together but tragedy strikes. Once again, Maya is a mute witness to a dream shattering. As with most debut novels, there is always a strong autobiographical element. The God Child is no different with Kojo’s drive to establish a museum in Accra is closely aligned to Ayim’s project of establishing an open-source encyclopedia of African history. Ayim’s fascination with art history resulted in her being the curator of the African pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. As with the link to the lecture posted below, Ayim’s debut novel is preoccupied with the different ways of seeing. The protagonist of the novel is equally at ease in Germany, England and Ghana but Maya is constantly made to feel an outsider. The insidious racism that exists in society is horrendous. Kojo and she bear the brunt of it. Ayim has an unabashed critical filmmaker’s lens to talk about society across three lands — Germany, UK and Ghana. The clash of cultures and the insidious and deep seated racism which continues to persist in the poshest of places. Also the complete unacceptance of these so-called developed nations to accept the stories of children from Ghana, simply because they are black and speak of being descendants of kings and living in palaces. It is to the white world a myth that the blacks weave. The writer shares unpleasant truths which will not go down well in the polite world which speaks constantly of diversity and inclusivity but when it comes to practice what they preach is unable to truly accept wholeheartedly how difficult it is to embrace differences. I also like the surety with which the author writes in three languages — English, German and the African dialect, Twi, without necessarily explaining it immediately or contextualising it. It is much like the French used by Wodehouse in his novels. You either know it or don’t, so most readers learned to skip those passages and yet enjoyed the storytelling. Same here. As she says in this TED Talk that she has the power to define her own narrative — “We deserve to be in this place“. It shows a calm and confident writer who has been dissed in the early reviews for writing a “promising but uneven novel” — which it is not. Far from it. Read it for yourself. Unsurprisingly, Ayim has dedicated her novel to John Berger.

The last debut novel under discussion is Rehana Munir’s fabulous Paper Moon. It is about Fiza inheritance from her absent father stipulating that she run a bookstore. Well, she is left a lump sum of money to do whatever she likes but he would love it if she made his dream of running a bookshop come true. This is an idea that she too has been secretly nursing but once the possibilities exist she quickly swings into action. Practically overnight from a quiet, good college girl who listens to whatever her mother, an ex-Jazz singer has to say, Fiza becomes a businesswoman. She sets up a bookshop in a old Bandra mansion. It is named after the popular Jazz song, “It’s Only a Paper Moon“. It is an enterprise that is thrilling, allows for a variety of visitors to troop in, it is a peek into the bookselling trade and getting books on consignment from the distributors etc. More than that it gives her the opportunity to introspect her own life, her relationships with her ex-boyfriend, Dhruv and the mysterious stranger who frequents her store, to the wide network ( safety net) of well-wishers. Paper Moon is written in a beautifully restrained manner making it hard to believe that this is a debut voice. The characters are so well etched. The plot moves at a controlled pace. There seem to be no awkward edges in the storytelling or clunky pieces in the plot. What is truly refreshing is the confidence with which Rehana Munir presents life in Mumbai and Goa for what it is — with its diversity, the ease with which everyone is comfortable with each other’s beliefs and practices. There are no apologies or fear presented. It is normal life. This despite her belonging to a generation that may have not witnessed the World Wars or the horrific aftermath of Indian Independence — the communal riots which accompanied the partition of the subcontinent. But while “contemplating the post 9/11 world… . Babri Masjid happened, dividing Fiza’s city forever. Not there was the gore and gloom of Gujarat. Every generation thought of itself as unique. Of negotiating historical events without precedent or the possibility of recurrence. Yet, how was this rapid descent into madness any different from the countless ones that had previously occurred?” This is the undercurrent affecting everyone and yet life carries on. Surprisingly Rehana Munir’s narrative, albeit fiction, affirms that if we see around us, life is different to what is told to us in hegemonic discourses which are increasingly being controlled by politicians. Much like what Hans Rosling laid out in Factfulness. Both are equally hopeful books in an otherwise depressingly dystopic age. Rehana Munir’s Paper Moon is a story that deserves to be converted to film without compromising on the story at all in the screen adapatation. It must run as is. Paper Moon leaves such a happy space in one’s mind of hope and joy for the future. And it is not a book I would classify as Up lit. It is good old-fashioned storytelling. Share it widely. Give it the love it deserves. Gift it happily.

7 December 2019

Mira Jacob’s “Good Talk”

Award-winning author Mira Jacob‘s Good Talk is a graphic memoir. It was written after the extraordinary success of her 37 Difficult Questions From My Mixed-Race Son: “Are white people afraid of brown people?” published on BuzzFeed ( 8 June 2015). Though seemingly inspired by the questions her son posed to her incessantly about Michael Jackson, music and race but the Good Talk is also much more. It is much more than the conversations every sane and rational parent has with their children, let alone those of mixed parentage. It is all about the difficult conversations that are most often ignored even by adults. These are mostly revolving around race in America.

Mira Jacob’s Syrian Christian parents immigrated to America in 1968. So Mira and her brother were born and brought up in America and are Americans. Yet because of their brown skin colour the Jacob children have experienced racism at all levels whether as microaggression or explicity racist comments/attacks as the horrific one described in Good Talk of Mira Jacob being physically assaulted in public. This is quite unlike the America Mira Jacob’s Jewish husband, Jed Rothstein, has ever had to face as he is white.

To unpack all that exists in this exquisite graphic memoir will take an essay longer than the book itself! There is much to read, analyse, mull over and share. Many, many readers will have the same reaction that they did to Mira Jacob’s first book The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing — “This is a story about us and our family.” It is immaterial that Good Talk has been written by an American of East Indian / South Asian origin. This is a book that will resonate with readers of different nationalities. A fact Mira Jacob records in “I Gave A Speech About Race To The Publishing Industry And No One Heard Me” about the reaction of readers to her first novel.

…really, it happened a lot. It happened with people of all ages, races, and genders. It happened at readings and it happened in emails and a lot of times it was just a thank you for writing this book — but just as often, it was someone commenting on the family dynamics. “I know you are Indian,” they would say, “but really, this is about my family, the Italians. My family, the Jews. My family, the Greeks. The Dominicans. The Koreans. The Irish.”

In a fabulous interview on Longreads, Mira Jacob speaks of the title, particularly within the context of parenting in this new world. ( “Imagine Us, Because We’re Here: An interview with Mira Jacob, March 2019)

The title is really tongue in cheek because so many of the talks in here are not anything you would ever call a good talk. For me, it’s almost like when you step away from a conversation that you know has gone bafflingly off-the-rails and you’re like, ‘good talk, good talk’ you know? You just say it to yourself in this way that’s like, ‘that was a disaster, I don’t know how anyone is going to recover from that one!’ Mostly I would leave conversations with him and I would be like, ‘that’s another five years of therapy right there.’

This is the really frustrating thing about being a parent especially in this moment, but I imagine all parents in every moment feel this — that despite all your carefully laid ideas about how you’re going to grow a small human into a big one, it’s just a disaster. It’s a shitshow left and right. You’re doing your very very best and it is so not even close to enough.

Good Talk must be read by everyone. This is not a memoir meant only for adults. Share it widely.

10 June 2019

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s “Everybody Lies: What the Internet can really tell us about who we really are”

 I can’t pretend there isn’t a darkness in some of this data. If people consistently tell us what they think we want to hear, we will generally be told things that are more comforting than the truth. Digital truth serum, on average, will show us that the world is worse than we have thought. 

With the information age there is bound to be a explosion of data. For some years now it has been said that the amount of information uploaded on the Internet every day is equivalent to the amount created in history of all mankind. Some say it is approximately eight trillion gigabytes of data. This is a HUGE! Data scientists like Seth Stephens-Davidowitz make regular attempts to sift through this data to determine what picture it creates.

In Everybody Lies: What the Internet can really tell us about who we really are Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s basic premise is what is the truth. In his fascinating thesis-converted to-book he discusses how the data swirling on the internet  confirms and conforms to our expectations. We find and get what is comforting. The truth is there is much more than meets the eye. The truth exists on the Internet, it requires being alert to it and looking for it. He cites examples from the recently concluded American elections proving that President Trump’s victory was always in the making. He shows how the number of times the toxic word “nigger” and “nigger, jokes” were searched were in the very same places from where Trump won a resounding victory. It was merely a way of seeing. Traditional media missed it.

And Google searches presented a picture of America that was strikingly different from that post-racial utopia sketched out by the surveys. I remember when I first typed “nigger” into Google Trends. Call me naive. But given how toxic the word is, I fully expected this to be a  low-volume search. Boy, was I wrong. In the United States, the word “nigger” — or its plural, “niggers” — was included in roughly the same number of searches as the word “migraine(s),” “economist,” and “Lakers.” I wondered if searches for rap lyrics were skewing the results? Nope. The words used in rap songs is almost “nigga(s).” So what was the motivation of Americans searching for “nigger”? Frequently , they were looking for jokes mocking African-Americans. In fact, 20 percent of searches with the word “nigger” also included the word “jokes.” Other common searches included “stupid niggers” and “I hate niggers.” 

There were millions of these searches every year. A large number of Americans were, in the privacy of their own homes, making shocking racist inquiries. The more I researched, the more distrubing the information got. 

On Obama’s first election night, when most of the commentary focused on praise of Obama and acknowledgement of the historic nature of his election, roughly one in every hundred Google searches that included the word “Obama” also included “kkk” or “nigger(s).” Maybe that doesn’t sound so high, but think of the thousands of nonracists reasons to Google this young outsider with a charming family about to take over the world’s most powerful job. On election night, searches and signups for Stormfront, a white nationalist site with surprisingly high popularity in the United States, were more than ten times higher than normal. In some states, there were more searches for “nigger president” than “first black president.”

There was a darkness and hatred that was hidden from the traditional sources but was quite apparent in the searches that people made. 

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz tested his hypothesis in other spheres of Internet engagement as well such as economics, mental health and many other general searches. As an economist and former Google data scientist mines and analyses plenty of data to prove his basic premise and it is not pleasant. He uses a lot of statistical data to bolster his anecdotes. He confirms the Internet as being a minefield. It has all kinds of information but it is important to look for clues that will mirror reality as close as possible. The challenge lies in unearthing those clues. Is it feasible for everyone to do it?

Eerily Salman Rushdie who has published a new novel The Golden House told the Guardian that ” ‘A lot of what Trump unleashed was there anyway’ “. ( 2 Sept 2017)

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s Everybody Lies: What the Internet can really tell us about who we really are is unnerving while being undoubtedly an absorbing read.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s Everybody Lies: What the Internet can really tell us about who we really are Bloomsbury, London, 2017. Pb. Pp. 338 Rs 499

Toni Morrison “God Help The Child”

God Help the ChildI wasn’t a bad mother, you have to know that, but I may have done some hurtful things to my only child because I had to protect her. Had to. All because of skin privileges. At first I couldn’t see past all that black to know who she was and just plain love her. But I do, I really do. I think she understands now. I think so. 

Last two times I saw her she was, well, striking. Kind of bold and confident. Each time she came I forgot just how black she really was because she was using it to her advantage in beautiful white clothes. 

Taught me a lesson I should have known all along. What you do to children matters. And they might never forget. She’s got a big-time job in California but she don’t call or visit anymore. She sends me money and stuff every now and then, but I ain’t seen her in I don’t know how long.  ( p43) 

It has been more than a month since I read an advance proof of Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child. Yet, I cannot get any of it out of my mind. Bride or Lula Ann as she was named at birth, is successful in the cosmetics industry. She is known for her beauty, enhanced considerably by her black skin contrasted by the sharp white garments she wears. As the designer she consulted for her makeover, Jeri, told her, “You should always wear white, Bride. Only white and all white all the time. … Just you, girl. All sable and ice. A panther in snow. and with your body? And those wolverine eyes? Please!” ( p.33-34)

Despite being a very successful professional, Bride as she prefers to be known, is haunted by her unpleasant memories of her childhood. For instance the innumerable instances of shadism or of child abuse such as witnessing the rape of a young boy by their landlord.  As an adult too she is abused and comes across other victims such as Rain. It is as if this cesspool of violence coexisting with “normal” life is a given. There is a moment when Bride ( innocently) hopes that she can “right” a “wrong” she did in her childhood with a repercussion she did not anticipate. While recovering from the episode, Bride decides to set off on a quest in search of her boyfriend, Booker, who disappeared from her life.

God Help the Child is a fine blend of all that is familiar in Toni Morrison’s novels and interviews. Her preoccupation with portrayal of women, Black culture and history, race and child abuse. Her fine expertise as a master craftsperson shows in the novel. There is a hint of magic realism in the storytelling along with the confident play of different narratives, juxtaposed in a manner that jolt the reader into realizing none of the narrators can be relied upon. Yet, every voice that tells their version of events is a strong personality. It is possible to envision the speaker, especially the women, clearly whether it is Booker’s elderly and kind aunt Queen, Bride’s mother Sweetness, ex-convict Sofia, or child prostitute Rain.  The ending of the novel is chilling with its disturbing note, ironically couched in circumstances that offer hope.

Toni Morrison began writing God Help the Child as a memoir a few  years ago, but abandoned it midway. She resumed working upon the manuscript recently as a work of fiction, deciding never to write her memoir. Instead of critically analyzing this literary fiction masterpiece threadbare, it may be worth considering the story as wisdom being shared by an 84-year-old woman who has packed in many lifetimes into one. It has a tired (but angry) tone of an elderly woman and an award-winning writer, who after having written 11 novels and edited many other well-known writers, marking her stamp as a formidable force in American Literature, sees little change in the modern world. The publication of this novel is timely when USA is preoccupied with issues of racism and riots such as the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland or that of 51-year-old Walter Scott in North Charleston. For Toni Morrison “Race is the classification of a species…and we are the human race, period. But the other thing – the hostility, the racism – is the moneymaker. And it also has some emotional satisfaction for people who need it.” In her NPR interview she makes it clear that her emphasis on Bride’s dark colour was to make the distinction from race, the preference and hierarchy for skin colour being a social construct and responsible for racism.

In a delicious interview where Junot Diaz interviews Toni Morrison at NYPL , December 13, 2013. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5kytPjYjSQ ), Diaz says that upon reading Song of Solomon at Rutgers University, “the axis of my world changed and never returned”. Eight novels later, it holds true with God Help the Child. Toni Morrison retains the magic to tell a story and making the reader think.

Read it.

Some links:

1. “Sweetness” by Toni Morrison New Yorker, February 9, 2015 issue ( http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/09/sweetness-2 ). This is the first chapter of the book, an extract published in the New Yorker.

2. Toni Morrison in the New York Times. “The Radical Vision of Toni Morrison” By RACHEL KAADZI GHANSAH,  APRIL 8, 2015. ( http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/magazine/the-radical-vision-of-toni-morrison.html?_r=0 )

3. ‘I Regret Everything’: Toni Morrison Looks Back On Her Personal Life, NPR, 20 April 2015. ( http://www.npr.org/2015/04/20/400394947/i-regret-everything-toni-morrison-looks-back-on-her-personal-life )

3. A glowing review http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/apr/19/god-help-the-child-review-toni-morrison

4. An ambivalent review http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/04/18/toni-morrison-spins-a-lame-fairy-tale.html

Toni Morrison God Help the Child Chatto & Windus, London, 2015. Hb. pp.180 £14.99

21 April 2015 

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