Archive for ‘feminism’

January 26, 2017

Gabby Rivera, Juliet Takes A Breath

juliet-gabby-riveraI got lucky in my feminist education. Sometime in the very early 2000s (I was about the same age as Rivera’s protagonist), I was just beginning to write publicly about gender on the internet–it was new, I was still learning (I’m still learning) and I’m sure I said things that would embarrass me horribly now. Someone I knew a bit from their blog invited me to a super secret mailing list composed in the main of people whose feminism/s had to take into account other forms of marginalisation. I’d never heard the word “intersectional” before, though I knew of course that I was brown and queer. Suddenly I had access to new ways of thinking about gender and race, gender and sexuality, gender and class, gender and sex work, gender and bodies–and a vocabulary with which to seek out those ideas in my day to day life as well (it would make it much easier to think about gender and caste, for example, a few years later).

As an adult I now know that it’s not unusual for women and nonbinary people (and sometimes men) in such communities to make their experience available to callow young feminists, but I still feel like I got exceptionally lucky–much of my ignorance was a result of youth but some of it was also the result of laziness, and I’ve never quite felt I earned the trust that being included in such a community implied. (I don’t dive into new knowledge as Rivera’s protagonist does, risking my heart and dignity in the process. [An incident midway through the book, where Juliet discovers what a Banana Republic is, really brought this home.])

This lengthy introduction is in part just a tribute to some good people and in part a way of framing for myself the ways in which Juliet Takes A Breath did and did not feel familiar to me. The plot: Juliet Milagros Palante is in college, is Puerto Rican, lives in the Bronx with her mother and younger brother, is in a relationship with a rather posh sounding white girl, and has just read something called Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind, by feminist writer Harlowe Brisbane. On the basis of a fan letter to the author, Juliet is offered a holiday internship in Portland, working on a large research project. Arriving in Portland she soon finds herself feeling somewhat out of her depth, surrounded by people whose political jargon is unfamiliar, who all seem to know more than her, and whose knowledge is sometimes relevant to her but is also sometimes off. Juliet cycles through a series of new experiences an ideas–attends an Octavia Butler-inspired SF writing group, discusses the mechanics of poly relationships and argues theology, flirts with a hot librarian, receives a breakup letter from her girlfriend. It can get educational at times–Juliet learns about famous feminists or that she can’t just go around demanding people’s gender identity while other characters patiently explain who and why, nodding encouragingly out at the reader from within the text. (At least these are good things to learn.)

Harlowe herself Juliet finds fascinating and sympathetic, ready with natural remedies to period pains and breakups alike; willing to listen to the feminist mixtapes Juliet had made for her girlfriend Lainie. But almost immediately the cracks begin to show–and when Harlowe publicly does something really awful (I’m not normally cautious about spoilers, but I think the impact of the scene in question would be damaged by foreknowledge), Juliet escapes this environment for one where she can think things through.

(I pause here because it feels like a natural break in the narrative.)

This is a young (or new?) adult book; I’m no longer a young (or new?) adult. I’m reading this book through a lens of “what it was to be young in 2003!”; a lens which, inevitably, places me in a position of knowing more than Juliet about certain things. Readers who are closer to the character’s age may not feel this as strongly, but then the setting of the book in 2003 may play a role there–many of the ideas and much of the jargon that is new to Juliet will be familiar to any queer kid with a tumblr (not to suggest that that information was unavailable in 2003; but possibly harder to find?). I mention this because for me, much of the book was spent waiting for the warning signs in Lainie’s and Harlowe’s behaviour to be proved correct. Everything leading up to the climactic scene when Juliet rushes out of Harlowe’s reading felt inevitable.

There’s a Joan Aiken story I’ve been wanting to write about, titled “Watkyn, Comma.” It’s about a haunted (in the nicest possible way) house and a room that exists in a sense outside of time, where our protagonist can breathe and pause and recalibrate (and obviously one of the things a comma does is to provide a space to breathe in) before reentering the world. (Parentheses do some of this space-for-stepping-out-for-a-moment work as well, incidentally.) I read Juliet Takes a Breath on the kindle and so was able to search for how often “breathe” and “breath” come up in this book–as ways of being, coping, being nourished. There “isn’t enough air to breathe [in the Bronx]. I carry an inhaler for those days when I need more than my allotted share.”; “I hadn’t seen one other Latino. No faces like mine, nowhere to breathe easy.”; “it’s less about there being ‘no white people’ and more of a night for us to breathe easier.” Juliet leaves the Bronx in order to breathe, and then leaves Portland when breathing there becomes difficult as well. Both are temporary moves, both in their way to places of sanctuary; In Miami Juliet finds another community and learns more–this time from an aunt and a cousin who is also figuring these things out.

But this is also the section where Juliet pushes back against her cousin Ava’s dismissal of Harlowe as “some hippie-ass, holier-than-thou white lady preaching her bullshit universal feminism to everyone” (it’s truth though). If the incident that forces Juliet to leave Portland is the climax, the rest is denouement. Juliet returns, able to see Harlowe and her world as flawed and unreliable, but also as people with whom she has to learn to work. Her solutions aren’t mine. But I’m writing this during a week when questions of “universal” feminism and what it erases and what it needs to be forced to acknowledge feel more present than usual (see e.g. these pieces for example), so. This is a coming of age story and this final section has Juliet coming into herself–by the end of it she has tentatively reconciled what she’s learned with what she knows, is able to breathe, is able to say “we were going to be okay”.

May 3, 2014

Suniti Namjoshi, The Mothers of Maya Diip

For context, here is a short review from last year of The Fabulous Feminist. I’ll be doing a longer (and therefore better) piece on The Mothers of Maya Diip at some point. A shorter version exists in my notes, and consists entirely of the sentence “This book gives no fucks”.

It really doesn’t though.

(From this week’s column.)

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When Zubaan’s Suniti Namjoshi reader, The Fabulous Feminist, came out last year, I wasn’t sure what to make of some parts of it. The fables, for which she’s probably best known, were wonderful, but the extracts from longer works often left one adrift. Particularly fascinating to me was the chapter from the middle of The Mothers of Maya Diip, which looked a lot like a classic feminist utopia story.

Maya Nagar is a matriarchy on a remote island (presumably off the coast of India), populated only by women. Motherhood is synonymous with adulthood in this society, the raising of children (biological or otherwise) is seen as the fundamental function of an adult, and social hierarchy is based on the maternal duties one is considered qualified to perform. Into this world the Blue Donkey (who appears in some of Namjoshi’s other work as a sort of stand-in for the author) is invited for a visit. She brings with her her friend Jyanvi, who immediately falls in love with a woman from the city. Unfortunately, Jyanvi also immediately finds herself chafing at the lack of choice, the inability for a “mother” to define herself separately from children and both outsiders find themselves caught up in the machinations of state politics.

The Mothers of Maya Diip was published by the Women’s Press, which had also published a number of works of feminist science fiction, among them Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Joanna Russ’ The Female Man, and it’s difficult not to read it as a book that is aware of and in conversation with this tradition of writing. The utopia or dystopia is (or sometimes is, or ought to be) a novel of ideas, of taking things to their logical conclusions. The Mothers of Maya Diip moves between three fictional societies; the woman-dominated Maya Nagar, the male-majority Ashagarh, and the island of Paradise where gender hardly seems to exist. Each model is examined and found to contain some form of violence at its heart—the revelation of what happens to the boys born in Maya Nagar would by itself be enough reason to condemn that society.

But if The Mothers of Maya Diip is placing itself in that tradition, it isn’t necessarily submitting to it. There’s a sense that the book is at least one remove away from the sort of story it is telling; there’s an ironic distance that is maintained throughout. At times one gets the impression that this is itself part of Namjoshi’s response to the tradition of books in which she’s writing; and the presence of Valerie, a visitor and western feminist who explains these traditions to the Blue Donkey and Jyanvi (and who believes that Jyanvi, a lesbian, has things easier here) seems to bear this out.

If it both emulates and distances itself from feminist utopian science fiction, The Mothers of Maya Diip is willing to invoke (and discard) other genres as well. There’s something of the epic about this story, with its arcane religious ceremonies, its power struggles between priestesses and queens. We are offered not one, but two fictional, fantastic city states. At one point the Ranisaheb and her entourage are cast out of the city and exiled in a forest. There’s a bizarre science fictional interlude featuring a group of androids and a maternal helicopter. There’s even a love story, most of the time about two people who are completely incapable of understanding one another.

At the centre of it all is the Blue Donkey, sometimes treated as human and sometimes not, and devastatingly commonsensical in the face of all that is going on around her. It’s her cool detachment from the book that allows it to be as odd a thing as it is, that makes thought experiments of its genres as well as of its fictional cities.

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August 14, 2013

Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night

An excess of feelings in this weekend’s column.

 

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There’s an episode towards the end of Antonia Forest’s The Ready-Made Family where her protagonist, the teenaged Nicola Marlow, travels alone to Oxford. She has never been to the city, but she has read of it; her first experiences of Oxford are filtered through the lens of one who has read Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey books; particularly Gaudy Night, which is set entirely in Oxford. Nicola is not the only one to love those books—a mention of “Wimsey of Balliol” soon after sparks a friendship between her and her new brother-in-law.

But Gaudy Night is one of those books that can feel like admission to some sort of special club, because so many people love it so much. There’s no reason to think of it as obscure—if its status as a mystery novel hinders its being considered a true Classic it still shows up regularly on “best detective story of all time” type lists. Antonia Forest can assume her readers know it; so can Connie Willis who alludes to it in To Say Nothing Of The Dog. It’s not obscurity that leads readers to want to reach out to other people who have loved it with that “you too?”; it must be something else.

Gaudy Night sees Harriet Vane return to Oxford, where she spent her student years, to investigate a crime under the pretext of doing some research on Sheridan Le Fanu. Members of the fictional Shrewsbury College are receiving cruel anonymous letters, and it seems likely that the perpetrator is a member of the Senior Common Room.

This isn’t really a Peter Wimsey book; it’s a Harriet Vane book, and perhaps part of the reason people feel so strongly for it is that it is such a personal, interior work. A return to her old college also means a revisiting of her own past. A large part of the book is the working out of her feelings about Wimsey, and the possibilities that that relationship holds. And while their romance exists in very specific circumstances (in an earlier book he saved her from being convicted for the murder of her former lover) it’s also strongly tied up in the gender politics of its own time—what forms will relationships take in a world where women as well as men are educated, and acknowledged to be as capable of intellectual achievement, as well as of vocations to which they can be completely dedicated? This is also where the “romance” plot (if you can call it that) intersects with the crime plot. There may be no brutal murders, but the ramifications of the college coming into disrepute are far wider than the individual careers of its academics; this is all part of a struggle for women’s education, a struggle in which, historically, Sayers herself was deeply involved. The Author’s Note at the beginning of the book contains a barbed “apology” to Oxford as a whole for perhaps including more women than the regulations of the time permitted, and even the college’s name, Shrewsbury, has a gendered (Shakespeare, but with less “taming”?) feel to it. As a result the whole thing becomes a meditation on gender roles in a changing world; one that is both intensely political and deeply personal. Women often still struggle, nearly eighty years later, to have our intellectual and academic pursuits prioritised to the same extent. If Gaudy Night feels personal to us it’s because its subject still is.

And so it’s important that Peter and Harriet both have Masters degrees, it’s important that at one point he accidentally puts on her scholar’s robes and they fit him (as his would fit her); it’s important that his final proposal to her is in Latin, explicitly refers to her education and comes with a symbolic offering of all of Oxford and what it means to both of them. A partnership of equals, an implicit promise that she should never subsume herself in him, an unending right to a life of the mind. It’s far more touching than a single phrase in a dead language has any right to be.

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August 13, 2013

3 ways of looking at Chennai Express

Trying to make sense of it all. I’d warn for spoilers, but I’m not sure you could spoil this film.

 

1. Deepika Padukone is not human. Okay, not entirely human. If the film is to be assumed to be set in the human world, she’s existing on a slightly different plane to everybody else.

I don’t mean this as an insult. Pretty much every review of the film I’ve seen has talked about how surprisingly good (“surprisingly”, because what she has to work with is a pretty terrible plot and a ludicrous accent) Padukone is–far superior to pretty much anyone else in the movie. One piece of evidence that she isn’t quite of this (the film’s) world comes shortly after the interval. SRK’s Rahul and Padukone’s Meena have convinced the innocent and morally pure inhabitants of a village that they are legally married and on the run from the bride’s angry family, and they are offered a room to stay in with only one bed. Comedy ensues, as the conservative southern girl does not want to share a bed with this man she barely knows, and man she barely knows asks if she thinks she’ll be unable to keep her hands off him. It turns out Meena actually has a pretty solid reason for not wanting him in bed with her — at night she is possessed by some sort of spirit that manifests itself in making her sway and mutter at him not to come near her and kick him out of bed. This sudden intrusion of the supernatural into the film’s world is never addressed, beyond a quick joke towards the end about a future in which she keeps kicking him out of bed.

But this moment is enough to suggest that there’s something not quite normal about Meena. In an earlier scene, Rahul suggested that Meena was some sort of harbinger of doom–that since her arrival into his life everything had gone horribly wrong. While this is probably unfair to her (his character is so irritating as to deserve all that happens to him) perhaps it’s another indicator that she exists on some level outside the film itself. In a later scene, an old woman tells the couple they’re destined to be together for seven lifetimes. Meena looks miserable. Perhaps this is because she’s doomed to be aware of all seven, perhaps it’s because she knows she’s going to spend a lifetime shoving a man old enough to be her dad out of bed every night. Meena spends most of her exchanges with Rahul gazing at him with a sort of fascinated disgust that makes perfect sense in context–but it works just as well if you see her as a sort of superhuman, semi-outside-the-text figure. We who are also outside the text can easily understand her pain.

 

2. Chennai Express is a film about the breakdown of language. One of the things that interested me about the film were the ways in which Rahul’s lack of knowledge of Tamil played a role. Rahul is our narrator, and much of the film is shown to us from his perspective. We’re not shown subtitles when those around him are speaking Tamil; we’re expected to share his incomprehension and hope that Meena (who he calls “miss subtitle”) will translate. At one point the film addresses this directly–yes, yes, Rahul tells us, he knows we don’t have a clue what’s going on either.

I’m not a Tamil speaker, but I’ve grown up around people who are and I generally understand what they’re saying. If this was made somewhat difficult by Rahul’s voiceovers occasionally cutting over what the other characters were saying, it was interesting to know that I was, in this very basic way, not a part of the film’s intended audience. Except, of course, that it is releasing in Tamil Nadu as well, and people are presumably going to watch it.

There’s an utterly bizarre scene about midway through the movie where Rahul is walking alone in a forest and comes across a dwarf sharpening a knife. This man, it turns out, speaks neither English nor Hindi, but communicates in a series of clicking noises. He and Rahul bond over their mutual inability to understand one another (or Rahul does- we’re not told what the other man thinks they’re bonding over), and how they’re both too old to have to learn new languages. Then they part.

On the surface there’s no point to this scene (a friend who was watching the film with me wondered if this was some sort of Tom Bombadil-ish digression), and that’s without even getting into the “a little person! How hilarious!” undertone that is apparently supposed to pass for comedy. The only possible function I can see in it is as a reference point for the end of the film, when Rahul’s voiceover reminds us that India has many languages, but that love has only one (the second half of this assertion is patently untrue). We’re all doomed to keep misunderstanding one another, to understand only a small fraction of what the rest of our countrymen are saying. Communication is an impossible mess, we’ll keep hearing “teri ma ki” when people are asking us “Tamil terima?” (or “monkey” when people are saying “teri ma ki”, as Harbhajan Singh’s defenders would claim). What “bakwaas” dictionary is Rahul operating from, asks Meena early on in the film. Indeed, what bakwaas dictionaries are we all relying on?

 

3. The patriarchy will reassert itself over and over and over and over and … Meena is running away from her family (by trying to catch a train that will take her to her ancestral village?) because her father is trying to force her to marry another man. Meena doesn’t want to marry, she explains to Rahul, before using him as a decoy fiance so that she can escape once more. Rahul having been introduced as Meena’s (supposed) preferred partner, he’s still expected to fight her previous fiancee to prove his own worth.

In many ways, Rahul is the opposite of the sort of man Meena has had chosen for her. He’s physically smaller and weaker than Tangaballi (though who isn’t?), from the other side of the country, and of a lower social class–for some reason she cannot get over the fact that he is a halwai. In embracing her fake (and later real) relationship with him she’s choosing a different set of values to the ones she’s expected to embrace, and a relationship in which she has at least as much power as him–though at present this power is derived from her facility with the local language and his fundemantal hopelessness more than anything else.

But first religion, then patriarchy (and the two are strongly intertwined here) pop up as obstacles. Rahul “proves” himself to have unexpected quantities of upper body strength when he carries her up 3000 steps to a temple to humour the innocent villagers among whom they have fallen; and Meena immediately begins to gaze dreamily at his sweaty face. When the two of them escape Tangaballi (again) by the sensible act of running away, she begins to hint heavily that he should marry her, sulking when he refuses to take the bait. For all that Meena has claimed she doesn’t want to marry, she doesn’t seem to have given thought to what she does want to do. Her options appear to be to lurk in a friend’s house in Pune, lurk in Rahul’s house in Bombay, or go home and marry. In the universe of the film, women with careers don’t seem to exist.

All this is moot though, since Rahul decides without Meena’s permission to take her back to her village. Meena has tried to escape the parameters within which her family and society seem to demand that she live her life; Rahul autonomously decides that no, he must win her freedom within those parameters, and face her father on his (her father’s) terms, not hers. An embarrassing speech (by Rahul, who has apparently transcended the language barrier and therefore rendered Meena unnecessary to this discussion about her rights) on the position of women in an India that has been independent for 66 years, leaves the listeners … unmoved. The patriarchy doesn’t care about your fine speeches. The patriarchy will only accept Rahul as Meena’s suitor (and Rahul has already accepted for Meena that the patriarchy’s acceptance is required) when he has proved himself on its terms–by beating the shit out of every man present. Rahul wins, he and Tangaballi shake hands; Meena has run away from the guy who wins women by beating up other men into the arms of the guy who … wins women by beating up other men. Her radical choice has been entirely co-opted into the system she wanted to escape. It’s so sweet how women think they might get some control over their lives.

 

I suppose there’s also 4. Arvind Kejriwal’s Epic Road Trip Across South India, 5. LOL, Madrasis, and innumerable others, but I refuse to do more. I watched Chennai Express with a devoted SRK fangirl and after a point even she couldn’t take it anymore. It’s utterly dire.

 

(Beth Watkins is far, far nicer to the film here)

February 4, 2013

Suniti Namjoshi, The Fabulous Feminist

From Saturday’s Hindustan Times.

Incidentally, if anyone who reads this has a copy of The Mothers of Maya Diip that I could borrow I’d be very grateful. I’m a little horrified that there exists an Indian feminist spec-fic-ish novel that I had never heard of until this past month.

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For many readers of my generation Suniti Namjoshi is one of those writers more often seen cited than read. We’re vaguely aware of her importance in any late-20th century history of Indian writing in English, but the bulk of her work has been out of print and hard to access for a very long time.

Hopefully that will change with the publication of The Fabulous Feminist. This collection contains extensive extracts from Namjoshi’s fiction and poetry to date, from 1981’s Feminist Fables up to her recent, and as yet unpublished work.

Namjoshi’s works often take on and respond to already-existing narratives and are replete with allusion; Aesop, Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf are all invoked here. The fable may be a moral-centric form of storytelling, but in the fables that give the collection its name Namjoshi’s morals are complex and biting.

Another feature of Namjoshi’s work that is much in evidence here is a willingness to examine and even to gently mock her own background and identity politics and how they intersect with her feminism. The Conversations of Cow* is a satire on earnest lesbian feminists (Namjoshi confesses to being among their number) but also about being brown in a white-majority culture. Goja contains an honest exploration of class privilege and the question of how far it is possible for a writer in Namjoshi’s position to speak for or about working class women. Each section is prefaced by a short introduction by the writer, illuminating and littered with personal anecdotes.

But all of this brings up the question of editing. The Fabulous Feminist is subtitled “A Suniti Namjoshi Reader” but there’s no evidence of any editorial selection beyond that of Namjoshi herself. It is rather unusual for an author to edit a reader of her own work; to decide, effectively, which parts of a large body of work are the most significant. Some of these choices aren’t entirely felicitous, as when we get three chapters from the middle of her work of speculative fiction, The Mothers of Maya Diip. These longer books are ill-served by the editorial decision to extract from all of the author’s works.

Despite these occasional hiccups, though, The Fabulous Feminist is a joy to read. In an ideal world this book would trigger a Namjoshi revival and we could hope to see all of her work in print again; for now, this is a wonderful substitute.

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*Because I am lazy, the review I sent in, and which got published, had this as “Conversations of Cow”. Apologies.

February 2, 2013

Assorted fabulousnesses

I have a short review of Suniti Namjoshi’s The Fabulous Feminist in today’s Hindustan Times. This book made me quite gleefully happy while I was reading it–I’d only read scraps of Namjoshi’s work in the past, and it’s strong and nuanced and funny in ways I was unprepared for. I do complain a bit in the review about Namjoshi seemingly editing a “reader” of her own body of work, but the result of this is also that we get her introductory essays, which are often charming. I’ll be posting the review here tomorrow, but for now, a couple of quotes.

 

(On writing “The One-eyed Monkey Goes into Print”)

…Women in Publishing in London asked me to speak briefly about my experience of getting published. The other two speakers were Angela Carter and Michèle Roberts, who were far better known than I was. I had the distinct feeling that I was supposed to say something about discrimination against Third World women writers. It was embarrassing. So I thought my way out of it by writing a fable. I suppose that too is how fables get written.

 

(On writing Goja)

First, there was my guilt. What was the point in expressing my guilt? At best it seemed like tedious self-indulgence and at worst like false self-exoneration. Besides, I had seen the silly side of the process when I had had to listen to feminists in the west apologising for being more ‘privileged’ than I was. It was sad too to see that the ‘fact’ of their privilege made them unconsciously straighten their shoulders and feel better about themselves. If one feels guilty about being relatively rich in a country in which poverty abounds, then surely the thing to do is give away one’s money and shut up?

 

 

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July 9, 2012

Georgette Heyer, Venetia

There’s a school of thought (and it’s not one I agree with, but it’s also not one I feel able to entirely dismiss) that suggests that one reason Twilight isn’t entirely a failure on the feminist front is that it respects Bella’s choices. On the face of it, from any reasonable point of view, these choices are extremely stupid – we’re told that this character is intelligent, that she has any number of choices before her, and as a teenager she still has time to decide what she wants to do with her future. Instead, she chooses to tie her fate to this vampire. She goes into an almost catatonic state when he leaves her, ignores the multiple people who care for and worry about her, and abandons plans of college in favour of marrying him and becoming envampired as soon as possible. And yet.

I’m a bit uncomfortable with how close to this my argument for Venetia as a potentially feminist text comes. I think the big difference, though (apart from the fact that Venetia is an adult woman) is in Heyer’s focus on the fact that her protagonists are friends – that we’re able to see substance and lasting value in that relationship. It’s also the case, of course, that there’s a difference between something set in the 1800s (and written in the 1950s) and something set and written in the early 2000s.

I’m sure all of this sounds like shameless justification. It probably is. Anyway, below is my column from last Sunday.

 

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The Russian author Boris Akunin claims, according to a friend who saw him speak at a bookshop last year, that he can sort people into sixteen ‘types’ based on which of his Erast Fandorin books they like most and least. I’ve often wondered if one could make a similar claim for the works of Georgette Heyer, but this throws up an immediate problem. Not one of my acquaintance has ever managed to satisfactorily choose a Heyer novel to be their permanent favourite.

My own favourite Heyer novel is a constantly shifting entity. Does The Grand Sophy win the spot for its wonderful heroine, or does the unpleasant thread of anti-semitism taint all the rest? Which is better, These Old Shades or its sequel-of-sorts The Devil’s Cub? A Civil Contract is realistic and touching but does not always make me happy. Friday’s Child is a failure when I’m in the mood for romance, but I adore its Wodehousean side characters. I am all but alone in my love of the delicate, gendered play that is the focus of Powder and Patch. And what about Cotillion, with its subversion of the romantic tropes of the genre that Heyer herself helped to create?

Then a few months ago I reread Venetia and decided that perhaps this was Heyer’s best. Since then, unprecedentedly, my opinion has not wavered, though I’ve had to rethink what I mean by “best” a few times.

Venetia is simple enough. A young woman who has been stuck in the wilds of Yorkshire all her life meets the rake next door. Lord Damerel has a long and varied history (starting with his elopement with an older woman in his extreme youth); in typical romantic hero fashion he’s less to blame than he seems. He makes no secret of his attraction towards his beautiful neighbour but this is far less important than what happens next; the two become friends.

A friendship between the protagonists is not unusual in a romance novel, but the importance that the book places on that friendship is. Knowing that she has found a friend, that someone shares her sense of humour and recognises her literary references, is far more important to Venetia than sexual attraction. This is not to say that the attraction isn’t there – and unlike most of Heyer’s heroines Venetia, blessed with a brother who is obsessed with Greek classics, has the vocabulary to talk about it, and about her intended’s past. Venetia probably contains more iterations of the word “orgy” than the rest of Heyer’s works put together.

Naturally, no one thinks that a relationship between a hardened rake and a sheltered young woman is a good idea – particularly when, as we eventually learn, the young woman in question has been so sheltered in order to protect her from unsavoury facts about her family. Societal disapproval is a staple of fictional romance – except here, Damerel is as dubious and as overprotective as the rest.

What makes Venetia special, then, is that it’s not a case of lovers against the world, but one of Venetia herself fighting alone to claim her own choices. She will reclaim her own family history, and decide for herself what her relationship with her parents and brother is to be. She will choose her own partner even if he is foolish enough to let her go. I find it particularly wonderful that there’s no insecurity over Damerel’s reaction to any of this; it’s clear that she trusts him to love her.

I love Venetia for its likeable, flawed characters and the banter between them, and for the presence of multiple Classics geeks. But more than any of this, I love it because it centres its heroine’s desire and agency. I’m sure Heyer didn’t set out to write a feminist manifesto (and considering that Venetia’s goal is domestic bliss with a titled gentleman …) but something rather special is going on here.

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January 30, 2012

Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman and Mindy Kaling, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)

These are what I spent most of my time in Jaipur reading. Not much to say about Kaling’s book really (other than that it made me laugh out loud multiple times) but there’s quite a bit more to be said about my issues with Moran’s feminism – one does get the impression that she’s unfamiliar with most of the discussions that have been going on within feminism(s) over the last couple of decades. Which is fine, and I suppose this book could work as a useful introduction to feminism for someone reasonably first world (or third world but privileged in lots of other ways, perhaps). But it’s hard to imagine someone who would pick this book up in the first place needing to learn any of this stuff. Still; charming, funny, and as long as it isn’t regarded as any sort of feminist textbook, quite good.

This was in Saturday’s Indian Express. I haven’t seen a physical copy of the paper (household paper-getting politics are complex and often involve physical violence) but the version on the website has a major formatting issue that removes the line breaks and indents from the Kaling quote at the end of the piece and so mixes my words with hers. I’d be grateful if someone who does have a physical copy could check whether the print version also has this problem – not that I can do anything about it at this point.

 

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A few years ago, Christopher Hitchens suggested that women simply were not as funny as men. It seems facile and rather pointless to counter something so idiotic (and so objectively unprovable) with a list of funny women, but you have to wonder, at least, how many of those who idolised the man are now also big fans of Tina Fey.

In the few years since Hitchens’ controversial Vanity Fair piece we’ve had a wealth of women being funny. Kristen Wiig’s Bridesmaids, a movie that had its female characters getting drunk and behaving badly, being the victim of gross bodily functions, and in general just being more flawed and relatable than the women we’re usually allowed to see on the screen. There have also been any number of books by well-known female comedians – Chelsea Handler and Amy Sedaris among them. Of the various comic memoirs by women to come out in 2011 Fey’s own Bossypants was probably the most prominent. But we also had Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman and Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns).

Kaling is best known for her portrayal of Kelly Kapoor on The Office, the US sitcom based on the British show of the same name. But she is also one of the show’s writers, and previously co-wrote and acted in the successful play Matt and Ben.

Most of Kaling’s book functions as a memoir, with sections (divided roughly chronologically) on her time in school, what it’s like to grow up chubby, androgynous and Indian (“Kaling” is a shortened form of “Chokalingam”) and her early attempts to make it in the industry before the success of The Office and her newfound stardom. The tone throughout is rueful and self-mocking; on the subject of herself Kaling is often sidesplittingly funny.

The autobiographical chapters are interspersed with shorter observations on various aspects of life, relationships and the media, and these are decidedly hit and miss. “Types of Women in Romantic Comedies Who Are Not Real” pokes fun at the narrow range of women in the movies – beautiful klutzes (a flaw that makes a character palatable while allowing her to still be beautiful), sassy best friends and the like. “When You’re Not Skinny, This Is What People Want You To Wear” is a hilarious, infuriating take on the fashion industry. Unlike Fey and Moran, Kaling never actually mentions the word “feminism”, but there’s an implicit political stance in sections like these, and the book is all the better for them.  In “Roasts Are Terrible” she suggests that the modern phenomenon of roasting people on television is something we could all do without; and this too is a principled stance. “The self-proclaimed no-holds-barred atmosphere reminds me of signs for strip clubs on Hollywood Boulevard: “We Have Crazy Girls. They Do Anything!” We don’t have to do anything. Let’s bar some holds.”

On the other hand, a lot of these feel like padding and read like hurried blog entries (“Jewish Guys”, really?) and when the author begins to write defences of men’s chest hair and to wonder why they take so long to put on their shoes, you wonder how much she really has to say.

Unlike Kaling’s book, Moran’s is explicitly a feminist work. Moran is a British columnist, TV critic and Twitter celebrity. How to Be a Woman begins at the onset of her puberty (“Chapter 1: I Start Bleeding!”) and follows her through the perils of hair removal, high heels, love, reading Germaine Greer, encountering sexism in the workplace, and negotiating marriage, family, children, abortion and jobs.

Germaine Greer is a part of the problem with How to Be a Woman; she’s the only living feminist writer (unless you count, as you probably could, Lady Gaga) Moran mentions. The implication is that feminism stopped developing a few decades ago, when in fact it often looks like Moran simply wasn’t paying it much attention. It’s a little hard to take seriously Moran’s injunction to stand on a chair and shout “I am a feminist!”  when you’ve read enough to know that many groups who choose not to identify with the term (then again, Moran’s book is very obviously aimed at very mainstream white Western women) do so for reasons far more complex than anything in this book.

Yet this is easily forgiven because when Moran talks about herself she is utterly charming. I am all the better for knowing that occasionally food falls out of her mouth while she’s laughing at 30 Rock, and that she spent her late teens “like a sexed-up lady Pac-Man – running around flapping my mouth open and closed, gobbling up people’s faces”, just as I am for knowing that Mindy Kaling works out to elaborately plotted revenge fantasies.

As for the ‘are women funny?’ issue? Moran never mentions it, but it’s quite clear what her answer would be. Kaling does explicity mention it in an FAQ section at the end of her book.

 Why didn’t you talk about whether women are funny or not?

I just felt that by commenting on that in any real way, it would be tacit approval of it as a legitimate debate, which it isn’t. It would be the same as addressing the issue of “Should dogs and cats be able to care for our children? They’re in the house anyway.” I try not to make it a habit to seriously discuss nonsensical hot-button issues.

 So there.

 

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January 6, 2012

Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar, Sita’s Ramayana

There’s lots of Ramayana-related literature coming out at the moment. The thing I’m most looking forward to is Zubaan’s Speculative Ramayana anthology (not least because I’m in it), but there are also Arshia Sattar’s book, the furore around the “Three Hundred Ramayanas” essay, various people angsting over Sita Sings the Blues, Sanjay Patel’s Ramayana: Divine Loophole (I don’t have this yet, but it looks beautiful), and others. I spent a big portion of my New Year’s Eve arguing for the Ramayana’s complexity – my interest in it has begun to feel proprietorial – and this flowering of derivative works is a strong argument in its favour. The pick of them so far (for me, at least) remains Sattar’s, but I think I’d have to write a separate piece on that later. For now, last week’s Sunday Guardian review of Arni and Chitrakar’s Sita’s Ramayana.

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In Lost Loves, her collection of essays on the Ramayana, Arshia Sattar suggests that many retellings of the epic “are prompted by those aspects of the text that have made the tradition uncomfortable, for example, the times when Rama acts unrighteously and violates dharma.” This is a big part of the reason that there are so many feminist retellings of the epic – Sita’s fate is, by any yardstick, unjust. Following her husband into exile out of loyalty, she is kidnapped and held captive as part of a feud in which she has played no active part. Upon being rescued she is accused of being unchaste and even after proving herself pure (the idea that she should have been considered guilty if her kidnapper had raped her is itself vile) she is banished in order that her husband’s kingly status not be besmirched. Rama’s treatment of Sita may be the right thing to do for the kingdom, but at a personal level it is a horrendous betrayal.

Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar’s Sita’s Ramayana opens at the moment when the pregnant Sita is abandoned in the forest. Lamenting her current plight, she tells the story of the events leading up to this point.

Sita is offstage for many of what we might consider the main events of the Ramayana – Rama’s search for his wife, the building of alliances and formation of an army, the journey to Lanka and the war itself. One result of shifting the narrative voice to Sita, then, is that these events are telescoped through multiple perspectives – first Hanuman, then Trijatha (Vibhishana’s daughter) fill in for Sita the gaps in her story. This often creates an interesting ambiguity. For example, in telling the story of the death of Valin and the crowning of Sugriva, does Rama’s devotee Hanuman really focus on Tara’s anger and grief at the loss of her husband and at being bundled from one king to another, or is this Sita’s extrapolation (bearing as it does some resemblance to her own fate)?

The extra layer of commentary that these multiple voices adds also allows the text to describe certain acts as outright wrong – the killing of Indrajit for example – something that might have been didactic were it not in the context of a centuries-old tradition of glossing over these sections in mainstream accounts. Though Sita is quite capable of making these judgements on her own; of the Surpanaka incident she claims that “an unjust act only begets greater injustice. Rama should have stopped him. Instead, he spurred him on”. Sita’s voice is a strongly feminist one, and throughout she empathises with the other victimised women in the story – Surpanaka, Trijatha, Tara, Mandodari. It’s a position that sometimes lacks nuance (the “war…is merciful to men” section quoted on the back cover is an example of this). But the polemic is a style in itself, and this one is, for the most part, handled with style.

Of course Sita cannot be the narrator of the whole of her story, since someone has to tell how it ends. When her story reaches the point of her abandonment in the forest (the point which forms the frame narrative for most of the book) it is taken up rather abruptly by a third person narrator. This narrator (possibly Valmiki himself?) tells of Sita’s refuge with Valmiki, the birth and education of Lava and Kusha, and finally the events that lead to Sita’s final encounter with her husband and her departure from the world. It’s hard to see how this particular narrative shift could have been avoided but it is a shame – this last section lacks the layered thoughtfulness of the earlier parts.

Moyna Chitrakar is the real star here. According to the afterword, Sita’s Ramayana was painted before it was written, and it’s obvious that the art is at the heart of the book. Chitrakar is unafraid to play with the panel layout, and often focuses on startling images. The entire book begins with an unusual dramatis personae. The sequence in which Sita arrives in Lanka and refuses to marry Ravana is told in three panels with no human (or divine, or rakshasa for that matter) figures – one depicting the waves of the sea, one the ornate architecture of the city, and one a tree in the palace gardens. Earlier, when Surpanaka gazes upon Lakshmana’s beauty, the artwork objectifies him with her, actually labelling those of his attributes that are most desireable.

In some ways, of our two great epics the Ramayana is even better suited to retellings than the Mahabharata. This is partly because the former has a more contained story to work with, partly because its protagonist is still held up as a moral ideal in ways the latter epic has been spared. Sita’s Ramayana is part of a strong tradition of feminist retellings, yet it manages to feel fresh and to stand up to them.

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September 19, 2011

Annie Zaidi and Smriti Ravindra, The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl

 

A version of this short review appeared in Mint Lounge this weekend, here.

 

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The goodness of the good Indian girl is a badge of sorts. Or, as the cover of Annie Zaidi and Smriti Ravindra’s The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl suggests, a rather tacky sparkly medallion. As the authors emphasise in their introduction, ‘good’ here “does not mean the opposite of bad”; merely the set of behaviours considered desirable in an Indian girl.

What Zaidi and Ravindra explore in this collection of loosely connected (several characters and names appear in more than one) stories is not the oppressive nature of this set of desirable qualities, but the ways in which women can transgress them and still retain the Good Indian Girl (or GIG) tag. The result is a book of surprisingly subversive tales in which girls interact with men, climb down rope ladders(“BIG Girls”) , flirt and draw back (“Strangers”), cut themselves (“Out of Here”) are nervous and afraid around men but simultaneously willing to play along (“Finger Play”), manipulate their perceived goodness to their own ends (“Daddy’s Girls”). They are less about emphasising the restrictions placed on Indian women than they are about how women use and test them. The “GIG”s in these stories have agency, and they use it.

The stories are interspersed with short segments addressed directly to the reader. These are something of a weak point – they are rather arch in tone, and often attempt to ‘explain’ the previous story or to draw a connection with the next one. It’s unnecessary and intrusive; we don’t need to be told that Gaurangini (“Panty Lines”) suffered, but lightly, or that the next story will require us to think about what happens when we confront a girl with her own lust. Sometimes these sections are merely trying too hard: “Seems far out? Can’t believe it? Think we’re exaggerating? Trust us: it happened!” Thankfully, as the book progresses these sections become less self-conscious and more like chatty asides.

The inter-connectedness of the stories ties the book together. When done well the related chapters are delightful read against one another, with the same situation reflected in many perspectives. Occasionally it is done clumsily (as with the paired stories “Tiger Balm” and “Stop Press”). Sometimes it is brilliant, as with the lovely “Rain” and its sequel-of-sorts, “Words”. However, a consequence of these recurring characters is also to highlight the fact that these characters are a specific subset of Indian girls. It’s possible that Good Indian Girl-hood is so universal as to make no difference, but the authors themselves admit towards the end that “[g]eneration to generation, state to state, notions of GIGdom vary”. Yet besides this one acknowledgement, there’s no exploration of this idea at all.

The title of the book is a mystery– what “bad boys” have to do with anything is beyond me. But though The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl feels rather less than the sum of its parts (the excellence of some individual stories is rather let down by their sameness) it manages to be a likeable, if one-note collection. 

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