February 17, 2014

Taiye Selasi Explores the Afropolitan Identity in "Ghana Must Go"


Taiye Selasi’s novel “Ghana Must Go” tells an engrossing story, but one that is complexly told. The characters are delectable, and grow on the reader, even those that make some out of character choices.  The setting shifts from Accra to Lagos to Boston, and it is distracting at times, but each one is beautifully nuanced by the lyrical quality of Selasi’s writing. The plot is so compactly woven between the unexpected death and the funeral of a family member.  It is between these two events that the story unfolds as Selasi takes the reader across continents to experience an emotional roller coaster that leaves the reader in complete awe of what the characters in the story have undergone.

A writer of mixed heritage, Ghanian and Nigerian, Selasi calls several places ‘home’, and in this debut novel of hers, she explores her hybridized Afropolitan identity through the Sai family saga of separation. Like Selasi herself, the Sais straddle between cultures, Nigerian, Ghanian, American, and while they appear to maintain a fair balance, they are unable to delineate one culture from the other. Like in Isabel Allende’s biography ‘My Invented Country’, the Sais carry their ‘home’ in their immigrant hearts, and manage to put down roots in new places, though at a cost, one that is not visible to an outsider. Their immigrant experience is about being able to reinvent a home far away from home. However, as depicted in the novel, this reinvention, could likely become an overused phenomenon that allows an immigrant to pack up and leave, just like that, even the most involved of lives, only to begin another.  However, there is an interesting distinction Ms. Selasi makes between first generation immigrants and their progenies.  The first generation immigrant has acquired an ease with which he can leave and walk out of a setting. He ‘knows how to leave’; his immigrant identity has made him embrace his rootlessness, a trait he’s acquired in order to survive the harrowing immigrant experience. However, his progeny do not share this trait, and they do not understand it either. Consequently, when a family member, or a dear one, abandons them, as is in the novel, they struggle to come to terms with this illogical and near apathetic behavior.

In an interview, when Selasi was asked about what drives her to write, she claimed, History and Geography have oversimplified and made generic the African experience, and that she wanted to undo that by lending subjectivity and individuality to the challenges and accomplishments of each of the characters in her novel. Which writer of fiction does not do that? History and Geography, by definition, require collective documenting of a people and of a region; whereas fiction, by nature, focuses on individuals pitted against unique circumstances and settings. For example, Sophocles’, the Greek playwright, presents a defiant young princess challenging a powerful monarch in the play Antigone, but Herodotus, a historian from the same time period as Sophocles, could not possibly have done that! What he did do was to document the fact that Sparta was a better City State for women than was Athens.  Sophocles’ work of fiction showcased the status of women of Ancient Greece through a defiant Antigone, just as Selasi's “Ghana Must Go” will illustrate the Afropolitan identity through members of the Sai family.  Selasi's claim, though ambitious, is noteworthy, and the African diaspora will be the richer if this young writer lives up to her claim.

The title of the novel is intriguing no doubt, and forces the reader to research Ghana Nigeria relations, and in some cases may get the reader to buy one of the “Ghana Must Go” bags, available online, that do NOT support a noble cause. Without a doubt, Ghana Must Go is making waves as a debut novel; it has won Taiye Selasi, of the African diaspora, the Best Young British Novelist award in 2013, and it appears to me there will be many more such.

Diaspora writings are gaining momentum speedily in a global world! Cheers to that!

February 14, 2014

A Poet and his Immortal Art

Penning what he feels passionately for,
or passionately penning what he feels.
Carried on a whirlwind of words,
his ideas may not always please.
 

As daggers in music painfully pleasing,
or caveat colors daintily defying
will myriad magical merengues churn
on a Tintern Abbey or perhaps a Grecian urn.
 
 
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty”
will art in posterity defend,
and on those very ‘spots of time’,
will many their lives amend.  
 
 
Legends, landforms, daffodils and dames, 
will take on a life their own, 
to live it out through you and me
with poetic words fore sown.



February 03, 2014

Dalrymple's "Return of a King" The Battle for Afghanistan 1839 - 1842" - Lesson in History for Future Statesmen?


How many of us living in the western world knew about Afghanistan before 9/11 happened? Afghanistan entered the world map of the western world only after Osama Bin Laden chose to make the Tora Bora caves his hideout in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy. Clearly Osama knew history better than most statesmen around the world, and hence chose Afghanistan to hide from the Americans, and he made a good call; Osama Bin Laden could not be tracked in Afghanistan even with the most advanced satellite technology prevalent at the time. Afghanistan has proved invincible to the mightiest of invaders, and history cites several examples of the indomitable spirit of this land and of its people. William Dalrymple, a British historian and writer has focused on Afghanistan as the subject for many of his recent writings.  Recently, a relative who attended the Jaipur Literature Festival this year, of which Dalrymple was a co host, presented me with a signed copy of Dalrymple's latest book on Afghanistan, and what a read it was!
 Dalrymple’s Return of a King – The Battle for Afghanistan1839-1842 was a very engrossing read.  It is a well written, evenly paced, and thoughtfully scaffolded piece of nonfiction. Apart from the structural efficacy of his writing, Dalrymple has also put forth historical narrative that is timely, relevant, and well spun.  Interestingly the author ends the narrative with an ominous quote from an Afghani elder saying,” These are the last days of the Americans.  Next it will be China.”

The book captures the history of Britain’s disastrous attempt to get control of Afghanistan in the mid to late 1800s, summarized by an army chaplain of the time, Rev. G.R.Gleig, as ‘a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to close after suffering and disaster…not one benefit, political or military acquired…Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.” Dalrymple’s book highlights the similarities between what happened to the British then, in the 1800s, to the latest American invasion of Afghanistan in 2006, the West’s fourth war in that country! Given that Afghani topography, economy, religious zeal, and social fabric is still as it was 170 years ago, will the outcome of any invasion of Afghanistan be different from what happened with the British back then? The Afghani terrain is unforgiving to foreigners, a maze of mountains and caves that house a people unfathomable in their alliances and their loyalty.  Dalrymple’s book asks some hard hitting questions such as: Why do we not learn from History?  Why do leaders make ill informed decision that have potential for widespread disaster and suffering?  

Dalrymple’s book is revisionist in some ways as it documents an event in History using sources that have not been used in the past.  Apparently, the author did extensive research in old forgotten libraries of Kabul where he bought personal libraries of book and journals written in the local language ‘Dari’. He procured this authentic and local piece of Afghani history at throwaway costs, and spent months and years getting it translated in order to re document the “Return of a King”, Shah Shuja, from a non-British point-of-view.  According to Dalrymple’s sources, Britain in 1839 waged a completely unnecessary war based on “doctored intelligence about a virtually non-existent threat” of a Russian invasion, a rumor mongered by a Russophobe British ambassador. British colonialism, which had already established itself in India, perceived a threat from the Russians, and decided to act upon it with a naiveté according to Afghani sources. Some instances of this being: they walked into the unknown mountainous terrain of Afghanistan hoping to reestablish Shah Shuja, a king who even until 2001 was regarded as a symbol of treachery in Afghanistan, and who had earlier been deposed; they marched into a country without any real plans of how they’d get out of it.; as invaders they wanted to challenge and change age old traditions of a people on pretext of ‘promoting interest of humanity’!!  They even attempted to introduce western political systems in a country reputed for its tribal governance.

Dalrymple’s riveting account of the First Afghan War is a comprehensive account about “The disaster of the Retreat from Kabul…a warning to the statesmen of the future not to repeat the policies that bore such bitter fruits in 1839 -1842.” Unfortunately, Afghanistan did get invaded again and the same mistakes were repeated; clearly, our statesmen either do not read history, or else the history they read is biased and inaccurate.  Dalrymple’s novel makes a case for revisionist history, that which is based on documentation from both sides, the winners and the losers.  The days of writing history from the winner’s point of view are gone; there is too much at stake to base future political action on a one sided history.  

December 14, 2013

Philomena Presents a Perfect Judy Dench in a Real Life Adoption Nightmare



A feel good movie that makes me want to forgive all the petty grudges I hold against people in my everyday life. Philomena, a movie based on a true story captured by Martin Sixsmith’s novel, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, brings together two outstanding actors Judy Dench and SteveCoogan.  It is definitely their acting which raises the stature of the movie to something beyond a diatribe against an insensitive Catholic Church and a sexually myopic America. I thoroughly enjoyed the easy banter between Philomena and her journalist friend Martin as they ventured on an improbable journey from Oxbridge to a suburb of Washington DC to find Philomena’s son who she ‘gave up’ when he was a toddler, and she but a teenager!

 
The movie presents a situation that would be any mother's nightmare, but with Judy Dench as Philomena, the nightmare worked itself out toward a redemption. Having watched and enjoyed the movie, I now have a strong urge to read Sixsmith’s novel.  I’m also intrigued by the recently publicized reaction of the “order of nuns, the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in County Tipperary, who claim they were made to look like ‘villains’. Sister Julie Rose, the order’s assistant congregational leader, said the film ‘does not tell the whole truth, and in many ways is very misleading’.” Without a doubt, the nuns and the Catholic nunnery are the bad guys in this mellow yet heartwarming tale. Strangely, however their victim Philomena does not hold a grudge against them. A devout Catholic herself, Philomena believes the separation was part of the penitence she needed to do for having enjoyed premarital sex. The all forgiving Philomena is also very appreciative of the American family that adopted her son; she feels it gave him opportunities far better than she could ever have done, and for that she is grateful.  However, the audience is not as forgiving.  We cannot condone what the Sisters at the Nunnery did to Philomena, and we are also suspect about just how well life turned out for the separated son of Philomena in the United States, especially in the light of the fact that he was gay, and he was a part of the Reagan administration.  

Philomena, the movie, is the story of a separation; yet, I came out  of the cinema hall with a warm and fuzzy feeling of having witnessed a reunion.  Intriguing as that thought is, I strongly recommend you watch this movie if you enjoy underplayed emotion, witty banter, and acting par excellence.

November 11, 2013

Phyllis Chessler Documents her 'Escape from a Harem' in " An American Bride in Kabul" - A Memoir

"An American Bride in Afghanistan" documenting Phyliss Chesler's five month captivity in Afghanistan, some fifty years ago, as an 18 year old Jewish bride of  an older Afghan man, is a subject that interests many in the western world. I got this book as a gift from a dear friend, and, having read the book, I wonder what made him select this book for me; was it the writer, the subject, or was it the setting?

In this memoir, Ms. Chessler does a great job of recounting her harrowing experience as a young foreigner bride with romantic notions of inter-cultural harmony. Admittedly, the narrative, though personal, is diagnostic in nature and holds no bias toward or against any character presented.  For instance, Chesler's portrayal of her husband is an empathetic one as is her depiction of Bebegul, her abused and abusive mother-in-law. Ms. Chesler dispassionately presents these individuals as doing some violent and very unreasonable actions, and, as a writer, almost rationalizes them by providing a vivid sociocultural context that nourishes these behaviors.  Phyllis Chesler relates each experience without any venom, and with surgical precision she peels one layer after another of her travails in Kabul to explain that romantic leap of faith she took she took fifty years ago.

In the course of the narrative, numerous times, Ms. Chesler digresses to relate some anecdotal history of Afghanistan, perhaps to provide a historical landscape to her five month ordeal. These diversions, while they distract the reader from the storyline, are also not the best pieces of writing, and they often seem like add-ons. For example, the anecdotes about experiences of other westerners who visited  Afghanistan at the time do seem forced. Similarly, the section about 9/11, and how it served to crystallize Ms. Chesler's understanding of her five month stay in Afghanistan is a little far fetched. Also, it makes the reader wonder whether Ms. Chesler capitalized on her unique experience in Kabul only after September 11 happened?  World around, Bin Laden's hideout had become something of an enigma in the post 9/11 period, and Phyllis Chesler must have sensed that.  No wonder she advertised this memoir as 'My life of hell in an Afghan Harem.'
  
Much of the memoir revolves around a deep sense of betrayal the author felt after she left the USA for Afghanistan. She appears to debate upon which  betrayal was greater: the personal one that was meted out to her by the man she fell so madly in love with and who she believed loved her just as much, or the cultural one where her romantic notion of moving seamlessly between two cultures was shattered after she landed in Kabul. Meanwhile, to the reader the betrayal is but imminent, given the extreme naivete of the young Phyllis. Even though the reader accompanies Phyllis on her harrowing journey, for the most part the reader is wondering how Phyllis could have been so unaware of the cultural challenge she was walking into.  What was she thinking?

Phyllis Chessler claims that this memoir would raise awareness of the oppressive conditions in which women live in many Islamic countries. However, this memoir tries to touch upon other controversial issues as well, such as 'honor killings', 'harems', 'marital rapes', 'underage marriages', 'boy toys' etc. I deliberately use the phrase 'touch upon' because that is exactly how it is in this book.  Ms. Chesler attempts to weave in several such didactic asides that prove to be annoying and mostly unnecessary.

"An American Bride in Kabul" is yet another piece of writing that hopes to ride the wave of Islamophobia.  Alas, it fails to ride!

October 25, 2013

Footfalls


To and fro

in shade and sun

playing hide n seek

with a  cloud above

 

Just then…

Footfalls from the past

do flood gates open

to vistas long forgotten.

 

All of a sudden…

Bygone melodies

whisper wanted words

and a  warmth descends.

 

Slowly…

Fledgling hope

takes shaky root

within a sunnier heart.

 

Voila…

Is this a new beginning?

October 21, 2013

Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" Grounds the Audience! Can a Movie do More?


No surprise that Alfonso Cuaron’s movie “Gravity” has pulledin so much money within a few weeks of its release, and this even before it has reached cine goers in China and India! A captivating movie about two lonely astronauts adrift in outer-space surrounded by an uncaring cosmos.  I enjoyed the movie despite some spoilers on the plot and nitpicking on the veracity ofdetails associated with the science of outer space. Not only did the movie keep me at the edge, but it also raises some very philosophical questions about our existence on earth.

Watch the trailer here.
 
The visuals of the earth from outer space are an absolute delight! In the midst of the space disaster our blue orb of life, so lovingly held within the wooly white whirl of clouds, appeared a haven of comfort and joy.  I am sure that at various moments during the movie the audience felt immense pride for this planet we so often casually refer to as ‘mother earth’.  The deeper significance of the term is definitely better understood once you see this movie.

  I am told that several Hollywood actors were considered for the two lead roles in the movie, but Mr. Cuaron’s final choice was just perfect. Ms. Bullock as the cold but remarkable scientist is simply unparalleled. The investors must have had enormous faith in Ms. Bullock acting prowess and her ability to draw in the crowds since there is little else in the movie besides her, a couple of damaged space stations and a vast empty space.  To add to that, there isn’t much speaking either, and whatever little there is, is Ms. Bullock speaking to herself; yet, that does not take away from the rapture of the movie, if anything it enhances the thrill.  George Clooney as Ms. Bullock's co- star does his bit, but does not get a chance to show his caliber for reasons I can’t give away.

The movie highlights some very socially relevant issues that we seldom like to address.  For instance, the space debris build up that nobody talks about, but which may one day become as big of a problem as a polluted earth is today. Then, the movie also prods you to think of the existential question of what it means to be alive, and the responsibilities that come with it, and the next thing you know is the audience begins to introspects and ponders on its raison-d’etres. Now, can a movie do more?

August 29, 2013

Mieville's "Embassytown" Reveals the Potency of Language.


‘Embassytown’ by China Mieville was a very difficult and perplexing read; yet, there was something about it that would not let me abandon it.  Science Fiction has not been one of my favorite genres in recent years. Complexity of plot and more so the discomfort of being transported into an alien world, has made me distance myself from this genre. Embassytown, a sci-fi novel, was no different, but it held my attention and my interest.  Although I had to re-read several chapters of it, some more than once, to comprehend what was happening and to decipher meanings of words and phrases that Mieville coins throughout the novel, I quite enjoyed the challenge this book offered.

The setting of the novel is Embassytown, a city located on a remote planet that has been colonized by humans, but continues to be home to the native Ariekei, an intelligent species who speak a language that expresses only that which is true or factual. The city is a diplomatic enclave and hosts different alien life forms including humans, some of who are ‘ambassadors’ as they can communicate in the Arikei language.  During the course of the novel, however, the Arikei learn to lie, and develop an addiction to this new language of lies and will resort to extreme violence if deprived of this new-language stimulus. 

The story is from the point of view of Avice, “a human colonist who has returned to Embassytown after a deep space adventure.  She cannot speak the Ariekei language, but is ‘an indelible part of it, having long ago being made a living simile in their language…a language she cannot speak – but which speaks through her, whether she likes it or not.”  It is on her return to Embassytown with her linguist husband that the story really begins.  Avice, though a facilitator for the ‘ambassadors’, is not an insider to the developing situation in this diplomatic colony, where a new speech is being introduced to the Ariekei through a ‘new ambassador’. What results in the aftermath of the ‘introduction’ is violent, frightening, and appears unretractable as Arikei society starts falling apart and diplomacy seems to have fled Embassytown.

Will the Ariekei, who ‘before the humans came didn’t speak so much….but speak now, or will speak now and be able to say how the city is a pit.....a vessel on the sea and (they) are fish in it” learn the new language and rise in revolt against the ambassadors?  Will the language addiction of the Ariekei bring about total destruction of Embassytown? Will Avice, who belongs as much to the Ariekei as to the human ambassadors, resolve her moral dilemma and pick a side? These are questions that the author may or may not answer in the novel. However, Mieville does force these questions into the mind of the reader, who then faces the ultimate question of 'how important is language to consciousness and thereby to society?' 

This novel is definitely a must-read for sci-fi enthusiasts, but I would also recommend it to language lovers.  The power of language is very strongly felt as the Ariekei speech-experiment unfolds.  Additionally, Mieville has carried out a ‘reverse personification’ in his characterization of Avice, the protagonist and narrator; I've never read/seen anything like this before.
This novel is definitely not an easy read, but it can't be set aside once you start reading it. It sticks; in fact, it is still resonating in my 'consciousness'.