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2016: A Year in Review (Part Two)

Part Two:

I went to a talk by Elif Shafak, author of The Bastard of Istanbul, The Architects Apprentice and the soon-to-be-published The Three Daughters of Eve:

Elif Shafak begins her talk at the Oxford Union by stepping off the stage to introduce herself, not waiting for any questions to be posed to her but anticipating them first, impatient to start. The controversial author – or at least controversial in Turkey, where she was prosecuted for her work ‘insulting Turkishness’– was born in Strasbourg to Turkish parents. Her parents separated soon after she was born and she was raised by her single mother, a diplomat and ‘secular, modern woman’ and her grandmother who she describes in her TED talk as ‘spiritual, less educated, less rational’, a woman who predicted the future from coffee grains. I have listened to many interviews with Shafak before, having loved her ‘The Bastard of Istanbul’ with its fairytale cast of characters and dark twist. Although she often speaks on the same theme, Shafak is never boring but as intriguing a speaker as she is a writer; storytelling for Elif Shafak is not only something that can be done through writing. Shafak is unafraid to show feeling and to privilege emotion over reasoning – and it is this which often makes her such an engrossing and interesting speaker, one who follows the motto ‘I feel therefore I am free’. Shafak’s work is informed by her peripatetic life – as her life has continued to be – and she is preoccupied with the idea of confronting the unknown and the ‘other’ in order to learn from it. In her TED talk she warned against the dangers of being too inward looking, of creating ‘communities of the likeminded’ and always being surrounded by people with similar views, backgrounds and experiences and on this occasion, she warned also of the dangers of being too easily offended, of refusing to listen. Instead, she urged that there are huge benefits derived from even a moment of understanding. For Shafak storytelling transcends the boundaries that identity politics demand, fiction connecting where identity politics divide. She believes in working as a compass, being rooted in one place (for her, Turkey) but able to reach outwards to other places, other cultures and other peoples. Her ability – and desire – to work in several languages reflects this; for her Turkish is ‘emotional’ whereas English is more logical, mathematical. For Shafak, it isn’t necessary to only write what you know, as is taught so much today, but to write what you might know briefly, simply, in the experience of reading or writing. At the same time, Shafak believes that we cannot mistake fiction for politics, for fiction is also a place for spirituality, for posing questions rather than answering them.

I read Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Hard Choices:

hillary

It is strange to think back to when I read Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices, a memoir about her time as Secretary of State, in mid-2016, before the chaos of the election – and it’s even stranger to think that when it was published the question still remained over whether Clinton would even run for President again, the decision just another ‘hard choice’ she had awaiting in her future. Many critics slated Clinton’s part-autobiography, part-history-book, seeing it as a work of propaganda designed as insurance ‘just in case’. Anne Applebaum even went as far as to say that in ‘Hard Choices’ Clinton ‘transfigure(s) herself into a figure of benign neutrality. Unlike Obama she will not inspire but she will not enrage’. The book does not ‘reveal’ completely – chapters on Benghazi are tightly controlled – but we do catch glimpses of the real Hillary Clinton, persistent, even indefatigable, devoted to doing her duty. And even if Clinton doesn’t inspire with her writing, she does with her determination – and her detail. Her meetings with foreign leaders and diplomats such as Dai Bingguo and Angela Merkel, as well as with Obama himself, are engaging. Yet the most interesting is Clinton’s dedication, -especially to children and women – her belief in her ‘service gene’; she’ll take flight after flight, disappointment after disappointment and emerge the other side, convinced she must carry on.

I read An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine:

unneccessary.jpg

When he decided to write An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine was concerned that his protagonist, Aaliya would be seen as nothing more than an ‘exotic pet’ by the Western world and the Western reader, as he’d seen so many Arabic characters – and particularly women – become. I doubt there was ever any danger of Alameddine writing an ‘exotic pet’. Aaliya is the centre of the novel which lacks any sense of a plot or typical linear progression and it is her thought processes, her emotions as she looks back on her life that serve as our story. No other writer could have written Aaliya, with her blue hair and the AK-47 she keeps in her apartment in a Beirut riven by civil war. Her life doesn’t follow any typical line or normal plot, partly because of the war but also partly because of Aaliya’s carefully cultivated isolation, even alienation. Aaliya protects obsessively from the invasion of the world outside her daily routines, her everyday life as a translator; literature, another world, is her ‘milk and honey’. Aaliya’s alienation from the world outside is tragic, but her wry, comic tone means that the novel is a joy to read, one that can be read again and again. Interspersed with quotations from writers from Yourcenar to Pessoa, the novel is endlessly surprising; on every rereading something new can be noticed. Literature might be fragile in the novel, but it is more enduring than the human, always being rewritten just as it is in An Unnecessary Woman by Alameddine. The novel itself conserves art, philosophy, writing even as it creates anew. Aaliya says ‘maybe I can translate a book written in English for a change… I can live in Alice’s (Munro) skin for a while’. The title of the novel is taken from an anecdote about Bruno Schulz, the Polish artist and writer who was deemed a ‘necessary Jew’ by a Nazi officer who wanted him to paint a mural for his sons bedroom. How can we deem Aaliya unnecessary as her family does – as a ‘godless, fatherless, childless and divorced’ woman – when we can see inside her brilliant mind? Who can judge someone to be ‘necessary’ or not – when perhaps cloistered in their rooms are hundreds of works of art? And is literature necessary in a world at war? For Aaliya – and for Alameddine – it is indubitably so.

I went to Comptoir Libanais in London (again):

comptoir-libanais

I only wish I’d been able to read An Unnecessary Woman sitting in a Comptoir Libanais. Comptoir Libanais is a Lebanese canteen; the name literally means ‘Lebanese counter’ and as founder and owner Tony Kitous says ‘that’s exactly what it is: somewhere you can eat casually, with no fuss. You don’t have to sacrifice comfort, style or the authenticity of food just because the dining is casual’. The mouthwatering food is affordable and the setting ‘souk-like’. You can even buy from the ‘souk’ in the canteen, whether you want pomegranate molasses, fig jam, sumac or harissa paste. I love the decoration almost as much as the food, especially the patterned tiles and bright red chairs, the face of Arabic actress Sirine Jamal al Dine laughing above. But nothing really can beat the food – or drink. I’ve been a couple of times now and sampled the delicious Roomana, a pomegranate and orange blossom drink, the Roza, which is lemon and lime with rose syrup and the Iced fresh rose mint tea. And yes, they taste as lovely as the names are pretty. The food is delicately flavoured, light and yet irresistible. I recommend the halloumi tortilla and mezze platters. As you’re leaving, don’t forget to take away some baklava. Going into a Comptoir Libanais is like entering a different world – one that is a treat for all the senses.

I went to the Ashmolean to see Power and Protection: Islamic Art and the Supernatural (four times – it was free for students!):

islamic-art

Image: Finial in the Shape of the ‘Hand of Fatima’, possibly Hyderabad (India), late 18th–early 19th century. Nasser D. Khalili Collection, London (JLY1923) © Nour Foundation. Courtesy of the Khalili Family Trust.

This stunning exhibition – stunning both aesthetically and in its range – was divided into three; the first section ‘Interpreting Signs’, the second ‘The Power of the Word’ and the third ‘Amulets and Talismans’. Each section was as impressive as the last, moving from astrology to bibliomancy to geomancy. The second section particularly showcased the status of the written word in Islamic, the idea that written words hold a power of their own, an ability to protect. Highlights for me included an astrolabe, the dream book of Tipu Sultan, garments decorated in calligraphy and the sword of Sultan Anli Dinar which was engraved with religious writings. Imam Monawar Hussain said ‘I am convinced that this exhibition will help to deepen and enrich peoples appreciation of our faith’ – it certainly did mine. Walking through the exhibition, looking at the beautiful art objects on display, it becomes increasingly clear that the supernatural in Islamic Art is inseparable from the religious.

I listened to Lianne La Havas, Max Jury and Billie Marten:

Lianne La Havas’ powerful, soaring, melting voice finds its counterpart in the beautiful lyrics of ‘Unstoppable’ – and especially ‘Green and Gold’ which explores La Havas Jamaican and Greek heritage, the ‘blood’ of her album title. La Havas is clear she’s not confined to singing soul and jazz; the rock song ‘Never Get Enough’ is one of my favourites from the album. All three singer-songwriters seem to have infinite potential, one critic describing Max Jury’s ‘Grace’ as ‘Elton John-esque’. Jury ranges from country soul in ‘Standing on My Own’, ‘Numb’ and ‘Princess’ to the pared-back piano number ‘Great American Novel’, with its striking lyrics, while Marten has been compared to a young Laura Marling – and her voice is already just as recognizable, her lyrics just as memorable.

Read Lianne La Havas article ‘On My Radar’ for The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/nov/15/on-my-radar-lianne-la-havas-christopher-hitchens-life-of-pi-martel-alexander-mcqueen-keenan-omeara

I saw Mary Heilmann’s paintings at the Whitechapel Gallery:

mary-heilman

Photograph: Thomas Müller/Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York; Hauser & Wirth

The title of this exhibition was ‘Looking at Pictures’, which is surely what anyone does at any art gallery, at any paintings? But Mary Heilmann’s paintings – and ceramics – aren’t figurative “pictures” and instead invite the viewer to make their own sense of her wild use of colour and geometrics. Heilmann plays with the idea of the ‘abstract’; paintings that recognizably depict waves, when looked at closer become abstract – and the abstract is made by painting squares and rectangles next to each other. I love Heilmann’s paintings; they’re bold and brave and beautiful, never boring. Her preoccupation with the theme of the sea reflects her yearning for a kind of freedom, liberation. Heilmann is obviously influenced by the likes of Mondrian and Matisse, but never constrained by them. Colour is left to drip down the canvas and constantly escapes its borders – just as Heilmann escaped hers, refusing to let conventions determine how she made art, using the influences of pop music and punk in her work. Dan Coombs remarks on the ‘ludicrous quality’ to these paintings and if you ask it about any pieces of art, ‘but couldn’t a child have made it?’ would be, on first glance, most fitting here. Although Heilmann’s appreciation of the childlike is evident, there’s nothing childish about Heilmann’s explosive, engrossing paintings and the exhibition was a fantastic retrospective of the artists work as a whole.

You can go here: http://www.whitechapelgallery.org/exhibitions/mary-heilmann-looking-at-pictures/ for more information about the exhibition.

I read Toni Morrison’s Sula:

sula

For Jackie Kay Sula ‘was poetry; it was story’. Sula, even in under one hundred and seventy pages, is unforgettable for the beauty of the writing, Morrison’s distinctive, lyrical prose, but also for the narrative itself. The strange, enthralling beauty of Nel White and Sula Peace’s friendship, which is immediate and – at least at first – indissoluble, surviving even murder, is one of the most memorable I have ever read. Both have troubled relationships with their mothers and absentee fathers, although Nel is a part of the black bourgeoisie, whereas Sula ‘Peace’ lives in the most chaotic of houses with her mother and grandmother and the interchangeable, changeling-like Deweys. Nel and Sula are allies from the first moment they see each other and yet Sula ‘like any artist with no art form … became dangerous’. Nel conforms and Sula does not; when she returns to the town of Medallion in 1937, scandalizing its inhabitants and forcing them to become closer-knit, a plague of robins announces her arrival. Yet Morrison does not present Sula as evil; she is simply herself, having realised the folly that it is to live for others, not oneself. Nel meanwhile, has a realisation of her own; although she had long ago set herself up as the ‘good half’ of Sula, good and evil are never that clear-cut – especially in Medallion, a town peopled with the most ambiguous of characters. The most ambiguous and yet all the more haunting for it.

Alex Kerr’s Lost Japan:

lost

When Alex Kerr was twelve years old, his family moved to Yokohama, Japan. When he was only in his twenties, after studying Japanese at Yale University – with a year abroad spent in Japan – he bought a house in the Iya Valley with a loan from some friends: Chiiori. ‘Chi’ is an old Chinese character for ‘bamboo flute’ found in an ancient dictionary, ‘iori’ meaning house. In ‘Lost Japan’ he writes about a Japan in the process of vanishing, watching not only beautiful landscapes scarred and destroyed but also the disappearing of an entire culture itself. In the preface to the newly rereleased edition, Kerr laments that Japan’s environmental destruction has accelerated even further but that perhaps even more worryingly, those who once tried to conserve it are also disappearing. He is left ‘stuck with the job of ringing that old bell’. He does it beautifully, simply, ranging from Kabuki theatre to art collecting, calligraphy to the Japanese film industry, the differences between China and Japan and even bonkei. The book is an epitaph to a different age, one which is necessary and important, illuminated with the warmth and humour of Kerr’s writing as well as the wealth of his learning and knowledge. Kerr isn’t just ‘ringing that old bell’, urging those who read his work to do their bit, but in writing ‘Lost Japan’ he manages to preserve a culture that might be utterly forgotten.

I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me:

between-the-world-and-me

 ‘The elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through white tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destructions of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children.’

Toni Morrison wondered who would be the next James Baldwin: here we find him. In 1963, James Baldwin would write the essay ‘My Dungeon Shook’ to his fourteen year old nephew, a letter that examined the history of race in America. Inspired by Baldwin, Coates has written a letter to his own son about race relations in America, about racism as a ‘visceral experience’, about police brutality and disproportionate incarceration. (Coates writes about the treatment of the male black body rather than the experiences of black women, who Brit Bennett, author of ‘The Mothers’ urges readers not to forget are ‘disproportionately more likely to be victims of violent crimes, sexual assault and intimate-partner violence’.) He writes ‘you can only be destroyed by believing that you are what the white world calls a nigger. I tell you this because I love you and please don’t you ever forget it’. There is a frankness and a desperation to Coates tone in his latest work, one that comes from speaking honestly to the person you love the most – and perhaps more than others love; Coates says ‘black people love their children with a kind of obsession…you come to us endangered’. And this is a love letter, a beautiful, profound, haunting, angry love letter. The letter is elegiac, recording the names of all those who have lost their lives, many of whom Coates knew personally such as Prince Jones, and at points it is despairing: ‘the officer who killed Prince Jones was black. The politicians who empowered this officer to kill were black. Many of the black politicians … seemed unconcerned’.

‘Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism – the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce and destroy them – inevitably follows from this inalterable condition… racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado or any other phenomenon… But race is the child of racism, not the father.’

‘The Fire Next Time’ was first published in 1963, ‘when the prevailing racial order was being challenge by young activists on a scale and with a fervor not seen since the civil war’ (Michelle Alexander for the NY Times). I was reading ‘Between the World and Me’ the week that there were riots breaking out in Charlotte and now I am writing this article as Donald Trump prepares to become President of the United States, as Obama gives his farewell speeches. Yet it is no more relevant now than it has ever been. It has always been needed.  ‘Between the World and Me’ often seems unfinished – Coates disappointment and exhaustion is tangible but he wants to wait until the ‘Dreamers’ awake. He says ‘I do not believe we can stop them, Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves. And still I urge you to struggle… but do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle for themselves.’ As Alexander argues, ‘when in the history of the world have the privileged and powerful voluntarily relinquished their status or abandoned their tactics that secured their advantage, without being challenged, confronted or inspired to do so?’ His conclusion is unsatisfactory. Yet in writing to his son, Coates signals that there are so many to continue to challenge the ‘prevailing racial order’, that readers must also act to protect the younger generations still threatened just like Prince Jones was. In another article (linked below) Coates writes ‘and so we must imagine a new country’. We must do so for our children. He remains realistic, refusing to hope or completely despair. He concludes:

‘You cannot arrange your life around them . . . Our moment is too brief. Our bodies are too precious. And you are here now, and you must live — and there is so much out there to live for.’

I would also call Ta Nehisi’s article ‘The Case for Reparations’ (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/) required reading. Also, Edward E. Baptist’s ‘The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism’.

 

This year, I am looking forward to reading:

Yaa Gyasi’s Homecoming, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Samantha Ellis’ ‘Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life’

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2016: A Year in Review (Part One)

The books, music, films, places and people that made my year better.

The Muse by Jessie Burton:

I loved The Miniaturist but I think I might marginally prefer The Muse, which somehow manages to create an even deeper sense of mystery than its predecessor. Burton always manages to evoke so perfectly places and eras that are worlds away; in this novel the narrative moves from 1960s London to 1930s Spain and back again and it does so so convincingly that after reading it, I felt like I had jetted to Spain and recently visited the Skelton Gallery, spotting Peggy Guggenheim as I went. The story revolves around four women; in London, Trinidadian Odelle Bastien, a writer who works at the art gallery as a typist and her enigmatic superior, Marjorie Quick and in Spain, Olive Schloss, the daughter of two absentee parents and a secretive painter and Teresa Robles, a sixteen year old for whom just surviving was enough before Olive arrived in her life. The novel is really a story about art; what makes us do it, what makes it good and how it changes lives, a preoccupation that Burton herself has struggled with after the super success of her first novel. It also asks the question: is it worth sacrificing life and love for art? I can’t wait to see what Burton does next; she says she writes like a ‘Sister Grimm’ and the fairytale-esque quality, near magic realism of her work is entrancing.

Women in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky:

women

After reading about this book on Brainpickings, I just had to buy it when I found it in the most unusual of places even though I did get a strange look from a friend. Rachel Ignotofsky has compiled the stories of fifty women who have changed the world through their research, many of which have been previously ignored. Ranging from Hypatia to Rachel Carson to Maryam Mirzakhani, the book introduced me to Lise Meitner, who discovered nuclear fission – the 1944 Nobel Prize was awarded to Otto Hahn who she had worked with – as well as Alice Ball, who helped to cure leprosy and Mamie Phipps Clark whose research helped to end segregation in schools. Of Barbara McClintock she writes “Nothing says trouble like a woman in pants. That was the attitude in the 1930s, anyway; when Barbara McClintock wore slacks at the University of Missouri, it was considered scandalous. Even worse, she was feisty, direct, incredibly smart, and twice as sharp as most of her male colleagues.” Whatever age you are, this book is important and impressive. And I would buy it for every little girl I know, because it teaches that even if you’ve never known anyone who became an astronomer or engineer or mathematician, you could still become one. If you don’t buy the book because of this, I dare you to resist Ignotofsky’s beautiful illustrations.

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I went to Hay-on-Wye:

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I’ve actually never been to the Hay-On-Wye Literature Festival although it’s high on my list. But I have spent weeks in the little Town of Books, hours in the Poetry Bookshop and Richard Booth Bookshop, minutes eating Shepherds Ice Cream. So many people come from so far to visit Hay-On-Wye which makes it a bustling, unusual mix of Welsh and everyone else. In the neighbouring town of Crickhowell there’s one of the most amazing, tiny bookshops I have ever had the pleasure of visiting (and Jessie Burton has too!) called Book-ish. There’s a sign outside which, when I was there, described a towering pile of unread books in Japanese: tsundoku, a word I need in my vocabulary. And inside there are gems just like Ignotofsky’s book. Just outside nearby Abergavenny there’s even a vineyard called Sugar Loaf Vineyards which sits at the bottom of a mountain. When climbing that, I met a young woman who was hiking with a baby strapped to her which I thought was incredible. There is such beautiful countryside in the area – which even the rain can’t detract from – and it’s nice to get lost (literally) in the clouds, looking down on wild horses.

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I read Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Certainty and Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien:

thien.jpg

Photo credit: Romanian publisher, Humanitas.

My review of Do Not Say will be on the Oxford Culture Review website soon, but suffice to say it went straight on to my list of favourite books. Thien is a stunning writer and as soon as I’d finished Do Not Say, I went back to her previous two novels. Thien’s novels might be classified as historical fiction, for they take events such as the Tianenmen Square demonstrations or Year Zero or the impact of the Second World War on Malaysia and turn them into narratives, yet this is no ordinary historical fiction. There are no reams of dates or detailed accounts of what happened. The stories are no less believable but more so. We get the sense, in all of these novels, that history is not merely dates or day-to-day occurrences. It is personal memory, it is the individual trying to make sense of overwhelming, inescapable history. The same themes that are beautifully realised in Do Not Say crop up again and again in Thien’s early work: her obsession with how histories are written and compiled, with how memory is recorded through fiction, with how loss is borne emerge most powerfully in her last work, but in these early works they are still poignant, memorable. In Dogs at the Perimeter, Janie remembers the Communists seizing Phnom Penh when she was just a child and the events that murdered her father, drove her mother mad and turned her brother, as an eight year old boy, into an interrogator and torturer. She remembers losing her brother to the sea. It is a story that seemed all too relevant in 2016. Cambodia in the grip of Khmer Rouge seemed just a moment away as I read, just as it invades the life Janie has built for herself in Canada.

I finally read the last book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that I’d somehow missed before, which was really her debut novel, Purple Hibiscus:

purple-hibiscus

This coming-of-age story, although it may appear so, is no less ambitious than Ngozi Adichie’s later projects – as the voice of fifteen year old protagonist who lives under the tyrannical rule of her abusive father is always believable. Confronted with a different type of life, one that involves love and laughter and learning, Kambili – and her family dynamic – changes radically.

I watched Moana:

moana

Moana is evidence that Disney are headed in the right direction. Initially there were fears that the film would misrepresent or even exploit Polynesian culture but these fears now seem unfounded. In Buzzfeed’s ‘We Asked Polynesian People What They Thought of Moana’ (https://www.buzzfeed.com/willvarner/we-asked-polynesian-people-what-they-thought-of-disneys-moan) one person commented ‘this is a rare movie because its putting Polynesians front and center and giving Polynesian children a movie that they can see themselves in. That alone is priceless’. Moana is not the typical Disney ‘princess’ (though she may have the animal sidekick or two) with a wasp waist or tiny tapering legs. Caroline Siede in her excellent article on Quartz (https://qz.com/858911/moana-is-the-first-disney-princess-to-show-that-leaders-dont-have-to-fight-to-be-strong/) points out how important it is that Moana isn’t seen fighting. Her strength doesn’t derive from her knowledge of kung fu. Her strength comes from her sense of responsibility towards her people and as Siede says ‘her greatest assets are traits we generally associate with women; empathy, humility and a keen sense of observation’. It is empathy, humility and observation which allow Moana ultimately to save her people, as she convinces Maui through realising his deepest fear and realises Te Ka is no other than Te Fiti. Moana also fails, but she tries again. It’s been shown that its hugely important for girls to know that its ok to fail, as girls more than boys see failure as a sign they lack ability rather than due to circumstances. Moana’s a new kind of leader, one that seems so much more modern. The Lin Manuel Miranda soundtrack is incredible – he’s done the unachievable and proven that a singing crab always improves a film (played by the incomparable Clements) – and the film as a whole is more visually striking than any previously made, perhaps because of the need to show the beauty of Polynesia itself, with shots of Moana alone on the sea under the night sky and birds eye views of Te Fiti. And newcomer Auli’i Cravalho deserves all the accolades she can get, providing the voice for the heroine. I think it will be hard for future films to live up to the promise of Moana, but there is always the hope that they will. Disney might yet again surprise us.

I went to The Royal Academy Summer Show:

ra-summer-show

The RA Summer Show is always a mixed bag but I did think this was a particularly great year! I saw beautiful work by the likes of Jane Harris and Gillian Ayres and the photography section was stunning. What I love about the Royal Academy is how it caters to all ages, with student guides and children sitting on the floor drawing. It manages to draw in people of all ages, people who might not even really consider themselves great ‘art-lovers’ because of the summery, festive, new feeling it manages to sustain year after year.

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I discovered Croatia:

lokrum

Although my friend got stung by a sea urchin, which meant we had to also discover Croatia’s A&E, we swam in the clearest, turquoise waters off the island of Lokrum, ate delicious seafood and kayaked around an island at sunset (which we were infamously bad at and got left so far behind our group that they nearly sent out a search party, thinking they’d somehow lost some tourists to the calmest sea; really we were still being cheered on by some people on the shore which did make us feel a bit better about our appalling fitness levels). We stayed in Zaton Mali, which was equally calm and quiet – even if we at first arrived in Zaton which, it turns out, is a different place and meant we were left stranded on the side of a motorway in the burning heat. Despite our misadventures, I loved discovering Dubrovnik, especially the Old Town, the amazing weather and the many beaches. The prices and public transport didn’t hurt too.

I completed my first year at college and began a second:

bleakhouse_serial_cover

I recommend Bleak House because, despite what they say, Esther is the most far from boring character I have ever encountered – in my effort to convert as many people as I know to this worldview I have bought the very same novel for my mum for Christmas. I would recommend Charlotte Bronte’s Villette because its widely regarded as better than Jane Eyre and yet no-ones ever heard of it. It’s about surviving depression and alienation and female autonomy. I would recommend Gerard Manley Hopkins because he writes the most beautiful poetry I have ever read – and if you have freckles you’ll particularly appreciate him. I recommend Thomas Hardy because he created the indefatigable Bathsheba Everdene and Tess of the D’Urbervilles and beautiful prose: ‘Minute diamonds of moisture from the mist hung, too, upon Tess’s eyelashes, and drops upon her hair, like seed pearls’. Dracula is one of the most captivating novels I have ever read.

This year I’ve passed an exam in Old English (I wrote about Beowulf and monsters), written essays on Plath and the Cold War – and my friend and I ranted about Adlai Stevenson’s injunction to her college about their responsibility to bear children – and learnt about T. S. Eliot and dance (who knew?). Last term, I even wrote an essay on The Faerie Queene. Although The Faerie Queene might be (very) long and have so many characters that its hard to keep track of them, characters like Britomart, a girl who pretends to be a knight to track down the guy she’s fated to marry and Duessa, a witch who disguises herself as a princess, makes it all worth it.

Next year I’m looking forward to:

Reading Olia Hercules Mamushka and Mina Hollands Mamma: Reflections On The Food That Makes Us:

Two of my favourite chefs are both publishing books soon. Hercules has compiled a collection of Ukrainian recipes, whilst Holland – after the success of The Edible Atlas – has interviewed many, many famous food writers on the recipes passed down to them.

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Photo credit: Olia Hercules

Watching Hidden Figures:

hidden-figures

Image via Fox 2000

This image perfectly encapsulates how I reacted when I watched the Hidden Figures trailer. February cannot come soon enough.

Going to my mum’s exhibition at Turps Gallery:

In Conversation, Roisin Fogarty and Suzy Willey.

painting

You can find out more about the exhibition here: https://www.facebook.com/Turps-Banana-187758767910932/

Learning about Latin America. Seeing Daniel Radcliffe in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Reading The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich. This year holds so many opportunities that I cannot wait to take full advantage of.

The Legacy of Trauma Is Love: Miriam Toews’ ‘All My Puny Sorrows’

Rachel Yehuda, a Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at Mount Sinai New York, is the Director of Traumatic Stress Studies Division and studies epigenetics, looking not just at the effects that trauma can have on an individual but how the impact of trauma reverberates through the bloodline of that individual. Early in her career, she found that ‘gene changes in the children’ and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors ‘could only be attributed to exposure in the parents’ to trauma, to hunger, to persecution, to torture. In an interview with David Samuels she points out that ‘you’re three times more likely to respond to a traumatic circumstance by getting PTSD if your parent had it’. It is thought that 30% of children whose parents have served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD. However, for Yehuda, as Samuels so eloquently puts it, a traumatic event often ‘switches on’ resilience itself. Yehuda believes in the ability of the individual to respond positively to the legacy of trauma they are left; in the Jewish community she saw an ‘overwhelming response of “I’m going to make sure this doesn’t happen again”’ in those she studied. Her interviewer asks whether culture itself could be the ‘bearer of trauma’ – a remark that so aptly describes Miriam Toews newest book, ‘All My Puny Sorrows’. Toews novels all contain echoes of the trauma she has endured during her life, yet they are also her attempt to work that legacy into something brighter, something beautiful, something that makes culture from trauma.

Toews grew up with a father who had suffered from manic depression for most of his life and who committed suicide when his daughters were only teenagers. Her older sister, Marjorie, committed suicide in 2010. ‘All My Puny Sorrows’ which takes its name from a poem by Samuel Coleridge, explores the relationship between two sisters who have grown up in the Mennonite community in Canada as Toews did, their grandparents having fled from Russia during the revolution. Yolandi, the younger sister, asks a friend, ‘Do you think you’re still suffering from your grandparents being massacred in Russia?’ Toews’ narrator, witty and indefatigable, is obsessed with epigenetics, having, like Toews herself, lost her father to suicide and her older sister to manic depression and multiple suicide attempts. She says ‘I googled “suicide gene” but cancelled the search at the last second. I didn’t want to know. Plus, I already knew’. Whilst Yolandi is constantly self-deprecating, citing her multiple divorces, her chaotic life with teenage children and her ability to write only ‘rodeo books’ and not literary fictions as evidence for her inferiority to her older sister, Elfrieda is beautiful, charismatic, brilliant, a concert pianist with a loving husband and a large circle of highly accomplished friends. Yet, although Yoli can’t understand why it is so, it is Elfrieda who suffers from depression.

Elfrieda’s playing contains a ‘private pain … unknowable … there were no words’. But all both Yolandi and Toews herself have left are words. And Toews has found the words not only to describe ‘the way patients are treated, infantilized’ in the Canadian mental health system (Toews said recently ‘I didn’t want this to be an ‘issue book’ but in a way it became that too’). Elfrieda is treated like a disobedient child when she is starving herself to death, deprived even of the many rings she usually wears on her fingers. Toews has found words which have prompted the Mennonite community (as well as Canadian society as a whole) to ask questions of themselves. Toews has been approached by many after the publication of her latest novel: ‘funnily enough, even some conservative Mennonites have been supportive. They have said ‘Ok, this is harsh, but we have to look at these things if we want to keep young people in our communities’.  And Toews has found the words to create something beautiful. The Los Angeles Times states ‘Toews takes her place alongside Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood and Mordicai Richler as the loveliest quintet of Canadian writing’. It is high praise indeed, but it is also highly deserved.

This novel is not only beautifully written, a simplicity, unaffectedness to Toew’s prose, a stripped-back quality that avoids sentimentality – Elfrieda says she contains a glass piano within her; a child laughs and she hears ‘the sound of glass shattering and I clutched my stomach thinking, oh no, this is it’ – and it is not only the ‘knife-in-the-heart devastating’ Yoli speaks of. It is not only a tragedy, but a tragicomedy, often laugh-out-loud funny. Yoli’s narration makes it so. Toews never shies away from the darkness in Yoli’s life; one moment I was laughing at Yoli’s musings over her latest ‘social failure’ and then in the next the narrator was describing bluntly Elfrieda’s latest attempt to kill herself, how she drunk bleach and slit her wrists. Toews wanted ‘people not to be afraid of the subject matter, to get the tone right, right off the top, and to get the readers’ trust, so we could come out together in some other less dark place’. In order to do so, she has achieved an uneasy balance between the – at points almost unbearable -sadness of her narrator and her irrepressible wit.

Ultimately, Toews has found the words to work her own tragedy into ‘something that makes sense to me … Yes, there were serious issues and there was a tragedy but there was a lot of love, all the time’. Warmth permeates this novel. Yoli is surrounded by love as well as grief. From trauma is born the absolute knowledge that Yoli will never want for love – especially from Elf. She and Elf are ‘enemies who loved each other’, engaged in a battle where the outcome is either life or death. Elf begs her to take her to Switzerland and Yoli makes plans to take Elf home with her. Throughout the novel Yoli yearns for ‘true love’, not the love she has experienced with previous partners, but something deeper. Instead she finds it in the love she has for her family and for the women in her family in particular.

All Toews novels are concerned with the relationship between sisters and in families damaged by depression and marked by suicide and death. In ‘All My Puny Sorrows’, Yoli remembers how her maternal grandmother, Helena, lost six babies. Yoli ‘wondered how that worked, Helena’s grief’. Yoli’s mother and aunt have buried the rest of their siblings – her aunt, Tina, has also buried her own daughter. In ‘The Flying Troutmans’, the protagonist Hattie takes her nephew and purple-haired niece on a road trip when her older sister, Min, is lying in hospital wanting to die. In ‘Irma Voth’, a young Mennonite girl and her younger sister flee their abusive father and the weight of their older sister’s death at his hands to forge a new life in Mexico City. Toews writes her own relationship with her family and with her sister over and over and from the broken fragments of her life comes the beautiful completion of these novel. The rebuilding can begin. Yoli says ‘We’ve been here before. Everything is a repeat, another take’. ‘All My Puny Sorrows’ is yet another take for Toews; for her, as for Yoli, ‘writing helps organize the sadness’ and make it, as Yehuda might argue, the ‘bearer of trauma’ but also of joy. When life is ‘knife-in-the-heart devastating’, Toews asks how families can possibly hope to continue. Yoli continues, as Miriam Toews did, by writing and by loving.

Elfrieda is not her depression. She is her ‘intoxicating, razor-sharp self’. Yoli ‘wanted to sit next to her and feel the heat she radiates, the energy of a fearless leader, a girl who moved easily through the world, my sister’. She is the girl who hung 90 degrees over rushing water to climb around ‘the rock escarpments that hugged Lake Superior’ to see the ancient Aboriginal ochre paintings that can be found there. She is the girl who plays Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G Minor Opus 23 when the elders of the community, who had to be convinced to allow Elf a piano in the first place (a piano speaks of ‘saloons and speakeasies and unbridled joy’), visit their house, in a momentous act of subversion and rebellion. She is the girl who wishes she had been born in another time. She is the girl who reads Italo Calvino and is combative and argumentative. She is the woman who, even when she is starving and weak, performs a striptease to a Philip Larkin poem to drive a bishop from her hospital room. Elf is like Mary Wollstonecraft, Yoli thinks, quoting Richard Holmes: ‘There was something I suppose like a wild waterfall in the headlong, broken, plunging quality of Mary’s life. I stood and gazed at it roaring through the streets of Paris, visible only to me’. Now it is visible to all, just as Toews extraordinary talent is.

For Yehuda, ‘the plasticity of our genes is a hopeful thing’ and ‘All My Puny Sorrows’ ends with hope that although trauma might be carried in our genes, that the ‘suicide gene’ might persist, so does love.

Read:

An interview with Rachel Yehuda: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/187555/trauma-genes-q-a-rachel-yehuda

About Rachel Yehuda: http://www.mountsinai.org/profiles/rachel-yehuda

Miriam Toews in The Guardian

On trauma: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/where-science-meets-the-steps/201405/when-emotional-trauma-is-family-affair

Coleridge’s poem: http://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/samuel-taylor-coleridge/to-a-friend-with-an-unfinished-poem/

A Life Lived In Colour: Why Azar Nafisi’s ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ Is Still Relevant Today

Azar Nafisi’s ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’, the story of an University Professor who resigned her post and began secretly to teach her seven students about Western Literature in her own home in post-revolution Iran, was New York Times Bestseller for one hundred and seventeen weeks. Critics argue that its depiction of everyday life in Iran is obsolete, but the message about both the power of literature and of the individual can never truly be ‘dated’.

As I write this, I am wearing a tomato-red cardigan, a striped blue shirt, the colour of the sky on a bright summer’s day, lime-green socks. My hair is loose around my shoulders and mascara paints my eyelashes, earrings the size of pebbles hanging either side of my face. The women in Azar Nafisi’s ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ – a book which is both a testament to the power of literature and the imagination as much as it is a testament to her seven students, her fellow readerswear similarly colourful clothing. The book opens describing a photograph of her students gathered together: “Each has become distinct through the colour and style of her clothes, the colour and length of her hair; not even the two who are still wearing their headscarves look the same”. Yet it is only within the confines of Nafisi’s home in Iran in a “room of transgression”, a “wonderland” – the space in which she and seven of her female students gather to discuss predominantly Western literature – that these women can remove their scarves and veils to reveal such colourful clothing as they discuss works by writers from Austen to Hemingway. Nafisi, who now lives in Washington D.C. and teaches at John Hopkins University, herself resigned from her university post to teach these students because of the restrictions placed not only her teaching and her actions but even her body, because of her sex. Colours cannot peep from beneath these women’s scarves or robes, as their hair cannot show and colour cannot flash on their nails, glinting in the sun, for anyone else to see; colour cannot even flush their cheeks, or illuminate their eyes, or grace their lips. Even the length of their eyelashes are regulated. Manna, one of Nafisi’s students, a poet herself, becomes greedy for colour, desperate for “shocking pink” or even the “tomato red” of my cardigan.

Because Nafisi and her students live in the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1995. That they are prohibited from wearing such colours as “shocking pink” is not the fault of their faith (Nafisi in a recent article for the Guardian writes of the “tenderness of my grandmother’s Islam”, a tenderness we need in today’s world) or their choice to wear a hijab or chador but instead the fault of a regime which allows women no freedom of choice – in a week in which a woman was forced to remove her burkini on a beach, it is all the more important to note this. One of Nafisi’s students, Mahshid, wore her scarf before it became a compulsory piece of clothing as a statement of her faith, a mark of her conviction and belief. The decree that all women had to wear a scarf does not strengthen her faith; instead it weakens it. The students read Lolita together, having removed their scarves, and Nafisi writes her own critical analysis of the novel, an illuminating study in itself – yet Lolita also serves as a metaphor for life in the Islamic Republic for women. Just as Humbert steals away Lolita’s identity, so does the Islamic Republic leech both the colour and with it, the identity of the women living in Iran. In ‘The Veiled Threat’, an essay written in 1999, a mere two years after I was born, Nafisi wrote about the presence of women in Iranian society. Women, she said, had become ‘tremendously visible and powerful’, every gesture a political statement, because of the efforts to render them invisible. Prints of Degas’ paintings were censored when Nafisi lived in Iran so that they showed only the rooms in which ballerinas danced; the peony pink of the ballerinas has been erased. By 1979 women had become active in all spheres of life in Iran; ‘women were scholars, police officers, judges, pilots, engineers’, but post-revolution this activity would decline. Morgan Shuster says ‘The Persian women since 1907 had become almost at a bound the most progressive, not to say radical in the world’. They – and their radicalism – did not merely disappear in 1979 but answered, and continues to answer in this book itself, the radical Islam of the theocracy that persecutes women.

Nafisi herself knew the Iran of the 1960s, with its pro-Western, secular stance. But the Islamic Revolution in Tehran in 1979 changed Iran, with the ascension of Ayatollah Khoemini and the implementation of laws she, and her female students, would have to abide by – or not abide by. Her students Nassrin and Mahshid have both spent in jail when they first arrive at Nafisi’s door for their literature classes, whilst in her new work ‘The Republic of Imagination’ Nafisi writes about her friend Farah who fled Iran after participating in demonstrations). After 1979 the legal marriage age for women was lowered from eighteen to nine. A man could take up to four wives but a woman could only marry once and adultery was punishable by stoning to death. Women could never forget the “subversive potential of a single strand of hair”. At one point, clerics even proclaimed a fatwa on women’s education despite the fact that before 1979 there were more girls in schools than ever before. Nafisi has been attacked for her own seemingly Western leanings, but in ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ she is always torn between Iran and America, unable to choose definitively between her two homes. Nafisi says “I thought I might tell the story of (a) young girl, a young Muslim girl in fact who had never left Iran but who wrote poetry in three languages and composed on of the best essays I have ever read by a student on Woolf and the Impressionists”.

Nafisi’s work is not a memoir, or not a memoir only. It is not a history of Iran and Iranian women, although perhaps in part. It is not fiction, yet it verges on fiction, another student Manna (a pseudonym in itself) writing an epilogue in which she proclaims “I have become fixed like a Rodin statue. And so I will remain as long as you keep me in your eyes, dear readers”. How can any reader forget Manna? Or any of the ‘characters’ on the page of Nafisi’s work? It would be impossible, like forgetting the colour of the sky, the ‘swimming pool blue’ of Manna’s paradise, of Scheherazade’s dress. These women are not black marks upon a page but coloured in our imaginations, in the “absurd fictionality” they learn to live in and in reality, Mahshid with her skin “the colour of moonlight”, her “jet black hair”. Henry James, Austen, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Nabokov – all these names can be read on the spines of the books on my bookshelf, all these names signify so much to me. I am a reader. But I am also a young woman and it is the women in ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ I cannot forget. I am also an English student, a student just like Yassi or even Razieh, one of Nafisi’s students who was executed.

Women in Iran today still face such discrimination and violence – and they are not the only group to. According to Human Rights Watch, Iran is also one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists, bloggers and social media activists. In September 2015 the story of Niloufar Ardalan, the captain of the Iranian football team, demonstrated the legal discrimination women must confront in Iran. She was unable to play in a tournament in Malaysia because her husband had forbidden her from doing so; according to the law in Iran, married women cannot leave the country without their husband’s permission. Today the age of criminal responsibility for girls remains at only eight years and nine months. A man’s testimony automatically still carries more weight than a woman’s. In a world where it appears as if Hillary Clinton will become President of the United States, women in Iran cannot run for President. Karl Vick’s article ‘Sorry, Wrong ChadorIn Tehran, ‘Reading Lolita’ Translates as Ancient History’, published in the Washington Post in 2003 argues that in Tehran Nafisi’s book appears “dated”, as he interviews students wearing eyeshadow and carrying lime-green handbags. Nafisi herself, years before Karl Vick’s article, in her epilogue to ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ writes that already “much has changed in appearance since … I left. There is more defiance in Manna’s gait and those of other women; their scarves are more colourful and their robes much shorter; they wear makeup now”. But she also reminds readers that “parallel to this the raids and arrests and public executions also persist”, raids like those her students had to endure. Nafisi was a critic of the next President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Khatami, even though in Vick’s articles the interviewees see his election as a point of change in Iranian society, writing that his rule was characterised by periods of peace and then of ‘crackdown’. Earlier this year I read an article on Masih Alinejad, a womens rights activist in Iran whose movement My Stealthy Freedom began when she posted a picture of herself on Facebook; in the photo, she wasn’t wearing a hijab, which is still enforced in Iran.

Nafisi grew up reading French, in the time of Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir, Duras and she also read Bergson, Inesco, Barthes. Her father was the Mayor of Tehran and her uncle, Saeed Nafisi, wrote the first French-Persian dictionary and also translated both The Illiad and The Odyssey into Persian. Yet Azar herself does not see literature as merely accessible to some, to the privileged. Instead she sees – she writes in ‘The Republic of Imagination’ – a “nation of readers”. For her, we experience the colours of literature and in turn, literature colours us. This process continues exponentially; Nafisi says “stories are similar to hothouse flowers” in all their beauty “they need the alternative and curious eyes of others, of readers from all backgrounds, ages and places to reinterpret and in doing so give them a new name and a new life, otherwise they will be forgotten and simply wither and die”. Her view of literature reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s, who writes “once you’ve visited other worlds” in fiction “like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. And discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different, if they’re discontented”. Her work creates a world we can visit and return from, in order to better our own world, one that persecutes women such as Nafisi, one in which literature is not accessible to all. Gaiman writes that individuals “change their world, over and over”. Nafisi changes her world not only through her teaching, but also through her writing.

A reader of Nafisi’s ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ is left with an huge sense of sorrow at the loss of glittering, bright, colourful women like Razieh, at the idea that many of Nafisi’s students felt forced to move to America or abroad to escape the repression they endured in Iran, that Nafisi’s yearning for her homeland will never again be fulfilled. But it is impossible not to gain from Nafisi’s work as her students have gained from Fitzgerald, from Nabokov.

Read:

Azar Nafisi’s ‘The Republic of Imagination’

The Hijab in Iran here: https://www.theguardian.com/world/iran-blog/2013/dec/19/iran-hijab-islamic-veil

Neil Gaiman on the power of literature here: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/08/03/neil-gaiman-view-from-the-cheap-seats-reading/

On the attempt to ban the Burkini: http://www.vox.com/2016/8/25/12644846/burkini-ban-sexism-women-clothing-illustration-muslim-france