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:
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:
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):
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!):
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:
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:
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:
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:
‘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’