Sunday, December 22, 2013

"Meatless Days by Sara Suleri

"Leaving Pakistan was, of course, tantamount to giving up the company of women. [M]y reference is to a place where the concept of woman was not really part of an available vocabulary: we were too busy for that, just living, and conducting precise negotiations with what it meant to be a sister or a child or a wife or a mother or a servant” (1). This is how Sara Suleri's memoir Meatless Days begins. It relates the author's life as a woman, a daughter, a sister and a friend in Pakistan, but it is also concerned with how these experiences converge. Sara is the daughter of a Pakistani journalist obsessed with his country, whom she affectionately calls Pip, like a famous Dicken's character. Her mother is Welsh and therefore can afford to “disappear into Welshness”, remaining mostly silent or smiling only.
In spite of the first sentence, the memoir is filled with the presence of women, but their lives are sadly dotted by tragedies: the author’s sister Ifat got murdered for unknown reasons, while her mother got knocked down by a rickshaw and died. There are also funny moments and anecdotes, like Mustakori's funny nicknames, or the instance where Sara's mother's Urdu is mocked:
"Mamma's Urdu was an erratic thing, with sudden moments of access into idioms whose implications would throw her audience into gasps of surprise. When Barkat's recalcitrance kept her children denuded of clean white starched shirts and dresses to wear to school each day, Mamma's Urdu took a deep breath and opened the nearest idiomatic door, which sent her unknowing into the great precisions of classic amorous discourse. Barkat did not know where to look in his chagrin when Mamma gazed at him and said, her reproach as clear as a bell, “Barkat, how could you cause me such exquisite pain?” (41).
Sara Suleri knits the history of her family with that of her home country, Pakistan, so much that the years are counted on the names of cooks and dictators (“in the Allah Ditta era”, “in the Bhutto era” and so on). It is a book full of metaphors – the food and the fasting of the title being the most obvious. Because of this, it is not an easy read and it requires some efforts.

The author's father is often at the centre of the discussion on nationalism, Westernization and the role of women in a Pakistani household. Sara Suleri confesses that his father's two degrees, one in Persian and another in journalism, made him “torn […] between the literary and the political” (112). He gave up Urdu or Hindi for English, at the time the language of history: “In later years he would tell me with a sigh 'I did myself disservice when I gave up my tongue'” (ibidem). She goes on writing that:  “Generations of Urdu conversation in his genes must have shuddered with desertion as Papa's imperatives sent him off, away from poetry, into an English daily. He adopted it with a Dickensian zeal, picking up phrases and tonalities that he would never lose” (ibidem). Furthermore, Pip has a devotion for Jinna, “the most aware of all the politicians of India at that time of how to maintain a poetical posture in its history” (113). The Quaid, the Leader, is how Jinnah is called in Pakistan, Suleri says. It is like a god in the household: her father calls him simply the Father, creating an implicit connection between fatherhood and the nation that stays with the author (a chapter is called 'Papa and Pakistan').

"Meatless Days" is overall an engaging read. It is not often that we hear about Pakistani women with this degree of without being sentimental. From her exile in the West, Sara Suleri tells us about her country with enthusiasm and the right doses of criticism.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Reading and Writing about it...

It occurred to me that I never posted the link to an article I published in Italian about "Reading Lolita in Teheran" by Azar Nafisi. I am currently reading Azar Nafisi's follow-up, "Le Cose Che Non Ho Detto" (the book is called "Things I've Been Silent About" in English). I had posted an earlier version of my talk on this blog, but I'd like to share with you the final result of thinking about Lolita so much.

Azar Nafisi as a teenager

Friday, July 5, 2013

"Istanbul: Memoirs of a City" by Orhan Pamuk

Before my trip to Istanbul, I decided to read something about the city, and I picked up this memoir by Orhan Pamuk, the greatest living Turkish writer. Istanbul as described by this author is a decadent and gloomy city, where people live side by side with a persistent nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire and for the greatness of the past. By the end of the book it becomes clear that the author uses Istanbul to talk about himself, and that the city becomes a double for the writer. It is undeniably true that the Istanbul of sultans and harems is long gone, but the city the author remembers, with decrepit wooden houses, pastry shops he visited as a child hand in hand with his mother, and dilapidated secondary streets is also a thing of the past. Rather than identify himself as an accomplished writer, Pamuk prefers to depict himself as a failed painter, obsessed with the vedute of Istanbul created by Melling, a German visitor in the city, and therefore he embodies the spirit of this sad, bleak and dusty Istanbul he describes and cherishes.

Pamuk writes about his childhood and adolescent years in a big and dusty house in an affluent neighbourhood of the city, Beşiktaş: his large family, his love affair with a fellow student, his own sullenness and imagination as a child, and his relationship with the city, the countless ships cruising the Bosphorus and the opulent Ottoman palaces falling to pieces dotting his memories. He also lingers on his fascination with the complex history of Istanbul, and with a quirky encyclopedia of the city written by a certain Reşat Ekrem Koçu, explaining how the author freely inserted stories, personal opinions, anecdotes and even his sexual preferences into a publication that was inspired by Western encyclopedias but had a distinctive Turkish flavour. By telling anecdotes, describing parts of the town as they were when he was young, and writing about the historians and intellectuals of nineteenth and twentieth-century Istanbul Orhan Pamuk accompanies the reader among sultans and paşas, Western writers fascinated by the city, yalis on the waterfront, and bankrupt businessmen trying to revive the once prosperous commerce of the town.

The book comes with many early twentieth-century pictures of Istanbul that are quite fascinating. Having been there, one can see how different the city is now: the rotting wooden houses are now heavily restored and painted in pastel colours, to the point that it is hard to distinguish the historic buildings from the fake new ones built in imitation of that same style.

This is a perfect book to learn something about Istanbul, but it's more on how it was than on how it is. It's written beautifully, and even though it's non-fiction it's perfectly readable and enjoyable. Pamuk may not be everyone's cup of tea – his slow, descriptive style, and his preference for sad tones may put you off – but if you want to know how a contemporary master writes then give it a try. You'll learn more about a rich and interesting culture that is Western and non-Western at the same time, and that had a great influence on our ideas and preconceptions about the Orient.

In italiano: "Istanbul. I Ricordi e la Città" di Orhan Pamuk
Edito da Einaudi, 2008
pp.384, €11,05

Saturday, March 23, 2013

"Indigo. Or Mapping the Waters" by Marina Warner

Indigo is one of the many works of literature inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest. In this novel Marina Warner spills the beans about her ancestors, who were the first colonizers of the Caribbean island of St. Kitts (Enfant-Béate in the novel), back in the seventeenth century. In the novel, Kit Everard sails for the New World, where he establishes a new colony and has some skirmishes with the indigenous people. The author also explores the character of Sycorax, Caliban's witch mother who in the book is a Carib woman, who dies indigo and heals with the herbs she can find on the island. She has adopted two children: Ariel, an Arawak girl from the mainland, and Doulé (Caliban), an African baby boy littered by the ocean. While Caliban will leave and search for his African roots, however, Ariel will become a sort of Caribbean Malinche, and will bear Kit Everard's children.

Back in the twentieth century, we encounter Miranda and Xanthe, descendants of the first Kit Everard, who both live in London and have issues with their family of former planters. The attention is on Miranda, who is artistic, and worried about her heritage. With a Creole grandmother and dark features, she is constantly looking for her identity and her place in the world. Her young aunt (and almost half-sister) Xanthe, instead, is carefree and eager to earn some money by exploiting the possibilities tourism has brought to Enfant-Béate. She decides to go back to the islands, together with Miranda, for the anniversary of the first landing. The two girls will find answers on Enfant-Béate, but in different ways.

At first I loved this book and I couldn't put it down. Marina Warner is certainly an excellent writer; too bad that the last part was a little flat. I wish that the last section, set in the present time, had reached its full potential: you get only glimpses of the conflicting thoughts that the past of Miranda and Xanthe's family brings to their minds. All in all, it was a fascinating reading: it's good to read about the colonies from the perspective of the colonizers with an awareness of the guilt that such an identity can bring.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

"Annie John" by Jamaica Kincaid

Growing up in Antigua, one of the many islands of the Caribbean Sea, is not easy for Annie: she has to endure the competition of her schoolmates, deal with her changing body, with pubic hair sprouting in a couple of places, and get along with her beautiful mother who, much to her dislike, has just started to consider her a young girl, rather than a child. While white English teachers impart her lessons on Shakespeare and the right way to write autobiographical essays, Annie also experiences an alternative culture: when she is weak and feverish from an undiagnosed illness, her father calls an obeah woman, who puts scraps of paper with names of her father's former lovers all around her, drawing crosses on the soles of her feet and on her head. Her mother, who believes in Western medicine instead, takes her to an English doctor, and the medicines he prescribed end up next to the ones from the obeah woman. Which one was responsible for her recovery it is not clear.

As her body grows, so does her dislike for her mother, and  the desire to be independent. This brings Annie to leave her island, which is intrinsically connected to the figure of her mother. At the end of the book, before leaving for England, Annie reflects on the fact that she is going "away from my home, away from my mother, away from my father, away from the everlasting blue sky, away from the everlasting hot sun, away from people who said to me, 'This happened during the time your mother was carrying you'" (134). 

Jamaica Kincaid reflects on the eternal tropes of colonizer/colonized in a clever way. She references The Tempest more than once, constructing a fascinating answer to Shakespeare's text. For example, Annie's English schoolmistress, Miss Moore, is compared to a fish, "her throat [beating] up and down as if a fish fresh out of water were caught inside. I wondered", thinks Annie, "if she even smelled like a fish" (p.36). Here Kincaid is reversing the moment in Shakespeare's text when Caliban is described as a strange kind of fish, because of his smell and appearance. Shakespeare's play is also referenced directly when another teacher of her, Miss Nelson (note how "historical" all the surnames sound) is seen as reading an "elaborately illustrated edition of The Tempest" (p.39).
"Annie John" is a strange novella: there is the hint of a homoerotic bond and then its dismissal, and a growing difficult mother-daughter relationship that is not resolved until the end of the book with an unconvincing tear and a hug before sailing for England. It is clearly an autobiographical work, as it has been observed that the author is haunted by her own conflict with her mother. All in all, it is beautifully written, with short, simple and sometimes poetic sentences, of the kind Naipaul has accustomed us to. It is a window, albeit small, on how life was on a Caribbean island before mass tourism arrived.
For those of you who don't know her, Jamaica Kincaid is a writer born in the Caribbean island of Antigua in 1949. She moved to the USA in the 1960s to be an aupair there, and then studied photography and started to write for newspapers and magazines. She is now considered one of the most important Caribbean women writers. In her works, she often deals with issues regarding the colonial education she received and the failures of the postcolonial Caribbean nation. Her anger, directed at both the colonizers and the Antiguan people, is sometimes the reason why she is still nowadays a controversial writer.

In italiano: "Anna delle Antille" di Jamaica Kincaid
Edito da DeAgostini, 1997
pp.176, € 9,30

Monday, December 17, 2012

"Il paese dove non si muore mai" di Ornela Vorpsi

Ornela Vorpsi ha una storia un po' particolare: nata a Tirana, in Albania, nel 1968, ha studiato per alcuni anni all'Accademia di Brera, per poi trasferirsi nel 1997 a Parigi, dove vive con il marito francese. Nonostante per lei l'Italia sia stato solo un paese di passaggio, ha sempre scritto in italiano, fin dall'esordio avvenuto appunto con Il paese dove non si muore mai, pubblicato prima in Francia, ma in traduzione, nel 2004 e poi scelto da Einaudi, che ne ha pubblicato il manoscritto originale. Inserita tra i 35 migliori scrittori europei nell'antologia Best European Fiction, Ornela Vorpsi, come molti altri scrittori, ha adottato una lingua originariamente non sua adattandola ai suoi bisogni letterari. L'hanno fatto prima Conrad, poi Nabokov, ed innumerevoli scrittori provenienti dalle colonie più disparate. Tuttavia non siamo abituati a questo tipo di operazione con la lingua italiana: spesso la letteratura scritta da migranti in Italia appare spurgata dagli usi non convenzionali, quasi una mano magica sia passata a ripulirli. Ornela Vorpsi, invece, non si vergogna del suo italiano “spaesato”, come è definito nella quarta di copertina, ed in effetti il risultato è una ventata di freschezza della lingua, piuttosto che una cacofonia, come alcuni malintenzionati potrebbero pensare.

Il paese dove non si muore mai è un libricino sottile sottile, da leggere tutto d'un fiato, e può essere preso come un romanzo o come una raccolta di brevi racconti, chiaramente autobiografici. La protagonista di ogni capitolo, o racconto, cambia infatti nome diverse volte, ma è comunque sempre una bambina o un'adolescente che vive nell'Albania maschilista e crudele della dittatura comunista di Hoxha. E' evidente come la scrittrice sia voluta partire da quello che hanno scritto i grandi della letteratura albanese, primo tra tutti Kadaré, conosciutissimo anche in Italia, volgendo l'attenzione però alle donne albanesi: a come sono state bistrattate, picchiate, sfruttate, giudicate male anche solo per la loro bellezza. Le loro sofferenze e la loro tenacia sono infatti al centro di questo libro, che ha come motivo ricorrente il colore rosso, il colore del sangue ma ovviamente anche della passione e, non da ultimo, del regime comunista che ha segnato l'infanzia e l'adolescenza della protagonista.

Chi è di buone letture, tuttavia, potrà riconoscere nel titolo un'altra influenza di Ornela Vorpsi, Italo Calvino, che tra le sue Fiabe Italiane ne ha proprio una intitolata Il paese dove non si muore mai. L'Albania a tratti forti narrata da Ornela Vorpsi, apparentemente sembra aver poco a che fare con il realismo magico e con le leggende dal risvolto storico di Calvino e Kadaré, ma il gioco sta tutto nel scoprirne le assonanze e le dissonanze.

Il Paese dove non si muore mai di Ornela Vorpsi
Edito da Einaudi, 2005
pp.116, € 11

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

"Cast me out if you will" by Lalithambika Antherjanam

In the jungle of Indian writers you may have never heard the name of Lalithambika Antherjanam (1905-1985), in spite of the fact that she was a highly regarded writer in her native Kerala. This is perhaps because she used to write in Malayalam, the local Dravidian language, and as far as I know this is her only book translated into English, or at least the only one that is easy to find. It collects some of her short stories and some interesting memoir pieces.
An antherjan in a recent movie adaptation of Lalithambika's novel "Agnisakshi". 
Lalithambika Antherjanam was born into the Namboodiri brahmin caste in what was then the state of Travancore. She came from a particularly constrictive society: women from her community were kept in seclusion inside the women's quarters of the house, called antahpuram, where they had to go with the upper parts of their body naked. In the rare occasions when they left the house, they had to screen their faces with palm-leaf umbrellas and cover themselves entirely with a piece of unbleached cloth. Antherjanams, the way namboodiri women are called, had to follow strict rules for everything: they could not receive an education and they could only marry the eldest son of a namboodiri household. For the slightest transgression of the rules, antherjanams were trialed and cast out of society.
Lalithambika had the luck to have an illuminated father, who gave her an education. However, when she threw away her palm-leaf umbrella and went to a meeting of feminist activists she was cast out, together with her husband. She began her career as a writer, in spite of the disapproval of everyone. Her stories are all about women: women who committed sins and ended their life in poverty or repentance, young widows whose lives have been shattered by the untimely death of their husbands, mothers who have lost their sons in a war or for the strict rules of their community, and even a prostitute and a yogini. Whether social workers like Bhanumati Amma in "Come back", or strong mothers in the isolation of a farway city like Meena Mami in "The Boon", or again disillusioned wives turned prostitues in what is in my opnion one of the best pieces of the book, "The Goddess of Revenge", the women in Lalithambika Antherjanam's book are hard to forget. If you like Mahasweta Devi's stories about women and tribal people, about injustices and unspeakable horrors, then you would probably like Lalithanbika's work. She was inspired by the work of Tagore, especially by his novel "The Home and the World". As a result, her stories are impregnated with activism, to the point that some of them are more an exposure of some unbearable wrongs in the namboodiri society than a pleasure to read for the way they are written. However, I am only reading this in translation, and I might never know how the stories were like in the original form. The book is interesting also from an anthropological point of view, to understand the customs of this small community, resistant to the changes that nationalism was bringing throughout the country.

"Cast me out if you will. Stories and Memoir" by Lalithambika Antherjanam 
Translated and edited by Krishnankutty, with a foreword by Meena Alexander
Published by The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1997, pp.188