Capitalism: A Ghost Story, Arundhati Roy

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I had expected this book to be bigger, and the title is quite ambitious. Nevertheless, Roy’s language, the way she writes, is so compact and punchy that these 96 pages are dense with impact and power. Especially for me, someone who only knows nominally about the politics of India. I know just about enough about the rise of the right-wing there, but of course, the right is rising everywhere with the current global wave of populism (perhaps the most startling thing I found out was the popularity of Hitler’s book Mein Kampf in India..).

The preface alone is worth reading this. Let me quote a little:

“The Minister says that for India’s sake, people should leave their villages and move to the cities. He’s a Harvard man. He wants speed. And numbers. Five hundred million migrants, he thinks, would make a good business model. Not everybody likes the idea of their cities filling up with the poor. A judge in Mumbai called slum dwellers pickpockets of urban land. Another said, while ordering the bulldozing of unauthorized colonies, that people who couldn’t afford it shouldn’t live in cities.

When those who had been evicted went back to where they came from, they found their villages had disappeared under great dams and quarries. Their homes were occupied by hunger, and policemen. The forests were filling up with armed guerrillas. War had migrated too. From the edges of India, in Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, to its heart. So the people returned to the crowded city streets and pavements. They crammed into hovels on dusty construction sites, wondering which corner of this huge country was meant for them.”

I found the full preface reproduced here and you can have a read as well. Please do!

As the preface suggests, the book is a lacerating punch back against the severe inequality and violent injustice due to the effects of capitalism. And of course just using the word “capitalism” can seem general and vague, but the demands of capitalism as we know entails a great amount of intervention into aspects of social and political spheres in the interest of corporate profit. It’s sinister. And when we look at the human cost.. it’s frankly evil.

She starts off with an image of the biggest house in India, called Antilla, that’s owned by the richest man in India called Mukesh Ambani. It cost US$1 billion & has a staff of 600 to upkeep. It has six floors of parking space, 27 floors in total, three helipads & nine lifts. I went ahead & got a picture, this is what it looks like:

It doesn’t look nice. But of course wealth of this scale makes everything look vulgar. At the same time this building exists, 80% of people living in India subsist on US$0.50 or less.

She reveals the intricate connections between endowed organizations, NGOs, and the effect they have in politics. All of the power being enacted here is done through the exchange of money, and the tacit, soft power approach of deciding what gets to be considered as “acceptable” in the realm of political stance and charity. Foundations like the Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation are some that she talked about. NGOs or groups that are working on more “radical” projects or causes do not get funding, are marginalized, and some eventually are unable to continue. All the while, the limits of conversation or how we think about resistance is being shaped:

“Armed with their billions, NGOs have waded into the world, turning potential revolutionaries into salaried activists, funding artists, intellectuals and filmmakers, gently luring them away from radical confrontation, ushering them in the direction of multi-culturalism, gender, community development—the discourse couched in the language of identity politics and human rights. The transformation of the idea of justice into the industry of human rights has been a conceptual coup in which NGOs and foundations have played a crucial part. The narrow focus of human rights enables an atrocity-based analysis in which the larger picture can be blocked out and both parties in a conflict—say, for example, the Maoists and the Indian government, or the Israeli Army and Hamas—can both be admonished as “human rights violators”. The land-grab by mining corporations in India or the history of the annexation of Palestinian land by the State of Israel then become footnotes with very little bearing on the discourse. This is not to suggest that human rights don’t matter. They do, but they are not a good enough prism through which to view or remotely understand the great injustices in the world we live in.”

Earlier on I mentioned that the wave of populism is global, but why is that? Her book reveals how India itself fell in line with American corporate values and its insidious form of philanthropy. Their strong grassroots movements, ones that comprise of the poor and lower-caste, have to contend with the importation of western liberal values that disregard them.

*

The numbers in this book are staggering and something that struck me hard. I could not believe the human cost of capital. There is also the figure of 250,000 farmer suicides due to the detriment of their livelihoods. Then the tens of thousands of people who commit suicide due to the debt they accumulate due to credit. Adding on to the issue of class is the fact a lot of the disenfranchised and the dispossessed are Dalits and Adivasi. But they & the figures related to their lives (or deaths) are inconsequential to the rapid growth of capitalism, the rich, & the government. These are not the numbers they care about. They and the very land they stand on are only valuable if they can provide profit. So we read about things like this:

Having signed over vast tracts of indigenous tribal homelands in central India to multinational mining and infrastructure corporations in a series of secret memorandums of understanding, the government has begun to flood the forests with hundreds of thousands of security forces. All resistance, armed as well as unarmed has been branded “Maoist” (In Kashmir they are all “jihadi elements”).

As the civil war grows deadlier, hundreds of villages have been burnt to the ground. Thousands of adivasis have fled as refugees into neighboring states. Hundreds of thousands are living terrified lives hiding in the forests. Paramilitary forces have laid siege to the forest, making trips to the markets for essential provisions and medicines a nightmare for villagers. Untold numbers of nameless people are in jail, charged with sedition and waging war on the state, with no lawyers to defend them. Very little news comes out of those forests, and there are no body counts.

This was about Kashmir. And the full story can be read here. Please read it as well.

She goes on to talk about corruption as well, and the corruption featured here has a lot to do with the way the government wants more privatisation, something that will not end well for those who are basically not rich. The way geo-politics of India and Pakistan are handled is featured strongly as well — The way evidence is blatantly fabricated to falsely indict an innocent man, and how the courts do not punish police found to have made false evidence; the thousands that have died in undignified ways; civilians killed and then simply called “terrorists” so their murderers can escape unscathed. The border of Kashmir is patrolled by 500,000 soldiers — the most highly militarized place in the world.

I can’t believe how much is said in such a thin book. And of course she knows she can afford to say it due to her position. She’s visible, has international standing, is middle-class, and knows that she can stick her neck out, so she does. In fact she mentioned that there is a law that made it an offence to say anything about the state’s illegal activities that would result in “disaffection,” against the state (and of course a lot of illegal activities by the state is in relation to Kashmir) & she has certainly willingly decided to break this absurd law. She knows very well that she has to speak in part because of her position. I still remember this paragraph near the beginning:

In India the 300 million of us who belong to the new, post-International Monetary Fund “reforms” middle class –the market – live side by side with the spirits of the netherworld, the poltergeists of dead rivers, dry wells, bald mountains, and denuded forests; the ghosts of 250,000 debt-ridden farmers who have killed themselves, and of the 800 million who have been impoverished and dispossessed to make way for us. And who survive on less than twenty Indian rupees a day.

I ended up quoting a lot from this book because honestly I think she explains it best. It is a compact punch, and I recommend it.

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Sikit-Sikit Lama-Lama Jadi Bukit: An Anthology ed. by Annaliza Bakri

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[a version of this review was published in Karyawan vol. 13 issue 1, Jan 2018]

What does it mean to lose a place? In a capitalist city-state like Singapore where economic interests supersede sentimentality, nostalgia, & even history, where heritage sites are mowed over or revamped for a highway or a new shopping district, what does it mean to remember a place except to participate in a kind of mourning?

Sikit-Sikit Lama-Lama Jadi Bukit is an anthology of poems edited and translated by Annaliza Bakri. The poems, placed in their original language and translations side by side, are focused on specific places in Singapore written by Malay poets both award-winning and established, as well as more contemporary, younger voices. These poems were selected based on their rumination on specific sites in Singapore, such as the poets’ individual kampungs, Orchard Road, Tebrau Strait (commonly known as Straits of Johor), and the area most associated with the Malay community, Geylang Serai. As the book progresses however, one realises that it is too simplistic to reduce the anthology as a collection of poems on places. Additional considerations had also been “to include voices that spoke of loss, nostalgia, identity, problems, dreams and aspirations.” In a way, the places were either central, or tangential, to these other considerations.

A considerable number of the poems are meditative, caught in a rumination of a place in a past era, recounting its now vanished sights and sounds, such as “Silent River” by Mohd Khair Mohd Yasin, “Geylang Serai” by Yatiman Yusof and “Bukit Timah Sidewalk (memories from the 60s)” by Nordita Taib. Some are more experiential than descriptive such as poems “Bus 67” and “Haji Lane” by Isa Kamari, while others are odes to specific places, or a retelling of a historical episode. For the most part, a sense of nostalgia pervades the collection of poems, regardless of the voice or form it takes.

This tendency to poeticise places in a wistful, even mournful rumination is a telling one. It is as if one cannot speak about these places without invoking the ghost of its former streets, its former people, and the memories the poets associate the place with. It is no small fact that a considerable number of the poets lived through a developing Singapore, and some even remember a pre-independent Singapore, before the split with Malaysia.

“Song of Tebrau” by Juffri Supa’at, for example, is an almost loving ode to the Tebrau Strait that one can’t help but read in parallel with Singapore’s relationship with Malaysia. Mourning the absence of intimacy and warmth that was once felt, he asks

Is this…
because we were once
disappointed and failed in love?

Similarly, “Tebrau Strait” by Mohamed Latiff Mohamed is also a loving, even an almost erotic ode, at the end of which he presents the Straits as a place subjected to the political wills of men, while she herself is indifferent –

and you remain silent
calm and gentle
letting clams and cockles rodents roam about
moving on with life
without thinking
who will earn profits
who will carry the burden.

Presenting these places as innocent victims to development and capitalist imperatives of profit is something we see throughout the text. The spectre of development is never far, and often spoken of as a kind of violence, a tide, a wave that has swept over these places, changing them so completely that the poets are at a loss to comprehend the fact that they are no longer the same. As Yatiman Yusof writes in “Geylang Serai,”

Now the wind blows
and everything is gone.

This sense of standing unnerved, helpless only to watch as change happens in a blink, is a familiar sentiment of those who have lived through the rapid development of Singapore.

Part of the pain of development is the way former prized places, often seen as places of peaceful natural respite and pristine slowness, is helpless before the violence of development. In “Geylang Serai” by Mohamed Latiff Mohamed, we are given the following image:

A distance away
a bulldozer roared madly
flattening the attap houses
the old mosques.

This image appears again in Norashikin Jamain’s “Kampung Melayu” where she writes “your chest is scoured / by lorries and bulldozers.”

Interestingly, even the very air is mentioned in several poems, to mark perhaps the corruption that development brings – with Jamain describing “the freshness of the morning / disturbed by the stale vapour from vehicles’ fumes,” and Ahmad Md Tahir in “Shenton Way” writing “The air gets viscous / as it dissolves in monoxide.”

Corruption is an interesting concept to turn to at this point. To point out that the air is corrupt, or to look back and remember a place as one of natural simplicity, is perhaps something only truly done in retrospect, after it is compared against the current tide of development. Corruption isn’t only spoken of in the physical and literal definition but also through a lens of morality and value-judgement. Development is seen as a corrupting, almost immoral force. When combined with the strong presence of Islam in the lives and words of these poets, we see how the language of religion is employed to further reiterate the loss felt. In “Wak Tanjong Will Continue to Stand Here,” Suratman Markasan writes an ode to the madrasah that stands in the face of moral and religious degradation: “there are many signs everywhere / that made us confused and the ulama sorrowful” – with the students being the ones “who know the real truth.”

The mosque especially is important in our discussion here. The mosque for the Malay/Muslim community is a religious place, but its value extends beyond its practical purpose. It also functions as a place where the community gathers. The aspect of community, one which is contrasted against the alienation and isolation replete in capitalist city-states like Singapore, is important for us to keep in mind when understanding the sense of alienation.

In “Kampung Race Course Mosque,” Faridah Taib writes:

what is left is just history
no more kalima
the rhapsody of the prayer call
can I buy a nostalgic past?
can the unyielding tears be its replacement?

Masjid Al-Falah makes a couple of appearances in the book as well. In “Saturday Night (In Orchard Road)” by Juffri Supa’at, we read the following lines:

From a corner
the call reverberates from Al-Falah
audibly fading
in the midst of roaring
vehicles and city dwellers.

This is perhaps one of the more elegant, quiet expressions of insecurity and loss in the face of development. The mosque, a place that represents spirituality, communal gathering, and the Muslim community is not only in the corner, but audibly fading, drowned out by the sounds of deafening progress.

National narratives often present the speed of development Singapore went through after independence as a success story. One that proves our miraculous and meteoric rise from “third-world to first.” But of course, it is imperative to remember that this is a national narrative, a constructed one, or at the very least a kind of wilful selection and shaping of facts. The poems in the collection present a different narrative: one where the speed of development people bore witness to was experienced with a sense of longing, mournfulness, loss, and even a sense of disassociation and dislocation. More importantly, the poems are also a form of resistance against the speed of forgetting that accompanies the kind of development we are caught in, where places are destroyed and rebuilt faster than our memory and recording can cope with.

For a moment, these poems throw us into the personal narratives and memories of these places. In just another decade, perhaps this book would provide the only lasting piece of existing memory to remember some of the historical images and memories recounted. Who else will remember the smell of a river so many decades back, or the call of the birds? Who else might remember that a place once had another name, and that for a long time, nobody had called it any other way? Perhaps this anthology of poems can be a call for us to also participate in the act of slowness and remembering; to write our own kind of poems to fossilise what would be swept away so quickly by the winds of capital and national development.

 

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy

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Her first fiction book in 20 years! For some it may feel like a huge gap, a great absence, if one were not familiar with the fact that Roy is a committed activist and has in fact published books in between these 20 years and worked tirelessly in her activism in her home country of India. Knowing this is important, and I do think that my knowing, and my enjoyment of her works in the interim, listening to her interviews, has sharpened my enjoyment of this novel, or at least made it more accessible to me. This book is dense, it is not easy. It can be slow, and it can make you feel lost sometimes with its references to the complicated politics through the decades of India’s contemporary democratic existence.

This book is a whole world. The scope of what she has included, the breadth but also the depth of it, is so staggering and utterly amazing. How did she fit it all? How did she talk about it all with so much tenderness, humanity, and love? At no point did she discount the amount of violence that we have to also think about. I thought that she captured the complexity very well too, especially if she were to talk about the politics without the characters. Some characters are quite obviously stock, in terms of the opinions they have (like the typical of ‘liberal’ or ‘centrist’ types, and one of course one of them is a journalist! lol) but I guess it is quite necessary especially for people who are not familiar with the politics, just so they can get some sort of approximation of what the different viewpoints are. (Also definitely, while she is nuanced she does have a firm stand which is why the book pisses off so many nationalists). Having watched/read enough Arundhati Roy interviews I could recognise that some parts were based on her own experience too.. I’m glad that her writing this was just so fully human, so full of the blood that made senseless violence feel a bit more human.

Despite some stock characters, she still manages to write about it all with the heartbreaking intimacy that I love about her writing… this quote:

God’s carotid burst open on the new border between India and Pakistan and a million people died of hatred. Neighbours turned on each other as though they’d never known each other, never been to each other’s weddings, never sung each other’s songs.

When I mention how ambitious it is however, I also have to mention that there were some moments when it felt strained. The book is populated with characters, and you can feel a bit lost sometimes. The chronology can confuse you too. Furthermore, the fact that she has included a kind of ‘parody’ with certain characters means that it will bring about some less-than-serious passages than are a bit of a contrast to her beautiful prose.

This is an incredibly political book. And I think when I see negative reviews of it, it is often incredibly apolitical. They cannot stand how the inclusion of the politics disturbs their experience of reading. At the same time, I guess Arundhati Roy is such a firecracker of an activist it obvious that she can’t help but go off sometimes in the text.. sort of running away from the story for a while when it hits on a certain political hot spot. Basically sometimes it isn’t done with the sort of finesse that is considered ‘literary’ and elegant. The density of the book’s politics also meant that I was acutely aware that there’s a lot I will not fully understand because I am not living in India or fully immersed in their politics, life there, nor experienced the decades that have unfolded.

Reading this goodreads review for example gives us an example of the references that she puts in the book:

There are unflattering depictions of characters based on AB Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh, Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal. And, of course, Roy’s favorite Gujarat’s Lalla, who happens to be a very popular PM currently. For these reasons, it won’t be surprising if in the way things are handled these days (in India and in many other parts of the world), there would be widespread criticism of the book (some nutcase might even call for its banning!) by many who haven’t even read it.

Ultimately though, I still do find it an incredibly beautiful, tender book that makes me feel quite awed.

The way she wrote about what Kashmiris feel, go through, were parts where I felt most touched.. nobody really goes into that level of human understanding where you try to understand what violence can do to a community, how they regard each other, how it affects the way they might trust or view each other, their own history or survivability. How that level of violence and trauma affects the deepest level of human affection and relational experience.

Of course on the other side of it all is that it can be so chilling how she writes about the mechanical cruelty of the ‘right’, the way they clean up the street after a massacre-

The post-massacre protocol was quick and efficient- perfected by practice. Within an hour the dead bodies had been removed to the morgue in the Police Control Room, and the wounded to hospital. The street was hosed down, the blood directed into the open drains. Shops reopened. Normalcy was declared.

The way they systematically torture and kill. The way they practice their lies so easily. The way the deaths of people are rewritten in official reports. Think I’ll never forget that part of the book where they made one Kashmiri man try to bring out another severely injured Kashmiri man they were chasing who had hidden in sewage. For one a half hours they had looked at each other until the suspect died there, in sewage, and then he was reported to be a terrorist/militia member the authorities had captured in a supposedly tense face-off. It was these kind of episodes that really revealed the cruelty and inhumanity so much, & it was parts like this where I the aforementioned heartbreaking exposition on Kashmiris really tore through me:

Those eyes that stared at us for one and a half hours – they were forgiving eyes, understanding eyes. We Kashmiris do not need to speak to each other any more in order to understand each other. We do terrible things to each other, we wound and betray and kill each other, but we understand each other.

I know it’s really unfair to compare to her first novel 20 years ago but I really can’t help it. I didn’t give her a full 5 stars on goodreads because this novel did not grip and move me as much as the God of Small Things, which I found so breathtaking, spellbinding, and just.. god I feel so emotional just thinking about it. Truly one of the most beautiful books I’ve read. But I think in a way there is something to say about the experience of the novel, of fiction, of whether the book allows us to fall into itself. For The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, there was that kind of falling that Arundhati Roy’s writing has the magic to induce, but not as deeply… but I feel like I can’t possibly hold that against her. She is writing around a bloody history. Do we want to experience that as fictional pleasure? Nevertheless.. it is still an enjoyable read.

The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed

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I haven’t updated in ages! I guess it seems quite daunting to me to write a more detailed critical review than a goodreads one & I want to do it well. I thought I should do one for this Sara Ahmed book before the craze of essay submissions begin.

This was truly a relish to read. A brilliant theoretical book & I think she is truly on another level as a theorist. This book is probably also beyond me lol, but I will try to relay what I understood from it.

In theorising a cultural politics of emotion, Sara Ahmed analyses the relationship between emotions (whether ‘hate’ or ‘love’ quite loosely understood as positive or negative affect), language (speech acts), and bodies (the recipients of speech-acts, emotions, and ‘impressions’).

I found it interesting how she theorises hate and love as basically impressions that are placed onto bodies repeatedly. To be turned against (perhaps due to your skin colour) out of fear by someone, to move towards your mother who is ‘safer’, to receive a racial slur — these are all acts of ‘impressions’ that communicate either hate or love. In this way, every act carries emotion, and every gesture carries affect. Through this marketplace of impressions there is eventually an understood agreement over which bodies are more agreeable & which are not. It communicates which bodies can be given more space and which bodies are given the injunction to shrink. So obviously, for example, a person of racial privilege feels more comfortable in their society because their impressions have been positive, whereas a racial minority might shrink themselves because they receive ‘impressions’ that communicate that they are disagreeable. In a way, this is how social norms are created & sustained.

Let me share a quote with you where she explains it quite well (& I’m afraid this is one of the easiest passages that I can find to explain it):

To be touched in a certain way, or to be moved in a certain way by an encounter with another, may involve a reading not only of the encounter, but of the other that is encountered as having certain characteristics. If we feel another hurts us, then that feeling may convert quickly into a reading of the other, such that it becomes hurtful, or is read as the impression of the negative. In other words, the ‘it hurts’ becomes, ‘you hurt me’, which might become, ‘you are hurtful’, or even ‘you are bad’. These affective responses are readings that not only create the borders between selves and others, but also ‘give’ others meaning and value in the very act of apparent separation, a giving that temporarily fixes an other, through the movement engendered by the affective response itself. Such responses are clearly mediated: materialisation takes place through the ‘mediation’ of affect, which may function in this way as readings of the bodies of others.

She thus provides us with a semiotic analysis on the politics of emotion, exemplified through current case studies. She does this mostly by studying the articulation and expression of emotions of love and hate in contemporary issues such as the response of Americans to September 11 attacks, the issue of Australians being asked to be ashamed of their history of violence towards Aboriginals, and how hate organisations such as white supremacist groups justify themselves through a rhetoric of ‘love’. This is the part that I found most interesting. How does the language of love itself become a tool to perpetuate something that is actually quite hateful? And how does a manipulation of emotion & its language make one invested in social norms? White supremacists do not define themselves as hate groups, but groups that are premised on the ‘love’ of the white race and the Aryan nation.

Rhetorics of love or hate, the way they are impressed upon bodies — these are all things that can and have been manipulated for sinister reasons. And this is not just on the individual scale of course, but also in terms of collective bodies/communities.

“I have offered a strong critique of how acting in the name of love can work to enforce a particular ideal onto others by requiring that they live up to an ideal to enter the community. The idea of a world where we all love each other, a world of lovers, is a humanist fantasy that informs much of the multicultural discourses of love, which I have formulated as the hope: If only we got closer we would be as one. The multicultural fantasy works as a form of conditional love, in which the conditions of love work to associate ‘others’ with the failure to return the national ideal.”

One of my favourite chapters was “The Affective Politics of Fear” where she explains the politics of fear especially when selectively applied to certain bodies (brown, Muslim, South Asian, etc). In order to feel fear against such bodies, those bodies must have first already been coded as ‘violent’ or ‘hateful’; as a body that one would feel fearful of. There is a discussion then of ‘stickiness’ how certain bodies accumulate signs, how certain negative values ‘stick’ to such bodies, a semiotic reading of racial prejudice.

‘Stickiness’ something that is linked to feelings of disgust (think of the theory of the ‘abject’ from this point on if you are familiar with it, it seems relevant). So when a body is more ‘sticky’ it can accumulate more affect and it is hard for certain affective values to ‘unstick’ themselves, or for other affective values in turn to ‘stick’ on to them. So for example, a person of color is more ‘sticky’ to affects of disgust, and that makes it hard for more positive affective feelings such as being coded as a ‘neutral’ or ‘safe’ person, to stick on to them. After 9-11, brown bodies were ‘sticky’ in the fact that they kept being read as potential terrorists.

Here’s a good quote:

“It is important to recognise that the figure of the international terrorist has been mobilised in close proximity to the figure of the asylum seeker. This is certainly clear in the British amendment to the Terrorism Act, which juxtaposes the question of asylum with the question of terrorism. The amendment merely suggests that the appellant is not entitled to protection when suspected of being an international terrorist. The implicit assumption that governs the juxtaposition in the first place is that of any body in the nation (subjects, citizens, migrants, even tourists) the asylum seeker is most likely to be in the international terrorist.”

The chapters “Queer Feelings” and the hopeful “Feminist Attachments” were some other favourites of mine which really explicated the operations of power that through repetition of acts give the impression of what is considered ‘natural’ and therefore ‘unnatural’, and how one thus respond as a person who has been considered ‘abject’ / non-heteronormative. I feel like she has provided the most insightful discussion on the debate of marriage & whether it is good politics to want to be a part of that ‘system’ /heteronormative order. I do know that the radical view (which I had tended to) was that marriage is not necessarily an institution that is worth wanting inclusion in for the reason that it is an oppressive institution, that it is a tool of the state in terms of distributing resources to pairings they find more ‘legitimate’, and the fact that this expensive union is not one of the primary concerns of so many working-class LGBTQ individuals. But for Sara Ahmed, this is something that you can change with more inclusion of queer marriages. It is not necessarily something set in stone (which is true), and change is possible.

I found so much of her writing to be illuminating and full of the ‘wonder’ that she describes in the 2nd last chapter; a wonder of realising that this is how the world works, and then asking, why does it work like that? I also really enjoyed her kind of feminist praxis and found it incredibly hopeful and erudite.

Why I am not Jessa Crispin’s Feminist

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Before I start, for those who are not familiar, this isn’t an anti-feminist book. It’s a feminist manifesto. The title is purposefully incendiary.

I really wanted to like this book. I guess that’s partly my fault, like why did I expect so much? I think because one of the people I admired seemed to like the book a lot, and the people the book largely pissed off were people I didn’t mind pissing off. I’m being snide but actually the book’s topic is really important and not one something that typically hits mainstream discourse. So for someone who has voice and reach, she has a unique chance to be able to articulate it, and she didn’t do it very well. I would have given it 2 stars on goodreads if I didn’t still feel that there are still things in the book that she at least still managed to say right and were important.

The book starts out relatively fine, even if we set aside how polemical it is, which I could tolerate because I was familiar with the message she was trying to put across. It is right to point out the main problems with contemporary liberal feminism today — that its aims are shallow and centred around the ‘lean in’ approach focused on the ambitions of a narrow elite of women. This is not a feminism for all women and it certainly does not question the fundamentally unjust, capitalist, neoliberal structure we are functioning in. I get it. We want better than buzzfeed, taylor swift feminism. Disney princesses are tired of being re-conceptualised. I too can’t stand the over-emphasis on female CEOs, lawyers, bankers, politicians; the power-feminism that utterly disregards the working-class. I too can’t stand how it has been co-opted by corporations once it’s fashionable. I rolled my eyes at a “feminist” sweatshirt in H&M. Sure you’re feminists now! Cause it’ll make you money! She’s right to point out that a feminism that is watered-down to be made palatable and unthreatening is not something that can serve everyone.

“This is part of the problem of creating a unified front for feminism: the median feminist is generally going to be a middle-class, educated white woman. Her desires and needs cannot stand in for the needs of all women. And yet we’ve focused on facilitating her dreams for much of recent feminist history. Our goals have been things that would make her life easier, like equal pay, removing barriers to higher education, delaying childbearing through birth control and fertility treatment developments. “

It doesn’t really get better from here on though. Setting her arguments aside for a moment, the writing itself was quite erratic and unclear. She tends to use terms that are quite general without specifying what exactly she’s referring to, so it’s confusing at times to figure out who she’s exactly addressing, or what she’s precisely talking about. At times I had to keep reminding myself that this really strong line I’m reading is probably directed at the liberal white feminists she is criticising, otherwise it’s seriously uncalled for. She simply says “feminist”, so I am not sure. There are plenty of straw-women in this book she knocks down, a lot of blanket statements. She tends to also over-simplify phenomenons when she describes them, especially when talking about the current tensions that exist in feminist circles, which to be honest is only going to make tensions worst lol. Despite being a more ‘radical’ feminist, her rhetoric sometimes sounded eeriely like conservatives who make generalising statements. Take this specimen, for example:

“This is the way dissent is handled in feminist realms: a contrary opinion or argument is actually an attack. This stems from the belief that your truth is the only truth, that your sense of trauma and oppression does not need to be examined or questioned.”

This sounds like some anti-feminist fuckboy’s 3dgy comment on a facebook meme. She goes ahead and defines for us how dissent is handled in feminist realms, she then goes on to define for us the belief underlying it. I mean… like, how did she arrive at these conclusions, or is this mere conjecture? How am I supposed to take these lines seriously? Even as a radical feminist I feel like this drastically oversimplifies the tensions present in feminists circles. It’s so inadequate, and so confident at the same time. I’m taken aback someone can just… say this.. in a published book.

She also tends to do the things that she tells people not to do, which adds to my confusion. Glaringly for me was her position re: identity politics. Her critique of it seems to be of the more radical vein instead of the rather annoying liberal one:

“What was once collective action and a shared vision for how women might work and live in the world has become identity politics, a focus on individual history and achievement, and an unwillingness to share space with people with different opinions, worldviews, and histories. It has separated us out into smaller and smaller groups until we are left all by ourselves, with out concern and our energy directed inward instead of outward”

Ok writing that out I realise her critique starts out radical, then goes on to the liberal critique before returning back. It’s confusing. Yes there has been a focus on the individual, and the ‘self-empowerment’ narrative kind of isolates people instead of building community, and detracts us from seeing systemic injustice and tend to seek individual instead of systematic solutions. But how in the world!!!! is that related to people being unwilling to share space with people with different opinions/worldviews??? It’s like she was driving fine along the road of trying to critique identity pols, did a little detour to take a dump/throw some shade, and drove back. At this point I’m looking at who published this & wanting to ask them why they didn’t edit her book better.

Also despite her valid (but still shallow) critique of identity politics, she doesn’t utilise it herself a lot of times. She tends to devolve into focusing on individual errors of women, in the realm of personal choices, instead of taking the more systemic, structural understanding of why they make such decisions or were coerced into such decisions.

Another example of how she doesn’t seem to follow her own demands that she quite polemically scolds into people. These two quotes are from the same book ya’ll:

[1] “We do not like to pay attention to how the casual demonization of white straight men follows the same pattern of bias and hatred that fuels misogyny, racism, and homophobia. . . What does outrage actually accomplish? There was probably a moment when calling out the actions of some guy opened up a conversation, something along the lines of: How can we be more supportive of women in science? But that moment has passed.”

[2] “Take that shit somewhere else. I am not interested. You as a man are not my problem. It is not my job to make feminism easy or understandable to you . . . I just want to be clear that I don’t give a fuck about your response to this book. Do not email me, do not get in touch. Deal with your own shit for once.”

She spends quite a while bashing what she calls ‘outrage culture’ of feminists where they are apparently unable to handle any kind of criticism and are obsessed with revenge, without being able to tolerate dissent. They demonise according to identity (the first quote) and disregard context. She takes examples from actual events. Yes, some moments can spiral into vindicative outrage, but to say that these are merely product of wanting ‘revenge’ and an inability to handle criticism is incredibly simplistic! And despite the always-present group of people who might seem too ‘outrageous’ there are many others who actually use such moments as opportunities to open up a conversation!

And re: that first quote, I really could not stand it when she said that bias and hatred against white straight men follows the same pattern of hate that fuels misogyny and racism. Are you kidding me? Even if she acknowledges one has institutional power, that is still not enough to warrant such an idea! Why do people get to a point where they hate straight white men? Because they view this demographic as representative of oppression, oppression that they have faced that is actually structural, and perpetuated by individuals. But hatred that fuels misogyny and racism and sexism — that is not borne out of oppression! That is borne out of hatred for people/demographics that are not as powerful as you and most probably did you no harm! You just hate them because of your prejudice! It’s incomparable.

Later on, she also ties outrage culture to a chapter where she spends time talking about self-victimisation and how we need to move beyond that. But what I didn’t appreciate about this chapter was that she spent time talking about false rape accusations, saying that feminists should take it seriously. Are you kidding me? Why wouldn’t people know that? In a world where less than ~1% (or even less) of rape accusations are made up, why is this something that pages of a book is dedicated to, what is the net benefit of saying this? Even if she were to say yes women suffered, even if she were to acknowledge the failure of the justice system to mete out justice for rape victims, it just doesn’t make up for it. In my view.

Anyway moving on. She also really loves Andrea Dworkin, a person whom she says modern feminists hate and are ready to disavow. Unlike Jessa Crispin I won’t try to speak for all feminists so I will say that I do think Dworkin is a formidable person but that the criticisms that people had of her were more than just the fact that she was unabashed and fierce and ‘unlikeable’. It was more than just the fact that she was radical. A lot of feminists couldn’t really wholeheartedly agree with 2nd wavers because there were serious disagreements. I think it’s really glaring that Jessa Crispin never mentioned the trans-exclusionary aspect of feminism, especially in radical feminist circles. Even I as someone who leans more towards rad-fem am aware and know that it is something that is just unacceptable. I can only think that Jessa Crispin knows, but did not include this in the book, or she doesn’t. I’m sure she knows. It’s a very glaring omission.

Trying not to end on too depressing a note, here’s a nice-ish quote:

“Much of contemporary feminism uses the language of power. Girls needs to be “empowered,” women need to fight for “self-empowerment,” “girl power,” etc. There is little conversation about what that power is to be used for, because that is supposed to be obvious: whatever the girl wants.

But growing up in a system that measures success by money, that values consumerism and competition, that devalues compassion and community, these girls and women have already been indoctrinated into what to want. Without close examination, without conversation into a different way of thinking and acting, what that girl wants is going to be money, power, and possibly her continued subjugation, because a feminism that does not provide an alternative to the system will still have the system’s values.”

Anyway!! Feminists of color have said what she’s trying to say and said it much better. I appreciate what she’s trying to say though, my heart is with her. But damn..

Read bell hooks, audre lorde, and sara ahmed my friends. As for a white women who does it well, Nancy Fraser does.

The Hidden Face of Eve. Nawal El Saadawi

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Despite the orientalist book cover of a veiled woman and the fact that the original title was “The naked face of the Arab woman” and not the submissive “hidden face of eve” I would still recommend this dense and intense read. As a doctor and psychiatrist, Nawal el-saadawi has seen and heard many women pass through her clinic doors for issues related to gendered violence. Whether it’s circumcisions and general mutilations gone wrong, or bleeding out and infected from the cultural practice of a woman puncturing through the hymen with a finger to draw blood, or men coming over to demand to know whether their new wives were really virgins, she was in direct contact with the culture and women she’s writing about. A generational epidemic where girls are sexually assaulted by older male relatives, girls who are killed for the sake of honour even if they are innocent, women who resort to dangerous home abortions so they can continue working at their exploitative jobs where they are paid less than men for more hours.She also makes the huge but important effort to point out the structural factors, fearlessly implicating religious culture and tradition as well, that continues to be used to justify horrific, systematic abuse against women. If you want to know of a struggle beyond what we usually hear about, I highly recommend this read. Nawal el-saadawi holds no punches.

This was such an intense read. It is quite canonical reading for those interested in feminism, and especially women’s oppression and issues in the Arab world (which is very diverse). But of course, this can bring issues of orientalisation or condescension from liberal feminists so in this edition Saadawi wrote a preface to counter that possibility by pointing out that feminism that isn’t what we today call ‘intersectional’ or sensitive or informed of the culture it’s addressing, will lead to further oppression of the women it’s supposedly directed at.

Criticism is fine, in this case if we want to criticise Islam/Islamic societies, that certainly can be done in a constructive way (which Saadawi does in the book fearlessly, and which she has been punished for), but done badly, it can be used to subject people to further geo-political violence (just like how Afghanistan women were bombed along with their country folk by American forces with one of the reasons justifying invasion was that they needed to be rescued from their ‘barbaric’ society that was oppressing them).

The first 60 pages of this was incredibly difficult, almost distressing to read. Nawal El-Saadawi is a doctor and psychiatrist, so she has had many people come through the doors of clinic seeking for her help and advice and she would share the horrific cases she has seen time and again, connecting it with the larger issues plaguing women in the Arab world when it comes to the obsession with virginity, controlling female sexuality, and how violent that becomes when honour is physicallly located in the hymen.

She starts out by describing how as a child she was taken from her bed by 4 adults (one of whom was her mother), and experienced her circumcision traumatically. Unlike in Singapore where it’s done as type one (and commonly known as ‘circumcision’) the FGM performed in the Arab world can be more severe with some places even subjecting girls to type 4 FGM (look it up, I don’t want to describe it). She has seen many women go through her clinic for excessive bleeding from circumcision, or infections. Some girls even die from severe circumcisions.

Apart from FGM, she described how the prevailing myths and lack of understanding of female anatomy and sexuality has horrifically painful consequences in the experiences women go through. For example, because people expect that a virgin must bleed the first time she has sex, some women are actually hired by families to stick their finger into the married woman’s/girl’s vagina to draw blood so that it can stain the sheet & then be shown as proof of the girl’s virginity. Saadawi recounted at one point how she saw one of these old women had fingers with long nails, and dirt under them. Needless to say, women can get infections from this practice. Women have also been through ‘honour-killing’ because they were accused of being promiscuous or of having sex before marriage, even if some of them were actually innocent.

She explained how such singular, downright ignorant lack of understanding render women subject to fate. Some women are born with hymens that are thin, or too thick, if the proof of virginity lies on a broken hymen, those who have broken their hymens as young girls while playing or stretching or whatever, find themselves in a difficult situation. For women who are rich enogh to afford it, they can get hymen reconstruction surgery. A poor, rural woman will not, however, get this option. I am describing this in detail because she did, and I think, for her, explaining these practices openly is really brings home the fact of how material and physical the suffering of women are.

Further on she explains how the repression of healthy sexuality in societies that have punished it have resulted in women being subjected to the lust of men in twisted ways. The vulnerable ones tend to be younger girls, who are often sexually assaulted by older male relatives since they are easy prey & the power dynamic protects the man from being punished.

I think what’s good about Saadawi is that she gets very specific, but also links these issues to larger structural problems. I think everyone tries that of course, but she does it quite well. Although admittedly I am not well-versed in the problems of Arab women beyond what I’ve read so I might miss out some issues. But for example, to point out that that rich women and poor, rural women face very different pains, is very important. Poor women can’t buy their way out of many problems, the way the rich can, and at the same time, they are subjected to harsher working conditions. They have to work out of economic necessity, and when a community is poor, it will be willing to change or overlook certain ideas about women participating in the workplace. However, these women often have to work excruciatingly long hours for very little pay, and often work through being pregnant or give themselves abortions just to keep their jobs.

Re: abortions. Saadawi shows how policies that affect reproductive rights for women can be arbitrary and contingent ultimately not on the moral debates surrounding it, but on the needs of the population. States would either allow or disallow abortion (and find religious justification later on to suit their position) based on their population problems, whether they need more people or not. It really brings home the point how women’s bodies and women’s autonomy are subject to power dynamics or people in power (mostly men) who decide the course of action.

I also enjoyed her detailing how the accumulation of wealth and property was what allowed hierarchy to develop, the split between those who own & accumulate property and those who don’t (essentially the rich-poor divide), and subsequently, the subjugation of women would follow up. In this sense, I really started to understand how feminism is very much a class issue, even though personally I have always in my rhetoric said that “women as a class suffer under patriarchy”, Saadawi’s explanations have really driven that home for me and explained it clearly. I wish I could reproduce it here! But I already returned the book to my friend Fadiah.

These were the important bits I remembered or stuck with me! I would recommend it, but just note that it is quite a heavy and dense read.

Perempuan: Muslim Women in Singapore Speak Out

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[a shorter, edited version of this review was published in Association of Muslim Professional’s Karyawan, vol 12, issue 2]

Late last year, the anthology Perempuan: Muslim Women Speak Out, was published. The publication is the first of its kind in Singapore and garnered some measure of attention for its showcase of diverse voices in the Malay and/or Muslim community. In this anthology, Muslim women speak out about their experiences and struggles to negotiate their with the cultural and religious expectations of the community. The book is an effort by the Gender Equality IS Our Culture (GEC) programme that seeks to advocate for more gender-equitable interpretations of culture and Islam for women in Singapore.

Perempuan: Muslim Women Speak Out may be a self-explanatory title, but it is also a bold proclamation. Muslim women in Singapore may speak, but do they speak out? The latter connotes a certain disobedience, a certain insistence on being heard by the audience addressed. When we speak out, instead of simply speaking, perhaps it is because simply speaking will not ensure that you are heard, and are muslim women heard in the first place? The act of speaking, then, is not a benign one. Especially not when you’re a Malay and/or Muslim woman.

Associate Professor Maznah Mohamad explains this best in the Foreword when she says:

“Being Muslim and female in Singapore has its unique existential quality. The writers imply that they are trapped within two, or even three worlds. The modern Singapore promises individual liberty, yet as daughters, sisters and mothers within the Muslim home, women are not expected to express their true desires and will. But the disquiet is not just about the home forcing a Muslim-female identity upon one’s subjecthood but also about a radicalised society profiling the self through the blinkers of the Malay-Muslim stereotype.”

*

The stories in the anthology are for the most part personal, revolving around the themes of body image, sexuality, and the experience of resisting against stereotypes. Due to the nature of these themes, there is an unmistakable and pervading sense of ache and loss at the lives, opportunities, and dreams the women have felt they had to sacrifice, or the extent to which they had to minimise and shrink their own wants due to gendered expectations.

In “Crossing The Ocean, Crossing The Boundaries”, Azura mentions how she was accomplished enough to have received a scholarship to study in Canada. Instead of an appreciation for her accomplishment, she was met with questioning aunts who had asked her mother:

“Shouldn’t the boys be the one to go? She’s still too young and there is not much point in her going abroad”.

This dismissal of a girl’s achievement due to her divergence from traditional gender norms is again seen in “Why?” by Nazihah Ramli, now pursuing a diploma in Islamic studies, who had dreamt of being in an engineering course but was told that engineering is not for girls. Disappointed by her parents refusal, she had asked:

“How does an education path have a gender?”

Some stories reveal the difficulties women face in pursuing their artistic interests and talents in the face of gendered expectations. In “Call Me Ham”, we begin with a lilting description of the writer’s mother as she dances on stage. This moment is, however, quickly cut short, before we learn that her mother sacrificed her talent after marriage out of “respect” for her husband. With her mother’s history lingering in the background, Ham recounts her own struggles in repressing her love for theatre as she held herself back from taking on roles and acting on stage due to the negative perceptions held in her family:

“..performing was dangerous, especially for girls. We are the weaker sex . . . How blasphemous it was for us to parade our bodies with no regard to the shame we could bring to our families!”

Ham’s struggle is mirrored in “The Stage” where the writer S.A.Y, a dancer, faces judgement about her passion in the form of religious moralising and body policing. Her boyfriend even asks her not to mention her passion to his mother. Her fear of being seen by her boyfriend and mother during a performance paralyses her so completely that she fails to go on stage.

In these stories, we see how the writers’ accomplishments and passions, whether in the academic or artistic field, are compromised and disregarded because they do not fulfil traditional and cultural notions of ideal femininity. One wonders how many brilliant potential engineers the community loses when it discourages girls from entering the field, or how accomplished artistic practitioners like Ham and S.A.Y could be if they could practice their art without having to deal with the shame and guilt.

*

Body image also figures strongly in the anthology with stories dealing with fat-shaming, such as “You Have to Lose Weight” by Huda K. where she writes:

“When you grow up heavy, you get very familiar with one phrase. “You have to lose weight.”

It comes from your teachers in primary school who compare you to your active classmates. It comes from aunts who suggest you control the portions of your food so you will lose some weight.

Then you start yourself.”

In “Eaten Up”, Atifa Othman charts through the years through short vignettes, the various ways her struggle with body image issues leaks into moments in her life, whether it is during a scuba diving session, or brief moments when family members drop casual, hurtful remarks about her weight.

The body is also policed in terms of the demand that is placed on Muslim women to be modest. Whether it is the tussle between mother and daughter over whether her clothes are modest enough (Zarifah Anuar’s “Armpits, Breasts, and Vulva), or realising that hair and how its worn can be infused with political and religious meaning due to its inseparable nature with discussions on the veil, modesty and femininity (Fadiah Johari’s “A Hairy Situation”). Three writers even take on the topic of sunat perempuan, and ask if it is a necessary procedure if it is not in the Qur’an, and whether we should accept the popularly believed (but scientifically disproven) justifications of it reducing libido and improving cleanliness.

There is a kind of quiet violence then that we see in the extent that the female body is managed and controlled, not just by institutions and patriarchs, but sometimes even from other women. Muslim women are at times taken to represent the whole community when all they should be representing is themselves. This of course happens outside the community too. In “A Muslim Woman’s Guide To The Workplace” for example, Raudah recounts hilarious snippets of conversations with her non-Muslim colleagues who seem to enjoy dishing out stereotypes. Of course, these are moments of microagression, and Raudah calls on Muslim women to carve their own space in an environment where others often speak for you, or have decided what your identity seems to automatically mean.

*

The book also has a few entries by contributors who are LGBT. Homosexuality is of course a contentious topic in the community, with the dominant consensus being that it is unacceptable in the faith. These personal stories reveal the consequences of this prevalent belief when it is sharpened into normalised prejudice and even hate speech.

In “Allah Take The Wheel”, Joyene Nazatul, who introduces herself as a lesbian who dresses in a masculine way and often passes as a man, recounts a harrowing experience in a cab where the driver questions her in a hostile way about the way she dresses, with the obvious implication that her dressing in an unfeminine way was unnatural and wrong. She also recounts a driving teacher who had said that he would have put her through “corrective” rape if he was younger to ensure she would like men, before going on to talk about Islam and its teachings. These experiences made her fear for her life, and ask herself:

“How many other people suffer aggressions like this, everyday, and ever say anything about it?”

Violence is a common occurrence in the stories submitted by gay contributors, with Orchid Blue writing that she fears being open about her bisexuality due to expected violent backlash. Zuleiha in “Cover Up” is threatened by a classmate who says:

“You like girls and that’s disgusting. Change or I’ll tell everyone what you really are.”

Earlier, in a religious classroom setting, Zuleiha had sat silent as a the teacher asked students if they knew anyone who was homosexual — “No one raised their hand that day. Little did they realise that there was such a person sitting in the class”.

In another story, “Human” by Oman, the writer too is sitting in a religious class that is discussing homosexuality, and she too, like Zuleiha, keeps silent as everyone around her judges her existence:

“I keep quiet when they talk about such issues. I keep quiet when they tell me they think “gays are disgusting” and it’s “unnatural”. I keep quiet.

What is common for these LGBT writers is the desire not even to be accepted, but to simply be regarded as equally human, and to not be recipients of hate. There is also in them a marked comfort that is derived from the faith. Oman thinks of God as a compassionate, supreme being that is more accepting than followers. Zuleiha finds comfort in the act of wudhu, although it saddens her that each time makes her feel like the waters are washing away the guilt and sin she feels for simply being herself. In these stories, we see how LGBT women try their hardest, while quietly taking in verbal violence and hatred, to foster the love in religion for themselves that has not been extended to them from others. 

*

How do women who may not occupy identities that are conventionally accepted, share their stories, remove themselves from the pain of isolation, and be open with their needs and desires?

The importance of the book cannot be stated enough. For the women whose voices are so marginal that some of them have to use a pseudonym in their submissions, it is a brief relief from isolation and from having to silence one’s self from normative society. The demand of conformity, the punishment of any kind of divergence from the norm (what Muslims will derogatorily call “deviance”) is a kind of violence that is inherently unjust, but some find to be religiously sanctioned.

The power of Perempuan is that it is a book filled not with calls to theologise or to propose a new way of understanding Islam, it is merely a collection of personal stories and experiences. It is a revealing insight into what women go through when faced against the tide of expectation and demands to conformity. How we react would either punish their speaking, or validate their experiences. In any case, many of these voices would have known what it is like to be silenced or dismissed. What I know though, is that pretence that these voices do not exist will not solve any problems and silence will only perpetuate persecution. The book is a good first step in simply putting to light to corners of our community that have for so long been in the dark.

Between The World And Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

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I read this months ago! But I have not gotten around to reviewing it because it is so good (and you always want to do justice to something great). (I mean. Listen, Toni Morrison saying it’s required reading is enough incentive for you to run & read it.)

After the publication of this book people were calling Ta-Nehisi Coates the new James Baldwin. I have not read enough Baldwin but I can understand why people express that similarity. Both these writers express the pain of being Black in America with such tenderness and such pain. Their anger is not blind fury. The pain of their personal written excavations are not without incredible insight. This last part is important because a superficial, obvious rendering of systemic racism is pretty easy to learn and then regurgitate.

But what Coates does is to reveal how anti-Blackness is an inevitability in a country where its dominating systems have from the beginning been one that proceeded from the violent oppression of Others. And more importantly, he includes the violence of the state into the equation, which not enough people do in their current critiques. (Criticisms of the state is often something that is mostly done by people further left.. communists, socialists, anarchists, & is therefore for most liberal-centrists a little too ‘radical’). But it’s important if we want to understand the ‘systemic’ in ‘systemic racism’. Anti-blackness is not a failure or a glitch in the system, it is the system in operation.:

“It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.”

But to problematise the state is not to treat the state as a detached entity separated from its people. Coates also points out that the system is a product of democratic will. Which means it is a system that is continuously voted into continuation, a system that continuously propped up by an affirmation of its values by its citizens, etc.

You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are the product of democratic will. And so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities and into the Dream.

Yes, and a further point, he refers to White people as ‘people who think they are White’. He doesn’t really explain this but I think it’s a short and amazing way to show how Whiteness is an identity that was something that one has to, in a way, claim, re-affirm, aspire to. To be ‘White’ is to believe in the ideal of this identity that the nation had fabricated. Of course there is a material basis/reality to this identity, where you will be conferred with privilege regardless of whether you choose to relinquish your allegiance to such an ideal. Still, the idea of Whites being superior, as if it is an a priori fact, is a fabrication, is a lie that has been sustained.

Another thing I wanted to mention was the stylistic choice. The book is essentially a letter that Ta-Nehisi Coates is writing to his young son who is realising the extent of anti-Blackness in America. The reality of racism, its intricacies, the question of responsibility, is one that is often subjected to fierce debate. It is often contended, in serious terms, with serious intellectual rigour (though the common invalidations that Black people face are often unintellectual). But the truths that were spoken in this book is not up for debate because it was not constructed within the paradigm of debate. It is a personal letter. Part of the power of this book was its uninhibitedness, its clear declaration of the fact without having to subject itself to the respectability politics that is often demanded of the marginalised in order to be taken seriously by their oppressors. And part of the power of this book is also its tenderness. Like I said earlier, it is not merely blind fury.

In talking to his son, the book others those who are not part of part of the intended audience, in a way. This book is primarily, for his son, and for other Black people who have had to deal with the trauma of being Black in America. He is talking to his son, and this mode allows him to be completely honest, completely open, and without a need to be defensive. It’s not up for debate.

To situate the conversation on anti-Blackness in the realm of the personal is to humanise suffering. A lot of times, the discourse around social issues that is grounded in the very real, material, tangible fact of human suffering, can get lost in abstraction. One of the biggest pains I have with the current mode of discourse is that it can get lost in abstraction. Yes, intellectual rigour is important, but often times I have seen how intellectualisation of suffering has utterly left behind its subjects, de-personalised them, and talked about them as a mass to be debated about. This review is running a little long but I’d like to end with my favourite part from the book, which is also an articulation of the kind of politics I always want to have (one that is grounded in lived, material reality):

“But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.

[…]

You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this.”

Read this book please. 6/5.

Human Acts, Han Kang

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I read The Vegetarian by Han Kang some time ago and found her language arresting. Her sparse and exact prose is equally, if not more, clinching in Human Acts, and when this cutting prose is fitted together with the theme of the book, Human Acts becomes a brilliant triumph in not just language but in writing about something as tragic, and brutal, as a massacre. I say it is a triumph, because writing about the trauma of tragedy is often such a difficult, demanding task. It demands more than just your skill, but an acute sense of humanity and empathy to be able to discern how you’re going to write about, and to truly ask why you want to write about it at all. I am reading this book after reading a book where a tsunami is treated as a backdrop for the love stories of 2 couples and dead bodies of victims are mentioned in passing for the characters to puke after looking at them.

Human Acts recounts the massacre at Gwangju, where Han Kang lived when was younger for some time, in the 80s. At the time, the dictator Park Chung-hee (quick aside — his daughter is the one who was recently impeached in S.Korea) had just been assassinated, and instead of having a democratic replacement, he was replaced instead by Choon Doo-hwan, a major general in the army who had seized military power. He became another dictator who saw to the violent killing, torturing, and beating of students by government troops, which launched protest by civilians (who were also met with the brutal violence of the state).

Looking up the photos is really quite horrifying brutal & I can’t bring myself to reproduce photos of dead students, but some of them are up on google the moment you type in ‘Gwangju uprising’

Looking at them, I remember this line from the book:

You look round at the old man. You don’t ask him if this is his granddaughter. You wait, patiently, for him to speak when he’s ready. ‘There will be no forgiveness’. You look into his eyes, which are flinching from the sight laid out in front of them as though it is the most appalling thing in all this world. ‘There will be no forgiveness. Least of all for me.’

Throughout the book, and afterwards when I read up more about the uprising and looked at pictures, I truly understood why those who suffer unhinged brutality under the state can feel such a visceral desire for revenge, why they can never forgive the individuals that chose to carry out the brutality of the state. I can’t blame them.

The books starts out in a school, but it’s coffins that are being lined up. The bodies are described in this scene, as they are during the rest of the book, with a kind of clinical, detached, but traumatised gaze. The descriptions of the body and the way she writes about them is so important, in my view, to mention. Because the extent of human violence and cruelty can at times be seriously, truly and fully expressed with a honest description, and look, onto the way it is enacted on the human body. Because what is more horrifying to us than the violent defilement of the body? Especially those of children? Utter defilement of the dead is a primitive form of ultimate disrespect to your victims, and those who commit the atrocities of the state carry out this dehumanization:

We will make you realize how ridiculous it was, the lot of you waving the national flag and singing the national anthem. We will prove to you that you are nothing but filthy stinking bodies. That you are no better than the carcasses of starving animals.

Of course when it is done through a photograph, especially journalistically, there’s always that problem of the body being reduced to a product of a machine that is still spinning for profit, the body used as a shocking asset of value to gain clicks. But writing escapes this flaw. And the way Han Kang writes about this is, as I’ve said, truly stark, and brutally clear. There is no aestheticisation of brutality. Matter of factly she writes about the laceration across a face or shoulder, the young face the body belongs to —

… my gaze fell upon the mutilated face of a young woman, her features slashed through with a bayonet. Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke.

— the way a child’s dead body swelled so that she seemed like the size of an adult under the white sheet. In one chapter, we are taken through descriptions of how the body of a student is rotting in a pile of other dead bodies before it is eventually burned along with all of them. She didn’t need to tell us her own opinion of what these scenes are, she didn’t need to say “this is evil”. She simply presented us with the scenes. What else is there to say? What can be debated about such blatant violence?

This clear and brutal voice is also the voice the characters speak in when they recount their experience of that time. To me, I had the immediate feeling that the voices of the characters were the voices of disassociation after severe trauma. And one point a character asks “How do you speak of it?” before she recounts a brutal rape she went through that near knocked my breath out. I had not expected to read it, and she had recounted it as if one recounts the weather. It is a punch to the gut, but that is the way the characters speak about those moments of torture, or remembering deaths. That is of course, except for one chapter that focused on the mother of a son who was killed. Her chapter was full of passion and visceral pain.

‘Human Acts’ is not the original title in Korean, but I do find it to be a very powerful title because I really had to come to terms with the fact that humans actually committed such unspeakable acts of violence. And so did the people who went through the massacre. At certain points, the innocent civilians would say something, like telling the children to walk out and surrender, or the young factory girls would strip naked, because they were convinced soldiers would not possibly shoot at helpless children or virginal young women. But in each of these instances they were shot and/or brutally beaten, and in those moments the book really puts into light, the question of human cruelty, because here is the answer.

I can only imagine how much people who have suffered under the weight of such immense injustice and violence would think about the question of human cruelty. About how a human being who is capable of love can at the same time be also someone who withdraws that love so completely for others to the point that they can kill and torture. I can’t imagine, but Han Kang brings me as close as it can get to sympathising. In this following passage, which I found so powerful, she ponders the inevitable question:

Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves the single truth: that each one of us is capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, slaughtered – is this the essential of humankind, one which history has confirmed as inevitable?

I once met someone who was a paratrooper during the Busan uprising. He told me his story after hearing my own. He said that they’d been ordered to suppress the civilians with as much violence as possible, and those who committed especially brutal actions were awarded hundreds of thousands of won by their superiors. One of his company had said, ‘What’s the problem? They give you money and tell you to beat someone up, then why wouldn’t you?’

I heard a story about one of the Korean army platoons that fought in Vietnam. how they forced the women, children and elderly of one particular village into the main hall, and then burned it to the ground. some of those who came to slaughter us did so with the memory of those previous times, when committing such actions in wartime had won them a handsome reward. it happened in gwangju just as it did on Jeju island, in Kwangtung and Nanjing, in Bosnia and all across the american continent when it was still known as the new world, with such a uniform brutality it’s as though it is imprinted in our genetic code.

I gave this book 5/5 on goodreads. I can’t recommend it enough.

And The Walls Come Crumbling Down, Tania De Rozario

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[an edited version of this review was published in the latest issue of Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. The original intended title was “Written on The Body: The centrality of the material in Tania De Rozario’s latest title.]

Written on The Body:
The centrality of the material in Tania De Rozario’s latest title.

by Diana Rahim

Tania De Rozario’s “And The Walls Come Crumbling Down,” is an exploration on home, love, family and loss. These concepts are familiar to us, but often in parochial terms shaped by dominant narratives or conditioned by arbiters of power like the state or religious authorities. We are told what home is supposed to look like (a happy state-approved, heteronormative nuclear family) and what love and family is supposed to be like (heteronormative too, amongst other things), and many a wordsmith have given words that help tide us through our experiences of loss and grief.

But what if the dominant understanding and narratives around family, love, and home are ones that exclude you? What if the world has failed to write you into its history and stories? At the heart of “And The Walls Come Crumbling Down”, I believe, is the act of writing one’s self into a world that has failed to include you in its writing.

While all the aforementioned terms are conceptually and personally explored, we can look into detail perhaps into how De Rozario deals with the notion of history. De Rozario encapsulates the experience of exclusion when she says:

“You never realise how personal notions of history are until yours has been erased.” (p 57)

If the conceptual understanding of history, home, family and love are those that one can never identify with, then you have to create your own and insist against its disappearance. When the girl De Rozario loved banished their romantic history to non-existence when she re-wrote her first love to be her husband, De Rozario is the one left to remember and sustain the truth:

“I still keep her letters in a box, in the bottom drawer, much like the way I kept that tabloid article about convent school lesbians. I keep them to remind myself how important it is that I write my own history.” (p. 57-58)

As constructed narratives, notions like history are shaped by the institutions and people that hold the power to speak it on their terms. If they are ideologically motivated, then history is bent to the shape of their ideology, though it purports to be an objective re-telling. To tell her own history then is to insist against its exclusion in the dominant shaping of history. It is to insist that one’s personal history is as much a part of the larger history that is shaped to be told to all. The personal is political.

At this point allow me a moment of important digression. In the chapter “Blueprints”, we are introduced to the inner world of a South Asian migrant worker, Bhavan, and this section reads as somewhat out of place in a book that has largely focused on De Rozario’s personal history. One can’t help but feel this section introduces a break from the narrative up till then. But if this section seems out of place, it is not thematically so. In the chapter’s attempt to understand the effects of the state’s organisation of space, homes, and therefore its citizens, one cannot exclude the migrants who have directly built the very spaces we inhabit when we work, play and rest.

In including the personal history and experience of Bhavan, De Rozario is implicitly insisting that the personal histories of all are intertwined, even those that are relegated to the margins. Bhavan’s experience and history are as important to her history, even if indirectly, and as part of it as all that has directly happened to her. Bhavan, like so many migrant workers in Singapore, are excluded in the dominant narratives of the state, their history and experience sanitised while their material conditions speak a dismal reality.

Bhavan was someone who had believed in the state’s story of itself:

“When he first landed, Bhavan had been full of hope. He had heard many things about Singapore — clean streets, fair government, lots of opportunity.”

But this is quickly dispelled by the material reality that he is confronted with when he arrives, the small dorms that allows little to no private space and the reality of having to work in the conditions that have been given to him in order to be clear of debt being amongst them. The truth of the concept then cannot be divorced from the material reality.

Going back to the discussion of history, it is thus more than just a mere narrative or concept to De Rozario. To her, history is also physically and materially experienced and expressed:

“I don’t want the kind of history taught for the purpose of propaganda and patriotism; the kind of past created to secure a safe future.

I want history. The moss that grows on walls, words that scar the skin, wrong turns, cracks in the stone, archaeologies of desire dug up like dirty laundry and flapping like wings in every back yard.” (p.110)

There is a shift here from the conventional ‘great-men’ or essentially a ‘top-down’ understanding of history to one that moves the reader’s gaze to the banality and minutiae of everyday life. History is thus not just a detached, intellectual concept to be conceived of in the mind, but something that is materially created and sustained and personal. She keeps the letters. She wants the moss that grows on walls. Even words, immaterial as they seem, are things that scar the skin. Elsewhere, she writes:

“Who knew the act of speaking could hurt so much? Could hold in its mouth that one concrete thing which gives weight to questions you never thought to ask ..” (p. 58)

This attention to the material is something that is present not just throughout this book, but also throughout her writing. I had noted even from her first book “Tender Delirium,” that De Rozario’s words are raw, visceral, vulnerable and achingly rooted in lived, material reality.

Even in describing her lover’s lie, she gives it a material presence:

“The lie got bigger as the day passed, expanding like some strange balloon animal out of control. It mutated, grew limbs, sprouted strange appendages, got so large that it blocked your eyes out.” p (33)

In making her case for her mother to choose her, the living, breathing person that is her daughter, over immaterial religious dogma, she says:

“Choose me. I belong to you. I am more than the myth of some made-up story. I am flesh. I am blood. I am yours. Choose me” p. 87

“And The Walls Come Crumbling Down,” then, is a book of the flesh and blood. The body. The material. It is no surprise that in exploring the concept of home, we are brought to focus on the material aspects (the door, drawers, bed, etc). The body of her lover is often the site of rumination. The body — whether the physical human body or the body of the home — is where rumination begins.

De Rozario’s attention to the material is thus an understandable extension of writing that focuses on the body. Exclusion is something material. We have seen this through how she understands history, but we also see it through the way she understands the concept of home. De Rozario’s understanding of home cannot be divorced from her personal experience of having had to leave her family home and moving from place to place while struggling to make ends meet. The physical experience of home informs the conceptual, personal understanding of home for her. In the end, home is located in her lover.

Yes, there can be something political about loving another person. There is politics behind leaving home. Making love. Losing your family. And the body is often lies at the focus of these contestations. The body is often the site of visible difference, it experiences direct violence and trauma. For many, the first line of exclusion and oppression is premised on presentation of their body, or their refusal to regulate their body according to accepted (and often repressive) sexual and social norms, and the pain that they will feel for their disobedience is often felt with their bodies as they are felt by the mind.

During the panel ‘Politics of The Body’ in the recent Singapore Writers Festival with panellists Tania de Rozario, Cyril Wong and A Mangai and chaired by Ng Yi-Sheng the centrality of the physical body was discussed in relation to the writing produced by the artists. The body is not just an apolitical space, but one where meanings are ascribed with or without the consent of the bearer. This is especially true when we talk about gender and sexuality. De Rozario had brought up early during the session that if her work was read as political, it is not because she intended to be political, but because society has rendered her existence and therefore her work, as political. Hearing her say that circled back to a moment years back when in a heated moment I had said something similar. A professor had found a certain Malay writer to be ‘too political’ for his taste, and I had retorted that said Malay writer was often times only writing about his reality and the realities of others as he observed. If this was found political it is not his fault, nor the fault of those who hold identities that render them political just by virtue of their existence in society and/or the world. Such a castigation reveals more about the speaker’s naivety or ignorance of the way the individual is politicised by forces outside of themselves, by power dynamics they are born into, than it does about the subject.