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.

The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan

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“Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night- she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question– ‘Is this all?”

This book was pretty long-winded & dated & repetitive. It was written in the 60s so I guess it wasn’t as interesting to me as more 3rd, 4th wave feminist reading, but it is still enlightening, especially if you want to better understand the historical trajectory of feminism in the states. Honestly, it also made me really sad because Friedan was drawing from real experiences, testimonies and research throughout the book which makes you never forget that real women went through this suffering.

Friedan reveals how women were pushed by schools, the media & even corporations to fall into the role of housewife-mother, not so much out of choice but because that’s what they’ve been told they should do. Of course, today, feminism is very big on choice, and that if the woman chooses to be a housewife she should not be shamed for it and that it should not be considered a lesser vocation. But now I can understand why older feminists who lived through the 50s and 60s feel so strongly against it. The problem is that at that time, despite the progress made after the suffrage movement where women were encouraged to work & build themselves, there was an ideological regression that moved to limit women to the domestic sphere. So the choice element is taken out through coercion.

“Chosen motherhood is the real liberation. The choice to have a child makes the whole experience of motherhood different, and the choice to be generative in other ways can at last be made, and is being made by many women now, without guilt.”

 

Women’s magazines that used to have female editors were taken over by male writers and editors and the stories of accomplished women having marvellous careers or encouraging others to achieve their best were replaced with stories where women were lauded for staying at home and taking care of her family — which isn’t bad of course — except that the choice to achieve, have a career, were painted as selfish endeavours. Intelligent articles were replaced by articles that infantilised women.

In schools, even universities, Intelligent women were at every point encouraged to give up their talents & abilities to being housewife-mothers. There were even university modules that were geared towards preparing you to be a housewife. While in the 30s more women graduated and had their own careers in the 50s at least half (in fact more) would go o to be housewives and not exercise the learning they have had in university. And even if they did go out to work they faced discrimination at every level still. Men felt threatened by the presence of women in the workforce that they had to compete with and women were made to feel guilty when they achieved high stature in their work and careers. They were made to feel like they were taking up space that a man should rightfully have and that they should be at home, taking care of their families.

“In almost every professional field, in business and in the arts and sciences, women are still treated as second-class citizens. It would be a great service to tell girls who plan to work in society to expect this subtle, uncomfortable discrimination–tell them not to be quiet, and hope it will go away, but fight it. A girl should not expect special privileges because of her sex, but neither should she “adjust” to prejudice and discrimination”

Corporations who profited from the banality of the housewife capitalised on the guilt and anxiety that these women often felt about their own femininity that seemed to so heavily depend on their identity as housewife-mothers. They often used guilting tactics to sell their products.

These housewife-mothers suffered. They often had an identity crisis because they were denied the ability to realise themselves and often did not know who they were beyond their identity as wife and mother.

“It is not possible to preserve one’s identity by adjusting for any length of time to a frame of reference that is in itself destructive to it. It is very hard indeed for a human being to sustain such an ‘inner’ split – conforming outwardly to one reality, while trying to maintain inwardly the value it denies.”

Research showed that these women suffered from profound feelings of emptiness, depression, alcoholism, physical ailments, unhappy marriages & had children who were more likely to be abused or had low self-esteem. To top it off, these women were also blamed when children had low self-esteem, had discipline problems, or were found to be too smothered that they did not know how to perform basic things themselves. But it was also at that point people seriously looked into the despair that was plaguing housewives.

“The insult, the real reflection on our culture’s definition of the role of women, is that as a nation we only noticed something was wrong with women when we saw its effects on their sons.”

In contrast, women who were able to stubbornly insist on studying even if they have to maintain the home at the same time, or work, or find some way to spend time and energy just for themselves, found that their home life improved, their relationships with their children and husband improved as their family regarded her as her own person.

This book is not perfect, Friedan’s discussion on homosexuality was a trainwreck. But in terms of revealing the reality of housewives at the time, it was a truly important expose. It really made me understand my own housewife mother’s profound dissatisfaction too.

Occupy, Noam Chomsky

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This penguin edition of Occupy is actually a reprint of a pamphlet of the same name, which makes me feel quite hopeful because a pamphlet seems like quite a fringe, guerilla publication & then it is picked up by a major publisher. But then again, of course, this is Noam Chomsky.

This is not a book per se. It’s not a collection of essays but rather some collected transcripts from interviews and notably a speech given about the Occupy Movement in Boston. Despite it being transcripts Chomsky is able to answer questions in the interviews in such a substantial way that it almost doesn’t matter. It only seems to be an issue when parts of his answers are repeated at certain points and you end up reading the same passages again later on.

He praises the success of the the Occupy Wall Street movement in terms of its ability to organise the masses, organise themselves as a leaderless movement. The movement is an example of how mass-based organising and civil disobedience can be successful in enacting real change. The Occupy movement also caused major shifts in the public imagination and discourse around the topic of severe class inequality in the States, where most of the wealth in concentrated not just in the 1%, but the 0.1%. The richest of the rich, the 1% of the 1%.

“For the past generation, policies have been initiated that have led to an extremely sharp concentration of wealth in a tiny sector of the population. In fact, the wealth distribution is very heavily weighted by, literally, the top tenth of one percent of the population, a fraction so small that they’re not even picked up on the census. You have to do statistical analysis just to detect them. And they have benefited enormously. This is mostly from the financial sector—hedge fund managers, CEOs of financial corporations, and so on.”

He also outlines how and why the severe income inequality is sustained, showing how concentration of wealth is linked to a concentration of political power and how these two factors feed into corporate governance that prioritises the needs of the 1% through legislation, tax breaks for the rich, etc at the expense of majority of citizens.

“For the majority, real incomes have pretty much stagnated, sometimes declined. Benefits have also declined and work hours have gone up, and so on. It’s not Third World misery, but it’s not what it ought to be in a rich society, the richest in the world, in fact, with plenty of wealth around, which people can see, just not in their pockets.”

(Unrelated to the book, but I learned today that Goldman Sachs was bailed out by $80 billion worth of taxpayers money. That is downright vile [mix the words around and you get ‘evil’], that the government can oversee the bailing out of banks with the use of public monies, not prosecute guilty bankers, and then at the same time at this current moment refuse to provide affordable health care, housing and safe abortions for its people.)

Anyway a passage I found most telling in the book was the following:

“Over the following years, the concept of “person” was changed by the courts in two ways. One way was to broaden it to include corporations, legal fictions established and sustained by the state. In fact, these “persons” later became the management of corporations, according to the court decisions. So the management of corporations became “persons.” It was also narrowed to exclude undocumented immigrants. They had to be excluded from the category of “persons.” And that’s happening right now. So the legislations that you’re talking about, they go two ways. They broaden the category of persons to include corporate entities, which now have rights way beyond human beings, given by the trade agreements and others, and they exclude the people who flee from Central America where the U.S. devastated their homelands, and flee from Mexico because they can’t compete with the highly-subsidized U.S. agribusiness.”

This is significant because the concept of a ‘person’ is often a contested and loaded category. Just by being human, it is not enough to be considered a person, even. In the context of the US (and really, the history of every state), there has always been actual human beings who were dehumanised and not considered humans. Slaves were considered, in the US constitution as 3/5th humans, women were not considered fully human too. Now these things might have been changed on paper, but of course in reality, policy, and especially the enactment of violence by the state against the bodies of Blacks and the controlling of bodies with uteruses, these two groups of people are not treated or regarded as fully human.

The fact that corporations, entities that are actively responsible for the destruction of the environment, what little is left of social welfare and benefits of the state, the pilfering of public taxpayer monies — the fact that they are considered a ‘person’ is something that says everything about how and why severe income inequality can continue not just to persist, but severely worsen. In fact I would say that considering the trajectory, it is not surprising that you would get an exploitative businessman who profits from the current neoliberal, capitalist order as the current president of the states. While most people might have been shocked, I had thought that it was a matter of eventuality. He is truly representative of what the state is like, without any mask or political speak.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid.

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist is written in that engaging monologue style that immediately reminded me of Albert Camus’s The Fall. Like in The Fall, Changez, the main protaganist in The Reluctant Fundamentalist strikes a conversation with a stranger in some kind of establishment. In this case, they are both in a restaurant and the stranger is an american man, presumably someone whose vocation deployed him to Pakistan (or at least that’s what it sounded like to me).

I picked up this book perhaps with my expectations already too high. I heard so much about it, most of it good. It had glowing reviews and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Proper scholarly work has been written on it. Admittedly I am late to the party, writing this review 10 years on. I learned that part of its popularity was due to a movie adaptation.

Of the people who criticised it or gave it low ratings I noticed that they tend to be white folks who were aghast at the audacity of the protagonist to be so ungrateful to the wonderful benefits that the wonderful country, The US, had given to him. How could he! One comment mentioned that this is a privileged guy who went to an Ivy League, making it harder to citizens to enter the school. Some even went so far as to insinuate that he should be grateful he got the opportunity to be in the US instead of the obviously inferior and less developed Pakistan. Someone mentioned that they didn’t understand why the protagonist hated the US since the only incidents of racism he faced were negligible. Because criticism of the book is dominantly in this vein (basically ad hominem attacks against the protagonist which largely accuse him of ingratitude) to criticise this book might risk being seen as someone who endorses the messages these ‘critics’ or to invalidate the pain of the character or the issues the book tries to raise.

But my issue with this book is that its criticisms are too superficial, and does not engage with the issues raised with the critical depth necessary. Liberals would love it, I am sure, because the message you get is basically the rather trite one that tells you not to be prejudicial and to question the first impression that you have of someone. This bearded guy is not a terrorist just because he’s brown, muslim, and has facial hair. The American is not necessarily a bigot who hates Muslims and people of colour.

“It seems an obvious thing to say, but you should not imagine that we Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as we should not imagine that you Americans are all undercover assassins.”

Of course, judging from the nature of comments that criticise the book, I guess this kind of basic message is sadly still necessary, in which case I will have to concede that the book is important and it does the job. And of course I expect there’s always that contention that the writer doesn’t have to write the book with the kind of critical depth that some readers might want, I guess (I’m not convinced with this reasoning when it’s dealing with a political topic as heavy as this though..).

The book is undisputedly engaging, due in part to its stylistic choice. But it falls short on other fronts. The characters are flat, and almost verge on caricature. It is as if these characters have to be a certain way in order to induce the stereotypical/prejudicial reaction from the reader. The word ‘fundamentalist’ being used is at least a little smart though, if only because it does not end up being a story about a guy becoming a Muslim fundamentalist nor does a hint of something concerning ‘political Islam’ or extremism really come up in relation to Changez. The fact that I sort of expected at least a mention of that at least reveals my own instinctive expectations just because of this word. The word in itself provokes reaction. But other than that the characters and their reactions were almost cheesy.

Perhaps Changez himself understands it too simplistically. Perhaps he was protected for the most part of it because he was privileged enough to study in Princeton and did not live in the US for most of his life. But prejudicial attitudes against Muslims, specifically Muslims who are people of colour, did not start from 9-11 though it did worsened after that.

The book does make an effort to point out American exceptionalism through engaging with the theme of nostalgia. In the one quote that I like from the whole book, it manages the critical depth that is at least necessary:

“As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away.”

The fact is, however, that the reality of America’s (the state) treatment of those deemed Other and different and therefore suspicious is located not within the individual attitudes of prejudice. Neither is it located just within American exceptionalism which is presented in the book, like in the quote above, to be something that is perpetuated by an arrogant populace. The truth is that this arrogance has been manufactured and then perpetuated through sheer belief. American exceptionalism is only a vehicle/an instrument utilised by the state to continue its long drawn history of how it has always established itself in violent terms against Others, first through genocide of native Americans, then the slavery of black people, the violent annexation of a part of Mexico, placing Japanese people in internment camps, etc. The list goes on.

The issue that is being raised in this book is far more complex and nuanced than can be portrayed with the flat characters. I wish I could find better words to explain why I didn’t enjoy this book in the end & found it disappointing. But mainly it was due to the way it poorly handled the political discussion surrounding the book & how simplistically I felt it was done. It felt good to read if you wanted to virtue-signal & say hey, I read this, I agree that we shouldn’t be prejudicial. I felt that there were so many gaping voids, including the fact that Changez seems to be the only Muslim in the US we engage with in the book. All the others he engages with seem to be basically white America.

Of course maybe I am being demanding to expect the political sophistication 10 years ago when 9-11 was still fresh in the psyche & discussions were still fresh too about Muslims, islamophobia & American foreign policy. Perhaps I am even being too much to expect political sophistication in a literary work. But I don’t think it is unfair to demand that if a work wishes to invoke a political issue, then it has to be properly engaged with so that this issue, a material, violent reality that affects others, isn’t just treated like an empty fodder than ends up making a work of art more interesting. Of course I’m not saying that this is what he does. I am merely trying to explain why I had expected so much from this book. It did not deliver in my opinion, but I am willing to concede that most well-intentioned liberals would love it.