The Bamboo Stalk by Saud Alsanousi

I recently finished reading my first piece of Arabic fiction, which is important to me because a) it was my college reading assignment and b) I’m moving to an Arab country in less than 4 weeks. I wanted to talk about this book not because I particularly liked it but because it made me think. Maybe that sounds oversimplified – don’t all books make us think? I guess so. But most of them just recycle our thoughts, stir up the leaves a little, and leave behind a new mess. Yet some of them are like a gust of wind, carrying new leaves, new thoughts, into our brains. These, I think, are the truly interesting pieces of literature.

The Bamboo Stalk begins with Josephine, a Filipina who escapes prostitution by becoming a maid in Kuwait. There, she falls in love with Rashid, the coddled, bookish son of Ghanima, the widow Josephine works for. When Josephine becomes pregnant with Rashid’s son (the maid and the man of the house – gasp!), the two are cast out by Rashid’s family.
‘Kuwait is a small place’, we are told repeatedly, as if all the consequences of this phrase can be cupped into one’s palm. As the novel progresses, what it really shows is not a small place, but a large society, united in its wealth, in its expectations, its scrutiny, its shared, hard lump of the smallest of thoughts.

The novel truly begins with José,  Josephine’s son. Until 18, he lives in poverty in the Philippines, waiting to go back to the ‘promised land’ of Kuwait. Meanwhile, he learns Chinese massage, and grapples with religion. Standard coming-of-age stuff. But ‘with a Filipino face, a Kuwaiti passport, an Arab surname and a Christian first name, will his father’s country welcome him?’ Boom. We now have the story.

With this kind of subject matter, that threads through race, religion, identity and patriotism, I expected The Bamboo Stalk to be something like Adichie’s novels –  a literary act of protest. Activist in its very nature. When you think about it, any person of color today, or someone who comes from a country/situation that is experiencing injustice, is expected to make activist art. Like okay, you’re a black woman writing poems about lakes and fields. Now how about some verses on the BlackLivesMatter movement? It’s as if you can’t make art for the sake of making art – it has to say something, shout something. It can’t just be pretty when so much is at stake.

Kuwait-Skyline-Night.jpg

Kuwait’s skyline

Sorry, other tangent. Back to The Bamboo Stalk – which, ironically, is about a current human rights issue: the state of migrant workers in the Gulf region. No one likes to talk about this, except perhaps Amnesty International. And while The Bamboo Stalk may not be as bold and barbed as Americanah, for example, it is still revolutionary in that we finally have an Arab openly talking about the elephant in his room. The mistreatment of the thousands of Filipinos, Indians, Pakistanis etc. who build and wipe and sweep the sleek skyscrapers is a dark lump of shame carefully held beneath our tongues. And here’s why Saud Alsanousi has made us, or at least me, think – in a month’s time, as a Sri Lankan girl, close to my age, serves me at some local Burger King, what will I do? What will I see? What will I say? And how, in the end, will I write about it?
Will I do what everyone else does, toss out a careless ‘thanks’, and forget, in an instant, the bags dragging down her eyes, how tired she looks as she smiles?

The Bamboo Stalk is undoubtedly critical of this situation, but it is first a story before a critique. The narrative is simple and clear, like a gentle stream. And although the writing style didn’t always appeal to me, its mere clarity felt refreshing after all the complex fiction I’d been reading. I’m not sure if that’s the translation or the very nature of Alsanousi’s writing. But it felt decidedly new and soothing.
Another aspect I loved was the metaphors: ‘If only I were like a bamboo tree, which doesn’t belong to anything! We cut a piece from the stalk, plant it without roots in any land. The stalk won’t take long to grow new roots… it grows anew, in a new land. Without a past, without memory.’ Another one was Tarouf, which means ‘net’ in Arabic – José talks about how his family in Kuwait, the Tarouf family, has become enmeshed in the net of societal expectations, while he, a small fish, can often manage to slip through.

I expect this book will inspire more ramblings on here as I go on to discuss it at college AND…surprise, surprise – meet its writer! Yes, apparently we will get a chance to meet Saud Alsanousi himself and satiate all our curiosities. To meet the writer of an interesting novel…dreams do come true, people.

I’m going to finish this off with some words by Nigerian poet Ijeoma Umebinyuo, which I was reminded of by this book. Thank you for reading this far. You are lovely:

“Here’s to the security guards who maybe had a degree in another land. Here’s to the manicurist who had to leave her family to come here, painting the nails, scrubbing the feet of strangers. Here’s to the janitors who don’t even fucking understand English yet work hard despite it all. Here’s to the fast food workers who work hard to see their family smile. Here’s to the laundry man at the Marriott who told me with the sparkle in his eyes how he was an engineer in Peru. Here’s to the bus driver, the Turkish Sufi who almost danced when I quoted Rumi. Here’s to the harvesters who live in fear of being deported for coming here to open the road for their future generation. Here’s to the taxi drivers from Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt and India who gossip amongst themselves. Here is to them waking up at 4am, calling home to hear the voices of their loved ones. Here is to their children, to the children who despite it all become artists, writers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, activists and rebels. Here’s to Western Union and Money Gram. For never forgetting home. Here’s to their children who carry the heartbeats of their motherland and even in sleep, speak with pride about their fathers. Keep on.”

 

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It’s Lit

I often wonder about the fate of the library. I imagine its wrinkles are setting in, its cheeks hollowing out. A few more decades, and it will recede like an old man’s hairline, back into the past. Here lies an archaeological ruin of intellect, a pioneer in the pursuit of knowledge.
“Books smell like old people,” a New Haven student says. I picture a huddle of desolate novels, aged and beige, crumbling slowly from the lack of touch, the lack of love.
An old-age home for literature. Is that what a library has become?

In an article for The New Yorker, titled ‘Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?’, David Denby highlights the significant decline in reading amongst today’s youth. It has become a “chore”, a “weak, petulant claimant on [our] time,” he states. A part of me, the ardent bibliophile, finds this inconceivable. Yet it is the truth.

Two weeks ago, I saw a group of students engaging in some kind of modern ritual. They sat in a circle, backs bent in worship, their eyes fixated on the screens in their palms. Nobody spoke. Nobody looked up. Not a single book was in sight. Their fingers moved swiftly, as if they could tap and swipe their way into an alternate universe. Such was the power of their devotion. They were somewhere else, a fantastical bubble that could not be reached. A place where human expression was replaced with emojis.
And this was supposed to be a literature class.

Screens have become our lifeboats and we cannot stop clinging. Denby mentions that because of this, today’s youth is engulfed with more words than ever, so technically they are reading more. But they amass only broken shells of knowledge – texts, tweets, blogs, articles – the debris of fuller ideas. Reading something longer and more complex makes them shudder. The trendy likes of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are manageable. But suggest some Hemingway and they just blink at you.

It seems that in the tsunami of technological progress, books and literature have become the flotsam. Not only is this limiting the development of critical thinking skills, but also the ability to form more voluptuous opinions. But what can be expected from the generation that’s more fluent in iSpeak than their mother tongues? We are continuously pruning our words into whatever’s easier to digest – ‘cool’ is ‘kwl’. ‘It’s lit’ could mean the party’s going down, but not literature or anything. There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing this. But it’s come to a point where our bite-size reading and bitten-down words are encroaching upon well-articulate writing. Today’s adolescents balk at Balzac but will gladly polish off 500 + meaningless tweets. It doesn’t require much thinking or effort or learning, you see.

My English teacher used to say that “literature is life”– trite but perfect. Deepening our reading nourishes our capacity for empathy and our understanding of human actions and emotions. We learn to recognize the various shades of villainy and virtue in the ‘characters’ around us. In his article, Denby asks: “Could a country that had widely read ‘Huckleberry Finn’ have taken Donald J. Trump seriously for a second? Twain’s readers… [would] know what a bullying con artist sounds like.”

Literature and reading are as intrinsic to me as gravity. So I find it difficult to ‘sell’ the notion of reading more books to other people; I feel like I’m endorsing what should just be common sense. To me, reading is the act of turning a page of the mind. That’s why I relish books that shake up my views, like marbles in a jar.

But I worry that in the future, literature will acquire the gilded elitism of classical music – a niche for nostalgic fanatics. Or old people. I worry that libraries and bookshops will one day dismantle their shelves. But I still carry hope in the margins of my thoughts. Perhaps the Kindle or the rise of e-books will resurrect our reading culture. Or perhaps we will realize how ridiculous it is to disregard something we’re so similar to. For someone once told me that humans are just like books; we all have spines and stories to tell.

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

“Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?”

Moons, loneliness, love, music, sex and dreaming. These are what make up the fabric of a Murakami tale. But unlike other writers, Murakami sews these threads together in a most unusual, almost avant-garde fashion; they shimmer brightly for a few moments, then immediately slip out of vision. It is precisely this elusive, gossamer quality of Murakami’s books that endears his writing so much to me. His stories talk about dreams but also feel like dreams – odd, trembling narratives that return in stir-snatches.  7381278628_b6d8e19cfd_b

I particularly orbited towards Sputnik Sweetheart for three reasons – the Murakami name, the pretty, alliterative title and Sumire. A chain-smoking girl who wants to be a novelist like her hero, Kerouac. I felt a great closeness with Sumire as a character, despite the fact that we are fundamentally quite different. Perhaps it’s her vast devotion to literature, her struggles with loneliness and self-perception, her ‘oversized herringbone coat’ and desire to be something novel – ‘wild, cool, dissolute’. Even her name, which means ‘violet’ in Japanese, has a special magnetic pull – as a young girl, I created an alter-ego for myself called Violet. She was all the fearless parts of me I was too fearful to show.

Sumire is best friends with K, a sombre, solitary schoolteacher. K, who is also the narrator, is in love with Sumire – always has been, always will be – but she has no idea. The two continue to shape their lives around each other like interlocking commas, discussing books and feelings to the point of exhaustion. But one day. Sumire falls madly in love. The object of her affection is an elegant, older woman named Miu who imports wine for a living. As Sumire orbits closer to Miu, she trades her large coat and rough boots for a more refined sense of style and attitude, borrowed from the older woman. But this inspires one of the most stirring dialogues from the book: “I have this strange feeling that I’m not myself anymore. It’s hard to put into words, but I guess it’s like I was fast asleep, and someone came, disassembled me, and hurriedly put me back together again. That sort of feeling.”

One day, while Sumire and Miu are on a business trip to Europe, K gets a crackly, collapsible call in the middle of the night. Miu is calling, from a tiny Greek island. Something has happened. Something has happened to Sumire.
He has to go.

tumblr_mtdr9kXmJq1synizbo1_500And this is where the story begins to unfold and overlap itself, like many layers of tulle. Murakami’s simple prose assimilates into a story that is entirely constructed of metaphor, or really, ‘signs and symbols’. Every phrase somehow flows into and out of the next, like the beautiful wines the characters sip often. The effect is haunting, evoking the unreal, off-soft sensations of waking from a dream. Some particular expressions struck me in the way they held pretty lyricism and clinical clunkiness in each of their hands. “[She] grasped the pit with her fingers and, like a poet getting the punctuation just right, gracefully discarded it in the ashtray.” 
In her apartment, Sumire’s books lie piled like a “bunch of intellectual refugees”. On the Greek island, K tastes “the kind of air that felt like if you breathed it in, your lungs would be dyed the same shade of blue.”  And reality is a “cardigan with the buttons done up wrong”.

The world of dreams, as in every Murakami novel, forms the vertebrae of the story. But it is subtle, never explicitly stating itself  but rather, tickling your subconsciousness, the roots of your own dreams. I won’t say too much on my interpretation of the dream world’s role in Sputnik, because that would stain your own reading experience. But pay attention to where the moons show up and the strangeness emerges.

Sputnik, in Russian, means ‘travelling companion’. Murakami weaves this definition with Laika’s (who was the first creature in space) journey, along with Sumire’s unhappiness, K’s misalignment of himself into society and Miu’s cataclysmic ‘incident’. There are several other plot undercurrents that bob beneath the surface of these main shooting arcs, each an embodiment of ‘sputnik’. In essence, this novel is a hypnotic observation of loneliness and loss, within and without our lone ‘selves’.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

There is only one book I have ever read that made me physically jump up and down with exhilaration. Upon reaching its last page, I was overcome with the feeling that all my initial thoughts and beliefs and values about the world had been quietly rearranged. It was magnificently disorienting, as if my mind, prior to that moment, had been an unfocused photograph which was now finally clear.

This was not a book of philosophical revelations. It was not written by Albert Camus. Or Dickens. It was not even written by a man. The name of this book is Americanah, and its author is a Nigerian woman named Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This novel has been quickly categorized, or perhaps I should say ‘dismissed’, as a ‘race’ novel. Someone broke the mould and actually wrote a full story of honest racial discussions; this was not a case of tweeting #BlackLivesMatter, sitting back and calling it activism. This needed acknowledgement. This needed labels – loud labels. Thus, critics were quick to sprinkle their reviews with such glittery adjectives as ‘bold’, ‘courageous’,‘astonishing’ and here are the best ones – ‘rambly, angry and brave’.  (I noticed a bunch of white, suburban women on Goodreads called it ‘too much’)

Some of us had only one response to Americanah – ‘finally’. And a large portion of this ‘us’ consists of women of colour. Why is this book such a gift and such a grace to us? Perhaps because we have grown up reading stories about people with pale complexions, who live in places with sunny, comfortable names like Fairfield, and are called Hannah and Elizabeth, names that spill smoothly off the tongue – names completely unlike our jagged ones. Many of these stories are riveting and well-written; they are undoubtedly good literature. But they are not ‘our’ stories. They do not form that magical bridge between their voice and our ears, that bridge of understanding that truly powerful writing creates, which makes us sit back and say, ‘Yes. That’s it.’

After I read Americanah, I researched Adichie in a frenzy. I devoured the rest of her books and articles, her TED talks and even her fashion choices. Somewhere along the way, she became the paragon of the woman I aspired to be, the invisible hand I chose to grasp and lead me into my own womanhood. Because her words made me feel more than comfortable in my skin – they made me feel proud.

I loved Adichie because she wrote about women who are told they are not strong enough, smart enough, beautiful enough, pale enough, NOT enough and made it sound like poetry, both brutal and soft. She wrote about feminism, before Beyoncé glamorized it. She wrote about girls like me, chasing after self-love and not knowing what that means. She wrote about women living in a man’s world and exactly what that means.And I thought it was a miracle. No one, I felt, had been this fearless and sensitive when writing about society in the age of misunderstandings and microaggressions.

Adichie’s crystalline prose is a mirror and we see ourselves in all the ways we try not to. If you open up her books, you find a face with all the makeup wiped off; it is full of truth. But what makes her writing so extraordinary, is that its power does not announce itself through a loudspeaker. Her words are quiet lightbulbs flicking on in the mind, rather than violent protests of ink.

One of my writer friends once said that Adichie writes beautifully but is sometimes too much of a ‘social warrior’ and this is a bit aggressive. I bristled. And then I realised that my friend simply had the luxury of calling the storm too loud while sitting in a soundproof room; as a male, it was not his anger to question.If Adichie’s writing is aggressive, it is an elegant aggression, mixed with equal parts hope. And I say too loud is better than too silent – women are tired enough of being unheard.

Adichie once said: “Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

And this is why the greatest gift Adichie has given me is the confidence of owning myself. Reading her stories, her mosaics of colourful, broken life-pieces, I have become less afraid of writing about my own experience as a person of colour, as a female and as an Indian – even if I know my words could make society, beginning with my own mother, wag its finger. I have unearthed my own feminism and let it dangle like a charm bracelet. Because I owe this to myself and because I deserve it. And, perhaps like Adichie, writing is the only path I can take to come home to myself.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

There are those who think Ernest Hemingway was a genius and I am not one of them. Unpopular opinion? Maybe. But it’s all a matter of taste. In A Moveable Feast, a memoir set in 1920s Paris, Hemingway puts his macho, declarative sentences to use in a stark, elegant tale of La génération perdue.

Each chapter places a magnifying glass on Hemingway’s various encounters in Paris, even on something as small as watching a girl in a cafe. The vision, however, is never clear; it’s fleeting and often so simple that it blurs out of memory. It’s fragmentary. And I want more than that. Nevertheless, each snap (or chapter if you want to be conventional) spills bright and interesting information on the often romanticised Lost Generation. This era and its gathering of artists and intellectuals has been the subject of countless books, films and dinner discussions. But A Moveable Feast gives us an outlook from within, pouring out of the very throat of that time period.

For example, while ol’ Scott Fitzgerald wasn’t constructing literary masterpieces, he was a seasoned, silly drunk, carried to bed by Hemingway. Take a trip to Gertrude Stein’s gallery of a home and you’re left trying to decide whether you like her or not, this formidable lady who says clever things but ‘does talk a lot of rot sometimes.’ And always, always, a part of each day, you drink and talk at cafes, as all manner of characters dream and flutter like moths into your vision. What a lovely escape.

The writing itself is a kind of newspaper-y prose. A little too pared and pruned for my liking. But it toes the water’s edge of poetry. It’s hard to describe, but I’m choosing to evoke instead of describe here, just as ol’ Hemingway liked to. Unpopular approach? Maybe. But it’s all a matter of taste.