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.

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.

On the Culture of Botswana

Culture is a slippery concept. I like to think of it as clay. You can do so much with it – mould, paint, stretch, ignore. How malleable it is, forever changing shape in our hands, sometimes slowly and imperceptibly, sometimes through lightning-quick revolutions. But ultimately all it needs is a gentle hand, to not let it slip and fall through, to not let it disappear. ‘Treat me with respect” it says.

The most powerful and beautiful way culture manifests itself is through art. Each country does something different with its clay, shaping it and painting it in its own unique fashion. It’s important to note that this can be ugly. And disturbing and strange and messy. Culture can be full of scars because it is so often twisted and transformed by the pain of the past – wars, revolutions, epidemics, you name it. The important thing is that the creation becomes a symbol of the country, as distinct and unique as a thumbprint. So what does Botswana, our nation’s, thumbprint look like? What has it created with its clay? What are the colours, the patterns, the markings it has used?

The most prominent depiction of Botswana in literature is in Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies Detective series. These books are well-written of course. They are also the work of a white foreigner. No stand-out Motswana writer is the country’s ‘literary icon’; even Bessie Head was a South African immigrant. Numerous traditional dances, varied and extraordinary, are performed here– but in indoor shopping malls, rarely on stages. Folk and tribal music have been swapped out for more fashionable rap and hip-hop imports from South Africa and America. The paintings of the Khoisan, shedding colour and light on the lives of hunter-gatherers, have been dismissed to forgotten rooms in forgotten museums.

There’s a pattern here; our clay is becoming increasingly whitewashed. The colours are gradually fading and the West is bleeding through. We are becoming a poorly made replica of a foreign town, all our culture and colours and individuality stuffed in our back pockets, the rural areas. We are eroding Botswana’s very soul, painting over its art, history, music and language with a shinier, white veneer. How painful this is, like extracting a whole row of teeth to install a new artificial set. The problem is, too many Batswana have administered themselves with anesthesia. Nobody cares anymore. And if they do, it’s not enough.

How do we fix this? How do we paint our colours back on? Start in the schools. The quietest, most powerful revolutions occur with education and youth. Maybe before teaching our children French, we can teach them Setswana first. Fill the syllabi with the history of their own nation – and not just through the lens of colonization. Introduce them to their traditional instruments, teach them the back-and-forth melodies their ancestors sang, expose them to the exquisite basket-making and pottery their great-great-grandmothers once did. Give them their music, give them their art, give them their language, give them their culture. This is how we teach them to take pride in their skin, their tongue, their colour. This is how they learn to create patterns that are entirely their own.

‘Treat me with respect”, our culture cries. Let us listen. Let us learn.

Let the children play with their clay.

Unfair and Lovely

My mother thinks she’s the ugliest amongst her three sisters. Because they are the smooth colour of peeled almonds; my mother’s shade is that of the almond’s skin. Nutty. Brown. Dark.

You’d think it was a curse word – dark. A symbol of crudeness that brings shame in the mirror. It’s the mock-soft expression of an Indian auntie gazing at you on the bus. “Poor girl, look at her complexion. Who will marry her?” It’s the rows and rows of potions in the supermarket, promising luminescent magic – Fair and Lovely, 6 weeks to lighter, brighter skin! It’s the laser-like scrutiny of a potential father-in-law, sizing up your fairness – is it good enough for his son? And it’s having to be the smart or sporty one in school – the pageant-pretty position is occupied by some Ria or Anamika, who has genetically creamy skin but smiles and tosses her hair, saying it’s just her Neutrogena face wash, you should try it too!

If you’re dark, you have somehow already failed. But at what, nobody knows.

An image from the #UnfairAndLovely campaign

Indians today spend more on skin-whitening products than on Coca-Cola. In a country that wears Bollywood like a gaudy red bindi, it’s easy to see why. Some of our most prominent film stars endorse such products on TV, their faces paled and thus ‘beautified’ by ‘gentle creams’ – which is really code for bleach. In one particular ad, a struggling, dark-skinned actor is gifted a fairness cream by a Bollywood big-shot. Cue some festive music, digital retouching of his face and voila! He is suddenly a star. (Yes, I’m talking about that Fair & Handsome ad with Shah Rukh Khan).

What this perpetuates is the idea that it is not hard work but being pale that brings fame and success. How problematic is that? And yet it holds some truth. The heroes and heroines on our cinema screens are all fair-skinned – without exception. Darker-skinned actors are seen in the roles of uneducated peasants and criminals (Nawazuddin Siddiqui comes to mind). Or they are the leads in gritty, off-beat films, the kinds that are dubbed ‘B-list’ and barely make any money.

An advertisement for the Indian brand ‘Fair & Lovely’

And if you are an Indian woman hoping to get married, you better buy some face packs and start using photo filters. Because the shaadi sites and newspapers are filled with demands for only fair-skinned brides. Don’t you know honey, being alabaster matters more than your BA! Countless Indians today, both men and women, are rejected by suitors because they’re more caramel than vanilla. They could be armed with degrees and careers, kindness and confidence, they could even make the best laddoos in the neigbourhood – but if they’re dark, then it’s doomed.

The ancient caste system in India has always equated being dark with being an ‘untouchable’ and fairness with being an upper-class ‘brahmin’. This introduced an interesting economic factor – the richer you were, the less time you spent outside, toiling away in the sun like a lowly worker. Thus, fairness became a kind of wealth – a mark of smoothness, of class, of polish.

Many people think India’s colorist malady makes it a racist country. And yes, this is a form of racism. But why is it there? The belief that fairness is power comes from the dregs of the broiling teapot of colonialism and caste-ism. Some are dismissive of this argument, calling it ‘1947 thinking’. But somewhere inside us, and not just in India, we have let the seed of the idea that white is superior to take root. White people have always had more power and authority than us – they were once our rulers and now they are the ‘developed nations’, with more education and wealth and infrastructure. They have the luxury of being our economic ‘saviours’.  History has deluded us into thinking that education and power is synonymous with whiteness. This also explains why having an American or British accent instantly makes you ‘literate’ and favouring jeans over traditional dress makes a woman more cosmopolitan.

When I was a little girl, family members would chuck my chin, murmuring ‘She’s so fair. That’ll be good for her future’.  Charms and potions were slipped into my palm – home remedies, herbal sunscreens – to protect my ‘lucky’ complexion. I was dumbfounded.

Because who says you cannot be unfair and lovely?