Ugly in yellow: Memory as fallible

Picture Credits: Holly Lay

There is a vivid mundanity to the remembered details of a childhood interspersed with abuse. 

I can picture myself put back into the body of my twelve-year-old self, my back against my mother’s pearl Mazda in a Macy’s parking lot in Lewiston, Idaho during a break at my brother’s basketball tournaments. I can feel the scratch of the seats sitting next to her in the same car, my childhood best friend seated in the backseat, the shadows rapidly passing through the trees onto our faces.

Both of those memories end with a fist, or an open hand, once or twice or five times against my temple, against my chest. If I start to think about it, it all blurs together: suddenly I can feel a kind of phantom body, an overwhelming but distant feeling of her hands pulling my hair out from the roots, pushing me against a doorway, wiping my panicking and tearful face with the back of her hand.

***

I struggle with how to depict trauma without inciting pity or disbelief. I think of reading a review of Joan Didion’s “A Year of Magical Thinking” and “Blue Nights,” books about the deaths of her husband and daughter, respectively. The reviewer had the audacity to call Didion self-indulgent, quibbled over her addition of details she couldn’t be entirely sure happened. I was struck with the thought that this reviewer could not possibly know the confusion and pain that comes with remembering the difficult, could not understand the need for artists especially to make their memories concrete somehow. I think of Didion in her Upper East Side apartment, imagine the urgency she must have felt, the need to get it right.

When I recall specific incidents of violence or emotional abuse from my life, I am never entirely sure that I have all the details correct. Was it Autumn the day my mother hit me in the Macy’s parking lot? Did I say something to spur her? Was I actually 12, or perhaps 11, or 14? I don’t know. I won’t ever know. What is memory in the mind of a person who experiences a trauma? It is a double exposure, an imprinting of feelings over facts. It is fading and blurred over by time. It hides, as emotional memories do, behind the eyes, in the almond-shaped set of neurons we call the amygdala. 

***

I do know what started the fight in that parking lot: a yellow dress. I walked out of the dressing room, and my mother remarked that I looked ugly in yellow because of my pale, milk-like skin tone, that perhaps we should buy it for my friend Emily whose skin was tinted olive. I remember being upset, remember a feeling of emptiness, remember walking out of the store empty-handed, remember what happened when we got to the car.

I remember all these details, but I am sure of none of them. I know I didn’t wear yellow again until I was 18, that the mustard yellow jacket I finally bought was a kind of revolutionary act. I know that when I brought it up, my mother had no recollection of that day, however many years ago. And so memory remains fallible, by nature unvalidated. 

Understanding memory as a kind of fickle beast seems like it wouldn’t be comforting, but oddly enough, it is.

Since 2013, scientists who research memory have come to an understanding that recalling a memory changes it, that our memories are not stagnant. Neuroscientist Daniela Schiller is an expert in this area, her desire to solve the “problem” of painful, hindering memories tied to her father’s unwillingness to speak about his experience as a Holocaust survivor. In an interview with The New Yorker, she said that she believes memory is “what you are now, not what you think you were in the past. When you change the story you created, you change your life. I created the story and brought these memories together, and now my past is different from the past I had before.

***

The past I had before was one wherein I didn’t understand the many moving parts of a legacy of generational violence. I couldn’t see, when I was a child, my mother as a person. I don’t remember how I thought about it then, my current understanding of the legacy of violence in my family tinting the memory, imbuing it with a deeper and more nuanced understanding of how older generations pass things on.

I no longer have the mustard yellow jacket that meant so much to me, that represented a belief in my own beauty, and in my own memory of being made to feel ugly, that didn’t need to be validated. And I still feel incredibly jealous of people who are able to recall childhood memories without fear, and of people who know what it is like to experience a mother’s unconditional love.

What is most different now is this: I am content to live in the details I do remember, and I am not scared of the idea that they might be fashioned by my brain as a defense against fear. My memories are fallible, yes—they are undoubtedly human.

I colour in my own humanity with the memories I recreate as my current self, not the child I was. I create the story.




Bradford Literary Festival – a celebration of voices from diverse cultures

Hailed as one of the most inspirational festivals in the UK, Bradford Literature Festival is the place to be from 29thJune – 8th July. With more than 400 speakers and 300 events packed into iconic venues across 10 days, the festival celebrates the written and spoken word in all its wonderful forms, from poetry to politics, comics to comedy. Every year BLF invite world-renowned authors, poets, musicians and artists to visit Bradford and share their expertise and passions with inclusive, diverse audiences. 

Among the many writers launching their newly published books are Why I am A Hindu by Shashi Tharoor, who also guest edited Litro’s Translating India issue, a part of our World Series instalments, The Business Plan for Peace by Dr Scilla Elworthy; Don’t Let My Past be Your Future by Harry Leslie Smith; My Mother is Not Your Mother by Margaret Hockney, and City of Sinners by Bradford’s own A. A. Dhand.

Being the “young” festival that the Bradford Literature Festival is amidst a foliage of established ones, it has the luxury to break free from the shackles of “traditional” festival programming and celebrate literature in all forms including but not limited to films, theatre and music.

Nadeem Abbas
Sufiana Kalaam Concert

While some events at the festival will explore some of the key influences of Bradford-born artist David Hockney and launch of Margaret Hockney’s compelling memoir My Mother is Not Your Mother, others like “Songbook” -now an annual event at BLF that celebrates the lyrics and influences of a major songwriter-will discuss the female base player, Suzi Quatro’s influences as a ground breaking musician. In her own words, she “played the boys at their own game” and emerged as an icon in a highly competitive industry.

The festival will also host discussions on world affairs and politics revolving around the media’s role in fuelling Islamophobia, Europe’s love affair with the far-right and a satirical exploration of Jeremy Corbyn’s superhero persona in The Corbyn Comic Book. Major political anniversaries will also be remembered as the festival marks the centenary of the start of women’s suffrage in Britain, and of the First World War’s Armistice; 50 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King and much more.

 

In an age where borders are merging, the literary event will also include scientific explorations of gene therapy in the context of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as well as conversations between leading crime fiction writers.

Bradford being a long standing hub of diversity and culture aspires to encourage people from across the world to engage with the heritage and landscape of Bradford. Further, to champion youth’s engagement within the literary scene the festival, this year, has joined forces with the Hay Festival to launch a new pupil exchange programme where 10 students from Bradford will attend 2 days of the Hay Festival and 10 students from rom Powys and Herefordshire will attend Bradford Literature Festival in June. Additionally their new Festival Takeover initiative will offer a group of students aged 16-17 the chance to curate and manage their own session to feature on the official festival programme.

Syima Aslam, director of Bradford Literature Festival, said, 

“The festival seeks to break down these artificial barriers, by creating a space where ideas and stories can lead to mutual understanding, reminding us that it is our shared humanity that is the common denominator.”

True to its spirit, The Bradford Literary Festival is not afraid to throw in  a mix of dynamic artists together who arise from a plethora of vibrantly diverse cultures. It will witness the likes of Kashmiri Nobel Peace Prize nominee Parveena Ahanger, David Starkey, Jeanette Winterson, Robin Ince, Elif Shafak, Ben Okri, Suzi Quatro, Akala, Frank Bruno, Nimco Ali, Dennis Skinner, David Starkey, Terry Deary, Kei Miller and Joanna Hoffman.

The festival offers a delightful list of events ranging from an evening of comedy, workshops on Manga drawing, writing gothic fiction, comic strip lanterns to Out-spoken, an event that will kickstart the festival with poetry and music.

Other highlights of the 2018 festival include former heavy weight champion Frank Bruno, 70’s rock icon Suzi Quatro and Mobo award-winning hip-hop artist Akala alongside a host of literary names like Jeanette Winterson, Ben Okri, Jackie Kay and Don Paterson and politicians such as Shashi Tharoor, Dennis Skinner and Nimco Ali. The festival’s Free Family Fun Days will also return to Bradford’s City Park, with themes now confirmed as Superheroes, Outer Space, Under the Sea and Harry Potter.

Syima Aslam commented,

“This year’s programme exemplifies the festival ethos of reflecting society as a whole, giving a platform to artists from an extraordinary range of backgrounds, nations, cultures, and perspectives. The Festival is especially proud to bring to the fore marginalised voices who offer audiences the opportunity to understand our world in new, and unexpected, ways.”

 




Back to Basic

 

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You are more than your shoes. You must be more than your shoes. Photograph: ‘Ground Below’ by Frederick Lang Jr.

We all of us are concerned with the possibility of being basic. The word has taken new shape in this 21st century of ours, growing talons and fangs, snarling from the mirror we’ve learned to hate. Your shoes are basic. Your clothes are basic. The yoga classes you can’t live without are basic. Hipsters and flower children, the cute square glasses, contouring, Justin Bieber, pumpkin spice lattes: I can’t even.

I pretend I enjoy it, the classification. That I take pride in my basic-ness. I’m basic? Yeah, but so are you, right?

Then I meet people who eschew the basic-ness. They take all the precautions to avoid it, feigning adoration for chia seeds, white Chucks, ripped Urban Outfitter Levi shorts, Crossfit, ad nauseam. I am not basic: see here how I refuse to eat gluten. That proves I’m different, and special. What Instagram caption best defines me as a person?

Let me show you how different I am. Let me play my vintage records on my vintage record player, and let me tell you how the music transcends this mortal coil. Let me tell you about Sylvia Plath, and how The Bell Jar basically changed my life (see what I did there?). Let me pontificate on the evils of social media as we sit in a dumpy basement, sipping on craft beer that makes us cringe, talking about other people as anathema, talking about ourselves as improved, different, unique. Let me tell you why I am different.

We all do it. We all fight the urge to conform. Because conforming means being one of many. God forbid I resemble the person staring back at me from across the street. I refuse. I choose another path. And so do you, and so does your neighbor, and so does the person staring back at you from across the street. In those terrified flights of ours, we run away from that thing, only to loop around and arrive right back where we’ve started.

It’s very easy to understand the artifice behind terms like basic. The whole movement here denotes some affinity towards individualism, which is, ironically, in and of itself the most basic of trans-generational movements. Those great American harbingers of individuality, and the adoration of the individual as the true future vehicle, were in their own time lauded as the change-makers of the 2-D world. To be individual meant to be different, and then the whole thing devolved into this desperation to denote, demarcate, and delineate the differences between you and I.

We surmise from this forward inertia such social constructs as racism, sexism, homophobia, classicism, blah, blah, blah. Boring. The point is that when we kneel to worship differences, we forget we are, inarguably, all shaped from the same mold. I am he as you are she as you are me and we are all together.

The cult-movement that worships differences now finds respite in a common enemy; before, we would denounce someone else for their differences, in terms of race, gender, class or sexual tendency (move past the political correctness, get to your point). The inculcation of social rights into our educational and social dogma birthed a dissonance that eventually rendered the judgment void, null. As in, now, in the desperate attempt to categorize and differentiate, there are doubts and shadows cast upon the terrain. How to label when half the labels insult? How to forge past this palpable obstacle, and return to the natural order of things, where we ascribe language to empirical truth? How do we go about observing and cataloguing experience, when the world tells us it is wrong?

Simple: we shed light on the category everyone equally hates.

Now, we get to revel in the castigation of a quite different social phenomenon. Now, we get to poke fun at the very thing we wish we weren’t: similar.

Which is good, all things considered. Sure, there still exist tangential forms of division, where the one criticizes the other, formulating judgments and half-truths based on predetermined traits. I cartwheel around these words only to avoid my statements from deteriorating into a social manifesto. That is, I won’t point out the examples of police brutality in X or Y country, or the naked derision of B or C when faced with the less affluent D or E. I won’t delve into the historical nuances—of which there are plenty—that so characterize us as a race, because someone else has done that. I don’t want to be like someone else. I don’t want to be basic.

It’s good that we’ve strayed from castigation of difference. It’s good to embrace that little piece of yourself, who some call soul, divinity, personality, chemical hard wiring, whatever, and share it with the world. I do not discourage the celebration of differences.

What I discourage is difference for difference’s sake. If we become subsumed by this instinctual desire to be different, we focus our attentions on achieving the result, forgetting the process that is requisite. The ends do not justify the means.

Let me ground my abstractions in concrete example. I am a sentient being, stuck in a post-graduate slump, trying to carve a niche in this ever-changing globe I am undoubtedly a part of.

Less abstract: I graduated and have no clue what exactly I am doing with myself.

Less abstract: I don’t know what job I want.

Less abstract: I don’t know what makes me happy.

Less abstract: I don’t know what me is.

To know what makes me happy, and then to find the pastime which makes me happy—this applies not only to an actual office, but more generally to the way I spend my time and energies—and to find what exactly I will do with myself, I must understand the inner workings of this complex machinery I have been, for reasons unknown, given.

I must understand how and why I think the way I do. I must understand how and why I get up every morning, and what I hope to achieve at day’s close. This is not an option: living means choosing. It means choosing yes over no, every day, in and out, choosing yes to the possibility of more. The former assumes you are willing to get up; the latter assumes you want to stay down. I’m dodging the harsh, ugly, cold truth here: yes means life and no means death.

But let’s stray away from the gloom, and focus on living. Once the choice is clear, you are faced with a myriad tiny other choices, which, in summation, describe a pattern, which, in summation, describe a person. You.

Thus, the way you make choices—this is all very vague and wordy, but stick with me—to some extent, defines you as a person. Of course, life doesn’t hand us a rulebook, only foreshadows faint guidelines and examples from which to learn from. You’ve heard all this, in clichés and redundancies you’ve been conditioned to hate. But the only reason something is a cliché, the only reason a thought or idea crosses the threshold from innovative to banal, is because it is seized by a multitude.

Yet still. God forbid your choices and actions even slightly mirror the clichéd. The overdone. You are not a mindless sheep in an endless flock, they tell you.

So it’s quite simple, really. Choose to live. Choose between two options: to do as Sally does, or to do something else. And because Sally is that obnoxious, unoriginal, sorta-dumb, basic girl down the street, any rational and somewhat sophisticated woman is now reduced to one option: something else.

And therein lies the problem. We are so reluctant to conform that we grasp at any opportunity to not. To not conform. The anxiety of self-definition, of understanding who you are, and understanding what makes you special, this manifests in the daily struggle to create an image of your liking, one that strays from the societal norm and only conforms to your own parameters. We’re constantly torn between being our true selves and seeing our true selves. It’s hard. It’s hard to see and not categorize. Especially when you can’t actually see it. Especially when you can’t see those parameters you’ve fought so hard to create.

Which are, exactly, what? How have you determined it is better to live, if not the way Sally does? Have you thought this through? Sally has been properly ridiculed, because of her trite ways, and here you are, throwing stones from where your glass house once stood. Now, it’s bare, and empty. You’ve foregone the glass house, armed yourself with rocks, and locked in on a target.

It’s always easier to throw rocks. It’s always easier to judge, and to point the finger at someone else. This is an unfortunate scientific reality. You can’t judge yourself, not in any way that counts. At least, you can’t do it with the ease and delight most mockery entails. It has nothing to do with intelligence, or maturity (maybe a bit with that); just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you won’t do it. In fact, you’ll spend the rest of your life brainstorming judgments, on situations and people you don’t exactly comprehend. You will devote your strengths to the outside world, forgetting that there is an inside world aching to be judged, and comprehended.

Because, in the end, the unease of basic-ness does not stem from anyone else. The unease is internal, blooming inside your organism, begging to be reckoned with. Learn to understand what it is inside of you that is basic, and good, and you will understand what is basic and good in others. Learn why you are different; do not subscribe to the belief that you are not. If you ignore the virtues within, you will find yourself ignoring the virtues in others. Refuse the system of categorization when it comes to your own self, and the laziness will manifest elsewhere. The qualities you see in others are the blaring inadequacies in yourself. You hate basic because you understand yourself as basic.

You aren’t, though. Basic, I mean. You are similar to others, and that is OK. But the more you understand about yourself, the more you will appreciate about yourself. Love your curves and all your edges. Then, and only then, will you be able to discern them in others. The minute you take a minute to figure it out is the minute you cease to concern yourself with figuring it out. There is nothing unique in being different than the norm. Get in line, sister-friend.

Here is what’s truly unique: the ability to disregard judgment unto others. The ability to perceive the possibility of more-than. To look upon the “basic” with fresh eyes, all the while educing judgments, yet straying away from the negativity these judgments tend to incur. The true horror behind the mask of uniformity is the lazy thought patterns we all fall victim to. Disliking something on principle does not make you different. Changing in response to an established paradigm does not make you different. Next time you hasten to judge her UGG boots, look beyond her feet. I don’t mean to get cheesy, but do her feet represent her heart? Her mind? Her innermost thoughts and desires? What can you conclude, based on footwear? What should you conclude based on footwear? What about your footwear? Would you like to be judged in similar currency?

You are more than your shoes. You must be more than your shoes. You must be more, always more. Choose to be more. Choose to ignore the automatic setting we’re unfortunately humming on. Choose to understand what lies within, so that the outer sheath loses its significance. Choose to accept and love what makes you special, so that you can accept and love what makes someone else special.

You are more than your shoes. So is she. Which means you’re similar, which means you’re basic.

And I don’t think that should be a concern.

 

 




How Does a Writer Deal with Other People’s Negativity?

3048872-poster-p-1-how-to-deal-with-judgmental-people

For a long time, I didn’t confess to the wider world that I was a writer. It wasn’t until my first novel was bought by a publisher and I’d actually signed the contract that I decided to really come clean. Even after that, with certain people, I didn’t say anything until the book was physically on the shelves. The reasons I was cagey about it were manifold. Firstly, it’s a long road and it takes a considerable length of time to produce anything one feels comfortable letting people who aren’t your best friend or your mum see. Even your closest allies get bored of waiting for you to publish, bored of hearing that you’re still working on the same story you were working on the last hundred or so times they saw you. They either want an excuse to break out the bubbly or they want you to shut up about your book. It’s a bit like listening to someone talk about their marathon training, and for years rather than months at that Bor-ing.

The second reason and probably the biggest is that I got fed up of the thinly disguised smirk that my confession was often greeted with because, you know, everyone’s a writer. Or at least it seems that way, as if everyone who can’t wield a paintbrush or play an instrument with any degree of competence toys with the idea of writing a book because writing is a paint-by-numbers and keep-within-the-lines kind of thing, isn’t it? I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard someone say, ‘I wanted to write a book too, but…’. Most of those people, for various reasons, never will: it takes too long, it’s too risky, you only get paid once it’s done and rarely earn a fortune, one might as well expend one’s energy doing something more practical etc etc. The sorts of people who don’t do it for those reasons were never really going to be writers anyway because writing isn’t a lifestyle choice, it’s a compulsion. 

Though being a living-on-a-shoestring, aspiring author might seem cool in your twenties, it becomes just plain embarrassing if you’re actually living on a shoestring and still aspiring in your forties. By the time I’d finished my long uphill apprenticeship and the first book was ready to go, most of my fellow writers had long since fallen away. People who are really writers know they are writers. They know because the thought of not writing is unbearable, because they are like withdrawing addicts when circumstances prevent them from writing, because writing is when they feel authentic. From the outside, who can tell who is genuinely a writer and who isn’t? So I suppose the slight smirk is understandable.

in my name.

Like most people I was raised to think that the summit not the climb is the point of any endeavour. Of course, I do not believe that now. I now believe that a person is the sum of their experiences, not of their achievements. Something I’ve noticed in the biographies of many writers is that their employment history is often eclectic, characterised by a kind of restlessness. This might be taken by some as a lack of commitment to a ‘proper’ career but I don’t believe that is so. I think it’s more to do with a kind of hunger for experience coupled with a need to find some kind of ‘home’. I suspect that most writers feel like misfits and that home, rather than being a place or a group of people, turns out to be within language.

Of course even when your book is finally out, the reactions aren’t always salutary. For someone whose creative progress has stalled because of fear, bad luck, lack of commitment or frankly, in some cases, a lack of genuine ability, it can be hard to watch someone else take a risk and then have the temerity to succeed.

Writers, like any artists, are wise to start growing a hide like a rhinoceros and to start growing it early. Because even when you get your book onto the shelves the negativity doesn’t stop. Some readers will genuinely appreciate your work but others will take delight in savaging it. They assume, like many, that if your head is above the parapet, it’s okay to take a pot-shot at it. If you’re the sensitive type, (and sensitivity is part of the artistic constitution), other people’s negativity can be creatively disabling.

One of my favourite antidotes is what I call my medicine bundle. This is a tatty file full of anything that has made me feel good about my work over the years or reinforced my reasons for doing it. So in my medicine bundle I have printouts of positive reviews, feedback from course tutors, the very first letter I received from my agent inviting me to get in touch, encouraging cards from friends and family, quotes from long dead writers. A medicine bundle should have no room for the ambivalent or the begrudging, only for what is resolutely positive. It’s basically a psychic hug stored up for when I need it. And there have been plenty of times when I’ve needed it to remind me that my work does have merit and that other people that seem quite sensible and that I don’t owe money to think so as well.




How Does a Writer Deal with Other People's Negativity?

3048872-poster-p-1-how-to-deal-with-judgmental-people

For a long time, I didn’t confess to the wider world that I was a writer. It wasn’t until my first novel was bought by a publisher and I’d actually signed the contract that I decided to really come clean. Even after that, with certain people, I didn’t say anything until the book was physically on the shelves. The reasons I was cagey about it were manifold. Firstly, it’s a long road and it takes a considerable length of time to produce anything one feels comfortable letting people who aren’t your best friend or your mum see. Even your closest allies get bored of waiting for you to publish, bored of hearing that you’re still working on the same story you were working on the last hundred or so times they saw you. They either want an excuse to break out the bubbly or they want you to shut up about your book. It’s a bit like listening to someone talk about their marathon training, and for years rather than months at that Bor-ing.

The second reason and probably the biggest is that I got fed up of the thinly disguised smirk that my confession was often greeted with because, you know, everyone’s a writer. Or at least it seems that way, as if everyone who can’t wield a paintbrush or play an instrument with any degree of competence toys with the idea of writing a book because writing is a paint-by-numbers and keep-within-the-lines kind of thing, isn’t it? I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard someone say, ‘I wanted to write a book too, but…’. Most of those people, for various reasons, never will: it takes too long, it’s too risky, you only get paid once it’s done and rarely earn a fortune, one might as well expend one’s energy doing something more practical etc etc. The sorts of people who don’t do it for those reasons were never really going to be writers anyway because writing isn’t a lifestyle choice, it’s a compulsion. 

Though being a living-on-a-shoestring, aspiring author might seem cool in your twenties, it becomes just plain embarrassing if you’re actually living on a shoestring and still aspiring in your forties. By the time I’d finished my long uphill apprenticeship and the first book was ready to go, most of my fellow writers had long since fallen away. People who are really writers know they are writers. They know because the thought of not writing is unbearable, because they are like withdrawing addicts when circumstances prevent them from writing, because writing is when they feel authentic. From the outside, who can tell who is genuinely a writer and who isn’t? So I suppose the slight smirk is understandable.

in my name.

Like most people I was raised to think that the summit not the climb is the point of any endeavour. Of course, I do not believe that now. I now believe that a person is the sum of their experiences, not of their achievements. Something I’ve noticed in the biographies of many writers is that their employment history is often eclectic, characterised by a kind of restlessness. This might be taken by some as a lack of commitment to a ‘proper’ career but I don’t believe that is so. I think it’s more to do with a kind of hunger for experience coupled with a need to find some kind of ‘home’. I suspect that most writers feel like misfits and that home, rather than being a place or a group of people, turns out to be within language.

Of course even when your book is finally out, the reactions aren’t always salutary. For someone whose creative progress has stalled because of fear, bad luck, lack of commitment or frankly, in some cases, a lack of genuine ability, it can be hard to watch someone else take a risk and then have the temerity to succeed.

Writers, like any artists, are wise to start growing a hide like a rhinoceros and to start growing it early. Because even when you get your book onto the shelves the negativity doesn’t stop. Some readers will genuinely appreciate your work but others will take delight in savaging it. They assume, like many, that if your head is above the parapet, it’s okay to take a pot-shot at it. If you’re the sensitive type, (and sensitivity is part of the artistic constitution), other people’s negativity can be creatively disabling.

One of my favourite antidotes is what I call my medicine bundle. This is a tatty file full of anything that has made me feel good about my work over the years or reinforced my reasons for doing it. So in my medicine bundle I have printouts of positive reviews, feedback from course tutors, the very first letter I received from my agent inviting me to get in touch, encouraging cards from friends and family, quotes from long dead writers. A medicine bundle should have no room for the ambivalent or the begrudging, only for what is resolutely positive. It’s basically a psychic hug stored up for when I need it. And there have been plenty of times when I’ve needed it to remind me that my work does have merit and that other people that seem quite sensible and that I don’t owe money to think so as well.




Comparing Disregard and Disrespect for Culture

 

Photo Credit: E.N.K via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: E.N.K via Compfight cc

I’m sure none of us think it acceptable to disregard or disrespect a culture simply because we don’t agree with it or even understand it, yet we do this regularly. Our forfeiting of understanding to be replaced by stereotypes and misconceptions relays that worldwide we lack respect for cultures foreign to our own and we believe ourselves superior to them, creating barriers and highlighting differences between cultures. Islamic State has been proudly destroying cultural sites, posting pictures for the world to see and despair over. What do we actually think of its actions? What springs instantly to my mind is that I find its actions ignorant, but can we honestly believe that we are any more respectful of culture than they are? We similarly disrespect Muslims, cowardly believing all Muslims are terrorists. Our warped views regarding cultural differences are leading to severe prejudicial issues. There is barely any empathy, no attempts to see things from a new perspective that doesn’t involve fear or hatred. We don’t seem to want to exercise trust or compassion, instead we want to feel secure ourselves.

From Islamic State’s point of view, it is solving a huge problem, the problem of an overindulgent capitalist Western society. It is trying to better the world through its own agenda, by teaching the rest of the world lessons through violence and forwarding its belief that its extremist views are valid and right. In destroying important buildings it aims to assert its power and its capability to harm and to rule. Obviously the destroying and defacing of cultural sites demonstrates a devastating lack of disrespect for culture and heritage, but it falls deeper than this; it also shows a deep hatred of the cultures that it is attempting to destroy. As of yet, a few of the recent cultural sites Islamic State has ruined are the ancient Assyrian church of Tikrit and city of Nimrud, Iraqi cities Khorsabad and Hatra, the burial site of Prophet Younis in Mosul, Syria’s Armenian Genocide Memorial Church, a statue of the ancient king of Hatra, as well as the city of Hatra.

The purposeful attempt at extinguishing a culture, ‘cultural cleansing,’ features highly in Islamic State’s attacks. It proudly shares its sheer lack of respect and its distaste of others to the world online. We spoke to the British Museum, who sent us this statement regarding the ruination of cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq, “We are very deeply concerned with what is happening in the region with regard to its cultural heritage, whether it is destruction of archaeological sites, museums and religious monuments or the looting and trafficking of antiquities. We are involved as much as we possibly can through monitoring the situation from afar.”

If we compare the West’s dealing with Islamic State from afar, we can see that although we aren’t as militant or as extreme as Islamic State, we do oppress cultures that are different to our own. Understandably, perhaps due to the media’s insistence that all terrorists are Muslims, upon hearing the word ‘terrorist’ younger generations conjure a particular image in their mind, a Muslim image. The damaging stereotypes we hear follow us and are ingrained in everyday life. We sit on the tube, see a beard and automatically think, ‘this is it.’ We see any item of traditional clothing that is foreign to our own and think, ‘look for any suspicious packages.’ It is comprehensible, as humans we naturally fear what we don’t understand or know, and we haven’t been taught enough about Muslim culture and beliefs to understand or appreciate its value in society.

Our tendency to assume that all terrorists are Muslim, and vice versa, was exposed in the government’s counter-radicalisation strategy ‘PREVENT.’ In July 280 academics, lawyers and public figures spoke out against the strategy in an open letter, calling out the serious typecasting of Muslims. What caught my eye in this letter was section three, “PREVENT remains fixated on ideology as the primary driver of terrorism. Inevitably, this has meant a focus on religious interaction and Islamic symbolism to assess radicalisation. For example, growing a beard, wearing a hijab or mixing with those who believe Islam has a comprehensive political philosophy are key markers used to identify ‘potential’ terrorism. This serves to reinforce a prejudicial worldview that perceives Islam to be a retrograde and oppressive religion that threatens the West. PREVENT reinforces an ‘us’ and ‘them’ view of the world, divides communities, and sows mistrust of Muslims.” In encouraging ignorant stereotyping, the government sets apart Muslims from the community, and does nothing to help us to understand their culture, beliefs or views. What interested me in this was the idea of threat to the West. Purely because we don’t know enough about Islam, we fear it and try to oppress it, as the West claims Islam does to its followers. Labelling Islam retrograde merely shows our ignorance and defiance to believe there can exist ways of life that are different to our own. The use of stereotypes further encourages separation and relays the severity of our misunderstanding.

It is not justifiable to hurt or destroy a culture physically or mentally, it’s incomprehensible that people consider it acceptable. Are we not all allowed to hold beliefs? Each individual deserves more respect than they are getting. The judgment that comes hand in hand with disregard for cultures is wrong. Although we can’t change the ways of Islamic State, we can change our own preconceived ideas and practice opening our minds instead of creating discriminatory strategies that target one broad stereotype. We all know that any form of disregard or disrespect for a culture is wrong, so why continue?




IDENTITY, MUSIC AND BEING A WRITER

IDENTITY, MUSIC AND BEING A WRITER

I am a proud Indian at heart, love my cultural heritage and have a strong sense of family and the Hindu values I was raised with. But in many ways my family isn’t a typical Indian family, and exposure to other cultures and encouragement to embrace their merits while maintaining my core, was also part of my global upbringing. India with its multicultural, multilingual, diverse, yet inclusive personality has offered me a wonderful opportunity to naturally experience a wide spectrum of life and emotions. My identity is thus a combination of different parts than a localised entity, and it is fascinating how location, cultural identity and heritage link to a person’s writing. I have a particular interest in exploring identity in relation to a foreign country and culture since it has been very easy for me to remain rooted to my Indian identity, but also absorb (mostly sub-consciously) the new inputs from the UK and relate to many of its aspects during my time there as a student, as well as from my current 9 month stay in Spain as an English conversational assistant so that now my perspective is even more of a collage than before.

In a way it is intriguing to be between an insider and an outsider and have insights from potentially rich and varied angles. My first novel in progress as well as other works appear to be largely Westernised commodities, and yet ones that hide an Indian sensibility, an integral part of me. The conflict between me, my life and work is indeed present, and my long-term challenge as a writer is to embrace this vantage point, even though it means I don’t exactly ‘fit-in’ in the natural sense of the term.

One thing I have realised is that for me identity is linked to philosophy, values and beliefs rather than place. It is only by complete acceptance and peace with my position that I’m going to be able to bring out that very unique perspective through my writing. Writing that won’t be more or less than my current writing, but writing where I can finally come to terms with all parts of my complex identity. This personal conflict is conveyed perfectly by Rainer Maria Rilke in one line; our human need to be true to our own identity and life, however complex it is.

(There is) ultimately only one conflict which constantly reappears under a different guise … to reconcile life with work in the purest sense.’ (As cited in Davis, et al. 2003: 81)

But I also believe in the universality of certain things like basic human emotions, music and colours. I am fascinated by the potential of perception and associations with all three that can make it so diverse for different people. As a writer, I have always been interested in the intricate relationship between art, music, the artist and the audience.

Does music evoke emotions and thoughts or are they already present and the reason why we can relate and bring meaning to it? Similarly for the written word, is the writer capable of making the reader feel and think in a certain way, or does the reader connect to the world because of previously existing feelings?
Or is it all akin to brainwashing, like the questions raised in Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby (2002) where repetition and clever arrangement of words (in a pattern and structure similar to that found in music) are said to manipulate the audience in the manner intended?

I personally don’t believe it’s that simple or that I’m a manipulator for creating characters and situations that my readers can (hopefully) connect with. Ron Silliman has said that the mind is the shortest distance between two sentences and I suspect that it is similar with music, so the relationship ultimately works both ways between audience, medium, content and effect, and they play off each other. The workings of the mind and brain are complex and so is this relationship.

Through my writing, what I want is to be able to create three-dimensional characters relatable through their experiences and emotions, not their professions. One of my main aims is to show music as the main interactive medium between the characters, where the sound and its consequent effect is what matters. My writing is an attempt to verbalise and concretise the ‘sound’ of feelings and emotions, without resorting to structuring the piece in any form of music. It is said that if you could say something in words, there would be no reason for art and music. However I still believe in the possibility recreating a ‘vision’ of music that has a similar and equally powerful effect on the reader. Attempting to make the abstract concrete is an integral part of why I am driven to write, and that more than anything else forms the hopefully universal sensibility of my work rather than where it is based or what nationality the characters have.

Music is the way in which many of my characters find a solution to their problems. However the obvious dilemma surfaces when the mode of communication you feel most comfortable with is itself the source of the problem. I have often thought about what would happen if writing just didn’t make any sense anymore and failed to give me the joy it continues to give. How would I react to waking up, not only lacking that compulsive urge to put pen to paper (or words on the screen) but being actively repelled by it? I honestly don’t know. I presume I would feel lost, angry, frustrated, even depressed, but I’d like to think that I would keep trying to find my way back, and not give up.

There is another side to this discussion about inspiration, craft and identity, and it is the knowledge that all this ‘transitory and ephemeral beauty’ that we feel through and by art is always accompanied by its opposites, by extreme darkness, pain, sorrow, hurt and suffering. And the contemplation that unless we embrace and make peace with the darkest parts of ourselves, we will never fully understand nor attain harmony in the true sense of the world. But this artistic desire and sheer compulsion to write and keep writing is mixed with the annoying realisation that it can never be fully satisfied. This is where the discussion about hope comes in, something that forms an important part of my identity as a writer and person.

‘Hope is a good thing. The best of things. And good things never die.’ Andy Dufresne, The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

I am a huge fan of Friday Night Lights (Berg, 2006-2011) not just because of its intense realism and ability to tackle real and difficult issues, but because all characters, however bleak or dire their situation and however many times they try and fail, never let go of the hope of change and never give up their attempts. Uncertainty and struggle is a permanent fixture of a writer’s life, more than most and it is something that at its frustrating worst may seem insurmountable, especially as something that will never go away. However it is only by infinite patience, perseverance, and sheer determination that one can hope to get anywhere. Why should writing be any different? Gary Snyder, in The Real Work: Excerpts from an Interview (Gibbons, 1989: 294) makes a very matter-of-fact observation about the relationship between the artist’s existence and never giving up, The real work is to be the warriors that we have to be, to find the heart of the monster and kill it, whether we have any hope of actually winning or not.

I am a believer. Life is hard, tough, annoying and unfair. It will tire you out, wear you down, depress and frustrate you. But it is also beautiful, magical, enigmatic, and full of hope, joy, love and laughter. And it is up to us to keep searching for it, more so in the world of today. I believe in all the good, in spite of all the bad, or maybe more so because of it. That this shows in my writing has been a retrospective discovery. There is a large degree of sub-conscious absorption as a writer and now that I’m more aware of the processes, there is an increasing percentage of self-control, fine-tuning and being able to focus the sub-conscious mind on picking up specific inputs. But inspiration still takes me by surprise and I’m glad it does.

It’s nice to know you can never control certain things, proof that there are still moments of magic left in life. Even now I’m inspired daily by a random quote, a paragraph in the newspaper or a book, a scrap of conversation. I’m inspired by music, one single song, one good movie.
I’m inspired by the fact that I can reach out to people through my writing, people I’ve never met and probably will never meet, and touch their lives in some small way. I read and write because I can’t not; a compulsive need. The more I read, the more I learn and the more I want to write and vice-versa. Both processes are so closely inter-connected and inter-dependent that I can’t separate or differentiate when one lets off and the other picks up.

Is it just the ability to pick up a pen and piece of paper that makes a writer? The ability to form coherent sentences in a fairly pleasing and flowing manner?

Having a story to tell or an urge to create narratives in whichever form? Technically every able-bodied person is programmed to run, but can we call all of them athletes and marathon runners?

One of my MA essays discussed the strengths and weaknesses of language, the potential and infinite possibilities within the boundaries of limitation. As writers, these pros and cons are a constant personal companion – and awareness about both, as well as a kind of peace with them is a crucial and essential part of the never-ending journey. In the same vein of thought I want to discuss the helplessness when faced by beauty that we’re sure cannot be translated into words, or captured enough through photos and images, or experiences that we feel will overwhelm the attempt on our part to freeze in time, which in truth won’t live up to the actual event or experience. As artists whose very livelihood depends on that very elusive nature, it can be frustrating and daunting to say the least.

Why then do we (myself very much included) persist and persevere against these added odds to ones that are scary enough on their own?




Identity is Ruled by Stereotypes

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Photo Credit: leo.eloy via Compfight cc

 

The first thing we notice about someone is their appearance. Before they open their mouths our eyes dart from facial features to clothes, as we note their gender and ethnicity amongst other things. Next is their voice, they have a Geordie accent, so we label them as a Northerner, their language isn’t as eloquent as our own, we think they are uneducated. And then we listen to what they are saying and discern what kind of a person they are, whether they are positive, negative, interesting, or funny. Our brains condense all of this information when we first meet someone, to form a picture of them, an identity for them before we even know them. Identity is a construct of society.

Stereotypes play a large role in how we define others as well as ourselves. By grouping people who share one particular attribute together, we strip them of their individuality, casting aside all other aspects of their identity and self. We each have multiple identities, some of which we keep private. A predetermined assumption of a person’s behaviour and interests on a basis of their stereotype is unhealthy, unhelpful and unnecessary, causing unwarranted distress.

Our consumerist culture has shaped our identities to be categorised into stereotypes. The media bombards us with images and ads to manipulate us to consume and to aspire to be one of their carefully constructed ‘beautiful people’. People rush to buy clothes from the latest popular store, everyone listens to the same music, watches the same films, reads the same books, and eats the same food. It’s a wonder any of us manage to retain any sort of individuality. Pressure to conform to stereotypes is particularly difficult for young people who are forming their identities and looking for their place in society. The want for acceptance, and the narrow band in which it lies causes trauma and isolation.

Appearance often forms identity, in both how we see ourselves and how others see us. If we see someone in a nice suit we assume they are wealthy, we see someone with jet black hair and black clothes we assume they are a goth. People are stereotyped by their looks, by how they keep themselves, and by the image they project. Different looks create instant identities: Chav, nerd, punk, Muslim. The difficulty lies here, if your identity is instantly recognisable because of religious beliefs, and is viewed negatively and associated with terrorism and extremism, as Muslims have found, it can be terrifying and marginalising. It can also lead to the radicalisation of groups, such as moderate Muslims.

We can take a lighter view on stereotyping. It can also be amusing and interesting. Cambridge University has recently published two years’ worth of research on regional identities. 400,000 people were surveyed to establish the personality of different regions in the UK. Each region has been given a different identity. Shy and emotionally unstable Wales, uncooperative and irritable London, and agreeable and stable Scotland, to take a few examples of the identities. It must be said that all who took part volunteered themselves and had to have access to the Internet, so the research is not without its limitations, obviously. This type of stereotyping can be amusing and light-hearted, but it is not without its difficulties. Who wants to labelled the emotionally unstable, unhappy, cranky region? Will we after taking the test morph into what we have been told we are or should be when living in a particular region? Will rudeness and unhelpfulness be seen as acceptable or justified just because our region is known for these traits?

But not all stereotypes are fun and games. These examples of stereotyping can lead to prejudice and the ostracism of different groups. There is a serious side to our stereotyping habits. Recent years have seen severe racial discrimination against Muslims. One could say that stereotyping leads to Muslims becoming radicalised and travelling to Syria, as we have seen five young girls from the UK do. In the West it seems that Muslims are grouped together, stereotyped into one category. Their other identities aren’t recognised, established or appreciated in society. The idea of belonging to a group such as ISIS and serving a purpose in that group is so enticing after being shunned by society due to beliefs.

Some may smirk superiorly at Daily Mail readers on the tube, who in turn may pity another’s ‘politically correct’ strangled use of language. Economics, genes, education and luck factor hugely in forging our identities. We do not start life on an even platform. Society has enabled us to change our identities from birth, to develop and immerse ourselves in new ways of thinking about identity, and we should encourage further free thinking. Who cares what we look like, what we eat, how we speak? Why should it affect who we are as a person?




Book Review: Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

Christos Tsiolkas’s last novel The Slap centred on a single initial incident, a man slapping a child, that set off a complex chain of events — Tsiolkas employed this plot device to observe its repercussions on the book’s characters through a series of episodic sections. His latest novel, Barracuda, has neither the instant intrigue of The Slap nor the sensationalism of its treatment of cultural mores and instead draws upon an almost 19th-century inclination to find meaning in the shape of a life.

Speaking at the 2010 Edinburgh International Book Festival, Tsiolkas compared “dry and academic” European literature unfavourably to books about the American suburban experience, describing John Updike’s Couples as an example of the “fearlessness that I am hungry for”. What is this fearlessness? In his desire to find beauty in the ordinary, often unpleasant, always honest, inner lives of suburban Australia, Tsiolkas attempts to express something almost beyond his artistry.

Barracuda is the chopped-up biography of Danny Kelly, a once aspiring swimmer trying to escape his working class upbringing. The novel begins in first-person before shifting its focus to 1994 and a third-person narration — the story of Danny’s life moves the same way, between first and third, past and present and creates the sensation of a self complete only in transitory moments.

Initially, Danny comes across as a promising and ferociously ambitious swimmer. His athletic prowess wins him a scholarship to an esteemed private school he calls “Cunts College”where he doesn’t belong. It’s a boyish, working class gesture at once rebellious, defiant, aggressive and compensatory. Here, Danny struggles to deal with the chasm in privilege and feels shame at his background.

 It didn’t matter what medals Danny won. They didn’t want him, he didn’t belong there.

Status anxiety becomes a kind of inverted snobbery. He is obsessed with his own standing, feelings of cultural inferiority and shame. It’s interesting to note that many of the boys simply don’t even think these things or may even admire, fear or respect him. Barracuda allows all these issues to breathe, naturally. There is a sense in that Tsiolkas is writing fiction in the truest sense. His characters are coruscating and real.

Throughout, sport is used as a metaphor for male competition, cultural and class conflict. Danny watches the Sydney Olympics with languor and idleness, now an unfulfilled spectator and literary descendent of Albert Camus’ Meursault: an outsider bearing up to the absurdity of his life.

 He was going to take in, possess the whole of the world. Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi? Fuck off. He wanted more.

The personal and the political meet in a national stage. Danny simultaneously reviles the xenophobia, self-righteousness and self-entitlement on display, but also, the smug intellectualism of his now university educated leftwing friends. Most of all, he hates himself. The second half of the novel doesn’t offer Danny redemption. Instead, it shows how people grow, change, heal and simply forget.

Tackling existentialism seems at odds with the contemporary fashion of cool, knowing, ironic novels. But this is literature as it should be: challenging, tender and lacerating. Barracuda is a profoundly moral novel, asking how should we live? While Danny is superficially preoccupied with class and status, the deeper needs of an individual, friendship, family, memory and acceptance are delicately measured beneath the surface glitter of the waves. How do we live with failure? What do we do when we can’t be the strongest, the fastest, the best? How do we live with our mistakes? In his follow up to The Slap, Tsiolkas has found a moral force and authenticity rare in contemporary fiction.