Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Review of ain’t i a woman? black women and feminism by Bell Hooks

Less than a year after my arrival to the U.S.A, and soon after the inauguration of the country’s  45th President, hundreds of thousands of women decided to send a message to the new administration. In what was dubbed the “pussyhat” riots, women across the country marched wearing pink pussy-hats in an attempt to demonstrate solidarity against the President who had confessed on tape to grabbing women by their pussies. I was, as always, in the thick of things – by which I mean I was comfortably sitting at home scrolling ardently through social media trying to catch the most widely shared clicks, clips and bytes. One particular YouTube video caught my eye, and has stayed with me since. In this video, a black man confronts some of the protesting women, and questions their knowledge of the history of the feminist movement in the U.S.A. Scrolling through the comments on the video, I grasped, based on the authority of YouTube commenters,  that the  women's suffrage movement, a.k.a., the first wave of feminism in the U.S.A, was tainted with racism. 

Words and phrases are pliable. Since they work by association, concerted efforts to link a word or a phrase to a certain connotation are often successful in drawing unwarranted reactions against it. Take “political-correctness”, for instance. Taken by itself, it is a meaningless phrase. However, the rightwing ecosystem in the U.S.  has so successfully associated a  disagreeable meaning to the term that supporters of fascists across the World use the term. “He", for it is usually a he, "says  it like it is, and that’s why we like him.”. Does he really? Will he still say it if it is politically inconvenient for him? If it is so politically incorrect, why did so many people support him despite saying it? What about all those times when he demonstrably lied? Try asking such questions and you will be met with circular reasoning. “Feminism” is another such word. By the use of convenient straw(wo)man arguments, the word has been sullied so much that some people disown the word, despite finding nothing disagreeable with what feminism actually entails.

Bell Hooks was an 18-year old right in the middle of the second wave of feminist movement in the U.S.A. when she started writing “ain’t i a woman? black women and feminism”. She would eventually publish it ten years later.  The effort spanned a time when African-American women were skeptical of feminism which was largely spearheaded by white women and represented their concerns. The civil rights movement was in the recent past, and racial identity took precedence over gender identity for many African-American women. Bell Hooks argues that sexism and patriarchy are as harmful, if not more, than racism. “Every women’s movement in America from its earliest origin to the present day has been built on a racist foundation— a fact which in no way invalidates feminism as a political ideology”, she concedes. But faced with a word tainted by association with racism, she does not forego the word. And in that spirit, this book is both a criticism of the feminist movements and a defense of it as a political ideology that needs to be reclaimed. Hooks calls attention to the struggle of being at the intersection of two marginalized groups : “When black people are talked about the focus tends to be on black men; and when women are talked about the focus tends to be on white women.” Though I had  understood the modern term “intersectionality” in general terms, Ain’t I a Woman is my first scholarly introduction to the concept. 

The title of the book is borrowed from Sojourner Truth’s powerful speech of the same title in the 1851 Ohio Women’s Convention. Apparently, recent consensus by historians is that the speech was not delivered in the context and not with the words it has been believed to be. But there is definitely a folklorish impact in the words quoted by Bell Hooks. Hooks starts by describing the treatment of black women in slavery, and argues that they were treated worse than black men. She also theorizes on the complex dynamics between white women and black women in a slave household.

It was hard for me to read this book, mostly due to my unfamiliarity with the feminist moment, and more broadly, the history of the U.S.A. This was further complicated by the fact that this is a theoretical book. Bell Hooks rigorously inspects speeches and writings from a wide variety of personalities and finds aspects in them that highlight either a patriarchal or a racist mindset. On one hand, she questions popular feminist literature and surveys of women as focussing solely on white women. “While it is in no way racist for any author to write a book exclusively about white women, it is fundamentally racist for books to be published that focus solely on the American white woman’s experience in which that experience is assumed to be the American woman’s experience”, she points out, and adds that a survey focussing on black women, on the other hand, needs to be qualified as such. Bell Hooks also makes a very relevant argument that applies to privileged people across the World : “In a racially imperialist nation such as ours, it is the dominant race that reserves for itself the luxury of dismissing racial identity while the oppressed race is made daily aware of their racial identity. It is the dominant race that can make it seem that their experience is representative”.

On the other hand, Bell Hooks also points out the sexism within the black community and propagated by its leaders. Starting with Frederik Douglas who, despite his support for women’s suffrage, prioritized voting rights for black people. Implicit in this is the exclusion of black women’s vote. Hooks is more severe on Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Elijah Mohammed and the black power leaders. In this vein, Hooks writes extensively about black male sexism that discourages, among many other things, black women being friendly with white men. Many of these leaders felt having a white female partner, on the flip side, as dominating the white male.

The author makes more interesting observations. For instance, when white women started demanding equal working opportunities, they ignored the fact that black women had been working for long – first as slaves, and then as breadwinners for their families. The fact that black women earned, often in lieu of black men, led to scholarly articles on the "emasculation"  of black men by their women, and the "matriarchal" setup of African-American families. Hooks contends that though both these assumptions were readily accepted even within the black community, they were harmful.

ain’t i a woman? black women and feminism is an extensive book that covers a lot of aspects of American culture. Bell Hooks is severe on the very foundations of American ideals - imperialism, racism, sexism and even capitalism. On the desire to find meaningful work, she says “For a few lucky men, for far fewer women, work has occasionally been a source of meaning and creativity. But for most of the rest it remains even now forced drudgery in front of the ploughs, machines, words or numbers—pushing products, pushing switches, pushing papers to eke out the wherewithal of material existence.” Personally, this book was my first step in understanding intersectionality and feminism. I have a lot more to read and learn, starting with Hooks’s other works.

Monday, July 4, 2022

Review of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange


"It may not be nice to be good, little 6655321. It may be horrible to be good.. What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?.. And yet, in a sense, in choosing to be deprived of an ability to make an ethical choice, you have in a sense really chosen the good. "

I woke up early this morning hoping to force myself to write a review of The Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. After all, I started this year resolving to pen my thoughts about every book I read, and have struggled to write coherently ever since. Having a mobile phone at an arm’s length does not help, and true to form, I started browsing “a bit” for “distraction”. This morning's content of choice was a set of videos posted by a documentary filmmaker who, along with his wife, was taunting a masked group of the white supremacist and neo-Nazi Patriot Front marching in and around Boston yesterday. One could even say that the documentary filmmaker was deliberately trying to provoke the group, testing the limits of his free speech in a way. The videos distil why it is difficult to read and review Anthony Burgess’s 1962 classic in the present day and age. Today’s date is not without significance as well. It is 4th of July in the United States, a day commemorating the country’s declaration of independence. It is as good an occasion as any to attempt to pen one’s thoughts on Burgess’s thought-provoking study on free will and determinism.

My introduction to The Clockwork Orange, like that of most people, was through Stanley Kubrick’s movie adaptation. In fact, The Clockwork Orange was the movie that made me take notice of Kubrick as a director. The 1986 America edition that I read has an introduction by Burgess where he rues the fact that his literary oeuvre is represented by, and often only by, The Clockwork Orange, thanks to Kubrick. Burgess has plenty to say on the movie adaptation, but he calls the book itself “too didactic to be artistic”, since “the moral lesson in this book sticks out like a sore thumb”. The heart of his discontent is the 21st chapter. As a prolific music composer, Anthony Burgess structures The Clockwork Orange as 3 sections of 7 chapters each. When initially published in the USA in 1962, the publisher insisted on publishing the book without the final chapter (the chapter was reintroduced a quarter century later). Stanley Kubrick based his screenplay on the American version of the book, and did not see the point of the 21st chapter even though he became aware of it before filming his movie. So, what’s it about the 21st chapter, apart from structural integrity, that is so polarizing? In Burgess’s view, the 21st chapter is the “denou-ment” that turns the novel from being “a fable” or “an allegory” into a genuine fiction. This is because, Burgess believes, fiction as a work of art needs a character transformation. The American publisher, on the other hand, believed that the original ending was  “bland and it showed a Pelagian unwillingness to accept that a human being could be a model of unregenerable evil”. "My book was Kennedyan and accepted the notion of moral progress. What was really wanted was a Nixonian book with no shred of optimism in it", Burgess remarks. Notice the reference to Richard Nixon, which is not insignificant.

Burgess is, hence, an author of the classic bend. He derives his morality from a formerly heretical sect(s) of Christianity in the 5th century A.D. – Pelagianism – encompassing a set of beliefs that did not accept the idea of “original sin”. Man does not inherit the sin of Adam simply because one can only be held accountable for their own sins. One can be good, or evil, and has the complete free will to choose between the two. This is the central theme of The Clockwork Orange. Should mechanistic morality be imposed on a creature oozing juice and sweetness? 

The second regret Burgess has is his use of the Nadsat language – Anthony Burgess’s own creation of a slang language that borrows heavily from Caucasian languages, with a mix of cockney colloquial words and school boyish rhyming phrases. The novel is a first person narrative by Alex, the fifteen year old protagonist, and Alex’s use of the slang permeates the book. Some people just read through until they get used to the language, while others give up on the book. I, on the other rooker, my brothers, skorrily ittied to a dictionary whenever I viddied a new slovo. This, of course, hindered the pace of my already slow reading.

The Clockwork Orange begins with Alex, the fifteen year old narrator, who is enjoying a Milk Plus – milk plus any drug of your choice – with his friends at the Korova Milk Bar (pictured by Kubrick later through a memorable zoom out shot). Alex is the youngest, but the most cunning member and the de facto leader of the gang. Soon we see that Alex’s life outside his school is one of “ultra-violence” : rape, thievery, and violence just for the sake of it. When caught, he volunteers for a novel reformative treatment introduced by the new Government - Ludovico’s technique. A form of behavioral conditioning, this technique attempts to create a subconscious association between violence, music and nauseating symptoms. However, is such a treatment moral? And will it be effective?

This is not an easy book to read, thanks to its invented language. The violence could also be a turn-off for many readers. The Clockwork Orange is a novel of ideas set in a dystopian setting and following the tradition of Huxley's The Brave New World. However, I found Burgess’s work to be much more enjoyable thanks to the wit of the protagonist, Alex. Alex is also self-aware to an extent. At one point, he goes into this rumination explaining his actions :  "But, brothers, this biting over their toe-nails over what is the cause of badness is what turns me into a fine laughing malchick. They don't go into what is the cause of goodness, so why the other shop? ... More, badness is of the self, the one, the you or me on our oddly knockies, and that self is made by old Bog or God and is his great pride and radosty. But the not-self cannot have the bad, meaning they of the government and the judges and the schools cannot allow the bad because they cannot allow the self. And is not our modern history, my brothers, the story of brave malenky selves fighting these big machines?”. He sums this up simply as “what I do I do because I like to do.

In short, Burgess’s protagonist is an amoral creature caught in a fictional work of the classic bend. No wonder then that the final chapter seems sudden and forced. Burgess is clever enough to connect the fact that Americans loved the nihilistic 20-chapter novel and its movie adaptation with the rise of Richard Nixon. And reading this book today is jarring, knowing that the rise of Nixon set the stage for the current rise of Donald Trump, and with him, the neo-Nazis of the U.S.A. It is probably only me, but Alex’s use of endearments like “my brothers” and his tendency to refer to himself as “Your Humble Narrator” constantly reminded me of Trump, and his self-referential “your favorite President”. As if that’s not enough, Alex seems to obsess over cleanliness while Trump is reportedly a germaphobe. Unfortunately, reality more often follows the structure of an allegory than the structure of fiction. Nevertheless, The Clockwork Orange is worth a read.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Review of A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

 For the greatest fear of death is that it will pass us by. And leave us there alone.

Dealing with a subject that is charming and humorous on the surface, but layered with serious emotions underneath, is a tightrope walk. Only some creators manage to achieve success in such an endeavor. Markus Zusak's The Book Thief and Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful come to mind. Fredrik Backman attempts to walk this tightrope in his A Man Called Ove.

A Man Called Ove starts with a Swedish man called Ove attempting to purchase an Apple iPad. The problem? Ove hates anything with a semblance of modernity and believes that the world is out to fool him – after all, why sell such an expensive "computer", especially one without a keyboard? There is comedy potential here and Backman milks it. As we discover more about Ove, we realise that he is – to use a phrase that Backman keeps repeating – a specific “sort of man”. For instance, Ove is “the sort of man who checks the status of all things by giving them a good kick". He is a functional man, understanding only things he could feel and touch, and taking pride in always being right. A Man Called Ove paints the portrayal of a man who is, on one hand, a geriatric vigilante enforcing rules in his own small – and often ineffective – way; and on the other, someone who would prompt the remark “OK, Boomer!”

We get the first sign that Ove is not just what we see on the surface at a graveyard, when he remarks "It's not natural rattling around the house on my own all day when you're not here. It's no way to live. That's all I have to say"  to his wife’s tombstone. Backman intercuts between the past and the present. It is in the flashback that we meet some of the novel’s more interesting characters. Ove’s wife Sonja and his father stand out. The former is portrayed as an honest, simple, hardworking and efficient man whose principles define, to a large extent, Ove’s life. Sonja is everything that Ove is not - artistic, ebullient, abstract, and friendly. She is “a woman who insisted on seeing more potential in certain men than they saw in themselves”. Her pairing with Ove is unlikely, because  “people said Ove saw the world in black and white. But she was color. All the color he had.” In the present, however, Ove seems different, and difficult. He has been forced into retirement and encounters an Iranian neighbor and her bungling husband, an overweight neighbor (whose weight is emphasized too often), a teenager in love, kids who are too friendly for his taste, and a stray cat. A Man Called Ove sketches the journey of a rare kind of person who wants a simple structured life; who encounters multiple incidents of grief that isolate him; and who ultimately squeezes out the inherent good in him to help his neighbors.

Richard Backman’s writing is lyrical, and he uses his metaphors well. He compares a woman’s laughter to a carbonated drink poured too fast and bubbling in all directions. Ove’s rudeness allows Backman to be mean too, as he compares an overweight man’s tummy to a “big mound of ice cream that's first been melted and then been refrozen”, or describes another person as “his hair looks as if someone saved him from drowning in a barrel by pulling him up by his locks". Ove is a misfit who is “caught in a wrong time”, “want(s) only few things from life” and he has a “sense of pride in taking control” and “in being right.” As everything that gave him joy or comfort is taken away from him, Ove is grief stricken. Hence, he views modern society through a harsh lens. After all, many of us work from home, do not have much to show tangibly after a day’s work, and are at a loss when we need to do physical things with our hands. We drive cars with automatic gears, and consider things to be replaceable. We are not self-sufficient. One could definitely sympathize with a person from a different era feeling at odds with our lifestyles.

However, at times it feels like Backman’s critique of the society does not fully fit Ove’s perspective in which it is delivered. The older Ove does not behave in a way that the younger Ove. Some of these inconsistencies can be explained away as a reaction to the multiple scars in Ove’s life. But I still had the distinct feeling that the author has compromised character consistency to add humor. Moreover, there are multiple characters that fit a similar mold - at some level, Ove, his father, his father-in-law, and Rune would enjoy, as much as these men can enjoy, a silent meal together. And finally, the third act of the story is sudden and rushed. We even get a villain, a representative of bureaucracy that belongs in a more Kafka-esque novel. Of course, Backman shows self-awareness here, ending this character with the following sentances : “He goes around the corner and disappears the way shadows do when the sun reaches its apex in the sky. Or like villains at the end of stories."

Backman is going for a feel-good and charming vibe with A Man Called Ove, and he largely succeeds. We encounter some wonderful moments Ove has with his father and his wife. The humor works as well, to an extent. However, I feel that  in an attempt to make this poignant book funny, Backman loses out on a smooth character graph for his titular protogonist.

Monday, January 3, 2022

Review of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman


"You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away--a man is not a piece of fruit!"

– Willy Loman

"He is not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid… A small man can be just as exhausted as a great man"

–Linda Loman

I did not want to begin my thoughts on the brilliant contemporary classical play The Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller with a controversial opening line that causes people who have already read the play to squirm, while leading people who haven't read it to form an incorrect impression of the play, so I made the said sentence the subsequent line. The protagonist of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Willy Lomar, constantly reminds me of Donald Trump. Take away the vileness from Trump, erase his unlikely success, peel away his knack for evading consequences, and discount his unearned money -- made through inheritance, con and grift – what you have is a Salesman who is a mass of contradictions, but propels himself through his strong beliefs, regardless of their veracity.

The Death of a Salesman works on two levels - as a portrayal of a capitalistic society that overvalues success of a narrow definition; and as a relationship drama of a flawed father and son duo who drift apart in values, but are held together by a taut, thin thread of love burdened by betrayal. Arthur Miller masterfully interweaves the two, resulting in a searing indictment of pernicious aspects of the society. America relies heavily on a culture of toxic positivity, with politicians constantly referring to its greatness and alleged exceptionalism with phrases such as “this is America!” even as close to a million people die of a pandemic. Willy Loman, an ageing salesman, represents this mindset of positivity and hope, his personal motto being “because the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want." The Death of a Salesman is, at its purest form, a description of the last day of Willy’s life, as he grapples with the betrayal of society, his own betrayal of his family, and in turn, the betrayal of his sons.

Miller’s characterization is top-notch, and his narrative structure shifts seamlessly between the present and an idyllic past, between reality and imagination, and between rationality and schizophrenia. Willy Lomar's monologues and dialogues constantly shift between self-doubt (“They seem to laugh at me”) and confidence (“I’m well liked”) in a single breath. His elder son, Biff, turns from being a promising and charismatic athletic adolescent with a bright future to a kleptomaniac adult filled with self-doubt : "I don't know--what I'm supposed to want". The second son, ironically named Happy, is a shallower version of his father, with his ambitions being summed up as "My own apartment, a car, and plenty of women" and "I got to show some of those pompous, self-important executives over there that Hap Loman can make the grade." The glue that holds together this family is the mother, Linda. She balances reality and day-to–day affairs with hopes and dreams, and plays along with Willy’s vision for a better future, leading one of her sons to remark "What a woman! They broke the mold when they made her." My favorite is the next-door neighbor Charley, who acts as a counterfoil, and a more hopeful vision of America. He gets to deliver some of the wisest lines such as “The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is that you're a salesman, and you don't know that” and “My salvation is that I never took any interest in anything."

The Death of a Salesman is so vividly written that one can visualize the scenes playing out on a stage. The emotional beats are very effective; and as Willy Lomar desperately attempts to leave some legacy ("I've got to get some seeds, right away. Nothing's planted. I don't have a thing in the ground."), one can not help but sympathize. The introduction by Christopher Bigsby is penetrating as well, and he sums up the mindset of Willy Lomar as "When today fails to offer the justification for hope, tomorrow becomes the only grail worth pursuing." But what accentuates this play is the dynamic dialogue and the familial dynamics, with people bound together through love and hate; respect and “spite”; and hope and regret. If Willy Lomar were alive today, he would probably wholeheartedly believe a Trumpist pitch. But in another life, Willy may realize the validity of Biff’s observation when Biff says “Pop! I'm dime a dozen, and so are you!". The Death of a Salesman is a highly recommended read.

My 2022 in books

We are already into the new year, but I did not want to give up on what has now become my little routine - a summary of all the books I rea...