Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Locust and The Bird by Hanan Al-Shaykh and a "GIVEAWAY*

Category: Biography & Autobiography - Personal Memoirs

Format: Hardcover, 320 pages


Pub Date: August 25, 2009

Price: $28.95

Translated from the Arabic by Roger Allen

Having lived for years in the west I know that many people here don't "get" the concept of arranged marriages. For many of us, falling in love is the only reason one should get married. Having someone pick a match out for you is more like a business transaction....where's the romance, the passion, in something like that, right? But for many, arranged marriages are a way of life. Falling in love amounts to nothing, it carries no weight as Kamila, a beautiful and impetuous girl from a village in in South Lebanon was about to find out.

Although Kamila was in love with one Muhammad, her family decreed that she should marry her dead sister's aging husband
(the sister was bitten by a rabid rat) . Kamila was only 14 years old but was deemed a suitable match because she was strong enough to look after her husband's kids, cook his food and warm his bed. More importantly, her sister's widower was the patriarch of the family and it almost seemed as if Kamila was sacrificed to him for the sake of her extended family who lived under his roof. Kamila's husband, Abu- Hussein Muhammad, was pious and strict whereas Kamila was free-spirited and irreverent. She defied him every chance she got and no matter how hard the family tried, they were unable to tame her.

It wasn't long, however, when she managed to reconnect with the love-of-her-life, Muhammad and very soon the two were planning secret rendezvous in Muhammad's bedroom in the house he shared with his family or in darkened cinemas. I'd love to tell you what happens next, but I can't for fear of giving away the story.

Kamila's story is narrated to us in the first person but written by her daughter, well known Arabic writer, Hanan Al- Shaykh. Al Shaykh says that the first person narrative was a deliberate choice, she said, “My mother wrote this book. She is the one who spread her wings. I just blew the wind that took her on her long journey back in time.” I found this to be a tenderly-crafted memoir and even though the faults of our protagonist Kamila are quite glaring, you cannot help but fall under her spell, and that is a tribute to the writer who has made Kamila an utterly irresistible character.

Although the protagonist's personality towers over the book it doesn't dwarf it. I found myself thinking a lot about different issues that this book bring up, like "First Loves", are they really as special as they are made out to be or they over-romanticized? "Child Marriages", granted, this was Beirut in the 1930's but even they knew better than to allow a man to get his 15-year old wife pregnant? "Child Abandonment", at what point does a mother's happiness become more important to her than her children and how do you ever explain that to your children? "Illiteracy", what role it plays in establishing one's status in the hierarchy of life. Would Kamila's life have been any easier if she could read and write?
"Legacy", towards the end of her life Kamila was frantic about having her life recorded, how important is it to us to be remembered fondly and accurately?

The cover art is striking and, to me it looks like a vintage movie poster. Because Kamila could neither read nor write, going to the movies was her only entertainment and the reader will note that she gleaned everything she knew about love and life from the movies. Which brings us to the interesting question of how much does art influence life? You will ponder over all these issues and more in this beautiful memoir, so if you would like your own copy simply write me a line here and I will be happy to put your name in a hat for a draw that will take place in about two weeks from now.

**************WE HAVE A WINNER*************

DRUM ROLL PLEASE........................................

It's Apu of "Apu's World". Congratulations Apu, please send me your address and I would be delighted to put a copy of this book in the mail to you!

A Q & A session with the author:

What does the title, The Locust and the Bird, refer to?

The Locust and the Bird is a fable about a king who was taking a stroll in his gardens when a Locust flew into the wide sleeve of his robe. A bird, in hot pursuit, flew in after it. The king sewed up the sleeve, sat on his throne and asked his people: “What is up my sleeve?” No one knew the answer. But it so happened that a man named Bird, who was desperately in love with a woman called Locust, was standing in the crowd. He came forward, only the face of his beloved in his mind, and proclaimed to his king:

Wails and Tales.

My life story is one long revelation.

Only the Locust can capture the Bird.

This is a story my mother told me. The locust signifies famine, hunger, destruction and unhappiness. Birds signify spring, love, hope and song. All these states describe my mother’s life.

Why did you finally decide to write and share your mother’s amazing story? Did she read any parts of it before she died, and what did she think of it? Did you sit down with her on a couple occasions right before and while writing the book, or are most of these tales your recollections when she told them to you growing up?

My mother left me when I was seven years old. This was her way of telling me why. As she unburdened, her story became an epic tale.My mother was illiterate, so she couldn’t read or write. But when we knew the book was going to be published, she had second thoughts: she didn’t want people to know how poor she’d been. When she was a child, she had to comb the fields after the harvest to find corn to eat. But after I read her a couple of chapters over the phone, she gave me her blessing.Yes, we sat together many times so she could relate her story, and then we continued over the phone, between Beirut and London . She’d wake up in the middle of the night and remember something and ring me at four in the morning.

Movies play an interesting and pivotal role in the book. What do you think movies represented for your mother? Do you think books played the same role in your own life?

Movies educated my mother. She learned everything about life through movies; about history, wars, countries, love, human bondage and relationships. She mimicked the movies: dressing, walking and talking like the stars she saw on the screen. She even learnt that pearls are found in the sea, and not in the ground. She escaped her stifling world through movies, as I later, entered a magical world through books.

You are primarily a fiction writer, how was it writing a non-fiction book, and one so personal as the memoir of your mother? Was it easy or difficult to find her voice and put it on paper?

I never felt writing The Locust and the Bird, that I was writing non-fiction. I felt all along it was a novel, the only difference being, in that when you write a novel, you don’t necessarily know how it’s going to end. In this book, I knew all along where I was heading. In my fiction I usually inherit the soul of my characters to such an extent that I inhabit them for a while, and the same thing happened when I was writing this, I stepped into her shoes. What made it easy, is that my mother had the spirit of a novelist, she was a natural storyteller, and she remembered small details, like the color of a stone. It didn’t come easily at first. I struggled with her voice at the beginning. I wrote the first chapters with myself as narrator, but that didn’t work, and then I tried writing in the third person, but it lacked immediacy. Then when I realised that my mother had been burdened all her life by her illiteracy, I realised I was her voice in the sense that I was simply a conduit, and I all I had to do was put the pen on the page, something she’d never been able to do.

Though The Locust and the Bird takes place in Lebanon , how is it a universal tale?

The Locust and the Bird is a universal story in the sense it’s about families, and everything that surrounds them: love, divorce, adultery, abandonment, poverty, injustice. But most importantly, for me, it’s a story about forgiveness.

There is a line in the book that your mother, “transformed her lies into a lifetime of naked honesty.” What did you mean by that line, and what does it say about your mother and her life?

My mother lied all her life, she was crafty and deceitful; but of course she did this to survive, and escape the confines of society and home. She used to be called a seductress, and I was worried, when I began the book, that she’d seduce me too, out of bravado, or to cover up the painful parts of her life. But in fact, she told me her story with an astonishing directness and honesty. And that’s when I got to know her for the first time.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal al Saadawi; Shanghai Girls by Lisa See and Lions Head, Four Happiness by Xiaomei Martell

Nawal El Saadawi is a psychiatrist in Egypt and once, while researching a piece for neurosis amongst Egyptian women she had the opportunity to visit some women in prison, one of whom, Firdaus, stood out so much that after Sharai had finished interviewing her she felt compelled to write her (Firdaus')story. Because she took artistic license with some of the details this is not a true biography but because it is stunningly close to what Firdaus suffered, it truly hits you in the gut

Firdaus was born into a peasant home in Egypt. From a young age she realized that being born a girl was a curse. Women were just property that men owned....chattel. Even their bodies didn't belong to them, but to the men that "kept" them. She was only a little girl when her Uncle's hands would steal to her thighs as she worked on kneading dough for the family meal, and then, when she was not much older she was given in marriage to a grotesquely-ugly man in his '60's who used her for his pleasure and violently beat her when he was in a sour mood. When she ran away she was used again by the man who befriended her and not just that, he allowed his friends to use her too.

After what she had thrust upon her it's no wonder she wandered into prostitution and although that bought her independence all she really wanted to do was to get a job and become a "respectable" person. She soon learned, however, that is far better to be a brazen prostitute than a helpless saint and goes back into prostitution, until she is imprisoned and put to death for a murder that i won't go into here for fear of spoiling your enjoyment of the book.

"Woman At Point Zero" is only 108 pages long, more of a nouvella than a novel, but it packs a punch. Even though the woman is guilty of murder none of us can think of her as a her crime is borne of anger at her lifelong mistreatment at the hands of men

Told mostly in the first person, the narrative voice with its rhythm, pace and patterns of repetition, convey an urgency and passion that kept my attention rooted to the book (I read the book, cover to cover, it in about 90 mins or so). The book was written more than 30 years ago but the fact that it continues to resonate with women readers of today shows us that for many women in the world freedom and independence are simply words and nothing that they have truly experienced.

Category: Fiction - Literary
Format: Hardcover, 336 pages
Publisher: Random House
Pub Date: May 26, 2009
Price: $28.95

"SO often we're told the woman's stories are unimportant. After all, what does it matter what happens in the main room, in the kitchen, or in the bedroom? Who cares about the relationships between mother, daughter and sister? A baby's illness the sorrows and pains of childbirth, keeping the family together during war, poverty or even in the best of days are considered insignificant compared with the stories of men, who fight against nature to grow their crops, who age battles to secure their homelands, who struggle to look inward in search of the perfect man. " Pearl Louie in "Shanghai Girls" by Lisa See, pg 228

I hate to argue with the protagonist but I think women make infinitely interesting characters because of their ability to endure and bear physical and mental agony despite their delicate appearances. "Shanghai Girls" is a story of two sisters. Pearl and May are ‘beautiful girls’ — models for advertising and calendar posters — but when their father loses not only the family money but also the girls’ savings, he sets them up in arranged marriages with a pair of Chinese brothers from America and so begins the girls' epic journey across the Pacific to America (not an easy feat in those days because the Americans had no interest in taking Chinese people). The story goes on to trace their lives in America so irrevocably different from the High society and glamorous lives they lived in Shanghai and how they walk the tight rope between maintaining their Chinese identity and, yet being afraid of being overly Chinese because of all the discrimination that people from China were exposed to.

This is a truly lovely book...beautiful family drama, multi-dimensional characters and prose that is rich with emotion and replete with everything you need to know about Chinese immigrant families in Los Angeles in the'40s and '50s. Although some parts of the book drag a little, See is such a brilliant narrator of history that you soon get caught up with interrogation games at Angel Island,(like Ellis Island but the immigration processing station in San Francisco Bay Communist witch hunts in in L.A., illegal citizenship and "paper sons", the lure of Hollywood and the importance of proving one's Chinese identity during America's war with the Japanese. If you like historical fiction, you might like this one. I don't think it compares favorably with her previous two novels though.

Author: Martell, Xiaomei
Format: Paperback
Pages: 240
Publication date: 1 April 2009

Food-oirs or food memoirs are are everywhere these days. When I visited our local bookstore recently I was agape at the large space provided to this very popular sub-genre and I can see why...more than anything it is the sight, smell and sound of food that engages so many of our senses. Any wonder then that many of us look at the world through food? Food also teaches us so much about culture. For instance, when I travel my impressions seem to start and end with the food. While my friends are busy clicking photos of monuments, buildings etc, I am most likely noting down recipes or trying the local food because it teaches me so much about the people.

"Lion's Head, Four Happiness" is a sweet account of Xiaomei Martell's childhood in China during the turbulent years of Mao's Cultural Revolution. She was born in 1964 on the borders of the Mongolian steppes. The youngest of four daughters - her name translates as 'Little Sister'. Her family had few material goods.There was a lot of rationing of food in those days and this brought out the creative side of Chinese women because they had to plan the menus carefully.

Unlike most novels set in the time of Mao, politics is peripheral in this one, and understandably so as a child's knowledge of what was going on at that time would be limited. Instead, the readers are treated to a host of Chinese kid memories, like playing "pig toes" with her friends (a game requiring dexterity and coordination); riding on the back of her mother's bicycle reading the revolutionary slogans (her first lessons in literacy as the author likes to call it) and the festivities of the Chinese New Year, especially the making and eating of "jiaozi" or Chinese dumplings. Birthdays, although special, were not the very most the birthday girl or boy would be treated to an extra egg, or a peach if it was in the summer.

The interesting title also happens to be the name of Xiaomei's favourite Chinese dish from the south whose origins can traced back to the sixth century. The Lion's heads were generously-sized meatballs and ‘Four Happiness’ refers to the qualities attributed to the meatballs - affluence, health, harmony, and joyfulness.

All in all this is an enjoyable read...I enjoyed the recipes and the casual way she presented them. Might try making the Chinese tea eggs some day....they sound tasty!

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language by Katherine Russell Rich

  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Pub. Date: July 2009
  • 384pp

When Katherine Russell Rich lost her job with a Newyork-based magazine, she didn't do the usual rounds of employment agencies, nor did she sent out a barrage of resumes to other newspapers, instead, she travelled to India to learn Hindi!!!

She enrolled herself in an Hindi immersion course in the palace city of Udaipur where the school arranged for her (and the other students taking this course) to live with Hindi-speaking families so that they listen to and have a chance to speak Hindi everyday.

This book then, is not only a memoir and/or a travelogue but a wonderful and exciting exposition of how our minds change when we learn a new language and how we come out of the experience completely transformed!

I've always been curious about what a new language might do for me. After all,learning a new language isn't simply about learning a whole new bunch of's about being able to use those new words to appeal to the cultural sensitivity of the people whose language you are learning and thus, you are actually learning to both think and feel like someone else from a different culture. How cool is that!!!

The possibility that learning a new language could change the core of one's identity, one's beliefs, the way one thinks about friends, family, surroundings and even the way one thinks about time, is just dazzling to me! For instance, according to a Newsweek article, the gender of nouns can have an effect on how people think about things in the world... take the noun "bridge" for instance. In German, the word for bridge, Brücke, is feminine. In French, pont is masculine. So when in experiements German speakers were asked to describe a bridge, they saw prototypically female features; French speakers, masculine ones. Similarly, Germans describe keys (Schlüssel) with words such as hard, heavy, jagged, and metal, while to Spaniards keys (llaves) are golden, intricate, little, and lovely. Guess which language construes key as masculine and which as feminine? :)

And then, there's the question of how people whose language you are trying to learn actually feel about you speaking in their tongue? Most are chuffed that you are making the effort, but Russel Rich felt that some Indians resented her for doing that. She says, “I think to Indians, sometimes it feels like I’m eavesdropping on a private conversation, like I’m breaking the fourth wall.”

Also, and this happens in India particular, speaking in English is the privilege of the classes and a status thing...address someone like that in Hindi and you might get a dressing down!

As Rich's language skills improve, she also uncovers darker truths about friends, neighbors and the country in which she lives. She happened to be in India the year Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in the nearby state of Gujarat. Rich is startled to discover the mistrust and fear her Hindu friends feel for their Muslim compatriots. Then, when she tells her rickshaw driver shukriya or “thank you,” he gets annoyed at her. Shukriya is a word with Urdu or Muslim origins. The “pure” Hindi word, he tells her, is dhanyavaad. I don't think any dictionary will tell you the difference between the two "thank you's", these are things you pick up only when you live with a language and its people.

I am grateful to Rich for turning herself into a guinea pig in order to study the effect of language on the mind even if her writing at times appears to be rather scattered and in random order...this is a book I think every body interested in words or language will enjoy and I daresay will seriously make you consider learning a new language!