Sunday, November 23, 2014

To Become a Woman and a Writer, One Must Cast Aside Modesty

I grew up in a modest home.  The shadowed rooms with heavily curtained doors led from front to back, glossy stone floors changing colours at every doorway as if to mark each boundary, each space opening into another, more private one.  Strangers that came through the red metal gate were hosted on a pillared porch that overlooked the garden.  Acquaintances were let past the front door draped in dull burgundy into a drawing room lined with stiff sofas. Friends made it further, past veiled doorways into smaller, more personal chambers.  Only the closest of friends and family made it to the inner sanctum of a small dining room that opened to the walled-in back garden.  You see, the house itself was built for modesty, its inner spaces turning increasingly private, secret, feminine and familial with each hushed passageway.  

In turn the house taught us modesty, to cover and control wayward limbs, to speak softly and ‘enunciate,’ to not make a fuss or demand attention.  And the house insisted on a language that had to be spoken gracefully and formally. As children, we were even reprimanded in the formal.  Such was the propriety demanded by my home, that to this day, I cannot swear in my first language, first because we never learned the profanities, and second because my tongue refuses to twist around the coarse Hindi words I have learned as an adult.

And yet I knew from a very young age that I wanted to create stories, to write even if I never imagined a state of ‘being a writer.’  Even as a child, learning to negotiate the veiled doorways of my home, I knew that writing, like speaking loudly, was an immodest act.  Writing insists on not only speaking up, but speaking of things that many find shocking, horrific, and even taboo.  Writing demands the absolute opposite of propriety, insisting on deep passions and wild, violent expression.  In a house given to veils, physical, social and metaphorical, writing was not only the ultimate transgression, but much akin to playing with a giant blazing bonfire that may bring down the entire edifice.

After all, captive tongues are discreet, only wayward limbs are capable of revolutions, and modesty strangles all expression. And a language that binds cannot liberate.

Perhaps this is why English seemed so alluring, full of danger and promise.  I had intuited its pleasures before I learned to read, desiring the books that lined the higher shelves of my home.  I would rock-climb the tall bookshelves, using the lower ones as footholds, clinging perilously to the edges with sweat-slickened fingers to peer at the books in English that were ‘only for grown-ups.’  Hardbound classics and contemporary writing lined up like soldiers mingled with the riff-raff of luridly bright paperbacks bought by my youthful uncles and aunts.  When grown-ups read those books, their faces glowed, their eyes grew shaded, slight colour rose to their cheeks at times, and a sudden quickening breath would grab my attention.  Even as a child, I intuited that English books contained things we didn’t speak of in my home.

This is why I began school intent on learning English, determined to prepare myself for the day when I would possess it fully.  It was not an easy task, for the language not only demanded that I learn its words, but also insisted that I reveal myself, slipping off confining drapes, unwinding my limbs, loosening my tongue.  But I did not go unrewarded for long. Soon English began to reveal its own sinews and flesh, skin and bones, page by page, word by arcane word.  As my knowledge grew, it also began to tease me to wilder pathways, to rebellions I could not have imagined, to passions I would have not dared dream of. 

Over the years, as my skirts climbed higher, and my voice grew louder, I learned to enunciate a language that is not mine by birth, but one that I have claimed for myself. Jealously, without reason, and without doubt, like a lover I do not plan to relinquish.  Over the years, this foreign, even enemy, language has imbibed my dreams with passions dark and savage. It has pushed me to transgressions that may not have burnt down my home but have set many bridges afire.  In English, I write of lovers who betray, of war without honour, of all human frailties for which I was never taught the words in Hindi.


Most importantly, on my tongue, English turns into an enigmatic nautch-girl, sweet, seductive and dangerous.  Yes, English is an immodest language, yet I love her more for it. 

This was first publishes in The Spanner in June 2014 (Issue 11). 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Literary Parochialism and its Discontents

It will come as no news that UK structures of power are deeply averse to diversity (see here and here, just as examples) but a recent set of literary events have prompted me to examine both the issue and its consequences on culture, its production and circulation. The Exhibit B mess at the Barbican, when the protesters felt unheard while the 'establishment' closed ranks and few of the issues raised were addressed is possibly the starkest recent reminder of the parochialism in the the country's cultural establishment.  But I know the literary world best and I want to discuss that more closely.

Ten years of living in London and being actively engaged in writing and publishing means I have grown increasingly familiar with the literary 'establishment' - and here I mean the publishers, agents, editors, reviewers, etc. rather than academics (the latter require a whole other blog post). With few exceptions, literature doesn't pay, and it is necessary to note that most of the people involved in literary production and circulation are not only passionate but deeply committed.  Many are wonderful people (and I am fortunate to count many of my friends among them).

I say the above to make a simple point: on an individual level, the city's literary establishment is made up of wonderful human beings. On a structural, collective level however, there is another story.

It will come as no surprise  to most that Britain's literary establishment is as lacking in diversity as its academia, press, and various other fields (intriguingly, the much reviled City is also most diverse, perhaps as a result of focussing on profits, especially in a globalised world). A publisher recently described reviewers as results of 'public schools and some crack comprehensives.' He may as well have been talking of just about any part of the British literary world - with possible, and with caveats, exception of writers themselves.  It is this 'establishment' - made up of a very narrow group of people - not only impacts literary production, circulation and consumption as well as the larger issues of formation of 'taste', and assignation of cultural 'value.'

And this is where the narrow demographic that makes up this 'elite' becomes problematic. Race, gender, class, all contribute to our world-view. In case of literature (and cultural production in general), if most of the arbiters of taste and value - including the decisionmakers for books that are published, reviewed, win literary prizes - are drawn from a tiny homogenous group in society, we end up with a parochial mindset. So same sort of books are prized, same narratives are privileged, and indeed, same kind of authors lauded. A corollary of this is that passively, unconsciously - if not actively - alternative, 'different' voices are shut out. A closed communication loop is thus set up between a narrow group of people choosing the books they want to publish, others like them reviewing them, and even further more similar (if not the same) people serving on juries that reward them with recognition/prizes/cash/any and combinations of these.

One could argue that this has always been so (and I have heard these arguments made in earnest); that literature (or art, or theatre) has always been 'elite' arenas. One may also question if this matters at all. I would argue - and not only for personal reasons - that it does. A closed, homogenous group is self-affirming, parochial, incapable of change, and indeed eventually self-destructive.

In practice this means, for example, the inability to read, appreciate, or even be interested in literatures that do not reaffirm the entrenched (dominant) parochial world view. So books that are seen as 'different' are often only superficially so, and instead of challenging the parochialism, tend to reaffirm them. The lack of diversity of backgrounds, experiences, world views, and opinions mean that there is little or no challenge to the perpetual self-affirming feedback loop. This means even when a book is nominally different - presenting, for example, a working class, or non-white, or queer perspective, it is still selected, judged, viewed from a narrow and parochial lens. Difference or 'challenging' often becomes a question of form rather than content, providing a comfortable illusion of intellectual risk-taking without any real danger. This also means that even 'different' narratives are filtered to affirm the established ethos instead of challenging them. In such cases, superficial difference is seen as enough and anything more is considered discomfiting, alien, even confrontational (or my favourite, 'too strange'). Over time this creates a situation where comforting, familiar work is prized and anything challenging is either blocked, ignored, or left out. And indeed, this is where British literature and literary establishment stands in 2014.

Of course most of this is due to structural inertia. It is easier to read or publish or review material that reaffirms our own beliefs. Reading that challenges - intellectually or worse, ethically - is uncomfortable business. And more importantly, it is hard work! It is easier and more comfortable to stick to what we already know.

There is a real world price to be paid for this parochialism as this feedback loop excises cultural production from real world concerns. In a globalised and interconnected world, there is real economic, political, even military cost to such deliberate ignorance. A society that shuts out most of its people from representation in, and production and consumption of culture, will find itself increasingly unable to examine or understand itself. Such a society will be incapable of not only recognising internal and external threats and risks to itself.  This society will also find itself incapable of examining or reflecting on not only the changes that may be necessary but also the transformations that are forced upon it by circumstance and history.

This refusal to engage with difference and discomfort also has serious cultural consequences. It creates a stale, staid conservative culture that is neither capable of growth nor change. It also steeps itself in nostalgia, in endless replication and repetition of supposedly valuable form while sacrificing substance. And finally, it stops engaging with the very society that sustains, nourishes and at the end consumes the cultural products that are created.

There is also a practical, even commercial angle to this. This literary/cultural parochialism also limits both sales and potential markets due to a seemingly endless replication of an ever narrowing set of narratives, viewpoints and world views. Regardless of UKIP-style nostalgia, Britain has irrevocably changed - demographically and culturally, and this change urgently needs to be reflected in the narratives and cultural production.  In many ways, one can argue, that this contemporary Britain is already producing and consuming culture even if it is shut out of the art, literary or cultural 'establishments.'  One could even make the case that perhaps the most exciting, challenging literature, art, theatre is emerging from places that hidden, and even far beyond the reach of the 'establishment.' But this would only be one side of the picture. Ignoring, refusing, actively or passively shutting out narratives, cultural products, world views that engage with the larger society, means fewer books are sold and read, both internally and externally. Moreover the arbiters of 'taste' remain in their fossilised glory, ever more irrelevant to the culture and society beyond.

This also means diminishing influence both within Britain and abroad. Internally, this means fewer readers engaging with a 'culture' that appears remote because does not include their concerns, anxieties, or stories.  Instead they are finding narratives in texts from countries across the globe (made accessible by the Amazon behemoth). Abroad, it means a loss of soft power (which Britain has exercised very well, especially through its literary production) and thus a diminishing of diplomatic, political, cultural, and eventually economic influence.

Of course, none of the arguments above are particularly new and there is little doubt that diversity matters. Few, even in publishing, would argue against it. The problem - however - is of inertia, of a passive and parochial literary elite that appear to prefer pulling up the drawbridge instead of engaging with the world beyond.  Frankly, even after ten years, I can see no way of persuading them to venture beyond their blissfully ignorant comfort zone.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Muscovado: A Disturbing, Powerful Play that Heralds an Extraordinary New Voice

A school night, in the midst of a busy week, and a very full day of teaching is almost enough to dissuade one from venturing across the river for pretty much anything. Add a blustery, rainy day, and Clapham Commons seemed even further away from my north London office. Still, I had tickets and company to nudge me along, so off I went...to the Holy Trinity Church, that almost forgotten spiritual - and political - home of William Wilberforce who campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade.  It seems apt, in retrospect, that I went to the church - for the first time, last night - to see Muscovado, written by the startlingly talented young playwright Matilda Ibini, and produced by Burnt Out Theatre

The brand new play had an initial run of ten days as part of Black History Month, but I might as well tell you right off the bat, it should be running at a major venue, backed by Britain's theatre big-wigs, and be seen by a LOT more people.  And frankly, if British Council and other tax-payer funded organisations are listening, they should be sending this one abroad too! 

We were greeted by a cheery atmosphere at the entrance, and my first reaction was surprise, and gladness, at very racially diverse, mixed audience -  in terms of race, ethnicity, class and nationality. Sadly, theatre-going in London - despite all its diversity - can be a strangely mono-racial phenomenon and I often feel marked out as the 'odd' one in most audiences. There were other little welcoming signs: in addition to the usual glasses of wine, there was the option of a warming, lovely rum punch. And much welcome it was after my cold, exhausting day! There was also a stand from the Caribbean Cafe selling the most delicious, restorative, food; ladies, you saved my life! 

As the doors opened and we streamed into the church, we were greeted by Parson Lucy (played by James G Gunn), and other characters from the play were already dotted around, seated in pews, eerily lit by candle light, or slowly weaving their way through the shadows. It can be tricky to perform in a space that isn't a formal theatre, but the director Clemmie Reynolds used the space well, and placing the actors in the church established an early complicity and intimacy with the spectator that made the play itself much more disturbing. 

The play itself unfolds in 1808 on the Fairbranch sugar plantation in Barbados. The timing is key as a year before Wilberforce had successfully pushed through the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in British parliament. On the Fairbranch plantation however, the Act brings little change to the slaves' brutalised lives, and commercial calculations of its owners. The set was sparse yet effective, with props moved around, and the church surroundings were used fully to stage, with the audience seated in the pews in the chancel, and a few chairs spilling out into the nave. 

The plot skilfully weaves together multiple characters including the plantation owner's wife and daughter, the local parson, and various slaves. However, Muscovado keeps the owner of the plantation as an off-stage yet all-powerful, sinister presence/absence. It is a masterful choice, signalling the invisible pervasiveness of racial, gender, and class privileges that continue to this day. It is this off-stage evil 'deity' who repeatedly rapes his wife, Kitty, and in a grotesque coming-of-age ritual, is also the invisible rapist of the distraught child-slave Willa (who may/may not be his daughter).

While the most upsetting parts of the play are familiar to us from slave narratives - the whippings, humiliations, brutal violence in guise of discipline, the casual but persistent degradations and dehumanisations of quotidian plantation life - they draw power from a source that is not often seen on screen or stage. Muscovado presents the Fairbranch slaves as fully formed humans, not merely as props for a morality play; they dream, they dare to laugh and love, they find hope and strength in unexpected places, and most importantly they continue to resist by reasserting their humanity in innumerable small acts, words and thoughts of defiance and courage. The script has - perhaps unsurprisingly - been compared to Twelve Years a Slave

I would reject that comparison. I found Muscovado more humane and more powerful of the two as it finds little need to make narrative and commercial compromises. Unlike the film, the play offers no easy resolutions. But it also refuses to let historically dominant narratives push slaves to the sidelines of their own history. Instead Muscovado offers one of the few instances where non-white bodies - and even more importantly female black bodies - occupy centre stage, in all their fullness, complexity, grace, and tragedy. 

There has been a long tradition - in writing, art, and performance - of silencing and erasing the female nonwhite body from our stories, stages, screens and imaginations; Muscovado is compelling for its powerful insistence on placing the ignored, fetishized, brutalised black female (and a single male) bodies, lives, and beings at the centre of its narrative. By keeping the sexual and non-sexual violence inflicted on the black female body off-stage, it refuses to let the audience revert to the default practices of fetishization we have been taught and thus distance ourselves.  Furthermore, by similarly keeping Miss Kitty's rapes off-screen, it forces us to examine both the similarities and brutal disparities of gendered violence; and yet by performing Willa's invisible violation on-stage, the play also refuses to excise the role of race in gendered violence.

Moreover, the script fully explores the complex web of relationships, oppression and brutality of slavery and racialised oppressions. It does not shy away from messy hierarchies of gender and race: Kitty is not only fully complicit in the exploitation and brutalisation of slaves, she is also the mastermind who realises the ban on slave trade can be subverted by using her own slaves as 'breeding stock.'  Yet, she is at the same time, also a raped, desperate, isolated wife who can find few allies and fewer friends and can drunkenly order a house slave to help her kill herself.  

Muscovado also confronts the role of the church, and its clergy in upholding, maintaining, and actively promoting slavery, thus also reminding us of the ways organised religion - and religious scriptures - were, are, and can be used to justify the most inhumane and unjust practices and structures. Parson Lucy's hate filled racist rant took on particular resonance when delivered from the Holy Trinity Church's pulpit.  I couldn't help but imagine that Wilberforce himself had likely heard similar justifications of slavery and wondered yet again about how and why some (so few) of us refuse the dominant narratives of our times, and the necessity of such dissent. 

The play is both powerful and disturbing, and more so for its insistence on complexity. The dialogue is both unflinching and at times scorching. Despite a myriad range of characters, the script maintains tight control of each character's trajectory.  If there are some loose ends, such as for Olive's fate, they offer a glimmer of hope, however false, in a bleak setting. The end is shocking, upsetting and unpredictable, perhaps because the motivations of all involved are clear and familiar, but also because the multiple layers of complicity are rarely explored in narratives about slavery, or indeed contemporary race and racism. 

The actors were well suited to their part, and I walked away once again wishing there were more room for talented non-white actors on British stage. Alex Kissin as Asa, DK Fashola as Elsie and Shanice Grant as Olive brought both emotional power and physical vulnerability to their parts. It is a credit to the script, the director and the actors, that despite the brutal setting and theme, it still provoked empathic and not only discomfited laughter. 

The Holy Trinity Church made a symbolically apt setting for the play although the acoustics are not ideal. I do wish however that Muscovado would find a longer run and larger stage for itself: it is ambitious, complex, powerful, and it delivers dramatic, emotional and political punch. That it is the work of a playwright not yet twenty-three is both extraordinary, and exhilarating for the promise it holds for the future. 

Full disclosure: I know the playwright Matilda Ibini who graduated from the Creative Writing programme where I teach. However, she did not take many classes with me and I can certainly claim no hand in her growth and stature as a writer. I am however very privileged to have watched her grow as an intellect and a writer during her degree.