The Cardinals and Other Stories- Bessie Head

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The whole principle of living and learning is dependent on what is going on in the mind. The mind is like a huge, living tapestry. Everything we see, hear, learn and experience gets fixed into this tapestry for good and, each day, more impressions are being imprinted on it.- Bessie Head, The Cardinals

Bessie Head’s writing really resonates with me. Since I learned a bit about Head’s own sad but inspiring life, it’s been almost impossible for me to read any of her work without thinking of how her own experiences informed her writing by changing how she viewed the world. As painful as it was for her to be an outsider, it also gave her freedom  as she was often able to see what others couldn’t, and she could afford to be more honest, after all, what did she have to lose if she didn’t pledge allegiance to any group?  Born during apartheid of an illegal union between a white woman and a black man, much of Head’s life was clearly about coming to terms with unbelonging, and  one of the ways she did this was by ridiculing the system that deemed her an illegal person. Along with Mariama Ba, Nawal El Saadawi, and Buchi Emecheta,  Head is one of the African woman writers who I feel did a lot to look closely at and critique the systems they were a part of. Like the other women mentioned, she was a keen observer of her society, and was able to point out the hypocrisies and highlight the stories that others ignore or gloss over.

This is a book of short stories, the titular one, The Cardinals, being a novella of 120 pages. It’s the one that impressed me the most, although the shorter stories at the end of the book were also really good. The Cardinals is about Miriam, later nicknamed Mouse, a young woman of uncertain paternity who is described by Johnny, the male protagonist, as having been born in a dung heap. The story calls to mind the many people who are born in environments that don’t nurture them, but somehow are able to make some sort of life for themselves and utilize their gifts. Mouse escapes from a shanty town near Cape Town and starts working for a trashy South African tabloid. Head uses her work as a reporter to illustrate the absurdities of the Immorality Rule wherein the races were not allowed to mix and have sexual relations.

The relationship that develops between Mouse and Johnny is quite unnerving. There’s a connection between them that others can’t explain, because “Mouse is only a woman and a rather dull, drab and colourless  one at that…No man in his right mind would look twice at her.” With Johnny being considerably older and definitely more worldly, there’s also a power dynamic and plenty of antagonism.  We see Johnny as a mentor to Mouse’s writing and Head uses him to share some of her own succinct views of life, love, and writing.

You come from the same environment that I do and there are things that happened that marked me for life. I just cannot obliterate the scars.

 

In writing, as in every other aspect of my life, I observe no rules or style. Just the thought of having to follow a set of rules or wedging myself into a style is enough to make my hair stand on end. Style must conform to me—my every mood, whim or fantasy.”

 

The funny thing about writing is that it makes you start thinking. Once you’ve started the process, you just can’t stop. It makes you articulate too. If you write and write every day you begin to feel that your brain is like a well-preserved machine churning out things that will eventually prove to be of use to someone, somewhere.

 

Definitely a 5 star read.

Between Two Worlds- Miriam Tlali

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I had thought I had seen everything there is to see, heard everything there is to hear, in my experience with people, black, white and brown, in this Republic of South Africa. But I was to realize that I had so far seen and heard very little of this beloved land of ours, especially as far as relationships between the different races are concerned. – Miriam Tlali, Between Two Worlds

I have no idea how I’d never heard of Miriam Tlali before I came across this book by chance at my local library. Tlali, I learned, passed away in 2017 and she had the honour of being the first black female South African novelist to be published.

Between Two Worlds is a story that illustrates apartheid in 1960s South Africa through the eyes of Muriel, a black bookkeeper who is overqualified for the position at the Metropolitan Radio, a retail store that sells radios, electrical appliances, and furniture in Soweto.  On a daily basis Muriel has to deal with petty racism, reminders from her white coworkers that they consider her to be less than human, and knowing she would be able to find better work had there not been an apartheid society.

Tlali’s writing gives us an important lens into various parts of South African society, such as race relations, the Land Act, and Pass Laws. It’s easy to have a basic idea of what apartheid was, what it was like for the people living under it, but without hearing stories from the actual people involved, it’s difficult to imagine how it permeated every area of people’s lives, and the many different ways it manifested. Apartheid without question was a gross injustice and learning more details through Tlali’s novel really had me very indignant at, for example,  how despite racist societies putting down a group of people and seeing them as subhuman, those in power still did their best to take advantage of these people and take them for every penny.

Tlali is so observant and often witty too, and it is so reassuring that she was able to see the hypocrisies she faced on a daily basis so clearly. Also, she never had any doubt as to what a brilliant black woman she was, although the society she lived in tried to say otherwise. She was aware of the ethical dilemma she faced being a black woman employed by white South Africans:

“How was I going to work with people who were not even prepared to give me a chance and who were squeezing as much money as they could out of my own black fellow workers?”

Another thing I liked about this book was it’s a snapshot of how communications were conducted in the 1960s. Before the internet, the main way to communicate was through letters, and it was dizzying to think about how many letters and follow-up letters had to be written before email came along.

These links share more about the life and activism of this incredible woman:

MIRIAM TLALI

http://theconversation.com/rest-in-power-miriam-tlali-author-enemy-of-apartheid-and-feminist-73790

Jeanette Winterson- Art Objects

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Naked I came into the world, but brush strokes cover me, language raises me, music rhythms me. Art is my rod and my staff, my resting place and shield, and not mine only, for art leaves nobody out. Even those from whom art has been stolen away by tyranny, by poverty, begin to make it again. If the arts did not exist, at every moment, someone would begin to create them, in song, out of dust and mud, and although the artifacts might be destroyed, the energy that creates them is not destroyed. If, in the comfortable West, we have chosen to treat such energies with scepticism and contempt, then so much the worse for us. – Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects

I’ve been rereading the essays in this book slowly this time around, the last time being 3 years ago.  I’m thinking about my favourite essays in more details and meditating on the content. This review is on the titular essay, Art Objects, an essay which discusses what happens when one discovers art and allows it into their lives and hearts, and how one must look for a language in order to express one’s feelings.

I had fallen in love and I had no language.

Winterson likens looking at paintings to travelling to a foreign city, and for me that really illustrates the fact that we expect to understand certain  things quickly but art, like visiting a new place, takes time to reveal itself to us, and so patience, and a desire to learn, is crucial. The first time I read this essay 3 years ago I was actually struck by the fact that Winterson said she’s willing to spend an afternoon with her favourite painting. As much as I love art and certain artists, I can’t imagine looking at a painting for even 5 minutes, so I started wondering what it is I’m not getting about art. I think more than anything, it is that our society that doesn’t encourage slowness of living, and it is up to the individual to slow down and appreciate things slowly and on a deeper level.

Another thing that resonated with me was the importance of having someone to accompany you on a journey. It’s not always possible to have a physical person to do so, even if you are surrounded by people, because people are on their own journeys, so I did appreciate Winterson illuminating the fact that even dead writers can be a guide, or someone to engage with on a certain topic:

I knew my Dante, and I was looking for a guide, someone astute and erudite, with whom I had something in common, a way of thinking. A person dead or alive with whom I could talk things over. I needed someone I could trust, who would negotiate with me the sublimities and cesspits of regions hitherto closed. Someone fluent in this strange language and its dialects, who had spent many years in that foreign city and who might introduce me to the locals and their rather odd habits. Art is odd, and the common method of trying to fit it into the scheme of things, wither by taming it or baiting it, cannot success. Who at the zoo has any sense of the lion?

Having just visited a giftshop with my friend and seeing how famous art can be used to sell souvenirs (think Van Gogh’s Sunflowers on a thermos, Monet’s Water Lilies on a wallet), I really did get to thinking about how the ubiquity of famous art pieces everywhere causes us not to really see the art, or just assume we know the art because we see its image everywhere. Related, Winterson talks about how we see out through “the thick curtain of irrelevancies that screens the painting from the viewer.”

Canonising the pictures is one way of killing them. When the sense of familiarity becomes too great, history, popularity, association, all crowd in between the viewer and the picture and block it out.

One of my favourite recent articles is “Take Your Time: The Seven Pillars of A Slow Thought Manifesto” by Vincenzo Di Nicola . In it Di Nicola says “Just as fast food works for some meals and not for others, we must remain open to things that take time, both for preserving what is of value from the past and taking the time to forge new approaches in the present.” I may not be able to spend an entire afternoon with a painting, but I will attempt to spend at least 5 minutes on one.

Elf Stories in Iceland

June 24- “It’s kind of an elf date.They are playing and dancing and singing all night long.”- Ragnhildur Jonsdottir, in conversation with Marianne Bjornmyr

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Street art in downtown Reykjavik

If you grew up reading Andrew Lang books like I did, you’d understand my fascination with fairy tales. As a child with an over-active imagination I believed in fairies, elves, goblins, sprites, every fairy creature. It seemed so normal to me that they existed. If you’d seen me convincing my sisters to help me look for fairies you might have laughed, but I was earnest. I never did find any traces of fairy folk and I soon grew out of that belief. Hearing stories about the Icelandic belief in elves intrigued me, and it was one of the reasons Iceland had always appealed to me as a holiday destination. Apparently a considerable percentage of the population believed in Huldufólk , i.e. “hidden folk.” Judging from its landscape Iceland it does seem like the perfect place to have elves. Maybe the word ethereal is over-used but in the case of Iceland it’s very appropriate.

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Near the Skogafoss waterfall area

While visiting southern Iceland’s waterfalls and glaciers with my tour group  I had the following conversation with my tour guide:

Halla (tourguide): Where are you staying?
Me: Hafnarfjörður
Halla: Hafnarfjörður! There are lots of elves there!

Hafnarfjörður is a beautiful port town right next to Reykjavik that has an elf garden that I unfortunately did not visit. Most of the locals I chatted with in this town had a couple of elf stories to share with me, though I’m not sure whether it’s because they were just humouring me as I was a tourist.

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Hafnarfjörður

While on our way back to Reykjavik,  Halla directed our gaze to a large rock that was lying some metres from the highway. Soon I was to hear my first elf story:

The highway was supposed to have been built where that rock lay, Halla said. Do you know why it wasn’t built there? Elves!

We learned that the elves wreaked havoc on all construction attempts. Tractors broke down, people got injured. The rock couldn’t be budged or destroyed. Its reluctance to move defied science.There were so many coincidences, too many to believe that supernatural forces were not involved in making sure that highway would not be built at that very location. Finally, the government decided to invite an elf oracle to figure out what was going on.

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View from the highway

I ended up finding confirmation of Halla’s story in a photobook I read at Reykjavik’s Museum of Photography, entitled “In Shadows/Echoes”. The elf oracle Ragnhildur Jonsdottir recounted a conversation she had with the elves:

“Okay, this is our home, it’s a whole community where you are planning to build this road. But if you agree to move the road over there, in a totally different place, then you are not damaging our village, then we will take care and make sure, as well as we can, that no one gets hurt driving this road.”

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Jonsdottir says the elves are older than humans, and as they are always smiling they don’t have any worry lines. They have very little to worry about because they aren’t greedy like us humans, apparently. There are many different species of elves, and they are very similar to humans but smaller. They even have a royal family. Pulta, one of the oracle’s elf friends, is from that family.

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Another elf story I heard took place in Reykjavik where an elf oracle was consulted before a large rock was moved. It was discovered that the rock was indeed an elf stone. The elves were amiable and agreed to move on two conditions: 1- A week was given to them so they could pack their things, and 2- they were housed in a locale that had a good view of Reykjavik.

On my last full day in Iceland I spend the day in Reykjavik and went looking for that rock. It was hard to find and even the people working at the tourist office only had a vague idea of where it was. But finally I found it, on a hill, very close to the Canadian Embassy. It was in a little park and someone had planted flowers around it.

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Even if you don’t believe in supernatural forces, I believe one of the morals of the elf stories is to pay close attention to signs that the world might be giving you, and not assume you are above nature.  In all the elf stories I heard the elves were always willing to compromise; they only became angry (understandably) if  their communities were being destroyed. Being careful, observant, and learning to read what the signs are telling you seems to be important if we want to live safely and peacefully.

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The black sandy beaches of Vik

Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass- Theodore Dalrymple

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If the doctor has a duty to relieve the suffering of his patients, he must have some idea where that suffering comes from, and this involves the retention of judgment, including moral judgment.And if, as far as he can tell in good faith, the misery of his patients derives from the way they live, he has a duty to tell them so—which often involves a more or less explicit condemnation of their way of life as completely incompatible with a satisfying existence. By avoiding the issue, the doctor is not being kind to his patients; he is being cowardly. Moreover, by refusing to place the onus on the patients to improve their lot, he is likely to mislead them into supposing that he has some purely technical or pharmacological answer to their problems, thus helping to perpetuate them.- Theodore Dalrymple, Life at the Bottom

Theodore Dalrymple, a retired British psychiatrist, who has spent years working with the underclass is a very keen observer of human nature, as is evidenced by this book. His dealings with thousands of these people at close quarters gave him much of the fodder for his thesis which is, I’m sure that some will disagree, that a lot of poverty is caused by dysfunctional values, values that those in power exploit and make worse by creating a culture of victims. Most of these stories and anecdotes are from Dalrymple’s time working in British slums and prisons.

This was a very heavy read and I’m still thinking about it weeks after I read it. There are things discussed that seem so foreign to me because I’ve never had to deal with them, and it’s upsetting that so many do. I learned interesting points around education, literature, the violence in the British culture, the housing, and how often people in need aren’t helped enough because they aren’t tragic enough. It was eye-opening and there is a lot of pain in this book, and so much raises questions.

Also, it’s important to know that several of the essays in this book were written in the 90s, so people’s values have changed since then. I obviously didn’t agree with everything Dalrymple stated in the book, and I haven’t lived in the UK for a long time, so there are things I can’t speak to or challenge, even though I really want to.

I was surprised when Dalrymple  alluded that systemic racism isn’t a thing, but his other points about how we should treat people on a case by case situation, not by their race, was well-taken. Also interesting was how he has worked in African and Latin American countries where he talks about the poverty there but says that the Western underclass’s mental, cultural, emotional and spiritual poverty is the worst he has ever seen, something backed up by the doctors from Asia who start working at his hospital:

By the end of three months my doctors have, without exception, reversed their original opinion that the welfare state, as exemplified by England, represents the acme of civilization. On the contrary, they see it now as creating a miasma of subsidized apathy that blights the lives of its supposed beneficiaries.

So much of this book is due to the fact that Dalrymple is tired of people blaming the system and not taking their own actions into consideration. There is a lot of controversial stuff, that’s for sure. But as far as critical thinkers goes, Dalrymple is one of the best I’ve come across recently.

I liked his thoughts on the architectural changes in England following the turn of the 20th century  when Britain was entering modernity:

The architects thought that modernity was a value that transcended all other virtues; they thought they could wake the country from its nostalgic slumber, dragging it into the twentieth century by pouring what seemed to them to be the most modern of building materials—reinforced concrete—all over it. Hence, among many other crimes, they tore down the elegant Victorian wrought-iron tracery of my city’s main railway station, with its splendid arched roof over the platforms and tracks, and built instead a brutalist construction of steel and soon-discoloured concrete to a plan that proved no more practical or functional than the old.

 

One of the points that spoke to me the most was perhaps this:

Experience has taught me that it is wrong and cruel to suspend judgement, that nonjudgmentalism is at its best indifference to the suffering of others, at worst a disguised form of sadism. How can one respect people as members of the human race unless one holds them to a standard of conduct and truthfulness? How can people learn from experience unless they are told that they can and should change?

This book will definitely make you think.

 

My Bondage and My Freedom- Frederick Douglass

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The remark is not unfrequently made, that slaves are the most contented and happy labourers in the world. They dance and sing, and make all manner of joyful noises—so they do; but it is a great mistake to suppose them happy because they sing. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows, rather than the joys, of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. – Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom

I’ve never read such a detailed and insightful autobiography about slavery.  Douglass helped me understand in more detail the horrors of slavery, especially the psychological. I can imagine it must have been really difficult for him to write this, to relive all his pain, but he was the perfect person to do so, being as intelligent and observant as he was.

In the beginning of the book, the discussions of family within slavery is very pertinent because it speaks to how the evil of slavery affects the very foundations of society. When Douglass as a child lives with his grandmother and siblings for the first time, this is what he says:

We were brothers and sisters, but what of that? Why should they be attached to me, or  to them? Brothers and sisters we were by blood; but slavery had made us strangers. I heard the words brothers and sisters, and knew they must mean something; but slavery had robbed these terms of their true meaning.

It’s even sadder when he discusses his mother:

“My poor mother, like many other slave-women, had  many children, but NO FAMILY!”

You could hear the injustice in his words once he looked back in retrospect when looking back in retrospect; a child  who had little recollection of his mother. When she died, Douglass wrote, “I was not allowed to visit her during any part of her long illness; nor did I see her for a long time before she was taken ill and died. The heartless and ghastly form of slavery rises between mother and child, even at the bed of death.”

Douglass uses his memories from his childhood and early adulthood to describe the hypocrisy and evils he encountered and observed as a slave, showing us that not a single part of life was untouched by slavery. His autobiography goes into detail of how he came to learn what it meant to be a slave, especially a bright slave, whose environment clearly did not nourish, and how he strategically tried to better himself and those around him, and eventually escape.

As a child Douglass asked himself the following “Why am I a slave? Why are some people slaves, and others masters? Was there ever a time when this was not so? How did the relationship commence?” I’ve said this before, but despite the number of books on slavery I have read I always learn more and I am always freshly shocked. Clearly there is no bottom to this evil practice, no shortage of cruel ways to keep people subjugated:

But, there is this difference in the two extremes; viz: that in the case of the slave, the miseries and hardships of his lot are imposed by others, and in the master’s case, they are imposed by himself. The slave is a subject, subjected by others; the slaveholder is a subject, but he is the author of his own subjection.

 

 

 

Ready to Burst- Franketienne

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Will my cries for help manage to move anyone? To reach some sympathetic target? I don’t know. But unhappiness, misery, despair, rage, rivers, storms, blood, fire, seas, hurricanes, my country, trees, mountains, my people, women, children, old men, all men, all things, and all beings, swell in my voice, to the point where, should I fail, I’ll have been truly alone. Terrifyingly alone. Horribly alone.- Franketienne, Ready to Burst

This is one of my favourite fiction reads of the year. Every single one of the French-Caribbean writers I’ve come across have been brilliant, and Haitian writer Franketienne is no exception. If you’ve read and loved Edouard Glissant or Aime Cesaire, you’re sure to like Franketienne; he writes in the same energetic way as both, and in the same visceral way as Cesaire.

Ready to Burst introduces us to two young men who are trying to make sense of their very brutal society. The novel also introduces us to a new form of writing, spiralism,  which is also known as the  “Dialect of hurricanes. Patois of rains. Language of storms. I speak the unfolding of life in a spiral.”

And the current “unfolding of life” in Haiti is a stormy political situation. One of the characters in the novel is himself a writer and finds writing to be the only way he can get any peace:

In wanting so desperately to speak, I’ve become no more than a screaming mouth. I no longer worry about what I write. I simply write. Because I must. Because I’m suffocating, I write anything. Any way. People can call it what they want: novel, essay, poem, autobiography, testimony, narrative, memory exercise, or nothing at all. I don’t even know, myself. Yet what I write feels perfectly familiar to me. No one can say much more than what he has lived.

In a sense this novel is about writing a novel, and there were so many interesting passages about what a novel is, whether the novel is dead, what writer’s block is:

The novel is a vision of life. And as far as I know, life isn’t a segment. It isn’t a vector. Nor is it a simple curve. It’s a spiral in motion. It opens and closes in irregular helices. It becomes a question of surprising at the right moment a few rings of the spiral. So I’m constructing my novel in a spiral, with diverse situations traversed by the problematic of the human, and held in awkward positions. And the elastic turns of the spiral, embracing beings and things in its elliptical and circular fragments, defining the movements of life. This is what I’m using the neologism Spiralism to describe.

There are so many wonderful paragraphs in this very poetic,  very visceral book:

It is then that I become a tempest of words, bursting open the hypocrisy of clouds and the deceitfulness of silence. Rivers. Storms. Flashes of lightning. Mountains. Trees. Lights. Rains. Untamed oceans. Take me away in the frenzied marrow of your joints.

I’m not sure how I came across this book but I’m glad I did!