Asian America

Rant on “IndoWestern” Fashion

I usually don’t like categorizing things as a rant. However, today’s post is going to be exactly that: a rant.

There is this horrible disease going around, mostly among Indians, but also sometimes among hippie-bohemian people of the white variety who like to appropriate things. It is called “IndoWestern” fashion.

I don’t know which idiot thought these two things could be combined to still look beautiful. I think Indian fashion on its own has an elegance that is rarely paralleled. Western fashion can be cryptic, but it also has its perks as it is usually more utilitarian. But why, WHY would you put these two things together??

Examples of how bad Indowestern fashion sucks: fusion outfits. First off, I feel like fusion has always been the bottom of the barrel in terms of Indian dance teams, though perhaps that’s not their fault. Bhangra, garba, and raas teams showcase dances and outfits that are specific to a region and are usually narrowly defined. Fusion, on the other hand, can be everything and anything–usually confined to Hindi pop (though I’d love to see teams challenge that norm).

The first mistake they usually make is to take 8 songs and turn them into one mix like it’s cute (hint: it’s not. Stick to like 2 songs per mix, okay, y’all?). Also, instead of trying to find folks who have the potential for leadership and organization, fusion teams usually just attract people who are already friends of people on the team, leading to a clusterfuck that loosely resembles a sorority (except sororities actually have a point sometimes). I will spare these folks the embarrassment of being sourced.

fusionoutfitno

Scarves tied around butts are always so attractive.

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This one is called the Victoria’s Secret-wannabe-sportswear look.

fusionoutfitno3

Can’t be an Indian fusion team unless you’re wearing over-the-top, fluffy pink pants, a belly dancing belt, and a top that doesn’t cover your midriff.

(The exception to this rule is Gator Adaa from the years of 2011-2013. That team had everything: leadership, organization, and class. Shoutout to you women. Y’all were fierce.)

adaa height

Source: Gator Adaa: Fusion Dance Team Facebook Page

To be self-critical, I understand that on first glance, it might seem like I’m slut-shaming. Look, maybe I am, but here’s the thing, right? I’ve seen classy hoes, okay? Remember Rani Mukherjee in Saawariya (2007)?

rani saawariya

Source: India-forums.com

I’d love to see a fusion team showcase a look that is about having fun as a woman in whatever role she is performing, not the “WE HAVE TO LOOK BROWN AND EXOTIC BECAUSE WE ARE DANCERS” look. Other examples of truly heinous Indowestern things:

truly heinous

Source: utsavfashion.com, Clockwise from top left: a green that even your visually impaired grandmother would not wear, royal blue mummu with pink trim for when you want to look like a fish??, a thing trying to be both a dress and a top, WHY WOULD YOU PUT LIME GREEN AND CORAL TOGETHER IN THE SAME OUTFIT THEY ARE SO BEAUTIFUL SEPARATELY, what is this cut, what is this print.

no2

Source: utsavfashion.com, Clockwise from top left: Dafuq is this print, actually kinda cute but I could get from Forever21 for 6 bucks, assflap?, what is THIS print?, for the 7-year-old in you, mushroom-high-psychedelic print.

Right. So what did we learn today, y’all? Indowestern “fashion” is NOT FASHION. Brown women, I suppose you are the ultimate arbiter of what you put on your body. But I do feel like the amount of grace I find (at least in ready-to-wear shit) in the mixing of these styles is little and far between.

indian1

YES! Source: utsavfashion.com. 

indian2

YES! Source: utsavfashion.com

western 1

YES! Source: Target.com

western 2

YES! Source: pinterest search “pants”

noindowesternnoindowesternnoindowestern

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Thoughts on The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

Content warning: Sexual assault, abortion trauma, domestic violence

You know, before I go into talking about the book, which is commendable even as I critique it, I will say it’s been a hard week. In the United States, there have been a number of really depressing developments, which I wrote about in a previous post. The newest is the #MuslimBan. I cannot overstate how dehumanizing a move that is. At the same time, though, it has sparked some pretty spectacular protests all over the country. While I personally doubt the administration cares much about why people protest, I do think protests hinder normal operations. I think this is actually where our strength lies. Hinder the normal operation of things. Throw a wrench in the gears. If things are slowing down, that means the effects of capitalism and colonization come to at least a temporary halt. That means we can buy time to do more strategic planning.

tsbuSo I recently finished The Space Between Us, published in 2005which could actually provide some insight into the turmoil that is under way. If I’m being really honest, the plot is not unlike that of The Help, except the role of Skeeter Phelan is played by Umrigar herself. That is probably my biggest critique of the book; Umrigar’s role is not unlike those of well-intentioned anthropologists who think they are “saving” Native Americans by collecting data on their lives and presenting it to the world. In reality, they take from the community without really giving anything in return. Just as Skeeter plays white savior to Aibilene, Umrigar plays upper-middle-class hero to Bhima. Umrigar claims that the character of Bhima is based on a real person who served her family when she lived in Mumbai. If that is the case, did the Bhima of Umrigar’s life ever receive any compensation for basically being her inspiration? Was she given any credit for providing the details to fill the pages of this book? While I can understand Umrigar and the person she is writing about may not keep in touch due to social taboos in India or because of the passage of time, nothing is explicitly stated about the process by which this story was told in the interview that follows the text. I prefer a little more transparency.

In addition, the “message” of the novel is a little heavy-handed if you ask me, though perhaps understandably so. The experience of poverty (which, it should be noted, is neither mine nor Umrigar’s) is to have the effects of sexism and classism compounded in everyday life. Thus, Bhima’s family experiences AIDS, an industrial accident, alcoholism, separation and displacement, sexual assault trauma, and abortion trauma. The character Sera Dubash also experiences domestic violence. You’ll notice a lot of these are phenomena that disproportionately impact women. It does feel like every few chapters, Umrigar hits us over the head with the message “INDIANS NEED TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT THE STATE OF ITS WORKING CLASS WOMEN.”

By contrast, what makes this book radical is Umrigar’s descriptions of Bhima’s thoughts. The process is frequently laced with a humor that only the Previously or Currently Colonized will understand. In one example, Bhima describes her encounters with white people:

Serabai had once explained to her why these people had yellow hair and skin the color of a hospital wall–about how something was missing from their bodies…She felt sorry for them then and, seeing their long hair and shabby clothes, wanted to give them some money, but Sera laughed at that and said she needn’t pity them, they actually were very proud of their white skin. How can you be proud if something is missing from your body? Bhima wanted to ask, but before she could, Sera said they didn’t need money from her and that they came from places far richer than she could imagine. Now Bhima was sure that Sera was lying…one look at their dirty hair, faded shirts, and torn blue pants, and any fool could see that these untidy, colorless people were very poor. (2005, p.93)

Bhima has clearly never been around white people before, and her worldview reflects this reality. The beauty of her lack of (Western) education is that she does not think that structures of power apply to her (and in fact, they don’t!). Thus, she does not follow the narrative of being “less fortunate” or inferior to the white people she encounters. If anything, she truly believes she could be of help–to them! In spite of Bhima’s stubbornness, Umrigar’s description of her won me over with this passage.

Furthermore, Umrigar’s greatest strength is her ability to describe rare moments of humanity, especially those shared or experienced by women. The strength with which I relate to some of these moments is eerie. For example, this is a moment when Bhima is massaging Sera’s arm, after Sera has been beaten by her husband:

Sera recoiled. Bhima had never touched her before…Although Bhima’s thin but strong hands were only massaging her arm, Sera felt her whole body sigh. She felt life beginning to stir in her veins…Even at the sweetest moment of lovemaking with Feroz, it never felt as generous, as selfless as this massage did…When you got right down to it, sex was ultimately a selfish act, the expectations of one body intrinsically woven into the needs of another. (p. 108)

I am bemused by how Umrigar seems to know the inner workings of my head. Perhaps this is a common experience among Desis? Among women of color? Among all women, even? I am not sure, but this moment embodies the eroticism described by bell hooks, the kind that is not sexual, but life-giving. It is a kind of human connection I have only felt with other women. My tendency to intellectualize causes me to connect with people on more of a conversational level rather than a physical one. Even then, my discussions with other women make me feel more connected to them than I ever have during sexual encounters with men.

Bhima is capable of giving life with her hands. Moreover, Bhima seems to symbolize those whose humanity is still in tact to give this kind of care. She is a simple person–not stupid, but uncomplicated. While she massages Sera, her only concern is to keep the arm from scarring and to make Sera physically better; to stop what she is doing because of class divisions does not even cross her mind, though it crosses Sera’s. This seems indicative of how deeply Bhima, and people like her, knows her own and others’ humanity.

The eeriness does not stop there. Many of Maya and Sera’s experiences are ones that I relate to as well. After her abortion, Maya is described as

…stone-faced, as if the abortion doctor has killed more than her baby, as if he has…scooped out her beating heart, just as Bhima scoops out the fibrous innards of the red pumpkin that Serabai puts in her daal. (p. 129)

Maya refuses to go back to school or take a job after her abortion. Again, I question whether or not this is a universally Desi experience. It cannot be some mistake that I remember this feeling after my own abortion. I was told I would feel relief afterwards. I waited for days, weeks, and months to feel anything. I did not feel anything, and it was not until I found a therapist 9 months later that I understood why. My therapist said that a person who is allowed to mourn publicly will feel relief. This is how people move on after someone they love dies; they grieve, and their community comes together. But for many women who get an abortion, we are not allowed to grieve publicly because we do not want people to know that this is what we have done. Thus, we grieve alone and internally. No one comes to our side to comfort us. People treat us as though nothing has happened, as though we should be the same. It is not the same. Knowing I could have had a 5-month-old child right now is sometimes unbearable. My only consolation is that perhaps if I am lucky enough to give birth in this life, it will be under far better circumstances than the ones I’m in now.

Maya’s experience with sexual assault is also strikingly familiar to me. Viraf asks her to give him a back massage somewhat flirtatiously, but she is unaware of how powerless she truly is.

It felt good to be giving him so much pleasure. As her hands kneaded and caressed Viraf’s back…Maya felt important and strong–and powerful…But then he spun around so fast that for one confusing moment, her hands strummed air…and somehow [she recognized] she was the cause of that tension…And her awe turning to pride and the pride turning to panic…She protested; she did not protest. It did not matter, because it was inevitable what was about to happen…(p.277)

I admire Umrigar for the ambivalence of this excerpt. Sexual assault is rarely the violent, horrific act that Alice Sebold describes in The Lovely Bones. It is frequently much more gray. This passage is immensely complicated. On one hand, Maya seems to discover for the first time that she possesses an immense bodily intelligence–one that people who are more embedded into society’s upper crust or positions of privilege hardly know. I have a theory that because of capitalistic consumption, people in the upper strata of society cannot easily know that kind of intelligence. They listen too much to propaganda about what they are “supposed” to be doing, instead of listening to The Gut, which operates on a far more physical, sensory frequency.

At the same time, Maya’s discovery is not an invitation, and Viraf takes advantage of this moment when she is incredibly vulnerable. This is something men have done to me again and again. The power to unfurl the human body is terribly dangerous, simply because it puts one in close proximity to another person. When I was a much more naive person, men I hung out with asked if I would mind cuddling or if they could sit next to me when we watch a movie in their apartment, and somehow I never saw sexual assault coming. The word “sex” was never explicitly said, so I was never even given a chance to say “no”. And in the end, it was always me who walked away with a reputation for being “easy”. This is the power that men have–with the skills of a lawyer, they trap me in situations I cannot escape from, and then act as though it was my fault.

Sera’s experience with her abusive husband, Feroz, also reflects the hypocrisy of sexism. Her situation is complicated by the fact that she and her husband shared many friends, and these friends knew very little about the reality of her life. When her best friend asks her if she is missing her “dear husband”, these are Sera’s thoughts:

Sera looks at her oldest friend, unsure of what to say. She envies Aban her innocence, her simple way of dividing the world into love and not-love; good and bad…Does she miss Feroz? She is unsure of the answer. She does not miss the shame-inducing beatings…In fact, what she misses is not the marriage, but the dream of the marriage. (p. 160)

Sera has to deal with a complicated grief after her husband dies. Her friends and family remember him fondly as “loving husband” or “loving father”. She knows a very different reality, and is not able to share this with the people she knows because she has hidden the truth from them for the duration of her marriage. Arguably, the only person who actually knows what has transpired in her marriage are Dinaz, her daughter, and Bhima, her maidservant.

This is also a feeling I can relate to. Abuse can be convoluted when community is involved. I have avoided events, blocked people on social media, and blocked phone calls from people because of the abuse I experienced from men I used to date. I was stupid enough to choose men whose parents are friends with my parents or whose social circles intersect with mine somehow. On rare occasions (because I have mostly left these circles behind at this point) those people come up to me and tell me things like “You and that person seemed like such a great couple! Why did it end?” or “Why weren’t you at this event? We really missed you!” And I know I never give them a satisfying response because dragging the truth out in the open means defending myself against an onslaught. These people would feign confusion, defend my abusers and rapists, or tell me to get over my feelings before they admit to obvious facts–that sexism is a violent structure, that women are frequently abused by the people closest to them, and that I tell the truth.

On a last note, I think my favorite thing about this novel is the Pathan. This is a character from Bhima’s past, a man who used to twist balloons at a stall on Chowpatty Beach in Mumbai. A Pathan is a person of ethnic Afghan descent, and the word is synonymous with the Pashtun people. Bhima and Gopal would frequently encounter the Pathan when they were younger and went for walks together at the beach. This was one memorable exchange:

Gopal had said, “Compared to our Bombay, with the monsoons and all, your Afghanistan must seem as dried up as an old woman, no? All hills it is, dry as a bone, correct? I saw a picture of it once.”

She had expected the Pathan to be insulted, but he laughed, “Nahi, sahib,” he said in his low, dreamy voice. “My Afghanistan is very beautiful. A hard land, yes, full of mountains, but toughness has its own beauty.” (pp. 199-200)

I think it is no mistake that Umrigar evoked the image of a woman with this exchange. I think it is no mistake that the earth has always been called “Mother Earth”. Just as the Pathan defends his homeland as beautiful, I would like to think this exchange alludes to, in Warsan Shire’s words, “women who are difficult to love”.

I also think it is no mistake that the Pathan symbolizes a number of things, of which the most important are perhaps God (or a Creator of some sort) and diasporic people. He is depicted as a creator of beautiful, colorful things (his balloons) that give children joy. Yet, his life was probably not easy, as he says:

“Everybody in my homeland is a poet, sahib. The country makes you so…That is, everybody was a poet. Now the country is broken. Too many people fighting over the poor land, and the land is sick in its heart. Night and day it is weeping. Now it cannot take care of its sons and daughters…There is a saying in my community…They say that when something is very beautiful, the Gods of Jealousy notice it. Then they must destroy it. Even if it’s their own creation, its beauty begins to make them jealous and they are afraid it will overshadow them. So they destroy the very temples they have built.”(pp. 200-201)

This excerpt made me cry the first time I read it. I’m not sure I can even convey what it means to me, but I can tell you what images come to mind. I think of Natives fighting for their land, and for the right to live, and for a chance at creating a more meaningful life than the one the American dream offers. I think of all the immigrants that come to this country under the illusion that life is going to be better, only to find out being successful in this country is a pipe dream, and perhaps even to be turned away at the doorstep. I think of the land we live on being ravaged for its resources, in order to keep feeding a capitalist existence that allows for a select few to live in luxury that the vast majority of people will never know. I think of the wars of this century and the last, almost all of them started over colonial feuds, and which only colonizers have any hope of “winning” (what does that even mean? To “win” a war? At what cost are wars won? How inhuman do you have to be to want that?).

In short, I admire the depth and reverence that Umrigar gives to her characters. While I wrote a pretty lengthy post here, I still have a great number of thoughts on this novel, things I am still grappling with because I struggle to find the words to describe them.

The Monolith Myth

light

Light in the night. Source: Leonie

I’m going to tell you all a little story. So I work in a tutoring center in a library at a community college. I work on a relatively tightly knit staff. All ten of the writing tutors know each other, and the younger ones frequently socialize outside of work. I remember this was a conversation I overheard one day, between two of the tutors, one a multiracial Asian man (MM) and the other a middle-aged white woman (WW). It should be noted, the story being told is, if I remember correctly, the story of how the multiracial man’s parents met.

MM: …at that point, my mother was thrown out of the house by my grandmother. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence because my grandmother was a pretty abusive person.

WW: Oh…how horrible.

MM: She used to do things like beat my mother with a broom. So she [his mother] needed a place to stay after being kicked out of her house.

WW: I used to know a Korean girl whose mother would beat her, too.

This was the point at which I removed myself from hearing distance of the conversation because I knew exactly what was happening. It’s something that happens a lot to people who belong to racial minorities. I suspect that, as a person who is multiracial and who has been raised by and befriended a lot of white people, the Asian man telling this story is a little naive to the intrusive and often dangerous assumptions white people make about marginalized people. Thus, he did not edit out the details that people of color usually do around white people to protect the collective that is their community.

As for the white woman, it was as though I could see the little gears turning in her head. I could see her trying to connect dots which are not meant to be connected. She hears one story about an abusive Asian mother. Her memory is jogged to another time when she encountered an abusive Asian mother. Just like that, a stereotype is born! Now she believes all Asian woman are abusive to their children.

And this is not some new occurrence in my life. I went to a graduate degree program that was dominated by (bless their hearts) white queers. Because I am obliged to (and only because I liked my program adviser), I will say here that there are a small handful of white people in my program who genuinely try and are doing the work to recognize their role in a racist society. And then, there are all the rest.

Their judgment came every day like the morning news. Black men? Too aloof, militant, very sexist, not worthy of attention. Asian women? Scary, too opinionated, emotional, incapable of restraint. Black women? Think too highly of themselves, standoffish, stingy, secretive. Latinos? Clannish, always hungry, annoying, not prepared for the academy. The only way you won approval as a person of color was if you were queer and you outwardly showed more commitment to the queer community than to any other marginalized community.

In front of that group, where we were so frequently asked to talk about our social identities and our upbringing as part of classroom participation, I found myself hiding the truth about my family. I was not about to give these Northern white people any other reasons to look down upon me, my family, or the community of brown people that raised me in a Southern city. So I did not tell them about how hard it actually is for me to go home, to live with a mother who constantly comments on my weight and how I dress, who thinks that using a vibrator leads to becoming a prostitute (like a gateway drug), who always has to know where I am going and who I am with, even though she never gives my brother the same constraints. I did not tell them because I could not. How could I express the truth without throwing my family under the bus? How could I tell the truth without allowing white people to think my mother is an uneducated, backwards, primitive person who suffers greatly from internalized sexism? How could I give voice to my individual experience without having white people conjure the image of the Starving Brown Child in India, just waiting for their help? How could I say those truths without sounding as though I was inviting white people to save poor little brown me from the clutches of my medieval South Asian parents?  These are things I only ever talk about with woke people of color.

Instead, I only acknowledged the good things about my community in front of my colleagues–the parts about how, as children, we were basically raised gender-neutral until we reached puberty, and how radical that was. Or how arranged marriage was actually a financially and socially radical thing to do because it gave us kids the social capital we needed to survive in America. Or how the sex-negativity of Asians is also a radical concept because it precluded queer people from being ostracized from society. They only got to know the radical stuff. They were only allowed to see my community in a good light. I would not expose my community and my heart to the degrading nonsense of a bunch of people who think meals can be made out of oats and kale. Or worse, a bunch of people who think that because they understand Foucault’s theorizing, they are somehow the designated saviors of the Previously Colonized World.

You’ll notice, of course, this left (and perhaps, still leaves) me rather isolated. I present one truth to the world, and that is the only way I allow them to perceive me, and I know another, very different truth. This is not a strange or even rare practice. For people of color completing graduate degrees, compartmentalizing in this manner is a commonplace tactic.

If I’m being honest, I do not know that I have yet come across anything that feels like a solution to this problem, the problem of white people lumping people of color into monoliths, in which no one person of color is discernible from another. I also do not think I am obliged to find one. I think, before I even jump to solutions, it is worth proposing, to all communities, actually thinking about what this implies for our realities. What does it mean for people of color to constantly be protecting their communities? What kind of toll does it take on us to never tell anyone the whole truth? What are the implications when communities of color frequently don’t have access to things like mental health counselors because these are not critically conscious institutions and/or because counselors are too expensive? What does it say about the still-predominantly-white country we live in that we have to protect our communities when we are in the academy?

And for white people, what does it mean that communities of color go to this length to make sure you don’t interfere with their affairs? What does it mean when people of color are not comfortable telling you the truth about their upbringing? What does it mean that people of color try to protect their communities from you? What does it mean when people of color do not trust white people whose gender analysis is stronger than their racial analysis? What does it mean that in Massachusetts, a place that claims to be pretty liberal, a person of color can feel unimaginably lonely?

 

I don’t really have answers. I’ll end on this note. A few days ago, I went to the wedding reception of an old friend. All the people there were brown, and they acted like it, with moms feeding kids with their bare hands and people shoving people out of the way with absolutely no manners. I was going to post a funny status on Facebook about how you know you’re at a brown party when you feel like you’re surrounded by barnyard animals. It was just people having a good time. If it was a wedding reception full of white people, I probably could’ve gotten away with it. But I thought about how a post like that might come off to people who only know one brown person, or none. I thought about the mile-long list of stereotypes that already exists for my community. Did I want to add “barnyard animal” to that list? No, I didn’t. So I decided not to.

Thoughts on Rogue One

Many thanks to Maritere Gomez for making this post possible.

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t watched Rogue One yet and you care about spoilers, you might want to save this post for later.

rogue-one

Source: IMDb

As far as I am concerned, none of the Star Wars movies had ever been noteworthy from a critical perspective, (which did nothing to deter me from avid fanhood). Sure, they were either lovably campy or laughably trying too hard, but I think the closest we ever got to critical was the comparison some could make between the Galactic Republic and the Roman Empire in the prequel trilogy (if I’m remembering things correctly).

That all changes with the release of Rogue One.

It should be noted, the timing of this movie’s release is miraculous. I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting much, and this movie far exceeded even the expectations I could have had. I don’t know how Gareth Edwards knew that radicals of the world would need a message like this after the election we just went through, but if you need an antidote for your cynicism (like I always do), then this movie is for you.

Rogue One was so different from any of the Star Wars storylines we have seen so far. For one, it is not concerned with the Big People at the top. The film shows us the nitty-gritty ugliness of war among middle management and the poor. In fact, the images evoked in this movie bear a remarkable resemblance to wars throughout the twentieth century, especially World War II. From the very start, we are taken to Jyn Erso’s (Felicity Jones) home in Lah’mu, a mountainous, evocative, green place that vaguely resembles Switzerland or Germany (with the exception of the planet’s rings in the background). This scene, where Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) puts up a futile last stand against Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) even hearkens to The Sound of Music, when German soldiers attempt to coerce Captain Von Trapp into joining the army because they “need” his military prowess. I have mixed feelings about this scene. On one hand, I think it was practical of the screenplay folks to portray the mother’s death at the hands of empire. Lyra (Valene Kane) pleads with Krennic to leave her family alone, and he kills her. The Empire gives no fucks about families (kind of like empires in real life). On the other hand, it bothers me on some deeper level that this is still a scene that is only possible with white people. Let’s be real, even smart people of color are not spared by empires. They become labor forces or casualties of war.

lahmu

Lah’mu. Source: Star Wars/Lucas Films

The casting of Felicity Jones was curious to me at first, but made sense after watching the caliber of acting this film calls for. I notice that with the trilogy movies, the actors being recruited are rather new to Hollywood–which I’m guessing is strategic because it adds to the campiness of the film, since there is no “image” attached to the actors yet. (This is not to say that Daisy Ridley and John Boyega don’t have talent or do the roles justice). But Felicity Jones is relatively established–we are familiar with her in The Theory of Everything and Inferno, two films that seem somewhat dramatic compared to the Star Wars films. I wondered what the significance of that could be.

jyn_erso_fathead

Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso. Source: Wookiepedia

The answer came to me after I saw the movie. Even before Jyn was born, the Ersos lived with the threat of war. Jyn’s family is eventually torn apart as a direct result of the empire’s actions when she is very young. Nonetheless, she retains some semblance of innocence, in spite of being handy with a gun and throwing very effective punches. Though she is bold, she is not vengeful, nor is she originally aligned with the Rebellion. Cassian (Diego Luna) reminds her again and again that she is different from members of the Rebellion because she “chose” not to do anything about the forces that have displaced her and cause her pain. Jones does a great job of portraying a person who has seen a lot of violence and also spends a lot of time running from violence. Jyn is a person who has lived in fear all her life, as have many other people under the Empire’s reign. Rogue One aptly portrays the effects of a despot’s control over people’s daily lives.

I think the casting of a young-looking person for the role of Jyn was done intentionally. Jones is a small woman at 5’3″, and at 33 years old, she could still pass for someone in her early twenties.To me, Jyn is a symbol of the many children and youth, past and current, who live with the legacy of war. Even the settings in which she travels throughout the movie and the situations she finds herself in–hiding in small spaces, lashing out at people who claim to be helping her–are reminiscent of children in places like Syria, Palestine, Venezuela, Cambodia, Vietnam, Germany, and the streets of Chicago, who behave this way to survive.

saw_gerrera_rogue_one

Forest Whitaker as Saw Gerrera. Source: Wookiepedia

On Jedha and Scarif, the film comments on how war affects people of color. The settings of both planets seemed very intentional to me. The city on Jedha closely resembles cities in the Middle East (or at least, the American interpretation of them). Jedha is dry and sandy, and in the crowded streets, vendors and residents wear long, flowing clothes. It is here that the main characters find Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), and also where the Death Star is first tested.

It speaks volumes that the Death Star is tested in a place where it seems like a lot of black and brown people must live (Saw dies in this first test). The Death Star acutely conjures images of nuclear warfare. This first “test” alludes to the days of testing nuclear bombs in Indigenous territory. It also appeals to more recent drone strikes in various Middle Eastern and African countries. The Empire’s excuse for using Jedha as the test site is that they know that a rebel base exists there. Yet, the force used by the Empire to demolish the base is analogous to being annoyed by a fly and throwing a brick at it. Were they really getting rid of the rebels, or did they need an excuse to get rid of a whole city of aliens/people of color/people the Empire didn’t approve of? Dare I say Rogue One seems to be commenting on the US’s interest in military force at the expense of people of color?

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Jedha. Source: Star Wars/Lucas Films

cassian_andor_fathead

Diego Luna as Cassian Andor. Source: Wookiepedia

The symbolic cast of people of color in this film was fascinating. I’m not sure whether or not that was done on purpose, but if it was, I find this technique to be both admirable and a little concerning (admirable because people of color are playing roles where people of color should be, and concerning because I’m still not sure how I feel about one person representing a vast and diverse group). It pleases me greatly that Diego Luna, who plays Cassian, has an accent as thick as a tectonic plate and was born in Mexico City. I don’t know nearly enough about the wars of Latinoamerica to tell you how it is fitting of Luna to play Cassian, a character who is known for being kind of ruthless and fiercely loyal to the Rebellion, but I know enough to say that it is fitting.

 

bodhi_rook_fathead

Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook. Source: Wookiepedia

I’m not sure I am as sold on Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook. I do feel as though they made Ahmed play up the sleazy look a little bit (not to mention the temper and the big mouth), which is a bit of a stereotype considering the guy is Pakistani. I can’t lie, though; I’m still happy there is one brown dude reppin’ the Subcontinent in this movie.

 

chirrut_imwe

Donnie Yen as Chirrut Imwe. Source: Wookiepedia

But the pair that absolutely warms and breaks my heart are Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). The deaths of these two characters seemed symbolic as well, as they took place on the planet Scarif, which was intended to resemble the Pacific Front of World War II. The last battle takes place on a beach covered with palm trees that looks as humid as Vietnam. The use of the Death Star on Scarif seems to implicate the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thus, the last few scenes are a kaleidoscope of events on the Asian front of World War II.

baze_malbus_ew

Wen Jiang as Baze Malbus. Source: Wookiepedia

Chirrut and Baze give radically queer vibes in the scene where they both die. Chirrut, a blind warrior-monk who staunchly reveres the Force, dies after successfully opening the portal in order for the Death Star plans to be sent. He dies in Baze’s arms, and Baze finally says the words Chirrut repeated all his life to ward off danger: “I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.” There was something moving about this burly Asian guy holding a delicate, more effeminate Asian guy and crying over his demise. I swear, I cried too.

There is a hint of a connection existing between Jedi and Indigenous peoples, too. I think I was awakened (no pun intended) to that possibility when we learn about Kyber crystals, which are used by Jedi to make light sabers, and which are also used by the Empire to power the Death Star. Insofar as the crystals are a natural resource, there are probably factions in the Star Wars world who fight to preserve them, and factions that fight to harvest them. It would be interesting to see if this is a point upon which future saga directors elaborate.

In short, Rogue One shows us the possibilities of what a robust, organized force of radicals can achieve. It seems to argue something beyond just arming ourselves or debating identity politics–it shows the potential of a radical collective. It is not as though Jyn, Cassian, and their band of rebels arrive on Scarif with any sort of plan. However, it takes all of them together to send the Death Star plans back to the Rebel Alliance. Perhaps our strategy to combat empire, in this modern era, should literally just be numbers. One person’s stamina only lasts for so long, but a group can get a lot done if the work is staggered or if people just have each other’s backs. Perhaps it is not the answer to all our problems, but in the information age, where the number of twitter followers you have determines your level of outreach, it’s a start.

 

Top 12 Fiercest Bollywood Actress’s Outfits, According to Me

Well folks, if you don’t know it yet, I fucking love Bollywood. Love is not a strong enough word. Of course, I usually keep this under wraps because let’s be real, of someone as Desi and hyper-femme as me, it is totally the most predictable thing in the world to be obsessed with. Hindi films will probably never achieve the status of “high art,” but that’s what makes Bollywood so radical: it is accessible to the masses.

That being said, here are, in ascending order, the fiercest Bollywood actress’s outfits (from songs) that I think are damn fierce. Admittedly, I definitely used stills of Youtube videos. #thatlowdefinitiongrind

12. Aishwarya Rai, Hai Mera Dil, Josh (2000)

blue dress

I’m so thrilled that maxi dresses are a thing now (they weren’t in the year 2000) because I can wear something like this in the middle of the day. Aishwarya Rai in this midnight blue, understated fit-and-flare dress is stunning, and I’ve wanted a dress like it ever since I first saw this song.

11. Rani Mukherjee, Dhadak Dhadak, Bunty aur Babli (2005)

blue and pink

Rani Mukherjee looks so glamorous in this blue and pink ghagra. I love the long, full skirt and the mirror embellishments. It made such an impression.

10. Alia Bhatt, Radha, Student of the Year (2012)

pink

Admittedly, I’m not the biggest Alia Bhatt fan. For some reason, she always looks like a teenager to me. I actually like this outfit because she looks a little grown up. I love the silver-pink colorblock. I especially like the cut of the blouse, and the way it ties up at the back. It’s a flirty, fierce little outfit.

9. Kareena Kapoor, It’s Rocking, Kya Love Story Hai (2007)

silver

One of the things I love about Kareena Kapoor is that she always looks like she’s having so much fun. I like the huge slit in this shiny, silver number, and the way it billows in the wind. It reminds me of Marilyn Monroe in The Seven-Year Itch.

8. Karisma Kapoor, Mayya Yashoda, Hum Saath Saath Hain (1999)

hsshorange

This orange and gold ghagra that Karisma Kapoor wears in Mayya Yashoda stole my heart. Karisma Kapoor looks like a queen with all that gold jewelry. I want this outfit…for my wedding day. Haha!

7. Aishwarya Rai, Nimbooda Nimbooda, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999)

nimbooda

Whoever did Aishwarya Rai’s hair and makeup for this song deserves a medal. And this ghagra, dear god! I love the contrast of the peacock blue against all the warm, pastel colors, the calf-length skirt, and the sheer dupatta. Beautiful costuming decisions.

6. Deepika Padukone, Lovely, Happy New Year (2014)

deepslovely

Deeps does this number so much justice. It was actually really hard for me to pick just one outfit from this song because all of them are pretty fierce, but this black blouse with the plunging neckline is so sleek. And so is Deepika’s pole dancing!

5. Kareena Kapoor, Halkat Jawani, Heroine (2012)

kareenayellow

First off, who doesn’t love when men worship women the way they are supposed to? Furthermore, Kareena Kapoor looks so good in this highlighter-yellow ghagra. The mesh blouse is so pretty, as are all the sequins and those magenta bangles she accessorized with it.

4. Urmila Matondkar, Rangeela Re, Rangeela (1995)

urmilam

Urmila Matondkar was the OG of badass in Bollywood. I love a number of the outfits from this song, but especially this tomboyish ensemble of parachute pants, a crop top, and a vest. I definitely see the influence of 90’s American hip-hop.

3. Aishwarya Rai, Achche Lagte Ho, Kuch Na Kaho (2003)

cowgirl

There’s a reason why Aishwarya Rai is on this list three times. She is always styled to perfection. I love her flowing curls in this song, and you can’t tell from this still, but her eye shadow is on point. With that cropped jacket and blue-and-leopard-print ascot, she has a fierce coyness about her.

2. Rani Mukherjee, Nach Baliye, Bunty aur Babli (2005)

Ranibnb

This song proves Rani Mukherjee is one of the fiercest bitches of all time. She’s tiny and curvy, and in Nach Baliye, she throws down like a boss. I love her in this sparkly blue bandeau, flared jeans, and high-heeled sandals. So hot.

1. Deepika Padukone, Love Mera Hit Hit, Billu Barber (2009)

deepsbikini

There will never be a time when Deepika Padukone, in this rainbow bikini, is not sexy as hell. This outfit was the one time when the whole shredded-fabric aesthetic actually worked. Folks have tried it in other songs (Anushka Sharma in Thug Le), but none compare to this gorgeous ensemble. I feel like there are two things that make this outfit my absolute favorite. First, it’s colorful. Like, they really went bananas with this entire song, and I love it. But also, whoever thought to put long, flowy pants on Deepika’s long legs is a fucking genius. They perfectly complement her figure.

An Analysis of The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour

lastillusionContent warning: child abuse, sexual assault, suicide

My most recent read was The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour. I chose the book from this list of Asian American authors (and you’ll find I will probably read a few more from that list before summer is over). The list implies that Khakpour is on par with some authors whom I really admire, like Jhumpa Lahiri and Amy Tan, so I had pretty high expectations, which I am not sure the novel lives up to.

It should be noted, this book is based on a legend from the Persian epic, the Shahnameh, the Book of Kings. I personally have never read the Shahnameh, so there is a certain point of reference missing in my analysis.

To give her credit, Khakpour is a talented prose writer. The beginning of the book reminds me of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children:

His hair and skin were the color of–no use to sugarcoat it, Khanoom would snap–piss. He was something so unlike them, unlike all of nature. (2014, p.3)

This first description of the protagonist, Zal, reminds me of Saleem and his gargantuan nose from Midnight’s Children. I have always had a soft spot for ugly-baby descriptions. It thrills me that many writers of color do not want to portray their protagonist as attractive, that in some cases they are downright scary. It supports the idea that ugly people deserve to have their stories told, too.

Khanoom’s distinction between her birds and her son also reminds me of an excerpt from Clive Barker’s Abarat series. There is a story in Absolute Midnight about a mother who gives birth to two sons: one that is the embodiment of all of her good, and the other that is the embodiment of her evil. The good son is a homely thing that resembles a worm. The evil son is a beautiful creature, colorful and charming.

Similarly, Khanoom is enamored with her birds, which she refers to as her children. She cuddles them, sings to them, and makes sure they are fed and clean. She abhors Zal, whom she keeps in a cage with the rest of the birds. She calls him “White Demon” (p.5) and prays for his death. It is as though Zal, scrawny and pale as he is, is what little good Khanoom is capable of, and her numerous, glorious birds epitomize her cruelty.

Khakpour does a great job of commenting on the hypocrisy of able-bodied people and the mental health profession throughout the novel. I feel as though every time she wants the reader to think about what we are taught about disability, she uses the italicized word, considering. For example:

His father had set it all up…and would not have created an abnormal environment for his son…whom Hendricks so badly wanted to grow up as normal as he could, considering. (2014, p. 82)

These were Zal’s thoughts when he took Asiya into his apartment for the first time. The “considering” piece always refers to his history as the Bird Boy, and  how he made the “miraculous” recovery from a squalid, screeching boy to a relatively well-adjusted adult. Hendricks thinks it would be so great if Zal was just like everybody else, implying that the way Zal lives is such an inconvenience to able-bodied people like Hendricks, as though being “normal” is such a wonderful way to live. Khakpour invites us to question whether or not our “normal” is really as wonderful as we think it is. Is Zal better off as a harmless, insect-eating, asexual, bisexual person who is a little strange? Or is he preferable as an alcoholic, sexist man who passes for “normal” by our standards?

I think it also invites us to question the well-intentioned people who frequently live with, or are guardians of, people with disabilities. Is it really for Zal’s good that Hendricks is hell-bent on making him “normal”? Or is it more so to prove that he is a good father? Why doesn’t Hendricks approve of Zal when he behaves in a “bird-like” manner?

I also love Khakpour’s commentary on love. When Zal first meets Willa, he describes his feelings.

He felt, he though, maybe what they called love–THEORY NO. 4: Love?–but of course it wasn’t, he quickly told himself, love did not come so illogically. It did not do that at-first spell that was just a human joke…(2014, p. 92)

Perhaps my cynicism is showing, but I love how Khakpour gives voice to my skepticism toward “love at first sight”. I think Americans thoroughly exaggerate the role of physical attraction and infatuation in “loving” relationships. I personally believe the exaggeration is a natural by-product of capitalism, in which sex becomes a spectacle that people are willing to pay for, and which people then fervently rush to sell as per the laws of supply and demand. “Love at first sight” is not a truth, but a platitude we tell ourselves to pretend we are satisfied in mediocre relationships. Actual “love”, the act of caring for flawed and petty human beings and understanding they are not obliged to us in any way, is a lot of hard work.

In reaction to this first response, Zal gives us another description of Willa the second time he meets her.

He wanted to be nestled against her bosom. In what way? Like a child, he thought. Like a lover, he thought again. She confused him to no end. (2014, p. 119)

In a digital story I created last year, I said “love is unfathomable. If you understand it, it is not love.” Zal’s experience illustrates this sentiment. He doesn’t seem to know what he wants to be for Willa, or what he wants Willa to be for him, but it is more than just being a lover. He also mentions wanting to be a friend or guardian. His feelings resonate with me. I think it is more accurate for me to say I have felt love towards friends and family more than I have to lovers, or whatever you want to call them. Acting within constructs in relationships has obstructed love for me more than it has bolstered it.

Khakpour, however, does not use her strengths to her advantage. She makes great commentary on disabilities and traditional relationships, yet that is not what she focuses on. She instead turns her focus to the 9/11 attacks and tries to make a really cliché allegory about life. While I think her commentary on 9/11 itself is actually quite interesting, she takes a huge, wandering portion of the book to finally get there.

First, I think Khakpour makes the mistake of establishing the premise of the story too early. As soon as I found out Asiya is clairvoyant and the dates begin to seem very important about one third of the way through the book (with the Y2K New Year featuring as a prominent incident), I already knew to expect the book to end with 9/11. It literally takes the other two thirds to get there. After the New Year party, The Last Illusion seems like a long story about people who do nothing–the repetition is tedious. Asiya and Zal break up several times. Each time, Zal goes to Hendricks, who tries to pull him out of his misery. Then Zal makes the decision to go back to Asiya, and Hendricks tries to dissuade him because he doesn’t like Asiya. Zal leaves anyway, giving some platitudes about establishing independence. This occurs two or three times in the novel.

Toward the end, I really feel Khakpour is trying too hard to make a point. It starts to sound like a college application essay. Silber starts asking himself “What does it all mean?” (p. 254) over and over again, as if anyone needs to be reminded to find meaning. On page 267, Silber literally thinks, “Maybe money is the key.” She really loses me there, as if we need anyone else to point out any more cliches about greed and avarice and money. And then we have Manning calling Asiya a terrorist on page 270, and I just about gave up. Here is a book about 9/11 and the word “terrorist” is in the novel. How compelling. So original.

Asiya is one of the most grating characters in the novel (though honestly, Zal himself can be quite grating at times). I would almost be willing to forgive Asiya for her behavior (she has to put up with so much sexism from Zal–he doesn’t believe her even though she is right (p. 260), and he can be quite manipulative. Having sex with her just to prove he is normal (p.152)?) except, except, except, she is a white girl with an Arabic name. On top of throwing all these tantrums because she wants people to believe her and they don’t (what does she honestly expect? She’s a skinny little artsy woman. People are not kind to women in general, let alone strange ones) she gets arrested, and when asked if she has a Muslim name, responds, “Absolutely” (p. 279).

I suppose this was supposed to show how defiant and brave she is, but for me it rings so hollow. Asiya McDonald was born Daisy McDonald, and she got her name by dating a Muslim guy at one point in her life and then converting to Islam. At the end of the day, she is still a white woman, and still has all the privilege that that identity confers. When I think about the Muslim women of color I know, the hijabis, the ones who are told again and again to go back to their country, the ones who have cried over the things people yell at them, the ones who literally have eggs thrown at them, Asiya McDonald is like a bad joke. I’m still waiting for the punch line. I’ve said this before, but I have a hard time believing white women ever truly show “resistance”. They only ever seem to echo all that women of color have already done.

Of course, Khakpour might have portrayed Asiya this way intentionally. You never know.

Another piece that irked me to no end is the description of Willa’s sexual assault. On p. 124, I find out that the reason why Willa overeats and is obese is because she was kidnapped as a young girl and repeatedly raped by her kidnapper. This is actually a common response that women have to sexual trauma (as reported by the Atlantic). Yet, Khakpour is surprisingly euphemistic about it, describing only how he “hurt her again and again” (p. 124). In context, this is how Willa is explaining herself to Zal, so I suppose this conveys how hard it is for Willa to talk about it, but I felt this portion would have been so much stronger if the incident was referred to as “rape”, or “sexual assault”. Since she is 20, it is reasonable to assume Willa knows what these words mean. This was an opportunity to shed light on a really important issue, and instead of naming the problem, Khakpour hides it.

I was further irked by the explanation for Willa’s suicide. On p. 292, it is said that “Apparently only in depression was she losing the weight that had made her depressed in the first place, most likely.” This angers me to no end. It was Willa’s rapist who forced her to feel she needed to eat all the time, and it was her rapist who made her feel suicidal. However, Khakpour takes the route of blaming Willa’s weight for her suicide, which not only body-shames Willa, but also lets her rapist off the hook instead of holding him accountable. It’s a depressingly conservative stance to take.

Khakpour slightly redeems herself with her description of 9/11, the Last Illusion, though she makes me wait entirely too long to get to that point. It turns out like a dream, Silber’s last illusion.

The illusion had not gone right, but it had not gone wrong. It had gone real. (p. 315)

I remember the day, and it was quite dreamlike. I was 9 years old on 9/11/2001, just starting my first days of fourth grade. I remember coming home from school with my brother and my mom to see the image of the Twin Towers falling, on channel after channel, again and again. It was strange how easily I believed it was real, how there was no skepticism at that point in my life about CGI or Photoshop, that I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that I was seeing something real.

 

Zal realizes, after the illusion, that just like so many things, a smile is just another human trick (p. 319). There are some implications there about constructions, how even the ways our body is supposed to react to things are social constructions. Zal smiles on the day of 9/11. It would certainly explain why I sometimes laugh in classes about genocide.

An Analysis of The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

lowlandAfter reading The Lowland, I’m interested in knowing what Jhumpa Lahiri’s Myers-Briggs type is. If I had to fathom a guess, I would say she’s an ISTJ based on her writing style. The dryness with which she describes people and settings makes me think she’s a sensing/observant person. There’s a certain habit to the way she comments on body parts–eyes, mouths, erections–that reveals a pragmatism rather than the curiosity about hidden meaning that intuitives express. The way she talks about characters in isolation, delving into their thought processes and the ways that they arrive at conclusions, makes me conclude she leans more towards thinking than feeling (though frequently, Lahiri reveals the complexity of emotions in these discussions about internal modes of thinking). It was hard to pick up on whether she’s a judger or a prospector from her writing style alone, but I felt that judging was more fitting because of the way she frequently writes about obligations–not necessarily the fulfilling of obligation, but the awareness that some kind of social pressure usually exists for people to act one way or another. Introversion was the most obvious of the characteristics I picked up on. If you’ve ever heard Lahiri interview, or even just notice the way her characters are so conditioned by loneliness, it’s not hard to “see” her introversion.

Of course, I myself am an ENFP, so that might influence this analysis. For all I know, Lahiri is an INFP who has a longer attention span for sitting still and writing than I do. In typical NF fashion, I am sometimes more interested in getting into an author’s head than analyzing content.

If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like spoilers, I suppose this is the point where I tell you to stop reading.

The Lowland spans a story of over half a lifetime, starting with the childhoods of Udayan and Subhash, the protagonists, two brothers with very different temperaments who were born probably at some point in the 50’s, and ending in the decade after the new millenium. If I had to compare it to another book that encompasses huge plots of time, I would say The Lowland is actually similar to The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold. Both novels revolve around the death of one of the main characters, both victims of violence, and both deaths are a result of systemic oppression in some form. Both novels delve deep into the internal affairs of the main characters after the death of a loved one. In addition, I would say both authors toy with the idea, though in very different ways, that humanity is more important than a cause.

In The Lowland, while Udayan’s naive willingness to follow the Naxalite movement over a cliff ought to be critiqued, I think he should be given more credit than Lahiri gives him. He was part of the movements of global student activists in the late 60’s and early 70’s that made governments everywhere wake up and realize things could not go on the way they always had. Granted, the government in West Bengal took a very reactionary stance in response to the students by killing them and then putting the bodies on display throughout the city to suppress the movement with fear. This was the proof the world needed that the government had become a cruel, sick, twisted entity that would do anything to protect its own power.

In due course, we learn that Udayan and his then-wife, Gauri, play a role in the murder of a local policeman in Calcutta. In turn, Udayan is killed by the police. Lahiri writes of both incidents matter-of-factly, as though if either were to occur even without the historical context, the other would still inevitably follow. She reveals the senselessness through which killing occurs. Life is taken and human beings, in their infinite nostalgia, are left to find significance on their own.

The killings, while they are conveyed without fanfare, hold deep political significance. A policeman dies on one end of town, his family mourns. The foreshadowing comes after the fact, an echo of what Udayan’s family goes through. Then Udayan dies on the other end, his family mourns, and the impact of his death resonates for three generations. This is a keen point, especially given the current state of affairs with the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and also the shooting of the five cops in Dallas. Death is death is death, which brings us back to the concept that humanity is more important than a cause. The moment at which Udayan became comfortable with killing a person was the moment at which he lost his humanity, a sad case considering he joined the Communist Party in the hopes of restoring humanity to those in the most need. Almost at the end of the novel, it is revealed that, “…only the policeman’s blood had prepared him [for death]. That blood had not belonged only to the policeman, it had become a part of Udayan also. So that he’d felt his own life begin to ebb, irrevocably…” (Lahiri, 2013, p.339). Ironically, the point at which he commits this inhumane act is the point when Udayan finds his own humanity.

This is also interesting considering the way Udayan is characterized up to that point. Even though he is the younger of the two siblings, it is in Udayan’s shadow in which Subhash lives. Udayan is the more mischievous of the two, constantly pushing the limits of his parents’ patience, while Subhash is quietly industrious, subscribing to filial piety and social obligation. The relationship is heavy with expectation. Udayan’s tendency to act before he thinks is a perfect foil to Subhash, who displays the inertia of those who think far more than they act. One could say Subhash is implicitly at least partially to blame for his brother’s death. Udayan implored him to stay, but he left for the United States, interpreting his brother’s request as a challenge to his own ability to make decisions. Udayan’s socializing is then left in the hands of the Communist Party. His comrades become his primary source of support.

On this note, Lahiri’s commentary on social activism is, at times, not so subtle. Here is an excerpt:

[Gauri] was thankful for [Subhash’s] independence, and at the same time she was bewildered. Udayan had wanted a revolution, but at home he’d expected to be served; his only contribution to meals was to sit and wait for Gauri or her mother-in-law to put a plate before him. (p.126)

Throughout the novel, I could feel that Lahiri has a certain disapproval for overt displays of support for a cause. She takes an almost patronizing tone, as though revolutionary movements are started by small children who have little capacity to follow through.

In the same breath, Lahiri shows an undeniably feminist critique of the ways movements are lead. Unrepentant violence, dogma, and militancy are certainly markers of toxic masculinity, traits that I doubt would exist in movements centering feminist principles. Lahiri points out the hypocrisy of militant movements–how on one hand, men can advocate for revolution of the working class, and on the other, are so comfortable with the subordination of women.

By the time I had finished one third of the book, I already found myself sympathizing with Subhash, the older brother who moves to America to study oceanography. It is somehow easy to commiserate with Subhash, who, in the course of the novel, becomes a single father to Udayan’s daughter. He is also portrayed as the more dutiful of the two sons. In contrast, Udayan is hard to relate to, portrayed as a rebel from a young age. His murder seems to have been brought about as much by him as anyone. Gauri, his widowed wife and mother to his child, is even harder to relate to. After the death of her husband, she becomes a cold, unfeeling person, plunging into the safety of academia. She has no qualms at all about leaving Subhash and her child behind.

The argument could be made that everything Gauri does is justified as a woman who realizes just how unreliable men can be. It makes no sense that in our modern society, or even in the 70’s when Gauri was married, women are still expected to marry men and be dependent on them in a social sense when they are as susceptible to death as women are. Gauri learns this at a relatively young age, and spends the rest of her life as an independent woman who achieves success as a professor, something that I think should be celebrated. Furthermore, she is the kind of woman for whom social expectations matter not at all. Gauri gives no fucks. She cuts her hair short. She wears tight clothes. She has sex with a woman. She drops meetings without explanation. She shows up at her husband’s house without calling. She does whatever she wants whenever she wants. Personally, I think that’s awesome. More Desi women should have the courage to live like that. Yet, she is portrayed as someone plagued with guilt, unable to forgive herself for leaving her child. I’m sure if it was a man leaving his child, he would not be portrayed in this way.

I digress. Oddly enough, I think the way Lahiri writes about sex is one of my favorite things about her writing, though it is not at all romantic. This is another trait of her writing that makes me think she is more sensing than intuitive. I, an incorrigible intuitive, cannot seem to write about sex without getting caught up in the significance of it: the romanticism of feeling another person’s skin, kissing, orgasms, cuddling. Lahiri does none of that. Here is an example:

She was wearing slacks and a grey sweater. The clothes covered her skin, but they accentuated the contours of her breasts, the firm swell of her stomach. The shape of her thighs. He drew his eyes away from her, though already a vision had entered, of her breasts exposed. (p. 141)

I still don’t understand how, in a passage where literally nothing happens, she expresses something lasciviously enough to get me horny.

Lastly, as one who loves the stars, I also love observing what commentary authors have on night skies. This is Lahiri’s:

He sees the wide beam of moon’s light over the water, pouring down. He is overwhelmed by the sky’s clarity, the number of stars. (p. 329)

It seems like the sky is a reflection of where Subhash’s life has finally come to land, so to speak. He is no longer haunted by the secret he kept from his daughter. He is no longer deceiving himself in an unhappy marriage. He has found some peace, and as of yet, some possibilities.

Many as my criticisms are, there are a lot of things I liked about The Lowland. I feel the novel says a lot about the curious constructions of memory and time, how peoples actions in the present can so closely mirror those of their ancestors, and how emotion is as important a factor as time in how well we remember events.

Works Cited

Lahiri, J. (2013). The Lowland. Toronto, Canada: Alfred A. Knopf.

 

Impressions of Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon

snow huntersThe second book I finished this week was Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon, a novel about a young Korean man named Yohan and his life in Brazil after the end of the Korean War.

Yoon uses beautifully simple prose. He writes so delicately about human relationships that I was brought close to tears several times. Yoon’s style is reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of my Melancholy Whores. There is the same dream-like quality, but without the magical realism.

Granted, Yoon has a way of making the real magical. I particularly liked this excerpt.

–What stars, he said, and laughed, gazing up at that vast canvas above them, Yohan astonished by how it was possible that it was the same sky through all their years, in countries across the sea. How the sky never changed, never appeared to grow old. (Yoon, 2013, p.90)

At first, it seems like the same trite phrase about the stars that everyone writes, until the comment about oldness. It was then that I realized the excerpt was never about the stars, but the feelings Yohan has about his friend and mentor while he looks at them. We can understand the way he misses people (and will miss people) while he looks at stars.

In addition, I enjoyed Yoon’s commentary on love throughout the book.

But he had never known him, had never been close to him in the way he witnessed other sons and their fathers.

Perhaps it would have been different if his mother had lived. Perhaps his father had been someone else and a wife’s death had altered him.

Or perhaps his solitude was always there. He would often wonder about that. (Yoon, 2013, p.140)

On the surface, this is a straightforward description of Yohan’s father. However, the sentence at the end asks several questions of the reader. How much do we really know about the people we are close to? Even our own parents had lived lives unknowable to us before we were born. How much of people’s behavior is truly their own nature, and how much of it is done in reaction to being observed or as a product of experience? Yet, Yohan still believes in the love his father gave him. There is a duality there that is revealing of human nature: that doubt is a natural part of love.

 

In short, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s something I recommend for gloomy days, or perhaps gloomy times like these when nativists are looking for reasons to throw immigrants out of countries. It only took me a day to read, and there’s something about Snow Hunters that just lowers my blood pressure. It was a welcome respite from the chaos of modern living.

Works Cited

Yoon, P. (2013). Snow Hunters. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

 

A review of an Asian Feminisms class and Ingratitude, an Analysis

 

ingratitudeI recently finished Ingratitude, by erin Khue Ninh, a book that, for me, provokes some surprisingly potent emotions in spite of being such a small tome.

Before I embark on this review, allow me to explain the context in which I was introduced to it. This past spring semester, I took an Asian American Feminisms course at UMass Amherst. It was the first women’s studies course I had ever taken in my life. It was a class of only 12 students, of whom 8 were women of Asian descent, 10 were undergraduate students, and 2 were graduate students (including me). On the whole, I found the course to be very instructive in a number of topics I had not previously explored. I really appreciated most of the readings for laying bare many experiences of Asian women that I had not previously encountered in academia. Some of the topics discussed in the class included Orientalism, legacies of war and colonization, racialized femininity and masculinity, and transnational feminism.

The professor, who I will not name, was also a great instructor, centering student learning by allowing students to take up most of the class time with discussion. However, I did at times find her to lean more towards “academic intellectual” than “pragmatic facilitator”. She had very little ability to hold space for emotions, and as a model with whom many of the students could identify, I think she effectively suppressed a lot of the emotional responses that students could have brought forth. On one memorable occasion, during the class where we discussed the legacies of war, one of the readings was about Korean comfort women, and how their position in society was determined both by the Japanese invasion of Korea as well as by American soldiers in the Korean War. I asserted that this seizure and capitalization of women’s bodies was “a thinly veiled form of terrorism”. There was a brief pause in the class after that, at which point the only response the professor chose to give was to move on to the next topic.

On another notable occasion, I had gone to her office hours one afternoon to talk about my final project, and she asked me how the class was going for me. In my naïve manner, I assumed she actually wanted an honest answer from me, so I shared an observation with her that I thought should be addressed. I said that I noticed the students in the class only ever responded to her questions and statements in the class, but they never interacted or responded directly with one another. I brought that to her attention hoping perhaps she would encourage those interactions. After all, it’s not a true discussion if it’s only between the teacher and the student.

Her response was very strange. She chose to tell me that, while we were on the topic of giving feedback, “some” of the students (a number was not given to me) were “disgruntled” by how frequently I laughed in the class. Specifically, she commented on my “facial expressions and noises” that I made in the class. I was very surprised. This did not feel like feedback as much as it did a way for her to undermine my power and affirm her own authority. The colorism of that interaction cannot be ignored either—this professor is light-skinned and of Korean descent, and I am South Asian. At the time, I thanked her for “bringing the comments to my attention,” though in the back of my mind, I thought whichever student it was that had complained was a coward for not voicing their complaints to my face. The logical response of the professor, at least to me, would have been to tell whoever complained to respect that people have different emotional capacities. My opinion of this professor diminished slightly after that point.

After being treated thus, it is no surprise to me that such a person thinks that Ingratitude is useful for instructive purposes. During the course, each week a student would start the class with a brief presentation on the main points from the week’s readings. Model student that I am, I had not read Ingratitude the week it was assigned, during the topic of Asian American Literary Subjectivities. I think I saved myself some indignation, though I also probably kept the class from being able to learn from my rather contemptuous point of view.

To my knowledge, the eight women in the class adored the book. The presentation that week was given by an English major studying at Mount Holyoke, a native of Cupertino, a stone’s throw from San Francisco, California. This is a person who is able to travel to Taiwan every year, whose parents are probably paying for her education. Her presentation, which was significantly lacking in criticality, historical context, and even a basic analysis of capitalism, enthusiastically affirmed the words of an author who predictably faulted parents for everything that sucked about Asian women’s lives. The room reeked of hypocrisy.

I had stated in previous classes that I unabashedly defend Asian parents. When I said in class that day that I had not read the book, but I could fathom by conjecture that I probably would not agree with most of erin Khue Ninh’s analysis, the professor’s response was to say, “Well, you’ve stated your views in the past, Leonie.”

This is nothing compared to the complaints I have with the book itself, now that I have read it. Ninh’s book is an analysis of how immigrant families trap women of Asian descent in a role as an obedient, high-achieving daughter based on—not historical archives, not an analysis of Asian women’s labor, not even qualitative research with actual Asian women—literature by women of Asian descent. Yes, you read that correctly, literature as in fictional novels. She uses fictional novels to build a highly complex patriarchal, racial, and economic analysis of the family structure. From where do my doubts spring? I can’t imagine.

Furthermore, in the entirety of a novel about how oppressed Asian American women are in the role of daughter, Ninh never once includes internalized racism or sexism as causes for this oppression in her analysis. This is curious because Ninh literally describes internalized racism, though she doesn’t refer to it as such, within the first few pages of the novel as a reason why Asian people might act the way they do.

It is a central tenet of the model minority thesis that the model minority identity is a myth…That may be a disingenuous case to make…The heart of the issue is not whether an Asian immigrant family currently meets the socioeconomic or professional measures of the model minority. Rather, the issue is whether it aspires to do so, whether it applies those metrics: not resentful of the racializing discourse of Asian success as violence, but implementing that discourse, with ingenuity, alacrity, and pride, from within. (Ninh, 2011, p.9, emphasis from original text)

This is quite literally a description of internalized racism. I define internalized racism as the process of subconsciously incorporating the messages one receives about their own racial group into one’s own identity as though they are fact. Would that not also be a reason why Asian parents treat their children the way they do? In fact, could it be the sole reason? Could the sole reason be that Asian Americans have internalized the belief that they must be high-achieving, a belief which white America industriously circulates? Ninh didn’t seem to think so.

Another point of contention I have with the novel is the hilariously far-fetched logic Ninh frequently uses to draw her conclusions. Here is an example:

Ideally, then, parental sacrifices enable the next generation to live lives unfettered by the practices and psychology of close bookkeeping. In actuality, however, as Su-ling Wong points out, “the code of Necessity creates its own enslavement: one sacrifice calls for another” [33, full citation included in Notes]. Whereas in theory, Necessity works itself out of existence—immigrants work hard so that with success they and theirs will no longer have to work hard—in practice, Necessity reproduces itself, perpetuating its mindset and demands onto the next generation, even after the conditions of material adversity have come to an end. (Ninh, 2011, p. 33)

In other words, why is oppression perpetuated? A logical individual might look at historical and economic context and the ways in which Asian immigrants first came to be in the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as plantation workers, indentured servants, sailors, in other words, slaves in everything but name. (Lee, 2015, p. 42). People in these lowest strata of economic class frequently do not have access to the kinds of structures that help people accumulate wealth (ability to take out loans, own a house, build credit, pay for an education, save money in bank accounts, etc.) because they live in tenement buildings in the inner city or on farms, their citizenship hangs by a thread, and their money goes into paying off the indenture. Thus, subsequent generations frequently inherit debt, much in the same way that the descendants of Africa living in America have had historic difficulty accumulating wealth because they were brought to America as slaves.

Is this the logic that Ninh uses? No, no it is not. Ninh says that parents ought to be able to pay off their debts, debts that, when they were incurred in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, sometimes had to be paid off one literal cent at a time for debts of hundreds of dollars (Lee, 2015, p.42). That way, children can be free. Oh wait, but debts can’t be paid off because they’re not real. They’re just some magic thing parents made up called “Necessity”. Hence, children are oppressed because parents made up the fact that they are in need. Why would parents lie about being in need? Does this make sense to you? It doesn’t to me.

Even putting Ninh’s analysis in a modern context makes no sense. If parents in Asian American families are paying off their debts because they are able to, where is this Necessity that drives them to abuse and oppress their children? And if they are not, does that not bring us back to the argument that Asian families in the working class cannot accumulate wealth in traditional ways?

The most maddening of Ninh’s many nonsensical analyses is her assertion that Asian American’s romanticizing of the Third World reveals an underlying desire to assimilate to capitalism (if I’m even reading this text correctly. Ninh’s tendency toward a confusing verbosity is equally annoying).

Both Chao and Wong’s pieces betray a desire, in fact, to fossilize Evelyn’s parents as forever the opposite of white capitalist America (as if having been a materially deprived Chinese native makes a subject automatically and henceforth politically subversive), and to color themselves “bad” by association. But to paraphrase Kingston, one’s family is not necessarily the Third World poor to be championed; in a confusing state of affairs, any of these purportedly bad capitalist subjects might well have found themselves prosecuted as owning class by agents whose motivations were themselves suspect. (Ninh, 2011, p. 121)

Admittedly, I’m not entirely sure here, but I think Ninh just defended the bourgeoisie against the “attack” of the working class under Communism in China because, you know, Ninh knows how much they would suffer if the working class ever rose up.

What completely blows my mind about this book is how individual-minded and second-wave Ninh’s thinking is. She never once asserts the ways in which feminine people and the Feminine are powerful, choosing instead to focus on the Catch-22 of not being able to pay off parents’ debts and how rebelling against parents is still a way of “settling debt” (Ninh, 2011, p.155). In other words, she portrays Asian daughters as having a lack of agency over their own lives. She never entertains the radical possibilities of being part of a collective, which is not surprising given her lack of historical analysis. She never considers how feelings of abandonment can be mitigated by the feeling of being tied to bodies of people who share a history, an ancestry, and a story. She only ever looks at the individual woman, how she is antagonized by the family, and how breaking filial piety is futile.

The one statement Ninh makes that I perhaps partially agree with is that filial piety could and should change for Asian children. However, where Ninh puts the burden of accountability on parents, I think the process needs to be a deeper and better-articulated dialogue among two generations. I particularly believe the consequences of immigration, colonization, racism, sexism, and capitalism must be included in an analysis of family roles if it is to be accurate.

All things considered, Ninh worked really hard on what I consider to be little more than the vengeful rantings of a spoiled brat. Ninh is a tenured professor in the Department of Asian American Studies at UC Santa Barbara. Go figure.

Furthermore, for me, the goal of raising critical consciousness is to achieve liberation. At its core, this work requires love—a powerful, fierce love. I think this is a critical component missing in Ingratitude, one that is mentioned but is hardly featured prominently. To paraphrase Darkmatter, if the Revolution happened tomorrow, I would not want to survive it if my parents could not stand right there beside me in the end. I do not plan to abandon them, even in the times when I feel they are being unfair. Before I accuse them of their adultism, of their classism, of their ableism, love is the ability to admit that I have unfathomable privilege as a person who was born in the United States, who went through the American system of education, and for whom English is my native language, things that are not true for my parents. Love allows us to peer into the power dynamics between two generations without ignoring what power is present on both sides.

Works Cited

Lee, E. (2015). The making of Asian America: A history. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Ninh, e.K. (2011). Ingratitude: The debt-bound daughter in Asian American literature. New York, NY: NYU Press.

Correction:

At first, I referred to Ingratitude as a novel. Actually, it’s an account of the relations between Asian American children and their parents through literary analysis.

Actually

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Mary Oliver, Wild Geese, 1986

Actually, I don’t want to be a woman. I know I’m not supposed to say that. I know I’m supposed to say that I love skirts, and I love makeup, and nail polish, lip gloss, bras, candles, romantic comedies, flowers. And actually, I don’t want to be beautiful. I know how ungrateful I sound, but sometimes, I just don’t want this feeling of obligation to the whole world. Sometimes, I don’t feel like having this constant pressure on me to say “no” if I don’t want something. Sometimes, I wish people would just know because there are a thousand ways to communicate, and speaking is arguably the least effective one. Sometimes, I don’t want to be looked at. Sometimes, I just want to be held.

Actually, I am scared of everything I know I am capable of doing. That’s why I don’t do them. I know I could be kind, healing, brilliant, and giving. I know I should earn much more than I receive. I know I could live some wondrous life in which I escaped all of what was expected of me. But on some days, I get tired of fighting and I give in. I don’t care. Just give me a job. Get me married, give me children. That’s what I get for living, right? It’s fine. Let’s just get it over with. I’m done searching. I’m done pretending there’s something else to try for. Why raise my hopes? Why work so hard?

Actually, I don’t care about social justice. I don’t care about feminism, or any fucking -isms. I just want my paycheck. I just want my diploma. I just want my stupid piece of paper that says I’m worth some money because I’m smart. I just want to keep a roof over my head. I just want transportation. I just want health insurance. Oppression is fine, I’ll survive. I come from a long line of survivors.

I don’t want the only reason that people respect me to be because I am more oppressed than they are. I’m not supposed to say that either. I’m supposed to say I demand that you respect me because women are humans, too! Because brown people are humans, too! If that’s really the only reason you could find to respect me, than you can keep your cheap respect. I’ll get by without it. I’ve already been catcalled all my life. I’ve already had things stolen from me all my life. I’ve already gotten by with disrespect all my life. You think you’re going to solve all my problems by recognizing oppression? I don’t need your cheap respect. I don’t need your charity to make me feel like maybe some day I’ll make it to “real person” status. I’m not going to beg for a shot at your back door. Give me the fullness of your life, and I will give you mine. I don’t do half-ass.

Actually, I just want to feel like someone is there for me, not because I achieved something or because I’m “hope for the future” or even because I’m a good person, but because they actually want to be there for me.