Monday, March 2, 2020

My review of I'm From Nowhere by Lindsay Lerman


Towards the end of Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Stevens, the chief butler at Darlington Hall, reconciles himself to the realization that by agreeing to live a subservient life, he couldn’t even make his own mistakes. “Really, one has to ask oneself, what dignity is there in that?” Lindsay Lerman’s central character, Claire, of her powerful debut novel I’m From Nowhere, struggles with a somewhat similarly existential pang when John, her husband, suddenly passes away at a young age. In Lerman’s sensitive and compassionate hands, Claire juggles, for days since John’s death, the twin emotions of grief and identity crisis. Claire is barely thirty years old. That only complicates emotions further. Two of their friends, Andrew and Luke, are present at the funeral silently polishing their sexual and/or romantic bait. Both men, in the past, have made their attraction to her clear, risking their friendship with John. That Claire never confided in her husband about Andrew’s advance or Luke’s love letter lest that rupture the friendship among men, served to prop up her self-esteem, which serves, in essence, as the novel’s dominant, if not central, theme.

You can read the entire review here.


Tuesday, November 12, 2019

A Punjabi short story by Virk



Image result for shahid mirza art
artwork by Shahid Mirza

 Those who’d seen believed Kamla to be twenty to twenty-five years old. In reality her age 
lay somewhere between thirty and forty. The age deception resulted mostly because of her 
well-kneaded figure; she wasn't plump or thin, neither too tall nor short. Since white attires sat well 
on her lighter skin, that’s what she’d often wear. Although she wasn’t that young anymore, a 
man approaching her from behind couldn’t resist getting his fill of her.

Those who toil away in offices have limited words for gossip, bragging. Their experience is 
restricted. Heads bowed, scribbling words down on paper isn't worthy of much. Kamla’s husband 
Manmohan Lal, however, could brag on account of his wife. His wife stood a class apart on account 
of her beauty whether it was at a gathering or a train station while seeing off a fellow officer 
being transferred, or some other occasion happy or sad where men and women had gathered. 
Manmohan Lal couldn’t contain himself within his clothes.

He was rightfully proud of her. Besides being attractive and well-mannered, her character was 
also beyond blemish. Those who kept news did gossip about the wives of others, but never a 
word about Kamla. There was nothing to talk. Manmohan Lal went on official trips occasionally 
to check on accounts of offices in other areas. Those trips could last awhile. Eight, ten days. Kamla 
did feel lonely, bored. The life of a wife is no life without the husband. The house seemed like a
circus devoid of an elephant or a wedding procession without a groom.

It’d been five days since Manmohan went away. Three more days before he returned – days heavy 
as mountains, days bereft of taste. The house, food and everything around her was the same as 
usual, but Manmohan’s absence turned the days into milk from which cream had been extracted.

An old milkman used to come by to deliver milk, once in the morning and once in the evening. 
He’d put down his bucket next to the kitchen door. He’d release the handle of the bucket from 
his grip, letting it bang against the metal rim. That’s how he announced the event of his 
“Get you milk!” he'd holler. Holding the container, a maidservant would emerge from the 
kitchen and he’d start pouring milk into her container. One would then hear the thumping sound 
of his slipper retreating and the play would come to an end.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

A Poem by Athena Kashyap

Letter from a 17th Century Devadasi to her Ghungaroos

Image result for devadasi

Together, we entered hushed halls packed
with luminaries--our king, head priests,

war heroes, the richest traders, and my lover,
soft chimes of your multitudinous bells in solid gold 

tied to the pillars of my legs, scores of eyes
within each bell roving side to side, gazing out

at the world, awake and awakening. 
My companion through my greatest triumphs, 

tender intimacies, my legs guided you, taming 
your wild energy. My arms, twin arcs of desire,

framed my head and chest; my back, 
an undulating bow, the string so taut it emanated

waves of desire, vibrations that permeated
the room, zeroing in on my lover. He’d sit 

entranced through our dance, shuddering
at the climax when both my feet pounded the ground

so hard your cries rang out as your myriad bells split
open the air so that, momentarily, one could not even

breathe. The halls are silent now, have been 
for many hundreds of years, great love a thing

of the past. My spirit never left though, wandering 
these lonely hallways where once love lived.

Today, a new hall has taken its place, one
where celluloid screens of men and women

enacting love, play and replay all day and night. 
Women gyrate obscenely, miming

empty songs that emulate the grunts
of hogs in heat. How it makes me laugh--

they forced our schools of love shut
for this! Worse still, the women who bear

the name of our tradition--Devadasis--
evergreen wives of God

are now mere prostitutes, unwanted 
by their mothers and fathers,

sold as meat, for men to appease
their lust. Desolate, desolate, I cannot even

cry, my throat parched with grief. Your bells
are silenced now forever. I did it myself, 

smothered you in the softest muslin cloth,
covered your eyes, muted your bells

buried you deep under these very floors.
Remember our times together--the whole

of me moving to the whole of you,
your myriad chimes, creating a dance

of love and life, the crowds’ thunderous
applause growing louder, louder--

until the last quiver of muscle and bell is spent
arousing love for the long night ahead

(with the author's permission)

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Old Reviews
Act of liberation or trap

Immigrant dreams
Short Girls gives a rare insight into the making of a modern America
By Moazzam Shiekh
Finally there's a novel about short people, a narrative that situates the idea of shortness at the centre of the Luong sisters' lives. The novel contains chapters named after Van and Linny. After we learn in the opening chapter that Van Luong's husband Miles (a fourth-generation-Chinese-American) has moved out, very little happens in the following pages. Linny has been having an affair with a white man, Gary, who is married to a white woman, with two little children. The Luong sisters have grown diametrically opposite to each other's personality. That sets the tone for an émigré novel.
The novelist offers two extremes of the immigrant experience. If Van is the geek, Linny is the slut. If Van is shy, self-conscious, unconfident, insecure, Linny is aggressive, daring and flirtatious. If Van is political (learning Arabic so she can help deportees, is aware of the anti-Middle Eastern wave), Linny is only sexually alive, creative (helping her employer with ideas for new dishes). Van lives in suburbs, understands the system, its ruthless inequality. Her interest in becoming a lawyer began in college "when she first learned about Vincent Chin, the Chinese American who had been beaten to death in 1982, by an autoworker and his son who ended up serving no jail time." Linny doesn't buy into the system, can't stand suburbs. But as Toni Morrison says: "Everything is political."
Vietnamese immigrants carry a unique cross in the US. Most arrived as refugees, a status that resulted straight from their colonial tragedy. They first defeated the French, later the Americans as they tried to keep Vietnam shackled. The French and later the US tried to crush the will of a people. Just as the West created the Mujahideen out of Afghan refugees, the Western powers created a fifth column in Vietnam. Though the two narratives turned out different, the price the two populations paid was similar.
So here is the fix: you are a refugee, but refuge is in the country that waged a decade long war on your people, killing over 3 million. The world acknowledges the US as the aggressor; modern scholarship holds America guilty of genocide, not to mention the unimaginable destruction of land, culture and families. That's the context in which the Vietnamese entered the US, first as refugees, later immigrants and finally as citizens. This novel shows a daring break from silence as it fleshes out a different narrative at the risk of being called ungrateful. The novel doesn't simply highlight difficulties faced by immigrants but is critical of the US foreign policy. When Miles questions his wife regarding her insecurities and nervousness, her answer that their first home -- the refugee camp -- faced a prison complex, is not only painful but deconstructs the American Myth.
Image result for bich minh nguyen
Author Bich Minh Nugyen
The un-political Linny, too, feels the burden of the affair. As Nguyen explores the relationship, Gary becomes a metaphor for America. The well-off Gary, married to a tall, good-looking Prentice, only seeks a sexual relationship, rendezvousing at motels and odd places. Linny has never dated a Vietnamese man, grows uncomfortable of the affair, assessing the psychological implications. While she feels demeaned, her lone consolation is that she has never allowed Gary into her apartment. Her bedroom is uncontaminated. But, then, he forces his way into her safe refuge, and sleeps with her. The politics built into this scene reminded this reviewer of an Urdu classic, Anandi, suggesting you can banish prostitution from the city, but you can't kill the city inside prostitution. The bedroom scene is multi-layered, not just hinting at a possible rape but at how difficult it is to fight off the influence of American imperialism. You may be attracted to its hugeness, its whiteness or repulsed by its aggression, its greed; it is there in your face. At least, as an immigrant.
As the non-linear narrative unfolds, the reader learns of the sister's relationship with their father, Mr. Luong, an inventor, deeply aware of his short stature. Worried about the shortness of his daughters and of others, Mr. Luong invents the Luong Arm that can reach longer distance, the Luong Eye that can see above and beyond a taller person's head, and the Luong Wall with adjustable height. While his girls have manoeuvred their way out of his patriarchal grip, they feel affection for him, who, despite having risked his life moving to America, has never applied for the US citizenship, up until now.
The narrative builds itself towards the Citizenship ceremony. Miles was expected to accompany Van to the party afterwards. But the split is permanent. Miles is gone, gone for someone who's the opposite of Van, in terms of personality attributes, someone who, like Miles, is Chinese American and carries the confidence of the third or fourth-generation American, is tall, elegant, and graceful. In fact, her name is Grace. When alive, their mother had said, "You can be the famous Trung sisters," alluding to the two sisters who rebelled against the Chinese rule. Van's painful but clean break-up with Miles remaps that history.
Soon the sisters re-connect, emotionally, are helping each other with moving on in life. The father does not go ballistic on hearing of the divorce. Van moves into a smaller place, resolving to fight for justice as a lawyer. Linny meets Tom, a Vietnamese family friend. The attraction is mutual. The frozen attitude to "Vietnam, a scary unknown" begins to melt.
While Short Girls deals with important issues, there is no lyricism in the prose. Despite the non-linear narrative Short Girls offers little artistic tension. Though the author injects her knowledge of library, legal and pop culture, they fail to evoke much. The lack of complexity in the prose lowers the impact. But the novel has a rare insight into the making of a modern America, good and bad. It's important that the novel never stoops to preaching or sentimentality. Nor does it exoticises Vietnam. And that's a rare feat.
Old Reviews
Act of liberation or trap
Diaz’s stories and their characters cannot be fully appreciated without understanding the place called Dominican Republic
By Moazzam Sheikh

The talented Junot Diaz’s third book can both be read as a novel or a collection of short stories or a sort of a novel in stories. With the publication of      ‘This Is How You Lose Her’,  it is clear that Diaz has developed his signature idiom and language register. This can both be an act of liberation (in the post-colonial sense, at least) and a trap.
The prose keeps the reader in its spell. In the hands of the writer, language itself becomes a subject matter that glues all nine stories together. What else provides the book its cohesiveness is that pretty much all the characters are of Dominican Republic heritage making out a future as immigrants. Some are victims but some are survivors of the proverbial American Dream.
Seen from a feminist lens, the book posits a thesis that men are bigger victims whereas most women are real survivors because the two-fold patriarchal system that oppresses them cannot finish them off. Most men introduced in the various stories disintegrate, both literally and figuratively.
In his classic work     The ‘Ethnic Myth: Race’, Ethnicity, and Class in America,  Stephen Steinberg debunked the view that it is the immigrant’s cultural values and ethnic traits that determine his/her economic destiny. Instead, the sociologist has tried to prove that locality, class conflict, selective migration, and other historical and economic factors played more dominant roles in her success. In short, there is no such thing as a Model Minority. Instead, it is the mode of entry.
It is for this reason I stress that Diaz’s stories and their characters cannot be fully appreciated without understanding the place called Dominican Republic.
Is it a prosperous country? Is it a poor nation? Is it an independent entity? A place traumatised by persistent colonialism? Is it a banana republic? What is its relationship to the US? A cursory glance would reveal American rule and regular intervention, including the toppling of the democratically-elected president Leonel Fernández. The two biggest sources of income, it seems, are a large Dominican diaspora that sends money and its service industry, and its top-notch golf courses that attract tourists all year round. These golf courses are situated in off-limit areas where the natives cannot go. The very first story in the collection touches on this theme.
Colonialism damages, among other things, the conquered man’s sense of virility; complicating further the idea of male proprietorship. The author himself may not have helped in this case. He went along with the prevalent assumption that the gullible readership prefers to read the lines which sparkle with male promiscuity and sexual and sexist language as the Dominican male’s uncontrollable urge to be consistently unfaithful in marital and romantic relationship instead of reading between the lines.
The book’s protagonist, Yunior, laments the fact that, like most Dominican men, his father and brother were both unfaithful and addicted to sex. Yunior confesses his sadness at the fact that the sex addict gene did not skip him, and his girlfriend, whom he loved dearly, breaks up with him after finding through his emails that he had cheated on her with 50 other women. The figure 50 is not a careless throw of a number. It stands for the 50 states of America, even if Diaz numbers it subconsciously. The idea at play here is that the seduction of the fifty has caused Yunior to lose his one true love — the life in Dominican Republic.
What the author is trying to tell the reader is that it was inevitable. For the humiliation and self-devaluation that Dominican men go through when they arrive in the US results in tremendous pain. That mixed with a feeling of devalued sense of malehood, the easiest recourse is to seek out a drug that numbs the pain. This drug comes in the form of addiction to sexual conquest that temporarily boosts the male ego.
The living conditions in the US for men of a certain class, that Yunior’s father and brother belong to, are harsh as is evident in story after story. Yunior’s father’s disappearance and brother’s succumbing to cancer is metaphorical in a sense. The real cancer in the American society is racism. This comes out in full force in the final chapter. Our protagonist by this time is living in Boston, a city famous for higher learning, and despite all odds has managed to land a job as a professor. This is no mean achievement. But pay attention to the following lines:
“Almost on cue a lot of racist shit starts happening. Maybe        it was always there, maybe you’ve become more sensitive after all your time in NYC. White people pull up at traffic and scream at you with a hideous rage, like you nearly ran over their mothers. It’s f***ing scary. Before you can figure out what the f*** is going on they flip you the bird and peel out. It happens again and again. Security follows you in stores and every time you step on Harvard property you’re asked for ID. Three times, drunk white dudes try to pick fights with you in different parts of the city… You take it all very personally. I hope someone drops a f***ing   bomb  on this city, you rant. This is why no people of color want to live here. Why all my black and Latino students leave as soon as they can…”
The paragraph above does not only remind us about what happened to Professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard in 2009, it is too prophetic. Though by the middle of the last story Yunior has completely fallen apart, he ends the novel on hope.
Part of the reason why I chose to review this remarkable piece of fiction was that the aspect of connecting the sexual with the political was completely missing from other reviews I read — that the book was not about a critique of some genetic disorder in Dominican men when it comes to sexual behaviour.
Rather the book is political. It is a critique of colonialism and foreign intervention that harm indigenous balance of relationship. If it conquers your motherland and demolishes the citizens’ sense of self-respect, it is only natural to further disrespect the female sex as it was already the weaker of the two in terms of political and economic status quo.
The other reason in reviewing the book was to bring attention to the dearth of this kind of political fiction — exploring the “sexual is political” paradigm — written by people of Pakistani origin, be it in English or Urdu. In my limited experience, I have witnessed more frankness and risk in Punjabi fiction than in Urdu or English. What Junot Diaz does so brilliantly in this book is that he announces a break with the middle class sensibility; not only in terms of the subject matter but in terms of language itself.
While Yunior’s character may be an subconscious homage to Holden Caulfield (protagonist of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’), his language is a homage to America’s modern urban reality.
Moazzam Sheikh’s collection of stories ‘Cafe Le Whore and Other Stories’ is due this year.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Eyeless in Gaza

Eyeless in Gaza
by Victor Provenzano

It will not do
any more, blind Gaza,
where I’ve lived as a child
for 8 years, thin and thinning,
barely daring to drink

Eyeless Samson,
I have
to slice off
your hair:
its posse of asps.

Falling head with one chin,
wide as a whiteblue
chin strap,

And a foot in the shallows,
shooting the fish folk in a blue
film of salt, like fish
in a barrel.

I’d pray to Allah to spare you,

Yet, Samson, in agon,
I’m through.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Cherished comments by Roshni Rustomji-Kerns


Roshni apa's advice and praise!

This means a lot to me as I consider her my mentor-sister. Her kindness and encouragement not just towards me but many writers of South Asian diaspora who came after her needs to be acknowledged and celebrated. In her words:

    Your stories--First of all, thank you for the collection--the voices, the landscapes--physical and beyond. Remember what Leslie M. Silko said about stories?  Thank you--for proving her correct.
Secondly--the "critic speaks"--I found the spacing/pacing of how the stories appear in the collection disturbing--short, short and then longer and longer--Maybe that is my own inner ear--with all my musical training--my rhythm is always my own!  Drove some of my music teachers cray--especially dance teachers!

Great and wonderful surprise to find myself in the story in the very good company of our own and much beloved Ijazbhai and our favorite Mahmood--but the story itself needed an editor.  I know--because all my works need an editor.

The "critic" and aficionada of Moazzambhai's stories continues--Remember how I continue to be haunted by your story of the man with the transistor radio--and of the man who kissed the Holy Land?! Two other Moazzamnarratives have joined the company--"Jhura and Lali"--absolutely an amazingly moving gem--showing that a narrative/a story will go to the heart of a matter with much more power than any academic essay. Every time I read it, I cry--those sandals and  the face struggling to keep intact!

And then the Cafe le Whore--!  Absolutely different and yet--As you know, your Ammi was very dear to me--I have always held her blessings close to my heart--and yes, I knew how difficult it was--life with her--and how true a son you always were to her.  But even if I didn't know all this--the story is a powerful tribute to a mother-son and to the "lost" (to the "normal" world) people with whom we live every day--and yet we don't live with them.  Who are the real phantoms? 

Many years ago, as Chuck and I were driving through San Francisco, I saw some people begging (no euphemisms please!) on a road divider--I don't remember where it was.  All of a sudden, I saw an older man, tall, emaciated in a pyjama-kameez--the kind of brown/grey that men wear in the North West and I yelled "Abba"--he didn't resemble my father--but he was a man, I would have called "Abba" anywhere in the world --Chuck realized what had happened and that I needed to stop and go to the man and see what I could do--but when I turned back, he had completely disappeared--we couldn't see him/find him. I see your story, "Cafe le Whore" as a sad but sincere honor, a tribute to your Ammi, to the Abba who disappeared and all the human beings so many people wish would disappear.
As I said before--Moazzambhai--thank you.

Added comment:
As soon as you began talking about bringing the street(s) alive (all the locations in all the stories are alive), I knew that that was what has continued to haunt me.  The places, the events and the people can't be separated (remember Sara Suleri talking about that in Meatless Days?)--and you bring all three to life--and sorrow-compassion act like a thread that weaves them together. Bravo, Moazzambhai