“Woman at Point Zero” by Nawal El Saadawi

Nawal El Saadawi is considered by many to be the pre-eminent feminist writing about and advocating for women in Islam. After having her writing banned in her home c51+35ksoZeL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_ountry of Egypt for being controversial, Saadawi was imprisoned in 1980 for being critical of the Sadat regime. But Saadawi was not silenced.  In “Memoirs from the Women’s Prison” she wrote:

“Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies. Nothing is more perilous than knowledge in a world that has considered knowledge a sin since Adam and Eve. But I don’t feel the danger, perhaps because it is a part of my life, just as a train or airplane passenger doesn’t sense the motion, once having become a part of it. And so nothing can alarm me. Writing is my life. There is no power in the world that can strip my
writings from me.”

How can I even begin to critique a piece which is at its core unfathomably daring and courageous? For me, and I would imagine for many, Saadawi’s works are as much or more about content than style, particularly when read in translation. And so I approach a review of “Woman at Point Zero” feeling unequal to the task.

“Woman at Point Zero” is a clipped, brusque bit of fiction, based on Saadawi’s firsthand experiences. In it Saadawi spins the tale of Firdaus, a prostitute sentenced to death for murdering a pimp. Firdaus recites her story on the eve of her execution, fiercely, unashamedly revealing the many oppressions, traumas, and abuses she has endured on her journey to becoming steely-eyed, fearless, and condemned to death.

“For death and truth are similar in that they both require a great courage if one wishes to face them. And truth is like death in that it kills. When I killed I did it with truth not with a knife. That is why they are afraid and in a hurry to execute me. They do not fear my knife. It is my truth which frightens them. This fearful truth gives me great strength. It protects me from fearing death, or life, or nakedness, or destruction. It is this fearful truth which prevents me from fearing the brutality of rulers and policemen.”

Firdaus is an audacious symbol of female struggle and revolt in an Islamic state. Though Firdaus’ history is based on women Saadawi met while conducting a psychiatric study among incarcerated women, her voice, her disdain, and her indomitable spirit are a thinly veiled recreation of the author’s own. Though first published in 1978 under long-ago-fallen regimes, Saadawi’s words are undeniably resonant, her anger achingly relevant.

 

 

 

“the naked muse” by Kelley Swain

“Painters radiate around me: I am the focal point, the centre of this small, temporary universe. But it’s my matter that matters, not my personality, not what I consider to be ‘me’. Over my years of modelling, learning that my body and looks are appreciated in a way that might be considered objectifying helps me to embrace myself as a whole being, rather than a disembodied cloud of thoughts. Rather than unmake me, becoming a subject and an object, being looked at and sketched out, has helped to merge my mind and my body. By being taken apart into pigment and light, colour and shape, I feel more coherently assembled.”

71-9781908853677Kelley Swain is a wordsmith, a poet, a professor; she has also been, at many points in her life, a life model. In “the naked muse”, Swain thoughtfully deconstructs the experience of being, well, deconstructed.

“And the young woman, Sarah, is no longer looking at me, but seeing me. Under her trained painter’s eye, I’m beginning to break apart into shape, shadow, texture, colour.”

As a model for artists, Swain participated deeply in the artistic process, exploring the other-worldly experience of being stared at until one’s body is shape and shade, of being seen but not seen, of being known intimately and yet being a total stranger.

“I am meant to be here, but not here. I am meant to be available, but not available. I am meant to give myself wholly, yet remain at a remove.”

“the naked muse” is introspective, musing. Swain is charmingly cerebral, unpacking not only the emotional and physical tolls of this kind of work, which are many, but the intellectual impact as well. She draws the attention of those of us who appreciate visual arts to the muses – who are the people whose bodies and faces have been used to tell us stories and touch our souls?

Thank you to Jamie McGarry and Valley Press for providing a complimentary copy in exchange for an honest review.

 

“Te Kaihau/The Windeater” by Keri Hulme

“…[A]s for us passing on our knowledge, hah! We rarely learn from the past or the present, and what we pass on for future humanity is a mere jumble of momentarily true facts, and odd snippets of surprised self-discoveries. That’s not knowledge…”

In the late 1970s and 80s, Keri Hulme fought her way onto the literary stage, working as a writer in residence and publishing short stories in relative anonymity. In 1985 her first and only novel, “The Bone People”, stunned by winning the Booker Prize, making Hulme the first New Zealander to win.

wind_001__13901.1399603943.1280.1280Hulme’s writing style is unadorned, unafraid, and unmistakably her own. Having thoroughly enjoyed “The Bone People” years ago, I was eager to include another of her works in the Year of Reading Women. “The Windeater” was Hulme’s second published work and first collection of short stories. Her stories are striking in their uniqueness, in their variety of voice and subject and even form. One will be written in verse, while another is laid out with set direction in the margins, and still others are traditional in their form if not their content. Hulme’s writing is almost expressionist; snippets of realistic imagery are woven together to create an unfamiliar tapestry.

Her point of view is well worth the effort her stories demand. As a self-described asexual, as a feminist, and as a minority (Hulme is part Maori), her voice is one rarely heard and one finely honed and full of strength and beauty.

“I remember the words and I remember the sting, and I still hate all that shit, men being tapu, and women being noa. Don’t eat here; don’t put your head there. Don’t hang your clothes higher than the men’s; never get up and talk on the marae. ‘Our women don’t talk out front,’ you said. ‘Arawa women speak only from behind their men.’ And you wonder why I went city?”

A few of the stories in this collection were nearly inscrutable, though I am uncertain if the limitations were the author’s or my own. Many of her stories did resonate, however, and for these I was grateful for another chance to listen to Hulme’s thoughts, to peer at the world through her eyes. Hulme’s bibliography goes oddly quiet for nearly two decades, until the publication of “Stonefish” in 2004. I can’t help but wonder how her voice faired those years of silence.

“The Tidal Zone” by Sarah Moss

“There is a large overlap between ordinary families and those to whom terrible things have happened. It is possible, necessary, to be both.”

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“The Tidal Zone” is the story of Adam, a man with little-to-no professional ambition who is caring and content to raise his two daughters, Miriam and Rose,  and to support his physician wife Emma, while dabbling in academia when he finds the time.

“Mostly I’m a stay-at-home dad. A full-time parent. ‘A man of leisure’, says Emma’s dad, who is a surgeon and the kind of man who shrinks your new cashmere jumper so he’s never asked to run another load of laundry, who has the brass neck to assert that although he can and does implant titanium replacements for worn-out knees and hips, the concept of a washing machine’s spin speed is beyond his comprehension. He means to say that I’m a scrounger, a layabout, his daughter’s feckless lodger. I’d forgive everything if he were nice to her, if he had ever let Emma imagine herself adequate as doctor, daughter or human being.”

Adam is self-deprecating, wry, and yet secure in the world. He is a fully round character, believably invested in his family and domesticated without being emasculated in the slightest. His is a “modern” family, a demonstration of how gender roles can be upended and how that impacts familial interactions. Moss’s choice to tell the story from the point of view of a man, but one who has taken on traditionally female roles, is an interesting one. She seems to absolutely capture the essence of this stay-at-home dad, avoiding cliched mishaps and bungling in favor of allowing her characters to be competent and fully adjusted to their roles.

Adam’s contentment and trust in routine is shattered when he receives a call from Miriam’s school telling him there has been an ‘incident.’ Miriam has, in fact, had more than an incident – her breathing and her heart have stopped, started back only after several minutes of CPR and ambulance intervention. The rest of the novel is about how the family struggles to uncover what has caused this traumatic event, how to prevent it in the future, and, most urgently, how to move forward in a world suddenly so uncertain.

“How do you do it, I wanted to ask the nurses, how do you return every day to this place where families have fallen into ruin, how do you live in a world where it is normal for children to die and parents to grieve? Except that we all live in that world, don’t we, only some of us, most of us in Britain today, are able to pretend otherwise. It is normal for children to die. Look at Syria, at Palestine, at Eritrea and Somalia. Look at the tidelines of beaches in Italy and Greece. Look, while we are on the subject, at certain parts of Chicago and Los Angeles. The nurses’ world, the hospital version of normality, is true and what most of us here and now regard as ordinary life is a lie.”

Adam’s struggles are heart-rending, poignant, and achingly true. His fears and foibles resonate perfectly. And through it all, Moss manages to sustain a glimmer of hope, a belief that life goes on and this new, terrifying reality is endurable.

Sarah Moss’s characters are a delight, particularly Adam and Miriam, the stars of the story. Where Adam is open, caring, and gentle, Miriam is a precocious but not pretentious teenager. With acerbic wit and a preternatural ability to see through so much of the bullshit of the adult world, Miriam is edgy and lovable all at once. Her critiques, while sometimes harsh, are rarely inaccurate; her fears, while extreme, are more than justified. Her voice provides simultaneous comic relief and gravity. For instance, her tirade against television is sparkling:

“[S]he never watches it at home, accuses her mother of being hooked on the opiate of the masses, stands about pointing out that costume dramas feed the English fetish for poshness, for the adulation of unearned wealth and privilege; that the news is hopelessly parochial and the cookery shows Emma enjoys glorify not only domestic labour but the consumption of exactly the ingredients we’re all being told to avoid. It’s an eating disorder on a national scale, she says, watching Emma watching people ice cakes with butter and cream and chocolate and fill pies with caramel and condensed milk, we’re all obsessed with obesity and weight loss and also fucking baking.”

Similarly, she eviscerates a family friend whose academic pursuits bemoan the loss of and venerate a connection to nature.

“‘It’s a pile of bullshit about how he’s weighed down by sorrow for my generation, only not like normal adults are because we’re being badly educated for jobs that don’t exist in an economy that condemns us to poverty and homelessness at levels not seen since before the first World War but because we can’t tell the difference between the lesser marshwort and the – the flowering marsh grass which all goes to show that we’re losing our vital and precious sense of being at one with the natural world, rather than for example showing that the world’s moved on and by the time we’re grown up two-thirds of the global population will be living in cities and not actually giving a fuck about the lesser marshwort and it doesn’t seem to have crossed his sorrowful little mind that if we all went and joined him communing with the fauna of furthest outer Scotland it would in fact be full of people and he’d have to find somewhere else to be superior…’ “

Sarah Moss has created something special in “The Tidal Zone”. The first chapter seems, in hindsight, a bit out of place, almost as though it were from an earlier draft before the voice of the piece became clear. However, this was a minor stumbling block, for by the first few phrases of chapter two, the narrative has come into its own and is absolutely sure-footed and riveting. This was a novel that I devoured, not wanting to put it down and partially dreading its completion. Moss’s work is exceptional; her creation of an alternate reality in which a reader can disappear and become fully immersed is flawless; her characters will linger in my memory.

Thank you to Granta for the complimentary copy in exchange for an honest and fair review. 

“Under the Udala Trees” by Chinelo Okparanta

Chinelo Okparanta’s writing is poised and powerful beyond her years. Her voice is sure, confident, unshakable, and so is her hold on the reader. under-the-udala-treesHer debut novel, “Under the Udala Trees”, is struggle embodied – the struggle for a sense of self, for parental approval, against religious mores and community prejudices, and of a country at war.

In war torn Biafra (now Nigeria), Ijeoma is an only child, essentially orphaned by war when her father is killed in a bombing raid and her mother ships her to an acquantaince’s house to work as a house girl for years without contact. Despite the traumas of war, loss, and maternal betrayal, Ijeoma is unbreakably strong. She works hard, hopes for an education, and follows her heart.

Eventually, Ijeoma’s heart leads her to love, but it is a forbidden love – in many cultures and times but indisputably so in the Nigeria of the 1970s. She has fallen in love with another girl her age. When they are discovered, Ijeoma is subjected to near-abusive proselytizing, prayed over and shamed into denying who she is. Self-denial is nearly impossible, and a woman as insightful and secure in herself as Ijeoma isn’t fooled. As an adult, new romantic opportunities present themselves and the temptation proves stronger than any imposed restraint and denial; not, however, without consequences. Ijeoma lives in a village and a time when vigilantes mete out injustice with impunity. Known homosexuals are publicly lynched and gay bars burnt to the ground. Ijeoma’s lover pushes her, one believes out of fear but also out of guilt, to “try” dating a man, to attempt the safety of a straight, traditional life.

“Of course I had never tried being with a boy. How could she imply that I even had a choice in the matter? How could she imply that it was that simple – that I should just go on and order myself to try things out with a boy? Had she? Was that how it worked for her? Anyway, if I had had any attraction at all to boys, would it not have expressed itself by now? What sense was there in my ‘trying it out’? My heart and soul and mind were centered around her. She was the one I wanted, and she was enough for me. She was the one I loved, the one who had a hold on my heart. It infuriated me that she was trying to push me away.”

Ijeoma has to decide for herself what to do. She is a woman at constant odds with what her mother and her society say is right. She is bold, brave, and insightful; she is also human, with a finite store of fight.

“I acknowledge to myself that sometimes I am a snail. I move myself by gliding. I contract my muscles and produce a slime of tears. Sometimes you see the tears and sometimes you don’t. It is my tears that allow me to glide. I glide slowly. But, slowly, I glide. It is a while before I am gone.”

Chinelo Okparanta tells a gripping, heart-wrending story about identity and survival. Though the story is undeniably heavy, Ijeoma (and her faithful reader-followers) never lose hope. Okparanta dances dangerously close to the edge, testing the mettle of her heroine and the tolerance of her readers; but her step is sure, her grace unwavering, and her command exquisite.

Vivian Swift’s “Gardens of Awe and Folly”

“Ever since we first recognized ourselves as beings burdened with the mission of taking charge of this harsh, perplexing, seemingly pointless, and beautiful speck of dirt in the universe, our kind has been making gardens. No matter how grand or minuscule, every garden has a meaning all its own; but every garden, everywhere, has a common reason for being, in that it was made in homage to this wondrous Earth that has given life to every Eden we’ve ever imagined.” 

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Vivian Swift’s “Gardens of Awe and Folly” is simply gorgeous. Swift treats this work as a journal and sketch book, full of contemplative passages and charming watercolors. Her tone is quiet, clever, and intimate in a way that is so endearing and personable that one imagines a friendship in the virtual spaces shared.

Throughout this beautiful volume, Swift introduces the reader to nine remarkable gardens across the globe. From Paris to Marrakech to Long Island, each garden is treated as a sacred space meant to communicate, not merely decorate.

“The soul of a garden comprises seasons, epochs, eons …while we humans can barely hold on to ten minutes at a time. It takes this, the slowest of garden experiences, to make us profoundly aware of our moment in the hierarchy of eternity.”

This is no how-to book, nor is it an exposition on rare varietals. It is, as the subtitle sets forth, “A Traveler’s Journal on the Meaning of Life and Gardening.” Swift not only explores and suggests the personalities and raisons d’etre of these gardens; she is seeking places of solitude to commune with, well, not strictly “nature” but an organic setting, and to reflect. An avowed introvert, she is introspective and an acute observer. Her musings are a joy.

I can’t help but include a few more bon mots of Swifts before closing.

“I love being in my favorite foreign city when the days are half-lit and glazed by a cold Winter rain. I am a connoisseur of rain (all us introverts are), and January rain in Edinburgh is the rain of romance. It’s for those of us who love the quiet libraries, the minor third of a sad song, and the aloneness of a 4 o’clock twilight.”

“Decrepitude has character, dilapidation has soul. There is great dignity in a regal decay.”

I am aggrieved that this was my first exposure to Vivian Swift, but I vow that it won’t be my last. I look forward to being in solitude with her again and again.

 

 

 

“A House for Happy Mothers” by Amulya Malladi

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Amulya Malladi is a cosmopolitan writer, whose understandings of the excesses and pitfalls of the “first world” and of the poverty and pressures of the “developing world” give her striking insight and a powerful voice. In “A House for Happy Mothers”, Malladi paints a vivid tableau, a story of two women, one pregnancy, and the deep tug towards motherhood.

American-born Priya is a successful woman whose career, home, and husband don’t fill the aching void she can’t seem to shake – her essential yearning to be a mother. After numerous miscarriages, Priya makes the agonizing and controversial decision to seek a surrogate from a clinic in India. Asha, a poor villager, is desperate to improve the livelihood of her family and the future for her two children. Driven by poverty, fear, and hopes for her exceptional son, Asha begrudgingly agrees to be a surrogate. From conception to birth, however, Asha has understandably conflicting feelings about her role.  Asha is fully aware of her oppressed status and the lack of agency she has in her own life. She befriends another surrogate whose eyes are open to their exploited position; “‘A woman in this country is already nobody; now take a poor woman, someone like us…we’re less than nobody. A dog in the slum has more rights than we do.'”

Asha and Priya come from totally different worlds, with radically different expectations for their lives. Their reductive belief in the essential purpose of a woman, however, is in perfect alignment. To Asha, “A woman had to get pregnant, had to give birth – it was part of being a woman, as natural as having breasts and a womb. A woman who never became a mother was incomplete.” Even while she doesn’t fully accept the idea of surrogacy, at her core she completely agrees with the philosophy that brought its practice about. Similarly, though Priya is a “modern”, educated woman, “[n]o matter what she did, [she] couldn’t shake a feeling of inadequacy – that she should be pregnant, that she was somehow a lesser woman because she wasn’t.”

Malladi’s “A House for Happy Mothers” is a delightfully modern look at a timeless conflict. Motherhood – its worth, its centrality, its meaning – is examined on every page. But this story is no polemic. The writing, while crisp and thought-provoking, is in no way moralistic. This book is a fine specimen of women’s literature. Written by a woman, about women, it focuses on an institution – motherhood – that all women must face and that society forces us to answer to again and again. At the same time, Malladi has created sympathetic characters and an infinitely readable story that was a true delight.

Thank you to Lake Union Publishing for the complimentary copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.