Love in Biafra

Half of a Yellow SunHalf of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

War cuts across class, gender, race. The privileged Igbo woman. The Igbo houseboy from the village. The white Englishman in love with Igbo art. Three voices for this story, three hearts cut by the grief of a war from which are all somewhat protected: Olanna by her familiy’s wealth, Ugwu by the status and resources of his employers, and Richard by his whiteness and foreign-ness. Yet their passions, their attachments, not least for Biafra itself, leave them exposed, vulnerable to the wounds they could have run to escape. To love is fiercely courageous, for in love we are at risk.

But for many sunny chapters there is no war, only romance joyful and at times frustrated, jealousies, family quarrels silent and spoken, critique of (neo)colonialism, sexism, materialism, class oppression, old bigotries under scrutiny. This is important: what I love about fictions written around histories of horror is that they offer the pre-disaster openings of stories worth hearing, stories that I want to know the next chapter and the end of, stories I mourn when they are crushed, exploded, torn to shreds by the catastrophe. Adichie does it here, as Radwa Ashour does (magnificently, though very differently) in
The Woman from Tantoura
. Here, the calm before the storm has an additional political function as it works against the racist notions voiced by foreign journalists and media and indicts colonialism and its legacy for the conflict.

Another satisfying element is physical description that affirms the beauty of blackness. Olanna and her sister are both lovingly described as dark-skinned and Olanna, regarded as more attractive, as full figured, rounded and curvy. Their mother’s face is said to be so exquisitely lovely that her friends nickname her ‘Art’, a detail that throws light on the cultural location of and relationship between creative endeavour and aesthetic appreciation among this sophisticated milieu.

Adichie’s warmth and compassion as a writer infuse her characters and their trajectories. It’s significant to me that Olanna in particular is stunned and sickened by brutality towards people she personally hates for their earlier behaviour towards her, and often suppresses distaste and anxiety to spare the feelings of others. Olanna’s sister Kainene and Richard are also shown to have this deeply felt ethical sense, and it is this quality that is missing from the people who are mocked and villified by their own words in Adichie’s light: it is empathy here that divides the vile from the virtuous, not style, not charm. Kainene is blunt, taciturn, often scornful, and her friend, the army General Madu, is tactless and unfriendly, but Adichie proves their high worth. The most execrable characters, the appallingly racist Susan and some of the other whites, are unable to relate to or recognise black Africans as people. This is precisely the sociopathy of whiteness. Between these poles are the small kindnesses, cruelties, foibles and prejudices of ordinary folk, generously and colourfully painted in Adichie’s lively, naturalistic style.

For me the most intriguing and touching relationship is between Olanna and her twin Kainene, but both of the central romantic loves are also compelling, since Adichie’s choice of narrative voice has Richard, insecure and besotted, worrying over his relationship with Kainene, whose thoughts always have to be guessed at, and Olanna and Odenigbo enjoy a passion that brings them both to blazing life (it’s very erotic). The device of having only one partner narrate also enables her to show intense trauma from the perspective of the afflicted when Olanna breaks down because of what she has witnessed, and later from another side when Odenigbo withdraws into silent depression after a personal loss. I think Adichie’s ability to give shape to so many different qualities and depths of connection between people is exceptional.

If character and relationships are what stand out about the writing here, rendering a large cast believeable and beloved, then that isn’t at the expense of suspenseful plotting. Adichie makes full use of the dramatic potential of having three voices converge, retreat from each other, track back over different memories, cover different ground. Ugwu’s perspective works his identification with Olanna and especially her love partner Odenigbo to elaborate the amusing, affectionate sketch of his personality , but also bears witness to ugly undersides of events. Richard’s consciousness often reveals a sense of entitlement and egotism, but he also has humility and a redeeming capacity for love. Adichie suggests that whites involved with Africa have hard learning to do. Richard and Ugwu are both ‘educated’ in the course of events, and in a sense their learning obliges them to exchange roles, a politically significant resolution gracefully attained.

While the braided structure has non-linear elements and multivalent descriptive modes, the three narrators are all reliable and the narrative has a certain slightly fatalistic obediance that eases towards comfortable novelistic cliché. For me this results in a cosiness that makes a harsh world more habitable, just as cliche makes a language more speakable, makes relating ourselves easier, if less precise. It is reassuring that the stories corroborate; this happened. For a history still suppressed, a steadfast bearing witness feels necessary. Yet there is an edge of postmodernist sensibility here, an internal commentary and second handedness emerging as another writer is imagined remaking the tales. Thus, Adichie, who has purported to speak for three people, gently reveals the illusion, and reminds us again of the danger of the single story.

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Straying in story

The Djinn in the Nightingale's EyeThe Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye by A.S. Byatt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading this reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend recently about the films of Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch, how I love their artistic sensibilities but yearn in vain for, as my friend said, an intersectional lens. I love these stories but I can’t put away my ideological discomfort about them. I get the impression they are not meant to be read ideologically, but we already know what the absence of an ideology amounts to… Anyway they are lovely, very graceful and clever, but a little too obedient, too restful, compared to, say, Angela Carter.

The first story introduces the overall theme, which to my mind is the impact of storytelling on storytelling (I believe that we apprehend through stories and exist as stories, so this topic is entirely congenial to me). This theme runs in the recurrence of acts of intervention when a character becomes conscious of the narrative conventions of their situation and use that awareness somehow. The hero is the proverbial ‘little tailor’ and he rescues an institutionally desirable white, blond sleeping beauty from the depredations of a ‘black artist’ (these words unfortunately do not denote a person of African descent engaged in creative production but a stereotypically creepy magician who can’t handle rejection (view spoiler)) The tailor’s own ‘virtue’ is treated realistically, against the wide-eyed innocence of the fairytale voice, and perhaps the messy ending is a deliberate resistance to happily ever after, or abdication of authorial power, but it was halfhearted if so!

The second story caused me to reflect that my passion for folklore does not readily extend to fabricated folklore.

The story of the eldest princess was more to my liking as it poked critically at some especially unpleasant narrative conventions, replacing the evil witch with a wise woman skilled in healing and able to set her female visitor free, and gave a normally glossed-over character the right of reply to the stories that have forgotten to mention her more than in passing. This is a rehabilitation of sorts. As in the first story of the tailor, I enjoyed the intelligent presence of the animals in this story and how they collaborated with the human protagonist very much. Still, why do fairytale morals positively require kindness to animals yet condone meat eating? Often fairytale is a location for the mythologies of meat, such as that it is given gladly by animals, but Byatt simply places compassionate behaviour to animals alongside the eating of dead flesh, casually erasing the animal on the plate.

The fourth tale seems to have some relationship to Byatt’s story ‘The Thing in the Forest’ which, in my reading, imagines war, or the second world war, or the civilian experience of that war, as a monster. (view spoiler)

The title piece, which takes up the great majority of the book, is a virtuoso piece of writing inspired by the 1001 Nights. Our protagonist is middle aged ‘narratologist’ Gillian, who has recently become single as her husband has run off with a younger woman, a plot detail that Byatt ostentatiously marks as tedious and commonplace. In fact the tedium of patriarchal oppression is the villain of this tale; one of its internal stories is that of Chaucer’s Patient Griselda. I was very cross though that Byatt prominently chastises Muslim women who wear hijab, identifying them (in the form of three women in the front row at a lecture Gillian gives in Turkey) with this patriarchal tedium by making them silent, impassive, explicitly obedient to the men in their lives; she both speaks for and silences them. Ahdaf Soueif wrote a similar scene in In the Eye of the Sun which in the context of a novel from the viewpoint of a Muslim woman functioned as an effective critique of Egyptian patriarchy, but here in a story about classical Arabic literature from a white woman’s perspective I feel it is othering and essentialising, reinscribing the colonialist/Orientalist tropes of the Lost Islamic Golden Age and the oppressed hijabi that speak over writers like Soueif.

One delightful thing about this story is the quality of the description which is, as always, sensuous and sumptuous, but also witty, when Byatt describes features of contemporaneity with the arch expansive tone of once upon a time, a technique I usually enjoy in magical realism because it reminds us that what we take for granted daily is wondrous and would have seemed fantastical to our ancestors: in England we dream of peaches in the dead of winter and ‘find them’ spread on our breakfast tables. I thought it clever and apt that the flying djinn found the air crowded with ’emanations’ meaning signals at non-visible electromagnetic frequencies. Modernity has made some aspects of the magical real, and Byatt arranges them like a composer into poetry.

Gillian’s Turkish colleague Orhan gives a lecture on a story from the 1001 Nights that illuminates the approach to storytelling in the classical Islamic-World tradition. My impression of this strand was that djinn tend interact with the human world as aesthetes, appreciative observers of a drama, rather playfully manipulating things like the gods of the pagan traditions of Greece and Rome, except that humans are occasionally placed in positions of power in relation to them. This threads into the theme of wish fulfilment which Gillian pursues as an object of study having gained a few of her wishes – meeting the theme of ‘stories of women’s lives’ and the question of ‘what women most desire’ is it beauty, love or to give shape to the lives of others? Or is it the freedom to dream?

I think the reason this story is so bewitching is that it combines the unsettling mythological quality of classical storytelling and its sonorous, poetic voice with the critical subjectivity of the novel and its concomitant interiority. Fairytales do not tell us what people feel except in the broadest strokes possible (fear, excitement, happiness, despair) but here the resolution of emotion is 20:20, we feel, for instance, Gillian’s frustration at her inability to communicate bourgeois distaste to someone who has never sat in a lower-middle class English drawing room. Byatt synthesises these disparate voices really effectively, mining all of their discords for delight (the brief teleportation of Boris Becker is particularly delicious) and stirring ancient pleasures into a modern symphony.

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She Who Struggles

Assata: An AutobiographyAssata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Assata Shakur’s conviction in a joke of a trial for a murder she clearly did not commit has not been reversed. She escaped from prison and she lives in Cuba, still a fugitive. The story of how the hell this outrage came about and above all persists is necessary because it outlines so lucidly how the white supremacist capitalist state actively opposes the struggles for liberation and justice and simply peaceful survival of African American people at all costs, whatever politicians say.

Aside from what the trial demonstrates though, Assata’s story is precious to me because she’s an extraordinary woman, so intelligent, clear sighted and candid, and such a fine raconteur, alternating chapters on her intriguing early life with the horrific account of her incarceration so that I was constantly perched on the edge of my seat. She also seasons both with her blazingly beautiful poetry. Her stormy temper, huge capacity for love and gift for articulating oppression all increase her vulnerability in the hostile circumstances, but also her story’s appeal and my admiration for her

There’s also a fascinating flavour here of the strands of Black Power movement and mood in Black USian communities in the late 60s and early 70s. The political climate was extremely hostile and the police behaved lawlessly, but Assata’s narrative gives the impression of loosely united activism and awakening resistance among a wider population socialised into believing white supremacist memes about blackness. Her own growing oppositional knowledge combined with tenacity and confidence make her a superb organiser and speaker, but her radical activities consist principally of running Black Panther breakfasts for kids and teaching remedial maths and literacy.

This is an autobiography of someone whose very self-respect is outlawed, who is denied recognition as a woman (she was repeatedly incarcerated in male prisons), who has been quite absurdly painted as a violent extremist by a media evidently in thrall to state racism. For Assata, singled out to be made a cautionary example, the personal is exhaustingly, tortuously political.

At the end of the book, she reflects on racial dynamics in Cuba, an environment by no means utopian, but certainly full of love and hope.

(I mean no disrespect by using the author’s first name, I just love this chosen name, meaning ‘she who struggles’)

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What will flower out of this?

Song of SolomonSong of Solomon by Toni Morrison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Milkman’s father, the man with the weird name and mysterious past, teaches his son to ‘own things’. His sister is ‘wild’, she inhabits the opposite pole. Ownership does not occur to her. When a kind woman brings her cherry jam on white bread, she weeps because the fruit she loves for the taste of sun and earth exploding, the feel of stalk and stone and bark-scraped knees, has lost these elements that forge the relationships between self and world and being that have nothing to do with property, lines of nourishment and communication. Lost those routes to ecstasy, and been, in a way, poisoned by sugar, the white addiction for which women and men were kidnapped and shipped across the Atlantic to cut cane in stolen fields.

Own things! But Milkman has always had pleasant things for his use, unlike his friend Guitar, who longs for them. Instead of such things, he yearns for freedom of movement; for cars and trains and boats to carry him away, and for power over people. Both of them know they can seek these ends through money. Their desire burns so brightly they forget to be just, to be kind.

In Toni Morrison’s books pain is powerful and histories bend hearts. What grows must grow from poisoned soil, reaching for healing in the sun if it can. She peels back skin to show us the potentialities lurking in the root. What will flower out of this? What will fruit? Like slow saplings or sudden briars the shoots of her stories unwind, organic, uncontrollable, smelling of the earth, rank and sweet.

I love this as a story of love both destructive and creative and for its mood and structure, cyclic and fluid rather than linear and climactic. I noticed that action initiated by men is often diffused by women, and when this does not happen there is a dangerous escalation of physical or emotional violence, though this is a severe simplification. The atmosphere reminded me very much of Katharine Mansfield’s stories.

This tale is sometimes like a mystery, signed with foreshadowings, flavoured with interludes of anguished self-reflection, male psyches working their half-conscious preoccupations, changing in the unexpected light of their encounters. That Milkman’s materialist quest leads him to its spiritual pretext is a fabular gift; how often is someone lucky enough to find what they need when they pursue what they want? Can I allow myself to believe that this doesn’t only happen in tales?

Mystery, fable, and also ghost story, for here the dead speak. Morrison tells us in the foreword that it was inspired by her own dead father’s unexpectedly active presence in her life. She invites us to hear our dead, and work to fathom their words, however strange.

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Not on a Plate

Sistah Vegan: Food, Identity, Health, and Society: Black Female Vegans SpeakSistah Vegan: Food, Identity, Health, and Society: Black Female Vegans Speak by A. Breeze Harper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here is a personal story, which you are welcome to skip (view spoiler)

Harper explains that the impetus for the project was sparked by the reaction of Black Americans to a campaign by PETA that compared animal exploitation to slavery. She felt, I think, that the anger and hurt of those people deserved an answer from vegans who shared the history PETA had callously appropriated. The answer would not, could not, be simple, it could not be made by a single person or a unitary voice, it could not be made as an admonition. It could only be offered like this gift, a patchwork quilt stitched by women who do not even agree on such deep matters as animal liberation, healing and health, but who share critical resistance to the framing of veganism by Whiteness in the USA. It had to be a sheltering skein of uneasy personal knowings, histories, convictions, beliefs.

Many of the writers, including Harper herself, write about the scandal of racialised health inequalties in the USA. ‘Post industrial soul food’ traditions combined with poverty and poor access to affordable healthy food are, Harper points out, while indicting white supremacy past and present (not least for imposing unsuitable white eating habits) for the situation, severely affecting the health and life-expectancy of Black USians.

Another matter necessarily addressed here is the image of the body widely used to promote health generally and veg*n diets in particular: the thin white female body. This image is challenged here by several writers and by a forum set up by Harper for women of colour vegans & aspiring vegans to discuss the issue. Clearly, decolonising veganism must involve rethinking the healthy body. The discussion is not dominated by confident affirmations of Black full figured health, but of painful work through negative feelings, experiences of racism and fat-shaming, uneasy relationships with food and exercise as these women struggle to free themselves from the hegemonic optics of ‘beauty’ and ‘health’. The work is hard. You don’t throw off oppression the day you recognise it. You battle with it, maybe all your life.

While the journeys away from meat eating here involve struggle, they also often lead to new joy, feelings of wholeness and wellbeing, relief from ailments like menopausal flushes, renewed interest in food and eating, loving affirmation of Black life in connection with the living Earth. Calls for this better life to be made more accessible and affordable to more Black USians are made by those who know from experience how good plant based eating feels.

I was moved to read Harper’s explanation of antebellum slavery as the maintenance of the White Euro/USian addiction to sugar, and the ongoing suffering of mostly Black farm workers in areas such as the Dominican Republic to supply the commodity in vast quantities to the US market. By writing about this in parallel with animal exploitation, she demonstrates both that veganism is part of an intersectional awareness of compassionate consumption and that human suffering cannot be excluded from the consciousness that leads people to a compassionate diet. If you care about the non-human animal suffering to furnish your plate but not the human (of colour) farm-worker likewise being harmed, how can you call your diet compassionate?

Thus, Harper’s framing of veganism, also elaborated by other writers, especially Tara Sophia Bahna-James in her brilliant piece ‘Journey Towards Compassionate Consumption: Integrating Vegan and Sistah Experience’, joins the dots between eating vegan for ahimsa and for health, for environmental justice and for the environment as end in itself. To me this holistic reasoning to embrace a plant based diet has always been essential: when asked why I eat this way I always reply “all the reasons”, but this lazy conversation-stopper glosses over the true diversity of ways through which people come to and live veganism, a truth that this book restores. There is no finality here, no straight answer, no unity, and that roughness and openness both emphasises the centrality and tender intimacy of eating in our lives and thus the need for compassion to all and respect for the autonomy of others, and carries the project’s import beyond its grounding in the specificity of Black female USian vegans, to all of us who want to reduce the harm we do.

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social body

A Proper MarriageA Proper Marriage by Doris Lessing
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel follows
Martha Quest
and personally I advise readers to come to this after reading the beginning of Martha’s story. The tone of self reproach (taking Martha to be an avatar of the author) is perhaps a little softer here, and the character seems more psychologically independent from her creator and a stronger individual, although she is still written as someone at the mercy of the currents she strays into (making her tale a perfect canvas to sketch the contours of a history). Once again it is amusing and infuriating and it strikes uncomfortably true how everyone says something other than what they feel and does something other than what they say! Martha’s relationship with her parents continues in the same vein, but Lessing deepens the reader’s insight into it. I love how she develops the scene, the atmosphere, the tension, to emphasise the significance of some ostensibly banal exchange.

One thing that connects with me is Martha’s painful attention to her own body; this is distinctly female writing, capturing the self-regarding aspect of feminine sexuality encultured by the trope of the female body as a prize. But it goes beyond, it goes far beyond that trope of the ‘flawless’ teenage body as ‘a sharp sword’ (to enter into what battle? How can we unthink sexuality as violence?) marked, unmade, desecrated by childbirth, though all these anxieties weigh in and meet critical attention. Martha’s body, Lessing notes, is ‘sanctioned for use by society’ and thus marked by contrast as rightfully her own. How Martha experiences her body and navigates her own and others’ claims on it is written in the light of that feminist bottom line. Lessing also has much to say about dressing the body, she is an author who largely ignores food but energetically writes the significance of clothes, the fraught surface of signs we write on the body, which presents a canvas varyingly cooperative and disruptive to what we intend or are forced to communicate.

The detailed account of giving birth was very striking. I can’t remember where I read that all women cry out for their mothers in labour… where do we go, what selves do we inhabit in that place of primal pain? Time itself is out of shape, memory is broken, sensation fills the universe like a scriptural ocean.

I was painfully enervated by the account of Martha’s experience in the nursing home; Lessing emphasises the senselessness and stupidity of separating mothers and babies and restricting feeding to regimented hours. This destructive imposition reflects the colonial attitude to nature, to all things outside the mind, at all levels; prosperity is attained through arbitrary discipline.

As in Martha Quest, the side of the novel concerned with political meetings was not very interesting to me, but I found the politics of the personal, especially the gender dynamics of Martha’s marriage, utterly compelling. The set-piece at the club where the black waiter was made to dance in MQhad a parallel scene in this book, where children from the ‘Coloured’ community performed a variety show for a White audience. Despite its politically innocuous (indeed vacuous) content, the effect is near incendiary, and illuminates some of the distinctive features of racial emotion-politics in white-occupied Southern Africa.

The scenes of Douglas and Perry at the army hospital were also fascinating to me. Unlike in Martha Quest, where Lessing sketches the White character through appearance in author voice, here she uses an English army doctor’s observations to underline the key trait of wounded entitlement that Martha also observes in Douglas. His murderous proprietorial attitude towards his family, typical of the patriarchal indoctrinate, is again shown to be part and parcel of the colonial mindset.

My favourite scene in the book has heavily pregnant women amok in the rain, luxuriating in mud holes like hippos. Civilisation and liberation stand at opposite poles here.

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An intimate epic

In the Eye of the SunIn the Eye of the Sun by Ahdaf Soueif
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After 800 pages of easy reading emotional turmoil I was so involved with the characters I wanted to read on and spend more time with Asya and her generation as they grew older – my hunger to know them better and find out what happened to them only increased, especially Deena, Asya’s generous, politically conscious, brilliant yet worldly science graduate sister, who I liked most of all. Undoubtedly one of the attractions of the book is the aesthetic and recreational variety of the lifestyle the family enjoys: they are professionals in a society where professionals form a prosperous and influential class. I don’t remember my parents ever having so much as a dinner party, and I am too shy to hold one myself, which probably accounts for my insatiable pleasure in reading about guests and gatherings. Related to this was my savouring of place, the specificity of cosmopolitan, decadent, sophisticated, elegant Cairo…

Even in Kyoto
Hearing the cuckoo’s call
I long for Kyoto

– Basho

Cairo! How can a book so strongly character-centred, plot-driven, personal, have left me with such a yearning for a place changed and a time passed? Perhaps because I myself hail from the anonymous North of England that so depresses Asya, that threatens to suck the life from her, desperately lonely among my unsociable kin.

Soueif cuts historical background into the story by inserting dated snippets of news, like extracts from a journalistic timeline. This device allows her to inform a wider English-speaking audience, likely to have limited awareness of these histories or the Egyptian perspective on them, of events that impinge on the lives of the characters, without having the cast spout exposition – they can discuss events and their effects quite naturally. Structurally, the novel opens in 1979, jumps back to 1967 and works its way forward to 1979 again, and has chapters divided into ‘scenes’ as if Soueif envisioned it as a movie. Minute details of action like applying mascara (Asya is never less than immaculately turned out, even for bed) are presented not suggestively by the author but as aspects of Asya’s intention turning into language in a mind over-trained to verbalise, the way I sometimes catch an inner voice noting ‘Zanna stirred in a tin of tomatoes and a slosh of olive oil’. To me this isn’t dull mundanity; not only does it create an intimate understanding of and sympathy with our protagonist and reveal her lexic orientation as someone embedded, encamped, engulfed in literature and language, but along with the narration of her and other characters’ thoughts, it builds up a dense, intricate texture that invites the movie reel to roll behind my eyes.

Most novels deal with sexuality or just sex on some level, and I guess that focussing on a character negotiating a conservative and sexist framing of female purity is hardly a fresh theme, but Ahdaf’s treatment is fresh, incisively nuanced, multi-layered, wholly believable, as well as sizzlingly erotic. She has the gift of giving life to her characters in spades – Asya never lapses into stereotype or appears a vehicle for authorial point-making. Depth and complexity arise from the fact that restrictions on love relationships are firm in an otherwise rather open, cosmopolitan society and among a social class whose relationship to tradition is inflected by privileged access to career choices, higher education and global travel. Asya’s situation is thrown into relief by a trip to Italy, in which a very similar traditional sexual conservatism meets an ostensibly ‘permissive’ convention among youth and tourists. Asya is positioned to see this compulsory heterosexuality as ‘degrading’ and exploitative, but when a man who is attracted to her but happy to keep their dalliance celibate asks her not to let anyone know that they are not sleeping together, she is delighted by the reversal of secrecy compared to Egypt. The oppression is always greener on the other side…

(I want to quash any impression that this story fits tidily into a white Euro-USian feminist/mainstream political framing of majority-Muslim or Arab societies as brutally oppressive towards women, who need to be rescued from such contexts. I hardly need add that this framing silences Muslim/Arab women by declaring that other women must speak for them, criminalises Muslim/Arab men, and is used to legitimise colonial expansion (‘civilising missions”bringing democracy’). As a side effect, women are prevented from articulating and criticising gender oppression that affects them because such critique risks being read and dismissed as internalised imperialism. Literature like this is a sure antidote to nuance-free notions about Egyptian women.)

The particular patriarchy of Asya’s social context delays her love marriage, apparently destructively, but I felt that the couple’s problems went much deeper. For me the key moment was when Asya listed the things Saif disliked about her – they were core aspects of her very style of being, they were the things I adored about her. The Egyptian men in Asya’s life are courteous and gentle towards and considerate and protective of women (this is my impression of the Muslim/Arab equvalent of European ‘chivalry’), and contrast with the white man with whom she becomes closely acquainted; a person so self-centred and suffused with entitlement he constantly demands that his lover ‘be herself’ when he so obviously means ‘stop being yourself and be the way I want you to be’. I read this as a very strongly feminist and woman-oriented text. Women in Asya’s life negotiate diverse situations, make diverse choices, and manage the consequences. One of Asya’s friends is in love with a Palestinian classmate, whose life becomes increasingly difficult over the course of the narrative. The hostility towards Palestinians and social class dynamics in Egyptian society are illuminated through relationships seen from female perspectives.

Soueif skillfully integrates layers of political awareness and a keenly felt sense of place into the spaces of private life in this work, and these fine ingredients are well seasoned by literary and music references from Euro-Usian culture. Asya questions her focus in education on English literature, and in the scene in which she is made to ‘produce’ Arabic sounds for a class on phonemics her discomfort finally forces her into silence. Her experience as a temporary migrant, suffused with terrible loneliness, also includes exotification. This fringe of unresolved unease around the globalisation (hegemony) of white/anglo culture is counterpointed by Asya’s joy in English-language poetry and literature, which she experiences passionately. It’s interesting that Soueif has her unwillingly, laboriously perform a juiceless analysis on this corpus (killing the pleasure). I took this as a wry comment on ‘Western’ education as well as futher detailing of Asya’s character ‘this will teach machines to understand metaphor’, she grimly reflects. The experience galvanises her to push hard, against barriers hidden by the impression of free choice, against her mother’s deep and long patience, against much of her own socialisation, for the space that will allow her to know her desires and direct her life towards meaning and fulfilment.

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