Notes from the rubble

The Wretched of the ScreenThe Wretched of the Screen by Hito Steyerl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

version 1.0

One could of course argue that this is not the real thing, but then – please, anybody – show me this real thing.

This stuff is so fresh it hurts. I am shocked and shaken and overstimulated. I’ve stumbled into someone else’s too-real dream. It’s so exciting that someone with the perceptiveness, sensitivity to language and willingness to look behind what’s being pushed in front of us as Sara Ahmed is at work at the screenface of art and the biopolitics of disaster capitalism, determinedly seeing things differently. The conditions of crisis are taken as read. Franco ‘Bifo’ Beradi writes in the introduction

The year 1977 was a watershed: from the age of human evolution the world shifted to the age of de-evolution, or de-civilization. What had been built through labor and social solidarity began to be dissipated by a rapid and predatory process… in the second decade of C21, post-bougeois dilapidation took the final form of a financial black hole. Adrainage pump started to swallow and destroy the product of 200 years of industriousness and collective intelligence…

Indeed. But I’m finding it difficult to process my feelings about the positions Steyerl takes in relation to this situation.

I have repeatedly argued that one should not seek to escape alienation but on the contrary embrace it as well as the status of objectivity and objecthood that goes along with it

(I think I read a review of one of Roland Barthes’ books recently that expressed astonishment at the profundity of his parenthetical remarks – Steyerl’s most startling conclusions, including this one, are often found in her footnotes, like Einstein’s E=mc^2) But what am I to make of this? Where do I begin my response? Well, as always I will have to begin from where I am. And I have a sneaking suspicion that Steyerl has described the terrain around me, white female disgruntled freelance worker, all too accurately…

I can’t claim to have understood all this, no way, it went past too fast, like a ride. And when I read it again as I will have to, maybe in a year’s time, it will be like taking the ride again; it can’t slow down for me.

But… as it flew past I saw this: colonialism was once horizontal. Steyerl eloquently elaborates the HORIZONtality of colonialism as expressed and enmeshed in the artistic tradition of linear perspective. Only now there are no edges to the colonial project, and the perspective has changed; now we have the strategy game, the CCTV god’s eye view, we have 3D. Colonization as 3D surveillance. ‘Vertical sovereignty’ means power is stacked in layers, class war is waged from above. And the gaze (of this war) is outsourced to machines, it is disembodied. And we are all falling in this space, but there is no ground. Help! But Steyerl never panics, disconcertingly she keeps prodding me to… enjoy it, interact with it, find the possibilities for solidarity and freedom that might be hidden in it (And… this isn’t wallowing in privilege is it? Existential nausea is privilege (escape it in housework). It’s a more effective resistance. Nausea is immobilising after all. Liberal politics produces denial, worthless apologies and delusions of purity. Steyerl has the formidable courage of her frightening convictions. Here is the structure and here is my complicity. Now what am I going to do? Apologise?)

Work to occupation. Art as occupation. Steyerl pushes the two meanings of this word together, like a fertility therapist stimulating a ball of embryonic cells to divide. What will this concept grow into or give birth to? Well, gentrification and its role in the military industrial complex, for one thing? In fact, it looks like contemporary ‘semiocapitalism’ as envisioned and enversioned by collaborating art and its army of unalienated un(der)paid female strike workers, connects everything so comprehensively that its probably impossible to make a really preposterous connection, everything is permitted or just done anyway and however many times Steyerl makes me spit out my tea I end up conceding the point.

History, as [Walter] Benjamin told us, is a pile of rubble. Only we are not staring at it any longer from the point of view of Benjamin’s shell-shocked angel. We are not the angel. We are the rubble. We are this pile of scrap

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The stickiness of race

Passing Passing by Nella Larsen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Judging by the fact that this book has an introduction by the awesome Ntozake Shange, extensive notes and a detailed critical foreward by Mae Henderson loaded with references to related books and other critics who have written on Larsen, and that Bitch magazine devoted a feature to the book in their early 2015 issue, Passing has only become, if anything, increasingly relevant over the decades since its publication in 1929. The explanatory power of the concept of ‘passing’ has been utilised to make sense of the experiences of a wider range of marginalised groups thanks to the networks formed by social media activism. It seems particularly relevant for trans people who until recently were advised by medical care providers to conceal their trans histories (see, for example,
Transgender History
by Susan Stryker). Inspiring author Janet Mock has often spoken about this issue and her complicated relationship with it as a trans woman, but not, to my knowledge, as a woman of colour.

The slippage in the specificity of ‘passing’ produces both light and heat – fresh insight and fresh rage, maybe fresh confusion. I remember seeing a young journalist concerned with social justice issues giving a paper and noting among her privileges ‘I pass for straight': most of the time I am read as straight, whether I am straight or not. The same seems to be true for me. I am also aware that I ‘pass’ as middle class, and that I sometimes take advantage of this quite unthinkingly – I adjust my accent before I am aware of doing it. There is a parallel here with Irene’s ‘passing’ in the whites-only hotel where she meets Clare. It is clear that she thinks nothing of this, and is able to un-self-critically disapprove of Clare’s more consistent ‘passing’ which has to be maintained in private due to her deliberate deception-by-omission of her extremely racist white husband. Irene’s disapproval is rooted in her uneven racial solidarity, but it also grows out of her fearful need for security.

This need is corrosive. The tense, trammelled atmosphere of the book, reflecting the limitations imposed on black lives by segregation and white supremacy, is, for me, created largely through the uncommunicative relationship between Irene and her (visibly and attractively black) husband Brian. The narration never strays from Irene’s consciousness (Mae Henderson argues that Clare is a double of Irene, a possible ‘passing’ self), and the distance between her desperate, passionate thoughts and her words is a chasm. She thinks of Clare as an actor, as artificial, exaggerated and provocative, but her own performance, one of calm and middle-class convention, is dramatic and unbroken. She thinks that Clare expresses more than she feels, but she herself expresses less. Her erotic attraction to Clare is one object of this repression. Brian is relatively taciturn, but nonetheless an attractive character, whom I found more sympathetic than Irene. Wanting to know what he felt and thought drew me closer to her, longing for openness and togetherness between them against the hostility of whiteness ‘outside’.

To come back to Mock, the weirdness of ‘passing’ for what you are (a woman) underlines precisely what Larsen succeeds in conveying here, that race, despite its currency (hard and soft) is nonsense, a delusion in the mind of the racist. What makes it stick for Larsen’s extraordinarily compelling characters is that the delusion is inscribed in law. Clare Kendry, ivory skinned, blond, read as white by everyone who sees her, is legally a ‘Negro’ because of the ‘one drop rule’. The legal frameworks of segregation have since been ostensibly dismantled, yet, since Euro-USian settler colonial capitalism still requires white supremacy to sustain itself, race retains its deadly currency, and Passing as a text of race continues to speak with the pressing voices of living histories. Clare’s longing to participate in blackness – in the vibrant middle-class black circles of Harlem that Irene and Brian move in – also speaks, I think, especially as the changing conditions of capitalism have worked so vigorously and insidiously to dismantle community and mutuality, especially among black people, at all levels of society.

Stylistically, as Mae Henderson points out, the text is fragmentary, full of lacunae that require the reader to supply meaning and synthesis. This necessity is underlined by Irene’s positioning as the reader of the texts of Clare and of her husband. She does not read well, and Clare in particular makes herself difficult to read, as her tricky handwriting emphasises, and so we are adrift in ambiguities, like Clare, with everything at stake.

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Folk of the River

OffshoreOffshore by Penelope Fitzgerald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I was a child, I occasionally watched a TV show, familiar to most British people of my generation, about two puppets who lived on a canal barge called Ragdoll, which seemed homely, safe and jolly. Most people only set foot on a boat for the purpose of pleasure and so imagine life on a barge to be sheer, uninterrupted delight. I have always been drawn to water, and even lived at sea for a while (I was not happy for other reasons, but I was happy to be at sea) But, hopelessly addicted to warmth and cleanliness, knowing the filthy Thames, the muggy, tepid London weather at its most unpleasantly moist, I must imagine being utterly miserable on a river barge once the novelty wore off. I can only assume Nenna and Richard feel a stronger inexplicable affinity with the watery element than I.

Of course, the book is short enough to maintain the feeling of novelty and I am able to remain dry while reading it, so Fitzgerald has to make it sound as squalid and uncomfortable as possible to prevent me feeling envious of her vividly sketched cast. The exactness and offhandedness of her de-romanticising portrait of the river life reflect her own stint on a Thames barge, and this autobiographical realism affords the story unsettling and soggy emotional depths under its crisp, witty surface.

After Angela Carter’s glorious romp Nights at the Circus, for example, this book feels so calm, so sure-footed, with all its adverbs absolutely to purpose and, as on Richard’s boat Lord Jim, everything in its place. But while Richard complains of not being able to get his feelings across easily, Fitzgerald is a virtuoso of economical expression, somehow finding time for six-year-old Tilda’s second-hand daydreams and a plethora of colourful minor characters who briefly enter or impinge upon the rather isolated river community. Most charming of these is the aristocratic German teenager Heinrich, who captivates the grounded, hilariously and tragically mature Martha, Nenna’s elder daughter. Nenna herself, as foolish and helpless as I myself feel, though entirely sympathetic, reminds me of Bridget Jones, or even better a character from one of Wes Anderson’s films, which this book decidedly evokes for me. Indeed, a cross between classic chick-lit and Andersonian whimsy might read just like this, if it were written by a genius who had experienced actual poverty.

Here the chick-lit trope of the gay male friend is embodied by Maurice, a lovingly drawn character whom Fitzgerald based on a real friend of hers. While the trope can be desexualising (and the role, I suppose, exploitative and othering) and oriented to diffuse heteronormative anxieties, at least it grants some degree of visibility, which in the seventies was probably still worth having in itself. In this case, Maurice, a sex-worker, is no stereotype and is Nenna’s closest friend. The book’s ending feels like a tribute to him. However, both Nenna and Maurice possess the ability to express their feelings, which Richard says he lacks. This vital ability may be the feminine counterpart to Nenna’s claimed deficiencies-of-gender, such as being unable to fold a map. This crude surmise of mine makes Maurice feminine. In any case, Richard’s behaviour and skills are always tidily attributed to ‘training’, a word encompassing both military and social conditioning. The socialisation of women into caring, empathic, expressive skills is less visible, indeed, in this book it is never mentioned.

The story, despite its female centre on Nenna and her daughters, is rather oriented towards men. The river community’s life has wealthy, efficient, upperr class, generous, decent, chivalrous Richard at its hub, and Nenna is so focussed on her broken marriage that she can barely care for her daughters, who fortunately are more than capable of picking up the slack. Even the girls have male preoccupations (Elvis, for example) yet, Fitzgerald finally refuses to let men dominate. (view spoiler)

The contrast between Nenna’s London and the one I live in today is most evident in the gentrification of Chelsea, especially the King’s Road, now lined with high-end chain stores, designer outlet, expensive cafes and the Saatchi Gallery, which in Offshore appears as a kind of bohemian paradise vaguely reminiscent of present day Camden High Street, only more enchanting. Stoke Newington has also, more recently, become a fashionable address. I cannot tell, though, whether cab drivers have become less kind.

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Of the Monstrous

Nights At The CircusNights At The Circus by Angela Carter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well this is probably as much fun as can be had reading, for me anyway. I surrender utterly to the allure of Fevvers; I believed every wonderful word of her story and every page of it yielded some new pleasure to my feminist consciousness. The portrayal of a group of sex-workers (and ridicule of their would-be self-appointed saviours) seemed particularly well-observed to me. On the level of the symbolic, fill yer boots. On the level of prose, this is as extravagantly creative and exuberant as it could possibly be. Carter’s style echoes Fevvers’ fetid dressing room, cluttered with nonchalently veiled and camouflaged magical amulets, almost animate animal-like lingerie intimidating to the timid male guest (snaky stockings seem to threaten and discomfort him), the debris of the star’s ablutions and voracious consumption of decidedly local and humble refreshments such as eel pie and sugar-loaded tea: it is a divine, diabolical, vernacular, esoteric, ingenious, streetwise, starry-eyed, audaciously feminine mess. Take it as it comes or fuck off.

Once the protagonists leave London there is a certain wild abandon, even chaos, about the flow of the story. I couldn’t really see how the section on the women’s prison fit in to it all, except that Siberia was a good location for it, and perhaps that the frozen expanse existed to be open to creative possibilities, both for the author and for all women. In any case, I found this section absolutely brilliant, particularly in realising the character of Olga who killed her abusive husband and delivers the verdict of self-defense upon herself in the private court she shares with the author. However, though she is thus absolved, Carter does not forget to realise her suffering mother and traumatised son. The boy, Ivan, witness of so much violence, is appropriately drawn into the clan of clowns; their diabolical capering and their nihilistic philosophy. The scary clown trope is vividly, terrifyingly explored.

I was amused and impressed by Carter’s treatment of the black characters, Madame Schreck’s servant Toussaint and ‘the Princess’. Carter seems to be humorously castigating the poor representation of black people in white literature, since she exaggerates their silencing to the point of absurdity – Toussaint has been ‘born without a mouth’! Even so, he manages to be elegant and eloquent in writing, so much so that it is several times remarked on, thus, I think, mocking the ‘well spoken’ cliche used as a ‘respectability’ marker to help distinguish between people of colour who are acceptable to white supremacy and those who are not. The Princess voluntarily refuses to speak, since black women cannot trust white women (ie Carter, the author) to represent them. The inclusion of these characters as distanced from the text by their silence makes them (especially ‘the Princess’) critical witnesses, marking whiteness, including that of the author.

Writing of female minor characters is lovingly thorough. Perhaps the most developed, ubiquitous theme here is mutual support and care between women, and, apart from that between Fevvers and her informally adoptive mother Liz, the relationship between abuse-survivor Mignon and ‘the Princess’ is the most touching for me. Brian pointed out to me in discussion how carefully written Mignon’s story was. The only subplot that I struggled with was Walser’s amnesia-driven sojourn with the shaman. Here I felt Carter was projecting some ideas about mysticism onto uncolonised people in a potentially exploitative way.

On the other hand, I generally loved Carter’s treatment of animal characters – the intellectual apes especially. The elephants constantly rattling their chains were rightfully disturbing, and mirrored other unresolved agitations that Carter sets up to highlight other aspects of as-yet unachieved liberation.

I cannot resist drawing a parallel between Nights at the Circus and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Readers who enjoyed the latter as (pre)teens like me will probably find their sensibilities well attuned to this hearty and heartily satisfying feminist romp. Spread your wings, women.

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Dear Alice

Dear Life: StoriesDear Life: Stories by Alice Munro
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Where do I begin? My second Munro and I feel that familiar sensation, like feeling for the barely palpable edge of the sticky tape on the roll, a way in, when everything feels like the centre, a cycle that’s encircled me, that I’ve had with me for so long I can’t imagine either end.

It’s not as if the stories are all the same or blur into each other – far from it in fact! The mood and mode of each is so crisply distinct I can imagine Munro writing in an organised study, selecting from the options as from coloured paints lined up on a shelf – shall we have ‘brooding pastoral’ with a splash of ‘breathless passion’?

There is structural variation too, Munro even amuses (and terrifies) us with a storyform so hackneyed that EFL exam handbooks warn against it: the ‘I woke up and it was all a dream’ trope. Wait. Here’s a tiny ridge, let’s peel it. The edge Munro presents us with here is the uncertainty of reality and of identity when memory becomes unstable, thus tripping up the trope: we cannot awaken from this half-dream. The threat of dissolution is softened by the darkly comic, but finally heartening story ‘Dolly’, which I read aloud to my mum in the car. We both thought it would make a great screenplay.

Most of these stories have keener edges, over which we peer into less final abysses. In most of them, a woman is punished for transgressing the rigid norms of conservative small-town society. The means of correction are many and varied, all too often they are internal – the self-coercing mechanisms of patriarchal socialisation kick in. There’s a truthfulness, a wry rightness to the detail that has me constantly nodding: that’s the way it goes.

But plotwise it isn’t the way it goes, it’s always fresh and surprising, the page yields up a shock, the heart drops a beat and races. It’s only the texture of everyday life that is so utterly real, so well worn and worn well on the strong frames of Munro’s direct, unadorned sentences, her many quiet, clear voices that allow precise evocation, and make a calm and light background for strange small horrors and delights to leap out from all the more vividly.

Generational gaps are important in a collection that examines a period of shifting cultural values. There are a few young characters imbued with potentially rebellious, transformative energy, especially disruptive, gregarious, voluble Mary in ‘Amundsen’, who, although she transforms the narrator Vivien into Miss Hyde, seems to make generous efforts to preserve her threatened vivacity. The narrator of ‘Haven’, a tale in which the deadly patriarchal morality of a passing era is deftly explored, also has a certain energy and freedom about her. These lively, unrestrained young girls remind me of The Madwoman in the Attic in which Gilbert and Gubar share their divination of a sad yearning on the part of C19th women authors for lively spirited girls like Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights to be able to grow up into autonomy and subjectivity, instead of being imprisoned by sex roles.

In ‘Haven’ as in other stories, the reader is not spared discomfort. I found myself anguished by even subtle hints of the narrator’s increased socialisation into patriarchy. Munro is not afraid to offer the unpleasant; her tactic is to confront it, and there is a therapeutic value in this, a learning that unpleasant things exist, which helps to deal with them or put them in their place. In one of the concluding semi-autobiographical pieces, ‘Voices’, the narrator shares how her father helped her to deal with terrifying thoughts of killing her sister by telling her that ‘everyone thinks things like that’, reassuring her thus that the unwanted thought is not an intention. Munro’s stories sometimes deal with unwanted thoughts and panic in helpful ways.

‘Pride’ and ‘Corrie’ deal with sexuality around physical disabilities, making space in the discussion for differences of gender and social class. Cultural assumptions about male desire are thrown into relief, as are those about women as empathic carers. ‘Train’ forms something of a counterpoint to these stories in that is deals with an apparently asexual man. Compulsory heterosexuality keeps him more or less on the run from one safe-space to another, yet such freedom is clearly a gendered prerogative – he finds work anywhere and is (explicitly) assumed to be trustworthy. A lone woman would not have such mobility, unless, perhaps, she were a sex-worker, which would come at the cost of social exclusion.

In general the stories have harmony with each other, in their shades of like and unlike. Occasionally there is a sunny clearing, as in the loving older couple in ‘Leaving Maverly’. The natural world, beautifully sketched, is ever-present and significant (sometimes it seems that everything is significant in Munro, every detail has a polysemous aura, which discussion helped me to read), though arguably it only once, at the end of ‘Pride’ intervenes and utters the last, transcendent, cryptic, unanswerable word.

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bitter destiny

The Joys of MotherhoodThe Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nnu Ego’s father is a great man, so much so that when his senior wife dies, her burial is a grand affair. She must take everything she will need in the afterlife with her, including her personal slave, a beautiful and vivacious young woman captured from another tribe. The woman begs for her life, but to no avail, she is executed. Her restless soul bonds with the recently conceived Nnu Ego and becomes her chi, her personal god.

The great father, Agbadi, feels compassion for the slain slave and to placate her angry spirit, frees all of his slaves and bans the practice of enslaving captives taken in conflict, but the legacy of slavery is not so easily expunged: Nnu Ego suffers the rage of her chi. Another character later comments on the irony of white settlers banning slavery and continuing to employ native black workers in conditions indistinguishable from slavery. This agitated, complex, multivalent engagement with troubled histories of slavery is characteristic of Buchi Emecheta’s fictional biography of an Igbo woman born to a prosperous, highly respected family in a village where pre-colonial lifestyles seem undisturbed. In contrast to this setting is the British colonial city of Lagos, where Nnu Ego, having not conceived a child by her first husband (due to the machinations of her chi) is married to a washerman. Having lived in comfort in Igbo villages, she spends her years in Lagos locked in a constant desperate struggle to earn enough money to feed her ever-expanding family, consoling herself with the knowledge that she has fulfilled society’s expectations of her as a mother and wife.

Recently I have been reading a lot of books by women that I find to be strongly feminist, and have what strike me as silly, patronising cover notes that are rendered ironic by the content. John Updike reckons, approvingly, that this ‘graceful, touching, ironically titled tale… bears a plain feminist message’. Although this is praise, I actually feel it creates a false and belittling impression of the work, which is not simple, in its structure or in its feminist ‘message’ . The book appears to reach a conclusion when Nnu Ego asks

God, when will you create a woman who will be fulfilled in herself, a full human being, not anybody’s appendage?

and Emecheta elaborates in Nnu Ego’s thoughts as she names her younger twin daughters

The men make it look as if we must aspire for children or die. That’s why when I lost my first son I wanted to die, because I failed to live up to the standard expected of me by the males in my life, my father and my husband — and now I have to include my sons. But who made the law that we should not hope in our daughters? We women subscribe to that law more than anyone. Until we change all this, it is still a man’s world, which women will always help to build.

But there are several chapters to go, Emecheta is not done here exploring her interlocking themes. Significantly, Nnu Ego’s struggles are shaped by the contrasting environments she moves through. Emecheta suggests that the pre-colonial context offers a better way of life to Nnu Ego and to most others. It is impossible not to wonder what would have happened to Oshia, for example, if Nnu Ego had not been forced to return to Lagos. However, Emecheta employs images of healthy female and especially male bodies to complicate this point, when Nnu Ego contrasts the younger and older Nnu Ego, or Nnu Ego herself with Adaku, and contrasts her first husband with Nnaife. The colonised body is shown as distended, aged, faded, odorous, somehow unnatural. Even more significantly, the colonised body loses its gender. Nnu Ego’s constant gender-normative criticisms of Nnaife’s work and body reveal how her socialisation in the village structures her critical, attritive, but overall solid acceptance of patriarchal gender roles. In fact, Nnu Ego’s trans-phobic horror of Nnaife’s job, and Adaku’s decision to seize independence by becoming a sex worker, suggest that gender roles may be less rigid in Lagos; the city is a site of disruption as it forces desperate measures.

This is not to say that the colonial context of Lagos is less patriarchal or less hostile to female independence. As if to foreshadow continual gendered violence, Nnu Ego is raped by her husband when she arrives. For me, this recalls bell hooks writing about African American disaporas

African men, even those coming from communities where sex roles shaped the division of labour, where the status of men was different and most times higher than that of women, had to be taught to equate their higher status as men with the right to dominate women, they had to be taught patriarchal masculinity. They had to be taught that it was acceptable to use to violence to establish patriarchal power. – bell hooks, We Real Cool

While her mother enjoyed comparative sexual freedom and qualified affirmation of her desires in the village, Nnu Ego experiences the moralistic, misogynistic Christian approach to sexuality enforced by Nnaife’s employer. The relationship between Nnu Ego and her husband’s inherited younger wife Adaku also provides rich material to investigate the complexity of village/urban gender dynamics. When Adaku arrives, Nnu Ego speculates, only partly accurately, about the kind of relationship the beautiful woman will have with her husband. Emecheta explicitly suggests that a senior wife must behave in some respects ‘like a man’ and Nnu Ego certainly feels unfeminine beside Adaku. She does not give birth to any sons, thus ‘failing’ to affirm her husband’s manhood, yet, resourceful Adaku attains a degree of autonomy and, significantly, the means of education for her daughters, thus casting off the male-orientation that Nnu Ego retains to the end.

Another ‘compliment’ from The Sunday Times (a British newspaper) reads ‘Emecheta is a born writer’. No doubt well intended, this comment is often made condescendingly about writers of colour, especially female, and even white women, who are seen to have produced great art by chance, by a freakish gift of talent, rather than by effort and intelligence. The simple and direct prose is full of irony “[Nnu Ego] crawled further into the urine-stained mats on her bug-ridden bed, enjoying the knowledge of her motherhood” and the story encompasses global events from an exploited and underinformed colonial viewpoint. Nnaife is forced to fight for the British in the war, leaving Nnu Ego to struggle on to provide for the family alone. Emecheta also explores the theme of tribal tensions in Lagos, where the Igbo are a minority among the Yoruba. Emecheta has these groups making near identical criticisms of each other, founded on generic fears of difference, despite their commonalities, for example the sense of community ‘we all belong to each other’ conveyed extraordinarily vividly in a scene of attempted suicide. Yet Nnu Ego’s thoughtful daughter (second born) Kehinde is able to cross these divides. As the narrative dissipates, hope flows out in many unexpected directions.

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Hearing the unsaid

The Joy Luck ClubThe Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 stars

The blurb on this edition focusses on the struggles of mothers and daughters to understand and help each other, and Tan’s skill in conveying emotions. As usual, there is no acknowledgement of the book as a feminist work, so I’m going to begin by hailing it as such in all its woman-oriented glory. Aside from the fact that men are merely accessory to all of the narrative strands, and that the majority of conversations are between women and girls, Tan positively critiques patriarchal tropes throughout by revealing the constrictions on women’s lives imposed structurally through their chattel position as wives and mothers, through their socialisation by older women, and through the domineering behaviour of men. Very overt features of gendered hierarchies which tend to hide in plain sight are kept in view, and Tan writes very cleverly to reveal more subtle aspects, making them evident in countless interactions, punctuating these little revelations with pauses for contemplation. Below the surface swim slow thoughts lightly veiled:

Even the old ladies had put on their best clothes to celebrate: Mama’s aunt, Baba’s mother and her cousin, and Great-uncle’s fat wife, who still plucked her forehead bald and always walked as if she were crossing a slippery stream, two tiny steps and a scared look

This is surely an intimation, from a child’s perspective, that the woman has bound feet. The treatment of An-Mei’s mother, who has become a concubine to a rich man after being widowed, illuminates some of the distinctive features of (pre-communist) Chinese heteropatriarchy. However, Tan is not about to aid the cause of USian supremacy and White saviourism by setting stories like this against a mythical American equality; her depictions of marriages and relationships in the US reveal a different but hardly better situation for women, especially Chinese/immigrant women for whom White husbands feel entitled to speak.

My favourite mother-as-girl story is Lindo Jong’s. Trapped in a marriage that places her in servitude to an exacting and heartless mother-in-law, she nonetheless uses great ingenuity. The moment when she recognises her impressive inner resources is striking; few girls can rely on such self-confidence and awareness, but even so armed, her empowerment is very limited, so the story throws light on the real plight of girls like her. I was even more fascinated though, by the ways that Chinese cultural values and traditions played out in her scheming. This happened throughout the book; modes of modesty, influencing of feelings and events, showing love, all revealed ways of knowing and being rooted in different soils and waters and fed by different suns from those that have nourished me.

Miscommunication, misunderstanding, is inevitable in the meeting of USian directness and the more subtle, artful Chinese manner of expression, heedful of hidden feelings deduced through the fine filaments of perceptive empathy only a combination of shared culture, affinity and thoughtfulness can forge. Careful reading reveals that supposed ‘directness’ leaves many things sadly incommunicable. Much humour is made at the mothers’ expense:

One day, as she struggled to weave a hard-toothed comb through my disobedient hair, I had a sly thought. I asked her ‘Ma, what is Chinese torture?’ My mother shook her head. A bobby pin was wedged between her lips. She wetted her palm and smoothed the hair above my ear, then pushed the pin in so that it nicked sharply against my scalp. ‘Who say this word?’ she asked without a trace of knowing how wicked I was being. I shrugged my shoulders and said ‘Some boy in my class said Chinese people do Chinese torture.’ ‘Chinese people do many things,’ she said simply. ‘Chinese people do business, do medicine, do painting. Not lazy like American people. We do torture. Best torture.’

This kind of intimate mockery is hilarious, but a risky thing to gift to an outsider like me. I had the feeling that I must be careful not to generalise beyond time, place and particularity, to find myself thinking ‘I know this about Chinese mothers, because I read it in The Joy Luck Club’. Another difficulty I had was with disturbing aspects of anti-Blackness and homophobia which I wanted to chase up, but which had to be let drop, presumably for the next generation, the grandaughters, to decolonise. I enjoyed, on the other hand, the wry laughs minted from the thoughtlessness self centredness of ignorant White men.

Degrees of integration vary, but all of the mothers are at some stage shocked by the extent of their daughters’ assimilation into USian culture, while the daughters feel to some extent cut off from their Chinese heritage. If I wanted to extract a lesson, it would be: maintain your culture against Whiteness! Whatever is in you or known to you that is not White, honour it, nourish it, tell it, create with it, share it, weave it into the new stories you live and make. It takes, surely, deep effort and much energy to resist the action of White supremacy, the hollowing out of living cultures into exotified fetishes, consumable and subsumed.

I recommend this book especially to those who like reading about food, as I do. Tan presents a culture relentlessly attentive to good eating, the comforts of the table, and the expression of love through cooking. The demythologising fortune cookie story, brilliantly conceived, is, to me, this book in a nutshell.

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