Writing Back Historically

From the Ruins of EmpireFrom the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mishra’s approach here can’t be faulted; it would be preposterous to offer the sweeping statements and crisp conclusions of the sixth chaper Asia Remade without carefully laying the foundations in the previous five, painstakingly excavating the neglected work and histories of thinkers like Jamal al-din al-Afghani and Liang Qichao, whose shadows lie tall across the decades in myriad shapes: from Mao Tse-Dong to the Confucian resurgence, from Ayatollah Khomeini to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. For me it was a bit of an uphill slog, but all worth it for the exhilarating freewheeling down from the top

Commonplace critique of colonisation tends to assume a passive Asia in subdued thrall, an orientalist picture in itself. Mishra energeticaly corrects that misconception here, showing how colonial powers were seen by Asian intellectuals and how various strands and flavours of resistence were built up. For most of the book I felt that everyone, Mishra included, was giving too much quarter to coloniser epistemology, which only begin to partially unravel at the hands of Gandhi and Tagore and in the later chapters. It is interesting in itself though that ideas like social Darwinism and scientific materialism caught on and wrought significant changes to Asian state structures and societies. ‘Western’ ideas were not merely assimilated but furiously and critically debated, adapted, edited, and in the case of the nation state, eventually used to overthrow the imperial powers and to remake Asia. The thinkers Mishra follows change their minds in the course of their intellectual careers; first imagining how the key tenets of Western success might work for Islam or the Chinese, and later, on some level recognising the West as a disaster to its own populations as well as others.

Mishra has been astonishingly effective at synthesising and condensing whole libraries of background reading into this focussed, highly structured work. Of thousands of possible strands, he has selected a handful, and woven them into coherence, into something that can be digested and absorbed usefully for reflection and discussion. I was struck by what I felt to be its dispassionate tone; until the concluding chapters, the attrocities of empire were treated almost casually, and strands of opposition are discussed quite matter-of-factly, creating an impression of even-handedness and objectivity. But of course, I have been sheltered from these shameful histories.

What is outside the scope of this history is the ground-level perspective. I suppose many readers will be much more familiar with this view, which is the domain of literature, but the thinkers Mishra follows addressed themselves mainly to elites, at times academic, but mainly political, and only late in their careers realised that cultural change comes from the roots of the grass. Thus, the hinges of Mishra’s story are unoiled by vernacular voices, and women make almost no appearance at all. While I found it an edifying read, there was more duty than pleasure in the text for me!

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Visions of Desire

Bento's SketchbookBento’s Sketchbook by John Berger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

From book to book my progress is haphazard. Occasionally I look for a link, more often a contrast: fiction after feminist theory, poetry after history. Yet links unanticipated are made. After reading
The Lesbian Postmodern
I moved on to this, and Elizabeth’s Grosz’s lovely essay on refiguring desire as creative via Spinoza, gave me a silver thread, an eager intent, to follow into Berger’s quotations of the philosopher here, a book which takes off from the point of Spinoza’s lost sketchbook and floats freely hither and thither from there.

Berger’s drawings are so eloquent of the tension felt in drawing, the tension of space, object, substances interlocking, dynamic, relational. I like the fruits best: the hanging smoke-blue plums, the split fig. Another link: like Diego Rivera, quoted in Frida, Berger describes the act of drawing or impulse to draw as ‘something like a visceral function… independent of the conscious will’. Drawing comes before language, certainly before writing.

Sometimes I am uncomfortable about the power of Berger’s gaze. He describes the gaze steering a motorcycle and I am uncomfortably aware not of the rider’s vulnerability but that of the bodies Berger sees, describes, draws, exposes.

Some of the heterogenous reveries though have not only poetic grace notes, but the insistent melody of political conviction. My favourite is the one in the discount supermarket, which Berger describes as dedicated to theft, as opposed to a street market, which revolves around the promise of a bargain, an agreement between two people face to face for about what would meet the needs or desires of both (see! desire is productive! desire makes connections!) The forms of theft, the loci of theft in this place are multi and manifold: cameras watch, hours are stolen from workers. This place is dedicated to desire-as-lack, to the stuffing of emptiness. Without Grosz, I would not read this in Berger-Spinoza, and without Berger I would not carry this out of Grosz. Between them, they have changed my way of seeing.

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The Elegant Literature of Outrage

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American SlaveNarrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Houston A Baker Jr introduces Douglass’ narrative by positioning it within a rich tradition in two senses. Firstly, many former slaves published accounts of their experiences – a fact that I was not aware of and that Baker says has been poorly acknowledged, while the work of white abolitionists has been much-celebrated. Secondly, the literary interests of the period, absorbed by Douglass in his forbidden, covert, voracious reading, are expressed through the lyrical and dramatic qualities of his prose.

I suppose I expected a very spare memoir, but the writing is very beautiful, in a style that feels of the period: elegantly formal, never deploying a pronoun when a nice synonym is at hand, yet always quick-footed and clear.

Douglass, born a slave, experienced hunger, cold, whippings, beatings and other abuses, from childhood. Brutal overseers and slaveholders are often presented as exceptionally evil people, but Douglass shows through examples that slave-holding brutalises folks who would otherwise be kind and generous by disposition, watching the sweet-hearted woman who began to teach him to read (he had to finish the process unaided after her husband forbade it) become as bitterly cruel as any whip-cracking overseer. Slavery dehumanises both owned and owner.

As Douglass gained more autonomy and better conditions (his experience was fortunate relative to the circumstances of the vast majority of slaves) he became ever more determined to gain his freedom. He trained in caulking, and began contracting, completing and collecting money for his own work, and at the end of the week had to give up his entire earnings – a situation identical to plantation slavery in terms of exploitation, but all the more galling in that he received the money directly before it was stolen from him!

I liked reading about Douglass’ arrival in wealthy New Bedford, where he says he was astonished by the quality of life enjoyed there, and the sight of free black people living in houses finer than those of Southern slave-holders. He had been led to believe that prosperity could not exist without slavery and that the people of the North must be in the miserable condition of ‘poor whites’ ie non slave-holders in the South. (However, I think this revelation should not be used to obscure that Northern prosperity was built on the backs of slaves.)

Special ire is reserved for very religious slaveholders, who Douglass adamantly declares to be the worst kind in every way. A devout Christian himself, he writes passionately against ‘the boldest of all frauds and the grossest of all libels’ manifest in calling the USA a Christian country.

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A Biography of the WLA

They Fought In The FieldsThey Fought In The Fields by Nicola Tyrer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book because my maternal grandmother was a Land Girl, although I don’t know as much as I’d like to about what she did. Like many of the women who volunteered to literally help feed the war effort, she came from a working class urban background and left school at fourteen. Most of these young women were working before they entered the Womens Land Army, in domestic service, in factories, as waitresses, as shop clerks. Tyrer often highlights how the WLA was structured on class lines, with a small middle/upper class administrative staff, and thousands (87,000 at its peak in 1943) of working class members. Farming was seen and paid as unskilled work, and Tyrer points out that the efforts of the WLA’s head Lady Denman to improve pay and conditions for members helped all agricultural workers.

Tyrer is a great admirer of Lady Denman, whom she describes as the member of a vanishing class, the philanthropic, Liberal gentry. She is less enamoured of Vita Sackville-West, who was heavily involved with the Land Army (this was news to me), but rather abused her position, for example to get Land Girls to pick raspberries and arum lillies for her friends’ dinner parties. Tyrer describes her as a snob, and she certainly comes across that way in the quotations here.

Tyrer leaves the reader in no doubt of her own opinions, but her judgements never have a personal voice; she presents them as the surely-everyone-in-their-right-mind-would-think-so view. She uses first-hand accounts both as brief chapters scattered through the book and as short quotations within her own text, forming a kind of evidenced research project. The material is occasionally sensitive: the reputation of WLA members as ‘promiscuous’ or ‘predatory’, words that made me worry about sexual assault on them. Tyrer includes some reports of creepy and persistent sexual harrassment from British male farm workers, and less frightening but still annoying harrassment from Italian prisoners of war. One woman reported that an Italian POW ‘jumped out of a hedge and kissed’ her.

Elsewhere, there are many stories of Italian PsOW, who were treated well under the Geneva convention (often better than Land Girls whose employment was poorly regulated despite Lady Denman’s efforts) giving underfed, overworked women dried fruit from their own rations, and otherwise being generous, kind and friendly – one woman reported that those she knew missed their families and made friends with the farmer’s young children.

Italians were just some of the foreigners the young woman of the WLA occasionally encountered in their work. American servicemen in particular had a reputation for promiscuity. There are some mentions of African American soldiers, including one rather striking recollection by a Land Girl of her ‘first encouter with the Colour Bar’ when she was asked for directions by a black serviceman, but did not know the area and replied “I’m sorry I can’t help you” and was misunderstood by the man who replied all forgiveness and generous tolerance toward the individual constrained by a system “I’m awfully sorry, will I have got you into trouble by stopping you?”. The woman was upset ‘to think I had hurt someone that much’. Other women mention drinking in bars with black USians even when proprietors and British soldiers frowned on it.

All in all, the Land Girls themselves are highly praised by this account of them. The frank sexism of the National Farmers Union, the lack of support from government, and often poor conditions in the job were inadequate obstacles to their determination and abilities. Tyrer says that ‘they made their opponents change sides’* since after the war the NFU, along with many individual farmers, praised them warmly and lobbied for the service to be maintained. Tyrer cleverly constructs the narrative with an emotional arc from uncertain and difficult beginnings, with tales of miserably inadequate food, cold, lack of sanitation, scornful employers and loneliness towards the front of the book, towards triumph at the end, where happier testimonials cluster: sociable hostel life, kind farmers and families, parties and dances, and above all love of the land.

*but I’m sad that she turns this into a dig at feminism, repeated in the introduction and late in the text when she mentions that many Land Girls, like my Nanna who settled down with a fellow farm labourer, left the service for marriage and babies. While some feminists have been guilty of criticising women for taking on the role of wife-and-mother, it’s a gross misunderstanding to suggest that all of us do! Feminists fight sexism, as the WLA did.

This edition includes some lovely, evocative photographs – only a few of them formally posed in class-photo style. Looking at the well-designed uniforms and the hardwood, simple yet elegant chairs in hostel dining rooms reminds me how beautiful every day things were before the era of mass production. These things would be incredibly costly now. The photos also document practices widespread before the large scale mechanisation of farming. WLA members gained heritage skills like thatching that are now extremely rare. The women look remarkably healthy – these powerful thighs, toned waists and doughty arms must belong to the ones eating hearty meals rather than those who survived on bread-and-jam. And their old fashioned curly hair reminds me of my Nanna and that the long & lank fashion of today is a recent trend.

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forms of imprisonment

AwakeningsAwakenings by Oliver Sacks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The story is thrilling: the sleepy sickness epidemic that followed WWI left many people with profound Parkinsonian symptoms; some were hardly able to move, never spoke, seemed frozen in time for forty years. A large number of these patients were under Sacks’ care at Mount Carmel hopital in New York in 1969 when he decided to try giving them the new drug L-DOPA, and witnessed many of them coming suddenly, vividly to life. But this blurb summary is a gross simplification! Sacks is at pains even in the introductions to point out that L-DOPA is extremely unpredictable, producing different effects even in the same patient, and always leads to some ‘tribulations’.

Also, the case studies that form the dramatic heart of the book were less fascinating to me than Sacks’ writing around them. In a way, the case studies are richly personal: Sacks insists again and again on treating patients as people, that ‘nothing can be reduced to anything’ and that ‘if we do not listen to our patients we will never learn anything’. However, the clinical detail is extensive and given in terminology that takes time to get used to. When Sacks reflects on their implications, in contrast, he writes in expansive, lucid prose, linking the mysteries of Parkinsonism to quantum mechanics and to lyrical, existential poetry.

This is a wonderful book for writers, because, as often in Sacks’ work, it goes to the heart of what forms character, identity, personality. When he asserts that ‘style is the deepest thing in one’s being’, I am struck by the resonance with some of the most thought-provoking philosophy and criticism I have read. The succinct expression here is powerful, and it is fleshed out by meditations on the notion of health as musicality and free flow, of being as moving, which the ‘phantasmagoria’ of Parkinsonism most graphically disrupts and distorts.

A section on stage and screen interpretations of the original work is included. Sacks, initially concerned that any adaptation would be ‘unreal’ was delighted by Pinter’s response A Kind of Alaska: “I felt Pinter had given me as much as I gave him: I had given him a reality – and he had given me one back.”

Ultimately, Sacks eloquently calls for an existential medicine. Over and over he emphasises how deeply affected patients are by their effective imprisonment in a ‘Total Institution’ and describes how they respond to music, visitors, trips out, as well as to the physical and care environment, in extraordinary and radical ways. Awakenings allows us to glimpse deep truths about health and disease, and their integrity with personhood, that should transform the ways we think about them.

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Not your images, not your words

One Day I Will Write about This PlaceOne Day I Will Write about This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the memoir of a book addict, and Wainaina’s savour for language glows from the first. His descriptions dance, they sing, they jump, syncopated, a lively, twisting flow like swift water, throwing rainbows of unexpected images into the air. In a pressing, urgent present tense at all times, his tale is vibrant and always fresh, even when he describes lethargy and depression.

Language itself is his subject at times, as he shares how Kenyan people, with their many mother tongues, use Kiswahili to show respect, invoke fellowship, leverage solidarity and subtly feel out a situation. I can never experience this, so it’s wonderful to get a little taste of its richness through Wainaina’s showing.

Thinking about language in Kenya of course I think of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and he is here! Wainaina shows how the national figure and his ideas entered his awareness as a young, relatively privileged Kenyan. In
Decolonising the Mind
Ngugi wa Thiong’o mentioned that colonial & neo-colonial leaders create essentialist (I could perhaps say orientalising or ossifying) tribal identities and animosities which belie real conflicts of interest and obstacles to peace as well as the dynamic nature of all people, groups and relationships, and Wainaina makes the same point neatly through an anecdote. How tribal conflict came to the fore after Moi’s rule through the legacy of colonialism is integral to his biography and emerges clearly. His mother, from Uganda, linked him to events there and in Rwanda. I felt the arbitrariness of borders and the rich mixings of tribal/language groups.

Wainaina is well known for the essay he wrote sending up the way Africa is portrayed in Euro-American narratives and he returns to his disgust and mockery of the narrative of Africa as a poverty sticken disaster zone requiring urgent white saviour intervention (always blissfully free from any notion of how any kind of privation arose) at salient points in his text. He perhaps intended his memoir to contrast with that self-serving and disingenous story, but he doesn’t give it the time of day; he doesn’t answer it, just paints his own views of the places he visits. In his account, drab Nairobi contrasts vividly with stylish Lome, capital of Togo. Arid Kenya contrasts with lush Uganda, Maasailand is completely exotic and thrilling to him as a modern, urban young person. I was jolted by the frequent appearance of African American pop icons and other contemporary, global culture, showing that I have been drinking the colonial lemonade myself. On writing about Sudan on commission from an EU organisation which didn’t want to publish the book, because it didn’t say the right things, he had this to say:

I start to understand why so little good literature is produced in Kenya. The talent is wasted writing donor-funded edutainment and awareness-raising brochures for seven thousand dollars a job. Do not complicate things, and you will be paid very well.

Maybe that’s why he founded The Kwani Trust

I can’t end without mentioning how likeable I found the author. There’s nothing self-aggrandising about this memoir at all, and while it’s painful (and to me, familiar as I had a similar experience in high school) to read about his periods of withdrawal as a student, he always owns his economic privilege, and it’s heart-warming to read how his family’s gentleness and sensitivity (in strong contrast to the stereotype of authoritarian African parents) pulled him through. I cared about him a lot and felt all the bumps and all the highs. Thanks so much Binyavanga for taking me along for the ride xxx

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Looking back and forward

Hopes and ProspectsHopes and Prospects by Noam Chomsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I read Chomsky, I always wonder, fearfully, who I will turn to for the truth when he retires. When I read
Manufacturing Consent
when I was about 18, I was utterly astonished. This isn’t the story I’ve been told, I thought. This doesn’t resemble the story I’ve been told in any way! Where did he find all this out? Reading Hopes and Prospects reminded me that he didn’t get it anywhere exotic – just from various press sources and ‘the internal [government] record’ which anyone could in theory access.

This revelation shows how the way media operates hides events in plain sight.
similarly exposed the failure of the media to reflect the public interest, with fake-balanced debates and selective under & over reporting. Chomsky is at pains to show though, that the public isn’t so much uninformed as ignored by government. Republicans and Democrats are both ‘significantly to the right’ of most of the electorate, according to surveys he quotes.

Similarly, while the US (and UK) public are told that populations in countries formerly colonised or currently cast as enemies hate ‘us’ and our ostensibly liberal democratic values, while a cursory examination of data shows that these values are regarded sympathetically and these populations just want them to actually be upheld in practice, instead of disingenously professed by powers that behave with indiscriminate aggression militarily, wreck indigenous political structures at all levels, and engage in highly protectionist economic practices for long enough to gain an unassailable position and then insist on ‘free trade’ and ‘a level playing field’. A first principle of ‘free trade’ is freedom of movement of labour, but US immigration restrictions are legendarily harsh, for instance.

I really wish I was good at big-picture thinking and could keep more of Chomsky’s arguments and evidence in my head. When I try to repeat them, I always sound unpersuasive, perhaps because I mix in too much of my own radical leanings. There’s virtually no ideology here at all. Chomsky doesn’t attempt to make a socialist, anarchist or whatever case to condemn the actions of the US, UK and Israeli administrations and the narrow concentrations of power (financial institutions and multinationals) that control them; he generally restricts himself to pointing out that their actions directly conflict with those precepts and the demands they impose on others. Upholding the rights of ordinary people to self determination and decent lives everywhere is the basic precept, too obvious to state.

Terms like “democracy promotion” and “globalization” have doctrinal meanings exactly opposite to their literal ones. When the US “promotes democracy” it actually suppresses populations, installs dictators et cetera, in order to ensure its economic interests are served by brutal exploitation, sweeping power and resources into the hands of local and international elites. States that uphold democratic values in the non-doctrinal sense, and divest from corporate exploitation are harassed and presented as authoritarian in the media – Chomsky uses the examples of Bolivia and Venezuela, where small anti-government protests (generally by minorities of wealthy citizens) are hugely amplified by global attention.

Chomsky does recap a little bit from his earlier books on the history of US behaviour in Latin America particularly under Reagan to make his point, but in general he passes on with phrases like ‘no need to mention what happened there’ (a wry mood and mildly satirizing use of doctrinal phrases elicited several exclamations of ‘HAH!’ from me throughout), the lectures in Latin America focus on more positive things happening of late: resistance to US hegemony, economic dominance and attempts to undermine democracy in the region.

I always enjoy Chomsky’s defence of Iran. Here he repeatedly mentions that as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, its right to develop non-weapons tech is enshrined in International law and protected from interference, yet it is continually harassed over any nuclear development, while non-signatory and US arms customer Israel can do as it likes. He explains why Iran would never use a nuclear weapon. However, seeking to acquire an arsenal makes perfect sense in Iran’s position: it’s demonstrably the only way to get the US off your back…

An important subject of the book is Obama, who arrived promising much, and has in Chomsky’s estimation delivered very little but more of the same old injustice when it comes to foreign policy, not least the increase of drone strikes. Headlines suggesting that he would be tough on Israel are belied by actions: the tradition of ignoring Palestinian offers of talks, respect of ceasefires, agreement to previous terms and treaties on the one hand, and Israeli international law and human rights violations on the other continues. Chomsky points out that the Israel and the US are not seeking a diplomatic solution at all (phrasing is instructive: political settlement is a ‘danger’ to be avoided), just trying to keep the ‘peace process’* in process long enough to annihilate any viable Palestinian territory.

*I think I’ve spotted another term which means its opposite in practice…

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