Author Archives: soniahkamal

Black Swan, the film

by Soniah Kamal

Most people advocate some sort of art project for the repressed to loosen up and get in touch with thier deeper self and in this stead dance is often a highly recommended activity.  In ‘Black Swan’ Natalie Portman’s character Nina is a ballet dancer and like all dedicated ballerinas, ballet dancing is all she does. Unfortunately instead of her art loosening Nina up it seems to have turned her into a nuerotic individual who has no friends (not that oodles of friends are necessarily a sign of a healthy personality, but she has not a single one) and no interests other than becoming the lead dancer before she becomes too old (what a more interesting film this may have been had more been made of this issue). Nina’s dream comes true when she is cast as the Swan Queen in ‘Swan Lake’, a casting which will have her dancing both the part of the good White Swan and the bad Black Swan who seduces the White Swan’s paramour. Nina dances the part of the White Swan perfectly but lecherous choreographer Thomas is unhappy with her depiction of the Black Swan and urges her to loosen up, to ‘live a little’.  How Nina lives a little and can or cannot handle it is the subject of this film. And how does Nina ‘live a little’? Why in the most tritest of tropes available– by having sex of course! With boys and girls and oneself. Nina proceeds to shed some repression by going clubbing, popping a pill, making out in a bathroom, having (or dreaming of) a lesbian experience, and even finally finding out what her fingers were made for. Much has been made of how Nina’s monster mother is responsible for her neurosis and, indeed, Nina’s mother is a very controlling lady: she still brushes the grown Nina’s hair, tucks her into bed, sweetly denigrates her ambition and talent, expects Nina to fulfill her own thwarted dreams, threatens to throw away a cake when Nina does not want a slice, and of course dictates her comings and goings. But, as monstrous as this mother may be she is all too recognisable a mother for many of us from Pakistan and India and so I was not too shocked by her behavior be it emotional blackmailing or dictatorial proclamation. And while in India and Pakistan it is marriage that might finally free a daughter from a tyrannical mother, in ‘Black Swan’ it is Nina being cast as the lead. Once she is the Swan Queen Nina does begin to blossom in so far that on several occasions she begins to stand up to her mother (how much more of an interesting film this would have been had more been made of this issue).  Of the two elements I did enjoy in this otherwise stale film one was Natalie Portman’s incredible acting, and second the few truly shriek-out-loud moments caused by gross, painful depictions of the human body be it muscles undulating under skin or skin fusing together or skin being ripped off. No doubt there will be more films about dancers and their repressed personalities and this time might even be told from the point of view of a male dancer and might turn out to  be the fresh, exciting film that ‘Black Swan’ is not and could not have been as long as sex– good or bad– is touted as being the panacea which will save the world or at the very least repressed individuals.

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MFA Creative Writing Program in HongKong: The Best Writers for Asia

The Department of English at City University of Hong Kong are
looking for the top creative writers who want to write Asia.  This summer,
the University is starting a ground-breaking Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing
specialising in Asian writing in English, the first programme of its kind in
the world.  Based in the Department of English, the innovative 45-credit,
two-year programme will accept a limited number of students in creative
non-fiction, fiction & poetry.  The degree is benchmarked to international
standards for the MFA.  The Hong Kong-born author Xu Xi has assisted in the
design of the programme and is joining the Department as their first
writer-in-residence on March 1. Continue reading

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‘Two Women’, a film from Iran

Soniah Kamal

‘Two Women’ follows the lives of friends Fereshteh (Niki Karimi) and Roya (Marila Zarei) over a decade. As college students, Roya approaches the academically above average Feresteh for tutoring sessions and their friendship develops rapidly in a lovely montage; paradise, however, never lasts. Feresteh is being stalked by a frighteningly violent young man (there is a thoroughly satisfying scene on a bus where she berates him), the university shuts down, and thanks to her small minded father her once promising future takes a downward turn all too real.

As such ‘Two Women’ should not conveniently be categorized as a mere film about women’s rights; it is so much more and Tahmineh Milani, the writer and director, has done a beautiful job without resorting to male bashing or melodrama: there are decent men and there is no chest beating, hysterical weeping, or long diatribes of ‘woe is me’. Instead, simple acts convey heartbreak such as a mother patting the empty bed of her kidnapped children, and Niki Karimi’s stellar expressions whenever her screen husband insults her in front of her children. In each scene be it back story or present day, the camera lingers just long enough to deliver the intent and then briskly skips on without a single misstep or lag thanks to Mostafa Kherghehpoosh’s excellent editing skills.

‘Two Women’ was released to acclaim in 1999, and ten years later it could be set in Pakistan scene to scene with the added detail of helpless/unhelpful neighbors watching from doorways as desperate women run down the street towards literal and symbolic blind ends. The end reminded me of the adage ‘better late than never’, and why it’s not always true. This is a film which should not be missed.

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I Have A Dream, President Obama

Soniah Kamal.
Congratulations President Barack Hussein Obama. And Vice-President Joe Biden.

 I have a dream that the damage wrought in the U.S. and other countries will be overturned in the next four years to a great extent. You are black. You are white. Your father is from Kenya. Your mother is from Kansas. You have seen Muslim. You have seen Christian.

They called you terrorist because once you crossed streets with a domestic terrorist. They called you socialist because you care about all and not just an elite few. They called you Muslim as if this is a four letter word.

And we the people saw through this bullshit.

Politicians say so much to get into office, make so many promises… but let me not be cynical. Not now, not yet, I hope not at all in this case. I hope, with the audacity of hope, I dream with the audacity of dreams that, in this Obama Presidency some all of these dreams for the U.S., and for the world, come true.

Hope being a big word, I really hope this does mean change and not just gloss…But Obama’s win also DOES not mean that rascism is over only that we’ve come a looog way baby…and there’s still ways to go, and yes we can. I’m really looking forward to who makes up his adminstration and how they handle foreign policy– Guantanamo, Abu Graib and torture as merely indepth questioning…

From Grant Park, Chicago, IL to Kenya. How amazing to see the Kenyans in Kenya celebrating from Obama’s Dad’s village where his paternal grandmother is still alive. Because for them Obama is one of them too!!!!! In fact Kenya declares a national holiday

“They also stress that they know he is an American, rather than a Kenyan,
but even so there is still hope that the change he has promised will encompass
Africa, with trade policy and tariffs cited as a particular concern.”

That’s what many world-wide are hoping– yes, he’s America’s President, but also that he’s a Son of the World.

And finally Senator McCain’s gracious concession speech which brings back the man he used to be before the madness of his disuniting campaign

“I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just
congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest
effort to find ways to come together to find the necessary compromises to bridge
our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a
dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better
country than we inherited. Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans.
And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than
that.” read rest here
And in Pakistan we look forward, one day, to the free and fair democratic election of Billawal Bhutto Zardari. Not.
*My son’s name is Buraaq and he’s going to be delirious with joy his namesake is indeed going to be the President. Buraaq is only 7 1/2, and through out this campaign he’s loved being called “President Barack/Buraaq”– Hey- what’s in a spelling? Buraaq says.

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Aravind Adiga’s novel ‘The White Tiger’ Wins 2008 Booker Prize

Soniah Kamal

Anita Desai’s novels were being published in India in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, she says in her opinion piece in Outlook India, to no fanfare at all. Instead, rather than get excited about Indian writers writing in English, Indian readers continued reading Austen and Hardy and Wodehouse. It took major literary prizes awarded by the West, as well as big advances, for Indian readers to develop an interest and Indian-English writing (a trend which continues: it took Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger being long and short listed for the Booker Prize for it beginning to sell in India). Since then times have changed in many instances but this change comes with its own set of drawbacks. Were Adiga not short listed for the Booker and did not begin to recoup the big advance Harper Collins India gave it, would it be tough for his second novel to sell as is the case for authors whose first novels do not sell their advance out in the U.S.? Though the Indian publishing houses, still in their nascent stages in many rosy respects, may yet give their authors a second and third chance that U.S. publishers, with their look-to-the-bottom-line-only, no longer do. Will it follow that midlist American authors, finding it hard to get published in the U.S., increasingly turn to India for book deals and readers? How easy might it be for an ‘American-Southern writer’ to get a book deal in the Indian market? Will the book have to follow a ‘Steel Magnolia’/Ya-Ya Sisterhood/Sweet Potato Queen stereotype’? Might it then be the Indian readers turn to ‘exoticize’ the U.S.: give us mint juleps and iced teas, give us family sagas where all the women stick together till death do they part, give us long shots of magnolias and big hair? After all ‘exotification’– be it mangos or veils or arranged marriages– is still a challenge that South Asian writers, indeed writers from many cultures, still face– though perhaps not as pervasively as before– when trying to be published in the U.S.

Sales should increase even more: The White Tiger is awarded the 2008 Booker prize.

In The Guardian:

Jonathan Ruppin, of the book shop Foyles, said: “This is a refreshingly
unromanticised portrait of India, showing that a vast gulf between rich and poor
is not an exclusively western phenomenon. It’s a very exciting winner for
bookshops as it’s so commercial.” read rest here

There will of course be many who will say The White Tiger won just because the ‘West’ wants to tarnish the image of India Shining. I found The White Tiger an enjoyable, fast paced read which offered a very real picture of inner India– indeed inner any country where the rich are very rich and the poor really really poor with not many chances of upward mobility. Also the main character Balram’s voice is fun:

from The White Tiger:

It is an ancient and veneratedcustom of people in my country to start a story by praying to a Higher Power. I guess, Your Excellency, that I too should start off by kissing some god’s arse. Which god’s arse, though? There are so many choices. See the Muslims have one god. The Christians have three gods. And we Hindus have 36,000,000 gods. Making a grand total of 36,000,004 divine arses for me to choose from.

And of course in the day and age of 600 page novels it is delightful to come across a short novel. However that said as delightful as brevity can be a short novel is kept short because the author chooses to tell the story from one character’s point of view rather than through multiple characters. The White Tiger could have been a much deeper novel had Adiga chosen to tell the story through other characters’ perspectives too as well as delving deeper into how they became who they are in the course of this novel, but this is a choice each author makes and the reader can only vote whether the author’s choices have whetted their appetite fully: a not too long novel and one point of view versus a much longer read with many characters telling the story at the same time?
In the case of The White Tiger, says a Booker judge:

As Booker judges, though, we are playing the numbers game with other peoples’ art, not our own, and although we are doing our best to avoid it, with the pressure mounting it is hard not to feel that size matters.  At a judges’ meeting this week, as books were mentioned round the table, it was often with a guilty ps,  ‘…and it’s short’ or ‘… but it is rather long.’ read rest here

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More Alike Than Not: Jews and Muslims and Modesty

Soniah Kamal

A friend’s husband was complaining the other day about the way some women were dressing to Sunday Services at Church here in Georgia, USA. Tarts, he called the women in tight skirts and, according to him, too much cleavage, whores who don’t know how to respect our Lord. It’s not a club, he said, it’s a Church. This man could neither beat nor stone nor cast out these women, he’d have to live with grumbling to his heart’s content, because the law would not allow him to get away with beating, stoning or casting anyone out. I suppose we’re all guilty, men and women, of a little moral policing, now and then, even if only in our hearts, but the beginnings of taking it too far could very well be the grumble here and there becoming louder and louder and angrier and angrier until it joins forces with like hearts and minds. Orthodox Israeli moral police have joined fellow orthodox ranks in Iran and Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. And like the Taliban and their edicts against chess playing and kite flying and song hearing, it’s not just women in Orthodox parts of Israel who are being monitored but also MP4 players.

In August, a Jerusalem man was placed under house arrest on suspicion he
set fire to a store in a haredi district of the city that sold MP4 players.
“It started about six months ago. They would come into the store, about 15
of them at a time, screaming, ‘This store burns souls!’ and they would throw
merchandise on the floor and threaten customers,” said 31-year-old Aaron Gold, a
haredi worker at the Space electronic store. One Friday night, just before the Sabbath was about to begin, “they smashed a window, doused the place with
gasoline and lit a match,” Gold said. Now, a big sign behind the counter
says, “All products sold in this store are under rabbinical supervision. By
order of the rabbis, no MP4s are sold here.”
…Zealots there have thrown rocks and spat at women, and set fire to trash
bins to protest impiety. Walls of the neighborhood are plastered with signs
exhorting women to dress modestly spelled out as closed-necked,
long-sleeved blouses and long skirts…The state, catering to religious
sensitivities, subsidizes gender-segregated bus routes that service religious
neighborhoods. Ragen and several other women challenged the practice in Israel’s
Supreme Court after an Orthodox Canadian woman in her 50s told police she was
kicked, slapped, pushed to the floor and spat upon by men for refusing to move
to the back oAnother Beit Shemesh girl, who asked to be identified only as
Esther, said zealots threw rocks, cursed and spat at a friend for wearing a red
blouse taboo because the color attracts attention.
read rest here

What I’d like to know is whether men can wear red?

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‘The Making of Mr. Hai’s Daughter’ A Memoir

Soniah Kamal

Usually one hears of desi immigrant parents preferring, or forcing if you will, their kids to adhere to the traditions and customs of backhome and, usually, these parents are referred to as ‘backwards’. What of those immigrant-parents who are ‘forwards’? Those who actively seek to assimilate into other lands and other ways so that they themselves do not become the ‘other’? Can it go too far forwards too? Yasmin Hai’s father was one such forward and Yasmin writes about her upbringing in her memoir ‘The Making of Mr. Hai’s Daughter: Becoming British’. Sounds absolutely delightful.

Here’s an excerpt from the memoir.

Here’s a review in the Spectator.

Mr Hai’s idea of Britishness was very different from the British version. Not once did he mention the importance of going down the boozer and watching the footy. Instead, he instructed his children to read Milton and Shakespeare and to behave with quiet decorum. This was probably looked upon by the locals as a strange Indian custom…Yasmin’s new job as a journalist for Newsnight enabled her to interview old acquaintances about their new-found brand of Islam. To her dismay, she found herself being frequently scolded by ex- Bhajis for not being a proper Muslim. Her television producers, meawhile, were delighted to have a ‘genuine Muslim’ as a colleague and frequently yelled at her to locate ‘mad mullahs’ to titillate their audiences. ‘Find Muslim women to defend the line in the Koran about wife beating,’ was another urgent request. Yasmin felt bemused. What had happened to her late father’s ideas of assimilation? A wider gulf than ever was being formed, not between the English and Asians, but between Muslims and everyone else.Had Mr Hai succeeded in turning his daughter into an Englishwoman? I’m not sure it really matters any more, but his kindly influence obviously enabled his little Yasmin to write this unbelievably funny, passionate autobiography.

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