Monday, February 28, 2011

Book 50, Guyana: “Lovelines for a Goat-Born Lady” by John Agard

So originally I was going to read the Poems of Martin Carter, whom some website claims is Guyana’s greatest poet. Then I checked him out and discovered his writing is rubbish.

What’s a bibliovore to do? Fortunately, I’ve a personal Guyanese connection: way back at Singapore Writers’ Week ’97, I attended workshops and readings by the Guyanese-British husband-and-wife team John Agard and Grace Nichols, who got me jump-started on the idea of performance poetry before slam even came to town.

Agard and Nichols mostly write children’s poetry, but I’ve read some of their adult works before: Agard’s Mangoes and Bullets and From the Devil’s Pulpit; Nichols’s Sunris and The Fat Black Womans's Poems. Lovely stuff. Lovelines for a Goat-Born Woman was one I hadn’t seen before, though: it was part of the Edwin Thumboo bequest, so I had to sit in the library and read it a couple of goes, just like Leaves of the Banyan Tree.

Oh, but it was worth it. Bless me, these poems are sexy.

Agard’s nuts about Nichols and he finds every way of saying so. He calls her his beloved capricorn, his mudhead woman (Guyanese are called mudheads because of their low-lying silty coastland), de headmaster’s daughter, Miss Curling Toes, Gracey, his pink-eyed one. He eroticises her overcome by sleep, annoyed by allergenic pollen, in knickers, before mirrors, in a towel fresh out of the shower, plaiting her hair, pregnant, peeing behind a half-closed door.

He calls her body a ship bound for dreamland, a creature rooting in the soil of heaven, He calls her vulva her cunt, her other mouth, her wanton parts, her squeezing crab, her pum-pum. And he eroticises their homeland’s watermelon ladies, Antillean breezes, Kissing Rocks, rivers, zinc roofs, eels, crabs, hibiscus, hummingbirds and guenip seeds, star apples. Writes one poem entirely in Creole, too. (Damn, I’ve got to try eroticizing Singapore/Singlish in some of my slam poetry. Difficult, but I’m sure it can be done. Easier for him of course, since they’re émigrés missing their tropical disaster zone, “hugging her under dis quilt of England”.)

He also freely mentions the fact that she, too, is a poet. That’s worth something. It’s quite wonderful to read love poems, written from one creative person to another – one of the reasons why Sonnets from the Portuguese is so renowned. And oh my; after writing that I have visions of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett doing it under the sun on a Caribbean coconut plantation. Freaky, but given Browning’s possible ancestry, not entirely far-fetched. First heard about that connection in Agard’s book We Brits, by the way. Just hope they’re still happy together.

(There's something fishy going on Google Maps: it seems to have been hacked by the Encyclopaedia Britannica, of all sites. Oh, it's fixed now!)

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Representative quote:


Lord of Iron, Ogun,
grant me hardness
when and where it matters

Queen of waters, Yemanja,
bless my man-water
with good seed

Sacred harlot, Oshun,
bejwelled to the crotch
girdled with the moon
guide me to the slut
beneath my graceful lady

Sky-Serpent, Damballah,
may I inherit
your divine wriggle
when I lie on her

You there, Legba,
randy trickster,
keeper of the gateway
guardian of the centerpiece,
help me transfix her

While governments making plans
your vulva sparkles on my moustache
we guilty of a subversive trickle

Next book: Aphra Behn’s “Oroonoko”, from Suriname.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Book 49, Venezuela: "Doña Bárbara" by Rómulo Gallegos

This is going to be a rushed entry, because I’m seriously sleepy. But man oh man, am I proud that I’ve finished this book: the most famous Latin American novel prior to One Hundred Years of Solitude, one of those classics my Spanish literature profesora talked about back in college when it was assumed we were gonna be polyglot intellectuals for life.

(It’s weird. I couldn’t find any Venezuelan authors in Central Lending: I was going to choose between an Edwardian proto sci-fi thriller, a German Enlightenment travel memoir and a Norwegian romance. When I’d decided on this title, I had to Amazon it over to my friend in London – thanks Simon! The above copy was ultimately from the discard heap of the Houston Public Library.)

Doña Bárbara is epic, not just because it’s a sweeping romance of the prairies, complete with rough-and-ready cowboys, crocodile hunting, evil gringo capitalists, drunkards, deadly family feuds and romantic tension between the strapping country-born, city-bred, horse-taming lawyer Santos Luzardo and the gorgeous 15 year-old virgin Marisela.

No, what sticks with everyone is the eponymous character herself, the tempestuous mestiza villainess who’s seduced Luzardo’s cousin out of his fortune, running her ranch like a tyrant, a cacica or female Indian chief. The contemporary soap opera makes her out to be a heroine, a woman before her time, but she’s quite the antagonist in the novel: a destroyer of fine, virtuous men and a witch with regular communications with the Devil.

Oh, but she’s a marvelous figure. Gallegos says in his preface that she’s a mere personification of the savannahs, beautiful and deadly and a deadly threat to civilization itself, but he humanizes her with a past story of heartbreak and betrayal and a tragic infatuation with Luzardo himself, which is all the more fucked-up when the girl who’s really going to get him is her illegitimate daughter, Marisela (who is herself a cousin once removed from Luzardo, which is nuts, but this was the outback. Get over it).

She’s actually perceived as monstrous for her androgynous costume and her ability to do men’s work – her very name means not just Dame Barbara, but also the Barbarous Lady. But on the other hand, she provided a strong female Wild West archetype for Spanish America that's endured to this day. All North America has is Annie Oakley and Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman. I'll take the bad-ass fictional lady over either of those real-life chicks.

Marisela’s pretty fascinating, too. Sure, she has her girlish foolishness as she pines for her man, but she’s discovered by Luzardo living in grunting, mud-smeared poverty in the middle of nowhere, growing into sophistication and beauty as he educates her in the ways of etiquette and grammar. She isn’t just an embodiment of the land to be conquered: we’re reminded time and again of her native intelligence that makes her a matching helpmeet to our hero –
Well, okay, I take it back. She is basically the native who must be civilized, but she’s reared to be an equal, not a servant.

Mind you, my Spanish is rusty and the text is full of 1920s country colloquialisms, so I only understood about, say, four words out of every five. There’s a lot to this book that didn’t get through my skull. There’s an English translation somewhere out there in the world. Maybe I’ll read it someday.

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In the meantime, enjoy some contemporary music from Venezuelan/American pop star Devendra Banhardt! Man, it's good to be back in South America.

Representative quote: Tal era la famosa doña Bárbara, lujuria y superstición, codicia y crueldad, y allá en el fondo del alma sombría una pequeña cosa pura y dolorosa: el recuerdo de Asdrúbal, el amor frustrado que pudo hacerla buena. Pero aun esto mismo adquiría los terribles caracteres de un culto bárbaro que exigiera sacrificios humanos: el recuerdo de Asdrúbal la asaltaba siempre que se tropezaba en su camino con un hombre en quien valiera la pena hacer presa.

Next book: John Agard’s Lovelines for a Goat-Born Woman, from Guyana. (I think.)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Attack of the Scareveils!

A bit more than halfway through Doña Bárbara now, and can't rush it because I'm trying to meet deadlines. Still, there's time for a bit of WTFery about something I saw in a bookstore at the Abu Dhabi Airport:

Just look at it! An entire shelf of Oppressed Muslim Women, testifying against the atrocities of their patriarchal cultures! Clockwise from top left: Jasvinder Sanghera's Daughters of Shame, Souad's Burned Alive, Betty Mahmoody's Not Without My Daughter, Jean Sasson's Mayada, Daughters of Arabia, Princess, Siba Shakib's Samira & Samir, Jean Sasson's Desert Royal. (No, I don't know what Jack Hight's Siege is doing in there.)

Pretty much all these books are from the same publisher, Bantam. And while a good lot of them may be legit (they're all allegedly non-fiction books), there's a fair number that have been exposed as complete fakes: Burned Alive is pretty clearly a hoax, and Jean Sasson's whole Saudi Princess Sultana series has been accused of plagiarism and fictionalisation on several counts, too. (Bantam was also the publisher that first won the bid to publish the religiously taboo potboiler, The Jewel of Medina.)

How am I supposed to feel about this? Should I be awed at the UAE's liberalness in allowing these books to be sold at all in their country? Impressed at the bookstore's enterprising attitude, given that these are exactly the kind of demonising fairy tales the West wants to hear from the Muslim world?

The truth is, of course, that I'm creeped out by how a single Euro-American publisher can corner the market on exploitation exotica, published regardless of fact-checking procedures and accountability, and how an institution in the UAE can lap this up, presenting these stories in the absence of context.

Conservative Islamic culture as practised today does indeed produce human rights nightmares: honour killings and religiously justified rape and abuse and slavery all really do happen. But, lumping the lies together with the truths produces a monstrous, unreal image of the Evil Muslim Man, from whom the pitiful Muslim Woman must be rescued by the West. Gayatri Spivak and Edward Said have said loads about this kind of thing.

And of course, there are genuine, intelligent Muslim female voices speaking out against human rights abuses beyond victim narratives: figures like Irshad Manji, Dina Zaman, Marina Mahathir and Shirin Ebadi. They're the folks the bookstore should stock, right next to the cover jackets of oppressed veiled women, I suppose.

Yeah, it's ironic that I'm addressing issues of authenticity on a blog that mainly deals with fiction. I just freaking hate it when people deliberately misrepresent exotic cultures for their own benefit.

Abu Dhabi Airport

Aside from that, Abu Dhabi Airport is pretty cool, and Etihad Airways is a great way to fly.

See you again on the blog in less than a week, hopefully.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Book 48, Trinidad and Tobago: “A House for Mr Biswas” by V.S. Naipaul

Yet another Nobel Prizewinner from the Caribbean. How the hell do they churn out so many? Been ploughing through this 642-page monster all through my promotional trip to London.

Truth is, I’m not a huge fan. At first I was in awe of how Dickensian it was: the way Naipaul paints his characters in a simultaneously comic and tragic light, with that air of distance – Mr Biswas is named Mr Biswas by the narrator even when he’s a newborn, having his ill fortune told by the pundit.

But as the book goes on, the tragedy turns into farce. Biswas is a Born Loser, failing as a son, failing as a trainee pundit, failing as a husband (and really, no matter how obnoxious the Tulsi family is, his surliness to his benefactors and abuse of his wife is inexcusable), failing in half his jobs as well (though he’s okay as a journalist and sign-painter and just mediocre as a civil servant), also failing as a buyer and builder of houses, which is the whole point of the book: owning a house of one’s own, where one can die with some dignity.

What’s odd amongst all this depressing fuckuppery is that Biswas actually improves his material goods and status over the course of his life: he starts out as a plantation worker’s barefoot son and ends off as a journalist who has his own place, never mind that it’s rickety and it’s left him 4,000 bucks in debt. Is Naipaul saying that development doesn’t count for that much? Or is the idea of the flawed house of one’s own an analogy for Trinidad’s independence (achieved one year after the publication of the book): a mitigated triumph, purchased at unreasonable cost but to be cherished nonetheless? Or maybe it’s just biographical: according to the Wikipedia entry, a lot of it’s based on the life of Naipaul’s own father.

I guess it’s still amazing that a book from Trinidad was able to break into the world market all the way back in 1961. Aside from that, I can’t say it’s worth your time.

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Oh boy, but that's the entire Caribbean archipelago finished and done with! Now back to South America.

Representative quote: How terrible it would have been, at this time, to be without it: to have died among the Tulsis, amid the squalor of that large, disintegrating and indifferent family; to have left Shama and the children among them, in one room; worse, to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one's portion of the earth; to have lived and died as one had been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated.

Next book: Rómulo Gallegos's Doña Bárbara, from Venezuela.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Asymptote Journal is up!

Since I'm still in London, quietly reading A House For Mr Biswas, here's a truckload of translated literature to amuse you: