Soniah Kamal

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'Islam is not Pakistan's religion; Marriage is'

Monday, November 7, 2011

Getting Published after Forty Years of Rejection: Mary Glickman at the MJCCA

I had the great pleasure of listening to authors Mary Glickman and Amy Waldman at the wonderful Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. Amy Waldman is the brilliant author of the must-read, beyond brilliant novel The Submission (more on this novel in another post). The Submission is a debut novel and has soared in a way that all novels, debut or otherwise, dream of soaring. The Submission is, as Mary Glickman would say, 'the right idea at the right time' (of course even right ideas at the right time have to be well executed to get anywhere). Mary Glickman is the author of eight novels, but she is the published author of two,  Home in the Morning and One More River.
Mary's first six novels garnered forty years of rejection; that she plugged on is a measure of the tenacity most writers require if they want to get published (there is also the tenacity required in the face of finally getting published, but to no fanfare, but that is another blog post.
Mary's tenacity truly blew me away. Here is her inspiring story of how she got her agent and the secret to continue creating/writing when the publishing end is not working out ; the secret that all of us know: love the very act of writing, of story telling, and the rest will eventually follow.  

They say you are what you do. Each time I failed, I rolled up my sleeves and started over. Somewhere in there ambition took a back seat and the joy of writing sat up next to me in the catbird one. I was a writer. I had to write. It was what I did.
Rejection—especially 40 years of it—hurts. I’m sorry, Cynthia, it’s not a little death; it’s more like the devastation of plague or flood. But it only hurts oceans if you’re waiting idly when it comes. If you’re working on something new, the new thing is a buffer, it protects you, it gives you fresh hope. The Buddha was right. It’s the process not the goal that sustains you. Trust me.
When I wrote Home in the Morning, I wrote it to please myself. There were reasons I shouldn’t have written it at all. It’s about Southern Jews during the civil rights era. I was born and raised Catholic Yankee. It’s plotted in a nonlinear fashion. Its point of view is an innovation of sorts. I don’t use quotation marks for speech. All risky business for the unpublished. But I enjoyed writing it as I’d never enjoyed writing before.
When it was done, I thought about getting a new agent. Yes, I still had the same agent I’d had back in ’76. I was fond of her, she of me, but I’d nearly 40 years proof we weren’t such a hot match. I was terrified" read rest here.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Review of 'Perfect Peace' by Daniel Black

I began Daniel Black's novel 'Perfect Peace' last night and could not put it down. In 1940s Arkansas Emma Jean gives birth to her sixth son but so desperate is she for a daughter that she lies to everyone that the boy is a girl, a 'girl' she names Perfect. This lie continues till Perfect's eighth birthday.
Black has written a rivetting novel about identity, gender, sexuality and above all flawed parents, their confused children and small town mentality. 'Perfect Peace' (the names in this novel are delicious as is the chapter delineating how each son got his name) raises some very interesting questions about parental obligations and the far reaching legacy of abuse. Had Emma Jean's mother loved her even a little bit would she have been as desperate to cherish a daughter as she herself was never cherished? Had her sisters been a little nicer might they have saved her from herself? Had Gus been a little less worried about community might Perfect's transition have been a little easier for everyone? Had King Solomon's (by far my favorite character) dreams truly broken could he too have entered into the spiral of abuse?
Emma Jean's mother is a thoroughly believable monster whose poisonous spirit informs every page of the novel as does Emma Jean's struggle between hating her mother and desperately wanting to love her and be loved by her. Can people really ever heal from wounds inflicted by parents? Can siblings affection truly be a  balm? Can people honestly find happiness once they 'choose' to settle into lives they know they will regret? Since Emma Jean was herself a victim of 'favoratism' should she have known not to pick and choose amongst her own children? Can a 'sorry' really heal all ills? What sort of a person can and cannot live with regrets?
Black has employed the interesting stylistic device of interrupting a character's present story in order to divulege their future; no doubt for a reader who wants to get to the end only at the end and not in media res this will be very irritating, however, once I got used to this tic I enjoyed it but only because Black prose flows very well and his characters are full and rich. There is so much in this novel-- child abuse, incest, rape, madness, domestic violence, mean spiritedness, shadenfreude,-- which could have been heavy handed and yet is all the more terrible for Black showing these things through his characters rather than harping on about these ills.  I loved the way children innocently told each other how Daddies and Mummies behave. As for the explorations of why it is  'happier' to be a girl rather than a boy and that too a pretty girl, they are pitch perfect and heart breaking. I was also rivetted by the explorations of what it means to be a 'pretty boy' or an 'ugly girl' and how these description, true or not, can mold one's character.
I would have liked more of an ending to Perfect/Paul's story as well as that of Mister and Johnny Ray and King Solomon but is it really a flaw when the reader wants the story to never end?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Indian film 'Delhi Belly': a review.

I'd sworn not to watch 'Delhi Belly'. Someone had told me it was the Indian version of 'The Hangover.' I disliked the film 'The Hangover'. The ludicrous scenarios, the scratching of potbellys, the cliched Chinese characters; nothing made me laugh, everything made me groan. I did not want to sit through another Hangover and certainly not an Indian version of it.

'Delhi Belly', a film by Aamir Khan, is anything but a remake or version of 'The Hangover'. Sure there are three guys and one of them has a potbelly and no qualms about farting, and yes the three guys find themselves in ludicrous situations doing ridiculous things but 'Delhi Belly' is a smart and sassy film, a film where everything within the context makes sense and every character, even the minor ones such as a room service waiter, is given intelligent treatment (though the soon-to-be-exhubby's antics are a little over the top). True 'Delhi Belly' boasts a curse a second and gratuitous cursing makes me very uncomfortable as do sex scenes just for the sake of them in which case they are sleaze scenes but in this case the swearing seemed natural to the characters and fitting to the scenes as did the sexual stuff. In fact I was surprised by how much I laughed and how charmed I was by this film where pottys and potty and potty humor play a starring role. The brilliant acting by everyone, the seamless editing, the edgy, grimy cinamatography, the exciting score, the funny lyrics, the fantastic script, the very opening sequence which sets the viewer on squemish edge to the over the top 'item number' at the end-- everything comes together to provide an exquisitive experience. But I truly dread to think of the dreadful copy cat movies that will follow this gem because humor of this sort can so easily go disgustingly wrong.
Indian cinema is becoming a treat to watch these days with smart commercial films like Om Shanti Om, Jab We Met, Baand Baja Baarat, Luck by Chance, Rang de Basanti, 3 Idiots and now 'Delhi Belly.' 'Delhi Belly' is the first Indian film in English and yes 'Delhi Belly' does refer to a mean diarrhea caused by less than hygenic food. The faint of heart will certainly think this is a less than hygenic and more than distasteful movie, and please it is NOT for kids of any age, but as my friends and I left the theatre we thought it was smart, solid entertainment.  I'd sworn not to watch 'Delhi Belly' but I got roped into it and am I glad I did!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Passing, Ageism and Being Your True Self

"Everyone has some point at which they think that, all things considered, it's not that in those circumstances lying isn't wrong, it's just that telling the truth would be so much worse. I am the SS. Do you have any Jews in your cellar? Does anyone think the right answer is yes, if it's true?" Appiah went , "But I do think there is a separate issue with identity questions. If you are asked directly to reveal your deepest sense of who you are, it's particularly difficult not toe tell the truth. This is especially true in the free world, in the modern world, because we have this idea that you have the right to express your identity in the social world. And that one of the things that's wrong with the situations that force people to pass."

"Black for white passing first brought the Americanism passing into use...passing looks a lot different in our time than it did in the pre-civil rights days..."
from Passing: When People Can't Be Who They Are by Brooke Kroeger, 2003

In 'Passing: When People Can't be Who They Are', Brooke Kroeger explores people who pass in our socially less rigid times for who they are not and yet feel they must be in order to reap advantages otherwise unavailable to them. Where once upon a time blacks and Jews needed to pass as white or gentiles to lead better lives and often to save their lives, today the modern-day passers Kroeger writes about are predominantly homosexuals whose lives might not be threatened but whose opportunties and dreams certainly are e.g. a gay Jew who want to become a Rabbi, a lesbian Naval officer referred to as the Careerist in the book because even after retirement she cannot come out of 'hiding/passing' on risk of being Court Martialed and losing her pension built upon twenty years of service. However there are other instances in the book, for example the Walt Whitman Award winning poet/Village Voice pop music critic who, in order to write his criticisms takes on the pseudonym of a woman simply because the 'authentic voice' comes to him in the persona of Jane Dark. When he was 'outed', the persons that he'd 'lied' to seemed less offended/upset, if at all, than he was upset with himself. Society accepted his 'deceit/pretense/alter ego/fluid identity' call it what you will while he himself seemed to find society's blatant okayness problematic...

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt

An engaging anthology with consistently good, thought provoking writing is an elusive creature which is why 'The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt' edited by Ruth Andrew Ellenson is such a treat. The women in here are guilty, some of wanting Christmas trees, others of not keeping kosher and yet others of not getting married at all, or to the right man, or of not wanting kids.  These are universal enough issues of individual desires against traditional demands, however what makes this such a worthy anthology is how sensitively and deeply the writers have written about their problems. Here there are no cliched statements threaded together leading to trite happy-happy-joy-joy endings. The first essay I turned to was 'Great, My Daughter is Marrying a Nazi' by Jenna Kalinsky. Jenna fell in love and married a German who is obviously not a Nazi and yet, half a century after the Holocaust, history defines  the terms of their relationship be it the form of the people she meets in Germany all too eager to welcome her or the signs and monuments about what happened to the Jews at this particular spot. Jenna's essay deals with memory and how to move on when everything around you wants you to do the opposite. Jenna's writing is so candid, so probing that her voice and her experiences merit a full memoir on this topic which I for one would be eager to read. I think were an essay on Israel and Palestine included in this anthology it would have been the far richer for it, as it is, the scattered mentionings of the issue and the guilt it evokes, make the absence all the more glaring. Another fantastic essay on land and home and loyalty and identity is Ayelet Waldman's  'Land of My Father' in which Waldman explores her feelings for Israel and America and which one is really home.  Gina Nahai's thought provoking essay 'Mercy' delves into the relationship between her Jewish-Iranian grandmother and French-Catholic grandmother  and their influences on her life. In 'Big Mouth: Jewish Women and Appetite', Wendy Shanker begins her gorgeous exploration of body image and what fat really implies with a Japanese Reiki practioner asking her 'Why are all Jewish woman so fat?'  And in 'Spot the Jew', Baz Dreisinger continues the conversation about self worth and what it means to fit a stereotype: "Looking back now, I see that my high and mighty attitude was simply a way of dealing with the beauty standards of Jewish high school-- which, I'm told, are as straightforward today as they were back in the 90s. In my high school, the more 'un-Jewish' you looked, the more beautiful you were. White was right; Jew was P-U. That meant culry hair was a no; kinky hair a no-no; and blow dryers, and absolute necessity. Short or shapely was unflattering; flat and long, stunning. Any girl who had miraculously managed to be blonde-- even dirty blonde, even boosted-by-a-bottle-blonde-- had the whole school at her pseudo-shiksa feet."  This particular passage reminded me of Toni Morrison's novel 'The Bluest Eye', as well as all the girls I know, no matter where they are originally from, going into paraxosyms over how beautiful it is to have little or no butt or breasts i.e. being flat and tall. And that is the beauty of all these essays; to see one's own guilt, worries and many, many affirmations reflected within. Yes the girls in these essays are guilty, but that does not mean that all guilt is debilating or wrong; indeed guilt is good and this is a worthy guide to get you there.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Kitchen Sink Realism and Holly Goddard Jones

Chapter 16 interviews one of my favorite authors, Holly Goddard Jones. I'm crazy about her short story collection 'Girl Trouble.' Apparently her style is 'kitchen sink realism'. Good to know this is the style that makes me melt. Kitchen sink realism is fiction about regional, blue collar America. I'm not blue collar America, and think I have always, in all respects, been far away from regional. But these stories speak to me, ruin me even, in that each character no matter how 'regional' is tackling issues which are ridiculously universal, issues which pierce the human heart and draw blood no matter who you are and which social rung you hang your beret. Goddard's characters, as she says in this interview, over think and are aware of their problems: that's means they're smart but they are also sad. And few characters are as satisfying to spend time with than those who are smart but sad.  Goddard does use alot of exposition in her stories, more 'tell' and less 'show' but, for me, her telling has a psycological depth that is phenomenally nuanced and more satisfying to read than a million pages of showing.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Egypt, Revolution, Democracy and How it is Done

Mabrook Egypt! And Tunisia too (talk about ripple effects!) Liberty, the struggle for and the attainment of, is just as exciting and intoxicating  for those like myself sitting on a couch and watching TV/internet all these many days. So heady to hear hope and pride and sheer happiness and amazement. It ignites life in all of us despite the rough logistical road ahead. To finally see the women joining the men in Tahrir Square is pure joy! It is also very interesting how modern technology was put to use in this freedom struggle.
I am not Arab but I feel so proud.  I slept to Mubarek causing confusion and delay and woke to him finally stepping down. I wonder who's crying more, he or his opportunistic wife? But it's not just Mr. and Ms. Hosni Mubarek who will have to learn to lead a new life. Real change in Egypt will come when the military and the police learn how to live in a democracy and use their gun power to protect the people rather than terrorize them into obedience.
As for coverage: I think CNN U.S. did a decent job (CNN International has excellent coverage and may as well be from a different world than CNN U.S.-- unfortunately CNN International not offered to U.S. viewers).  FOX News proved to be ridiculous once again since it couldn't stop talking about the Muslim Brotherhood. Al Jazeera rocked and ruled. It is shame that U.S. cable networks claim they do not carry Al-Jazeera English because there is not enough demand. Really we American viewers are being deprived of excellent news coverage and need to demand that it be offered as it already is in Ohio, Vermont and D.C. (You will learn more about the world watching five minutes of Al-Jazeera than you will watching five years of any U.S. news channel).

As for the U.S. and democracy -- this is how democracy comes to dawn.  Today in Egypt's Tahir Square celebrators celebrate with fire, with flame, with waving flags. I think back to Iraq and feel sad. I think back to Iraq and that horrid day when Iraq's night skies were lit up with 'shock and awe.'  This is how deomocracy comes to dawn, U.S. lest you forget.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Black Swan- the film

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 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 emotional blackmailing or dictatorial proclamations. And while in India and Pakistan it is marriage that may 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 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 as well as that of her rival played by Mila Kunis 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. 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 sexual adventure-- good or bad-- is touted as being the panacea which will save the world or at the very least repressed individuals. 
ps.  when it comes to monstrous screen mothers, the religious nut mother in the film adaptation of Stephen King's novel 'Carrie' still takes the cake
pps. religion is not the panacea either