Thursday, July 19, 2007

International Literature: SHALIMAR THE CLOWN by Salman Rushdie and ON BEAUTY by Zadie Smith

I recently finished an unabridged audio version of Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown, wonderfully read by Aasif Mandvi, which was my second Rushdie book. Between it and my first, Midnight's Children, I'm getting a sense of Rushdie's style: chronologically fluid, satirical, politically aware, epic, occasionally fantastical. Both books follow fictional characters through lives positioned, like Forrest Gump's, in places such as the former Bombay, Kashmir, and Los Angeles at significant moments in recent history. In Shalimar, that includes the German occupation of France during WWII, the Rodney King fiasco(s), various acts of extremist Islamic terrorism, and the destruction of the tolerant people and the beautiful land of Kashmir at the hands of India, Pakistan, and those terrorists. There are many far more in-depth reviews of his book available online - most of them somewhat critical of the book, which perspective I don't share. For my part, about the whole book, I will simply say that I loved it. I also love Rushdie's style, which reading two of his books has helped me better understand, and I will read more of his work as soon as I can. (I met him once, but that's a story for another time.)

My particular purpose in this post is to discuss my feminist perspective on certain aspects of the book. There is a moment in Shalimar in which the title character's mother, Firdaus Noman, blames herself for her son's anger, which begins when he learns that his wife has cuckolded him - although it should be noted that he had very early indicated to his beautiful Hindu future wife, Bhoomi/Boonyi Kaul, that he would be violent if he ever had reason to be jealous - and results in his murder, first as a terrorist and then as a vengeful husband, of countless victims across the globe. (By the way, I'm not giving anything away that you can't learn in either the most standard online review or the first few chapters.) Firdaus, however, tells herself, on recognizing her son's anger, that she would never be quarrelsome again. Yet another of her sons, Anees Noman, is essentially a hero in a brief but incredibly emotional part of this book - and even without that it's clear that what becomes of Shalimar (nee Noman Sher Noman) has little to do with his mother.

Rushdie demonstrates his awareness - and, I think, his disapproval - of the world's mother- and woman-blaming tendencies in this way in this book. Of course the adulterous Boonyi - and the consistently adulterous Max Ophuls (who, interestingly enough, shares his name with a real person) - deserve blame for their dishonesty in those choices in this book. But the magnitude of events for which she is blamed - and, ultimately, punished - is way out of scope in terms of her error.

However, stepmother-demonization is also very present at times in this book, and Rushdie does not do anything that would cause or allow readers to question that. Max's wife, Margaret "Peggy/The Grey Rat" Rhodes, we learn, is (and always has been) frigid and barren - and also understandably bitter over her husband's incessant philandering. Impelled to some extent by a prophetic (and thus self-fulfilling) dream, Peggy connives to compel Boonyi into giving up her daughter, whom Peggy takes to America to raise by herself. When the inevitable questions arise, she lies to her "adopted" daughter as much as she can about the child's own origins, thus keeping her from her birth mother and almost entirely from her (thus beloved) father. Perhaps to some extent driven by those questions, Peggy ultimately becomes disinterested in the child, who as a teenager acts out in almost every imaginable way. It is only after Max's murder, when the daughter, India Rhodes (later Ophuls, nee Kashmira Noman) has already learned of her birth mother's identity, that Peggy tells her daughter a little of the truth - and provides a photo of Boonyi during her brief period of obesity. It is the only photo of her natural mother that India ever sees. The portrait of the stereotypical stepmother/single mother/nontraditional mother - from the barrenness and frigidity to the conniving, hateful, controlling, lying, unloving behavior related to "her" child, all of which is usually used to indicate unwomanliness and unfemininity - is unmistakable and disappointing.

By chance, the next long audiobook that I'm "reading" - and also vastly enjoying! - is Zadie Smith's On Beauty. I think that I read part of her White Teeth before, but I don't remember whether I ever finished it. Both Shalimar and Beauty feature interracial and adulterous relationships and are set both in and outside of the U.S. The days of "outsiders" not understanding the States are over: You'd never know that Smith and Rushdie weren't American citizens by the way that they seem to "get" the nuances of our culture. Rushdie has, of course, lived in the States, but Smith, it seems, hasn't. Beauty is not postmodernist, like Rushdie's work, though; for instance, so far it's proceeded in chronological order. Intriguingly, it does seem to be a modern take on the themes of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which my mom and I saw, starring Kathleen Turner, in London last May. Academia, relationships, disappointment - it's all there.

There's a mother-son moment in the play, too: As I noted in my blog after first seeing it last summer, in Virginia Woolf, the wife expresses her awareness of the controlling mother/screwed up son ideology, even though neither is actually relevant to the woman's life, since she doesn't actually have a son. I'm only maybe a third of the way into Smith's book, but I've already found a mother-son moment here too: one of the main characters, Kiki Belsey, congratulates herself for producing "a young black man of intelligence and sensibility" - although she was then "mildly annoyed" to find that hers was not the only young Black man at the free Mozart concert (pt.1 ch.7). Smith goes on:

Undeterred, Kiki continues her imaginary speech to the imaginary Guild of Black American Mothers: And there's no big secret, not at all. You just need to have faith, I guess. And you need to counter the dismal self-image that Black men receive as their birthright from America - that's essential. And I don't know, get involved in after-school activities, have books around the house, and sure, have a little money, and a house with outdoor--

Despite the Belsey family's determined liberalism, they are not, as you can see, free from unfortunate biases. They are most of them a little racist toward Black people darker than the half-White Belsey children. Kiki is clearly a little classist. Jerome, the boy of whom Kiki was feeling so proud above, seems to take his mother's side when his father neglects her, but her daughter Zora blames Kiki for Howard Belsey's affair more than Zora blames Howard himself, citing Kiki's weight and non-intellectualism - and thus turning off a smart, handsome, talented young Black man who otherwise might have been interested in her. It's an interesting family portrait so far.

Incidentally, I'm apparently not the first to notice the connections between Shalimar and Beauty. Barnes & Noble Online lists On Beauty as the book most frequently purchased by those buying Shalimar the Clown.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

On feminism: How far we have and haven't come

[Originally posted on Friday on my Gather page, where it's been rated 10/10 by 9 different readers and garnered 13 comments]

Sometimes I take care of my husband, and sometimes my husband takes care of me. Usually it is I who takes the cars in to get the oil changed or other maintenance/repairs done. If I left it up to Dennis - as enviably undistractable as he usually is - it wouldn't happen in what I consider to be an appropriate time frame. I want my family to be safe. I want our cars to last. And heck, when I get offered a mystery shop and his is the only car that I could use, why not get it done, when it's ultimately for free? That saves us, as a family, money.

But when I mentioned to my mom that I was getting Dennis's car fixed one day, she was horrified. She had never done that for Dad - ever. If anything, she usually had him do it for her. She worried that I might be getting into the habit of doing for my husband. She worried that I might become a bit of a slave.

Her perspective initially surprised me. Later, I realized, though, that what the conversation demonstrated was the difference between the situation of my mom's generation of women and my own. Let me explain.

There was a huge debate on Feministing a little while back about women changing their names after marriage. I posted some excerpts from it here. One of the points that came out of that debate, though, was the fact that - because feminists cannot choose to take their husbands' names upon marriage without feeling guilty, without feeling compelled to defend their decisions, without wondering whether they're just justifying a preference created in them by their socialization as women - women are not free from the influence of societal expectations on that subject. Until a woman can take her husband's name and it means nothing much different than keeping her own name (or until a woman can choose to NOT have an abortion, or until a mother can choose to NOT go back to work after the birth of her children, etc.), we are not free. We do not have free choice. Those are areas in which we haven't progressed enough.

But I do have some freedoms that my mom didn't: I can "do for" my husband without losing any of my sense of myself as a strong, independent, feminist woman. If anything, it actually shows my strength. Many women avoid taking their cars to repair shops because of the rampant sexism there. But in our house, I am the one who takes the cars in. I have enough of my own that I can afford to give some away.

I have seen men and women put forth the argument that women are privileged because they can play the gender card both ways: They can demand to be treated as strong when it suits them at some times, and they can demand to be treated as weak when it suits them at others. (The so-called Father's Rights movement is evidence that men can do the same, by the way.) I would argue that that's just more evidence of how far we haven't come: If women weren't still expected to be inherently weak and men weren't still expected to be inherently strong, we could all be both at various times - as is natural, after all - without it being so fraught with emotion and political import. And then maybe there wouldn't be women like Ann Coulter and Monica Goodling, who play up men's power to furtively secure their own, meanwhile hurting, through their example, the chances of other women nationwide who are not so willing to set back the clock for their own private gain. They only get away with it because of patriarchy. If men are jealous, they should support feminism in its fight against such problematic gender expectations. If we ever get to a time when people of all genders can choose to be weak or strong without it meaning much either way, then we'll know just how far we've come. But that's hard to imagine, I know.

[A clarification that I posted in response to one of those comments:]

I did not say that feminists are "feeling guilt about not changing your last name after marriage or guilt about killing your unborn babies"; rather, I said that they're feeling guilty about CHANGING their last names and/or KEEPING their babies because society is still so vociferous about those decisions that it's hard to know whether your decision in those directions is still actually your own. I made a decision to keep a baby myself, and as a result for a time I pointed out that one of the valuable things about legal abortion is that it enables keeping a baby to be a free choice rather than a choice between one's own life and death, and that makes it a lot easier to be a good parent during the tough times - such as the 24th month of interrupted sleep as a single student/parent. After all, most people are more likely to put their souls into the career of their choice than they would into work at gunpoint, just as most are more likely to enjoy making love than they would getting raped. But now I'm beginning to wonder whether my decision truly was free or whether I felt that it was the right choice because of all of the media-broadcast anti-abortion harping that I know I'd been exposed to even then. I resent that for clouding my certainty that where I am in my life today is where I chose to be - but really, I can't have that anyway, since I also know that part of why I am where I am today is because of my White heterosexual privilege. That's another way that we'd all benefit from true equality of opportunity: There'd be no reason to think that we'd gotten to where we are today because of anything other than our inherent abilities, our personal choices, and the equal opportunities that we all, as members of society, deserve. Oh, I'm dreaming now....