Category Archives: essays

It’s Not About The Burqa: Muslim Women on Faith, Feminism, Sexuality, and Race. Edited by Mariam Khan

It's Not About The Burqa

Title: It’s Not About The Burqa: Muslim Women on Faith, Feminism, Sexuality, and Race
Edited by Mariam Khan
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-1509886401
Genre: Essays, Anthology,
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Since time immemorial, women have been taught to be silent, or forced into silence, or submission. We have been following that for centuries now, maybe earlier than that. Women are seen or heard through a filter, and for what it’s worth it is 2019 and we should be done with all filters. It’s Not About The Burqa – an anthology of Muslim Women by Muslim Women does just that. It is about voices unfiltered – bare and open, waiting to be heard.

The idea of the anthology occurred to Mariam Khan when in 2016 she read that David Cameron had linked the radicalisation of Muslim men to the “submissive nature” of Muslim women. And this led to Mariam thinking that why was she hearing this about Muslim women from a man, and that too who wasn’t Muslim? As years passed since this comment, she realised a lot of Muslim women voices were buried or drowned. She then decided to come up with this anthology.

What is also funny is that in the Western world, the Burqa is perhaps the only thing with which Muslim women are linked or identified. The title of the book says it all – that this book is much more and beyond that. Might I also add that the title is no way “just an attention grabber”. There is more to it, which is evident right from the introduction. Mariam Khan along with her 16 other contributors, bring you a collection that is trying to change the way you look at women, at Muslim women in particular and try and look beyond the stereotypes and boxes they are carefully placed in every single day.

The issues are several. They have chosen a few, that’s also because it is next to impossible to cover such a wide range of their culture, and the way they live. From an essay by Sufiya Ahmed (The First Feminist) that speaks of how she found her courage in the book given to her by her father, when she realised that the first feminist was actually Khadija – the Prophet’s wife and how that propelled her to making her own choices, to the first one in the book by Mona Eltahawy on how the time of revolutions has come, this anthology surprises, shocks, and in turns also makes you laugh and cry.

There are others that I loved: Not Just A Black Muslim Woman by Raifa Rafiq – handling the minutest minority – Black, Muslim, and a Woman. The honesty of the essay left me wanting more. There was another one on being a Muslim woman and dealing with depression – when you are told day-in and day-out that there is nothing known as depression. This essay by Jamilla Hekmoun had me gripped and choked.

I think what most people forget, and mainly men that women are so much more. This anthology in more than one way is a reminder of that. The essays, and to me each of them gave me a perspective that I couldn’t think of – some I could, most I couldn’t. I could sense the anger, and again, it’s time that the anger and passion comes through, which it does without a doubt in these essays. These women write about the hijab, about sex and the female pleasure, about divorce, the need for open conversations about sex and identity, and mental health among others.

Its Not About The Burqa is a call to everyone – to sit up, notice, and understand that you cannot reduce Muslim women to pieces of clothing. This book will not disappoint at all. You also need to go without any expectations and let all their experiences wash over you and be ready to listen. To listen to voices that do not get heard. To listen to a representation – even as a sample perhaps, widening perspectives and the need to be empathetic and above all the will to accept and understand.

 

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The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations by Toni Morrison

The Source of Self-Regard Title: The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations
Author: Toni Morrison
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0525521037
Genre: Literary Speeches, Anthologies
Pages: 386
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Toni Morrison’s collection of essays don’t follow a timeline, neither it is linear, nor it is set in an order to make it easy for the reader. At first glance, it might even seem just a random collection of essays, speeches and meditations put together, however, it isn’t that. The book, “The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations” is actually a book that speaks directly to the contemporary reader, and hence the order of essays. It goes headlong into speaking about issues at hand and whoelse better to address and them and show us the mirror than the queen herself, Ms. Morrison.

The book is divided into two parts, with an interlude. The first part is titled, “The Foreigner’s Home”, the second, “God’s Language” and in-between is the interlude aptly titled, “Black Matter(s)”. This is the structure of the book – it is Ms. Morrison’s essays, speeches, and meditations on living, race, gender, language, and the current role of politics in America and in effect its relation to the world. It is also about the duty of the press and media and what is the role of the artist in all of this. As a reader, please be prepared to face harsh realities, question the world around you and ponder over issues you never thought of earlier.

Morrison doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind. The candour is not just for the sake of it. This collection is deeply personal as well. From why she became a writer (Faulkner and Women) to her thoughts on Beloved. At the same time, this collection as every reader will know is about race and what it means to be black in America, not only today but for decades and centuries and how have that played out for the black person.

Toni Morrison writes with such elegance and dignity that you get caught up in her words, and then focus on the ideas, going back to the power of her prose. The interlude piece on Martin Luther King Jr. is not only searching but also mirrors the contemporary times. In the essay, Voyagers to the West, she speaks of the Scottish pioneer William Dunbar, and how he managed to build a fortune trading slave, and how ironically his achievements are extoled till date. This is the kind of voice Morrison is all about – she knows exactly when to make the impact felt through her words and how deep.

Morrison also speaks of writers and how they impact the mindset of readers. She speaks of how jazz brought American blacks a different kind of legitimacy. She also talks about why American and English writers could not speak for people of colour, hence the onus was only on black writers to do that. Literature then took a different form altogether, and its voice wasn’t restricted in a way is what I could make out of it. In her most poignant tribute to James Baldwin, the eulogy she delivered at Baldwin’s funeral on December 8, 1987, she honours his literature, his voice, and how he used language so tenderly. Morrison’s heart is almost laid bare in this – this tribute of sorts to a dear friend. It is almost as if you start becoming her friend, piece by piece.

“Jimmy, there is too much to think about you, and much too much to feel,” she begins. “The difficulty is your life refuses summation—it always did—and invites contemplation instead. Like many of us left here, I thought I knew you. Now I discover that, in your company, it is myself I know. That is the astonishing gift of your art and your friendship: You gave us ourselves to think about, to cherish.”

Toni Morrison’s writing is not only simple, but elegant to the bone. It is as though you are speaking with a friend, an elder, a teacher of sorts who is telling you about life and its ways. Throughout the book, Morrison speaks of the personal and the political and how they are intertwined. The first section, The Foreigner’s Home deals not only with race, but also with the question: What is Home? Where do you find it? What does it mean? At the same time, the section has essays wide ranging from “Literature and Public Life” and also her Nobel lecture.

The third section of the book is my most favourite – the one where she speaks of language, authors, and the power of words. The essay on Beloved – how she came to write it and what it means to her, almost made me cry. Toni Morrison’s commentary on her own work – The Bluest Eye, Sula, Tar Baby, Jazz, Beloved, and Paradise are honest, and she understands the time and space she wrote them in and how they might be read differently today.

Morrison’s works – fiction and nonfiction are always relatable. One doesn’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but the heart of the matter is the writing – from conception of plot to the way her sentences are constructed, every step is well-thought of and crafted.

I am convinced that there is nothing Ms. Morrison cannot write about. It is almost as if she has to just enter the space and something extraordinary emerges out of her pen. Her voice we all know is unique and original, but that’s not what makes an impact. I think it is the emotional intensity attached to it that makes all the difference, every single time.

The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations as a collection of essays couldn’t have been compiled and published at a better time. We inhabit a world where people are extremely conflicted about issues of race, language, colour, and above all what entails to be human. I also would strongly recommend this book to every person who wants to understand home, race, the black person’s struggle, the place of literature in the world, and how it impacts us all. The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations is illuminating, thought-provoking, and above all every piece has just been written from the heart.

 

Call Them By Their True Names: American Crises (And Essays) by Rebecca Solnit

call them by their true names- american crises (and essays) by rebecca solnit Title: Call Them By Their True Names: American Crises (And Essays)
Author: Rebecca Solnit
Publisher: Granta Books
ISBN: 978-1783784974
Genre: Political Science, Feminist Criticism, Essays
Pages: 192
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I think I would read Solnit even if she would write in a greeting card. She is that powerful as a writer, and I am sure a great human being. Rebecca Solnit has written on a varied number of topics – from the history of walking, to space and how to maintain it, to bow to get lost, to how men explain things to women – she has touched every single surface when it comes to writing (more or less), and this time this collection of essays is her masterstroke.

These essays are telling of our times and it is scary to observe the world we live in. Solnit speaks of the election of Donald Trump and makes no bones about her disagreement. Her essays more than being timely or savage are honest and backed with facts. The insights are spot-on and attempt to diagnose what ails the American culture. Right from the MeToo movement to the incarceration of African-American men, to the misleading speech of President Trump, Solnit emerges as one of the most powerful cultural critics that the world of literature possesses.

Solnit’s writing is powerful, stark and a representation of the times we live in. This collection of essays ends with the injustice Americans (mostly) face every single day – from the cynicism, to police shootings, the gentrification, and the crises that ultimately define America today. As she so eloquently puts it, ““Being careful and precise about language is one way to oppose the disintegration of meaning, to encourage the beloved community and the conversations that inculcate hope and vision. Calling things by their true names is the work I have tried to do in the essays here.”

The primary ideas behind the book are the naming and precision of language which somehow also tends to fall short somewhere, more so in alignment with what Solnit is trying to talk about. Sure it is from a very personal space and she acknowledges that. My favourite essays were: “Twenty Million Missing Storytellers”, which is on voter suppression, “Milestones in Misogyny” about the 2016 presidential election is sympathetic to Clinton and I thought was written with a lot of force.

“Call Them By Their True Names” is a powerful read, the one that makes you question, stand up, take notice and see what is going on with America and therefore with the rest of the world. The one that deserves to be read right now!

 

Art Matters by Neil Gaiman. Illustrated by Chris Riddell

Art Matters by Neil Gaiman. Illustrated by Chris Riddell Title: Art Matters
Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrated by Chris Riddell
Publisher: Headline Publishing Group, Headline Review, Hachette Books
ISBN: 9781472260086
Genre: Nonfiction
Pages: 112
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

It has been established the world over (if not, then it should be) that Neil Gaiman is one of the most prolific writers that we have, and we must never forget that. In fact, we must cherish what we have every single day and celebrate him by reading more of him, but obviously, day after day.

Art Matters is a collection of his short essays (all previously published individually and collectively in The View from the Cheap Seats) about art, reading, libraries, and why all of it is so important even more so in today’s time and age.

I love what Gaiman writes, and even though I’d read these pieces earlier, with Chris Riddell’s illustrations, they seemed different, more invigorating, and captivating to say the least. There is something about the power of the written word, isn’t it? That’s what this book is about primarily – about words, reading, and how the world can be changed, one book at a time.

Of course, the piece that stands out for me is Make Good Art, in which Gaiman talks to us about how he started writing books, how to do what you really want to do, push boundaries, and be what you set out to be. Yes, it does sound self-help like and maybe it is, but coming from Gaiman, everything is great and achievable and inspiring.

I am not saying this as a fanboy, it’s just that this book really inspires you to step out and make good art. And not to forget that the Make Good Art piece has come from his commencement address at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts in May 2012, which I am linking below. The illustrations by Chris Riddell are as usual stupendous and go hand in glove with Gaiman’s prose. Though, I would love to see how this book comes alive in colour as well. Maybe, even a graphic version of these four pieces and more.

Make Good Art just makes you want to go out there and create. Be it anything. A sentence even, or just those two hundred words you’ve been telling yourself you will write, or the composition you are stuck at, or when you feel that you just cannot create anything, this book will at least inspire if nothing else. Read this. Read it again like me, if you have already read them. The illustrations and the reminding of what great art can do is absolutely worth the experience.

Link to the commencement speech:

 

Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays by Joan Didion

Slouching Towards Bethlehem Title: Slouching Towards Bethlehem : Essays
Author: Joan Didion
Publisher: Picador Modern Classics
ISBN: 978-1250160652
Genre: Essays, Non-Fiction
Pages: 384
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I love Didion’s writing. So I may be biased, but that’s alright. I remember the first time I read Didion. It was “The Year of Magical Thinking” and I was floored. I was gutted as well, amongst other things that I was feeling as the book ended.

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is a collection of essays written in the 1960s, almost fifty years ago – a time and place that current readers have not and will not experience (not that I have as well). At the same time, somehow while reading the book, it all came alive right then and there. Didion paints not just one image but a landscape on paper. Her talent is truly timeless and every time she writes something, she almost supersedes the last piece/book.

Didion’s writing though may seem America-centric but is actually quite deceptive, in the sense, it encompasses the world-view which you only understand after a couple of essays. Maybe that’s why (one of the many reasons for sure) that this book was the one that was the essential breakout work.

Didion’s prose is grounded. It doesn’t stray at any point in time. From speaking of Joan Baez (which is a very affectionate portrait of a highly intelligent woman) to a think piece on the Santa Barbara Coast to Las Vegas and the culture of quickie marriages, there is always this sense of voyeurism and at the same time,​ this need to soak in more of what she writes. This collection, ​in fact, reminded of her other collection of essays, The White Album and After Henry, whose content is very similar to “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”.

It takes a while to kick into the book, but it is also a good beach read (Surprised? So was I when I started it on a quick getaway). Her musings about life, in general,​ are also worth reading, even if you might not agree with some. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is one of the best essay collection you will ever read. So, please do not miss out on it. ​