Category Archives: essays

This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life by David Foster Wallace

This Is Water by David Foster Wallace Title: This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life
Author: David Foster Wallace
Publisher: Little, Brown
ISBN: 978-0316068222
Genre: Non-Fiction, Speech
Pages: 144
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I have read quite a few commencement speeches by authors. Authors who celebrate creativity (Rowling), some who talk about making art great again or creating good art (Gaiman) and some others who speak of the future and what it has in store (Saunders). And then there is someone like Foster Wallace who gives it to you the way it is – the real world, with no sugar-coating whatsoever.

I knew that would be the case once I received this backlist title from the good folks at Hachette India. David Foster Wallace has left behind a legacy. A cannon of work that I at least read in bits and pieces because sometimes what he says is too much to bear.

This is Water is a speech given by Foster Wallace to the graduating class at Kenyon College in 2005. He starts with a little parable – the one that seems like one, and quickly goes on to break that mode of starting a commencement speech. David’s speech is a trove of wisdom and compassion, thought provoking, and what it means to live in the 21st century.

I think the thing about such books that there is no single universal message. There is something that relates with everyone. The message of giving up on the rat-race (is that even possible?), the one that speaks about awareness, self-consciousness before saying or doing what we say or do (this one hit home real hard), or just the one to understand what it means to give and sometimes sacrifice a little bit, if you have to.

David Foster Wallace doesn’t speak of glory in the most basic terms. There is glory in empathy. There is glory in understanding. There is glory in small efforts as he rightly puts it. This is Water is the kind of book that is needed at every stage of life. The speech will resonate throughout.

I will leave you with this thought that is my favourite from this read:

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

 

 

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

Tell Me How It Ends - An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli Title: Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions
Author: Valeria Luiselli
Publisher: Coffee House Press
ISBN: 978-1566894951
Genre: Essays, Emigration and Immigration Studies
Pages: 128
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 stars

Some books leave an impact that lasts forever. Tell Me How It Ends is one such book. A book about migrant children – children who have crossed into the border of United States of America illegally from these three countries – Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. And why so many children migrated to the US of A between 2014 and perhaps continue to till today? Well, the reasons were simple – to escape gang violence of their countries, to escape poverty, and to flee abuse from their own families or people outside of their families.

This book is not an easy one to read, and you would’ve guessed that by now. It is a book that made me think and question so many things around us – why do we think we own the land we are born on? What makes us think that parts of the earth belong to different people and not to all of us? Why are we the way we are when it comes to people who seek asylum or shelter in our countries? Why aren’t we more inclusive? And this book is about child migrants – these children are anywhere from the ages of five to seventeen and they are usually accompanied by coyotes to enter the US of A.

These are the children who are murdered along the way, go missing, are raped, and abused – all for the dream to make a better living, to escape what they wanted, and most importantly to never go back to that life. They cross the border, hand themselves over to the border officer who then notifies their relatives/family about them and then a trial begins. Luiselli’s job for some time was that of a translator – she had to translate answers to forty questions asked of these children – Why did they want to come to the US? Did they face any problem getting there? Do they have family in the US? These questions are what make this book’s subtitle: An Essay in Forty Questions.

Tell Me How It Ends is what Luisell’s six-year-old daughter (then six) asks her. Tell Me How It Ends. What is the fate of these children? Why does the US Government not want to acknowledge their role in children migrating? The gangs are but of course started to meet the drug demands of the people living in the US. That’s one part of it. The book breaks you. It makes you want people to sit up and take action. And then Luiselli speaks of Trump in her post-script note. She speaks of the horror that this man is and the fear that exists. But this book is also about hope and what it can do to change things.

Tell Me How It Ends is a book that makes us think about ourselves in the context of the world, humanity, and the selfishness we are made of. How we perceive people given their race, class, skin colour, and who they are, most importantly where they come from. It is a book that is not for the weak-hearted. I would recommend it every single time. While you are at it, also read “Lost Children Archive”, the first full-length novel by Valeria Luiselli on lost children, migrants, and what is called home.

What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break The Silence. Edited by Michele Filgate

What My Mother and I Don't Talk About Title: What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break The Silence
Edited by Michele Filgate
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
ISBN: 978-1982107345
Genre: Essays
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

Relationships are complex. Most relationships are not easy to navigate around. I think the one we share with our parents is most difficult. I have always had a problem expressing what I feel to my parents. I think it just stemmed from the fact that we do not speak enough or try to make ourselves heard enough. This has nothing to do with love not being there, or not being brought up in a healthy environment (at least in my case). It is just that we have not learned how to communicate with them. Perhaps that needs to change and maybe it will. Only time and effort can tell, to be honest.

What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About is a compilation of essays by fifteen writers, edited by Michele Filgate. As the title suggests it is about breaking the silence. It is about talking to our mothers about what matters or has mattered the most. The collection starts with Michele’s essay about being abused by her stepfather. This took her almost more than a decade to write about and then to think how it would affect her relationship with her mother. This in turn encouraged her to reach out to other writers and see how they look at their relationships with their mothers.

The collection see-saws from one extreme to another – while some writers are extremely close to their mothers, some are estranged beyond repair. It is the question of also mothers being first homes as we make our way into the world and a support system for most. The one whose validation we seek the most and the one with whom we also fight the most. This collection is solid and comes from a diverse selection of writers and what they do not talk about: family, love, abuse, secrets, expectations, and disappointments to say the least.

My favourite pieces from the book were the ones written by Alexander Chee (about his sexual abuse and his not being able to fit in at school at the same time), Michele Filgate (as I mentioned it is about abuse by her stepfather), Brandon Taylor, (most heart wrenching according to me about how he wish he could’ve understood his mother better), and Nayomi Munaweera (she speaks about her mother’s borderline personality disorder).

Regret, estrangement, the universal feeling of love and pain are the running themes in this book. There is a common trait that we all identify and relate with: That of lack of communication. How sometimes mothers don’t listen and how we don’t say what we must. But not all of the essays stem out of pain. Some are funny (rare) and some are just looking at their mothers differently – a new perspective and realising themselves in the process, which I think we must all look at.

Reading an essay or a collection of essays such as these is so intimate that it physically hurts you. It makes you see yourself as a person and whether or not you have evolved in relation to your mother. What is the basis of your relationship with her, beside the fact that she gave birth to you? What it actually means to get closure when you need it the most? What it does to you to take the step and speak out loud? What would it then do to your other relationships, once you cross this barrier with your mother and try and face the concealed truth? We all go through this. We have all been there. This book if anything speaks to all of us and will for sure make you sit up and perhaps call your mother.

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.

 

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.