Tag Archives: nonfiction

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.

 

Advertisements

The Sakura Obsession: The Incredible Story of the Plant Hunter Who Saved Japan’s Cherry Blossoms by Naoko Abe

The Sakura Obsession Title: The Sakura Obsession: The Incredible Story of the Plant Hunter Who Saved Japan’s Cherry Blossoms
Author: Naoko Abe
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 9781524733575
Genre: Nonfiction, Biography,
Pages: 400
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

One should always get out of their comfort zone and try things they say. Different things. For me reading something which I wouldn’t otherwise is radical enough. I mean, this book intrigued me, and I just had to read it to know more. I am so glad I did. To experience a different culture (which of course I have through other reads), but also knowing about the Cherry Blossom and how it came to be saved was a brilliant experience.

The story starts in 1907, when Collingwood “Cherry” Ingram fell in love with the sakura or the cherry tree, as he was visiting Japan on his honeymoon. He was taken in with the tree to such an extent that he couldn’t help but bring back hundreds of cuttings back to England, where he literally grew them, creating a garden of cherry varieties. In fact, in 1926 when he learned that the cherry tree was extinct in Japan, he sent a cutting of his own through the Trans-Siberian express. Not only that, Ingram also ensured that cuttings were sent to other parts of the world, where it was conducive to grow the specimen.

This in short is what the book is about. However, there is so much more to it. Abe writes elegantly, and not only that – the research is spot on – with photographs, details, linking of other events, and personal perspectives. At times, I also felt that I was actually reading a historical novel, it is so well-written.

The Sakura Obsession is what it is because Abe understands Ingram’s motivations, his complex nature – the oddity and the gentleness and that’s what makes this book so unique and refreshing. The Sakura Obsession tells a story that most people aren’t aware of – of how it took one man to save blossoms people enjoy over the world and are in awe of. I am only too glad that I got out of my comfort zone and read this one.

When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History by Hugh Ryan

When Brooklyn Was Queer Title: When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History
Author: Hugh Ryan
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
ISBN: 978-1250169914
Genre: LGBT Nonfiction, Social and Cultural History
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I had never read something like this before – yes cities and the queer culture did merge in books and I have read parts of it, but nothing like this book. I honestly also believe that every city’s culture needs to be talked about through the people who live on its margins, and maybe that’s why this book hit a nerve the way it did. When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History by Hugh Ryan is the kind of book we all need to read, irrespective of orientation and labels.

The story begins in 1855 with the publication of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman and ends in the 1960s when Brooklyn’s queer identity declined, due to several factors. You have to read this book only because the way Ryan unearths how there was a systematic erasure of the queer history of Brooklyn. What must one remember then? Who decides that? What is at the core of people’s histories and more than anything else of places?

Not only this, this book is fantastic if you want to get to know people’s voices and lives – queer lives – right from the famous drag kings and queens of the 1800s, of a black lesbian named Mabel Hampton and how she worked as a dancer, of a WWII gay spy scandal and so much more between its pages.

Ryan’s writing is never just a dry documentation of facts. There is so much more to it. There is tenderness and empathy and above all it is a voice that strives to let people know more. Also, the nuances of gender identity, orientation, and sometimes even race are handled with such a sense of larger understanding of issues, that it makes you want to read more.

More than anything else it is about resistance and no matter what governments do or stand for, people will always continue to live the way they want to, which should be at the core of every identity battle. Ryan’s research is spot-on, so much so that you instantly feel that you are in that world, the minute you start reading the book. He shares letters, diary entries, and publication excerpts to support and validate his arguments of what was erased and how it was found.

What I loved the most was the beautiful prologue – a short one at that but so effective – a glimpse into the lives of Gypsy Rose Lee and Carson McCullers, and from thereon begins what it means to be “queer”.

When Brooklyn Was Queer is one of those rare books that makes you want to sit up and take notice of what’s going on in the world. The past, present, and future merge seamlessly in this account of what history allows us and what it doesn’t. The small joys, sorrows, the sacrifices made, the lives that carry on regardless, and most of all what it means to be queer is what this remarkable book is about. Do not miss out on this read.

 

A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There by Krishna Sobti. Translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell.

A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There by Krishna Sobti Title: A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There
Author: Krishna Sobti
Translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin India
ISBN: 9780670091195
Genre: Fiction, Non-Fiction, Memoir
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Despite the translation, Krishna Sobti’s book, “A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There” isn’t an easy read to begin with. Only when you get used to the person narratives being changed constantly, time being fluid, and above all anecdotes thrown about constantly, and in-between chapters, that you realize what a marvel of a book you are reading.

I honestly did not want this book to end. This novel (meta), memoir, a commentary on the Partition, a commentary even more on the world left behind, makes you want to explore everything written by Ms. Sobti, if you haven’t already read her. In fact, even if you have read her, you’d just want to go back and reread her books.

“A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There” is a book that can perhaps be summed as falling under many genres, but to me it was a book about the Partition, about home and longing, about old and new worlds that will never merge, and mainly about displacement. Krishna Sobti’s Zindaginama is perhaps one of the finest works on the Partition to have emerged from the subcontinent, however, this book is so diverse in the plot and sub-plots that to me it is perhaps even better than Zindaginama.

The setting of course is 1947. A young Krishna and her family are now in India. The country is new, and they are treated as refugees (more about this later). She is determined to make her own path in the world and an opportunity presents itself in the form of heading a preschool in the princely state of Sirohi. From there on, she faces misogynistic behaviour from Zutshi Sahab, the man charged with hiring for the position. And finally, she is governess by twist of fate to the child maharaja Tej Singh Bahadur, which accounts for around hundred pages of the book.

Like I said, the book is a lot of things, but don’t let that bother or distract you from the writing. Sobti’s writing is charming, often melancholic, and peppered with nostalgia. She constantly goes back in time to speak of pre-partition and how it was then. The comparisons also occur. For instance, when she meets her Nani and her great-uncle on a trip to Bombay, she is overwhelmed at how her Nani is still stuck in the past (and longs for it), and how her uncle ensures that she is well-taken care of.

One of my favourite scenes is when Sobti goes to visit her aunts in Ahmedabad and they think that drinking tea (cardamom and cinnamon) will make them forget about sad incidents. I love the simplicity of this scene. It is extremely endearing and relatable to most. Tea in a way does make you forget the bad things. Also, before I forget, my most favourite part of the book is the picnic Sobti’s friends and headmistress of the college go on due to her birthday is iconic. This happens before Partition, so the sense of it never happening again hits the author so hard, and in effect the reader.

Sobti’s writing is razor-sharp. She observes acutely and doesn’t hesitate to talk about the horrors of Partition, which is of course where the book gets the title from – a Gujarat with us and another Gujarat that side of the border. Another incident that brings out the ruin of Partition is Sobti speaking of Lady Mountbatten and Rameshwari Nehru visiting the refugee camps and how the women there were told to wear colourful orhnis to show respect for the Laat Sahiba.

Everything in this book is deliciously worded. Even though at times I wondered that it could become a translator’s nightmare – given how Sobti moves from past to present and changes person from first to third almost line after line. Daisy Rockwell has done a stupendous job of this translation. I loved The Women’s Courtyard last year, which was again translated by her. I love how she gets the nuance so right – the structure, the plot, and the meaning plus emotion doesn’t get lost at all. Rockwell gets it all pat-on and the reason I say it, is I am also reading the original in Hindi alongside.

Feminism in this book isn’t lost at all. If anything, it is so subtle and yet makes itself felt, heard, and seen on every page. From Sobti choosing to work away from home to her friends and aunts and niece’s choices, women empowerment and rights shine through the book. At the same time, it isn’t easy for them. Also, the parts when she asserts her role of a governess. Though she is taking care of royalty, she does what she must.

Krishna Sobti has written a lot about women and the hypocrisy faced by them in everyday life in her other works as well – from Zindaginama to Listen Girl! (Ae, Ladki) to To Hell with you, Mitro! (Mitro Marjani). If anything, just to know her body of work, read these as well, and more.

A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There is a brilliant book, that juxtaposes the past and the present, with nostalgia and loss at its core. It is the kind of book that must definitely be read with copious amounts of tea on the side. Read it! You will hands-down love it.

 

Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country by Pam Houston

Deep Creek by Pam Houston Title: Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country
Author: Pam Houston
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 978-0393241020
Genre: Non-fiction, Memoirs
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

Pam Houston’s Deep Creek has to be read, actually savoured with enough time on your hand. It cannot and shouldn’t be rushed with. This book is about home and place and what is their meaning to someone who has spent half her life travelling around the world. More than that though, it is about the places we inhabit, the landscapes we belong to, the daily rituals of living and caring for people around you. Deep Creek is all about celebrating nature, and above that survival not only in the wilderness, but also around you.

The book is about Pam’s 120-acre homestead high in the Colorado Rockies. It is about more than that though. It is about what it means to take care of land, nurture it, care for creatures on it, and finally make it such a part of you that nowhere else really is home. Pam Houston’s book isn’t something others perhaps haven’t written on or dabbled with. What makes this book special then? In all honesty, and to put it as simply, and as clichéd as it might sound: The writing.

What struck me the most delightful about the book is the connections Pam makes between her ranch and the travels she undertakes. At the same time, the beauty of it all in the ranch being the only place she sees as home and almost a sanctuary – the place that provides her much comfort and solace, after going through a childhood of parental neglect and abuse. So that’s another aspect to the book, but Houston for once doesn’t stray away from the core of the book as it were.

Pam’s writing to me is as lucid as the air she breathes. It is as stunning and clear as her experiences with nature – land, animals, seasons, the fire experienced, and in all of this the person she becomes or evolves to be. The thing is that while reading the book, I wanted to be a part of the landscape that Pam inhabited, with every single turn of the page. At times, I thought there was more to every chapter, but more than happy with what is written as well.

Deep Creek is the kind of book that makes you soak in all of it – it is a memoir,    it is written from the heart (to me any book that does that is more than enough worthy to be read and it shows), and more than anything else it is absolutely fascinating to see what it feels like to lose contact with land and then to regain it (this will become clearer as you read the book).

The stories in Deep Creek are real (but of course) and motivated mainly by gratitude – for spaces that are available to us, and nature that surrounds us. There is this sense of comfort, longing, and delight while reading it. I read it over a period of time – a couple of chapters here and there and loved it even more. Deep Creek to me, must be read by all, cherished, and passed over to spread the hope and perseverance.