Tag Archives: Women Writers Reading Project

Just Us: An American Conversation by Claudia Rankine

Just Us - An American Conversation by Claudia Rankine

Title: Just Us: An American Conversation
Author: Claudia Rankine
Publisher: Allen Lane, Penguin UK
ISBN: 978-0241467107
Genre: Nonfiction, Essays, Black Literature
Pages: 360
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Just Us is not an instruction manual. It doesn’t tell you how to be, or behave, or cannot even teach you how not to discriminate. What it does is take the discussion of race up by a couple of notches. This book is a book that impacted me deeply with Rankine’s conversations with people about race, her stream of consciousness and thoughts as she encounters people and situations.

Rankine packs so much in one book – poetry, dialogue, illustrations, and lots of footnotes that give not only clarity to the topic but also evokes empathy in the reader. While reading this book I was reminded a lot about Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, though it doesn’t chronicle the history of caste as Wilkerson does, but it does have its roots there.

She also speaks of her white husband and how he views the world she inhabits and is a part of, which is very different and how there are still some differences in his understanding of what she goes through. Rankine’s writing is easy, and candid. Though the book is primarily about colour, it is also most certainly about gender, orientation, appearances, and what it takes to be a writer at large.

Just Us is a book that is not only relevant in the sense of what we should do, but also to reflect on what we have been doing. Rankine writes a book that is for all – irrespective of the country you live in – casual racism is prevalent and is something we cannot deny. Like I said, this book will make you introspect and understand the world better – and hopefully make us change our ways, day by day, evolving as we go along.

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Title: The Bluest Eye
Author: Toni Morrison
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0307278449
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 206
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I read this book a long time ago. I think it was 2001. It has been nineteen years, and my love for this book only grows with passing time. The Bluest Eye is a book that needs to be read by everyone. It is a book that is most contested, and also banned in schools and colleges in the US of A. It is a book that didn’t shy away from saying what it had to, when it was first published in 1970, and even after 50 years, it says all that it has to and reaches more readers every single day.

The novel takes place in Lorain, Ohio and tells the story of a young African American girl Pecola, who grows up in the years following The Great Depression. She is deemed to be ugly by people around her. She believes it as well. All she wants the bluest of eyes (like the Shirley Temple Doll), which to her is the quality of a “white girl” – the kind of girl everyone loves and adores. And even then, though Pecola is at the heart of this novel, she is the soul of the novel so to say, we as readers will never hear her side of the story. Morrison doesn’t grant us that.

I cannot say anything new about this classic that hasn’t already been said before. It has all been said in 50 years, and more. All narratives have been explored. All angles have been analysed. What remains at the heart of it is a story told that is traumatic, holding a mirror to our society, and showing the dark recesses of human nature.

Toni Morrison never did flinch from telling things the way they were. Yes, The Bluest Eye might make some readers most uncomfortable. But that’s the intent. To feel that discomfort and understand and empathise and see the world differently. Yes, it is about Pecola and her abusive father and her mother who cannot do anything. But that’s the truth Ms. Morrison wanted to bring to fore which she did most candidly – making readers question about beauty, about fitting in, and all of this through an impoverished black girl who just wants to be accepted, and the only way she knows it can happen is by wishing for pretty blue eyes.

The Bluest Eye even when I reread it this month made me look and see at every step of the way – in and out of this book as well. Morrison had said that she wrote The Bluest Eye because she wanted to read it. She makes us aware of children and their lives, their truths and their questions through Pecola and the children who are narrating this story (or have they become adults?). Pecola cannot be shaken, cannot be broken, and as heartbreaking and horrible it is, the only love Pecola seems to have known has come from her abusive father Cholly.

The Bluest Eye makes us see truths that we shy away from. Of how it feels not to be a whole person. Of how it is to know that our cracked selves are just a manifestation of the society we live in. Of how desperately we want the world to look at us differently.

The Bluest Eye to me is about where you come from and where you hope to go. It is all about what you dream about, despite the circumstances, despite what surrounds you, and despite what you look like to the rest of the world (in this case Pecola to the rest of the town and neighbourhood). The Bluest Eye is and will always be a landmark read for me. I will visit it more often than not. Morrison’s debut should be read, and reread, and read some more.

Autumn by Ali Smith

Autumn by Ali Smith

Title: Autumn
Author: Ali Smith
Publisher: Anchor Books 
ISBN: 9781101969946
Genre: Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 260
Source: Publisher 
Rating: 5/5

This was a reread for me this year. I had almost forgotten how brilliant this book is, and it is not just about the word-games or the wordplay that Smith uses to her advantage. It is also not about the latent humour that springs itself on you every five pages or so. It is about the writing. The hard-to-contain, the kind of writing that is not limited only to words, the kind of writing that makes you sit up and want to devour the book in one sitting. Autumn for me, is that kind of a book. The book that I will reread perhaps once more before this year ends. 

Autumn by Ali Smith is the first in a quartet. The season quartet as it is called. Autumn is the season of mists, of melancholy, of trees shedding leaves, of changing colours, of perhaps to see clearly, and make peace with the fact that life isn’t stationary. Autumn by Ali Smith is all of this and more. It is called “the Brexit novel”, but to me it is so much more. A lot more. Autumn is about friendship, love, art, identity, forgetfulness, ageing, of how much the world means to us, and how much we perhaps leave behind. 

It is essentially the story of Elisabeth, and her next-door neighbour Daniel Gluck, about 70 years her senior. The friendship that started when she was but a little girl, who is now a woman in her early 30s, and he is centenarian. She goes to meet him at the home for the aged. She reads to him. Constantly reading to him. There is a lot of back and forth between the present and the past in the book, which worked for me through and through. Elisabeth and Daniel’s relationship is charted through the years, of what he teaches her about art, beauty, and the nature of living. Of how she takes it all in. Of the unspoken beauty of friendship, that doesn’t come with any condition of age or time or wisdom. It just is. 

Autumn is energetic, brimming with wordplay, there is so much to it – the layers just keep peeling – perhaps also with every reread. It is also the story of Christine Keeler, of the Profumo fame, and how art plays a role in all of it. It is the story of how we function as humans. Ali Smith’s writing is perfect as far as I am concerned. No phrase or sentence is out of place, or not needed. Everything makes sense and sometimes nothing does. But that’s the beauty of her writing. You read. You pause. You savour what she serves, and you right back for a reread. I for one, cannot wait to now read Winter.

Padmavati the Harlot and Other Stories by Kamala Das

Padmavati the Harlot and Other Stories by Kamala Das

Title: Padmavati the Harlot and Other Stories
Author: Kamala Das
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
ISBN: 978-9389836165
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction Pages: 108
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Don’t get taken in by the title of the collection and the begin to read it. Actually, you know what, get taken in by the title, buy it because of it, read it, and understand the brilliance of Kamala Das’s writing that is often layered, always real and grounded, criticising the world and its limitations when it comes to women – in the way they are treated, and sometimes also how they take charge of their lives.

Kamala Das’s women are fierce, bold, courageous, even shy, but do not mistake them to be fearful. They may seem like that at beginning of some stories, but they do not end with that character trait for sure. Her women battle. Her women speak their mind, and mostly don’t. The women in her stories are her. The women in her stories are perhaps all of us – the ones who have been denied a voice and do what it takes to assert themselves.

Her writing is about losses and perhaps some wins along the way. It is about abandoned wives, and women who step out and live the way they want to. Leaving men, leaving lovers, and leaving parts of themselves as well. Whether it is Padmavati the Harlot who just wants to redeem herself in front of her God (while clearly shown as being abused by the priest), or a housewife whose husband loves another woman and all she wants is a little kitten and what happens thereafter, to the protagonist of The Sea Lounge who is at the mercy of her lover, each women is a world in herself, and Das doesn’t shy away from telling it as it is. She speaks of empowerment in her own way – of small choices made by her characters, and then it all overwhelms the reader, raining down like an avalanche of emotions.

White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color by Ruby Hamad

 

White Tears:Brown Scars

Title: White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color
Author: Ruby Hamad
Publisher: Catapult
ISBN: 978-1948226745
Genre: Cultural Anthropology, Essays, Nonfiction
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher 
Rating: 5/5 

This book is much-needed for the times we live in. Actually for any time – past or present or even the future sadly, given how situations play themselves out over and over again. Situations where white people have set certain standards of humanity and how to live and even love for the rest of the world. Situations where they do not give any agency to people of colour, more so to women of colour, and even if what is perceived as agency isn’t really that. Ruby Hamad’s explosive and very important book “White Tears/Brown Scars” brings to fore and speaks of how white women use their tears to avoid speaking of and mainly confronting their racism.

This book is an off-shoot from Hamad’s article on the same topic that came out in The Guardian in the year 2018, and how that further led to Hamad being contacted by various women of colour with their stories of being betrayed by white women and their tears.

This book is extremely well-researched and an account of the white woman’s role in colonialism, in racism, and in oppressing the people of colour. It doesn’t restrict itself only to the women. It goes beyond that , to men of colour as well. Ruby’s book is global in nature and we all can see how we sometimes behave around white people. We who were once colonised, still carry that burden and remain forever apologetic. This is exactly what happens when a women of colour confronts a white women about her racism – she is apologetic to the white woman, as though it wasn’t her place to call out casual racism.

White Tears/Brown Scars should make people uncomfortable, more so the white people and make them realize what they are doing or have been doing over the years. It is necessarily uncomfortable. Hamad doesn’t write only about the US of A. She ropes in other countries as well – whether it is about the history of Aboriginal women in Australia and how they are treated or the Arab women at large in the world – these are perspectives and stories that must be heard, read, and internalised.

Hamad’s book is a revelation to me (I think it would also be the same for most people). The writing is razor-sharp and she doesn’t hesitate from calling a spade, a spade. It delves into performative victimhood and the truths aren’t palpable. In some cases the book reads like an oral history and maybe that’s what it is – experiences of women of colour with White women’s defensiveness and gas lighting in personal and professional settings.

“White Tears/Brown Scars” is a book that should be required reading for anyone interested in intersectional feminism. It is about the imbalance of power, and how it affects feminism. She takes a view of all of it – history, culture, research, and ultimately the lives of women to make us understand the role of white supremacy in all of it. Please read it.