Maya and the Mutants

How do you  know you’re a literary superstar? When you can say sappy things and have people read them as profound and status update worthy. angelou

Last week, Maya Angelou, writer, activist and feminist icon, passed away. As expected, Facebook and Twitter erupted, people outdoing each other in a bid to provide the most thought-provoking quote they had come across either through reading her work or, if you subscribe to the more cynical school of thought, via a quick Google search. I wasn’t surprised, really, given that this was exactly what had happened when, earlier this year, other literary/political greats passed away.

My own reading of Angelou has been very limited: I was introduced to her through a credit course I did in my first year of undergrad. She was part of a collection of writers brought together under the heading ‘Gender’, ostensibly placed there because the piece we were reading, ‘I rise’, was meant to be studied (in that particular course) in its feminist context. Beyond that poem, I have read nothing of Angelou.

Until the status updates appeared.

Among the many beautiful pieces I was thus treated to was one that a friend of mine had chosen to use, for whatever reason, as her display picture on a messaging app. The quote, which trailed above a picture of Angelou, was this:

Have enough courage to trust love one more time, and always one more time.

Now, plenty of people have said similar things. For instance, Auden declared, rather melodramatically, ‘We must love one another, or die’. Singers and songwriters state that love makes the world go around in various ways and Harry Potter, arguably one of the most influential literary icons of the last century, wins because he symbolizes and fights for, at some level, the power of love.

In all these cases, love does not restrict itself to the sense that it has gained in most commercial domains: that of romantic attachment. Yes, this is probably the most lucrative form of it, selling as it does cards, perfumes, books and loads of jewellery, but it is not the only one out there. What a lot of these writers, Rowling included, gesture towards with the term is a sort of universal agape, a feeling of hope born out of the hero’s ability to connect with and care for his fellow beings.

I am at an age where the idea of ‘happily ever after’ and perfect worlds seems laughable, where to even hint at believing in such things is to invite ridicule. The ‘adult world’, I’ve been told time and again, is no place for such escapist ideals. This is a land where to be open with your feelings is to expose yourself as a weakling; where courtship, whether romantically inclined or not, is a game that you play with half your attention on the board, the other half plotting ways of ensuring that you don’t ‘lose’ more than your opponent does. You can’t ever look as though you are completely earnest in what you do or feel or say; that’s just not safe anymore.

So, given all this scepticism and general cynicism that usually floods conversations, it was more than a bit surprising and, really, refreshing to see tributes to a woman who, quite vociferously, argued for the power of love. And argued for it despite having a life that no Disney moviemaker would touch with a ten-foot pole.

Angelou’s words came back with a bit of a bang when I watched the latest superhero blockbuster to hit screens: Bryan Singer’s X Men: Days of Future Past. Unlike its cousin, The Amazing Spiderman 2 (which released a little earlier this year and that I blogged about here), X Men is not halfway as stereotypically feel-good. X Men, arguably, never has been, chiefly because its primary villain, Magneto, is such a complicated, shades-of-grey character whose agenda of a mutant-run-world is all too close to the reality of sentiments that govern (and, to many eyes, justify) the behaviour of the state of Israel.

But Magneto and his almost-Zionism are a topic for another day.

Like any good superhero movie however, Days has its soaring speeches and breakdown moments. At a particularly low moment, young Charles buckles under the pressure of all the ‘despair and pain’ he sees in the world: ‘I don’t want your suffering, I don’t want your future!’ Then comes a heartwarming speech from a mentor figure, about finding the power of ‘hope’ within all that morass, the strength that people like Charles need to exude to their friends and followers. ‘We can bear their pain’, he is told, if he can bring himself to ‘hope again’. x-men-days-of-future-mcavoy-patrick-stewart-636-370

Isn’t that a superpower? The ability to look the world head on, see its evil, and yet find reserves of hope to take it on? Angelou basically said what every superhero movie, even the stylishly dark Nolan-Batman, depict. No matter what dross the world throws at you, what terrible agenda the villain has cobbled together, always trust hope, love, basic human goodness, one more time and always, one more time.

It’s the only thing, apparently, that can save the world.

 

 

 

The Golem and the Djinni

I felt like I hadn’t read a very good fantasy book in a long time,  one that presented something that seemed wholly new while at the same time reminding me of others cast in the same mould. At least, that’s what I felt until I picked up Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Djinni.

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What a gorgeous cover

Set in 1899, in a New York which is just recognizable enough to keep its readers comfortable, Wecker’s debut novel explores the relationship between two outsiders in this city of immigrants: a Golem and a Djinni. Chava, the golem, was created to be the wife of her master, Otto Rotfeld, a Polish Jew who plans to emigrate with his newly created wife to the New World.  Fortunately for us, Rotfeld disregards the golem-maker’s advice and wakes his ‘wife’ while still on board the ship. Unfortunately for him, he dies soon afterward, leaving her to fend for herself in America.

More resourceful than your average clay-woman, Chava not only finds a trustworthy mentor and guide, but also stumbles across a being who, like her, is trying to pass off as an average human while being nothing of the kind: a djinni from the Syrian desert.

The two strike up an unlikely friendship, but things go haywire when Yehudah Schaalman, the golem’s creator, shows up in New York, bent on a quest to find the secret to eternal life.

The Golem and the Djinni was a really, really good read. Not only did Wecker conjure up a vivid turn-of-the-century Manhattan, but I loved how she took on the magical and mystical aspects of cultures that have, by and large, been ignored by the mainstream Western fantasy canon. The only other book I’ve read that delved into Jewish lore, for instance, was Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, where there was a golem figure, albeit for a blink-and-you-miss-it duration. Of course, Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus series spends a lot of time in varied magical cultures, but in the adult canon, there seem to be fewer instances of diversity. Things are changing, yes, but slowly.

What I really loved about the book, though, was Ahmad, the djinni. I really enjoyed following him on his jaunts through nocturnal New York, discovering the world five hundred and more years after being ensconced away in a lamp. Most of all, I loved how, through him, Wecker brought to life ‘Little Syria’, the Arab neighbourhood of the city, and all its residents: Maryam Faddoul, Boutros Arbeely, Mahmoud Saleh.

I think, honestly, that Ahmad shone more brightly than Chava did. Perhaps this is to be expected, considering that he is a being of fire while she one of clay, and that what defines him is passion and spontaneity versus her more ‘modest’ and calm demeanour, but I think Wecker also fell more deeply in love with this character than the other. For one thing, Ahmad has (what seems to me) a far more interesting and layered ‘back story’ than Chava. For another, I think he progresses and achieves more as a character in the course of the book, but we can always debate that after you read it.

Or maybe I just have a soft spot for ‘passionate’ handsome, cursed men. Rule out nothing.

After finishing this book, I’m diving back into Stroud’s series, if only to reacquaint myself with the djinn. I also intend, at some point, to pick up Saladin Ahmad’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, if only because I need to step out of my comfort zone of elves and goblins and try something a little closer to home. And what do you know, maybe by then I, or one of my esteemed peers, would have produced some new, truly epic ‘Indian’ fantasy.

And I don’t mean myth fic, no siree.

What are you waiting for? Go get a copy of Wecker’s book now. I promise you, you won’t regret it!

The Song of Achilles

One of my professors once remarked that writing mythological fiction is a very easy and lazy thing to do. ‘You’re taking a plot that’s already laid out for you,’ she said, ‘and pretending that, by shifting to a different character’s view point, you’re creating something wholly new. What’s so interesting about that?’

By and large, I agree with her. The wave of ‘myth-fic’ seems to be cresting steadily over here in India, with more and more permutations of the Mahabharata and Ramayana coming out every year. The only one of these I’ve read, The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Devakaruni, tells the story of the Mahabharata from the point of view of Draupadi, princess of Panchal and wife of the Pandava brothers. It was well-written, interesting and even featured tabooed love, but it wasn’t something I would pick up a second time.

I had a similar experience with The Penelopeiad by Margaret Atwood, which narrates the Iliad and the Odyssey in the voice of Penelope, the lonely queen of Ithaca. While the anthropological treatise presented at the close of the slim tome was thought-provoking in and of itself (it stated that the epic chronicled the death of a female-centric Moon Goddess culture and the rise of a patriarchal pantheon), the rest of the novel didn’t succeed to well in holding my attention. Maybe it was Penelope’s voice, which didn’t grab and hold me the way the original Homer (or his translators) did. Maybe I read it at the wrong time. Maybe I expected more of Atwood, one of my favourite writers. Or maybe I just didn’t like the Odyssey and its characters enough to trawl through another version of the same thing.

ImageWhatever it was, it put me off myth fic for a while. This explains my lack of hastiness in picking up Madeline Miller’s Orange Prize winning novel, The Song of Achilles. I’ve got great respect for the Orange Prize (now the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction), and have enjoyed many of the books it’s been awarded for. Combine the prize with a focus on Achilles, one of my favourite characters of all time, and you would assume I’d have a winner on my hands.

And that assumption is correct. I don’t know why I dilly-dallied, but now that I’ve finally read Song, I will admit that it has reinstated my faith in myth fic and done justice to its source material. It’s a quick read, the language lyrical enough to echo the cadences of the epic (not that I’ve read it in its original Greek, but I have heard it in snatches). Its strength, however, are its central characters: Achilles and the narrator, Patroclus.

The book takes off with the marriage of Patroclus’s parents. The boy, the only child of their ill-fated marriage, is a disappointment to his stern sire, awkward, slight and shy. His exile and disownment comes, therefore, as somewhat of a relief, and he is sent to Phthia, the home of Prince Achilles and his ‘pious’ father, Peleus. Once here, Patroclus becomes the boon companion of his host’s son, a fact that makes his divine mother, the sea goddess Thetis, very angry.

The relationship between the two boys deepens when Patroclus flees Phthia to join Achilles on Mount Pelion, where he is to be tutored by the centaur Chiron. Here, on the mountain where Thetis cannot ‘see’ them, they proceed to fall, and stay, in love.

The rest of the story is predictable: Achilles is summoned back to Phthia, where he is asked to join the fleet put together by the Mycenean king, Agammemnon. The fleet intends to sail to Troy and avenge the rape of Helen, wife of Menelaus. Despite his mother’s best efforts to keep him from his destiny, Achilles, accompanied by Patroclus, join the band.

Everyone knows what happens next, and you don’t need me to rehash one of the most widely told stories of Western civilization. Miller chooses to focus on relationship between the two men, how it is shaped and pressurized by the weight of Achilles’ fate. Both Achilles and Patroclus know that it is only the continued existence of Hector that stands between them and death. Once Hector dies, Achilles, and therefore Patroclus, cannot be far behind.

Miller creates compelling characters and makes the relationship between the two men something of great beauty. In my opinion, it is Achilles, confident, heroic, no less sensitive than his lover for all his seeming divinity, who steals the show. As should be, perhaps, since we see him through the eyes of ‘the best of the Myrmidons’, Patroclus. Here’s an Achilles who is equally gifted in the musical and the martial arts, who has a wry sense of humour, who laughs easily only when he is with the one he loves the most. He is so much more than a butch hero. As Patroclus says to Thetis as she sits before her (spoiler) son’s tomb:

You are the one who ruined him. Look at how he will be remembered now. Killing Hector, killing Troilus. For things he did cruelly in his grief…

Perhaps such things pass for virtue among gods. But how is there glory in taking a life? We die so easily…Let the stories of him be something more.

I conjure the boy I knew. Achilles, grinning as the figs blur in his hands. His green eyes laughing into mine. ‘Catch,’ he says. Achilles, outlined against the sky, hanging from a branch over the river. The thick warmth of his sleepy breath against my ear. ‘If you have to go I will go with you.’ My fears forgotten in the golden harbour of his arms.

The memories come, and come. She listens, staring into the grain of the stone. We are all there, goddess and mortal and the boy who was both.

Miller skates delicately over the gore and bloodshed (‘tasteless violence’ as someone memorably put it) of the war, never stinting in her descriptions but managing to infuse them with a sort of poetry that makes reading them irresistible. Whether it be a description of Achilles laying waste to the enemies around him, duelling the river god Scamander, or Apollo delicately plucking Patroclus off the walls of Troy, the images are crisp and clear. And yes, the gods are a part of the narrative. Since they are among the most entertaining characters in the epic, it seems only right that they retain their importance here.

The Song of Achilles is for people who like romance, who like heroes, who enjoy a well told story. It’s for people who know that Achilles is more than a golden-haired Brad Pitt, muttering sullenly about honour in his isolated tent. It’s for people who like the twisted humour of Odysseus and the politics of the Greeks, watching as their power struggles play out in the agora of a protracted siege camp. Most of all, it’s for people who, like me, enjoy a new spin on an old tale, seeing something new in a story you thought, two thousand and more years after its first telling, has nothing more to say.

Read it for the revelations. Read it for Achilles.

Americanah

A few months ago, the literary world suffered a great loss when Chinua Achebe, Nigerian author and wielder of words passed away. Achebe is remembered chiefly for having blazed a trail where few had dated to venture before him—he took on the task of representing ‘African history’ to an English-speaking (and hence, international) audience, putting forth a viewpoint that most of the world had never considered before. Africa, he attempted to say, was not the ‘dark continent’, the ‘heart of darkness’ in which Europe saw its primal, barbaric reflection. It was a continent made up of diverse peoples and cultures, with a rich history that its inheritors could and should be proud of.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie–an amazing literary talent

Achebe has left behind him, along with a rich legacy of work (of which I’m ashamed to say I have read only Things Fall Apart), successors who have taken up the mantle, bringing Africa’s voice to the rest of the world. Of those, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is among the most well-known and celebrated, thanks to her ability and choice of writing in the English language, as well as the hefty prizes she has scooped up early on in her career. Those prizes are very well deserved, and with her latest novel, Americanah, she proves once again that she is a formidable talent, a voice to be reckoned with on the literary stage.

 Americanah tells two stories: that of Ifemelu, the ‘Americanah’ the title refers to, and her one-time lover, Obinze. The novel starts with Ifemelu having decided to leave her cushy Princeton fellowship, close her extremely popular and hard hitting ‘race blog’ and return to her roots in Lagos, Nigeria. To prepare for her journey home, she goes to a new hair-braiding salon. As the hairdresser works on her braids, we are taken on an elliptical journey, tracing both her and Obinze’s lives from their childhood in Nigeria to where they are now. As the braid is woven, so their histories come together and fade apart, Ifemelu having cut off contact rather abruptly after a traumatic incident in Philadelphia.

The second half of the novel talks of Ifemelu’s arrival in Lagos, the disappointments and surprises she faces, and the manner in which she encounters Obinze, now a married and highly successful business head, one of the ‘big men’ of Nigerian society. The novel ends with their charting of a new relationship, hazy on the details of what exactly is to happen to the two one-time lovers. Is there hope for renewal and forward movement? Only time and the readers’ imaginations will tell.

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Read it!

The book, in my humble opinion, is brilliant. Adichie writes with a simplicity that cuts right to the bone, describing, first, Ifemelu’s prickly negotiations of a subject in America that she confesses she never had to think about growing up. Ifemelu discovers the curious dance of avoidance that hedges the subject of race in upper middle class American society and academia, her blog a response to the denial that she sees writ large over the majority of the (white) American population. Adichie refuses to be hackneyed in her presentation of ‘race’ and class questions, using the metaphor of hair to deliver her message. Black women, Ifemelu notes, seem to hate their hair, using products such as relaxers in order to tame its natural kinkiness. In order to score her first job in the U.S., Ifemelu heeds a friend’s well-meaning advice and uses a relaxer, subsequently deciding to never opt for such a step again. As she begins to claim her hair and see it as a mark of her own beauty and individuality, her acceptance of herself grows and she finally manages to throw off the vestiges of depression that life in America had foisted upon her.

Through Obinze, Adichie tells the story of thousands of illegal Nigerian immigrants, struggling to survive on the fringes of Western society (in Obinze’s case, London), plying hopeless, dead-end jobs in the long wait for security numbers and citizenship. She brings in the convenience marriage, having Obinze nearly marry an EU citizen in order to obtain his legal papers (that would allow him to work in the UK), but the operation is sadly shut down and he  is summarily deported to Nigeria. Adichie evokes beautifully the anxiety, fear and yet, almost bizarrely, the rays of hope that keep these workers alive and working in a society that seems little to want them. Iloba, Obinze’s friend in London, is an excellent example of a man who clings on to optimism in this world.

The characters that populate the novel, American, British, African, are amazingly real and well-drawn. The Lagos of Ifemelu’s childhood and the Lagos she returns to are both distinct, allowing even readers who have never been there (such as yours truly), to imagine vividly the vastly different sights and sounds that assault her as she re-enters a world she had left behind (and which many people wonder at her for returning to). Despite their many periods of darkness, and the trials they face, Adichie allows her readers to hope for the best for these characters. Perhaps they too, like the city, will find ‘small redemptions’, moving forward (like, Obinze would insist, the good Third-Worlders they are) from a ‘legacy of defeat’ to a future of slanting sunshine.

In short, go read it. You will definitely get more than your money’s worth.