Bound by Convention

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A Nu shu artwork. (Photo from http://www.womenofchina.cn

 

I am fascinated by books that transport me to an era and culture different from my own. If that culture happens to be Chinese, my reading pleasure is twofold. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See is one such book that not only satisfied my wanderlust by transplanting me to southern Hunan province in 19thcentury China, but also immersed me completely in the experience of growing up as a woman in a rigidly patriarchal society. I was part of a cloistered world where a woman’s conduct was governed by the Confucian doctrines of the Three Obediences: “When a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband, when a widow, obey your son.”and the Four virtues: “ Be chaste and yielding, calm and upright in attitude; be quiet and agreeable in words; be restrained and exquisite in movement; be perfect in handiwork and embroidery.” In this environment where women were accorded an inferior status and expected to be subservient to men, See explores the intense friendship of two peasant girls from their daughter days to hair pinning days, rice and salt days to sitting quietly, in other words, from their girlhood to married life to old age.

Lily and Snowflower are two young girls , from different walks of society who are ‘old sames’ paired in a laotong relationship. A laotong is a contractual friendship arranged by a matchmaker between girls of two different villages just like an arranged marriage. Girls of suitable birth who may share birthdays, birth signs and birth order or other traits in common are brought together in an eternal friendship. A marriage is only good for ‘bed business’, the rather crude but practical manner in which lovemaking is described in the novel. You have to look elsewhere for an emotional connection. Many young women have a community of a sworn sisterhood in their natal homes where they sing songs together, embroider, exchange stories and share companionship .The sworn sisterhood is dissolved at the time of marriage but the laotong relationship is a lifelong commitment. Being a laotong improves your social standing and makes you a more eligible catch for marriage.

Lily is prized for her dainty and exquisite golden lily feet. Footbinding was a strange and barbaric practice that was started in the royal court in China and gradually became widespread in the rest of the country and among all social classes. Mothers bound their daughters’ feet in order to attract a wealthy match. The girls were around six years old when they started the process that would take two to three years to complete. The four little toes were bent underneath the sole of the foot and tied with bandages. The bandages were periodically removed and tightened till the heel was twisted and reshaped. The girls suffered excruciating pain which could last months or even years.

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A woman with normal feet next to a woman with bound feet.

Their muscles atrophied and the less fortunate ones got infections like gangrene. Some like Lily’s third sister, died from the ordeal. The girls who survived were disfigured and crippled for life. They would limp and couldn’t walk long distances and had to be carried by men. They developed a peculiar faltering gait which was considered a sexual turn on to men. Footbinding became a way of controlling women and keeping them confined to their homes so they wouldn’t go astray. They were physically incapable of moving far from their homes or the ‘inner realm’ and thus less likely to cheat on their men. They lived in seclusion and were kept subjugated. They learned to tolerate pain and suffering. Of course, it wasn’t just the feet that were bound. The girls were tied to male conventions of beauty, to matrimony, to domesticity and to maternity.

In this sequestered world, women reached out to each other for solace and support. They communicated through nu shu, a syllabic script used in Jiangyong County in Hunan province. Nu shu was used exclusively by women to compose letters, songs and stories either written on paper or on a fan or embroidered on a handkerchief. Lily and Snow Flower communicate by means of a silk fan on whose folds they take turns writing their thoughts to each other. The fan chronicles all the important events in their life, both joyous and sorrowful. The nu shu gave the girls a voice and a chance to soar in spite of being bound. Their lives become more expansive just like the delicate unfolding of the fan. Lily observes: “Our nu shu was a means for our bound feet to carry us to each other, for our thoughts to fly across the field…”

The girls establish a tender connection through correspondence and through Snow Flower’s numerous visits to Lily’s home but Snow Flower’s family does not reciprocate the invitations much to Lily’s mother’s ire. At times their friendship has homoerotic overtones not uncommon in a gender segregated society. The girls go through all the trials and tribulations of life together. With marriage comes a total reversal of fortunes. Lily marries into a wealthy family of good social status but due to circumstances beyond her control, Snow Flower is married to a poor butcher and has to endure hardship and abuse. The sweet and sensitive Lily changes gradually into a different person when her position is cemented as matriarch of the family. There arises a misunderstanding between the two friends that threatens their strong friendship and whether they reconcile or not is the crux of the remainder of the plot.

My main criticism of the book is that the latter half seems rushed and melodramatic. It wasn’t the story of the complex friendship that caught my fancy as much as the insight into ancient Chinese history and culture which was an eye-opening experience. I felt a piercing sadness to learn about the different ways daughters were demeaned within their own community. Their worth only came from their ability to procreate and to produce sons. The protagonists deal with the agonizing pain of foot binding, experience great sorrow on leaving their parents’ homes, endure cruelty in the homes of their in- laws, face the pressure to bear sons, lose children in childbirth and accept their husbands’ concubines. You wonder why strong women like Lily perpetuate the patriarchy by following old traditions. Foot binding was no different from customs like forced marriages, dowry and FGM where women are often complicit in the patriarchal oppression. The rebel in me would have liked to see Lily stand up to injustice. But she ends up being a stickler for rules and is herself ‘bound’ by convention. I understand her powerlessness and realize that being dutiful is her only coping mechanism. At the most Lily can follow her mother in law’s sage maxim: “Obey, obey, obey, then do what you want.”

The atrocities committed on the women made me reflect on my own life and the choices I’ve made and appreciate the freedoms I enjoy and take for granted. Lily and Snow Flower’s world may seem like a world very foreign to our own but yet we can all relate to it to some extent. If you’ve ever felt undervalued as a woman in any way, if you’ve been expected to defer to a man unworthy of your respect, if you’ve taken pains to be beautiful whether going for cosmetic surgery, waxing body hair or wearing stilettos that hurt your feet, if you’ve endured a disparaging remark from an in-law, if you’ve heard the words ‘ I hope this time you have a boy’, then this achingly beautiful novel will strike a chord with you.

The Paris Couple: Love Is A Beautiful Liar

 

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Ernest Hemingway and Hadley Richardson on their wedding day, September 3, 1921

The Paris Wife is a fictionalized account of Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage during the years of his budding writing career before he was catapulted into fame and fortune. The story is narrated through the perspective of his first wife Hadley who witnesses the nascent writer transform into a legend along with the slow and painful disintegration of their marriage. The young Hemingways move from Chicago to lead a humble life as newly weds in a small flat in the Paris of the 1920s and are instantly thrown into the hedonistic milieu of hard drinking and partying with fellow expats.

Paula McLain, the author, did extensive research studying correspondence exchanged between the couple, reading their biographies and Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast. Within this framework of information, she has given a voice to Hadley who was generally relegated to the background in the looming presence of her husband. It would have certainly been impossible for McLain to know every intimate moment and every conversation that took place between the couple and she must have taken liberty with the details but she claims to be as accurate as one could possibly be to their story.

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Hemingway outside of his residence at 113 Rue  Notre-Dame-des- Champs, Paris

McLain has beautifully evoked the atmosphere of depravity and debauchery that characterized the era of the Lost Generation in post war Paris. I felt a voyeuristic thrill as I was transported to Paris with the Hemingways, frequenting the cafés and restaurants along with them, accompanying them on their skiing trips to Austria and bull fighting spectacles in Spain and visiting the glitzy homes of their friends on the Riviera, hobnobbing with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and James Joyce among others. After finishing the book, I  rushed to read The Sun also Rises and A Moveable Feast to prolong the joy of living vicariously through them in that wonderful bygone era.

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From L-R at the table, Gerald and Sara Murphy, Pauline Pfeiffer, Hemingway and Hadley in Pamplona, Spain

 

Both Hemingways entered the marriage with a lot of baggage. Hadley had a difficult childhood where she lost both her sister and her father, the latter to suicide. She herself suffered from many nervous spells. Ernest spent a few years fighting in World War 1 and sustained an injury to his leg. The chemistry between the two is undeniable. They both call each other ‘Tatie’ and have a host of endearing nicknames for each other. He thinks they are essentially alike, ‘the same guy’ but they couldn’t be more different from each other. He has a charming and colorful personality. She doesn’t exactly fit into the bohemian lifestyle in Paris and she refers to herself as ‘victorian’ as opposed to ‘modern’ but she strives hard to please her husband and is exceedingly agreeable and accommodating. She helps establish his writing career, reads through his drafts and even supports him financially. She is his rock but he has a roving eye. He needs her to feel safe but at the same time values his space. Besides, she has to make a lot of sacrifices. She has to live frugally while the other women around her wear chic clothing. An unexpected pregnancy prompts Ezra Pound to warn her that it would be a dire mistake to let parenthood change Hemingway. They have their bonny baby boy and things still go on smoothly. It was not parenthood (although their parenting style would leave much to be desired in contemporary times) but fame that eventually affected their marriage. When Ernest receives his contract for In Our Time, Hadley remarks: “ He would never again be unknown. We would never again be this happy.” In their early married years, Hadley loses his valise containing all his work to date. You have to wonder if he ever forgives her for that blunder and if that incident represents a turning point in their marriage along with the entry of the other woman.

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Hadley and Ernest Hemingway with their son “Bumby” in Schruns, Austria

The other woman is Pauline Pffeiffer, a wealthy socialite who insidiously creeps not only into their domestic life by befriending both of them and calling them ‘my cherishables’ but also into their bedroom. What would you do if a beautiful naked woman crawls under the sheets on your husband’s side of the bed? What did Hadley do? She pretended she was asleep. Now suddenly there are three of everything in their lives: three oeufs au jambon, three steaming brioches, three glasses of juice, three breakfast trays, three terrycloth robes, three wet bathing suits on the line and on the rocky path three bicycles stood on their stands: “…You could see how thin each kickstand was under the weight of the heavy frame, and how they were poised to fall like dominoes on the skeletons of elephants or like love itself.” A ménage à trois forms gradually without either of them realizing or wishing it. What does Hadley get out of the relationship? Is she an enabler? She comes across as an insecure woman madly in love with her husband and tolerant of his wayward behavior. The Paris Wife reveals a lot about the Paris husband too. Hemingway appears to be a needy, narcissistic, jealous and unkind person- in one word, a jerk. He is critical and dismissive of his friends. Yet, you understand where he is coming from and look at him from a sympathetic standpoint. There are a few chapters narrated from his point of view and he does reveal a soft and tender side. The War had a devastating effect on those who fought and survived. Hemingway suffered from what we refer to as PTSD today. The war also brought about a change in values. Gone was the moral rectitude of the Victorian age.  Besides, he was an artist married to his art which leads us to the interesting question if being an artist justifies a bohemian lifestyle. Hadley seems weak but she shows a lot of grace and strength as her marriage crumbles and finally calls him selfish and a coward before leaving him.

 

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Hemingway’s passport, 1923

From the beginning Hadley has a premonition that her marriage is doomed. A passage that struck me in particular in the beginning of the book describes her walks to Les Halles, the open air market where she would linger to admire the lavish meats on display, the bushels overflowing with vegetables and fruits. But in the alleyways behind the marketplace, fruit and meat rotted in crates and reminded her of the gutters in the Place de la Contrescarpe where colored dyes ran freely from the flower vendors’ carts. The lush exterior hides an ugliness underneath and reminds her of the words Ernest had uttered way back in Chicago: “Love is a beautiful liar.” The Paris Wife is a touching and bittersweet love story with some degree of closure in the end. Hadley remarries and leads a contented life and Ernest calls her years later over the phone before committing suicide. While looking back on the Paris years, Hadley remarks: “ Life was painfully pure and simple and good, and I believe Ernest was his best self then. I got the very best of him. We got the best of each other.” In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway poignantly writes,” I wish I had died before I had loved anyone but her.” The Paris wife or the early or first wife was but one wife in a long line of wives and lovers but perhaps she was the one despite everything and even despite the fact that love is a beautiful liar.

 

The photos are part of the Ernest Hemingway Collection in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

A Franco-Russian Christmas Tale

snowtreesPapa Panov’s Special Christmas is an endearing and heartwarming tale written by Tolstoy that captures the essence of Christmas by reminding us that being kindhearted and giving selflessly to those in need is what the holiday is all about. It’s a timeless story but particularly apt for our times when the true meaning of Christmas seems to be lost in materialistic wants and the frenzy of shopping. It’s perfect as a bedtime story for children or for the whole family to read aloud together.

A village shoemaker called Papa Panov is expecting Jesus to pay a visit to his humble home on Christmas Day. His wish is to give him the finest pair of shoes he has ever made. On the night of Christmas Eve, he was promised in a dream that his wish will come true but that he should look carefully as he may not be able to recognize his visitor. Will his much awaited guest arrive? You can read the translation of the story here:

http://classiclit.about.com/od/christmasstoriesholiday/a/aa_papachr.htm

Anyone familiar with the Bible will know that the story is an illustration of a passage in the Gospel of Matthew which is an exhortation to care for the poor and the needy:

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Naked and ye clothed me: I was sick and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. ( Matthew 25: 35 to 40- King James Version)

This story was written during Tolstoy’s twilight years after his return to Christianity. Tolstoy was raised in the Russian Orthodox Christian faith but he was against organized religion and rejected the authority of the State and the Church. After going through an anguishing spiritual and existential crisis, he decided to give the religion a second chance as he was touched by the faith of the simple peasants around him. He sought solace in the Bible and was particularly moved by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount about turning the other cheek and responding to evil not by resisting or retaliating but with love and forgiveness. He was a Christian anarchist (although he himself did not use the term) who felt the church had betrayed the compassionate teachings of Jesus Christ by choosing to focus instead on superstitions, miracles and rituals. He was eventually excommunicated by the Church for his apostasy.

As interesting, if not more, is the story about the story. Tolstoy’s story is a retelling of a French tale entitled Le Père Martin, originally written by Ruben Saillens, a French pastor and author, in 1883, and eventually published in his book of fables and allegories ( Récits Et Allégories).* The English translation of the fable made its way to Russia and was unintentionally plagiarized by Tolstoy who rewrote the story in Russian with just a few minor changes. The story traveled all the way to Russia only to return to France as a Russian story translated in French. Understandably, Saillens was perturbed by the discovery of his own story being passed off as a Russian one and broached the subject, not once but twice in separate letters to Tolstoy. Tolstoy did reply with apologies on both occasions. In the first letter, he explained that he came across an anonymous English translation of the story in a journal and retold the story in Russian adding a Russian setting. In the second letter, Tolstoy assured him that he had attributed the source in all the subsequent Russian editions of the story but the translated versions in the US and other parts of the world were beyond his control as he had relinquished all copyrights to his work. **

The title of my blog post credits the story to its rightful source as in my own little way I hope to clear up this widespread literary misconception. I have the utmost respect for the creator of Crime and Punishment and Anna Karenina but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the story is a virtual copy of the French one. Imagine what a furor such an act of plagiarism would have caused in our contemporary literary milieu! In any case, this is probably a folktale with many variants transmitted down generations via oral tradition and probably penned initially by Saillens.

A Merry Christmas to all those who celebrate and whether we believe or not, may we, like Papa Panov, find moments everywhere in our everyday lives to help those who are less fortunate than us!

 

Footnotes:

* You can read the story in French and the preface to the story here:  Le Père Martin

** For more on the two letters, click on the following links:

A Wrong Attribution.

http://rubensaillens.over-blog.org/article-6134768.html

A Russian Christmas

‘Tis the season to read Christmas stories. I recently read two short stories related to Christmas by two different giants of Russian literature: Chekhov and Dostoevsky. Both stories are distressing and unsettling and they may not be the best selection for Christmas when you want to read something cheerful, but let’s be realistic; life is full of ups and downs and Christmas is not a happy time of celebration for everyone.

At Christmas Time by Anton Chekhov is a poignant story of a poor peasant family, written in two parts. In the first part of the story, an illiterate couple hires an innkeeper’s relative during the holiday season to write a letter to their daughter Efimia whom they haven’t seen for four years since she got married and moved to St. Petersburg. They have only received two letters from her during that period and they are not even sure if they have any grandchildren or not. The mother, Vasilissa, has a deep love for her daughter and gets emotional while speaking out her affectionate Christmas message to Yegor, the scribe. He, on the other hand, is indifferent to her suffering. He is not interested in the couple or their daughter and adds nonsensical thoughts about the military in the letter which have no relevance to the mother’s sentiments. The second part of the story takes place at Efimia’s house which is a room attached to the medical establishment where her husband works as a porter and where they live with their three little children. She bursts out sobbing while reading her parents’ letter.

You can read the story here:
At Christmas Time

We learn that Efimia’s husband neglected to send her letters home as he was preoccupied with important business and eventually the letters got lost. It’s obvious that the young woman is trapped in a miserable marriage to an indifferent and intimidating man. She is terrified of her husband and stops speaking when he enters the room. “ She was very much frightened of him—oh, how frightened of him! She trembled and was reduced to terror by the sound of his steps, by the look in his eyes, and dared not utter a word in his presence.” And while reading out the letter from her parents, she cries out, “Queen of Heaven, Holy Mother and Defender, take us away from here!” Chekhov reveals a lot without being explicit about details. The heightened fear of the woman points out to emotional abuse and maybe even physical abuse. Similarly, we don’t know how the old couple feels about not hearing from their daughter. They miss her immensely and are not sure if she is alive or dead. They are lonely and we wonder if they feel abandoned by her as they have no inkling about her misery.

The dark and disturbing story emphasizes the fact that Christmas is not always a happy and hopeful time for all families.The ending is typical of Chekhov who leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination. Life is not always orderly with definite and happy endings and his stories reflect the painful reality. Let’s proceed to the second succinct story which also manages to pack a punch in a few lines.

The Beggar Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree is a powerful short story by Dostoevsky, reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl.

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You can read the story here:
The Beggar Boy at Christ's Christmas Tree

On Christmas Eve, a poor six year old boy, freezing to death and suffering from terrible pangs of hunger, leaves the cellar where his mother is dying and steps out into town. He is fascinated by the lavish window displays of Christmas trees and fancy cakes that he comes across while strolling in the streets. Through a huge glass window, he sees a lovely Christmas tree and well dressed children laughing and playing and eating cakes of all sorts in a house, but when the boy opens the door and goes in, he is shooed out. A wicked boy on the road hits him on the head and makes off with his cap while he is peering through another glass window to admire dolls.

He betakes himself to someone’s courtyard behind a stack of wood where he has a vision of the Christ’s Christmas tree surrounded by dolls. They are the spirits of other children who have died and gone to heaven. They tell him that this is Christ’s Christmas tree for the little children who have no tree of their own. These angels were all little boys and girls like him who froze, starved or suffocated to death and they are now joyfully reunited with their respective mothers. In the morning, the porter finds the dead body of the frozen child on the woodstack and they find his mother too who had died before him. The story of the little boy is not unique to him but represents the plight of thousands of children who are starving and freezing during a time of merriment and joy. It’s a Dostoevskian world of misfortune and misery but there is a Christmas message underlying the sad story. The contrast between the affluent and the poor is startling in its injustice and it’s heart-wrenching to see that everyone in town is either oblivious or indifferent to the condition of the little boy. “A policeman walked by and turned away to avoid seeing the boy.”

Dostoevsky ends the story saying that what took place in the cellar and on the woodstack might have happened but he’s not sure about Christ’s Christmas tree. He is quite sure about the wretchedness of our existence but who knows what happens beyond the grave. A grim and sobering statement indeed!

I’ve always wondered what it is about 19th century Russian literature that moves me so profoundly? Is it the universal appeal of the works which portray the sorrow and suffering of the human condition or the fact that the writers can reach the depths of our souls with their sensitivity? My only regret is that I haven’t learnt Russian to read these gems in the original although I think we are fortunate to have access to some excellent translations. In my next blog post, I promise a more uplifting Christmas story by yet another literary giant of Russia. Meanwhile, I wish you all a very happy ‘Litmas’ season! Happy Reading!

In Other Words: A Love Affair With A Language

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The Rosetta Stone from the British Museum
By © Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Every immigrant’s story is a story of exile. Many works of fiction and non–fiction have explored the alienation of the diaspora in many forms. Along with the change in customs, cultural and religious practices, economic status and dietary habits, there is also a linguistic estrangement which inevitably accompanies spatial displacement. Jhumpa Lahiri’s memoir, In Other Words (In Altre Parole), poetically addresses the exile of language which leaves you with an inexplicable vulnerability along with a keen sense of loss. As someone who loves learning languages and who inhabits a world of multiple languages, I found the concept of the memoir captivating even before I plunged into the reading. I could relate to many aspects of the linguistic expatriation and right away Lahiri’s story became personal and my own.

The memoir is a paen to language, specifically to the Italian language. For some unexplained reason, Lahiri develops a fascination for learning Italian from the time of her first visit to Florence with her sister where with the aid of a pocket dictionary, she navigates her way through the city. It’s love at first sight with the language. On her return to the US, she learns Italian under various tutors. She later returns to Italy many times to promote her books and finally decides to move to Rome for a couple of years with her family. The memoir describes the agony and ecstasy of learning Italian and is presented in a dual language format: Italian on the left page and English on the right. The Italian is written by Lahiri who wants to find a new voice in her writing through another language and it is translated into English by Ann Goldstein, the famous translator of the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan books. Lahiri makes a conscious decision to stay away from English and to write exclusively in Italian and therefore refrains from translating the work herself. She feels a profound connection with the Italian language but at the same time is also detached from it. These ambivalent feelings make up her memoir which is essentially about writing in a language she is in the process of learning.

To complicate matters, there is a third language in the picture which incidentally happens to be the first language she spoke, raised in the US to immigrant parents from Calcutta, India. Bengali is her mother tongue but she feels distanced from it as she doesn’t know the language perfectly. She bemoans the fact that her mother tongue is “paradoxically, a foreign language, too.” I can relate to the estrangement from the mother tongue. My mother tongue is Tamil but as I spent my entire childhood in northern India, I was more fluent in Hindi than I ever was in Tamil. People would marvel at my impeccable Hindi but I was still the outsider defined by my name. I never learned Tamil formally. I could understand and speak the Tamil spoken by my parents but I could not read and write in it. I was more comfortable with Hindi but it was English, the language of colonial imposition that became by default the language I became most proficient in. As Lahiri laments, what relationship can you establish with a language that is not part of your blood and bones? She makes a distinction between inherited and adopted languages. Bengali is the mother who died and English is the stepmother who has arrived.

Lahiri uses a lot of metaphors to describe the painstaking endeavor of learning a new language. . Learning a language is like learning to swim across the shore, it’s like climbing a mountain, it’s like pulling weeds in a garden. It indicates a perpetual state of growth and possibility. It’s almost a Sisyphean task. Italian is the newborn demanding full attention and English is the older sibling left to his own devices. The Italian verb ‘sondare’ meaning to explore or to examine encapsulates her project. She is researching something that will forever remain out of reach. She compares writing in Italian to a bridge in Venice; it’s fragile and on the verge of collapsing but it also serves as a passage into another world. She also compares her writing to Daphne’s flight and transformation in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Her journey of learning a foreign language is imperfect as the imperfect tense she confuses with the simple past. “ I write on the margins, just as I’ve always lived on the margins of countries, of cultures.”, she declares. I found the memoir tedious and repetitive in parts drilling the same point with countless metaphors. Lahiri comes across as a perfectionist who holds herself up to an unattainable ideal instead of just experiencing with abandon the joy of learning a new language. And somewhere between all the metaphors, she has squeezed in two short stories. Lahiri seems to take no more than a pedantic interest in learning Italian. I would have enjoyed reading stories about her family life in Rome, about her interactions with neighbors and friends, about the food, the culture and the people of the glorious city of Rome. Language is after all about connecting with others and is inextricably linked with culture. She also tends to take herself a little too seriously. The memoir could have benefited from some humor. Learning a language lends itself to humorous situations. One has to just think of the faux pas, the double entendre, the malapropos remarks and the miscommunications that can leave any student or teacher in splits.

One interesting point Lahiri makes is that her physical appearance often comes in the way of her immersion. How much ever she masters a language, she is, and will always be viewed as a foreigner. She speaks fluently in Italian to a saleswoman in Salerno but the lady assumes, solely based on looks, that her husband who barely knows a few lines is the one who is Italian and speaks perfectly.  On a trip to Quebec, I recall speaking in perfect French to a shopkeeper, but to my surprise he replied in English. It’s hard for people to shed the stereotypical image they have in their minds of a nation or its people. Many people in the United States are surprised by how well I speak English and I have to constantly explain that India was a former colony of the British and that I went to a school where English was the main medium of instruction. In fact, I speak English better than any other language. I could venture to say that English is my first language but would anyone believe it based on my appearance or my name? People are even more shocked when they find out that I’m fluent in French. There is a French word called’ dépaysement’ which has no English equivalent but literally means ‘uncountried’. Lahiri lyrically evokes this feeling of being stripped off your country :

Those who don’t belong to any specific place can’t, in fact, return anywhere. The concepts of exile and return imply a point of origin, a homeland. Without a homeland and without a true mother tongue, I wander the world, even at my desk. In the end I realize that it wasn’t a true exile: far from it. I am exiled even from the definition of exile.

I understand her exhilaration. I understand her frustration. It’s a love affair but a one- sided one. It’s unrequited. She needs the language but the language does not need her. I belong to Hindi. I belong to Tamil. I belong to English. I belong to French. But they do not belong to me. I know her pain and I can relate to the sense of alienation she experiences but I don’t despair and I don’t share her pessimism. I also know that my life is richer and more expansive because I know so many languages. Gaining proficiency in a language opens up a window or rather many windows into different worlds. Instead of feeling excluded from many cultures, you could revel in the rich plurality of your experiences. In Other Words, is, in other words, a love affair with no passion. Though this book struck a chord with me, I don’t see it appealing to anyone who has not learned a foreign language. As I’m proficient in French, it was exciting for me to try and decipher the Italian, a fellow Romance language, on the left side of the page.

I respect the fact that Lahiri seeks the literary freedom to write in a language of her choice. The memoir is about being vulnerable as a writer and looking at your work from a fresh angle. Every writer deserves a room of her own. Heck, she deserves a country of her own. But I hope Lahiri will return to English and that this self-imposed linguistic exile will remain temporary. Nabokov, whom Lahiri brings up in the memoir as an example of a writer writing in a different language, himself said that a writer’s nationality is of secondary importance and a writer’s art is his real passport. Indeed, writing, like any other art, transcends all languages and barriers.

Witch-Wife

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It is that time of the year when we think of supernatural creatures-goblins, witches, vampires, demons, werewolves. Perhaps the most fascinating of them all is the witch. When we picture a witch, we are most likely to conjure up an image of an old hag with crooked teeth and a hook nose dressed in a black cape and pointed hat, flying on a broom. But the witch who comes to my mind is not an evil or sinister creature. She is a sorceress too but a magical and mystical creature who is also alluringly feminine. She is the witch-wife.

Witch-Wife

She is neither pink nor pale,
And she will never be all mine;
She learned her hands in a fairy-tale,
And her mouth on a valentine.

She has more hair than she needs;
In the sun ‘tis a woe to me!
And her voice is a string of colored beads,
Or steps leading into the sea.

She loves me all that she can,
And her ways to my ways resign;
But she was not made for any man,
And she will never be all mine.

The Witch-Wife is a poem written by Edna St. Vincent Millay, the celebrated American poet and playwright who received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923. At first glance, it is a simple and straightforward rhyming poem. We are intrigued at once by the dichotomy of the title. A witch and a wife are diametrically opposite beings. The wife is a married woman who takes care of her home and hearth and is grounded in her domestic duties. She is tied to matrimony and thereby automatically restrained while a witch is a wild and magical creature who knows how to fly and cast spells.

As you start reading the poem, you notice other contrasts. She is neither pink nor pale. She is neither robust and healthy like the average wife nor wan with a deathly pallor like a witch. She belongs neither to the world of the living nor to the world of the dead. And she never will be all mine. This line is quite ominous in tone as we know at the outset that this woman whom the speaker is talking of will be unattainable and outside his reach. The poem is written by a woman and describes a woman but the speaker is most likely a man and probably the husband. The word ‘all’ implies that she could belong to him to some extent but not belong to him completely or wholly. Otherwise he simply would have said that ‘she never will be mine’. The words ‘neither’, ‘never’ and ‘nor’ are negations used to emphasize the elusiveness of the woman. She learned her hands in a fairy-tale, And her mouth on a valentine. She is not a practical woman. Maybe she was taught or raised to be practical but everything she does or says-the hands -on knowledge and wisdom that she has acquired is all colored with her idealism. She is flighty (she is a witch after all ) and lives in a parallel universe different from the reality that her husband occupies. It is a realm of romance and imagination to which he has no access or which he simply does not comprehend. The lady seems to straddle these two worlds all at once.

She has more hair than she needs; In the sun ‘tis a woe to me. She has long, lustrous locks but why does her hair cause great distress to him in the sun? Is it because the sunlight reveals her witch-like hair? Maybe her voluminous hair is matted or tangled or does it show another aspect of her mien or another side of her nature? And her voice is a string of colored beads, Or steps leading into the sea. We have the lovely metaphor of her soft and gentle voice similar to a string of colored beads. Her voice makes her real, alive and of this world. But this line is immediately followed by another alliterative metaphor accentuating the fact that although her voice seems real and charming, it can ensnare you. Her voice is akin to steps leading into the sea which imply drowning or death. Her voice is of this world and of the other world. The colored beads remind us of an incantation or spell. She is like the legendary siren-part woman and part bird who lures men to their death by her seductive singing. The witch- wife like the siren is part wife and part witch- a beautiful  woman but also an enchantress, a beguiling seductress who uses her feminine wiles to entrap men.

She loves me all that she can; And her ways to my ways resign; These two lines momentarily give us the impression that she is the ideal woman in spite of the fact that the speaker has already stressed on her intangibility and elusiveness. She loves him “all that she can” could mean that she loves him to the best of her ability. She is a compliant woman who submits to him willingly. But she was not made for any man, And she never will be all mine. This is the let down after the build up of the previous line when she seems like perfection incarnate to a man. However, it is not really an anti-climax as he has already indicated in the beginning that “she never will be all mine.” The word “never” reinforces the fact that there is no possibility of her belonging to him totally.  The line “But she was not made for any man..” could indicate that she was not made for any sort of ordinary man but for a special kind of man. Or could it mean that she was made for a woman?

It was no secret that Edna Vincent St. Millay, known as Vincent to her close friends and family, was bisexual and had several affairs with both men and women. She was happily married to her husband, Eugen Boissevain and they had an open marriage. I normally like to separate the poet from the poem but it is hard to overlook Edna St. Millay’s unconventional lifestyle and feminist activism in analyzing her work. We have to remember that even discussing heterosexuality, let alone homosexuality, was a taboo subject in the 1920s and that she was a trailblazer who made possible the writing of many future gay men and women. By evoking polarities in the poem, I wonder if she is also highlighting polarities of human nature and sexuality. The poem is written by a woman about a woman. The witch-wife could be a self-portrait or any one of the women the poet knew in her life or someone from her own imagination. There are so many ways you could read the poem but I still feel strongly that the speaker is a man. But does it matter? The speaker could very well be a woman too. In any event, the witch-wife will never belong completely to any man nor to any woman for she is in control of who she is and in charge of her own sexuality.

Hope your Halloween is as spellbinding as this otherworldly poem! As for me, I am beWITCHed!

A Writer By Any Other Name

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Naples, Italy

The literary world is abuzz with the news of the unveiling of the identity of Elena Ferrante, the pseudonymous Italian author of the tremendously popular and successful Neapolitan quartet of novels. The person responsible for unmasking the reclusive and private author is Claudio Gatti, an Italian investigative journalist who used Ferrante’s financial and real estate records to reveal her real name. Not only has his conduct been viewed as an intrusion of the artist’s privacy but as a sexist act of violation by her millions of fans around the world. I will respect her wishes and not divulge her name in this post. Her identity had been shrouded in mystery for many years and needless to say piqued the curiosity of many readers. Some speculated that the author was a man writing under the name of a woman while others thought that there were two writers and even made the assumption that she collaborated with her husband in writing the books. Why did the author feel the need to conceal her identity in this day and age when it is very difficult to stay away from the public eye?

Many authors have written under assumed names including male authors like Stephen King, Voltaire and George Orwell to name a few. Often writers wish to distance themselves from their previous work and take on a different pen name while attempting a new genre. The works of women writers have historically been viewed as inferior compared to the writings of their male contemporaries prompting many of them to either remain anonymous or to take noms de plumes in order for publishers to think they would be a commercial success. Virginia Woolf, in her essay, A Room of One’s Own explains how the patriarchy has suppressed women and states: “Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” The Brontë sisters wrote initially under the pseudonyms of three brothers, Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell and only revealed their identity when they were confused with Jane Austen. Colette, the highly acclaimed French author, published her first four novels of the Claudine series under Willy, the nom de plume of her first husband. And then we have the two Georges of the 19th century, George Eliot and George Sand whose real names were Mary Ane Evans and Amantine-Lucile-Aurore- Dupin, respectively. We don’t even have to go back that far for examples. Even in our contemporary era, we have J. K. Rowling who dropped her first name Joanne and made it an initial to become less gender specific. She also wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling under the name Robert Galbraith to make the work appealing to both boys and girls but it didn’t take long for her identity to be uncovered. Interestingly, Elena Ferrante assumed a female pen name for writing her novels. She believed that her anonymity facilitated the creative process and she shunned any kind of publicity whether in the form of book signings, interviews or a social media presence.

The fact that the protagonist- narrator’s name is Elena in the Neapolitan novels adds to the conjecture that the novels could be autobiographical or semi- autobiographical in tone. The four books in the series, in flash-back form, follow the trajectory of Elena and Lila, two friends growing up in the working class neighborhood of Naples in the fifties and sixties. Both girls are brilliant but couldn’t be more different than each other. Lila is bold, feisty and mercurial whereas Elena is more reserved and timid. Elena’s education allows her to break free from the confines of her restrictive upbringing whereas Lila cannot escape the neighborhood of their childhood. I’ve read My Brilliant Friend, the first book of the bildungsroman quartet, translated by Ann Goldstein who deserves as much if not more praise as Ferrante herself for creating ‘Ferrante fever’ with readers all over the English speaking world. My Brilliant Friend is the story of an intense and enduring friendship. But it is not just a sweet and touching account of friendship. It is also a complex and antagonistic relationship fraught with jealousies and insecurities. It is definitely not chick-lit but a dark and disturbing book. Early on in the novel, Elena says “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence.” With searing honesty and passion, she describes dysfunctional families with their macho culture, sexual harassment, family feuds and class conflict amidst the poverty and violence of post- war Naples. It took me a while to get into the book. For one, there are too many characters with multiple names. Secondly, reading a book in translation however well-rendered requires a little bit more of an effort from the reader. The unexpected cliffhanger of a denouement and the fact that my friend urged me to be patient with the first book made me eager to read the next book in the series. The writing is raw and brutal, almost visceral in parts which I suspect led many to believe that the author might be a man. Somehow my instinct told me all along that Ferrante was a woman but does that even matter?

Do you think a work of art should be an entity by itself or seen in relation to the author? I personally like to keep the author separate from the book. A reader’s relationship is with the book and not the author. I have trouble reading Ezra Pound or Hemingway objectively after reading so much about their lives and exploits. With living authors it is even harder to separate the person from the work. Readers tend to interpret everything as autobiographical especially if it is a female author. According to Gatti, knowing the identity of an author is important to understand the fiction. He feels Ferrante misled her readers in La frantumaglia , a collection of letters, essays and fragments where she describes herself as a daughter of a Neapolitan seamstress and believes that he did a favor to her readers by exposing the truth about her. It is very difficult to be anonymous these days and an author who is deliberately mysterious will always ignite curiosity. Was Gatti right in ‘outing’ her under the guise of unveiling the truth? If she has consciously sought privacy, then why unmask her? Before the publication of her debut novel, Ferrante wrote to her publisher: “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.” Let’s leave Elena Ferrante alone. She deserves a room of her own.