June 22, 2007

Elif Shafak's "The Bastard of Istanbul" A Search for Identity.

"The Bastard of Istanbul", an interesting read, no doubt! A title that intrigues and a setting that is of contemporary interest were perhaps two reasons for picking up the book. Turkey has been in the news for various reasons in the past few years. It is a country trying to establish it's real identity amid the market furore of globalization and the fast build up of religious fervor around the world. While the EU beckoned with the lure of a promising economy, Turkey was battling with a sudden growth of Islamization within the country. "On the one hand there are the ones who want Turkey to join the EU, democratise further and become an open society," says Shafak, but on the other "are the ones who want to keep Turkey as an insular, xenophobic, nationalistic, enclosed society". It wasn't surprising then that writers such as Pamuk and Shafak began spinning tales around this turmoil, and thus "The Bastard of Istanbul" was born.

The story of two young lives: one a Turkish Muslim living in Istanbul who is clueless about the identity of her father, a 'bastard' in a social sense, and the other an Armenian American who has travelled to Istanbul from San Francisco to trace her roots, a bastard in terms of her national identity. Both carry a painful past that they want to confront and resolve, and this leads to the touchy subject of the "Armenian qustion" that many in Turkey are still not ready to discuss. Shafak in an interview said, "They can't talk about 1915... ours is a society with collective amnesia. We haven't come to grips with our past, nor have we recognized how bitter the Armenians are because their grief goes unacknowledged. I would like Armenians to forgive and forget one day, too, but we Turks need to remember first".

This novel got Elif Shafak into some real hot waters and she became yet another writer to join sixty others, including Orhan Pamuk, who have been charged for defamation and misrepresentation under Turkey's Criminal Code. Shafak was shocked and "didn't think a work of fiction would get me branded a traitor to my country". Why is Art under so much pressure? Since when did a work of fiction come under such scrutiny for historical legitimacy and be charged for ethical or criminal misconduct? A baffled Shafak claims, " I am a novelist. When I write, I don't calculate the consequences of what I'm writing. I just surround myself with the story." Apparently the charges have cited defamatory language used by one of the characters, such as 'Turkish butchers' that 'slaughtered the Armenians like sheep', as a prime reason for the charges. How this character's expostulations translate into Shafak being charged as a traitor is beyond logic!

The female characters that abound in this novel are varied, complex, and often shocking; they shatter some stereotypes that we have built about women residing in Muslim countries. Along with a gripping story, and enticing charcterization, the novel offers an inside view of Turkish culture with a focus on the aromas and recipes of Turkey's ancient cuisine. The reader feels like he's returning from Istanbul after turning that last page.

June 20, 2007

"A Thousand Splendid Suns" By Khaled Hosseini- # 1 on NY Times Bestseller list

A gripping story! It is near impossible to put the book down once you begin reading it. Khaled Hosseini's new novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns is bound to be a top pick this summer, and not without reason. Mr Hosseini is a natural storyteller. He may not have an intricate plot to lay out, or dynamic characters to manipulate, but he sure has a knack for weaving a web around the reader; a web that tightens and envelops as the story unfolds.

The title could be suggestive as the author admits, "I went into this with a bit more of a mission than the first novel." He may have gone the Shakespeare route and spun a pun on the unsuspecting reader in the title itself. Is the novel really about the many splendid 'suns' that rose and set over Afghanistan in the last some years as the title suggests, or is there perhaps a pun intended in the title 'splendid suns'; Mr Hosseini is in fact making a sarcastic dig at the 'splendid s"o"ns' of Afghanistan, who in the name of religion inflicted heinous inhuman crimes against their own. These 'splendid' sons, first the Mujahideens and then the Taliban, eventually became models of male despotism and transformed Afghanistan into a theocracy where its women were pitted into an inferno of servitude, shame, and illiteracy.

The novel spans across a 30 year panorama that lays out, evocatively, the history of a war torn Afghanistan. It is on this canvas that Mr. Hosseini paints the story of two quite ordinary women who struggle to survive in a battle zone, amid starvation, human depravation, and world apathy. The two meet, in unusually contrived circumstances; grow, despite and due to their challenging environment, and eventually become, 'splendid' daughters of Afghanistan to bring about a constructive change in their own lives, and in the social fabric of their beloved war ravaged country.

The novel is a work of fiction, but Khaled Hosseini's has definitely placed Afghanistan and its ordeal on the world map, and has perhaps proved himself a 'splendid sun' for Afghanistan.

June 16, 2007

The American Place Theater Presents Khaled Hosseini's "The Kite Runner"

I remember reading The Kite Runner a couple of years ago, and then buying a second copy to mail to my father, living some ten thousand miles away, as a must-read. The Kite Runner was perhaps the first novel I read that was set in Afghanistan, the cultural ambiance of which fascinated me no end; the family dynamics, the male domination, the willing serfdom, and the passive acceptance of violence and aggression as a way of life had me spellbound. I am told Hosseini, at first, had submitted the manuscript of The Kite Runner as a short story. Apparently, the story made such an impact that publishers encouraged him to expand the story into a novel; that he sure did because the Kite Runner is 400+ pages long and spans over three generations.

The reason I'm pondering on a novel I read three years ago is because I revisited it today when I watched Ariyan Moayed do a verbatim theatrical adaptation of it for The American Place Theater - Literature to Life series. The solo performance was superb in that it brought the story alive. Ariyan Moayed, the solo performer, gave each of the five characters he played a distinct life of his own. His mastery of the bodily adjustments he made to suit individual characters was remarkable. For example, when playing Hassan, the servant boy, Ariyan was slightly bent over but with eager wide-eyed looks eager to please his master at any cost. Then for playing Amir, the rich but cowardly son of a powerful Pashtun landlord, Ariyan adopted jerky body movements that so aptly portrayed Amir's indecisiveness especially during trying and stressful situations. Indeed, Ariyan Moayed brought the novel to life in his rendition of but the first seventy pages of the novel, and it will be credit to him if the sale of the novel suddenly skyrockets in the tri state area since I saw bus loads of high school students at this performance.

Wynn Handman who adapted and directed this solo verbatim is a part of the American Place Theater group that aspires to make Literature closer to the lives of young Americans so that they are encouraged to read. It's a good first step, and what I saw today looks very promising, but a lot will depend on the kinds of novels that are picked for adaptation. For instance the fact that The Kite Runner was set in Afghanistan made for a lot of initial curiosity in the audience, and then of course Ariyan did the rest. The selection of novels will be crucial to the success of the Literature to Life project of The American Place Theater.

"The Kite Runner" is a heartrending story of friendship, guilt, and forgiveness that spans across two continents and three generations that lived through the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the American invasion of it, and then the horrifying Taliban ordeal that followed. The novel needs no recommending; the fact that it had been on the NYT bestseller list for two years and has sold some four million copies says it all.

*Khaled Hosseini's new book titled "A Thousand Splendid Suns" is out this month, and the reviews are promising.

June 12, 2007

Lake Peigneur - a man-made disaster yet again?

An old story, but another proof of man's tampering with nature.

An eleven foot freshwater lake, Lake Peigneur, transforms into the deepest salt water lake in Louisiana and changes the surrounding landscape as well; the environment paid the price for a multinational to drill for black gold.

Here is an unforgettable video of Lake Peigneur disappearing.

However, we still haven't learned our lesson, and there are plans to drill yet again!

June 09, 2007

"Black Girl /White Girl" by Joyce Carol Oates

I saw this book in the library and checked it out simply because it was by Joyce Carol Oates. I had heard that she was an acclaimed writer who had a unique and insightful way of dealing with interracial issues. I was curious to know more about this 'different' way of hers, having read many an American novel that dealt with the hackneyed theme of racial relations in this country.

The novel has an interesting narrative that takes the reader in and out of different time lines where certain events prompt the narrator to jump from one time line to another. Genna the narrator, the rich 'White girl' of the story, revisits her past when she was a freshman in an all girls liberal arts college established almost a century ago by her family. It was here that she met the other protagonist of the story, the 'Black girl' Minette who is also her roommate. Minette, who is the daughter of a minister, is at Schulyer College on an academic scholarship.This perhaps is the centerfold from where Genna embarks on her road to revelation. As the interaction between the two girls progresses so does Genna's understanding of her eventful past; a past that holds a father, a prominent lawyer who was an extreme liberal during the Vietnam war era, and a mother who is quite the flower child of the hippie cult. The story takes a tragic turn when Minette dies under mysterious circumstances and Genna is forced to drop out of college. This is in fact where the novel starts, with Genna trying to figure out what really happened to Minette Swift and whether she was in any way responsible for her death.

After this point Genna, no longer the pacifist, the listener or the appeaser, faces and recognizes some harsh truths about herself , her family, and about rich white liberal America. Genna's unraveling of the incidents surrounding Minette's death strips the veneer off of some racial issues of the time. What happens thereafter is rather unconvincing and not in keeping with Genna's character as developed thus far. The novel seems to go downhill in the second half, and makes you wonder why Oates would do this to her story. However, Ms. Oates does a splendid job of exposing the liberal hypocrisy of white America during the 70s, and the resultant guilt that sprung forth from it ; one that is alive in parts even today. To put it in Genna, the "White girl's" words, “I was the one to have saved her, yet I did not.”

I would hesitate to recommend this book to anyone who is either not familiar with American History, or anyone who has read at large about the black-white divide in the USA. If you belong to the former category, the interactions between Genna and Minette will seem illogical and repetitive, and you'll wonder why the writer spent so much time and so much detail on this part. On the other hand, if you've read avidly on the race issues in USA, this novel will not enlighten or deeply interest you in any way; unless you are focused on the credentials of the writer, a chaired Professor at Princeton University.

June 03, 2007

Cindy Sheehan Forsakes Allegiance?

Why is allegiance necessary? Who does one owe allegiance to? What does it mean to pledge allegiance? Is allegiance given with no strings attached or is there an underlying promise of benefits? In the light of Cindy Sheehan's recent resignation from being the 'Face' of the American anti-war movement, the word 'allegiance' gains a place under the spotlight. Many of us are familiar with Sheehan and her rise to fame after her much publicized protest against the Iraq War outside of Bush's ranch in Texas. We know about her irreparable loss, the death of her 20 year old son Casey, and about her courage and passion as a mother and as a vocal proponent for bringing our troops back from Iraq. After reading the contents of her resignation, I felt a sense of loss that I could not configure. It was definitely not a personal loss by any stretch of imagination; I had never heard of her until I saw her on TV, nor was her resignation a public loss, like at the death of Dr. King and John F. Kennedy. It was, perhaps, a loss of faith marked by a stellar incident; Sheehan's open letter of resignation. The loss of staunch faith the American people have in their identity as Americans who inhabit a 'land of the free', and take immense pride in it because it is 'the home of the brave'. Cindy Sheehan's words hit a bitter chord when she says, "The most devastating conclusion that I reached this morning, however, was that Casey did indeed die for nothing. His precious lifeblood drained out in a country far away from his family who loves him, killed by his own country which is beholden to and run by a war machine that even controls what we think. I have tried every since he died to make his sacrifice meaningful. Casey died for a country which cares more about who will be the next American Idol than how many people will be killed in the next few months while Democrats and Republicans play politics with human lives. It is so painful to me to know that I bought into this system for so many years and Casey paid the price for that allegiance. I failed my boy and that hurts the most."

Do we owe allegiance, and to whom? Do we pledge this allegiance in exchange for something, like Cindy Sheehan did; in the hope of "liberty and justice for all"!