The Islander

They say it doesn’t rain in Abu Dhabi, but this is a lie. Something’s always leaking. Fat, fat droplets, that I see on Sayed’s face sometimes, when he walks in from the heat or disappears into the storage closet to quickly rub his eyes. It’s probably sweat. Everything here sweats: the air-cons above the shops, the glasses of lemon mint and the soft-skinned people with cameras who look at me too long. Abu Dhabi is really a rainy city, otherwise it would burn up. That is why when Sayed gets tense, I go to him. Like today, there were no customers around so I walked into his room to let him I know was there. Sometimes he just looks at me for hours, not moving. It is a very long time. But I don’t mind with him. His face softens a bit, like sogged up paper, and he lets something in him rain. I don’t know what that feels like but I do know that in Abu Dhabi, it is very important to stay cool.

Sayed is making chai. It reminds me of that boyfriend I had once, with skin the color of karak. He stayed close by behind the baqala, from where he’d steal large cold water bottles for me. One time, we had ended up walking as far as the corniche from Al Wahda. There were so many men there, like yapping puppies, dressed in t-shirts fitted to the smile of their bellies. I fleetingly wondered how my body would change if I got pregnant. The men had been staring. Staring hard, it seemed, at a pair of logs, in a creamy pinky milky color, like a shake. Logs? We moved closer. The long peach stumps soon revealed a set of knees, swelling up into thighs, flowering up into a whole person. It was a white woman, sunbathing.

How different those men were from Sayed. They must not be praying; and I’m sure it had even been a Friday. The thought of it makes my back arch again, as if some cold slime is trickling through the vertebrae. I remember my boyfriend gazing out towards the water, oblivious to all. We had not looked at each other for a single moment; there was something more beautiful in front of us. It was so blue, so bright and lovely and unmarred by humanness. An oasis. And yet, I don’t remember much else but feeling hot, just too hot. That boyfriend is gone now, but my stomach still feels funny when I catch the smell of karak.

These days the weather is quite cool at night, so I go walking in Al Wahda. Hours pass as the taxi cabs go by. I think they are beautiful. These days I find myself dreaming of walking straight onto the road, as if wading into an endless current. Nobody would see me; everyone would be looking up, looking at the road ahead. How long would this game last before I lost my body, in some forgotten underbelly of that powerful stream? Yet when I watch these cabs swim through the night, something inside me stops. I wish I could communicate it – that ripple settling into silence.

Why don’t the big, creamy, perfumed people take photographs of such things? Like the yellow hats of taxi cabs or the pastel apartment blocks with so many eyes or the crushed pools of dates on the pavements. Things grown and fallen and full and lived in. Instead, they pick and choose what to see. My friend Roza who stays with an American expatriate, told me that they like to gather in very specific places, like Emirates Palace. Or they go to the Louvre, to take pictures of the ‘rain of light’. I wish I could see this mysterious rain but Saadiyat Island is very far and I would die walking there. But I’m sure I would like it. One day perhaps, if Sayed gets a nice car; a rain of light sounds like something you could never look at long enough. Perhaps it’s true then, maybe those people do know better. Maybe they look so carefree because they are the best at deciding the most beautiful and lovely things. Imagine, a rain of light. Even Sayed might pull out his phone to take a picture and send it home. Maybe he’d make it his background for a while, replacing the shot of his parents’ home in Lucknow.

It is difficult for me to understand Sayed’s world. But I think I have definitely figured out the word “paisa”. Sayed needs money. I’ve obviously never needed it myself but I want to make Sayed happy and that is what he says he needs. Paisa, paisa, paisa, he yells many times into the phone. At first, I thought paisa was a woman. There was this Filipina nurse who came into the shop once. She had soft hands, and she bent down properly to talk to me, her voice kind of sticky. I saw Sayed look at her for a very long time, even when she had walked out. He would stare as if the corniche itself was in front of him, except there was no visible horizon, only a world he wanted to reach his arms out to forever – if only his body didn’t ache so much. On that island there would be no rain perhaps. Just sun and palms and breeze – and paisa. Different. Different from where he was.

Sayed talks to me a lot nowadays. I’m afraid I’m his only real friend, except maybe Hamza-bhai from the baqala who comes over with a pack of cards on a blue moon Saturday. But nobody really talks to me either, unless they want me to get out of the way. I know I’m not pretty. I’m too skinny, even though I eat well now, and my limbs remain bone and angles. But Sayed still loves me. He told me so. I didn’t know how to ask him what love was, but I think I sort of figured it out one day, from a guy called Rahul. He was a skinny boy with a face in permanent shadow. I found him one night while walking, spraying the letters “A M A L” on a wall, eyes leaking and leaking like some faulty faucet. He taught me some signs; he kept going on about how he had missed or dismissed them. Like the way someone talks to you, a bit more padded and softer than usual, like the underside of a new-born kitten’s paws. The shape of their palm when they touch you. Where they touch you. A gaze that lingers. Sayed lets me sit next to him while he prays. When he finishes, he looks up for a long time, his face as open as a desert. I look too but I don’t really see anything. Not even rain. But I am grateful to be with him. Nobody else sees the love he mouths upwards, evaporating to join the clouds. I always move closer and lay my head on his thigh. And he smiles in return. I think we have so much to give to each other.

We watched a new Madhuri Dixit film today. Obviously, we couldn’t miss it on ZeeTV now that it was finally showing. This was Sayed’s favorite actress, and the most beautiful woman in the world. How incredible, firstly that I even have a name, and that I’m named after her. I often wish she would just shake off the TV screen like pesky bathwater and walk into Sayed’s arms. Then we’d be a real family, a filmy one in a white house. Sayed would smile so much that his cheeks would ache for months. He would hug us and call home and pay for extra meethai and invite Hamza-bhai for chai and then hug us again, tighter. I would wind through both of their legs. They would laugh, entwined, Sayed’s face bursting like the splitting open of a flower, seeds spilling, life pouring forth.

This is my favorite daydream.

Sometimes it comes back so sharply. My life three years ago – eating out of garbage cans, like so many others in this city. It was so difficult to move. And then Sayed. Sayed found me in that pedestrian underpass. That place where the sun couldn’t glare at me anymore, where the ground was cool as lemon mint because of course, everyone knows it is important to stay cool in Abu Dhabi. I had gone to that underpass to give up. My body spread in surrender. So many footsteps bobbed by me, interrupted at times by curiosity and then inevitable, helpless revulsion. My eyes were perpetually half-closed but I still saw, always the same grotesque realization hooking onto their features: “Awww…oh…oh…poor thing. Poor kitty.”

Until. One pair of feet, paused. A man kneeling down to look at me, properly, even gently patting my fur. He had begun to talk softly in Hindi, which a lot of people speak here. The words I know best are “Chal hat!” and “kaali billi.” I get the feeling they don’t like me because my fur is a deep black. And so they don’t understand when I try tell them it’s just like the hair on their heads. Many of them run away in fear, eyes popping.

Sayed brought me to his home, and soon I came to learn new smells – blackened banana peel-stinks forgotten, I discovered the sharp tang of lemon dishwasher liquid, so heady my eyes swam. I remember resting for many weeks in a little bed made from old fabrics. All the fabrics sold at Sayed Fashion Tailors are the color of apartments in Abu Dhabi. Or of sand. The sand is to Abu Dhabi what hope is to us: me, you, Sayed.

“I think, I will name you Madhuri,” he had told me when I finally started walking properly again, pointing to the television. And he had smiled. We had looked at each other for a long time that afternoon and I hope he knew I was close to happy too.

I hope he knows.

Today, Madhuri Dixit is dancing, shut within the television set – for outside the window, there is rain, and a song is beginning to play. It talks about love. As Madhuri’s body moves, she suddenly remembers that she knows all the words well.

Artwork by Khalid AlHammadi

Spell Criminal With a ‘K’


Trump, the other day, was speaking at a rally, and he said,
‘She has no memory of how she got to the party.
Should we trust that she remembers the assault?’

There are those who have the privilege
of forming memories
editing autobiographies
and tearing out the pages
that make their worm bodies squirm
in the cocoon that raised them
from which they call
spew
rotten silk over
what I know

So I will start with what I do not know
I do not remember
the dress and flats for preschool graduation
second grade and who I sat with at lunch
when my mom began brushing the Latina
out of my curls
when I told myself I could not kiss Sabrina
because I was supposed to kiss Richard
and maybe didn’t want to kiss either

to bury myself
in woodchips and honeycomb
until the fast forward
to high school when homecoming is a sweat smear
and the bottomless pit of sophomore year
behind the tapestry I taped up for the outside
looking in

And the answer is ‘yes.’ And I’ll tell you why.

The five year old, the nine year old, the teenager,
the woman remembers
fist flurry against the dog
fist thunder around her skull
fist explosion beside her ear
fist rattle inside her brain
almost loud enough to numb
every hotspot for a lightning strike

Jolt to the back
Jolt to the back
Jolt to the spine

skin charred after being told
it should be metal
it does not notice the fingers
of sparks on her neck
her belly
the chest that won’t
grow until the teenage phase
and it never does
even after the hurricane

And I also know this woman is smart because she’s a
psychologist — she’s no dummy. If someone is
assaulted or experiences trauma, there’s science and
scientific proof — it’s biology — that people change.
The brain changes.

The rain dries and I don’t grow
no blossoming, no flowers
to pluck
someone calls my name and no one walks across the stage
I have transformed, transfigured
This is evolution
This is my initiation to the wild
circle under the blood moon
my sisters, my brothers, my fellow survivors,
myself
give ourselves
give our oath
the girls, the silent boys, the humans drawn without lines
turned skin to fur, we gave
our tongues and teeth

We are fangs and growls
we are animal now
the hunters made us this way
we are a pack
inhabiting the space
where ancestral bones lay

What it does is it takes the trauma and it puts it in a
box and it files it away and shuts it so that we can
survive the pain. And it also does a lot of other things.
It can cause body pain. It can cause baseline
elevations in anxiety.

I can’t tell you of an intruder in my fox den
but the wolverine can
the raccoon can
the Bengal tigress can
the mother bear and her cubs can
Christine, Stefani, Amy, Fran, Tyler, Maya can

The mammoths are no longer here
to speak
but I know they have a truth
to tell
for them, I can

They demand to know how we distinguish camouflage
and the answer is we don’t:
the faces are imprinted on our irises
the bullets are embedded in our flesh
under the fur
but they still want to take a sword to our skin
and check

It can cause complete avoidance of not wanting to
even remember or think about what happened to you.
But what I believe that I have seen is that when this
woman saw that Judge Kavanaugh was going to be
possibly put in the highest position of power in the
judicial system of this country, she was triggered, and
that box opened.

We keep the bullets and their holes
sometimes the lead turns us to decay
sometimes we plant metal and grow
a mountain,
sometimes they call it a cloud.
But mostly they assign a name
a hunter’s name, with our blood
Still
we evolve
a century later, a mountain range
we climb Everest, surpass Elysium
we founded Olympus Mons and from the peak

we scream Our Names
We rattle the stars,
we are the next great flood,
we march on every cocoon
screaming Our Names

Sometimes we ache
when a lock clicks
when floorboards moan
when hunters take aim
even with empty guns
when we tell the story of the mammoths
when we see taxidermied heads over fireplaces
when their fireworks detonate and music blares
and they take one of us
to shoot us all over again

but still we will roar Our Names
bleed and bleed and bellow Our Names
and no hunter will ever climb this mountain
no puppet president will mount us
The rapists/hunters/president/judge will never own
Our Names.

And when that box opened, she was brave enough to share it with the world to protect this country.
Lady Gaga

Artwork by Yung Cheng Lin

Going Black: The Commodification of Hip-Hop Culture

By Duppy Assassin

If you were to ask what the 20th century’s greatest turning point in music was, most would say the emergence of rock and its infamous counterculture. Others could bring up the post-punk 80’s synth era with its drum machines and lush electronic sounds. But it might surprise you to learn that the rise of hip-hop has had the greatest influence on modern-day music. Music informatics researcher Matthias Mauch and his colleagues, have analyzed over 17,000 songs that have topped the Billboard charts over the years, and concluded that hip-hop’s ascent has led to the greatest musical revolution in terms of chords, rhythms and tonal properties. While rap is the most ubiquitous form in hip-hop, we can understand more from the genre’s overall culture: hip-hop culture has led to numerous developments in fashion, art (i.e. graffiti), new ‘languages’ which are too often dismissed as ‘ghetto’ or ‘slang’, and new styles of dance. For the urban underclass, hip-hop is more than music, but encompasses  a whole way of life.

Yet for all its ‘clout’, hip-hop culture is still so often maligned, disdained by polite (read: rich, white) society. We find it associated with all things reprobate: drugs, violence, poverty, lack of a future. Psychiatrist Alvin Francis Poussaint, and Cosby (yeah, that one) accuse hip-hop for promoting the “moral breakdown of the family”; conservative social commentator Thomas Sowell specifies that hip-hop is the largest factor holding back African-American youth. Numerous groups endeavor to censor hip-hop, while politicians blame it for “desensitizing teenagers to the effects of guns, drugs, and gangs and inciting violent incidents.” Hip-hop culture is outright tarnished, its elements deemed cancerous to social order.

Hip-hop is a socio-cultural movement that sprung up in New York City, specifically in Bronx and Harlem, by and among young African-Americans. Cultural anthropologist R.H. Codrington traces hip-hop back to three antecedents: the West African griot tradition of wandering storytellers, the black church with its ‘call and response’ style of music, and oral competitions called “playing the dozens” in which people faced off with their verbal skills. Hip-hop’s originators utilized whatever was around them in their daily lives – DJ turntables, paint spray cans, block parties, samplers and so on, in order to express themselves. They railed against the system, a system that spawned hopelessness under heavy oppressive, racist structures and spiteful policing. From the very start, hip-hop, aside from being an artistic outlet and landing pad for daily expression, was political.

However, in its late stage, hip-hop has largely succumbed to the adverse effects of neoliberal capitalism. Its absorption into capitalist systems stems from the distance that “polite society” maintains with the hip-hop world – a world that is generally lower-class/urbanized. This is an underclass that French intellectual Georges Bataille would describe as miserable for it is “excluded from the general community whilst being exploited for financial gain.” All the while, in the words of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, polite society maintains itself as the privileged empty point of universality, perched at an elevated position from which they can gaze down at these ‘miserables’.

When polite society secludes itself from the hip-hop underclass, neoliberalism slyly steps in to fill this distance by packaging and commoditizing hip-hop into an easily consumed form in the global market. In her article “Corporate America Cozies up to Hip-Hop”, Claire Atkinson delves into the marketization of hip-hop as a vessel for merchandising products by business firms. The most revealing facet of her argument is that hip-hop’s appeal is not just limited to a narrow scope of companies: almost every corporation is trying to cash in on the hip-hop image, from automobile manufacturers to fast-food restaurants to telecom companies. Atkinson quotes the advertising agent Larry Summers: “Hip-hop is where rock n’ roll was in the ‘70s. It’s evolved into a safe place… there’s too much bling-bling in it for everyone.” Of course, by safe space, Summers implies a safe space for corporations, rather than the actual creators and practitioners of hip-hop. Polite society, on the other hand, embraces this heavily commodified hip-hop – hip-hop as product – under the guise of multiculturalism.

There are two main drives behind corporations’ engulfing marketization of hip-hop culture. Firstly, they have identified a desire in polite society to embody the other without actually becoming the other. At the heart of hip-hop is a jouissance that seems inaccessible to those outside of the culture. Hip-hop celebrates the notion of being different from the mainstream ,whether it is through one’s attire or language or even their gait. Moreover, hip-hop exalts the very libidinal pursuits that are suppressed in polite society: fulfilling one’s innermost sexual passions, seizing power, taking control of the ‘block’, defying authority. Corporations appropriate this jouissance and peddle it to those outside of hip-hop culture who wish to get in whilst still staying out. On this, Zizek quips that in “…today’s market, we find a series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol.” A person who wants to project the image of a gangster without the actual lived experience could buy and dress up in hip-hop attire in order to ‘feel’ like one. Those who do not even know what pimping in the streets is could listen to heavily sexual hip-hop songs and live out their crude erotic fantasies without literally acting them out. A teen who has never gone against the law could use hip-hop slang and rap along to the top hits just to derive the feeling of being rebellious amid their suburban comforts. The appropriation goes on and on.

Corporations also capitalize on a trend which French philosopher Rancière describes as a shift from the politics of passion to the politics of compassion, where all that polite society could offer to the hip-hop underclass [is] mere pity without actually addressing their deep-seated issues. In the music industry, the sob stories of hip-hop artists with rough upbringings are ever-emphasized so as to appeal to those who misguidedly think that buying their albums equates to ‘saving’ them from the ghetto life. In the art world, as scholar Lynn Powers notes with regards to graffiti, “in most cases the work’s popularity was based more on the novelty of being produced by poor minority criminals than on any intrinsic artistic value.” Even in today’s heavily charged political environment, with rampant (recorded) police killings and wanton mass-incarceration of the black, marginalized underclass, protest slogans from the hip-hop community are soon commodified into fashion statements for polite society to drape themselves in as a means of showing ‘support’, all whilst maintaining their privilege.

As time goes on, the corporate world’s infatuation with hip-hop culture is being taken to the most absurd, extreme degree. Philosopher Gilles Deleuze notes that in this age of neoliberalism, differentiation has taken the place of actual production. There are now ‘hip-hop dance clubs’, ‘hip-hop video games’ ‘hip-hop movies’. By the same token, essayist Thompson Ahmir quips that, courtesy of corporates, we now also have ‘hip-hop food’, ‘hip-hop politics’, ‘hip-hop intellectual’ and even ‘hip-hop architecture’. Of course, corporations will do whatever it takes to reap more profits, even if it means marketing things that have nothing to do with hip-hop as authentic ‘hip-hop’.

The commodification of hip-hop thereupon leads to a watering down of its content. As corporations try to capture as much of the market as possible, they ‘tone down’ hip-hop’s radical aspects to make it as palatable for consumers as possible. As earlier stated, hip-hop emerged as the voice of the voiceless within inner-city ghettos; it was an assertion of their abject agency. However, according to the writer Blanchard Becky, “the commodification of rap has allowed large paychecks and platinum records to erase the historical, social and economic contexts out of which rap has emerged, from public consciousness.” Consequently, the hip-hop underclass is left without a tool to speak out against their oppression. Isn’t this what polite society wants after all, a pretense that everything is fine, since the ‘end’ of politics has set in?

Furthermore, the commodification of hip-hop magnifies the simultaneous dehumanization and fetishization of the ‘other’, the hip-hop underclass, by polite society. Though these processes seem disparate, their outcome is of the same vein. The dehumanization of the hip-hop underclass arises from the dynamics of social abjection, for as Bataille emphasizes, “…it is fitting that the insolent rich evoke the bestiality of the miserables: they have taken away from these the possibility of being human.”

Fetishization, on the other hand, arises from polite society’s desire to imitate the other. This is highlighted above: we have seen how corporations capitalize on and peddle the ‘real’ within the other.

But how does this depreciation of the other manifest itself to taint the hip-hop underclass? Blanchard points out that “… rappers have been pressured to take on the limited roles that have proven profitable… that of the ‘pimp’, the ‘gangsta’, and the ‘playa.’” The artiste Michael Franti adds that “Through commercialization of today’s music, there is a lot of pressure for young black men to conform to very specific roles.” The market has a very narrow misconstrued picture of what, to use Zizek’s terms, the ‘typical’, or the ‘folklorist other’ in the hip-hop underclass constitutes. When polite society desires to become the ‘other’ by purchasing commodified hip-hop, they do not really yearn for the ‘real’ other, but rather desire to imitate the ‘typical’, the ‘folklorist other.’ This then indicates to the hip-hop underclass that they must suppress the ‘real’ in them in order to embody the ‘typical’, for this is what polite society is willing to spend money on. However, the ‘typical’ as construed by polite society is damaging to the underclass. This typical image of hip-hop as gangster, materialistic, decadent, lawless, hyper-sexualized, and drug-fuelled is ultimately absorbed back into the underclass, piling onto the socio-economic problems they already bear.

The corporatization of hip-hop has resulted in the dilution of its politics, and the fetishization and dehumanization of the ‘other.’ This deviation is encapsulated comprehensively in the journalist Christopher Farley’s perspective, which Blanchard quotes in her article:

Corporate America’s infatuation with rap has increased as the genre’s political content has withered. Ice Cube’s early songs attacked white racism; Ice-T sang a song about a cop killer; Public Enemy challenges listeners to ‘fight the power’. But many newer acts are focused almost entirely on pathologies within the black community. They rap about shooting other blacks, but almost never about challenging governmental authority or encouraging social activism.

Yes, there has been a shift in hip-hop. However, commodification alone by the corporate world does not fully account for this shift; it is an external factor after all. There are internal factors too, behind the shift of hip-hop from its socio-political aims, which most if not all critics and writers such as Blanchard and Farley fail to see. All these concealed internal factors can be summarized by one word: hate, in the Baudrillard-ian sense of the word. When Farley talks about how ‘many newer acts are focused on pathologies within the black community’, it is hate at play even though Farley does not recognize it as that. As Jean Baudrillard states, this hate is “a logo, a kind of label, one that, like graffiti displays a modality of living: ‘I exist,’ ‘I live here.’’” This hate is also an expression of alterity, for as the hip-hop underclass is secluded from polite society, it embraces this exclusion: “I won’t join the consensus. It’s not negotiable. It’s not reconcilable.” The source of this hate lies in what Deleuze observes as a change from disciplinary societies to societies of control. Thus, when Farley laments that hip-hop nowadays does not take on the big Other due to commodification, he and many other critics fail to see that in societies of control, the big Other is no longer centralized: the big Other has effectively rendered itself invisible, dissolving into the consensus of the majority. Thereupon, hip-hop no longer has a conspicuous control tower to which it can direct its protest towards. Without an object to channel its passions towards, the hate becomes self-hatred, self-destruction. This self-hatred and self-destruction then materializes itself as the perpetual violence and decadence in hip-hop culture. It is a hatred that only further aggrandizes a people whose only means of asserting the self is that very same hate.

The most vital discussion that hip-hop needs right now is of its future. And this future definitely entails a return to its past- to its role as the force of the urban underclass marching against societal oppression. However, mapping out hip-hop’s forward trajectory  entails resolving both the effects of commodification and hate. Artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Talib Kweli and Dead Prez are pushing hip-hop in this direction. We can only hope that more notice, and join in.

Photograph by Juliana Kasumu

References

Ali, Lorraine, and Eryn Brown. “Hip-hop, Not Beatles, Had Greatest Influence on Pop Music, Study Says.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 9 May 2015. Web. 17 Dec. 2016.
Atkinson., Claire. “Corporate America Cozies up to Hip-hop.” Advertising Age. Advertising Age, 13 Oct. 2003. Web. 18 Dec. 2016.
Bataille, Georges. “Abjection and Miserable Forms.” N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.
Baudrillard, Jean. “Hate, a Last Sign of Life.” N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.
Blanchard, Becky. “The Social Significance of Rap & Hip-Hop Culture.” Poverty & Prejudice: Media and Race (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.
Codrington, Raymond. “In the Beginning: Hip Hop’s Early Influences.” OxfordAASC. Oxford African American Studies Center, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2016. <http://www.oxfordaasc.com/public/features/archive/0806/essay.jsp&gt;.
Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” 49 (1992): 3-7. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.
Mauch, Matthias, Robert MacCallum, Mark Levy, and Armand Leroi. “The Evolution of Popular Music: USA 1960–2010.” Royal Society Open Science (2015): n. pag. Web. 17 Dec. 2016. <http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/2/5/150081&gt;.
Perkins, William. “The Rap Attack: An Introduction.” Temple, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.
Powers, Lynn. “Whatever Happened to the Graffiti Art Movement.” Popular Culture, 1996. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.
Robinson, Chris. “The Effects of Commercialization on the Perception of Hip Hop Culture and Black Culture in Mainstream Culture in the United States.” Digital Commons At University of Denver. N.p., 2011. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.
Thompson, Ahmir. “How Hip Hop Failed America.” Vulture. Vulture, 29 Apr. 2014. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.
Tyler, Imogen. Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain. London, UK: Zed, 2013. Print.
Watkins, S. Craig. “A Nation of Millions: Hip Hop Culture and the Legacy of Black Nationalism.” The Communication Review (2001): n. pag. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.
Zizek, Slavoj. “Multiculturalism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism.” N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.

Coloring in the Lines: Diversity in Publishing and Mainstream Literature

manjit-thapp

We occupy an incredibly tumultuous global moment. Politics permeates everyday action and bleeds through everyday inaction. Pressing questions of identity, race, culture, tolerance, freedom and representation fuse together to cause mass confusion, trauma and pain, felt and experienced most sharply by those who are marginalized. For many people, and what should be for more, literature can serve as a vehicle to deeply explore, illuminate, excavate, process and nurture crucial issues surrounding our current socio-political climate. Literature lends complexity and nuance to a myriad of issues, for instance police brutality, model minorities, harsh beauty standards, queer discrimination etc., within the open and accepting space of a narrative. It leads to greater empathy and understanding of these issues that can ultimately provide the educated impetus to appropriately combat them in more tangible forms. Langston Hughes’ poetry from the Harlem Renaissance contributed to a movement for black pride and power in a racially segregated America. Jose Rizal’s novel Noli me Tangere indirectly influenced the Philippine revolution against Spanish colonial power. There is no doubt that what we read shapes our images and beliefs of society and how it is, and could be, constructed. In short, literature is political and books have power.

Even living in Botswana, a majority black country in southern Africa, my friends and I grew up reading stories about people with pale complexions. People who lived in places with sunny, comfortable names like Fairfield, and were called Hannah and Elizabeth, names that spill smoothly off the tongue – names completely unlike our jagged ones. Many of these stories were riveting and well-written; they are undoubtedly good literature. But they are not ‘our’ stories.

This is why it became so important for me to read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chinua Achebe, Junot Diaz and Maya Angelou, Haruki Murakami and Khaled Hosseini. Literature, after all, should be more than one colour. In my reading, I realized how much I had in common with a teenage girl from Nigeria while simultaneously learning about British colonial influence, tribal tensions and pogroms that had taken place in that region. I was both comforted and discomforted, by the knowledge I was absorbing. I learnt about magical realism and dreams as a way of navigating quotidian life, while picking up names of Japanese prefectures and political uprisings occurring there in the sixties. I identified with the loneliness of a middle-aged man from the Kansai region. I cried over an Afghani woman’s death as if she was my relative; she did not exist physically but I came to know her and love her as though she did.

It is quite clear how much power literature wields when it comes to provoking empathy for people who are completely foreign to us, or the “other” we may say, people from seemingly unimaginable places who we would not be able to even try to understand if not for our meeting within the pages of a book. And it is important that this meeting is long and extended, delved into deep and stretched out with conflict, tension and most importantly, complexity. Because that is the nature of human interaction – gorier and messier than a tweet or caption, which has arguably become the more accessible and toxically popular method of global communication and personal expression. The limitations of flash-communication like that is that it narrows down and shrinks the space created for nurturing true understanding and empathy. Whereas with a book, the flat blocks of blossoming text push the margins outwards with their words, emptying them into the centre, bringing fringe stories to the fore. That mirrors reality, where diverse literature is capable of highlighting marginalized voices, bringing their narratives to the forefront of social consciousness.

The onus then lies heavily on writers, publishers and educators, those who are in control of the production and circulation of literature, to make sure these books are brought into the market. But the more I read about and experience the world of literary production, the more this responsibility seems to have remained unfulfilled. The question becomes: what can the agents of literary production, particularly publishers, do to increase representation and diversity in mainstream literature? To start with, increase representation in all aspects of literary production, starting from the actual writing itself.

The literary industry needs to take an honest look at who holds the power over who gets published. Because as things stand now, writers of color often find themselves navigating a world that makes them feel unwelcome. This was an issue I experienced first-hand while interning at a small press in one of the most diverse cities in the world. This organisation prides itself on publishing books that illuminate various cultural encounters and give a voice to marginalized writers; as such, a lot of its books are translations. It’s a very noble mission and I would argue that it does contribute to it quite well. However, I also noticed some problematic aspects, which apparently, have been noted in the publishing industry as a whole.

Though a few writers of color seem to be getting more shine, the demographics of those working behind the scenes in publishing remain almost entirely white. An article on NPR cites a survey, in which over 40 publishers and review journals participated, which reported that across the board, nearly 80 percent of those surveyed who worked in publishing self-identified as white. Within Marketing and Publicity in the publishing industry, 77 percent of employees are white. These are people who make decisions on how to position books to the press and to consumers, and if and where to send authors on tour — critical considerations in the successful launching of any publication. For writers of color, the lack of diversity in book publicity departments can feel like a “death knell”. Within my own, albeit tiny, workplace, I noticed that all my bosses were white. Those in the highest positions were male. However, giving credit where it’s due, the company actively recruits women of color for internships. Out of seven interns, five of us laudably filled this criteria.

Nevertheless, maintaining high posts in publishing as seemingly exclusively white spaces inhibits the kind of progress that may take place by hiring lower employees of color. I will use my own experience as an example. During an editorial meeting, I had to propose two manuscripts as potential publications. The first was a docu-memoir of sorts, written by a veteran war journalist who had briefly been captured in Syria. I thought the manuscript was exceptional and provided appropriate evidence to back up my pitching points. One of my bosses launched a barrage of questions my way, casting doubt on whether the book would sell well, if it had poorly performing comparative titles, and how much money it would bring in. Although I felt a bit startled, I took the questions in stride and put it down as a normal workplace incident.

The second manuscript I was proposing was a novel about a group of young Muslim boys who exist on the fringes of their society in Belgium; the title they use for themselves sounds foreign and is in another language. I pitched this book as working well in conversation with and illuminating important issues about perceptions of Muslim image in the West, and interestingly in a smaller European country not always at the forefront of the media. The writing was insightful and unique, reminiscent of Albert Camus’ The Outsider. I was met with a similar barrage of demands, except the questions began to feel frustrating and incredibly hurtful. Is this book relevant? Is this story relevant? The title [which is the name of the boys’ group] sounds too foreign. Wouldn’t it be too niche? Do you think it would sell? Do you think people would care? What would make them pick it up today? Would this still be relevant in five years? Is it universal enough?

I was stunned. Not a single one of the other manuscripts had been questioned this way. There were other arguably ‘niche’ stories too, concerning marginalized groups and similar narratives, and they had not been attacked. I was hurt and disappointed. I had come to work at this particular company to escape and specifically combat this kind of rhetoric in publishing and yet here I was, being met with it again. A marginalized voice being questioned, again. Too much, too different, again. Who would it not be universal enough for? The Hannahs and Elizabeths of the world, that I had to grow accustomed to at age eight, never reading books with people like myself? What was not universal enough about the emotions that united us as a species, regardless of our labels? Hadn’t every single human on this earth once felt isolated or like an outsider at some point? Hadn’t every human experienced the pain of feeling misunderstood whilst growing up? Who was this audience the work was deemed too niche for? The only conclusion I can come to is an audience that has not experienced widespread dismissal, marginalization and oppression of their skin color/culture/religion/ethnicity/nationality. For this, people of color can never make the cut.

What further baffled me was that there were similar manuscripts pitched by other interns of color and they did not experience anything like I had. Later on, the other interns commented on what had happened, condemned it and consoled me. I went home asking myself, why? Was it because I was brown? The question itched at me but honestly, I do not know if that’s true and it would not make sense. But I should not have to be asking myself this question in the first place. This kind of incident should not be occurring, especially at an organisation that seeks to diversify mainstream literature and highlight marginalised narratives. These values should not have to be sacrificed for capitalistic purposes, because that is already the unfortunate norm in so many other systems.

Too often, publishing companies say they would publish more diverse books, but the market just isn’t there for them. But many, myself firmly included, don’t buy it. “Your ability to imagine that there is a market has to do with your ability to imagine that those people exist….And if [you] can’t imagine that people of color actually exist and can buy books, then you can’t imagine selling books to them. That’s not just about a company corporate diversity policy; it’s about actually knowing what’s going on in communities of color.” And naturally, this could be tackled through hiring a diverse set of people in all ranks of publishing and literary production. This proposed diversity does not just entail fulfilling a people of color quota, as that just maintains the white dominance and hierarchy, but emphasizes various cultures/colors/nationalities/languages occupying both high and low positions, providing more nuanced perspectives to each discussion happening within the workplace. This prevents any person of color acting as a defined spokesperson for their culture or for people of color in general, at the workplace. A person of color, or from any one marginalized culture, is not a monolith.

The novelist Angela Flournoy has said, “I think it’s an undue burden for the writer of color that’s just trying to get people to care about their book as much as other people’s books, to then also be the one to have the answers.” And she’s right. If we strive for a more accepting and egalitarian literary and publishing landscape, all writers, regardless of color, should have equal opportunity when it comes to pitching their works. Relevance and universality should not have to be extra burdens to consider for writers of color; the only concern should be to write well. When a big publishing house does take a chance on a writer of colour, that writer faces pressure to be commercially successful in a way their white counterparts do not:
“There’s this trial effort. ‘We will put you out there, we will give you this spot, and if you don’t make it, that’s your fault.’” Thus, too many writers of color today, myself included, face pressure to write explicitly about identity politics or milk their experience in order to be deemed as “hot property” for publishers. There has been a common perception that white writers are experts at writing and diverse authors are experts on diversity. Diaspora writing, with writers such as Adichie, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Rupi Kaur, has become a trend, proving to sell well due to the controversial and candid subject matters it often discusses. But the nature of this problem is deeply worrying: we have a predominantly white publishing mainstream being exploitative of marginalized narratives to profit from them. The act is almost a kind of appropriation, where those that have historically enabled people of color to be marginalized, use the very, often painful, reality of that marginalization to make money and reap profits that largely go to them.

The concept of multicultural literature is also related to the concept of multicultural education, which shapes beliefs and sows the seeds of tolerance and empathy in young children. A diverse literary syllabus’ desired effect [is] to…ultimately fulfil the promise of a truly democratic egalitarian society by making possible full meaningful participation of all its citizens, without regard to race…all of whom [feel] victimised, oppressed, or discriminated against in some way by the dominant majority. For instance, it is important that a British-Nigerian child learns British history but then also learn a minimally biased narrative of the British interference in Nigeria as well. Every child needs to know of the complexity of narrative, whether that is to do with a World War, a playground fight or their own identity. As humans, we inhabit several damaging power structures in society at once and if a child is not taught so, and taught to recognize these structures as spawning complex narratives with no clear winners and losers, they can end up indulging in harmful thought patterns both about themselves and others. The right books taught at school can raise helpful questions: What function do stereotypes serve? For whom? Is an author trying through a book to persuade readers to adopt a particular attitude? To what end? Whose voices are being heard in the literature in the classroom? Which voices are missing? Why might that be so? These questions also help us realize what should be the norm but remains as a goal, that all students of all backgrounds, languages, and experiences need to be acknowledged, valued, and used as important sources of their education.

With this reflection, I continue my literary career more determined than ever to continually highlight this issue, so that one day my own child reads about, sure, some Hannahs and Elizabeths, but also Chiamaka, Suraj, Gabriela, Zaheer, Bame, Xinyi and many, many beautiful, jagged others.

 

 

 

Bibliography
Bascaramurty, Dakshana. “Reflected on the page”. Globe and Mail, 28 July 2017. Web.
Bishop, Rudine Sims. “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” Perspectives 6 (1990). Print.
Ho, Jean. “Diversity In Book Publishing Isn’t Just About Writers — Marketing Matters, Too”. Code Switch, 9 August 2016. Web.
Neary, Lynn. “To Achieve Diversity In Publishing, A Difficult Dialogue Beats Silence”. Code Switch, 20 August 2014. Web.
Nieto, Sonia. Affirming Diversity (White Plains, N.Y.: Longman, 1996).
[1] Neary, Lynn. “To Achieve Diversity In Publishing, A Difficult Dialogue Beats Silence”. Code Switch, 20 August 2014. Web.[2] Ho, Jean. “Diversity In Book Publishing Isn’t Just About Writers — Marketing Matters, Too”. Code Switch, 9 August 2016. Web.
[3] Neary, Lynn. “To Achieve Diversity In Publishing, A Difficult Dialogue Beats Silence”. Code Switch, 20 August 2014. Web.
[4] Bascaramurty, Dakshana. “Reflected on the page”. Globe and Mail, 28 July 2017. Web.
[5] Bascaramurty, Dakshana. “Reflected on the page”. Globe and Mail, 28 July 2017. Web.
[6] Bishop, Rudine Sims. “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” Perspectives 6 (1990). Print.
[7] Bishop, Rudine Sims. “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” Perspectives 6 (1990). Print.
[8] Sonia Nieto, Affirming Diversity (White Plains, N.Y.: Longman, 1996).

 

Artwork by Manjit Thapp

Californian Encounter

IMG_2377

Sept 10, 6:25 AM

I had just sat down on the metro when I got a whiff of the biting smell of urine.
“Where are you going?”
I looked up and saw what many people in America would point to when asked to show the problem with the country. The man in front of me was black, homeless, and quite deranged. He carried three plastic bags of belongings. One contained just empty plastic bottles.

“Where are you going?” he asked again.
“Union Station,” I said. “To catch the bus to San Francisco.” I’ve had idle chit-chat with the homeless of LA before, and it was always a much more pleasant affair than expected, so I never really felt the need to lie to them out of some ploy to protect myself.

“Can I come?” he followed up. It didn’t seem like he was joking.
“I, uh. I don’t know. Do you have a ticket?” I laughed. I tried to make him laugh it off too.
“No. Can you buy me a ticket?”
“I don’t think so sir. I, don’t think I can do that.”

I was used to the chit-chat of those who knew what reasonable requests were, and what a person not wanting to be bothered looked like.
“Please.” He bent down, and as he his face came to about twelve centimeters from mine, spittles hit my face. I was surprised at how calm I was. “Can you help me?”
“Umm. I don’t think so sir.”
“Please.”

He started holding onto my shoulder with some force. My shoulder tensed up. “You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him.” He was quoting at me, but there was more accusation in his eyes than begging. I got up and went to a seat one cart over. He followed along. “Because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.”
A tall, bald white guy with glasses looked like he was trying to alert some people – was there train security?

“I’m sorry sir, but I don’t think I can help you in any way.” I really didn’t. “I’m just travelling here.”
“I’m just travelling too.”
“I’m sorry, sir.” We finally arrived at Union Station.

“God bless you!” I called out to him. I don’t know why, but religious wishes of goodwill were the only helpful thing I had to offer.
As we walked off the train, the angry bald guy went up to a police officer.
“That guy was harassing this guy.” He pointed at me. I stopped. Talking to an officer would hopefully discourage him from thinking about following me.
“Which one?”
This,” he pointed, “fucking, black guy.” He was heading for escalator.
The officer turned to me and asked what he did.
“Just asking for money I guess.”
“Would you like us to do anything about it?”
I remembered the spittle on my face and wiped it off with my shirt.
“No, I don’t think so.”

Standing at the top of the escalator, he was looking away. I wondered what all those plastic bottles were worth when returned, or if there was a system for it.
I exhaled for a good fifteen seconds when he didn’t follow me out of the station.

Sept 10, 4:30 PM

“Are you afraid of black guys?” came a voice from behind me.
I remembered that morning and thought ‘Sometimes, I guess.’
I turned around and saw a guy in his forties or fifties approaching me with a smile.
“I…” Was this a bad way to say this? “I don’t think so.”

When he arrived, he let his shoulders drop as he exhaled. His lower lip came up in the way it does before one has to share bad news. He seemed tired of having to do this. But also like it had been rehearsed.
“Look, life is hard out here for us sinners. I just woke up. My wife and I we just woke up in the tent, and we are hungry. I don’t want to buy drugs or alcohol, I’m just hungry. My wife is hungry.”

I believed him. Although I knew he could easily be lying. I didn’t particularly mind if he was.
“Yeah, I’m actually not from around here.” What a pivot.
“Where are you from?”
“From Slovakia. Bratislava. It’s in Central Europe.” Silence. “Anyway, you know, it’s my first time on the West Coast. And the, you know, the homelessness is crazy out here.”
“Exactly. This is the richest country in the world, and look how they treat their homeless.”
“Yeah, it’s crazy.”

I realised most people would have cut off this conversation a long time ago. I would have probably waved him away back home without a second thought. I was looking for interesting free things to do in California, much like the homeless. We coincided a lot.

“Back home I’ve never seen anything like this. Tents on city streets, you know?”
“Yes exactly, and you know. My wife and I are hungry. We just woke up.” I already started reaching for my wallet. I felt pretty good about being so generous that I was going to give him five dollars. “And I need nine dollars, thirty cents.”
“How much?” Oh no, if I only gave him 5 now, I would not feel the happiest. For just 4.30 more I could real good about myself.
“I need nine dollars, thirty cents for two soups and a box of tampons.” A caring husband. I would feel so good about myself.
“A ten dollar bill would be perfect.” I felt like when my mother told me to do the dishes, as I was on my way to do just that. I was going to do that anyway.

We introduced ourselves. I forgot his name as soon as we said ‘God Bless!’.

Wire Matters

Cross–wires give arms to wooden poles,
The electric Small talk, Big talk, and talking Dreams travel through wires
Tightly above hot concrete streets, and walking heads.
My wires don’t cross, because they fell apart before the age of six.
Instead, Could–Have–Beens are the wires installed in my head.
All talks travel in the same wire, and they never cross.
Straight Lines which only life has the fingers to cross.
But that is not the way my story is weaved, so I try to do it myself
Only to choke in the process.
I change the fiber optic–electric cable into my own mix.
Resulting in a fit of irritation from my heart that twists my tongue
Which rolls out all my problems from a sea of words at the tip of anger.
I am divided into two, one in English, the other in Portuguese (the Brazilian edition).
Like two never growing flowers an inch apart, competition thrives.
Only to flower a champion on the soil above my gravestone.
Until then, the poles gossip the Portuguese self without English.
In clustered hills, rich in oranges and coffee, I imagine life to be more human.
I would be the one walking below the tangled wires, and have stories
That beam through, from pole to pole. I wouldn’t have to twist
My own wires, or change them, or make them my own,
Because there would be all heart.
Among the everyday there would be no split.
That thought is present in both languages.
But one cries louder in one than the other.
What is left is a question and a soul,
That within his head plays telephone.
And jumbles out regret after regret, with no clear path.
On the English side, temperament is like sleeping on a cradle.
It is here where the wires are built, and tightly locked.
Long tall wooden posts build a cathedral of pines and wires,
That bolt, and never leave, bolt, and never leave.
How hollow and dry the desert has evolved back at the chest,
With everything drained into the wires, all that is left is an earthquaked self,
That is felt layers deep within the shrunken parts below the head.
That is the divide Could–Have–Beens produce.
The cross–wires never move, and keep their matters open.
Wire matters I attend myself by dreaming in and feeling out.

 

Artwork by Tarsila Do Amaral “Opérarios”