Of Words and Worlds: Books I read in 2014
by Vandana Singh
The problem of commenting intelligently about a book is perhaps in some ways similar to the challenges faced by translators or anthropologists – how to present a necessarily personal interaction with a stranger’s world/work in an honest, comprehensible manner to more strangers? The book is a product of the author’s being, imagination, and context, expressed inadequately through the means of words. When I read the book, I bring to it my own questions, history, desires and demands. When I write about it, I am translating through my own filters, capturing my thoughts in the porous cages of words, and that too, words in English, the second of my two first languages, a language that has its particular power, charm, and colonialist baggage. I’ve been reading some really interesting papers in archeological theory and trying to get this mere physicist’s mind around some profound ideas, and it occurs to me that as readers we fall into books as anthropologists might fall into worlds. Especially as readers of speculative fiction we try to inhabit that world of the book on its own terms, suspending disbelief, accepting the conceits of the story. If the story is compelling enough, it temporarily detaches us from our reality, although necessarily, in our interaction with it we bring our desires and prejudices, our history and context. So, in that spacetime interval when we are closeted with a book, we are creating a world that no other reader can create in the same way. If the book isn’t entirely unforgettable, I come away from it changed, subtly or deeply, so that the bubble universe that existed during my reading of it has leaked into my everyday reality. And in turn, by writing a review or comment of the book, or by recommending it to others, I may affect the book as well, at least hypothetically, at least if that review or recommendation affects another’s reading of the book.
So what I present below are impressions of the worlds resulting from my engagement with a dozen or so remarkable books.
One of the pleasures of speculative fiction of the best sort is that it reads at so many levels, literal and metaphoric and beyond. One of the books I regularly re-read is Ursula Le Guin’s classic Wizard of Earthsea, which engages me at once in the story, the language, the imaginative world, and at the same time it speaks to something at a deeper level that I cannot articulate. It is not simply that there is symbolism there – one can make too much of symbolism – real life, or superlative literature, or matter itself that is used to stand in for a concept or idea – all these are irreducible to mere symbols. In the hands of a writer with mastery over her/his craft, objects, people (human or non-human) become more than they appear to be, and in fact characters often violate their own expectations of themselves. But it is not only in speculative fiction that we have the experience of being, temporarily, part of a rich tapestry of worlds and meaning. There are examples in the realist genre that showcase the fantastic nature of everyday reality, whether that reality is the landscape of the human mind, or the way objects speak to us, or the exhilarating, frightening alien-ness of those we thought we knew.
Nirmal Verma, an icon of Hindi literature and master of the short story, examines in his collection Das Pratinidhi Kahaniyan (Ten Representative Stories) the delicate, ever-changing, fantastic landscape of our inner selves, barely known even to ourselves. For example, in his story Dahlij, he evokes with infinite tenderness the inner mind of a teenage girl and her first crush, as seen from the eyes of her older self: Last night it seemed to Runi that after many years an old dream was approaching her on silent feet… it begins, and Runi has jumped back in space and time to that place of her youth, experiencing it again -- the way the curtain rings sound when the March wind blows, and how the three trees on the lawn have caught between them a piece of the sky, that opens, closes, opens, closes. I don’t know if there is a translation of this story in English (the collection I read is in Hindi) – the only translation I’ve found is of a story called The Lost Stream, which gives some flavor of his writing. The fine-detail handling of the human psyche, even when exposing its most horrific aspects, is a characteristic as well of the Pakistani writer Saadat Hassan Manto, beloved in both India and Pakistan. In his short story collection Bombay Stories (English translation from the Urdu; here is a review) Manto goes into the seamy underbelly of the city of the 1930-40s, among its prostitutes and pimps and other riffraff. Manto has never flinched from writing about our infinite capacity for evil, for hurting each other in the name of faith or some other excuse – his most famous stories, written after he left Bombay, are satirical, angry, heart-rending tales of rape and murder during the partition of the subcontinent. (Some I read decades ago are burned forever into my mind). He rejects the authority of the state, or of custom, seeing what others cannot see, pointing out hypocrisy and falseness. His Bombay stories, too, mess with conventional expectations – prostitutes are characters in their own right, irreducible to stereotype. Manto writes with a directness that is very different from Nirmal Verma’s stories – he wields a scalpel, not a paintbrush, but in the hands of the true artist, either can be a powerful instrument.
A new writer I had the pleasure of discovering recently is another Bombayphile, K. Sridhar, who is a theoretical physicist at a major research institute in Mumbai. His book, Twice Written, is the story of three young people in the Mumbai of the 1980s who are trying to figure out the world, and themselves, including their relationships. It reminds me of my own college days in the same period, but in a different place: Delhi University, where five of us friends would stay up at night or walk the pathways or linger in the chai shops talking philosophy, discussing the big questions. In the book our three young people meet an elderly eccentric, who leaves behind him a mysterious manuscript in which they find an account of their lives. Are they living someone else’s story? Where is the missing last chapter? The book is eminently readable, odd in the best sense, refreshing in its lack of concessions to the reader, and although I found the ending somewhat abrupt, it seems the story might continue in a sequel. Life as a palimpsest, the city as character, the sense that there is a hidden subtext below the ordinariness of the world – all these are evoked here.
Amy Rowland’s novel The Transcriptionist, while distinctly different in style and setting, evokes in its own way the strangeness of the world we think of as normal. Lena, through whose eyes we experience the story, has the job of transcribing interviews and reports for a major newspaper in New York. She loves words and books, but her isolation in her eyrie of her office, her relationship with the pigeons on the window sill, her discovery that a woman killed by lions at the city zoo was someone she had met once, a blind court reporter – and her subsequent need to find out what happened and why – all make for a mesmerizing tale. From the power of words to the ethics of reporting, from tragedies that make the news to those that don’t, from the way we are alienated from each other and from other species, and the hell we make for ourselves and them – the book condenses a lot into a slim volume. Reading reviews of it online, I came across a comment that the book was a rip-off of Jose Saramago’s All the Names. Now I’d always intended to read Saramago after seeing Ursula Le Guin’s reviews of his work, and this was the final straw, so off I went to the library. I’ve written more about All the Names on my blog, but I want to say this much here: first, The Transcriptionist is not a rip-off of All the Names, although it is in a similar literary raga – and secondly, Saramago is a stunning writer, well deserving of his 1998 Nobel Prize. In All the Names, our middle-aged protagonist, Senhor Jose, is a clerk in the City Registry and lives so isolated a life that he talks to his ceiling. A chance mistake leads him to find the records of an unknown woman, and the rest of the book is an account of his search for her. Profoundly moving as this book was for me, I was not prepared for the way Saramago’s most famous work, Blindness, completely took apart my defenses. It is a terrifying book, and also exhilarating and deeply thoughtful, in the way that it strikes at the heart of the systems we live by. Imagine a city where people start to go blind with no warning or explanation (a very science-fictional what-if scenario). We follow the lives of a group of people who are incarcerated in an unused mental asylum in a completely inhumane manner – a doctor of ophthalmology, his wife, who can see but pretends to be blind so they can be together, and some of his patients, all of whom end up in the same ward. As the epidemic spreads, more and more people are shepherded into the asylum without anyone to take care of them, with containers of food left irregularly at the door. Fear turns people into monsters – we see this in the way the government, the soldiers who guard the asylum, and the non-blind treat those who are afflicted. Their normal capacity for compassion disappears (this is not unknown in our world – consider the way many people have reacted to those suspected of being sick with Ebola). But the afflicted also turn savage – all the pretenses of civilization fall apart when one needs to nurture the body, when toilets overflow, when the bowels have to be attended to, and you don’t have the benefit of sight. How quickly the façade of civilization collapses! Yet this is not a Lord of the Flies kind of book, in that it allows as much for compassion as brutality. Ultimately it is their mutual caring and shared suffering that allows a small group of people to survive, and escape. The scene where three women, their bodies covered with filth, finally get a chance to bathe naked in the middle of a thunderstorm, is one of the most powerful I’ve read in all literature. The book compels us to recognize that we are, in a profound way, blind – as one of the characters states, near the end: I don’t think we did go blind. I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see. And yet the story is not reducible to mere allegory.
If we cannot see any more, our writers must shine the light, illuminate the subtext of the world. A complicated path (and some recommendations from fellow writers) led me to the work of the great Guinean writer, Camara Laye, whose book The Dark Child is a classic of West African Francophone literature. At the surface it is a memoir of growing up, written by Camara Laye when he was studying engineering in Paris and very homesick. It is lyrically written, with the kind of poetry of language that lifts ‘realism’ into another realm, but that is not its only remarkable characteristic. In the town of Kouroussa, the boy Laye grows up in the traditions of his Malinke people, his father, the blacksmith, a person of great renown. The community is evoked skillfully – it is a joyful childhood, despite various fears and challenges, and the boy is much loved. The book has been described as being insufficiently critical of French colonialism, but perhaps in its very evocation of a rich, complex and happily remembered childhood before French colonial influence changed everything – perhaps in just such an evocation there is a quiet subversion. I found in this book the seamless merging of literal and metaphoric, symbolic and real, in a way that made absurdities of these categories. In the boy Laye’s world, Islamic practices (informed by Sufism, a Sudanese colleague tells me) exist amicably with animism. If all growing up is a journey, there are also journeys across landscapes, entanglements with ideas of home and exile, that make characters of geography. One of the books that initially piqued my interest in West African literature is a modern descendant of the classics, Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death. Here, we see the African desert in space and time through the eyes of Onyesonwu, a child of rape, a fierce, angry one at that, growing up into her powers, unprepared for what she can do. But she doesn’t exist in magnificent isolation. Crucial to her journey are her family and friends, more than sidekicks they are characters in their own right – but also there is the desert, as much a character, with its moods and landscapes, its sandstorms and oases. There are magical creatures and wonderfully imaginative technologies, and there is transformation, literal and otherwise. A rich, thick, compelling book, I don’t think I’ve come across anything quite like it.
Oddly enough, Okorafor’s overtly fantastical work reminds me of another journey across a desert – Andy Weir’s remarkable science-fictional saga, The Martian. The desert is the Martian landscape, and the Martian in question is a human, left behind in that stark, unforgiving world. At first sight the two could not be more different – Weir’s style is journalistic, the work grounded in a scientific understanding of Mars. But they are both journeys through the unknown, internal and external. Weir’s book speaks of the most nightmarish isolation – not the last man left on Earth, but one man stranded on Mars, unable, for a long time in the story, to communicate with anyone. He must shore up his courage, use his ingenuity to survive, and to figure out how to let earth know he is there, he is alive. He gives in to despair from time to time – terrible things happen, plans fail – but he perseveres. The style is spare, but in the negative spaces, a lot is said. This did not read to me as a libertarian fantasy of the individual making it against all odds, but of one man’s determination to get home that would be impossible without the caring and cooperation of other people, some of whom risk their lives for a rescue. Without a coordinated effort, without communication with others, how would our hero have made it? The description of the Martian landscape is immersive and evocative – I must have held my breath for long portions of the book – and the scientific inventiveness a delight. When I finally shut the book, moved to the core, suddenly, the title “The Martian” made sense.
The landscape of eastern Oregon might seem tame after the Western Sahara, let alone Mars, but Molly Gloss’s remarkable book, The Hearts of Horses is no less rewarding territory. Gloss writes with sensitivity and elegance – her style is economical but not journalistic. In 1917 a young woman comes to a remote county in Oregon to work at breaking horses. The war is on, and there is a space for a woman looking for unwomanly work. Martha’s methods are unconventional – she tames by gentling, not breaking, and must prove herself in a community that is strange to her. The community itself is evoked with a deft touch and much compassion, but perhaps the most remarkable feature of the book is in its evocation of developing relationships, between people, and between people and animals. We get to know the people, the horses and the place. This is to me the most subversive kind of ‘frontier tale’ – when I was a kid I went through a brief period of reading Westerns, which I enjoyed unabashedly and unreservedly at the age of eleven or thereabouts, only to realize much later that for all its pleasures it represented a particularly pernicious fantasy. The lone avenger who lives by his wits is a trope that is dangerously prevalent, lauded in a culture that celebrates extreme individualism – but who we are and how we grow, and our very survival, depends on our ability to form meaningful relationships and take care of each other – and this is something that shines through this book.
Women in the world, women as subject and object, women under patriarchy’s boot – all these have been written about, most crucially by women themselves. It is often true that women’s everyday worlds, even when comfortingly familiar, are hostile territory in ways that men may not even be able to imagine. It is probably safe to say that many women know what it is like to be the alien, the other, the one always looking over her shoulder. Education and opportunity give us a chance to speak and to own our voices. But when grinding poverty, abuse and exploitation are added to the picture, how might a woman speak? Consider the remarkable tale of a maid in a suburb of New Delhi, a woman who was abandoned by her mother at the age of 4, married off to an abusive husband at 13, who took courage into her hands and left with her children, becoming a single mother at 25, earning by working as a maid in middle-class and upper-class homes in Delhi. Here is courage, tragedy and endurance, but what makes the story most powerful is the fact that it is an autobiographical account written by the maid herself. I’m talking about A Life Less Ordinary by Baby Halder, translated from the Bengali and published in English by Zubaan Books in New Delhi. Halder’s good fortune was to work in the home of a retired anthropology professor who discovered her interest in reading, encouraged her to write an account of her life, and edited and translated her work. Prabodh Kumar, the professor in question, who is a father figure to Halder, happens to be, by a cosmic chance, a grandson of the great Hindi writer Premchand, whose stories of social justice and the rural poor still inspire today.
Such stories of individual struggle might reveal, overtly or subtly, underlying structures of oppression. The greatest such superstructure of oppression is the world-destroying monster that has brought us social inequalities, environmental disasters and the looming horror of climate change. If only this were fiction! But climate change is all too real, and what is perhaps as horrific is the deafening silence and denial on the issue. So what is a historian of science, one who has been engaged with investigating the history of climate change denial as well as the history of development of the science – what is such a historian of science to do? Naomi Oreskes at Harvard, and her colleague Erik Conway at Caltech, have written a remarkable little book, a curious mélange of fact in fictional garb, called The Collapse of Western Civilization. It is a future history, assuming a ‘business as usual’ scenario, written by a fictional Chinese scholar writing a couple of centuries into the future. Based on what we know now about climate, it performs a thought-experiment, an extrapolation to a dire future indeed, in a mere 52 pages. It is an intense, angry book, more so for its factual, restrained scholarly tone. Perhaps the most incisive (and darkly humorous) is the “Lexicon of Archaic Terms” at the end of the book, which includes explanations of such terms as “capitalism,’ ‘communism,’ ‘bridge-to-renewables,’ ‘market fundamentalism’ and the like. To me as someone who studies climate change, this was the best part of the book. I hope and suspect that like good fiction, this book will give its readers the experience of a disorienting destabilization, when all you take for granted is suddenly apparent, and questionable.
How could we have ended up with climate change? How could it be that science could be appropriated for industry, profit and pillage so we are left with a despoiled world where our very existence is threatened – but at the same time, it is science that is warning us of where we are headed? Perhaps a closer look at science is warranted. This is a topic of both depth and great breadth, which I certainly can’t condense in a paragraph. I have examined in a column series elsewhere how science has come to be seen as a coldly unemotional enterprise, where the bottom line is the data. But that is not how it is in many instances, nor does it have to be that way. Science is a human enterprise, often an emotional one. By pretending that it is anything but, we also distance from it any consideration of ethics. Most people, it is likely safe to say, dislike science, sometimes for good reason, while enjoying, or suffering from the technology that results from its marriage with industry. But relinquishing science to the powerful and to the experts is to give up a part of human heritage, and to put it in dangerous hands – and to give up the possibility of an alternate aesthetics of the universe. A charming book by Pakistani string theorist Tasneem Zehra Husain argues for science and art and emotion and humanity to come together again. Only the Longest Threads is a blend of scientific exposition that sometimes borders on the poetic, and fiction. Fictional witnesses to great discoveries in physics – from Newton’s laws to string theory – write about these ideas and what they might mean to them. While I think Husain could have been more critical of the scientific enterprise, that wasn’t the point of her book (maybe that other book is a book I have to write some day) and there were many nuggets to give joy to this physicist’s heart. Taking back science from the powermongers, transforming the scientific enterprise, bridging the two-cultures gap by bringing the human element back to the sciences – the first step may well be an unabashed emotional appreciation of scientific discovery.
Good books, for me, break and rearrange conventional boundaries – they throw us into alternate worlds, mess with our expectations, destabilize our sense of what’s normal, compel us to look deeper, and in doing all that, enable us to see again. To write well, I think, is to muster up a lot of courage, the courage to face oneself as much as the world, to be willing to suffer with strangers and for strangers, to say things that must be said, and sometimes to pay the price. Our artists dream other dreams so we can see more clearly. The poet Sahir said Khwabon ki aasre pe kati hai tamam umr – I have lived my life on the foundation of dreams – and musicians have also collaborated with poets in opening our eyes. So I’ll end with a tribute to the imagination, that fount of creativity, empathy, revolution and change. Here is a video from the great Indian Sufi music group Chaar Yaar (very personal to me also because two family members are in this performance), singing a mélange of Rumi’s poetry and John Lennon, in three languages.
Vandana Singh is the author of The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet (Zubaan, 2009), numerous fine short stories, and two novellas published by Aqueduct Press in the Conversation Pieces series: Of Love and Other Monsters and Distances,
which won the Carl Brandon Society's Parallax Award and was on the
Tiptree Honor List. She lives near Boston, where she teaches physics.