Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood- Fatima Mernissi

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“When you happen to be trapped powerless behind walls, stuck in a dead-end harem, you dream of escape. And magic flourishes when you spell out that dream and make the frontiers vanish. Dreams can change your life, and eventually the world. Liberation starts with images dancing in your little head, and you translate those images in words. And words cost nothing!”- Fatima Mernissi, Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood

I just recently came across Moroccan feminist and sociologist Fatima Mernissi and was sorry to learn that she passed away late last year. I’m so grateful to her for this text, for  hearing her story. Someone once told me we are always born into the right place at the right time and Mernissi definitely was. Born in Morocco in 1940  during the transition between tradition and modernity, she was a witness to the war and colonialism by the French. As a sociologist, most importantly a feminist, she is able to present her story in a coming of age story situated in history. I believe she was meant to write this story and she writes it well and so beautifully, even inserting funny yet profound childhood observations:

“We knew that the French were greedy and had come a long way to conquer our land, even though Allah had already given them a beautiful one, with bustling cities, thick forests, luscious green fields, and cows much bigger than ours that gave four times as much milk. But somehow the French needed to get home.”

The concept of freedom, especially when it deals with women,  is interesting to me because it means different things to different people. Is freedom about physical barriers? Do we have to construct our own freedom and how do we do so? Do we see freedom in the other?  And even more interesting is to  learn about feminists from non-Western countries and how other women practice feminism in cultures that might not even have that word in their vocabulary. I was quite struck by how feminism was done within the harem walls,  in what people would say is a very unlikely place to practice feminism.

The harem was defined as the place where a man kept his family and sheltered them. It was both the place and the members. We are introduced to proxemics and boundaries within the harem, and we also learn more about the harem of  Mernissi’s grandmother, Yasmina, in the countryside. The harem is a boundary for women and the boundary symbolizes something to overcome somehow in search of freedom. Some boundaries are invisible, others are concrete (or metallic) like the harem’s walls (or gate).

One of the ways feminism was practiced was through storytelling, often intergenerationally. In particular, Scheherezade seemed to be a very important literary figure in this world:

“However, words would save the person who knew how to string them artfully together. That is what happened to Scheherezade, the author of the thousand and one tales. The King was about to chop off her head, but she was able to stop him at the last minute, just by using words. I was eager to find out how she had done it.”

It was timely that I  read this book  just before reading Steinem’s “My Life on the Road.” In a sense, their lives are opposites, one grew up on the road, one behind a wall. Mernissi talked about the importance for women to not be restricted in their movements and I think Steinem would agree:

“I knew that if you moved around, your mind worked faster, because you were constantly seeing new things that you had to respond to.”

All in all, this account reiterates how powerful words are, how women do have that power to transform their own lives.

“You are going to transform this world, aren’t you? You are going to create a planet without walls and without frontiers where the gatekeepers have off every day of the year.”

A special thank you to Julie Feng at https://mintandink.wordpress.com/ for introducing me to this amazing writer!

Also, a book was mentioned that I might read: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist by Huda Sharaoui

Sula- Toni Morrison

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Then summer came. A summer limp with the weight of blossoming things. Heavy sunflowers weeping over fences; iris curling and browning at the edges far away from their purple hearts; ears of corn letting their auburn hair wind down to their stalks. And the boys. The beautiful, beautiful boys who dotted the landscape like jewels, split the air with their shouts in the field, and thickened the river with their shining wet backs. Even their footsteps left a smell of smoke behind.- Toni Morrison, Sula

This is a captivating book about the friendship between two girls (Sula and Nel) with very different personalities. Despite the fact that Sula is the titular character, we’re not introduced to her until halfway through the book. Before that we have the opportunity to discover the poor black community where most of the action will take place,  and think more about PTSD in the lives of black American soldiers,  while waiting  for the central story. In particular, the description of Bottom and how it affects the people who live there sets the stage:

 What was taken by outsiders to be slackness, slovenliness or even generosity was in fact a full recognition of the legitimacy of forces other than good ones. They did not believe doctors could heal—for them, none ever had done so. They did not believe death was accidental—life might be, but death was deliberate. They did not believe Nature was ever askew—only inconvenient. Plague and drought were as “natural” as springtime. If milk could curdle, God knows robins could fall. The purpose of evil was to survive it and they determined (without ever knowing they had made up their minds to do it) to survive floods, white people, tuberculosis, famine and ignorance. They knew anger well but not despair, and they didn’t stone sinners for the same reason they didn’t commit suicide—it was beneath them.

Because I’m reading Morrison’s books in chronological order, and The Bluest Eye was read not too long ago, I was maybe more sensitive to the connections and similarities between the two books. In this book, as in The Bluest Eye, the theme of the two Americas emerges, in particular on the theme of parental love. What does love mean when you are a single black mother of three children, abandoned by your husband and living in a poor, black community? I kept going back to read the passage where Hannah is asking her mother, Eva,  whether she had ever loved her, and Eva replied, “You settin’ here with your healthy-ass self and ax me did I love you? Them big old eyes in your head would a been two holes full of maggots if I hadn’t.” And also:

“Play? Wasn’t nobody playin’ in 1895. Just ’cause you got it good now you think it was always this good?”

This sentiment was so reminiscent of The Bluest Eye where the black mother showed her love to her children in somewhat gruff ways which weren’t even recognized as love until those children were older. In a sense I feel they were too busy to focus on love as most of us envision it, focusing all their attention on survival instead.

I’m still quite conflicted about Sula, although my opinion of her has softened over the years as I myself have gained more empathy through age and personal experiences. In many ways I sympathize with her; she is smart, a rebel of sorts, doesn’t like traditional expectations of women, and is very unconventional. She tries to forge her own life, even gaining the courage to  leave Bottom. But something is missing in her and Morrison tells us that Sula “had no center, no speck around which to grow.” Despite this Morrison is not judgmental in how she portrays her, and it led me to empathizing with her role as an outsider, living in a small community with a small-town mentality. :

In a way, her strangeness, her naivete, her craving for the other half of her equation was the consequence of an idle imagination. Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings; had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the relentlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like any artist with no art form, she became dangerous.

Although Morrison  focuses mainly on the lives of black girls and women in her writing, she also spares a thought to black men. She looks at black masculinity, particularly in the kind of environment that constrains the lives and movement of black people, and what that manifests as:

So it was rage, rage and a determination to take on a man’s role anyhow that made him press Nel about settling down. He needed some of his appetites filled, some posture of adulthood recognized, but mostly he wanted someone to care about his hurt, to care very deeply. Deep enough to hold him, deep enough to rock him, deep enough to ask, “How you feel? You all right? Want some coffee?” And if he were to be a man, that someone could no longer be his mother. He chose the girl who had always been kind, who had never seemed hell-bent to marry, who made the whole venture seem like his idea, his conquest.

 

 

In the end, I really enjoyed this book more than I did a decade ago when I first read it. And I’m awed by how much Morrison can pack into a novella of this size.

 

Woman at Point Zero- Nawal El Saadawi

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“A new world was opening up in front of my eyes, a world which for me had not existed before. Maybe it had always been there, always existed, but I had never seen it, never realized it had been there all the time. How was it that I had been blind to its existence all these years?”

I was told by a friend (thank you, Amina!) that the German title for this book is translated as “I Spit on You,” and it makes a lot of sense after you read the book, because that will probably be your reaction to most of the characters. This is my second El Saadawi book and I wish I’d written a review for the first book of hers that I read, The Innocence of the Devil, because I thought both books were excellent, similar in their approach and very powerful in how they portrayed patriarchy, sexism, hypocrisy, and misogyny.

I love Firdaus, our protagonist, and I think she’s a character who’ll stay with me for a very long time. At the beginning of the novella we find her on death row for killing a man and as she recounts her story to a female psychiatrist who is sent to visit her. We learn more about her. And it’s shocking. It wouldn’t surprise me if many women are able to see themselves in Firdaus, despite the fact that we might not be Egyptian, Muslim etc, like she was. Parts of her story are surely the stories of many women.

The tone of the book starts off so innocently and simply; the change in describing brutal incidents caught me by surprise. From every single man Firdaus encounters she experiences abuse or exploitation of sorts. Firdaus changes because of her experiences and we see how strong she becomes, despite encountering such awful things.

Despite the tragic story, Firdaus has moments of agency and emancipation. This woman who nobody wants, who’s abused time and again, who isn’t helped when she should be, comes up with her own definition of truth based on what she sees and experiences, not what she has been indoctrinated with.  El Saadawi exposes the hypocrisy in religious and patriarchal societies with men using tradition for their own purposes:

“I discovered that all these rulers were men. What they had in common was an avaricious and distorted personality, a never-ending appetite for money, sex and unlimited power. They were men who sowed corruption on the earth, and plundered their peoples, men endowed with loud voices, a capacity for persuasion, for choosing sweet words and shooting poisoned arrows. Thus, the truth about them was revealed only after their deaths, and as a result I discovered that history tended to repeat itself with a foolish obstinacy.”

She compares and contrasts marriage and prostitution, and she is often very blunt about what she perceives to be the position of women in society:

“All women are victims of deception. Men impose deception on women and punish them for being deceived, force them down to the lowest level and punish them for falling so low, bind them in marriage and then chastise them with menial service for life, or insults, or blows.”

But there is the hope when women like Firdaus realize the truth but also the power they actually have:

“How many were the years of my life that went by before my body, and my self became really mine, to do with them as I wished? How many were the years of my life that were lost before I tore my body and my self away from the people who held me in their grasp since the very first day?”

And ultimately though the telling of Firdaus’ story, I found myself changed as well, and more understanding of Firdaus’ journey and evolution.

 “A man does not know a woman’s value, Firdaus. She is the one who determines her value.

 

Become Who You Are- Hedwig Dohm

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“I want to write a sort of necrology of myself. For I am at the end.”- Hedwig Dohm, Become Who You Are

This is a novella about a woman widowed in her mid 50s, and an exploration into her making sense of herself and her life after widowhood. This book was written in 1894 and Dohm was definitely ahead of her time. Lamentably so many of the issues she discusses in this book are still very much relevant today.

In the book, the protagonist is first admitted to a sanatorium, and through the diary she gives to her doctor, we are able to learn more about her and her quest into discovering who she is. But everyone thinks she’s lost her mind. Actually, she’s all too sane:

“Insanity– is this something different than the blocking of ideas; visions that come to us and that emanate from us, we know not where to and where from, and over which we have no power? If this is insanity, then I was insane for more than fifty years.”

While  reading this book I couldn’t help but think of how sad this story is; I believe women are still expected to prop others up (in some cultures more than others) and one of the worst things I can think of for myself is not having a sense of my own identity. I was also stunned to learn that by the time the protagonist was in her 50s, she felt she was too old and that her life was over.

Feminist themes are plenty, and there is also a lot of insight into aging from a feminist perspective, which I don’t see being talked about too often:

“So contemptuously, so reluctantly do people look at an old woman, as if her age were a fault that deserved punishment.”

Highly recommended.

“Why did I have to live as I lived? Because I am a woman and because it stands written on ancient, bronze tablets of law how a woman ought to live? But the text is erroneous, it is erroneous.”

The Woman Who Read Too Much- Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

“If one were to believe her highness, the whole country was on the verge of revolution, with women deploying an artillery of inflammatory prose, wielding books like bucklers, and taking up pens as if they were swords.” Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, The Woman Who Read Too Much

Most of my favourite fiction books have a strong feminist element. This is the kind of book I adore; stories of women refusing to accept traditional or patriarchal values and vowing to live the lives they wish to lead regardless of society. This account is of a woman in Iranian history, a woman who “read too much.” The title reminded me of the Stefan Bollman book, “Women Who Read Are Dangerous/ Les Femmes Qui Lisent Sont Dangereuses.” The woman who read too much was the poetess from Qazvin, Tahirih Qurratu’l-Ayn, who challenged the status quo so spectacularly, so much so that it made her seem dangerous to those in power, and she was eventually put on trial for heresy.

In this book reading too much was just reading, plain and simple. This is Iran in the 19th Century, and religion as well as patriarchy hid the roles and voices of women in historical events. This book presents voices of other women who were somehow involved in the poetess’ trial for heresy:

“But by the time she was arrested in the first winter of the young Shah’s reign, both her admirers and detractors were forced to agree that none of the traditional names of womankind could sum her up. She was admitted to be the calamity of the age.”

You can’t help but be reminded of how women have often been the scapegoats in history. In this time period, the Shah’s regime was experiencing famine, public executions, tortures, and treason trials. But a woman who reads and teaches other women to read will be the talk of the town instead of some of the more heinous events taking place.

In the end, reading meant more than just reading words in books; it also meant reading people, situations, and circumstances. And the more I learn about literacy being denied to certain groups over time, the more amazing it is for me to see how some people are so determined to share this gift because they know it’s a gift and can be so freeing. Literacy is seen as dangerous in the hands of the wrong people, as it always has been, but the people who withhold this knowledge are the ones who are dangerous to me:

“The prisoner in the Mayor’s house was teaching women how to read and write far more than poetry. She was showing them how to inscribe their lives on the pages of history, how to decipher motives, inscribe actions, interpret the world. She was giving them the tools by which to be autonomous.”

“They listened as she told them how languages and marriages were bridges, merely, between man and woman, tongue and ear; how they were the means by which to build, in which to house, on which to raise new meanings between human beings. When a marriage was faithful, it gave birth to poetry, she concluded. If not, it was a dead letter overnight.”

This is my second book by the author and she paints such a wonderful story of one woman who made a difference and left a lasting legacy that might not have been so obvious at the time. Highly recommended!

“If there were daughters, sisters, wives in these pages, it’s only because we cannot be read whole. We come to the last chapter split in parts, Beloved; we come scattered in fragments, torn. There is no such thing as a complete woman in this world.”

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie- Jean Rhys

“It was the darkness that got you. It was heavy darkness, greasy and compelling. It made walls round you, and shut you in so that you felt you could not breathe. You wanted to beat at the darkness and shriek to be let out. And after a while you got used to it. Of course. And then you stopped believing that there was anything else anywhere.”

My third Rhys and I feel that her female protagonists aren’t the most likeable characters but they are human so quite relatable. At least it’s very easy to remember that they are human and to feel for what they’re going through.

There was so much despair in this book and it was easy to spot the feminist threads. Julie, a woman who married to be free is trying hard to make it in Paris. Reliance on men,and fears of getting older and so on all make her think, “My life’s like death. It’s like being buried alive. It isn’t fair, it isn’t fair.”

There always seems to be a feeling of impending doom in the book. This is a book of broken dreams, of disappointments, of unfairness, where the value of a woman is apparently on the decline after age 30. But it was a great book that had me transfixed enough to read in one sitting.

You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down- Alice Walker

The more I learn about black-, especially African-American history and culture, the more I understand how great Walker’s writing is and how well she uses her fiction to impart knowledge. Sure, stories are meant to entertain but in Walker’s case they are also clearly written to educate. Every single one of these stories taught me something. For that reason I think of Walker’s short stories as essays, in a sense.

Walker discusses lots of topics, including difficult ones such as interracial relationships, abortion, and pornography. Perhaps some of those topics aren’t for everyone (and a few of the stories were quite explicit) but if there’s anyone who can handle such topics, it’s Walker. I get the feeling that Walker weaves in some of her own experiences in her stories because quite a few of them did seem to have a semi-autobiographical feel.

As the title suggests, the main topic of this book is women, in particular black women. One of the most interesting stories was “Nineteen Fifty-Five,”  which was about an older black woman who sold some of her songs to a white male singer. Walker managed to address so many things that I’ve been thinking about art and appropriation, and she also got me thinking about the disparity between group needs and what people from other groups (race, class, gender, etc.), think they want; this is something that she illustrates quite well without explicitly stating it as such.

I know a little about the history of black music in the States and of how it has often been appropriated. Yet, the whole point about art is that it’s supposed to come from within, from our experiences. But so much art has been appropriated anyway:

“Everybody still loves that song of yours. They ask me all the time what do I think it means, really. I mean, they want to know just what I want to know. Where out of your life did it come from?”

“They want what I got only it ain’t mine. That’s what makes ‘em so hungry for me when I sing. They getting the flavour of something but they ain’t getting the thing itself. They like a pack of hound dogs trying to gobble up a scent.”

The story “Coming Apart” was just a masterpiece. In it Walker uses excerpts of an essay I hadn’t heard of, by Tracey A. Gardner, about the racial aspects of pornography. I’ll let the following excerpts speak for themselves:

“For centuries the black woman has served as the primary pornographic “outlet” for white men in Europe and America. We need only think of the black women used as breeders, raped for the pleasure and profit of their owners. We need only think of the license the “master” of the slave woman enjoyed. But, most telling of all, we need only study the old slave societies of the South to note the sadistic treatment — at the hands of white “gentlemen” — of “beautiful”, young quadroons and octoroons” who became increasingly (and were deliberately bred to become) indistinguishable  from white women, and were the more highly prized as slave mistresses because of this.”

“Because Tracey A. Gardner has thought about it all, not just presently but historically, and she is clear about all the abuse being done to herself as a black person and as a woman, and she is bold and she is cold—she is furious. The wife, given more to depression and self-abnegation than to fury, basks in the fire of Gardner’s high-spirited anger.”

I’m always interested by exotification being a rare minority where I live. In the story “A Sudden Trip Home in the Spring“, the female protagonist realizes that she is constantly being othered;  I could relate so much to that:

“How could they ever know her if they were not allowed to know Wright, she wondered. She was interesting, “beautiful,” only because they had no idea what made her, charming only because they had no idea from where she came. And were they came from, though she glimpsed it—in themselves and in F. Scott Fitzgerald—she was never to enter. She hadn’t the inclination or the proper ticket.”

Like I always say, Walker is one of the bravest and most honest writers I’ve ever come across.And she’s adept at creating multidimensional black women characters. She illustrates black women with agency, and with a (much often denied by society) inner life. For me, a black woman who not so long ago rarely read of black women’s experiences in literature, Alice Walker’s work is so important. Her brand of feminism, womanism, is something I can feel comfortable with as encompassing of the black woman’s experience, which is very often so different from those in mainstream feminism. Additionally, black feminist heroes are included in Walker’s writing and to me that seems like not only is she paying homage, she is also encouraging us to read up on these greats and learn from them. As I learned from doing my thesis, the main way that black women learn is from each other, and from reading black women’s literature as a way to understand their complex identities. Audre Lorde, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells…I’ll be reading you all soon.