Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass- Theodore Dalrymple



If the doctor has a duty to relieve the suffering of his patients, he must have some idea where that suffering comes from, and this involves the retention of judgment, including moral judgment.And if, as far as he can tell in good faith, the misery of his patients derives from the way they live, he has a duty to tell them so—which often involves a more or less explicit condemnation of their way of life as completely incompatible with a satisfying existence. By avoiding the issue, the doctor is not being kind to his patients; he is being cowardly. Moreover, by refusing to place the onus on the patients to improve their lot, he is likely to mislead them into supposing that he has some purely technical or pharmacological answer to their problems, thus helping to perpetuate them.- Theodore Dalrymple, Life at the Bottom

Theodore Dalrymple, a retired British psychiatrist, who has spent years working with the underclass is a very keen observer of human nature, as is evidenced by this book. His dealings with thousands of these people at close quarters gave him much of the fodder for his thesis which is, I’m sure that some will disagree, that a lot of poverty is caused by dysfunctional values, values that those in power exploit and make worse by creating a culture of victims. Most of these stories and anecdotes are from Dalrymple’s time working in British slums and prisons.

This was a very heavy read and I’m still thinking about it weeks after I read it. There are things discussed that seem so foreign to me because I’ve never had to deal with them, and it’s upsetting that so many do. I learned interesting points around education, literature, the violence in the British culture, the housing, and how often people in need aren’t helped enough because they aren’t tragic enough. It was eye-opening and there is a lot of pain in this book, and so much raises questions.

Also, it’s important to know that several of the essays in this book were written in the 90s, so people’s values have changed since then. I obviously didn’t agree with everything Dalrymple stated in the book, and I haven’t lived in the UK for a long time, so there are things I can’t speak to or challenge, even though I really want to.

I was surprised when Dalrymple  alluded that systemic racism isn’t a thing, but his other points about how we should treat people on a case by case situation, not by their race, was well-taken. Also interesting was how he has worked in African and Latin American countries where he talks about the poverty there but says that the Western underclass’s mental, cultural, emotional and spiritual poverty is the worst he has ever seen, something backed up by the doctors from Asia who start working at his hospital:

By the end of three months my doctors have, without exception, reversed their original opinion that the welfare state, as exemplified by England, represents the acme of civilization. On the contrary, they see it now as creating a miasma of subsidized apathy that blights the lives of its supposed beneficiaries.

So much of this book is due to the fact that Dalrymple is tired of people blaming the system and not taking their own actions into consideration. There is a lot of controversial stuff, that’s for sure. But as far as critical thinkers goes, Dalrymple is one of the best I’ve come across recently.

I liked his thoughts on the architectural changes in England following the turn of the 20th century  when Britain was entering modernity:

The architects thought that modernity was a value that transcended all other virtues; they thought they could wake the country from its nostalgic slumber, dragging it into the twentieth century by pouring what seemed to them to be the most modern of building materials—reinforced concrete—all over it. Hence, among many other crimes, they tore down the elegant Victorian wrought-iron tracery of my city’s main railway station, with its splendid arched roof over the platforms and tracks, and built instead a brutalist construction of steel and soon-discoloured concrete to a plan that proved no more practical or functional than the old.


One of the points that spoke to me the most was perhaps this:

Experience has taught me that it is wrong and cruel to suspend judgement, that nonjudgmentalism is at its best indifference to the suffering of others, at worst a disguised form of sadism. How can one respect people as members of the human race unless one holds them to a standard of conduct and truthfulness? How can people learn from experience unless they are told that they can and should change?

This book will definitely make you think.



When The Body Says No- Gabor Maté

“When we have been prevented from learning how to say no, our bodies may end up saying it for us.”- Gabor Maté, When the Body Says No

I think it’s common knowledge that stress takes its toll on the body and can cause chronic illness. Gabor Maté goes a step further in his analysis on stress’ impact on the body and looks in more depth into autoimmune diseases and how our reactions to life, as well as our upbringings,  and our relationships with loved ones, might affect how our body reacts, for better or for worse. This book has a wealth of information that I feel should be essential reading.

Maté’s book was a wake up call in many ways. The author is a well-known and beloved Vancouver physician and he writes with such passion and understanding over the human body, illness and life experiences. The main issue Maté looks at is that of psychoneuroimmunology, the science of the interactions between the mind and the body. Basically, “our immune system does not exist in isolation from daily experience.” , and our emotions and physiology are connected. Doctors often ask for our symptoms but few really help us understand that our childhood, upbringing and other factors play a huge part in our health. Maté advocates for a more holistic approach to healthcare.

I found the real examples in this book very informative, and also very sad. There was the story of Gilda Radner, who died from ovarian cancer. One of the things she said, which I’ll try my best to live by, goes as follows:  “It is important to realize that you have to take care of yourself because you can’t take care of anybody else until you do.”

In addition to Radner, there were also analyses on Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) and Ronald Reagan, who Maté said wrote his autobiography with “emotional poverty, disguised by sentiment.” Emotions were a big part of this book, suppressed emotions being seen as unhealthy expression and aiding in stress:

” Emotions interpret the world for us. They have a signal function, telling us about our internal states as they are affected by input from the outside. Emotions are responses to present stimuli as filtered through the memory of past experience, and they anticipate the future based on our perception of the past.”

“Repressed anger will lead to disordered immunity. The inability to process and express feelings effectively, and the tendency to serve the needs of others before considering one’s own, are common patterns in people who develop chronic illness.”

I learned that perfectionism is harmful. I also learned that so many of us carry other people’s burdens and it can become crippling. I learned more about  Alzheimer’s, cancer, dementia, .multiple sclerosis. and other diseases, and was impressed by how Maté managed to communicate what he believes to be the sources of these diseases without taking on an accusatory or judgmental tone.  He has so much empathy, and what he does in his writing, as well as informing and guiding us to self-analyze, is helping us achieve self-acceptance and healing.

This book challenged me to take an honest look at myself, at my life, how I do things, and how I react to things.

Finally, a mantra for those of us who perhaps do too much: “I should be a guide, not a god.”


Corregidora- Gayl Jones

“You asked me how did I get so beautiful. It wasn’t him. No, not Corregidora. And my spirit, you said, like knives dancing. My veins are centuries meeting.”

There are some books that are just so merciless you wonder how on earth the characters even manage to survive all that brutality. But they do and then you wonder how they deal with all that accumulated pain and whether they can live a “normal” life. This book deals with some difficult topics such as slavery, domestic violence, and rape. It also focuses on ancestral memory and orality as a way of passing on stories. Of course with oral culture we pick which stories we want passed on so it might be surprising to learn that the story that the protagonist’s grandmother chooses to tell her is one of rape: the rape of both her grandmother and mother by the same man, the Portuguese slavedriver, Corregidora. You can’t help but squirm when you read that Ursa has been listening to these stories while on her grandmother’s knee since she was 5 years old:

” Her hands had lines all over them. It was as if the words were helping her, as if the words repeated again and again could be a substitute for memory, were somehow more than the memory. As if it were only the words that kept her anger.”

This book focuses on Ursa, the daughter and great-grand-daughter. A blues singer at a local club, the book starts off with tragedy for her at the hands of her husband. The blues are prominent in the book and I’m reminded of Angela Davies and her research on black women, feminism and the blue. All Ursa has are the blues and her beautiful voice which changes after her tragedy:

“It sounds like you been through something. Before it was beautiful too, but you sound like you been through more now.”

Ursa’s flashbacks are full of anger. Why did the grandmother want to keep that tragic story alive? She doesn’t want the story to die and she wants Ursa to “make generations” to carry on the story:

“I’m leaving evidence. And you got to leave evidence too. And your children got to leave evidence. And when it comes time to hold up the evidence, we got to have evidence to hold up.”

It’s interesting about the body being memory that has been touched on in so many books, it’s even more interesting that Ursa’s memories of her mother and grandmother are perhaps just as strong as her own memories:

“It was as if their memory, the memory of all the Corregidora women, was her memory too, as strong with her as her own private memory, or almost as strong.”

The story relies mostly on dialogue, both internal and external. The language is often quite graphic and explicit. The language the men in her life use to describe and label Ursa is incredibly misogynistic and objectifying.

The story shows in several ways how our past can affect us. The history of slavery in particular; I can’t even begin to comprehend the pain the slaves experienced, though Gayl Jones did a good job of highlighting some examples.

For some reason I feel this is the sort of book that a lot will dislike but will keep going back to.

Recurring Dream Locations

A couple of months ago I met an artist who showed me her portfolio. All her drawings and paintings were essentially of one place, her recurring dream place. She told me she dreams about this place very frequently, a couple of times a week. The place is always the same but in a different location, under various lights. She always recognizes her place which is a park.  I really enjoyed her paintings and having her describe her feelings and thoughts in each one. The idea of  discussing the significance of having a recurring dream place really intrigued me because I have them too. And what was impressive and inspiring to me is the fact that the artist has been able to turn a place in a dream (in her head) into her life work! I learned a lot from her and I was happy to introduce her to the little I know about symbology and Jungian archetypes.

I’ve been keeping a dream journal for over 15 years. What is interesting about keeping one is first of all some of the dreams are so crazy that they make you laugh or think you have the next plot for a bestselling sci-fi novel. But dreams are also your subconscious talking to you and at times you suddenly realize what the dream is trying to say. Often I have told a trusted friend about a dream of mine that has been troubling me and I am floored by the insight and revelation that my friend gives me. I don’t think dream analysis is psychobabble at all, though I do believe there are multiple interpretations.

When it comes to my recurring dream places,  I don’t dream of them as often as the artist does but still frequently enough. If I could draw, perhaps I would draw my dream places but since I can’t draw, I’ll write about them instead. Here are my dream places (I have never been to them nor have I ever seen them before)

Dream Place #1

I would describe this place as being very green and very blue. It’s a dark place but it doesn’t scare me. Rather, it intrigues me because I feel like I’m not on this planet. There is a sort of ethereal quality about it, like perhaps I’m in a place of myths and legends, it does look very Tolkienesque. The green comes not only from the thick and lush vegetation, but also from green crystal structures, perhaps emerald. The blue comes from the sapphire-blue pools and falls of water. It looks magical but there are no living creatures there, it’s deathly quiet except for the sound of the water.


Dream Place #2

This place is a very arid area that I’ve been trying to place because it sometimes looks familiar. Sometimes I think I’m in Mozambique but I don’t recall Mozambique being that dry. But this place has absolutely no trees. I do see signs of settlement though, along the main road. I am often just passing through, trying to get away from the place because I don’t feel comfortable there. The signs of settlement I see are mostly little roadside marketplaces and shops made out of sand-coloured bricks. Often I feel this feeling of apprehension and uncertainty. I’m looking for something or someplace, and the sooner I find it the better. At times I enter a shop and the man behind the counter is smiling at me but it’s a menacing smile. I know he’d harm me if he could. The shop shelves are stacked high with tins and it reminds me of a quartermaster store. I always buy a few items of food and although I don’t ever eat them I can somehow taste them and they taste like dream food. This sandy place to me lacks a soul, it’s evil but intriguing at the same time.


Dream Place #3

This is a city, probably a European or a North American city. There’s invariably a cathedral in this place and it’s HUGE, like really huge, intimidating and foreboding. I’ve never seen a cathedral that size before. I always find myself standing very close to it and looking up at its towers. I am always in awe by the architecture. When I venture off the main road I find some quaint neighbourhoods that remind me of Montreal. I just know I’ll find some street art there and I’m dying to take some pictures. Sometimes I find areas with street art and say to myself I’ll come back to take some more pictures, but I never do because in my dreams it’s very hard to get where you’re trying to go.


I don’t know enough dream analysis but if a dream is recurring, surely it’s important. Dreams carry a message, so I’m curious about what my subconscious is trying to communicate to me. And the concept of place is something that’s also been on my mind lately, primarily because of academic projects. The only thing I can think of that might be the common interpretation to all three dreams is that these are created places in my mind that I have made in an attempt to fit in or have more control over my surroundings. Perhaps my mind is trying to create the perfect world for me? The desert dream definitely wasn’t a successful creation though. And what about the symbols? What do they mean? And the colours?

I’m curious to know whether anyone reading this has and recurring dreams or dream places! Please comment underneath:)

Cultures of Fetishism – Louise J. Kaplan


I was actually researching racial fetishism when I came across this book. It doesn’t really touch much upon that subject but it’s full of interesting information nonetheless.

It turns out that most people’s definition of fetishism is too narrow in that it’s usually taken to mean sexual fetishism. However, according to Dr. Kaplan, a psychoanalyst, “any excessive activity of heightened devotion could be referred to as a fetish.”

Kaplan goes on to list 5 principles of fetishism. Number 2 was the most interesting to me: “Fetishism transforms ambiguity and uncertainty into something knowable and certain and in doing so snuffs out any sparks of creativity that might ignite the fires of rebellion.” In that case, fetishism is used to dominate. Terrifying stuff.

Kaplan also explores footbinding in China, a topic that interests and horrifies me at the same time. What was different in her approach was that she considered Chinese women who had had their feet bound while it was still in vogue and then had had to live with the social stigma of having bound feet once it was no longer a fetish.

Kaplan’s dissection of fetishism in film was very interesting. She discussed Marilyn Monroe, the movie Eyes Wide Shut, and a Jude Law and Vivian Wu movie I had never heard of before and have no desire to ever watch because it sounds too bizarre (The Pillow Book).

“Whether in medicine, art, psychology, politics or religion, it has been a longstanding tradition to employ the enigmatic body of a woman with its mysterious desires and perplexing unpredictable movements as a fetishism emblem. Of course that’s not new but the way she dissects it in her examples is enlightening.”

I was very interested in the section on fetishism in biography writing. I have been reading a lot of biographies recently and was a bit surprised to learn that French philosopher Jacques Derrida actually calls biography writing “archive fever.” Virginia Woolf goes further to say that the duty of the biographer “is to plod without looking to right or left, in the indelible footprints of truth; unenticed by flowers, regardless of shade, on and on methodically till we fall plump into the grave and finis on the tombstone above our head.”

Other topics touched upon were reality television, tattoos, commodification of children, and robots. All in all, this book was very thought-provoking and I learned a lot from it.

Exotification – I’m Not Your Pretty Little Lotus Flower

Media Diversity UK ( asked me to contribute to a blog post on exotification. Joy from supplied the Asian perspective, while I contributed my experiences of black exotification.

Media Diversified

Rowena’s Story

I love Asian women!” “Asian women are so hot.” “Japan, Korea, China?” “Asian women know how to treat a man!”

Do any of these phrases sound familiar to you? If they do, congratulations. You’ve come across (or you are) a man — probably white — with so-called “Yellow Fever”.

As an Asian woman living in a country full of white men, I meet these guysa lot. You know, the ones who blurt out all of the above, who try to guess what “type” of Asian I am, whose favourite actresses are Gong Li, Lucy Liu and Zhang Ziyi, who insist on discussing Korean/Japanese/Chinese dramas with me despite me not having seen the series in question, who tell me about all the other Asian women they’ve dated, who complain about how ugly white women are and why Asian women are so much better, and who try to get…

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The Novel of the Future- Anais Nin



“I stress the expansion and elaboration of language. In simplifying it, reducing it, we reduce the power of our expression and our power to communicate. Standardization, the use of worn-out formulas, impedes communication because it does not match the subtlety of our minds or emotions, the multimedia of our unconscious life.” – Anais Nin, The Novel of the Future

It’s quite a happy coincidence that I picked up this book at the same time that I was reading Carl Jung’s “Memories, Dreams, Reflections.” Both books deal with psychoanalysis, symbolism and the subconscious. Anais Nin goes further than Jung did in that she discusses how psychology can enrich literature, and indeed how psychoanalysis is needed in literature. In general, she is quite disappointed by the path that the novel has taken. In her opinion, literature is too sterile, too linear, too cold. She wants more experimentation in novels, to include more psychology, science and so on:

“The old concept of chronological, orderly, symmetrical development of character died when it was discovered that the unconscious motivations are entirely at odds with fabricated conventions. Human beings do not grow in perfect symmetry. They oscillate, expand, contract, backtrack, arrest themselves, retrogress, mobilize, atrophy in part, proceed erratically according to experience and traumas. Some aspects of the personality mature, others do not. Some live in the past, some in the present. Some people are futuristic characters, some are cubistic, some are hard-edged, some geometric, some abstract, some impressionistic, some surrealistic!”

Nin is very passionate about the novel, even more so about the future of the novel. She pays homage to several poetic authors such as Woolf, Proust and Djuna Barnes, James Joyce, Kafka, all writers I personally admire, so it made me accept her claims of the future of the novel more readily.

I think that people who aren’t completely sold on diary-writing might reconsider when they read Nin’s chapter about the merits of the diary:

“Another lesson I learned from diary writing was the actual continuity of the act of writing, not waiting for inspiration, favourable climate, astrologic constellations, the mood, but the discipline of sitting at the typewriter to write so many hours a day. Then when the magnificent moment comes, the ripened moment, the writing itself is nimble, already tuned, warmed.”

As always I was impressed by Nin’s beautiful writing. Reading excerpts of books she had written, and having her explain what she was aiming at doing in those passages was really enlightening. It made me understand her more as a writer. I was impressed by her dedication to the trade. An extreme case of that dedication was her taking LSD to write about her experience (not that I’m advocating drug use at all but it was an interesting point).

This is a must-read for any writer or aspiring writer. I learned so much from it.