I‘ve never been a huge fan of Mohsin Hamid. I loved “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” initially but was disappointed and irritated by the end, I enjoyed his essay collection “Civilization and Its Discontents” and I couldn’t get through the beginning of “How to Get Filthy Rich in Asia.” His latest book though, “Exit West” is magical. I’m almost done and hoping that the ending doesn’t let me down. Read below for one of my favourite passages from the book.
The first time I read a novel with Muslim characters, I was 21, and the book was “Does My Head Look Big in This?” by Randa Abdel-Fattah. The main character was sixteen years old, and even though the drama of being in high school and being the only person in a hijab was something I had experienced several years previously and had largely processed by then, it was affirming to read about a character who looked like me.
It was a lesson that women in hijab have stories worth telling.
Married in Johannesburg. Three years ago if you told me that that sentence would relate to me, I wouldn’t have believed you. I met my husband two years ago, and though it’s hard to believe sometimes, by the Grace of God, we’ve been married for almost a year and a half now.
Most tellings of love stories stop with the words “and then they lived happily ever after” but in real life (vs reel life) it takes time to figure out what being married looks like and to learn how to share a life. This knowledge requires time, patience and the help of others. Today I found a draft post I wrote about marriage around the time of our one year anniversary, and thought as a means of self-reminding it would be helpful to post some of the things I’ve learned and continue to re-learn every day about marriage.
I’ve been living in 50s and 60s Naples over the past few days and my trip has left me unsettled and restless. This week I read the first two books of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels (it’s a four book series) called “My Brilliant Friend” and “The Story of a New Name”. I’ve wanted to read these books for a long time. I’ve heard so many wonderful things about the series and have heard friends rave about how beautiful and unusual the books are, and so I was really looking forward experiencing them for myself.
The first book “My Brilliant Friend” is the May selection for the Seriously Planning bookclub. The books follow the lives of two friends Elena and Lila from childhood to their early twenties and chronicles their friendship, deep love, loyalty and hatred for each other. Lila is brilliant but stops her studies after elementary school because her father refuses to let her continue. She studies Latin and Greek on her own regardless and has a natural aptitude for learning and a quickness of mind that far surpasses Elena. Elena on the other hand, completes elementary school, middle school, high school and university by studying relentlessly and through feeling keenly the difference between herself and her friend. Whether it is in beauty, in intelligence, in love, in marriage, or any other sphere, to Elena it constantly feels like Lila is better and luckier than her, and the series is about their lives and how they influence one another.
My Brilliant Friend is an incredible book, and the author paints a detailed picture of Elena and Lila’s neighbourhood that makes it alive and real. She makes you feel like you can see, smell, taste Naples in the 50s and because you care about the characters, you willingly immerse yourself in their terrifying world.
“But all our phrasing – race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy – serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” ~ Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
“This is the foundation of the Dream – its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor and good works. There is some passing acknowledgement of the bad old days, which, by the way, were not so bad as to have any ongoing effect on our present. The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind.” Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
There are some books that everyone needs to read – that have to be taught in each high school, that must be discussed and read in every family, that simply need to be read by as many people as possible. “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of those books. At a 166 pages it is a short book, but a vital and essential text.
It isn’t always comfortable or easy – carrying your fear around with you on your great and ambitious road trip, I mean – but it’s always worth it, because if you can’t learn to travel comfortably alongside your fear, then you’ll never be able to go anywhere interesting or do anything interesting.
And that would be a pity, because your life is short and rare and amazing and miraculous, and you want to do really interesting things and make really interesting things while you’re still here. I know that’s what you want for yourself because that’s what I want for myself, too.
It’s what we all want.
And you have treasures hidden within you – extraordinary treasures – and so I, and so does everyone around us. And bringing those treasures to light takes work and faith and focus and courage and hours of devotion, and the clock is ticking, and the world is spinning, and we simply do not have time anymore to think so small. (p.37, Big Magic)
“It’s a simple and generous rule of life that whatever you practice, you will improve at. For instance: if I had spent my twenties playing basketball every single day, or making pastry dough every single day, or studying auto mechanics every single day, I’d probably be pretty good at foul shots and croissants and transmissions by now.
Instead I learned how to write.” (p.145, Big Magic)
“Meeting Winnifred though, made me realize that your education isn’t over when they say it’s over; your education is over when you say it’s over. And Winifred-back when she was a mere girl of eighty – had firmly decided: It ain’t over yet.
So when can you start pursuing your most creative and passionate life?
You can start whenever you decide to start. ” (p.148, Big Magic)
A few months ago I spent a weekend mentoring teenagers at a camp in Brits, South Africa, and in the early hours of the morning before my cabin was awake and in moments between mealtimes and sessions, I shared stories of my first few months in South Africa with my fellow mentors and new friends. And in December, my husband and I travelled to Durban for the wedding of a dear friend, and in our post dawn walks on the beach or long chats over cups of tea, we continued telling stories of my transition to Joburg and the early days of our marriage. Throughout those conversations, the possibility and importance of chronicling some of these reflections and transition stories into a longer piece of writing was a topic of conversation – I was convinced that my story wasn’t interesting enough to be told (and that I didn’t have the ability to tell it in any case) but my husband and the friends we were speaking to felt otherwise.
For me, the word writer conjures up someone armed with an MFA, proper published writing credits to their name, a dedicated writing practice, no troubles with procrastination, natural talent, ideas that bubble forth constantly and an understanding of semi-colons.That description does not fit me, and so although the act of writing fills my heart with joy it has always seemed inaccurate to think of myself as a writer, and I’ve never felt like writing a longer piece of work is something I could do.
Despite this, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about why and how we tell stories and why we write, and how to know when you should and indeed can, tell a particular story. As part of this thinking, I recently read Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear”. (I confess, part of why I read the book was that I was hoping to hear that creativity is an inherent characteristic so that I could win the internal argument I’ve been having with the words of my husband, family and friends about writing, but alas, no such luck.)
“Only one person can give you a purpose” ~ (After You, Jojo Moyes, p.300)
On a long distance flight a few years ago, I started and finished “Me Before You” by Jojo Moyes, a story about Louisa Clark, age 26, who takes a job as a carer for Will Traynor, age 35, who is a quadriplegic. Louisa has lived in the same town her whole life, has few friends, and she has done and experienced very little. Before his accident, Will lived a full life with work and friends and adventure and passion, and when Louisa meets him, he is an angry and difficult patient. They come from different worlds, but they help each other discover life. In particular, Will helps expand Louisa’s horizons. He introduces her to new experiences, widens her ambitions, and helps her to heal after traumatic events in her past. He teaches her to expect more of herself and of her life.