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.
“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.
I’ve wanted to read Rebecca Solnit’s book “Men Explain Things to Me” ever since it was published and (hurrah public libraries) I finally am reading the book now. It’s such an amazing collection of essays, and I really want to get a copy of the book for everyone I know. Proper thoughts coming soon, but for now, here is a beautiful gem from the book.
“My own task these past twenty years or so of living by words has been to try to find or make a language to describe the subleties, the incalculables, the pleasures and meanings – impossible to categorize – at the heart of things. My friend Chip Ward speaks of “the tyranny of the quantifiable.” of the way what can be measured almost always takes precedence over what cannot: private profit over public good; speed and efficiency over enjoyment and quality; the utilitarian over the mysteries and meanings that are of greater use to our survival and to more than our survival, to lives that have some purpose and value that survive beyond us to make a civilization worth having.The tyranny of the quantifiable is partly the failure of language and discourse to describe the more complex, subtle, and fluid phenomena, as well as the failure of those who shape opinions and make decisions to understand and value these slipperier things. It is difficult, sometimes even impossible, to value what cannot be named or described, and so the task of naming and describing is an essential one in any revolt against the status quo of capitalism and consumerism. Ultimately the destruction of the Earth is due in part, perhaps in large part, to a failure of the imagination or to its eclipse by systems of accounting that can’t count what matters. The revolt against this destruction is a revolt of the imagination, in favour of subtleties, of pleasures money can’t buy and corporations can’t command, of being producers rather than consumers of meaning, of the slow, the meandering, the digressive, the exploratory, the numinous, the uncertain.”
In Sumaiya and her sisters, I saw none of the vague dissatisfaction I’d seen flourish around me – indeed, in me, growing up. As a member of the American middle class, I was raised in a nation of strivers, a nation founded on the right to pursue happiness. Our discontent was productive. It got things done. The drive to do better propelled through graduate school and up career ladders. Through spin classes and salary negotiations. A world of infinite favours didn’t yield reliable results. My secularist’s do-it-yourself existence did not get me into the habit of being grateful for date palms, fragrant herbs and seas.
The Sheikh’s sense of gratitude was altogether more muscular, perhaps because it had somewhere to go. His whole consciousness of God as a creator took gratitude to a whole new level, cosmic in scope and near-constant in presence. Akram was a man who could find God in the act of making a cup of tea. “Everyone says, ‘Any child could make a cup of tea,'” he said. ” But every cup of tea depends on the whole universe being there. For the tea to exist it needs the sun and the moon. It needs the earth to be there. He made water, He made the container to hold it, He made the leaves to grow. When we were born, everything was there, just waiting for us. Every cup of tea depends on the whole universe.” I couldn’t decide whether this logic was oppressive or inspiring. I rather thought it was both, like the satisfying ache of stretching after a session hunched over a laptop.
Studying with a man who saw everything from tea leaves to algebra as gifts from God, I was struck by a new seam of gratitude running through me. I’d emerge from a lesson not with faith, but with what I suppose a fashionable guru would call mindfulness. On the bus ride home, particularly when the sun lit up the green hills beside the highway, I found myself, for a second, seeing them as the Sheikh might: not as something pretty,or as expensive real estate, or as the space between me and London, but as a connection to something larger. There were moments, while I was reading a sura, or carting the kids to school, or chopping an onion, that I sensed what this radical gratitude must feel like: a constant reminder that you’re alive, but just for now. ~ If the Oceans Were Ink
For the Seriously Planning Book Club, I’m reading a book right now called The Road to Mecca by Muhammad Asad, that so far, is a beautiful, introspective read about faith and identity. I read the following passage today and it struck me as worth noting in my digital notebook and with all of you – a powerful reminder that although it is important to live with purpose and journey in search of benefit, we ultimately can only fully understand where we are going/where we have been at the end of our travels.
But after all is there always a clearly discernible borderline between the mundane and the abstruse in life? Could there have been, for instance, anything more mundane than setting out in search of a lost camel, and anything more abstruse, more difficult of comprehension than almost dying of thirst?
Perhaps it was the shock of that experience that has sharpened my senses and brought forth the need to render some sort of account to myself: the need to comprehend, more fully than I ever done before, the course of my own life. But, then, I remind myself, can anyone really comprehend the meaning of his own life as long as he is alive? We do not know, of course, what has happened to us at this or that period in our lives; and we do sometimes understand why it happened; but our destination – our destiny – is not so easily espied: for destiny is the sum of all that has moved in us and moved us, past and present, and all that will move us and within us in the future – and so it can unfold itself only at the end of the way, and must always remain misunderstood or only half understood as long as we are treading the way.
How can I say, at the age of thirty-two, what my destiny was or is?
~The Road to Mecca, Muhammad Asad, p.50
“I was quite sorry when Miss Thornton came to take me to the other end of the room, saying she was sure I should be uncomfortable at being the only lady among so many gentlemen. I had never thought about it, I was so busy listening; and the ladies were so dull, papa – oh so dull! Yet I think it was clever too. It reminded me of our old game of having each so many nouns to introduce into a sentence.’
‘What do you mean, child?’ asked Mr Hale.
‘Why, they took nouns that were signs of things which gave evidence of wealth – housekeepers, under-gardeners, extent of glass, valuable lace, diamonds, and all such things; and each one formed her speech so as to bring them all in, in the prettiest accidental manner possible.’
~ North and South, p.202 (published 1854)
What a joy it is to come across beautiful writing. Everything about Instructions for a Heatwave is exquisite. The sentence structure, the lack of superfluous words, the stunning detailed descriptions, it is all part of a beauty that leaves your heart hurting and your eyes a bit teary without quite knowing why. Below, a description from the book about the love that can exist between a person and a city.
She misses London. She misses it the way she missed Joe. A strange, cramped pain that leaves her almost unable to speak. She has never lived anywhere else until now. She hadn’t really known that people lived anywhere else, or would want to. There are days when she can hardly bear it, when she walks across the landing of the house, again and again, her arms crossed over her middle, her mind overfilled with images of descending an escalator into the Piccadily Line on a wet, darkened evening, everyone’s umbrellas slicked with rain, of the ten-minute walk between her old flat and her mother’s house, of Highbury Fields on a misty day, of the view over the city from Primrose Hill. Homesick: she’s found that it really does make you feel sick, ill, maddened by longing.
Maggie O’Farrell, Instructions for a Heatwave, p.116-117.
She cannot read. This is her own private truth. Because of it, she must lead a double life: the fact of it saturates every molecule of her being, defines her to herself, always and forever, but nobody else knows. Not her friends, not her colleagues, not her family – certainly not her family. She has kept it from all of them, felt herself brimming with the secret of it her whole life. (p.76)
She cannot read. She cannot do that thing that other people find so artlessly easy: to see the arrangements of inked shapes on a page and alchemize them into meaning. She can create letters, she can form them with the nib of a pen or the lead of a pencil, but she cannot get them to line up in the right order, in a sequence that anyone else could understand. She can hold words in her head – she hoards them there – she can spin sentences, paragraphs, whole books in her mind; she can stack up words inside herself but she cannot get these words down her arm, through her fingers and out onto a page. She suspects that, as a baby, she crossed paths with a sorcerer who was in a bad mood that day and, on seeing her, on passing her pram, decided to suck this magical ability from her, to leave her cast out, washed up on the shores of illiteracy and ignorance, cursed forever. (p. 80)
The passages above are from a book called Instructions for a Heatwave, and refer to a character named Aoife who never learnt to read at school. Letters jump at her when she looks at a page, and after years of frustration, she leaves school without completing any of her subjects, and unable to read simple texts. When we meet her, she is working as a photographer’s assistant in America. While at work, whenever she receives a contract or any other document she must process, she puts the pieces of paper in a blue file folder. By now, the file is overflowing with things that need attending.
Because she cannot read the labels on the boxes of equipment in the studio, she memorises the location of every tiny item in the studio so that nobody guesses her secret. I don’t know what happens to Aoife as I’m not done the book, but I can sympathize with her. I have (like many other readers I’m sure) had the experience of travelling and being unable to read the local language. Such moments can leave you feeling diminished, unintelligent, and embarrassed. They can impact how you feel about yourself. You can become reluctant to speak for fear of making grammatical mistakes, and overwhelmed figuring out key things such as where you are, and how the transit system operates. Struggling with basics means it is harder to tackle more complicated topics such as learning about current events and debates with different levels of government.
If the experience of being unable to understand your local environment is frustrating even in short term doses, it is difficult to imagine how frustrating that must be if that is your long term reality. And in fact, even at home, there are so many people who struggle with low literacy every day.
In Canada, “four of ten adult Canadians, age 16 to 65 – representing 9 million Canadians – struggle with low literacy. They fall below level 3 (high school completion) on the prose literacy scale.” 27% of those 9 million Canadians struggle with simple reading tasks. (ABC Life Literacy Canada). This has multiple social impacts, from employment prospects to health impacts to civic engagement.
I currently work with a nonprofit that supports social programs in the city, and seeks to (among other goals) target the root causes of poverty in order to create systemic sustainable change. Thinking about illiteracy this evening though, I can’t help thinking that while there are important contributions to make on a systemic level, we cannot lose sight of the contributions that are needed on an individual basis as well. There are organisations that need tutors, there are libraries that need books, there are people who need someone to help them gain the confidence to read out loud and to practice their writing.
There is so much to do! My last post was about loving words, today, I am realising that each love, each gift that one is given necessitates sharing, and serving others in a way that is of benefit.
Like Okakura, I know that tea is no minor beverage. When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everyone else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?
The tea ritual: such a precise repetition of the same gestures and the same tastes; accession to simple, authentic and refined sensations, a license given to all, at little cost, to become aristocrats of taste, because tea is the beverage of the wealthy and of the poor; the tea ritual, therefore has the extraordinary virtue of introducing into the absurdity of our lives an aperture of serene harmony. Yes, the world may aspire to vacuousness, lost souls mourn beauty, insignificance surrounds us. Then let us drink a cup of tea. Silence descends, one hears the wind outside, autumn leaves rustle and take flight, the cat sleeps in a warm pool of light. And, with each swallow, time is sublimed.
~ The Elegance of the Hedgehog, p.91.
Make people ashamed of their existence, Jean Paul Sartre said. Yes: make them aware of the possibilities they have denied themselves or the passiveness they have displayed in situations where it was really necessary to cling to the heart of the world, like a splinter – to force, if needed, the rhythm of the world’s heart; dislocate, if needed, the system of controls; but in any case, most certainly face the world.
~Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p.59 (Grove Press Edition).