Call for Papers on Aesthetics and Partition

Tentative title:
The sentimental and the melodramatic: exploring Partition aesthetics

We seek essays for a volume (Routledge) looking at the sentimental and melodramatic aesthetics
of images, art, gossip, and writings that remind us of the unspeakable acts of 1947 and their
political and cultural aftershocks in Punjab and Bengal. Critics
who have variously written about the scale of sexual violence and disruption of everyday life, the
many kinds of injustices meted out to the homeless refugees, economic meltdowns, and many
other social and political issues, have somehow found it vexing that the stories of the displaced
are inchoate and unrelentingly sentimental, often bordering on fantasy. Instead of exploring these
sentimental kaleidoscopes, they dismiss them as sounds of silence, amnesia, cultural aphasia,
life in a social vacuum, and so on. The present volume breaks new ground by emphasizing the
sentimental and the melodramatic as a tremendous place to think about affects, subjectivities,
ethics, and recognition of life during and after the notorious event.

We welcome close readings of stories, memoirs and other texts, and ethnographies of any kind,
particularly those that explore biases, affects, desires, and subjectivities.

In a similar vein, we welcome essays that share the photographic memories of peoples, places,
and events not merely to represent the graphic nature of pathological violence, displacement and
so on, but to look closely at frozen moments and gestures that seem to have produced defining
features of our mental worlds as critics and interlocutors.

We particularly welcome essays emphasizing the inventions of popular and art house cinematic
genres and mythologies from the 1940s to the present in which memories of underdevelopment,
critiques of communist and post-nationalist dystopias, and a profound sense of the ennui of
political processes are evident.

We welcome essays on narratives written partially or entirely in dialects in cosmopolitan and
semi-urban places in the subcontinent as well as the diaspora.

We are excited to learn about the transit routes that made possible complex decisions such as
moving one’s home in 1948 as well as during the Bangladesh War of 1971.

We welcome essays on any other ideas not covered by these outlines as long as they theoretically
engage culture as an inclusive category and are focused on the geocultural politics of the Partition.

Affective readings will not be turned away and non-traditional approaches to essay writing are particularly encouraged.

Please send 500 word paper abstracts to the editors: Daisy Rockwell and
Abhijeet Paul by March 1, 2013. Final papers are due in October 2013
when the proposal is formally accepted by Routledge. Essays should not be more than 8000-
10,000 words (20-25 pages including footnotes). If your essay is more than the desired length,
please send us an email first. Essays should be original and not previously published.

The 2012 Dirty Dozen

For your reading pleasure, a list of our favorite books from 2012–books that we read in 2012 that is, because we reject the Cult of the New and don’t care when they were published.

Sepoy’s Six:

Herein no particular order are some books that caught attention and didn’t let go. They may or may not have been published in 2012, but were read.

Best (rather rambling) Anti Imperial travelogue of Australia: Sven Lindqvist’s Terra Nullius – Strangely, the first thing I read upon locating myself in NY and it managed to make me angry for a while. It is a hit-or-miss on certain aspects but a must-read on issues dear to all of us.

Best Book I Left Unfinished For Six Months: Mohammed Hanif’s Our Lady of Alice Bhatti – I couldn’t take it after a while, and I gave up. The nihilism was too much. It sat on my desk and I forgot about it. One day, after reading Hans Fallada’s Drei Jahr Kein Mensch, I went back to Bhatti and had my much-delayed pay-off. Read it and laugh.

Best Book I read from my Best Friend: Sarnath Bannerjee’s The Harappa Files – Yes, I love him. Okay? Go deal.

Best Historical Fiction that made me cringe-love historical fiction: Amin Maalouf’s Samarkand – I read this on a plane. And at some point, I forgot that I was flying, and that I generally do not like historical fiction.

Best Academic Book That Really Was Bad News For My Own Academic Book: Carlo Ginzburg’s Threads and Traces: True False Fictive – A collection of essays which clearly and devastatingly proved my incompetence as a historian.

Best Book That I Called (in Public) The NEXT ORIENTALISM (Said’s Book, i.e.): David Graeber’s Debt: The First Five Thousand Years – Truth.


Lapata’s Half Dozen:

I don’t really like that many books, so it was exciting to be able to come up with this many that I did actually enjoy. These are also not in any particular order. P.S. I probably would have put Sarnath Bannerjee’s The Harappa Files on here if I had ever received it.

1. Anjum Hasan’s Difficult Pleasures is not at all difficult to like. This collection of short stories is witty and urbane and totally off the beaten IWE track. I wonder how I can get my hands on all her other books.

2. Alif the Unseen is fun, but I got even more into G. Willow Wilson’s graphic novel series Air. Probably the most realistic portrayal of modern life I have come across.

3. Bhimayana is an awesome graphic novel about the life of Ambedkar, with drawings done by Gond artists Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam. Many reviews are gaga about how revolutionary it is that the artists DEFIED the graphic novel tradition and didn’t put their drawings in little square boxes, but it all seemed very logical to me. Also to be enjoyed is the fiery activist text describing the life of Ambedkar and how violence and prejudice against untouchability persists in contemporary India.

4. Speaking of those little squares in graphic novels, who did it better than Ernie Bushmiller, the cartoonist who brought us Nancy from 1938 until his death in 1982? Fantagraphics has released two volumes of continuous strips from 1943-1948. The rationing and WWII humor is really not that funny, but boy could the man design a series of square panels!

5. The title story in Lysley Tenorio’s collection of short stories Monstress is narrated by a woman who plays monstresses in Filipino B or maybe C horror films. Do you need to know any more before you run out and buy it?

6. The dark satirical novel about village India for people who feel slightly green about the gills when forced to read Premchand with great reverence: my favorite book of the year and maybe the decade is Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari. The English translation has its problems (Yorkshire dialect for Avadhi dialogue, for example), but will do in a pinch if you don’t read Hindi. I’ll be writing more on this in the future.

Reviews sheviews

1. All Hail Salman Rushdie. All Hail Joseph Anton.

At times, when she was reading the memoir, she was reminded of that cherished moment in her youth, when she had first read prose in Latin class. That too was a memoir, as it happens, and one also written in the third person singular.

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celtae, nostra Galli appellantur.

Those luminous words, so clear, so forthright, so memorable.
Caesar’s saucy decision to refer to himself as “he,” instead of “I” — it was modern then, it’s modern now. And so, she rejoiced to be reunited once again with this form of self-writing, a veritable madeleine to her tween years, that awkward time between childhood and adolescence, when burgeoning young hormone-addled bodies lock horns and begin the cosmic dance of awakening…All Gaul is divided into three parts…

2. The Global Cyber Muslim Feminist Punk Fantasy of G. Willow Wilson

There is a climactic moment in G. Willow Wilson’s new novel Alif the Unseen, in which a female character, Dina, lifts her hijab and allows the protagonist, Alif, inside. Alif is about to be separated from her, perhaps forever, and has realized that he loves her. He asks for a moment of intimacy: he doesn’t ask to kiss her; he just wants to see her. The moment is powerful and revelatory:

He could not have guessed the world she had created for herself. Sewn into the underside of her longer outer cloak were patches of bright silk: patterned, beaded, spangled with points of light; they hung above him like a tent…

In this one passage, Wilson accomplishes what innumerable trashy neo-Orientalist “Behind the Veil” books cannot: she invites us into a space that is both personal and spiritual. For Dina, her hijab is like an outer skin that protects her; allowing someone to see inside is not a sexy stripping act but an invitation to deeper knowledge. Dina is contrasted throughout the novel with Alif’s former girlfriend, Intisar, who is from the upper classes (unlike Dina), and also wears hijab. Her hijab is fancy: it’s trimmed with beads that clink together when she moves her head. She has decided to cover her face as a kind of affectation of spiritual vanity, unlike the down-to-earth Dina, whose life is rendered more inconvenient for it.

Neo Orientalism is the New Orientalism

A snippet from my new Bookslut column by me in which I review Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights:

Said’s thesis has unfortunately made little effect in the US outside of the academy. The greatest ostensible change seems to be on the use of the term “oriental” for persons of Asian origin, which is no longer deemed politically correct. Beyond this I have found that when trying to explain his theory, there is a strong desire to reject it on the part of those who enjoy the cultural artifacts of traditional Orientalism, such as the writings of Kipling, or Orientalist paintings. I have never taken from Said the need to denounce or cast off all Orientalist works. There is no need to wrap your well-thumbed copy of The Arabian Nights in brown paper when taking it to read on the train. You can hang onto your Ingres print and display your little bits of chinoiserie about your living room without fear. We are not coming for your Rimsky-Korsakov records. Take heart! If all the world’s art and literature were rejected for its association with the project of empire building there would be little left to enjoy.

In and out of Kingdoms

[A guest post by Tipu Sultan]

Once, I Was An Oil Drop

I was taught that oil was the most glorious thing that had ever happened to humankind.

My first memory of this education was at age six. I was inducted into the girl-scouts, along with some of the other girls in the corporate-garrison town-city of Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where I grew up. We were made to dress up as oil drops for the annual Saudi ARAMCO Day Parade. Who dresses six-year-old girls in large black plastic garbage bags to be paraded around for two hours, in over a hundred degrees of heat? That is some serious love of the Company. As the mothers effusively took our photographs, beads of sweat coagulated between the thick, dark plastic, and my skin. I wasn’t just dressed up as an oil drop—I was turning into one. We all felt hot, suffocated, and sticky. But the adults had decided that we looked too adorable dressed up as oil drops. For what felt like forever, we walked all around Dhahran in single file, and were rewarded for our efforts afterwards with soft drinks and chocolate-chip covered cake. The great love for the Rumplestiltskin-like benefactor who spun oil into dollars, had transformed otherwise cautious adults who would keep kids away from wearing plastic bags, into oil-besotted tyrants. Oil was anthropomorphized in that moment. We were made to experience the ‘life’ of an oil drop.
Continue reading “In and out of Kingdoms”

The Journey of Everywoman

I. Years ago, while writing my dissertation, I stepped out one evening to one of those enormous drug stores that are open all night in cities. I browsed idly among the nail colors, wondering if I should consider adding layers of glitter to my already elaborate manicure. The aisles of women’s products were full of women browsing and wondering such things. Over the loudspeaker the music changed from one anodyne pop hit to another, until all at once Whitney Houston’s voice slid into the audioscape, then erupted into her super hit “I Will Always Love You.” The women began to hum, and then to sing, softly, as they gently cradled canisters of hairspray in their hands. And then they sang, loudly; we sang loudly, unashamedly: “I will always love youuuuuuuu!” And I thought, “Yes. Yes, I can go with glitter. Yes, I will do blue. Yes. Yes. Yes.”

II. In her memoir of her time as a sex slave to Osama bin Laden during his playboy phase, Kola Boof, a Sudanese poet, wrote that bin Laden was in love with Whitney Houston. It was his fantasy that he would give her a mansion he owned in Khartoum and take her as one of his wives. And he would order a hit on Bobby Brown. If only he had. If only he had shown that same sticktoitiveness he showed later in life, he could have helped Americans avoid a national tragedy.

III. An essay eulogizing Whitney Houston from India compares her tragic tale to that of Choti Bahu (played by Meena Kumari) in the Guru Dutt film Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam. Choti Bahu wants to attract the attention of her husband, who ignores her each night in favor of the courtesans that entertain him and drink with him. She takes up drink herself. The plan backfires and she becomes a sad drunk, spurned yet again by her cruel husband.

Whitney did it all for Bobby too, argues Lakshmi Chaudhry, quoting an Oprah interview in which Houston said:

He was my drug. I didn’t do anything without him. I wasn’t getting high by myself. It was me and him together. You know, we were partners. And that’s what my high was. Him. He and I being together. And whatever we did, we did together. No matter what, we did it together.

“Because you were his wife.” Responds Oprah. “Yes,” she replied, “Yes. And he was my husband.”

IV. In 2003, Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown made a visit to Israel on the invitation of the Black Hebrew Israelites. In all the photographs of the trip, Houston looks skinny and unkempt. The trip involved a spiritual dip in the Jordan River near the Sea of Galilee. Brown and Houston, both wearing red dashikis, also met with then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. When Sharon held out his hand to shake hers, Houston looked visibly uneasy and made Brown shake his hand in her stead.

V. When Whitney Houston died in her bathtub, I tried to block out the sordid image with thoughts of Pre-Raphaelite Ophelia, floating peacefully among the flowers. Numerous articles and blog posts explored the depressing details of the life of a drug addict. This one even discussed, from first-hand knowledge, the unsurprisingness of a celebrity drug addict dying in her bathtub:

So while stars are infamous for their hard partying, their dizzying downward spirals, their headline-making binges, but the truth is, when they use most heavily and subsequently die, it’s usually in their most private places, where they can relax, be in quiet, and don’t have to appear functional to the outside world.

Much more rare are the overdoses out in the world of the living, like River Phoenix’s in front of the Viper Room many years ago. After beds (recently these deaths include Anna Nicole Smith, Heath Ledger, Casey Johnson, Michael Jackson), it seems that bathtubs are where drug abusers die.

I tried to blot the image out again by painting it but could not. I meditate instead upon the famous painting by John Everett Millais, a postcard of which my mother hung next to the bathtub in the house where I grew up.

Read, Think, Burn (repeat as necessary)

My review of Habibi is out in The Sunday Guardian today. It was originally longer. The full piece is below:

I. Hating Art
I have hated many pieces of art in my life. An Italian restaurant I used to go to was decorated with enormous abstract oil paintings. The paintings were so aggressively bad they made me feel physically ill. But the food at the restaurant was good, and we always ended up trying to find seating that placed me facing away from the walls with a view of the street. It’s easy to hate art. Growing up in a family of artists, hating, and loving, works of art was a preoccupation. I fully understand hating art for aesthetic reasons, but I’ve always had trouble understanding taking offense at art for religious or moral reasons.

A number of years ago, in an attempt to understand the question of political and religious offense at art, I designed and taught a course in South Asian literature called Art that Offends. I chose for the syllabus texts that had at one time or another become the focus of controversy with charges of obscenity or blasphemy. Most notable among these was The Satanic Verses. The university where I taught attracted families from religiously conservative backgrounds with a promise to ‘strengthen faith’ in students (rather than to proselytize the Catholic faith of the institution). There were several students in my class from conservative Muslim backgrounds. As we began to read The Satanic Verses, some of these students approached me outside of class and told me that members of their families had advised them not to read the book due to its blasphemous content. Having ascertained that none of these relatives had read the book, I asked the students to consider reading it for themselves and then deciding whether or not it was blasphemous. I assured them that they were free to decide whatever they wished and I would not grade them on the basis of their assessment, but rather on their participation and completion of assignments.

The students were required to keep a journal throughout the class and to hand it in once a week. Since The Satanic Verses is long, it took us some time to get through it. Over the period of weeks that we read the text, I noted with interest the reactions of the students who had worried about reading it. The reactions of one girl in particular stood out. A Pakistani American, she was enthralled with Rushdie’s writing style and expressed pride that one of her people could write so cleverly and skillfully. Nevertheless, she did decide by the end that the book was, if not blasphemous, at least willfully offensive with respect to the sections portraying a brothel populated by prostitutes equal in number to the wives of Mohammed and bearing the same names as his wives.

For a final project, that student, and another Pakistani American friend of hers in the class, wrote up an indictment of Rushdie that they read to the class. They had also filmed themselves arguing with a liberal Muslim friend about what punishment he deserved. In the film they resolved to burn a photograph of Rushdie, which they then did, in the bathroom of their apartment. Some students in the class were horrified by the presentation, as have been friends and colleagues when I have told them the story. Yet the tone of the video was playful and exuberant.

I have always prized the memory of that class, feeling that those students took away the valuable lesson that they must determine for themselves what offends them and what does not. They loved the book, and yet, they wanted to burn it. Until recently, I have never been able to fully understand this tension, this desire to burn a work of art that one admires.

II. Orientalism Rides Again
There have been many works of fiction and writing that have sought to dig into the territory of the post-9/11 zeitgeist over the past ten years. One of the most recent is Habibi, a 600+ page graphic novel by artist Craig Thompson. Habibi is a book I really wanted to love. Thompson, who previously wrote and illustrated the insipid (and award-winning) autobiographical graphic novel Blankets, has said that Habibi was born of a desire to learn more about Islam and the Muslim world after the intense negativity leveled toward both in the US following the 2001 attacks. He spent seven years on the book, which he richly illustrated with Islamicate patterns and designs and a fair amount of Arabic calligraphy. The binding makes it look remarkably similar to a holy book, and numerous stories from the Quran are included in the text. In interviews, Thompson has said that he wanted to embrace what was positive about Islam and the Middle East to counteract prevailing narratives of terror and violence. He describes how he then proceeded to ‘embrace Orientalism’ (his words) and immerse himself in both a study of Islam and ‘traditional’ tales such as the 1001 Nights.

His construction of what it might mean to embrace Orientalism does not appear to have included any study of the works of Edward Said, and seems to be predicated entirely on studying Orientalist art and literature, which he believes should be considered positive aesthetic depictions of the Arab world and Islam. Both in terms of the narrative and the drawing, Thompson heavily references Orientalist painting and storytelling. The results are visually lovely, but highly problematic in terms of the storyline, which follows an odd quasi-sexual relationship between a child-bride turned courtesan named Dodola, and a slave-child turned eunuch, Cham, whom she adopts. These two inhabit a non-specific Middle Eastern country in the modern era that most of the time resembles the sort of kingdom one would find in the Arabian Nights. In this kingdom, there is a sultan with a harem, and eunuchs to guard the courtesans. Odalisques recline on divans smoking hookahs, and a dwarf marches about the geometric gardens chatting with the castrati. As if this weren’t enough, Dodola is subjected to a seemingly endless stream of sexual violence. The only positive character in her life, her adoptive son, Cham, actually volunteers to have himself castrated out of his shame for his desire for her. In the end, they fall in love, and adopt another slave child together.

Thompson’s infatuation with Orientalism, and his preoccupation with the use and abuse of highly sexualized heroine combine to produce the opposite effect to what he claims he had in mind. The Orientalist tropes are deployed in a non-ironic fashion and are not updated in any way, save for the fact that they are eventually welded to current stereotypes about the Middle East, as the characters move outside the Sultan’s palace and make their way through the corrupt, filthy and immoral universe of a generic modern day Middle Eastern city. When asked to defend his use of Orientalism, Thompson has said that it should be seen as a fantasy genre that can be referenced without replicating the racism of the original Orientalism, like ‘cowboys and Indians,’ he explained. As for the rape, prostitution and all manner of misogynistic depictions of women in the book, well, these have long been the stuff of comic books and graphic novels without the help of Orientalism, and undoubtedly Thompson’s influences came from that direction as well.

The fusion of Orientalist tropes and misogyny has a special place in the landscape of post-9/11 rhetoric, however. Susan Faludi, in her book on sexism in post-9/11 America, The Terror Dream, has rightly pointed out that the plight of women in the Middle East and Afghanistan became a sudden cause célèbre in the Bush administration. The co-opting of feminist rhetoric was a useful tool for winning over liberals to the plan to invade Afghanistan in particular. The Americans were not just going to invade another country; they were going to liberate women brutally oppressed by the Taliban. This message was elided with the rhetoric of the Iraq invasion as well, despite the fact that women’s rights have reportedly been set back substantially since the Americans landed there, and despite the fact that women enjoy very few rights in the countries of some of America’s closest allies in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia. Faludi rightly highlights the knight-in-shining-armor rhetoric deployed by the Bush administration to frame its role in the Middle East as one concerned with rescuing women. Thompson’s statements about his aim in creating Habibi, that he wanted to create a positive image of Islam and Muslims, mirrors this rescue-mission rhetoric. He then enacts a rescue mission through the creation of the book, creating a helpless and victimized woman and then rescuing her from her fate. Of course, the rescue itself is bizarre: to escape a life of rape and exploitation, she must be saved by a man who desires her sexually but is unable to have intercourse with her. Oh, and he’s sort of her son.

The question of how much one can describe or illustrate sexual violence against women before crossing the line from realism into voyeurism is the subject of much heated debate. But here’s a useful yardstick: if you illustrate it once, maybe you are informing your audience about a problem. If you illustrate it twice, or five or ten times, you are reproducing it for the salacious enjoyment of your viewers. Thompson illustrates sexual violence against his heroine at every possible opportunity, and his lavish and ornate drawings make each incident unforgettable. Interspersing the narrative with detailed stories from the Quran and the Hadith of the Prophet does not make the voyeurism go away.

When I had finished reading Habibi, I thought, well, it’s Orientalist, it’s misogynist, but damn, he learned how to write Arabic calligraphy well. I admit I was even a little jealous. I decided to find out how much Arabic he had studied. To my surprise, I discovered from reports of people who had seen Thompson read and discuss his work, that though he had learned the basics of the alphabet, the intricate calligraphy in the book was all traced from outside sources. As an artist, I found this very difficult to understand. If the work took seven years, and if he learned the alphabet, wouldn’t he want to try his hand at creating his own calligraphic designs? Wouldn’t he want to learn more Arabic? But this is simply one more example of the shallowness that undergirds the entire work: a laudable impulse to learn more, to reverse prejudice, was followed by a lazy embrace of Burton over Said, of voyeurism over empowerment, and tracing over writing. Habibi is a beautiful book and a terrible book. I am grateful for how much it has offended me. I could almost burn it.