Friday, February 17, 2012

Women looking for words

What a sad season this silly St Valentine's month is turning out to be, with the disappearance of two unforgettable female voices. And I'm not referring to Whitney Houston. The death of the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska on 1 February and that of American lyricist Dory Previn on St Valentine's Day didn't draw nearly as much media attention, but the loss to lovers of wise and honest voices is immeasurably greater.

It might seem facetious to compare a 'serious' Nobel Prize winning poet to a more 'superficial' singer-songwriter with strong Hollywood ties, but let's leave literary snobbery aside and look at the words they left us. Both these women, both in their late eighties when they died, spent a long lifetime obsessively looking for the right word. In fact, Szymborska's very first published poem (in a daily newspaper in 1945) was titled 'Looking for a word'. And who can ever forget Previn's delectably witty song 'Yada Yada (La Scala)' about the frustration of too many words? In case you don't know it, here's an excerpt:

Let's stop talking, talking, talking, wasting precious time, 
just a lot of empty noise that isn't worth a dime,  
words of wonder, words of whether, 
should we, shouldn't we be together, yada yada yada (...)
So we sit at a restaurant table, 
discussing reasons we're unable
to commit.
That's not it...

And Szymborska, in one of her early poems from the fifties, 'Classifieds', which already contained the wit and wonder and ironic distance for which she would later become famous, stated:
I TEACH silence
in all languages
through intensive examination of:
the starry sky,
the Sinanthropus' jaw, 
the grasshopper's hop,
an infant's fingernails...

While Szymborska wrote with dry self-mocking about her profession, producing small marvels such as 'Some people like poetry', 'Evalation of an unwritten poem' and the absolutely delightful 'Poetry reading' (Twelve people in the room, eight seats to spare - / it's time to start this cultural affair. / Half came inside because it started raining, / the rest are relatives. O Muse.), Previn's songs about love and longing are rawer, more gut-wrenching, but often not without humour, albeit a very black humour. An excerpt from 'Lady with the braid':
Would you care to stay till sunrise?
It's completely your decision.
It's just the night cuts through me like a knife.
So would you stay a while 
and save my life?
I don't know what made me say that,
I have this funny sense of humour,
You know I couldn't be down-hearted
if I tried.

Szymborska, as could be expected from a great poet, often wrote about death and mortality, but even when she tackled such very serious subjects, she maintained her ironic distance and her sense of wonder. One of her more recent poems from the nineties, 'Among the multitudes', ends with this sharp 'self-portrait': Fate has been kind / to me thus far. / I might never have been given / the memory of happy moments. / (...) I might have been myself minus amazement, / that is, / someone completely different.  Indeed. Wislawa Szymborska 'minus amazement' wouldn't have been Wislawa Szymborska.

Previn, perhaps more unexpectedly for someone who was 'only' a folk singer, didn't shy away from the topic of death either. In 'The new enzyme detergent demise of Ali Mcraw' she delivers the news of her own death in the following way: Mine was a Wednesday death. / One afternoon at approximately three fifteen / I gave up and died. / Nobody cried. / Mine was a bloodless death, / not grim, not gory, / more like Ali McGraw's new enzyme detergent demise / in Love Story, / neat and tidy / unlike Christ's on Friday. 

Szymborska even dared to write her own 'Epitaph' while she was still in her thirties: Here lies, old-fashioned as parentheses, / the authoress of verse. Eternal rest / was granted her by earth, although the corpse / had failed to join the avant-garde, of course. (...)

Both Previn and Szymborska wrote movingly about suicide too, Previn in a song about Mary C Brown who jumped off the letter H of the Hollywood sign because she had not become a star (and then was finally mentioned in the press, in the obituary columns), and Szymborska in 'The suicide's room' with the mournful ending: You think at least the note must tell us something. / But what if I say there was no note - / and he had so many friends, but all of us fit neatly / inside the empty envelope propped up against a cup. 

I could go on singing the praises of these two artists, separately and together, but I'm hoping that by now you're tempted to rediscover them for yourself. And if you don't know them yet, believe me, you're in for a treat. Since they both wrote a poem/song with the evocative title of 'Going home', I'll end by quoting Previn one last time: Going home is such a ride. Isn't going home a long and lonely ride? Let's hope they're both finally home.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Building books with bricks of language

Novels often touch us deeply for two very different reasons. Either they talk to us about our own lives, teach us about the times we live in, help us understand  how to live our lives now. Or they tell us about other lives, other communities, other countries, teaching us how other people live their lives, helping us understand the universality of some of our deepest values.

For me Monica Ali's Brick Lane falls into the second category. When this debut novel was published in 2003 it was one of the first Post-Nine Eleven stories told from a Muslim viewpoint - and, even more remarkably, a distinctly female Muslim viewpoint - to become an international best seller. Ali's name appeared on Granta's famous list of 20 Best Young British Novelists Under 40 even before publication, on the strength of  the manuscript alone, causing a lot of hype in the media and some controversy among 'Bangla Brits' who felt that Ali's portrayal of the immigrant Bengali community around Brick Lane in London's East End was not always sympathetic enough.

Ali herself was apparently astonished that so many people wanted to read 'a book about a Bangladeshi housewife'.

The housewife in question is Nazneen, born in 1967 in Bangladesh (then known as East Pakistan), who arrives in London as a simple village girl at the age of 18 to become the wife of a much older man, Chanu, whom she has never met before. The marriage was arranged by her family, of course, and Nazneen submits to her fate, as always. Only much later in the novel, when she is already in her thirties and raising two pre-adolescent daughters, she becomes infatuated with Karim, a young Muslim activist, and questions Fate for the first time.

Meanwhile, back in Bangladesh, her younger sister Hasina's hazardous life seems like a warning of what might happen to women who don't submit to their fate. Hasina runs away from home at an early age to marry a man she loves rather than one chosen by her family, then runs away from the husband when he starts beating her and finds herself a job in a factory. She loses her job because of malicious rumours caused by her beauty and her independent spirit, gets raped and abused by an older man whom she regards as a father figure, falls lower and lower until she eventually becomes a full-time prostitute. Compared to Hasina's miserable existence, Nazneen's occasional unhappiness and longing for freedom appear almost insignificant.

The reader gets to know Hasina only through the letters she sends her sister in London, charming letters written in a quaint broken English, which presented this particular reader with a problem. Obviously Hasina wouldn't write to her sister in English, which none of the two can speak at the beginning of the novel. She would write in Bengali and would probably make a lot of spelling mistakes because she has a very basic education, but she wouldn't use this twisted and totally ungrammatical language found in the letters. So the reader has to assume that the amusing broken English is the author's attempt to convey Hasina's spelling mistakes - but then, why not simply use 'normal' English with spelling mistakes?

The more I thought about this, the more I realised these letters are a very good illustration of the difficulty facing any author who wants to write about a specific community speaking a specific language, but wants the story to be read by a much wider audience in an international language. The silly English in Hasina's letters probably delighted millions of readers who never paused to ask themselves WHY Hasina couldn't speak her own mother tongue?

I really enjoyed the rest of the book - even though the last scene was more suitable for a superficial Hollywood movie like Mamma Mia than a subtle novel - but the way the author handled the problems of language posed by these letters left me distinctly dissatisfied. I still believe Brick Lane is an enlightening novel which deserves to be read by a wide audience, but I would have liked it so much more if I didn't get the feeling that Monica Ali underestimated her readers' intelligence when she decided to write Hasina's letters in this amusing and probably crowd-pleasing broken English.