12 Italian Novels for the Global Citizen

12 Italian Novels for the Global Citizen

12 Italian Novels
for the Global Citizen

 

Carlo Pizzati

December 2019

[Editor’s Note: Novelist and journalist Carlo Pizzati helped us kick off the 12 Things Project by contributing a list of novels he believed that every global citizen should read. We had suggested that that list-makers might think of their lists as the basis for the syllabus of a course that they’d like to take or teach. (We arrived at the number twelve by taking the number of weeks in an NYUAD term—14—and subtracting two for introductory and concluding sessions and exams.) We weren’t asking for “desert island” lists of what our readers considered to be the 12 greatest novels of all time, merely a set of 12 books that they’d suggest every global citizen would profit from reading.

As the project has evolved, we’ve realized that it would be valuable for contributors to submit lists of novels from particular linguistic or national traditions that they believe should receive global notice. What follows is Pizzati’s response to our request for a list of “twelve Italian novels that everyone should read.”] 

Demetrio Pianelli by Emilio De Marchi

This is the perfect novel to understand the simple and bigoted middle class that is at the core of Italian society to this day, filled with social obligations, moralism, and narrow-mindendness. Demetrio Pianelli is a perfect version of the inept, loser, and blind-folded idiot typical of nineteenth-century literature—but still valid today.

La coscienza di Zeno / Zeno’s Conscience by Italo Svevo

This is a marvelous investigation into a lifetime and one of the first Italian forays into introspective novels. Zeno tells the story of his life through the many last cigarettes he smoked in a futile attempt to quit—in other words, to change who he really is.

Uno, nessuno, centomila / One, No One and One Hundred Thousand by Luigi Pirandello

An amazing masterpiece by the 1934 Literature Nobel Prize winner about identity. Vitangelo Moscarda, through a series of questions posed by his wife, learns that everyone around him has a different point of view about him. This realization starts a vertiginous investigation on his own identity that culminates in a sort of nirvana, which can only come by letting go of the illusion of identity.

Il Gattopardo / The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

This very well-known novel can be summarized by its most famous quote: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” A highly political novel, set in an Italy and a Europe that is at the edge of an era.

L’Isola di Arturo / Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante

Arturo is a young man who suffers the weight of a harsh father, Wilhem, in Procida island. It is only when he realizes his love for a woman that he is able to transform himself and re-invent his life. Extremely touching and intense.

La noia / Boredom, or The Empty Canvas by Alberto Moravia

This is a novel made into movies more than once. It’s the story of the complicated sexual relationship of a young and rich painter looking for the meaning of life with an easygoing girl in Rome.

Il Barone Rampante / The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino

This is the story of a rebel who decided to abandon life on the ground and goes to live in the trees. He never comes down from them. A parable of what it means to be different, to be an artist, to go against the grain, and much more. With a poetic surprise ending.

Il giorno della civetta / The Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia

A most intriguing and deep crime novel about the Mafia at a time, as Sciascia wrote himself, when the existence of the Mafia in Sicily was doubted and even denied by many.

Un uomo / A Man by Oriana Fallaci

The story of Oriana Fallaci’s life with Alekos Panagoulis, victim of torture in Greece’s military dictatorship days. Graphic, touching, engaged, and memorable.

Atlante Occidentale / New Atlantis by Daniele Del Giudice

This is the ground-breaking novel of a writer rightly considered Italo Calvino’s heir. Science and writing, expressed through the relationship of the two main characters, are the main protagonists. The description of light and of flight are typical undercurrents of Del Giudice’s original style. It’s an investigation on the new rationalism and on literature’s capacity to grasp the profound complexity of reality.

Sostiene Pereira / Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi

This is a melancholy and profound story set in a complicated period in the history of Portugal. It begins with an apprenticeship and then proceeds into the exploration of Pereira, a protagonist who is at first torn between being politically committed or keeping at a safe distance from political strife. The reader finally sees that Pereira may not be a hero, but rather a man who progressively realizes the necessity for an intellectual resistance to injustice. But this act turns out not to be an act of bravery, but only his civic duty.

Il Nome della Rosa / The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

This novel has been adapted into a 1986 film starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater, more recently,  a Netflix series. A convent, a murder, a mystery, a love story. All the elements for a great book which is actually an investigation on humanity, religion, theology, philosophy and, ultimately, semiology. The final phrase, in Latin, sums it up: “Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus” (“in the beginning, there was the rose; all we hold is its naked name”).

Carlo Pizzati’s most recent books are two memoirs: Mappillai: An Italian Son-in-Law in India (2018) and Bending Over Backwards: A Journey to the End of the World to Cure a Chronic Backache (2019)

Inspired to contribute a list of novels to the “12 Things Project”? Click here to get to our submission form.
Click here to go to our first list of novels.

VA-11 Hall-A and the Politics of Cyberpunk

VA-11 Hall-A and the Politics of Cyberpunk

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

VA-11 Hall-A and the Politics of Cyberpunk

Julián Carrera 

December 2019

Every shift at the VA-11 Hall-A bar starts with bartender Jill’s nightly line: “Time to mix drinks and change lives.”

The regulars at the bar, which is located close to the slums of Glitch City and endearingly referred to  as “Valhalla,” include a sentient robot AI, a hacker, a wannabe macho, the CEO of a newspaper, a cat-girl, a live-streamer, a disembodied brain, and a delusional art critic.

Jill talking to live-streamer Streaming-Chan.

Taken during gameplay on Nintendo Switch.

 

These personalities, and more, crop up during a normal playthrough of Sukeban Games’s visual novel, VA-11 Hall-A (2016). Subtitled “Cyberpunk Bartender Action,” VA-11 Hall-A is, according to the game’s website, “a booze ’em up about waifus, technology, and post-dystopia life.”

I have written previously about the characteristics of a “visual novel, which relies heavily on the use of choice-making moments, points in the narrative where the flow of the story stops for the player/reader to make a decision and alter how the story plays out. VA-11 Hall-A has the same mechanics, but hides it under drink-making.

So, for example, if a character asks for a drink that is sweet (taste-wise), cold (on the rocks), and big (with double the normal ingredients), the game runs different checks to see if the drink the player makes in the drink-making interface is A) sweet, cold, and big; B) sweet and big, but not cold; C) sweet and cold, but not big; D) sweet, but neither cold nor big; or E) neither sweet nor cold nor big. The drink made will have to fall under one of these 5 categories, and the character’s dialogue will be different depending on which category that is.

Virgilio, the delusional art critic.

Taken during gameplay on Nintendo Switch.

While that explanation clears up the “Bartender Action” part of the subtitle, it doesn’t acknowledge the “Cyberpunk” aspect that makes up most of VA-11 Hall-A’s aesthetic choices. Mechanically, the game is a visual novel; aesthetically, it belongs to the cyberpunk genre of science fiction, particularly as interpreted in Japanese anime, which places VA-11 Hall-A next to films and manga like Akira (manga, 1982–1990; film, 1988) or Ghost in the Shell (manga, 1989–1990; film, 1995) and anime series like Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995–1996) and Cowboy Bebop (1998–1999). Though the label of “cyberpunk” is wide enough to fit space mercenaries, the supernatural, biblical references, and giant robots, the core of cyberpunk usually lies on a depiction of the dark aspects of life and the struggle of living in high-tech worlds, with a particular interest in city life. This is not to say that the stories they tell are somehow base or unrefined, rather, they are grittier in their depiction of what dystopian life looks like.

Sei, a “Valkyrie,” Glitch City’s military police. Her looks are inspired by Rei Ayanami from Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Taken during gameplay on Nintendo Switch.

Some of the films and anime I have mentioned, though focused on life’s struggles, ultimately dramatize large major societal issues: Akira, for example, depicts Neo-Tokyo’s social and class problems through the rise of the cult of Akira in response to constant police repression, while Neon Genesis Evangelion presents angels, massive alien creatures hellbent on destruction, and giant EVA units, the colossal robot suits used to fight them, highlighting the deteriorating mental state and relationships of its protagonist, Shinji. There is often something inherently abnormal about characters like Akira’s Tetsuo and Kaneda, Cowboy Bebop’s Spike, or Evangelion’s Shinji, Rei, Asuka, or Misato —but that’s what makes them special and interesting to the viewer. They are not “normal” people, but often the fate of a city (or even the world) lies on their shoulders.

Jill’s apartment and news about Glitch City.

Taken during gameplay on Nintendo Switch.

It would be easy to imagine VA-11 Hall-A as following in their footsteps, but it doesn’t. Rather than portraying the events that put a city or the world at large in danger on-screen, VA-11 Hall-A confines all action to the VA-11 Hall-A bar and Jill’s apartment. It’s not that nothing happens in Glitch City; in fact, there’s a lot going on: riots, military repression, the authoritarian power of a megacorporation, illegal bike races. But the game’s interests lie beyond the subjects that typically occupy cyberpunk fictions: it presents a different aesthetic of storytelling, more down to earth, less interested with large-scale problems and more interested in questions of survival and labour.

Jill’s problems are not related to stopping the destruction of the world, or to saving her friends from massive threats. Rather, her role is to help the people who come into the bar by talking to them and making them drinks, which helps her make money to pay her rent, utilities, buy new things, and keep from losing morale or motivation. As a result, VA-11 Hall-A advocates for an approach to games that deemphasises the wide scale of cyberpunk narratives in order to focus on a more localised story that is, like most visual novels, character-driven due to its reliance on conversation and dialogue. This change from the norm of cyberpunk resonates in interesting ways: there are no earth-shattering crises in VA-11 Hall-A, but every character that walks up to Jill at the bar has an interesting story to tell, and the frequency with which they visit the bar with different stories to tell makes them endearing. Their problems are relatable, even when it delves into the weird, like Dorothy’s existential dread at being a sentient robot; the characters feel real, relatable. Though the story is simple, everything adds up to make these characters feel alive, it makes the player/reader want to mix drinks and change their lives.

Julián Carrera is a Literature and Creative Writing student at NYU Abu Dhabi.
This article is part of an on-going series about video games and visual novels. Previous pieces make a case for the relevance of video games to the literary; investigate a video game retelling of Hamlet through Ophelia’s eyes in the game Elsinore; analyse dialogue conventions in Oxenfree, describe the nature of the visual novel, and take a closer look at one particular example, Bury Me, My Love, which tells a story about the global migration crisis.
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The Aesthetics of Dialogue in Oxenfree

The Aesthetics of Dialogue in Oxenfree

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

The Aesthetics of Dialogue in Oxenfree

Julián Carrera 

December 2019

Horror cinema has given us a wide collection of scares, from the fear of murderers to the fear of the unknown, passing through iconic films like Poltergeist, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Halloween.

Out of the five examples I have listed, four belong to a particular subgenre of horror known as teenage horror, which is focused on telling its stories involving teens in one way or another, with perhaps its most visible representative being the teens of Camp Crystal Lake from Friday the 13th. To this list of teenage horror, one must add a member from another genre: Night School Studio’s 2016 visual novel, Oxenfree.

While Oxenfree takes inspiration from slasher teenage horror, it adds a paranormal twist to the formula while keeping an 80’s aesthetic.

Taken during gameplay on a PC.

Oxenfree is a weird video game to put next to these films. On the one hand, it takes inspiration from these movies, though these movies are solidly considered to be slasher-style horror while Oxenfree fits a more paranormal style of horror. And yet, there are similarities to be found. Oxenfree starts with a group of teenagers staying overnight illegally at Edwards Island, a decommissioned military base turned into a tourist attraction. As the night goes on, the story delves into the paranormal as Alex, the game’s protagonist, and Jonas, her stepbrother, tune into something on a cave with a pocket radio. Had the paranormal been substituted for a slasher, Oxenfree’s Edwards Island would have everything to be another Camp Crystal Lake.

The cast of Oxenfree, from left to right: Jonas, Ren, Alex, Nona, and Clarissa. An odd group of friends with weird social dynamics brought to light by Jonas, the newcomer.

Taken during gameplay on PC.

           But what, exactly, is Oxenfree? I called it a visual novel earlier, but this is not usually how the game is categorised. It is categorised as an adventure game, next to the likes of LucasArts’s Grim Fandango (1998), Amanita Design’s Machinarium (2009), and Sierra’s/The Odd Gentlemen’s King’s Quest franchise (started 1980, latest release in 2016). And yet, the label of “adventure” does not quite fit Oxenfree. Adventure games typically rely on solving puzzles, particularly using items: as players explore the world of the game, they find items that they can use to solve puzzles elsewhere. While Oxenfree has its own puzzles, they do not rely on item-collection. It is worth pointing out that, in recent years, the adventure genre has de-emphasised collecting items in favour of free-form exploration, particularly with the boom of so-called “walking simulators” like The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home (2013), Campo Santo’s Firewatch (2016), or Giant Sparrow’s What Remains of Edith Finch (2017), as well as non-item-driven adventure games like Infinite Fall’s Night in the Woods (2017). Where Oxenfree diverges from adventure games is in its reliance on dialogue.

An example of the dialogue choice-making mechanic in Oxenfree. Notice the static and the warping, too.

Taken during gameplay on PC.

This is not to say that adventure games do not have dialogue, they do, but it is dialogue of a different kind. Think, for example, of a game like Grim Fandango. It fits the object-oriented model of the adventure genre, but it has an abundance of dialogue. The main character, Manny, will say his thoughts about whatever the player interacts with. It will not be uncommon for the player to have more than 3 dialogue choices with every character Manny speaks with. Sometimes these conversations have some relevance to the puzzles, so, for example, in the beginning of the game, Manny needs a driver. A mechanic offers his help, but needs a signed form from the boss. So the player needs to get the form and the signature. Most of the dialogue, however, could be considered world-building: it does not add much to the game itself, but it helps players understand its world.

Despite having other game mechanics (like puzzle-solving and relatively free movement through the island), the core of Oxenfree lies on picking what to say from choices given to the player/reader, which puts the game, at least on a mechanical level, within the realm of the visual novel, a form that abandons most mechanics in place of dialogue. Instead of using other mechanics to progress through the game and using dialogue to establish the game’s world, visual novels turn the game into dialogue and text. The player/reader clicks through dialogue boxes to read the story without much input, but eventually the flow of the narrative stops, and the game offers different choices for the player/reader to make, and the choice has repercussions on how the story plays out.

 Oxenfree puts a twist on this system: it does not stop for the player/reader. Dialogue choices appear and, given enough time, disappear, making silence the result of not picking. The player/reader, then, has to be engaged with the narrative to know what to say, or if they should say anything at all. The stipulation in the realism of dialogue, however, does not take away from Oxenfree’s state as a visual novel, since the mechanic of the choice-making moment is still there. Silence, though not made visually evident, is also a choice available to the player/reader, and it turns the default state of not picking into a viable option. The time constraints make Oxenfree’s dialogue mechanic more like a conversation. Instead of being faced with dialogue boxes that wait for the player/reader to finish reading, Oxenfree is voice-acted to make it more real. Likewise, instead of pausing the narrative to choose certain dialogue options from time to time, Oxenfree is relentless in how many dialogue choices are given to the player, having the opportunity to interject or respond frequently. The stipulation on the realism of conversation makes Oxenfree feel more like a film, particularly those it takes inspiration from.

An example of the screen glitching.

Taken during gameplay on PC.

I want to return to this point now to bring up a formal feature of Oxenfree: glitching. Whenever the ghosts (Entities? Beings?) of the island show themselves, the screen shows visual glitches to signify that something is wrong, but they are not the glitches one would expect in a 2016 game: rather than showing more modern glitches like those in a visual novel like 2017’s Doki Doki Literature Club (which I briefly talked about in a previous article), which has character sprites breaking and turning into a mess of black squares and bits and pieces of other sprites, backgrounds distorting into computer errors, a simulation of a computer crashing, or sound files corrupting. Instead, Oxenfree relies on outdated glitches like static and warping. The game as a whole is interested in anachronistic depictions of technology, from instant photographs to pocket radios, passing through mentions of atomic bombs. Oxenfree hides most of its backstory on optional events, but it still retains its focus on a more film-inspired form of dialogue mechanic.

This article is part of an ongoing series about video games and visual novels. Previous pieces make a case for the relevance of video games to the literary; investigate a video game retelling of Hamlet through Ophelia’s eyes in the game Elsinore; describe the nature of the visual novel, and take a closer look at one particular example, Bury Me, My Love, which tells a story about the global migration crisis. In the next article, we will continue to analyse the limits of the visual novel as a form through an analysis of Sukeban Games’s VA-11 Hall-A.

Julián Carrera is a Literature and Creative Writing student at NYU Abu Dhabi.
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Tishani Doshi on Poetry

Tishani Doshi on Poetry

INTERVIEW

Tishani Doshi on Poetry

Aathma Nirmala Dious

Tishani Doshi is a poet, novelist, and journalist, who is currently teaching in the Literature and Creative Writing Program. She was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award in 2018 for her collection of poems Girls Are Coming out of the Woods. Her recent novel Small Days and Nights was published by Bloomsbury in the UK and will appear from Norton in the US next January. A reviewer in for The Guardian described Small Days and Nights as “ a concise novel of staggering depth.” She spoke with us on the eve of her performance at the 2019 Heykayah Festival at NYUAD.

Aathma Dious: You wear many hats as a writer: journalist, fiction writer and poet. Do the disciplines seem separate for you or do they often bleed into each other?

Tishani Doshi: Writing is writing. I think of myself as a poet first, and so there’s an engagement with language regardless of the form I’m working in. But I suppose there’s a different relationship to time across the disciplines. If I’m working on a novel, I tend to be in this tunnel for months and I find I can’t do any other kind of writing, or anything else really. You’re also dealing with time in the novel, which is this huge unwieldy beast. Poetry is more elastic, a poem is its own universe, and there’s a completeness about it that’s very satisfying. Also, I find I don’t need to live in a tunnel to write poems. Essentially, writing is putting one word after the other, but the tricks are different.

AD: How do you know when you are ready to write a new poem? What kinds of things inspire you?

TD: Poems arrive. Recently I’ve been inspired by news stories. I’m fascinated by the fact that we’re living in this age of information but are still no closer to explaining consciousness, that truth and fake news sit side by side, that change is happening at such a torpedo rate. I often think poetry is the one form I have that allows me to respond to all these things. India has also been a fertile place for me in terms of inspiration, and living away from it as I have been this past year, while I’ve been teaching at NYUAD, has allowed me distance to examine what’s going on there—a lot of which is politically quite dark. Poems are a way of reconciling—so when you hear a minister of education saying Darwin was wrong and we have descended for sages and rishis, you know, obviously, that goes straight into a poem.

AD: How did you begin envisioning the dance for the poem “Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods”? What comes first, the dance or the poem?

TD: I’m an accidental dancer in that I never had a formal training in dance. I worked with the Indian choreographer, Chandralekha, for many years, and so during that time I was working with someone who had a strong visual expression and I was part of that vision. After she died, I found I was not ready to give up on dance, as I’d been performing for fifteen years, and over that time I had built a physical vocabulary for myself drawing from yoga, bharatnatyam and kallaripayattu. So with “Girls” it was really about finding in movement what I was doing with words, which is to say, finding a way to reclaim the female body.

AD: Looking back on your writing, is there a favorite piece of work or a memory about writing you would like to share?

TD: I was a junior in college when I took a creative writing class which changed the direction of my life. I have few moments in my life which I count as decisive moments, where I recognized even then that this choice was moving me in a different direction. Meeting Chandralekha was one of them, but deciding to become a poet in college was also one of them. I knew then that all the statistics and economics stuff I was doing was fine, but it was never going to be enough. I’m glad I followed my intuition.  

Tishani Doshi

AD: Do you have any poetic influences and what poets are you reading now?

TD: I’m omnivorous and polyamorous and all kinds of influenced when it comes to poetry. This semester I’ve been revisiting old favorites with my students—Wislawa Szymborska, Ada Limon, Bob Hicok, the Beats, and the Bhakti movement among others—and so this is what I’m reading (because obviously there’s no time to read anything else when you’re teaching).

AD: Tell us a little bit about your composition and revision processes.

TD: So—I like to compare it with Indian miniature painting, even though I’m not a painter. The first step is drawing the rough sketch with charcoal, then firming up with a brush and introducing more details, then followed by a thin coat of white primer, then black, then removing the blemishes and burnishing so that the colored pigments can be applied layer by layer. Then, the painting is placed face down and this fuses the pigments into the surface and gives the painting a luster, and HERE the magical step which is called the “khulai,” literally, the opening up, where the painting comes to life, but no, it’s not over, there’s shading, stippling and more burnishing to do, and finally the borders and margins are given and colored in. And between the first and final stage a thousand things can go wrong, and in a less pretty way, that’s the writing process as well.

AD: The UAE government has celebrated 2019 as the “year of tolerance.” Do you have any thoughts about the relationship between poetry and tolerance?

TD: That’s an interesting question. I like to think of literature as being an empathy-enabler, we read because it allows us a way in to the imagination. We can experience other lives, other realities, other worlds. But the strange thing about poetry is that while it is, I think, one of the most honorable forms (there are so few perks to poetry that only the really devoted need apply), there is also a bizarre trend of dictators loving to write poetry. If you take a quick historical inventory of dictators, many of them wrote poetry—Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, Hitler—so writing poetry doesn’t automatically make you empathetic. Perhaps if they’d had more successful careers as poets they might not have tortured people so.

AD: Is there anything you are hoping to learn from being part of Hekayah this year? Is there anything about the evening that particularly excites you?

TD: I’m just happy to be a part of the festivities. It looks like a great line-up. 

Tishani Doshi performs her dance version of “Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods” at a TEDx event in Chennai in March 2018. The poem is read by her with music composed by Luca Nardon.

Aathma Nirmala Dious is a Literature and Creative writing major at NYUAD and the poetry editor for Electra Street.

Poetry, Prose, and Postscript

Poetry, Prose, and Postscript

INTERVIEW

Poetry, Prose, and Postscript

Aathma Nirmala Dious

Zoe Jane Patterson and Vamika Sinha are seniors in the Literature and Creative Writing Program at NYU Abu Dhabi. Last year, they founded the online literary journal Postscript; this year, they are each writing creative capstones, Patterson in fiction and Sinha in poetry. They shared some insights into their creative practices in advance of their appearances at the 2019 NYUAD Hekayah Festival.

Aathma Dious: Tell us a little bit about your composition and revision processes.

Zoe Jane Patterson: For me, poetry begins with discomfort. You’re about to board a 14-hour flight; babies will cry, your skin will dry out until you look like a sphynx cat, and as soon as you sit on the toilet there will be turbulence. There is nothing beautiful about this situation. But if you write it down you get to control it: you get to sculpt it, make fun of it, and use it to think about other, bigger things.  No matter what the discomfort is for me, whether it’s physical or social or internal, if I turn it into a poem then I gain some power over it.

My poems almost always have a narrative thread that runs through them, probably because I tend to see the world through stories. That narrative, or at least an ending, gets formed in the first draft. My first drafts usually over-explain themselves. It takes me a while to let go of stanzas that are slowing things down because of my anxiety that I won’t be understood. Once the poem has been sculpted, I consider each word, shaking it down and swapping it for synonyms. I read the whole thing out loud. It’s also essential for me to show new poetry to a handful of trusted readers. I never feel like a poem is done, but eventually I can let myself leave it alone.

Vamika Sinha: I don’t generally plan my poems, unless I have a bunch of complex ideas I’m dealing with that need a little bit of structuring beforehand. I usually have one central idea or image that pops in my mind, and I’ll put that down and build the poem around it. Not all my poems are short or compact, but I guess most are. I like the challenge that concision poses, the idea of creating as much meaning and beauty within constraint. But to be honest, I don’t think too consciously about length. The poem is as long as I feel it needs to be, as long as I’ve conveyed what I set out to. A lot of it is intuitive.

How do you know when you are ready to write a new poem? What kinds of things inspire you?

ZJP: Poetry can come from lots of places for me. Sometimes I have a fleeting idea and scrawl it down. It can be an image, a contradiction, something absurd, a situation, or a joke etc. Then I go back to it and see if it’s supposed to turn into a poem or short story or be part of a larger piece of fiction. Poems also often come out of my rants and annoyances. I start ranting to someone I love about something that makes me angry or uncomfortable, and those thoughts are later recorded in my journal as the terrible first draft of a poem. Sometimes the same thing happens when I’m ranting to myself in my journal. I get inspired by discomfort, and I often feel the need to write when I encounter injustice. I always want to write when I encounter really great writing or artistry of any kind.

VS: I don’t know if I’m ever “ready” to write a poem. I think I love it enough that it feels natural to always kind of be thinking about writing, in the back of my mind. I’m always coming up with images or scraps of stanzas and putting them down in my phone, wherever I am. And then later, it’ll usually become something fuller, a larger developed poem when I push myself to sit down and write. I get a lot of inspiration from music. I’m actually a trained musician and music was there for me before writing or literature cropped up in my life, that was my main discipline and artistic outlet. I love mixing music with literary form, like jazz poetry for example, and referencing musicians that I think are monumental. My capstone, for example, is named after a song by Solange Knowles. Otherwise, I’m very inspired by movies, theories and books I read, personal emotional experiences, women’s histories, and cities. Also food. And love, of course.

DG: Speaking of food … Vamika, in your Postscript essay “Hungry City,” you write about eating ramen and the ways in which your experience of New York was “shaped by Asian hand.” How did food become central to your writing and your understanding? 

VS: I first started thinking about food and writing during my first year writing seminar in freshman year. I took “Street Food” with Deepak Unnikrishnan. I remember not even wanting to take this class, thinking “What’s the point of taking a class called ‘Street Food’ and in a city like Abu Dhabi?” But a lot of people talked well about the professor, so I registered. It was one of the most pivotal decisions I’ve taken at NYUAD. Professor Unnikrishnan became a very important mentor to me over the years, and I learnt so much, not only about writing, but about observing the world and the city in that class. Food is a conduit for larger conversations about our world. Over time, I’ve expanded on my experiences with food in various cities as ways of meditating on urban life, socio-political experiences, cosmopolitanism, and more.

AD: Have you had any fun or memorable food encounters in Abu Dhabi that you’d like to share?

VS: Nothing too exciting. I’ve had a few fun encounters while running the “AD Secrets” column for The Gazelle. A friend and I discovered a ludicrously tiny Game of Thrones-themed sandwich shop in a very random part of the city, and it turned out to be one of the greatest sandwich experiences both of us had ever had in our lives (the place is called “Game of Toast”). In general, I love recording the misspelled menu items in Abu Dhabi cafeterias, stuff like “sea snak” instead of “sea snake” or “saghetti salomon” instead of “salmon spaghetti.” It’s almost as if the typos are a requirement if you want to thrive as a diner here. I also love random quirky things like finding a drink called “Happiness” or existentially confused items like “Small Fish Big.”

Zoe Jane Patterson

AD: Zoe, you grew up in Al Ain. How different is it from Abu Dhabi? Do you find that you treat the two locations differently if you write about them?

ZJP: Al Ain radically shifted my ways of seeing myself and the world. I experienced formative teenage years and milestones there, but more importantly, it shook me out of my North-American suburban mentality. The city is this small dot of an oasis that exists in a vast desert, but somehow, it’s also large in all the worlds it contains and connects to. Al Ain is a city that feels like a small town, so it nurtured me in softer ways than a bigger city might have, and it’s the first home that I fiercely loved. My capstone project, which will hopefully someday become my first novel, is set in Al Ain because of how much I learned there and how much I believe in its magic.

Abu Dhabi is home though; I love walking through the streets here, taking notes of quirky shop names or conversations with strangers. Abu Dhabi has an anonymity and mobility that Al Ain never did: In Al Ain I would never walk through the city center, there was nowhere like the corniche for social mixing. It’s harder to write poetry about Al Ain, because life happens behind closed doors there. Prose has the breadth to yank them open but my poetry struggles. I wouldn’t want to live in Al Ain again; it was a wonderful cocoon and introduction to the world but my younger self belonged there much more than I do. I feel better able to criticize Abu Dhabi, and to sit with its discomforts, which has made for more and better poetry.

AD: For the Hekayah application, you had submitted a poem about Abu Dhabi that, I dare say as someone who grew up there, was quite spot on.  Could you talk more about it?

ZJP: Thank you! “Invisible Abu Dhabi” was the first poem I ever wrote about this city, and it came out of a long walk with a friend after dinner, from one end of the corniche to the other. As we walked, the sun started to set, and I thought about all the ways that the city changes when darkness falls. It’s almost as though Abu Dhabi transforms into an entirely different place. I was thinking about Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and was reading a collection of short stories by Murakami called The Elephant Vanishes at the time. As we walked I imagined alternate realities, and at the same time I was uncomfortable with my own position in the city at night. Suddenly home had become slightly sinister, and I wanted to re-enact that shift in a poem.

AD: Vamika, do you find that it is different to write poetry in or about Abu Dhabi than in or about other places places you know like Botswana or New York?

VS: Well yeah, it’s different to write about any city because every city is different from the other. My capstone, which bridges cosmopolitanism with women of color, deals with a lot of how women move differently in every city. Abu Dhabi is different because it’s situated in an Islamic country, with this very transient and patchwork demographic. It’s starkly different from New York, obviously, or Botswana or anywhere else really. The way you interact with others, I’ve theorized, as in any city, depends on what history has produced in that city. UAE history has produced a certain type of population with mixed ethnicities, certain class dynamics, religious realities and laws and rules that affect the way I move in Abu Dhabi. The city’s history overlaps with my individual history too, so as an Indian woman who has grown up in Africa, speaks a certain set of languages, is a certain age etc, or in other words, what my body is as a collection of histories, interacts with the city as a body of histories, and it’s what happens in those interactions that I try to make poetry from, whatever city I’m in. Each city differs because the histories and the way those histories overlap with mine are always different and evolving too.

AD: Do you have any poetic influences? What poets are you reading now?

ZJP: I have two books of poetry that I bring with me wherever I go, one is by Emily Dickinson, the other is by E.E. Cummings. I don’t think my writing is anything like either of theirs, but if I ever need to get inspired I leaf through one of those books. I also turn to poets such as Claudia Rankine, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop and Ted Hughes. Poetry isn’t always inspired by poetry though—a poem I’m working on right now was inspired by Ways of Seeing, which is a collection of short essays by John Berger about looking at artworks. I’m often inspired by artworks and films. Pan’s Labyrinth by Guillermo del Toro remains one of my biggest influences.

VS: I’d say I’m pretty influenced by Safia Elhillo, Fatimah Asghar, Ada Limon, Gloria Anzaldua, Claudia Rankine, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. But also other kinds of writers, including fiction and theory. My favorite writer for example is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Americanah is one of the most important books to me as both a writer and woman. Open City by Teju Cole is another major book. I also think a lot about James Baldwin, Edward Said, Langston Hughes, bell hooks and again, musicians and lyrics/rap. I’m heavily inspired by artists like Mac Miller, Solange, FKA twigs, Frank Ocean, Mitski etc. I feel like I’m always having conversations with what these people have wrote in my head and those conversations and thought processes eventually come out in the poems, as ways of thinking and re-thinking, and making and remaking, the world.

AD: Zoe, you write short stories as well. What draws you to that form?

ZJP: I started writing short stories for creative writing workshops. Before that I was always interested in writing a novel, and never really read short stories or saw them as a true form. Once I started trying to write them though I realized how difficult they are to master. You have to create an entire believable world with interesting characters in a short amount of time and you need to drag the reader along with a plot that’s interesting. All of the elements of a novel are in there, but none of the breadth. Writing and reading short stories always makes me feel a little breathless. I write them now as a way of testing ideas for new worlds, and of practicing plot and getting into new characters’ heads. Sometimes I get an idea for a scene and I just write it out to see what happens, and then I realize the scene is unfolding into a plot. The excitement of that almost spontaneous unfolding makes me want to keep writing new stories. 

Vamika Sinha

AD: Let’s talk about Postcript How did that come about?

VS: We started Postscript mostly by chance in our dorms while we were studying abroad at NYU Paris. It came out of us not taking any literature classes while we were there and sorely missing it.

ZJP: A group of us were sitting in a café, sipping overpriced coffee and lamenting the lack of literature classes being offered by NYU Paris. We were coming to the slow realization that we would have to teach ourselves that semester. Then, someone had the idea to write a poem on our napkins and recite it for the others. These poems were terrible. We decided to keep going by writing a terrible poem every day and posting it in a group chat. It was our own shy way of expressing ourselves and our fears to each other without saying anything out loud. We let the work be bad and ugly, but after a while, we started to write real poetry with urgency. We wanted to share it with more than just each other; we wanted a reason to write and a place where our thoughts mattered. We decided to create that space for ourselves.

VS: We started to write a lot of poems together for fun about our experiences and dilemmas and questions and all the newness we were grappling with while living in France. We decided we want to share this work and our ideas and conversations on a platform, and so our little slapdash creation was spontaneously born. We wrote about the process last year in The Gazelle.

AD: Now that it’s launched, what do you see as the mission of Postcript?

ZJP: Postscript started off as a place for artists and writers whose work might be treated like a footnote, or an addition or amendment to the larger more important stories. We wanted to put those voices in a space together, and to create a network rather than a hierarchy between them. Postscript champions critical work: work that probes, pulls apart and investigates. The result has been submissions from all over the world, from a queer non-binary farmer making collages in Germany, to post-colonial poetry from Trinidad. The network has expanded and grown much more than we expected, and we hope to continue growing it to give space to these important conversations.

VS: We talk about our mission in the Gazelle article, and we’ve also written a mission statement. We’d ideally love to create a print issue by the time we graduate, have some more chapbooks, expand our contributor pool, up our readers etc etc. Basically, keep it going on an upward trajectory where it becomes more and more established.

AD: Tell us about what you’ve done with chapbooks so far.

ZJP: We’ve always wanted to be able to share physical copies of our work. Digital space is convenient, but it also comes with its own sets of challenges. A chapbook is our first attempt at using more traditional methods to disseminate work, and we’re so grateful for our contributors who agreed to be part of this first experiment. The chapbook is called Landing. It starts with the prose-poem “Origins” by Jamie Uy, then “Whole Foods” by Vamika Sinha, “I Want to Wear a Qípáo too” by Samantha Neugebauer, “China Doll” by Tzy Jiun Tan, “Frida” by Zoe Patterson, “Unfeeling Fortunato” by Amal Al Shamsi and “Incessant” by Elyazyeh Al Falacy. It ends with the final line of Elyazyeh’s poem “i’m not sure how i got here but i landed like an anchor.” (All of these poems are available on Postscript’s website.) There are also artistic contributions by Sandra Paris, Caitlyn Peck, and Tessa O’Halloran. We think of the chapbook as a microcosm for what we’re trying to do with Postscript as a whole.

AD: The UAE government has celebrated 2019 as the “year of tolerance.” Do you have any thoughts about the relationship between poetry and tolerance?

ZJP: I think tolerance is important, but I don’t think it’s the word I’d use to describe what poetry does. Tolerance is about the ability to withstand difference, which is a necessary first step towards true harmony in a young and diverse country like the UAE. But poetry doesn’t just withstand difference: it can probe it, dive into it, push its boundaries and acknowledge its discomforts. Poetry can wrestle with difference rather than simply accepting or enduring it.

VS: As I said earlier, poetry, like any good art, is a way of rethinking and remaking the world around us. That includes social issues, politics, interpersonal relationships. So how do poetry and tolerance intersect? Apart from obvious stuff, like fostering empathy, allowing the reader to inhabit another’s mind and all that, poetry offers us new perspectives, just different angles of looking at the same thing, from meditating on an apple slice to getting catcalled in a foreign city. Of course, prose can do that too. Statistics and research can present the same information. But what’s special about poetry is that it remakes meaning and beauty out of whatever topic it deals with, through the sheer craft of working with language in an innovative and dynamic way. Other writing presents the problem or question, may even provide solutions, but poetry allows us to walk into it, to experience

AD: Is there anything you are hoping to learn from being part of Hekayah this year? Is there anything about the evening that particularly excites you?

VS: I haven’t performed poetry on stage since doing Rooftop Rhythms in freshman year! So I suppose I’m ready to reconfront the idea of going up on stage and sharing my work again now that I’m older and have written more, and with a larger audience.

ZJP: There is always so much to learn from having conversations with other artists. I am particularly invested in the arts scene in the UAE, which is still young and growing. The conversations we have now and the projects we produce can shape the future of the arts in this country. We are creating traditions, and that’s powerful. I’m most excited to share the stage with a group of artists I admire. I’m especially excited to see Professor Tishani Doshi perform, she’s one of my mentors and someone who I hope I can write like someday.

Aathma Nirmala Dious is a Literature and Creative writing major at NYUAD and the poetry editor for Electra Street.
FURTHER READING

Open Studios Shows Artists are Scientific Too

Open Studios Shows Artists are Scientific Too

OP-ED

Open Studios Shows Artists are Scientific Too

Yasmeen Tajiddin

November 2019

Nobody says she was born a chemist, but somehow, if you’re an artist or a singer, people assume you were born with that talent. 

Going into my Playwriting class, I thought it was a class where I would be comfortable. I took Intro to Creative Writing last semester and wrote a couple of scripts for an acting class. How hard could it be?

The answer? Really, really hard. Every week we talked about another aspect of playwriting that I had not considered the week before. What are the characters’ relationship to the setting? What is the visual language of your play? What is each character’s personal ideology and how do they clash? And my personal nightmare: what does your character sound like?

Apparently, everyone can’t speak like me, so I had to think more actively about how people speak. Every YouTube hair tutorial became a lesson in the use of “like.” Every idiom I unconsciously use on a daily basis became an important choice in my writing. Eavesdropping became research in the ways people speak. All these moving pieces had to boil down to seven to ten pages every week, each script better (I hoped) than the last.

            Vocal Ensemble, on the other hand, was something I knew I would be terrible at. My only experience with reading music was playing cello in the 5th grade, and I have to concentrate embarrassingly hard to hit all the notes in “Happy Birthday.” There was a lot of room for improvement.

Eavesdropping became research in the ways people speak.

On one of the first days of class, the professor stressed that we needed to do vocal warm-ups every day. Similar to my experience in Playwriting, I found there were so many more elements that go into choral performance than just hitting the notes. While it isn’t the common understanding, people who can sing well study. Rather than a thing you’re simply good or bad at, a singing voice can be developed by regularly “exercising” it. Sure, someone can be born with a good singing voice, but if she doesn’t know how to shape her mouth for certain vowel sounds, or how to control her breath for higher or longer notes, or where to place a note for the best resonance, she won’t be nearly as good as she can be. I, like most people, did not know all these elements went into singing, let alone what they meant. The reality is, every piece of music is dissected and analyzed before it is fit to be performed in front of an audience. 

We don’t often think of artists as scientific or meticulous in terms of their processes. But when an audience hears a polished choral performance or a scene from a play, they are actually hearing the hours of work that went into each performance. The recent Open Studios event helps demonstrate that fact: for our thirty-minute Open Studios singing performance, for example, we spent an hour and a half each week of the semester learning and refining the same four songs. By the time we performed, I felt like I was taking a test I’d studied for extensively. It felt like a relief to put our final product in front of an audience and hear positive reactions; simultaneously, performing reminded me of sections that I still needed to work on.

Photo Credit: NYUAD Arts & Humanities

 

Like STEM, writing and singing demand extensive research, studying, and practice. A very small portion of artistic skills are innate. So while I did think I was a good writer who could improve, I now know how and what to improve on. And while I’m not the best singer, I know that I can get better and sing something harder than “Happy Birthday.”

Yasmeen Tajiddin is a creative writing student with a minor in Arabic at NYU Abu Dhabi.
FURTHER READING
LITERATURE AND
CREATIVE WRITING
LITERATURE AND
CREATIVE WRITING

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