Beyond Journalism

Beyond Journalism

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

Beyond Journalism

The Power of Caroline Brothers’s Novel Hinterland 

Zoe Jane Patterson

August 2019

The street is dark. You pull your scarf a little more tightly around your neck, and glance around, hoping your destination—a popular bar—is close by. This is Paris: there’s a train rattling on the bridge overhead, a man stumbling across the street, and a café where people smoke and talk around outdoor tables despite the cold. Maybe you’ve bumped shoulders with him outside the metro, or maybe you crossed a silent street to avoid his faceless figure, but if you stay in Paris for long enough you will encounter him: the refugee.

The short and singular story of refugees fleeing across Europe has been widely distributed by journalists and activists to spread awareness about their situation. There are countless refugee statements and photographs of derelict shelters peppering newspapers and social media feeds. Most articles take five to ten minutes to read. In them we encounter a nameless other, whose situation is sad and far away. Then we sigh and continue scrolling. This story is so prevalent that we have been made numb to it, and the people who live through it have been stripped of their individuality. The overwhelming number of facts have made them into nothing more than their terrible circumstances, but nobody can empathize with a statistic.

Hinterland by Caroline Brothers tells a story that a newspaper article simply cannot. It is a known fact that there are unaccompanied refugee children travelling through Europe, traumatized and vulnerable. They are only known to most people as numbers, that is until we travel with them — a feat that is only possible through fiction. The novel form allows Brothers to introduce complexity and individuality to the refugee story: the boys feel joy, have dynamic relationships, and harbor aspirations for the future, which is true for everyone, but is left out of journalism for the sake of brevity. By returning these untold truths to the well-known refugee story, the novel helps the reader to regain the empathy that has been lost in a sea of facts.

The novel takes the reader across Europe with two brothers from Afghanistan. Fourteen-year-old Aryan and his little brother Kabir travel from the border between Turkey and Greece all the way to Calais. The boys are robbed and cheated, Kabir is sexually assaulted, and they are haunted by the deaths of their family members and the fear of deportation. When they are in Paris, Aryan asks Kabir what he would tell their family in Iran about the journey so far, if he could send a message to them. “I’d tell them about the puppies and that we got new clothes and that soon we’ll be going to school in England.” Kabir chooses to remember and relay joy. He plays with stray puppies while he and his brother are doing forced labor in Greece. While he is homeless in Italy, he meets an Iranian-American couple and they buy both brothers new clothes and train tickets to Paris. When Kabir looks at the sky in the city of lights, he feels hope for a future where he can go to school. There is no room for glimmers of joy in an article that takes five minutes to read, but these moments humanize Kabir and Aryan. Their happiness is punctured by abuse and trauma, rather than their identity being reduced to the abused and traumatized.

A refugee encampment on the banks of the Seine in Paris.
Photo: Zoe Jane Patterson

Kabir and Aryan’s identities are defined and made more complex by their relationships with Afghanistan, a topic that only a novel has the breadth to tackle. Kabir asks Aryan if he is still an Afghan even though he left the country when he was four.

“Of course you’re an Afghan. I’m an Afghan, you’re an Afghan, our family is from Afghanistan.

But if someone asks, I can’t tell them what it’s like. I can remember more about Iran and Istanbul and this farm than Afghanistan.”

Despite the violence and loss that they’ve experienced in Afghanistan, the boys still feel connected to it, and defined by it. Aryan tells Kabir about home and their parents as a way of defining himself. “In that way, each becomes the keeper of the other’s identity … Sometimes he feels he could float off into space like an astronaut tethered neither by orbit nor gravity.” Without a nation or a family, Aryan would lose his entire sense of self. He has lost community and security, and feels that if he cried out, his voice would be met by the empty vacuum of space. The boys’ history and their country are part of their identity. Hinterland reminds the reader of the importance of home, and the trauma of losing it. 

Hinterland reveals Aryan’s deepest thoughts and feelings about himself and his home, and we are reminded of the specificity of each individual’s story by knowing him intimately. Aryan is treated as an individual in Hinterland, but he is still part of a much larger issue, which is made most clear when he and Kabir make it to Calais. Countless refugees arrive there, having crossed Europe only to encounter a kind of outdoor prison. The refugees in Calais cannot make it to a safe haven in England, but are pressed up against its border because of a hostile Europe behind them, and nothing to return to at home. The further Aryan and Kabir make it into Europe, the more hope they have that they will eventually reach safety. “Where on their journey was it that they had stopped fleeing and started running towards a future, no matter how indistinct? Yet all that time, they were only getting closer to a wall. The harder he runs up against it, the more he feels his courage fray.” Aryan and Kabir’s journey towards freedom and safety has been fraught with violence and fear, but now, on the last leg of their journey, they can’t go any further and are powerless.

Having travelled with them, the reader understands how impossible it would be for them to return home, when there is no home left, and the hostility that surrounds and corners them. Whether you read about this situation in fiction or in a piece of journalism, eventually the question becomes—what can I do? And what can policy-makers do? The failure in quick pieces of journalism to answer these questions kills empathy because readers can simply say, well it’s not my problem. Hinterland not only fosters empathy by taking us on the brothers’ journey, but also attempts to answer these questions.

The novel most deeply criticizes the treatment of refugees in France. Through the simple questions that the children ask about their treatment, it unravels these policies and points out their absurdity. At a makeshift camp in Calais, Aryan is teargassed while he’s asleep. He asks another refugee boy what is going on, and he’s told that the police teargas the camp every night. “He doesn’t understand how they could have become a target. They are not warriors and they don’t have weapons—they are on the run from those very things.” Aryan’s disbelief becomes the reader’s. This act of cruelty is pointless, as are many of the actions that take place in Calais. The police also take refugees’ firewood and shoes, and through Kabir’s conversation with his friend Hamid, the novel concisely portrays the flawed logic behind these actions.

“Why did the police keep those guys’ shoes?

To make it hard for them to walk back, Hamid says.

But why would they make it hard for them to walk back?

So they will go away. Kabir ponders Hamid’s answer for a moment.

How can they go away if they don’t have shoes? Hamid’s laugh has a hardness to it that Aryan doesn’t recognize from before.”

One clear answer to the question of what policy makers should do about refugees is to stop torturing them, to ask why they would want to live in these conditions if they had any alternative, and to react to their situation with empathy rather than cruelty and violence.

The novel also answers the question of what the individual can do for refugees. While the average person may not have the power to write new policies, or change immigration laws, Hinterland does reveal how ordinary people affect the brothers on their journey. Aryan and Kabir encounter an Iranian-American couple in Italy, who feed the boys, and buy them new clothes as well as train tickets to Paris. The novel demonstrates how ordinary people can use their privilege to make things slightly better for the people who are suffering. At the end of the novel, Brothers writes about the origins of Hinterland. She states that she wanted to “somehow give these kids a voice, so that people, if they came across them in one of our great world capitals, would at least have some understanding of who they were.” If we do nothing else, the novel asks us to really see refugees when we encounter them, not as symptoms of a problem or emblems of a statistic, but as individuals.

Zoe Jane Patterson is a senior at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing. Her piece about encountering refugees in Paris appeared last spring in Electra Street 03.
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An Upturned Bucket List

An Upturned Bucket List

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

An Upturned Bucket List

Reading Caroline Brothers’s Hinterland

Vamika Sinha

August 2019

“KabulTehranIstanbulAthensRomeParisLondon.”

For some, this string of glamorous capitals might be a bucket list of places to visit, but for others it can trace a much uglier reality. Kabir and Aryan, two young, recently orphaned brothers from Afghanistan, recite these names to each other while on the run. It is a mantra, in that it is made up of equal parts desperation and hope.

The route materializes itself in the world of Australian journalist Caroline Brothers’s debut novel Hinterland. The brothers are only fourteen- and eight-years-old – just children. Fleeing the Taliban in Kabul, and the consequent shattering of their family, they are political refugees in search of an English education. They carry two sets of clothes on their backs at all times, scraps of food, little money, and no papers. The novel opens with them enclosed within the jaws of a truck, carrying them to the fantasy of Europe. I am reminded, eerily, of the novella by Ghassan Kanafani, titled Men in the Sun. Three Palestinian refugees arrange, with intense difficulty, to get themselves smuggled from Iraq to Kuwait in order to escape their camps and find employment. They hide in a water tank in a truck travelling across the desert. Upon crossing the last checkpoint, the story ends, only to find their dead bodies spilling out of the overheated tank. The men had died at the final moment. It was a grim reminder of the difference between life and narrative; one could be controlled, while the other had no obligation to ever reach catharsis, but simply falter, like breath, in the middle of a sentence.

With this foreboding thought, I continue to read about Kabir and Aryan, continue tracing an invisible finger across the map  – KabulTehranIstanbulAthensRomeParisLondon. Over an arduous winter, the brothers work as laborers on an anonymous farm in Greece. They are not paid, barely eat, and suffer violences to their bodies and minds in ways that children should not have the faintest conception of. They carry on. In Italy, they retch on their own fear while confronted by the police, paperless and ill-equipped in every possible way for a reality so mammoth, it dwarfs their small existences. They carry on. In Calais, they endure the even more powerful, lingering pain of waiting. Waiting for some kind of resolution. In a sense, they too are in the heated tank, travelling across Europe towards some salvation.

Brothers’s novel was adapted for the stage as Flight by the Glasgow-based theatre company Vox Motus and premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival. It will have its UAE premiere at the NYUAD Arts Center next month.

The journey is speckled with small moments of tenderness – a haircut from an Afghan wife in a corner of Rome. Fresh clothes, hot pasta, and a train ride to Paris from an Iranian-American couple, found, by some magical luck, speaking Farsi on their trip abroad. The innocent stirrings of desire on an overnight train, while catching the soft, occasional gaze of a girl sleeping across from Aryan. These are moments of ordinariness, illuminated not by their normalcy, but by their scarcity; the whole novel unfurls in the same calm, slightly detached, plain prose. 

It makes sense then that Caroline Brothers is primarily a reporter. Hinterland is her attempt at casting a more empathetic, “human” light on her lifelong journalism on migrants. Based in France, she has conducted hundreds of interviews with child refugees, trapped in their own versions of Kabir and Aryan’s journey. It becomes, quietly, more horrifying to realize that Hinterland is only fiction to the extent that it embellishes upon what is, for thousands, everyday and real.

While studying in Paris for a semester, I once found myself, along with two friends, lost on the way to a bar. Google Maps directed us to a large, pulsating establishment by the waterfront of Bassin Louis Blanc, deemed one of the ‘hottest nightlife spots in the city.’ But we were confused, stopped in our tracks by a … smell. Two rats scurried by. We fought the urge to flee. It stank of stale bodies, disuse and urine. Right next to the bar, thronged with the ‘bobos’ of Paris, the hipsters and underage, overdressed teenagers with beers in hand, was a large muddle of tents. Bodies moved within them, shifting imperceptibly, carrying on as usual, unnoticed if you didn’t stop and really take a closer look. 

“Is it a slum?

“They’re all brown…they must be immigrants.”

“Why are they partying next to a slum?”

“Do you think they could be gypsies?”  

“Does nobody care?”

Over the next few weeks, under eventual daylight, the sun fell on the truth: we had stumbled upon a refugee slum. In the middle of Paris, next to one of its most popular clubs. A few return trips yielded conversations with the slum’s inhabitants (mostly Afghan), a million questions, immigration papers waved in our faces, pleas for help in French, English, Urdu, and ultimately, fruitlessness. One of my friends left Paris to end up writing a lengthy, sensitive article about how she had tried to capture, in words, what she had experienced upon finding such a place, about her desperate attempt to twist a story out of the conversations and shine some kind of light on the refugees’ plight in Paris, and, more widely, on the larger crisis of migrants coming into Europe. 

Beneath Hinterland is buried the body of a huge political argument. One that asks us to take a closer look at the tents. What are the nuances of our border policies, our hot debates on migrants, our thousand little stumbling blocks of bureaucracy, xenophobia, fear, corruption, that place children like Kabir and Aryan in a refrigerated tank bound for England?

“KabulTehranIstanbulAthensRomeParisLondon,” Aryan asks Kabir to repeat, in the novel’s final scene, again in the mouth of a truck. I am taken back to one of the Afghan refugees in Paris appealing to me in Urdu: “Please, you’re from India. Our countries are brothers. You have to help me.” In that moment, I too became infected by helplessness. “SloveniaCroatiaGreeceItaly …” he rattled the mantra off with practice. “I’ve gone everywhere to be here.”

Vamika Sinha is a senior at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing with a minor in Music. She is a co-editor of Airport Road, food columnist for The Gazelle, runs an independent magazine called Postscript, and enjoys ramen and jazz.
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50 Dirhams a Day: New York

50 Dirhams a Day: New York

FIFTY DIRHAMS A DAY

NEW YORK

Nada Ammagui

March 2019

50 AED = $13.62

If you’re spending a semester in New York and are not an engineering student, you are not likely to head all the way to Brooklyn for very many reasons; I challenge you to do otherwise – to visit and to experience Brooklyn for all of the post-industrial, art-filled beauty that it has to offer. My visit to Brooklyn—Dumbo in particular—was a spontaneous trip spurred by an urge to escape, even if just for an afternoon, the suffocating grip of skyscrapers and gridded streets. Naturally, I sought to do this in the cheapest way possible, as walking to Dumbo from Gramercy would not be an option. As an avid user of the NYU shuttles that go from Washington Square to my dorm, I discovered that shuttles were also provided from campus to the dorms in Brooklyn. Once I connected the dots, I realized that I could hop on a shuttle from my dorm to campus and from campus to Brooklyn, all for free!

My day in Brooklyn was not very structured, and I did not have very much planned in advance, but this made for a very relaxing Saturday afternoon. I boarded the A shuttle from Washington Square to Brooklyn, which, as it turns out, takes a very scenic route through Soho, Chinatown, the Manhattan Bridge, and parts of Brooklyn. I arrived in Brooklyn about 20 minutes later and made the small journey to Dumbo from MetroTech Center (the NYU campus) on foot (15-20 minutes). Once I made it to the Brooklyn Bridge and Dumbo, I took a quick break for photos because the view of Manhattan was simply lovely. There were many places to lounge, read a book, or have a picnic in the park between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges (Dumbo is the neighborhood between these bridges), but it was far too cold to sit on the grass, so I kept exploring the area.

I realized that I could hop on a shuttle from my dorm to campus and from campus to Brooklyn, all for free!

After taking many, many pictures of the stunning view of Manhattan, I headed towards Main Street, the main thoroughfare of the Dumbo area. I turned onto Water Street, a busy street with low-rise brick buildings on either side full of shops, cafes, and restaurants. I browsed the several (free!!) art galleries for which this area is known, such as Klompching Gallery, Minus Space, and Janet Borden, Inc. then made a stop at Empire Stores, an upscale shopping space with a few shops and cafes. I headed to FEED, a rustic and cozy coffee shop, to browse their merchandise that helps to support the fight against hunger in the world (drink purchase optional depending on budget limitations).

I then headed two floors up in this same building to visit the Brooklyn Historical Society Dumbo Museum, which offers free entry to students (major win!). Though small, the museum provides a brief history of the Brooklyn area from seventeenth century colonization and colony building to nineteenth century industrialization and war-time frenzy. The museum features a short film about the history of Brooklyn, several little displays of documents and letters dating back to this period, a gift shop, and a postcard-coloring station where I colored in a postcard of the Brooklyn Bridge. 

Photo Credit

Nada Ammagui 

Next, I crossed the street to visit other shops like Modern Chemist, a seller of candles, cards, mugs, picnic foods, and an odd assortment of other goods. For lunch, there were several options. Just a short walk away is Grimaldi’s, a pizza place, and Shake Shack. A meal at either of these restaurants costs around $10 per person (a pizza is around $20, but is large enough to share). Another option was buying snacks from Modern Chemist and heading to the riverfront for a picnic. I opted for a Yemeni restaurant on Atlantic Avenue, about 20 minutes away, a walk that is well worth it. Lunch costs about $12-$15 at Yemen Café, but is served with a soup, salad, and unlimited hot tea. There are also several Arab supermarkets on the same block for perusal. I then headed back to Washington Square, paying careful attention to not miss the last shuttle home. All in all, this day cost me only as much as I was willing to pay for lunch since the ride there and back, the museum, the galleries, and browsing the shops were all free. This afternoon trip was, though cold, a lovely getaway to another borough of New York City.

Photo Credit

Nada Ammagui

 

Nada Ammagui is an Arab Crossroads Studies student at NYUAD with concentrations in Arabic and Art History. She enjoys visiting museums around the world, learning about architecture, and is even trying her hand at architectural drawing. Nada is also a book enthusiast, so you can often find her immersed in a novel when not studying.

Top Photo: Crossing the Manhattan Bridge. Credit: Nada Ammagui.

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50 DIRHAMS A DAY

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Citizenship and the Novel

Citizenship and the Novel

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

Citizenship and the Novel

Ria Golovakova

February 2019

The Philippines, like many other parts of the world, is currently being torn apart by a populist president. Although its median age is 23, the government is filled with those over 60. In the face of corruption, poverty, and dynasty-dominated politics, Miguel Syjuco writes with hope.

Syjuco doesn’t want to remain on the sidelines: he sees his purpose in speaking about the situation, using his writing as a vehicle of political change. He writes for people who he believes “have the potential to be leaders of their families, communities, or country but are set back by larger institutions and powers that be.”

Last year, Syjuco kicked off NYUAD’s Faculty Reading Series by reading from the first chapter of his upcoming novel, I Was the President’s Mistress!!. Structured as a series of interviews, the book is a collection of source material gathered by a ghost writer to produce a memoir of Vita Nova, a fictional celebrity. The interviews include one with Vita Nova and twelve others with her former lovers. While the plot centers on a political scandal and a presidential impeachment, the book weaves in personal narratives in an attempt to humanize these media headlines through the personal.

Syjuco’s first novel, Ilustrado (2010), warns us to be aware of the sly, deliberate structure of his fiction. The work is a collage of texts: excerpts from history books, blog posts, manuscripts by the book’s protagonist, Crispin Salvador, and interviews with Salvador. Many of these texts deal with Filipino history, introducing that unfamiliar history to the world’s English-speaking audience. The deconstructed novel is therefore a tool of communication rather than artistic fancy.

Novelist Miguel Syjuco

Photo courtesy of Miguel Syjuco

I was the President’s Mistress!! similarly uses a non-traditional structure. Syjuco draws from his work as a journalist: the book is full of “material” that a journalist has collected; the story is for the reader to construct. When I met him to talk about the excerpt, Syjuco told me that the reader is meant to feel “as if they found a box of cassette tapes or a folder of audio files on a computer and decided to start listening to them.” The structure, he hopes, will provide a sense of discovery as well as agency, allowing for multifold interpretations of the story. Since no dominant narrative is present, the reader is left to “wrestle with contradictory facts” and take their own stance.

The reader’s agency is important to Syjuco. “It’s about figuring out how we, as citizens, can participate in this story that we all find ourselves in,” he says. I was the President’s Mistress!! is a loose sequel to Ilustrado, set in the same universe: while Ilustrado dealt with the past, however, his upcoming novel tackles the present. It seems appropriate that the novel, a snapshot of our current era, remain without authorial interpretation. After all, we cannot adequately analyze the present until it has become history, and its consequences have become clear.

But that does not mean that we should not attempt to make sense of the present moment. Syjuco tells me that the central issues—“corruption, power dynamic between genders, political inequality”—are already obvious. These are the realities of today, things that will continue on for as long as humans are engaging in the political, and democratic, process. Syjuco sees his writing as tackling the dynamic between individuals and the larger socio-political institutions that influence them.

The reading, although centered around the Philippines, happened halfway across the globe from it. Syjuco addressed our international and multicultural audience in Abu Dhabi, its desert landscape nothing like his native Manila. Although he has lived abroad for almost two decades, Syjuco does not believe that makes him less of a Filipino writer, contending that “the Filipino experience is a global one.” He, like many others from his country, has had “to expand to the wider world in search for work.”

Living away from the Philippines has presented challenges in writing about it. I Was the President’s Mistress!! has been in the works for eight years, and according to Syjuco, many drafts have been tossed during this time. Syjuco speaks of the difficulty he has had in grounding the novel in actual Filipino reality. After failing to connect to it from abroad, he decided to return to the Philippines for a year. Simply being there physically, though, was not enough. “A lot of people are in the Philippines but live in a bubble: going to the mall, to church, their jobs, and staying within their communities does not connect them to the country as a whole,” he says.

Both for his second novel and his many nonfiction pieces, Syjuco has made a conscious effort to leave the bubble for contexts that differed from his own. He visited “provinces, slums, and many dark corners of the country where people are experiencing great agony and inequality.” He has been at scenes of murder on Manila’s night streets and spent time in morgues, talking to the victims of Duterte’s drug war. All of these efforts, in his words, were necessary for him to have an informed opinion. An informed opinion, he says, “requires going out and doing the legwork, talking to people and listening to all sides.”

He hopes that his work will inspire and influence others. During the reading event, Syjuco shared prompts from his project Usapang ATIN, “Our Conversation.” This project, which he later presented at the Global Forum for Democracy in Strasbourg, is “a template for discussion that seeks to help people relearn civic conversation.” He hopes that the platform will allow his fellow Filipinos to speak about the truly important issues, and to find connections despite difference in political opinion.

This spring at NYUAD, Syjuco is teaching a class called “Citizen, Writer,” in which students “learn the skills that prepare them for the blood sport that is public discussion,” be it on an internet comment thread, a larger media outlet, or an in-person debate. His goal is to equip students with the ability to “make their pens mightier than swords” and to help them discover the agency that the act of writing can enable.

“We often turn to writing,” Syjuco says, “whether it is creative writing or just spewing on social media, because we don’t feel heard.” He sees a need for public discourse forums which provide an outlet for the human impulse to tell stories as well as influence social structures. Writing and speaking are acts of democracy. “Having a voice means having a vote.”

Syjuco admits that “one of the huge challenges of being a writer is that you are always an outsider,” but views that facet of the writing life as an advantage. “When you become an insider you start to live within an echo chamber,” he says. Outsiders bring new perspectives; they notice things worth sharing. If he can help others make just a little more sense of the world, be it through writing or teaching, then his own nightmares, anger, and hopelessness will be easier to deal with. If someone listens, it might all be worth it.

The NYUAD Faculty Reading Series returns on February 27 with a reading by Tishani Doshi, Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at NYUAD and the author most recently of the poetry collection Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods (2017).

Ria Golovakova is a junior at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing. She attended high school in Manila, Philippines, where she first came across Miguel Syjuco’s work.

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Am I Defeated by a Raw Chicken?

Am I Defeated by a Raw Chicken?

OP-ED

Am I Defeated by a Raw Chicken?

Laura Deryng

January 2019

One of the very first things that I saw once I arrived in Washington, DC for J-Term during my freshman year was not, unfortunately, the White House, the Capitol, or the Lincoln Memorial. Instead, it was a raw chicken that a friend brought to my dorm room, asking if I could cook it for him. My surprised answer to this question was “No,” followed by an explanation that my culinary abilities peak at making tea.

His reply: “Are you a woman? What type of woman?”

I resisted the temptation to check in the mirror to see if I had somehow changed physically during the past few hours. The truth was that my femininity was questioned because I did not know how to cook: my femininity was apparently defined through something as basic as the ability to make a chicken steak. And here I was, a Polish girl in the capital of the most powerful country in the world, following the American Dream – but confronted and somehow defeated by a raw chicken.

I do need to admit one thing: it was a big mistake, my not having learned how to cook before. After traveling to various places all over the world, I now understand one thing: food is not always the most pleasurable representation of local cultures. I cannot count the number of situations in which I would have benefited from knowing how to cook a raw chicken—and not only because eating noodles every day in Shanghai bored me. Or because Ghanaian fufu and I were not a match made in heaven. Knowing how to cook gives us more independence: we are not put in the position of having to hope that the chicken steak we ordered in a restaurant will be edible. We can have an actual influence on it.

But in the end, it is not my obligation to learn how to cook: it is my choice. As it should be for anyone else, whether woman or man.

The fact is that, throughout history, women’s roles in the society have not been too diversified. Our time of glory apparently passed a while ago, together with the tribe of mythological Amazons and their most famous representative, Wonder Woman. She did not make it to my history book, unfortunately, which puts her in the same position as so many other women, who actually existed outside of comic books and movie screens and who have contributed to building the world for centuries and centuries. If my history book ever spoke of a woman, her biography always started with “She was a mother of a king…” or “She was a wife of a soldier…”. Inspiring. I can almost imagine a biography starting with “She was a cook for life …”

Unfortunately, women all over the world have been trapped in stereotypical “feminine” roles for centuries. In Aboriginal Australia, for example, men used boomerangs for hunting, whereas women were equipped only with a special tool that enabled them to carry babies. I learned about these differences from an actual representative of Aboriginal Australians in Sydney. While listening to his story, I started to contemplate how much the world had changed since the times when there was a clear division of gender roles.

Images of influential women started to appear in my mind. Women like Angela Merkel, Maria Skłodowska-Curie, and Margaret Thatcher have shown me that the world has evolved since Aboriginal women had their special tools for babies.

Filled with pride and optimism, I saw my friend raising her hand to ask our Aboriginal guide a question. “Could you pass me the boomerang? I want to see how heavy it is.” He looked at her impatiently. “No. It is a weapon for men and it cannot be touched by women. That brings bad luck.” And somehow the face of Angela Merkel in my mind was quickly replaced by the memory of raw chicken, defeating me yet again. “It is a tradition, though, you need to respect it,” I told myself.

At least that’s what I thought until I met another Aboriginal guide, who happily let me hold the boomerang. I was shocked. I wish I could have introduced the first Aboriginal guy to my chicken friend. They might have enjoyed watching Battle of the Sexes together. They might have laughed together at Bobby Riggs’s comment during a press conference with Billie Jean King: “Don’t get me wrong. I love women—in the bedroom and in the kitchen.”

I’m intrigued by the fact that people seem to think that men are actually better cooks than women. When I looked online for a list of the best chefs of the world, I saw that not a single woman made it to the top ten. Not even the top twenty. But then I found her: Nadia Santini. From Italy. Position number 38.

So why do we insist that a woman has to know how to cook if it seems that men are capable of bringing more culinary joy to our lives? Maybe we should make men’s ability to cook more central to their identity. If men cook so much better than women, why not encourage more of them to find fulfilment in that place where they can exercise their natural talents? The kitchen.

Jokes aside, I just still keep asking myself why we require women to cook in the domestic space, while most of the shining stars in the public culinary world are men.

But I am afraid I know the answer.

Women are not worse at cooking than men, but on television, cooking is no longer just cooking: it is professional cooking. Cooking on television is no longer a waste of time and effort for no financial rewards. It is a job in the cooking industry, which like most industries today, is dominated by men, the breadwinners of families. Domestic cooking? Please, it has no value, let a woman do that. I have better things to do. But professional cooking …?

I am not saying that there is anything wrong with a woman who wants to cook in the private sphere. I personally advocate that everyone learn how to do it, simply because it is a highly useful skill. I am just bothered by the fact that certain identities and gender stereotypes are imposed on us women so brutally, thereby defining our femininity for us.

Maybe a woman’s inability to cook does undermines her femininity—if we associate femininity with the cozy and welcoming atmosphere of home created by the smells of the kitchen, with that certain warmth that women know how to evoke to bring their families together. But there are so many other ways that a woman (and a man too, if he wants) can fulfill this task, other than cooking. Femininity can have many faces, strong and independent in addition to fragile and delicate. Or maybe we should combine them all.

I suppose my friend in Washington could not understand that my inability to cook the raw chicken does not undermine my femininity because he was a typical male conqueror. And in this guise, he broke to our room few nights later to get what he wanted: our last piece of pizza. So masculine.

Laura Deryng is a senior at NYUAD, majoring in Economics with a specialization in Finance and Computer Science. She is originally from Gdańsk, Poland. Laura’s interests are diversified, ranging from international affairs and journalism to blockchain and cryptocurrencies.

She loves traveling: her favorite travel destination is Japan. Laura is also very passionate about sports. She has been playing basketball since she was 10 years old. Besides that, she enjoys running, boxing and playing tennis

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Favorite Theorists: Mikhail Bakhtin

Favorite Theorists: Mikhail Bakhtin

FAVORITE THEORISTS

Mikhail Bakhtin

Anna Balysheva

December 2018

I learned about Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975), the world-famous philosopher and literary critic, when I joined New York University Abu Dhabi as a film and new media student. As it turned out, Bakhtin had been in exile in the Kazakh city of Kostanay, the very city I am from. This period of his life in the 1930s, when Discourse in the Novel was created and the idea for his famous work about Rabelais crystallized, is the least investigated.

While searching for the traces of Bakhtin’s presence in my hometown, I began to explore his biography and think about his  creativity. Different discussions about the Bakhtinian legacy attracted my attention because they ran the gamut of critical opinion, from veneration to defamation. A special place in these discussions is given to Bakhtin’s autobiographical myth-making. Here, I present a look at the relationship of some of the biographical distortions to the harsh circumstances in which this thinker lived and developed his theories.

From Anna Balysheva’s art installation “Philosopher and Hunger: Exiled Mikhail Bakhtin, Kazakhstan, 1930s.”

From the beginning of his thinking life, Bakhtin asked of himself a nearly impossible level of intellectual responsibility, something he termed “answerability.” In his first published article, “Art and Answerability” (1919), Bakhtin resolves the conflict between life and art by postulating the “answerable person”: “I have to answer with my own life for what I have experienced and understood in art, so that everything I have experienced and understood would not remain ineffectual in my life” (1). For Bakhtin, an “answerable” person is the one who acts with the highest moral attitude for the way his actions play out in the events of his life. In his following work “Toward a Philosophy of the Act” (1924), Bakhtin defines an answerable act as one that occurs through participation in being – what he calls “the non-alibi in being,” meaning that a person has no right to evade, or avoid realizing and carrying out, his distinctive place in a life indistinguishable from a life with others (43-56). To be in life for Bakhtin is to act, creating one’s own unique act of life. That being said, a person involved in the world is opposed to it simultaneously, but even in this opposition, there is always participation in being. Bakhtin’s future would constantly challenge his ability to live out this theory of answerability.

For Bakhtin, life was also complicated by his severe chronic illness in the form of multiple osteomyelitis–a purulent necrotic condition of the bone marrow.

By the time Bakhtin developed his ethical categories, he had already lived through the Russian Revolution of 1917, civil war, and massive destruction. Bakhtin and his dear friends were involuntarily acquiring survival skills because of the dramatic vicissitudes in the history of their homeland. But, for Bakhtin, life was also complicated by his severe chronic illness in the form of multiple osteomyelitis–a purulent necrotic condition of the bone marrow. This condition had tormented him since childhood and ultimately he had his right leg amputated up to the groin. Caryl Emerson, а prominent American scholar of Bakhtin, draws attention to his terrible pain in a video interview that I conducted with her: “Bakhtin was in pain his whole life. And it was biologically determined pain. It was not some Bolshevik that was making him suffer. The difference between political pain and biological pain is that there is no one to blame. Bakhtin was a man who knew what meant to suffer when he did not deserve to suffer.” But, even in such an adverse situation, Bakhtin persisted in his focused task of responsible creative participation in art.

Anna Balysheva’s “American Scholars on Bakhtin’s Life and Creativity”

Source: YouTube

Although nothing stopped Bakhtin from developing own theories, he suffered from a form of social anonymity, associated with the lack of a diploma of higher education. The absence of documentation before 1917 was most likely connected to his illness, because of which Bakhtin could not be considered a full-time student. In the post-Revolutionary period, the socio-political situation engulfing Bakhtin was overwhelming, as there were too many catastrophic events in which emigration and death became the norm. For that reason, Bakhtin was unable to obtain accreditation of his prior studying. Devastation drove him to provincial cities where he had to work simply to survive. On the path of his survival, Bakhtin sometimes fabricated his autobiographies for the sake of focusing on the field closest to his academic aspirations, and getting a job that corresponded to his mental acuity.

Bakhtin’s career as a published writer did not take off. His first serious full-length study, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, would only be issued in 1929. Before that, Bakhtin constantly ran into difficulties to present his works due to a range of factors, that ultimately forced him to resort to stealth tactics. In the 1920s, it would seem that Bakhtin published a series of articles under the names of his friends (Voloshinov, Medvedev and Kanaev). The authorship of these works, which in the post-Soviet period were entitled “Bakhtin under the Mask,” continues to be the subject of academic dispute. The very fact of this debate, however, proves the extraordinary circumstances of Bakhtin’s creative life.

Bakhtin’s seemingly predetermined death was prevented by his friends, who managed to achieve the commutation of his sentence to exile in the Kazakh steppes–to the town of Kustanay.

In 1928, Bakhtin had to avail himself of a Marxist mask when he was unlawfully arrested in Leningrad because of his participation in a philosophical and religious circle known as “Resurrection.” Its activities were perceived as counter-revolutionary by the Soviet authorities. During his interrogation, Bakhtin called himself religious and Marxist-revisionist. When answering questions about this rattling entanglement of political convictions several decades later, he would categorically say that he had never actually been a Marxist. The Marxist mask did not help Bakhtin escape a harsh sentence. After a hearing, he was sentenced to imprisonment for five years in the Solovki concentration camp in the north of Russia, where mortality were very high. Bakhtin’s seemingly predetermined death was prevented by his friends, who managed to achieve the commutation of his sentence to exile in the Kazakh steppes–to the town of Kustanay.

 

Mikhail Bakhtin

Source: M. M. Bakhtin: Besedy s V. D. Duvakinym [M. M. Bakhtin: Conversations with V.D. Duvakin]. Moscow State University Lomonosov Scientific Library, 2002.

Bakhtin’s fate inflicted numerous blows on him. Yet some of them seemed to have saved him from premature death. In Kazakhstan, his involuntary occupation as an economist in the local District Consumers Union prevented Bakhtin from dying during the famine that erupted during collectivization. From the threat of a new arrest at the height of Stalinist repression, he was saved by his timely dismissal from the Saransk Institute, where he worked after the Kustanay exile. The death of Bakhtin’s mother and sisters in besieged Leningrad during World War II makes one realize the likelihood of the same end for Bakhtin, had he not been politically persecuted. Even after the war, Bakhtin’s fate did not treat him lightly. In the professional sphere, he endured a humiliating struggle to defend his dissertation on Rabelais. And it seems that with time he no longer believed in the possibility of publishing his works. Bakhtin’s relentless adversity was in a direct cause-and-effect relationship with the fact that his theories could not become public for too long, and many of his creative intentions were either left fragmented or unrealized.

Bakhtin’s works saw their light only in the 1960s. Since then, public interest in the philosophical and literary ideas that Bakhtin developed has not subsided. His key concepts–heteroglossia, dialogism, chronotope, carnivalesque, polyphony–firmly entered the intellectual world. Bakhtin believed that his active participation in life could occur through the thinking process: “Every thought of mine, along with its content, is an act or deed that I perform-my own individually answerable act or deed” (Toward a Philosophy of the Act, 3). Despite some biographical distortions determined by circumstances, Bakhtin’s creative life was always filled with a morally responsible (or “answerable”) attitude. Bakhtin’s thoughts became a living, ongoing, ethical event that seems to be endless.

FURTHER READING

Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1990. Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays by M.M. Bakhtin. Ed. Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov. Trans. Vadim Liapunov and Kenneth Brostrom. Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1994. Towards a Philosophy of the Act. Trans. Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov. Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press.

Clark, Katerina, and Michael Holquist. 1984. Mikhail Bakhtin. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Hirschkop, Ken. 1999. Mikhail Bakhtin an Aesthetic for Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lisov, A. Z., and Trusova E. G. 1996. “Replika po povodu avtobiograficheskogo mifotvorchestva M. M. Bakhtina” [A Rejoinder à propos of Mikhail Bakhtin’s Autobiographical Mythmaking]. The Journal “Dialog. Carnival. Chronotope”. No. 3: http://nevmenandr.net/dkx/?y=1996&n=3.

Makhtin, Vitaly. 2015. Bol’shoye Vremya: Podstupy k myshleniyu M.M. Bakhtina [Big Time: Approaches to M. M. Bakhtin’s Thinking]. Siedlce: Uniwersytet Przyrodniczo-Humanistyczny w Siedlcach.

Voloshinov, V. N. 1993. Bakhtin pod maskoy. Maska tret’ya. Voloshinov V. N. Marksizm i flosofya yazyka [Bakhtin under the mask. The third mask. Voloshinov, V. N. Marxism and the philosophy of language]. Moscow: Labirint.

Anna Balysheva graduated from NYU Abu Dhabi in 2018 with a B.A. in Film and New Media with minors in History and Art History. Currently, she specializes in managing multimedia projects. Her articles, documentaries, exhibitions and plays engage history and anthropology to reveal personal narratives that complicate official stories with fixed perspectives. Contact her at asb669[at]nyu.edu.

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