Saturday, October 10, 2009

a book reflection

This is a reflection of two books I just finished and loved.

Unaccomstomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

I recently finished reading "Reading Lolita in Tehran," by Azar Nafisi. Before that I read a book of short stories in "Unaccostomed Earth," by Jhumpa Lahiri, author of "The Namesake." They are strikingly similar - both have a strong feminine perspective of nostalgia yet painful realization of neglect or limitations from their beloved home countries, Iran and India, respectively. Both are renditions of women in the twentieth century with one foot still at home and the other in the freedom ringin' USA. Both women (or narrators) are passionate lovers of their native countries.

Unaccostomed Earth is a series of about ten short stories of Bengali emigrants to the U.S. Lahiri creates different narrators for each story. Some of the stories are connected and others are different, but they all convey an image of middle class West Bengalis coping in America in every crevasse of life - food, school, adolecense, love, profession, stay at home mothering, a parent's death, a new baby. Lahiri really harps on the every day life nuances and how wonderful they can be, especially the nuances coming from India. She misses India, and she especially misses the female details - the virbant cooking and the female space of the kitchen, the ornate saris worn by her family. She doesn't miss the arranged marriages or the lack of encouragement to be professional and independent in her matriarchal society, though.

Her short stories are wraught with anecdotes of women in the kitchen attempting to cook like their mothers - effortless and artistically. This kind of feminine role doesn't carry the same connotation as the American, domesticated woman, but it's more of an esteemed talent in the Indian tradition. Of course, it goes unnoticed that these Indian women could care for their families without stress. Lahiri writes of a first generation mother who hosts her father for a week in her new home in Portland, Oregon and wants to cook him the food he is used to, the food her mother cooked for him before he died. She ends up cooking for days before his arrival while watching her one year old son and trying to move into the new house, and none of the food nor the house satisfies her. The time it takes to make these meals does not allow the time it takes for the mother to care for her child and carry on a Western style life - whatever that entails - successfully.
Another story depicts two Bengali middle class women who moved to Massachusetts while their husbands were studying at Harvard. The women help each other cook for their families all day while sharing tips for each other on how to cope in the Western civilization they were thrust into - a supposed platform for them to break out of their strictly domestic roles but also a clash of tradition and culture that didn't allow for either to do that well. One woman abandons the Bengali meal tradition and just eats out at Italian restaurants with her family, which gives her the time to read the newspaper, shop at modern boutiques, and 'sophisticate' herself. The other woman held onto her Bengali cooking, which doesn't giver her much time for other things and doesn't let her integrate herself or her children into American society.

Azar Nafisi writes of her true intense identity crisis and trouble love for her country as she is forced to leave it after the Islamic Revolution. She starts writing in the 70s before the Revolution took place and continues to describe the lives women lead or did not lead as a result of the Revolution. She taught at the University of Tehran and quit when she was not allowed to teach how she wanted. She was extremely conflicted with either not offering her students her class and not succumbing to the regime's idea of an English class. She describes so painstakingly watching her female students being forced to veil themselves and their intellectual and emotional selves so as to keep men from being sexually tempted by their beauty. She laments over the lost female souls of her generation that made Iran 'human,' or gave it the decency of being a country by allowing the female sex to contribute to life itself.

She read American classics - Lolita and The Great Gatsby are two - in a covert reading group made up of only females from her classes. They met at her house and discussed banned topics such as sex and adultery and 'decadent' American dreams. They talked about how the female, or oppressed, was driven undergound but the power and the emotion was still there, lurking. They used Lolita and Nick in Gatsby to talk abuot the power and tragedy of the subtle hero combatting the relentless, imprisoning antagonist (Humbert Humbert in Lolita, or desire for wealth, in Gatsby).
Nafisi, as much as she hated abandoning Iran when she moved to the states, did not punish the West or even dislike it. Neither did Lahiri. Both women explained the intense personal freedom and lack of freedom that the West meant for them as victims of their own cultures.

"I went about my own way rejoicing, thinking how wonderful it is to be a woman and a writer at the end of the twentieth century." Nafisi.

Reading this quote gives me chills of excitement. I feel this kind of excitement when I walk around a town or city that I have spent a few days in while I am here in Asia. I feel capable and comfortable and excited. I feel a wave of accomplishment in this basic feeling of getting used to a place. I thank these women for what they've done and for putting it into words so well.
For the sake of freedom with Nafisi or circumstance and progression with Lahiri these women forsake all they know to be free, teach, write, and live. In doing so they never fully belong to either country. They create a new personal culture or identity for themselves - of sacrifice and lov for writing and freedom to write. They liberate women by giving them such an independent and unique voice and counter-voice to any overarching culture. As I walk around these foreign places as a white woman, trying to defy stereotypes of Western women and trying to respect women in their own countries, I feel a little confused myself. I wear what I want because I don't feel like I have to hide myself for the sake of others. But I also see the women here, working hard, walking along in their ankle length sarongs, long hair tied back, and I don't really know what I think! I just respect them for what they do and how they deal with Western women invading their space and looking so different, inevitably catching the attention or the gaze from a tuk-tuk driver or a passerby.
Anyway, these writers are only two who have made it easier for women like me to do what I am doing... so I want to thank them!

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