Sunday, 30 December 2012

Realism in Rawiya: Women of the Middle East tell their story

An image by Newsha Tavakolian from Realism in Rawiya

This just in from my friends at the New Art Exchange in Nottingham, and fully endorsed by me: Realism in Rawiya, a stunning new exhibition of photography from the Middle East. For more details about the range of work at this show, please click here. The launch is on Thursday 24 January 2013, 6pm-9pm at the New Art Exchange, 39-41 Gregory Boulevard, Nottingham NG7 6BE.

Realism in Rawiya presents the work of Rawiya – the first all-female photographic collective to emerge from the Middle East. Operating within what is still a predominantly male-dominated industry, and one fraught with politics, the group credits pooling resources and talents for their rapidly developing profile throughout the Middle Eastern region and beyond. Following on from their success at FORMAT photography festival in 2011, this exhibition marks Rawiya’s first major group exhibition in the UK.

Rawiya, meaning ‘she who tells a story’ or ‘storyteller’ in Arabic, presents the photographers Myriam Abdelaziz (currently in Cairo), Laura Boushnak (currently in Sarajevo), Tanya Habjouqa (currently in East Jerusalem), Tamara Abdul Hadi (currently in Beirut), Dalia Khamissy (currently in Beirut) and Newsha Tavakolian (currently in Tehran).

Each artist established their individual careers as photojournalists, working for news agencies and publications across the Arab world. By living and reporting in the region, the photographers gained an insider’s view of the extremities of these settings, whilst also observing how their reportage could become reframed in the international media’s final edit of events. This shared experience inspired the members to create their own platform, to present what they felt to be the wider political and social stories currently going unseen.

Presented as a collective body of work which bridges the worlds of documentary and art, this exhibition captures the vision of the Rawiya: a multitude of stories and first-hand accounts which challenge the status quo of racism and orientalism often presented in mainstream media.With a specific focus on gender and identity, the exhibition presents a thoughtful viewof a region in flux, balancing its contradictions while reflecting on social and political issues and stereotypes.

Text (c) New Art Exchange

Friday, 28 December 2012

Fighting for freedom and film: The Bristol Palestine Film Festival


Following requests, below is the talk I gave at the opening of the 2012 Bristol Palestine Film Festival.

We’re living in revolutionary and unstable times, full of promise and risk, energy, rupture and antagonism. Citizens across the Middle East are demanding the building blocks of fair and peaceful states: stability, freedom, justice; the integrity of government; working national structures and infrastructures; independent, reliable and efficient institutions; high quality national education and healthcare for all; liberation from reactionary dogma, doctrine and dictatorship;  opportunity, democracy, equality and liberty. These issues are no less pertinent here today as we celebrate the culture and resistance of Palestinians not only in Gaza and the West Bank but further out, in the Palestinian diaspora.

Yet revolutions are not defined by marches, protests, fighting and demonstrations alone. No revolution is truly powerful unless it is also creative, uplifting, collective and lasting; and the most profound revolutions affect every part of society. In this way, we use all of the potential of people – not only to resist and react, not only to challenge and confront, not only to defend and fight but also to create, to transform and to promise a better future for all. This year’s festival and its debates are more serious and urgent that ever before, because of recent political and military events [in Gaza]. However, the festival is not just about activism or political identity but about the great wealth of creative talent which deserves to be seen by the world and can in its turn shed light on life everywhere in the world. Great art has universal application even though it comes from a specific context.

At this year’s festival you will find a great variety of film work from and about Palestine. For those wishing to understand the reality of living in constant confrontation with the army, the separation wall and the cruelty and daily caprice of military occupation, combined with the concerted encroachment on and sabotage of historic and valuable olive groves, there are three gritty, important and unflinching films: The Colour of Olives (dir. Carolina Rivas and Daoud Sarhandi), 5 Broken Cameras (dir. Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi) and They Came in the Morning, directed by Leila Sansour. Yet Palestinian film is not defined by victimisation. In Yala to the Moon, directed by Suhel Nafar and Jacqueline Reem Salloum, a woman recreates her world using the gifts of her imagination. And Habibi, a wonderful film directed by Susan Youssef, is a Gaza-set story about forbidden love, defiance, graffiti and urban love poetry. It won the Best Arab Feature award at the 2011 8th Dubai International Film Festival and the honour was richly deserved. Other films in the festival tackle universal themes of human behaviour and of how we choose to react to events. In The Choice, directed by Yasin Erik Bognar, a father and daughter in Ramallah express grief in different ways. And in Sameh Zoabi’s comedy drama Man Without A Cellphone, a cocky young playboy has to grow up and step up in the fight against a nearby cellphone tower which might be leaking radiation.

These are just a sample of the diversity of work being produced by Palestinian directors or representing life in Palestine. Palestine is not just a ‘cause’ to be taken up, a site of suffering or a fashionable issue in which people show ‘tremendous human resilience, courage and spirit’ and are full of ‘warmth, humanity and hospitality’ despite their ‘plight’. Palestine is not a racial or cultural cliché to be explored and exploited, patronised and stereotyped, but a rich society of individuals who love everything from film, art, performance and literature to freedom, truth and justice ...which are all related and are for everyone, by everyone, without prejudice.




Sunday, 9 December 2012

Do not be a surrendered wife

This article was written for the November 2012 edition of United Arab Emirates Woman magazine, in which I was asked to argue against the idea that a woman should submit to her husband in all things. It was published in gratifyingly swish style - God I love glossy magazines.

There is no person more boring, or bored, than a stay-at-home wife in a wealthy family in a wealthy country. I would recommend such a role only for women who have small brains, small hopes, small potential and small personalities. But I know no such women. What I do know is that five thousand years of inequality, machismo, conditioning, intimidation and oppression have resulted in this strange, stunted creature, the surrendered wife who finds some kind of sick nobility in grovelling to a man. The wretch believes that her highest virtue lies in giving the greatest attention to the smallest things: the dustpan, the oven, the crib, the sink – and the contents of her husband’s underpants.

The surrendered wife deserves our sympathy. Without realising it, she has been subjected to a deep cultural, social and political lobotomy, internalised the propaganda that says she is naturally destined for wife-work according to her innate capacities and has emerged competent but wholly unrebellious. She is good at organising the home, judicious with her children’s upbringing, efficient about the family’s comings and goings, savagely chic when entertaining. But she is dependent for her survival – and that makes her submissive. If she doesn’t please her lord and master, she has nothing to fall back on. In order to survive, she must turn herself into a prostitute in the bedroom, a maid on the landing, a cook in the kitchen, a nanny in the nursery, a secretary at her husband’s desk, a housekeeper in the pantry and a hostess in the lounge. No matter what reflected status she may gain from her husband, at the core of it she herself is merely a geisha: there to serve. She exists to be exploited for her sexual, social and physical labour. As a dependent subordinate with no power of her own she can be bullied, hurt, disparaged or replaced whenever her owner chooses.

When a woman’s scope is reduced to the four walls of her home, her soul shrinks accordingly. Her frustration, boredom, bitterness and ennui are sublimated into obsession with petty surface details, extreme self-objectification, obsessive shopping, the bullying of staff and competitive house-maintenance. Because she is isolated, she doesn’t have the resources to fight the source of her oppression – that is, her husband and the entire macho ethos that keeps her in her place – and so she transfers her rage onto other women, satisfying her insecurity by making small-minded, shallow, sniping judgements. She begins to police other women’s behaviour, perhaps even her own daughters’ behaviour, punishing them if they do not conform. This is understandable and it’s what oppressed groups have always done. It is easier to lash out laterally than face the reality of oppression. It’s easy to submit to misogynist ‘tradition’ and shrink to fit the time-honoured roles it has decided are ours; it’s hard to break out and fight such entrenched views, especially when they are backed up by the threat of force and the possibility of extreme social disapproval, community rejection or other severe losses.

I believe that women deserve much more than a life of service. That is not a life, it is merely an existence in which all of our resources are used up for others’ benefit without being acknowledged or compensated, leading to any meaningful influence or wider power or ensuring that we are listened to respectfully as experts on everything from family life to economics to psychology to the proper care of growing youngsters and sometimes-vulnerable elders. The hardest and most profound free work we do – bringing up children, caring for elderly relatives, keeping communities together peacefully, all often in addition to other full-time careers – should be acknowledged, honoured and credited instead of being assumed, expected, unpaid, undervalued and taken advantage of.
             
Instead of women judging each other, or themselves, they should judge machismo. We deserve to go into the world to fulfil our potential without being leered at, opposed, judged, sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, beaten, controlled, followed or abused. We deserve to be treated equally as minds and personalities, not as objects. A woman has a basic human right to be seen as a person in her own right, an individual and not someone’s wife, someone’s daughter, someone’s mother, someone’s sister or someone’s neighbour, with all the labour and duties that entails. And when we come home unmolested from our studies, our work or visiting friends and family, we will do precisely half of the work required, and the man should do the other half. Since a man makes half a baby, he should do half the childcare. Since he makes half the dirt, he should do half the cleaning. And since he eats half the food, he should do half of all the kitchen work.

Men have killed each other in great wars, put other men on the moon, created vast architectural structures and tiny electronic circuits and constructed complex governments in which men help other men achieve wealth, status and power. (Women have done so too of course, but their names are erased from history and their contribution ignored, belittled, downgraded or sidelined.) Men have developed intricate religions, laws and courts in which, year after year, men who abuse women walk free using a variety of excuses, supported by the victim-blaming and apologism of the wider world. Are you telling me that Man, this great and complex creation, in all his genius and abusiveness and hypocrisy, his greatness and his pettiness, his qualities and flaws, is not capable of wiping a baby’s bottom?

Being a surrendered wife is dull, repetitive, unjust, unfulfilling and submissive. Obedient women don’t make history, they merely clean it and furnish it for men to inhabit, and are not credited afterwards. Never forget that surrender is the very last resort of great heroes, warriors and adventurers. It is easy to be a slave because you know what your fate is: to be a slave forever. But that is no life. Women are too interesting to be hidden from the world, too intelligent to be barred from contributing in full, too witty to be silenced in public, too dynamic to be held back from the outside world and too strong to be denied. 

Poetry for Peace, inspired by Rabindranath Tagore

Several months ago I was invited by Wasafiri Magazine of International Writing to contribute to a reading event at Asia House in London. Three writers of South Asian descent – me, poet DaljitNagra and writer and broadcaster Shyama Perera – were to read through an issue of the magazine which was dedicated to appraising and honouring the cultural contribution of radical sub-continental writers. We had to choose an article as inspiration and create an original work in response to it. A full feature on the event, including pictures, can be found here.

I chose a critical essay about the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore has long been a literary touchstone in my household and I thought I might create from his formal high Bengali a new interpretation of his thoughts, language and imagery. A straight translation wouldn’t work – indeed, even the Wasafiri essay conceded that Tagore was rendered more acutely and subtly in French than English. I wanted instead to distil his essence and compose some new work that was totally Tagore and yet also completely, freshly, creatively myself.

There was one missing link: my mother, a writer and academic. We took down our many Bengali volumes of Tagore and she read some pieces aloud to me, just a few lines, to get the flavour. I found many verses that piqued my interest, particularly the songs from the Gitobitan, the Collection of Songs, which was published in India in 1931. The two pieces I chose to work on come from the section of the collection called Shodesh, translated as Homeland, which contains songs pertaining to India’s dignity, unity, strength and patriotic zeal in the fight against British rulership and exploitation.

I understand and can speak Bengali but can’t read or write it, to my regret. My mother read out the two short songs and we carefully discussed the meaning and rhythm of each line. Then she created a literal word-for-word translation, which I could not have done without and took strong inspiration from in crafting my own pieces. I gave them my own voice, my own words, ideas, rhythm, syntax and form, and I titled them. But their hearts are Tagore’s. The first piece I offer is inspired by a song written in 1905, while the second occurs much later in the original selection and cannot be dated.

Despite the specificity of their first origins, to me the songs are about the struggle for dignity, self-determination and emancipation anywhere, in all situations, not just at a national or outwardly political level. They affirm the power of the individual, they honour the bravery of independent action and acknowledge the risks of speaking out and standing alone. They also pay sad tribute to the way oppressive situations warp and brutalise everyone in them including the perpetrators. The songs are, above all, full of hope for change and faith in people to make that change, to right wrongs, to correct a crooked path, to agitate, to be proud, to be brave, to save, to redeem and to transform.

The Asia House event was a wonderful mixture of Daljit Nagra’s inventiveness, hilarity and wonderful performing skills, Shyama Perera’s intelligence, insight, rigour and candour and my nerves.  I think – I hope – I wrote and read the poems well and I had also hoped that my work wouldn’t disappear without a trace. As serendipity would have it, a few weeks later I received the following message:

We are writing to you and other distinguished figures with strong connections to South Asia, from Iran to Burma, and Tibet to the Maldives, to seek your help in our literary project.
We’re calling the project ‘Poetry for Peace’, a title that can be interpreted in various ways: peace between nations, between communities or between individuals, or peace within oneself.
We will donate 20% of the royalties from the sale of the anthology to Amnesty International and the remainder will help support the Rukhla Project, an active rural development project in Himachal Pradesh, India. The overall aim is to help foster initiatives that support and develop the local community and economy, including working with village schools, eco-volunteering, establishing links with educational institutions within India and abroad (including Japan), and so on. At the moment, the farm directly supports three families, including seven children. This figure is expected to rise as the project develops. There are plans to develop a cottage industry in the short term, producing apple vinegars, cheeses, and other artisan quality products using local materials and expertise. The buildings are being upgraded to accommodate guests, including trekkers, artists, poets, musicians and writers, as one of the aims is to develop it as a visitor centre where people can find their own inner peace and/or explore the forests and mountains with a local guide.

We hope that by sharing our love of words, we can add an idealistic drop to the pool of common good – a small reminder that we are one human race, with so much more uniting than dividing us: a common heritage, a common future, one common life.

I knew I couldn’t let it pass and have submitted the poems to the anthology, along with some of this introduction.

Tagore died in 1941. The national Indian liberty he had dreamed into being in his literature came to pass just a few years later, in 1947. As I write, the world is full of other freedom struggles against inequality, injustice, exploitation and prejudice. I hope that readers engaged in that long and righteous fight are inspired by my words, however flawed, as I was inspired by Tagore’s.




If there be no answer

If there be no answer, continue alone.
At the crossroads, on the high path, should they leave you,
On the dense road, at the tough pass, should they flee,
Should they turn their faces and offer no words,
Then read in secret the inward story
And walk the thorny road on your bloodied feet.
If there should be no lantern light, nor hearth, nor flame,
Then do what others cannot:

Go to the storm
Pluck out a rib
Light it with thunder
And burn alone.



 The victory banner

The tighter the binding, the looser it grows,
Our liberty escapes it, as light as a breath.
The trickier the knot, the rougher the rope,
Our freedom evades it, as subtle as scent.
The angrier they stare, bloodshot and stricken,
So softly we gaze, as open as children.

Inwardly we win, though outwardly submit,
The more vividly we dream, the more real is it.
The louder they shout, we grow more awake.
What’s rent by their hand, we privately remake.

If they strike, they hit water, waves rippling like silk.
If they stamp, they hit water, waves twisting like silk
If they kick, they hit water, waves flowing like silk -
The silk of their banner,
Torn as they tear.


©Bidisha, 2012

He thinks you’re scum but he fancies you, you’re humiliated but you fancy him: the Darcy dilemma in Pride and Prejudice


Mr Darcy is the ultimate punisher. Icily condescending or outright brusque, he is eloquent only when putting others down. Noticed immediately as “fine, tall... handsome… noble,”  at a dance, it becomes obvious that he is not just lean but mean too. Within the elegantly proportioned space of one Austenian sentence after his arrival, “his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity.”

For all his apparent loftiness Darcy has been perfectly happy in the company of his class peers but mental inferiors: Bingley the nice but dim best friend, braying Mr Hurst and the mean, shallow Bingley sisters.

When he meets his intellectual equal, Elizabeth Bennet, the cruel machinery of the novel means that it is she who is constantly humbled and humiliated, not him. Darcy’s scathing presumptions about the Bennets are almost completely correct. His one mistake is to underestimate Jane’s feelings for Bingley. But his assessment of Mrs Bennet’s vulgarity and avarice, his lack of surprise at not one but two sisters’ susceptibility to Wickham’s wiles and his assumption of Mr Bennet’s uselessness are proven right. Lizzy must face the wretched truth of all this; the worst Darcy must do is admit that he fancies someone whose family are inferior in both class and etiquette, apologise to Bingley for not mentioning that Jane was in town and wonder whether he should have told people about Wickham’s true nature.

Darcy’s manner changes somewhat after he is told off by Lizzy following his proposal. But his wealth and power protect him from any greater catharsis and weight the narrative entirely in his favour. That is not to say, however, that any reader with a drop of lifeblood in her would fail to be moved by one of the sexiest and most perfect moments in literature, when the two bump into each other at Pemberley: “Their eyes instantly met, and the cheeks of each were overspread with the deepest blush. He absolutely started, and for a moment seemed immovable from surprise.”

But we know what happens immediately after that: Lydia’s ridiculous and perilous Wickham fling, which embarrasses everyone but herself and her mother in its crudeness. Darcy is the one who makes everything right; Lizzy gets no heroic moment. At the end of the book the Bennets are even less worthy of Darcy than they were at the start, for now he has the moral advantage as well as the monetary one. Nothing Lizzy can do in private will ever repay what he has done in rescuing the family from public humiliation.

The message of Pride and Prejudice is not that love conquers all but that a rich man can buy his way out of any pickle, that tricksters like Wickham always land on their feet and that women are nothing more than collateral in the dealings of worldly men. Such is the genius of Austen that long after the novel is over, one wonders whether Lizzy goes on to teach Darcy the power of laughter or whether he spends his life freezing her out over the breakfast table.


This article was originally commissioned by Intelligent Life magazine to celebrate the upcoming  200th publication anniversary of Pride and Prejudice in 2013.

Even the rich suffer: Swimming Home by Deborah Levy


It’s wonderful watching the toxic posh get their comeuppance. Deborah Levy’s novel Swimming Home was shortlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize and is a masterwork of precision malice, a poisoned cocktail of high bourgeoisie, low motives, brittle manners and mean assumptions.

Swimming Home takes a series of cultural clichés and class, sex and national stereotypes and leaves them to fester in the summer sun until all the toxic matter oozes out. Nobody deserves this literary karma more than Levy’s cast of characters: an arrogant and sleazy poet, a desperately gauche pubescent daughter in a clangingly symbolic cherry print bikini, a bickering couple who own a boho antiques shop and a passive aggressive war reporter who’s traumatised from witnessing other people’s suffering. And there is no more apt place for them to confront their own and each other’s whiny demons than the kind of shabby chic villa you find littering the hills of Tuscany and the groves of Provence, full of braying British foodies.   

Swimming Home is set in a Mediterranean village of international crapsters, pretentious bohemians, uptight Eurochic and hateful and hate-filled locals. All are provincial and parochial clichés and the general plot of the novel is a cliché too: a group of frenemies renting a holiday home, whose dynamics are disrupted by the arrival of a beautiful young woman of mysterious motive. Anyone who’s watched Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty or Ozon’s Swimming Pool will recognise this set-up instantly. And anyone who’s been to a place like that, on a holiday like that, with people like that, will know that clichés are sometimes true.

Levy is brilliant at taking this much-used template and examining its self-conscious constructions and falsities. All of the older characters are quite deliberately enacting roles, both as individuals and as parts of the group. Privately, they chafe against these fake and thin identities, wondering how they have become trapped inside them. They are appalled at how their past, immense but unspeakable, has ossified around them. Publicly, they express their discomfort through vicious power-plays, mental battles, verbal barbs over the dinner table, insults disguised as jokes, egotistical bluster and brittle, small, symbolic acts of unwillingness or resistance.

This collection of unlikeables and insufferables thoroughly deserves to be drawn into some summertime mind-games. Enter Kitty Finch, who is also at the villa due to an apparent mix-up in rental dates. Kitty is every poor-little-lost-girl cliché you can think of: skinny, sexy, tough-but-vulnerable, dim yet scheming, crackers, manipulative, deceitful, hot but demonic. Even her name is revoltingly, self-consciously fake and minor: a little scratchy cat and a flighty little bird. Through her, the reader can see every damaged ingénue of page and screen, yet in Levy’s expert hands this interloper is shot through with terrible fragility and a sinister edge. Kitty Finch is a good old-fashioned man-worshipper, a grovelling groupie and a coquette who pretends not to be.

I won’t reveal how the poison plays out once everyone’s in place. That would blunt the cold sharp steel of Levy’s story and undercut the effect of its beautiful language. There is one more thing to point out, and it shows Levy’s brilliance at finding a false idea and stabbing it: the trope of a beautiful young woman arriving to disrupt the social and sexual dynamics of a bunch of villa-renting olive-eaters with her untrammelled foxy moxy voodoo lady-mojo is itself a literary delusion. In reality, gamine young women do not have any sexual power, do not wield decisive influence in psychological games, do not and cannot manipulate other people and do not have events centring around them. They are, instead, treated as bimbos and objects: leered at, harassed, exploited, groomed, pimped, used, abused, raped, objectified and then passed off as teases, liars, hysterics, attention-seekers or mad when they speak up. Beauty and sexiness in very young women seem powerful but are not; instead of being wily minxes, these girls are disempowered, isolated and insecure. They have no power to compel, and are victims. Levy smartly, lightly layers all of these images into her construction of Kitty, whose grovelling submissiveness towards the poet is matched only by his sleazy, pathetic susceptibility.

All these nasty people get exactly what they deserve and Levy delivers them to their fates in frozen, perfect, precise prose. Swimming Home is a brilliant novel about awful people; an absorbing narrative about the self-absorbed, whose pain never loses its tinge of pretension.



Swimming Home by Deborah Levy is published by And Other Stories, a small and brilliant press producing gorgeous contemporary books by some of the world most gifted thinkers. And Other Stories, if you're reading this, I would love to make some gorgeous volume with you.


Reflecting badly on horror: Dolly by Susan Hill


Spoiler alert: contains plot hints.

Does anyone do it better than Susan Hill? Give her a remote house, a graveyard, an attic with an iron-framed bed, some bad weather, circling birds and a childless mother or a motherless child and she’ll give you three hundred pages of expert ghastliness. Dead or ghostlike children, live or lifelike dolls, mirrors that reveal a true face, unjustly buried things trying to get out, unfairly banished things trying to get in, cots and rocking chairs that rock themselves, dead people who’ve lost something returning to look for it… we know what world we’re in.

Hill’s versatility as a literary novelist is well-known but there is a special, chilly pocket of appreciation reserved for her ghost stories The Man in the Picture, The Small Hand, The Mist in the Mirror and perhaps the most famous of all, The Woman in Black, which is onstage and onscreen as well as on the page.

Here’s an indiscreet anecdote from a namedropping writer colleague: “I’m friends with Susan Hill. If you’re worried about money, get a play on. The Woman in Black’s been showing for ever and Susan was telling me it makes so much money she doesn’t know what to do with it.”

Dolly is a long short story, beautifully presented as a black and green pocket hardback by Profile books. It performs the same clever Halloween trick as Hill’s other works, taking all the staples of historic horror and ghost genres and delivering something that is completely predictable, symmetrical and seemingly obvious. Yet it is Hill’s storytelling skill itself that makes these stories seem like they’ve been around forever and are part of some deep national dread.  

Here’s a comment from another colleague, a brilliant writer to whom I was praising Dolly but wondering why we need an old house and no Net for a proper horror story: 
“We need to strip away the modern for true horror because technology isn’t frightening,” she said.
“A literary editor once said to me, ‘No-one wants to read about people texting,’” I said.
“Well – screens might be frightening, people climbing out of them or going into them.”
“Like that Japanese film, The Ring.” 
“But what’s really frightening is people.”
“Or things behaving like people, or bad people pretending to be good people and getting away with it. Or wearing a mask in full view. Have you read the Freud essay, The Truth of Masks? It’s about how disguises are real. We choose the disguise that we think hides us, but we subconsciously choose the thing that reveals our true face.”
“…Or people pretending to be people you know. I once received a lovely letter from a young reader – I write for children – and she told me one of her most horrible dreams. She told me there was someone in her room, and she thought it was her mother. It looked like her mother. And she got close to it and suddenly it said, ‘I’m not your mother.’ And then, the girl wrote, ‘She took me to her cold dark nest.’ Isn’t that the phrase? ‘Cold dark nest.’ She was a writer’s daughter of course, her mother’s a writer, it starts so young.”

In Dolly, two children go to stay at an old house inhabited by a sullen housekeeper and a well-meaning but distant aunt. One child is a diffident and uninteresting little boy, who narrates the story as a grown-up. The other is a fiery, spoilt, unhappy girl whose flighty, frivolous (etc) mother has abandoned her. This girl, Leonora, wants a doll for her birthday. She doesn’t get the one she wants, expresses her rage in a jarringly ugly and ungrateful manner, and then…. There are no thrills or spills with Dolly, merely a momentary act of crude brattishness which is quickly forgotten by the young perpetrator but punished cruelly for decades afterwards by …well… and revealed with implacable, predictable (but no less affecting) calmness.

Dolly is about consequences, about the real monster not being the person or thing you thought it was, about the punishment being much greater than the crime and unfairly and disproportionately affecting many more people than just the perpetrator. It’s about the suffering of innocents and sometimes their revenge. The suffering comes out in twos: there are the two original children, each of whom has a daughter, and there are not one but two dolls, and there may be two or more perpetrators, and two of them might be the dolls – or maybe the dolls are merely reflecting the malice of Fate or the bitterness and pique of a grown adult who’s been hurt – or maybe it’s a very hard lesson that little girls shouldn’t misbehave….

At once frozen and hokey, underpowered yet overbaked, perverse yet obvious, smooth and inexorable, it’s also horribly satisfying. Yet the underlying (and I am sure, subconscious) politics of the story leave a bad impression. Though narrated by a male character, the story is about the nastiness, pettiness, malice and punishing of females, who are the perpetrators of most of the bad events in the book, but for one very significant act at the beginning; and the victims of this female malice are all very young girls themselves, almost babies. The flighty mother who abandons Leonora, the shrewd housekeeper who diagnoses Leonora on sight as evil – “She had looked into Leonora’s eyes when she had first arrived, and seen the devil there”, Leonora the malicious child herself, the childless aunt who seems kind but may not be, the changing female dolls who cause or mimic the suffering of the little girls and grow ugly in their boxes like “a wizened old woman, a crone” in one case and “no longer a beauty… a pariah” in another. The worst thing that is said of Leonora is that “she is too like her mother” – a bad girl taking after a bad woman – and the insult is delivered by another woman, the aunt, Leonora’s mother’s own sister. We are not only in an Edwardian physical setting but also its psychology: whether real or mannequins, young or old, absent or present, females are sad, mad, bad, petty, shrill, vicious, shrewish, irresponsible, occult, corrupt and corrupting.

If your desire to revel in the nastiness of Woman is satisfied and you want some racial and national stereotypes as a side dish then look no further than the Eastern European city the narrator visits as an adult. The medieval Old Town is in the middle, surrounded by hastily over-developed malls and motorways, the building work halted following a people’s revolution and the exile of the state leader. In the Old Town is… you can finish this sentence for me… a little old toy shop, and in the little old toy shop is a little old toy-restorer… “a very small old man” with an inscrutable manner and “a jeweller’s glass screwed into one eye”, from a Quality Street advert at Christmas, who seems to know exactly what the narrator is looking for.

If the Grimm climate of Eastern European cultural clichés is too chilly for you then let’s go to India – that palace of clichés! - with the narrator and his family, to a region which Hill does not even bother to give a name to, instead sketching it with a series of offhand, inexact, thrown-out and embarrassingly crude and ignorant pejoratives: “heat and humidity…extreme poverty” amongst “women and their children in a remote village, where there were no medical facilities and where clothes and people were washed in the great river that flowed through the area.” Tiny hint: there is no such thing as a remote village on the banks of a great river. If there’s a great river, it’s not a remote village but has the provision for irrigation for centuries of agriculture and therefore crops, food, flora and fauna; a prime position along an established transport route; a longstanding and probably classic trade route and the possibility of (to-be-purified) drinking water. Another hint: If you do not know a country, culture or people well, particularly one that was a former colony and subject to any number of racist clichés and Orientalist justifications, don’t patronise it with uneducated generalisations. Write about something you know and respect instead. Want more, reader? How about “terrible diseases… ravage this beautiful country. Poor sanitation, contaminated water, easy spread of infection…” easy and glib, just like that.

Dolly is a smoothly gut-churning story from one of England’s greatest living writers. From its lonely starting point it soon widens into an exploration of the depth and ineffability of curses. However, it leaves a bitter taste as much for its racial stereotypes and tinge of sexual slander as its sensational storytelling and core of fatalistic horror.

Dolly by Susan Hill is published by ProfileBooks.


Saturday, 1 December 2012

Emotional violence and social power

This piece was edited in July 2014 with identifying details altered following a terrifying legal threat, easily the most nasty and frightening document I've ever received. The threat is marked 'not for publication' but any known contact who wants to see it can email me.

In 2009 I was attacked.

No, that’s not quite right.

I survived an abusive relationship.

No. That's still not it.

I was set up, groomed, emotionally manipulated, sexually exploited and intricately played by an industry peer.

“It’s so horrible what happened to you,” said a friend to me at lunch.
“Why, what happened?” asked a new acquaintance.
         Ten second pause.
“I was tricked.”
         The most humiliating sentence I've ever spoken in my life. I had found out, by that point, that the perpetrator did to me, he did to many other women, some of them in parallel with me.

A very close friend of mine was played for over a year, her body used, her emotions exploited, her face lied to by her partner. She described it later as “emotional violence.” I watched, over the following six years, as her trust, strength and happiness were replaced with something wired and watchful. It’s called cheating not because specific restrictions have been broken but because the lover has been cheated out of their faith in the world, their trust, their sense of good judgement and their peace of mind. In time, she rebuilt herself. But she lost the career that she loved: she had been a gifted film-maker working in equal partnership with her ex, in the company they created. When the revelation came it was too humiliating to go to meetings, knowing that everyone knew. There was a particular look people had - of revolting open-eyed pity for her, but no censure for him. Seeing that 'liberal' industry for the protection racket that it really was poisoned her career. She was punished for being a victim and he was rewarded for being a perpetrator. The perks and job offers went to him and she was frozen out. Her ex’s career flourished. He is now rich, famous, thriving, happy and busy. She left the country and lost everything.

The phrase “emotional violence” stayed with me. At the time I thought she was talking out of her immediate devastation, but I now understand. The pain is physical. For a year after my discovery of the perpetrator's real character my skin crawled night and day, I felt nauseous, food tasted like ashes, my muscles were tense and, if I heard the perpetrator being praised as an unbelievably lovely, decent and gentle guy (as I do often), my heart pounded and felt as though a metal vice was squeezing it, I went hot and cold, then started sweating, shuddering and retching. I realise now that these are trauma responses. I didn’t know there would be a feverish restlessness and that my skin would feel as if it was being cut across the surface. I remember standing in the shower, feeling my back burning, certain that it was running with blood, slashed in a diamond pattern. I accepted every invitation, every work offer no matter how pointless and exhausting, because whenever I was alone, my skin crawled in one piece.

After that I felt numb and heavy for a year, as if my limbs were made of lead. I only wanted to be alone. My skin crawled when I was with people. And then it was all just cold, and grave, and realistic, and even. There were long term physical effects: my hair thinned and my immune system suffered. I see clearly now. I see him thrive. I see that I have fallen. The fear has calcified, the horror deepened, the wariness soured into cynicism.

“I’d say it took ten years to get over.” “After six weeks, when I phoned to check she wasn’t dead, she said, ‘I’ll live. Just.’” “I’d say it took…five years?... to feel like myself again. It’s just the thought that I didn’t even figure in his thoughts. What it would do to me…” “Even now, five years on, I wonder if it’s something I did.” “Don’t be embarrassed. I still talk and think about what happened to me, five years later.” These are all quotes from women I know, all strong, all successful, all different, with different lives and personalities, none of them stupid or naïve.

My own quote was, “It’s like taking a life.”

A colleague of mine cheated on his pregnant wife but was described as “a dear” by a female colleague when I, instinctively rattled by his vibe, privately asked her if he was “a good guy” or not. Later he helped his own image by talking about how much he loves his baby; if a woman did that in the workplace she’d be dismissed as a lightweight who couldn’t keep her mind on her job. Indeed, at a NUJ conference last year one woman recounted how a female colleague had been slandered when she answered a family emergency call: “They said, ‘That’s a woman who should be producing a programme, not dealing with her kid.’’” Yet a male colleague in the same situation was cooed over: “They kept saying, ‘He’s such a great dad.’”

There are three poets: one is O, an erudite, high culture young Turk type, a kind of young fogey, short, wordy, with pretensions to greatness. The second is L, a wily Londoner, loose and warm and friendly, a little buzzed, streety and voluble. The third is S, a salt of the earth type, accessible and germane, frank in manner (though not actually honest, obviously), who, like all philanderers, writes marvellous odes to his wife. There was the colleague whose mistreatment of women was so well-known that once, when reception called and said there was a courier downstairs with a package, a couple of my male colleagues laughed and said, "It's a lawyer with a briefcase full of paternity suits." Not knowing this, I complained to this same guy during a friendly conversation about one of the poets, who had repeatedly betrayed and used a friend of mine (and all the women he betrayed and used alongside her) for years. The guy laughed immediately in easy dismissal. "O? O's a fuckin' lovely guy."

From the other side of the glass ceiling I watch them collect all the perks the world has to give. I watch them act craftily to gain the assistance of women and also help and excuse and cover for other men. I see women grovel and defer. There is the writer and film-maker who, again (spotting a theme?) has helped his own career through writing about his family life, as though he’s some hapless dad just bumbling along delightedly in the realm of the women and the babies. He has been cheating on his wife since their son was little. There is the publishing guy who went straight up to a beautiful friend of mine at a reading and said the following: “Hello! I’m Jonty Grope, my wife lives in the country, my mistress lives in London. Do you want to be mistress number two?” Ten years later he contacted me for a work project and I sat through the meeting, the bile rising in my throat, as he sat with his shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest and a load of hairy uncooked-pastry skin oozing out and talked about his ‘fantastic’ wife, who always looks as miserable as shit whenever I see her. Oh, and his ‘great’ daughter too, of course. Sometime between those two days he sacked an incredibly competent friend, who had been rising steadily in his company, when she was on maternity leave.

Everyone knows about this guy; nobody does anything. If we all withdrew, he would have no career and he would rightly be reduced to nothing – since he has treated his wife, daughter and countless other women as nothing. But he flourishes. He called a meeting at which were present two close personal friends of his: one of the cheating poets I mentioned above, and a broadcaster who has had a sexual harassment case proven against him and whose wife left him after he betrayed her – although, thinking back, I realise that when he was actively betraying her I met him and he made the entire room look at him lovingly, as if he was a good man, as he described the birth of his daughter: “I didn’t even care what happened to the baby, I just couldn’t stand to see my wife in that much pain.” Well – you’d know about inflicting pain, right? Being formally reprimanded for sexual harassment and being divorced for betraying a woman has not taught this man any respect for women. I was speaking on a panel with him at a major cultural venue. I walked in and he said, "Love the gloves! Can I - ooh - can I just smell one?" We were being briefed by the chair of the panel, an extremely eminent woman, and halfway through he interrupted, "Now, Jill, don't pretend you don't want us to notice you've had a haircut. Very sexy." She took a deep unsmiling breath, paused for a few seconds looking flatly, then continued with what she'd been saying. He didn't notice or care. When I complained about the man to a colleague later they said, "Believe me, that's the very least of what Jill's had to put up with." This sexual harassment, belittlement, patronage, objectification and derailing of women, often by so-called 'liberal' men is completely endemic.

Now that the scales have dropped from my eyes I’ve been horrified by the hypocrisy and protectionism which surrounds these people. They are abusive men, nothing more, acting with forethought, secrecy, control, coldness and multiple simultaneous victims. Their victims are women, not men. The fact that the perpetrators pretend, at the same time, to be feminists, in order to get close to and then harm the women whose destruction will give them the greatest kick, compounds the unspeakable nastiness of their misogyny. Meanwhile, the misogyny of the beholders runs so deep that they just don’t care how much these men abuse, because their women victims are not human, it seems. Women are not even animals, for if any of these men had been witnessed mistreating a dog or a cat, people would be appalled. I have sat back in astonishment as ‘nice guys’ easily, happily praise and defend abusive men, in comically identical language. In fact I have never heard any man describe another man as 'wonderful' except when the second man was abusive towards women.

Chap: “George Best, what a wonderful, wonderful footballer. My father [who was a doctor] treated him, you know.”
Me: “For alcoholism, or for wifebeating?”
Chap (reddening): “Oh – for alcoholism.”

About V S Naipaul, who I witnessed at a book reading openly jeering at any woman who asked a question about his work, a male colleague said, “Yes, he was a rotter to women wasn’t he but my God, what wonderful, wonderful books.”

Even when I have outed abusers to colleagues, the colleagues do not then refuse to work with the abusers. Yet these men and women would, I am sure, would hate to be treated in the way I have described. Meanwhile, the gratuitous slandering of innocent women is endemic in public life and general conversation, as is the silencing, punishing, trashing, disbelieving and blaming of women victims who dare to speak out about what we have survived.

The effects go far beyond the incident and are enmeshed in a wider culture which does not punish this mistreatment but excuses and even rewards it, while attacking victims. When I have confronted abusers myself they have laughed in my face because they know that their abuse is not only protected but rewarded. It was devastating to learn, through experience, the ubiquity and connectedness of professional discrimination, personal abuse and cultural excusal, of perpetrators covering for each other and assisting each other’s careers. These men don't "love" women, as abusers forgivingly say of themselves. They hate us. If you spend years playing women, coercing women, tricking women, setting women up, using women's bodies, tricking women, duping women, lying to women, exulting in women's obliviousness, you are an abusive man.

There is the individual who perpetrated against me - let's call him Jekyll - whose entire public persona is built on his decency, his fairness, his niceness, his strength, his beauty, his activism, his progressive politics and his integrity. Because of you, Jekyll, I can no longer say I have never been in an abusive relationship, although the word 'relationship' makes my stomach turn as it hints at some kind of dynamic or mutuality instead of a man targeting and victimising a stranger. I have been happily and naturally celibate nearly all my life, for 10 years before 2009 and ever since. I do not flirt, date, tease, pass messages, go back and forth or play sexual games with anyone, ever. This was not some romance but a drive-by shooting, a hit and run, a hard lesson taught to a stranger, a knifing by a passer-by. I told my mother about you and showed her the thousands of words of sly texts, endless emails and carefully crafted handwritten letters, including the classic line, "You ask if I am playing you. No defensiveness intended, but how would that work exactly?" Jekyll, it would work by teasing, coercion, compulsive and pathological lying, mercenary professional exploitation, manipulative mental games, sexual exploitation, emotional exploitation, hypocrisy, control, sadism, repeated and sustained deception. My mother, a writer and academic, said, "He created a fantasy persona for himself: the little boy lost. He uses it to trick women. And he targets the clever ones. He uses his looks to deceive women - not a good look but a hurt, vulnerable look. I used to think there was something more to it with him but now I think he's just a piece of rubbish."

I could never look him in the eye again. That was the most painful thing – the speed with which the person I most wanted to see became the person I least wanted to see, the one I dreaded seeing, the one whose name made me feel physically sick. I am braced in fear at all times. When I walk down a street or enter a party I scan it to check he's not there. Once I worked my way down through all the various layers of deceit - the shifting storylines, fudges, feints, conditions and tales a liar has to tell to keep themselves steady on wobbly ground - there was nothing left. Everything he did was part of the game, step by careful step, move by move: the first email, the first letter, the first gift, all came from him. Done with expert ease. It is dizzying to contemplate the massive distance between that beautiful and intelligent face and the incredible sadism behind it. How could anyone do that - be so abusive yet so careful, so nasty yet so systematic? And how is it that apart from some surface static electricity, there was no consequence in the outer world? He flourished. Women and men flocked to serve and enable him. Everything was given to him and, typically, he took everything he could use.

There is the appalling knowledge that he is doing it to many other women simultaneously and I cannot warn them because no-one believes me. There is the horror of knowing that, across months and years, a person can create and then enjoy pain in other human beings, for fun. There is the steepness of his hypocrisy and the psychosis of his pretence, in which the mask doesn't slip for one moment. Serial killer by night, pillar of the community by day.

When I am triggered by the mention or image of the man, which is frequent as he is an industry peer, the physical reaction is immediate. To describe it literally and in order: I feel I have been stabbed in the heart with something thin like a knitting needle; a sour poisons slip down my throat into my stomach and curdles there; a sizzling shock spreads from my heart through my veins, running out in thin lines until it reaches the surface of my skin and burns; the blood drains from my face and my lips go numb; I begin to pant and feel light-headed; my stomach turns over and I retch; finally, heat and adrenalin rush to my face and I cry thick tears, shaking with horror.

The obscenity resides here: how can he laugh, talk, joke and socialise with such clear-eyed cheerfulness? How can he deceive, plan, use, enjoy? How can he pretend to be a good person? How could he set up, mentally eviscerate, sexually exploit and deceive so many victims and make it look like they were mad when they sensed something was wrong? How could he groom and use women, pretend to cherish us, pretend to feel it mutually, use it as a smokescreen as he mistreated us, then throw it back in our face?

Jekyll, you ....I can barely write this... you pretended to be shy, unworldly, innocent, hesitant, awed and delighted. And while you did that to me, you did it to many other women simultaneously. You wrote that when I gave you compliments, you read them "with a kind of stuttering shy delight." You wrote that it was "life-changing, when that door opened." "Your worst fears about me are not true." You said, "I have never, in my life, so enjoyed waking up with someone." "I like how I am with you. I play when I'm with you. I never usually play." "I love that you notice me - I love that you notice things about me." "The way you kiss me..." "I'm not a sadist, I'm not a sociopath. I'm not a sadist, I'm not a sociopath." You texted, "Just got your letter [in reply to mine]. I cannot even believe what you are. Brace for comeback." "Oh my sweet thing, oh my gorgeous girl." "Well for a start you're heart-freezingly, heart-killingly beautiful." "The taste of you...." "I crackle in your company." "I love your crackling energy. And I love that you've read books and have opinions on things." "I'm trying not to get obsessed with you." "I can't believe you asked me what colour your eyes are! Tch. I see your eyes everywhere." "I know I have been charged with finding you a nickname but I just keep repeating your real name to myself, over and over." "I feel filled up with you. You fill me up, Bidisha." "Have a good day, my taut-skinned doe." "I have been going around my room smelling all the places you've been. I caught myself breathing through the T-shirt you wore like a diver breathing through a regulator. I even considered tying it up in a plastic bag to preserve the smell." "I'm sorry, I'm smitten. I'm gone on you."

I participated, responded, initiated, invited, answered, with absolutely equal ardour, but for one thing: I meant what I said, and you did not. You were lying, but I was not. You were using me, but I was not using you. You played a game, but I did not. You know me, but I do not know you. You are a stranger. When I think about how I behaved with you, with such open-eyed delight and interest, when I think about what I wrote to you - "It's as though Rodin and Michelangelo fought to make you" - the things I said, the pet names, the gifts, the endearments which were wholly meant, and how you acted, as if with with absolute reciprocity, I am corroded by coarse inner humiliation and regret.

When I finally confessed to a colleague and close friend about what you did she blanched, her eyes rolled and she revealed that this was your method with all the women you trick and use simultaneously, and has been forever, including to a close friend of hers who had been "distraught" and whom she had supported through the "fallout". How crushing to know that your satisfaction came from setting up the trick, using my body, playing with my feelings and then seeing how tormented I was, knowing instinctively that something was wrong, while you gazed at me in gentle puzzlement, blinking. How crushing to learn years later that this is what you were doing and are still doing, not just with me but with countless other women. Because of your sadism, Jekyll, I fear you. Because of your hypocrisy and impunity, I fear you. Because of your strength, I fear you. Because you target, use and harm women, I fear you. Because you are such a good actor, I fear you. Because you pretend to be a feminist when you are a man who hurts women, I fear you. How easily you abuse. How assiduously you take. How smoothly you lie. You wanted to deceive, sexually exploit, professionally use, emotionally eviscerate, mislead, sabotage and betray women, and you did. You thought you would be assisted and protected by countless other men and your own self-hating groupies, and you are.

I do not understand. Surely it takes more effort to mistreat women than to be a decent human being? Surely it does not feel good to behave this way? How can it be that everything you have claimed about yourself is a lie, everything you do is part of a gigantic game and every way you present yourself is a front to facilitate your mistreatment of women? You know how to give feminist quotes and say all the right things about women's rights. You know exactly what to do to advance yourself publicly, how to hurt women privately and make sure nobody finds out and that victims are silenced through legal threat. For a devastating article on this issue, by Meghan Murphy - so close to my own experience that I was chilled to read it - please look here.

It's funny. I used to pride myself on my shrewdness but now I realise how naive I am, how stupidly trusting, how innocently attackable - how easy to knock down and infect with fear. I have written about these issues throughout my career yet when it happens inside the circle of my own life, I am devastated. Jekyll, I think that you yourself would not like to be harmed, then threatened years later when you speak out. Why do that to women, while talking softly, blinking gently, standing diffidently and pretending that you are a principled and progressive thinker, a supportive family member, a role model of integrity, a stalwart friend, a doting partner? [There is an amazing, disturbing article about 'feminist' and 'progressive' men who abuse women here.]

"How did he get away with it?" I asked my mother. "He's cleverer than you, in that regard," she said sadly, "there is such a thing as the perfect murder." And I recall, when I found out what you were, you jeered at me and snarled, "You know nothing about me, my sex life, what I do." Yes, I realise that now. And I realised, when you said, "I never told you I loved you. I was very careful about that. I said I adored you - but that's not love," that I had been set up. And I realised it too when you said, "It's none of your business what I do with my dick."

Jekyll, I am tormented by the horror of what you did to me - its specificity and its malice - and to the others, and what you continue to do. In the years of the aftermath I have confided in too many women who then paled and told me that you had done the same to them, or to a close friend, or colleague. I have learned, with a sickness I cannot put into words, that your mistreatment is not just serial but simultaneous: there is a mass, a morass, a mess of emotional abuse.

I feel humiliated, yet I have done nothing wrong. I believe that I deserve to be treated well, as I treat others and indeed as I treated you. I do not co-betray other women or stand by while other women are mistreated. I have never been abusive to anyone in any way for any reason. And I don't cover for perpetrators, or practice diplomacy with them, or speak well of them as though their mistreatment of women is somehow separate from the rest of their activities, nor do I help their careers - although I helped yours, Jekyll, and you took this help and used it for yourself.

Jekyll, do you realise that where sexual attention is procured under false pretences, consent cannot be freely given? I would never choose to touch the person you really are. Know that I would rather be punched in the face once than chosen out of a crowd then used and destroyed from the inside out with that unspeakably evil combination of alternating kindness and cruelty, teasing come-on and marginalisation, only to discover years later that this is your strategy with all your targets except those grovellers you use once like wank tissues and the colleagues you court to utilise.

I know, Jekyll, that I was nothing to you, just another victim to be killed alongside the others. And there is some humour in realising that I am not the star of a story but another faceless dupe, set up and used by a con artist. But I am something to myself: a kind, strong, clever and decent person who was light on her feet, strong, open and affectionate. That person is dead. You offered many gifts, which I see now were carefully selected props and that I was one recipient among many. I have returned these of course. But the two greatest presents are ones I cannot return and do not want: they are sadness and fear, extreme fear of you and of a world in which perpetrators are helped and victims are punished. Now when I see your face I do not see beauty there, but the silent gloating of a corrupt exploiter. This used to be my world too, Jekyll, but I can no longer survive in it. I have been defiled by you.

Jekyll, you do not live in Purgatory, but I do. I am caught between the memory of a sweet and happy past, which turned out to be a trick, and a disillusioned future in which anything anyone says to me is met with suspicion and uncharacteristic mistrust. It is a warped reality in which exactly those 'nice guys' who go on about being male feminists are the biggest abusers. And they can be assured that their actions will be condoned by apologists and that women who speak out will be attacked and punished. As if any woman, in a million years, would drag her own name through the muck to make up a lie as humiliating as this.

Further reading: