Thursday, December 7, 2017

Colonial novels: the good, the bad, and the ugly part I

Image result for kim kipling
I don't know if I've ever talked about my deep dislike for Kipling's much beloved Kim, but for me it represents everything I don't want in a colonial novel. Kim is a British street ruffian involved in various military and private schemes in turn of the 20th-century northern-India. He speaks Hindustani better than English, adopts a Buddhist holy man, and gets into various scrapes on a pilgrim trail. The social hierarchy of the British is ridiculed, but at the same time, reified through Kim's character itself. Even if the Indian characters are allowed to be human and flawed and layered in the way Kim is--Kim's Tom Sawyerish superior cleverness ultimately exemplifies the subtextual British imperial superiority. It's a hard trait to swallow in an age of postcolonial criticism (if not the true disappearance of Empire). To be clear, I'm fond of The Jungle Book and Just So Stories, so I'm not so much a Kipling-hater as a Kim-detractor. I also don't love the way Kim is written--it's snobbish and spends a great deal of time talking about the attributes in horses and philosophy I find least interesting.

Image result for heart of darkness
In contrast, last year I finally read Conrad's The Heart of Darkness (I know one is supposed to read it in school but it was never assigned to me, maaf kar do), and although I found the philosophy and descriptive prose riveting, the faceless and animalistic way that black Africans are drawn left me feeling queasy. That's hardly a revelatory critique, but Kim seems a humanizing, progressive work in comparison--despite the fact that it brings me no literary joy.

A lot of people (especially in the sphere I find myself in these days), perhaps rightly, avoid colonial fiction altogether and choose to champion postcolonial fiction. Unfortunately, I'm not so great at appreciating present-tense prose (kill me now unless you are actually translating your book from a present tense-heavy foreign language) or magical realism (why not just call it fantasy in need of anti-depressants?), so this category often loses me with it's stylistic trends.  I do read postcolonial fiction that suits my stylistic tastes when I can find--it's just that Nadine Gordimer and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie etc. are not without plenty of blogger commentary.

For me colonial fiction reaches its zenith in the 1920s-1940s, when empires were falling and folks were starting to question the imperial mission. Questions and shifting loyalties and cracks in international edifices begin to appear everywhere. What luck! It's also my favorite period of popular fiction, so I'm doubly biased. Anyhow, I've read quite a bit of fiction in this category in the last several years, and below I shall sort them based on my own arbitrary criteria into the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Just because and just so.

Note: My list below only includes work by white settler colonial writers, because their flaws and successes happen within the same conversation: the discussion of how to critique the oeuvre of the oppressor.

Ethical points: This work:
  • Questions or examines the behavior, system, or mindset of imperialism
  • Portrays non-European characters in humanizing and interesting ways
  • Engages in self-reflection of  main character's European colonial interaction with non-European colonized people
  • Heart, humanity, beauty expressed
Stylistic points: This work:
  • Provides pure entertainment
  • Provides philosophical or poetic or descriptive pleasure


Kingfishers Catch Fire (1953) Rumer Godden

Rumer Godden grew up in East Bengal on a tributary of the Brahmaputra, and moved back and forth from England to India until the end of WWII. Her unusual early childhood years are fictionalized in The River, later made into a pretty, if a bit tone-deaf film by Jean Renoir. Though it's hard to find a mainstream review that doesn't compare her Indian novels to A Passage to India (which she admits was a revelation for her in the 1920s), in my opinion, her novels collectively hold more authentic emotional and critical weight.

This particular novel is a heavily autobiographical account (see her memoir, A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep, for the slightly more literal version of the story), fictionalizing her hungry years as a single mother in Kashmir. In reality, Rumer's husband had gambled away their house and fortune and the two maintained separate households during the war years in lieu of an immediate divorce; with Rumer receiving next to no financial support. Instead of going back to an England that had never felt like home, especially in the midst of the waves of air raids, she (and her character) choose to find a place in Northern India to wait out the war. This novel depicts that attempt to live on next-to-nothing (though she explains that many around her had literally nothing) in rural Kashmir near Srinagar. The protagonist, a mother of two children, is hardly a typical memsahib. She speaks and writes Urdu, her closest friends are local Hindu and Muslim merchants, and her children are brought up in an uncouth way (that surely represented Rumer's longing for her own freedom as a child at her Assam home). At first the situation feels idyllic. But she finds herself in deeper and deeper cultural water as the years pass.

She doesn't realize until the eleventh hour that she has been creating enemies of the locals through a series of ignorant, seemingly small lifestyle choices. When her entire family falls sick of a mysterious illness, she begins to believe that she is being poisoned. Eventually, the would-be murderer is unveiled, but it is here that the protagonist's own position as a hostile outsider in the locals' eyes that is truly revealed. As this situation was taken straight from Rumer's experiences, the novel's nuanced and intellectual treatment of the fictionalized "villain" of her own nightmare stands out as an almost superhuman feat of self-examination and social critique.

6/6 points: all the ethical points, but is certainly not an "entertainer." Thought-provoking, philosophical, if anxiety-inducing tale.

A Passage to India (1924) E M Forster

This needs no introduction. I feel it is a better novel for the conversation it launched than its actual content...which sometimes feels contrived, if strongly sketched.

6/6 points: Reflection and questioning drives the plot, the characterizations are fascinating, but it's missing a bit of heart. Entertaining? In the way a noir film keeps you on the edge of your seat and refuses to answer your questions . . . yes.

The Lady and the Unicorn (1938) Rumer Godden

This story flows from Rumer's time as a dance teacher in Calcutta and her distress over the way *Anglo-Indians (then called Eurasians) were treated by mainstream (i.e. white) colonial society. As she herself was marginalized as a working woman who associated with the Eurasian set, it was even more personal of an issue for her. It's a very early example of her work, and thus verges on a syrupy melodrama she avoids later, but is still an evocative picture of ugly racial and class tension amongst "good society."

5/6 points: explores gray areas of representation and still manages to entertain while questioning the system.

*Sometime I'd really like to write or read an analysis of Anglo-Indians in Bengali film and literature. For those bloggers who watch Bengali cinema, what are the depictions that stick out to you? For me, Rina in Saptapadi (1960) or that one working girl in Mahanagar (1963), come to mind.

The African Queen (1935) C S Forester

90% of this novel is a description of a perilous river journey undertaken by two misfits, a crotchety trader and a spinster missionary woman. Symbolically or not, the emblem of the "civilizing mission", the woman's missionary brother, dies in the first pages of the novel, leaving her free to experience the "real" Africa, or at least the real wilderness. "Natives" are nowhere to be found here, really, except as moving targets or potential converts. If you've seen the Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn film, you've definitely experienced a more satisfying version of the story. What the book touches that the film can't is an earthy exploration into the mindset of two lovable, if tremendously ordinary, white settlers in an extraordinary situation. The examination of colonialism is perhaps more a critique of imperialist gains or losses on the African continent in WWI. Defending a lake or a jungle which can only marginally be claimed for any European power by a sane observer, suddenly becomes the height of absurdity. Here, Europeans are out of place and useless in aggregate, it is only the individual human spirit that matters.

4/6 points: Heart is everywhere here, it is ultimately the only "winner" against the unfeeling elements. A lot of points lost for the invisibility of black Africans themselves.

The Complete Oom Schalk Lourens Stories (1920s-1940s) Herman Charles Bosman

There are two popular readings of Bosman's works in South Africa these days. One, people see his work as an outdated send up of early 20th century Afrikaner/Boer farming society that is unacceptably affectionate in the wake of Apartheid's terrors. Two, his satirical short stories are beloved for their intricate commentary on the absurdities and not so lekker aspects of plaas lewe (farm life). Bosman gathered most of his material living in the real farming community of Groot Marico in the Northwest province of South Africa. His most popular narrator, Oom (Uncle) Schalk Lourens is a fountain of humorous tales about feuding farmers, Boer war tragedies, starry eyed arrogant youths and aging commandos, ghosts and the supernatural, and endless dorpie (village) archetypes.

I wouldn't blame any black South African who finds him completely unpalatable. Bosman's tone is almost unfailingly jocular, even in his saddest stories. Bosman may seem unforgivably callous towards social issues and injustices to the modern reader. However, his strength lies in his ability to reveal both the ridiculousness and the humanity in extreme Calvinism or Boer bigotry or rural ignorance or cultural taboos. All is treated to an equal helping of irony and laughter. Afrikaans folks still regard Bosman with some degree of awe: because this settler/pioneer farming culture (not at all unlike the German and Scandinavian farming culture from which I hail) has never been satirized with more biting accuracy. (The Groot Marico Bosman festivals also look painfully similar to Midwest literature festivals, and I'm still laughing about it.)

Like every brilliant satirist, he is divisive. If you read his stories for black African representation, you may see offensiveness where I see harsh critique. Either or neither of us may be right, Bosman's true beliefs are shrouded in the legends with which he surrounded himself until his early death in 1951.

4/6 points: One of the wittiest AND the most poignant writers I've ever come across. To me, he is
Saadat Hasan Manto crossed with Mark Twain. And if that doesn't make you want to pick up his literature as a complete uitlander (outsider), I don't know what will.

Circles in a Forest (1984) Dalene Matthee

This South African classic stands out for its understanding of the environmental destruction endemic to the colonial era (whether imperialist extraction or through unthinking settlement of the wilderness). It also provides a rare analysis of class and cultural differences in settler colonialist society in South Africa. In some ways this is an apologist treatise for poor white Afrikaans farmers, and in other ways, it is an indictment of the entire settler project. Dalene is read religiously in Afrikaans educational institutions, but her flaw in this--her best work--is that she almost completely ignores racial oppression amongst the many injustices (often British-imposed, an ongoing theme in a century of bitter Afrikaans literary memory) she critiques. As it was released in the last days of Apartheid censorship, perhaps this is understandable, but it doesn't make it quite forgivable. Still, an amazing read for those who can give it room to be a product of its time. You could also watch the 1990 film starring a young Arnold Vosloo, but it's more interesting as a representation of cinema from a transitional South Africa than for anything it does well (which is little).

Note: Matthee's stories are set in her home near the resort towns surrounding Knysna forest, where a tragic series of fires wiped out many communities earlier in 2017. People have blamed climate change for the ongoing drought conditions in southern South Africa, but either way, it points to the continuing necessity of prioritizing conversations about tourism and human-environment interaction in developing states; and the disproportionate effects of environmental catastrophes on low income and informal settlements.

4/6 points: What it loses to National Party propaganda, it almost makes up for in its hardscrabble protagonist's fight to protect nature from the encroaching global capitalist threat. What, that sounds strangely relevant to today's issues? That's because it is.

Next time: The BADDDDDD ... at least in terms of colonial critique and self-examination.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Life updates: Where I'm headed next year (and where I've been)

So, in February of this last year, I had the chance to visit Johannesburg, South Africa. My best friend (who I met in elementary school in MN, but is now expat-ing her way around the world teaching at international schools) was getting married to a lovely Afrikaans fellow whose family lives in Joburg. It was a whirlwind two weeks of sightseeing and wedding events and late night chats about history and politics over braii, but let's be honest, mostly Cape wyn (barbecue and wine in Afrikaans). The wedding itself was at a lovely game lodge in Free State (a few hours south of Joburg), with beautiful views and hordes of vicious mosquitoes descending from the thatched lodge roofs at night.

Mosquitoes or no, when I sank into my seat on that plane going home, I felt pretty conflicted. Despite moments of difficulty one always has in new places, I felt like I had found a place I could *maybe* actually live and thrive. The weather was just right, the people friendly, the environment just enough like home in terms of available food and daily comforts to give a modicum of sanity. And yet, there was so much that was radically different and, well, as my best friend puts it, "South African society is like crack for social scientists." So, in April, I started on an eight month mind-eff of a process of applying to grad school and navigating South African bureaucracy to get back to Johannesburg.

I know, another personal post
At the same time, I've been working through a lot of my personal baggage about my South Asia and Hindi-Urdu studies, which I had to let fell by the wayside for a number of reasons. One, I knew that Delhi as an environment for study (something my academic friends pushed me to consider) was just out of the question given certain quirks of health that I have. My jaw disorder alone doesn't do well with intense crowds and noise, and I have to eat a very limited diet in order to make sure other long-term problems don't flare up. Practically, my heart tried to pull me in that direction for several years, but my head told me it would be foolish to expect myself to be able to handle that environment for more than a few weeks at a time. I also realized that the academic field of South Asian studies was frighteningly small--a bad outlook for building a potential career. Beyond even that, I was trying to process my experience with my Hindi-Urdu studies, which looked great on my transcript, but was in practice rather traumatic because of the maddening dysfunctionality of my university department. After the trials of my last two semesters, the language itself became somewhat tainted for me (which makes me more upset than anything specific I actually experienced there).

In some ways, this has been a really blessed (there's my inner Midwesterner coming out, ha) year. I
have had a lot of time to spend with my family and friends who are still in Minnesota. I took some professional development classes for geography teachers with the local association MAGE, which gave me more pedagogical and technological tools to engage students in my last semester of teaching AP and world geography. MAGE also asked me to present at their fall workshop/conference, where I got a chance to share some of my super-nerdy strategies for using world cinema to teach social studies. I read a lot of world and classic fiction books and saw probably 50 films of different stripes, which y'all will probably get some posts about soon (whether you want them or not!). I dug into some new language study: Mandarin (semi-formally) and Afrikaans (informally). My new stepmom (very new--as of two weeks ago) is from Beijing (also one of my favorite places I've ever traveled), and I'm having fun trying to interact (badly, albeit) with her in her home language. And obviously, Afrikaans is spoken by a significant minority in SA, and more importantly, by most of my friends there.

Black Narcissus--the book more than film--helped me deal
(maybe I'll leave that to another post about Rumer Godden) 
I was hoping that by engaging with a world entirely other than South Asia (though I've read some fiction and kept Hindi and Bengali films in my heart), I would eventually get back to a place where hearing Hindi didn't trigger anxiety attacks and feelings of personal betrayal. (Obviously, a discarded plan can bring both personal loss and a guilt over one's own faithlessness, however irrational those feelings may actually be.) Thankfully, over the last two months, I've seen that strategy begin to work.

Though I've certainly had every advantage in terms of being an international applicant, it's been a mind-eff of a year. Half the time I thought it wouldn't work out at all. Even at the moment I finally finished my applications, most of the universities in SA were shut down over the student "Fees must fall" movement.

But, long freaking story short, the universities reopened, I got a couple of acceptance letters, and last week I finally was granted a study visa. So, now, as long as things continue to go smoothly with arrangements for housing, finances, registration, etc., I will be at the University of the Witwatersrand (affectionately known as WITS) in Johannesburg by February, 2017. I'll be studying "migration and displacement" at the African Centre for Migration and Society. Maybe if I like it (and they like me) I might even stay on another year or so to continue studies in public health or health sociology.

I'm excited and scared and delighted for this new plan. Maybe I'll love it, maybe I'll hate it, but either way, I'm sure it's going to be a real adventure. I hope you'll stay tuned.

P.S. I am in the middle of this fabulous Bengali film, so look for a post on that soon.

*The first photo isn't mine, but those towers are a pretty famous site when you're driving away from Joburg to Free State. The second screen-shot is from No Regrets for our Youth (Japan, 1946), an anti-fascist Akira Kurosawa film that I strangely got the urge to watch after our *ahem* American election. The fourth is of jacaranda trees in Joburg (via pinterest).

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Decolonizing My Social Studies Classroom: using cinema to challenge mental maps

Two of the most famous "Arabists", Gertrude Bell and TE Lawrence,
visiting the pyramids with Winston Churchill in 1921.
Area studies folks love to talk about the creation of "imagined spaces" and "perceptual landscapes". Once you scratch beneath the veneer of this sort of jargon, it's easy to understand why the concepts these terms describe are currently en vogue. Forget about the porous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, virtually all borders are now recognized as somewhat fictitious and (at least) intellectually insecure. They are the ultimate anthropological artifacts, and arguably the most largest monuments of individual human intervention. Outside of territory exchanging hands through collective negotiation and invasion, ordinary people such as politicians (like James Balfour of the infamous Balfour Declaration), navigators (like James Cook), empire builders (like Cecil Rhodes of DeBeers and Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe), and explorers (like one of my more dubious heroes Gertrude Bell) created the 20th century and 21st century world map.

Europe: 1900 (source)
As recently as in our grandparents' or great-grandparents' lifetime, the familiar map as we know it didn't exist, or at least, or at least, was free to be re-imagined and reshaped at will. Four or five generations back, some of my ancestors lived in Prussia. That territory then became German, then Polish, then German, then Polish again. Reportedly, my great-great-great grandfather Kruger, a goat boy who married a goose girl and migrated to the U.S., was obsessed with the military exploits of Frederick the Great and Napoleon until his death. For him, borders were surely loose concepts, at best. But to many people born after the mid-20th century, the lines between political entities probably seem immutable. Unless, that is, you happened to live in a disputed ethnic homeland, a hinterland with valuable resources prone to occupation, or in a recently established state, etc.

Which begs the question, who are the 21st century guardians of this awareness of map-making and map-breaking?

Well, high education rates aside, they probably aren't residents of North America. U.S. citizens post-1950 tend to look at world maps with a combination of boredom and awe, and to me the reason is twofold. One, we have not had to relearn the U.S. map since 1959, when Hawaii became the 50th state, and two, we have not experienced a significant war for territory on the contiguous North American continent since the conflict between U.S. troops and Pancho Villa in the Southwestern U.S. in 1916. (Unless you count the long process of "displacement" of indigenous people during "peaceful" frontier settlement.) When even the possibility of change to a nation state's borders exists outside of living memory, that nation state can easily come to believe in its own permanence, and through the rigidity of that mindset, to see other places as equally permanent.

We are not the best people to ask about spatial imagination.

The United States of Eurasia (MUSE) 

However, let's forget for the moment the modern notions of sovereignty and nation states. When we turn to the idea of "regions" we find, perhaps, the best example of imagined space. Contrary to our common mental categories and divisions, Asia is actually not (gasp) a separate landmass from continental Europe. The most radical social scientists and politicians *might* divide the regions by tracing a finger down the Urals and including the Northern European Plain (the most populated tract of Russia) into Europe as a whole. After all, it's got "Europe" in the title. But anxieties about Russian expansionism run deep, and after all, we don't really want to encourage Russian inclusion into civilized Europe, do we? Therefore, anything in the Russian sphere of interest cannot be Europe. It's Eurasia, at best, Asia at worst. And therein lies the moral problem: meaning, Asia as the ultimate "other", of course.

For most of us, imagining Asia and imagining Europe amounts to the exact same action.

Arranged (2007)
We cannot, at this stage, easily do one activity without involving the other. Perhaps, once upon a time (let's say 500 years ago), the two were free to imagine each other without much interference. But at some point in the European-defined Age of Exploration and Colonization, the wires got forever crossed. As Ashis Nandy points out in The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism, the colonized person/nation's concept of self is no longer self-generated, it is dependent on the colonizer's image of that person or nation; so much so that even the act of rejection of the colonizer's imagined world only further cements the boundaries of the worldview that the colonizer created.

These internalized limits and categories certainly create political boundaries on paper and on the ground, but even more so, they create our mental maps--our personal and societal vision of the world. They decide not just where Turkey begins and Bulgaria ends, but what that transitional space signifies, and why it is necessary in the first place.

In order to decolonize the classroom, the invisible assumptions underpinning these mental maps must be (A) recognized and (B) challenged.

In other words, students must be freed to re-imagine space. 

Never on a Sunday (Greece, 1960)
Top assumptions ...

1. Colonial and neo-colonial mental maps have fixed, timeless borders.

2. Colonial and neo-colonial mental maps have black and white categories that place people in black and white spatial roles.

3. Colonial and neo-colonial mental maps exist outside the individual's ability to critique or change. BUT when colonial and neo-colonial mental maps DO change, it is because the West has decided to change the rules (which is legitimate), or because the non-West has decided the rules must be changed (which is obviously illegitimate).

And the challengers are ....

1. Films about explorers (to open students' minds to the unknown)

As colonial as the word "explorer" admittedly sounds, exploring is a comfortable transitional role for an American to assume, a role that asks students to treat the world as a new place without any "mistakes in it", to learn to turn a fresh eye to unfamiliar landscapes. "Explorer's" films highlight plucky individuals grappling with hostile landscapes and shifting borders. They can introduce discussions around the constant modernizing quest to tame the wilderness and to scramble for resources, but without reverting to tired American bedtime stories of Lewis & Clark or Davy Crockett ... while simultaneously avoiding placing the student immediately in a a position of uncomfortable ignorance or defensiveness.

One of my favorite films to use for this purpose is Letter Never Sent (1960), a beautiful and terrifying Soviet film about a group of scientists on an expedition to the Siberian interior to search for natural resources "for the Fatherland".

In the first half, the film mostly seems concerned with the popular "civilized man turning savage again" trope, comparable to The Lord of the Flies or well, every season of LOST. However, in the second half, the group is decimated and separated by a massive forest fire. Then, the only question is, will any of them survive to return to their families again? And was the venture worth the risk?

Watching the African Queen (1951), or The Naked Jungle (1954) might also be entertaining examples of White Man and Woman vs. the Wild. But it's hard to beat LNS for pure cinematic value or environmental realism. I often lean toward making students watch older films when possible, but this is an easy subgenre to find in recent action and adventure and science fiction (if not always in parent-friendly films), and a relatively painless way to to remind students that most of the earth's territory was once uncharted.

2. Films about the alien and stranger (to entangle students' emotions in other people's realities)

Though they're often tearjerkers, films that portray stateless persons, refugees, separated families, etc. are helpful in showing the human impact of political boundaries and bureaucratic red tape, and the humanity on both sides of a border. This is a pretty common genre in art house international cinema, but so far, Baran (Iran, 2001--pictured below) and Lakhon Mein Eik (Pakistan, 1967) have gone over well in some of my classes.

Any story about immigrant experiences could achieve a comparable end. Ultimately, I want students to think about what it means to navigate invisibility, hostility, and displacement. West Side Story (1961) and Fiddler on the Roof (1971) are excellent jumping off points, since U.S. students often have some familiarity with these stories and settings. English Vinglish (2012) is also probably a good choice, as it's both amusing and fairly universal in its themes.

As long as you can create an emotional reference point to humanize later discussions, or even a vocabulary to use across the board, I generally find that students will feel a kinship with similar, if more complex struggles elsewhere. If they watch Fiddler on the Roof and talk about anti-Semitic pogroms, then later we can discuss ethnic cleansing in the Balkans or East Africa with a bit more second-hand displacement experience with which to ground our conversation.

[Note: Of course, there are other ways to provide a similar second-hand experience. In my geography class last year, we did a refugee crisis simulation--where some students got to be the European gatekeepers and some "got" to be Syrian and North African refugees.]

3. Films about revolutionaries and rebels (to shift students' expectations of the "other")

This is one of my favorite categories of film. Half the time these films were released as propaganda serving some party on the political spectrum or some particular regime. But they are still fascinating, inspirational, and for U.S. citizens at least, enlightening. We tend to think of most other countries' citizens as disempowered in comparison to Americans, while simultaneously fearing the power that other countries' citizens may choose to seize.

I love the following films both for entertainment and discussion purposes: Lawrence of Arabia (1960), The Last Bridge (Austria, 1954) The Hunger Games films (2012-2015), The Red Detachment of Women (China, 1961), Kommunist (USSR, 1959), Battle of Algiers (Italy-Algeria, 1966), Island in the Sun (1957), and Baaz (1953).

Note: despite the appearance of the above list, I don't try to turn out communist sympathizers (nor do I push my students toward the American left or the right), but I do like to turn out students who respect revolutionary ideals in theory, and the right/ability of other people groups and oppressed populations to try to change their circumstances.

My next experiment ... 

Next year I think I'm going to have my students watch the surprisingly relevant Vincent Price/Samuel Fuller film about a forger who tried to "steal" an entire U.S. territory: The Baron of Arizona (1950).

I'll probably pair it with a reading on Cecil Rhodes and/or other famous landgrabbers, along with a conversation about land redistribution in postcolonial nations.

In conclusion ...

Sabarmati (1969)
If a student's mental map is neo-colonial (favoring the Western world in all matters of spatial choice, definition, and agency), then in order to decolonize the classroom, the teacher needs to shift the balance of power in the imagined space first by:

1. Encouraging creativity and curiosity when envisioning the possibilities and limits of human use of the landscape (even if it means temporarily letting students slip into easy colonial roles)

2. Fostering empathy for people who don't fit well inside those limits

3. Giving students a chance to spend an hour or two rooting for people who challenge those arbitrary boundaries or their own comfortable categories

Pedagogically, it's all to easy to stop here ... having hopefully encouraged the growth of empathy and awareness, if nothing else. But mental maps are also drawn from a specific lookout point--from the ground we psychologically stand upon. And that choice of ground is often suspect. As Prof. Harry Goruba (University of Cape Town) points out:
Yes, the view of Cape Town from here is as stunning as it is panoramic — just as the tourist brochure tells you. What arrests you here though is not really this view but the vision it encapsulates: the vision of an era when the world was out there for the taking, when Africa was envisioned as a vast landscape, lying supine at your feet, waiting for the lights of civilisation and commerce to shine over it. It is this panoptic vision of a world under the gaze and surveillance of an imperial man that hits you in the guts: this, in essence, is the modernist dream of encyclopaedic knowledge and control over native subjects. This is one way of thinking Africa from the Cape: the modernist, imperialist version that Cecil John Rhodes embodied and envisioned. It is a vision that represses other peoples, other histories, other knowledges; rather than a dialogic engagement, it privileges a mono-centric, colonising view of the world. [Excerpt from: How not to think of Africa from the Cape, 2011]
So, I'm adopting a fourth goal, elusive though it may be to attain. 

4. Helping students develop the mindset of a "borderlander", a concept inspired by the life of Czeslaw Milosz and developed by Krzysztof Czyzewski. Milosz was a Lithuanian-Polish poet (and one of my favorites), author of the anti-totalitarian work "The Captive Mind", and also Nobel Laureate. He hailed from a region of Lithuania that changed national "hands" many times through his lifetime.
Behind my thoughts is the practice of the borderland. Can one “practice” the borderland? If we understand by this term a certain territory, it would be more appropriate to speak of “cultivating” or “exploring” the borderland. But I am speaking here about a territory that is not necessarily situated in a specific place (for example, a state borderline); rather, I am referring to an area crisscrossed by internal borders, where the inhabitants speak different languages, pray in different temples, or have different national identities. In multicultural areas like the territories of the former Jagiellonian Commonwealth, the word “borderland” described not only a place but also a certain ethos or tradition.The way those notions used to be perceived is reflected in the very term “borderlander,” which refers to a person with tangled family roots who is characterized by tolerance, empathy, critical patriotism, a resistance to ethnic phobias, fluency in many languages, and curiosity about otherness. A borderlander loves his or her small homeland but is open to the outside world. [Emphasis mine] (Source: Line of Return: Practicing “The Borderland” In Dialogue With Czeslaw Milosz. By Krzysztof Czyzewski; Michigan Quarterly Review, 2007.)
It may not be a radically decolonized perspective, but it's a start. 

Now it's your turn! What (semi-accessible) movies would you recommend to expand my resource cabinet, and what do you think are the most important neo-colonial assumptions that affect our mental maps?

Monday, April 11, 2016

Decolonizing my social studies classroom (one film at a time)

In my world geography course, my students know that I have one golden rule: don't bore me, and I'll try my darndest not to bore you. Using current events alone, it's relatively easy to find a hundred bits of interesting information about other places and spaces and repackage it all in sensationalist terms. Obviously, everyone "loves" a crisis (that isn't happening to them). If you can (at worst) get students to learn a little bit about another place while talking about its problems, or (at best) help them learn to treat each new country as a separate entity with a complex narrative ... that's probably more than they'll glean from their regular diet of news headlines on Facebook trending.

But teaching history is a bit trickier.

Satirical Stereotype Map of the World (source)
First, at the secondary level, there's this inconvenient and unfortunate reality that by the end of the year, most classes never get much past the unit on WWII. Obviously, several important things have happened since then;  a lot more than can be compressed in a rushed four week treatment of American military escapades or the U.S. civil rights movement at the end of term. But, more importantly, when the lens is moved slightly outward from the center of North America, the same period of history is suddenly revealed to be an era of rapid globalization and decolonization, of an increasingly industrializing and democratizing global south, of countless multipolar tectonic shifts that cannot be tamed or explained by the stubby historical measuring stick of the Cold War. Ironically, this temporally cramped, myopic focus on robust American political and cultural activities during the same period paints a picture that is in itself protectionist, de-globalizing, and re-colonizing. So, right, exactly the opposite of the emerging global reality. And worst of all ... it's boring.

How can one expect American students to be interested in a world that is defined only in relationship to perceived U.S. wins or losses? Yes, at first glance, this may *seem* the best way to make a foreign culture relevant to a person firmly planted in their home culture, but this is really the pedagogical equivalent of a person feigning public interest in a romantic partner who apparently has no other life outside the romance. Sure, the chemistry might be there, the power dynamics might be exciting, but what are you going to talk about afterward? The weather?

Literally the first result when you search the
year 1963 on Google Images (source)
Furthermore, learning about JFK's assassination for the umpteenth time may be useful in civics class, but it's the height of folly to assume that (A) students will still care at that point of mindless repetition, and (B) that this one, single, event in American history is more important to talk about than other events happening the same year everywhere else.

For example, three far-reaching events that also occurred in 1963:  

*Josip Broz Tito named President for Life in Yugoslavia

*Police raids in South Africa capture numerous African National Congress leaders, including Nelson Mandela

*The first Bond film, "Dr. No" is released in the U.S.

But, why should students be interested in these events any more than the death of a president they never knew?

For some, it's enough to draw the cause and effect connections across the temporal landscape:

1. Tito remained in a sort of benevolent dictatorial power until his death in 1980. His demise is generally considered the beginning of the process of Balkan fragmentation and the rise of ethnic nationalism that generated the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

2. Mandela remained imprisoned for the next 27 years, the ANC went further underground (and out of SA entirely), and eventually emerged as the primary negotiating partner in the development of the new post-Apartheid constitution in 1993. Of course, though it's maintained its majority representation in the South African parliament, and remains for many the party of Black liberation and Mandela, the ANC has been constantly beset by corruption and legal charges against its most prominent representatives in the last 15 years--most recently--with the accusations of state capture and the constitutional court ruling against the current president, Jacob Zuma.

3. 26 Bond films have been released to date, and could there really be another film series that better reflects the the new retro-European ideal of neocolonial power? Certainly, one couldn't find another franchise that beats Bond in illustrating the mythologization of Western intelligence services in the Information Age.

But for the other 9 out of 10 students, these correlations will mean nothing at first. A long collapsed Yugoslavia and a genocide that happened in a mythical time (today's high school students were born after 1995) means nothing to them.

What *might* mean something to them is that they've heard and hummed the James Bond theme their entire life, and maybe they like the movies. Or maybe they DON'T "get" the movies, but are kind of curious about the phenomenon itself.

Entertainment is personally relevant. Entertainment entertains. 

Or, to give another example, the first image above is from Half of a Yellow Sun (Nigeria, 2013). Significance to world literature or film aside, there's nothing like some drunk postcolonial sociology to make a film worth seeing. If you're a sociology nerd. For most non-Nigerians, the heart-rending personal stories within the story are what might make it worth giving up a Friday night at a Marvel film ... not the social commentary. BUT, the social commentary and unique cultural points of view are still there to be absorbed, nonetheless.

So, instead of asking my students to read a textbook and take history tests chock full of dates they will forget tomorrow, I decided to design a curriculum that would take students through the years of 1945 to 2016 movie by movie, one pop culture moment after another, with political scandals and propaganda in scores, and without confining ourselves to the casually self-centered historical comfort zone of American life.

It's still a work in progress, but it's been quite an interesting two years of teaching this course ... to say the least. I've found a lot of things that work, and a lot of things that don't, and over the next few months, I'm going to write about it; focusing on the pop-culture items, documentaries, and discussions from around the world that I've employed to try to make the scary places outside our American borders (A) personal, and (B) interesting to my world history students.

I hope you enjoy!

Note: I am a tutor who teaches middle school and high school classes at a small academy in the Twin Cities, MN, that provides non-traditional students with a part-time, private-school-esque experience. Thus, I have a bit more room to experiment and to develop curriculum than the average public school professional.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Songs of Sensuality

After about a month of the cold from hell, I thought I might as well jumpstart my blogging habit again with a bit of scandal. Well, it's at least scandal by degrees. Given the limitations set by censors and tradition, Indian song sequences have to work overtime on the metaphor front, and I'm not complaining. After all, who really needs explicit content when you can have the charm of the unseen ... the imagined ... and the forbidden? Inspired by Conversations Over Chai's great post on the same topic, here's my own list of classic Hindi and Bengali songs that explore sensuality, physical affection, and longing.

1. Udhar Tum Haseen Ho (Mr. and Mrs. '55, 1955)

This song marks the point in the film where Madhubala's character finally falls for her soon-to-be-divorced "husband" (Guru Dutt). I don't think Madhubala was ever more alluring than in this scene, in a dark, romantically cut skirt and upturned face, gliding along a balcony under the moon and heavy breeze. And Guru Dutt, casually walking in his rolled-up sleeves out from the shadows of the garden ... Well, it all screams "Gothic romance." (I suppose the de facto abduction supports this reading as well, but don't bother me with the facts.) Yet the overall effect is not of power struggles or helpless heroines or personal manipulation. It's just a hypnotic suspension of time and space and reason, the coming together of two souls who can finally see each other clearly in the moonlight.

2. Jodi Bhabo (Chaowa Paowa, 1959, w. English subs)

Possibly the most beautiful Bengali song I've ever heard, it plays a crucial role during this retelling of It Happened One Night. As you probably know, the haughty heiress has to face her own prejudices and her attraction to the working class reporter eventually, and in this version, it is the reporter's ability to shed his middle-class vulgarity and sing (what ho, a working man poet?!) a socially critical piece of poetry that does the trick. Unlike in Chori Chori's version of the tale (which papers over the classism), the heiress's painful shift from pride to shame to a sort of desperate attraction is documented in Suchitra Sen's face during this song. It's a beautiful knife to the heart.

3. Jhakhon Bhanglo Milan o Mela (Barnali, 1963 w. English subs)

Sharmila Tagore and Soumitro Chatterjee star as misfits thrown together for the day. She's a poor student, he's the listless heir of a rich family. He tries to delay her from the realization that her fiancee is currently getting married to someone else (i.e. someone richer) at his uncle's home, while she works through different stages of grief and anger and abandonment. Eventually, the two head to the harbor in Kolkata, and charter a small boat. She sings heartbreaking rabindra sangeet, and he tries to set his growing interest in her aside to let her mourn.

4. Song from Surjasikha (1963 w, English subs)

This song makes me laugh if I think about it too much. Uttam Kumar and Supriya Devi are a doctor and nurse, respectively, in a sexless marriage of convenience. Well, convenient for him, at least, as it serves the doctor's ascetic-inspired values of single-minded community service and that other value of yeah, let's have a clean house with a supper on the table. Nurse is way ahead of him, and has to play her cards right to turn her marriage around. In this song, Uttam spends the majority of the shots staring at Supriya with the most comical adolescent look on his face, like, "Hai Ram, you're a girl." Shabash, great diagnosis, doctor sahib. Notable: neither of the protagonists sings the song (it's on the radio), but rather do a sort of complicated dance of avoiding and staring and porch-traversing as they contemplate the straightforward message, "You're my beloved companion."

5. Haseena Dilruba (Roop Tera Mastana, 1972)

You really have to be on board with the Jeetendra factor to like this one, but hey, between 1969-73, no problem for me. And Mumtaz is stunning here; glowing and playful and masterfully coordinated with the decor. The song runs the gamut of funny (maybe unintentionally), sexy, and that peculiar 1970s idea of glamour ... you know, chiffon curtains everywhere, shaggy round floor rugs, fancy dressing gowns. It's notable for being a rare example of a positive female character getting married and consummating said marriage under false pretenses without any display of guilt, and the rather un-subtle climax of the scene, where the hero dives for the heroine's choli hooks with much determination. Good luck my friend ...

6. Aaj Rapat Jaye To (Namak Halal, 1982)

This script was really just an excuse to accommodate fabulous songs, and Aaj Rapat could fight Parveen Babi's golden death stage for the sexiest of the lot. The magic is helped along by brilliant choreography and controlled flooding, but you can't manufacture chemistry. Smita Patil often seems unapproachable to me in other films, but she's certainly obliging here, and I think gives Zeenat Aman a run for her usual title: Most Believable Enjoyment of Wet Sari. (I mean, it can't be that great, you guys.)

7. Kate Nahin Kat Te (Mr. India, 1987)

Not sure how I feel about Anil Kapoor starring in a song of sensuality, but lez be honest, Sridevi is almost a couple all to herself in this piece. By the end, she's so worked up she doesn't need much of anyone for a good time. Notable: Let's acknowledge the sheer genius in shooting an intimate scene where the naughtiness is definitely happening right before everyone's eyes, yet is still completely inaccessible to the censors.

Note on my choices: For the most part, I tried to pick sequences that were absent from other people's "sexiest thing evah" lists. Everyone has beaten the Anamika, Fakira, Kabhi Kabhie, Sharmilee, and Blackmail horses to death (which explains the dearth of 70s films on the list), so those were out. The songs above all involve potential couples, which removed songs of solo longing; eliminated the odd genre of domestic voyeurism songs, such as this one from Abhinetri, or this one from Manoranjan (which make me uncomfortable anyway, as my American horror film upbringing always tells me that someone is about to be murdered at the end of these songs); and also disqualified vamp seductions and item songs. I realize now that most of my picks either fall into the "unintentionally funny" or "finally emerges from long-held prejudice" categories, but that seems quite like life, so I won't mess with a good thing.

Let me know what funny or socially conscious sensual songs you would have picked in the comments!

Monday, August 24, 2015

An Indictment *Ahem* Review: Sohni Mahiwal (1984)

This is another one of those semi-rare Indo-Soviet co-productions, and one I'd never heard of before. On the surface, it shares some features that lend Ali Baba Aur 40 Chor so much camp charm ...

1. It's an interpretation of a beloved folktale (one of the four great romantic tragedies of the Punjab). 

2. It stars a Deol (Sunny) as a hero and a Zeenat (in her post-Insaaf Ka Tarazu avenging woman avatar) as an outlaw.

3. It highlights some "exotic" Uzbek locations, design, costumes, and architecture.

4. It's got an A+ KNIFE DANCE, "Chand Ruka Hai." (Has anyone made a Bollywood master list of these? Hema has quite a few to her name, including 40 Chor's but c. the 80s, I prefer Zeenat's, as she channels dominatrix over domestic goddess.)

5. Horse stunts and Central Asian sporting traditions that, sorry yaar, Feroz Khan got his hands on first (there must have been some Dharmatma fans in the house).

6. A very little bit of visual effects (OK it's no open-sesame disco cave or creepy-wali jinn, just an actress in faux clay with some fancy editing). 

7. Hero's best bro is strikingly, not Danny Denzongpa. He should be. But he isn't. wait, you say Danny isn't in Ali Bab Aur 40 Chor either? Um, he should be. (How is it possible that there are two '80s Bollywood films calling for vaguely "Central Asian" features without him?)

8. An epic love story! To be clear, as the star-crossed, nadi ke paas lovers, Sohni (Poonam Dhillon) and Mahiwal (Sunny Deol) together are the unfortunate result of producers thinking that A pretty thing + B pretty thing = onscreen chemistry. Luckily, dosti + bromance try to make up the difference.

WE actually do have chemistry but this wouldn't get past the censor board

What this film fails to deliver in romance, it makes up for in attempted social commentary. Yes, this is one of those rare films to portray, if only via subtext, the exploitation of pottery.

Meri jaan, I'm totally gonna haunt you a la "Ghost" if you mess this pot up

Early in the film, Izzat Beg/Mahiwal's uncle brings back a vessel imbued with magic powers. It is in this pitcher that the hero first gets a glimpse of his beloved. Disturbingly, this pot seems to have been pressed into a life as a migrant worker. If 2015 taught us anything, it's that such situations are but a FIFA scandal away from being exposed as human trafficking.

Religious figures, even the storyteller himself (a fabulous Shammi Kapoor, perhaps as poet and author Hashim? It's unclear to me), are just as culpable in this non-consensual gray market.

Sohni often uses earthenware to keep men at a distance, seemingly oblivious to the pots' needs.

This pot is as unadorned as you my love only it's actually useful

Yes, she does steal an intimate moment alone with a chalice, but this mostly just reveals her elitist bias toward metalwork.

Don't even get me started on the "reckless endangerment" charges that could be leveled at these folks.

If you love something, set it free

The story of Sohni Mahiwal may traditionally be the tale of a potter's daughter and her foreign lover, their subsequent violent separation by family and villagers, her forced marriage and continued rendezvous with banished aashiq, and their untimely death in the river after their meeting pot (I kid you not, it keeps them afloat when they cross the river) sinks. But looking for the new twist on an old story, the three directors (!) of this film dare to ask ... what happens to nice normal vessels-next-door when they are taken far from home and thrust into greatness? 

Sadly, pots were definitely harmed in the making of this movie

Aww, well, y'all tried at least.

In conclusion ... 

Sohni Mahiwal is undeniably pretty, but it doesn't hold up under the actors' lackluster performances, the repetitive soundtrack, or the legacy of previous Indo-Soviet collaborations. So yeah, you should learn from my mistake and skip this one. Unless you want to press the fast forward button and play "spot-the-lady dacoit." It's really too bad when the most entertaining 10 minutes of a feature is a secondary character's violent flashback.

This film does make me want to see Abdullah (1980), if only to get more ZPH (Zeenat Per Hour) demonstrations in desert terrain. And, praise be, Danny actually IS in Abdullah. As it should be. I suppose it would also be a shame if this film defined the classic for me FOREVER ... so I should probably seek out a more successful telling.

Your turn ...

Did you grow up with a version (print or film or TV) of this story that you loved? (It certainly hasn't been as popular with filmmakers as Heer-Ranjha.) If you know of one, do tell, as I hear Pran and Tanuja are also seeking a better version in which they can star together c. 1968.

If you're not Punjabi, is this story on your radar? What's more, is Poonam Dhillon even on your radar? I'd be curious to hear what y'all think.

Note: If you are annoyed by the gratuitous label in the corner of the screen caps (it was the best print on YouTube, so what can one do?), my tone of jest, or any great and wonderful plot twists or dialogue bits that I missed because of a lack of subtitles, my apologies.