A Woman’s View Of Life In Islam

Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

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image via straitjacketsmagazine.com 

 

I recently found this book on the living room bookshelves, one I soon learned the missus had read for her book discussion group. I was familiar with this woman’s role in Dutch Parliament, her stand against the worst acts Islam has committed against the human condition, but this book was been a revelation.

Ayaan (I’ll use that name so as not to confuse regarding her many-tiered family names) grew up in Somalia under the tutelage of two strong, severe women – her mother and grandmother. In that African tribal culture of Islam, Ayaan contends, men are given carte blanche to wear anything, do most anything, while the women are constantly beaten, are subjugated in every way imaginable. One of the most poignant passages of the book has to do with the childhood circumcision of Ayaan and her sister, Haweya. Various female tissues are cut away, without the use of pain medication or anesthesia, and the vagina sewn shut with only a tine aperture allowing urine to exit. When the women marry, it’s necessary for their men to enter forcibly. Again a painful process for women.

Ayaan’s family moves constantly, trying to escape the growing tribal feuds, trying to find work, trying to find a place of physical and emotional refuge for the women. Sadly, the cultural practices follow them, as Ayaan discovered when she sought refuge in the Netherlands. There, she questioned her faith; consequently, death threats dogged her, and the Dutch government had to provide security for her.

Her move away from Islam was obviously the reason for the book’s name, but there seems as well a larger umbrella for that title. In the Netherlands, Ayaan found it necessary to defend sexual as well as gender freedom, and to stand forthrightly for women’s rights worldwide.

The book is written, as most memoirs are, in a conversational voice. For a Somali for whom English is at least a third or fourth language, it’s hard to criticize her diction or writing style. Still, that voice is remarkably strong and resilient, as is the woman herself. This book will educate you from the inside about African culture, about the repression of women under that version of Islam, all in the voice of a woman who has been there.

 

My rating:  16 of 20 stars

 

 

Examining Story Anew

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image via blogmuseupicassobcn.org

My writing partner, Lyn, and I are taking divergent paths in writing – which is extremely OK. I'll leave the explanation of her writing path to her (she's a teacher and most capable of articulating her excellent writing style and structure), but I've taken a rather experimental path. I haven't committed to experimental prose, per se, but I am in the thrall of J.M. Coetzee's structural experiments. Again, I won't go into his writing – it's  available everywhere you might look. 

I began with a mystery novel (A Reason To Tremble) published some 18 years ago in Canada, in which I revealed the villain(s) early on. The attraction for the reader, I think, is in being able to examine the motives and lifestyle, the character strengths and weaknesses, of both victims and perps simulataneously. And I carried this a step further in my second novel (A Place of Belonging) in which a murder connected two families at opposite ends of the social and economic spectrum.

That was a place to start. Since then I've been working on an historical novel (tentative title: The Eagle of the East) set among the eastern front battles of World War II, examining how Soviet, German, and American combatants dealt with the morality (or lack thereof) of that awful war. Here, I began on the last day of the European war and quickly moved ahead chronologically from 1942. However, I've strategically allowed my German characters to move backwards in time to allow the reader to examine that great military failure, as if history were spooling backwards from the war's final result.

And now I'm writing another historical novel set roughly in the year 1000 – a critical time following the division of Charlemagne's empire. Here, I'm centering on a specific character – a literary lightning rod, if you will – the text written as if a diary of that person, re-copied and added to by a pair of Benedictine monks. 

Am I trying to reinvent structure just for the sake of experimentation? I don't see it that way. First, I'm trying to give the reader a new way of examining story, history, and the social spectrum. Second, writing in the same structural format over and over tends to make one's writing stale and predictable – and that's bad for both reader and writer. 

Dear Doris

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image via unc.edu

 

Doris, I hope you can read this from, well, over there:

In 2003, I received a letter from the North Carolina Writer's Network informing me that I had been accepted as a writer in residence at Peace College in Raleigh, North Carolina. I hadn't been living long in North Carolina, and I hardly knew what to make of either the place or the offer. And…I'm somewhat embarrassed to say it now…I didn't even know who Doris Betts was, the person who was supposed to further my writing skills  that summer. 

Soon I had an e-mail from Doris (Miz Betts, I called her at first…she kept insisting, "It's Doris.") As I soon learned, there were others – I think a dozen were selected to work with her that summer. She apparently wasn't happy to have us just for the ten days or so at Peace, so she had us send her pieces of our work, and to the other eleven or so as well, and we began a cybernetic critique class. 

I was writing a genre novel at the time, and submitted a goodly chunk of it, asking, "Is that all right, Miz – um – Doris?" "A suspense novel?" she asked, "sure, I read and enjoy everything." 

Deep into the month or so of this prelim, she had me axe my beginning seven chapters (I couldn't believe a writing teacher would read that much, much less axe it altogether) and she presented me with several options to open my story, one being a prologue. So I wrote one. Man, was I proud of that! Then afer she'd seen it, she said, "No, Bob, I don't think that's it yet. Maybe it was better the way it was. What do you think?"

This was the week before we convened in Raleigh, and I went ballistic. I don't remember exactly what I wrote back, but it was rather salty. But by the time I'd arrived at Peace (College), remorse had set in. I found her as quickly as I could and apologized. She chuckled and said, "Oh, it's all right, Bob, that's all part of the process." Well, maybe it was part of hers, I thought, but writing is supposed to be a genteel calling.

Wrong! Writing, as I came to learn, is frustrating, passionate, edgy, emotional in every sense of the word – at least the best writing is. No wonder writers are most often seen as the weird ones in the crowd. 

It's often hard to gauge the import of such a learning process while drowning in it. I'd previously been struggling with the craft of writing, was slowly making progress, but some months down the line, I came to the realization that Doris had moved my skills forward by at least a decade, given my earlier rate of progress. And that wasn't the end of the "Doris Summer," for any of us. We kept writing back to her, asking questions, begging critiques, and she always accommodated.

What I came to learn about Doris – again in retrospect – was that she truly cared about us as writers, and about our writing. It wasn't so long ago that I announced on Facebook that a small publisher had picked up on a short story collection of mine and wanted to publish it. One of the first to congratulate me on FB? Yes, Doris, deep into chemotherapy for cancer. 

I can't speak for all of those present that summer, but I know that Doris moved – no, shoved – some of us (lovingly) into the profession of writing. She was a lauded professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, and a celebrated writer herself – she didn't have to be that concerned with us and our writing, any more than she had to congratulate me on my still-pending publication – – but she did – even as  the cancer was taking hold. There's a word for that sort of attention – love. She loved us that much, and it's been impossible ever since not to return that affection.

I found out late Saturday that she'd died that day, following her husband and daughter in death. But to me, Doris isn't dead, nor will she ever be – as long as I'm around. I owe her a lot. I owe it to her to be a better writer than I ever dreamed I could be, and I'll do my best to accommodate that. If the world were filled with people of your sort, Doris, the big blue ball we call home would be a damned fine place – better than any of us ever dreamed it could be.

Trojans? Spartans? Who is triumphant in the war of the ereaders? – Publishing Trends

With the holiday sales war over and all new devices already out on the market, much of January consisted of tallying up the sales numbers and looking to new developments in the new year. There have already been some big announcements: Apple’s digital textbook publishing, a possible spinoff of the Nook from Barnes & Noble, Kindle’s growing lending library, and global expansion now that the Kobo deal has been finalized with Rakuten.  Now that many more devices—ereaders and tablets alike— are in more homes post-winter holidays, these service expansions show that each platform’s ecosystem  may be just as, if not more, important than the features of the device itself.

via www.publishingtrends.com

The Millions : Your Guide to the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Shortlist

That there was a logjam in voting for 2012's fiction Pulitzer shouldn't cause us too much dismay. Fortunately there's plenty of fiction afoot elsewhere, as this post from The Millions attests:

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Umberto Eco’s fifth novel, The Prague Cemetery is the headline choice for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the winner of which is due to be announced on May 14.

via www.themillions.com