Wednesday, November 15, 2017

When Feminist Mothering is Easy

Today, a friend sent me this self congratulatory article Being a Feminist Mother is a Liberating Experience and I just had to take it to task. It irritated me and I wanted to understand why.

Using free association between terms such as patriarchy, agency, intersectionality, racism and gender bias, the Indian immigrant writer asserts that feminist mothering has helped her protect her daughter from society’s patriarchal expectations, especially that of immigrant cultures.

However, apart from broad general assertions, she quotes only three specific instances where she felt that feminist mothering gave her the tools to help herself and her daughter navigate a patriarchal world.

-       Her Indian mother questioned her decision to send her daughter to an expensive private school.
-       A boy questioned her daughter’s interest in politics because girls are only interested in fairies and cakes.
-       When her 17-year-old daughter wears short dresses, the Indian within her baulks but feminism gives her the tools to let her daughter be.

Since she pompously starts the article by presenting herself as someone at the intersection of race, gender and ideology – an Indian immigrant mother in the UK with a mixed race daughter (half white, half Indian) with feminist leanings – I’ll use intersectionality to examine her conflicts.

The first thing to be said is that she misses out on one critical intersection of her identity – class. As someone who is married to a white British person and can afford to send her daughter to a private school in the UK, she belongs to the educated professional class of the UK at the very least. So we can’t ignore the impact that belonging to this class would have on her own and her daughter’s conflicts and experiences.

Giving the best possible education to your child, boy or girl, among this class is a norm – in fact, it would be frowned upon to visibly discriminate between your son and daughter in providing the materials of education. (In fact, it is a norm even among the equivalent classes in India, and would have been 12 years ago when the writer placed her daughter in school). A passing patriarchal remark by her mother who had no control over her decision making, when the weight and fashions of the class that she belonged to strongly supported her decision in favour of her daughter doesn’t amount to a hard-fought conflict.

Ditto, a passing remark by a boy about girls liking fairies and cakes and not politics. If you belong to white middle class in the UK and are sending your daughter to a private school, she is already being exposed to a whole range of women role models and feminist ideology (from classroom discussions, literature, films, TV, media to more immediate examples of successful women role models). Surely, all that armour would weather a chance remark by a boy without any lasting impact. Even without the benefit of feminist mothering, her daughter would have enough strong women role models to be inspired from and to aspire to.

Feminist mothering would have surely had a stronger role to play had she belonged to white working class because even if white working class girls are inspired by women role models in society, economic considerations do not support their aspirations to become one. Having a feminist mother to bolster your dreams and support them would indeed be a huge advantage. 

Finally, we come to the writer’s daughter’s short dresses. I truly feel for her here because her immigrant background and her feminist beliefs would be at complete odds with each other here. Indian cultures place all the responsibility of sexual control on women and bestow all the privileges of sexual provocation and exploration to men. Mainstream western feminism loathes placing any responsibility of sexual control on women – from clothes to conduct to consent.  The writer’s choice would have been particularly hard given what was at stake - her daughter’s emotional and physical safety and security.

The writer doesn’t really tussle with the two oppositional stances though. She looks around and sees that short dresses are the norm as is holding men responsible for sexual transgressions, and takes comfort in the belief that her feminist daughter will be ok. However, that doesn’t answer why despite decades of feminist demands on the subject, sexual assault remains common in the West and its aftermath on women as traumatic as ever.

Perhaps a more fruitful discussion wither her daughter would involve the role of shifting contexts, places and power in sexual dynamics between men and women, and how to remain alert, aware and sensitive to them even as we assert our rights to live and experience life freely.

Words such as patriarchy, racism, intersectionality, gender discrimination have meaning and value. But every time we use them slavishly and sloppily to find comfortable, convenient and self-congratulatory positions, we rob them a little of their power and meaning and end up empowering our opponents.

Being a feminist mother is liberating indeed, especially when it gives you a comfortable look out post to view the world and asks nothing of you in return. In other worlds, it is called entitlement. 


Monday, February 13, 2017

Searching for Saloni: My StoryCity fiction is launched at the Jaipur Literature Festival Melbourne

On February 12, I went public with my fiction. For most people, that means the launch of a book or the publication of a story in a magazine, journal or book. My experience was different. My fiction was published on StoryCity, an app that takes you on innovative, adventurous city tours using stories and narratives.   

My fiction was commissioned by the Melbourne City of Literature to coincide with the JaipurLiterature Festival that was brought to Melbourne for a day (Feb 12).

My story "Searching For Saloni" is fast-paced adventure filled with riddles, codes, art and lost histories connecting Melbourne and India. The story revolves around Indian artefacts being stolen from the NGV International, which you – as the protagonist in the story – have to collect from different locations across Melbourne CBD. The answers to all the riddles are hidden in the architecture and sculptures of the city.

At the festival, I chatted with Meelee Soorkia, the editor of the stories, about the experience of writing the stories and about being an Indian immigrant writer in Melbourne.

Meelee: Your story involved bringing historical connections between India and Melbourne together. How did you go about finding them?

Chetna: When I was first invited to write a story for StoryCity, I was a bit stumped. First these are adventure stories, and I had never written adventure before. And then, I had to bring in some Indian element into a story set in Melbourne. I found that challenging.

So I started thinking what is it that I enjoy, I am interested in. And I enjoy art and history. Following that train of thought, I recalled a conversation I had had with a historian Cherie Mckeish a while ago about the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880. A number of Indian artefacts had been brought to Melbourne for display at the exhibition, and they were still on display in Melbourne at the NGV International and Melbourne Museum. So I knew I had to somehow make them the focal point of the story – to bring them to light.

But once I started researching a number of connections came to light. Just between Federation Square where my story starts and State Library of Victoria where it ends, I found five locations which had an Indian connection, and that was amazing. We tend to forget that India and Australia were colonial cousins, and there were interactions between the countries through the 19th and early 20th century. Many Australian settlers from Britain would often live in India before coming to Australia, and there is a gold mine of stories to be mined in those connections.

Meelee: What were your first impressions of Melbourne when you arrived here?
Chetna: I didn’t come to Melbourne straight from India. I actually first lived in Europe – I did my masters there and lived in Europe and then in London for a few years before coming to Melbourne because my husband is Australian and I was pregnant, and we wanted to raise our children in Melbourne.

So my understanding and experiences of Melbourne start there, as a middle class family. One of the first things I noticed is that Melbourne, and by extension Australia, has a bit of an identity crisis. We can’t make up our mind whether we want to be fully public or fully private, and it drives a lot of anxiety in the city. For example, when I arrived here pregnant and I was often asked where I was planning to have my baby, and it is only after sometime the penny dropped that they were fishing for whether I was going public or private with my delivery. As soon my daughter was born, the next question was which schools I was putting her name down in – was I going to go public or private?

These are big questions for middle class Melburnians, and they drive all kinds of anxieties and mannerisms in people. Some hide the fact that they studied in private schools, others flaunt it, those who studied public wear that as a badge – but everyone is aware of it. And I found that very interesting.

The only other country where I felt this tension, and not quite to this degree, was England – from where of course we have adopted this system. The Middle Class in India had largely adopted the private model, whereas Continental Europe is loudly and proudly public. But Australia cannot decide which path it really wants to take.

Meelee: Was leaving India difficult?
Chetna: I am a part of the second wave of Indian immigrants to Australia, who have come here post 1990s. As was discussed in one of the earlier sessions at the festivals, we left India by choice. We didn’t leave India because we felt we had no opportunities there. So I had agency in my decision to leave India, and I was aware that there would be loss involved in the process.

In India, I was a journalist. I knew where I was going. I had social capital. When I left, I lost my social capital. I also found myself lost as a writer because how can I write about places for others when I am myself still discovering. But then, my writing and stories became my way to explore the places and to understand them better.

Meelee: So how has Melbourne influenced your writing?
Chetna: I am writing a set of short stories, which loop around Melbourne’s South East. They start in the CBD and then move to Richmond, then Kew, then Balwyn and then sort of loop back. That’s the plan. They are loosely connected, in the sense one story begins where the other is left, but are completely different set of characters. And again, I am interested in the specific characteristics of these neighbourhoods.

For example, the story in Richmond is set in a pop-up linen store. Now pop-up shops is a real trend in Richmond, we have pop up design stores, pop-up jeans stores, everything is a pop-up. And often the people working in these stores are poorly paid artists and designers – very fashionable – but struggling to make ends meet, and Richmond is full of them. So I bring that into my story. The story set in Kew is about a working mother who has just gone back to work after her maternity break and is struggling with the idea of building her career afresh – because I have met such Mums.

So I am trying to explore life and people in the South Eastern suburbs of Melbourne through my stories.

Meelee: Thank you so much Chetna. We look forward to reading your stories.
Chetna: Well you can. Because some of them have been published as greeting cards with short stories in them, which are available at the festival bookshop.

The app StoryCity is available on iOs and Android smart phones for FREE. Chetna Prakash’s story Searching for Saloni is among Melbourne city stories.

The Melbourne Noir greeting cards with Chetna Prakash’s short stories in them are available at Avenue Bookstore (Swan Street, Richmond), Paperback Bookshop (Bourke Street, Melbourne CBD) and ElthamBookshop (970 Main Rd, Eltham).

Friday, February 10, 2017

Celebrity, Superheros, Social Media and Trump

This article was first published on The Big Smoke on November 17, 2016. 
Now that the unexpected and the horrible has happened, it’s time to make the initial cut in the post-mortem of the cadaver called “liberal politics”.
The question that all liberals are asking is: How is it that a vindictive, sexist narcissist has become the leader of the free world under our watch?
How did we not see this coming?
The factors that have led to this outcome are complex, interconnected and multifaceted. Many of these are already being discussed robustly – globalisation, an over-emphasis on political correctness, the Clinton baggage, the role played by third-party candidates.
But I want to explore three less-discussed factors that I think the intellectual classes should have picked up on. They relate to the culture in which we live, and each have unwittingly done the groundwork for Donald Trump.

The cult of the nothing celebrity

I came across the Kardashian phenomenon eight years ago in London, when I encountered a long line of very young girls queuing up to meet Kim Kardashian, who was there to launch a line of perfumes. They were clearly excited to be meeting their role model.
Reality TV stars used to be second rate celebrities but Kardashian changed that. She is a phenomenon built brick-by-brick through one objectifying selfie after another. And at the foundations of this phenomenon lie a sex tape (possibly self-leaked) and a reality TV show. 
What appalled me was the failure of our intellectual class to critique the phenomenon. Some merely saw her as an entertainer. Others saw her ability to control and use her own life and body as entertainment for people as pure genius. In the meantime, she amassed millions, proving to the world, and most dangerously to our children, that success lay in relentless, blithe and shameless self-promotion.
Read more on The Big Smoke

Author Interview: Vulnerable children need our engagement

This interview was published on August 30, 2016.
Every Tuesday over the last month, a unique experiment has been taking place at Seaford Park Primary School in Melbourne. The best-selling children’s book author and publisher Susannah McFarlane has been getting together with Grade 3 and 4 students at the school to explore their inner authors. They have been discussing story ideas, getting them down on paper, working on illustrations, and learning to edit and then market their own writing. On September 6, each child will celebrate their books being “published” with a celebratory book launch at the school.
The setting wouldn’t seem unusual were Seaford Park a school in one of Melbourne’s more affluent neighbourhoods. However, nearly half the children at Seaford Park belong to the lowest quarter of socio-educational advantage. Many children start school behind their peers around Australia, and continue to lag behind in their literacy skills. Improving the students’ reading and writing skills is one of the school’s top priorities, which is why it partnered with Ardoch Youth Foundation, an education charity that supports children and young people in disadvantaged communities.
Ardoch brought the school and Susannah together. Susannah is one of the charity’s ambassadors and a long time supporter, and her book series such as the EJ12 Girl Hero and EJ Spy School series (for girls) and Boy Vs Beasts (for boys) are staple with primary school children across Australia. For the school, to have Susannah – also a former publisher and Managing Director of Egmont Books in London and Hardie Grant Egmont in Melbourne, as well as an author of over 50 children’s books – meet its students and work with them was a coup.
For Literacy and Numeracy Week, we caught up with Susannah to find out why she cares about the literacy skills of Australia’s vulnerable children.

What spurred you to become a children’s book author?

I started my publishing career as a book editor, and went on, over 13 different jobs in marketing and publishing, to become the Managing Director of Egmont Books in London and then co-found Hardie Grant Egmont in Melbourne. The thought of turning to the author side and writing my own books was inspired by my own children. The first series I published back in Australia was Zac Power, a spy series for reluctant-reading boys, inspired by my own reluctant-reading son, Edvard. Similarly the first series I wrote, EJ12 Girl Hero, was inspired by wanting to boost the self-confidence of my daughter Emma, then 10.
Read more on The Big Smoke.

Why cultural appropriation of Yoga doesn't apply to Indians

This article was published in The Big Smoke on April 8, 2016.
I woke up today to an email by my mother-in-law, who loves stirring me up. It was a Fairfax article by a Melbourne-based lawyer of Indian origin, Kamna Muddagouni, lamenting the cultural appropriation of yoga by the West. Provocatively titled “Why white people need to stop saying namaste”, it railed against the commodification of y
oga, which she saw as just another example of the West’s wider ignorance about Hinduism and South Asian culture. She felt much “othered” by it.
Her argument neatly fell into the tried-and-tested post-colonial framework, which goes something like this. We, the Indians, were colonised by the West. Cultural domination was a big part of it. The selective cultural appropriation that we continue to see with “white people” wearing bindis, practicing yoga and eating Indian is a continuation of that domination and oppression.
Now, our culture will be converted into something that it is not, and peddled back to us. We must control how our culture is practiced, and anyone modifying it to make it more relatable and suitable to himself/herself, is not just being inauthentic, he/she is being offensive.
I find such arguments difficult to swallow because of a particular French lady who once came to Mumbai and gave my younger sister a hard time.
Read more on The Big Smoke

Writings of Warhol and Weiwei

This article was published on The Big Smoke on February 27, 2016.

I had an odd thought as I was walking home after viewing the Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei exhibition for the first time last December. The massive exhibition brings together nearly 300 works of art by the two artists, including paintings, photographs, prints, sculptures, films, documentaries and music, to name a few.
As I walked, I suddenly wondered if I too was an artist? I had never thought of myself as an artist. I write. I usually write blogs about art created by “real” artists, but what if my writing was a form of sculpture? After all, it involves expressing an idea. It is about evoking an emotion. It involves many tricky decisions towards those two ends. What words to use? How many? Should I keep this sentence to one word? Or do I let it flow and flow? Both will evoke a different response in the audience. One will stop them short and make them think. The other will carry them along on a journey. Each decision makes my writing a unique piece of work because no two writers will ever discuss the same idea in exactly the same words.
Hallelujah! I, too, was a sculptor. I make word sculptures.
Read more on The Big Smoke.

Ai Weiwei takes on the West

This article was first published in The Big Smoke on February 13, 2016.
Ai Weiwei is in the news again. Only this time, it is not for criticising the Chinese government; instead, turning his focus westward, to critique the European countries for their policies toward Syrian refugees.
In January, when the Danish government ruled in favour of seizing the assets of asylum seekers (mostly Syrian refugees) to pay for their resettlement, he closed down an ongoing exhibition in Copenhagen in protest. A week later, he posed on a Greek beach in reference to the drowned Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi. 
As is common with Weiwei, the image quickly went viral on social media.
The photo marks a big shift in the life of Weiwei, an artist most known for his outspoken criticism of the communist government of China. Last August, he moved to Berlin with his family after more than 20 years in Beijing. The image marks his first strong political statement against his new home, and with it, shifts his somewhat cosy relationship with the West. He is on to us, and we are on to him.
Read more on The Big Smoke.

India, Australia and January 26th: Contrasting Views on Colonisation

This article was first published in The Big Smoke on January 26, 2016.
Becoming an Australian after 34 years of being Indian has mostly involved progress for me. On most social and economic indicators, Australia beats India hands down. My family is safer and healthier in Australia than it would be in India. Unfortunately, politically and ideologically, I have regressed. And January 26th forces me to confront this regression.
As an Indian, I used to celebrate January 26th as the Indian Republic Day, the day on which my country declared itself a modern democratic republic (in 1951) after more than 200 years of British rule. Instead, as an Australian, I have to celebrate the day on which my new country started on the path of colonisation.
Don’t get me wrong. I have no axe to grind with the white people of British descent. I am honestly over colonisation of India. Yes, it was a general nightmare for my people but unlike in many other countries, when India gained independence, most British people upped and left, mostly back to the UK.
Growing up in India three decades later, I only saw a sea of brown faces around me. If colonial history existed at all for me, it was in textbooks, charming old buildings and occasional street names or public statues. It is rather hard to remain angry at buildings and statues (especially good looking ones), when the people behind them are long gone.
Read more on The Big Smoke.

How the childhoods of Weiwei and Warhol inspired their art.

This article was first published on The Big Smoke on January 16, 2017.
Viewers and critics love going Freudian on artists, digging into their childhood and personal lives in search for clues that may reveal new m
eanings in their works of art. Sometimes, the connections between their life and experiences are strong and visceral. Other times they are not.
In this article, we will look at where and how the childhoods and personal lives of Ai Weiwei and Andy Warhol have influenced their art. (Their works are jointly on display at the National Gallery of Victoria until April 24).
Weiwei’s childhood can be described by one word – traumatic. His father Ai Qing was a celebrated Chinese poet. Though a fervent member of the Communist Party, he fell victim to Mao’s infamous purges of the intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution of the 1950s. His crime? He wrote a poem calling for greater tolerance for different voices.
Read more on The Big Smoke.

What does Warhol and Weiwei's Art tell us about America and China?

This article was first published on The Big Smoke on January 2, 2016. 

What if I told you that Andy Warhol predicted that the crude, brash, look-at-me Donald Trump would one day be a popular candidate aspiring for world domination via the American presidency?
He didn’t. But his art did. The story goes that an art dealer Muriel Latow told Warhol: “The thing that means more to you and that you like more than anything else in the world is money. You should paint pictures of money.” Warhol said, “That’s wonderful”, and he did. Over the years, he created several stark paintings and prints of the dollar symbol and dollar bills. There is nothing subtle about these works: they are literally large dollar symbols painted on canvas and prints of one and two dollar bills.
Later in his book THE Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) he explained these works. “I like money on the wall,” he wrote. “Say you were going to buy a $200,000 painting. I think you should take that money, tie it up, and hang it on the wall. Then when someone visited you, the first thing they would see is the money on the wall.”
In recognizing the crass love for money in himself and others, and confronting us with it in all its crudeness, he revealed something about America. The unabashed reverence of money above everything else. Many films, books and works of art have explored this love but none as crudely as Warhol and his dollar paintings. It is a crudeness that is only matched by Donald Trump and his vulgar references to his billions. That he is the leading Republican candidate is a tribute to Warhol’s America.
Good artists invariably capture something intangible about the societies they live in. Sometimes, it is direct and intentional. Other times, it appears unconsciously in their exploration of society and of themselves as a product of it.
Read more on The Big Smoke.

The history of mass media through the art of Warhol and Weiwei

This article was first published on The Big Smoke on December 26, 2015. 

Have you ever stood in from an artwork and just thought “What the fuck?” I have. I have often wondered what I’m doing here – I have two kids, a full-time job, a full-time husband, and a full laundry basket, kitchen sink and rubbish bin waiting for me at home. So, why am I spending my time blinking at this… thing?
I don’t know about you but, over the years, I have found my answer.
I’ve stood in front of Mondrian’s cubes (1920s), Pollock’s drips (1950s), Koon’s shiny balloon dogs (1990s) and Delvoye’s giant shit-making machine Cloaca (2000), not just because it was a sensory experience (including watching food being digested in a machine and coming out as poop) but also, because upon reflection, they invariably help me understand the times we live in a bit better.
Mondrian’s neat cubes capture on canvas the coldness of modernism: the idea that there exists some form of supreme, machine-like, timeless, spaceless, context-less beauty that works for all. Pollock’s mad drippy paintings speak of America’s individualism, where individual achievement and self-fulfillment trumps all. Koon’s shiny balloon dogs show how we have embraced child-like silliness as a legitimate emotion for adults. And Delvoye’s shit-maker literally symbolises post-modern irony, where everything is shit, but it’s ok as long as we can smirk about it. That I can have these profound reflections in a matter of minutes, accompanied by a sensory experience, is an intellectual high.
Of course, some artists do it better than others. Both Warhol and Weiwei are masters at it. So how what epiphanies can we have from the massive Andy Warhol-Ai Weiwei exhibition at the NGV that brings together 300 works by the two artists? In this article, I will discuss one.
Warhol and Weiwei’s works are 3D representations of one the biggest disruption of our times: why new media powered by the Internet hit mainstream media in the gut.
Read more on The Big Smoke.

Warhol, Weiwei and Me: An introspective introduction to Art

This article was first published on The Big Smoke on December 19, 2015.
A week ago the National Gallery of Victoria did something uncharacteristic. It put on an exciting show. Added to which, it isn’t a show curated elsewhere and then shipped here. It is a bona fide NGV product. It has been conceived, conceptualized and curated by the gallery, and it brings together the works of two giants, the American artist Andy Warhol, who died at the age of 59 in 1987, and the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who enters his 59th this year.
This venture is entitled simply Andy Warhol – Ai Weiwei.
Warhol requires no introduction. Even in the unlikely chance that you have not heard of him, his aesthetics and philosophy touch every life experiencing American soft power, that is, the allure of its culture and values. He lives in our embrace of a brash consumerist, media-driven American culture; in our love for money, fashion, media, brands, celebrity, and above all, self.
Every time you gorge on a celebrity’s divorce, near-divorce, plastic surgery, and other miseries while chomping on a packet of chips, you live Warhol’s art. Every time you buy a limited edition Coca-Cola glass and give it place of pride on your desk, Warhol grins in his grave. Every time you vote a participant out of a reality show, fashion quixotic attire from jumble sale odds and ends, or capture random, mundane details of your life on camera and share it with the world, you are acting both muse and protégé to Warhol. You are participating in art, pop art to be exact.
Read more on The Big Smoke.