Archive for October, 2009

7 October, 2009

Move Your Blooming Arse!

This is a gripe about a trip with a few inconveniences. The Amtrak train that I was on was heading its peaceable way to Boston from Philly when its engine conked. As a woman with a near psychotic schedule, I was not overly perturbed to be given an extra hour on what I assumed would be a marginally delayed train. I smiled – and typed – through the walking-speed crawl toward New Rochelle, and unhurriedly gathered my belongings to transfer to the train headed to New Haven in New Rochelle. On that train I met a man, a father of two named Michael (one of my two favorite names, the other being Andrew), here visiting from Melbourne, Australia, who was a good conversationalist (we touched on the American health care system, public education, writing, Neil Postman and Tibetan and Theravada Buddhism), and easy on the eye. What was there to complain about? But I had to get off at New Haven, and there my sang froid began to rip and tare.

First, with a hundred milling passengers who were, by now, delayed by about an hour and a half, came an announcement that we were not to board the next train headed to Boston unless we had tickets for that particular train. Did I listen? Hell no. I had a reading to get to in Boston and there was no way I was going to miss it. So, board I did, along with a few other brave souls. Then I had to stand from New Haven to Boston and, unlike in Sri Lanka, there were no open doors to make that less claustrophobic and even thrilling. It was just a business of standing on a train with other disgruntled people, most ill-equipped by girth or height or age or type of baggage to squat or lean with any degree of comfort. I tried my best to dispatch a headache by alternating between trying to finish the book I had been cogitating over, Preeta Samarasan’s Evening Is the Whole Day, listening to Pitbull and Lou Bega, and texting my waiting friends in Boston. And third, I was forced to consider – with increasing outrage – all the able-bodied types who continued to warm their seats while old ladies and old gentlemen were struggling to stay upright while holding onto their luggage and whatever solid supports they could find.

People, it isn’t chivalrous to get up and give your seat to the elderly, pregnant women or children, it is basic human decency. It should be a hard-wiring in your brain that boots your arse out of your seat without you even having to think about it. It happens a thousand times a day in a thousand other situations around the world. It happened all my life when I lived in Sri Lanka. I was sometimes the benefactor, sometimes the one who reaped the comfort of another’s grace. I never once, in all my years in Sri Lanka, ever saw a pregnant woman, an older person of either gender, or a little child stand on a bus and the buses were invariably crowded.

So what is it with us here in America? What makes it possible for the limber of body and the, hopefully, blessed of mind, make eye contact with other human beings who have a need we can meet, register that fact, and then turn away or back to whatever it is that preoccupies us? To our laptops and iPods and books on tape and books on paper and newspapers and whatever else? I have to believe that it is our collective agreement to disengage from each other in this every-man/woman/child-for him/herself culture we have constructed around us. We don’t simply not care, we don’t see. We don’t connect unless there is something “in it” for us.

Somewhere toward Boston a seat opened up as one of the afore-mentioned individuals reached their destination. The seat was closest to me, and although I assumed it would be okay therefore for me to sit in it – by now there were only three of us standing and all of us were about the same age – I turned to the woman next to me and inquired, politely, “do you want to sit there?” This is what you would do back home in Sri Lanka. You would ask, and the other person would graciously say, “oh no, you take it.” Whichever one of you got the seat, the other person would at least feel acknowledged as having had a similar need. But I was not home in Sri Lanka. I was home in America. The woman said, “Oh, yes, I was going to sit there.” I went back to my book, leaving her to push past me to get to the seat which she occupied for all of about ten minutes before she had to get off. Getting up she told me “you can have my seat now.” I said nothing. I continued to stand the rest of the way. I wanted nothing to do with such people, nor with the places in which their sorry bottoms had rested. It was idiotic, I know, it proved nothing and only increased the fatigue that had by now enveloped me on this journey that had already lasted ten hours, several of those on my feet, but it made me feel holier-than-thou. Which was about all there was left to feel until I could reach Boston where a flurry of friends – most of them descendants of immigrants but an equal number born here – could restore my faith in basic human goodness.

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3 October, 2009

I Do Not Hate Men

img_1505On the road with the book, there’s a question people keep coming back to that I find a little odd, and it concerns women and the strength of the female characters in my novel. I think Eric Forbes’ interview with me is the best example of this, and my response to him is the answer I usually give:

How did you go about creating two strong female protagonists?
I love women. I am drawn to them, I trust them, I think highly of them and I appreciate their gifts. Which, I think, makes me consider their strengths, the source of their resilience, and the difficulties they face with a particular empathy. It has to do with my gladness that they exist and that I am one of them, more than anything I could set out to do in terms of “creating” characters. There’s the famous quote “there are no ugly women, only women who do not know how to make themselves beautiful,” something like that. In my world, I don’t believe that there are weak-willed women, only women who have not realised their strengths. Strength is, for me, the default setting for women. They can improve upon it or disregard it, but it is always there.

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So there it is. That is what I think. But apparently it is not possible to express a love of women without generating the accompanying suspicion, “she hates men.” Just the other day, after what I thought had been a very enlightened discussion about the novel, a woman turned to the assembled and explained me to them as doing just that. So for the record, I want to say, categorically, I do not hate men. img_9979I am comfortable around them, having grown up with them – older brothers and male cousins and my mother’s male students made up my domestic landscape as a child – in a way that made boys a fact of life, not some mythical beasts to go chasing after or summon to my side with some beguiling charm. I was a tree-climbing, roof-scaling, wall-leaping, skinny, androgynous being who could, most of the time, outrun and outdo the boys. My mother has been known to haul me off to the barber along with her sons and I have emerged, at the age of nine with sideburns. I kid you not.

Perhaps being free not to have to define myself as being “other than a boy,” since I was quite clearly happy as a clam all but being one myself, img_1678made me look toward women with a particularly interested eye; and what I saw, growing up, were beautiful and intelligent and, often, burdened girls and women who displayed courage in spades. No woman in my life taught me to be afraid of anything. (I learned fear all by myself in America – and it has to do with psychopaths in parking garages and Hannibal Lecter types complete with night-vision goggles; men who want to hide women or eat women!!) What I grew up wanting to be was a woman like those women of my childhood: women with inner poise and resources of the spirit that nobody could touch or mangle or take from them.

What one wants to be or admires, usually informs the way in which a person approaches the world. I expect the women I meet to have a depth to the conduct of their lives that comes from inhabiting a world still tipping in favor of men, that their stories offer the kind of complexity I enjoy imagining, that their laughter has no bitter spring. I love women: I love the beauty of their physical selves, the abundance of their inner lives, their ability to see the threads in a tapestry, not just the picture it depicts.

I also love men. The men in my adult life have been and are a combination of the following: img_1825witty, smart, decent, funny, athletic, artsy, well-read human beings. Most of them can dance and are comfortable saying so. They are men who are confident enough in their masculinity that they can confess to a lack, define themselves by their thoughts and commitments, not their jobs and salaries, and who can be just as androgynous as grown men as I was as a girl. I approach the world as a woman who is at ease among them, who likes their company and can play all their games, and who is comfortable becoming any of the relatively harmless variations of female that men enjoy having around them. I never change who I am when I am around women and I have never been around a woman who has required that of me. And that is the simple difference in how I think about men and women. There is only a way of visiting with the world that finds me less on guard and more deeply engaged around women than around men. There is no hating involved.

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The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


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