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Reflections prompted by the death of Tayeb Salih

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tayeb_salih.jpgI was greatly saddened to learn today that, earlier this week, Tayeb Salih died.  Salih wrote Season of Migration to the North, a book that is, in my estimation, the 20th century's most perceptive work about power dynamics (West and East, white and black, male and female, Christian and Muslim).  It is also gorgeously written (as rendered in translation by Denys Johnson-Davies).

Born in Sudan, Salih's views were nuanced and complex, suggesting that he had personal experience striking a balance between traditional, even pre-modern, roots and a contemporary urban existence.  In his writing, he was neither ideological nor romantic; in Season, he didn't glorify the simple peasant life or uniformly condemn colonization.  Sex, like birth and death, humiliation and anger, is an aspect of human behavior without which you cannot understand the whole; and as such, he wrote openly about it.

Contrast Salih's writing, and his legacy, with the unfortunate situation of surrounding the Emirates Airlines International Festival of Literature in Dubai.  After the Festival declined Geraldine Bedell's new book, The Gulf Between Us, because it contains a gay character, Margaret Atwood announced that she'd be boycotting the Festival, consistent with her obligations as vice-president of International PEN

Conference organizers objected that the topic of homosexuality would offend readers in the region, but this reason seems inadequate.  People who might be offended, after all, are free not to read the book.  In any event, ideas that offend may nonetheless have value. 

Homosexuality, like the forced marriage, subsequent rape, and murders that occur in Season, is a part of human experience.  Whether we acknowledge it or ignore it, whether it offends us or attracts us, homosexuality exists.  Without examining it openly, we impoverish our understanding of the whole.

Season, which was originally written in Arabic, is widely-acknowledged as one of the foundational works of modern Arab literature.  A literary festival in Dubai has options as to the traditions on which it wants to build, and Salih's legacy is one of them.  I am profoundly grieved that, in the wake of Salih's death, it is not doing so.  An Arab literature grounded in, and expanding upon, the richness of Salih's understanding of humanity would be a resource for the whole world.

(Photo from Canadian Broadcasting Company.)

An injured body

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I love reading novels for three reasons, primarily.  The first is relief of boredom.  The second is the pleasurable stimulation I experience when I'm engaged in a story.  And the third is the comfort I derive from novels.  Learning from Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, for example, that the contours of generation struggle have changed remarkably little since the nineteenth century made me feel wonder at the consistency of human travails throughout time and the support we can find in the written records of our forebears.

That said, I didn't expect to find comfort in novels for the irritation and insecurity occasioned by the current state of the publishing industry.  The decline in reading rates, the competition from the Internet and video games, the market preference for memoirs/how-to's/biz books, the current economic downturn -- these harbingers of the death of the novel I took to be burdens I'd have to shoulder without aid from authors of an earlier era.  How often I'd thought my publishing woes would be solved if only I'd been writing during the heyday of Grove Press, in the years of Max Perkins . . .

But Jane Austen set me straight.  "[I]f the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?  I cannot approve of it. . . . Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body," Austen writes, taking her stand in Northanger Abbey.  "Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried.  From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers."

Ah me.  To be assuaged with such thorny balm -- the assurance that writing novels would be a miserable pursuit whenever I'd be born; to be comforted with the knowledge that reports of the death of the novel are greatly exaggerated -- and have been so for some two hundred years; I can only love reading novels even more.

Scarlett and Emma

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Notwithstanding the tremendous differences in style, setting and story between Gone with the Wind and Emma (as well as the 121 years between their publications), Scarlett O'Hara and Emma Woodhouse are remarkably similar.  They are both strong-willed and rich.  They are both treated by society as beautiful, but handled by their authors somewhat less deferentially.  (The first clause of Gone with the Wind is, "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful."  And Emma, though pretty, is second in beauty to Harriet Smith.)  They are both quick witted but narrowly focused in their interests.  They are both selfish and lack self-awareness.  And, perhaps most importantly, at the time we meet them, they have -- neither of them -- been in love.

"I never have been in love: it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall," says Emma (at page 75).  The fact that, by the end of the book, she has fallen in love with Mr. Knightley is what salvages her from perpetual bratdom.  In gaining self-awareness of her own heart, she grows up.  Most significantly, she ventures beyond the safety of her self-sufficient life, willing to risk the ever-present failure that lurks when any of us trades our solitary satisfactions for the hope of greater bliss in pairs.

Scarlett, on the other hand, thinks she's in love with Ashley, but her love for him has always struck me as false.  Ashley doesn't possess any of the qualities -- pragmatism, forthrightness, gumption -- that Scarlett prizes most highly, and perhaps it is for this reason that she can't comprehend him.  Ashley's function is not as the love of her life, but as the shield to protect her from ever truly falling in love.

For all the horror that Scarlett confronts, the one thing she fears is falling in love.  Scarlett, who reacts to the atrocities of war by committing passionately to survival, equates that survival with self-sufficiency.  She can envision (indeed, tolerate) a survival that burdens her with dependents for whom she must provide; but she cannot fathom a survival in which she is dependent -- even in a situation of mutual and reciprocal dependency, as (presumably is possible) in marriage.  Falling in love would deprive her of the independent self-sufficiency that she feels is necessary for her existence.

A woman who doesn't want to fall in love is a challenging character.  Jane Austen remarked that Emma was a character that only she could like, and Scarlett is far from sympathetic.  And yet both characters are compelling, both books masterpieces and -- not incidentally -- popularly acclaimed. 

Perhaps that combination of tough character and popular appeal arises from the humiliation both women endure.  Emma is mortified when Mr. Knightley criticizes her sharp treatment of Miss Bates.  Scarlett is humiliated so profoundly and so frequently that Margaret Mitchell appears almost sado-masochistic. 

That audiences can endure strong female characters as long as they get their comeuppance is received wisdom.  But maybe audiences are also warming to an uncomfortable truth fundamental to both tales: openness to the humiliations and tribulations of dependency is a prerequisite to falling in love; but a refusal to countenance such indignity is no protection against it.   
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