Why We Write

November 16, 2011

(published on Sawt Al Niswa web-zine on November 15th 2011)

Is writing a desire to confess? A cry in the dark, a desire to be known, to be read? In her 1997 essay, quoting the poet Muriel Rukseyer, the American poet and social activist Adrienne Rich said, “If there were no poetry on any day in the world… poetry would be invented that day. For there would be an intolerable hunger.”1 Sometimes this hunger to leave a mark of one’s existence seems like some sort of perverse willfulness. At other times, it becomes absolutely necessary.

I write in order to heal my brain, organically. We create stories and re-create them, every few months, it seems, to deal with the shifting and boiling temperature of inner life. In this “white heat” of writing, time dissolves and the past and the future converge into one moment where the tip of the pen meets the paper. (Or when the mechanical imprint of the character appears on the screen; the psuedo-ink?) In writing, I am calm, I hope I am calm. I will tell myself that everything is smooth, has a surface, is reflective… Keeping a journal allows one to chart the ups and downs of daily life as well as the divisions between our personal, professional, relational and private lives. Where poetry breaks down these barriers in a flash of insight, narratives can build them back up.

If I had to choose, I would choose to sing rather than to write. What is it about singing that cuts to the heart, that opens an immediate pathway between the singer and the listener? A song appears once and is gone, it is bound to a particular moment in time and to a place, a stage. All of the feelings, moods, and vibrations of an experience pulse together when listening to a song performed live. It strikes me that a singer onstage (or a spoken-word poet for that matter) is like a political activist delivering a speech. She cannot cling to her mantle, her power, after using it or else it becomes a shroud. She knows that her power lies in mediating between the world and power, and that is her gift.

Justice, to me, is a big tawny bird with feathers of copper and gold. She eats truth, she is a woman covered with blood, having birthed herself and cut the cord. She is a painter, an image weaver, singing out her reel of films and string… the bird filled with mercy, a woman in a cup, a ribbon, smiling wholly, she erases everything and sings her own song, like the phoenix, who appears to sing out its unique song, to make words into arrows and into necklaces to celebrate what is being done right and all the work left to do. For, “[f]reedom is not necessarily a path, it is an ether into which one plunges… where one merges with what was held back from ecstasy…”2 If writing were not political/ i would tear my hair out/ it’s not delicate, aesthetic butterfly/ wings coated with a fine silver dust/ it is not the underside of clouds…

As a woman I have been inspired by writers, song- makers, artists and poets. I suppose what I always shouted at my brother, “it’s not fair!” is still the guiding truth of my life. It was this choice that propelled me to switch majors from Comparative Literature to Anthropology. I wanted a discipline more in tune with political and cultural life. The political theorist and philosopher Hannah Arendt named the joy one experiences when acting in public, “public happiness.” Public happiness is the great treasure of all of those who live through revolutionary times and feel the exhilaration of acting in such a way as to make a difference in the world. One sees the joy in the faces and voices of the protesters. However, this is not true, re: Arendt, that the signposts we used have worn away; they have just been re-invented, re-inscribed with new meanings. Anthropology, then, has more in common with archaeology than I thought. We dig up forgotten meanings, excavate and brush off old concepts and forgotten texts that may help us to see the world we live in a new light.

We know that one cannot live by bread alone, but writing, in particular academic writing so often seems an unnecessary embellishment on top of the sounds and speech of everyday life. At the same time, as academics, as teachers and writers, we must be responsible witnesses, to try to create platforms for thought and reflection. Academics must be activists in this era of propaganda and spinning of truths so that our own faces are no longer recognizable in the stories we are forced to create or tell about ourselves in order to pass muster with the architecture of corporate life. We must create a world where knowledge can flourish and help to build society, rather than serve destruction and war.

Our bureaucratic institutions thrive on cultures of paperwork. We gather facts and we sort them and file them. Our libraries fill with books. Yet, at a certain point, the time for writing must come to an end. It is not acceptable anymore to bear witness to the daily injustices. We must translate our ethics into practice, in the very slippery and incomplete ways that they must be. The time for careful discourse is over, we must say something, anything. It is time to go down to the streets. If you are not willing to put your body where your mouth is, then your words have no real meaning. Writing must live between the body and speech. It must live as a text. It is to this end that we write, again and again, because the distance between experience and expression is always too big a gap.

Review: Bergdorf Blondes

February 24, 2009



“I guess Charlie was my Angel, if there’s such a thing as an analogy between men you hate and scents you hate.” The capitalization in this sentence is the key. It separates sounding frighteningly naive from sounding passably suave. The heroine of Plum Sykes’ novel Bergdorf Blondes, the kitschy and neurotic moi, spends all of her time trying to prove that she does not have a brain when her spot-on observations and cultural and literary allusions reveal otherwise. She parties, spends and drinks with the vapid glitteratti in New York, Paris, Cannes and Gstaad. Nevertheless, her heartbreaking fragility concealing something like a sarcastic pantheress makes us endeared to her  and celebrate her good fortune and tolerate her sorrows and moods. “To name a sensibility, to draw its contours and to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.” Sontag, Susan. “Notes on ‘Camp’” Essays. 1966. 

“For a brief second I had an image of myself surrounded by ravenous, unreliable men on a sinking ship, but I shook myself out of it.” (227) So when she says something like: “Can I admit something, very much on the d-l? I used to think that being somewhere chic with lots of room service and Christian Liagre furniture makes you happy. It doesn’t.” (243) Lest you think that there will be some kind of moral redemption, our heroine is not about to give up her pampered lifestyle. You cannot feel angry with her for making the same mistakes over and over again. Somewhere, no matter how on the d-l, she knows exactly what she is doing and why. Her protagonists are not the coddled dolls of centuries past. They accept their “One minute Jazz was another innocent lumber heiress, the next she was a ruthless satellite of the Valentino fashion empire.” (289) 

Still, she is not exactly a feminist. “ Athough I generally find the more career a girl has, the more man she thinks about.” (264) Between reminiscing about the English countryside, a place that she has not at all forgotten despite her claims to contrary. “There is nothing in the world that compares with England on a warm summer’s day.” (267) 

Still, her wit reaches high, leavening her sometime dense prose. Yes, I know I called it dense, but there really is a lot of material in there if you want to get technical. Fortunately, Ms. Sykes saves us with: “It’s good to know there are some people J. Crew will never reach.” (275) The book ends in a whirl of peach fizz… (literally) We can close our books and go back to our snug little worlds, thankful that we are not rich but still wanting their clothes… ” The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful . . . Of course, one can’t always say that. Only under certain conditions, those which I’ve tried to sketch in these notes.” -Susan Sontag, Notes on “Camp” 1966.

Ballet Flats

December 17, 2008

Ballet Flats: Changing the Nature of Power

During Barack Obama’s acceptance of the Democratic nomination for president, seeing Michelle Obama in ballet flats brought home to me a real sense of equality grounded in the practicality of something so simple as what a woman may choose to wear on her feet. Being “on one’s feet” for many hours a day has come to symbolize the working woman and man’s sacrifice and dignity, however for women it has also connoted a special type of pain. 

Perhaps this pain was connected to Mater Eve’s pain in childbirth, given to her by an angry vengeful God. Or to a sadistic Frenchman’s appetite for elevated legs. We have been fed since then a steady diet of images of powerful women walking around in heels, raising children in heels, striding proudly into the future in heels. Whether or not that accurately reflects a woman’s reality is debatable yet heels remained the only choice for women who wanted to present a put-together image, an image of beauty and strength tied together by the social, biological or psychological need to attract and please men. 

Heels remained the only choice for an night out, a date, or a wedding. Worn with a power suit, heels made women taller and more savage. It does take a certain amount of grit or masochism to wear them for a whole eight hours. Recently however the tides have been beginning to turn. As an homage to punk, worn with leggings, ballet flats emerged onto the scene in late 2006. They were comfortable, chic and innocent. Teenagers embraced them in droves. Then professional women started wearing them to work. They hung on tight until designers started paying as much attention to flats as they did to heels. They are now available in any color, material, and price. At present, heels on the runway have reached catastrophic heights, perhaps because they sense their own obsolescence? 

Women will always continue to wear heels but like the women on NBC’s Lipstick Jungle (a successor to Sex and the City’s outdated moral code), they will wear them for their own pleasure as part of a carefully considered outfit and no one will tell them otherwise. Famous tall women including Carla Sarkozy, Michelle Obama and Angelina Jolie can now wear flats in public, on very official occasions while still maintaining a polished image. Admittedly, this is (at least in Mme. Sarkozy’s case) a calculated attempt not to overshadow men but it is an achievement nonetheless for the millions of career women who now have a comfortable option to wear with their power suits and pencil skirts. 

As any woman will tell you, that comfort cannot be overstated- three cheers for the ballet flat and for the changing nature of power! Next up- media pundits will criticize John McCain for not getting Botox or a personal stylist… Obama’s GQ image will usher in an era of male masochism that will help to even the scales, and, God willing, someone will hire a babysitter. We can’t be everything you know, us modern women, but spared of a little foot deformation, we are on our way to the top of the world. 


Note: In February, this article appeared to support my hypothesis.