Another Pile of Books I’m Reading in the Second Half of 2020

It’s been a while. I didn’t have any spare cash for a bit, then I had slightly too much (as far as the Finanzamt is concerned), and then I realised I’d decided not to blog for a few weeks (thanks pandemic and enragingly piss poor response by Berlin, Germany, Europe, and so very very many str8wyt men in all those places), and now see me trying to make an effort like showing up for the exam and everyone knows I didn’t do the work.

Yallah, a pile of books I’m reading (pretending to read) in the second half of 2020, to which I’ll add another pile because I dunno, not enough money to buy anything substantial but just enough to incur a hefty tax bill if I don’t spend it. Weird how poverty is emplaced through institutional, structural and legislative punishment.

All the poetry, and I do mean all the poetry is entirely because of Omar Sakr. Him and Sunny Singh (of the Jhalak Prize) on Twitter are responsible for a large chunk of my reading, whether directly or retweeting interesting people who turn out to be writers and poets.

So, Aria Aber’s Hard Damage, Ellen Van Neerven’s Throat, Sue Hyon Bae’s Truce Country, all poetry that moves me. It still feels odd to be reading poetry, though it’s been a year since Sakr’s The Lost Arabs and Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan’s Postcolonial Banter — just a year! Feels heaps longer. Yeah, poetry is hitting me right.

Also poetry, semi-poetry, poetry-ish, with a history in a festival, Rachel De-Lahay’s My White Best Friend: (And Other Letters Left Unsaid), mainly because I read anything with Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan in it.

Continuing the theme of books recommended by other authors, or cited in their bibliographies. Olivette Otele’s African Europeans: An Untold History, which I already blogged, but these six-monthly book dumps seem to deserve all the books. No idea where I heard about this, but either Twitter authors or one of the blogs I read. And from that, Geraldine Heng’s The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. Real-time internet archaeology as I write here, I likely read about both on In the Middle, the medieval studies blog, where, on Monday, Geraldine Heng responded to the hit-piece on her and this book.

Which reminded me of the double bind I periodically find myself in. The first time I personally experienced it was with JT LeRoy, who I read in the early-’00s and thought was a trans femme who I could relate to. Turned out JT only existed as a fiction of a white, cis woman, and she’s still making a profit and career off our lives. Funny how consequences slide off them like teflon. More recently it was Medieval PoC – who I used to contribute photographs of Black and Brown people in art when I was on my museum bender – and a deeply messy history going back years of her claiming Native, Roma, and other ancestry. And this year it’s been a regular feast of white cis women in academia and the arts getting sprung for building their careers on false claims of BIPoC ancestry. On the other side of the double bind, it’s white supremacy trying to flip medieval European history to its own agenda, and a ceaseless barrage of racism, misogyny, transphobia, and all the other shit against cis and trans BIPoC authors, academics, artists, very regularly from white, cis women in academia and the arts, like the 46-page (!!!) hit-piece Heng responds to.

I mean, I just wanna read books and have a good time and learn shit and be amazed and generally chill the fuck out with a bunch of words and instead it’s white people colouring up or white people doing hit jobs.

Last couple in the non-fiction pile, then. Peta Stephenson’s The Outsiders Within: Telling Australia’s Indigenous-Asian Story. The one she wrote before Islam Dreaming: Indigenous Muslims in Australia, which it turns out I may not have blogged either. That latter was a big one for me. And keeping on the Islam history thing, John M. Steele’s A Brief Introduction to Astronomy in the Middle East, recommended to me by Dr. Danielle Kira Adams of Lowell Observatory, and responsible for Two Deserts, One Sky — Arab Star Calendars (novel research things there).

Fiction, then. Science-fiction mostly. Becky Chambers, who I’ve been reading for the last few years and pretty content at the moment in reading another one from her, To Be Taught, If Fortunate. Another also from Charles Stross, Dead Lies Dreaming, though after fifteen years this might be the last I read from him, just not really doing it for me and the trans character is very written by a cis. Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, which I’ve already read, and the sequel Harrow the Ninth, which I’m currently reading / wading through it’s corpsey gore. Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius, Indigetrans colonial invasion sci-fi but not really sci-fi. And speaking of trans, Juno Dawson’s Wonderland, which I kinda liked but wished the literary fixation on Alice in Wonderland stories didn’t exist (same like I wish dance fixation on ‘reimagining’ Swan Lake and the classics didn’t exist).

Lucky last. Fiction but more like Chingona autobiography ghost story, Myriam Gurba’s Mean. Recommended to me by Vass. Thanks babe, she’s fucking with me.

That’s a lot, eh. Piling up, getting partly read then left, words look smaller than they used to and I need glasses but that means organising shit like ophthalmologist appointments and shelling out cash and fuck it I can squint. Though I wonder if the reason why I’m not reading as much as I used to is ’cos words in book form’s blurry all the time.

Reading: Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan — Postcolonial Banter

I cried the first time I saw Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan read This is not a humanising poem. And every time since. And when I read it just now because I wanted to quote it. Every time since the first I know what’s coming, and I tell myself, “Nah, I’m good, it’s not going to hit me like I remember it did,” I’ve got immunity now, I’ve read it so many times now, so, nah, not this time, silly, not this time. Every time.

Probably Twitter. Probably Omar J. Sakr, probably Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff. Probably that moment when science-fiction and fantasy had disappointed me again, not having the range, the political, social, personal, religious, aesthetic range, and finding that, so unexpectedly, in poets.

A conversation, outside my local café on Sonnenallee, talking political authors and all:
“D’ya know … ah shit, I forget her name, poet, Muslim, London, The Brown Hijabi?”
“Which one?”
“… ah, no, that’s the name she uses, The Brown Hijabi.”
“… Oh.”
“Yeah, anyway, she’s got a book coming out, forget what it’s called also. You should read it though.”

Postcolonial Banter. It’s her first collection of poetry. I love it. I love her. Alhamdulillah.

Michel Serres

More than Deleuze (with or without Guattari), more than Foucault, somewhat more than Derrida, so different to Butler, but like her someone I returned to again and again, for the quiet care and poetry, for the love of movement, one of that first group of philosophers I got introduced to by the same person at a moment in my life where they resonated, and — like only Butler from those names — continue to, 25 years on. I knew it was coming, likely sooner, but still, I lost my breath for an instant, I stopped.

The more I dance, the more I am naked, absent, a calculation and a number. Dance is to the body proper what exercise of thought is to the subject known as I. The more I dance, the less I am me. If I dance something, I am that something or I signify it. When I dance, I am only the blank body of the sign.

and

To dance is only to step aside and make room, to think is only to step aside and make room, give up one’s place.
To leave at last the page blank.

and

Laughter is that little noise, uttered in blank ecstasy.

Image

The Lost Arabs in Berlin

Omar Sakr in Berlin! Total score! In my long-standing fave (as in only) bookshop in Berlz, Saint George’s. And shoutout to Paul (the owner) who fed me a mini-donut when I rolled up in the midst of a sugar crash. Friends don’t let friends skip post-training feeds (unless it’s Ramadan, and then we’re all super-powered anyway).

And yeah, I’m reading poetry. Sci-fi has been a bit of a disappointment for a while, so I’m branching out along my infirmly followed guideline of, “Be the audience for people you care about,” wherever that takes me. If the people I care about are writing poetry, I am dead serious here for reading poetry. Omar’s Twit is heaps full of bangers, I’ve got half a dozen on order directly from his repping other writers, legit sorted for post-facial peel (cheers to Onyx for that delightful literal appellation of my near future) recovery reading.

To Move Freely, Again

I have a memory of doing this before, but apparently not for blogging. One of my current readings is Victor Mair’s 1994 translation of Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi, 莊子, 庄子), Wandering On The Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu. I have a memory also of not reading this ten years ago, and opting for David Hinton’s 1998 translation, Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters, possibly influenced by The Useless Tree in that decision. Hinton’s is far more poetic, and takes liberties with translation; Mair’s, regular contributor on Language Log and professor at University of Pennsylvania, is a deeply academic work, striving to make sense of multiple conflicting requirements, which results in some odd choices, like the neologism, tricent, for li, a third of a mile. Mair, though, is one of my long-term favourite writers on Chinese and East-Asian languages, so, obviously I was eventually going to read this.

There’s a passage in Hinton’s translation that I ended up using on my 404 page, which I originally wrote about after a crawl (for me) and enthusiastic spring (for Gala) up Waterfall Gully in Adelaide, ten years ago. This is the comparison I thought I’d blogged. Maybe it was in an email to someone, or notes for a work I was making at the time. Either way, I remember going on a journey down multiple translations of this passage, and comparing to the original (as in the received ‘original’), and doing my own translation. Which I repeated in an abbreviated manner writing this, because there’s nothing like staring at 2400 year old Classic Chinese on a grey Berlin Sunday.

David Hinton’s translation, Ch. II, §12, pp. 23–24:

Sufficient because sufficient. Insufficient because insufficient. Traveling the Way makes it Tao. Naming things makes them real. Why real? Real because real. Why nonreal? Nonreal because nonreal. So the real is originally there in things, and the sufficient is originally there in things. There’s nothing that is not real, and nothing that is not sufficient.

Hence, the blade of grass and the pillar, the leper and the ravishing [beauty] Hsi Shih, the noble, the snivelling, the disingenuous, the strange – in Tao they all move as one and the same. In difference is the whole, in wholeness is the broken. Once they are neither whole nor broken, all things move freely as one and the same again

Only one who has seen through things understands moving freely as one and the same. In this way, rather than relying on you own distinctions, you dwell in the ordinary. To be ordinary is to be self-reliant; to be self-reliant is to move freely; and to move freely is to arrive. That’s almost it, because to arrive is to be complete. But to be complete without understanding how – that is called Tao.

Victor Mair’s translation, Ch 2, §6, p. 16:

Affirmation lies in our affirming; denial lies in our denying. A way comes into being through our walking upon it; a thing is so because people say it is. Why are things so? They are so because we declare them to be so. Why are things not so? They are not so because we declare them to be not so. All things are possessed of that which we may say is so; all things are possessed by that which we may affirm. There is no thing that is not so; there is no thing that is not affirmable.

Thus, whether it be a tiny blade of grass, or a mighty pillar, a hideous leper or beauteous Hsi Shih, no matter how peculiar or fantastic, through the Way they all become one. To split something up is to create something else; to create something is to destroy something else; But for all things in general, there is neither creation nor destruction, for they all revert to join in Unity.

Only the perceptive understand that all things join in Unity. For this reason, they do not use things themselves but lodge in commonality. … It is all a result of their understanding the mutual dependance of “this” and “that.” To have achieved this understanding but not be conscious of why it is so is called “The Way.”

Mair deleted some passages (the ellipsis here), of which he said, “because they are spurious or because they are later commentaries and other types of interpolations that have been mistakenly incorporated into the text.”

In commonality there is use, a kind of use through joining. To join is to attain, and through suitable attainment, they are close to the Way.

And the Chinese text from James Legge translation in The Writings of Chuang Tzu, 1891:

可乎可,不可乎不可。道行之而成,物謂之而然。惡乎然?然於然。惡乎不然?不然於不然。物固有所然,物固有所可。無物不然,無物不可。

故為是舉莛與楹,厲與西施,恢恑憰怪,道通為一。其分也,成也;其成也,毀也。凡物無成與毀,復通為一。

唯達者知通為一,為是不用而寓諸庸。庸也者,用也;用也者,通也;通也者,得也。適得而幾矣。

因是已。已而不知其然,謂之道。

Reading: Lui Xiaobo — No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems

Reading: China Miéville — October: The Story of the Russian Revolution

I was not expecting a new China Miéville book, nor was I expecting — if one existed — it would be non-fiction. That the subject is the Russian Revolution, however, doesn’t surprise me at all.

This is one of those books that went from “I do not know this book,” to “This book is ready to be picked up from your favourite bookstore,” in about a week. Doesn’t matter that Russian history is not really my thing (exceptions for Russia and the Soviet Union in Central Asia and the Caucasus, or interacting with communist China), nor that communism in general leaves a bad taste in my mouth, it’s China Miéville, and I will always read him — yes, even his Between Equal Rights – A Marxist Theory of International Law, which gave me none of the pleasure his fiction does, even if I do read the latter for the politics.

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution has a super fine cover, very Russian Constructivism (shoutout to brilliant artist Andrea Guinn for this). I said to Paul in St George’s, “Nice cover!” ’cos it’s true, and I do rate books by their covers. And it’s hardback, so it’s an all-round fine reading experience on the corporeal level. I should probably start a Cover of the Year thing too, to go with my fiction and non-fiction books of the year. I think I shall. Come October (heh) when I do my yearly round-up, I’m gonna enthuse wildly over cover art. There’s been some bangers this year, but October might be the one.

Not all about cover art though, Frances, what’d you read? A book marking 100 years since the Russian Revolution covering the year of 1917 from January to October, one chapter per month, the initial chapter a succinct history of Russia and St. Petersberg leading into that first month, and finishing on a short, critical epilogue. Additionally, a Glossary of Personal Names (so many names; so many acronyms), and a Further Reading section, plus an Index, some maps of St. Petersburg — at the time called Petrograd, and a central sheaf of photos. It is a story. Miéville says so himself in his introduction, he is telling the story of historical events as a story-teller, and not so much as a historian or academic. Nonetheless, because he is a formidable story-teller, erudite, and indeed a specialist on Marxism and history, he writes a captivating and lucid narration of those months.

He says also, in the introduction, “… I am partisan. In the story that follows, I have my villains and my heroes. But, while I do not pretend to be neutral, I have striven to be fair, and I hope readers of various political hues will find value in this telling.” Being partisan then, I have little interest in Marxism as a political philosophy, nor Marx the man, nor do I have much beyond scorn for Lenin and the Revolution, all of which are the habitat of loud, white, European men telling the rest of us how we need to listen to them, and that none of their failures fall on Marxism because hand-waving reasons. Miéville skates along the edge of this in his epilogue, giving some legitimate reasons for why things went the way they did in concise and graspable sentences, yet I still feel Marxists protest too much. “If only ‘x’ hadn’t happened, or ‘y’ had done ‘z’, we’d all be living in communist paradise,” is what my acutely cynical and partisan sensibility takes away from this. Which is to say, that I read October at all is because I think Miéville is a fine writer, a favourite for over a decade, with a sharp political mind, even if he is some kind of Marxist.

There are a lot of men in this history. Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Bolsheviks, Monarchists, the Whites, others, it’s the easiest thing to write entire histories of the Revolution and never venture outside men. I appreciate that Miéville makes explicit effort to include the women and women’s organisations who were critical, women like Angelica Balabanoff, Maria Bochkareva, Catherine Breshko-Breshkovskaya, Alexandra Kollontai, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Maria Spiridonova , Ludmila Stahl, Vera Zasulich, all of whom get a mention in the Glossary. He also devotes pages to the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress (which I quoted here, and is probably worth buying the book for this alone), the Jadadist movement, the Muslim National Committee, the Union of Soviet Muslims.

A quick aside here about the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress, which I ended up tweeting about. The primary source for this, which Miéville includes in the Further Reading section (and I didn’t see at the time, so went off on my own fun research wandering, leading me to the same place), is Marianne Kamp’s paper Debating Sharia: the 1917 Muslim Women’s Congress in Russia, published in Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 27, No. 4, Winter 2015, available to read online.

Over the ten months and chapters of October, the story moves from the lightless and frozen days of deep winter to the heat and endless sun of summer back into grey and dim rain and snow. Time condenses. The first chapter covers centuries then decades, then years and months, then January; October reduces that to hours and parts of nights on single days. History rushes, then rushes again, finishing at 5am on the 26th, as dawn touches the night. We are left with an epilogue that stretches time back out, years and decades, as the Revolution grinds itself and the continent into autocracy.

I was wondering how to finish this. I wanted to say something like, “If you love China Miéville’s fiction, you’ll love this,” ’cos in many ways his novels are explorations of revolution, but that feels kinda glib. It’s more like this: If you love his novels like Embassytown, Kraken, or his Bas-Lag stories, Between Equal Rights will make you cry — unless you’re already partial to reading International Law, and you may or may not get a kick out of October, ’cos it’s non-fiction and non-fiction Miéville is a different writer from fiction Miéville however much he is telling a story here. But if Iron Council or Railsea are up in your Miéville faves, October will fit right in: It’s all about trains.

Quote

The All-Russian meeting of Muslims, called for by …

The All-Russian meeting of Muslims, called for by Muslim Duma deputies immediately after the February revolution, was fast approaching — but before this, on 23 April, delegates gathered in Kazan in Tatarstan for the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress. There, fifty-nine women delegates met before an audience 300 strong, overwhelmingly female, to debate issues including the status of Sharia law, plural marriage, women’s rights and the hijab. Contributions came from a range of political and religious positions, from socialists like Zulaykha Rahmanqulova and the twenty-two-year-old poet Zahida Burnasheva, as well as from the religious scholars Fatima Latifiya and Labiba Huseynova, an expert on Islamic law.

Delegates debated whether Quranic injunctions were historically specific. Even many proponents of trans-historical orthodoxy interpreted the texts to insist, against conservative voices, that women had the right to attend mosque, or that polygyny was only permitted — a crucial caveat — if it was “just”; that is, with the permission of the first wife. Unsatisfied when the gathering approved that progressive–traditionalist position on plural marriage, the feminists and socialists mandated three of their number, including Burnasheva, to attend the All-Russian Muslim Conference in Moscow the next month, to put their alternative case against polygyny.

The conference passed ten principles, including women’s right to vote, the equality of the sexes, and the non-compulsory nature of the hijab. The centre of gravity of the discussions was clearly Jadidist, or further left. A symptom of tremulous times.

October: the story of the Russian Revolution, China Miéville

The National Gallery

All the art I saw in The National Gallery.

Gallery

The National Gallery — Level 2, 1600-1700: Salvator Rosa: Witches at their Incantations

Between the great religious and classical Italian Baroque works of Mattia Preti, Carlo Dolci, and Luca Giordano is Salvator Rosa. It is dark, blasted, full of nightmarish, skeletal creatures. It centres on the swollen, stretched and broken neck of a hanged man drooping from the bones of a destroyed tree. Women in pairs and trios, many naked and ravaged by age pull corpses from coffins, grind bones into brew, one pulls a baby from the carapace of a monster; a knight in silver armour and a bearded man with his unsheathed sword prepare the blade. For what? Who else will die after this rite is finished? The light gutters in a scrap of blue on the horizon, burning red the torn darkness. For a painter primarily of typical Baroque themes, Witches at their Incantations is a disturbing canvas, more so because he returned to the subject more than once.

I thought it deserves its own post, because it’s so horrific, because it’s so singular. It is a work of villainy and wickedness, not of the witches, rather of the artist and the European world of the 17th century. It debases women, age, unchristian lives, judges, yet cannot see itself as the the one who in fact is walking in darkness, who brings nightmares into the world. Part of me, the young me who was all about cool Satanic imagery loves this painting for all its Metal-ness. It’s a Black Sabbath album cover, or Slayer, proper Heavy Metal territory, screaming vocals and trashing noise to get kicked out of home by. I still love it for that, and any of the detailed photos would make most excellent album art. A more recent version of me sees this as when women were being pushed from European public life, when colonialism and the philosophy of white, European supremacy was greedily consuming the world: it’s a seductive painting of hate. Some may see traces of Goya in this, but there is no comparison. I don’t think Rosa’s rebellious or satirical streak extends so far as to make the kind of social commentary Goya did, or we might today pull from such a painting. Look at Los caprichos or Los desastres de la guerra or Goya’s late Pinturas negras series. He was painting from the other side, judging the history and morality of Europe.