TWOL Update

Dear readers,

This blog, will now be moving to

The old address should automatically transfer you to the new one, but in case of technical difficulties, now you know how to find TWOL.

Thanks for reading!

Lady Chatterley’s Lover: D.H. Lawrence’s “Crisis”

D.H. Lawrence’s scandalous work was banned in many places, and it raised a great ruckus for its explicit sexual content and frank discussion of sex and the body. However, perhaps it would have been best to ban it for the greatest crime of all: it is badly written.

The first sin is the title heroine herself, Lady Chatterley, who is the former Constance Reid. We do not ever fully get a sense of who she is, as she is rather opaque. We get her perceptions of the world and other people, but very little of how others react to her, a rounded sense of her personality, and her true inner feelings. She seems muddle-headed, depressed, and never truly satisfied, as per Lawrence’s depiction of her, a sort of symbolic figure around whom the other characters and action revolve. Connie Chatterley is one in a long line of sexually unfulfilled heroines who try to meet their desires, including Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and even Scarlett O’Hara. However, with these other heroines, their journey to sexual and romantic fulfillment is clearer; their path to achieving it is defined distinctly and their motivations are transparent. For example, Emma Bovary’s life in the country bores her, and her goal of escaping provincial life and going to the city is evident throughout the trajectory of the story. Connie, as revealed through the dialogue, does not always seem entirely happy even when she is alone with her lover, Mellors. Perhaps Anna Karenina’s opium might have done her some good.

Lawrence spends virtually no time discussing Connie’s childhood and family life, the time spent abroad in Germany with her sister Hilda, and how unique, progressive, and radical her upbringing was. Connie was a thinker. She was a free spirit, intellectually and sexually, and her father encouraged it. We see very little of this in Connie throughout the novel, not even when she is feeling free with her lover. Only when Hilda comes to take her to Venice at the end do we get an inkling of her family background and earlier life, and how bohemian and fascinating it was. The introduction of Duncan Forbes in the end seems like a cheap device to try to resolve the problem of Connie’s socially scandalous pregnancy. Lawrence should have introduced him early on, made him an integral part of the sisters’ lives.

Lawrence’s clumsy, clunky prose aims to illustrate Connie’s dissatisfaction with life at a manor called Wragby, in the industrial English Midlands. She is surrounded by factories, collieries, and the like, and her husband is the ultimate symbol of that world. These scenes are contrasted with her idyllic trysts in the woods with Mellors. While some might argue that the way in which these contrasting scenes are drawn is rather simplistic and pedantic, to illustrate modern industrial life and the necessity of “going back to nature” by living in it and embracing the body, what is even worse are the long speeches on these subjects. Both Clifford and Mellors are guilty of this. They go on and on for pages on their philosophical viewpoints that are essentially undisguised treatises; the most unforgivable situations are when Mellors does this after sex. This leads one to point out another flaw in Lawrence’s writing–poor dialogue. We can get the gist of what the character is trying to convey in a paragraph; there is no need to go on for pages. Even with page after page of dialogue, there is still a rather opaque quality to what is revealed about the characters’ thoughts and feelings. The reader comes away scratching her/his head wondering what was said and what the point was. Too much is told through the narrator throughout the novel, rather than shown. Perhaps in this case, the cliché of “show, don’t tell” should have been applied meticulously. Ultimately, this all affects the pacing of the novel, which is too long, too drawn out, and ragged.

Mellors almost seems cartoonish, or more generously, two-dimensional at times. He is certainly an interesting man who has lived an interesting life–a working-class man who was “bumped up” through education, a failed marriage, a child, sexual experience, time spent in the Army in India, Egypt, South Africa–and yet he is reduced to a gruff woodsman does not who speak, but my, isn’t he good between the sheets? His lapses into the broad Derbyshire accent are absurd and most distracting to the reader; it recalls Ricky Ricardo’s outbursts in Spanish on “I Love Lucy” when he is highly emotionally charged.

Mrs. Bolton and Clifford’s romance is the only one that seems the most plausible because it is organic: we see it develop very naturally, and the pacing feels very appropriate. She is a widow and a nurse, Clifford is a cripple and essentially a widower. She is in a position of power, he is in a position of vulnerability. Naturally, over time, it is bound to lead to love. Mrs. Bolton seems the most complex of all the characters, for we see her noble side in nursing, as well as her gossipy side in suspecting Connie’s affair, her wise woman side in knowing how to defer to Connie, and also her dark side, as she, too, had been involved with Mellors. Michaelis must also be mentioned in the same breath, for his character as an outsider who is a successful social climber, yet a vulnerable man inside, is also complex and interesting to read. However, too much of him is told rather than shown.

Finally, one cannot ignore the sex scenes and explicitly sexual language in the novel, which is why it became famous. Simply put, it is TMI, too much information. While initially, it feels honest and refreshing, over time it becomes ridiculous, soft-core pornography folded into Victorian sensibility. The reader simply must laugh with scenes of threading wildflowers into nether regions, names for genitals, and metaphors of ocean waves. (Surely, clever readers will notice the choice of the word “crisis” in the title, which was Lawrence’s description of the orgasm.) While it might seem initially that Lawrence’s subject matter and style is very modern for its time, I would argue that the book is really rather a (Victorian) moral treatise, or “amoral treatise,” for the author is trying to tell the reader very specifically that sexual fulfillment in connection to nature is the most important thing in life, and that one must choose to live as such. I quote Lawrence himself, when he writes in “A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover” about Colonel Barker, who was a woman living as a man, supposedly unbeknownst to his unsuspecting wife: “The revelation at the end is beyond all thought for the poor woman… Yet there are thousands of women today who might be so deceived, and go on being deceived why? Because they know nothing, they can’t think sexually at all…It is better to give all girls this book, at the age of 17.”

Thus, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is an instructive tome above all, rather than a work of literature meant to entertain and provoke deep thought and emotion, something that evokes a crisis of boredom in the reader. Frankly, I would take Anna Karenina any day over Lady Chatterley, for it is the truly scandalous, groundbreaking book. It does not instruct; rather, it shows everything without passing judgment. Perhaps Fifty Shades of Grey is the new Lady Chatterley’s Lover?

Je Suis Raif: Gratitude for Free Speech

Je suis Raif. I am Raif Badawi. I am a blogger who wants to discuss, express, analyze, praise, and most importantly, criticize anything or anyone I wish to do. I am lucky in that I can do so, presumably, without the threat of violence or punishment when I exercise my right to free speech. I can critique a novel from a different country without my blog being shut down. I can express my frustration at racism without the threat of being flogged. So, I am not Raif Badawi.

Until this month, I took the privilege of blogging for granted, was even sometimes nonchalant about the fact that I write a blog, as the auspices under which I started the The Women of Letters blog were accidental. I am so very grateful that I live in a society with a mentality of allowing individuals to say what they want, under the belief that diverse opinions make for good discussions, and good discussions can sometimes lead to positive change. I encourage every blogger in the Western world right now to take a moment to be thankful and practice gratitude for her/his right to free speech and freedom from violence. And also, to take a moment to sign a petition or do any small measure they can to help our fellow blogger, the brave and progressive Raif Badawi.

Nous sommes Raif.

Oscar Buzz 2015: Some Thoughts on Nominated Films

I love movies. And I also love “film” (that word connotes a more refined sensibility that usually includes independent and foreign movies). It’s always exciting to see high-quality movies that are well produced, directed, acted, and are aesthetically enticing. Here is a somewhat haphazard, unscientific set of reviews on the Oscar films I have seen so far.

Wild: I did not read the memoir upon which the film is based, but from what little I knew of it, it sounded very interesting. The film was generally quite what I was expecting, a woman’s journey to self-empowerment and emotional release as she treks Pacific Coast Trail, with a happy ending. In these sorts of films, what matters is not the originality of the story, but how one gets there. What are the obstacles the character faces? How are they shown? What is the backstory? Director Jean-Marc Vallee (who did a wonderful job with the real, naturalistic “Dallas Buyers Club”) is really a director’s director: he has a very particular vision for the film, how he wants things to happen and the types of performances he wants to get out of his actors. This is evidenced in the flashback sequences that form a thread through the whole film; it is quite a work of brilliance and editing for a director to pull something like that off. Sometimes, however, the flashbacks become distracting, for either we do not get enough information in the flashback because it is too short, or they take us away from the present time. Certain motivations are still not made clear. Reese Witherspoon does a wonderful job as Cheryl, and is well suited to the role. However, I would not necessarily say she would be the prime contender for best actress, as it is a role that any capable actress could do. Laura Dern is also very good as Cheryl’s mother, someone who moves the audience, even though Vallee could have chosen to show more of her dark side and what she had suffered. Overall, a very enjoyable film.

The Imitation Game: There had been so much buzz about this film that, naturally, I was very eager to see it. I am an easy sell for any English movie, as I am an Anglophile, and I especially like films that deal with intelligent people or subject matter. However, I must confess that this film was a bit of a disappointment, though it was by no means a bad film. Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as Alan Turing, and it is really he who carries the film with his nuanced performance. The other actors are fine; despite my initial doubts about Keira Knightley cast as a mathematician, I found she was up to the task. If anything, I felt her part was minimized and her character’s contributions were not adequately acknowledged at the end (no mention was made of Joan Clarke’s life after that period).
Making a biopic is never easy, and this film chose to focus on a few crucial threads: secrets, bullying, Alan’s genius, and his closeted homosexuality. But in focusing on these things, the film left out many things, such as Alan’s family background, his studies at Cambridge and his mathematical genius, the context and impact of his work on British society and the future of computers (this needed to be explored more), and Joan Clarke herself. It is always a tough call when making a film or writing a piece of literature, when the creator chooses to be very focused on a couple of things, because where is the line between too many topics and too few?

Into the Woods: Pure fun! This is what good entertainment should be—accessible, creative, high quality, and intriguing. Stephen Sondheim’s musical does very well on the big screen because of its fairytale themes; any sort of fantasy-type topics lend themselves to great visual effects, which is why we go to the movies anyway. The cast is all uniformly very good, and certainly Meryl Streep steals the show, but Anna Kendrick’s believable Cinderella and the child actors who play Robin Hood and Jack are especially noteworthy. The costumes and art direction are marvelous; they truly conjure a very specific world in which the story takes place. What especially struck me about the film was Stephen Sondheim himself. He has a very particular, unique musical language — surely, it is not to everybody’s taste– but his understanding of English language text setting to music is very, very keen, something I admire as an opera singer. For the cast to perform Sondheim’s music as well as they do shows actors who are at the top of their game, for Sondheim cannot be easy to do.
My only general complaint with the film is the complete lack in casting any non-whites/minorities in lead roles. Only in the crowd scene near the end do we see a diversity of faces. The roles in the film for the most part (with the exception of the witch and Rapunzel, who are mother and daughter) could have been cast with any race, or mixed races, and thus the film would have wider appeal worldwide. And it would also seem more up-to-date with society, instead of backward, as the film industry still seems to be with anyone not white.

Whiplash: Stunning, dark, and intense. And very, very real. Those of us who are musicians can especially relate to the trials and tribulations suffered by Miles Teller as a gifted jazz drummer, Andrew Neiman, who is trying to “make it” as a musician. There is a certain genius in reproducing reality in whatever medium and artist works in, be it literature, television, painting, film, etcetera, and director Damien Chazelle has succeeded brilliantly in making a film that seems very believable. It is not just the excellent performances by Teller and J.K. Simmons, but also all the concrete details and places and settings. Particularly interesting is Andrew’s family life, for he is the son of a single father (played very credibly by the ever-affable Paul Reiser) who is involved and yet not very involved, and his relatives who do not seem to be very supportive of Andrew’s life as a musician. The unfolding of the plot is also done well, because just when something seems resolved, a new obstacle arises, and that obstacle is always something unique and different, be it girl trouble, injury, or a change of heart on Fletcher’s part. Andrew’s motivations are not always clear as the film progresses, or rather, his motivations are clear, but we wonder why he is not learning to pull back on his ambition after he suffers tragedies.
J.K. Simmons is a wonderful actor (you may have seen him already in a number of other films as a character actor), and one never doubts his ferocity and emotions in this film–a tribute to Simmons’s talents. However, I find his character sometimes a little too one-sided. Yes, we know he’s a monster. Yes, we know he throws things at people. Yes, we know he is very foulmouthed. But it is only in one scene for contrast during the body of the film, when he talks charmingly to a little girl, do we see he is more than just a monster, that he is a rounded human being. Whether this was the choice on the part of the actor, the director, or the director’s script is unclear. In my opinion, this one-note personality of Fletcher is what slightly detracts from what is an overall strong film. But it is not for the faint of heart, for it is quite an emotional rollercoaster.

The Theory of Everything: This is my personal favorite on all fronts. The acting is superb–Eddie Redmayne deserves the best actor Oscar–the directing, the art direction, the script, etcetera. A horrible snub for director James Marsh not to have been nominated for best director, because he gets such human, rounded, warm performances out of his cast. This film beautifully shows the progression of legendary physicist Stephen Hawking’s life, marriage, and illness, as well as the difficulties and joys experienced by his caring wife Jane, an intelligent, strong woman in her own right. The period costumes and the details of the era in which they first met are very evocative and enjoyable for the viewer, taking us back to a time of hairspray and formal dates and dances. The film marries science and science metaphors with a love story, and sometimes the visual analogies are quite stunning, such as when Stephen sees the cream swirling in his coffee cup as a black hole. Scientists might argue that the film should have included more science, and that is a fair comment, but there is just enough physics that makes it clear to the layperson that Hawking was a genius. Felicity Jones’s Jane is a complex woman, for she is romantic, hard working, resentful, self-sacrificing, conscientious, and morally torn. Her emotional dilemma is captured so well here, we can see her hesitation and yet her desire for a physically able lover that she finds in the choirmaster Jonathan, and Jonathan’s own caution in loving Jane too much and too visibly. What Redmayne accomplishes so well is both Hawking’s physical degeneration and his seemingly cheerful, good-humored personality that has too often been masked by his disability. It is very fascinating to see the home life of a great scientist, to see who he is beyond his accomplishments. One of the most intriguing scenes of the film is how Stephen learns how to use his voice-replacement computer system, and how it empowers him to carry on with his life.
Lest readers think I believe this is a perfect film, there are some criticisms I would raise. One is the editing, especially in the earlier part of the film; the cuts seem unusually fast, and don’t allow the viewer to sink into the shot. We don’t need to change the point of view from the front to the back of the characters while they are having a conversation. (A friend of mine did suggest, however, that the reason for these fast cuts is the representation of time, that time seems to be very urgent in the beginning, but then it slows down–a valid interpretation). Also, the makeup crew did not adequately age Stephen and especially Jane through the film, as she looks rather the same at the beginning as she does at the end, with only a difference in hairstyle. I do take issue with a minor point: the title. The Theory of Everything–what is “everything?” The primary issue in this film is love, and I think “The Theory of Love” would have been a much better title, especially because of the irony of theorizing something as wonderfully abstract as love. The film omits details on Hawking’s second marriage to his nurse, which eventually failed.

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Too much time has passed since I saw the film in order for me to give it an accurate review. However, what I do recall is that the film was all over the place and too much of a pastiche of wacky characters and settings and too much going on. I am a huge Wes Anderson fan; I have seen almost all of his films and think he is one of the most brilliant directors of the past couple decades, for he combines tremendous intellect with heart. His characters are always unusual or quirky and clever, but the viewer never comes away feeling like his films are merely a cerebral head game. This is Anderson’s gift. Anderson also creates unique fantasy worlds that seem just one hair short of a reality that we know, but are somehow unplaceable. In this film, it is not quite clear what the point is, or what the point of view is, for it seems like we are set up with one premise, but get delivered another. The ever-odd, talented chameleon Tilda Swinton is wasted on too few scenes. Every known Anderson star from any of his films is given a cameo at some point here, and this becomes very distracting. Not even beautiful sets, costumes, and Anderson’s usual brilliant art direction redeem the film. Despite the rave reviews, I must confess that here, I am a detractor. But I eagerly await his next film.

Maleficent: This clever fairytale is nominated for costume design, and it is not difficult to see why. This is a very visually creative film and a unique film as well, for it is dark. Angelina Jolie is actually very convincing as the title role (there is always something rather cold and scheming about her face in real life, isn’t there?), which is a spinoff from Sleeping Beauty. Particularly fun are the trio of pixies, and the visual effects throughout make it exciting to watch.

There are still more Oscar-nominated films to see! What are your favorites, and why?

Indians as Innovators: The (In)flexibility of the Subcontinental Mind

Indians as Innovators: The (In)flexibility of the Subcontinental Mind

I once confessed to a half-Punjabi American friend that, when making a paneer dish, I substituted tofu for the fatty Indian cheese (n.b. I’m American-born, artistic, and have lived in California for many years during my life). She laughed and told me that her mother does the same. That Indians are extremely innovative is highly visible in this day and age, from the highest echelons of corporate leadership (Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was recently featured in an article on Microsoft in Vanity Fair, and Pepsi’s CEO is Tamilian Indra Nooyi) to Salman Rushdie’s whimsical language in his novels to the stunning artwork of Pakistani-born artist Shahzia Sikander to Bose’s top-notch audio products to even fictionalized chefs (as in the film “The Hundred Foot Journey”). And of course, there is that uniquely subcontinental art form that is seen (and even imitated or parodied) in the most remote corners of the world, that pastiche of drama, music, dancing, and entertainment known as Bollywood. While film was a medium pioneered by the French and even Americans, Indians took it and made it their own.

Some of this innovation lies in the subcontinent’s colonial history: the British colonialists certainly imposed many of their habits, customs, structures, and certainly their language upon India (which at that time encompassed most all of the different countries that comprise the subcontinent today). To drive the British out, the Indians had to come up with a variety of strategies, and eventually they succeeded. Indians–for better or for worse–ended up adopting the English language and making it uniquely their own. It is one of 2 official languages in India, and India is one of the world’s top producers of English-language materials. There are many expressions, intonations, and word choices that would make a native speaker from one of the main Anglophone countries positively cringe or laugh! But one cannot laugh too much when one realizes that some of the world’s greatest writers in English fiction today are Indian.

I would argue also that poverty plays a role in India’s innovation. Poverty, coupled with lax or unenforced regulations, make for a large sector of cottage industries. A man with a wooden box, a hammer, some nails, and strips of leather can sit under a tree and run a successful business as a cobbler. Leftover newspapers can pack up anything from saris to vegetable fritters that are bundled into neat parcels. And the saddest example of innovation is the poor people who might take a burlap sack and make a tent along a public wall, thereby creating their “home.”

India is incredibly diverse in terms of cultures, for there are countless languages, styles of clothing, cuisines, and religions. These also converge to make interesting hybrids. Indo-Chinese food, for example, has been the rage in the US for the past 15 years, and its origins are supposedly in Kolkata, where Chinese populations Indianized their dishes with a variety of spices and seasonings that were particular to their host country. Many companies in India, such as the socially-conscious Anokhi, design Western wear with Indian fabrics and details.

Sometimes this innovation and flexibility can have its serious problems. Any visitor to the subcontinent will tell you that traffic is beyond unruly: it is anarchy. People assume that because they have an internalized sense of how to do things, they do not need to follow external rules. This is one of the detriments to Indian progress. Some people may strongly disagree with this statement, but there would also be an equal number of people who would agree. There is a stubbornness that even runs into arrogance in the Indian’s unwillingness to follow rules.

But with all this innovation, creativity, and adaptivity, why does India and why can many Indians both in India and abroad seem so–well, inflexible? Why are there set career paths that are considered “acceptable” as opposed to others? Why are certain social conventions still blindly observed, even when they are injurious?

I would suggest a combination of the following:

-Much schooling in India still follows a very outdated British, rote system that has not evolved. The lack of a true liberal arts foundation, both in secondary and university education, inhibits the growth of complex thinking. Some might argue that the lack of connection to the Western Canon might also be a contributing factor, but at the same time, India is not of the West. Thus, we cannot entirely judge the Indian system from a Western point of view. But still, if knowledge follows what Brazilian educator Paulo Freire dubbed the “banking model of education” (where students are merely empty beings in which education is deposited), how can that lead to independent, flexible minds?

-As a corollary to the above, there is a lack of arts education for children. Naturally, a large factor in this is poverty. But there is also a strong emphasis on math and science, which in and of itself is a very good thing; it needs to be balanced by the arts. India is a world leader in science and technology/STEM fields, but it has come at the cost of balance in the student’s mindset. Were more Indians trained in the social sciences, and where the social sciences more respected, this could help develop the country and create more of the infrastructure that it direly needs.

-The Asian tradition of not talking back to elders and arguing in the classroom. This is one of the most salient traits that educators here in the US notice about Indian and other Asian students who come here to study. It is also something that people who have grown up in the West (even those of Indian origin) notice about the Indian classroom. If students are taught to toe the party line, there can be no discussion. And it is only out of discussion that a variety of ideas can emerge.  There are pockets of change happening in the Indian classroom: I visited IIT Ahmedabad earlier this year, and had the great privilege of sitting in on a class that a professor friend was teaching. My professor friend did her graduate work in the United States, and was therefore able to create a cross-cultural exchange with American methodology of group work and open class discussion.

-Gender segregation and discrimination. The roots of this problem run very deep in Indian society. Much schooling is still gender segregated, and therefore, men’s perception of women becomes very idealized or objectified (especially in a culture of beautiful Bollywood screen goddesses), rather than seen as realistic, natural, and concrete. Countless Indian women still face challenges with being taken as an equal, especially in male-dominated fields like mechanical engineering, and this is both on a societal level as well as a familial level. If half the people are left out of the dialogue, if rural and poor women are encouraged to get married young over studying, this is going to contribute to a very narrow mindset that benefits nobody.

-The fight for jobs in a country of one billion. Where one’s survival is a daily battle, even when one is wealthy, the need for “practical” education in professions that are going to earn one a living, such as computer science, accounting, civil service, or medicine is key. The mentality is “We can’t change the system,” and therefore one has to ensure one’s welfare. Sheer numbers always make for rigid systems in order to accommodate the volume of people. We see this here even in the United States in large universities, where large classes in popular subjects have to operate in a very mechanical manner. This is amplified in India, where the caste system has for centuries dictated people’s jobs and labor categories. The implications of one’s caste are social, political, and labor-related. Again, this is a major structural problem in Indian society.

-Ironically, poverty is also a big factor in this, though it is a factor in innovation. While the poor may be able to innovate on some level to be able to survive, the lack of money and funds naturally drives people’s job choices and limits their education and opportunities. The arts and creativity are, inevitably, a luxury. In some situations, there also may be an element of fear or the threat of violence behind people’s motivations and choices; to challenge the status quo or to express oneself may result in mockery, harassment, retaliation, or–at its worst–death.

These are just a few factors behind the problem of inflexibility. Given these factors, it is all the more remarkable when we see Indian innovators in all fields who have overcome many obstacles and broken through barriers to achieve their goals. Certainly, in many cases, the lack of poverty and the presence of wealth have helped these individuals accomplish great things. So here is yet another case for the importance of improving education and alleviating poverty in developing countries. It’s a much more worthwhile investment than war, arms, and the military-industrial complex.

The Issues of European Immigration—-Villains and Heroes

The issue of immigration is an extremely complex one, involving a variety of factors such as economics, culture, religion, politics, education, and more. Lately, immigration has become a matter of life or death, such as with the Syrian refugees fleeing IS violence and/or death. Political instability in northern Africa has also contributed to huge numbers of people who must immigrate to other countries in order to have a relatively peaceful life. I have spent much time in Europe, with Europeans here in the US, and have also heard horror stories of what immigrants face in Europe, such as not being able to find housing, not receiving visas, outright discrimination, etc. A local’s reaction to foreigners is brilliantly illustrated in the German short film “Schwarzfahrer,” which deals with a sensitive subject in a realistic yet tongue-in-cheek way.

Sometimes art is the most effective way of communicating politics.

As an American, my immediate response when I hear of anti-immigration sentiment in Western Europe has been to dismiss many policies or individuals in Western Europeans as racist, to believe that they are wealthy countries that were often colonizers—-of course they should take in all the immigrants. Growing up in an immigration society such as the United States, or even Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, one is encouraged to develop a very tolerant, egalitarian view of people in which immigrants should not be viewed as “lesser,” “inferior,” or The Other. This is a very positive feature of our immigration societies, in which the concept of cultural hegemony is hotly debated. Granted, things are not always ideal, and there are outbursts of anti-immigrant sentiment and violence from time to time. Sometimes these flare up in highly politically charged periods, such as post-9/11. We foster a society of inclusion of different lifestyles and habits. For example, I could not understand the no-head covering rule in France. Again, as an American, my immediate response was to say everyone should cover their head in whatever manner they felt necessary: yarmulke, headscarf, baseball cap, or nothing at all (though for official identification purposes, I do strongly feel photographs should be with the head bare).  My own personal views are much more complex than I am able to discuss here, hence, a rather simplistic portrayal of the situation.

However, after my most recent trip to Europe last summer, in northern Italy, I began to understand that immigration in Europe has become so much more than an issue of cultural clashes and racism. While for millions of Europeans immigrants and refugees feel like a “threat” to their culture, it is now a serious issue that involves rethinking the social structure and economy of many countries. One can see this especially in the southern Mediterranean as well as in major immigration centers such as Sangatte and Calais in France, where immigrants are held and housed, and London—-these individuals are considered an unwanted “problem” that is overloading a troubled social welfare system that is rife with unemployment. Italy is not faring well economically, nor is Spain, and certainly not Greece. Native citizens of those countries themselves are struggling with unemployment, retirement, reduced pensions, housing, and—-a growing global problem—-economic and class stratification. The European Union has not benefited a number of people, and those in border countries that are receiving thousands of immigrants feel the EU does not support them. In other words, their carrying capacity is exceeded; they cannot financially assist refugees and immigrants who may not be able to contribute much to society when they themselves are struggling. There are often times not enough places to live for the newcomers, and there are certainly not enough jobs. Ironically, northern Italy has become very diverse, with many young people of non-Italian origin who are born in Italy and live and identify with Italian culture. Milan is a multicultural city, and urban Italy is becoming a multicultural society, whether or not the Italians like it.

What, then, can be reasonably expected of Western Europeans who themselves are often suffering due to economic and political difficulties, who find themselves with a lack of assistance from the European Union and other governing bodies? What can be done to help millions of people who simply cannot remain in their homelands for fear of starvation or even death when rogue states like IS threaten day to day living? How can one help people who have a right to live in peace and to raise their families, to subsist at the most basic level?  Surely, we must also remember that the villains are not just the racists in Europe, but the villains in the home countries who are creating the socio-political-economic conditions that drive their citizens away.

As a writer with training in international development as an undergraduate, I feel I can only contribute in my own limited manner by raising issues and making them public. There are no easy answers, but one individual who has been doing wonderful work is Dr. Maria Pisani.  Dr. Pisani is a professor at the University of Malta. In addition to her academic work, she is an activist who cofounded the Integra Foundation

which is an NGO that helps to integrate migrants in Malta. Recently, the BBC quoted her in an article after a boatload of hundreds of Palestinians and Syrians were drowned and then the survivors treated horribly.

Dr. Pisani has both the academic clout as well as the practical experience in assisting migrants, and is aware of the complexity of factors involved in the current immigration situation. Her country is tiny, yet a key host to those who must flee their countries. The Integra Foundation’s work is not limited to Malta; they also focus on Guatemala and in helping disabled people. Their paradigm is a human rights one, and acknowledges the imbalance of power as a major root of social problems. The very fact that Integra Foundation exists is significant: a small country like Malta that is bearing a lot of burdens right now still has individuals who understand the importance of global interconnection and the country’s significance in the world. When we look at the scale of how just 1,000 people would affect an island nation of 423,000, the issue of integrating immigrants becomes not simply important, but vital.

What can we expect, reasonably, in this era of mass immigration to overloaded countries? At very least, we must expect compassion, dignity, and human rights. Individuals like Dr. Maria Pisani and the Integra Foundation deserve to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for their brave work that is ultimately universal.