Thoughts on Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend/Neapolitan Novels

(WARNING: SPOILER ALERT!)

I am currently reading the second novel in Italian author Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Tetralogy, called The Story of a New Name. Last summer I finally read My Brilliant Friend, and after reading it I immediately purchased the subsequent three volumes. Being a writer and an Italophile, it’s natural that I would be interested in these books and the epic journey it takes us on. I have always longed to see Naples ever since I was a little girl, so the setting is part of the appeal. The Bildungsroman journey of the narrator who is not from a well-to-do family but intelligent and self-made also resonated with me. It is always refreshing to read things about friendship, for sometimes in our formulaically-oversexed arts culture, this theme is neglected. In an earlier post I had discussed my qualms with the Bechdel test and why it had to be either-or with women only talking about men or subjects other than men. My Brilliant Friend (this name is often used to refer to the entire series) is fascinating in that a wide variety of topics are explored by the narrator Elena/Lenù and with her best friend Lina/Lila: boys, of course, money, image, power, sexism, philosophers, neighborhood dynamics, the Mafia (largely indirectly and through a child’s eyes), sex, infidelity, and so much more. It is a compelling story, and that is what keeps me reading, though I have some criticisms as to the craft, as below.

The time span is also noteworthy, for the storyline begins in childhood and progresses through adulthood, when Lina has disappeared. There is an intelligence behind the novels that is refreshing: it’s not only about girls and their friendships and boys in school, but about larger themes of class, education, gender roles, history and politics, and social issues. Yet these never hit the reader over the head; rather, they are present and implied, and wise readers can pick up on these things. Also, there is a very subtle but profound theme running through the novels about the co-protagonist Lina–she is always associated with darkness, things that are bad, evil, deathly, even diabolical. Observe the scenes were something very bad happens: they always have to do with Lina. She and Elena are counterparts, the former providing the darkness and shadow to the light of the latter, even in terms of their physical appearances.

Ferrante (whoever she is, as the mystery still shrouds her, though the favored hypotheses seem to be translator Anita Raja or her husband Domenico Starnone) also gives us interesting surprises with the plot. The most recent one I read was in The Story of a New Name, where the buildup has the reader expecting to see or hear about the much-forbidden sex scene between the married Lina and Nino Sarratore, but instead, she pulls the ultimate switch on us and instead we see Elena having sex with Nino’s father Donato! Notice the themes of family members and infidelity: the married Lina is having an affair with Nino, while the teenaged Elena has spontaneous sex with the married Donato, the father of Nino. This crossed pairing is really quite ingenious from a literary point of view, and shows how much they are intertwined, yet counterparts and opposites.

Earlier in the novel, when there is much pressure for Lina to approve of her photographs being used in the shoe store, she finally agrees, but then “destroys” the image by covering it with shreds of dark paper. She is horribly beaten on her honeymoon, and yet she chooses not to leave her husband. Readers might argue that this is the convention of the era and she has no choice, but Lina is so strong-willed that she would do anything, societal conventions be damned, as she does when she begins an affair with Nino and becomes pregnant by him. In the first novel, she chooses not to study but to become the rich, well-dressed wife of a grocer whom she doesn’t particularly seem to love, marrying at just 16. Ferrante raises the question of agency that these teenage girls/young women have during this era, and how they are finding the freedoms they can have within their society, and then also creating their freedoms as well.

In writing this, I see the strengths of the novels that I haven’t always seen when I am reading them. This brings me to my criticisms of the tetralogy. The books should have been probably edited down to at least two-thirds if not half of their lengths. There is simply too much detail, unnecessary detail, and not necessarily the details we want. Some sections and passages are too long–what happens at the grocery store, each little minute, blow-by-blow report of the characters–whereas others are too short: Elena’s experiences in tutoring wealthy students, what really happens at school, the tensions with her own family as she goes on for further education, and her first year at university. Ferrante sometimes rushes through these important periods by summing up everything in a paragraph or two of exposition; her choices for scene versus exposition are not always in balance.

Another major criticism I have is that, especially in the second novel, the narration is so heavily focused on the narrator in the first person that the narrative distance is almost always to close. We are not able to step back and see the bigger picture, everything is filtered through Elena’s eyes, and there is not much dialogue, so we have to put a lot of trust in her that she is a reliable narrator. Therefore, there is too much tell and not enough show; everything is reported through Elena’s eyes and this does not allow us to decide things for ourselves. As a result, sometimes the novel becomes very plodding in its tone–yet another round of someone did something to someone and Elena watched it and is telling us. Yes, it is true that the novel is primarily about the friendship between Elena and Lina, but it is like putting a camera on two characters on close up during an entire film and rarely zooming out or giving us a long shot.

We don’t get so much of the setting, which is a shame in such a vibrant, noisy, and colorful city as Naples. Even the gorgeous paradise of Ischia is given the short shrift. The sensuality of the atmosphere is neglected, there are minimal descriptions of the food, the colors, the faces. There are too many minor characters with similar names, and though there is a guide at the beginning of each novel, it is still quite a task to keep up with who is whom. The sad byproduct of this is that some of the characters become two-dimensional, they are filler and don’t really serve a greater purpose. This is not particular only to Elena Ferrante: we can see this in Tolstoy’s epic novels and the works of other writers as well.

This is not to say that Ferrante’s novels are not enjoyable; they are! However, the execution is sometimes flawed and for those of us reading them first in English, there is always a layer of translation which inevitably makes for a different work than the Urtext. One must commend Ann Goldstein for her incredible work on such a large task, for translation is a literary art in and of itself. My goal is to read the novels in Italian once I am finished with the English (or to listen to them on Italian audiobooks, as a friend suggested), to see how the nuances of the words play out and also to see where the differences are highlighted between Italian and Neapolitan dialect. This issue is something that Anglophones may not be aware of, the significance of dialects in Italy and how they are regarded in terms of class and education (not unlike how in America there is an implicit condescension toward Southern accents.) In sum, I have tremendous respect for what Ferrante has accomplished with these works, I have enjoyed reading them and will continue to read them, even as I evaluate the craft with a writer’s eye. And I indeed recommend them for interested readers.

“Bimbo” Feminism? In Praise of the Smart, Sensual Woman

There was a woman in my town who was a neighbor of a friend and the aunt of a classmate. She was extremely beautiful, with platinum blonde hair and always elegantly turned out. To people’s surprise, she would be reading the Wall Street Journal at the library. Well, it turned out that this small town “blondie” ended up becoming a millionaire and they moved to a house that actually had a tennis court. This is how I remember it; perhaps some of the details have faded over time and my child’s mind may have processed the story incorrectly. I thought of this woman today while I was watching an interview and a documentary on the legendary Mae West and it made me think about contemporary notions of feminism (that really derive from the 70s). In some ways, my generation has been inculcated with ideas that feminism is incompatibility with femininity, sensuality, and knowing one’s appeal as a woman.

I have mixed feelings about the Bechdel test, which measures how many times women are speaking about something other than men in a movie. On the one hand, it is refreshing to see women talk about mathematics (“Hidden Figures”), the church (“Doubt”), or career (“Legally Blonde”) in a film. Women have minds as fantastic as men’s. On the other hand, what is wrong about talking about men and showing women talking about men, as long as people don’t think women are incapable of talking about anything else? I believe that feminism needs to be couched in an understanding of how men and women interact with each other; all men need to know how to interact with women, just as all women need to know how to interact with men, regardless of sexual orientation. The dismissal of this in the 70s has led to a lot of trouble. Could the answer lie in film stars and performers of earlier generations?

Mae West was not only an accomplished actress, but also singer, performer, and writer. She loved men; she exuded a confidence and sex appeal that was uniquely her own. Good-humored, comfortable in herself, her on-screen and offscreen persona showed that she could get any man she wanted, say whatever she liked, and speak her mind. Of course she paid a price, getting arrested for her play “Sex” before she became a Hollywood star, but she was unapologetically who she was. She never let men get the upper hand of her and yet she always enjoyed men. Gay men loved her and she loved them; they were her allies. Mae was also a champion of black people at a time when segregation was deeply entrenched and rampant.

Zsa Zsa Gabor is another example of the “bimbo feminist,” a Hollywood star who was more famous for being famous and who married nine times (!) and her numerous quips like, “I’m a good housekeeper. When I leave a man, I keep his house.” A Hungarian immigrant who acted, sang, and wrote, she was dripping in diamonds and glamour while always staying true to herself and never giving in. Wealthy and well aware of her feminine wiles, Gabor was always clever and outspoken–one only need to see her interview on Phil Donahue where she berates an audience member to know that she could be absolutely vicious. The public got a glimpse of her vicious side when she was arrested for slapping a cop, an act that eventually got her sent to jail for three days! Granted, she was in some ways a gold digger and social climber and quite different from Mae West, who seems to have been more about being herself and enjoying herself without making a scene. But we cannot help but admire Zsa Zsa Gabor’s drive, uncompromising femininity, and stop-at-nothing attitude.

Dolly Parton is a living example of “bimbo feminism.” She has long played to the crowd with her ultra-blonde wigs and enhanced bosom and spangled clothes and makeup. But underneath all that, she’s a supremely talented artist who is also very shrewd. She would not have lasted as long in the business if she were not incredibly talented and savvy about her audiences, marketing, and staying out of politics. And yet, Parton unites the gay and straight, Southern and Northern, young and old. She has acted, sung, and composed music. All of this by a hardscrabble girl from a one-room cabin in Tennessee with 11 siblings! She overtly acknowledges her femininity, her plastic surgery, her body. But Parton is laughing all the way to the bank, being one of the most successful country singers of all time with countless honors like the Kennedy Center Awards. Dolly understands the importance of image and how to use it; her homespun, aw-shucks persona can mask the fact that she is worth over half $1 billion, and that she contributed $1 million to Vanderbilt toward Covid vaccine research, creating a video just this week of herself getting vaccinated while singing a parody of “Jolene” called “Vaccine.” With a wink and a smile and her southern accent, Dolly Parton gets the work done and does she ever know what she’s doing!

None of this devalues the work of women who are not so interested in appearances or their image and who focus more on their work and their substance. That is equally important too. But I think it is worthwhile to look at women who are very feminine and enjoy using their femininity to get ahead; that part of the narrative is often left out in discussions of feminism, where the notion of femininity is eradicated. Perhaps this stems from decades of women having to act like a man, having to prove themselves in a man’s world. Enjoying being a woman should not be incompatible with achievement, talent, or intellect. And maybe it’s men who really need to get used to that idea.

Lucia Berlin: Posthumous Praise

A book group I belong to just finished reading and discussing the late Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women, a book I heard of when one professor briefly discussed a passage of hers in my MFA program. Author Lydia Davis has helped bring Berlin to the public eye, as Berlin had sort of fallen out of favor or become obscure or perhaps never even been as renowned as she should have been. However, it seems that she is starting to have her day, over a decade after her death. Berlin (a seemingly attractive woman who bore a resemblance to Liz Taylor) struggled with alcohol throughout her life, finally getting sober toward the later part of it and teaching at different universities.

What strikes me about Berlin’s stories is that they are so vivid. Part of this comes from her extremely descriptive language, adjectives, carefully chosen details, as well as fascinating settings like Mexico, and also her (usual) first-person or close third narration. There is a sense of intimacy in her work, that you really feel the immediacy of what she’s feeling, are close to the other characters as well as the narrator. With a minimum of words (her stories are generally fairly short), she builds a world and gives you the portrait of a character. However, it would be fair to criticize her work as being more of character sketches rather than conventional stories with a strong narrative arc. One does not read Lucia Berlin for craft, necessarily, if one is studying to be a writer, or rather, not for plot and story structure the way one might study Carver (to whom she is compared). But so unlike Carver, her brevity does not feel like gravity; rather, it feels rich, evocative, where each word holds an explosion of meaning and feeling. Her stories are also accessible. Part of this may be due to the fact that in her collection, she features many working-class characters. Also, though she uses a lot of description and evocative language, her sentence structure is not difficult to follow. Berlin’s worlds are vast, just as her own life was, full of experiences from living in many different places and countries. One senses tremendous cultural literacy and a worldliness, which distinguishes her from many American writers who can tend to be a bit provincial and focusing only on relationship dynamics. The only other general criticism I would make of her work, as seen in this collection, is that since it is autofiction, there are many themes that are frequently repeated: alcoholism, broken marriages, menial labor, etc. and this can get a little bit tedious. To be fair, one can make this criticism of any story collection, that the themes get repetitive after a while and that there is not enough variation among the stories. Perhaps this collection should have been only half or two thirds the length it is. Some readers might find her style a little bit too “stream of consciousness,” perhaps a little too rambling, too close of a narrative distance almost all the time.

Berlin is truly unique; I cannot think of any other writer who is quite like her. She is modern and yet the same time she feels relaxed. Her prose is very detailed but it flows smoothly and never stops the reader. She writes about working-class people and yet the reader senses a tremendous intelligence and sophistication about the author. She writes a lot about Latin culture and peoples, yet she is American. There is much to enjoy about A Manual for Cleaning Women, and I encourage readers unfamiliar with her work to discover the pleasure of her writing. Finding a new writer that one is intrigued by is one of the great joys of life.

Great Performances: What Makes a Good Performer

Yesterday, I had to submit audition material for an opera opportunity. In looking at my different takes of the same aria, what sold me on one particular take over another was my commitment to character, and how I looked more urgent to convey the message in the aria (“Ah, fuggi il traditor” from Don Giovanni by Mozart). That was the take I submitted on video. And speaking of video–I have a friend who sends me videos of her two-year-old who is immensely entertaining. She loves to sing songs and perform for the camera, even dubbing herself “Good Singer” at her tender young age in a display of extraordinary self-confidence! This has led me to reflect on the performers and performances we love. What is it about them that really grabs us? Rather than list general characteristics, I will comment on some performers or performances, ones who are generally regarded as great and others that I particularly like. This is by no means a comprehensive list, only some thoughts off the top of my head.

-Freddie Mercury. Why do we love him? This shy, buck-toothed British-Parsi man who captivated the world before his untimely death? Perhaps because he gave it all went on stage, in great contrast to his offstage personality. He was fierce, unbounded with his emotion. His voice was beyond that of most rock singers, sustaining long, lyrical lines with a range that went quite high for a man. Needless to say, his flamboyant costumes were part of the appeal. He could soar with great passion, croon as though singing a lullaby, or belt out a rock anthem, and we would always believe it.
-The Carol Burnett Show. This classic chestnut of TV not only featured comic geniuses in Carol Burnett, Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman, and Tim Conway, but it had skits that mocked popular culture, day-to-day life, and even well-known films or performances. “Went with the Wind” was probably its most infamous spoof on “Gone with the Wind,” and truly one of the best parodies in television. It never took itself too seriously, well-aware that the mockery was part of the process (Korman could not contain himself in the “Old Man” skits with Conway and always laughed). The sets were lavish, and Burnett’s tacky costumes by Bob Mackie were part of the over-the-top 70s appeal.
-Gil Shaham. One of my absolute favorite violinists (who is a wonderfully nice guy when you meet him offstage), he has the extraordinary ability to communicate with the audience when he plays. He almost seems to angle his violin more toward the audience, as if the violin is speaking with them in a dialogue. This is a quality rarely seen in any other violinist.
-Queen Latifah. The woman has presence. For anyone who has seen the film “Chicago,” her role as Mama Morton steals the scene every time. There is something so grounded and confident about her.
-Oprah Winfrey. True, she has done some acting in her time, but I think of her more as a journalist/TV host. Frank, funny, honest, and inquisitive, her curiosity and rapport with her guests was always personal and unique. When she moved on to later projects, such as “Super Soul Sunday,” she revealed her deeply spiritual side. In being herself, she has revealed that she is a natural performer, someone who is able to convey her appeal and engage the audience.
-Adele. I am not a great fan of Lady Gaga, whom I find an attention-getter and whose musical career and performances strike me as being highly derivative (though I find her quite good when interpreting others’ work, such as in “A Star is Born” and in her album with Tony Bennett.) But Adele is the truly talented one of her generation; by avoiding fuss and feathers, she performs by singing from deep in her soul. Not to mention her natural beauty, which I think was almost more stunning before her weight loss. She has tremendous integrity as an artist, and Grace Jones commented that she would not work with Lady Gaga but with someone like Adele instead.
-Figure skaters–too many to name. Scott Hamilton, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, Johnny Weir, and more. We love watching them glide on the ice, fly through the air, and (in the case of Davis and White) dancing together. The combination of spangly outfits and superhuman movements is captivating.
-Bollywood stars–too many to name. Is it their good looks? Their carefully choreographed dance sequences? The songs (which are, inevitably, dubbed by playback singers)? The beauty of Sridevi, Aishwarya Rai, the charisma of Shah Rukh Khan (who played against type in the poignant, meaningful “My Name is Khan”) and Amitabh Bachchan are all something otherworldly.
-Joao Gilberto. This introverted Brazilian man who often sang in almost a whisper, as though strumming a guitar while sitting by a bedroom window, drew us in to his power by his heartfelt sincerity. Nothing could be simpler than his lyrical melodies sung to a percussive guitar, but they are the most touching songs one could hear. One of his albums would inevitably be a desert island disc, so to speak.

These performers are so varied in their genres and styles. And yet they all hold one thing in common: they touch our feelings and emotions. Who are some of your favorite performers?

Is French Food Overrated?

I am a total foodie, a gourmet, experienced cook, and someone who was fortunate enough to grow up eating good food not only of South Indian origin, but of different cultures. By nature, I’m someone who appreciates artisan work, be it a physical item or an edible. France has set the standard for good cooking all over the world, with sophisticated techniques, careful methods, cookware and cooking utensils that each serve a very specific function. There are proper ways to crack an egg, peel a carrot, melt chocolate, and so on. When I was 16, I had the great fortune to spend 10 days with a family outside Paris, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. The food was indeed fantastic–I had my first artichokes, the croissants were marvelous, the minuscule scoops of ice cream were high-quality, and I desperately wanted to pack a half-dozen baguettes in my suitcase for the journey home to my hicktown in the Midwest (where eating out essentially meant fast food, pizza, Big Boy or a local meat-and-potatoes establishment). We can thank Julia Child for introducing America to French cooking, along with other chefs like Jacques Pepin who immigrated here. 

Even today, in the houses of well-to-do people who eat in or order takeout from very high-quality restaurants, one can still find sub-par foods and meals that even the most humble French peasant would not deign to eat. So is French food the absolute pinnacle of cooking and eating, without flaw, a point from which to look at other cuisines and evaluate them? After all, the Michelin guide is still the world standard for restaurants, and even receiving one star is a momentous accomplishment. But can we turn an insightfully critical eye toward French cuisine and analyze it in, well, a very French fashion?

Being a vegetarian, there are great limitations on what one can eat in France (especially if one does not like eggs, as has become the case now as an adult.) The French simply do not understand non-animal protein. The selections of cheeses are indeed incredible, with each region producing its own specialties made of local milk which is hormone-free and not processed or factory farmed in the way much American milk tends to be. But protein in France is heavily meat-oriented, with seafood featuring heavily in other regions. A proper full meal will have more than one course featuring meat. This is not a problem in and of itself if one enjoys meat and seafood, but even health-conscious, non-keto carnivores these days might question the need for a fish appetizer, a meat soup, and a poultry main course. Legume and grain protein is not at all common, though not unheard of and certainly not in favor. Being vegan is even more of a challenge in France, although the country’s bountiful produce and ethnic cuisines certainly make things easier for vegans and vegetarians, and there is a trend where these latter styles of eating are in fashion in the big cities. Even Nobel Peace Prize-nominee chef José Andres who comes from a meat-loving culture (Spain) has sung the virtues of plant-oriented cuisine, saying that there is something more sexy about vegetables and the tastes you can get from them.

Dietary preferences aside, one can also critique French cuisine’s lack of flavor. For those of us who come from highly-flavorful cultures such as India, Mexico, Sicily, or the Szechuan province in China, French food is admittedly bland. True, there is the use of many herbs, shallots, and Provençal cuisine is known for its use of garlic. But while French cuisine in general evaluates the goodness of food by high quality ingredients and preparation, one might say that this represents a lack of knowledge of how to combine herbs and spices and create flavors. There is a true art to creating a complexity of tastes even within one dish, the knowledge of how to balance the spicy with the sour, the salty with the bitter, the ratio of turmeric to cumin that will taste best, etc. Perhaps one can say that cuisines like the French are a bit of a copout in that their cooks only rely on the ingredients for flavor and cannot create good flavors themselves. An alternate test of a good cook could be how well they know their way around herbs and spices and condiments. America has largely embraced this ethos in the last 20 years, and even a gastropub in Indianapolis might feature housemade kimchi on a burger.

The ethos of good food in France is based on courtly traditions and the Escoffier school. Therefore, sophistication is equated with good food. Pastries, special cuts of meat prepared over a long period of time, fruits and vegetables sliced just-so, carefully ladling and spreading out the batter for crêpes and the particular presentation of a dish all represent a high level of culinary expertise. It is not expected of the common man, though the French are very attentive to how they prepare their meals even without serious training. Consider a fruit tart, and the way in which the fruits are laid out in concentric circles, each slice overlapping and everything coated with a clear glaze. It is very visually appealing, but one might argue there is a certain fussiness to it. Contrast this with Italian cooking: the best meals are always considered to be what nonna (grandma) prepares at home. The diminutive little nonna may hand-roll and stuff hundreds of tortellini in an apartment kitchen–not a quick or easy task–for a family meal, but it might be the best pasta you’ve ever had in your life. A working-class North Indian will know how to hand grind the dozen spices and slow-simmer them in a sauce cooked over a single gas burner in a dilapidated kitchen. A street vendor in the Middle East might fry up the best falafel you’ve ever had. The late Anthony Bourdain was clear to emphasize this fact, that home-cooking or street food might render exquisite meals without all the pomp and circumstance.

Not that this is meant to denigrate French food in any way; there is something tremendously admirable about deep-rooted tradition and methods that are the equivalent of classical music training. Some of the best chefs around the globe have their techniques rooted in French tradition, regardless of where they went to cooking school, and have been able to integrate them with their own ethnic culinary traditions. This post is not an exercise in political correctness; rather, it is to point out the limitations of something that is greatly adored and perhaps sometimes exalted to the point of overlooking other cuisines. There is a wonderful film, “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” that addresses this gastronomic dilemma in which a young Indian man (the son of an immigrant Indian-restaurant owning father) wants to break with tradition. Even great modern French chefs such as (I believe) Daniel Boulud in an interview have greatly admired American artisanal cheeses. I personally have come to appreciate the sophistication of South Indian cooking techniques as an adult, and wonder how this would translate into French cooking and if there are similarities. The Michelin star reviewers have indeed expanded their praise and star ratings to a wide variety of cuisines, including food stalls. It is healthy to have a broad palette, just as it is healthy to have a broad mind about ideas. But fear not: no one can deny the eternal pleasure of a fresh, crisp French baguette with cheese and a robust glass of French wine.

The Ways of Being an Artist

This afternoon, I was having a discussion with another fellow writer friend. I had recently edited an autobiographical essay for her, and she asked me how my novel was going. I mentioned that I was having writers’ revision block, that I either had to kill my darlings, or change my darlings, so to speak. She asked how my other artistic pursuit, opera singing, was going and I said on that front there had been quite a lot of progress, quite a lot of development, and how I felt that with my arts I am always like a pendulum swinging between two poles.

For me, opera singing is much more visceral, auditory, right-brained. Though there is a high degree of verbal and cerebral work due to the languages, it is a much more physical and aural and oral art. I liken it more to being an athlete: you understand the concept and you are trying to get your body to do what you want it to do. Your body is your instrument; you are constantly figuring out ways to create a sound. There are different areas of the body you are aware of–lower abdomen, mouth, and what is called the “mask,” an area of the face where one might wear a decorative mask that produces resonance. Your sound is based on feeling, and always has to be, given that the spaces in which you will sing will constantly vary, from practice room to bedroom to concert hall. Opera is always communal. One must always be thinking about the other characters, even when singing a solo aria, have an awareness of the audience, how one is conveying emotion. Certainly the words are important. The words are in a number of different languages, seldom English, and not only is the pronunciation important but also the meaning, the clarity of one’s diction. How an opera singer pronounces words while song in a foreign language will differ from how the words will be spoken in a foreign language. There are often sounds that do not exist in one’s native tongue(s). Ultimately, there is really nothing quite so powerful as the feeling of making music with one’s body, and it always feels happy, even when there are numerous challenges.

Writing is very introverted, more intellectual, but also visual for me. I always feel as though I am painting a picture with words, I am describing what I’m seeing in my head in words. There are some writers who are extremely language-oriented, master prose stylists or very literal, cerebral types. But I am seeing things in my head, and most all of the time, dictating the words via a dictation software program. Therefore, I am also hearing and speaking my text in addition to seeing it on the page. I do love writing by hand, but I have by and large stopped this when writing fiction or this blog, given the necessity for efficient revisions. My first drafts are most always right brained: I am telling the story I want to tell, upon my first impulse, how I feel it without analyzing it–what I jokingly called the “vomit draft,” whatever spills out on the page. I attended a workshop where the writer-teacher (I believe Sarah Gerkensmeyer) encouraged us to do this, and then to go back and revise draft in a more analytical manner. Revision takes quite a long time, yet it can often be “easier” than generating completely new material. At other times, it is harder because one must kill one’s darlings (= tear up what one holds dear on the page, sometimes deleting it completely), one must re-see the ideas in a completely different way, rethink so many things. Writing is endlessly complex, for there are so many elements to think about: the architecture and structure, the plot, the characters, variation of sentences, and so much more. It is a very solitary pursuit in the end, even though it is imperative one have trusted readers for feedback and eventually an audience. One must always remember that there will be an audience, and different people will interpret one’s work in radically different ways. But ultimately, no matter how much feedback one receives, it is up to the writer to digest it and employ it how she chooses. Revision can take quite a while, for the writer has to figure out how to revise it and amend the flaws that she sees, and also the flaws that others see. It is funny, however, because sometimes one will have a tremendous flash of insight at the most random times about how to rework something–in the shower, at the grocery store, while talking with a friend who may or may not be a writer, or while sitting and journaling.

The these are my two poles, my two hands, my two halves. I could not choose one over the other, for it would be like choosing one’s favorite child. I could not exist without either of these, though sometimes one drives me crazy and I must swing to the other pole. But then I will feel such a void for not having the other art in my life, and naturally the pendulum will swing back. Sometimes, the pendulum is in the middle, where both arts are being pursued equally. At other times, the pendulum is at rest, with no motion at all.

And I now realize that this is going to be the case for the rest of my life.

Not Your Average Joe—Lessons from President Biden

We might more immediately associate the word “learning” with the new First Lady. The amazing Dr. Jill Biden is a community college professor by profession who will, admirably, continue to teach during her tenure as First Lady. She has taught many students English in her classroom. This is something she did even while Second Lady, and it shows her commitment to education and having a life outside her public role. Dr. Biden worked hard for her career, raising a daughter and two stepchildren (who are really her own children, as their mother tragically died in a car accident), getting two master’s degrees, and then finally her doctorate in education. However, there are a number of lessons we can learn from Joseph R. Biden, the newly-inaugurated 46th President of the United States, who is thankfully working fiercely to amend all the damage done by Donald Trump.

Initially, the thought of Joe Biden as the Democratic candidate seemed groan-worthy, unappealing, lacking in charisma, and too moderate a Democrat for my taste. President Biden is not as whip-smart as Rhodes Scholar President Clinton. He is not as eloquent as law professor President Barack Obama. Nor does he have the movie-star charisma of demagogue President Reagan. He is not an artist like President George W. Bush, a right-brained, charming man who was put up as an incompetent puppet for his family’s legacy in politics and for Dick Cheney. However, Biden has many qualities of his own, traits that are extremely necessary given the socio-political situation America is in.

First, in his personal life, he is a man of extraordinary character. He has experienced the losses of his young wife and baby daughter, was a single father who commuted between Delaware and Washington every day in order to have dinner with his sons. He has experienced the death of a child who was only early-middle-aged. he had to overcome a stutter and did it so well that he was able to develop a successful career in politics – a field in which public speaking is obligatory and fundamental. He chose an intelligent, maternal, yet career-minded woman as his second wife, and he has respected her decision to work through his vice presidency and through his presidency. Biden has suffered numerous political defeats, and yet he persevered, becoming the oldest President of the United States.

Second, he is a man who has made many mistakes, but he has learned from them. Whether not supporting Anita Hill or school integration, Biden has repeatedly shown that he is human enough to err; however, one must be willing to move ahead and adopt new actions and mindsets that concur with the current political situation. So the lesson is that we are going to flub up, but what matters more is that we get back on the horse and learn how to ride better. This is an especially difficult thing to do in politics, where one is under the scrutiny of the public eye, now more so than ever due to the Internet and social media 24/7. Yes, one can take a skeptical point of view and say that Biden has only choose to correct himself in order to advance his career. That could very well be true. But given Biden’s decades-long career and good reputation in Washington, there suggests a sincerity to his willingness to change. For a man of his generation, a proverbial “old white male from Washington,” to choose a minority woman as his running mate shows that he does not want to remain stale. Again, skeptics could say that it was only a strategic political decision, to choose a woman to appeal to all the Hillary-supporters, women, people of color, etc. etc. Those things are true and necessary to winning an election. Fundamentally, though, if Biden did not think he could work well with Harris, he could not have chosen her.

Third, Biden is a team player. He gets along so well with people on the other side of the aisle that even Republicans like Cindy McCain publicly came out in support of him. Kamala Harris rightly attacked him during the Democratic Party presidential debates, but he was still able to tap her for a running mate. Biden is able to see the big picture, and knows who to call on for Cabinet positions. It is a welcome relief to hear the accomplished biographies of his candidates, qualified people in different fields and a very diverse group of individuals. He is wise enough to know it is not all about him: it is about creating an efficient administration of which he happens to be the head. He is aware of the grave danger of the pandemic, the economy, and America’s tarnished reputation in the world. Naturally, we don’t know the end results of his presidency, and how the next four years will turn out. We could be riding on many false expectations, and the far-right-wing threat could still continue to be a menace that impedes progress. Biden may not deliver, he may make more mistakes in the future.

Yet it doesn’t hurt to have hope, and learning how to get along with the enemy, so to speak, is perhaps one of the most important skills we all need to develop or strengthen now.

Why We Love British Style

There is an incredibly large fan base of all things English and British here in the US; in fact, the British film industry is very aware of the American market when making and distributing films, knowing that they can recoup their expenses if the film does well here. Americans swoon over the Royals, British period pieces, accents, history, literature, architecture, etc. But why? Why, other than our shared heritage, do we have such a fancy for the UK?

-There is an element of reserve and restraint. So much in America is about spill-your-guts, Kardashian-style self-promotion, that we actually appreciate a sense of mystery. Not revealing everything, be it skin or our private lives, has an appeal. This is something that is part of the culture across all ethnic groups: compare a British Indian to an Indian-American, and you will notice a difference.

-Elegance and grace. Perhaps this is due to the UK having an active monarchy and a noble class, but this one is probably one of the most appealing aspects of British culture. This cannot help but filter down into daily life. Maintaining a sense of decorum, a proper afternoon tea on delicate china, stationers that have been around for centuries, an Anglican chorus–all of these elements make for a sense of things being out of the ordinary.

-The clothing. There is a long-running tradition of well-tailored garments, bespoke items, haberdashers, floral prints, beautiful yet sturdy woolens knit up north that are more about true style rather than trendiness. Cuts are clean, but fabrics are attractive and appealing. Tacky is not a word that one would generally apply to stylish British clothes, be it from the supermarket, Marks and Sparks, the High Street, or Stella McCartney. There is a long history of textiles (sadly, sometimes the result of colonial exploitation in India and elsewhere), and it may be safe to say that clothes are built from the fabric up, rather than just from a design and fabric chosen to suit it. We love historical dramas because we love to admire the lavish costumes and clothes: the sumptuous velvets, rustling silks, ruffled necks.

-A sense of whimsy and eccentricity. American culture is obsessed with looking perfect and fitting a particular image; Italian fashion must always be ultra-feminine and one must “fare la bella figura.” But the British have a sense of humor about things. You might choose a funny fascinator wear to a wedding, favor quirky shoes or Doc Martens, or have worn asymmetrical haircuts in the 80s. you might opt for a brightly-colored palette à la Zandra Rhodes or Ms. Pink and Mr. Black. Though his designs and not necessarily have been called elegant and beautiful all the time, the late Alexander McQueen’s work was truly unique and theatrical. They can be best dubbed as works of art rather than clothing, and his genius was uniquely British. Eccentricity is also something that cuts across all ethnicities and classes in the UK, which is a multicultural society.

-The architecture. Palladian windows, pillars, green lawns, and even modern wonders that you can see in the form of museums, university buildings, dwellings, and more. There are still so many historic buildings dating even from medieval times, but if modern architecture’s your thing, there is no shortage of that–have a look at the Tate Modern, which is built in a former power station, very industrial chic. But it is not so often that we find a 20th/21st century British building that is completely cold and devoid of feeling the way we do elsewhere in northern Europe. There is always a sense of emotion in British style, though not over-the-top.

-There is an embracing of the feminine element. It is not inconceivable for a man to wear understated florals, discreet prints, a pale pink shirt, etc. Think of the Scottish kilt–the original skirt for men! Not everything in the UK has to be straight lines or rational angles. There is still a contingent of pagans and women who embrace flowing hair, hippie style, flowing gowns. And let us not forget the numerous immigrants from all over the world, who bring their own fabrics and styles with them, be it robes and turbans from all over the African continent or Indian saris.

Naturally, this is only an observation of one angle of British culture. There are plenty of drunken, grubby men and women spilling from pubs, scantily clad girls who go off for hen parties (bachelorette parties in American English) in Spain, and people who are as apathetic to aesthetics as they are here in the US. But there is still something enduring and appealing about the artistic and stylistic output of the United Kingdom that we don’t quite find here in the United States.

A Case Against Minimalism?

In perusing the recent after-Christmas sales, I noticed that there is quite a prevalent ethos in current aesthetics: a sleek, (anorexically-)thin model with her hair pulled back into a neat ponytail, her features angular no matter what her ethnicity, wearing simple-cut, unadorned clothing in a chic environment that is usually white or gray. It looks gorgeously stylish, and some of the cuts are so classic that we can see they have been in existence since the heyday of fashion icons Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy, the Givenchy designs that we still love today. But this isn’t only in the world of clothing and fashion: we can see this in the popularity of mid-century modern furniture design, industrial-chic restaurants and cafés and boutiques, and even in the trendy ethos of “clean eating.” I have always been a huge fan of Scandinavian design, have hated Midwestern furniture and its heavy, brown, complicated look, loathe over- detailed and studded handbags, and am a frugal sort who prefers to have less in terms of possessions. And dare I say, sometimes I find the gopurams (towers) of Hindu temples in my ancestral land of South India can be a bit gaudy?

But all of this has made me wonder, why is there such a dislike of the opulent, the rococo, the detailed, the maximalist? Why is there a fear of design ethic that is “too much”? Is this aesthetic doing a disservice to many people and cultures? Here are some thoughts.

-There is often a lack of emotion in minimalism. Why smile when you can pout or have a neutral expression? This seems to be the opinion of art directors everywhere. Why not have a few stray curls cascading over a shoulder that show an element of playfulness instead of every (unnaturally-straightened) hair pulled back? Why does the table have to be set with such sterile perfection in a photograph instead of people laughing and talking, a drop of wine spilled, a penne that has escaped from the pot?
I have often remarked, when in Germany and Austria, at the way that the corners of the rooms are at such perfect, sharp 90° angles that it’s almost ridiculous. In the United States, even 90° angle walls have a slight curve to them. I always read this as a fear of emotion, anything that is not perfectly straight and rigid.

-It seems to favor a “masculine” energy. Some might argue this is an essentialist argument that masculine aesthetics and energy are straight lines, hard, plain things and feminine aesthetics and energy are curves, details, anything flowing. But I think there is some truth to this argument, that anything that is feminine, rounded, and sensual does not often feature in high-fashion and high art.

-Minimalism favors a particular body type and look. 90% of the population does not look like the models in magazines and in high-fashion print. This majority, in other words, does not fit a “skinny white person” aesthetic, regardless of ethnicity. A majority of the world’s cultures outside of America, Anglophone countries, and Northwestern Europe appreciates curves, voluptuousness, and femininity.

-Minimalism dismisses folk art and traditional handicrafts and handiwork. Think of the beautiful embroidery of Eastern Europe or India, the swirling batik prints of Southeast Asia, or the multicolored stripes of Guatemalan fabric (see my last post my appreciation of textiles). Or consider Russian culture’s adoration of “bling” – if it’s opulent and gilded, Russians love it. There is something pleasing to the eye about details and ornaments.

-There is something to be said about opulence. Traditionally, more has always signified more – more money, higher status, et cetera. Only in our narrow, 21st-century secular Western societies does less equal more. In America, we can trace that back to Puritanism. There is a dislike of the lavish, the rococo is frowned upon, and being unadorned as a woman is perfectly fine. We don’t come from a culture that has magnificent palaces, jewels, historical houses of worship, or grand costumes. This is unfortunate, because I think it dims our appreciation of that which is special. Oscar Wilde adored luxury and anything opulent, and the Oscar Wilde Bar in New York City pays tribute to the famed aesthete with highly decorated settings and an aptly named “Temptation Room.” There is also an Oscar Wilde Lounge in the Hotel Café Royal in London that Wilde himself used to frequent. Decked out in red and gold, it seems perfectly suited to the writer, and one can imagine him sitting with a pot of Earl Grey, cranking out bons mots in a hand-sewn, leather-bound notebook.

What would Oscar think about the current rage for minimalism in art? Very likely, he would be quite critical of it. After all, he did say, “Let me be surrounded by luxury, I can do without the necessities!”

Textiles: The Fabrics of Our Lives

Different cultures specialize in different types of artistic media. We think of the French and we think so much of photography, film, light, and painting, for example. We think of the ancient Romans and their beautiful marble and stonework. In many countries and communities, textiles have been and still are a part of the artistic culture.

In India, textiles are such a vital part of life even today. There are different regions that are known for different types of fabrics, and certain cities that are known for certain prints, weaves, etc. My ancestral town of Kanchipuram is known for silks, there are certain prints that one would recognize are from Rajasthan, and of course there is the globally popular Pashmina scarves. Given that millions of Indian women wear saris on a daily basis, with the sari typically being a 6 yard piece of fabric, it is only natural that India would be a very heavily textile-oriented culture. Walk into any fabric or sari shop, and ask, say, to look at red saris with a paisley print–the salesperson would immediately pull out 10 bolts of fabric that fit the description!

Many indigenous Central and Latin Americans wear the unmistakable woven cotton fabrics in all variations of colorful stripes, and we can see their goods sold all over the world (such as Guatemalan purses). Interestingly, very similar fabrics and patterns can be found in Bhutan. The Nordic countries are known for their intricate knit patterns in their woolen sweaters, very necessary to ward off the chills in extreme northern climates. There are many centers of wool and silk in northern Italy, though probably less than centuries ago, and women delight in wrapping themselves with shawls and richly textured sweaters. Many Native American tribes in the Americas made good use of animals that were hunted for food and used their durable skins, decorating them with feathers, shells, and other natural materials.

West African royalty swathed themselves in kente cloth, the different colors symbolizing different attributes. This is just one example of how royalty denoted themselves from commoners. We think of the classic European royal purple, or the bejeweled Russians, magnificent robes and garments for the aristocrats in all cultures. This might seem like something antiquated, but if we reflect on royalty today, they still distinguish themselves by their outfits, often wearing luxury brands that are no longer their exclusive domain, though unaffordable for most people. Think of the countless blogs dedicated to the Duchess of Cambridge and her wardrobe, some of which include suggestions on how to duplicate her look.

Books from the 18th and 19th centuries focus heavily on the details of what the characters are wearing. Tolstoy’s Kitty is wearing a dress that shows off her shapely ankles, and then at her ball, is in a cloudlike dress. Every girl who grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder lived with vicarious delight as Ma took the girls into town to get fabrics for their new dresses, calicos or muslins or poplin. Jane Austen’s characters also take notice of what the others are wearing, and judge them accordingly.

We cannot ignore the significance of textiles in religious contexts. Hindu priests wear simple white cotton dhotis with a simple colored woven border, whereas Episcopalian priests and Catholic clergy are decked out in opulent robes and colors. We recognize the stripes on a Jewish tallit, or prayer shawl. Many African-American communities take pride in dressing up for church, wearing elegant suits and magnificent hats.

Fashionista or not, one cannot help but be impacted by the significance of textiles in our daily lives. It is something that we are often too much in a hurry to pay attention to in America, a culture that is so based on practicality. But if we just take a moment, we might appreciate the swish of a dress, the shine of a silk tie, or the tantalizing texture of a hand-knit sweater.