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.

Who Got It Right as a Woman: Patti Smith

It might be hard to believe at first glance, given that famous long, stringy hair, androgynous appearance, and her origins as a proto-punk poetess and singer dubbed “The Godmother of Punk.” But Patti Smith is not who she necessarily seems on the surface. She is an incredibly well-read woman, writer, photographer, and a true romantic with a tremendous aesthetic eye and love of beauty. While I cannot confess to being a great fan of her music, I have watched and read many interviews with her, saw in her speak in public, and so an exhibit of her photographs at the Detroit Institute of Arts. There is so much to admire about her!

-She is highly cultured. This is the artist who considered Balzac to be her first love! Smith has made pilgrimages to the homes of various artists and writers around the world. She admires how Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist Flea warms up with Bach runs. And one of her childhood heroes was Maria Callas. She loves going to bookstores and always talks about the book she is reading in interviews. Patti Smith has spoken of how she really considers herself to be a writer first, and that music happened to get put to her words.

-She is romantic and she loves men. People have often mistaken her youthful snarling and androgyny for militant feminism or even lesbianism, but Smith has mentioned she likes it when men hold the doors open for her, loved her husband deeply and was still devoted to her one time lover, Robert Mapplethorpe, even after he came out gay. Smith has always seemed to adore the men she has been with. How one presents oneself to the world does not always equate with one’s sexual orientation.

-She is a true artist who values great craftsmanship, whatever the mode. Despite her usual uniform of black blazers and jeans, she admires the construction of couture ball gowns! She feels deeply about the objects she photographs, and in the exhibit I saw, what was most striking was not the photographs themselves, but the canon she had put together through photography. She has a sensitive aesthetic eye and is moved by great art of any kind.

-She was a committed mother and wife. She followed her husband, the late Fred Smith, to Detroit since his band was based there. During this period, she spent little time on her music, focusing on her family life and also her writing. In interviews, Patti Smith seems to have no regrets for having left New York for going to Detroit for a time, gracefully embracing what each stage in life has held for her. She loves her children and even performs with them.

-She doesn’t follow any-isms. So often she is considered a feminist icon and asked as such; Smith seems to shrug it off and not care to identify with any big labels or movements. Instead, she chooses to be herself, the artist that she is.

-Her tastes are wide. As a child, she poured over European art books, listened to opera, read French literature. She also is a fan of Japanese writers and Roberto Bolaño, Tibetan Buddhism, traveling in Morocco, Little Women, beat poetry, and so much more. She is listed as a poet on the prestigious Poetry Foundation’s website, an honor that is not for dilettantes. Even her albums reference sometimes-obscure cultural phenomena, such as the dog Banga in The Master and Margarita. This is a woman who is clearly well read and a woman of letters who is influenced by other great artists!

-She doesn’t care to dress in a “feminine” mode. The trademark hair is long and unkempt, her face is free of makeup, and even at the Nobel ceremony (where she accepted the award for Bob Dylan) she did not choose to done a dress. Smith was always comfortable dressing as she does (which is still quite an iconic, unique style), though she does love ball gowns and there is a photo shoot one can see online where she is in Dior gowns!

-While she might seem rebellious and certainly was as a young woman, she is actually quite respectful and accepting of religions, general proprieties, etc.

Ultimately, Patti Smith is true to herself. She considers herself an artist above all the categories of gender, ethnicity, etc. She has shown us that it doesn’t matter what kind of background you come from, that even if you are from a working-class background, you can still have an aesthetic soul and live for your artistic dreams. When I saw her give a talk in Ann Arbor in 2010 or so, I had the great fortune to ask her a question: what do you do when you are feeling a lack of inspiration? Her answer was that she is never in this state, because she will constantly draw her inspiration from other great artists and writers, so she will turn to their work, and that she is also inspired by walking by the ocean. I found this to be a satisfying answer, and I am inspired by this true artist.

Faces of Africa

Back in May, prior to the Black Lives Matter marches, I felt that I needed to know more about politics in Africa, a part of the world I have not yet been to. Ironically, May is “Africa month,” a time to commemorate the continent. I came across a series on YouTube by CGTN (a Chinese network) called “Faces of Africa” where they profile the major leaders of Africa, most of whom helped liberate their countries from colonial powers. Each episode was unique and each leader a distinct personality. There were some whose names I knew very well, like Robert Mugabe, but others with whom I was less familiar. Some are still revered, whereas others are reviled.

Europeans might already be aware of the deep roots of colonialism in the African continent. For many of them, the presence of people from Africa and current-date immigrants is a reminder of their history. Indians have also had a presence in Africa for centuries, and Mahatma Gandhi was a lawyer in South Africa. More recently, there are East and Southeast Asians, and an Indonesian South African recently told me that the recent Asian immigrants have a better social status than earlier ones, as they had come from business and often brought great wealth. There are indeed a number of whites who are African whites, as their families have lived there for centuries. This is not just in the country of South Africa, but elsewhere, especially in former colonial strongholds.

It is important to know that there is extreme class stratification throughout the African continent. Africa is full of natural resources and so there are very wealthy people who have profited from these commodities. There are also booming metropolises, such as Lagos, Cairo, Johannesburg (“Joburg” to the locals), and more that are centers of trade, finance, manufacturing. There is also extreme political instability throughout the continent, extreme corruption, and a lack of infrastructure. This is understandable, for the landmass is enormous, and encompasses all types of geography, from deserts to plains to snow-capped mountains to jungles. There is tremendous diversity in the religions and languages, with the North and Maghreb being predominantly Muslim, and over 1500 languages spoken in six different language families.

Yet despite this diversity, the continent has suffered through so many similar situations. The legacies and tragedies of colonial powers were affecting Africa through the mid 20th century. Exploitation–both financial and human–was rampant all over. The profiles of the leaders shown in “Faces of Africa” often reflect a very similar pattern: a colonial power had long had a hold over the country, and then a courageous idealist rose up to rebel against the colonials, garnering popular support along the way, and then became the leader of the country. However, over time, this leader either ended up facing opposition and was somehow ousted, or this leader ended up becoming a dictator just as bad as the colonial rulers. Many of them were educated in the West, and just like Gandhi, ended up using this knowledge of history and politics and the law to turn out the Western powers. The degree to which each of these leaders chose to remain connected to the west, or to be pro-Africa, has varied. Their styles of governing also differed greatly. Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie was an internationalist and Emperor, grand in his portraits and lifestyle. Joseph Sankara, “Africa’s Che Guevara” from Burkina Faso was a left-wing revolutionary who opposed the IMF and lived very frugally to the end. Robert Mugabe, the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe who identified first with Marx and Lenin and then as a socialist, was a schoolteacher who rose to power to become one of Africa’s most notorious dictators, complete with a second wife who was known for her profligate spending.

These liberators are complex people who share many similarities but also have many differences. They raise greater questions: can one truly remain an idealist once they are in power? Will political coalitions and unity fragment once the common enemy of the colonizer is gone? Can a country that is part of the developing world subsist without aid from the developed world/IMF/World Bank? Can isolationism really help develop a country or will it hinder it? These are questions that have no easy answers and that have not yet been answered, issues that political scientists, historians, politicians, and those working in government confront even as we speak. One of the most pressing issues right now is debt forgiveness for Africa, and the Chinese have been involved as of late.

The African continent is rich in history and politics. While it is impossible to know everything about such a large area of the world, it’s important to inform oneself as best as when can. Even simply learning the geography and basic facts about the various countries is a good start.