How to Become Global as a Writer

One of the criticisms hurled at American writers is that they are too narrow-minded and know very little about writers elsewhere, past and present. I have written about this in other posts (https://thewomenofletters.com/2013/05/24/the-need-for-a-national-writer/), but it is a topic worth revisiting. In listening to “The World” on NPR a couple days ago, it struck me about the importance of being well-informed about world affairs in politics as a writer. I recently Zoomed with friends from the international polyglot conference, and it was fascinating as always to talk about different languages, sounds, and cultures. I have a background in international education, so the intersection of culture and literature is always of interest to me. So here are some thoughts and suggestions for writers to expand their horizons to become more global in their sensibility.

-Read Nobel laureates. Over the past decade plus, I have chosen to educate myself about literary figures who are titans overseas but often unknown here. I have gotten to know the work of Orhan Pamuk, J.M.G. Le Clezio, Shaw (who is known but considered old-fashioned), and others. A friend from my MFA program recently started a book group to women Nobel laureates in literature, and last month we read Grazia Deledda’s Reeds in the Wind. The excitement for the group was indeed palpable, and I am certainly looking forward to the next meeting. Why not create a book group of your own to read Nobel laureates, women only or both genders? 

-Inform yourself about world affairs. Don’t just rely on American news sources but read international newspapers/news sites such as the BBC or international newspapers’ English editions. Take an interest in what is going on in the world politically, socially, culturally, etc. You might find inspiration for your own work. Susan Minot, who is educated in that most American of institutions, a prep school, and whose great story “Lust” is quintessentially American, wrote Thirty Girls, which was based on her reporting for McSweeney’s on the kidnapping of girls by the Lord’s Resistance Army in sub-Saharan Africa.

-Learn other languages. Author Lydia Davis translates French literature, and Jhumpa Lahiri has studied and written in Italian. Read literature in other languages if you can, even if it is short stories, or even websites. As a polyglot, I can say that it will enrich your mind to understand how to speakers of other languages think and use language.

-Read literature in translation. There’s no question that something does indeed get “lost in translation” as the saying goes, but still, we get a different literary sensibility with literature in translation, and it transports us to different places. The Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic’ incorporates not only culture and history, but metafiction a work of literature that is mind-blowing.

-Read other genres. Popular literature has a global appeal (think Harry Potter) as does fantasy (think Tolkien). There are certain universals that readers everywhere like. Myths abound all over the world, and in non-“People of the Book” religions.

-Read myths and creation stories and tales from other religions. Hinduism is based on two great epics, the Mahabharatha and the Ramayana which are quite spectacular and Tolstoyan in their scope and number of characters.

-Tie in history, culture, politics, or a larger social context to your work. This is self-explanatory. It makes your story or novel larger than what it is.

And there are many other ways that you can get to know the stories of others around the world. What will you discover? What is your advice?

A Tribute to Gurinder Chadha, British-Indian Director and Pioneer

The film “Bend It Like Beckham” just turned 20 this year. It is my movie equivalent of mac and cheese, a movie I turn to when I want something warm and comforting and familiar. I can probably even recite most of the lines by heart! The near-perfect script is written by Gurinder Chadha, her husband Paul Mayeda Berges, and Guljit Bindra, and is directed by Chadha herself. The film set all kinds of box office records in the UK and was a hit around the world. Though my Indian background is quite different than Chadha’s, I have great admiration for her body of work and what she has done to pave the way for South Asian women in film.

Of Sikh descent but born in Nairobi, Chadha is British-Indian and quite an excellent representative of the community. A filmmaker beginning at a time when there were very few women filmmakers, let alone minority women filmmakers, she has addressed a variety of themes and subject matter that speak to the Indian community in Britain and in the diaspora as well as in India. But she takes things a step further, showing how these Indian communities relate to- and interact with the larger world.

Chadha usually puts women at the front of her films, and they hold key roles. Consider “Bhaji on the Beach,” which was Chadha’s breakout film as a feature film director. The ensemble cast features a group of women on a day trip to the beach–and not just women, but South Asian British women of all ages. This was a big deal in 1993, when it was released. “Bride and Prejudice,” a brilliantly fun and true-to-the original musical retelling of Austen’s classic novel, deals with marriage in a family of four daughters in the Punjab, with Bollywood megastar Aishwarya Rai as the Elizabeth Bennett character. Chadha shows an outspoken Indian character confronting a wealthy American man and his formidable mother; if we examine this more deeply, it is not just a tale of romance, but also a critique of colonialism and imperialism. And yet it is woven into an enjoyable story, complete with catchy songs to dance to. Chadha never loses her sense of fun as she gets a message across. 

Chadha is equally at ease with Indian characters as she is with non-Indian characters, making them all seem authentic. The Los Angeles families of different ethnicities in “What’s Cooking?” (a flawed but enjoyable Thanksgiving movie) are all different yet so similar in their humanity. They aren’t stereotypes created by a white director, but real families who are Latino, Vietnamese, Jewish, and Black. It doesn’t hurt that her husband Paul Mayeda Berges was a co-writer, and he is from California and of Basque and Japanese heritage. The Paxton family in “Bend It Like Beckham” come across like a typical lower-middle-class English family, with the mother’s highly conventional attitudes about gender roles and Indians. In “Quais de Seine,” Chadha’s contribution to the marvelous “Paris, je t’aime,” the lead character is a Muslim young woman (not even British Indian and Sikh or Hindu) who is befriended/romanced by a young Frenchman who resents her being bullied. It is two characters of completely different backgrounds to Chadha’s, in a different country, and of a different religion, and yet it is one of the strongest shorts in the film compilation. I believe this is because Chadha has a way of getting to the emotional heart of the situation and characters, in the way only a master director can. “Blinded by the Light” juxtaposes two seemingly unlikely things–a British Pakistani teenager and the music of Bruce Springsteen–that over the course of the film come together beautifully in a way that intertwines culture, racism, politics, economics, religion, and the power of music.

“Viceroy’s House” is her most serious film and one that has deep personal meaning to her. It addresses The Partition and Mountbatten’s departure from India. Naturally, the British characters are some of the lead roles; however, Nehru and Jinnah are equally important and there is a subplot that features Indian characters and deals with religion. There are some, especially historians, who criticized its lack of gravity and accuracy, and these criticisms maybe true. However, it is rare to find a film beautifully dramatizes and makes accessible a significant event in history that too few in the West know about.

Some might find Chadha’s films to be a little melodramatic or not serious enough. These criticisms are also valid, as tastes differ. Some also find her characters or even her film “Bend It Like Beckham” to be too predictable. This is also a valid criticism. Chadha’s primary goal is to entertain, and no one could ever accuse her films of not being entertaining. But she entertains in a way that is South Asian-focused, intelligent, multicultural, and socially relevant. One could also apply these adjectives to the filmmaker herself, who always comes across as jolly and friendly in interviews. There is no one really quite like Gurinder Chadha, who has an impressive body of work, and is truly a groundbreaker in the world of film.

Film Review: Tár [some spoilers]

Being a classical musician, of course I was intrigued about the film “Tár” about a leading orchestral conductor who gets “canceled” after several inappropriate incidents. I am a Cate Blanchett fan, as she is an incredible, versatile actress who has the physicality to embody any character she plays (her Bob Dylan portrayal was the best in “I’m Not There,” better than any of the men!) Normally, I avoid films with a much higher critics’ rating than audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, as this usually means the films are frankly quite boring, “critics’ darlings” that are pretentious and hard to watch. Unfortunately, this was the case with “Tár.” It raises more questions than it has time to answer and doesn’t live up to its potential.

The film is too long. At nearly 2 hours and 40 minutes, the pace drags, and the film would have gained urgency had it been cut down by 45 minutes to an hour. Director Todd Field spends too much time exalting and glorifying the character of Lydia Tár at the beginning. Yes, we get it–she is one of the top conductors in the world, on par with Nézet-Séguin or MTT or Salonen. Yes, she is a woman conductor of top-tier orchestras, still a rarity these days, in the vein of Marin Alsop (whom the character seems to resemble in some ways) or JoAnn Falletta. Yes, the film needs to set her up at someone great so we can see her downfall and her abuse of power. But it all gets to be too much. As any writer knows, overdoing things and a lack of subtlety is a sign of a sophomoric work. It doesn’t trust the reader or viewer to grasp that Tár is great, and instead hits them over the head with the point. This is just one example of Field’s heavy-handed directing.

What is unique is the character herself, and a film that puts a strong woman at the center and shows that women can abuse power too, not just men: successful people of all orientations are guilty of sexual harassment and can have partners/spouses who enable their bad behavior, as is implied in this film with her wife Sharon, who never really speaks up till the end. Tár prefers young women whom she can mentor and then get involved with, as we can see with her sycophant assistant, Francesca and then the Russian cellist Olga. This is her pattern, and it keeps playing out through the film as we see from incidents both past and present. But some viewers might ask why feminism and power must be conflated with lesbianism. Does a woman have to go to a man’s tailor and wear suits to be taken seriously in a man’s world? Can she not be feminine and charismatic? Blanchett’s portrayal at times feels two-dimensional and a bit stereotyped, Murphy Brown 2.0.

The whole point is to set Tár up to be canceled for her misdeeds. But the director piles on too many themes that do not get to be explored in detail and ultimately get the short shrift. Each one is worthy of a whole film in and of itself. Tár makes insensitive remarks to a BIPOC, pangender conducting student in a masterclass and steamrollers over him when he protests what she has said. But the consequences are only returned to much later in the film. This is a very rich incident that raises so many complex questions. But perhaps the most interesting yet minimally-addressed incident in her past is the suicide of her former mentee, Krista Taylor, whom Tár was romantically involved with. She dumped Krista and viciously sabotaged her career. And she hires a new cellist in unprofessional ways and grants her opportunities that are clearly due to favoritism and romantic interest. Again, as above, this feels sophomoric because it is overdone and doesn’t trust the viewer to “get it.”

Blanchett is indeed a wonderful actress, with the dependable Nina Hoss as her long-suffering/enabling wife, as she has the charisma and gravitas to pull off the formidable lead role. The problems come when she is involved with music. Consider her interminable monologue with Adam Gopnik–it sounds rehearsed, orated, and not something introspective or spontaneous. A musician would likely go into an introverted place when talking about composers, but Blanchett makes the choice to give a speech that sounds formal. When conducting, her movements are almost comical, more like a caricature of how a conductor moves than how a conductor really moves (having played in orchestras and under conductors since childhood, this is something I’m familiar with). That a director would have not gotten a more accurate performance out of Blanchett, especially a director who has musical training, is surprising. 

I do give Field credit for the alternate reality world he has created in the film, and I’m willing to suspend disbelief for his having shown a conductor having more decision-making power than a conductor would in real life. But the execution is so poor in this film. It wasted a fantastic, formidable premise, featured a script that was all over the place, and kept a grim, distant tone that felt alienating and odd (especially when a film is about music and relationships, two of the most intimate, personal things in life). In all, a disappointment.

Thinking Critically

It is alarming to read in major, vetted news publications about the influence of social media on extremism. One can feel vindicated that the monstrous conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is being forced to pay nearly $1 billion to atone for his sins. But he is only one individual among millions in the US and perhaps even billions plural in the world who have fallen prey to going to extremes. It is not just conservatives–liberals and leftists can also be equally as unreasonable (think the communist bombers in Italy in the 70s, cancel culture, holistic-types who are antivaxxers.) The underlying common denominator is a lack of being able to think critically. To question one’s logic, way of thinking, organizations one belongs to, and regulating one’s emotions are paramount during this era.

We see the prominence of the right wing globally, from the US to Hungary to Brazil to Korea and everywhere in between. We see an unwillingness for people to talk to each other, but instead comment–and troll others–online. It’s easier to retweet or repost than to come up with original content, because the former only requires clicking a button. More than ever, our minds are at stake and up for grabs by algorithms, bots, and data miners. We are a culture that makes decisions based on emotion rather than careful thinking. And yet, we are a very emotionally repressed culture where people deal with difficulties through various addictions, denial, and negative behaviors.

Education can play a big role in helping kids to think for themselves when it comes to receiving information. It is also very crucial to teach them empathy. Unfortunately, these skills often get lost upon entering adulthood where one must navigate business culture, organizations, personal slights, and those who are lacking in emotional intelligence as well as plain old intelligence. It is up to us, then, as adults to remind ourselves to work on self-awareness, call out extremism in any form, and not get swayed by false rhetoric. Many people have a deep mistrust of institutions, which is quite often unjustified and fueled by our American mentality of individualism above all. In this country, we see the two poles of being brainwashed by groupthink, and the anti-establishment, anti-everything, don’t-tell-me-what-to-do anarchy.

None of this is meant to be dystopian or “us against them,” which is precisely the mentality extremists use. Rather, this is to draw attention to these sociological processes that are having very negative consequences on our world now in politics, media, freedom of speech, hatred, violence, etc. I have lost a friend to this; she has become very irrational and has taken positions on things that are frankly frightening. Consider this quote: “the mind acts like an enemy for those who do not control it.” Chomsky? A 30something ex-Silicon Valley social media strategist? A 20th century psychologist? No–it is the millennia-old wisdom of the Buddha that is still applicable today.

Revision

I am currently revising a very long novel. I briefly discussed this as part of a post back in March (https://thewomenofletters.com/2022/03/11/%EF%BF%BCrandom-thoughts-reflections-and-musings/) but would like to take a little more time to discuss it.

The process of revision in fiction is endlessly complex and surprising, whether it be a story or a novel. Stories have to be more tightly written: things must fit together with fewer loose ends. In the novel, the challenge is that there is so much going on that the writer needs to remember everything, maintain the narrative tension, ensure that the protagonists have a narrative arc, etc. Both forms of fiction have their challenges. But mine right now is the novel, which I think is a harder undertaking when it comes to revision.

In revising my novel, I expected to have to cut a lot of material. The proverbial “kill your darlings” adage is imperative when working with a long text. I do believe we need to put down on the page whatever is our first impulse in our first draft; not doing so will shut us down, leave us subject to the crippling demon of perfectionism. The task of revision after this is to indeed kill our darlings. Why did we repeat something over and over? Why did we describe something in detail that is really a minor point? Why is there a scene that describes something not crucial to the thrust of the narrative? And do we really need that character? We ask ourselves if there is a briefer way to explain something that can be told within a shorter space. Why go on and on when something can be shown very easily in a few words? These are extremely difficult questions to implement when revising. It is very hard to kill our darlings sometimes, not only because we have a personal emotional attachment to it, but because we want the reader to feel as deeply as we do about a certain idea, scene, or character.

However, sometimes revising a long work such as a novel (or even a novella or long story) requires adding new material. Ironically, this can make the piece more “efficient”: putting in some key scenes early on can help cut material later. This really took me by surprise, especially since my manuscript is very long and my goal was to cut it down by a couple hundred pages. But just as we have cut a lot of unnecessary detail or scenes, we can add things that serve the purpose of the narrative and make for a richer or tighter or more engaging read. For example, what was a character’s backstory? Maybe a character’s narrative arc feels thin, but when we add the backstory, we understand his motivations even more. Maybe we want to understand a married couple’s dynamics through more than hearsay, not just what the wife is telling her sister, and so we need to insert a scene to see the couple interacting. Sometimes we need to create a new character, or give a character more time on the page, because that character is an agent in driving the narrative forward and increasing the stakes. These are all things I have had to do in my revision, because I felt a lack in certain areas.

The hardest thing about writing a novel is understanding the “architecture” as I call it. What is the underlying structure? What are the girders and beams and walls supporting it? Where is it weak? Do we need another beam in the opening chapters? What about that saggy middle where things seem to droop like the cables between the towers on a suspension bridge like the Golden Gate Bridge? Can we strengthen the foundation at the beginning of part three? It is a lot to keep in mind, and even for those who meticulously map out everything on paper or make drawings, creating the structure of a novel is not easy. One can find “lesser” works from the most decorated writers and Nobel laureates that lag, sag, and droop because there is no exact science to writing a literary fiction novel. As a side note, I think there is a lot literary fiction writers can learn from what are condescendingly called “potboiler” or “airport novel” (really, plot-driven) writers, because they know how to tell a damn good story and keep a reader’s attention for hundreds of pages with a juicy plot.

Countless books and theories and suggestions exist for revising, and it is up the writer to take what she needs from this plethora of information. At the end of the day, though, it is just you with the page on a laptop, trying to work everything out for yourself, a unique task which is both exasperating and marvelous.

Celebrating 10 years!!!!!!

Dear Readers,

I began this blog exactly 10 years ago to the day, September 30, 2012. When I started it, I had no idea what to expect. I had set up this website as a way for me and a friend (who had recently left an unhappy graduate school program) to continue our wonderful discussions that we always had on the phone, but online for people to read them. As she decided not to participate, the blog became entirely mine. I saw it as an outlet for all my various intellectual musings, artistic opinions, cultural criticism, and more, a place to put down words on paper that were not my long, formal fiction projects. Over the years, it has taught me so much more than I could’ve ever imagined. I got to interview interesting people. I analyzed books in detail. I offered my thoughts on politics and the situation in the world. And most of all, I got to share with others the things I love most: the arts. I had no readers in the beginning; I was just simply thrilled to write and have a place to do it.

            And the rewards have been incredible. An editor at The Guardian had praise for my work. People started following it. It gave me clout because it showed to agents that I have a platform as a writer. And, on a whim, when I saw a call for non-fiction essay collections in winter 2021, I put together a manuscript of my favorite pieces from this blog and began querying agents. While I have had no takers yet, I have had positive feedback, and that has been so surprising and wonderful, how something that I just started for an internal need has become something concrete.

            But most of all, what is the most gratifying and humbling thing is the fact that you, my readers, have cared enough to follow and read my blog. What I want to say to you is a heartfelt thank you, and also to encourage you to go for it: start your own blog! What are you waiting for? If I can do it, you can too. It’s really not hard and you just never know the places it might take you.

Creating Your Own Personal Canon

We often hear about The Canon, a presumed-monolithic entity of classics from Western literature and art that is in opposition to literatures from outside the west, different art forms, and different ways of conceiving classical works. There is also much good debate about the canon as we know it, what should be included in it and what should be discarded so that we can make way for works that are more relevant and reflective of our modern society and perceptions. However, we can also ask ourselves about our own tastes and preferences, and create our own personal canon. What are the books, paintings, pieces of music, works of art that inspire us personally?

As I wrote in an earlier post, many years ago I saw a photo exhibit by Patti Smith at the Detroit Institute of Arts. 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 also knows which body of work inspires her. Inspiration is a word that is thrown around loosely, in clever memes on Instagram, on wooden cubes for home decor. On a deeper level, it is something that we cannot live without. Different artists speak to us in different ways–some appeal to our “shadow” or dark side, some uplift us, others challenge us, motivate us, see things in a different way than we do, etc. etc.

When we create our own personal canon, it does not necessarily mean we have to make a list or a Pinterest board to define it in a formal way. Naturally, we will gravitate to certain types of works or artists and over time, we get a sense of what we like. Emulation is part of the process: maybe we paint like X, write like Y, or dress like Z. And then we start developing our own voice, using elements of X, Y, or Z, and eventually our voice becomes our own. For those who aren’t artists, a personal canon will simply be a body of work and artists whom one always want to see more of. A person working in finance who has no aptitude for music may always want to follow the latest from Björk, or a scientist may have regular tickets to the symphony. What matters, in any case, is that we know who or what inspires us and ignites our soul. I argue in favor of following the artists we love best, the trajectory of their creativity, knowing the body of their work. Don’t we love talking with people who have a passion for a particular artist in depth?

We can choose whatever elements we want for our own personal canon. Who’s to say that someone can’t mix Rihanna with Balkan folk dancing with Latin American magical realist authors? Think of your canon as a special box in which you put your favorite, most precious objects. Each of these objects is like a different stone: one might be precious, one might be common but look nice, another one might be unusual. There is no right or wrong here; all that matters is that you choose what you love, knowing that it reflects a part of you that is your deepest soul.

Book Review: The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid

This is a brief review of Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel. I am a fan of Hamid, because I admire how he accomplishes so much in a short space in his novels. This book is, in a word, clever. The premise, execution, the subject matter and how it is handled is truly intelligent, insightful, and wry. Hamid manages to get a lot of social commentary in without hitting the reader over the head with it. (SOME SPOILERS BELOW.) It is a brilliant book that is absolutely worth reading.

Well-read people will immediately know that this novel alludes to Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” where Gregor Samsa wakes up and is transformed into a giant beetle. However, in this case, Anders (one of two protagonists) wakes up and find that his skin has darkened. Anders goes through various stages of understanding, first experiencing shock but then eventually experiencing fright, as he sees how dark-skinned people are treated differently. His good friend Oona, who soon becomes lover, seems fairly accepting of the change, but not everyone else is as open-minded. Anders’s father, for example, is drawn as a classic, working-class white male who values whiteness, but still cares for his son. Likewise, Oona’s mother, takes comfort in her connection to and white pride groups online. 

As members of the town become dark-skinned one by one, and as violence increases, Anders and Oona deepen their connection, going from casual sex to a relationship and eventually to love. Oona also becomes permanently dark-skinned. Hamid skillfully juxtaposes this intimate relationship against the backdrop of riots and violence against dark-skinned people by those who hang onto their white identity till the last, who try to maintain white supremacy until they too succumb to the fate of turning dark. There is also the shadow of Anders’s father’s illness, which is terminal, along with the recent death of Oona’s brother.

What is interesting, and shocking, perhaps, is that the reader would expect the novel to be more about the realization and acceptance of not being white in society. Instead, Hamid shows us the struggle that white people have with both dark skin as well as becoming a minority. He gets inside the mindset of white people who feel threatened by black or brown people, and in playing this “reverse psychology” trick, illustrates how racism develops and is quite pervasive in American society. Hamid turns the tables on us, because he has crafted a narrative about how racism develops from white fragility and shows us the fearful white’s POV—all quite clever, given that Hamid is of Pakistani origin.

The main criticism I have of the novel is that the paragraphs are constructed by very long, run-on sentences. Conventional punctuation, such as semicolons and periods do not break up the paragraphs, so it requires the reader to pay close attention, making it difficult to read. There is very little dialogue, with Hamid focusing instead on interiority. At times, the novel can feel a little “thin,” as it stays very focused on a few characters’ experiences. My other chief criticism is that the ending feels abrupt, time is summed up too quickly, and it doesn’t quite give us a satisfying resolution. However, this novel is still quite intriguing and really one of a kind, reflecting the events of the past couple of years (a pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, white supremacy riots, etc.) that are transformed into a dystopian world that will appeal to readers of speculative fiction as well as fans of multicultural literature. Hamid always has something interesting to say, and a very engaging way of saying it. I look forward to his next novel, as he is one of the most insightful, thought-provoking writers around.

Poise and Dignity: Remembering Queen Elizabeth II

Should we mourn someone who was the head of a very hegemonic, unjust institution that controlled so much of the developing world, and that holds a disproportionate amount of wealth today? A monarchy that is so linked to colonialism, slavery, and inequality? Someone who is still a polarizing figure not only in the Commonwealth and developing countries, but in her own country (there are many republicans, a word which means something entirely different in the UK.)

And yet, something must be said, because her passing cannot go without comment. In a world where oversharing is the norm, social media takes precedence over all forms of communication, and individualism is a driving force in how people live their lives, there was one woman who quietly went about her business without complaint and with an even temperament because she knew it was her duty: Queen Elizabeth II. What can be said about this great lady that hasn’t been said already? What can we learn from a woman who was nearly 100 years old and of a very different generation, who admittedly struggled to deal with emotional situations, especially related to family? And who was the elite of the elite, wealthy beyond belief, and royal?

-Change with the times. This might sound ironic, because in many ways, the queen was resistant to change and valued tradition over trends. However, she chose subtle ways to adapt within the framework of the institution and her culture. She had to become a media presence. She dismantled her empire. Her children adopted lifestyles and mores that were radically different from her own conservative Christian ones influenced by the Church of England. Her grandsons married true commoners who came from ordinary working families, with ancestry that included lower income people. And yet she was still the Queen, upholding the traditions of centuries, even a millennium.

-Embrace different people. It is well known that the queen cared deeply about the Commonwealth, a group of nations that were former colonies, the majority of which were not white. Nelson Mandela even had a special nickname for her, and the two were on a first name basis. She even broke protocol to reciprocate when Michelle Obama placed her hand on her back, as she was very fond of the groundbreaking First Lady. There is no question that much of the world is still recovering from centuries of British colonialism (the Partition was one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century, in my opinion), and that many despise the British Monarchy. And she was not fond of Diana’s heart-on-her-sleeve approach to connecting with everyone, did not have the Princess of Wales’s connection with all the marginalized groups in society (who loved Diana dearly). But we cannot overlook the individual and how she had a personal rapport with many that her class (including her own mother) deemed unsuitable. She came from a society that was extremely racist, whose roots were connected to colonialism and slavery, and the current royals must move forward with making reparations.

-Do your work. Elizabeth’s steady, dutiful personality never wavered. It was extremely rare, almost unheard of, for the queen to miss her engagement. She never appeared fatigued, she treated everyone kindly, maintained a sense of cheer, and traveled extensively in the UK and around the world. She worked into her 90s–a rare feat for anyone, given that most people retire in their mid-60s, and do not survive to their 100thdecade. We have no idea what health problems she suffered throughout her lifetime, or her personal struggles. All we know is that she took her job seriously, through ups and downs, even when it was not a job she should have had. She was very fair to her staff, remembering their names and details about them. It is of note that she would have had a tremendous knowledge of- and insight into 20th and 21st century British history and politics, given her weekly audiences with prime ministers. She put duty and the institution above her personal life and expected others to do so.

-Maintain a sense of humor. By all accounts from people who met her, the queen was incredibly funny. She never took herself seriously, though she took her job seriously. When someone in a shop once commented that she resembled the Queen, she commented, “I find that rather assuring.” Recent years saw her willing to entertain the crowds by appearing with James Bond in her entrance to attending the London Olympics, and the recent, brilliantly funny video of her having tea with Paddington Bear before the Jubilee.

-Love animals and nature. Those who knew her well have said that were she not queen, she would simply have been a country lady, living at her manor, tending to her horses and dogs and plants. Her infamous corgis surrounded her throughout her life, and she had a deep interest in the plants and flowers and trees at her residences. Though her lifestyle was undoubtedly beyond extravagant, her own pleasures were fairly simple. 

-Maintain a sense of composure and mystery. Even when an intruder snuck into her bedroom, the Queen had enough sangfroid not to panic. She never gave interviews, save once, and she rarely revealed things about herself in public. These are characteristics that were typical of her class, and hence why she clashed with Diana, to whom she was sometimes unsympathetic. She kept herself on an even keel, much like the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was a figurehead, not a best friend. Even her dress sense, which was sometimes dowdy and outdated for modern times, featured simple cuts and bright colors so she could be seen. Perhaps it is this very British upper-class sense of “good breeding” that many Americans find so appealing (hence the popularity TV shows and movies about the English aristocracy.)

There are many things to criticize about the Queen, no question. She was not the warmest of mothers and could not understand emotional needs in her sons and daughters in law, or in her family. Sometimes she was out of touch with the zeitgeist of a decade. But even the staunchest Republicans and anti-monarchists cannot fail to respect the late Queen Elizabeth II on a personal level, for there were very few people like her in the recent decades or century. As an individual, a working professional, she was remarkable.

Fairytales for Grown-Ups

This weekend, I saw “3000 Years of Longing,” which was a thoroughly enjoyable, modern, Arabian nights-style fable based on a short story by A.S. Byatt. The film alternates between scenes with the buttoned up academic Alithea (played by Tilda Swinton) and the djinn (the incredibly charismatic Idris Elba), and the flashback stories the djinn tells her of love and romance and wishes and tragedy. The scenes with just the two of them are prim, pristine, in a chic Istanbul hotel in the modern era. But the scenes in the past are candy-colored, lavish, even slightly gaudy, and they work brilliantly. All of this speaks to our human need for something that is out of the ordinary and mythic, something primal in our souls that needs to be fulfilled by a story that has magic to it.

Oscar Wilde’s short stories often have this “fairytales for grown-ups” quality to them. There are certain “stock characters”: a prince, a princess, animals that talk and guide us, evil beings. Those who dislike fairytales may say these characters (And fairytale characters in general) are two dimensional, flat, stereotyped. They are welcome to their opinion. I would argue these characters are there to serve the story, a greater message, rather than necessarily be something in and of themselves. There is a difference between archetypes and stereotypes.

Recent decades have shown the mania for fairytales as evidenced by the Harry Potter books. While certainly written for young people, countless adults have enjoyed the books as well as the films. We enjoy watching Harry develop magical powers, special effects, and watching good triumph over evil.

In literary fiction, a good deal of the work of Salman Rushdie has a fairytale-like quality to it. Think of Haroun and the Sea of Stories: even the title signals its connection to the Arabian nights and the Middle East/South Asia’s tradition of storytelling. While the novel is allegorical, it can be read on two levels: that of a child’s tale, and that of a critique of censorship.

There is of course the work of Angela Carter which draws directly on fairytales and (from what I have told, as I have not yet read her) Kelly Link. I find it refreshing that there are many authors (not listed here) who write on the edge of the fairytale/speculative fiction/magical realism and modern literary fiction; it is often a welcome change from the heavily realistic style we see so frequently, one that focuses on middle class, domestic issues, trauma, and relationships. The stories of indigenous cultures and ancient cultures, such as that of India, have never let go of the fairytale, as they are still seen as a relevant source of wisdom and entertainment.

Especially in a time like this, when we have been suffering with a pandemic for over 2 1/2 years, isn’t it nice to have something that transports us to a magical world, where princesses are beautiful, strong, and decisive, princes are handsome and brave, animals are our guides, palaces drip with opulence and jewels, and evil is something to be triumphed over?