Being Ayize Jama-Everett at FOGCon

Last year, at the Bay Area Book Festival, I listened to (and wrote about) a fabulous panel of speculative fiction writers, including Ayize Jama-Everett. I ended up coming home from that panel, and finding to my surprise (and horror, frankly) that there was no English Wikipedia article on him.

One of the niche areas that is impressively covered by enWP editors is that of science fiction and science fantasy, especially for writers from the United States. I could only think of Ayize’s absence from that coverage for one reason: that even when you’re a well-meaning Wikipedian who loves science fiction, it’s likely that you’re white and male, and reading primarily white writers. So in my ongoing quest to write Wikipedia articles on marginalised communities and themes, I created a stub on Ayize over the next few days.

Through asking Ayize for a triangulation of facts and a photograph (a task that took some persuasion), we ended up getting to know each other, and I learnt a great deal about Afrofuturism.

Then Ayize was invited to be an Honoured Guest at this year’s FOGcon (Friends of the Genre Convention) – an intimate, deep geek gathering of science fiction and fantasy writers and readers in the Bay Area, that took place over this past weekend. One of the conversations he had was with Lonny Brooks, on what it means to be an Afrofuturist and an African-American SF writer who dreads writing about the future, when the present is already so disturbing.

To my surprise, and delight, I was invited to write a reflection about Ayize for their conference booklet, as is their practice. Quite truly a privilege, given folks like Sherryl Vint and Steven Barnes have written about past Honoured Guests like Donna Haraway and Honoured Ghosts like Octavia Butler. Tell me what you think of mine.

Ayize slips between human and plant, between reality and fantasy, between philosophy and fiction, and offers up a liminality which is where we all live, if we are honest enough to recognise it. He pushes us beyond binaries with deft dark humour and the confidence of living in multiple spaces himself. Despite being a theologian, a psychologist, and a teacher, Ayize never gives in to either the righteousness of philosophy and psychology, or the self-consciousness of pedagogy. He leaves it to us to wander amazed in the worlds he constructs for us, or – as is far more likely – hurtling between them in gasping breaths of questions, about ourselves, about each other, about the ways in which our marginal, liminal selves can get centered in a writer’s imagination.

And that, perhaps, is the greatest gift Ayize gives us. He once said, “There’s a big wound in not being seen, in having your reality not being represented in any way.”[3] Yet that lack of representation is not solely of race, or gender, or sexuality, or age, or… it’s a wound of invisibility that comes from not being easily categorised, even as those around you try strenuously to fit you into a box of their shaping.

Inner Laws: a performance in Delhi

Calling all Dilliwallas, and/or those in Delhi this weekend… I have to say, this is one of the funniest plays I have ever had the joy of performing in (and the fact that it is written by the Mother has almost nothing to do with it!). An unabashed delight to watch at one level, with undercurrents of a more subtle, dark humour of the kind I suffered through childhood. 🙂 Since I can’t be there, break a leg, folks. And break the bank for the Red Cross.

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What a long, strange trip it’s been…

So it’s finally November 4th, and since I can’t GOAV (get out and vote) myself, I will WTV (watch the vote) instead. But as a quick round-up, just a few images and thoughts that have stuck with me through this long, strange trip. First, a video that a few young women put together for Sarah Palin, which I thought was perfect for all those crazies who thought Hillary supporters might swing Sarah’s way. Yeah, right (sic)!

Then the roast at the Alfred E. Smith dinner, which I thought was a remarkable event; two Presidential candidates, a day after an intense final presidential debate, meet to make fun of each other and themselves. Highly recommended for politicians in India. Obama did tell us he was Superman (as if America didn’t know that already): “contrary to the rumors you have heard, I was not born in a manger. I was actually born on Krypton and sent here by my father, Jor-el, to save the planet Earth,” while McCain invoked Joe the Plumber – again! – to tell us he “recently signed a very lucrative contract with a wealthy couple to handle all the work on all seven of their houses”. I have to say, McCain had brilliant comic timing, Obama much less so. But then it’s another sort of timing that will count today.

Which brings me to the final moment, that my favourite pollsters at fivethirtyeight.com wrote about, after a rally in North Carolina. In Sean Quinn‘s words, “something is stirring in America”:

Back at the rally, after the march had left MLK Gardens, I’d gone back for the car while Brett took photos, and I spotted a very old black man in a sharp Sunday suit walking slowly at the very back of the huge march. He hadn’t yet arrived at the voting center, and I decided to find him when I got back.

I wanted to go talk to him, to ask him what this moment meant to him. He was a guy who you take one glance at, and know, that guy’s seen it all. I wanted a quote. I had my journalist hat on. I thought, this will be great.

So when I got back to the voting location with the car, I went to find him in the line. Eventually I spotted him, and was ready to walk up the few feet between us and introduce myself when I stopped in my tracks.

A young black boy, no more than eight years old, walked up to this man, who was at least eighty. The boy offered the man a sticker, probably an “I Voted” sticker, but I couldn’t see. The man took the sticker and paused. Silently, he looked down at the boy, who was looking back up at the man. The man put his hand gently on the boy’s head, and I saw his eyes glisten.

I didn’t ask the man for a quote. I didn’t need to. I walked over by myself, behind the community center, and I sat down on a bench next to the track, and wept.

Out of office, but on the road?

Hysterical. The Guardian reports that the Swansea council put up a road sign that was meant to be bilingual – English and Welsh – for ‘No entry for heavy goods vehicles’. Instead they ended up with ‘Nid wyf yn y swyddfa ar hyn o bryd.’ Doesn’t sound Welsh enough for you? It is. Welsh for: ‘I am out of the office at the moment’!

How did the HGVs get lost in translation?

Swansea council contacted its in-house translation service when designing the bilingual sign. The seeds of confusion were sown when officials received an automated email response in Welsh from an absent translator, saying: “I am not in the office at the moment. Please send any work to be translated.”

Unaware of its real meaning, officials had it printed on the sign. The council took down the sign after Welsh speakers spotted the mistake.

More reason to go back to the days in which one used a phone to hear a human voice at the other end? Hmm… excuse me while I go pick up a robocall from McCain telling me all about Hussein.

Tagged. Tugged.

So Black Mamba tagged me the other day:

Post 5 links to 5 of your previously written posts. The posts have to relate to the 5 key words given (family, friend, yourself, your love, anything you like). Tag 5 other friends to do this meme. Try to tag at least 2 new acquaintances (if not, your current blog buddies will do) so that you get to know them each a little bit better.

I was determined to do this, not only because I like Black Mamba (and I do), but because I had to prove Tabula Rasa wrong; he said BM wouldn’t get a cheep out of me (this childish tit-a-tat has, in fact, gone on since we were about ten. I love it.).

Result: near failure. Not because of my lack of output – though it certainly could be a lot more consistent than it is now – but because I rarely seem to write about anything other than politics and the big bad world outside. Of course, there’s a lot of me in there – the personal is political and vice-versa – but not in ways that are necessarily familiar or familial. sigh. Looking back, I think it was because I was determined, when I started out, not to make this a blog of the kind that led the blog-o-boom: the vicarious exploration of other people’s private lives and lesions. Frankly, I found that sort of blogging both terrifying and self-indulgent. I also felt I had nothing to offer of value online, that could remotely interest a set of unknown readers. Ashwin persuaded me otherwise; a lot of his argument had to do with the description of the blogging community he comes from: the techies. Clearly there was a space for blogging about one’s interests, one’s passions, rather than about oneself.

I realise now that I have – somewhere along the way – gone to the other extreme of the pendulum and am dangling hopelessly from an oblique position of self-denial. I find that many of the blogsters I read, write about themselves and theirs with humour and insight. I kid you not: I *like* reading them! If I don’t see these blogs as self-indulgent, is there possibly space for me to sneak back in a bit of me and mine into this blog? Black Mamba, you didn’t think you’d lead to an orgy of reflexivity now, did ya??

With this long preamble, here’s my meagre offering for the tag.

Family: A bit of a stretch, but to my extended family in Raichur. Also a cheeky aside to my pun-tashtic family (not really a post at all, but wothehell, I love xkcd).

Friend: about a friend in Gujarat, and her struggles with fundamentalisms.

Yourself: a post about ‘being an action hero‘. Also my previous stab at being tagged.

Your love: music and poetry. Unsurprisingly, a post about Gangubai Hangal that conveys both my awe-struck admiration and her comments on caste. And a tribute to Kaifi Azmi.

Anything you like: a whimsical post on Durga Puja and JK Rowling. And a diatribe against the news in India today.

…and I tag those I haven’t tagged before: Anindita (in the spirit of disclosure and familial-ity, my gorgeous sis-in-law who normally tags _me_), Mangs, Lalit and (relatively new) blog buddies: Pranav and Suzanna (whose blog I promised some time ago I would explore, and this is a great way to begin!).

Emergency in Pakistan: another dark night

On Saturday, President Musharraf imposed emergency in Pakistan, claiming the ‘visible ascendancy in the activities of extremists and incidents of terrorist attacks’ as the immediate provocation.

An excerpt from Tariq Ali‘s response in Counter Punch and the Independent:

Global media coverage of Pakistan suggests a country consisting of Generals, corrupt politicians and bearded lunatics. The struggle to reinstate the Chief Justice presented a different snapshot of the country. This movement for constitutional freedoms revived hope at a time when most people are alienated from the system and cynical about their rulers, whose ill-gotten wealth and withered faces consumed by vanity inspire nil confidence.

That this is the case can be seen in the heroic decision taken by the Supreme Court in a special session yesterday declaring the new dispensation ‘illegal and unconstitutional’. The hurriedly sworn in new Chief Justice will be seen for what he is: a stooge of the men in uniform. If the constitution remains in suspension for more than three months then Musharraf himself might be pushed aside by the Army and a new strongman put in place. Or it could be that the aim of the operation was limited to a cleansing of the Supreme Court and controlling the media. That is what Musharraf indicated in his broadcast to the nation. In which case a totally rigged election becomes a certainty next January. Whatever the case Pakistan’s long journey to the end of the night continues.

India’s official response, so far, has been cautious, merely asking for a ‘restoration of democracy’, without criticising Musharraf.

The double helix: racism and gender discrimination

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Coincidentally, this post is about the not-so-noble laureate James Watson, widely known, along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, for the double-helix model of DNA, for which they won the Nobel in 1962.

The Indian Express runs an article saying that Dr Watson has been suspended from his New York based scientific laboratory for allegedly saying, in a Sunday Times interview on October 14, that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really.” Reuters also reported that he has cut short his book tour – for Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science (how apt) – and returned home to the United States.

While there has been understandable furore over his remarks, his own apology in a statement he issued at the Royal Society on Thursday, adds to the utter ridiculousness of his previous comment, though he does say it has no scientific basis: “To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly […] That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief.”

His scientific peers are horrified. The trustees of his lab have said they “vehemently disagree with these statements and are bewildered and saddened if he indeed made such comments” while Robert Sternberg, a prominent researcher on race and IQ at Tufts University, called Watson’s statement “racist and most regrettable.”

In the Chicago Tribune, Sternberg, a critic of traditional intelligence testing, comments that intelligence can mean something different for different cultures. In parts of Africa, a good gauge of intelligence might be how well someone avoids infection with malaria — a test of cleverness that most Americans likely would flunk. In the same way, for many Africans who take Western IQ tests, “our problems aren’t relevant to them,” Sternberg said.

Watson has made other extraordinary comments in the past, as this article in the Independent reports.

In 1997, he told a British newspaper that a woman should have the right to abort her unborn child if tests could determine it would be homosexual. He later insisted he was talking about a “hypothetical” choice which could never be applied. He has also suggested a link between skin colour and sex drive, positing the theory that black people have higher libidos, and argued in favour of genetic screening and engineering on the basis that ” stupidity” could one day be cured. He has claimed that beauty could be genetically manufactured, saying: “People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would great.”

This sort of prejudice is not new, but when it is demonstrated by someone of Watson’s stature, it gains currency in exceedingly dangerous ways, not least by the way it is portrayed in the media. Cameron Duodo comments in the Guardian about the front page headline in the Independent of October 17, ‘Africans are less intelligent than Westerners, says DNA pioneer’:

[I]n emphasising Professor James Watson’s proficiency with regard to DNA research, without making it sufficiently clear that his work on DNA does not necessarily make him an expert in the determination of human intelligence, Milmo elevated Watson’s racist rant into the semblance of authoritative scientific opinion.

My surprise is at those commentators who see Watson as being ‘an obsolete product of a bygone time’ (Laura Blue in Time.com) and others in the blogosphere who are dismissing his remarks as being ‘senile‘. Watson’s prejudices are not new, and certainly, they can’t be excused as the possible ramblings of old age.

For me, the story that has always been told far too little is that of Rosalind Franklin, thefranklin.gif woman who, if she had been alive in 1962, should have also won the Nobel for her work on DNA. One account tells of how the race was on between the teams of Wilkins and Franklin, working at King’s College, London and Crick and Watson, at Cambridge. Watson attended a lecture of Franklin’s and based on a rather unclear recollection of the facts she presented – while ‘critical of her lecture style and personal appearance’ – created a failed model. Franklin worked mostly alone (another story talks of how even when there was conversation amongst them, it was so patronising that she didn’t take it further), and didn’t want to publish her findings until more confident about her theory that DNA was helical. Wilkins grew frustrated and in January 1953, showed her results to Watson, without apparently her knowledge or consent. This account also quotes Wilkins as admitting, “I’m afraid we always used to adopt – let’s say, a patronizing attitude towards her.”

When Watson and Crick published their paper on DNA in Nature in 1953, they made no acknowledgment beyond the statement: “We have also been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished results and ideas of Dr. M.H.F. Wilkins, Dr. R.E. Franklin, and their co-workers at King’s College London.”

In 1962 Watson, Crick and Wilkins together received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. In their Nobel lectures they cite 98 references, none are Franklin’s. Only Wilkins included her in his acknowledgments. Franklin died in 1958 at the age of 37 of cancer. The Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously, only to living persons.

Much after her death (and presumably, the Nobel), Watson and Crick made it abundantly clear in public lectures that they could not have discovered the structure of DNA without her work. But how much of this was too little, too late, and carefully so? Franklin’s name is hardly associated with work on the DNA model, certainly not in the way Watson’s and Crick’s are, to any school child in most parts of the world. What is even more upsetting is the counter-factual possibilities of her having been acknowledged for her work; would the resulting fame (and some fortune) have helped her in her battle against cancer? Worse still, she never knew that Watson and Crick had accessed her results; she communicated with them till she died.

Even those at Stockholm wonder. Since all archives related to nominees are closed for fifty years after it is awarded, we will know in 2008 – next year – whether Rosalind Franklin was even a nominee for the Nobel prize that her three colleagues – without her knowledge – won based upon her work.

Dr James Watson may still be in our textbooks, but he has been a scientist and a human being of bias and prejudice, and certainly, in Rosalind Franklin’s case, all these and more: a man with tragic, unethical, lack of generosity towards a fellow scientist.

The image of the DNA helix is of a sculpture at the Lawrence Hall of Science, UC Berkeley, taken by Hsien-Hsien Lei. The image of Rosalind Franklin is from the article by David Ardell.

Durga Ma vs. JK Rowling: mahishasura mardhini??

Durga from http://www.durga-puja.org/photo-gallery.html

In the most delicious of ironies and absurd of situations, JK Rowling is suing the organisers of a pandal in Kolkata for copyright infringement. Just like ConfusedofCalcutta (whose excellent blog is where I first saw the news, via Ashwin), I took a double took at the news.

For those unfamiliar with it (clearly Ms. Rowling and her associates), Durga Puja is far more than a religious occasion, though I notice that the organisers took that stance in their legal defence. It is a cultural extravaganza and a jamboree of collective spirit that sweeps up all those Bengali – by blood but far more by inclination – in its wake and deposits them gently, at the end of five days of fiesta and frolic, exhausted and weeping either for a glimpse of spirituality or a sorely-needed pick-me-up. Ah, bah. I can hardly describe it to those who haven’t experienced it, and to those who have, I hardly need describe it. A little like love.

But to continue: part of the collective creativity of the Puja is to compete fiercely (particularly in Kolkata’s neighbourhoods where every half-road has a puja) for the biggest and the brightest pandal/tent for the prothima or idol of Durga to rest in. The decorations for these can range from the sublime to the ridiculous, often touching upon the most political of issues, but sometimes merely the topical. As with Harry Potter this year.

Puja pandals often define and re-define public art and storytelling in Kolkata and elsewhere. How far can the validity of copyright stretch into absurd spaces of the real and unreal, stretched further across time? Can one claim, for instance, as someone pointed out on a maillist over this brouhaha, that Rowling is infringing copyright when she uses as a backdrop to the Potter series, European folklore and fantasy that may well have derived from ancient Indian stories that may equally well have been disseminated through the performances of and at the Puja pandal?

The organisers of the pandal are not quite bothering about these contestations and contradictions. Their battle is temporarily won; the Delhi High Court has given them permission to go ahead with the preparations (Puja this year is from October 17-21). For them, the ‘evil forces have been defeated by the grace of Ma Durga’: a telling comment on where JK Rowling began her artistic journey and where it is now stalling for lack of clarity, charity (in its widest sense) and generosity.

In all of this, I can only imagine Ma Durga smiling gently and amusedly. I hope she gets remembered in all of the excitement over Hogwarts. After all, her battle over Mahishasura is what I – and countless others – grew up on, and remember as the quintessential myth of good over evil. Far before Harry and Voldemort were even twinkles in Rowling’s creative eye.

Have a Happy Pujo, everyone.

Yã Devi Sarvabhooteshu Shantiroopena Samsthitã |
Namastasyayee, Namastasyayee, Namastasyayee Namo Namaha ||

(Image from http://www.durga-puja.org/photo-gallery.html)

The fear of fundamentalisms

Open Democracy has set up a blog for women’s voices to be represented at the G8 summit, called ‘Open Summit: Women talk to the G8‘. They invited contributions (and are continuing to do so, for those who want to share); this was mine, cross-posted here.

Image courtesy Screen Sifar.

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My day (and sometimes night) job is working with police officers in India on issues of violence against women and children; I coordinate a UNICEF partnership with the Karnataka State Police. One of the most critical aspects of this work is, as Anindita so succinctly described elsewhere on this blog, analysing the impact of our socially entrenched gender-based norms. The lack of value for our girl children – and if they’re lucky, for the women they grow up to be – has meant that we have lost, in our female population, the size of a small to middling European country.

But this post is not about genderocide. It is about that and more. It is about asking our governments – particularly the all powerful G8 – that in this context of ‘terrorism’, of an almost universal culture of production and consumption around ‘fear’ and ‘mistrust’, they analyse honestly and courageously their own contributions to a growing set of fundamentalisms: economic, religious, cultural, social and sexual. Women (and children) are often hit hardest by these fundamentalisms.

Identities are complex; we acknowledge that readily but seem willing to sacrifice that complexity for simplified categorisations and easy classification. More than ever, our language of ‘us’ and ‘them’ divides us over and over again, in the conversations we have, the advertisements we watch, the TV series we devour. And our politicians, our priests, our ulemas, our leaders – those who claim to represent us in all our complexity – speak the language of divisions, of fissures, best of all.

A young Muslim friend of mine lives in Gujarat, India. She explores, every day, what it means to be a woman, a Muslim, a young person, an artist, in the maelstrom of fundamentalism that is the Gujarat of today. She struggles with what it means to be a citizen: either of this country or of the globalised world. What does citizenship mean if you live constantly in the shadow of fear? Not just the fear of physical abuse, but worse still, the violence attached to labels? For her, wearing the hijaab is both an act of courage and an unintended performance: she is just never quite sure of her audience or its response.

There is complexity in hate-mongering too. In India, as possibly elsewhere, it seems as though the language of ‘empowerment’ for women has been claimed and reconstructed to mean ‘power’ rather than ‘dignity’ or ‘equality’ or ‘pluralism’. Not all our women politicians are feminist, and not all our fundamentalists are male.

These are not only issues of government. But they are issues for governments; our states are contributing, in no small measure, to these voices of fundamentalisms, of alienation. And worse still: sometimes it is they who create the vocabulary.