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‘Call it a difficult night’: Book Review

Abigail George

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] M [/yt_dropcap]ishka Hoosen is young. She is also intelligent. She is brave and she is brilliant. She is also very clever, funny and wise beyond her years. Her style is flesh. Let me explain what I mean by that. The beautiful, haunting lines of ‘Call it a difficult night’ will leave you breathless. Her pain and internal struggle will leave you numb.

Her protagonist’s suffering, is a human stain and her words a playful meditation. She’s an artist and she knows her medium. Is ‘Call it a difficult night’, a cross between a love letter and a love poem to herself or to a lover? Has she been here before, I asked myself. I kept coming back to the stimulus, origin, and process not only of the protagonist but also of Mishka Hoosen. I thought of her, the birth of this book, what she channelled her way through, meaning, here, the time frame of the book, and the psychological framework of the writer.

I was ‘rooting for both of them’ as the Americans say. Is Mishka Hoosen fragile, I asked myself? Is she delicate, vulnerable, or just tough, determined, and brave? The protagonist was in that wretched place that so many people who suffer from clinical depression, problems with rehab and addiction, alcoholism, mental illness and any form of mood disorder find themselves in. I kept searching for a muse. Told myself that of course, there had to be one here. That I would eventually find one. I kept on searching for a masculine and a feminine energy and found them there staring back at me on the page. ‘Salt’ becomes lyrical, something magical in the hands of Mishka Hoosen. ‘Fists clenching and unclenching.’ What happens when you recognise yourself in the writer’s world of bipolar madness is this. You don’t feel lonely anymore and you don’t feel tragic and you certainly don’t feel lost, hopeless or alone.

hoosenbookMishka Hoosen, perhaps in your short life you were not oblivious to pain. I felt sorry for the protagonist that she had to ‘feel’ (that acute physical pain of the body through cutting herself and the pain of of the mind, being hospitalised) to write about it, (the protagonist’s pain became my own), her suffering became my own, and I often felt giddy, ambivalent, bereft, cast away with the celebration of life. Yes, the energy of life was often there. In humour mostly. The flux of hospital life. The nurses, the doctors. The other patients in the ward. You, Mishka Hoosen reminded me of my own youth mostly spent in books or inside the school library. The protagonist’s demons and battle reminded me of William Styron’s depression in ‘Darkness Visible’, her loves reminded me of the shared intimacy in the relationships in John Updike’s ‘Couples’ (I could only draw on the experience of heterosexual relationships), and of course, there were the two Lolita’s of my life. The unforgettable Stanley Kubrick’s celluloid vision, and Vladimir Nabokov’s classic ‘Lolita’. I read Styron, Updike, and Nabokov while I was studying for my O’ levels in Mbabane, Swaziland just because I wanted to and because there was nobody to tell me that I was being (can’t get to the word I am looking for, thinking that it is precocious) or forward, or rather way too forward thinking for my age.

I said I wouldn’t do it. That I couldn’t review this book. I said the book was too difficult. Like J.M. Coetzee’s ‘The Childhood of Jesus’, Richard Rive’s ‘Emergency Continued’, and Nadine Gordimer’s ‘Oral History’ there was something about this talent.

I was sent on a journey into a hellish territory. I picked up the book, put it down again, and picked it up. For two whole weeks. There was no jacket photograph of the novelist to stare me down daily. I had nothing to go on about who she was really. I played this game for two whole weeks. The book was placed on the shelf alongside my library but it was not forgotten. I spoke about it for two weeks to my father, my sister in Johannesburg, my mother, and my brother. These are the most important people in my life. I wanted to do, and still want to do Mishka Hoosen’s book justice. I hope that I do. I praise her honesty about writing about a very difficult subject matter. I praise her hope, depth, sincerity. Most of all I thank her because bipolar is the eternal never ending struggle for those who live with the mood disorder or any mental or chronic illness.

Hoosen has a satellite kind of language about her. I’ll explain what I mean by that in a few sentences. By that I mean that there is an inheritance of space between the words. The writer’s experimental prose gives you time to reflect, study, gather, harvest your own thoughts. I found myself in the dreamy force of her language. Reading the book was like watching ‘Montage of Heck’ on a small black and white television. ‘Montage of Heck’ is a documentary on Kurt Cobain, the musician who took his own life. His life flashed before my eyes as I read ‘Call it a difficult night’. His music like certain passages in the book brought an anthem to a doomed youth. A lost generation. Interviews with the people who were closest to him. Cobain, the persona. Cobain who would always personify the youth. Like his music was his gift to the world, this book is Mishka Hoosen’s gift to the world.

Is this what language of colour is? Is this what is meant by black writing? Writing for the African Renaissance? Literary endeavours that has a feminine mystique? After reading the book I sat back, asked myself has she done enough or too much as a writer. The protagonist has a maternal instinct in the ward. You pray and hope that she comes out of this experience, through all of this all of the way. She’s scornful, loving, attentive, giving, and generous. We’re let into her love life. She says the word ‘fuck’ a lot. She’s rebellious and has a lot to say about authority figures (and I wondered not for the first time what her second book will be like). I wondered many times if this is this an anthem for a doomed youth. Not just for a post-apartheid South African youth but for a youth on another continent, in another world because we live in one where we’re so eager to pop a pharmaceutical to tell the reality we live in to go away. Reading this book, just like reading NoViolet Bulawayo’s book We Need New Names made me realise that Hoosen has a powerful presence too. She can move people.

Are all female writers from this continent like that? It left me with many questions. ‘Call it a difficult night’ when I started to read it properly, from beginning to end, with no breaks in between, and not cheating my way through it through reading random passages to test myself, test my confidence as a reviewer, trying to find something negative to say about the writer, about the book, about bipolar madness or mental illness, or life in a mental hospital. Trying to find the words which would be appropriate instead of inappropriate but not walking on eggshells though. ‘Call it a difficult night’ would not let go of me. The book is difficult. ‘Madness’ itself, the very idea of it, trying to wave it away, make it go away, make a joke about it because it is so embarrassing being confronted by ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ is, is difficult to talk about.

The book like I said before is difficult but it wouldn’t leave my hands, and I returned to it repeatedly. The prose has a poetic energy to it, so forceful, sharp, and sexy. The language is clean, and pure. Mishka Hoosen’s ‘Call it a difficult night’ shows more than a lot of promise. It is also a thing of beauty. I hope that the birth of this book, and her appearance on the literary scene that she will forge a path for many who come after her. Many young women of colour and young men too.

Whenever I think about Mishka Hoosen now I will remember her when I reread Hemingway’s ‘A Moveable Feast’, when I reread Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Letters to a Young Poet’, when I reread Jean Rhys’s ‘After Leaving Mr Mackenzie’, reread Noviolet Bulawayo’s ‘We Need New Names’ and reread Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Waves’.

She is just that kind of writer.

Abigail George is a feminist, poet and short story writer. She is the recipient of two South African National Arts Council Writing Grants, one from the Centre for the Book and the Eastern Cape Provincial Arts and Culture Council. She was born and raised in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth, the Eastern Cape of South Africa, educated there and in Swaziland and Johannesburg. She has written a novella, books of poetry, and collections of short stories. She is busy with her brother putting the final additions to a biography on her father’s life. Her work has recently been anthologised in the Sol Plaatje EU Poetry Anthology IV. Her work was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She briefly studied film.

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New Social Compact

Herat, the fire’s bride

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The olive eyes of Shaista peep between the bandages covering her burnt body, for she, like so many other Afghan women from the city of Herat, decided to escape her life by way of fire.

Shaista arrived at the hospital burning between wisps of hair and fabric, and her 19-year-old body is now a landscape of lava.

Tears seep between the gauze and the passageways of her blistered skin. Compassion is the closest thing to love that she will experience, and the hands of the man who changed her bandages are amongst the few that didn’t strike her.

She set herself on fire for a crime she didn’t commit, one that doesn’t exist, or one that everyone else appears to see except her. Her crime was being born a woman.

According to Oxfam, 8 out of every 10 Afghan women suffer either physical, sexual or psychological violence.

In 2015, the Independent Afghan Commission for Human Rights registered 5,132 gender crimes and between April and June 2016 the Ministry of Women’s Affairs reported 600, but many go unreported.

The women who go to the police are at risk of being raped before being returned to their families. Those who escape for more than 48 hours face accusations of adultery, the punishment for which is either facial mutilation or death. Passed between relatives, offered to others to pay debts or settle disputes, raped and subjected to acid attacks in the streets; these women lose their mental stability and take their own lives in the most brutal way.

They usually come from lower social groups and as they don’t have access to guns or money to buy barbiturates, they drink rat poison, hang themselves, jump into rivers or set themselves on fire.

Although the families declare a ‘domestic accident’, it is easy to identify a suicide, as the majority are aged between 14-21 years old and are soaked in kerosene, when in fact most people use firewood or gas to do the cooking at home.

85% of Afghan women are unable to read or write and thus out of ignorance believe that they will die quickly. But instead they suffer for days before dying. Many pour boiling oil over themselves or drizzle it over their abdomen in order to raise attention to their plight, but sometimes the flames envelop them.

One of the most influential thinkers and leading Afghan practitioners in the field, Dr. Djawed Sangdel says: “Education is a key. This country needs a thorough horizontalisation of education for all.”

80% of those who arrive in hospital perish because of a lack of means to treat them, and if they do survive, they suffer lifelong consequences, for it is difficult to follow a course of treatment whilst carrying water and looking after numerous children.

Almost 40 years of war brought with it misery, poor health and lack of governance, under which the patriarchal system flourished; a system which made Afghanistan an open-air prison for women, causing them irreparable psychological damage.

The country’s laws tolerate tribal codes and 60% of girls under the age of 15 are forced to marry men double their age, according to the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan.

Studies from the UN Fund for the Development of Women reveal that the majority of widows sell their bodies or turn to begging in order to survive, and 65% of them see suicide as the only solution to their misery.

Herat, once known as the Pearl of Khorasan, is today a ghost town, with a horizon dotted with adobe houses, obsolete war munitions and faces hidden from the world behind the grille of a burka.

After a week in hospital, Shaista’s mother-in-law escaped with her to hide her at home, as her son simply didn’t deserve the shame of a suicidal wife.

Almost a month after the fire, she returned with wounds all over her body and without any feeling in her arms due to large necrotic areas. She did, however, survive – one of life’s cruel jokes.

Now with the same fears as before, scars from the fire on her skin and with only one arm to carry her daughter, Shaista is back in the place that she so wanted to flee.

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The Modern Tragedy of Child Marriage

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Authors: Pooja Shah & Russell Whitehouse

“And just like that, my mother was married to the village chaiwala when she was 14!” I distinctly recall my grandmother saying as we sat together on the front porch, warmed by the mid-summer breeze.“14? She’s a child!” I gasped out of horror. “How can she be married? Her parents allowed it?” I ignorantly continued.

It was July 2011. I was visiting my now-late grandmother in Ahmedabad, Gujarat after a two-month writing excursion through Mussoorie. The first few days of my stay were filled with pleasantries and questions about school and life in “Amreeka”, quickly followed by the incessant questioning of when I would get married and if I found a suitable companion yet… Of course, to a 19-year old college sophomore student barely at the cusp of adulthood, marriage felt like an intangible figment of my imagination, as it did for most of my peers back home who were too occupied by finalizing our majors and what party to attend next weekend. However, as my grandmother spoke, summoning stories of her own mother, it became dauntingly obvious that not only marriage was the traditional norm, but marrying early was the expectation in the era she grew up in.

12% of girls in the developing world will be married off before the age of 15; in many of the world’s poorest countries, like Bangladesh, over half of girls will be married off before the age of 18.  According to the IWWC, over 400M women aged under 50 years old are survivors of child marriage. .Western countries aren’t exempt from this scourge: over 200k girls have been married in this current century in the US.

Although theoretically child marriage is outlawed in India, in many rural areas, impoverished families will often “give away” their children in exchange for fleeting economic security. Rooted deeply in religious, traditional and cultural norms, and often motivated by economic factors, many families view child marriages as a means to end their economic suffering.

My grandmother confided in me that her mother, a child herself, gave birth at the age of 16 with a husband who was nine years her senior. Dadi dismissed my shocking reaction and confirmed, once again, that this was not atypical. I began to realize over the course of our conversation the very limited rights and personal choices these children, particularly young girls, have. Their lives are a mere transaction: exchanging their livelihood and existence for a few rupees on their families behalf, all while being forced to forego their educations, childhood, hobbies, and sense of independence.

This commodification of the lives of girls reinforces a culture of deep misogyny. Being married off while school-age tends to end a girl’s education; less than half of child brides have completed primary (let alone higher) education.  This can create economic shackles for a girl in a marriage; without even a basic education, a girl or young woman is unlikely to find a job that can create any level of financial freedom.  Being saddled with a child from a young age also impedes a girl’s ability to leave the house to find work.  With this reality in mind, it’s no shock that child brides are 9% more likely to experience physical or sexual abuse (generally by a husband or parent in-law) than women.  A young lady with little education is less likely to be aware of legal options to end this suffering, like filing a domestic abuse complaint with the police or filing for divorce. 

Such a culture is likely to continue other degrading practices, like female genital mutilation and widow ostracizing, as well as create whole generations of traumatized girls and young women.  The systemic rape of young girls inevitably moves the social Overton window, making the rape of women, men and boys seem less important or even noteworthy.  Growing up in a household featuring such disparate power dynamics is liable to create a twisted sense of self-esteem and justice among children of child brides.  Mothers are one of the primary sources of the pedagogy of a child.  Thus, girls who were taken from their schools to get married would be less well equipped to contribute to their children’s education.  This would be especially apparent in terms of sexual education; a culture of child brides is intrinsically less able to teach its children about health topics like STDs and birth control, to say nothing of ethical issues like consent.

My dadi also revealed how her own mother suffered multiple miscarriages throughout her youth, as her body was not fully equipped to bear pregnancy. This is unsurprising; young girls aren’t biologically ready to go through the physical traumas of pregnancy and giving birth.  Pregnant girls under 15 have quintuple the maternal mortality rate of women; 88% of them suffer obstetric fistulae, which often lead to permanent disability.  Girls are also disproportionately likely to receive cervical lacerations during intercourse, which can lead to cervical cancer down the line.  The children resulting from these underage marriages suffer similar hazards.  Babies born to child brides are 28% more likely to die within their first 5 years of life than babies born to women.

When confronted by my bachelorette status (as I often was when I visited India), I remember I would always counter with “I have to finish school first”, acknowledging the privilege I had to control my education and career aspirations. When it comes to these child brides, often times marrying at a young age will likely mean an end to their education, and in turn, will hinder their ability to obtain the skills and knowledge that is vital for income-generating employment.

That day I was enraged by the fact that child marriage continues to exist in the 21st century, as well as my personal lack of awareness on the issue. It has been over eight years since that enlightening conversation, and thankfully due to the tireless efforts of activists, legislators, and advocates there has been movement towards ending child marriage. In fact, UNICEF and Indian Wedding Buzz joined forces earlier this year on Valentines’ Day to #EndChildMarriage, demonstrating that one of the most crucial steps in eradicating this humans right issue is to stand against it. By utilizing their global social media platform and influential magazine, the #EndChildMarriage initiative was aimed at raising awareness of the implications of child marriage and more importantly, how we, collectively, can help put a stop to it. The campaign further empowered young girls in many South Asian and African countries (i.e. Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, among nine others) with the information and resources to understand the implications of what they are being forced into. Furthermore, the program continued to develop national strategies with the efforts of government investments, religious leaders, and of course our community. This social media sensation, backed by Indian Wedding Buzz, demonstrated their respective commitment to being part of the change, so that we as South Asians, as Americans and as humans can follow suit to be part of this revolutionary movement. After all, there is strength in numbers.

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Marcia Andrade Braga: A ‘stellar example’ of why more women are needed in UN peacekeeping

MD Staff

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Brazilian peacekeeper Lieutenant Commander Marcia Andrade Braga serves in the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA). Photo: MINUSCA

Training gender advisors and focal points in the Central African Republic (CAR) has earned a Brazilian United Nations peacekeeper a special gender advocate award, it was announced on Tuesday.

Secretary-General António Guterres will bestow naval officer, Lieutenant Commander Marcia Andrade Braga, with the UN Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award during the 2019 Peacekeeping Ministerial conference due to be held at UN Headquarters in New York this Friday.

“UN Missions need more women peacekeepers so local women can talk more freely about the issues that affect their lives”, said Lt. Cdr. Braga.

“I am so proud to be selected”, she said, upon receiving news of her award, also expressing gratitude to her colleagues in the UN Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA).

Serving as the Military Gender Advisor at MINUSCA Headquarters since April 2018, Lt. Cdr. Braga has helped to build a network of trained gender advisors and focal points among the Mission’s military units and promoted mixed teams of men and women to conduct community-based patrols around the country.

These “Engagement Teams” were able to gather critical information to help the Mission understand the unique protection needs of men, women, boys and girls, which in turn helped develop community projects to support vulnerable communities.

Projects include the installation of water pumps close to villages, solar-powered lighting and the development of community gardens to cut down the distances women have to travel, to tend their crops.

Lt. Cdr. Braga is also a driving force behind MINUSCA leadership’s engagement with local women leaders, making sure that the voice of Central African women is heard throughout the ongoing peace process.

Moreover, as a former teacher she has also helped train and raise awareness among her peers on gender dynamics within the Mission.

Jean-Pierre Lacroix, who heads the UN Department of Peace Operations, spelled out: “Marcia Andrade Braga is a stellar example of why we need more women in peacekeeping: Peacekeeping works effectively when women play meaningful roles and when women in the host communities are directly engaged”.

Created in 2016, the UN award recognizes the dedication and effort of an individual peacekeeper in promoting the principles of UN Security Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) on women, peace and security, which underscores the “3 Ps”, to prevent conflict; protect women and their rights during and after conflict; and to increase the numbers of women participating in all mechanisms, to prevent and resolve conflict.

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