Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Book Review: Samhita Arni on Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Half Blood Blues
Esi Edugyan
Reviewed by Out of Print editor, Samhita Arni

It’s ironic that during the ‘Jazz Age’, many Jazz musicians, most of them of African-American origin, faced racial discrimination and had difficulties playing in their own country, and so came to perform in Europe. In Half Blood Blues, two such musicians hailing from Baltimore, Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones, find themselves in Berlin at the tail-end of the Weimar Era — the strange cultural renaissance in Germany in the interlude between the wars that gave us (among other things) Brecht, Cabaret, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich.
Half Blood Blues, in Esi Edugyan’s eponymous novel, is also the title of a song, a subversive jazz parody of the popular Nazi anthem, the ‘Horst-Wessel-Lied’, recorded in Paris by a rag-tag bunch of musicians that include Chip, Sid and Hieronymous Falk (Hiero), three musicians who are able to escape Nazi Germany, but get stuck in Vichy France during World War II. They are all black and mischlings — half-bloods.
Sid Griffiths is ‘high-yaller’, light-skinned enough to ‘pass’ as white. German Hiero is born of a German mother and an African father [troops from French African colonies were stationed in the Rhineland during the French occupation after the Great War and fathered children (the ‘Rhineland Bastards’) with German women]. Under the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, not only Jews but the few hundred mixed-race Germans like Hiero were also condemned to concentration camps and forcible sterilisation. As Paris falls to Nazis, Hiero is picked up in a cafe and disappears.
The song captures their sense of frustration, doom, desperation and melancholy — but it’s also a ‘finger’ or riposte to Nazism. But Half Blood Blues isn’t just about Sid, Chip or Hiero; there’s also Delilah, the African-American singer who is pale enough to pass , and strives to smuggle them out of Paris. The song is also a eulogy to the band’s original saxophonist, Paul, who looks like a ‘blond Aryan God’, but, ironically, is Jewish and a mischling under the Nuremberg laws. And of course, the term mischling also applies to Jazz, a hybrid music form born from the mixing of African and European music traditions.
The language in the novel reflects this theme of mixing. Characters talk like “mongrels — half-German, half-Baltimore bar slang.” Edugyan’s prose, too, is a richly textured mix of ‘bar slang’, black speech, and quaint, period terms like ‘fob.’ The result is strangely stark, pure, yet guttural. “Oh the silence,” Sidney, the narrator, observes, “A jack could grind his teeth on it.” Elsewhere, “He had that massive sound, wild and unexpected, like a thicket of flowers in a bone-dry field.”
In “Speaking in Tongues”, a wonderful essay that examines language, biracial author Zadie Smith writes about the space between voices, cultures, races and ideas. She brings up the “spectre of the traffic mulatto, tragically split…between worlds, ideas, culture and voices,” and the “horror of the middling split, the interim place.” Like Smith, Edugyan is concerned with the idea of mixing and syncretism, and suggests that categories or ideas of race and culture are problematic and complicated. But Edugyan is also concerned with history, and her novel interweaves two journeys at two crucial moments in history, 1939 and 1992. Sid, Hiero and Chip journey east as WWII breaks out, and over fifty years later, after the Berlin Wall comes down and the USSR falls, in 1992, Sid and Chip travel eastwards, into places that once lay under the iron curtain. Edugyan reminds us through this journey how, during the Cold War era, the world was divided and so much was unknown and unknowable. Hiero, Sid and Chip, are characters who slip through the cracks and, by their mischling nature, embody the problems of divided identities.
Half Blood Blues is not only a historical novel, and a story about race, but also a meditation on art and genius. It resurrects the idea of fatalism, an unpopular notion in our capitalist age that perceives fate as self-determined and believes success can be achieved through hard work. Delilah asks an important question, “Do you still call it talent, if it blooms without any kind of nurturing?”

Art becomes even more important in a fatalistic worldview. As Chip says, towards the end of the book, “The world’s damn beautiful, but it’s an accidental beauty. What we do, it’s deliberate.” Edugyan seems to suggest that the beauty we can make, when we can’t make our fate, becomes our only means of resistance, protest and sustenance. With this novel, Edugyan herself has created a thing of beauty; one of those rare novels that offer 
more on a second read.

This review first appeared in DNA

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Out of Print Author Series: Annie Zaidi

Out of Print talks to ANNIE ZAIDI
Featured publication: The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl, or The Good Indian Girl’s Guide to Living, Loving and Having Fun Zubaan, 2011

Thank you, Annie, for agreeing to be part of our blog series that honours the work of Out of Print Authors. We most appreciated featuring your story, Sujata in our last issue of Out of Print. Terrifying, how much I empathised with the progression and logic of the protagonist – questions the limits that hold society on an even keel.  

Well, we have many questions for you on your writing process and on the making of ‘The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl’.

Collection 1: Your collection is a collaborative effort between yourself and Smriti Ravindran.  So the most crashingly obvious question we have is – how did the collaboration work? We are curious both in the conceptual and the practical perspective. Whose idea was it? Did you talk through the plot of every story? And how did you actually execute? Did you write and Smriti review or vice versa. Or was every story a collaboration? Did you communicate on a regular basis, and how long did the writing take? Do just tell us about the process.   

A: Smriti and I studied together at a fairly strict undergraduate ‘convent’ college in Rajasthan. We also shared a hostel room for a year. The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl comes from the stories we saw unfolding all around us. Girls were constantly slipping between the cracks of a moral code that was very hard to negotiate. You could break rules, but getting caught was not an option. There was too much at stake. After college, we discovered new rules at work, at home, on the streets. I was staying with Smriti around 2003 and that’s when we talked about what was going on. We could understand the forces at work. We could also laugh at everything. So we talked about doing a book together around the start of 2004. Work began in fits and starts, from 2006 to 2008, with a few rounds of edits. The book was finished towards the end of 2010.

First, we just chatted a lot about what we are trying to do with this book. We drew up lists – of good/bad, labels and markers – and compared notes. Then we began to write stories relevant to these themes.

The stories (fiction) were written as individuals. But we were responding to each other’s stories with comments, coming up with another story to build on a theme. The ‘interludes’ (non-fiction bits that appear in italics), were intended as bridges between the short stories. Those were written by both of us. We have been in different time zones (me in India; Smriti in the USA) since 2004, so the book has been written over email and chat for the most part.

Collection 2: You have admirably captured the tone, the voice of your good girls, the simultaneous innocence and duplicity, the naivety and the exploitativeness. And the bewildering wake they leave behind them. How did you do this? Was it through specific questions in your interviews with young women, or was it simply through the many layers of observation that a writer employs?

A: Thank you. It is mostly just observation. We did some interviews, informal chats with friends, or friends of friends. The only question I asked was: What makes for a Good Indian Girl (or a Not-Good girl)? Some scrap of memory would be volunteered.

For instance, the bit about a girl sticking together two pages in her scrapbook to hide a photo of a film star posing sexily – a friend actually did that. Someone else told me about family friends who’d sneak out from a second-floor window in their Delhi bungalow using a rope ladder; they actually had a fixed phone line that their dad knew nothing about. Yet another friend told me about how a group of girls broke some rules in school, but the prettiest girl got off lightly, while the girl with the biggest breats was ostracised.

The stories were constructed by combining various memories, with a lot of embellishment on our part, of course. Besides, we all have been both na├»ve and duplicitous. Haven’t we?

Collection 3: The stories provide an interesting reflection on Indian society. In a time that appears to allow for a somewhat jaded isolationism, this collection reminds one of the societal constraints that continue to frame us.

In most of your stories, your heroines reveal an admirable wiliness, a cunning that allows them to strike their individual paths while working within the system – the Singh girls with their rope ladders and satyagrahas are great examples. Did you ever get a sense that any of your good Indian girls were driven to shatter the constraints, to stretch the framework to point of no return like Sujata.

A:    If you look at Padma’s story in this collection, she is driven to shatter constraints. She does so with a kind of innocence, but she edges closer to a point of no return.

But then, this collection was written to address a specific aspect of young women’s lives – the ‘goodness’ factor, with specific reference to south Asia. A story like Sujata does not qualify. Sujata might frighten us, but her morals/virtue are not being questioned (except by Kulin and he’s such a sadist that his accusations are easily overlooked). That’s the funny thing about our culture. It accepts, even condones murder if a woman is trying to save her body, but it doesn’t accept a young woman wanting to have some fun, using her body the way she likes. 

Writing and Editing 1: Do you go back and read your stories after they’ve been published. If yes, do you itch to revise them one more time? And what do you do about it, do you ignore the itch? Or create a newer version of every story?
If, in fact, you don’t go back to your stories after publication, why don’t you? Are you embarrassed, frightened, anxious about them, or have you simply just moved on?

A: I read and re-read and re-re-read. I do itch to revise, particularly if there have been proofing errors. Or clunky language. Mostly I ignore the itch because it is impractical to expect publishers to keep making changes. But if something is up on my website – a story, or a poem, or essay – then I make changes again and again.

I’m not frightened of my older work, but I am a bit embarrassed by some of it. I try not to re-read that stuff.

Writing and Editing 2: Are you a systematic writer, that is do you invoke your muse routinely, for fixed periods, or do you immerse yourself, blocking out all else when the muse deigns to visit?

 A:  I’m erratic. I write whenever. I tend to be deadline-driven, so I focus on whatever needs my attention first. But if I am restless and want to write, then I ignore other things.

Writing and Editing 3: Was there a particular event that prompted you to start writing or have you always done so? And what convinced you to keep going? What was your first success, your first sense that the world was aware of your creative effort?

 A:  I wrote essays in school and my own debate speeches. But I never thought of that as ‘writing’. As an undergraduate, I began to participate in poetry contests. When I actually won a prize, I began to write more often. I also wrote for the college magazine. Girls who didn’t know me would stop me as I walked past, just to tell me they liked a particular piece. I think that’s when I became dimly aware that what I was writing held some value. Reader feedback is what has kept me going, mostly.

Writing and Editing 4: Are you a reader or are you one of those who doesn’t read when he/she writes? Do you engage in other literary process – review, criticism, journalism, blogging? And, how does that affect your fiction writing?

A: I read nearly everyday, regardless of whether I’m writing or not. I write in most spaces I can squeeze into – journalism, blogging, tweeting, reviews, the whole online hog... I suppose I put in less energy into fiction. My default reaction is to explore an idea through non-fiction. Or even poetry. I end up writing short stories only when I am fairly certain that other formats are not suitable for what I want to accomplish.

Writing and Editing 5: What are you working on now?

A:  More stories. A script. Some translation work.

Writing and Editing 6: Finally, do you have any words of advice to our readers and writers?

Read, read, read, read, read. Absorb other forms of art. Watch dance and drama performances. Listen to music. Go to art exhibits. Don’t be in such a rush to publish. Most importantly, don’t get bitter about rejections. It is possible the editors are myopic and unable to see how brilliant you are. It is also possible that your work needs to improve. Just work harder and keep sending your work out. If you are truly brilliant, someone will notice.