Problems by Jade Sharma

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I kept wondering while I was reading this novel whether there are other novels about drug addiction and kicking the habit out there that feature a female protagonist.

A couple of examples about alcoholism came to mind immediately, but none about drug addiction, and as Maya, the protagonist says once when she compares her drug habit with her husband’s alcoholism, drinking is much more accepted socially than doing drugs. Add to this the fact that drinking is much more accepted when it’s a man who drinks, so if you think about a woman doing drugs, then it’s something truly and absolutely inexplicable and unacceptable.

I’ve never read about this topic before through the eyes of a woman. If I bring up my memories about drug novels, they usually only feature females in minor roles, for instance, there might be some junkie whores in a drug novel, or something like that. And who would think that those junkie whores are also persons? They are.

There’s Maya here in this novel – a female addict who’s initially still on the surface of things despite being a junkie (in fact, I would argue she’s way above the surface: she has her own flat; she has an extremely patient – though alcoholic – husband; and she even manages to hold down a job), still, the problems are just waiting to happen, and when the problems come, they come from all directions at once: Maya suddenly finds herself in the face of a marital crisis, a job crisis, and an increasingly loose control over her addiction.

And it’s interesting here, whether her problems arise because of her addiction, or whether her addiction was an answer to the problems in the first place (or a way to run away from them). My guess is the latter because Maya’s troubles started very early in her life, and if I want to simplify things (a lot), they arose because Maya never learned to exist alone, and she’s never had the chance or ability or desire to develop an individual personality. And from all this you can get (not necessarily in a straight line, but in a weirdly logical line nevertheless) to the concept of always depending on something – be it a husband, a lover, drugs, or useless but at least still living parents.

So in the end it seems to me that this is in fact not a drug novel, but a feminist novel; all the addictive behaviors and dependencies displayed here are only symptoms, and the real question is how to learn to be a separate – well – independent person if you’re a woman (and whether it’s possible at all).

Brick Lane by Monica Ali

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There are all kinds of layers and themes to this novel. It deals, for example, with the difficulties of immigration and integration (turns out that moving to a new country is especially difficult if you have a very different color, religion, and cultural background than the majority of people living there); with the family ties and social background that can determine what you do and what you can do with your life; and then with a bit of contemporary history, and Muslim and non-Muslim tensions (9/11, demonstrations and anti-demonstrations).

I think the story-line that deals with history and with the tensions of society is the weakest one in the novel. I noticed already a few years back, when I was reading In the Kitchen, that Monica Ali is much better when she concentrates on individual lives and expresses big and important ideas through those individual lives than when she writes about intangible, faceless organizations, like in this novel – all I can make of this Muslim and non-Muslim story-line here is that a group called Tigers and another group wage a pamphlet-war in the neighborhood and organize who-knows-what-kind-of demonstrations and marches, with a pretty much unknown goal in mind.

But all this is just an aside, because what made me endlessly intrigued here was the story of the novel’s protagonist. Reading her story often reminded me of Kate Chopin’s Awakening, and it made me realize that not much has changed in the past 100 years.

The protagonist is Nazneen, a village girl from Bangladesh, who is forced into an arranged marriage with an older man from Bangladesh living in London. Nazneen is a good and obedient daughter with a strong desire to do her duty, and with an equally strong belief that everything is controlled by Allah/Fate, so everything that was meant to happen will happen, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

There’s an interesting contrast between Nazneen and her younger sister, the beautiful Hasina, who decides to take her fate into her own hands (which leads to catastrophic results, by the way, as we learn from the letters the eternally absent Hasina sends to her sister). Hasina, who violently rejects the mentality that we’re here on this earth to stoically withstand the amount of suffering that was destined for us, leads an entirely different kind of life than Nazneen, but her successes and failures don’t indicate that, after all, Nazneen’s road was the better choice. And they don’t indicate, either, that Hasina’s road was better. (Fortunately, there’s very little moralizing in this novel.)

The story is basically about how the ever-obedient Nazneen very slowly gains her independence and learns (and accepts the responsibility) to lead her own life. Nazneen’s slowly awakening desire for independence and her first small independent actions are very natural, there’s no big breakthrough or anything dramatic here. Nazneen isn’t exactly a feminist, her husband is not an abusive brute from whom she is forced to run away, and if we only look at the surface, her life in London isn’t bad at all – so theoretically, there’s no reason for her to rebel. And yet – there’s a curiosity in her, and a small (and then bigger and bigger) desire to see what she can do on her own. Which is wonderful and very human.

And the way Monica Ali describes Nazneen’s awakening right from the beginning is very subtle. For example, once Nazneen goes for a walk in big and sinful London, she gets lost, she has to pee, and anyway, she’s just a Muslim woman who isn’t even supposed to walk about on her own – so of course, Nazneen panics, but then she manages to solve the difficult situation, she’s proud, and she’d like to share her moment of triumph with someone. Or later on, she gradually discovers her body and she even entertains wild thoughts about shaving her legs. And still later, she becomes bold enough to open her mouth and say what she wants.

And this whole story of awakening is drawn very sensitively and gently – and it doesn’t for a moment seem that there’s a fixed end to it.

And just by the way: this is a very funny novel, too, with a bunch of great characters who look like caricatures yet remain alive, authentic and understandable, and it’s also a novel with a lot of smells and colors, which make me want to walk down on Brick Lane.

Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker

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Kathy Acker’s book is a lot of things at once: a nightmarish, surreal collage/novel/text/drama complete with drawings and doodles; the life story of a bodily and emotionally damaged, brutally exploited girl, told sometimes in the first and sometimes in the third person; a whole lot of social criticism and analysis, mostly from the perspective of power and who has it; and connected to this last one: an exploration of all the (possible) ways a woman can be vulnerable (with abundant, extremely graphic details).

The story is very fragmented, but mainly it’s about ten-year-old Janey, who lives in an incestuous relationship with her father until he chases her away from home. Janey then goes to New York, where later on he gets imprisoned by a Persian pimp who turns her into a whore. Finally Janey somehow ends up in Morocco, and she dies not long after.

The story is, by the way, strangely impersonal – I can hardly find a word for this quality. Janey, for a long time, hardly even possesses a sense of self or an identity of her own, because her identity has always been defined by her relations with men, and she has mostly come into contact with men who were eager to tell her that – being a woman – she’s even lower on the hierarchy of beings than animals.

There is, however, a kind of development in the novel – as time passes, Janey slowly awakes to herself and she wants to get out, wants to get away from – from men, from capitalism, from mechanical sex – but she doesn’t stand a real chance, and she cannot be (is not allowed to be) other than what she is: a totally dependent and vulnerable girl/woman who is forever denied even her most basic needs (food, shelter, love), a woman who channels all her desires and needs into sex because that’s the only thing she’s known from time immemorial and the only things she’s always been given – but only until the men in her life realize that Janey uses sex to express and experience all her emotions. As soon as Janey’s elemental need for love surfaces (and this doesn’t take long, usually – she’s unable to control her emotions), men even deny her the relief of sex.

The text – like Janey’s life – is often full of vulgarity, there’s a whole lot of cocks and cunts here, Janey’s mind is constantly filled with erect penises and violent sex, but I think the reason for all this is that Janey only has words for this. It’s not detailed, but it’s very probable from the text that Janey’s been a victim of sexual abuse from a very early age. What we learn is that her mother died when Janey was one year old, and from then onward she depended on her father for everything and used his father to fill all the roles – friend, boyfriend, brother, sister, father – in her life.

Throughout the story, by the way, Janey learns a language, too – a different one from the language of sex – this is also a part of her development, her increasing self-awareness – and the most unsettling part of the novel for me is when she writes/translates poems for the Persian pimp with whom she falls in love, for lack of a better option. Her poems are filled with rage, pain, desire and destructive love – they are devastating and beautiful.

And as regards the whole book: it’s unbearably real, brutal, upsetting, and extremely sad – reading this was a similar experience as reading Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy.