Monday, January 25, 2016

Arab Spring: To Dream of a Fairer World is Not Only Possible But Also Necessary

There is something surreal, even unbelievable, about realising that today marks five years since that extraordinary January 25th when Egypt rose to demand 'bread, freedom and social justice.' Many of the voices who led that uprising have been silenced: by murder, jail, torture and exile. Yet for all the deserted, heavily militarised streets in Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said and elsewhere, the conditions that led to those now-mythical Eighteen Days have not changed. If anything, the situation has grown more acute. But this is not a piece about politics, or even war. Instead, I want to write about history, and dreams, and imagination.

On February 6, 2011, I had lamented that we had no Edward Said to help make sense of the events.  I had specifically noted that the Arab Spring movements were another set of developments in the decolonisation process for the world:

"The foundation of Egypt's uprising as well as many others bubbling around the Middle East are cultural. The key to this uprising is the not only the change in narrative, but also the newly found power to shape it. And that is also the reason that the political failure or success of these protests is immaterial in the longer term (although obviously hopefully they will succeed; failure will mean brutal oppression of these brave young people)."

In the five years since those heady Eighteen Days, my fears of brutal oppression have sadly come true. However, a huge shift in culture has also become clear. Even as voices are silenced in the region by dictators, militias, their international backers and a profitable weapons industry (Syria is an exception in this cocktail although more for the geopolitical mix of its backers instead of a difference in factors), the struggle for a narrative of decolonisation has not stopped. And just because Western mainstream media moves on, grows bored, or indeed  refuses to cover complex stories, does not mean the transformations have stopped.  On  March 21, 2011, I wrote:

"In the long term, these convulsions of history are unescapable. They will continue - not on media schedules and not for the next few weeks - but into the next couple of decades as historic changes do!  At the end, those who put short term interests over long term paradigm shifts will find themselves on the wrong side of history."

It was obvious to me even in 2011 that we needed completely new "definitions of statehood, political franchise, strategic relations, political and cultural narratives.  We are in the midst of historic times where none of the old models and certainties can hold."  

These definitions and ideals cannot and will not arise in five years. Rather they need both analysis and imagination. And most of all, these need the power to dream. It is crucial to think of the Arab Spring not in terms of days or months or even years, and not even in terms of a struggle for fundamental transformation of political, social and economics structures, but in terms of imagining new, fairer, different worlds.  In November 2011, I responded to the many 'hot takes' about the failure of the revolution

"What we are witnessing is not a blip in time but a massive and extraordinary change.  Not SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt Army's junta) nor USA's paid stooges, nor Saudi Arabia's useful idiots, nor Europe's favourite business boys will be able to withstand the wave that has risen.  And whether the revolutionaries stand or fall, live or die, are incarcerated or free, is immaterial. The change is inevitable. The only choice is the side we choose - within Egypt, and abroad - to stand."

Today as we stand at a what appears to be the nadir with the devastation wreaked by Assad in Syria, rise of ISIS, Erdogan's near ignored crimes against Kurds, and Western-backed bombing of Yemen seemingly flagging up the worst of our fears about the region. All too often in these discussion, the old Orientalist narratives are reassserted - by the region's regimes and by their often Western backers (and increasingly - albeit temporarily, I would argue - by Russia). We are told about 'blood thirsty savages' but rarely about how they are funded or armed. We are told to shudder in horror at beheadings by ISIS but to ignore those by the Saudi regime. The destruction of Palmyra is held up as evidence of 'their' barbarism but the destruction of historic Sanaa by Western bombs delivered by a Western ally (KSA) with targets identified by Western advisors is almost entirely erased from our news channels and papers (Meanwhile, the sale of Palmyra antiquities looted by ISIS and magically sold in European markets is something few are even ready to discuss). We are told about the horrors of Russian bombs in Syria but apparently Western drone and airstrikes, even on MSF hospitals, are 'humanitarian.' If the above paragraph seems like another outraged postcolonial rant, it is deliberately meant to be so. 

I am tired. Tired of seeing lives shattered, families torn apart and displaced, people slaughtered. But more than that, I am tired of the lack of imagination on part of these regimes, as well as the bulk of Western leaders and commentariat (I also add Putin to this list, with his desperate need to emulate empire-builders despite the many economic and political constraints). To varying degrees, imperial thinking has a near complete lock on Western politicians, journalists, academics, analysts, leading to little more than short-termism, and endless replication of  outdated thinking dressed up as analysis. As long as instant sales of tear gas, missiles, guns, or building another prison in the Gulf, can bump up annual profits of another friendly corporate and buy 'stability' from another dictator, our leaders seem satisfied. It is a geopolitical version of the same short-term thinking that many on the Western left accused the bankers of back in 2008-9. And it is a form of policymaking that is so locked into short-term profits and fears of losing them that it can see no further than knee-jerkism. 

But exhaustion does not mean despair. Many pieces are moving on history's chessboard, many of which we have yet to take notice of completely. Over Christmas, I re-read Frantz Fanon's Toward the African Revolution, with many of the essays written during the Algerian war. I was struck by the prescience in the writings as well as Fanon's equanamity in accepting that the decolonisation process would be bitterly opposed by the constantly mutating forms of the declining empire(s).  It reminded me of the biggest mistake in my thinking in 2011: I had underestimated the bitterness with which the decolonisation has been opposed, even as the forms of colonisation and colonisers have evolved and mutated. We no longer have  formal colonies, but the colonial elite (as described accurately by Fanon) continue to be propped up, helping shore up unjust, exploitative, brutal economic, political, social structures for their former masters and current paymasters.

But recognising the intensity with which decolonisation - of social, political, economics structures, but more importantly of culture, narrative and minds - is being resisted also gives me hope. In the past five years, even as many voices have been silenced in Middle East and North Africa region, the change has not stopped. Instead, the Arab Spring gave decolonisation another historic push - Rhodes Must Fall, for example, is a not so distant, albeit often unrecognised offspring of the Arab Spring, as are many resistances across the world. In 2011, the revolution was waged in the 'Arab' world. Five years later, it is being dreamed in many lands and minds across the globe.

And note that term: dream. Because five years later, as the former colonisers make their paucity of imagination amply clear, there are many new dreams being woven in minds across the globe. To look at the world today is to see a clash of mythic proportions. Not between civilisations, as many without imagination would prefer to think of it. Instead, it is an epic struggle between those who demand the right to dream for ourselves and those with much fear and no imagination. In this battle between imagination and fear, January 25th, is not only the Egyptian or Arab, but decolonisation's 'shot heard around the world.'

Decades from now, when historians look back at our times, that may well be the most influential legacy of the Eighteen Days.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

On Teaching Creative Writing as a Woman of Colour

Ten years ago, I took up the challenge of leading a BA: Creative Writing in the UK.  At the interview (and in the decade that has followed) I kept one secret. I was deeply sceptical of Creative Writing programmes, although I could not have articulated my discomfort at the time. This post is an attempt to begin to do just that: explore why I had been sceptical of Creative Writing programmes, how I confronted that discomfort and tried to find solutions, and - in doing so - stumbled upon on something very unique.

When I first began my teaching job, I had inherited the curriculum and syllabus and in the first years I had very little leeway. Yet it was apparent in the very first class I walked into that neither were adequate, appropriate, or indeed to use management-speak, 'fit for purpose.'

I teach one of the most diverse (British and international) groups of students possible. But beyond that simplistic term lies a whole range of experiences and identities: my students are often from economically and socially disadvantaged sections of British society. They are often the first in their families to pursue higher education. Many juggle multiple jobs with family responsibilities for parents, children, siblings, and are often primary carers for more than one person. In many cases, they are first or second generation Britons, with complex migratory pasts, cultures and histories. Institutionally, many are classified as 'mature students' which flattens the life experiences that they bring to the classroom. All of this makes their decision (especially after the fee changes) to study Creative Writing even more risky (and brave).

Yet none of the course that I inherited ten years ago reflected the reality of students we were teaching. Junot Diaz's brilliant 2014 MFA vs POC essay was still years into the future but I was in a strange situation of living out the dilemma. Albeit from the other side! I wasn't a PoC writer participating in a workshop (An aside: I never did an MFA in Creative Writing. The very few workshops and writing groups I have experienced were enough to turn me off them. And for all the reasons that Diaz details). I was instead the course leader and tutor who could - perhaps, just perhaps - make a difference.

My first changes were discreet. I couched them in pedagogically acceptable language of familiarising students with the canon, with critical theory, with contemporary writing.  Surreptitiously writers like Leslie Marmon Silko, Wole Soyinka, Mourid Barghouti, Alice Walker, Nawalel Saadawi made into my reading lists, as did bell hooks, Edward Said and Frantz Fanon.  The reading list has steadily grown and expanded over time to include writing in translation as well as newer writing (Alex Wheatle and Ta-Nehisi Coates are two of the more recent additions).

Then a couple of years ago, when I got a chance to redesign the course as part of a university wide exercise, I decided to expand the curriculum to include more critical fiction on the grounds that you can't write it if you haven't read it.  And I expanded the syllabus to be focussed on aspects of not just writing as a craft but also research skills, critical thinking, and most importantly critical writing (Critical Fictions is now a set text and I wish someone would republish the volume).  Then I fought to include modules that gave students a chance to learn about the publishing industry, to devise query letters, book proposals, elevators  pitches. I wanted to discuss publishing not in a NYC/London-centric way but open it up to global changes, markets, and developments. It makes sense when my students are from as far away as Brazil and Burma, and want to write and publish for their own people.

In the past ten years, my students have gone on to do amazing things. They write, perform and publish powerful, critical imaginative worlds. They work in publishing, media and cultural industries across the globe. Many teach, mentor and nurture, hopefully paying forward some of what they acquire during their degree.

Teaching Creative Writing has also helped me recognise and articulate my own discomfort. Junot Diaz is right in flagging up MFAs (and in the UK, MAs and BAs in Creative Writing) for their inability to support and nurture PoC.  From the other side of the line, my conclusion is perhaps more distressing: Creative Writing courses are by definition imagined and designed for writers who are primarily white and middle class. The courses are designed to not confront or engage in the necessary emotional, psychic, intellectual, critical and yes, political, work that is required when writing from the margins. It isn't just the workshops that exclude - as Diaz astutely notes - but the very structure, design and conception of these courses.

This is why Creative Writing courses don't - and can't - serve those of us who are PoC, queer, non-binary, differently abled, or in multiple other ways structurally and historically disadvantaged. Even the token getsures towards nonconformist, challenging writing are designed to channel the writer on the margins into more conformist spaces. This coerced conformity is not limited to PoC experience in just workshops but at all levels, including the prescribed readings, the forms and themes considered culturally valuable (and thus worthy of being written), and the critical engagement (or lack thereof) with not only words on a page but also literature as a whole, forms and barriers to cultural participation, and thus with the world beyond.

In the past ten years, I have tried to find ways to circumvent thees design flaws and subvert the underlying premise of teaching Creative Writing. I must admit that it is a draining, exhausting task that often means I finish leading my workshops (and academic terms) feeling shattered. Yet it is also the most rewarding job I have ever held because I am - hopefully - widening the ladder, smoothing the climb, extending a hand to pull in yet another fellow writer from the margins.

Toni Morrison said recently that 'We don't need anymore writers as solitary heroes. We need a heroic writers' movement: assertive, militant, pugnacious." I keep hoping that with each graduating cohort, I am contributing a little to this possible heroic writers' movement.

But damn...I wish it were not so exhausting, draining, and all too often so very solitary!

PS: if the above speaks to you, or sounds familiar, or you'd like to swap ideas, please get in touch.

PPS: I hope to blog more about my reflections on my experience of teaching Creative Writing so watch this space.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

While Murdoch Media Focusses on Labour 'Problems', Can We Talk About The Tories?

Every morning I wake up to read the Murdoch press, only to be told that the Labour party are at the brink of collapse. I don't know. They may well be - after all, party politics often happen beyond the public eye. However, I rarely read anything about the post-election internal dynamics of the Conservatives (beyond fairly superficial pieces on the various politicians jockeying for party leadership). This may be - I concede - because there is an assumption that the party has won quite decisively, and need not consider voters (or potential ones) at all for a bit.

If so, it doesn't quite chime with the growing tetchiness and fumbling in the behaviour of many in its rank and file, both in real life and on social media. I recognise that many - especially on the left - would simply write this off as 'Tory arrogance' but I believe it is more complex. The party's higher ranks may well be clueless, as demonstrated for example by the poor optics of laughing just as Jeremy Corbyn was speaking at the last PMQs of poverty in Britain.  The behaviour on social media of accounts of more junior Tory party members seems just as dissonant with a clear combination of irritation, arrogance (or perhaps more accurately, bravado) and an odd reluctance to answer questions.

While I have been watching multiple socmed accounts and party members flounder, here are some examples (that I have directly experienced):

1. The rather ineptly branded @LGBToryUK account went on a blocking spree on twitter during the party conference. While blocking is indeed a useful function for individuals, an institutional account that blocks en masse - and not for abuse but simple questions - is demonstrating both lack of social media savvy and incredible ineptitude.

I was blocked for a single tweet responding to an all-white, all male panel on queer issues at the party conference (my response was a rather mild 'oh dear'). Interestingly, I didn't notice for days until multiple LGBTIQ activists and freelance journalists began complaining of being blocked. On checking, I found I too had been blocked. And then, on raising a fuss, I was quietly unblocked. The administrators then claimed that I hadn't been blocked at all, despite screenshots, and have since refused to either apologise or explain how this magical block-unblock happened.  To be quite precise, they are pretending they need not engage at all with me.

2. A stranger version of this is unfolding at councillor level in my area. Last year, after I experienced a racist hate crime, the local Tory councillors were fastest to mobilise and reach out. A year later, this has changed (the MP is again Labour so perhaps the councillors have decided there is little to be done until an election is closer?).

When questioned on issues ranging from immigration and the refugee crisis to tax credits and Brexit, the councillors are locked into a pattern. They predictably share the party line on their accounts but when asked for their own stances, are unable and unwilling to answer. When pushed, all they can offer is: 'we have no input into the party policy.'

Now this may well be true, but - for example - when the Home Secretary declares that 'immigration harms social cohesion,' a voter living in one of the areas of highest immigrant densities in the country can only be concerned. Surely it is then up to the councillors to soothe (or exacerbate) fears, and explain that the area is not (or is) facing a clear and present danger of social strife.

3. The local party office appears just as incapable of answering questions about how government policy - now decided entirely by the party as it is no longer in coalition - is impacting daily lives of residents, taxpayers and voters in the area. All queries are answered with a standard, 'please contact us if it is about council services.'

There may well be a party edict asking the rank and file to not comment on any policy matters. Given that most of the mainstream media appears invested in keeping all questions of politics at their most superfluous, this may even be a smart and reasonable tactic. However, in an age of social media, this is as poor a response as the optics of MPs 'laughing at poverty' during the PMQs.

However, I believe the reasons go beyond party edicts or arrogance. There is - I believe - a growing disconnect in whatever is decided at cabinet level and how it is communicated to the rank and file. Although party members fall in line with stating similarly worded, mechanical explanations, they are also left incapable of defending the government's policy decisions in any substantial way. They are also left floundering because the government policies are often increasingly indefensible - not only on moral grounds - but on logical, even small case conservative, pro-business grounds.

There is also - I have learned in the decade of living in Britain - an oddly feudal attitude to politics (and this cuts across party lines). As Indian politics practices a less subtle, more in-your-face version of this, I am quite familiar with it. Elected officials - from MPs to councillors in Britain - hold an implicit attitude of bestowing largess on their constituents. So an active and effective MP (or other elected official) will often respond instantly and immediately to small, personal grievances raised by individual voters. At MP surgeries, issues of council services or policing or individual difficulties can be raised and resolved. And there is a not so covert expectation that the voter thus being helped will then be grateful and suitably reward the party/officer with future voting loyalty.

This is really a modern version of a feudal lord handing out tit-bits to keep peasantry from revolting!

The principle that a democracy requires its elected officers to be held responsible not as feudal lords bestowing favours, but for service to voters appears non-existent.

In some ways, this is also why the Conservative party rank-and-file appears bewildered. Accustomed to abuse by opponents and assuaging individuals with supposed help is all they know. The very idea that a voter may question them on matters of policy or ideology appears almost entirely foreign. It is for this reason that @LGBToryUK blocked any who asked even the simplest of questions. They have nothing to 'bestow' on the voters. They have little explanation for why their tag erases the T in LGBT, or indeed why policy discussions on LGBT issues are being handled entirely by a very narrow set of people.

This is also why a local councillor - Hampstead's Oliver Cooper - can tetchily declare that politely albeit repeatedly questioning him about 'social cohesion' and anti-immigrant rhetoric from senior members of his party is 'insulting and harassing' him. It is also why he believes simply saying 'I do not accept the premise of your question. Fin.' is an adequate response to a voter.

However, social media and the changing demographics in Britain is demanding a new kind of politics (unlike many, I don't see Corbyn as a substantive harbinger of this). This form of politics will require more than a few elected officials 'resolving voter difficulties' by calling up a bureaucrat or contacting an office. As a voter, I am not interested in receiving 'gracious help' on an individual basis. I want to see efforts made for structural changes so the difficulties faced by me are not passed on to the next voter, and the next generation. (As an aside and this is material for another post, the Conservative party would do well to examine the Republican implosion across the pond. The final crumpling of the 'Southern strategy' holds lessons for the Tories who want to solely pander to an ever-shrinking and ageing 'base.')

Of course any kind of politics is hard to effect. At the same time, it is necessary that politicians in all parties began to learn this. If any politician or party believes they only need to deal with the voter to bestow favours, or can summarily dismiss their concerns, they are profoundly mistaken.  If members of any party - but Conservatives in particular - feel that they don't have to go back to the electorate any time soon, simply because the next national level elections are far away, they are again mistaken. There are multiple other elections coming up before 2020 where the MPs may not bear the brunt of voters' discontent, but that may be borne by other elected officials.

Before ending, and perhaps this is the compassionate side of me, this also may be a reason for the current fumbling behaviour of so many in the Conservative party. Unable to defend the ridiculous rhetoric emerging from the upper ranks, they are just battening down the hatches, hoping that the questions - and voters - will go away.

And that's where they are wrong.