Friday, 28 January 2011

In praise of the World Service

My favourite place is always right in the middle of bush. Bush House in Aldwych, that is, the former home of the World Service, my employers. Parts of the World Service have now been transplanted to Broadcasting House while 650 jobs have been ditched altogether. The marble steps, slinky banisters, brass fixtures and jaunty Art Deco lifts of Bush House will be converted into a leisure complex, that ironically fun-repelling late 90s yuppie term encompassing a hotel, gym, bar and restaurant.
We’re not sure yet how the cuts will pan out for the English language programmes, but either way it’s a tragedy for radio. Thanks to the World Service I have seen monks, mullahs and ministers in the canteen. I’ve heard my colleagues set up items in French, Japanese and Spanish. We have been interrupted during a two-way to Karachi by a crossed line from Burundi. I’ve been privileged to interview film-maker Maysoon Pachachi about her Open Shutters project recording Iraqi women’s experiences of war, Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa’Thiongo on his persecution by the government, Chinese writer and film-maker Xialuo Guo on the rapid transformation of her country and former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on her brooch collection and its diplomatic subtext. The accompanying book is called Read My Pins. I have discussed Sufism with the poet Imtiaz Dharkar, Christ with Anne Rice, beauty ideals with American artist Wangechi Mutu and exile and realism with the legendary photographer Dorothy Bohm, nearly ninety and still going strong after fleeing Lithuania for England during World War Two.
Only the World Service makes programmes like this with people like that:  intelligent, diverse, egalitarian, groundbreaking, underpaid. It’s humbling to speak to so many global artists and thinkers whose perfect English may well be their third or fourth language. It’s shocking to leave work and encounter the relative insularity of  the national media. As one fan wrote to us, “Your news broadcast took me everywhere from Croatia to the Congo. I turned to Radio 4 and they were comparing Ed and Dave Miliband’s haircuts.”

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Sara Shilo, The Falafel King is Dead

A debut Israeli novel becomes an instant modern classic, prize-nabber and bestseller with its depiction of one family struggling with private grief and public war.

The Falafel King is Dead, translated seamlessly into English from Hebrew, is a triumph of structure, intelligence and insight. It’s all the more astonishing considering that this is Sara Shilo’s debut work of adult fiction, commenced at the age of forty after a successful career working with children and in the theatre. The long gestation period was worth it: The Falafel King is Dead is a fully mature work, beautifully balanced, deep, thoughtful, generous towards its characters, intelligent and humorous despite the gritty subject matter.

The novel’s set in a northern Israeli village, a small, ordinary, struggling place with a citizenry of outwardly uninteresting people who gossip and strive, bicker, work and just about make a living. However, the broader circumstances of their lives are far from ordinary. Their daily habits are disrupted by the continual threat of bombs from the ongoing war in neighbouring Lebanon. Bomb alerts, shelters, raids, rubble and constant fear are a normal part of their existence.

Amidst this shockingly normalised tension is the specific unhappiness of the Dadon family, who are trying to recover from the death (by a bee sting) of Mas’ud, local falafel whiz and ideal husband of Simona, whose voice opens the novel, and the loving father of her children, whose own inner lives are laid out with great perceptiveness and craft later in the book. Shilo has a genius for interpreting the threat of violence and the pain of grief through the eyes of the young. There is the son who is desperate to get away from home, to work, to save money, to be promoted in his factory job and to improve himself by buying a model apartment. There are two middle boys, one of whom was born with a disability affecting his hands and feet. His much-loved brother acts for him, shaving him, taking care of him and being not just his replacement extremities but also his eyes and ears, his foil, his partner in crime and home, the sibling of his heart. There is the plucky and brave daughter who obsessively plans what to do if terrorists break into the house. The little girl’s resourcefulness leads her to devise all kinds of tricks literally to trip up any marauders; she goes about her independent resistance experiments with the indestructible bravery and pluck of a cartoon character. Then, chillingly, there are the two smallest twins who never knew their father. The young man whom they think is their dad is actually their brother, Simona’s eldest son.

Shilo’s talent in this remarkable book is to uncover every layer of every character, right down to the marrow, so smoothly that the reader barely notices how deep she is getting, how raw the emotions are, how fresh the desires. Mas’ud died six years ago but the Simona who greets us in the first chapters of the book has barely recovered from the shock. She is not a heroine, a strong woman, an independent character or a survivor; she is what remains when the effect of a death is so great that the destruction reaches beyond the dead man himself. To her, Mas’ud was perfect, the source of her vivacity and strength. Without it she has lost her beauty, her confidence and her will to live. She works in a childcare centre where her former role as resident luscious lady – capable of flirting with local officials to get planning permission and perks for the centre – has been replaced by younger, more vibrant employees. She despises the local widows, who want them to join their miserable gang. She is ashamed of her little twins, who weren’t even born when Mas’ud died, and whom she sees as a symbol of her own wantonness with her husband, an obscene sign that life prevails even when death makes its mark. One does not admire Simona and her obsessions, bitterness or neuroses. One admires Sara Shilo for her wit and intelligence in revealing the mindset and culture that created Simona and her skill in bringing this woman to grim life.

Simona has the black humour of an everywoman, a babushka or prematurely old crone who’s seen it all and powerlessly suffered its indignities, reversals and hypocrisies: “For the first twenty years, your mother, grandmother and aunts shut you down and close you up. When you pee in the bathroom, do it quietly. Don’t let anyone hear you pee. No one should see your menstrual blood. Put your hand over our open mouth. Your whole life is about closing up. And don’t forget your legs. You should practically sew them together when you sit down, so you feel like a tree. Then your wedding day arrives. The talk changes. It’s like the difference between black and white. Now they want you to open the way for your husband at night. And on the day of the birth, they want you to open everything – and not only for your husband, but also for your baby and for anybody else who might walk into your hospital room.”

Each character in The Falafel King is Dead has their own distinct voice, flawlessly rendered. The process of reading the novel, which takes places over one day, becomes steadily more affecting as you realise that each child of Simona (everyone, in fact, apart from poor sad dreary Simona herself) is desperately striving to transcend their personal situation and their locality.

The novel is a study of racism, fear and mistrust as much as it is an investigation into the pain of bereavement. Shilo excels in exploring the varieties of effect that death, fear, ambition and hope have: for the oldest son it is anger and open grief that drive his ambition; the younger sons escape into odd projects like raising a captured bird and local ragamuffinry and hi-jinks; the daughter sublimates her fear and isolation by concocting elaborate traps for the pillaging terrorists; the little twins cling to their mother with endless demands that wear her down. Shilo is an expert at rendering with pitch-perfect accuracy and great dignity and sympathy the true voices of these children, no matter what age they are. Her ear for and mindfulness of the speech and feelings of these characters is stunning. Shilo makes it possible to forgive all because her skill and insight enable us to understand all.

The poised, gradual psychology of this novel may not please everyone, but I was impressed but its underlying control. The Falafel King is Dead seems at first to represent a simple concept, a war-tale told by various family members. But there is also feeling of great rigour, structure and discipline. It deals in emotions but it isn’t sentimental. There is not a word out of place – interestingly, since one of the hallmarks of the original Hebrew text was its sometimes disjointed grammar, reflecting the emotional and political dislocation of its characters. These have been smoothed over in the translation. I appreciated the apparent calmness and ordinariness of these lives, the simultaneous running of great wit and great sadness, the tone of yearning and the ultimate profound realisation that huge emotions and tremendous depth reside in people who are, just like anyone, trying to get by and do the best they can with what they’ve got, whether they’re fourteen or forty, clever or stupid, active or lazy, dreamy or worldly, shrewd or naive. In the final reckoning all of these characters are capable of profound tenderness towards each other, a show of love which is no less great for being common.   

The Falafel King is Dead was published in Israel five years ago and has won virtually every one of the country’s major literary prizes including the Sapir Prize, the Ministry of Culture Prize and the Wiener Prize. It has been named one of the Top Ten Israeli Books of the Decade by the major national newspaper Yediot Aharanot, is on the national high school literature syllabus and is currently being made into a film. It deserves all these accolades and more – and we readers deserve more from the pen of Sara Shilo. Just as the characters in this debut wish to break free of their constraints, I would like this consummately intelligent writer to give us a wild adventure next, in action as well as feeling.

The Falafel King is Dead is available from Portobello Books.

Friday, 21 January 2011

On despair

I am wondering when exactly I lost my faith. Six months ago I wrote a newspaper article entitled Tired of Being The Token Woman, about the erasure of women from cultural life. It sparked a round of events and activism among women, as well as some hilariously defensive chits from the perpetrators. The editors of everything from Roman Artifact Review to Nosepickers’ Weekly wrote in to give their excuses and do some victim blaming.

They ought not to have fretted. The article made no difference. The act of typing it soaked up my nervous energy but changed nothing. I can’t be bothered to give any more statistics. Okay, just some quickies: at the Waterstones* on New Row in Covent Garden are two tables labelled Books We Can’t Put Down. A fortnight ago one table had 42 authors, of whom 4 were women. The other had 45 authors, of whom 4 were women. There was a wall display of Philosophical Fiction featuring novels by 21 different men and 0 women. The big Waterstones on Piccadilly’s even worse.

Let’s scroll back. Since the beginning of 2008 I’ve conducted author interviews with 49 men and only 23 women. In the Evening Standard’s summer reading round-up on 2nd July David Sexton recommended 16 books by men and only 5 by women. In June, the World Literature Weekend organised by the London Review Bookshop: 26 writers, of which only 4 were women. Of those, 2 were faithful translators of men’s work and one was talking about her late, ‘great’ writer father. This year’s Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction – a genre utterly dominated by brilliant women – shortlisted two women and five men. The Dolman prize for travel writing shortlisted one woman.

I have been working for nearly twenty years and have made no difference to anything. It is difficult to describe the sheer alienation one feels to participate in – even to chair and moderate – a discussion about arts, politics, culture, the world, in which no woman or her achievements is mentioned once, by anyone, at any time. I can’t keep sitting in a studio feeding flattering questions to a guy who’s written an average book and is busy namechecking 20 other ‘great’ men, while a female producer and female PR gape like groupies and ten works of actual genius by women fester in the bin. It is difficult to describe the surge of pain as one mentions a woman, any woman, in any context, only to see one’s companion automatically roll their eyes, then wait their way through the rest of the anecdote. It is devastating to begin pitching an item about an excellent book/play/film, “It’s about this woman who....” and see that your boss has already lost interest. Should you complain outright, there is always a moment when they look at you with open dislike and you realise you will never work for them again, and that part of your career is over.

I have become one of the countless women standing at the edges, pleasant, elegant, mutedly smiling as men pass the prizes and job offers amongst themselves and competent geisha-minded women crawl all over themselves to help. I have not been able to compel producers to have more women on the shows I participate in. Instead, the few female artists on the roster are pushed onto my shows to shut me up. They do not actually employ or feature any more women than before. I have used my time, energy and intellect working alongside, publicising and aiding the careers of powerful/rich/famous men who are open philanderers, lechers, johns, liars, bullies, harassers. Neither I, nor other women, nor any male colleagues or friends have been able to do anything about this, though it has been known by 'everyone'.

I have been offered great jobs by great sleazebags and wondered what to do. I have been polite to their leering, lying, hypocritical, sexist, pathetic faces and listened, wanting to laugh outright, if only to divert myself from being sick, as they two-facedly pay pseudo tribute to their much-deceived wives, partners and daughters. I have dutifully watched their films and read their novels, in which women are either totally absent or nothing more than insulting age-old misogynist stereotypes. We women have helped make these men famous, and they have used their fame to help other men. I have become, to use an ancient phrase, a handmaiden of the patriarchy.

It is no longer a fresh challenge, as it was when I was fourteen and beginning my career. It is no longer baffling and frustrating, as it was when I grew older. It now makes my skin crawl with claustrophobia, despair and crackling pain. There is a horrible sense of the realness and depth of cultural femicide as women are simply ignored. There is the unspeakable horror of seeing men whom I know to be abusive pretending in public to be feminist, leftist activists and even giving public statements about it. There is a terrifying frustration as I encounter so many powerful women’s own misogyny and submissiveness. There is a deep dread as I contemplate two more decades of this bullshit. I think of my former friend, the one I’d so admired, and see just how ably the boys’ club works to aid and protect its abusive brothers, showering them with perks….

…But not without help from the ladies! One of the most painful things is witnessing how many of the devoted pillars, the dutiful stalwarts faithfully keeping inequality firmly in place, are women. Quote from the (female) producer on a flagship arts show: “It’s all blokes today so it’d be good to get a female.” Quote from the same producer a month later: “It’s all men so if you want to sandwich a female artist in between, you can, if you want.” It is hard to watch discrimination up close, in realtime, and realise that these institutionalised women will never do anything at all to change things. Comment from a female commissioner at the Arts Council to a renowned female theatre director: “Oh, Sue! Women aren’t artists. Women are mothers.” I listened in on the planning meeting for a flagship books show. There were six women and no men and all they did, for half an hour, was slavishly dribble and coo over men: “I thought he was good but now I think he’s great.” “He’s such a genius.” “He’s a clever, clever man. He is such a clever man.” Poor little masochists, dutifully scrubbing the steps of the boys’ club for ever. I chided a colleague who snatched up the latest book by a famous misogynist. She simpered, “I know he hates women but, you know, I don’t need to be his friend or anything.” Another colleague said of a young American writer, “He came in, he wasn’t particularly nice, wasn’t particularly friendly, wasn’t particularly respectful. But I kind of like what he’s about.” These women's labour is used up, as the work of faithful slaves always is. But their love, deference and worship are not reciprocated in any meaningful way, although they may be thanked to their faces. The favour is not repaid. I have never, ever, ever, in my life, ever heard a group of men praise and feverishly laud any woman artist in any discipline in any way, even once, let alone exclusively worship women and our work.

I have been in too many meetings, in this so-called liberal artsy world, where anything a woman says is shot down or simply ignored. I have watched as women who are senior in years, rank and experience are talked over after saying only four or five words. I have smiled my way through countless apparently playful but actually sexually harassing remarks in the workplace. I have been the token woman on countless panels where, on the rare occasions when a work by a woman is reviewed, it is brazenly set upon and ripped to shreds, pettily, brutally, jeeringly, right down to its last fibres, with disgusting zeal. I am ready to abandon a career which I loved because I have finally seen its hatred and (worse) its hypocrisy up close. I no longer have any expectation of success, because the game is rigged. I have seen, in nearly twenty years, that at every literary event, the audience is full of women and the stage is full of men – a telling image.

*Statistics for the Waterstones bookshop refer to the second half of September 2010.

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