Ankita Chakraborty | Longreads | February 2019 | 10 minutes (2,522 words)
Refugees, or displaced migrants, are most visible in the places where they are most vulnerable: on the high seas while crossing the Mediterranean to Europe, or on TV next to a rolling clip of a nationalist insulting them. In war zones, so that they are shielded from airstrikes, they are made visible by the color of their camps — a uniform white, the same color as that of a doctor’s coat or that of a shroud. In places where they are relatively safe, they are difficult to come by. Refuge makes the refugee invisible. It is unlikely that you will meet a refugee on your way to work; on the off chance you do, they remind you that at this moment there is a war going on in some part of the world, and of your own complicity in that war. For instance, in Delhi, if I come across a Rohingya refugee, I might be reminded that India is, in fact, an ally of Myanmar. In London, in Paris, in Berlin, in New York, meeting a Yemeni refugee, one might be reminded of how long one’s respective country has been selling arms to Saudi Arabia. It is in the best interest of the state that the refugee be kept at a distance from the citizen. It is, as the German writer Jenny Erpenbeck writes, “a matter of…sparing the Land of Poets the indignity of being dubbed the Land of killers once more.”
Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel Go, Went, Gone begins with the mention of a drowning incident in a lake near the protagonist’s home in Berlin. An unknown man had drowned while swimming; he waved his arm for help, but no one saved him. His body at the bottom of the lake, an allegory for the several thousand migrants who have drowned trying to cross the sea, works as a trigger throughout the rest of the novel, which unfolds in close proximity to his place of death — very much like the story of Europe in the past century. (In Europe, they have for some time been trying to track down where all the bodies are buried.) At one point in the novel, Richard, the protagonist, a professor emeritus, talks to an 18 year-old African refugee about Hitler, a former resident of Berlin. “Did you ever hear the name Hitler?” he asks. Read more…
Ankita Chakraborty | Longreads | December 2018 | 14 minutes (3,602 words)
There were three of them involved in the Bovary marriage to begin with: Charles Bovary, a mediocre doctor and husband, used to being woken up in the middle of the night to set a plaster or secure a tooth in the French countryside; Emma Bovary, reader of great novels and writer of promissory notes, who sneaked away to sleep with other men as soon as her husband left for work; and Gustave Flaubert, the thirty-five-year-old writer of Madame Bovary, a morally repugnant, syphilis-infected bourgeois who hated the bourgeoisie for their stupidity. As in all marriages destined for failure, there were sides to be taken. With Madame Bovary began the modern novel; on her side was the virtue of being a pioneer, of being the first in a hundred-and-sixty-year-old model, the precursor to many great novels written in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Stories of her adultery became sensational and her resistance to the boredom of living aspirational. For Emma could do no wrong. Great, immortal, hero — for her have been used words that are most likely to be used for men in real life. “What a woman!” how often have we thought like Rodolphe, one of her lovers, and watched her go. Read more…
Ankita Chakraborty | Longreads | June 2018 | 14 minutes (3,488 words)
D. H. Lawrence once used chickens to describe the two types of women. “A really up-to-date woman is a cocksure woman,” he wrote. “She is the modern type.” The other type is the hensure woman, “the old-fashioned demure woman who was sure as a hen is sure, that is, without knowing about it.’’ He made other references to animals and birds in his work. He often used animal lives to describe sex and male desire. “The desire rose again, his penis began to stir like a live bird,” he wrote of a man in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Lawrence seemed to have thrived on the animal spirit. Three of his novels are called The Fox, Kangaroo and The White Peacock. The more the woods and the old mining towns of his childhood seemed to give way to industrial landscapes, the more easily animals seemed to have crept into his work. Often animals from these woods were imagined as insensible beasts. The chapter called “Rabbit” in Women in Love comes to mind, where a pet sustains society’s adulation until the moment it turns against its owners.
The beast in Qiu Miaojin’s modernist novels is the consciousness in women that is aware of a deviant lust for women’s bodies. Their sexuality is their bestiality. They are not necessarily hiding behind their animal pseudonyms; but like any animal on the fringes of human settlement, they are loath to be seen. The narrator of Qiu’s cult classic Notes of a Crocodile declares very early in the novel, “I’m a woman who loves women.” Yet a few pages later, she thinks she should carry her shoes and tiptoe down the streets of Taipei so that no one will notice her. In the industrial Taiwanese society where these women live, the self-discovery of their own sexuality is considered to be a social condition and an epidemic. It made for cheap television and for trash talk. In Taiwan in 1987, everybody seemed very interested in knowing who among them was a “crocodile.” Read more…