Why do I find this so disconcerting?

Meeting Nicole Kidman up close, I realised that she looks like a beautiful doll.

I have never met any woman as tall as her. I thought all the women from my slum would be so small in front of her. But her skin, lips and hands, they were all perfect. I thought if I touched her, she might get dirty. [More troubling stuff here]

What sounds like a heart-warming story of a girl meeting a world-famous starlet and wishing to be as beautiful as her (white, blonde, and very thin), is the stuff of fairy tales. But the meeting between Australian Hollywood actress Nicole Kidman and the child star of Slumdog Millionaire, Rubina Ali, recalls to our postcolonialist mind the history of imperialist worship and testament to a racist standard of beauty that sees women of the subcontinent subject to the alluring promises of skin whitening creams. What’s even sadder is that at a young and impressionable age, Rubina Ali has already formed the view that her skin, her race, her caste, are dirty and contaminating.

Update: Gareth alerted me to the new advert for Schweppes that Rubina and Kidman collaborated on. It’s just a little more than a minute long, but it’s long enough to hurt my eyes from rolling.

“What did you expect?” Orientalism, Miss Kidman.

Latter day Victoriana: Drawing similarities between Compulsion and Bride and Prejudice

Crossposted on Feminist Review.

The repressive, corseted Victorian culture of the novel found a perfect foil in the rigid caste strictures of Indian society. (The Times, 27 April 2009)

Parminder Nagra in Compulsion (2009)
Parminder Nagra in Compulsion (2009)

Nesrine Malik’s scathing review of the ITV drama Compulsion got me thinking a lot more about modern day adaptations of pre-20th century literary works featuring ethnic Indian actors. She has fair enough reasons to be perturbed: it seems that when diversity is presented on British TV, what’s served up for a wider, mostly white audience are actually tired stereotypes of overbearing family members, arranged marriages, and the ever recurring theme of honour and shame. Oppressive family values have become the only representative force for British Asians in the media.

The impetus for disaster in Compulsion begins with Parminder Nagra’s character Anjika, who flatly refuses a marriage arranged by her dad, sending out all sorts of warning signals to women out there who disobey The Great Patriarch. The one person who knows of her troubles happens to be her sleazy chauffeur, Flowers (played by Ray Winstone). He offers to ‘fix’ her potential suitor in exchange for one night of sex with her, which she later, tearfully, accepts. So far very Indecent Proposal.

This leads to her discovering how great sex with Flowers is, sealing her doomed fate. But with every tryst she demands of him, we are made to feel diminishing sympathy for her, and somehow more for Flowers, as he is by now treated as a sex object(!). Murder and a spontaneous yet elaborate cover-up ends with Flowers dead, leaving Anjika happily off the hook to marry her secret White boyfriend. The end.

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Migration: Belonging and displacement

In an early sequence of a 1991 Channel Four television feature, Northern Crescent (a film about the white-Asian conflicts in Britain following the Rushdie affair), shows a new primary school headmaster, Mr. West, who introduces himself at assembly to his students, most of whom are of Pakistani ancestry.

Mr. West asks the students to name the greatest storybook in the world. After replies such as The Guinness Book of Records and Ghostbusters, he tells them that it is The Bible – his own ethnicity is thus quite apparent. He proceeds to read them the story of Ruth as an example of people making their home in a new place and being welcomed there – he applies this to his own arrival at the school that morning, seemingly oblivious to its application to the Pakistani immigration in this Yorkshire town (the film will go to question whether any sense of ‘welcomness’ is given to these people). The headmaster says he’s not surprised to have received such a welcome, as it is part of the great tradition of this country and particularly of Yorkshire. He notes that of the 180 pupils in the school, 176 were born in Yorkshire. He then asks them whether they would say that are Yorkshire boys and girls. Only four students (one of Pakistani ethnicity) put up their hands, leaving the headmaster looking surprised and perplexed.[1]

Mr. West’s ethnocentrism (i.e. references to The Bible as the best book ever when talking with presumably a mostly Muslim audience) and naïve notions of belonging is commonplace here in Britain. Despite the fact that the students above feel ambivalent about their ‘Britishness’ or even perhaps ‘Englishness’ (which by the way is claimed almost exclusively by white folks), most people in Britain would still identify themselves in terms of nationality and would assert that this is an essential part of their being.

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Truly Asia: I don't want to sleep alone (2006)

In Malaysia, vacuous horror flicks and Hollywood copycats rule the local cinemas. They promise nothing but instant sensory gratification yet still manage to attain box-office success. In many of such films glamorous personalities compliment the glitzy and oh-so aspirational KL scene. They’re good-looking, they’ve got star quality, who cares if they’ve got no talent, but most noticeable of all is that they’re overwhelmingly Malay.

It is perhaps for these reasons film director Tsai Ming Liang left Malaysia for greener pastures. After decades of making films in Taiwan and hailed as one of the paragons of second-wave Taiwanese cinema, he returned to his homeland to find a completely different country. The financial crash of 1997 had left the country in paralysis. Jobless migrants, many illegal, lurked the streets for scraps of opportunities. And suddenly sex was out in the open: the Anwar Ibrahim case got everybody talking about anal intercourse and homosexuality. For Tsai, this helped set the scene for his film I don’t want to sleep alone (2006).

The inhabitants of Tsai’s Kuala Lumpur are, however, far from glamorous. Lee Kang Sheng, Tsai’s regular leading actor, plays a paralysed man cared by an overworked waitress who falls in love with Lee’s other role, an immigrant who is nursed back to health by lonely squatter played by Norman Atun. The theme of urban alienation and deprivation speak louder than words here, as the characters barely utter a word throughout the film. With more music than dialogue (though hardly a musical), old-school Malay and Chinese song lyrics and urban soundscapes somehow make up for the silence in the relationships the characters form around sex and their desires.

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Foreign bodies as sexual playgrounds

This post was featured in the first Asian Women Blog Carnival at ciderpress’s blog.

So there was this American guy, Jake, who sat with Gareth and me at lunch last Saturday and was telling us how much he wanted to go to Malaysia because it’s apparently a great place to meet women, and claimed that the country is chockfull of hot-bodied beauties. He also didn’t waste time to explain that the reasons behind his quest was down to his general lack of luck with women and self-confessed socially-inept ways. And so like the many sad, lonely white men with money to squander, he’d like to try his luck with Asian women because they, y’know, love white men, are ultra-feminine and so willing to please, and all that BS.

Now, this was unflattering and offensive on extreme levels to both my boyfriend and myself. First, while being the target audience for this kind of orientalist fantasy talk, Jake had sensed that he was in the company of a fellow Asian fetishist. Secondly, there was a sense that I can help him accomplish his quest, or rather conquest, by offering tips on picking up women from my remote corner of the world.

He chose the wrong woman to discuss his fantasies with.

Men like Jake perpetuate racism, sexism, and colonialism under a more subtle guise in that it’s not about denigrating Otherness, but rather desiring and yearning for it. Today, foreign bodies (places, women, food) are not the scary and mysterious things of the past anymore. Instead they are to be embraced. They make you hip, worldly, in touch with distant cultures of peoples you may never meet in your lifetime (Yirgacheffe coffee, anyone?). So on the face of it, fascination with the exotic Other doesn’t look like racism and the colonial conquest of yore.

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Weekend round-up of favourite online reads 11/1

My current obsession with feminist science fiction led me to brilliant reviews of Vandana Singh’s The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet at both The F-Word and Ultrabrown. In my earlier post on Islam and feminism in SF I mentioned a few times about how the genre is used to critique some grand narratives of our times. But in lieu of feminist utopias, Singh’s anthology of short stories explores the more intimate worlds of emotional and mental isolation to great effect in what she calls speculative fiction:

So much modern realist fiction is divorced from the physical universe, as though humans exist in a vacuum devoid of animals, rocks and trees. Speculative fiction is our chance to rise above this pathologically solipsist view and find ourselves part of a larger whole; to step out of the claustrophobia of the exclusively human and discover joy, terror, wonder and meaning in the universe…

…I said earlier that speculative fiction is about what cannot ever be, or what cannot be as yet. But it is also true that when it uses symbol and metaphor in certain ways, speculative fiction is about us as we are, right now. This may be the case even if the story is set on another planet, in another age, and the protagonist is an alien. Because haven’t we all felt alien at some time or another, set apart from the norm due to caste and class, religion and creed, gender and sexual orientation?

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Idealising Islamic womanhood, internalising whiteness

Malaysian actress Wardina
Malaysian actress Wardina

The meteoric rise of Malaysian actress Wardina and singer Waheeda in the last few years was by no means an accident. For decades, women who wore the tudung (hijab) had longed for high-profile role models who shared their values and dress code. Representation is, of course, a good thing, but their popularity can be partly attributed to the public’s preference for fair skin.

The Malay skin colour can be best described as a spectrum of tones; from the dark brown (hitam manis) to ghostly pale (putih melepak) – all a result of a half-forgotten history of intermarriage between ethnic groups that co-exist in Malaysia and beyond. While there isn’t a social and economic divide based on colorism in the country; i.e. the rich and powerful aren’t necessarily pasty white or vice versa, there is a culture of implicit loathing of darker skin. The solution to this, however, is easy: whitening creams.

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Book review: Contrary Visions – Women and Work in Malay Novels Written by Women by Christine Campbell

contrary-visions1Despite the clunky title, Contrary Visions (2004, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka) offers a rather comprehensive review of novels by Malay women written between 1940 and 1995, including a couple of early Indonesian novels thrown in for good, hazy archipelagoan measure. Alongside Virginia Hooker’s Writing a New Society: Social Change Through the Novel in Malay (2000), Campbell’s book is pioneering stuff in the field of Malay women’s writing. In it, Malaysia’s political independence from British rule in 1957 serves as the ‘Big Bang’ in the course of women’s writing from which then on became more interesting, more daring. But how much more interesting and more daring really is it?

‘Contrary visions’ is the recurring theme in this book, and is supposedly reflected in the aspirations of the female leading characters. All of the novels reviewed, from the pre-Independence Panggilan Ibunda (Call of the Motherland, 1948​) by Kamariah Saadon, to the politically conscious Anugerah (The Award, 1995) by Zaharah Nawawi, involve the issues of marriage and work – the latter either domestic or professional, and so any textual evidence of pragmatism in female characters about these issues are defined as a ‘contrary vision’ to the stifling Malay customs designed for the female sex.

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A Malay poem for Black History Month

Since it’s Black History Month in Britain, I’d like to feature an unlikely poem by Malaysia’s greatest poet and dramatist, Usman Awang (1929-2001). Written in 1971, ‘Suara Blues’ (Voices of the Blues) is a critique of Western hegemony and racism. It is also a kind of clarion call for the return to ‘the centre’, the origin, the age of pre-colonisation, which was a popular theme in postcolonial writing at the time.

In Malay (English translation after the jump):

Suara Blues

Kemilau hitamnya paling indah
Disinar bulan di cahaya matahari
Ribuan sayap hitam
Di awan
Membayangi sebuah istana
Ribuan bayang hitam
Suara hitam
… dan murka hitam

Dicanang ke seluruh negeri
Mana pemburu mana penembak terpandai
Gugurkan sayap-sayap hitam.
Kerana hitam
Hanya kerana hitamnya.
Tiada tangan mencampakkan kacang
Tiada jari menaburkan jagung
Lapar, lapar yang hitam.

Burung hitam
Telah mereka dengar gema
Genta malam
Trompet hitam, jauh
Jauh di sana di Afrika
Adalah mereka saudara-saudara tercinta
Suara Blues

berazam berombak berkurung berteriak
perhambaan dari pembinaan tamadun
dari air mata tulang-tulang putih mereka
hanya kerana hitam, ya kerana hitamnya
lapar yang hitam, nasib yang hitam.

Dan kini di sini tanah air setengah hitam
Pasukan-pasukan penembak Diraja
Kemilau senapang ciptaan manusia tamadun
Jauh, jauh datangnya = Made in USA, Made in England

Mana seronok menjadi juara tembak
Pertandingan Kejohanan Pesta Gemilang
Berebutan sesamanya, berebutan seperti orang lapar,
Menjatuhkan sayap hitam.

Warna yang dibenci
Rupa yang dibenci
Suara yang dibenci

Bayang hitam yang dikasihi


Terbanglah cepat ke hutan
Ada gunung ada bukit ada sungai jernih
Adalah teman setia
Tiada keseorangan, tiada keseorangan
Di sini terhimpun seribu kekuatan.
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A (post)colonial love story

Read this today and nearly puked:

“Ours is a classic story of forbidden love, elopement, family estrangement and reconciliation. People say it’s so romantic,” says Englishman Tim Wallace from the veranda of his home in the town of Tura in north-east India.

“People say it’s so romantic”, he says. Honestly, I hate stories like this, and I can’t believe the BBC has dropped its standards so low as to publish yet another white man-meets-‘tribal’ girl-girl’s family object-but they live happily ever after in the end sort of staple you find in cheap tabloids or mail order bride agency success stories. Tales of intermarriage such as this are always imbalanced, because it is always told from the man’s point of view, who is always white. This is because the women involved are unlikely to speak his language fluently enough to express their innermost thoughts, and because it’s likely that she is poor and uneducated. What makes their love story newsworthy has largely to do with where the woman is from. In this case (in a David Attenborough voice), from the remote Garo hills nestled in the north-eastern Indian state of Meghalaya. They have a daughter together, Amazonia, because she’s like, from the jungle, and all jungles are like all the same y’know, whether it’s in India or South America. But it gets much worse:

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