Thursday, 26 June 2008


Nostalgia over the 80s hasn't visited me for a while, but now I want my teenage years back. With a vengeance.

Who remembers Eddy Grant? Who remembers UB40? Do you know that they're still touring? Most of my 80s stuff is on vinyl I've passed on to someone who still possesses a record player, the cassettes are in awful shape in the outdoor storage. But luckily there's YouTube, where I made a discovery: many Eddy Grant and UB40 videos are there. I'm getting my childhood and teenage years back.

Eddy surely knows how to shake. Some of his videos contain just the typical heterosexual romance gone sour (eg. "I don't wanna dance", "Romancing the Stone"), but I felt a strange affinity with the past when watching "Electric Avenue", in which he angrily poses on the livingroom couch watching TV news and commenting, commenting. It's a frightfully serious piece of music, which dislocates me totally, being used to the MTV stream of shaking asses in my own livingroom, uncritically consumed by the kids. I wonder where such artists have disappeared. Some come up live at alternative festivals, but do they make videos for international distribution?

I also find other evidence of his political interests, he has been a fan of Lech Walesa and interviewed him for British TV in Poland. Into the gigantic meaning of "Gimme Hope Joanna" I don't want to plunge right now, surely South Africans can explain it better. But the song as such is still empowering, it lives its own life in our hearts and minds, globally and locally.

Lately, I've almost become an Eddy Grant ambassador. Very few people know the artist, and even my knowledge on him is mostly based on internet surfing. But it would do the soul wonders to see Eddy performing live. This is my next goal. Definitely.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Play dough on my Lego bricks

Goodness. Next week I should present a paper on cultural studies pedagogy at the Crossroads conference on Jamaica. I've wanted to write about this for a long time -my problems between many teachers', including myself, anarchistic anything goes-attitude and the students' inner desire for structure in the curriculum and in the classroom.

My irritation and enthusiasm combined is probably best condensed in what the British media culture people have presented: cultural theory as Lego brick constructions

Another thing that shouldn't come as a surprise, but to naive people like me always does, is how certain theorists are treated as rockstars. I have always had a soft spot for the writings of Slavoj Zizek, on one hand his celebrations of joystick culture and on the other his fierce critique of postmodern consumerism. His writing style has been called "hyperkinetic" and is definitely spiced by his tendency to develop panic attacks. In many interviews I've recently read about him the common thread is wonder about how his emotional insecurity transforms onto theoretical brilliance in sold-out lecture sessions world wide.

Today I discovered that his fame in Argentina, due to his marriage to a former lingerie model from Buenos Aires, has even produced a new genre of music called Zizek:

After hearing this, there's a stubborn layer of play dough on my theoretical Lego bricks. Wonder if the paper ever materializes.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

New feminist science fiction

A crazy trip to Stockholm last weekend.

The best it produced was enchantment at Junibacken's story train and a visit to Gamlastan's Science Fiction Bookstore.

I found an old short story collection by Ursula Le Guin and an impulse buy that turned out to be the hit I was secretly expecting to find.

Sarah Hall (b.1975) is already author of three novels, out of which the latest, Daughters of the North (2007, in the UK, The Carhullan Army) is closest to the genre of sci-fi. The two earlier novels, seen from a glance at Amazon, seem more like historical magical realism.

Hall's writing is "dystopian", in the sense that it deals with likely futures gone sour and wrong. It is a story of totalitarianism, ecocatastrophes, terrorism, feminism, states of emergency that prevail for years, even centuries. One is reminded of Orwell and Atwood, yet Hall is able to find a style of her own, a voice that is not fan fiction by a copy cat but a genuine new opening in feminist sci-fi.

I would love to teach a course on ecofeminism, based on a reading of Hall. Contrary to many Goddess-inspired thinkers, she doesn't idealize women's closeness with nature, but tries to find a critical stance to analyse current alternative movements.

Hall portrays an isolated community of feminists, who have left the mainstream society that leads a life of national emergency. Britain is filled with trans-Atlantic right-wing Evangelist propaganda. "The brand was Blessed Friends. The American and British flags flew in opposite directions from the same flagpole and there was a small prayer printed next to the ingredients."(32)

The Carhullan women are farmers and they keep a smaller community of men at the outskirts of their farm, with which some women have free relationships and also kids. In the mainstream society, all sexuality is monitored by the state and only the lucky ones win at the baby lottery. Otherwise women are forced to use a primitive coil, which causes complications in most of them. "All I could think about was the doctor, who rubbed cool lubricant inside me, inserting the speculum and attaching the device as efficiently as a farmer clipping the ear of one of his herd." (28)

The Carhullan Army has disappeared from the national census, opted out from healthcare and food packages. They are still able to live a life of relative luxury. This means locally produced food and freedom to choose whether or not to have children.

Ideologically, things start deterioriating also at Carhullan, and the protagonist Sister as a latecomer is the only one able to see clearly the power relations between the women. The novel is primarily about the inner mechanisms of a fringe community, women's power to create and destroy, and political will to oppose a system, whatever that might currently be. It is one of the most political pieces I've read for ages, as it really opens up the question of agency under states of emergency. One is creepily warned, shaken and woken up to think about the years ahead. One should never leave the reading of this novel to private consumption, but this is something that should be shared, discussed and challenged.

The only problem I had with Hall's writing was a tendency I also notice in my own texts. She writes overtly long descriptive passages and uses dialogue only minimally. At times, the narration starts to resemble an overcooked porridge. Otherwise, at the general level, the storyline holds itself together, it manages to create an intensive web of meaning that doesn't let the reader go too easily. I would only expect more rhythm in the weaving of the story. More silences, more pauses, more simple sentence structures.

In a recent interview, Sarah Hall said she wanted to create an alternative to chick lit that is focused on women's obsession with the fat on their thighs. I would claim that in her universe fat is something quite precious - a sign of being pampered and worry-free, but also totally marginal. I am reading this as the food prices are rocketing and at the same time the morning papers are full of panicky stories of Nordic overweight children.

Another form of already existing fascism is a diet camp for schoolkids. The Carhullan Army conditions seem quite innocent and sympathetic if compared to that.

Monday, 16 June 2008

On Karelianism, feminism and stale egg-butter

I have recently joined a book club, and one of our passionate themes is Finnish women's writing focusing on Karelia. Last time we discussed with fervour three novels by Kaari Utrio: Vaskilintu (The Bronze Bird, 1993), Viipurin kaunotar (The Beauty of Viborg, 1972) and Piritta Karjalan tytär (Piritta the Daughter of Karelia, 1971). Not all of us had read them, but who cares, the coverage was lively and we managed to find the raunchy scenes anyway. All men seemed to have rough hands and a burning need to rip down the ladies' elaborate dresses. All sense was lost when desire was burning in the loins. We would have appreciated scenes with more ambivalence and even minor attempts to break down the heterosexual matrix, but this didn't seem to happen. Kaari calls herself a feminist and she is also an ambitious scholar of all things medieval, so we were disappointed by the psychological flatness with which she portrays men and women. So now she is a closed chapter in our club's genealogy. Time to move on towards new challenges.

But there's another author whose works keep haunting me, Eeva Kilpi. She recently gave a deep and thought-provoking interview to Mark Levengood on TV. Even this is telling of her case: her texts have inspired Mark, a gay Swedish-speaking man struggling with his identity in the 1980s monocultural Finland. Eeva's texts are not as obvious as Kaari's, she has always written boldly about sexual taboos, and in her sex scenes nothing is perfect or predictable. I have particularly enjoyed her poetry, but before this month I have never had the nerve to approach her prose.

Now I am one and a half novel wiser. I began with her latest novel of old age, Unta vain (Just a Dream, 2007). It is a narrative of polyamory, thematically not remote from Jennifer Fox's documentary series I reviewed some months back. The 78-year-old protagonist escapes from Canada and a marriage to a Canadian man to her country cottage in Finland to solve her identity problems. Kilpi uses plainer language and less Karelian dialect in this one than in the earlier texts. Philosophically, the text's simplicity even resembles Marguerite Duras' spartan sentences. The theme of a woman alone in her faraway hiding place, keeping house and managing her life through shopping lists, is also quite Duras-esque. Both women have produced brilliant studies of solitude and the conditions of leading a creative life.

The other novel by Kilpi, Elämän evakkona (Evacuated from Life, 1983), is perhaps her most known and prized work. Here her main contradiction as a writer becomes apparent: on one hand she is an avantgarde feminist writer of her generation, writing openly about sexuality, lifestyle choices, alternatives to common Finnishness, and on the other hand, she is unashamedly pro-Karelian, nationalist and nostalgically mythological about the past. She dares say: Bring us back Karelia, and confesses her hard feelings towards the Russians. For sure, it is her war-time generation's right to speak up about the past, and it is this split between the postmodern and the pre-modern that interests me. She almost ignores modernity - the instant cultural jump from simple farming life to vegan hippie multiculturalist pacifism is what interests me most in this text.

I was reading Elämän evakkona aloud to my family in a car at the weekend. Poor sods. There were all the clichés about Karelian food fads, the stale egg-butter, homemade jams, rice pastries that were left in the oven for Russians to eat, potato kettles that were still boiling, the ravaged kitchen gardens. And also, the eternal myth of the packed bags - how anyone with a Karelian background cannot travel without a few too many, in case the trip extends and a return home is no longer possible. One always has to carry the egg-butter too. I partly belong to this party, and I am not aware of roots behind the border. Only North Karelian roots, which is not interesting - these people never left anywhere, they don't share the same sense of drama as the evakko people have shared.

I wonder if one can claim Karelian roots as a sympathy vote, and if there is a Karelian feminist single mother's club one could attend, after I've done my compulsory readings.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Who was Maitreyi Devi?

Today I am curious about something I read about a long ago but forgot, Romanian anthropologist Mircea Eliade's (1907-1986) book Bengali Nights (1994) that was published in English only after her beloved Maitreyi Devi's (1914-1990) death.

Maitreyi was Tagore's discipline in Kolkata, who got involved with the Western scholar, and also herself a promising intellectual, poet and social activist. Eliade came to study with Maitreyi's father in Kolkata in 1930, and because of the tremendous trust the father had on her genius daughter, 16 at the time, he let her study together with the 23-year old university man from Europe.

Maitreyi and Mircea's knowing was not long and apparently did not proceed to sexual intimacy, yet Mircea took the liberty to write about the sexual fantasies Maitreyi's presence caused in him. He had published some of it in French, and Maitreyi only found out about this at the mature age of 57. She was then married and a woman of prominence. I read that she even took the trouble of travelling to the US to meet Eliade to discuss the feelings she had when finding out about the revelations in French. Eliade had then promised he will not publish any more on the topic during Maitreyi's lifetime.

In 1974, Maitreyi published her own version of the affair in Bengali, Na Hanyate (title refers to the soul that cannot be killed). She translated it in English too under the name It Does Not Die. What I gather from the reviews, it seems a more sober and analytical account of the love affair, full of analyses of Bengali society, family relations and the position of educated women.

All this tells something also about anthropology: Western anthropologists have often used their personal habitus to charm their informants, and proceeded to the level of intimacy that allows deeper knowledge to be gained. I do not doubt that Mircea Eliade's enchantment with brilliant and beautiful Maitreyi was not real, but what he did with their relationship after leaving India sounds like colonialist robbery. Ginu Kamani writes about the "terrible hurt" Maitreyi faced, but it is also a tale about talking back and responding in ways that may be quite unusual for an Indian woman to use.

There is no way of denying Maitreyi's full subjectivity in this decades-long saga. She became a Tagore scholar herself and travelled to the University of Chicago, where Eliade worked at the time to give a lecture. She had appeared at his office unannounced and found blankness in his eyes where love had once been. Her husband had encouraged her to do this. In many ways, she seems like a woman who was in control of her life, and was not afraid to face possible emotional turbulence. In the 2000s globalizing world led by American ways of conflict resolution, the only imaginable solution I can think of is an expensive trial. All prominent Finnish celebrities and especially wannabe ones love doing it too, so why not Indians?

Love doesn't have "informants", but anthropology always does. Good fiction doesn't have "informants" either. The possibility of someone becoming hurt should always be eliminated, it's one of the basic tasks of the writer. This is a very curious case, when looking at the book covers I am surprised by the similar layouts. Wonder if this love anyhow has the power to survive somewhere in the sphere of immortal souls? After all the dramaturgy and literary gossip, this is still an enchanting tale about transnationalism.