Saturday, 16 November 2019

Is my autism a superpower?

Greta Thunberg, Chris Packham, Jack Monroe and others credit their Asperger’s with giving them the focus to get things done. Here, poet, writer and ‘autist’ Joanne Limburg wonders if the condition has helped her, too

When I heard Greta Thunberg say that being different was a superpower, I had to replay her saying it. Several times. I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at 42 and, seven years on, I’m still far from sure what that means. Are those of us with autistic spectrum conditions disabled or different? Are we, by definition, deficient human beings, or are there compensations that come with our condition? Are there any circumstances in which autism could be considered, not merely an acceptable difference, but a superpower?

Thunberg’s comment some two months ago was her robust response to commentators who had sought to use her Asperger’s to discredit her, claiming she must be a nave puppet and calling her a “weirdo” with a “monotone voice”. She wrote: “I have Asperger’s and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And – given the right circumstances – being different is a superpower. #aspiepower.”
 ‘Given the right circumstances, being different is a superpower’: Greta Thunberg outside the White House. Photograph: Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

As a fellow autist, I find myself stuck in the middle of these two incompatible views: on the one hand, autistic people are disturbed, naïve individuals who are incapable of knowing their own minds or speaking credibly; on the other, autistic people are superhumans with a preternatural ability to see the truth of things and to articulate it without equivocation. The world would be better without us; the world would be lost without us.

Food writer and campaigner Jack Monroe, too, has written that learning to harness her own autistic traits has enabled her to see them “as a kind of superpower”. Novelist Katherine May is more ambiguous: “My autism brings some things I really value – the flood of words I experience, the ability to fixate on a subject and burrow deep into it, and an intense relationship with the natural world. But there are other bits I’d get rid of. I break things and hurt myself all the time; and I hate the way that I don’t remember faces and so come across as rude.”

Charlotte Moore, who has written about bringing up two autistic sons with high support needs, told me: “I don’t see my sons’ autism as a disability, exactly. In the right environment, they can (and mainly do) lead happy, healthy lives. So I prefer the word ‘difference’ to ‘disability’.” She continued: “Can autism be a superpower? Probably, yes, in a few cases – some autistic people do have extreme abilities – but the popular belief that all autistic people are really geniuses isn’t helpful to parents or carers struggling with autistic people with no speech and self-harming behaviours, meltdowns or sensory overload.”

When I received my own diagnosis, I wanted to find out what it meant. I learned that Asperger’s syndrome is a controversial condition, sometimes set apart from other forms of autism. Since 2013 it has no longer been recognised as a stand-alone diagnosis in the United States, now falling under the umbrella term autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but it still is in the UK.
 ‘Would non-autistic me ever have had the focus to persevere in the isolating, all-consuming business of writing?’ Joanne Limburg. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

The opposing views of autism – disability or difference – may owe their origins to two different models of autism outlined by two different psychiatrists. On the one hand, there is Leo Kanner’s autism, first described in the US in the late 1940s. It is characterised by repetitive movement, little or no speech and high support needs. On the other hand, there is Asperger’s syndrome, named after Hans Asperger, the child psychologist and eugenicist who published the first definition of the condition in 1944, describing the children he encountered in his clinic in wartime Vienna as “little professors”. He famously said: “It seems that for success in science and art, a dash of autism is essential.”

For a long time, it was the Kanner view that prevailed. Autism was considered a severe disability – and a rare one. Then, in 1976, the British psychiatrist Lorna Wing coined the term Asperger’s syndrome and a new group of patients – mostly children, overwhelmingly male – began to receive this diagnosis. Autism is no longer considered rare. According to the National Autistic Society, just over 1% of the population is autistic. Other estimates are higher.

 Learning to harness her autistic traits has enabled her to see them ‘as a kind of superpower’: Jack Monroe. Photograph: Nic Serpell-Rand/Rex/Shutterstock
Although Asperger’s syndrome is no longer recognised in the United States, there are people who have grown up with it as their identity and they are sticking with it. Others have abandoned it in favour of the broader ASD. Controversy over Hans Asperger’s possible involvement in the Nazis’ eugenics programme led some to drop the term. Many, like me, use autism and Asperger’s interchangeably. I usually define myself as “autistic”, because I don’t recognise any essential difference between myself and non-speaking autistic people.

I tried to figure out what autism might explain in my own life, including some of its negative aspects. I’d had long experience of depression, anxiety and OCD. Had they arisen directly from a glitchy abnormal brain? Had they come about as a response to the adverse life experiences that accompany any difference, or might hypothetical non-autistic me have had them, too? And what about the more positive aspects? Would non-autistic me ever have had the focus or determination to persevere in the financially insecure, isolating, all-consuming business of writing?

I have always loved words and books. At the age of three, I would take my whole library to bed with me. My mother described me as a “not very childish” child, who preferred to talk to adults rather than other children. When I was nine, a teacher read a poem I’d written to the class, and I decided then and there to be a writer. That was a rare happy moment at primary school. Like many parents of autistic children, my parents found themselves with a child that mainstream education refused to accommodate. Their solution (not one open to everybody) was to re-mortgage the house and send me to private school. For my parents, my autism, literally, came at a great cost.

If I picture myself at Thunberg’s age, I see certain similarities. I was idealistic, passionate about what I believed, blunt in the expression of my ideas. I was uninterested in makeup or any other aspect of what my mother called “making the best of myself”. I was a vegetarian, because two years earlier Morrissey had said that meat was murder. I didn’t go in much for what people think of as normal teenage socialising. Instead, I pursued my own interests – and I pursued them single-mindedly.

 An audience of one: comedian Hannah Gadsby finds it easier to speak in public than in private. Photograph: Michael Buckner/Rex/Shutterstock
My passions were writing, the Beatles and feminism. I read my way through the Women’s Studies section of Edgware Library, and passed The Female Eunuch round the sixth form at my all-girls’ school, to raise the consciousness of the sisterhood. I announced to my mother that I was not going to go to university, because to do so would only mean following a patriarchal curriculum. Mum told me to stop being so silly. I went to university, but I took Greer and De Beauvoir with me.

So that was how I was 33 years ago: intellectually curious, idealistic and articulate. I could even be funny sometimes, but I was also intense and sullen, with few social graces. Asperger’s wasn’t available to me as a diagnosis in the 1980s, but people found other words for me. They said “moody” and “difficult’ or “thinks too much”. I still find it painfully difficult to maintain a conversation with more than one or two people at once. I have to overcome a wagon-load of inertia in order to clean my teeth, wash and dress. On a bad day, it seems to me that everything I have managed to do as an adult – earn money, find a partner, raise a child – has only been possible because I have learned to suppress my autism.

But that’s not to say I see no advantages. Like Greta Thunberg and the comedian Hannah Gadsby, I find public speaking easier than casual conversation. In her brilliant Ted talk, Gadsby asks how she can be so good at something – talking – she knows she is so bad at. The answer is that standup has none of the pitfalls conversation brings for autistic people. When she is on stage, Gadsby does not have to listen as well as speak, she does not have to figure out how to respond to what she hears, she does not have to do all the exhausting parallel processing that an autistic person has to consciously engage in during everyday conversation. She has figured out what she wants to say and she can just say it, without distraction or interruption. Perfect.

And I can add from personal experience, that when you have to perform almost every time you interact, performing in front of 1,000 people isn’t very different to performing in front of three. To a non-autistic person, who finds conversation easy but public speaking unnerving, this may well look like a superpower.

Another trait that we have on our side is the intensity of focus with which we pursue our passions. Chris Packham, naturalist and environmentalist and ambassador for the National Autistic Society, explained how the strength of his sensory response to the world around him enables him to “engage with the natural world with greater clarity and ease”. Packham said that from an early age, he could “see things which others couldn’t in nature”.

 From an early age he could ‘see things which others couldn’t in nature’: Chris Packham. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images
There is a third trait associated with Asperger’s syndrome that Packham shares with Thunberg and which makes them both such effective activists. It is a certain moral single-mindedness, sometimes pathologised as “rigidity of thought”, but at other times framed more positively as “a strong sense of justice”. Thunberg has spoken of her ability to see things “in black and white” – for her, this is not rigidity, but clarity. Autistic people, in general, feel the pull of the truth more powerfully than we do the pull of fitting in. We are not inclined to accept reassurance that has no facts behind it.

Sometimes I do pretend to accept it. I’ve changed since I was a teenager: softened, become more pragmatic. It makes me easier to get on with, but when I watch Thunberg, I wonder what I might have done if I hadn’t spent so much energy learning how to smile when I talked.

I asked Steve Silberman, author of NeuroTribes: the Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, whether he agreed with Thunberg. “Autism,” he said, “is a disability that can have advantages in the right situation, and with the right support. Greta’s intense focus and disregard for others’ opinions of her are ‘superpowers’ in that they help her ignore the fossil-fuel industry’s lies, take on the facts of climate change, and organise her peers to change the world.”

Perhaps we can change the world, if we don’t let it change us too much. Packham has suggested that: “Humanity has prospered because of people with autistic traits. Without them, we wouldn’t have put a man on the Moon or be running software programmes. If we wiped out all the autistic people on the planet, I don’t know how much longer the human race would last.”

At the same time, there are some autistic people who see no advantage in it, and would gladly take a cure. There are some parents so desperate to believe in a cure that they put their faith in bogus treatments, sometimes with terrible consequences.

So, what do I have – a disability or a difference? I asked developmental psychologist Professor Uta Frith the question: “Both points of view are valid and should be respected,” she told me. “We might avoid confusion by dividing the spectrum into subgroups, but where the boundaries would be is far from clear. We need more research to tell us what autism really is.”

There’s no telling where the boundaries are between a person’s autism and the autistic person. As far as I can tell, everything I am, I am autistically. If you took the autism away you would take me with it. And, regardless of whether autistic people have superpowers or not, when the world gives us the support we need, we thrive, and give the best of ourselves in return. You’ve not seen the best of us yet.

(Source: The Guardian)

Friday, 15 November 2019

6-year-old Nigerian girl Jare Ijalana dubbed as the ‘most beautiful girl in the world’

Three portraits of Jare Ijalana have garnered nearly 50,000 likes and thousands of comments on Instagram A photogenic five-year-old from Nigeria has been dubbed the world’s “most beautiful girl” after portraits of her went viral on social media. Official images of Jare Ijalana were shared on Instagram and Twitter by photographer Mofe Bamuyiwa last week. “Oh yes, she’s human! She’s also an angel!” the Lagos camerawoman captioned one of the portraits of Jare.

With piercing eyes, beautiful complexion and gorgeous hair, the child is being revered as “doll-like,” “true work of art” and “absolutely stunning.” The three portraits of Jare have garnered nearly 50,000 likes and thousands of comments on Instagram. “I want to portray the interception between her childhood and adulthood so both stay timeless!” Bamuyiwa captioned another shot of Jare.

“I could have made her smile and make her laugh out loud but I put her in their natural moments for us to see through their eyes!” Bamuyiwa added, “Posing them as adults were my trick to create it a timeless portrait! Jare, when you clock 21 remember to do the same pose and style.” And Jare isn’t the only one in her family to be an up-and-coming model.

Her sisters Jomi, 7, and Joba, 10, have also posed for Bamuyiwa’s camera and the siblings are also featured on their family’s social media pages. “All I want is for everyone to see Jare’s powerful potential,” Bamuyiwa told Yahoo Lifestyle on Tuesday. “I want the photo to speak to her when she has reached her adulthood.”

The viral “most beautiful girl in the world” movement first started back in the early 2010s after France’s Thylane Blondeau, now 17, was called “the most beautiful girl in the world” at age 6, leading to her photos to be published in Paris Vogue‘s Vogue Enfants years later.

(Source: Zebnow)

Thursday, 14 November 2019

A letter to… my daughter who has 47 chromosomes

‘You say little, but your presence is immense. You reinforce the essential simplicities of life’

Almost 30 years ago, you exploded into our lives. Exploded is an appropriate term because we had no warning about your condition. It is fair to say that I was devastated. I felt I had been catapulted into a world in which I did not want to belong.

My early memories of that time are painful. I remember a nursing assistant in the hospital picking you up from your cot without permission and announcing, “Ooh, I love Down’s babies!” Well-wishers looked at me pitifully as they asked, “Didn’t you have the test?”

They were dark times and it was not an easy transition, but your older sister, who was two when you were born, welcomed and adored you. Your younger brother was born two years later and then, after three more years, there was another sister for you. Family life was chaotic. There were a lot of fun times, but also embarrassment and frustration, such as the time you took off your clothes in a department store, or flushed your sister’s makeup down the toilet.
 ‘My early memories of that time are painful.’ Image posed by models. Illustration: Guardian Design/Getty

Your learning disability is such that you have no spontaneous language and require 24-hour supervision and support. Your additional needs demand a rigid structure and routine.

Your brother and sisters have now grown up and live in their own homes. Your dad and I got divorced, an unfortunate casualty, in part, of the pressures of raising a disabled child. You are living with me, still enjoying Postman Pat and Disney.

I wonder how you make sense of all the changes? I know your quiet acceptance masks a much deeper understanding of human nature than any of us could hope to achieve. Your dad and I enjoy a good relationship now and he continues to be a big part of your life. Your siblings are always popping in for an audience, and an essential hug from you. You say little, but your presence is immense. You are their counsellor and their mentor. For them, you reinforce the essential simplicities of life, things we often lose in the chaos and mundanity of everyday existence.

The positive contribution you have brought to our lives is immeasurable, and that extra chromosome I so despised in the early days of your life is now revered, with gratitude, as an integral feature of the wonderful person to whom it belongs: you.

You are the glue that binds our unique, amazing family together. I feel privileged to be your mum.

(Source: The Guardian)

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

18 Shades of Black: The Indian women using fashion to challenge tradition

Black, which has ruled the global fashion landscape for decades, has never been dominant in traditional Indian clothing. But now Indian sari designer Sharmila Nair is using the colour to make a forceful political and feminist statement, writes the BBC's Geeta Pandey in Delhi.

Ms Nair's campaign, 18 Shades of Black, has 18 women, draped in beautiful black saris designed by her, talking about the subtle gender discrimination they face in their daily lives.

Ms Nair calls these "unseen restrictions" because they are made to feel so normal, so natural, that quite often women start to place these limitations on themselves.
Sowmya Radha Vidyadhar is a poet and writer MIDHUN DIVAKAR

The campaign, Ms Nair told the BBC, was inspired by last year's protests in the southern state of Kerala after the Supreme Court revoked a ban on women of menstruating age from entering the Sabarimala temple, one of the holiest Hindu shrines.

Hinduism regards menstruating women as unclean and so they were historically banned from entering the temple.

Ms Nair said she was "shocked" by the large number of women who joined the protests.

Thus was born 18 Shades of Black - 18 because there are that many steps in the Sabarimala shrine, and black because that's the colour all devotees wear.

Indu Jayaram says she realised much later in life that your skin colour can be behind discrimination
"We are told we are impure during our periods, and we buy into these ideas. Even now I have friends who would voluntarily stay away from visiting a temple or participating in religious rituals during their periods," says Ms Nair.

"So I thought if so many women can fight for the rights of a deity, why can't they fight for the rights of women? And I thought if so many women came together, imagine the kind of changes they can bring about."

This subtle conditioning of the mind, she says, starts in early childhood.

"We are told boys and girls are different, girls don't talk or laugh loudly. In villages, even today, girls are encouraged to study humanities, not medicine or engineering.

"There is a lot of emphasis on marriage and having children. For instance, in many parts of India, the moment you turn 18, your family will start talking about fixing your marriage. And once you're married, they'll start asking when you're going to have a child. And once you have a child, they'll start asking when you're going to have the next one.

"We internalise these restrictions. We talk about women's empowerment, but in our daily lives we submit to these curbs unquestioningly," she says, adding: "I'm trying to address these unseen restrictions."

Interior designer Smitha Naik says the campaign uses clothes to talk about issues that are important to the wider population. MIDHUN DIVAKAR
Actor and dancer Anumol says she fought her family to pursue a career in dance MIDHUN DIVAKAR
The campaign uses fashion to challenge faith, questioning outdated beliefs that are perpetuated by a society steeped in patriarchy.

It tackles issues like body shaming, discrimination on the basis of skin colour, early marriage, stigma around menstruation, caste discrimination, patriarchy and even a lack of clean toilets for women.

Finding women to participate in the campaign, says Ms Nair, was not easy.

"I spoke to 80-90 women and I heard very compelling personal stories, but most were not willing to go on record. They were worried because of the controversy over the Sabarimala issue. They told me they were afraid how it would be moulded, how it would be received by the larger society."

But then these "18 wonderful women" came forward, willing to talk about the restrictions they faced and how they stood up to them.

Her models are "women of substance", they include a lawyer, an actor, a poet, a psychologist, writers and office workers, a homemaker and a techie.

Writer Lekshmy Rajeev says society places a huge burden on women to always be good MIDHUN DIVAKAR 
In the videos that Ms Nair has uploaded on social media, we hear powerful personal stories.

Remya Saseendran, a writer and development communications specialist, says she was brought up to believe that motherhood was non-negotiable, and that there was something wrong with her because she didn't want to be a mother.

"But as I grew older, I realised that a lot of these expectations were imposed from outside... and I realised that motherhood really doesn't at all have to be the identity of a woman. Motherhood is a choice, just as not being a mother is a choice," she says.

Psychologist and lactation consultant Swati Jagadeesh talks about the "toxic relationship" she had with her mother and how she found it difficult to share anything with her.

"So I want my child to trust me. She should have the confidence to tell me anything under the sky," she says, and adds: "My mother taught me how not to be a mother."

Remya Saseendran says she was brought up to believe that there was something wrong with her because she didn't want to be a mother MIDHUN DIVAKAR
Interior designer Smitha Naik, who is featured in one of the videos, tells the BBC that the campaign uses clothes to talk about issues that are important to the wider population.

In her video, Ms Naik is seen talking about the unflattering way in which women drivers are perceived and the bullying they face on the roads and says that these are issues that need to be talked about continuously.

"It doesn't end with one campaign or one protest."

Fashion and creative art, she says, can be effectively used to convey important messages, the sort that 18 Shades of Black is trying to do.

"There's a popular saying that when you draw a line, you're not just drawing a line, you're changing the universe. By wearing black, we are trying to send a message that just like the Sabarimala pilgrims, it is our colour too. We are also entitled to it. We are also an equal part of this society. We are also part of this sea of black."

(Source: BBC)

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Letting go of Othello

Though it is not usually characterized as such, Shakespeare’s Othello is a “problem play,” one doubly so. There’s just enough carnival to render its status as tragedy troubling, despite the emphatic announcement of its full title, The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. In the final chapter of his Shakespeare’s Festive World, François Laroque excavates the festivity and festivities that undergird and undermine Othello’s darkness, showing how even the lyric richness of Othello’s speech has an air of pestilent farce, just as the depth of his pain is rooted in and by Iago’s brutal comic energy. Moreover, that Othello is a moor of Venice means that the problem of the color line, which W. E. B. Du Bois locates in the twentieth century at its outset, is a problem of the centuries, whether we are talking about the seventeenth, twentieth, or twenty-first.

And it’s not so much that Shakespeare has given an early articulation of the Negro Problem; it’s that, instead, he has given Negroes a problem. There’s some shit we have to deal with in the wake of this play, a toxic atmosphere with which we must contend. The greatness of the play is not lessened by its being thus problematic; and this is because, rather than in spite, of how that greatness is bound up with the intense and gorgeous flatulence the play produces and gives off and plays with, its author slyly glancing at someone or other of us, asking, Did you cut that one? Often, as if in payment for the dis/honor of being so addressed, because look how good and how horrific it is to be addressed at all, we’ve taken responsibility for Shakespeare’s ill wind, embracing it like a sail, or riding it like a wing, in the interest of some outward or upward mobility—which is to say, nobility—that it can only seize, not send. So that the terribly beautiful, evilly compounded genius of it is that what we are constrained to do with Othello when we enact him is act like him.

White fantasies of blackness underwrite both the play and its main character such that Othello’s dignity—given in an insistence upon his dignity that renders him all but absolutely undignified—becomes the charge of a series of great black performers, from Ira Aldridge to Laurence Fishburne. Part of the respectability they would bring to and find in both character and play resides in their refusal to allow, from instance to instance in the more recent history of the play’s production, the character to be portrayed by a white actor in blackface, particularly insofar as such an actor might succumb to the tempting imperative to reveal the Moor as dupe and as duplicitous. Tragedy ought not be let to fall into comic foolishness, especially when black folks and our dignity are involved, by way of the indignities of voluntary conscription. It’s not that tragedy doesn’t so fall from time to time in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, whether in what folks are wont to call tragedy proper or in various comical or historical or comical historical excursions into the realm of the tragic, as when Polonius breaks the law of genre when he would recite it, or in Hamlet’s all-but-slapstick inability to act, or the silliness of Richard of Bordeaux’s sadness; it’s just that in those cases it is generally assumed to have nothing to do with us either in Hamlet’s or Richard II’s themes or casting, Shakespeare’s invention of the human, there, being not but nothing other than his invention of whiteness, too.

Isn’t it absolutely appropriate, then, that a white actor should enact, and be thoughtfully responsible for, a white fantasy of blackness? But that’s just a black fantasy of whiteness and its mythic capabilities. Wherever and whenever we are, black performers of Othello can’t simply allow him to be a lying fool like every other human subject. Interestingly, this is part of the logic driving an equally impressive line of black actors’ refusal to embody the Moor that stretches from Sidney Poitier to Harry Lennix. Either way, black folks are enjoined to take responsibility for white fantasy and solve a problem not of their own making.


Because he is so clearly in love with Othello, whose power to seduce is given in that he is both impossible to love and not to love, Chris Ofili responds to him by beautifully and brilliantly declining to take responsibility for him. Because of this, Ofili’s portraits of Othello, which somehow incorporate both performative enactment and nonperformative refusal, might open up new pathways in the history of Othello’s portrayal. When we consider the double valence of the word “portray,” as the act congeals into an artist’s portrait or is dispersed in an actor’s portrayal, things clear up in the blurring of the line between thing and event. What does it mean to portray Othello when the beauty of the language of that role, or the depth of human feeling it bears, is still filtered through the protocols of blackface no matter who plays it? “One” who has never been conferred the status of one, in spite of having the imperative to be one mercilessly imposed upon “him,” is compelled to search for, draw forth, extract, pluck out the mystery of a character who is, as Frantz Fanon would say, enslaved to his appearance.

To portray is already to activate a range of rigorous attention to the presentation of the self which is not one, all across the sensual register of its surfaces, in the service of drawing or drawing out the mysterious depths of the inapparent. But what are the protocols for portraying a character who is always so clearly acting, so consciously performing, so emphatically disappearing? What is there in this role beyond oratorical expression, particularly insofar as it seems to have been devised to do nothing so much as constitute the occasion for that question? And how can the product of such devising be envisaged? Can Othello be given a face, or can his face be found, and saved, if that face is black or blackened? It is as if the role that instantiates the irreducible question concerning the superficiality of the “role” had to have been filtered through what Fanon calls “a racial epidermal schema.” Is there, or can there be, an experience of Othello that lies, as it were, underneath the surface that will have been Othello’s occasion? Could such an experience transcend the limits of its occasion? Is there anything other than a lie lying beneath Othello’s skin? How one might draw that, or draw that out, is a practical aesthetic question whose utterance, along with every other one of its procedures for solution, hides and presupposes the question concerning a violent ethics of extraction.

Is it right to marshal the forces of composition, improvisation, and interpretation to get at the soul of Othello? Of course, this surreptitious question bears and hides another: Does Othello, who is given as a function of surface made over to servility’s enactment of nobility, have a soul? Does Shakespeare offer soul or a profound and problematic soullessness in Othello? And what does it mean when the one who is sent to find/extract that soul is constrained also to provide it? At stake is individuation’s vacancy, which is different from its failure. What if the problem is not that Othello suffers (from) that impurity, of which Fanon writes, that infests or interdicts the worldview of the colonized but, rather, that he suffers from and in such impurity’s absence? What if blackface is required to reveal this perfect vacuum, a poverty which, then, black actors are enjoined to alleviate whether they play Othello or not? Then, Othello is pursued while in the guise of the pursuer. Eloquent, reticent suit is his livery; his habit is given in the arrogant pride of every humble act of speech before the seigniory, by whom he is insatiably wanted. ’Tis strange, ’tis passing strange, ’tis pitiful, ’tis wondrous pitiful, this unvarnished vanishing he undertakes if, in fact, there is no soul within Othello’s house, which is his language. In this case, Twelfth Night’s Olivia is Othello’s imperfect, anticipatory analogue; and this question of suit, pursuit, and merely seeming arises again, all the way down to the echoic oohs and ohs, like the babbling gossip of the air, which their hollow presences generate. Remember how, in drag, Viola answers a question posed by Olivia, who would be wooed by her, about how she would be wooed by her? In response, Viola declares, while wooing Olivia on Orsino’s behalf, a subjunctive intention to violate Olivia, the beloved of the one she serves, and loves, that she would:

Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house.
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night.
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out “Olivia!” Oh, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me.

Similarly, we are and would be pierced by the opulent confusion of air and wound in Othello’s wooing. We are, along with Desdemona, enveloped in the penetrative depth of his sounding and, like her, are compelled to give, in return, a world of sighs, which Ofili converts to something visible in the curvaceous drawing and drawing out of his portrait. He who would portray Othello must so pursue that constantly unsatisfied suitor in order to attain the empty individuation they must share, expose, and so disperse. In this regard, “portray” carries “betray” like some extra baggage. This touches upon the tricky changing of suit to which Othello confesses when he relates the courtship of his bride. In telling the state the story of how he played his cards right with Desdemona, Othello—always cognizant of the need to regulate the way it wants him—plays, again, his cards right with the state; in narrating his pursuit of Desdemona, which consists of inducing her pursuit of him, Othello’s consent is revealed as the demure function of his own design:

……………………….These things to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline.
But still the house affairs would draw her thence,
Which ever as she could with haste dispatch
She’d come again, and with a greedy ear
Devour up my discourse. Which I, observing,
Took once a pliant hour, and found good means
To draw from her a prayer of earnest heart
That I would all my pilgrimage dilate,
Whereof by parcels she had something heard,
But not intentively. I did consent,
And often did beguile her of her tears
When I did speak of some distressful stroke
That my youth suffered. My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.
She swore, in faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange,
’Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful.
She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished
That heaven had made her such a man. She thanked me,
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story,
And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake.

Consider what it is to have drawn from the object of one’s desire a prayer for one’s own consent; consider the ethics of such mutual beguiling and pursuit in suited semblance, against the grain of any notion of suitability even in chaste ceremonies of talking and listening, which renders soul vulnerable, achievable in all her movement inside and outside the house, to the rhythm of all his soft-spoken breaking and entering; then, listen to the rich proliferation of “soul” in Othello’s first act and see if you can see if Othello has one, or any, even when, especially when, he declares his soul’s perfection.

There’s a constancy of inauthentic seeming that Othello is made to stand for. It is as if, on the one hand, he knows that he stands for it while, on the other hand, not knowing that he cannot know what he stands for. Iago is, in this regard, epiphenomenal, speaking of Othello that which Othello cannot speak. Rather, constrained to represent without knowing that what he represents is inauthenticity, Othello keeps saying that he is what he is while constantly showing that he is not. “But that I love the gentle Desdemona,” Othello declares to Iago, his ancient id-like alter ego and projection, “I would not my unhousèd free condition / Put into circumscription and confine / For the sea’s worth.” Love has demanded his dissimulation, and domesticated him, so that he can pursue and win his object, which is, in fact, that of and for which he both plays and is the object, a double operation that obliterates the separable integrity of its elements. The blurring of just being and just playing is their disappearance, and the impurity that remains, and which Othello enacts, and of which he is the enactment, is not something he can then claim as his own. He thinks he knows when he’s just playing, and he thinks he knows when he’s just being, but he never knows that when he’s doing one he’s always also doing the other and is, therefore, never doing either one. Being is not what it is but he’s not even that. Othello seems, and serves his seeming up to others so they can devour it. He beguiles them into asking for a consent that, in any case, he could not have withheld. He seems to be a semiotic vector, a semantic event, a perfect flaw or fault through which the ethical pressure that accrues to a metaphysical mistake is released as the already-given sexual and racial content of a murderous home. Sovereignty’s forced, unforged performance couldn’t be given more emphatically than in the tragic burlesque of blackface situation comedy.


Having been constrained and enticed to care for such a radically unlovable character; having been forced and gratified to bear the way he represents us; having been compelled and enabled to extract nobility from servility, then commonness from nobility, while recognizing in his blatant humility a general aspiration we are supposed to feel, and share: What does Ofili draw out of Othello? A set of variations on the forehead. What’s inscribed there? Why is it inscribed? Who is Othello that he is or can be written on in this way? Is this an imposition of Ofili’s or something he reveals, or redoubles, reveling in what is already given in Shakespeare? Does Ofili discover the real Othello or remask him? How to disclose the one who is not real, who is not one, who cannot be? Does etching enlighten or benight? Is there a truth now on the skin that in another way the skin had always hidden? Othello is an experiment in black personhood for which black persons are not responsible. Why did Fishburne take it on? Why did Lennix take it on by seeming to disavow it? How does Ofili now refuse it?

In offering us a classic mix of improvisation and revision, moving forward by looking back in wonder into the wreck of Othello’s life, which is the disastrous chance he was never meant to survive, Ofili gifts Othello with a run of extravagant bindis meant to match the eighthead luxury of his forehead. Many peoples say the forehead is the point at which creation begins; this is more than simply an Athenian urge. Rather, a general mandala forms around some surrealistic spot, and energy is retained in Ofili’s swift impromptus. His profligate lining out of the tragedy on Othello’s head is an ornamental document of what’s in Othello’s head, which, then, Othello’s face is constrained, serially, smilingly, to celebrate in tears.

Ofili’s embroidery of Othello’s visage, which Desdemona says she saw in Othello’s mind, which sounds a whole new level of what seems, turns inscription into a kind of speech, a retelling of that prospective telling Othello invokes “of one whose subdued eyes, / Albeit unused to the melting mood, / Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees / Their medicinable gum.” That resin, when mixed with water, becomes varnish—tears thereby both marring and authenticating the tale Othello’s face now tells in the rapid flow of Ofili’s inscription, eroding the hard gloss of himself that Othello projects in impossible self-protection. Gloss’s multiple edge is, in this regard, insistent: interpretation, as in some movement beneath the surface, combines with a hardening, decorative concealment of surface. There is a scratched-up luster, both extemporaneous and nonarbitrary, which Ofili reveals in redoubling Shakespeare’s own redoubled revelation. Shakespeare creates a character for whom there is, and can be, no nonperformative moment. He imposes upon us a terrible gift that performs that imperative to perform, which somehow seems to be Othello’s alone, which those of us who share it nonetheless are constrained to recognize.

To find something in Othello, then, requires digging, scratching, some elaborate corrosion of the corrosion of and to which Othello is subject. Othello’s lyrical bellowing is supposed to countermand the general order of antiblackness that his blackness gives while bearing the general dissolution of the very idea of Europe even in his protection of it from “the general enemy Ottoman.” No servile service to the state could be more grand or futile; and the futility is revealed in the grandiosity, which is serial. Every staging, every production, every iteration is doomed to mar the portrait of sovereignty it projects and would protect. There’s a kind of commerce between Othello and Falstaff in Verdi’s late work that anticipates Ofili’s moves along music’s way, past portrayal and portraiture to some more general passing through, an operatic unworking of personality, its (dis)placement in passage, which, of course, Shakespeare pre-anticipates, his tragic figures always falling apart into something that feels almost atonal, the flipside being the comic social entanglement of the Eastcheap Ensemble. Verdi gets at that by way of a kind of chromaticism whose analogue on the face of Ofili’s Othello is a crowdedness of line befitting an “extravagant and wheeling stranger / Of here and everywhere.”

That’s how those marks remark a way for black folks to worry Othello, within the terrible history of our having to worry about him. Ofili writes a subtle, (P)an-African, meta-Caribbean extension of what Aimé Césaire does through and with Caliban, what Kamau Brathwaite does to and for Sycorax, amplifying and embellishing, in pulling and pulling away from, the trigger of visibility. Who is Othello’s mother? Something of how she is purloined and misconstrued is unsaid but seen in the inscription that disappears her in the berries of her disappearing handkerchief. Where was she taken? How will she be recovered? She is as quiet, too, as Algerian danger, but Ofili’s audiovisual stylus—not with engraving’s dot-matrixed burr but rather in more directly handed, looped adornment—says something deep occurs when marking is also sounding. In this regard, Ofili’s all but phonographic sensitivity lets us listen to obscurity and look at silence.


Ofili’s Othello is festive through his tears, which ought not surprise us since, again, Shakespeare’s Othello is rife with festivity, Iago’s acidic clownishness corroding the ground upon which patriarchal sovereignty should walk, since a state has to state in black and white, like Adrienne Kennedy’s movie star. Ground is doubly at stake in Ofili’s etchings. The needle marks corrosion on the ground, etching allowing the flow that engraving seizes, which brushstroke thickens unto the line’s plush unwieldiness. In these etchings, a cursive discursivity ensues as mellifluous counterpart to Othello’s speech—which is his game—like a secondary rhythm. Ofili’s Othello is a weighty calypsonian, a fat man with the hard blues, to which antiblackness corresponds in general but incompletely. And the aphrodisiacal force of Othello’s talk is so smooth that you can close your eyes and almost hear him say, Come up and see my etchings.

He is, in this regard, like another old Shakespearean seducer who spirits youth away from its proper, sovereign, patriarchal bonds. So that the Falstaffian fleshiness Ofili brings to Othello’s face in having found it there already—the fullness he draws both to and from it—is fitting even as it always threatens to exceed the compass of the frame in an unhousèd freedom that is aligned with what Nathaniel Mackey calls “unhoused vacuity.” That his flesh is inscribed redoubles the fleshy inscription in which he’s given in and by Ofili. Like Falstaff, Othello is overblown, cartoonish, given to “giddy stilt.” He’s a windbag, who let Iago, his invention, blow smoke up his ass. Like Falstaff, Othello talks shit a mile a minute—talks way more than he fights—and their resemblance asks us to consider whether Othello’s honor is anything other than hot air, as Falstaff intimates of honor more generally in the public/private staging of this soliloquy in Henry IV, Part I:

What is honor? A word. What is in that word “honor”? What is that “honor”? Air. A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ’Tis insensible, then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore, I’ll none of it. Honor is a mere scutcheon. And so ends my catechism.

Ofili’s Othello is a goodly, portly man, a corpulent, and this indicates a complex dis/possession of appetite, as if he were a rake all along, prone to some boastfully inadvertent owning up to his capacity to enchant given in immodest declaration of his modesty. His rap is so strong, in this regard, that it makes you wish Othello had been played by Isaac Hayes. What if the entire catalogue of Ike’s Raps were a partially recovered edition of Othello’s pre-Othello speeches, giving us an amplified glimpse of his address to the ladies?

Of course, the difference between Othello and Falstaff is that Othello will have—or at least assert, both publicly and privately—his honor, which implies just that measure of self-deception that makes him serviceable for the state rather than essentially, even radically, useless to it. But what if Othello really did get down with Emilia? What if the one charged with portraying him were able to bring to and find in him the dissembler’s shit-eating grin? What new portrayals do Ofili’s imaginal portraits now make possible? Wouldn’t it be amazing to see a black actor play Othello without being responsible for Othello? At least Falstaff is “a huge bombard of sack” rather than honor’s empty vessel. Wouldn’t it be cool, now that Black Moses is gone, to see Danielle Brooks bring to and find in Othello’s “bombast circumstance” all and more of what she found in and brought to Beatrice in the Public Theater’s 2019 production of Much Ado about Nothing?  Her performance might carry out that triple negation that lets us know Othello ain’t about nothing noway. Bringing the noise of a trace of something she might see, after all, in the pungent perfume with which Shakespeare fills his lungs would be her way of providing that flavor we feel, showing Othello and Othello some black, corrosive love. We hate the shit we have to deal with in that shit because we love that shit. Othello has us at hello. Ofili lets Othello go.

Fred Moten is a professor in the department of performance studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is the author of In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (2003), Hughson’s Tavern (2008), B Jenkins (2010), The Feel Trio (2014), The Little Edges (2014), The Service Porch (2016), and Black and Blur (consent not to be a single being) (2017) and is the coauthor, with Stefano Harney, of The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (2013).

“Ofili’s Othello” © 2019 Fred Moten. William Shakespeare x Chris Ofili: Othello published by David Zwirner Books. Courtesy David Zwirner. Chris Ofili appears in conversation with the classicist Emily Wilson on Episode 11 of Dialogues, a podcast produced by David Zwirner.

(Source: The Paris Review)

Monday, 11 November 2019

In Russia, the ultimate scary story is about losing your coat

I am often complimented on how warm my coats look: “You look so bundled up!” It is praise I accept not for myself, but on behalf of the country where I bought them: Russia. I spent a total of two winters there, in Moscow, and each time, I approached the matter of buying a coat with an almost superstitious seriousness, as if the Russian winter were a spirit that watched me as I shopped, waiting to punish me if I made the wrong choice of down, or underestimated the need for moisture-wicking fabric. I was not wrong; I swear, that first winter, the wind felt like a ghost slapping me in the face, chiding me for getting the hood that buttoned rather than zipped. Perhaps that is why, every Halloween, as ghost stories make their return, my mind often wanders to Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat.” Published in 1842, it tells the story of a vengeful ghost, who in life had his overcoat stolen and now in death haunts the city of St. Petersburg, pulling coats off the backs of innocent passersby. Gogol’s story, at its heart, is a frightening tale of poverty and social isolation. It is also a testament to the power of hauntings that take place on a larger scale, where ghosts seek to collect debts not for individual transgressions but for the failings of an entire society.

“The Overcoat” follows Akaky Akakievich, an aging, awkward copy clerk who is mercilessly ridiculed by nearly everyone in his life over his lowly social status (he is a titular councilor, a relatively insignificant position in imperial Russia’s “table of ranks” system). At work, his superiors lord over him with a “cold despotism.” Despite this, he finds pleasure in his work, in its mundane simplicity: “In copying, he saw some varied and pleasant world of his own. Delight showed in his face; certain letters were his favorites, and when he came to one of them, he was beside himself.” However, as winter approaches, Akaky’s peace is disturbed by a familiar villain: “There exists in Petersburg a powerful enemy of all who earn a salary of four hundred rubles or thereabouts. This enemy is none other than our northern frost.”

Akaky, whose old coat is too tattered to withstand the frigid air, begins saving for a new one, forgoing the small pleasures that make his otherwise dreary life pleasurable (drinking tea, lighting candles in the evening). But Akaky comes to find joy instead in the dream of a new coat: “it was as if his very existence became somehow fuller, as if he were married, as if some other person were there with him, as if he were not alone but some pleasant life’s companion had agreed to walk down the path of life with him—and this companion was none other than that same overcoat.” We share in his horror when, on his very first day wearing his new coat, Akaky is robbed of it. To make matters worse, as titular councilor, he does not have enough pull to get the authorities to take his case seriously. The cold air and society’s indifference sends him to an early grave, but soon afterward, a rumor begins to spread throughout the city: “A dead man had begun to appear at night in the form of a clerk searching for some stolen overcoat.” In death, Akaky gets his revenge.

Gogol’s story could be classified as what Wellesley professor Kathleen Brogan defines as “cultural haunting.” Unlike stories of individuals being haunted by what transpired in an isolated location (haunted castles, Gothic abbeys), in cultural hauntings, societies as a whole face a reckoning. Ghosts, in these cases, are often the victims of endemic injustices who refuse to be forgotten: “Through the agency of ghosts, group histories that have in some way been threatened, erased, or fragmented are cooperated and revised.” Indeed, Akaky’s ghost is indiscriminate; he pulls “from all shoulders, regardless of rank or titles, various overcoats.” He is not looking to terrorize the two men who robbed him, but the city, the society, that left him out in the cold in the first place.

In North America, ghost stories have also worked to counter our national historic amnesia. In Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the headless horseman, a Revolutionary War mercenary for the British, reflects a young republic still fractured and insecure in its allegiances. Ghosts haunt us for the crime of slavery, as in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and more recently in the Canadian poet M. NourbeSe Philip’s collection Zong!. The latter revisits the 1781 mass murder of African slaves who were tossed into the Atlantic as part of an insurance scheme. Zong!, Philip tells us, ““haunt[s] the spaces of forgetting” by calling on the ghostly voices of the drowned Africans to finally testify. In Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, Colin Dickey revisits the slave plantation, the mental asylum, and cites of haunting to disentangle the social anxieties that pervade our ghost stories, like the popular trope of “Indian burial grounds” in horror films such as Poltergeist II: “The narrative of the haunted Indian burial ground hides a certain anxiety about the land on which Americans—specifically white, middle-class Americans—live,” namely “the idea that we don’t, in fact, own the land we’ve just bought.”

Ghost stories are vehicles through which we can explore our anxieties over cultural appropriation, patriarchy, and militarization. In White Tears, novelist Hari Kunzru portrays two white hipsters haunted by the spirit of the black blues musician whose work they exploit. In “Especially Heinous,” a short story from the collection Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado satirizes the popular TV series “Law and Order: SVU” by having ghosts of women and girls whose deaths went unsolved haunt Detective Olivia Benson. In Cemetery of Splendour, Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul depicts a military hospital for soldiers who have a strange sleeping disease. It turns out the hospital was built over the cemetery of ancient kings whose ghosts are still at war with one another. The kings feed off the energy of the soldiers, causing their narcolepsy, in a powerful allegory of the country’s seeming endless cycle of violent coups.

At the end of “The Overcoat,” a policeman sees Akaky’s ghost and follows it into the night, until the spectral thief suddenly stops, turns around, and asks him: “What do you want?” The policeman, in a terror, replies: “Nothing.” What do we want from our ghosts? As we commit ever-new forms of violence, such as the destruction of the environment, we will take on new hauntings. In Iceland, there was recently a funeral for a glacier. That same polar melting is pushing salt water into forests along the mid-Atlantic coast, killing trees and creating what are now known as “ghost forests.” The same cold air that tortured Akaky might one day be nothing more than a ghost of itself, reminding society of its past crimes.

(Source: The Paris Review)

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Ghost hunting with Edith Wharton

“Oh, there is one, of course, but you’ll never know it,” an English lady tells an eager American couple at the start of one of Edith Wharton’s stories.

The one, of course, is a ghost. The Americans are newly rich and thus in need of an estate. Their manor need not have either hot water or electricity. Their sole requirement is that there be a ghost in residence, and the only haunted house their hostess can offer is a country home, in Dorsetshire, whose ghostliness is as vague as a ghost itself. In “Afterward,” one is only sure of having seen a ghost, well, afterward.

The story appeared in Tales of Men and Ghosts, a collection published in 1910, while Edith was still living with her husband, Teddy, at the Mount, the estate in the Berkshires that she designed and expanded as her writing income allowed. The House of Mirth not only made her a best-selling author and celebrity when it was published in 1905, it paid for her elaborate gardens. The Mount was sold in 1911—the specter of divorce loomed—and after the Whartons moved out, the place became famous as a haunted house. An extremely haunted house, in fact, whose ghosts do not bother with ambiguity or disguises, as in the opening pages of “Afterward,” but freely roam the hills and halls at all times of day and night. I had gone to the Mount on a guided tour of the haunted grounds, hoping to overcome my fear.

What was I afraid of? Nothing specific, and everything all at once. Just as it’s the “rare bird” who sees ghosts outright, it’s unusual to know what single, precise thing haunts you. The “ghost-feeler,” according to Edith, is more common—aware of the presence of ghosts, but abstractly. What would happen if I actually saw one? I hoped that I could mumble a few words of awkward, apologetic exorcism and feel less haunted by my own anxiety, the “vague dread” I recognized in Edith’s ghost stories.

The sign for the Mount was half hidden from the road, beneath the twilit shadows of skeletal trees. A man with a salt-and-pepper bob who resembled a millennial Vincent Price coolly checked my name off a list. His beard was as neatly groomed as the lawns. A groundskeeper, I learned later, amused.

“How many of you believe in ghosts?” asked our tour leader, a warm and knowledgeable woman in black, from a podium in a dark barn. Nearly every person in the group of two dozen adults raised their hand.

In a preface to her ghost stories, Wharton writes, “I do not believe in ghosts, but I am afraid of them.” Following an attack of typhoid as a child, Wharton writes in her autobiography, A Backward Glance, that she returned from the brink of death with “chronic fear” that felt like a “choking agony of terror.” Well into young adulthood, she would not sleep without a light and a maid present in her room. “It was like some dark, indefinable menace, forever dogging my steps, lurking, and threatening,” she writes, and I could not help but think of Hilary Mantel’s childhood encounter with an indescribable evil in her family’s garden. Must all women be visited by terror so consistently and from such a young age? The rumors of paranormal activity at the Mount began after the house become an all-girls school in the forties, and intensified when the theater troupe Shakespeare and Company took residence there in the seventies. The performers were kicked out more than a decade ago in a landlord-tenant dispute that seemed, publicly, not related to the supernatural. Even so, nothing attracts the devil more than a group of adolescent girls, except for maybe a group of actors.

Before the tour began, blurry, enlarged pictures were displayed as evidence on a large bulletin board under the heading “Ghostly Phenomenon Caught in Photos” and subcategorized as “faces in windows,” “entities seen and unseen,” “the unexplained,” and “ghostly orbs.” The group was reminded to keep handy the flashlights that were passed around. I could discern nothing but unlit hallways and shadows in the photographs and the unexplained was left that way. The time had come to meet the ghosts of the Mount.

Charles—the caretaker employed by the Whartons—manifests regularly in the stables and carriage house, we were told, as an orb of light that dances and vibrates responses to yes-or-no questions, as a voice that bids goodnight to solitary employees, as fragrant cigar smoke, and as heavy footsteps from the top-floor apartments where he lived with his family. Silence and continuity are the conditions under which ghosts flourish, writes Wharton. They’re the same conditions that strike me as necessary for writing. Isolation and loneliness are thematic cornerstones for Wharton, whether emotionally among New York high society or living hand to mouth on a farm amid the bleakest conditions of a long winter. It’s not hard to imagine the villagers in Ethan Frome throwing the stones in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” or Frome himself taunting Merricat Blackwood over a stale cup of coffee in a drab diner.

Charles did not appear, and we moved on to the apartments upstairs by way of the hayloft. Rotting shutters and ladders were barely visible in the dark. Here, we were told, a workman once saw a crouching figure that, when prodded to pass a hammer, stood up, a shadowy wraith with glowing eyes. “He left and never came back,” said our guide of the workman, with a smile. A weak laugh passed among the group. We were told the story of the chambermaid who hanged herself just above where we standing. She found herself pregnant, but her lover refused to marry her. With no options, she made sure that he would see her. It seems as if most small towns have a story like this one, and I wrote in my notes a reminder to send a donation to Planned Parenthood. We then shuffled into the apartments of Charles and his family, where the ghoulish decor was perfection: crumbling chairs alone in otherwise empty rooms, and old-fashioned toys in dark corners, early-twentieth-century wallpaper in mauve and chartreuse underneath disfigured gray water stains, ribbons of paint whose curls revealed rust and rotted wood. In one room, there were two detective chairs, perhaps left by Shakespeare & Co. or the Ghost Hunters crew, who had been to the Mount to film two episodes. No ghosts were spotted, and we went into the woods, where the shadow-man could be spotted hulking between Norway spruces.

Finally, we made our way to the main house, by way of the pet cemetery. Wharton loved dogs. Her most charming and least scary ghost story is about a pack of dogs who avenge a mistress locked in a tower by her cruel husband. Standing behind the tiny headstones, I caught sight of the mansion and its gardens for the first time. Wharton modeled it on an English manor, Belton House, itself haunted by its own shadow-man. Walking across the lawns, we paused to take in the what view we could in the dark. White stucco with dark green shutters framed its many windows. The opening passage of Shirley Jackson’s most famous book came to mind: “Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within.” During their final years of marriage, Teddy Wharton had grown increasingly and uncontrollably hysterical; he probably suffered from manic depression, as had his father, who died in an asylum. It was Henry James who urged Wharton’s final separation from her husband, after witnessing at least one “violent” incident at the Mount.

Despite my efforts to remain as close to the others in the group as I could politely manage, I was herded toward a mirrored wall in the entrance hall of the mansion. I thought of the mirrors from Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber”: “A dozen husbands impaled a dozen brides.” Carter’s dark humor seems descended directly from the lips of Hartley, the titular maid in Wharton’s “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell.” Where Hartley notes that she is not the master’s preferred “morsel,” Carter’s Bluebeard is a “gourmand.” Wharton’s lady’s maid, and her housekeeper at the Mount, was a woman named Catherine Gross, who, we were told, still walks the marble halls, her loyalty to Wharton extending beyond the grave. Our guide had heard those footsteps for herself.

The only room where I felt truly frightened was Teddy’s study. Wharton was a designer, and writer, for whom symmetry was the most important element, and yet Teddy’s room was strangely asymmetrical and unbalanced. The double doors from the outside are a facade and the molding sharply interrupts a tall, arching ceiling. In a palace, it is a tiny space. When a psychic visited the estate, he claimed to see a man trapped in the room, threatening to dismember a woman with an ax. I was tempted to stare at my toes or close my eyes, but I kept them open. I was there to see for myself. When else would I get the chance to look directly at what scares me? Suddenly, a young woman with long curls screamed and jumped. She felt something pull her hair. This ghost, it seemed, was not interested in me as a morsel.

In the bedroom, our guide told us that Wharton remained superstitious, always pointing her slippers in a certain direction to protect herself from “hobgoblins.” In the window of her bathroom, a face sometimes appears in photographs, and we were encouraged to take out our cameras. Finally, at the end of the evening, we stood on the servants’ stairs for thirty seconds of silence. “Let us know you’re here with us,” implored the guide. Was it on those very stairs that Wharton imagined Hartley running into her mistress’s violent husband “in such a state that I turned sick to think of what some ladies have to endure and hold their tongues about”? Had she encountered her own husband in that state? I heard only the breath of my neighbors.

Afterward, I knew that I had seen a ghost, but it was none of the apparitions named on the tour. I had felt the real fear of a woman whose only chance to escape an unstable marriage was through the unlikely success of her writing. How have the fears of women changed so little in the course of a century? The “native demon of worry” trails closely still. The picture I took of the haunted windowpane showed only empty glass, but along the paths and hallways of the Mount appeared the characters of literary horror descended from Wharton and her ghosts, women whose sanctuary from “dread” and “disquietude” was in the stories they wrote. In the immortal love of Wharton’s story “Bewitched,” I saw Karen Russell’s vampires. In the black figure that roams the hills and crouches in corners, I saw the creature that stalks Mrs. Caliban’s neighborhood. In the eyes that follow the narrator around in “The Eyes,” I saw Carmen Maria Machado’s murdered girl with bells for eyes. In Laura van den Berg’s grieving widow from The Third Hotel, I saw the continuation of “Afterward.” I saw all these women and their monsters, and I felt at home among them, if not at peace.

(Source: The Paris Review)

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Eat like royalty with this cookbook from the emperor who built the Taj Mahal

Shah Jahan developed one of the most famous cuisines of India.

IT WAS THE MID 1600S, and Friar Sebastian Manriquea, a Portuguese priest who had come to visit the Mughal Court, wanted to witness a royal supper. It was a rare sight. The Mughal emperors, who ruled territory across the northern Indian subcontinent, usually didn’t dine with anyone but their wives and concubines. But on this day, Shah Jahan—the Mughal ruler who commissioned the Taj Mahal—would be dining with his wazir, advisor Asaf Khan. Sensing an opportunity, the curious priest found an ally: A court eunuch, one of the many third-gender people who enjoyed an elevated status as guardians of women in the Mughal palace, smuggled the Portuguese friar into the inner chamber to watch Shah Jahan at his meal.

The exact meal Manriquea witnessed has been lost to history. But thanks to The Mughal Feast, a recently-translated Mughal royal cookbook, we have some ideas. Salma Yusuf Husain, a Persian-language scholar and culinary historian, dubs her version of the book—which includes literal translations of recipes as well as cultural and historical notes—a “transcreation” of the Persian-language Nuskha-e-Shahjahani. One of the only extant culinary texts from Shah Jahan’s court, the manuscript had sat in the British Library for years without being available in English. Illustrated with ornate Mughal miniature paintings, the new translation details an elevated courtly cuisine, in which Indian ingredients such as mango and tamarind fused with Persian soups and meats, and every grain of rice was covered in costly silver.

The book’s recipes for qormas, biryanis, and pulaos reveal the roots of one of India’s most globally recognized cuisines: Mughlai food, a culinary tradition descended from the Mughal court, enjoyed across North India, and disproportionately exported abroad. Walk into an Indian restaurant outside of South Asia today, and you’re almost guaranteed to encounter menu items descended from Shah Jahan’s kitchens.

The cover of The Mughal Feast. ROLI BOOKS/USED WITH PERMISSION

The Mughal Feast reveals a cuisine shaped by conquest. The Mughals came from Central Asia, and traced their roots to Genghis Khan and to the great Central Asian king Timur. The first Mughal king, Babur, rode into the subcontinent from Kabul with his followers in 1519. He had conquered his way across North India by the 1530s. When Babur arrived in India, says Husain, he would have found a relatively simple cuisine which was, at least among certain Buddhists, Jains, and caste Hindus, often vegetarian. Used to a nomadic lifestyle, Babur brought meat. While the kebab—cut or pounded sections of meat cooked in a tandoor oven—became an art in North India, its early counterpart in Babur’s army was strictly utilitarian. “They would take the meat piece, put it under the saddle, sit on it, and gallop,” says Husain.

Under Babur’s descendants, Mughal cuisine became increasingly complex. Emperor Akbar, who married a Rajasthani queen, brought influences from that desert region; Emperor Humayun, who was exiled to Iran, returned with a taste for Persian food. But, says Husain, the most intricate flowering of Mughal cuisine came under Shah Jahan. Compared to his bellicose compatriots, “Shah Jahan was not a warrior; he was never a soldier,” says Husain. “He loved to eat.” During Shah Jahan’s reign, the empire was relatively stable, and he frequently entertained visiting dignitaries. Manriquea may have been the only European to spy on the emperor’s dinner, but there was extensive contact between European delegations, often made up of Christian clergy, and the Muslim Mughals. In one incident from Shah Jahan’s youth, the Mughal royals and their Jesuit visitors celebrated Easter in a feast that included Easter eggs, tight rope walkers, and the burning of a firework-stuffed effigy of Judas.

Prince feasting on a balcony. Such paintings show the private moments of royalty in a fashion different from their formal portraits. THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, NEW YORK, THEODORE M. DAVIS COLLECTION, BEQUEST OF THEODORE M. DAVIS, 1915 AND ROLI BOOKS/USED WITH PERMISSION
So what did Manriquea witness in the Shah Jahan’s chambers? A typical meal, served on gold plates, might have included thick, sometimes-leavened naan bread; Persian-inspired aash or soup; bharta or smoked mashed vegetables; meat kebabs; and pulao or zeer biryan, rice and lamb cooked on a low flame for hours until the lamb juice suffused the rice. Dried fruits and nuts, such as raisins and cashews, were common flavorings, but some of the more complex spice mixtures of contemporary North Indian cuisine were not. Decorations, from warq silver-coated rice to intricately colored desserts, were lavish. Everything that could be coated in sugar syrup, including savory kebabs and biryani, was. Even the water was high-end: The food was cooked in a mixture of rain water and water from the Ganges river, considered sacred by Hindus.

Some ingredients that we today consider typical of Indian food don’t appear in the Nuskha-e-Shahjahani. “The use of potato came in the later period,” says Husain, as did chillies and tomatoes. (There was no spicy butter chicken in tomato-based gravy during Mughal times.) Chillies were brought to India by the Portuguese, and used originally as a medical treatment. Love for their hot flavor, however, quickly spread, resulting in the chilli-heavy Indian cuisines we know today. By Muhammad Shah Rangeela’s reign in the early 1700s, chillies had become common in North Indian cuisine, and they remain so today.

While some recipes in The Mughal Feast may be challenging for modern home cooks—one recipe calls for boiling lamb liver multiple times before frying it and shaping it to resemble bone marrow—Husain says the recipes can be replicated at home. “It’s a canvass,” she says. “Fill in the colors.” Today’s curious gastronomes may not be able to sneak into Shah Jahan’s inner chambers, but by trying out a recipe from The Mughal Feast, they can still eat like emperors.

Aurangzeb reports to Shah Jahan in Durbar at Lahore in 1649. Shah Jahan is enthroned in the Hall of Public Audience or Divan-i-Am at the Lahore Fort. THE BRITISH LIBRARY AND ROLI BOOKS/USED WITH PERMISSION

Serves: 6-8
Sweet and tangy mango lamb rice
Lamb, cut into pieces / 1 kg (2.2 lb)
Rice 4 cups
Ghee 1 cup
Onions, sliced 1 cup
Ginger (adrak), chopped 4 tsp
Coriander (dhaniya) seeds, crushed 4 tsp
Salt 4 tsp
Cloves (laung) 1 tsp
Raw mangoes (kairi) 1 kg (2.2 lb)
Sugar 3 cups
Cumin (jeera) seeds / 2 gm (1/2 tsp)
Black peppercorns (sabut kali mirch) 1 tsp
Cinnamon (dalchini), 2 sticks 1˝ each
Pistachios (pista), fried ½ cup
Almonds (badam), fried ½ cup
Raisins (kishmish), fried ½ cup

1. Make yakhni with the lamb pieces, ghee, onions, ginger, crushed coriander seeds, and salt. Strain the stock and separate the lamb pieces.
2. Add half the mangoes to the stock, and cook until tender. Remove from heat and keep aside to cool. Squeeze the mangoes by hand to extract thick pulp. Strain and keep the mango stock aside.
3. Make a sugar syrup of one-string consistency.
4. Cut the remaining mangoes into pieces, boil in water, and then float in this sugar syrup and cook until tender. Remove from the syrup and keep aside.
5. Add the syrup to the mango stock and parboil the rice in it.
6. In a separate pan, spread the cumin seeds, followed by the lamb pieces. Add the whole spices and 2 tbsp sweet stock; cook on low heat until syrup is absorbed.
7. Spread the rice over the lamb, pour some ghee, and cook on dum.
8. While serving, arrange the mango pieces on the pulao and garnish with fried dry fruits.

Cooking methods as listed above:

Dum literally means ‘breath’. This process involves maturing the prepared dish after the completion of the cooking process. The pot is sealed as tightly as possible with dough or a heavy weight on the lid. This pot is then placed on hot ashes or an iron griddle on very low heat. A few coals are also placed on the lid, if possible. This process allows the individual flavors of the dish to blend into their own juices. The pot should be opened only before serving.

This is a meat stock. Boil meat with or without bones with salt, coriander seeds, onions, and ginger. When tender, separate meat pieces from the stock and keep aside. Strain the stock through a muslin cloth. For 1 kg meat, use 4 cups water if cooked in pressure cooker, or 8 cups if on coal fire. Adjust ingredients according to recipe.

One-string sugar syrup
Boil 2 cups sugar with 2 cups water, and then cook on low heat, adding juice of 1 lemon. When syrup is of one-string consistency, remove. Adjust ingredients according to recipe.

Excerpted from The Mughal Feast: Recipes from the Kitchen of Emperor Shah Jahan by Salma Yusuf Husain, published by Roli Books.

(Source: Gastro Obscura)