Review: The Borderland Between Worlds by Ayesha F. Hamid

Hamid was a child of six when her family emigrated from Karachi, Pakistan, and came to the U.S.

Her memoir, The Borderland Between Worlds, is a tale of alienation deriving from cultural imperatives, socio-economic class conflict, parents vs. children, between friends, and ultimately, the self. Even the self-alienation has permutations. Shall I live within my own values, or conform to others? Dress for myself, or for others? Live for myself, or for others? What, really, do I feel? Though such dilemmas are common among first-generation immigrants, Hamid’s temperament, best described as, “Beware, nothing is certain, and the end is always near,” exacerbates and sculpts typical immigrant, adolescent, and gender conflicts into high relief.

Written in a clean, spare style that doesn’t intrude on the tale of navigating psychic and emotional conflicts arising from culture clash, it is intimate and candid without being self-pitying. I read the book’s 132 pages in a single sitting—not simply because of its clear exposition, but because I liked this person and wanted to see how she extricated herself from the obstacles in her young life. She turned them into challenges, and while her difficulties sometimes caused her to flag, she pushed through, relying mainly on a love of learning and formal education. (That, all by itself, can set one apart from less driven peers.) Throughout the book, you are cheering for this girl and later, woman, whose character prevails over pain and despair, yet not without battle scars—which is why many memoirs are written.

Hamid is generous regarding the U.S., deferring to its diverse culture and the difficulties presented by a free, capitalistic society, and worlds different from the paternalistic, highly controlling orientation of her parents. Though I expected it, she never mentions, or at least doesn’t dwell on, anti-Muslim prejudice. Given that much of the story is post 9/11/2001, I found it unusual that she didn’t experience the hostility, or if she did, it didn’t impact her, of if it did, she didn’t discuss it. On the other hand, she and her family come off as secular, their Pakistani cultural values and traditions more dominant than any religious expression.

Memoir is typically written with many things in mind. Among others, they include catharsis through conjuring emotional memory in order to re-experience it and apply a more mature, retroactive perspective; or to even scores for long ago injustices; or for posterity; or to connect with an earlier self, resulting in the sense of life as continuum; or to teach; or out of love of writing; etc. No matter its provenance, the reader of memoir is treated to intimacy with a real, actual life. Connection is the reason we read, and the good writer succeeds at creating it.

I have only a few minor quibbles about the book. In one passage, relating an incident of a family illness when the author was a small child in Karachi, a point of view slip occurs, i.e., conversation and actions are described that defy belief they could have been directly witnessed and remembered in such detail by the author. It in no way undermines the rest of the story, which takes place within the author’s direct experience or ken.

Also, there are a few words that eluded the editor’s eye—amuck vs. amok, click vs. clique, peaked vs. piqued, and a few others. Such errors are not unusual in a lengthy writing, and here, only minimally interrupt the story being told. Nor do they diminish the charm of the author’s candid disclosures of her emotional vulnerabilities. Considering one of the author’s double majors was French, and who read Proust in the original, she may smack herself in the forehead to learn of these. As a man who speaks one language versus the author’s three (that we know of), the reader is well served to give these minor lapses a mulligan.

This book should be read by everyone between the ages of twelve and twenty-five, as well as those seeking acquaintance with a strong and intelligent woman, extremely likable person, and fine writer.

Well done, Ms. Hamid

Lanny Larcinese 9/22/2020

August 21, 2020

I turned 77 last week. To some, that’s old. To me, it’s getting there. It comes with many strange sensations, one of which is a feeling of satisfaction at having managed, sometimes conquered, the numerous vicissitudes of a long life.

Speaking of long, there is also a sense of the long view, of having seen it before. If it’s good, savor it, it’s ephemeral; if it’s bad, this too shall pass.

And people have come and gone through death, estrangement, or the inertia of our respective attempts to thrive or at least survive. Every one of them has been an inspiration, and I would not dismiss a single encounter from my memory’s relationship pantheon.

Then there’s grace, the stuff of good fortune even though we may not merit it. I’ve had enough for a hundred men.

And, of course, regrets. As the Chairman of the Board, Mr. Sinatra, said, “I’ve had a few, too few to mention.” But see “grace” (supra).

Yet, no room for smugness. Anything can happen. Stay poised for it; stay resilient, and no matter what, remember the grace.

Review: Shamus Dust by Janet Roger

The plaudits Janet Roger’s Shamus Dust have received are well-deserved, not the least of which are its world-building of 1947 London, classical noir chops, excellent plotting, sly class observations, and admixture of American and British voices. But unlike some reviewers and readers, this writer loves beautifully deployed language, by which I mean breezy yet eloquent, poetically rhythmic and wielded with strong command. Think Cole Porter.

Shamus Dust is, among many other things, a noir murder mystery with more than a hat-tip to classic Chandler—more a deep curtsy—yet a testimonial to the saw, “all stories have been told, different only in the manner by which they are told.”

“The silhouette of a single-engine Lysander skimmed a fret of trees, silent as a gull clipping wavetops, crossed the Oxford road close to stalling and floated weightless out of a sky dripping starlight. It yawed and dipped over a frozen swell of Quonset huts at the airfield perimeter, adjusted its trim and for a long moment let you hear the whisper of its motor, then glided in over a curling ground mist. It kissed the strip twice lightly…”

As we might say in the States, does that put you in the scene or what? It’s an example of writerliness that for me, renders story telling in a strong voice and with deftness. Some readers may prefer crime writing in thriller style—spare, a lot of white space to the page and the forward motion of a dragster, a la Elmore Leonard. Some say of literary writing that not much happens but there’s a lot going on. Shamus Dust gives you both the beauty of language as well as forward motion, maybe not a Ferarri that gets you there fast, but sure-footed and elegant, a well-crafted vehicle beautiful to be in and gets you there just the same.

Who inspires you most?

As originally appeared on the blog, Locks, Hooks & Books on January 14, 2020

This is the simplest question yet the most perplexing. I really needed to sit back and think about it. My answer: No one person, but artists in general. They are people dedicated, indeed compelled, to sift their experience through their aspiration for beauty and wisdom, reconfigure physical stuff or words or images or other display in astonishing ways, and present it to the world. Though undervalued, at least in our society, it is their imagination, their selfless persistence that makes our lives worth living. It is not merely “entertainment” (though it can be that), it is wisdom presented in an aesthetic way, a uniquely human search for beauty that informs us all as to what and how we should be and relate to the world. Art, is, indeed, the highest parts of ourselves.

My long-time mate is an accomplished painter, currently interested in ceramics (she likes to paint “big” and her house can’t accommodate the size canvasses she prefers.) As a mostly abstract painter, it came as no surprise to see her ceramics work: no pots or dishes for her, rather strange configurations of multiple hands clasping, or a forest of sticks the size of rulers all glazed differently, some like twisted pretzels ascending out of a base like frozen, colored lightning strikes. Who thinks that way? Who looks at lumps of clay and sees those shapes? But her work meets my simple definition of art: if you want to keep looking at it, hearing it, or reading it and it resonates with both mind and heart, it’s art.

As a writer, to be sure, good story-telling demands a mastery of craft; yet, sometimes after writing a sentence or paragraph, I revel in front of my keyboard that in the entire history of people on earth, nobody, not once, ever, configured that sequence of words or images or rhythm as I just did.

So yeah, art. It inspires me. And the people who do it are gifts to my life.

Writing Love and Sex Scenes in Crime Novels

This essay first appeared on the blog, The Phantom Paragrapher on January 13, 2020.

Who cannot be aware of the well-deserved ruckus concerning cultural appropriation? It is no longer acceptable to ape features or stereotypes of another gender, race, ethnicity, or any demographic we do not personally occupy. Each such group in its own way has been culturally, economically, or otherwise deprived, and now demands its place in the sun.

What is the fiction writer to do? We create all kinds of characters, and though it is wise to consider submitting certain of our work to “sensitivity readers,” some of us are loath to do that for a variety of reasons, mine being I don’t want anybody besides a professional editor telling me how to write. Yet, there is peril.

My own response is to write characters within the confines of universal responses and feelings. It’s safe to say we all feel threatened when our lives are in danger or to be robbed; or we all want our children to do well; or we want earn a good living, be independent, etc. Eighty percent of what we are is universally shared. But there also are responses to events or images or representations unique to certain classes of people different from the one I occupy.

Take women. I as a man don’t know the kind of vulnerability women must feel knowing that half of the world’s population could physically overpower them if it wanted and not constrained; or as a black person what it’s like to be followed around a store on the assumption I am suspect, as they commonly experience. So, of course there are matters which groups are sensitive to and must be respected in our depictions.

The once-rigid silos our respective groups occupied have evolved into cyclone fences: They still contain us but make us more visible to one another. If I as a white male write a female character through the sole prism of my masculinity, I may distort the presentation of her, whereupon my story’s verisimilitude for female readers goes poof. On the other hand, I can no more suspend my male-ness and have every right to possess and express it as she her female-ness. Nor do I want to try to become female. I couldn’t do it with any honesty. The obvious answer is to hear her hopes, fears, aspirations and respect them and her. On the other hand, what do I, as a male writer, do with the bad boy-as-lust-object phenomenon which makes no damned sense to me? Writing sex is no less complicated than real life sex.

Then how do I write a heterosexual love scene? Submit it to a female sensitivity reader to make sure I got her part right? What then happens to the exquisite dance of fantasy, power, control and submission integral to real life sex? In real life, those things get acted out in subtle ways which sexual partners make known and accede to, even crave. When asked if sex was dirty, Woody Allen said, “If you’re doing it right.” What does that mean to a woman? Sex at midnight on the Spanish Steps in Rome? And when? Always? Sometimes? What does it mean to men? Silly costumes?

Death in the Family contains three passages involving sex. Each is different. One is a power play; one is lovemaking; one is lustful. The story is written in the first person, its protagonist, Donny Lentini. In writing each scene I was ultimately guided by the scene’s purpose and motivations of the couple. I was also aware that just as there is no one way to do sex, there is no one way to write it. Further, I gave up on the idea that anything I’ve read or heard or discussed about women’s sexuality and constellation of feelings surrounding love, lust, and sex would enable me to, as Woody Allen suggested, do it right. I had no choice but to write those scenes as a man and hope that my deep respect for women and Donny’s respect and need and love for Pepper would render the writing true. I also can’t deny, it was kicks writing them. You don’t write a scene without visualizing the action and breaking it down second by second and act by act as if under a strobe light.

In my novel, I Detest All My Sins, the sex was not between two consenting lovers, but violent, perverse, controlling, unwanted, and by a despicable character written for the reader to hate. It is a case in point regarding my argument about (some) sensitivity readers. Bad guy Deadly Eddie Matthews takes a woman captive and sexually abuses her. Although thoroughly distasteful, it was written to establish a moral lesson concerning justice, power, and righteous vengeance. In many ways, writing wrong sex is easier than writing right sex. In that book, the female character metes out vengeance in an especially delicious way.

And a final consideration: No two people are alike and they change from moment to moment, depending on the stimulus. Life is dynamic that way. A sex scene in a crime novel is a snapshot of two characters under specific circumstances in a particular moment in time.

If the writer’s heart and mind are in the right place to begin with, he is much more apt to get the scene right.

Confetti #10

These are FB posts of mine from various threads. They are, in effect, little mini essays in response to what the thread presented. Though they are also self-contained thoughts.

Contrary to the assertion that addiction is correlated to intelligence, in fact the unintelligent part of it is failure to recognize that every second spent drunk or high sabotages the mechanisms & strategies needed to cope with life’s vicissitudes. Nor is insight into the vagaries or unfairness of society restricted to the cognoscenti. It takes humility to understand the hazards & seductiveness of addiction’s escapism. But humility is strength, while the belief that addictiveness is the province of the “intelligent” is arrogant & sure to continue it’s grip.
I know. I’ve been in both places.

Confetti #9

These are FB posts of mine from various threads. They are, in effect, little mini essays in response to what the thread presented. Though they are also self-contained thoughts.

I get that on occasion too. I “use the language,” meaning my speaking (and writing) vocabulary tends to be more wide-ranging than what people are used to hearing. I’ve been accused of carrying a thesaurus around. I refuse to accept I use any words not generally understood, nor will I pander to some inchoate, populist demand to sound like a regular guy. Some people can shoot a smooth jump shot; I can speak well. Deal with it.

Confetti #8

These are FB posts of mine from various threads. They are, in effect, little mini essays in response to what the thread presented. Though they are also self-contained thoughts.

Dale, very thoughtful sentiments. But I think they leave a factor out of the equation (with which you may disagree.) It is this: men & women are different. We may share many traits common to both, but many are different. Nor would I stereotype & my comments are intended to generalize. Of course there outliers in any effort to talk about gender traits; nor would I argue nature vs. nurture. Given those caveats, my point nevertheless is that, 1) differences are real; & 2) they are internalized by we as individuals as well as by culture. Can a particular female character be a leader, strong, tough, etc? Of course, just as a male character be the opposite of those things. Yet, IMO, women tend to be strong & tough in different ways than men, & express leadership in different ways, & while such differences should be honored, it is a mistake to depict them in ways more characteristic of men. In that sense, many roles are not interchangeable, & to try to make them so will not sit right with the gender being aped or the gender aping. In other words, the reaction will be, “A woman wouldn’t do that…” Ditto males. Matters of style, temperament, risk-taking, goals, hierarchy, etc. tend to express differently as between men & women. So in our zeal to create equality, let’s not throw the baby out w/ the bathwater. Or am I wrong?

Confetti #7

These are FB posts of mine from various threads. They are, in effect, little mini essays in response to what the thread presented. Though they are also self-contained thoughts.

There is a deep satisfaction in knowing we have strung together words that may comprise thoughts, evoke feelings, or present images in such a way that has never been done before in the entire history of mankind, and told a story that elucidates the human experience in an aesthetically satisfying way. If that ain’t art, nothing is. BTW, we can’t not do it.

Confetti #6

These are FB posts of mine from various threads. They are, in effect, little mini essays in response to what the thread presented. Though they are also self-contained thoughts.

LaSasha, I do understand the rationale, but as a writer (& person) not given to stereotyping, as well as a writer whose own experiences & impressions are no less valuable than the characters I write, there is no way I’m gonna ask anybody’s affirmation for what I present. But in fairness to your p.o.v. on the subject, it is true that many do not share my fair-minded heart, & who arrogantly believe they can write of other cultures yet rely on stereotypes which could be taken as insulting. Finally, 2 more things: 1) when I write a character outside of my own direct life experience, I am writing about THAT character, not his/her group; 2) IMO, about 80% of life experience is shared by ALL people, no matter race, class, gender, sexual preference, etc., e.g., despair, joy, love, hate, tribalism, etc. So when writing a character of a group different from mine, I try to keep stuff w/in that 80%.