Sunday, October 21, 2007

Graphic Novels and Culture Klatsch

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Book Lust

Last night at dinner, Pat said, "I put The Elephanta Suite on your night-table. I think you'll like it, and it has big print."

I frowned.

She smiled.

Pat's a super-fast reader. I am a slow reader.

Malgudi Days, which I'm loving, is right up my alley. Simple. Essential. Touching.

I've written here before that I'm a slow reader, but a relatively fast writer. Probably, that's why I prefer to write than to read.

Growing up, I was ashamed of my slow reading speed and I know it's why I majored in Comparative Literature. I needed to prove I could read and comprehend in not one, but two languages (English and Hebrew).

Also, it's probably why I like graphic novels. In our three-plus months here, I've read both of Sarnath Banerjee's, Corridor and The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers.

When I was buying the ...Wondrous Capers book at Blossom Book House in Bangalore, a pretty woman looked at it in my hand and smiled, saying that she appreciated Banerjee's books, too. Pat was right there and enjoyed listening to the exchange, she told me later.

Also, later, Pat and I agreed that while at the bookstore, we felt in the thick of the society, like we did when we were with mostly Indians on that early-Sunday-morning Lal Bagh tour.

"Have you read Fun Home by Alison Bechdel?" I asked the woman, "It's actually a graphic memoir, and amazing!" (I wrote a bit about it previously here.)


"You'd love it! It's the most literary book of its kind you've ever seen! It's Fun Home, and Fun is short for Funeral, like, Funeral Home."

I like the manga Buddha series, she said, pointing to a daunting stack of titles. Wikipedia's great because now that I've scanned the info. on the Buddha books, I'm interested in going back to the bookstore and trying at least the first one.

Deathly Digression

The bookstore didn't have Fun Home, but said they could order it. I said, "That's OK. I own it already, and it's amazing." Later, it occurred to me that "funeral home" might be a bit of a foreign concept here, since most of the dead are cremated.

I must admit that I'm willing to be ignorant about this for now, as I don't feel like researching the Indian funeral home industry, or lack thereof. Ideally, one of the people who finds his or her way to this blog will know and will educate me.

Digging for Discrimination

The latest Banerjee novel is the closest I've come to meeting a Jewish, Indian immigrant, and the character's fictional(!) as well as multi-century and multi-geographical. The book is stranger than his first, and compelling.

As a non-fiction Jew myself, when I read about how the character is a merchant for the rich, I found myself digging for an anti-Semitic sub-text, mostly without any satisfaction...namely, I didn't really find one.

From experience, though, I became nervous, looking at cartoon depictions of Jews by a cartoon-artist who wasn't Jewish. Historically, and even currently, they were not typically flattering.

Still, even without anything overtly anti-, the character's role reminded me of a conversation I had a month ago with one of the otherwise smarter people in India.

"I wouldn't guess you were Jewish," she said.

"Why not?"

"Well, you don't seem like a bean-counter."

"What do you mean?"

"Jews are known for being careful with their money, though nothing compared to the Chinese!"

"Where did you learn that?"

"You just seem more fun --"

"I didn't think there were enough Jews in India for anyone to have an opinion about us. What have you read?"

At that point, another of the smarter people in India, who was listening, interjected, "Anyone here *would* have read."

"What? The Protocols of the Elders of Zion? I heard that that was big elsewhere in Asia, actually."

They looked at me blankly, and so I inferred that the nutty rag didn't ring a bell. "What if I made a generalization about Indians?"

"We wouldn't mind. In fact, we're terrible to ourselves. If you walked into a restaurant here with a disabled Indian friend, who needed assistance, they'd help you first because you're white."

I've never felt so white as I do here. I've always thought of my skin as greenish and definitely not pink, like full-fledged white people (like white people who are not on the hate-list of the Ku Klux Klan). And yet in India, I feel like a white person.

At a glance in the United States, of course, I am registered as white. I do not feel as white there, though, both proportionally and culturally. That is, there are many more white people in the United States than here, and so there's a hierarchy of whiteness, I feel, that is absent here. Instead, there seems to be a hierarchy of brownness. It is definitely all relative.

To India-based Indians, in my experience, Jews are mostly literary characters or occasional figures in news from Israel; we're not part of their basic frame of reference, and so here, I'm just white and also assumed to be Christian.

I can't recall if I wrote this here or not, but during our first week, staying at the Windsor, we asked the concierge to see if there were a synagogue or anywhere for us to worship with other Jews during our Sabbath.

At the end of the week, she reported hopefully, "There is no synagogue, but I have the address of a Methodist church if you like."


Marni said...

Hi Rarly,

This is so interesting, thanks for your thoughtful exploration of your experiences.

That's pretty amazing about the Methodist church.

You know, those monotheists all look alike. ; )

Last weekend i saw Spamalot, the Monty Python musical. Don't know if you and Pat got to see it in NY? There is a whole number on Jews on Broadway, and i found myself unable to decide if it was ok or not ok - you know? Is it positive or negative? I can't quite tell.

However it felt redeemed towards the end when (spoiler alert if any readers haven't seen it) Patsy, King Arthur's attendant, reveals that he is Jewish. Arthur asks him "Why didn't you say anything?" and he replies, "It's not the sort of thing you say to a heavily armed Christian."

This discomfort and subsequent sense of relief was shared by the whole group i was with, many of whom were not Jewish - but they are all Seattle liberals! :) Still i think it's a different sort of discomfort from the inside, with safety-issue overtones.

But i've been reflecting on why i found that comment relieving, and i think it has something to do with feeling then that they "get it". Like, ok, someone who understands the truth of _that_ isn't actually going to perpetuate a negative stereotype, they were spoofing the stereotype.

Might be overly naive on my part still. But it sure was an interesting experience, and with our whole group feeling that way, i wonder if it was actually intended to cause that effect.

Sarah Siegel said...

"Spam, spam, spam, spam...." I haven't seen "Spamalot," but I do recall the "...Flying Circus" TV show fondly.

You and I grew up with parents who were alive during the Holocaust. In my case, I was taught to be ever-vigilant for lurking anti-Semitism. It is difficult to shut off that internal alert-lamp...and all you wanted to do was have a care-free theater experience!

Anonymous said...

Hey Sarah,
Thanks for all of the literary suggestions. Don't know whether, when I might get to them, but it's nice to hold out hope. I just finished Subway Chronicles. Lots of short writings about the subway. There used to be, may still be, a website where people, including your sister Kathy, once, sent in stories about their subway adventures. Years ago I won the honor of Writer of the Month. I was invited to read at a club, but couldn't do it because of schedule conflict.
Calvin Trillin, Joanthan Lehtem and others are contributors. Makes me feel good, that even though my contribution wasn't solicited, I am still somewhat in their literary company...
Getting ready to go to work.
Love you,

Sarah Siegel said...

I wish you'd find time to keep writing. Your poetry's scary-good!