An old English professor told me more than a year ago about the loss of letter writing. He wished someone would write him letters; he still writes letters instead of emails. He was lamenting the fact that we’ve lost touch with each other with electronic writing. But he wasn’t even alluding to touch screens and smart devices. I do know what he is referring to as a lover of fountain pens and inks, beautiful pastel papeterie and good penmanship, but I encouraged him to not hesitate so much and to join the era of digital writing because we are not reverting back to letter writing any time soon, but moving forward to faster and faster means of communication.
But the problem is not just about writing digitally. It is also about punctuation, penmanship and expression. Penmanship [our students’ and children’s] has taken quite a beating and those who have to correct papers know only too well how we suffer to get through papers. It is difficult and sometimes painful to read hand writings when we get compositions. Grammar, punctuation and everything that goes into composing a sentence are suffering because students are punctuating their papers the way they punctuate their texts and posts. The length of a paper has begun its downward descent and that is probably due to the influence or habit or both of writing short, overpunctuated sentences to which they’ve become habituated.
Punctuation has in fact taken on a new effusiveness in expression, as if it is on steroids all of a sudden: hyperboles, exclamation points, question marks abound to the point that words have become fewer and these new-styled punctuation marks have invaded our screens and some students’ essays. A lowly full stop has become freighted with significance, and angry while the exclamation point has become desperate, like the ones used in comic strips and cartoons when punctuation of this style was used to convey insults or surprise or confusion. Symbols including [recurring] exclamation and question marks as well as asterisks and number signs would be emboldened to signify shouting or insulting etc. Fragments are proliferated today, and converstn abbrvtn typical of that old -style comic strips and cartoons have made a reappearance. But we aren’t speaking words out aloud. Nor are we insulting. Yet, we are writing and texting by over punctuating or under punctuating improtant and unimportant messages: to say that something is amazing exclamation marks are used, or extra ‘gs’ in ‘omg’ to show the degree of amazing or shocking; ILY for i love you; HBU for how about you; capital letters for emphasis, spaces after a word, which means something specific to its users, and then there are codes to convey boredom or straight face or aloofness…
Pauses and inflections seem to fill tonal holes in those spaces.
Sometimes, one spends an insane amount of spend time trying to decipher and decode children’s abbreviation when all one wants to do is know something quick and precise. Parents find themselves texting back asking their kids what does so-and-so abbrevtn or symbol or group of symbols mean. Apparently there are shortcuts that children use that circulate only in their little group in addition to the many other shortcuts they already employ. It is akin to learning a new language. I could add that to my CV, under the languages I know.
But to be fair to millennials and digital technology digital punctuation carry more weight than traditional writing precisely because it has to convey tone, rhythm and attitude rather than correct, beautiful and grammatical structure. It has to be one word assessments attached to eye grabbing video or image. In the texting era words are less and symbols are more. And when words fail, emojis take over, which now come in all color of skins for ‘all’ to use. The bottom line is that so much is image driven on the Internet that people are compelled to use much stronger language than they might ordinarily use to compete with the image. There’s little space for subtlety on social media and people have become more and more outrageous. It takes far more time and energy to express a nuanced relation to a personal essay than simply writing ‘heart’ or ‘omg’ etc. Plus, there’s the anonymity factor, which can further exacerbate one’s outrageousness. It is not uncommon to see one word take-downs to criticize someone rather than emphasize that person’s humanity among the rich and famous. That kind of writing makes it easier to condemn rather than communicate any reflection, causing social media to dumb down interpretations.
Still, internet speak and digital writing have probably liberated us as we are divided and taken up by work, families, school, etc. With one word posts and fragmented and overpunctuated speech we have found ways to run the rat race and still communicate and keep in touch. Yet, educators still have to teach to uphold grammar in classrooms, and that’s where the problem is. The escalating problem is that students aren’t able to separate real writing from the way they text.
If only there was some way whereby students could differentiate between concise expressions and complex sentences, and not use concise expressions resembling marginalia in middle school yearbooks when quoting Shakespeare or Baudelaire, and worse when trying to translate that already distorted language into say, french. I wish there was some system by which they would write digitally in their private worlds, yet still write correct sentences when the need arose in class or for exams in English, french and other languages, the way foreign speakers – who speak their language at home with their kids and family in the USA – go to school and write ‘only’ in correct English when they move to the US. These students are able to separate the two and do both well, and often even perform better than an English speaker.
And I wish that social media users who accumulate likes etc would be as thrilled to correct their mistakes when educators return their compositions reddened with dis-likes of grammatical errors because YOLO in college!
Or categorized? Or sorted? Or belonging?
Recently, NY times ran an article about an Afghani woman who is an artist: she’s Afghani and Lebanese by descent and name, with a Muslim father and Christian mother, the daughter of the Afghan president and born and lived in New York. She refuses to be tied down to labels.
Labels cloister: widow, professor, architect, mother, leader, student, delinquent, racist, terrorist, revolutionary…As Spike Lee once said about Bataille d’Algiers: some people see a revolutionary as a terrorist, but others see terrorists as revolutionaries. Lee wanted to underline the fact that people can be more than one label.
Some folks tell themselves that they can’t do something differently because they were ‘born’ into a zodiac sign which tells them how they should be and act. One of my roommates, a pianist fairly accomplished, doing tours in Switzerland etc, annually, sometimes twice annually, often dealt tarot cards to read her present and future, and wouldn’t do certain things because the cards ‘told’ her she had to do them a certain way, on a certain day, at a certain time. But she is not the only one to think like that. Hindus as well as Russians, Chinese, Arabs and others do that. If we only adhere to the Zodiacs, we hole ourselves into the emotional label because we’re Cancer. Or indecisive labels because we’re Libran or stubborn labels if we’re Aries or Taurus and so forth. And while astrology “can” zero in on marriages with regard to compatibility, isn’t compatibility what we eventually seek when we’re wiser and have been hurt a few times? Some people’s grip on lives is so thin that they’ll embrace any preposterous delusional category rather than get out and embrace other ideas.
Not so long ago, and pre-digital age, we had magazines [like Cosmo] telling us how to be the best lover, or catch the best or hottest lover, how to dress to appeal to men. Such magazines and books would tell us how to act to attract the types of men or women we want in our lives [as though that will ‘make’ us magically into someone else]. Or where to go to pick up the kind of men and women we want, when to smile, how to smile, what to say, when to say…how not to appear weak, how to be coquette… blah blah blah. All of these magazines were replete with images so we could see who we could potentially become: all size 4 models, waifs, made up a certain way. In short, these images told us we had to look like mannequins. Nothing else. Imagine a world full of women look-alikes. Creepy!
Skip to the digital age and we see that it is not as different; we’re now taking quizzes on internet so we could see to /in what category we belong. Category of doshas in India; archetypes in the western world etc. are all categories and labels. I’ve taken the test to find out my dosha, like other folks, but I don’t belong to one dosha, but a mix of doshas, and find myself wanting another dosha because the 4 given doshas cannot accommodate me. Needless to say, that makes it hard to listen to the advice of any one of them! Then there’s the archetypes in the west, majorly Jungian archetypes: hero, creator, lover, jester, sage, caregiver, rebel, explorer etc. Add all of these ‘types’ and ‘labels’ to our cliktivist internet generation and we are belonging to categories more and more: we rack up followers, scoring ‘likes’ everywhere, because ‘likes’ seem to dictate that we are liked. We are doing what the other is doing, announcing to the world who, where and what we are. We are placing ourselves into categories in which the others have found themselves by taking tests to define who we are.
We are letting race, gender, class, sexuality etc define our value and potential. We allow ourselves to belong to this organization and the next. Otherwise we ‘don’t’ belong. We are obsessed with labels and labeling, and categories, groups etc. Where has ‘be yourself’ gone or migrated to?
The Western world is obsessed with self, yet is always trying to belong to the tsunamis of groups, categories, orgs. We deceive ourselves into thinking we are global, creative etc while living in cultural containers because of our endless dissatisfaction with that created self, not a natural self. We are told to “be yourself”, establish a deep connection to the self in and out of yoga classes, but it is an outside self to which we are attaching ourselves, a self that will always be outside and shifting, which will always elude us precisely because it is not natural. It is like dieting; we never quite get there, because something is always incomplete or not right.
There exists a rich array of identities, multiple cultures and diasporas, multiple opps, and abundant influences in our world. Yet we limit ourselves in container and textbook categories. We crave multiplicity, yet live fixity. We teach our children to be the same as others, and if they’re not, and different, they are bullied. We don’t teach them to be different, or independently thinking, and as a result they take long to develop emotional independence and afraid to stand out. There’s great need to fit in, not stand out. And maybe labels feed our frenzies because we are not secure in ‘self’. We need to be told who we are, yet resist being told who we are. We do not see that we are porous beings capable of being many selves from all this wealth and abundance of influences. And the more these influences surround us, the more we let archetypes, labels, categories, and borders restrict us. We don’t see the possibilities of being multilayered, of “not” belonging to any one group, but existing in-between labels and categories.
We are in the midst of a global influx and open our doors to all races and creeds. We travel to lose ourselves in others’ cultures, but then we have to travel to find ourselves, without realizing that in between those two journeys and distances, there exists many [accumulated] selves.
It is possible to extinguish the person as some Western scholars have thought, but the only “extinguishing” (the literal meaning of nirvana) we should adopt is to extinguish the flames of greed, hatred, and delusion that assail a person’s character. We don’t have to limit ourselves to the principles of Buddhism or any one faith or dogma, because labels and types imprison our potential. The possibilities can be endless, whether Taoist, Zen, Hindu, Jain or Christian, American, French or Iranian. We are something else, too. We can be many different things all at once: introvert, extrovert, creative and different, successful, spiritual and all simultaneously.
I can’t exist in a container nor can I accept one label. One day I may go to Starbucks and order a tall chai latte, with coconut milk, no water, low foam, one pump and the next day, a grande oprah chai with low foam still, 2 pumps instead of one, half coconut and half soy milk, still no water because I like my chai thick and sumptuous. That’s a lot for the cashier to write on a little cup, but I don’t like the constraints of one label. instead, I ask them to write new labels for me because I don’t like the one label on their menu. And even though it is just a chai, it illustrates perfectly well that we can shape our own world [and tastes], and if we don’t, then someone else will shape it for us. If someone else defines what we like and what we should have, we’ll be stuck with ordering a simple chai the way they decide to make it: 3 pumps [and extremely sweet], watered down with some milk for color, the way everyone else orders it. But the possibilities of taste could be endless, if we just get out of the ready-made categories created for us. A chai doesn’t just have to be a chai.
We can take joy in being the architects of our own destiny, and not be bogged down to one definition of who we are. This is our world, and we should listen to the many selves that we are.
If only racism was relegated to the KKK, NFL or the Jim Crow era!
Sadly, it isn’t. It is instead America’s core issue, the one big thing we simply cannot resolve because it is at the core of many of our lingering problems since it is institutionalized in a number of economically, educationally and socially disadvantageous ways: education, housing, justice etc. It has had a long run since the Jim Crow era which led to conditions for African-Americans that were inferior to those provided for white Americans. Jim Crow laws followed the 1800–1866 Black Codes, which had previously restricted the civil rights and civil liberties of African-Americans with no pretense of equality. The recent high-profile deaths in the killings in Ferguson and Beaver Creek etc are reenactments of civil war in USA, and testify that the constant need to assert black humanity is ongoing, unfinished, unending because we’ve built a country on its denial. The brutality and injustice displayed at the hands of police officers have exposed the sharp differences about race relations among people in the USA, and created some deep chasms, uncomfortable spaces and memories. The facts – of the plague of white cops who kill black or colored – are sickeningly repetitive and impose a psychological tariff on black minds.
We have made progress since that Jim Crow era and we do have one of the most advanced systems of gains in civil rights. Today, hospitals care for both blacks and whites, we drink out of the same fountains, bathe in the same pools, black and white babies are born in the same hospital, blacks and whites are marrying and using the same bus or toilets, and we can even assert affirmative action that many countries in the first world cannot do. But complacency must not prevent us from moving forward. We should not be disinterested in justice if an innocent man on death row is black. We should notice when injustice affects people different from us. We should be aware that we have a system that treats someone better if they’re rich and guilty than poor and innocent; a system that makes minorities feel contaminated, dirty, and worthless. The blame game must stop, too. We may not call ourselves racists, but when we accept a system that acts out in racist ways, what does that make us? The challenge is not a small number of twisted white supremacists, but something infinitely more subtle and complex: people who believe in equality, but who act in ways that perpetuate bias and inequality.
The race question is not black and white, but runs along generational, socio economic and geographical lines. Blacks and other minorities have fought shoulder to shoulder, won medals for USA in and out of wars, and have even become persons of high standing. They fight wars cross-racially, but a racist divide greets them at home. When it comes to race, blacks & other minorities and whites stand divided.
Our nation was built on the rule of the law, but the law is incomplete. Sometimes it seems to be a law according to the white imagination. It is racially skewed where black or colored lives don’t carry the same right as white lives. Grand juries don’t rule on guilt or innocence or on intentions or remorse; but ONLY on whether there’s enough evidence to try a case. Evidence for blacks and others take on colors when it comes to blacks and other minorities. Racism cannot be over when arguments of defense in court today include “the gun was used by accident instead of a taser” (to kill Oscar grant in Oakland California) or “the victim was in possession of weaponized concrete” ( as in the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida) or ” the possibly imperiled young woman at the front door in the dead of the night was a menace in need of immediate extermination” (as in Renisha Mcbride’s case in Michigan) or “thug music was too loud” (Jordan Davis murdered in Jacksonville Florida) or john Crawford killed in Walmart ( he licked up an air rifle off the shelf and someone called cops who shot him dead. Why were air rifles on Walmart shelf if not for customers to try, touch, inspect before buying?). Is Walmart seeing through colored filters like the law?
It is not a figment of the imagination when we hear or read that the judicial system is rigged towards minorities: it is an insane judicial system gone awry that tells a minority women to quit a PhD and get a job when she asks for child support from a white man. It is a deranged system that tells innocent people they’re “fucking drunks” and arrests them if an accident occurs and if they dare to remind the police officers that their duty is to protect and serve. It is a system which makes minorities prove their innocence; telling them they are not “innocent, but proven guilty” instead of “guilty, until proven innocent, to which their white counterparts are entitled.
Recently, Nicholas Kristof opened up space for this race conversation in a series of articles in the NY times in 2014 which are eye opening on the subject of racism in America. Aptly titled “When whites just don’t get it” the general gist of his writings was talking about racism, and not keeping quiet about it. Such articles are much needed because racism isn’t yet entombed. It is everywhere, staring minorities in the face constantly, sometimes at point blank as we’ve been seeing. We can’t convince ourselves that racism is buried if a black mother still has to say “thank god my son didn’t run!” upon leaving his upscale home to find police outside. Or, “Don’t shoot me! I’m not armed” which seems just another version of “Am I not a man and a brother?” and with killings of women “Ain’t I a woman?”
Why aren’t we talking about racism when we have enough color in America to make race part of our conversation? Obama and family; Erich Holder /1st black Supreme Court, Henry Gates, du Bois, Oprah, di Blasio’s family etc. And lately some intellectuals from behind their desks have taken to the streets or voiced out via social media: Cornel West was even arrested in Ferguson; Achille Mbembe is talking and boycotting conferences and coming out on social media.
We live in a world that believes in healing and therapy. Therapy for old memories, therapy for bad memories, therapy for abuse, therapy for trauma, therapy for changing or reversing past trends and habits to create a better present and by extension, a better future. What is the therapy for blatant racism, and the less publicized forms of structural racism which continue to be expressed in everyday ways throughout the United States?
We will continue to have the “peste noire” of race as long as people do not own their racism or confront belief their systems. We need to give voice to our own racism. Name it. Claim it. Transform it. Like Obama did when Henry Louis Gates Junior (the Harvard “race” intellectual) was arrested: they had beers at the White House. Or like we did with homosexuality, and made it accepted, by ALL, so that those who had been suffering injustices for long are now free to be who they are. Can we say the same for Blacks?
The struggle of how Black people view themselves versus how white society will see them is an internal one, shared by many racial minorities in America. The white majority may never have to deal with this, but it shouldn’t exempt them from talking about it; it is not racist to talk about it to bring about change, but it is racist to NOT talk about it and keep it inside. Talking about our ongoing racial inequality could only create awareness, the first step to healing. Time to stand up for racial progress, because other progresses have been made while racism still stands, waiting in the shadows of American progress. Time to stamp out all forms of racism because, for the whole progress to matter racialprogressmatters.
‘Couture de force’ is what I’ve been seeing in magazines lately with regard to Dolce & Gabbana ads. I loved watching style on Elsa Klensch style on TV growing up, and in the many fashion magazines at my disposition when I came to NY : Marie Claire, Elle, Vogue were my preferred, as they tend to be less ‘ditzy’ than Cosmo, which offers advice on sex, how to keep a man and little else. I remember poring into French couture magazines when I lived in Paris, because I lived with Marine, a costumiere, who made marvelous dresses for theatre, and whose addiction was her “trouvailles” on the Parisian streets of the 9th arrondissement. Her last trouvaille was always the last trouvaille. But she couldn’t stop perhaps because her trouvailles were fascinating prospects which she saw tout de suite. Once, she found bales and bales of red, rich, heavy, velvet curtains reminiscent of sindoor red in hindu marriages, and turned them into Toulouse Lautrec’s rich vibrant red dresses for actresses in a play. And she found fallen chairs and other broken or imperfect knick knacks which she magically re made into art with colors and shapes which matched her equally colorful paintings she herself did, cigarette in one hand, and her painting brushes in the other. Stacks of Vogue tiled her atelier’s floor, next to her sewing machines, spools of colorful thread though on the darker side, and other sewing accoutrements. There was hardly space for walking. Her velvety atelier became my space in the off-moments when I needed some respite from Chrétien de Troyes, Balzac, Stendhal et co. It gave me perhaps a sense of familiarity and home, the colors I grew up with in real life and Bollywood films. Once, Marine made me a mid calf moss-green velvet Yohji Yamamoto style skirt which I would wear with combat boots and a leather motorcycle jacket. I loved her creations! I sat and watched her take perfect curtains that someone discarded on the streets, and turn into pure wearable art, for me, and her actresses.
Years have passed since that time, and my eye for seeing couture the same way died because they tired of everyone looking the same whether white, black or brown models. Same hair, same makeup, same styles, same stilted, un-wearable clothes, colorful or colorless dresses, same everything, nothing different, and quite boring.
But, lately, Dolce & Gabbana has been rekindling my eye. Their ads have been boasting familiar colors and material on women and men of all ages. Masterful, vibrant colors that just force my gaze upon their ads. D & G aren’t the only designers to take fashion into an east / west marriage; there have been a few, but these have always outfitted young, waif-like models who all looked one like the other:
D & G seem to be the only ones with a flair to marry east and west attire on women of varying ages especially using textures and colors. Or perhaps they’re the only designer whom I’ve noticed in the magazines which I have. The images I am seeing or noticing look part old Parisian couture meets best Exotic Marigold Hotel meets Hundred Foot Journey meets Flamenco Seville or Granada meets Bollywood India or Trinidad. With simulated natural people, real ages, reality. Even if they’re posing for the camera.
Lately, I quite like to scour the magazines again, not as a fashionista, but as a mere passionista mostly to see style and color on fashion’s “Other”: I love to see the camera shooting beauty that Hollywood and Paris etc have sent to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Son of a computer and encyclopedia, vulcan, half breed…that anyone would want to be.
He made growing up and ‘unaccepted’ cool in america!
Recently, I read Teju Cole’s eye-opening story on Roy de Carava ‘s great love and commitment for shooting black life when ‘black’ and black presence were not fashionable [nytimes Teju Cole ‘what is dark is not empty…” feb 22 2015]. De Carava was an intriguing and poetic photographer who died in 2009. Cole and De Carava brought me back to a time and place when I didn’t like seeing myself in pictures because they tended to be dark, or fuzzy, or faded or a combination of all three. In a society where lighter skin is better among the indian population, I avoided the camera’s gaze; avoided being shot in dark light which made me darker. As an appreciator of photography then with friends who were amateur photographers, I suspected the printed photos to be victims of calibration issues, but wasn’t sure. Only later, when I came to the US and dabbled in portraiture and general photography development, did my suspicion turn into truth. I discovered why the camera disliked shedding light on me, and others like me, and I saw how technology arose out of specific circumstances. I understood how mechanical tools [ex light meters, under or over exposure, darkroom techniques including developing] were manipulated to see the subject behind the lens, and that it wasn’t the advanced amateur shooter at fault as much as the system set up to see the image. It was the system of inherent calibration which was manipulating the shooter and every corner photo studio, which would print photos for customers like me, as is, as they were shot. I discovered here that seeing was calibrated to the white skin.
Cole’s article explains that seeing was invisible to black or dark skin because the dynamic range of film emulsions were generally calibrated for white skin and had limited sensibility to brown, red, yellow skin tones. Whiteness was normal behind the lenses of all cameras, whether movie or SLR, whether in my country, or in the US. Therefore, the camera would always suggest that dark skin always needed light and improvement, and it was the task of better photo studios to shed light on dark skin during development. The eye behind a camera or a person saw white or light skin, and pink skin for women. Once, during one of the first weeks of my arrival in the US, someone at Bloomingdale’s [clearly not de Carava!] told me I had yellow tones and makeup would even out my yellowness and endow me with pink skin. I do like pink, but wondered about the unnatural combination of pink skin on a brown body. I got used to being ‘yellow-skinned’ and while she spoke I was thinking of curry, which is also yellow, but so delicious. Why would I want to change curry or my skin?
De Carava’s work explained why my photos were the way they were. Looking at his work showed me just how much could be seen in the shadowed parts of a photograph or how much could be imagined into the shadows. He resisted explicitness, and concentrated on human dignity and soulful. He found life situated in the inner spaces of the subject, and though De Carava came into prominence during the Harlem renaissance, his photography reminds me of the the seventeenth century french painter George de la Tour whose paintings reflected nocturnal effects of light and shadowy effects of his subjects. De la Tour was influenced by Caravaggio, whose close physical observation with a dramatic, even theatrical, use of chiaroscuro was radical.
I see de Carava’s photographs as a black and white version of de la Tour’s paintings, but in stark crisp, deeply contemplative comparison.
Cole’s article also made me see and think how biased mainstream culture still is in the way it shoots people whom it wishes to condemn tout de suite: Trayvon Martin hooded, dark and dangerous compared to a white hooded man who looks hot and studly. Or Michael Brown murdered in Ferguson recently, often described and shot as a demon. Or the many hijabed women in our xenophobic world ominously shrouded in black, shot and presented in photos or cartoons sans beauty, sans dignity. These were/are shot as either guilty, criminal and oppressed. If the camera wishes to criminalize, it will. The camera is still contemptuous and still desires to shoot white or light skin, sometimes killing dark skin consciously or unconsciously or perhaps by default [setting].
Artists like Andrew Dounmu, Steve Mc Queen and Ava du Vernay continue the tradition of de Carava, whether in color or black & white or sepia: Dounmu’s Mother of George , Mc Queen’s 12 Years a Slave  and du Vernay’s selma  are full of the intensity of black presence that de Carava depicted so beautifully in his photography. The black presence and skin in these 3 films are exquisitely shot, and explode with beauty, light and color. The visages are striking in their composition.
I will now go back to my old photos to re-see my opacity a la de Carava, and bask in the shadows which embraced me. What is dark is neither empty nor blank, but full of light and with the right see-er can open into many glories and beauty.