The Next Big Thing

I’ve been tagged by two writers, Sylvia Peter. the author of Back Burning and the future host of the 13th International Conference on the Short Story, and Sybil Baker, the author of Into This World, for The Next Big Thing interview series. Thanks so much, Sylvia and Sybil! Here are responses regarding my collection of stories How to fare Well and Stay Fair, which came out in November 2012 with Salt Publishing.

Mahmutovic1 Where did the idea come from for the book?

I wrote several short stories before-during-after writing my first novel and I thought that together these stories were not only connected enough for a nice collection, but also disconnected and different enough to give the reader a sense of my development as a writer. After I put together a manuscript and decided on a title, How to fare Well and Stay Fair, I felt like I needed one last piece, something autobiographical, to open the book.
2 What genre is the book?

It’s literary fiction mixed with autobiography.
3 What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in
a film?

For the main character in several stories I’d love to see Aida Gordon, only she is somewhat too old now, but the kind of strength mixed with vulnerability and cynicism is something I know Aida can pull off. I’d like the character of Adnan Mahmutovic to be played by Brad Pitt, of course, or young DeNiro.
4 What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Funny stories about sad refugees and sad stories about funny refugees.
5 How long did it take to write the first draft of your book?

Well, a few years, but mostly because I was working on other longer projects.
6 Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Bosnian women. Bless them and their weird imaginations.

7 What else about your book might pique the writer’s interest?

The fact that is pretends to be a how-to book but teaches you to distrust people who will tell you how and what you should think and feel.
8 Is your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It’s published by British Salt Publishing, but I don’t have an agent.

Final note: a part of the Next Big Thing was to tag other people, but unfortunately most of the people I contacted had already done it. I will repost some of their own Q&A.

Thanks again Sybil and Sylvia for the invite.



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Is Obama a Geophysical Force?

As the American Presidential elections draw near, as a European, I too turn my eyes across the Atlantic, with clear memories of the 2008 elections and the immense hope and joy of my Swedish countrymen at the prospect of Obama becoming the President of the USA. This election narrative, so American and so unlike our own, was tense and we bought into it, and even though we too experienced a regime change around the same time, we were far more concerned with the path the world’s greatest superpower would take.

In last Swedish elections, climate issues were among our greatest concerns and our green party always has some political purchase. Despite difference between the left and the right, our parties generally agree about the necessity to address climate issues. The green party in particular argues that the entire globe needs to take responsibility for the future of our planet. What makes this harder than it seems is exactly the fact that the proper response to climate change also entails a rethinking of who or what we are as human beings.

Following the cue of Paul J. Krutzen, Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued that human beings can no longer think of themselves as mere national subjects and modern individuals, but they have to understand themselves as geological force. A force is essentially non-human. A volcanic eruption has no ontology, no subjectivity, no sense of duty and rights. As a force, it is, in principle, equal to for instance a hurricane, regardless of the sheer strength of it. We have all trebled at the sight of the tsunami that hit Japan. The question is how can we understand ourselves as a sort of a tsunami and remain human and political creatures? Can the understanding of human beings as national subjects, along the belief that nature is his object, work with this new demand to de-ontologize ourselves and start thinking about ourselves as being two things? What if any of the Presidential candidates endorsed such a view and urged us all to try and rethink who we are as humans?

If Obama were, at any point, to say he was a geophysical force this would be seen as a delusion of grandeur on a whole other level. He would appear like one of those characters from the Marvel and DC universes who harness some power of nature like the wind or radiation. And yet, this is exactly this that is at stake. Speaking of comics, those imaginary characters who embody some natural force are hardest to relate to exactly because they do not seem human, by which I mean political creatures. This non-ontological self-understanding is so bizarre to us because at the same time we also have to remain citizens with full-fledged civic duties, civic imagination, and civic engagement. What is more, since we all know that some citizens hold more power than others, that we really are not equal, not even in our beautiful democracies, the question is, is the American President more of a geophysical force than anyone else? Can we even think of individuals, groups of individuals, and nations separately in terms what percent of this global force they may constitute?

It is hard to offer an ethics or political agenda that properly responds to this scientific demand that we rethink ourselves. What would such a new understanding of what we are as humans do to us in election times? How would we, thinking of ourselves as a geophysical force, choose our political representatives? And most importantly, how would this make them relate to us? It would be interesting to see a successful political narrative that incorporates this scientific thinking and demand without sounding like something taken from science fiction. The question is also can the globe itself speak?

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“Somewhere Else, or Even Here” by A.J. Ashworth

AM: I’m glad to be talking with the talented Andrea Ashworth about her Scott Prize winning collection Somewhere Else or Even Here. Andrea, tell us briefly about the collection, how do you see it, and what does it mean to you?

AA: Thanks, Adnan. The collection is made up of 14 stories, most of which were written during my Master’s degree in Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. The stories are quite diverse but there are certain themes which run throughout a lot of them, for instance loss and hope as well as more obvious themes such as astronomy. They’re quite dark, but there’s light in there too – the yin and yang of life. I suppose I’m happy with how the collection has turned out although I’m not sure creative people are ever fully satisfied with what they’ve produced! We’re always striving after some kind of perfect, unattainable creation. That’s what keeps us writing.

AM: I agree. You stories have a strong individual tone or style. How close are they in terms of the writing process? Do you usually finish one and then start the next or does the writing of one overlap with the writing of another? If so, how do you think it affects the finished pieces?

AA: They were all written over about three years so were produced quite close together. The writing of some of them may have overlapped – it’s hard to remember. Sometimes I’ve had an idea for a story and have written a few sentences but it didn’t feel the right time to write it, so I might have left it for a while and returned to it later. I have lots of first sentences and paragraphs on my computer – many of which will never be looked at again – but I think it’s important to at least have them written somewhere just in case. As for the effect on the finished pieces, I’m sure that similar interests and concerns will emerge especially if they’ve been written over a fairly short space of time. I was just starting to get more interested in astronomy when I began writing the stories in the collection and I can definitely see that shining through a lot of the pieces.

AM: I wonder about the theme of loss, which is connected to words and gestures and other things. Loss is also related to happiness in several stories. Can you tell us something about the ways you deal with these themes?

AA: When I was writing the stories, I wasn’t really aware of how much loss was in them. I only realized it once people started reading them and telling me what they thought of them. But themes often emerge naturally without the writer necessarily being aware of them, so loss – and the potential of finding some kind of happiness after loss – is obviously a concern of mine. It’s hard to explain how I’ve dealt with themes like that because it’s not something I’m really conscious of. I’m a very intuitive writer and I just follow what feels right. I don’t feel I can be too analytical about how I write. I just follow my nose.

AM: I work in the same way, and am always fascinated by the readers’ impressions. I love the fact that we, as writers, are not in full control of what we do, despite the aspirations to perfection. I loved the way the loss of someone in “Overnight Miracles” was both total and gradual. By total, I mean the man is dead. But then the feelings remain, and he is being retrieved, if that is the right word, from the other side. Then, slowly, he is lost again. So this is the gradual loss after the abrupt one. Can you say something about this?

AA: I suppose when you lose someone, part of you knows that they’ve gone but there’s another part, probably a larger part, that doesn’t quite believe it. It’s almost like the brain hasn’t fully made the connections it needs to in order to accept the death; so it doesn’t feel real. I think that’s what I tried to capture in that story – that initial refusal to accept the death of someone and how far you might go to try and keep that person alive, in whatever way possible. I think the feeling of gradual loss that you describe is something which happens over time, after the initial shock – when the brain begins to firm up those mental pathways and you begin to realize the person you loved has really gone, forever.

AM: Something that I particularly liked about your stories is the way they suggest at or hint at much bigger worlds than those depicted in the stories. What I mean is, like in Dega’s painting of the ballet dancers, we have a precise picture of events and emotions and at the same time, we know that is not all. Your characters are not confined to what is on the pages, but we get the sense that there is a much larger world, which we can only imagine, in relation to which they are formed. You evoke all that in the reader without telling too much. How conscious are you of something like this? Or is it more the way your writing functions in general? Or something completely different.

AA: Well, if I’ve managed to do that then I’m very happy indeed! I was going to say that when you write short stories you tend to boil down a life or situation until you’re left only with an essence – and that the essence then contains aspects of that larger life or world. But then that implies that you start with the big and reduce it to the small. That’s not really what happens… not for me anyway. I start small and stay small. I don’t really think about the larger life and take a chunk of that; I just automatically see the fragment and explore that. For me, it’s like the idea of the microcosm and the macrocosm. The microcosm or little world will always contain enough detail to hint at that bigger world. A grain of sand contains aspects of the shell or rock from which it came, as well as the beach and ocean (to paraphrase Steven Millhauser).

AM: Start small and stay small, I like that a lot. I guess when you’re not trying to squeeze in the word you somehow actually do it, or expose it, or hint at it.

Tell us about the characters of dogs. I deliberately say character, rather than say the figure of the dog, which may be a more appropriate term. I feel that there are many things you use (dog, flag, coconut), usually one in each story, which have a certain catalyst-function. Now, that is how a scholar in me would approach it at first, but I cannot do it because these elements are much more than mere functions. I see these things as character-like. Can you tell us how do you think about this?

AA: That is a difficult one. I suppose they’re not just objects that serve as a stepping stones to get the reader across the path of the story; they have a more weighty, symbolic purpose than that. In that way they’re probably more like characters as they have more qualities than purely functional ones. And yes, in some instances they are catalysts – but probably emotional catalysts rather than catalysts with regard to plot. That’s a really interesting question. Probably the kind of question that will keep me awake tonight as I try and think it over!

AM: In a few stories, I felt that words and language gave me a sense of invocation of something, you know, like magic, like enchanted phrases.

AA: That’s a fascinating observation and, even though I’ve never thought about it, I can see what you mean. I love words that echo, repeated phrases, or similar-sounding words placed close together. Repeated phrases can have magical, spell-like qualities, they’re incantatory, but rather than summoning strange entities or events I suppose I’m trying to summon a mood from the reader. So, at the start of the story ‘Bone Fire’, which is about a troubled teenager who builds a bonfire in the basement of his school, I use the words ‘Bonfire. Bone and fire. Bone fire’ alongside each other – not for any reason other than that I liked the rhythm created. And it set the right tone for the rest of the story.

AM: I was intrigued by the story “Tattoo” which begins with a comment on the death of the universe, almost as if it something imminent even though it will take billions of years. Then we have the woman with a tattoo that is connected to her relationship. Tell us about death-universe-love, all of which you juggle with in this story.

AA: I love astronomy so I love to use ideas and metaphors related to it if I can. ‘Tattoo’ is the story of a woman who meets someone during a meteor shower and goes on to have a relationship with this person. Rather than just write a straight ‘break up’ story though, I wanted to bring in bigger ideas from astronomy. So, as the story is about the death of love, I wanted to also place that alongside ideas about the death of the universe – the story then creates a link between the macrocosm of the universe and the microcosm of the woman’s life. What I also wanted to explore is that, even when you’re in what you think is the darkest place in your life, there is always hope – so, even if something dies (love or a star or even a universe) there is the hope of rebirth (new love or a new star created from the elements of the dead one).

AM: Thank you for talking with me about your book.

AA: Thanks, Adnan. I really enjoyed it.

Somewhere Else or Even Here can be ordered from Salt Publishing or Amazon.

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Joe Sacco

“Footnotes are inessential at best. At worst they trip up the greater narrative.”

Over the last two decades, Joe Sacco has helped invent a new genre: comic-book journalism. He’s reported from Sarajevo and Gorazde during the Bosnian War and from the Palestinian Territories during the two Intifadas. His first book is Palestine, and after a number of years reporting from Bosnia, Sacco returned to Palestine and the result is Footnotes in Gaza.

A lot has been said about Sacco’s work. He has received praise for his work, but once you  reread his books, you cannot but feel there is no praise that can truly point the readers to the subtle qualities of his books. An essay long introduction to Palestine by Edward Said shows more than any review or a scholarly article all the feelings and thoughts Sacco is able the produce in the reader. Said becomes overtly emotional even though his academic style remains sharp. This, to me, signals a true and engaged reader whose erudite response is inextricable from the emotional impact the book has on him.

It may be an old cliché that war stories are best told with a doze of humour, but from my own experiences from the aggression on Bosnia, and from my own writing about war, I feel that is true. The fact that an author can see what is bizarre and amusing even in the most horrible of situations signals to me a form of intimacy with the material, and a good sense of oneself, a self-distance. Sacco is often making his own persona funny, or even ridiculous at times, but it never feels artificial. Take for instance the scene in which a Palestinian man keeps asking him about the point of his work, the significance of reporting from Palestine, because, according to the man, all the articles in the world have helped no one. Sacco is so aware that he is reporting in a particular form of comics, an art that could only guarantee ridicule. It is the potency of Sacco’s work that turns the tables and makes the comic genre more serious than any conventional documentary.

Speaking of humor, a lot of scenes from Palestine, as well as his other books, are both funny and gut wrenching at the same time. Chapter 4 begins with a big drawing of a camp and the following text:

“The way Palestinians talk about prison, it ain’t normal … I’m not saying they enjoy a long stint behind Israeli barbed wire, but i’m hardly going out on a limb to say that usually they appreciate it, that sometimes they savor it, and that always it’s a distinction … and with 90,000 arrests in the intifada’s first four years, it’s all but impossible not to sit beside a prison or jail story in the taxies and tea joints … and in the universities and refugee camps I’m numbered by so many accounts of incarceration that the sort of thing that raises my brow is a male in his mid-20s who hasn’t been arrested, I want to ask him why the hell not?”

On the next page, Sacco meets a man who introduces his daughter to him, and says her name is Ansar, and Sacco writes, “And her father didn’t have to tell me if or where he’d done his time ‘cose there’s a prison in the desert called ANSAR III.”

Footnotes in Gaza is Sacco’s attempt to delve back into history of the region and explore the marginal elements of history, the marginalized but in fact the most important. He writes (on a picture of a city surveyed by helicopters): “Footnotes are inessential at best. At worst they trip up the greater narrative. From time to time, as bolder, more streamlined editions appear, history shakes off some footnotes altogether. … History chokes on fresh episodes and swallows whatever old ones it can. The war of 1956? Hunh?”

Sacco interviews as many survivors as he can find. Some have their memories more or less intact. Some have been so traumatized over the years, like an old woman in black, that they remember events and fragments but cannot place them neatly on the timeline. Sacco shows everything, no just what the people tell him, but hos they feel, how they behave while recounting their pasts. If he is focusing on a single event, for instance the 1956 events when Israeli soldiers announced that all men of military age assemble and go to a local school, Sacco find many witness, and even though there are smaller deviations in their stories, their memories of details not always the best, Sacco relates both the things they all agree on as well as the differences. On the way to the school the men are beaten, shot at, and it all finishes with the infamous school gate, where the men must enter like cattle and where they are met by 3-4 soldiers with bats who hit as many as possible. Some people remember barbed wire and some do not. Some remember a ditch. Some may have jumped over it without noticing it, having dodged the bats and running into the yard as fast possible.

Footnotes from Gaza manages not only to relate both the present and the past, but more importantly the relations between now and then. Not every Palestinian has the same feelings about the past. Not every person feels same events are equally important to tell. A former fedayee wants to tell a chain of events unrelated to what Sacco is asking him to relate. Some younger people do not care about the past. Sacco goes back and forth, creating a brilliant narrative that does not rely on linearity but follows human sentiments as well.

Sacco’s portrayal of individuals is amazing. There are dozens of characters and every single one of them leaps off the page in his or her particularity. When we speak about people who have suffered or people who have been militants, we tend to speak about them very much in general terms, creating an abstract mush, easily accepted or refuted. Sacco does not allow us to do that. There are hardly any people that are no given full individual attention. We hear as many different views on the occupation and the possibilities of coexistence and the means of struggle as there are characters in this book. Take for example the man who paces in front of his house in Rafah chasing off occasional militants who are hiding behind it. The militants use it as a cover, they just happened to be there, but he is not with them, and he knows the Israeli’s will take that as an excuse to bulldoze his home. Sacco portrays a bitter man who is trying to protect himself from both Israelis, journalists, militants and anyone else who can harm his family even indirectly. Sacco writes: He’s wound up, pacing back and forth. For the photographers his house is an image. For the militants it’s a cover. For the internationals it’s a cause. For the bulldozer operator it’s a day’s work. But for him? I want to have a word, human to human. I put away my notepad and walk up. He shakes my hand reluctantly. But he won’t look me in the eye. Or talk. He knows it’s rubble that’s brought me too” (191).

I have always been amazed at the fact that Sacco manages to portray all the people he meets so realistically despite the comic elements of his medium. At one point, reading Palestine, I was skeptical whether or not its portraits were really particular or influenced by his chosen medium, but having read his work on Bosnia, Safe Area Gorazde and The Fixer, and being Bosnian myself, I find the comic book medium quite perfect for this type of journalism. To me an important trait a journalist must keep, and Sacco is one of the few who have it, is not to take oneself too seriously. The bulk of journalism does not only report events but always also the grand import of the very profession. Sacco consistently downplays his own importance. He highlight his character as someone who is far more privileged than the people he visits for a few months, people who live in those circumstance for year. He cannot but be humbled even when he makes himself appear arrogant. It is for this reason that he can capture the life in his subjects. I can see the people’s complexities, shown to me in every parts of the project. Sacco does not easily move into abstractions, making sweeping gestures. He is honest about how he feels about things and that he is indeed affected by everything to the extent that he cannot always be the perfect ear, the most emphatic man in the word, as for instance when he is irritated by the fedayee who refuses to tell him about 1956 and veers off to tell about other things. This is particularly true when it comes to the youth, the children that keep pestering him with question he does not want to answer. And wherever he goes, he is sure to attract groups of kids and he is very pleased when he can shake them off without too much hustle. He does not want to get angry, so he is quite pleased when his Palestinian colleagues shoo them away.

On a final note, if you have not read Sacco before, do not expect to flip through the hundreds of pages the way you would flip through a typical comic book. I usually feel I need to take a break after a few short chapters because they are quite packed, not only with plain information and facts, but incredible emotions. Reading his work, I feel I want to dwell upon everything and not slant anything. The books do not let you read them quickly and then forget. They teach you to read slowly and carefully, and move slowly through history, noticing the margins, the footnotes, and not only the spectacular and grand.

Listen to an interview with Sacco. Read an article in the Guardian.


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Midnight on the Mavi Marmara

OR Books gives you this heartfelt and intellectual collection of essays on the event that happened in the Eastern Mediterranean, Monday, May 31st, 2010, 4.30am – the Israeli attack on Mavi Marmara, one of the ships in the humanitarian aid flotilla.

Israeli commandos, boarding from sea and air, attack the six boats of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla as it sails through international waters bringing humanitarian relief to the beleaguered Palestinians of Gaza. Nine peace activists are shot. The 700 people on board the ships are arrested, transported to detention centers in Israel and then deported.

I myself followed the events very closely. In Stockholm, where I live and work, there was a manifestation organized to welcome the Swedish participants such Henning Mankell, Dror Freiler, Mattias Gardel and others. Spontaneous demonstrations took place in other European countries as well.

The raid on the Flotilla was almost nothing compared to the war of the media that ensued. Moustafa Bayoumi gleaned dozens of articles and blogs written about this event, which indeed changed a lot in the course of Israeli/Palestinian history.

The value of this collection lies in the wide range of contributors. It is in this sense a trully transnational work. It mixes first-hand testimony, documentary record, and illustration, with hard-headed analysis and historical overview.

All articles are short but precise even when the authors invariably vent their frustrations with the sheer fact that the attacks could have happened in the first place. Since each article or commentary was published in some of the world’s newspapers, the book does not read like a single narrative that progresses from one point to another as an extensive analysis would do. However, the necessary repetitions (due to the face that each author had to state some basic facts before expressing further opinions or analyses), do not make this work less of a page turner. The collection of such a variety of individual intellectual voices delivers an incredible punch. The common ground is neither national nor ideological. It is above all moral.

Order the book directly from OR Books.




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“Because I’m Worth It” – Language of Mad Men

By Laura Bøge Mortensen
The popular American television serial Mad Men is set in the 1960s fictional advertising agency on Madison Avenue, Sterling Cooper. What makes Mad Men interesting is indeed the historical frame that gives us the opportunity to reflect on the changes in the male-female relationships up to now. While Mad Men indeed highlights racial discrimination, consumerism, capitalism, and alcohol politics, it is gender that stands out as the most crucial issue at stake. The women in Mad Men seem to have character and will, but they still live under male domination. The question is how this domination takes place? First of all it is important to note that patriarchal dominance can be forced on at least four levels: politically, economically, socially, and culturally. The important element in the cultural dominance has to do with specific use of language as a means of control of women’s identities and behaviors. Indeed, language in general plays a central role in Mad Men. Language is used as a general tool of manipulation at Sterling Cooper. Working at the top end of the advertising business just before the expansion of the mass medias these ad-men have an enormous amount of power. By developing sexist ads for television, they make sure the patriarchal dominance does not remain confined to the office and home environments, but is generated to the rest of the population. At the same time, the series introduce a few female characters who reveal the workings of ideological lingo, if not always change its effects. It is indeed the character of Peggy Olson, and her ability to invent language as a copywriter at Sterling Cooper, that plays the most important part in this process of emancipation.

Don Draper’s Language Trap
In the pilot, when Draper meets Rachel Menken, the rich department store owner, at a cocktail bar, their conversation works as an introduction to the language theme in Mad Men. Menken speaks from a position of power in that she is the rich client who requires their services. However, she is verbally diminished by Draper. She fights him off, but he confidently dismantles her defense, by showing her that her beliefs are the product of men like him, that without him she would have no identity. When Menken tells Draper that she has never been in love, he replies, “The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.” Draper seems so confident that he does not even have to hide his ideological workings. He admits that he/man has dominated these categories, and thus produced desires and ideas. Draper tells Menken that even if she is richer, he will always be the most powerful, and in control of her.

Draper shows what Dale Spender has explained the eternal paradox of language: it offers both wonderful opportunities and limitations. In “Language and Reality: Who Made the World?” Spender argues that language has an ability to shape the world. While language provides space for creativity, “We are constricted by that creation, limited to its confines, and it appears we resist, fear and dread any modifications to the structures we have initially created” (146). The problem is that men are the ones “who have created the world, dominated the categories, constructed sexism and its justification and developed a language trap which is in their interest” (147).

Nice legs Peggy, come on show them!
Reflecting on Mad Men from a modern perspective can be disturbing. Not just because of the obvious male domination, but because the female characters accept it. According to Spender, in Man Made Language, “Men have generated a reality which the women are required to share and they do not usually have reason to believe that their reality is questionable.  This is not just because they can dismiss any alternative meanings which women may offer as unreal but because women may also collude in preserving male illusion”  (90). This preservation of male illusion is obvious in the pilot “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” At Sterling Cooper, the men consider it to be feminine to have a good figure and show legs. Even though the women know that this presumption is not accurate, they keep the illusion to get respect from the men. They preserve the male idea of “femininity.”

When Peggy starts working at Sterling Cooper as Draper’s secretary, she is told to show her legs. It is interesting that it is actually the women who tell her that. The only man who instructs her to show more legs is Pete Campbell (her future lover), and in fact Draper apologizes for Campbell’s behavior.  The question is why does Draper ask Campbell to apologize? Is it because he thinks that women should dress more comfortable? Is he trying to change the standards for skirts in the office? Given Draper’s treatment of women in general this is unlikely. He corrects Campbell because he knows that the women in the office know how to dress. He knows that Peggy will be naturalized into the environment by secretaries like Joan. Draper, in other words, has full confidence in the system.

Draper’s wife, Betty is a housewife, whose mother wanted her to be beautiful, so she could find a man. Betty is aware of the male description of a housewife as a happy woman, who has pretty clothes, kids, a nanny, and a big house. But she also knows that the life of a housewife is lonely and boring, “There’s nothing wrong with that. But then what? Just sit and smoke and let it go ‘til you’re in a box?” Most of the time she walks around in the house, waiting for her husband to come home. We never see her reading a book or watching television. She engages in small talk only, and she never divulges her thoughts, because her friends would chide her for being dissatisfied with her perfect life.

The Muted Woman
What if the women in Mad Men suddenly chose to express and liberate themselves? What if they opposed the male definition of reality? This would require a total reinvention of language, because at that time language missed several important words for woman to express feelings. Here Peggy Olson tries to express her frustration through a metaphor, “Why is it that every time a man takes you out to lunch, you are the dessert?” From a modern perspective the central word missing in Peggy’s vocabulary is “sexual harassment.” She feels it but cannot conceptualize it. According to Joanne Hollows, “Sexual harassment” was invented only in 1973.

Another missing expression in Mad Men is “female pleasure.” In episode 11 (“Indian Summer”), Don gives Peggy the weight-loss machine. She discovers its sideeffect: “It vibrates and that coincides with how you wear it. … It’s probably unrelated to weight loss.” The problem is when Peggy presents this “Rejuvenator” for the other copywriters, she cannot articulate this second function. Draper takes over with this central line, “It gives the pleasure of a man, without the man.” Formulating women’s pleasure without the man would give women power, but here they still try to deny that women are able to satisfy themselves. The Rejuvenator is a substitute for a man, but still the pleasure it gives is that of a man.

Home at the Drapers, Betty is not stimulated sexually, but she cannot express her frustration except through her fantasies about other men and masturbation on the (vibrating) laundry machine. The paradox is of course that she has a man who is every woman’s desire, a man who leaves no woman unsatisfied but his own wife.

Peggy Olsen and Language
According to Spender, “At no stage of this process were females in a position to promote alternatives, or even to disagree” (152). In Mad Men, Peggy presents a female in position to promote alternatives. In a lipsticks workshop for Belle Jolie, the Sterling Cooper boys notice that Peggy has a talent for words. Actually they need her “woman know-how” so much that she gets the responsibility for the ad. The question is how Peggy manages this responsibility to invent an alternative language in the male dominated industry? It would mean that she either redefines terms already in use, or invents a new language, with new words and new rules. When Peggy comes up with the slogan, “I don’t think anyone wants to be one of a hundred colors in a box,” she actually articulates that beauty is not about satisfying men. This corresponds to the female copywriter Ilon Specht’s 1973 L’Oreal slogan “Because I’m worth it.”

Peggy’s future as an inventor of a “female” or “female-friendly” language does not look too bright. Her potentially subversive words are presented by men. Becoming a junior copywriter boosts her self-confidence, but at the same time it puts her in an even more dependent relationship to Draper. She has to speak his language and his codes. Her language must develop in terms of his own. She gives her newborn son away, talks down to other woman, and even joins the men at a strip club. When her first copy is accepted in “The Hobo Code,” she asks why the text is different from her first copy, the men laugh, and say “You may be a writer honey, you’re arrogant.”

The men in Mad Men control language in several ways. They control definitions of words and meanings. Even though one word has two meanings the male definition dominates. In a sense, even though Peggy’s hidden feminist subversion in the lipstick campaign is brilliant, it will not be fully experienced. It serves merely to express a desire for emancipation.

Even though many women today work in media business and with advertising, a lot of meanings of words are still dominated by men. An example could be advertisements for woman hair-removal products. All in all even though we have put some feminism into our lives and language, Mad Men is reminding us that we are not done yet.

Spender, Dale. Man Made Language. Pandora Press, 1980.

Spender, Dale. “Language and Reality.” The Routledge Language and Cultural Theory Reader. London: Routledge, 2000.

Hollows, Joanne. Feminism, Femininity and Popular Culture. 2000.

Ryan, Maureen. “Wild about ‘Mad Men:’ A Talk with Creator Matthew Weiner.” Chicago Tribune. 15 October 2007.

Posted in Essays, Film Reviews | 4 Comments

The Sword of Medina by Sherry Jones

Sherry Jones’ The Sword of Medina is the sequel to The Jewel of Medina, which deals with Islamic history through the eyes of Muhammad’s youngest wife, A’isha.

The Jewel of Medina shows the importance of A’isha not only for Islamic history but also history in general. The daughter of Muhammad’s best friend and the inheritor of the khalifa, Abu Bakr, A’isha became the most influential woman in her time. She was the youngest of Muhammad’s wives, a spiritual leader after his death, as well as a warrior and commander of an army. For some she is an inspiration, for others she is a curse because she caused the split between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims. In her novels, Jones offers her interpretation of A’isha’s childhood, her secret love, her marriage, and her conflict with Muhammad’s nephew Ali. Above all, Jones narrates Islamic history as a love story. She makes it a story of choices, struggle and reform, rather than subjugation and mindless obedience.

The Sword of Medina takes place after Muhammad’s death, the time when different political factions fought for the position of Caliph. A’isha stands for her principles as well as her feelings against the agendas of many powerful men. As the Mother of the Believers she has much influence over her community. A’isha is more mature now. While her feelings of love and hate do push her in certain directions, she is much more oriented to reflection and understanding of those with whom she fiercely disagrees, such as Ali. Jones switches between A’isha and Ali’s perspectives to show how they change with respect to each other, and above all, how differently they interpret Islam and their socio-political climate. The double perspective shows us the significance of interpretation in decision-making. A’isha and Ali are both right and wrong, but above all, they are human, limited, and the more their power increases, the greater the mistakes they make.

Jones’ decision to focus on the political struggles after Muhammad’s death has strong resonance today, especially as we in the West question Islam in terms of governance and religion, particularly the separation of the two. Looking back and making genuine attempts to imagine and understand what might have caused Islam to develop as it has, seems a most important act to undertake for anyone who is concerned with this religion (whether or not they are a practitioner). Very little is known about Islam and so much is read into its history. Jones’ books are important because they highlight the act of imagination in the understanding of history, showing how one of the major pitfalls with so-called fundamentalists is their inability to understand how personal bias colors interpretation of the faith, that they are susceptible to re-imagining historical figures and events they claim to care for in order to advance their own political agendas, just as some of those first Muslim did after Muhammad’s death. History repeats itself, but Jones’ A’isha learns her lessons and changes the course of her life despite strong forces that pull her apart. Is there a moral to her story? Readers will have to decide for themselves.

This review and the interview below were originally published on Roses&Thorns Blog.

The Jewel of Medina and The Sword of Medina.

Interview with Sherry Jones

AM: Thank you for conversing with me about your two novels, The Jewel of Medina, and The Sword of Medina, which deal with some of the most interesting parts of Islamic history through the eyes of Muhammad’s youngest wife, A’isha.

SJ: I agree; this is very interesting history and worthwhile for all, Muslim and non-Muslim, to know. Thank you for the opportunity to talk about it with you and your readers. For more information on me and my books, go to my website.

AM: I want to begin by saying a few words about the importance of A’isha and your interpretation of her history. First of all, tackling any historical personality, let alone a controversial figure from the inception of a world religion, is a daunting task. I read your work both critically and with admiration. A’isha is prominent for so many different reasons: the youngest wife of a major prophet, an outspoken and feisty girl married to a man frequently accused of subjugating women through his religion, a female warrior who has lead an army of Muslims against other Muslims, a spiritual and religious guide (the Mother of the Believers). Tell us how you approached A’isha, why her, and did you have any doubts about writing her history the way you did? Did you ever think of giving up?

SJ: I first came to this project with the idea that I would honor all the women in the Prophet Muhammad’s harim by bringing them to life through fiction. I wanted to tell his story through their eyes, and explore the relationship of Muslim women to their religion by exploring Muhammad’s relationship to his wives and concubines. A’isha emerged as the heroine by virtue of her personality – I love her sense of humor – and her inspiring story. Her courage and strength inspired me, and continue to do so.

The biggest challenge for me in writing her tale was finding information not only about Muhammad’s wives but also about Arabic life in general in 600 A.D. What did they wear? What did they eat? What did their houses look like? What were the customs of the time? Finding the answers to these questions was very difficult. I tried diligently to be accurate to the time and place. I worked very hard not to exoticize the living conditions, but to portray the harsh realities of heat, dust, tribal warfare, and privation.

I worked on The Jewel of Medina for five years, researching, writing, and revising while a single parent of a young child, a part-time newspaper journalist, and a part-time college student. I revised it seven times before it was published. But no, I never felt like giving up. A’isha’s story called to me; she called to me, urging me to tell her story. As I wrote, I was imbued with a sense of discovery and also with excitement at being able to bring this remarkable woman to life for audiences who had never heard of her before as well as to those who know her well. No matter how well-versed you might be in the Islamic ahadith, or stories about Muhammad, reading fiction about A’isha is bound to bring her to life in a new way for you. Fiction, by taking the reader into the hearts and minds of its characters, has the power to create empathy in the reader, which is a powerful force for human understanding and peace.

AM: Your first novel about A’isha dealt with her childhood, her secret love, her marriage, and in fact her conflict with Muhammad’s nephew Ali. Ali famously told Muhammad to divorce her because she was too unwieldy. In a sense, in the eyes of some more patriarchal men, he was too soft. You show how much she loved Muhammad and he loved her. I quite appreciate your decision to narrate such a history as a love story, especially since Muhammad’s marriages have been considered political acts. He went from a monogamous relationship with an older woman, to a polygamous marriage obviously constructed to create bonds with powerful tribes.

SJ: The story of Muhammad and A’isha is one of the greatest love stories in the history of humanity. Yes, his marriage to her was political, but he obviously fell in love with her during their ten years together. I love their interplay, the romance between them, the conflicts and the making up, how they grow stronger and their love increases over time. I love how she called Muhammad on things, too. Like when he had a revelation from God telling him to marry his adopted son’s wife, Zaynab. “My, how Allah hastens to do your bidding!” A’isha said. I can just see the smirk on her lips, the hand on her hip.

My favorite scene in The Jewel of Medina comes when A’isha climbs the tree next to the attic room where Muhammad has sequestered himself for a month. She pours her heart out to him there, singing, she says, like a nightingale, opening herself to him. How he responds later is so moving. And then, as he lay dying, he called for A’isha – and all his other wives gave up their allotted nights with him so that he could be with her until the end. He died with his head on her breast, and was buried under her bed. What a great romance! What a great, great love!

Muhammad loved women. Was he too soft on women? I know some of his male Companions – Umar, for instance – thought so. But if, as the Qur’an says, we are all created from the same soul, then why would women not be the same as men in God’s eyes? Muhammad saw beyond the patriarchal desire for control over women that was so prevalent in his culture. He saw with the eyes of the Divine, which considers all – men, women, children, poor, rich, black, white, brown – to be equal. Therefore, he gave women rights they had never had before. Women were empowered in the early Islamic umma; they prayed alongside men in mosques, fought alongside men in wars, and were among the Prophet’s chief Companions. Muslim women during Muhammad’s time were the envy of their neighbors not only in Arabia but also in Persia and the Byzantine Empire.

When the men of the umma began to balk at all these rights being given to women, Muhammad must have known that he was at risk of losing his male followers. Or, if you believe the Qur’an is the word of God, then God must have known this. So he made compromises – making the testimony of two women equal to that of one man, for example. Because to lose his male followers in a tribal warfare society would have meant the death of Islam. So I think there was a bit of a sacrifice in order to serve the greater good. Muhammad would have done more for women if he could have, but he was ahead of his time.

AM: For anyone to write about A’isha, it seems unavoidable to tackle the issue of her age. Different sources relate her age at marriage from nine to fifteen. You decide to make A’isha a nine-year-old. Why?

SJ: Any writer of history, fiction or non-fiction, has to make choices. I have read opinions placing her age at marriage as high as nineteen. There is no way we can know what really happened; her history was transmitted orally for 140 years after she died, which allows for easy manipulation of the facts to serve one political agenda or another. I took the middle path.

Marrying a nine-year-old girl was virtually unheard-of – the custom was to wait until a girl began her menstrual cycle – but Muhammad’s situation was unique. I show how her father, Abu Bakr, pushed for an early marriage so as to cement his position as Muhammad’s chief Companion. But even if he did marry her when she was still a child, I am certain that he did not have sex with her until she had her menarche. Muhammad was not a pedophile – A’isha was his only child bride – and he was not a rapist. So I delayed the consummation until she was older. This served the narrative nicely, and it also gave A’isha room to grow in a way that would have produced the smart, sharp, strong woman she became.

AM: Two things struck me as both bold and brilliant in your interpretation of A’isha’s alleged adultery and her childlessness. First, A’isha was accused of having a relationship with her childhood love. The community put enormous pressure on Muhammad to do something about it, because she shamed him out. He refused, but at the same time he kept away from her. In the end, the divine message stated that A’isha was innocent, and the event was used in the Qur’an to condemn all form of gossip. You narrate this event in a fantastic, daring way. You have A’isha elope with her young love (though not lover). She returns to her much older husband, not because she must, but because she realizes she truly loves him. You make it all about her choice. You emphasize her agency in that she chose Muhammad despite all troubles and life in poverty. Please, tell us about your decision to do so, and the implication you thought it would have.

SJ: I wanted to honor A’isha by portraying her as a real, well-rounded human being. I wanted to explore how a girl raised in such a patriarchal environment as Mecca could grow up to be the empowered leader that she became. Obviously, she had internal weaknesses and external obstacles to overcome. My task was to try to discern what some of those might have been.

She was accused of adultery, for instance. I thought, what really happened out there in the desert? Is her tale of losing her necklace in the sand – and losing an entire caravan while she searched for it – really plausible? What if she really did stay behind on purpose to meet with Safwan? But then, she had this great love with Muhammad, so she must have made the choice to stay with him. Real love doesn’t happen when we “fall,” but when we consciously choose our partner, when we know his or her faults and accept them as part of the whole, lovable package.

I knew that some readers wouldn’t appreciate my giving A’isha flaws, weaknesses, and obstacles. I knew some would dislike my giving Muhammad flaws and weaknesses, too. But I don’t know how else we grow except by struggle, how we learn except from our mistakes. And I find little inspiration in a person who is “perfect.”

AM: The second thing was A’isha’s childlessness. Your explanation is that Muhammad did not have sex with A’isha for many years. A’isha is a nine-year-old child, but later also a girl in puberty, who desires her husband, but he refuses to see her as a woman. He avoids intercourse because she is too young. This platonic relationship explains the fact she did not get pregnant. Could you share your thoughts behind this call?

SJ: Only one of Muhammad’s twelve wives and concubines became pregnant, and he had only one daughter by his first wife, Khadija. Of course, she was forty when he married her, but he was, apparently, not hugely fertile. My Arabic professor said Sunni Muslims believe God didn’t want him to leave a male heir – but then, his daughter Fatima had two sons. At any rate, the Muhammad I came to know in my research would not have raped a nine-year-old girl. So I delayed his and A’isha’s conjugal relations. Such a delay made sense to me on a narrative level, certainly, because of the tension that it creates, and also on a practical level, since Muhammad was almost continually taking new women into his household. The marriages were politically arranged, but there was also competition in the harim for his time and attention, which tells me that he was having sexual relations with them.

An interesting thing happened as I was writing The Jewel of Medina. A’isha’s being young and presumably fertile during her marriage, I decided to have her become pregnant but then to miscarry the fetus. Later, as I researched something in my four-volume biography of Muhammad written in the tenth century, I found a footnote stating that A’isha had become pregnant but had miscarried! That’s a very impressive coincidence.

AM: I didn’t know that. Amazing coincidence. Writer’s intuition, maybe? In The Jewel of Medina, we can see how much A’isha hates Ali, Muhammad’s nephew. She cannot understand why he treats her like a child, why he wants to separate her from her husband, etc. In The Sword of Medina, where A’isha leads an army against Ali and his followers, which caused the famous Sunni-Shia split, you have a slightly different perspective. I can tell you that after reviewing Kamran Pasha’s novel about A’isha on my blog, I was reproached by a Bosnian Shia-Muslim (a rare thing), whose own poetry I had reviewed earlier. She found my interest in A’isha insulting. I wonder how did you approach the political struggles after Muhammad’s death? I can see you had no particular bias, which makes it all the more interesting.

SJ: Yes, whenever people ask what right I, a non-Muslim, have to write about these people and this history, I point out that my lack of an “agenda” perhaps makes my story more credible. I approached A’isha’s story with an open mind, having little prior knowledge of her life or of Islam. So I was completely objective, not trying to convert anyone to my form of spirituality. However, since I believe all religions are invented by humans in effort to impose a narrative structure on spiritual experience, then my portrayal of the struggles over Islam that happened after Muhammad’s death does reflect that belief. Whenever the spiritual visionary who inspires a new religion dies, ordinary humans always muck things up with their own greed and lust for power.

In The Jewel of Medina, A’isha tells her own tale. She does not like Ali, and so says very little about him that is positive. He gets a bad rap. He comes off as a big jerk, because that is how A’isha would have seen him.

Because The Sword of Medina culminates in the battle between A’isha and Ali that began the Sunni-Shia split, the whole book involves a buildup of tension between them. To enhance that effect, I tell the tale from alternating points of view: First A’isha’s, then Ali’s. This gives the reader a more well-rounded picture of Ali. He is redeemed. Also, we see his perspective regarding A’isha, which gives her an added dimension, too.

AM: Since the two Sunni and Shia both use Muhammad’s well-known love for Abu-Bakr (A’isha’s father) and Ali to justify their preferences, the love theme cannot be taken out of the historical equation. I find this emphasis most important. Tell us more about love and history.

SJ: “History is composed of wars,” a professor told a class of mine a few years ago. As you might imagine, my hand shot up in protest. War is not the only component of history; it’s just the part that men tend to focus on, probably because it involves men almost exclusively. But I think love is humanity’s driving force, and it has always been so. Love for country, for god, for our children, for our parents – most of us spend our entire lives trying to gain the love of our parents, even after they are dead – shape our decisions both conscious and unconscious, both trivial and momentous. Love is the engine driving everything: religion, work, commerce, art, and yes, war. However, if we focused more on giving love and less on getting it, this would be a much different world. Love is a verb.

AM: I agree, absolutely. This is indeed the reason I love fiction. When Tony Morrison received Nobel Prize the justification was that she gave back the blacks their history. To me, the history is not just that of slavery and overcoming of it, but the history of love.

I like how you switch between A’isha and Ali, and how they change with respect to each other more than they do in any of their other relationships. At times there is tenderness and even love behind their hate for one another.

SJ: Yes, they are both very complex and, as is so often the case with enemies, much more alike than they realize. They both loved Muhammad very much, and wanted to protect Islam from the changes being made in it after Muhammad’s death.

A’isha and Ali come to recognize their similarities during the course of the book and also to respect their differences. Because A’isha is the symbolic leader of the Sunnis and Ali, of the Shi’a, the same might be true of these two factions of Islam. They are much more alike than they realize. As a non-Muslim, I see their differences as being very minor. And the same is true of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. All worship the same God, so what are we fighting about?

AM: So very true. The rule of caliphs ranged over two decades. How did you select events to include? Were there any events you wanted to include but decided not to, and for what reasons?

SJ: One of the most difficult aspects of historical fiction is deciding what to leave out. In revising The Jewel of Medina, I had to cut several chapters from the first draft because, although they told interesting tales, they weren’t crucial to the main themes of the book. In The Sword of Medina, I did leave out quite a bit of history. The conquest of the Persian Empire, for instance, gets very little mention. But I was much more interested in exploring the personalities of the caliphs, and how they changed Islam to suit their own political and personal agendas. The Qur’an, although revered as the exact word of God, was hotly debated at the time, with some claiming that men had made changes to benefit themselves or their own points of view, for instance – and women’s power, so enhanced during Muhammad’s time, was decimated in subsequent years. I wanted to look at what happens to a religion when the visionary founder dies and ordinary humans – and their ordinary motives of greed, lust, and power, take hold.

I also chose not to spend so much time in the harim in The Sword of Medina as I did in Jewel. I loved the sister-wives in Jewel, and I would have loved to explore more fully how they dealt with being denied male companionship after Muhammad died. None of them was allowed to remarry. How did they compensate? Surely some of them, at least, continued to have a sexual life, although secretly. Did they have lovers? Did they turn to one another for pleasure and love? But to speculate about this would have seemed sensationalistic and would have detracted from the themes that I was most interested in exploring.

AM: The collection of the Qur’an fragments into one book was a major endeavor that several of the caliphs worked on. I wonder why this is not a part of the narrative? Would it draw attention from the other more profane struggles? There is a certain separation of religion and governance in the novel, or at least spiritual faith and worldly matters.

SJ: Well, I did touch on this matter a couple of times, but it just didn’t seem to relate to the A’isha-Ali struggle that is at the heart of The Sword of Medina. I did include a scene where an elder who is a reciter of the Qur’an informs the caliph Uthman that his scribes are making changes in the language, that they are deviating from the exact words of the Prophet. And I believe religion and religious faith had less to do with governance than Muslims might like to believe. So many of the decisions that were made seemed to focus on expansion of empire, on attainment of power and wealth.

AM: The reason I asked the previous question is partly due to the fact that A’isha has been the one who has transmitted a great deal of the Islamic history and Muhammad’s sayings about different aspects of everyday life and spirituality. You do mention this, but it becomes important for A’isha only after her battle against Ali.

SJ: Yes, she had twenty years or more to transmit ahadith after she exited public life. Of course, many of her sayings were thrown out later as coming from “unreliable” sources, and those she disputed at the time – especially those of Abu Hurayra, which were particularly misogynistic – were allowed to remain. This shows us how politics infuse every aspect of the story. We don’t know what’s true about A’isha or anything else of that time. Little was written, so we can only speculate.

At the end of the day, however, we do know at least one thing about A’isha: She was a kick-ass woman, strong and confident, courageous and intelligent, outspoken and funny and fierce, the most famous and influential woman in Islam and an example for us all. She rocks!

AM: Thank you very much for talking with me about your work.

SJ: I am so honored to have the opportunity. Thanks for reading my books and for taking the time to formulate these terrific, and challenging, questions.

Posted in Book Reviews, Interviews | 4 Comments