New Internationalist

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Issue 133

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THE NEW RIGHT [image, unknown] Book reviews

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NEW BOOKS

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We hear endlessly about Japanese businessmen - but what’s it like to be a Japanese woman? A collection of short stories reviewed this month throws light on an unfamiliar world. And we look at a study showing how tens of millions of people in poor countries could be saved from becoming disabled.

Editor: Anuradha Vittachi

Kimonov Mao suit

Rice Bowl Women
ed by Dorothy Blair Shimer Mentor
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New American Library (pbk $2.95)
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Books about women in Africa, Central America and the Indian subcontinent seem to be proliferating - usually with nakedly anguished titles: scarcely one seems to escape ‘weep’ or ‘struggle’ or a synonym of these. But women from China and Japan seem to have remained relatively inscrutable. Do they weep and struggle too?

A recent spate of books from China has begun to redress the balance. And Dorothy Blair Shimer’s collection of stories by or about Chinese and Japanese women provides an illuminating way of entering a mysterious world.

Rice Bowl Women, according to the author, is ‘not intended as a work of scholarship’. All non-academics and even weary academics can heave a sigh of relief. The book is refreshingly free of pedantry, the translations read as smoothly as modern English literature and the introductions and notes contain only the information necessary to explain the unfamiliar concepts and historical details that appear in the stories.

The stories range over a considerable time-span. The Chinese section begins with the T’ang Dynasty (618 - 905) and the Japanese with the Heian Period (794 - 1185); they both end in modern times. The early writings concentrate on women from the upper classes. These women were sought after for their faithfulness, tact and wisdom - they might also have a modicum of accomplishment in writing poetry or in music. Heigh-ho - it seems the same the whole world over.

But Chinese post-revolutionary writings start to show a different side of women. There are stories of brave and defiant women - a leader of revolutionary cadres, a teacher, a stalwart village peasant - who successfully escape or defy the pressures put on them. In sticking to their own judgement they earn the respect of the society they live in. One, for instance, refuses point-blank to obey her husband and abandon her flooded village. Later he crawls back to her apologetically.

And there are complementary stories grimiy pointing to the negative force of tradition, cautionary tales which demonstrate the total subjection of women in the inglorious past. For example, a child bride suffers torture because her proud and healthy reactions against cruel treatment are interpreted by her in-laws as possession by devils. She dies as the result of ignorance and superstition.

But the Japanese women even of modern times seem to exist in a very different milieu. Two stories about older women show them trying to preserve their youth and beauty artificially. One finds a hint of security in the realisation that her husband has false teeth. The other is an ageing geisha whose whole life has been built on choosing the right man for herself.

These two stories were written by women. The stories written by men are even more chauvinistic. Otomi 's Virginity, for example, is a story of a young servant girl willing to sacrifice her virginity to save the life of - wait for it - her mistress’s cat. Her devotion (and her virginity) are rewarded by a beggar who turns out to be a gentleman in disguise. In another story, the woman is a beautiful white statue’ to be worshipped and clothed in exquisitely flattering (Western) garments. The third modern story is even more blatantly a male fantasy: the heroine has flower-like hands, a smooth white body, is sexually vigorous and fiercely determined to join her husband in his ritual suicide.

With this brutal tale the book ends. Its author obviously relished ritual suicide as a noble act of patriotism - in fact he committed it himself. In Japan such a tradition can still live. In China it seems,from this collection at least, that tradition is viewed as a monster, enshrining all the basest instincts of mankind.

In the Japanese stories, women may gain education but still see themselves only in relation to men. In the Chinese stories, they can be people in their own right.

Harfiyah Ball

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Preventing disability

A Cry for Health
ed by Oliver Shirley
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Third World Group for Disabled People and AHRTAG (pbk)
£2.50 (incl. postage), 16, Bath St, Frome, Somerset BAll lDN, UK
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When my daughter reached her first birthday, I finally relaxed. It seemed safe at last to stop holding my breath: the risky first year, when she looked so fragile, was over.

But for a devastating number of Third World mothers, the experience at the end of the first year is not relief but tragedy. Even if a child has escaped the coffin, she may well not have escaped a serious disability. Three hundred million people in the Third World - more than the entire population of Western Europe - is disabled. And most of these disabilities are preventable: the root cause is poverty.

As Jonathan Dimbleby says in his foreword to A Cry for Health, ‘If public opinion can unite across the world against the criminal folly of the arms race, then, suitably informed, it can speak out also against the obscenity we politely call"disability in the Third World".’

A Cry for Health is a collection of articles designed to ‘suitably inform’ the public. The articles are concise and nontechnical, written by health experts whose names will be familiar to New Internationalist readers - people like David Morley, David Werner, and ‘Zef’ Ebrahim, who have for years put their careers at risk to bring injustices in health care to the attention of the public.

The book shows not only why disability has not been prevented in the past but also, cheeringly, how it can be prevented from now on. For example, there are practical ideas on how children can help other children at risk; how oral rehydration therapy can save literally millions of infants each year, and also how people who are already disabled can be helped by low-cost aids, like the wheelchair substitute which is more suitable to the rough, unpaved roads of a Third World village. And these practical ideas are not substitutes for longer term political change; they are part of the shift away from powerlessness to self-reliance at the local level.

The book is too slight to give to an expert, but it provides a sober and authoritative introduction to the issues - and can’t be dismissed by previously unconvinced laymen (or women) as airy, uninformed idealism.

Anna Clark


CLASSICS

Island
...being the book that spejied out the ingredients for Utopia

LONG BEFORE JOGGING in Central Park became the fashion, intellectuals on the tropical island of Pala used to put in a couple of hours hard digging every day. They weren’t obliged to. But the Palanese were very advanced in matters of health: they didn’t separate minds from bodies, venerating brains at the expense of the whole human organism.

In economic matters, too, Palanese thinking was very advanced. Export crops were discouraged: the islanders were fed first. Money was wasted neither on status symbols nor on weapons. The government bought no armaments: there was no army.

Where was this utopia? Only, unfortunately, between the covers of Island, Aldous Huxley’s final novel. In it he detailed his prescription for a sane society - especially for Third World countries short on money but rich in human resources.

Huxley showed how colonialism had carved out a false channel for most developing countries, draining them of their wealth and their culture. He advocated a siege economy, to stop the leakage. Pala was closed to the outside world, especially out of bounds to merchants, missionaries and mediamen, the usual links between the developing world and the West.

Within the walls of the island fortress, radical changes were brought about. For example, wealth was shared more equally - the richest Palanese earning not more than four or five times as much as the poorest. And jobs didn’t define personal worth, since the Palanese swapped jobs regularly. Being a doctor for six months and then a farmer for the rest of the year not only made a Palanese a more rounded person, but also made sure he didn’t consider himself superior to people who got their hands dirty. The personal and social integration achieved were, for the Palanese, worth more than the time and money spent on making the changeover.

Huxley takes, one at a time, every important social ingredient that he can squeeze into a 300 page novel - schools, newspapers, politicians, religious and scientific beliefs, ideas about family life - and examines it to find its value. What, for example, is there worth saving in family life? And what is constraining about it? Huxley doesn’t polarise the issue into pro-family or anti-family camps. He concocts his own variation of a family that accommodates both the closeness and security that come from a two-parent setup, as well as the variety and freedom that come from a child having several homes to choose from. Palanese society, therefore, is an amalgam of the best in every society that Huxley knows.

First published in 1962, Island had a powerful influence on the young idealists of the day. Many of the ideas were so advanced that they are only now being widely recognised - like Huxley’s insistence that Western medicine and holistic health care techniques should be allies, not enemies.

But there is one huge snag. Pala is fiction. Huxley is the God of Pala. How are real people in real countries to shift to this paradisal willingness to live co-operatively? For instance, it might not help a real country to adopt a siege economy: who would stop the big bad unequal world outside the fortress walls from being reproduced within the walls as a small bad unequal world?

Huxley’s answer leads him out of the political realm into the realm of spiritual values. His islanders have evolved inwardly. They have all experienced a transpersonal dimension where they are part of a universal oneness; when they return to the material world, they remain inspired by the glimpse of the ideal.

Dangerous waters. Perhaps to forestall critics tempted to dismiss Huxley as a dreamy 1960s mysticism-junkie, he included among his cast of characters a group of spiritual fakes, charismatic guru figures who use their followers’ gullibility to gain political power and line their pockets. Huxley sets these vigorously apart from the genuinely spiritual, whose spirituality is infused matter-of-factly into their everyday lives, in everything they do - eating dinner, making love, coping with an injury. It is their constant awareness of the here and now - a phrase popularised more by Island, surely, than by any other book - that does the trick.

In Huxley’s Brave New World, everything from muzak to mechanical sex was used to blot out consciousness and turn people into manipulable zombies. The result was a hell on earth. In Island, everything, including sex and drugs, is partaken of consciously to heighten individual consciousness still further. The result is Pala, Huxley’s heaven on earth.

Anuradha Vittachi

Island
by Aldous Huxley (1962)
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Granada (pbk) UK: £1 .95/Aus: $7.50
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