Anita and me
The early 1970s in Tollington, a one-time mining village in Britain's industrial midlands. Meena is nine years old, feisty and rebellious. Every other family is white and Meena wants to be like the other kids: she wants fishfingers for tea, not her mother's curries; she wants to celebrate Christmas and she wants presents at Diwali. Her Punjabi family's traditional ways, and their expectations of a dutiful daughter, alienate her.
Anita, a few years older, is everything Meena wants to be - the disobedient, uncompromising leader of a gang of girls. Meena tries to impress her: at night she climbs out of her bedroom window to go off with the gang; she steals a charity collection tin from a local shop.
Director Huseyin and scriptwriter Meera Syal have great fun with social mores and the peculiarities of time and place: flares and trashy pop; Meena's aspirational extended family (there's a nice role for Syal as a prim 'aunty'); the social stratification and rivalries of small-town life. Yet the comedy does have a bitter flipside. This is a time of social change and rebellion - and of resistance to change, not least with the rise of fascist groups and 'Paki' bashing.
Anita and Me is about identity and difference, about coming of age and wanting to belong. The film may lack the exuberant authorial voice of Syal's original novel, and the feel-good ending glosses over an insurmountable class barrier between Anita and Meena. Yet in recent years, British films about the Asian experience have stood out for their humour, generosity and honesty: Anita and Me is no exception.
The story behind this novel is so extraordinary that there is a danger the book itself will be marginalized. Born in Egypt in 1920 and brought up in South Africa, Tatamkhulu Afrika wrote a novel called Broken Earth when he was just 17. He served in World War Two and was a prisoner of war in Italy and Germany. In the camps he clandestinely wrote a second novel which the SS found and destroyed. After his release, Afrika discovered that the entire print-run of Broken Earth had been burned in an air raid. It was to be 50 years before he wrote again and Bitter Eden follows careers as barman, bookkeeper, drummer, ANC activist and, latterly, a prize-winning poet.
The book is, as was his destroyed manuscript, based on his experiences as a POW. Narrator Tom Smith considers himself heterosexual but in the enforced intimacy of camp life his relationships with comrades Douglas and Danny take on unexpected emotional and physical elements. In a squalid and brutalizing environment bonds are forged that cut across conventional notions of sexuality and need.
Tatamkhulu Afrika has transcended the usual arc of a prison-camp tale - capture, incarceration, release - and presented us with a richer and more universal dilemma. How, in whatever circumstances, do we live with our
fellow human beings and how do we accommodate both their individuality and our own responses to it? This long-overdue début from a born writer is a remarkably honest and disturbing book, which self-assuredly combines raw earthiness with dreamlike poetry.
No turning back
This is a very thorough account of women's struggles. Starting with women's position in society in prehistoric times it moves through the centuries and across the globe, from slavery in Africa to class in medieval Europe, from the Civil Rights movement in the US to reproductive health in Latin America.
The arguments rehearsed on, say, 'biology is destiny', are well known. One could even say a little 'old hat'. But the book does give a real sense of how the political goals of feminism have survived. Freedman bills No Turning Back as something she decided to write because 'no single book existed' that 'brought together the interdisciplinary literature that the past generation of feminist scholars has produced'. But a bit more about the future to add to such vast tracts on the past would have been welcome.
The A to Z of Postmodern Life
I don't think I am postmodern. Some days I'm not even sure if I qualify as modern. I tried to approach this book in a suitably ironic way, zapping (chapter 34) and browsing and reading its alphabetically arranged chapters at random. It seemed to add precisely zero, though, so I went back to the old fashioned premodern technique of linear reading, page after page. This is pretty much the problem with most of the detritus of popular culture that gets lumbered with the postmodern tag; it is just a modish, lazy way of attempting to define things which, when subject to scrutiny, are not really that fresh after all. Postmodernism, in common with post-feminism and post-fascism, is an evasion rather than a definition. Dissent (chapter 6) is to be found elsewhere than in this self-referential cul-de-sac.
Avoiding the hype (chapter 12) and the lies (chapter 15) though, Ziauddin Sardar is quite engaging company and his critique of such topics as Americana (chapter 2), Terrorism (chapter 26) and Lists (chapter 16) is both perceptive and politically acute. The question he poses at the outset is surely one we have all asked ourselves recently: 'Is it just me. or are the times we live in out of joint?'
Quite appropriately (ironic, really), the term 'postmodern' in the title is a bit of a misnomer but I suppose a more accurate label such as 'some well written and thought-provoking musings on globalization (chapter 10), tradition (chapter 28) and identity (chapter 12)' was rejected as being insufficiently zingy and out of tune with the zeitgeist.
The Democracy Owners' Manual
Subtitled 'a practical guide to changing the world', Jim Shultz (better-known to NI readers in recent months for his dispatches from Cochabamba, Bolivia) has created here the nearest thing there is to a true democrat's riposte to, say, Mao's Little Red Book. Well, it's a bit bigger and more green, as you'd expect. And a good deal more uplifting than your average manual from, say, Microsoft, Sony or Readers' Digest. No self-professed democrat should be caught without it.
'Yusa is living proof,' announce the sleeve-notes to the début album from the young singer, 'that not everyone in Cuba is making music like their grandaddy!' Ouch. But there is a point to be made: great as the salsa tidal wave of Buena Vista Social Club is, it is hardly representative of today's Cuba. All of which means that Yusa, whose delicately orchestrated songs are about life in Havana, provides a more contemporary (though equally sensuous) snapshot of modern living.
This is no incidental detail. Yusa is also an astonishingly accomplished first album, possessing a mature, honeyed tone of voice that can swoop across tones with amazing ease. The music too leaves much of the past behind: the reliance on strict dance rhythms gives way to a free-floating jazzy feel where gentle Spanish guitars and piano (the latter courtesy of Roberto Carcassés) dominate. Even Yusa's love songs seem like a break from the high dramas of the past: 'A Las Doce' (Twelve o'clock) or 'La Número 2' are songs about yearning but they're far away from the all-or-nothing school of lovers or even the melancholic soudade that's passed into Brazilian music. Of course there are moments when Yusa and band let rip - 'Chiqui-chaca' is an instrumental that turns into a thunderously fun acapella - but it's the spirited introspection that makes her such an individual talent.
Anyone who maintains that rock music has lost its political edge would be advised to check out Nommo, an album that balances passion with deft musical dexterity and still never loses sight of twin goals: education and entertainment.
Nommo, the album makes clear, is a process. A quote from the black radical philosopher Angela Davis explains it succinctly. In West African traditions, to name things - the nommo of the title - is a way to gain power, to begin to assert control over life. For Slovo, a band created by former Faithless guitarist Dave Randell, the nommo is a way of manipulating sound material - the album weaves a subtle fabric of rap, ambient samples taken from Gaza City, NYC and elsewhere with gently focused guitar work - to political ends.
Want to know how many countries the US has bombed since 1945? '21 Today' is a musical list using the most simple tactic: human voices. 'Saaba' - from the Arabic word for 'hard'- juxtaposes the voice of an elderly Palestinian with street sounds and quiet, emphatic music. The sudden segué into 'Frank & Harry' with its samples of shopping-channel promises ('magic every time') is a brutal reminder that mass entertainment would rather not be reminded of discrimination, poverty, loss.
These images are meant to shock, but there's hope. Quiet songs - one using Woody Guthrie's poem 'Voice' in both Kurdish and English - never lose sight of this. An album that takes global music to address what's happening on the globe? That's real progress.
© Copyright 2002 New Internationalist
Publications Ltd. All rights reserved.