‘Skeena: a work of art’ by Anne Murphy

April 10, 2011

I feel as if I have been consumed by this novel; this is the most powerful effect, I think, of writing, when it grips you and does not let go. Skeena has done this to me. It is a beautiful and in some ways frightening thing, that kind of power of words.

What do we find in this novel? It is a portrait not just of a woman, but of many of the most intimate and beautiful, the closest and most terrible, parts of our humanity.

This book tells us of the specificity of Pakistan, of being a woman in Pakistan, and of the politics that have shaped the country since independence in 1947. And the continuing legacy of colonial occupation, and the ongoing intervention of global powers in the making and unmaking of the region. Bit it also speaks to the most general features of the Human Condition. It is thus deeply particular, and deeply humanist, like all real works of art. And I think this is that, one that will not only make its mark in Punjabi—in India and in Pakistan and in Canada—but in its English form, in these countries and farther afield.

The book tells us of religion, of its limits, but its deep and abiding humanity, that draws us together. It’s portrait of religion is thus complex: the politics that govern religion and how it is used as a means for control. But also of the beauty of the festival, and the joyful abandon of sufi celebration, dance, music, and poetry. It speaks of that terrible violence that is found in religion, as religious minorities are persecuted in different contexts—the novel is absolutely clear on this, too, as a feature of our lives as humans; there is no position of easy comfort here. The narrative voice is as critical of bias and oppression as practiced by her own class and her own family as she is critical of others. And thus it is deeply humanist, exploring these things terrible and beautiful that bring us together and tear us apart. It is perhaps because of this honesty, this simple truth-telling that makes the portrait of that other thing that also joins us, patriarchy, so compelling. Women, like men—and indeed, sometimes more women than men, in the intimate locations of patriarchy’s working—perpetrate and exploit this form of domination, deeply imbedded within the structures of love and proximity that bring meaning, also, to our lives. Thus our narrator tells us of how “both of my families dealt me the same card of dependence.” Her husband and mother-in-law, she tells us, did so with contempt. Her mother and brother, with love. But, it was the same card “that makes someone spend their life fulfilling other people’s wishes. Whoever gave me this card knew it and was also a beneficiary in some way.” (162-3).

Through it we see the enactment of power, and its connection to intimacy, how it is woven through our relationships and into our beings.

We see control. Restraint. The disciplining of the self by the daughter, for the daughter, and for service. Thus her mother tells her that “youth is a mare without restraint… you need to develop restraint for your own good” (67). As a seven year old, she is told not to throw “her feet on the floor like a donkey” (29), She tells us “I lift my right foot from the ground and place it, noiselessly, a foot ahead of me. Then I pick up my left foot and place it ahead of the right foot.” (30). Walking carefully, disciplined. Cultivated to internalize in her walk, in her very being, the meaning and action of service and restraint. When she was young, she was told that “education is the jewelry of a woman”; as she aged, “now education was not the jewelry but an imitation jewel in a cap made up entirely of diamonds of various household chores.” (108).

This is that control is tied to the intimate, but intimacy in this book cannot be subsumed within the workings of power. It is palpable and real, and it draws us in. It is this same seven-year-old’s hands that her mother says “have the healing touch” (28), revealing the beautiful affection, closeness, of mother and daughter. These hands massage, touch and bring pleasure, bring warmth. I think this book is so successful because of its celebration of such intimacy, of the moments of humanity that we all seek out, that sustains us all.

And amidst the violence portrayed, its intimacy, we find the learning of a new way of being, a new language. The ending of the book, with its allusion to suicide, and its reaching past it, this moving through and past, reminds me of that moment that many reach, to speak this language:

But there come times—perhaps this is one of them—
when we have to take ourselves more seriously or die;
when we hae to pull back from the incantations,
rhythms we’ve moved to thoughtlessly,
and disentrall ourselves,
bestow ourselves to silence, or a severer listening,
cleansed of oratory, formulats, choruses, laments,
static crowding the wires.
We cut the wires, find ourselves in free-fall,
as if our true home were the undimensional
solitudes, the rift in the Great Nebula,.
No one who survives to speak new language
has avoided this:
the cutting-away of an old force that held
her rooted to an old ground, the pitch of
utter loneliness where she herself and all
creation seem equally dispersed, weightless…
Adrienne Rich

Or another poem, by Lucille Clifton, that speaks so beautifully to the final moments of this novel:

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

..
Presented at ‘Skeena’ Book Launch in Vancouver, April 10/2011

Anne Murphy is Assistant Professor and Chair of Punjabi Language, Literature, and Sikh Studies at the University of British Columbia (UBC).
..

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  2. Punjabi Lekhak Munch discussion on Skeena July 10/11 « Skeena
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