I forgot to mention the name of the translator in the episode, so here it is: Flora Drew (who is also Ma Jian's wife).
Note: this book is more than just a timeline of modern Chinese history and Ma Jian is clearly using metaphor and other creative devices to convey his ideas. I haven't commented on these because this is a brief episode, but you can find more about that in some of the resources below.
I decided to listen to this book on a whim. I was trying to find an audiobook available on Scribd that wasn't too emotionally demanding but was still well written and spotted this in "related reading" to another book I was considering. I saw that it focused on lexicography and dictionaries and that was enough for me!
This short novel follows a team of dictionary editors in a somewhat forgotten corner of a publishing company in Tokyo. It starts with the director, in the face of retirement, looking for someone to replace him and take on the task of producing a new dictionary, The Great Passage, that he and his friend, Professor Matsumodo, have been dreaming of for a long time. As the book progresses, new people join the mission to produce this dictionary, each person eventually discovering the beauty and significance of dictionaries and the subtle meanings of words.
I often chuckle at books but this one had me laughing out loud several times. The characters are so idiosyncratic and the way their personalities bounce off each other often produce moments of comedy for the observer (less often for the characters involved). It also reminded me a little of Sayaka Murata's Convenience Store Woman in the way the characters are so passionate about their work and how this causes some to find them strange. Miura clearly shows an appreciation for people who are conscientious and dedicated to their craft or pursuit.
While there is a driving plot - the mission to complete The Great Passage - and a number of romantic side stories, this book really is about the intricacies of language and dictionaries. It demonstrates the amount of work involved in producing a dictionary and the economic implications that come into play for a publisher. At a deeper level, it explores the power of words and how people can influence the way meanings are expressed and words are defined.
When I started this book I thought about the challenges that must have been involved to translate a book that is founded on nuances in words and associations. I'm sure there are elements of this that could not be rendered in English, but the translator, Juliet Winters Carpenter, has still managed to produce a work that allows the Anglophone reader to appreciate some of these lexical reflections. Since I listened to the audiobook, I had the added pleasure of hearing the words being said in Japanese by the narrator, Brian Nishii, which further enriched my experience of indulging in a topic I always find exciting: the complexity of language. This book is a warm wave to anyone who loves words and wants to spend a few pleasurable hours in the company of others who feel the same.
Quotations I liked
The first extract is a good example of how much time is spent on words and of a character contrast that made me snort with laughter (quote written and shortened by 1ijk.dev):
"“Okay. Then how would you explain shima?”
"What's your hobby, Majime?" Nishioka boldly asked, searching for friendly overture. [...]
Reading The Door by Magda Szabó was, for me, bittersweet, and quietly saddening. This book probably has more to it than I was able to notice, given my lack of knowledge of Hungarian history and society. Having said that, Szabó gives us glimpses into Hungary's recent history through the anecdotes of the main character, so after reading this my knowledge is slightly better!
The Door tells the story of a writer and the neighbourhood housekeeper, Emerence. Emerence is, if I remember correctly, in her 80s, but still going strong in her work. She lives alone, refuses to allow anyone beyond her front door and is very protective of her independence, violently rejecting anyone who tries to help her or do her a good turn. She, however, in her short-tempered way, is the heart of the street, helping people whenever they need it, even when they don't ask for it or show their appreciation. As the story progresses, though, her age finally catches up with her.
The Door was in part a reflection on the emotional experience that both the elderly and those around them go through. Emerence faces the possibility of her carefully protected image of strength and self-sufficiency being destroyed while the narrator has to navigate the heavy guilt of having to decide how to deal with the situation. In youth, we are determined to maintain our image, to establish our independence and self-reliance, to be the giver and not the taker. But if we do reach old age, we will many of us have to face the humbling reality that Allah has created in the cycles of life: we are not invincible.
Quotations I liked
I'm not particularly familiar with Korean history and geography, although more so than I was when I read Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, but I have heard of Jeju Island, off the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula, as a tourist destination. I pictured it as a small, sun-soaked island with beautiful beaches and blue seas. Reading The Island of Sea Women transformed my perception of Jeju. It also made me aware of the strategic importance Jeju Island has held through history as a "stepping stone", as the author puts it, to other major states, including China, Japan, the USSR. The author, Lisa See, is American with Chinese roots (among others) and has written a number of historical novels based in East Asia and Los Angeles' Chinatown where she grew up.
The Island of Sea Women revolves around the friendship-sisterhood of two women, Young-sook and Mi-ja, who grew up together in Hado on Jeju Island. Mi-ja is an orphaned daughter of a Japanese collaborator who is informally adopted by Young-sook's mother despite the stigma attached to her and together the two girls train with their village collective of haenyeo (해녀), women divers who harvest sea creatures for food and to sell, to fulfill their eventual roles as breadwinners of their families. The story is told from the perspective of Young-sook and takes the reader through the Japanese occupation of Korea, WWII and the replacement of the Japanese by the Americans, the Korean War and its aftermath, ending in the modern day with Young-sook as an older woman. Of course, as with any good historical novel, we see all of these events through the very intimate impact that they had on the characters in the story. Also with many historical novels, there is an extensive amount of violence, pain and suffering, and death all wrapped up in one very difficult decision after another. One of the threads that carries through this story is the way these decisions affect relationships, cause misunderstandings and batter a person's heart until it grows hard. As I read, I also found myself going through these emotions, not always willing to consider things from other perspectives.
I recently came across a map of the world that showed all the countries where the USA has intervened, either directly or indirectly, in the democratic process (linked below). I was reminded of that map as I read Lisa See's portrayal of the transition Korea went through after the fall of the Japanese Empire following World War II. The Korean Peninsula was divided into the two parts we know today with each part handed over to a different nation to "assist" the transition process: the North to the USSR, the South to the USA. Popular resistance to this division is clearly represented in the views of the characters on the island who neither favoured Communism nor American "democracy", but just wanted to govern themselves. The impact of artificial polarisation so often used in political manipulation is demonstrated very clearly in this story when some of the Jeju people rise against a new occupation of their land and are labelled as "Reds" by the authorities, with the Americans watching in silence. Of course, this novel is just one person's telling of events, but it offers valuable insight into the way such labels are used by different powers to achieve their own agendas and manipulate the world into seeing populations and events in such binary terms.
Another element of the book that immersed me in a new world was the descriptions of Young-sook's experiences and feelings of being a haenyeo. This book gave me an appreciation for the life of the many people across the world and history who have traditionally worked on and in the water and the dangers they have learnt to manage over generations. Similar to much traditional work that depends on the cycles of nature, there is a deep sense of understanding of nature and of the need to be able to read and stay in tune with the changes through the days and seasons. The comfort and sense of autonomy that Young-sook found in the sea were also at times a respite from the horrors happening throughout the novel. A part that most drove this home for me was a description of how the haenyeo would continue diving well into their pregnancies and even sometimes give birth in the sea! It left in awe of such a connection to the natural world and, at the same time, very aware of how different my relationship with nature is.
Towards the end, set in the 2000s, Young-sook talks about how more and more tourists were coming to visit the island, now a UNESCO Heritage Site, and some came specifically to see the haenyeo at work. By this time, the role was disappearing, a development Young-sook attributes to increased control of their activities by external parties, changes in beliefs (patriarchal Confucianism from the mainland replacing a matrifocal society) and "soft" young generations who couldn't handle, and weren't interested in, the hard life of a haenyeo. Young-sook expresses frustration at the tourists coming to watch her and her equally elderly fellow haenyeo do the work they have done every day for decades. By this point in the book, I had followed Young-sook through her entire career as a haenyeo, I had witnessed her development from a "baby diver" to chief haenyeo and seen how this was not just one job of many, but a crucial foundation of the whole community: it had fed fathers and daughters and sisters, it had sent children to school, it had allowed Young-sook to see other parts of the world. It was the core of who she and her community was. With this perspective, I suddenly felt conscious of how hollow trying to preserve such folk traditions can be when they no longer hold the significance they once had in their society. I myself love to see how people have lived and understand the traditions of a place and people, but it reminded me of a statement Malek Bennabi made in من أجل التغيير (For the Sake of Change), when he talks about (I paraphrase) people in Muslim societies putting on folk performances or wearing traditional clothing and thinking that this was a way of holding on to the glories of our past, when in reality they are just for show when the core ideas that they come from are no longer what drive society. How do we maintain a connection to our past and values without turning our history into meaningless performance?
I listened to the audiobook version of this, narrated by Jennifer Lim, and it was a captivating experience. She was able to create the different characters' voices so vividly (my favourite was irritated older Young-sook) all with accurate pronunciation - in my limited knowledge - of the Korean names and haenyeo terms. This novel has everything I look for in historical fiction: I learnt a lot about Jeju and Korean history, the settings were described in beautiful clarity, the different characters were sensitively and honestly portrayed, and I was constantly emotionally connected to the story. This book was translated into Korean in 2019 so I looked up the Korean version on Korean websites to read some Korean reviews of it and I might do that more often! The most brutal events on Jeju after the Japanese left, known as the "4/3 events" (3rd April events), during which around 30,000 people were killed, were denied by the South Korean government, forbidding people from even talking about it, for many years, so this adds another layer to reading the Korean reviews. Overall, when I came to the end of this book, the foremost feeling that swept over me was anguish for the horrific suffering so many have and continue to go through at the hands of weak people, unprincipled people, and evil people. I pray that we can be a force for justice, courage and comfort across the world.
This book received a lot of attention from Muslim readers when it came out and now that I've read it I can see why. It's sweet (mostly), uncompromising and satisfyingly in line with many Muslim romance sensibilities.
I liked that S.K. Ali decided to set this book in an unusual location for a Western Muslim novel: Doha. I think the less antagonising setting provided some respite from the intensity of the political and social commentary on Western Muslim experiences present in Zayneb's side of the story. The other respite I found was in the small moments that Adam and Zayneb had with their respective families, especially Adam's family and Zayneb's aunt. I thought these were beautifully tender and empathetic. S.K. Ali also clearly chose the backgrounds of her characters carefully to provide a range of perspectives, with both protagonists coming from multiple ethnic backgrounds and converts in both families. Although she didn't delve too deeply into the specific experiences that come with being from such a family, I think just making these choices will have provided something fresh to readers from mixed backgrounds and those more traditionally represented in modern Western Muslim fiction.
I think my favourite character has to be Hanna, Adam's sister. She's everything you want in that supporting role of little sister: cute, nosy and funny (sometimes unintentionally). As in Uzma Jalaluddin's Ayesha at Last, I connected more with the male protagonist, Adam, who is generally more introspective and considered in how he deals with other people and himself. I imagine this impression is partly due to my own personality type. I think S.K. Ali did a good job of creating two quite well-rounded characters who were different in many ways but who held the same fundamental values, allowing them to support and complement each other.
Perhaps an element of the writing style that jarred with me a little was the parts where Islamic practices and opinions were explained to the reader in the mouths of characters. This type of approach immediately pulls the Muslim reader (or this one, at least) out of the feeling that "this book was written for me". I assume S.K. Ali wanted both Muslim and non-Muslim readers to feel comfortable and make a statement about certain aspects of how Muslims in the West are perceived. I'm not sure if it is really possible for a writer to explain such ideas to a non-Muslim reader without slightly alienating the Muslim reader, or the other way round. The explanations seemed to happen less as the book progressed though, so by the last third or so I could fully settle into it.
I listened to the audiobook version of this and I thought Priya Ayyar and Tim Chiou, as well as S.K. Ali as the narrator, did a great job. I could really immerse myself in the characters and I thought the fact that Tim Chiou is Taiwanese-American shows the attention to detail in choosing the actors. Also, his portrayal of Hanna made me laugh out loud more than once.
When I put myself in the shoes of a late-teen Muslim woman growing up in many communities in the US today, I can see how this book would absolutely be an affirming, warm, comforting book that she can fully immerse herself in and, thinking back to my own parallel teenage moment of seeing myself in a YA romance book, this thought warms my heart even more than the book itself.
I don't want to say a lot about this book because I don't want to disturb the feeling I have from just finishing it by intellectualising it. It was emotional and empathetic and very personal. There is a clear message and purpose behind the writing of it, but they are conveyed not by listing all the arguments and rationale but by taking the reader into the heart of Amal Shahid, a 16 year old Black Muslim American boy who is imprisoned despite being innocent, (and of his hurting, striving mother) and letting us fully experience the journey and implications of an unjust criminalising criminal justice system.
The fact that it was co-written by Yusef Salaam, one of the Exonerated Five, five teenage boys who were imprisoned for a crime they didn't commit, who served almost seven years in a juvenile detention facility, most likely contributed in a big way to the intimate experience of Amal's voice. Having read a little about what Yusef Salaam has said about how his faith helped him to get through his incarceration experience, I do wonder why Amal's reliance on Allah and his faith seems to be toned down in comparison. I understand that this is not an autobiographical work but Amal was written as a Muslim character.
The book is written in verse and there were several points when I really wanted to have a written copy so I could highlight lines that hit me particularly hard. It reminded me of Elizabeth Acevedo's The Poet X in the way they both use verse so effectively to convey a real and pain-filled teenage voice to a teenage audience. I listened to this as an audiobook and I find that with fiction particularly the narrator is very important for allowing the listener to access the full atmosphere of the story; in this case, I think Ethan Herisse did an excellent job.
I've just created a new category of post on here; that's how excited I am about this piece of news that I wanted to share with you! To the news...
I wrote a paragraph here listing the many reasons I respect Shaykh Akram Nadwi, but I feel like that would be contrary to his (from what I see) ethos of humility and getting on with work without too much talk, ma sha Allah. Instead, I'll just say that of all the work he does, the two most relevant to this post are his particular focus on involving women in Muslim intellectual and social life and publishing his own books in multiple languages.
But the book I am referring to is is no simple book: it's a 43-volume biographical dictionary of female hadith scholars across history! Entitled الوفاء بأسماء النساء (Al-Wafa' Bi Asma' An-Nisa'), this collection is written in Arabic. However, for non-Arabic speakers or those who want a shorter read since this is more of a reference collection, an introductory book called Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam was published in English in 2007 and can be bought here. I read this book a few years ago and it really opened my eyes to the range and sheer number of women who have contributed to our knowledge and understanding of Islam through history in a major way.
As a side note, Safiya and I had a discussion about women's spirituality and individual, personal worship in the motherhood podcast episode recently and I feel like this type of publication can really help to refresh the understanding of Muslim women and men that being a woman (and indeed a mother, wife, daughter, etc.) is certainly not a reason to be any less ambitious in our study and contribution to the Islamic Sciences. I'm sure it could also give us something to think about in terms of how our social structures often fail to support women in these endeavours - another topic discussed in that episode. Of course, it's one thing to make airy statements about women's importance in Islam and another thing to have a 43-volume collection of books listing the lives and contributions of generations and generations of Muslim women.
May this work serve as a reference for many other scholars and academics to produce impactful, meaningful work. May Allah accept this huge work from Shaykh Akram and reward him and his family and all those involved in this work immensely. May Allah have mercy on all the women and men across history who have strived and dedicated their lives to Islamic scholarship, giving us the rich literature we can refer to today.
Source: Shaykh Mohammad Akram Nadwi (Official) Facebook page
The ladies at The Qarawiyyin Project kindly invited me to suggest a book for one of their book list posts recently. I was excited to work with them since I really admire what they are doing and strongly recommend having a look at the articles on their site.
For my review, I picked a book that I haven't reviewed on this blog, Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas by Sylviane A. Diouf. This book was a very educational experience for me, helping me to reframe a lot of what I had previously learnt about the Transatlantic Slave Trade. I include my review below; please also go to The Qarawiyyin Project's full post to see the reviews written by other excellent Muslim women book reviewers.
Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas by Sylviane A. Diouf
Servants of Allah is a striking work for several reasons. Starting with the social, economic and religious context of West Africa before the Transatlantic Slave Trade, its ambitious scope also covers the daily experiences of enslaved Muslim Africans in the Americas, their leading roles in uprisings and their legacy there today. In every chapter, the level of detail and scholarly rigour is apparent, leading to a deeply rewarding and eye-opening experience for the Muslim reader. The only area that felt occasionally imprecise was some descriptions of practices by Muslims that seem to be specific to the individual context rather than the strictly Islamic practices an unacquainted reader might interpret them as, such as the use of talismans.
This book complicates the dominant narrative and steps outside the definitions and confines imposed by some Western discourse on a range of key issues. In particular, it explores conceptions of slavery, Islam in West Africa, racial versus religious identity, the intellectual and social status of people taken as slaves and, of course, their religious beliefs. Many discussions around these topics often skim over such nuances, leading to misconceptions and gaps in knowledge which may then be filled by people with less honourable motivations. While this book is certainly not an authoritative religious text, it provides much needed context to allow the reader to ask deeper, more fruitful questions.
Although this is primarily an academic book, Diouf’s tone is one of curiosity, humility and respect for the people she describes. This makes reading it not only an intellectually stimulating experience, but also an intensely emotional one. A sense of the vastness, beauty and power of our history and Ummah is felt in the intimate and empathetic descriptions of individual lives. It portrays the efforts made to hold onto faith against sometimes targeted oppression, and the strength and dignity of Muslims who didn’t just go through the motions, but lived Islam as an all-encompassing way of life. Perhaps the most significant strength of this book is how it flips the passive discourse around these men and women known simply as “slaves” and creates a deeply impactful picture of Muslims who knew who they were, where they came from and their ultimate destination. While rose-tinted glasses benefit no one and Diouf’s accounts are rightly not all positive, such a personal and empowered representation of enslaved peoples and Muslims is important for everyone with sincere interest.
As this book covers many complex topics, it is a good starting point that can then give direction to further reading, supported by a substantial bibliography at the end.
Please go to The Qarawiyyin Project's post to see the full list and reviews!
I Refuse to Condemn is not the type of book I find easy to review; it's a complex interweaving of the personal and the structural rooted in the writers' difficult, painful experiences. Although I attempted to review it in this post, I considered that more a collection of thoughts. In such cases, I like to highlight particular lines or chapters that struck me, so I thought I would do so in this post.
Note: I was provided with an advanced review copy of this book by the publisher and editor with no conditions attached.
Remaking Rule #1: 'I -Utterly- Refuse to Condemn...' by Shenaz Bunglawala
What if communication isn't just about what is said by a speaker, but about the integrity of the content being communicated, the agency inherent in the act of speaking out? What happens with the dissolution of this agency when the speaker parrots not their own words but words chosen to mollify an audience, is it possible for a Muslim to be ambivalent about something like this?
After the powerful and personal introduction by editor Asim Qureshi, I felt that this chapter was a strong start to the collection. It broke down the discussion around the book's topic, the expectation for Muslims to explicitly condemn violent acts by Muslims, in a way that was clearly developed and rooted in a tangible reality. Of course, I'm not suggesting that only numbers and tangible measures are of value in such a discussion, but I found it insightful and took a different approach to other pieces in the collection.
The Four Stages of Moral Panic by Adam Elliott-Cooper
News items exploring questions relating to racism which have little tangible effect on people's lives, perhaps only distantly connected to the realities of racism (affecting housing, employment, immigration status, criminal justice or health), can create the impression that anti-racism is a somewhat petty culture war.
Reading this was a moment of realisation for me.
Hearing young Black people recount stories of violence and drug distribution is met with wide eyes and open mouths. And while we should always be shocked at stories from our streets in which harm is caused or risk is taken in the possession and sale of criminalised drugs, can we really be surprised?
Navigating Refusal Within the Academy by Shereen Fernandez and Azeezat Johnson
Something which I had to grapple with alone in my own fieldwork was the feeling of familiarity; the fact that I could see myself in my participants' experiences and narrations. This became a source of being both protective and defensive when it came to my research and more importantly, my participants. Rather than see it as a limitation, I argue that such a connection elevates our research to higher standards of accountability which so often is ignored in academia.
Working in these spaces is predicated on the suppression of emotional responses to the violence we and our loved ones face: we are asked to cut out parts of who we are to fit within the confines of academic debate.
Secular academia and Prevent is not a combination any Muslim is excited to engage with. This piece brought some difficult feelings to the surface for me. May Allah give us courage when we need it, wisdom in our silence and forgiveness for our shortcomings.
The (Im)Possible Muslim by Yassir Morsi
The part of us as humans that exists on 'land' presents no problem for me to conceptualise. I am Egyptian, British, Australian, I am a psychologist, I am academic. I am the sum of my lived experiences; my everydayness, my lineage and heritage. However, the second part of us, the half of the boat in the 'water', our extra-natural part, is ready to set sail, ready to grow upwards, to search and seek, ready to strive for the pleasure of God, ready to submit. [...] Condemnation is a regressive initiation act for Muslims [...] that denies one half of our being.
This piece was one of the most touching and profound for me; not only did it address a crucial element that is rarely present in secular discussions around this topic - the impact of existing in such an environment on a Muslim's faith and Islam - but it was also written in a beautiful, sensitive, poetic style.
It is Allah Who Condemns by Cyrus McGoldrick
We are not minorities, but members of the ummah of Muhammad. We are a body, wherever we go. Wherever we were born, wherever we die, even if we have no leader or state, we are a nation. Our allegiance to each other is a divine obligation.
Another chapter that gave me a feeling of recognition, I felt that this one said out loud some ideas that many Muslims might sense but not know how to or want to voice publicly. It was also written honestly and openly, carrying the reader along on McGoldrick's emotional and intellectual journey as he navigated trying to live his faith with integrity.
I think these quotes summarise the combination of approaches in this book that helped me to think about this topic. The first three highlight the structural injustices that need to be understood and addressed by us as Muslims who aspire to a just world for all. While we are trying to do this, we need to protect our understanding of who we are and our ultimate purpose. The last two quotes soothed my heart in addressing this, whether directly or otherwise. Contrary to some messaging from mainstream and other media, we need protect our hearts to ensure we don't internalise their narrative to the point where we become "the Other" in our own lives. May Allah guide us to understand our value in the way He has taught us: in our relationship with Him.
For some related reviews, resources and pertinent questions, read the review of this book here.
I've been thinking about this book for a while after finishing it and I've come to the conclusion that it has real potential as a new Muslim-specific personality type test. It would work something like this: for each chapter, you choose how much it resonated with you on a spectrum and then at the end you get an overall score about how you deal with the pressure to hate yourself (aka condemn the world's Muslim population).
I joke, but this demonstrates what I feel is the strength of this book: the variety of perspectives and wide-ranging responses offered by the different contributors as well as the fact that they all have intimate experience of the topic through their professional life, social work and/or research. For context, this book provides insight into the workings and impact of racism in national security policies and discourse with specific focus on Muslims from the Western world in the context of the "War on Terror". It is divided into four broad sections focusing on the history of these policies and attitudes, and three different areas of impact and resistance: structural, personal and performative. Within these sections, some writers choose to focus more on the detailed workings of the system, others on its psychological and emotional effects and others on the spiritual impacts and response.
I mentioned in a previous post about this book, before I had read it, that one of my expectations was that it would help me to break down my own feelings and experiences around the topic. There were a few chapters that certainly did this for me, but for the most part, it wasn't the cathartic experience that other reviewers have mentioned, but more of an exploration of how others perceive and deal with these challenges in their own contexts, where they have largely faced much more direct, aggressive examples of this than I have. May Allah protect them, their families and everyone in similar situations. Having said that, I suspect that this is one of those books that will keep rolling around in my mind, shining a brighter light on relevant experiences and ideas that pop up every now and then as I go through daily life.
I had hoped that since it was by Muslims for Muslims (in my understanding but maybe I'm mistaken), it might go a bit further in terms of questioning how we can move forward using frameworks rooted more explicitly in a Muslim consciousness and with reference to Islamic thought and history. I do realise that this may be influenced by my own perspective and expectations and perhaps there are elements that I have overlooked.
However, I don't want this to suggest that this book is anything less than a valuable contribution to discussion around the topic at hand: a rigorous and sincere work by the editor Asim Qureshi and the contributors. It is also quite ground-breaking in its particular focus on the Muslim experience of national security policies, which particularly in academic circles is often written about by non-Muslim scholars.
I don't want this to be too long, so I think I will write another post to highlight a few particular quotes and chapters that struck me, in sha Allah. In the meantime, here are a few questions that came to mind as I was reading:
Note: I was provided with an advanced review copy of this book by the publisher with no conditions attached.
Reader. Occasional writer. Muslim.
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