Wonder

Sunday, 23 August 2015

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Last night I celebrated Havdalah with a bunch of great people by going on a small boat cruise on the River Soar. Havdalah is a Jewish religious ceremony that marks the end of Shabbat and begins the new week. We often conclude it by saying ‘shavua tov’ – ‘have a good week’. The distinction between Shabbat, the day of rest, and the working week, is becoming increasingly important to me. I’m also realising how much common sense there is to the spiritual practices that I’ve taken for granted.

I think in academia in particular, there is a tendency to conflate your identity, who you think you are and your sense of self, with your job. But I am not a job. I am not very good though at making this distinction all the time, just like I’m not very good at maintaining the distinction between the day of rest and the working week. I am a workaholic, and this is not news to anyone who knows me. If you’ve been fighting for a particular job for so many years, once you do get it, there is a tendency to ‘pay back’ your gratitude via overworking. But ultimately, as I’ve found, this is counter-productive to doing this job well. A job only works as a job when you learn to maintain perspective about it.

This made me think of a couple of things last night. Firstly, a comment I saw on a friend’s Facebook post (I hope she doesn’t mind me mentioning it here): this comment described how Rabbi Abraham Heschel argues that religion begins from wonder, and that this wonder is integral to ethics in our lives. I do remember discussing this a few years ago with someone. Interestingly, it made me think of Susan Sontag’s famous line that, ‘Cinema began in wonder’.

Last night, as I was watching the calmness of the water and sunset with a glass of Kiddush wine in my hand and a man playing the guitar next to me, I thought of both of these wonders. I wondered if my natural inclination towards researching cinema within my academic discipline and job is related to my wonder at basic things about the world: how is the water this calm and still, how is someone able to play the guitar this well, how is the rain this beautiful from the confines of a boat, and why do I find so much wonder in a religion that I simultaneously interrogate with that same curiosity that drives my research?

Okay then, maybe my job and my life are connected, integrally. Maybe it’s naive to think I can separate the day of rest from the working week so neatly and philosophically. But maybe that day of rest exists to remind me of that wonder, and so I need to protect it, even in small ways.

Two things

Saturday, 15 August 2015

What’s this, I hear you say, another blog post only a few days after the last one? Actually, you’re probably not saying that because nobody reads this blog any more (or blogs in general, apparently, and sadly).

Anyway, if you are reading, my last two readers, I have to bring to your attention these two things, about which I have little add, because they are eloquent on their own.

Oliver Sacks: Sabbath

The last paragraph in particular makes my heart ache:

“And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”

On my new lifestyle

“I’m not that kind of woman, I want to say to the people who look at me as if I am a woman with a dog in a bag. I want to gesture, to explain, but they’ll probably look at the bag, which has a dog’s head sticking out of it. The face of the dog-head will be making an expression like Andy Rooney would make if he was riding the subway in a bag. And the fact of that dog-head will surely trump anything I have to say about what kind of a woman I am, or what kind of dog I have in a bag, even though it is not a dog that was born for a bag. So I won’t say it. I’ll just pet the dog in my bag and think: I guess I’m not so afraid of commitment.

(Jean writes posts that hide so much warmth and intelligence behind humour. Or should I say, not hide, but display them through humour?)

Jean also has a newsletter you should totally sign up for.

The Aussie literary scene

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

When I lived in Perth, there would be the odd phone call from Eastern states companies calling at what were obscene times of the day in Perth. You’d never believe the degree of surprise, cluelessness, or simply thoughtlessness in response to the annoyance they received on the line from someone who happens to live in Perth and does not share the same hour of the day as them. ‘Why are you angry?’ Err, because Australia does not revolve around Eastern states clocks and perhaps you should have checked the time difference before waking me up (especially if you’re a professional business – act like it)? It’s a simple gesture to check what time it is in the city you are calling, my life revolves around this act now that I live in England; my life has always revolved around this act living in Perth, whether I was trying to contact someone in another state/city, or another country.

I also remember listening, numerous times, to my parents’ own frustration on the line with Eastern states companies. Many companies within Australia don’t ship standard art supplies (and numerous other products) to Perth, did you know that? Since my parents own an art business, I do. I’ve listened many times to their conversations with companies, with lines such as ‘you are aware Perth is part of Australia, aren’t you’, being sarcastically trotted out. Who could blame them. This is not even mentioning event organisers who refuse to acknowledge you exist as an artist because you don’t live in the Eastern states, as my mother has found out too many times.

We’re not talking about simply the logistics of geography. Sure, Australia is a huge country and Perth is one of the most isolated cities in the world. Businesses, rightly or wrongly, make business decisions that often cut us off from the rest of Australia (and the rest of the world) to save money (I’m pointing the finger at you, Qantas). Capitalism is as capitalism does. But I’m also talking about a wider issue here – a cultural, artistic and national definition of what it means to be Australian and who is included in that discussion.

Let’s look at the jokes about Perth. Hands up if you’ve grown up in Perth and went to the Eastern states, only to hear the smug, self-congratulatory jokes about your ‘backwater’ of a city and its bogan inhabitants? Look, we Perthites also make these jokes, but we make them lovingly. Even when my friends and I legitimately and seriously critique the problems in Perth, we do so from a position of knowing the city and its people and wanting it to be better because we love it and have grown up there. It is a little bit different when it comes out of the mouths of others.

We all know the problems in Perth: the lack of jobs, the lack of opportunities, the ridiculously high cost of living, the insular attitudes. These are problems faced Australia-wide, yet we are rarely included in the wider national discussion about them, as if this insignificant ‘backwater’ has nothing to add. Economically though, it was fine to ride on the back of our mining boom. You’d understand then why so many in Perth felt this stank of hypocrisy. I find this hypocrisy about as productive or intelligent as the old ‘Sydney vs. Melbourne’ as ‘best city in Australia’ debate. Let me remind you, there are more than two cities in Australia – it is, as I said, a huge country with diverse people.

All of this is a way of introducing a more specific topic within this wider one. I’ve been having long and thoughtful email conversations with writer friends in Perth about the concept of the ‘Aussie literary scene’. More specifically, about how much harder Perth writers have to work just to get their foot in the door with the holy grail of the Eastern states literary scene, where most of the writing gigs and publishing opportunities tend to be. Whether this is acknowledged outright or simply implied, let’s face it, our literary scene is dominated by writers primarily from the Eastern states. Or at least, it is so in the public imagination and ideological conception of the Aussie literary scene, if not in actual statistics. For example, Melbourne is highly regarded as a literary, cultural and artistic centre; Perth is regarded as a cultural backwater. Perhaps these stereotypes have a reason and a truth to them. But they are also recreated and perpetuated by individual and collective practices of writer and editorial communities within the Eastern states.

What do I mean by this? I can only direct you to the lived experience of writers I know in Perth, and a little bit of my own. They fall into the headings of geography, perception and convenience.

Geography: Put simply, a writer growing up in the Eastern states has more opportunities over one in Perth. Being a writer is not easy wherever you happen to live in the world, I think we can all agree on that. But for an Australian writer who wishes to stay in Perth, it’s slim pickings. Not just because Perth itself needs to more aggressively and passionately develop its own literary scene, but also because editors, writers and literary communities in the Eastern states tend to function through cliques that perhaps unwittingly or unthinkingly privilege Melbourne and Sydney writers, and you often feel like the uncool kid in school trying to join the cool gang (and pathetically taking the bread crumbs where they fall). I’m not saying this to be mean or to suggest that I’ve not had supportive and excellent relationships with Eastern states writers and editors. In fact some of my own life experience would negate what I just wrote. But my life experience is just that, only mine.

The geographical politics of this is that Australian literature has, in my opinion, narrowed in focus to the experiences of those who live in certain parts of Australia. I see the same voices in literary magazines and journals. I see the same types of people getting freelancing gigs and columns by media outlets. I see the same people talking to each other online (and if you join in their conversations, there isn’t the same level of intimacy because you are not really part of their community). I worry that geographical distance is making our literary scene insular – and insularity is a problem that I see facing Australians in general. We have to fight it because we are actually so smart and talented. We really are.

Perception: I don’t generally think Australian editors and writers think of you any less or are less willing to give your work a chance, individually speaking, simply because you are not from the Eastern states. In fact, I find the idea quite silly. However, I do think many work under (what I hope is!) an unintentional perception of what literature and writing are based on the instinctual intimacy and knowingness that comes from working with people who share your life experiences and your immediate world.

The terrain of your city, even your suburb or individual home, is its own little universe. The terrain of your Australianness is likewise its own diverse thing. It is human nature to reach for the familiar, for those who reflect your world to you. I do the same too. I also try to challenge myself with the opposite, but this is a conscious act that requires hard work and requires risks. This relates to the next issue of convenience.

Convenience: I’ve been an editor, and still am one. When you have a million deadlines, when you need to get an issue out, when you have other projects of your own you need to attend to, it is so much simpler to fall back on your ‘go to’ writers. I see nothing wrong with this. I’ve become one of those ‘go to’ writers for some of my editors, and let me tell you, I worked damn hard to reach this position – I’ve proven myself. You establish those relationships through hard work, mostly. But I don’t live in a fairy tale of meritocracy where I don’t realise that privilege and convenience come into play too. It requires a conscious, dedicated and responsible effort on the part of editors to not simply give new voices a chance, but to actively seek them out and encourage them, even when they are hiding or hidden. If you are not willing to do that as an editor, you have no business being one. You are doing yourself, your writers, your community and your readers a disservice.

I understand that if you are an editor in Melbourne, for example, it’s just easier to reach for your Melbourne writers, whom you’ve probably known for years, whom are now your friends, whom you went to university with, whom you see at regular literary events and parties, with whom you socialise and share ideas and have coffee and watch your kids grow up. Writers in Perth, or other Australian cities, cannot compete with that, and we know that. We know we have to break the barrier of convenience and perception in order to get our foot in the door. Perhaps some of us give up too easily; but perhaps there needs to be a wider gap in the door. Perhaps convenience is the killer of diversity.

There’s a part of me that feels bad in writing this, mainly because people have been incredibly kind to me (even when I didn’t deserve it), have given me chances, and have allowed me to get my foot in the door. There was also a lot of shit behind the scenes, but I won’t go there because it’s irrelevant now. I don’t seek to create an ‘us vs. them’ debate here. Only to speak honestly about some things that concern me. I feel emotionally and professionally invested in Australia, even if I live in England now. I feel we are so much better than we think we are. So maybe we should be having these difficult conversations more often. After all, we critique that which we love most.

Jane Eyre on Stage and Screen

Friday, 17 April 2015

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I’m giving a talk at the National Theatre in London in September, so if anyone would like to buy tickets and spread the word, please do so! Here are the details:

Jane Eyre on Stage and Screen
Friday 11 September, 4 - 5.30pm
Cottesloe Room, Clore Learning Centre
£5 (£4 concessions)

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”

In this richly illustrated talk Dr Hila Shachar explores some of the many and varied adaptations of this classic novel. Film, TV and stage productions have approached the story in different ways from the conventional romance to a social drama of class and gender. Starting with stage productions soon after its publication in the 19th century, Dr Shachar will consider how adaptations of Jane Eyre are often a barometer of the times.

Feel free to share widely and I hope to actually meet some of my online London buddies in September.

Gracia also shared this review on her blog, which features some lovely words about one of the zines I did with her and Louise:

“Taking inspiration from contemporary artists, the duo has engaged and commissioned others to participate in the making of new work. Writer Hila Shachar provided the poetic text, Evening Postcard, an enthralling tribute to the night, which features in It’s the Dusty Hour, (August 2012). This enchanting zine, hand-stitched with a single piece of golden thread, presents spirited animals that occupy a series of interior spaces. These worlds are at once theatrical and delicate, presenting readers and print lovers alike with the perfect escape: animated wonderlands inhabited by enthralling narrative.”

Click here for the full article.

And no biggie, but today is my one year anniversary since moving to England. I have been here for a year and slightly terrified at how quickly this year has gone. It has been a difficult and life-changing year, but I don’t regret the decision to move here. I’m still in the middle of end of term madness, marking, and far too many deadlines with editors. But when I have the chance to collect my thoughts, I suspect some words will be written about this year.

Image credit: Jane Eyre poster from the National Theatre website.

Sink and swim

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

sink and swim

Just a quick note to say I’ve written and published this article over on Medium. It was a difficult write, and I really don’t have much more to say on it here.

Words, and more words

Saturday, 21 March 2015

World Poetry Day

World Poetry Day

World Poetry Day

World Poetry Day

World Poetry Day

World Poetry Day

World Poetry Day

World Poetry Day

World Poetry Day

World Poetry Day

I haven’t been here in a while and it is not due to lack of wanting but lack of time. We are nearing the end of the teaching year here in England – there will be a few more weeks of teaching, and I will most likely be marking non-stop till the end of May, but I can see the end. While the end of this, my first teaching year here, is most welcome in the sense that this year has been simply nuts in terms of workload, I am genuinely sad at the thought of not seeing my students each week. It’s almost cliché to say it, but I like them – I like them as people, I like them even when they frustrate me, and I like encountering other minds encountering texts I know and love for the first time.

So it seems appropriate to me to visit this space on World Poetry Day, which is today, and bombard you with words I love just as I feel I have been bombarded this year with so many things I love, yet so much pain and homesickness and adjusting to a new life. I want to write more and perhaps in a few months when things settle down and the university is quiet and the students have left for their summer holiday, the writing will once again dominate my life as teaching has dominated it for the past few months. But I find I like this ‘domination’. I always thought of myself as a person who loves order and who feels overwhelmed by chaos. I always thought that people exhaust me too much simply because I am shy and introverted. But this year, I feel that despite the stress, I have found a purpose, and I have sometimes enjoyed the exhaustion for what it is rather than fighting against it.

So here’s to words and more words, and to students and more students.

P.S. I have passed my probation period and am now a permanent member of staff at my university. This still seems like fiction, like a fantasy. Perhaps typing it out will make it seem real. I often return to this photo and stare at it early in the morning to convince myself of my new reality:

Moi

P.P.S I have nearly been in England for a year, can you believe it?

The more things change?

I was waiting for the bus early one morning last week, really really tired, and really really cold. And wet. Mid-way through the rain, it turned into snow and I could feel my fingers going numb from under my gloves. I started swearing in my head at that stage and wishing I could just crawl into bed for a week.

Because it will soon be International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, my mind drifted to other people who stood in the snow. I forgot how cold I was and felt rather stupid and selfish.

This is something I’ve been thinking about lately: what it must have felt like, physically, emotionally and psychologically, to be in the snow, with little protection, in those camps. To feel that abandoned by the world. To be that naked with no one to care. How do human beings endure that? Our bodies and minds are not built for that kind of assault. It shocks me every time I think about it, and that shock never wears off.

Each year we say ‘never again’ and each year we mean it, but also, we know it’s not the truth. Because the only thing that protects Jews from ‘never again’ is not the goodwill or benevolence of the world which has learnt its lesson, but our own determined self-protection. You don’t need to look very far to know that the world has not only not learnt its lesson, but is mutating and expanding anti-Semitism in varied new directions.

Yesterday, the UN held its first-ever meeting on anti-Semitism. It took till 2015 for them to do that. What the hell were they waiting for, exactly? The more things change, the more they stay the same.**

I don’t want to remember the Holocaust for my own sake, or the sake of present Jews alone. But simply, for the sake of those whom the world failed to protect, those who were turned into numbers, standing alone in the snow.

**I leave you with illustrative and necessary reading:

‘The Jewish situation, too, is marked by a disjuncture between what we say about ourselves and what is said about us.’

Belgian public schools becoming ‘Jew-free’ zones.

‘My great uncle Alex led a wonderful life after the war as an art dealer, but, as I said, he never again trusted the country that had betrayed him so badly. When I asked once why he refused to keep his paintings in a bank vault, preferring instead to keep them hidden in his house, he replied: “Because they always come for the Jews.” Plus ça change.

‘What will it take for progressives to understand in their bones that Jew-hatred can never be one whit more defensible than any other racial insanity? A competitive number of Jewish bodies? Will resolutions flow now through academic associations calling for sanctions against Jew-hating institutions? Why is there any hesitation about protecting a vulnerable and long-devastated people—even when the Jewish State commits its own crimes? Is there always to be an asterisk about racism, where the attached footnote reads: Jews need not apply?

‘The silence that descended on Paris on the eve of Shabbat, after the echoes of shootings in the north and east of the city quieted down, was not light. It was thick, strangling, burdensome.’