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Monday, March 9, 2015

Reading is FUNdamental

Last Tuesday, three Idaho legislators refused to step onto the floor while a Hindu chaplain said a prayer. Senator Sheryl Nuxoll said it's because the United States is "a Christian nation."

"Hindu is a false faith with false gods," she said. "I think it's great that Hindu people can practice their religion but since we're the Senate, we're setting an example of what we, Idaho, believe."
Well I think you're great, Sheryl. Because you gave me something to write about. You reminded me why I read. I imagine that you do not read often.

Read more here:
What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface. Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions. Otherwise you live with your face squashed up against a wall, everything a huge foreground, of details, close-ups, hairs, the weave of the bedsheet, the molecules of the face. Your own skin like a map, a diagram of futility, criscrossed with tiny roads that lead nowhere. Otherwise you live in the moment. Which is not where I want to be.
The story of Margeret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale shows (through flashback) the gradual and terrifying descent of a free society's decline into an oppressive nightmare. It's so believable, you think while reading, so prescient. It's like it could actually happen.

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus we see that it actually does. Constantly. All over the world.

Here. Try this. In Purple Hibiscus a child sees and feels the terror of living in an abusive household. The main character, Kambili, lives in Nigeria. I know, right? It's such a patriarchal culture. Women are treated as second-class. Possessions. What a nightmare. The only way out was something very drastic. Thank goodness we're not like that. Right?
Mama had greeted him the traditional way that women were supposed to, bending low and offering him her back so that he would pat it with his fan made of the soft, straw-colored tail of an animal. Back home that night, Papa told Mama that it was sinful. You did not bow to another human being. It was an ungodly tradition, bowing to an Igwe. So, a few days later, when we went to see the bishop at Awka, I did not kneel to kiss his ring. I wanted to make Papa proud. But Papa yanked my ear in the car and said I did not have the spirit of discernment: the bishop was a man of God; the Igwe was merely a traditional ruler.
In my experience, there has been no better way to get the perspective Atwood talks about than reading good fiction. Nonfiction is good, too, but rarely gets in the head of the protagonists. We don't have the access to their minds that fiction gives us. We see their actions, but not the motivations. Even autobiographies are filtered and censored based on what the author wants us to know. Fiction, when done well, has no varnish.

Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale was published in 1986. It's as insightful, prophetic, and scary as Orwell's 1984. Not ten years earlier, female college students in Iran looked and dressed like this:

At the time of the writing, Atwood and the world had watched as a theocracy turned Iran into something unrecognizable:
In today’s Iran, homosexual behavior and adultery (for women only) are illegal and can carry the death penalty. If a Muslim woman engages in a relationship with a non-Muslim man, she may be sentenced to be whipped. Men (and only men) can contract multiple marriages at a time (up to four permanently and as many temporarily as desired) and can terminate each marriage at will. As for custody, under Iranian law, the children always go to the father—even if the father is not present, the children go to his parents over the mother herself. (from cited article)
In The Handmaid's Tale, America has become her own homegrown theocracy, with many of these same traits. Only based on a different holy book. Offret is a handmaid, like Zilpah from the Bible. Given to Jacob when his wife could not conceive. Handmaids are wombs provided to the aging elite when their wives can no longer bear children. Offret is the first generation of these women, and remembers clearly a more free time, and the process by which women lost their rights and voices. Her gradual telling of how it came about makes her current situation even more unbearable. New bodies hang from a great wall that everyone walks past daily. Their sins are posted as a warning to the rest.
Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub, you'd be boiled to death before you knew it. There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with, as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. None of them were the men we knew. The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. There were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives. We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.
In Purple Hibiscus, 15-year-old Kambili lives through one of many military coups that took place in Nigeria in the 1990s. Her father, a miserable abuser of women and children and also one of the great philanthropists of the region, uses his newspaper to vocally criticize the new government. Her aunt, a liberally-minded college professor, seeks to take Kambili and her brother away from the abuse, even for short durations. If you've ever known an abused woman, you may have asked "why doesn't she just walk away?"

Why doesn't Kambili's aunt leave Nigeria? Pressures on her mount as the new regime scrutinizes what's being taught in the university. Her livelihood and maybe her life is at risk. Her country is an abusive spouse/parent. And yet she stays. We all stay. Part fear of the unknown. Part love. Part pride.
The educated ones leave, the ones with the potential to right the wrongs. They leave the weak behind. The tyrants continue to reign because the weak cannot resist. Do you not see that it is a cycle? Who will break that cycle?
Idaho's a big place, Sheryl. The world's a big place. Read some fiction.