The fabled crop of winter

First published in DNA

For the past two years, from the time of my intercontinental drift to North America, winter hadn’t coiled me in its viper-like grasp. I had thus brushed off warnings of “bitter, brutal Canadian winters” as hoax spun by hyperbolic weaklings. Then, the winter of 2013-14 happened. Like a nightly creature that keeps its movements hushed, it pounced on me — surreptitiously and with a bloodthirsty vengeance.

Curiously enough, while I found myself abjectly underprepared to deal with the onslaught of the season’s icy blows, my imagination experienced an odd and even mystifying boost. A spruce tree coated with the first dust of snow became a young-at-heart old man for me. A pine tree, resolute in its evergreen dignity, seen from the window next to my seat at work, became a trusted companion when all the other trees surrounding it bared their branches. Snow-covered cupped hedges appeared as giant ice-cream cones ready to be licked clean by overgrown kids like me. As my mostly unimaginative mind ran wild with wintry metaphors, I began digging into winter in fiction.

To my delight, I discovered that this bone-numbing, grinding stone of a season has moved many a storyteller’s creative muscles. In The Snow Man, O Henry sets the winter scene up in the countryside amidst a menacing snowstorm. Arguably not in league with his finest short narratives, the story nevertheless resonated with me — because the narrator’s disdain for snow equalled mine.

Of all the curious knickknacks, mysteries, puzzles, Indian gifts, rat-traps, and well-disguised blessings that the gods chuck down to us from the Olympian peaks, the most disquieting and evil-bringing is the snow… [The Snow Man, O Henry]

Interestingly, the story opens with this sentence, “Housed and windowpaned from it, the greatest wonder to little children is the snow.” Going by the number of times schools in our area shut down this winter owing to snow-related danger on the roads, I suspect I know why children love the white stuff as much as they do.

At the same time, the prospect of snow days can prove to be a jolting annoyance in the routine lives of stay-at-home parents. Winters were frustratingly mild in North Carolina, but the year I was in the fifth grade we got lucky. Snow fell, and, for the first time in years, it accumulated. School was cancelled, and two days later we got lucky again. There were eight inches on the ground, and, rather than melting, it froze. [Let it Snow, David Sedaris]

By late November, snow had enveloped every house, building, tree and park in the laidback Ontario town where I live. My city was a white-hooded mischief maker; even street signs hid behind pillows of snow, conning rush-hour traffic. Amnesiac fields of snow quizzed me, “What is the colour of green?” In the eyes of Dominican-American author, Julia Álvarez’s young protagonist, snow resembles something much more sinister. At the Catholic school she goes to after immigrating to the United States, her teacher draws a picture of mushroom cloud on the blackboard to explain the consequences of a nuclear war in the prevailing Cold War environment.

Then comes the girl’s first snowfall. The months grew cold, November, December. It was dark when I got up in the morning, frosty when I followed my breath to school. One morning as I sat at my desk daydreaming out the window, I saw dots in the air like the ones Sister Zoe had drawn random at first, then lots and lots. I shrieked, “Bomb! Bomb!” Sister Zoe jerked around, her full black skirt ballooning as she hurried to my side. But then Sister Zoe’s shocked look faded. “Why, Yolanda dear, that’s snow!” She laughed. “Snow”. [How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Julia Álvarez]

Between December and February, the winter of 2013-14 unleashed its redoubtable fierceness. A massive ice storm hit parts of Ontario, knocking out electricity and bringing entire cities to a standstill.

Arctic gales blew mercilessly as did blizzards and snow squalls. It was no longer just a matter of battling nature’s forces. Despite being wrapped under layers of clothing, the promise of central heating and the luxury of a fireplace, I recoiled as the cold pulled me into its vortex.

This was a chakravyuh no limping flame, no pale sun could touch. In a visually arresting winter story by Tobias Wolff, three hunting friends brace not just frigid shrapnel but also the frosty chill of mind games and human bitterness.

The wind was blowing into their faces. The snow was a moving white wall in front of their lights; it swirled into the cab through the hole in the windshield and settled on them. Tub clapped his hands and shifted around to stay warm, but it didn’t work. [Hunters in the Snow, Tobias Wolff]

Wolff’s story is a rough territory where the dense vegetation of a forest and the cutting arrows of winter contend against the complex equation between the three hunters. It’s hard to tell what stings the skin more — the slap of blowing snow or the barbed comment of a comrade.

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This feeling of being left cold at a deeper, psychological level is portrayed superbly by James Baldwin in Sonny’s Blues, the gut-wrenching story of a young musician struggling with addiction, and the “icy dread” his older brother, the narrator, feels at various points during their interactions.

“It’s terrible sometimes, inside,” he said, “that’s what’s the trouble. You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out — that storm inside…” [Sonny’s Blues, James Baldwin]

As winter continues to exert its inexorable grip where I live, usurping spring, threatening to blot out even summer, I wonder what is it that ticks a writer’s fancy in the wintertime.

Is it the result of forced solitude — months spent cooped-up inside? Or is imagination the only escape, the only coping mechanism, when the daily reality is that of zero-visibility on the roads, a mountain of snow to shovel before work, and watching one’s step all the time to avoid slipping into ice?When hope, optimism and anticipation all fade before the determination of this year’s winter, I take refuge in Oscar Wilde’s words in The Selfish Giant, a story he wrote for children.

One winter morning he looked out of his window as he was dressing. He did not hate the Winter now, for he knew that it was merely the Spring asleep, and that the flowers were resting. [The Selfish Giant, Oscar Wilde]

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In search of home and homeland: Seeking Palestine

Seeking Palestine: New Palestinian Writing on Exile and Home
Penny Johnson, Raja Shehadeh, editors
Olive Branch Press

Your mother’s face once sustained you. Now you have to strain your memory to trace its outline. The place you were born in you can’t return to, even if it were so you could die there. Y130225-seeking-palestineou can only be a nomad, an exile, or a refugee–never at home. Seeking Palestine, an anthology of nonfiction narratives gathers all these voices as it tries to make sense of the largely map-less Palestinian identity.

Susan Abulhawa chases this elusive piece in “Memories in an Un-Palestinian Story, in a Can of Tuna”. In her personal essay, the author best known for her novel, ‘Mornings in Jenin’ captures the breadth of a Palestinian’s nomadic condemnation. Her words–funny and shocking and tragic–tell how she was ping-ponged across geographies as a young girl. Thus, despite growing up in the US for most of her life, she says, “…I have come to understand that it (my life) represents the most basic truth about what it means to be Palestinian–dispossessed, disinherited and exiled.”

“Exile” is the permanent address many have been left with since the Israel-Palestine conflict began with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. And so as poet and translator Sharif L. Elmusa etches in an essay combining his poetry and prose with river-like flow, not only their presence but even the absences of Palestinians are portable. To lug this presence/absence around, a Palestinian pays steep baggage fees. “I can only go inside myself / into the maze of the hippocampus / which is like going inside a pyramid / and finding the robbers had carted away / the belongings.// What will I shed this round / to complete my portable absence?”

Read the rest of the review at Armed with Amor.

Séraphine and the Source of all Sparks

The other night as sleep eluded me, I requested my husband to tell me a story. Though juvenile, the exercise was definitely enjoyable. He started narrating a tale in which the protagonist was a small car. The story took me through this little car’s journey into the big, bad, puzzling world–about its getting lost in the woods, feeling lonely and scared, and finally being brought back to its mother, a truck. A story suitable for all children, including the occasional one like myself. It was a rather well-crafted story with all components fitting well with each other and flowing logically. At the end of it, I wondered where did he, who insisted on being a reader, not a writer, get the brainwave for this story? And that brought me to the bigger question–where do well all get our ideas from? From life around us, some would say. Of course, that’s true, but what plants a particular story seed in one’s brain in the first place? The answer remains one big mystery and has been so for quite a while since humans embarked upon adventures in creative expression.

Rabindranath Tagore, toward the end of his life said something to the effect that he never wrote anything of his colossal body of work. He meant that all his writing had “been written,” that it wasn’t something he could claim as his deed. His refrain is echoed by Mirza Ghalib, one of the greatest and most revered of Urdu poets. Ghalib condenses his creative process in a couplet where he says:

Aate hain ghaib se yeh mazaami khayal mein

Ghalib sareer-e khaamah nawaa-e sarosh hai

Loosely translated, it means

These flourishes of imagination come to me from (nowhere)

These words are the ones uttered by the archangel.

And in the book on the legendary Indian sculptor-painter, Ramkinkar Baij that I translated, the artist says in one place:

“A lot of times, one doesn’t know what form the painting will acquire. You understand? The image comes alive on its own. It inspires awe. Completely stuns you. Then I think intoxicated, where does that man, who quickly drew the picture by keeping me standing like a mute witness, live? “

I like to think the mystery of creative spark is what endows it with so much excitement. When you start off, it’s not a known path you take, it’s not a less-known one either; it simply is one that unfolds in real-time, moment by moment. And nothing brought home this aspect of creativity to me more than a film I watched recently.

Séraphine, a 2008 film, tells the story of a self-taught French painter, Séraphine Louis or Séraphine de Senlis (Séraphine of Senlis) who was born in the late 19th century, and died in 1942. When I read the film’s synopsis, I took it to be fictional. For it is hard to believe the extraordinary life of this artist and the events that punctuated it. Orphaned by the age of seven, Séraphine grew up to a life deficient in comforts of the material kind, but rich in imagination and nature’s marvels. After spending years working as a shepherdess and a maid, she got hired as a servant by the nuns of a convent when she was eighteen. Pious and hardworking, she spent two decades with the convent, before returning to her role of a maid to keep her stomach palette filled. This is the role–of an ageing maid–that the film Séraphine opens with. We see a zaftig and somewhat eccentric spinster in the houses of aristocrats in the French town of Sinlis.

She is like any other maid one might have come across at that time–earnest, diligent, careful with her money. Except, she is not any other maid of her time. Yes, she is earnest in her chores of floor-mopping, cloth-washing, dish-cleaning, but her real sincerity lies elsewhere. She is most diligent in answering the commands of her masters and mistresses; but it’s nothing compared to the command she truly cares for. And the prudence she shows with expending her meagre earnings is not to indulge herself, except for her life’s passion.

Early on, along with portraying the rigours of her job as a maid, the film establishes her love of nature. Next, it is revealed that the pennies she so painstakingly earns and haggles for with her employers are not for buying bread, but art materials–paints and brushes–from a local store. She is even shown to sneak oil from church lamps, except her god knows this is no pilferage. For, in the course of the film we learn that Séraphine‘s foray into the world of painting was prompted by a command she received from her guardian angel. We see her painting furiously, squatting on the floor of her cramped, untidy room, even as she fails to pay rent. Her subjects are typically drawn from the natural world–trees and birds she would claim to “talk to”, fruits and vegetables, animals and the sky.

“Séraphine is a visionary in the powerful sense of the word. She let herself be carried by something that was stronger than she was, that she did not control, at the risk of destroying herself.”

[From an interview with Director, Martin Provost]

It’s not long before the film as well as Seraphine’s life story take a decisive turn–with the entry of Wilhelm Uhde, a German art collector. He rents an apartment in Senlis, where Séraphine does cleaning work. By sheer chance, he comes across one of her paintings at a dinner invitation. Struck by the creative vitality, Uhde immediately takes her under his wings. Even as his encouragement bolsters the artist inside Séraphine, the scimitar of World War I slashes their association–the art collector has to flee Senlis as his house is raided. Thirteen years later he returns to France and, once again, is faced with Séraphine–through a painting of hers he sees at an exhibition of local artists’ works.

One of the most touching parts of the film is when Uhde traces his steps to Seraphine’s creaky room and assures her of supporting her painting career–by this time, the old maid is even older, and weighed down by age and its annoyances, she cuts down on her house assignments, focusing instead on her heart’s calling–painting. Soon, thanks to the provision of art materials and a monthly allowance, set up by Uhde, the self-taught artist begins painting with an intensity greater than before. We see her causing an explosion of colours on huge canvases, even as her lifestyle too improves. This burst of creativity wouldn’t last too long either. This time, her own mind would be at war with Séraphine. Hallucinated and “hearing voices,” she scares her neighbours and is finally taken to a mental asylum. Almost immediately, she gives up painting. Forever. Three years after her death, Uhde would organize an exhibition devoted entirely to Séraphines works in Paris. Ironically, during the last phase of her painting life, this is what Séraphine desperately wished for–a solo exhibition.

 

As exceptional as Séraphine Louis’s life story is, the film achieves in conveying it with outstanding maturity. The strongest element in this is Yolande Moreau, who is Séraphine in the film. She appears so natural–both physically and in her mannerisms–that it’s hard to believe she is acting in a film and not living her actual life. However, what makes the film all the more powerful is the deftness with which the director, Martin Provost, has turned almost every frame into what could be a painted canvas or a brilliant photograph–works of art. Whether it be the fields or streams Séraphine passes through or the night when the terror of war booms through Senlis streets with cannon shots or Séraphine’s imaginations bursting forth on to a canvas–the scenes are rich with eloquent detail. Yet, none of it is loud that would scream for attention.

“Whether it be for the costumes, the sets, or the lighting, we were intent on making sure that everything was a bit “withdrawn.” A general desire for sobriety and discretion; the least amount of effects.”

[From an interview with Director, Martin Provost]

Even as Séraphine‘s story intrigues me, it brings me back to the exciting mystery that spawns creativity, while also stuffing me with bagfuls of inspiration.

“Séraphine was a simple cleaning lady—worse, a handy woman—who painted extraordinary things in secret and who was the butt of all jokes. She represented at the time what was the lowest on the social ladder. But she didn’t care. Nothing stopped her. She was able to preserve her autonomy in spite of everything, her inner life’s abundance in the secret of her little room, even if it meant accepting performing the most thankless jobs.”

[From an interview with Director, Martin Provost]

Do watch this film if you can. You won’t regret it.

Martin Provost interview source: http://www.seraphinemovie.com/