Discrimination prevents universal freedom of expression

“I am gay.” May be easy for some people to say, hard for others. The looming threat of discrimination can make it difficult for people to be true to themselves. The anxiety caused by living in a society that directly opposes your own beliefs and being can make life horrific for millions of people.

This is not just exclusive to the LGBT community, but it is a worldwide crisis. Discrimination has prevented freedom of expression from being accessible to many. Not just across the world but within different social groups in countries and communities discrimination is present, preventing everyone to their universal right. Poverty, unequal/lack of political representation, basic education, religion, sexual orientation. The people who most need the power of free expression are the ones who are prevented from using it. They need to make their voices heard. Not just because by making their circumstances public they may receive support, but because everyone deserves the most basic of human rights. In a rich country or a poor country, Western or Eastern, black or white, gay or straight. Universality means exactly that. Universal. Everyone.

Furthermore, freedom of expression isn’t just about letting people know about any discrimination you have experienced, but it is about that person’s personal development. Knowledge is power. Access to information helps communities to grow and prosper, creates better economic prospects, equal representation in politics, ultimately to a decrease in discrimination. Without freedom there can only be limited development, and the goal for all communities, cities, countries, the world, is growth. But with discrimination there cannot be freedom.

In Arundhati Roy’s book The God of Small Things the character Velutha is discriminated because he classified by the caste system in India as an untouchable. Outside of the four Varna’s, he is at the very bottom of society. This is only because of the family he was born into. As a person, he is the God of small things. Working as a gardener, handy-man, babysitter. His relationship with a higher caste woman ends with his death and her abandonment. How is this fair?

Yes I have used a fictional example, but that is only because using a real life example is too upsetting, more so than Velutha’s story. The worst (and simultaneously the best) part of the book, is its realism. It is so heavily rooted within Hindu and Indian culture that despite the country’s growing economic status, there is still this discrimination at the very heart of it and this class of people are absent from those benefits. Tradition is hard to replace. In this example, the laws are based in religion, which is then hard to alter because religion is such an important factor for millions of people across the world. This is the problem. This needs resolving before anything can be done in the way of ensuring everyone has the right to free expression.

While people are still being discriminated in their homes it will be almost impossible for the laws on expression to be changed. But this should not be disheartening, because you can also do many great things from inside your home, maybe even write a post on your blog.

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Losing my graphic novel virginity: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home

Another one of the texts that will be making an appearance in my exam in a few weeks alongside The God of Small Things, Lunch Poems and various others is Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, a graphic novel. Surprisingly, I loved this book. I honestly cannot express how much I enjoyed reading it contrary to my expectations. Having never read a graphic novel before I didn’t know what to expect from it. I was unsure if the combination of images and writing would work effectively enough to portray the important issues that Bechdel was writing about.

But I could not have been more wrong. Not only did the form make the text simple and elegant to read but the images helped exaggerate what Alison was talking about in the text. My favourite example of this was at the end of the first chapter when Alison commented that the obelisk her father wanted instead of a headstone was ironic as it was a similar shape to a shape he enjoyed in real life…then just to make sure that all the readers picked up on the joke, the next page was dedicated to a single of image of a large obelisk, looking particularly phallic. Bechdel writes about pretty heavy-handed material. Death (or potential suicide), homosexuality, coming-out, growing up, a dysfunctional family. None of the subject matter is easy on the emotion. Yet expressing them through the medium of a graphic novel makes them more accessible and reader friendly.

The non-linear narrative means that we know her father is dead and that there were questionable circumstances around it, but we don’t know the full picture until the very end of the novel. Alison herself doesn’t seem to understand her father’s life until she has mapped it out for the reader, almost as if the text is her stream of consciousness. After his death she looks back and seems to evaluate her and her father’s lives, to try and notice if there were signs. Indications of what would follow. At the time she didn’t notice that her father would stare at the choir boys while they were in church. She didn’t notice that he had an overly friendly relationship with their gardener and babysitter. She also didn’t notice that her father wanted her to look pretty and dress up while all she wanted to do was wear boys clothes. I like this type of narrative. The kind that doesn’t make sense at the beginning, but it is interesting enough to draw you in and make you read on. Similar to The God of Small Things, it doesn’t make sense until you turn over the final page.

The eyes give everything away.

The eyes give everything away.

 

Perhaps I enjoyed this book more because it was my first graphic novel. In fact, although a thick book you could easily read it within a couple of hours because there is barely any text. After re-reading it I also discovered many other pieces of information, symbols and motifs that appear throughout which are not necessarily apparent the first time round. You may not even pay attention to the images whilst reading, or just look at the pictures and ignore the text. In fact, by  doing either you would still understand the plot of the text. Which is what just makes the book so fantastically clever. This could just be the medium acting here, and I being a graphic novel virgin I am unable to compare.

However after enjoying this so much I went ahead and ordered Bechdel’s follow up graphic novel Are you my mother? which I will be reading as soon as the exam season is over. Then perhaps I will be able to offer a less subjective opinion.

Review: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things is NOT a small book

Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things  is one of those books that seems to come along once in a blue moon. It seemed to defy all the conventional ‘rules’ of literature and in the process created a sensation. The characterisation, non-linear narrative, and unfamiliar and yet at the same time familiar setting make it hard to put down.

The story is set in Kerala, India and retraces the lives of an upper caste family in the lead up and aftermath of a tragic drowning accident, with  focus on the destruction of the fraternal twins Estha and Rahel’s lives. The story starts at the end, finds the beginning in the middle and finishes somewhere in the middle which allows the characters to be developed and seen at different stages of their lives. The vast array of characters also aid the storytelling because the narrative is not restricted to one person’s viewpoint; third person narrative enables us as readers to experience India through the eyes of children, grandparents, women, men and untouchables.

What I liked most was the political aspect of the novel. At the very heart of the plot was the transgression of the laws that have built Indian society and yet they were so easily broken, broken by ordinary people. The laws that surround religion, nationality, caste, gender, sexuality, incest: the laws that lay down “who should be loved, and how. And how much.” But it remains relatable, although it discusses and leaves those issues open for criticism it is not a political attack on the system. It questions the importance of the small things over the big, or in this case the social ‘laws’.

Love Laws

Love Laws define who we can love, when and by how much…

I found one of the characters particularly interesting. Velutha who is the God of Small Things. What I most enjoyed was his presence in the text, for the majority of the opening he is only referred to, and is not seen or given a large role because of his place as an untouchable in the Indian caste system, at the bottom of the hierarchical system. But as the ‘laws’ were starting to become more apparent as the plot picked up and they started to be questioned and broken, he became a crucial character. Despite the stereotype associated with the untouchables to the other characters he was, and is for me, one of the nicest characters. He was not aggressive or violent towards those who were ranked higher in the heteronormative society.

Although set in India between 1960-1990 depending on which part of the narrative we look at, the text was familiar. I have been to India and was able to imagine the places I had seen and compare that to the descriptions in the novel, but regardless of my experiences I still felt that I was able to relate to the characters. The descriptions of the exotic didn’t feel like Roy was trying to sell India, like some people have criticised, but it just felt like a description of a family home in India. For Roy, the scenes that she writes about are quotidian, nothing more.

Review: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

On my reading list for this week was Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, and I know what you are thinking, why are you writing a review about one book and talking about another? Once I have finished reading that book it is definitely going to be making its way onto here soon because I have so much to say. But what interested me the most about it was the frequent references to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness which I read a few years ago.

Heart of Darkness is one of those novels that you have to just grin and bear. Take it with a pinch of salt. Imperialism has so many emotional strings attached to it that it can often spark outcry and rebellion if the wrong thing is said, and I am a little nervous attempting to review it on here. But from reading it, it seemed to be about the issues of alienation and confusion and not just imperialism.

The novella follows the story of Marlow, a sailor who has gone to Africa in the hope of filling in the blank spaces on the map. He meets the man Kurtz who has become a local hero to the villagers and is worshipped like a God. Even the idea of “filling in the blank spaces on the map” seems to suggest a Western superiority that Conrad seems to be criticising in his book. The treatment of the local Africans in the Congo is horrific to read and really brings home the cruelty and harshness of colonialism.

But what makes the novel really hard to read, for me, was the ease at which the soldiers who were stationed in Africa changed. Kurtz is a man who has gone mad with power. He has been left alone to his own devices for too long and has “gone native”. He collects ivory by brutally killing locals in a manner that doesn’t seem to bother him. This made me most uncomfortable. How everything is just accepted. Although Marlow as a narrator often questions the actions of his colleagues, he is not a reactionary, nothing is done. His inability to see that he could do something and doesn’t is saddening.

Heart of Darkness

Despite all of this, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. For some reason the brutal realism that was present throughout was refreshing. Conrad hasn’t attempted to hide and cover up the horrors of imperialism, he has stripped it bare. Revealed it for what it truly was and it is for this reason that I feel this novel is so widely considered a ground-breaking novel.