Tag Archives: #MeToo

The Venus Flytrap: How A #MeToo Story Is Told, Or Isn’t

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Every woman has a #MeToo story. It just depends on how she tells it. On who asks her, on why they enquired, on what triggered the memory, on what she knows now that she didn’t at the time – on a hundred different variables, in short. No, scratch that – every woman has #MeToo stories. Two or twenty. The count varies, for the reasons already mentioned and more. It’s just that she may choose not to frame them all that way. Or that she would rather put some or all of them behind her. Or that this new vocabulary may later liberate her, but for right now it overpowers her in so volcanic a way that she would rather not feel the things it brings up. She’d rather put them away again – hopefully not in their old hiding-place of shame, but in some new site where light slants on them in a different way, and perhaps over time she’ll know what to do.

Harassment that’s cut short through a slap, as recounted by several women in viral-friendly videos and tweets, also constitutes a #MeToo story – not the avoidance of one. Because the weight of the story lies not in the response, but in the intended outcome that the perpetrator had (and always, always – an unwelcome advance is about power, and a non-consensual action is about power; desire is never the main factor). So, in some of our #MeToo stories we’ve slapped our way out of a situation. In others, we’ve sweet-talked our escapes – the screenshots will not reveal how we gritted our teeth as we said mollifying things because we’d been raised to be diplomatic, or because we were afraid. In still others, we kept sleeping with our oppressors because we’d been gaslit into thinking we were loved. And in so many more, we’d diminished our presences so we’d seem to be unthreatening (read: unattractive) wallflowers, nodded or smiled and said as little as possible, or cut our losses and quietly left. A slap and a clean getaway are only possible if you don’t have a salary on the line, are assured that you can leave both the location and the context easily, do not have other kinds of politics and dynamics in the environment that convolute it further, and most importantly, aren’t at risk of retaliatory physical or other violence.

Over the past few weeks, as the #MeToo movement experiences its second wave in India, I made space to reflect on why I’ve yet to publicly out anyone, even though I’m fully supportive of the courageous people who’ve done so. My reasons are partly circumstantial, partly circumspect, and entirely complicated. I know this to be true for many people, because beneath the public wave are countless, powerful small ripples – private conversations and reckonings. I wish those who claim they’ve never been harassed or abused would reflect too. Open declaration is only one way of parsing trauma. If it doesn’t suit, pure denial or abject shame are not the only options. Slowly, we must teach ourselves new ways of healing and standing in our truths. Slowly. Because we aren’t just recalibrating our stories, we’re remaking the world.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 25th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Charismatic Abusers

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The mistake we make when thinking about charismatic and powerful abusers is to assume that their charisma and power come from their talent. That the sheer force of their brilliance makes them irresistible. This is why we ask questions about what to do with their art, whether it is necessary to boycott their work, whether it is fair to teach it to facilitate discussion or if that time is better spent on the under-rated (a category that overlaps with the abused). And we fixate on the one or three (or sixty-something) cases we get the identifying details of, as though they are the whole story. They are not. Because the secret to why charismatic and powerful abusers get away with what they do for decades, rising in the ranks, is that they are devious. Their abuses extend beyond the professional into the realm of the intimate. They weaponize the most beautiful thing of all: love, or more accurately, its possibility.

Beneath every list of allegations is something else, something far more nebulous – a collection, large or little, of broken hearts. There’s no chance that a perpetrator in the workplace (be that a studio or a boardroom) has not also behaved reprehensibly in his private life. That the ongoing, worldwide revelations about sexual harassment have begun to include abuse (particularly but not exclusively emotional abuse) in relationships delineates this.

This is only partially about author Alisa Valdes writing about how, 22 years ago when neither of them had established their careers, she dated Junot Diaz – and he treated her very badly. I’m thinking of the women who contacted Valdes to say he’d done the same to them. I’m thinking about how we aren’t entitled to any of their stories – but also of how many of them would certainly have been storytellers, and we’ll never hear of them, because they had to swallow their truths and stay in the shadows. I’m thinking, actually, about my own JDs. That archetype: the charismatic person (usually male) you fall in love with, whose overtures you consent to, whose maltreatment you don’t know what to name, the ghost of which lingers for a long time.

Many years before someone I knew, had liked and respected, and now know to be a perpetrator was outed, I read a book of stories by someone who’d loved him and saw her hurt spilled all across its pages. I knew of their history as we all know things, in our small-minded, wide-mouthed spaces. But not everyone gets to alchemise what happened, into art or into anything. If we manage to, we’re still harrowed by a lack of acknowledgement of abuse of that nature, which operates under the false promise of love. But it’s so gauche in these circles to speak of love.

We’re all fooled – as their audiences, as their friends, and even as spectators to their exploits. By charm, not by talent. It’s important to recognise this, because it helps those they fooled with greater repercussions. The ones who encountered their ugliness in the workplace, of course, but equally the ones who were overpowered in seemingly romantic configurations – and then dismantled, invisibly, from within.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 10th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Take Them At Their Word

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Last week, a young male spoken word poet based in Mumbai was alleged to have sexually harassed teenage girls. Two things happened in the immediate aftermath: in an act of concerted schadenfreude, another poet, a young woman formerly associated with him, became the target of a smear campaign that completely detracted from the accused himself. Less visibly, a detailed, anonymously sourced list of predators in the poetry scene was created.

When the first such List was created in India last year by Raya Sarkar, exposing academics, it brought a backlash from several established feminist thinkers, most of whom hypocritically showed how they enable their associates’ exploitations by obstructing disclosure. The jargon used was “due process”, without acknowledgment of how due process has historically failed those who do not have structural privileges. But there were also many people who felt a deep discomfort about such exposure, but who did not resort to victim-blaming to articulate it. I personally wasn’t made uncomfortable, but I did note something significant in my own response: I would not expand such a list, even though I could. Each of us could probably come up with a whole List ourselves (and some have).

It’s worth making a distinction between those who think these Lists are unethical and those whose feelings about them are more imprecise. There’s a reason why the methodology seems so shocking, even if one doesn’t disagree with it. Older or more experienced women (me included) have a mixture of higher thresholds, thanks to being forced to grit our teeth, and complex trauma that keep us from divulging what we know. It hurts terribly to have come so far but be unable to move beyond certain incidents, or to realise that one had been in love with a perpetrator, or to jeopardise one’s career by outing power players.

It’s very telling that this short list of sexually predatory Indian poets is full of young men, presumably being reported by young women. A comprehensive list, especially if it includes all artistic genres, will topple so many giants off their pedestals. That list doesn’t exist because we haven’t made it. We’ve stuck to our whispers. Let’s not even get as far as physical assault or artistic erasure, itself a form of violence. I haven’t even named the misogynist who came to an open mic with a theme of violence against women, told the host to introduce him as my friend, and took the stage as though he didn’t harass women. I haven’t named the many sleazebags who’ve asked me to have a drink in their hotel rooms instead of meeting me at the restaurant downstairs. I haven’t named those who’ve met me in the restaurant but took no interest in my writing, yet thought it acceptable to ask prurient questions about my private life.

I haven’t named anyone, not even the young spoken word poets mentioned above. That’s my own conditioning. And look again: I’ve chosen to mention only the most negligible of stories. That doesn’t give me the higher ground; it only means I’m maintaining my own territory. More power to the young, who are risking theirs in service of justice.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 15th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Salma Hayek & So Many Working Women

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There is a peripheral debate that’s raging now in the fields of arts and entertainment, the question of whether one should separate the art and the person (usually, the man) who made it. Whether, for instance, Woody Allen’s movies, Derek Walcott’s poems or Pablo Picasso’s paintings can be loved decontextualized, without having to take into account the moral failings of their creators. I have mixed feelings about this, and enjoy reading the opinions of those who are able to take principled positions either which way. For me, it’s usually on a case by case rather than wholesale basis. This is a problematic position, obviously. The first time I really had it challenged was last week, when I read Salma Hayek’s powerful op-ed in The New York Times in which she detailed the abuse she faced at the hands of the Hollywood tyrant Harvey Weinstein. Hayek’s revelation came after many others, at a time when I did not think anything further about Weinstein could shock me.

What shattered me was that the abuse had taken place during the making of a film that is very special to me, Frida, on the life of the painter of the same name. I’d followed its making and release in 2002 with the kind of devotion only a teenager is capable of (Kahlo is the foremother of so many of us), and to this day I believe it’s a magnificent, heartfelt work of art. I could watch it over and over – except I may not be able to again without having to close my eyes, like a child is asked to if a sex scene suddenly comes on while she’s watching TV with her parents.

In her piece, Hayek wrote that the film’s nude scene between Frida Kahlo and the Parisian dancer Josephine Baker had been coerced by Weinstein. I knew Hayek had struggled to make this film, and that it was a true labour of love, but this was the first time she had talked about this particular kind of sexual abuse during its production.

Hayek’s sexual rejection of Weinstein brought consequences. First, he attempted to replace her entirely as producer and lead actor, which she countered by meeting a list of nearly impossible tasks he set. At one point, as detailed in her essay, he even threatened to murder her. After all this resistance, Weinstein finally found a way to deadlock her: a full frontal lesbian sex scene, or the film would not be finished.

She fought that monster in secret for the project that made her career, something women do in workplaces all the time, giving in to his blackmail but biding her time.

To me, Frida is not – never has been and never will be – Weinstein’s film. It belongs to and is unequivocally the creation of the producer and protagonist, Salma Hayek; the director, Julie Taymor; and the composer Elliot Goldenthal. But in this film is a scene which bears the stain of a monster, extracted from the humiliation of a woman forced into a compromise. Frida has always been a feminist film. If only its making hadn’t also had to be – so painfully, so familiarly.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 21st 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: #MeToo, Obviously

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Last week, a young attorney collated a privately-verified, anonymity-assured list of male sexual predators in Indian academia. The list revealed Indian feminism’s splinters: a dozen senior feminists rushed to condemn it, a move seen as being protective of their own interests based on kinship, institution and caste. One defensive response heard often was: “Women have always had a whisper network, so why go public?”

I was recently interviewed for a documentary on workplace sexual harassment by Lime Soda Films. It so happened that the Harvey Weinstein allegations had just broken, and a cascade of #MeToo posts filled social media that day. My hands shook after the first segment we shot, in which I detailed one particular incident in a corporate scenario. But my anger was neither at the perpetrator nor because of the incident itself, but because of the environment in which it had happened. The hostility in that workplace was fed by numerous characters – among them women, too. It made my hands shake with emotion even years afterwards. But I could only circle around it.

The story of a particular predator in that environment was only the easy one to tell, the starting point. I named him off-camera, but didn’t bother to onscreen. He was irrelevant to my trauma, ultimately, despite being illustrative to the conversation on why people don’t report sexual harassment. At the core of that story is something else, another story based on my consent and how it was abused, a story too painful to tell about a man deemed by those around him as too desirable to be a predator. No, story is the wrong word. Experience. And other experiences too terrible to transform into tell-able tales. Friends who attacked their partners. Abusive partners who turned out to also be predators in their fields. Manipulators so dazing that we’re inside their lies before we realise they are labyrinths. Above all: the way I use the plural because to use the singular already feels too specific, too much like a story and not a secret.

The whisper network doesn’t suffice because the worst experiences are ones we don’t share. I looked at that list and thought: What’s 70 names in a rape culture of 1.3 billion people? A few women were brave enough to whisper loudly enough. That’s all. And we know of, but are still circling, the worst of it. How can I protect someone from going through what I did when I cannot even speak of it? I can’t. Most of the worst people walk free in the world. Perhaps that’s why we who see the private struggle behind a public list fight so hard for the hypothetical. We’re tired of women being cautionary tales. We want the villain to be the protagonist for once.

Justice is a long shot. We get used to the idea that we’ll never get it. So we count and recount our stories. The ones we yell out loud. The ones we whisper. But mostly, honestly, the ones we don’t divulge at all. And the ways we tell and retell them to ourselves anyway, whether we keep track that we’re doing it or not.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 2nd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Buffer Around Predatory Men

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There is a buffer around every man who mistreats women. This buffer protects him so that the wounded party can barely get the indicting words out of her mouth to begin with, and if she manages to, she will be dragged through the dirt for doing so. On a systemic level, it is the toxic masculine that forms this shield. Within this, for a certain kind of man – the kind of man who has a halo around him composed of charisma, privilege and erudition – his most effective layer is not simply made of men, but also, sadly and strangely, by women.

Women who say they know him well. Women who say they love him dearly. Women who didn’t feel abused when they dated him. Women who don’t think someone with such good manners would do such a thing. Women who harbour crushes but not expectations, who are content to be known as his associates and friends. Women deeply enamoured of his work. Women who dismiss the memory that under certain lights, his irresistible aura appears more like a sinister gleam, and they’ve seen it themselves, they’ve held the collar of their shirt a little tightly that day, they’ve almost stumbled as they tried to leave quickly that night without stopping to ask themselves why.

A person has a right not to believe what another is saying. The world is full of liars. But when doubt extends to protection of the alleged perpetrator, it’s no longer reasonable. And one doesn’t need to take a public stance to protect perpetrators. In fact, the far more damaging stance is in private. The thing said to the victim desperately trying to articulate her experience. The shrug. The wry smile. The “oh haha, but he’s like that with everyone, and actually he’s got a big heart (or a sad story)”. That’s just a basic example.

So this is in praise of all the women who reject a place within that buffer of cushy, complicit mutual protection. Here’s to all the women who don’t make excuses for reprehensible actions and those who made them. Here’s to the difficult women – difficult because they don’t make it easy for terrible men to keep coasting through life. The loud ones. The cold ones. The acolytes who chose ethics over patronage. The family members who don’t stand by abuse, even by their own kin. The exes who refuse to “stay friends”. The former friends who did the right thing.

As my feed filled with the #MeToo hashtag this week, I thought about some of those terrible men I’ve known. Their social media feeds would also have cascaded with posts by the women who didn’t defriend or block them like I did. Who hadn’t been sure of taking the risks of so clean and clear a cut. And some of those women would have been condescended to with these predators’ pretend empathy or outrage.

So let’s be difficult. Because I guarantee you: there’s another woman lingering somewhere, who doesn’t know she can choose not to pad up that buffer. There’s more than one, most probably. And maybe they need to know there’s more than one too.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 19th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Book Review: Girls Are Coming Out Of The Woods, Blind Screens, The Sun And Her Flowers, Wild Embers

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Even when Tishani Doshi writes of the strange gratitude of “not being in the nicer hotel”, for the inspiration that comes “Because if it weren’t for this mouse-spiced/ air, this particular desire to be anywhere/ but here, how else to turn the howl/ into song?”, or when Ranjani Murali takes a recording-assisted tour of Alcatraz, the blood and body of their new books of poetry is quite literally just that. No matter what their other preoccupations or locations, both poets circle around and back to the subject of female fear. Doshi’s Girls Are Coming out of the Woods is underpinned by macabre newspaper headlines that cut close to home, manifesting in brutal crimes, and memories and dread that breathe down one’s own neck at all hours. In Murali’s debut, Blind Screens, she often employs as her canvas the cinematic screen, and in technicolour or off-camera, she situates several of her most politically loaded poems from a tangential gaze, always framing as her subjects women in relation to morality and society.

This is the most visceral of Doshi’s three books of poetry, reaching into the wounded places of the feminine psyche in ways that ache with how universally they are experienced. Some of the poems have direct triggers, cases that make the headlines, and the triggers open out onto traumas. Take this powerful description in the poem “Disco Biscuits”: “… most of us have known a man/ who arrived like Bill [Cosby] – sleek and proud as a July/ thunderstorm. How so many of us gave in to that sleekness/ because when you’re young you don’t know that your bones/ have been giving way the second you were born. So you give/ and your giving’s large and uncalculated. But then/ there’s the haunting.”

Throbbing through the collection are many hauntings, among them murdered women unknown or beloved. In “Everyone Loves A Dead Girl”, the poet says frankly, in the voice of such a ghost: “I would like to talk about what it means to suffocate on pillow/ feathers, to have your neck held like a cup of wine,/ all delicate/ and beloved, before it is crushed.” The poet does exactly this, pinning down images of death and decay unflinchingly. Even musings on aging relatives and crematoriums don’t come from nowhere: at the centre of them is something beyond idle morbidity. In “The Leather Of Love”, she writes: “And when we lie in bed and talk/ of the body’s failings, of the petulant dead, of / disenchantment and insufficient passion,/ we’re chewing through fears so thick our/ teeth are beginning to rust.” An army of girls – girls “with panties tied around their lips”, “girls “found naked in ditches and wells”, girls who didn’t survive or maybe did – emerges in the collection’s eponymous poem, dedicated posthumously to a murdered friend of the author’s. Rather than rouse, it chills. “Girls are coming/ out of the woods, clearing the ground/ to scatter their stories” she writes. You can almost hear her breathlessness in the last line – the poet passing the baton to the voices coming through her: “Girls are coming out of the woods./ They’re coming. They’re coming.”

In Blind Screens, Murali slips a cast of heroine characters, female actors and women in celluloid-stronghold cities like Bombay and Madras into poems in several registers, and just like all subtext cinematic and otherwise, they bind the collection together. Sometimes, we see them through the dehumanization of the male gaze, as in “Circa 1970’s Tamil Film Stalker’s Ghazal”, which escalates quickly from admiration to physical violence. Murali’s voice changes deftly; in the very next poem, “Mangaatha, or The Case of the Former Circus Artiste Now Distracted”, she takes on the persona of a performer as she flees a gang of men, all whom have handled her, literally, in less that professional ways. She holds tightly to her trapeze bars and swings away – but straight into the gaze of “the young policeman…. his mouth blackening/ at the sight of my pooling silk”.

This deft interplay between stage illusion, misogynist delusion and the literal difficulty of being female in a society trained to perceive itself as entitled to putting its hands on all it rests its eyes on comes together most forcefully in “Historical Movie Scene”, in which a male audience member heckles the narrator as she gets up to leave a theatre. Onscreen, a woman dances, “a glitter-filled belly button zooming into our faces”, while the man screams, “Ey, figure da, looking, going”. She stumbles and keeps walking, while “The same heckler calls out, “Wait, ma, watch/ where you’re going!” to me as the actress dances a stream of blood/ into an unfenced balcony, where a throng of snarling,/ cotton-stuffed, cross-eyed vultures claw into her mouth.”

This accomplished collection contains many variegations that fill and colour its pages with all the elaborate textures of Indian cinema: among them, “Beggars”, with a fortune telling parrot electrified with terror by a feline scent, which morphs beautifully through Murali’s phrasing into predators of another kind: “the director who recently/ celebrated the hundredth day jubilee,/ the local minister, the mayor, and even/ the child-star who likes to play with/ cheetah cubs in his spare time.”

In “Female Lead Waits For The Kurinji”, she juxtaposes two tropes: that of the flower that blooms once every twelve years, archetypal since ancient Tamil literature, and that of the modern heroine for whom a flower is but a metaphor. In the poem’s final lines, the narrator says to the kurinji, with or without self-consciousness: “Your own curse/ is not that of lack, but of being watched as you bloom.”

One imagines that the girl who becomes a woman – who “blooms” under watch – may often speak to herself in the rudimentary voice of Rupi Kaur’s poems. The Sun And Her Flowers is a book that surprises: nothing of Kaur’s work online suggests it will be anything but craftless, but placed in context, in page after page rather than in pithy cropped Instagram lines, a different effect accrues. Not quite beautiful or original, but together, the poems carry a clarity that is convincing, a soft voice that soothingly intones the familiar. A few pages in, one is reminded of a specific multi-genre work of art, discussed below, and understands that a slow-release impact is intended. What is not achieved in craft is compensated for in fine emotional control, the tenor in which Kaur writes about topics as personal as rape and the poignance of knowing how little time she has left with the mother who she has finally begun to understand. Some of Doshi’s girls, too, along with Murali’s women, must have had these thoughts.

But this is not to suggest ingenuity. In interviews, Kaur deliberately presents the image of being a non-reader. A recent article on her sardonically points out her interest in a book of Kafka’s – not for the contents but for the cover design. It’s an image that those who love to loathe all writers of her ilk, and the Instapoetry fad itself, enjoy. But it is patently false. As even just the first pages of The Sun And Her Flowers turn, there’s a clear debt to Beyonce’s Lemonade – which was scripted by the poet Warsan Shire. Again, in the sections that speak of immigrants and refugees, Kaur transparently aspires to resonate like Shire does. It would be remiss to not bring up Nayyirah Waheed’s allegation that Kaur plagiarised her work, an allegation layered with an undertone of anti-blackness. So the poem “legacy”, which goes “i stand/ on the sacrifices/ of a million women before me/ thinking/ what can i do/ to make this mountain taller/ so the women after me/ can see farther” begs the question: whose shoulders has Kaur chosen to stand on, unacknowledged? It is not enough that she labels two illustrations as homages to two Punjabi visual artists, Amrita Sher-Gil and Sobha Singh – more problematic is how she devises the image of herself as a literary pioneer in her lineage, without credit to the many pools from which she sourced her syntax.

But here, another poet similar in background – female, Punjabi, raised in the West, famous through social media – bears mention. Read side by side with Nikita Gill’s new book, Wild Embers: Poems of Rebellion, Fire and Beauty – which attempts to revise fairytales without ever moving past the Disney versions and is replete with confusion about its emotional and political core – The Sun And Its Flowers appears all the more sincere in its naïveté. It’s an uncanny contradiction: Kaur is clearly winning for she has studied how to be accessible, but the work somehow comes across as true. Which is why we can’t dismiss her on the basis of craft alone – not only is she better than her contemporaries who attempt depth, but the struggle and sentiment conveyed in her work is also the very pathos that moves stronger poets like Shire, Waheed, Murali and Doshi. Whatever their calibre, the girls are certainly coming out of the woods – bearing words, accusatory and revelatory.

An edited version appeared in OPEN Magazine.