Saturday browsing

How to be a successful writer and mom? Apparently the secret is to have only one kid. I’m not sure that I buy this yet, but it seems to have worked for my four parents.

Or, Joyce Carol Oates writes, you can always just have sex with a publisher.

But success, at working or being a mom or both, is always a blessing that can be taken away by illness. How do people define success during and after illness?

Perhaps the best thing to do is have no ambitions at all

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Reading Alexander McQueen with my kid

I find beauty in the grotesque. Like most artists I have to force people to look at things.

– Alexander McQueen

Yesterday I was lucky enough to get the Alexander McQueen retrospective Savage Beauty from the library. (We have an awesome system in Orange County where you can order books online and have them delivered to your door for free.) The book is tall and heavy. No wonder coffee table books are meant for the coffee table, they’re almost impossible to prop up on one’s tummy in bed!

My kid and I did our valiant best, however, and we lay next to each other and paged through the book.

I’ve always loved fashion. When I was in high school, I’d forge notes from my father to get me out of gym class, and head across the street to the University of Hawaii library. I’d sit in the fashion magazine section and pour through carefully preserved copies of old Vogue. I learned so much from those hours, about Yves St. Laurent and Pucci and Halston and and a host of designers from the 40s – 80s. All of this is still in the back of my head, as it is for so many secret guilty fashion-o-philes, ready to emerge at the drop of a chapeau.

The book posited that McQueen’s clothing was not ephemeral, that the designs were based on radical theories of art. The full-page photos were interspersed by the words of McQueen, and I admit that Alba and I skipped the wordier introduction and conclusion.

She read the quotations to me, stumbling over a word or two.

“What does ‘Atelier’ mean? And ‘Givenchy’?”

“An ‘atelier’ is a fashion workshop where a bunch of people work on the designs of a master designer, so that they can learn and branch out into their own work. Your grandmother Rene worked in the Bergdorf Goodman atelier in the 1930s, learning to cut and sew so that she could make her own art. Givenchy is the name of an old and famous French fashion house where McQueen worked in the atelier.”

“Oh.”

Alba often made me pause, pointing at a picture and giving her considered opinion.

“I want to wear that one,” she said, thoughtfully staring at an irridescent one based on the dream that humans will someday be forced by environmental conditions to return to the sea.

“It costs as much as our mortgage downpayment, child,” I said.

“OK, now THAT is overpriced,” she said.

“But it’s artwork, so it’s more than just something to wear.”

And then, a little later, “Mama, I don’t think I’ll ever be wearing that one!”

Alba pointed to an item that revealed much more than it hid. It’s true — for us bourgeoisie folk, ‘clothing’ is the functional stuff that we put on to get through our day. Works of art for the body are out of our means and morality, and I’d get stuck in prison if I allowed my child to go to school with her tush hanging out. And so it goes, the divide between art and function. I think we’ll have to let couture remain art, inaccessible to our world except as inspiration. (Sad, right?)

The book was full of beauty and philosophy. I really loved McQueen’s interest in clothing as an artform that evokes strong emotion. He wanted people to vomit from his clothing or fall madly in love with it, but not be bored.

The clothing that made me FEEL the most were based on ancient Eastern designs — shoes like Chinese slippers, headpieces reminiscent of historic Japan, silk-embroidered fabric. I’m glad that his words were there to guide me, because my first reaction was, “HEY! That’s not your culture!” In the words of McQueen: “I want to be honest about the world that we live in, and sometimes my political persuasions came through in my work. Fashion can be really racist. Looking at the clothes of other cultures as costumes. That’s mundane and its old hat. Lets break down some barriers.”

Okay, sold.

Reframing Sita through Western eyes

Recently Dave and I watched Nina Paley’s animated documentary Sita Sings the Blues. Alba is familiar with the story of the Ramayana, and especially this part, the part that tells of Sita’s abduction and the battle that took place to avenge Rama’s loss. The story is part of Alba’s heritage, and I’m glad that she knows it; it’s one of the important stories of Hinduism.

I talked about the documentary with Alba yesterday. We happened to be in the car with her little Christian cousin.

“Do you know about Sita?” Alba asked her.

“No?”

“Oh, you don’t? Sita is this totally beautiful princess that was stolen by Ravanna and his giants, and her husband Rama had to come and rescue her, and he came with an army of monkeys led by Hanuman, and the giants set fire to Hanuman’s tail but he just used his tail to burn down Ravanna’s castle.”

I admit that it was totally cute to hear Alba’s take on the story.

Sita Sings the Blues is an interesting interpretation of the myth. The story is directed and animated by Nina Paley, a white woman, which is important to note because it reveals that she is not originally of this culture. Paley points out the great injustice that Rama does to Sita when he continues to question her purity of heart and body after her abduction. Sita undergoes a trial by fire to prove her purity, but this is not enough. When she is pregnant, Rama overhears a launderer saying, “Unlike our king, I will not take back an impure woman,” and because of this, kicks pregnant Sita into exile.

Throughout all of this, Sita remains faithfully committed to Rama, bringing up his twin sons during exile until Rama takes them back.

It is a sad story, and the two halves of my culture are at war in my head about it. On the one hand, it’s clearly unjust and unfair to make Sita prove her purity over and over again. On the other hand, the story is a cultural artifact embedded in the beliefs of its time (beliefs that still persist in various places in the world).

The original myth glorifies Sita’s steady faithfulness, and paints an honest picture of Rama as an exemplar of Chandler’s “best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.” Rama had to successfully rule a country, and in his culture, that meant that his woman was not his priority. Still, I find it interesting that the myth has never sugarcoated his treatment of Sita. Perhaps the myth was a critique of the culture of the time?

Nina Paley’s documentary interprets Sita as a 1940s lounge singer, fitting torch songs to adorable animations and allowing these to narrate much of the story. This device creates a feeling of timelessness, showing that ridiculous life choices motivated by love are rife in all cultures.

One small jarring note: Three narrators help tell the tale. They are depicted by Southeast Asian Ramayana shadow puppets, and at first I couldn’t fit the Southeast Asian visual elements into the East Asian tale. “But wait, those are not from the right Asian culture.” But then I realized that it didn’t matter, the tale itself has spread throughout Asia, and the documentary is an intentional hodgepodge of cultural imagery.

All in all, I’m grateful that I can watch something relevant, interesting, and modern about my heritage.

You can watch it for free at Paley’s movie site, here, and you can support Nina Paley’s artistic work, here.