Emma’s Ego

One of the reasons I love the movie Emma is because it’s about a rich, arrogant brat who thinks she’s better than other people and knows what’s better for their own lives than they know for themselves. But the thing is, Emma thinks that she’s doing a great favor to everyone else. Even in her manipulation, she sees no fault. And yes, the white woman, Karen-complex doesn’t escape me– it’s glaring, actually– but I think in some ways I’ve been prey to this as well. And it’s this “kindness” motivated by selfishness that ends up being more destructive than good old-fashioned cruelty could ever be. But I think there is such a thing as real kindness– if only we can peel back layers of ego and confront our own performativity.

Music for this episode is from the beautiful Emma (2020) soundtrack by Isobel Waller-Bridge.

Antidote to Apathy: Daring to Hope- Reflections on the Election

Though we’d narrowly missed the worst outcome, we certainly hadn’t gotten anything close to the best. In fact, I’m not really even sure what is the best outcome in a place as broken as America, founded on histories of injustice and blood. As I watched Joe Biden give his speech, that we’re not red states or blue states, but the Unites States, the patriotism felt alienating to me, as the fireworks lit up the sky on the screen, the light so artificial against the starless sky, I wondered why I had ever believed in their promises. But whether or not hope is real, whether or not I can look at the world with the serious anticipation of its success and goodness and beauty, whether or not I believe that things will get better– it doesn’t matter. I have to hope that they do.

Antidote to Apathy: Light Upon Light

In the second episode of the mini podcast series “Antidote to Apathy,” I talk about refining the self as a way to gain knowledge. In the past few months, I’ve learned so much more to live with myself and my own thoughts. In the shower and the delirious post-morning half-dreaming state and while doing mundane tasks, like my laundry or cleaning my room, there is no where that I can escape my mind or my infinite and growing number of selves that make up who I am today. The world is constantly filtered through my perception of it, through my almost painful subjectivity. But I’m learning that it’s not in spite of the self that we gain knowledge, but because of the self, through the self. Doing that work is grueling and difficult, but it is, perhaps, the only antidote to apathy.

Antidote to Apathy: As the Leaves Fall

There’s this interesting point in autumn where I forget that the earth is temporarily dying because I’m entranced by the bursting, almost blooming colors of the leaves. I’m trying not to deny myself the pleasure of enjoying autumn. I’m trying not to condemn it to my hatred because I know it’ll bring winter. My walk yesterday was uncommonly beautiful, and I want it to move me. This first installment of the podcast “Antidote to Apathy” explores how we can love things, even with the knowledge that they may end, and that they hold the power to hurt us. Though the leaves may die, my love can still last. And there’s something really beautiful about that. I want to hold onto it. It’s a small antidote against apathy.

The Catty Critic: Reflecting on Rupi Kaur & Artistic Merit

I wrote an article titled “Here’s Why Rupi Kaur’s Poetry Sucks” over a year ago which gained an overwhelming readership (you can find the old post here). There were verbal battles breaking out in the comments, people purposefully downvoting others’ votes a couple hundred times, and someone even posted the link in the reddit thread in which someone commented, “First thing I read of Fareah Fysudeen” (I really wish it weren’t the first thing). Frankly, I’m quite embarrassed by this attention, because I hardly agree with my past self. I can’t be proud of an article whose contents I no longer uphold. I can still see myself writing it: slouched in a study cubby typing away between classes, buried in the Hatcher stacks of the University of Michigan, in my sophomore year of undergrad, believing that I finally had access to the great, profound knowledge of the world. I’m here to reflect on that past article and what it means to me now, over a year later, a soon-to-be graduate, and hopefully a more introspective and worldly individual. 

In most ways, my opinion about Rupi Kaur’s poetry itself hasn’t changed. I still think she is the crowned champion of “fake deep” poetry that finds its home in niches on Tumblr and Instagram. I still think her clever use of enjambment and thematic seriousness adds to the illusion of depth to her poems. But in the article, I draw a much more dangerous parallel argument in order to prove (with apparent exacting mania) that the reason Rupi Kaur’s poetry is bad is because it doesn’t fit the criteria of “good poetry.” I say it doesn’t fit into a “larger poetic narrative.” I say that there is a definite dichotomy between good and bad poetry, and that this dichotomy exists as an objective reality. My exact words, if you will: “If all literature was subjective, then, there would be no point to literary criticism and an entire discipline dedicated to the study of good literature. Poetry is not subjective. There is good literature and there is bad literature. Your experience of either can be subjective— as in, you can like bad literature and hate good literature, but your preferences don’t change the fact that it’s bad or good.”

In many ways, re-reading this series of sentences was especially painful to me, because not only do I no longer hold that opinion of art and literature, but because it consigns to a standard of artistic excellence determined by the English literary canon. The literary canon doesn’t exist to be the sole arbiter of artistic value (whether it should exist at all is also worth considering). This isn’t so much a question of whether or not Rupi Kaur’s poetry is good, per se. This is a question about how we interpret poetry, what baggage and preconceptions of art we are bringing to the table. It’s a question about what system of rationality we adopt. And the more we adopt systems of rationality that have historically and continue to marginalize the voices of women and non-white people, the more we perpetuate whiteness— or any other arbitrary marker of artistic merit— as the standard of good art. 

I’m reflecting on why it was so important to me that I uphold the canon in that article. Why was it so crucial to me that I maintain proximity to this historically stuffy and pretentious group of authors and titles that aided in constructing the Western empire? The thing is, I think I wanted the stability of being able to determine whether something was good or not, because without that system of rationality, I feared that there would be a lack of real power or worth to my opinions, as a non-white person. Can you see the problem? The dominant culture is so hegemonizing that I feared its absence means I am stupid. Instead of repudiating a system that made me feel stupid in the first place, I tried to wholeheartedly accept it in order to be part of that dominant cultural frame of reference. In some way, I was playing that historical role of siding with the bully in order to gain agency for myself… What I didn’t know is that there is so much more power in letting go of what does not serve you. 

I don’t like Rupi Kaur’s poetry. But the reason I don’t like it has changed. Whoever finds power, love, creativity, inspiration, vitality in her poetry— who am I to tell them that it’s not there? Find the art that moves you, and let it move you. There is no greater power than constructing the world for yourself.

Navigating the White Gaze

I’ve been thinking about the representation of marginalized communities in the arts a lot lately. My thoughts on the underrepresentation of POCs in American popular culture is slowly turning into an understanding of the misrepresentation of POCs in the little space we do get in the creative sphere. People with any understanding of popular “liberal” discourse are always pushing for more strong, leading, and nuanced characters on the big screen and in the bestselling novels– and so we get a black lead in Star Wars, a half-Korean teanager in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and all-Asian cast in Crazy Rich Asians, a way to offset Islamophobia with a relatable Arab f-boy in Ramy. But something about this all still feels grossly unsatisfactory to me. Something is essentially off about these representations of POCs. 

To me, they still seem to be obviously whitewashed, catered to suit the image of POCs that white people are comfortable seeing, an image that sinks down to the level of a white audience and lays identity out on the table: this is what it means to be in an interracial relationship, this is what this foreign word means, this is how benign POCs are– see! They’re just like us! In an effort to be palatable, I think artists of color often water down their work and cater it to the whims of a white gaze. 

I think, of course, that it is important that we’re getting narratives about people of color made by people of color, of course– I cannot belittle the importance of all the works I’ve mentioned and they are continuing to complexify our politics of representation. We need a multiplicity of representation, so many that it mirrors our own complex and diverse experience, and dispels our monolithic perception– we need good, bad, poor, rich, suburban, inner-city, gendered, intersectional stories. Not one work of art can possibly do all the work to end racism or discrimination, because not one person of color is perfect. 

But sometimes, I think even artists of color have a hard time making their work authentic. I think they often perform authenticity as a way to prove to a white audience that they are equals to the WASP. For instance, Ramy, a show about a confused, hilarious, and relatable Egyptian-American Muslim in New Jersey tracks the highs and lows of his love life and his relationship with himself and his faith. But for a show that was so widely well-received, it made me cringe with annoyance. It was trying so hard to appease a white audience, trying to make Muslims seems “human” and “normal”– both of which de facto meant whitewashed. In the first episode, we see Ramy on a date with a girl who his mother set him up with, and he says, flirting, as they walk through the city sharing ice creams, her laughter interspersed throughout the monologue: 

Look, I know it was terrible, but the day the Muslim ban happened, I had a really good day. Like, personally, you know? It was just, like, one of the those days. Remember– the weather was great. I killed it at this meeting. I found a Metro Card that had $120 on it. That doesn’t happen! It was wierd, ‘cause I’m watching the news and this guy on TV is like, ‘this is a terrible day for all Muslim.’ I’m like, ‘well… not all Muslims.’

It’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility that a Muslim would say this, and it’s certainly not unfathomable that this is a likely scenario. But what makes it so lauded is that it seems to normalize Muslims, when in fact it just whitewashes them. 

I think we may have set the bar too low by being satisfied with POCs creating works of art. Though I don’t personally like Ramy and I think it actually damages perceptions of Muslims, I also think it needs to exist– but I believe ardently that it’s not enough to just have POCs make works of art and call it good. The white gaze is ever-present, even in works by artists of color, and it’s exactly the kind of work that gets picked up. There are so many movies, books, poems, songs that don’t get recognition, and that’s because those artists are entering their spaces as their own rather than formulating them based on the perception of white people. I think we should actively seek those out as a way of undermining the system from within.