Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Julia Baird's Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder & things that sustain you when the world goes dark

We are having bumper meetings these days, because due to COVID-19 we retirees are not travelling the way we usually do through the cooler months. It's lovely actually, though with 10 or more at meetings, the enthusiastic discussions can be hard to follow! I apologise to members whose ideas I've missed, in other words.

This month's book was by Aussie journalist and biographer, Julia Baird, who has had a very tough cancer journey over the last few years. Her book, Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder & things that sustain you when the world goes dark, ostensibly contains the lessons she has learnt to help herself and others through such times. Some of the essays were written (in some form) before her illness, which suggests that these ideas have been swilling around her head for a longer time.

As usual, we started with ...

First impressions

We basically broke into two camps, those who loved the book, and those who liked it but with reservations.

Those who loved it found the writing wonderful, commenting on the way she draws the reader in by observation and experience, and on the personalised, moving way she shared her ideas. They liked the way she drew different threads together. One listened to Julia Baird, herself, reading it on Audible, and found it excellent, so much so that it made her want to buy a print copy to refer back to.

Those with reservations all liked much of the content, and didn't disagree in any major way with what she had to say. Like those who loved it, they found her a bright, intelligent woman, and thought her writing excellent. The reservations varied a little but boiled down to feeling that the book:

  • contained many ideas we could relate to, but offered nothing new;
  • felt disjointed, or as some said, the "phosphorescence" theme didn't play through the book as clearly as was expected;
  • was tedious at the beginning, but liked it more when it became apparent that it was a book of essays; and/or
  • felt a bit glib, and repetitive, which made it somewhat unsatisfying.

The discussion

The discussion, just like some felt the book was, was somewhat disjointed!

Members identified aspects of the book that particularly struck them, which included (excuse the lazy dotpointing!):
  • Baird's looking for nurturing experience from the natural world
  • much of the language and her descriptions 
  • the memoir aspects
  • her encounters with a wide range of interesting people, which we felt was partly due to her journalist career bringing her into contact with such a variety of people (like the millionaire financier in New York)
  • the way she seizes the day
  • the book's beautiful cover
We also talked a little about Baird's discussion of faith and doubt. One admired her being one of those women of faith who can relate to/reach a broad audience. We shared a couple of her comments about doubt:

The mark of a civilised woman, too, is to doubt the wisdom received from men for so long...

Another that several of us liked came during her discussion about its being ok to doubt scientists, who, themselves, recognise that things can change and that they need to "embrace doubt, and see shades of grey...". She says scientists have been wrong in the past "as have politicians, teachers, priests, principals, CEOs and all sorts of authority figures". And then, she adds in parentheses:

(Although, seriously, if you can't accept what the vast majority of scientists have to say about climate change, it's not doubt that is your problem.)

We all loved that.

We talked about the various references to Japanese aesthetics and philosophy. The prevalence of Japanese thought was interesting given she talks about visiting various places, but not Japan. The ideas, which are hard to express in Western words, are Shinrin-yoku (or forest-bathing, about the physiological/psychological benefits of being in the forest); YĆ«gen (about grace and mysterious experiences that are hard to explain); Wabi sabi (about imperfect or transient beauty); Kintsugi/Kintsukuroi (about repairing broken pottery in ways that the repair can be seen, making the damage part of its history and beauty); and Moai (about the groups created among newborns in Okinawa which provide social support through life).
Moai was discussed in the section on friendship which is beautifully called "We are walking each other home" (Ram Dass). One member loved the concept introduced in this section of Freudenfreude, which is a term coined, Baird says, by psychologists to describe the opposite of Schadenfreude

Another wonderfully named section that we discussed a little is "We are all wiggly" where she talks about accepting and/or embracing failure and imperfection. She describes her own spectacular failure as an activist for the ordination of women in Sydney's Anglican church. She argues that we should appreciate and recognise failed activist action, that we should honour the effort and the commitment. We should also recognise that quite often the issue keeps building and is eventually achieved. 

We also enjoyed her discussion in this section of the pressure on women's appearance - their dress, their hair, etc. We loved that the term "mutton dressed as lamb" was initially positively intended. (Oh, and most of us were surprised to hear that she has a big nose! We hadn't noticed!)

We laughed at some of the stories, such as her son's delightful hoarding of his underpants for the memories they are associated with, and her sock-chewing groodle, Charlie. Other stories that interested us included the story of hope as exemplified by Jim Stockdale who spent over 7 years in Vietnam's most notorious and brutal POW prison, and the subsequent concept of "The Stockdale Paradox".

Some of the other messages we took away included living life deliberately (by paying attention), the (counterintuitive) idea that the clue to happiness is to have low expectations, the value of awe (including "the overview effect"), and the importance of searching for our "ert" (a term coined by marine biologist Lisa-Ann Gershwin to oppose "inertia").

One commented, gratefully (ha!), that Baird didn't talk about the current "in" idea that she's hearing everywhere, gratitude!

The book provoked much thought among many of us about our own lives and values, but what was shared in the room will stay in the room. Let's just say that in the end we decided that, whether we agreed that the work was fully coherent or not, it was a book in which Baird was able to share many of the things she wanted to say and pass on, and that the book can work as "a salve for the weary".

Present: 11 members

Friday, 9 October 2020

Erotic stories for Punjabi widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

September’s meeting was very well attended and everyone enjoyed our book, Erotic stories for Punjabi widows.

The story is about a young Punjabi woman called Nikki living in contemporary London who has dropped out of a law degree and is trying to work out what direction her life will go. She knows she does not want to be a lawyer (against her father’s wishes) and she does not want to have an arranged marriage but she is undecided about her future career and life. Her immediate goal is to assist these ladies who want to tell stories to relax and enjoy life.

Balli Kaur Jaswal is a Singaporean born novelist with a Punjabi family background. She has written 4 books to date and Erotic storiesis her third novel. Her first novel, Inheritance, won the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian novelist award in 2014. She spent time in Australia and has an Australian husband.

First impressions

  • It’s about relationships, the migrant experience and expectations— Nikki and her sister Mindi are both wanting a happy life. Nikki desires the freedom to have a choice of partner and career versus Mindi, who is more traditional in her life choices and accepting of an arranged marriage
  • I recommended it as I had heard about it on the radio – interesting juxtaposition of modern and traditional approaches to life by these girls and delving into serious topics at times, especially in talking about the frightening males of the community policing the girls. I had to tell myself it was only fiction but no doubt based on fact.
  • Finished too predictably.
  • Thought it was too frivolous at the beginning but then realised that it is about generational change and people who hold on to traditions.
  • It was not my sort of book because I like books that make you think. It was a little too obvious. However, it covers the migrant experience well.
  • Very funny in some places.
  • Very erotic at times – too much so for me! Easy read and not lasting well in my memory as I read it a while ago.
  • Well written, good cultural insights especially showing women as repository of culture
  • I found it slow to start and couldn’t find any beauty in the language – just a story but it was good escapism in our ‘Covid’ times.
  • Found it engaging but a bit prosaic or formulaic. It was a good exploration of women between two cultures shown by Nikki and her sister and their tensions. Nikki didn’t agree with arranged marriage but family connections were very important for her. 
  • The older women in the group gathered around Nikki telling erotic stories exhibited their freedom in England, which they did not have at home in England or in their home country. The book did make you think about the tough restrictions on some women in this Punjabi community even in a suburb in London.



We started the discussion with a question: Was Jason’s story of an arranged marriage a counterfoil to Mindi’s arranged marriage plot?

Jason’s marriage was very unhappy. Mindi had a view of an arranged marriage where you had time before the ceremony to get to know the partner and eventually develop a good relationship. For Jason there was no chemistry with his arranged marriage (as far as the reader knows) versus chemistry (love) which comes later in Mindi’s idealised interpretation of an arranged marriage.

What did we think of Mindi?

She didn’t like being dressed in the same clothes as her younger sister as a child, although curiously, Nikki didn’t mind it. They were very close and related well with love and respect for each other. Mindi is essentially a practical person and views her life through that lens. She was possibly going to be the ‘child’ left at home to look after the aging parents, especially after their father died.

Would it have been as good a novel without the sexy bits or titillation? 

It was part of empowering the ‘widows’ and proving that they had inner lives and imaginations. Some readers thought it didn’t gel. However, there is the other view that Indian culture is very open to displays of sex through their art, statuary and building decoration especially in connection with their religion, with freizes, and also in written works like the Kama Sutra. Bollywood is a ‘hoot’ or ‘overblown comedy disguising the sex in a fantasy of romance’ according to one of our group. An example is the film Bollywood matchmaker.

Sikhs and Sikh culture

The remainder of the conversation revolved largely around Sikhs and their culture living in London. The author, Jaswal, has based the story in Southall, which is where the largest temple is situated and where there is a significant population of Sikhs. However not all the characters are British. Nikki’s boyfriend is an American Sikh. (Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the UN for the USA is a Sikh, according to one of our members).

One member stated that it is easy to ‘love a man in a turban’ and there was much discussion about the Sikh who is sitting for the Liberals in the current ACT election. There are apparently many items identifying Sikh men, particularly: uncut hair, wearing silver bangles and carrying a ‘figurative’ sword. 

Sikhs often send money ‘home’, and although they have a new life with the move to a western culture, it is often purely for economic reasons. The largest group of Sikh people in Australia live in Victoria. The population in Australia is approximately 132,500. In Victoria, a Sikh man won a court case in the early 1900s to vote as a coloured man living in Australia after Australia had introduced the White Australia policy.

One reader did some research and discovered a thesis which discusses the Sikh heritage and the questions of women’s body identity. It is a patriarchal culture but the women have to negotiate the two cultures when living in a foreign land (such as in England). This is part of Nikki and Mindi’s dilemma and for the all other women too, no matter what age they were.

Nikki’s father in Britain wants his daughters to have a choice in life but then tries to restrict Nikki. There are the many visits back to India too to encourage all the traditional manners and customs in the girls. Honour for the family is vitally important as it is with many other cultures, which makes life extra hard for the young women involved. One member mentioned that the novelist says that Sikh culture can fossilise in a migrant country, whereas back home (in India) the culture moves a bit more with the times.

Kulwinder, the woman who employs Nikki in the novel, was one of the few characters who changes over the length of the story. She didn’t know what she was ‘buying into’ when she interviewed Nikki. She got more than she expected. We thought she was a great character. We liked the fact that there's a wide range of women in this novel ranging from young Nikki at 22 to mature ladies in their 50s and 60s. So there are lots of different opinions, and a push and pull between the generations.

An irony in the story was that Kulwinder moved to Southall thinking that her daughter would be safe there among Sikhs, but sadly that was where she was killed. Southall is a ‘Punjabi on Thames’ where the community lives separately from their English compatriots.

Racism was briefly mentioned. It is a subtle theme in the novel. For example, Steve, Nikki’s boss at the pub, noticed some passing references from English people to Nikki and her status at the bar.

Radicalising of migrant men and boys is also important issue in present day London and often mentioned in this novel. The menacing "Brothers" who patrol the streets of Southall have definitely have been radicalised. The security of young women was also mentioned quite often.

There is violent radicalising through the religion but there is also the radical behaviour of the women wanting to be freer and some learning English. The ladies who joined Nikki’s class were radical in that they were not learning English but telling stories they wanted to hear. It was also radical that they allowed themselves to go to the pub to continue the ‘lessons’.

It is interesting that no woman in this story married outside their community but the author did as she is married to an Australian. It is not an option for many Sikhs. (Because of a ruling from Amritsar, many gurdwaras no longer permit a Sikh to marry a non-Sikh in their premises. The basis of the prohibition is that a non-Sikh does not honour the Guru Granth Sahib as a Guru and so cannot show sufficient respect to the Guru Granth Sahib which presides at the marriage. From Sikhs in Australia.)

Sikhs are often persecuted as they don’t fit into the Moslem or Hindu communities. Sikhs do not proselytize so they need to breed and are very proud of their culture and their good works. They have a wonderful tradition of community service and providing free meals at temples in England, India and Australia.

We thought that this novel would make an excellent movie and the rights have been sold to Scott Free productions and Film4.

Present: 9 socially distanced, and 2 via Jitsi