Tuesday, 7 June 2011

a piece for nz book month

i finally came across the piece i wrote for nz book month. i'd always wondered what they'd done with it. they have cut it down alot, so i'm reproducing the full piece below. also, i don't really qualify as a celebrity, and the only claim i have to being an author is my blogging, op-eds & speeches. one day i hope to write a book, but i don't know that i'm quite ready yet. anyway, here's the full piece, as it was when i wrote it:

New Zealand Book Month is coming up, and I’ve been asked to write about a book which has changed my life in some way. The trouble is that it is so difficult to pick just one book, when there are so many that informed my thinking and shaped the way I see the world.

I’m going to pick a book that influenced me a lot, though I have some real objections to it. The book is Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, which I read first in my teenage years, and have reread many times since. It’s a strange choice for a Muslim woman living in New Zealand I expect, but both the positive and negative aspects were really important to me. To start with the positive influence, the story is about a pampered young woman from the southern states of America, and covers the American civil war.

What struck me most was the complete change in the life of this woman, from living in a rich, slave-owning family and never having to do any physical work to a woman struggling with poverty and struggling to survive in a world that was turned upside down, in a way that she didn’t foresee and certainly didn’t prepare for. This was a strong message to me about the uncertainty and unpredictability of life, and while we may be in a very strong and secure position, it takes just one major adverse event – totally beyond our control – which causes us to struggle. No matter how comfortable life seems, it is ultimately about survival. For me, this was a realisation that I needed to develop the strength of character that would help me to survive the most adverse unforeseen events.

Another positive was that the main character was a strong woman, but flawed. She was often selfish and didn’t care how much she hurt or used others. While this may not seem to be a good thing, it at least meant that the character was a well-rounded one, and I was certainly tired of reading about too-good characters who appeared to have no flaws at all, or only minor ones. The characters in this book were real, and I found that I could relate to them, even the negative ones. It was also nice to read a book written by a woman that centred around the experiences of women.

The most negative aspect of the book was the author’s treatment of slavery and her portrayal of African-Americans. I found it disturbing that the descriptors used for the black characters were animalistic, and that they were portrayed as having little intelligence or ability beyond the most basic manual labour. I also didn’t have time for the notion that African-Americans were better off when they were slaves, and the justifications for the existence of the Ku Klux Klan were weak.

I’m particularly glad that, at this time of my life, I was also reading books like Roots by Alex Haley, Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee to gain a much better perspective on issues of race and oppression.

Finally, the book also dealt with issues of class, though not in a positive way. There was a segregation of characters by class, and those of the lower classes were definitely written about as though they were inferior. One result of the American civil war was that those previously in the upper classes were stripped of their wealth, yet the author continued with the notion of their superiority to those of the lower classes who subsequently became wealthy. The superiority was determined by upbringing and etiquette rather than in relation to wealth. However, I still found this disturbing and believe a very different story could be told, using the same plot line but having the point of view of a poor white person. The author didn’t try to critique the way society was structured, nor to consider institutional injustices which allowed the rich to keep their status while making it extremely difficult for poor people to improve theirs.

Again, I’m glad that I read books like Silas Marner by George Elliot to give me an alternative perspective on class issues.

I think the most important thing about a good book is that it challenges your thinking, makes you change the way you look at the world, and inspires you to read more on the various topics that were treated well or poorly. Gone With the Wind is an important historical record, even if told from the perspective of someone with significant prejudices, and it certainly challenged me in a variety of ways. Most importantly, it has taught me never to take things for granted and to appreciate all the good things in my life before they might be taken away from me.

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