Book Review by Shikha Kenneth
Holier Than Life
E-Book by Fauzia Rafique
Purple Poppy Press, Vancouver, 2013
South Asian Ensemble (SAE), Summer/Fall 2013
South Asian Canadian writer Fauzia Rafique’s new literary offering is a digitalized anthology of poems. The poems are interspersed with Rafique’s views on varied matter such as love, violence, happiness, melancholy, feminism, current events, socio-cultural politics, etc. The poet displays her flair for effectively capturing the painfully personal, the brutally cultural, and the deceitfully socio-political experiences of the South Asian populace. Each poem presents Rafique in her various moods – optimistic, sarcastic, bitter, bemused, aggressive, etc.
The opening chant ‘Let It Pass’ is portent of her diverse reflections on violence which creates, interweaves, and subsumes the human body, its ‘self’, and society. Rafique creates vivid imagery in ‘Waiting’ by comparing the intricacies of her pessimism to the multi-hued cacti spanning the sandy expanse of her heart (8). And she reiterates her gloom by comparing it to a bird that re-emerges – carrying a “restive little fish” in its beak – from within the poet’s “ocean of joy” (45). But she contradicts the above mentioned metaphoric sentiments by stating her knack for sifting, finding, and focussing on the “bright shades of…undying green” within “each gray day” (8). It is reflected in ‘Breeze’ where Rafique romanticizes the “ice breeze” of February capering around her neighbourhood (13). Or in ‘Outcome’ where the poet attains happiness from the simple act of putting a yellow tape at the edges of a blue chart for it reminds her of the burnished rays of sun adorning the sky (33).
Rafique’s poetry is mottled with her vision of love. In ‘Sparrow of Love’, she innovatively highlights the universal predicament of coping with the contradictions of love. The poem points to an individual’s multiple approaches to love – nurture it gratis, or embellish it to flaunt, or guiltlessly devour it for one’s gratification (11). Rafique echoes the Sartrean ideology of love in ‘Guilt’ for it turns an individual into a beggar who shuns the act of self-examination and gives in to one’s need for the gaze of the ‘other’ (28). Yet in ‘Possibilities’ she favours the masochism of love as displayed in the act of carving out a “single bud of rose” from her heart than protecting it (23). In her translation of Shah Madhulal Hussain’s poem ‘Kafi’, Rafique resonates Hussain’s ideology that love is a “wild elephant,” and, when teased awake shall trample all the other existing violent ideologies (14). In ‘The Extreme Labour of Love’, she opines that human beings are often incapable of deriving pleasure from the fruition of their love, in any form, because they are haunted by the promise of tomorrow (25).
Rafique also focusses on the profundity of the connection between the human body, violence, and pain. She creates cryptic images showing the dying body writhing in pain, being drained out of life, meanness coagulating its blood from within. Moreover, she seems to be preoccupied with the desecration of the female body. For instance, ‘Shariah Compliant Bra’ highlights the transformation of the female body into a hegemonic construct, redefinition of its identity, and forcible sanction as the conventional image of femininity. Rafique continually refers to the breasts and “anonymous body parts” of a Muslim woman as “bits, blits, kits, lits”. She shows language to be a patriarchal construct that exercises control over a woman by shaping her identity according to the dominant ideology. And if a Muslim woman refuses to be the recipient of such discursive violence, her body is forced to undergo the physical trauma of being violently “cut and clip” by the representatives of prevailing oppressive belief system, that is, patriarchy (51-3).
Patriarchy is a pervasive and power-based structure that manifests itself through all social institutions. Patriarchy is inherent in discourse; it is an intrinsic element of the prevailing ideology. It enforces the biological and cultural suppositions that are responsible for the subjugation of women. The anti-patriarchal theme is, in fact, predominant in Rafique’s verse. Her poem entitled ‘Hadd: Limit’ connotes the Derridian premise of différance emphasizing the acts of estrangement from and murder of the woman as being crucial for preservation of the symbolic order (23). ‘Vulnerability’ alludes to the financial capitalization of a woman’s worth before she begins to “swim across the moonlight glint of death…to a brand new exotic destination of life”, that is, marriage (36). ‘Familial Promises’ outlines an honour killer’s code which operates through the violent methods of control, discipline, and punishment meted to a woman as described through the use of words like “smack”, “bash”, “rap” “smash” and “whack” (54). Here, the woman becomes the embodiment of virtue that defines a code of patriarchal honour. And this honour gets violated when a woman decides to exercise her personal, social, and constitutional rights.
Rafique’s poetry can, in fact, be viewed as an insurgency against the legitimate sanctioning of horrific acts of violence against Muslim and South-Asian women. Through her poems she accounts the legally authorized dehumanization of women thereby highlighting the interminable bond between law and anomie. ‘Porn Creation’ relates the incident of a thirteen year old girl named Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow who was labelled as “adulterous” after being gang raped by three law-enforcers and stoned to death for lodging a complaint against perpetrators of the crime (55). Rafique describes the day of Bibi Aisha’s execution where fifty impotent men surrounding her become the embodiment of the “Žižekian pervert” (The Plague 135). Their limp erections suddenly bloom into life as they witness the girl being punished for raising her voice against the heinous crime of rape. It shows that the conventional notion of the phallus as the siege of aggressive, penetrative, essentially masculine, potency/power is, in fact, contingent upon the terror that is evoked in the gaze of the woman. Patriarchy is, in fact, the fight of an “ignorant chauvinist man” using such tactics as “extreme violence, disfigurement, irreparable damage to body and spirit” in order to “restrict, control, contain, possess, subdue” the woman in his life (Rafique 63). In other words, the existence of the patriarchal male relies on inflicting violence on the body of woman to maintain his illusion of power. Similarly, ‘Mirwah’s Unnamed Girl’ depicts Rafique’s angst over the killings of several unidentified Mirwah women who, according to the fanatical oppressors, had the audacity to seek the right to choose their own bridegrooms. She declares the legal and political system of such nations to be emasculated and fit to wear all the adornment attributed to femininity (46-9).
Rafique is infuriated by the manner in which social organizations such as North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Amnesty International have usurped the struggles of several South-Asian natives who have lost their lives to their passion for fighting for women’s rights. In ‘The Jolly Trinity’ she castigates the way in which the Western celebrities and politicians – leading a rich and pampered existence – exploit the plight of the violated South-Asian women for photo-opportunities and news bytes. These organizations are, in fact, multi-million dollar enterprises seeking to spread their web of power, control and violence over the world under the guise of defense and security against the human rights violation. Such socio-political corporations indulge in the cunning use of public relations policy to camouflage their “drone fire aggression into noble democracy”, transform “war-lording action into exodus of decency” and convert “dirty dollar into charitable currency” (70). In ‘Drone-Dead Lover’, Rafique assails the Obama administration which authorized the continuation of drone attacks being made on Pakistan for the past several years. These attacks were meant to eradicate terrorism but have deprived thousands of Pakistani civilians off their lives (62).
The poet interprets religion – hailed by many as the bedrock of ethics – to be a patriarchy-infested institution that operates on the underside of law. In ‘The Clowns of Blasphemy’, religious extremism is shown to play out like a Senecan tragedy where divinities are manufactured in order to satisfy the zealot’s craving for slaughter and deliberate spillage of blood. She illustrates a fascist regime where innocent men, women, and children are labelled as “Kafirs, women and witches, bombers and terrorists” (78). Such a regime operates on the “excesses of torture” in order to stun and subdue both its victims and the audience (Discipline and Punish 35). These violent excesses include “bullying…skinning…hanging…burning” which are meant to stoke the “self-righteous leaders” hunger for power, violence, and “brand-new riches” (Rafique 79). ‘Holier than Life’ is Rafique’s insurrection against the bigoted ideology transmitted by all patriarchal institutions – social, cultural, religious, educational, political, and economical – and its representatives. She considers all these agencies of power to be the breeding-ground of violence, and, she wants to engrave the moniker of “MURDERER” on them (82). She condemns the “violent expositions” of all species of fanatics whose contrived creations like religion turn individuals into eternal victims in their quest for social, material, and existential transcendence (83).
In this anthology, Rafique displays an unapologetic and intractable stance against the aggressive jingoistic fervour that has been adopted by patriarchy. It manifests by inscribing itself on the bodies of women in multifarious ways. The poet believes that patriarchy can be rendered powerless if the violated woman refuses to cover her scarred and mutilated body. In ‘Shame’, She informs the guardians of both social & feminine propriety to stop being concerned about her disgrace and forcing her to shroud it in silence. Rafique declares that she is going to display her shame with as much aplomb as she would her achievement. In ‘Nangi Naked’, she cites the example of a Kashmiri poet named Lilla Arifa who ventured out of her house without the protection of clothes (58). This single act of defiance became more effective than Arifa’s entire body of literature. In other words, woman needs to disassociate herself from the norms for respectability and modesty mapped out by the patriarchal custodians, for it is the only way to weaken the enemy and gain freedom from the clutches of patriarchy.
In ‘Need for Social Self’, Rafique states that the need for cultivating a social self is imposed on every individual. It requires existing as a “zombie”, that is, the state of being “perfectly natural, alert, loquacious, vivacious behaviour but is in fact not conscious at all, but rather some sort of automaton” (Dennett 73). The poet recalls an event when she donned the attire of her social self and experienced the sensation of being choked into silence. Subsequently, she has never been able to accept the falsity underlying one’s social self and openly shuns it. Holier Than Life thus can be viewed as Rafique’s fearless and candid attempt to assail, hemorrhage, and rupture the normalization and legitimization of patriarchy. The poet realizes that such an act requires her to immerse body and soul in “the flow of pain” (7). Rafique’s poetry is a blend of three languages namely English, Punjabi and Urdu. It highlights both the universality and specificity of the multi-faceted forms of violence experienced by women especially in Third-World nations. Her poems are sprinkled with metaphors; the language is potent and descriptive; the verse seems staccato at times but seems to be styled to correspond with the requirements of digitalized literature. In Holier Than Life, Rafique successfully manages to expose and critique those dynamics of oppression and resistance that are generally problematized through gross and calculated misrepresentation.
Dennett, Daniel C. Consciousness Explained. New York: Back Bay, 1991. Print.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: Birth of Prison. Trans. Allen Lane. London: Peregrine, 1979. Print.
Rafique, Fauzia. Holier Than Life. Vancouver: Purple Poppy Press, 2013. Web.
Žižek, Slavoj. The Plague of Fantasies. London: Verso, 1997. Print.
From South Asian Ensemble (SAE), Summer/Fall 2013, Vol 5, 3 & 4
Editors Rajesh Sharma & Gurdev Chauhan
More by Shikha on Uddari
‘Capturing the Essence of Patriarchy in Skeena’ by Shikha Kenneth