Thursday, May 24, 2012

When Do I Write?

When Do I Write?

After the kids have gone to bed, and come in (finally) for the last time to get a glass of water/hug/reassurance from a nightmare/to see what I am doing.

I know I should be kind and wonderful and warm at those times - a mother from a TV commercial, a modern, brown, less operatic version of Maria von Trapp -- but the sixteenth time they do it, I usually yell, “Mommy’s got work to do – Go. To. Bed.” And then I feel bad, but not too bad, because I do. Have work, I mean.

I always have work. There’s always something to write.

I write when they’re in school. The days I don’t teach. After I exercise and shower, and before I have to pick them up. Which doesn’t leave a lot of time, I must say.

Which reminds me: why isn’t the school day longer? Who can I talk to about that?

Sometimes I write while I putter around the kitchen making dinner and they sit at the table doing their homework. But that’s usually on the sly – laptop on counter, attention cleverly divided in a thousand different ways.

“Mama’s just checking a recipe, guys.”

One time, I tried to just sit down with them at the table with the computer but the looks of hurt on their faces sliced any creative thought clean from my mind.

I don’t have the same compunctions when it’s just my husband.

When do I write?

Not on the weekends, at least not while they’re awake. Unless there’s a deadline. In which case it’s usually on the couch with everyone around me and I don’t actually get much done. But I don’t feel as guilty, ‘cause I let them sit on my outstretched legs and we take intermittent tickle breaks - which are actually very helpful to most creative endeavors.

Seriously, there are studies that prove it. It’s well known that Dostoyevsky – heck, all the Russian novelists – were quite fond of tickling.

When my kids were babies and they still breastfed, I could write and mother at the same time and sometimes feel like Wonderwoman doing it. (Only sans the American flag hot pants and bustier.) I had the technique down pat – if I sat up in bed with a back pillow and propped the baby’s head on the arm rest, bent over at a fairly uncomfortable angle, and curved my arm around just so, I could actually type with both hands while nursing. I liked to think my body was so nourishing I could feed my child and the hungry computer screen at the same time.

I was so full of crap.

But now at least my children are old enough they can read what I write and want me to succeed so badly that last week, when I got a letter from a publishing house about something else, they screamed and screamed from the kitchen: “Mama, come quick! Someone is publishing your book! Someone is publishing your book!” It actually hurt my heart to tell them they were wrong.

Why don’t I have an invisible plane? I think it could be a useful way to sneak up on editors who have your manuscript and find out what they really think of you.

When do I write?

I write when I can’t not write. Which is most of the time.

Sometimes, it’s not even on paper or the computer, but in my mind, on my skin, on the insides of my cheeks. I write like this in the car, in the shower, when waiting in line at the grocery store. I keep promising myself I’ll buy one of those teeny tiny tape recorders to capture the gems of my brilliant thoughts as they spill pell-mell from my skull. But I haven’t had the time to go get one yet.

Which reminds me, I need laundry detergent.

To read the rest of this essay please visit writer Anjali Enjeti's blog She Started It! I was honored and delighted to add my voice to the writers already there answering the complicated question: When do you write?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Downcast, Decapitated and Dead: Why Don't Women on Book Covers and in Ads Stare Back?

Marie Claire magazine, July 2007 Photo Credit: Stephanie Sinclair

In 2007, I was flipping through the latest issue of Marie Claire magazine, when I stumbled upon a striking image. It was this full color photo of several brown-skinned, pregnant women in vibrant colored saris, and it accompanied an article on what’s been sensationally called the “wombs for rent” industry: that is, the growing international market for gestational surrogates from countries like India. For infertile foreign couples from countries where assisted reproductive technologies are illegal, or simply prohibitively expensive, traveling to India has become a popular way to have “their” genetic fetuses carried to term by an Indian surrogate.

This image would prompt me to work on this troubling and complicated issue for the next several years. But at the time, the thing that really struck me was the image itself. Why were these women headless? I wondered. And what purpose was their headlessness serving?

At one level, I understood that the women’s faces had been removed from the image to preserve their anonymity, in case their extended families and communities were unaware that they were working as gestational surrogates for foreign couples (consider this image of Indian gestational surrogates covered by surgical masks, which functions in the same way. The only unmasked woman – in the middle – is the doctor). But at another level, the photo encouraged a certain kind of gaze – an exoticized voyeurism in the viewer in which we could look without the risk of anyone looking back.

Theorists from Michel Foucault to Laura Mulvey have discussed the relationship between gaze and power – the idea that we stare at people/objects that we seek to control. In 2009, women’s studies scholar Rosemarie Garland Thompson wrote a book called Staring: How We Look (check out this YouTube mini-lecture she gives on the book), in which she argues that human beings want to stare without being stared at, that we like to look at others without being implicated in our own looking. Images of headless women certainly allow for this kind of gaze.

To read the rest of this essay, please visit Adios, Barbie!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Breast Wars: Why Time Magazine is just part of a bigger problem

Oh, get over your misogynistic self, Time Magazine.

"Are you Mom enough?" screams the headline. And while it's a far cry from Henry V's St. Crispin's Day speech before the battle of Agincourt (we band of brothers! er, sisters?), just that annoying headline is undoubtedly a bugle-cry for another round of what's become the U.S. 'mom wars' - between stay-at-homes and work-outside-the-house moms, between breast feeders and bottle feeders, between co-sleepers and sleep trainers.

But no, Time Magazine didn't want to stay with a mere rallying cry. It had to add on a ridiculous image - a svelte, defiant-faced blonde, white mother nursing what can only be optimistically described as a 'big boy' who's standing on a CHAIR to reach her rather than being cradled in any way in her arms. (Don't even get me started on why all four mothers apparently photographed for this article were white)

So that's it, huh, Time? Attachment parents are freaks? That's what you got for me? I think the article on (which I don't entirely agree with all parts of, but anyway) said it best:

...the cover is meant to incite both public ridicule and maternal anxiety — just in time for mother's day. "Look at that weirdo over-mothering her kid!" and "OMG, will my child grow up to be a maladjusted, angry a**h*** because I was a neglectful parent who weaned him before he learned to read!?" The issue has definitely kicked the "mommy wars" up a notch, but there's also an important debate happening right now: Is progressive motherhood an extension of go-getter feminism or is it just a misogynistic ploy to take women out of the workforce and rob them of their freedom?

As a pediatrician, a breast feeding advocate, and yes, an attachment parent (who breast fed my children until they were about two, thank you very much) I'm thoroughly disgusted by this Fox News type treatment of breastfeeding. No one makes this big a deal about sippy cups, or those cute little divided plates, or juice boxes - yet, breastfeeding, which is ostensibly a simple, economical and age-old way to FEED YOUR KIDS - has become twisted into a political battering ram to be used against women on both sides of the attachment parenting battlements.

I'm not going to rant about the benefits of breastfeeding - there are terrific organizations like La Leche league and the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine to do that. What I am going to rant about is that, yet again, women are being pitted against one another in ways that continue to distract us from the real issues hindering breastfeeding in this country - which are structural NOT individual:

1. The U.S. has wonky cultural attitudes towards breasts:  Come on, we all know this. Go to Europe, go to Asia - people are breastfeeding everywhere. Yet, in America, the sexualization of the breast is so pervasive, even breast cancer screening campaigns have become semi-pornographic (see my post on the "I heart Boobies" and other sexy-fying breast cancer campaigns at Adios, Barbie).

In 2010, Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Katja Esson tackled U.S. cultural attitudes toward breastfeeding in her fantastic documentary "Latching On: The Politics of Breastfeeding in America." In fact, that was the motivating inspiration of the film itself:

After filmmaker Katja Esson’s sister gave birth in Germany, she was able to breastfeed her baby anywhere and at any time. Returning home to New York, Esson found that breastfeeding was rarely practiced and largely unseen. Academy Award® Nominee Esson (Ferry Tales) turned her quirky eye on the subject and set out to learn why this was so. Her wide-ranging, frequently funny documentary highlights the intersecting economic, social, and cultural forces that have helped replace mother’s milk with formula produced by a billion dollar industry, and reveals the challenges and rewards for women who buck the trend. 

I mean, do you think it's coincidence the Time cover shows a woman and her son (dressed in camoflage pants, nonetheless)? As if suggesting that there's something sexually inappropriate there? Rather than picturing the average breastfeeding mom - someone cradling and enjoying her time with her feeding child - by choosing this image, Time has chosen to paint breastfeeders as outliers, freaks, rather than as regular parents simply feeding their children.

2.  Formula Companies got the money, honey: Although World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nation's Children's Fund (UNICEF) sponsored Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative is working to make hospitals pro-breast feeding, the truth of the matter is, formula companies still have a stranglehold on maternity wards throughout this country. Those convenient, free packets of formula? Those tote bags and other accoutremonts? What do you think those are about? How about the fact that even as a pediatrician, I had to fight to get the nurses from giving my newborns formula in the hospital?

In the U.S. the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative Suggests the following 10 steps to supporting successful breastfeeding:

1 - Have a written breastfeeding policy that is routinely communicated to all health care staff.
2 - Train all health care staff in skills necessary to implement this policy.
3 - Inform all pregnant women about the benefits and management of breastfeeding.
4 - Help mothers initiate breastfeeding within one hour of birth.
5 - Show mothers how to breastfeed and how to maintain lactation, even if they are separated from their infants.
6 - Give newborn infants no food or drink other than breastmilk, unless medically indicated.
7 - Practice “rooming in”-- allow mothers and infants to remain together 24 hours a day.
8 - Encourage breastfeeding on demand.
9 - Give no pacifiers or artificial nipples to breastfeeding infants.
10 - Foster the establishment of breastfeeding support groups and refer mothers to them on discharge from the hospital or clinic

3. Working parents need on-site childcare, flextime and longer leave:  Without these fundamental structural changes to support mothers and fathers of young children, the U.S. continues to show that we are not a 'family-centered' culture or country at all.

Time Magazine, please stop adding to the cultural demonization of breastfeeding and parenting in general in this country. We're on to you. Let's stop making the conversation around breastfeeding about individual women's choices - 'good moms' vs. 'bad moms'/'freak moms' vs. 'feminist moms' -- and focus on the real structural impediments to all our families' health and wellbeing.

(Ok, I think that's it, off soapbox now. I reserve the right to return soon, though.)

POST-BLOG ADDITION: See this nice NYT oped on formula company "maternity swag" in hospitals that came out later this week, very relevant to my points about structural undermining of breastfeeding.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Suit or Sari? On Professionalism and 'Ethnic' Dressing

I had the pleasure to attend a women's leadership conference this past weekend. It was a fantastic opportunity to meet innovative and dynamic women from seven different decades, and I was so inspired by much that I saw and heard.

But it was a lecture by a popular professor -- an expert in public speaking and issues of gender and communication -- that left me unexpectedly troubled. And it's taken me a couple days to figure out why.

I last saw this professor lecture more than 20 years ago - and she's still the same funny, sharp-witted, and insightful speaker I remember from back in my college days. She urged us conference participants to be assertive, not aggressive, in our speech, to think about standing and sitting with confidence, to avoid lilting upward at the end of our sentences, to resist being cut off by others while we're speaking.

All of this made a lot of sense to me. I know that women are often taught to defer to others in conversation ("no, no, you go ahead"), that we may unconsciously adopt physical postures of passivity or childishness (the cocked head, the crossed leg stance while standing), that we may sound as if we're apologizing, for even our names ("my name is Sayantani??").

And yet, when the lecture got to the issue of dressing for presentation success, I began to feel distinctly uncomfortable.

"Don't wear skirts that are too short," she said, "And -- man or woman,  if you're planning on crossing your leg at the ankle (a gesture men often do), please wear calf-high socks. There's nothing as distracting as a hairy leg - female or male."

Ok, no hairy crossed legs, check. Seemed simple and logical enough. 

"Don't wear patterns, scarves, obvious jewelery or dangling earrings -- they distract from your face and your message," she urged.

Ok, I guess I could see that, I thought, thinking dubiously of the patterned scarf I was wearing, as well as the embroidered Indian top, the gold paisley shaped earrings - also from India.

"Don't wear patterned clothing - I stick mostly to black, and perhaps one solid color to pop," the lecturer added. She was wearing black pants and a red blazer.

That was the advice that continued to bother me. After all, just the night before, at the conference's formal gala, I was among one of few women in ethnic dress (a salwaar kameese, dupatta, and fancy jacket), and got nothing but compliments. It's a deliberate gesture of ethnic pride I often make at formal occassions, but it's also a practical one - my nicest and most dressy clothes are usually Indian clothes.

Over the next few days, I began to wonder -  do such pieces of advice eliminate personal style - either regarding speaking or dressing? Do they mandate an appearance of ethnic homogeneity? I mean, did Aung Sung Suu Kyyi or Winnie Mandela or Indira Gandhi (all powerful global women leaders and speakers) avoid patterns and jewels? In this rapidly shrinking global world, was it possible for all women to dress alike anyway?

I approach this issue through a particular lens, of course, that of a woman of color, but also a woman whose parents are immigrants. I am also a woman who watched my own mother, who came to this country at the age of 19 and was quite a jeans-and-beads wearing hippie for a number of years, stop wearing Western clothes altogether. It was shortly after the racist 'dotbuster' incidents in New Jersey -- when a group of thugs who declared themselves to be 'dotbusters' were terrorizing people of Indian origin. My mother, determined to show solidarity and pride in her identity, went cold turkey - no more jeans, no more Western clothes. She's a widely known academic and activist, and often does public lectures and trainings and yet - she's always dressed in either a salwaar kamesee or sari, with, yes, a bindi on her forehead.

Now, I understand, both my mother, and now, I , are academics and there are obviously different expectations regarding dress and public presentation in many professions. Corporate America or television journalism are less forgiving re: presentation style than a university, or a creative business. Yet, I have an aunt who is an attorney who has developed her own style of professional dressing for the courtroom - a dark colored cotton sari topped by a suit jacket. And obviously, corporate women in India and other countries surely wear different styles of professional dress.

I too am usually found with at least one piece of Indian clothing on my body - a flowing kurta on top of dark pants, topped by a blazer or jacket. It's my style, my interpretation of professorial dress codes, and I think, like my mother, it also reflects something political -- an identification with my roots and origins that I'm not willing to give up.

Might a woman wearing a sari at a podium get a different reception than a woman wearing a dark suit? Perhaps. I guess it depends if the podium is in New York or Topeka, Washington or New Dilli. But isn't that difference in reception one worth challenging and interrogating?

I guess my point is - ethnic dressing, like standing straight, meeting people in the eye when I talk, and not apologizing for my point of view, is actually a form of assertive communication on my part. It's a personal choice - just as any other woman's style of professional presentation is her personal choice.

And honestly, even if  if I dress like Hillary Clinton or Madeline Albright, no one's going to be mistaking me for them any time soon. If people are prejudiced against me for dressing ethnically, will they be any less so if I put my brown skin and Indian face in Western clothing? I hazard an assertive no.

Like the question mark I keep trying to keep off the end of my sentences, I don't want to apologize for looking, and sounding, like exactly who I am.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Winner! Peter and the Starcatcher Tickets!

So I have reached into my magic hat, and the winner of the Peter and the Starcatcher Broadway ticket is Karen B. Schwartz! Karen imagined a prequel to Beverly Cleary's fantastic "Beezus and Ramona":

Ramona enjoyed making her sister Beezus's books beautiful by drawing pictures in them with bright blue marker. Which was why it was so puzzling that Beezus locked all her things in her room. Ramona just had to try harder to show Beezus how fun she could be.

Congratulations Karen - just send me your email address and I'll forward you the voucher for two tickets!

Thanks to everyone else who left (and thought of) great prequels to their favorite kids books!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Bollywood Primetime: Can One Big Dance Number "Smash" Racism?

I’m still thrilled when I see Desi (South Asian, South Asian American) faces in the mainstream U.S. media.

I’m old enough to remember a time when a single Desi presence on television (Vijay Amritraj, anyone?) was enough to bring the entire immigrant community to a standstill. When I was growing up in the 1970’s, in the U.S. Midwest, other Indian immigrants regularly found my family by stumbling upon our last name in the phonebook. Passing a fellow South Asian on the street or in the grocery store would result in enthusiastic introductions, exchanges of phone numbers and recipes, invitations to tea or home cooked dinners.

Although our communities have grown to astonishing numbers over the decades, I still engage in “Desi-Spotting” – a clever term coined by Columbia University journalism professor Sree Sreenivasan. Perhaps it’s an old habit, but I’m not the only one. South Asian-Americans in the public eye are discussed and debated, beloved and hated by fellow South Asian Americans: from the politics of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal to Bend it Like Beckham star Parminder Nagra’s appearing on ER, from Archie Panjabi’s groundbreaking role on The Good Wife, to Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s win for short-subject documentary at this year’s Oscars for her film about acid attacks in Pakistan, Saving Face. Despite my concerns about America’s fondness for films about victimized brown women, while I was watching the telecast I actually tweeted: “Hooray Desi filmmaker representing at the #Oscars! Nice Salwaar Suit my sistah!”

So, while I hadn’t been tuning in to NBC’s Broadway drama Smash, I actually started watching last week because I heard there was a Desi guy on the show. And as it happened, I was just in time, too. Because I wouldn’t have wanted to miss this week’s huge Bollywood number.

Full disclosure: I have a love-hate relationship with Bollywood movies. As a Bengali, and not Hindi, speaker, I grew up in a household where Bollywood movies weren’t regular fare. Over the years, I’ve actually seen the “Bollywood-ification” of our diasporic communities as a negative thing–a homogenization, commercialization, and dilution of a heterogeneous and complex region with not one but dozens of languages, varied cultural practices, and many rich, classical traditions of literature, film, dance, music and art. Yet the nuances of our regional languages, histories and customs seem at risk of being forgotten under the blinding lights of Bollywood’s pop-culture machine. And of course, the violence against women, the oppressive gender roles, the rabid nationalism, the homophobia, the heteronormativity in (some) Bollywood movies–yea, I’m not a big fan of all that, either.

It also annoys me that the world’s concept of India is filtered through the surreality of Bollywood. It would be like South Asians imagining the U.S. solely based on images of Las Vegas or something. It irritates me that when I travel abroad, European and other vendors often yell “Hey Bollywood!” or even “Amitabh Bachchan!” (the name of a legendary Bollywood actor) after me. It astonishes me that a white American woman familiar with Bollywood movies recently asked me, “Is India really like that?” When I asked her for clarification, she said, “You know, all that singing and dancing.”

Yes, I wanted to say. The streets are filled with scantily dressed actors and actresses who break into song and dance numbers at the drop of a hat. Courting couples regularly travel with less attractive same-gender back-up dancers. Heck, the whole country is wired so that no one has to speak, but we just lip-synch to really catchy playback music.

To read the rest of this essay, please visit Racialicous!