I’ve lost a notebook (again). It was a Moleskine (weep). This has goaded me into opening up a notebook that I haven’t lost (yet) and transferring its scribbles to the blog. It turns out I’ve done a lot of scribbling in there, so there’s something of a backlog to get through. These notes are from a talk/discussion that Deborah Baker held in November about her book The Convert, which was excellent while being deeply problematic. Baker is a wonderful writer and seems like a delightful person too. That said, she is not the most electric of public presences. It didn’t help that the person she was in conversation with was historian Shahid Amin, who may be learned and brilliant but there’s something musty and academic about him. Bluntly put: it was boring. Plus, it wasn’t very well attended because it had clashed with Names Not Numbers, ” the acclaimed global ideas conference discussing what individuality in a mass age means”. I’m one of the few who picked Baker over A.A. Gill (he was one of the speakers). There was also a party afterwards, which probably sealed the fate of attendance figures at Baker’s event. But there were a few crackling moments and I got a chance to hear Baker explain her justification for why “The Convert” should be called non-fiction.

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While Baker read and talked with Amin, there was a slideshow of images that played on loop. It was mostly made up of photos of Maryam Jameelah and her paintings. One of them was a drawing of Arab peasants, which was a copy of an image she’d seen in a National Geographic magazine. Another was a self-portrait (drawn in Lahore) and a photograph of her as a young mother. Both show her face, which is interesting given Islam’s ban on both figurative art and women showing their faces. It’s a very different aspect to the woman who is only shown swaddled in burqa and gloves. It was really rather interesting to see photos of a woman who chose the restrictions of conservative Islam in a gallery that was hosting show that had many images of fences and barriers. The show was by Huma Mulji (more on her show in another post. It’s part of my backlog), a Muslim woman from Pakistan, an artist whose work often looks at ideas of displacement. But like I said, more on Mulji’s show in another post. For now, here are some quotes and notes.

Baker on discovering Maryam Jameelah’s box of papers in the New York Public Library: “I was immediately taken by the voice in these letters.”

Baker on cross-border differences: “Pakistan had great cakes.” It appears we need to brush up our baking skills.

Reading the letters, Baker quickly had a very clear idea of what Maryam Jameelah was like. “In my heart of hearts, I hoped she was dead. Then she’s all yours. You don’t have to share it [with reality]. … I had a vision of her. I didn’t really want that to be disturbed.”

Baker wrote to Maryam Jameelah, asking if she would meet Baker. Baker wanted her take on 9/11/. “Meeting her was a profound shock. She wasn’t at all like I’d imagined. … She was older and I was seeing her after years of medication. It was like a fantasy. … Meeting her made me think I had to revise [what she had envisioned].”

Why Baker didn’t use ellipses: “The reader’s experience should be seamless. I didn’t want the reader thinking of the writer’s agenda.” Baker felt uncomfortable about bringing herself into the narrative of “The Convert” and is of the belief that ellipses make the reader wonder what the writer took out, thus inserting the writer into the narrative even more deeply.

Baker on the letters that she rewrote: “I couldn’t have written those letters if I hadn’t entirely internalised them.”

Baker on Maryam Jameelah: “Her letters were like a mania.”

Not sure in what precise context Baker said this, but she was talking about Maryam Jameelah and writing the book. “I thought, maybe I was her enemy.”

Baker said that during the Bush administration, there was so misinformation that it depressed her. “I was depressed that Americans were so easily spooked.”

The “easily spooked” offended a few of the Americans in the audience. One person asked Baker if she didn’t think it was traumatic enough an incident to deserve introspection and revisiting. Baker’s reply: “It requires scrutiny but we can’t be constantly scared by it over and over again. Of course it was traumatic, but you can’t still get spooked by the sight of a beard. … Capitalism is pretty toxic too. It’s more destructive of the world than political Islam will ever be.”

Not convinced by her stand on ellipses and neither is my unease about Baker writing for Jameelah set at rest, but I do like her take on political Islam and beard-phobia.

4 thoughts on “Deborah Baker in Mumbai

  1. ‘The Convert’ is three books down on my Reading List and I am so grateful that you posted these interesting snippets from Baker’s talk. The following, I find especially illuminating: Reading the letters, Baker quickly had a very clear idea of what Maryam Jameelah was like. “In my heart of hearts, I hoped she was dead. Then she’s all yours. You don’t have to share it [with reality]. … I had a vision of her. I didn’t really want that to be disturbed.

    ….but, then she had qualms about ‘inserting’ herself into the narrative. Seems incongruent, if anything.

  2. M, I enjoyed the book immensely and it’s very thought-provoking, in terms of both content and form. I don’t agree with some of Baker’s technique, but she’s written a brilliant book and more importantly, she has a reason for doing what she did which she doesn’t hide or obscure. That’s worth much respect.

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