Sharif uses military terminology from the U.S. Department of Defence Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms in her texts, in upper case letters, appropriating them a sense of humanity, even using them in intimate scenarios between lovers. She fashions her poems into grieving requiems about the collateral damage inflicted on innocent civilians in modern warfare. She uses her own family’s traumatic experiences to illustrate how war mongers use bland euphemisms to desensitise us into acceptance of horrendous violence and carnage.
Look references the military meaning of the word: a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of influence.
One of the book’s most quoted verses attacks the personalization of warfare:
Daily I sit
with the language
of our language
the CAPABILITY OF LOW DOLLAR VALUE ITEMS
Look is an important feminist book and was influenced by Audre Lorde’s essays on the erotic. But underlying Sharif’s writing, as she puts it, is a feeling that “as a person and especially as a woman, I am under constant threat and attack, and it’s not just me that’s happening to. Somehow, I want the work to show that every time you’re washing the dishes, every shower, every grocery trip — that’s all informed by this violence, whether we’re seeing it or not.”
BuzzFeed news highlighted the poem Social Skills Training, below:
“Studies suggest How may I help you officer? is the single most disarming thing to say and not What’s the problem? Studies suggest it’s best to reply My pleasure and not No problem. Studies suggest it’s best not to mention problem in front of power even to say there is none. Gloria Steinem says women lose power as they age and yet the loudest voice in my head is my mother. Studies show the mother we have in mind isn’t the mother that exists. Mine says: What the fuck are you crying for? Studies show the baby monkey will pick the fake monkey with fake fur over the furless wire monkey with milk, without contest. Studies show to negate something is to think it anyway. I’m not sad. I’m not sad. Studies recommend regular expressions of gratitude and internal check-ins. Enough, the wire mother says. History is a kind of study. History says we forgave the executioner. Before we mopped the blood we asked: Lord Judge, have I executed well? Studies suggest yes. What the fuck are you crying for, officer? the wire mother teaches me to say, while studies suggest Solmaz, have you thanked your executioner today?”
Satire and Sanity
Sharif studied poetry writing under June Jordan at Berkeley. Jordan was a believer in multicultural values and many students from her programmes became radical poets. One of her quotes was: “The task of a poet of colour, a black poet, as a people hated and despised, is to rally the spirit of your folks… I have to get myself together and figure out an angle, a perspective, that is an offering, that other folks can use to pick themselves up, to rally and to continue or, even better, to jump higher, to reach more extensively in solidarity with even more varieties of people to accomplish something.”
This suits the author, Paul Beatty, who won last year’s Man Booker Prize with The Sellout.
In today’s politically topsy-turvy world where fake news is gospelized as real news and where alternative facts pound real facts out of existence, there is a huge need for brilliant satirists to proudly make a stand. Beatty, a black man who uses his talents to lacerate modern America, is a standout.
Beatty’s narrator was born in fictional Dickens near Los Angeles which has been literally erased from the map to save California a lot of embarrassment. He sets out to right this wrong by using outlandish and unconstitutional actions such as re-instating slavery and segregating the local high school. As a result, he is hauled before the Supreme Court, which is where we first meet him, stoned out of his mind.
Here are two review quotes that I agree with 100 percent:
“The first 100 pages are the most caustic and badass first 100 pages of any American novel I’ve read in a decade. I gave up underlining the killer bits because my arm began to hurt.” — New York Times
“As Mark Twain so ably showed us, America is rich with material worthy of ridicule. But where is today’s Twain? The answer is Paul Beatty… A book that is uproariously funny, deliciously profane and a ferociously intelligent send up of so much of our culture.” — San Francisco Chronicle
Like one reviewer, I had to read this insane book alone with no-one watching because I folded up too often in hysterics and oohed in flat-out awe.
Truong Hoang is behind the much-loved book shop, Bookworm. For more info click on bookwormhanoi.com or visit their shop at 44 Chau Long, Ba Dinh, Hanoi