Illustration by Audrey Helen Weber

September 2019

The Ledger

The English poet Winifred Emma May, who wrote under the pen name Patience Strong, said that September is ‘the month of maturity; the heaped basket and the garnered sheaf… It has warmth, depth and colour. It glows like old amber’. It’s also, for much of the world, a time of crisp new things: longer sleeves, tighter schedules, cool dewy mornings, clean soccer cleats. September rewards curiosity and discovery in the form of Hindi Zahra, a Moroccan singer whose music may be unfamiliar but whose supple, entrancing vocals convey beauty and heartbreak in English and Berber alike, and in the important work of the late Daša Drndić, the eminent Croatian chronicler of the Holocaust. Voice of Witness continues its empathetic project to amplify the stories of people contending with serious injustices and human rights emergencies. LaToya Ruby Frazier looks at the plight of sidelined American autoworkers in Ohio. And the ravishing ectoplasmic canvases of Shirazeh Houshiary seem to offer a portal to a new season. Dip between them like a lazy honeybee—a species you may encounter in Taiwan’s biodiverse Gaofeng Botanical Garden and which is also one more fragile, endearing symbol of September.

Illustration by Audrey Helen Weber


Intertwining personal and postcolonial narratives

The story of the ‘Bengali wolf girls’, Kamala and Amala, has the primal, apocryphal ring of Romulus and Remus. According to the Reverend J.A.L. Singh, who was working in Bengal in the early 1920s, he discovered the girls in the forest and was astonished by their feral traits—eating raw meat, walking on all fours, howling at the moon—which he claimed were the result of their having been raised, quite literally, by wolves. He attempted to ‘recuperate’ the girls, with limited success; presumably because the girls had not, as Singh guessed, actually been reared by animals but instead suffered from congenital defects. The poet and novelist Bhanu Kapil, born in England to Indian immigrants, was inspired by this complex, troubling story to conjure a radical work of empathy, one that grapples with why certain tales have such a tenacious hold on our collective imagination. In Humanimal, a Project for Future Children, Kapil follows a film crew also intrigued by the story of the wolf girls, and together they travel to Midnapore to attempt to piece together what really happened. The film crew decides to hire actors from the local folkloric theatre to reenact the capture of a girl by a wolf, whereas Kapil is more interested in the girls’ introduction to colonial society and the awkwardness of domestication. She connects this to a more personal story—that of her father’s journey from India to England. In India, she writes, her father’s feet ‘resembled those of a goat.’

Illustration by Audrey Helen Weber


Stories of urgent need, tempered by hope

Voice of Witness is a human rights organisation that uses storytelling to combat injustice. Its mission is to amplify the voices of those who experience firsthand some of society’s most intractable problems. Cofounded by the writers Dave Eggers and Mimi Lok and the physician Lola Vollen, it has two major initiatives: an education program that serves over 20,000 people annually, teaching ethics-driven storytelling to a range of human rights advocates including educators, journalists, attorneys and physicians; and an oral history book series that has focused on stories by and about wrongfully convicted Americans and undocumented immigrants. Solito, Solita: Crossing Borders with Youth Refugees from Central America is especially timely, shining a light on the arduous and dangerous journey made by young refugees fleeing Central America for the chancy asylum of the United States, whose rhetoric around immigration in recent years has grown only more forbidding. Solito, Solita features 15 narrators describing in visceral terms their rationale for leaving their homes, what happened as they journeyed through Mexico, high-stakes border crossings and what it is like to try to live and work with dignity once they reach the U.S. By capturing particularities of language and the granularity of their individual experiences, the Voice of Witness project succeeds in transcending the gloss of stereotype and the banal takeaways of much of the news coverage on this subject. As the young people braving these long, lonely miles recount indelible details of the journey, from freezing holding cells to joyful reunions with family members, we are struck by their courage, humanity and hope.


A site verdant, fragrant, and brimming with life

Gaofeng Botanical Garden—a.k.a. the Green Library of Hsinchu City, originally the Tsu Too Chih Forest Experiment Field when it was founded in 1932—is a Taiwanese national treasure harbouring over 300 plant varieties and 40 species of birds amid 35 hectares of nursery and hillside. There is a coconut forest as well as beech, breadfruit, camphor, Chinese cedar, eucalyptus and mahogany trees; hill trails through lotus trees and bamboo forests; abundant pond life and lush marshes; and bright green lawns. During the Japanese invasion of Taiwan at the end of the 19th century, Hakka guerrillas hid out in a fort on nearby Shibajian Mountain. The gardens of Gaofeng still feel, appropriately, like a secret redoubt. The trail from Shibajian Mountain to this biologically diverse oasis crosses a bridge lined with tung blossoms. Take tea on the pavilion or a tour of the Hakka cultural centre or a former battlefield, but don’t forget insect repellent, lest you be eaten alive by Gaofeng’s many energetic species.


Remembering a sharp mind and unstinting talent

The Croatian writer Daša Drndić, who died in 2018, filled her documentary-style novels with archival data—transcripts, testimonies, roll calls and photographs. Drndić’s subject was the Holocaust, and Croatia’s complicity in that dreadful chapter of history. As Dustin Illingworth writes in the introduction to an interview in the Paris Review Daily, ‘It is as if, for Drndić, the atrocities of the recent past overwhelm the capacities of both fiction and fact, that only in braiding the two can our proximity to such horror be countenanced.’ Or, as one of Drndić’s characters puts it in her best-known novel, Trieste, ‘I have dug up all the graves of imagination and longing… I have rummaged through a stored series of certainties without finding a trace of logic.’ Drndić’s style, honed over the course of a dozen novels and 30 plays, has been called neo-Borgesian. Mild quotidian stuff like bus tickets and concert programmes abuts the horrific—such as a 42-page list of 9,000 Jews who were deported to or murdered by Italy. Drndić’s final novel, Belladonna (2017), centres around the character of Andreas Ban, an elderly psychologist, as he reflects on the arc of his life and work. He leafs through dusty documents—his clinical research, books he wrote long ago, medical records, photographs—recalling departed friends and former lovers, rebelling against the decrepitude of his body, awash in the remembered horrors of World War II, mourning the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Drndić’s characters try to fight the involuntary undertow of painful memories; her point, made elegantly but forcefully throughout her œuvre, is that yesterday’s ugliness invariably leaches into today. ‘It is not necessary to speculate about destruction—moral, social, political, ideological, artistic, et cetera—it is happening quite vividly and aggressively before our eyes,’ she told The Paris Review. ‘We see how history is repeating itself... Recently in Charlottesville, but throughout Europe and beyond, the extreme right is approaching, fortunately still on tiptoe and in les petits pas, which of course does not make it less dangerous. There are no small fascisms, there are no small, benign Nazisms.’


Riveting domestic dysfunction

A German-Azerbaijani-Georgian co-production, shot on location in Azerbaijan with an Azerbaijani cast and an international crew, End of Season is Elmar Imanov’s debut feature. The screenplay, which Imanov co-wrote with his brother Anar, tells the caustic, unsparing story of a family riven by long-simmering tensions. Imanov, who studied film at Germany’s Internationale Filmschule Köln, shot End of Season in his home city, Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. His central characters are Samir, a perennially disappointed father; his complicated wife, Fidan; and Machmud, the adult son who tries their patience. Machmud (Mir-Mövsüm Mirzazade) is a boyish, playful presence but also a scruffy hustler juggling multiple women (he tells one of them he wants her to help him open a brothel). In discomforting parallel, affectionate interactions between mother and son have an uncomfortable sexual edge. Fidan (Zulfiyye Gurbanova) was very young when Machmud was born; now she’s a practising physician who handily asserts her independence in public, but whose home life is stifling, as Samir (Rasim Jafarov) is dour, miserable and a lacuna of a role model to his son. Uplifting End of Season isn’t, but the acting, writing and direction are so sharp and true that the audiences are rapt before Imanov’s ruminative tale.


A sensitive visual chronicle of autoworkers’ ruination

Until 1 December, the University of Chicago’s Renaissance Society is showing The Last Cruze, a timely and moving exhibition of photographs of American autoworkers in Lordstown, Ohio, by the artist and documentarian LaToya Ruby Frazier. With patience and compassion, Frazier trains her camera on people who worked for General Motors for decades and who took enormous pride in producing the fuel-efficient Chevy Cruze. When they learned, in 2018, that their plant had been ‘unallocated’, a euphemism for idling or closing a factory that allows a company to wriggle free of steep penalties for breaking a union contract, they were by turns devastated, frightened and furious. Their options are limited: they can apply to be relocated to a different GM facility elsewhere in the U.S.; learn a different skill set; hold daily vigils and protests; or appeal to the United Automobile Workers to sue their erstwhile employer. Frazier spent the winter of 2018/19 interviewing and photographing Lordstown workers and their families while the writer Dan Kaufman contributed a companion piece about the town; the resulting story and photo-essay were published in the May 5 issue of the New York Times Magazine. The Renaissance Society presents a larger body of work, with many additional images and audiovisual components. In one memorable photograph, a worker, Kesha Scales, embraces a colleague as she brushes away a tear. ‘When I got hired in’, Scales tells Frazier, ‘it was so loud in there that you had to wear earplugs; you couldn’t hear anything. It was dirty, and you smelled like oil. But you also smelled like something else—you smelled like production. You smelled like you made some money today. The feeling in the plant my last day was eerie, because nobody knew what to say. I didn’t want to see that last Cruze... I walked out, and I didn’t look back.’


Beautiful dissolutions

The canvases of Shirazeh Houshiary feature amorphous shapes with chaotic borders suggestive of feathery clouds, ectoplasm or breath exhaled onto a windowpane. Their colours are muted, subtle, reminiscent of pastel but moodier. Born in Iran in 1955, Houshiary moved to Britain in 1974 to study art and began her career as a sculptor in the New British Sculpture movement of the 1980s, often mentioned alongside Richard Deacon and Anish Kapoor. Mists and shrouds figure delicately in her imagery. With the faintest pencil strokes, she will write an Arabic word of affirmation and a corresponding one of denial on a canvas, then gently obscure the words by applying washes of colour. She is drawn to disintegration, the shape and look of erosion, which she tries to capture not only in painting but also in installation pieces—take the cast stainless steel that bends and twists in spare, irregular spirals in Lacuna and Allegory of Sight; and the wonky riff on both stained glass and the crucifix that is the east window of London’s Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, on which she worked with the architecture studio Pip Horne. In 1994, Houshiary was shortlisted for the Tate Gallery’s Turner Prize. ‘I set out to capture my breath’, she has said, in order to ‘find the essence of my own existence, transcending name, nationality, cultures.’


Lush, irresistible songs from a contemporary chanteuse

The Moroccan singer and self-taught multi-instrumentalist Hindi Zahra sings mostly in English, with a sprinkling of Berber, in a low, rich, bluesy timbre that recalls the vocals of Billie Holiday, Norah Jones and Patti Smith. Her debut album, Handmade (2010), is sinuous and seductive, with the original familiarity of an instant classic. The song ‘Beautiful Tango’ mixes chanson and jazz; ‘Oursoul’ mixes English and Berber lyrics; 'Stand Up' is distinguished by a quicker tempo and takes on a more overtly North African syncopation. Zahra recorded most of her excellent follow-up album, Homeland (2015), in Morocco. It features gorgeous, plaintive torch songs in English and French, Ali Farka Touré–esque desert blues and tracks with a flamenco flavour. Standouts include ‘To the Forces’, in which Zahra is accompanied by the Tuareg guitarist Bombino, and ‘Cabo Verde’, a blues number sung in Berber. Zahra is beloved for her fierce stage presence and all-in performance style; snatch any chance you get to see her live.

Illustrations by Audrey Helen Weber

‘You must in commanding and winning / Or serving and losing / Suffering or triumphing / Be either hammer or anvil.’

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe