Just before restrictions came into effect in late June, I converted my dining room into a new art studio, pushing the table into one corner and setting up my writing space in the other. ‘We’ll just eat at the coffee table from now on,’ I announced to my husband and the kids, as I placed art supplies, stationery and pot plants on the dining table. I was anticipating a new phase of creativity. My first book The Mother Wound was about to be published and I had promised myself that I would spend the second half of the year developing new work and reading in this newly claimed space.
When the lockdown was announced, my book tour and my plans for a whimsical sojourn in my studio evaporated. I could still read, however, and decided to begin with the work of writers I would have been appearing at festivals and other events with, but for the Covid cancellations. I devoured three new releases in quick succession in the early (and more optimistic) weeks of lockdown.
The first was Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Other Half of You; a vibrant and beautiful work of autofiction that illustrates the ways patriarchal and cultural expectations gnaw at young men. Written from the perspective of an Arab Muslim man and set in Western Sydney, the book follows the story of Bani who craves authenticity and romance but finds himself trapped by a sense of obligation to his father, by shame, and by the white gaze.
My second read, Sara El-Sayed’s debut memoir Muddy People, traverses similar themes. El-Sayed narrates awkward yet relatable episodes from her teenage years. The ‘rules’ that she’s been taught by her family don’t equip her to deal with big questions about her identity, body and desire to belong as an Egyptian Muslim girl growing up in Northern Queensland. In her distinctive deadpan tone she describes this as ‘trying to assemble Appollo II with the instruction from a Nutribullet’.
Next I moved to Alice Pung’s One Hundred Days, an intimate portrayal of a dysfunctional mother-daughter dynamic. After accidentally-on-purpose getting pregnant, 16-year-old Karuna is confined to her mother’s small housing commission apartment. Karuna’s isolation is exacerbated by a marked absence of adults who are willing to intervene and a dearth of culturally sensitive supports. The characters and settings are written so clearly the reader sweats and suffocates with Karuna as she attempts to resist her mother’s control and still finds ways to empathise with her Mar who is yet to heal from her own impoverished upbringing in the Philippines.
The most compelling aspect of these three books is how complexity and compassion are woven into each narrative. As each young protagonist confronts the shortcomings of adults in their circle, they also realise their parents’ humanity. El-Sayed says ‘I think about my parents dying probably more often that I should. I don’t want them gone. But I have moments of remembering that they are human…’. Bani comes to see his father as ‘just an Arab man passing on what Arab men passed on’ and Karuna states, ‘Your Grand Mar is my sole support network…The problem with your Grand Mar is that she cares too much.’
The migrant families depicted in these books get messy, controlling, and even abusive but they are not one-dimensional. Instead, the characters arc away from and towards one another in unexpected and moving ways. Yes, the protagonists rebel but they do so mindfully, with a swelling awareness of the ways in which social context and past traumas drive (but don’t excuse) abusive behaviour and shape family dynamics. Each of the stories acknowledges that children must at some point diverge from the paths of their parents, and that they do so in order to prevent the pain from being transmitted to the next generation. They do so in order to live fully.
As this lockdown drags on, I find myself reading an article on how to preserve native Australian flowers using cat litter. It’s not that I’ve run out of things to do—there are dishes to be washed and clothes to be folded and a kindy remote learning to be supervised. The problem is a lack of inspiration to do them. This listlessness is also affecting my artmaking, reading and writing. In two months I’ve only finished one painting: a large still life featuring proteas and a bowl of oranges. Instead of reading cover-to-cover, I find myself dropping in and out of books and articles, in search of a new concept or skill or motivational phrase that might excite new work.
I keep a few art books handy for times like these. When stuck in a rut, I flip through Jerry Saltz’s How to Be an Artist, a lively guide filled with prompts and reflections on the practical aspects of maintaining an artistic practice, developing a style and pursuing an art career. Saltz urges ‘Work, you big baby! Work is the only thing that banishes the curse of fear.’ My brain has started regurgitating the line whenever I‘ve been procrastinating or away from my paints for too long.
A large hardcover titled Still Life sits on a small table I use for my own still life arrangements and props. Written by Amber Creswell Bell, the book includes a long list of contemporary Australian artists who work in this genre, painting everything from ‘oddly alien’ Australian natives to apothecary jars and appliances. Earlier in my career I saw still life as a preoccupation with the mundane. I was drawn to it and practiced painting lemons and vases and odd bits of fabric, however, I struggled to justify long hours spent on what I saw as an apolitical pursuit. Through reading and reflection, I have learned that still life can be as emotionally charged and complex as portraiture, as visceral as landscape painting. As Creswell writes in the introduction to Still Life, it ‘can ostensibly be enjoyed as a celebration of beauty and material pleasures, but it can also embody moral and intellectual ideas’ including the ‘brevity of life’ and ‘perishing of all things’. I see these ideas in my latest painting: the dryness of the proteas contrasted with the freshness of oranges, the hint of a breeze blowing life into a lace curtain in the background. Something new. A way of being free even within the confines of my home as this lockdown drags on.
I’ve also recently read a chapter on ‘Solitude’ in Jennifer Higgie’s The Mirror and The Palette, a book about women artists and self-portraiture—another important facet of my own creative practice. Higgie talks of a painter’s studio as ‘one of the few places she is able to shut out the noise of the world’ and says, ‘in her studio, in her room, in the infinite space of her imagination, she can be herself’. I enjoy reading about this romantic experience of artist in solitude even though solitude eludes me. I started taking my own art seriously while I was going through trauma, grief and pregnancy and, apart from one residency with Bankstown Arts Centre in early 2019, I have always fit my creative practice within the walls of my home. To make art happen I had to be practical: my studio has been the floor, the kitchen bench, the nursery and now this repurposed dining room which serves as a thoroughfare to both the backyard and the laundry. To make art, I make do.
I’m doing two subjects this semester as part of my Masters in Islamic Studies. Online learning feels productive and accessible given that so much else has been cancelled. The two subjects I am taking are Sirah which is the study of the biography of Prophet Muhammad and Usul al-Hadith, the study of the methodology by which statements and sayings attributed to religious figures are transmitted both orally and through large volumes compiled by scholars.
One of the books in Sirah is Muhammad by Martin Lings, first published in 1983. Lings lectured English with a focus on Shakespeare for about twelve years before immersing himself in Arabic and Islamic texts. In Usul al-Hadith, we’re studying from A Textbook of Hadith Studies by Mohammad Hashim Kamali. These works are interesting and new to me as someone who was brought up in a loosely Muslim household with little exposure to formal Islamic instruction and they provide commentary on some timeless themes. In one of the hadiths provided for discussion, the Prophet speaks about managing disease outbreaks stating, ‘If you hear that the plague epidemic has started in a land, do not go there; if you are present in that land, do not come out from there.’ The more things change, the more they stay the same!
There are situations, however, where context is everything. For my presentation on social context a couple of weeks ago, I read a study that analysed the use of religious sources by ISIS in their propaganda and their strategic decontextualization of Islamic text in order to support their political goals. I have seen similar conversations circulating recently in relation to the Taliban. However, there is some way to go before these narratives acknowledge the role of colonisation and the profitability of war. Divorced from this context the words on the page are pieces to a borderless puzzle. Reading a piece by Nesreen Hanifi published in Meanjin on 20 August 2021 served as a reminder that these conversations remain ineffective so long as we ignore the fact that ‘Afghanistan has endured decades of foreign invasion and exploitation’.
I’ve had to turn away from reading world news in order to be able to meet the demands of my children who seem to grow more restless by the minute. Today, Virginia Woolfe’s Mrs Dalloway sits unread on my bedside table and I’m reading more of my six-year-old’s phonic books than anything else. Supplied by her school, these are a collection of short texts designed to familiarise kindergartners with their sight words. ‘A Pan’, ‘A Grub and a Bun’ and ‘Yes/No’ are among the titles. There is something satisfying about watching my daughter clap through these words. There will likely come a time that reading and writing will do for her what it has done for me; provide a third space where she can connect to worlds outside her own, be inspired and feel seen.
Amani Haydar is an artist, lawyer, mother and advocate for women’s health and safety. Her memoir, The Mother Wound has just been published by Pan Macmillan.