Stray Thoughts on Michael Muhammad Knight’s The Taqwacores

Michael Muhammad Knight‘s The Taqwacores is a clunky novel: Knight has an artless style, his characters tend to be more talkers than doers, and their collective vision of punk rock never seems to look past 1983 (though somebody in the Buffalo group house where it’s set has a copy of Mermaid Avenue lying around). But like so much punk literature, it gets over on sheer enthusiasm and nerve, and it’s not hard to see why the book practically invented a subculture out of whole cloth: Since it was self-published in 2003 by Knight, a converted Muslim, its vision of a then-mythical Islamic punk scene in the United States has inspired a happening-for-real Islamic punk scene. The Taqwacores then found a home with an indie publisher, got another one in the U.K. (though not without some censoring), and gets a bigger publishing platform this month through Soft Skull Press, following features on Knight and taqwacore in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

The story, for me, is surprising and heartening. My interest in punk was always more as a reader and a listener than as any kind of participant—I thought I had a pretty sweet gig back in the mid-’90s when the East Bay Express would regularly send me to cover Gilman Street shows—but there was a lot of great reading in that world. Big clunky books like Joe Carducci‘s Rock and the Pop Narcotic and slim personal fanzines like Cometbus—the latter of which seems the obvious model for The Taqwacores. Aaron Cometbus was an East Bay punk whose zine was stuffed with personal stories about roadtrips, breakups, arguments, and shows, bolstered by the author’s willingness to go anywhere and hang with anybody, even if it ended in disaster. Especially if it ended in disaster—winding up broke in, say, some crummy Seattle neighborhood with a busted bike and a disappeared friend—because at least you had a story to tell later.

Cometbus was never much on religious doctrine. But that’s the kind of spirit that The Taqwacores‘ narrator, Yusef Ali, is channeling. A shy Pakistani-American studying engineering at a Buffalo-area university, he lives at a run-down house full of Muslim punks to avoid having to live at a more traditional Muslim student center. The house’s (and the novel’s) design puts Yusef into conflict a variety of philosophies about Islam—most powerfully in Umar, a strict constructionist about the Koran (“2:219” is tattooed on his neck, referring to an ayat regarding drinking and gambling) and Rabeya, a young woman who wears a burqa but who excises passages she disagrees with from her Koran. She tells Yusef why she struck an ayat that prescribes wife-beating, though he argues that the passage can be interpreted numerous ways:

“Yeah Yusef, I know. I went through that ayat up and down. I looked at what all the scholars said, even progressives like Asma Barlas; did you know that in that context, the word daraba might not even mean ‘to beat?’ It could also mean ‘to prevent.’ Sure, I did all the gymnastic tap dancing around that verse a desperate Muslima could do. Finally I said, fuck it. If I believe it’s wrong for a man to beat his wife, and the Quran disagrees with me, then fuck that verse. I don’t need to stretch and squeeze it for a weak alternative reading, I don’t need to excuse it with historical context, and I sure as hell don’t need to just accept it and go sign up for a good ol’ fashioned bitch-slapping. So I crossed it out. Now I feel a whole lot better about that Quran.”

If the novel seems too carefully engineered to set up these arguments, that’s the point—to arrange a push and pull over doctrine, heritage, culture, sex, and freedom. Indeed, the novel culminates in a sort of punk-rock summit over doctrine that ends with one of the more provocative incidents of gobbing at a concert imaginable. To that end, The Taqwacores works more as a manifesto than as a work of fiction, but how influential would the book be if it were merely a manifesto? How many Islamic punk bands would come together if Knight simply groused about the lack of them? The best way to create the world you want, Knight argues, is to show people your model for it. That seems especially true for Islam: Knight knows a closed-off culture when he sees one, and he makes Yusef a stand-in for that closing off; he’s so out-of-touch with himself that he needs somebody to shove a Victoria’s Secret catalog in his hands to give him license to masturbate. That scene is there for a reason—however crude a metaphor it might be, it’s symbolic of Knight’s argument that a culture evolves only when it recognizes that it’s free to use its imagination.

Soft Skull publishes Knight’s memoir, Impossible Man, in April. For a sense of taqwacore in action, Al Jazeera English aired a segment on it last month:

Links: Clock’s Ticking

Edgar Allan Poe turns 200. Take the quiz, or buy the stamp.

Moby-Dick‘s influence on artist Frank Stella.

Gerald Early discusses his job as editor of the brand-new “Best African American Essays” and “Best African American Fiction” series. E. Lynn Harris guest-edited the first edition of the latter series; Nikki Giovanni is handling next year’s.

Richard Ford bids the Bush administration farewell in the Guardian.

And speaking of the Guardian: If you wanted to read Audrey Niffenegger‘s online graphic novel The Night Bookmobile but had a hard time navigating its clunky interface, John Dunlevy has assembled a helpful table of contents.

Thanks to Very Short List for pointing to Daily Routines, which gathers up anecdotes on the work lives of famous people. The section for writers, as you might imagine, draws heavily on Paris Review interviews—among those included are Toni Morrison, John Updike, and Ernest Hemingway. But let’s take a look at Pauline Kael, who offers a useful reminder of the first principles of good writing:

[S]taring at the piece in horror and exclaiming at her own ineptitude, she would immediately begin tearing it apart, scissoring and recombining the paragraphs, writing in new observations and jokes in the margins or above the lines, at which point the piece would be typed again. The process continued without interruption at the office where, like Proust after an injection of caffeine, she would assault the galleys, rearranging and rewriting, adding and subtracting still more jokes–on and on, until the pages were reluctantly yielded to the press.

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The D.C.-Area Readings page has been updated. Among the notable events coming up in a very notable week in Washington: Alice Walker Monday at Busboys & Poets 14th & V; Iraqi-born artist and writer Wafaa Bilal Thursday at Busboys & Poets 14th & V; and Jayne Anne Phillips, discussing her brilliant new novel, Lark & Termite, Friday at Politics & Prose. As always, your tips and recommendations for the readings page are welcome.

NEA Reports Increase in Number of People Who Want to Say They Enjoy Reading Books

Thanks to Mobylives, I now realize that Caleb Crain has a blog, and a very good one. His post on the National Endowment for the Arts’ new Reading on the Rise (PDF) report is an essential read not just as a primer on the findings, but as a tonic to some of the inaccurate, even glib coverage that the report has inspired. Like Crain, I’m a little skeptical about interpreting the announced numbers as a new reading boom, and he gets at one issue that I haven’t seen other commentators address. Namely, response bias:

The sticky part about the measurement of reading, sociologically, is that reading is a prestige activity. People tend to lie and say they do more of it than they do. As the afterword to the new report points out, the NEA in the last few years has reached out to millions of Americans with brand-new, well-funded programs to encourage reading. In the fall of 2007 it released a report on reading’s decline that got lots of attention from journalists like me. Thanks in part to the NEA, literacy was a big news story in 2007 and 2008. I even saw it referred to on television, and I don’t watch much television. All of this is worthy and to the good. But it’s possible that in raising people’s awareness of the importance of reading, the NEA encouraged them to exaggerate their reading habits. With a survey like the NEA’s, which relies on self-reporting, there’s no way to know for sure whether reading habits themselves were changed. It’s as if there were a kind of Heisenberg uncertainty principle at work here. A government agency can either measure reading habits or intervene in them, but if it tries to do both, it runs the risk of measuring no more than the spread of its intervention message.

Mountain Men

I recently finished Serena, Ron Rash‘s 2008 novel about logging, profiteering, and murder in a western North Carolina mountain town. I was interested in Rash’s notion that strong female characters are lacking in American fiction—I still haven’t heard many arguments to the contrary—and though I was a little disappointed in just how Lady MacBeth-archetypal and bloodthirsty Serena Pemberton is, Rash’s novel is still impressive, a thoughtful portrait of the entire structure of a logging town and how various classes behave within it.

I hadn’t realized that Serena’s setting was such a popular one, but the Smoky Mountain News reminds me that Charles Frazier‘s Cold Mountain and Wayne Caldwell‘s Cataloochee are also set in the same county as Serena. As a practical matter, Cold Mountain‘s success has given the region a bit of a tourist boom. And a companion piece by Thomas Crowe gets into more stylistic and historical details, pointing out that all three novels have classical analogues. All three also make the landscape a character in its own right—something that can’t be helped given the region’s history, as Caldwell tells Crowe:

“[Cataloochie is about] the historic prelude that led up to the government’s confiscation of land in Madison and Haywood counties — by hook, crook and eminent domain and displacing hundreds of mountain families, including some of my own people,” he said. “This story runs in my blood, I guess you could say. And it’s a part of regional and national history, like the removal of the Native peoples, that has been largely ignored, forgotten, and I felt was begging (me) to be told.

Ask the Dust Revisited

The Guardian’s books blog has a brief appreciation of John Fante‘s 1939 novel, Ask the Dust, a critical book in the Los Angeles Beat scene and a particular influence on Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne and novelist Charles Bukowski. At the time, though, the novel seemed to signal Fante’s lapse into total obscurity:

At the time of Ask the Dust’s release in 1939, Fante appeared to be a writer on the rise. His first novel, Wait Until Spring, was well received; his short stories were appearing in prominent publications such as the American Mercury, and he had a long-distance mentor in HL Mencken, at that time one of America’s most influential men of letters. With all these things going for him, Fante was poised to take his place alongside Steinbeck as one of the era’s most important Californian writers when his incendiary sophomore novel hit the stands. However, Ask the Dust received mixed reviews, sold very poorly, and quickly fell out of print. And that’s how things stayed for the next four decades.

And now? Well, Towne directed a film version of the novel a few years back, and the novel is still in print. But the world that Fante himself inhabited appears to be crumbling—in 2007 a blogger snuck into the apartment where Ask the Dust was written and found a dilapidated wreck.

Jayne Anne Phillips’ Southern Accent

Most reviews of Jayne Anne Phillips‘ beautiful, curiously structured new novel, Lark & Termite, suggest a connection to William Faulkner‘s The Sound and the Fury. It’s hard to avoid that impression—the novel is a Southern story, and Termite is a child who can’t walk and can only parrot back what others say. But it’d be a mistake to characterize Termite as a Benjy Compson-esque boy, and for her part Phillips is avoiding the comparison. She changes the subject in an interview with the Oregonian:

When Phillips is reminded of Faulkner’s inspiration for “The Sound and the Fury,” she has no direct reaction but talks about how “there was a lot of kismet around this book.” She once admired a sketch by her friend, artist Mary Sherman, who immediately tore it out of her sketchbook and gave it to Phillips. The sketch is the frontispiece to “Lark and Termite” and contains Sherman’s scribbled note with the word Termite, a gift of the character’s name and image.

And besides, though Faulkner tinkered often with structure, the arrangement of Lark & Termite, shuttling between nine years in West Virginia and Korea, is wholly her own. The central incident in the Korean sections, in fact, only came later:

Much later, after she knew that part of the book would be set in Korea, Phillips read the Associated Press story about the events at No Gun Ri, when South Korean civilians were killed by U.S. troops. Phillips can remember the day she read the story, “in 1999, Sept. 30, to be exact,” and what accompanied it.

“There was a big color photo of a tunnel, and as soon as I saw it, I knew that’s what happened to (one of her characters),” she said.

Retracing the Road

People do this a lot, right? There are certainly enough Jack Kerouac fans out there, and the whole point of On the Road was to inspire readers to take their own trips. But I can’t recall anybody doing what Rev. Angus Stuart, an Anglican priest living in Vancouver, has planned—starting next Monday he and a friend will retrace the trip that the second part of Kerouac’s novel covers (inspired by the trip that Kerouac and Neal Cassady took 40 years ago). They’ll start in Lowell, Mass. to pay tribute to the author before officially kicking off the trip in New York. He’s set up a blog to cover the journey, and he explains to the Vancouver Sun that he doesn’t see a disconnect between a man of the cloth undertaking a journey modeled after one full of cursing, carousing, and so forth:

“The immorality of the book? That was just the backdrop,” [Stuart says…. “On another level, and this has become more apparent to me as I’ve reread it, it’s a parable of life.”

To Stuart, the parable can be many things — that one must strive to “suck out all the marrow of life,” as Stuart said, quoting Thoreau; that the path of excess, he said, quoting William Blake, leads to wisdom; that life is a gift not to be squandered; that you may find your home by leaving it. Whatever it is, what is important is the going.