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Day 10: Observations in a Bookstore

I'm prefacing this by indicating that I miss my fluffy cat dearly, and have thus made up for the lack of fluffy kitten belly to rub by staring longingly at my husband's belly instead. This has disturbed him, and he has thus indicated in turn that I should either play Patapon or go do something else before I used him as my replacement fluffy cat.

The tiny Islamic bookstore at KLCC has closed down. This saddens me a great deal, as it was a goldmine of literature on critical and comparative religious studies, with a particular slant towards Islam. A book I have always wanted from that store, but was never able to really afford until now, Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives, will have to wait till I'm back in the US and able to order it from Amazon. This is a wonderful collection of essays from Muslim feminists across the Middle East, and, if I recall correctly, includes an enlightening dissertation on misogynistic hadith writers, naming specific authors and citing their influence on Islamic jurisprudence and general opinion over the centuries. At least, I've finally found the title of this book again, as I'd forgotten both the title and author over the years, and was largely dependent on visiting the late store in question to find it.

Toured Kinokuniya with scanner_darkly. We were both thrilled to comb through the Middle Eastern History section together, and equally horrified by Kinokuniya's knack of combining odd and unusual books with mind-numbing price tags. Took down a list of titles we went back to our room to compare prices with on Amazon. The most expensive book we wanted, which I think was Women in the Medieval Islamic World (The New Middle Ages), was RM500 (USD142). Well and truly beyond our means.

I wandered through their Women's/Gender Issues as well as their Islam/Women's Issues lists, while the Trusty Guide broke off to explore Asian History. The Gender Issues shelf was dominated by books on women who needed to stare at themselves in the mirror and feel good about themselves -- feel-good, positive thinking books that made me blanch. There were a couple of critical studies, including about three books on Malaysian women's issues. One of them was an amazing hardcover called Readings on Women & Redevelopment in Malaysia, which turned out to be a primer on women's participation in every industrial and legal niche in the country, complete with tables and numbers. This was a comprehensive compilation of research from over 20 scholars in the field. Just flipping through this book taught me things I never knew about my country, including the fact that non-Muslim polygamy was only banned in 1980 -- 6 years after my parents got married, and also introduced the right for non-Muslim wives to divorce Muslim husbands who converted after the marriage was contracted. I'm still torn over whether or not I want to get this book. For all that it is an amazing primer, it was also published in 1994. The numbers are now outdated by 14 years. Women were afforded full equal rights under the Malaysian Constitution in 2001 -- this came along with various amendments to laws regarding marriages and registrations that are likely not covered by this book. It doesn't help that this book is also quite expensive, and while it still bears merit as a historical artifact (and an artifact on milestones in women's history), the lack of an update bugs me.

In comparison, the Islam/Women's Issues shelf very nearly made me cry. Approximately half the books were written by men. I'm not in any way implying that men make bad authors of books on women -- I've read far too many things written by women that pretty much prove women have no trouble writing awful things about their own gender -- but at least in the field of religious studies, male scholars with far-reaching and expansive views on the role of women in religious societies are gems and precious seeds of thought that should be thoroughly nurtured. Which is to say, the books I found here that were written by men were preoccupied with the roles of good wives in harmonious marriages, and the books written by women were hardly any better in terms of their scope. There were no critical studies. No exploratory essays on how women figure into the history and current affairs of religious jurisprudence. Just motherhood, harmonious relations with husbands and raising a generation of harmoniously Muslim children.

I remember walking back to my husband in disgust, and going forth to peer at Asian Literature for Su Tong. The Chinese lit shelf was next to the Japanese lit -- weighted down by Murakami and horror novels that were best known for their movie adaptations. Read synopses of various Chinese authors writing in English about China. Most seemed to be stories that sounded like the plots of mainland Chinese movies, involving dry observations about the materialistic new generation of young Chinese, or quiet, ponderous dramas about youth caught up in the quest to succeed at all costs. It's a specific kind of despair that can be amusing, but requires a particular mood to plow through. The Chinese shelf was covered in Amy Tan and Pearl S. Buck where the Japanese one had Murakami, both authors that make me grind my teeth in different ways. I finally found Su Tong on the bottommost shelf, squeezed between Amy Tan and new translations of Red Mansions. They had a nice copy of the Raise the Red Lantern collection, which I was temped to get to replace my own well-loved copy. I got Madwoman on the Bridge instead, as it has more new novellas by him, so I could have something to read on the plane. Su Tong excels at novellas. Raise the Red Lantern is beautiful on paper -- I've never watched the movie -- but really the tip of the iceberg in terms of what he can do to characterization and plotting in so little words.

We walked through the Manga/Graphic Novel section together, my husband and I. I'm glad we share a love of books, and a goodly sum of books on the same topics. I passed by a tastefully dressed young lady fully swathed in a headscarf and a conservative pants suit who bent down to pick up an X-Men collection. It made me smile, if only for the comical sight of a person you would not think would read about well-endowed women in spandex apparently doing so. It made me hope that readers in my country will change what 50 years of deeply structured and mortified national indoctrination cannot do, gain a wide view of the world, from as diverse a number of sources as possible. I often wished that books were so inhibitively expensive in Malaysia -- leaving a wide swath of books available only to the financial elite -- but that's changing. There were always options, and these options are growing, like the rental bookstores I used to haunt as a college student, and secondhand bookstores. And there should be places like the new breed of cavernous bookstores, filled with books about evolution, socio-political comparative studies and foreign literature, from the stuff you bring to the laundromat to the literature you nibble at slowly, thinking deeply along the way.

Before we left, we went to stare at books we were still dawdling over purchasing. I happened to head back towards Gender Issues, and stopped at the shelf beside it to peruse a book, when a Chinese lady, with no particular distinct features, in simple pants and a blouse, determinedly trudged forth and jammed books back onto the Gender Issues shelf. She turned to look a person beside her as I looked up at the sound, and there was a man waiting for her, possibly her partner -- a fair, slightly balding Bengali man with a thick Indian accent (I wasn't certain, but he may not have been local) -- who whispered an urgent order, "That's right. All of them." To which the Chinese lady pushed in a final book on the top shelf and left, staring longingly behind her.

I found it amusing, if not hideously appalling. One of the books she put back was Readings on Women & Redevelopment in Malaysia. The other was a book that appeared to be the only copy in the shop, Feminism and the Women's Movement in Malaysia: An Unsung (R)evolution, a compilation of research on the history of women's rights in the nation. This I picked up immediately, and trudged over myself to Seth. I told him the story of how I found it. He raised an eyebrow appropriately. I brought only enough cash for either Su Tong or this, though, and this book was almost 40% more expensive than the novellas, for a somewhat slimmer volume. So my wonderful, loving husband, who endeavours to keep me smart at every opportunity, bought it for me.

It was an evening well spent in general, among books of every kind. Kinokuniya was practically my refuge for a long time, when I waited for my father to emerge after work, or when my parents needed to dump me someplace as they went about their business. Going back helped make me feel safe. I'm glad I was able to share it with a person who enables me to feel safe.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 22nd, 2009 09:25 am (UTC)
I had no idea you were so interested in gender issues and the Middle East. I've always wanted to study culture issues like that, though I'm more geared towards philosophy myself. I think as a female though, gender issues is just too irresistible to read up on sometimes, especially since I'm Asian XDDD

I absolutely LOOOVE Kinokuniya. I love bookstores in general. I like to just be surrounded by books because there's a certain peace they bring...I dunno, people become naturally quieter around books XDD I wish I could just live in a bookstore or a library lol XDDD
Jun. 2nd, 2009 04:35 pm (UTC)
I try to keep up on gender issues, specifically, gender issues from an Islamic perspective, as half of my family is Muslim. In a larger respect, I'm also interested in gender studies within Asia. Part of it is because I'm female myself. Part of it is because I actually find the historical developments fascinating. :)

Oddly enough, I'm on the other side of where you are. I've always wanted to sit down and properly read up on philosophy (beyond the college 101 classes I took, which I can barely remember at this point!). I guess the reason gender issues is easier on my attention span is because many of the issues are still current, so it's easy to connect references with something going on in the world at this moment.

I LOVE Kinokuniya too. It's the one bookstore I make a point to visit every time I'm back home (or in Japantown if I'm in SF). Books are indeed peaceful to be around, and you're right, people are naturally quieter around books. One of the things I have loved since childhood is to sit in bookstores, just to slowly absorb the silence. :)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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