On Social Networkation: Twitter

Twitter is so much noise.

What Twitter should be is a continuous, ongoing roundup of little glimpses of what’s out there on the Internet, and one’s “following” list should really be a highly curated and cultivated list of interests that she is interested in staying current in. The inevitable result of this noble ideal would be an ongoing, deafening chatter regarding a thousand matters, usually all important in their own way.

I’m so glad for the people and organizations I discovered through Twitter, but I’m deeply troubled by the larger-than-life personas that emanate in a way unique to this medium. (Including my own. My tweets can be smoldering. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.) I have no problem going up to someone at a party and telling them I love their blog or podcast or video blog. But introducing myself as a Twitter follower? Bleurgh. #dweebiness

However many thousands of followers one has on Twitter and “likes” one has on Facebook, it’s not the account itself that should constitute the person’s presence. And the more one remains in awareness of this, the less likely they are to get sucked into the “social media as an endgame” fallacy. It’s not a consciously preached fallacy, but the message does get internalized because the process of using social media can get so addictive. And just because it is addictive doesn’t mean we should lose sight of what we really signed up for.

Content discovery is always good, but not as good if the medium is becoming yet another a means of superficial social engagement. And when one’s happiness meter (okay, my happiness meter) is gauged by the number of new followers one has, what more is it than the horrifying self-anesthetized dream in the artificial world of liking that Jonathan Frazen describes so aptly?

Maybe there’s some magical ideal ratio between the amount of time spend on Twitter itself and the amount of new content a user discovers. Perhaps I can discover that magical equation and then tweak my Twitter use accordingly.

Challenge accepted!

I shall report back on this, but probably only if I succeed.


On Food and Ramadan: Towards a Less Food-Centric Existence

For the most part, food tends to be highly overrated.

I have started to believe that more and more, and one of my goals for this Ramadan would be to internalize this message. I think that process will involve two components:

1. Not just the killing hunger for food while fasting, but killing the need for good food in large volumes all the time
2. Developing a further awareness of and respect for where food comes from

In this post I will be focusing on the first bit: the emotional detachment from food.

It’s easy to say food is overrated and then scarf it down by the platefuls come sundown. The real challenge is not to posit one’s existence around their meals. Just fasting is not enough. The real challenge is not to dwell about the breaking of the fast, not to dream so much about it, and not to spend so much time everyday in preparation of it,not to anticipate it so much that our purpose and other much more meaningful passions become secondary.

Good food is awesome. There’s no denying that. And I’m not saying that iftar or any other meal is not meant to be enjoyed. A good, nourishing iftar with loved ones can do wonders for one’s spirits.

I’m just saying that a magnificent iftaar does not have to be an everyday event. By extension, an elaborate meal does not have to be an everyday event. In fact, not having such food will make you miss it more and, when you have it, enjoy it more. Isn’t that the kind of moderation that’s enjoined upon us?

I see no point in a day spent fasting if half that day is spent cooking and preparing elaborate meals. And I see a stark contrast in the love and care that goes into the preparation of food and the manner in which that food is polished clean within minutes, without as much as a Bismillah and a half-nod towards the cook. Gone are the days when every meal was an event, with each course being given the respect and enjoyment it warranted, when the amount of hard work and meticulousness and care that went into cooking was reflected in the manner where people enjoyed that food.

We’re still more than capable of that level of cooking and that level of enjoyment. When we are presented with good food, however, we’re just much more likely to take it for granted and don’t give it the time it deserves. That’s gluttony. That’s when overeating becomes sinful.

Foregoing food of any kind is the literal abstinence which is, on a surface level, what Muslims are ordained to do from sunrise to sunset in the month of Ramadan. What I’m interested in is how fasting can teach us to stop needing good food all the time, how it can help us re-orient food so that it is not the centre of our existence. It’s easy to abstain from food literally. How does one do it spiritually?

I think the answer lies in meaningful spiritual passion.

Find and get lost in another passion. Find joy in something that gives you purpose and meaning, whether it be writing, drawing, music, religious education, volunteer work, or being active in the community.

For when you are involved in something they are passionate about, food becomes secondary. When the neurons in your brain light up from that pleasure, the flakiness of a samosa doesn’t matter.

Imagine not eating for the sake of eating. Imagine eating just so that you have enough strength to do what you love. Imagine loving food even in its most simple forms. Grapes and cheese. Bread and butter with tea. And imagine reeling over on the days you are blessed enough to have a much richer gravy-ridden piece of meat on your plate. In what other body of faith do spiritual detachment and blissful enjoyment go hand-in-hand? If this isn’t being in the world but not of the world, I don’t know what is.

It’s about time we started playing our part in changing humanity’s attitude towards food. What better time to do so than Ramadan? By becoming Muslims who uncover the true treasures of this month, we can be in the forefront of the food movement that calls for a respect and gratitude for where food comes from, both ecologically and spiritually.

On Publishing: The Coffee-With-a-Hopeful-Writer Spiel

In a previous post on publishing I talked about how I explain publishing to those who are not sure what publishing is. This post is for who do know all that. And more.
Every now and then when I tell someone I work with or am trying to get into the publishing business, there is, to my immense relief, no blank stare. Eyes light up “Oh wow, that’s great! I’m a writer! CONNECTION$$!” And I temporarily feel so cool. I don’t know why. It’s not like I throw back shots with editors-in-chief every Friday night. So, to the hidden, unspoken, yet earnest question in the writer’s eyes: “Are you the one?” I respond with great pain and wisdom: “I’m not for you, you deserve better.”

Not. What I actually say is “I hope I’ll be able to help you get your manuscript published, now or later. Tell me what it’s about.”Not all writers delude themselves, but some do tend to be more naive about the process than others. Especially in terms of how they think the world’s going to scramble to read their life’s work.

Uh. Not happening.
There’s no point in hiding it: I’ve nursed quite a few ambitions to be a published author, and a part of me still wants that. But there’s nothing like working in publishing to see not just how narrow one’s chances are, but how really none of that matters in the long run. More on that later.
Point is: as Betsy Lerner says, writing really is a paradoxical act: one writes and writes and writes in isolation to connect with the world in large. That results in a very tunnel-vision sort of a tendency. You can’t blame writers for having that tendency. But if one gives them a dose of reality, they might find themselves having to talk them off the balcony edge.

But I digress.

So, what do I tell Muslim writers who are working on the next big novel? I gently caution them to not look at their work from just their own perspective, especially if they are writing from a heavily autobiographical vein. I also give them the unfortunate news that the big publishers simply don’t feel like they have enough of a ‘literary Muslim’ audience to cater to. No, it’s not because publishing is run by the Jews. It’s because culturally, for many Muslims, there no pre-disposition to buy books. Yes, we read books, and I’m not saying we’re not intelligent and that we’re not capable of writing amazing, astonishing works. But we don’t buy books. That’s all that matters to the one of the big-six publishers at the end of the day. Whether we as consumers–not necessarily readers, consumers–of books, are significant enough to matter. Significant enough to warrant a publication targeted towards that market. Muslim consumers have only recently begun to be accounted for in terms of other industries as well, so unless books become a part of that fold or we start spending some serious dough on books and e-books, that probably isn’t going to change.

So if you’re a Muslim writer with a visible Muslim/Islamic theme in your works, don’t expect one of the big six publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, MacMillan, Penguin, Random House, Simon & Schuster) to get excited about your work. Not unless you’re a bigshot journalist producing a work of nonfiction that addresses something that’s hot in terms of current affairs. Other industry expert wannabes may disagree, but that’s the way I see it.

That, of course, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try. As Betsy Lerner says, one should send out manuscripts in the same manner that one should be applying to colleges: send a couple to a small press, a few more to a mid-sized press, and one or two to one of the big six publishers. Small presses may not be able to give you all the fancy promo you deserve, but if you’re willing to do some work on your part to make sure your book’s heard about, you’re golden. You may face the problem of distribution and book availability with small presses as well, but in the age of the e-book, that now matters less and less. And if I were you, I’d be sure that my book will be produced and distributed as an e-book with world rights as well. The matter of rights is not as simple as it sounds, but we’re getting there. We can’t afford not to.

Now, I may have crushed your dreams. But I hope not. I hope I’ve just given you a healthy dose of reality and inspired you–albeit in a different way. As always, should you have any further queries, my comments section and contact page await you.

On Desperately Seeking Paradise

354 pp. Granta UK.
I first read Sardar’s memoir of his journey in faith when I was finishing off my final year in undergraduate studies. It was lent to me by a dear close friend, who, as a perpetual skeptic, found a deep affirmation in Sardar’s experiences and sentiments.
The book resurfaced in my readerly psyche again when, almost three years later, I chose it as the next pick for my Islam(ish) book club and re-read it in advance of our meetup.

I have always recommended this book to Muslim students and critical thinkers who are uncertain as to how fulfilling Islam in its current forms fulfills its spiritual and social ideal in providing a paradise on earth for its adherents as well as the paradise of the hereafter. I still  recommend it for such people. But in this reread I was struck by it in a completely new and original way.

I am in awe of this book.In an era where instant nonfiction books with poor content, threadbare content with holes in it, are churned out in the form of fancy, time-consuming hardbacks, I am incredibly humbled by the majesty contained within its 354 pages.Don’t get me wrong. There might have been a time when I felt that I was perfectly happy for Sardar to represent Islam for me, any day, but those times are gone. The implications of some of the statements he makes in this bok—particularly about the irrelevance of Shariah law–do not sit well with me.But this is not the place to go into that problem (and even if it was, I barely have a glimmer of the intellectual prowess required to take him on).This is the place to say that this book needs to be known about, talked about, much more than it seems to be. I don’t know the standards by which ratings are judged, but I daresay that this book is highly underrated for what it has to offer in terms of understanding oneself and understanding Islam’s earthly forms.

And it is so beautifully laid out. Just the table of contents reveals the elegance of its construction. The first few chapters start out from the simpler standpoint of the author, who as a young man at first wanted nothing more but to immerse himself into the different practices of Islam. Ever so gradually, the reader is then delicately pulled through the question of how being a Muslim works with the social and political orders in existence, and others being joined. The reader grows with Zardar on his journey, as he perpetually slakes his insatiable thirst for knowledge, while, at the same time, developing a menacingly critical eye for Islam in theory and practice, the almost-always difficult process of becoming the vociferous, outspoken journalist he is today.

Yet there are two questions bring me down to earth, to crushing reality, from the heights this book took me to.
1. Do we have more Muslims in store for Islam’s future? Muslims who have the time, the resources, and, most of all, the spiritual capability, to explore and learn so much and still remain skeptical?
2. Will more books like this keep being produced?

The book ends much too soon, leaving a gaping opening between the start of the twenty-first century and the death of Osama Bin Laden. That gap stares at me, a void that in itself attests to the dire, dire need for a revised and updated version that continues Sardar’s perpetual, ongoing journey.

But just like Sardar and his counterparts are carelessly tossed aside, this book goes under the radar. And if it were not for the friend who lent it to me, I would have never experienced this memoir. I would have never come across the account of a man who is desperately trying to understand and make sense of the wasteland of a once-majestic religious heritage that he has inherited.

Yes, he may be “too” skeptical. Yes, he does get rant-y. Yes, the implications of some of his stances can be quite alarming.

But in this sphere, in my sphere, there is no room for demonizing him or criticizing him. For once, let’s just be happy that this man exists, for better or for worse. Let’s rejoice in the gift this book is for us, a book that teaches one what it means to be a skeptic, and the spirit of true tolerance and plural coexistence. And let’s pray that there are more who, in the spirit of faith-based critical inquiry, continue to serve as the vessels of knowledge that are needed to pave our Ummah’s future forward.

On the Divine Paratext

I was really, really underhanded with that last blog. I can just imagine my agnostic friends reading that through completely unawares, thinking that this was one of my secular pieces. And then, at the last sentence, looking stunned. “That *bleep* set me up!”

Not intended, believe me.

I went on and on and on about paratexts and the world of literature, but it wasn’t until that last line when I was struck with this realization that it was the temporal world I was talking about. With that came another “aha” moment, where I was able to reach a high I rarely get to reach, when I manage to push and push the boundaries of the temporal world and then start talking about the divine on the same train of thought.

But it was so overwhelming that my brain was straining from the leap it had just made, and I had to cut myself off. “Too much. Thinking! Must go look at lolcats!”

So this post is to apologize to those of you who felt that you were set up, because you weren’t. If anything, I was just as surprised by that last sentence as you were. And in this post I also wish to clarify what I mean when I say that revelation has no paratext.

It’s laughable for me to put it in a literal sense: to say that the Bible or the Quran don’t have a paratext. Nothing could be further from the truth. Now, we need that auxiliary body of work, an evolving body of work that explains the revealed work to us, that makes it relevant to whatever time and place we happen to find ourselves in.

But the divine text is different. It’s not the text in any conventional sense. It was the brilliance that was so intense that its revelation at  times would take a physical toll on those who served as its vessels. The divine text, that, at its inception, was a stand-alone text.

It’s like the idea of how we must worship Allah, but He does not need worship. God does not need a flattering synopsis. He didn’t need no fancy cover for His text. He didn’t seek any blurbs and endorsements. He said “Be!” and it was, just as anything conceivable is created. And the work speaks for itself. If the act of revelation is the act of publishing, then really, the paratext started forming from the moment it took on a temporal form–after it was published.

No amount of paratext can ever do justice to its grandness. All the scholarly tafsirs (scholarly commentary) on the Qur’an are sprinkled with the qualifiers “Wa Allah hu alam:” This is what we say, but ultimately, Allah knows best. One can never, ever, ever say that enough. To me, that’s the best piece of paratext out there. An attempt to understand, but a self negation about that which is beyond our conception.

I’m tired of the word “paratext” for now. My brain hurts again. Must go back to my lolcats.

On Paratextuality

I was proofreading a book on the representations of Asian women in Canadian literature and came across an concept I have not pondered in a while: the paratext.Unlike a lot of useless literary terms, this word is not as menacing as it sounds. It simply means that when the reader reads a work, that work doesn’t just come to them in a vacuum. There is a body of text, the paratext, surrounding the work: from blurbs to jacket design to cover copy. Even the interior layout of the pages in itself is a statement that surrounds the book itself.
Naturally, this idea is incredibly fascinating for me as someone who works in publishing. And it’s not just about the paratext per say, but what it represents in terms of the reading experience. Take jackets and covers, for example. Even though the cover visually is not strictly a text, it still forms a frame of reference for the writer’s work.As much as we’d like to say that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, the reality is that covers matter in publishing. Profits are made or lost simply because of cover design. Therefore, sales and marketing departments love ‘good’ covers: covers that are buyer-friendly. During my internships, I would see book covers get praised, shot down, passed around, and even when there were glorious covers that by some miracle no department could find any fault with, I found myself thinking: “That’s it. That’s the only door the reader can open before submerging themselves in the book.” And even if the designer has somehow managed to strike the heart of the book’s content, the reader is still relegated to one way of looking at it. Whether that authentic translation translates into more book sales is another issue, and if it doesn’t, marketing and sales will trash it.

For me, there is no perfect cover. Because slapping on a cover at any work is a frame of reference. It says to the reader “this book looks so-and-so because that’s the only way of looking at it.”

I would love to think that e-books are one way of breaking out of the confines of paratext and an outer frame of reference, at least in its exterior appearance. Because a book, ultimately, should speak for itself. I was struck by this idea the most when I read Jeff Bezo’s welcome message on the Kindle: that the Kindle should, really, disappear in your hands when you are reading. I love the idea that when I am reading something–especially a work of fiction–that for me the work is speaking for itself. There is no pretty cover to trot around on the subway and show off. It’s a veiled relationship.  Just you and the book.

Is the medium really the message? To some extent, it always is. But even while e-books don’t undergo the fancy packaging books go through and do not subject the reader to whatever cover it pleases to have, e-books are still part of the greater paratext. There’s still the marketing, the blurbs, the synopses–really, all the descriptions the reader comes across when realizing that this book exists and then making the decision to read it.

How much of our purchasing decisions, the extent to which we enjoy a book, is influenced not by the book itself but its paratext? We may never be fully aware of its influence on our readerly psyches. No work, no matter how great or terrible, comes in a vacuum.

Only something divine can. For a true revelation has no paratext.

A Book Design Project

Shameless self-promotion, yes, but I’m just too proud of this to not put it up. For my book design class, I did a re-design of the jacket and some interior page spreads for The Muslim Almanac. The original cover looks okay, but the interior is just dreadful. It was an agonizing process, but the result was completely worth it. Many thanks to my beautiful sister for helping me with the montages for the jacket design.

A couple of things I’d like to mention before I start parading the goods:

  • If the body text reads a bit funny, that’s because it is. It’s just Islam-related dummy text.
  • Image sources are too numerous to list, but do note that they were used only for educational (and blatant self-promotional) purposes. No commercial use intended.

Click on the images to see them in full size.

Full Title
Table of Contents
Part Opener
Chapter Opener
Interior Page Spread