Simone de Beauvoir and Margaret Atwood Travel with me to London
As I sip a cappuccino at SFO on a warm October afternoon, two unexpected traveling companions join me on my flight to London: Simone de Beauvoir and Margaret Atwood. I know Atwood from The Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye.
What I know about Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir is a stranger to me. Her exotic name is familiar, but I know nothing of her work, until, of course, I pick up the Economist at the airport, and open it at the review in Fiction, feminism and philosophy-Simone de Beauvoir’s lost novella of friendship.
This review reminds me of one of my favorites—Elena Ferrante. An image of my own childhood is also conjured through this reading: obsession with academics and limiting cultural expectations. The similarity stops there.
Margaret Atwood’s Introduction
This reading compels me to purchase the audible version of the book. I click on the purchase in time to listen to it on my flight. Once I’m buckled in, I begin with Margaret Atwood’s introduction. The honor intimidates her having studied her work in college where she read the Second Sex and most of her other work.
So Margaret Atwood introduces me to Simone de Beauvoir and shows the contrast of their worlds. Margaret grew up in the unrestricted landscape of the 1950s of Canada and Simone in conservative Paris of many decades earlier.
For me, the landscape of Simone’s early “corseted childhood” is familiar. My own middle class upbringing in the 1970s in Pakistan mirrors Simone’s. Her obsession with academic and literary pursuits and her diffidence toward life are somewhat similar to mine. I am, therefore, not intimidated by her as is Margaret Atwood,
As I listen to Simone’s experiences and how they shape her perception of herself, I think of myself in all of my contexts others see me. As a teacher, for example, how I see myself, and then how my students see me. Then how my colleagues interpret my experiences as a teacher, and how my mother, also a teacher, sees me her teacher-daughter as compared to her non-teacher daughters, and this goes on, until I return to myself, no-longer-a-teacher, and how I see myself in the past and how that informs my present—And why does this all matter?
We’re constantly trying to make sense of our self
This matters because we’re constantly trying to make sense of our selves in the contexts in which we live. With clarity of our self, we can then engage with others with ease. Any confusion in our understanding of ourselves can influence how others perceive us, which can lead to conflict.
At times, this conflict can lead to creativity. We create to clarify our selves. Without a creative catharsis, the conflict can fester and we all know where that leads.
As I read on, I realize I need to read more of Simone’s work.
Four Books by Simone de Beauvoir I want to read
My memory of school at six
As I read of Simone’s memories of school, I recall my own. The academically intense conversations of the characters in Inseparables are non-existent in my memory, but then I was only six. Please join me in this memory.
As I sit pulling at a thread of mismatched blue yarn, I await a revelation. Looking into the hole in my sweater which seems to have grown since the morning. I must remember not to pull at it. I don’t know when it was snagged. Maybe when I was scrambling down that tree, following Selma to safety.
I hate this sweater! The school uniform is white with a royal blue sweater. But my sweater is not the correct shade of blue. Maybe this lighter blue colored yarn was the only one available on sale. The wool was not enough. Abidah, my aunt, might have suggested mummy dye some yarn to get a close-enough match. And I know they both meant well, but now the bottom section of the left sleeve is a deeper darker blue.
By the end of winter, the deeper darker blue section has a hole in it. I am fearful that by the end of the school day, the sleeve will unravel. I have not yet been fined for wearing the wrong color, but if Sister Angela sees the hole, I’m sure she’ll make me pay.
The girl next to me is wearing the perfect uniform. Her sweater looks ready-made. My hand-knitted sweater doesn’t look nearly as smart as hers. Her sweater is ROYAL BLUE. It doesn’t have a mismatched section. And it doesn’t have a hole in it.
Her fingers are clean too. Her deep maroon Parker pen is not leaking blue ink on her finger tips leaving smudges on her note book—like mine.
I’ve tried to fix the leaking ink from my Eagle pen with sticky tape. It doesn’t stick. Now I wrap a piece of paper around for another layer of protection.
All around me in this second grade classroom, girls of about six are busy writing. This is a dictation, where the teacher reads out passages, which we’re supposed to transcribe on our notebooks and spell the words accurately.
It’s our Urdu class, and I struggle with spellings. Mummy doesn’t read or write in Urdu, so she wasn’t able to help me prepare for this activity. I would have asked Abidah to help me but last night she was preparing jams and jellies, so instead, I asked Selma.
Write the passage on your rough copy
Just write the passage on your rough copy. She said. And keep repeating it again and again and again, like me. She showed me her immaculately written sentences all with the same sized letters as we sat at the dining table doing our homework.
Selma’s rough copy was never really rough. The pink notebooks made with hand made paper were notebooks in which we practiced sums, prepared for quizzes and tests—prepared here for the actual school work to be recorded in the notebook designated for each subject, covered in a brown paper at the beginning of the school year. On neatly cut labels, we wrote our names, the subject for that notebook, and the class number and section.
In my rough copy, I follow Selma’s advice and write and re-write the paragraph about the Prophet Mohammad (Peace be upon him) and how well he could be trusted. Then I decide that’s enough.
So I stuff my rough book and and pen in my school bag and leave Selma at the dining table while I go out to play.
Now, in the classroom, that pink-paged-rough-notebook sits in my desk, while I pick at my sweater. I wait for a revelation.
I had written most of the passage, from right to left. Each sentence the teacher read out to us, the same passage I had written out twice the night before.
The dictation passage
The Prophet Muhammad ibn Abdullah مُحَمَّد بنِ عَبْد ٱللَّٰه, May peace be upon him, was born in Mecca. His father died before he was born. He was raised first by his grandfather and then his uncle. He became a merchant when he was still quite young.
But even though The Prophet Mohammad, May peace be upon him, was so young, he never cheated nor did he tell lies. He was, therefore, called Al Ameen (الأمين), the Trusted.
If it had been in English, I would have had no problem, but in Urdu, I was still struggling with distinguishing the complexities of the alphabet. The sound of “h” comes from three different letters ح, ہ, ھ in the Urdu alphabet. If, at the time, I had known that words that originate in Arabic use ح, I would not have had a problem. But, when it came to writing the name of the Prophet, Mohammad, I wasn’t sure which letter to use.
I knew of the mortal sin of misspelling his name, at least that’s what I thought. So whenever his name came up, I left a blank space. The correct letter would come to me, I was sure.
And so now in the silent classroom, I wait for the revelation of the correct letter as I pulled at the yarn of my mismatched blue sweater. As I pull, the yarn tightens around my arm, so then, I begin to straighten it.
Anniqua! the teacher calls out to me.
I look up.
Do you want to hand in your work? She asks.
Not yet, I say, I need to write today’s date and draw a line at the end of the passage.
November 5 stares accusingly back at me from the top of the page.
The girl next to me draws an ending line with her small shiny ruler which she hands to me. I shake my head, showing her my wooden ruler on my desk. , and I try to catch a glimpse of her work. Oblivious of my unspoken plea, she shuts her notebook and walks toward the teacher’s desk.
Others do the same. They hand in their work.
And in that moment, the revelation comes. The answer is in that pink-rough-notebook. What would be worse? To take a chance and spell the Prophet’s name incorrectly, or look for the correct spelling?
There is no doubt about what I must do.
So as the girls gather around the teacher’s desk, I do the right thing: I slide the rough copy from my desk and casually open the section I had been practicing the previous night.
As soon as I see the correct spelling, I hear my name again.
I place my ink-stained hand on the page and look up. All eyes are on me.
Come here, she says, and bring that with you.
I do just that.
As I place the pink-rough-notebook on the teacher’s desk, I sense all eyes on the unraveling mismatched blue sleeve. I look at it too.
A manicured hand with bright pink nail polish opens that darned pink-rough-notebook. I follow as the hand opens at the page I wrote the night before.
Why? The teacher asks unnecessarily.
Realizing that I have no other option. I look up at her and with a tear in one eye say with as much confidence as I can muster, My sister told me to do it.
A stunned silence follows.
The teacher looks down at the notebook.
Well I’m going to have to send a note to your parents, she says.
Giving the letter to Abu might not be a challenge but if mummy gets her hands on it, I don’t think I’ll be able to create a story for her.
Create Cultural Memories through Literature and Art
Inseparable: A Never-Before-Published Novel by Simone de Beauvoir
This story evoked so many memories for me. I remember the pink notebook for rough work, and also the pens that stained our hands. I also remember my first day in my new school in 3rd grade having skipped the second grade altogether and my first and only slap when I showed my work to my Urdu teacher, I believer her name was Mrs. Shahbaz.
It’s unfortunate that some of our memories of school are of fear, uncertainty, and in the worst cases, abuse. Learning can be so exciting and fulfilling, but then, we can continue with that feeling as we learn more.