Unequal relations

Today, I shall begin my article by writing about author Lisa Halliday (42), who the media and literacy critics in her home country USA have said is a ‘literary phenomenon’ after her first novel was released a year ago. She has written other books and worked in publishing for many years, but “Asymmetry” is her first novel. She completed her book in Milan, Italy, where she now lives with her husband and daughter. The book is universal in thoughts issues and contemporary in much of its content, certainly also relevant to our part of the world since the Middle East and the Iraq War (which began in 2003) are essential aspects of the book.

When Lisa Halliday was interviewed on Swedish TV’s literary programme ‘Babel’ last Sunday, she was asked how she felt about having been praised by such people as Oprah Winfrey and President Barack Obama. She laughed and said she did tell her mother about it! Obama was mentioned in the book, she said, but the fact that he had actually read her words, she felt was very humbling. Of course, there is asymmetry and big differences between the author and the former president, but she admires him, and he put her book on his Facebook list of favourite writers.

‘Asymmetry’ is a book which is difficult to place in a particular category; it is a novel alright, but it also has many aspects of being a memoir about the author and several characters in the book. The author says it is certainly fiction. As mentioned, much of the book is about the Middle East, but the author has never been there herself.

Some say the book is a love story. In the first of the book’s three sections, focus is given to an asymmetrical relationship between a young woman who is working in a junior post in a publishing house, who says she is gay, and a much older, richer and successful writer. Halliday had herself a close relationship with a much older, famous novelist, Philip Roth (1933-2018). Precisely, therefore, she could explore and write better about asymmetrical relationships, without it being her own life story.

In the SVT interview she stressed that many relationships, maybe most relationships, are indeed asymmetrical; that is why people are attracted to each other, to learn and explore new depths, she said. In our time, well in all times, people are open to such relationships, either they are close or at a distance.

Since the young woman and the famous writer in the book cannot easily meet in public, since he is famous, they meet in his apartment in New York City; they discuss everyday issues and world affairs. Therefore, the book is a commentary on contemporary issues. And it is a political novel, according to the author herself, and maybe it is also ‘lasting literature’, if we listen to the critics.

In any case, in politics, as in many human relationships, asymmetry is common. In recent debate, the term ‘power relations’, is often used. That would be a correct term for the American-Iraq invasion and war from 2003. The West-East relations, and the West-Middle East relations, are indeed asymmetrical, and we should add that the America-led war in our neighbouring country Afghanistan, since 2001, is certainly characterised by asymmetrical power relations. A superpower like USA probably have very few horizontal, true relations; its relations are power relations and they last as long as the upper handed, and heavy handed country has any interest in them, at present and in future. Pakistan, too, knows that.

It is well known that Russia has much lower defence expenditures as compared to USA and NATO, only about a tenth, in the unequal an asymmetrical world we live in. Yet, they all spend too much on the military, if you ask me! We should also know that when USA demands that all NATO countries (29) increase their military expenditures to at least two percent of GDP, that makes the power relations between USA/NATO and the rest of the world even more asymmetrical. The American economy benefits immensely from weapons export; thus, an increase in military expenditures in all NATO countries keeps holding the American military industry up, and therefore also the superpower afloat.

And now back to some the less political aspects of power relations, well, at least not big politics, because there is always political dimensions in what we say and do, the values we have and the things we believe in – even when we think they are everyday and private.

In the book, Lisa Holliday explores a multitude of unusual relationships, often they are unequal and sometimes outright vertical, notably power relations. But differences are not always bad; mostly, differences and diversity are actually good, yet, there must be some balance, too, not all the time, but at least over time, and in different fields.

A partner, friend or colleague may be good at something which I am poor at; I would have my strengths in other fields. Give and take dimensions are always important in relationships. We should try to tell each other more often than we do, that we appreciate what others say and do, and we should encourage each other to do better and take risk and explore. Even if we disagree with someone and what he or she does, we should encourage the person to go on, at least as long as it doesn’t hurt others. Voltaire (1694-1778) said that he would argue against his friend’s opinions when he disagreed, yet, he would do all in his power to make it possible for his friend to express his views.

I have recently written several articles in this newspaper about the importance of multiculturalism and diversity in populations of modern and dynamic countries. I believe that multiculturalism is valuable and desirable in countries, cities and towns. Migration goes on, within countries, between countries and internationally. We’d better get used to it! Countries with little contact with the outside world, having relatively homogenous populations, will lag behind. Pakistan has contact with the outside world through overseas Pakistanis, but it lacks inflow of foreigners, except for from nearby countries, indeed refugees from Afghanistan, which is to some extent an unequal and asymmetrical relationship.

Pakistan has deep-rooted class differences, and something must be done to correct that in the near future. We cannot live in a land where the top ten percent or so takes it all – education, wealth, comfort, power, and influence. Prosperous societies, such as the Scandinavian countries, have relatively small social, economic and cultural differences, and therefore they are so dynamic countries with. But there is no law hindering Pakistan from change and development – it is difficult, true, but I believe the country is on the right track with the current government. Yet, when will ‘Education for All’ be implemented, with functional literacy and basic youth and adult education? That is the foundation for a less asymmetrical society and fewer power relations in all spheres of life.

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