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A Lesson in Nuance | Books Uncovered podcast

Updated: Sep 8, 2023

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Sam: Hello and welcome to the Books Uncovered podcast, a podcast brought to you by Fulcrum Publishing, where we explore the world of books and the people who make up the publishing and the book industry. I'm Sam Scinta, Publisher of Fulcrum Publishing, and I'm joined by my co-host Kateri Kramer, Fulcrum's marketing director.

Hello, Kateri. How are you?

Kateri: I'm good. How are you?

Sam: Great. We are officially kind of ending our summer break here with the podcasts. Have you had a nice summer?

Kateri: Yeah, it's been really good. We've gotten outside a lot, which is nice, and lots of good things in the book world. So it's been wonderful.

I'm not ready for it to end yet.

Sam: I know, I know. That's always the hardest part. It's like, how can we extend this summer?

Kateri: Yeah, exactly.

Sam: Well, summer is obviously the time where people travel, and I think this, this summer has been a record travel summer for the United States, or at least bringing things back to pre-pandemic times.

And when, when I was thinking about travel, I was thinking of course, of our author today and the materials we're gonna be talking about and this whole idea of this cosmopolitanism, this idea of global citizenship. And so I was curious, 'cause I know you've done some international travel, where was that first place you traveled that it really hits you, that we're part of this bigger world and that we're all connected?

That this whole, you know, the notion of interconnectedness of peoples.

Kateri: Yeah, I think I, my parents had us traveling a lot when we were kids. But I think the first time that it like really occurred to me was like over a period of time when I was in high school. We had a foreign exchange student from Rome who lived with us for quite a while.

Hmm. And then when I graduated high school, we went to Rome to visit him. And I think that that was kind of the first time that I realized like families are like made up similarly. Like I remember sitting with his family and feeling very at home. Even though I couldn't understand what they were saying, it felt like I was there with my grandparents just, and aunts and uncles, and the way they bantered and made fun of each other and all the food and that kind of thing.

And that interconnectedness was always really, really interesting to me. And then, I mean, to this day, like, we'll go visit him every couple of years, or he'll come here and it's like, we have spent no time apart despite like, How physically far apart we've been, and for what, a period of time. Yeah. How about you?

Sam: For, well, I didn't do a lot of travel when I was young, and so I started making that up in my twenties and I had the fortune of going to Hong Kong in 1997 before it was turned back over. And I remember flying into the airport. It was at, at the time the airport was actually on the big island.

They've since moved it to a peninsula that they basically like made out of nothing. But you landed at this airport and it was about five in the morning. It was one of those all-night flights, and we landed and it was really foggy and still dark and really eerie. But then you, at the time you exited the plane, instead of going into a jetway, you exited and walked outdoors and then got back in and looking around and there were dozens of planes from all over the world, and I mean, every single plane was from a different country and everybody was coming to Hong Kong either to disembark there or as a stop over to the next place and just looking around and going, oh my gosh. Like that airline in that country and that airline in that country, and this whole idea of all these people converging. It just was this weird, almost surreal feeling that just took me out of, where I was and, of course you're kind of groggy and tired already.

It was. Wow. Wow. We are like, All connected. We are all part of this, and everybody seems to be coming here right now for whatever magical reason. So well, our author today has, has thought a lot about this topic of this whole idea of cosmopolitanism, of world citizenship and interconnectedness in her writing, and most recent the most recent book that she's done.

We're joined today by Adrianne Kalfopoulou, who is a poet, essayist, and scholar based in Athens, Greece, where she is joining us from today. She has authored three poetry, collections and two collections of essays most recently On the Gaze: Dubai and Its New Cosmopolitanism, a thought-provoking exploration of Dubai's evolving cultural landscape.

Adrianne has taught internationally at institutions of Higher education in Athens, Freiburg. Edinburgh and now the United Arab Emirates, and served as a faculty member in the low residency mile high M F A program at Regis University. She held the position of McGee Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Davidson College during the 2020-2021 academic year.

Welcome, Adrianne Kalfopoulou how are you today?

Adrianne: Hi. Thank you so much for having me, and thank you so much for this beautiful publication.

Sam: Ah, yes. On The Gaze. So let's, let's start with talking about the book. Why, what motivated you to write about Dubai? I know you were spending time there and teaching there, but what, what about Dubai really struck your interest?

Adrianne: Well, what you just said, Sam, about the Hong Kong airport is such a good descriptor for the Dubai Airport. It is a place, it's a crossroads, it's a hub, it's passageway. And what was fascinating as I started researching for this book length essay was the idea of trade and movement is something that is indigenous to the Gulf States. I mean, this is what the Gulf states, which were kingdoms, sheikhdoms you know, they were tribal communities which were run by the Sheikh. And after the British basically pooled these groups together under what they called a protectorate system because these were also considered private pirate states, excuse me.

But when I say that word, I'm thinking of my other part of the title, which is The Gaze. And I'm thinking they were pirate states through the British gaze. You know, they may not have considered themselves pirate states, you know, prior to the British presence. And of course, the British wanted this kind of peace and passageway because it was a perfect shortcut to India which was their colony at the time.

So writing about Dubai I was, as you described, your own experience in the Hong Kong airport. I just thought, wow, this is someplace totally different from anything I've ever known. And I have traveled my family, I was born in Southeast Asia spent some time in Thailand. You know, grew up in different places in Switzerland for a while and then ended up in Connecticut in the US so for me to say that Dubai was like a completely different place was something that surprised me too.

Sam: You know, and it's, to me, it's fascinating because, you and I have talked about this when you were first thinking about this book or this essay that it is, it is a kind of a commercial crossroads and a cultural crossroads, but it's also this meeting of east and west in, and yes, blending in many respects too, that there's a conservatism to Dubai, but also. For lack of a better word, almost like a hedonism that is happening there. This, this consumerism and the indoor ski slopes and the beaches made out of nothing and all of that.

Adrianne: Yes, yes, indeed. Kind of excessiveness and

Sam: yeah, that better word than hedonism. Yeah, excessiveness. I like that. Yeah.

Adrianne: It's you know, it's a very interesting interface between sort of, You know, I wanna say capitalism on speed on some level. But at the same time this very traditional underpinning of a culture that comes out of its tribal past. With very particular values that maintain themselves within this kind of hyper-consumerist culture. So I find that really interesting. It sounds almost like an opposition or a paradox, but when I started researching and writing the book, I realized one of the, one of the big, sort of eureka moments for me was that how the trade culture to exist in its early days as when these were Bedouin tribes right in the desert.

It was through trade and transactional exchanges in which people you know, agreed on what they were gonna be trading, the goods that they were trading, how they were gonna trade these goods. And I, it sort of, you know, for one of a, it's sounds a little bit simplistic, but I'd like, oh, this is the beginning of free, of Fair Trade.

Mm. You know, the Fair trade movement within the tribal past of, of Bedouin cultures and. That ethos is still very apparent there. And so while in many ways Dubai has gotten a kind of bad rap a lot of people have reached out to me wanting to talk about the issue of human rights. And while that's is it is a, a subject It's way reductive.

Just to, just to say it within a kind of Western packaging of that term. Because when I looked up, you know, where do the workers live who are mainly South Asian? Individuals. There are certain parameters that are put out by the Ministry of Labor of which, which include that all the spaces, the rooms have to be air-conditioned.

There has to be a space prayer room. There has to be you know, good hygiene there, 'cause this is also part of Islamic culture hygiene is a, is a very important part of that culture. You go into a, into a house, you take off your shoes. You don't walk into a space where people live with your shoes, you leave them at the entranceway.

So so while yes, there is this excess and this kind of, kind of surreal thing, like an ice skating rink in the mall and so forth at the same time there's a real kind of respect for the visitor

Sam: and I absolutely love that, that that idea, and again, if you, I, I think you hit something really important if you study Islamic culture and history, you do see this tradition of cosmopolitanism that has been going back hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years, and yet for some reason we're, it's kind of surprised in the 21st century that, oh my gosh, Dubai seems to be blending all of these things and bringing 'em together.

It's like, no. This has been part of this movement because again, the trading that took place and the fact that they were facilitating not just trading of goods, but trading of ideas and, and, yes. So when you look at that, that Islamic high culture in the, what, 11th, 12, 13th centuries, and, what happened out of that, what generated out of it was incredibly cosmopolitan.

So I, I love that you're framing this in, in this particular way and, and giving this a lot of due.

Adrianne: Yeah, I mean, it, it, it was something that was very important to me because, you know, in a more superficial way obviously Dubai has also been compared as people have said, to kind of a Middle Eastern Las Vegas.

But, but because of the desert because of, you know, the fact that there is you know, so much going on and it's, there's so much of the consumer excesses there, but it really isn't. It really isn't because it's not a place where there's gambling, for example, unless you wanna talk about trade in the larger context of a, just of a gamble, right?

But let's say the players are, are individuated, like they're individuals who are having a discussion trying to come to an agreement. My own experience there on my sort of very, you know, kind of individual level. Everything is a discussion and it's not so much, it's really interesting 'cause I come with my Western head and it's like, okay, so let's get to the solution.

Like what are we gonna do about this? And sometimes I feel, you know, why are we spending so much time discussing something? But the discussion's really important and that's how relationships are forged. So, so that's anti-capitalist in a way, if you'd like. I mean, it's like the individual doesn't get erased in the transaction is I guess my point.

Kateri: I think that like plays into this other side of the book, which is maybe the other half of the idea of the gaze and looking and observing and like taking that time before anything else happens. The like thought process and the processing behind it all. How did you decide to make that such a big part of the book?

Adrianne: That's a great question, Kateri thanks for, thanks for that. 'cause I really wanted to address this idea of the gaze because I'm not Muslim. I'm not part of the Middle East. I'm a visitor, a foreigner in the view of, you know, those who are indigenous to the culture obviously. So I did not want that part of it not to be addressed.

And that's really the main part of it, you know, in the sort of honesty of this, how do we observe those who are not like ourselves? And here I was immersed in a place that was totally other to me on all levels, culturally religious you know racially. So, you know, there was no way I could start to engage with this without understanding that I am looking and observing as somebody who is viewing another.

Mm-hmm. Right. As other so, so that was very intriguing to me and I thought that that had to be kind of front and center. Yeah. This idea of the gaze, how do we look at. At, at, at a culture or a, or a space that is unfamiliar to us. And of course that immediately kicks in with issues of projection.

How do we project our own assumptions? And then I, I really stumbled on the theoretical underpinnings of that. Jean Baudrillard's discussion of the simulacrum. But also, Mark Olga, who just recently passed the anthropologist, who, you know, talks about nonplaces and coined the term nonplaces. Right? But this idea of the simulacrum became really key to the discussion because this is what Dubai, what its rulers particularly Sheikh the Maktoum family which was Sheik Rashid Bin Maktoum from the 19, like 1958 when he first came into reign from that point on, he really projected his own vision onto the desert of what he would like, you know, Dubai to become. And so the gaze is my gaze and what I'm learning. And it's also how does the desert itself invite a gaze, right?

Because it's a kind of tabula rasa where we, you know, look upon it. And in this case that that's precisely what happened, you know, out of the desert came this super city.

Kateri: Mm-hmm. Well, and I, what I really appreciate is that like, I think in a lot of spaces we, we hear the word. Or the idea of the gaze and like, at least for me, I'm going back to John Berger's stuff with the gaze. And then I think there's some, some maybe subconscious like negative side effects with that, that like you're immediately thinking that observing and like having this. Personal idea that's being projected on something else is, is negative. But I think that in your book, you really teach us that we can like learn from that and it can change our perspective if we, if we process all the way through all of that and it becomes this really like positive learning experience where that gaze is it, it impacts the way that we interact and in this new world that we're, we're now, like with you living in did you have any like change where maybe there was a pejorative idea behind the gaze and observation, and did that change at all, or did you start out kind of knowing that that was a positive and beneficial experience?

Adrianne: No, no, no. I was very uncomfortable. You know, immediately actually in a sense of my difference and very conscious and self-conscious about how do I move in a space that's unfamiliar to me without, you know, unbeknown to myself perhaps. You know, being disrespectful in some way. You know, like I, I was really worried about that because my whole apparatus is a Western structural apparatus.

And for all our discussion of inclusivity, what was so fascinating to me when I became more immersed in the Middle Eastern culture and particularly Islamic traditions, is that, You know, the recognition that we're not the same, that we're in fact different. And the sense of community is built on an acknowledgment of difference as opposed to the assumption that we are all doing the same thing.

And what's interesting about Dubai's cosmopolitanism is it seems to address that it's not a cosmopolitanism that sort of merges difference as much as it tears it. And that's also part of the critique, right? Because you have a tiered cosmopolitanism. You have a cosmopolitanism from the, from the top as we say, which is the privileged, and then there's the cosmopolitan Homi Bhabha discusses this from the, from the bottom, right, the cosmopolitan that comes up when workers are put together. Who did not choose to be together. They're not tourists, right? They're working together. They're trying to make a living or even myself, you know, teaching in an environment where we have different points of reference and discussing ways to approach certain things in an academic environment and not necessarily always understanding, even though we're using the language and we understand the language, but it's the cultural input where the differences come up. Yeah. So in a, you know, the hospitality that, the notion of hospitality as a, as a, as an ethos, that, that makes space for the other as other was really interesting to me.

Kateri: Yeah. I'm wondering too, like, did, did this process for you actually start earlier with, I guess I should preface this by saying like the, did Ruin come out right before On The Gaze or was there one in between a book in between?

Adrianne: Yeah, there was a poetry book in between. Okay. History of too much that dealt with the Crisis. The meltdown with the financial Yeah. But Ruin came out just before that. And yeah, that had a lot to do with some of that had to do, or, or the work I was doing with refugees was my first kind of more intimate introduction to cultures different from my own.

Kateri: Well, and it's interesting too because like, Athens then becomes this convergence of where like refugees are traveling to for a safe place, but then you are in your own environment and having this, this gaze experience working with people of a different culture, which we're most of the individuals coming in like Arabic?

Adrianne: Afghan,

Kateri: Afghan, okay.

Yeah. So you're like already having this like Middle East. Interaction with people like years before you're going to Dubai. Did that, did that gaze process there like inform what happened in Dubai in your thought process there?

Adrianne: Well, it's really interesting because, I mean, the answer is yes in that I got interested in, in, in Islamic cultures through my you know work with the refugee communities. But what what's really interesting is, you know, within the refugee communities, obviously people are disenfranchised and traumatized. So then you go to a place like Dubai and you find people in, you know, economically, privileged positions. Right. Doing really well. I am, I'm, I'm the one, you know, sort of economically, sort of on the lower end of the scale, let's say.

And so it was really interesting. I was just at a conference on Lados, which was fascinating. The humanism conferences that are that is sponsored by Columbia University and who, you know, is one of the people who blurbed the book. And it was so interesting because a, a, a paper was given by a Pakistani person, a man from Pakistan, a professor from Pakistan.

And he was saying, you know, he was doing a lot of work with Pakistan refugees, Pakistani refugees in Athens. And, you know, I went up to him afterwards, I said, you know, it's really interesting 'cause my, my classroom, when I go into my classroom, I'm dealing with, you know, I have a lot of Indian Pakistan Pakistani students south Asian students from people from Iraqi students, Syrian, and.

And then I come to Greece and I see that the Pakistani population are doing really menial, labor intensive. And they're, and they're discriminated against. There's racist you know, horrendous racism against these groups in Athens. And it's really amazing to, it's a, it's a sort of talk about a gaze, you know?

I mean, I'm just like recalibrating. I'm the teacher in a classroom. I'm the minority. I'm white, I'm a woman. And then I come to Greece and I'm part of the, I'm part of the, you know, the, the group that is hosting, let's say those, those groups who are coming in, who are in much more disenfranchised positions.

So it's really, it's a really interesting shift, you know, that that, that relationship to the other, you know, In these two different cultures.

Sam: You said something. Quite beautiful and, and, and quite profound. And, I just wanna make sure to, to call it out, this whole idea that hospitality that makes place for the other as the other. And, and this whole idea that but this whole idea that Dubai, when we first talked about this project, this notion of Dubai is a crossroads in the 21st century.

And the fact that they're exemplifying this idea that they're taking people as they are and, and making space that metaphorical table, right for people as they are with their, their culture with their interest. Not trying to blend as much as acknowledge the common humanity or a space for that common humanity.

And, and then to, to just still recognize that there's this diversity of, of experience and culture there. I, I think that's just quite a beautiful idea.

Adrianne: Yeah, I mean, that's definitely what Dubai represents and, you know sees itself as you know, and, and it, and I think it was that way from the beginning, you know, it's you know, we're in an, we're in an Arab kingdom. You know, and as soon as you're using the word kingdom, you're, you're talking about a tiered society. But within that tiered society, there's this effort and acknowledgment that we need everybody within that. Space to make it work. Mm-hmm. And you know, I mean, it's, we can think about the ancient past, we can think about Rome, we can think about Greek antiquity.

You know, the, the idea of a, of a, of a structured society. You know, we talk about ancient Greece as democratic. Well, well, it's not, it wasn't not in the terms that we speak about. Right. Okay. Yeah.

Sam: We tend, we tend to forget that women and slaves were not included.

Adrianne: Indeed. Oh, well there you go. Right, exactly.

Yeah. Not that we wanna recreate that system. But I'm just saying that, you know, when you're talking about versions of tiered societies I think that's part of, I, I mean, I'm gonna say this part of Western hubris that we just assume that this is, this is the only way to do it. And obviously, we're all living a very you know, fraught time within our democratic spaces.

And, and in a way that has helped me, you know, I, being in, being in Dubai, being in the Middle East, you know, being in an, in an Islamic culture really has shifted my own gaze on the West. You know, not that I was bereft of critiques for it before I went. But nevertheless, you know, I have to say that this notion of hospitality, and I'm glad Sam, you, you, you pull, pulled that out too 'cause the notion of hospitality is basically acknowledges that we don't always get to a solution or we don't always get to this ideal and, you know, our, our kind of assumption of that we must have the ideal or nothing. Is quite destructive in some ways.

Sam: Yeah, it's, I mean yeah, talk about a lesson that we can all benefit from.

This whole idea of welcoming people who are different-minded than us is, is so important. And it just seems to be something that is so lacking right now that we don't wanna make that space at the metaphorical table for somebody who thinks differently, who has a different background, who has maybe different assumptions of their of how life should be lived. And, hospitality is really grounded in the fact that no, that's exactly the, the one you should be welcoming because it expands your worldview. It forces you to look broader. It is truly cosmopolitan.

Adrianne: Yeah. Yeah. One of my students from Kerala, India, she was, she brought it up like, we have these discussions in class and some of these discussions are really tough for me.

You know, I try to make it a space where we can share you know, and I try not to impose, you know, anything of what I might think is the, is the better system, let's say. And, you know, she was pointing out, we were talking about Dubai and she said, you know, it's not the the democracy that, you know, we see in the west, but it works.

And those were her words, right? She says, you know, there seems to be a kind of stability, let's say. All right. And, you know, I mean, we could, we can, we could talk a lot about the, the things that don't work, but, but that's sort of, in, in that case, the balancing is more or less equal 'cause, 'cause of, you know, you know, you can't go around with guns in Dubai, for example, unless you're the military or the police, right?

Sam: Well, you have given us a truly a, a beautiful essay and a lot to think about, and, and I, I just think a, a, a, a significant contribution to the literature on this topic. So I, I really do encourage people to read it, not just to understand Dubai, but to understand these bigger themes of you know how we all connect, interconnectedness, cosmopolitanism, the gaze and you just what is just remarkable to me in this essay is you do so much in 25,000 words and, and cover a lot of history, a lot of culture, a lot of different ideas, and really provoke the reader to think. So thank you so much for this beautiful book.

Adrianne: Well, thank you for bringing it into the world.

Sam: Well, this is now the, the fun part where we get to talk about books that we are loving. And, and every time we, we do this, we talk about, we tie it back to our theme. So what we're looking for now are books that explore or promote global understanding or, and or interconnectedness.

And so Adrianne we're gonna start with you. I, you have a, a wonderful selection for this.

Adrianne: The books that I are, that I'm reading or that I would consider well, you know, I go back to books that I've read before and I'm actually, I'm gonna talk about poetry. 'cause I think that the poetry that I've been reading, you know, like Zeina Hashem, Beck's book O which is this book and it's just, she's Lebanese and she now lives in California, but she was in Dubai actually for, for a decade, if not more. And that's a book that I taught my students and they were really excited about it because they could connect to her sense of cosmopolitanism. Mm-hmm. And she really has such a reach in the poems. So I'm, I'm seeing this kind of sense of the global in, in a lot of poetry that I've been reading, but also essays.

Like there's another book that It's an older book, but it's a great book. It's called Letters of Transit, and it's you know, essays with Eva Hoffman, Mukherjee, Edward Sahid Charles Shimek. And so these are, you know, people who travel. So I, I, I really like travel books and I like poetry essays and poems a lot because I think they're trying, they're, they're more idea based in some sense.

Sam: Excellent, excellent suggestions. Yeah, well, they'll definitely, I wrote 'em both down, so looking forward to those. How about you Kateri?

Kateri: So I went a little out of the box, not in terms of the question, but in terms of the format. And my head has been firmly in Children's book world right now. So I actually chose a children's book. And yeah, it's by my favorite illustrator. Her name is Rebecca Green. And the book is by Kate Baker, but it's called, it's A Place Called Home. The book basically goes through like all of these different countries and like what home might look like for a different person there.

And it covers like lots of different regions and there's like flaps in the book so you can like peek inside how people like eat differently. And I just really like the idea of. Like introducing this to young people really early on. That like everybody has a home and they look different, but it's like we all kind of ideally have the same feeling when we're there. It's safe and supportive and our family is nearby and like that kind of thing.

Adrianne: Oh, that's fantastic.

Sam: Wonderful , I, I struggled with this one because my first instinct was of course to go to nonfiction and, and, and so You, okay. I could, I could do Edward Sahid Orientalism, which is a very influential book, or the, the kind of the counterbalance, Buruma and Margolis Occidental. Which was kind of the response to, to Orientalism and looking at it the, from the other side.

But then I, I thought about it and, and like you, I thought, okay, well maybe I just need to go to a different format here. And I thought about this very loose trilogy that I, I've read over the past couple years that I, I. Absolutely love the series of books from Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven, The Glass Hotel and The Sea of Tranquility.

These are all loosely connected and what happens is there's one character that kinda weaves into each one, and they're all on independent topics. The, the Station Eleven is about post-apocalyptic, a post-apocalyptic world, and how do the arts survive? The Glass Hotel is about a seemingly unrelated incidents of a, a work of graffiti and a Ponzi scheme that's falling apart.

And then Sea of Tranquility is this time travel story. But what links them all is this notion of the interconnectedness of people and geography and wow. She just does a beautiful job. Her writing is just stellar. I, I, I quickly went and bought all of her books after I read these three, but it, these are books that have just stayed with me, not just the, the characters and the, the themes, and I don't want to spoil to, because these are books that really deserve to be read.

And, and revealed along the way, but also the deep themes that she is, is really wrestling with here metaphysics and, and how we connect and, and what is the, what is the nature of art, what survives when we, we all go away and, and how do we care for each other? I mean, these are all kind of tied in her books and she just does it beautifully well.

So I would highly recommend these books for a better understanding of humans and how we all connect. Well, this has just been wonderful and, and, and just a great intellectual journey. Adrianne you've just given us, I said a gift in this, in this lovely essay. I do hope people go out and read this.

They will learn more, not just about this amazing and fascinating place called Dubai, but again about so many other bigger themes. So please check out On The Gaze: Dubai, and Its New Cosmopolitanism by Adrianne Kalfopoulou, Adrianne thank you so much again for joining us from Athens.

Adrianne: Thank you, Sam. Thank you, Katari. Thank you again. Thank you, Fulcrum.

Sam: Well, thank you so much and happy reading.

Voiceover: If you enjoyed this episode, we would love for you to rate and subscribe to Books Uncovered, so that others can also discover and enjoy. Thank you for being a part of the Books Uncovered community, where book communities come alive.

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