Sunday, April 25, 2010

Gail Folkins: Shoes

In the snapshot, I wear purple Converse tennis shoes with reinforced toes, faint bell bottom jeans spilling over their sides. Our yellow lab ignores the lanky arms I wrap around her. It’s the shoes that stick out, too purple despite my pride in them. Teachers note their strangeness; grade school friends grin and point at their unlikelihood. Mom thinks they’re unique.

An art instructor finds the same magic in these shoes that I do, has me draw a new picture in gentle charcoal lines. I sit in my socks and sketch, think of trees scaled on a brother’s dare, icy creeks forged. As if they’re still walking, the shoes appear on starched paper, shoelaces draping free of my feet. Eyelets gape open, shoe tongues voice their remembrance, purple shoes roam eternal through childhood forest journeys.


A luggage carousel in Dublin snakes around the terminal. I watch bags tumble when the handlers let out too many at once, then laugh once I spot my own broken bag, its sides and zipper burst at last from age. Only airport duct tape keeps the contents intact; one black suede shoe tries to escape. From the carousel’s edge, I claim the mangled bag and shoe while others stare. Mom would’ve laughed.

The left black shoe stays behind in Dublin. Dissatisfied with adulthood and agendas, it roams, most likely to the corner pub where I drank velvet Guinness or to rest in St. Stephen’s lime-bright grass. It might venture another look at Yeats’ scribbled manuscripts in a hidden museum, or relive the tang of fish and chips on greasy paper. Choosing a random door in the afternoon, each knocker a different bronze animal, it joins whoever answers for tea. At night, it finds a bed and breakfast and keeps my travels endless.


I place Mom’s brown boots, fresh moss in their tread, outside the door. She died in the house where I grew up, surprising us with sudden departure and no goodbyes. Who knew if she might need the boots for a forest, maybe one with our usual clouds and rain. Trilliums would open for her, white petals like stars, or fiery vine maple blazing if it were fall. Dad sees her boots waiting outside and asks me if that’s realistic, the right thing to do. I consider his words, but leave the boots there just in case, while summer’s warmth lives on.                 

Gail Folkins' essays have appeared in Lifewriting Annual, The Fourth River, and other journals. Her creative nonfiction book Texas Dance Halls:  A Two-Step Circuit (Texas Tech University Press) was a finalist in the popular culture category of ForeWordMelusine's Magazine's 2007 Book of the Year Awards.  This piece first appeared in Summer 2009 issue.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar: What Happens at Ladies' Night

Note: From time to time, we will post articles in this blog series that first appeared in Melusine's nonfiction section. This piece appeared in our Spring 2009 issue.

“What goes on at ladies' night?” This seems like an ordinary question; men are often mystified about those nights the trustworthy and stable women in their lives run out with girlfriends, dressed to the nines, with a shouted “Don’t wait up,” over the shoulder as the door shuts in their face.

In certain states in the Middle East, it is perpetually ladies' night since socialization between non-related women and men are gender segregated. For Muslim women, ladies' night means complete freedom, as they discard hijab, the veils that cover their hair in observance of Islamic dictates for female modesty.

The subject of this particular ladies' night inquiry, however, was the ladies only, invite only, evening of a fashion show hosted by Virginia Commonwealth University’s branch campus in Doha. The male faculty and staff were barred from this occasion for the entirety of the show’s annual run. They are all required to leave the building mid-afternoon the day of the show. As of spring 2007 there are no male students at VCUQ, though the first male students are allowed to enroll in fall 2007. They will likely also be left out of the ladies only evening, made even more precious by their inclusion into the school. The questioner, a male faculty member who had taught at VCUQ for three years, looked up at me and I was mystified.

“Well, not that much, really,” I said. This was true; as in any religiously conservative environment, Hindu, Christian, or Muslim, ladies' night takes on a much more sedated atmosphere.

“We just watch the show.… It’s the same show the next night too, right?”

My friend nods. He seems as frustrated by my inability to supply information, as though I’m holding out some secret, refusing to share it with him because of his maleness.

“Well, no one has their hair covered.”

He looks up again.

“Actually, no one wears abayas.”

He is suddenly really interested.

This is probably because every mall, restaurant, and classroom in Qatar is filled with abaya-clad females and this all you see of Qatari women unless you are related to them. (The designer abaya industry boasts top names including even Christian Dior.) Or unless you are invited to a ladies only gathering.

In Islam, a woman covers her hair only when around male non-relatives. For the student or working Muslim woman who chooses to, this can mean every moment that she is outside her house; or even inside her house if someone other than her father or brother is in the room. Women who “cover” (which usually means covering their hair, but can also extend to their whole face) adopt a variety of styles in how they carry out this practice. The Qatari approach to female “covering” is an abaya, a black robe with long sleeves, long enough to cover feet also and a shayla, scarf, about two to three yards in length, that warps around hair, ears, and neck, hiding any space down to the collar of the abaya. This is how ninety-eight percent of Qatari women dress.

I drove home that night and shook my head at my friend’s slightly dilated pupils. There are no cameras, not even cell phones with cameras, allowed at this or any other gathering where women will be “uncovered.” This ensures everyone can have a good time without worrying that photos of her hair, body, or face, will show up on the internet, or just as worrisome, blue-toothed around the country. After all, there are only about 150,000 Qatari nationals. It is a really small country and we all know how we feel about photos of ourselves … so a prohibition on photography might not be such a bad idea.

I thought back to my first ladies' night fashion show, the previous year, when I had only been in Qatar for about six months. I was shocked at what was underneath those abayas and shaylas. Behind the black of the robes and headscarves were designer labels I’d seen only in magazines or on the red carpet. This was the first night I saw my female students and almost didn’t recognize them because suddenly, instead of looking at a face, I was looking at an entire head, with hair, ears, neck, in short, everything “uncovered.” That night I was electrified and a little embarrassed at my own shock, given all my feminist sensibilities.

The women were … stunning. And I was staring at everyone and everything like a blind mouse given a promised few hours to see.

“Mohana, hi.”

I turned and smiled politely at a beautiful young woman. I had no idea who she was.

“It’s me. Hissa.”

“Hissa! Oh, wow. Look at you. Your hair is beautiful!”

Was there a more idiotic thing I could have said? Other than blurting, so that’s what you really look like, probably not. Clearly she wasn’t hiding her hair because she needed daily Rogaine treatments. She was observant of Islamic tradition; she was “covered” in public like a respectful Qatari female. And she was drop dead gorgeous.

It went on over the course of the night as student after student approached me to say hello and I was bedazzled by the mascara, bold shades of blue eyeliner, perfectly blow-dried manes, curled, straightened, artfully arranged, and satin evening wear. The actual models on the runway were only mildly interesting in comparison to the menagerie of women I knew, students, faculty, staff, who I literally saw in a different light that evening. They were chatty and friendly, eager to know what I was up to with summer only a few weeks away, boisterous. After the show, the murmur of voices rose to a dull roar as everyone piled into the reception area to eat, gossip, and compare jewelry.

The next day, back at work and in the daily grind, the previous evening seemed like a secret we shared, like I was having a dalliance with many women, all at once, because I had seen beauty behind closed doors.

This was all before I learned about the other variations of ladies' nights; weddings, as most wedding receptions in Gulf countries are single-sex, henna parties, where artists apply the dye in all designs and styles in a festive gathering, and of course, dancing lessons.

Of course, my friend can’t get into any of these.

And I, like a good friend, rub it in.

Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar is a writer and educator who currently works and lives with her husband in Doha, Qatar. She has a Ph.D. from the University of Florida with a focus on gender and postcolonial theory. She has published short stories, academic articles, and travel essays in a variety of journals and literary magazines. Her website is

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Announcing Our Finalists for the Vivienne Haigh-Wood Prize

Yes, it seems we have 11 finalists rather than 10. What can I say? I was an English, not a math major. OK, that's not quite an excuse, since distinguishing between the numbers 10 and 11 came a bit earlier in my education (say, kindergarten at the latest.) Well, they are 11 great poems, I think, so no regrets on the counting error.
We wish everyone luck with the final selection, which will be announced in the Spring issue, out late in May. The winner and runner-ups will be notified before the issue appears and the prize will be awarded in May.
The finalists are listed in alphabetical order (since I'm fairly confident I've mastered the alphabet, at least ;)

Marcia Arrieta: "Days"
Jessica Cuello: "Donkeyskin" and "In the Spired House"
Deborah DeNicola: "Eve of my Evolution"
Katharyn Howd Machan: "When I Return to Sardinia"
Jane Olmsted: "Imperative"
Lorraine Schein: "The Crystal Fairy Book"
T. Stores: "If My Father Were a New England Poet"
Jari Thymian: "Radish Mother"
Whitney Vaughan: "O Joy, Mouths the Muse to Her Suitor"
Andrea L. Watson: "Reckless Light Ordains Each Leaving"