Category: Yogi’s Verdict

Yogi’s Verdict: They Were Her Property

This book by historian Stephanie Jones-Rogers makes a case that white women were not just passive participants in slavery but were active and prominent “co-conspirators”. By studying the voices of formerly enslaved people in archives and other records such as sales receipts, newspaper notices and account books, the author documents how white women bought and sold, controlled and disciplined enslaved people during the slave era.

In sketching out the role of white women as slave owners, Jones-Rogers relies heavily upon a vast archive of interviews of formerly enslaved people conducted by the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), which was an initiative under the Works Progress Administration set up by the Roosevelt Administration to provide work for unemployed writers during the Great Depression. These sources have been used widely in researching the lives of slaves in the South, but Jones-Rogers utilises them to great effectiveness to tease out their perspectives on how white women were complicit in their subjugation. In this way, she indirectly demonstrates how the cruelties of white women were often hiding in plain sight.

By focusing on female slave owners, Jones-Rogers also brings much needed scrutiny to long established claims about gender roles and slave ownership and management. White women exercised and defended their right to own slaves at a time when women had yet to get the right to vote. Formerly enslaved people recalled that their mistresses even insisted that their husbands were not permitted to discipline slaves that personally belonged to them. Contrary to being perceived as naïve or not knowing their place, white women were treated by judges in ownership disputes without consideration of their gender.

In what is probably her most detailed chapter, Jones-Rogers explores the exploitation of slaves for maternal wet nursing duties by white women. Contrary to earlier works that placed white men in control of the wet nurse industry, she finds that white women were instrumental in creating and sustaining the market for enslaved wet nurses. Enslaved people recounted how some of them were subjected to sexual violence so they would give birth to their own babies and be able to breastfeed their mistress’ baby.

They Were Her Property does not deeply explore earlier works on slavery and white women, but rather seeks to fill a key gap in the historiography of the American South. In fact, Jones-Rogers admits that even the extensive sources she relies upon may not reveal the full extent of white women’s involvement in slavery. However, her work does effectively dismantle the notion of the disempowered and passive plantation mistress in Anne Firor Scott’s The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics: 1830-1930 (1970).

They Were Her Property is an excellent foundation upon which further research on white women and slavery can be built in a way that prioritises the voices of the enslaved.

Yogi’s Verdict: ★★★★★

Yogi’s Circuit Breaker Reviews

During the Circuit Breaker lockdown period in Singapore that lasted from April 7 to June 1, I spent the time reading several books and watching shows on my to-do list. I’ve compiled the full list of the reviews I wrote on this page.

  1. A Curious History of Sex

Check out my review of this book about a curious history of sex and some of the things we have done to ourselves and to each other “in the pursuit (and denial) of the almighty orgasm”. 

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2. Oral Histories of Older Gay Men in Hong Kong

Check out my review of this book about the vivid memories of closeted gay life drawn from extensive oral histories with elderly men, a rare piece of work combining ageing and sexuality issues. 

Read Review

3. State of Emergency

Check out my review of this historical novel that won the Singapore Literature Prize in 2018. 

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4. Circus of Books

Check out my review of this quirky Netflix documentary whose maker, Rachel Mason, chronicles how her conservative Jewish family ran LA’s biggest gay porn bookshop, Circus of Books. 

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5. Truck De India!

Check out my review of this travelogue by Rajat Ubhaykar as he hitchhikes across India on its venerable (and beautifully decorated) trucks & discovers how they keep this vast & diverse land supplied. 

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6. It Never Rains on National Day

Check out my review of this series of short stories by Jeremy Tiang which exude identity crisis and a sense of being adrift, and questions if Singapore is truly inclusive. 

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7. Mossad Exodus

Check out my review of this gripping tale of how Israeli spies set up a fake diving resort in Sudan as a cover to rescue thousands of Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s. 

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8. Fauda

Check out my review of this hit Netflix show which depicts the operations of an Israeli undercover unit which battles Palestinian militancy.

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Yogi’s Verdict: Fauda Season 1

The Israel-Palestine conflict is often characterised by periods of intense violence with a tense peace squeezed in between. Occasionally, a single incident of terror or military operation captures global attention which then fades as the status quo reasserts itself.

What we rarely see are the day to day activities of both Palestinian movements and Israeli security operatives which underpin the showy incidents. To this effect, the Netflix show Fauda introduces us to Doron (Lior Raz) & his team of undercover Israeli agents who infiltrate Palestinian towns and target militants. Interestingly, the series is partly based on Raz’s real-life service in Israel’s undercover Duvdevan unit.

On the other side, we have an array of Palestinian characters, who are associated in some way to militant leader Abu Ahmad, who is plotting a major terror attack. The episodes are linked by a narrative of personal anguish and revenge on each side, and only rarely do the wider geopolitical factors such as the moribund peace process intrude into the story.

The highlight of Fauda is perhaps the numerous instances where characters grapple with moral dilemmas. Contrary to popular belief about dispassionate soldiers and militants, the Israelis and Palestinians fear the other side, vow revenge against their enemy and worry about their families and children. The terrible toll on personal lives and relationships is also accurately portrayed, especially when death strikes.

It is inevitable that a series on such a divisive issue will immediately raise questions about how Israelis and Palestinians are depicted. One thing is clear: This is an Israeli production meant for Israeli audiences (before Netflix bought it). It will never be able to capture the Palestinian perspective in an acceptable manner no matter how nuanced the plot.

The indignities of Palestinians who are routinely kidnapped, beaten or killed briefly surface, though we don’t see issues like the Separation Barrier or the numerous checkpoints in the show. We also don’t see much of the settlements which have poisoned the peace process perhaps irrevocably.

Keeping these in mind, Fauda achieves what it sets out to do, which is to portray Israeli agents navigating the complexities of a region littered with the ghosts of peace and the anger of an occupied population.

Yogi’s Verdict: ★★★★

For a Palestinian critique of Fauda for depicting them as “frightening and exotic creatures inhabiting places where only commandos dare to venture”, see HERE.

Yogi’s Verdict: Mossad Exodus

Welcome to the beautiful Arous Village on the sun-kissed shore of Sudan’s Red Sea coast. Enjoy diving in pristine waters guided by the best professionals and enjoy the fresh and hearty seafood meals!

Except, Arous was no mere holiday resort. In reality, it was a front for Israel’s Mossad spy agency during the early 1980s. The resort was used as a cover to smuggle tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews fleeing their war torn homeland via Sudan to the “promised land” of Israel.

As Muslim Sudan was an enemy state, Mossad had to get creative in devising methods of extracting the refugees. Author Gad Shimron, an agent who was assigned to the resort plan, describes in vivid detail the great lengths to which the Mossad team went to set up Arous in 1981.

Taking over a defunct complex built by Italian entrepreneurs, the Mossad team renovated it with top-of-the-line equipment, hired local staff and welcomed scores of unsuspecting tourists to the ultimate diving adventure. Meanwhile, they secretly worked to transport Ethiopian refugees to the beaches or airfields to be picked up by Israeli navy and air force craft.

An actual flyer printed to promote the fake Arous resort.

Most Mossad operations lose money, but we found ourselves making a small profit. We had to come up with all sorts of excuses to get away for our real work — parties in Khartoum, stocking up on provisions, that sort of thing

Gad Shimron

Among the excuses Shimron describes was heading to a distant Red Cross Hospital to supposedly spend the night with “beautiful Swedish female volunteers”. Arous itself was no stranger to the bizarre, even hosting Egyptian army officers and British special forces troops on leave. Along the way, the team bumps into various seedy Sudanese officials and a hodgepodge of colourful expat characters.

The remains of the Arous Holiday Village today.

Mossad Exodus expertly blends the amusing anecdotes of resort management with the dangerous rescue operations that necessitated all the subterfuge. One will sense the deep anxiety and fear of the refugees and the Mossad team in the pages. An account of one incident where Sudanese troops stumbled onto a pickup operation at the beach is narrated in gripping detail.

Shimron adds useful context that helps readers understand the history of Ethiopian Jews and the political circumstances surrounding their journey to Israel. We also see the ugly side of the story, when new Ethiopian arrivals faced (and continue to face) racism and discrimination in the very country they had seen as their ultimate salvation.

Yogi’s Verdict: ★★★★★

Yogi’s Verdict: It Never Rains on National Day

The National Day Parade is an occasion where the state holds a large birthday bash, smothers citizens in feel-good patriotism and binds them tightly to its definition of national identity.

In Jeremy Tiang’s It Never Rains on National Day, the characters in its 11 short stories all grapple with a sense of drift and a distinct lack of meaning in their lives. Singapore’s well-worn narratives of success and material wealth wash over them uselessly. In fact, the author dispenses with the standard Singaporean tropes about the “heartland”, with many stories not even situated in the island itself.

Instead, they evoke some of the unease that lurks beneath the veneer of sanitised success that Singapore has become infamous for. This is most stark in the story Harmonious Residences, where a Chinese migrant worker dies in an accident on the worksite of a new executive condominium. The well-worn bureaucracy initially hums with clinical efficiency and pragmatism in handling the aftermath, but flails against the raw emotions of the worker’s widow.

In National Day, we share an evening with migrant workers on an excursion to St John’s Island. There, they banter about which building projects they worked on and marvel at the extravagant expense of the National Day Parade. When a local comes up to warn them to put out their campfire, the dialogue highlights an unacknowledged reality that has only recently surfaced with the coronavirus outbreaks in the dormitories.

We let you into our country and you just take advantage, shouting and making noise and leaving your rubbish anywhere. When will you learn that we have laws here? If you don’t like to obey our rules you can just go back, go away.

Unnamed Local

You think you’re so clean, we’re the ones who clean up after you.

Migrant Worker

The author excels in penning captivating dialogue, as Trondheim demonstrates. An MOE scholar on the run from work bumps into another scholar on a Norwegian train. In the course of the journey, the former shares her intense dissatisfaction with life while the latter admonishes her for her lack of gratitude at having a seemingly bright future to look forward to.

Singapore is so easy to live in, low taxes and low crime and nice food. Isn’t that enough? Where else do you want to be?

Protagonist

Anywhere. Anywhere except where I am.

Fleeing scholar

During a time when questions are being asked about what it means to be Singaporean, as well as about the many myths that underpin our state and national identity, It Never Rains on National Day is a book that invites you to ponder whether the status quo (represented and celebrated by the NDP) is truly inclusive of human and ideological diversity.

Yogi’s Verdict: ★★★★

Yogi’s Verdict: Truck de India! A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Hindustan

An instantly iconic symbol of India is the teeming chaos that permeates every facet of life in this nation of over a billion souls. But few outsiders pause to think about how this vast subcontinent is kept supplied amid this chaos.

Enter Rajat Ubhaykar, a journalist who set out to chronicle what he considers to be the backbone that supports India: its truckers. Over the cause of under 300 pages, he escorts the reader through multiple unplanned hitchhikes around the country from the commercial heart of Mumbai to the insurgent infested hills of Manipur and the shores of Kanyakumari.

“But it is only when I fill in ‘truck’ as my mode of transportation in the hotel ledger at Udaipur does the utter ludicrousness of my endeavour truly hit home”

Truck de India!

Along the way, he meets a myriad of characters who are mostly amused at this outsider’s curiosity about the trucking industry. For instance, we meet Jora Singh, an addict of bhukki (dried poppy pods) who in turn introduces the author to legendary truck builder Mewa Singh in the dusty city of Sirhind. There we get an insight to the intricacies of assembling the metal beasts and painting them in arresting colours and designs.

Truckers have longed been maligned as ill-mannered thugs and drunks who spread HIV across India, but Rajat also digs out their stories of constant struggles with harsh bosses and corrupt bureaucracies looking to squeeze their cut with bribes, taxes and fines.

“I can’t help but feel that the substantive role of the Indian state in its micro-economy seems to revolve around creating problems for some, so others can be employed in solving them.”

Truck de India!

There is hope too though. Younger, digitally savvy truckers are more aware of their rights and aspire to achieve bigger dreams than slaving away behind the wheel. The industry itself is evolving, with safer, comfortable trucks and better labour conditions. But as the old and new worlds collide, this book will leave the reader wondering if they really do know India and all its hidden complexities.

Yogi’s Verdict: ★★★★★

Yogi’s Verdict: Circus of Books

A conservative heterosexual Jewish couple wouldn’t be out of place in a synagogue. But it certainly raises more than a few eyebrows when they are the owners of Los Angeles’ largest gay porn bookshop.

Karen and Barry Mason were that couple, when they took over the Circus of Books shop in West Hollywood, a historic area with a large concentration of LGBT related businesses and activities. The Masons’ humble store rose to become one of the largest distributors of gay porn in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s.

Rachel Mason chronicles her parents’ stewardship of Circus of Books in this Netflix documentary, highlighting the matter-of-fact manner in which Karen and Barry dealt with merchandise and customers. These are complemented with interviews with long-time business partners and employees (many of them gay themselves) who talk about the safe space that the shop was for vulnerable LGBT persons during a time when conservative attitudes dominated mainstream society.

“It allowed us to realise that you can live as an adult without following the path that everyone’s telling you need to follow.”

Fernando Aguilar, Former Employee

“No one has ever given us anything we haven’t had to fight for”

Alexei Romanoff, veteran LGBT activist

The Masons also open up about how they were forced to discard the dividing wall they had carefully built to shield their family from the business when their son Josh came out as gay to them in college. Karen, who had personally held conservative religious attitudes while selling hardcore gay porn, also recounts her reckoning with this dissonance and eventual involvement with LGBT advocacy.

Circus of Books finally closed in 2019 after years of declining sales from the advent of online porn and dating apps. But for decades, it served as a symbol of and repository for a marginalised community, as well as a business that put food on the table of an “all-American” family.

Yogi’s Verdict: ★★★★

Yogi’s Verdict: State of Emergency

The twin anniversaries of SG50 and the Singapore Bicentennial have stoked intense interest in Singapore’s history. Well-worn narratives have been questioned, dissidents have published books telling their side of the story, overseas archives have declassified material on Singapore’s past, and ministers have clashed with academics for allegedly dabbling in “revisionist” history.

The history of left wing activism and its suppression casts a long and often unspoken shadow over Singapore’s state approved rags to riches story. Jeremy Tiang’s debut novel, State of Emergency, is a bold attempt to explore this unwieldy chunk of the past through the streamlined perspectives of six family members.

Beginning in the heady days of left wing agitation in the 1950s, the characters grapple with the chaos of the Hock Lee bus riots of 1955, the mass arrests of leftists in 1963, Operation Coldstore, the terror of 1965’s Macdonald House bombing, hushed memories of the New Villages built by the British to stifle communist influence, and the chilling arbitrariness of the alleged Marxist Conspiracy in 1987.

Some of the characters draw inspiration from real life personalities. For example, renegade politician Lay Kuan’s story mirrors that of Barisan Sosialis MP Loh Miaw Gong, who won a seat in the 1963 elections but was detained under the Internal Security Act before she could take her oath. Church volunteer Stella is clearly a composite character of those accused in 1987 of using the Catholic Church as cover to engage in leftist activism.

In explaining his inspiration for the novel, Jeremy told the Straits Times, “We know historically that one point of view prevailed and Singapore became a certain way, and nobody can say it was for better or worse. But I wanted to show that at one point, it really was up for grabs.”

Indeed, the book shined such an uncomfortable light on unspoken history that the National Arts Council withdrew its grant after seeing his initial draft (cementing its reputation as a legit piece of “subversive” work). The novel also won the Singapore Literature Prize in 2018.

State of Emergency is a superbly researched work that marries fiction so effortlessly with fact that the reader often has to pause to contemplate each chapter’s nuances before continuing. It will delight any fan of local fiction and history.

Yogi’s Verdict: ★★★★★

Yogi’s Verdict: Oral Histories of Older Gay Men in Hong Kong

This is a landmark publication that provides an original contribution to queer research in two ways. Unlike most literature that looks at the experiences and issues facing youths, this book gathers that of older gay men who spent most of their lives in the closet. Secondly, it adds a non-Western perspective to a field dominated by the Stonewall narrative and other liberation movements in the West.

The author, Travis Kong, presents the stories of thirteen men who have been living in Hong Kong for at least 30 years of their lives. Before we read their stories, we are first introduced to the concept of the tongzhi (a queer appropriation of a term originally meaning “comrade”). It has been widely adopted by LGBT communities in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China from the late 1980s onwards.

Through the use of oral history interview techniques, we get to hear the unfiltered voices of these men, many who had heterosexual marriages while having relationships or flings with other men. In some cases, they had raised children and were seniors themselves before deciding to act upon their same sex desires. Vivid recollections of Hong Kong’s heady days of industrialisation in the 1960s, cruising spots, courting methods and sex combine to provide readers with a treasure trove of primary sources. Two heartwarming love letters are also included, showing what considerations and feelings were prioritised when seeking relationships.

These memories also highlight two key research areas that oral history methods excel at uncovering: (1) a narrative of the men’s pasts growing up, exploring their sexuality, forming relationships with other men, managing family expectations, careers and heterosexual marriages; (2) how they negotiate ageing and sexuality, isolation and ageism from both the straight and tongzhi spheres, and relations with family members and partners.

This book is a good starting point to greatly expand research into ageing and sexuality, with more openly LGBT people easing into their senior years. At the same time, it is a homage to the pioneers who grappled with these issues during a time when silence was best. As its subtitle states, these stories were “unspoken but unforgotten”.

Yogi’s Verdict: ★★★★✩

Yogi’s Verdict: A Curious History of Sex

This book by Kate Lister is stuffed with anecdotes, scandalous excerpts from centuries-old texts, vintage erotica and a comprehensive list of slangs for describing genitalia in both rude and delicate ways.

The author states upfront that her book isn’t meant to be a comprehensive study of sexual practices and quirks, but rather “a curious history of sex and some of the things we have done to ourselves and to each other in the pursuit (and denial) of the almighty orgasm”.

Living up to its promise, the chapters successively dish out historical dirt on the words “whore” and “cunt”, genitals, the concept of virginity, anaphrodisiacs (the opposite of aphrodisiac), attitudes toward public hair, vintage sex dolls and even the Victorian moral panic over women riding bicycles and possibly orgasming from it.

A common theme running throughout the book is evidence that the desire to control female sexuality extends far back into time. Particularly distressing are the chapters on virginity tests, which have zero scientific basis and yet plague women to this day, and the clitoris, which has been mutilated through the ages out of fear that women might enjoy sexual pleasure without a man.

The author balances such painful accounts with a healthy serving of smutty humour. My personal favourite is her conclusion to the chapter on impotence, where she pays homage to Viagra: “If you ever pop a blue pill, please remember to give a full salute to all the ‘useless members’ who entered the history books because they were accused of not being able to enter anything else.”

As the creator of the popular Whores of Yore twitter account , Lister dedicates space for the history of sex work, dispelling the common myth that it’s the world’s oldest profession (originating from Rudyard Kipling). She sensitively highlights the racial fetishisation of native women by colonial officials, as well as the conditions faced by male and female sex workers throughout history.

The book draws largely from Western sources, although Lister makes efforts to include some Indian, Chinese and Islamic ones. Rather than an academic textbook on sexuality, she has produced an easy-to-read introduction to all things historically smutty, sexist and sexual.

Yogi’s Verdict: ★★★★★