Soniah Kamal

Writer. Editor. Speaker.

April 18, 2014
by Soniah Kamal
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Can’t Wait to Read These!

Opening mail is always a thrill, especially when the package looks as if it contains a book. Even better: it opens to a friend’s novel. Thank you so much to Shikha Malaviya for her poetry collection Geography of Tongues, R. K. Biswas for her novel Culling Mynahs and Crows , and to Yawar Khan for sending me Michelle Corasanti’s novel The Almond Tree. I can’t wait to read these!!

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“Shikha Malaviya’s country is composed of rough silk the color of dusk and the resonant aroma of camphor mixed with gun-smoke. Her clever and inventive poems inhabit the contested space where Western culture collides with Hindu mythology, in a resplendent crash of forms that range from prose poems to lyrical litanies, all of them deeply felt and elegantly crafted. Spending time in the company of her distinctive voice, we come to realize with great certainty and even greater delight, that Malaviya’s country is none other than our very own.” – RAVI SHANKAR, Executive Director, Drunken Boat

“Culling Mynahs and Crows: Unhappy because her career isn’t taking off, Agnirekha turns vicious, without getting to the root of her problems. The exquisitely beautiful Agnishikha, a girl from Bisrampur comes to Calcutta as the bride of a low ranking government servant. Brought up to be a good and dutiful wife, Agnishikha wants to lead a happy domestic life, but all that changes when she is brutalized by political goons and becomes a pawn in Agnirekha’s reportage. Agnishikha struggles to keep her sanity as her life crumbles away. Ten years later, Agnirekha, as a Ph. D student in Boston, finds a right partner, who helps Agnirekha come to terms with her reality and sexuality. But Agnirekha can never forget the ones she destroyed.”

“The Almond Tree: Gifted with a mind that continues to impress the elders in his village, Ichmad Hamid struggles with knowing that he can do nothing to save his friends and family. Living on occupied land, his entire village operates in fear of losing their homes, jobs, and belongings. But more importantly, they fear losing each other. On Ichmad’s twelfth birthday, that fear becomes reality.”

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April 11, 2014
by Soniah Kamal
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Karma Gone Bad by Jenny Feldon

Karma Gone Bad

Or How I Learned To Love Mangos, Bollywood and Water Buffaloes
Cover Karma Gone BadFor an immigrant such as myself, who moved from a big city in a developing nation to battle the loneliness of living in the United States, I was eager to read Jenny Feldon’s reverse experience. In the mid-2000s, Feldon and her husband Jay, both twenty-seven years old, have been married less than a year and reside in Manhattan, where Feldon’s life is quite fulfilled with Starbucks, her dog, yoga, her blog, and her novel-in-progress. Then Jay’s company transfers him to Hyderabad, India for two years. Feldon has misgivings from the get-go. Despite the chance to, as she says, “ride elephants and visit the Taj Mahal,” she admits zero interest in traveling outside America. She also refuses to be practical. Although an expat guidebook advises taking only essentials on the plane, Feldon insists on packing designer shoes and cocktail dresses.

When the couple arrives in Hyderabad, a man tries to steal Feldon’s white YSL handbag; the drive to their apartment is an equally unnerving experience. By the end of their first day in the city, Jay falls ill with the strange chikungunya fever. He recovers soon enough and begins to settle down, but Feldon falls apart.

One could easily commiserate with Feldon’s misery and confusion. When I moved to the United States, I also felt unmoored—I had thought all of the US was some version of New York City and San Francisco combined. In much the same way, Feldon expected a glamorous expat lifestyle only to realize that India is not a brown version of Sex and the City (though I wonder if she would have adjusted any easier had she been able to let go of her preconceptions).

Many of Feldon’s complaints will strike the reader as all too valid—constant food poisoning, or being constantly pawed and photographed in public because she’s white and blue-eyed. India is dirty, dusty, and hot, with mosquitoes, stray dogs, and buffalo wandering city streets. Feldon, a coffee addict, can’t find a decent cup of coffee anywhere, not even at Café Coffee Day (a Starbucks-type place), and the plastic to-go lids melt. She tries to be part of the expat social scene but, just like the Indians, most of the other expats stare at her out-of-place designer dresses and shoes.

It is only after a serious threat to her marriage, and only after Jay reminds her they have six months left in India, that Feldon perks up enough to be curious about the country. It’s a pity that this turnaround happens in the last fifty pages because those experiences are interesting: she hires servants; she takes an interest in her driver Venkat’s sweet love story; she meets a savvy local, Anjali, and Feldon’s world opens up; she starts practicing yoga again; she gets some “retail therapy” at an old spice bazaar; she braves a local grocery in order to make Jay chicken soup; she visits a local orphanage.

That said, Feldon’s exotification of third-world poverty is disturbing. She sees beauty in the world after meeting a slum family, interacting with an orphan girl, and seeing a little barefoot errand boy. Does Feldon experience the same beauty when witnessing poverty in the US? In many instances, I was unsure of what to make of her tone. In the following passage, she goes to the cinema to watch a Bollywood film, but is she being funny or flippant?

The final credits of Dhoom 2 rolled, and I stood up, wiping a tear away with the back of my hand. I’d loved it. Well, loved it . . . but didn’t really get it. Why was everyone so happy and dance-y when life in India could be so unspeakably hard? . . . Here was something Indian I could get on board with: glitz and glamour and fairy-tale romance.

Can Feldon truly not see that Dhoom 2 is as much an escapist fantasy for her as it is for any Indian? That an American and an Indian share a common humanity? Ironically, Feldon decides she wants to be a Bollywood superstar, and to that end, starts taking Hindi lessons.

Feldon sees everything through the dichotomous prism of “her own self” or that of the “other” in an irreconcilable way. This is a shame, given that she otherwise offers social commentary, such as her focus on the Indian obsession with skin color and the glass ceilings imposed by caste, which prevent Venkat from living the American dream of rising above one’s circumstances. Venkat, who is Hindu, dislikes Christians and Muslims and yet has close Muslim friends. Feldon takes note of his hypocrisy, but she does not question it. When Hyderabad is under terrorist attack, Feldon allows Venkat to have the last word: “Muslim peoples no good people . . . No more Muslim meaning no more problem,” without any discussion or debate regarding his point of view. Is Feldon’s silence because of her lack of understanding of the social dynamics, or does she simply not think Venkat’s views may have consequences?

Feldon demonstrates deeper introspection when she writes of America; her words are subtle and nuanced. She is most engaging when she writes about her parents, in particular her relationship with her father, a man who comes across as a solid, decent human being and a very wise parent.

It would have made for a stronger memoir if Feldon explored what India meant to her, for better or worse. The subtitle, How I Learned to Love Mangos, Bollywood, and Water Buffalo, is misleading. “Love” ought to have been replaced by “tolerate” or “accept.” Many threads are left unfinished; for example, I would like to know why Monsoon Wedding is her favorite film and how she finally figured out how to do the laundry. As it is, Karma Gone Bad is a quick read written in the same clean, simple style as Feldon’s blog, and so will certainly appeal to her existing fans. It portrays an India that is confusing but not really demystified.

originally published in Jaggery Issue # 1

February 14, 2014
by Soniah Kamal
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What do American Muslims Talk About When they Talk About Love? Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi have some answers.

Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi are co-editors of the two anthologies Love, Inshallah and Salaam, Love in which American-Muslims have written memoir pieces on love, marriage, sexuality and the million ways that life comes in-between and around. I highly recommend both anthologies and will always feel sad that  the piece I’d submitted for Love, Inshallah could not be included because I’d not grown up in America (and therefore not American enough– yes, I know, I’m always the ‘other’ no matter what or where. LOL).

I had the opportunity recently to interview Ayesha Mattu for ArtsATL. Enjoy!

ArtsATLThe introduction to Love, InshAllah states the intent is to promote a deeper understanding of what it means to be a Muslim for non-Muslims but also for fellow Muslims. How do these two groups differ in their understanding of Muslim women?

Mattu: Non-Muslims think Muslim women are oppressed, and Muslims have high standards for the conduct and appearance of Muslim women. Neither of which leaves much space for women to experience or admit to a full range of human experiences. The Muslim women in Love, InshAllah challenge those expectations by leading far more complex, interesting and complicated lives than either of those groups allow.

Of course, the Muslim men in Salaam, Love also challenge stereotypes about them as oppressive or frightening by sharing nuanced love stories which challenge those assumptions.

ArtsATL: “Muslims don’t date,” says Ahmed Ali Akbar in his memoir A Pair of Photos,” and so sums up the great dilemma in Muslim culture: how to find a spouse if you have no way of getting to know them beforehand. And yet these anthologies prove, of course, that Muslims do date even though the concept of dating seems to vary from Muslim to Muslim. Has working on these anthologies changed your own thinking about the dating and love lives of American Muslims and love in general?

Salaam, Love Book CoverMattu: Yes, absolutely, especially because I have a son, nieces and nephews, all of whom I’ll be having conversations with about love and dating soon enough. Too many Muslims are told, “Dating is haram [impermissible],” with that being the beginning and the end of the conversation. Every parent and imam [religious leader] in the nation should read these books. They show the wide range of dating that is taking place in Muslim communities, from family-facilitated courtships to couples living together before marriage.

The most harmful ideas we can instill in our children are that lust, love, attraction are unnatural or forbidden to feel. As a parent you can provide a values system for a child, while also acknowledging the normal desires that make us human. For example, in Salaam, Love, writer after writer talks about the way pornography (instead of parents) shaped their ideas of women, relationships, sex and love. If we create a vacuum of silence and shame around these issues, something else is going to rush in to fill the void.

read full here

January 5, 2014
by Soniah Kamal
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I Really Don’t Know How She Does It: Author Nicki Salcedo on time management

 

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my co-VP of Programs Anjali Enjeti, Kim Brown founder of the wonderful literary journal Minerva Rising, the forever inspiration Nicki Salcedio, and me

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my absolutely favorite Nickism and go to pep phrase!!

Author Nicki Salcedo has four kids. Yes. Four. All under the age of nine. Her debut novel All Beautiful Things just got published. She’s active in the local writers community and was past president of Georgia Romance Writers. She exercises everyday getting up ridiculously early to do so. Everyday. She takes care of her parents. The list of what Nicki does is never ending. If anytime the phrase ‘i don’t know how she does it…’ applies, it applies here because I really don’t know how she does it all. So Atlanta Writers Club invited Nicki as our December 2013 speaker to share her secrets to time management. Turns out, she does sleep and that the exercising (for now, boot camp) is part of taking care of herself because, like Nickie says, if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anything else, including your writing. This really hit home because, I do think, if you let yourself go, then there goes your energy, motivation, and self discipline to write.  But back to square one which is, for me, four children– Feel free to give me the finger over the following but after having lived in the U.S. for so long, I am always uber impressed by mother-authors/author-mothers (and yes I do think the order of identity makes a difference…) for how they manage to write while taking care of children, often with no help at all, or very little help (hailing from Pakistan where 24- hr domestic help is so readily available, I truly KNOW what it is to bring up kids and be artistically creative in countries like those versus the U.S.). To find the physical energy kids require with the mental energy writing requires is a constant juggling act where balance needs to be constantly reexamined and found.  Nicki’s talk then was very timely given that December and January is the season of evaluation and resolution.  Thanks for accepting our invite to speak to AWC  Nicki and congratulations on

All Beautiful Things.    

 

December 23, 2013
by Soniah Kamal
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Happy New Year 2014

Success doesn’t mean that there won’t be failures and failure doesn’t mean that there won’t be successes. At the end, all you’ll really remember is how people treated you before, after, and in between them.  Have a great new year.  Make outlandish resolutions; then break them for the fun of it. And thank you from my whole heart for stopping by my website.

November 19, 2013
by Soniah Kamal
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The Letters Festival at the Goat Farm Arts Center

If you haven’t been to The Goat Farm Arts Center in Atlanta  you’re missing a unique creation of steel and wood and nature and technology that hosts wonderful art of all kinds from exhibitions to plays to literary festivals. This past week Scott Daughtridge’s monthly reading series Lost in the Letters hosted the first ever The Letters Festival and was organized by Scott, Stephanie Dowda and Alex Gallo Brown. I was truly blown away by their line up of readers/speakers who you can check out on the TLF site.

I was invited to be one of the ‘secret’ readers which meant those who attended the reading had no idea who the hell was reading, a really novel and interesting concept.gamble.surprise. ( I mean I can officially say I was a surprise:). And I was humbled that audience bought tickets to be there! The secret reading took place in a open warehouse sort of setting with red lighting and there was even (unintentional) live music provided, every few minutes, by the train going by–  kept reminding me, from some reason I’m still trying to fathom, of Anna Karenina in a white tulle dress running in front of a train (morbid mind, mine).  I read a brand new short short, a prose poem and, for the first time, from my novel! Fellow secret readers Bruce Covey and Johannes Göransson read some stellar poetry, and Chad Prevost read a funny essay about being a tenure track professor.

If you missed The Letters Festival this year– here’s to hoping there will be many more!!

Lady (or something) in Red-- sorry, could not resist:)

Lady (or something) in Red– sorry, could not resist:)

ok- I was standing on a chair. with fellow secret readers Johannes Göransson, Bruce Covey and Chad Prevost

ok- I was standing on a chair. with fellow secret readers Johannes Göransson, Bruce Covey and Chad Prevost

with the organizers Scott Daughtridge, Stephanie Dowda and Alex Gallo Brown

with the organizers Scott Daughtridge, Stephanie Dowda and Alex Gallo Brown

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November 18, 2013
by Soniah Kamal
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What To Do When Class Gets Cancelled?

On Monday last my  class at my MFA program at Georgia State University was cancelled which meant I could leave around 3:30 p.m. and be home in time to bask in the luxury of being home. It just so happened that this same evening author Anne Lamott was scheduled to speak at the First Baptist Church in Atlanta as part of a fabulous reading series sponsored by Georgia Center for the Book. Lamott’s talk on her book Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers with Stitches: A Handbook On Meaning, Hope And Repair was at 7:00 p.m. As I made my way towards the parking lot I circled around the dilemma of Home or Lamott?  It was a no brainer. How do you not go to hear the author of Bird by Bird (the writers bible and quran on life and writing) when your class is cancelled  and you are only twenty minutes away. And so I found myself waiting on the Church steps with a bunch of fans all come early in order to grab choice seats; a wise decision because that great big beautiful hall filled up ridiculously fast. A little before the talk, Lamott came out into the hall and it was as if Justin Bieber, or Justin Timberlake, or Beyonce, or all of them at once, had appeared. It was ridiculously heart warming to see readers  swarm Lamott– author as celebrity is a rare sight — in order to get books signed and photos taken. I also made my way over.  Finally the talk began and Lamott spoke of Sandy Hook Elementary, and doubts, and healing, and forgiveness, and how bad things could happen to good people, and trying to make sense of them, and what to do when they really make no sense.  Highlights of the evening for me were Lamott remarking how kids believe all colors go together and when is it that they learn otherwise. The glee brought about by one of the questions ‘I love my husband but he’s a conservative. Help,‘  to which Lamott gave a passionate answer. Lamott hugging one attendee who was having a really bad day. Charis Books, selling  Lamott’s books in the lobby at the event, in their usual cheery efficient way.  Bumping into thriller writer Amanda Kyle Williams  (I’m a big fan of her character, Keye Street who has grown up in the South but doesn’t look Southern, whatever that means for the ethnic Chinese that she is:) And, finally, the entire congregation singing happy birthday to Joe Davitch, executive director of Georgia Center for the Book. 

 

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Amanda Kyle Williams

Amanda Kyle Williams

November 17, 2013
by Soniah Kamal
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Bollywood and Ageism: In which Amitabh Bachchan is Younger Than Juhi Chawla

Who has not sat through a movie where a perfectly lovely heroine has been maligned with comments such as ‘‘, she looks aged, she looks tired, she looks like his mother’boori ho gayee hai, thakhi wee lag rahee hai, uus kee Ma lag rahee hai.’ I had the pleasure during a recent trip to Pakistan of watching with a group the Indian film ‘Bhoothnath’ starring Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan and Juhi Chawla. Part way into the movie, the men, all around forty years of age, began confirming with each other that indeed Juhi was looking older, much older, indeed she had become decrepit. She’s looking like Shahrukh’s mother, they remarked to each other, Shahrukh kee Maa lag rahi hai. The women at the gathering are all thirty plus or younger and they all glance at each other almost guiltily, all perhaps wondering what I was wondering.

Really? said I out loud. Shahrukh kee Ma lag rahi hai, is it? You men are welcome to your opinion but pray, do tell, from where exactly does Juhi look old or like his mother? Because I think she looks gorgeous. Better than any of you any day. And how come she looks oldenough for you to merit comment but Amitabh Bachchan who is actually old enough to be her Daddy and looks it never-the-less merits not a single comment from the collective-you. I suppose Sean Connery, and Clint Eastwood, and Robert Redford, and Mel Gibson playing strapping, nubile heroes is also perfectly kosher even if they should be babysitting their leading lady rather than romancing her. I am told in, all good humor of course, that I’m insane, and while in Pakistan to shut up and please get with the program and once I return to America (where, by the way, these gender double standards exist in Hollywood too) to shout out my grievances from the rooftops. And yet, as more popcorn and Sprite and Black Label is brought out, the men do look sheepish and the women decidedly smug even if, come tomorrow, they’ll be hushing me if I tell the truth about my own age.

In Pakistan– a group oriented society where being an individual, or at least radically different, is routinely discouraged– the one instance of ‘passing’, i.e. pretending to be something you are not, that seems to be fairly rampant and socially acceptable if not even encouraged is women– and even many men is liberally lying about one’s age. It is nothing for women, especially if they are single (unmarried has such ugly connotations, no?) to routinely present themselves as at least five years younger than they really are. In fact so insidious is this practice that most people automatically tack on an extra-three to five years to a girl’s age.
Which is highly irritating for the likes of me who actually does tell the truth and does not see the merits of passing for younger and frankly couldn’t careless. And yet…and yet…in Pakistan and amongst Pakistanis I routinely find myself avoiding answering questions about my age for the sake of family and friends because apparently not only will I ruin their their lives if the truth comes out, at the very least I will humiliate them and make them the recipient of smug looks from those whose ages will not be outed because they don’t have foolish friends or relatives like me. Passing for younger seems a game the entire country plays even when they know how old someone really is. I mean I have grown up with you. I know exactly how old you and you are not ten years younger than me! Come on! Girl! Guy! I know you are close to forty and not the thirty you purport to be and please no need to take out your passport or other ID with Date-of-Birth to verify the truth of your lies.
But this is the way in a country where marriage prospects are eons better, especially, for a girl, if she is on the younger side. It is actually I am told, dangerous to break the chain of deceit, lest girl remain unmarried. Therefore in order to uphold your collective malaise I’m to sacrifice my individual right to tell the truth? This will not do. I would like to tell the truth and I do. Only to be glared at by family and friends: what purpose can telling my real age possibly serve? Well, the only purpose that faking one’s age serves is perpetuating the myth that youth is fairer and lovelier, and perpetuating a poisonous culture wherein ‘there is a prime for woman’ after which she, apparently, dulls and fades and may as well hide her face and die.

November 17, 2013
by Soniah Kamal
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Passing for Something that You Are Not: Fifth Grade Style

My fifth grader’s favorite novel was Drama by  a graphic novel about unrequited love set in the world of drama in which there is much, yup, drama (all puns intended). Drama has been her absolute # 1 read for the past half year. Until this week. This weekend she read The Lions of Little Rock by  Kristin Levine. It’s set in middle school and is about friendship, segregation and passing. The concept of ‘passing’, where you pass for someone you are not in this case white for black, has led to some very interesting and hard conversations these last few days. How do you explain to a ten year old who lives in a different time than the 1952 shown in the book that, even today, we all try to ‘pass’ in our own little ways? That passing can refer to anything: richer, more learned, taller, dumber, just in order to fit in and be one of the gang. She get’s that– trying to be one of the gang. The Lions of Little Rock did make her sad, but she recommends it- sometimes sadness over what the world can make people do is part and parcel of growing up.

read my previous post on Bollywood, passing, ageism and being true to yourself here

 

October 4, 2013
by Soniah Kamal
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Why Are Your Young Children Watching Miley Cyrus’ video Wrecking Ball?

photo (10)Yesterday I blogged about Miley Cyrus and Sinead O’Connor in which I mention that my 10 year old daughter and 12 year old son watched Miley Cyrus’ video Wrecking Ball. A number of people asked me whether this was responsible parenting? Weren’t they too young? What exactly was I trying to prove?

My response.

Should your children be watching Wrecking Ball!!!

No. But they’d already watched it.  And the fact is, I cannot control their every waking hour, and more over I do not want to. Rather I hope I have instilled in them the values of thinking critically and judging not just what is right or wrong, but also the several shades of gray. I trust my children to know better. But I am also under no illusions that most children (as well as adolescents, teens, even kids late into their twenties) at some point in their life might do something stupid. For a toddler this could be grabbing scissors and trying to cut their hair. For an adolescent this could be having a smoke or smoking up, shop lifting,  threatening a child, yelling ‘bomb’ in a crowded cinema, and for teens and those kids well into their twenties, along with these stupidities add hard core drugs, alcohol, grand larceny, pregnancies and other acts which can cost them the rest of their lives. ( list of stupidities is by no mean exhaustive). My point is, kids will do stupid things which is where I’m a big proponent of the American ethos of 2nd chances ( and I do not want to get into the debate, right now, of the rights of ‘others’, foreign policy, or class in America). 

 Maybe I’m just a starry eyed immigrant-citizen —but I’ve seen 2nd, and 3rd, chances given before my eyes by everyday Americans to individuals, who, in other countries, would be wrecked and ruined, or, at the very least, their reputation forever suspect, as well as the reputation of their future generations to come.

Back to my kids. They can watch Wrecking Ball because I trust them to think intelligently about what they are watching and what they are doing.  I hope they will not stray. Ever. But if they do, at least they will not have the defense of ‘I didn’t know any better’. Yes, you did. I taught you. 

Look, the fact is whether it’s Miley or not, someone somewhere will always be taking their clothes off (and some boy/guy will always be doing something too…). I can’t always be with my children, and as they get older, peer influence becomes greater too– all I can do is hope and pray that they will always feel comfortable enough to come to me NO MATTER WHAT, and part of that is to not bat an eyelash no matter what they telling me or asking me– which, as a Pakistani/desi parent, I find easier to say than do, but I do it because I feel its the only chance I feel I have to try to impart my values into their reality of the world: which is Miley is alive and well and kicking and naked. And I have to teach them this is silly and that no one should do this and that no one should think it’s cool. Hopefully somewhere down the line, these values will stick…

And so in my bid to turn every waking second into an educational opportunity (my kids think I’m crazy) I gave them an assignment. Without telling them anything about Sinead O’ Connor I had them watch the video of Nothing Compares. I asked them if it reminded them of anything. My daughter immediately said “Miley and Wrecking Ball”. I told them that, indeed, Miley says she was inspired by the video as well as O’ Connor’s shorn head look. Then I had them read O’ Connors 1st letter to Miley.  I instructed them had to high light points they thought important as well as things they did not understand. Did my daughter gain some new colorful vocabulary? Yup. But not an issue for me: knowledge begins at home and so better she learns what is and what is not from me than at school or elsewhere.  We had a nice discussion, my kid and I, after which, my daughter returned to her favorite program Full House, and my son to his Pokemon. So should my children be watching Wrecking Ball? They’d already watched it, they showed it to me, and because of that I was able to give them a lesson on pimps and prostitutes and values they are unlikely to ever forget.

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read my take on Miley and Madonna here

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