From the first line in the acknowledgements section – “This book is built on a lifetime of resentment” – Shy Radicals by Hamja Ahsan illustrates a special kind of humour, that may have an element of truth, but also puts something serious in a light-hearted way. The book as a whole, has many of these gems, showing the distinct style of Ahsan’s writing that can deliver brutal honesty in a way that makes the reader laugh out loud.
Likewise, Shy Radicals deals with a world that is part-truth, part-fiction: Aspergistan is ‘the homeland of oppressed Shy, Introvert and Autistic Spectrum peoples’ and a comical nod to the psychologically atypical natures of most shy people. Perhaps Aspergistan’s location within the now-divided Indian subcontinent is an acknowledgement that the Western world is representative of the loudness and extrovert dominance that shy people have to fight against. This fight referred to here, is against “the Extrovert-Supremacist world camp”. This alignment with the Eastern world is also seen in the use of the Eastern Lunar models for the new calendar proposed in the chapter on culture.
Despite the humour, there are serious undertones, which are clearly laid out in the principles set out in the draft constitution. Upon reading this, I began to see this book is part of a movement that includes those such as Quiet/Quiet Power by Susan Cain, and Shrinking Violets by Joe Moran. As the title suggests, Ahsan’s book is more radical in its approach. Although it seems to allude to Cain’s work, stating “Shy Radicals harnesses the power of quiet”, Ahsan later labels Susan Cain as a ‘sell out’ for being “a collaborator of divide and rule” between Introverts and Shy People. This also links to the idea of when ‘celebrity overtakes commitment and substance,’ whilst with Shy Radicals, the focus is on the collective as opposed to the individual. Although Ahsan states “every character in this book is entirely based on myself”, there is no biographical note and this idea of the individual is assimilated into something bigger, where “shyness is a political position”.
Throughout the book, there is a use of pseudo-legal language and references to ‘Shyria’ law. This language is contrasted with the more surreal elements of the book, like discussing elections in ‘The Structure of the State’ where policy proposals are ‘to be scattered on the shores of national beaches and on park benches’. There are many beautiful treasures of language like this, including the description of the flag, the national flower and the national anthem using seashells. The humour remains, but these moments are a testament to Ahsan’s writing in this ability to create really lovely descriptions. When I read the word ‘comfort blanket’ in another chapter, I feel a longing, and warmth thinking of being at home wrapped up as I inevitably end up reading the book on journeys to places I would rather not be going to. This book as a whole is a comfort to those who can connect with its message, and relate to the “fundamental rights” outlined, such as “freedom from small talk”.
To be Shy, Introvert, or on the Autistic Spectrum is to go against the grain, albeit quietly. These behaviours being “reported as indications of potential radicalisation” alludes to the issue we have in society now whereby it could be argued that anything that is alternative and not accepted by the mainstream is seen as a threat. Despite the government’s’ contradictory emphasis on critical thinking in schools, people who think for themselves rather than go along with the status quo are feared and misunderstood. There is a discussion of this danger of quiet people, from the “lone wolf” killer, to accusations of terrorism, as well as a public statement to distance Shy Radicals from such accusations. This is another great example of where the gentle humour relates to more serious issues, with Ahsan stating simply that “terrorism is always loud”.
At these moments, I felt like a naïve hippie wishing everyone could co-exist – someone who might enjoy long periods of time in Aspergistan, but also enjoys singing in private karaoke booths, dancing to loud music, and wearing colourful clothing
When the books ventures into the territory of existing political tensions such as those in Korea, and in Israel, there is an attempt to connect these complexities to which ‘side’ is more aligned with Shy Radical principles, making statements such as “we refuse to recognise Israel’s right to exist”. At these moments, I felt like a naïve hippie wishing everyone could co-exist – someone who might enjoy long periods of time in Aspergistan, but also enjoys singing in private karaoke booths, dancing to loud music, and wearing colourful clothing. These kinds of tensions are apparent in this fictitious world during the “Crisis Voices Oral History Project” where one Introvert client reports being accused of being a “betrayer” due to their love of doner kebabs – as this food is an example of “post-nightclub intake”. Additionally, there are frequent calls to kill all extrovert-supremacists, yet this is in a similar vein to Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto that exists as “a mockery of the “serious” speech acts of patriarchy” and which “parodies the performance of patriarchal social order it refuses” (Laura Winkiel, The Queer Sixties).
However, allegiances between feminist politics and that of Shy Radicals seems to have been limited by both parties. For example, in the section about Sylvia Plath, the critique of her work being assigned the “chick lit” label struck me as seeming to say that it is therefore ‘lesser’. In turn, the “painful” experience that this causes this male character is due to this binary that makes them feel they are excluded in its feminist association. If we are to take the view of gender being socially constructed, then perhaps there is reason for this argument, but there is no reason why a man can’t identify with something that is a woman’s cause, if able to accept both masculine and feminine in himself. There needs to be an understanding of the intersections of both the systems of power regarding gender, and introversion-extroversion, just as there are intersections with race, sexuality, ability etc.
In dealing with these complex and serious subject matters, the playfulness is never lost. There is an allusion to common tropes such as “some of my best friends are Shy people”, which connects the Shy Radicals movement to other political movements fighting against systematic oppression. What I also enjoy is the analytical critique of the film Heathers, and inclusion of other pop culture references such as proto-Shy Radical and SR icon Lisa Simpson, with whom I’ve always personally identified, repeating her catchphrase: “I’ll be in my room” to my own family. What’s also interesting is the position of the “Sensitive White Man” within the book. On one hand, the controversies raised about the Sensitive White Man certainly make for talking points (or perhaps the shy people’s preferred method: writing points). On the other hand, considering the book as a whole, but also especially the “Compass of the Extrovert Class” chapter, this issue is so clearly linked to other oppressed groups, in itself a commentary on those intersections without explicitly stating it.
‘Trendy Club’ links to the idea of living for the weekend, the concept of ‘Friday’ and the role of alcohol as social lubricant, especially in student culture and university environments.
Further on the point of intersections of power, there is an important point that was first addressed in ‘#occupybedroom’ about the pathologising of personality traits that don’t conform to the dominant view. Example pathologies include Asperger’s syndrome, social anxiety disorder, depression; it is here that Ahsan addresses the fact that these are created due to the thoughts and behaviours of people diagnosed with these conditions as being regarded as abnormal. Whilst it could be further acknowledged that the introvert-extrovert personality trait is on a spectrum, rather than the view that it is necessary to ‘pick a side’, this book illustrates that a radical discourse – even if satirical – is necessary to really unpick these very real problems in society, where Shy Radicals are pathologised and pressured to change to fit the extrovert-supremacist model. There is also the important point in that people who feel this pressure to change may do themselves more harm than good. A relatable example is “Trendy Club”, described in the book as “an ideology and monoculture”. ‘Trendy Club’ links to the idea of living for the weekend, the concept of ‘Friday’ and the role of alcohol as social lubricant, especially in student culture and university environments. With this mounting pressure to conform, there is a very real impact on the true self of Shy/Introvert/Asperger’s People and their needs and desires.
Shy Radicals is a must-read, not only for those who can relate to its message, but, to anyone interested in politics and systems of power. It is easily digestible, divided into neat chapters, and also including some illustrations. There is so much to discover within its pages, whether that’s to make you laugh, make you think, or simply to enjoy it for its use of language quietly reading in a corner.
Shy Radicals (2017) is available from Bookworks.
Featured images provided by Hamja Ahsan
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