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On Ugliness: Edna Bonhomme Interviews Moshtari Hilal

 

When I spoke with Moshtari Hilal during the early autumn, we discussed the publication of her new book, Hässlichkeit (Ugliness), and what inspired her to compose the text. Not only was she looking at the lives of others, but at how she saw herself in the world. Her tools were visual and literary, historical and personal. During the interview, we spoke about her theoretical inspirations and the power that beauty has in Germany, Afghanistan and beyond. As a writer, I was interested in talking to Hilal about how she worked through an unenviable thing: ugliness’s role in feminist politics and our lives.

Hilal studied Islamic Studies and Political Science in Hamburg, Berlin, and London, focusing on Gender and Decolonial Theory. She is co-founder of the collective AVAH (Afghan Visual Arts and History) and the research project CCC (Curating Through Conflict with Care) as part of ngbk in Berlin. With political geographer Sinthujan Varatharajah, Hilal published the conversation book English in Berlin – Exclusions in a Cosmopolitan Society. in 2022 at Wirklichkeit Books. The Lessing Academy Wolfenbüttel awarded Varatharajah and Hilal the supporting price for a critique of their joint work. Hilal is also one of four Villa Serpentara 2023 fellows awarded by the Young Academy of Arts in Berlin and hosted by the Villa Massimo in Rome. Hilal's essayistic debut, Hässlichkeit (Ugliness), was published by Hanser in September 2023 and was awarded the Hamburg Literature Prize 2023 for non-fiction. 

Her demeanour was assertive, her voice steady, and her manner was full of intent. Our interview has been edited for clarity and ease.

 

Edna Bonhomme: Your book begins with a chapter titled ‘Hate’. There is another section within that chapter called ‘Self-Portrait’. And you start by having images and interspersed with texts. One part in particular caught my eye: you described how you had a notebook as a child and defined what you wanted to become. You build through more repetitively but also poetically the features you wanted to inhabit as a woman. What inspired you to begin this text from a place of hate, especially given that it thinks about horror as a concept and theoretical framework? Could you take me through your process for writing,  and your curatorial decisions around the placement of images?

Moshtari Hilal: I wanted to narrate self-hate from a personal point of view and explore how it is developed and dealt with early in life. As a teenager, I was insecure and also specifically as a person of colour who wanted to grow into a woman in a white society. So, for me, this process was very gendered but equally about assimilation into a white German hegemony. I learned to observe and imitate what it meant to be expected, ideal and desirable in this culture and economy: how to behave, to look and to become a woman, and become a successful woman. I learned to desire womanhood in contrast to the women that surrounded me, as in my aunts and my mother. In the logic of self-optimisation and assimilation, social advancement meant rejecting the women that I originated from, so it meant rejecting myself in some ways. Any good imitation starts with the looks. I imposed on myself strict bodily rituals that were in constant war with my body, such as shaving every inch of black hair on my skin. I bleached and plucked obsessively and, at last, considered laser treatment but could not afford it.

One day, my older sister came home with a nose job, and it was clear that I was expected to do the same: leave behind this ugly nose and create a new face to become beautiful. I reference Frantz Fanon’s conception of self-alienation in the first chapter to frame this dysmorphic experience in ways that allow us to remove our focus from the individual and move towards the structures, histories and ideas that make up their reality. I was interested in the anecdotal narration of self-alienation and the analysis of its socio-political context. The obsessive embarrassment and hateful shame of alienation, the observant horror and jealousy of an adolescent life that is committed to the annihilation of one’s authentic self. I think the fear of ugliness is most recognisable for many in that vulnerable time in life. I contextualise my self-hate because our self-hate is never isolated from the hate that we learn to have for other people and other groups that are categorically defined as outside of our understanding of normal, desirable or beautiful. Ultimately, we are hunting down symptoms that we might witness on our own bodies: signs of ugliness that link, connect or even bring us closer to the groups we learn to hate. We want to be different from them. That’s actually what’s happening. It’s never just, you know, a personal insecurity.

Edna Bonhomme: I like your reference to Frantz Fanon’s version of alienation. His text Black Skin, White Masks is pivotal in thinking about the kind of French colonial imposition. He was part of the French Empire insofar as he was initially from Martinique, which is still far from France’s department or colony. His radicalisation happens when he gets to the metropolis of Paris, is studying, and is being treated like a second-class citizen, even though he was told he’s part of this imperial state and can progress in the intellectual realm. With this alienation question, it’s not just a matter of being of a specific identity or looking a certain way, but the relationality between being a subject in Europe. To what extent would the claims of your book, or the feelings of self-hate, do you think would persist if you had grown up elsewhere as opposed to Germany, where most of the people around you looked like you?

Moshtari Hilal: Yes, the perspective is contextual because I grew up as an Afghan refugee girl in Germany, in the nineties and later the post-9/11 2000s. So that’s a particular setting where this perspective is being shaped. Later in life, I had experiences in contexts where I passed as part of the majority: for example, whenever I went back to Afghanistan. An artwork by Zainab Haidary on the nose opened my eyes to the contextual privilege of my nose. She is from Afghanistan as well, but she is Hazara, a historically racialised and discriminated ethnic group in the country. Zainab had a smaller nose that turned her into a target in her reality at the university in Kabul. That was so interesting to me, to see in her narration the big nose, such as mine, as a supremacist oppressing her smaller nose. That sounded so surreal to me, who grew up with a big nose in Germany, with its antisemitic history and visual culture. It might have been different if I had grown up in Afghanistan, at least for a certain period. We just have to look to the neighbouring country Iran, with its famous nose job industry, to realise how powerful and widespread European beauty standards have been.

On the other hand, I went to Italy for my art residency, and it was interesting to see how people just assumed I was Italian and had features very similar to some Italian women. That interested me because of the art-historical discourse about Roman ideals. Roman and Greek sculptures shaped how modern plastic surgery imagines ideal features, favours specific proportions over others and aims for artistic symmetry. Many plastic surgeons took ideals from the arts as blueprints for real humans. But these ideals had nothing to do with most real people living there. So, the white ideal is more of an exclusive, artificial idea than reality, even for most Europeans. 

Edna Bonhomme: One thing I've been able to see for myself, and I see in a lot of the writer friends, is that we see that writing is a collaborative process, and in many ways, we’re informed by our conversations with interlocutors, with friends discussions arguments perhaps, and it is not a linear direction, but something that is constantly in motion. Who are some of the theoretical and literary inspirations shaping your book both in conversation and as a philosophical framework?

Moshtari Hilal: Regarding conversations on oppositional beauty and the deconstruction of the white gaze, I learned a lot from Black feminist thought. The disability studies, in particular, offer a philosophical but material analysis of ugliness that is fundamental for anyone who wants to engage in this discussion. Both disciplines and intellectual traditions inform all contemporary frameworks of any progressive struggle about these issues. Issues about our hopes are resisting what is normative, desiring to withstand a white gaze or reclaiming a sense of self outside of the hegemony. I would like to name one person who inspired this book and changed my thinking about ugliness. Mia Mingus gave a speech at a symposium called Moving Toward the Ugly: A Politic Beyond Desirability. In that speech, Mingus poses the question of fear: why are we so afraid of the ugly? Mingus argues that we cannot move beyond the ugly or leave it behind; we must confront it.

Every attempt to be included in the realm of the beautiful reaffirms its exclusive nature, violence and categorical rejection of those who cannot change, who will never be recognised as such by our societies. Mingus confronted me with that one big question that led to the book exploring my fear of ugliness and my complicity with the violence of beauty.

I also liked how the book The Belly of the Beast frames insecurity not just as a lack of confidence, an individual failure, but as a logical response to the environment and the conditions that make people feel insecure. From a material point of view, it makes sense to define insecurity as a survival response. You observe your surroundings and realise they are violent and hostile towards you. So you logically turn to insecurity, making yourself invisible, smaller, cautious and willing to assimilate. I like this way of approaching feelings. Feelings also inform my book.

I’m exploring my feelings of shame, hate, fear and maybe even jealousy. I think jealousy is also a very logical response in our capitalist, racist and sexist society. Why should we not be jealous, right? Jealousy is triggered by the competitive nature of our cultures and the scarcity of attention, wealth and even the right to have dignity. 

To name one more book: Gretchen Henderson’s Cultural History of Ugliness. I liked that her approach did not aim to describe ugly people but focused on the structures of ugliness, political, cultural and material conditions that enabled the making of ugliness, and how society treated those labelled ugly. She looked more at the socio-political patterns created around ugliness rather than focusing on what or who is ugly. 

Edna Bonhomme: I think that you’re correct to say that there’s a violence to being beautiful insofar that it is nearly impossible for some people to attain an aesthetic ideal – or several ideals – of what beauty might be that people don’t necessarily measure up to. They find themselves taking measures – whether it’s plastic surgery, diet pills, starving themselves, whatever it may take – that are physically violent and can take a toll on the body. But there is psychological damage as well. One has to ask why people take those risks to avoid the ugly, or get to a place close to the ideal of beauty. It relates to a chapter in the book where bell hooks wrote Feminism for Everybody. She says we shouldn’t push ourselves to be too beautiful. But, what she also brings up is that the material reality is that if you’re not beautiful, if you are ‘ugly’, it means you’re going to get paid less, not be taken seriously, not have specific access to education, and so forth. And so there’s something to be said for the reason that some people – as you describe too – are pushed by capitalism towards the rituals that can make them beautiful, even if it’s physically or psychologically damaging, because there’s a material gain and a value to be made. So given that we live in this world, what solution do you think we should have to deal with this tension, especially from a feminist critique, like the one that bell hooks have?

 

Moshtari Hilal: Many people make strategic choices to assimilate, enter visibility or pass. In my interviews with the German press, they would always ask me if I would argue it’s immoral to have plastic surgery or undergo similar radical self-transformation. That question is silly, and I would never respond to it with a moral judgment. First, it’s not my position to judge whether it’s essential for someone to make these strategic choices in their lives. I am not in their skin. Ultimately, every practice, like bodily self-optimisation, enhancement or transformation, is a personal choice and always a response to a living condition I cannot judge from the outside. For some, it means survival. I’m not interested in evaluating individual choices but in considering the system that forces people to make these decisions. I am interested in the conditions leading to these radical choices and the patterns they allow us to see. How can we change the conditions that radically transform a person to feel worthy, content or accepted? 

That’s also my approach in the book, starting with introspection and looking into shame, fear and hate, then moving beyond to the structures that produce guilt, shame, anxiety and hatred. I believe the history, for example, of nose surgery, is a great case study. I’m not talking about surgical reconstruction but plastic surgery that aims for beauty and is directly informed by ethnic ideas. I looked at the history of rhinoplasty in Germany, Europe and the West in general. There we have it all: the concept of ugliness and morals, illness, the racialisation of noses and the market of assimilation. The history in Germany also shows us that neither changing your name nor changing your face saves the persecuted collective from a fascist and dehumanising system that doesn’t hate the ugly nose but who exists behind the nose. So, the idea of ‘ugly traits’ is just the weaponisation of aesthetics to dehumanise people who are already targeted and profitable to be excluded. It’s a way of marking groups already exploited and excluded from their idea of humanity, civil rights and nationhood.

Edna Bonhomme: You are also a cultural critic in the German-speaking world and, often, you’ve had the experience of challenging who can be part of the German state and who is included in it. I wanted to know your role and your work as a cultural critic in reshaping cultural criticism in German-speaking lands and, more specifically, Germany.

Moshtari Hilal: I am engaging in a critique formed in collaboration with others. So it’s informed by the different positions we all inhabit in these societies rather than by classical and conventional kinds of elitist expertise. I want to encourage anyone to build the confidence to critique. Ideally, we would all be involved in this struggle to shape our cultures and societies. Be a cultural critic, especially outside a canon mainstream or institution. The cultural analysis of outsiders is more relevant to progress than the views of any bourgeois scholar or journalist. Those most vulnerable and precarious can point to the errors of our systems just by voicing their lived experience. This way, we can identify the limits, taboos, or blind spots of the majority society that we live in. And it’s up to the collective to respectfully respond to the critique and listen to its points rather than argue about the form. Only in collaboration with others did I personally gain the confidence to call myself a cultural critic without having a classical background and voice. And that’s what I also want to inspire: the enthusiasm to critique, to speak up when something is off, to listen to our guts, and to learn to express our emotional responses in ways that can better this world. 

Edna Bonhomme: To what extent have feminists grappled with horror in their work? And what do you think this discussion adds to the discourses around the beauty-ugliness spectrum? Because, in a way, we can have these conversations in a broad sense with people who may not have necessarily thought deeply about financial alienation or about hooks or Black feminism or disability studies, but I also wonder, have we had feminists doing the work or enough work to engage with this history and the way that you have been doing?

Moshtari Hilal: There is a lot of exciting literature and research, novels, poetry and activism around ugliness and beauty. Many more perspectives and stories can enrich our understanding of the complexities of visual injustice and its impact on everyone else. I needed specific discussions and links in these conversations. I added my perspective to an already vibrant debate. My book does not intend to revolutionise horror. Still, I create a contemporary analysis, language, and maybe even a poetic reckoning with ugliness. I narrate a body that fights the association with antisemitism and racism, and eventually whiteness within Germany, as an Afghan refugee girl. This vulnerable voice that, in the end, can be turned into strength when dealing with horror.


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