Tuesday, July 11, 2017

BOOKS! (Homegoing)

Here goes another book recommendation from a podcast, this time from the hosts of Mostly Lit. After the film adaptation of Twelve Years a Slave made its rounds four years ago, I resolved for my own sanity to not watch another slave movie. I've been hearing and learning about the trials of our ancestors constantly since I was a child, and I just couldn't stomach another movie that would tear my heart to shreds while still allowing white people to feel better about themselves and ultimately learn nothing ("Isn't it so good that the times aren't like that anymore," blahdeblah, etc). Thankfully, I haven't sworn off books about slavery at all. Homegoing is one of my favorites that I've read this year, but I needed some time to sit with me before writing about it.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Loss and fire and motherhood and sisterhood and womanhood and bonds and blackness and blood.

Two women in the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) are both victims of British colonialism and the slave trade. Born of the same mother, they are half-sisters but never meet each other or even learn each other's names. From their adolescent years both of their lives are framed by the whims of white men, in a comparable though not equivalent dynamic to house slave and field slave.

Effia, the elder sister born in a Fante family, is married off to the British governor of Cape Castle, becoming the "wench" of the man who controls the export of slaves from Ghana. She can move around without restriction and is even able to visit her home village, though she is no longer welcome there. Effia lives a life of luxury in the castle, underneath which sits the dungeon where hundreds of slaves are crammed, awaiting shipment. Unbeknownst to her, her sister is one such slave. Esi, the younger sister born in an Asante family, is captured as a slave and traded to the British after her father's tribal war exploits backfire on him. She lives in the slave dungeon underneath Cape Castle with no space, no end of tears, and no sunlight. She is scarcely fed, and is brutalized by soldiers who guard the dungeon. She's even molested by Effia's husband before being packed onto a ship bound for the American South.

The rest of the book traces each of these two women's branches of their family tree, down to their respective 4th-great grandchildren in current times. Each chapter focuses on a specific descendant during a specific period of Ghanaian colonial/post-colonial history (Effia's descendants) or Black American history (Esi's descendants). Even after having finished this novel weeks ago, the chapter that sticks with me most is that of Willie, Esi's great-great granddaughter. Willie moves with her mixed husband and their son from Alabama to Harlem during the Great Migration. Due to racism (yes, even in The Big Apple!) and insecurities about his manhood, her husband is so focused on passing for white so that he can earn a better living for them, that he passes right out of Willie's life. Out of their home and out of Harlem, letting his white employers make a sexual spectacle out of Willie before leaving her and eventually starting a new family with a white woman. I don't know why this story bothers me so, but it does. Infuriating and tragic. I knew passing was (still is!) real, but I hadn't imagined that it was THAT real, and especially in New York City of all places.

Props are due to Yaa Gyasi for acknowledging Africans' culpability in the slave trade while also not shifting the onus away from the white people to whom the trade catered. Notions of the diaspora or Pan-Africanism hardly existed at that time, and so local warriors and slave traders saw capturing and selling other Africans as a way to get rich while subjugating rival tribes (Asante vs. Fante, for example), rather than as a means to send their own off to indescribable hell as non-human property in the New World. Furthermore, chattel slavery was a practice particular to the Americas that didn't have a cut-and-dry equivalent in Africa (at the very least, slaves in African hands were still considered human beings). This is all a lengthy discussion for another day, but Gyasi thankfully doesn't shy away from it.

To be completely honest, once I read the last line and closed the book, I came this close to crying. Thiiiis close. I've written before about how like most descendants of enslaved people in this country, I'm disconnected from my exact roots and don't know who my ancestors were or where they came from past a certain point. Not to project my experience onto Yaa Gyasi's, but in reading Homegoing I felt like I was also able to pay tribute to my own ancestors. To feel for them, mourn for them, take pride in them in a way that I hadn't before. The novel left me with a sense of despair, but also immense gratitude toward the people who survived and made my existence possible.

Favorite quotes:
"'You cannot stick a knife in a goat and then say, Now I will remove my knife slowly, so let things be easy and clean, let there be no mess. There will always be blood'... They would just trade one type of shackles for another, trade physical ones that wrapped around wrists and ankles for the invisible ones that wrapped around the mind... The British had no intention of leaving Africa, even once the slave trade ended. They owned the Castle, and, though they had yet to speak it aloud, they intended to own the land as well" (93).
"There is evil in our lineage. There are people who have done wrong because they could not see the result of the wrong. They did not have these burned hands as a warning... it is like a fisherman casting a net into the water. He keeps only the one or two fish that he needs to feed himself and puts the rest in the water, thinking that their lives will go back to normal. No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free" (242). 

Monday, July 10, 2017

Blackest Weekend (Family Reunion)

Friday I thought I wanted to bowl, when really I just wanted to eat.

Saturday I thought I wanted to eat, when really I just wanted to swim. To play kickball. To hug my relatives and laugh myself sore with them. To go to a bar and drink, snack on good junk food, and laugh some more with my cousins.

Sunday our family's church had service outside under a huge white tent. Old-fashioned, country style. My cousin preached. Much food followed.

And today, with Ma and another cousin as my witnesses, I had lines etched into my skin before leaving The Ville for The Mitten.

I've been a Grace my whole life, by my dad and his father. By my mom, her father, and my great-grandfather, I'm a Conwell. But apparently, all of us on my mom's paternal side fall under a much larger branch by the name of Payne. There are so many surnames you can claim, depending on which part of the tree you choose.

I'm so full. This weekend was beyond wonderful. Thank y'all.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

BOOKS! (Diary of a Bad Year + Silence)

Sometimes you just need a book to pass the time, something you can get through relatively quickly, and these two are such books. I wasn't head-over-heels with either of them, but their authors are well-respected (a Nobel Prize winner and an Akutagawa Prize winner, respectively) and they each make interesting points about serious topics, namely religion and politics. I found the first book at a used book sale, and I ordered the second one online when its film adaptation was released earlier this year.

Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee

I was assigned to read Coetzee's Booker Prize-winning novel, Disgrace, as part of my senior seminar in college and I LOVED it. It disturbed me greatly and brought to my attention how post-colonial (post-apartheid) eras manifest still newer forms of racial and political violence. Coetzee gives us something comparatively lighter in Diary of a Bad Year, but it's still somewhat serious.

Señor C is a character loosely based on Coetzee himself (renowned yet reclusive South African novelist who has relocated to Australia to spend the latter half of his life). He's been commissioned to contribute essays to a German anthology of high-minded ideas, so to speak, and hires his upstairs neighbor named Anya to be his typist. His initial intentions are neither pure nor selfless (he basically hires her because she's hot, and will hopefully inject some beauty and companionship into his solitary life; be his aide and his muse), but he never acts on his longings. The half-Filipino daughter of a former diplomat, Anya's incredibly intelligent but has chosen to skate by on the art of playing dumb, letting wealthy know-it-all dudes entertain her and buy her things because, why not? Her current wealthy know-it-all partner is Alan, an economist who left his wife for Anya and is in the midst of a midlife crisis. He's simultaneously proud and jealous of any male attention  that Anya gets, and plans to use his skills to steal all of Señor C's money simply because he can.

Set in 2005, part one of the book contains Señor C's "Strong Opinions", his commissioned essays on various political concepts and current events. Part two contains his "softer opinions", more personal topics which Anya has encouraged him to write about. What's most interesting about Diary of a Bad Year, though, is how it's organized. Each page is divided into 2 or 3 voices, with Senior C's writing on top, his personal thoughts or dialogue in the middle, and either Anya or Alan's (mostly Anya's) thoughts or dialogue at the bottom. Sentences seldom carry over to the next page, so the sections can be read straight across or from top to bottom. I probably wouldn't read this book again, but it's organized in a very unique way that allows the story to contain action and subplots rather than just a collection of one man's opinions. If you enjoy reading essays and care to revisit what the Western/Australian/South African political climate was like in 2005, read this novel.

Favorite quotes:
"As long as there is not one of us who has the faintest idea of how to go about constructing a housefly from scratch, how can we disparage as intellectually naïve the conclusion that the housefly must have been put together by an intelligence of a higher order than our own?" (83). 

"Barriers are simply overrun, obstacles shoved aside. The nature of water, as the pre-Socratics might have said, is to flow. For water to be puzzled, to hesitate even for an instant, would be against its nature... fire is never satiated. The more a fire devours, the bigger it gets; the bigger it gets, the more its appetite grows; the more its appetite grows, the more it devours. All that refuses to be devoured by fire is water. If water could burn, all of the world would have been consumed by fire long ago" (215).

Silence by Shusaku Endo

At a time when Christianity has been deemed a political threat and forbidden in Japan, officials in Nagasaki are notoriously zealous about rooting out and torturing hidden Japanese Christians and foreign priests. In the 1640s, the Catholic church in Rome learns that the venerated priest Cristóvão Ferreira (based on the real-life Portuguese missionary of the same name) has renounced the faith after being tortured in Japan. Three other Portuguese priests, former students of Ferreira, go to Japan to investigate what happened. Two of them actually make it, and are sheltered by peasant villagers on Kyuushuu island before eventually being captured. One of them, Sebastian Rodrigues, is the main character in the story (based on the real-life Italian missionary, Giuseppe Chiara). 

 I guess I'm supposed to feel sorry for Rodrigues, but his white savior-ism gets in the way even despite his noble intentions. He seems to care more about the glory of being a missionary and a martyr than the work; often comparing his persecution to the time when missionaries to Japan were supposedly treated as honored guests. He naively underestimates how difficult his task will be and how many locals will be implicated, putting locals at risk even by his mere presence and not being careful enough not to incriminate them. He's also notably obsessed with his imagining of the (erroneously blue-eyed, very European-looking) face of Christ, and has an inflated sense of self-importance as if Christianity will be doomed in Japan if he himself isn't successful. 

However, Rodrigues' humbling struggle with his faith is what redeems him as a character. The Nagasaki officials' goal is to make him apostatize by stepping on an image of Jesus or Mary (fumie), even if he doesn't mean it. Japanese Christians are punished more severely the more that he resists. As he's imprisoned, interrogated, paraded for public humiliation, and forced to witness Japanese Christians die because of him, he repeatedly questions why God doesn't intervene, which transcends into questioning his own purpose as a missionary, and questioning his belief in God as a whole. The  Japanese title of this novel (沈黙, Chinmoku) means not only silence, but inaction, emphasizing the sense that God not only is saying nothing, but also sits by watching, doing nothing. As the symbolic Jesus character in Silence, Rodrigues grapples with an internal crisis and contends with what acting in love really means. By doing the unthinkable, his act of sacrifice would imitate Christ (protecting others from suffering) but would also scandalize the Church (renouncing the faith).

Silence is actually quite thought-provoking, especially with its arguments about the role of Judas and how his betrayal (and by extension, all human weakness) is essential to the story of salvation. That said, I probably wouldn't be in a rush to read it again soon. It's just... a lot. Plus it dries out a little at the end. Read it because it's a classic, that's all I can say.

Favorite quote:
"But I have my cause to plead! One who has trod on the sacred image has his say too. Do you think I trampled on it willingly? My feet ached with the pain. God asks me to imitate the strong, even though he made me weak. Isn't this unreasonable?" (122).

Monday, June 26, 2017

Scripture & Lyrics

"So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you." -James 4:7 (NLT)

"Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time." -1 Peter 5:6 (NIV)

"B*tch, be humble. Sit down." -Kendrick Lamar

Sunday, June 25, 2017

BOOKS! (Le bonze et la femme transie)

I'm a little embarrassed to admit that this is the first French-language book I've read since I graduated two years ago.

I was a French major, so I used to read French plays, books, and other texts all the time. Over the past three years I've even acquired some books of my own to read for leisure thanks to one of my old professors, a lost and found in one of my university's academic buildings, the Alliance Française of New Orleans, my host "dad" back in Paris, a couple of bookstores I visited while in Paris. My three months of unemployment last year even brought me more French books! I volunteered at a used book sale at the local Alliance Française and bought a handful of them for cheap. Just last month I bought another used one at my local library. So I've been collecting French books all this time, just haven't been reading them. And I follow French news and media entities everyday online, I read and write French correspondence for work... so it's not like I can't read the books I've been collecting. Just haven't put forth the effort. Until now!

If I recall, I actually started reading this book while helping at that French used book sale last year, but I didn't push myself to finish it until this year. The author is a South Korean woman who's dedicated her academic career to French language and literature, and over a decade ago she put out this novel, using French to write a story set in her home country during the 1960s. It took me longer than it should've to get through it, but I'm glad I finally did because it's quite the story! (All following translations are done by me.)


Le bonze et la femme transie by Eun-ja Kang
(The Buddhist Monk and the Transfixed Woman)

For most of his life, Tae-Mann was a spoiled official's son with an appetite for spending, sex, and doing whatevertheheck he wanted. Not long after marrying his wife, Fal-Ja, his mother died and his father gambled away the family fortune, leaving Tae-Mann and Fal-Ja to live in a shack as peasants. Having never been prepared for real life, Tae-Mann's too proud to work for a living, and he leaves Fal-Ja to go find his fortune.... as a monk! Le temple de la Prosperité (the Temple of Prosperity) is a buddhist temple on a mountain that's frequented by crowds of believers who leave offerings there throughout the year. Tae-Mann believes the temple is loaded with riches, and decides to enter its monastery as a novitiate so he can steal its money after becoming a monk. Upon arriving he meets a fellow hopeful, a widower whose motivation for joining the monastery are pure as can be. They both receive new names once accepted as novitiates; Tae-Mann becomes Bong, and his friend becomes Yong.

Predictably, Bong's plan faces a number of setbacks. He learns that Fal-Ja is pregnant, but conveniently assumes it's another man's child and never goes to see her again. Both Yong and Bong are inducted as monks, but the order is destablilized as rival factions fight over who will succeed the current head monk. Then, one of the monks repeatedly distracts Bong with a hideout were alcohol and prostitutes are abundant. And then, Bong falls in love with one of he parishioners. A woman comes to pray at the temple during winter, but almost freezes to death on her trek down the mountain. Bong is tasked with using his body to warm her back to life, and from then on he's convinced that he and this woman, named Jin, are supposed to be together. Jin is a faithful Buddhist who works in a brothel in order to put her little brother through university. Desperate for love, and to a lesser extent for redemption, Bong's plan to steal the temple's money becomes less about personal riches and more about building a better life with Jin. But again, things don't go quite as planned.

In all honesty I wasn't expecting to enjoy this novel as much as I did. I was so focused on how hard I anticipated reading it would be, that I didn't give myself over to the story until I was about a third of the way through. Who knew that drama among monks could be so interesting? Le bonze et la femme transie is about self-discovery, the struggles of committing to one's beliefs, friendship, love, inevitable human weakness. But it's also about how life can change in ways and at a speed that you can't imagine. Bong is committed to his selfishness for a really long time, and it's surprising to see how much his character still changes.

However, if I had to pick a favorite character, it would be Yong. Yong's trainee period is the shortest of any monk who's ever entered the temple, and his purity of heart and dedication to the monastic life make him a prime candidate to succeed the head monk. He's aware of Bong's scheme from the beginning, and despite being well-esteemed he never scolds his friend or rats him out to their superiors. Yong himself tried and failed to commit to the faith previously, and he believes that sometimes the most wayward people have the greatest potential. So he keeps a respectful distance and tries to guide Bong in the least invasive way that he can. Aware of Bong's faults and yet unfailingly compassionate. What a great friend.

This book was published in 2003, but as far as I know no English translation has been published. If you're a French speaker or learner interested in non-European contributions to Francophone literature, definitely give this book a shot!

Favorite quotes:

«Je vends mon corps, mais ce péché n'est pas irréparable. Après ma mort, mon corps sera brûlé, et ces jours peu honorables partiront aux quatre vents avec ses cendres. Ce qui m'importe, c'est de toujours rester maîtresse de mon âme. Qui sait? elle recevera peut-être une autre vie, beaucoup plus heureuse»  (119).

I sell my body, but this sin isn't unforgivable. After my death, my body will be burned, and these dishonorable days will fly to the four winds along with its ashes. What matters to me is that I always remain in control of my soul. Who knows? Maybe it will receive a new life, a much happier one (119). 


«En fin de compte, tous les pas que j'ai fait pour échapper au temple m'en ont, au contraire, rapproché. Où que j'ai pu aller, je ne me suis pas éloigné plus que mon destin ne me l'a permis. Quoi que j'aie fait, j'ai toujours agi sous son œil. J'ai tiré en vain la corde qu'il tenait attachée à moi. Plus j'essayais de m'enfuir, plus la corde me serrait» (196).

At the end of the day, all the steps I took to escape the temple brought me, on the contrary, closer to it. No matter where I go, I can never go further than my destiny permits. No matter what I do, I've always acted under its eye. In vain I pulled the cord that destiny kept attached to me. The more I tried to flee, the more the cord restrained me (196).

Sunday, June 11, 2017

BOOKS! (Cry, the Beloved Country + Rich People Problems)

Today I've got a pair of books that I've been wanting to read for a while, for one reason or another. The first book I contemplated buying at the end of my last day working at a  certain bookstore, but opted for a James Baldwin novel and The Handmaid's Tale instead. Over a year later, I snatched it up for $5  at a different location. The second book is the final part of a trilogy that I've been waiting on for two years!

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

Johannesburg is attracting people in droves, as urbanization coincides with the mining industry taking men from families and dismantling tribal culture. During this time it's often said that people who go to the city never come back, and black people are gradually flooding into the city in search of opportunity, or in search of the loved ones who've arrived before them. Stephen Kumalo, a Zulu pastor in the countryside, has already "lost" his only sister and only son to the city, and after being summoned by a letter claiming that his sister is ill, he travels to Johannesburg to retrieve them both. Unfortunately, both relatives have succumbed to the precariousness of survival for poor black people in the city. Kumalo manages to pull his sister Gertrude away from prostituting and making booze in the slums, but is too late to save his son Absalom, who's been jailed after a failed home robbery attempt with his friends ended with a white man shot dead. But this wasn't just any white man. The victim, Arthur, was one of the most vocal advocates for black people's rights and access to opportunities in South Africa, a "white ally" as he might be called today. And on top of that, Arthur was from the same part of the countryside that Absalom is from; his father and Stephen Kumalo are actually neighbors.

Cry, the Beloved Country was first published three months before the Afrikaner-backed Nationalist Party gained control of parliament and instituted apartheid in 1948. A third edition was published in 1987, when apartheid was still the law of the land and would be so for the next seven years. So as a pre-apartheid novel the book is mostly foresight, but it's also very much in the midst of the mess since segregation laws and other racially-discriminatory policies and practices were in place long before apartheid was established. There's a sense that South Africa is on the verge of something both magnificent and terrible, and both black and white are consumed with desperate self-preservation and crippling fear, but for different reasons. For black people ("natives") the fear stems from a lack of means and resources, and the awareness that if there's any power to be had, white people already have it. White people (English and Afrikaans-speaking "Europeans") on the other hand, have been outnumbered from the beginning and cling to whiteness and the sense of superiority and security that it affords them. They might support educational, recreational, or vocational programs that help black people become more learned and avoid crime, but only so far as black people continue to be uninformed enough to accept mine life, shanty towns, and the destruction of tribes without fighting back.

Reading this reminded me very much of Richard Wright's Native Son and Ernest J. Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying, where execution awaits young black men convicted of the murders of white people, and the characters and the reader have no choice but to reckon with it. It also reminded me of Richard Kim's The Martyred, where the notion of faith is questioned during a time of violent conflict. If you appreciate any of those books, enjoy reading about racism or the consequences of colonialism, or are intrigued by the use of biblical references in literature, then read this book.

Favorite quotes:
"Stand unshod upon it, for the ground is holy, being even as it came from the Creator. Keep it, guard it, care for it, for it keeps men, guards men, cares for men. Destroy it and man is destroyed" (33).
"And we are therefore compelled, in order to preserve our belief that we are Christian, to ascribe to Almighty God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, or own human intentions, and to say that because He created white and black, He gives the Divine Approval to any human action that is designed to keep black men from advancement... We go so far as to assume that He blesses any action that is designed to prevent black men from the full employment of the gifts He gave them... Thus even our God becomes a confused and inconsistent creature, giving gifts and denying them employment" (187).


Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan

After introducing us to the lifestyles of the absurdly rich in Singapore, Hong Kong, and mainland China in the previous two novels, Kevin Kwan brings us back to Singapore for some serious family business. Rachel and Nick are the proverbial poor-girl-rich-guy couple whose relationship ushered us into this universe in Crazy Rich Asians. They took a measured half-step into the background in China Rich Girlfriend,  and here they continue to share the spotlight as most of the action focuses on Nick's family. Nick's grandmother Su Yi, the matriarch of the Young/T'sien/Shang clan, is dying, and the entire family is flocking to the family mansion like vultures to try to get a substantial cut from her will. Who will get Tyersall Park, the family mansion? Who will get the most money? Who will be in charge now? Who will get the fancy pet swans?

Su Yi, Nick's cousin Astrid, and rags-to-riches social climber Kitty Pong lead us through most of the story. In fact, Astrid and her on-again boyfriend Charlie are the main romantic couple this time around (they each have their own kids and are still officially married to other people, it's complicated). In addition to the typical snobbery, connivery and obscene displays of wealth (cosmetic surgery for fish! $250,000 paper offerings to the dead!), the novel also addresses Japanese colonial exploits in Singapore during World War II, which is a historical aspect that I certainly did not anticipate coming from this book. There's also a HUGE family secret that's somewhat tragic but also puts Su Yi's past actions in perspective.

The novel is set mostly in Singapore, with other important scenes in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Jodhpur, Chiang Mai, Kuala Lumpur, Surrey, Paris, Los Angeles, and the Philippines. I wish I would have taken the time to re-read the first two books so that I could give a more thorough assessment of Rich People Problems in relation to the others. It's certainly a very solid end to a much-beloved series. And the Crazy Rich Asians movie is being filmed as I type! This series came to me during a particular period in my life, so perhaps I am biased in its favor. But it truly is a wonderful distraction, and the film is poised to be a milestone for Asian actors in Hollywood. Ease your troubled mind and read the whole series if you haven't yet! And thanks a million, Kevin Kwan!

Favorite quotes:
"It wasn't very significant to me. Why would I care what the Queen of England thinks? The British abandoned us during World War II. Instead of sending more troops to defend the colony that helped to make them rich, they retreated like cowards and wouldn't even leave us with real weapons. So many young men—my cousins, my half brothers—died trying to hold back the Japanese" (170-71).
"I think he looks down on people like your father—people who are self-made—because at the heart of it he is a deeply insecure individual. He knows he did absolutely nothing to deserve his fortune, and so the only thing he can do is disparage others who have the audacity to make their own money. His friends are all the same—they are frightened of the new money that's rolling in, and that's why they cluster in their little enclaves" (344-45).

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Memories, Movement

(Or, "More Unnecessary Things That I Remember While Driving, Walking, or Trying to Fall Asleep")

That one time in 2nd grade when we were discussing the Gore-Bush presidential race in class, and the teaching assistant/Kids Club lady named Geri (Jeri? Jerri? Gerrie?) told me I'd probably be a Republican. Oh, if only I'd understood what she meant and knew how to use my eyeroll to its fullest potential at that age...

That one time I was waiting to checkout at Rite Aid and ran into the Kids Club lady from when I was in 5th and 6th grade. Ms. Linda. She asked me what I was up to now and seemed to approve, "I always knew you were one of the good ones." (This happened just last week.)