Sunday, September 24, 2017

BOOKS! (Green Island + Free Food for Millionaires)

Both of these books took longer for me to read than usual, and so they ended up being my second-to-last and last reading selections for the summer. The first was recommended to me by a friend. The other is the first novel written by an artist whose most recent novel I read earlier this year.

Green Island  by Shawna Yang Ryan

Spanning from 1947 to 2003, this story is told by an unnamed narrator whose family is directly affected by pivotal events in Taiwanese history. She is the youngest of four children, born on the February night in 1947 when a cigarette-selling widow is violently accosted by law enforcement. This event sparks the 228 Massacre, in which government forces violently put down an uprising among Taiwanese people who protest the widow's treatment along with other grievances, including corruption and economic mismanagement.

Green Island showed me that I knew even less than I thought I knew about Taiwan, but here's the context that I gleaned from the novel, which helped me understand its plot. After Japanese  colonial rule over Taiwan ceased at the end of WW2, Nationalists retreated from mainland China to Taiwan and used it as their base from which to continue their campaign to defeat the Communists and re-take all of China, aiming to unite both the mainland and the island of Taiwan under the Kuomintang (Nationalist) government. The KMT was fiercely devoted to itself and its mission, and was also incredibly insecure to the point of paranoia, constantly trying to root out enemies from within Taiwan (whether real or imaginary). It took a brutal authoritarian approach to ruling the people, so that anyone who spoke publicly in favor of democracy (the US had a military presence there at the time), who openly criticized or organized action against the government, who was denounced by their fellows in forced confessions, who was associated with the wrong people, or who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, was liable to "disappear". The 228 Massacre set off this purge and an era of martial law in Taiwan that didn't end until 1987.

The narrator's father is one of those people who "disappeared" for expressing his ideas, spending 11 years of torture and hard labor at a brutal penal colony called "Green Island". Soldiers forced the narrator's family out of their home in Taipei, but they relocated to Taichung where she spent her formative years. The narrator's personal life is a canvas on which decades of tumult are displayed: the forced forgetting of 228, her father's release from prison and continued surveillance by authorities, the completion of Taiwan's virtual loss of political existence after the US formalized relations with mainland China in 1979, the narrator's first-hand experience with KMT spies in both the US and Taiwan due to her professor husband's involvement in the resistance, and the swine flu pandemic.

Even with all its gruesome details, Green Island is a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience. I got a crash course on Taiwanese history and got to bug my friend with questions along the way, since her parents and especially her grandparents lived through the events of the book. There were times where I thought the book ran too long, as I sometimes got bored reading about the narrator's relationship with her husband, Wei (he's an insufferable man in his own special way). But I suppose that the mundane was needed to balance out the drama, and it helped build up to the novel's final act. If you want to learn about Taiwan, read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"When I got older, I still thought I could write life. I didn't understand, as my mother had just realized that evening, that it is the other way around. And yet, here I am, still trying" (90).

"Wei had told me a gentler era was encroaching upon Taiwan. Brutality belonged to the previous decade. Does brutality ever get old? I wondered. Each generation brings a new group of men who have not yet learned the guilt of the last. They need to feel bones breaking under their very own fingers to know for sure how they feel about it" (333).

"We are curious creatures, we Taiwanese. Orphans. Eventually, orphans must choose their own names and write their own stories. The beauty of orphanhood is the blank slate... 'The country is broken, but the mountains and rivers remain'... We are the mountains and rivers, no matter what the country is called" (372). 


Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee

Casey Han is a the eldest daughter of Korean immigrants who are devout Presbyterians and run a laundry for a living. In the 1990s, despite being a Princeton economics grad, she is jobless and still lives with her parents in Queens (Mercy from The Expatriates vibes, anyone?). The book opens with an argument between her and her father about her future, which ends with him hitting her and kicking her out of the family home. She goes to stay with her college boyfriend whom she already lives with part-time, only to catch him in the middle of a threesome. Now jobless and homeless, Casey's worst night ever is also the beginning of  her journey to finding her footing as a 20-something on her own for the first time in New York City.

Being a Princeton grad and knowing a handful wealthy and well-connected people, she's never completely at a loss. There's Sabine, who runs her own department store and married rich, and thus is a Korean immigrant who's "made it", so to speak. She employs Casey on the sales floor and also acts as a surrogate mother or cool auntie of sorts, dispensing advice but also disapproving of most of her choices and not-so-subtly attempting to groom Casey into her successor. There's also Ella, a rich doctor's daughter who grew up in the same church that Casey did and always wanted to be her friend, but whom Casey ignored for years because she couldn't stand being around this girl who seems to have everything. A chance meeting between them leads to Casey living with Ella, which allows her time to get back on her feet and even leads her to getting a job on Wall Street (thanks to Ella's alpha male fiancé Ted, another man who's insufferable in his own special way).

Ella also introduces Casey to Ella's cousin Unu, a young divorcee who also works on Wall Street. They eventually start a friends-with-benefits thing, which evolves into cohabitation, which evolves into a relationship, but it's not without its problems. Money is always on Casey's mind, as she grew up poor and never seems to have enough of it to sustain herself and also pay off her mounting shopping debts and student loans. From Princeton to Wall Street, she is adept at navigating social strata in which money is no object for people, but she can never live with the sense of carefree security that they do. In contrast, Unu comes from a wealthy family and has never had to worry about money, but he has a gambling problem which, coupled with his denial and being too proud to accept Casey's help with household expenses, lands him in a deeper and deeper hole.

Min Jin Lee has this gift for taking an omniscient stance with her characters, writing from multiple points of view concurrently and getting the reader invested in the intricate details of a handful of interconnected lives, and then managing to tie up the story without leaving anyone out (see Pachinko). So there are a number of other people and incidents that influence Casey's progression from "confounded by this thing called life" to "wisened, but still confounded by this thing called life", but I'll leave them for you to discover. If you're having a quarter-life crisis or any similar crisis of existence, and if you like reading about plucky women who are their own people, read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"'The funny thing is that if you were a millionaire like some of these managing directors shaking down seven figures a year, you'd have known to push your way ahead and fill up your plate. Rich people can't get enough of free stuff... So, this is the game, Casey. You have to take what's offered'... She'd pretended to be otherwise to be ladylike and had moved away from the table to be agreeable, and now she'd continue to be hungry" (91-92).

"No explanation was necessary. They were collecting Mr. Jun's departing gift... Even if one Korean was nothing in this strange land, a church full of Koreans meant something to each other, and they intended to care for their own" (322).

"You can be grateful and angry. Such feelings can coexist" (494).

Sunday, August 20, 2017

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 18

Summer is almost over, I've got my summer Jdrama selections lined up, but I'm just now finishing my shows from the spring. What else is new? The two shows I that watched from the spring 2017 broadcast season can be found with English subs here and here.

リバース (REVERSE) - TBS/2017

I picked this show simply because Che'Nelle sang its theme song, "Destiny". I'm more a fan of her journey as a non-Japanese entertainer in the Japanese music industry than a fan of her music, but she is one of the more gifted vocalists in that scene. But I digress.

At the center of 'REVERSE' is Fukase, a man who graduated from a prestigious university 10 years ago but doesn't lead a very prestigious life. His best and only friend during his college days was a guy named Hirosawa. During their senior year, Fukase, Hirosawa, and three of Hirosawa's friends went on a snowboarding trip that ended in Hirosawa's death. Though it's unclear who was directly responsible, the four remaining friends know that it wasn't a simple accident but don't discuss it for fear of incriminating themselves. All seems to be forgotten until ten years later (the present), when Fukase and the other three start receiving ominous letters and realize that their lives and reputations are being tampered with. Someone hasn't forgotten about Hirosawa, and they're determined to punish his friends until the truth comes out.

There's a coffee motif that seems innocuous; making coffee is Fukase's hobby, and numerous scenes take place at a cafe which he frequents and is also where he meets his girlfriend Mihoko. But coffee also ends up being integral to figuring out the whodunnit. For a stretch, the mystery of how Hirosawa died takes a slight backseat to the mystery of who's been stalking and threatening his friends, but the reveals for both are quite satisfying. I was shocked not once, but twice.

I enjoyed the show way more than I'd expected to, and I was especially impressed by Toda Erika's performance as Mihoko. I saw her in 'Taisetsu na Koto ga Subete Kimi wa Oshiete Kureta' (2011) a long time ago and apparently she was in 'Summer Nude' as well, but I wasn't aware of her as an actress then. Hers was the most multi-faceted character in the show. Also shoutout to actress YOU ('Going My Home', 'Mondai no Aru Restaurant') who plays the owner of Fukase's favorite cafe.


母になる (Haha ni Naru/Becoming a Mother/My Son) - NTV/2017

This show was a bit of a 'FIRST CLASS' reunion, which is why I watched it. Itaya Yuka and Sawajiri Erika go from mentor-mentee in the fashion world to best friends and professors' wives in 'Haha ni naru'.

Yui (Sawajiri Erika) and Yoichi live a normal and happy life with their 3-year-old son Kou, until the day that Kou is kidnapped by a disgruntled student of Yoichi's. They search doggedly for their son, but to no avail. The loss and public backlash that they face ruptures their lives and ends their marriage. Nine years later, a case worker at a boys' home realizes one of the residents is in fact Kou, now 12 years old. Kou was abandoned in a squalid apartment and found by the next door neighbor, Asako (Eiko Koike from 'STARMAN'). Starved for love and having been jilted by her lover, Asako raised Kou as her own rather than taking him to the police. One day she dropped Kou off at the boys' home without an explanation, and he'd already been living there for two years when the case worker reunites him with Yui. While Yui and Yoichi's family reunites around Kou, the show mostly focuses on Yui and Kou's relationship and how they both deal with Asako. Kou essentially has two moms, and the question of what makes someone a mother is brought up numerous times.

There's a segment in episode 10 that shows Asako going to therapy and acknowledging the events and psychological issues in her life that led her to do what she did. It's only about two and a half minutes long but I appreciated it, given that  mental illness is one of many taboos in Japan, and mental health services there leave a lot to be desired, from what I've read. 'Haha ni Naru' is like 'Hajimemashite, Aishitemasu' in that it explores alternative forms of parenthood with some depth and is willing to explore the ugly and uncomfortable.

Though I'm not familiar with much of her work, I have to say that I'm a little proud of Eiko Koike. I remember her playing the busty forever-single best friend in 'STARMAN' who was hardly more than comic relief, and here she is getting to flex her dramatic chops as a troubled yet pivotal character.

I finished 'REVERSE' weeks ago and finished 'Haha ni Naru' literally just before I started writing this post. My memory of the former is a little foggier but it left a stronger impression on me, so I pick 'REVERSE' as my favorite of the two.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Little Elephant


A little over a month ago, literally right before we hit the road for Michigan after our family reunion weekend, on the day that also happened to be my natural hair anniversary... I got my first tattoo.

It's something I'd half-heartedly considered ever since I was old enough to legally get one, but I never had an idea that I'd be willing to commit to for the rest of my life. Until this summer. I was in Louisville for Father's Day weekend and was chatting with my cousin, admiring her tattoos. She said I should get one and I balked at first. Not cool or daring enough for that. But then I changed my mind.


I was just coming off of a major personal disappointment, having accepted that despite my diligent and occasionally frantic efforts, my one big life-changing goal for the year was not going to come to fruition; time had run out. I was feeling more and more despondent about myself (self-loathing is a heckuva drug), my life (not moving forward) and my current job (dead from the moment I started there, nowhere to move in that place but in circles). I was just over everything. I've lost, and if these two post-college years are any indication, I'm liable to keep losing, and if I'm going to lose at life anyway, what does it matter? So I get a tattoo, so what? Might as well. Why the heck not? 

So my cousin and I agreed that when I came back to Louisville three weeks later for the family reunion, we'd get tattooed together. An initiation for me, a seventh (eighth? ninth?) go-round for her, and a bonding experience for us both. She'd arrange everything. In the meantime, I turned to my college friend Irene Li to draw a design for me. I had an idea for the tattoo and knew where I wanted it to be, but didn't have the skills to actually put it together. Irene's in the Bay and I'm in Michigan, so we went back and forth for a week through FB messenger, going over ideas and reviewing sketches that she came up with. And in the end she came up with something perfect!

 Cut to Monday morning after family reunion weekend when my cousin, my mom, and I went to Committed Ink Studios to do the deed. My cousin had already decided not to get another tattoo after all, but I was so committed (teehee, puns) to the design now that I was determined to go through with it. Lou, the owner of the shop, was focused, quick, and extremely affordable. A talented man and a true artist! Ma and my cousin watched. It hurt, my palms got sweaty, but I only winced inwardly and I didn't cry. And again, the result was perfect!

I'd done something that I couldn't take back, and I hit the road for home feeling more grateful and satisfied than I had in a long time. Even now I still stare at my arm in wonder multiple times a day. At first I was awed by the fact that this part of my skin is forever changed, like Wow, did I really do this? But after that wore off, a different feeling began to surface. Pride. I'm proud of my tattoo. Nearly my whole life I've gotten through the day by dissociating myself from my body as much as possible. This isn't the real me. This is how my body happens to look now, but once I finally manage to look different, then I'll really be my true self. The self I was meant to be all along. I've realized that getting this tattoo was an act of acknowledging and claiming ownership of my body in a way that I've never done before. This isn't a provisional me. I am what I am at this moment. And this image carved into my skin is forever. (Shoutout to my friend Dany at The Dear Body Project for inspiring me to reflect on myself this way). To be honest, the enthusiasm doesn't really extend past my left wrist, but it's a start. And now I have a personal, custom-designed, permanent reminder.

Oh, and what does the tattoo mean, you ask? Well. I've loved elephants since I was little. It's holding a quill, which is a reminder to me to keep creating things, even if I don't have the courage to share my stuff. The feather is red to represent the city of Louisville where my mom and her family are from. Coincidentally (totally unplanned!) the shape and lines are reminiscent of Rafiki's painting of baby Simba, and The Lion King is my favorite movie of all time.

Thank you Kayla, Irene, Lou, Ma, and Dany.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

BOOKS! (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao + Not Too Far from China)

Today I've got a Pulitzer-winning novel that I eyed many times back when I worked at a bookstore, but only decided to buy a few months ago. I've also got the second poetry collection from an artist I met at the inaugural Detroit Festival of Books (Detroit Bookfest).

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

Junot Díaz managed to educate me about Dominican history and culture AND tell me about myself in the same novel, so it took me longer to get through it than I otherwise would. The similarities between me and Oscar kept piling up, and things just got too real for me to simply take a leisurely stroll through this book.The son of a single mom who emigrated from the Dominican Republic at the end of the Trujillo era, Oscar spends most of his life as an outcast in his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey. Be it for his obscure references, lofty way of speaking or his dearth of "normal" Dominican male characteristics, he is ridiculed by most people he interacts with. Oscar is a fat nerd, a gifted writer, and an awkward hopeless romantic who is oft-rejected and prone to depressive episodes.

Most of the novel is narrated by Yunior, a fellow Dominican-American guy who used to be Oscar's roommate at Rutgers and also dated Oscar's sister Lola for years. Yunior and his friends called him "Oscar Wao" in college after making a correlation between his chubbiness and that of the prolific writer, Oscar Wilde. Hence, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. After a tumultuous undergraduate career at Rutgers which included two suicide attempts, Oscar graduates and works as a teacher at his old high school, re-entering the hell that is daily teenage cruelty. Feeling like his life is going nowhere, he uncharacteristically joins his mom and sister on a summer stay in the DR, visiting relatives. During this time he falls in love with a prostitute who is also his family's neighbor, and having finally tasted love, he's willing to die pursuing it. Literally, die.

If nothing else, Yunior (and by Yunior I really mean Junot Díaz) is exceptionally thorough. I thought I was cracking open a simple story about an anguished Afro-Latino youth, and ended up diving headfirst into a family history, footnotes included! You can't tell Oscar's story without also telling his sister's (his only tried and true friend). Can't tell either of their stories without telling how their mother ended up leaving the DR, and for that you have to start all the way back from her childhood. Can't mention Beli's childhood without telling how she became an orphan. Can't tell that story without telling how her immediate family was destroyed by the dictatorial Trujillo regime, seemingly cursing the family forever. And you can't tell that story without explaining who Trujillo was, and how he ruled selfishly and brutally over the DR for 30 years, seemingly cursing the island forever. In Oscar's family alone there are experiences shared between generations, such as betrayal by authorities, visions of men without faces, beatdowns in cane fields, being led back to life by mongooses, and devotion to lovers or would-be lovers who never truly love you back.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is, in a word, magnificent. It taught me so much about the Caribbean and reminded of some personal "stuff" that I've persisted in not dealing with sufficiently. Even now, I am left with a sense of awe and gratitude. Read it, y'all! Just read it!

Favorite quotes:
"The next day he woke up feeling like he'd been unshackled from his fat, like he'd been washed clean of his misery, and for a long time he couldn't remember why he felt this way, and then he said her name" (40).

"Beli, who'd been waiting for something exactly like her body her whole life, was sent over the moon by what she now knew. By the undeniable concreteness of her desirability which was, in its own way, Power... Telling Beli not to flaunt those curves would have been like asking the persecuted fat kid not to use his recently discovered mutant abilities. With great power comes great responsibility... bullshit. Our girl ran into the future that her new body represented and never ever looked back" (94).
"Nothing else has any efficacy, I might as well be myself.
 But yourself sucks!
 It is, lamentably, all I have" (174).


Not Too Far from China: A Poetic Escape by Zuri McWhorter

Full disclosure, the Detroit Bookfest was and is a great idea, but everyone severely underestimated what the turnout would be. Rather than hundreds, there were likely thousands of people who floated through the event that day. So it was more of a hustle to find good reads while staying out of people's way, rather than the casual book-perusing experience that I'd expected. But anywhooo.

I chanced upon a novel called Beijing Doll at the table of Zuri McWhorter, and on that same table she had stacks of her own work which included Not Too Far from China. I was too shy to chat with her, but she seemed like a dope person, her poetry collection seemed interesting, and her typewriter logo and stickers looked cool, so I bought both books.

Most of the poems are about the unspoken subtleties of relationships, self awareness and self doubt, the sensations of being alive. A young black creative soul wandering through life. This entire "poetic escape" is remarkably observant and sincere. Support this independent, native Detroiter, WOC artist and order this poetry collection!

Favorite quotes:

"I'm ready to forgive 
My heart and hands 
For holding on too tight

To draw a straight line 
From a thought 
To an action" (from "Out of Pocket") 

"Now, 
I may deteriorate 
in peace;

tear down these haunted hallways
let the library get some sun

breathe in dusty thoughts,
interrogate the chipping walls

Later, 
I may redecorate;
hopefully, still at peace" (from "Deteriorate")

"in coils, her 
voice bounced
in the air and hung
around

rows of weeping 
willows overflowed
with joy and encouraged 
the earth
to do the same" (from "Cornwall")

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Someday...

This is what I'd do,

I'd stay at home (stay at home)
Locked up in my room
With all the windows and doors shut tight

But now I'm free (now I'm free)
I can go where I want to be
And know that everything's alright

The Winans, "Goodness Mercy and Grace" 

Sunday, July 30, 2017

BOOKS! (Woman at Point Zero + Everyone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too)

Both of these books were endorsed by media personalities that I follow either sporadically or actively. The first is a novel (or "creative nonfiction") which supposedly served as the inspiration for Ariana Grande's Dangerous Woman album and her single of the same name. The second is a storybook for adults that came highly recommended by Tracy from the Another Round podcast.

 Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi

The most famous work of Egyptian feminist, activist, doctor, and literary giant Nawal El Saadawi, Woman at Point Zero is a fictionalized account of conversations she had with a female prisoner in 1974, days before the woman was executed for murder. El Saadawi visited the woman as part of her psychiatric research on Egyptian women, and was so profoundly affected by the woman's story that she wrote a book to memorialize her and the plight of women in the Arab world.The book is narrated mostly by the first-person voice of Firdaus, whose interactions with men over the course of her life take her through female circumcision, repeated sexual assault from a relative, abusive relationships, rape, prostitution, and finally, murder.

What I appreciate most about this book is how it explores sex work as both exploitative but also a source of autonomy. Though Firdaus is initially lured into selling her body, eventually she becomes her own boss, running her own life without anyone intercepting the money or telling her what to do. For a short while she attempts to be "respectable" and get an office job, but then witnesses how regular women toil with little in return, and after getting her heart broken she goes back into business for herself. And you know how she becomes most successful? By saying "no" to men. It's genius. It drives them wild because they can't stand to be rejected, and so she keeps naming her price higher and higher. Until one day a man, with better connections in higher places than her, shows up and demands to be her pimp simply because he can.

Certain lines are frequently repeated in the novel to emphasize the cyclical nature of events or feelings that occur in Firdaus life. Searching people's eyes, waiting on first and second loves to reappear one last time, muted sensations of pleasure, abandoning her body and withdrawing within herself every time she's with a john. Firdaus goes out a criminal and is treated by male authorities like a deranged threat to society that must be disposed of, but she is free. Even if only in her mind, she has escaped the matrix of male-centered appeasement, degradation and servitude, and she is free.

Favorite quotes:
"Who says murder does not require that a person be gentle?" (4).

"It was as though money was a shameful thing, made to be hidden, an object of sin which was forbidden to me and yet permissible for others, as though it had been made legitimate only for them" (91).

"That I knew nothing about patriotism, that my country had not only given me nothing, but had also taken away anything I might have had, including my honour and my dignity... the man from the police looked as though his moral pride was greatly shaken by what I had said. How could anyone be devoid of patriotic feeling? I felt like exploding with laughter at the ridiculous stance he was taking, the paradox he personified, his double moral standards. He wanted to take a prostitute to this important personality's bed, like any common pimp would do, and yet talk in dignified tones of patriotism and moral principals" (122-23). 

"I want nothing. I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. Therefore I am free. For during life it is our wants, our hopes, our fears that enslave us" (137).

 Everyone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too: A Book by Jomny Sun


Jonathan "Jomny" Sun, a Canadian man who does everything (theater, architecture, design, engineering, comedy, everything!), wrote and illustrated this story about an alien sent to Earth to study humans and report his findings back to his fellow aliens. This alien's name is also Jomny, presumably pronounced "Johnny". On Earth he only meets animals, and assumes them to be humans.

There's a lonely tree. A workaholic beaver. A hedgehog striving to find himself as an artist. A love-starved bear. A sophisticated otter. An egg anxious about what it will be once it hatches. A flock of birds who worship the sun. A bunch of bees, one of which spells what he wants to say, instead of speaking in full sentences (a spelling bee, get it?). And nothing is a character. Literally nothing. Though we would otherwise consider it a void, a dauntingly bottomless concept, or empty space, nothingness is a character too.  

And these animals (plus a couple inanimate/intangible objects) teach Jomny everything about humanity that he needs to know. Love, sadness. The uncertainty of pursuing goals or becoming something. That fact that mortality sucks because it's scary and unavoidable, but it's okay because everyone and everything dies, and in that sense none of us are alone. The idea that you should enjoy your sadness, because it's okay to feel sad and it won't last forever. Plus, being sad often means you've been lucky to have someone or something in your life worth missing. Aliebn is creative, it's funny, it's cute, the dialogue is simple but also sarcastic and deeply probing. Take an hour to read this book cover to cover, and then keep it close so you can read it again whenever you need a reminder that life may be a struggle, but that struggle is common.

Favorite quotes:
"everybody tells me i am too small and too slow to make a diference in this world but i am making a diference in my own world and i hope that is enough"

"i've been wonderimg why the lonely ones make the most beautifubl music and i thimk its because theyre he ones most invested in filling the silence"

"i was so woried about wat i woud become in the future that i didnt realize i can be anything i want to be right now"

"look. life is bad. everyones sad. we're all gona die. but i alredy bought this inflatable boumcy castle so are u gona take ur shoes off or wat"

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Memories, Movement

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

That one time in college when I was chatting with my friend Esse, and she stated that twerking was an art form, and I guffawed. Like, almost indignantly. Since then I've seen how the girls do it in Atlanta, I've taken twerk and pole dance classes from a Detroit native who used to be a stripper. Twerking is indeed an art form.

That one time during gym class in kindergarten (first grade?) when one of my white classmates and I were staring at each other's hands, and she came to the conclusion that we're probably all white at our core, since all of our palms are white. That classmate is a left-leaning anthropologist now and would be mortified by such a racially-biased suggestion, but at the time her kindergarten self really thought she'd hit on something.

That one time I sang a couple songs at a jazz jam session in Detroit and a stud bought me a drink to express her appreciation for my performance. Conveniently it was a glass of white wine, one of  the few alcoholic beverages I do drink. 

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 the 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.)


Sunday, May 28, 2017

BOOKS! (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks + One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter)

Today I've got two books that focus on women of color (what else is new!). The first is a used book sale find which was also a mainstay on the school reading displays at the bookstore where I used to work. The other is a funny book of essays that was highly recommended by Tracy from the Another Round podcast. Let's get to it!

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
 
Born in rural Virginia and living in Baltimore, in 1951 Henrietta Lacks went for treatment at Johns Hopkins where she learned that she had cervical cancer and a handful of other previously-untreated conditions. She eventually died of the cancer that same year. During her treatment and after her death, cancerous cells were taken from her body by a small team of Johns Hopkins researchers who found that her cells multiplied more quickly and for a longer period of time than any other cells they'd studied in their lab. They were, in fact, immortal (still multiplying as I write). The team bottled away collection upon collection of her cells, which were shared with other researchers and used to understand DNA, study disease, and even develop treatments for various illnesses. After her cells were commodified, a handful of research groups and biomedical companies even made fortunes off of them. But here's the problem: Henrietta and her family never consented to have her cells taken and used for such purposes, they never knew that any such research was going on, and they never received a single cent in exchange for what has since been euphemized as her "cell donation". Having first heard about Henrietta Lacks as a high school student in a community college, scientist and journalist Rebecca Skloot reached out to the family in 1999 and eventually gained their trust, working closely with Henrietta's daughter Deborah to research and write this book.

I'd originally expected this to be a scathing exposé that would stick it to all the people who benefited from Henrietta's body without consulting her or her family. But it's not that kind of book. Skloot does reveal a lot about the norms of scientific research, the progress of informed consent and patients' rights laws, and America's history of using black bodies to conduct research often without consent or sufficient compensation. But rather than a concerted effort to go after the bad guys (so to speak), it's more of a well-rounded approach to informing people about Henrietta Lacks' contribution to modern medicine and explaining all the players and issues involved.

I'm still trying to not be incensed by the sense of entitlement that medical professionals were quoted as having, especially in relation to Johns Hopkins which was built to serve the city's poor, orphaned, and similarly disadvantaged. Their sentiment basically boiled down to, We (conveniently white) doctors treat these (conveniently black) patience for free anyway, so what's a few cells from them? They practically owe us. There was also the sentiment that, We're using these cells to advance science which benefits everyone, and asking people for consent for every single thing will just ruin everything. Business is being made of our bodies whether we're aware of it or not, and patients or "donors" can't really do anything about it. (Granted, sometimes we do give our bodily materials away, à la ancestry-related DNA testing and whatnot.... Whoops.) It's obvious that Rebecca Skloot wanted to make this story accessible to as many different readers as possible, so despite usually avoiding science books, I was able to get through this book fairly quickly while still learning a lot. For the sake of being better-informed patients, everyone should read this book.

Favorite quotes:
"But those patients had one thing going for them that Henrietta didn't: They were alive. And the dead have no right to privacy—even if part of them is still alive" (211). 

"She appears to be screaming. Her head is twisted unnaturally to the left, chin raised and held in place by a large pair of white hands... No one spoke. We all just stood there, staring at those big white hands wrapped around Elsie's neck. They were well manicured and feminine, pinky slightly raised—hands you'd see in a commercial for nail polish, not wrapped around the throat of a crying child" (273).


One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul 

I'd never heard of Scaachi Koul before Tracy from Another Round mentioned this book of personal essays (I can't remember if she mentioned it on Twitter or on the podcast). And then I was in the book store after work, looking for something fun and light to read, and O.D.W.A.B.D.A.N.O.T.W.M. was on display. The last book I recall reading by a Canadian author is Kim Thúy's novel Mãn, and I know next to nothing about Indian-Canadian experiences, so why not give this one a go?

Speaking in generalized terms, the American perception of Canadians is that they're nicer, more considerate, and overall just better than us at being good people. It follows that many of us assume that there's no racism in Canada. After all, for decades (centuries?) enslaved people who looked like me regularly fled the "land of the free" to actually BE FREE in Canada. But alas! According to Koul, racism does indeed exist in Canada. She spends some time on colorism (or "shadism" as she calls it) and Indian/South Asian aspirations to whiteness, and I would've loved to know more about Canadian racism from her perspective. But while her identity as a brown woman plays some role in every one of her essays, she doesn't aim to write solely about race. The subjects covered run the gamut of social issues that are currently trendy to talk about, and in that sense this book of essays is not so unique. Yet, something about Koul's voice was so appealing to me that I couldn't stop reading! I actually chuckled, and quite frequently. Her snark is disarmingly entertaining.

The title comes from a conversation that Koul has with her cousin after a particularly painful and strenuous moment during said cousin's week-long Indian wedding festivities. It was Koul's way of consoling her, assuring her that this thing that sucks won't last forever, and probably won't matter much anyway. The book's content isn't nearly as depressing as the title might lead you to believe (the cover's even got bright pink and yellow colors to reassure you!). The essays I enjoyed the most are "Inheritance Tax", "Aus-piss-ee-ous", "Mister Beast Man to You, Randor", and "Tawi River, Elbow River".

Favorite quotes:
"He has a cute butt. Ann agrees, saying she like his surly yet romantic silence, and posits what her husband or Hamhock might say if we brought this boy home with us. We crack a few jokes about turning him into a respectable man, My Fair Lady-ing him, getting him a suit, teaching him English. This is funny until I remember colonialism" (70).

"I just want to rub coconut oil in her hair and tell her that she is in my bones, no matter where she ends up" (109).

"I was editing at the time, and the whitest, malest landscape in the country is long-form writing. This is boring, like offering the same selection of toothpaste-flavoured ice cream for a century and then wondering why your business is failing" (123).

Saturday, May 13, 2017

BOOKS! (The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love + Bound Feet and Western Dress)

Today's review features two used books! The first I got from a local library book sale (was intrigued by the fact that it won a Pulitzer). The other one I found in my local Little Free Library (was simply curious).

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos


This would be a fantastic novel to pair with the animated film Chico & Rita on, say, a university syllabus for a course about pre-Castro Cuban music and migration to the United States. Coincidentally I caught the film on TV not too long before spotting this novel, which was fitting since they are both stories focused on Cuban musicians set during the same era. Originally from Las Piñas (in a province once known as Oriente), the Castillo brothers develop as artists in Havana before joining a wave of Cuban musicians who have been immigrating to New York since the 1920s.They arrive in 1945 and are young men living it up, but not without their troubles.

Younger brother Nestor (trumpet, vocals) has carried melancholy and anxiety with him since childhood, always feeling like something is missing especially after his first love dumped him back in Cuba. Older brother Cesar (band leader, vocals) is a restless macho man with daddy issues who let his pride ruin his marriage back in Cuba, and in NYC is only concerned with playing music and having a good time (copious amounts of sex, food, and alcohol). They lead an orchestra called The Mambo Kings, whose modest renown eventually scores them an appearance on 'I Love Lucy' and a nationwide tour. But Cesar loses the will to play music after Nestor's untimely death, and he doesn't take the inevitable loss of youth and virility well either. So after living in New York for three decades and watching the high life and his brother slip through his fingers with seemingly nothing to show for it, Cesar holes up in a hotel room to die, drinking alcohol, playing his old records, and reflecting on the past. The novel is mostly Cesar's memory of the past, as we revisit his life as a musician. You have ample (and I mean, ample) reasons to dislike the guy, but since he's all you've got to take you through the story, you want to sympathize with him despite yourself.

Mambo Kings is looong and I certainly wouldn't be in a rush to read it again soon, but it is incredibly thorough. If you're interested in Cuban culture, New York and its club scene after WW2, jazz and Latin music styles of the time, or simply enjoy reading emotive prose about love, passion (lots of sex scenes!), and loss, then read this book.

Favorite quotes:
"What did he seek to accomplish? To write a song communicating such pure love and desire that María, far away, would magically reinstate him into the center of her heart. He though that she would 'hear' these melodies in her dreams and that something would possess her... and he would hear a knocking at the door [and] find María of his soul standing there, this woman who had somehow become the lost key to his happiness" (46). 

"The guys who had it rough were the black musicians, who were treated in some places like lepers. No violence against them, just a bad silence when they'd go walking into a store, a disenchantment when they'd walk into a  lodge for the hungers' special breakfast, plates slapped down on the table, drinks poured quickly, eyes averted... Spirits were dampened, especially when the weather was bad, because in their travels through the heartland of America these fellows sometimes felt an Arctic coldness of spirit that made New York seem like Miami Beach" (180-81).


Bound Feet and Western Dress by Pang-Mei Natasha Chang 

While giving attention to Chang's experiences growing up and fitting in (or not) as a Chinese-American girl in New England, this biography mostly focuses on her grandfather's sister Yu-i, whom Chang first read about in a book while studying Chinese history at Harvard. (Yu-i and her legendary poet first husband, Hsü Chih-mo, were often known as the first couple in China to get a modern divorce.) Inspired to learn more, Chang spent the next five years interviewing her great-aunt and writing this book. Born in 1900, Yu-i was married at 15 to the then-young scholar who saw her as little more than a filial obligation and country bumpkin. She ended up moving around from China to England, Paris, Berlin, back to China, and then to Hong Kong before emigrating to New York City in the 1970s.

The book's title refers to a conversation between Yu-i and Chih-mo in which he demanded a divorce because they weren't suited for each other ("bound feet and Western dress do not go together"). It also refers to how Yu-i's personal inclinations often went against tradition, as she refused to have her feet bound as a child, repeatedly endeavored to become educated even though girls' education wasn't prioritized, lived as a single mom in Europe, and eventually became a teacher, bank vice president, property owner, and businesswoman back in China all by 1928. And yet, as remarkable as Yu-i was, she neither reveled in her own accomplishments nor lambasted her ex-husband in this book. She learned to support herself because she had to, and as the mother of her ex's children she acted as daughter-in-law to his family even after he remarried and later died.

Aside from learning about Yu-i, I learned a lot more than I'd expected to about Chinese traditional values, especially in regard to women's duties as daughters, wives, and daughters-in-law. It's very similar to the information you might get from The Joy Luck Club, for example, but it includes more detailed explanations of customs, spiritual beliefs, Chinese family structures, and where these tenets come from.

Favorite quotes:
"Rice was the food of the country, to be respected in all its phases: the ripe grain in the husk, the paddy, glutinous rice, rice in the straw, hulled rice and cooked rice. To honor the farmers who planted, tilled, harvested and husked the rice, one was not supposed to leave even one kernel at the bottom of one's ricebowl" (177).  

"No matter how Western or progressive his thoughts, I believed Hsü Chi-mo to be Chinese, for the Western love that he sought did not save him in the end" (199).

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Memories, Movement

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

That one time during my summer in Paris when I went to go get my Carte Navigo, and when I presented my photo the attendant looked at it and told me I was beautiful. Or, in her words, "Byew-tee-fuhl!"

That one time when I visited a church and got to the sanctuary too early before service. Sat in on a Sunday school class lead by a black auntie who claimed that Kim Davis was a hero whose actions aligned with God's Word. Never went back.

That one time I had to explain black hair, perms, going natural, transitioning, and the "big chop" to a former high school classmate who'd asked me how her friend could "get her daughter's beautiful curls back". Said former classmate was white. Her friend was white with a half-black child, and had apparently chemically straightened her daughter's hair without doing the necessary research.

That one time in church when the pastor had all of us stand and hold hands in prayer, and while holding the hand of the guy next to me his girlfriend inserted herself in between us, so the dude and I were awkwardly holding hands behind her back (literally!).

Monday, April 24, 2017

Flat Stanley (Office Edition)

In this case I guess it'd be more fitting to call it "Flat Uni" or something.

I told y'all my team at work was corny, right? Well someone had the idea to buy this little LEGO person wearing a unicorn costume (unicorns have been an inside joke on this team since before I got there, don't ask), and have everyone take pictures with it and then send it on to the next person, be they on a different coast or an entirely different continent. It's supposed to boost camaraderie and make our jobs more interesting ('tis telling that one has to go to such lengths, no?). I did this exact same activity with a human-shaped paper cutout named Stanley in kindergarten. It was cute then, but now... no comment.

When they passed it to me on Friday I was really annoyed that I had to be concerned with work-related things outside of work hours. But then I liked the way the pictures turned out, so I've decided to post them here before turning them in and sending Uni off to the UK. We each get two weeks, but I wanted to get it over with so I  knocked it out in a day. Here's how I spent my Saturday:
Took my dog for a walk and passed by the spot where they discovered mastodon bones some years ago. There's a sign...

...And a sitting area with an information placard.

On the way home I stopped by the local Little Free Library, which was specially decorated for Easter/the arrival of spring.
Later in the afternoon I spent a few hours at my favorite cafe.



They sell bubble tea and Taiwanese food, and the staff is super nice. 

Then I went home and sat behind my house until it got dark. My dog guarded the backyard while I read.


And back to work on Monday (didn't do much on Sunday).