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!).