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. The 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 it 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, are sent 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 this 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 ruefully 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 a carved image of Jesus or Mary (踏み絵/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 is not only 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. And I was raised in a Christian tradition that taught me faith is carried in one's heart, not necessarily in items or figurines, so I understood but didn't always appreciate why stepping on an object was such a big, dramatic deal. But hey. 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).