Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah

September 30, 2013 § 5 Comments

I reviewed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah for Pop Matters awhile back, and would like to say more but writing the review exhausted me because there was so much to say and I didn’t even articulate a tenth of what I wanted to say and what’s the point of words, even. I mean, in the hands of people like Adichie, you get the point of words, but what’s the point of a reviewer’s words?

But the wonderful Sridala reminded me of this Junot Diaz interview, where he talks about decolonial love and though Americanah is about many things, the romance between Ifemelu and her white boyfriend is one of the more complex aspects of the book that really got to me. It’s not that Curt is an Evil American White Man; it’s just that he’s an American white man. Although Ifemelu’s African American experience is very different from the African-American experience, the central question that Junot asks—“Is it possible to love one’s broken-by-the-coloniality-of-power self in another broken-by-the-coloniality-of-power person?”—is I think one of the central questions of Americanah, even if it’s not consciously articulated.

So is decolonial love a kind of radical love? And is it possible? Not just in romance, but in friendship? Or in romantic friendships? (I want to have hope, or have the ability to imagine a time when YES is possible, but all I can think right now is, No.)

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The review in full:

I came to the end of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s recent novel, Americanah at the same time the verdict to acquit Trayvon Martin’s killer was passed. While immersed in this vast, sprawling book about uncomfortable, unpleasant, and often unmentioned truths about racism in 21st-century America, the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer seemed a kind of judgment about America itself, the America that not-white Americans and immigrants have been telling us about America for years, decades, centuries.

As a novelist, however, Adichie is not interested in passing judgment, which is what makes her a likeable writer. What makes Americanah powerful, however, and ultimately quite devastating in parts, is its refusal to refrain from pulling punches. Like her previous award-winning novels, Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie’s main focus is on middle and upper class university-educated Nigerians; similarly in Americanah the protagonist, Ifemelu, comes from a respectable middle-class Lagos family.

Through various circumstances shaped by political and social factors, Ifemelu travels to the US for a university education and ends up staying. It’s a familiar situation for most post-colonial third worlders—inevitable, practically—this idea that some form of the good life must be found outside the borders of their corrupt and backward birth country: preferably in the West, in the lands of plenty, where years of imperialism and colonialism have enabled its subjects to enjoy Freedom™, drinkable tap water, and partake of a seemingly unlimited bounty of foodstuff in grocery stores and supermarkets.

Or so it would seem, seen from the outside.

As in her previous novels, commentary on political and social circumstances is folded delicately into layers of the personal. In Americanah, Race-in-America is as much a character as Ifemelu and her first love, Obinze. Made up of seven parts, Americanah begins and ends as a love story, but it’s a love story that travels and migrates and sees and learns, so that when Ifemelu and Obinze meet again, in the novel’s final pages, they’ve been so shaken and turned inside out by the forces outside of themselves that they’ve shed and accrued different layers. It’s a most believable kind of love story, and a kind of triumph, the kind that left me crying because it seems to be the kind of love that no one dares to believe in, anymore.

Weaved into the dominant love story are the narratives of racism, displacement, migration, border-crossing and borderlessness, liberalism, Nigerian middle class apathy, Nigerian ruling class exploitation, colourism and its cousin, hairism, and white American do-gooders. The novel begins with Ifemelu’s point of view, and maintains it save for a few sections that allows us a glimpse of Obinze’s thoughts, and from the start we know that Ifemelu is not one to be trifled with and not one to trifle with us.

When she notices a fat woman in a miniskirt, Ifemelu feels admiration, an admiration that would not be there had it been a body that fit normative beauty ideals because “It was safe and easy, after all, to display legs of which the world approved”.  When we meet Ifemelu she’s a successful blogger who has achieved some amount of fame blogging about racism in America, even earning herself a fellowship in Princeton. In fact, we meet her in Princeton, where on the very first page she tells us that in “… this place of affluent ease, she could pretend to be someone else”—but not really herself, the self that wears natural hair, since she’s on her way to Trenton to braid her hair because there are no braiding salons in Princeton.

If Americanah wrangles with perceptions of race in America, it’s because Ifemelu is unused to the concept, which is a very shrewd commentary on the hegemonic functions of American thought. So much of what passes as discourse on “racism” is a very specific view of racism that pertains to the American experience, exported globally like Coca-Cola and military weapons. This raises some troubling moments, not just between Ifemelu and unapologetically racist white Americans—or the more forbidding kind, unconsciously racist and well-meaning white Americans—but also between her and black Americans, particularly her boyfriend Blaine and his sister, Shan. In a conversation about how American white men and European white men view black women differently, Ifemelu tells Shan she gets “a lot more interest from white men than from African-American men”, and Shan tells her it’s probably because of Ifemelu’s “exotic credential, that whole Authentic African thing”, a statement that leaves Ifemelu angry, but not exactly in full disagreement.

It’s these prickly territories that Adichie covers so well, because Americanah is interested in laying bare all the hypocrisies of the liberal American elite.

When she starts dating a wealthy, attractive white man, Curt, she takes note of his mother’s disapproval and the looks directed her way from other white women, the look of people “confronting a great tribal loss”. As Ifemelu explains, it’s not just because Curt was white; it was “the kind of white he was, the untamed golden hair and handsome face, the athlete’s body, the sunny charm and the smell, around him, of money”, that seemed to be the problem: why would a white man like that date a woman like her? Ifemelu takes note of the easy kind of subjectivity well-off white Americans are allowed to slide into, “all easy limbs and white teeth… people whose lives were lived always in flattering light, whose messes were still aesthetically pleasing”.

And Curt, while he loves Ifemelu for who she is, who she is is also part of the allure. Cocooned in white male privilege and wealth, he, a free-spirited and do-gooder white American presumably well aware of his country’s history, asks Ifemelu “Why do you have to do this?” when she comes back after a hair-relaxation treatment with a singed scalp.

Ifemelu is that rare thing: a woman who doesn’t hide that she’s quite secure in her own sense of attractiveness and worth. She knows she’s beautiful, but Adichie deftly shows how racism works to undermine even Ifemelu’s sense of confidence with all the banalities of the everyday comments and stares about her hair and what people take to be her projection of Africanness. When Ifemelu writes on her blog, and announces at a dinner party, that “the simplest solution to the problem of race in America” is “romantic love”, not the “kind of safe shallow love where the objective is that both people remain comfortable”, but “real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved”, Adichie brings the novel’s ruminations on race and desire to its fruition.

She leaves this radical notion of love open to interpretation and disagreement, and foregrounds it against Ifemelu’s awareness that while that some white American men might find her intelligent, funny, and beautiful, they don’t really see her, don’t allow themselves to see her, don’t desire her, because of how race has shaped and disciplined their sense of desire. Rather, race trains them to see only some as loveable, and it’s definitely not meant to be a woman who doesn’t look at all like a woman shaped by the ideals of white supremacy. As Blaine’s sister, Shan, remarked earlier—it’s a problem that not’s limited to white American men, and Adichie’s many readers around the world can probably bring their specific experiences with colourism to bear onto this notion of radical love across racial borders vs. sexual fetish and/or temporary this-will-do-for-now romance.

As it turns out, Obinze, the most America-obsessed among Ifemelu’s crew of high-school and college friends, is the one who doesn’t get to go to America when she does. It’s a twist of fate, “fate” otherwise known as politics and the ramifications of 9/11. In this, too, Adichie is superb in depicting the variables in migration narratives along gender lines: how monstrously fucked-up the situation can be for black and brown men travelling to the US or Europe, and where black and brown women (with some amount of money and connections, at least) may have a better go of it. Post 9/11, it’s never a good time to be a man of colour, and so Obinze ends up in London, trying desperately to avoid being deported, only to end up being deported.

Obinze is the only male character—the only one of Ifemelu’s lovers—whom the readers get to know. It’s easy to see why: he’s the only one who matters to her (and to us). But through Obinze, Adichie is able to show the post-9/11 situation of migration refracted through gender, and because Obinze is also in some ways less brash and more gentle than Ifemelu, not so much more thoughtful but more inward, some of the more effective commentaries on the politics of travel and border-crossing comes our way by way of Obinze. Working class white British men note how Obinze speaks “African posh”, and Obinze spells it out for himself and for us when he attends a dinner party filled with his Nigerian cousin’s white friends: he knew “they understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness”, why people like him end up in London in a deportation holding cell, people like him “who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look inwards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else.”

It is Obinze too, now back in Nigeria and newly-wealthy, who notes the contradictions of Nigerian life under capitalism and legacy of an artificially imposed time-lag of modernity that was the gift of colonialism: “Remember this is our newly middle-class world. We haven’t completed the first cycle of prosperity, before going back to the beginning again, to drink milk from the cow’s udder”, he tells Ifemelu, explaining to her why restaurants in Lagos preferred to serve “imported frozen fries” out of a bag instead of fries made out of freshly-cut and fried “real potatoes”.

Adichie is perhaps the kind of educated “well fed and watered” writer from the “postcolonial” third world who might make someone like Aijaz Ahmad grit his teeth, as when he talks about how imperial dominance shapes “even the way we think of ourselves”, and the valorisation of literature produced by the bourgeois class of the postcolonial third world country that becomes “more of a condition of the soul” unrelated to the material facts of life, as he writes in In Theory. But Adichie turns a gentle, satirical eye upon other liberals like herself, particularly when she (gently, gently)  pillories the Nigerian returnees who like her spent many years abroad in the civilised West, only to return to Nigeria and find the roads full of potholes and the restaurants devoid of vegan dishes.

Ifemelu doesn’t hold back when it comes to the skewering of liberal notions of race; one only wishes that she would have done the same for class relations. Similarly, when Obama wins the election and she and her boyfriend and their circle of friends celebrate, she touches upon a truth that resounded with many people across the globe in the significance of seeing a black man as the President of the United States. As her cousin American cousin Dike puts it, “My president is black like me.” And while only black Americans could own that moment and all its various nuances, to really know and feel just what it meant, for people as far away as Malaysia or Indonesia or India, believing in Obama and hoping that this time things will be different was in some ways a way of showing solidarity with black Americans, to acknowledge the historical value of that moment, a way for those outside of the US to say to black Americans, We see who he is and what it means to you, or what Eduardo Galeano, in this interview with Gary Younge, aptly refers to as the “symbolic resonance” in a country “with a fresh tradition of racism”.

Adichie underscores the value of that moment, but the material realities of Obama’s presidency, the imperial and military might of the American empire under his helm—the wars, the torture prisons, the surveillance and spying and arrests without detention, the drones dropped on Arabs, Pakistanis, Yemenis, the continued economic exploitation and advancement of capitalism through war and “free-trade” agreements, the laws that set killers of young black men free, the prisons that imprison young black men, (the list goes on and on and on)—is untouched. Perhaps that’s too much to expect from Americanah, which is already a massive achievement on its commentary on American race relations and late-capitalist Nigerian life. Perhaps these concerns might irritate Adichie, who doesn’t and probably wouldn’t, ever, one presumes, set out to write an explicitly political book.

But I could be wrong—if Obinze says accurately of Ifemelu that she is hard to predict, as a reader that’s what interests me most about Adichie. In an interview with Aaron Bady for the Boston Review, Adichie talks about Half of a Yellow Sun and its reception as a political and historical novel in Nigeria, versus its reception outside of Nigeria, where she says it was seen as “just a novel”.  Maybe we might meet Ifemelu and her criticisms of the Obama presidency and American imperial and military policies in a future story.

For right now, however, we have Americanah to grapple with. And what a frustrating, challenging, and rewarding gift it is. A momentary but necessary salve for the soul, like the protests that broke out across the America in memory of Trayvon Martin, suggesting that a different life can be imagined and made possible.

Les Miserables, Red Lights, etc.

January 15, 2013 § 8 Comments

One of my friends texted us in a group chat about the Golden Globes awards show and its unbearable celebration of whiteness. As this Tumblr post puts it: “The Brave White Artists of the USA”. The white culture industry congratulating its white industrially cultural self. Most of us love to watch it and talk about it because we’re saturated in it and even though I hate it so much I enjoy watching people watch it: a meta-spectacle. I mean, Debord wrote about this. Debord said it all. Everything shit will come to pass, said Debord.

I just had the best time looking at this twitter feed throughout the thing:

tweet 1 tweet 2 tweet 3

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I watched Les Miserables because a friend wanted to see it. I’m no fan of musicals. Or opera. At all. I had some familiarity with Les Miserables the musical because we put on bits of it for a concert when I was in the English Literary and Debating Society in secondary school. Yes, that’s really what it was called. The English Literary and Debating Society. I have stage fright, so I was never on stage but always in the background running around doing important things for the people on stage, but this has nothing to do with anything, really. Or does it?

Where Les Miserables the musical is concerned, I never understood why poverty had to be romanticised, aestheticised, into a feel-good musical. You might ask the same question of the novel itself, which I haven’t read, but then I’m biased—I majored in literary studies. Maybe I think the novel can do important things. So kill me now. I don’t know, this novel thing is a big question. I read Pierre Macherey’s A Theory of Literary Production and still understand nothing. That is, whole chunks of Macherey’s text were incomprehensible to me.

(The all-pervasive fear, a daily check in: How stupid am I? Is my stupidity increasing?)

Can the musical do important things? Perhaps it can—if so, I’ve yet to see a musical that felt like there was something there, but this makes no sense because as a general rule I avoid musicals, so I wouldn’t know a good musical if it came and warbled in my ear.

So.

It’s hard to take anything seriously when people are singing about it to you, although certain scenes had its power. The “End of the Day” sequence with the faces of the workers, the poor, the underclass. The opening scene with the song “Look Down”, again primarily because the camera honed in on individual faces of prisoners. Because Hugh Jackman didn’t look like Hugh Jackman the celebrity. But then he “reforms” and becomes an honest man by becoming a capitalist—a factory owner, to be precise. He also became a philanthropist. A good-hearted capitalist with morals and God. So an honest man is a man who stops stealing and starts openly exploiting workers—the women in his factory. As soon as he becomes an honest man, i.e. a capitalist, i.e. a man with money, Jean Valjean looks like Hugh Jackman and he even has Hugh Jackman’s teeth.

I haven’t read Victor Hugo’s novel, but I wonder if this ideal of white womanhood is a problem in the book, too. This ideal of the virtuous, pure, good-hearted, moralistic, and dreary woman played by the likes of Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried. Particularly in the case of Seyfried’s Cosette, the heir to her mother’s beauty and goodness: Good skin, good hair, good teeth, sparkling eyes, good health, good disposition, perfect for breeding.  The way in which Marius, played by Eddie Redmayne (the reason I finally gave in and watched the damn movie) falls in love with Cosette is so tiresome. So tiresome I don’t even have the energy to be angry anymore—most heterosexual love stories just put me to sleep these days.

Then there is Eponine—finally, an intriguing female character!—who pines for Marius, becomes a boy for a day, then dies. Imagine if instead of continuing to pursue Cosette, Marius starts to look anew at Eponine! Imagine a story where Marius nurtures his revolutionary, radical spirit and finds his soul mate in the woman who fought beside him! Imagine a story where Marius doesn’t put his own beliefs aside, temporarily, to follow the dictates of his penis, running after a normative, ideal vision of womanly perfection to “settle down” to a life of “happiness”. Jean Valjean, now an honest capitalist and honest patriarch, has a role to play here in ensuring his ward’s happiness. She must have the man! And how fitting that Marius, too, comes from money. The rich man will have the beautiful woman! And how fitting that Cosette’s mother was so virtuous that she is now a dead angel. 100% pure extract of Good Woman, is Cosette, and a good man will have her.

This Les Miserables is such a reactionary film. After the fighting and the death, things go back to normal. The barricades are now manned by the dead figures of revolutionary past. The future is with these two youths who are now married to each other. Their individual blonde European beauty is reflected in the other. Beyond that—who cares.

Les-Miserables_3-535x356

I have no idea why Anne Hathaway was nominated for a Golden Globe for this role, by which I mean I guess I know why Anne Hathaway was nominated for a Golden Globe for this role: This role is award bait. The culture industry loves a good woman in trouble, especially if she’s beautiful and has the good sense to weep for her child, sing sad songs, and die prettily. (They should have given her a nomination for the Batman film, instead, where between her and two seconds of Cillian Murphy they made the excruciating thing watchable.)

So Hathaway shaved off her hair for Les Miserables, but did you know that Cillian Murphy shaved off an eyebrow for Peacock? Where is Cillian Murphy’s award? Where is Cillian Murphy?

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In Red Lights, as it turns out, which is not award bait. Red Lights is about the ever-rational, all-seeing, white bourgeois gaze and how it tries to impose itself upon the world. It fails, to some extent, and the result is that blood splatters all over Cillian Murphy and he looks really good—Cillian as Carrie/Jesus hybrid, basically—but I digress. I think maybe the movie is itself conflicted about this gaze. I say “think” because this movie is a bit of a mess, or a lot of a mess. Not the kind of mess that I like, because I generally am quite fond of a really good mistake, but because it’s a smug, self-approving kind of mess.

I watched Red Lights in the cinema, alone, because I do like to watch movies alone for the most part but also because I have A Thing for Cillian Murphy, and I’d heard that Red Lights SUCKED SO BAD, so it was a matter of embarrassment and self-preservation. I can’t watch Cillian on-screen without feeling as though my face was melting into itself and my face can’t melt while people I know are with me. More so if the film is supposed to be bad.

So alone I went.

The thing about the gaze is interesting here, because Robert De Niro’s character is supposed to be blind, but because he apparently has psychic powers, he can still see. Isn’t that how colonial/imperial white supremacy tries to convince itself and others? That even though it can’t see and it can’t be everywhere, it can still see and know more than you would ever know. He is blind but fortunately he is a rich white man who can claim visuality, what Nicholas Mirzoeff in “The Right to Look” calls “the authority to tell us to move on and that exclusive claim to be able to look.” When he first meets Cillian Murphy’s character and runs his fingers over his face it feels authoritative and assertive, almost like a violation.

But Red Lights didn’t need De Niro. Maybe it would have been less of a smug mess without him. He plays the character of Simon Silver, a charismatic superstar psychic, with absolutely zero charisma. One imagines that De Niro might have possessed some charisma at some point—so many people seem to love him—but that charisma is gone and you’re left with De Niro and his superstar-psychic soliloquies. With De Niro now you get a superstar playing an actor playing a superstar psychic. Something was lost along the way, and I think the something is Feelings. What happens to male actors who are great (or considered great?) They ossify and become spectres of themselves. This is what awards shows like the Golden Globes “honour” year after year. Ghosts. While real people like black women and women of colour try to find roles that don’t demean them too much.

De Niro is not there, he’s never there; to compensate he tries to be there too much. His performance is embarrassing yet his face is right in the middle of the Red Lights poster, signalling some kind of great cosmic, Hollywood-star significance. Right away you know this film stars a great white man playing a great white man, and who cares if either one of these great white men is ultimately revealed to be a hack? He still commands crowds, makes money, gets to make his way in the world and be attended to by a coterie of power-hungry next-in-line soulsuckers. Which is the culture industry in a nutshell.

Sigourney Weaver is the key authoritative figure of the film, and this is nice until she dies because then there you realise that the first authoritative figure to die is a woman. What a coincidence! Sigourney’s character is one who knows things, the one who is wise and yet not afraid to admit that she’s afraid of doubt; the one who’s conventionally successful and yet not a walking shell of herself as so many successful women are often required to be, emptied out of all feeling.

She and Cillian have intriguing chemistry. When I think about the movie now I think about the scenes where they’re together, particularly the one conversation where she tells him that she’s afraid of Simon Silver because he was the first person to make her doubt. Cillian just listens and looks at her, and that look was something—a combination of love and respect. The right to look devoid of the need to claim authority over the object of one’s gaze. And I just thought about how that’s rare in most contemporary movies, especially if it’s between straight male and female characters who are not invested and/or interested in each other sexually, especially if it’s between an older woman and a younger man.

There was real energy between them, energy that I think would have pushed the film into new/different/interesting places than where it finally ended up. De Niro now seems like such an uncharitable actor in this film. He never plays off the energy of the other actors and in the denouement, he’s like a parasite sucking all intelligence and heart out of the movie with his belligerent ranting. And there’s poor Cillian, beaten to a pulp, bloody, without his Sigourney, having to be both Carrie and Jesus at once to De Niro’s entitled superstar. (In some of behind the scenes footage I found on Tumblr, De Niro is shown calling Cillian “Sillian” which to me is astonishing—the authority to mispronounce your relatively less-famous co-star’s name just because you’re De Niro and you can. You’re working with this person and you could care less that you don’t have his name right.)

So much fun without De Niro!

So much fun without De Niro!

But the thing about Sigourney’s character is that she makes an unkind remark about housewives that Cillian’s character picks up on. “I like housewives”, is what his character says, if I remember correctly, because he was just caught watching a reality show about housewives. Cillian says this line as if he’s unsure if it’s meant to be delivered straight or in jest. Which I suppose is the feminist conundrum of our times. Are successful women supposed to hate housewives? Are men supposed to be feminist or post-feminist or just sexist as usual in their opinion of housewives? Discuss. Write a series of articles about for The Atlantic. Write a book. And so on.

As for Cillian? Someday JR is going to write “The Meaning of Cillian Murphy” but until then I will stumble about trying to figure out why his performances, even when he’s cast in some truly atrocious movie, consistently unsettle me. This was the case in Red Lights, too, until the ending—an ending that really did make me laugh because it was filled will all kinds of shit lines, shit lines that were recited in Cillian’s wondrous, melodious voice, sure, but still—SHIT LINES. “We are who we are” or “We have to know ourselves” or whatever, I mean, please. I think Cillian did a superb job of shading his character in various tones of ambiguity but then perhaps I’m biased, or maybe that’s why I’m a “fan”—he’s always got a quality of excess, or disquiet, about him, like he’s about to jump out of his skin or melt into his bones or float off the face of the earth. I don’t feel safe watching him. I get the sense that acting is, for him, a means of working out or through anxiety about something (many things) (everything). I’m never bored when I watch him and this is important to me. So many actors are the walking dead. I mean, here’s Cillian Murphy next to Robert De Niro and without making any sort of qualitative judgment—which boils down to taste, which is a long story—there’s just a clear difference between the living and the dead.

Red Lights almost becomes yet another crisis of masculinity film and no doubt Leonardo DiCaprio could have sleepwalked through it like he did in Inception but Cillian never does (or can’t do?) conventional masculinity by the book and this redeems this movie. Somewhat.

But the film itself undermines Cillian’s character, because there are so many things it could have explored but stayed away from in the interest of giving us “a thriller”. Because ultimately it’s a film that questions or has its doubts about absolute rationality but opts out of the complexity by trotting out soothing, pop-selfhelp speak: “Know yourself” and all will be well. The film spends a good amount of time trying to prove all libidinal energy as anti-logic that finally it has to contradict itself, and Cillian’s character comes to embody the kind of emotional excess he has tried to disavow/reject/ mock. I’m wondering if hysteria is always feminised, that I’ve internalised this sexism that even when I see a male actor perform it I’m thinking about how his role is feminised, made precisely unstable because of its lack of conventional masculinity (which must always be rational). I’m not sure. Red Lights could have gone another way, but it needed to soothe is audience with optimism, progress, and realism. In the end, Cillian’s character must make meaning out of his madness. Thus, the movie ends with a truly atrocious voiceover where Cillian is made to mansplain his hysteria to himself and the audience.

There are a few non-white characters who pop up for a few seconds, as seen through the rationalising white gaze, hovering at the edges of the film as figures of dread or alarm. There is the requisite Tall Black Man who gives wee Cillian a scare. He looms up as a figure of terror until Cillian and the audience realises that he’s just part of Simon Silver’s mini security apparatus. There is one black lady dressed in tattered clothes who gives Cillian the evil eye and spits in his face after he almost (accidentally) runs her down. In that one scene she’s shown to be Really Scary and Possibly “Crazy”. The film doesn’t do well with these people living on the fringes of respectable bourgeois life—they’re shown here to be desperate and unsound of mind, often both—and the one instance with a black family who was convinced their son was manifesting special powers through his drawing was just awkward and strange, with Cillian and Sigourney as the two sensible white interlocutors observing and later, passing judgment on them while giggling in the car on the drive back.

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Perhaps Red Lights would have been award bait if it was better made, smoother, slicker. Maybe it needed an American director or the backing of major studios. There have been a zillion reviews panning the movie. The critics went to town. I wonder if these are the same critics who later included Zero Dark Thirty and Argo in their year-end best-of lists. Almost as if it’s a requirement to be an Empire apologist if you’re going to be a film critic. But what’s more stunning, or vomit-inducing, is the general critical consensus. How they know which films to collectively mock, and which ones to collectively swoon over? Does it involve actual thought? I mean, Peter Bradshaw was practically having an orgasm over Django Unchained in The Guardian. And right on cue these films go on to be nominated for awards.

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Review of Rahul Bhattacharya’s The Sly Company of People Who Care

January 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

A slightly delayed posting of my review of Rahul Bhattacharya’s The Sly Company of People Who Care for Pop Matters. Here’s an excerpt:

This is a book about Guyana, but it’s also in part about India, where the protagonist and the vast number of the Guyanese population locate their roots. Guyana, the protagonist informs his readers, “had the feel of an accidental place”. The protagonist of The Sly Company is a 20-something cricket journalist from Bombay who ups and leaves his job to spend a year in this accidental place. Up until this point, this book had only referred to India tangentially through the acknowledgement of the myriad ethnicities that people present-day Guyana. It spoke of a past India seen through the lens of colonialism that brought indentured labourers to emancipated Guyana from Calcutta and Bihar and other parts of India (alongside, in smaller numbers, people from Portuguese Madeira, China, other West Indian colonies). It spoke of a hyper-realised Bollywood India seen through the wistful eyes of Indian descendants of labourers who had never been “back”.

I wanted very much to like this book in an uncomplicated way, but perhaps the discomfort I had with it speaks more of Bhattacharya’s talent than a simple “I liked it!” This was the book review I was wrestling with when I wrote this post on Fanon.

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Fanonian moments, Fanon’s words, and… well, me

December 22, 2011 § 7 Comments

It’s not like it’s the end of the world–

just the world as you think

you know it.

Rita Dove, “The First Book”

 

A few days ago, I finished writing a review of a book. I KNOW! MOMENTOUS. I felt like I had shat out a diamond mine, minus the diamonds. I used to think that reviewing books I liked was hard, because it was important to keep the swoony gushing to a minimum and to consider the text for what it was, to reconsider the text for it was, because wasn’t it possible that in liking it so much, for whatever reasons, I may have overestimated its worth? But then I realised that reviewing bad books is equally hard – I would have to reconsider the text, because wasn’t it possible that in disliking it so much, for whatever reasons, I may have underestimated its worth?

Forget all that – I’ve decided that reviewing “meh” books is the most difficult. One has to dig around a bit in the muck of one’s brain-swamp to find out why a book has aroused such profound indifference. And then, because everyone knows book reviews are useless, to wade through that muck and reconsiderthe text in front of you and write a review that attempts to listen to the book, pay attention to what it doesn’t say, and wrestle it down not for meaning or for Truth but for a imaginative or intellectual expansion, to pay attention to when the book provides a way in or a way out of wherever you are at any given moment. To say to the world, here, look: a book review should never be useless, even on a bad day. (I know, of course, that Elizabeth Gumport’s piece wasn’t just to say, “Book reviews are useless”, and perhaps I wilfully misread to be wilfully churlish. Maybe.)

There is constant grappling with MEANING and INTERPRETATION. Frequent questions about WHAT THE FUCK IS ART ANYWAY.

And while you’re sitting there mulling things over, in particular that one question: WHAT THE FUCK IS ANYTHING ANYWAY, Susan Sontag comes up over your shoulder, hectoring you about interpretation, shouting into your ear, “INTERPRETATION IS THE REVENGE OF THE INTELLECT UPON ART. EVEN MORE. IT IS THE REVENGE OF THE INTELLECT UPON THE WORLD.”

This is the trigger.

You’re angry now, and you tell Sontag, “Listen, white lady with a wide vocabulary and excellent critical thinking, you cannot be against interpretation when this interpretation is the revenge of the brown woman intellect upon the world, and goddamn you, this revenge shall be had.”

The review goes unwritten for a few more hours.

**

“In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act,” Sontag continues to say in “Against Interpretation”, somewhat conciliatory.

**

“Who decides the contexts?” Subashini writes in her journal at 11:53 p.m. on December 7, 2011, brown woman intellect in a muddle.

**

The review of the book that inspired strong feelings of meh was finally completed in a blur of tears, when I decided to reread Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks while writing the conclusion and remembered the first time I encountered Fanon in the chilly aisles of the library at the University of Winnipeg at some point during the fall of 2005.

Who knows why I had to cry six years after reading him for the first time in order to remember what it felt like reading him for the first time.

**

I think I realised why, sometime later. Perhaps?

An introductory Critical Theory class, in which I encounter many of the thinkers and theorists in my Critical Theory reader for the first time. It’s all about timing, someone wise said once upon a time. I think if I was a young undergrad, the way undergrads are supposed to be, and also if I was white, male, and straight, I would have become a theory-jerk. You know the type? You bump into them everywhere into the blogosphere – theory as a belief system instead of a means to get somewhere. Where? I don’t know. But is should never be a belief system. This much I know.

(But I was older and uncool, having taken a few years between college in Malaysia and university in Canada to work temp jobs and despise life. So I became a theory spinster.)

We read an extract of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex during the second or third week of class, at a time when Frantz Fanon was just a name to me and nothing more. Our excellent professor made us all gather into pairs to discuss a particular Beauvoir excerpt. We broke into pairs with the person seated next to us. The person next to me was a guy: pale of skin, blue of eye, fair of hair.

I had seen him around some of my other literature courses and had entertained a mild crush on him until I heard him speak. There was nothing wrong with him, certainly. He was popular, even! Well-liked! A sort of rising star in the English Department! The kind of rising star who, along with other rising stars of the English Department, never really spoke to me, even when I spoke to them. The kind who were forever speaking to someone or apparition behind you, next to you, an embodied presence floating above your head, perhaps, even when they were having a conversation with you. The kind who could never really look you in the face.

“It’s my hair, perhaps my scalp-“

“My skin, my tropical-bred skin, so oily and shiny and perhaps they can’t bear to look at it… maybe I have a pimple-“

“My facial hair, I can’t help it though, it’s my Tamil-genes, oh god, it’s probably my eyebrows, did I remember to tweeze, do I have unibrow because I haven’t looked at myself in the mirror this week because it’s finals week-“

–Just some of things that ran through my mind when fresh-faced, white-skinned English department rising stars couldn’t talk to me by looking at me in the face.

I had a sense in those days, you see, which were the longest period I’d ever lived in a North American space, that some white people didn’t know how to react to me because of the colour of my skin, perhaps, or the strange tone and texture of it; the strange tone and texture of my wild, wavy hair, perhaps, or the strange tone and cadence of my English – always proper, but somehow strange.

So. Pair discussion! A few things were said, and then I blurted out how valuable it was to me that Beauvoir expounded on the construction of “the eternal feminine”:

“The similarity just noted is in no way due to chance, for whether it is a race, a caste, a class, or a sex that is reduced to a position of inferiority, the methods of justification are the same. ’The eternal feminine’ corresponds to ‘the black soul’ and to ‘the Jewish character’.”

That passage is flawed, of course, for Beauvoir insisted that the “woman problem” is equivalent to “the Negro problem”, or “the Jewish problem”. Despite the flaw, it was an opening for the conceptualisation of identity that excited me, then – as it would, I think, for any woman encountering Beauvoir (and Foucault, simultaneously) for the first time.

Frantz Fanon - Black Skin, White Masks Advertisement (1967)

I really can’t remember what my discussion partner was saying about a great many things, because everything he said prior became a blur following what he said after I said something along the lines of, “I’m really wary of people who aren’t black going on and on about ‘the black soul’, for instance,” and he replied with (paraphrased), “What’s wrong with saying that? What’s wrong with ‘the black soul’? They have soul. I think it’s a compliment.”

And I fumbled, as I am wont to do when flustered, angry, and unable to articulate what I feel somewhere deep in my physical self but can’t quite put into words.

How to begin? Where to begin?

I had a sense that our professor, from way yonder, noticed my expression and swooped in just in time to come find out how we were doing with our discussion, in which case the point I wanted to make was lost as we talked about other Beauvoir things and not the one thing that was rattling around the walls of my feeble mind.

I felt an immense sense of shame over that ridiculous pair-discussion; shame that I carried around for awhile; shame at not having said what was on my mind, shame that came from knowing English and explaining for years to curious white Canadians – “It’s practically my first language! My mother spoke and read to me in English when I was in the womb, even!” – and failing, at that crucial point, to find any use for English.

To find English failing me, or myself for failing English, and wondering how it was that people – like this guy, for instance – came to possess such an expansive view of themselves in the world, that they had no doubt that they can say anything and be unafraid or uncomfortable, knowing that room will be made for them at the table, that their words will be heard, that it won’t unheard or ignored or simply misunderstood because they speak English the wrong way, and with a strange accent?

**

Fanon was on the syllabus. He was to come many weeks after Beauvoir. But I was a Good Student, as I was told all my life, I got good grades and I did all my readings – and better yet, professors said, beaming at me: I read more than the required readings!

An excerpt of Black Skin, White Masks was on the syllabus, but a copy of the book was available in this university library which so often did not have copies of anything beyond lots and lots of copies of dead, white men.

So what I learned then, or perhaps realised what I’d always intuited about how I sometimes read and why I read, that maybe you stifle the shame with reading. Sometimes.

“I shall demonstrate elsewhere that what is often called the black soul is a white man’s artifact,” Fanon wrote in his introduction to Black Skin, White Masks and with that, I had found my words.

I had found it too late, obviously. And had I known it then, that this was what I felt but could not say because I didn’t know how to – if I had known it then, would I have had the courage to say it? I don’t know.

And still – gaps exist. What do I, Malaysian-born woman of Sri Lankan Tamil descent, have in common with Martinican-born French-educated Frantz Fanon of African descent who died twenty years before I came into the world? There are gaps. I don’t expect Fanon to fill it.

But he gave me words that day in a way that made me realise how we sometimes drink books down as if we hadn’t had a sip of water for days. Or how you breathe a book in before you even realise you were gasping for air.

I can only think, like Keguro wrote in his post Listening to African Queers: “Alas, I read Fanon at a formative moment.”

Timing is everything.

I think, maybe, that’s why I cried when I picked up Black Skin, White Masks again recently six years after reading it for the first time. The book I had finished reviewing was set in the global South with characters who were struggling to understand themselves beyond how they were taught to see themselves. I felt, at that moment, threads of connection between one unrelated book and another and myself as the eye of the needle through which they passed.

And so I sat down for awhile and cried.

Or it could have been hormones. I am Woman[i], after all, and 98.25% of the time we are fluttering about in a state of agitated hormonal activity. (I am told, by reliable sources.)

**

Sometimes you’re going along, doing your own thing, reading some great essays in a highly-praised online magazine of “ideas”, and then you read a profile on the editors and founders of this magazine, and you realise that they appear to be all white, and young, and you remember flashes of another life in another country, of English departments and rising English department stars and graduate students, and you think, “Why are they consistently white and young?”, knowing that these questions are not quite generous, knowing that seeing people in terms of skin colour and youth and shared experiences and networks and educational backgrounds is to limit how you see the world.

Or does it?

I don’t know.

“The extent of my perversity overwhelms me,” said Aimé Césaire.[ii]

“Alas, I read Fanon at a formative moment.”

I’m sorry Sontag, but sometimes my (our) intellect needs to take revenge upon the world.

Fanon gave me words. There is – yes, still! – the rubble of white man’s artifacts both out there, in the world, and in here, inside my mind. Sometimes I need all the words I can get.

“What can I do?

One must begin somewhere.”[iii]

 

 


[i] And that means grappling with Fanon’s complicated gender politics – women are an afterthought, and as David Macey writes in Frantz Fanon: A Life, “feminism was not on Fanon’s agenda” (despite him knowing Beauvoir personally, and Black Skin, White Masks sharing a conceptual framework with The Second Sex). Macey tells us about Fanon’s first white girlfriend, who because she was pregnant with his child out of wedlock, and because of their interracial union in conservative Lyon, failed her medical exams and saw her medical career aspirations come to an end as she went off to have their baby. And what of Fanon’s wife, Josie, who typed his Black Skin, White Masks manuscript? She casts a shadow, but she is sketched into place with faint lines. The story is of Fanon the man, of course, and the women were merely… there. Macey’s biography is magisterial in its scope and its love for its subject, but as a woman I wrestle with the little stabby pains to the heart in recognizing how little Women actually mattered to Fanon.

[ii] In Notebook of a Return to the Native Land

[iii] Ibid.

*The stunning image of the Black Skin, White Masks ad is from Alex Weheliye’s excellent Tumblr.

 

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Interlocking issues

January 17, 2011 § 3 Comments

Some musings of mine on the issue of Interlok ran in The Nut Graph today. I have reproduced it here in full:

The debate about the novel Interlok by Malaysian national laureate Abdullah Hussein continues to rage, but among a select few. The Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) wants the book to be withdrawn from the Form Five syllabus for Malay literature on the grounds that the novel contains “offensive” words and depictions of Indian Malaysians. The MIC claims that the book will offend the entire Indian Hindu community, who, according to them, no longer practise the caste system.

Coming from the MIC, this smacks a little too much of hypocrisy, because I know of Indian Malaysians who still have to battle with issues of caste within their communities and families. The issue of caste has also come under scrutiny for its implications on the internal politics of the MIC. And it’s hypocritical because the MIC itself is part of a power structure that continues to practise and propagate race-based discrimination.

Interlok may or may not be right in its depiction of the Indian Malaysian community, which is taken for granted to be monolithic when it is not. But the MIC’s claim that the book highlights issues that are no longer relevant for the Indian Malaysian community is a blatant lie. It’s also a blatant form of politicking in order to win back the Indian Malaysian vote. By fighting for the rights of Indian Malaysians through this issue, the MIC is no doubt hoping that the community will forget its complicity in promoting race politics.

Selective arguments

There’s also hypocrisy from those who want the book to remain in the syllabus. These are people I follow on Twitter, traditional media columnists, as well as other writers and scholars quoted in media coverage of the issue. They claim that to censor or remove words from a published work of literature is to insult the author’s integrity. On one hand, I agree with this, because as a writer myself, I believe that the craft of writing must be respected.

More importantly, however, books, including works of creative expression, should be judged on their merits. Speculations as to the author’s intentions should not tilt the scale either way. Further to this point is the argument for free speech: something should not be censored, banned, or restricted simply because it offends some people’s sensitivities.

What would these same people who argue for the author’s integrity say about the tendency of the ruling coalition to ban any book that challenges its authority? 1FunnyMalaysia, perhaps?

Education system the problem

My greater concern is how a national education system that is fundamentally structured to be racist can attempt to teach a text as problematic as Interlok.

This book, because of its content, is the kind of book that should help further, deepen, and intensify national discourse on race relations. It is a book that should be handled with maturity and critical yet intelligent interrogation. Precisely because it offends some people, it should be deconstructed and taught with sensitivity.

But how are we going to do this through a nationally constructed pedagogy that promotes half-truths and prejudiced views, which alters history, neglects critical thinking, and undervalues the role of the teacher and student? How can we fill our schools with racist, defeated teachers, hand them a racially problematic text, and expect these very same people to teach it with any degree of responsibility, compassion, or intelligence?

Scholastic hypocrisy

Some scholars argue that Interlok depicts the “social reality” of the time in which it was set, and thus should be studied as a realistic portrayal of Malaysian society during that period of time. The Malaysian Institute of Historical and Patriotism Studies says that Interlok is a “suitable novel for use of as a textbook for the literature component of the Bahasa Malaysia subject in Form Five because it is based on historical facts”. The National Writers Association (Pena) has come out strongly against the removal of the book. A memorandum has also been signed by several groups, including the Malay Consultation Council and Ikatan Persuratan Melayu.

Will these scholars say the same about Anthony Burgess’s The Malayan Trilogy, which is arguably one of the best novels about colonial-era Malaya? Burgess is equally scathing of all races, including the British. Will any Malay Malaysian politician champion for Trilogy to be taught in schools the way some of them are for Interlok?

In fact, as Sharon Bakar has pointed out, The Malayan Trilogy is not only not taught in our schools, it has also at one time or another been banned or restricted, presumably because it takes the mickey out of not just the Indians or the Chinese, but the Malays as well. I would like to hear scholars, politicians and writers come out in defence of this book for English Literature classes in Malaysia. I think all we would hear are crickets.

We uphold free speech only when it’s convenient, and argue for the integrity of artists and the free circulation of art only when it suits us. But let us not be gullible enough to assume that if Interlok is allowed to be taught in schools nationwide, we’ve won a small part of the battle. It might only be dispiriting confirmation that the national discourse favours the sensitivities and sensibilities of one particular group or race over another.

(This is cross-posted at We Are the Cocoa to Your Puffs.)

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