What I've been reading, featuring refugees illustrated, “Roma”, and neural prosthetics

In her essay “We Refugees”, Hannah Arendt wrote, “Nobody wants to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings—the kind that are put into concentration camps by their foes and internment camps by their friends.” Nearly eighty years later, the world has come no closer to ensuring the rights of a human without a country. Mostly, governments propose quarantine. Internment camps grow in Tornillo, Texas, in Lesbos, in Zaatari, and in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. It won’t work. Each year, the world grows warmer. The oceans rise. Wars are fought for ever-scarcer resources. If the wealthy West worries about one million Syrians, what will it do with millions of climate refugees?”

“It was odd, on a visit this spring to a school in the Indian state of Rajasthan, to hear a Muslim teacher, Sana Khan, ask her entirely Muslim eight-grade social science class, “Was there anything positive about Mughals"?”… the textbooks’ promotion of an essentially Hindu history provides a foundation for slowly remaking India into an essentially Hindu country.”

  • I attended an advanced screening of Alfonso Cuarón’s new film, “Roma”, expected to be a strong awards season contender. I don't know how autobiographical it is on Cuarón's part, but it must be in large measure 'cause the movie just breathes love and gratitude to the women that raised him. It's set in 1970s Mexico City, but it may be the closest thing I've seen on screen to my upbringing in Southeast Asia, particularly its depiction of the relationship between a privileged middle-class family and their live-in staff and the maybe-contradictions of such a relationship.

    • I liked the Washington Post review, but in general reading the responses of the standard names (some of whom I respect immensely) revealed a homogeneity in the backgrounds of the cultural intelligentsia (have always wanted to use that word). In the face of an obviously intimate film in a very specific setting and depicting a complex familial dynamic, they seem to use technical observations as a crutch for their unfamiliarity—I don’t think that’s good enough.

    • To that end, credit to Brooklyn-based Remezcla for soliciting Latino critics’ responses. One recommends the 2015 film “Que horas ela volta? (The Second Mother)” out of Brazil as a more thorough exploration of the maid-family dynamic.

    • On the topic of Southeast Asian domestic staff, recommending some excellent but heartbreaking reading:

  • A 2015 history of Brazil (newly updated and translated to English) rebuts prevailing views that slavery there has not left a racist legacy akin to America’s

  • The New Yorker had a long-read on the development of neural prosthetics. Especially timely for me as someone who recently completed Doc Ock’s storyline on Spider-Man on the PS4. Schwartz’s biotech falls short of Octavius’s sentient metallic limbs, but to Schwartz’s credit, he better achieves Octavius’s original goal of helping amputees.

    Engrossing science and technology story here, but the patient, Jan Scheuermann, quickly steals the show with her personality:

    • “They said, ‘You know this includes voluntary brain surgery?’ I said, ‘Yup, that’s OK. I’m going to move that robotic arm!’ They said, ‘Well, these two pedestals will stick out of your head, about three-quarters of an inch, and it will be that way until we take them out.’ and I said ‘OK, sure. I want to move that robotic arm with my mind!’”

    • “Protruding from the top of her head were the two pedestals: cylinders reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster, each the diameter of a quarter, and capped to prevent moisture from getting into the contact points. Scheuermann vowed to embrace them. She told herself they were instruments of exploration, and named them Lewis and Clark.”

    • “Then they asked me if I had a goal. I sensed they wanted me to say that I wanted to touch my children, or my husband. I said, ‘Yeah, I have a goal. I want to feed myself chocolate.’”

    • “I flew a plane today. I freaking flew a plane today! I am 54 years old, I’ve been a quadriplegic for 14 years, and I flew a plane today! In my mind, I’m still flying.”

    • Her quote to end the piece is a tear-jerker

    • 60 Minutes segment on the same patient from five years ago:

 

I admire her commitment to doing the New York Times crossword puzzle

 

What I've been reading, featuring NK Jemisin inventing and changing worlds

Who did get into Oxford back then? A small group whose upholding of the old traditions of Englishness can no longer prepare a British Isles – made up of all its various peoples – for the forces of modernity. For our real place in the world, for the consequences of Empire.

This is the shrinking Kingdom of the English, who subjugated Wales and Scotland and Ireland. The biggest problem of elite cliques is myopia. The country is far more brittle and divided than they can see. They are the believers who still, somewhere, think that the map of the world is pink. But they forget their Classics lessons; what happens when an empire falls? With no one else to dominate, the establishment turns on its own people. We become subjects, not of the British Empire, but of the last dregs of the English upper classes. A report into undergraduate admissions earlier this year found that in 2017 Oxford admitted more pupils from Westminster School than black students, a glaring piece of evidence about how the knot is being tightened even more firmly around the bag of family silver.

I wonder now about all the other kids like me, the ones at odd angles, the queer and working class and black, or even just Northern, or Welsh, or provincial. This is not a place for them, however loudly they might be knocking on the door.

“In reality, the school falsified transcripts, made up student accomplishments and mined the worst stereotypes of black America to manufacture up-from-hardship tales that it sold to Ivy League schools hungry for diversity. The Landrys also fostered a culture of fear with physical and emotional abuse, students and teachers said. Students were forced to kneel on rice, rocks and hot pavement, and were choked, yelled at and berated.”

Part of why Jemisin is viewed as “political” is the mere fact that she writes about things like dragons and planets at all. Since at least the early 1900s, when people began using “fantasy” to signify a certain type of literature, the genre has been dominated by white male authors and their nostalgia for the pastoral European past, a time of kings and queens and wizards, all of them white. The heroes in these tales are often intent on saving that traditional order from some alien force — an invading army of orcs, an evil sorcerer. Jemisin flips that formula on its head. The Broken Earth, her latest and most famous trilogy, begins with an oppressed man, an escaped slave of sorts, setting off an earthquake that rips the land in two, toppling cities and covering the realm in a cloud of ash that will linger for thousands of years. In Jemisin’s telling, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As one character tells another, ‘Some worlds are built on a fault line of pain, held up by nightmares. Don’t lament when those worlds fall. Rage that they were built doomed in the first place.’”

 

From August, Jemisin accepting her third consecutive Hugo Award: "This is the year in which I get to smile at all of those naysayers—every single mediocre insecure wanna-be who fixes their mouth to suggest that I do not belong on this stage; that people like me cannot possibly have earned such an honor; and that when they win, it's meritocracy, but when we win, it's identity politics. I get to smile at those people and lift a massive shining rocket-shaped finger in their direction.”

 

“I had seen trauma before, but never an entire traumatized nation. I reminded myself regularly that all the adults I met were survivors or former killers, who now had to try to live with what they had seen or done. Almost everyone, survivor or killer, had lost family members. They carried around inside themselves millions of tiny worlds of suffering.”

And yet so rarely has a protest novel contained within it as soaring a love as that between Tish and Fonny. To put it simply, the romance at the center of this novel is pure to the point of saccharine. It’s no wonder that, amongst the more scholarly of his readers, the book is held in lesser esteem. And yet even this is a testament to the magic trick Baldwin pulls here, and a key reason for the tone of our adaptation. We don’t expect to treat the lives and souls of black folks in the aesthetic of the ecstatic. It’s assumed that the struggle to live, to simply breathe and exist, weighs so heavily on black folks that our very beings need be shrouded in the pathos of pain and suffering.

It is this need, this desire to render blackness in hues of dread and sorrow, that leads some to reject rapturous renderings of black life as inauthentic. This misconception would be trivial if it didn’t trivialize an unquestionable fact about black life, for who else has wrested as much beauty from abject pain? Who else has manifested such joy despite outsized suffering? Somewhere, an Earth, Wind & Fire song is playing in a living room where portraits of Maya Angelou and a blue-eyed Jesus share a wall. The Rapture will be televised. And I’ll be damned if it won’t involve a cookout and somebody’s auntie leading an Electric Slide. I chose Beale Street because I felt the novel, more than any of his other works, represented the perfect blend of Baldwin’s dual obsessions with romance and social critique, as sensual a depiction of love as it is a biting observation of systemic injustice.