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.

What I've been reading, featuring the elements of time-keeping and a TERF war

  • Michelle Zauner (better known by her stage name Japanese Breakfast) writes in The New Yorker about the pain of losing touch with your roots. She says on Instagram that the article is the first chapter in a book in progress.

When I go to H Mart, I’m not just on the hunt for cuttlefish and three bunches of scallions for a buck; I’m searching for their memory. I’m collecting the evidence that the Korean half of my identity didn’t die when they did.

The United States sometimes seems to be committed to amnesia, to forgetting its great national sin of chattel slavery and the violence, repression, endless injustices and humiliations that have sustained racial hierarchies since emancipation. Stevenson has said that, visiting Germany, he was struck by the number of memorials to the victims of the Holocaust: the Stolpersteine, or ‘stumbling stones’, set in the ground in their thousands to mark the names of the murdered in the places where they once lived; the Holocaust Memorial near the Brandenburg Gate and its subterranean museum; the thousands of other reminders all over the country of the evils done in the name of Germany – maps, monuments, plaques, preserved concentration camps. Similarly, the Apartheid Museum in South Africa bears witness to the racist system that dominated that country’s history; monuments and plaques outside the constitutional court in Johannesburg recognise those who suffered. There is no remotely comparable memorial culture in the United States to the legacy of slavery.

  • NYU PhD student Andrea Long Chu’s famous n+1 article taking on “trans-exclusionary radical feminism”:

It must be underscored how unpopular it is on the left today to countenance the notion that transition expresses not the truth of an identity but the force of a desire… I doubt that any of us transition simply because we want to “be” women, in some abstract, academic way. I certainly didn’t. I transitioned for gossip and compliments, lipstick and mascara, for crying at the movies, for being someone’s girlfriend, for letting her pay the check or carry my bags, for the benevolent chauvinism of bank tellers and cable guys, for the telephonic intimacy of long-distance female friendship, for fixing my makeup in the bathroom flanked like Christ by a sinner on each side, for sex toys, for feeling hot, for getting hit on by butches, for that secret knowledge of which dykes to watch out for, for Daisy Dukes, bikini tops, and all the dresses, and, my god, for the breasts.

‘Political theorists envision the public sphere as a place of the free exchange of reasons as if that free exchange of reasons is supposed to be conducive to general knowledge, political and moral knowledge. That just seems wrong to me if you and I don’t even acknowledge the same considerations as reasons.’

The project, then, is to work towards a better model, most centrally one which would stop people from losing knowledge in the face of bedrock disagreement. The model that emerges, it is already clear, will be in conflict with another liberal program, J S Mill’s. ‘Mill believed in the living truth’, Srinivasan explains. ‘He thought that even when you know something, you’re better off defending your argument against sceptics because that will heighten the justification for your belief. I actually think the opposite can happen. It can particularly happen in cases… where there’s deep practical disagreement coupled with power differentials.’ As an example, she gives the case of a black person in a society like the US, who has knowledge that the cops in his town are racist in virtue of his repeated interactions with them but, when pushed by a sceptic, is unable to counter every argument with which he is presented. Srinivasan thinks that such a person is ‘at risk of losing his knowledge’, not because his evidence is defeated or he loses his justification, but because he might feel psychologically that he needs to give up his view.

As a side note, it was announced Srinavasan has a book deal to extend her excellent LRB article “Does anyone have the right to sex?”