What I've been reading, featuring how we write about other cultures, how we write about racism, how we write about climate change, and how we write about the Animorphs

  • For the New York Review of Books, Alma Guillermoprieto has the review of “Roma” I’ve been waiting for.

    When I first watched “Roma”, I wrote here: “reading the responses… revealed a homogeneity in the backgrounds of the cultural intelligentsia. 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.” I then linked to this collection of Latino critical responses.

    But this review stands apart and is a prime example of why diversity matters. It’s not enough to make note of the hierarchy or power dynamics of the society depicted. A movie this compassionate calls for more: “Cuarón is not interested in portraying Cleo anthropologically: he wants to show us what she was to him, and to tell the story of Mexico City and what happened to Cleo the year that his own family shattered.” With the attention bestowed upon it by a Best Picture nomination, this film is too rare, important, and (above all) good to not be talked about with the specificity and insight Guillermoprieto provides.

I once interviewed a couple of dozen domestic servants about their work. It was hard to get young empleadas to talk to me, particularly if they were from the countryside… But the older women had plenty to say. A surprising number stated that they were happy with their families… But what I heard most frequently was the rage they felt at previous employers who had fired them with no warning or thought for their feelings. What about the children? they would ask. They fire us, we have to abandon them, and then you have to learn to love a new set of children, and you’re always afraid you’re going to be fired all over again and lose them. One woman cried as she explained this. “They never think about the fact that we love the children,” she said.

…That the women I interviewed could love the children they cared for—and love them, in fact, to the point of heartbreak—was to me nothing short of miraculous."

…So much happens in “Roma”. It is so bursting with life, Mexican life!… When I saw the movie in New York, the entire audience sat in silence as the credits rolled over a long, meditative shot of the staircase and the sky, until the screen blacked out over the title, and they sighed, and moved on.

Graphic from  the  Boston Review

Graphic from the Boston Review

A 1956 profile of Georgia senator Herman Talmadge called him “an advocate of ‘White Supremacy’” and noted that “he makes no bones about this.” Talmadge and his southern white colleagues did not shy away from racist language. For example, at the 1948 breakaway States’ Rights Democrats (aka Dixiecrats) convention, South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond claimed, “There’s not enough troops in the army, to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.” There was nothing “racially tinged” about Thurmond’s comments. He saw no need to hide his racism, and journalists, accordingly, saw no need to describe it in euphemistic terms. When Thurmond filibustered the 1957 Civil Rights Act, an article about it in the San Rafael Independent Journal was surrounded by pieces with the headlines “Racists Hit Rights Bill as ‘Vicious’” and “Racists Rally in Nashville.” These straightforward descriptions may shock modern readers accustomed to the imprecise language of “racial provocateurs” and “nakedly racial” actions.

There were four books in the box. They are very different from one another, but as a whole they represent a generational break with the climate change books before them. This is because not one of them is strictly about the topic at hand. Not one of them bothers to argue that climate change is real. Not one bothers to explain how societies can work to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Not one gets hung up on atmospheric science or computer models or the Paris Agreement. Instead, they simply take for granted that temperatures will rise and that the world as we know it will soon be fundamentally altered. The migration scholar writes about migration and the seed scientist about seeds and the ecosocialist about urban capitalism, but climate change – the biggest, most pervasive ongoing event in the world – is always present in the background. This is by necessity. Climate change is and will be everywhere. It doesn’t stand apart from our daily existence, not any more.

Two of the cities I’ve lived in the longest come up in “Extreme Cities” by Ashley Dawson:

Dawson’s book is about the way responses to climate change are being shaped by the entrenched interests of capital. He takes aim at the comfortable notions of ‘resilience’ and ‘green growth’ pushed by – among others – the former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg and his cast of visiting Dutch architects, questioning post-Hurricane Sandy projects like the Big U seawall proposed for lower Manhattan: it would attract tourists and protect Wall Street, but displace storm surge waters to surrounding, poorer neighbourhoods. ‘Under present social conditions,’ he writes, such schemes are ‘likely to be employed by elites to create architectures of apartheid and exclusionary zones of refuge’. For Dawson, New York is the ‘extreme city’ problem in microcosm.

…The $40 billion, Dutch-built Great Garuda seawall in Jakarta, soon to be the biggest in the world, will displace thousands of shack-dwellers on an existing seawall and put tens of thousands of fishermen out of work – but it will give developers a chance to profit from selling luxury homes on artificial islands. The Eko Atlantic development on a peninsula off the coast of Lagos is patrolled by heavily armed guards and surrounded by shanty towns built on stilts where the chefs and nannies live. ‘Both Eko Atlantic and the Great Garuda,’ Dawson writes, with excusably escalating rhetoric, ‘offer visions of the extreme social injustice of emerging neoliberal urban phantasmagoria in a time of climate change.’

My home country in Todd Miller’s migration-oriented “Storming the Wall”:

One important revelation in Miller’s book is that climate change science is wholly uncontroversial inside the military and security establishment, even high up in the Trump administration. It’s widely accepted that the warming world will soon see many more refugees – 50 million, 250 million, a billion, nobody can say for sure – even if climate migrants can’t formally be called refugees under present international law… He shares Dawson’s concern that we’re hurtling ever more rapidly towards a world of haves and have-nots. ‘More dangerous than climate disruption was the climate migrant. More dangerous than the drought were the people who can’t farm because of the drought. More dangerous than the hurricane were the people displaced by the storm.’

Miller tells the story of Yeb and A.G. Saño, two Filipino brothers whose hometown was largely destroyed by 2013’s Super Typhoon Haiyan and whose home region was arguably destroyed by the police state that rose in the typhoon’s wake. The brothers marched a thousand miles on foot across the Alps to arrive in Paris for the start of the 2015 UN Climate Summit, with Miller joining them for the last few kilometres. But the climate talks took place just weeks after Islamic State’s attack on the Bataclan concert hall, and Paris was in a state of emergency when the marchers entered the city. The brothers – foreign, brown, idealistic – put their arms around each other outside a café for a photo op, and a man came out and yelled at them, thrusting a newspaper with an image commemorating Bataclan in their faces. ‘People here in France are not concerned about climate change,’ he told them. ‘The people of France are concerned about terrorism.’ The next day, Miller walked alongside protesters demanding carbon cuts, running when they were attacked by riot police. It’s a blunt but effective metaphor. ‘As I ran,’ he writes, ‘I realised I had arrived at the true climate summit.’

  • New Yorker profile of Marlon James, whose third novel won the 2015 Man Booker Prize, the first for a Jamaican writer. He describes his upcoming novel as the first part of a planned “African Game of Thrones” trilogy.

Several years ago, after a frustrating argument with a friend about the all-white cast of “The Hobbit,” James had an impulse “to reclaim all the stuff I like—court intrigue, monsters, magic,” he told me. “I wanted black pageantry. I wanted just one novel where someone like me is in it, and I don’t have to look like I just walked out of HP Lovecraft, with a bone in my hair, and my lips are bigger than my eyes, and I’m saying some shit like ‘Oonga boonga boonga.’ Or else I’m some fucker named Gagool and I’m thwarting you as you get the diamonds.”

…When it comes to feedback on his own work, James is headstrong and malleable by turns. He resents many forms of editorial imposition, nursing cherished grudges against the people who, for instance, told him that “John Crow’s Devil” was too foreign for American readers. (…I would recommend it only to people who also enjoy, say, the very early work of Cormac McCarthy.) BUt, if someone offers an astute correction, he never forgets it. For most of his career, he’s been working off a note that the Trinidadian novelist Elizabeth Nunez gave him in 2002. “She told me that I was talented, but that I didn’t know how to write women,” he said. “I didn’t know how women related to each other, how they processed the unthinkable.” He reread Iris Murdoch, Alice Walker, and Muriel Spark, and concluded that Nunez was right."

As if accepting a challenge, he set his second novel entirely in the world of the feminine unthinkable… “I really tried to get my Jane Austen on!” he said.

There’s also a great discussion in there invoking Chinua Achebe, VS Naipaul, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the topic of non-Western writers Westernizing their work out of shame. I can relate to that: when I’d write short stories as a kid growing up in Indonesia, the addresses in my stories would be named “Main Street” and would feature characters named “Mark Johnson” or similar. (You internalize these feelings when neither the works in your syllabi nor the adults with the authority to teach them are from the continent you live in.)

The series ran from 1996 to 2001 and consisted of fifty-four books plus spin-offs, all credited to “K.A. Applegate” (in reality, they were written by the husband-and-wife team Katherine Applegate and Michael Grant, with ghostwriters taking over after Book 25)

Sad to learn that all these years later. Still, I felt like the writer is overapologizing for liking these books. It was a legitimately fun series with an iconic gimmick! Plus this series and Tomorrow, When The War Began were the first Western books I’d come across that had non-white characters regarded romantically. That was a mild revelation for me at that age though it seems I’m not the only one who read a lot into those books:

Consequently, today’s Animorphs apologias share a tendency to assert that the series wasn’t really about five teenagers morphing into animals to fight aliens—that it was really about something else, though there’s no consensus on precisely what. Matt Crowley of the AV Club argues that the whole thing was a metaphor for puberty. Meghan Ball of Tor and Lindsey Weedston of The Mary Sue play up its feminist message. Tres Dean of Geek.com claims that Applegate was a “prophet” whose books anticipated 9/11 and the Iraq War. Many fans, including me, find a compelling transgender narrative in the character of Tobias, who chooses to remain in the body of a red-tailed hawk forever rather than continue living as a boy. In drafting this essay, I briefly considered making the argument that the series was really about the experience of being a child inappropriately entrusted with an adult secret.

None of these readings are wrong. But none of them feel exactly right to me, either—not as an explanation of what made the books great. I don’t think we loved them for their allegorical resonance. We loved them because they were exactly what they appeared to be: a series about five teenagers morphing into animals to fight aliens.

What I've been reading, featuring problematic art and Jonathan Franzen's "Purity"

  • Writers Nikil Saval and Pankaj Mishra correspond on how they reckon with the legacy of VS Naipaul, the Trinidad-born Man Booker and Nobel Prize-winning author whose influential writing conjured neocolonial, fascist, racist, and misogynistic sentiment. I’m not familiar with Naipaul, but the subject of reconciling influential work with its problematic creator is doubtlessly relevant. They artfully call this exercise “the painful sum of things”.

    Choice excerpts with some editing:

NS: Now that he has died, the preparation feels insufficient: the uneasiness remains. I suspect you feel it as well: how to speak about a writer whose work has been meaningful—in my case, profoundly so; I could not imagine my life without it—as well as a source of frustration or real pain. I have admired Naipaul as much as I have found him difficult to admire, a murky admixture that I find difficult to explain or clarify, and which I find with no other writer, to anything like the same degree. (Edward Said referred to his “pained admiration,” and dissonant phrases of that kind are scattered through appreciations of his work.)

PM: For many aspiring writers from modest backgrounds, in the West as well as in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, he was the first writer who made us think that we, too, had something to say, and that we, too, had an intellectual claim upon the world... In societies and cultures where the idea of a whole life devoted to writing and thinking is confined to the privileged members of the population, Naipaul’s example—that of a man making himself a writer through sheer effort—was a great boost.

NS: The question is whether this recognition, this fundamental dissonance in his existence, had to find the sorts of toxic resolutions that it did: his Islamophobic comments that gave succor to Hindutva; the current of anti-blackness that courses through his work; the consistent disregard for women writers and editors... it has taken me some time to come around to feeling in Naipaul what Adorno recognized in Wagner: that what is damaged and wounding and reactionary in him is essential, a critical part of the work, not something ancillary or disfiguring.

PM: There is an incandescent essay by Vivian Gornick on Naipaul and Baldwin—why the latter opens up new places for reflection and action while the former closes them down. She concludes that Baldwin’s unavoidable engagement with the tormented history of African Americans saves him from the sterile despair she identifies in Naipaul’s nonfiction writing… Naipaul did not have an equally profound stake in any society he knew—or the societies he condemned for failing to be more like the civilized West. He was embraced early in his career by Britain’s white literary establishment; he retreated to the countryside but took little interest in British politics and indeed professed disdain for the political struggles and intellectual endeavors of people like Stuart Hall. He was embarrassed about his origins in the small island of Trinidad and hoped to achieve a generous identity through his ancestral country.

NS: When Naipaul received the knighthood, the cycle of humiliation had made its final turn. He praised the universal civilization that had granted him one of its highest, most nostalgic honors. There was the heir to Conrad and Dickens—Dickens who had proposed, in response to Indian killings during the 1857 rebellion, “I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested”—receiving the sign of grace from the Queen of the United Kingdom and the other Commonwealth realms.

It is the nature of the societies we live in never to let you forget your luck, to point to any success as a sign of its ultimate justice; to make your rage against them seem like ingratitude. In the end, to an extent that I find debilitating, Naipaul was grateful. I know that the sense of personal injury, of grievance, that I feel in recalling these fundamental aspects of his life and art are disabling—feelings that one day might be transmuted into something different; a necessary distance. But I have yet to manage it.

“The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died. He had been shot by one of the state hit squads and I did not care about the shooting of this man. Others did care though, and some were those who, in the parlance, ‘knew me to see but not to speak to’ and I was being talked about because there was a rumour started by them, or more likely by first brother-in-law, that I had been having an affair with this milkman and that I was 18 and that he was 41… It had been my fault too, it seemed, this affair with the milkman. But I had not been having an affair witht he milkman. I did not like the milkman and had been frightened and confused by his pursuing and attempting an affair with me.”

  • I’ve just finished “Purity” by Jonathan Frenzen (h/t Eszter), the inaugural selection for our unofficial grad-student book club here at Nuffield College. I didn’t like it and not knowing Franzen outside of this work, I found myself distrusting him with the subject matter. I couldn’t help thinking of this tweet from the @GuyInYourMFA novelty account run by @danaschwartzzz:

 

I’m not prudish about what I read, but I didn’t feel nearly enough reward for indulging 560+ pages of exhausting characters. I can appreciate the choice to use a cast of unlikeable in a novel called Purity, but the unlikeability of the author seeps through too much to justify the length.

Spoiler alert, I also made this chart trying to chronologize the sequence of events in this novel, which jumps abruptly between chapters across space, time, and character perspective:

 
Purity Timeline.jpg
 

EK: …99.99 percent of all the humans who’ll ever live have yet to be born. If that’s true, then even very small reductions in the danger of those future lives not happening begins to outweigh large improvements in the value of life now.

BG: Well, the people in the future will have more knowledge and more resources than we have today. They’ll understand what those emerging problems look like.

If you said there was a philanthropist 500 years ago that said, “I’m not gonna feed the poor, I’m gonna worry about existential risk,” I doubt their prediction would have made any difference in terms of what came later. You got to have a certain modesty…

If somebody thinks there’s a magic thing they can do today that helps all those future lives, in a free economy, they have a chance to build whatever it is they think does that. We do have a few things like climate change where you want to invest today to involve problems tomorrow. I’m always a little surprised there’s not more engagement on that issue. Pandemic risk, weapons of mass destruction.

But… there’s not many that we really understand with clarity, and so somebody who says, “Okay, let’s just let a million people die of malaria because I’m building this temple that will help people a million years from now,” I wonder what the heck they’re building that temple out of.

EK: A lot of people have become very focused on the question of AI risk. I’m curious how you weight that as a risk to future human life?

BG: And so they think that’s more important than kids dying of malaria?

EK: …I don’t want to put words in other people’s mouths, but as I understand it, the idea is there are a lot of good people working on malaria, and AI is so dangerous that it’s better for people on the margin to be working on AI risk now than to be—

BG: But most of those people aren’t working on AI risk. They’re actually accelerating progress in AI… They like working on AI. Working on AI is fun. If they think what they’re doing is reducing the risk of AI, I haven’t seen that proof of that.