Okay, last week was all out of wack, so I didn’t round up as many links as usual. A bunch of y’all have asked where to give money and how to help with the recent flooding in my home state, so here’s a round-up of places where you can give. Big hugs to all the kind people who’ve gotten in touch to check on me and my family — you’re sweet, and we’re fine, just trying to find ways to help the areas that got hit hard.
When immigrants tell their own stories, they do a better job than when other people tell their stories. SHOCKING. Also, I am super pumped to read Behold the Dreamers. I haven’t read enough litrature by Cameroonian authors!
A book about which I felt politely(ish) horrified at first and now find really deeply annoying because the more famous and praised it becomes, the more it feels exploitative of actual survivors of rape, has been optioned for a TV series. Like maybe talk to some survivors of childhood sexual abuse before making this show, producers.
Okay, Elizabeth Nunez got me good about two-thirds of the way through her latest book, Even in Paradise (affiliate links: Book Depository, Amazon).
As a writer from my homeland put it in her fictionalized version of a romance between Miranda and an educated Caliban: Pass [the Miranda test] and I believe you. Fail it and all you say about the races being equal, that character, not color, is what matters, becomes theoretical.
I was like, Oo, a romance between Miranda and an educated Caliban? SOUNDS GREAT, and I googled it thinking probably Cesaire, and while Cesaire did in fact write a play that retells The Tempest, the narrator of Even in Paradise was in fact referring to Nunez’s own 2006 novel, Prospero’s Daughter.
You got me, Elizabeth Nunez. You got me good.
If Elizabeth Nunez wanted to make it her thing to retell all the Shakespeare plays with Caribbean settings, I’d be here for it. Even in Paradise is a retelling of King Lear: Wealthy white Peter Ducksworth has moved from Trinidad to Barbados — the cynical say to find white husbands for his three daughters — and now, a few years later, he has decided to divide his properties among his daughters now, to avoid future strife. Strife ensues anyway.
So, as I confessed to Whiskey Jenny on our most recent podcast, I’ve never read or seen King Lear. What I know of King Lear has come to me through cultural osmosis, and as such I can’t speak much to the manner in which Nunez adapts it. I assume the Cordelia character was a drip on purpose? As a nod to the original?
In fact Even in Paradise reminded me of nothing so much as The Great Gatsby. Like Nick Carraway, our narrator Emile is drawn into the lives of the careless rich by his friendship with a man making an unwise romantic decision — in this case, Emile’s friend Albert has contracted a hasty engagement with Glynis Duckworth.1 Also like Gatbsy, it’s the story of people who cannot un-entwine love from money in their own minds, let alone in their lives and actions; and, of course, it ends in tragedy.
(Less tragedy than King Lear, however! I understand Lear has some eye stuff?)
Though Even in Paradise isn’t, on the surface, the type of book I would expect to enjoy (I read it because some blogger sometime years ago spoke well of Elizabeth Nunez and her name stuck in my head), I ended up thinking it was terrific. The inheritance plotline focuses on land owned by the Duckworths and the plans of the two older sisters to develop it into a profitable hotel that will exclude local people from making use of it, as they have for years. Nunez never permits her readers to shut their eyes to the specters of slavery and oppression that haunt Trinidad’s and Barbados’s history and continue to inform the lives and motives of these characters. She’s thoughtful about race and prejudice and history in a way that I absolutely love, and I will definitely be checking out her Tempest adaptation later this year.
Lebanese Diaspora Watch: So you know how a while ago, I instituted the Lebanese Diaspora Watch? Because I read about Lebanese citizens in Liberia and Brazil in rapid succession and was totally baffled? NOT A FLUKE. Here we find a Lebanese diaspora in Trinidad too!
Georges Glazal, Albert’s father, belonged to a long line of Syrian Lebanese families who were among the last immigrants to Trinidad during the colonial era. Syrians, we called them, whether they were from Syria or Lebanon, Lebanon having been part of Syria when the first immigrants arrived on the island. Almost all of them were Orthodox Maronite Christians fleeing persecution from the ever-widening spread of Islam across the Middle East. In Trinidad the Maronite Syrian-Lebanese immigrants joined the Catholic Church.
See, now this answers my first question of why this specific Lebanese population left Lebanon/Syria. I had to do some googling to discover why Trinidad in particular, and the internet suggests it was Trinidad because wicked ticketing agents sold these immigrants tickets to America but then instead sent them to the Caribbean. And the immigrants would be like, Well, shit. Here we are, I guess. I admit that once I found this explanation, I stopped fact-checking. That is the explanation that I want to be true. Substantial Lebanese-American diaspora in Trinidad solely because of trickery. What a weird world we have.
Is anyone an Elizabeth Nunez fan? If you inherited land from a family member, what would you use it for? (Don’t say hotel. That sounds horrible. That sounds like so much trouble.) (No, say hotel if hotel is what you’d do with it.)
Happy Monday, team! Today I’m over at the Oxford Dictionaries blog yammering about genre. Basically it is my considered opinion that literature has genuinely failed us by having so few available filters, and I think the publishing world should do something about it.
In 2013, the most recent year for which we have data, the US, UK, and Canada published over half a million books altogether. Yet of this infinitely categorizable bounty, we’ve apparently only managed to sort books into as many genres as your neighborhood Waterstones has clusters of shelves. I call shenanigans! Why should it be so hard for me to get my fix of YA novels set in boarding schools? Of epistolary fiction of any stripe? Of historical novels set exclusively during the London Blitz?
Every time I read anything about North Korea, I spend the next two weeks collaring everyone who comes near me and screaming my new North Korea information into their faces. I have still not recovered from the image Barbara Demick left me with in Nothing to Envy of dozens and dozens of North Koreans squatting at the sides of all the roads, waiting and waiting for something that was never going to come. So it was with photographer Wendy Simmons’s My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth.
The full post here could just be moments in this book wherein Simmons’s guides are telling her obvious lies, and you as the reader are open-mouthedly trying to figure out whether it is okay to laugh at a story so fundamentally sinister. Because no matter what laughably obvious lie Simmons is receiving from her guides, the truth that they’re trying to conceal isn’t funny at all. The truth is always repression and loss, a country full of people forced to work and regularly denied their basic human rights by an uncontrolled dictator.
Simmons does an amazing job of conveying how quickly your sense of reality is destabilized in North Korea. Even when she knows that her handlers are lying to her, it’s not always clear which parts are lies, or what, specifically, is motivating the lies, or what, specifically, they’re trying to keep hidden from her. And the handlers (slash, entire country) seem to go to such insane lengths to keep her from seeing anything true that she starts to question whether her own perception of what reality could possibly be was wrong all along.
Frex: A time slot opens up on Simmons’s very busy tour schedule. Her handler offers her many options for how to fill that hour, and Simmons chooses football match. By tremendous good fortune, her handlers tell her, a football match will be happening at the exact time slot she now has available. They go watch the match, along with a handful of other apparent North Korean football enthusiasts. Halfway through, several hundred additional supporters file in, lined up in an orderly manner, and sit to watch the second half of the game.
So was this a real, previously scheduled, Monday-morning-at-9:00-a.m. football match? And had I just been super lucky to have a Monday-morning-at-9:00-a.m. slot on my schedule that needed filling? Possibly, given the damned good luck (knock wood) and propensity for remarkable coincidences I tend to have.
Or had a country just pulled together an entire football match (minus a few thousand fans) in less than twelve hours solely for my benefit? It was a thought too absurd, too egomaniacal, too lunatic, and too paranoid, to even consider. . . . right?
Thanks to MW Gerard for the recommendation! What a goddamn bonkers book and country.
Happy Wednesday, everyone! Thanks so much to everyone who’s asked about flooding in Louisiana and checked in to see if I’m okay. My bit of the state’s totally fine, so it’s just lots of worry and hug-sending to the people in places where water was several feet deep.
Anyway! So now it is podcast day! I included a cut at the end of the podcast so y’all can witness THIS phenomenon, which is very real:
I like pretending Whiskey Jenny is insulting me. she falls apart reassuring me of her love. she just shrieked NO YOU ARE THE COOL RABBIT.
Here it is mid-August, and we are midway through The New Jim Crow, and I’ve decided to take this opportunity to teach us all about asset forfeiture. Did you know about this? Did everyone know about this but me? Basically, if the police think that someone’s car or money or computer is being used in the commission of a crime, they can just TAKE it. And then they can just, like, KEEP it. Even if the person who owns the property doesn’t know or agree to their property being used in commission of a crime (Alexander uses the example of a woman whose boyfriend uses her car to go pick up drugs), the police can still take it. And keep it.
Which, naturally, disproportionately affects poor people, because loss of an asset like a car or a computer is much much more ruinous if you don’t have the means to dash out and acquire a new one to replace the one the cops took. Meanwhile, police departments have a specific financial stake in asset forfeiture, which means that they are incentivized to police in a way that maximizes their profit. When obvs we would like their motive to be just straight-up reduction of crime.
Anyway. Onward to my mid-book discussion of The New Jim Crow. Let it be stated that I rejoice in this book’s existence, and I believe it makes crucial arguments that are and will remain really important to any kind of criminal justice reform this country institutes.
1) Alexander writes in the introduction that she consciously chose to focus her writing on African American men–though she recognizes that the criminal justice system can have even harsher consequences for women (particular women of color) and Latinos.
Yeah, I — huh. This was a slightly weird moment for me. She says that this was a conscious decision but doesn’t get into why it’s the decision she made. Of course, it’s her book and her decision, but given that women of color and non-black POC are so frequently left out of the conversation, it was weird to have Alexander say this without supplying any further explanation. Throughout the book I felt like I was missing crucial context because of what she decided to leave out.
2) In Chapter 1: The Rebirth of Caste, Alexander writes “…eliminating ‘savages’ is less of a moral problem than eliminating human beings, and therefore American Indians came to be understood as a lesser race–uncivilized savages–thus providing a justification for the extermination of native peoples.” (23) How much, if at all, do you think this same explanation can apply to modern-day murders of black people, in which a victim’s criminal record, physical appearance, and/or attitude towards police officers is used as a “justification” of that person’s killing–both by police and by those defending them?
Oh, gosh. A lot. Really a lot. I think that we’ve reached a point, as a society, where the concept of being “tough on crime” has made it very difficult to convince people of the humanity of people who have been convicted of crimes. And this is a major rhetorical strategy used to defend police officers who shoot to kill when the situation seems not to have called for it.
Another major element in this, though, is that people like to find ways to separate themselves from victims of any kind of tragedy, so that they can feel sure that the bad thing that befell their neighbor will never befall them or anyone they care about. What was the rape victim wearing? Was the cancer patient a smoker? Did the man killed by police have a criminal record? Denying black humanity is a terrible tradition in our country; and denying the innocence of those faced with misfortune appears to be, like, endemic to humans.
3) Writing about the birth of Jim Crow, Alexander reminds us that it is difficult to remember that “alternate paths were not only available at one time, but nearly embraced.” (35) Does the same apply today? Are there alternate paths we could have embraced in recent history, and/or could embrace moving forward?
I’m afraid I can’t do this one right now. I am too scared of the alternate paths that might be about to happen to this country, which I am pretty sure are going to be, like, national downfall kind of alternate paths. We’ll talk again when the election’s over with.
4) On the opening pages of Chapter 2: The Lockdown, Alexander writes about the [mis]perception of the criminal justice system, as shaped by popular television shows and movies. The New Jim Crow was written in 2010, before Serial, Making a Murderer, Orange is the New Black… etc. Do you think representations of the criminal justice system in popular entertainment have changed in the last six years? Is that a good thing?
Wellllllllll. Sort of. I don’t think we’ve yet had a better indictment of the existing criminal justice system than the first and third seasons of The Wire, for instance, and that was all the way back in aught-two.1 Given that the sheer number of TV shows has increased dramatically in the last six years, I would say that sure, by volume, we have more shows that offer a nuanced vision of the criminal justice system.
On the other hand, we still have all the same old Laws and Orders we used to, all the same CSIs, and some of those franchises have grown, not shrunk. Likewise, there’s a near-infinite supply of buddy-cop-style shows, very few of which are endeavoring to complicate popular views of the criminal justice system as fundamentally, well, just. Even more than six years ago, we are inundated by choice, and the depictions of criminal justice that we choose to spend time on are probably reflective to a large extent of the beliefs we already hold.
Which is to say: The gay agenda on TV worked awesome. I’m skeptical for the moment that pop culture is going to be a similarly important ally in convincing America of the injustice of our national prison culture. Call me a cynic.
5) From the start, Alexander stated that she aimed to prove that disproportionate rates of incarceration [and/or criminal justice system control] of young black males is not a symptom of poverty, but “evidence of a new racial caste system at work.” Based on these first three chapters, do you think she’s done as much?
Again I say: Well, sort of. Alexander’s done a terrific job so far of proving the racial bias that happens at every level of the criminal justice system, and I already believed that the so-called War on Drugs was a measure of political posturing and racial control. So far so good on that one.
Without asking Michelle Alexander and this one book to be all things to all people, I will say that I think The New Jim Crow is an important piece of the criminal justice reform puzzle, but it’s not as comprehensive as maybe I wanted/expected it to be. Alexander is talking about a specific thing: the impact of drug policy on the lives of black men in America. That is important, an important conversation to have.
At the same time, there’s plenty that she’s not talking about: non-black people in the criminal justice system; violent crime of any description; women basically at all; the voices and roles of black policymakers; differing patterns of law enforcement in communities with different racial demographics; etc. Again, this is fine, and the elements that Alexander is discussing are really important. I just think that to say “this is systemic to the degree that Jim Crow laws were systemic,” while ignoring (by design) huge swathes of the system in question, is a dicey affair. It’s an eye-catching parallel, but not one that I’m confident (so far) Alexander’s arguments have justified.
I forgot to tell you, I’ve decided to say aught-two instead of oh-two because, well, mostly because I just want to. ↩
How to cull your books: The Awl guide. Let me tell you my method, team. Take all the books. Line them up on the floor, right to left, by how much you love them. Then draw a line somewhere in the middle of that long line of books and cull everything to the left of your line. Boom. Done.
More on fan entitlement (and a bit of side-eye for Steven Moffat, which I am never not here for) from The Mary Sue. I’m really digging Maddie Myers’s work on The Mary Sue these days, y’all! Go follow her on Twitter, I like where her head’s at.
Speaking of things I’m never not here for, Jonathan Franzen gave an interview to Slate and it’s everything I could have asked. He has never been in love with a black woman and he suspects poors don’t like him because he enunciates and wears glasses. What a great world.
Hex is the scariest book I’ve ever read. Hex was so scary that when I was reading it in bed, I got too frightened to continue and also had to walk around the upstairs of my apartment checking the closets for bad guys/ghosts/monsters. Hex was so scary that I thereafter stopped reading it before bed and only read it during my commute.
The basic premise seemed fine. There’s this town called Black Spring where once upon a time a woman called Katherine was forced to murder her own son, then hanged as a witch. Her ghost has haunted the town ever since, and her whispers have driven thousands to suicide. The residents of Black Spring have learned to live with her, and with the brutal penalties they would face if they ever broke the town’s rules. But a group of teenagers is determined to bring proof of Katherine’s existence to the outside world.
This does not go swimmingly.
I read a review of Hex that pointed out horror stories often depend, for their oomph, on what we don’t know; whereas in Hex, we know from moment one what this town’s horrors are and where they came from. Hex isn’t scary because of Katherine. Well, it is scary because of Katherine. But the oomph of the story isn’t that we don’t know what Katherine will do; it’s that we don’t know what the townspeople will do. At first we think that we only need to worry about one of Tyler’s friends, the kid from a broken home, the slightly unstable one. Or we only need to worry about this stern-faced Colton Mathers guy on the town council.
The true horror, of course, is that we have to worry about everyone. A well-intentioned action by a character we have been asked to like and identify with can lead to “The Lottery”-esque outcomes. When that happens with over a third of the book left to go, it’s scary as hell because what else might be coming?
I’ll note that women have very little to do in this book (even Katherine mostly just stands around being scary), and there’s the occasional weird gendered moment in this book, particularly w/r/t boobs. Since I was enjoying the book so much (slash, being terrified out of my wits by it), I was able to roll my eyes and skate past it, but your mileage may vary.
Interestingly, Hex was substantially revised for its American publication, shifting the action from the Netherlands to America and just changing a whole massive bunch of things about it. Here’s Heuvelt on that decision. If you are a Dutch reader, may I politely request that you read the Dutch edition and report back to me on what the original ending was? I am near-dead of curiosity, and the internet has been of no use at all.
1. Where do you plan on discussing this book the most? Feel free to share links to your blog, social media channels, snap handles, etc.
Mostly on the blog! I’ll be answering mid-month and end-of-month discussion questions, and I’ll also probably be twittering about it at @readingtheend as I go along, with the hashtag #SJBookClub.
2. Why did you decide to join in on the reading and/or discussion of this book?
A couple of reasons, the most important being that I’ve been meaning to read The New Jim Crow practically since it came out — but in a rather heartening turn of events, it’s been checked out from my public library every time I’ve thought to look for it.
On a more macro level, one of the big things to come out of Book Blogger Appreciation Week this year is that I’m connecting more to other nonfiction enthusiasts around the blogosphere. There are more of us than I realized! So the Social Justice Book Club is a terrific way for us all to get together and chat about the greatness of nonfiction.
3. In the very first line of the introduction to the book, Michelle Alexander writes, “This book is not for everyone.” What do you make of that as a entree into The New Jim Crow?
Mm, radical honesty. Cynically, it’s a good way to make readers who are already receptive to Alexander’s ideas feel like virtuous mavericks of the book world. But equally, it’s just a statement of fact: Many people do not want to be forced to look at the racial injustice in our criminal justice system, because it upsets the feeling that one lives in a just universe, and it is pleasant to feel that one lives in a just universe.
4. What, if anything, are you most looking forward to about this book?
Learning more specifics about the ways the criminal justice system targets racial minorities. I already believe that to be true, but I’m looking forward to getting into some of the nitty-gritty details. I’ll be particularly interested to learn about some of the ways that historical racial segregation continues to impact laws and law enforcement w/r/t minority populations.
Thanks to Kerry for hosting. I can’t wait to dig into this book!
Happy Friday, everyone! Today I’m linking you to the adventures of me, elsewhere! The lovely Shiny New Books has out a brand new issue, and my lovely pal Memory and I are in it, recommending you all the best YA of the summer and being heartfelt. Viz:
I think of the sort of fiction I had access to when I was a teenager, and I look at what’s available to today’s young people, and I’m beyond happy for them. The trans kids get to see themselves on the page and the cis kids get to experience the world through someone else’s eyes, all wrapped up in a great story. It’s a damned nice thing.
(I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, don’t you usually recommend fewer books in these columns? And the answer is, hush your face. We got excited about a lot of books this season.)