Well, Memory and Ana were correct: Jem and the Holograms is a joyous delight. I dragged my feet on reading it because I was not familiar with the original property, which should be no surprise to anyone because I know 0 things about pop culture prior to 2005 or so. But it turns out you don’t need to be familiar with the television show to appreciate the glorious weirdness of this comic.
The premise: Jerrica, Kimber, Shana, and Aja want to submit a video application to the “Misfits vs” competition, where a bunch of unknown bands get to compete against The Misfits in live performance. But Jerrica (their lead singer) has such terrible stage fright that she can’t get through a single song without choking. So instead they USE A HOLOGRAM OF HER and pretend the hologram lady (Jem) is their real lead singer. Hijinks ensue.
I dunno, if you enjoyed the first act of The Parent Trap or want to read about ladies tearing it up in the music scene with excellent eye makeup, I feel I can recommend Jem and the Holograms to you in good conscience. This volume mainly focuses on Jerrica and Kimber, but it’s clear that the background characters have their own desires and stories to tell, which I hope we’ll see more of as the comic progresses. It’s A+ to see Kimber’s budding romance with a lady and Jerrica’s budding romance with a dude treated with the exact same tone and respect; I am rooting for love all around!
Another wonderful thing about this comic is that when artist Sophie Campbell came out as trans over the course of the comic’s run, publisher IDW reprinted every issue to get rid of her deadname. That is absolutely putting your money where your mouth is, and I think it’s great that the publisher supported Campbell. Also great: Trans ladies being lead artists on comics! Woooooooo!
(Note: Sophie Campbell finished her run on Jem and the Holograms after the 17th issue and moved on to other projects. But that still gives me two (ish?) more trade paperbacks of this marvelous comic to look forward to with her art.)
So if the Trump administration is backing up on you and you need some pure, bright-colored joy in your life, check out Jem and the Holograms.
My DC project is officially launched! Not only has 19% of my reading been comics so far this year (though it’s early days), but I have also now completed half of my New Year’s Resolution re: DC comics, which was to read two substantial runs on two different DC comics. First up: Gail Simone’s Batgirl.
Gail Simone’s run on Batgirl follows Barbara Gordon as she’s getting back into the game of fighting crime on the streets after several years away. My main takeaway here is that Batgirl cannot cut a break. Every time she arrests one criminal who’s determined to murder her, another one pops up, like the world’s most sinister game of Whack-a-Mole. (Is that the game I’m thinking of? Where you whap the things on the head and they go back down into their hole but then another one pops up somewhere else on the board?)
A recent miracle cure (I know) has given Barbara back the use of her legs after a years-ago attack by the Joker. Though Barbara’s physically able to return to the work of catching criminals on the mean streets of Gotham, she still struggles mentally. Her reflexes aren’t what they used to be, and more significantly, the trauma of her attack by the Joker continues to affect her day to day. Simone’s excellent on Barbara’s ongoing feelings about what happened to her — she’s angry about it, and angry with herself for what she perceives as letting it happen, and memories of the assault flash into her mind at inconvenient times, leaving her frozen and stunned when she most needs to be up and fighting. But Barbara also refuses to be defined by her worst day, and she continues to get back up and keep on fighting evil.
Holy hell, Gotham is the worst. Is this typical of street-level comic books? I have most often read the mid-level ones, where the Avengers or the X-Men are saving the world from things, and I miss out the street-level fighters like Luke Cage and the Punisher. But goddamn, in Gotham it seems like nobody ever has a good day. Not the superheroes, not the villains, and for sure not the civilians. Everyone gets nonstop murdered. I prescribe a rousing course of trauma-focused CBT for the entire citizenry of Gotham.
Look, this is my first significant read of a DC comic, and I don’t want to overgeneralize here. But you know that perception that like, Marvel has the jokes, DC has the grimdark? Reading Batgirl did not shift that perception for me. It isn’t just that Barbara constantly has people gunning for her, although she does, and it isn’t just that Gotham is an unbearable violent shithole with no redeeming qualities, although it is. Reading this comic, I got so tired of Barbara facing mastermind villains who were specifically, personally targeting her trauma history, manipulating her into super-triggering situations, and then taunting her at great length about her inability to save her loved ones. Are there no villains in the DC universe who just want a whole bunch of money or to experiment on innocent civilians without involving superheroes? Do all the DC villains devote upwards of half their time to specifically ruining the lives of the heroes of Gotham?
These are not rhetorical questions. Please answer them in the comments. If the answer is yes I may need to rethink this DC reading project and also not buy that one shirt I wanted to buy.
Let me tell you some of the problems I have encountered in my Africa reading project. Number one is that not a huge amount of books have been published in English about many African countries, particularly smaller ones, particularly non-Anglophone smaller ones. Number two is that my library oftentimes has older African history books but does not have newer African history books, which I assume can be attributed to a shift in purchasing priorities. So the book I read for Equatorial Guinea (a teensy wee Hispanophone country) was Ibrahim Sundiata’s 1990 monograph Equatorial Guinea: Colonialism, State Terror, and the Search for Stability.
Guess what happened in Equatorial Guinea in 1996. They found oil. Black gold. Texas tea. Turns out having huge oil reserves can drastically change the course of a nation’s history.
Let me back up and tell you some of the stuff I learned from the actual book, however. Equatorial Guinea is a teeny wee country on Africa’s west coast and one of three African countries with “Guinea” in the name. (The other two are Guinea-Bissau and just plain old regular Guinea.) There’s a mainland bit of the country, which is called Rio Muni, and then there’s an island bit up by Cameroon called Bioko, and another island bit down below Sao Tome and Principe that’s called Annobon. It’s confusing. Here’s a picture.
If you are wondering why the country is so weirdly laid out, I can report that it’s basically down to the Spanish being rather disorganized colonizers and the Portuguese knowing what they were about. Sao Tome and Principe were uninhabited at the point of Portuguese colonization and had a lot of cultivable land, whereas Bioko was fiercely defended by its inhabitants, the Bubi, and neither it nor the other Equatorian islands had much available land for large-scale farming. Annobon and Corisco (Corisco is the yellow dot just slightly southwest of Rio Muni) were usefulish as entrepots, but not so longterm useful that Portugal wasn’t willing to sell them to Spain in 1777. Spain kind of didn’t realize this before buying them.
I was going to say “Get your act together, Spain!” But then I was like, wait, do I want the colonizing powers to get their act together? And then I was like, wait, but is it better if the colonizing powers don’t have their act together, or does that just fuck up the ultimate outcomes for the colonized countries? And then I remembered that it doesn’t matter because colonized nations are nearly always fucked. And also I can’t do a very good comparison yet because I don’t know anything about outcomes in Sao Tome and Principe.1
For a large chunk of the twentieth century, the Equatorial Guinean chief export was cacao, which was farmed on a small scale by the indigenous Bubi people, and on a large scale by a huge range of immigrants and migrant workers from nearby African countries (because there weren’t enough local workers to do it on a large scale). Cacao plantations had really horrible working conditions, and various other countries kept annoying Spain deeply by summoning their migrant workers back home or by investigating labor conditions and penalizing anyone who acquired migrant workers illegally; and then Spain would be on the hook for compensation payments.
In 1968, the country became independent, probably because Spain couldn’t be bothered providing financially for the country they’d spent the last two hundred years not being bothered about governing, and a guy called Macias Nguema came to power. He centralized power in his own office, outlawed competing political parties, and decreed himself President for Life.
The great majority of educated Equatoguineans fled the country, with some estimates suggesting that the population declined by more than half during Nguema’s presidency/dictatorship. He targeted people who wore glasses and the minority Bubi population (remember them from a paragraph ago? They refused to work for shitty cacao plantations and did their own damn farming instead?), as he perceived those groups as being too intellectual. Also (I did not learn this from the book, I learned it from further online researches) he apparently committed mass murder in a football stadium while blasting a jaunty song I used to like but now find extremely creepy. It was his favorite song, but that doesn’t really explain much.
I am really sorry that these posts aren’t cheerier. Just, it turns out that when colonizing powers draw arbitrary national lines and skimp on education budgets for many decades, things become quite difficult for the resulting country. Also, it is difficult to shake off dictators once you have them, particularly if the dictators in question murder and exile the entire educated class of the country.
THIS POINTED STARE I AM DOING IS AIMED AT YOU, AMERICA. DO NOT PERMIT DICTATORING. DO NOT PERMIT ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM. IT WILL NOT BENEFIT ANYBODY IN THE END.
Anyway. Eventually there was a coup, and if you have been following along at home, you probably know it was even odds that the result of the coup against the dictator would just be a brand new dictator. The former dictator’s nephew, Teodoro Obiang, now the longest-running ruler in all of Africa. When Sundiata was writing his book, it seemed like Obiang would be less awful, and I guess once he dies and things change, we will have a better picture of how much and if he is indeed less awful. But corruption is still hella rampant, with the bulk of the country’s oil money going into Obiang’s pockets rather than improvements to the country, and dissent is really not tolerated at all.
Oh, I forgot to say also that when Macias (football stadium guy) was sentenced to execution, the cult of personality around him and the belief in his magic was so strong that no Equatoguineans would carry out the execution. Obiang’s Moroccan guard had to do it.
There you go. Now you know more about Equatorial Guinea than you knew before. It is all pretty sad but better to have more information than less information, right?
Next up: Old-time Zimbabwe! (By which I mean I am reading another oldish book, because even though it’s old it’s still supposed to be quite authoritative.) If you want to follow my progress on this mighty African reading project, here’s the main page. I am determined to read four histories of African countries this year, and hopefully five.
I know that things went horribly awry in Angola and Mozambique, which are the other two Portuguese colonies I can think of right now, but my vague recollection is that those were Cold War proxy conflicts and not bumpy road to independence situations. ↩
Oh friends, I needed this book so much. Iron Cast is a YA alternate history novel about two best friends who can do illegal magic and have fallen in with a gangster club on the eve of Prohibition. I liked it a ton, and it cheered me right the hell up in a week where I was feeling hopeless.
Ada and Corinne are hemopaths: Corinne can create completely believable illusions by reciting poetry, while Ada can induce strong emotions with her music. They work for the gangster Johnny Dervish of the Cast Iron club, where they perform for crowds of regs (non-hemopaths) at night, carry off cons during the day, and receive shelter from the special forces that hunt hemopaths and carry them off to Havisham Asylum. Until Johnny Dervish is murdered.
If you liked The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, I feel good about recommending Iron Cast to you. At its heart is the friendship between these two girls, the quiet, practical Ada and the fierce, stubborn Corinne. Possibly my favorite thing about Iron Cast is the absolute confidence Corinne and Ada each felt in their friendship. Though they both have love interests, the stories begins and ends with their friendship. They are also both powerful hemopaths — we don’t realize exactly how powerful right at first — and it’s so much fun to see how their trust plays into the ways that they work together to Get Shit Done.
As far as I can tell, Iron Cast is a one-and-done, but I’d love to see more in this world. Soria has a knack for character, such that I’d gladly read a book about virtually any of the supporting characters. Even when we see very little of them, the characters clearly had lives and interests of their own, from the queer shapeshifter who runs a low-budget theater to Corinne’s wealthy brother making a politically advantageous marriage. It was to the point that when I realized how fully Iron Cast was wrapping up its plot, I was kind of disappointed. I wanted sequels, dammit! But I guess companion novels would be okay too.
All in all, an extremely fun YA fantasy novel with lots of adventures and lies and female friendships for you to sink your metaphorical teeth into.
AT LAST I have read the sequel to the wonderful Sunbolt! Intisar Khanani is a fantasy author who really deserves a good, let’s say, 75% more fame than she is currently receiving, so let’s all get on spreading the word far and wide, okay, team? Read the novella Sunbolt if you haven’t yet, and then get straight on to the superb sequel, Memories of Ash.
Our protagonist, Hitomi, is learning magic from the secretive, kindly mage Stormwind, with whom her vampire friend Val left her at the end of Sunbolt. Many of her memories of her former life are gone, and she is focused primarily on cultivating her powers and staying under the radar. All of her peace is shattered when the High Council (led by Hitomi’s old enemy Blackflame) summons Stormwind to stand trial for treason. Though Stormwind accepts her fate, Hitomi is determined to go after her and save her from unjust imprisonment and possible death.
If you are needing (as I am) some straight-ahead fantasy adventure stories, I can’t recommend Intisar Khanani’s work enough. Her worldbuilding here, as in the last book, is superb, everything from the limitations to Hitomi’s look-away charm to the differing societal norms for the desert nomads as opposed to the people of the Mekteb (the school where magicians get trained). Possibly my favorite thing about watching Hitomi travel to so many different locations is that Khanani seems to believe in the fundamental goodness of people. Wherever Hitomi goes and however slim her chances seem of rescuing Stormwind, she always meets people who are kind and good. At a time when the world feels less and less hospitable to strangers, Memories of Ash was a balm.
As with Sunbolt, this book ends in a satisfying way that nevertheless leaves the door open for many more adventures to come. Hitomi finds herself, at one point, in a land that’s been shattered by vicious magics, and she makes a promise to come back someday to try her hand at fixing it. Part of this is my current state of mind, but most of it is Khanani’s gorgeous world- and character-building: I absolutely cannot goddamn wait to see Hitomi throw her considerable energy and talent into healing the whole world.
Wanna hear a joke? I got After Disasters out from the library the week after the election. Get it. Get it. Because the election was a disaster and now we are after it.
After Disasters circles around a lot of different events, but the one at its center is the 2001 earthquake in the District of Gujarat, in India. Ted and Dev and Piotr and Andy are all involved in the earthquake disaster response, and this story follows their recovery efforts as well as how they came to be in their professions and how all their lives intertwine. It is one of those books with many moving parts that reaches its conclusion and feels — though not every loose end gets resolved — both satisfying and inevitable.
Viet Dinh employs a style of reveal of which I am particularly fond, which is to unspool gradually the emotional backgrounds of these characters in a way that casts light backward onto what we’ve seen from them already. It’s done so smoothly that even saying “reveal” is overly sensational. In practice it feels more like a gentle reminder: You knew already, didn’t you, that Ted used to work in pharmaceuticals and that this current job is a kind of atonement? Yes. The information feels so familiar that you must have known it in the first place.1
I also loved Dinh’s depiction of the practicalities of disaster relief work. I’m not in a position to judge the accuracy of how he wrote about these people, but it felt at least very real, how the workers from different countries and agencies would remember each other from previous disasters, or how the practicalities of transportation would supersede nearly everything else. It was a reminder that no disaster is ever damaging enough, and no job stressful enough, that the people involved stop being human.
“This is a high-stress job, and when people work in close proximity — what do you expect? It’s emergency sex. All the aid workers sleep with one another.”
“Even Catholic Charities?”
“Especially Catholic Charities!”
I am a Catholic, and I endorse this joke.
He can’t take it, he can’t take the collapse, the damage, the dust; he wants to know that the world hasn’t forgotten him; that, in these moments after disasters, people are reaching out, so even though all the lines are still busy, all the lines are occupied, he tries, again and again and again, until — finally — he connects–
After Disasters is a lovely and sad book that gets at the meaninglessness of the disasters it depicts without ever sinking into despair. I haven’t seen much coverage of it thus far, and I’m hoping this year brings it the acclaim (I think) it deserves.
This is one of Maggie Stiefvater’s greatest gifts as a writer. ↩
In Simone Zelitch’s book Judenstaat (Tor, 2016), no Jewish state was created in territory that had once belonged to the Ottoman Empire. Instead, Judenstaat was created in Saxony, bordering Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. Forty years later, documentary filmmaker Judit Klemmer is creating a film about the state’s creation, while she is haunted by memories of her husband Hans, a Saxon conductor shot years ago as he conducted the National Symphony for the first time. When Judit receives a note saying simply They lied about the murder, she is plunged into a world of conflicting histories and conspiracy.
So before I dive into talking about Judenstaat, let me say up front that I do not know much of anything about Israel and Palestine. One of these days I am going to have enough time to really dig deep into what’s going on over there, and at that time I will form an opinion, and hopefully it will be a non-stupid opinion. For now, I don’t know enough about it to speak intelligently, and I therefore cannot say anything about how (or even if, frankly) Judenstaat‘s reality speaks to that of our own world.
I also do not have more than a high-schooler’s grasp on World War II history. As I was finishing this book, there was a whole uproar on Twitter over a dude who was equating USSR treatment of Jews to Nazi treatment of Jews. Soviet anti-Semitism comes up in this book, and here again, I simply don’t have the historical background knowledge to be able to say whether Zelitch does a good job of treating real-world history in this work of alternate history. So if you have views about this in relation to Judenstaat, and you feel like popping into the comments and telling me about them, I’d love you to do that.
(Because this is fundamentally who I am as a person, I went hunting for some further background information and added some books to my intimidating nonfiction TBR list. That list is very long however. My quest to know everything will last me many years.)
That very long disclaimer is to say that I can only speak to Judenstaat insofar as it is kind of a murder mystery and very much a book about what nations permit their people to remember. And on those fronts, I think that it succeeds admirably. As Judit uncovers more footage from her country’s past, she realizes more and more that the tidy version of history in which she has always believed, the narrative of her country’s creation and the values on which it claims to be founded, is flawed and incomplete. Did I find this to be terrifyingly relevant as our country awaits the presidency of a bigoted demagogue with no experience in government who got elected anyway because white America doesn’t believe in equality nearly as much as we say we do? Yes, okay? Yes, I super did.
(I am finding all my books to be terrifyingly relevant lately. Selection bias or apophenia? YOU DECIDE.)
Zelitch sensibly doesn’t subject us to too many visits from the Exposition Fairy, which was great for the murder mystery but not so good for my poor brain as I tried to figure out Judit’s country timeline and what the official history was versus what she was discovering as she made her film. If you are planning to read Judenstaat, I recommend carving out some time to sit down and really get into it. Even knowing that I’d missed some details, though, this was a really terrific read. I kept thinking of all the countries where history that doesn’t fit tidily into a linear narrative of progress towards shared national values is discarded and discredited. Like: We shouldn’t be able to talk about our country’s founding, or the liberal idea of ourselves as “a nation of immigrants,” without addressing the fact that these ideas are predicated on the violent destruction of American Indians.
Or like (if you want to look at something a bit farther away): I read Anjan Sundaram’s Bad News earlier this year, which talked about (among other things) the fact that Paul Kagame — the hero who ended the Rwandan genocide — also invaded Congo and carried out mass atrocities against Hutu refugees in that country. In Rwanda, Sundaram reports, you can never talk about that. You can talk about how Kagame saved the country. You can talk about the horrors of the genocide against the Tutsis. History that doesn’t fit into that narrative isn’t welcome.
Judenstaat teaches Judit (and reminds us) that history is never so simple. Nobody can hold power and keep their hands clean. We need to have heroes, but even more (argues the book, and I argue it, too), we need to know the truth about them. We need to speak — shout! — the truth about their failures so that we can avoid repeating them. Even saying that is probably a simplification of Zelitch’s message: She resists easy answers in this book, which offers no tidy solutions but only questions upon questions upon questions.
A note: I read the first edition of Becoming Evil, published in 2002, because that’s the edition my library had a copy of. Waller did publish a second edition in 2007, which may contain a more robust defense of evolutionary psychology and some refinements to his model.
So one of my things for the upcoming year (two years, four years) is that I want to learn more about the historical, social, and scientific contexts for some of the things I’m afraid will happen under President Trump. One thing that scares me is the heightening of racist speech against Muslims and immigrants. More and more in recent years, America has been rhetorically isolating certain groups, and this worried me badly even before a president got elected on the strength of that type of rhetoric. Laws that target Muslims have been in place since 9/11, and the election of President Trump will almost certainly lead to more open legal targeting of vulnerable groups. This is, to put it lightly, not a good path for us to walk down.
I checked out James Waller’s Becoming Evil about a week after the election, as well as an enormous book all about genocide, because I guess I am not an optimist. We all want to believe the “never again” rhetoric; we want to believe that we’re sufficiently enlightened that it couldn’t happen here, but I have read enough books about genocide and its aftermath to know that it could absolutely happen anywhere.
I KNOW THIS IS A VERY DOWNER POST. But, still important, so on we bloodily stagger. Becoming Evil posits a four-part model that explains why people do evil things.1 The first prong of the model depends on evolutionary psychology, a branch of science that makes me want to lie down on the floor for several hours because it is nigh untestable and I find that suspect.2 The idea is that we are prone to love “us” and be suspicious of “them” — which I do believe, based on the way even tiny infants respond in tests, but which I have yet to be convinced is due to How We Lived in Ancient Times. But however it may be with evolutionary psychology, the first prong of the model is, basically, suspicion of outsiders.3
The second prong of the model is personal characteristics that make a person more prone to Evil.4 Cultural belief systems that emphasize submission to authority and externalize the locus of control of one’s life tend to produce people more inclined to accede to the commission of violence like genocide. Moral disengagement also makes genocide more likely — i.e., justifying one’s behavior to oneself, giving euphemistic labels to the bad deeds one is doing, etc. And finally, of course, self-interest plays a role: Very often when genocide takes place, it’s because the perpetrator group believes they will profit by the elimination of the victim group.
Y’all, I know this is a super heavy post. Let’s all take a breather and have a look at this Pomeranian getting blow-dried.
Okay, that was a good Pomeranian, thank heavens, because this third element is the one that feels the most controllable and urgent to me. (You can see what you think.) The third prong of Waller’s model is about the immediate social contexts in which we are asked to commit acts of violence and exclusion; he calls this “a culture of cruelty” and explores some ways that we’re socialized gradually into such a culture. Reading the book as “how not to commit genocide 101,” this prong of the model was the most useful to me. Here are two hot tips I gleaned:
Do not do small, harmless-seeming compliances. Waller talks about “escalating commitments,” wherein we (humans) are more likely to commit resources to something “once [we] have been induced to go along with a small initial request.” He describes it as a “mounting momentum of compliance” — once we have done the first thing, we want to believe that we’re doing Right, so we get deeper and deeper in. Waller quotes psychologist John Darley as saying “the individual’s morality follows rather than leads.” Our brains are basically very bad at doing things we don’t agree with, so if we start regularly doing an action like saying “Heil Hitler,” our brains are like “oh yeah we must think Hitler is good, else why would we keep saying this thing?” Don’t comply with the small things, and you inoculate yourself (to a degree) against compliance with the big things.
Related: Get better at not conforming not to peer pressure. I know this is so, so difficult. We are social animals and we want to fit in with the group. But this is a reason that people go along with mass murder: They never got good at resisting peer pressure, and they feel guilty “making” their peers do this unfun dirty work of, you know, literally killing people. Get good at it now while it’s easy, and you’re less likely later to agree to violence and repression against a target group.
The last prong of the model, of course, is inflicting “social death” upon the target population; i.e., making the “them” into the themiest “them” you possibly can manage. This includes rhetorical othering (see why I’ve been saying all along not to do that!) as well as physical separation (into, for instance, camps) and super-intense victim-blaming, which arises from our passionate desire to believe that the world is just and that if we ourselves do everything right, we and our loved ones will be safe and not get genocided.
The scary thing about this book5 is how quickly countries can move from the small things — the rhetoric, the ritual displays of national loyalty — to actual straight-up genocide. A robust democracy with lots of participation by its citizens is a strong line of defense against mass ethnic violence, so it is, again, incumbent upon us to be that. Defend our institutions, and participate early and often in our democracy, any way that you can.
Sidebar, I have thought for years that it’s a bad idea to use the word “evil” to describe people who do particularly awful crimes like child abuse or murder. It’s an othering kind of word that absolves us of any commonalities we may share with the so-called evildoer, and I think that makes us less willing to believe that these crimes can happen close to us. Waller says, “Extraordinary human evil can never be simply distilled to one particular psychiatric diagnosis. To do so is to project evil exclusively onto some small segment of the population instead of acknowledging its imminent presence in each of us.” In other words, if only evil people abuse children, and our kid’s friend’s stepfather does not appear to be evil, then how can we believe our kid’s friend if she says the stepfather touched her inappropriately? He’s not evil, right? And abusers are evil? SEE HOW THIS LEADS TO BAD OUTCOMES? ↩
Man, this post is reeeeeeally how to win friends and influence people 101, n’est-ce pas? “First she said we can’t call child abusers evil, now she’s slagging off all of evolutionary psychology, wot a jerk.” I KNOW I KNOW but honestly I think I am correct on both fronts. Waller addresses some of the criticisms of evolutionary psychology but not really its untestability. Whatever, dude. You know what you did. (Maybe this is better in the second edition.) ↩
This does not reflect well on me, but I admit that I was reading this book trying to see if any of these things applied to me. I am okay on suspicion of outsiders, I think! But I do want to emphasize that this did not happen by magic: My parents taught me to be this way, and I have spent a lot of time in my adult life actively eradicating suspicion of outsiders from my brain by having as diverse a range of life experiences and reading material as possible. I recommend these strategies to everyone. They are not perfect, but they help. ↩
Again, I don’t endorse the use of the word evil. I think it’s a word that’s too unspecific to be of much use in contexts such as these, but whatever, I’m following Waller’s vocab use for the purposes of this post. ↩
I’m in a strange, post-news-outlet state where I follow individual reporters more than I follow entire news outlets. This is possibly symptomatic of my increasing distrust of institutions in the wake of the recent election? And troubles me because of the echo chamber conservative news media insist that I (but not they) are in. I am not sure what the solution is. (Weirdly, the only outlet besides NPR’s Code Switch that I specifically follow on Twitter is the National Review, for like, ideological balance.)
So Wesley Lowery has long been one of my most trusted reporters on the Black Lives Matter movement, and I was excited for his book. They Can’t Kill Us All follows the development of the movement from Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, an event I was surprised to discover only occurred in 2013. It feels like we’ve been talking about black death for a million years, but as a national conversation, where white people were forced to stop ignoring racially biased policing,1 that’s somehow only been three years.
For all three of those years (coming up on four), Wesley Lowery’s been on this beat, and if you weren’t paying attention to the development of Black Lives Matter, They Can’t Kill Us All is a terrific way to catch up on what’s been happening. Lowery writes not only about the deaths that became hashtags — Michael Brown, Charles Scott, Tamir Rice — but about the rapid, meteoric growth of activism around police shootings. His reporting at the Washington Post, including his idea for the Police Shooting Database, won the Post the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for journalism.
Lowery also talks about the process and ethics of reporting on traumatic death, how you walk up to grieving family members on the worst day of their lives, make them trust you, and get quotes out of them to convey to the country what has been lost.
A journalist’s portrait of the deceased is often used by the casual reader to decide if the tragic outcome that befell him or her could have happened to us, or, as is often implied to be the case in those killed by police officers, if this tragic fate was reserved for someone innately criminal who behaved in a way we never would.
Lowery isn’t trying to explain how this movement fits into America’s past or to predict what impact it will have on our future — it’s a book of journalism, not historical analysis. But Lowery’s a great reporter, honest about his errors and aware of the limitations of his form. If you’ve been following Black Lives Matter all along, there’s not a ton of new information in They Can’t Kill Us All, but it’s a terrific overview of how the movement developed.
Ugh, I don’t know how else to qualify this. Many white people continue to close their eyes to racially biased policing. Lots of people of all races have been talking about this for years, but it just hasn’t been picked up national media in the same way that it has over the last three years. Y’all, words are hard. ↩
I didn’t do this on purpose, although I would have if I’d thought of it: The book I read immediately after the election turned out to be a work of experimental fiction that explores how life and education in a dictatorship narrows the range of thoughts that it is possible to think. Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell, is a spoof on the Academic Aptitude Exam, required for all college-bound Chilean students, which Zambra took in 1993, when Chile was in transition to democracy following years of dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet.
Those tests have multiple “authors,” but when we were kids we thought there was only one, a single God-dictator-author, who knew all the right answers and hid them. While I was writing the book, I thought a lot about how those exercises were, in a way, the opposite of literature. They teach you to put stories in order, for example, following some kind of fixed structure—from the abstract to the concrete, chronologically, from the general to the particular.
This all sounds very somber, and Multiple Choice is anything but. If there can be good, un-cynical parodies of dictatorships, Multiple Choice is one, and in a reading week where my brain was 90% blank terror for the future of our democracy and only about 10% available for processing words in books, it was a lighthearted read that didn’t feel like a cop-out from what’s happening in the world right now. Zambra is kidding on the round, because while dictatorships are absurd, their absurdity is a rhetorical disguise for the very real oppression they’re trying to get you to overlook.
For instance, the fourth section asks you to choose which sentences may be eliminated from a paragraph without damaging the meaning of what’s being said. Zambra launches into the story of a good man who didn’t mean any harm: Sure, the narrator acknowledges that he hated gay people and knew about the torture and disappearances, but so did everyone, didn’t they? And he was still fundamentally a good guy. Not a villain. One of the answer options lets you eliminate all the sentences that mention specific crimes, leaving only this:
(1) I was his friend, I was his pal. I knew him. And it’s not true what they say about him. Some things, sure, but not all of it. I care about what they say, it hurts. It’s as if they were talking about me.
(12) Whatever they may say of him, it’s easy enough to badmouth him now that he’s dead. But I would like you all to know that my friend isn’t all that dead, because he still has me, come what may. I’ll always defend him. Always, buddy–always.
TOO REAL, n’est-ce pas?
A government-controlled structure like the standardized test forces you to choose between a finite set of options, of which zero might make sense — but getting it right (for the government’s definition of “right”) will shape your future and the possibilities that will be open to you. I tried not to apply Multiple Choice too literally to America’s situation, even though I feel real damn dire. But one thing I took away from it, as I read headline after headline in supposedly liberal newspapers that refused to identify Steve Bannon as a white nationalist and anti-Semite, is that the words we use over the next four years are going to be everything. We can’t back away from the truth, no matter how ugly it is.