Review: Boy Erased, Garrard Conley

You know how sometimes you feel that you’ve become inured to the world’s cruelty, and you realize that consuming the news every day and hearing about humankind’s fundamental inhumanity has turned you into a person who doesn’t flinch at each successive news story that comes on Morning Edition, and yes, sure, that’s good and necessary for your own mental health, but on the other hand, are you possibly becoming a robot person incapable of empathy because, like, what kind of human isn’t shattered anew every time they hear about what’s going on in Syria?

You know that feeling?

Boy Erased, Garrard Conley’s memoir of his time in gay conversion “therapy” a decade ago, is so fucking shredding that while reading it I experienced the thought “so then this election season has not beaten out of me the capacity to feel.” Consider this paragraph your content note for some stuff: Conley was raped at college and subsequently outed (by his rapist) to his parents, after which he went to a gay conversion therapy clinic for treatment. Boy Erased is about all of those three things. So if any of them are baseline hard for you to read about, be aware going in that Conley portrays the pain of all them with extraordinary vividness. Which makes his talents as a writer obvious, but it also means that this book can be really, really hard to read.

Boy Erased

“You are not selling this book very well considering you gave it five stars,” says the attentive reader, so let me get to selling this book well. Boy Erased made me feel desperately raw and sincere the way you do when you’re in high school and you haven’t yet realized how unoriginal and simplistic your passion for Justice is. That isn’t to say that Conley is simplistic. He isn’t, and part of the reason this book is so shredding to read is that Conley does not ignore or minimize his parents’ genuine pain at learning their only son is gay. Here he is talking with his mother (almost a decade later) about the pamphlet she brought home for the gay conversion organization he attended.

I will force myself to hear her side of the story, listen for her voice amid the buzzing of harmful memories I thought I’d buried for good.

“His eyes [the boy on the pamphlet’s] were so sad,” she’ll say. “They were calling out to me.”

“Take your time,” I’ll say.

“I wanted to save the boy in that picture. I wanted to save you. But I didn’t know how.”

Both of these things are true: Conley’s parents love him (the sinner) desperately and utterly, and Conley’s parents’ beliefs (hate the sin) are killing him. He thinks frequently of suicide and goes on punitive diets (500 calories a day) to force his body to do what he wants it to do. It’s genuinely fucking devastating to know that this type of slavish commitment to the morals of thinkers who lived thousands of damn years ago continue to destroy (literally and figuratively) the lives of queer children and adults.

I had learned by now that there was a cumulative effect to beauty. If people already saw something as beautiful, the object of their affection would continue to receive all possible praise and attention. Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, Gertrude Stein, my new favorite poet, quipped. Naming something beautiful made it so. . . .

Naming something ugly had a similar effect. The sound of my mother’s vomiting the night she drove me home had taught me that lesson better than anything else ever had. I was gay, had been named as such, a fact that, once ingested, had to be immediately expelled.

Boy Erased is rarely leavened with lighter notes, so I do recommend having something fluffy on hand to read when you’re finished. Conley perfectly captures his past self’s despair in these years when he was trying to reconcile his faith and his identity. It’s a painful and wonderful book.

Look, not to wear my heart on my sleeve for too much longer, but let’s build a better and kinder and more deliberate world for the next generation, okay? The next generation of kids should have better than what we had. Let’s make that happen. Vote on Tuesday.

Review: We Are Not Such Things, Justine van der Leun

Well that was a long and frustrating book. The New York Times review of Justine van der Leun’s We Are Not Such Things promised that the book would “overturn” the traditional narrative of Amy Biehl’s death, and in the process expose the weaknesses of the famed and beloved South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In case you aren’t familiar with Amy Biehl’s story (I wasn’t), she was an activist and Fulbright scholar who was attacked and murdered in the South African township of Gugulethu in 1993, on the eve of apartheid’s demise. Four men were convicted of her murder, then later pardoned under the terms of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which offered amnesty for political crimes in exchange for full public disclosure. Biehl’s parents publicly offered forgiveness to her killers and even employed two of them at the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust, which they established in South Africa to empower township youths.

We Are Not Such Things

Van der Leun’s efforts to uncover the story of what happened on the day of Amy Biehl’s murder are tireless. She’s able to track down and speak with an impressive number of the people involved — police, suspects, witnesses — although twenty years on, they rarely have much of substance to add to official accounts. The thrust of Van der Leun’s argument seems to be that neither the South African criminal justice system in 1993 nor the political and social systems in of the present day are perfect. Which, I mean — yeah? Systems are flawed? I don’t know that I needed to spend 500 pages navigating class divisions in South Africa in order to be convinced of that.

As a travel writer, Justine van der Leun evokes the people and places of poverty-stricken South Africa incredibly well. Well, but at incredible length. We spend page after page on the family drama of one of the convicted killers, Easy Nofemela, and don’t get me wrong: He’s a wonderful character in van der Leun’s telling. It’s just not clear why, in a book ostensibly dedicated to unpicking the many threads of Amy Biehl’s 1993 murder, so many chapters are dedicated to Easy and Justine driving around shooting the shit.

Though the book is certainly overlong and could have done with being shortened by about a third, I think expectations were also a factor in my unenjoyment. Many South Africans have grown critical (or always were) of the TRC’s work, and I hoped that van der Leun would bring to light some of these criticisms and how the TRC’s failings continue to affect South African lives. That isn’t this book, and it’s not clear that van der Leun even wanted it to be.

My love for scholarship on restorative justice remains undimmed, however! While I was reading this, I also dipped in and out of Priscilla Hayner’s classic text on truth commissions, Unspeakable Truths, and it is just as excellent as I remembered. What a fascinating subject.

POLL TIME! Who here knew who Amy Biehl was when I first mentioned her name? And secondary question, this one for millennials only: Were you aware of apartheid as a kid? I totally was not, and it’s really weird to think that that was still going on when I was in grade school.

Review: Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me, Steven Hyden

Okay, I know we have The Ringer now, and The Ringer has brought us Actual National Treasure Sam Donsky. Is it wrong that I still miss Grantland, though? They had an incredible stable of writers with a particular gift for writing about important things through the lens of seemingly unimportant things. Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me (affiliate link: Book Depository), from Grantland alum and UpRoxx writer Steven Hyden, reminded me of what was so special about Grantland’s glory days.

Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me

And yes, okay, the subtitle is a little grandiose. The meaning of life isn’t on offer here, but Hyden gets into a lot of questions about identity and the ways that we define ourselves by defining against something, or someone, else. Hyden admits that he likes the work of the Beatles as much as he likes the work of the Rolling Stones, but that he defines himself as a Stones person rather than a Beatles person because a Stones person is more in line with his understanding of his own personality.

While it would be easy to differentiate each side of a rivalry in a simplistic way — cool versus not cool — Hyden is self-consciously suspicious of easy answers. Here he is on the trendy, near-universal dislike of Crash among all the people I have ever followed on Twitter:

Hating Crash has become what I like to call a Default Smart Opinion. A Default Smart Opinion is an opinion that’s generally considered to be inarguable because it’s repeated ad nauseam by seemingly intelligent individuals. . . . The usual formula for a regular smart opinion — research plus careful consideration plus nuanced analysis — doesn’t apply. You needn’t actually listen to a Nickelback album or watch The Big Bang Theory or study Kim Kardashian’s collected philosophical scrolls. You merely have to recite recycled bits of conventional wisdom.

As a Despiser of Popular Things Cause They’re Popular manqué (I was saved from this fate by the indisputable greatness of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), I sometimes have to remind myself of the danger of Default Smart Opinions. They’re a fun and easy way to differentiate yourself from an imagined mass of dumb people, but they only work until you encounter someone who likes that thing and actually have to contend with the complex ways real human persons interact with their faves. In other words, they work best when you are only talking to people exactly like you, and that’s a risky type of opinion to espouse.

If Hyden doesn’t quite manage to get at the meaning of life, he does do an incredible job of writing about music in a way that’s accessible to those of us who are music-stupid.1 Talking to music people can be the explainiest motherfucking thing in this life, but with Hyden, you just feel like he truly wants to share his knowledge and enthusiasm. I wrote down approximately a kajillion albums to check out after reading this book, and I felt stupid exactly 0 times.2

I’d also like to say that it is unendingly lovely to hear people say any iteration of this, a sentiment I could not agree with more even though I had a near-picture-perfect happy childhood and parents who loved me and an unflinching expectation of stability and support.

Nor am I minimizing the hell that it is being a teenager. I have no sentimentality for childhood. I hated being a kid — all I wanted was to be older, and when I was older, I found that I was right all along about adulthood being way better.

plus:

I think we can all agree that Prince is one of the five coolest people on the planet. (The others are LeBron James, Beyonce, Bill Clinton, and Jennifer Lawrence. If you don’t like this list, I’m sorry, but these are the people that everybody else on earth signed off on.)

LeBron James? That’s who you choose from the world of sports? I’m generally on board with this list, but, LeBron James?

  1. That is me. I do not know music stuff. Please do not laugh and make jokes at me about this, I am legit really embarrassed by it.
  2. Like, except for the perpetual low-level shame I feel about my utter music ignorance. That’s always there. But that’s self-generated, and Hyden contributed to it not at all in this book.

Pit Bull, Bronwyn Dickey

Are y’all ready for me to EXPLODE YOUR MIND GRAPES? Because the reason I read Bronwyn Dickey’s Pit Bull was this one interview that led me to some internet research that EXPLODED MY MIND GRAPES. Bronwyn Dickey said in this interview that we really don’t know anything about pit bull dog bites. And I was like, Um, okay, Bronwyn Dickey, I agree with you that pit bulls are misunderstood, but we know some stuff about pit bull dog bites, and because not knowing things drives me crazy, I went down an Internet rabbit hole researching dog bite statistics.

Team. Team. Listen. We know literally nothing about dog bites by breed. Please let me expand on this. Number one, we are super-garbage at identifying dog breeds. Below is a picture of two dogs, a pure-bred Basenji and a pure-bred cocker spaniel.

Pit BullNice-looking dogs, no? Now please inspect the puppies this pair of dogs produced.

Pit Bull

I KNOW, RIGHT? So okay, we begin by noting that everyone’s terrible at identifying dog breeds. Dickey also includes pictures of the puppies’ eventual progeny, and that’s even nutser: It turns out that within two generations, dogs revert to the statistical dog average.1

Next up, I went looking for how a reputable source like the CDC compiles breed-specific dog bite statistics, and it turns out that they don’t do it anymore, but when they’ve done it in the past they used humane society reports plus media reports. Y’all. Media reports. Like imagine your local TV station and how much they love scare stories, and then recognize that this is one of the main sources the CDC used to compile information about dog bites. In 2013, the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association looked for dog bite reports given to the media and humane societies, and the researchers looked more deeply into a few hundred of those cases.

AND LISTEN TO THIS, Y’ALL. (I had to start a new paragraph because this is so mind-blowing.) In forty percent of cases where there was a humane society report and a media report of the same dog bite incident, in forty percent of those cases, the media reported a different dog breed than the humane society. THINK ABOUT THAT. We know absolutely literally nothing about what breeds of dogs are more prone to biting. Zero things, is what we know. We have no reliable statistics whatsoever. Please tell your friends; I cannot be alone with this information.

Pit Bull

Pit Bull had so many tragic parts about poor folks losing their beloved family pets that I am not sure I can entirely recommend it. I’d like to make an annotated reading list where I note which pages are fine to read (bc heartwarming stories of dogs and owners who so much love each other), and which pages should be strenuously avoided (DEAD DOGS, there are so many DEAD DOGS in this book).

I do feel like I learned a lot about the sociological underpinnings of attitudes toward pit bulls. Surprise! It’s racism! As Gene Demby is perpetually noting, #housingsegregationineverything. When landlords or city councils ban pit bulls, they’re actually trying to forbid a type of tenant, and don’t die of shock, but the type is poor and black. It’s all pretty enraging, especially when alternated with stories of people who were forced to give up their dogs to euthanasia because the alternative is homelessness or similar disasters.

Read this or don’t — you know your limits re: dead dog stories — but I mean it, tell your friends this important information about dog bite statistics. WE KNOW NOTHING. LITERALLY NOTHING. Thank you Bronwen Dickey for opening my eyes to this preposterous-ass situation.

  1. That is not a real datum, it is just a joke, do not @ me.

You May Also Like, Tom Vanderbilt

You May Also Like attempts to fathom the question of why people like what they like. Before reading this book, you’d probably answer “It’s complicated.” But after you read it? You’ll, um, you’ll still say it’s complicated. Human brains are complicated organs, and we are just not very good at understanding them.

You May Also Like

When I’m reading pop sciencey sorts of books, I am on a hair trigger with regard to bullshit neuroscience of the type that Cordelia Fine has conditioned me to be on a hair trigger w/r/t; i.e., that thing where it’s like “the same part of your brain lights up when you’re scared as when you eat a new type of vegetable, so you must be scared of new vegetables!”1 I am happy to report that with a few minor and rare exceptions, Vanderbilt steers clear of this sketchy business. He is less interested in neurological explanations for taste than in talking to people whose work it is to figure out the whys and hows.

As you can probably guess if you live in this world, many of the people researching taste are doing it so that they can make more and better algorithms to predict what you will like if you already like X. Or so they can find ways to make you like Y if you are not currently a Y-liker.

algorithm-makers, probably

That second thing is of particular interest to me! Vanderbilt finds that framing makes a huge difference (duh): If you already know you don’t like country music, you are less likely to enjoy a song if someone says “hey listen to this song by Garth Brooks” than if you encounter a Garth Brooks song, stripped of context, as the background to a movie or commercial you enjoy. Social context matters too (also duh): When you see other people liking a thing, you’re more likely to like the thing yourself. Plus, if other people around you like a thing and your experience of the thing broadens, you are even likelier still to start liking the thing, because familiarity is a good predictor of developing liking.

(Cf my Stockholm syndrome re: radio-frequent songs including but not limited to Nick Jonas’s “Jealous” and One Republic’s “Counting Stars.”)

He also discusses the role of error in the way our tastes change, which is something that had never occurred to me. For instance, some irregular verbs have become regular over time, mainly verbs we don’t use that much.

Why? Because the irregular verbs we hardly ever encounter are the ones whose irregular forms we are least likely to remember, hence we convert them, through error, into regular verbs.

Interesting, right? So now we have “thrived” instead of “throve,” but “drove” is still the past tense of “drive.” Take that, prescriptivists!

If you are looking for final conclusions about what makes a person like a thing, You May Also Like doesn’t have a lot of answers. But if you just want to learn about the many factors that go into making personal taste, by spending time with the people who spend their time thinking about that, this is a fun and readable exploration of those worlds.

Jill at Rhapsody in Books also reviewed this. Let me know if you did, too, and I’ll add a link!

  1. This is what we call affirming the consequent. If you float and wood floats, that doesn’t mean you are actually made of wood.

The Other Slavery, Andrés Reséndez

I was going to start this post about The Other Slavery by making a really grim joke about Ir*sh sl*very (asterisked out so Nazi bros don’t find my blog), but then I just got hugely sad about living in a world where that’s still a lie people perpetuate instead of talking about real actual slavery. So instead I’ll start by saying that Andrés Reséndez has produced what feels to me like a monumental work of American history, delving deep into archival records to uncover the hidden story of American enslavement of indigenous people.

The Other Slavery

Reséndez argues that while disease certainly played a role in the decimation of Indian populations in America, it was far from the primary factor. Rather, colonizing powers systematically enslaved American Indians from the earliest days of Spanish power in the Americas. Because Spain outlawed Indian slavery in the sixteenth century, however, Spanish governments in America concealed their enslavement of Indians behind a variety of smoke screens, from debt peonage to trumped-up criminal charges and disproportionate sentencing.

Their methods achieved mixed success in concealing ongoing Indian slavery from the Spanish rulers, but were phenomenally successful in concealing it archivally. Until you know what you’re looking for, it can be hard to spot in the records that what’s going on is the systematic and deliberate destruction of Indian populations, languages, and economic power through enslavement, forced assimilation, and relocation.

Pretty much the definition of genocide. In case you forgot what this country was founded on. And of course none of this stopped as the southwestern and western territories came under American jurisdiction (perish the thought).

Another section [of the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians of 1850] established the “apprenticeship” of Indian minors. Any white person who wished to employ an Indian child could present himself before a justice of the peace accompanied by the “parents or friends” of the minor in question, and after showing that this was a voluntary transaction, the petitioner would get custody of the child and control “the earnings of such minor until he or she obtained the age of majority” (fifteen for girls and eighteen for boys).1

The Other Slavery makes for some grim reading, but it’s incredibly important to know exactly how widespread and insidious these forms of slavery were. Built on the rhetoric of a civilizing mission, enslavement of native peoples lasted throughout the colonization of the continent and well into the establishment of America as a quote-unquote free nation. If the colonizing powers or, later, the United State Congress blocked one avenue of acquiring slaves, slavers would find another way to maintain their access to forced labor.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. I would love to see its conclusions incorporated into future high school history curricula, because this is nothing I was ever taught, and I should have been.

  1. There’s an endnote here that’s even worse: This law was later expanded so the white person’s custody lasted into the child’s twenties.

Angry White People, Hsiao-Hung Pai

By total coincidence, my hold on Angry White People came in the same week that Jo Cox was assassinated in England, apparently for her support of Britain’s presence in the EU and other liberalish political agendas. I heard the name “Nigel Farage” for the first and second times in this book and the news (respectively? not respectively? I don’t remember).

Angry White People

The real reason I put a hold on it in the first place was that I’m interested in what makes people choose one belief over another one. I try — I do try — to ground my own beliefs in data, as far as possible. Except that I know this isn’t how actual people actually manage their politics.1 I know that really people choose their beliefs based on what ethos aligns most comfortably with the type of person they want to be, or, if you ask Cynical Jenny, with the type of person they want to appear to be. And it is therefore really hard for me to understand why people choose far-right ideologies like the BNP or the rhetoric of Donald Trump, because surely nobody wants to look like or be a basically-Nazi.

Angry White People is about that. Hsiao-Hung Pai talks to men2 who have embraced the far-right mindset, though the degree to which her interviewees have committed to it varies widely. Some have become alarmed by the rhetoric of groups like the EDL (English Defence League, it’s racist, they hate Muslims) and are phasing out their involvement, while others have only grown stronger in their belief that immigrants are ruining England, garnering all the benefits, and taking all the jobs.

Reading about virulent racism in England is (depressing but) interesting because it highlights the way certain narratives about members of a given ethnic group, race, religion, etc., can come to seem urgent, true, and powerful despite clear statistical evidence to the contrary. America remains mightily under the sway of the Moynihan report and its narrative of broken black families and absent black fathers; even though the CDC has shown that black fathers actually spend more time daily with their children than fathers of other races. And when you live in America, it’s easy to lose track of whether or not that narrative is true, because you hear it so often that it continues to feel true.

yes, adorable child. yes it is.

In England, by contrast, there is this narrative that Muslim men are pedophiles and that they groom young girls (white girls sometimes! and kidnap them!) and share them around sexually at their mosques or whatever. I had never heard of this narrative before and was astonished to discover it in Angry White People. Immediately afterward, I encountered this same narrative both in Brexit coverage and in Sathnam Sangera’s Marriage Material, so it is definitely A THING over there. Americans, who are none too friendly towards Muslims ourselves, do not have this narrative. So it was a good reminder again of the way these narratives build and reproduce themselves out of free-floating prejudice and the desire to have a good reason to dislike a group you wanted to dislike anyway.

Also a great reminder to be suspicious of won’t someone save the children/womenfolk arguments. If you ever find yourself making an argument against a given group, and your argument is based on we must save their children/women!, just know that you are standing in a proud line of colonialist/racist rhetoric that uses women’s rights to justify oppression and theft against marginalized groups standing in the way of more powerful groups achieving still yet greater economic gain. KNOW THAT ABOUT YOURSELF FIRST. Speak second. (Or never. Never is also fine, in this context.)

Y’all, I don’t know. I don’t know with this world right now. Can someone recommend me a nonfiction book about, like, nice people doing the right thing, and it turns out well for them? Is that a dumb thing to want?

  1. Apropos of which: Don’t you want to read The Myth of the Rational Voter? I do. It looks good.
  2. And women, you say? No. Not really. Pai talks about women’s roles in the far right, but most of what she has to say is, women aren’t tremendously active in far-right groups like the EDL and the BNP. Here, permit me to fan you gently whilst you try to recover from the shock of this news.

Pandemic, Sonia Shah

I read Pandemic author Sonia Shah’s book The Body Hunter a few years back and was not satisfied with the quality of her citations. While I totally stand by that (the endnotes in that book were a mess), and I was all set to think ill of Pandemic also, actually the endnotes in this one were way much better sorted out. I conclude that she had better copyeditors this time around.

Pandemic

This book’s about the spread of infectious diseases, and Sonia Shah herself admits that she’s not sure how to tell the story she wants to tell. Much of her research, and a good chunk of the book, is devoted to cholera: its paths of infection, some of its major outbreaks over the course of history, and the ways it continues to rear its head even though we already know how to cure it. But the book isn’t fundamentally about cholera, so another large chunk of it talks about vectors for infection, the emergence of new diseases, and a whole bunch of other things that don’t get explored in super-depth.

A fluffy cholera bacterium!

Pandemic is interesting and taught me some things I didn’t know, like that birds rarely pass diseases to humans unless there are also pigs nearby, in which case it goes birds –> pigs –> humans; but overall, it’s neither one thing nor the other. Not a comprehensive history of cholera, not a thorough exploration of how new diseases emerge and take root, and not an overview of pandemics and how we’ve handled them.

It did, however, make me feel paranoid about ever touching animals again. Or water. Or other people. Or about taking an antibiotic. OCD runs in my family and I sometimes feel that it is perilously close to the surface. But I sensibly went to my parents’ place and petted the hell out of my dog Jasmine, and I even let her lick my ears one lick, and that reminded me that pandemics are unlikely but Jazz will always love me. So there, diseases.

The Secret Life of the American Musical, Jack Viertel

Jack Viertel’s The Secret Life of the American Musical (hat-tip to the fabulous Kim for the recommendation!) isn’t a history of the American musical — a thing about which I would not care at all1 — but rather a dissection of what goes into making it.

The Secret Life of the American Musical

Viertel breaks down an array of musicals, from Gypsy to Hamilton, into their component parts to explore what makes their engines run. Some of this I was already familiar with, like the not-a-rule-but-sort-of-a-rule that the protagonist has to sing an “I Want” song early on, to get the audience on board with whatever the stakes are going to be for this particular show. Another recurring pattern I’d never thought about is the inclusion of a villain anthem somewhere in the first act, to keep us interested in what the antagonist is up to and how his/her desires are ultimately going to clash with those of our hero.

I'm willing to wait for it
hi there handsome antagonist man

Interesting, right? Of course, none of these rules are really rules. They’re commonalities across a wide range of musicals, and the reason they’re so common is that they convey story beats and keep audience interest engaged as the writers try to tell a two-and-a-half-hour story and keep the audience from peacing out at intermission and not lose the energy in the room — it’s a balancing act, and the “rules” Viertel outlines are some common ways that writers of musicals have found to keep all the balls in the air.

One thing that Viertel highlights is the way many musicals will feature a quiet moment between a few characters, maybe a brief line of music or a few lines of dialogue, that encapsulate exactly what the show’s about (often in a question-and-answer format). I got starry-eyed reading this section because, of course, his examples are some of the best moments of some of my favorite musicals. Like little Winston asking coldly, “What band?” and Harold Hill replying, “I always think there’s a band, kid.” Or Doc, in West Side Story, demanding of the Jets, “When do you kids stop? You make this world lousy,” and Action answering, “We didn’t make it, Doc.”

No. That's eyeball sweat.

Be prepared, though, if you are a musicals nerd (and if you’re not, I’m — not sure why you’d be interested in this book? But what do I know.), to end up with all kinds of songs stuck in your head. You know what’s a catchy fuckin song? “Adelaide’s Lament.”

There. It’s stuck in your head now too.

If I could just flag one thing that made me sigh, it would be this description of Hamilton:

“My Shot” happens in a context that we barely recognize as American musical theater–the actors are dressed in costumes that might have been preserved from a production of 17762, but from the neck up they look like a motley gang of street-corner revolutionaries in the Bronx in 2015.

You mean, not white? Is whiteness what makes something recognizable as American musical theater? Piss off.

Apart from that one extremely sigh-worthy moment, The Secret Life of the American Musical was a fascinating book. Much recommended!

  1. Sorry Alice!
  2. Disagree.

American Gypsy, Oksana Marafioti

Before I launch into a proper review of Oksana Marafioti’s American Gypsy, a word about terminology. Marafioti never discusses, in the course of her book, her use of the term gypsy. However, many many many Romani people consider it to be an ethnic slur; and when the word appears in the course of this book, it’s more often than not being thrown at Marafioti or at her family as an insult. So although Marafioti herself has said that she’s not opposed to the use of the term, I’m going to stick with Romani throughout this review. And so should you, probably, in your regular life.

American Gypsy

Oksana Marafioti moved to America from Russia as a teenager, whereupon her parents immediately got divorced. A driven and talented kid, she worked hard to master English and find a place in a magnet school for the musically gifted. Meanwhile, at home, her mother was sinking further into alcoholism, and her father and stepmother cheated on each other and conducted exorcisms and tried to find a suitable Romani husband for the “practically a spinster” 16-year-old Oksana.

So, okay, as a rule there is a type of memoir I will read and a type of memoir I will not. I will read a memoir about what it is like to have a life that is not my life, like if the person decides to give it all up and join the circus and the book is about what happens next. I will not (again, as a rule) read memoirs about growing up with a fucked-up family. Used to read those. Kinda don’t anymore. They bum me out cause like, what do the fucked-up family think about ending up in your book? I’ll make an exception if someone promises me extreme hilarity (cf. Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant), but apart from that I am off Family Dysfunction Memoirs and only read Particular Experience Memoirs.

American Gypsy is right right right on the line between those two things. Marafioti mostly wants to talk about what it was like growing up in a Romani family with a long and stories musical legacy, and then being suddenly torn away from that part of her part and transplanted to a whole new country. She does have, in many ways, a fucked-up family, but the story is less about how they made her feel and more about what her life was as a Romani kid in Russia and in the US. But I mean it was right on the line.

SO are you Team Family Dysfunction Memoirs or Team Particular Experience Memoirs, or are you on a third team I haven’t thought of? LET’S MAKE A TAXONOMY.

Oh, also, if you have any recommendations of good nonfiction books about Roma history and culture, I am accepting those recommendations at this time.