–W.E.B. Du Bois
Dedicated to Kwame Nkrumah
I was a little boy, at home with strangers.
I liked my playmates, and knew well,
Whence all their parents came;
From England, Scotland, royal France
From Germany and oft by chance
The humble Emerald Isle.
But my brown skin and close-curled hair
Was alien, and how it grew, none knew;
Few tried to say, some dropped a wonderful word or stray;
Some laughed and stared.
And then it came: I dreamed.
I placed together all I knew
All hints and slurs together drew.
I made one picture of what nothing seemed
I shuddered in dumb terror
In silence screamed,
For now it seemed this I had dreamed;
How up from Hell, a land had leaped
A wretched land, all scorched and seamed
Covered with ashes, chained with pain
Streaming with blood, in horror lain
Its very air a shriek of death
And agony of hurt.
Anon I woke, but in one corner of my soul
I stayed asleep.
Forget I could not,
But never would I remember
That hell-hoist ghost
Of slavery and woe.
I lived and grew, I worked and hoped
I planned and wandered, gripped and coped
With every doubt but one that slept
Yet clamoured to awaken.
I became old; old, worn and gray;
Along my hard and weary way
Rolled war and pestilence, war again;
I looked on Poverty and foul Disease
I walked with Death and yet I knew
There stirred a doubt: Were all dreams true?
And what in truth was Africa?
One cloud-swept day a Seer appeared,
All closed and veiled as me he hailed
And bid me make three journeys to the world
Seeking all through their lengthened links
The endless Riddle of the Sphinx.
I went to Moscow; Ignorance grown wise taught me Wisdom;
I went to Peking: Poverty grown rich
Showed me the wealth of Work
I came to Accra.
Here at last, I looked back on my Dream;
I heard the Voice that loosed
The Long-looked dungeons of my soul
I sensed that Africa had come
Not up from Hell, but from the sum of Heaven’s glory.
I lifted up mine eyes to Ghana
And swept the hills with high Hosanna;
Above the sun my sight took flight
Till from that pinnacle of light
I saw dropped down this earth of crimson, green and gold
Roaring with color, drums and song.
Happy with dreams and deeds worth more than doing
Around me velvet faces loomed
Burnt by the kiss of everlasting suns
Under great stars of midnight glory
Trees danced, and foliage sang;
The lilies hallelujah rang
Where robed with rule on Golden Stool
The gold-crowned Priests with duty done
Pour high libations to the sun
And danced to gods.
Red blood flowed rare ’neath close-clung hair
While subtle perfume filled the air
And whirls and whirls of tiny curls
Yet Ghana shows its might and power
Not in its color nor its flower
But in its wondrous breadth of soul
Its Joy of Life
Its selfless role
School and clinic, home and hall
Road and garden bloom and call
Socialism blossoms bold
On Communism centuries old.
I lifted my last voice and cried
I cried to heaven as I died:
O turn me to the Golden Horde
Summon all western nations
Toward the Rising Sun.
From reeking West whose day is done,
Who stink and stagger in their dung
Toward Africa, China, India’s strand
Where Kenya and Himalaya stand
And Nile and Yang-tze roll:
Turn every yearning face of man.
Come with us, dark America:
The scum of Europe battened here
And drowned a dream
Made fetid swamp a refuge seem:
Enslaved the Black and killed the Red
And armed the Rich to loot the Dead;
Worshipped the whores of Hollywood
Where once the Virgin Mary stood
And lynched the Christ.
Awake, awake, O sleeping world
Honor the sun;
Worship the stars, those vaster suns
Who rule the night
Where black is bright
And all unselfish work is right
And Greed is Sin.
And Africa leads on:
Last month I wrote a little something about the books that had been essential, life-affirming, thought-provoking or somehow became lodged in my head or forced tears from my eyes. Affecting in one way or another. Because my reading hysteria has continued, despite my intention to calm down, I’ve completed a number of, once again, affecting books. (You can keep track of all my reading right along with me.)
What I am finding, overall, is that most books live somewhere in the middle of a scale, whether that scale is 1 to 5 or 1 to 10 (and I hate these kinds of arbitrary ratings). There are concepts or ideas that excite the brain, but the book is otherwise undercooked. There are passages that inflame the passions, making the heart beat faster and breathing shallow – or making tears literally explode from the eyes, or that animate the brain, starting processes of analysis or self-reflection. But even then, these are only passages in books that don’t stand up as a whole against the scrutiny required to call something great.
That said, I know that ‘great’ is entirely subjective. I can’t outright define what makes a “great book”. It is even subjective for one person on two different days. I found (as I often do) that I am a much harsher, less patient critic when I am tired and cranky, so for example, I was not at all interested in how Jonas Karlsson‘s book The Room turned out when I hit the halfway point just before going to sleep one February evening. Sleeping on it, though, I came back, finished the book and found some interesting concepts and connections. It was both annoying and intriguing at the same time. Mostly felt tedious except when the question is raised as to whether there can be a different reality for every person. Can one person see something that no one else sees, and be left undisturbed to experience it that way, even if it is a sign of mental illness? The questions underscore bigger mysteries about the nature of reality and the ways we work best as individuals, illustrating what it’s like for the many who stumble through a world that looks different to them than to the majority. How do we make allowances for that in a world that operates like an assembly line, dependent on sameness, not questioning and uniformity in thinking and action? Nevertheless, as realistic as the depiction of the deluded, mentally ill, belligerent main character/narrator can be, the arrogant clinging to unfounded and unreasonable theories, self-confidence and sense of superiority reminds me so much of someone I used to know that it became hard to read. Which in a way is the mark of a good book (or at least a vital character)… but not a great one.
I also enjoy small coincidences – where one book randomly happens to mention something I did not expect, and that topic or place is mentioned – completely randomly – in the next book or in a film I watch the same day. For example, I read Leila Aboulela‘s book, The Translator, which was about a Sudanese woman. I didn’t know it was set in dear, beloved Scotland until I started reading. And to my delight (because it doesn’t take much), the very next book I read, Ryszard Kapuściński‘s The Shadow of the Sun, also had a whole passage that involved some young Glaswegians traveling around in West Africa. I expected the book to be about Kapuściński’s travels all over the African continent; I didn’t necessarily expect to be greeted by some young, naive Scots as well. Both engaging books – neither ‘great’.
Derek B. Miller‘s Norwegian by Night was a surprise – but still not ‘great’. I appreciated the details – the Oslo I know, up close, and references to little things like RV 23 and E18 make me think of my interminable slogs between Oslo and home in the Swedish woods. It feels close to home, and that can be comforting.
But the book itself feels too cramped, trying to stuff too much into one single novel: I mean, Holocaust, Judaism, American Jews and their identity and discrimination, Norwegians’ ignorance about Jews and Judaism, Korean War, Vietnam conflict, possible dementia, death, Kosovo, Serbia and the KLA, immigration issues in Norway, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Norwegian-Swedish cross-border issues, and a bunch of other stuff I am not even fitting into my few-sentence appraisal. I appreciated the effort, but it tried too hard. Don’t get me wrong – all of these topics are right up my alley, and in that way I loved reading this book. It was immensely enjoyable for all its flaws. Just much too ambitious in throwing too many ingredients into one dish.
Another interesting but much too overly ambitious book was Dexter Palmer‘s just slightly too-long Version Control. It offers unique perspectives on alternate realities/versions, online dating, big data and the way change and lack of communication, especially in relationships, can defy all our best intentions and promises. (No one, after all, goes into a relationship, full of hope and love, thinking they will fade into lesser and less vocal self-advocates or that they will stop interacting or showing those everyday moments of care that made them fall in love in the first place.) Sadly, for all its deft handling of some of these key emotional undercurrents – of the versions and version control of our emotional selves through the course of a relationship and through life – the book undermines itself with too wide a scope and too much … superfluity. With a tighter structure, this could be at least 100 pages shorter and, in my humble opinion, a much better book.
What I did find great, though, were the following:
- The End of Days – Jenny Erpenbeck (I wish I knew how to explain why I love Erpenbeck’s style so much. This was quite different, but no less engrossing, than her novel, Go, Went, Gone, which was one of my favorites last year.)
- We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families – Philip Gourevitch (Haunting, disturbing… how do things like the devastating Rwandan genocide happen? And how does a country move forward afterwards?)
- An Unnecessary Woman – Rabih Alameddine (“Memory chooses to preserve what desire cannot hope to sustain.” Perhaps I loved this so much because I could relate to it in such a visceral way. I feel like I express myself, or at least think, like the antisocial loner old lady who is the center and narrator of this book. Her observations, her sentiments on books, obsession with Pessoa, her observations on translation and the imperfection of the art of translation. Perhaps it is also this connection to Lebanon, which I have been trying to dig into since I was in my early 20s, as much as possible. Everything one reads and hears about Lebanon has been so long tinged by the theme of its long civil war and general unrest that it is hard to find something more general, something that features the war only as a backdrop to life. Regular life continues as the war drags on for an entire generation. I felt something similar in watching the recent TV show Derry Girls, which shows life going on for a regular family with the Troubles in Northern Ireland only as a backdrop. A constant backdrop, but not the main story being told. This might not be for everyone, but I loved it.)
- So You Want to Talk About Race – Ijeoma Oluo (I actually read this in January, but had written about my January reading – stupidly – before January actually ended – and this was a phenomenal book and absolutely must be included.)
Honorable mentions (almost great or noteworthy for particular reasons):
- The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration – Isabel Wilkerson
- My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante (I resisted reading this for a long time, more stubbornly the more I heard about its supposed merits. While I can’t rave at the level that would make me call this a ‘great’ book, I nevertheless found the precision with which the elusive Ferrante has depicted the fickle, painful, precarious back-and-forth-teeter-totter nature of female friendships.)
- LoveStar – Andri Snær Magnason (I appreciated the satirical take on our tech-saturated present and future – and the implication that everything can and probably will go haywire – very Black Mirror-esque. Who are we once we are completely defined by technology and incompetent without it? How do we define life and identity when you can erase your child’s existence and replace him/her with the spare copies you’ve made? Does life and experience matter when you have the opportunity to rewind and start again? What are the ethical considerations and consequences? And even more tellingly for today, when we are actively encouraged to quantify everything about ourselves and our existence – what does capturing every single thing do/mean? What happens when capturing absolutely everything becomes more of a prison than a choice – erasing the chance to make mistakes and learn from them? Andri Snær poses all these questions in an eminently readable and fascinating book, conceptually. It does not always flow as a work of fiction, as it seems to be distracted by throwing as many of these ethical and existential questions up for consideration. Always on the razor-edge of absurdity until you realize it’s so close to reality that it’s truly frightening.)
- A Replacement Life – Boris Fishman (I could say much more about this novel, but what sticks with me in these times, fraught with fake news and denial of hard facts, is the theme of fact checking: ““Oh, I just hear you every day,” he said. “‘Mr. Maloney, is your bar made of pine or aspen? Can you call the manufacturer?’” “Yeah, I guess it sounds strange from the side.” “Mr. Maloney’s gone his whole life without knowing is it pine or aspen. When has anyone asked him what that bar’s made of?” “What’s your point?” “Does it really matter?” he said. “I guess,” she said, putting down her phone. “But think about it. Maloney’s is in New Jersey. Let’s say they don’t have aspens in New Jersey. I mean, they do—I checked. But let’s say. Somebody happens to know that, they see that wrong, they say, What else is wrong? They lose trust. You can’t give a reader a reason to lose trust.”” Well before now I had thought often of how a hapless error in an otherwise well-researched work can erode the reader’s confidence. Thinking back to my master’s studies, I remember being assigned a rather lengthy book, The System, which chronicled the early Clinton-era attempts to push through universal healthcare in America – and the massive failure that ended up being. Ultimately it seemed quite detailed, but somewhere deep within the book, the writers referred to Congressman Fred Grandy as having been a star in the TV show Gilligan’s Island, which he wasn’t. He was a star in the show The Love Boat. Getting this, such a basic and easily checked pop culture reference, wrong, made me doubt everything I had already read.)
- The Plot Against America, A Novel – Philip Roth (Definitely one for these confusing, absurd, frightening times in Trump’s moving-toward-fascism America)
- Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders (I have no doubt that this was a labor of love, of toil, and as evidence of what can only be termed an original, ambitious and laborious creation, this qualifies. But as a pleasurable read? Not really.)
- The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride (I am someone who fights the urge to give up on books because I feel committed once I start, but it was all I could do not to stop reading this shit. I hated it. As you can see above, I usually find something – some angle – in every work that I can relate to, can cite, can appreciate. But this? Fuck no.)
“Despite how open, peaceful and loving you attempt to be, people can only meet you, as deeply as they’ve met themselves.” -Matt Kahn
“But people are terrible buffoons, and will never listen. They must touch the hot iron.” -K Wolfe
Please forgive the desultory fashion in which I swan across a bunch of disconnected subjects. Just a clearing of the mind.
How much do I hate it when people begin statements in their stories with admonishment: “Remember”, e.g. “I went to Harvard. Remember: I didn’t get good grades!” or “I have been working and running around for 18 hours straight. Remember: I didn’t sleep last night either!” I don’t know if it is meant to be an invitation to pat them on the back for what revelation follows the entreaty to “remember” or literally a reminder, as if some detail they harp on constantly could be forgotten? Why does this bother me so much?
Similarly, we all have our favorite words and don’t necessarily notice we are using them constantly. “Similarly” is one of mine, probably because I love trying to make connections between disconnected things. When I go back over writing I see the way these words pop up again and again. I wonder if it’s deliberate when I see it in published books that should have been edited. For example, I noticed that Carrie Brownstein used some version of “sturdy” in her memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, more times than I bothered to count. Claire Dederer uses some version of “semaphore” far too many times in her recent book, Love and Trouble. How do we attach ourselves to these favored words and expressions?
Asking for a tap: Freelance distance learning – Sierra Leone
Let’s get the most important thing out of the way, though. The annual Sierra Leone Marathon takes place tomorrow (May 28), and money donated benefits the Street Child charity, which, since its founding, has helped more than 50,000 children to go to school and stay in education. During the Ebola crisis, Street Child helped over 20,000 Ebola orphans, providing emergency support and connecting thousands with families. Today, Street Child works in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nepal and Nigeria with a current emphasis on education in emergencies and girls’ education.
While you can give any time, of course, the fundraising drive for the marathon is a good time to make a big push for support. I happen to be supporting this small team of enthusiastic marathoners. I’m eager for them to make it over the top with their fundraising goal, but really I’m pretty keen for the charity to be supported in general. There are a lot of charities out there and loads of people asking for money; it happens that I chose to get involved in this right now. The results of giving are easy to see, and I guess it’s important to feel like you see some kind of result – or a direct line between what you do or give to some kind of improvement. Not just an “I will write a check to assuage guilt and not think about it again” kind of effort.
As I have written before, everything I learn about Africa is incremental… kind of one country, one obsession at a time. We all heard about Sierra Leone in the last few years because it was one of the hardest hit in West Africa during the Ebola crisis, but it’s easy for a country and its people to get lost in that kind of crisis. (Prior to the crisis, Sierra Leone was rebuilding from a prolonged civil war – and just when they were making some progress, Ebola hit.)
As part of my intro to Sierra Leone, I’ve become better acquainted also with Liberia and other bits of West Africa. Which maybe I will ramble about another time. For now, I am just thinking about drumming up money.
I have no excuse except that I let compassion have free rein. Which is often my excuse for everything. All those years not saying no to freelance work because I couldn’t. But then even when I was free of need, not being able to say no because I forgot how to say no. And even after learning to say no, I couldn’t because I thought, “I can’t leave money on the table when I could give it to a cause”. Whether that cause was a down-on-his-luck alcoholic in precarious recovery or a greater cause like Ebola orphans in West Africa.
After all, what else are we here for? I was listening to Sigur Rós’s Ágætis byrjun album for the first time in many years, and it was as though I was transported back to summer 1999 in Akureyri, northern Iceland. I was introduced to this by my friend Anna’s friend, R. R passed away long ago when she was really quite young, and listening to the opening notes of this album bring these beautiful people – who have either changed or completely ceased to exist – to life in my mind’s eye. This gorgeous prelude to the Icelandic chapter of my life, the beginnings of which were already like half a life ago.
While listening to the album, I happened to look through my college’s alumni news and saw that a former classmate had died late last year. She was in her 70s, so it was not as shocking as when people my own age or younger die (I was the youngest in my class by decades in most cases, so my cohort have reached normal “expiration dates”, but it’s still quite sad). Already flooded by the aforementioned memory plucked from me by the sounds of Sigur Rós, these fleeting moments of curiosity, asking myself, “I wonder whatever happened to X”, like today, are often followed by more nostalgia-filled grief, discovering the deaths of people who once populated life’s periphery.
Yes, of late, I see a pattern forming in, overtaking in fact, most of what I write. A lot of death and mortality to reflect on. Which is in the end why, as much as I complain, or poke at language I find annoying, I am much more inclined to think about and act on helping others, and finding meaning in the time we are here.
“Africa is a training ground for the character, but also a graveyard for illusions.” -Vladimir Drachoussoff, Russo-Belgian agricultural engineer and diarist (reflecting on his time in Congo, including some remarkably prophetic writings on Congo’s future after colonialism)
(Congolese Lament – Liwa Wechi – Miriam Makeba)
It has taken me years to finish Congo: The Epic History of a People by David van Reybrouck. It even took me years to buy the book after seeing it in a bookstore. Once I had it in hand, it was like so many other books – I picked it up and put it down, reading the introduction more than once, but only now have I finished the entire near-600 page volume. Despite its length there are things I would love to learned about in greater depth (but perhaps can find more information on these points elsewhere). In the meantime, though, I still learned a lot of things. I could ramble on and on about it. No point.
Some notable bits (entirely leaving out discussions on the post-independence madness of an inexperienced, revolving-door government and assassinations, the ruthless power-grab of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and his rule, followed by post-Mobutu DRC and internecine civil war):
Slavery: “Traditionally, slavery in Central Africa was seen principally as a matter not of robbing you of your freedom, but of uprooting you from your social setting. It was gruesome, to be sure, but for reasons other than commonly assumed. In a society so characterized by social feeling, “the autonomy of the individual” did not equal liberty at all, as Europeans had been proclaiming since the Renaissance, but loneliness and desperation. You are who you know; if no one knows you, you are nothing. Slavery was not being subjugated, it was being separated, from home.”
Congo in WWII: “The fact that Congolese paramedics cared for Burmese civilians and British soldiers in the Asian jungle is a completely unknown chapter in colonial history and one that will soon vanish altogether.”
Post WWII: “The whites’ authority was being challenged, albeit subtly. Something had changed in the balance of power. Many Congolese were very well aware that the colony had proved stronger than the metropolis. Belgium had been crushed: Congo had remained on its feet and achieved military triumphs.”
On independence: “The chronology of events brought to light a paradox that could be noted at best, but not resolved: the decolonization had begun much too late, independence came much too early. Disguised as a revel, the breakneck emancipation of Congo was a tragedy that could only end in disaster.”
Where can you hear Townes van Zandt, Bobby McFerrin, Lou Reed, “Cool It Now” from New Edition, Father John Misty, a Chinese song “Yue yuan hua hao“, Bollywood “Jap Chaye” and about a thousand other eclectic, off-the-wall, past and present hits and obscurities? Including “Africa” by Toto, which seems to be the anthem of millennial bar-goers – they freaking go nuts over this song (on TV and in real). Hmm.
And maybe the only TV show I’ve watched in which they mention boba/bubble tea! Haha.
I could ramble about how the show is slightly genius in its random observations and is also really funny, sweet and pleasant. I’ve loved it, even down to the background music.
Among world-famous “Marx”es – Richard Marx is pretty low on the list and not first to spring to mind (Karl being most prominent for me). I always forget about 80s musician Richard Marx – I’d call him a “flash-in-the-pan” except that he had more than one hit at the time (at least one of which most people could sing along with or at least have heard, even if they have no idea who is behind it – “Right Here Waiting”.
He was no priority to me, but today I stumbled on an article about Marx’s petty wars-of-words with journalists – sometimes not even big-time journalists. Just people whose articles (even blog articles?) Marx apparently stumbles across and then starts arguing, defending himself against nonsense that does not really matter. Is it just to be mentioned and inflate an ego that cannot be sustained just on the 80s hits and a successful producing/songwriting career that came after the more visible fame? Is it really some kind of inferiority complex? Because really – if he embodied the kind of confidence that he probably should, to which he applies all manner of defensive words and threats, he would have neither the time nor interest in stooping to the level of addressing the fact that someone makes fun of the hairstyle he sported in the 80s or referred to his (soon-to-be ex-) wife, Cynthia Rhodes) as a “former model” (I guess he rushed to her defense, citing her history as an actress in important/popular films – we all remember Dirty Dancing and her role as “Penny”. Although I don’t remember much about her or her role, I remember Jerry Orbach saying something like, “You’re the one who got Penny in trouble.” – always enjoying this euphemistic language – “in trouble” – to describe pregnancy).
The aforementioned 2013 Salon article puts it best (although a Techdirt response also made me crack a smile in response to the Salon piece and Marx’s behavior, which they characterized as “acting like a self-important psychopath”) – Marx has outsold so many of his much better-known peers but has not had the staying power nor garnered the respect of the industry (italics are mine).
According to the Recording Industry Association of America, Marx’s quadruple-platinum album “Repeat Offender” has sold more copies than “Blonde on Blonde,” “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers” or “Pet Sounds.” (In fact, Marx’s most popular album has sold more copies than any album by Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra or the Beach Boys.) However, Marx’s window of fame was so brief, and his songs so ephemeral, that he doesn’t have a musical legacy. He’s still heard on late-night call-in request shows for the lovelorn, and, as even he admits, “I’m HUUUUGE at Walgreens” as background music for shopping.
But unlike near-contemporary pop stars Hall & Oates and Journey, Marx has not built a following among a new generation of fans. Few people under the age of 30 or over the age of 60 knows who he is, and most people in between haven’t thought about him in decades. His last Top 10 hit, “Now and Forever,” was released in 1994. He’s a songwriter and a producer now, with a Grammy for co-writing Luther Vandross’ “Dance With My Father,” but in Hollywood, nobody knows the writer’s name.
Marx has never gotten respect from critics, which is understandably galling for any artist. In a 1990 concert review, a New York Times critic compared him to David Cassidy and Donny Osmond, as the latest in “a long string of insipid, pseudo-adolescent singing idols whose tenure as teenage heartthrobs rarely lasts more than three years.” That was also the last time Marx’s music was the subject of a New York Times article.
To be honest, I never imagined that I would devote a whole blog post to Richard Marx. But Edward McClelland (writer of the Salon piece and this longer, funnier version of the story, “Right Here Waiting”) probably did not imagine it either. But mostly on the strength of the quoted text above and how much I enjoyed McClelland’s pieces, I thought… yeah, this is all true. (I did a little bit more online digging, which also led me to a different Richard Marx who apparently practices law in Florida – found an article about journalism in Zimbabwe linked from that Richard Marx’s site – ties in nicely, if completely randomly, with my intermittent Africa-related knowledge binges.) It made me feel sort of bad for the guy, even though his lashing out at critics seems overboard and desperate – especially when he could arguably have the last laugh. He has undoubtedly “outgunned” most of his contemporaries and certainly his critics financially. And artistically – even if he did not make a lasting impression aside from probably providing a theme song for many a high school prom (again, see “Right Here Waiting” again or “Hold Onto the Nights” – among that category ballads that really does strike a chord with the lovelorn high school set who believe fervently that high school sweetheart love will last forever) – he made a few decent records (I sort of liked the single “Don’t Mean Nothing” at the time – I was a kid in the late 80s; what can I say? I am sure I thought I was too cool for it, just leaving sixth grade, but I will cop to having the broadest of musical palates, even then, so I won’t apologize! haha) and has what – at least in 1990 – I would have characterized as a rabid fan base.
Yes, you got that right. Rabid. Back in 1990 (you know, the old days when we did things like this), my best friend and I were waiting for tickets to a Sinéad O’Connor concert (we got in line about 4 in the morning) – and we thought we would be the first there. But there was a 30-something woman there first, who proudly exclaimed that she had been there all night waiting to buy tickets to see Richard Marx. She said she had previously been following him around the country and that his rabid fans affectionately refer to themselves as “Dickheads”. We were sort of making fun of him, and this woman became maniacally defensive. Why does Marx need to be out there defending himself when there are bulldogs and terriers out there fighting all these little battles for him? (Granted that was back in 1990 – I don’t know if the Dickheads are still out there, but I suspect that diehards of that type are forever.)
(And because I cannot sign off on a Richard Marx note, here’s Sinéad’s “Just Like U Said It Would B” from her brilliant debut album.)
That “Africa”, nebulous netherworld and neverland that it is in my imagination, is comprised of little, uninformed portraits, characters and blurbs on the news (usually about something horrible), is little wonder. I have written before about how Africa is something massive, which – even if trying to absorb the idea and place systematically – would take time and only be possible in increments.
Africa is an idea more than a reality to me. Not just because I have not been anywhere on this vast and ridiculously diverse continent but also because “Africa” as a concept is kind of an idea. One giant landmass it may be but this very vastness and diversity makes it impossible to categorize or talk about as one giant entity. People may refer to themselves as “African” but can there be an “African” identity in the same way there is an American one? It strikes me as more like trying to convince Europeans to identify as “Europeans” before their nationalities. It is not that one never identifies as “African” or “European” but neither label tells an observer much of anything.
As usual I am consuming Africa-related matters in small bites, like geographical, cultural, historical amuse-bouche. Not always a tasty sampling.
Today’s thoughts inevitably turn to the most newsworthy of Africa’s countries.
The 20-year mark since the genocide in Rwanda has sparked a virtually endless flow of news and related content, ranging from reconciliation (and photography projects chronicling that complex and painful process) to the “miracle” of modern Rwanda, from the firm and perhaps dictatorial hand of President Paul Kagame, to the growing power of women (who are the majority of Rwanda’s population once the massacre ended), from restoration, reconciliation and commemoration in societies torn apart by this kind of catastrophic human damage as well as individual stories about personal conscience, reminiscent of World War II-era stories of people who took in and hid Jews at considerable personal risk to themselves (and how those stories often came to late quite a long while after the war).
“It’s now 20 years after genocide,” Kamuronsi says. “And in every commemoration, every movie, we see stories of survivors, we see stories of perpetrators. We see less stories of rescuers.”
Those stories are particularly important, he says, for the more than half of the country’s population born after the genocide, to see that not every Rwandan played their ethnically assigned role of killer or victim.
Yet most of Rwanda’s rescuers are not officially recognized. A government program to give rescuers an official “thank you” was put on hold after canvassing just 20 percent of the country and identifying fewer than 300 of them. In comparison, Yad Vashem — the Holocaust memorial and research center — was seeking out the stories of German rescuers, the “righteous among nations,” by the 1950s — less than 10 years after the war.” (From NPR)
Before the genocide (and the film, Hotel Rwanda, which chronicled the 100 days of horror that ensued – and of which the first ten minutes were ruined when I saw it at a cinema in Iceland because the idiot projectionist let some horrible George Michael music play right over the top of the film and its soundtrack. Iceland: home of the world’s worst film projectionists – you heard it here first), all Rwanda was to me was mountain gorillas at Karisoke Research Center, Dian Fossey and a brief story an election-monitor colleague, Randall, had told me about being in Rwanda and how the air there – and in every African city – always smelled like diesel fuel.
After the genocide, unfortunately, genocide is almost all Rwanda is in the collective public memory. But it should and could be so much more. How does a country referred to as “nonviable” become a “success story” (despite the dark side of that success)?
“During Kagame’s two-decade rule, Rwanda has made spectacular progress. A country famously deemed “nonviable” in the mid-1990s has become one of Africa’s best-run, most orderly, least corrupt, and safest states, with a booming economy (Rwanda’s GDP has grown by an average of eight percent in recent years). But Rwanda’s success has come with a darker side: opposition politicians have been jailed or killed under mysterious circumstances, journalists complain of harassment, and Kigali has been regularly criticized for meddling in neighboring Congo’s long-running civil war.” (From Foreign Affairs)
“Kagame is said to admire the limited democratic models of Singapore and South Korea, where economic competence is valued over political liberty. As the world observes and judges Rwanda, they will find a country tenuously balancing its need for stability and growth against the virtues of open democracy.” (From Harvard Politics)
Maybe this autocracy is good enough for the population for now – certainly craving stability, growth, opportunity and tranquility over “personal freedom”.
Uganda often comes up – whether because of its own problems with dictatorship (a story also told in the film The Last King of Scotland), conflict and disease (both positive and negative – Uganda had considerable success in controlling the spread of HIV but this appears to be moving backwards now; it is one of the countries in Africa to have had an Ebola outbreak as front-page news; or because of issues like Uganda’s notables (such as Joseph Kony) or issues (homosexuality is illegal and can carry a maximum life sentence in prison).
I sometimes joked that I would, if given the chance, exile people to Uganda. And that was (apart from a few of the aforementioned highlights) the sum total of my Uganda-related knowledge.
Recently, though, I saw a report on Al Jazeera about pain management and the world shortage of morphine – and what role Uganda plays in this. It is not really an issue I would have considered – I had no idea that there was any shortage of morphine or that this is in large part due to the ill-conceived and long-running “war on drugs” waged mostly by the United States. Likewise, I had no idea that there was some kind of stigma attached to its use.
“Red tape and misinformation are to blame for the world’s unequal distribution of medical morphine, and it is patients in the developing world who are losing out.
But Uganda has become the first country in Africa to allow nurses to prescribe morphine to patients.” From AJE)
It is hard to imagine that palliative care, particularly in Africa, where the disease burden is so high, in the form of pain management would be such a difficult matter. The Pain Project has documented this struggle.
“The International Reporting Program traveled to Ukraine, Uganda and India to find out, and to document the human toll of this hidden human rights crisis. It turns out a combination of bureaucratic hurdles and the chilling effect of the global war on drugs are largely to blame, leaving humanitarians scrambling to work outside the law — or change the law — to bring relief to suffering patients all over the world.
The Pain Project has produced documentaries on this issue for CBS Sunday Morning, Al Jazeera People & Power, and Global 16×9, reaching millions of people and gaining international media attention.” (From The International Reporting Program)
Finally, there’s Guinea – frankly not a country I thought about at all (other than an occasional mention of it, and a follow-up question in the form of, “Are you sure you don’t mean Guyana?” Not even the same continent! Even Wikipedia has to caution the reader not to confuse Guinea with Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea or – seriously! – Papua New Guinea!) until it appeared in recent news reports about its Ebola outbreak and attacks on treatment centers and universal airport screening for Ebola upon departure from Guinea. In Guinea, the death toll has topped 100, and worries about its spread are on the rise.
Incidentally it is through these kinds of stories that I learn other things about these countries – under the siege of an infectious disease outbreak or a civil war or a massacre/genocide, the human face of these countries comes to light.
And while the human face is exactly what I want to strive to see, I did come across this map that should help with rethinking Africa in some ways – I have seen it before but came across it again just as I was writing and decided to share it again.
When I was an insolent adolescent, my father, in a period of midlife-crisis-enlightenment-seeking, went through a New Age phase, in which he adopted a New Age guru who walked him through past life regressions, chakra balancing and, perhaps his favorite activity of all, chanting. It was an awkward and transitional time, probably for everyone involved. During this hazy period, my father decided to try to address my permanent “Oscar the Grouch” take on life:
Dad: “Erika, why are you so hateful?”
Me: (rolling eyes, sarcastic tone) “Gee, I don’t know”
Dad: (enlightened tone) “Well, your mother and I could teach you some neat things.”
Me: (rolling eyes again) “Like?”
Dad: (even more enlightened) “Like… how to chant!”
Check it out – “Nasty Dan” from Johnny Cash visiting my dear Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street! “Say, aren’t you Johnny Trash?” “Cash. – Have a rotten day.” “Wow, there goes my kinda guy.”
So, the hateful thing goes back a ways. While I won’t go so far as to say that I seriously hate anyone or anything, I readily admit that I am easily annoyed and enjoy sarcasm and complaint a great deal. I derive joy from this kind of casual and idle hatred and dismay/disdain. It is not often that I meet kindred hating spirits in the world; that is, people with sour attitudes who find something to dislike about almost everything but who still actually are quite sweet people who find a lot of things to like and even love as well.
I don’t look at my attitude as sheer, unproductive negativity the way many do – I think of myself as a realist and sometimes a pessimist. It’s hard to live in the world and see reality without rose-colored glasses and not be a bit pessimistic at times, even if there are always rays of bright sunlight here and there. This approach and attitude has been polarizing and divisive at times and has brought about the demise of a few friendships (and I won’t pretend that that didn’t hurt).
On rare occasions I met up with people with almost as dark a view on the world, with as many complaints and who reveled in sharing complaints, with similar dark senses of humor, with similar misanthropic and impatient tendencies. But I had never quite met my match until now. My heart – be still, dear heart – has been stolen by someone who told me that he makes mental lists of all the things he hates while he is walking to work.
I once advised a girl who had had rather iffy relationships and made iffy relationship choices to stop accepting and settling for stale crumbs and to only accept the “the whole cake”. I knew I had my whole cake already – but when I heard about this hate list – and knew that the person behind it could also laugh about all the annoyances on the list, I knew I had the icing on the cake as well.
All this is not to say that I think real, visceral hatred and anger is healthy. I don’t like to waste energy or in-depth thought on any of it, which is why I think it’s great to make a mental list or voice the little complaints here and there – it is a means of just letting them go and moving forward. Save the real anger and hatred for bigger stuff – the major injustices in the world. The sexism, racism, abuse and all the other real travesties. I mean, yes, a group of people walking side-by-side taking up the entire width of a sidewalk is really damn annoying and virtually impossible to get around without running into road traffic, but it’s not the end of the world or particularly destructive.
It’s a pick-your-battle kind of war, really. One man in my … sphere of influence (haha – I make myself sound so mesmerizing!) complained heartily about racism and racial stereotypes, and how he is so tired of them he might just move back to Africa one day so as to not hear these things any longer. And I thought, yeah, but I suspect you will hear different stupid things in Africa and maybe get Ebola. Okay. Probably not – that’s just one of my ignorant attempts at being funny. (I had been watching the news and saw that Guinea is facing its first-ever Ebola outbreak.) My serious point was that it makes little sense to abandon an otherwise comfortable life just because you don’t want to hear things that are unpleasant to live a less comfortable life and probably just hear a different set of annoying generalizations. Of course, I don’t have to bear the weight of racist (inadvertent or otherwise) commentary all the time, and it may well feel much more powerful and daunting than just being “unpleasant” to someone exposed to it all the time.
Naturally all of this made me think once more of the elusive idea of “Africa”. Mostly because I talked to someone about African place names that sound foreign to our western ears, and for example, as children, we scarcely know that they are real places – they sound so exotic that they could be figments of someone’s phonetically rich imagination. Timbuktu came up a lot when I was a kid – and when I ask people these days what they associate with the word “Timbuktu” now, they rarely name a place, mention Africa or – heaven forbid – mention the country of which it is actually a part (Mali). Same goes for Ouagadougou (capital of Burkina Faso). When I mentioned “Burkina Faso” to my mother, she too just said, “I don’t know what that is.”
My ex-boyfriend and I were at the movies in Reykjavik once when a preview for the film Hollywoodland, which starred Ben Affleck, appeared. The text that flies across the screen in the beginning of films with an authoritative voiceover read: “Academy Award Winner Ben Affleck” and my then-beau, despite hating people who talk in movies, whispered, “What? Ben Affleck won an Oscar?” At the time it was for his co-writing of Good Will Hunting, but seeing this “news” disappointed the guy – how could Ben Affleck win an Oscar? (Long before Argo won for best picture – note the guy isn’t likely to win any acting awards.)
Ben Affleck has long been the butt of jokes – we are not the first to make them, but the joking days may be (at least close to) over. After a lot of poor role and film choices and very public relationships (most notably with Jennifer Lopez), Affleck put his head down, made some good choices, started directing, married Jennifer Garner and had a family. I also would argue that he is not someone who overreaches – I respect actors who choose roles that may challenge some perceptions about them and may challenge their own abilities, but not so far out there that they become totally unbelievable. Affleck never bites off much more than he can chew.
The reason I decided to write about him now, though, is that I read in Mother Jones about his upcoming Congressional testimony on Congo. I don’t really like the way the article defends Affleck’s so-called authority on the subject:
“It’s pretty easy to laugh at the idea of the one-time Gigli and Pearl Harbor star now lecturing senators on atrocities in Central Africa. But the Oscar-winning future Batman knows his stuff. He isn’t some celebrity who just happened to open his mouth about a humanitarian cause (think: Paris Hilton and Rwanda). The acclaimed Argo director has repeatedly traveled to Congo and has even met with warlords accused of atrocities.” (Italicized emphasis mine.)
This kind of statement makes it sound as though just showing up a few times and having a few meetings with warlords imparts expertise. How do we know that these warlords did not just meet with Affleck because they liked Gigli and Pearl Harbor – and they spent their meetings talking about that together? I also don’t want to discount his expertise – I don’t know whether he has any or what the depth of it is.
Compared to a lot of people being named as ambassadors to countries they have never visited (see The Daily Show’s hilarious take on the “diplomat buyers club”) and have no connection to or knowledge of, I’d say Affleck’s got a leg up. I would also venture to say that most of the Congressional members hearing testimony from Affleck or from the line-up of Central Africa/Congo experts know nothing about the subject, if anything, about Africa as a whole. Comparatively speaking, Affleck is bloody well an expert.
Considered, reconsidered – I used to think Ben Affleck was a joke – as an actor, entertainer and, had someone laughably suggested, as a “Congo expert”. As I stated, though, the guy does not overreach when it comes to his acting, seems to have a healthy sense of self and good sense of humor about who he is – and then “does the time” when it comes to serious issues in which he chooses to get involved – and bottom line – he really does not have to. I have a newfound respect for the guy and have come to appreciate some of what he’s done cinematically. Quite honestly, as well, any light we (or he) can shine on atrocities in DR Congo is also welcome.
Me, I am just happy to take a look at the DR Congo passport (again!)
I made a deal with myself that I need to be in the habit of writing, so I write in this blog come hell or high water, as the saying goes. I force myself to write every day – usually I have something to say, even if it is largely useless, and can cobble together something that stays thematically cohesive (for example, it might not be important to tell the world, i.e. whatever unlucky soul stumbles into this blog, that I changed my mind about Julie Delpy or that I desperately want to make chicken pho, but these posts at least have a theme and a target – a point.
Today, though, my head is a jumble of random thoughts that I want to spew out in a most random fashion, if for no other reason than to follow through on writing at least one post per day. Rest assured, all the deal-making with myself will hopefully not be for naught. I have specific writing projects I want to tackle at some point but have fallen so far out of the habit of regular, disciplined writing that I am at least trying to create a pattern or a rhythm to start with. The organization comes later. It’s kind of funny because you’d think that writing about things you really want to write about – whatever it is – would come easily. For me, as soon as I sit down, determined to write something with a purpose (other than something academic or a blog post, anyway, which is informal in any case), everything goes out the window. That is, every day in my job and in my freelance work, I research, organize and write all kinds of outlandish things that I never imagined knowing the first thing about. But it’s something that can be ordered – someone says, “I need a white paper about connected TV” or “We need a clinical summary of this paper on manual dexterity when employing double-gloving practice” – I am perfectly able to wrangle all the disparate details, read the studies, gather intel and info and get to work and produce perfectly workable results. Someone else has requested these things, so it’s work.
But when it’s me and my stuff – with a fairly solid outline and a crop of good ideas – I can find every reason to put it off. I don’t know when this happened. As a kid and teenager, I suppose I was less concerned with what other people thought about the outcome and wrote stories every single day. All I did was write and, like a maniac, get months ahead on school homework so I would have more free time to write. I earned this reputation among teachers and adults around me as “a writer” to the point that the reputation preceded me and stifled me and caused me to start feeling insecure and trapped. I stopped writing and buried myself in foreign language textbooks. I distinctly remember making a couple of choices at the pivotal age of 13 or 14. Take creative writing as my English course or enroll in regular English (where my friends were). I opted for the latter. The following year, our courseload was reduced from seven classes per day to six (so we could have even longer classes – ugh!), meaning we had fewer choices/options. I was faced with the choice between taking journalism or French. The journalism teacher (who had taught creative writing the previous year and was disappointed that I did not join) practically begged me to join – I took French. The journalism teacher still let me write articles for the school paper. I did it, but my heart wasn’t in it. By then, I was completely in love with all my irregular verbs and the passé composé. I spent the rest of my school years studying all the languages the school had to offer – except German, which seems to have hurt the German teacher’s feelings. Writing for pleasure – complete fiction and imagination – stopped.
I still wrote a lot, of course, because I was a very engaged student. I wrote papers and never, ever managed to stick with word limits. I still struggle with this but am getting a little bit better. I became skilled at research and writing what was asked of me – and this continues today in my career and my lifelong engagement as a student (always enrolling in study programs just for the sake of learning).
I am, however, further away from personal writing, really good writing and being able to self-edit my own personal writing. I let all the creative energy slip away. Perhaps it is still there somewhere, but I have no one but myself to blame. As I wrote, all the adults in my life encouraged me to write to an almost daunting degree, but that was also the problem. It was daunting, and I did not think I could live up to their expectations or hopes. I was not sure I wanted to. Deciding to pursue something in life like writing or the arts or photography is undoubtedly a hard road – completely subjective, all about timing, a person needs to develop thick skin and embody perseverance. I was never sure I could endure the subjectivity and fickle nature of perceiving “talent”.
My feelings about it are still mixed. Creativity and imagination when we’re young are vibrant and unbridled forces – unfettered by the real life we later experience, which dampens the spark we may have to explore ideas that are fictional and illogical. Yet writing, fictional or otherwise, informed by life experience can have so much depth and meaning, touched as it is by reality, which requires time, insight and experience. My feelings on the subject are similar to how I feel about therapists. In addition to wanting to write, I always thought – and still think – I would like to be a therapist. I love listening to other people’s problems and thoughts more than almost anything, but it occurred to me early on that it seems, no matter how mature and insightful you are when you’re young, that you don’t really have enough insight, gravitas or authority to be a good therapist until you’re about 40. Rough rule of thumb, really. I am sure there are gifted therapists of all ages, but for me, and in my view, I never seriously considered going back to school to become a therapist until the last few years. I only feel fully prepared to do that right now.
Then again, if I am being honest (and random), there are a lot of things that I only feel prepared to do (or think about doing) right now. I only think of things like having serious relationships or rearing children now. It seemed totally improbable and unappealing in my 20s. More power to the people who did pursue those things when they were young and potentially had more – or at least less complicated – choices. I still think there are plenty of choices but I tend to think fairly broadly. The whole world is my workshop (my personal motto and seemingly also the motto of American foreign and military policy! Reminds me, totally off topic, that my brother described the end of the last US government shutdown thusly: “the dick show is over”). I don’t feel limited by location, language or any other constraints.
Things can expand into all kinds of crazy territory if you let them. For example, you can start out with a marketing idea of just giving your customers some cake and somehow end up with seven local, interactive microsites to capitalize on their brand loyalty. You can start off buying green beans from Kenya and end up with a wife from there! Sounds like a good case study, doesn’t it? “Kenya: From green beans to a new wife” – it certainly piques some curiosity and raised eyebrows. “What could this possibly be about?”