Friday, November 6, 2020

Anthills of the Savannah: a review

Reading Chinua Achebe's 1987 novel Anthills of the Savannah in the weeks leading up to the U.S 2020 elections was difficult on multiple levels. Looking back at it for this review while a childish despot attempts to cling to power is almost chilling. Achebe's story is a reflection of its time and place in history. It is also a timeless reminder of how quickly a democracy can become a dictatorship. 

I'm unused to novels confusing me. Maybe I should have taken more post-colonial literature courses in university. Mind you, what confused me wasn't the theme, the reflection of late-80s Africa struggling against years of colonialism and a sudden vacuum where power used to be, or even (in the end) the plot. It was the structure. 

I was never clear if it was an omniscient narrator or one of the characters narrating. I think the narrator changed now and then, and it was those unclear transitions that threw me. Or, maybe I was just not paying enough attention or the right attention. I did a lot of flipping back to earlier chapters in the first half of the book. Both the story and the characters were compelling enough to keep me fighting through my confusion. 

The female characters particularly stick with me, perhaps because my learning in anti-racism this year has taught me how essential and over-looked Black women are. Moreso, the females in this story were full characters with their own motivations and complexities, not just addenda to the male characters. They were active, and they held their spaces. 

Find it at your local bookstore
Being a political story of the 1980s, of course the main characters were male (no offense, Margaret Thatcher and Kim Campbell). While these characters were also drawn with some complexity, their roles as plot devices - the "newspaper editor," the "dictator," the "minister of information" - kept them fairly prescribed. They were harder to connect with as people. 

At this point, I could go off on a whole discussion of gender norms and assumptions, the performative stress of gender, and how that is reflected in this novel, but I won't. 

Missing for me, Africaphile that I am, was a sense of setting. Generally, stories about Africa contain descriptions of the savannah or desert or jungle, herds of wildlife, the heat of a burning sun. And, most of these tropes come from colonial/white writers treating Africa as an exotic and mysterious other world - think of Dinesen, Gullman, Conrad, et al. 

Since Achebe is Nigerian, "Africa" itself is not foreign or exotic to him. This is an urban story. It could be set in almost any capital city. It's valuable for me, in diversifying my reading, to see how I have a particular stance regarding these stories, even as I roll my eyes at others who talk of Africa as if it is a homogenous monolith. 

Anthills of the Savannah is short, rich, and engrossing. I highly recommend it. 

Friday, October 16, 2020

regarding values

This was such a bizarre year to set my intentions on being fulfilled and living by my values. Then again, maybe it was the perfect year. Periods of global confusion and upheaval (not to mention being repeatedly thwarted in my personal life) can be an opportunity to stop and think about what really matters to us as individuals, if we take a moment to reflect. 

While in shut down for the pandemic, what did you miss most? What did you resist doing and not doing? What old habits got you through? What new habits did you pick up that may or may not be fulfilling? Who could you rely on to make life better (or worse)? As communities re-opened, what did you do first? What have you still not bothered to do? 

Answers to these kinds of questions might point you in the direction of your values. For me, having identified my values before Covid-19 was a household word, let alone a universal source for memes, gave me something to hold on to, and also something to bump up against and question. If justice is a value for me, how does that show up in life? What action am I taking to expand justice? How does watching Netflix for up to 10 hours a day reflect valuing my vitality? Who have I connected with? 

My values have helped through the lonely and dark days, though often I find that my emotions determine how much attention I spend on my values when I think that the reverse would be more effective. I have a theory that I'd be more fulfilled (happier, more content, more energized, prouder of how I spend my time) if I prioritized exercising my values over giving in to just not feeling like it. 

Over the 22 weeks (April 26 - September 26) that I kept daily track of expressing my values, I was surprised to notice that observation didn't really make that much difference. I am generally motivated by gold stars and quantifiable results (tales still bubble up about that time I totally lost my sh*t over an unfair A- in university), but knowing that these tick marks would turn into a table and that ultimately I would share it here really didn't induce more action. 

I also have the feeling, though it's not provable in this graph, that the value of "Connection" is a cornerstone for activating other values. That may be because of the people with whom I connect: the people in my bubble are also adventurers, they will talk with me about Black Lives Matter and the treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada. My friends get me out for walks or a swim. So on days when I experience connection, it almost always increases the overall tally.

Click to enlarge

What I had hoped to see, over time, was a gradual but consistent levelling out of the weekly totals. Looking for progress, not perfection, I thought that if I practiced each value 4 times a week that would show a level of balance and growth that seemed like it would support feeling fulfilled. In fact, over time, the weekly gaps got larger as values such as vitality and adventure rose and stayed elevated while faith and (more surprisingly) creativity floundered. 

As I've continued to read about values, I've realised that six is too many. Most "experts" suggest that three or four values probably cover it, and I think I've found my refined list*:

  • Courage (includes adventure, creativity, justice, vitality, and faith)
  • Curiosity (includes adventure, creativity, justice, vitality, and faith)
  • Compassion (includes connection, justice, and faith)
I'm going to keep pondering how these three values feel - are they sufficient? Are they true? Do they reflect who I have been, who I am, and who I want to be? More to come. 

Earlier posts in this inquiry include 

* Technically, I stole this list. I was asked in a job interview which of these 3 organizational values I most identified with, and had a very very hard time choosing. Thanks for the inspiration, interviewer.

Friday, September 25, 2020

the scale and the light

If you have a choice between love and acceptance, which do you choose? 
Sonya Renee Taylor

[Sorry - this post has A LOT of personal pronouns] Almost a year ago I took a mauling axe to my bathroom scale. I have had a very problematic relationship to the numbers it reported since I was a young adult, and I'd had enough. Mostly, I'd had enough of the conversations I was having with brilliant, talented, high-achieving women in my life, all of whom seemed to be on a diet, constantly talking about what they "could" or "couldn't" eat, and linking their humanity to a dress size. I needed a tangible rejection of that obsession.

I also know that as a group, these women and I were/are striving for an ideal that we all knew was never going to be attainable.  Even if gravity's effect on my body (measured in pounds) reached some mythic ideal, I was never going to have J Lo's butt, Michelle Obama's arms, or an abdomen free from a hatch-mark of scars and stretch marks. I was never going to escape my chronic illness. I was never going to have perfectly-aligned teeth.* 

That "not good enough" body I could never escape shows up in so many ways. It shows up in how I walk, and how I smile, and how I slouch into theatre chairs. It shows up in not wanting to buy quality clothing when I gain weight, then over-investing in smaller sizes when I shrink. It shows up as gratitude for being wanted instead of fidelity to my own desires. It shows up as thinking "f-the-world, I'll eat what I want," shame eating, having low energy and erratic moods, and berating myself. 

Of course, smashing the scale did not undo five decades of conditioning. I still look at my saggy belly with disgust. I have spent way too much energy and focus in the last 11 months suffering under the lashes of comparison, both with other bodies and with prior (thinner, smoother, stronger, sexier) expressions of my own body. I wore my two-piece swimsuits all summer, but I did it with the reassuring hum in my mind that "there will be someone fatter at the beach." Judge and compare. Judge and compare. Judge and compare. I had let go of a stone, but I was still dragging a sledge of judgement and self-hate, and a growing recognition that I don't have the tools or knowledge to get out of that yoke no matter how long I avoid the scale. 

Until, maybe, today. Today I listened to Brené Brown's podcast with Sonya Renee Taylor, author of The Body is not an Apology. I knew there would be richness in this podcast, so I set aside other distractions, got out my journal, and attempted active listening. I rewound moments when my mind drifted. I played over and over the truly perspective-shifting statements. And, I felt hope. Hope that all women (truly, all people - the body hierarchy is not just female) can let go of the idea that our bodies are a reflection of our wellness, our happiness, our desirability, our value, and our lovability. 

Spending one hour listening to a podcast can no more retrain me than smashing the bathroom scale did, but now I have a spark of hope that retraining is possible. I am not interested in body positivity. I am interested in being a whole, loving, loved human. What I find especially powerful in Taylor's work is her linking of body politics and social justice. I'm not going to explain that link as I don't understand it clearly enough yet, but hearing that the cultural belief "some bodies are better than other bodies" is the basis for racism, misogyny, ableism, homo and transphobia, etc affirmed my discomfort with diet culture and body privilege. In Taylor's words,

All of our systems ... of oppression based on the body are attempts to navigate the ladder of social heirarchy. 

If someone - some body - is better than another, that 'other' is equally inferior. The system is inherently one of oppression. Which, by extension, means that redirecting my energy from my measurements and dress size can be a personal act of freedom, justice, and resistance. That is inspiring for me. I can't wait to buy and learn from Taylor's book, and to carry that learning with me as a guiding light in this strange and new land. Oh, I'd still like to look like a model. I want to have the strength, stamina and agility for adventures with my grandson as he grows. As I age, I'd like to continue travelling without worrying about my health. I want, again, to experience sex without embarrassment. I also want to do all those things without linking them to my value as a human being, being trapped in comparison, or contributing to the oppression of other people. I choose radical self-love over self-acceptance - or at least I will with practice. 

 You can listen to the podcast here: 

* I recognise that other bodies present different culturally-created obstacles to self-love: bodies of colour, bodies outside the gender binary, bodies with disabilities, thin bodies, short bodies, hirsute bodies, and so many more. No human is free from the body hierarchy. I hope someday we will be.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Dreams from My Father: a review

"Everyone was welcome into the club of disaffection." 

For the eight years he was in the White House, I watched Barack Obama with a mixture of admiration, gratitude, and curiosity. Did this man never lose his cool? Never display doubt or uncertainty? How could anyone be that ON all the time? I understood that as the first African American president he had to be better than any prior president in ways that I couldn't even dream mattered, but where was the passion? Reading Becoming last year helped me better understand the extreme pressure of that life for both the President and the First Lady. In many ways, those roles required the Obamas to give up a part of their humanity that allows the rest of us to breathe, to fumble, and to recover.

Dreams from my Father
, written by Barack Obama before he entered politics, largely answered my questions about the man behind the Presidential podium. Barack Obama the fatherless son, the struggling teenager from a "broken home," the mixed-race American perceived as Black and raised white, the pre-public-figure author is real. He smokes weed, uses the N word, and questions his place in the world. He experiences anger, insecurity, and loss. He questions himself and the people in his life. He looks for learning, though not necessarily in the classroom.  

Obama of the White House always had the right words, even if he sometimes seemed to lack emotion in delivering them. Young Obama the author was allowed to combine his linguistic power with his very real frustrations with, questions about, and concern for the world. Dreams covers what Obama knows of his family background - his mother's parents from Kansas and eventually his paternal relatives in Kenya. It includes the stories he is told of his early life, his own remembrances from childhood and youth in Hawaii and Indonesia, and his development as a community organizer in Chicago. It ends with him ready to enter Harvard Law School. 

This Obama is articulate, funny, insightful and real. As a young man he struggles with who he is, knowing his place in the world, and that inescapable dichotomy of being Black in a white family and in a white country. Obama is forgiving of his grandparents, with whom he lived for most of his childhood and youth, for their blindness to their own racism. Theirs is the kind of racism we all have because of living in a culture that ensures the road for white people is laid smooth. It is insidious and alive just under the surface. He also forgives them and his mother for the impossibly perfect stories they told of his father, a man he met only once and about whom he later learns more honest apprisals. 

Like all memoirs, the structure and plot of this one are built into the telling. What makes this special is seeing the development, told with vulnerability and apparent sincerity, of a man who would go on to make history. This is the Barack Obama I wished for on TV as he attempted to rebuild America into what it might actually be, the one we only got hints of after countless school shootings. This Obama wouldn't let people compare his wife to a monkey or question his Blackness or his birth. Then again, this unpolished Obama probably wouldn't have been elected, and that's the real injustice.  

I highly recommend this book. It is pleasantly free of American jingoism, and it ends with an extended visit to Kenya, and that can never be a bad thing. 

Thursday, September 3, 2020

How to be an Antiracist: a review

EB: I am writing this as a white woman in Canada learning about antiracism and confronting my own privileged naïveté and racism. Any missteps in this post are utterly accidental and borne of ignorance, and I invite feedback. 

Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to be an Antiracist (and other books) is one of the foremost academics working in the field of antiracism in America. He founded The Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, and recently moved it to Boston University (where it has been renamed the Center for Antiracist Research). He is a professor of History, and has taught Africana Studies and African American Studies. He has written umpteen articles, given a TED Talk, and is the go-to guy on antiracism for American news and late-night shows. Besides all of that scholarship, Kendi has the lived experience of being a Black man in America. 

In this detailed - almost granular - primer on racism in America, Kendi uses his life story so far (he is only in his 30s) to frame his growth in knowledge and to link chapters. In some ways, this is not necessary, as most topics stand alone, but it does add some personal interest. I was especially thrilled to read that Dr. Yaba Blay, who has been essential listening for me all summer, was one of two women who taught Kendi about Black feminism, queer Black life, and his blindness to both. Black women are leading the current phase of the fight for racial justice in America, and they don't get the same air time as men. That mention really stood out for me. 

Kendi knows his stuff, but the whole time I was reading Antiracist I was wishing I had read it before I read Between the World and Me. Kendi is a scholar and a teacher. Coates is a writer. Kendi breaks things down, gives multiple examples, and builds up new definitions. Coates pulls you into his world. Both books are about racism and structured as life-stories, though Coates' book, because it is a letter to his son, is warm, personal, impassioned, and compelling. It is also visceral and raw at times, something Kendi never approaches but that to me feels appropriate for this conversation. 

Kendi is a good place to start. If hearing that race is made up (and understanding that that is NOT the same as saying you are "colour blind") is new to you, start with Kendi. This is not an either-or conversation read them both, and other things as well. White people need to be learning about racism from those who experience it, and since no one person speaks for their community, reading multiple perspectives is essential.  

On that note, please seek out Canadian, UK, Caribbean and other writers about racism, BIPOC* fiction writers, and podcasts with BIPOC hosts. The American experience is not the only experience, and finding alternative perspectives sometimes takes some digging.

If you want more of a reading list, Victoria Alexander shares one on her website. It includes articles and books, and covers everything from fiction to biography to history: Antiracism reading list.

*BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour. 

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