Monday, January 7, 2019

Readings in modern Igbo literature

Over the past few years my wife and I have read a lot of literature by Igbo authors.  When I say a lot, it's probably only four or five books in the course of two years, but if you're only occasionally reading novels outside of your normal cultural sphere of reference, and four of them end up being by authors from the same ethnic group in the same country, it seems like a lot.

Anyway, one of them is The Sound of Things to Come by Emmanuel Iduma.  This is a multi-perspective collection of vignettes that eventually converge, at least partially.  I hesitate to describe it as a Nigerian novel in a broad sense, since all the major characters are Igbo, and there's no attempt to explore viewpoints other than these Igbo people's particular visions.  The few times non-Igbos appear, it is either as attackers in interethnic violence, or as sleazy romantic partners that Igbo parents disapprove of. 

Iduma's novel deftly explores individuals, and specifically the internal conflict between reason and passion.  But the source of interest is basically that all of the people he profiles are disagreeable and self-centered.  The conflicts arise from people just randomly acting like jerks to one another.  The end effect is an expertly-rendered exploration of people that you don't particularly want to explore, and who are so unpleasant that they seem sometimes unrealistic.  Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is fascinating, but I wouldn't want to be friends with the protagonists, and frankly I'm not sure how many people even exist that are so brazenly, rawly ugly.

The novel thus paints a pretty bleak picture of Nigeria, or at least of Igbo culture, in the 21st century.  The salient cultural traits Iduma shows are a determined self-centeredness, a lack of human connection or emotion.  I don't know if Nigeria is really like this, but the country Iduma depicts made me really sad.  It is frequent in popular discourse to oppose the developed world, where material conditions are comfortable but human hope and emotion has been dulled, with the developing world, where people are poor but there is a certain human warmth and fun to life.  This is obviously a cliche, but at least some truth must be found in the objective fact (which is repeated in the next novel I'm going to discuss) that in the developing world, the present material poverty convinces many that the best times are yet to come, so the culture tends to be hopeful.  But Iduma's Nigeria is a country that exhibits dire poverty with no human affection or joy to temper it.  If this place really exists, it sounds pretty grim.

The other Igbo novel I read is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah, about young people raised in Nigeria but always looking abroad for meaning and self-fulfillment.  The novel shares some common leitmotifs with Iduma's in its depiction of modern Nigeria.  Mercantilized love, hypereducated people, relentless classism, women kept by military strongmen, university strikes and demonstrations, a society where all money is dirty money, and a hypocritical religiosity heavy on prosperity theology and light on common decency (there's a scene where a woman who has been praising Jesus for bringing a corrupt general into her sister's life to keep her as a mistress, then turns around and insists that her sister get an abortion when she actually gets knocked up by said general).  But where Iduma's book is all character study and little relation to the larger society, Adichie's book expertly explores societies, but the individual people are mainly flat caricatures.  Not all of them--the Nigerian characters are a lot more fleshed out and three-dimensional.  But almost all the Americans and Brits are really just tropes of different strains of sanctimonious liberal flake. 

I wonder if the difference in depth of characterization of Nigerian vs. non-Nigerian characters in Americanah is due in part to the protagonist's (maybe even the author's?) perch as an outsider observing the US, located within the country but never feeling a part of it.  If so, it makes sense that the "real" people are those that she grew up with, while the new people she runs into in a new context are like so many extras in the movie of her life.  I know that's often how I feel about my friends and family vis a vis everyone else.  There are certain people I know and relate to in a very deep way because I have shared so many moments with them, and everyone else I just have a surface  impression of.

As with Iduma's irredeemably ugly characters, I don't think that most people are actually like Adichie's shallow Americans, and I certainly can't imagine being in any context where everyone around me is just phony and absurd.  I have certainly found myself at times around boors who only talk in cliches and groupthink, but when I am in a situation where I'm surrounded by them, I make it a point to get out of those settings as soon as I can.  So it's hard for me to imagine a 15-year stretch of someone only running into, and continuing to hang around, phony people.

That said, maybe I'm giving people's individuality more credit than I should.  I try not to act out predetermined roles or cliches (not that I'm aware of, at least), but maybe people find comfort in conforming  to certain of these molds.  I recently went to a dance school in my neighborhood to see about signing my kids up for classes in African dance and drums.  In my neck of West Africa, there is a cottage industry of master musicians, dancers, and choreographers who host people from all over the world for intensive multi-week workshops in these arts.  So when my family and I went, we caught a group of mainly Mexican students practicing their dance routine.  I was surprised (though not too surprised, I guess) at how similarly the non-African students were all dressed and coiffed.  Shaved sides of the head, long hair from the top, usually in braids or dreads, lots of piercings and tattoos on the rest of the body, baggy yoga/circus clothes (mixed of course with more practical, tight-fitting dance gear).  It was like a uniform they had all agreed on.  It was perhaps a confirmation of Adichie's implicit thesis that modern bourgeois people (both Americans and Nigerians in her novel) are only a collection of so many cultural tics and socially-controlled values, according to a pre-packaged image that each person tries to project.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Blackest and whitest things in Philadelphia

I recently ran across this video of Billy Paul singing his signature piece, Me and Mrs. Jones.  There are a couple of things I love about this video (once you get past the weird modern dance number at the very beginning).  Most immediately striking is that Billy sings the whole song with a long, thin cigar clenched between his teeth.  It's just so effortlessly cool, and doesn't even looked contrived, though it was surely the result of a very deliberate decision by the production team.  The second thing I like about this is that Billy is about 38 when he's singing this song.  It's a grown-up song about a grown-up topic, sung by a grown-up.  This contrasts with much of pop music throughout the late 20th century, which tends to be teenyboppers singing about silly nonsense.  Billy Paul is unapologetically adult here.  In this sense he is really archetypal of the Philly Soul sound, which to me is defined by just such a confident, self-assured grown-up attitude.

At the same time, my wife and I have been watching the old TV show "thirtysomething".  I'd never seen it, save occasional snatches I'd catch when I was a kid and had network TV on at that hour of the night.  It's really good, and  deftly captures a lot of things about being a grown-up, navigating a marriage, raising kids.  It's particularly mind-blowing for me because the characters are the age I am now, but the show was shot thirty years ago, when I was a little kid.  So it's this odd mix of familiar from my childhood, familiar from my adulthood, and a lot less dated than you might expect a 30-year-old show to be.  Coincidentally, "thirtysomething" is also set in Philadelphia.  But don't expect a cameo from Billy Paul.  In fact, don't expect to see anyone who looks even remotely like him.  We're about 5 episodes in, and I can't recall having seen one black face, not even walking around in the background of scenes set downtown.  I guess it's because there aren't many black folks in Philly, right?

Friday, December 28, 2018

Mano River impressions, or Notes from the Bump of Africa

For the past few weeks my work has taken me to the countries of the Mano River Union, namely Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cote d'Ivoire.  This is an interesting little corner of West Africa, forming sort of a bump on its southwest end.  It isn't the sophisticated, very English stretch of Ghana and Nigeria, but it isn't the sophisticated, very French stretch of the Sahel either.  Especially if we don't count Cote d'Ivoire, the three remaining countries form a little subgroup of their own, with many elements of shared culture.  There is a long history of migration between Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and back, at least as far back as the 1970s, when Guineans fleeing dictatorship and post-dictatorship chaos looked to the more developed climes of their neighbors, only to have a massive counterflow as brutal civil wars broke out in both Anglophone countries.  This back-and-forth migration has further muddied the preexisting situation of many ethnic groups (Kpelle/Guerze, Mende, Susu, Malinke/Mandingo, among others) being distributed across borders in multiple countries.  The result is that there is a lot of multilingualism across the board, both in African and colonial languages.  I would venture to say that in few other places of Africa do you find so many francophones who also speak English, and vice versa.  It seems like everyone in a given country has either worked in one of the others, or is married to someone from a neighboring country (but sometimes with the same mother tongue), or did their Quranic studies or high school or whatever in one of the other countries.

Right now the Mano River countries are a relatively impoverished backwater of the continent, and especially of the West African region, but I wonder if this may someday change.  Their coastal populations, command of both English and French, their major ports and fishing cultures, and tight links between both co-ethnics in different countries and different ethnicities within the same country, seem to suit the region well for success in a globalized world.  Especially Sierra Leone and Liberia seem to have emerged from their wars with a newfound sense of unity and national identity, and a drive to make a decent, prosperous society.  Bad road and air connections between countries are a hindrance for now, but this could be fixed in very short order with just a bit of political will.

There are of course differences that sort of baffle me, too.  The road from Conakry to Freetown is totally atrocious throughout Guinea, up to the Sierra Leonean border, after which it becomes an excellent, smooth, well-maintained highway.  The Guinea stretch literally has sections like those photos you see of jungle tracks in the Congo or the Amazon somewhere, with car-sized holes in the pavement that oblige you to drive down the drainage ditch by the side of the road, which is also car-deep but at least has smooth inclines on the side.  Both countries are notoriously poor, with similar per-capita incomes and malnutrition rates, but Sierra Leone's roads look like Wisconsin blacktop, while Guinea's are like a scene out of Blood Diamond or something.  By the same token, Guinea's capital Conakry hasn't had effective trash pickup for a few years, so the streets are literally overflowing with garbage, sometimes down the median strip, always on the sidewalks, and sometimes closing off entire lanes of traffic with ad hoc dump sites.  There is usually a haze of smoke in the air from burning garbage--it really gets to look post-Apocalyptic at times.  Freetown, on the other hand, looks like a Mediterranean beach resort, quaint, colorful houses neatly arrayed down verdant hillsides  that flow to the sea.  Little garbage to be seen anywhere, street signs and pavement everywhere, and light traffic.  Again, I just don't know what the difference is.  Sometimes I wonder if Conakry is in fact more prosperous than Freetown, and because of this is plagued with  more garbage and more cars, both symptoms of higher consumption.  In any case, Conakry has twice as many people as Freetown.

On the other hand, the natural environment is notably less intact in Sierra Leone, with its denser population.  In Guinea you see pretty dense forest (or savanna, in drier areas) wherever you go, even along major roads.  In Sierra Leone, however, it's mainly grassland and cultivation, until you get to even denser populations in the north, where economics seem to have dictated intensive planting and caretaking of oil and other palms, as well as other useful trees.

Back to the similarities.  Colonialism (or maybe just the sheer abundance of languages, even before the Europeans came along) seems to have worked a perverse linguistic legacy in the Mano River Union.  There is pretty broad understanding of French in Guinea, and English in Sierra Leone and Liberia.  But this can be misleading.  I have often found myself speaking my shaky, un-nuanced French to a Guinean whose French is (in its own, different way) also shaky and un-nuanced.  Add to that a certain reticence on both sides, an expectation that your cultural referents are so disparate that you can't possibly expect to understand one another, and you get frequent situations in which all parties are ostensibly speaking and listening to words they all mutually understand, but they nevertheless don't really understand one another.  Add now to this a culture of deference to authority, where people won't contradict or ask clarifying questions so as not to offend, and you've got a recipe for confusion! This doesn't just happen to me--I've seen lots of Guineans talking past each other, or not understanding the nuance of what the other is saying.  If someone asks someone else to do something, it will usually take a few tries, each try with its attendant response and correction, before party A actually manages to do what party B is requesting.  The misunderstanding is greatest when someone is trying hardest to please the other, since they are overly eager to act and totally unwilling to clarify what's being said!

I thought this was just in Guinea, surely not in the Anglophone countries where almost everyone understands at least Krio, if not standard English.  You know that look of terror that Americans sometimes get when they are talking to a native speaker of West African English?  They know they should understand, but they don't at all, and even things they probably are capable of understanding pass them by, bewildered as they are by the speaker's heavy accent.  That is the look that has greeted me on more than one occasion as I respond in my Chicago English to a fluent speaker of Sierra Leonean English.  They are hearing something they are supposed to understand, but they just can't get the key piece to unlock the meaning of the words mangled by my weird, twisted accent.  When I try to speak more slowly and clearly, it is even harder for them to understand--I'm just making their torture more drawn-out and louder!

Food in Guinea has the other places beat, in my opinion.  The cuisine  across the region is similar--rice with  peanut sauce or cooked greens or spicy stews--but Guineans seem to put more effort into it.  There was the hamburger meal that I indulged myself in at a provincial hotel in Sierra Leone.  It looked great, with a crisp toasted bun and fresh vegetables on top of a burger paddy colored red from the rich seasonings  they mix with ground beef here.  But once I bit into it, I found it to be sinewy and unchewable, sort of a mix of minced offal as opposed to ground prime beef.  I left most of it on my plate and didn't make a fuss, but the waitress just said, "Sorry about the food," as she handed me the bill.  It was as if she'd known beforehand how bad it was  going to be but had been torn between the urge not to contradict me, and the decency to tell me straight out not to order it.  I got a kick out of her quiet dignity mixed with a resigned frankness. 

Music in Guinea is also superior to the other places.  Guinea has a long autoctonous musical tradition, ever since the great medieval empires with their griots, and extending to the Communist state-sponsored music of the 60s and 70s.  The Anglophone countries, on the other hand, seem to be flooded with foreign music in English.  While I enjoy hearing Wham and Whitney and other 80s and 90s acts on the radio, it doesn't give you the sense of a strong national music culture.

One thing that has been noticeably absent from my experience of these countries is war.  For most of my conscious life, I have associated Liberia, Sierra Leone, and to a lesser extent Cote d'Ivoire, with gruesome civil wars that raged in the 1990s.  Even today people outside these countries still refer to the wars, and within the countries the war is fresh on people's minds.  If you get folks to open up, they will discuss the war, and many places and events are defined in time by their relation to the war.  But the countries don't look like war-torn places.  Of course it's been almost 20 years since these wars ended, but I would expect to at least see more of their physical marks--craters, bullet holes in buildings, amputees.  It's almost jarring to not see any of this.  Freetown, which was overrun by one group and then another of marauding, coke-addled killers, just looks like a little Dutch Caribbean town or something.

I'm sure that, as with any place briefly visited, these countries have a lot more going on, just under the surface and invisible to my initial cursory glances.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Children of Blood and Bone

This is a really cool young adult novel I heard about a while ago and wanted to get as a present to diversify the literary diet of some of the young adults in my family and social circle who like fantasy fiction.  I had to read it myself too, and I'm glad I did, because it is a heavy read.  Engrossing and well-done, but it offers a very real, raw representation of systematic oppression.  Lots of science fiction envisions dystopian futures where people are massively oppressed, but it's often crafted by people who in real life are quite removed from the direct experience of day-to-day oppression of them and theirs.  Children of Blood and Bone, on the other hand, is written by someone who's channeling the recent spate of police killings of black youth.  It is valuable and necessary and I think can help a lot of young people imagine and understand what it's like to be persecuted for who they are (or to look at their own situation in a new light, if they're living this already).  But I don't know if I'd recommend it for kids much younger than 15 or so.  For the time being, any younger kids I'm going to give it to their parents, and leave it up to them when to share.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Race, school, and civic responsibility

Over the past year or so I've run across some really good articles that are all related in some way to using one's own social capital to improve the area around oneself, as opposed to using one's advantages in life to cherrypick the best of everything.  Concretely, I am talking about parents' not always looking for the outcome that most favors their own children individually, but rather those options that might provide their children with a decent life and opportunities while not depriving others thereof.

Here's an article by an important analyst of black Chicago, as she muses on what school she should send her young daughter to within the Chicago public schools.  She doesn't have a definite choice yet, but she does not want to funnel her kid into one of the handful of elite schools within the public system.  I have read similar reflections from other parents, and never cease to be surprised that it's often parents of color who are thinking about the greater good of the larger community.  In theory there are a lot more white folks in the US that enjoy a level of economic and academic security that would allow them to think honestly about not maximizing their individual gains at the expense of general wellbeing.  But once again we see black folks serving as the voice of conscience for a larger nation that often doesn't want to listen.

Here is a summary of research into how high-income whites reinforce patterns of social segregation by using their own advantages to maximize positive outcomes for their kids without regard for the effect on everyone else.  Here are a few pithy quotes: 
"These affluent white parents are in a position where they can set up their kids’ lives so that they’re better than other kids’ lives. So the dark side is that, ultimately, people are thinking about their own kids, and that can come at the expense of other people’s kids. When we think about parents calling up the school and demanding that their child have the best math teacher, what does that mean for the kids who don’t get the best math teacher?"
"white parents, and parents in general, need to understand that all children are worthy of their consideration. This idea that your own child is the most important thing—that’s something we could try to rethink. When affluent white parents are making these decisions about parenting, they could consider in some way at least how their decisions will affect not only their kid, but other kids. This might mean a parent votes for policies that would lead to the best possible outcome for as many kids as possible, but might be less advantageous for their own child. My overall point is that in this moment when being a good citizen conflicts with being a good parent, I think that most white parents choose to be good parents, when, sometimes at the very least, they should choose to be good citizens."
"We have other societies that do things differently. I think when we look across time and history and geography, we can see that the way that we’re doing it—prioritizing your own child over everyone else—is one way, but I don’t think that has to be the only way. I don’t have any grand answer, but I think people could think in bigger ways about what it means to care about one another and what it means to actually have a society that cares about kids."
I would add to this researcher's analysis that it's not just in the US that we see people trying to distance themselves socially from others. Across the developing world I see people replacing long-standing traditions that fostered equity across society with new, consumerist habits wherein everyone is scrambling to buy on the private market goods like education, health, and infrastructure. These are goods and services that should be public goods that we all fight for to get for everyone, but in today's post-Cold War world a lot of that ethic of equity has been replaced by a logic to look out for your own immediate interests regardless of, or even at odds with, every else's wellbeing.

I'll close with a link to an uplifting Op-Ed by Michelle Obama for the Chicago Defender.  In it, she urges the black population of Chicago to stand firm, to keep investing in and believing in and loving our kids, even when the rest of society doesn't much value them.  Again on display here is a commitment to the larger community, and a recognition that our own immediate children are no more important or deserving than anyone else's children.

Says the former First Lady of herself and her brother, "neither of us was anything special. When we were growing up, ... the South Side was full of thousands of little Michelles and Craigs—good kids who worked hard and knew the difference between right and wrong. The rest of the world just didn’t get to see that very often."

Saturday, December 22, 2018

On single-room occupancy

This is a nice photo-article about the transition of housing stock in the US, from an abundance of rentable beds and single rooms, to an idealized standard of a single-family home.  This was a fascinating read for me, because I grew up in a neighborhood that went from having at least five SROs I can recall in a square mile, to having none.

I've long thought of creating new SRO-type housing in Chicago, and this article keeps me inspired to do so.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Exposé on palm oil

A long time ago I shared an article about palm oil production in Colombia.  Here is a much more in-depth article about the effects of clearing forest for oil palm plantations in Indonesia and elsewhere in the world.  It is a sobering lesson in how technocratic fixes to one environmental problem can lead to a different, even worse problem, if not thought through carefully.