A reading of Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body

The spaces our body occupies.


Some months ago when I was on a plane, I saw a big, round fat guy walking down the aisle, and I thought, “Oh no, I’m going to be squished if he sits here,“ and then “Oh no, not here.” His seat ended up being right next to mine. He gave me a small smile and adjusted himself, covering the whole seat and a little more. I noticed he had an extra seat belt that he attached to the regular one. He lifted the armrest. I still had space and I could always use the left armrest. “I hope you don’t mind if I put this up,” he said. “No, I don’t mind,” I said. “The last guy got mad at me for lifting it up.” “It’s no problem,” I assured him. He turned on the AC, because I imagine he was hot. I turned mine on too. His forehead was sweating. We talked for a bit about where we were going and how frustrating it was getting on a busy plane. I always felt like you weren’t safe until you sat down. I could tell there was a feeling of awkwardness, as if the guy didn’t know how I would react because he had been treated unfairly in the past, and I also noticed his bigness was a contradiction to my small frame and the plane in general. I don’t remember if I fell asleep or started reading, but I remember he was a nice guy and seemed happy that he did not have to fight for extra space. I felt guilty about my first thoughts, being greedy about the space I occupied, when in reality I had plenty of space leftover. He helped us remove our bags from the top compartment, and we thanked him. “I’m in the last seat, I might as well,” he said. I thought about how hard it must be for a big person to get on a plane when you have to squeeze into an already crowded space with no leg room.

After reading Hunger, by Roxane Gay I started thinking about how people perceive us in the spaces our body occupies, and how we are openly judged based on the shape of our body. In my case, it often relates to my height, which makes me seem younger than I really am; it gives people a chance to question my authority or role. Much can be said from how we physically present ourselves, but at the end of the day it’s an incomplete picture of who we are. Our likeness is not revealed solely through our body shape, height or size, but also through our personality, and other characteristics that make us unique. But society has always put a larger value on appearance. Our bodies reveal a history about us, and that history is different for everyone, and we should be able to express that truth and find a body shape that makes the most sense for us.

We are the product of a narrow-minded society that sees the ideal body shape as skinny or slender. We have been conditioned to hate our bodies if they do not somehow resemble the ones on commercials or magazines. We often do more harm to ourselves than necessary, as a result of comparing ourselves to unrealistic body types.

​Gay writes that she gained weight as a way to create a fortress, so no one could trespass her, which at the same time made her ashamed because she could not forget her past. Whenever she occupied a space, she was seen for how much fat she carried and not for her abilities or who she was beyond the exterior. She viewed her body through the lens of what she had been taught: that fat bodies were not beautiful or sexy; they needed to be tamed and subject to forced exercise. In a lot of ways her bigness restricted her from doing the normal things skinnier, more slender individuals take for granted. For example, when you’re fat the idea of femininity is often dictated by what one considers safe, so as not to let your guard down and give people a chance to ridicule you if you wear something risqué for example. In Gay’s case she chose to hide her body under masculine shirts or dark clothing. For her, being girly or sexy did not correlate with being fat.

I sobbed because the world cannot accommodate a body like mine and because I hate being confronted by my limitations and because I felt utterly alone and because I no longer need the layers of protection I built around myself but pulling those layers is harder than i could have ever imagined. -Roxane Gay

​Gay’s experience is illuminating, as to what a big person goes through. She puts her heart out there, in an honest way, explaining why she gained weight, and the reasons why it is difficult to loose it, which is not just a matter of working out and eating right. For years, people have constantly reminded her why it’s important to diet or the ways she can lose weight, repeating to her that she must change, which does more harm than good. The cycle of eating, losing and gaining weight can have its own harmful effects, especially if you believe you owe something to the people around you, and if you don’t lose that weight you will inevitably let them down. Most people forget about the emotional aspect of being told over and over that you have to lose weight so others can love you. With that kind of pressure, failure seems inevitable.

I start to crave foods, any foods. I get uncontrollable urges to binge, satisfy the growing ache, to fill the hallowness of feeling alone around the people who are supposed to love me the most, to soothe the pain of having the same painful conversations year after year after year after year. -Roxane Gay

At the end of the day, you can only answer to yourself. The best way to love yourself is doing what your bodies needs, and it’s likely that path is not the one other people envisioned for you, but as Gay acknowledged, she was worthy of love and being taken care of long before she realized it.

Cooking reminds me that I am capable of taking care of myself and worthy of taking care of and nourishing myself. -Roxane Gay

Learning about Gay’s experience was eye opening to the experience of big people and the humiliations they face. Often we cannot empathize, since we’re on the other side of the spectrum, and we think that fat people owe something to society because they’re taking up space and immediately want them to feel guilty for not following what we deem as normal behavior. Despite not knowing their story, it’s common for people to throw an unfair judgment, based on how we have been conditioned to think about our own bodies.

People who are considered of normal weight are invisible within a crowd. No one will think you are unhealthy. When you are skinny, eating fast food comes with little guilt since you know it won’t be difficult to lose whatever fat it added to your body. You do feel guilty once it starts showing on your stomach thighs or other places, and then you can’t but help but feel sorry for yourself that you had pizza again, and someone will invariably tell you that’s unhealthy. We know. Sometimes forcing a strict diet doesn’t work either, because items that are labeled off-limits are the ones you will secretly end up eating. It’s natural to want to indulge yourself once in a while, depending what foods and to what degree, and it helps working out every so often out of habit, but not solely as a tool of recourse to combat whatever fatty foods you ate.

Exercise should not only be seen as a way to lose weight, but also as a way your body energizes itself and becomes stronger. In order to survive you need food and movement, and that movement can be a variety of things; it doesn’t solely mean going to the gym and working our for hours. (I secretly dislike the gym since it makes me feel like a hamster.) The idea of exercise has been hijacked by those obsessed with perfect bodies and gadgets, which presents a limiting picture for the rest us who are trying to lose weight or gain muscle in a healthy way. Exercise should be about one’s livelihood, health and spirituality. It should not be tied to a narcissistic attempt at perfect body or the “right body type.”

A reading of Burma Chronicles


 

Burma Chronicles reads off like a journal with various entries to encapsulate singular episodes that developed during Guy Delisle’s visit to this small nation in Southeast Asia. In one of his previous non-fiction graphic novels, he wrote about his travels to the sheltered North Korea. In comparison, Burma had a not so gloomy quality where he goes around pushing his baby in a stroller down the street and interacting with Burmese neighbors, learning about their customs, and finding a group of young animators eager to learn from him. Delisle reveals his curiosity and humor when dealing with elements that are outside his comfort zone or when things stray from the normalcy of western democracies. He travels with a sense of curiosity and inquiry that lead him to peculiar, but enlightening places.

In Pyongyang –A Journey in North Korea, we see that a severely strict society makes it hard for the common people to interact with tourists unless they have official roles, and for the tourists there is always a sense of being under surveillance, especially since the government orchestrates travel itineraries, so workers fear saying anything that might get them in trouble. Still, Delisle always seems to find subtle ways of resisting. Albeit, when Burma Chronicles was published, the country was under strict military rule that clamped down on the press and locked the opposition. (It’s not so different today, even though Aung San Suu Kyi is a government official. She’s a winner of the novel peace prize and a former political prison) The Burmese are aware of the political fights between the generals in government, and they’re not afraid to express their feelings about military rule, of course with the right people, since they still cannot freely march on the streets. Despite poverty in many areas, the common people have a variety of jobs and roles. There are street vendors, plenty of markets, music emanating in different corners, black market goods like American movies, celebrations, funeral parades, and the strong presence of Buddhism and international NGOs.

Powerful panels in Pyongyang –A Journey in North Korea, by Guy Delisle.

Delisle’s wife is on Doctor’s Without Borders mission (MSF) and mostly spends time in a secluded village, so Delisle stays home to take care of their son with the help of a Burmese nanny. When Delisle takes the baby out for a stroll, the ladies of the neighborhood are enthralled with some wanting to carry him, leaving Delisle on the side, as people call out the baby’s name from far away. In another section, after walking around the neighborhood and seeing all the barbed wires and security guards, Guy begins asking himself: why military officers and other rich Burmese need so much protection in a country almost devoid of thieves? The generals are fearful of opposition and squash any rebellion even from other military generals. They fear a coup. Upon speaking to Maung Aye, the friendly guard of the house, he learns that Burmese have started to lose hope; when a dictator dies and everyone thinks the country will change, it simply falls in the hands of another ruthless general.

There are quiet and sometimes melancholy moments like when Delisle meets an old woman who tells him about the 1988 government shut down of the universities. She tells Guy how horrible the country has become. “In my state I got no one to fear, I can speak my mind,” she says. When he visits a Buddhist monastery, he is left alone with his thoughts as he follows the routine of the day of getting up at 3am, taking notice of his steps as he lines up before the last meal of the day at 11 am, and goes to meditate and quiet his thoughts once again. After three days, he feels like he has been there for a month. In the appropriately titled, “The rainy season began suddenly,” there’s a quiet scene of him drawing as he notices rain coming down outside his window. “It looks…like it’s… going to…” The last panel has a drawing of a downpour.

In the “First field visit,” he travels to a secluded zone that lacks medical care with his girlfriend on behalf of MSF. After traveling for hours from the city on different buses, they finally arrive in Mudon, a small village. While his girlfriend is on duty, he goes on bike to explore and finds small cottages with gardens. He notices the system the Burmese have for rain proofing their roofs by attaching dry leaves to the wooden frames. Some of my favorite panels include observations and dialogue that give you a sense of substance and meaning as he makes these small discoveries. In another one, Delisle and his friend get stranded in the rain, and a Burmese family offers them shelter. “We’re served tea and, after some polite chitchat, silence settles in. We all listen to the rain fall.” In another scene, his students take him to an old animator’s house, one who inspired them to draw when they were younger, and he realizes how far away he is, but so close to people who share his passion for drawing.

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Today, Burma is now referred to as Myanmar; the name was previously changed by a military-led government, which was not recognized by international countries. Recently, Burma has been seeing an uptake in democratic reforms since 2008, and switched to a more liberal democracy after Aung San Suu Kyi was released. Though her party won the majority of seats in parliament in 2015, people have expressed disappointment with the lack of transformative reforms. The government, despite having a democratically elected president, still has strong ties to the military, and has not changed its old ways. Reporting laws have relaxed, but it still remains restrictive. The new laws are an attempt for Journalists to follow a set of guidelines and practice “self-censorship.” In 2014, five journalists were given a 10-year sentence after reporting on a new chemical weapons plant. Political prisoners have not been freed and human rights abuses continue, for example, against ethic minorities like the Rohingya Muslim people, who the Burmese government refuses to recognize as citizens even though they have lived there for generations.

I should be staying way from graphic novels about dictatorships in Asia, but I can’t help spot the familiar tactics (the lies!) that are present in this white house administration. Albeit, right now it seems foolish to compare the two, seeing as how we are still a democracy; we vote for our elected officials and there are checks and balances, but even within these bounds there is plenty of “democratic sliding,” meaning there are elected official who are undermining democratic institutions either in speech or action. Some of it might go unnoticed such as small legal changes, while other ones are blatantly deteriorating longstanding democratic values of the free press and rule of law. As of late we have been seeing a rampant criminalizing of immigrants. The scapegoating of one particular group allows the government to conduct unjust raids and on minors and families living in this country. Most recent the white house administration has demanded the voting records of the 50 states as a ploy to fix “voter fraud.” This information is private and should not be shared with the white house. Many experts fear this is being done to purge records or to intimidate and suppress voters. While we wait for the big one, these seemingly benign, yet not so benign actions, will add up.

Dictatorships have always sought to control the message in order to suppress negative stories from the press, which undoubtedly spreads if government policies hurt the public. It’s not that these corrupt governments have a communication problem of relaying what their goals and successes are, but they have political and policy issues, which the media must portray accurately.

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Burma Chronicles, by Guy Delisle.

A reading of The Handmaid’s Tale

 

The show has a way of absorbing you with its bareness and minimalism, becoming almost too austere and icy.


This show couldn’t have arrived at a more appropriate time, seeing as how women have much to lose from the extreme, right-wing policies of the current republicans in control of the senate, house and the fake white house. The patriarchy wants to reverse the progress on women’s health care and family planning. Not a single women was part of the republican senate group meant to write the new health care bill. Once it was out in the open, we saw why they kept it hidden for so long. There were severe cuts to programs vital to women and families, for example Medicaid and planned parenthood. I guess conservatives are pro-life, but not when its comes to women and their children.

People want to lie to themselves, and say “that couldn’t happen to us.” Often we dismiss older societies as being naive. We saw this at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale (book) when the historian discussed the tape recordings, which revealed June’s story. He laughed it off, saying Gilead was antiquated and their ideas were primitive and impossible now. That is until someone asked, “What sort political climate do you think could potentially break apart our current status and take us back in time?” The past repeats itself only with minor differences, so it’s safe to say, we should not make light of our current political state. The historian in The handmaid’s Tale goes on to respond:

In times of peace and plenty it is hard to remember the conditions that have led to authoritative regime changes in the past, and it is even harder to suppose that we ourselves would ever make such choices or allow them to be made, but when there’s a perfect storm and collapse of the established order is in the works, precipitated by environmental stresses that lead to food shortage, economic factors, such as unrest due to unemployment, a social structure that is, top-heavy with too much wealth being concentrated among too few, then scapegoats are sought and blamed, fear is rampant, and there is pressure to trade what we think of liberty, for what we think of as safety.

 

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I’m a little mad that no one told me about this book growing up, nor was it a required reading in high school or junior high. I wonder how I would have perceived the harsh dystopian setting, the stony characters and the cruelness of how women were treated. It may have been the case that my teachers were either offended by the nature of the book, or were not allowed to teach it since the faculty might have deemed it inappropriate for teenage girls. It would have no doubt made me hate men, at least initially. There are some redemptive male characters who are not as deplorable as the males figures in power.

I began watching The Handmaid’s Tale series, blindly without having any background on the story. This caused a shock in so much as I did not want to watch another episode, even with another human present. I could only stomach one episode at a time, because by the end of episode I had shrunk and felt depressed. This was not a lighthearted show you binge watch for 3 or 4 episodes that include moments of comic relief of the likeness of OITNB.

The scenes in the show have a way of absorbing you with its bare and minimal quality. It takes place in Cambridge, Massachusetts (though it was actually filmed in Canada) where a new society called Gilead has overthrown the U.S. democratic government of the modern era and instituted a version of Christian fundamentalism or a theocracy. This could have taken place in our decade, but it’s meant to resemble 2005—a not so distant past.

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Fall in New York.

“They have instituted a caste system paired with a rigid wardrobe meant to subjugate women.”

The Gilead society is structured in such a way where everyone has a designated function, which determines their social ranking, and what they wear. They have instituted a caste system paired with a rigid wardrobe meant to subjugate women. In every town a group of handmaids are in charge of breeding children that will be raised by the wives and fathered by the commander within the assigned household. The names they once had have been discarded and in its place are the chosen family names, so they are Offred or Ofwarren. In this society love doesn’t exist, so no one dates or marries a person of their choice. Most of the men have been turned into guards or angels, meant to protect the women, but in reality they are there to make sure they don’t escape.

There is no a sight of imperfection with the neighborhood’s pristine streets, homes and gardens. Everything is meant to appear clean and pure including the women. The only colors that resonate are the handmaid’s crimson dresses and cloaks, their white hats and the wives’ blue dresses, which symbolize purity. The Marthas are the cooks and they wear drab gray uniforms; they mostly keep to themselves, since they are hidden away like discarded towels in the kitchen. The men mostly wear black and the nuns wear dark green outfits, which appear heavy.

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Three dolls found in a nyc thrift store.

The handmaids cannot wear makeup. Their faces hide underneath the white hat that doesn’t let them see on the sides or above, only straight as if they were in a tunnel. The handmaids walk in pairs at the same rhythm. “She is my spy and I am her spy,” Offred (June) thinks  while walking with Ofglen.

Every word is carefully studied, as is every gesture, since the characters must be careful not to let their true feelings come out. An illegal action can mean punishment, or worse the women could be sent to the colonies where people go to die. It’s pertinent to know everyone’s motive, and to make sure they will not tell on you if you dissent.

“The series is an alternative reading of the book and works as a complement or another  layer.”

We often find closeup shots of June’s face as we hear her interior monologue. There’s a natural quality to the way the show was filmed, especially when June or other handmaids are in the shot, which is not to be compared with the harshness of the wives or nuns.

Let us be who we want to be and wear what we want.

The show is a version, adapted from Margaret Atwood’s book by the same name. As is the case when books are turned into shows or movies, many scenes are left out, dialogues or the similitude of relationships. The series is an alternative reading of the book and works as a complement or another layer.

The interior monologue of June is much more fluid and spontaneous in the book, where she takes certain freedoms  describing scenes and giving us suggestive anecdotes, often tricking into believing that she is still in her old life. There are poignant moments of irony and sarcasm that are not strongly felt in the show.

The book version also has a longer scene between Moira and June when they meet again after the red center days. Nick and June’s relationship is lackluster in the book and I’m glad I had the show’s version to illustrate their affection, since in the book it seems oddly cold. The wife also does not represent much of threat in the book version, but in the series she is much younger and has an alarmingly sadistic quality.

From the book, I remember Margaret Antwood’s words on how cool the scrabble pieces felt in June’s hand as she paired the letters. From the show, I remember, “They didn’t get everything, there was something left in her. She looked invincible,” June said after seeing another handmaid commit an act of bravery.

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Blurry memory.

 

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.

Much of this novel is about finding an identity, how people perceive you and the lies you tell yourself so you don’t make it obvious that you’re aware of the absurdities. Society inflicts biases on young lives, altering their understanding of how they’re suppose to act and feel. The book opens with Boy, the daughter of a rat-catcher, who studies her reflection, lingering over her looks as they appear on the surface of a mirror. The later characters we find meet, also study themselves in front of a mirror. In Bird’s case she doesn’t see a reflection, as if subconsciously realizing that her family members and friends don’t see her for who she, but instead as something all together separate.

Bird’s family, from her father’s side have been hiding a secret that she revealed simply by being born. The secret was easily hidden before, since her grandparents were of a lighter complexion and had their names changed, moved to a new town, allowing them to pass as white. The events in the novel take place between the 1950s and 1970s. Though the Civil Right Act of 1964  improved the lives for black citizens, there was still much resistance, especially in small towns, so Bird’s family decided to pass for white.

There’s an interweaving of race, personal identity, and gender present in Oyeyemi’s novel that allows for multiple narrators. A young Boy narrates the first half of the story, as she escapes her childhood home and her abusive father, to go to Flax Hill, New York, and learn what kind of woman she wants to be. In the second half of the book, we meet a different narrator—Boy’s teenage daughter, Bird who is slowly beginning to understand how she’s viewed by society and the expectations that are placed on her, as opposed to her stepsister, Snow, who is white.

“Snow in winter, you in spring, snow in summer, you in fall,” her father Arturo, tells Bird.

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi.

Bird aspires to be a journalist one day; she’s unafraid to get her feelings hurt in order to find a good story. She’s willing to listen even when she knows she shouldn’t, but does so for a chance to understand herself and her “enemies.” She wants to challenge traditional ideas by being herself and not letting her family or friends define her before she’s had a chance to figure out all the pieces. She sometimes looks to family for guidance, but is often devoid of the attention she deserves.

Oyeyemi goes for a loose, casual style of writing, which doesn’t appear rigid, and it let’s the reader feel more sympathetic towards the characters and the events in their life, but it also allows for an explanation of traumatic scenes in simple long sentences that don’t carry much decorative weight leaving the reader feeling icy cold. She expresses moments that would otherwise be dramatic or wretched in a levelheaded way, leaving you to decide whether it’s something truly awful or just a passing moment.

Here’s a line that describes Bird’s room where she loved spending nights, alone studying the corners of her mind. “In the evening, when the street lamp just outside Bird’s window switches on, the gray cobwebs quiver and glow around the blue moons. It’s the kind of view that Bird doesn’t mind risking a spider bite for.”

Boy’s observation of her father is casual, almost sarcastic to the level of cruelty he displays. “So that’s papa. Cleanest hands you’ll ever see in your life. He’ll punch you in the kidneys, from behind or he’ll thump the back of you head and walk away sniggering while you crawl around the floor, stunned.”

The book sometimes leaves out events and skips to subsequent scenes, so we are left to assume many things, especially because the writing can seem vague and aloof. What was missing frequently was a certainty about the character’s motives and internal conflicts. Much is left to the reader to decide, making it easy to misunderstand a character and dismiss the weight of their storyline. Also, the change in narrator felt abrupt towards the end, when the voice of Boy returned one last time.

The novel opened with Boy examining herself in front of a mirror and closed with a moment of revelation, and the search for another family secret, hidden to Boy. These bookends signify a need for personal discovery even if it leads down a dark, nebulous path, because half the fun is finding the answer.

Bloodchild, by Octavia E. Butler

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Reading Bloodchild makes one feel sticky and gross, as if having small aliens growing inside your stomach. Just thinking about humans being implanted with larva that grow into giant creatures with tentacles can make anyone cringe.

This science fiction tale is told from the POV of a young boy named Gan, who will no longer be a child after the day is done. The boy is finding out what it means to be a Terran and how his role as a host will come to fruition. Butler has subtle ways of unfolding the back story, as Gan embarks on a new phase of life—adolescence.  The narration absorbs us into an alien world where there’s sensual, violent, and territorial action. Butler creates a complex society without interrupting the story’s flow and gradually expands the character’s thoughts with few instances of exposition, cleverly layered. What could take many pages, the author does in a few pages. Her sentences are short but they reveal the depth of the character’s reservations about how Gan’s life will change.

There’s a whole society being explained from one small scene in the living room, through the character of Gan who is eating some eggs with his siblings and mother. The eggs allow them to fall into a slumber, hallucinate, and prolong life making their suffering less present. But Gan’s mom doesn’t want to eat them, which leave us wondering: why would she refrain from prolonging her life? In one instance Gan says, “T’Gatoi meant to cage my mother,” as the creature enveloped the mother with its limbs.

The layering of exposition, dialogue and action seem effortless from the part of the author. The set-up of the story unravels through action and dialogue, as the conflict unfolds, and we begin to understand the balance of power between the Terrans and the Tlic that allow both to exist peacefully in the Preserve. Both sides have something to gain from peace. Gan understands this dynamic when T’gatoi, the Tlic creature finds him with a gun under his chin. This moment serves as a way for Gan to bargain for something beyond his position as a host, but he also doesn’t want to suffer. He wants his people to have an easier life, and T’ Gatoi can help since she’s a government official. T’Gatoi is the only one standing between the Terrans and the desperate masses who will treat them as animals. Although, she is manipulative, she values diplomacy in order to further her agenda.

In the past, Terrans rebelled against the Tlics, but a more holistic approach to implant eggs and keep the host living emerged, allowing them to coexist. The Terrans feel awful about carrying this burden, but do not want to abandon the Tlic since they depend on them for survival. Gan has spent most of his childhood with the creature, T’gatoi instead of his mother. He was raised to host her babies. Gan is part of the alien’s sustenance, and he too feels close to T’Gatoi, as she mentions here: “You know me as no other does,” she said softly. “You must decide.”

 

 

Image: Cynthia Via

A Wrinkle In Time

She had something IT didn’t have.

More than a year ago I was on Oak Street in New Orleans walking around on a hot day. It was the dead of afternoon, and most stores were closed. Why had I come here? It was a Monday, the last day of my trip, and I wanted to explore uncharted territory—except there wasn’t much open minus a thrift store that sold Hawaiian shirts and a male clerk with a 1980s hairstyle. I walked around under the sun contemplating whether I should head back for the coffee shop I had seen along the way. Instead I continued to walk until I saw a Little Free Library. I stopped to check for books; there were less than five, and none of them seemed interesting except for a tattered book, titled A wrinkle In Time. The cover displayed a white Pegasus creature with the face of a human and rainbow wings, flying around the murky clouds of some distant planet. The creature was hovering above dark mountains and a blue orb surrounding a wrinkly man’s head with red eyes. I didn’t know what to make of it.  Could this be about space travel? Above the title it read, “ The Newbery Award Winning Classic.” I’d seen this before in other youth novels when I was teaching elementary kids, but I don’t remember ever encountering this book. The front cover was wrinkled and the back was nonexistent. It was written by Madeleine L’s Engle in 1962. I opened it and found a page that displayed the author’s other books and on the bottom was a stamp, that read “this book rescued from the refuse by Philip Garside,” dated 4/28/11. “Please re-gift; do not throw away.”

While reading the book, I thought how great this would be as a movie. Recently I found out that Ava DuVernay (Selma) is directing an adaptation to be released next year, and she had a casting call in Nola! The book was written at a time when not many children’s novels had female heroines. As a science-fantasy story, it’s interesting for kids and adults with themes of time travel, space exploration, mind control, dystopian societies, and some odd mix of spirituality. The plot revolves around Meg and her brother Charles, who search for their missing father with the help of a friend and three beings that have the ability to change forms and travel through time and space.  Their quest is to defeat a bodiless, telepathic brain called IT that controlled the people of Camazotz. Charles told Meg individuality had been done away with in this planet, and only a display of mechanistic behaviors were allowed. “Camazotz is ONE mind. It’s IT. And that’s why everyone’s so happy and efficient.” Before departing to Camazotz, which had been lost to darkness, Aunt Beast (another creature/alien friend) tells Meg,

For the things which are seen are temporal. But the things which are not seen are eternal.

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Mardi Gras floats?

This was the loveliest surprise one could get. I took the book and kept walking to the end of Oak Street until I saw a warehouse and some parade floats standing outside. I thought they were Mardi Gras floats being stored away for a near date. But it was June and Mardi Gras had already passed months ago. I assumed I would not be back again, so it was a treat to see them. I entered what appeared to be a thrift shop from the outside but was actually a small sign and billboard store. I talked to the owner, asking him if there was anything open on Oak Street. The guy on the laptop had long white hair. “Everything is mostly closed today, but I’m sure you’ll find something on the main avenue.” What brings you down here,” he asked. They had some used clothes hanging on a rack. I quickly glanced at them and talked to him for a bit longer, then went outside to face the hot sun. Someone walked by and said, “How are you?” I barely had the energy to respond. I finally walked back to the coffee shop I avoided and asked for water, sat down to cool off, and later ordered ice-cold tea and read my new book.

Adiche’s tale of a Nigerian Blogger in America

Race, love, and identity.

Richelle Gribble - Web of life
Richelle Gribble – Web of life

There are no more words left from Chimanmanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Novel, Americanah (2013). No more chapters to read over languorous afternoons as palm trees sway under the rain or as the sun falls devilishly outside while I hide indoors.

Americanah is the kind of novel you read incrementally, so as to delay the inevitable end. But the subtle suspense of what’s to become of Ifemelu in America or what will happen to her abandoned love in Nigeria makes it impossible to ignore.

Adiche’s style and tone of writing is inviting and fresh, giving the novel space and depth to explore. The author of Half of a Yellow Sun, has an honest way of describing her characters, adding lucid dialogue that paints a clear portrait of who they are. There’s a sense of pride hovering above Ifemelu, as she listens to conversations from her circle of friends, not talking much, but trying to internalize more so than babble.

After Ifemelu’s studies are compromised by a government protest in Nigeria, she moves to the U.S. to find work and go back to school. She lives with her aunt and son then on her own, finding odd jobs and help from an American employer and Curt, a wealthy boyfriend who helps her acquire a green card.

Ifemelu has always been observant and curious; even as a young girl she was actively questioning the motives of her peers, sometimes being silent, other times bluntly asking questions that made people sit in their thoughts, and understand themselves a little bit more. Living in the U.S., she notices the racial and cultural divides that don’t exist in Nigeria. These reflections she later shares in her blog:

Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks by a Non-American Black, which adds to the complexity of the novel’s themes: race, love, and identify.

She writes: “Dear Non-American Black, when you make the decision to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t “black” in you country?”Immigrants face many contradictions when assimilating into an American culture that actively defines them. Ifemulu’s wants to explore how Africans identify themselves among black Americans in a country divided by race.

Though Curt provides her with many comforts, she doesn’t “believe herself” when she’s with him. Ifemulu goes on to sabotage the relationship, perhaps accidently, but as a way to keep her intellectual integrity that Curt, as a white-American male isn’t always able to understand. Seeing that Curt’s mom is unhappy and the looks she receives from white women, allow Ifemelu to witness the many ways racism touches everyday life.

Image: Cynthia Via
Image: Cynthia Via

On a personal level, I identify with the feeling of alienation as an immigrant, as an outsider, an observer more so than someone attached to the collective thought of a nation. Ifemelu brings a refreshing voice to depict American culture with its obsession for dividing people by political ideology, race and class. Her romantic relationships are vivid and remind me of my own, and how invested one can become when sharing your likeness with another person, eventually invading their space, adopting their habits or mannerisms.

Most of Americanah is set against the backdrop of a post 9/11 world, where cellphones are ubiquitous. Characters communicate through emails or by posting messages on blogs. In the course of the novel, we are treated to some emails between her and Obinze, a Nigerian man she loves but can never reunite with. Obinze also leaves his homeland for London, which is short-lived since he’s deported. When he returns to Nigeria he is forced to grow up and forget Ifemelu. Eventually he has to find the courage to claim what he wants and leave a life that betrays him profoundly. The novel delves into Obinze’s thoughts, and readers will undoubtedly feel closer to his character, than Ifemulu’s other romantic interests. A scene from the day Ifemelu and Obinze met:

The trust so sudden and yet so complete, and the intimacy, frightened her. They had known nothing of each other only hours ago, and yet, there had been a knowledge shared between them in those moments before they danced, and now she could think only of all the things she yet wanted to tell him, wanted to do with him.

As an adult, Ifemulu is confident and often times thinks highly of herself. After she returns to Lagos, Nigeria from studying in Princeton, she looks down at those working meaningless jobs. But she does acknowledges how judgmental she has become, criticizing everything about Nigeria like some of her friends who returned to mock what doesn’t meet their new American standards. She notices her faults and how unfair she has become with the Nigerian friends that never left.

In The Danger of a Single Narrative, a TED Talk video, Adiche mentioned the many ways storytellers are amplifying the African narrative. While the media may only concentrate on sensational narratives recounting tales of poverty, crime and war, there are also stories of progress, middle-class Africans, and young people with their own complexities. In the video, she asks readers to search for the stories that change the narrative. This bring to mind the question of who can define you? The community of your childhood, the one you’ve adopted or the cultural and racial divisions created by society? Ideally it should fall on the individual to discover who they are through a conscientious search for truth and genuine understanding.

Before Night Falls, by Reynaldo Arenas

It begins with thunder.

I was still on shaky grounds back in December when I was looking for a new place to live. The second house I moved to was an odd mystery, and I mostly fell to despair knowing that I would have to move out again. But before I left, I found this book buried atop a shelf, along with other ones put on display, but not meant for reading.

It begins with thunder in Louisiana the first time I read Before Night Falls. I was not only physically closer to Cuba, but now Reynaldo Arenas was recounting its history through honest, vivid language, leaving everything in the open—a stark difference from the coldness of the big house I found myself in. Arenas’ life begins with thunder and trees shuddering from violent winds in the countryside of Cuba. From there he describes his best and worst years, witnessing the disappearance of freedom in the island he loved.

In the introduction, The End, Arenas warns readers the tale of his youth doesn’t hide its beauty nor ugliness, as he gives an honest documentation that people may want to reject. He calls this autobiography, “his vengeance against most of the human race,” a rather liberating, anti-authoritarian account.

Palmettos. Image: Cynthia Via

What drew me to Arenas was his love of nature, passion for writing and courage to stand up to an oppresive government. As a boy he lived with his mom and extended family in the countryside: aunts, uncles, grandparents, the whole flock of them. He ran naked and played house with other kids often with nothing more than chickens and dirt surrounding them. While that does sounds like a bucolic paradise for a child, it wasn’t actually. Arenas believed that his childhood was an honest portrayal of his  animalistic instincts often reigning over morality.

His descriptions of rain remind me of how I felt as child listening to thunder: ” It was no ordinary rainfall. It was a tropical drenching heralded by violent thunder in cosmic, orchestral bursts that resounded across the fields, while lightning traced the wild designs on the sky, striking palm trees that suddenly burst into flames and then shriveled like burnt matches.”

Apart from the horrid reality of growing up neglected (his father had all but abandoned him when he was a child, and his mom was never around), Arenas had been left to wander under large trees, digging soil and finding shelter whenever the rain came. Nature distracted him from the cruelty of being alone, and in hindsight his younger years prepared him for the hardships he later faced.

Before Night Falls is about a man exploring his youth and sexuality under a totalitarian regime, as much as it about discovering the true nature of humans when confined to an oppresive state. Arenas’ story goes so far as to spit on the image of that restrictive society that Fidel Castro’s communist regime imposed on the Cuban people.

“A sense of beauty is always dangerous and antagonistic to any dictatorship because it implies a realm extending beyond the limits that a dictatorship can impose on human beings. Beauty is a territory that escapes the control of the political police.”

As a young man, he frequented many beaches and loved to swims much as he loved being with other men. He writes, “perhaps subconsciously we loved the sea as a way to escape from the land where we were repressed; perhaps in floating on the waves we escaped our cursed insularity.”

By the 1970s Cuban government outlawed swimming and traveling by sea, since many Cubans began escaping the island after the state tightened control. This didn’t stop Arenas from trying to escape himself or at least to get his manuscript overseas. When individuals are prohibited from making their own decisions and pursuing their dreams eventually they will venture out, despite the risks and reprisals from the state. It’s counter-intuitive to restrict your citizens from freedom of speech, sexuality and other human rights for the sake of enslaving them to the whim of one leader and a corrupt party. State control in Cuba did not improve the country’s economy nor did it allow for any creative or cultural progress instead it made citizens distrust one another, as they became solely depended on the government to make decisions for them, which resulted in the suffering of many Cubans at the hands of an ill-prepared dictator.

Arenas was able to get his manuscripts out of Cuba and eventually, he too left the island to recount the injustices taking place the island. The survival of his manuscripts emphasizes that the poetry of life always wins.

Many of the political events in the book have been documented in other works, but no one has been brought to justice. And almost 60 years after the Communist Revolution, the Cuban government still violates human rights while keeping its citizens in poverty, and the Castro family remains in power. What about all those who died in the sugar-mill work camps and political prisons?