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Monday, April 4, 2016

"You Never Rooted For White Men" Would Be A Cool Epitaph

You knew you had become comfortable when you told him that you watched Jeopardy on the restaurant TV and that you rooted for the following, in this order: women of color, black men, and white women, before, finally, white men -- which meant you never rooted for white men. - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Thing Around Your Neck
Boy, I was sure delighted when I read that passage. I'm a white man, it turns out, and when I've told people my priority list for what books I read, I consistently get quizzical looks. I remember clearly one guy looking at me for a long time, then saying, "why?"

The reason why is because there is no shortage of people reading books by white men. Regularly when big important writers release their lists of must-read books, it's almost overwhelmingly white-guy-books. Here's the thing. I've got the white guy thing down. I understand it pretty well. I am in meetings every day that are almost overwhelmingly filled and dominated by white guys. And I'm sorry, you guys, but we look so generic. A lot of us are tall, balding, and wear glasses. I get bored looking in the mirror. The last thing I need to read is about how tough it is to be a bored white man.

Today, though, I was in a meeting of mostly white guys but a woman was just dominating in there. She was awesome. She laid out a point-by-point argument filled with smarts and competence and it was literally thrilling. I don't know much about her life (other than real cool boots) and what got her there and what she's been through, but I think that would be a pretty good story. I want to read those stories. I want more people telling those stories.

Here's the story you get from me: yesterday I was using the bathroom at work before going home. I had my bike-riding gloves in my hand, then I accidentally dropped them in, pre-flush. So I washed my gloves in the sink in like a panic. Then I went to the little kitchen area to see if there was a plastic bag to hold them in for my bike ride home. On my way out, a coworker looked at me strangely. I waved to him on my way out.

Then, before getting on my bike, I noticed that not only was my fly down, but my top button wasn't even buttoned. Also, my belt was just out there. My pants were as open as a 7-11 at 3 a.m. I was in such a panic about my pee gloves that I plumb forgot about that part.

And there you have it. These are the stories white men have to tell. They are sad stories about sad people. But not the right kind of sad, not the ones that teach us and give us a glimpse into the human condition. They're the sad kind that say how does that man hold a position of any authority? Oh right.

There are so many stories. More than I can ever read in a lifetime. If I can never read every story why would I waste my time with the ones I already know? Give me something new. Something I've never heard before. Something I would never understand otherwise.

You know who is telling those stories? Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. That's who.

Well, I'm just going to go ahead and make this official. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is my favorite author. I think a fourth book of hers in the hallowed halls of Howie's Book Club makes her the most reviewed writer on the site, and I do believe that's appropriate. Take a bow, Ms. Adichie. Add this to yet another of the many, many accolades you have received throughout your career; here's one that you'll never, ever, ever know about.

The Thing Around Your Neck is a bunch of short stories, most of which are about the immigrant experience and all of which are about the Nigerian experience. Adichie's style is subtle and unflinching. Her prose is unadorned and simple. I just could read it all day.

I love short stories because you get to know an author so well. When she's allowed to create new characters and settings every few pages or so, she can explore themes without getting to the bottom of them. Just raising questions and ideas. The ideas here are heavy. You want to heft them and just get a feel for them. You want someone else to see you lifting them and see how big your muscles are getting (in this analogy your muscles are the super smart things you say on a website).
She wanted to interrupt and tell him how unnecessary it was, this bloodying and binding, this turning faith into a pugilistic exercise; to tell him that life was a struggle with ourselves more than with a spear-wielding Satan; that belief was a choice for our conscience always to be sharpened.
In The Thing Around Your Neck we meet strong characters, mostly women, as they reconcile life in Nigeria with the promise of "The American Visa Lottery." Some are students, or follow their husbands, or are fleeing for their lives. They're wealthy, poor, educated, or from tiny undeveloped villages. They fall in love or don't. Learn to love the United States or long to return (and, sometimes, do both). One is a mail-order bride. Another, the wife of a philandering wealthy husband. Or a young Nigerian immigrant dating a worldly white man.
You said he was wrong to call only the poor Indians in Bombay the real Indians. Did it mean he wasn't a real American since he was not like the poor fat people you and he had seen in Hartford?
At the end of each story I was excited to read the next one but sad to leave the character from the last one behind. And I keep thinking about them.

A couple of days ago I read this book by the pool while my kids splashed around and said "look at me, Daddy" and I did. I watched as they held their breath and did belly flops and swam from one end to the other on just one breath, then looked at me expectantly to ensure that I was still watching. At one point my youngest was struggling and my oldest helped her get from the deep end to the shallow and it was so kind and sweet, the look of determination on his face and trust on hers. I can't help but think that these moments crystallized for me so sharply because of what I was reading. Adichie has such a knack for capturing moments that I actually think she was training me to do the same.

I don't think there's better praise than that, you guys.

But you're a white guy writing, you say. Dang. And you "wrote" a "book." Yeah. Don't you want someone to read it? Kind of. So why are you advocating that we read books by women of color, then men of color, then women, then white men? Do you know how scared I am about that? Zero scared points. Nobody listens to me. And even if they did, white guys would still be selling the most books. When 90% of The New York Times book reviews are about books written by white men, what's one guy with a tiny blog going to change?

Maybe the world. That would rule.