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Monday, May 9, 2016

Americanah and Another Beyonce Video

She heard his words like a melody and she felt herself breathing unevenly, gulping at the air. She would not cry, it was ridiculous to cry after so long, but her eyes were filling with tears and there was a boulder in her chest and a stinging in her throat. The tears felt itchy. She made no sound. He took her hand in his, both clasped on the table, and between them silence grew, an ancient silence that they both knew. She was inside this silence and she was safe. - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
At the end of Daredevil's (the tv show) somewhat disappointing second season, there's this great cliched pep talk from a seasoned newspaper editor to his cub reporter. This is followed by the age-old trope of a narrator putting a pin on the show's themes while watching a montage. It was silly and annoying and made me think about what I'm doing here. So maybe there's something to that.

In that scene, our reporter is staring at a blank screen. She doesn't know what story to write. Her editor tells her to tell the story that only she can. Let's forget that she goes on to write a non-news, vague pep talk to New Yorkers that would have been deeply disappointing to her editor. It made me wonder what that is for me. A lot of these articles end up being me repurposing things I've learned from reading other posts, or attending trainings, or sporadically, my own life experiences. Hopefully with my own brand of optimism/humor/awkward self-deprecation. But is it the story only I can tell?

Listen, Karen (in Daredevil) saw some dark stuff. She was kidnapped, part of an undercover sting that went real wrong, in a room by herself with a psychopath, present for every minute of the trial of the century, and the story she can tell, that nobody else can, is that you're a hero if you can survive in New York City? That's a bummer, you guys.

When I wrote about Mindy Kaling's book Is Everyone Hanging Out With Me? I ended with this:
What if we all had a book? And we could tell our stories and what was going on in our heads when we messed up and how hard we worked for the accomplishments other people seem to think we didn't earn? Where we were sometimes tough and sometimes vulnerable and worried about the future. What if when you meet someone new and think, this is someone I would like to know better and they handed you a book, like a business card, and said this is me. Understand me. What if we understood each other?
First of all, yes. I just quoted my own self. This thing has become the self-referential, snake-eating-its-own-tail self-congratulation fest it's threatened to be since its inception. Now that it's happened we can all just relax. Second of all, when I'm at my most confident about having a "blog" or "website" or whatever, it's when I tell myself that this is my book. Not in the sense that I want to publish it, but in the aforementioned sense of creating a record of what I'm thinking and why. Whether that matters is up for debate, but I'll give you a brief anecdote.

At this point I've had several friends die at very young ages. Of those, two left a blog. One was killed in a surprise and tragic car accident. Her blog told the story of someone just figuring herself out. It was a mix of movie reviews and memoir, obsessions with expensive heels and meditations on a horrible break-up. And then it just ends, you guys. There will be no more posts. It's been close to ten years. I don't think about her a lot, but sometimes a movie or book will come out and I wonder what she'd think of it, sure that a blog post would have appeared.

The other is darker. It's often a cry for help. It's a story of someone overwhelmed and feeling incapable of existing in world filled with seemingly random tragedy. It's lonely. Reading it and knowing what happens is difficult, but I'm glad it's there.

I spend a lot of time trying to justify what I do here. I'm self-conscious about the hubris it takes to think that your thoughts are so important that you should advertise them endlessly on social media. I usually have better things to do than sit down and write these. Sometimes I think I do it more to keep momentum than anything else. Hopefully, at some point, I'm writing something that nobody else could have written. I know as a society we make so much fun of blogs.

Guess what? A lot of things that we make fun of as a society actually rule. Of course a blanket that you can wear is awesome. A computer that is in your glasses? Why not?! I bet that Uggs and yoga pants are super comfy. Video games are fun. I just started playing Dungeons and Dragons with my wife and kids, and it's amazing. It's like we're telling a story together but with dice. You get online during the super bowl and make fun of "sportsball" and I dismiss the Bachelor season finale and neither of us realize that they are essentially the exact same thing.

In Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the main character Ifemelu has a blog. As a Nigerian immigrant, she has a unique perspective on race in America, and she talks about it frankly and with humor. We read some of her posts sometimes, and we see the experiences that lead to the posts. She dates some dudes. Some are white, some African-American, some American-African. She figures out what to do with her hair. Listen, Americanah is about a lot of stuff. But as Ifemelu says, “Why did people ask "What is it about?" as if a novel had to be about only one thing.”

Yeah, it's about race:
When my father was in school in my NAB (Non American Black) country, many American Blacks could not vote or go to good schools. The reason? Their skin color. Skin color alone was the problem. Today, many Americans say that skin color cannot be part of the solution. Otherwise it is referred to as a curiosity called “reverse racism.” Have your white friend point out how the American Black deal is kind of like you’ve been unjustly imprisoned for many years, then all of a sudden you’re set free, but you get no bus fare. And, by the way, you and the guy who imprisoned you are now automatically equal. If the “slavery was so long ago” thing comes up, have your white friend say that lots of white folks are still inheriting money that their families made a hundred years ago. So if that legacy lives, why not the legacy of slavery? And have your white friend say how funny it is, that American pollsters ask white and black people if racism is over. White people in general say it is over and black people in general say it is not. Funny indeed.
But it's also about society.
He had first been excited by Facebook, ghosts of old friends suddenly morphing to life with wives and husbands and children, and photos trailed by comments. But he began to be appalled by the air of unreality, the careful manipulation of images to create a parallel life, pictures that people had taken with Facebook in mind, placing in the background the things of which they were proud.

They ticked the boxes of a certain kind of enlightened, educated middle-classness, the love of dresses that were more interesting than pretty, the love of the eclectic, the love of what they were supposed to love. Ifemelu imagined them when they traveled: they would collect unusual things and fill their homes with them, unpolished evidence of their polish.

 And love.
She liked that he wore their relationship so boldly, like a brightly colored shirt. Sometimes she worried that she was too happy. She would sink into moodiness, and snap at Obinze, or be distant. And her joy would become a restless thing, flapping its wings inside her, as though looking for an opening to fly away.
I've talked about race on here a couple of times. I'm clearly figuring this out. I have a long way to go. Adichie points out many times that even well-meaning, liberal people can really screw up our attempts to accommodate people of color.
The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish is was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think myself as black and I only became black when I came to America. When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t even tell our white partners small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we’re worried they will say we’re overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive. And we don’t want them to say, Look how far we’ve come, just forty years ago it would have been illegal for us to even be a couple blah blah blah, because you know what we’re thinking when they say that? We’re thinking why the fuck should it ever have been illegal anyway? But we don’t say any of this stuff. We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we’re supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable. It’s true. I speak from experience.
I'm sorry, guys. I'm quoting a lot and not saying much. That's probably the best way to deal with these issues, though, don't you think? What do I have to say that she can't say better? She's telling the story that only she can. And boy does she tell it.

I had this thought over the weekend. The last book I read was such a slog. I had to force myself to keep going. This was a book about magic and giant robots that destroy things with anti-gravity rays. About the end of the world. Cool gadgets! Hot girls! And I was so bored. Then there's this story about an immigrant woman reflecting on her life while getting her braids done and I just. can't. stop. reading.

Everything I love about writing and reading is in Americanah. Adichie's writing doesn't call attention to itself. It isn't mannered. It's just right. There isn't a sentence that annoys me. The ideas are meaty and dense. The plotting is perfect. I've now read everything she's published, and I'm very sad. I was, however, deeply delighted to see her We Should All Be Feminists (I just reread that post and darnit if I'm not proud of it) used as the basis for a Beyonce song.

If I blog enough will I be featured in a Beyonce song? Stay tuned! (UPDATE: This is Howie from the future. You are never featured in a Beyonce song, but you do die at some point ((This is Howie from the present: OK)))