Category: Place & Justice

Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood were ready for a Trump world

skyscape fog

“After everything that happened, I’m not reading 1984, I’m not reading Fahrenheit 451, I’m not reading A Handmaid’s Tale. I’m reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. I feel like if we’re looking for any answers or where we’re going, it’s definitely in Octavia’s work.”

That’s what speculative fiction writer Nnedi Okorafor had to say about what book to reach for in the age of Trump.

Having read Parable of the Sower, I recognized some reasons why Okorafor would point readers to Butler’s work. There’s the portrayal of a world where climate change has progressed enough to cause major problems to habitability and economies. There’s the way that people have split off into walled off communities. How countries have shuttered their borders to other nations.

But I was particularly struck by Okorafor’s reference to a character in Butler’s sequel, Parable of the Talents, whose stated goal is to “make America great again.” As a feminist, I was also interested in reading Atwood’s famous The Handmaid’s Tale. So I picked up both.

Ultimately, I agree that Butler’s works seem to resonate more fully with the current times. The unexpected political success of presidential candidate Andrew Steele Jarret in Talents struck a pretty eerie chord with Trump’s win while using the same tagline. It’s an incredibly layered novel with strong themes of power, purpose, community, and religion all coming together in one story.

But I think The Handmaid’s Tale is worth a read too for different reasons. It’s a meditation on gender roles and a purposeful exaggeration of society’s obsession with commenting on and controlling women’s reproductive choices. The world of Atwood’s story feels much tighter to the protagonist as you navigate her fearful and constrained reality alongside frequent flashbacks to the way things were “before.”

The full video from Al Jazeera on dystopian literature in the modern age is definitely worth a watch if you have time:


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Living Alternate Histories with Underground Airlines

Angela Davis

My grandmother once told me a story that stretched the limits of my understandings of racial fear. Years ago she was relocating with her family for my grandfather’s job. They planned to drive to their new home and considered taking a detour through the South as an add-on to their trip.

At this time however, Angela Davis had just been added to the FBI’s Most Wanted list, and the entire country was focused on the story. My grandmother, who is a light-skinned black woman that used to wear her hair in an Afro, was afraid of being mistaken for Davis, particularly in the South, where they perceived greater hostility. So after some deliberation, she and my grandfather decided not to travel through the South after all, bypassing it on their journey.

Now, aside from being light-skinned, I personally don’t think my grandmother looks anything like Angela Davis. When I first heard the story I had a hard time understanding what it would feel like to be alive and black during that period in time. Because of the relatively safer and calmer context I grew up in, it is almost impossible for me to fully relate to that generalized sense of racial fear. To really understand my grandmother’s story, I had to imagine a completely different world from the one in which I came of age. (Though as #BlackLivesMatter shows, racial fear is still alive and well in the world. Unlike my experience, all too many young black people grow up quite aware of it.)

Underground AirlinesReading Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters reminded me of my grandmother’s story because it is also about using the imagination to understand another world. It’s about using the tool of speculative fiction to cultivate empathy for what it can be like as a black person living in a geography of racial fear. The particular context here is slavery.

Underground Airlines is told from the perspective of the main character, who goes by Victor. Victor lives in the modern-day U.S. with one big difference — slavery still exists in four states. He’s a black man who works for the U.S. Marshall Service to help find and return escaped slaves from the slave states. As the story goes along you learn more and more about seedy things that have been going on in the background of reputable organizations on all sides. Victor has to face his own past and what he’s willing to do to keep his personal freedom.

Underground Airlines, though a thriller at its core, explores deep moral questions. Winters leads you to think about what you would do to preserve your own safety in such a compromised society. The people you would betray. Those you would manipulate. Just as interesting is the exploration of corruption among modern-day abolitionists. Winters plays with what the desire to be a “savior” can do to the psyche, and how it can corrupt. He suggests that individual people can begin to matter much less than the cause as a whole. The book is a fascinating look at what happens when who we are collides with who we imagine ourselves to be.

I’d be remiss not to mention Octavia Butler’s Kindred in reviewing Underground Airlines. In Kindred, a black woman is involuntarily trapped in a cycle of going back in time to the plantation where her ancestors were enslaved. The book explores the very real and painful ways in which the institution of slavery corrupts all morals and good intentions. Kindred was a groundbreaking mashup of the modern world and the old establishment of slavery, and Winters’ work follows in that tradition. Constance Grady’s article in Vox captures some important ways that Winters draws upon Butler’s cannon.

I am white, and I wrote this book because I think it is incumbent on white people, white authors very much included, to think about racism, to grapple with racism, and to engage with it.
Ben H. Winters

One of the great strengths of speculative fiction, is that the literal worlds it forces you to consider are often based on real world “what if” questions with current day implications. Just as the world of my grandmother’s story pushed me to expand my understandings of what her life experiences encompass, speculative fiction can take you to a new mental place, to a new body. It can play with your world in subtle ways to make you consider new possibilities and perspectives. We have to leave our entrenched beliefs behind a little when reality gets slightly warped. We don’t always know who we would be in the story.


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Note: I received an advance reading copy of this book from the publisher for review.

Image Source: About.com

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Ghettoside in Los Angeles

downtown los angeles

I just finished working my way through Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, which is a deep dive into the LA Police Department’s homicide detective unit for South LA. I picked this one up at the library thinking it would be a perfect intersection of my interests: black people, urban challenges, and criminal justice, but I have to admit I came away conflicted.

GhettosideGhettoside follows LAPD Detective Skaggs as he tries to solve the murder of a colleague’s son. Leovy spends a lot of time describing Skaggs’ character — how hardworking and dedicated he is to seeing each case through to the end. She also builds a picture of South LA from the point of view of several residents, especially those who have lost loved ones to homicide. She describes the unpredictable certainty of violence for young black men in the area, and all of the complex ways people try to avoid it.

Leovy’s got a lot of great going on here. She embedded with LAPD to really get deep on the story, and as a result, the book is almost like a fictional crime thriller in how close it shadows detectives working homicide cases. She shows the real burnout that detectives face trying to handle massive caseloads and working without optimal funding resources. And she encapsulates some of the real tragedy of losing family members and friends to violence.

But at the same time there’s a not-so-subtle message that Leovy’s putting out through the book, which is the idea that black neighborhoods wouldn’t be such violent and forsaken places if cities put more of their resources into swiftly and harshly punishing black perpetrators of homicide:

When violent people are permitted to operate with impunity, they get their way. Advantage tilts to them. Others are forced to do their bidding. No amount of ‘community’ feeling or activism can eclipse this dynamic […] [Victims] need some powerful outside force to sweep in and take their tormentors away. That’s what the criminal justice system is for.

Of course it’s true that black people in high-crime neighborhoods wish there were less violence. Middle-class blacks in particular move away from neighborhoods all the time because they’ve had experiences with (or fear) community violence. To pretend that fear doesn’t matter would be disrespectful.

However, it’s overly-simplistic to make one factor seem like the sole cause of a massive issue like black-on-black homicide. As Ta-Nehisi Coates eloquently described in his essay The Case for Reparations, black people and black communities have been through countless rounds of violence and marginalization since slavery. A simplistic stroke of “taking tormentors away” would in reality mean gauging more holes into already broken family networks and not solving the root problems that lead to crime, such as unemployment, poor housing, and continued de facto segregation.

Leovy herself notes that when someone is killed in South LA, or when someone snitches, there’s frequently a hit put out on that person. Removing residents to put them in prison wouldn’t stop others from going after the witnesses who put someone behind bars. The cycle would continue.

Again, I think Leovy does have a lot of insightful content here, especially when it comes to noting how black-on-black homicides often get ignored by police structures, and that this kind of violence can thrive within communities that feel abandoned by the rest of the world. It’s just that the abandonment isn’t solely about public safety, it’s about economic empowerment and a host of other issues too.


Header Image: Flickr

Caribbean Tourism and A Brief History of Seven Killings

Ocho_Ríos-Jamaica

When the 2015 Man Booker Prize was announced, and I saw that it was a Jamaican author for the first time, and an LGBT author to boot, I knew I’d need to investigate. It was partially the desire to be a cheerleader for diversity at the highest levels of the literary mountain, but also an interest in deepening some of my past experiences.

I’ve never been to the Jamaica that James talks about with A Brief History of Seven Killings. But I have been to Jamaica. When I was younger my family took a once-in-a-lifetime Caribbean cruise, and I remember our guided adventure clambering up the Dunn’s River Falls — one of the popular tourist attractions in a curated section of the island. The experience was magical, yet I was also uncomfortable with my clearly delineated tourist role.

A Brief History of Seven KillingsOn this same trip our boat stopped in Labadee on the island of Haiti, another part of the Caribbean that’s carefully guarded to keep tourists happy and keep most locals out. I remember going out into the ocean alone at the Labadee beach. There was this little area that was roped off as the place to swim and across the water I could see the rest of Haiti, not just the little section that we were on.

I had a pool chair and lay floating on top of it. It was one of the most surreal moments of my life. The sky was this ridiculous blue and the water was so clear that it looked like glass and shadows. It was paradise to a T. And at the same time I had an inkling of how carefully constructed it all was.

At the time I was reading Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder’s powerful investigation into the work of Dr. Paul Farmer, who had been working on bringing medicine for infectious diseases to Haiti for years. I knew that what I was seeing on my vacation was so much different than the reality lived by Hatians and Jamaicans beyond the borders of the resort. And because of that, I couldn’t settle. I felt guilty and I wanted to learn more about this place. Years later, A Brief History came my way, with it’s gritty depictions of Jamaica’s Eight Lanes and Copenhagen City neighborhoods.

Marlon’s book is an epic work of fiction that’s clearly grounded in years of research. It looks at a particular period of time, when Bob Marley was everything — the god of Jamaica who kept it real and didn’t lose touch with the people he knew before he was famous. And yet, Marley was also the subject of an assassination attempt by his own people, which is the historical point that the entire books spins into and out of.

It was a challenging read, since each chapter is written from the point of view of a different character, and much of the book is in Jamaican patois. But what kept me moving through it was the fantastic job that Marlon did in bringing out the various voices — male, female, rich, poor, Jamaican, American, etc. — and layering the various actors together in a way that reveals no clear right or wrong.

Parts of the book aren’t dissimilar to The Wire, where you have government officials and politicians working to quell the violence of poor, gang areas, while always looking after their own interests. The drug trade is a prominent aspect of the story as well. I definitely came away from A Brief History with a bigger picture of Jamaica than when I went in, and I’m happy to now hold that more complex impression, instilled by a master of literature.

Header Image: Wikimedia

The Kolkata Flyover and Sustainability Politics

Trafficjamdelhi

I returned last Thursday from a three-month trip in and around India. The first thing I did was sleep. A lot. And then the next day I turned on my computer to see that a flyover collapse in Kolkata had just killed more than 25 people.

I’m sometimes guilty of reading quickly past international tragedies. They can seem so far away and unconnected to my everyday world. But I spent a week in Kolkata during the month of February. Having been in that exact city just over a month ago makes the pain palpable. In one image I saw the yellow and green backs of two autorickshaws buried in the rubble, and I thought about how much time I spent getting around the city in that type of vehicle. I could have been there when it happened.

The collapse makes me think of China, which for many years now has been on a rapid infrastructure expansion and construction boom. While China may now be slowing down its rate of construction. It’s also not unheard of for similar collapses to occur at building sites within the country.

Both countries get mentioned a lot when it comes to conversations of global development. And talk isn’t always flattering. For instance, the media is all over the serious pollution issues in parts of India and China. And it is a real concern. My introduction to India was Bangalore, a city now renowned for its bad air. Careening through oppressively crowded streets in a rickshaw, I often saw heavy black soot coming out the exhaust pipes of trucks or other vehicles ahead. I felt the visceral relief of spending time at tree-filled Lalbagh Park to get away from the crush of traffic.

In many ways, so-called developing nations struggle to keep up with the sheer size of their populations (as of 2013 India was at nearly 1.3 billion and China had almost 1.4 billion residents). The rapid pace of their urbanization means that planners, engineers, and builders are racing to redesign Asian cities under this huge pressure of people.

It does seem like a tremendous task to keep up with the rapidly urbanizing parts of India, as well as the roads, trains, electricity, broadband, and other infrastructure to connect them. Environmental concerns might often be getting shoved under the rug. But we’re missing some things also, aspects that are less sexy to report on, in declaiming “Oh, poor India,” and thinking of it only as an environmentally-challenged place. We miss the reality that there are also ways in which Indian culture is radically ahead of the game when it comes to sustainability.

I’m thinking of how ridesharing is nothing new to India for instance. Whole families often commute through cities on motorbikes, and rickshaws taken by locals are frequently stuffed to the brim. Uber advertises all over India (where it takes cash to adjust to infrequent use of credit cards), along with similar services already based in India. But their model seems much less innovative or necessary in a place where it’s already quite common to be riding in a vehicle with several other people.

Another example is the strict use of resources. From what I could see during my travels, hardly anyone seemed to own water- and electricity-guzzling appliances such as clothes washer/dryer sets or dishwashers. Most people bathe using buckets of water (not always heated either) rather than employing the use of water-guzzling showers. It’s something that a lot of travelers coming from the Western world have to get used to, given that we are so used to having these comforts.

Not too long ago, however, Western countries didn’t look so different. And while I’m not going to be the first to replace my shower in California with a bucket bath, I do have to wonder if it’s possible for India to grow and change differently than other industrialized countries have? Could it hold on to some of its more sustainable ways of living and at the same time embrace the things that would help increase environmental health, life expectancy, gender equity, and all the other markers that some places are arguably closer to? At the very least, it’s clear that sustainability isn’t always a clear cut issue.


Image by NOMAD [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons