Ocho_Ríos-Jamaica

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

Trafficjamdelhi

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

man writing

Affirmative Poetry

man writing

Reading books by women of color has been a lifeline for me during difficult times. Or joyous times. Anytime I’m yearning for a sense of connection and orientation to my own experiences picking up a book by Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, or Jesmyn Ward is grounding for me.

So I was confused and upset to find out about white poet Michael Derrick Hudson appropriating the name of a Chinese American woman, Yi-Fen Chou, to get his work into the latest version of The Best American Poetry. Using the pseudonym of a woman of color is a strategy that he claims to have used whenever he had a hard time getting published under his own name. He says this is quite a successful tactic.

The atrocious pattern got revealed by Sherman Alexie, who guest edited The Best American Poetry anthology and made the tough decision to include Hudson’s poem after he found out about the misrepresentation. Alexie included a letter alongside the poem that described what happened and why he decided to run the poem anyway. He said that he did favor Hudson’s poem partially because of the Chinese American female pseudonym and that he didn’t want all of the poems within the anthology questioned by pulling Hudson’s.

Understandably, Alexie’s decision didn’t sit well with some, and I have to admit I’m a little torn about it myself. Alexie did point out that “nepotism” among writers of color is just like the nepotism that white writers have been perpetuating among themselves for ages, rather than being some unprecedented and unfair action.

But he could have gone a little further than saying his selection choice wasn’t that important. He could have said that it was a big deal for him to choose a Chinese American woman, because everyone’s story matters and there have been so many barriers to people of color getting published that some affirmative action in the literary world is a good thing.

If no one made an effort to publish the women of color authors that have mattered so much to me, who knows where I would have found those guiding voices. And I reject the idea that people of color are inferior writers to white writers. There’s plenty of room in the world for Hudson’s poems, and we’re learning to make more room for the real Yi-Fen Chou’s also. Plus, I don’t hear women of color complaining every time they get rejected from a publication, even though I’d bet that happens much more disproportionately. Rejection isn’t fun for anyone, but it’s a part of the writer life.

Yosemite

Reflections from Yosemite and Infinite Jest-ing

Yosemite

Ansel Adams-style

Spending half a week in Yosemite allowed me to pause.

Just a forest, two travelers, and a tent. Well, we brought more than that with us, but the emphasis was on the basic and essential things we needed for a few days away.

I left home intending to conquer, to see Yosemite Valley from the top of some peak. Instead, I learned an important lesson from the woods: It’s not always about how far you can push yourself.

When it came down to planning our hikes, I just didn’t feel up to the ones labeled “very strenuous” that would have positioned us for those heady, breathtaking views. So over a few days we hiked the valley floor and spent a luxurious day on the shore of Lake Tenaya. It was a gorgeous and needed experience, even as I had to battle feeling guilty for not climbing something tall and unwieldy to tell stories about later.

At our campsite and hiking around I noticed that we were some of the only people of color around, which, while not a surprise, has me thinking about the culture of outdoorism and how different kids grow up. My partner and I chose to explore the woods by buying camping gear and picking campsites and choosing routes and planning tiny stove meals. We taught ourselves, it wasn’t something we remember from childhood. During this trip, I was amazed at how many white families had chosen to camp with small children, probably wanting to instill some sense of the great outdoors from a young age.

I’m wondering how the woods can become that familiar and accessible to families of color also. Without idealizing the concept of “nature,” I would hope that its concrete benefits like stress reduction, fitness, and emotional development are something that one day all people will feel comfortable enjoying. Professor Carolyn Finney has a book that I would love to read on this topic called Black Faces, White Spaces, where she explores “the perceived and real ways in which nature and the environment are racialized in America.”

Speaking of books, I started reading David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece Infinite Jest on my trip, and so far have been blown away. Not too long ago I saw End of the Tour, the movie produced about an interview Wallace did with a Rolling Stones reporter before Wallace’s death. While I found the movie itself a little slow, it sparked my interest in him again as an author and was the impetus I needed to finally start Infinite Jest, which had been sitting on my bookshelf for quite some time.

I was surprised at first to find myself wanting to write about Wallace, a white male, on this blog which is most often about diversity and social justice. But I think what really intrigues me about his writing, aside from some astoundingly well-crafted prose, is the fact that he sought so deeply to universalize the human experience. It’s easy to go too far in that endeavor — trying to be race-blind or gender-blind, or any other kind of blind that doesn’t really further our understanding of ourselves as people — and I’ll of course be keeping an eye our for that. But as for now I’m really looking forward to giving it a more full review once I get through the 900+ pages and 200+ footnotes. Onward.

Who Is Oakland

Seeing Cities

Who Is Oakland

Intro wall for Oakland Museum’s “Who Is Oakland” exhibit.

Glancing through a national magazine this week I saw an article about Oakland that started with this:

Talk about core strength: Oakland’s urban center has gone from dodgy to trendy as newcomers fill its forgotten architectural gems with happening new restaurants, bars, and shops.

Hearing such remarks about Oakland doesn’t surprise me anymore — in fact it’s pretty much all I’ve heard about Oakland from people who don’t live here, as well as from a lot of the people who do. But it still makes me sad. The underlying message is that Oakland wasn’t a place to be before the “newcomers” arrived to make it spiffy and fun.

Full disclosure: I’ve only been in Oakland a few years myself. So I can’t say from personal experience what it was like in the past. But I know that thousands of people lived here. Diversity abounded. There were local jobs, and plenty of people grew up and raised families here. In short, Oakland was home to many, many people, just as it is today.

I would never want to sugarcoat it and say that Oakland was perfect before. The city has, and always will struggle with a variety of the issues that dense places tend to struggle with. And again, I wasn’t here to make any definitive statements about what the before looked like. But what I’m wishing is that we could at least respect peoples’ history here. I want us to stop pretending that Oakland was just some vacant wasteland of crime and poverty before the people with money decided they wanted to invest in the city again. That story just isn’t true.

I’m worried about the way that new folks approach the cities that are repopulating with wealth and whiteness across the U.S. When we get somewhere new to visit, to live, are we really looking for the good things that are already here, or are we looking to make that place ours and fill it with the things that are important to us?

Maybe it’s an overly-rosy view to think that we can all live and thrive here together, but that is where I fall. New, old, black, white, multicolored, queer, straight, differently-abled, etc. folks coexisting and supporting each other is sort of the dream of what Oakland is all about. So before we go denouncing Oakland’s past, or any other city’s past, let’s make sure we actually realize the richness that sources from it.