“Happiness is not an absolute value. It’s a state of comparison.” -From NW by Zadie Smith
I absolutely loved that NW was a book about place, allowing me to tie together the three interests of this website — place, race, and literature. It’s also the first Zadie Smith book I’ve read, and I have to say that I’m left wanting to read more of her work.
NW essentially has three main characters. There’s Leah and Natalie, who are childhood friends. Then, in between their stories is an interlude with Felix, a man who neither of the other two protagonists know, but who navigates the same sector of the city of London as they do.
NW is a novel about identity and defining oneself in relation to others. There’s actually not too much I can say about the plot, as the book is really about the relationships that each of the characters have and the places where the characters go. Each of the characters grew up working class, but each has found him or herself in a different place in life, often one that has to do with race and the opportunities they did or did not have.
When we look at our metropolitan geographies we see a lot of patterns. One of those patterns is the persistence of pockets of poverty, particularly racialized poverty. Many people know something about America’s history with discriminatory housing policy, like the redlining that kept good loans out of communities of color. But decades after the end of those practices, aren’t most of the poor neighborhoods still left simply accidents? What people really need now are just better jobs to be able to move to opportunity-rich communities… right?
I recently had the privilege to listen to Professor Richard Rothstein of UC Berkeley pose and then debunk this very idea with a case study local to the Bay Area: Richmond, California. Rothstein explained how the existence of continued separation between neighborhoods of opportunity and poorer areas is directly related to wealth generated by white families from the WWII era, and that this segregated wealth generation was deeply supported by the government.
I was about halfway through The Autobiography of My Mother when I realized the main character really bugged me. It was several more pages before I realized the value of an unlikeable protagonist.
Xuela — Kincaid’s main character — isn’t nice. She’s not trying to be your best friend. And she’s pretty unapologetic about it. She’s a woman who marches to the beat of her own drum and shuns love in all its forms. Sex to her is just a form of physical pleasure, which she experiences no shame in fulfilling.
I started the book thinking I’d see a lot of myself in the main character’s development and story, but no such luck. Yes, there were some aspects to Xuela I understood – she was considered inferior by white people and she was not seduced by material wealth. But Xuela’s lack of emotional response to other characters – such as her husband of many years – was something I couldn’t relate to:
As much as good writing enchants me, I also love when I am reminded of the power of photography to capture a person, a moment, an idea. This week I was fortunate to come across Ruddy Roye’s Instagram account, when seeking out professional photographers to follow. A self-described “photographer with a conscience,” Roye’s street photography is fantastic by itself, but he often adds commentary to the photos that makes them even more interesting, talking about why he took a particular shot or giving some facts or a quotation each one. It seems that his work brings an important lens to black America and working class America.
When you’re jobless, the pace of time becomes very slow. Like excruciatingly slow. I was getting more and more addicted to Facebook and that had become a serious problem. During those days, Farmville was at its peak and people were going crazy sending each other pigs, horses, dogs, and what not.
This was quite a unique read for me. Varun’s story is a book straight out of Bangalore, India, and so it feels different from the U.S.-published books I read almost exclusively. It doesn’t quite read like the memoirs and autobiographies that I’m used to, and it took a minute to adjust to the super-casual language and frequent interjections of Varun’s thoughts.
Varun wants to start a company, but he feels trapped by the expectations of his family that he get a steady, well-paying tech job and make a good impression on the aunties in his mother’s social circle. Then he and a good friend get the idea to start a clothing brand company for alums of prestigious local high schools. The book is a mixture of self-exploration, business strategy, and cultural analysis.
I liked that Varun’s book took me into a different side of the world, and through the first-person narrative of a current resident, rather than that of a non-native or an expat. However, at the same time, I have to say that I wasn’t always riveted by the story he has to tell. Maybe a lot of that has to do with the fact that I’m not really interested in starting a business right now, and I don’t quite relate to his focus on making the most money possible. Or it might have to do with my observation that the book has a distinctly “bro-ey” feel to it — Varun is often hanging out with his male friends talking about drinking or the girls they think are hot. Also, the chapters sometimes feel too short (many are just a couple pages), with not enough material to get into the interesting relationships in Varun’s life, and while he strives for a light, whimsical tone the comedy was hit-or-miss.
But I do think that Varun’s story could be particularly appealing to the Silicon Valley entrepreneurial types or anyone else starting up a small business. The one thing you take away from the book is that it takes a lot of creativity and persistence to get any business up off the ground.