I was suspicious of this small book. The slang title seemed contrived to me. So did the optimism.
I was wrong.
Even the cover is thought-provoking –
Are those hands up as in “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”? Or are they calming hands telling us, as two different people do in this book, that “we gon’ be alright”?
Of all of the essays in the collection, only two disappoint. Oddly, one is Chang’s most personal one “The In-Betweens,” however much he distances himself from it by using second person. It comes across as out of place. The other unsuccessful one is “Making Lemonade,” a cursory look at Beyonce’s film. What’s here is fine. One just gets the sense that Chang probably has more to say on this topic. Unfortunately, these two are the last in the collection. Together, they sort of kill the momentum that Chang has developed.
But the rest, notably, “Is Diversity for White People?” and “Hands Up” are incredibly pointed and powerful. They can easily keep company with Coates, Baldwin and the like. “Is Diversity for White People?” (subtitled On Fearmongering, Picture Taking, and Avoidance) rewards re-reading and conversation.
Am I as confident as Chang, particularly when it comes to the apparent success of social media? Probably not. But given the events these days, this one brought me the most hope, no, not hope, but assurance that I’ve felt in a while.
This book was put together, the bookseller told me, in response to James Baldwin telling Wright to stop writing protest novels (Was Baldwin right when he criticized Wright for writing a protest novel?). I say that this book was “put together” rather than written because it’s four of Wright’s talks put together into this short book. Generally, they do flow together well. And I want to say ahead of time that I am a big fan of Black Boy and like Native Son a great deal, though it can be hard to wade through some of the speeches in the third section. But this book felt like a letdown. Perhaps Wright is out of his element here? He paints in such broad strokes here that it’s hard to find much here compelling or, in Wright’s terms, worth listening to. In addition to his almost obsessive use of generalizations, Wright’s arguments often come down to statements akin to, “You know in your heart that this is true.” The first section, “The Psychological Reactions of Oppressed People,” is the most worthwhile one. It provides a framework for Wright’s thinking, though he too often comes across as someone (to allude to a very popular musical) who thinks that he’s the smartest person in the room. Surprisingly, it is the third section, the one about literature, that is most disappointing. He skims over a series of poets and makes brief observations that he seems to think are true because he made them. And, in a kind of grouchy way, he criticizes his contemporaries (including Baldwin) for lacking the spirit of the writers he’s mentioned.
So, it’s a quick read, but more as an artifact, a piece in a continuing argument, than as anything that really resonates today. Baldwin’s work seems to be going through a renaissance now because his words continue to be urgent. But Wright’s speeches, somewhat like pieces of Native Son, seem dated. And his relentless comments against religion are irksome and ungenerous. Wright has an agenda here, and he imposes it against a backdrop of people that he, alone (he claims), can understand. If anything resonates today, it is his emphasis on the individual, a piece of what some might call neoliberalism these days.
This book is difficult to describe or to even categorize. The back of the book calls it “Memoir / Criticism,” a combination I’ve not seen before. At times, it felt like I was walking into the middle of a conversation, but that is probably more of a reflection of a lack of experience and knowledge when it comes to the language and issues of gender and sexuality. I was definitely struck by Nelson’s observation that to use language, as she does, is to name and names, indeed words, no matter how many you use, are limiting. And when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality, it seems like writing on these issues is akin to trying to lasso the wind. This prompted Nelson’s title:
I sent you the passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections whick will be forever new.”
I thought he passage was romantic. You read it as a possible retraction. In retrospect, I guess it was both.
I also appreciated the way Nelson questioned the priorities of the queer community when it comes to the military and marriage. She writes, “if we want to do more than claw our way into repressive structures, we have our work cut out for us.” It was not deliberate, but it felt relevant to read this on the same day the White House announced its absurd and vicious intention to ban transgender people from the military. If I am going to enter that conversation, I need to make sure I enter appropriately, and Nelson has opened the door for me a bit. I need to enter without limits and without limiting anyone else.
Much of the book also centers on Nelson’s experience with pregnancy and her “fluidly gendered partner,” Harry. Their attempts, eventually successful, to have a child are juxtaposed with the need for both of them to deal with their respective mothers, both of whom are dying. And for a time, Nelson has a stalker.
Even if I did not always understand the conversation here, I found Nelson’s writing electric. And funny (see above). I look forward to reading more.
I didn’t know what to expect from Algren, but after Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift I wanted to read another Chicago writer. This piece, marked ‘Literature’ on the back, but really an essay, is a kind of love note for the city Algren loves and a lament for what he thinks it’s becoming. Algren’s syntax is powerful and original, if a bit elusive at times. Still, I recognize the city and its spirit in his words and will read more of his work. The edition I found contains an Afterword in which Algren responds to the less than enthusiastic reception his book first received. I recommend getting a copy that includes this section.
I said once that if I could just read one author, I’d choose Baldwin because he wrote plays, non-fiction and fiction. Boy, did I underestimate him. There are letters, reviews, forwords and afterwords, letters, etc. in here, and so I am grateful for and grateful that I found this collection.
I think in this era when so many people are being introduced to Baldwin because of his ideas, it can be easy to forget what an amazing writer he is. His sentences are so packed full and syntactically interesting that I read some more than once just to enjoy the sound of them. At one point, he even mocks himself by calling one of his sentences “undisciplined.” I think it’s the only one.
So read this, both for the urgency of the ideas it contains and to read a master essayist at work.
Oh, and keep a notepad by your side. When Baldwin recommends that you read something, you’re going to want to read it.
Teju Cole is, I think, as close to a Renaissance man as I know. The range of allusions in this large collection of short essays is staggering. Naturally, the range of topics is equally wide, focusing (pun intended) on photography. If you know his novel Open City, it will not surprise you to learn that the essays are lyrical, non-linear, observational and insightful. They are, in far too many cases, too short. I know that at least some were lifted from elsewhere. I wish that he’d chosen fewer to include and expanded those that made the cut. The pieces on photography were challenging for me since I don’t really speak that language, and he is only able to include a few of the images in the book itself. I enjoyed the sense of humor that sneaks into a few of these pieces, and I liked traveling with Cole to the places he visits. He is a master at using words to make pictures.
I am kind of a sucker for those newspaper accounts that mark the XX(x)th anniversary of some local event. I’m not sure why – perhaps because there seemed to be so many unanswered questions – I followed up on a story about The Ashtabula Railway-Bridge Accident of 1876 by ordering this collection of articles. And the event, though not charming as the last writer claims, continues to raise questions, not only about why the train crashed, but about decisions made and not made as well as the impact of the tragedy on the community today. The risk, I suppose (I’m not too experienced with local histories), is that not all of the writing will be good. The only essay that is really a bust here is the last one, full of platitudes, an inappropriate tone, and, because of its placement in the collection, little new information. I look forward to a road trip to Ashtabula in order to see things for myself.
image from train crash