5.22.2017

arun gupta's perfect takedown of food-as-cultural-appropriation

I read this on Facebook and absolutely love it. The author, Arun Gupta, understands and acknowledges cultural appropriation as a fact and a legitimate concern (as do I). But he also believes the "reactionary left" spreading lists of ethnic restaurants run by white people
...essentializes the notion of culture as rooted in the very soil of a place and not something that can travel or transcend boundaries. This hints at fascistic notions of blood and soil as what constitutes the nation.

It is reactionary because the creators of this are implying there are timeless practices, rooted in a people, land and culture, that constitute only appropriate form of food. They want to fix all cultures as fossils in a museum, not allowing for adaptation, changing tastes, social roles, or fashion. It reminds me of how the National Front fetishizes a notion of the pure French nation.
He's unpacked the food-as-cultural-appropriation concept perfectly. Please go read the whole post.

I would be interested to know what wmtc readers who vehemently disagreed with my earlier posts think of Gupta's ideas.

5.18.2017

postscript: some clarifications and addenda to my recent post on cultural appropriation

Many people have been discussing my recent post about cultural appropriation on Facebook. I'm not surprised that many people disagree (that's why I wrote it, to put my countering opinion out there), but I have been surprised by how many progressive people do agree.

From the negative comments, I can see that I wasn't clear on a few important points.

1. The entire post refers to white, first-world people calling out other first-worlders with accusations of cultural appropriation -- not aboriginal people. I would not pass judgment or venture an opinion about a native person's judgment of appropriation of their own culture. I have no right to do so -- and I would not do so. I was referring what I see as a quite a large bandwagon, pointing self-righteous fingers at others -- by white people, and at white people.

2. The above might explain why I feel the words shaming and bullying are fair game. I wasn't suggesting that aboriginal people are bullying white people about appropriation. That would be absurd.

3. I do believe that on a personal, one-to-one level, we are all equals and must treat each other with mutual respect. I do not believe that membership in a historically marginalized group is a license to act disrespectfully. That's my belief, but it's not what the post is about.

4. My post was not in response to the Hal Niedzviecki controversy. I had been writing the post for a while. I have very little time to write, and I edit every post at least twice, so it can take quite a while for me to finish something and get it online.

5. The post was also not in response to me personally being taken to task for appropriation. The whole #fragilewhiteperson thing is not at issue here. Again, I was referring to white people criticizing other white people for what they have -- mistakenly, in my opinion -- labeled cultural appropriation.

6. Apparently some readers thought my post was in response to one comment I saw online. Believe me, I don't write 3,000 words about one random comment. I see this as a clear trend.

This postscript is meant for clarity only. It's not important to me whether readers agree with me or not. I just want to express myself clearly and stimulate discussion.

5.16.2017

accusations of cultural appropriation are a form of bullying -- and don't reduce racism

I'm increasingly dismayed by accusations of cultural appropriation that are used as weapons, rather than as a tool for raising awareness and educating. Accusations of appropriation have become a form of bullying, a weapon wielded to police and enforce a superficial obeisance to a behavioural code -- while doing nothing to address the underlying issues.

Cultural appropriation is real. It's a valid issue.

I'm not saying that cultural appropriation is not real. It is. I'm not saying claims of appropriation don't have merit. They do.

When I was a child in the 1960s, parents might dress their children as "Indians" for Halloween, without a second thought. Kids played "Cowboys and Indians," dressing up in hats or feathers, with toy guns or tomahawks. Can you imagine if someone had played "Nazis and Jews"? It's completely inappropriate to turn a history of genocide and oppression into costumes and games. That in the 21st century, people are still doing this... it's mind-boggling.

Racist names and logos of sports teams, the Disney version of stories like Pocahontas -- these images are demeaning, degrading, trivializing, and undeniably racist. They should never stand unchallenged. (When it comes to sports teams, names and images should be changed
immediately.)

It’s disturbing to see sacred images commodified and commercialized, reduced to merchandise, devoid of meaning. That's what our consumer society does -- to everything. Religious holidays become secular shopping marathons. Spiritual symbols are sold on infomercials. Leaders of movements who fought for radical change are re-packaged as icons with feel-good slogans.

Using objects of cultural significance in trivial (and usually commercial) ways is a hallmark of consumer culture. Everything is gobbled up by the giant maw of consumerism, then diluted and spit back, stripped of all meaning, in some mass-marketable form.

It can be depressing, and it can be enraging. But shaming people for their ignorance will not stop this dynamic. The proliferation of racialized language, the enforcement of racialized divisions, the policing of thought and expression -- all hallmarks of appropriation shaming -- do not increase understanding. They preclude it. The current opposition to cultural appropriation sounds a lot like calls for segregation.

The hyperbole is out of control. There is no doubt that dressing children in "Indian" costumes is racist. But it is not -- as I have seen it called -- genocidal. When everything is genocide, then nothing is genocide; the word ceases to have meaning. Perhaps this analogy works: racist costumes are to genocide as street harassment is to rape. They are related. They can be placed on the same continuum. But they are not the same thing.

The current climate of accusation is misguided and harmful. Some thoughts.

-- Who owns culture? Expression is not owned. Culture is not owned. It's not owned by Disney, and it's not owned by the Ojibway. The Ojibway people have a much greater claim to their own culture than Disney, but neither can restrict anyone else's use. No one owns cultural influences, and no one can stop anyone else from being influenced.

-- Who appoints the expression police? Freedom of expression is a human right. When that expression is harmful or offensive, then others must exercise their own freedom of expression in opposing it. But bullying people into silence is never OK. What's more, it doesn't even work! You might get the person to stop the behaviour, but is that the only goal? Submission and silence do not equal understanding.

-- The rhetoric has grown increasingly authoritarian. That alone should make it suspect. The accusations emphasize divisions. They create division.

-- Accusations of cultural appropriation trivialize racism. Calling a hairstyle, or food, or a dance "genocidal" is an insult to every culture that has experienced genocide.

-- Some accusers will say that using another culture's symbols is acceptable if one has engaged meaningfully with that culture. So who makes the call? How does the "appropriator" communicate their engagement, and to what tribunal do they submit their evidence?

-- Who decides? Do the self-appointed guardians of culture have the widespread support of the community they claim to represent?

-- The current rhetoric does nothing to bridge divides and promote understanding. Instead, it accuses, shames, and basks in self-righteousness.

-- The accusation of cultural appropriation is often based on assumptions. Are you sure the person you’re accusing has no “right” to wear her hair that way or to wear a First Nations insignia, or are you assuming based on physical appearance?

I recently learned that a co-worker of mine is First Nations. Had she not told me, I never would have known. Can she wear signifiers from her heritage culture without exposing herself to accusations and attacks? Why should she have to explain or justify her choices? And, it follows, why should anyone?

White women wearing African-derived hairstyles are a common source of outcry. What if we learn that the apparently white woman is actually a light-skinned African American? Is it then ok? Pretty soon we're back to the "one drop of blood rule. We're DNA testing women to see if they were biologically female at birth. We're asking people to identify their heritage in order to be granted access to a culture. Why do we think this is OK?

The world is a heap of broken images

We live in a multicultural, mongrel world where cultures are constantly blending and shifting and taking on new forms. Almost everything in our common culture originated from some other culture, often from cultures that were once despised and marginalized.

Credit is important. Engagement is important. But even without it, no one has the right to police anyone else's culture.

We often hear that art is "stolen" from its sources. It's not that simple.

Artist Damien Hirst recently was accused of appropriating Nigerian art. Hirst admit the influence and credited it -- but apparently didn't say it loudly or often enough. I'm not a Hirst fan by any means, but here an artist is acknowledging an influence, and it's still not enough.

We can see the influence of African masks in Picasso's paintings, but Picasso did not steal the mask images. It is often said that Elvis Presley "stole" African American music and dance.* In fact, Presley was influenced as much by the music of his African American neighbours as the "hillbilly" music of his white neighbours (who were also poor, marginalized people). Those two influences came crashing together in the form of one (part-Native American) Elvis.

That’s often how art happens -- cultures clash, then give birth to something new. That may happen with or without exploitation -- but it can’t not happen. It will never stop happening, nor should we want it to.

Miley Cyrus was apparently lambasted for twerking onstage, a white woman performing a “black dance”. (I learned of this when researching this post. This "news" would not have been on my radar!) So some people are policing who does what dances, apparently ignorant of the way dance styles proliferate. First it's a strange, exotic movement used by an in-crowd, then it is seized on by the mainstream, at which point the in-crowd moves on to the next new thing. Surely we are not saying that some dance moves can only be made by people with dark skin? And if we are -- why is this OK??

Some responses to what's out there

Researching this post, I’ve read many thoughtful articles purporting to explain cultural appropriation, but I disagree with much of what I read.

In How to Explain Cultural Appropriation to Anyone Who Just Doesn’t Get It, I read --
for the first time -- about the supposed cultural appropriation of food. Nigerian jollof rice and Vietnamese pho have been given a supposedly hip twist by some famous chefs.

I don’t doubt that to some Nigerians (like the author) and to some Vietnamese people, this is offensive. To others, I’m willing to bet, it’s amusing. And still to others, it may be flattery. That is almost always the case. Does the writer speak for all Nigerians? Surely not. He speaks for himself and no doubt some Nigerians agree with him.

Jamie Oliver isn't hiding the fact that the dish is Nigerian in origin. He isn't trivializing Nigerian culture. He isn't using sacred symbols in a debased way. He has created some Nigerian food with his own twist.

Just about the last place we should look for cultural appropriation is the dinner table. Almost everything we first-worlders eat originated from some culture somewhere. Last week, I ate hummus, pizza, and sushi. Somehow I doubt the restaurant owners felt I was engaging in cultural appropriation. Can only Polish people eat pierogis? Should we demand that non-Polish people understand the historical struggles of the Polish people before eating kielbasa? Let's not even get into corn -- invented by the aboriginal people of what is now the Americas.

As ridiculous as it may seem to some to turn a simple dish like jollof rice or pho into upscale food, that is a part of our multicultural world that many people celebrate. It's not appropriation.

In this article in Jezebel, the writer wonders if it's all right for her to hang a dreamcatcher in her window. You do not need someone else's permission to decorate your home, nor should you be concerned that the art you love is originally from another culture. Find me some art that’s not.

This article from an aboriginal blog encourages us to learn about the cultures we borrow from, and asks us to stay away from images that are sacred and meaningful in their original culture. For me it was a welcome, compassionate voice in a sea of snark.

Many people are sharing this post from Everyday Feminism: What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm. I agree with a few of the writer’s points, but I find others very problematic. I'd like to respond to a few points in particular.

It Trivializes Violent Historical Oppression

Sometimes it does. And anything that does that is wrong. The racist team logos and nicknames do. The skirt depicting slave ships do. Decorating your room with a dreamcatcher or eating Jamie Oliver’s jollof does not.

It Lets People Show Love for the Culture, But Remain Prejudiced Against Its People

The writer uses the example of white people wanting to eat authentic Mexican food but not wanting to venture into "sketchy neighbourhoods" to get it. I get this. It can be maddening to run into that kind of classism and racism.

In our multicultural society, we can take what we like and avoid the rest. I think it's something we all do to an extent, including the people who complain about it. However, it is not appropriation. See above: the "yelpers" eating Mexican food are not using sacred symbols in a distorting or demeaning way.

The writer says:
So is every non-Mexican who enjoys a good burrito guilty of cultural appropriation? Say it ain’t so! That would include me and nearly everyone I know.

But now that you know that popularizing “ethnic” food can be one way to harm a group of people while taking from their traditions, you can think about ways to satisfy your international food cravings without participating in that harm.
I find this an enormous leap and assumption. I don't "know" this, I only know this writer thinks so. But more importantly, how can we tell if a burrito-phile is participating in harm or not? We can't. So let's not assume and render judgment.

It Lets Privileged People Profit from Oppressed People’s Labor

Show me one first-world person who is not doing this, every single day, no matter what their background. Is any first-worlder so naive or narcissistic or self-absorbed to think they're not doing this? Where does this woman shop, where does she buy her food? It's not only the privileged that engage in this. In our economy of precarious work, very few people can afford not to profit from the labour of oppressed people.

This is something all first-world activists and revolutionaries should own. We profit from the labour of oppressed people, every time we buy clothes and much of the time we buy food. Believing that this is something other people do -- that appropriators do -- is hypocritical. It's delusional.

It Perpetuates Racist Stereotypes

I am concerned with this. Challenging racist stereotypes is part of my life. It should be part of our daily work for justice. But this --
As Dr. Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations puts it, “You are pretending to be a race that you are not, and are drawing upon stereotypes to do so.”
-- made my flesh crawl. Pretending to be a race you are not? First, do the appropriators actually pretend to be something they are not? Is Miley Cyrus pretending to African American? And more importantly, I find the language here – race, instead of culture or background or ethnicity – creepily regressive.

White People Can Freely Do What People of Color Were Actively Punished for Doing

Here the writer reveals a fascinating bit of hidden history.
Did you know yoga was once banned in India as part of the “racist and orientalist narratives” that characterized Indian people as perverse heathens who had to conform to Western ways? The bands of yogis who resisted the ban rose up to challenge the oppressive British rule.

These days, it seems like yoga’s everywhere, and practitioners don’t have to challenge the rules of the government to reach it. It can bring up some sensitive feelings to say that non-South Asian people who do yoga are appropriating culture, because the practice benefits many people throughout the US.

But you know who’s not benefiting from the commercialization of yoga like middle class white women are? The South Asian people for whom yoga has a deep cultural and religious significance.
I ask: Do South Asian people oppose the popularization of yoga? There is evidence from one person. This may be the dominant thought in her culture, or it may not. I've heard my South Asian co-workers mention yoga with pride -- a positive piece of our common culture that originated from their original culture. This may or may not be the dominant thought of South Asian people. I wouldn’t presume to know. Neither should this writer or anyone else.

It Prioritizes the Feelings of Privileged People Over Justice for Marginalized People

Freedom of expression is not a feeling, it isn't trivial, and it doesn't only affect privileged people. Just the opposite. Marginalized people are always more affected by laws and customs that curtail freedom of expression. Freedom of expression cannot apply only to certain people and not others. Because again, who decides?

I understand the arguments about power imbalance. But when you police culture, you are appropriating power. What gives you the right?

Let's be honest: many of the accusers, many people happily calling out others on charges of appropriation, are not themselves members of marginalized cultures. Many members of the culture police I see on Facebook and Twitter are North American white folks.

So what do we do?

Almost everyone in our world has a background of mixed origins and cultures. Are we only allowed to use expressions from our original culture? Who decides when an attribute from another culture is now part of the mainstream? Three or four generations after my great-grandparents emigrated from the shtetls of Eastern Europe to the US, am I only allowed to use cultural references they would have recognized? We recognize that question as absurd. But we're willing to say that this white performer shouldn't dance a black-identified dance, and this artist shouldn't use African influences.

Researching for this post, I did find an article expressing the same ideas as I do here: The Dos and Don'ts of Cultural Appropriation, in The Atlantic. After describing how "getting dressed is a daily act of cultural appropriation," using and wearing items gleaned all over the world, Jenni Avins writes:
As I dress in the morning, I deeply appreciate the craftsmanship and design behind these items, as well as the adventures and people they recall. And while I hope I don’t offend anyone, I find the alternative — the idea that I ought to stay in the cultural lane I was born into — outrageous. No matter how much I love cable-knit sweaters and Gruyere cheese, I don’t want to live in a world where the only cultural inspiration I’m entitled to comes from my roots in Ireland, Switzerland, and Eastern Europe.

There are legitimate reasons to step carefully when dressing ourselves with the clothing, arts, artifacts, or ideas of other cultures. But please, let’s banish the idea that appropriating elements from one another’s cultures is in itself problematic.

Such borrowing is how we got treasures such as New York pizza and Japanese denim — not to mention how the West got democratic discourse, mathematics, and the calendar. Yet as wave upon wave of shrill accusations of cultural appropriation make their way through the Internet outrage cycle, the rhetoric ranges from earnest indignation to patronizing disrespect.

And as we watch artists and celebrities being pilloried and called racist, it’s hard not to fear the reach of the cultural-appropriation police, who jealously track who “owns” what and instantly jump on transgressors.

In the 21st century, cultural appropriation — like globalization — isn’t just inevitable; it’s potentially positive. We have to stop guarding cultures and subcultures in efforts to preserve them. It’s naïve, paternalistic, and counterproductive. Plus, it’s just not how culture or creativity work. The exchange of ideas, styles, and traditions is one of the tenets and joys of a modern, multicultural society.

So how do we move past the finger pointing, and co-exist in a way that’s both creatively open and culturally sensitive? In a word, carefully.
Avins then lists her own take on the how to show this care, such as "Don’t Adopt Sacred Artifacts as Accessories," "Appropriation is not a substitute for diversity", "Engage With Other Cultures on More Than an Aesthetic Level," and "Treat a Cultural Exchange Like Any Other Creative Collaboration — Give Credit, and Consider Royalties".

This strikes me as sensitive, compassionate, and mindful of the rights of all parties involved. We have no way of knowing if the appropriator has sufficiently met this criteria or not. So let's not judge them.

------
* I am aware of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I know quite a bit about blues music and early rock-and-roll. They are not the same thing.

4.23.2017

what i'm reading: swing time by zadie smith

Zadie Smith is on my list of "authors I will follow anywhere". I may not love everything about every book she writes, but that's unimportant. For me, her books are always worth reading -- the writing is beautiful, the characters feel real, the insights into the human condition are interesting and thought-provoking and ring true. I'm always excited to hear Smith has published a new book, and Swing Time did not disappoint.

Smith is no minimalist. If you like your novels plot-driven, you might wonder, why did I just read so many words just to go from A to B? I do love and admire minimal writing -- such as Kent Haruf's -- but I also love the lavish, textured tapestry that Smith lays down. Her writing is rich in detail, but not overburdened.

Swing Time is narrated by a woman looking back at different times in her life. The story cuts back and forth among three narratives, as time passes and the narratives move closer together chronologically. I knew the three threads would come together, but I didn't know how -- and when they did, the movement was so seamless that I barely realized the anticipation was over.

There's a lot going on in this book. In terms of plot, there's the narrator (she is never named) as a child, with a stridently intellectual and political mother of Jamaican descent, who is all about "our people," but not so much the individual person who is her daughter, and a laid-back, white, working-class dad. And there's her best friend Tracey, with whom the narrator takes dance lessons and obsessively watches old movie musicals. Tracey is talented, dominant, and perhaps unstable -- a constant but shifting presence in the narrator's life.

There's the narrator as a young woman, trying on different versions of herself, and finally falling into a job as personal assistant to a globally famous pop star. Working for Aimee -- who is drawn along the lines of Madonna in her heyday or Beyonce, but is neither of those -- brings the narrator into a world where there is no boundary between life and work, and where an entire universe revolves around one person.

And there's the narrator in west Africa, where Aimee wants to build a school for girls, where the brown British narrator and the white Australian pop star are referred to equally as "the Americans," where an entire village sees less money in one year than what Aimee's entourage spends on coffee in a week.

In each thread, we meet characters who are fully imagined, real people, and who carve out their own way of being in the world, their own space on a complex matrix of wealth, class, colour, family, belief, resistance, accommodation, compassion, and self-interest.

And more. Music, dance -- friendship, ambition -- class, colour -- ancestry, history -- all manner of parenting -- fame, charity, poverty -- altruism, narcissism, celebrity worship -- self-awareness, self-absorption -- all is woven into Swing Time. Smith creates a world where everything is relative. Fame and wealth, talent and invisibility, ambition and purpose are all constantly in flux, and only exist in relation to everything else. Including -- especially -- race, class, and power. In the world of Swing Time, there are no absolutes.

For me, nothing ruins a novel faster than a lot of exposition. Don't break your narrative to explain things to me; don't use your characters as dictionaries or billboards. Smith does the opposite: nothing is explained. Places in London and New York, cultural references of working-class Brits, Muslim practises in Africa, historical references -- Smith throws it out there, and it's up to the reader to catch on, whether from context or Google. Some readers might find this frustrating, but it keeps the pace upbeat and the narrative voice true.

Swing Time is what is sometimes called a Bildungsroman, a kind of coming-of-age story of an adult. It is a riveting and richly rewarding read.

4.22.2017

what i'm reading: giovanni's room by james baldwin

James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, a landmark in LGBT literature, is one of our library's current "Raves & Faves". The 1956 novel takes place in Paris, narrated by a young American man who is trying to come to terms with his sexuality.

In the past, this was said to be a "gay novel;" now it is seen as "bisexual novel". Leaving aside the obvious fact that novels don't possess sexuality, those labels are interpretation. The narrator himself doesn't have a name for his orientation; for him, neutral, descriptive language doesn't exist.

The story takes place in 1950s Paris, alive with expatriates, in a male subculture that is an open secret. The men who frequent Guillaume's bar are more open than they can be in their hometowns and original cultures, but their lives are still lived largely underground.

Our narrator -- his name is David, but the name is seldom used -- tells the story during a momentous night, one of pain and shame, looking back on the events that led to that night. David is engaged to an American woman, and he desperately wants to fully embrace a conventional life with her. When he falls in love with an Italian bartender named Giovanni, he cannot simply turn away. They have a relationship, and it ends in tragedy.

More than anything, Giovanni's Room is about shame -- what happens to people when their identity, their entire concept of themselves, is considered wrong, dirty, and shameful. What happens to their relationships, what happens, if you will, to their souls.

An older man -- a "queen" and a pathetic person in David's eyes -- gives David this advice, and for me it sums up the meaning of the book.
I looked over at Giovanni, who now had one arm around the ruined-looking girl, who could have once been very beautiful but who never would be now.

Jacques followed my look. 'He is very fond of you,' he said, 'already. But this doesn't make you happy or proud, as it should. It makes you frightened and ashamed. Why?'

'I don't understand him,' I said at last. I don't know what his friendship means; I don't know what he means by friendship.'

Jacques laughed. 'You don't know what he means by friendship but you have the feeling it may not be safe. You are afraid it may change you. What kind of friendship have you had?'

I said nothing.

'Or for that matter,' he continued, 'what kind of love affairs?'

I was silent for so long that he teased me, saying, 'Come out, come out, wherever you are.'

And I grinned, feeling chilled.

'Love him,' said Jacques, with vehemence, 'love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters? And how long, at the best, can it last? Since you are both men and still have everywhere to go? Only five minutes, I assure you, only five minutes, and most of that, hélas! in the dark. And if you think of them as dirty, then they will be dirty — they will be dirty because you will be giving nothing, you will be despising your flesh and his. But you can make your time together anything but dirty; you can give each other something which will make both of you better — forever — if you will not be ashamed, if you will only not play it safe.' He paused, watching me, and then looked down to his cognac. 'You play it safe long enough,' he said, in a different tone, 'and you'll end up trapped in your own dirty body, forever and forever and forever — like me.'
David is tormented by an almost existential inner conflict. Giovanni, on the other hand, feels that David is exaggerating, almost fabricating his troubles. He feels David should be able to love and marry his fiancee, and love men at the same time.
'Well. You are a very charming and good-looking and civilized boy and, unless you are impotent, I do not see what she has to complain about, or what you have to worry about. To arrange, mon cher, la vie pratique, is very simple — it only has to be done.' He reflected. 'Sometimes things go wrong, I agree; then you have to arrange it another way. But it is certainly not the English melodrama you make it. Why, that way, life would simply be unbearable.'
David cannot conceive of this. He can only love Giovanni, and hate him for what he represents, and hate himself for loving this man that he both loves and hates.
Giovanni had awakened an itch, had released a gnaw in me. I realized it one afternoon, when I was taking him to work via the Boulevard Montparnasse. We had bought a kilo of cherries and we were eating them as we walked along. We were both insufferably childish and high-spirited that afternoon and the spectacle we presented, two grown men jostling each other on the wide sidewalk and aiming the cherry pits, as though they were spitballs, into each other's faces, must have been outrageous. And I realized that such childishness was fantastic at my age and the happiness out of which it sprang yet more so; for that moment I really loved Giovanni, who had never seemed more beautiful than he was that afternoon. And, watching his face, I realized that it meant much to me that I could make his face so bright. I saw that I might be willing to give a great deal not to lose that power. And I felt myself flow toward him, as a river rushes when the ice breaks up. Yet, at that very moment, there passed between us on the pavement another boy, a stranger, and I invested him at once with Giovanni's beauty and what I felt for Giovanni I also felt for him. Giovanni saw this and saw my face and it made him laugh the more. I blushed and he kept laughing and then the boulevard, the light, the sound of his laughter turned into a scene from a nightmare. I kept looking at the trees, the light falling through the leaves. I felt sorrow and shame and panic and great bitterness. At the same time — it was part of my turmoil and also outside it — I felt the muscles in my neck tighten with the effort I was making not to turn my head and watch that boy diminish down the bright avenue. The beast which Giovanni had awakened in me would never go to sleep again; but one day I would not be with Giovanni anymore. And would I then, like all the others, find myself turning and following all kinds of boys down God knows what dark avenues, into what dark places?

With this fearful intimation there opened in me a hatred for Giovanni which was as powerful as my love and which was nourished by the same roots.
Interestingly, this is Baldwin's only novel where all the characters are white. In the 1950s, writing about men loving men was already wildly controversial and taboo. Adding colour to the equation was impossible. In those days, any novel featuring African-Americans was by definition "about" being black in America -- "the Negro question," as it was then known. The only way to make this book "about" being gay or bisexual, was to keep all the characters white, so colour could not be read as a factor.

Baldwin's writing is elegant and beautiful. The action of the story is very simple, which helps frame David's tumultuous inner life. The book is short, and it reads quickly -- but it is memorable and haunting.

4.18.2017

things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #23

Girl: Do you have this book, something like, "keeping a secret about you"?

Me: Let's take a look in the catalogue. [Stalling for time while scrolling through titles in my mind.] Hmm, do you mean Keeping You a Secret?

Girl: Yes! I took a bus all the way from the South Common branch to here to get this book so I hope you have it.

I recognize it as a good title by Julie Peters, excellent writer of LGBT-themed girl books.

Me: Let's go over to the youth section to look for it.

Girl: Do you know any other good books? Anything LGBT! I want to read lots of LGBT stuff.

Me: You've come to the right place, we have a lot of it. I'm making a list now for our upcoming Pride display. [Technically speaking this is not true -- but I will be updating our list in about a month or so.]

Girl, pumping fist: Yes!

We get to the shelf... and it's there! Yay! We're both happy.

Girl: Is there any place I can charge my phone?

I point out some places she can hang out, she thanks me and leaves -- and I'm immediately sorry I didn't find another title for her.

I remember another good LGBT book, but my mind goes blank when I try to remember the title or the author's name. But I know around where it is on the shelf, so I walk quickly through the youth collection and spot it: The Vast Fields of Ordinary.

I grab it off the shelf and quickly walk around looking for the girl, hoping she is charging her phone. I spot her from across the floor and double-time it over to her.

Me: So glad you're still here! I have another book for you.

She takes it from me.

Girl: Great, I'll take this one, too. Thanks!

I'm totally casual on the outside, but inside I am almost crying from joy. This happens now. Easily, daily, in a perfectly no-big-deal way. Perhaps it should be unremarkable to me -- after all, I do live in Canada in the 21st Century. But this is a sea change I have seen in my lifetime and it fills me with such pride and joy.

I know it isn't like this everywhere, but because it is like this somewhere, it means it can be like this, one day, everywhere.