#GetLit: Trump & White Supremacy

#GetLit

“If you can only be tall because somebody’s on their knees,
then you have a serious problem.”
–Toni Morrison

This past week has been nothing short of a disaster, a crisis on repeat. After three died and several more were injured at a white supremacist, white nationalist, Neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, I looked to this video by renowned author Toni Morrison who took white supremacy to task.

To make matters worse, Trump has flip-flopped on his pseudo-condemnation of white supremacists, thereby enabling what he unleashed to begin with. If there is any lesson in all of this, I have to give it to a Libromance favorite, Rabih Alameddine:

I’m still trying to understand what provokes white supremacy, and why white people feel the need to assert their whiteness even more, as if hasn’t been the norm since time immemorial. A lot of our institutions today — whether in the government, in education, in the economy, at the workplace — have been historically rooted in preserving white supremacy, and so much back-breaking work has been done by activists, community organizers, even lawmakers over the past few decades to undo this norm. Racism is alive and kicking, although not so much the “in your face” type. But it’s looking like that’s where we’re headed to, all thanks to Trump.

Some questions I’ve been asking are: is it economic? is it political? is it insecurity? What kind of questions do these people ask themselves when they go out and go on torchlit marches, and what answers do they give themselves when someone dies?

I do know that we are all suffering from a system that prioritizes the 1%, because it is made by them after all, and they will do whatever it takes to keep the status quo. In the meantime, I’ve found the Southern Law Poverty Center’s community response guide to be helpful, as it provides context, education and different resources in the face of hate and racism.

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Over the week, I finished George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing which interestingly featured ghosts — specifically the spirits of dead people — in the storyline. I was confused Saunders’s story, but I stayed with Ward’s throughout the whole time. I like to think that there is always some underlying connection with the books I read and the time I’m reading them. Book reviews will be out in the next couple of weeks, so keep an eye out.

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My book review of The Fix by Jonathan Tepperman came out this week, check it out when you got a minute — it’s a good read if you want a little bit of hope, if you want to marvel at the audacity and capacity of leaders of different nations to pull their people through.

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I leave you with this: an episode of On Being’s latest podcast, an interview of Krista Tippett with civil rights icon Ruby Sales.

“Where does it hurt?” That’s a question the civil rights legend, Ruby Sales, learned to ask during the days of that movement — a question she found to have a power to drive to the heart of the matter. It’s a question we scarcely know how to ask in public life now. Ruby Sales says we must be as clear about what we love as about what we hate, if we want to make change.

Sunday Spotlight: A Personal Cartography with the Work of Junot Díaz

Sunday Spotlight

This was the order of how I first fell in love with the works of Junot Díaz: The title This is How You Lose Her spoke to me as I dealt with my own grief, after the end of a four-year relationship. The last story in the book healed me, with its honesty and the courage of facing your own pain heart-on.

You ask everybody you know: How long does it usually take to get over it?
There are many formulas. One for every year you dated. Two years for every year you dated. It’s just a matter of willpower: The day you decide it’s over, it’s over. You never get over it. (from The Cheater’s Guide to Love, This is How You Lose Her)

I looked for Drown next. And there, nestled in the annex of Green Apple Books was an old copy, its yellowing pages looking golden. I settled into a story called Boyfriend one evening, drawn to the perspective of an outsider looking in the story of a couple breaking up. Wanting to cross lines, to be there for someone else’s heartbreak, to hold another person’s pain in the hopes of dealing with my own. I had a similar experience when I read one of Saeed Jones’s poem Blue Prelude later on, from his collection Prelude to Bruise.

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Art by Kate Gavino (Last Night’s Reading)

And then there came The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a historical fiction of epic proportions about love and war in the Dominican Republic. This is where I got my introduction to the horrors of Trujillo and history, the wars we try to win every day within ourselves, the complexity and pain of family.

You don’t know what it’s like to grow up with a mother who never said a positive thing in her life, not about her children or the world, who was always suspicious, always tearing you down and splitting your dreams straight down the seams. When my first pen pal, Tomoko, stopped writing me after three letters she was the one who laughed: You think someone’s going to lose life writing to you? Of course I cried; I was eight and I had already planned that Tomoko and her family would adopt me. My mother of course saw clean into the marrow of those dreams, and laughed. I wouldn’t write to you either, she said. She was that kind of mother: who makes you doubt yourself, who would wipe you out if you let her. But I’m not going to pretend either. For a long time I let her say what she wanted about me, and what was worse, for a long time I believed her. (from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao)

Díaz’s work has stayed with me ever since. Some time ago, he and Toni Morrison engaged in conversation at the New York Public Library on race and writing, which is worth watching repeatedly.

And then I came upon another gem, an Asymptote interview of Díaz. He delves into the complexity of language, the intersection of history and literature, an perhaps more importantly for me — how one can fully live inside a novel for days, for weeks.

As compensation for how difficult life was for this young immigrant in Central New Jersey in the seventies, I buried myself in literary worlds. I was reading voraciously by the time I was seven. A more omnivorous reader, I don’t know if that would’ve been possible. I would read all the biographies of famous Americans. Books on the Rockies. Books on how to build a campsite. I would read everything by Arthur Conan Doyle. I read the edited children’s editions of Edgar Allen Poe. I just tore through everything that my little elementary school library had. I fell in love with books that transported me far away from my world, which for me was very stressful. The library for me represented—or was—what the World Wide Web must mean to people of later generations. In many ways it was a plane, a passport, a lens, wisdom, and experience. (from An Interview with Junot Díaz)

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Art by Kate Gavino (Last Night’s Reading)

I know I’ve been drawn to Díaz repeatedly because there are so many parallels to his experience and mine. Immigrant, wanting to get a grasp of history of self. Writer, wanting to get a grasp of language. Reader, holding on to words for survival.

Sunday Spotlight: James Baldwin 

Sunday Spotlight

I read everything. I read my way out of the two libraries in Harlem by the time I was thirteen. One does learn a great deal about writing this way. First of all, you learn how little you know. It is true that the more one learns the less one knows. I’m still learning how to write. I don’t know what technique is. All I know is that you have to make the reader see it. –James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction No. 78 (The Paris Review)

The words of James Baldwin — essayist, novelist, poet, playwright and social critic — has always stayed with me ever since I read Giovanni’s Room. Reading Baldwin is a little like reading parts of yourself that you’ve never discovered, the kind that ignites and widens your emotional capacity to care, to grieve, to give what you thought you didn’t have in order to immerse yourself in the beauty of his work.

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I held Giovanni’s Room close to my chest after finishing it, aware that my body is mildly trembling, previously racked with sobs. The weight of his words coupled by a clarity that can only be articulated in Baldwin’s way pierces to this day.

I have never reached you. You have never really been here. I do not think you have ever lied to me, but I know that you have never told me the truth — why? Sometimes you were here all day long and you read or you opened the window or you cooked something — and I watched you — and you never said anything — and you looked at me with such eyes, as though you did not see me. All day, while I worked, to make this room for you. (Giovanni’s Room)

His poetry and essays have also influenced me as I continue to seek my own ways of writing, of being able to impart my experience as a queer immigrant. I read The Fire Next Time as the black community continued to face increasing state violence, bearing testament to the truths he has long written. With the murders of Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin, Baldwin’s A Letter to my Nephew came to mind.

To be loved, baby, hard at once and forever to strengthen you against the loveless world. Remember that. I know how black it looks today for you. It looked black that day too. Yes, we were trembling. We have not stopped trembling yet, but if we had not loved each other, none of us would have survived, and now you must survive because we love you and for the sake of your children and your children’s children. (The Fire Next Time)

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In Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, poet Nikky Finney penned the introduction and spoke of Baldwin’s poetry and his position as a poet: “He wrote with an engaged, layered, facile hand. The idea being explored first clinched, then stretched out, with just enough tension to bring the light in.” While I was not familiar with his poems, it wasn’t hard to see what Nikky was referring to. There was courage in his poems, and a reliable language that lets us witness the ease of complicated things.

At the dark street corner
where Guilt and Desire
are attempting to stare each other down
(presently, one of them
will light a cigarette
and glance in the direction
of the abandoned warehouse)
Love came slouching along,
an exploded silence
standing a little apart
but visible anyway
in the yellow, silent, streaming light,
while Guilt and Desire wrangled,
trying not to be overheard
by this trespasser.
(Guilt, Desire and Love)

When All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James Baldwin by Douglas Field came out, I got my hands on a copy in order to know more about him. From hanging out with Jewish Trotskyites in New York at a young age to participating in a May Day rally, he became more of a human being to me more than an idealized icon.

What intrigued me though as I finished the first few chapters of the book was Baldwin’s own complicated definition of himself — from a revolutionary to a writer. The FBI even kept a file on him, as they deemed his writing dangerous. His conversations were frequently tapped and he was constantly followed, as Hoover equated any radical work as communist propaganda.

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The Bureau’s attempts at literary analysis suggests the ways in which agents struggled to read and interpret literature that was not plotted in line with conventional American ideals: works such as Baldwin’s, which deviated from acceptable parameters and tackled themes of homosexuality, race or violence were deemed alien or subversive. –Douglas Fields, All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James Baldwin

Field also goes into Baldwin’s radicalization as well as marginalization as a black, gay writer in the Civil Rights era. Cheryl Clarke writes that it was not easy for the middle-aged, queer Baldwin to gain membership in a movement that homogenized political views and identity categories. Still, he continued to write with Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone with Christopher as the main character — his ideal for the late 1960s: “a young and beautiful black man who combines tenderness with aggressive political action.”

Last Christmas, my sister gifted me with an essay collection of Baldwin’s later novels. The gesture warmed my heart. I admit that it is ambitious for me to even write about Baldwin because of the scale of his work, the depth of his influence but just as Field acknowledged in his book, it is truly an honor.

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Baldwin passed the same year I was born. Writer Toni Morrison wrote a tribute for him at The New York Times, citing three gifts that he had given her: language, courage and tenderness. I read this tribute frequently, along with Nikky’s introduction as much as I come back to his work often.

To Baldwin, and to a reverence for his being and his work, an eternal celebration from Toni:

Yours was a tenderness, of vulnerability, that asked everything, expected everything and, like the world’s own Merlin, provided us with the ways and means to deliver.
I suppose that is why I was always a bit better behaved around you, smarter, more capable, wanting to be worth the love you lavished, and wanting to be steady enough to witness the pain you had witnessed and were tough enough to bear while it broke your heart, wanting to be generous enough to join your smile with one of my own, and reckless enough to jump on in that laugh you laughed. Because our joy and our laughter were not only all right, they were necessary. –Toni Morrison, Life in His Language (The New York Times)