Clues of Colonialism in Coffee

I’m in Mexico—the Yucatan peninsula.  But this is not without a few glitches.  The first night, my brand new hotel was—well—shut down for mysterious reasons.  I spent a few hours finding new lodging.  Then, fraud protection on my card kept me from getting pesos.  I had dollars.  But we had arrived so late, that it was hard to change any dollars.

Yucatan

Still, that is neither here nor there.  We were just spending one night in Cancun owing to a late arrival.  And by the next morning, we were en route to another city—the grand colonial capital of Merida–looking for the one thing that keeps me going:  coffee.  And this mishap brought me to the subject of this blog, because it actually got me to thinking about how coffee can be one of those lenses by which to look at the world.  Detective fiction is always interested in looking at the tell-tale object and finding within it the source of deep violence and disturbing realities:  the bobby pin left on a counter with a lock of silver hair dangling from its clip.

You see, the story of coffee is one of deep violence.  Latin American countries like Mexico are major producers of coffee and should have it coming out their ears.  But the irony is that, of course,  they don’t.  They don’t have access to their very own natural resource.  You see, to make their money, they have to send the very best of the production abroad.  And only then, after satisfying their responsibilities to the international market, can countries like Mexico get the crumbs—the cruddy second grade product, the left-over-unwanted-ugly-stepchild coffee beans.  They can’t come up short on their obligations.  This means they get the sweepings off the floor.

I had to learn this the hard way when I traveled through South America for a year after grad school.  I naively thought that coffee would be everywhere—plentiful.  But what coffee that was available was not well processed.  Neither was it well brewed.  If you were lucky enough to come by it, the fragrant black bean was over-the-top expensive.  And the only travelers who knew this as a fact were the Israeli’s—seasoned, long term travelers who spent at least a year, often more, after their time in the army, working through their PTSD.  They always carried their own coffee, along with the apparatus to brew themselves a cup just the way they like it.

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I almost didn’t bring my French Press this time.  I was obsessed with the idea of “traveling light”—that neo-Puritanism of the backpacker that elevates carrying nothing to a state of moral righteousness.  But at the last minute hullabaloo of departure, I threw the French Press into my luggage and quickly ground a small Ziploc bag of French Roast.  And this turned out to be the best decision of the trip.

Our new hotel didn’t have coffee, nor a coffee maker, nor hot water.  And only later as I tried to find coffee on the way to the ancient Mayan Ruins of Chichen Itza did I realize how crappy the selection is; it took me over two hours to get on the road; the search to find good coffee landed us at McDonald’s.  An utter disappointment.

Chichen

My last trip to Mexico City fooled me.  I was surprised to find that you could get coffee in the capital and this lulled me into a false sense of security in my preparations for the current trip.   I actually came across amazing coffee from the famous growing region, Chiapas where the green hills provide an ideal growing climate.  Chiapas is only one state away, I reasoned.  “The coffee must make its way to the Yucatan,” I told my wife.

But the Yucatan Peninsula is one of the poorest regions in the country, filled with the dispossessed Mayans.  The coffee goes to the richest and the most cosmopolitan in the country—the city slickers from the capital.  These are people who not only have the money but also have the tastes to consume coffee.  The native Mayans have no taste for the coffee in this region, even though it is a product that comes from the land that was once occupied by their vast kingdom.

Chiapas

It is only the truly wealthy Mexicans—the professional class that has been abroad, the class that drives black European cars and surfs on silver American computers—that have developed a taste for a product like coffee.  The host of my AirBNB is an architect whose house is a wonder of modern construction.  “There is no good coffee in this region,” he says.  “I love coffee, too, but it is not here.”  So he goes to the Walmart and gets his lackluster beans and he keeps one of those machines with the single-use canisters in his kitchen.

Mexicans have to import their coffee from abroad.  They don’t have the technology to process the bean well.  And in any case, all the best beans are gone—gone abroad.  So, rich professionals like the architect pay a premium for a middling bean that returns with the imprint of Nestle—a boomerang that smacks them in the head and becomes deprived of its feeling of being an indigenous product.  Coffee—once you get it, after a brief hiatus, following an interlude in another man’s hands—has all the scent of a strange fruit from a far-away mountain, a place of wild and monstrous beauty that is almost as unimaginable as pyramids rising from a dense green jungle.

 

USC Graduation Speaker: Sean Rad, the Founder of Tinder

I went to my nephew’s college graduation yesterday—a fact that makes me feel ancient.  I used to carry this kid on my shoulders and, for a brief period, I even drove two hours every day down to Orange County to pick him up and tutor him after classes. He was kind of failing out of his very expensive private school—a school that charged 40K a year–and I was enlisted to put him back on the right path.

“Don’t worry if you can’t help him.  You’re my last ditch effort.”  My sister–his mother–thought he needed to be medicated, thought he might have ADHD.  I agreed because I’m easily guilted, but it turned out to be a bad idea:  My sister got kind of pissy when he started getting straight A’s immediately.  It turned out he just needed to be supervised.

My nephew ended up graduating from USC Marshall School of Business and it was a brilliant ceremony.  USC is in the heart of Los Angeles, minutes away from Downtown, and it knows how to put on a display in that way that only a Hollywood Industry heavy-hitter with lots of money can.

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I’m no stranger to graduations.  I spent almost half my life in academia and I’ve done my fair share of pomp and circumstance.  I’ve donned the funny robes and waited to throw my cap into the air.  I’ve also put on the regalia as faculty, too.

What was interesting for me was that the commencement speaker for the Marshall School graduation was the founder of Tinder—a dating website that has become incredibly popular among young people.  Tinder is one of the kinkier apps—part hook-up app, part dating app—it’s one of these social platforms that is transforming the way that we mate.  Swipe to the left, Swipe to the right—you can unlock a database of images.  For the harshest critics, Tinder is kind of douchey.

I’m used to graduations at institutions with slightly more august speakers.  My own undergrad ceremony featured the accomplished Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes—the man who wrote the classic Terra Nostra.  And the last graduation at my small liberal arts college featured the radical philosopher and activist Angela Davis, the woman with the crazy frizz of signature Afro, who asked the question that upset all the parents:  How does it feel to be graduating in the middle of the war?

Sean Rad, the CEO of Tinder, never graduated from USC.  He dropped out.  But he went on to found the company along with his undergrad friends—a company that “is among the fastest-growing social platforms in history.  Tinder has tens of millions of active users and has created over 11 billion new connections to date”–this, according to the digest on the commencement program.  Perhaps it is the way of the new generation.  Or perhaps it is the way of the business school.  But the choice of Sean Rad made me think  that I am an errant planet floating among space debris–dislodged from the ellipses of my trajectory, becoming increasingly remote from this new generation of interplanetary travelers.

Sean Rad

As soon as I saw my nephew on the jumbotron, I headed out to the free food.  There was a nice display of fanciness put out on a fenced in green lawn in that way that only a school with a heavy-hitting endowment musters:  fancy sandwiches on fancy bread with veggie options and the profusion of fruit that is the pride of Southern California.  Strawberries so big and thick and scarlet, you might think they were irradiated with plutonium.

Commencement-Photo

I arrived early to the reception and hogged a prime table.  But I shared it with a nice Japanese American family—three generations—waiting for their man-child.  They carried a huge blown up image of the young boy’s head, wrapped in one of those Macy’s shopping bags you get when you buy bedding.  We all agreed that the ceremony was so impressive.  We dwelled upon a particular moment:  that moment at the beginning of his speech when the CEO of Tinder mentioned that he had never graduated from USC.  “My mom would never believe that this drop-out would be here to address students who have something I don’t.”  That was the moment Dean of the College—James Ellis—rushed up and gave him one of those plastic diploma holders to the hoots and applause of the audience.  There was something so magnanimous and spontaneous about the gesture.

tinder

We exchanged our pleasantries—where we were from, who we were waiting for—and the conversation veered toward our own upbringings, the things that are so intimately related to our professional careers:  our colleges, our parents, our neighborhoods, our extracurricular activities as young people.  “I went to Cal State Dominguez Hills,” said the aunt.  “You probably don’t know where that is.”

“I do.  I played piano competitions there every summer.”  I played piano from the age of six to seventeen.  Nothing is more impressive to Asian people than accomplishment in the arena of classical music.

“That’s a long time.  Do you still keep it up?”

“No, that was my mom’s thing,” I said.

“Well, did you get anything out of it?”

“I learned how to size people up in a room as soon as I walked into a competition.   And I learned how to find pleasure in things that I don’t really enjoy.”

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Their man-child showed up after a half hour and wanted to leave.  “I’ve been drinking since six o’clock in the morning,” he immediately announced.  He didn’t want to eat the fancy sandwiches.  He said it would be disappointing to eat this food.  “C’mon I just graduated.  I want to eat something really nice.  I feel like I’m going to barf if I don’t.”  The boy was wearing one of those red and gold sashes that had embroidered upon it his various extracurriculars.  I could see he was in a fraternity and I could imagine the lead-up to the graduation.  The Greek lettering was the biggest embroidery—“Let’s get out of here.  I have to return this ugly robe, so if you want pictures, we need to take them now.”

“Of course we want pictures with you in your robes.”

“Then, let’s do it.  Traffic is going to be a bitch if we don’t do it now.”

The mother took a quick bite of her veggie sandwich.  It was already almost 2 and the party was probably starving.  “Well, let me see your diploma first,” said the grandmother.

“There’s nothing inside.”  He opened the little rectangle of brown that looked just like the finish of leather.  “Just a note that says you’ll receive your diploma in three weeks.”

Colonialism and Gentrification in a Garage Sale Find

The other day, I was visiting my wife’s old neighborhood—Silverlake—and happened to stumble upon one of my favorite things:  a garage sale.  If you’ve been going to garage sales, you know there are all sorts—all different categories:  the spring cleaning garage sale, the old person garage sale, the hipster garage sale.

I like the old person garage sale—a sale filled with the hoarded stash of a lifetime (some trash, some treasure).  You can always find something interesting that an oldtimer no longer wants and make off with it for a song.  Once I got fifteen French cut glass serving bowls for four bucks.  They came in a punch bowl, which I did not want and which I promptly donated to Goodwill.  “I don’t have any use for jello.  I’m glad nobody eats jello anymore,” said the old man.  It was a steal: These bowls normally go for 5 bucks a pop on ebay but I was never going to sell them.  I immediately saw in them a new purpose:  side dishes for all the little pickles that Asian people love to eat.

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The Silverlake sale was a hipster garage sale—my least favorite sale.  Hipster garage sales are usually overpriced.  At the garage sale was all sorts of knick knacks and useless interesting-ness, artfully arranged and the hosts were busy drinking wine from mason jars and talking about their favorite bands.  It was there that I saw the bust:  A small chalk sculpture of a beautiful black woman with striking blue eyes, wearing a muzzle on her mouth and chain around her neck—a gruesome image that evoked slavery and sadomasochism.

“Look,” I said to my wife.

“Wow.”

“Do you know what that is?” said the German man.  He seemed embarrassed to be in possession of the sculpture.  “An old roommate left that behind and I kept it on display but had to take it down.”

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“That’s Anastacia,” I said.  “Anastacia is a cult figure in Brasil—a religious saint.”  I launched into the kind of Wikipedia explanation that only a one-time college professor can give:  that Anastacia was a mulata slave, a child born of rape perpetrated on her mother by a white master; that Anastacia resisted her own white master’s advances; that she was punished for her resistance through the manacles and the muzzle; that her story is one of triumph.  “Anastacia’s eyes are blue because they are testimony to her rape.  They are fierce because they signal that she can be silenced but unbroken.”

Her story and image are legendary in Brasil.

Her story and image are legendary in Brasil.

All throughout Northern Brasil—that plantation zone where slaves were worked to death under the merciless hot sun—it is common to see striking black people with blue eyes, eyes as blue as Dresden China.  I spent a month in Northern Brasil, in the city of Salvador, which was the entry-point for the slave trade and the administrative center for the surrounding plantations.  The historic center, which stands at the top of the hill, affording views of the harbor upon which ships filled with slaves arrived, is called Pelourinho:  The Little Pillory—the place where slaves were whipped as public spectacle.

At the center of the historic district--Pelourinho--stands the pillory at the top of the hill.

At the center of the historic district–Pelourinho–stands the pillory at the top of the hill.

During that time in Salvador, I bought a rosary with Anastacia’s image at one of the major white-washed cathedrals on a hill.   This is not uncommon:  throughout the region, you can buy trinkets of Anastacia to put on your home altar.  She is a major figure in Candomble–a religion that fused Catholicism with West African religious traditions.  And people do worship her.

“What is that?” I asked a young black man, when I first bought my rosary.

“Anastacia,” he said.  But he did not say it like me—with a shock of recognition.  He uttered the name with reverence, as if she were everything to him, and that everybody should know who she was, and that there was no need for further explanation—even to a tourist.

“This is just like the Antique’s Road show,” said the German.  “Do you know what it’s worth?”

“Probably not much.  The images are common and probably brought back as a tourist souvenir.”

I didn’t buy that bust of Anastacia.  I would feel weird displaying it in my house.  I didn’t even take a picture of it, because of some superstitious idea about graven images—the indelicacy of taking pictures of pictures.  Of course, Anastacia was a picture of a picture herself:  We don’t know what she actually looked like.  Her image was made by the hand of a Frenchman who visited the Portuguese colonies much earlier—a man who then created a lithograph of an anonymous slave girl as a document of his travels.  And this lithograph with the eyes later painted blue would become the de facto image of Anastacia whose eyes may have done the witnessing but who herself was never witnessed by anybody who could live to document her.

The Frenchman's image of an anonymous slave that would stand in for Anastacia. The blue eyes would be added later.

The Frenchman’s image of an anonymous slave that would stand in for Anastacia. The blue eyes would be added later.

After the garage sale, we drove past my wife’s old house—a beautiful house behind the reservoir.  Silverlake is one of Los Angeles’s first gentrification neighborhoods and has moved from the grungy to ritzy over the course of two decades.  Today, it is a status area, filled with muckety-mucks and industry-types.  Eric Garcetti, our very own mayor—a man of much wealth and status who grew up in hoity-toity Bel Air—bought his first house in Silverlake.  And monied hipsters from all over the world converge upon it.  I doubt that we could ever live there now.

Our mayor, Eric Garcetti.

Our mayor, Eric Garcetti.

And this got me to thinking about the strangeness of the life of an object—how it can move in and out of so many people’s hands and have so many different meanings, from sacred to profane.  You see:  the image of Anastacia, only a few months earlier was the object of a big internet war.  A designer in Brasil put her image on a dress and marched it down the catwalk on the body of a white Brasilian model.  And that image, much like Anastacia’s image, got sampled and instagrammed.  It took on another life in different continents and when it made its way to England and America, it became the source of outrage—an image of white people appropriating the image of black slavery and turning it into a money-making opportunity.

Anastacia

In none of these discussions was Anastacia named.  Anastacia was simply now a black female slave with a muzzle:  demoted to the position that the white Frenchman gave her when he first created her.  And in the outrage, the fact that Brasilians revere Anastacia—that they have even created a popular television soap opera depicting her life—was notably absent.

All this was floating in my mind as we visited my wife’s old neighborhood.  “Do you think you could bring yourself to display that thing in our house?”

“We have too many things already,” said my wife.  “You go to too many garage sales.”

“We could turn around and maybe I could buy it and put it away.  I could give it as a gift to Tracy.”  Tracy is a professor of African American Studies and I was sure she would find it interesting and not insulting.

“It’s too late.  I don’t want to turn around,” she said.  And I guess I was already thinking too much about things.  I was making too much about something that was simply a bust.

A Refugee on Refugees: The 41st Anniversary of the Fall of Saigon

The Fall of Saigon occurred 41 years ago and this week there were commemorations of this event that dispersed Vietnamese people across the globe—a river dumping into the ocean.  I was just a baby then, all but 3 years old when we boarded the big American boat that would take us to safety.  And family legend has it that I almost jumped into the ocean after my pacifier, so panicked to lose something that had given me so much comfort.

The First Wave of Vietnamese Were Evacuated by the US Military in Seaworthy Vessels.

The First Wave of Vietnamese Were Evacuated by the US Military in Seaworthy Vessels.

It hasn’t been easy growing up with the status of refugee.  There were so many images of us—so many unflattering images—that saturated the media landscape—images of skinny malnourished scarecrows like rats overflowing from the decks of sinking ships, images of naked young girls consumed by napalm fire…these images, they chopped my life up into a thousand mirrored fragments, and these fragments came to be reassembled into an elaborate prison house:  that thing that made me a joke, a spectacle, an amusement, an object of pity—always reflecting to me the bits of me that are alarming distortions.

The Girl in the Picture Wrote an Autobiography--"The Girl in the Picture"--Because That Would Be the Question Everybody Asked Her All Her Life: "Are You the Girl in the Picture?"

The Girl in the Picture Wrote an Autobiography–“The Girl in the Picture”–Because That Would Be the Question Everybody Asked Her All Her Life: “Are You the Girl in the Picture?”

For me, this was the most difficult part of being a refugee—the way that you could feel belittled.  And it was far worse than the mundane difficulties of acquiring a language, finding financial stability, learning the customs of the country.  I’ve filtered out most of the overt racism—the taunts—but still some things linger:  like the bearded professor in the tweed jacket—my college Chaucer professor–who was so moved by my excellent paper that he had to ask me the burning question, “Have you ever heard of the term ‘boat people’?”

I had, of course, and I told him that I was not one—that that term referred to people who arrived a few years after 1975, the year Saigon Fell.  Those people were so desperate to escape Communism that they took a gamble: launching boats they knew would never make a real voyage into international waters—launching boats that were bound to sink—because to sink meant that by international law, a passing ship would have to take them to safety.  Sometimes this gamble paid off.  Sometimes it didn’t.

In the 80's, a Second Wave of Desparate Refugees Living Under Communism Used Rickety Vessels to Escape Vietnam.

In the 80’s, a Second Wave of Desparate Refugees Living Under Communism Used Rickety Vessels to Escape Vietnam.

The professor didn’t understand what my “no” meant.  He was too excited.  He told me about a refugee family he sponsored—a family of boat people.  And how he developed a special bond with the young boat boy.  He had taken the boat boy to see his first baseball game.  The boy would have been just about my age.  And I knew what he was thinking—that it was him, the boat boy, not me, sitting before him with a paper that was A+ work.  “The family moved away after a while and then I never heard from them again.  I’ve always wondered why.”

Refugees always know when to speak their mind, when to keep silent.  We are aware of who has power over us in a room.  I had my ideas–theories–about why the boy should go away and never look back.  But I didn’t say anything.  What is there to say, anyway, when someone only wants to use you as their sounding board–their distant echo chamber–and isn’t really listening to you in the first place?

The thing about being a refugee is that you know quite a few things about being a refugee and sometimes this is a blessing and sometimes, a curse.  Right after I finished grad school, I spent a few months beach camping in Hawaii—an event that coincided with the announcement that George W. Bush invaded Iraq.  And as my beach camping friends sat around a pit fire, drinking beer, and speculating about the outcome of the war, I blurted out the obvious:  “No matter who wins or loses, there will be refugees—new refugees that the world will have to deal with.”  Everybody looked at me like I was a genius but, really, I wish I wasn’t in the position to possess this knowledge.

Refugees in Greece.

Refugees in Greece.

Writing Exercise: Friend from the Past

The other day, I got caught up with a friend—someone I used to talk to every night on the phone for an hour or two.  It had been three years and, somehow, she had dropped out of the scene.  There were reasons, of course—none of it acrimonious…you just drift away.  So, I was happy to get back in contact with this person and sift through some of the surprising updates, the personal baggage, the professional losses.  A lot happens over the course of three years.

It got me to thinking about reunions in general, both in life and literature.  And my mind drifted to other reunions—less pleasant—where people from your past show up and you discover that they have taken a totally different path:  My best friend in elementary school, for instance, is someone whom I remember with much fondness.  He just showed up at my house one day on his bicycle and asked me to go bike riding, and after that, we were inseparable.  He will always be frozen in my mind’s eye as that chubby kid on a bicycle.

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But when I finally saw him again a few years back, I realized that he was an altogether different person, that life had been hard for him, and time had not treated him well.  I knew that even as we sat at the dinner table, exchanging pictures, that we would never be more than friends in the past tense:  the bike of our lives had taken us in such different directions.

Literary reunions are interesting because they function like a deus ex machina—they can move the plot forward, they can introduce new information, they can bring about complication, they can develop antagonisms.  Literary reunions distill the vague disquiet—the subtle joy—you might feel upon catching up with a long lost friend and turn it into a fruity, full-bodied cocktail:  a Moscow Mule that will knock your socks off and kick you in the groin.

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The conventional literary reunion comes in the form of the long-awaited friend who is the final goal—the repository of sentiment.  We see this in the Color Purple, for instance; Celie is waiting for her sister’s return and we are waiting right along with her; and her sister’s return is about love and loss; it is precipitated by a series of lost letters; then, a triumphant return.  This is followed by an embrace and a good long hard cry.

This is a formulaic way to utilize the reunion and it can have its limitations:  it can lend itself to cliché.  Why?  Because this is how our mind is programmed to see a reunion: as the end point.  So only in the hands of a great master—someone like Alice Walker—can we have a reunion fall at the end and still be rescued from the mine-field of the stereotypical.

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So, here is your task.  Find a story where you’re stuck, plot-wise—a story that has stalled.  Then, have a figure from the past knock on the door, write an e-mail, send a telegram, drop a note.  What does that character want from you now?  What will she impose upon the landscape?  What crazy bike ride will she take you on?

Prince: Dearly Beloved–Nothing Compares 2 U

Everybody has observed it:  It seems like all the great musical stars of our age are dying this year—David Bowie, Glen Frey, Merle Haggard and now, most recently, Prince.  The deaths cuts deeply for people of my generation, because many of these musicians are no longer distant figures in the past.  They are celebrities we came up with, those who made their name when we were still learning what our own would mean…and so folks of my generation feel it extra deeply, as we enter the slip stream of middle age and become unmoored from our wayward youth—a lighthouse in the distance.

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I couldn’t bring myself to grieve the first few days.  I was in that stage called denial.  Maybe the news organs were misinformed.  Maybe the corpse in the elevator was a bodyguard.  Maybe this was one of those popular PRINCE IS DEAD rumors that surface periodically on the internet, like a giant squid from the bottomless depths attracted by the lights of passing ships.  My friend—a musicologist—informed me of the purple one’s passing on Facebook, but I told her that I would not be posting any of this news until it was confirmed on my Wall.  And even though I now know his death to be true, even though the autopsy is done and the body cremated—the memorial held—I can’t bring myself to create that digital tombstone.

Last night, I had dinner with my friends and celebrated his life:  tri tip smoked with apple wood, potatoes, grilled vegetables, a bottle of fine Pinot—a simple, unfussy meal.  I’m not sure if that would have been his meal.  I hear he was a vegetarian.  But it was great to listen to the hits that made Prince our own personal star—a light that guided our way when we were lost in the ocean of puberty.

Tri tip

We set up a large screen MAC at the head of the table and, amidst the groaning board of clinking cutlery and the precussion of tinkling glasses, played selections of his classic music—snippets of his videos, his live performances–the music of our coming of age; and yes, we were startled to realize that Prince had produced so many of the songs that fueled that muddled time of jumbled lust and desire and rebellion and nonconformity—that time that would give way to orderly adult lives:  Erotic City and Darling Nikki, Purple Rain and Nothing Compares 2 U, Little Red Corvette and I Wanna Be Your Lover.

A classy tribute from the makers of the automobile that Prince immortalized.

A classy tribute from the makers of the automobile that Prince immortalized.

At some point, we played 1999—a year that floated in the horizon like the monstrous head of an uncertain future…but which, now, is the mile marker of a distant era.  Maybe it was the wine or the company.  Maybe it was the good music.  But we all agreed that our music was the best music—that the young people of the next generation were unlucky to be born into recession and mediocrity.  We had our Prince and this felt like, all our lives, we had been eating like Kings.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction

Viet Thanh Nguyen—my good friend—just won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  This is awesome news on many levels.  He is the first Vietnamese American writer to achieve something so grand.  He is also a friend of over twenty years.  And for some reason, when friends make it, the cake tastes sweeter; the coffee, ever more rich and deep and layered.

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Viet is a professor of English & American Studies at USC—a literary critic by training.  But ever since I knew him, he harbored the ambition to write a novel.  And I’ve watched him over the years self-consciously try to move out of the jargon-y world of literary theory and into the alternate dimension in the time-space continuum that is Creative Writing.

His debut novel, The Sympathizer, is what got him this year’s Pulitzer.  It tracks the confession of a spy–half French, half Vietnamese—who follows the Vietnamese exodus after the Fall of Saigon, the exodus of Vietnamese citizens that were aligned with the USA, citizens that were fervently anti-communist.  The spy is a double agent–a communist—sent by the upstart regime to keep tabs on the newly minted refugees who form the first great diaspora that would include among its numbers people like my parents, my siblings, and me.  This is a diaspora that will still remain politically active, one that will still support the overthrow of the communist government, even as the war has come to a close.

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The narrator of The Sympathizer is forced to give a confession from his prison cell and the opening lines capture the arresting quality of his voice:  “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.  Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.  I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such.  I am simply able to see any issues from both sides.”  The lines really suck you in and are involved in a game of resonances that are the mark of someone who has read widely and deeply.  We can hear echoes of the opening lines of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—the classic of African American literature.  This is no accident:  Viet’s son—Ellison–is named after that towering figure of twentieth century American literature.

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And this is what is so interesting about Viet’s novel—the way that it is constantly interested in fitting its voice up and against, in concert and in harmony, with other voices in the American literary canon:  an awareness of himself operating within a grand tradition and taking his place within a literary conversation.  Of The Sympathizer, Maxine Hong Kingston writes:  “A Magnificent Feat of Storytelling, The Sympathizer is a novel of literary, historical, and political importance.”

I’ve always been in awe, a supplicant at the burnished throne, of writers who win big awards—the Pulitzer, the Booker, the Nobel.  And I have been blessed to find myself within the disco strobe light of their dance floor company at certain points in my life.  But it is a new sensation—one that I will cherish—to actually know a writer who has made such a big splash.  It is a singular prize, a gem you can keep under your mattress, to know that a writer of this level has shared his work with you, even before it has seen print.

Hennessey & Ingalls: New Arrival in the Arts District

I decided to stop by the Art’s District at high noon this Saturday to check out a bookstore I’ve been frequenting since junior high:  Hennessey & Ingall’s.  Hennessey & Ingall’s used to occupy a storefront in one of the most expensive sections of Santa Monica, just a few blocks from the cliffs that overlook the beach.  Before that, it was in Westwood, near the university and the grand old theaters.  Each time it’s moved, it’s moved because the rents got expensive.  And each time, I’ve followed it… by bicycle, by bus and now…by car.  I’m a loyal customer.

Hennessey

The bookstore itself is that rare creature:  a specialty shop that offers a trove of Design, Architecture, Art book.  It also boasts a staff of long-time employees who know their selection inside and out.  It’s not the kind of bookstore where you buy a souvenir mug or a tote bag with the effigy of a writer that you will never read.  The only magazines on the racks are for the trade:  real designers.  And you’ll see designer-y people there with their chunky glasses, their improbable avant-garde fashions and their gaunt tans that come from being bathed in the synthetic sunlight of a computer screen.  Back when me and my artsy-fartsy friends were no-account kids with very little money, the staff at Hennessey & Ingalls let us sit and read for hours on end without chasing us out.

The irony of the Art’s District—the bohemian enclave at the Northeast border of downtown Los Angeles where Hennessey & Ingalls has relocated—is that it no longer houses artists.  The first exodus happened over a decade ago when the “revitalization” of downtown slipped into overdrive.  Before that, downtown had almost no traffic, no grocery stores.  There were homeless, indigents, artists–all of which made it feel almost like the stage set of an apocalyptic futuristic movie.  The artists took over a warehouse or factory and then they developed their make-shift lofts.

Then, developers swooped in right when I was finishing graduate school–just around 2003.  And within less than half a decade, “lofts” were no longer DYI spaces but simply mass-market condos with exposed brick and concrete floors, geared toward the prosperous professionals–the dentists and accountants and pharmacists who imagined themselves to be week-end warrior bohemians.  The rents–the thing that attracted the people who brought order to the world–shot through the roof. Many of the people who left were my friends—friends driven out by high rents and congestion.

Shingo, a Japanese Buddhist priest and painter—a holy man who was known on more than one occasion to chew a tab of ecstasy–was one such friend:  he finally realized that downtown was no longer a location that could foster true art.  So he left his impeccable  white-on-white loft, which was within striking distance of the cluster of grand temples in the heart of Little Tokyo.  Shingo supported himself for a few years as a janitor when he first came to the United States; his loft reflected that hand-built orderliness–the tidy compartmentalization–that is so quintessentially Japanese.  He moved to the jungles of Big Island, Hawaii.

Shingo-sitting

Shingo seated in front of his abstracts

Just this last year, my friend Yahnoo—a fiber artist who learned his craft among the tribal people of the Amazon—built himself a house in Baja, Mexico.  Life is cheaper there and he can ply his craft, which is both time and space-intensive; he needs room to weave his gargantuan portraits.  But he will be sorely missed, not only for his great art, but also for the fact that he was a node in an ecosystem—a man whose humongous loft provided housing for hundreds of artists and hippies and drifters passing through.  A man who hosted yoga-potlucks and large-scale rave parties.

Among his many house guests, I count my childhood friend who used the space to practice the art of mime and who ultimately founded an acclaimed theatre troupe in Paris:  Pas de Dieux. I probably will see Won one day, though he will probably never be able to move back to his home town.  I will miss seeing Yahnoo–the Korean man with the dred locks and flowing African gowns.  And I doubt I will see any of his friends again–all of whom are notable artists attached to major galleries but still struggling to live small lives despite their outsize reputations.

The Arts District is now thoroughly developed.  There is a huge complex at one end that charges $4,500 dollars a month to people who like to think of themselves as “creatives”—that adjective that has somehow become a noun.  The building is designed by some noteworthy architect but it has the modular look of a futuristic prison concocted by IKEA.

One Santa Fe

There are now bus tours filled with Midwesterners who get dropped off at the very fancy new beer hall put up by a developer who must have spent close to a million dollars just to build it out.  The tourists–they try their best to look like Angelenos.  But true Angelenos don’t dress like that—their informality and studied casual is still just too formal:  a copy of a copy of a copy.  They must have spent months researching their look.

Van Leeuwen is the ice cream of the attractive alternative crowd

Van Leeuwen is the ice cream of the attractive alternative crowd

Hennessey & Ingalls finally found a storefront in that famous complex where the “creatives” reside, taking its rightful place near the Vegan Ice Cream shop with the Dutch name from Brooklyn, New York.  I hear the vegan ice cream tastes almost as good as real ice cream, despite the lack of any actual milk…but I’ve never tried it.  The press releases have championed the resurrection of the dearly loved bookstore as a sign of the artistic bona fides of the area.  But I don’t ever remember Hennessey & Ingalls ever doing a full-court-press publicity campaign ever.  And for me, the fact that there are press releases and a systematic publicity campaign makes me wonder if the bookstore is the same thing—a community bookstore—or something altogether different.

The New Season of Daredevil: Can You Love to Hate a Character?

The new season of Daredevil—the Marvel franchise—came out on Netflix, and guess what I did:  I spent the past week lying in bed, binge-watching it.  I watched it on my computer screen–the machine going on for so long late into the night that it left a warm spot on my bed.  How I loved that warm spot.  I would curl up on it and drift off to sleep.

Daredevil is a comic book series that chronicles the escapades of Matthew Murdock—lawyer by day, superhero by night—who patrols Hell’s Kitchen to dole out vigilante justice in a world overrun by violence.  Murdock is an extraordinary superhero because he is an ordinary man, and one, in fact, hampered with a disability—blindness.  But his disability also gives rise to enhanced sensory perceptions and superior fighting abilities.  He can hear heartbeats, the sound of a man breathing in another room.  And this makes the young esquire both ordinary and extraordinary, human and relateable.

daredevil

Daredevil first arrived on the scene in the 60’s, but the comic book enjoyed its greatest revival in the 80’s when comic juggernaut Frank Miller took control of the franchise.  The television show recasts Miller’s version of eighties New York—a time of extreme violence–somewhere in the nebulous zone between then and the here-and-now.

The 80’s is significant for the themes of the show:  vigilante-ism.  This was a time when Bernhard Goetz, a meek mild-mannered subway rider made national news and came to be known as the “subway vigilante” by gunning down four muggers in the rat-infested subways.  This is not the slick gentrified New York of Russian Oligarchs and Chinese playboys—the New York that has been polished and spit shined like a pair of banker’s wingtips.  This is the New York that is grittier—the New York of white flight and urban decay that spawned vigilante groups like the Guardian Angels:  ordinary citizens in red berets who took the law into their own hands.

Goetz

The show is definitely worth the viewing.  There’s a lot of action—a ton of violence.  The introduction of the Punisher and Elektra—two other superheroes with their own comic book franchises—means that there’s a lot of guns and stunts and acrobatics and martial arts.  Oh yeah, there are ninjas.  Did I tell you there are ninjas?  A whole lot of them.

My take-away from the show rests on this one interesting issue.  You see:  Daredevil has this one quirk.  He is a vigilante but he is not like Bernhard Goetz:  he has a code.  That code is to never take a life.  And he’s really uptight about it.  So he’ll beat the bejeezus out of a ninja but won’t actually follow through and kill him.  And he’ll bend over backwards to avoid killing anyone, as if he were some Honest to Goodness Buddhist monk.

Given a choice between saving twenty hostages or saving the world, guess what Daredevil will do.  Yup, he’s that shortsighted.  He will always go for the idiot choice:  saving the people who are immediately before him, the people in need.  It’s as if he were Charlie Brown–always running toward that football.

monk

The paradox is that, quite often, this means that a lot of people actually end up dying because Daredevil doesn’t dare kill.  Ninjas keep waking up from getting punched and, like characters in a video game, they’re back into play.  Or Daredevil will command one of his superhero cronies not to kill some random ninja…that stops them in their tracks…and then the ninja sticks a sword into them.

It makes you get really annoyed at the masked man in the red suit.  So much so that I started screaming at Daredevil to stop it already.  But at the same time, I wonder if that’s the mad genius of the show:  that Daredevil has a clearly defined through-line and this through-line is the source of dynamic tension.  The fact that we hate Daredevil because of this very predictable quirk also means that we feel for Daredevil…and some emotion is better than none at all.

What do you think?  Is making you hate a main character an important part of engaging an audience?  Is wanting to throw things at the computer screen a sign of getting a little too caught up?  Have you ever found yourself in a relationship with someone you can’t stand because they exasperate you?  Have you ever wanted to leave that person but decided to stay because, you know, at least you’re feeling something…and at least they’re keeping you warm in bed?

Crossing Borders: A Trip to the Yucatan

I’m about to take a trip to the Yucatan, that peninsula chock full of Mayan ruins, colonial cities and white sand beaches.  One way I do my tourism in Hispanic countries is to engage in a slightly tedious, focused task that will force me to hone my Spanish.  And I decided that the task on this occasion would be to get my favorite hat repaired.

I’m kind of a fledgling hat collector, and the Borsalino is an antique felt fedora–brown and battered–that looks like the sort Indiana Jones might have set upon his noggin.  It is a classic: the quintessential detective hat–the hat of manual typewriters and damsels in distress and bottles of whisky in a filing cabinet.

IMG_0669

But the hat has seen better days:  it shrank a bit from a week long stay in Mexico City where heavy torrents pummeled the mountain city every evening during the rainy season.  The embossed leather sweat band, which was once in cherry condition, deteriorated upon contact with water.  And the grosgrain ribbon, which is a silken oddity in a world that has gone full polyester, bears the powder white traces of the salt that comes from a decade of sweat.  I also probably shouldn’t have packed it in my check-in luggage.

Yucatan

Embarking on a project like this does take some research.  You don’t want to run around the city with your hat in your hand.  You want to identify a reputable hat dealer who either offers those services or can send you in the right direction.  And you want to dispatch of the task immediately so that the artisans have enough time to perform the job properly.  You’ve got to do your due diligence.

So this leads me to the topic of this post, which is not so much about hats as it is about feet:  you see, the other day I was googling for hat leads and I came across an advertisement on a Mexican website for a pair of knock-off Toms shoes.  Toms shoes are those cruelty-free, vegan shoes that are supposed to make the NPR set feel less awful about themselves as global citizens living in the consuming-est corner of this planet:  for every Toms purchase, a child in deepest darkest Africa gets a pair of shoes, too.

So, in purchasing these shoes, you are also involved in a humanitarian cause:  helping a kid avoid all sorts of foot borne diseases, like parasitic worms.  Perhaps you are enabling a budding young scholar to get to school on those undeveloped roads, or allowing a mother speedy access to the only source of clean water for miles around.  One thing is certain:  you are making sure that animals are not harmed in the process.  What could be better?

Toms

The curious thing about this advertisement came in the fact that the shoes were available either in fabric OR in leather.  And they were marketed not as a humanitarian item but as a symbol of Westernization—of wealth, of status.  So the vegan element, so crucial in the merchandising of footwear to the NPR set, became irrelevant to the aspirational Mexican upper middle class consumer.  And the promise to help the Third World–a promise that is always front and center–was nowhere to be seen.  This shoe was now simply a status symbol—a way to get something that remains difficult to procure (because of distribution and tariff) from the ever-elusive West, which lies far across a nearby border that is, increasingly, impenetrable.

By no means is this an attempt to make fun of well-heeled Mexicans.  Rather, this is to call attention to a phenomenon that I have encountered over and over again:  Third World products that imitate Western goods often seem a bit wonky.  And as I sat there in the dead of night, looking at a pair of shoes I would never want, I realized it had a lot to do with this simple fact: the act of translation often means subtle shifts in value and meaning.

This makes sense:  Imitation is not simply faithful reflection but a kind of distortion.  Put another way, nothing is the same once it crosses borders–not people, not ideas, not material objects.  For instance, a hat is a noteworthy object in Los Angeles where it can be seen almost as if it were a dandy affectation–the stuff of rock stars and movie actors–but in Mexico, a hat is a common item…so much so that it is taken for granted.  I suspect that people don’t even see hats anymore in that part of the world; they are so much embroidered into the quilt of the expected that all but the most outstanding ones are filtered out.

johnny Depp

Johnny Depp is known for his hat game and he favors Borsalino…

Encountering the Fake Toms made me think of the time I spent in Northern India in the tourist-heavy state of Rajasthan, which is colorful and bright.  The fancy hotels pay local young men to perform folk dances and music in traditional costumes–turbans and scarves and gowns that catch the light with their metallic threads.  But as soon as the performance is over, those guys rip off the costumes and put on machine-woven sweaters.  And on all these sweaters appear the words NIKE, drawn in magic marker:  crude, sloppy, counterfeit.

Nike

It is in the imitation that we can learn a lot about the original–our prejudices, our hidden expectations:  the things we take for granted.  For these young men who must earn their upkeep somehow, the classic clothing of the Rajasthani musicians is simply a costume–a tourist-act.  It is this cruel hoax of life that, in making their way from the provinces to a tourist center with mighty hotels–an actual city–that is the center of modernity, they must pose as the backward native people that they thought they left behind…in order to get by.  And it is in the crude imitation of the Nike logo that we see the true selves of their best dreams spelled out.

The same phenomenon can be seen in so many tourist zones.  In Brasil, the music that tourists come to listen to is Bossa Nova.  It is played in the swank hotel lobbies for a mostly white audience.  But the real music that the blacks of Brasil love is Rastafarian fare.  That’s what is played in the backstreet cafes where only locals hang–those places where you set your hat down and smoke a joint with a sweating bottle of beer.

In Brasil, I once met a Rastafarian from Ghana.  He was spending time in the Northern Brasil stronghold of Salvador—a place that was once the land of plantations and is now filled with freed descendants of former slaves.  The Rasta had a British accent and excellent English, most likely because his country was at one point a British colony.  He invited me to his apartment, not far from the tourism center.  “You are a very trusting man.  And I appreciate it.  Not many tourists would go so far to this part of town with someone he just met.”

Rasta

Most people think that Rastas are the sign of a deep African-ness and indeed there is definitely a “back to Africa” element in the Rasta culture.  So it can seem a contradiction to see a true African attempting to return to African and free his mind by adopting the clothes and music of a people who had once been enslaved in Jamaica.

But my new friend had a good laugh and agreed with my assessment:  For me, a Rasta is the sign of the West—the sign of a person who has had a profound encounter with colonialism that he will spend a lifetime erasing and, paradoxically, reinforcing.  “When I come to a new place like Salvador, it is the Rasta who owns a cell phone,” I said.  “It is the Rasta who understands the international exchange rate, and the way the internet operates.”  It’s never the local people who quite often are oblivious to the way a global world works.

These were the thoughts that scuddered like rippling pebbles through the pond of my head as I trolled through the internet–pleasant memories of past travels–that interrupted my search.  Looking at those shoes–an imitation of a Western product flickering back at me through the pixilated images–made me wonder about the desires that come from the hat I put on my head–a hat that originally came from Italy, a hat that I encountered in a small shop in Chicago, a hat I carried with me to Los Angeles, a hat that now I was ferrying across the border to get fixed.