Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Teju Cole re-reading Baldwin:
Reflections on the "many moving parts" of American racism.

James Baldwin via Ebony Magazine

In the aftermath of Ferguson, although it still feels so premature to call it that, I have found myself speechless, embarrassed and humiliated as many of us have. In disbelief over the absurdity of the particular incident but also utterly embarrassed to be a part of a culture that puts so little value in some of its citizens' lives. I feel the humiliation of so many African American parents... to have to instruct their kids on what to wear, and how to behave as to not arise suspicion. How do you raise a child when you have to simultaneously teach them to be their most true authentic self but also, to protect them, give them pointers on how to obfuscate their identity because "some people" might find it "threatening"?!

I have been reading news reports from Ferguson but knowing "the facts" of what happened, or how many bullets were shot and what cops are saying to protesters has brought me little understanding. What I've needed and what I have started seeking out is accounts on what it FEELS like to inhabit a black body in America. Because the laws are failing us and the institutions that are there to protect us are failing us and there is very little else that one can do other than really, sincerely try to place oneself in the shoes of those who are suffering.

To that end, read Teju Cole's beautiful essay on visiting Leukerbad (Switzerland) and re-reading James Baldwin's 1953 essay "Stranger in the Village." The essay is an examination of racism in the Swiss village, white supremacy "in its simplest form". Writing from Switzerland is also an opportunity for Baldwin to see America more clearly and to reflect on the "more intimate, intricate, familiar, and obscene American forms of white supremacy that he already knew so well."
He was a stranger in Leukerbad, Baldwin wrote, but there was no possibility for blacks to be strangers in the United States, nor for whites to achieve the fantasy of an all-white America purged of blacks. This fantasy about the disposability of black life is a constant in American history. It takes a while to understand that this disposability continues. It takes whites a while to understand it; it takes non-black people of color a while to understand it; and it takes some blacks, whether they’ve always lived in the U.S. or are latecomers like myself, weaned elsewhere on other struggles, a while to understand it. American racism has many moving parts, and has had enough centuries in which to evolve an impressive camouflage. It can hoard its malice in great stillness for a long time, all the while pretending to look the other way. Like misogyny, it is atmospheric. You don’t see it at first. But understanding comes.
Should we put together a Ferguson reading list? How disheartening would it be to find texts from the 1950s and 60s so painfully relevant today?

Monday, August 11, 2014

My parents are coming to visit - Part I

Mom and Dad at Central Barbecue Downtown in Memphis, TN.
May 2014
This year is a big year in my immigrant history. 2014 marks my fifteenth year of migration. That means fifteen years of jumping over suitcases in various degrees of (un)packing, of trying to lose my accent and trying to find a way to feel like I belong. In other words, it’s been fifteen years of failing miserably, disastrously, gloriously. And it’s in this fifteenth year that I have finally started to fill out my naturalization application, which I could have done earlier, had I been paying attention to the fine print. Deciding to apply for citizenship has oddly been the one thing that has made me feel more American than ever before - more than graduating college or learning to say y’all - minor progress until... I remember there is no way I can win this.  Because what is about to happen, at pretty much the exact moment when I find myself more closely to feeling native than ever before, is the one thing that can bring any well-adjusted immigrant back to where they started in their journey of trying to fit in. My parents are coming to visit. 

The thing is. 

They are lovely people. We like each other. We get along. They try to be supportive, the best ways they know how and, to their credit, they never stopped asking questions. But they’ve never been to the States. In all my fifteen years of shuffling back and forth, they never came states-side. And all of a sudden, they are coming. They have tickets and are anxious about missing their connecting flight at Charles-de-Gaulles like they should be, has anyone ever made it through that airport unscarred.

I came to the States in 1999 when I was 18 to attend college. The late-1990s were not the most prosperous times for us Bulgarians so, as we discussed travel plans back then, it was always taken for granted that there would be one trip over the Atlantic each year, maybe two if things were good, and we all sort of assumed that it would be me traveling. Why? For all sorts of reasons but mostly practicalities (my parents are both engineers). Why travel all the way across the ocean to see me when I can come home and sleep in my own bed, see them but also my little sister, extended family and friends. Why spend so much money to just cross the ocean when we wouldn’t have a whole lot of money to travel to all the places we would want to, we don’t speak English anyway. The only time we discussed the possibility of them coming to visit was when I was getting ready to graduate from college in 2003. I think my mother brought it up and after a quick discussion we all agreed it would be a hectic time for me, I would be busy trying to finish up classes and pack up for my upcoming post-graduate adventure and it would just be easier, simpler for everyone if they didn’t come. This all made sense to me. I had no doubts that my parents cared for me, that they loved me, that they wanted the best for me, that they were proud of me. I guess the only way they changed in mind was that I started thinking of them as stationary. In my mind, they were where they were and they did what they did and that was that.

To be continued.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

On the difference between dysfunctional people and dysfunctional families, the meaning of success, and characters that defy stereotypes.

Taiye Selasi. Photo via GoodReads

"This was one perk of growing up poor in the tropics. No one ever needed the details."

"Ghana Must Go" tells the story of a family that immigrates to the United States and, despite the difficulties faced by smart, ambitious, uprooted foreign students, manage to get established. The Sais live a comfortable, upper middle class life of lucrative employment, private schooling and the requisite music lessons expected of people of a certain social strata in New England. But when Kweku, the father, is wrongfully terminated from the prestigious job that's made it all possible, his reaction suggests that despite this abundance, his heart still carries the heavy load of needing to prove he is worthy of Success. 

We meet the family the morning of Kweku's death and are propelled through time and geography to explore the emotional burden of success, the high stakes of immigrant parenting and the complex web of familial attachment (and resentment). "Ghana Must Go" is a beautifully told story that shows that in a family defined by immigration, there is no greater distance to travel and no harder border to cross, than the space between people who love each other.
I talked to the astonishing Taiye Selasi about the difference between dysfunctional people and dysfunctional families, the meaning of success and characters that defy stereotypes.

I hope you enjoy!


I read your book immediately after having read Anthony Marra's "Constellation of Vital Phenomena" and felt that his book led me to yours so naturally. I was really surprised. In "Constellation", Sonja (ethnic Russian, born and raised in Chechnya, trained as medical doctor in England) returns to practice in Chechnya in the 1990s mostly because she is worried sick about her younger sister who had stayed behind. Upon her return, Sonja goes out looking for her sister and finds herself in the middle of a city destroyed by warfare. "She wouldn't climb out of bed for her sister," Marra writes, "but she had climbed into a crater. She wouldn't cross a room, but she had crossed a continent." I found this description of family so hilariously accurate and poetic. And I think it was with that thought still fresh on my mind, that I began reading "Ghana Must Go"... It felt so perfectly applicable to the Sai family, too. As you were writing each of the children's characters, did any of them consider not going to Ghana upon receiving the news of Kweku's death?

Certainly, each of the children has—and has had—a peculiar relationship with Kweku. For Olu he is a fallen hero, Taiwo a negligent protector, Kehinde a hidden hurt, Sadie an aching absence. But none is so indifferent that skipping the funeral—not marking his death—is an option.

Helen Broadfoot at The Edit described the Sai family as "dysfunctional", which struck me as very odd. To me, they are actually very high-functioning, especially given the various traumas they find themselves working through. I spent a great deal of time wondering what makes that possible for them. It seems to me that Kweku and Fola's biggest gift to their children is teaching them about living with internal dignity and pride, in addition to wanting to be externally successful. I think that's why as you read about the various setbacks that each of the characters face, you never really think...oh, man, so-and-so is a mess. Nobody, not even Kweku, ever loses their dignity. How deep did you need to dig, to find so much compassion for him? Oh, I don't think the Sais are dysfunctional people at all. They function, individually, as most of us do: pressing on in the face of pain, ignoring our hurts, masking our shame. But of course, they don't function as a family—in precisely the same way most families fail to function: they don't tell each other their deepest truths.

Growing up, I knew so many people whose fathers had abandoned their families. I don't know if it was an epidemic limited to the 80s and 90s, but none of my first cousins, for example, spent an entire childhood with his/her father. I began to wonder at a certain point whether our fathers quite simply didn't care about us: a painful, shaming thought to say the least. It wasn't until my late 20s that I began to befriend my father–and to consider that perhaps these acts of abandonment (his included) manifested a pain of their own. My compassion for Kweku arises, perhaps, from an effort to de-villianize the absentee father, not to excuse his absence but to acknowledge his hurt.

This is the exchange between Fola and Taiwo when Fola is confronted about having sent the twins to Nigeria with their (ultimately abusive) uncle:
"I thought he could provide things I couldn't afford, I wanted you to have, I don't know, to have more..."
"More than what?"
"Than a single mother. Than a mother like me."
I don't think that Fola ever actually believes she would have been a bad mother, but her inability to give a good reason why she thought this was the right thing to do is incredibly authentic. It's exactly what an immigrant would want for their children... MORE. More of what?! More of EVERYTHING. I feel incredible love for Fola and wonder how tired she must always feel... Do you think that by the end of the novel she is able to reach some semblance of peace? Do you think that once her children have all returned to her - literally and metaphorically - she will be able to take a breath? 

Fola is a very particular woman. I always grow a bit sad when I see her taken as an archetype of the African Mother, the Immigrant Mother, or worse: the long-suffering stay-at-home mom. Fola is wholly her own: inexplicable with reference to stereotypes, perhaps inexplicable full stop. The woman still baffles me (laughing). The best we can do, I think, is to look to her past to understand her actions. Fola grew up without a mother (indeed, largely without a father) and so perceives herself as winging it when it comes to parenting. She lost her father in the most arbitrary way, and so doesn't fundamentally trust attachment. But she loves her children with all of her heart and would do anything to ensure their success. Specifically for Taiwo, she defines this success with reference to things she wanted herself: a top-notch education, the chance to study law, professional achievement, etc. By the end of the novel we find her (1) acknowledging her loneliness; (2) accepting that her role as a caretaker no longer provides an identity; and (3) opening to the possibility of new love. This, I think, is reconciliation. This is the beginning of peace.

The meaning of success is such a central theme in the book but also in immigrant conversations all over the world. An immigrant feels so much pressure to escape a choiceless situation but also to make the most of the new place where they arrive. The stakes seem so high. The Sai children seemed to be in an even more difficult predicament, especially the twins... especially Taiwo... Almost organically knowing how important it is to be good, to be successful... but also, again, almost instinctively knowing they have to break free of that pressure. Taiwo's journey sounds really close to your personal journey and as a PhD drop-out myself, I really want to ask how you thought about leaving academia and how that process worked its way into the novel.
Ha! Well, most simply, the novel would never have been written had I not abandoned the D.Phil. But all creative journeys begin with a leap of faith, no? In my case it was acknowledging that I desperately wanted to write, then clearing my life of every other pursuit. It was a long time coming. In 2001—a decade before I finished Ghana Must Go—I wrote an essay about following one's dreams; this slightly evangelical text somehow ended up in the Yale yearbook. I ended that piece quoting the ever-brilliant Rilke, who chastens the young writer to ask himself whether he must write and, if the answer be yes, to "build his life according to that necessity." I laugh when I think how long it took me to follow my own advice. Academia, the professions: they're seductively affirming for the insecure artist. Parents brag, friends admire, bosses and teachers praise. To leave behind the straight-and-narrow requires some nascent faith in oneself (though crushing boredom with one's job or seething envy of other artists have been known to work just as well).

Several reviewers have remarked on the musicality of your writing but I can't help but mention how sartorially sensitive this novel is. When Olu remarks on his father's "scientist-immigrant" glasses, I laughed out loud, because I could absolutely picture those frames! Fashion is such a big part of the immigrant's journey. This interview is becoming too confessional, but my first year as an international student at a small private liberal arts college here in the South, I saved my money to buy a pair of khaki trousers from the GAP. They were hideous and were definitely my first and ONLY pair of khakis. No self-respecting East European woman will ever be seen in public wearing such pants, but I rocked them almost every day my second semester of college and felt so empowered, I felt like I had cracked some code. Your book's focus is so inward and psychological, did sartorial details slip in organically or did you think about them explicitly?

Ah, I never think about the details explicitly: they're just always there. When I walk around I always notice what people are wearing: it's endlessly entertaining, these little visual stories of who a person is or believes him/herself to be. But I love that you recognized the scientist-immigrant glasses! 50% of my West African uncles still wear them. And if I ever get around to running for president of Ghana, I'm going to get a pair, too.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The international mongrels of the world, the international bastards, the patriots of elsewhere

Polaroid portrait of Colum McCann at Taschen New York by Jeremiah Wilson 
In a conversation recently somebody asked me to describe my website, what I write about and why, and I found myself at a loss for words. Yes, this is an immigration blog but even though I often describe it as such, the definition doesn't always fit. At its core, the experiences that have moved me to continue to write over the years are the experiences of an immigrant: the person who leaves their country of national origin to seek better, broader horizons. But, to paraphrase Josip Novakovic, my immigrant saga has neither been touching nor difficult. In many ways, the experiences that I have had in this country have been joyful and nurturing. For the most part, my life in America has aligned with the lives of those with extreme privilege. So, when I feel discomfort about being here, weirdness about not being FROM here, embarrassment about where I am from or ambivalence about where ultimately I would like to end up, I tend to freeze. Perhaps my "issues", I wonder, are not immigrant issues. Maybe...they are psychological. Maybe... it's just me.

But I am now (the last person in the world to be) reading Colum McCann's magnificent Let The Great World Spin and came across an interview with the author in which he said:
I’m interested in what Ondaatje calls the “international mongrels of the world,” or what Rushdie calls the “international bastards,” all those people with no place and yet every place inside them. The best line I ever heard along these lines was from John Berger. I met him in Paris. We were both a little over-served, shall we say, wine and vodka, and I asked him where he was from. He looked at me strangely, as we are friends and we’d been corresponding a long time, and he said, “England, of course.” And I said in the most ridiculous way, “I know, I know, I know, but where are you from from?” He smiled that big smile of his, those eyes of his. He waited a long time and then he said that he was “a citizen—no, no, not a citizen—a patriot of elsewhere.”
An international mongrel, a bastard, a patriot of elsewhere. YES. That's me! But I read what I read, and write what I write to feel less like it's JUST me.

Friday, July 4, 2014


Federico Zandomeneghi, The Reader

The Y.A. debate, in short, is about more than young-adult books and their not-so-young readers. It’s a recapitulation of a deeper debate that we’ve been having for centuries—a debate about why books matter to us, and what reading is “for.” It’s also a debate about who we want to be. Talking about what makes us cry is also a way of talking about ourselves. With each way of talking—sentimental, sensational, aesthetic—we say something different: that we’re kindhearted and empathetic, or passionate and romantic, or sensitive to beauty and the pleasures of art. Saint, lover, artist: surely these are all good ways of being. Probably, though, we’ll keep arguing about them forever. Nabokov was wrong; we never lose interest in the adolescent project of learning to live. 
Pelagia Horgan for The New Yorker 

Monday, June 16, 2014

What do you call Ghana-Must-Go Bags... in Eastearn Europe?

This question is provoked by the fact that I am currently reading Taiye Selasi's beautiful debut novel, Ghana Must Go . The book takes its title from the "Ghana-Must-Go" bags that, according to Selasi, were first used by Ghanaian immigrants forced to leave Nigeria in 1983. People had to pack all their belongings in a hurry and they used these cheap, sturdy bags that became known as "Ghana-Must-Go" bags. (According to Selasi, the term is embraced by Ghanaians.) So... my question for you is... what are these bags called in Eastern Europe? I have a vague memory that I read about them either in a Josip Novakovich or an Aleksandar Hemon book... and now I'm having trouble locating the reference! HELP!!!

Discovered the (East) European equivalent of the "Ghana Must Go" bag: "Tuekenkoffer", i.e. Turkish suitcase. I also found out that in Hong Kong, people call these bags 'amah bags' because Filipina domestic helpers use them (especially when sending stuff back to the Philippines) - 'amah' being a Chinese word for maid/nanny. Now you know.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

If you’re ever wanting for a direct assessment of your talents, ask a Bosnian.

Photo: Kyle Coma-Thompson 

Tobias Carroll interviews Kyle Coma-Thompson for Vol.1 Brooklyn, whose new collection of short stories, The Lucky Body, is just out on Dock Street Press. I haven't read the book but the interview got me really intrigued. Apparently, Eastern Europe is at the core of several of the stories (and in Coma-Thompson's upcoming novel) and Carroll asked what attracted him to that setting. Here's his answer, in full (the bold is mine):
I’d say Eastern Europe was on my mind while I was writing these stories because three of my closest friends, whom I see regularly, emigrated from there, two from Bosnia, one from Romania. One of the Bosnians and the Romanian are professors of history, the other Bosnian is a poet. The poet was, in fact, the person who first suggested to me that I try writing stories. The reason? He hates my poems. If you’re ever wanting for a direct assessment of your talents, ask a Bosnian. They’ll put a swift end to any illusions you might be having. 
So when these friends and I get together, we drink. When we drink, we tell stories. The benefit of telling stories with a historian in the room is that you can often count on getting the long view of certain events and details. 
That said, I’ve gravitated towards the literature of Eastern Europe long before I fell into writing fiction. Miroslav Holub, Zbigniew Herbert, and Celan were some of the first poets whose writing was consistently engaging to me; the same for Bruno Schulz, Ivo Andrić, and Danilo Kiš, with fiction. Something about the formalist approach to socio-political subject matter had a solid, resonant appeal to me; and this, I think, is a general trait of Eastern European literature, or at least a trait common among those writers who have been translated into English and perhaps packaged that way, to feed into an aura of presumed cultural relevance during the Cold War period. 
No bullshit in a sharp, exacting style, with flair. I supposed that’s what appealed to me.
I love this answer and I think it describes the flair with which us Balkan people go about life and friendships. I just never really thought about our literature in that way but then again, my knowledge of Eastern European literature is pretty dismal. I am excited to pick up The Lucky Body and also maybe commit to learning my people's literature.

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Identity politics affects the way stories are being circulated, read and reviewed

The writer and commuter James Baldwin gave an interview in 1984 in which he was repeatedly asked about his homosexuality. When the interviewer tried to pigeonhole him as a gay writer, Baldwin stopped and said, "But don't you see? There's nothing in me that is not in everybody else, and nothing in everybody else that is not in me." When identity politics tries to put labels on us, it is our freedom of imagination that is in danger. There's a fuzzy category called multicultural literature in which all authors from outside the Western world are lumped together. I never forget my first multicultural reading, in Harvard Square about 10 years ago. We were three writers, one from the Philippines, one Turkish and one Indonesian -- like a joke, you know. (Laughter) And the reason why we were brought together was not because we shared an artistic style or a literary taste. It was only because of our passports.Multicultural writers are expected to tell real stories, not so much the imaginary. A function is attributed to fiction. In this way, not only the writers themselves, but also their fictional characters become the representatives of something larger.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Writer as a placeless member of the Society of the Imagination

Photo Credit: Ian Williams for The National Post

Henry Krempels has a great interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie over at Daily Beast. He is particularly interested in the ways in which the city of Lagos inspires her writing. Adichi shares that Lagos gives so much to complain about and at the same time, so much to love... especially for a writer. For example, she says gets annoyed about sitting in traffic entirely too much and at the same time recognizes the endless possibilities for stories to write about that very same experience. Who are the people sitting and waiting with you? What is happening in their lives? 

Do you think it matters where a writer comes from when considering their ideas? Does the idea of place still exist for a writer?
It's nice to imagine it doesn't but it does. If you are a writer from a country like Nigeria or Pakistan or Sudan or Bangladesh, you are much more likely to be aware of where you come from because you'll have trouble with travel - the process of applying for a visa would itself make a short story. And it belies the idea of the writer as a placeless member of the Society of the Imagination. 

I wish I could put her in conversation with Jhumpa Lahiri.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

On the privilege of being American, on being nostalgic about dark times and the difference between writing about politics and writing political fiction.

The UnAmericans is Molly Antopol's first book and I say this with so much sadness because the moment I finished reading it, I wanted MORE. So, I went back and re-read my favorite stories from her debut collection. The three absolute stand-outs for me were The Quietest Man, in which a Czech dissident scrambles to make a living on adjunct gigs after the world has lost interest in his area of expertise (communism, communism's aftermath) and under the constant fear that his daughter will expose his poor parenting in the play she has just been commissioned to write. My Grandma Tells Me This Story is about Jewish resistance fighters in Belarus, a gaggle of teenagers who build a village and an army in an effort to survive. And last, but not least, I adored the closing story of the collection, Retrospective, in which an Israeli man travels back to Jerusalem for an art retrospective celebrating his American wife's grandmother. The journey is precipitated by difficulties in the marriage and complicated by the mystic figure of the grandmother and her extraordinary but not untroubled life. Of course, the moment I list these three stories as favorites, I start agonizing over my choice... because every single one of the pieces in the collection is just as powerful.

I talked to Molly via Skype in early March as she was taking a little breather from her book tour and I originally intended to transcribe and edit the conversation down to proper interview length. However, I had so much fun talking to Molly that I thought it'd be fun to share the actual conversation. The audio quality is not perfect but I think you will be charmed by the person as well as moved by the writer Antopol! If nothing else, PLEASE read the book!


The UnAmericans is wonderful for so many reasons and, definitely, subject matter is one of them. Antopol is interested in the ways in which politics and grand historic moments affect the day to day existence of ordinary human beings. In her McCarthy Era stories, she tells a story of a surveillance state but through the eyes of those being closely watched. In A Difficult Phase, the life of an Israeli reporter working in Ukraine is interrupted by the financial crisis in the United States. But the stories are not didactic and you will actually find yourself wondering about the political opinions of the person who wrote so compassionately about such a diverse set of characters.

Because the stories are so firmly grounded to actual historic moments and locales, I wanted to know more about Molly's family - where they were from and what they did - and her experience of living in Israel.

As you read Molly's stories, you get a very keen sense of the ways in which geography, place and history have an impact on the way people move in the world. For example, you become aware of the subtle ways in which being American makes it so easy for Americans to travel and slide right into place anywhere in the world. Does that have to do with nationality or something else? Class? Privilege?

Speaking of careers driven by conflict, what happens if your entire life is defined by a conflict and then the conflict is gone? Can you be nostalgic about dark times? (These questions seem especially relevant in the context of various political conflicts we are baring witness to. Could Putin be missing the Cold War? Yeah, we lived in fear but we were relevant, weren't we?)

In the next clip, Molly Antopol talks about the research she did for The UnAmericans, traveling to Eastern Europe and Israel to learn about the people and places she was writing about and filling in the gaps when the person/location was no longer there. We also talk about the difference between researching facts and discovering truth. Bonus footage: Molly's dog Rocky makes an appearance and our dogs Lyudmila + Hamlet begin barking at him. Dog party! P.S. So sorry, Jennifer DuBois, for totally blanking out and forgetting your name. I adored Partial History of Lost Causes!


The next question is for the writers among you, I was really curious about Molly's writing process and given the diverse subjects and settings of her work, in particular, if she worked on a single story at a time.

Stylistically, what I love about Molly's stories is how novelistic they are. They span generations and locales, cover conflicts personal but also political... The stories really caught me off-guard because I really didn't know that short stories could be and do that. So this is the point in our interview where I had to admit my ignorance and just ask Molly if that was a common approach to short story writing. What I got was a fantastic answer and discovered a fellow lover of a good back-story AND a reading list. Get your pen out, you would want to write this down.

Since Molly mentioned it took her about 10 years to finish her book, I was really curious to know if in the process of writing, her stories would change. What happens to a story when you take a long time to write it? Do you come back to it to find that in your absence your characters have completely changed?

Here are Molly's thoughts on the difference between writing about politics and writing political fiction, a distinction that is important to her and really comes through in her work.

And here are some final notes on the upcoming translations of The UnAmericans in Europe, on saying good-bye to her characters and her next book project.

Thank you, Molly!
Thank you guys for reading!