Monday, June 20, 2011

My Sympathies

I’m an aunt! Again! My niece was born, healthy and hale, last Tuesday evening.

As much as I love my nephew, I feel a special affinity for E.---and not just because she looks and acts much like I did as a newborn. I’m also the second of two, and so I have a particular sympathy for her position in the family. Indeed, I can already see the same (troublesome) patterns emerging. Although I can understand and respect the need to reassure the older child that he is still a special and much-loved part of the family, my family has a tendency to overcompensate for that insecurity. All my life, my position in the family and my accomplishments have been defined in terms of how they will affect my older sister. I was never allowed to be special or to celebrate what is unique about me in the same way that my sister was because to do so might make her feel badly about herself.

I can already see this same path for my niece. For every gift she gets (or her mother gets on her behalf), my nephew gets two. They even removed E. from the room before A. came down from his nap yesterday---when both sides of the family gathered for a Fathers Day/Welcome Baby/Thanksgiving dinner---so that he wouldn’t have to share the attention with his baby sister.

This all seems a bit extreme and overcompensating---and eventually damaging to my niece’s sense of self. But I’m curious how other families have handled the same situation. Am I just being oversensitive and paranoid?


On another note: I’ve finished the first book of my Reading Africa challenge. My mother keeps stealing my Kindle, so I had to change the order of books a bit. So instead of reading Gurnah’s Desertion, I read Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee.

I’m dissatisfied, perplexed, annoyed, conflicted. I feel like I need someone way smarter than me to tell me how I’m supposed to read this book.

***Warning: Spoilers Ahead***

In a nutshell, the novel concerns a middle-age scholar-cum-reluctant professor, David Lurie, living in post-Apartheid South Africa. After losing his weekly appointment with a prostitute because he semi-stalks her, he then begins a short-lived “affair” with one of his students after semi-stalking her as well and possibly raping her. He’s dismissed from the university and sends himself into exile at his daughter’s homestead in the Eastern Cape. While staying with his daughter, she’s gang-raped and he’s beaten by three black men at her home. David and his daughter clash over her decision of how to cope after the rape (he wants her to report the rape to the police and move away from her homestead; she refuses to do either).

I appreciate that Coetzee takes on a difficult and politically unpopular topic: how do white South Africans cope in the post-apartheid era. I’m sensitive and somewhat sympathetic the precariousness and fear that many white South Africans felt (and continue to feel); while in Malawi, I met a number of white Zimbabweans who had been forced out of---and sometimes fled under attack from---their homes during Mugabe’s regime. They had been born in Zimbabwe; their parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents had lived their whole lives in Zimbabwe. Many were still fearful that they could again be dislocated from Malawi. Moreover, I have the experience of being a white woman in Africa and understand (some of ) the ways that you are marked by your race and your gender.

That all said, I thought the main character was unsympathetic and troubling and, well, disgraceful. The author seemed to be asking me not only to sympathize with but to admire someone I thought was racist, elitist, and misogynist. (I think) I’m supposed to see David as heroic when he refuses to offer a full confession and apology as part of the university’s inquest into his affair with his student. (I think) I’m supposed to think that he was bravely taking on the culture of political correctness by refusing to apologize for giving in to “Eros.” Instead I read his actions as those of an entitled man who refuses to accept responsibility for his crime: using his power to coerce a girl into an unwanted sexual exchange. Even after his daughter’s rape, David again refuses--or simply can’t---make the connection between the abuse and exploitation she suffered (and continues to suffer) and the ways that he exploited and abused other women (the prostitute, his student, another prostitute at the end of the novel). (I think) I'm supposed to see him as the voice of reason, being drowned out by the chaos of the post-apartheid transition, when he tries to convince his daughter to report the rape to the police and leave her homestead. Yet I would argue that he contributes to the violation of his daughter by attempting to force her to adopt the position he thinks she should take regarding the rape (as the helpless victim). And again at the end of the novel, when we discover that the daughter’s tenant/worker is using the rape---and was possibly active in arranging it---to force her to marry him and turn over her land in exchange for protection, (I think) I'm supposed to sympathize with David for wanting to protect his daughter and find a way to start over, clear of the baggage of apartheid. But I was more angered that David still doesn’t make the connection between his own use of sex as an exploitative form of exchange (sex for money, sex for grades) and that being suffered by his daughter. Adding insult to injury is the great “revelation” of the novel: that David has been “enriched” by each of his sexual relationships---and he claims hundreds of them---and therefore should not have to apologize for his behavior---to the women, to the university, to God---or feel any disgrace for his actions. (Never mind what the women might think about these exchanges; they only serve as symbols in the novel.)

I’m both intrigued and perplexed by Coetzee’s approach to race in the novel. He often doesn’t state a given character’s race outright. He makes vague illusions via physical characteristics, although never specific enough for me to be able to say definitively what race a given character is, or he’ll later clarify a character’s race. But he often leaves race unspoken. I’m torn on whether this is a clever commentary on the reader’s prejudices (that we assume the attackers are black Africans without being told immediately) or whether the author is revealing his own prejudices (of course the attackers are black Africans because they are the source of violence in post-Apartheid South Africa). (I’m still not clear on whether I’m supposed to read the character of Melanie, the student, as black, white, or other; given the context of the novel, I think it matters to how you interpret that exchange and the fall-out from it.)

So I feel like I’m missing something, that I’m not getting the joke, so to speak. Surely we wouldn’t celebrate someone who seems to valorize such a despicable character and, by extension, such deplorable views? Yet the novel doesn’t seem to be broad enough for satire. What am I not reading in this novel? Can someone who is smarter, better read, more insightful please explain this book to me?

I’m also now curious how other authors---particularly women and black South Africans---have dealt with the post-Apartheid transition, so I’ve added to my list two more South African books: The House Gun by Nadine Gordimer and The Heart of Redness by Zakes Mda.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

How I'm Spending My Summer Vacation

On the top of my post-Malawi to-do list was spending loads of time with my nephew, A. He’s now 2 years old and a whole new person from the one I left 10 months ago. He runs around, talks, plays games, climbs up jungle gyms, sleeps in a real bed that he gets into himself. Who is this person?

Most of my visits with him have gone well, although he’s still super-wary of me; he doesn’t talk much and is a little too well behaved. After all, I am a total stranger to him; he has no fixed memory of me. *sniff* But, we were making progress in our bonding, and I thought I was doing well as Auntie Lisa.

Until yesterday . . .

Some Lessons Learned:

* Two-year-olds do not understand sarcasm.
* Two-year-olds do not understand logic.
* Two-year-olds have amazing stamina and focus when it comes to getting what they want. Especially when what they want is their mommy.
* Never attempt a new recipe when baking with a two-year-old.
* Never turn your back on a two-year-old who is holding a full bottle of sprinkles.

We had a few close calls and a lot of clean up, but we managed to bake some cupcakes. A. got to pick the mix-ins for the batter, so we had chocolate-chip-and-rainbow-sprinkle cakes and blueberry-M&M-snowflake cakes. Decorated with bright yellow icing and red, pink, and white sprinkles. Surprisingly, they were rather tasty.


Despite being a (quickly disappearing) farming community, my hometown has surprisingly few farmers markets. A couple of large, semi-permanent markets have created a bit of a monopoly. But some folks are trying to create some alternative markets. We have one market that has run one Saturday a month for the past few years; now a new market started last month, also once a month.

The new market had all of five stands today, and two of them were mostly selling plants, not produce. But I still managed to fill up the fridge with goodies: kale, zucchini, radishes, red leaf lettuce, tomatoes, new potatoes, spring onions. I also got garlic scapes, which I’m eager to try. I’ve never cooked with them before, but they were only one dollar for a bunch of three, so I figured it was worth the risk.

The challenge now is to find recipes that my mother---who prefers her food as bland and predictable as possible---will eat. I've convinced her to give fish tacos a try this coming week, so I have some hope.


I’ve decided to take on a year-long reading challenge to read a book from each African country. As much as I’ve read about Africa and Africans, I’ve read very little by Africans. So the only rule to my self-imposed challenge is that each book has to be written by someone from Africa. I’m focusing mostly on fiction, but I haven’t ruled out nonfiction (particularly because some countries might have very little available in English-language or translated fiction).

But the first snag in my plan is deciding, Who is an African writer? Can I count J.M. Coetzee as a South African writer? He was born there, spent most of his life there, but . . . well . . . he’s white. He’s not an “indigenous” South African.

What about others who were born or spent a significant part of their lives in an African nation but now live and write from and about a non-African place? What about white Africans?

Mind you, I give this challenge until about mid-September before it entirely falls apart under the weight of my ridiculous academic-year schedule (four courses per term, plus a teaching assistant position, plus a part-time job; I’m not even pretending that I’m going to get work done on my dissertation until next June).

In the meantime, first on my list is Desertion by A. Gurnah (Tanzania).

Any thoughts on how to define an "African" writer? Any recommendations for books by African writers?

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Life as I Knew It

Best 270 S.A. rand I've ever spent.*

I had a five-hour layover in Johannesburg on my way back to the States, so I thought I'd do a little shopping at the duty-free shop to transition myself back into my life. After restocking my basics at Clinique (lip gloss, mascara, hand cream), I perused some of the other goodies. I was drawn to the Smashbox counter because (1) they package their stuff beautifully and (2) I seemed to recall someone---Artemisia, maybe?---writing glowingly about their eye primer. I don't wear much eye makeup in general---and never in summer---but I thought I'd give one of their foundation primers a try.


I tend to prefer minimal makeup, especially in the summer, but I still want to look put together and pretty. The Photo Finish Light foundation primer is the perfect middle ground: it's super light on my skin and I don't have to worry about blending, but it still somehow has these magical transformative powers that make my skin smoother, lighter, more even, less shiny.



So by "transition myself back into my life," I apparently mean being as lazy and shallow as humanly possible. My transition process involves long days of laying in bed with my computer, catching up on gossip and Go Fug Yourself and television (Glee! Top Chef! Mythbusters!).**

I do occasionally rouse myself---to get treats (Chai Latte! Greek Yogurt! Utz Chips! Cheese!) or go on a shopping spree (DSW! Ann Taylor Loft!) or restock on glossy magazines (People! Elle! Vogue! Food & Wine!).


I did manage to find a summer job. I'll be providing before and after daycare for kids attending a local summer camp. It's not a lot of hours---or pay---but I'll at least cover my basic expenses for the next couple of months. And I keep telling myself that the job will provide a good structure for my days: I work two hours in the morning and another two in the afternoon. In between, I can work on dissertation stuff (translation, coding, reading).

That's what I tell myself anyway.


I'm trying to get myself back to running this summer, too, now that I'm once again in a place with decent surfaces and not too many hills and where I can run outside without feeling unsafe or self-conscious.

I've gone twice since getting back to the States, and I didn't lose as much fitness as I thought I had. I'm currently doing run/walk intervals for about 20-25 minutes; my goals is to run a 5K by the end of the summer.

*I didn't convert to dollars because, really, I don't want to know.
**Have I mentioned that Tory Belleci is my new imaginary boyfriend and future husband?