White Ivy is a novel about identity, but Susie Yang stakes out a rather singular identity for the protagonist of her debut novel: “Ivy Lin was a thief,” the book begins.
Ivy steals a great many things in the course of her Chinese-born immigrant coming-of-age-in-America story, and the toys and trinkets she lifts from stores and yard sale as a child, under the careful tutelage of her grandmother, are just training tools. As she grows up, Ivy begins to understand that what she really wants to pilfer is a place in old-moneyed WASP society. As Yang also says at the beginning, no one ever suspected that this demure and nondescript girl was a thief, “and that made her reckless.” And her reckless, even feckless, pursuit of status is what makes Ivy Lin an anti-hero destined to live on as one of the more chilling literary characters of a year that has had no shortage of chilling figures in real life.
This anti-hero makes up in covetousness what she lacks in talent, intellect, passion, drive, charm, social skills, or any qualities that would help her earn what we think of in this country as a rightful place based on ability and hard work. There are many reasons that America’s obsession with being an ostensible meritocracy is itself utterly unfair: why should anyone be left behind just because they aren’t a superstar? But that’s a debate for another day and another book. In this book, Yang has made Ivy intentionally unlikeable by letting her fall back on the one surefire outlet available to covetous women throughout history: marrying up.
There are two men whom Ivy first meets as a child growing up in the scrappy fictitious town of Fox Hill, Massachusetts, and, improbable though it may be, encounters again when she’s in her twenties and living in Boston.
The aptly-named Gideon Speyer is the boy who represents all to which Ivy aspires. He’s her classmate at the tony Grove Prep School, which the young Ivy is able to attend for a while because her father is a tech specialist there. She sees Gideon as “a certain type of clean-cut, all-American boy, hitherto unknown to her; the type of boy who attended Sunday school and plucked daisies for his mother on Mother’s Day.” His father is a state senator, his whole family displays a kind of honor that comes with a secure place in the world. Gideon won’t so much as slip out of a fast food joint with a soda he hasn’t paid for. And the Speyers own a summer cottage, a concept heretofore unfamiliar to Ivy.
She might end up with Gideon or she might end up with bad-boy Roux Roman, her neighbor in Fox Hill, the boy who knows about her thieving habit and extracts his own sense of ownership from the secrets they share. In her teens, she creeps over to Roux’s apartment one night after a fight with her mother—and thinks to herself that there are few things “more lowly, more sordid” than losing your virginity to spite your mother. When Roux reappears later, he has become very rich through a dubious business, and as an authorial voice pokes in to warn, he sees Ivy as “a prize he believed he’d duly paid for and belonged to him.”
But what Roux has to give Ivy is not so much a lure as something resembling an addiction to a seedy side of life where S&M reigns—and that’s what makes Ivy a far more disturbing character than she’d be if she were just a run-of-the-mill social climber.
The title and the Chinese proverb that opens the story —“The snow goose need not bathe to make itself white”—implying as they do that Ivy is trying to assimilate into what we used to call the American melting pot rather than honor her parents and the traditions they’ve brought with them, have, according to some of the reviews on Amazon, caused a certain amount of offense. But you can also read White Ivy with a more cavalier sense of whiteness as an antediluvian metaphor. Who wants a culture in which a thousand flavors assimilate into something diluted with a cloying overtone of vanilla anyway? On the other hand, there is always rich literary ground to be mined when a writer takes on the “gorgeous mosaic,” to borrow a phrase from the late David Dinkins, of psychological baggage that each culture brings to these shores.
It’s easy to see Ivy on some rung of the Western pantheon of criminally ambitious anti-heroes that includes Becky Sharp, Jay Gatsby, Tom Ripley, and Clyde Griffiths of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. But considering the rising sales of penthouses and designer goods in the world’s second-largest economy, she could just as easily have been a social climber in China. She does, in fact, have her first taste of excessive wealth when her parents punish her by sending her back to China to visit relatives, some of whom have been mega-successful. As it turns out, however, the return is a twist in the plot that gives Ivy’s mother, Nan, and her father, Shen, time to deceive her by leaving her beloved Massachusetts and moving to a fictitious New Jersey town that will be the setting for some very fluid twists and turns in the concept of upward mobility.
Yes, Ivy’s parents have no compunction about deceiving her. If there’s anything about Ivy that earns the reader’s sympathy it’s her life as a victim of semi-archetypal “tiger parents.” They push their children to be doctors or lawyers even if they show no obvious talent and believe having fun is as waste of time. But that’s where the archetype ends; peer below the surface and what lurks there are a father who doesn’t express love well and a mother who is mostly a cold-blooded monster, thanks to their own childhoods in rural China when it was still ruled by Mao.
The consummate experiment in building a utopian communal society backfired so spectacularly that its effects on the human psyche have been continuous fertile ground for a couple of generations of Chinese novelists, including Ha Jin, Mo Yan, Anchee Min and others too numerous to name. Nan learned how to survive in Maoist China by betraying others and living with alternate realities. The story Ivy hears is that Nan, in her youth, loved a handsome boy whose family was prosperous at a time when to have money was to be an enemy of the revolution—and so the boy ended up in a labor camp where he was beaten to death by another boy for stealing his ration of sweet potatoes. Nan married Shen not for love, but because he studied English and won Nan by promising to take her to America.
Ivy imagines her mother’s mean streak might come from still grieving for the boy she loved. Or maybe there’s more to the story. What is certainly true is that Ivy is an abused child, subject to frequent beatings followed by a few days of concessions. “If the beating was particularly vicious,” Yang writes, “Nan might even cook Ivy’s favorite dishes and allow her to watch television before starting her homework.” What also becomes clear is that when Ivy is with Roux, she’s acting out an unconscious legacy. This is where Yang’s prose most excels; in capturing what a previous generation has implanted upon the id of their children, creating a soft-spoken, fashionably coiffed monster baby who walks among us, carrying rage and self-loathing she doesn’t even know is there
Ivy herself wonders if the she-devil can contain herself and fit in with the Speyer family. So does the reader, and here is where Yang’s debut novel, so astute in its appraisal of how Chinese political trauma can destroy the soul, feels a bit dismissive of what makes New England WASPs tick beneath the shabby-chic, cocktail-swilling, clam-baking surface.
Still, Yang is getting at something through the rose-colored lens that makes Ivy’s perspective of the Speyers unreliable. Ivy sees their beach house—a house with a name, Finn Oaks—as a place where tradition is everything. The mantel contains photos going all the way back to the great grandparents, and even the ceiling planks and curtains are ancient, the piano badly out of tune. The roof leaks and Gideon’s mother cheerfully declares “we haven’t gotten around to repairs.” It takes ages, but eventually it dawns on Ivy that some old money families don’t actually have a lot of money left.
What’s more troubling for Ivy—or should trouble her more than it does—is Gideon’s frequently aloof manner and frequent reluctance to spend the night with her. I thought he’s just not that into her, or maybe he’s in the closet—but it was a suspenseful ride just because when Ivy attributed his behavior to WASP reserve, there weren’t enough objective cues to provide assurance that this was coming from Ivy’s naivety rather than authorial judgement.
Well, stay for the finale, because it turns out that Yang definitely wrote this with a plan. She has a zinger for Ivy, a revelation that will raise the anti-hero’s self-awareness so that she at least knows she’s staking her happiness to a code of silence. That’s a trait that runs through many cultures, and a reason to pity the children Ivy might have someday.
Each spring at City College of New York for 15 years, I have taught a course on the life and legacy of Malcolm X. As part of introducing the great leader to my students, I mix the course with invited guests, classroom lectures and audiovisual presentations. At least half of the time I take them on tours of Sugar Hill in Harlem and they can see where Malcolm lived, worked, hustled, was eulogized, and accumulated his iconic leadership. On one Saturday we met at the Tsion Café, a place where Malcolm once worked with Redd Foxx, in fact they were two reds—one from Detroit and the other from Chicago.
The class was just getting underway when I spotted Les Payne trekking up St. Nicholas on one of his leisurely walks around the community. I informed him of the class and asked if he could come and share a few minutes with my students about his research on Malcolm X. For more than a quarter century we had discussed Malcolm, most publicly as panelists on Gil Noble’s “Like It Is” on ABC-TV on Sunday afternoons. Without missing a beat he said he would gladly do it and hurried off to his home up the street to fetch a chapter of his book to share with us.
Since we were at the place once called Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, I asked Les, if possible, to share with us his chapter where Foxx is discussed. He returned promptly and unfolded the pages and read in that soft baritone that I had heard so many times seated near him in the studio. The students were mesmerized and hit him with a deluge of questions after he finished. This was my introduction to the book that would become “The Dead Are Arising” and eventually be the recipient of the National Book Award in 2020 in the nonfiction category.
In our many discussions about Malcolm and the project I had some clue of his approach and was informed that it would be like no other biography or commentary on Malcolm’s life. He only hinted at the direction he was going to take, what angle he would devise in examining a man he deeply admired, and one in which had not been trammeled to oblivion. Knowing his journalistic acumen, I had a feeling it would consist mainly of his own interviews and research, demurring the works of others, particularly the more recent, controversial ones.
On several occasions while waiting in the Green Room at the television station, he would divulge bits and pieces as he exchanged memories with Noble, me and Milton Allimadi, the other panelist. These were opportunities to have him regale us on what it took to earn him a Pulitzer Prize, and his role in the founding of the National Association of Black Journalists. I believe he used his influence to get me inducted into the organization’s Hall of Fame. That subject was broached to some extent over drinks at the NABJ annual convention in New Orleans that he attended in 2017 with his son Jamal. Once more we shared our Alabama roots—he was born in Tuscaloosa and I was born in Birmingham. Our conversation was repeatedly interrupted by dignitaries seeking a word or two with him. But the several Green Room chats with its relative privacy were the most rewarding, and even then it was nothing more than tantalizing teases, fresh perspectives he promised on Malcolm, especially his early years, his family life and his assassination, subjects that he felt had been given short shrift. One of the last times we had to chat was during a casual walk down St. Nicholas, and the banter then was on the Obama legacy, and few were informed as he was on the nation’s political machinations, particularly the Trump regime. I asked him how the book was progressing and he said he was just about there, and putting some finishing touches on it.
Those finishing touches and much of the earlier process is a magnificent achievement. When I heard the news that he had joined the ancestors on March 19, 2018, I was stunned and suddenly, like Manning Marable and Malcolm himself, he would not be around to deal with the celebration nor to respond to those who might question his conclusions. His daughter, Tamara, who worked with him all along on the project, summed it all up when she said her father not being able to experience the exultation was “bittersweet.”
Tamara was more than qualified to place the last period in the book. As she notes in the book’s introduction among her many tasks were to track down informants, and later transcribe the interviews for her father’s use. “Meeting Malcolm’s associates and family members over the years and watching Les Payne’s investigative techniques at work have been a unique reward of a lifetime for me,” she wrote. “My many discussions with him about how this work was taking shape proved to be invaluable in the finishing of the manuscript. As the co-pilot and co-navigator, I could confidently and successfully complete this part of the journey.”
Fortunately, most of the 600-page “journey” was complete, and only needed Tamara and other editors to ready it for production. This was a prodigious undertaking and Les went about it dutifully, painstakingly rounding up the coterie of folks—none more indispensable as Malcolm’s brothers, Wilfred and Philbert—whose recollections are vividly recounted from chapter to chapter. Wilfred, Malcolm’s eldest brother, shared family information with Les—an eight hour long interview—that is at the crux of the book’s early chapters, much of it heretofore never revealed. Readers are given day-to-day details of Malcolm’s family, its lineage, the spirited interaction between the siblings, their father’s death, and the later initialization of the mother that ruptured them forever.
Les is almost surgical in this retelling and in his chapter “The Anchor is Lost,” he offers a grim summary of the terror and tribulation the family endured. “Down through the ensuring generations, the Little family would appear to be haunted by the specter of death and disaster: home fires, prison, manslaughter, and arson, combined with race terror, feuding, mental breakdowns, even murder,” he recounted. “It was as if some curse of Shakespearean proportion had befallen this American family of pioneers out on the Great Plains—and most especially young Malcolm and his offspring down through the decades.”
From Omaha, where Malcolm was born May 19, 1925, to Milwaukee and to several locations in Michigan, Les charts the movement of the Little family, and his research not only complements Malcolm’s autobiography but expands and corrects episodes, with a deeper dive into the social and political landscape that stifled the Littles and other Black Americans struggling against racism, bigotry and discrimination. In doing this, there are extensive riffs and sometimes Les devotes far too much time to a particular tangent, so much so that Malcolm’s narrative is subsumed. An example of this occurs in his summary on the history of the Ku Klux Klan, which while rewarding goes on much too long, and even then without noting the actual circumstances that led the unmentioned Nathan Bedford Forest to founding it. An additional quibble—and that essentially is what they are—occurs in his discussion of the early years of the Nation of Islam in Detroit. Les cites John Muhammad, Elijah’s brother, but the pivotal person in the creation of the group was John’s wife Burnsteen Sharrieff Muhammed, who still awaits a full exposition of her crucial secretarial and organizational skills. There are a few other errors of fact that will surely be corrected in the paperback version, but they are minor compared to the major sweeping, almost epic majesty that Les accomplishes.
Les devotes quite a bit of space to Hartford, Connecticut that includes his own coming of age there and the establishment of the NOI mosque in the city. This is one of the longest and most insightful interviews that contextualizes Malcolm’s genius, Les’ vision, and the recall of a mosque member. At this moment the hallmark of Les’ process, literary style and historical perspective is fully displayed. It is here, too, that the book’s title is graphically explained. The chapter on Hartford closes with Malcolm’s letter to Elijah in 1956, proudly proclaiming “The East Coast has many rough spots (due to the newness of the Muslims). But overall the dead there are rising.”
Along with an epilogue, the book has a folios of photos, a full account of Malcolm’s assassination and a few revelations, as well as an appendix with Malcolm’s responses to a questionnaire supplied by the Islamic Centre of Geneva, Switzerland.
Some dyed-in-the-wool Malcolmites are sure to wish he had done more on the last year of his life, in which his political maturation was reaching a pinnacle, and perhaps more on some of the latest developments and debates surrounding Malcolm’s short but eventful life, including the CIA’s involvement. But those concerns would entail another volume, and that, lamentably, cannot be done by Les. He has made his monumental contribution to Malcolm’s canon and as he often joked with me, what more can they expect “from two Black boys from Alabama.”
You enter Fallingwater by way of a trail from the parking lot and in the fall when I was there the red maples and golden oaks shimmered in the light looking to a Southern Californian like something out of an animated cartoon, giving truth to the maxim that you must visit the Eastern states in the fall. It’s a short walk and when the cantilevered ochre and Cherokee red structure emerges all at once in your sightline witnesses have said that people have burst into tears.
The man who designed Fallingwater was Frank Lloyd Wright and he was and is so ubiquitous in this country and in much of the world that no matter where you live you probably aren’t far from one of his creations. He outlived most of the world-class architects he competed with and sometimes railed against—born two years after the Civil War he lived into the age of television, a medium that often gave him a platform and which he deftly learned to use to his advantage.
When he died at 91 in 1959 he had designed more than 1,000 buildings and astoundingly, as Paul Hendrickson tells it in his magnificent new book Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright his plans were executed over three centuries, with buildings from his designs going up as recently as 2007.
There was a time when nearly everyone knew something about Wright, in part because he seemed to permeate the media. Maybe they had heard that his buildings tended to leak or maybe they had heard something about the worst day of his life: August 15, 1914. That day was almost exactly the middle of his long life but it was so horrific and inexplicable and, in some ways, emblematic of his whole life, that Hendrickson uses it as the centerpiece of this meticulously researched and beautifully written book.
Hendrickson is drawn to central themes in his biographies, finding a thread in a life that leans toward tying it together in ways we may not have seen before. He did this deftly in Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost (2011), spinning the story of the writer’s life around the two decades that he kept his boat Pilar at Key West in Florida and Havana Harbor in Cuba. In his current book (released in soft cover this fall) he chronicles the great successes and tragic losses in Wright’s life—losses often connected with fire.
In August of 1914 Woodrow Wilson was president. The U.S. had yet to enter World War I. Wright had a thriving architecture business mostly centered around Chicago, but he had built his work studio and house for his mistress and her children he called Taliesin, Welsh for “shining brow,” outside of Madison, Wisconsin. He was doing business in Chicago the day that Julian Carlton, a young man who worked at Taliesin, killed Wright’s mistress, Mamah Cheney, three of her children and three houseguests.
He used a hand axe for the bloody murders, then set the house on fire. No one knows the motive for the murders. Carlton starved himself to death in a jail cell awaiting trial. Hendrickson probably does more than any other researcher to find a back life for Carlton. But he remains mostly a mystery. Wright would rebuild Taliesin over the coming years and it would burn again. And there would be more. In a late interview he said “I’ve been plagued by fire all my life.”
For perspective, Wright, born in Racine, Wisconsin, built his first house and opened his architecture office, after apprenticing with the father of the skyscraper, Louis Sullivan, in 1893 in Oak Park, Illinois, outside Chicago. He was 26. In 1899 Ernest Hemingway was born in Oak Park. They were practically neighbors. Both would indelibly change the way we look at their respective art forms. Both were schooled in European masters but were intent on forging a new American style. Wright consumed and rejected the dominant Beaux Arts school; Hemingway revered Turgenev and Chekhov but found his own native voice.
To oversimplify, for Hemingway there was his iceberg theory—basically that less is more in writing. It is that 80 percent under the sea which isn’t directly told that informs a story—and for Wright it was organic architecture: a building had to grow out of the soil surrounding it in harmony with the nature of the setting and with the people inhabiting it. For both, the more you could leave out the stronger the work. Both looked outside their artform for inspiration.
For Hemingway it was the French Impressionists, particularly Cezanne; Wright would say that the greatest architect was Beethoven, who he said his father—a sometime composer—created an “edifice of sound.” He was particularly fond of the Eroica (3rd symphony) which he would play on the piano in the burning embers of Taliesin.
In reading Hendrickson, I found it astonishing that Wright was active nearly throughout Hemingway’s entire life. He died in 1959, Hemingway in 1961. It could be said that Hemingway’s artistic prime was just a small pocket of time—20 odd years—within the 70-year working life of the great architect.
(I want to say here that Paul Hendrickson’s biographies of these two seminal American artists are indispensable for those who want to know how they grew into and expanded their respective crafts while also humanizing the two whose public personas tended to alienate many people.)
One of Wright’s most prolific periods surprisingly spanned the Great Depression. And two of his greatest works are emblematic of his relationships with clients who once hitched to his vision put up with delays and cost overruns that doubled and tripled the original estimates for the projects. Sometimes those costs and delays were because Wright was attempting to do things with land and materials for which the nascent technologies were not yet developed. His S.C. Johnson building, completed in 1934, was said in Life Magazine to owe nothing to “foreign inspiration, different from anything ever built in the world before.” (The foreign inspiration that Wright rebelled against at that time was that of the Bauhaus school, led by Mies van der Rohe, which gave the country the massive glass cubes we now think of as modern architecture.)
Popularly known as the Johnson Wax administration building, Wright’s was commissioned for the building that would stand at the middle of the plant. Herbert F. Johnson was a humane executive with an artistic bent who had sought out Wright just as the Depression hit. Johnson kept his workers employed throughout the devastating first years of the period that at its peak saw nearly 25 percent unemployment.
His chemists came up with a product known as “Glo-Coat” which nearly every home in America used to wax its floors. The original estimate for the building was $200,000 but as with so many Wright buildings that was no more than a wildly understated guestimate. By the time it was completed in 1939 it had run up to ten times as much ($2.1 million). Life Magazine called the end result a work of “genuine American architecture, owing nothing to foreign inspirations, different from anything ever built in the world before.” Hendrickson: “The world beat a path to Racine to see what he’d made, and it still does. What you find on the outside is a curvilinear, streamlined, red-brick face, looking vaguely like some Art Deco moon station…. When I saw it for the first time, the experience surpassed expectations. Such a vaulted grace, in an American workspace. … It almost felt like a diorama—of galactic proportions.”
Running in parallel time with the Johnson Wax building, 500 miles away in Bear Run, 60 miles southeast of Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar J. Kaufman had land in with creek running through it on which he wanted to construct a vacation home. On December 18, 1934 Wright and Kaufman met for the first time at the site. “I have heard it figuratively said that the greatest service any architect can provide for his client comes in the first fifteen minutes of standing at the site,” Hendrickson writes. “He sees something that people with normal eyes cannot see.”
What Wright saw was a house built right over the stream, breaking down the separation between the house and the water, making them all one. What resulted was a multi-cantilevered structure that the New York Times called “a house that summed up the twentieth century and then thrust it forward still further.”
Hendrickson describes its “three layers of concrete terraces leaping out into space. In effect, the house, like the stream over top of which she hangs, is her own cascading thing of terraces and balconies, if not quite pure projections into thin mountain oxygenated mist, then appearing so.” It is a miracle to see. It is a UNESCO World Heritage protected site.
Hendrickson spent eight years on this book, conducting scores of interviews—delighted to find early in his research that though Wright was born in 1967 there were still people alive who knew him or who worked in or lived in his creations. His sources included the plentitude of writing about and by Wright. He visited scores of Wright buildings, many of them several times. What he has created is not a conventional biography. He acknowledges that there are several of those, some quite good.
“Rather,” he writes, “this book is meant to be a kind of synecdoche, with selected pockets of a life standing for the oceanic whole of that life.” That life still remains largely mysterious. “You can never get to the end of the knowing.”
Just days before he died, in his last interview in April of 1959, Wright said great art in architecture wouldn’t exist “unless it possessed a spiritual quality. If there were no spiritual quality in architecture, it would just be plain lumber.”
The stiff-shirt men and ice-bosom women among us may reject its management of truth, preferring to be charmed into a prior century by Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (1864). Some American readers who possess advanced book learning and bourgeois yearnings do not want to deal with virtually unfiltered testimony as it growls and laughs in Wilderson's book..
They want perspectives on the human condition to be shaped like Dostoevsky's fiction. They want the safe, socially distanced thrills of best-selling novels. The traumatic mirrors in Afropessimism reflect what they wish not to see: their Dorian Gray faces. For them, denying inconvenient realities is crucial.
One can take or leave fiction without registering guilt or shame provoked by x-ray non-fiction. That is the rough magic of narratives that don't demand verification. Wilderson's non-fiction, replete with riffs and grace notes, leaves its fingerprints in the mind; it promotes a medieval "agenbite of inwit." Inwit is a severe disadvantage in the dystopian crevices of the contemporary United States of America, is it not? Those who have won advantages and privileges by dint of hard work or strokes of fortune or criminal acts seek to minimize social horror and inequity with daily doses of optimism. They remind one of the classic monkeys who see nothing, say nothing, hear nothing.
Afropessimism is a serious, tantalizing book. If you don't read it with judicious skepticism, you'll find yourself jailed in abjectness. The term "Afropessimism" was first used in political discourse to name how doubtful the West was with regard to the African continent's having a viable future. There was noteworthy hypocrisy in the term's being coined by a Frenchman who apparently had no qualms about post-colonial exploitation of Mother Africa. It wasn't his mother who was being raped.
Later, Afropessimism drifted into meaning belief that one is an antithesis of the Human, a mental condition that readily manifests itself in nihilism and benign genocide. Wilderson does not give his readers the luxury of selecting one point and not another on the spectrum of meaning. He provides angles to cover all bases.
Wilderson is a gifted writer. In the words of Louise Glȕck, he makes expert use of "the intimate, private voice, which public utterance can sometimes augment or extend, but never replace" (2020 Nobel Lecture). It is a relief that Wilderson illuminates and critiques pain (the pet topic of 21st century publishing) with wicked humor.
He doesn't bludgeon his readers with pomposity. He asserts independence in departing from the styles and structures chosen by such thinkers as Orlando Patterson, Claudine Rankine, Audre Lorde, Kiese Laymon, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Cornel West, Jesmyn Ward, and Tommy J. Curry to deal with social death, social pain.
He forges compelling poetic prose to give substance to his intentions. And one of his aims is exposing the difficulty of locating allies outside or inside the boundaries of ethnic identity. There is no necessary and sufficient reason to authorize trust among red, yellow, black, brown, and white peoples.
The rigor of Wilderson's contrarian posture radiates in one of the more difficult passages about the ontology of Afropessimism:
"Throughout this book I have argued that the Black is a sentient being though not a Human being. The Black's and the Human's disparate relationship to violence is at the heart of this failure of this analogy. The Human suffers contingent violence, violence that kicks in when he resists (or is perceived to resist) the disciplinary discourse of civil society's rules and laws. But Black peoples' saturation by violence is a paradigmatic necessity, not simply the performance of contingency" (245).
The passage is ambiguous. If it read with what legal scholars and judges call strict construction, one concludes the Black woman and man are sentient aliens. If it is read symbolically, the Black is a sentient pawn in the most cruel, anti-human game God's wretched children are capable of imagining.
To the extent the passage is informed by psychoanalytic gestures, it is disconcertingly suspect. It moves toward the dangerous territory of blatherskite. I trust literary use of psychoanalysis as much as I trust an angry rattlesnake. But given that Wilderson was mentored by Edward Said and Cornel West and a few other thinkers who possess authority, I think I know from where he is coming. He is emerging from the historical, instructive spaces of ancient African/Black thought.
Another passage that gives me pause reads:
"In the tribal meeting hall, the Indians had no use for either of my parents: Whether we are White and wealthy or Red and poor, we don't want a nigger telling us what to do……
The force of both White and Indigenous affect spoke with one voice: a chorus of libidinal economy. In the collective unconscious of Indigenous imagining, the specter of Blackness was a greater threat than the settler institution that had dispatched a Black professor to do its dirty work" (45).
Here the words Yellow and Brown can assume linguistic equality with Red and White. And the words truly assume intensity when Wilderson employs Solomon Northup's Twelve Years a Slave to achieve specificity about rampant psychosexual disorders in the United States of America. Such raw treachery. Such cannibalism. Such unmitigated horror. Pragmatic pessimism is condemned to do unending battle with THE HORROR.
Afropessimism is one of the most serious books published in 2020. It should be read by a global audience for what it tells us about demonic ignorance throughout this world. And in time the book might be rewarded with the special corrective attention given to Django Unchained in Black Hollywood Unchained (Chicago: Third World Press, 2015). Pragmatic pessimism is a beautiful thing that anoints a few people with wisdom.
It’s unusual for me to attempt to write a review of a book that I read well over six months ago, especially with a memory as bad as mine. As with a movie seen or a book read that long ago, I’m left with a gentle haze, a singular impression, and, in the case of Megha Majumdar’s A Burning, that impression is one of being frustrated, even angry, with the book’s ending.
Having retrieved my notes on the book, I can thankfully proceed. You see, the central character in this book is a young Muslim woman named Jivan, who lives in Kolkota, India, who has witnessed a terrorist act—a halted train at a nearby station has been fire bombed and the ensuing inferno has killed more than a hundred people. Of course authorities are wild to find someone on whom to pin the blame. Jivan makes the mistake of posting a provocative question on Facebook, “If police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?” She was, of course, just being a smart ass, but her comment attracts attention and the police come in the middle of the night to arrest her, and she is accused of the crime.
The evidence is entirely circumstantial: she was seen at the train station, carrying some kind of package; clothes soaked in kerosene were found at her home; she had been chatting with dubious people on Facebook; and she is, conveniently, poor and Muslim.
There are two people whose testimony might save her. One is an aspiring actress, a hijra (trans-sexual), named Lovely, to whom Jivan had been teaching English, the other is PT Sir, a physical education teacher at the school which Jivan attended, before she dropped out to get a job to help support her family. If even one of them would testify to her character, a jury might be swayed. Unfortunately, both of these two fall victim to their own ambition. Lovely wants to break into the movie business, and PR Sir wants to rise in a political culture. Thus, they doom Jivan to a fate which she doesn’t deserve…
Megha Majumdar was born and raised in Kolkata. She attended Harvard then did postgraduate work in social anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. She is currently an associate editor at Catapult magazine. This is her first novel. Praise has been showered upon it, commending her excellent craftmanship and characterizations. She says, “Most of all I wanted a book that would move swiftly. I love plot. I love velocity; I love pages where each sentence earns it place.”
Two such sentences caught my attention: “His voice booms from the megaphones. Ducks in a weedy pond flee to the far side.”
Then what is my problem with this novel? It has to do with the injustice done to Jivan. If it is to be a commentary on India’s flawed justice system, its purpose is well served. Otherwise, to have a young girl killed for a crime she didn’t commit sort of breaks my heart.
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