The Scapegoat

—That’s the danger with freedom: it’s an abyss. Will you fall in? It’ll depend on you Georgiou.

In May 1948 a Greek fisherman discovered a body floating in the Thermaic Gulf. George Polk was a CBS foreign correspondent then reporting on the Greek Civil War where he was unsparing in his coverage of government corruption and atrocities. Despite receiving death threats, he had nevertheless travelled to Thessaloniki, only to disappear until his body was fished from the bay. The government, naturally, blamed their communist enemies and arranged a show-trial that ended in the conviction of three men: two in abstentia (they also had not been in Greece at the time of the murder) and the journalist Gregoris Staktopoulos, who confessed under torture and served more than a decade in prison.

A fictionalized version of this murder and wrongful conviction serves as a jumping off point for Sophia Nikolaidou’s The Scapegoat (trans. Karen Emmerich).

The Scapegoat consists of two intersecting storylines, though neither strictly adheres to a single chronology. The first plot centers on the 1948 murder of the American journalist, here named Jack Talas, who we meet in the opening pages. At the same time, we are introduced to Manolis Gris, a journalist who accompanies an officer to the police station thinking he is dealing with the theft of his laundry by gypsies that he had reported earlier that day:

“It was twelve years before Manolis Gris made it home. His eyes were still chestnut brown, but his hair had turned gray.”

This narrative unfolds through the voices of people around Manolis, including his sister Violeta, his mother Kyria Maria, and Jack Talas’ widow Zoe (Zouzou), as well as a host of others. We learn how Manolis and his family were refugees relocated from Pontus during the forced population exchanges of the 1920s and how he generally kept his head down while diligently working to support his family. And we learn how Zouzou faced a torrent of accusations after the death of her fiancé as the institutional forces in Greece worked to close the case quickly and ensure that the “right” people took the blame. Manolis’ signed confession seals the deal.

The second plot line flashes forward sixty years. In the 2010–2011 school-year, at the height of the financial crisis in Greece, Minas Georgiou has decided that he does not want to go to college. Previously a star student, Minas’ decision has shattered the peace of his household, particularly devastating his mother, Teta, who gave up a career after college to raise him. Minas’ decision also caused his grades to start slipping in advance of the mandatory exams, which serve as a critical point of divergence for the rest of his life. His history teacher Souk (Soukiouroglou) makes him an offer: instead of completing homework for the class, Minas can complete a research paper and presentation for his grade.

His topic: The trial of Manolis Gris.

Minas throws himself into research, aided by materials put together over the years by his own journalist father — albeit distracted the ordinary pursuits of high school seniors, like trying to strike up a relationship with Evelina, the other star student in the class.

Each plot works on its own, the second somewhat more than the first, but The Scapegoat comes alive in the resonances between the two stories. Nikolaidou takes the universal position that the 1949 trial was a sham that turned the convicted into scapegoats who absolved a community of responsibility for its sins. (These were called pharmakoi in Ancient Greek practice, though the original Greek title of this novel is Χορεύουν οι ελέφαντες, or The Elephants are Dancing.) In and of itself, that part of the story is not particularly exceptional except that she uses the kaleidoscope of voices who articulate the layers of disruption in 1940s Greece.

The second plot, set at another time of disruption in Greece that was creating waves of new sacrificial victims, responds to the first. Three generations of Greeks are invested in Minas’ investigation, and are caught up in a tighter web of relationships than they first realize. Minas’ investigation eventually leads him to Evelina’s grandfather Nikiforos, the lawyer who defended Manolis Gris in 1948, but the old man refuses to speak to him until he arranges a meeting with his grandmother Evthalia — who Nikiforos admired from afar as a young man about to marry. Meanwhile, Souk is the sort of eccentric literary teacher who is easy to admire until you realize the consequences of his methods (his father Tasos knew Souk’s advisor and can’t stand him, but his grandmother, a former teacher, approves). Nikiforos doesn’t see the value in re-litigating the past, but Souk demands that Minas do just that in taking a stand. Minas concludes:

In studying them carefully, in marking passages with his highlighter, Minas had come to realize that justice is an abstract concept. Perfect on paper. But in practice, riddled with qualifications, asterisks, interpretations, clashes of opinion. History books offered no catharsis, as tragedies. did; there were no happy endings, as there were in fairytales or soap operas.

In sum, The Scapegoat is an impressive novel that grapples with the living consequences and echoes of historical events, even as Nikolaidou injects light into that darkness through a number of sweet relationships, none more so that the clumsy tenderness and unbridled optimism of young love.

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Since my last books post, I finished reading Charles Soule’s The Oracle Year and David Elliot’s Bull. The latter is a verse re-imagination of the Minotaur story where each character receives a different meter. It wasn’t my favorite riff on the Minotaur story (that would be The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break), but it had some powerful moments. I am now reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost, a memoir about trying to find information about the six family members none of his relatives will talk about — the six who were killed in the Holocaust.

Fake Accounts

I had to finally admit that Twitter was not a distraction from reality, but a representative of it, a projection of the human drives and preoccupations that with free time and publishing platforms had been allowed to multiply and evolve. The superficiality this encouraged—pithiness and oversimplification were rewarded—felt appropriate not merely because it mimicked the way most of us choose to moved through life but also because it had compounded those aspects of life that felt so desperate and precipitous.

Technology in a work of fiction is a tricky needle to thread. On the one hand, technology is a ubiquitous part of life. On the other, the speed with which it develops risks dating the work immediately. One solution might be to steer clear, acknowledging its existence but centering the story on universal aspects of human relationships. Or, like Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts, one might embrace it entirely.

Fake Accounts opens on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017. For the unnamed female narrator, a blogger for an feminist internet website loosely modeled on Oyler herself, Trump’s election is a catastrophe of enormous proportions, but that is only a secondary catalyst for the events of the novel. That night, she finally peeks into a forbidden phone that belongs to her boyfriend Felix.

She had met Felix in 2015 in Berlin where worked as a pub-crawl tour-guide and instantly struck up a relationship that had gradually made its way back to New York. Theirs was a modern relationship — sexual, without being overly intimate — but Felix has his quirks. He is a little distant, for one, rarely having her over to his apartment, and he doesn’t have social media. But, above all, he makes a game out of small lies, conjuring new stories out of thin air.

Unlocking his phone causes everything she knows about Felix to unravel. Not only does he engage with social media, but it turns out that he operates an extremely popular Q-Anon style account called @THIS_ACCOUNT_IS_BUGGED that traffics to radical politics and nonsensical conspiracy theories. She resolves to dump him, just as a soon as she gets back from the Women’s March on Washington.

That’s when she receives news that really sends her life into a tail-spin. Felix is dead. Bike crash in upstate New York.

Before the narrator knows what is going on she has quit her job and moved to Berlin to write her novel — or, at least, to scroll through Twitter in bed. Once there, though, she comes to a realization: not only does nobody here know who she is, few of them particularly care. She, too, can indulge in little lies, like telling a Scottish man at an English-language ex-pat dinner that she was a dancer. What began innocuously enough begins to spiral as she creates a new persona for each new Tinder date or job application as she works to find herself through a myriad of inventions.

Fake Accounts is an identity novel for the internet age that interrogates the gap between the digital space and the meat space. We project a vision of ourselves into the digital world, curating social media profiles and manipulating words and images. Our avatars are ourselves, but not our whole selves. In Fake Accounts, Oyler expands these internet paradigms back into meat space. What if the interactions we have online are no more real than are interactions we have in the physical world? Are physical interactions any more lasting than online ones? What stops someone from simply reinventing themselves again and again and again?

I found Fake Accounts to be an incisive novel in a number of respects, but what sets it apart is Oyler’s clear, intimate, and striking voice. This is the confessional of a woman looking for herself after a series of events knocked her from her arch, ironic, millennial perch in Brooklyn. Her reinvention is this novel, in which she details her lies, talks about the intimacies of sex, and banters with an unseen chorus of ex-boyfriends. The ironic remove never entirely drops — Fake Accounts is divided into sections such as “Middle (Something Happens),” “Middle (Nothing Happens),” and “Climax,” and Oyler-as-narrator plays some with the style — but the voice remains constant throughout, promising to confide in the reader all of her dirty secrets. The result is a both funny and compelling novel that I thoroughly enjoyed even when the plot turned predictable.

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I have a half-completed review of Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire I keep meaning to finish, but have continued to read much more than I’ve been able to write at this time of the semester, finishing Anne Zouroudi’s The Lady of Sorrows, C Pham Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold, Glen Weldon’s Superman, Neil Gaimon’s The Sandman: Season of Mists, and Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax since my last reading update. I’m not sure that I will write an individual post about any of these books, but my favorite was How Much of These Hills is Gold, a wrenching story about two Chinese-American girls in nineteenth-century California. It is well-worth reading, I just didn’t have enough to say about it to justify an entire post. On the other end, I found Sin and Syntax a deeply frustrating book. I am now reading Charles Soule’s The Oracle Year, a funny exploration of what might happen in a world where a person suddenly had access to 108 utterly specific, precisely accurate predictions about the future.

How to Hide an Empire

I remember playing a pool game when I was young where one person chose a category and then called out options until the specific example one of the other players had secretly chosen came up. If I recall the game correctly, you then had to race that person across the pool. On this day, I chose the category “empires,” which left the other players wracking their brains trying to come up with enough empires for each to have one. There was the Roman Empire, sure, and the British Empire. Were the Aztec an empire? Maybe? Being a know-it-all at that age, I rattled off a bunch more (Inca, Mongol, Persian-Achaemenid, Parthian, etc, etc) before choosing another category.

I would not have included the United States in my list of empires. My understanding of the United States and its possessions at that time was what Daniel Immerwahr calls “the logo map.” That is, the lower 48 states with little corner cutouts for Alaska and Hawaii. I knew of other possessions at that time, including both bases and territories, but they did not register as parts of the United States. For Immerwahr, that gloss is part of the problem. From there, it is just a short hop to a sitting US congressperson referring to Guam, a US territory for longer than she has been alive, as a foreign country.

Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire is an intensely sophisticated, yet immensely readable history of the United States beyond the logo map. To do this, he offers two interlocking investigations.

First, how did the United States get colonial possessions and how were those possessions treated? Here, Immerwahr starts with the very early days of the American Republic, using Daniel Boone and the Indian removal acts to explore the imperialism that created the logo map and how those borders quickly became treated as eternal. Starting in the third chapter, though, Immerwahr sets sail beyond those territorial borders, first landing on the guano islands (literally islands buried under tons of bird droppings) that fueled 19th century industrial agriculture and later landing on Spanish territorial possessions around the world.

Suddenly, the United States had territorial possessions, just like the countries of Europe. Welcome to the club, wrote Kipling, with a heap of racism:

Take up the White Man’s burden—
    Have done with childish days—
The lightly proffered laurel,
    The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
    Through all the thankless years,
Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom,
    The judgment of your peers!

However, for the United States, these possessions marked a turning point. Most of the states had begun their existence as territories that later applied for statehood. Would these new territories have the same privilege? The Philippines had millions of residents and a city in Manila nearly as large as any in the country. Just putting the territories to scale against the logo map was revealing (naturally, cartographers made a point of not doing this).

Of course the answer would be “no.” Even if the civilizing mission took, as they saw it, the people of the Philippines weren’t Americans. Some, and far more than most Americans thought, spoke English, but they weren’t white, which was itself disqualifying. But neither would the United States give up the territorial claim, which led to the brutal repression of the archipelago, including extensive use of “water torture,” a forerunner of modern water-boarding.

With this empire gained, Immerwahr sets out to tackle the second part of the book: why don’t people consider this an empire? After the second world war, the United States began to divest itself of imperial holdings. Alaska and Hawaii did indeed become states, while The Philippines became independent. The US kept most of the small islands, which it still uses to house military bases, but during this period it also expanded the global network of military bases that had developed for the purpose of fighting the war. Thus, Immerwahr argues, the United States went from being a territorial empire to being a “pointillist” one, capable of extending military power almost anywhere in the world. But the change in form only serves to hide the imperial structures of the United States.

How to Hide an Empire is not a celebration empire, and Immerwahr does not shy away from the atrocities committed in the name of civilization, but neither is it simply anti-imperial. Rather, Immerwahr aims to understand the consequences of this empire, identifying any number of social and cultural developments from birth control pills (developed in tests on Puerto Ricans) to the Beatles (coming of age in the shadow of a US military base) that are the consequences of American imperialism.

I have been meaning to read How to Hide an Empire since hearing Immerwahr talk about this research a few years ago. It does not disappoint. This is a meticulously researched book that offers a timely reconsideration of what the borders of the United States look like — so much so that I am seriously considering this as one of the book I assign when I get a chance to teach US history next year.

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I am still plugging away at writing about books I’ve read, and will at least be writing about Arkady Martin’s A Memory Called Empire. Since the last books post went up, I have finished Anne Zouroudi’s The Lady of Sorrows, a seven deadly sins novel that brilliantly evokes the Greek Islands. I just started C. Pham Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold.

Caste

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 might have been heralded as a the final triumph of the Civil Rights Movement, and with some reason. Millions of Americans voted for a well-spoken African American man whose middle name was Hussein, which prompted speculation that the United States had finally put to rest the ghosts of history and begun a post-racial society.

But the ghosts of history are not so neatly exorcised. President Obama was repeated lynched in effigy while white critics — including a future president of the United States — openly questioned the legality of the election on the charge that he was not an American citizen. President Obama himself charted a moderate, technocratic approach to governance that won a second term, again with historic numbers of people voting for him, even as some white people who voted for him the first time began to grumble that that he was playing the race card. Discontent has only grown in the years since President Obama left office. Celebrations of diversity and conversations about appropriation have prompted bitter accusations of bias and deep-seated identity politics being weaponized against marginalized people.

For my part, I have spent the last few years working to educate myself, particularly by reading scholarship by African Americans, including Carol Anderson’s White Rage and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning. These books peel back the curtain on the painful history of race in America in ways that clearly demonstrate the historical roots of structural issues, often while providing a vocabulary to talk about race. However, they also tend to cover similar ground. What Isabel Wilkerson brings to the table in Caste, a beautiful book layered with history, reportage, and metaphor, is a big picture assessment of how structural racism works and why everyone ought to care.

The second chapter of Caste captures each of these elements. This chapter, “An Old House and an Infrared Light” begins with an extended metaphor of a housing inspector evaluating a bowing of a ceiling. “With an old house,” Wilkerson writes, “the work is never done, and you don’t expect it to be.” When the storm comes, your basement floods, but you can’t just ignore it because “whatever you are ignoring will never go away…ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction.” The United States is this house. Whether one was there when it was built does not matter. If you live here now, it is your responsibility to deal with it.

Unaddressed, the ruptures and diagonal cracks will not fix themselves. The toxins will not go away but, rather, will spread, leach, and mutate, as they already have. When people live in an old house, they come to adjust to the idiosyncrasies and outright dangers skulking in an old structure. They put up buckets under a wet ceiling, prop up groaning floors, learn to step over that rotting wood tread in the staircase. The awkward becomes acceptable, and the unacceptable becomes merely inconvenient. Live with it long enough, and the unthinkable becomes normal. Exposed over the generations we learn to believe that the incomprehensible is the way that life is supposed to be.

At this point one might be forgiven for asking what, exactly, caste is and what it has to do with the function of race in the United States. If you have heard of caste, you probably know it as an archaism of Indian society where certain Hindu texts established a four- or five-fold social hierarchy. Brahmin (priests and teachers) were the highest caste, Kshatrya (warriors and rulers) were the second, Vaishya (farmers, traders, merchants) the third, and Shudra (labourers) the lowest formal caste. Beneath these were the Dalit (untouchables), regarded as impure. The history of the caste system is somewhat more complex in that it developed in the modern sense through the canonization of certain Brahmin texts in 19th century British India that hardened the lines of social categories. Nevertheless, the caste system in India came to be accepted as an eternal truth about social hierarchy.

Wilkerson juxtaposes this social model against the systems of the United States and Nazi Germany. The fact that Nazi Germany looked to the Jim Crow south as a model for its legal restrictions is at this point well-documented, but Wilkerson’s inclusion of India allows her to go beyond those two explicitly racial ideologies and their legal restrictions. All three developed a caste system designed to eternally reshape the social hierarchies of their populations, and thus allow her to offer a concise definition of the phenomenon:

A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis on ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it. A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places.

Caste and race are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive. They can and do coexist in the same culture and serve to reinforce each other. Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race is the skin. Race is what we can see, the physical traits that have been given arbitrary meaning and become shorthand for who a person is. Caste is the powerful infrastructure that holds each group in its place.

The problem in the US, Wilkerson suggests, is that while the worst of the Jim Crow legal restrictions are gone, the caste structures remain in place. Some problems come from out and out racism, but she also offers anecdotes where the way someone treated her changed once he stopped seeing her as a black woman and started seeing her as Isabel Wilkerson — that is, as a person. This, she says, is the problem of caste. It conditions people to assume that she (as a woman, as a black person) is someone who can and should be ignored, thereby priming the environment for micro-aggressions and causing constant stress that leads to negative health consequences, to say nothing of reproducing the caste system.

Oddly enough, the instinctive desire to reject the very idea of current discrimination on the basis of a chemical compound in the skin is an unconscious admission of the absurdity of race as a concept.

I found Caste to be entirely compelling. Wilkerson simultaneously avoids pointing fingers at any one person while pointing fingers at everyone: “A caste system persists in part because we, each and everyone one of us, allow it to exist” She acknowledges in her epilogue (“A World Without Caste”) that the United States is heading toward a caste-induced identity criss that is already leading to “anticipatory fear” about the changing demographics. I often think about these fears and the ways in which they have been stoked for monetary and political gain over the past few years. Wilkerson elegantly points out that a rejection of caste will set everyone free, but when she (correctly) argues out that the only way to destroy the caste system is for everyone to reject its authority, I worry that there are too many people invested in seeing the old house come down around them for no other reason than that they believe the house is theirs and theirs alone.

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I have again reached a point of the semester where my reading of books has outstripped writing them. I still have hopes of writing about Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy in some form — I liked it, but also wanted to unpack a few things in the series about belief that I found interesting — and have firm plans to write about Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire and Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire, both of which are excellent. By contrast, I didn’t have nearly as much to say about Alexandros Papadiamantis’ The Murderess, a 19th century Greek novella that offers a grim commentary about the value of women…by following a bitter old woman who kills little girls. I also recently finished Boris Akunin’s The Coronation, a novel about his detective hero Fandorin who I was told was a Russian Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, but who just wasn’t, and Un-Su Kim’s The Plotters, a Korean mystery centered on an assassin-for-hire who who doesn’t always follow the plots. The Plotters had several clever ideas and scenes — receiving hospitality and words of wisdom from a target, commentary about business capitalism taking over the assassin business, and perpetually under-estimated women — but it never really came together for me enough to want to write about it.

The Shadow King

Ettore, bear witness to what its happening. Make living your act of defiance. Record it all. Do it relentlessly, with that stubbornness and precision that is so very much like your father. This is why I gave you your first camera. Do not let these people forget what they have become. Do not let them turn away from their own reflections—

Every photograph has become a broken oath with himself, a breach in the defenses that he set up to ignore what he really is: an archivist of obscenities, a collector of terror, a witness to all that breaks skin and punctures resolve and leaves human beings dead.

Haile Selassie at the League of Nations, image credit.

Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, delivered a speech in Geneva, Switzerland on June 30, 1936. An Italian army had invaded his country the year before, attempting to for the second time to conquer the last uncolonized region of Africa. The people of Ethiopia had resisted, but the Italians unleashed the horrors of modern warfare, including chemical weapons, on soldiers and civilians alike. The world had imposed minor sanctions on the Italians and proposing resolutions to the conflict that Benito Mussolini simply ignored, claiming that this war of conquest was, in fact, an act of self-defense because of a frontier clash on the frontier with Italian Somaliland. He simply denied the accusations of chemical warfare. Now Haile Selassie addressed the League of Nations general assembly, speaking in Amharic, begging the member nations to stop this fascist aggression. Haile Selassie might have been a head of state, but whether the league was toothless or the members ambivalent about expending resources to help an African state, his appeal fell on deaf ears.

In The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste’s difficult and beautiful novel, the horrors of this campaign are given life.

The core of The Shadow King weaves together two stories.

The first follows Hirut, an orphaned Ethiopian girl in the household of the local nobleman, Kidane. The lady of the house, Aster, makes Hirut’s life miserable. She takes her frustrations out on Hirut, viewing as a sexual rival and accusing her of theft—first falsely, then accurately. After the Italians invade, Kidane even confiscates Hirut’s prized memento from her father, an antique rifle called Wujigra to use in the war.

The second story is that of Ettore Navarra, a Italian photographer of Jewish descent charged with documenting the invasion. His is a complicated relationship with the invasion: he harbors the Ethiopians no particular ill-will and is deeply disconcerted by the atrocities, but he is also Italian and this is his job. However, even in Ethiopia, Navarra cannot escape the radicalization taking place back home where Benito Mussolini’s fascist state is beginning to draw sharp lines between Jews and “real” Italians.

Inexorably these two plots come together. The women of Ethiopia refuse to stay home while Kidane’s forces wage a guerrilla war against the Italian forces, a war that continues even after Haile Selassie fled the country. First Aster and Hirut follow Kidane’s men to care for and supply the men, but gradually become more involved. Eventually, they hatch a plan to choose a “Shadow King”—a lookalike stand-in to inspire the people to resist the invasion—for whom they serve as the guard.

On the other side, the Italians and their African ascari begin to dig in, and Navarra documents it all. His commander, the sadistic Colonel Carlo Fucelli, puts his men to work building a prison where they can hold captured Ethiopians, to say nothing of debasing them. Naturally, this prison will serve as the focal point for a final showdown.

These two stories would make for a compelling book on their own, particularly given Mengiste’s gift for characterization. For instance, even the brutal and vicious Colonel Fucelli, who earned the nickname “The Butcher of Benghazi” for his cruelty in Libya, is not a straightforward fascist caricature. He is undeniably cruel, yes, and racist, both traits on display in his sexual relationship with the African courtesan Fifi, which itself violates the ban on such couplings. Fucelli is also willing to ignore orders forcing him to out Navarra as a Jew, at least for a while. Mengiste leaves his motivations for both decisions masked: perhaps Fucelli simply believes that the rules don’t apply to him, but perhaps his prejudices are not quite as deeply held as one might think—not that that changes how much one might root for him to be punished.

However, what elevates The Shadow King to my list of favorite novels is how Mengiste layers other voices onto these two stories. She imagines interludes where Haile Selassie reflects on the plight of Ethiopia, often invoking Verdi’s opera Aida, whose eponymous character is an Ethiopian princess. Elsewhere, choruses of Ethiopian women raise their voices up in an echo of Greek tragedy:

Sing, daughters, of one woman and one thousand, of those multitudes who rushed like wind to free a country from poisonous beasts.

Photographs captured in text punctuate the narrative:

A woman slumped against a walking stick, paralyzed leg dangling beneath her long dress. A row of braids that fan out to thick, dark curls. Tattoos gracing the line of her throat to her jaw. bruises near her eyes, at her mouth, a thread of blood dried against her ear. She is mid-sentence, her tongue against her teeth, curving around a world lost forever.

A boy in a stained shirt rests his cheek against a tall boulder as if it were a father’s chest. He stares at the camera, doe-eyed and curious, his lips folded around a mouthful of food, a stream of words, a cry for help, a burst of laughter. One palm balances against the hard surface of stone, his finger raised and pointed ahead, the gesture an accusation and a plea for patience.

These layers harmonize with the two core stories, reinforcing them, expanding them, and humanizing them, before building to a climax years later during the last days of Haile Selassie’s reign when Hirut meets Ettore Navarra once more to return his pictures.

I found the combined effect of this novel stunning. Mengiste is a beautiful writer, to be sure, but it is also a brilliantly structured novel. It would have to be. Mengiste tackles themes of race, identity, gender, and memory, all of which are easy to do poorly, either because they come across as caricature or moralizing. This goes double with fascism. There are no easy answers in The Shadow King, but each element adds to the texture that earns every moment.

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I’m still working through the recent list of things I’ve read with these posts, and particularly want to write one about Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste and Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy. I am now reading Kim Un-su’s The Plotters.

Piranesi

I realized that the search for the Knowledge has encouraged us to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle to be unravelled, a text to be interpreted, and that if we ever discover the Knowledge, then it will be as if the Value has been wrested from the House and all that remains will be mere scenery.

I resisted my first introduction to Susanna Clarke. Friends had told me that there was a fantastic historical fantasy called Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but any interest I had in that premise withered and died the moment they told me that it was shades of Austen and Dickens. When I finally read JS&MN a few years ago, I was entirely blown away. Without taking anything away from those people who ate up the comparisons to Austen and Dickens, neither of whom have ever done much for me, this novel was a thousand pages of immersive storytelling that took the deceptively simple plot of a magician and his apprentice and set it at a specific historical time and wrapped both of them in the richly-textured cloak of folktale. The result was one of the best piece of fantasy literature I have ever read.

Clarke’s first book since Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Piranesi could not be more different from her debut, but it is every bit as good.

Piranesi’s world consists of the House, a labyrinth of beautifully austere halls populated by statues. His favorite is an enormous faun with a slight smile and a forefinger pressed to his lips, but there are all sorts. A woman carrying a beehive. A gorilla. An elephant carrying a castle. Two kings playing chess.

Piranesi considers himself a scientist studying the world around him. The House, which stretches out for miles, exists across three floors. The lowest levels, the Drowned Halls, consist of a deep and powerful ocean with tides that can flood the upper floods of the House—particularly at the confluence of the three Tides that happens every eight years (or so Piranesi says). But if the ocean can be dangerous, it also provides Piranesi with sustenance, and he has a great reverence for all things provided by the House.

According to Piranesi, “since the world began it is certain that there have existed fifteen people.” There is Piranesi: a man in his early thirties, 1.83 meters tall, and of slender build. The second person is The Other, a man somewhat taller than Piranesi, and nearly twice his age who Piranesi meets twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. The remaining thirteen are skeletons. He knows other people might exist, of course, which is what drives his impulse to diligently record his findings for posterity, they exist primarily as an abstraction to him.

The Other is different. He is impatient, considering the House an endlessly dreary and dead place, and rarely moves past one or two rooms because he gets easily lost.

The overlapping mysteries at the heart of Piranesi are evident practically from the opening paragraph: Who is Piranesi? Where is the House? How did he get here? The irony is that Piranesi initially doesn’t have these questions. He is a scientist, after all, and confident in who and where he is.

The House is the extent of Piranesi’s world, but there is also a larger world—our world—that cannot help but intrude on the House. Some of this is linguistic. Piranesi has words for items like “biscuit” that don’t exist in his world, for instance, so the House is clearly an adjunct to our own, but he has no memory of how he arrived there. The Other might offer insight here, but Piranesi has no reason to distrust his friend and fellow scientist. It is only when the outside world begins to impose itself on the House that Piranesi is forced to reconsider his prior assumptions.

I am being cagey about the second half of this haunting book because discussion of the house and the relationship between Piranesi and The Other requires giving away major plot elements. Suffice it to say that the answers come in the form of Susanna Clarke’s typically precise take on magic and obsession.

Clarke took the title Piranesi from Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an 18th century classical archaeologist and artist who penned a series of sixteen prints called “Invented Prisons” (Carceri d’invenzione). These prints took the tradition of capricci, a style of art that depicts monumental buildings, and applied it to enormous labyrinths of the sort that make up the House.

The Lion Bas Reliefs form the second edition (Wikimedia Commons)

Piranesi is a spare, beautiful book about isolation, identity, and the search for knowledge, and the sort of story that has a way of staying with you. In casting about for a parallel, I could only come up with Neil Gaimon’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane or, to an extent, Patrick Rothfuss’ The Slow Regard of Silent Things, other slim, cerebral novels that benefit for how starkly they contrast with the author’s other books.

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I remain behind on writing about books I’ve read. In addition to Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy and Maaza Mengiste’s brilliant The Shadow King, I have finished Isabel Wilkerson’s excellent Caste, Boris Akunin’s mediocre The Coronation, and am now reading Un-Su Kim’s The Plotters.

Generous Thinking

A few years ago I had a student who asked me to write a letter of recommendation for graduate school. She was a shoe-in. Two of the people writing letters for her were the professors she intended to work with, so I was just there to fulfill the requirement. She had taken several classes with me and done well, so I was flattered to be asked and happy to help. When orientation rolled around the next summer, my former student sent me an email to again thank me for the letter I wrote and expressed how nervous she was about the coming semester. I thanked her and gave her my best pieces of advice about graduate school.

It will seem, I said, like your peers know everything. They strut around like peacocks, name dropping scholars and theories and schools of scholarship. But this doesn’t mean that they are smarter or more prepared for graduate school than you are. Maybe they have a deep background in that topic. Maybe they restrict their comments to their particular field of research. Maybe they know just enough to name drop Foucault trusting that you won’t know enough to challenge them.

When I came to graduate school, I was the second-youngest person in my cohort. Where many of my peers had already earned MA degrees or spent years teaching, I had spent my year after graduation managing a Quiznos restaurant and desperately trying to keep my Greek fresh. I was also the only person in my cohort who studied ancient history in a program that was overwhelmingly made up of American historians. This meant that in most conversations I was on their turf.

The best thing you can do, I told my former student, is to resist the temptation to treat graduate school as a competition. Instead, approach the books you read, the classes you take, and the conversations you have with an open mind. Grad school seminars train students to strip books down to their foundations in order to critique the scholarship on everything from the framing to the evidence. These are important skills for a scholar to have, of course, but a more important skill is to understand what the author is doing. Anyone who goes to graduate school can recall an example where a person holding forth on the myriad flaws of a particular book was doing so based on a relatively minor point at best or without having read the whole book at worst.

I have seen both. At least twice I tried to discredit a book based on minor errors—the small issues might be indicative of larger problems, but it was a mistake to not first start with the bigger picture. Another time I watched as someone went on at length about how a book was invalid because it didn’t cover a particular topic…that the author covered in the section of the book that she had not read. Either way, not a good look.

Advice like what I gave to my former student lies at the heart of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking. Her core thesis is that the culture of critique and obsession with prestige hierarchies has created an environment where knowledge production is treated like a competition and where tearing down others is as valuable as producing anything. The very structures of the American university system (as distinct from, for instance, community colleges) encourages this behavior:

The entire academic enterprise serves to cultivate individualism, in fact. Beginning with college applications, extending through graduate school admissions, fellowship applications, the job market, publication submissions, and, seemingly, finally tenure and promotion review, those of us on campus are subject to selection. These processes present themselves as meritocratic…in actual practice, however, those metrics are never neutral, and what we are measured against is far more often than not one another—sometimes literally.

The pressures that Fitzpatrick identifies are all exacerbated in the Age of Austerity currently because austerity means even more competition for fewer resources. However, as Fitzpatrick rightly points out, falling back on prestige hierarchies and competition is a self-defeating proposal that undermines the very project we are ostensibly setting out to pursue.

Her solution is to double down on “generosity as an enduring habit of mind, a conversational practice” (56). This means a host of things for Fitzpatrick, from developing a vocabulary of shared values to working in public to realigning the university toward community and public service, to simply learning how to listen.

In principle, I agree with everything Fitzpatrick wrote in Generous Thinking and seek to embody most of the practices.

In practice, I found Generous Thinking frustrating. The subtitle of this book promises “A Radical Approach to Saving the University.” Certainly there is a radicalism in the form of the books optimism and some of the proposals to change university policies away from those that put scholars in competition with one another, but there were times where I also found it to be missing the forest for the trees—by her own admission. Fitzpatrick admits in the preface that this is a book informed by her position at a large land-grant institution. This means a secondary focus on institutions like community colleges, but I found the blindspots to be greater than she admits.

In particular, I found framing a book as a way to save the university but then giving almost no thought to how this would affect contingent faculty shocking. That is, I endorse everything she wrote as a matter of praxis, but I wanted more acknowledgement that many people are not in a position to carry out these proposals. There is absolutely something here that contingent faculty can learn from, but I couldn’t help but feel that in her effort to work toward an academic community built on generosity Fitzpatrick had managed to largely disregard the second-class academic citizen. It isn’t that she us unaware of these problems—indeed, she mentions the jobs crisis on at least one occasion (18) — but other than (rightly, in my opinion) showing how public engagement can help catalyze stakeholders into investing in institutions, I found little meaningful consideration of either how generous thinking would change the underlying structural realities or how this would play out with overworked and underpaid contingent faculty who often already teach more classes than their full-time colleagues while also hunting for their next gig. I hope Fitzpatrick’s suggestions would make a difference and the core ideas absolutely ought to be embraced, but I nevertheless came away with the impression that this was not so much generous, as wishful thinking.

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I have a rather lot going on right now. Not only have I hit the point in the semester where I have a never-ending stream of assignments to grade, but I am also working on finishing the manuscript for my first book and keeping up with a few other research and editing projects. This means I am back to often choosing whether to spend my spare time reading or writing about the books I read. For the most part, reading wins out, though I do intend still to write about what I’ve read if at a delay (I finished Generous Thinking almost a month ago). I still intend to write about Yoon Ha Lee’s The Machineries of Empire series and have since finished Maaza Mengiste’s brilliant The Shadow King and Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, both of which made it onto my soon-to-be-published 2021 list of favorite novels, as well as making my way through Neil Gaimon’s The Sandman, which I will likely write about once I have finished the series. I am now reading Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, which is an incisive look at the issue of race in America by threading together the US, India, and Nazi Germany.

The City We Became

I first came to N.K. Jemisin’s books in 2017, right in the middle of her spectacular run of three consecutive Hugo Awards for best novel that she won for her Broken Earth trilogy. Those books warranted every plaudit they won and right away I knew that I would read almost anything she put out.

The City We Became, released in March of 2020, is Jemisin’s most recent novel, an urban fantasy about five New Yorkers who have to join forces to to confront an existential threat as the city awakens to itself. Naturally, each of the avatars represents an aspect of the city:

  • Manny, an ambiguously multi-racial and queer recent arrival in the city awakens to discover that he has no idea who he is, but he needs to find a homeless man who appears in his visions.
  • Bronca Siwanoy, an older, queer, Lenape woman and PhD who works at the Bronx art center is determined to hold her ground against the encroaching forces of gentrification.
  • Brooklyn “MC Free” Thomason, a city council member from the borough that shares her name and while she might be all business now, she was once a fire-throwing rapper.
  • Padmini Prakash, a Tamil immigrant and math prodigy who lives with her extended family in an apartment complex.
  • Aislyn Houlihan, a fully-grown white woman who lives with her parents, including her abusive, racist father (a cop), and who is deathly afraid of the other four boroughs.

On one level, The City We Became can be read as a breakneck urban fantasy. The heroes are in a race against time to find the keystone avatar of the entire city who they need to find and support against the strange forces that are attacking their city. Each of them has powers rooted in their identities as both people and as avatars of their particular borough (Aislyn’s power even rejects her New York-ness), and in this quest they are aided by other awakened city avatars, including São Paulo who draws his power from the polluted air he consumes (i.e. his cigarettes) and Hong Kong.

However, as story that crosses thriller and urban fantasy, I found The City We Became only okay. Jemisin is a talented writer, but I found the threat a little too existential and the characters a little too fumbling to really propel this book.

Where The City We Became shines is as a social commentary. This is her attempt to write New York as she knows it into existence.

Anyone who is looking to be aggrieved about racial politics is going to find a lot to dislike about The City We Became, but this is a testament to what Jemisin has created. New York and its avatars are a radically diverse collection of people who form the heartbeat of the city. It isn’t exactly the city as I know it as an outsider—I will forever associate it with bagels and pizza and find it more hispanic than depicted in the novel—but I can appreciate it as a variation on a city that I know a little bit. Jemisin’s New York is eccentric, eclectic, and frequently queer, and that is a truer depiction than one that whitewashes the city by looking only at one aspect.

Something similar happens with the existential threat that—not coincidentally—wants to whitewash all of these issues. The enemy appears in numerous guises: The Woman in White, Dr. White, and white fronds that stoke outrage, including by inspiring a group of racist provocateurs the Alt-Artistes. Dr. White works for a shadowy organization that has real estate holdings all over the world. In a word, their goal is gentrification: replacing local character with generic, boring, uniformity that weakens the local power of the awakening cities. It has killed before, and aims to do so again.

In time, The City We Became opens from this New York story to a larger universe of struggle where the awakening of one city means the destruction of another. The Enemy is revealed to be the lost city of R’lyeh. Appropriating a piece of mythos from Lovecraft, a notoriously racist author, as the primary antagonist thus layers references and commentary about the traditions of fantastical literature to the allegory about how local communities become strong through diversity.

Trying to capture the character of a place, particularly in a single book as packed with commentary as this one is, is hard. This sense of place is one of my favorite things about mystery novels, but those usually develop this sense of place across multiple novels as they feel their way through the corners and cracks. Here, in one novel, Jemisin tries to capture five distinct places that are also part of a complete whole. I would say she is on the whole successful. The City We Became is many things, including a rather unusual fantasy novel, but it is not boring. This novel is also supposed to be the first in a trilogy. I don’t know whether that means capturing the character of another city or developing stories based on the characters set down here, but I’m ready to let Jemisin surprise me whatever direction she chooses.

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<p class="has-drop-cap" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80"><em>The City We Became</em> is the penultimate entry in the backlog of books I wanted to write about. I am still planning to write about Yoon Ha Lee's <em>Machineries of Empire</em> trilogy, and then more recently finished Kathleen Fitzpatrick's <em>Generous Thinking</em>. I am now reading Maaza Mengiste's <em>The Shadow King</em>.The City We Became is the penultimate entry in the backlog of books I wanted to write about. I am still planning to write about Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, and then more recently finished Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking. I am now reading Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King.

Eat a Peach

David Chang’s Eat a Peach cover

David Chang is probably best known for his culinary empire Momofuku, which Wikipedia tells me includes at this point dozens of restaurants. I have only eaten at one, the dessert-themed Milk Bar in Washington DC. In Eat a Peach Chang readily admits that everything else that he does—this memoir, his cookbook, Ugly Delicious, and a dozen other endeavors—are designed to put butts in those seats. At least under normal circumstances since, like so many food establishments, Momofuku’s business has been entirely upended by COVID-19.

Eat a Peach, written with Gabe Ulla, is thus an advertisement for Momofuku that puts Chang and his theories of deliciousness front and center. Obviously, food is everywhere—Chang is a chef and his public persona on shows like Ugly Delicious filters the world through food-colored glasses as an heir to the late Tony Bourdain.

But what particularly stood out to me about this memoir is how it is a study in binaries.

Eat a Peach is divided into two parts. Its first half is a roughly linear narrative of his upbringing in a Korean-American household, his successes with golf that helped get him into Georgetown Prep and subsequent flameout of the sport, and his brief period working in finance, before finally getting to his entry into the restaurant industry. Chang readily admits that he was not good at being a chef, which makes his decision to found Momofuku in 2004 and his chance partnership with Quino Baca—the first and only employee at the Noodle Bar when it opened—even more of a radical gamble.

Chang writes about Momofuku like it is a revolutionary movement. There was a vision behind the original Noodle Bar, yes, but there was also a willingness to overhaul the entire menu when things weren’t working. The employees worked in cadres that participated in a company-wide email list with one objective: how to make their product more delicious. As the company grew and expanded, they formed new cells that oversaw Momofuku Ssām Bar and the Milk Bar.

Woven through this narrative is reflection on mental illness and depression (Chang is bipolar) that manifested in self-destructive tendencies such as drug use and overwork.

These themes come more thoroughly to the fore in the second half of Eat a Peach where Chang tells stories from a time after Momofuku and his public persona had become fixtures of the food world. Food and the restaurants still feature, but in more complicated ways.

For instance, in part one, Chang wraps the reader up in the energy and chaos of starting a restaurants—fights with critics and inspectors, problems of staffing, and the thrill of designing the most delicious menu—that captures difficulties, but also sees the enterprise with rose-colored glasses.

By contrast, Chang takes an introspective turn in part two. His ideals remain the same, but now he interrogates where his instinctive “fuck-you” attitude came from, who it is directed toward, and its relationship to his mental health. He talks about his experience with an executive coach who helped him see both how special the thing he created was and how his behavior caused those around him, including customers and staff, to live in fear of his anger. Far from leading a food revolution to bring high-end food to the masses, Chang realized that he was leading a cult. Followers were expected to give up their personal lives and commit their entire beings to the restaurant.

Ultimately, Eat a Peach is a reflection on growth—of the Momofuku empire, yes, but also personal growth in a way that I found particularly satisfying. There were times that Chang’s story resonated a bit too much (my anxiety manifests in a tendency toward overwork as well), but what elevates this memoir for me was how Chang works to de-center himself. He talks lovingly about his wife Grace, his son, and how they learned of her pregnancy the day after his close friend Tony Bourdain died. He lavishly distributes praise for Momofuku’s success. He talks endlessly about his long-standing relationship with his therapist. But more than all of that, I appreciated how Chang talks openly about his mistakes and blindspots, whether in cavalierly dismissing the chefs of California or contributing to a kitchen culture that was hostile to women, and that he acknowledges that talk only goes so far. Proof comes in the form of actions, and it is no coincidence that the cover art is meant to evoke Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus.

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I’m still making my way through a backlog of books I want to write about, including N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking, and Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy. I am now reading Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King.

Planet Taco

In the fall of 2016, a co-founder of Latinos for Trump went on MSNBC and warned:

My culture is a very dominant culture. It is imposing and it’s causing problems. If you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.”

The comment came in the midst of a contentious election and was meant to conjure images of a flood of immigrants from Latin America that would scare the sorts of people for whom Ron Swanson’s skepticism about ethnic food was no joke:

Ron Swanson: "I don't much go for ethnic food."
Ron Swanson, Parks and Rec 3.2, “Flu Season”

For most of the people I know, this sounded like a promise and we’re still waiting.

Jeffrey Pilcher’s book Planet Taco unfortunately predates this political context. Instead, it tackles a different, but no less contentious, issue: what even is Mexican food?

Pilcher’s argument, at its most basic, is that authentic Mexican food doesn’t exist. Or rather, that any claim to authenticity is fundamentally a political statement.

The book opens with an introduction, “A Tale of Two Tacos.” The one of those is a Mexican street taco made fresh on the spot off the beaten path in a small Sonoran city, served with beer and with some lawn chairs as a dining room. The second is a Taco Bell taco, served off a production line into pastel-colored dining facilities at about the same price point.

To ask which of these two is more authentic, Pilcher argues, is to miss the point. As much as authenticity is meant to appeal to a particular sort of identity, it also creates that identity and, ultimately, serves as a marketing buzzword. Pilcher’s core contention, therefore, is that “Mexican food” is actually a range of regional cuisines in and around the modern nation-state of Mexico. These regional dishes might have overlapping flavor profiles and some common ingredients, but they are the product of distinct historical, environmental and technological processes (including immigration) that gave rise to distinct traditions that are each as authentic as the next.

This is the sort of history that I eat up (pun intended). Pilcher punctuates each chapter with contemporary recipe cards for the recipes that he’s talking about, and covering topics as diverse as nixtamalization, the process designed to counteract the nutritional deficits of maize, to the invention of the hardshell taco and the spread of Mexican restaurants in the United States and around the world.

I will admit that I am geared to be sympathetic to Pilcher’s core arguments. While I cannot speak necessarily to the specific details of how these regional cuisines came into existence, the appreciation of the regionality of individual cuisines and lending to each of those an authenticity of their own was a welcome pushback against the impulse that identifies and canonizes a single original, using that to discredit all other comers. As Pilcher rightly points out, this impulse becomes particularly toxic when it becomes bound up with a particular national project that normalizes the group in power and is used to further marginalize everyone who dose not conform.

Naturally, things become even more complex in a country like the United States that both has “-mex” traditions and where there is a long history of people from one tradition cooking and owning restaurants that purport to serve cuisines that are not their own.

All of this to say, I really liked Planet Taco. It is an academic history book so its tone might be a little esoteric for some readers, but it also gave me a lot of food for thought, as well as a new appreciation for one of my favorite restaurants I’ve eaten at in the past couple of years.

Two summers ago my partner and I had just finished an exceedingly hot day at the Kansas City Zoo and just wanted some food before crashing into our air-conditioned hotel room and be ready for a flight the next morning. We settled on going to Ixtapa, a restaurant in a strip mall on the north side of the city (it now has a second location in Overland Park). We drove around the parking lot a couple of times to get a spot and then had to wait as they finished up an early dinner rush, but soon enough were seated and handed menus. We had barely started to look when a man—the owner, it turned out—came over to ask us if we knew what we wanted.

Guacamole, we said, as an appetizer while we looked at the menu.

I don’t know what he saw in us or what was going on in the kitchen, but he immediately responded, “No, no, no. You don’t want guacamole.”

We stole a glance at each other, but he continued “our guacamole is great, but you can get guacamole anywhere in this country. I’ll serve you.” He grabbed the menus, making some more jokes about generic Mexican food and asking what we wanted to drink.

At this point I stopped him with some dietary restrictions and preferences, which he received with perfect calm and began bringing us food. First he brought quesadillas de flor de calabaza (squash blossom quesadillas), followed by mains of enchiladas nopales (cactus) and a pork special with a raspberry chipotle sauce.

After a while we got to chatting with him and it turned out that this was his restaurant and he was immensely proud of the recipe that he put on the menu. We had managed to avoid some of his favorite dishes, I think, because I’m not wild about seafood, which was something of his speciality, or at least composes the largest single section of the menu. Sure, there the menu has basic Mexican fare, including cheese nachos, but such is the restaurant business. What made Ixtapa special were all of the dishes you can’t find at every taco joint and the clear pride he had in the cuisine of his specific region.

I love generic tacos, too, and have fond memories of finding a fabulous hole in the wall in south Houston for exactly that purpose, and one of my favorite spots in Columbia, Missouri is a Korean taco fusion joint, but each of these examples speaks exactly to the point that Pilcher makes in Planet Taco. Food is an expression of culture that is intimately and inextricably intertwined with the people who are making and consuming it. Rather than indulging in the authenticity wars that use it as a cudgel, let’s celebrate the wide range of possibilities and indulge in the deliciousness of them all.

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Book reviews had been a staple of my content here for a few years because it made for an easy writing prompt and gave me a chance to collect my thoughts on each book. One of the consequences of trying to teach during a pandemic is that I entirely got away from writing those reviews such that I wrote about fewer than a third of the books I read between September and the end of the year and none of the books I have plowed through so far in 2021. I doubt that I will get back to where I write about every book I read—I have too much other writing I need to do, not to mention teaching, and only have so much brain power these days—but in fits and starts and modified ways, I intend to get back to writing about books.

On my list to write about in the near future include: N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became; Yoon Ha Lee’s series The Machineries of Empire, and John Le Carré’s Absolute Friends, and David Chang’s memoir, Eat a Peach. I am currently reading Kathleen Fitzgerald’s Generous Thinking.