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Posts Tagged ‘colonialism’

Baronial Colonials, and Other News

August 18, 2016 | by

The alligator insignia of “The Calcutta Pococurante Society.” Image via the Public Domain Review.

  • I’ve never understood the appeal of mixed martial arts—too often it features, as Matthew Shen Goodman puts it, “an unending barrage of increasingly indistinguishable bald men and cornrowed women with terrible tattoos throwing the same one-two into a low kick and wrestle-fucking each other into the fence.” But maybe we’re watching it for the storytelling? Or maybe not: “MMA’s drama tends to be somewhat undercooked and boring, or terrifying and repulsive: incidents of domestic violence; hyping fights with xenophobic slurs (please, Conor and Joanna, stop telling your Brazilian opponents to go back to the jungle or that you’ll ransack their villages on horseback) or intense narratives about face-punching for Jesus/America/family legacy. There are a few fighters who thrive on being death spirits personified (Robbie Lawler, for example, who soberly told a broadcaster he takes people’s souls on Atlanta local television), but an actual story is often lacking, as are characters. This makes for difficult viewing, given how many fights there are, and the fact that you usually have to pay to watch, as well as the time spent sitting through ads for MetroPCS and new appetizers at Buffalo Wild Wings.”
  • Everyone knows that Netflix’s Stranger Things pays homage to eighties-era horror and sci-fi, but if you want to be a real asshole at the next party you go to, you can insist that its roots go much, much deeper, back to Lovecraft and an earlier tradition of speculative fiction: “The idea—central to Stranger Things—that the unnatural is weirder, more widespread, and therefore scarier than the state of nature dates back at least to 1927, when H. P. Lovecraft published a short story called ‘The Colour Out of Space.’ It’s about a meteor that lands on a farm in rural Massachusetts. A strange life-form is buried within the meteor, and it soon leaches into the soil. The farm’s plants begin to glow in shades ‘unlike any known colors of the normal spectrum.’ The animals, too, begin to move in unnatural ways. Eventually, the life-form takes a concrete shape. It begins to move about, stalking the farmer and his family and turning their bodies into a kind of living ash. Of the meteor, the narrator concludes, ‘It was nothing of the earth, but a piece of the great outside.’ ” 
  • Before fat shaming was a thing, there was Roald Dahl, peppering his books with gluttons and the many objects of their gluttony. As Annalisa Quinn writes, food in Dahl’s work is uniquely fraught: “If you look closely, the danger inherent in food is everywhere. There’s the dinner party in ‘Taste,’ Dahl’s chilling adult short story in which the host bets his gourmand guest that he won’t guess the provenance of the wine (the prize: his daughter); the chocolate Xanadu of Willy Wonka, where handling food the wrong way subjects you to contortions and tortures; and the dripping, voluptuous peach that kills James’ aunts. He entices us and then shows us what happens if we succumb: derision, loss of bodily autonomy, death.”
  • Calcutta in the early nineteenth century was full of British fat cats cooling their heels in various exotic locales. Joshua Ehrlich looks at 1833’s Calcutta Quarterly Magazine, which includes a bizarre supplement mocking a fictitious group called the “Calcutta Pococurante Society” for its indulgent ways: “The members’ wandering dinner chat, peppered with lines of poetry and elements of the occult, is not the kind of thing modern readers are used to seeing in print. Nor is it obvious why past readers should have wanted to … It is striking, meanwhile, how little the text is concerned with India or Indians … The aloofness of the British transplants, their dislocation from their surroundings, seems part of the satire … At the Society’s dinner, even local ingredients are rendered in French on the menu. The members discuss almost exclusively Western politics, philosophy, and literature. On the rare occasions when the east enters the scene, it does so obliquely and fancifully, for instance in the decoration of the Society’s meeting place: ‘a Turkish tent of white silk … Ottomans of pale Blue and Gold … a profusion of Purple Velvet drapery.’ The everyday experience of life in India is relegated to outside the tent-flaps.”
  • While we’re on the British empire: Zimbabwe’s Harare City Library boasts a new Doris Lessing Special Collection, commemorating the thirty-five hundred books she gave to the library after her death. Lessing had a special history with the place, as Percy Zvomuya writes: “Lessing lived in Southern Rhodesia between 1925 (when she was six) and 1949 … The independent Zimbabwe that Lessing returned to in the 1980s was a different country from the Southern Rhodesia she left in 1949, which had declared her a ‘prohibited immigrant’ when she went back in 1956. She described it as an ‘awful place’ in one interview. ‘Only someone who’s lived in these dreadful colonial places will understand why. They are so dead and narrow and stultifying. If you are living in that kind of society where a small number of people are oppressing a great many, they become obsessed by the fact, and they talk about nothing else, day and night. And I always think of Goethe, who said, if you are going to keep a man down in the ditch, you are going to have to get into the ditch with him.’ ”

Who Is the Black Flâneur? and Other News

March 30, 2016 | by

William Pope.L, The Great White Way, 22 miles, 9 years, 1 street, 2001–2009. Photo: William Pope.L, Pruznick/Grey.

  • All hail Zardulu! She appears in ceremonial robes around Gotham, begging mortals to serve as “tools” in her “grand architectural designs.” And these designs … they may seem, from the outside, like they’re just viral videos. But they’re a new body of myths. Andy Newman reports: “The artist calls herself Zardulu. Her medium is the elaborately staged viral video. As to her own identity, Zardulu will say only that she was born in Manhattan in 1971 … She has been revealed as the force behind the Selfie Rat, who achieved world fame for appearing to take a self-portrait with a passed-out man’s phone on a subway platform. She has been suspected as the creator of the even more famous Pizza Rat, caught dragging a slice down subway stairs in September, though another man claims credit for that video … She does, however, have plenty to say in a more general way about the enduring power of mystery. Like: ‘I think creation and perpetuation of modern myths is a tragically underappreciated art form. It upsets me when I hear people refer to them as lies.’ ”
  • Let’s face it, the flâneur is a white guy. He strolls, he gazes, he observes—he takes these luxuries as his due. What would black flânerie look like? Doreen St. Félix starts with the artist William Pope.L, who “prostrated himself on New York City’s Broadway Avenue for nine years, intermittently. He called the performances ‘crawls.’ Dressed in a Superman suit with a skateboard strapped to his back, the tall, thin, statistically average-looking black American man would crawl on the sidewalk as long as weather and upper body strength allowed, which never exceeded six blocks. Known as The Great White Way, 22 Miles, 9 Years, 1 Street (2001–2009), Pope.L’s drama featuring varyingly proscribed cosmopolitan movements—those of the disabled, of the homeless, of commuting black Americans—attracted dramatics from his unwitting public as well. A cameraman documented most of the odd sojourn and the reactions, which ranged in horror, boredom, disgust, delight, and confusion. One passing black pedestrian stopped, so incensed by Pope.L’s state that he nearly kicked the artist in the face.”
  • The grammar handbook is a hard sell. How to get people to care about the serial comma? How to reinvigorate the art of the nonrestrictive which? Frank L. Cioffi’s book goes all Solzhenitsyn on the problem; it’s called One Day in the Life of the English Language, and it shows us the horrors of the labor camp called usage: “It illustrates points about grammar and punctuation using examples drawn from newspapers and magazines all published—online or in print—on December 29, 2008 (hence talk of the financial crisis, the election of Barack Obama, strife between Israel and Palestine). And its author, Frank L. Cioffi, who teaches writing at Baruch College in New York City, is humble. His aim is not so much to enforce rules as to provoke debate. He wants you to look beyond the meaning of the sentence to the choices made by the writer and the editor.”
  • Today in libraries and the delicate art of assertion: “The San Jose Public Library wants its books back. And its CDs and DVDs. Taken altogether, library patrons are holding onto or have damaged 97,000 items and owe the city $6.8 million in fines and fees. The situation is so out of control that about 40 percent of the city’s library cardholders can no longer borrow anything until they return their library holdings and pay what they owe. For a library, this is a DEFCON moment. Maybe not DEFCON 1, but at least DEFCON 3 … Over the years, libraries have fined patrons for not bringing back books and offered no-questions-asked return periods. They’ve published the names of book scofflaws in local newspapers. They’ve paid personal calls on people who hold onto books past their due dates, and even sicced the police on particularly recalcitrant readers. And they still don’t really know how to get their books back.”
  • Remember King Philip’s War? Not firsthand—it happened in the seventeenth century. But it’s a grisly and oft-forgotten chapter in American colonial history: “In terms of percentages, King Philip’s War is the most violent in our national history, and ignoring the per capita numbers, it was in its ferocity and almost gothic horror perhaps the most genuinely violent event in the whole American narrative … We have never really recovered from the trauma … King Phillips War has more than a whiff of the allegorical about it, it is a typological example of a recurring event in American history, a chapter in the dubious sacred scripture of our civil religion, and we witness its continuing battles every day.”

Fruit Mutiny

August 1, 2014 | by

Whither the breadfruit?

Breadfruit_by_Marguerite_Girvin_Gillin,_c._1884,_Bishop_Museum

Marguerite Girvin Gillin, Breadfruit, ca. 1884

There’s such a thing as the Breadfruit Institute, and there should be. Researchers consider the species a “NUS”—“neglected and underutilized species.” But Ian Cole, the Breadfruit Institute’s collection manager, thinks that’s insane. He told me, “If you had a breadfruit tree in your yard, you would have food all year round!”

I don’t have a breadfruit tree in my yard, though, and neither do you, if you live in the lower forty-eight. Cole wants that to change. He wants the world to eat breadfruit.

He may well get his wish. Breadfruit, a starchy fruit that looks like a green pimpled softball, is enjoying a bout of sudden popularity. It’s gluten free, dense with protein, and rich in vitamin B and fiber. It has the mild, earthy flavor of a tuber. And it looks pretty neat: what appears to be a singular globe of fruit is in fact thousands of tiny fruits fused together like a mosaic. The media is in thrall. The Daily Mail calls breadfruit “a wonder food”; the Huffington Post calls it “a wonder food”; and the New Scientist calls it “a wonder food.” The New Zealand Herald asked in a recent news headline, “Is this the new wonder food?” Yes. Yes, it is. Read More »

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We Are Made of Memories: A Conversation with Mia Couto

May 2, 2013 | by

350px-Mia_CoutoBorn in 1955 in Mozambique, to Portuguese immigrants, Mia Couto is widely considered one of the foremost wielders of the Portuguese language. He has written more than twenty books that have been translated into at least as many languages, and those translated into English since 1990 have garnered him a dedicated Anglophone following. Although Couto’s fiction varies widely, he frequently deals with Mozambique’s civil war, which erupted in 1977, two years after he turned twenty and his nation gained its independence from Portugal. His recurrent use in his work of surreal effects has led many critics to liken his fiction to Latin America’s magical realism, a label at which he bristles.

The Tuner of Silences, brought into English by Couto’s longtime translator David Brookshaw and published this year by Biblioasis, tells the story of Vítalico, a father who has dragged his children to an abandoned Mozambican nature preserve after the horrifying death of his wife. As Couto explores the nature of Vítalico’s regime and its eventual collapse, he delves into frequent obsessions: the construction of identity and the role that memory and language play in that process.

Recently, over e-mail, I discussed Tuner, influences, labels, and the curious provenance of Couto’s first name in our e-mail correspondence.

You’ve mentioned the Angolan writer José Luandino Vieira and the Brazilian João Guimarães Rosa as two influences on your understanding of the Portuguese language. What sorts of cultural influences from within Mozambique have you drawn from?

I usually refer to Luandino and Guimarães Rosa as those who inspired me most, but the most important influences on my writing come from those I can’t identify, persons that populated my childhood, my hometown in the Indian ocean, the neighborhood where I was born and where I started to dream about other places and other lives. So, ironically, the main source of inspiration of my writing came from the nonwriting world. Oral culture is still dominant in Mozambique, and the ability to convert reality into stories is still very alive here, even in the urban areas. Storytelling is not exclusively a skill of the griots—the common citizen shares this capacity, telling stories not just with words but with their whole body, using dance and songs and poetry as a unique language. Read More »

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Five in the Colonies: Enid Blyton’s Sri Lankan Adventures

June 25, 2012 | by

Most mornings this past winter—the Boyagoda household already running late—I discovered my oldest daughter reading at the kitchen table: one boot on, gloves, hat, knapsack, and other boot nowhere to be found. So immersed was she, so indifferent to my pleas and threats, that finally I had to pull the book from her grasping hands just to make her finish dressing for the cold walk to school. This experience has made me more sympathetic to my mother, who once spanked me in a grocery store because I wouldn’t stop reading a book. It was by Enid Blyton, the British children’s writer who wrote some 400 nursery, fantasy, and adventure series titles that have sold more than six hundred million copies worldwide, mostly in Britain and the former colonies, including Sri Lanka—where as a girl my mother herself first encountered Blyton. I recently bought one of Blyton’s books for my own daughter. But before passing it on, I decided to reread it.

The book seemed innocuous enough. As with all of Blyton’s adventure stories, it was about boys and girls drawn into mysterious doings while on summer holiday. Bickering but loyal, they best adults who are either distracted and dismissive, or criminals capable of outsmarting everybody but the kids. Working this premise for decades and dozens of stories, Blyton enjoyed great success—at the time of her death, a book club devoted to her work had some 200,000 members in Britain alone. But because that success depended upon such patterned writing, she was also accused by librarians, teachers, and academics of relentlessly dulling the imaginations of her young readers, and of unjustly encouraging those who were reading her from abroad to make identifications that race, geography, history, and politics preemptively denied them. This certainly seems to have been the case for the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; in a 2006 interview with The Times, she explained that her development as a writer was stunted by her early reading: “When I started to write, I was writing Enid Blyton stories, even though I had never been to England. I didn’t think it was possible for people like me to be in books.” Similar notions affect the eponymous protagonists of Jamaica Kincaid’s novels Lucy and Annie John, who both declare they wish they were named Enid, after their favorite author. For both the young Adichie’s and Kincaid’s characters, mimicry and the desire for renaming aren’t simple expressions of literary admiration; they’re also rejections of the children’s African and Caribbean worlds, which have been diminished by their very immersion in Blyton’s books. The Blyton reading experience likewise impacts a colonial child’s maturation in Rohinton Mistry’s novel Family Matters, in which an intelligent Indian boy grows up reading her books and from this develops a dismissive attitude towards the foods and places and names that figure in his Bombay life. When self-loathing and alienation begin to build, he stops reading her; later, noticing her books on his shelves, he admits, “I can’t bear to even open them. I wonder what it was that so fascinated me. They seem like a waste of time now.”

Read More »

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