why i read

Poppy Z Brite won’t remember me. I interviewed her for Geekgirl more than ten years ago, when Computer Associates flew me out to New Orleans for a junket. It was my overwhelming and confusing first US trip and I don’t remember much myself, just the scary cab ride out into the darkened burbs, and a house full of spooked cats, and the way her Louise Brooks bob framed her face. And how quickly she got bored with my dorkitude and stupid questions.

Since the storm, Brite’s Livejournal has been a must-read, and I finally got around to picking up her latest novels. Horror fandom has given her a lot of stick for moving off into foodie-thriller territory a la Anthony Bourdain, but I like her newer books far more than the old ones. Soul Kitchen has two moments of piercing beauty. In one, a character we have written off as a homophobe comes back with one final shot: “It’s not the same,” and dammit if she isn’t right. In the other, a character confesses to a terrifying weakness, and his partner, rather than being appalled, is filled with tender pride at the courage it took to confess.

Both scenes cut me to the quick, and that pained surprise and sweetness is what I read for. The comically overpraised Prep had nothing to come close, and is so profoundly unremarkable that it took me ten minutes just now to remember what on earth I had been reading on the flight to New York. Still, there was a mildly entertaining overlap with an early section of Barack Obama’s Dreams of My Father, where the young Obama is packed off to a prep school in Hawaii.

Dreams was obviously written well before Obama considered running for office (he might have glossed over the pot and coke otherwise.) As such it’s far more revealing than most of the turgid pap ground out by political publicity machines. The section that gripped me most is his account of his work as a civil rights organizer in Chicago, facing daunting odds, very slowly learning to listen to the people he is working with and to achieve modest results.

The methods he learns are surprisingly similar to those laid out by the authors of Peopleware – not so much organizing or management as enablement, if that word didn’t already have negative connotations. Obama can only organize politically when he listens to what the people are really asking for, and finds ways to help them get it. Sumana is trying to acquire these kinds of skills in New York, and finding it an uphill struggle. I wanted to encourage her (but couldn’t find the words) because it seems to me that this is an extremely rare yet essential set of tools, applicable to a broad range of goals. And women – well, people generally, really – have a very long way to go, and we need all the skilled enablers we can get.

The last section of Obama’s book deals with his journey to Kenya to meet the rest of his father’s family. It’s an extraordinary story that I won’t even try to do justice to here. I mention it only because when I came back to the biography James Tiptree Jr I noticed with shame that Alice Sheldon’s parents might have been the whites on safari who gave Obama’s grandfather such a scalding reference.

Sheldon struggled all her life with the tension between her formidable intelligence and the limited options available for mid-century women. In these respects the biography sits alongside those of Rosalind Franklin and Katherine Graham as reminders to me of how far women have come (and how precarious our gains may be.) But Obama’s memoir belongs in a far richer and stranger group, with Rory Stewart’s books and with the amazing An African in Greenland, all of which illustrate the extent to which my race and class trump my sex. A straight white man’s life is not the default human experience, and the rest of us are not measured by the extent to which we deviate from that norm. We share that much. Beyond our fraught relationship with white malehood, though, we have wildly different challenges and unimaginably different lives, and a great deal to learn from one another. Doc Brite is right: It isn’t the same, at all.

Oh that we could all meet somewhere in the middle. American Born Chinese is a lovely, lovely book (in a year of stellar graphic novels) but one scene in it will haunt me until I die. Tripitaka is taking the three demon kings into the West in search of wisdom, right? Well, they arrive, and it turns out wisdom is the illegitimate child of two unwed homeless Jews. We pan back to see the nativity scene with the star of Bethlehem blazing above it and Monkey, Sandy and Pigsy the three wise men.

Peace on earth, y’all.

Leave a Reply

Comments are closed.