Moving Beyond the US: #BlackLivesMatter and Decolonization

Syrian artists Aziz Asmar and Anis Hamdoun painted a memorial to George Floyd on the remainder of a destroyed wall in Binnish, Idlib (Syria’s northwest).
Source: RepublicWorld

George Floyd’s murder revived the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, but also the #AllLivesMatter hashtag and its various offshoots. Thus, when I saw a photo of a Lebanese protester holding a sign that said #LebaneseLivesMatter on Twitter, the first thing I thought was just how unaware of the global conversation this person is. In fact, I retweeted the photo with the caption: “READ THE ROOM.”

Given the conversation on the poor judgement of some people—many of whom are well-intentioned—in trying to advocate for all lives and not just Black lives, I had a negative knee-jerk reaction to the image. But it lingered in my memory. It is undeniable that such a poster in the U.S. would be out of tune; that said, thinking about #BlackLivesMatter, a primarily U.S. movement, concurrently with other global issues is essential to understanding and thus dismantling U.S./white hegemony — which in and of itself is a global and not a U.S.-only issue.

Since October 2019, Lebanon has been suffering from its worst financial crisis since the Civil War (1975–90), which has been now exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. With inflation soaring and nearly 50% of Lebanese living under the poverty line, people hit the streets to demand their rights. I tried putting myself in their shoes: they’re watching social media explode with overwhelming support for #BlackLivesMatter, triggered, in their eyes as people unaware of the U.S. context, by the murder of one man, while thousands and thousands of people starved in Lebanon without anyone flinching.

I do not say this to undermine the Black Lives Matter movement, or to dismiss that George Floyd’s murder is symptomatic of a larger systemic issue in the United States and around the world. Anti-Black racism exists in Lebanon too. Lebanon, and the Arab world at large, are notorious for their unjust, racist kafala system—amongst many other symptoms of deep-seated racism, such as Western beauty standards, lack of representation of people of color in the media, and the like. But the issue, for those who claim that “Lebanese Lives Matter”, is about the lack of media attention— they are not denying anti-Black racism.

Social media is dominated by U.S. voices and perspectives. For instance, the country with most Twitter users is the U.S. at 64 million, followed by Japan at 48 million, and Russia at 24 million, even though the U.S. clearly isn’t the most populated country in the world. Thus, what goes viral on social media and other media outlets is often dictated by trends in the U.S. As such, people in Lebanon, and elsewhere, may see the Black Lives Matter movement as hegemonic vis-à-vis their struggles: while the whole world is talking about George Floyd and Black lives, no one seems to care about Lebanon.

(responses against Lebanese Lives Matter)

Appropriating the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag or slogan for other social justice movements dilutes people’s attention; it is a sort of hijacking of the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet it is important to note that the intention of the Lebanese people, or any oppressed group, is not malicious; their intentions are very different from those of racist Americans who advocate for #AllLivesMatter.

What we are witnessing—outside the U.S., in Lebanon and elsewhere—is a process by which the lives of minorities in the U.S. matter to the world more than non-U.S. lives, let alone lives of minorities outside the U.S. The reason the world cares about George Floyd now more than we ever did about Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Venezuela—the list can go on forever—is because of U.S. hegemony, a hegemony inextricable from the systemic hold of white superiority and supremacy on the entire globe.

What we have here, therefore, is white supremacy benefitting the U.S.-turned-global fight against Black racism and police brutality. This may not seem like a problem, but the fight against racism cannot happen without global solidarity against U.S. hegemony. In a recent interview, Black activist Angela Davis “hop[ed] that today’s young activists recognize how important Palestinian solidarity has been to the Black cause, and that they recognize that we have a profound responsibility to support Palestinian struggles, as well.” She also pointed in the direction of Brazil, saying “if we think we have a problem with racist police violence in the United States of America, look at Brazil. . . . I think 4,000 people were killed last year alone by the police in Brazil.”

Davis recognizes, in pointing to Palestine and Brazil even as the Black community in the U.S. and its allies are in revolt, the importance of solidarity in dismantling transnational systems of oppression that know no borders. She gestures to the reality that one cannot selectively fight against oppression, for these systems are massive, interconnected, and inertial, requiring large amounts of force to disassemble them.

In this vein, it is also my wish that those who have now garnered a platform due to these systemic structures that privilege Western voices over non-Western ones—especially on social media—shed light on injustices that inflict much of the world now, not just the U.S. and the West. I hope that those people with influence remind those who are now so passionately protesting racist legacies—from statues to names of places and institutions—also speak up against injustices in other parts of the world in the future, as they arise.

On June 23rd of this year, Ahmed Erekat, a 27-year-old Palestinian man, was murdered by the Israeli police; he was shot and left to bleed for one and a half hours. He was accused of attempting “to ram his car into border guards” despite it being the day of his sister’s wedding. Like George Floyd, Ahmed Erekat, an unarmed Palestinian man, was assumed to be violent and left to die. But unlike Floyd’s murder, Erekat’s murder didn’t elicit a global outcry. Why is that? Where are the reading suggestions about the Palestinian struggle? Where are the “go educate yourselves” posts? Where are the “check your privilege” articles? 

This plea to talk about all forms of injustice, not those only occurring in the West, should not be seen as a means of hijacking the Black moment or the Black cause (which, admittedly, is often the unintended consequence of hashtags like #LebaneseLivesMatter or #PalestinianLivesMatter). Rather, it should be seen as part of the struggle against white supremacy and U.S. imperialism. The white hegemonic structures killing Black people in the U.S. are the same structures allowing Israel to annex Palestine. From this standpoint, it becomes imperative that we engage in a more nuanced and dynamic form of solidarity, else we would be, in our struggle for justice, still perpetrating the structures we are fighting against. 

If we only talk about George Floyd and Black lives, we will not dismantle the system that murdered him.

Consuming My Country

My home is not what I remember. Throughout university, I met people who saw the Philippines as a nation of insignificance. As nothing but a remote cluster of islands somewhere in Asia, its churches corrupt and its immaculate waters unknown. During my time in London, one of my students asked about my upbringing; as we munched on butter biscuits by the playground, stale crumbs dusting our laps, I told her about my country. “The Philippines?” she frowned. “Is that in China?”

Those moments of ignorance are now gone. More than three years ago, in a room overlooking the Arabian Gulf, I first feared for my country—what was once nothing to millions of people has been shoved into the spotlight, the pinnacle of conversations among taxi drivers and teachers, misogynists and mutineers, nurses and narcissists, cheaters and children. As I studied literature and theater in the Middle East, tens of thousands of deaths surfaced back home. Until now, the police continue to slaughter Filipinos without trial. Children and innocent people are caught in the crossfire. Human rights activists risk their lives to protest for freedom.

And I am oceans away as my country suffers.

*

When the media first began broadcasting the deaths, I made halo-halo. In the shared kitchen of my dormitory building in Abu Dhabi, I had one way to connect to my home: by consuming it.

Of all the desserts my country offers, there is nothing I find as quintessentially Filipino as halo-halo, a layered treat made of shaved ice, evaporated milk, and mix-ins of your choice, from plantains and tapioca pearls to jackfruit and sweetened beans. There’s no set method for making the perfect halo-halo—as its Tagalog name implies, you mix whatever you have layered in your serving glass, and somehow, as if by magic, the random assortment works. Throughout my childhood, I constantly craved the crunch of sweetened ice, the sugary red beans between my teeth, the explosion of jackfruit on the tip of my tongue. My parents would order their halo-halo with a piece of leche flan and a scoop of ube ice cream on top—now, I cannot have it any other way.

Although it is a staple Filipino dessert, halo-halo is most likely an indigenized version of kakigōri. Before the Philippines’ war on drugs and long before World War II, Japanese migrants brought this dessert to my country. The kakigōri in Japan consisted of shaved ice sweetened with syrup; the addition of fruit preserves and other mix-ins occurred after Japanese farmers settled in the Philippines and began experimenting with local offerings. Over time, Filipinos threw in other ingredients, from creamy caramel custard to bright purple ube ice cream. Nowadays, you can find variants of the same dessert in different Philippine provinces, from a version in Pampanga with creamed corn and pastillas de leche to a “spicy winter” halo-halo in Laguna topped with jackfruit and chili peppers.

As I crushed ice that day in my dormitory’s tiny kitchen, I contemplated these versions of halo-halo, how they had changed over time and taken on unexpected new flavors. In that moment, I thought about the version of my country that not everyone gets to see: a Philippines untainted by war. The Philippines I love is congested cities, chocolate hills, and rice terraces carved by farmers and the palms of God. It is hours of traffic and electricity cuts and the rice cooker’s song when dinner is ready. Fried fish balls sold by street vendors and jeepneys with a smiling Jesus painted on each side. Finding a sewing kit in a cookie tin and frozen leftovers in an ice cream container and leaving your shoes by the door before entering a room. It is remembering home every time I dig a spoon into a tall glass of sweetened ice. 

*

The day after I made halo-halo, I taught a friend how to prepare it. We layered the ingredients while discussing the dessert’s origins. My friend, who had grown up in Seoul, mused on the similarities between halo-halo and patbingsu, a Korean dessert made of shaved ice, sweetened condensed milk, and red beans. We ate near a television in the student lounge, the afternoon news droning on behind us. As a report of the latest deaths in the Philippines appeared, my friend struggled to speak, pity painting her face. I stared at the remains of my halo-halo, now a soupy mess of milk and melted ice. I wondered if other people would act this way around me. Would I change the topic if someone asked about the current events of my country? Would I feel ashamed to mention my origins, aware of how my country has changed since I left?

No. My home is not what I remember, no longer insignificant to the world. Despite my country’s flaws and my fear of returning to a place where no one is safe from a stray bullet, I am still Filipino. I admit there is a certain nostalgia I took for granted, a simpler time when my country’s name inspired curiosity, not sympathy. For someone like me, so far from home, my emotions are now as layered as my favorite Filipino dessert. I am glad the world has shown concern for the Philippines. But I am heartbroken too, for my country’s name has become synonymous with violence, a human rights disaster in the making. Fear trickles into my frustration. I am useless to my friends stuck back home. Guilt seeps into my shameful sense of relief. I am privileged to be somewhere safe with my family. As the daily news reports on the latest turmoil, I watch events unfold from afar, my despair mixing with a never-ending sense of helplessness. 

These feelings consume me as I consume my country. I fear that the world will always see my home as a place of violence and nothing more. I will speak with anyone willing to discuss its current state, and I will try my best as a Filipino who hasn’t been home in half a decade. But I cannot stand and watch as the Philippines is typecast yet again—I must continue to talk about my country, a beautiful mess beyond the ongoing chaos. The Philippines is my homeland, the only one I will ever have, and it is more than the fleeting topic of some short conversation. It is more than a trend or a news headline. Countries are always more than the wars that plague them.

Every time sweetened ice crunches between my teeth, I will think of the last time I visited my hometown. With the familiar drizzle of evaporated milk, the distance disappears and I return to the Philippines I remember. To the afternoons on my front porch with sliced mango, hands stained and the air sticky sweet. To the mornings preparing pineapples and papayas in a warm, hazy glow. To waking up in the middle of hot summer nights, shirt clinging to skin and throat aching for halo-halo.

 

Artwork by Katya Roxas

Sign of the Times: A Photo Essay

Scenes of Abu Dhabi, UAE during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Young masked men play pool outside Madinat Zayed. Others seem to be selling fake designer clothes in an illicit secondhand market. A lone man in a polo shirt has erected jumping castles to make extra cash outside the Gold Center. The castles are deserted. He listens to something on his phone, absorbed with all the intensity of the clouds gathering above. Life — the exchange of capital and conversations — must continue to rumble even at this off-kilter pace.

Laborers in the city must continue to earn money. Juice shops, cafeterias, carpet sellers, cobblers, tailors, honey vendors…all remain. They sip tea in their shops, trying to sell. In 48 hours, they will have to pack up and stay home for two weeks. Almost everyone on the street is masked. Small cigarettes and “massage cards” lie motionless on the pavement. Malayalam, French, Urdu, Wolof, Bengali: all the languages of the streets, of the working class, dance. They filter through masks and mix with the air like steam rising from the chai at Happy Cafeteria. Life — the exchange of capital and conversations — must continue to rumble even at this off-kilter pace.

Small groups of young West African men swap cigarette boxes, thin rolls of money, and bottles of hand sanitizer as they congregate outside an apartment building. I try not to look. I, girl with the zooming camera and lens-corrected eyes, am looked at. I stumble upon a shop called MASK FASHION nearby. Life — the exchange of capital and conversations — continues to rumble even at this off-kilter pace.

 

 

Vamika Sinha is a co-founder and editor-in-chief of Postscript. Find more of her photography here.

Imagined Worlds Turned Inside Out: The Power of Helen Levitt’s Child Co-Creators

“New York c. 1945” by Helen Levitt

A group of young girls are strolling down the sidewalk on a hot summer day in New York; all at once, their four heads turn, and they gaze with equal interest at a series of shiny spherical objects that seem to be floating along the wall. Nobody has initiated the gaze; nobody is gesturing towards the objects or checking to see if her friends noticed them too. It’s as though the objects themselves demanded all four girls’ attention at once. The viewer of this photograph will therefore become curious as well, and pay greater attention to the bubbles than she would have if the children weren’t in the frame. Each bubble has part of its edge resting against the border between two or more bricks. If these objects are soap bubbles that are simply floating along, then Levitt has captured them while they are all in a state of in-between; none of them float in the centre of a single brick. If they are not soap bubbles, they could also be glass spheres embedded in the brick, like underwater windows on a ship, which offer a glimpse into the underground world beneath the road. The photograph allows for both possibilities, and each creates a mystery. If the objects are glass spheres, then who put them there, and what is their function? If they are soap bubbles, then where is the soap bubble blower, and how have they survived for so long without popping?

The girls’ synchronization is what causes our interest, not the objects themselves. If Helen Levitt had chosen to photograph the wall and the glass spheres without the children, the image wouldn’t be interesting because we wouldn’t stop to see them as anything other than bubbles against brick. But when we notice what the children are noticing, we start to see things the way they do. Levitt’s child subjects become a conduit for the adult viewer’s own imagination, we ask ourselves: do they see everlasting soap bubbles, a coded message, or tiny portals into other worlds? Since we are unable to ask them what they see, and wouldn’t want to break the spell of their imagination anyways, we return to our own imaginations for answers.

Implicit in the taking and viewing of this photograph is the creation of three different imaginary worlds layered on top of one another. The first is the children’s imaginary world that has been activated by the bubbles; this creation occurred during the actual moment when the photograph was taken. The second is Helen Levitt’s imaginary world, which was born when she chose to remove this moment from its temporal context by capturing it in a photograph; a photograph can tell a narrative that is entirely separate from the reality it was captured in, and in doing so it becomes its own fictional world. Finally, there is a new imaginary world built into the mind of the viewer as she thinks about what the children might be imagining. Whether she is aware of her imagination being activated or not, the viewer will unconsciously become a creator too. This collaboration between child-subject, photographer, and viewer recurs in Levitt’s work, and keeps the viewer oscillating between the three imagined worlds as an unknowing participant in the artistic act.

In her article, “Helen Levitt and the camera,” critic Elizabeth Gand argues that Levitt uses children to explore the ways in which art gets made. “If she engaged so deeply with children, it was because of what they allowed her to say… Her pictures conceive children’s play as the foundation of artistic production; they are portraits of the artist as a young child.” Levitt reveals the creative process by representing children who are at play: transforming the ordinary world into something fantastical. By capturing the four girls in a synchronized moment of wonder, she shows us the moment when a detail from the real world can tip the artist-as-child into her imagination. She also reveals what might be missing from regular adult observation. The four girls are naturally drawn to the bubbles, which an adult or non-artist might pass without taking a second glance. By seeing what the children are looking at, we might also see the absence of the curiosity we once had as children. Fredrick Wiseman’s statement about his reaction to one of Levitt’s photographs is applicable to many of her works. “I like this photograph because it makes me ask myself these silly questions when I, of course, have no idea what either these children or Helen Levitt were thinking and can only project my fantasies onto this photograph.” The activation of the adult imagination is a major part of Levitt’s intention. As a statement about art-making, “New York c 1945” advocates for the careful observation of the subtle oddities that are present in the regular world. Inside a bubble, the artist might find a universe, the way a child does.

“New York, 1940.” By Helen Levitt

The child’s imagination could be considered a universal theme or topic of interest, but Levitt chooses to situate her work in specific communities. Her subjects often come from the margins, but she escapes the trap of using them to make overt sociopolitical commentaries; instead, her photography allows for ambiguity. For example, in the photograph “New York, 1940,” Levitt depicts two black children absorbed in their own internal worlds. The girl’s hair has not been combed, her clothes are rumpled and she has her arms crossed in a self-comforting or protective gesture. The boy is sitting on the ground at the threshold between inside and outside space. Both children seem to be waiting for something. But if they seem vulnerable it is because of our assumptions about their circumstances, not because they are performing vulnerability to us or because the photograph has captured them in a moment of weakness. I would argue that both children exude a kind of power. Both of them are gazing out, but don’t seem to be looking at anything in particular; they have left their circumstances behind for a moment. They have the power to leave the real world while they wait.

Walker Evans once called Levitt’s photography anti-journalism. Her photos cannot be read with one single narrative and they are not a call to action or a cry for social justice. Her subjects are often unconcerned with the photographer’s presence, and the photographs themselves seem unconcerned with what the viewer might take from them. However, while Levitt’s work maintains ambiguity and resists simple political readings, it is also not a-political. Scholar Lorraine Sim argues, “her photography undoubtedly assumes a politics in the sense that it focuses on poor neighbourhoods, the working classes, women and children, and often African-American and immigrant subjects—and in ways that depart from stereotypical representations of these groups.” Levitt is making a choice to photograph the marginalized, but she does not use the individuals she is photographing to tell a story of marginalization. When we look at the photographs today, they can become documentary in the sense that they portray groups that were not part of the mainstream narrative at the time. Scholar Alison Dean argues that today, “we can begin to re-frame her practice in terms of questions of visibility and invisibility that are central not only to the way we see Levitt, but also the way (and the fact that) we can also see her subjects.” Visibility is not a-political; at the same time, we should not over-use it in our readings of specific photographs.

In “New York c. 1945,” three black children and one white child walk together and notice bubbles at exactly the same moment. This group could surprise a contemporary viewer, who might not have expected black children and white children to play together on the street in the 1940s. In his article, critic Alan Trachtenberg points out Levitt’s ability to reject stereotype by portraying marginalized people as, “neither victims nor impossible heroes, her subjects appear as themselves. It’s a breathtaking achievement, an artist taking poor people entirely on their own terms.” The friendship between the four girls is not made heroic or sentimental, it simply exists. Levitt’s choice to photograph this moment normalizes the girls’ relationship rather than twisting it to fit an agenda. Yet our imagination of that time period could cause us to see this group as an oddity, and construct a racially-motivated message in the photograph that isn’t really there. It would be easy to misread the children’s grouping and synchronized head-turning as Levitt’s way of suggesting that racial harmony exists in the children’s world in opposition to a racially divided adult world. But she is never saccharine in her depiction of childhood, and this photograph does not suggest that the children are free from their sociopolitical reality: instead, it allows the real world to exist in the frame. The girls are penned in by a high wall and we cannot see the sidewalk ahead of them, so we have no way of knowing what things will be like when they pass through this moment. If there is a story about race that is being told through this image, it is not as simple or sweet as: look at the magic of interracial friendships.

The composition of the photograph draws a parallel between the girls and the bubbles, which are both captured during a time of transition. The bubbles are all crossing from one brick to the next while the girls walk on the transitory space of a sidewalk, which acts as a fault line between a road and a row of buildings. The bubbles also seem to be floating along and the girls are all captured mid-stride. The parallel between the children and the bubbles suggests that the children are fragile too. They exist in a world where it seems to be a small miracle that they have not popped yet. While the children are mobile, the photograph slices through mobility by splitting the distant car in half, cropping out their future walking space, and showing a horizon with no openness. It seems that eventually the children will reach a dead-end, and will need to turn around. Even if they reach the wider world that is shown in the top right corner, it is a place with no sky: only buildings layered on buildings. This crowdedness creates a kind of simmering anxiety, even in the magic of the moment. Race, class and gender all play a part in Levitt’s photographs because they are a part of the real world, which children inhabit too. Despite their harsh realities, she captures children from all socioeconomic groups when they are at their most powerful. She sees when they are engrossed in the small mysteries of the real world, which they are uniquely equipped to see, and she captures them at the precipice between reality and imagination. When we start to wonder what they are seeing, we slip down the cracks of our own imaginations too.

Many critics have suggested that Levitt’s photography is “artless,” and “style-less.” They see it as emblematic of the “white style,” meaning she has a “fully automatic, active collaboration with chance.” While her photography must be spontaneous, since it is not posed or artificially constructed, I would argue that it is also not captured at random. Greater emphasis should be placed on the subtle complexity of her composition and the choices that she is making rather than her spontaneity and seeming invisibility. Critic Sandra Phillips uses “New York 1940,” to point out the subtle effect of Levitt’s different cropping. In an earlier print of the photo, the two children exist in a “wide sea of space surrounding the central figure,” but later editions crop that space down, “usually the effect is one of more mystery and psychological content.” Levitt also uses recurring motifs in the creation of an aesthetic. For example, her child subjects are almost always occupying liminal space. Three boys crouch on a front stoop: a space that is both public and private because it is owned by whoever owns the building but is also visible to the outside world. A boy hangs onto a doorframe: half in one room and half in another. Another boy squats in a corner, nestled between the sculpture of a lion and a window into a restaurant or café. This recurrence of a type of space is not a stroke of luck, but an aesthetic choice. Levitt also chooses to allow the children’s surroundings into the frame, to give context without allowing the surroundings to dominate the subjects. The way her subjects choose to behave: their postures, movements and facial expressions may be up to chance, but everything else about her work is artfully constructed.

Levitt is making choices to create an aesthetic experience, yet she also resists the creation of a single narrative or journalistic message. Her often impoverished subjects appear as powerful creators; there is no condescension or sentimentality or judgement being passed about them or their circumstances, which is impressive when so many well-meaning pieces of work about marginalized groups fall into those traps. But the absence of her opinion about her subjects does not mean that Levitt is absent from the photographs. Through her aesthetics, she allows her subjects to teach her viewers a new way of seeing. There is power in leaving the real world behind for an imagined one, and it’s a power that the viewer discovers when she wonders what the children are making out of the world around them.

Works Cited
Dean, Alison. “The Invisible Helen Levitt.” Performance Matters 2.2 (2016).
Gand, Elizabeth “Helen Levitt (1913-2009) and the Camera.” American Art Vol. 23 No. 3, pp 98-102. The University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Handy, Ellen. “Helen Levitt: Childhood as Performance, City as Theatre.” The Lion and the Unicorn (2001).
Philipps, Sandra S. “Helen Levitt’s Cropping.” History of Photography (1993).
Sante, Sue; Kleinzahler, August; Eggers, Dave; Malamud-Smith, Janna; Wiseman, Frederick; Pemberton, Gayle; Weschler, Lawrence, “Symposium on Helen Levitt” The Threepenny Review (2001).
Sim, Lorraine. Ordinary Matters Modernist Women’s Literature and Photography. Bloomsbury Academic (2016).
Trachtenberg, Alan, “Seeing What You See: Photographs by Helen Levitt.” Raritan.

References
Hellman, Roberta; Hoshino, Marvin. “The Photographs of Helen Levitt.” The Massachusetts Review (1978).
Levitt, Helen; Agee, James. A Way of Seeing. Horizon Press (1981).

Hungry City

My first supper in America was a bowl of ramen. It was January, and New York a freezer. Tucked into one of the city’s box-like compartments, hidden by scaffolding beneath another shop in the Midtown area, was a crowded ramen place found via Google search. My roommate and I went there together. We did not know each other or America yet. Inside the small, bustling restaurant, alive with customers, steam clouds, pan sizzle and impatience, she told me it was her first time having Japanese food. I took a picture of her slurping noodles to send back to her boyfriend in Morocco. Do you like it? I asked her. She said it was interesting, and she giggled, slightly bewildered by her mouth, as her face reddened from hot broth, and her glasses assumed the look of a sauna.

I thought a lot about ramen after leaving New York, where I initially only spent three weeks doing a jazz studies class at NYU. I didn’t necessarily think of the thickness of the broth, or the level of heat rouging my lips, or the varying satisfaction of saving the soft-boiled egg for last, but I always remembered the choking hazard poster. In every restaurant I ate in, most of which were ramen spots near campus, I was mesmerized by the often elaborate, even beautiful illustrations of an asphyxiation taking place on a poster somewhere inside the establishment. I had never seen this anywhere else before. Was there a choking problem in New York? What was so hard for Americans to swallow?

There is a boy I knew who spent a lot of time talking to me about ramen. A few years ago, I had felt that America had swallowed him, and I could not reach my arm into the country’s throat to fish him back out. I resented his foreign chatter on the phone about the “fall” season, about brick buildings and buses to Boston. They were not mine; I was unfamiliar. But I loved it when he talked about ramen. In my off-beat time zone, first in my childhood bedroom and later, my college dorm in the Gulf, the thought of him bent, often alone and perhaps thinking fleetingly of me, over a large round bowl, swollen with noodles and broth and vegetables and meat and the hot, bright happy running out of an egg yolk, comforted me a lot.

Like any complex meal, ramen is built much like a furnished house. Upon a foundation of meat-based or fish broth, the cook scaffolds with what is usually a Chinese-style wheat noodle, paints the walls with soy or miso, adds fittings of chashu (pork), nori (dried seaweed), menma (bamboo shoots) and/or other vegetables like scallions, and finally, decorates with seasonings and a classic boiled egg. Enjoying a bowl of ramen, to me, feels like investing in a relationship –  unpacking a suitcase and settling in for a bit.

Since that first winter day in New York, I have returned to the city twice more, over the summer and now for the spring. Over lunch with my friend the other day, I talked about how my experience of consuming New York has largely been shaped by Asian hand. That morning, we had gone to Brooklyn to visit the Museum of Food and Drink, or the MOFAD lab. They were running an exhibit on the emergence and presence of Chinese food in America; walls had been constructed out of stacked Chinese takeout boxes, an enormous fortune cookie machine stood majestic in the corner, and a whole wing was dedicated to displaying taxidermy models of the various breeds of chicken used in Chinese-American cuisine.  I was impressed by the thoroughness and thoughtful clarity of the exhibit’s curation. During my sophomore year of college, I had taken a curatorial practice class in the art department, and since then had developed a deep fascination and respect for the curator’s task of shaping a clay-like historical narrative, using both text, found objects and physical matter. I began to see curation as a similar process to writing and editing; both worked with the raw material of narrative and history. Both had to take deft scalpels to stories, which together, like Kurosawa’s Rashomon, eluded a singular truth, and subsequently perform a surgery from which a complex storied product had to emerge.

What this exhibition specifically got me thinking about was the curated chronicling of hyphenated histories. While reading up about ramen earlier at home, I had learnt that its origins lay, much like most origins do, in a migration route between two (or more) cultures. It is widely believed that ramen was actually adapted from the Chinese, and brought over into Japan by Chinese immigrants. The first specialized ramen shop was only opened in 1910 in Yokohama, Japan, after decades of history in which it was primarily a Chinese offering, sold simple-style in small restaurants and mostly at portable street food stalls catering to local workers. Today, ramen has been developed, even arguably perfected, by Japanese chefs, and is, for the most part, considered a staple and highlight of Japanese cuisine.

I initially imagine that migration route between China and Japan as a hyphen, the same kind of hyphen that lies between Chinese and American in the MOFAD exhibit’s title. I’ve been thinking about the symbol of a hyphen a lot lately, now that I have spent a significant amount of time in the US. It often seems to me that America is choking on this hyphen.  But the hyphen itself as a term can be contested, an unequal see-saw between two identities, those identities themselves clouded with ambiguity – after all, what is an authentic Chinese identity, let alone American? The hyphen hides, too, or rather sidesteps, the historical shifts and differences of power dynamics between the identities being hyphenated, and how those change once joined together by the hyphen itself.

Before arriving in New York in that snow-full January, I had never really reconciled the “hyphens” of my own existence – born as an Indian citizen, I grew up entirely in the southern African capital of Botswana, eventually moving to Abu Dhabi for university at the age of 18. I knew I had grown up and formed a slow identity while straddling more than one culture, both of which I had not really learnt to accept or love, but just sit in, perplexed into a discomfiting stasis between them. Going to America has burst that still yolk of a bubble, and I find myself thinking almost incessantly about the routes, the thread-lines, between these different locations and identities, that exist and connect simply because they do so inside me. I initially imagined myself as a collection of hyphens, but due to the slipperiness of that term in today’s age, I am forced to reconsider the structure of how the places that make me me, actually connect with each other, both within and without me.

*

This spring, I worked as an editorial intern at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in Manhattan. AAWW began in a basement beneath a Gap store on St. Marks Place in 1991. Frustrated with having to explain and unpack their work and identities to a largely ignorant mass of white literati, a small group of Asian-American writers formed a new, magical subterranean world in which they could collaborate and validate each other’s creativity and hyphenated states. Over 30 years later, the problem of the hyphen remains just that, even within this essay: a problem. But the community that carries what America has deemed for them a scar, an unhealed wound, the eternal mark of an outsider, has grown bigger and stronger.

I worked for two of AAWW’s literary magazines: A World Without Cages, which documents writing by incarcerated Asian-Americans, and Open City, a journalistic initiative documenting New York’s immigrant neighborhoods. It was quite late into my job that I sat down to read the novel that I assumed the latter magazine was named after: Open City by Teju Cole, published in 2011. Not a long read, I gulped it down quickly, in a matter of 2-3 days. Since then, I’ve been thinking about it quite incessantly.

Open City is really an opening into the mind of a Nigerian-German psychiatrist named Julius. I would describe Julius as a cosmopolitan. The entire book is an act of both literal and mental roving – Julius spends a lot of time walking around New York, and for a brief but powerful segment, Brussels, and lets his mind travel with him, crossing the borders of the present into the past too, which is Julius’ childhood in Lagos, Nigeria. Both these physical and intellectual wanderings are colored with Julius’ heightened intellectualisms and intense philosophizing. For instance, seeing a disabled man within the maze of New York City prompts a long-winded foray into Yoruba traditional myths and fantastical interpretations of the disabled. Because I, as a reader, spend so much time absorbed in Julius’ headspace, the act of walking through New York is shaded over with his presence ­– I become Julius. Not necessarily a biracial psychiatrist of course, but a cosmopolitan, and educated, mind. While reading the novel, an instance of eating the infamous Brooklyn Blackout at a bakery, voted the best chocolate cake of America, triggers an absurd thought of my brain itself becoming the sponge cake, eager to absorb as much sweet lushness from the layers and layers of culture and diverse narratives from the palimpsest that is the ‘cosmopolitan’ city.

It is true that I often feel a kind of desperate hunger to understand any cosmopolitan city I inhabit. There is a strange urgency in me, like the persistent press of a full bladder, to visit every single neighborhood, to understand the inner workings as quickly as possible, and to feel the security of knowledge, of yes, I know this place, I know the subway routes and the odd stories of a local or two, I may even have written it down and immortalized it, and therefore, I can lay a claim of belonging to it, somehow. This logic is faulty, of course. But although I have become aware of this, and learned to curb myself, the hunger itself still stays. It is a hunger to resolve the tensions of differences, sometimes so disparate to the point of inconsequential or bizarre, within my own brain. Or in other words, I seek for hyphens to make connections between things that don’t reconcile within my head. In this way, I also become Farouq, the Moroccan clerk-cum-political philosopher that Julius meets in Brussels. Farouq is enchanted by Edward Said, and his fantasy, or dream, is to figure out how people from different places can live together while keeping their own values intact.

Near the end of Open City, we learn of a disturbing ‘plot twist’ and our perception of Julius, and the thread letting us dangle as marionettes within his brain, is suddenly, violently snapped. It feels as if I cannot trust my own mind and its machinations anymore. Because I realize I have become not Julius or Farouq but the cosmopolitan experiment, and in one small shocking instant, it has failed. A sour, almost metallic taste fills my mouth, such a vivid physical sensation, as if to counteract the abrupt mental upending that has just occurred. As the sun spills onto the Bowery, as if from an upset jug, I walk down the street combing over the entire novel in my mind, simultaneously using and questioning the critical toolbox I carry with me, one constructed and afforded by elite education, the same kind that gives Farouq and Julius their Paul de Man, Said and Derrida. Farouq and Julius, to me, are failed cosmopolitans, and seem to mask this failure with the very theoretics that enables their cosmopolitanism to take shape. And if they are failures, I re-arrive, finally, at the question that keeps frothing inside me since I’ve come to this country: what am I?

Open City is also a novel full of silences and gaps. Recently, my friend Jiun, who is a history major, wrote a piece about how stumbling upon the history of mi koo buns, her Malaysian childhood breakfast dish, prompted her to think about how people, and bodies, carry layers of both loud and mute history, and are thus, archives. What was to her just a nostalgic traditional food, actually carried a violent history: “Decades ago, a young man who joined the Malayan Communist Party’s guerrilla army was caught by British soldiers and sent to prison, where he was tortured into a coma. His mother prayed for him every day at the River Goddess Temple on Temple Street, offering lotus flowers with incense sticks. One day, all the florists in town were out of lotus flowers. Desperate, the mother baked some Mi Koo buns, carved flowers on them, and presented these at the altar instead. The boy survived his coma.” The palimpsest of historical meaning within the “mute mi koo bun” has led her to a research process that reveals more silence and censorship than she could have initially imagined. And she is recognizing how much this silence speaks about our failures in history. In Open City, Julius spends much time discussing the histories that are both literally and metaphorically buried in New York City: Wall Street sits atop a mass grave of African slaves – an event an academic friend describes as a “double burial.” Another day, I learn at a poetry reading, where I have come to engage with a specifically literary, creative-critical crowd, that that site of the Bowery Poetry Club sits on Lenape land, forcibly taken from Native Americans, another buried history that Cole mentions in his novel.

Open City sees Julius discussing how everyone views their own selves as the center for calibrating what is ‘normal; in other words, we are the heroes of our own stories. It reminds me of the Rashomon tale and our inability to arrive at, or simply the non-existence of, truth when there are multiple narratives of the same thing that all regard themselves as the center, the right, the truth. If I am trying to become a cosmopolitan, to string my hyphens together into something meaningful and ideal, and accepted first of all, then how do I reconcile the Rashomon effect with my quest? How do different people who all think they are right and splinter in the face of difference, live together successfully while still retaining the shifts and differences in their identities all bumping together constantly? How can my cosmopolitanism work when it must face history, and engage with the violence that is so often silent, so often buried, within that history? How does cosmopolitanism not worry itself to death when history is always hovering over its neck?

One day at the AAWW office, my fellow editorial intern holds a ramen night to use as research for a piece on the significance of instant noodles in contemporary life. A bunch of us, each carrying purses of different hyphenated identities, bring in a variety of noodle brands, from Mama to Maggi, and sit for three hours boiling water and exchanging bowls of disintegrating noodle bricks. The office sputters with the hissing of kettles, and the slurping of broth. Over discarded plastic packets, strewn books and stray chopsticks, we talk about the role ramen has played in our lives. I tell them Maggi was an occasional childhood luxury whenever I visited India, and that I lived off ramen when I ran out of all my money while living in Paris. I had spent several days in an utter daze, thinking only of food and the want for filling myself. Later as I go home on the 6, lips scarlet from heat, I realize that, in a way, my hunger has never left.


Photo by Aditya Romansa

Ode to Growth: Interview with Moonga K.

When Frank Ocean first burst upon the shores of mainstream music, he brought nostalgia — quite literally. At the time of mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra’s release, a young boy on the cusp of 15, submerged in the angst and mis-belonging of puberty, listened to the track “American Wedding” from his room in Gaborone, Botswana.
“‘American Wedding’ really affected me. I discovered nostalgia. It made me realize I just wanted to tell stories,” says MOONGA K., now an indie-soul singer based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

What was the nostalgia for, at such a young age? For MOONGA, it was the memories of his reggae-head dad, soaking in the offbeats and lazy happiness of the genre. And then there was his mother’s gospel. It was the TV blaring vh1 and ITV, where MOONGA learnt the blueprints of soul and RnB, as well as the zigzag emotions and ego that come with a celebrity musician’s lifestyle.

“I thank my parents for their freeness with music,” he states, reminiscing on the varying influences he absorbed throughout childhood. “I got obsessed with Robin Thicke. Then there was Aaliyah, Usher, Beyonce of course…Bilal was a big one. I watched him on Def Jam poetry and his voice was something I came to aspire to. What else? Erykah Badu. Her records were always playing. Gavin Degraw.” The slew of such powerhouse artists remain as beautiful stains on MOONGA’s own style. The blues and black soul are important characteristics of his music, which are vehicles or mirrors of the same grit, pain and passion once encapsulated by these artists and genres.

MOONGA describes his musical career so far as admittedly tumultuous. He started writing songs at just seven years old. “My dad had a garage band that practised everyday and so I was kind of inspired by that. It was difficult for me to find authenticity in my music at first. I would end up just unknowingly copying stuff I’d already heard.” But his talent was recognized frighteningly fast. A group of young men ran a recording studio across the street and soon became like big brothers to MOONGA. They taught him basic skills about recording and writing. “I was always writing poetry when I was young. Singing it was a difficult transition. But I learnt along the way.”

A self-described “ambitious kid”, at 14 MOONGA found himself failing biology. High school was a tumultuous and terrible time. But literature class was the one place of solace for him, amid the hellishness of grades and greed to fit in. Although students knew him as the “singer,” doing local shows often in the city, he was also a prolific writer. Teachers lent him books that continue to shape his way of thinking and molding stories — James Baldwin, Maya Angelou.

“My dad always made me aware of my blackness and the beauty of that blackness. In a very western-influenced environment, I was always reminded of my place as a black man. Reading Baldwin made me feel like i could be a figure like that,” he shares. A figure who used the mode of narrative, whether on the page or in music, to parse out his own identity and sense of place in the various habitats he found himself in.

Although born in Zambia, which remains the source of his ethnic roots, MOONGA traces the trajectory of his growth to his time in Botswana, a small, calm country that sits above South Africa. He lived here from the age of 3, before moving to Joburg for university. Botswana is a majority-black country but has a robust expat community. A former British protectorate, the country, like most, retains the faint stink of aspirations to whiteness and a Western lifestyle. MOONGA attended an international school, which exposed him to multicultural communities and mindsets. Even in a society that exerted pressure upon his beliefs and identity, he gained a strong sense of empathy, the kind that sought to transcend racial and cultural impositions and boundaries. Moving to South Africa as a young adult was an even more beautiful experience; it further opened up his attitudes and gave him new perspectives with which to approach different people and situations.

“I’m very opinionated and vocal,” he shares, his voice hardening with raised conviction. After graduating high school, he did a part-time teaching job at a local high school, where he found a lack of conversation surrounding social issues, especially those that surrounded young children still developing their own set of beliefs. “Mental health wasn’t talked about at all. Depression is still seen as taboo,” he describes. “I used to struggle a lot, and sometimes still do, but I didn’t have anyone to open up to. Now that I’m older, I want to prevent that from happening to others. A lot of the kids I taught were boys and they had a bit of a toxic masculinity thing going on, which was harmful. But they were just fragile children in the end. I tried my best to be a confidante.” It’s this same extension of trust and sharing that MOONGA offers now through his music. His days as a teacher may have ended, but that helping hand is still stretched out, like the metaphorical offering of vulnerability contained in African-American writer Claudia Rankine’s poetry. “There has to be an intersection, always, with my musicality and activism. I haven’t forced that; it’s been organic. I want to make shows that are safe for POC and LGBT communities. As public figures in the arts, we need to be vocal about social issues. We can’t segregate.”

Part of MOONGA’s musical platform is to let not only himself, but his listeners live and speak their own truths. Truth, that kaleidoscopic, slippery thing, is always refracted through everyone’s own differently-colored lenses. One event can have myriad interpretations. “I get messages from people who have had very different experiences of my music. And that’s fine, I want them to interpret things how they want,” he shares. “We’ve suppressed our vulnerabilities too long. Our generation has had enough.” And so, he seeks to be part of the catharsis that art and storytelling offer to people in helping themselves and others be more empathetic and compassionate.

This is partly why MOONGA identifies his target audience as mainly agemates, young people in their teens and 20s, dipping their toes, wide-eyed, into adulthood for the first time. “I make music for people who are trying not to care too much, including me…I’m not trying to be a role model. I want to be a person that young black boys can see and feel comfortable about their actions, and to be carefree while they’re at it. The thing about the arts is that we’re always looking for representation. I once found that in people like Prince. Prince was so free! He just did his thing. I’m still trying to figure that out for me, to exude that kind of confidence with my artistry.” And so, MOONGA makes music for the weird. Those young people who society may deem strange or outsiders, but still make the decision to not care about judgements, and to choose to be unapologetically honest about being themselves, even if they’re not sure of what or who that is.

Over time, the shy, troubled kid from Botswana has quickly matured into a more confident and outgoing artist, with music as his catalyst. “I’m more open to collaboration now, to conversations and input from others,” he explains. “At the same time, I’ve learnt to also be careful.” Ultimately, MOONGA strives to live and grow as his own artist, and is adamant about preserving his self-integrity and vision in an industry that can often morph into an imposing bully, mirroring society’s own troubles and injustices. “I tend to overthink a lot but I’m at a point now where I’ve become more nonchalant. I know my music will get to someone at some point.”

The next year holds possibilities for shows in different continents and the chance to encounter and work with artists from across the world. Close to September, MOONGA’s birthday month, is the release date of his next EP, titled An Ode to Growth, the sophomore to the previous RnB and pop-influenced Wild Solace EP. “I wanted to put out an eclectic work, to show my dynamic abilities. But I needed to decide what kind of artist I wanna be genre-wise. In this industry, you have to show consistent artistry. Wild Solace has helped inform my next project. The last 2 years have been a crazy rollercoaster of trying to show who I am with the music. And I think I’ve reached a point where I’m comfortable with who I am.”

Find Moonga’s music on Spotify:

Everyone Wants a Working Class Origin Story Without having a Working Class Origin Story

A handful of years ago, I graduated from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study where I eschewed a traditional liberal arts major and designed my own plan of study. I concentrated in the American Dream, a concept that has technically existed since the 1930s, but has roots in 1776’s American Declaration of Independence. Through generations, this dream concept has gone through various costume changes. It has even been exported worldwide while remaining central to the American conception of self. For example, about ten years ago, State Chairman Xi Jinping began boasting about 中国梦 (China Dream) and today it is not unusual for H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and Vice President of the UAE, to evoke the idea of a Dubai Dream. While there are many facets of the omnipresent American Dream, I want to focus on the problematic upward mobility component, which Lawrence R. Samuel argues is “the heart and soul of the American Dream” (2012). My contention with the contemporary American Dream’s component of upward mobility is threefold: its over-reliance on the rags-to-riches motif and the logical error of survivorship bias, its basis on an unsustainable capitalistic model of wealth accumulation (ignorant of humanity’s other manners of mobility), and what I’ll call its upward-outward perpetuation of the white-Christian-male-first mobility of Manifest Destiny. This essay will mainly explore the first and second points.

Recently, a poet friend and I were talking about our undergraduate experiences at elite private universities. She comes from a rural white middle class background, but one where she mixed with a lot of working class people. I come from a white urban working poor background (my dad was a local bartender); in both of our experiences, we witnessed our middle-class, upper middle-class, and wealthy classmates playing “poor” or reinventing working-class origin stories for themselves. Often, they hijacked narratives of downtrodden and/or marginalized people. In truth, I was an accomplice in this game, because as a first-generation scholarship student, I quickly realized my acquiescence was a requirement in maintaining and building relationships with these people. Pretending to believe their lack-of-capital origin stories and becoming friends (or at least friendly) with my privileged classmates, employers, and professors (and eventually, colleagues) opened doors for me. Thus, I pretend(ed) for them and prioritized their comfort. Eventually, I was invited to their parties, clubs, beach houses, after-internship drinks, and received recommendation letters and scholarships. I ignored when we went out for dinner and the rest of the party threw credit cards on the table with their mom or dad’s names embossed on them while I scrimmaged in my purse for a combination of my babysitting and work-study money. I pretended it was working-class normal for them to move off-campus and have their own apartments in Manhattan, or memories of annual family trips abroad or to summerhouses. Things haven’t changed much now that I am part of the white-collar workforce, but this type of relationship is exhausting and frustrating; it requires extensive emotional labor, especially for minorities, who must also deal with white fragility.

Once, I was in a taxi heading uptown for an eye doctor’s appointment with a West Village girl I babysat (I girl I love very much to this day) and she was lamenting about the snobbish and mean attitude of some of the other kids and their parents in her elementary school. She said, “They’re so rich, their parents were doctors.” Now, actually, both her parents were lawyers with advanced degrees; she lived in a beautiful West Village apartment, and had already traveled internationally several times. I see now that she wanted me to understand her pain and register the difference between her and them. She wanted to be empathic and kind, which maybe she saw in me and not in them. She also wanted to be like her mom who was kind and had a working-class origin story. How did someone so young already know that in American hearts the upward mobility story trumps all other narratives of success? The problem in America then and now is that we muddle morality and social class. The bigger problem is that our country’s only worthy narrative is the rags to riches motif. As a society, we celebrate the person who rises through their merits or defeats unspeakable odds over the story of a person of inherited wealth who does well with what they were granted. Even now, in an era of checking your privilege, our country’s anti-aristocracy history makes people uncomfortable with their own inherited wealth and status. They are uncomfortable enough that they create these working class origin stories, but they are not uncomfortable enough, in most cases, to fight the system of inequality.

Lawrence R. Samuel wrote, “…the key concepts we associate with who we are as a people (such as opportunistic, self-reliant, pragmatic, resourceful, aspirational, optimistic, entrepreneurial, inventive) are all present in the orbit of the American Dream” (2012). Thus, if the American Dream scaffold is upward mobility, how can someone from the upper classes be self-reliant, aspirational, inventive, et cetera? Of course, they can, but we don’t tell their stories often enough. We don’t tell riches-to-riches stories unless we want to disparage someone or their career (especially in politics), but we can and ought to tell these stories too. We can ask folks: what have you done with your privilege? What are the other ways (besides financial) that humans can be upwardly mobile? Once we stop pretending about working class origin stories or rags to riches narratives, we can talk about other real hurdles and moments of reinvention. Three examples of riches to riches stories are: American Astronomer Marie Mitchell, American author Annie Dillard, and Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I chose these three women, because I think they have all exhibited Samuel’s key concepts and have been “upwardly mobile” despite being from relative wealth.

To parse one of these examples, Mitchell, the first professional American astronomer, went from riches to riches, but her latter riches were not economic. Over her lifetime, she developed her intellect. She grew critical of religious institutions and slavery. She ultimately left her Quaker religion even though her ability to go to achieve higher learning during that era was due to her family’s Quaker faith. To protest slavery, she stopped wearing cotton clothing produced by slaves in the American south. Along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in 1873, she co-founded the American Association for the Advancement of Women. Mitchell didn’t need a story of financial upward mobility to achieve acclaim. In fact, by acknowledging her privilege, she was able to contribute to an alternative riches-to-riches narrative and show how proper education, health care, and freedom could make us all better citizens. Today’s middle class and upper middle class people could do the same with their own from riches to riches stories.

In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell wrote, “Here you come to the real secret of class distinctions in the West…It is summed up in four frightful words which people nowadays are chary of uttering…The words were: The lower classes smell.” In the United States, we don’t use the terms “lower class” and “upper class” as liberally as the British do, but make no mistake, these bodily class distinctions exist, and the American rich do disdain the poor for their bodies and habits. In the US, it might not always be smell that indicates class, but “in contrast to international trends, people in America who live in the most poverty-dense counties are those most prone to obesity” (Levine, 2011). As the gaps in childhood obesity continue to rise along economic lines in the US, it has become much easier to target poor people’s bodies. When upper class doctors try to create their own false class narratives (not necessarily origin stories), it is also damaging says Michael Hobbes:

“Kenneth Resnicow, a consultant who trains physicians to build rapport with their patients, says white, wealthy, skinny doctors will often try to bond with their low-income patients by telling them, ‘I know what it’s like not to have time to cook.’ Their patients, who might be single mothers with three kids and two jobs, immediately think “No, you don’t,” and the relationship is irretrievably soured.”

Furthermore, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, people of low socioeconomic status are more likely to be targeted by tobacco companies, grew up around secondhand smoke, and smoke themselves. The Oregon Center for Public Policy, which uses research and analysis to advance policies and practices that improve the economic and social opportunities of all Oregonians, has published reports indicating that most Oregon families living in poverty have one parent who works. There is an increasing overlap in our ideas of working poor and lower middle-class, not just in Oregon but across the United States. Furthermore, among the poor, many are suffering food insecurity. “Common physical conditions associated with food insecurity among children include asthma, birth defects, anemia, low birth weight, lower bone density, lower physical functioning, colds, stomachaches, and tooth decay” (Bauer 2018). I bring these physical aspects of poverty up to emphasize the title of this piece: everyone wants a working class origin story without having a working class origin story. Nobody wants the physical challenges of the working poor, yet they still want the societal rewards of the rags to riches narrative.

Historically, American literature and films have elevated the desirability of the upward mobility/rags-to-riches narrative. More often than not, our beloved protagonists are the poor and/or those striving for education and financial stability. The antagonists are the rich (no one wants to be the antagonist). Overall, these narratives are not harmful. I don’t know where I would be without Francie Nolan from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or Jimmy Gatz. The issue is that without more from riches to riches narratives, wherein the latter riches are not economical necessarily, we will continue to cling to our rags to riches narrative which is too individualist and oftentimes harms our environment and social communities. Look at reality television today, specifically Keeping up with the Kardashians. The Kardashian family is a good high-profile example of promoting their own false class origin stories. In 2018, Kylie Jenner was featured in Forbes as a “self-made billionaire” along with the hashtag #SelfMadeWomen. This extreme example garnered a lot of criticism, but much of the criticism centered on the irresponsibility of the magazine; yet, it is more than irresponsible, it is unimaginative. Kylie Jenner, you will never be Francie Nolan, but that’s okay.

In her new book Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, Jane Alison critiques the traditional linear narrative in fiction. Quoting critic Robert Scholes who connected fiction with sex’s “rhythm of tumescence and detumescence…of intensification to the point of climax and consummation”, Alison pointed out that this is not how most women experience sex. She goes on to argue for alternative narrative structures away from the Aristotelian sequence of beginning, middle, and end. In truth, there are many alternatives already out there; even in translation, writers like Murakami or Calvino challenge this pattern, or look at Margaret Atwood’s story “Happy Endings” or Clarice Lispector’s “The Fifth Story.” Nevertheless, the linear narrative still dominates in American fiction the same way the rags to riches narrative dominates American hearts. Yet, like Robert Scholes’ hetero-liner theory of fiction, must Americans do not experience life like a rags to riches story. There is more social mobility in places in Europe today than in the United States, and to continue to extol the individualist virtues of the rags to riches story, we commit a type of survivorship bias, which is concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility. Many things cause this lack of visibility, but one fixable cause is the tendency for people in positions of power and privilege to tell false working class origin stories.

What can be done? So much! Like Mitchell, we can strive to expand ourselves in alternative ways that are not based on economics. We can make our mind mobile, and we can share those narratives of reinvention and expansion. We can enrich ourselves by becoming less racist, less sexist, or less environmentally unsustainable. These kinds of riches to riches stories will only be possible if American society becomes more forgiving, if we allow people to change their minds and grow. To have a change of heart is to be human. Any kind of change of heart it is a mobile action; and if this change of heart means you have become a more loving, a more tolerant, and more empathetic person, you have achieved, in my opinion as someone who studied it, a new better kind of American Dream, you have experienced upward mobility. If we are free and have disposable income, we ought to spend our time, as Toni Morrison would say, freeing others, by giving everyone access to the rights of the riches like healthcare and education. This is more worthy of our time than trying to be some old character inside a Horatio Alger Jr. novel of the Gilded Age.

Works Consulted:

Adams, James Truslow. The Epic of America. Boston, MA,1931.
Bauer, Janet. Oregonians in Every County and Congressional District Suffer Food Insecurity.
Accessed From:
https://www.ocpp.org/2018/06/20/oregonians-every-county-and-congressionaldistrict/ 9 June 2019.
Cullen, Jim. The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation. New York,
NY, 2003.
Hobbes, Michael. Everything you know about obesity is wrong.
https://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/everything-you-know-about-obesity-is-wrong/
Lawrence, R. Samuel. The American Dream: A Cultural History. 2012.
Levine, James A. Poverty and Obesity in the U.S. Accessed from:
http://diabetes.diabetesjournals.org/content/60/11/2667. 9 June 2019.
U.S. Census Bureau. Income and Poverty in the United States: 2016external icon.
Last updated 2018 April 10 [accessed 2018 Jun 13].

Image: Betty Smith, author of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” next to the ailanthus tree outside her old house in Williamsburg, Brooklyn