Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Barack Obama

The flat earth society

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In his indispensable book Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster draws a famous distinction between flat and round characters in fiction. This classification has been beaten to death in countless high school literature classes, so it can be bracing to revisit his original language:

In their purest form, [flat characters] are constructed round a single idea or quality: when there is more than one factor in them, we get the beginning of the curve towards the round…One great advantage of flat characters is that they are easily recognized whenever they come in—recognized by the reader’s emotional eye, not by the visual eye, which merely notes the recurrence of a proper name. In Russian novels, where they so seldom occur, they would be a decided help. It is a convenience for an author when he can strike with his full force at once, and flat characters are very useful to him, since they never need reintroducing, never run away, have not to be watched for development, and provide their own atmosphere—little luminous disks of a pre-arranged size, pushed hither and thither like counters across the void or between the stars; most satisfactory.

This kind of insight from a professional novelist is cold, hard cash, and it reminds us that a round character isn’t necessarily better than a flat one. “A novel that is at all complex often requires flat people as well as round,” Forster says, and I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I frequently get more enjoyment from stories populated by vivid flat characters than by the indistinguishable round ones of so much modernist realism.

Yet there’s an even deeper point to be made here, which is that flatness may actually be closer to how we think about the people around us, or even about ourselves. We can start with Forster’s observation that flat characters are often more memorable than round ones: “They remain in [the reader’s] mind as unalterable for the reason that they were not changed by circumstances; they moved through circumstances, which gives them in retrospect a comforting quality, and preserves them when the book that produced them may decay.” And I’d argue that we also remember flat characters more clearly because they partake of the ways in which we see the supporting players in our own lives. When we think of neighbors, coworkers, and other casual acquaintances, we’re likely to associate them with one or two obvious qualities, if we even manage to have a distinct impression of them at all. It’s only the ones we know best—our families, lovers and closest friends—that we can grasp with the nuance with which we view the roundest characters in fiction. And this can even extend to our own motivations. It’s hard for us to integrate all aspects of our past and personality at once, except when it takes the form of instinct. Most of our actions are intuitive or habitual, and when we need to consciously pay attention, it’s easier to emphasize one part of our identity at a time. We can switch between roles multiple times each day, or we can play a single part for years. It’s an adaptive strategy that makes it easier for us to act and make decisions. We’re only one thing at a time because that’s all we can keep in our heads at once, and the other sides of ourselves have a way of falling into line.

I started thinking about this after reading an article by Perry Bacon, Jr. on FiveThirtyEight on how Americans seem to be shifting other aspects of their identity—like religion or ethnicity—to fit their political affiliations. This conclusion is based on a paper by the political scientist Patrick Egan, who analyzed a series of surveys that were given to the same group of respondents over time. He found that what we tend to see as relatively fixed demographic information can actually be quite fluid, and that these changes are strongly correlated with the political labels that we embrace. As Bacon sums up the results:

Liberal Democrats were much more likely than conservative Republicans to start identifying as Latino or saying that their ancestry was African, Asian or Hispanic.

Conservative Republicans were much more likely than liberal Democrats to become born-again Christians and to stop identifying as non-religious; liberal Democrats were much more likely than conservative Republicans to leave religion and stop describing themselves as born-again.

Conservative Republicans were more likely than liberal Democrats to stop describing themselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual; liberal-leaning Democrats were more likely to start identifying as lesbian, gay or bisexual.

Bacon concludes: “Increasingly, the political party you belong to represents a big part of your identity and is not just a reflection of your political views. It may even be your most important identity.” And this strikes me as only a specific case of the way in which we flatten ourselves out to make our inner lives more manageable. We pick and choose what else we emphasize to better fit with the overall story that we’re telling. It’s just more obvious these days.

And while this might seem like a stretch, I can’t resist drawing a comparison between our two most recent presidents. Whatever else you might think of Obama, he was undeniably complicated, with a personality shaped by a vast network of pressures and expectations. From a literary standpoint, he was a round character. Trump, by contrast, can seem ridiculously flat. Nearly everything that he does can be adequately explained by his vanity, or his desire to project weakness as strength, and he emerges as a far more sinister version of a flat character like Mr. Pickwick. As Forster writes: “It is a conjuring trick; at any moment we may look at Mr. Pickwick edgeways and find him no thicker than a gramophone record. But we never get the sideway view. Mr. Pickwick is far too adroit and well trained. He always has the air of weighing something.” And there’s a real mismatch between Trump’s flatness, which is traditionally a comic quality, and the tragic consequences of his actions. Here’s Forster again:

[Flat people] are best when they are comic. A serious or tragic flat character is apt to be a bore. Each time he enters crying “Revenge!” or “My heart bleeds for humanity!” or whatever his formula is, our hearts sink…It is only round people who are fit to perform tragically for any length of time and can move us to any feelings except humor and appropriateness.

Cultures have a way of taking psychological cues from their heads of state. As Forster says of one critical objection to flat characters: “Queen Victoria, they argue, cannot be summed up in a single sentence, so what excuse remains for Mrs. Micawber?” When the president himself is flat—which is another way of saying that he can no longer surprise us on the downside—it has implications both for our literature and for our private lives. The process is already happening. And it shouldn’t astonish us if we all wake up one day to discover that the world is flat.

Written by nevalalee

September 13, 2018 at 8:39 am

The multiracial enigma

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Ann Dunham and Barack Obama

Over the weekend, the New York Times published an opinion piece by the writer Moises Velasquez-Manoff titled “What Biracial People Know.” Velasquez-Manoff, who, like me, is multiracial, makes many of the same points that I once did in a previous post on the subject, as when he writes: “I can attest that being mixed makes it harder to fall back on the tribal identities that have guided so much of human history, and that are now resurgent…You’re also accustomed to the idea of having several selves, and of trying to forge them into something whole.” He also highlights a lot of research of which I wasn’t previously aware, the most interesting being a study of facial recognition in multiracial babies:

By three months of age, biracial infants recognize faces more quickly than their monoracial peers, suggesting that their facial perception abilities are more developed. Kristin Pauker, a psychologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and one of the researchers who performed this study, likens this flexibility to bilingualism. Early on, infants who hear only Japanese, say, will lose the ability to distinguish L’s from R’s. But if they also hear English, they’ll continue to hear the sounds as separate. So it is with recognizing faces, Dr. Pauker says. Kids naturally learn to recognize kin from non-kin, in-group from out-group. But because they’re exposed to more human variation, the in-group for multiracial children seems to be larger.

As it happens, I’m terrible at remembering faces, so any advantage I once gained along those lines has long since faded away. But such findings are still intriguing, and they hint temptingly at broader conclusions. As Velasquez-Manoff says of our first biracial president: “His multitudinous self was, I like to think, part of what made him great.”

For obvious reasons, I’m wary of applying generalizations to any ethnic or racial group, including my own. But there’s something intuitively appealing about the notion that multiracial individuals are forced to develop certain advantageous forms of thinking in order to adapt. They don’t have a monopoly on the problem of forging an identity and figuring out the world around them, which, as Velasquez-Manoff notes, is “a defining experience of modernity.” But isn’t hard to believe that they might have a slight head start. If you’re exposed to greater facial variety as an infant, the reasoning goes, you’ll acquire the skills that allow you to distinguish between individuals just a little bit earlier, and you can easily imagine how that small advantage might grow over time. (Although, by the same logic, babies surrounded by faces with similar racial characteristics might become better at distinguishing between slight variations. I’d be curious to know if this has ever been tested.) If there’s a theme here, it’s that multiracial people are shaped by a more intensive version of an experience common to all human beings. Velasquez-Manoff writes:

In a 2015 study, Sarah Gaither, an assistant professor at Duke, found that when she reminded multiracial participants of their mixed heritage, they scored higher in a series of word association games and other tests that measure creative problem solving. When she reminded monoracial people about their heritage, however, their performance didn’t improve…[But] when Dr. Gaither reminded participants of a single racial background that they, too, had multiple selves, by asking about their various identities in life, their scores also improved. “For biracial people, these racial identities are very salient,” she told me. “That said, we all have multiple social identities.”

In other words, we’re all living with these issues, and multiracial just people have to exercise those skills earlier and more often.

Portrait of the author as a young man

Yet I also need to tread carefully here, precisely because these conclusions are just the ones that somebody like me would like to believe. (When you extend these arguments to social patterns, which is a big leap in itself, you also get tripped up by problems of cause and effect. When Velasquez-Manoff writes that “cities and countries that are more diverse are more prosperous than homogeneous ones,” he doesn’t point out that the causal arrow might well run the other way.) Last week, in my post about the replication crisis in psychology, I noted that experiments that confirm what feels like common sense—or that allow us to score easy points against the Trump administration—are less likely to be scrutinized than others, and many of the studies that Velasquez-Manoff mentions here sound a lot like the kind that have proven hard to duplicate. At Harvard and Tel Aviv University, for instance, subjects “read essays that made an essentialist argument about race, and then [were asked] to solve word-association games and other puzzles.” The study found that participants who were “primed” with stereotypes performed less well on such tests than those who weren’t, and it concluded: “An essentialist mindset is indeed hazardous for creativity.” That seems all too reasonable. But the insidious ways in which race pervades our lives bear little resemblance to reading an essay and solving a word puzzle. Maybe multiracial people do, in fact, score higher on such tests when reminded of their mixed heritage, at least when it takes the form, as it did at Duke, of writing essays about their identities. But on an everyday basis, that “reminder” is more likely to take the form of being miscategorized and mispronounced, filling out forms that only allow one racial box to be checked, feeling defined by otherness, and being asked by well-meaning strangers: “So where are you from?” For all I know, these social cues may be equally conductive to creativity. But I doubt that there’s ever been a study about it.

I’m not trying to criticize any specific study, and I’d love to embrace these findings—which is exactly why they need to be replicated. The problem of race is so pervasive and resistant to definition that it makes the average psychological experiment, with its clinical settings and word tests, seem all the more removed from reality. And multiracial people need to be conscious of the slippery slope involved in making any kind of claim about the uniqueness of their experience. (There’s also the huge, unstated point that what it means to be multiracial differs dramatically from one combination of races to another. If you look a certain way, that’s how you’re going to be treated, no matter how diverse your genetic background might be.) Velasquez-Manoff sees these studies as an argument in favor of diversity, which is certainly a case worth making. But creativity is just one factor in human life, and you don’t need to look far to sense the equally great advantages in being a member of a homogenous racial, ethnic, or cultural group, particularly one that has been historically empowered. Tradition is a convenient crystallization of the experiences of the past, and most of us spend our lives falling back on the solutions that people who look like us have provided, whether it’s in politics, society, or religion. Such attitudes wouldn’t persist if they weren’t more than adequate in the vast majority of situations. Creativity is a last resort, a survival mechanism adopted by those who feel excluded from the larger community, unable to rely on the rules that others follow unquestioningly, and forced to improvise tactics in real time. It doesn’t always go well. Creative types are often miserable and frustrated, particularly in a world that runs the most smoothly on monolithic categories. There are times when all your cleverness can’t help you. And that’s what biracial people really know.

Written by nevalalee

March 6, 2017 at 9:13 am

Who we are in the moment

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Jordan Horowitz and Barry Jenkins

By now, you’re probably sick of hearing about what happened at the Oscars. I’m getting a little tired of it, too, even though it was possibly the strangest and most riveting two minutes I’ve ever seen on live television. It left me feeling sorry for everyone involved, but there are at least three bright spots. The first is that it’s going to make a great case study for somebody like Malcolm Gladwell, who is always looking for a showy anecdote to serve as a grabber opening for a book or article. So many different things had to go wrong for it to happen—on the levels of design, human error, and simple dumb luck—that you can use it to illustrate just about any point you like. A second silver lining is that it highlights the basically arbitrary nature of all such awards. As time passes, the list of Best Picture winners starts to look inevitable, as if Cimarron and Gandhi and Chariots of Fire had all been canonized by a comprehensible historical process. If anything, the cycle of inevitability is accelerating, so that within seconds of any win, the narratives are already locking into place. As soon as La La Land was announced as the winner, a story was emerging about how Hollywood always goes for the safe, predictable choice. The first thing that Dave Itzkoff, a very smart reporter, posted on the New York Times live chat was: “Of course.” Within a couple of minutes, however, that plot line had been yanked away and replaced with one for Moonlight. And the fact that the two versions were all but superimposed onscreen should warn us against reading too much into outcomes that could have gone any number of ways.

But what I want to keep in mind above all else is the example of La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz, who, at a moment of unbelievable pressure, simply said: “I’m going to be really proud to hand this to my friends from Moonlight.” It was the best thing that anybody could have uttered under those circumstances, and it tells us a lot about Horowitz himself. If you were going to design a psychological experiment to test a subject’s reaction under the most extreme conditions imaginable, it’s hard to think of a better one—although it might strike a grant committee as possibly too expensive. It takes what is undoubtedly one of the high points of someone’s life and twists it instantly into what, if perhaps not the worst moment, at least amounts to a savage correction. Everything that the participants onstage did or said, down to the facial expressions of those standing in the background, has been subjected to a level of scrutiny worthy of the Zapruder film. At the end of an event in which very little occurs that hasn’t been scripted or premeditated, a lot of people were called upon to figure out how to act in real time in front of an audience of hundreds of millions. It’s proverbial that nobody tells the truth in Hollywood, an industry that inspires insider accounts with titles like Hello, He Lied and Which Lie Did I Tell? A mixup like the one at the Oscars might have been expressly conceived as a stress test to bring out everyone’s true colors. Yet Horowitz said what he did. And I suspect that it will do more for his career than even an outright win would have accomplished.

Kellyanne Conway

It also reminds me of other instances over the last year in which we’ve learned exactly what someone thinks. When we get in trouble for a remark picked up on a hot mike, we often say that it doesn’t reflect who we really are—which is just another way of stating that it doesn’t live up to the versions of ourselves that we create for public consumption. It’s far crueler, but also more convincing, to argue that it’s exactly in those unguarded, unscripted moments that our true selves emerge. (Freud, whose intuition on such matters was uncanny, was onto something when he focused on verbal mistakes and slips of the tongue.) The justifications that we use are equally revealing. Maybe we dismiss it as “locker room talk,” even if it didn’t take place anywhere near a locker room. Kellyanne Conway excused her reference to the nonexistent Bowling Green Massacre by saying “I misspoke one word,” even though she misspoke it on three separate occasions. It doesn’t even need to be something said on the spur of the moment. At his confirmation hearing for the position of ambassador to Israel, David M. Friedman apologized for an opinion piece he had written before the election: “These were hurtful words, and I deeply regret them. They’re not reflective of my nature or my character.” Friedman also said that “the inflammatory rhetoric that accompanied the presidential campaign is entirely over,” as if it were an impersonal force that briefly took possession of its users and then departed. We ask to be judged on our most composed selves, not the ones that we reveal at our worst.

To some extent, that’s a reasonable request. I’ve said things in public and in private that I’ve regretted, and I wouldn’t want to be judged solely on my worst moments as a writer or parent. At a time when a life can be ruined by a single tweet, it’s often best to err on the side of forgiveness, especially when there’s any chance of misinterpretation. But there’s also a place for common sense. You don’t refer to an event as a “massacre” unless you really think of it that way or want to encourage others to do so. And we judge our public figures by what they say when they think that nobody is listening, or when they let their guard down. It might seem like an impossibly high standard, but it’s also the one that’s effectively applied in practice. You can respond by becoming inhumanly disciplined, like Obama, who in a decade of public life has said maybe five things he has reason to regret. Or you can react like Trump, who says five regrettable things every day and trusts that its sheer volume will reduce it to a kind of background noise—which has awakened us, as Trump has in so many other ways, to a political option that we didn’t even knew existed. Both strategies are exhausting, and most of us don’t have the energy to pursue either path. Instead, we’re left with the practical solution of cultivating the inner voice that, as I wrote last week, allows us to act instinctively. Kant writes: “Live your life as though your every act were to become a universal law.” Which is another way of saying that we should strive to be the best version of ourselves at all times. It’s probably impossible. But it’s easier than wearing a mask.

Written by nevalalee

February 28, 2017 at 9:00 am

An open letter to my daughter

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The author's daughter

Dear Beatrix,

As I write these words, you’re four years old. Last week, you went to your first ice skating lesson. You’d been looking forward to it all month, and you excitedly told all of your friends that you were going, but when you came home that afternoon, you were almost in tears. When I asked you what was wrong, you said that it was harder than you thought it would be, and that you kept falling down. I responded as I suppose most decent fathers would. It takes a while, I told you, to get the hang of a new skill; it’s normal to fall down a lot at the beginning; and you should keep trying until you get better. After you’ve practiced enough, I concluded, you won’t even remember how difficult it used to be. You asked: “But what if it’s still in my head?” And I wasn’t quite sure what to tell you. As you’ve probably figured out by now, adults aren’t always great at following their own advice. They’re haunted by their failures, and they often resist pushing themselves or trying new things. I know I do. But you know better. You’ve been to free skate twice now, and every time you’ve gone out on the ice, you’ve gotten further without falling than ever before. Whenever you fall down, your pick yourself up. It’s more than I could do at my age. And I won’t pretend that the courage that you’ve shown is thanks to anything that I’ve taught you. You did it yourself. My one piece of advice, in fact, is that you hold onto as much of it as you can. You can judge grownups by how much they show of that kind of bravery, and it can take us decades to rediscover what we knew as children. So I hope that you hang onto it—it’ll save you time and wasted effort later on.

When you finally read this letter, you’ll be a little older—maybe eight or so. That’s hard for me to believe. I remember being eight. It’s one of the earliest ages at which I have a clear sense of what I was thinking at the time: not just events, but my inner life of dreams, fantasies, impressions. I don’t remember much from before that. It tells me that the years of your life that we’ve shared together so far might end up as a blur, much as they sometimes are to me already, and that only a few isolated flashes will survive for when you’re older. If I’m honest, the thought of this is slightly painful: you and I have been through so much, but I don’t know how much of it will persist for you in ways that you can consciously recall. Which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter. For all I know, it may matter more than anything else. I hope that your mother and I have shown you sufficient love and patience that you can take it for granted, and that the memories that you keep are good ones. And I also hope that you can remember President Obama. It’s a small thing, but I’d like him to be the first memory you have of the presidency. You seem drawn to him, as a lot of kids are, even if you’re usually more interested in Michelle. Maybe one day it will all seem like a dream, as it does to me even now. For all the ups and downs of the last eight years, I still believe that Obama was a far better man than we deserved, or at least that a series of unlikely developments meant that we got him before we were collectively ready. I used to think that was a good thing. Now I’m not so sure. But I’m glad that you were around for some of it.

The author's daughter

Now we’re about to get a president who, by any measure, is worse than any of us deserve, thanks to a series of equally implausible events. (Which is just to say that they seem improbable by historical standards, which is probably an illusion in itself. If the stars could align to give us Obama eight years too soon, it stands to reason that they could also combine, on the downside, to give us a President Trump. Volatility on the whole seems to be rising, and past performance is not indicative of future returns.) By the time you read this, maybe we’ll have another president. I don’t know if we will. Frankly, I’m not even sure I’ll have completely figured out this last election by then. Even now, I find myself wavering between seeing it as an outcome that could have gone either way or as a development, in retrospect, that feels inevitable. Which doesn’t rule out the possibility that it was both. I think it’s fair to say that the fundamentals were closer than most progressives believed or that the numbers seemed to indicate, which meant that a few small factors—some from home, some from abroad—were enough to affect the results in three states just enough to make a difference. If fifty thousand voters had changed their minds, I’d be writing you a very different letter. Perhaps, in some other timeline, I am. But the fact that it was close enough for a few nudges in the right place to affect the result implies that there was something larger at play. Periods of progress are always followed by periods of reaction, and it’s clear, looking around the world, that we’re in the middle of a particularly severe one. That isn’t much consolation. But it was bound to happen eventually. It’s just sooner and far worse than anyone could have expected.

I wish I could tell you that everything will be fine, but I can’t. It emphatically won’t be fine for a lot of people, at least if the incoming administration keeps the least of its promises, and there’s no reason to think that it won’t. Our family is luckier than most, and I don’t know how our lives—or the ones of those we love—will change. I also don’t know what the psychological consequences will be. You’re about to spend some of the crucial years of your childhood in an atmosphere that can only affect your feelings about the presidency, this country, and your place in the world. And I’m not going to lie to you: a lot of things that we care about are about to be destroyed. They’ll be rolled back at once or in pieces, openly or in secret, for no better reason than it’s easier to destroy than to create. It’s enough to make me wonder whether any of it was worth it, and I’m afraid that you’ll grow up asking the same thing. But it made a difference. History alternates between eras of advancement and regression, the latter of which can last for centuries, but the trend over the longest possible timeline is clear. We take two steps forward and one step back, and we can only hope that we’ve planted the standard of humanity far enough forward into chaos that we end up slightly ahead of where we started, in defiance of all the forces that want to turn back the clock. Many of those who voted to enable it were motivated by the same feelings that I’ve described here: they looked into the faces of their daughters and sons and worried about the lives they would have. I’m sorry that a minority of my generation decided that this was what was best for yours. We screwed up, and I don’t know if we can fix things by the time you’re old enough to understand this. Maybe it will be up to you. All I can do is try to learn from your example. I need to get back on the ice and skate.

Love, Daddy

Written by nevalalee

January 20, 2017 at 9:00 am

Posted in Writing

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My multiracial self

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Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on October 24, 2012.

I’m multiracial. On my mother’s side, I’m Finnish and Estonian; on my father’s side, Chinese. Yet I’ve rarely, if ever, discussed or treated this subject in my fiction. There are a lot of reasons for this. In part, it’s because when I started out, I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a writer whose work is grounded in questions of ethnic identity, which unfortunately tends to be the case for any novelist who explicitly addresses the topic early in his or her career. We’re all tempted to read novels, especially those with clear autobiographical elements, as veiled works of confession, and this tends to restrict the subjects that a writer can credibly engage, at least once certain labels are attached. As a result, my three novels are almost absurdly nonautobiographical, and although they express important aspects of my personality, you have to read between the lines to see it. My model is a writer like Kazuo Ishiguro, who has written extensively about his own heritage, as a Japanese-born British novelist, but has also brilliantly explored a wide range of subjects that have little to do with convenient notions of authorial identity. Ishiguro’s feelings on his cultural background are similar to mine:

People are not two-thirds one thing and the remainder something else. Temperament, personality, or outlook don’t divide quite like that. The bits don’t separate clearly. You end up a funny homogeneous mixture. This is something that will become more common in the latter part of the century—people with mixed cultural backgrounds, and mixed racial backgrounds. That’s the way the world is going.

Which brings me to the second reason why I’ve rarely treated identity issues in my fiction, which arises from what I imagine to be the peculiar situation of many individuals with multiracial backgrounds, particularly Eurasians. Race wasn’t a central part of my life growing up, because I found myself in an odd liminal category that didn’t have a lot of baggage attached. I didn’t identify strongly with any particular ethnicity, and liked the idea of occupying the middle ground, which I hoped would allow me to put together a life for myself without labels. This may be part of the reason why I was so drawn to the idea of a classical education, almost as if I were constructing a value system from first principles—and why the experience, much later, of marrying into a Chinese-American family has been so rewarding and surprising. (At the risk of sounding ridiculous, this is a big reason why I still identify so strongly with Obama, who was multiracial and raised in an unconventional household, and responded by becoming an overachiever in the most conventional, Ivy League sense, only to find his greatest personal happiness by marrying into a strong black family.)

But of course, as I’ve only recently begun to realize, race is central to my identity, and as a writer, I’ve been drawn repeatedly to the problem of how to reconcile the various pieces that make up my own life. When I stand back a little, I can see this in my fiction, in larger patterns that weren’t obvious at the time. Most of my published short stories, for instance, include at least one character of Asian or Pacific Islander descent, with a notable exception in “Ernesto,” in which the setting, during the Spanish Civil War, made this rather difficult. This wasn’t a conscious decision, at least not compared to the choice—which was fairly deliberate—to work on developing strong female characters. Part of the reason may be that, like most writers, I tend to seize on whatever happens to be ready at hand when it comes to assembling the elements of a story. It may also be partially due to my awareness that interesting Asian characters are somewhat underrepresented in fiction, although this is hardly something I set out consciously to correct. And race is rarely a central theme of these stories: for the most part, it’s taken for granted, allowing me to focus on subjects I find more interesting, like cannibalistic octopuses.

The real surprise, at least for me, is how subtly these issues have also been woven into my novels, which return obsessively to issues of Eastern and Western culture, although not in the ways you’d expect. My first, unpublished novel was set in India, with a strong thematic focus on the legacy of colonialism and imperialism, and the trilogy that began with The Icon Thief centers on the problem of Russia, whose history, perhaps more than that of any other country, expresses the tension in what it means to be European and Asian at once. In short, it turns out that I’ve been writing about multiculturalism all along, but displaced into unexpected forms, which I once thought was the best way of doing it. If I’d tried to attack these themes directly, drawing on my own experience, I’d lose much of the objectivity that I’m convinced is key to writing good fiction. By finding a fictional canvas on which these issues can develop organically, I can focus on telling an interesting story and let the material do the rest. The result has told me a lot more about myself, on rereading, than if I’d written about my identity in more obvious ways. Or so I once believed. But I’m not so sure anymore.

Written by nevalalee

January 18, 2017 at 9:00 am

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Hamilton in Camelot

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John F. Kennedy and family

A few months after her husband’s assassination, in a famous profile published in Life magazine, Jacqueline Kennedy said to the journalist Theodore White:

When Jack quoted something, it was usually classical, but I’m so ashamed of myself—all I keep thinking of is this line from a musical comedy. At night, before we’d go to sleep, Jack liked to play some records; and the song he loved most came at the very end of this record. The lines he loved to hear were: Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot…There’ll be great presidents again, and the Johnsons are wonderful, they’ve been wonderful to me—but there’ll never be another Camelot.

As others have pointed out, despite its self-conscious air of candor—”I’m so ashamed of myself”—this was a deliberate attempt to create a new myth. After the interview, Sorenson dictated a draft of his copy over the phone to his editors, who were standing by to run the article in the magazine. At first, they indicated that the reference to Camelot should be cut, but Mrs. Kennedy, who was standing nearby, signaled to White to keep it in. Much later, White expressed regret over his role in the legend’s creation, describing it as “a misreading of history.” But few of the myths that we make for ourselves are entirely true, or accidental.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Camelot myth, and how it applies to Barack Obama. It seems fairly clear that one of Donald Trump’s first priorities will be to roll back most of his predecessor’s signature achievements. He can’t unkill Osama Bin Laden, but he can take back just about everything else. Some of it will be to fulfill his campaign pledges; some will be to appease his supporters on the right; and some, I think, will simply be because it’s easier to destroy than to create. Trump is highly unlikely to deliver on even a fraction of what he has promised, but it’s possible to give an impression of action from the blunt, unthinking negation of policies that were the product of years of negotiation and compromise. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to prepare ourselves for the systematic reversal of most of the progressive agenda from the last quarter of a century. Trump may only be able to hang onto his majorities in the House and Senate until the next midterm election, but two years is more than enough to undo the work of twenty. This means that Obama’s legacy is less likely, as once seemed possible, to resemble that of a president like Roosevelt, who left a permanent impact on our ideas of government and its obligations, than that of Kennedy, who symbolizes nothing so much as unfulfilled potential. Obama was in office longer than Kennedy, did far more, and wasn’t silenced by a bullet. But as time passes, I have a hunch that his presidency will feel just as much like a dream.

President Barack Obama

But even that dream is worth preserving. Trump can take away almost everything, but I refuse to let him take away what Obama meant to me—an emblem of class, elegance, humor, and empathy that often felt too good to be true even in the moment. He wasn’t perfect. It took him a while to get the hang of the office. But on the whole, it was a balancing act that embodied everything I wanted a man to be. Trump may imperil the future, but it would be just as tragic if he reached backward to poison the past. You could argue that the myth of Camelot actually damaged the progressive movement in America: it made the ideals of liberalism seem like something unattainable, casting them in magical or nostalgic terms that could never be replicated, or as a matter of style rather than of hard choices. That’s a fair point, and at a time when so much real work remains to be done, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to romanticize Obama into something that we won’t see again. But Jacqueline Kennedy—who, notably, later became a very successful editor in her own right—understood that an alternative myth was necessary to keep her husband’s memory from being overwhelmed by its horrific end, as well as to nurture more practical goals. And if turning the Obama administration into something like Camelot is what I need to freeze those precious, fragile emotions against the day when I can use them again, then I’ll do it. And I’ll be as deliberate about it as possible.

Of course, Obama’s musical wasn’t Camelot, but Hamilton. I’ve been listening to Hamilton practically nonstop for the last few months: my daughter likes to hear it at bath time, and one of its discs always begins to play whenever I start my car. Not surprisingly, my reactions to it have served as an index to my feelings about this election. There were times when I listened to it with a sense of triumph, mixed with a vague fear that it would turn out to be tragically premature: “Immigrants—we get the job done!” And it’s hard for me to even think of Hamilton’s closing lines:

Legacy, what is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see
I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me
America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me
You let me make a difference, a place where even orphan immigrants
Can leave their fingerprints and rise up…

Even before the election was over, it was impossible to listen to “One Last Time,” sung by Chris Jackson as George Washington, and not think of Obama. Its resonance now is more bittersweet than I imagined it would be. I’m content, just barely, with allowing him to go home to his own vine and fig tree. But he’s still here. And like Arthur, the once and future king, Obama—or what he represents—will return one day. It’s only a matter of time.

Written by nevalalee

November 10, 2016 at 8:51 am

The world of Tlön

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Portrait of Jorge Luis Borges by Ferdinando Scianna

Last month, my wife suffered a miscarriage in her eighth week of pregnancy. We had been trying for a second baby for a long time, and it devastated us. She has already written about it more eloquently than I ever could, and I don’t want to relive it all here. But there’s one memory that I’ve been turning over in my head for most of a sleepless night. It was during our first visit to the hospital, when we were waiting to go upstairs to hear the results of my wife’s blood test and ultrasound. I ended up alone in the lobby for a little while, and I caught myself wondering if this would be the last happy moment I would ever have. At such times, you try to strike bargains with the universe, and my personal life already felt so entangled with the election that I made a silent offer: I would accept a Trump presidency, if only it meant that I could have this baby. A few minutes later, we were seated across from a midwife who told us that the fetal heartbeat was abnormally slow, and that it didn’t seem to be viable. There was a chance that it would survive, but it was very low. We went home, spent a tense week waiting to see what would happen, and finally returned for a second appointment. The fetus was already gone. And when I think back now to the deal I tried to strike—Trump in exchange for that baby—I’m reminded of what the late Gene Wilder screams at Charlie at the end of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: “You get nothing.”

Of course, that isn’t exactly true. I’m fortunate enough to have a life that is mostly shielded from the obvious fallout of a Trump administration. There isn’t any risk that I’ll be deported. I’m a heterosexual male in the middle class. If I want to tune out the news for weeks or months, I’ve got an absorbing project that was going to take up most of my time anyway. But the prospect of doing any work on my book now reminds me of how Jorge Luis Borges ends the story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” in which the world is devoured by the alternative reality of a fictional encyclopedia:

Almost immediately, reality yielded on more than one account. The truth is that it longed to yield. Ten years ago any symmetry with a resemblance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly planet? It is useless to answer that reality is also orderly…Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön. I pay no attention to all this and go on revising, in the still days at the Adrogue hotel, an uncertain Quevedian translation (which I do not intend to publish) of Browne’s Urn Burial.

We’re all about to take the plunge into unreality that Borges describes here—and it isn’t a fantasy spun by a secret society of encyclopedists, as the Borges fan Karl Rove might have foreseen, but the product of a single man’s brain. And part of me is tempted to pay no attention to it and go on revising.


In many ways, it feels like any reasonable person is faced with two alternatives. Either you can fully accept that this is the time that you’ve been given, as Gandalf says to Frodo, and gird yourself for four years of battle, or you can withdraw, tend your own garden, and try to make as much happiness as you can for yourself and your loved ones—which is a luxury that not everyone can afford. I’m an imperfect creature, so I suspect that my reaction will be some combination of the two. I’ll unplug for a while, wait for the noise to die down, and then figure out a way to muddle through and do the best I can. It’s not so different from the way in which I dealt with the George W. Bush administration, which, in retrospect, encompassed eight of the happiest years of my life. It had nothing to do with politics: I was in my twenties, I was making my way in the world for the first time, and I felt no need to identify with the man in the White House. Trump may well turn out to be similar, if far worse. For one thing, I’m not twenty anymore. But I’ve also been spoiled by Obama. For most of the last decade, the president was a man I admired and understood. He made me feel that I was part of something larger. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel that way again. Part of me sensed this, which is why I tried to savor this last, awful year in whatever way I could. Maybe my relationship to politics has simply been restored to what should be its natural state, as forcefully and abruptly as possible. But that doesn’t make it any less painful.

As for Trump himself, I don’t think there’s any point in denying that what he did was extraordinary. As L. Ron Hubbard, a charismatic leader with disturbing affinities to Trump, once wrote: “I have high hopes of smashing my name into history so violently that it will take a legendary form even if all books are destroyed.” Trump did this unequivocally, and along the way, he reminded us of how little we know about anything, both individually and collectively. Maybe it’s a lesson that all we needed to be taught, although I sincerely doubt it will be worth the cost. And I still don’t know what to make of it. Goethe said of another historic figure:

The story of Napoleon produces in me an impression like that produced by the Revelation of St. John the Divine. We all feel there must be something more in it, but we do not know what.

Despite its apocalyptic tone—or perhaps because of it—this is pretty much what I’m feeling now. I don’t have any illusions that Trump will be a decent president, and even a mediocre presidency seems like too much to ask. What consoles me now is that there are good things in this country, and in all our lives, that Trump can never take away. As the world becomes Tlön, the rest of us will muddle through, even if it has to be on our own. My wife and I lost one baby, but we’ll try for another. But I still don’t know what to say to my daughter.

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