Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Danger of the Single Story: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, on being Middle Class, living in a Colonised Country

The video below is between fifteen and twenty minutes long. I found Ms. Adichie to be quite compelling as a speaker and have now added her to my list of "writers I must read". And I thought after viewing and listening to this, about all the lectures I've heard, including at graduation ceremonies, that were dull as hell--mind-numbingly boring. This one most certainly is not. For those with any hearing impairment, or for the deaf, there is the option below to have subtitles--in either Bulgarian, English, or Italian--appear along the bottom of the screen, as the speech is delivered.

This is the opening of author Chimamanda Adichie's talk:
I'm a storyteller. And I would like to tell you a few personal stories about what I like to call "the danger of the single story." I grew up on a university campus in eastern Nigeria. My mother says that I started reading at the age of two, although I think four is probably close to the truth. So I was an early reader. And what I read were British and American children's books.

I was also an early writer. And when I began to write, at about the age of seven, stories in pencil with crayon illustrations that my poor mother was obligated to read, I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading. All my characters were white and blue-eyed. They played in the snow. They ate apples. (Laughter) And they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out. (Laughter) Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn't have snow. We ate mangoes. And we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to.

My characters also drank a lot of ginger beer because the characters in the British books I read drank ginger beer. Never mind that I had no idea what ginger beer was. (Laughter) And for many years afterwards, I would have a desperate desire to taste ginger beer. But that is another story.

What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children. Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books, by their very nature, had to have foreigners in them, and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify. Now, things changed when I discovered African books. There weren't many of them available. And they weren't quite as easy to find as the foreign books.

But because of writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye I went through a mental shift in my perception of literature. I realized that people like me, girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature. I started to write about things I recognized.

Source for what follows is The Washington Post:
Inspired by Nigerian history and tragedies all but forgotten by recent generations of westerners, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novels and stories are jewels in the crown of diasporan literature.

In Nigeria, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel Half of a Yellow Sun has helped inspire new, cross-generational communication about the Biafran war. In this and in her other works, she seeks to instill dignity into the finest details of each character, whether poor, middle class or rich, exposing along the way the deep scars of colonialism in the African landscape.

Adichie's newest book, The Thing Around Your Neck, is a brilliant collection of stories about Nigerians struggling to cope with a corrupted context in their home country, and about the Nigerian immigrant experience.

Adichie builds on the literary tradition of Igbo literary giant Chinua Achebe—and when she found out that Achebe liked Half of a Yellow Sun, she says she cried for a whole day. What he said about her rings true: “We do not usually associate wisdom with beginners, but here is a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers.”

"When she turned 10 and read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, about the clash between Igbo tradition and the British colonial way of life, everything changed: ‘I realized that people who looked like me could live in books.’ She has been writing about Africa ever since."

The video and the talk in text form can be found here.


Precious: a film about the life of a young woman in U.S. patriarchy and urban poverty

Above: an image from the movie Precious: Based on the novel "Push" by Sapphire, with Gabourey Sidibe in the title role, opens Friday in selected cities.

This is but one of the perennial problems about gender and race in the U.R.A., the United Rapes of Amerikkka: how do structurally social dominants view the oppressed--through what lenses, in the context of which distorting and destructive institutions, with what values learned from where?

Then there is the dominants' means of communication: the mass media, which only ever allows some stories to be told. For more on this see here.

With all of this in mind, a white man, A. O. Scott, tries to make sense of a movie about an experience he has never known. What does he do with this? What sense does he make of it? Does he see this as a story primarily about race? If so, why? About gender? If not, why not? About poverty?

Some of the comments on the NYT page, online, speak to his particular perceptions and to other experiences. As someone who comes from a white family which has known and still knows what rural poverty is like, for me, Precious Jones' story is one of living through corporate capitalism's cruel form of urban poverty in a context of white male supremacy, discrimination based on size, appearance, and age, and rampant heterosexism. Click here and scroll down for those.

Read on...

New York Times
Saturday, November 7, 2009

Movie Review
Precious (2010)
NYT Critics' Pick
This movie has been designated a Critic's Pick by the film reviewers of The Times.

Precious: Based on the novel "Push" by Sapphire, with Gabourey Sidibe in the title role, opens Friday in selected cities.
November 6, 2009
Howls of a Life, Buried Deep Within
Published: November 6, 2009

Claireece Jones, the Harlem teenager at the center of “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” lives in a world of specific and overwhelming horror. She goes by her middle name, Precious, which seems like a cruel taunt, since nearly everyone around her thinks she’s worthless and lets her know it.

Precious’s mother, Mary, played with operatic fervor by the comedian Mo’Nique, dispenses a daily ration of humiliation and abuse. The constant verbal and physical violence she directs at her daughter would be shocking even without the monstrous crime that hangs over their dim, dirty apartment like a cloud. Precious, overweight and illiterate — and played by an extraordinarily poised first-time actress named Gabourey Sidibe — has a young daughter and is pregnant for a second time. The father in both cases, who is nowhere to be seen, is Precious’s father too.

This information is bluntly presented at the beginning of Sapphire’s 1996 novel, a first-person narrative composed in rough, stylized dialect. In Lee Daniels’s risky, remarkable film adaptation, written by Geoffrey Fletcher, the facts of Precious’s life are also laid out with unsparing force (though not in overly graphic detail). But just as “Push” achieves an eloquence that makes it far more than a fictional diary of extreme dysfunction, so too does “Precious” avoid the traps of well-meaning, preachy lower-depths realism. It howls and stammers, but it also sings.

Mr. Daniels, directing his second feature (after the vivid and eccentric “Shadowboxer”), is not afraid to mix styles and genres. In his determination to do justice to Claireece’s inner life, as well as to her circumstances, he allows splashes of fantasy, daubs of humor and floods of unabashed melodrama into the drab landscape of her struggle. Ugliness is all around her, but beauty is there too.

There is something almost reckless about this filmmaker’s eclecticism, which extends from the casting — pop stars and television personalities alongside trained and untrained actors — to the visual textures and the soundtrack music. “Precious” is a hybrid, a mash-up that might have been ungainly, but that manages to be graceful instead. It’s partly a bootstrap drama of resilience and redemption, complete with a hardworking teacher (Paula Patton) wrangling a classroom full of disadvantaged girls. It’s also the nearly Gothic story of a child tormented by the cruelty of adults, as lurid as a Victorian potboiler or a modern-day tell-all memoir.

Above all “Precious” is unabashedly populist in its potent emotional appeal — not for nothing did Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey sign on as executive producers around the time of the film’s debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January — and at the same time determined to challenge its audience’s complacency as only a genuine work of art can.

Mary, brimming with rage, thwarted love and plain meanness, is a character bound to provoke discomfort. Even otherwise misogynistic hip-hop artists will pay tribute to the heroism of African-American mothers, and to see that piety so thoroughly dispensed with is downright shocking.

Other provocations are more subtle but no less pointed. There are virtually no men in this movie. Precious’s father is glimpsed briefly in flashbacks of his assaults on her, and in the fantasy sequences that provide escape from her pain Precious hobnobs with handsome boys, but otherwise the only male character of significance is a hospital worker played by Lenny Kravitz. Otherwise, Precious’s cosmos, for better and for worse, is a universe of women: the social worker (Mariah Carey, scrubbed of any vestige of divahood); the teacher, Ms. Rain; her co-worker in the remedial education program, played by the comedian and talk show host Sherri Shepherd; and Precious’s fellow students.

These characters all can be seen as surrogate mothers, aunts and sisters, who together provide Precious with a more functional family (to say the least) than what she has at home. But their love is also enabled by institutions and government policies. An unstated but self-evident moral of “Precious,” set during Ronald Reagan’s presidency and based on a book published in the year of Bill Clinton’s welfare reform, is that government can provide not only a safety net, but also, in small and consequential ways, a lifeline.

I will leave it for others to parse the truth or the timeliness of this message. But “Precious” is, in any case, less the examination of a social problem than the illumination of an individual’s painful and partial self-realization. Inarticulate and emotionally shut down, her massive body at once a prison and a hiding place, Precious is also perceptive and shrewd, possessed of talents visible only to those who bother to look. At its plainest and most persuasive, her story is that of a writer discovering a voice. “These people talked like TV stations I didn’t even watch,” she remarks of Ms. Rain and her lover (Kimberly Russell), displaying her awakening literary intelligence even as she marvels at the discovery of her ignorance.

And Ms. Sidibe, perhaps the least-known member of this movie’s unusual cast, is also the glue that holds it together. Nimble and self-assured as Mr. Daniels’s direction may be, he could not make you believe in “Precious” unless you were able to believe in Precious herself. You will.

“Precious” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has frank depictions of emotional and physical violence, including the sexual abuse of a child.


Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire

Opens on Friday in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta.

Directed by Lee Daniels; written by Geoffrey Fletcher, based on the novel “Push” by Sapphire; director of photography, Andrew Dunn; edited by Joe Klotz; music by Mario Grigorov; production designer, Roshelle Berliner; produced by Mr. Daniels, Sarah Siegel-Magness and Gary Magness; released by Lionsgate. Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes.

WITH: Mo’Nique (Mary), Paula Patton (Ms. Rain), Maria Carey (Ms. Weiss), Sherri Shepherd (Cornrows), Lenny Kravitz (Nurse John), Kimberly Russell (Katherine) and Gabourey Sidibe (Precious).