1000 Serpentinen Angst

I highly recommend the debut novel by Olivia Wenzel.

“Etwas, das damit einhergeht, eine neue, gesunde Angst in dein Leben zu lassen – eine Angst, tief, wärmer und zerreißender als jede Angst um dich selbst, dein Leben, deine identitären Beffindlichkeiten es je sein könnten: eine Angst, gebunden an eine Liebe, so stark wie alles, was du bisher kanntest, mal 1000.”

“Something that goes hand in hand with a new, healthy fear in your life – a fear that is deep, warmer and more tearing than any fear of yourself, your life, your identity sensitivities could ever be: a fear bound to a love, as strong as anything you knew before, times 1000.”

1000 Serpentinen Angst is the great first novel by Olivia Wenzel. While browsing a bookshop recently, a friend recommended the book to me, especially referring to the book’s treatment of racism experiences of a Black person in Germany. And the novel is about that – in part. It’s also about (Black) life, (Black) joy, (Black) insecurities and (Black) fear in Germany. I was most impressed by the passages on the main character’s struggle with anxiety and the impact the disorder had on her normal life, her friendships and love. I recognized some of it, but the experience of being a Black queer woman in Germany adds extra layers of fear and complexity to the illness. 

The story is told through constant dialogues between the main protagonist and a constantly shifting counterpart. The narrative form is fantastic, slightly experimental and really successful in transporting these complexities, more so than an omniscient narrator or inner monologues could. This narration of the protagonists life and her complex relationships, particularly to her loving yet racist grandmother and her ill and mostly absent mother, creates a tremendous pull. Fantastic.

The Nickel Boys

“The white boys bruised differently than the black boys and called it the Ice Cream Factory because you came out with bruises of every color. The black boys called it the White House because that was its official name and it fit and didn’t need to be embellished. The White House delivered the law and everybody obeyed.”

Colson Whitehead’s book after Underground Railroad tells the story of a reform school, the Black boys in the school, the devastating impact of the school and the system that enables it.

This novel has similar strengths (based on a true story, the concept, the research and historical truth behind the concept, the heft of the prose in the best parts) and weaknesses (underdeveloped secondary characters, the sometimes less inspired prose in transitional plot phases) as Underground Railroad. It’s still a great book that is important and deserving of its success and accolades.

But it also made me realize how the important, successful, critically acclaimed, powerful ™ books by and about Black people too often focus on (historical) hurt and pain. I could use some recommendations for important, successful, powerful ™ books about  Black joy. Not because books like Nickel Boys or Underground Railroad make white people like me uncomfortable – that’s the best part about Whitehead’s work – but because stories of joy and success need to be celebrated and supported, too. Especially in these times.

“Trust Love All the Way”: Go See If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could Talk, the Barry Jenkins movie based on the James Baldwin novel of the same name, is a fantastic, beautiful, political, loving movie. Trish Rivers and Fonny Hunt are a young Black couple in love and expecting a baby when Fonny is arrested for a rape he didn’t commit.

Barry Jenkins and James Baldwin have one thing in common. An image/prose language that is both realistic and, at the same time, incredibly poetic. Compared to Moonlight, the outstanding 2017 Academy Award winner, Beale Street is comparatively conventional in parts, but similarly terrific. The beauty of the love between Trish and Fonny, the support of Trish’s family is in contrast to the ugliness of the racist system.

The acting of the entire cast is exceptional, Regina King as Sharon Rivers deserves winning all the awards this season, including the Oscar for best actress in a suporting role. The two young lead roles, Kiki Layne as Tish and Stephan James as Fonny are great, particularly their close ups were tremendously heavy or heavenly light, depending on the scene. The breathtaking dialogues at the window in prison reminded me of the intensity of the prison dialogues in Steven McQueen’s Hunger.

Once again, Glenn Weldon of NPR’s Popculture Happy Hour podcast also sums up this movie together perfectly: “If Beale Street Could Talk has a gorgeous urgency.” 

I saw it as a Valentine’s Day preview at Zebra Kino Konstanz. The movie will be released more widely in Germany on March 7th, 2019. Go see it if you have a chance.

Zadie Smith’s Swing Time

I liked, but did not love this book.

The book begins with failure. Or “my humiliation” as the narrator, a young woman, puts it. The young woman has been sent back to London by some unknown employer. She is hiding in considerable affluence and is tasked with avoiding the public, not to escalate a situation. From the beginning it is obvious that the narrating woman is familiar with London, affluence, the public, but not at home in these spaces. To distract herself from her predicament, she spontaneously attends an event at the Royal Festival Hall that includes a screening of the movie Swing Time, starring Fred Astaire. Watching her childhood favorite, she is transported back to a space she did feel at home in, and her love of dance. In this nostalgic moment she realizes that she has always defined herself through the “light of other people.” that her experience of herself is “a kind of shadow.” After the event, she returns to her doorman-secured-hideout and is joined by Lamin, a beautiful man from Senegal who is connected to the failure and someone for whom the narrator scandalously can’t have feelings. Still enthusiastic, she wants to share Swing Time with him. Lamin disapproves, for a reason our narrator only now realizes: Fred Astaire is dancing in black face. Her escapist space is based on a well-made minstrel show. This prologue ends with the narrator receiving an email from a childhood friend titled “WHORE.”.

The prologue is exemplary for the strengths and weaknesses of Swing Time, Zadie Smith’s 2016 novel about two biracial girls in North London. Beginning in their troubled childhood, both girls are in love with dance, and feel more at home in the studio than in the estates they grow up in. One of them has actual talent, and a dance mom; the other has more (non-financial) resources and becomes the longtime personal assistant of a Madonna-like pop superstar. The latter is our narrator, and the novel follows her to a village in a West African Nation where the superstar sets up a school for girls and influences the life in the village. The stories of the narrator’s job as a jet-setting gofer and her background in London are told in alternating chapters.

The strengths of Smith’s novel are obvious: Her prose is engulfing and almost flawless. The narrator’s observations, especially of the role of dance and body performativity in a girl’s coming-of-age process,  are insightful and absorbing. Smith’s treatment of race, class, and gender is smart and unique.

Unfortunately for a book over 400 pages long, the plot development is Swing Time’s biggest weakness. I couldn’t truly connect with the characters, but character development was okay. In comparison to the aforementioned insights and flawless prose, however, the plot was rather unimaginative. The big ““humiliation” hinted at in the prologue and the commentary and insights create high expectation in the first two thirds of the book, and the actual reveal in the end is then oddly banal. As a collection of observations and commentary I really enjoyed Zadie Smith’s book, but as a novel I was a bit disappointed.

Success as sole basis for respect can be ultimately dangerous. From Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann and the Holocaust. The thin volume includes the core of the Arendt’s reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the bureaucracy of the Holocaust, and the banality of evil. Arendt’s perspective is certainly controversial, but this small volume is required reading in dangerous times. And we are always in dangerous times.

 (Penguin Books Great Ideas (2005)) 

This is not simply a war language; this is an American language. In Sharif’s rendering, “Look” is at once a command to see and to grieve the people these words describe — and also a means of implicating the reader in the violence delivered upon those people.

A Poet Subverts the Defense Department’s Official Dictionary Natalie Diaz reviews Solmaz Sharif’s poetry collection Look for the New York Times.

of course i want to be successful
but i don’t crave success for me
i need to be successful to gain
enough milk and honey
to help those around
me succeed

From rupi kaur’s milk and honey

Milk and honey is equally heart-wrenching and heartwarming. Some of it, especially the first part “the hurting,” is a terrifying, intense depiction of abuse. “The hurting” and the closing part, “the healing” (including the quote above) are the strongest. In it’s middle it gets a bit repetitive, conventional in a way I did not expect after the first part. Thus, the four parts – the hurting, the loving, the breaking, the healing – are somewhat unbalanced. However, the middle is only conventional and repetitive relative to the rest. All in all the kaur’s work is fascinating, and probably a book I will return to again.

“With her bare, alert senses she could almost hear violets grow and feel the robin’s heart beat. Like Emerson, she found in each drop of dew, in each grain of sand, a copy of a universe.” 

Praise for Emily Dickinson by Nardi Reeder Campion in a 1973 essay for the New York Times titled “A Delayed ‘Obituary,’ ” 

https://open.spotify.com/track/4KDXh5ocFmL4sKLs3UN7fB?plead=please-dont-download-this-or-our-lawyers-wont-let-us-host-audio

Daughter: “Doing the Right Thing" 

While sad, if not depressed in tone, the breadth and breath of life in this song is astounding. The narrator, while isolated, has a way of talking about the world and herself that reminds me of a Margret Atwood character. This song’s dynamic doesn’t just develop, it ages. “Doing the Right Thing,” off of Daughter’s new record Not to Disappear, is my first favorite song of the year.

“The Gray Complexity that is the Real Dixie”

Errin Whack,in an article for NPR’s Code Switch blog, reviews Harper Lee’s new novel Go Set A Watchman and argues that it is a revelation on race, even if that is uncomfortable for many fans of To Kill A Mockingbird:

Truths can be hard, and truths about race in this country are often the hardest – especially when the revelations are about those we love. If racism is helped along not only by cross-burners in sheets, but those you have loved and emulated, it feels like too much to bear. The urge to look away is powerful.

But to do so would be to reject the gift Lee has given all of us with the release of Watchman. […]

If Mockingbird projects a South that can be read in terms of black and white, Watchman shows us the gray complexity that is the real Dixie. In this powerful sequel, Lee offers us a wider window into the white Southern heart, and tells us it is finally time for us all to shatter the false gods of the past and be free.