On Mat Johnson’s Loving Day and wanting to fit in.

On Mat Johnson’s Loving Day and wanting to fit in.

My condolences to those who feel as though it’s their heritage never to fit in.

Growing up, I didn’t fit either.  But I had no expectation of fitting in.  I was an outlier by virtue of who I was, not who my parents were.  And presumably I could’ve learned to talk differently, to act differently, to dress differently, and then I would’ve been embraced by the fold.

9780812993455Whereas the protagonist of Mat Johnson’s Loving Day, like the protagonist of Viet Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, perhaps like countless biracial children throughout history, felt himself to be an outcast because he was too white for his mother’s people and too black for his father’s.  He was caught in a bind; in any circumstance he would be judged for attempting to pass himself off as something he wasn’t.  His genetic heritage loomed large in every social interaction, an oppressive weight from his parentage embodied concretely in the form of the shambling, decrepit mansion he inherited from his father and was burdened with the disposal of.

In the initial chapters of Loving Day, the protagonist self-identifies as black.  Yes, through a twist of genetics (I swear I’ll write & post that essay on the evolution of skin color soon!) he is very pale.  But appearance alone should not wipe away his connection to his mother, his family, the history that led to his existence.  His take on identify resembles Danzy Senna’s in the opening to her 1998 comic essay “The Mulatto Millennium.” Here’s an excerpt:

Before all of this radical ambiguity, I was a black girl.  I fear even saying this.  The political strong arm of the multiracial movement, affectionately known as the Mulatto Nation (just “the M.N.” for those in the know), decreed just yesterday that those who refuse to comply with orders to embrace their many heritages will be sent on the first plane to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where, the M.N.’s minister of defense said, “they might learn the true meaning of mestizo power.”

Portrait2But, with all due respect to the multiracial movement, I cannot tell a lie.  I was a black girl.  Not your ordinary black girl, if such a thing exists.  But rather, a black girl with a Wasp mother and a black-Mexican father, and a face that harkens to Andalusia, not Africa.  I was born in 1970, when “black” described a people bonded not by shared complexion or hair texture but by shared history.

Not only was I black (and here I go out on a limb), but I was an enemy of the people.  The mulatto people, that is.  I sneered at those byproducts of miscegenation who chose to identify as mixed, not black.  I thought it wishy-washy, an act of flagrant assimilation, treason, passing even.

The protagonist of Loving Day also does not conform to outsider’s anticipation of what a black man should look like, but throughout the book he struggles in the attempt to erase his father’s legacy.  This despite his “re-education” at a multicultural magnet school where he enrolls his daughter; at the school they first assess his self-identity…

My daughter is turning pages before I am, but I am exasperated before her.  The questions keep coming: What do you eat New Year’s Day?  What card games do you know?  What are your feelings about mayonnaise?  What do you do with these?–and a picture of dominoes.  With every question, with every answer, I become more inclined to grab
[my daughter]‘s hand again and walk out, nearly overwhelmed by this impulse.  I look up at [the love interest / test proctor], standing there in judgement.  I’m used to having my blackness questioned, but never on paper, and never by an Oreo who would damn me for it.  But my daughter is two desks over, just jotting away, unaware of this pretext of just uncaring.

CaptureBy the final question, Name your black friends [minimum three], I answer, Nat Turner, Warren G. Harding, and What T. Fuck? and then get up to hand it in.  All I get is a curt thank-you.

. . .

“You’re black identified,” [the love interest / test proctor / now exam grader] tells me.  She’s barely looked through my test.

“Really?  I could have told you that, but it took me thirty minutes to fill the thing out.  How did you–“

“The last question.  Most white-identified mixed people actually try to list names.  You expressed outrage at the question, a typical black-identified response.  I already saw a few more answers, I doubt the rest will indicate different.  Or you can wait here for the next ten minutes.”  I want to wait.  I want to wait and talk to her and tell her how silly this test is, this mixed-race posturing.  I want to do it in a way that shows her how witty I am.  I want her to be able to tell me why I’m wrong.  I want her to be right, even though I am.  I want to be on the same page in the same space and not feel alone but hinged to someone solid.  Someone just like me, so I can know what it feels like to not be different.

…then in a class assignment on parental histories force him to research his Irish ancestry.  But he rebels in the end.

Yes, he did find a clan that embraced him for the totality of his heritage.  But that didn’t provide the internal peace he’d hoped for.  To my mind, his final rebellion is against the idea of genetics as destiny — simply because he carries his father’s chromosomes, and, yes, his history of living with, being talked to, and being loved by the man, does not mean he cannot embrace, for instance, his seat at the “Urban” section of a comic convention.

The message I took away from Loving Day resonates with what I found so disquieting about Elinor Burkett’s New York Times opinion piece on transgender identity:

burkettI have fought for many of my 68 years against efforts to put women — our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods — into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes.  Suddenly, I find that many of the people I think of as being on my side — people who proudly call themselves progressive and fervently support the human need for self-determination — are buying into the notion that minor differences in male and female brains lead to major forks in the road and that some sort of gendered destiny is encoded in us.

That’s the kind of nonsense that was used to repress women for centuries.  But the desire to support people like Ms. Jenner and their journey toward their truest selves has strangely and unwittingly brought it back.

People who haven’t lived their whole lives as women, whether Ms. Jenner or [former Harvard president] Mr. Summers, shouldn’t get to define us.  That’s something men have been doing for much too long.  And as much as I recognize and endorse the right of men to throw off the mantle of maleness, they cannot stake their claim to dignity as transgender people by trampling on mine as a women.

. . .

“You can’t pick up a brain and say ‘that’s a girl’s brain’ or ‘that’s a boy’s brain,’ ” Gina Rippon, a neuroscientist at Britain’s Aston University, told The Telegraph last year.  The differences between male and female brains are caused by the “drip, drip, drip” of the gendered environment, she said.

The drip, drip, drip of Ms. Jenner’s experience included a hefty dose of male privilege few women could possibly imagine.  While young “Bruiser,” as Bruce Jenner was called as a child, was being cheered on toward a university athletic scholarship, few female athletes could dare hope for such largess since universities offered little funding for women’s sports.  When Mr. Jenner looked for a job to support himself during his training for the 1976 Olympics, he didn’t have to turn to the meager “Help Wanted — Female” ads in the newspapers, and he could get by on the $9,000 he earned annually, unlike young women whose median pay was little more than half that of men.  Tall and strong, he never had to figure out how to walk streets safely at night.

Those are realities that shape women’s brains.

I understand why Burkett is upset.  As a passionate feminist, her editorial made me feel extremely conflicted.  But: there are differences between men & women’s brains.  There is significant statistical variation, sure, but the differences are real.  You could look at results like those from brain imaging of men & women as they smell things.  This particular study caught my attention when it was published because the researchers announced similarities between heterosexual women and homosexual men for this pathway.  But there are a variety of other results in this vein, many of which are referenced in this review.

(It’s worth mentioning a caveat, though — these studies were conducted with people from single populations.  To identify inherent biological differences, they would ideally use people from a mix of cultural backgrounds, including both matriarchal and patriarchal societies.  There are cultures in which the males traditionally perform childcare and related duties, and you’d need to show similar, i.e. not inverted, gender-specific brain structure in people from those cultures to rebut Burkett’s / Rippon’s claim.)

To my mind, feminism shouldn’t be about claiming that men & women are the same.  That their identities don’t matter.  It’s that, no matter your identity, your opportunities should not be circumscribed.  No matter who you are, you should get to pursue your dreams.  Your identity should not dictate how you will be treated by the world.

150601180629-vanity-fair-caitlyn-jenner-large-169Here’s the final paragraph from Burkett’s editorial:

Bruce Jenner told [an interviewer] that what he looked forward to most in his transition was the chance to wear nail polish, not for a furtive, fugitive instant, but until it chips off.  I want that for Bruce, now Caitlyn, too.  But I also want her to remember: Nail polish does not a woman make.

That’s obviously true.  I am a ultra-masculine gargantuan man beast (though perhaps less so now.  I’m my daughter’s primary daytime parent, and childcare seems to lower testosterone level), and I’ve worn nail polish for years.

My hands, circa 2006.
My hands, circa 2006.

But there is a major difference between my wearing nail polish — a self-identified male decorating his body in what many consider to be a feminine way — or Burkett — a born and raised woman — wearing nail polish, and Jenner wearing nail polish.  The latter case is a someone who was raised as a man and felt dread that someone might recognize that her personality did not match the shell in which it was encased.  Nail polish obviously would not make her a woman, but only after being recognized as a woman could she act without fear.

Similarly, the protagonist of Loving Day was always forced to prove his identity before being given the chance to relax and be himself.  Here’s another cutting passage, this from the comic convention at which the protagonist was shooed off to sit at the “Urban” booth:

“Who are you?” the man already sitting in the chair next to mine asks.  He’s around my age, with more gut to show for it.  There’s an eagle on his sweatshirt, its wings spread around his midriff as if it’s trying to fly off before his belly explodes.  The guy’s tone isn’t rude, but it isn’t a casual entrée into small talk either.  He really wants to know.  He looks down at my seat as if some invisible, insubstantial Afro-entity had already laid claim to it, and really wants to know why I’m motioning to sit there?  Why am I at the black table?

“I’m a local writer.  Just back in town, you know, peddling my wares,” I tell him, and then babble on a bit more, eventually getting to my name and the last book I worked on.  The words don’t really matter.  What I’m really doing is letting my black voice come out, to compensate for my ambiguous appearance.  Let the bass take over my tongue.  Let the South of Mom’s ancestry inform the rhythm of my words in a way few white men could pull off.  It’s conscious but not unnatural–I sometimes revert to this native tongue even when I have nothing to prove.  Often when I’ve been drinking.  I refer to my last graphic novel with the pronoun jawn.  I finish what I’m saying with “Know what I’m saying?”  He nods at me a little, slightly appeased, because he does know what I’m saying.  What I’m saying is, I’m black too.  What I’m saying is that he can relax around me, because I’m on his side.  That he doesn’t have to worry I’m going to make some random racist statement that will stab him when he’s unguarded, or be offended when he makes some racist comment of his own.  People aren’t social, they’re tribal.  Race doesn’t exist, but tribes are fucking real.

On Viet Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, the grotesque in art, and guilt.

the-sympathizer-new-193x288If I were asked to pick a work of cinema that most resembles Viet Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, the recent Vietnam War novel that reads like a mash-up of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and George Orwell’s 1984, I would pick The Triplets of Belleville.  This despite the fact that The Sympathizer includes a segment about the making of an Apocalypse Now-esque film by a Coppola-esque director.  To me, the most striking feature of The Sympathizer was its depiction of life as fundamentally grotesque.

Not that I think life is gross.  But part of what makes The Triplets of Belleville so charming is the way all the characters’ physiognomies are exaggerated to convey their lives and loves.  Bicyclists’ leg muscles bulge to bursting beneath twiggy torsos.  A subservient waiter bows so abjectly that his head dips below his waist.  Americans totter forth bulbous, ponderous, perpetually facestuffing.  Bodyguards tower broadshouldered like playing cards.  Frogs fly splayed-limbed through the air, detonated by grenades.  Old television programs are as unsettlingly racist as you’d expect.  The whole film is horrifying and beautiful.

Still from Triplets. See what I mean?

And I couldn’t help thinking of that film while reading Nguyen‘s book, given the prevalence of dark human body metaphors, especially through the first third of the book.  Passages like:

We were smoking a final cigarette at the mouth of the dank, dripping alley that was the beer garden’s exit when a trio of hydrocephalic marines stumbled out of the vaginal darkness.


I woke up in the perineum of time between the very late hours of the evening and the very early hours of the morning, grotty sponge in my mouth, frightened by the severed head of a gigantic insect gaping its jaws at me until I realized it was only the wood-paneled television, its twin antennae drooping.  The national anthem blared as the Stars and Stripes waved and blended with sweeping shots of majestic purple mountains and soaring fighter jets.  When the curtain of static and snow finally fell on the screen, I dragged myself to the mossy, toothless mouth of the toilet, then to the lower rack of the bunk beds in the narrow bedroom.


Grease glazed the orange Formica tabletop, while chrysanthemum tea stood ready to be poured from a tin pot into chipped teacups the color and texture of the enamel on human teeth.

So much of the world Nguyen creates resembles our bodies, but always in unsettling ways.  To my reading, the reason seems to be that life, for soldiers even attempting to carry on with normal life in peacetime, truly is grotesque.  Horrors abound, and it must be awful knowing the misdeeds that transpired in your name, and the misdeeds that might be expected of you still.  Here is Nguyen on the pervasive evil of war:

The point of writing this is that the crapulent major was as sinful as Claude estimated.  Perhaps he had done worse than simply extort money, although if he did it did not make him above average in corruption.  It just made him average.

Indeed, this calls to mind the passage from Greene’s The Quiet American that suggests the most damning behavior in war is to act without accepting responsibility for the full human costs of each choice.  In this passage Pyle, an American ambassador, is surveying the wreckage from a bombing he helped plan, hoping that it would boost the political chances of the south Vietnamese conservatives.  The narrator, politically agnostic, isn’t shocked so much by the bombing itself as by Pyle’s attempt to squirm free of blame.

QuietAmericanPyle said, ‘It’s awful.’  He looked at the wet on his shoes and said in a sick voice, ‘What’s that?’

‘Blood,’ I said.  ‘Haven’t you seen it before?’

He said, ‘I must get them cleaned before I see the Minister.’  I don’t think he knew what he was saying.  He was seeing a real war for the first time: he had punted down into Phat Diem in a kind of schoolboy dream, and anyway in his eyes soldiers didn’t count.

I forced him, with my hand on his shoulder, to look around.  I said, ‘This is the hour when the place is always full of women and children — it’s the shopping hour.  Why choose that of all hours?’

He said weakly, ‘There was to have been a parade.’

‘And you hoped to catch a few colonels.  But the parade was canceled yesterday, Pyle.’

‘I didn’t know.’

‘Didn’t know!’  I pushed him into a patch of blood where a stretcher had lain.  ‘You ought to be better informed.’

‘I was out of town,’ he said, looking down at his shoes.  ‘They should have called it off.’

The first third of Nguyen’s novel, the section that felt like a response to The Quiet American, was great.  As befits the narrator’s status as a mole, a communist agent embedded in the South Vietnamese Army, forced to fight against his allies in order to maintain his disguise, much of the writing can be interpreted several ways.  Nguyen‘s aim seems well-described by this short dialogue between a leftist Vietnamese reporter and the narrator — this appears shortly after a small cadre of South Vietnamese military leaders take refuge in California:

So what do you think of our Congressman?

Are you going to quote me?

You’ll be an anonymous source.

He’s the best thing that could have happened to us, I said.  And that was no lie.  It was, instead, the best kind of truth, the one that meant at least two things.

viet-nguyen-small-319x400Despite the wavering ambiguity through much of this section, Nguyen occasionally drops the trickery to deliver cutting political analysis.  I’ll end this post with one more quotation from his book, a beautiful passage that helps explain the doublethink that allows Americans (as an undifferentiated aggregate perhaps best represented by our major televised news organizations) to believe in their exceptionalism and status as defenders of freedom and liberty despite imprisoning huge numbers of people without just cause, despite torture, despite having built an empire from the stolen land, labor, and resources of others with no plan for future recompense … I could go on.  But why?  You don’t need my rant.  You should read Nguyen‘s explanation instead:

They believe in a universe of divine justice where the human race is guilty of sin, but they also believe in a secular justice where human beings are presumed innocent.  You can’t have both.  You know how Americans deal with it?  They pretend they are eternally innocent no matter how many times they lose their innocence.  The problem is that those who insist on their innocence believe anything they do is just.  At least we who believe in our own guilt know what dark things we can do.