GoodReads Review on Chris Abani

Graceland Graceland by Abani, Chris

My review


rating: 3 of 5 stars
“Writers are dangerous,” so says A.S. Byatt, and when you read Chris Abani you see exactly how the truth can kill. Abani’s stories show us life balanced on the blade of a knife. His novel, Graceland, chronicles a dark page of Nigeria’s history as we follow a young boy learning to live and love in the turbulent eighties. Graceland opens with a nod to Langston Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred.” Elvis, our young Nigerian protagonist, desperately wants to be a dancer, and in the midst of war and political revolution, this dream dries up, festers like a sore, and decays with the death that surrounds him.

Graceland, like Jessica Hagedorn’s novels Dogeaters or Dream Jungle, crams fistfuls of characters into bustling Third World nightmares. Whether its Manila or Lagos, each soul, for better or for worse, is forced to angle their own path to survival. Graceland is an Inferno on earth, and Abani’s hero, Elvis, follows the footsteps of Florentine pilgrim, Dante. As Elvis matures from self indulgent and naive boy to awakened man, he’s initiated into the sinful ways of his world, and, like Dante, he sees firsthand how degrees of sin match degrees of survival. Though unlike our Tuscan journeyman, Elvis is granted two guides, Redemption and the King of Beggars. Each play tug-o-war with Elvis’ conscience. Redemption, who entangles Elvis into a life of crime, lifts the veil of innocence for us and our hero when he asks, “So are you telling me dat stealing bread from bakery to feed yourself and killing some boy is de same? Everything got degree.”

As in Inferno, the one pure source of light, our pilgrim’s enduring star, is Beatrice, Elvis’ mother. Though Elvis strays from his path and is lost in the dark wood of his country in strife, his mother through her written notes on Igbo culture and her record of recipes for sustenance and medicine, reading more like prophecies, keep Elvis sane and compassionate.

What’s disturbing and therefore powerful about Graceland is knowing that Abani’s novel is most likely true. Though the characters are make believe, anyone who reads the newspapers or watches the BBC news knows that Elvis’ journey happens everyday. Pick a country, any country, whether it be Thailand, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Brazil, or Mexico, Abani’s work serves as live wire transmissions of today’s “urban anonymity” from all the dark nooks of our global metropolises. In that respect, we also see the over-reach of American and Western culture and ideals. As Barthelme’s writing reveals, no part of our life is left unadulterated by the media, and, in Abani’s novel, we also find that no corner of the earth is left untainted by Western influences. The consequences of this is a protagonist who is hyper self-conscious. His dreams and hopes feed off movies and music, which are then appropriated and made new by his Nigerian culture. The media is constantly recycling and transforming itself, as the lives it influences actively transform and reinvent new identities as new modes of survival.

Graceland is a testament to the shock and awe practice of today’s geopolitics. Abani doesn’t flinch to bring these stories to light. His writing is dangerous only in that he holds a mirror up to us and asks us to take a hard look at ourselves.

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Latest GoodReads Review on Lee Siegel’s “Against the Machine”

Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob by Lee Siegel


My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
Lee Siegel raises excellent critical theories about our latest and greatest tool, though much of the text seems to veer into personal rant. Some of his finer points include:

Like the car, the Internet has been made out to be a miracle of social and personal transformation when it is really a marvel of convenience–and in this case of the Internet, a marvel of convenience that has caused a social and personal upheaval. As with the car, the highly arbitrary way in which the Internet has evolved has been portrayed as inevitable and inexorable.

Including scathing critiques against the rampant “self expression” that he insists tyrannize the web:

But self-expression is not the same thing as imagination. ‘Self expression’ is one of those big, baggy terms bulging with lots of cultural change and cultural history to the point where it gestures toward a kind of general meaning without expressing a particular one.

Siegel steps in as Cassandra warning us of the dangers of an insulated “Youniverse” where personal instant gratification is the rule of the day. His most enlightening observation, how digital technology is currently changing our language and perception of the world:

We have undergone a complete ‘transvaluation of values,’ the phrase that the German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche used to describe the process by which a new way of looking at the world slops into our familiar outlook. Nietzsche believed that Christianity, for example, had ‘transvalued’ earlier pagan and aristocratic values of heroism, power, and fame into meekness, humility, and eternal life. The early Christians did this while retaining pagan vocabulary, so that Jesus was still a “prince” and God as “mighty” as any Roman emperor; God’s realm was as much a ‘kingdom’ as that of Nero. But although the former vocabulary remained, the new values had an entirely different meaning.

In this digital revolution, at the dawn of the Informization Age, as Mike Davis noted in a recent interview with Bill Moyers, like Obama, we can’t see the Grand Canyon. Davis recalls the first Western explorers were unable to comprehend the magnitude of America’s vast earthly chasm, at the time of its Western discovery, we simply did not have the technology to measure it and certainly could not fathom the grandness of it.

http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/032020…
Today, we use capitalist terms and concepts to conceive this new digital horizon before us. We scramble to gain perspective as the landscape transforms underneath our feet.

My Composition students appreciated turning the technology on its head. Most of my freshman were weaned on digital waves, so they appreciated hearing his skepticism, though many complained that Siegel’s argument inclined towards repetition and, like most literary arguments, he leads us to a solution-less, and therefore, anti-climactic conclusion. Which makes me wonder why we, as writers, can’t do more than pose great critical ideas. Must we always linger in the haze of abstraction? If we’re going to pose a problem, shouldn’t we bother to conceive a viable solution? Nevertheless, the text generated excellent and engaged discussions–what more can a teacher ask for?

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“George Harrison went to India and brought back a sitar”

Just the shot in the arm needed for inspiration, Terence McNally on his KPFK show, Free Forum, has introduced the source of holistic, systems thinking and the mastermind behind the philosophy of Ecological Awareness, Fritjof Capra. His work seems to have inspired much admired writers, activists, and social workers such as Leny Mendoza Strobel and her new Center for Babaylan Studies.

Will have to crack open this new universe and explore fully, but for now, here’s a small audio tasting. Capra interviewed by Terrence McNally, April 7, 2009

http://64.27.15.184/parchive/mp3/kpfk_090407_120100freeforum.mp3

and…

Abstract from “A Crisis of Perception” |  Integral Studies | Thomas Maxwell | University of Vermont:

Ecological Awareness

This widening of our “circle of understanding and compassion” requires a new mode of perception which transcends the illusion of separateness to discern the unity, the “unbroken wholeness” from which emerges the diverse forms of existence. This awakened perception gives rise to a more integrative, holistic, and ecological perception of the cosmos. Capra (1996) asserts that this emerging holistic worldview, which he calls “deep ecological awareness”, “recognizes the fundamental interdependence of all phenomena and the fact that, as individuals and societies, we are all embedded in (and ultimately dependent on) the cyclical processes of nature” (p 6). Although this vision can be elaborated through science, its principal grounding is in spiritual experience. It will require an integrated epistemology that embraces both the rational knowledge of scientific empiricism and the inner knowledge of spiritual experience. “Ultimately, deep ecological awareness is spiritual or religious awareness. When the concept of the human spirit is understood as the mode of consciousness in which the individual feels a sense of belonging, of connectedness, to the cosmos as a whole, it becomes clear that ecological awareness is spiritual in its deepest essence. It is not surprising that the emerging new vision of reality based on deep ecological awareness is consistent with the so-called Perennial Philosophy of spiritual traditions, whether we talk about the spirituality of Christian mystics, that of Buddhists, or the philosophy and cosmology underlying the Native American traditions” (p. 7). This “deep ecological awareness” fosters a vision of the cosmos as fundamentally sacred.

Capra’s universe is fortuitously right next door, to boot!

The Center for Ecoliteracy is dedicated to education for sustainable living.

We provide information, inspiration, and support to the vital movement of K-12 educators, parents, and other members of the school community who are helping young people gain the knowledge, skills, and values essential to sustainable living.

We base our work on these four guiding principles:

  • Nature is our teacher
  • Sustainability is a community practice
  • The real world is the optimal learning environment
  • Sustainable living is rooted in a deep knowledge of place

Review of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism

From The GoodReads Review:

Pico Iyer opened his New York Times review of Yiyun Li’s latest novel, The Vagrants saying:

All the world’s stories are America’s stories now, and this constant glory of our literature; as never before in our lifetimes, so many histories flooding into America, and so many Americans going out to claim the world as an extension of their homes, that our imaginations are being stretched (one hopes) along with the words we use, the wisdoms we inhabit, the sounds and philosophies we can begin to reinvent. What Barack Obama represents on the global stage, those of his generation and younger (from Kenya, from the Dominican Republic, from Korea) are bringing to life on the planetary page.

From our Latino landscapers, to our South or South East Asian nurse technicians, to our U.S. Banks inextricably intertwined with international banks, as Gertrude Stein said, “there is no there there” because “there” is here, and the other is us. The world is hot, flat, and crowded, so says Tom Friedmann. How do we stay cool, calm, and compassionate? Kwame Anthony Appiah proposes a philosophy and world view in his book, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, which outlines how we can stretch our imaginations, why we should inhabit the sounds and philosophies different from our own, and how we can reinvent ourselves and our worldview while we struggle to co-exist on this shrinking, ozone-depleted, big, blue ball. Like our 44th president and like most people of younger generations, including myself, Appiah is of mixed race. His mother, English, his father from Ghana, Appiah was raised in his father’s homeland and currently teaches at Princeton University. In Cosmpolitanism he speaks compassionately and honestly about pluralism; his philosophy obviously and insightfully infused with his own multiracial, multi-cultural, and multi-national heritage.

Filled with critical examinations about how we are all inter-connected, whether we like it or not, debates on cultural property, evaluations of facts versus faith, and questions against our own prized rationalism, Appiah succinctly defines his philosophy of Cosmopolitanism at the beginning of the text as: “the one thought that cosmopolitans share is that no local loyalty can ever justify forgetting that each human being has responsibilites to every other.” Though he warns at the beginning, “There’s a sense in which cosmopolitanism is the name not of the solution but of the challenge.” His philosophical treatise is crammed with enlightened and engaging anecdotes about his father’s tribe, the Akan, and stories he’s heard from colleagues or lifted from the news. Appiah, overall, makes a strong case in explaining his philosophical ideals, yet at the conclusion he problematizes his thesis when he tries to argue why we should be responsible for another life clear across the big blue ball.

In the concluding chapter he bookends his thesis with a reference to a Balzac story, Pere Goirot, and this fiction is his last scrap of evidence to reason a pressing yet stubbornly abstract argument. Why use fiction as support, especially when trying to convince us to make living, breathing connections across a very real and often volatilely physical world? As a fiction writer, I’m honored that a philosopher would turn to story-telling and invoke, therefore virtually vindicate a genre often excused as anachronistic entertainment. Appiah pays tribute to the magic that stories conjure. He praises how fiction allows us to imagine alternatives in what could otherwise be a cold and unforgiving world. Still, this nod to stories and their import is at the cost of his entire thesis, and, as a Composition instructor, as well, in the end, his case doesn’t hold water if he’s going to refer to the make-believe.

Students in my Argument & Research were assigned to read and write about Appiah’s book, and they grappled with complex ideas, seeming to be genuinely interested in the principles Appiah critiqued and proposed. Inspired by Appiah’s sincere and compassionate treatise, I was able to develop some very creative and urgently relevant formal writing assignments. As a class, we were all humbled by the complexity and diversity of humanity, and, as Appiah so gently nudged us to do, we actively felt more connected to the world at large. Mission accomplished!