A Necessary Dose of Magic in Our Lives?

I am rereading 100 Years of Solitude by the phenomenal Gabriel García Márquez, and what strikes me from a craft point of view is the delicious “intrusions,” for lack of a better word, of an element of fantasy or magic. Dubbed “magical realism” by the literary establishment decades ago, Marquez’s style (along with that of other well-known Latin American writers) seems like realistic prose at first, but then there are superhuman or unnatural elements introduced. I don’t need to elaborate here, for readers are certainly familiar with García Márquez’s works (Love in the Time of Cholera is another marvelous novel.) But this has led me to think about literature and art that takes us out of the ordinary realm–something that feels necessary when so much modern fiction is based in reality and personal experience. Have we lost our ability to think, to imagine, to go beyond the ordinary?

Outside of genre fiction and fantasy fiction, which are indeed thriving, we do have some noteworthy authors who do not write strictly realistic fiction: Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood immediately come to mind. I feel we need to encourage writers to do more of this, to create worlds, go beyond the pedagogical cliché of “write what you know.” Perhaps that tenant has done more disservice to fiction writing, and would be best rephrased as, “write what you understand.” There is a significant difference: knowing implies a familiarity with a situation, a body of knowledge, a certain mastery of the topic. Understand implies an innate knowing, what one grasps, and one may have acquired that knowledge in different ways or simply through intuition.

In music, think about the phenomena of glam rock as well as 80s new wave bands, who were the former’s successors. In both genres, there is an exaggeration of appearance, of form, of fashion. Though he was later the Thin White Duke, David Bowie’s 1970s Ziggy Stardust was a unique creation, an alien alter ego who was not clad in Doc Martens and jeans. Even Led Zeppelin, who were certainly much more real and not glam rockers, brought an element of the mystical and poetic to their performance–after all, they sang about Viking raids as though they were a common occurrence. We see this continue today, with artists like Janelle Monáe or Lady Gaga (whom I feel is derivative and unoriginal and does best when interpreting others’ works, such as in her excellent performance in “A Star Is Born.”) A lot of ambient music and electronica has an ethereal or unearthly quality to it. Some of it is easier and more enjoyable to listen to than others. We cannot conclude without mentioning Icelandic visionary Björk, who is a mistress of reinvention and truly beyond the ordinary. Each incarnation she becomes is more revolutionary than the last, and we never know what will come next. Her music is almost impossible to categorize, and that is wonderful.

Painter Salvador Dali challenged us with his revolutionary surreal artwork. Why should there be an eyeball in a random place? Who cares; it is what it is, perhaps what our subconscious understands. Francis Bacon’s grotesqueries are certainly unique and far from ordinary: distorted faces and gaping mouths. David Hockney might be painting ordinary scenes of men and swimming pools or fields with flowers, but his use of color takes us out of reality into a vivid, multi-hued world. In the world of fashion, we have the bizarre brilliance of the late Alexander McQueen, who clothes were really more like costumes rather than typical runway or off the rack wear. Issey Miyake also creates works of art with fabric that just happen to be things one can wear on one’s body.

To be able to imagine and create in fantastical ways brings us back in touch with a part of ourselves that we had so strongly in childhood. Why be prosaic all the time, realistic, ordinary? These artists and more have challenged us to see and feel in a different way and have all created an aesthetic of their own. The best artists always do this, and that’s why we love them so dearly.

The Minority Report

This post is a rare personal reflection, though I am not entirely drawing on my experience but on the experiences of others as well.

There is much necessary discussion about minority groups and rights, policies affecting those who are not part of the majority. But it is also important to simply discuss what the experience of being a minority is like, not in terms of a group, but in terms of being a minority individual and on a daily basis. “Minority” can take on a variety of different meanings, as one can be an ethnic, religious, etc. minority. Sometimes minorities may not even “look like a minority,” so we must understand what the experience means. 

I am not a fan of the phenomenon of “cultural politics” or the current paradigm in which we discuss race and culture, although I am a big supporter and practitioner of diversity and cross-cultural education. I am not always a fan, either, of pitting white against nonwhites, as this often leads to very simplistic understandings of race and culture, not to mention social policies. Here are some characteristics that people may not be aware of in what it means to be a minority.

-Looking different. For those of us who are not white, the simple truth is we will stand out and not appear like the mainstream. The darker the skin color, inevitably, the more likely we are to suffer discrimination. This can happen even within ethnic groups (such as Blacks, Filipinos, and Indians), a phenomenon known as “colorism,” where lighter-skinned people are admired more than darker-skinned people. But being nonwhite in a predominantly white society is a hard thing. I am extremely critical of a monolithic, blanket definition of “white privilege,” because I do not believe all white people are the same, but this is the one aspect in which I would say it is true–if you are white-skinned, you are at a visual advantage in America. Even when one does not face discrimination, sometimes it is frustrating to be the only “yellow/brown/nonwhite” person in the room, the one that people can remember that they saw even when you don’t remember them.

It is also important to mention that transgendered or queer-identifying people may also face this issue to a great degree. For people who are not born in the right body or to the right gender, how one feels and presents to the world maybe two different things that results in great dissonance within oneself.

-Different language. This is especially predominant in immigrant communities. Some of us come from cultures where our parents grew up speaking English or from Anglophone countries, or our parents were highly educated or did advanced degrees in the United States, and this puts us at an advantage. However, there are many minority individuals who do not speak English well and have trouble integrating into American society. Sometimes schooling does not provide adequate resources for these children, and they struggle throughout their lifetimes to “catch up” and to functionally communicate with the Anglophone mainstream. Or there is another experience that is also difficult: the children of immigrants learn how to speak English fluently as a native, but their parents do not speak it. Many people will say that their parents speak to them in their native language, but they respond back in English. Yet another scenario is when these American-born children do not even speak the native language, and therefore have great difficulty communicating- and interacting with their parents and relatives. 

            We also see the challenges of being a linguistic minority in indigenous communities where people still speak their native languages, and also with many African-Americans who use AAVE (African-American Vernacular English). Many African-Americans discuss how they are discriminated against and misunderstood in writing workshops, job interviews, and public transactions because of their speaking patterns and even because of “sounding black” (likely a reference to a particular timbre of voice.)

            In sum, when one speaks a different language, even when one is fluent in and/or a native speaker of the dominant mainstream language, one automatically feels different. Language is perhaps one of the greatest means of connecting or disconnecting people from society.

-Different religion. This is something that is personally very significant to me. For anyone who is not Christian or Judeo-Christian, there is a very different outlook on life and way of thinking. I do not include atheists or agnostics in this group, for they were inevitably raised in- or come from a specific background. Christian concepts of sin, guilt, etc. that influence mainstream life, even in non-religious settings, are sometimes puzzling to those of us of different religious backgrounds. We are expected to concur with many ideological and philosophical paradigms, or we are assumed to be of them, and this can make it difficult to speak our minds, lest we be misunderstood. We observe different holidays, even if we enjoy celebrating secular aspects of Christian ones. Even with being People of the Book, many Jews experience being a religious minority (and the statistics certainly prove it). They have faced centuries of discrimination, persecution, and genocide. Muslims, also People of the Book, have customs and traditions that are distinctly non-Western (even though there are Muslims in Balkan Europe), such as the very visible and often controversial issue of face-covering. Growing up as a non-Christian, Hindu minority, one could feel the threat and disrespect for our religion more strongly when missionaries came to our doors. What was wrong with our faith? Although it is easy to laugh about it as an adult, these things are very difficult for a child to navigate.

            It is of note that even within a minority group in the United States there are religious minorities. Albanian Catholics, for example, are a minority group, as are Indian Christians or Sikhs. And we cannot neglect the very traditional religious communities such as the Amish or Shakers who live outside of modern life in general.

-Dietary habits. This is self-explanatory, but one’s foods, meal habits, and even ways of shopping very greatly. Many people come from traditions where they do not buy food in a supermarket, but rather from individual vendors, much like a farmers’ market. Immigrants, depending on where they live, may find it very difficult to obtain foods and ingredients from their homelands. Many cultures do not eat the standard breakfast lunch and dinner at American times, perhaps having a light or negligible breakfast or conversely a hearty meal first thing in the morning. Many cultures take a late dinner. Notably absent in most traditional immigrant cultures in the United States is a lack of processed food, or at least a disdain for it. Many immigrant communities have a strong preference for fresh vegetables and fruits and use ones that are not typically found in mainstream American culture. One of the things that adds to the richness of American culture is ethnic supermarkets, where one can find a myriad foods, ingredients, and delicacies to try. 

-Cultural spaces that belong to your own group. This might be a community center for activities your culture engages in (such as folk dancing); a non-Christian religious space such as a synagogue, mosque, or temple; a beauty parlor that caters to your type of hair; or even sub- groups in larger organizations (such as the myriad student groups on a large college campus, in a conference, or even an alumni association–i.e., women engineers).

-For immigrants, not having deep roots in the United States. Therefore, some people may not feel entirely part of the culture. Some immigrants assimilate well, and are thrilled to be American–most Cubans, for example, given the dictatorship they escaped from. Others long for their homelands, never quite feel a part of American society, follow the news back home thoroughly, missing the beauty of a red-tiled roof city on the Mediterranean, the centuries-old history that can be seen daily, the heroes who have shaped their homeland. Therefore, it is worth mentioning that there a lot of media specific to immigrant communities. We often see the big name media institutions, such as Telemundo, but there is much that flies under the radar, so to speak, and only those in the know or in particular regions would be aware of it. There are both print and online newspapers both in English and in native tongues. There is a Bollywood radio station in the Bay Area. There are many ethnic programs on local/community access TV channels. And the Internet provides a treasure trove of non-English media. 

-Different values. Russians often sneer at American smiliness, seeing it as insincere and lacking in “Russian soul.” Asians may find that American child-rearing practices too lax, uninvolved, more into image than education–hence the “tiger mother” stereotype. More conservative immigrant groups believe American women’s clothing (and values) to be too vulgar and sexual. 

            Western Europeans who come from highly socialized societies where individuals are taken care of cradle-to-grave shake their head in disbelief at our dysfunctional healthcare system and the American obsession with guns. For many Americans, living with cognitive dissonance is a part of daily life.

-One thing that is common to ALL immigrants (and that forms a significant thread of American literature) is the story of their journey. Popular programs such as the wonderful “Finding Your Roots” on PBS trace the histories of celebrities who usually have deeper roots in the United States. But there are many people who have no idea about the journeys their ancestors took. Conversely, for many of us who are first-generation US citizens, our families’ stories are very fresh: our parents came over in the 60s/70s/80s and on. It is sometimes almost comic to compare our immigration stories with the lengthy ones of Americans who have been here for decades or centuries (I can tell you the months and years of my parents’ arrivals at JFK!) 

These are just some of the ways in which those in the American mainstream can understand what it is like to be a minority/immigrant. It is true that I have not commented extensively on African-Americans or Native Americans, whose minority experiences are radically different than those of immigrants. In those two populations, I would vouch to say that it is perhaps an even more difficult experience, as they were respectively brought over against their will and had their land taken over when they had lived here for millennia. To be “minoritized” against your own choosing is indeed a tragedy, and much is being discussed and done now to make reparations for these dark deeds of history. 

             It is also important to mention that even within minority communities, there are minorities within minorities.  If you speak a Dravidian language, you are outnumbered by Indo-European language speakers in the Indian-American community.  If you are an Albanian Catholic, you are considered a minority in the Albanian community in America.  Even politically, we can see Latinos and Muslims who supported Trump.

I still believe, however, that there are many people within the white mainstream who are incredibly liberal and genuinely caring, and that America is one of the most open-minded, diverse, and amazing cultures in the world, even when it takes a lot of work to understand each other.

Duran Duran: More Than Just Pretty Faces!

For girls of a certain age, Duran Duran was when we learned we had hormones. There was endless discussion over the phone or in carefully folded notes passed surreptitiously in class or at slumber parties about which one was the most gorgeous: most popular were Simon Lebon and John Taylor, with some in favor of Nick Rhodes, and the occasional Roger Taylor fan, but poor Andy Taylor was usually left out of the discussion. And who didn’t love them? Handsome men in videos shot in exotic locales with singable melodies and catchy refrains. But recently, while unpacking after a move, I began to watch not only old and new videos of their songs, but also listen to and watch interviews with three of the four original members (Andy Taylor departed long ago, and Roger is usually stumm.) And I was quite surprised to discover their true artistry, and how profoundly intelligent and talented the band members are. Perhaps this has been Duran Duran’s curse–their good looks and supermodel-filled videos have detracted from their musicianship and their powers as artists.

If you listen to interviews with Simon, he discusses listening to classical music in his childhood, being a choir boy, and how he had the lyrics to Patti Smith’s “Gloria” on his wall–these are not unsophisticated, vapid tastes of a pop singer. He was also trained in drama while university student in Birmingham, and one can see his complete commitment to performance in any video or concert footage. The ways in which he moves, emphasizes words, and sings his heart out are really quite remarkable. If you close your eyes and don’t think about how it looks, you really hear an expressive, powerful voice. Articulate, sociable, and charismatic, Simon Le Bon is the consummate lead singer. But his poetic side comes through in his lyrics, which are often mysterious and opaque. 

Nick is a living tribute to that most English of traditions: the dandy. Heavily inspired by glam rock and David Bowie, he was friends with Andy Warhol and is to this day quite the artist and art aficionado. Watch his personal tour of the V&A Museum–there is a level of sophistication in his knowledge of art that is quite astounding. While he no longer looks like his 80s androgynous colorful-haired persona, having morphed instead into a well-heeled handsome English gentleman who looks like a London gallery owner, there is something still so striking and intriguing about him. And let’s not forget that he is quite the genius musician. Think about all the sonic universes he creates in each of during Duran’s songs, which are very synth-heavy. Nicknamed “The Controller,” Rhodes has an incredible ear–listen to the complexities of any Duran Duran song and how the variety of parts and harmonies fit together.

John Taylor, underneath his hair and aging rock star good looks, is fundamentally an incredible bassist. If you listen to Duran Duran’s music, it is bass-heavy, and in my opinion, this is a sign of musical sophistication. Taylor is not simply playing 1-4-5-1 but playing interesting patterns with funky rhythms. Watch his videos on bass lines of the band’s songs: not only does he play beautifully, but he also communicates what he is doing very clearly. Not to mention, he spoke at a UCLA Engineering symposium on the 40th Anniversary of the Internet.

Roger Taylor is sadly getting the short shrift here, but this is not to say that he isn’t a formidable drummer (and one must notice that he has aged quite well, perhaps the best of any members.) Andy was also an equal contributor, though he is left the band, and he provided backing vocals in addition to guitar. Nile Rodgers has been not only a welcome addition as a sometimes-guitarist, but also a longtime supporter and producer of the band. Which brings me to another point: Duran Duran has always been influenced by black music. Not just with the presence of Rodgers, but with Black backup singers and bass-driven, music to dance to. They got their start in a Birmingham club, and so their first experiences as a band were to play live to audiences who could dance if they wanted to.

Duran Duran’s musical talents are sometimes outshined by their embracing of the visual. Fashion, videos, performance, theatrical concerts were all a huge part of their work. Think back to that oh-so-80s, cheerful graphic cover of Rio: an image that defines a generation. But we must understand that their love of the image was part of their style, and style is a part of artistry. (Check out the video for “Pressure Off” from a few years ago–it is nothing short of stunning and chic!) It is sad that many critics disparaged them and saw them as superficial pop stars who only held appeal to teenage girls. 40 years later, Duran Duran has proved them wrong. It is worth revisiting their body of work as an adult, and understanding what intelligent, lasting, and phenomenal artists they are. And of course, good-looking ones. 

Karma

As a Hindu and as a younger person, I did not quite believe in (or understand) karma. Perhaps this was because of the simplistic way in which people discussed it–similar to the way many religious concepts are discussed in one-dimensional, black-and-white ways–and because of my belief in the goodness of human nature. Karma did not make sense to me. Interestingly, though, all religions seem to have a sense of consciousness that is structural, be it karma, sin, Judgment Day, the afterlife, etcetera: all psychological mechanisms that encourage individuals to think beyond one’s daily actions and individual desires. With Hindu karma, naturally, there is the idea of reincarnation and rebirth into higher forms or castes until one attains moksha, or divine liberation. As someone who has really struggled with the idea of caste and who follows a branch of Hinduism that is against this and welcoming to all castes, I felt deeply upset and frightened by this aspect of my religion.

However, through my mid-adult years and the recent past, I began to think more deeply about this, and start to see how life had a way of evening out circumstances and situations for people. I came to realize that karma was not something silly and tit-for-tat, such as you will have bad karma if you skip mass and watch the Super Bowl, are working on a paper on the Sabbath, or are a Hindu who eats beef once in a while (as some of my friends do, though I’m a vegetarian.) Karma was something more about life balancing things out, and a couple years ago I came upon a quote by leading North American teacher and nun Pema Chödrön (formerly of the Shambala tradition) that made everything so clear, was a major insight:

            People get into a heavy-duty sin and guilt trip, feeling that if things are going wrong, that means that they did something bad and they are being punished. That’s not the idea at all. The idea of karma is that you continually get the teachings that you need to open your heart. To the degree that you didn’t understand in the past how to stop protecting your soft spot, how to stop armoring your heart, you’re given this gift of teachings in the form of your life, to give you everything you need to open further.

And suddenly, it all made sense, it was so beautifully put. I began to reflect on my own life and that of people I knew, to see how the trajectories of their lives played out in a spiritual sense, what lessons they had been given. This was something that one could only see in middle age, after people have gone through life’s ups and downs. Just as in all religions there are simplistic ways of interpreting complex concepts, karma was no exception. 

The girl for whom everything came easily in school and in life ended up in a profession where she has had to seek out all her opportunities. The young woman who faced a lot of financial struggle with her boyfriend (who became husband) in their early years together ended up getting a nice home in an expensive area of America when her mother inherited money back in her home country. The man who grew up moving very often due to his father’s career became a very open-minded global citizen with a career around the world and developed tremendous resilience, something unusual for people in his country, who tend to stay close to home. The couple who did not nurture friendships and social connections when younger have ended up isolated in old age, and have been forced to learn how to connect during the pandemic. The young woman who suffered many unexpected setbacks and traumas in her 20s, 30s, and early 40s is enjoying calm and prosperity in her late 40s. The man who died at age 42 had fortunately lived a very full life, having grown up in a stable family, studied at Ivy League schools, traveled around the world, and had a successful career. The woman who has jumped from job to job to find the “next best thing,” relationship to relationship, place to place, and wants everything easy has found herself alone and unfulfilled. The struggling single mom who moved alone cross country for an academic job ended up becoming a professor at a top university who is nationally renowned in her field and getting acclaim even in her advanced years. 

Without knowing the stories behind these individuals, this could all potentially read as simplistic. However, in knowing these people, and their life stories, one can see a sense of balancing out, be it challenging lessons they have had to learn, or unexpectedly wonderful turns in their lives. Karma, as per Pema Chödrön’s definition, has been a great teacher for all of these people; perhaps they could not have seen or predicted what would happen. Many of them may not be aware of the karmic lessons they have undergone, or still need to undergo. It is still an evolving process for the above people and for everyone. Some may have a heavier spiritual load than others, and this is not an easy thing to bear. If we see karma as a teacher and a practice of opening and of love, this makes dealing with life easier. We are indeed spiritual beings, and life is our greatest teacher if we let it be so. 

Ballet: A Brief Reflection

In the past few days, I have found myself watching documentaries on famous dancers: Twyla Tharp, Rudolph Nuriyev, George Balanchine, and reading about them as well. In these documentaries, other great dancers have been featured, such as the stunning Suzanne Farrell and the fantastically athletic trailblazer Misty Copeland. What is it that makes ballet have such appeal, centuries later after its roots in Italy, then France and Russia?

With ballet, we have beautiful lines in two ways. We have those classical lines with the body, and then the lines in which dancers are stood and arranged. Everything is elongated: fingertips are extended, the wrist line is never broken, and for those dancers talented enough to go on pointe, their legs are lengthened in a beautiful but very painful and unnatural way. Compared to modern dance, there is always a fluidity of movement in the limbs, as though one is moving through water, supported by some unknown force.

And then there is the legwork. The best dancers jump and seem to be floating through air, even extending their jumps with an extra beat that seems unhumanly possible. The power that it takes to launch a movement and the set up are quite amazing: watch how Nuriyev pauses for a moment before launching into a cycle of pirouettes. The legs can move the dancer slowly, or quickly, or alternate several times in the air depending on the demands of the choreography. All of this is based on years, decades, of devoted practice with pliés, ronds de jambes, and turnouts (I remember as a child watching an interview with Gelsey Kirkland and how she was able to turn her feet out at a more than 90° angle!)

Great choreography unites movement and music, and Balanchine was a master of this. For those of us who are very auditory and kinesthetic, there is something deeply fulfilling when we are spectators of ballet, for it feels like a very natural reflex to move in a certain way with a certain sound. The floating, sensual music by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and other classical composers is often what we expect, but even ballets set to modern music, such as by John Adams or Copeland–or even rock–are no less enjoyable.

The arrangement of dancers on a stage also creates very moving effects for the viewers. Whether it’s a solo, a pas de deux, or the whole corps de ballet, it is sheer fun to watch many people move in a particular way with repeated motions and shapes. This cascade of dancers and how they use their space is a delight that requires many resources, not the least of which is a sizable stage and sets that create an atmosphere in which these ballerinas dance.

And of course, one cannot neglect mentioning the costumes. The fabric is for movement–something that is unique to dance clothing. It is not enough for a costume to look nice when the individual is still; it has to create a certain effect when one dances and is in motion, when one leaps, turns, jumps, etc. (I admire fashion designers who create clothes that do this even for non-dancers, when one can put on a skirt or dress and see how the fabric is not still but takes on a life of its own.) Naturally, dance clothing has more stage appeal than ordinary wear, with glitter, satin, sparkles, and anything that catches the viewer’s eye from hundreds of feet away. The torso is usually slim-fitted, the arms bare or covered snugly, with the lower half of the body draped or fitted with a skirt that gives an illusion of floating or the tutu that is puffed out. With men, the costumes are usually completely fitted, even when there are pants.

Notice the different adjectives I have used throughout this post: beautiful, classical, elongated, sensual, etc. This is the illusion of ballet, which in reality is a very physically torturous, unnatural artform that makes many demands on the dancers’ bodies and psyches. There is often a very heavy price to pay. Misty Copeland has raised huge questions about race in the ballet world, and other non-white dancers have led the debate about what “flesh tone” means in terms of leotards and shoes. One cannot neglect these issues. However, there is something still so magnificently appealing about this ages-old art form which continues to captivate us. And if you’ve never been to the ballet, start with some videos of the legendary Mikhail Baryshnikov or (when things are safer with the pandemic) a trip to your local ballet company to watch the annual Nutcracker production. The combination of Tchaikovsky and the parade of dances by different characters cannot fail to entertain you!

Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Need for Public Intellectuals in American Society

It is a well-established fact that American academia is a much-renowned and much sought-after institution, that millions of people around the world respect the colleges and universities in the United States. This is not to disregard all the prestigious institutions of higher learning elsewhere in the world, who have much longer histories and traditions and sometimes more scholarly resources than we do here in the United States. To name a few: Oxford, Cambridge, Salamanca, Bologna, etc., not to mention ancient universities or centers of higher learning such as Nalanda in India. Numerous cultures and countries have customs of fostering scholars that are linked to their religions, or artistic and scholarly traditions that are embedded in the culture–think of poetry and song in Ireland, or the intricately woven cloths of Western Africa that bear great social significance. America has, fortunately, been able to draw upon the best scholars and scholarship from around the world, either by sending her own citizens overseas, or by providing a refuge/safe haven/chance for international scholars to pursue their work here. Consider a classics scholar from Korea who studies Greco-Roman religions but who has so little resources at her disposal in her home country. Or figures like Russian poet Joseph Brodsky or writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who were exiles living in the U.S.

This is all fine and well, and remarkable. But it does leave us with one problem–how do we get a transmission of brilliant minds OUTSIDE of academia? Naturally, this is not just pertinent to America, for the same dilemma between town and gown exists everywhere. Here, however, it is extremely pronounced, given our short history as a country and our excessive dependence on media and pop culture. Who are the people who can bridge the yawning gap? Where are they?

The institution of the personage of the Public Intellectual was something I only encountered in my new 20s while in graduate school. I read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about this that sparked my curiosity deeply. I began to wonder why I felt frustrated with the highly research- and citation-oriented writing I had to do, and yet I knew I wanted to write at a high level. The opinion papers I did during my master’s program in Higher Education Administration at Columbia were the beginning of my practice of writing on social issues, something which eventually led to the creation of this blog. I discovered writers like Camille Paglia who were academics, but able to appeal to the public and discuss things in an appealing, intelligent way. Before I knew about all of his horrible transgressions, I was a huge fan of Charlie Rose, and how he brought the best minds in all fields, be it politics or rock music, to his program. Living in New York showed me that a conversation between Noam Chomsky and Edward Said could elicit crowds usually seen at giant venues for pop singers, and that intelligent dialogue in public was highly valued.

This is hard to find through much of the US, though it does exist, in some cities more than others, and in other pockets. Usually this can be found in college towns, unsurprisingly, and many public libraries have excellent programming. There are cultural centers of all sorts, for all ethnicities. But sadly, we still have a dichotomy between popular media that tends to be more entertainment-oriented in a very lowest common denominator manner, or academia, which tends to be very arcane and esoteric (a lecture on ancient burial sites in South India, anyone?) One can only ask why we have an aversion to intelligent discussion in public.

Part of it is our highly-partisan culture, where anything intelligent automatically is associated with anyone or anything liberal. Though I am very much a liberal, I do feel that the right wing has devolved and needs to show itself in its best light with intelligent proponents, and therefore we can hold discussions between the right and the left. By ethos, we are a middle-class culture; there is nothing wrong with that, and a majority of the Americans fall within the socioeconomic bracket. However, sadly, this translates to a lack of intellectualism or appreciation for culture. Anything middlebrow is the norm. Also, Hollywood and the entertainment media focus on what has mass appeal, and an intelligent film is not going to bring in the dollars in the same way a franchise superhero movie would. We are also monolingual, so we cannot appreciate film and literature from other countries, or even from the non-English linguistic groups within our own. And one cannot help ignore the huge impact social media has had on our society: I would argue this has largely dumbed down our culture, when it could potentially have had a positive effect on making the arts more prominent. It’s easier to click on a website then it is to pick up a book and spend time with it.

There are still many more factors than what I have listed here, and this is not to knock pop-culture or enjoying a dumb sitcom or a rom-com when we need it. Rather, it is to ask why intellectualism has to be limited to the sphere of academia and New York City, and why this is not more appreciated in American society.

Thoughts on Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend/Neapolitan Novels

(WARNING: SPOILER ALERT!)

I am currently reading the second novel in Italian author Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Tetralogy, called The Story of a New Name. Last summer I finally read My Brilliant Friend, and after reading it I immediately purchased the subsequent three volumes. Being a writer and an Italophile, it’s natural that I would be interested in these books and the epic journey it takes us on. I have always longed to see Naples ever since I was a little girl, so the setting is part of the appeal. The Bildungsroman journey of the narrator who is not from a well-to-do family but intelligent and self-made also resonated with me. It is always refreshing to read things about friendship, for sometimes in our formulaically-oversexed arts culture, this theme is neglected. In an earlier post I had discussed my qualms with the Bechdel test and why it had to be either-or with women only talking about men or subjects other than men. My Brilliant Friend (this name is often used to refer to the entire series) is fascinating in that a wide variety of topics are explored by the narrator Elena/Lenù and with her best friend Lina/Lila: boys, of course, money, image, power, sexism, philosophers, neighborhood dynamics, the Mafia (largely indirectly and through a child’s eyes), sex, infidelity, and so much more. It is a compelling story, and that is what keeps me reading, though I have some criticisms as to the craft, as below.

The time span is also noteworthy, for the storyline begins in childhood and progresses through adulthood, when Lina has disappeared. There is an intelligence behind the novels that is refreshing: it’s not only about girls and their friendships and boys in school, but about larger themes of class, education, gender roles, history and politics, and social issues. Yet these never hit the reader over the head; rather, they are present and implied, and wise readers can pick up on these things. Also, there is a very subtle but profound theme running through the novels about the co-protagonist Lina–she is always associated with darkness, things that are bad, evil, deathly, even diabolical. Observe the scenes were something very bad happens: they always have to do with Lina. She and Elena are counterparts, the former providing the darkness and shadow to the light of the latter, even in terms of their physical appearances.

Ferrante (whoever she is, as the mystery still shrouds her, though the favored hypotheses seem to be translator Anita Raja or her husband Domenico Starnone) also gives us interesting surprises with the plot. The most recent one I read was in The Story of a New Name, where the buildup has the reader expecting to see or hear about the much-forbidden sex scene between the married Lina and Nino Sarratore, but instead, she pulls the ultimate switch on us and instead we see Elena having sex with Nino’s father Donato! Notice the themes of family members and infidelity: the married Lina is having an affair with Nino, while the teenaged Elena has spontaneous sex with the married Donato, the father of Nino. This crossed pairing is really quite ingenious from a literary point of view, and shows how much they are intertwined, yet counterparts and opposites.

Earlier in the novel, when there is much pressure for Lina to approve of her photographs being used in the shoe store, she finally agrees, but then “destroys” the image by covering it with shreds of dark paper. She is horribly beaten on her honeymoon, and yet she chooses not to leave her husband. Readers might argue that this is the convention of the era and she has no choice, but Lina is so strong-willed that she would do anything, societal conventions be damned, as she does when she begins an affair with Nino and becomes pregnant by him. In the first novel, she chooses not to study but to become the rich, well-dressed wife of a grocer whom she doesn’t particularly seem to love, marrying at just 16. Ferrante raises the question of agency that these teenage girls/young women have during this era, and how they are finding the freedoms they can have within their society, and then also creating their freedoms as well.

In writing this, I see the strengths of the novels that I haven’t always seen when I am reading them. This brings me to my criticisms of the tetralogy. The books should have been probably edited down to at least two-thirds if not half of their lengths. There is simply too much detail, unnecessary detail, and not necessarily the details we want. Some sections and passages are too long–what happens at the grocery store, each little minute, blow-by-blow report of the characters–whereas others are too short: Elena’s experiences in tutoring wealthy students, what really happens at school, the tensions with her own family as she goes on for further education, and her first year at university. Ferrante sometimes rushes through these important periods by summing up everything in a paragraph or two of exposition; her choices for scene versus exposition are not always in balance.

Another major criticism I have is that, especially in the second novel, the narration is so heavily focused on the narrator in the first person that the narrative distance is almost always to close. We are not able to step back and see the bigger picture, everything is filtered through Elena’s eyes, and there is not much dialogue, so we have to put a lot of trust in her that she is a reliable narrator. Therefore, there is too much tell and not enough show; everything is reported through Elena’s eyes and this does not allow us to decide things for ourselves. As a result, sometimes the novel becomes very plodding in its tone–yet another round of someone did something to someone and Elena watched it and is telling us. Yes, it is true that the novel is primarily about the friendship between Elena and Lina, but it is like putting a camera on two characters on close up during an entire film and rarely zooming out or giving us a long shot.

We don’t get so much of the setting, which is a shame in such a vibrant, noisy, and colorful city as Naples. Even the gorgeous paradise of Ischia is given the short shrift. The sensuality of the atmosphere is neglected, there are minimal descriptions of the food, the colors, the faces. There are too many minor characters with similar names, and though there is a guide at the beginning of each novel, it is still quite a task to keep up with who is whom. The sad byproduct of this is that some of the characters become two-dimensional, they are filler and don’t really serve a greater purpose. This is not particular only to Elena Ferrante: we can see this in Tolstoy’s epic novels and the works of other writers as well.

This is not to say that Ferrante’s novels are not enjoyable; they are! However, the execution is sometimes flawed and for those of us reading them first in English, there is always a layer of translation which inevitably makes for a different work than the Urtext. One must commend Ann Goldstein for her incredible work on such a large task, for translation is a literary art in and of itself. My goal is to read the novels in Italian once I am finished with the English (or to listen to them on Italian audiobooks, as a friend suggested), to see how the nuances of the words play out and also to see where the differences are highlighted between Italian and Neapolitan dialect. This issue is something that Anglophones may not be aware of, the significance of dialects in Italy and how they are regarded in terms of class and education (not unlike how in America there is an implicit condescension toward Southern accents.) In sum, I have tremendous respect for what Ferrante has accomplished with these works, I have enjoyed reading them and will continue to read them, even as I evaluate the craft with a writer’s eye. And I indeed recommend them for interested readers.

“Bimbo” Feminism? In Praise of the Smart, Sensual Woman

There was a woman in my town who was a neighbor of a friend and the aunt of a classmate. She was extremely beautiful, with platinum blonde hair and always elegantly turned out. To people’s surprise, she would be reading the Wall Street Journal at the library. Well, it turned out that this small town “blondie” ended up becoming a millionaire and they moved to a house that actually had a tennis court. This is how I remember it; perhaps some of the details have faded over time and my child’s mind may have processed the story incorrectly. I thought of this woman today while I was watching an interview and a documentary on the legendary Mae West and it made me think about contemporary notions of feminism (that really derive from the 70s). In some ways, my generation has been inculcated with ideas that feminism is incompatibility with femininity, sensuality, and knowing one’s appeal as a woman.

I have mixed feelings about the Bechdel test, which measures how many times women are speaking about something other than men in a movie. On the one hand, it is refreshing to see women talk about mathematics (“Hidden Figures”), the church (“Doubt”), or career (“Legally Blonde”) in a film. Women have minds as fantastic as men’s. On the other hand, what is wrong about talking about men and showing women talking about men, as long as people don’t think women are incapable of talking about anything else? I believe that feminism needs to be couched in an understanding of how men and women interact with each other; all men need to know how to interact with women, just as all women need to know how to interact with men, regardless of sexual orientation. The dismissal of this in the 70s has led to a lot of trouble. Could the answer lie in film stars and performers of earlier generations?

Mae West was not only an accomplished actress, but also singer, performer, and writer. She loved men; she exuded a confidence and sex appeal that was uniquely her own. Good-humored, comfortable in herself, her on-screen and offscreen persona showed that she could get any man she wanted, say whatever she liked, and speak her mind. Of course she paid a price, getting arrested for her play “Sex” before she became a Hollywood star, but she was unapologetically who she was. She never let men get the upper hand of her and yet she always enjoyed men. Gay men loved her and she loved them; they were her allies. Mae was also a champion of black people at a time when segregation was deeply entrenched and rampant.

Zsa Zsa Gabor is another example of the “bimbo feminist,” a Hollywood star who was more famous for being famous and who married nine times (!) and her numerous quips like, “I’m a good housekeeper. When I leave a man, I keep his house.” A Hungarian immigrant who acted, sang, and wrote, she was dripping in diamonds and glamour while always staying true to herself and never giving in. Wealthy and well aware of her feminine wiles, Gabor was always clever and outspoken–one only need to see her interview on Phil Donahue where she berates an audience member to know that she could be absolutely vicious. The public got a glimpse of her vicious side when she was arrested for slapping a cop, an act that eventually got her sent to jail for three days! Granted, she was in some ways a gold digger and social climber and quite different from Mae West, who seems to have been more about being herself and enjoying herself without making a scene. But we cannot help but admire Zsa Zsa Gabor’s drive, uncompromising femininity, and stop-at-nothing attitude.

Dolly Parton is a living example of “bimbo feminism.” She has long played to the crowd with her ultra-blonde wigs and enhanced bosom and spangled clothes and makeup. But underneath all that, she’s a supremely talented artist who is also very shrewd. She would not have lasted as long in the business if she were not incredibly talented and savvy about her audiences, marketing, and staying out of politics. And yet, Parton unites the gay and straight, Southern and Northern, young and old. She has acted, sung, and composed music. All of this by a hardscrabble girl from a one-room cabin in Tennessee with 11 siblings! She overtly acknowledges her femininity, her plastic surgery, her body. But Parton is laughing all the way to the bank, being one of the most successful country singers of all time with countless honors like the Kennedy Center Awards. Dolly understands the importance of image and how to use it; her homespun, aw-shucks persona can mask the fact that she is worth over half $1 billion, and that she contributed $1 million to Vanderbilt toward Covid vaccine research, creating a video just this week of herself getting vaccinated while singing a parody of “Jolene” called “Vaccine.” With a wink and a smile and her southern accent, Dolly Parton gets the work done and does she ever know what she’s doing!

None of this devalues the work of women who are not so interested in appearances or their image and who focus more on their work and their substance. That is equally important too. But I think it is worthwhile to look at women who are very feminine and enjoy using their femininity to get ahead; that part of the narrative is often left out in discussions of feminism, where the notion of femininity is eradicated. Perhaps this stems from decades of women having to act like a man, having to prove themselves in a man’s world. Enjoying being a woman should not be incompatible with achievement, talent, or intellect. And maybe it’s men who really need to get used to that idea.

Lucia Berlin: Posthumous Praise

A book group I belong to just finished reading and discussing the late Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women, a book I heard of when one professor briefly discussed a passage of hers in my MFA program. Author Lydia Davis has helped bring Berlin to the public eye, as Berlin had sort of fallen out of favor or become obscure or perhaps never even been as renowned as she should have been. However, it seems that she is starting to have her day, over a decade after her death. Berlin (a seemingly attractive woman who bore a resemblance to Liz Taylor) struggled with alcohol throughout her life, finally getting sober toward the later part of it and teaching at different universities.

What strikes me about Berlin’s stories is that they are so vivid. Part of this comes from her extremely descriptive language, adjectives, carefully chosen details, as well as fascinating settings like Mexico, and also her (usual) first-person or close third narration. There is a sense of intimacy in her work, that you really feel the immediacy of what she’s feeling, are close to the other characters as well as the narrator. With a minimum of words (her stories are generally fairly short), she builds a world and gives you the portrait of a character. However, it would be fair to criticize her work as being more of character sketches rather than conventional stories with a strong narrative arc. One does not read Lucia Berlin for craft, necessarily, if one is studying to be a writer, or rather, not for plot and story structure the way one might study Carver (to whom she is compared). But so unlike Carver, her brevity does not feel like gravity; rather, it feels rich, evocative, where each word holds an explosion of meaning and feeling. Her stories are also accessible. Part of this may be due to the fact that in her collection, she features many working-class characters. Also, though she uses a lot of description and evocative language, her sentence structure is not difficult to follow. Berlin’s worlds are vast, just as her own life was, full of experiences from living in many different places and countries. One senses tremendous cultural literacy and a worldliness, which distinguishes her from many American writers who can tend to be a bit provincial and focusing only on relationship dynamics. The only other general criticism I would make of her work, as seen in this collection, is that since it is autofiction, there are many themes that are frequently repeated: alcoholism, broken marriages, menial labor, etc. and this can get a little bit tedious. To be fair, one can make this criticism of any story collection, that the themes get repetitive after a while and that there is not enough variation among the stories. Perhaps this collection should have been only half or two thirds the length it is. Some readers might find her style a little bit too “stream of consciousness,” perhaps a little too rambling, too close of a narrative distance almost all the time.

Berlin is truly unique; I cannot think of any other writer who is quite like her. She is modern and yet the same time she feels relaxed. Her prose is very detailed but it flows smoothly and never stops the reader. She writes about working-class people and yet the reader senses a tremendous intelligence and sophistication about the author. She writes a lot about Latin culture and peoples, yet she is American. There is much to enjoy about A Manual for Cleaning Women, and I encourage readers unfamiliar with her work to discover the pleasure of her writing. Finding a new writer that one is intrigued by is one of the great joys of life.

Great Performances: What Makes a Good Performer

Yesterday, I had to submit audition material for an opera opportunity. In looking at my different takes of the same aria, what sold me on one particular take over another was my commitment to character, and how I looked more urgent to convey the message in the aria (“Ah, fuggi il traditor” from Don Giovanni by Mozart). That was the take I submitted on video. And speaking of video–I have a friend who sends me videos of her two-year-old who is immensely entertaining. She loves to sing songs and perform for the camera, even dubbing herself “Good Singer” at her tender young age in a display of extraordinary self-confidence! This has led me to reflect on the performers and performances we love. What is it about them that really grabs us? Rather than list general characteristics, I will comment on some performers or performances, ones who are generally regarded as great and others that I particularly like. This is by no means a comprehensive list, only some thoughts off the top of my head.

-Freddie Mercury. Why do we love him? This shy, buck-toothed British-Parsi man who captivated the world before his untimely death? Perhaps because he gave it all went on stage, in great contrast to his offstage personality. He was fierce, unbounded with his emotion. His voice was beyond that of most rock singers, sustaining long, lyrical lines with a range that went quite high for a man. Needless to say, his flamboyant costumes were part of the appeal. He could soar with great passion, croon as though singing a lullaby, or belt out a rock anthem, and we would always believe it.
-The Carol Burnett Show. This classic chestnut of TV not only featured comic geniuses in Carol Burnett, Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman, and Tim Conway, but it had skits that mocked popular culture, day-to-day life, and even well-known films or performances. “Went with the Wind” was probably its most infamous spoof on “Gone with the Wind,” and truly one of the best parodies in television. It never took itself too seriously, well-aware that the mockery was part of the process (Korman could not contain himself in the “Old Man” skits with Conway and always laughed). The sets were lavish, and Burnett’s tacky costumes by Bob Mackie were part of the over-the-top 70s appeal.
-Gil Shaham. One of my absolute favorite violinists (who is a wonderfully nice guy when you meet him offstage), he has the extraordinary ability to communicate with the audience when he plays. He almost seems to angle his violin more toward the audience, as if the violin is speaking with them in a dialogue. This is a quality rarely seen in any other violinist.
-Queen Latifah. The woman has presence. For anyone who has seen the film “Chicago,” her role as Mama Morton steals the scene every time. There is something so grounded and confident about her.
-Oprah Winfrey. True, she has done some acting in her time, but I think of her more as a journalist/TV host. Frank, funny, honest, and inquisitive, her curiosity and rapport with her guests was always personal and unique. When she moved on to later projects, such as “Super Soul Sunday,” she revealed her deeply spiritual side. In being herself, she has revealed that she is a natural performer, someone who is able to convey her appeal and engage the audience.
-Adele. I am not a great fan of Lady Gaga, whom I find an attention-getter and whose musical career and performances strike me as being highly derivative (though I find her quite good when interpreting others’ work, such as in “A Star is Born” and in her album with Tony Bennett.) But Adele is the truly talented one of her generation; by avoiding fuss and feathers, she performs by singing from deep in her soul. Not to mention her natural beauty, which I think was almost more stunning before her weight loss. She has tremendous integrity as an artist, and Grace Jones commented that she would not work with Lady Gaga but with someone like Adele instead.
-Figure skaters–too many to name. Scott Hamilton, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, Johnny Weir, and more. We love watching them glide on the ice, fly through the air, and (in the case of Davis and White) dancing together. The combination of spangly outfits and superhuman movements is captivating.
-Bollywood stars–too many to name. Is it their good looks? Their carefully choreographed dance sequences? The songs (which are, inevitably, dubbed by playback singers)? The beauty of Sridevi, Aishwarya Rai, the charisma of Shah Rukh Khan (who played against type in the poignant, meaningful “My Name is Khan”) and Amitabh Bachchan are all something otherworldly.
-Joao Gilberto. This introverted Brazilian man who often sang in almost a whisper, as though strumming a guitar while sitting by a bedroom window, drew us in to his power by his heartfelt sincerity. Nothing could be simpler than his lyrical melodies sung to a percussive guitar, but they are the most touching songs one could hear. One of his albums would inevitably be a desert island disc, so to speak.

These performers are so varied in their genres and styles. And yet they all hold one thing in common: they touch our feelings and emotions. Who are some of your favorite performers?