Truths about the Developing World

Those who live in the West and in highly industrialized, developed countries often have many misconceptions about people living in less-industrialized, developing countries. People might assume that everyone lives in a jungle, that they have never heard of Facebook, or that they are all miserable and unhappy. Having studied anthropology and development studies as an undergraduate, and having been to the developing countries of India, Bhutan, and Mexico, I would like to share some thoughts on what the situation is really like.

-People have technology and electronic goods. Granted, this is not everyone, but to assume that nobody has a phone or a computer or a television is completely erroneous. Some might find that the technology in certain situations in developing countries is more advanced than what we would find in the West. For example, over a decade ago, there was a cell phone charging station with at least seven different types of chargers at Madras Anna International Airport–something I had never seen anywhere in America. However, one could generalize that there are issues with regular power supply, the grid, frequent blackouts, and getting electricity to rural and undeveloped areas. Many tech companies have been working on this issue. The infrastructure for power and electricity are what is often most problematic in developing countries, not the actual presence or not of technology.
-There is great wealth. A wealthy family might throw a quinceañera costing tens of thousands of dollars, send their children to boarding schools or American colleges, or fly to Milan or Paris to buy the latest clothes by Prada or Dior. However, a single digit percentage of the population may hold 90% of the country’s wealth while the rest of the people live in great poverty. A middle class may not exist at all, or be a minimal segment of the population. There are extremes in class stratification to a degree we might not see in Western Europe or in many parts of America. America, however, is becoming rather like a developing country, where the rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer since the Reagan era, and the pandemic has highlighted this to a heart-wrenching degree.
-A history of colonialism. This point is so large and rich that I cannot even begin to address it here. However, there are still many countries that are suffering from centuries of being ruled by a European power, and the United States has created a new form of economic colonialism as well. The CIA has committed countless atrocities overseas.
-Infrastructure, especially with transportation, can be a problem. You might have to fly out of your country to a different airport in order to fly back to another city in your country. A distance of 200 miles may take two days to drive, because there are not suitable roads. This affects access to services and goods.
-Medical care. This varies greatly between developing countries. You may find world-class medical facilities in urban India or Bangkok that service Western medical tourists. However, in parts of (West) Africa, such as Liberia, you may have 10 doctors per million people. Even with medical facilities, there may not be adequate resources and equipment. Airlifting a gravely ill patient may not be a possibility due to large distances or the availability of air transport.
-Political instability. This is a big one. Many developing countries have incredible natural resources or services that could bring the country tremendous wealth and therefore development. However, corruption, mismanagement, fraud, political violence, unstable governments, embezzlement, and a lack of social structures that distribute these resources and services cheat billions of people worldwide from having basic needs fulfilled. However, America, being a hybrid of superpower and developing country, has no right to criticize developing countries, not when we have a revolving door of politicians under our current embarrassment of an administration.
-Epidemics are often a part of daily life. The Covid-19 pandemic is something shocking and unexpected to most Americans, but for many people all over the world, public health crises in the form of diseases is nothing new. Swine flu, HIV, etc. have inflicted so many millions of people globally prior to the pandemic, and developing countries are often better equipped or more knowledgeable as to how to deal with these crises.
-The tension between traditional and modern medicine. Again, this varies greatly between countries. But it is still a significant issue. Scientists may try to suggest that allowing animals to defecate in a river is contaminating their water supply, but people pay no heed. Someone suffering from an epileptic fit might be taken to a shaman to be exorcised from some sort of demon, rather than being given the proper medication to work with the neurotransmitters in the brain. Or, modern/Western medicine may be regarded with some skepticism, as the tool of the white man. Sometimes, local traditions may actually be more effective and inexpensive for treating certain conditions, and Western medicine has come to appreciate these ancient forms of wisdom.
-Climate change. Whether it’s fatal flooding in Bangladesh or drought in farming areas, our modern world is affecting the developing world disproportionately. We have a staggering refugee crisis, and while these may have a political or sociological basis, there is also an environmental component. We have a responsibility in the developed world to do our share to help this problem. However, there are serious issues with pollution in many developing countries, due to the type of vehicles people drive and the type of fuel these vehicles consume. Governments in developing countries could do a much better job of regulating emissions, banning certain types of vehicles and fuels, and working on more environmentally-sustainable alternatives.

There are so many more points to be discussed, but let me conclude by saying that another misconception is that everyone in the developing world is miserable, ailing, and decrepit. There is no question that poverty is one of the most serious afflictions we have in the world today. But we cannot dismiss the fact that human beings are human beings everywhere, that whether rich or poor, people share the same fears, joys, the needs to celebrate, jealousies, curiosities, life milestones like weddings or funerals, etc. What people in the West and developed world need to understand is how better to help the developing world so that people in those countries are not exploited or do not suffer certain (easily ameliorated) conditions–especially those created by wealthy countries like the United States.

Serial Thriller

I have been greatly enjoying, as I wrote last week, the television series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” This has gotten me thinking about the pleasure of serial forms of art–namely what we find in literature and television. Many great works by canonical authors were serialized in newspapers, such as those by Dickens or Tolstoy. A neuroscientist or psychologist could explain the psycho-physiological processes in the brain, but I’d like to take a literary stab at explaining why we like episodic entertainment. Why is this such an important, time-tested way of engaging with an audience? 

-A premise that hooks us in. There is something that grabs the reader from the get-go. The stakes are high, there is something about the situation that makes us want to know more.

-Investment in the characters. How else do we get into a story if not through the characters? Is the character an underdog or victim? Hero(ine)? Or is it an ensemble cast, perhaps a family that has some sort of a crisis? We need to feel allied with these persons immediately, or at least one, so that it is enough for us to want to follow her/his/their journey(s).

-An intriguing plot. This is very crucial. How does the writer unfold the story neatly, little by little, with expert pacing? How does each episode or chapter or section deliver just the right amount of drama at the right time? It takes extreme skill as a writer to know exactly how much to give the reader or viewer, the right “dose,” so to speak.

-An engaging story. This is closely tied to the premise, but even if the premise is strong, if the story doesn’t deliver and hook us in, we will lose interest.

-Knowing when to cut us off. I almost feel that the writer has to take us up to the top of a mountain to the point where we could fall over the cliff, and then to stop that particular episode or chapter. That way, we are completely hooked and the greatest amount of dramatic tension is generated.

-Multiple plot lines, most often. We are reading character A’s journey toward getting married, but also about character B’s illness and impending death. Alternating A’s and B’s plot lines keeps us very intrigued, so that way when the episode drops off with A, the writer picks up with B.

-Playing with our anticipation and expectations. We are waiting for next week’s installment, wondering if Mr. X will be sentenced to jail or if Mrs. Y will get the opportunity she has been longing for. The wait gives us a chance to reflect on the various possible outcomes, and when we get the next installment, we might be completely surprised as to what happens.

What could we criticize about this kind of art? Well, one could easily say it is formulaic, and that would be very true. Make sure the right amount of dramatic tension happens in each part of the series, a classic Freytag’s Triangle. Some might argue that it is teasing the reader or viewer, and perhaps even a weakness on the writer’s part, not being able to continue with the story or plot line, but having to break it up. It also relies on very traditional narrative forms, and so metafiction or non-traditional narratives would not work well. Finally, each segment or episode has to fit a particular length or time limit, and this might not always be useful. Sometimes a particular scene has to be drawn out to give it more emotional weight. So this serial/episodic manner of telling a story relies heavily on structure. 

There is room for both, the traditional and nontraditional narratives. We like both for different reasons. In the modern world, we see serialization globally, be it in telenovelas, Hindu myths made into TV series, or dramas on Netflix. Traditional narratives and serials give us a deep-rooted sense of familiarity, the artistic equivalent of comfort food, be it macaroni and cheese, rice and lentils, or kimchi jjigae.

For My Readers

As always, I have huge gratitude for my readers and thank you deeply. For anyone who has enjoyed these posts and would like to be a regular follower, kindly sign up! If you scroll down past all the right side sidebar information, you will see on the bottom right that there is a space to enter your email and a button to click to follow. That’s it! Then you will automatically receive notification every time I write a new post. Having followers as a writer is very necessary, and the readers are equally as important as the writer.

Best wishes,

Sonja

Truly Marvelous: Mrs. Maisel

This is a post I write with hesitation and shame, as I abhor Amazon and Jeff Bezos for profiting during this pandemic at a pathologically disgusting level, earning billions when his employees are not adequately cared for, when he has put so many people out of business, including independent bookstores, and as the richest man in the world, has an unconscionable amount of wealth when billions of people in the world do not have enough to eat. Unfortunately, a vital item I needed urgently could only be purchased through Amazon; hence, I received a trial of Amazon prime, as I did earlier when I was a student. I also have ethical qualms about paid, streaming TV disproportionately getting nominated for awards, as it means that only those with the means to afford it can watch these acclaimed programs or films.

Thus with these disclaimers, I must confess that I am a huge fan of the program “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” which is both revolutionary and retro at the same time. It is nothing short of brilliant, even with its flaws and oddities. It is one of the best modern examples of pure entertainment that I can think of in recent years that engages the viewer with gorgeous visuals, first-rate acting, good humor, and a gripping story. It is the very definition of pure entertainment, something so pleasurable to watch with humor, song and dance, family drama, romance, and ambition.

The production design and art direction are simply stunning. The colors pop vividly on the screen (would that I had a big-screen TV!), the clothes are enviably elegant, every detail is flawless and seemingly appropriate to the time period. As the viewers, we get the sense of what it was like to live in the late 50s and early 60s, when American life was prosperous and booming, yet ready to tear open at the seams socially. There is an irreplaceable sense of style that we have lost in our crass, modern, Kardashian world. I have always been a huge fan of movies from the late 50s and early 60s, largely because of the visual appeal and style of clothing.

Needless to say, the acting is first-rate. The all-star cast is virtually flawless, there is no character who is a weak link. There are of course some standouts. Title actress Rachel Brosnahan’s impeccable timing, snappy dialogue, moxie, pep, youthful beauty, and good cheer coexist with her delicate stature and vulnerability, her willingness to push boundaries, rendering a multi-faceted character we cannot take our eyes off. Tony Shalhoub as her father Abe is a complicated man, whining, irritated, emotionally difficult, yet curious and slightly boyish at times. Jane Lynch as Sophie Lennon is unbelievable: her crass, Phyllis Diller-esque stage persona contrasts with her absolutely chilling, manipulative, patrician status in real life, and it is remarkable how one woman can play such opposite characters so convincingly. And finally, there is Susie Myerson (who alone is worth the price of admission). Sarcastic, grumpy, hilarious, like a butcher version of Rosie O’Donnell, yet incredibly loyal, this character is arguably one of the best TV characters ever, and certainly like no other. I have long been a fan of Alex Borstein since her MADtv days, and she brings an elusive quality to the character. What are her motivations for supporting Midge Maisel so fully? Why does she dress as she does, and what is her sexual orientation? Why is she so militantly unsentimental? Emotionally complex, disturbed, outspoken, driven, we never know how Susie is going to react to something–there are plenty of things that surprise us about her, such as her love of bubble baths or children. She says the things that we dare not say in public, and her character is so fun precisely because she is so badly behaved. Alex Borstein has addressed her characterization of Susie in interviews, for those who wish to read more.

The story is absolutely fascinating: an affluent New York housewife with beautiful children and a handsome husband has a talent for stand-up comedy, and decides to pursue it, against all social mores of the day and against her proper Jewish family’s wishes. On the one hand, this is a classic pre-feminist story, about a woman’s drive to make a career for herself at a time before it is acceptable. On the other hand, it is what writer Christopher Castellani might call an alternative reality history (as per his lecture on this topic at my MFA program). Midge Maisel did not really exist, she did not interact with Lenny Bruce or other luminaries of the period. Amy Sherman-Palladino is a brilliant mind and writer (along with her husband Daniel Palladino, who also directs, and the other excellent writers) who has created a most engaging story, for we want to see how a young woman might have done in such a difficult, male-dominated profession. It is a show about comedy with a lot of comedy, and the dialogue harkens back to the age of great Hollywood screwball comedies, with zingers a mile a minute. It is refreshing to see a female protagonist in the arts who is trying to make it while holding her personal life together.

Of course no TV show is perfect, though this one comes close. Where it flounders sometimes is in the storyline. At times, it can feel a little bit as though the writers are making the story up as they go along. For example, it was certainly an unlikely move that Midge’s mother would suddenly up and move to Paris. Midge’s father has, oddly, taken up with Communist beatniks. There are also a few things that are little bit too familiar or clichéd. Joel Maisel’s parents are almost a little too stereotypically Jewish, especially his mother, who is the classic overbearing Jewish mother, complete with raspy voice. The scenes in the Catskills recall “Dirty Dancing.” Sometimes there are detours and plot threads that are unnecessary and feel like they are there to fill the time. And finally, given that everything is so perfect and era-appropriate from the makeup to the music to the furniture, the ending songs that always play over the credits are incredibly jarring since they are modern. Would that they changed this annoyance.

Nonetheless, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is nothing short of enjoyable for all (preteen and above) ages. It is truly a brilliant concept that is well-executed and feminist in a way that doesn’t hit you over the head with being feminist. Most importantly, it is a bright spot in a time of such turmoil in America and the world. The origins of the word entertain are in the root of “to hold”–I am completely held and mesmerized by this wonderful series, marred only by the fact that it is produced by the evil empire of Amazon.

Gathering

One of the hardest aspects of the continuing sheltering/social distancing rules for millions of us is the inability to gather. As restrictions are loosened, it is still not truly safe to meet in large groups as before. Even with small groups with masks and social distancing, it is a risk. Anthropologically, we humans need institutions and groups to “finish us,” as we are not born with many instincts and have to learn many skills, unlike most animals. Children who are not socialized with others become feral, and later cannot function in normal human society. There is such a thing as antisocial personality disorder, which is just what its name suggests: people who are not able to interact with others in healthy ways to a pathological degree and who cannot respect how others feel. Not having this human ritual of gathering now, not having a regular, non-risky part of our lives, leads us to reflect on how we congregate as human beings.

We meet for joy. We meet to celebrate special occasions: births, graduations, weddings, showers, birthdays, anniversaries, milestones such as retirement, etc. There is something about the energy of multiple people together, that one plus one is greater than two, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It might just be five people around the table for a birthday, but throw in funny stories swapped, advice for difficult situations, jokes, et cetera, and it becomes something more. We also meet for funerals, in order to pay respects to the dead and to commemorate their lives; sometimes, it becomes a reunion to see people we may not have seen for decades.

We eat together. One of my favorite things in the world to do is to go out to dinner with a sizable group of people, or to hold dinner parties. Passing dishes around the table–“Oh, I would love some more of that rice!” “Ooh thanks, but I’m not fond of X!” or “May I taste a little of your dessert?–and sharing food is something that feels so vital to the human experience. We all have a common need to eat, which is necessary to survive. Takeout is just not the same as sitting in a restaurant, a place that has its own unique ambience, the smells of the food, the service (or lack thereof if it is a casual eatery) the sounds, people watching, and so many other things that can’t be described. Though many restaurants are open for patio dining, the risks are too great right now, and most people do not wear a mask when they are not eating and are talking.

We need to move together. Be it individually and physically with a spouse or significant other in an intimate/sexual manner, or in an exercise class, tossing a ball with kids, dancing to a live band outside, or clapping our hands in a concert hall, there is something deeply nonverbal and communicative about motion.

Making music together. For those of us who are musicians, this is one of the most tragic things right now, even though the Internet has managed to force us to be creative and concoct new ways of performing and getting together on the basis of sound. Playing in an orchestra is one of the most spectacular thrills in the human experience, to be surrounded by so many instruments that each do their own thing, and yet come together under the coordination of the conductor’s baton. Playing or singing in any sort of musical ensemble is also something in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Public venues. Who doesn’t love perusing books in a library or bookstore? We see a cookbook cover that features some sort of dish we might like to try making, or a title that piques our curiosity and so we lift the book off the table and skim a few pages to see if we might like reading the whole thing. Looking at clothes in a store, seeing the plethora of fabrics, colors, and shapes, sparks our imagination and gives us joy in trying out a new shirt or dress, and getting feedback either from a friend or a willing follow customer. Any kind of house of worship, be it a Zen meditation center, Hindu temple, or Catholic church, unites us in our need for sacred spaces. Having a place that is set aside for quiet contemplation or religious rituals is significant; for those who are atheist, they may find that a particular place, such as in nature or a particular neighborhood, gives them deep solace.

Social groups of interest. We might like to gather together to speak French at a café, play a pickup game of basketball, or meet to plan a charity project. We bond through these common activities which are often things that others in our family or circle of friends might not enjoy doing. Often, we stick with our friends, but sometimes in groups, there is a friend of a friend who we might enjoy meeting or chatting with.

These are but some of the pleasures being denied to us now, or of risk to us now, due to the unfortunate circumstances of the pandemic. Our socializing is severely limited. This is tragically sad, because as humans, no matter how introverted we are, we are social animals. We are trying all means of creative technology to unite us, but nothing takes the place of in-person interaction. So much has been said about herd immunity; what we need so badly now is herd community.

Composers: The Most Democratic of Musicians

Film composer legend Ennio Morricone died recently. It is indeed a sad loss of a man who was so prolific and sensitive to the emotions in a staggering variety of films, from Spaghetti Westerns to dramas and everything in between. This highlights an important issue, for many people say they dislike classical music (meaning: anything played by an orchestra) but I could bet my bank account that everyone would have their favorite music from a movie. I think that film is “where it’s at” in terms of accessible modern classical music, for a lot of what gets put out by composers, especially in academia, is not accessible at all. Of all the different types of musicians that exist, I have always felt that composers are the most democratic of the classical musicians.

I see two reasons for why people dislike classical music or dislike 20th/21st century classical music. Just as with a lot of modern art which is heavily conceptual, many modern compositions require the listener to read and read in order to understand the piece when really it should be something pleasurable and visceral, right-brained and not left. I believe the other part of the problem with people disliking classical music is due to atonality, for I feel tonality is something so innate–we like a tune we can sing, we like a “sound narrative” that carries through the piece, harmonies we can follow, anything that doesn’t sound like putting a cat on a piano. While it’s fine and fun once in a while, an interesting experiment, a heavy emphasis on atonality ultimately alienates listeners. I realize that statement is very controversial.

However, I should caution readers that just as in literature, non-typical tonality can be quite interesting and enjoyable, and what we define as tonality does not have to be limited to something hummable or as predictable as a Mozartian or Verdian melody. Richard Strauss pushes the limits of tonality with seemingly unresolvable harmonies, and the result is nothing short of stunning. Philip Glass’s use of repetitive units (his so-called “minimalist” style, a label which he would chafe at) build and morph into phrases that carry the listener on ethereal auditory journeys; anyone who says they don’t like his music should reconsider after listening to his cello concerto. Bela Bartok’s works often include influences of Hungarian Romani music and the musics of folk cultures in Central and Eastern Europe. African-American composers (who don’t get enough exposure, sadly) such as Florence Price, incorporated the music of her heritage and church, and there is no piano-playing kid who did not play the toe-tapping ragtime of Scott Joplin. Chinese-born MacArthur genius Bright Sheng’s influences could take up a whole post, and he is a wonderful example of someone who has created bridges not only between Asia and the West, but multiple cultures.

In my experience, composers are incredibly humble, open to every genre of music and able to process so many things in their heads. A musicologist might look condescendingly at hip-hop, a flamenco singer might find Indonesian gamelan music “repetitive,” and a Carnatic musician might not be able to stomach the glorious cacophony of Led Zeppelin. An opera singer might try to mimic the quarter tones of an Arabic muezzin and fail. But a composer would be willing to listen to all cultures and genres of music openly, even when the melodic and harmonic systems are radically different. A composer’s ear must be open, ready to listen without judgment. Her or his brain must process sounds as best as s/he can, given the limitations of the tradition that s/he is raised in, the patterns of sound, the instrumentation.

The best Western classical composers are the ones that harness the power of tone color or timbre, who are masters at knowing which instruments produce which sounds for the best effects. Frenchman Maurice Ravel is a composer all composition students study for his genius in this area: one need only listen to a few minutes of “La Valse” to be convinced of this. Gustav Mahler, with his extra-large orchestras, also knew how to command the orchestra, how to use the instruments and be a model for orchestration. There are composers who we can also admire for specifics within the orchestra, such as Dvorak and his lyrical use of strings and Sibelius and his powerful brass. In modern times, a fabulous example is John Adams’s “The Chairman Dances,” which is not conventional in terms of its harmonic or melodic structure and more (sorry for the incorrect label again) minimalist. But Adams’s piece spins out and takes it much further, and takes us on an auditory journey of colors that do not fail to give listeners goosebumps–it is one of my top three desert island pieces. Therefore, it is imperative that a composer be open to all kinds of sounds and to increase her or his palette in order to create rich orchestration.

Most composers (and many classical musicians) enjoy listening to many genres of music. Some of them may not even listen to much in the genre in which they compose–John Adams, in an interview, has said he doesn’t listen to much opera. Whether or not s/he realizes it, a composer is subconsciously observing influences all the time. What is unique, however, is that this “orchestral sound mixer” will translate what s/he has heard into something uniquely her/his own. Of course this raises the issue of cultural appropriation, something for which I think there is no easy answer. In this day and age, there is much less the issue of bad borrowing and stereotyping the way there was in the 19th and earlier 20th centuries (think the horrid Orientalism of Turandot), and we truly live in a global, multicultural era where people can click a button and listen to something from the other side of the world. I argue that it is a composer’s right to borrow different sounds, because sound itself is the most democratic medium that exists. We cannot see it, touch it, but we can hear it and feel it. It belongs to nobody and it belongs to everybody. Composers are merely the channel or vehicle through which sound comes, gets put on paper, and played in an orchestra or ensemble. In a pandemic world where gross human equality is being highlighted at staggering levels, let’s rejoice in something that is ultimately truly egalitarian.

Speak, Woman!

Oprah. Hillary Clinton. The late Bella Abzug. Amal Clooney. Renée Fleming. Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. Camille Paglia. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. What do all of these women have in common? If you answered that they are all celebrities and at the top of their fields, that would be correct. But there is something more important I would like to point out: they are all excellent speakers.

Women are often accused, sometimes in very misogynistic ways, of talking a lot. There is, however, much evidence from neuroscience and linguistics that shows this is true. Linguist Deborah Tannen has done a great deal of research on gender and communication, and UCSF neuropsychiatrist Dr. Louann Brizendine’s well-known books on the male and female brains have highlighted both the similarities and differences in our common organ, but asserted that women do talk more (though other academic studies have proved her wrong). Women are encouraged to talk a lot, to emote, use language for expressing our feelings. Many of us enjoy “girl chats,” gabfests where we can let it all hang out, sending each other funny texts, etc.

But what if we also encourage women to learn to speak well, to communicate effectively about the things they want, and not only emotional release? What if we emphasize the need to express ideas with clarity, articulate concepts in our field with precision, and help women to understand that this is a source of power? Regardless of popular opinion (which generally seems to agree that women talk more), we have to recognize that anyone who speaks well in public and in the workplace has a distinct advantage. I am in no way advocating that women need to talk like men or act like men, for I find that this has been a huge error on the part of the feminist movement and this forced a lot of women in the 80s to adopt a “power stance” and a large-scale denial of the feminine aspects of ourselves. But speaking well is not incompatible with femininity. Look at the list of women above: no one would accuse them of rejecting their womanhood. If anything, their ability to articulate themselves makes them stand out more as a woman, for they are not just beautiful and well groomed, but they have something to say and can say it well. Public speaking and effective speaking enhances a woman’s attractiveness; being able to include facts when you are trying to make a case for something makes you even more powerful and credible.

Parents need to persuade their daughters to harness the power of words, not post ridiculous images on Instagram or Snapchat. Teachers in the classroom need to ensure that they attempt to give equal airtime to women and girls, though sometimes females hesitate to speak up in class, as I saw when teaching at a college this past semester. Our society needs to create a culture in which young women, even if shy or introverted, see that it is a source of strength to use the power of words. We don’t need the talk show model of spilling one’s guts; what we need is to exalt role models who feel confident in saying what they need to say. Never underestimate the importance of public speaking.

Watch any occasion Ruth Bader Ginsburg is speaking. You will never see anyone who chooses her words more carefully, even as an octogenarian. Bella Abzug was known for being quite vocal–“I was born yelling!”–but watch an interview on PBS from the 80s, and you will see that she is incredibly sharp and can back up her assertions with facts. Oprah became the queen of emotion on talk shows, but she also had a sense of purpose and her feeling was matched with tremendous perception and intellect. The soft-spoken Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who by all accounts was introverted and shy, still had a core of steel and knew how to conduct herself beautifully in public, very aware of what she was saying and the manner in which she was saying it. Motormouth Camille Paglia talks a mile a minute, but it is because she is a walking encyclopedia and has so much to say as a scholar and writer. Meghan, Duchess of Sussex is unfailingly and incredibly articulate, gracious and womanly, but never afraid to speak her mind, especially when it comes to social injustice–something that was perhaps quite threatening to British society.

These are only a handful of role models and the only ones I can cite to readers as common references, given their celebrity. But think of the women we know in our own lives who are effective communicators and know what they are saying. We can find much to admire in many people in our daily lives, be it an Ivy League professor or a hardware store manager. We still have a long way to go with equality in American society; speaking effectively can help us on that journey.

Why Prejudice Continues, Despite Good Intentions

None of us are perfect as human beings. No matter how much we try, we unintentionally will all end up upsetting someone, knowing someone, excluding someone, hurting someone. And, unfortunately, we will all be on the receiving end of those negative behaviors, inevitably. When these things happen systematically, as so many in the Black Lives Matter movement have tried to point out, the offended parties will naturally speak out. We can even see this on personal level in groups we belong to, when one person is somehow not treated well. And the offenders who truly care listen, and genuinely wish to do well. But why do some problems still get perpetuated?

I believe there is one key psychological/sociological process behind this: people are operating from a place of abstraction rather than personal experience. And when the reality hits, it is NIMBY–Not In My Back Yard.

It is easy for someone for someone to say they oppose the mistreatment of others, that they are pained (and genuinely so) to hear of someone being treated badly. Someone who is actively involved, for example, in a human rights group that protests against the abuses of an indigenous tribe might find it uncomfortable and not want to listen when a friend tells them they were abused by clergy in the Catholic Church. It is easy for people to talk about what they hear on the news about people’s lives being affected by the pandemic, but when someone in a group talks about how their own career status is at peril, they change the subject or do not respond. Recently, I was talking with an open-minded American friend who has friends of different backgrounds, and is widely traveled. However, when I told her that a European friend had suggested I move to her country, but my hesitation was the growing racism I could face there (implying I could be mistaken for a South Asian laborer), she was not able to respond.

I believe a truly psychologically healthy, Zen-like solution to this is to allow ourselves to feel discomfort that comes up. By this, I am not implying that we should torture ourselves or voluntarily be unhappy–this is a very unconstructive way of dealing with problems, and I truly believe that joy, laughter, and happiness are what will move us ahead. However, we cannot deny the difficulties that happen to those around us. Only in accepting the fact that we are uncomfortable, that things are not abstractions but realities that happen to our loved ones and those we know, can we see the reality of a problem and take constructive action to move forward. We have to accept that in hearing about these unpleasant things, sometimes we might feel powerless and not know what to say. Perhaps guilt is what is underlying people’s unwillingness to respond.

But simply taking the time to accept people’s individual experiences can go a long way. A more constructive response would be to offer empathy, a willingness to listen, and compassion. And we should feel gratitude for the good things we do have rather than embarrassment or shame. Sometimes there may be a limit to how much we can hear or handle, especially during this pandemic, and we may have to set limits on what we hear from others on a personal level or in the news. We have to offer ourselves compassion as well.

These are not easy things to do. I am by no means perfect in practicing this, nor is anyone. But understanding people’s experiences firsthand, on an individual level, just might be a first step to making larger changes. A professor of international education in developing countries at Columbia University’s Teachers College told us something so simple and yet profound when thinking about how we look at societal ills: “They’re people, not problems.”

The Importance of Holidays

Yesterday was the Fourth of July, my favorite holiday. There is something so egalitarian about this holiday, one that embraces everybody, has no religious basis, is informal, and simply about the joy of getting together and celebrating. I was quite crushed when I learned that there would be no fireworks displays, given the risk of crowds during the pandemic and the rise in cases where I live. Fortunately, much to my surreptitious delight, a number of individuals took it upon themselves to launch spectacular professional-caliber firework displays, and dozens of people were able to watch from the comfort of their cars. My training as an anthropologist always leads me to reflect on the particular rituals and institutions we have as human beings. What is a holiday?

A holiday is a day unlike the others, not an ordinary day. It has a special significance, a weighted meaning. It can commemorate, signify, or mark no particular event at all, other than to remind us that we need to take the day off. Some holidays are religious in nature–think Christmas or Eid al-Fitr. Some are political, such as Cinco de Mayo or even days like July 4th (which is officially Independence Day, marking our independence from the British). There are bank holidays in Britain, summer holidays in France that extend multiple weeks, or name days days in Orthodox countries where a person’s saint after whom they were named is celebrated. A holiday might commemorate a historical event, and might be local, regional, or national.

There are special foods we associate with particular holidays. Once a year, you might make a particular dumpling, a bread, or sweet. These foods may have a significance, representing something or someone, like the sugar skulls or bones on the pan de muerto on the Dia de los Muertos in Mexico.

Particular activities are associated with holidays, such as carrying a deity in a procession around the town or into the sea, throwing tomatoes, wearing costumes and begging for candy. We look forward to these things for weeks or months.

Also, think about particular decorations used for holidays. Living in the West, it is inevitable that Christmas comes to mind; not only do people decorate their houses, but also communities put up decorations as well. On the birth of Lord Krishna on Janmashtami, women in South India make little footprints from rice flour which show the baby’s arrival in the house. There is something exciting to people about particular objects and embellishments that we use and ways in which we adorn our dwellings for a holiday.

There might also be special songs, special prayers, special things to say on a holiday, special clothing, and special ways of behaving. In a sense, one might argue that the Jewish Sabbath, celebrated from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, is a sort of weekly holiday commemorate the week and take a day of rest and spiritual reflection, prayers are sung, bread is broken, and work is not to be done.

Some people refuse to celebrate holidays. They dislike them, find them pointless, think they are just like any old day. But I argue that we need special days that are not like other days, to mark the passage of time and transitions in our lives. What would life be but monotony if we did not have holidays? We need days that remind us of our humanity, of our deep-rooted need to celebrate why we are alive.

The Family Saga: A Universal Theme

In my younger, greener, salad days, I used to be less enthused about books, shows, or movies that were a long family saga, with the complications that come with long drawn-out relationships. I was an only child who grew up far away from relatives, and so it wasn’t as interesting to me. Wasn’t it more fascinating to have different characters who were unrelated? And yet, like so many book-loving girls, I had adored Little Women and the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and earlier, children’s books like the Frances series about a little badger with quite an attitude. Now, my current writing project is a retelling of a classic novel which is–though usually considered to be a romance–truly a family saga. What makes family dramas universal?

A large ensemble of characters that we follow overtime is key to this format. While the author or camera might focus primarily on one or two of them, having a variety of characters to choose from helps keep things interesting. “Everybody Loves Raymond” was a show, as the title suggests, about Ray Barone, but we also followed the ups and downs of the other characters, such as his brother Robert and his love life. Once married to Amy, we got another family added into the mix that made things even more funny–the combination of Fred Willard and Georgia Engel as Amy’s parents was a stroke of genius on the part of the casting director. In literature, I don’t think anyone could neglect mentioning Tolstoy, who juggled an encyclopedic cast of characters so skillfully in his epics War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Take that to another level with the current global favorite, My Brilliant Friend (which I’m currently enjoying): it is a saga of multiple families whose lives intertwined in postwar Naples. It is not, however, just one novel–it is the first in a tetralogy, which goes to show how much richness can be mined from this theme. In opera, we have The Marriage of Figaro with its high-low social class reversals and romantic intrigue in the members of the Count’s household. And this is all before we find out who Figaro’s mother is!

Family sagas also give us a longitudinal study, so to speak, of a character or characters over time. How do their relationships change and grow or dissolve? What kinds of sibling alliances form? Or do they not get along at all? Is there an uncle who usurps the family power, much to the chagrin of the nephew (hint: Shakespeare)? Is there a missing parent whose absence is equally an important piece of the equation? The brilliant, understated Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge (and its slightly-weaker sequel, Mr. Bridge) captures the trajectory of a suburban woman in St. Louis between the wars and her relationships with her children. For those of us who grew up with “The Cosby Show,” we got to see Sondra marry Elvin and have twins, Denise go off to college and then to Africa, and even little Rudy grow up. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is not only about Midge Maisel’s standup career, but also her highly educated Jewish family and fractured relationship with her ex-husband and his family.

Family sagas also give us a degree of relatability. We can identify with one or more of the characters, see that we are being treated unjustly or how we are treating someone who is irritating us. The power of literature always helps us understand our world and other people, giving us a bird’s-eye view that we cannot see ourselves.

That I should have neglected this genre is especially foolish in light of the fact that the most holy Hindu book is a family saga: The Mahabharata. Tolstoyan in its scope, it is the story in the form of an epic poem of two families of cousins who are fighting over the throne. Naturally, this has been filmed in different versions for television as well as the cinema; all of Hindu India was engrossed in it in the late 80s, and it has been shown again during the lockdown. British director and playwright Peter Brook co-authored a play on The Mahabharata that was itself made into a movie. But Hinduism is not the only religion to feature family stories as part of its mythology or teachings: it is almost needless to say the Old Testament is full of them. Great mythologies of the world often feature families and nobility. Even today, we are intrigued by these types of stories–consider the success of “Downton Abbey” and our obsession with the British royal family.

The word family is fraught with so much emotion that it cannot help but be an ideal subject for literature. We all have family stories we tell, be they funny, frustrated, or infuriating. Family stories can be comic or tragic, or anything in between. Perhaps the late Erma Bombeck said it best in the title of a book: Family–The Ties that Bind…and Gag!