The Good Immigrant

How does it feel to be constantly regarded as a potential threat, strip-searched at every airport? Or to be told that, as an actress, the part you’re most fitted to play is ‘wife of a terrorist’? How does it feel to have words from your native language misused, misappropriated and used aggressively towards you? How does it feel to hear a child of colour say in a classroom that stories can only be about white people? How does it feel to go ‘home’ to India when your home is really London? What is it like to feel you always have to be the ambassador for your race? How does it feel to always tick ‘Other’?

Bringing together 21 exciting black, Asian and minority ethnic voices emerging in Britain today, The Good Immigrant explores why immigrants come to the UK, why they stay and what it means to be ‘other’ in a country that doesn’t seem to want you, doesn’t truly accept you – however many generations you’ve been here – but still needs you for its diversity monitoring forms.

Inspired by discussion around why society appears to deem people of colour as bad immigrants – job stealers, benefit scroungers, undeserving refugees – until, by winning Olympic races, or baking good cakes, or being conscientious doctors, they cross over and become good immigrants, editor Nikesh Shukla has compiled a collection of essays that are poignant, challenging, angry, humorous, heartbreaking, polemic, weary and – most importantly – real.

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Despite stop and search statistics, our attitude toward refugees – our ex-prime minister David Cameron having once referred to people running for their lives as a ‘swarm’ –  and the general acceptance in our country that a person with a white-sounding name will get the job over a ‘foreign’ one, there’s this weird sense here in the UK that racism is an ‘American problem’. That those gun-toting police, murdering black men and women is the sort of thing that could never happen ‘over here’, though of course it does. Guns or no guns, racism is as ingrained a part of our society here in the UK as it is abroad, and comforting ourselves with the notion that we’re not as bad as the US is really not helping.

What is helping, I think, is work like The Good Immigrant. Nikesh Shukla has gathered a diverse group of writers from all different ethnicities, backgrounds and career paths to analyse experiences of racism in the UK.  Shukla’s own essay, which kicks off the book, tackles cultural appropriation, in particular the use of ‘namaste’ , a word that actually means hello, but has become ‘a bastardised metaphor for spiritualism’ adopted by white people (of whom I have to admit I am one. To me it meant only ‘yay yoga’. Education is a lifelong endeavour). What follows is a collection without a weak link. Each writers’ voice is strong, full of feeling – whether that’s anger, amusement, sadness, frustration, etc. – and unique. The collection weaves personal stories together with statistics and studies to create an experience that is as empathetic as it is informative.

It would be impossible to do justice to every essay in the this collection without writing a blog several thousand words long, so I’m going to focus on just three essays in this outstanding collection.

Trust me, and buy it.

“You Can’t Say That! Stories Have To Be About White People.” – Darren Chetty

Chetty has been teaching primary school children for 20 years in multicultural, multiracial and multifaith communities. In that time he came to notice that despite encouragement, the majority of children of colour in his classes would only ever write stories with white protagonists. In this essay he incorporates his own teaching experience with studies and essays written by others to explore this phenomenon. By analysing children’s literature and pop culture, Chetty weaves a fascinating piece that demonstrates the nonsensical way in which the viewer of so much mainstream British pop culture is assumed to be white, and the effect that has on children in minorities.

One of the most depressing of Chetty’s experiences while doing this work was the often aggressive response of other teachers. As I mentioned, here in the UK we like to pretend that we live in a society that is somehow ‘post-racial’, and this is no more obvious, Chetty writes, than in the way we insist on seeing children as ‘colour-blind.’ He says:

“If children were writing stories where the race of characters was varied and random, there might be some merit in claiming that children are colour-blind. However, even the strongest advocates of racial colour-blindness do not argue that all people are white… and English. They argue that race no longer matters. If that’s true, why are young children of colour writing exclusively about white characters?”

Next time someone tries to tell me stories aren’t important, I will wave this essay in their face by way of response.

Flags – Coco Khan

Flags is sbout the time Khan, an Asian woman, woke up after a one night stand to find herself in a room draped in Union Jacks. Her immediate assumption was that the cute blonde white guy she’d met was, in the cold light of day, a secret, hair-having skinhead.

This is an essay about sexual liberation and race, and where the two things intersect. After growing up being taught that sex was shameful, and something that men could have without concern but women would always be punished for, Khan was determined, in her young adulthood, to form a new narrative.

But she kept facing the same ignorance. Men assumed they knew her through ill-informed racial stereotypes, and she began to question whether they were attracted to her because she was attractive, or because was ‘a brown-shaped thing that will do’. Flags is a gutting look at the racial stereotyping women of colour face can from their sexual partners, and the assumptions that are forever made regarding their autonomy and sexual identity.

“On dates I would tolerate the vaguely insulting stereotypical questions, patiently answering, ‘No, I have never been promised to a man I’ve never met. Actually I can barely cook at all.’”

Khan’s essay is a unique take on the ways in which we so often other and dehumanise people of colour, and put individuals in a position where they are somehow expected to behave as ‘an ambassador for their race’.

Airports and Auditions – Riz Ahmed

“As a minority, no sooner do you learn to polish and cherish one chip on your shoulder, it’s taken off you and swapped out for another.”

I didn’t pick this just because I have a crush on Riz Ahmed.

Honestly.

It’s (probably?) my favourite essay of the collection because, it seems to me – as a white girl who hasn’t never experienced any of what she’s talking about – to do a really great job of encapsulating what it must be to experience life as an Asian man in a country full of people who assume you’re a terrorist. Ahmed compares auditions with the interrogation room: “They’re places where the threat of rejection is real. They’re also places where you’re reduced to your marketability or threat –level, where the length of your facial hair can be a deal-breaker, where you are seen, and hence see yourself, in reductive labels.”

Turns out that ‘random searching’ isn’t so random. I imagine this comes as a surprise to nobody.

Ahmed talks in blunt terms about the way that this constant labelling by outside sources affects a person’s soul, and how, over time, he has figured out ways to ignore it, though he shouldn’t have to. He can, on a good day, view his perpetual racial profiling as the total farce that it is and maybe even laugh about it.

He ends the essay on an interaction he had with another young Muslim guy, an airport staff member who happened to be conducting the ‘random searches’ that day. This guy was particularly apologetic and a fan of Ahmed’s, so by way of comfort, he shared that he always gets searched when he flies, too. Ahmed writes:

“We laughed, not because he was joking, but because he was deadly serious. It was the perfect encapsulation of the minority’s shifting and divided self, forced to internalise the limitations imposed on us just to get by, on the wrong side of the velvet rope even when (maybe especially when) you’re on the right side of it.”

The Good Immigrant is timely, important, frustrating, funny, sad and hopeful. It’s a fantastic read that asks you to look critically at the way we treat people of colour in the UK, and the damage done by racist stereotyping and a media that still largely caters to a white audience.

 

 

 

 

 

The Rules Do Not Apply

Ariel Levy picks you up and hurts you through the story of how she lived believing the rules no longer applied – that marriage doesn’t have to mean monogamy, that ageing doesn’t have to mean infertility, that she could be ‘the kind of woman who is free to do whatever she chooses’. But all of her assumptions about what she can control are undone after a string of overwhelming losses.

Levy’s own story of resilience becomes an unforgettable portrait of the shifting forces in our culture, of what has changed – and what never can.

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“I wanted what we all want: everything. We want a mate who feels like family and a lover who is exotic, surprising. We want to be youthful adventurers and middle-aged mothers. We want intimacy and autonomy, safety and stimulation, reassurance and novelty, coziness and thrills. But we can’t have it all”

I want to start this review with a sort of trigger warning. This book is ultimately about a traumatic miscarriage, and if that’s something you’re not in a place to deal with right now, I would recommend steering clear of The Rules Do Not Apply. Levy goes into the specifics of the experience in detail, and it’s hard to read.

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The Rules Do Not Apply is an interesting take on the notion of ‘having it all’. Rather than look at the idea in terms of career, Levy uses her memoir to study the polarities within herself. As the quote above illustrates, her desires for excitement and comfort are frequently at war with each other in ways that are destructive to both states.

“I thought I had harnessed the power of my own strength and greed and love in a life that could contain it. But it has exploded.”

‘Life doesn’t ever go as planned’ is one of the clichés adults start rolling out around the time you turn fifteen and people start seriously asking you what you’re going to do with your life (which is such a joke anyway). It’s a throwaway comment most of the time, but others, advice someone is choosing to impart kind of desperately, like they want to go into more detail but they can’t yet.

Because they don’t know how it ends, I guess.

It’s the desperate I’m-seriously-worried-but-trying-to-keep-it-light version of ‘life doesn’t ever go as planned’ that hangs heavy over The Rules Do Not Apply. Levy foreshadows what she calls the explosion of her life, by referencing an evil she invited into it, an evil that began the gradual disintegration of her marriage and finished with her miscarriage.

Levy delves into a lot in this relatively short memoir. Times skips from her early twenties, back to childhood and forward to her thirties and her marriage. The skips are fluid and purposeful, the stories from her early twenties illustrate a young woman driven by the need for adventure, while the moments she picks to describe from childhood shed light on the decisions she makes as an adult.

She writes a lot about infidelity, both her own and that of her mother. She frames them both as women who feel stifled by domesticity and self-destructive as result. They are both torn between opposing desires for uncertainty and stability that neither of their lovers (or their spouses) turn out to be the solution to. She doesn’t shy away from the darker parts of herself, and writes interestingly on the experience of doing something shitty, recognising its shittyness and also her inability to stop doing it. It’s equal parts raking herself over the coals and accepting mistakes that cannot be changed.

The Rules Do Not Apply is a book concerned with grief. The big, overwhelming grief of losing her child, and her whole future as she had imagined it would play out. But it’s also the grief resulting from the gradual, painful dissolution of her marriage. Through infidelity, addiction and lies – both to each other and themselves – Levy and her wife come to realise that the life they thought they were building was a fragile and ultimately unsustainable one.

As predominantly YA readers, we read an awful lot of stories about falling in love. It makes sense – falling in love for the first time is an experience of many people’s teens (not mine, but that is another story #colddeadheart). There is something different but equally interesting to me in reading about a breakup, especially of a long relationship (I think Levy was married for around 10 years). There is a different sort of beauty in the snapping of the stitches people thought would hold them together forever.

We like to think that we can have everything. Some of us were brought up with the idea that it – everything – was owed to us. But that fact is, life is more complicated than that. The Rules Do Not Apply details some harsh realities and the resilience required to navigate them. It’s well worth a read.

 

 

Play It As It Lays

A ruthless dissection of American life in the late 1960s, Play It As It Lays captures the mood of an entire generation, the emptiness and ennui of contemporary society reflected in spare prose that both blisters and haunts the reader.

Set in a place beyond good and evil – literally in Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the barren wastes of the Mojave Desert, but figuratively in the landscape of the arid soul – Play It As It Lays remains, more than three decades after its original publication, a profoundly disturbing novel, riveting in its exploration of a woman and a society in crises and stunning in the still-startling intensity of its prose.

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After becoming totally obsessed with the Belletrist Instagram account it’s only natural that my TBR would fill with Joan Didion. I have been meaning to get into her work for years and Belletrist provided the push. After finishing the torturously short South and West I figured I should turn to her fiction.

Play It As It Lays is not an easy novel. Joan Didion manages to construct a story that is at once intense and consumed with ennui. You feel as if you should be sprawled elegantly across a chaise long while reading the spare but piercing prose, or lying still in a sweaty hotel room bed out in the desert, like Maria, its protagonist.

Didion’s writing is unflinching and unemotional – a fact that often jars given the subject matter of the novel – mental illness, suicide, abortion – but curiously pulls you forward through it, down into the depths of its protagonist’s psychological unravelling. The novel begins with Maria in a psychiatric ward, and then travels back through the events that led to her admittance there. Current and past events are split by the use of first and third person – a technique I have never seen applied as Didion uses it.

Maria is a failed actress living in a failed marriage. Her daughter, Kate suffers with some undefined disorder and so lives in a hospital away from her. Maria isn’t always allowed to see Kate when she wants to, and it remains unclear whether this is because of Carter, Kate’s father or because of the hospital staff.  Maria and Carter are definitely getting a divorce, but whether or not they’ll actually break up remains in question.

Maria is unable to let Carter share in her suffering. His career is starting to take off, while hers is stalling – a fact for which she deeply resents him. They’re both cheating, though you imagine which of them is punished for it – Maria, obviously. When she falls pregnant by another man, Carter forces her into an abortion she didn’t choose. It’s a trauma that haunts her throughout the novel and one that she never discusses with anyone.

What Maria wants – the only thing she seems to care about at all, actually – is the ability to define her own life. She wants to live in the countryside with Kate and make jam. Instead she is passed between her husband and his friends, deemed by all unable to care for herself. They might be right, but that isn’t the point.

Early in their marriage, Carter and Maria made two films together. In the second, Maria plays a rape survivor fighting for justice for herself. The film was brought by a studio and distributed, but never particularly successful. Maria loved it and was so enamoured of her character’s ‘definite knack for controlling her own destiny’. The first film, called simply ‘Maria’ won awards at art festivals and is the one for which Carter first became known. ‘Maria’ is seventy four minutes of ‘Maria asleep on the couch at a party, Maria on the telephone arguing with the billing department at Bloomingdale’s, Maria cleaning some marijuana with a kitchen strainer, Maria crying on the IRT’. Maria herself can’t bear to watch it. Her self-hatred runs so deep that even a loved one’s reflection of her causes her pain. The girl in the movie, she says ‘had no knack for anything.’

Play It As It Lays is a novel consumed with meaning – or lack thereof. In the sparse prose Didion narrates the action, but doesn’t cast judgement on it. Even in Maria’s worst moments we never really turn into the pantomime audience, hissing and booing from the side lines. Even in the presence of such action from other characters in the novel, Maria herself remains untouched by it. The novel isn’t really about deciding whether Maria is good or evil, so much as just immersing yourself in her psyche. Good and evil are labels that connote a certain level of meaning, after all, and to Maria, there is no such thing. Meaninglessness to Maria is like a secret only she is in on. This theme is apparent even from the very first line:

‘What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.’

This first line is important as it serves as a sort of mission statement for the novel, and one of the only incidences in which Didion uses a question mark. This general lack of question marks shows Maria as a woman who sincerely believes that there are no answers left to be found. She is a person without curiosity, moving through the world because time passes, but not really participating in it.

Play It As It Lays is not a book for everyone. Nobody in the book is ‘likeable’, so if that sort of thing is important to you, you’re probably not going to get into it. But for me, lately, I have found I’m less interested in reading what is comfortable. And Play It As It Lays is about as uncomfortable as it gets.

Tiny Beautiful Things

TW: sexual abuse discussed in the book and in this blog post.

MEET AN AGONY AUNT LIKE NO OTHER

Over the years, tens of thousands of the anxious, confused and hopeful have turned to Cheryl Strayed, internet agony aunt ‘Dear Sugar’ for her wisdom and warmth. Sugar’s advice is spun from genuine compassion informed by a wealth of personal experience – experience that is sometimes tragic and sometimes tender, often hilarious and often heart breaking.

If you are ever feeling a little lost in life, this gem-like collection will give you an invaluable gentle shove in the right direction.

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About a year ago, I started having bad dreams. They weren’t of the being chased, there’s a monster under my bed looking to eat my flesh and harvest my organs kind. No, these bad dreams had more to do with feelings. I’d be in an unfamiliar room, anger making my hands shake, my heart pound into my throat, my very self feel too big for my body in a way it really only can when you’re purely and blindly PISSED. I would open my mouth to start screaming, to voice this unbearable rage… but no sound would come out. I would fight and fight but no matter how hard I tried, how gigantic my anger felt, I couldn’t make a single sound.

A few months after I started having this dream it occurred to me that I might have some issues to figure out.

Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things is basically the queen of figuring shit out. She has experienced a great deal of pain, grief and abuse in her life that she describes bluntly and fearlessly with a sort of openness and compassion that I have never seen before.

It’s hard to talk about your bad feelings because of the hugeness of them. The words are too big to fit in your mouth, the wrong shape for your hands to write them. Sometimes it’s like there isn’t even a language for the thing that you’re feeling.

At least that’s how I’ve felt lately. As a lifelong proponent of avoiding my feelings – both because that’s my coping mechanism and because for a whole bunch of years I was told they were invalid – the subconscious rebellion I have been dealing with over the last few months has been hard to put into words. At least until I read Tiny Beautiful Things. There is a language, and Cheryl Strayed – Sugar – speaks it.

I don’t think it’s possible to read this book without becoming a more compassionate person – both towards others and yourself.

Sugar’s style of advice isn’t simply to make orders, sit back and let the dice roll as they may. It isn’t a self-indulgent rush of superiority, like I thought it was back when I was a teenager advising my friend’s on their love lives like I had a clue. No, Sugar hears your story, whether it’s about how you can’t write, how you’ve been unable to commit since your divorce, how you heard your friends talking about how they think your girlfriend is kind of a bitch – and responds with her own. She picks the core feeling out of the problem presented to her: anger, love, disappointment, regret, fear and mirrors it back. And then she’ll tell you what to do about it. It’s as if she’s reaching through the pages to hold your hand, or give you a shove in the right direction. There is something both comforting and clarifying in her words. As you read you think: yeah, this lady knows her shit.

There are so many stand out letters in this collection. Those that spoke to me were mostly concerned with writing, or with leaving. Quotes like this blew my mind in small ways:

The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours spent writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.

Some of the letters are brutal. Two, in particular stick in my mind. In one, Strayed describes the sexual abuse her grandfather subjected her to as a child, how it made her ‘feel miserable and anxious in a way so sickeningly particular that I can feel that same particular sickness rising this very minute in my throat.’ She talked about this in response to the simple question of WTF? asked emphatically and repeatedly by a reader. Her conclusion? ‘Ask better questions, sweet pea… the fuck is your life. Answer it.

The other, called The Obliterated Place, came from a man who lost his son to a drunk driver. He wrote his letter in list form, each number detailing a way in which his life was now unbearable to him. He referred to himself as a ‘living dead dad’. Sugar responded to him with her own list. What follows in a conversation about grief and going on that is searing – it almost physically hurts to read it – but beautiful

14. The word “obliterate” comes from the Latin obliterare. Ob means “against”; literare means “letter” or “script.” A literal translation is “being against the letters.” It was impossible for you to write me a letter, so you made me a list instead. It is impossible for you to on as you were before, so you must go on as you never have.

Other gifts from Sugar:

‘The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker. It is not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve. And “if your Nerve deny you -,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “go above your Nerve.” Writing is hard for every last one of us – straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.’

‘Do not reach the age of child rearing and jobs with a guitar case full of crushing regret for all the things you wished you’d done in your youth. I know too many people who didn’t do those things. They all end up mingy, addled, shrink wrapped versions of the people they intended to be.’

‘Be about ten times more magnanimous than you believe yourself capable of being. Your life will be a hundred times better for it. This is good advice for anyone at any age, but particularly for those in their twenties.’

Tiny Beautiful Things is one for required reading lists everywhere. It is a book that I can already tell will stay with me for a long time.

There but for the

‘There was once a man who, one night between the main course and sweet at a dinner party, went upstairs and locked himself in one of the bedrooms of the house of the people who were giving the dinner party…’

As the hours turn into days to weeks to months and the consequences of this stranger’s actions ripple outwards, touching the owners, the guests, the neighbourhood, then the whole country, so Ali Smith draws us into a beautiful, strange place where everyone is so much more than they at first appear.

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A few weeks after I first read There but for the by Ali Smith, I went to listen to a talk she gave at my university. Afterwards, as is often the case, we were invited to go to a signing in the tiny Waterstones next door to the lecture theatre. I should mention at this point that I attended the lecture alone. I wandered down to the bookshop, copy of There but for the in hand, grabbed my free glass of book signing wine and took my place in the queue… Only to realise that a boy I had maybe sort of ghosted a few months previously was in line in front of me with his new girlfriend.

By the time I reached Ali I was in a state of extreme stress. The boy and his new girlfriend had gone by then – thank the lord – but the awkwardness would take me a few days to recover from.

I don’t remember what Ali and I talked about in the 60 seconds I had with her, only that she was very kind. Which, if you’ve read There but for the – and if you haven’t, you absolutely should – you probably had already figured out.

This all happened exactly 2 years ago. This time I returned to the book having lived through a couple of weeks that made me seriously consider the possibility of locking myself in a stranger’s guest bedroom for an extended period of time.

As covered in the summary, There but for the begins with a man, Miles Garth, locking himself in the spare bedroom of the home of a family to whom he is a virtual stranger. The story is started by him, but not really about him, ultimately. There but for the is split into four parts, each named after a corresponding word of the title, and narrated by an individual impacted by an interaction with Miles. The narrators are Anna, a woman Miles met as a teenager who has just quit her job vetting refugees at what she calls the Centre for Temporary Permanence (or, interchangeably, the centre of permanent temporariness); Mark, who invited Miles to the fateful dinner party after an encounter at the theatre, Mark, who’s long dead mother berates him in rhyme in his mind (if I had known, when I was twenty-four, that you’d grow up into such a godawful bore/ well – what rhymes with back-street abortionist?); May Young, an old lady with dementia who’s connection to Miles takes a while to become clear, but when it does, is the most devastating of all; and Brooke, 9 years old, Cleverist and the owner of all the best lines of the novel.

There but for the is a meandering, clever book in which Smith plays with language and metaphor, never committing to a specific meaning. In fact, in having almost everyone but Miles ponder his decision, Smith seems to reject the idea of specific meaning altogether. Instead of a concrete metaphor, it is a tangle of ideas.

There’s a George Orwell quote at the start of the book that says ‘The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly discourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.’

I was preoccupied by this quote through much of my reading. The question of a person’s preparedness for being, as Orwell says, defeated and broken up is something that the characters all appear to be calling into question.

It’s a truly terrible dinner party, full of the worst sort of people. White people asking black people where they’re from from, straight people furtively asking gay people about AIDS and what it was like before it was legal. Heavily rehearsed, aggressive discussions regarding the pointlessness of modern art. How are you supposed to prepare for other people – who you have been taught from day one to fasten your love upon, who you desperately wish to fasten your love upon – being so utterly disappointing? Even if you lock yourself away, at a certain point you come to realise – spoiler alert – that you can’t stay in there forever.

How do you go on, despite all the relentless disappointment? How to you agree to be defeated and broken up, and to continue in that defeated and broken up-ness?

That’s the question everybody in this book seems to be asking.

It’s a question I have been asking myself a lot in the past few months. It’s a question I didn’t actually have the words for yet, but was experiencing a vague sort of anxiety about that night two years ago when I, the ghost girl, was attempting to make conversation with the boy’s new corporeal girlfriend.

There but for the is a beautiful story that I can’t recommend enough.

 

 

 

The Wangs vs the World

Charles Wang is angry at America.

America had promised him the dream, a beautiful life full of mansions, yachts and sports cars. But it’s 2008, the world has been rocked by a financial crisis and Charles has lost everything. His last resort is to make a claim on his lost ancestral lands in China, but first he must set off on an epic road trip across America to collect his family. His second wide, Barbra, believes she only married Charles for his money; his son Andrew, a wannabe comic, is forced to drop out of college; and his youngest, Grace, thinks the trip is nothing more than an elaborate plan to teach her the value of money. His eldest daughter, disgraced art world It Girl Saina, seems to be the family’s only hope, but her own life is in tatters too.

Funny, fast paced and addictively readable, The Wangs vs the World is a gripping portrait of contemporary America, which asks whether anyone can truly feel at home in the post-financial crash world.

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The Wangs vs the World by Jade Chang  gave me some seriously mixed feelings. While there was much about the book that I liked, the darker aspects of the plot made me uncomfortable in a way that sadly dominated the second half of the narrative for me.

Jade Chang is such a witty writer. Her approach to family life is sharp and empathetic, using a multiple POV narrative that works really well. Each member of the Wang family is complex and believable, from Grace, a sixteen-year-old fashion blogger, to her stepmother Barbra, the smartest and most disregarded Wang. Chang regularly incorporates untranslated Mandarin into the narrative, particularly when characters were expressing love toward each other which felt very natural. Her approach to race is interesting, particularly in the narratives of Grace and Andrew. Andrew is an aspiring comedian whose set revolves around poking fun at racist stereotypes (in such a way that perpetuates them – his entire set is designed for racist white people, so far as I could tell. It was a really interesting look at how racism affects identity), while Grace dreads the inevitable moment someone (a white person) asks, but where are you from?

As I mentioned, there was an event in this book that made me really uncomfortable – and even though it is only a short part of it, the scene that really defined my reading experience. Before I talk about it, it’s necessary for me to warn that it involves discussion of sexual assault, and that in talking about it I will be looking at plot points that could be considered spoilers, so if you’d rather avoid that – which is totally fine, I understand – you should probably stop reading now.

Andrew Wang is a virgin. He’s had girlfriends and spends a lot of time lying in bed with mostly naked women, but he doesn’t want to actually have sex until he’s in love. He’s 21, and he hasn’t been in love yet. I would classify the way that Andrew eventually loses his virginity as sexual assault. It’s with this much older woman who blind folds him and binds his hands – which he’s initially okay with – but who ignores him when he tells her that he doesn’t want to have sex until he’s in love. She has sex with him anyway, and Andrew spends the following weeks trying to convince himself that they are in fact in love. The sexual assault is never actively discussed. I found this really upsetting to read. It made me uncomfortable in a way that coloured my reading of the rest of the book.

The literature student half of my brain wants to call this good writing. The truth is that sometimes consent can be murky (although an involuntary physical reaction should NOT be interpreted as consent), sometimes the rapist wouldn’t believe they did anything wrong and sometimes the victim would question whether what happened to them was rape in the first place (Andrew never even did this. He just never thought about it or mentioned it again). It’s true that a lot of people would try and pretend it didn’t happen, wouldn’t tell anyone and would simply move on with their life as if everything was the same. It’s true, perhaps especially if that person happened to be a man.

But the personal part of my brain wanted Andrew to tell someone. I wanted the language of sexual assault to be used, which it never was. I wanted footnotes with giant letters screaming THIS IS WRONG. THIS IS RAPE. I also, to be totally honest, wanted some warning that this scene was coming. Previously when I’ve read books concerned with sexual assault I’ve known what I was walking into, which gave me the opportunity to prepare, whatever that even means. It made me grateful for trigger warnings.

It was just such an odd piece in a book that had previously been so natural, so unafraid of confronting racism, immigrant experience and the shitshow that was 2008, to have this unaddressed sexual assault (which a review I read simply referred to as ‘Andrew’s hapless love life’ WTF!?).

It made me question how sexual assault is written, if there is a way it should be approached – should we always name it when it’s there? I’m inclined to say yes, but I’m open to arguments (sensitive, empathetic and respectful arguments). I also wonder how this scene might have been different if Andrew were a female character.

Have you read The Wangs vs the World? How did you interpret Andrew and Dorrie’s relationship? Do you think that the sexual assault should be discussed in the narrative? I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts. This is a book I’d like to talk about more.

The Goldfinch

Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and an absent father, miraculously survives a catastrophe that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Theo is tormented by longing for his mother and down the years he clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small, captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld. 

the-goldfinch

I will begin with saying that The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt comes in at 864 pages. Going into this book, I was incredibly intimidated. Generally speaking, I can finish a book in around ten days (slow, by book blogger standards I know. Quit judging me. I like TV, OKAY?!?) I think it took me a little over 2 weeks to finish. I was very sceptical about its ability to engage me for the amount of time it took to read it.

I needn’t have been.

Tartt’s narrative voice engrossed me from start to finish. In Theodore Decker we are gifted a protagonist who is deeply thoughtful, frequently wrong, occasionally disgusting but ultimately someone we desperately want to reach the point of okay.

This novel starts with a bang (poor taste? I apologise), with the death of Theodore’s mother in a terrorist attack. Theodore states that he views his mother’s death as ‘the dividing mark’ in his life. While the beginning of the book gives us a glimpse of the Before – enough to understand the depth of Theo’s loss – The Goldfinch is a narrative of After. ‘Things would have turned out better if she had lived’, but Tartt isn’t interested in better so much as determinism, grief and criminal activity.

Also, the writing is gorgeous. You know that feeling when you want to just eat something but it isn’t technically food? That’s how I felt about Donna Tartt’s prose.

‘Better wasn’t even the word for how I felt. There wasn’t a word for it. It was more that things too small to mention – laughter in the hall at school, a live gecko scurrying in a tank in the science lab – made me feel happy one moment and the next like crying. Sometimes, in the evenings, a damp gritty wind blew in the windows from Park Avenue, just as the rush hour traffic was thinning and the city was emptying for the night; it was rainy, trees leafing out, spring deepening into summer; and the forlorn cry of horns on the street, the dank smell of the wet pavement had an electricity about it, a sense of crowds and static, lonely secretaries and fat guys with bags of carry-out, everywhere the ungainly sadness of creatures pushing and struggling to live.’

How dare you, Donna. How dare you.

Theo’s mother was an art historian who died in a museum bombing of which Theo was one of the few survivors. Just before her death, she had been telling Theo all about a painting she adored, The Goldfinch. When Theo awakes after the explosion, confused and traumatised,  a dying man grabs hold of the painting and begs Theo to take it with him, to save it from destruction.

Theo does. Taking the painting is a choice that will define much of the next fourteen years of his life, a choice that will keep him afraid, addicted (Theo abuses drugs and alcohol for much of the novel) and eventually will drag him into the criminal underworld. Throughout the novel the picture functions as an emotional stand-in for Theo’s mother. In the months and years immediately following her death it lives underneath his bed, where he takes it out at night and memorises the lines of it. After a few years and increasing police interest in it (several paintings were stolen from the museum by opportunistic looters following the explosion), Theo locks the painting away out of fear. He buries the thing in a storage locker outside of New York and tries to live his life as if it never existed at all in the same way as he tries not to deal with his trauma – that’s where the drugs come in.

Ultimately, neither tactic works, for the grief or for dealing with the painting.

Though I spend much of my time writing about books, storytelling is one of those terms I have tended to take for granted. Narrative structure isn’t something I often consciously consider. During The Goldfinch, it’s impossible not to think about it. It was as if Donna Tartt were sitting on my shoulder whispering this is how you tell a freaking STORY, fool.

Theodore Decker isn’t just the protagonist, he’s the narrator. At various points throughout the novel he presents us with details of a vague present, telling us these events we’re reading – twelve-year-old Theo, seventeen-year-old Theo, twenty four-year-old Theo, even, are being looked back on. The timeline, as it’s chronically presented is immersive and a serious page turner that doesn’t reveal itself as a philosophical exercise until the very end.

When I finished The Goldfinch I couldn’t do anything for the rest of the day. I reread the final chapter twice. In the weeks since I finished it (I’m playing review catch-up right now), I have reread it a couple more times.

It is almost impossible to draw meaning from events as they are happening. It often feels as if life pushes you around and sends you sprawling in whatever direction it wants. The final chapters of The Goldfinch are like the moment when you pick yourself up, pat yourself down, address the damage and then, finally, move forward.

‘And as much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.’